The Gifts of Solitude

The past few weeks, following my discovery it’s likely I have Asperger’s, have been difficult and revealing, but ultimately rewarding and healing. I feel like this revelation has come at the right time, during this period of lockdown, when I have time alone to process it.

Learning more about autism I have gained some valuable insights for others. I discovered the story of Matthew Tinsley* who, like me, used alcohol as ‘a coping strategy against the extreme anxiety caused by being autistic and living in a non-autistic, social, flexible world.’ ‘His diagnosis gave him the knowledge to realise his own anxiety as an autistic person, and his need to reduce the demands upon him.’

I also watched Chris Packham’s ‘Asperger’s and Me’**. In this programme Chris shares his experiences of sensory overwhelm, struggles with social relationships, and his obsession with the natural world. I was particularly disturbed by his visits to the US to find out more about remedies to eradicate autism and agreed with his conclusion that for many autistic people the best treatment is to be allowed to spend time alone. Chris is blessed with being able to live on his own in a house in the woods.

Looking back at the past I can now see that the periods when I experienced the highest levels of anxiety were those when I was putting the greatest demands to be in social situations upon myself. At the time I was writing and editing for Gods & Radicals and forcing myself to go out to protests and engage in a lot of political debate online I got so ill with anxiety and IBS I didn’t dare go anywhere that wasn’t within 20 minutes of a toilet ‘just in case’ and that lasted for a couple of years.

I also got very stressed when I combined taking an admin job that I found overwhelming (I had mistakenly taken it presuming it would mainly be managing a website and producing posters and a newsletter and hadn’t realised it involved dealing with spreadsheets and… administration… duh!) with a leading role in applying for and gaining funding to organise a series of local events called ‘The Wild and Rural Lives of Poems’. These lines from a poem written at the time describe the effect:

After the late night meeting
my head was pale and flashing
a tawdry halo a broken circuit
a worn out lighthouse
behind my eyes…

I did those things for the right and the wrong reasons. I went to the anti-fracking protests because I genuinely wanted to stand up for the landscape I love – I didn’t want to see Belisama’s river poisoned, more aquifers shattered like the aquifer beneath Castle Hill, more damage to the underworld. I wanted to create beautiful and magical events. But I was also aspiring to fit with a model of the ideal pagan/poet – socially and politically engaged and doing outward service to my community because I felt insecure about the value of my own work, which is more personal and mystical.

Repeatedly I’ve made the mistake of thinking to be a good awenydd and polytheist to my gods I should have a role in a religious community and be promoting the awenydd path and Brythonic polytheism. This drive again, came from good and bad motives, and had mixed results. During my time with Dun Brython we produced some valuable articles and shared some enjoyable meet-ups. Yet we never achieved our aim of growing the group and developing a shared practice due to lack of interest.

At Awen ac Awenydd we’ve done good work collecting and sharing information on the path and personal testimonies on our website and in our anthology ‘The Deep Music’. Yet I failed, after three attempts, to organise a physical meeting in the North West of England. The strain of administering the Facebook group, never knowing what arguments I might have to deal with, outweighed the benefits.

The time arrived to acknowledge it is best for me to be solitary, like many of the awenyddion of the past. Myrddin in his forest, Orddu in her cave, Afagddu hanging out his black wings on the shoreline. That, as I’ve always known, I’m not cut out to be a Taliesin – a celebrity bard.

These insights are the gifts of solitude. Having worked through them I have reached the stage where I can begin, as my gods keep telling me, to focus on ‘my gift’ – my awen. Learning I’m autistic and will always struggle with social relationships has given this imperative the additional strength and urgency needed to blast away my lack of belief in my path born from the arguments about cultural appropriation and my failure to learn Welsh, master the medieval texts, and prove myself a ‘proper’ awenydd.

In my solitude, free of demands, praying, journeying, drumming, drawing, writing, I’ve been thrown back on a far more raw and primal relationship with the awen and with my gods little mediated by the Welsh scribes. Visions of the deep and its deities from before Welsh was spoken, Brythonic, ancient British, before there were humans to speak at all. Of the Annuvian, of the depths, of the Other.

The gift of a mythos that is deeply personal and that I hope to say a little more about soon.

*https://network.autism.org.uk/good-practice/case-studies/autism-and-alcohol
**https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjdEJdr-vfs

My Hawthorn Mind

Beneath the tall blue sky the white-blossomed hawthorns dance. Twisted, gnarled, they are beautiful in their imperfection. They cast no judgement on themselves or others.

People are not like trees with their constrictive norms of body and mind. Look at me from the outside and (aside from the lockdown hair which resembles something between a hedgehog, a mushroom, and a duck’s arse) and you will see a ‘normal’ thirty-eight-year-old woman – able-bodied, physically fit, average-looking. Talk to me at a Pagan or poetry event and I might pass. Get to know me over a few days, a month, a couple of years and you may notice the scars, physical and psychological, catch a glimpse of my hawthorn mind. The twists, the gnarls, the thorns turned out and in.

Since primary school I’ve felt mentally crippled. Highly intelligent but socially inept. Being speccy-four-eyed, pot-bellied in my puppy fat, and lower middle-class with a southern accent at a school on a northern council estate (which was once referred to as ‘the Beirut of Preston’) didn’t help. I was mercilessly bullied.

Eventually I learnt not to talk about the fairies at the bottom of my garden or my imaginary friends. To feign an interest in the other children’s gossip about each other and celebs and to watch the soaps so I could join in (even though I hated them and would much rather have been lost in the imaginal worlds of the Faraway Tree, Narnia, or Krynn).

When I hit my teens I found a crutch. Alcohol. It helped me disguise my social limp, to keep limping along when otherwise I’d have fallen flat on my face in a gormless heap. It quickly became a cure-all. It obliviated, for a while, my feeling of being different. It helped me find words when I had none, to kiss boys when I had no desire to, to find oblivion when I could not sleep, to dance when I wanted to lie down and die.

Between the drink and the drugs and working hard toward my philosophy and English degree I sometimes wondered what was wrong. It wasn’t until my third year when I had a particularly bad meltdown during which, in vision, I was sitting on a rock at the end of the world unable to decide whether to live or die, that I decided to seek help.

I got a standard diagnosis of ‘anxiety and depression’, a packet of anti-depressants, and a referral to a psychiatrist who refused to help me because I wasn’t suicidal at the time, despite having constant panic attacks, suffering from insomnia, and self-harming.

The anti-depressants worked and, perhaps partly because I couldn’t drink on them, I excelled in my final year. I gained a first by getting 80% on my dissertation on the sublime, the writing of which, unknown to my tutors, was my way of understanding the undoing of my own mind by panic brought about by social and/or sensory overwhelm.

After failing to get funding for my PhD, with a career in horses, and to write a fantasy novel, all the while continuing to battle with anxiety and depression and using alcohol again as crutch, I finally met my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. He helped me find meaning and purpose in my life as his awenydd, taking me to other worlds, and out of myself to perform poetry. For the first time in my life, in service to him, I did not fail. I wrote three books and the climax was the performance for Gatherer of Souls.

My depression lifted. I found I didn’t hate myself, others, or the world so much any more. When I discovered the possibility of finding paid work that fit with my vocation and hoped wouldn’t be too taxing on my mental health through volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust I found the strength to kick away the crutch.

Yet the anxiety I had been using alcohol to medicate remained and threatened to be my undoing as my dread of social situations and feeling of being overwhelmed grew. I tried the doctors again and, this time, refusing anti-depressants, was offered counselling.

Three months on, in the midst of lockdown, I’ve started CBT and, during this period, had a revelation that came not from my counsellor but from my mum which explains why I feel so different: she’d always thought I had Asperger’s, but didn’t know how to tell me!

Suddenly everything made sense. My highly focused interests: philosophy, horses, visionary poetry, Brythonic polytheism, my singular devotion to Gwyn. My problems with social communication and human relationships and inability to understand how other people can want to talk about each other and celebrities rather than pursuing ‘that one thing’. That my feelings of panic and overwhelm are symptoms of autistic meltdown.

That this is the reason I have been stuck in a constant cycle of wanting to find paid work and to have a small role in my communities locally and online, but failing because I don’t recognise the limitations brought about by Asperger’s, which lead to me getting anxious, overwhelmed, and burnt out, and giving up, and feeling like a failure.

That it’s likely I have Asperger’s was confirmed when I scored 7/10* in the AQ10 test on the phone with my counsellor a couple of days ago. I’m hoping for a referral to the Lancashire Autism Service (which I understand will take a while particularly at this time).

Looking back a part of me feels bitter. If I’d received a diagnosis as a child perhaps I would have recognised my limitations, wouldn’t have hated myself so much for being different, wouldn’t have got so anxious and depressed, (yet another whispers perhaps I’d have felt worse…).

Another part says I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons I’ve learnt. It’s possible that, living a more sheltered life, ‘the doors of the perception’ to the visionary realms would never have opened, that I’d never have met Gwyn and never become his awenydd.

My gut feeling is that now, during the lockdown, when I’ve got plenty of time to reflect on and process it and work through how it might affect me in the future and plan ahead, is the perfect time to find out. I might have gone to pieces otherwise.

As I walk beside the twisted white-blossomed hawthorns I come to understand my differences. To not only accept but celebrate the twists and gnarls of my hawthorn mind.

*6/10 or above suggests somebody has Asperger’s.

Creiddylad’s Garden

Creiddylad
most majestic maiden
in the Islands of Britain,
let me know your
majesty

in this garden

on my knees
two hands clasped
together on this trowel
making offerings
of water

amongst flowers
where you walk unveiled,
stunning, bees dancing
around you.

Let me be your bee!

Feed me
when I’m hungry.
When I fall exhausted
pick me up gently

and I will make
the sweetest honey.

“Stay here in this garden,” my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, advised me a week before the lockdown. A couple of days before my conservation internship was cancelled and, like many, I was rendered jobless.

We’ve been on lockdown in the UK for over a fortnight now and how I’ve to-and-froed, some days accepting this advice and, on others, after reading the news, wishing I was doing something more important, more heroic, than shopping and cleaning for my parents, tending the garden, doing my best to find the focus to pray, meditate, spend time in devotion to my gods, and to write for my supporters.

My main battle has been against feelings of guilt and uselessness caused by my awareness of the utter contrast between my easy life, touched by the bliss of the spring sun, and the hell that the nurses and doctors are going through on the front line, risking their lives fighting for the lives of others. The risks taken by the funeral services. The chaos and stress faced by supermarket staff. Our dependence on the long hours and monotonous work of fruit and veg pickers usually imported from abroad.

I’ve thought of applying for, have actually applied for, some of these jobs (which may have necessitated moving out of my parent’s house so I do not put them at risk), but nothing has come of it.

“Stay here in this garden.” I accept the gods have their reasons when the Blasted Oak, spelling disaster, appears in a tarot reading on what will happen if I take a veg picking job.

And deep within I know if I took any of the above jobs I’d likely get physically or mentally ill. That there is something fundamentally wrong with this industrialised and militarised system that keeps comparing the ‘fight’ against this virus with the Second World War and tries to inspire a wartime ethos.

And so I tend my parents’ garden, cutting back years of overgrowth, clearing the paths, weeding amongst the many beautiful flowers that already grow here – hyacinths, daffodils, bluebells, honesty. And the shrubs and trees – apple, pear, rose, quince, camelia. Watering the raspberry canes. Sowing herb and lettuce seeds in troughs and veg seeds – carrot, turnip, onion, cauliflower, broccoli – in the soil.

And somewhere along the way it enters my mind this is ‘Creiddylad’s Garden’. And once the thought has entered it will not leave. I come to see the face of Creiddylad, ‘the most majestic maiden in the islands of Britain’, one of our Brythonic goddesses of flowers and spring, in each flower.

Creiddylad is a sovereignty deity who walks between worlds and lovers. This ‘majestic maiden’ is truly a majesty, a Queen, the lifeforce of nature who inspires great awe in her worshippers and the male deities, Gwyn and Gwythyr, Kings of Winter and Summer, who fight for her every Calan Mai.

Through the Winter she dwells with Gwyn, in the Otherworld, as Annwn’s Queen. In the Summer, with Gwythyr, she is May Queen, a great sovereign in Thisworld, revealing herself slowly flower by flower.

In Creiddylad’s contrary nature I find a better understanding of my own pulls between darkness and light, Thisworld and Otherworld. There is a part of me that wants to walk with Gwyn, a warrior and psychopomp, facing death, disease and sorrow. And at the same time an awareness he and other humans do this so the rest of us can appreciate the flowers and the sunlight and the lives that are our gifts.

It sometimes seems easier, more worthy, to embrace pain than pleasure. Why? I do not know. Only that in Annwn the sadness of the dead is transformed into great beauty and joy, and it this is that Creiddylad brings with her when walks from the Otherworld, into the light, and embraces Gwythyr.

Many of the flowers in my garden speak of similar myths through the correlates of other cultures. The narcissus, or the daffodil, was the plant Persephone was picking before Hades took her to… Hades. The hyacinth was born from the blood of Hyacinth, the lover of Apollo, killed by his rival Zephyrus, and its beautiful petals are inscribed with ‘AI AI’ ‘Alas’. Lungwort’s petals turn from pink to blue as the flowers are pollinated, edging toward death, like flesh, or deoxygenated blood.

Nature and myth, death and life, Thisworld and Otherworld, are deeply intertwined in Creiddylad’s garden. A place where I work slowly, contemplating the mysteries, where I meet flowers, goddess, gods. It seems they don’t want me to be a hero but instead a small suburban bee offering a taste of Creiddylad’s honey.