Tuesday, November 27, 2012

brain chemicals, part one: running in the dark

Aberdeen sunsets (in my backyard and at the City Beach), July 2012

This is one in a series of posts which will all be tangentially related to mental health and its various bases something that’s always at the forefront of my mind but especially so lately as I slog through the writing of my PhD. Some of my anxiety and depression is most definitely related to environmental and experiential factors, and the rhythm of my life at the moment is definitely not conducive to balance or relaxation, so I understand its occurrence; some is also connected to my emotional/psychological state, which is also very understandable. 
And some of it is purely physiological, and this to me has always been the most inscrutable of the elements, these brain chemicals, because it seems sometimes that there is little I can do to predict and then mediate their effects on me. 

(And yes, I take medication for them, but that is another post!) 

Now, one way I can appease these wayward surges of badness is to run, thereby feeling the emotional and psychological effects of going outside and doing something that would make me feel strong and connected to the earth even if it didn't also have the lovely side-effect of flooding my synapses with endorphins and other good things. I have been running for most of my life, and I started during a time when I was in late elementary school and dealing with one of my first severe bout of anxiety and panic attacks. I discovered that it was something I could do to feel strong again, and sure of myself, confident and perhaps most importantly, distracted. I am sure the extra brain chemicals were also a good bonus, and basically, this addicted me for life. It is a productive and healthy addiction, as they go (though there was also a period where I did run a little too much, and suffered for it) though procuring my running fixes can get complicated, due to time and in the following case, daylight hours, and factors beyond my control (being a woman, for one).

* * * 

So I am writing a dissertation. And often late afternoon, and evening come, and I know that I still have hours of work to do, but I need a break. I need to move, to disentangle myself from the chair and desk and unlock my eyes from the screen. And so I creep out of my office, where many are still working, and put on my running things and go out into the evening and run. And then I come back and feel better and more productive for a little while longer. Calmer, sharper, everything is more crisp and serene. 

A few weeks ago, though, in Aberdeen, a young woman was raped close to the University. She was walking down the street at 7:30am when she was attacked. And this made me sick, because these things happen at all, but that is another post, too. What really irked me was the advice of police: women, don't walk alone, even in daytime! Which of course is what's been said forever, and does not address any of the roots of the issue. And I was annoyed, too, because I was startled by it, and angered because I needed to go for a run. By myself, outside, in the dark. So, the next day I got ready to leave from my office as usual, and when someone asked where I was going, I told them, receiving the response, 'You're going for a run now!? Didn't you hear what happened to that girl?!' and 'Why don't you go in the middle of the day, or morning, when there are more people out?' and 'That's really... brave... of you' (implied meaning: stupid).

I told them it happened in daylight, and morning wouldn't be happening for me. I didn't want to get into it, so I just left. Morning runs have never been my favourite, anyway. I’ve always been an owl instead of a lark, and find it very difficult to exert myself early in the day, especially on no food due to metabolic issues. Waiting until breakfast digests puts me too much into the middle of the morning and into my work, which, while flexible, is best done in large blocks of time when possible due to my writing habits. And the days here are getting alarmingly short with the season turning, with darkness now falling before 4pm and so I am really left with little choice, in some ways. And I am going to run regardless, because I will feel shitty, frankly, if I do not: because I will not get my brain chemicals otherwise, and I will feel down on myself for feeling belittled and thwarted.

People also often tell me I should just go to the nice fancy university gym on my street, but I really don’t want to. I’ve never liked running indoors all that much, for one, and there isn’t even a track there, so you must deal with the Sisiphean scenario of the treadmill: you go nowhere, at a strange gait and pace, under headache-foreshadowing fluorescence.  And the people, too – the hordes of football and rugby men, and the women who are not hairy yetis like I am. I don’t want to go and feel on display, to have to compete with those men for space, and I don’t want to feel shamed into shaving. There is no solitude, no quiet there. This is not a relaxing, affirming situation, to say the least.

And so I decided to keep running in the dark.  And yes, I take precautions, should anything happen, whether it be attack or injury. I am covered in reflective striping, on my shoes, leggings, a highlighter-pink vest over my jacket and a climber’s headlamp for where the streetlamps are dim. To protect myself menaces other than local drives, I have a mobile phone and busfare, headache medication; a whistle tucked inside my shirt and a keyring wrapped around a finger and keys jutting out from my palm. Sometimes, I carry my dad’s Swiss Army knife in my pocket, not because it would be much use to me if I were to be surprised, but because of its talismanic weight and meaning. I do avoid Seaton Park, because assaults have happened there frequently, and other heavily treed areas, and stick to places out in the open along the beach road, and main thoroughfares. I go early enough (before 11pm, usually) that there are still people and cars out and about.

Beyond convenience to my schedule and patterns of energy, I’ve just always loved running in the dark. I used to run around and around my block (exactly 400m around, my dad measured it for me) or the loop road in my neighbourhood, as I wasn’t allowed to stray far, but my parents knew I needed to train. Summer nights, when it was finally cool and feeling breeze on my skin was the most awaited moment of my day. The flash of my legs, birch-white, under a streetlamp, chasing the local rabbits that sprung out of the shade of the driveways, disappearing ahead of me. In autumn, when my feet whispered through the crush of black ash and poplar leaves on the ground, the smoke-scent of early fires dissolving up into a black sky and the wintry pinpoints of stars (or, if I was really lucky, bands of northern lights that moved and breathed as I did, sighing and striding on with their own silver rhythm). And it was so quiet, except for a distant car on a main road, or a house party, perhaps, a few streets over. I made the most noise, with my footfalls and my breath, mind quiet and still and clear and joyful.

And last night when I was running, I was again marvelling at the sensorial changes of the dark. How when I turned off King Street down the Beach Boulevard and faced towards the sea, I saw a cloudless night sky for the first time in far too long here, the stars spilling above the ocean, the sprawl of Auriga and Taurus, Orion’s bright belt pulling me forward. Cresting the hill up onto the treeless boulevard ship lights make their own constellations, out on the blackness of the invisible horizon. Cars pass intermittently, and I follow the cues of light from the headlights, the glow of the city to my right, and the twenty lumens spilling out of my headlamp into a flowing pool in front of me.  My eyes register the light, but I am not really seeing, or looking now; it is just a faint guide. With this deprivation (how we spend our days always looking, reading, writing, everything so visual!) I feel enveloped by the dark, and forced into listening. The waves of the winter sea folding in on themselves, a stray oystercatcher’s call drown out stray engines. The ocean makes breathing easier, a pattern to follow, the patter of my feet, the moments between mid-air and pavement, the tiniest of flights. The southeast wind, salt and fish, frosted grass, leafy decay. I am very much inhabiting my whole body, but at the same time I am aware of how truly faint the membranes are between us and everything else. I spill out into this, forget the boundaries, bones dissolving in warmth and all my dear little endorphins (or whatever they are) go to work mending my synapses.

And yes, it’s true, even without my darkness, my sea and my sky, I could still run.  I could go to the gym, and scrabble away on the treadmill, and I could manufacture a whole ocean of brain-chemicals and feel okay in the end. But it would not be as satisfying all around. Because while I am primarily running because of its immediate chemical effect that is going to let me write a few more paragraphs of my thesis that night, and function like a decent human being the next day, and thus not feel utterly useless, and all the related emotional and psychological reasons, there is the other reason here: I am doing this because to not run there, in the darkness, on my own terms, is to let both bad individual people and the misinformed patriarchy win, and take something from me that I don’t want to give up.
I am sure that there are people that would still find this crazy, an unnecessary risk, something foolish and careless and all those other things women are told not to do, not to be.  But lately, I feel like my mental health depends a great deal on these runs, both for the physiological benefits of the aforementioned brain chemicals, but the emotional and psychological payback as well. This goes beyond feeling like a body beyond the brain, or the sense of accomplishment from rousing myself out of a paralytic mood. There is something so profoundly strengthening that derives from challenging what I am supposed to do and be: a woman afraid of the dark, timid, overly cautious and avoidant. I am not going to refrain from running alone, all by myself, at night simply because I am female-bodied. I need to do this; this is my way of taking back the night.

Certainly, I’ve been to marches full of people, and there’s definitely solidarity in that and something empowering that can arise from that feeling. But when I do this, I feel so sturdy, so tough, so self-sufficient, and in the last throes of a long run, perhaps a little invincible. And that’s a rare and treasured thing for me, when all my other thoughts and feelings are otherwise conspiring against my well-being, and I don’t think it’s crazy at all to do this, to run myself back into chemical equilibrium, and take back a bit of space in the darkness, both physically and psychologically, at the same time.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

ashes to everything

It was a beautiful day, that Sunday last month; a perfect fishing day, when you could stand in the creek, shallows sun-warmed, and not be too shocked by the water's chill; when there is still enough warmth in the air to bring out the smell of the pine, to lull the fishes hiding in the deep still pools. The swallows under the Athabasca bridge had disappeared already, and geese had threaded themselves across the horizon, southbound. It reminded me so much of a weekend just seven years earlier, when my dad suggested we go up for a drive here, on the Windfall roads. He was tired already, he said, and didn't have the energy to hike and fish; but perhaps we could go look at the turning of the leaves? 

And so we drove up, taking our time. We stopped in Whitecourt, meandered past the school where he'd taught all those years ago, saw the apartment where he'd lived with his weird roommate, Mercer, the community theatre where he'd acted in 'The Monkey's Paw'. Drove further up the highway to the turn-off, I remember so many migrating butterflies smashing into the windshield, torn wings stuck to the road when I'd get out to take a photograph. Arctic fritillaries, earthy and bright orange. "That was the colour of my orange Corvette," my Dad told me, and I remembered the pictures in his album. "But when I lived up here, I had my Challenger, that's what I'd go driving in when I went to explore these roads, looking for good places to fish. I'd turn up the radio, I remember this big hit that year, 'Spirit in the Sky'..."

We'd come up here, to Windfall, many other autumns, when we'd go hiking through the bush, fishing in the creek, eating our lunch on the stones, being quiet. But that year, my dad had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and was due to start the chemo the next day. He didn't know what his energy would be like for the next months, and he wanted to get up there, one more time that year before the winter came. And I went with him, as he visited all these places he loved, to which he attached such positive, sustaining memories, places that he knew he could draw strength from, places that could nourish him. While I know that travelling through was a way to calm and fortify himself, I also felt a sense of transmittance; he was passing these memories on to me, to hold them, he was reminding me of the times we'd had there too, and I understood more than ever the importance of these places. 

In the next six years, he did have times when he was feeling well enough to come back here, to the woods he'd discovered in his youth, to fish and camp and wander. And so last month, when my mother decided she was ready to scatter his ashes, a year after he'd passed, we knew that this was one of the places he would want to be placed. Into the creekbed, with a shot of rum on a bright afternoon. The stream had flooded that spring, and change course quite dramatically; we were able to find a secluded grove to hang the prayer flags that people had written on at his memorial, festoon them with fish-hooks that latched onto the beard lichens. 

"Old man's beard," my dad would say. "You can eat it, make this awful soup when it's green, really high in Vitamin C, so you won't get scurvy if you're lost in the bush! And when it's gone black, it makes the best fire-starter, better than dryer lint!" Being there in my home landscape, especially after being away from home for another extended stretch, reminded me how grateful I was to him for teaching me how to live. I thought of the forest there, the plants growing, the labrador tea and the cat-tails and the marsh marigolds, lemon lichen and the soft spruce buds eaten by the young deer (and a small Jenanne, learning how to survive in the bush). I thought of how he had shown me how to fish in the creek, in the lake, and through the ice hole, to remove the hooks from the fish's mouth so as to prevent bleeding, to place the fish you wouldn't take back in the water carefully so it wouldn't be too disoriented, and watch it to make sure it could swim away (if it couldn't, you'd give it a gentle poke); I thought about learning  to clean a fish, make it ready for eating, and felt very grateful he'd taught me all this, that I could do this if I needed to. 

He had taught me how to be in these places I love so much. And it felt so good to place his body back here, let the ashes trail into the tiny currents, watch them swirl and settle amongst the slippery rocks.  To taste a little of the stream water, tannic and sweet. To let the smallest fragments free, without all those false trappings like coffins and embalments which spoke to him of holding on to something when it's really time to let go. It was calming, and peaceful, because it seemed like the best possible thing to do. It was right; it's where he'd want his body to lay, to let it nourish the algae and waterbugs, become the silty substrate where the greyling bury their eggs, and grind down into very stuff of sustenance, the earth. 

People have asked me if there is a feeling of closure-- no. Closure -- what is it to be closed? This is not over; it will never be over.  I read  this recently, in something by Judith Butler: 

"When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel as though we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.
It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only lose the lose, I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you?"
Loss does illuminate these ties between us, most sharply, in the case of death, and it forces us to think about our interconnections, because it is through that loss that we understand something of what makes our selves. 

Through experiencing the death of my baba/grandma, and my father, I've come to understand that though there is a loss that can never be assuaged, there is a process by which these ties we have with the dead are reconfigured. It's difficult. Partly, I think, because we are so used to thinking of ourselves as 'I', and ignoring all these little spider-silk connections between us, usually invisible except in the right light. But they're there, and they are strong, and death just forces us to rethink our relationships, these connections between us. 

I don't believe in God, or god(s), nothing anthropomorphic or omniscient or all-benevolent. No heavenly afterlife. I am not really sure what I believe in, if I 'believe' in anything; I have only what I have experienced. I do feel very strongly about being interconnected with absolutely everything else in existence; there's that. And that dying is not a destruction, but a de-creation in Simone Weil's sense of it -- "an undoing of the creature in us", a loss of the self. Visiting the bodies of my grandma and my dad just after they died, I felt something, the aftermath of their passing, and though I felt such acute loss, it was also transformative. I felt I knew something then that I cannot even begin to articulate. I felt that there was movement, that there was really no stillness in death. And so I don't believe in inertia, that anything can just stop; their selves are becoming something else just as their bodies are slowly transforming into earth.

We've lost them as we knew them, and we'll never know them again as we did. And that loss is the most painful thing I know, because it de-constructs some of my self, as well. But I like to think about transformation, or de-formation, and that perhaps the death and de-formation of the self allows a kind of connectivity with all the other things that we don't yet know, as divisible, created beings that we are. And it's not always a comfort, it doesn't always make up for the feelings of loss, but I know that I will come to understand my own self again, as I re-form my relationships with the dead, live in memory of them. 

Nothing is closed; our connections are always open, ever re-connecting. Everything moving. Before we leave I sit there on the rocks with him, think of the chalky ashes whirling, becoming the flash of an arctic greyling's dorsal fin, slipping downstream. This is my dad now, everything. And here he is now, as Windfall Creek.

Monday, August 27, 2012

one year.

Sky breaking over the Wind Tower, Canmore, January 2012

"Mourning: not diminished, not subject to erosion, to time. 
Chaotic, erratic: moments (of distress, of love, of life) as fresh now as on the first day"
Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary.


My dad passed away exactly one year ago today. It was unexpected, in that although he was in hospital and had been suffering from myeloma for at least six years, the day before we'd heard that whatever was affecting his heart and liver was not amyloidosis! More intravenous chemo! they said. He'd be an outpatient again soon. And I'd see him again the next morning, that he wasn't waving goodbye to me for the last time. That I would speak to him again the next day, and he would answer me.  Instead, I would be woken early to go stand over him after he was  already gone, his head turned to the door, eyes partly open, and begin the long one-sided conversation of grieving. 

That is the most difficult part. To never have an answer in words, in the only language you've ever used with him now utterly insufficient, completely useless. To want to share so deeply with him everything I am experiencing, and feel my heart burst every single time it happens and I remember it's not possible. It's happened so many times over the past year -- I live, feel joy and awe with the world, discover something, and want so deeply to tell him, because that is what he did with me. He shared so much of what he loved with me, and I can't even begin to explain this inheritance and how it has shaped me. If it was my mother who has taught me to love words and things you can do with them, it's my dad who helped me to really approach the world, to experience it profoundly and make me want to use those words for something. Ironic for someone who was never much for poetry, yes, but it's his, that quiet, ever-open eye and mind he helped to train in me, that I use when I capture the light, when I write.

There is such gratitude, thankfulness today, for him, because I am lucky to have him as a father, to have had him in my life. But there is still grief. There always will be. Such things can co-exist, even in the pain the grieving brings. I just wish that the society I live in could better openly acknowledge grief, and recognize that it is not just something to 'get over', that whatever way it works (in spirals, a tidal movement) it is anything but linear. There is no wound to heal over with the supposedly magical powers of time -- rather it is one that simply changes shape and form, but always remains susceptible to itching, re-opening, flarings, bleeding and acute, intense pain at any stage. Like, as one friend astutely noted, the fragments of glass embedded in skin after a car crash, that work their way up through the dermal layers for years, precipitating on the surface. Or the nematocysts injected into the body after a jellyfish sting (as I well know) that can become inflamed long after the initial encounter as they wriggle up out of the flesh. It never really gets better, only different. 

The last few weeks I've been travelling, and a few days ago I started to cry at the remains of the Berlin Wall because I felt, once again, that this is how it will always be, for the rest of my life -- that I will always be experiencing things and wishing he could be there to share them, or at least for me to tell him about them, show him my photos that he always loved, Maybe I will come to feel that he is part of me, living through me in the way I feel my baba is absorbed into me, that she is within me. But right now the fact is I don't feel that, and that he just feels slightly out of reach, and I am straining, straining to reach out to him, without words, with such inexpressible futility. I simply miss him so acutely it makes me physically ill at times. And it is this loss of discourse in these human terms, the only ones I know, that hurts so much. I can talk to him, yes, but oh, death and its lack of  responses, answers... 

So I just remind myself that I am allowed to miss him, allowed to hurt, allowed to grieve, and most of all, allowed to express it. We may not be able to have dialogues (in our usual language-based human terms) with the dead, but if I had my way, we'd be living in a society that was a lot more comfortable having dialogues about grief and mourning and everything that will always be part of our experiences with death long after it happens to those we love.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


 Birthday dinner for my father by the mouth of the Don, Aberdeen, July 23, 2012
 Birthday offering and the quiet river mouth before sunset, July 23rd, 2012
 Sunset over the Don near the estuary, July 23, 2012

Water on the shore and the luminous sky, Aberdeen city beach, July 23, 2012

This past Monday was a difficult day; July 23rd would have been my dad’s 64th birthday. A few days previous, when talking with my mama, the Beatles’ song, When I’m 64, got annoyingly and depressingly lodged in my head, but I didn’t mention it to her, lest she suffer the same fate, and also because it would hurt her even more, for what would she not give to still have him there, growing old with her? 

My dad wasn’t the sort of person to get too caught up in birthdays. Unlike my mother, who likes to have her birthday dinner and presents on the actual anniversary of her birth, who takes great care in that sort of festive commemoration, my dad didn’t seem to mind if you gave him gifts on the day, or when the celebrations happened, or even if you weren’t there that day. He was quiet and laid-back, and being the centre of attention never appealed to him, so grand gestures were politely refused and festivities beyond a quiet dinner (usually involving barbecued things, pizza, chocolate desserts finished with a little rum or whisky) never really occurred.

I think my mama always had trouble accepting his lack of desire to mark the occasion. Rather mischievously, she poked fun at his reticence to observe this occasion. She never did anything like take out an ad in the newspaper proclaiming ‘Lordy lordy look who’s forty’ or have fifty vulture-statues skulking all over the front lawn. However, on July 23rd, 1988 forty black balloons adorned the garage door. (They popped in the heat of the early morning, causing him great alarm). In 1998, fifty colourful cut-out paper fish (courtesy of her grade three students) appeared dangling from tree branches on our front lawn. He took these all in stride, and I think he was secretly amused by her sneakiness. Nothing happened in 2008, but the next year when we were in Hawai’i for my sister’s wedding, we had dinner at a restaurant with an aquarium. If it was your birthday, a diver would swim into the massive tank to feed the fish while you were eating, and hold up a birthday sign adorned with lettuce and seaweed; all the manta rays and wrasses and triggerfish would then swim up and nibble the vegetables in your honour. Needless to say, he was most pleased with this one.

So his birthday—while never terribly important for him—feels probably more momentous for us. I’m finding it especially difficult because last year, his last birthday, in some ways was the most noticeable beginning of his severe decline in health.  I had arrived home from fieldwork shortly before, and would be away camping on the actual day, so I remember on the 21st planning to make homemade pizza for him, one of his favourite things that I cook. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for celebrations, he has never lacked an appreciation for a good meal, and being true to my maternal lineage, giving someone nourishment makes me happier than anything. So generally birthday gifts from me included dinner requests.

I made the pizza to his specifications, and it was so sad, he could hardly eat them. It upset him too. The next day he was too tired to come out to lunch with his mother, and his appetite was even more depleted. On his birthday, two days later, he slept most of the day. And though he’d certainly lost the desire to eat many times over the course of his treatment, this seemed different, more acute than other times. This was only a month and four days before he passed away. And it’s hard now, not to think about all the feelings of last summer, of witnessing all the suffering he went through and how it was really impossible to do anything to make him comfortable, to make him happy, to make anything a little easier for him. It’s also difficult for me to believe that it has almost been a year already since he left.

The seasickness of grief continues to come, sometimes when I might expect it, other times catching me fully unaware. This is fine with me. I need to, I want to grieve. I don’t suppose there will ever be a time when I won’t grieve for him; I still miss my grandmother, my baba, who passed away six and a half years ago now, and I think of her every single day, because she shaped me, and now she is in me, somehow, I can feel it. However, the grief with her was never as acute as it is for my dad, and one of the main reasons is that she was ready to die. She said so herself, she told us months before she was ever in the hospital; she told us she missed her own mother, she missed her husband, and she’d see them soon, because she wasn’t planning to live another winter. But my dad wasn’t ready to go at all, and for some reason now sometimes he seems further away. 

I still search for ways to explain to people that I am still grieving. I try to get over my resentment and frustration with people who just don’t get it, that grief is not a post-funerary sprint that’s intense but quickly over. It’s also not something to just ‘get it all out’ and then ‘get over’. I try to remind myself that the loss of very close people is something not everyone has faced and sometimes experience is the only way to understand. I try to restrain from punching someone in the nose/exchanging harsh words when they say (sometimes with kindness but other times with a weird sort of dismissal and condescension) something like: ‘it’ll get better in time’ or ‘time heals all wounds’ or another variation on that platitude.  Time has little to do with these feelings. I know that in time my grief will change, it will manifest itself differently and it will not necessarily feel as it does now, but I will never stop grieving. And I am not going to apologize for that.

A memory from last summer that is both incredibly painful and also immensely dear to me is the evening before the morning he died. We thought he was getting a little better, because for the past two days he had been able to eat a few bites of food, and drink a little more too. I’d helped him eat before, adjusting the straw in his glass, cutting things up for him over the past days, but there was something so striking, so shattering about that meal that I never realized would be his last: I was cutting up the chicken parmigiana into tiny little pieces, and he would open his mouth like a baby bird (or human, I suppose) and I would feed him each little bite as my heart just broke, thinking of how he fed me just like this when I was little. Here comes the airplane, into the hangar! I think I was shaking. I was so devastated, yet so profoundly grateful that I could help him—that he would allow me to help him—with this.  And he was eating! He ate more than he had for a week, I think, and he was so pleased, and so was I, and I promised him I’d come the next morning to help him with his lunch. But he passed early in the morning, and that was it. No more meals together. What I would not give to cook him something, share another dinner with him, what I would not give--

So his birthday this year – how do you celebrate with the dead? In the Ukrainian tradition, there are always graveside picnics, eggs and vodka, along with special favourites of the person you are honouring. But that wasn't my dad's heritage, and he never liked a huge celebration anyway. So out of respect for his character, there was no big party for this one, his 64th. But I went down to the ocean, to the mouth of the Don river where I could see the currents of freshwater streaming out as the ocean lapped in as the tide rose in dialogue. And I lit a candle, and left black licorice (the Pontefract cakes I'd always buy him at the sweet shop), and chocolate with almonds melting beside the flame. I had a dram of whisky in his honour, drank to him and shared it with the sea, then let the tears come. And this sharing of food with him was a nod to the lunchtime that day after that never happened after he passed. (Because I still need him, and I will still feed him, when he is 64.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

haar... (photos + poem)

I took all of the following photos one early morning in late May this year after a night of insomnia and heightened anxiety. The haar, the thick fog that rolls in off the North Sea, was permeating the 4:30am world as I went for a walk because I was claustrophobic inside, and too panic-y to be still. 

I walked down my street, over Broad Hill and down to the ocean, which I could not even see until I was right there, the tide high, waves reaching out for me. I heard a pair of ravens, distant starlings, the usual chorus of a hundred gulls, but otherwise it was only water, footsteps on sand and grit.

I am not a morning person; I am most alert and alive and creative in the hours between 7pm and 2am. Thoroughly an owl, not a lark. Often morning itself brings me terrible anxiety. But there was something so new and calming about this morning, empty of humans but for me, and the vast whiteness, of the sky and sea mixing their substances, rolling themselves out over the land. 

It felt like the very beginning of the world, and I was watching the land forming, as waves were receding, surging, shaping the shore. Gulls emerged, spectral. Sun burning a hole in the thick fabric, the limitless haar breathing and spreading, bringing life to everything. It felt so deeply calming, as if I could see everything as it was. Just tidal ebb, tidal flow. Simple, all the materials of the earth laid out before me. 

A wonder, to remember this is all we are made out of, that we all crawled up out of the sea, this sea-mind that dreamt us, assembled us, connected every atom of us. It calms me, to remember  that this is all we are. 


every morning the sea remembers
how the world began: there was
something it couldn’t touch with

the wet tendrils of its cerebrum, so it
reached out, cracked swirling and white
spilling from a grey heron’s egg.

every morning the sea becomes
the exhale of the sun on the ocean,
burns a breath-hole in the haar

that flows amongst the scatterings
of earth, befalls the land with its
thousand tiny fingerings in the folds

of every wave, recreates a memory
of how our lives began: a rolling
of broken mica, shell and stones

moulded together in the materializing
hands of the waves. on the shore, we
cobble ourselves together,

& every morning go forth
out of this, shapeless & nameless,
collecting our parts:


first, your lungs grown of knotted wrack
and rockweed, black tang of the first breathing.

the sea turns in you, thrown with the heave of the wave,
find your limbs hanging on a drifted tree.

now crawl out of this, make gestures like waking.
mouthful of air and water, the same substance,

like a heartbeat’s double voice, &
in your blood & spit the world is singing:

once you were this, & never only this

so move landward, quietly creeping:
the ghost crab’s memoried carapace,
the smeared flesh of a jellyfish

and the curved foreleg of a lamb’s quiet remains,
wool on the bones blowing in the wind.


does it frighten you, that
this is all there is?

a sea-sky & the land that
became of them, indifferent
to your meanings, to fervent belief.

does it frighten you, that
there is nothing to hold to?

out of the fog the waves stretch
and crumble in succession, a
never-ending grasping at the shore.

does it frighten you, that
there will never be any stillness?

it is all false, & we are in this. the
sea knows there is no horizon, no
heaven hidden past the soulka:

only ever-shifting rolling of the swell.

* soulka - in the Orkneys, esp. the island of Sanday, this refers to the ocean horizon, in particular where one starts to see the curvature of the earth 


somewhere out in the skyless
whiteness, dark water births
a sparkling: first, whitecaps

breath out spectral gulls, skimming
the surface as winged mirrors.
morning here is every morning, the

world turning into un-sleep, scattering
light over stonecrop and campion, rolling
glow into sand, into the bones of us

as we go crawling in, our raw hearts pulsing
as jellyfish in the tide-pools of the chest:
go out with the ebb now, as the gorse grows

flowing over the stones, bursts in yellow
over the folds of the land, a dark prickling
unfurling over stone, into starlings

spreading back into the whiteness
of the water indivisible 
and overtaken by the sky