One of the things that I am committed to seeking is awe. That mysterious emotion we cannot chase but have to happen across. An emotion that stops us in our tracks, and forces us to step out of our own heads and let a sense of wow take over. And it isn’t always astonishing sunrises or other gifts from Mother Nature we all too often take for granted, but is instead, for me at least, found in the kind of talent that says hear me, see me, find yourself here, dare to be better now.
Awe for me has been found in Vivienne Westwood clothes, and Fay Weldon’s words (I still remember the rage quietly tucked in-between lines filled with the frustration of domesticity tucked between every line in Weldon’s short story, Weekend). Both women I found myself astonished by in my formative years and who in the past few weeks we have lost. It has been found on the intricate embroidery of a found piece of linen and the exhaustion written in the face of a Mother holding her child in front of a fire, in a painting that hangs at the top of the stairs in the Walker Art Gallery. I tasted it once in a glass of dessert wine a woman opened in her kitchen and offered to me with one perfect truffle, and felt it once lying next to a man who made it possible for me to spill my heart with the simplest of invitations to share my sorrow. A man for whom listening has now become his calling.
Awe is complicated and yet is so often reduced to that we are told we should be awed by. The common place of the awe-inspiring. The rote of confessing to being awe-struck by those considered to be top of their game. But I think awe is a personal business. An emotion we cannot buy into, but have to be possessed by. Something we never want to forget. Something we cannot take our eyes off. Play over and over again. Dig deeper to learn more about and to try to understand. And so it is with Hi Ren, a song by 27 year old performer Ren, I keep pausing my life to listen to. Awed by the twist of words, song, poetry and truth. Awed by the kind of astonishing talent that undoes me: forces me to listen, insists I examine what is being said and swallow it whole.
Most of you know that men’s mental health is something very close to my heart after my experience of living with and loving someone tortured by his own head. And in Hi Ren, there is the battle I saw played out daily between reason and self-destruction described with such raw passion, acceptance and rage, that the first time I saw it I had a little sob. That IS awe, because awe is power and Ren’s piece had the power to completely undo me, to remind me that the complexity of mental health isn’t necessarily something any of us can understand unless we are dragged right there in front of it, and the tangled seduction of those forces in the heads of those suffering, laid bare.
It is not often that I happen across something that appeals to all three generations of my family. But I played Hi Ren for both Finley and my Dad and both sat in awed silence too. Both muttering wow in the moments after it finished. For in this nine minute video there is an education, not least in the dissection of creativity Ren discusses (and which spoke loudly to Finn), but also because all three of us have been the students of psychological warfare Ren describes in the spoken word at the end of the song, watching someone we all loved rage against something we were helpless to guide him through, because the battle was always in his own head, an “eternal dance” I am quietly optimistic, that for his own sake, he is slowly learning the steps to all over again.
“When I was seventeen years old, I shouted out into an empty room, into a blank canvas that I would defeat the forces of evil
And for the next ten years of my life I suffered the consequences…
With autoimmunity, illness, and psychosis
As I got older, I realized there were no real winners and there were no real losers in psychological warfare
But there were victims and there were students
It wasn’t David versus Goliath, it was a pendulum
Eternally swaying from the dark to the light
And the more intensely that the light shone, the darker the shadow it casts
It was never really a battle for me to win, it was an eternal dance
And like a dance, the more rigid I became, the harder it got
The more I cursed my clumsy footsteps, the more I struggled
So I got older
And I learned to relax, and I learned to soften, and that dance got easier
It is this eternal dance that separates human beings from angels, from demons, from gods
And I must not forget, we must not forget, that we are human beings“
So yes. I am in awe. I think it is almost always talent that brings me to my knees, and there can be no doubt that Ren is a talented performer. But more than that, I am in awe of his capacity to rise again. To face the dance. And to tell his truth in all its ugly, raw misery, so that those who have experienced what he has, know that they are not alone, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and more than that, purpose in having a story that should be told, for story is how we human beings both grow and are born again and again. How we hold each other up.
May we all have the courage to tell our stories.