Delving deeper into something I spoke about on Instagram a few days ago, I wanted to talk about death, decay, and impermanence. This time of year presents us with a time to withdraw, reflect, and manifest – and I finally feel like I have embraced that this year.
As someone with anxiety and OCD, I am often living in the future and have always struggled to be present – practically every possible distraction has to be taken away to even give me a chance. My mind goes at 100 miles an hour and a lot of the time, I’m just trying to get to the next goal post – the next thing that will make me happy, or the next thing ticked off the list that I think will make me feel more complete. I focus so much on the future, on just getting to the next thing.
I think living in a state of constant waiting, planning, makes me feel like I am in control. And that soothes my worries. But this year has really thrown me off my usual course. No one could have predicted 2020 would bring us something that meant we couldn’t hug our loved ones, travel, or go to the cinema and that face masks would be the norm. It makes me anxious every time I go into the supermarket and all I see is a sea of worried top halves of faces – and none of this I can control, as hard as I might try. I have been forced to accept that I cannot control the future and definitely cannot rely on it with any certainty. I have also just bought my first home with someone I really love, and for the first time ever I feel really secure about the future rather than uncertain. These things combined have meant I have stopped worrying so much about what the future holds and reverted fully to my more nostalgic side, which has certainly always been present but has really taken the reins lately.
As I could no longer look forward to anything for sure, I looked back. As a very sentimental person, I latched onto childhood memories and happy times from previous years; I could gain some form of control and certainty reliving those because they had already happened and could not be changed. But I soon realised my brain was disguising these memories as comforting; they quickly stopped bringing me joy and instead made me sad because of the passing of time. I started to feel like I took them all for granted, and ended up in a mental spiral as damaging as trying to control the future. I became completely obsessed with death.
My family has always joked that I’m a goth at heart because I was a bit obsessed with death at a really young age. I happily watched Nosferatu alone aged 6 and I vividly remember crying to my mum around a similar age because I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that we all die one day (bleak for a kid, I know). When I was 3, my grandma died. I was very aware of the whole process and we even had her funeral in our garden where she is buried. That funeral is one of my earliest memories. I have grown up with the knowledge that she is still there with us in what used to be her magical garden, and it has comforted me throughout life. But I think understanding death at such a young age had quite an impact on me and this understanding developed into fear. I think being such an emotional and vocal person means I really struggle to even comprehend not being able to think anymore or talk to people I love. The idea that it will all be gone – that I will have no idea I was ever even alive. That fucking scares me.
I managed to leave this overwhelming feeling behind for a lot of my growing up, but this year it came back with a vengeance. I surrendered to depression (which hadn’t happened for years), I couldn’t read a book without thinking about it, I dreamt about it most nights. I’d find myself halfway through a film not having a single clue what was going on because my mind had run away with the thought that no one in the room would remember that shared experience forever. And yet, at the heart of my beliefs, I know that part of the magic of life is its impermanence. We are so insignificant, and that is a beautiful thing. I just couldn’t quite translate those beliefs into my emotions.
But all of a sudden, something clicked. And I think it was always going to. On the exact same day at the end of October, both my mum and one of my best friends spoke to me about Samhain: a celebration of the beginning of Winter that has become overshadowed by Halloween. While I had heard about Samhain before, I had never truly listened. It marks the beginning of the “darker half” of the year, and this year, it helped me to greet the “darker half” of my brain with acceptance rather than gloom.
At what felt like poignant timing, we visited Westonbirt Arboretum near to where we live. I was struggling to remember details of this arboretum from lots of trips as a kid, but as soon as I crossed the bridge into the trees a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Not for a specific memory, but for the feeling that I had been there before. I knew if I tried harder I could unearth it and bask in childhood happiness. I breathed it in, but then let that memory lay dormant and instead took in my surroundings for what they were at that moment. Walking amongst our wise ancestors, so much bigger than me and so beautiful in the midst of decay, and being able to hear only the wind weaving through their leaves, I felt so connected to the earth around me and the importance of celebrating this time of year. The fact that their beautiful fiery fallen leaves will provide for other beings over the coming months made me feel almost ecstatic. I took my shoes off and squelched my bare feet in the mud and mulch, and silently thanked the Earth for looking after me; knowing that one day I will return to it.
Part of me feels like I am so full of love for other people, for nature, for life, that I will never be able to give it all, and that feels stifling. There is so much in this world to absorb and cherish and we will never have the time to do it all. Another part of me thinks this all just comes from a fear that I will never truly know myself before I run out of chances to figure it out. Whatever it is, this year, the turn of the seasons and Samhain have made me feel at peace with death and decay – something we are so quick to label as a bad thing. But it is peaceful, it is inevitable, and it is necessary for new life to bloom.