I was feeling oddly desperate.
I was walking on Muizenberg beach this evening, as the sunset on the Atlantic side of the mountains and the False Bay sky was bathed in the left-over pink from what was surely tangerine in the West.
I was feeling oddly desperate. June’s newsletter should have gone out last Thursday, it being the first Thursday of the month. I’d asked Megan (BraveHeart’s Social Media Magician) to send a Thought Provoker instead: I wasn’t able to write it in time. And now, Monday 5th June was nearing its end, and I still didn’t feel able to write.
Fortunately, my walking partner and precious friend Heather is a Thinking Environment Coach, so I asked her to ask me: “What are you assuming that is stopping you from writing your newsletter?”
I was assuming it needed to be inspiring, and for it to be inspiring I needed to feel inspired. And – as William Shakespeare is famed for saying, therein lay the rub.
I’ve mentioned Frederic Hudson’s brilliant Cycle of Renewal model in previous newsletters. I’ve talked about the rigorous challenge of the Cocooning Phase. Cocooning is akin to dying – it is a metamorphosis that requires becoming goop before you become whatever you are becoming next. Hudson’s recommendation for the Cocooning phase is “go inwards”. Withdraw. Paint, read poetry, sleep, do therapy. Do not expect yourself to be a sparkling dinner party conversationalist. Do not expect yourself to be inspiring!
At the end of July this year, it will be two full years since the start of the ending of a 26-year marriage began for me. In the intervening months since then, the journey has been epic in its proportions, veering wildly through the extremely demanding emotions of grief. Alongside sorrow, fury, bewilderment and confusion, there has also been relief, tenderness, insight, hope. And through it all, there is timing.
Much of Western “civilisation” (I’ve got those inverted commas there for a reason!) is pretty uncivilised when it comes to grief. I’ve read that in China, for example, it is considered perfectly normal for grieving persons to literally wail at the tops of their voices and tear their hair out (literally) for however long it takes for the devastation to pass, with no timeline imposed on when that will be. The nearest we come to that in the West is permission to wear black for a year as a widow.
Ask most people in our culture how long the permission for grieving felt, in their direct experience, when they were bereaved, or lost their home, their animal, their job, their marriage, and you’ll likely hear something like “3 weeks”. It’s usually said like this: “Oh, I don’t know, I think I felt like I was supposed to move on after around three weeks?” And there will be that question mark at the end, both the voice and the eyes going up, looking off somewhere, uncomfortable now that you are asking them and they realise that they are still there even now, months, years later, and they didn’t know it because they “moved on” as expected.
I am doing a beautiful and deeply nourishing programme through the Network for Grateful Living organisation, called Grateful Grief. It has meant being awake every Wednesday at 1 am, for the last four weeks, and I have deeply appreciated every moment of those wee hours of the morning time.
One of the many encouraging distinctions I have gleaned from it is the difference between moving on (subtitles: sweep it under the carpet, put a brave face on it, say no more about it), and moving forward – bringing all the paradoxical pantheon of feelings and experience with you – into the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrows of living with sadness and loss. It’s a subtle distinction, but the impact is profound. It helped me to realise that well-meaning friends who had encouraged me to move on had accidentally nudged me into being at odds with my own timing; a realisation that allowed me to surrender once more to the demanding mess of my cocoon.
And as I was grappling during my beach walk with Heather, about the exacting task of trying to feel inspired whilst still being constructed mostly of goop, she asked if she could share a reflection with me. Heather’s reflections are always worth hearing, so of course I said yes. She said she’d noticed how so many newsletters “out there” at the moment were focused on it being half-way through the year, and exhorting people to focus on where they were in the achieving of their resolutions, goals and objectives. The narrative, she said, seemed to be intent on the point of our lives being to stay on track: concentrated on outcomes and their successful conclusion.
Then she talked about the number of people who had recently entered her social orbit who were dealing with having lost their children to suicide, together with an article she had read about a woman whose husband committed suicide. “Eight years, it took her, before she could even begin to face forward”, Heather said. And even that is not a lot, I thought.
This week I finished watching This England – a one-season series brilliantly penned and directed by Michael Winterbottom, and superbly acted by Kenneth Branagh, who in my book just keeps getting better and better having started out already very good. Its laying bare not only of the gross incompetence of Boris Johnson’s Tory Government response to the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic, but also of the devastating impact of the consequences of that incompetence on the lives of the people of that “precious stone set in the silver sea” (England), made me realise that people who lost loved ones, and who worked in care homes and hospitals throughout 2020 and 2021 are probably nowhere near recovered yet from the trauma of unspeakable tragedy that the virus wrought on their lives.
It’s uncivilised, this thing we do to ourselves. This punitive outlook that the point is to move on, and that we are somehow letting ourselves, and the side, down if we are not “up and at ‘em”, day in and day out – achieving our goals. Don’t get me wrong. I, as much as anyone, love the vim and vigour of the “New Chapter” quadrant of Hudson’s Cycle. I love the Midas times, when everything I touch turns to gold, and life flows with abundant ease in the direction of my dreams. Who doesn’t? But I feel an enormous tenderness towards these other times when we must learn to be patient, as the beautiful German poet Rilke invites us to be, “towards all that is unsolved in our hearts”, learning not to seek answers to things before their time to be revealed to us has arrived.