Saturday, 23 September 2017

Hiraeth by Steve Gladwin

This month, to celebrate my two year anniversary as an abba blogger, (I know. Doesn’t it?) I’ve decided to do something different. For once I’m not going to waffle on but invite you, the reader, to use what follows as a reflection space. I hope that in doing so you will be able to find just a little bit of quiet in your every day and it might then encourage you to do more of the same and grab a few more opportunities than you usually do.

Before I do that however,  I need to talk about the Welsh concept of Hiraeth.
Hiraeth is one of those indefinable words – impossible to actually pin down and yet we know its essence when the word is both spoken and described to us. It is variously - longing, yearning, seeking or wishing to recapture someone or something which has gone. There are correlations with similar words and definitions in other languages, but being more of an instinctive person than a wikipedia one, I prefer to leave it to the individual. 

My own first experience of Hiraeth was rather an odd one. A few months before I moved from Somerset to Wales, I attended a friend’s book launch in Glastonbury. I bought a copy of his book and made like a fan so he could sign it. What he wrote in it was this.

‘Lift high the cup of Hiraeth.’

He doesn’t remember writing it, or where the inspiration to do so came from, but long before I knew the word, those few words of John's had managed to convey and even predict the future I would have when I moved here to Meifod and the beautiful Vyrnwy Valley – an ever changing web of inspiration and sadness, beauty and loss.

I love Wales and especially the place I live, but it is often hard. Sometimes that’s just how it is – the places we love are those that most challenge us. I remember standing by the bridge when I first arrived and wondering where the sadness I was feeling was coming from. When I found out about the concept of Hiraeth, it all began to make sense.

The myths and stories of Wales are full of sadness of course. In one of the most famous, the story of Branwen, Daughter of Lir, the second ‘branch’ of the collection called the Mabinogi, there is a famous sequence involving a singing head. Essentially, Bran’s disembodied head keeps the only seven survivors of a great battle both entertained and enchanted for over eighty years, until one of them Heiliyn Gwyn, opens the door to the West. In doing so he lets in not just the natural elements but the power and sadness of all the terrible memories that the enchantment has so far held at bay.

Perhaps there is nothing quite so sad as a good spell that has been prematurely broken, especially if the reasons for casting it in the first place have been kindly and therapeutic. We cannot unmake the past and our sadness no matter how much we might wish to. Only the arts are able to do this and perhaps in doing so, gift us with a therapeutic base on which to build our future. Literature is full of sadness and occasionally there are places where the sad and those not quite healed of their griefs and the horrors and traumas they have witnessed, can go. I wonder whether Tolkien was aware of the concept of Hiraeth because in The Grey Havens he surely provided a place where the ring bearers, as well as the retiring elves, might be able to escape from it.

And so much of music too, in all its forms and varieties, is about sadness, about relationships failing and unrequited love. At the beginning of the film of Nick Hornby’s, High Fidelity, Rob, the main character played by John Cusack, reflects on whether parents ever really understand just how dangerous it might be to allow their children to listen to all that stuff about love and death. The answer, I suppose, is that of course they do, as they probably did the same thing themselves.

Maybe there is something to be said for such a form of therapeutic sadness, exposing us all to the ideas from an early age through the eyes and minds of others, so that by the time we come to realise it for ourselves, we will be that much readier. And of course that's what you find in so many fairy and traditional tales, and why it is all the more vital that children continue to read and engage with them.

This time last year I posted about my partner and her on-going struggles and about how this connected with the futurelearn course I was doing on mental health in literature. I was very moved by the many responses, but even gladder to share people’s recommendations for poetry which reflected the many aspects of this, and how they felt. It was the power of poetry which on that one occasion most helped Rosie and which, I have read - time and time again – has done the same for others.

So here are a few pictures of the place where I live in Wales, and where the gift of Hiraeth is sometimes overwhelming.  Perhaps you can think of some lines of poetry which any of these images remind you of, or you might simply take the space to reflect on the idea of Hiraeth and maybe with it the places, people or memories which particularly tug at you.

Of course it might also encourage you to dig through your own photo collection and find the ones which most evoke such feelings and maybe some poetry which goes with it.  Thanks everyone for the last two years and I'm looking forward to more.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for all your very distinctive and interesting posts, Steve.

Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely photographs. And what a beautiful word and idea hiraeth is. Thanks for this post, Steve.

Joan Lennon said...

Lovely photos - thanks, Steve.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks all. Glad you've appreciated it all Sue. And Anne I've always been a sucker for something which is considered indefinable!