Recently, when the cedar close to us was felled, I was caused to reflect on my past again and was reminded why I came to trust trees more than people as a child. The post on memory and this poem both deal in different ways with the same root experience. It seemed useful to post them both in close proximity to help make the best sense of each of them.
After posting the piece on tree felling last week, I thought it would be useful to follow up with this from several years ago, but recently reposted. My reactions to the felling of the cedar caused me to revisit in my mind what had dented my trust in adults at an early age – nothing out of the ordinary for the time but hard to handle at four years old none the less. This piece explains exactly what I believe happened and how it affected me. It is the second of two pieces on memory.
Blind to my own Meanings
The shortcomings of my memory described in the first post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.
Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.
Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.
Thief in the Night
Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.
At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.
You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity! Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.
At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’
The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.
Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.
Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:
Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.
The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition. These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning. Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.
It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.
I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.
So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.
The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.
And at that moment I let go.
Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.
Integrating the Past
First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.
Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital at a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.
This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.
This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.
And what were the thoughts?
I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’
This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.
At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.
Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.
Some Leftover Issues
I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.
(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think. For anyone who’s curious, at the time of this reposting I’m no clearer now than I was then.)
I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection. When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.
I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.
There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?
There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.
All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.
I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though. I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.
Yesterday I posted a link to the recent BBC piece that quoted evidence that cuts to Mental Health services are a false economy that brings more costs, both human and financial, in its train. When I commented on her FB share of the BBC link my friend, Louise, responded by explaining why she thought MH cuts persist:
As long as the stigma remains I expect. Mental health problems are still hushed up, or ignored or seen as the person’s fault in some way. Many times people would come for an interview as a volunteer, or worker in projects I was involved in and say they, or some one close to them, had had depression ‘but that’s not really a mental illness is it?’ !!
I then remembered a blog article posted recently by someone I know well (below is an extract: for the full post see the link). It is an eloquent explanation of what it can sometimes feel like to struggle with a mental health problem, in the context of other major challenges, and how society’s attitudes compound the problem. The writer is a courageous, compassionate and deeply insightful person, with a keen sense of humour, and if she is struggling to this extent, it is hard to imagine how difficult it must be for people with fewer resources. I was so concerned when I read her post that I phoned and was very relieved to learn she is basically OK.
Why is it that whilst some people are fighting to extend their lives, I am seeking to shorten mine? Why did I fight so desperately and pray so hard when I had cancer? I didn’t want to die then. I wanted to live. So why has my life value changed? Is it a trick the devil is playing on my mind? What do I really want? Right now I am so close to killing myself. That all-too-familiar feeling of a sinking heart, dark hole, bleak outlook, despair – all congealed into an emotional hell which swallows up your body, mind and soul. So familiar, yet so hard to fight. The conflict is painful in itself. Should I live or should I die? It’s like being torn in two by greedy birds of prey.
I’m trying to tell myself that this is my illness talking, not me. I am the person who fought off cancer, who has survived more than 40 operations, who has overcome sight loss, bereavement, rape and so much more. So it doesn’t make any sense to want to die now when there are no such crises. If only it was so neat and logical. This illness takes away my reasoning. My perspective shifts and I lose hold of the future I want to live for. In fact the illness dilutes my world into nothing and emptiness. It steals my feelings, kills off my plans, destroys my basic instincts for survival. And finally it tricks me into thinking that this is what I genuinely want. Death – so easy, so final. Death is taking up so much of my head at the moment, and all this sensible stuff on paper is utterly meaningless. I cannot find the true me in all of this. I am standing on that proverbial cliff ready to jump. Yet obviously I still have a desire to survive because I want to understand what is going on in my head. I could have died earlier today. Why didn’t I? So am I in effect winning the battle even though I feel I am losing it? Again, I cannot follow the logic. When thoughts and feelings become blurred and memories and hopes peel off and flake into the forefront of my thinking – how can I know? And this is why I hold on. I hold onto that uncertainty, unsure whether it will flutter away and take me with it or land on the ground and take root. I literally hold on to Dash my guide dog – Dash, who is physical and strong and lives for the moment. And now my two lovely cats Hagrid and Cleopatra – they too live for the moment.
A friend alerted me to this news item on the BBC website. When I worked in Mental Health within the NHS more than five years ago now, this was becoming increasingly the case. There seems to be no sign of its changing even now. False economy hurts people. When, in our society, will costs to people weigh as heavily in the equation as costs in the columns of a budget sheet? Below is an extract: for the full story see link.
“We recognise we must work to ensure that in everything we do mental health has parity of esteem with physical health”
(Dr Martin McShane National director, NHS England)
Cuts to mental health care are costing the NHS millions of pounds long-term, a report has said. More cases of psychosis and schizophrenia now end up in hospital rather than being treated in the community, it said. Rethink Mental Illness published the report with the London School of Economics. Cuts mean fewer people have access to early intervention treatment, such as talking therapy, Rethink said. It said the NHS could save more than £50m a year by shifting its focus.
Britain’s recession in 2008 led to cuts across the NHS, as the government struggled to deal with ballooning deficits. The report said it costs on average £13 a day to support someone with psychosis or schizophrenia in the community. It said this compared with the £350 average daily cost of keeping a mental health patient in hospital.
The most amazing news has just broken. Almost my entire Bahá’í life, I have seen the consequences of the dark shadow of religious prejudice emanating from fundamentalist clergy. Very occasionally I have also seen shafts of the sunlight of tolerance and understanding break through the clouds, but never anything as dramatic and courageous as this. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.
NEW YORK — In a symbolic and unprecedented move, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a prominent Muslim cleric in Iran announced today that he has gifted to the Baha’is of the world an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith.
This move comes in the wake of several recent statements by religious scholars in the Muslim world who have set out alternative interpretations of the teachings of Islam in which tolerance of every religion is, in fact, upheld by the holy Qur’an.
“This is a most welcome and hopeful development with possible implications for the coexistence of the peoples of the world,” said Ms. Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community at the United Nations.
Ayatollah Tehrani states on his website (see translation of statement) that he prepared the calligraphy of the verse as a “symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice.”
Ayatollah Tehrani presents this exquisite gift to the Baha’is of the world, particularly to the Baha’is of Iran, who he says “have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.” He further states that this act is “an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens.”
In response, Ms. Dugal stated: “The Baha’i International Community is deeply touched by this act of high-mindedness and the sentiments of religious tolerance and respect for human dignity that prompted it.”
“This bold action by a senior Muslim cleric in contemporary Iran is unprecedented,” said Ms. Dugal. “It is also remarkable in light of the ongoing and systematic persecution of the Baha’i community in that country by the Islamic government.”
The intricate artwork must have taken several months to painstakingly prepare by hand. It features at its center, a symbol known to Baha’is as “The Greatest Name” – a calligraphic representation of the conceptual relationship between God, His prophets and the world of creation. The gift measures at approximately 60cm x 70cm and is illuminated in a classical style. Ayatollah Tehrani’s other artworks include the illumination of the Qur’an, the Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament, and the Book of Ezra. His illumination of the Psalms is currently being held in the United States Library of Congress.
Wednesday 19 March 2014:
I was woken this morning by an unexpected and penetrating buzz, not from inside my head but from somewhere down the road. It was light. I walked across to the window and pulled back the curtain.
At first, shaking off the mist of sleep, I couldn’t see anything different. The sycamore dominated the view as usual. Then I peered more carefully through its still bare branches and saw him. Just visible but almost hidden by the trunk of the cedar was a man in a hard hat wrestling with a branch. A bright red blob dangled several feet below him hanging by a thread from his belt.
I have always loved trees. At one time I was closer to trees than I was to people. It makes my love of books seem a bit hypocritical given that they’re made from dead trees. But my love of trees and my love of books are each rooted in the same soil.
I was often ill during my primary school days and my mother kept me off school, sometimes for weeks at a time. Perhaps she was afraid of losing me to illness as she had lost my sister four years before I was born.
At such times, I was trapped in the house and garden. For much of the day I had only my books and the sapling in the garden for company. The books spoke to me and I talked to the tree, for hours and hours. To me it was a tree – even though it was probably only slightly older it was a lot taller. I didn’t know then where books came from but I doubt it would’ve made much difference.
I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. The tree was lost to me before I was old enough to find out.
I was back at school then and desperately catching up. It was a short walk away from our house, down a passage no child would be allowed near anymore alone, and across a field I still dream about sometimes. It was built of green-painted corrugated iron and called the old tin bucket.
I ran home one Friday, had a glass of water and ran into the garden to say hello to my tree. This was the last time I’d ever do so, but I didn’t know that yet.
‘Where’s dad and Bill?’ I asked my mum.
‘They’re in the garden,’ she replied perhaps a shade quietly.
I ran out to see what they were doing. I saw what I never expected to see. My father and my brother were bending over what remained of the trunk of my closest friend like murderers trying to hide the corpse or policeman trying to read it for clues. Then it clicked. They were the ones who had done it.
My memory cuts off at this point. I have no idea why they did it. I have no idea how they disposed of its remains. I haven’t a clue how they responded to my shock and distress. I think they knew how I would feel which is why they had hoped to complete the crime before I got back from playing.
My trust in adults was not high even then for reasons that I’ve gone into elsewhere on this blog but which are not relevant to my love of trees. Books and trees, let’s just say, have never let me down like this.
Much later, my tortoise died sometime during the winter. I have always assumed this was because, despite my protests, my father put it to hibernate in the garden shed in a box filled with the ashes from the coal fire in our hearth. After that, I used to play priest, saying Mass at the altar of the backdoor steps, which were carefully cream-stoned by my mother every week. Later still, when I was old enough to enjoy A Pattern of Islands, the garden shed became my HQ as District Commissioner looking after the welfare of all the pebbles in the back yard.
It is therefore perhaps not so surprising that, after 20 years of atheism, I joined a Faith whose administration allowed me to play an approximation to both these roles at the same time (hopefully just like every other follower, out of a shared sense of common humanity, rather than with my childhood feelings of over-compensating grandeur)!
The fellers’ work progressed and the cedar lost its crown. The king was dead although the trunk remained. Particularly jarring was the growl of the machine that shredded its branches into conveniently disposable tatters.
We left the house at this point as we had things to attend to in town and I ended up in my favourite cafe with a latte and a piece of frangipane tart for comfort, glad not be so close to the process of destruction, coward that I am.
These pictures depict a scene I hate even though I know the neighbours had every reason to fear this cedar would fall upon their house in the event of yet another fierce storm.
Even though I understand their point of view, part of me, I must confess, feels all such accidental damage, done usually at the cost of a tree’s life, is no more than we should expect after the way we treat them overall. If we were more in tune with nature we would suffer less from her turbulence. As it is we suffer less from her than she does from us.
On my return from town the cedar is completely felled. The sky behind the sycamore is empty. Only a pile of logs remains, visible through a gap in the hedge as I walk back up the road, a memory to be dismembered all too soon in a concerted post mortem duet. I can hear as I type the remorseless and discordant buzz of two saws at their irreversible work.
I know only a handful of Latin saws from my adolescence. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this one from Horace is among them: ‘Naturam expellas furca, usque tamen recurrit.’ (You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back.)
Another, from Virgil this time, begins: ‘Sunt lachrimae rerum . . .’ I won’t go on with the quote as these three words say it all: ‘There are tears for things’ (literally ‘of things.’)
There would not be so many tears though if there were not so many things of beauty and people of grace to become attached to and fear losing. For that I feel grateful as well as sad.