eight and forty-four

IMG_2860Warrington, Monday 16th July

I’ve taken a while to find myself. I was looking for so long. I caught snatches every so often, glimpses of my reflection in the still water of calm, when the calm found me. There were moments when my reflection was so vivid, so arresting in it’s me-ness that I thought I’d actually found myself, but then the image would inevitably fade, and things would grow murky again.

It was like searching for something through silty water. Every time I took a step forward my movement stirred the mud again, and there I was, seemingly no wiser than before I took the step. And yet perhaps it wasn’t so futile. Perhaps it was more like the kind of methodical turning over that happens in an archaeological dig. Laboriously scraping back layer after layer, not with the infinite care of a professional about to uncover some world treasure, but with the desperation of someone who knows they have yet to live. Each layer compelled me downwards. My nails were caked.

I saw The Return of the Jedi at the Civic Theatre with my dad when I was eight. I remember it was eight because it was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre and the event played a starring role in my childhood folklore. I didn’t go to the movies until I was eight. My mum didn’t let me because she said going to the movies was evil. What a movie to see on my first trip to the cinema. And what a theatre! I could take you to our seats today. Upstairs just left of the middle, about three rows below the aisle. Peering down at the golden lions either side of the stage, eyes glowing, and back up to the midnight sky above, those tiny blinking stars calling me into my imagination.

What an invitation! And I heard it loud and clear! My saving grace through those early years was my imagination. Through it I rescued myself, as often as I could. I was like the dancing princesses, in the collection of Grimm’s Fairly Tales gifted to me on my eighth birthday, who escaped from their beds every night and danced until dawn. I was like them because I could escape. I could take myself away, up into the wide open spaces of my mind. And reading was the best way of doing that. Dear Moonface. Dear Uncle Bilbo. Dear Muffie Mouse. Dear Wombles, all of you.

There were so many things that happened the year I turned eight. As I sit here writing it down I find myself wondering if it really all happened in one year. But this is my story, not a historical account, so here’s a list. I had a sleep over at my friend Celina’s who lived around the corner. We slept in a tent in her garden and were awake until after 11pm. I know because I saw it on the digital clock on the dresser in her parents’ bedroom which we kept getting up to visit, even after they’d gone to sleep. One weekend my mum made homemade ice-cream, chocolate chip mint, icy and sweet and we shared it with the kids from next door.

Other things happened. I watched the old woman next door water the garden with an empty kettle. My dad came back to New Zealand and my mother wouldn’t let me see him. He turned up at our flat one day with a present for my birthday and I sat on the lounge floor frozen, while he and my mother talked in low tones at the back door. Go and see your father, said the friend of my mother’s who was visiting. Go and see your father. But I couldn’t move a muscle. How could I? That was the year I lay awake for hours most nights, sleep as far away as the moon. When the heavy weight of sadness descended in the evenings as the sun went down, the same weight I recognised as depression much later.

I have often wondered why my fairly ordinary childhood gave me so much to work through. Everyone else around me seemed to be getting on with things pretty easily. Other people with more tragedy in their lives than I’d experienced, or perhaps more obvious tragedy, seemed more resilient. I grew up timid, anxious, shy, and more than all of those things; acutely sensitive. I managed to build a kind of armour around myself as a teenager, but it was mostly bravado, and a thin bravado at that. Underneath I was all open and aching heart.

I’m reading The Choice, by Edith Eger, a survivor of the Holocaust.  It’s an incredible book, not just because of the power of her story, but because she narrates it as a psychologist, from the perspective of someone who has worked through her own story and also walked alongside others as they do the same. Something early on in the book moved me to tears. “There is no hierarchy of suffering,” she writes. “There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another…I don’t want you to hear my story and say, ‘My own suffering is less significant.’ I want you to hear my story and say, ‘If she can do it, then so can I!’” (pg. 10). Her words gave me permission to tell my story as it is, without shame or excuses or minimising it. And with that permission came a rush of self-compassion.

There was an evening earlier this year when I’d been hurt by something. Something ordinary became a trigger of enormous proportions and I was completely adrift in a sea of grief. The pain was extreme. I tried to make sense of my hurt, tried to rationalise it. Tried to figure out why it felt so bad. I’ve been aware of the little girl inside me for a while now, and as I slowed my thinking down I realised how terrified she was right in that moment. Terrified that she was all alone, terrified that there was nobody who could help her. A memory came flooding back. The scariest scene in The Last Jedi. Jabba the Hut’s pit, and that awful monster with the sucking tendrils at the bottom. And there I saw myself; a little girl holding on to the side of that pit for dear life, about to fall in.

There’s fear and then there’s terror. This was terror. It was completely overwhelming. It wanted to swallow me up. It wanted me to fall into it and never get out again. It was the fear beneath the fears. The terror that had lurked behind every loss and hurt that followed. And I was finally feeling it. Finally, I could witness that terrified little girl.

What happened after I saw myself on that edge is the kind of thing that can happen to any of us, when the circumstances are right. I was with my partner, and she was holding me. It wasn’t so much the words she said as the fact that I knew I was with a wise witness. Somehow her presence helped me to see that the moment I was in was sacred. That it wasn’t to be avoided or run away from. Suddenly I could see that I’d been waiting to get to this place all my life, and that now I was here, there was work to be done. Holy, magic, soulful work. The work that can change the course of a life.

So I focused on that girl, that dear sweet, terrified girl. Holding on so tight because if she didn’t hold on tight she would fall in and never get out again. And as I watched her, I saw angels. Angels. They weren’t doing anything. They weren’t trying to rescue her or even stop her falling, they were just being with her. Being with me. Because being there, witnessing her, and letting myself feel that terror was one of the bravest things I’d ever done. The angels confirmed that. They were there because what I was doing was important.

Then I looked up and saw I wasn’t alone. There were people just above me at the top of the pit. They were the people who I knew loved me and would help me if I asked. There weren’t many of them, but I didn’t need many. I just needed to know I wasn’t alone. And then one of them stepped forward. The most important one of them all. Me. Forty-four year old me to be exact. With the most exquisite look of calm determination on her face as she walked towards the edge. She climbed over and let herself down to where I was holding on, picked me up, and wrapped me in her arms. I was found.

I’ve taken a while to find myself. I’ve been looking for so long. It’s a life’s work. One I don’t think I will ever completely finish. And yet there are moments along the way, like this one right now, when I know I’ve got somewhere significant. When I know I’ve seen something important, and rather than ignore it or hide from it I’ve faced it, head on. And in the facing of it I find myself, right there at the centre of the pain. Each time is incredible. Like a homecoming and a reunion and an unveiling, all at once. I am witness and rescuer. Every time.