The first time I heard those words was an early morning, in our dimly lit room. The words were spoken by my roommate, who is also a fan of Sylvia’s work. The line “Is there no way out of the mind” got stuck in my head. It expressed the mess of her thoughts and the conflict inside her.
A tale of growth and oaks.
Apprehensions by Sylvia Plath
There is this white wall, above which the sky creates itself —
Infinite, green, utterly untouchable.
Angels swim in it, and the stars, in indifference also.
They are my medium.
The sun dissolves on this wall, bleeding its lights.
A grey wall now, clawed and bloody.
Is there no way out of the mind?
Steps at my back spiral into a well.
There are no trees or birds in this world,
There is only sourness.
This red wall winces continually:
A red fist, opening and closing,
Two grey, papery bags-
This is what I am made of, this, and a terror
Of being wheeled off under crosses and rain of pietas.
On a black wall, unidentifiable birds
Swivel their heads and cry.
There is no talk of immorality among these!
Cold blanks approach us:
They move in a hurry.
I was living in a bubble of terror until that bubble became the very material I was made of.
The evening has come and while writing these words, I recall a day some months ago. I do this very often, nowadays. The day I recall took place a few months prior to the morning we were reading Sylvia Plath. I had the same hair, only a few centimeters shorter, and I had the same face. I sounded the same. I looked the same. I laughed and walked the same.
But that’s from the outside.
On the inside, I was living my worst nightmare. For every second of any day. I was living with a monster, and I called it anxiety. It came out of nowhere one day, a couple of years ago. It usually went away after a couple of minutes, but it always came back. Every time it stayed a bit longer.
As time passed by, the visits became more frequent. Until it stayed for good. My new friend was always with me. Even though it became my friend, it didn’t make sense for it to be there. An uninvited friend who makes things lose their meaning. That’s what it really was.
I was living in a bubble of terror until that bubble became the very material I was made of. My emotions seemed devoid of color and nuance. Everything was covered, hidden and wrapped in fear. Sometimes I couldn’t even move my muscles. Other times, I couldn’t calm them down since they were always wanting to be moving and moving. And so I started to work on my new best friend. Until it exhausted me and I couldn’t work or do anything about it. I couldn’t work on anything else anymore.
The small house, dubbed the “Oak House” by the villagers living nearby, was my destination when we flew to Rome, Italy, on May 30. It was named as such because of the large oak tree rising high in the middle of the dusty front yard.
This was an exchange between the organization I work at and our partner, an italian organization called “Artemide.” Later, I found out that their name is derived from the Ancient Greek name “Artemis,” which in Greek Mythology represents the goddess of light. This house would become the source of my light for the next months.
The first thing I noticed was the scent of this house. It reminded me of unwashed clothes and natural smells and of a place not so often cleaned. Yet, it was the most calming, relaxing and natural smell I’d ever encountered. The whole place looked like something my mother would hate. But even she wouldn’t be able to deny the coziness and the homeyness of this place.
The smiling faces and the big eyes filled with love and acceptance of the people, even though I was seeing them for the very first time, wrecked all my preconceived notions of an “accepting” mindset. It blew me away.
These people used their voices to express their thoughts, but never to hide their emotions. They used their words to express novelty even in the most used expressions, to express wonder and curiosity even when talking about the simplest things, to express deep understanding even when saying a simple “Thank you.”
They looked at me and saw through me. I felt naked and alone, abandoned and left without any weapon to fight with.
I couldn’t sleep. I never slept more than three hours. Not during the night, and not during the day.
I couldn’t eat. No matter how tasty all the pasta was and how many different types of cheese we tried, and no matter the fact that they made my favorite, bruschetta, in the best version that I had ever tasted, I still didn’t eat much. When I came back, I noticed that I had lost a few kilos.
I was carrying within me the secret of the Oak House and no one would ever need to know about it.
I didn’t cry. No matter how sad it got. And trust me, it got really sad. We were all coming from different countries of Europe that currently were, or used to be, in conflict with other countries. And we had to share our stories! So you can only imagine how many tear worthy stories were told.
In compensation, I screamed and laughed my heart out, I danced silly, I acted silly and sang silly songs in a silly way. I wasn’t trying. Despite this, I judged myself. I observed myself and told myself: “Don’t. Act normal. Act like the others.” I was wrong.
However, I didn’t understand. Every little thing was new. The approach, the warmth, the methods, the depth, the humanity, the tribe effect, the music, the biorhythm. Everything.
It took me a while. It took me several days after I came back. It started in the train leaving the Oak House, where I felt as if I was leaving a big part of myself behind. I felt like I was heading in the opposite direction of where I was supposed to.
And I still couldn’t cry, despite the fact that I felt like the loneliest creature in the world. At the same time, I felt happy and blessed. I was carrying within me the secret of the Oak House and no one would ever need to know about it. It was my experience and my experience only, and only I had in my heart what I had in that moment. Pure love. The first seed of transformation.
I fell in love.
I fell in love. In the most unexpected place with the most unexpected person and in the most unexpected way. I didn’t even dare to call it “love” in the moment it happened, or during the days that it happened, or even months later. I was too scared and thought of myself as too tiny to deserve to experience such strong emotions.
But now, I do. Because I did. I fell in love. Period.
I felt proud.
I got encouraged to raise my voice, to get my chin up, speak my mind, and be proud of my heritage and my suffering.
It was in the Oak House, strangely enough, that I for the first time in my life was proud of what my people went through.
Coming from Kosovo sometimes means that when in a room full of internationals, you feel less important and almost like a bug annoyingly buzzing around the strange faces. They all heard stories about the war that happened in my country and I have the feeling that people are tired of hearing about it. Only because I’ve been hearing a lot about it.
And no matter how many times we hear that word or talk about it, the wound is still open and still hurts. That’s because we only touch the surface of it, never the wound itself. As for medicine, we make sure that we stay very far away from it.
But it was in the Oak House, strangely enough, that I for the first time in my life was proud of what my people went through. It was the first time that I saw the collective pain as the root of our growth, not just the root of our issues. I felt accepted not only as the person I am, but also for the people I represent and for the culture that I bring with me.
I got applauded for my art.
For years I sang, performed, and played my guitar on different occasions and for many people. I’ve been called “a potential” for a good part of my life. And for some time, I stopped being just that. It was the time in which I changed how I sounded and what I wanted to say through my art. I didn’t even call what I did “art.”
People from the Oak House heard me loud and clear, and they fell in love back. They applauded me, cried with me, and laughed with me. They saw me for who I was, and I got totally blinded by the reflection of their souls in the emotional state of listening to me. I never thought that people would like my music that much. For the first time, I didn’t feel alone artistically.
They legitimized pain.
One of the perks of growing up in a post-war country that once was a socialist-Yugoslav country was that my parents didn’t really talk about emotions, pain or trauma.
We got through the war, and with high hopes for better days, we tackled the future. Only, we didn’t see the trauma creeping up. The same trauma began centuries ago. But no one did anything about it. We didn’t talk about it.
We just swept it under the pretty rugs we could find to decorate our houses and never encountered it. Even if we did, we talked with other people, strangers rather than anyone dear to us.
Now you can only imagine how many parents and family members have no idea what their kids go through, or how many kids are unable to imagine what their parents are experiencing. We all appear tough because this is our way of protecting others. Somehow, showing any sign of pain is equal to inflicting pain onto others.
This way of living was so unique and so beautiful, it made me rethink every little thing I was doing and how I consumed and lived my life daily.
Not in the Oak House.
In there, everyone was hurting. Everybody carried their pain and everybody worshipped their pain in the most cultish ways. We were told that in order to transform, human beings experience pain and that change itself is painful. Pain in their eyes was there to be felt not just as a regular human emotion, but as a crucial factor necessary to blossom.
They respected the environment.
You know those quotes that we all see and read everywhere, like: “We don’t have a planet B,” or “We only have one home” or these very cheesy, but very valid quotes that are all over the internet?
These guys didn’t talk like this. They lived those sort of quotes. Each and every one of them was the living human version of any “protect the environment” call you could have heard.
Not only that. They also talked and walked like they really were indebted to the Earth, just for being born on it. They consumed as little water as they could and burned as little wood as they could. They even warmed their water by themselves. They grew their own vegetables. They cooked and ate only seasonal food.
This way of living was so unique and so beautiful, it made me rethink every little thing I was doing and how I consumed and lived my life daily.
They even sang songs to the Earth, which impressed me a lot. I couldn’t stop listening to them. The lessons I got from those days, I took with me and never let my water run down the sink while I was doing something else. I even started to reduce the number of showers I took. Apparently, human beings don’t really need to shower that much anyway.
They were all animal lovers.
When I say that they loved animals, I mean that they had many friends who were animals. And when I say friends, I mean it in the real sense of the word. They were close friends with one another and shared everything with them.
They respected them as equal creatures who both deserve attention and the goods of our planet. They took their time and gave the space to co-exist not just with everyone, but with everything. Simply observing these relationships has taught me a lot. It surpassed all forms of commitment I have ever encountered.
They lived their words.
Another thing that blew my mind was the fact that they never seemed to lie, hide, or distort reality just because you were a participant and they were the organizers responsible for the training.
They were open and calm, especially in dealing with ad hoc situations. Most importantly, when they said that something was going to happen, that thing did indeed happen. When it didn’t, we got an honest explanation later as to why that thing didn’t happen.
The only rule was: you talk your mind and you don't pretend to be somebody else.
They didn’t work — they lived. They didn’t use informal methods — they lived informally. They didn’t teach us theater — they lived in theater and for theater. They didn’t demand respect — they gave respect to everyone and everything. We never talked about our shared values and they didn’t try to convince us that those values were the right ones. They just continue to live like they did before we got there.
What’s more important, they would certainly continue to live like that for a long time after we were gone. Whoever had it easier to adapt and adjust, had the time of their life. But after some days, everybody adapted and adjusted and became part of the tribe. Just like they said we would.
They fought for others who couldn’t.
During our stay, we touched upon so many topics that are so under-discussed in so many ways that it broke my heart even talking about them. They invested so much in creating a safe space for everyone that we just had to surrender and become part of the discussion. No thoughts were rejected.
The only rule was: you talk your mind and you don’t pretend to be somebody else.
Topics like racism, discrimination, hatred, aggression, conflict, power, gender roles, women’s and LGTBQI+ rights and so many other things were discussed in the most open atmosphere I had ever been a part of. I could only go back painfully to my hometown memories where every time I tried to open up a similar discussion, I ended up in tears due to the anger that other people’s words and opinions made me feel.
The best thing about this was that they inspired us to become warriors and to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. They saw the world through a perspective of complicated layers and they understood the ugly politics that caused the ugly reality.
Although this understanding was present, they didn’t absolve themselves of their responsibility. On the contrary, they saw everyone and everything as part of the problem and the suffering. This holistic and multidimensional approach, combined with their action-centered methods, was also a reason for which I loved these people so much. They just seemed to get it!
They didn’t fuck with the inferiority/superiority bullshit.
One of the smartest minds I have read about, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, called this the “theory of power,” which theorizes that people have a need to place themselves into one of two major positions, such as powerful or powerless. This almighty power play is ingrained in the deepest part of our social construct.
I saw myself ruling my own empire and I dreamt that someday I would be able to resist the temptation of placing myself onto the power scale.
In our natural habitat, we tend to deal with these positions very often, and our self-significance is wrongfully correlated with where we place ourselves. The negative aspect of this is that for these positions to exist, whether superiority or inferiority, we need other people to compare ourselves to. This keeps us constantly comparing ourselves to others and positioning ourselves accordingly and by default, this process makes us acutely aware of our social surroundings.
While we are all fighting with others — and sometimes with ourselves — in order for us to feel better about who we are, right now as we speak the world is inhabited by some people who couldn’t care less about this whole dynamic.
Not because they think of themselves as too good for the process, but because they don’t even know how to compare anyone to anyone else. The people I met in this green paradise understood that each and every human being has their own empire in which they rule, and that they can be compared to no one.
For someone who has been observing and punishing herself psychologically whenever she caught herself comparing herself to others, others to herself and others to others, I saw what happened and understood it immediately, because I had been searching for it within myself. Seeing that other people could actually achieve it, taught me that I could too.
After a while, seemingly, mindlessly, just as easily as one goes to sleep, I saw myself ruling my own empire and I dreamt that someday I would be able to resist the temptation of placing myself onto the power scale. Why should I even conform? It won’t kill me after all. Even better, it will free me.
I got my heart broken.
Remember when I said at the beginning that I fell in love? Well, that same wonderful person broke my heart. Months later, I found myself weeping as hard as I was smiling when I bloomed from within.
The heartbreak didn’t just bring me pain in a red package with tiny broken hearts drawn on it, it also brought memories, discovery, art, acceptance and admiration for that same pain. A process that starts outwards with the focus on another human being is apparently doomed to end with the focus turned inward, on oneself. And that is a beautiful doom to experience indeed.
It redefined the concept of ‘home.’
After the designated number of days we stayed in the Oak House, I got what I wanted. I got home. I wanted to go home even before leaving. The difference was that when I got back, it didn’t feel like home anymore.
Your roots aren't the place where you belong, nor the place where you should grow your fruits out to the world.
Because what’s home after all? The house you were born in? The family you were born to and the people who raised you? The loves that made you open your eyes and then broke you to the core? The people who whisper and look strangely at you? The infected and greedy system that keeps stealing from you?
Or the leaves and the trees and the mountains that are the only spacious things in the cage in which you pretend to be free? Or the touch of a mother, the hug of a kid or the smile of the old neighbor when you say “Mornin’?” Maybe it’s the ripped knees on sizzling days and the temporarily “not-talking-to-each-other” with your bestie?
Home is not your roots. And roots aren’t there to hold you back. They’re there to feed you and back you up and is the place where the fuel is kept safe, so that whenever you’re in need, you can always find some there.
Your roots aren’t the place where you belong, nor the place where you should grow your fruits out to the world. Most certainly, they aren’t the truest reflection neither of your past nor of your present. You are part of the world, and no matter where you come from, you belong only to yourself! Home is you and whatever you decide to define you.
I became a better friend.
After I got back and started my new life, I couldn’t help but notice one thing. It was more than obvious that I had started to miss the people of the Oak House almost at the very moment I came back. I kept thinking about them and told everybody I met and hung out with everything I could put into words about each and every individual that I met in that magical house.
The energy that flowed out of my body while I was talking and describing the whole experience was so obvious and strong that people couldn’t deny it. The same energy made me see them in a different light too. Taking the example of what was served to me in that strange place, I understood that the only way we as human beings can mature and progress is by bringing others with us.
And by doing so we don’t judge or hide their flaws or try to make them into better people. That is simply not our task.
We see them, but for this, we have to open our eyes. We hear them, but for this, we have to listen closely to every word they speak. We feel them, but for this, we have to be able to recognize their pain as legitimate, not as an excuse for their inability or their failures. We touch them, but for this, we have to be ready to meet rough surfaces colored with different nuances. We are them, as chaotic, hurt, surprising and ambivalent as we feel ourselves to be.
Now, I am taking my time to be just that to the people who live with me and are close to me. I want to be a better, deeper, more emotionally aware friend. Someone who enables others to grow and to let go of what they think holds them back.
My mental health is a part of me, and the difficulties I face aren't the whole me.
The people that I am surrounding myself with have to believe that change is possible and that it comes from within. When they do, I can only imagine the coalition that would be formed!
At the end of the day, this is the purpose of the whole traveling experience, isn’t it? To let go of ourselves and to find new possibilities. By reaching the “end of the world,” I taught myself that my fears don’t define me. My scars don’t define me either.
People around us may demand from you and me an explanation or a label and so many roles, requiring certain actions and beliefs. But I don’t demand anything from you. As I demand nothing from myself either. I learned how to be the “Quercia” (Oak) to my own self.
And while I write these words, which I’ve started to put on paper months ago, almost in a whisper I promise to myself that I won’t ever again place the old labels back on myself.
My mental health is a part of me, and the difficulties I face aren’t the whole me. What’s more important, these difficulties add one more nuance to me that I am so blessed to carry every day. If I didn’t carry it, I would walk around people in pain while being unable to see them or fall in love with them. What a shame — to live, but not to feel!
A year later, the green of the place I share with these people walking around absent-mindedly has never looked greener nor brighter. Still, it isn’t nearly close to the green of the Oak House.
The air doesn’t feel like the air up on the oak tree. The faces I see aren’t the same and I can’t tell the last time they shed tears. However, what I can tell is that they cry, and when they do, they hide their tears.
No one is as brave as to face their monsters and tell them to fuck off. They smell good, and they look good, but they sound awful. Even though I have a lot in common with them, I am not absent-minded.
Yet, I am not as brave as I would like to be. I am still tiny, only a bit wiser. I am still scared, but not numb. I am still sad, but not crushed. I am alive and the message I have been repeating to myself for months now is the same message that they shared with me: “Everything we get in life makes us fascinating, strong, and desirable. Just like you are!”
Feature: Justin Fitzpatrick / Creative Commons CC.