Season 3, 002: Share a story of boundary crossing or transcendence - a time when you felt yourself joining with someone or something beyond your self. What is the legacy of that experience?
When the world came to a halt. When a space opened up in our days, full of time for thinking. I found myself falling.
I’d wished for the power of teleportation. Now that I had it, I’d give it back in a flash. What’s the point, when you don’t get to choose the destination? When the people you travel to are the ones you’ve tried so hard to leave behind.
Instead, I was ripped through time. Back to places I’d spent years pushing down. To the parts of my mind where the light doesn’t reach. To words like vinegar and smells that leave a cast. To being skinned and cut open. Twisted and pulled. By the tongue of the person who once was everything.
Falling through time and place. Landing, disorientated and bruised. My body bristling from the knowing of what was going to happen.
I needed to break free. And I needed help to do it. I needed to devour the words of other women. I needed someone to lead me safely back to these places, to explore them and see things anew. To travel new pathways. I needed to rewrite my story.
Somehow, I knew all this. The same instinct that got me out, guiding me now.
What I didn’t know is that…
I would be travelling again. Through place and time. There would be an eagle, gloriously soaring. And colour. So much colour. That memories would come seeping back through. Tiny, wonderful moments. Unlocked and unravelling. Wrapping me in their warmth.
I called it my year of freedom. It was an ending and also a beginning. In the great Sat Nav of life, I get to choose the destination.
Sometimes, I still find myself falling. But I know I can pull myself out now.
This piece has been quite a challenge in that I wasn't sure how to present it for the best. As I relived the moments, the memory, the words came tumbling out with such a force that I felt I needed to leave the words on the page as they fell. However, it didn't feel quite right like that and I have played around with the presentation of it but time speaks the loudest so I have to say here it is, though I feel it isn't quite there yet.
I am here now, immeasurably far from there
and I am enough.
They are there still there and they are
I will walk to the edge but I won’t go any further I just won’t.
I just won’t and I know it and not only that I feel it with every bone in my body.
It envelopes me in the here and now and permeates time and space reaching those that were and those that will be...
This healing force that knows no bounds.
It is this strength this knowing this visceral certainty that grounds me and simultaneously surges me onwards...
Onwards to that edge to that space so close so very close yet so far so wonderfully far from all that was...
All that I was.
So far from where they stood indeed are standing now.
They who are still there, there where I was, where all that held me for so long for too long, was.
But no more no more am I bound to that for I have transcended time and space and despite the mammoth effort the inordinate passage of time I am enlivened by it invigorated and energised by it and overflowing with it as it courses intensely through my very being.
So I stand and I look and I see and we speak and attempt to move forward together yet not for I am here now, immeasurably far from there
and I am enough.
The first pregnancy ended bloodily in a D&C, washed up in a hospital bed surrounded by expectant new mums. The second in a brutally swift emergency surgery for a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy that nearly killed me and certainly killed all hope of anything different the third time.
That third time though – the terror of an early scan and another missing heartbeat running through me like mercury flipped to find the small flutter of life inside me. There it was, that insistent beat of belief in me that I couldn’t have in myself. It was dizzying. It was terrifying. It was brilliant. It was awful and awe-full.
I was suddenly struck by the fact that I didn’t know how to go forward with this. I didn’t know how to be a mother. I didn’t trust that my body knew and I knew my mind didn’t. I had been given hope, but I was going to have to learn to trust it and I didn’t know how.
I knew how to live with grief. I knew how to be eaten up by it until I was a shadow of a person. I was very clear on how I could shrink and shy away from life but how was I going to grow, not just for myself but for someone else, someone else who would believe in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
At that point I could feel myself splitting off into what would become the mother me and the me, me and I have been attempting to reconcile them ever since.
“High waving heather ‘neath stormy blasts bending … Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars.” It was for these words of Emily Bronte's that I crossed the world to walk on the moors.
Contained. Controlled. Careful. What horrible words these are to describe a person. And yet, how necessary these actions are to take to feel that you can walk through your days and still be upright at the end of them. It takes great courage to seek somewhere where you can be free of the constraints you feel hemmed in by and, without any obvious outward warning to others or any clear motivating factor, to seek it when no one but you knows that you need it.
And so it was that I began walking the moors of Yorkshire. Along the path were clusters of white flowers that looked exactly like small tufts of sheep’s wool, like the wool snagged on the barbed wire lining some of the stone boundary fences, like the fleece of the very sheep who grazed the moors. As the wind rushed over the moor heather, the movement caused by its passing looked like fast-moving clouds over a bed of green, the rippling of a Turkish carpet or blanket being shaken. The sun’s weak rays lit up the patchwork quilt of land in a pale glow akin to that of a nashi pear and I stood and I breathed. The movement of my feet on this land was wild and daring and enlivening.
Walking in open places, in treed places, in spaces of green and brown and wind and rain, everything is hushed except the breath of me being. A bell jar descends. Solitude embraces.
Joining Beyond Self
I settled my coat and scarf just as S. took the podium, her long hair gleaming, earrings like feathers, dress of midnight blue or deep purple, I could not tell and wondered if I dared move closer. I had been so excited for this I left my ticket in the car and had run out and back, but my breathing soon settled to the rhythm of her soft, not timid, voice. Somewhere in the middle of things I looked to her left and saw her ancestors line up beside her, five or six of them, each profile melting into the next. It seemed natural to me, enveloped in her sound as I was. I blinked and the images dissolved. I must have jumped a bit in my seat as the woman next to me set her hand on my wrist. “Are you related to the poet?” she whispered. “You have the same facial bone structure.” “I wish I were,” I whispered back.
Less than a year later S. died, much too young and distressing many hearts. Around then I discovered that a Tribe may be identified by handed-down beadwork. I had some, and this, plus digging through church records of re-named Ojibwe children who were brought to Quebec by missionaries, gave me my answer. My ancestors' beads, the poetry of strong, sorrowing family lines, also seen sometimes in my mother's face.
For five and a half years I’d been dreaming of home. I longed to see the weaved trunk of ancient yews and the horizon aflame with the colours of autumn. I had been in my own kind of winter for years and was struggling to emerge from the depths of grief. But the fertile void within was ripe for transformation and I sensed a return to my lands was needed. And so I went and felt the immediate softening of my bones as I settled into the Northern Hemisphere once more. Surprisingly, it wasn’t on my walks on The Downs of West Sussex, but an unexpected hike in the Swiss Alps that reawakened a part of me I had long forgotten. On that perfect summer day, time seemed to stretch across the creases of the mountains, lighting the steady path ahead as it led me up and across and down and up and across and up and up. For 7 hours I walked. And held in the embrace of the mountains and plains bejewelled with wildflowers, I let myself shatter completely. The darkness bled out with each tiring step, rendering me shapeless and afraid. Yet the cool glacial streams satiated a thirst I never knew I had, and the pines drew in the weight of my exhale, so I could finally breathe again. That night, 2500 metres into the sky, the stars seemed to lean in close and I felt as though my body was being rewoven into the cosmos.
That’s what I had forgotten you see. That I was part of it all. Not alone in my grief, not broken and irrelevant. I was a part of something much bigger; the regenerative flow of the Earth. And now finally, I felt the pulse of life ahead unfolding.
We are stardust
I’d slept for fifteen hours and when I woke there was a pause, a moment of calm. In that moment I remembered I was back in my childhood bedroom, safe. The navy curtains in the bedroom were drawn. It was a sunny day and late in the morning by then. There was a chink of bright sunlight shining through the gap between the two dark curtains and in the gap danced tiny fragments of dust, stardust – you, me and everything that surrounds and connects us in the cosmos. And with that thought it began again, the exhilarating, terrifying and joyous journey of my mind, untethered. I had a body, but this mind was out of it.
The day before I had taken the three-hour train journey home from Manchester, accompanied by my brother, his gentle coaxing stopping the out spilling of my mind becoming a public nuisance. A homecoming that wasn’t the visit I’d planned but was well-timed, nonetheless.
I remember my mother and brother sitting on my bed, trying to understand what I was telling them, worry etched on their faces. I had some important messages to convey, I understood everything now…but nothing as far as normality was concerned.
It was a time for decisions. I knew what was in my best interest, but could they trust my judgement? Long walks, under the expanse of wide Norfolk skies. Time alone to quieten and slow down, to piece together fragments of my shattered, twenty-year-old mind.
Thirty years later the fragments are pieced back together, mostly. I brought many back whilst others came, seemingly of their own free-will. Some were gifted back to me, often unconsciously and always kindly by loved-ones and strangers. A few remain, floating in space, like stardust waiting for their time to come home.
I knew as soon as I drank the dark brown thick sickly pungent tea that it was a bad idea, that I was in for a ride. The tea smelt like soil and earth and grass and other worlds. I felt the sickness in my stomach and my whole body lurched as the mushrooms sloshed into my system and started to move through me. Woosh, tingling everywhere, hands shaking. Was I coming up? It felt like I was sinking down into the ground, into the damp soil, into the seeds and the roots, pulled into the earth. I immediately knew I had taken too many, that it was too strong. Orange juice, must drink orange juice, that will help bring me down, ground me. Familiar faces started to look dark and distorted, moving in strange ways, unsafe. The wall was moving, breathing, shaking. Fuck.
I needed to be alone. With music and cigarettes. The 70’s tiles on my university bedroom floor a deep black lake and my bed was a boat, safe, sturdy. Woosh, waves and waves crashing over me. Vibrating, moving, I was a breaker, part of the rhythm of the earth, no longer separate from anything. My body was pulling apart, my skin, my bones, then my skull. Nothing left. Who was I? My body? Was I my family? My past, my present, my future? Where was I? Where did I exist? Did I even exist? Hours and hours of waves and pulses and visions and movement. Into another time and place. Into space. Sinking into life itself.
I woke in the morning and found my way back. Nothing was ever the same again.
Rock bottom came on day three of another vomiting migraine. I was on the cold bathroom floor, too exhausted to cry but tears ran down my face. At the end of day three I’m only ever left with surrender. All my resistance has been flushed away with the last of my bile.
But then it got nasty, I spiralled down into that final pit of self loathing,
“What if I die of a stroke and my daughter finds my body?”
“I'm going to get early dementia because of all of the pain medication and nerve damage.”
“I'm a total fraud! All of the spiritual things I've been writing about amount to nothing when I'm dry retching and begging for my Mummy, why can't I just fucking surrender because I know that's all I have to do.”
This time though, instead of curling myself up into a ball to smother the pain I tried to untangle myself from the berating voice that seemed to feed it. With that, an overwhelming compassion for that voice and for myself flooded through me. Then a separation between myself and the voice.
Silently with my heart I asked the voice 'What is bothering you?’
It said ‘'I'm tired, I've reached my threshold. I can't stop, everything will fall apart if I stop.'
I assured her everything would be ok and that we maybe we just take a break. ‘Shall we go for a walk?' I said.
Immediately I was airborne. I flew out my bedroom window into the forest behind the house. I could see and hear the leaves crunching under my feet, even though my feet were no where to be seen. I was suspended in body and mind. My head filled with a deep sense of peace.
Then, as quickly as I had left I was back in my bed and the migraine was gone.
Congratulations on the launch of your paperback! And thankyou for the work you do here, and the support you give to new writers. Hugs to your mum. 💕
I’m lying in bed listening to the muffled sound of nine o’clock news. Everyone’s home and I feel safe again, but not safe enough to close my eyes. I’ve been trying to invent different ways of staying awake and this time I’m clutching a torch under my blanket. Ribbed metal quickly loses its coolness in my hand. I rub fingers against its surface to refresh my intentions. I feel that I can stay awake this time. I’m not sleepy. Not yet. And when it comes, I’ll be prepared to fight it.
Ghostly shadows of my recurrent nightmares fill the room. I switch my focus to the noise coming from the street. Someone is talking loudly at the bus stop. A street janitor’s metal snow shovel scrapes against icy pavement. Drunken shouting a bit further away. Distant cars horns, occasional sirens... And then silence. Heavy winter silence, when you can hear the snow falling, unstoppable and emotionless. My attention floats inside. Footsteps pass my bedroom door. The tap is turned on in the kitchen on the other side of the wall. Clinking and clattering of the cutlery, dinner plates and pans. Silence. The footsteps return pausing by my door momentarily. I take a deep breath. The news is finished by now and a film is on. This time I’m not going to sneak into the corridor to secretly watch black & white flickering screen through the doorway. This time I dive under the blanket and turn on my torch. All I can hear is the thumping of my heart. Louder and louder. Mellow light of the torch and soft shadows on fabric creases that enveloped me are calming and exciting. I reach under my pillow and pull out a book.
“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas”. I open it and breathe in the air that comes off the yellowing paper. I’m still learning to make sense and sound out of those miniature creatures on book pages. Like tiny little ants they run away from me in all directions. But it doesn’t matter now, for I know exactly what those stubborn lines are hiding from me. I inhale the musty smell. The images of deep water and the gentle sound of air bubbles travelling upwards make me feel safe; safe enough to close my eyes and disappear into the ocean of mysteries.
The enormity of trees cracking and falling, trees that for decade upon decade silently stored their power, power hidden behind bark, power hidden underground, power grounded in silence, trees waiting their whole lives to say this one thing. This one thing that cracks me open, reminds me of my inconsequence beyond the few people who love me, this harsh beating of the heart. These trees that moments before were continuing their silent pulling of energy down from the sun and up from the earth, the release of oxygen, this continual shared waltz of humans and trees. And then, ground saturated and wind relentless, the earth releases the roots, the trees fall. Hickory and maple down, falling onto each other.
Things are just this way, here, solid, waiting for tomorrow, and then not. Thirteen servicemen here and then gone, families imagining airport arrivals full of hugs and stories, moms planning favorite meals, and now, just fractures. Kabul here and then fallen. A virus here, then easing up, then mutating back. A hurricane here, then houses, lives, gone. My body teeters me toward terror.
To cling, or to fold under, remembering to stand, to look up, to see the trees that remain, still collecting light, to notice mushrooms that push up through moss and how can they be purple? How can the world that creates purple mushrooms and cushions of moss and deer who run silently through the woods on black Cinderella slippers also be the world that will steal all we hold close and sometimes shackle us to fear while we wait?
We shift like light through the woods, powerless to determine what is illuminated and what passes into shadow.
It takes me about seven minutes to get from the station to the North Shore. My heart grins on the way down, past the grey/green glass of the huge Sainsbury’s rearing up like the prow of a ship; past the charity shops, the Premier Inn. I know, I think, something of what is about to happen, something that always happens when I come here. For a few hours, I will be free. For a few hours, my life will be about expansion, not contraction. About safety, not harm.
The tide is out. The sky is very blue. It is cloudless, and there is a faint shimmer on the horizon, a blurring. I am really grinning now. The space. The huge sky, the vast stretch of sand: the sense of possibility that opens up inside me. I walk quickly to be nearer the water, to hear the waves breaking on the shoreline. Hello, I whisper, hello. I can’t stop smiling. The blue of the sea, of the sky, the merging, is startling. It is pure, beautiful, transcendent. I have to keep stopping, to look, to feel. The blues. Everything.
And then something happens. Time stops, or rather, time ceases to exist. There are no boundaries between my body, the horizon, the sea, the sky…. It becomes a liminal space. My edges have dissolved. I still have my senses: I hear the gentle lapping of the waves, I smell the sea air, I see the luminous blue that surrounds me. And I have a thought: if I were to die here, now, life would have been enough, just to experience the ecstasy of this moment.
On the train home, hours later, I remember Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. My experience today was real, and what I am going back to is also real.
Make it stop, I think. Dear Christ, make it stop.
Sheila, what a beautiful and deep piece of writing that holds both light and darkness. A beautiful reminder that our human world is inconsequential to the power of nature. The sense of control any of us might still have is just an illusion. And yet the light is still there, the light that also creates shadows xx
Good luck ,good luck with the paper back edition my love ,more people get the pleasure we have had , to enjoy your book !
Love to you and your mum ,wishing you are both held together in love and grace and more time 🙏💛✨️
Thank you Tanya so much for this wonderful prompt and invitation to write. My response explores an experience I had when I was in my late teens/early twenties, crossing the threshold of leaving home and starting at university. I became unwell, very dramatically and abruptly in a very public place and at a pivotal time in my life. While the experience itself was one of transcendence, I don't think I have ever truly appreciated or reflected upon it properly. It was very poignant to explore it through the long lens of parenthood and with a perspective afforded by nearly two decades of life lived since.... :
Covent Garden, London, 2002
The air around me became thin.
I was untethered, momentarily detached from this life.
Faces began racing into view, fast then slow. A happy vision of me in my favourite new clothes appeared. Just like a through train that slows on approach to a station, sometimes a face stands out from the crowd on the platform; there I was, illuminated and really smiling.
In reality, I was unconscious on the floor of the astrology shop in Covent Garden, with a soaring temperature and a body that was shutting down.
My mother and then-boyfriend had come to help settle me into my halls at university. Yet, on our first day together, a cloak of exhaustion clung to my edges and no matter how much caffeine I consumed I couldn’t shake the tiredness. As I slipped deeper into unconsciousness, faces kept flying in front of me.
For many, a near death experience can form a faultline. There can be an abrupt reawakening that wrenches and shakes you.
But for me, this was still to come.
As I came round, I furiously tried to take the cannula out. I screamed as the doctors hit a nerve as they attempted a lumbar puncture. I was so angry and emotionally unable to process what was happening.
Looking back at the experience through the lens of motherhood, I think of how my mother held it together for me that day. How her constant touch sought to soothe and calm me as I writhed in angry pain
Almost two decades later, with the long lens of parenthood, I think how I must have hurt her by insisting that I go straight back and start university. How my younger self was so determined to run away from the light and yet how now I seek it out.