I give you an emptiness,
I give you a plentitude,
unwrap them carefully.
– one’s as fragile as the other –
(Norman MacCaig, Presents)
Patterns of death weave their tapestries through my life. Sometimes the connections are uncanny, tightly knotted:
12 years ago, grandpa died.
Part of me died, too.
Nine years later … so did my marriage.
Same day. Different year.
My grandfather was one of the most important people in my life. As a young girl, I’d interview him, pretending to be a journalist.
Stories of our heritage, including our Irish ancestors, fascinated me from an early age. He’d spend hours telling me where we came from. These were moments we’d spend alone, looking at old photographs, soaking up genealogy.
Through this, I felt connected to my lineage … so much so that during my teenage years, when alone (I’ve never told anyone this before!), I’d play “Oh, Danny Boy” on the piano and cry, dreading grandpa’s inevitable death, intensely feeling it within my bones; it was almost like a practice run … a way to prepare for when he did die, so it wouldn’t hurt quite as much.
Even though he wouldn’t die for many more years, the raw thought of being without the person who loved and accepted me unconditionally, unraveled the few places in my heart where I felt worthy, important, and valued, leaving me with an impending sense of self-doubt and vacancy.
As an adult, when he was dying from Parkinson’s, the ritual of interview was repeated so I could collect our history, his history. Sometimes he’d raise an eyebrow, whisper, smile coyly, and ask if grandma was out in the garden so he could speak freely…
Then he’d tell secrets.
On St. Patrick’s Day, he died.
…And the knot tightened.
I was living in Ethiopia at the time and had just attended the expat community’s annual formal – yet riotous – St. Patty’s Day Ball at a swanky hotel. One of my most beloved memories was sitting amongst Irish friends, early into the morning, as they sang harmonious folk songs. Bittersweet melancholic tunes echoed through the somber rooms, saturating us with the timbre of another life, another home. Perhaps grandpa was there, too, watching on the sidelines, being sung out … I think he would’ve liked that.
Grandpa loved my husband – an Englishman who spent a few years with the British Army in Northern Ireland.
…And the knot tightened.
And it was on St. Patrick’s Day, three years ago while we were living in Myanmar – and I was remembering grandpa, feeling the loss of him – that my husband said he wanted a divorce, that he wasn’t happy, that he could not give me what I needed, that he needed complete freedom, and was not living the truth of who he was.
It was too easy not to slip into feeling incredibly betrayed, like a victim. Especially on that day.
…And the knot tightened again.
I felt emptiness, a lack of worth … to the point that I willingly – greedily – grasped for crumbs: Just tell me you love me, sometimes. That’s enough, I exclaimed. Ask me how my day went. Occasionally tell me l’m beautiful. Hold me. That’s all I ask, that’s all I need – and I can stay!
Writing that now hurts my heart. My belly aches. My throat tightens. Tears well up for that girl, that woman who prided herself on how “low-maintenance” she was.
I flew that flag like it was a positive trait, a winning factor, something so rare that he’d be stupid to discard it. This is how I puffed myself up, compared myself to other women: Who else could be as accommodating and non-demanding? No one! Who else would be so independent and non-needy.
Within my heart, I knew this was all a lie, some elaborate story I sold myself so that I wouldn’t get hurt. If my emotional needs were low, then I wouldn’t be disappointed. Or rejected. Or reminded of the dark crevices where I pocket feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of not being lovable.
Play it safe, don’t have needs, and then I can be invulnerable to feeling these parts of myself that need a bit of love. The parts my grandpa filled up. These parts – in truth – that I still ache for someone else to fill up. These parts that I don’t fill up … or fill up in ways that do not lovingly sustain me.
Of course, this didn’t work. Of course, I actually have needs. (Gasp.)
And so, after X amount of time of them not being met – because I didn’t ask for it, because I said I didn’t need it, because I created and attracted relationships with others that were unavailable to give – then I’d take a deep breath and do the unthinkable for me: cry out for what I need and withdraw my love, close down my heart when it was not given … even though I set it up like that.
…And the knot tightened. Another little death. Another excuse to not stay radically open-hearted.
But here’s the thing. Challenges in our lives can bring us back to life. Resuscitate us. Jolt us to face the sword of truth staring straight at us. Force us to look at the lies we tell ourselves and how we create victim-y type situations without even realizing it, playing out old tales that we’ve tightly woven for years.
I still do it. We all do. We’re human. And, yet, we have the ability to – even when facing death – feel the stillness of our hearts resonating truth, wide as a horizon. In those moments, it is as if a hand rests upon our cheeks and says, “Shhh. All is well. It’s time to start listening. It’s time to be who you are. Open to the possibilities.”
So, on this Irish feast day, I honor all the ways we experience death in our lives: the death of loved ones, marriages, careers, friendships, romantic relationships, ideologies.
It is through these endings that the foundations for new intersections and weaving knots of stories can take form. Through death, we begin … again and again and again.
Through the stillness of death, all things are possible.
And this I hear:
Surrender to my desire.
You are here to listen.
You are here to write a new story.
You are here to be my reed:
Hollow, tender, attuned.
May you surrender to all that needs to be let go of at this time in your life. May you face each loss, death, and challenge as a gift so that you make space to create that which you truly desire.
…Do you know what that is?
Dearest You,It’s been awhile since we’ve talked. Really talked.
I wish we could sit in that café where we shared a loveseat; I rested my head upon your wide shoulders and you slowly inhaled the scent of my hair, kissing the top of my head.
Or we could meet in my car where I’d feel your strong hands wrapped in mine, your lips pressed against them.
If we were in your bed, I’d savor one last time the weight of your thick legs curled around mine, nose buried in my neck, chills cascading down my back.
Mostly, I wish we were on my sofa – where you said you loved me – so we could breathe in this moment of truth.
I’d look into your unsteady eyes, hoping you’d see my heart.
But you are in another state.
On a business trip.
Picking out furniture with your new girlfriend.
Planting seeds to harvest with other women.
In a bar at 2 a.m., asking to come over.
You know I write to process, to navigate the unknown and become clear.
It’s how I face myself.
It’s how I face the truth.
It’s how I’m facing you.
My words are all I have to give you.
It seems only fair to let you know that the stories I’ve written in my life are changing.
Stepping back, I see the similarities.
In each of you, I see the intricate ways you intersect in my heart with common themes of inconsistency, unavailability, and dishonesty all woven together with patches of vibrant beauty and moments of tender sincerity. None of it black and white.
It’s an artful, literary display of lessons spread across faces, across years.
Each of you etched upon my skin a powerful, repetitive myth.
One I am done with.
My whole being aches for a new story.
It is time to feel the steady pulse of my worth.
I am ready to consciously dream new patterns into creation.
I will weave words of golden flowers along my spine.
I will spin all your patchwork lessons into a delicate crown and place it upon my head.
In this story, I choose nothing less than love.
In this story, I choose me.
If you’re brave, come sit with me.
Feel my warm palms against your cheeks.
Hear me say that I love your wild, red flamed spirit; your blue throated wisdom; your radiant sun of a soul. This is how I saw you: the real you, your true essence.
Now, too, I see the tempered version of this you choose to be … and the dulled version I chose to be with you.
Feel my hands slowly leave your face.
Be well. Be happy. I wish for you all that you need.
…It’s time for me to go.
I have a new story to write.
We met 12 years ago today in that little coffee shop next to the ferry. I saw you through the large window, sitting calmly in your independence, your head gently bent over a book on global issues. Your big ideas, your worldly view and experiences, your easy presence drew me in as we sat for hours talking, drinking coffee.
More than your experiences, I was intrigued by your candor and passionate beliefs, your firmly held views. That was attractive to me. I knew the stories you shared were a cover for something deeper; of course, your wild tales would usually work as a great introduction, a type of foreplay … I was sure most girls fell for that … and your English accent.
I wasn’t that kind of girl though. I wanted to know more. Not just what you did or where you traveled, but what you liked and what you read and why you did what you did. You said you were taken in by my smile.
You felt disarmed that I could see beneath the layers and scratch under your veneer. There wasn’t any real trick to that: I just listened. Maybe you needed that.
Who knew a coffee and hours of talking would change our lives. Within a year, I would sell all my stuff, pack-up my belongings, move to England, and start a new adventure with you. We weren’t engaged. No promises were made. Friends thought I was crazy. I knew I could go back home if it didn’t work out.
Those coffees led to a strong friendship; love; marriage; travel; multiple moves to many countries on four continents; a beautiful, fierce daughter; a painful separation; getting back together and trying again; and then … now … to divorce
But that first day we met, in the car, on the long drive to my home from the ferry station, you said, firmly, “I’m never having kids and I’m never getting married. I value my independence above all else.” You said it.
Later, you tried so hard to pull back some of those words, to make sense around how you felt about us. “Maybe I just hadn’t ever met the right person,” you said. I watched you struggle putting those words in your mouth. That never changed – the struggle. You tried to swallow them – all those words whole. You tried to be one kind of man and then another kind of man and tried to make sense of it. I kept being me and attempted to hold it all with both palms open and my heart wide, but cracking, because neither of us could keep the opposing, pulling sides – forever. Not within the constructs of anything resembling conventionality.
Not to say that we were conventional. (Neither of us are.) And I loved that about you.
There was so much that we understood and that was good. That keeps us friends. We don’t fight. We don’t yell. Or call names. But the wind wasn’t calm and you wanted something more raw – while I needed grounding. This conflict, our weather … we brewed high pressure. That hurt you. It hurt me.
Yet, I have a lot to thank you for. We have 12 years’ worth of words. You gave me your friends, your family, and they became ours. I gave you mine. Now – yours belong to you and mine belong to me – but that’s OK. It was beautiful. And I got to love more people.
You opened new countries
to me … countries I will always carry in my heart
… countries that have changed who I am. I’m better, stronger for it. My perspective is wider and through even more friendships, I spread love out across the sea. Though I need a home, my roots, a base – my appreciation and my desire for travel was split open because of you. That door will never close.
Thank you for loving me in your ways. Thank you for allowing me to fully love you and experience being your wife and best friend. My life is richer.
Thank you for teaching me about mosquitoes, parasitoid wasps, malaria, dengue, the Amazon, adventure. Now I know to pack some of the heavy stuff at the top of a backpack; how to put a duvet in its cover
; how to make coffee in a French Press.
Thank you for England: football; Pims; being twirly; scotch eggs; Hob Nobs; PG Tips; Galaxy chocolate; pubs; for teaching me how to pronounce my t’s; the Cotswolds; Dover’s Hill; Scotland; Wales; and magical Christmases with your family.
Thank you for Kenya, Ethiopia, Myanmar
, UAE, Germany, Thailand, and Malaysia. Thank you for Mardi Gras and rainforests, countless safaris, learning about the different species of zebra and giraffe. Thank you for giving me Africa. Photography. For Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. For Battlestar Gallactica. For pulling me out of my literary snobbery.
Thank you for sarcasm and wit. For Perspective.
Thank you for asking me to marry you on that bench with the lamppost. Then asking me again, years later, this time on your knees, at the same spot … even though, now … things have worked out completely differently. I knew you meant it then.
For that New Year’s eve in Nairobi – the one where you asked if I would be a parent with you – I thank you the most for that. Because from that night, that decision, we are parents to an incredible child. This girl will have – has had already – an unconventional life. Thank you. Thank you for our daughter. Just. Thank you. She is the best of you. The best of me. (And we’re in trouble!)
Thank you for really deciding who you need to be and saying so. You told me the truth even when it was brutally hard; but it was the truth. And my heart knew it. And for telling me the truth, I found compassion and forgiveness.
Thank you for asking me to let you go. Because I loved you, I did. And I know you asked me to let you go because you loved me, too.
By letting you go, I have reclaimed part of myself, a freedom. By letting you go, I have moved
– in many ways – towards a new life
with a new set of rules and principles that are my truth. Ones that work for me, that shift and soar. This feels good and right.
We are both on separate journeys; yet, you will always be within me: I owe part of the woman I am now to you. Without you, I would not have had these experiences. I am stronger, clearer, braver.
You gave me much. Even the tough, the feeling of brokenness (which has healed), for the parts you fell short and I fell short: I’m thankful.
Now, I know what I need.
What I want.
What I’ll accept.
I know how to be better. Different.
Thank you for supporting our daughter and for helping to support my dreams. You believed in me.
You’ve given me the opportunity to learn to forgive, to practice love unconditionally, for understanding love alone does not make a marriage and nor does a piece of paper.
Sometimes love means letting go to allow room for a new growth, a new life, to take root.
Thank you for the coffee. For 12 years.
I wish for you what it is you wish for … with my whole heart and much love.
One of the unexpected questions that creep up when you’re suddenly single is: Who will take care of you when your bones go brittle and the wrinkles get deep? Who will take care of you if you become terminally ill or have an accident of some sort that changes you and those around you – whether permanently or not.
Marriage affords you the luxury of not worrying too much about these questions, especially if you’re still in severe denial about aging (like I am).
It’s doubtful the television show I recently watched with a character suffering from breast cancer, would’ve stung quite as much if I was still married.
When the character was found on her bathroom floor, vomit in her hair and on her face, too weak to get up, I couldn’t help but wonder: Who would pick me up off the cold floor and make sure I was tucked back into bed?
This all sounds a bit dramatic. I’m not trying to throw myself a pity party. It’s just that among many other new questions that arise with divorce, this happens to be one of them. One that simply didn’t occur to me in the past.
Though perhaps morbid to think about, it’s reality. A few of my dearest friends have spouses with a serious illnesses. And I’m talking about people in their 30’s and 40’s.
My grandmother took sole care of my grandfather as his Parkinson’s disease progressed, up until he finally passed away peacefully at home. No one in our family doubts that he would’ve lived as long as he did, with the quality of life he had, had it not been for the loving devotion of grandma.
My maternal grandmother died from breast cancer. She didn’t have a husband, but had two daughters who took care of her in equal turns. I have one child that I’d really rather not burden with these sorts of issues.
It’s not just serious illness. It’s the flu; food poisoning; migraines; bronchitis. Your innate back-up (spouse) isn’t there anymore. You’re on your own and need to get your kid to school. So you pick yourself up off the floor, get her on the bus, then drive yourself to the store to get more ibuprofen. Call a friend or family member if it’s necessary; but then you realize that you have to start checking-in with people if you’re alone so they know you’re OK because … well … you don’t have a back-up who’s going to know you fell and twisted your ankle in the garage.
You start wondering if you have to carry your mobile with you everywhere you go; on bad days, you wonder whether you should get a panic button to wear around your neck … just like your 95 year old grandma who lives alone. (Shit starts getting real, then.)
Illness happens. Healthy people – young and old – get sick. Usually it strikes when you don’t expect it. It’s our duty to take care of loved ones and stand by them. It’s part of the insurance package that goes along with marriage … there’s a promise in there to take care of each other. It’s just a bit disconcerting when that insurance gets ripped out underneath you (not that there are ever any guarantees – something we’d all be better off truly acknowledging).
I have no doubt my family and friends would be by my side in some kind of eventuality. They are by my side through the divorce and single parenthood.
At the same time, you have to get better at being by your own side. Taking care of yourself. Keeping yourself well as best you can. Picking yourself up off the floor.
Even on those nights you don’t want to.
I love words and rhythm, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that I fall swiftly into the arms of poetry, read, and swoon.
On Becky in Burma, I used to post some of my work, but after learning some literary magazines consider that publication (and many magazines won’t accept previously published work), I took them promptly down.
Though I will not share any of my poetry with you, I do want to share a poem that I often return to for strength. Many of you are also going through a divorce, a separation, or are single. My hope is that this gives you some hope for the future, too.
A WOMAN ALONE
By Denise Levertov (one of my most favorite poets … ever)
When she cannot be sure
which of two lovers it was with whom she felt
this or that moment of pleasure, of something fiery
streaking from head to heels, the way the white
flame of a cascade streaks a mountainside
seen from a car across the valley, the car
changing gear, skirting a precipice,
When she can sit or walk for hours after a movie
talking earnestly and with bursts of laughter
with friends, without worrying
that it’s late, dinner at midnight, her time
spent without counting the change …
When half of her bed is covered with books
and no one is kept awake by the reading light
and she disconnects the phone, to sleep till noon…
selfpity dries up, a joy
untainted by guilt lifts her.
She has fears, but not about loneliness;
fears about how to deal with the aging
of her body-how to deal
with photographs and the mirror. She feels
so much younger and more beautiful
than she looks. At her happiest
-or even in the midst of
some less than joyful hour, sweating
patiently through a heatwave in the city
or hearing the sparrows at daybreak, dully gray,
toneless, the sound of fatigue-
a kind of sober euphoria makes her believe
in her future as an old woman, a wanderer,
seamed and brown,
little luxuries of the middle of life all gone,
watching cities and rivers, people and mountains,
without being watched; not grim nor sad,
an old winedrinking woman, who knows
the old roads, grass-grown, and laughs to herself…
She knows it can’t be:
that’s Mrs.Doasyouwouldbedoneby from
no one can walk the world any more,
a world of fumes and decibels.
But she thinks maybe
she could get to be tough and wise, some way,
anyway. Now at least
she is past the time of mourning,
now she can say without shame or deciet,
O blessed Solitude.