Myth, madness and the meaning of life

Myth, madness and the meaning of life

One of the big themes of The Dancing Floor, (which I have half-forgotten in the crowdfunding push) is mental illness. Both Sita, the heroine, and Cathy the young musician who stalks her, have ‘problems’ with it. Sita has had a psychotic breakdown in young adulthood which makes her terrified of exploring uncle Mal’s mysterious old tradition. Cathy is bipolar and treats her condition in a cavalier manner, taking drugs which may make her a better fiddler but push her into wilder highs and more grisly lows.

Sita (Renu Brindle) in the Dancing Floor pilot film
Sita (Renu Brindle) in the Dancing Floor pilot film

I have built these themes on experiences of my own. I have never been called ‘mentally ill’ but I have been in some very scary places – and, and this is the point, in some very illuminating and non-ordinary places – you could call them otherworldly. And this is without drugs, because I have never been able to tolerate drugs, and even had to give up the occasional spliff when I started meditating because it pushed me immediately into a psychotic nightmare place.

So I am pondering the relationship between exploration of non-ordinary reality and mental stability, especially in relation to old native traditions which encourage the taking on of archetypes, of gods, animals and elementals, the contacting of ancestors and a generally bold and imaginative interaction with ‘reality’. Is it actually good for us to do these things, to explore the experience of other beings and other worlds? Or is it too dangerous, in society wedded to ‘safety’ and a rigidly rational view of reality – except for in movies and games sanctioned by the powers that be?

In the film Sita has to travel back to a terrifying and ego-dissolving moment which she has tried to forget, before she can, with Cathy’s help, open up to the extraordinary possibilities offered by the native tradition. I wrote this section of the screenplay remembering my own moment of terror:

My mother had just died, my marriage was in a grim state and I was alone in the house of my beloved but demented dad in the middle of the night. I began to feel that I was guilty of a terrible crime (I was actually only guilty of normal idiocy), that I what I had done was endlessly destructive and unredeemable. I felt as if the core of me was exploding and shooting outwards into the void and very soon there would soon be nothing of me left. This was the inevitable punishment for my wickedness.

This was the most frightening experience of my life, worse than nearly drowning or dying on a snowy mountain. What did I do? I switched the radio on and listened to World Service while forcing myself to read a humorous book, and after a couple of hours it passed. We’d call it a panic attack, I suppose.

Spiral on beach019

On the other hand I have stood on a beach in Orkney at dawn and felt arising in my own body, in my own mind, the knowledge of how something comes from nothing, the kind of knowledge you can never put into words but only treat as a jumping off point for a different view0 of reality, a new kind of exploration. I write much more about this in my book Becoming the Enchanter, but for now I just want to say that I feel it is important, for some of us at least, to know these kinds of things.

I am sure whoever wrote the fourth branch of the Mabinogion did and although there are respectable academics who agree with that, the whole point about this kind of knowledge is that it is not just intellectual – it reaches into the deepest, oldest and newest regions of our being and it changes our neural wiring. Myth is a carrier of it, because it deals in riddles which trick the mind into jumping to a new position. Once we know the ‘new position’, beyond the ratiocinating mind, many other things become possible and meditation is a way to do it safely without succumbing to mental instability or losing contact with our common reality.

In the Dancing Floor film Sita is helped through her crisis by Cathy, who is less afraid of the ‘otherworld’ than she is, and in the end they both find salvation through the re-invention of a sacred dance, that is through creativity.  The ‘Children of Don’, the family of gods who appear in the Mabinogion, were said to be ‘the race who brought magic to these islands’ (See previous post about the Four Hallows)  And magic is the understanding of the rules of creation, how something can come from nothing….which is is one reason that these mythic stories must be told and re-told in modern form. So that we don’t forget.Featured Image -- 646To read more about the projected Dancing Floor feature film click here.

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The New Guys on the Block

ImageI had a rest day on Sunday, having been racing around and doing my OU final marking and rewriting screenplay for eighth (and not the last) time.  I was sitting in my cabin reading ‘The New Confessions’ by  William Boyd  and drinking wine when I heard a whickering noise.  Immediately I was on my feet and a good thing too, because here they were, the new ponies, cantering down my drive, nostrils flaring, three hopeful sheep close behind them.  I had left my gate open and they had already escaped from a holding field somewhere (Nigel or is it Lewis, will you put a fastening on that bloody gate?) and, had I been closeted with my computer marking, my hedge/fruit trees/veggie patch would have been trampled/consumed/desecrated.  I soon chased them out with shouts and waving arms.

Later that evening I stood at my gate and watched the high-spirited newcomers galloping around.  They are funny little horses, these Welsh ponies, usually white or grey, with big flared nostrils, not pretty but animated.   When it rains or snows they just stand there, immobile, enduring, until their owner (breeding them is a hobby round here) either moves them or sells them on.  I always ask Edna, my neighbour, whose husband is one of the fanciers, what he does with them.  She told me the first year that ‘he puts them in tack’ which I took to mean they were tucked away in some nice warm stable for the winter.  But doubt set in when I was told how little they earned on the market.  Could it be that he sold them to overseas buyers for horsemeat?  I went hot and cold at the thought of my stolid companions through the long dreich winter, being minced up for burgers.  Edna is unspecific and evasive, so I don’t know the truth.

I only know that, at the winter solstice, when I walked out in the pitch dark to stretch my legs after a long meditation session, I could hear them rustling near me as I skirted the lake.  Perhaps with senses heightened from meditation, I began to sense them perceiving me, examining me curiously and in a not particularly friendly manner.  It was a clouded, moonless night and I could see nothing in the dark.  My heart started to thump.  I was scared.  It seemed that the darkness was revealing their true agenda.  I walked as quickly as I safely could back through my gate.

I have had more respect for them since that.  Last night I heard them galloping, whinnying and neighing on and off throughout the whole night, disturbed no doubt to find themselves so suddenly transported to this open common, with kites, curlews, coots and lapwings for company. And me of course.  I raked up the grass cuttings from a strimming session and put them out on the common for them to eat.  They glared at me balefully, clearly wishing to get over the cattle grid and back to my rich grass, not be content with my offering.  But they did eat the cuttings.

Sheep in the Graveyard

Mist clears over the pool

It’s odd living in a ‘beauty spot’. People visiting my little chapel are taken aback by it – the climb up the narrow lane which opens out onto a glittering pool with little trees rising from it, Lord Hereford’s Knob and the long sleek ridge of the Black mountains undulating along behind it, and, when they stop to open my gate, the gracious rise and fall of Pen y Fan in front of them. It’s a place of sudden stillness, furious winds, calling curlews, galloping ponies, silhouetted oaks, shrieking lapwings. Even locals notice its mysterious glamour: Adrian, after he’d dumped the load of fire-wood in my field, stood and stared and said: ‘it’s an amazing view all right up here’ before recapping his views of capital punishment.

The problem is the grass and the sheep. I live on a common and the sheep keep it green and trim with their constant cropping. But my graveyard has been hitherto barred to them. In my first year in the chapel, I was repeatedly invaded by one determined ewe and her lamb, who had suddenly evolved the ability to roll over the cattle grid, jump the drystone wall and wriggle through the fencing. I didn’t mind them eating the grass, but they also ate the newly planted trees and hedge and flowers. Sometimes the whole flock would get in, if I had left the gate open in the mistaken belief that they had forgotten how to get over the cattle grid. Then I would stand and sob over my butchered vegetables, after I had chased the buggers out, that is.

But keeping the grass cut in my little field and in the graveyard has become a trial to me: strimming exacerbates my computer-caused carpal tunnel syndrome, and it is expensive to get someone else to do it. People are allowed to visit the graveyard so I feel I must keep it nice, even though most of the gravestones are now moss covered and falling down. Which is why I decided to block off access to my flowerbed and field, and let the sheep in. After all they had been rubbing their bums against the gate for weeks and eyeing the lush pasture within.

I thought they would be eager, but they were wary at first. Then, when my back was turned, I heard them lumbering in, big rangy sheep with stern unwavering gazes, probably acquired for their meatiness. They began excitedly to chomp the long grass, moving every few seconds to grab a new hunk like kids let into a sweet shop. I watched for a while in satisfaction, then returned to my work. When I looked again they were ignoring the grass in favour of the lower leaves of the holly, yew and hawthorn trees and one agile character had clambered up onto a tomb to snap up the nasturtiums I had perched there for safety.

All day I found myself drawn away from the wpc to the window to watch them at their industrious consumption. The cats rose from their daytime slumber to view with puzzlement the fact that these white-wooled lumberers had been let onto their patch. I decided that close-up they were not lovable creatures, that in fact they loved to barge and bully and knock things down and go where they had been barred by wheelbarrow and bicycle. But in spite of their bad attitude and copious piles of shit around the place, the grass was looking flatter and trimmer by the day.

And what’s the moral of this story? Perhaps that, as a city-girl who’s lived in the country for nearly ten years now, I have finally understood that you can’t control and tidy up the countryside. True, I don’t have a strong bent to tidiness, but I had a vision of what my land would look like which has been scotched repeatedly by rain, slugs, wind, and the relentless creeping cooch (sp?) grass. The early darkness of winter, the sudden shifts of weather – snow, driving rain, and flood, which transform the landscape in an hour, can render you passive and introverted. Your bright summer vision dissolves into the messy chaos of winter’s reality. But then, the long dark evenings and nights can tip you into another kind of time and space – a spacious creative place with far horizons. The shadow sheep who have been nudging your gate for months may finally get access, and help you out, just when you least expect it. I hope so.

The little owl in the chapel

The little owl in the chapel

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Two days ago I was awakened at 6 am by a yelp.  As I came to,  I  was trying to work out what it was: mice squeak and rabbits squeal. Both sounds can mean that the  cats, Gwyd and Gilf, have dragged a live creature in to play with.  Because I live in one space (a small chapel) I have no defences from their ferocious play.  I sat up.  Panicked flapping wings.  Oh no, a bird.  I flung on my dressing gown and ran down to the ground floor.   Gwyd was waiting for a thrush-sized brown bird, huddled in the corner, to move.  I shoved him out of the way and lunged.  The bird flapped up and swung across the room, thudding into the wall and then the ceiling.   It had great big wings.  It perched on the curtain rail and then I saw what it was – a little owl!  Its penetrating eyes pierced me and held me.  ‘Come on, little guyl,”I said, “I am your friend, let me help you out.”  I opened the door wide onto the misty graveyard and the pool, gleaming under the setting moon, and  tried to chase him out.  He (now he had a gender!) kept bumping painfully on the walls.  While he hid under a chair and Gilf tried to hook him out with a paw, I made a cup of tea and drank it.  Then an image came to me: of throwing a soft cloth over him and carrying him safely outside.

The cats seemed bored with the game and went out to find more prey.  I found a small white, lacy cover.  It seemed the right colour for the owl, a mark of respect.   I flapped the curtainn and he flew up, bouncing again against the wall and tumbling onto the stairs.  While he was dazed I wrapped him in the cloth and took him out into the night.  I unfolded him onto the tin roof of my woodshed and immediately he spread wings and flew away, yelping as he went.

Afterwards I couldn’t sleep. The appearance of owls often marks a shift in  my life.  It did this time too, but that’s another story.  All I will say for now is that I am so glad I could rescue him before he battered himself to death in fright.