Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Helia Phoenix

Helia Phoenix | 16th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Helia Phoenix:

I am never satisfied.

When I sat down to write this reflection piece, I tried to think about what I had done this year. Here’s the mental stream that came to me, immediately:

You’ve done nothing, you’ve not been anywhere, you’re not seeing enough of your friends, you’re not completing enough creative work. All around you people are completing novels and publishing things and getting film scripts optioned and you’re just dicking around. When are you going to get your shit together and be a better artist?

I am an agitated and mentally itchy person, as you can see. When I flicked through my Instagram to try and work out exactly what I had done this year, I realised I started the year off travelling in Sri Lanka, and have also been to Ibiza and Ireland, as well having made many trips all over Wales. I’d been to Machynlleth Comedy / Green Man / Festival of Voice / Field Day / Swn / Good Life / Porthcawl Elvis festivals (in case you’re interested, the Porthcawl Elvis Festival beats all the others, hands down). I went to a 6am rave, made some short documentaries for the BBC (about the 6am rave, a stilt walker from Bristol, and about a tortoise sanctuary), saw Patti Smith twice (one show live and electric, one show of spoken word), volunteered with possibly the smallest TEDx event in the world, saw Meghan Markle’s jeans at close quarters when the Royals visited Cardiff Castle earlier this year, and lectured and gave talks to students (and generally interested peoples) about music journalism, tourism in Wales, branding, and the power of stories. The rule is that how ever much you achieve, you’ll never silence the streams of self abuse, or and the misremembering. You just gotta ignore them.

Drinking tea in the clouds in Ella, Sri Lanka

In either In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl or Dial M for Merthyr (I forget which, but why don’t you seek them both out, they’re worth reading), Rachel Tresize says that writers never get a day off – even a shopping list becomes a source of inspiration that starts a story. That resonated with me a lot. I’ve been trying to focus more energy on fewer things, but my spare minutes are hijacked by thoughts of stories I must write, a great idea for a screenplay, an interesting concept for character development that needs exploring. My brain doesn’t ever give me space to think about the things I’ve done, or what I’ve achieved. I’m never allowed five minutes to enjoy any successes – instead I’m propelled forwards by a powerful and unrelenting force that I don’t understand and is impossible to control. (Its name, in my case at least, is ADHD, and since it’s had a name, I’ve stopped worrying about it and just accepted this is how my brain works. I have to work to stop it controlling me. It’s a fight, every day).

Talacre – one of my favourite beaches, in the north east corner of Wales

I’ve realised now that I don’t need to act on every single idea that comes into my head (and there are hundreds, all the time, even now, as I write this). This has been my curse, all my life. I say yes to things, I even initiate things myself, and either lose interest and have projects trail off or get trapped doing things I’m deadly bored of. There’s the novel I’ve finished, but have little fire to get published (it’s 90k words, and it’s written already, isn’t that enough?). All the half-finished film scripts, the poetry, the flash fiction. The sketched out book of short stories about trees with bones for branches and stripjoints where chimera gyrate for ghostly sailors. The plan for the novella about the man from Merthyr who has spent his life running from his past, only to have to face it in a treasure hunt for century-old trees dotted around the Welsh countryside.

I’ve been trying to get better at focusing and maintaining my interest in things in a more controlled way for longer – but unless someone’s invented a magic potion that cures ADHD that’s essentially impossible – and so instead I’m trying to control that impulse that says yes to everything, and focus on smaller projects that I can complete easily and within a short period of time.

And if you want an example of how well that “finishing shorter projects” mantra is working, I recently finished writing a piece about the Emporium – a nightclub in Cardiff that closed in 2004 and has remained empty since then. (Sounds good, obviously in terms of finishing things, except I started writing that in 2011. My steps are small, but at least they’re in the right direction).

The Emporium piece was published on We Are Cardiff, a website I’ve been running in my spare time since 2010. I set it up initially with some friends to share alternative news, pen portraits of people from Cardiff – different things than you see in the mainstream media. I’ve been through a lot of phases with it – handed it overs to other to run, grabbed it back from them. Earlier this year I got a small grant from UnLtd to turn it into a social enterprise, to turn it into a training platform for people from minorities underrepresented in the media to create content on their communities and become better skilled communicators. This has been a lot harder than I initially anticipated, especially because I just work on We Are Cardiff in my spare time, but at least I’m trying, hey.

The other thing that has come out of 2018 for me has been a return to good mental health. I had a mini nervous breakdown in 2016, and it’s taken me a long time to put myself back together after that, or even to know really how to talk about. One of my favourite things to come out of that period was a new addition to the family, who came from my newfound routine of walking. I was walking a lot and wanted someone to walk with – she ended up being a retired racing greyhound, rescued from Cardiff Dogs Home in 2017.

Her racing name was Skywalker Candy – renamed Zelda when she came to live with us

As I write this reflection on the year that has passed, I’m aware that Zelda is watching me. Those huge, brown, Disney eyes, as she lies in her bed, and stares at me, as she often does, while I sit, staring into this portable screen, pummelling the keyboard of my laptop.

A reflection of this past year is necessarily a reflection of my journey with this animal, because at the start of October this year, almost a year to the day that she came into my life, she was involved in a freak accident which left her with an exploded disc in her back, two fractured vertebrae, two fractured ribs, and paralyzed from the waist backwards.

Over the days and weeks that followed the accident, through two different surgeries, the implanting of a metal plate in her spine, I prepared myself to have to euthanise her, over, and over again. It was a horrible period of time, where I alternated between feeling like I was having my guts ripped out of me via my throat and feeling like the ground underneath me had disappeared and I was free falling into the centre of the earth.

Zelda, on her stretcher on the way to the hospital

If you’re not a dog (or pet) person, you won’t understand what I’m talking about, but presumably you’re a people person, in which case I’ll say it’s equivalent to losing a best friend or a close sister or brother. Only more than that. I’ve always found there to be something incomprehensibly spiritual about having a connection to an animal.

Fast forward in time, and we’re currently two months to the day since she had her accident. She’s back home, her tail and back legs have started moving again, and she can hold her own weight and stand up on all four legs for ages. She’s regained some bladder control, and although we are still taking in turns to sleep downstairs so we can turn her regularly (to avoid bedsores) and clean up any night time accidents, she is doing really well. She is going to a physio ‘bootcamp’ a couple of times a week, where she goes on a treadmill, gets acupuncture and massage, and goes through a routine of stretching and strengthening exercises. Our physios are pleased with her, and think she is going to make a full recovery.

I’ve learned a lot of things through this period – and it’s by no means over. They think it will take six months before she can walk again properly, and we’re only just at the end of month two.

I’ve learned to really appreciate the basics – in between working full-time and then spending every second of my home life looking after this member of our family. I’ve learned new levels of joy at the first sip of a hot cup of tea after you’ve spent an hour cleaning dog shit up off sheets and off your dog. Marvelling at how quickly a microwave can make leftovers seem gourmet, after you’ve been outside on the pavement doing stretching exercises on your dog and getting intermittently showered with dog wee.

My usual evening and weekend routine has involved getting home from work and then getting into my own personal projects and tasks – whatever other stuff I’m working on, a mixture of freelance jobs and my own creative things. But I’ve been so tired that I’ve had to put everything on hold or just say no (for the time being). This has left me space for things I could never find time for before. I’ve recently brought one of my old DJing record decks out of retirement and set it up in the living room, to listen to records. I’ve started watching TV programmes and films I’ve been meaning to see for ages.

And there’s nothing I can do about being in this current state. I’m too tired for most things, and that’s a great excuse for not taking on anything new, and has given me a sense of what’s really important to me – like listening to music, and enjoying great storytelling in films. Exercise is important, but the weather is too horrible to walk (and without a walking buddy, it feels lonely) – so I’ve started swimming again. There’s something beautifully freeing about splashing around in the water.

When you’ve only got so much pie, you’ve got to be careful how you slice it.

There’s a famous quote by Victor Frankl that I heard for the first time recently:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

That’s always something I’ve struggled with – making space between my impulses and my actions. At the moment, that space has been added forcibly by my greyhound. I’m trying to remember what it feels like for when she recovers and I’m left to my own devices again!

I’ll leave you with a list of books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, and also with a wish for a happy and peaceful 2019 for everyone out there.

  • Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
  • Clubbed: A Visual History of UK Club Culture
  • The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Bred Backstage (Roxana Shirazi)
  • The Art of Travel
  • Miami (Joan Didion)
  • The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
  • Burning Man: Art on Fire