23.4.18 Passion flower leaf
The older you get, the harder it is to experience a singular grief. Instead, when loss comes again, it doesn't bring something solid and isolated, it brings you a Russian doll.
Feel grief and hidden within it, there are all your past losses, nestled. You feel this new layer and out the others pour, popping into their composite forms until you are sat surrounded by an eager, bleeding crowd of them. Grief is cumulative and to feel one is to feel a little of them all, renewed. This is what I am learning.
I found out that a friend had died. I sat in the garden and remembered him and tried to let all my dolls unpack around my grief for him and for his loved ones, companionably. I tried not to be afraid, to let them unravel through past loss and trauma and guilt, right down to the smallest parts of myself. They just wanted to be close to this thing they knew, that's all. They meant no harm. I tried to sit with all of them in peace, held together by this new layer which wasn't mine to claim as my property, but which I felt a piece of all the same. And I wept for a long time, in the high, safe walls where no one could see me and that was right and good.
Grief makes me feel more connected to other people than almost anything else. There is no single emotion we get to claim as solely ours, but I think grief may be the most shared, the most universal. I would hope love too, but that seems to be more fragile, less guaranteed. There is grief in that too.
I am always so aware that each of us takes turns at this, handing it round like so many boulders. It has always struck me that though we talk of loss, grief feels like an addition. Something is taken from you, but at the time, it feels like something added. Something weighty and hot and wide.
Through the times my arms are allowed to feel emptier of it, I know I will have to take my turn again. I have learnt not to despair in that. In my adult body, it feels newly right. It feels like a way to honour our humanity, our mortality, and I know I live more deeply and more lovingly for the knowledge of it. When life is lighter, it is often with the understanding that someone I love is taking their turn to grieve. When it's my turn, I can think of the light and free arms of others and be glad for them, and know that my heavy labour is not the only one. There is a peaceable balance to it, a companionship. So much in life is lonely, but grief doesn't need to be. You cannot experience it alone entirely - what you feel is shared by multitudes - and I find comfort in that.
As I grow, I can recognise its shape more and more in the people around me. It's like seeing something hand-shaped, it is that essential a noun. My human self thinks 'hand' and knows it, and understands it is linked to its own. I can press mine to its shape and though its size and form may differ, I will still feel a sense of fit, a recognition, and I think grief works the same way. I see yours and though it is not mine, I know something of it, enough of it, and I can be with you in that and that is something tender and miraculous.
It is so simple, really, and yet not simple at all. Something is gone, suddenly, devastatingly, and we fall into the gap it leaves, our universe's laws all broken, unreality no longer unreal, while all around us the world seems just the same, as if it didn't know a part of itself had pulled apart. How could we stay unchanged through that? How could we not be undone? When time itself becomes hard to grasp. When tenses knock against our teeth. He is? He was? That there should suddenly be a before and after, that we have always lived, drawing towards this. Was I? Will I be? I know it but I do not understand it. I expect I never will.
And in all this, we huddle together, each with our gaps, our boulders, our Russian dolls.
This is the beauty and the muddle and the pain of it, and humility cuts through it like a migraine because underneath it all, I know I still don't know grief as well as I will, one day.
For now, I stand. I water my sunflowers. I touch careful hands to those I love.
There is nothing else to do.
20.4.18 The planter in the corner
The sun has been a perfect surprise. I am writing in the garden with bare arms, letting my skin heat through. It has forgotten how to be warm so I am reminding it. Like this, you see? Like this. The garden smells of pink hyacinths and paperwhites, sweet and heavy with that undercurrent of secret decay. I am restless and can't stay in my seat for long. I rise to press my fingers softly to the compost I have smoothed into trays and pots and I find them warm too. I know the seeds they hide will be waking up soon, and I smile and leave them sleeping, like touching the rise of a back thrown clear of a duvet.
When I was a child, I would wander around our square garden on days like this trying to work out where it finished and I began. Because it was my home, and home was surely the same as me - I could hardly imagine us as separate things - but the garden had its own, murky edges and they weren't quite as safe as I felt they should be. They needed watching. Certain places made me shiver and I would stand tall to build up the little inner push that they needed, to be bolder, to go right to the edges of myself. The narrow side passage in deep shade, thick with shrubs that offered dirty hollows to crawl into, if you didn't mind the dim, dry compression of it. The space under the apple tree that smelled of rot and the stagnant water in the rain barrel. The gap between the garage and the fence, too small to squeeze down but visible enough to offer a long, forbidden corridor all the same, one to peer down, suspiciously because you couldn't quite see the end of it. Other places offered easier sanctuary and I was reassured by them. The greenhouse smelled always of tomatoes. The path wove always in the same display of curves and steps.
I have to tell you these things because we won't be here forever, you and I, either side of our screens. I have to tell you these things while I've got you. The miracle that we overlap like this, in time and space. Me here, you there. How deeply I appreciate it.
So, listen. Here and now, a blue tit is singing. A driver is leaning on his horn. A spider like a breadcrumb has fallen from my hat onto its back, and in three good kicks has turned and is scuttling down the highway of my lined page. I think its twin might be working its way down between my shoulder blades. I think I am brave enough to take some risks and start all over again. To leap off a hat and to test the edges of myself with nothing but belief in my own resilience and a deep breath - all of that. But that is another conversation.
I'd like to keep talking to you like this, if you'll stick around. I have so much to tell you.
18.4.18 Grape hyacinths, back garden
I have felt newly aware of my solitude recently. Suddenly, there is too much space - there is all this room around me. I find myself wishing for it to be filled, warmly and satisfyingly, like a belly is filled.
It makes me newly aware of my skin and how little connects with it. It is hard not to feel cold and small in this feeling of vastness. I get a little lost in it. It makes me want to collide with something bigger than me, something with pulse and vitality. I want to touch life and have it touch me back. To feel all joined up, somehow.
So, I drift. I sigh. I open the back door. And the garden welcomes me with patient, open arms and I step right into them.
There, I find it: that joining. My hands have work to do and there is a receiving of my labour, an acquiescence, a yielding that makes me feel whole and solid and seen. I sit on the dirty floor, abandon gloves and trowels, and push into the sticky compost like a midwife. I tip seeds, sleeping into my cupped palm and paw through them, selecting life, selecting futures, and the seeds do nothing but wait and trust.
There is such tender intimacy in it, such nurturing. Just as I would with anything else in my orbit, I attend to each thing with a careful, deliberate confidence and it feels good to let myself. The white clematis that will open ruffled rosettes in a month has grown into a tight knot, clutching desperately at itself with dry, hard tendrils. I trace the stems of it, running my fingers along its lines from the soil up to its highest shoots, under, over, through its tangle, seeing where to snip carefully, to draw individual vines apart. Under my gaze, it gradually starts to open, to open and loosen, until all its growth can be spread wide and tied to supports in expansive, grateful submission. It can breathe now, I can feel it, and I feel the worth course through me that I could minister to it.
I tease crowded seedlings apart too, pushing into the soil to make a nest for them, tucking their filaments down with sure hands, and I imagine them feeling safe. The bleeding heart holds up crystal balls of rainwater for me to peer into and bless, and last year's peonies tentatively try to grow again: red-faced, forgiven. The rose trusts me with my scissors to take what is needed from its over-eager shoots, to coax its shape from it. Things thought dead push new heads above the soil and I know their name. When the apple tree finally blossoms I know that there will be seven flowers in each cluster, although each is still clenched tight for now.
What an honour it is to get to hold the memory of something when it is not yet itself again, or has forgotten. I get to picture summer growth and make space for it. I get to hold each plant and living thing in perfect trust. I know what you are, I say, and, somehow, it knows me back. It is such a perfect alignment of love and need that I can hardly dare blink.
Here I can be myself. The garden welcomes my over-eager hands and my broken feet. I sit with it and soothe and tend and it does nothing but grow in response. It pours itself into the space around me until there are no gaps left to feel.
A wren is singing, bold and known and mine from the wild rose across the street. I can see it, even hidden where I am behind two walls because I know every breath of this place.
The cheek of me, I realise, to try and feel lonely in this. The brazen disrespect. I'm sorry, garden. I'm sorry. I gather it all in, and once again, for now at least, it is all, perfectly, enough.
He had come to me quietly, curtains still closed, all shadow. "Mummy?"
I have to swim through the last vestiges of sleep to find him. I gather his dark shape into my arms with a mumbled good morning and he finds his best fit, folding over on top of the duvet across my chest, his head meeting its familiar place at my collarbone. He says nothing for three long beats. Enough time for my fingers to find the little twist of hair that bunches at the back of his neck and for me to take in a breath of him, his weight pulling gently at my lungs.
"Do you know my favourite kind of picture?" he asks, suddenly loud and sitting upright. I cannot see his face clearly in the still-dim room.
"I do not," I reply, and the words catch thick in my unused mouth and I have to cough to smooth them. "What is your favourite kind of picture?"
He shifts to pull his hands from where he'd tucked them under me and raises them, a conductor getting ready for something important.
"It's when you have, like, a shape," he says, "a dark shape, and light coming here." He gestures and I see the shadow of him frown in concentration. "But *this* is black and, and, around it is light." He stumbles with the words, stuck, and drops his hands, defeated.
"Do you mean like a silhouette?" I say, gently, and his whole body moves with his affirmation.
"Yes! Yes, that's what I mean." His back is straight and eager now and I can feel the energy in him already, the day not even begun.
"Are you thinking of a specific picture? One you've seen?" I ask.
A head-shake. "No, it's just... I can see what I mean, in my head. Like a city skyline?"
I nod and smile, not sure if he can see me.
Three more beats while we both think of his picture, and I smile again in the dark at the shape he is making in the half-open door, silhouette himself.
"You can make those kind of pictures with a camera, you know, if you look where the light is," I say, inspired, and feel his fingers find my hands, pushing their way into them as I speak, needing connection. "So if you have someone here, and you can see that the light is coming behind them, from the sun, or from a window if you're inside..." It is my turn now to pull my hands away to help me, and I shift my shoulders up the pillows to let me gesture better. "And then you stand *here", in front of them, and take a photo, you'll get their silhouette."
"Yes!" He gets it. "Like if... like if Darth was to sit on the radiator by your window, and you took a photo of that?"
"That's it! And then if you were to change it and have the light behind YOU--"
He interrupts. "Like you're in the shadow and the light is over there by the person," he says again, still stuck on his image, not hearing me. "Light here and dark here..." His busy hands are moving again.
"That's right, then you'd have a silhouette photo. But if you moved and stood where the light is, with it behind you," I try again, "the dark behind the other person, then the light will shine on them and you'll get a super clear photo. That's how you get a lovely, bright image."
"Yeah!" He smiles. It is lighter in here already, the freckle on his top lip is visible: my favourite one. "Mummy, can I watch Pokemon?"
He's up and moving even as he says it and I laugh a yes, my chest and my bed empty again, my heart full. I am left to hear the thunder of the stairs and to stretch and wake more slowly.
I could not wish more for you, bright star. For you to see light and for you to see dark.
I could not wish more for me.
10.4.18 Reflections in the rain
5.30 a.m. Sleep is something fragile lately. A robin is singing, clear and tender, and as I listen, I find I can hear the overlap of a blackbird too, but fainter, one territory over.
The different volumes give me a sudden feeling of distance. I can feel it between the sounds, that stretching of space. I realise these layers of song must exist again and again, each early bird taking up sound-space that overlaps another at its edges, like the way separate raindrops spread into each other on water. They must stretch the length and breadth of the island, these overlaid circles of sound, wakers like me rousing wearily in pockets of them, heads full.
That's how I will think of the dawn now. Spreading, bird by bird.
8.4.18 Swan feathers
I want to find better ways of being out in the world because I love it so, even though it drains me dry. I am learning that will mean unapologetic adaptation. I am trying to embrace it.
My worsening sensitivity to sound has the beautiful name of hyperacusis and is severe enough now to demand headphones in busy places, often and urgently, however self-conscious it makes me. It isn't simple noise itself I struggle with as much as its overlap. Music over chatter over coffee machine roar and hand dryer hum leaves me crumpled numb and in pain. I hear everything, every single thing, and I wilt under its intensity. If I muffle it all or give myself just one sound or one voice to listen to, I do better, my body releasing like a flicked switch.
It comes with an odd side effect: I love people more when I can't hear them. I don't mean people I know and am spending time with, the opposite is true there and single voices soothe like music, but when it comes to strangers, yes. Block my ears and I am suddenly, infinitely fuller of all the things I wish I was the rest of the time: love, compassion, patience. Muffle the world and I am abundantly adoring of one and all. I don't know what it is, but it's true. Perhaps it's because it lets me notice all the things that make them special.
Without sound, I find that I watch people's hands. I notice who puts them to their mouths or their hair, who reaches for something to fill them, who interlaces them neatly.
Without sound, I find I read eyes and watch lips and see whose move most. There is a scale of softness to both and I like spotting the spectrum of them and looking at the faces on which they live. The eyes that laugh even when their owners' faces are still; those that look around them, receptive or wary; more still that hold a subtle hardness.
Freckles and moles are a special delight, those personal constellations, as are the ways people touch each other and themselves, distractedly, impulsively. I like to see how people fit together, how hands and arms reach to find each other in sudden, unspoken agreement. I love people's hair, especially when certain, careful strands escape containment, falling over foreheads or tucked behind ears. I love the way foreheads change like clouds change.
I like to see the space people take up and the way they shift around in it; the movements you know are habitual and practised and those that are not; where their gaze and body rests, if they ever do; the ways they navigate others and whether they look at them, notice them, or wander an isolated corridor all their own. I love belly swells and the soft places and lines that shape each person and change each shadow.
I like to read mood and watch it alter, to suddenly see someone's teeth when before there was only a restrained, closed line. Openness in a face is rare, obvious warmth glowing only from the occasional, and you see how people are drawn to that, like moths, like sunbathers. Most people have a turned in quality, a watchfulness, but that is its own beauty and tenderness and I love that too. You can tell who's listening and who isn't, and I think you can spot humour the easiest of all. It flickers in people a room away.
Then there are things that stand out - the oddities - a carefully curled moustache, a looming height, a particularly graceful glide. They are easy to find: all you do is half close your eyes and wait for the thing that wakes you to attention. The tilt of the girl with heart-shaped mirror shades who has melted to the shape of her father's shoulder, bright wellies dangling. Identical twins, same coats, same expressions. The man with two missing front teeth. Take your pick. There is something interesting everywhere.
I love all of it. I am so glad everyone is different. It means I get to feel new kinds of love over and over. It means I never run out.
I take my headphones off and there, ah the shame of it, I am lost to it again, my own defences soon too thick to see through, my own thoughts and pain too loud, and all I want is to go home and be away from everyone.
Quiet, it seems, is what helps me get out the way.
Fancy that: the secret to love.
7.4.18 After the rain
There is a type of loneliness that fits perfectly with heavy rain and an open window and climbing back into your Saturday bed with coffee and an ache. With all these things aligned, none of it needs fixing, not the rain or the loneliness or the inactivity, or the pull that rests somewhere between your heart and your thighs.
All get to thrum together comfortably with the kind of intensity that feels like being held, despite everything. And when the rain increases its tempo in a slow crescendo, when the volume switch is turned, it is like the rise of a kiss, and my breath catches just the same, just the same.
3.4.18 Center Parcs neighbours
I've spent long months craving this and now I'm here, I don't know what to do with myself. 'Here' is a lodge with my family on the edge of a lake, under bare alder tree and pine. The air is wet and if you run a finger along any branch, you loosen a rain-shower. All is muted brown and green and grey; all is perfect. I can hardly bear to look directly at it.
It has made me quiet. The footpaths here run with loud, unfamiliar faces. I find I want to stay close to the house beyond even what my limited mobility necessitates. I retreat to corners to watch and test my place in things. I keep my gaze low, looking up and out at the overlap of branches only sometimes, after a deep breath. I don't know why I feel so small and vulnerable, but I do. Pain has been sharp and that hasn't helped. I feel like I must keep myself held in so I don't give myself away. It feels pathetic to describe it so, but there it is.
I think maybe I have grown too used to safe silence, to sparse beauty that is sought-out and peeked at, not this abundance of it. I have grown used to solitude. I am dazzled and noise-numbed, jumping at every cupboard bang and companionable bustle, even here in the lodge with the family I have known all my life. I smile through it and love through it but something in me is all flinch.
I find I need to be outside and alone whenever possible and when the others are happy and busy, I have taken to dragging a chair a few steps away from the house, leaning on it as I go, step by step through the muddy ground, until I am out and under the trees and there is nothing in my vision but bark and water, the public paths hidden and distant. The wildlife is abundant. Pink-footed geese and their Canadian cousins share our grass with almost-grown cygnets. Ducks snooze while coots and moorhens pick around them. There is always a squirrel on the patio table and a quiet pair of chaffinches, all watched over by rock doves, huddled in the trees.
It is the rabbits I love best though.
They live in the lake bank and have learnt a boldness. I pull up the chair to sit. Within ten minutes of me staying still, they are lolloping around my feet, and finally something in me begins to loosen. I have been sad, I realise. Sad and disappointed in myself. I wanted to embrace all this. I wanted to do better. To give more, to do more - I don't know - and now I'm here I can't. I can do very little but hunch and watch and try to love the things and people around me best I can, and I am trying to understand why.
One rabbit stops to wash itself, paws pulled rhythmically over nose and head, and I am tempted to copy, to pull at my ears until they stretch. To crouch till I shrink and finally, in the form I belong in, to burrow into the dark home of the bank and find soft, congruous fur against my flank, quiet heartbeats, pink tongues. I think then I would feel all right.
I so rarely know how to be acceptable. How to be unwild. We tend to love to talk of being 'wild' in human terms - as something exciting and sexy, the stuff of movies and pin-ups - but when you watch wild things, you begin to understand that this is not what wildness means. It is nothing so conveniently pleasing.
To be wild, truly, is to be skittish, capricious, trusting of few. It is to be pulled to home and warmth and the sensory comfort of familiar bodies, not to newness and excitement. To be wild is to be wary, heeding instinct louder than promise. To be wild is to want to be known only to those who see you for love, not for prey, and to not to have too many eyes on you at once. It is to crave simplicity - an undisturbed spot, a full belly, a body that knows itself. To be wild is to be drawn to sing one perfect song over and over and for that to be enough for you to belong where you are. It is to live close to death and change but not let it panic you into worse. It is to steer yourself endlessly towards the things that nurture you, to be unable to stop or deny yourself.
I am wild, and this is why I struggle here, struggle a little everywhere that does not fully feel like home. Out here amongst the other wild things, there is some comfort in that.
I have told the truth and written it out. That is what nurtures me most. In a moment, I will go to bed and lie down in the dark beside the sleeping shape of my son and I will feel good again.
I may not be able to enjoy this place in the same way as everyone else, but I will enjoy it in my own, wild way. It may not be the rakish, all-embracing, feel-good kind of being that seems most valued here and everywhere, but I bet if I tried to pick up a rabbit, it would bite. It knows itself and its limits. It trusts them, and I should trust mine.
I am enough, I am. And you are too, wild thing. You are too.
I had asked: "Please can you send me a pebble?"
Some days, I feel broken like a wave is broken. Not damaged, just scattered. The kind of lonely that makes you feel stretched so thin, you stop being able to see yourself. I see very few people week to week, month to month, and although I love my solitude, it is hard. One best friend lives half a mile away but two others live at long distances and I am stuck here, and so my days revolve around texts back and forth as we attempt to share days apart.
Joe lives next to a Cornish beach which he walks every day in all weathers, new freckles on his face each time I see it. Every day, he sends me photos or videos of big skies and grey water pushing on and on, distances I struggle to hold in my head in my cramped Midlands' estate. He has an uncanny way of timing them to arrive when I feel most caged, most hungry for roaming - that sudden squeezing panic of cabin fever - and I breathe them in, renewed. But that day it hadn't been enough. I had wanted a piece of it to hold. I had wanted something more real than I felt.
An envelope arrived within the week. It was addressed with round, careful letters as familiar to me as a spoken name, and in it, the smoothest, whitest pebble. To press my thumb to it leaves a narrow halo of white. I put it in my pocket and have carried it with me ever since.
Talisman. I reach for it now and do the same over and over throughout the day, soothing myself in the repetitive, uncomplicated way that children soothe themselves. Sometimes my fingers find it icy; other times, it is inexplicably pulsing with warmth. It has its own private moods and I wonder if it is still joined to the tide that tumbled it somehow, reflecting that faraway edge. It is a link to a bigger life, to something wild and simple.
Talismans help on bad days. They are portable memory and meaning, a tether to something or someone. They are a gift to sing over, like a medicine woman would. Sometimes we determinedly, stubbornly pour power into something. Other times it seems to exist before you, despite you. It doesn't matter in either case. You know a talisman when they find you.
I rub my thumb against it and try to picture the atoms of it, impossibly compressed into something still and enduring. My small new companion has been squeezed and heated beyond imagining, rising, sinking, reforming, tumbled across millennia, all to end up a white star in my best friend's gaze on the right day, in the right place, when I needed it most. If such things are possible, then anything is.
Holding it brings a sudden knowing. I can sit here and the whole world can find its way to me. Endless atoms and molecules, decaying, circling, renewing. Water, stone, flower, cloud, leaf, bird. Who knows what they were before, but they're here now. There is no need to be a tourist. I can see every building block of this life if I simply sit right here and wait for it to appear and know it when it does. And I can do that, I can. I am patient and watchful enough. I am kind enough to not see anything as unimportant. And wouldn't there be good company in that? In me entertaining the whole of existence come to visit?
Maybe if I sit still long enough, I can be an axis around which every wonder spins.
Try thinking these thoughts and still feeling small and alone, I dare you.
"How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
each stone, blossom, child--
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.”
by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Book of Hours: Love Poems to God