An audio version of this post is available here.
People do year round-ups, and I have tried to in the past, but if I’m honest it has been an unsatisfying exercise because in 44 years of flapping about on life’s metaphorical beach, I have yet to have had a year which I wanted to look back on. That’s not to say I haven’t had amazing things happen in my life, or that I have never been delighted, or that I have not been surrounded by people I adore. But always, in the middle of this loveliness, I have been a large fish struggling on the sand, I have been stuck in a world I am not part of.
Well, the first thing I have to say to you is: never stop struggling. Never stop. Because I’ve finally got somewhere.
It is hard to explain in an orderly way what made this year different from every year that preceded it. Certainly not my health, which has remained appalling: more so in the last 2 years than before. I am largely housebound, though I try to foray out a couple of times a week just for a walk about, and I quite often take a turn around the block late at night just for a look at the sky. I am absurdly fat, and I say that not in a fattist, scorny sort of way, but because it makes my every day worse, harder – I simply have more to lift on muscles which were ill equipped to lift me when I was half the woman I am today. This is almost impossible to address, as I cannot exercise. Nonetheless I will address it. I will find a way, because if I go on like this my heart will pack in and that’s all there is to it, and I have too many things I need to do to let that be.
I have a good few days every now and then and as soon as I do it’s off to the allotment with me. It is surprising how much can be achieved in one good hour every couple of weeks. I’ve put in an embryonic hedge and a tiny orchard, which looks like a bundle of twigs at the moment, but put your hand on it and it’s got that cold, dense feeling a sleeping plant has. My allotment is exactly as perfect as I would like it to be. The amount of pleasure I get from dicking about with pieces of string and lengths of cane doing things like this is unfathomable:
(You are looking at the perfectly-aligned slate ends of my formal beds. Ignore the weeds and chaos around them.)
So one of the ingredients that has changed my life is definitely the allotment. It is a different thing from a garden, and the picture above shows why: an allotment is allowed to not be perfect. An allotment is allowed to be muddy, to have bits you haven’t got round to yet, to be a work in progress that is constantly changing. I got this allotment from someone by an act of the most peculiar magic, (it was brought to me by bats), and I never go there but that I think this, and thank the bats – now gone, job done – and my friend for giving me such work to do.
2013 did not start well. By the end of January I had been badly hurt. I was angry and had nowhere to put it. So I battened down my hatches and just tried to survive. I didn’t do a brilliant job, and by the spring (a late and muddy spring that just wouldn’t come), I made the decision that I must try to address the depression I was suffering. So I went to my doctor and said, in as frank a way possible, that I was living with what they call “suicidal ideation” and that it was pretty unbearable and I needed some help. My doctor proceeded to medicate me for “a low mood”. Which I now find incredibly funny. I had never asked for medication before to control depression, so this was a very big step for me, both in terms of the outcome (having some help), but more so for the process (asking for it, allowing it). I am not someone who says “please” easily. I am still not.
Anyway, the medication – Citalopram – was a strange thing. I had 12 days where I was in an incredibly dangerous state, lower than a ferret’s nutsack and possessed of a furious energy that turned inwards, all teeth and knives. Fortunately (?) I am accustomed to dealing with myself. I waited. The storm passed. I found myself feeling calm, alright. It was nice. I had a month of that before it became impossible to stay awake for more than three hours in a row. I slept all the time. What’s more, the depression came back, so now instead of being awake and depressed, I was mostly-asleep and depressed. I had even less of a life than before, so I decided to stop taking the pills. I did so in a sensible way, following my doctor’s advice, I decreased the dose slowly, stopped, and then …
and then I felt ok.
And I carried on feeling ok. The shouty voice that habitually listed my faults and failings for me before I woke each day was gone. My tendency to see only my own lacks and judge myself against that stain was gone. My tendency to think of myself in abusive terms was gone. The whole fucking lot, the whole hellish tangle: gone.
“Alright,” I thought. “This is a nice little holiday. I shall enjoy it while it persists.”
Reader, it persists.
Being me, I put what I thought of as “my holiday” to good use: my book was brought out, dusted off, and I carried on editing it when my body allowed. I bought some big canvases, and since I can no longer hold a watercolour brush without my hand going into spasm, I decided to do some nice big acrylics, something not as small and fiddly as the watercolours, but freer, more abstract. Damn, painting HURTS. But I’m pleased with the results.
20″ sq acrylic on canvas “Woods.”
33″ sq acrylic on canvas “Speed of life.”
And suddenly I stopped thinking of my home as a place I was going to sell shortly. Suddenly I realised that it’s my home. That it isn’t a holding pen. It’s for me. And I painted a big cherry tree over my bed.
It’s the first thing I see when I wake up. And I guess it’s pretty, but it isn’t really about that, it’s more about the fact that I did it, the act of doing it. It’s more about me giving myself permission to have a home, and the roots of that – of being homeless, the outsider status of that, the fear of it – run so deep, that this – painting this tree over my bed – is probably the deepest piece of magic I have ever wrought.
I started listening to Tara Brach’s talks on the recommendation of a friend. Tara is an advocate of mindful meditation, which is a thing I’m sort of gently interested in. I put her first talk on when I went to bed. And I slept like an angel, but I had only heard the first 5 minutes of her talk, so I tried it again the next night. I like her: she speaks of a thing I was starting to get the hang of anyway. Showing yourself a bit of mercy. Not investing yourself in the day’s dramas and defeats, but observing and feeling them in perspective, as part of the whole picture. I have never heard more than five minutes of one of Brach’s talks. But they seep into me at night, and the new approach I was already bringing to life’s sometimes-trying vicissitudes found itself shored up.
This brings us to the end of the year, when suddenly all this – everything preceding this paragraph – came together and stood up. On 23rd December, I finished editing my book and I sent it off. This thing that I had worked on and put by through the most difficult part of my life. I did not want to drink champagne and run naked into the sea. The point was not that it was finished, but that I had sent it off. That I had said “this thing, made of me: it is good enough.” I’m not implying that it’s perfect or great or anything like that. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I think it’s good.
That I think I’m good.
There was one vital door I had shut. It bothered me every day, every night for the year. I did not have a day in which I did not stand behind it and look at it and long for it to be open. It was a door like a heart valve, one that had not worked properly for many years, but that let in as many ghosts as bright living beasts. It was chocked neither open nor closed but halfway, so that I could not love cleanly, awash in old blood that never drained. I had spent years trying to pull it fully open. And in January I closed it. That is a very brutal thing to do. In the moment I finished the book, I opened that door, as if doing that was part of the process of finishing the book. I can’t explain this well to you, but it was a seamless and logical extension of that whole venture: opening that door was the point of it all. All the old mess had gone. All of it. The door opened on a bright garden.
I did not expect grace on the other side of that door. I did not expect to be remembered, I did not expect to be welcome. Thank you.
If 2013 was the Year of Agency, 2014 is going to be the Year of the Agent: I have to get representation for the book, work up a portfolio of paintings and find local representation for those, and there’s a second book (already a work in progress), which I know will not take as long as the first, because the problem with writing the first book was never writing the first book.
The fish flapping on the beach has grown some legs and found a pair of sunglasses and the ice cream van. I have a life. I’ve never had one before. Not in this world. Anything could happen now.