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The first of two posts on the subject of sub-personalities was published last Monday, so it seems worth continuing to republish more of the Parliament of Selves sequence.

Last time

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

* * * *

The following morning Alan phones to ask me to meet him at the cemetery. He wants to check out their tearoom for the wake. I was hoping to have time to think about what my parliament of selves is wrestling with, and maybe tune in to their conversation again, but know that my first responsibility is to support him in his grief.

The parking is free at the cemetery so we agree to meet up there in half an hour.

The sting in the tail of winter has not struck as yet. The sun is shining on the graves among the grass as I drive up. Alan is already there waiting for me as I clamber out of my car.

‘How goes?’ I ask knowing exactly what his answer will be.

‘Don’t ask.’

We head off to the tearoom in the converted chapel. The long narrow path between the jumble of graves, with headstones straining to stay upright, leads to a door with a sign telling us the door is closed and to go round the other side.

We step through the main door at the back into a small anteroom leading to the cafe area. The high ceiling, white walls and leaded windows create a light and peaceful atmosphere enriched rather than dispelled by the faint echoes bouncing off the stone of the walls.

Alan is clearly impressed.

‘Jane would’ve loved this.’

‘I’m glad. D’you fancy a coffee while you ponder on this as a venue?’

‘Good idea.’ He goes off to sit at a table in the far corner. I go to the deserted counter at the opposite end. Within seconds a bundle of energy in a green apron bustles in.

‘Hi. I’m Ellen. What would you like?’

‘One Americano and a large cappuccino, please.’

‘Coming right up. Isn’t it a beautiful day? So much sunlight.’

‘Dead right it is. This is a beautiful place you’ve got here.’

‘Thank you. Chocolate on your cappuccino?’

‘How could I drink it without?’

She grins and says, ‘Please take a seat and I’ll bring them over.’

Alan is lost in thought. I sit down.

‘Do you mind if I just pop out while she’s making the coffees? I need to take a look at my mum’s grave. It’s just by the path we came in on.’

No, of course not.’

Within seconds, Ellen comes with the coffees.

‘Thanks, Ellen. My friend’s just popped out to look at a family grave.’

She nods and turns to go.

‘Just a quick word,’ I add. ‘He’s just lost his wife and is thinking of using your cafe for the wake after the burial here.’

‘No problem,’ she says. ‘Just come and chat to me before you leave.’

As I stir the chocolate into my coffee, the sound of voices begins to ring inside my head again.

‘We’ve been thinking about this rebirthing idea. How d’you reckon it would work?’ Pancake tries to hide her sceptical tone behind a veil of simulated sympathy.

‘I’m not absolutely sure,’ I admit, ‘but it might be worth my trying the continuous breathing till the tears come flooding up again if they do, and then persist for much longer than I’ve ever done before, to see where it leads.’

‘That makes a kind of sense.’ Mires was always likely to be the first one on board with this idea. Even if it doesn’t work this is the kind of experiment he is always keen to try.

Indie is nodding as Humfreezes speaks. ‘If that’s what you want we’ll give it a go, but I’m not convinced. I know it’s a form of meditation but it’s not the kind I see as the most effective.’

Pancake scowls but doesn’t actively disagree. Wordless is speechless.

‘So as soon as I can get some time alone, we’ll give it a go then?’ I check out.

‘It looks like it’ Mires confirms.

The cafe door opens again and Alan comes back and sits down.

‘I still miss her.’

I nod sympathetically.

His coffee is almost cold. He gulps it down quickly.

‘D’you like this place? Will it do?’ I ask.

‘I think so. Just Jane’s kind of spot. Let’s see what they have to say.’

It doesn’t take long for him to agree the details with Ellen at the counter. I can’t resist slipping in a question.

‘When was the chapel converted?’

‘Just three years back we finished it, my husband and I.’

‘You’ve done a really good job. What made you take this on?’

‘Well, I was a florist for 25 years, and then my daughter died in a road accident.’

‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’

‘My husband and I wanted something to give our lives meaning after that. He’s a builder.’

‘You mean he did the whole conversion?’

‘Basically, yes.’

‘I take my hat off to you both! That’s amazing.’

‘We’re so glad we did it. It cost us a lot of time and money but it’s been worth it. I have never enjoyed any job so much as this one.’

‘And it’s helping people as well.’

‘Yes. That’s part of the reward of it all.’

Alan was beginning to look a bit restless.

‘We’ll come back soon and discuss the details when we’re clearer about how many are coming,’ he cut across.

‘Of course,’ Ellen smiled and shook his hand and mine.

I’m not sure about Alan, but I left carrying with me a feeling of warmth and admiration for this lady. Even moments of grief can bring encounters with inspiration.

* * * *

My wife has gone to Birmingham for the day with her friend, to do some shopping and see a film.

This is the best chance I’ll get for quite some time to try and exhume or rebirth my buried self. I’m quite anxious about it though. In the past when I have used this method of continuous breathing there has always been someone else there who was familiar with the process. This time I’ll be on my own except for the parliament of selves inside my head.

They’d never forgive me if I back out now. We have all agreed to use this time for this purpose.

I decide I’ll be more comfortable in my pyjamas and dressing gown, lying on the bed rather than on the floor. My wife won’t be back till after 11 in the evening, so we’ve got more than 12 hours. It should be more than long enough.

I change and lie down before trying to get in touch. It takes a few minutes before I hear anything. Maybe they are just as nervous as I am.

It’s Indie who speaks first.

‘Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?’

‘As sure as I’ll ever be.’

‘Can you manage this by yourself, d’you think?’ Mires asks, wearing his therapist’s hat.

‘I’ll have to. There’s no other way. I don’t feel comfortable now going to another therapist. I know how the process works and there’s no real risk involved.’

‘Suppose you discover something really horrific?’ he insists.

‘I think, if there had been any really terrible skeletons in my cupboard I’d have had some hints from my parents. My mum wasn’t one to leave a scary tale untold.’

‘OK. If you’re sure . . .’ he concedes.

‘Let’s get on with it.’

‘And let’s hope this sees the last of all this mumbo-jumbo,’ Wordless hisses through gritted teeth.

It’s a good job we don’t have to have everyone on board for this to work, unlike with the séance.

As usual the first half hour or more is uneventful. I steer my customary careful course between hypo- and hyperventilating. There is the usual slight buzzing in the head and occasional tingling, when I overdo the breathing a bit. I am possibly biasing the process slightly by scanning my chest for the beating of my heart as I’ve half-convinced myself that this is where it will all be happening.

Then something strange and unexpected begins to happen. I’m not getting any well of tears. I seem to be floating. I’m not sure whether it’s on water or through the air. It’s a very odd sensation. A little bit scary, in fact. It’s getting slightly harder to keep breathing. It’s as though I may be under water or high in the air. More likely the latter as I can get some air into my lungs. I’m not choking in water.

‘What’s going on?’ Indie shouts, sounding quite worried.

I find I can’t even think to explain. I can just about keep breathing.

I feel as though I am picking up speed. I open my eyes briefly and see the bedroom is the same as always. It’s just my body feeling as though I’m being propelled along. I close my eyes again and keep breathing. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of near death or near birth experience. If anything it feels like a bit of both. Am I flying or in danger of drowning? The roaring that is starting in my ears could be either.

It’s then I remember my situation in Much Wenlock. I was trembling, and as I breathed the trembling just went on and on. It was only when the therapist said I needed to let go and accept whatever it was that was struggling into consciousness that things changed dramatically and immediately. Am I in the same kind of situation again? Do I need simply to let go and stop puzzling over this experience?

‘Yes, let go! Let go!’ It’s Indie again. ‘That’s what I had to do when you all called me. If I hadn’t let go I’d still be shut away, locked in my distrust and isolation. Let go!’

With a quick prayer, as I did last time, I let go. The only way I can describe what happens next is to say that it seems as though I have just burst my head through the surface of a lake or risen above the mist and clouds into brilliant sunshine, except that I don’t see it – I just feel that this is how it is. It is even more intense than the dream I had in my teens of floating on my back supported by the clouds below that were carrying me along. It is freedom. It is beauty. I am truly alive at last. I burst into tears of joy this time, not grief.

Then came the thought. ‘You have left the tomb of your parents’ grief at last.’[1]

To be honest, I’m not quite sure whether the thought said womb or tomb. It felt like both in a way. Whichever it is, it feels like being reborn.

‘You’ve done it,’ screams Indie.

‘Well done,’ shouts Mires and Humfreeze together.

‘I’m not sure what happened there but it seemed to go all right,’ chipped in the more hesitant Pancake.

‘What happened exactly?’ I ask in a state of mild bewilderment. Right now I can interact with them in the usual way and my sense of floating or flying has completely disappeared.

‘At first you seemed to disappear into the chamber of your heart, which became translucent, and then you blended into the infant we had buried, I think. We lost sight of you completely,’ Mires explains quietly. ‘What happened next is a bit confusing. The chamber seemed to dissolve completely and the child – it’s a toddler now – tottered out into a brilliant light and you were suddenly back on the bed in full sight. All very weird.’

‘Where’s the toddler now?’ I’m anxious about whether he’s all right.

Pancake chips in. ‘Indie has taken him to a quiet place to calm him down. He – at least we think it’s a he but are not completely sure – is excited and upset at the same time. He’s fine though. He’ll live!’

We all fall silent for a few moments.

‘So, what do you reckon happened and why?’ I’m really keen to get some clarity on all this.

‘Well, I hate to say this but it looks as though Fred might have been right after all.’ Humfreeze pulls a sour face to hide his smile.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘It looks like when you were in the womb you were floating in a pool of pain in a way. I don’t literally mean the amniotic fluid. What I’m trying to say is that while you were enveloped in the fluid in the womb, the signals you were getting from your mother were all about loss, pain and grief. It was almost intolerable. We know your body can’t remember all this in detail, though the emotional centre of your brain will have recorded the intensity of this without knowing where it came from. Your soul might have been able to remember it, but none of us can tune into that dimension. When you were born you could not leave it behind. You have carried it with you ever since, till now at least. The fact that your brain held onto the pain and grief with no idea of the circumstances that generated it means that your whole life has been clouded at times, maybe most of the time, by a mist of loss and pain.’

Mires nods as Humfreeze speaks.

I lie there stunned and yet relieved. It makes a kind of sense. I know intuitively that there is still a long way to go before my toddler self can mature to the point of joining with the rest of us as we work at creating a single sense of a unified self that can perhaps become capable, if not of tuning directly into spiritual reality, at least of developing a clearer sense than ever before of the direction that this transcendent reality requires me to take for the rest of my remaining days.

‘Yea, verily,’ Pancake chants, having overheard my every thought. ‘Let’s hope there’ll be more action then and a lot less rumination.’

‘There she goes again,’ Wordless says, breaking his silence at last. ‘It’s not going to be easy making space for my poetry and her treadmill.’

Yes, I think to myself, we’ve got a really long way to go still.

I find myself wondering whether this will help me be of more use to Alan in his grief. Only time will tell.

Footnote:

[1]. It’s possibly worth mentioning that I wrote this episode before reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, particularly pages 228-233, which describe one man’s intense spiritual and healing experiences under the influence of a carefully controlled dose of psilocybin. The parallels were slightly uncanny.

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Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

The first of two posts on the subject of sub-personalities was published last Monday, so it seems worth continuing to republish more of the Parliament of Selves sequence.

The nurse ushers us into a side room.

‘As soon as we know anything, we’ll come and tell you,’ she whispers. ‘Please make some coffee if you want.’

She closes the door quietly behind her. There is a kettle, two stainless steel containers, one with instant coffee and the other with tea bags by the looks. There are no cups in sight.

In the far corner a woman sits by her handbag, head bowed, looking at the screen of her phone. All the time she’s with us, she doesn’t scan it with her fingers.

Alan and I sit down opposite a painting of blue irises. He is too stunned to speak much. I sit quietly beside him. We wait for someone to come and tell us what is happening.

A woman with an apron comes in gently. She checks the cupboard.

‘You don’t have any cups. I’ll go and get some.’ She smiles at us and leaves.

Alan and I smile faintly at each other. His eyes are red with weeping.

The door opens again.

‘I’ve brought some cups for you. The milk’s in the fridge below,’ she explains, opening its door before she goes again.

We sit there and do nothing.

In the silence I become faintly aware of a movement at the back of my mind. I try not to take any notice. My job is to watch out for Alan, not disappear into my own inscape.

The movement becomes more insistent. It feels as though someone is standing right behind my eyes.

‘We have another self to exhume.’

I recognise the voice straightaway as Indie’s. This is a bit of a shock, to say the least. It’s a good 18 months since I heard anything from my parliament of selves.

‘What d’you mean, exhume?’ I telegraph silently.

‘We buried him in a chamber of your heart when we were all very small.’

The door opens. Indie vanishes from my mind. A doctor and two nurses come in. One of the nurses talks quietly to the woman with the phone and she leaves looking slightly upset.

The three of them sit down opposite us.

‘I’m Mr McGrave, Senior Cardiologist. There’s no easy way for us to tell you this, Mr White.’

Alan moves uneasily in his seat and makes a slight choking noise.

‘When she came in her heart had stopped,’ he goes on. ‘We used every means we could to start it beating again but we couldn’t get a pulse. She wasn’t breathing on her own either. We tried several times, but scans showed major damage to one ventricle of the heart indicating that it would no longer be able to work. There were significant toxins in the blood as well.’

‘We’re so sorry to have to tell you this,’ the blond nurse adds.

Alan can no longer hold back his sobs.

‘We’ll leave you now to process this’ the bearded nurse explained. ‘We’ll come back after a while and if you wish we can take you to the room where her body is so you can see her. Would you like that?’

Alan nods.

I put my arm on Alan’s shoulder as he tries to regain his composure. He begins to calm down.

‘Would a coffee help?’ I ask.

He nods.

As I wait for the kettle to boil, I can’t stop Indie insisting I listen to her.

‘We entombed a child self,’ she says. ‘He just wouldn’t stop moaning and crying. We couldn’t comfort him. He asked us to hide him away somewhere under the ground of your heart. We agreed. It seemed kinder to smother him out of sight, but we knew he wouldn’t die. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Please can we deal with this later,’ I plead in my mind, even though I am desperate to know more. ‘Alan is my priority right now.’

‘We have to do something. Soon. We can’t leave him there any longer. He’s the only one left out in the cold now. When can we talk?’

Before I can answer the kettle boils and she disappears again.

‘You don’t take sugar, do you?’ I ask simply to break the silence.

‘You know I don’t.’

‘Yes, of course. It’s amazing how these situations can get you muddled, though.’

I pause.

‘Jane didn’t drink coffee at all, did she?’

‘Not after the blood pressure problem, no.’

‘I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, to be married all those years to someone younger than you, and suddenly to find she’s gone.’

Alan doesn’t reply.

‘Losing my mother was different. She was in her seventies, and in those days, when she died, that was a good age. We were expecting it.’

I wasn’t sure any of this was helping but didn’t feel like lapsing back into silence.

He stares at the floor.

I carry the cups across, give him his and sit down next to him with mine.

‘What happened exactly – if you can bear to tell me that is?’

He pauses for a moment.

‘It was a complete shock. She was feeling sick overnight, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she’d just eaten too much the evening before. It was only when she got up and was violently sick that I began to worry.’

He stops again for a moment to regain his composure.

“Please don’t carry on if it’s too hard.’

‘No, no. It’s all right. I want to tell you. She was so sick she couldn’t stand. That was when I rang for the ambulance. She was still conscious when they took her away. I really figured she’d be OK. When I got to the hospital, I rang you when I realised it was a lot worse than I thought.’

‘I’m glad you did,’ I reply, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I can’t think of anything else to say.

Before Indie can return, as I fear she might, the door opens again and the blond nurse comes back in.

‘You can see your wife now, Mr White, if that’s still OK.’

He nods and stands. I stand with him and we follow the nurse out of the door, turn right and then into a set of double doors just down the corridor on the right. Someone holds the door for us as the nurse goes in ahead to pull back a blue screen to reveal the body. This is the second body I’ve seen in the last two years, but this one is not so carefully adorned and arranged as the one in the hospice had been. One sheet, and under that a surgical gown, her body, now deserted, and no flowers.

As Alan bends down to kiss his wife on the cheek he breaks into sobs again.

I put my hand on his back and rest my gaze on what I can see of her hair, just beginning to be flecked with grey. As he stands again, stifling his sobs and holding her hand, I see her mouth. It’s open as though she is gasping for air, but she is too still for that. With my hand on his back and my eyes on her face my awareness of the room fades.

There is a conversation going on in hushed tones in the back of my mind.

‘I think we’d better wait till he’s out of this situation before we try and talk to him again.’ I recognise the deep voice and clipped vowels. It’s Mires, saying what you’d expect of a sensitive psychologist.

‘I don’t agree. It’s not fair to leave it too long. You all rescued me when I thought I was alone forever. I know how it feels to be abandoned. I don’t want to do that to someone else.’ I don’t have to hear her voice to realise that only Indie would have known what it was like to be in that predicament.

A brittle woman’s voice breaks in. ‘I’ll just go along with whatever you all feel. I’m right out of my depth in this kind of stuff.’ This is a surprise. Emma Pancake, usually the one to rush into action, doesn’t know what to do.

‘That’s one for my diary,’ flashes through my brain. Fortunately, they’re too busy talking to hear my thoughts right now.

‘I agree we should wait. I need more time to think about this.’ No surprise there, then. Humfreeze, the master meditator, remains true to type.

‘I think we should go now,’ Alan cuts across.

I jerk out of my reverie.

‘Yes, of course.’

We head for the door. The nurse waiting outside steps in to close the screen again.

‘Please wait in the room again and someone will be with you shortly to explain what you need to do next,’ she explains gently.

It doesn’t take long for the tall male nurse to slide in with a small folder and hand over a booklet with all the information needed about the steps to take to prepare the funeral arrangements, get the body moved and close the dead wife’s bank account. I don’t even have to take notes for Alan who looks as though his mind is somewhere else.

When the man goes we wait a few seconds. Alan stands and puts on his coat. I walk him home mostly in silence – the hospital car park is far too expensive for us to use.

As we reach his gate, I ask ‘Will you be OK?’

‘I’ll be all right. I just need some time to myself.’

‘Ring me if you need me, otherwise we’ll meet on Wednesday to plan what you need to do next, yes?’

‘Not too early. Come round about 11.’

‘OK.’

He fumbles for his keys as he walks up the path to his door. I wait till he closes it behind him before walking slowly back to my place over the river.

As I walk along the quiet footpath towards the pedestrian bridge over the river, I hear them at it again.

‘Can you listen to us now,’ Humfreeze asks.

‘Yes, Chris, I can,’ I hear myself think.

Though we’re in for another Siberian-born Scorpion sting in the tail of winter, flecks of cherry blossom are just beginning to appear.

‘We want to set a time for another séance. That seems the best way to get the infant back. It worked well last time with Indie,’ ’ he explained, with just a faint trace of self-congratulation over his key role as medium in reconnecting with her.

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Mires interjected. ‘This situation seems slightly different. With Indie we didn’t know whether she existed or not, let alone where she was. She was like a possible ghost to us. In this case, three of us definitely remember deciding to put the baby out of its misery without actually killing it. Even Indie thinks she can remember being involved in that, which makes a kind of sense, in that it would have happened before her consciousness split off from the rest of us. I don’t think it’s a séance we need.’

As I cross the bridge and glance quickly down the river to my left, the sun comes out from behind a cloud, lighting up the surface of the water. I’m dazzled.

‘So what’s your suggestion, Fred?’ Humfreeze asks with the air of a man who knows there is no other way.

‘Breathing meditation.’

‘Are you joking or what, Fred?’ Pancake bursts in. ‘OK. I got the séance point in the end. It was a crazy long shot but it worked. What’s meditation got to do with this? Or are you just pandering to Chris’ ego and giving him a key role in a different shape?’

‘You don’t remember what Pete said about his work on his operation, do you?’

‘Yes, I do. But he did quite a bit of breathwork and the only concrete thing he ever found out was about the operation, and that’s how we ended up getting in touch with Indie. Surely, if there was anyone else accessible to heavy breathing he’d’ve found out by now.’ Pancake is clearly getting really fed up of all this flaky New Age stuff.

Mires presses the point. ‘But even if he did a lot of breathwork, did he really do enough?’

‘Why wouldn’t he have done?’ Pancake isn’t going to give in without a fight.

Mires pauses and takes a deep breath. ‘You’ll need to give me some space to explain.’ He was well aware of Pancake’s talent for interrupting.

She nods. He picks up his thread.

‘From what I’ve read the traumas we’ve experienced are stored in a kind of hierarchy in our heads – the more recent, the more accessible. As you access the ones nearer the surface, so the ones lower down become easier to reach. Often working on a difficult one exhausts us and we stop, sometimes for a while, sometimes indefinitely.’

‘Is there a shred of real evidence for that?’ Pancake’s reservoir of patience is shallow at the best of times.

‘It depends upon what you call real evidence.’ Mires is biting his tongue with difficulty. ‘There’s qualitative support for it.’

‘You mean anecdotal evidence, don’t you, Fred?’

‘Not exactly. Groups of individual cases stack up to more than an anecdote. Can I carry on now?’

She nods.

‘I think we can all agree that the hospital trauma came after whatever led to the infant howling all the time. And you all realise, from listening in to Pete’s thoughts as he writes his diary, that he knows that the well of tears he tapped into when he first did the continuous conscious breathing has never gone away. What does that suggest, d’you think?’

There is a long silence.

‘Unfinished business,’ Indie suggests.

‘Exactly, Indie. Unfinished business.’

‘But what kind of unfinished business, for heaven’s sake?’ Pancake can’t stay quiet for long.

‘Well, I’m really sticking my neck out here, but Jung gave a lecture at the Tavistock Clinic in 1935, and spoke about a young girl whose condition had baffled him[1] until, as he put it, “I realised afterwards, she had never been born entirely.” We know that Pete’s mum was pregnant in wartime and that her daughter had died just before the start of the war. This was a seriously traumatic time. One shock was not really processed before a series of other shocks followed. Bombing raids were probably just a part of it. She gave birth before the war was over. What sort of start in life was that? What sort of birth process was it, do we think? A calm and reassuring separation from the womb or an alarming ejection into a frightening world?’

‘And how is all this going to help me write poetry?’ Wordless finds his voice at last. ‘It’s all up your street, Fred. I can see that plainly enough. Polysyllabic psychobabble! But some of us have got better fish to fry.’

Humfreeze just glares at him a moment before picking up the thread again. The meditation angle is enough to keep him on board.

‘Bill’s off message as usual, but I can see where you are coming from, Fred,’ He says almost sympathetically. ‘How does that help, though, even if it’s true? And what’s it got to do with breathing? I can see how the breathing would work in recovering memories of chloroform in a five year old, but I’m not sure about that with a new born baby.’

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

(More of this next time)

Footnote:

[1] This is mentioned among other places in Samuel Beckett: the last modernist by Anthony Cronin (page 221) and Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines by ‪Marius Buning, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans (page 129).

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Mew This Rare Spirit

Then safe, safe are we? in the shelter of His everlasting wings—

I do not envy Him his victories, His arms are full of broken things.

(From Madeleine in Church)

In the previous post, after explaining how Julia Copus’ excellent biography of Charlotte Mew had opened my eyes to the power of a poet I had never heard of before, I tried to convey how death played a huge part in Mew’s life. Now I intend to look more closely at the meaning of death for Mew and its impact on her poetry, before moving on to at least beginning to consider the equally important issue of mental health.

Death and her Poetry

Copus points out that Mew[1] ‘would return to the staircase image over and over in her poems.’ It would often ‘denote a walkway to a longed-for silence; a hint, perhaps, at the respite that death might provide.’ In one of my favourite poems, Not for that City, for example, she writes:

. . . if for anything we greatly long,

It is for some remote and quiet stair

Which winds to silence and a space of sleep.

The image of the stair conveys also to me at least a sense of rising above the world.

Mew also toys with the question of whether consciousness survives death, and if so, in what way. The poem Requiescat[2]‘finishes by wondering whether the deceased might also… remember, in his or her turn, the things of the world; could it be that consciousness remains alive in the world, after the body has left?’ The closing stanza captures this vividly:

Beyond the line of naked trees

At the road’s end, your stretch of blue –

Strange if you should remember these

As we, ah! God! remember you!

There is, I feel, even more doubt about that possibility in Charlotte’s mind, than Copus’ wording suggests.

Mew Selected Poetry & ProseTo someone who came to believe in survival after death after two decades of dogmatic disbelief, I don’t agree with Copus’ sense that what she calls Mew’s ‘central premise’ in the poem is strange. What’s so odd about entertaining the idea that:[3]‘consciousness might continue its daily existence after death, might remember physical experience – and even go on engaging in some way with the earth’s seasonal rhythms’? A sense of this appears in other poems as well. In Here Lies a Prisoner Mew describes the dead man as ‘listening still to the magpie chatter/Over his grave.’ There are though moments when the opposite seems to be implied as in the last line of The Quiet House: ‘I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!’ Mew’s article on Emily Brontë conveys a similar perspective:[4] ‘[Death] was not a problem, because it was the end problems.’

According to Copus, Mew does repeat[5] the ‘conviction’ that ‘in the natural world at least – after death comes renewal.’  More of that when I look at the nature poems.

In the end, Copus is clear in her own mind that Mew holds onto something almost the opposite of a force for life as not just a destination but a welcome escape:[6] In ‘Moorland Night’ the Thing that is found . . . is the final, blissful cessation of all life’s human concerns, a melting away of boundaries, a yielding to the larger cycle of life.’ Our sense of a separate identity melts back into this cycle like drops of rain blend into a stream. For her, Copus feels[7]  ‘the only thing that mattered was the here and now.’ There is no gateway to an afterlife.

I am not sure I quite buy into something as simplistic. There are powerful lines that complicate the picture. For example, these from The Call:

                The world is cold without

And dark and hedged about

With mystery and enmity and doubt,

But we must go

Though yet we do not know

Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.

There are certainly strong reasons for believing that, for Mew, what she most values is transient. In Moorland Night she calls this ‘the Thing,’ which she doesn’t define but explains ‘Perhaps the earth will hold it, or the wind, or that bird’s cry,/But it is not for long in any life I know.’

Penelope Fitzgerald[8] feels that Mew’s take on death is similar to that of Alfred Noyes’s who ‘finds he is beginning to doubt doubt and disbelieve in disbelief.’

Whatever her beliefs about an afterlife or some kind of continuing consciousness, there is no doubt that Mew’s familiarity with the pain of loss often crept into her poems. Take To a Child in Death as an example, written 30 years after two deaths in 1897. As Penelope Fitzgerald describes it in her biography,[9] Mew poses a ‘wretched question from the suddenly left alone – “What shall we do with this strange summer, meant for you?”’ She spoke of her childhood as ‘a time of intense, but lost, happiness.’

Mental Health:

Death was not the only source of distress and loss in her life. As she saw it, her family was tainted with the stigma of mental illness, something which impacted on her life in more ways than one.

Her brother, Henry[10] ‘was experiencing full blown delusions’ by June 1884. He was admitted[11]  to ‘London’s most notorious asylum,’ the New Bethlem Hospital on 14 June that same year. Copus is clear that Charlotte would have seen herself as also tainted with the same genetic flaw. The diagnosis he was given[12] was of ‘acute mania with excitement and impulsiveness’.

In those days a family such as hers would have not wished this to be known to anyone else. Charlotte would have gone to great lengths to keep it quiet. There is no reference to him[13] ‘in any of her surviving letters,’ though ‘his presence haunts her poetry.’ She was also plagued by ‘the fear that the same thing might happen to her and to her sisters.’ Copus[14] describes her as ‘standing sentinel to a secret that was not to be carried outside its walls at any cost.’

Fitzgerald Mew biographyThere were other costs to the family. Instead of generating income[15] Henry ‘had become a steady drain on the family coffers.’ Copus is clear that[16] the family ‘were resentful of the amount of money’ their father spent on Henry’s care, ‘or became so as the years passed.’ After he died, they took steps[17] to arrange for Henry to be ‘discharged “uncured” from Holloway Sanatorium and transferred to Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, which took in both paupers and private patients, for whom the institution advertised ‘moderate terms’.” Instead of sending their sister, Freda,[18] ‘back to London, arrangements were made for her admission to a local nursing home called The Limes, on the High Street in nearby Newport [Isle of Wight].’ After a suicide attempt in January 1899,[19] Freda ‘was admitted to the private wing of the nearby county asylum, Whitecroft Hospital.’ Freda[20] ‘never did recover her sanity’ and she remained ‘in the asylum for the rest of her long life.’

Sadly,[21] on 22 March 1901, ‘just three and a half years after entering Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, Henry Herne Mew died there, of tuberculosis.’ It is likely that Charlotte, in particular, may have felt guilty ‘over the fact that Henry had caught the infection since his move to Peckham House, which took in paupers alongside private patients.’

An additional emotionally damaging cost in the longer term was Charlotte’s, and her sister Anne’s resolve[22] ‘that the door of marriage should be closed to them: given the severity of Henry’s illness, they believed it would be irresponsible to bring children of their own into the world.’ They feared ‘passing on the mental taint that was in their heredity.’

Fitzgerald clarifies exactly why this was:[23]

As ill-fortune would have it, the breakdown first of Henry, and then of Freda, coincided with the years when the science or apparent science of eugenics first took the field… Eugenics… [set] out to show that transmission of this inheritance led to the gradual degeneration of the whole society.… if any member of your family was different, no matter in what way, you were morally bound not to reproduce.

This seems a good place to pause and, using a diagram, give some pointers to where the sequence will be going from here.

As I see it, the impact of deaths and mental health problems in the family combined to give Charlotte a high degree of empathy, particularly with those on the edges of society – outsiders and misfits – with whom she strongly identified. Her empathy clearly extended to nature, though the reasons for that are less clear.

The results are on the one hand to create poems, written in the form of a dramatic monologue, giving powerful voice to those who are all too often ignored, and on the other moving testimony to her strong identification with aspects of the natural world, even to the extent of capturing, at times, what she conveys as a kind of consciousness.

More of that next time.

Mew Diagram

References:

[1]. Page 151.

[2]. Copus – page 179.

[3]. Page 180.

[4]. Fitzgerald – page 94.

[5]. Copus – page 331.

[6]. Page 354.

[7]. Page 376.

[8]. Fitzgerald – page 100.

[9]. Page 10.

[10]. Copus – page 60.

[11]. Page 62.

[12]. Page 63.

[13]. Page 65.

[14]. Page 68.

[15]. Page 80.

[16]. Page 124.

[17]. Page 128.

[18]. Page 129.

[19]. Page 130.

[20]. Page 132.

[21]. Page 136.

[22]. Page 83.

[23]. Fitzgerald – page  41.

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Family Poems (5/16): Mary

I thought it would be useful to republish this as background to the next post on Charlotte Mew and the impact of death.

Mary poem

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“I’ll bet,” she mused, ‘that if the shaking that often occurs after surgery were allowed rather than suppressed, recovery would be quicker and maybe even postoperative pain would be reduced.”

“That’s right,” I say, smiling in agreement.

Peter Levine – In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness (page 8)

Is it possible that I have at last solved a mystery that has been haunting me for 46 years?

It is extremely tempting to believe I have, but my inner sceptic is urging caution.

So, what on earth am I talking about?

Drowning in Pain

The basic problem dates from 1974. I’ve blogged at length about this already so I’ll deal with it briefly here.

I attended an Encounter Group weekend in the summer of that year. It was a fusion of Reichian Breathwork and Janov’s Primal Therapy. Both of them use controlled breathing to gain access, in their different ways, to deeper levels of what I will call here somatic memory. The encounter weekend’s aim was to reconnect attenders with ‘primal’ pain by focused breathing. My earlier account reads like this:

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I puzzled over where this sense of loss and pain stemmed from. Was it from my being carried in the womb of a woman grieving for her dead daughter, from my being born into a house steeped in an atmosphere of grief from which my arrival did nothing to rescue it, from my being born at a time of war and experiencing trauma I couldn’t even remember, and/or from having a father re-experiencing war for the second time in civil defence after serving for the first time at the front line?

Rebirthing

A key sentence for present purposes from the account of my 1974 encounter experience is this one: ‘Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings.’

This was when, on 11 July 1985, I went to see a therapist in Shropshire who used a similar breathing model to the previous one called Rebirthing. It was my last session with her.

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.

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 as 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 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.

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 seemed to find 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.

Two such different experiences, eleven years apart, using the same technique, the first I had no explanation for and the meaning of the second was all to plain to see.

Only now, 35 years later, have I come to see a possible explanation for the first inexplicable encounter with my well of pain. And that is thanks to a completely unpredictable piece of synchronicity.

A close friend in Australia had stumbled across a book in her local library and, knowing my interest in trauma, thought it worth bringing it to my attention. I read a positive review on The Psychologist website (you’ll need to scan down to find it), and decided it was worth a look. It’s synchronicity, not because of the close correspondence of the patterns I’m about to describe, which would apply regardless of the time at which I encountered the book, but because I came across it just after I finished revisiting Donaldson and particularly Covey, something which had prepared my mind to be especially receptive to absorbing its significance.

And that’s what brings us to In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness.

Nancy

The case example of Nancy, which Levine uses in this book,[1] rang so many powerful bells for me. During his session with her she had reported seeing ‘nightmarish images of herself as a four-year-old child struggling, to escape the grasp of the doctors who held her down in order to administer ether anaesthesia for a ‘routine’ tonsillectomy.’ He goes onto to explain that ‘[t]he shaking and trembling, occurring in the warm and reassuring presence of a reliable other person, and allowed to continue to completion, helped [her] to restore equilibrium and wholeness, and to be freed from trauma’s grip.’

A key sentence that seems to me to mirror my own transition from terror to warmth comes on page 23: ‘She was overpowered and held down against her will by all-powerful masked and gowned giants. In our hour together Nancy’s body contradicted her panicky feelings of being overwhelmed and trapped.’

More of this next time, to unpack how this helped solve the mystery of my pool of pain.

Reference:

[1]. Pages 20-25.

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Given my reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses in the next post, it seemed a good idea to post this poem now.

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