Small

The time of the long dark has passed, as the Winter Solstice (derived somewhat poetically from sol ‘sun’ and sistere ‘to stand still’ ) pauses the drumbeat of the year’s turning for one near-endless night. The light creeps up the clean blade of the horizon, floods the new day with the miracle of birdsong. They know, you can hear it in the hopeful tremble in their throats. Everything returns.

We are days from the Nativity. Those who know me well know my Christianity has always had one foot firmly in the green roots of its history here. The decapitated Saints, who bear their talking heads like Old Ones of this island, and the holy springs where their skulls fell still surrounded by the ancient trees, adorned with strips of coloured cloth, roots watered with wine. My crosses are alive with knotwork or entwined with ivy, they belong to an era of seaside monasteries with cells like skeps. The ancient trimmings of a young faith whose customs live still. Grab a Tudor history book and read about Henry VIII riding out to bring in the May, go and do it yourself next year in any rural town.

It is Midwinter, and lo, here comes the light of the world. The sun returns. The Son returns. The King is Dead, Long Live the King.

Yet, I’ve always found it hard to imagine the Christ Child. Christ in His Passion? Yes. Christ in his revolutionary ministry? A thousand times, Christ Resurrected? No problem, because I’ve seen some weird shit, kiddlywinks. But Christ as a baby, as the collapsed point of bright consciousness that is a brand new human being, brought down into the dust of the world? Christ in his first few hours breathing our atmosphere, tufts of fuzzy infant hair sodden with Mother’s blood, Christ tasting milk, Christ falling, sated, into the unfathomable dreams of the newly born. Christ’s tender ears hearing Aramaic lullabies. God so small. Why is that so hard, I wonder. Perhaps because God among us as a 33 year-old firebrand turning the establishment on its head is easy to imagine, to admire. God among us as a helpless child requires more understanding and, perhaps, mercy, than we are wont to give.

Because of course the great revelation of the Nativity is how Christ came to belong here with us, in a place where he too was outcast, with others who weren’t wanted. And as he clothes himself later in the flesh of our suffering, we too have all been as he is about to be. Helpless and soft and mewling in the depths of the long dark. In need of the most immediate care to fulfill our destinies. Such a small, needy body in such a big, heedless world.

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And everybody you have ever met was once the same, every body. Isn’t it easy, somehow, to forget that. Much easier to focus on the Memento Mori of the spiritual life, that to dust we shall return. The admonitions of the dead are chiselled in centuries-old letters up and down the land: Oh weary traveller gazing upon this stone, as I am now, so shall you be. Harder, somehow, to remember the squalling babies we all once were, especially those who need the most and so somehow engender the most derision. Remember the crib that housed the homeless. The pristine flesh of the baby addict. The prisoner’s bottle. The refugee’s booties. All pushed over the same threshold, all torn from the Mysteries and baptised in hot blood to become Incarnate here, only to fall into exile and condemnation and death. Do you ever think about Christ’s fingerprints as Mary marvelled at his tiny hands? I do. Those same hands riven by the executioner’s nails, between two thieves, some thirty three years later.

Now I myself am about to be thirty three, and those years have washed up on the beach of me full of things that are raw and creeping; bleached wood and bones in your stocking this year, young lady. People tell me that when you search through the wreckage of the past you will find treasure, well I have picked through the crab-shelled remains of those years and found nothing. The gold sleeps at the bottom of the sea and all of the sailors are drowned. Only I remain, alone on the familiar shore of strangeness. Only I remain, to watch the sun come up and collect that twisted wood for the fire. Whatever you cast away upon the tide returns to you transformed. Everything returns.

I too have been small, but rather than grow deep-rooted and strong-boned, tall and eager for the sun on my leaves, I have remained there all my life. I have been so afraid of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, being the wrong thing, that I have whittled myself down to nothing. I am the invisible woman. I am the smell of candle smoke in church although you can see no flame, I am a mouse that creeps past your lively dinner table unnoticed. I am the book with the drab, dusty spine that nobody ever takes down. That, I’m afraid, is just the consequence of growing up in the shadow of a Herod you must placate at all costs. That, I thought, was the fate of a child in exile. Here comes the Son, to say it isn’t so.

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This, I think, is what I am taking with me into 2019. The tiny beginnings of big things, better things. I have had what may politely be termed a hard year, culminating in an early winter of the soul. It picked me clean until I was too cold to touch, until it almost killed me. But I, too, have returned from the dark. To bear witness to that great mystery – that salvation doesn’t come when all is well, but when the inn is full. Listen to the birds, now time is made anew, now the light returns when it is needed most.

Everything returns.

No Space for Wild Girls

I never stop marvelling at our changing world.

When I was young, and could have sailed away on the sheer volume of my tears as I looked for somewhere I belonged, the world made sure I was buried alive; pushed down to explore fierce underworlds illuminated only by rock quartz and fireflies. Spittle on the bus and fractured fingers, and later, blister packs full of soothing syllables to keep the lid on a boiling girl. These were the days of dial-up AOL taking wobbling steps toward the future; of plastic barbed wire bracelets and grimacing around smeared cherry lip gloss and wondering how to be like them. Girls. Girls My Age. The ones who could talk without creating silence; they went to town in groups and got good science grades despite laughing through class and the boys liked them. They didn’t embarrass their families by getting caught naked in the open-air community swimming pool after breaking in to feel the water against their limbs in ripples of living silk. They didn’t sleep in their clothes. Or see ghosts.

I know, things were different for me even beyond the realms of alternative then. Lying on scratchy hospital linen, I wondered how I’d got there. I knew girls in baggy grunge shirts and thick kohl eyeliner, who streaked their hair pillarbox red and wore their outcast status like medals. They were spat on too, sometimes, but they were never in the bed next to mine. Perhaps they hid their Otherness better, or kept their scars from stumbling through womanhood’s bramble patch a secret underneath their long sleeves. I didn’t hurt myself that way, in descending ladders of shiny white tissue; but I saw the world in wild paint and heard music in empty rooms, and spent too many hours in an obscure and mystical world of my own. I tasted the fresh trails of other lives and infinite possibility on the air the same way you know the season is changing; when the sweet breath of spring exhales itself into the world, or a frost yet to fall on orange leaves flicks out an icy tail in premonition. I worshipped the world too strongly, saw it without veils.

Back then, you didn’t talk about it. You took your pills and were mute as a novice under new and silent vows. It would upset your family, damage your chances, if anyone knew you weren’t a real girl. You took step after blind step through the thicket, heart and eyes held out in your hands for wicked queens to eat. There was no space for wild girls. When your ears pricked up, you flattened them down before anyone could see and cry wolf. When a rogue feather sprung out through a papercut, you apologised, smoothed it back down with handfuls of spilled oil, and brushed the fledgling stars firmly out of your hair.

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Now I see them in colourful crowds or unapologetically alone. On the bus, online; packs of wild girls, with watercolour hair and winged dreams. The world blinked while I was away, busy being an aura floating in drugged isolation; it had code pumped straight into its veins that changed its digital DNA forever. In just five, seven, ten years; the lungs of the globe expanded and suddenly all those girls like me could breathe easier too. I see them striding purposefully through the tube station, across the road, with sleek fur and smiling lips, hips that demand space to swivel, teeth out and dipped in ink, and know they are bolder than I could ever be. Whether they live with or without diagnosis, minds clear or clouded, they live.

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It feels too late for me.

I know – it sounds so defeated, so self-pitying – but I have years of this enforced solitude and doctor’s orders like bleached cotton bandages wrapped around my head, and don’t know if my skin could take this new sun after all. I feel too old to join the pack. I’m just a handful of years ahead of this tidal wave of new women tumbling sand and sea glass into something more refined, but what a difference those years have made. Or perhaps it’s the toffee time effect of all those waiting rooms blurring into one another; perhaps I’ve sat behind so much shatter-proof glass it’s simply grown around me.

Now there’s space for wild girls. They tap destinations into online journey planners with foxes’ claws. When they get papercuts and a hawk’s feather springs out, they laugh, and test its strength against the wind.

Fly. Fly.

I hope you soar as high and far as you wish, now that the sky is open.

Prometheus

I tell them in my letters that I am well, that I am eating properly, that I have found a modest little job which covers a modest little room where the crime rate is low and the streets are lined with whispering trees. I tell them I have made a few casual friends, in cafes and music venues. I talk about health food shops and real coffee. I sketch out for them in ink the warm cream pastries of the bakery a mere two avenues away, slow walks along the sea’s shifting edge.

There is a lot I do not tell them. I think how stupid it is that so much of my life, so much of importance, has to stay hidden like incriminating photographs. There is Will. I can tell them about our public transport system but I cannot tell then that Will has become my life. That I have given up the drugs and replaced them with Will. That a bold knight errant has weaved himself into my life tapestry, with his clever sculptor’s fingers.

The sun rises, throwing ethereal steaks of pink and gold across the sea; angels dancing in the morning waves. I smoke, continuously, savouring the dawn silence. Later, when I get back to the flat I will clean my teeth as though possessed, trying to erase the smoke gripping them so that my tongue is sweet and fresh for him. Not that it matters, if there is anyone who smokes more than me it is Will as he paces his studio floor. He exhales like a dragon, a fine bluish stream rolling from his nostrils.

The studio is bright,  sun pouring in through two tall windows looking straight into the sky. If I twist my neck I can make out the spidery sprawl of the rooftops, the outline of the city. I pull the windows open on Sunday to hear the church bells for miles around piously singing. Then I become angry, and clap my hands over my ears to block out the gong and hammer of weekend praise. Will gently picks apart my distress, deftly reworking a tight seam. I clasp his strong fingers around my wrists, handcuffing myself.  The muscles of his arms are well-developed from practicing his art. He is slicing away my exterior, setting free the minimal thing that lurks beneath the crude outer layers – all clean lines and near-transparency.

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I taste fennel on his breath. He is Prometheus, fashioning men from water and earth, and giving me the stolen fire through that mythical spice on his tongue. He presses the taste into me, and makes me immortal, immortal.

Sometimes, on a grey day, I see him staring out of the windows at the heavy clouds, booming overhead, storm-pregnant and lazy. I imagine him reaching up and up, working them until the texture and form of the very atmosphere is different. Sculpture is a strange discipline. Will’s work squats defiantly in three-dimensions; drawing the gaze the way a black hole pulls in the universe, eyes orbiting his creations like stars about to make that irreversible leap of faith.

Later, we will drink rum and work; his fingers deep in the damp clay, my pen leaching midnight blue. I will watch the cigarette smoke hit the mirror glass and vanish, as though it has passed through the silver into superstition. I smile secretly, turning suddenly at the sound of my name. Will is there, watching me spin under the bleeding trees, and I am eager, very eager, for him to continue his work; until the sculpture emerges from my centre. A masterpiece that echoes down our lifelines, replete and terrifying in its fulfillment.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.

Letters to Christ I ~ All Things Bright & Beautiful

Dear Lord,

These letters have been many years in the writing, pieced together from old journals and half-hearted scribbles on the backs of till receipts and napkins; the last 16 years have been one long trial by fire; white-hot iron placed in the hands. Or a witch’s dunking, sink or swim, guilty either way.

I was going to become a priest, once. I wonder if that makes you laugh, the thought of me in the pulpit, wielding broken bottles in a spiritual war zone. Given the Revs and Fathers I grew up watching it’s clear near-terminal alcoholism isn’t actually an impediment to serving you in this way, but perhaps it’s just as well I passed on the opportunity. We still talk, you and I, and I still try to place my light in a candlestick so that it may shine rather than smother it under a bushel, but it’s not as your devoted cleric in a robe of crow-black lifting chalices to Heaven, it’s as a girl, just a girl, just a girl…

Back then, I was a willowy wraith haunting an empty chapel, I would spend hours sitting on the hard, polished pews talking to you, reading the lives of the saints, the poetry of the great mystics, listening with my headphones jammed over my ears to Hildegard Von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy. Perfectly still and content like a slice of eccentric ivory in that cool, dusty vault. I spent so many hours in there, listening to the blackbirds warbling through stained glass, that I got to know all the ancient dead under their marble slabs by name. Sometimes I still dream of that church.

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Perhaps I’ve been scared to write these letters because the things I see don’t slip neatly into a collection box. They are profoundly shocking even to me sometimes, I am overwhelmed with a Love that is like an ocean with no floor; I could not use you as an excuse to judge or hate anybody, how can anyone? Whatever the supposed fulfillment of the laws of Moses, you taught nothing but Love; Love unbound from the mooring of our egos; Love unfettered by society’s judgement: who is worthy, who is better, which sinner deserves redemption, who is and is not allowed to sit at life’s long table. The Old Book is blood and vengeance and fire, but where you walk the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and white lilies like the Magdalene’s hands spring up from your footprints in the dust.

How ludicrous it is that two thousand years after your death loving your neighbour as you love yourself is still so radical, so subversive, so likely to bring down the wrath of today’s Pharisees. But then, how painfully ironic that condemnation and cries of heresy so often follow acts and teachings of pure, transcendent Love. Do you recall the Amalricians? Burned as heretics in the 13th century for preaching that ‘all things are One, because whatever is, is God’? When does a critic separate the artist’s work from the artist themselves? When blood and sweat and insomniac hours and that fierce, burning need to birth some new creation, focused and loosed like an arrow, have directed every brush stroke? Perhaps I too am just another pantheistic heretic, seeing God in all things bright and beautiful.

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But since those days breaking like troubled storm clouds over my younger self, I’ve not lost faith in you, even when I have abandoned myself; when I have been gutter-drunk or full of futile rage or twisted, weeping, in the bedsheets like someone hanging in chains. When I am crushed up like slaughterhouse bonemeal at 4 am after 4 am after 4 am and wondering why me. There has always been that still pool in the eye of those storms, where we talk. Where the words of another great mystic of another desert faith come back to me:

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Until next time, I suppose. For all that I have and all that I am, as always, grazie mille Lord, a thousand thank yous.

~ Amice

 

 

A Room Somewhere

The walls are white, not the soft magnolia of new homes but the stark, sun-bleached white of Spanish monasteries or Provençal cottage kitchens. An iron cross made out of old horseshoes hangs on one wall, beneath it there are always fresh flowers. The sweet, earthy scent of myrrh unfurls through the room, the windows are open to cars and radios and kicked cans and starlings.

I lie on the soft cream bedlinen, mind untethered; I can while whole seasons away like this, the same bittersweet songs playing, the same food every day. In these contemplative pockets I finally find respite from the addict inside who craves novelty and flees from boredom. In these times I cultivate boredom like a beautiful orchid, I drift through the warmer days like a courtesan immersed in long, languid baths. I reflect on everything from the perfume poured on Christ’s feet to the scribbles in my old notebooks to the changing texture of my own skin as it enters a new, dimpled decade. The hours feel drugged, the clock becomes my lover and I can spend all day with him, watching the sun pray over that plain, white paint.

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When I come to, half the summer has gone, usually. Faded like the knees of my jeans as the days melt into each other like butter. I used to sip at pink wine in the bed like a bee regaining strength from sugar water, I wonder what it will be like now, sipping orange juice and green smoothies. A sour slice of yellow lemon in still or sparkling. I dare to hope I’ll write more, free from the shackles of liquor’s apathy which turned my blood to morphine.

I keep those quiet hours close to my heart, precious things pressed between scrapbook pages, mornings of easy solitude like wonderful seashells kept until the end of the holiday; afternoons like petals pulled from the pollen-heavy core of a flower, he loves me, he loves me…a little, madly, passionately, not at all. I become a dusky pink rose, sensual and drowsy with the weight of my own limbs. I hover above myself like pale steam, like incense. They are sacred, those hours, when all I want is a room, somewhere.

 

Begin Again

I’ve never met an artist – whatever their canvas – who wasn’t impulsive, and I elevate impulsiveness to comical proportions. I can feel the old itching starting again; underneath the thin, clear lenses of my eyes, the thirst for anonymity. Sometimes it’s very hard to be authentic without a mask; Wilde knew that. Perhaps the relative no-body a person can sneak past Google’s gaze these days is better for the soul…Mine at least. I get stifled under the weight of my name; the smooth, oval eyelids of my own thumbnail photograph. Writing about the intricate, gorgeous, frustrating mechanism of my brain folds the creases of me too neatly into ‘mental health’ at times, when the swirling galaxy of me cannot be so contained. No one can. The creases start to chafe.

I hear writers who can’t wait to pour out their truths to people they know, to proudly strip bare for their peers, family, lovers, ex-lovers…I don’t feel that, never have. I love to write without being distracted by the eyes of anyone I know. People see you upright and talking for say, 10% of your life, and assume they can seamlessly predict the other 90, as though paddling in the waves means you know the depth of the sea. That’s the attraction of the masquerade; I might speak through papier mache lips, but the words are still my own. Eyes laughing behind the plaster, face clean, without fingerprints.

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Anyway. On the windowsill, a clock is ticking. I think it was my Grandmother’s, we’re still clearing the odd, forgotten debris of her life away. Nylon dresses piling up like snow drifts outside the door. Every tick, soft and muted and swishing, feels like a papercut snagging seconds out of the tender skin on the backs of my hands. I never felt young, even as a child. I buried my head in books and documentaries about Egyptian mummies, Pompeii, Anne Boleyn; inhaling flaking bandages, ash and printer ink. I wanted to be an archeologist, I imagined brushing away a thousand years of earth and revealing a queenly lionesses’ head; or Hathor’s long, sleepy eyes peering out at me through the dust. I traced velvet with my fingertips and found myself at Tudor banquets; all heat and light and the smell of roasted meats; candle flames lined up like pilgrims, hair stiff with sweat under a french hood. When I surface, that itchy voice whispers to me relentless as a river: begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again…

I thought this would become simpler with age, but perhaps for fragmented mystics like me it doesn’t – perhaps the lines between this place and all the others become just blurred enough, until your life is something you’re watching to the sound of the lute, or birdsong, or the tips of whispering pines – through an invisible pale pane; a courtier watching the lavender bloom in the green tangle of the old knot garden.