I’ve been in pain this week. Over the weekend, someone I trusted said many hurtful things, including unkind words about my writing.
I’ve noticed the days going by – a reluctance to post on my blog, even though it has provided me with such astonishing satisfaction. It’s a great pleasure to have been read these last few months. Friends and family do their bit, but the fact that people I’ve never met – who live on a different continent – have been visiting my posts with an unexpected loyalty, makes me buzz with happiness. Thank you. This is why I can sit down now and continue.
Pain can be elusive: we might tell the osteopath that we’ve got a weird sort of buzzing sensation in our shoulder; my wrist hurts, but only when I do that, or this; I keep getting these headaches, but they’re not really headaches – sometimes they’re in my eye, sometimes in my neck; I can’t sleep, but I don’t know why; I hate my job for some reason; I think maybe I’m unhappy.
It can be a signal, a caution – a shot through the arm might mean you’re about to have a heart attack. A twinge in the knee says, stop running – you’re going to do yourself some real damage. The heat of fire keeps us from getting too close.
But sometimes pain comes at you headlong, without warning, and there’s nothing elusive about it. A betrayal can happen as fast as lightning, and the result is as though you have been struck a sudden, unmitigated, searing blow.
Several months ago, Dan and I argued. I woke the following morning with a great need to heal, but his presence made me so angry and defensive that all the parts I needed to repair were shut up tight. I took myself off for a few days.
The first night, I had this dream: I’m lying in a camp bed – that sensation of dampness, salt on the skin. I’m drowsy, unable to open my eyes, but I know I’m back in the house where I grew up. I hear my dad, arriving with people. They are talking on the stairs – somehow they know about my argument. My dad comes to the door of the room. I’m wrapped in a sheet – self conscious about being in bed so late in the day.
We’ve disturbed your precious writing peace, my dad says, and his empathy and understanding bring a prickly sense of tears behind my eyes. He tells me something about hulling, or hoeing. It’s nothing he’s ever said to me before, but in the dream I know he means doing something that will rekindle my inspiration. I begin to cry because I’m in pain over Dan. My father leans towards me and kisses my forehead. This is nothing he has ever done in real life: such a show of sympathy could only exist in my dreams. Because this tender act is so unexpected I feel a great rush – like a profound answer to a question that, although I’ve never asked, has sat inside me, wanting.
I remembered that dream this week, and I asked myself what it was telling me – what I was trying to show to myself: my father’s tenderness and compassion? These are things he does not reveal in life – not because he’s a cruel man, but because they’re demonstrations he’s not capable of making. The dream was my offering to myself, perhaps something I’d always wanted, which I decided to give in a moment of real need.
And then it happened in real life: comfort from the last person I expected.
After the dream, Dan and I met to talk. Our words were disjointed. The silences were painful, frustrating. At one point Dan said that he would leave – it seemed we’d got as far as we were going to that day, which wasn’t anywhere. But he didn’t get up. We both sat there for some time, looking out of the window. The garden was very still beyond.
Dan asked if I wanted to go for a walk.
Okay, I said.
We headed to Whytam woods. It had been raining and the long grass soaked our shoes and trousers. I spotted a deer in the trees, springing through the undergrowth. Later, it was standing in the path ahead, watching us. The butter-coloured fields, which I glimpsed through the woods, had patches of weeds growing, their almost translucent tops reaching above the wheat so that it looked like clouds of gnats hovering.
Dan asked if I was going to eat later. I’d mentioned earlier that I was finding it hard.
I said I really fancied bolognaise, but I wasn’t sure if I had the energy.
I told him I’d been to the supermarket twice and it had been impossible – I’d wanted to yell at people for getting in my way; when I couldn’t separate the plastic bag to put my shopping in, I’d almost cried.
Dan went to get the things from the shop. Then we cooked together.
This is surreal, I said as we stood side by side, adding things to the pan.
When we were eating, I gave an impression of how my meditation had been that morning. I sat with my eyes closed for a moment and then mimed sobbing, stopping for a moment, sitting in stillness, and then sobbing once more. It was weird that it was funny, but it was a relief to share the experience with him – perhaps because he had been the cause of the pain.
The bolognaise lasted a few days. Each evening, we would meet and eat some more of it together, and gradually we found our way back.
As each day went on this week, I was surprised I hadn’t cried. I came close a few times – especially when I summoned the courage to look at my blog, which had gathered a rancid air about it because of what my friend had said. I read the comments people had left for me. Such kindness. Such generosity.
I made notes for a new post – something about my experiences, finding an agent – but my friend’s words rang loud in my head and I couldn’t gather my ideas together. A few days later, I sat down to write something about where stories begin. Again, I faltered.
Today, I was standing in my sitting room. The low winter sun was coming in bright through the blinds. I was putting some books away, and then I stood for a moment, glancing through the titles. I picked up The Prophet.
I’m going to open this, I thought. There is a message, waiting for me.
I let the pages fall apart.
And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.
I went upstairs, sat down on the cushions in my spare room where I like to work and read on.
And he said: your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen.
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.
Once more, comfort from a source I had not expected, especially as this book had been lent to me by the friend who had betrayed me.
In this quiet week that I’ve spent moving carefully between tasks, I’ve been watching over myself in a way that’s new. I’ve not always been an obedient patient – often getting out of bed too soon in my convalescence. But these last few days, I’ve told myself to rest. I even thought to question my lack of tears, looking beyond the part of me that was proud at my strength, determined to move forward at a decent pace. I stood in my bedroom and began to shake myself – at first starting gently in my hands, then following the movement into my arms, then my chest, and finally my whole self: wriggling, trembling, shivering. From far down I sensed the grief rising, until at the last moment I felt a tingling sensation in my cheeks and I began to sob. Several deep, unbroken sounds came. It was enough.
Sometimes, that unexpected source of comfort can come from ourselves.
I crept onto the bed, knelt down, flopped the top half of my torso over a pile of cushions, and watched my breathing. My whole body came back to me – for days it had felt distanced, shunned almost, and I’ve been walking around feeling like a kernel of popcorn, so very hard and small. But now I had burst open.