Laughter in a Holden Commodore.

One of the very mixed blessings about now living a way out of town is the drive home. It’s brilliant unwinding time; I can think, I can listen to music, I can plan what needs to be done. Sometimes, I find poems or Haiku or story ideas formulating themselves in my head; at other times I simply delight in the beauty of the countryside I’m driving through.

Sometimes, though, the drive can be an absolute pain. I can take as long to drive the eleven kilometres to the outskirts of Newcastle as I do to drive the remaining twenty-five kilometres home. Sometimes it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic and I don’t get out of second gear – although of course city dwellers will, I’m sure, challenge me on my country-driver categorisation of a traffic jam. Either way, it’s the part of the drive I often find tedious.

Today I was chaffing at the bit, just slightly. It hasn’t been the easiest two days at work, and I was tired and wanting to be at home. I was a bit grumpy and I’d almost been run off the road by an idiot in a four-wheel drive who I’m sure was a nice guy just having a bad (driving) day, and it was starting to seem quite unreasonable that all these other selfish people wanted to use the same road as I did when I just wanted to get home quickly.

Until, stuck at one of the most protracted red lights on my drive home, I noticed the couple in the car behind me. A young couple, in a beat-up Holden Commodore. I don’t know what had been going on previously – I’d glanced in my rear-vision mirror to see them talking, pointing out to each other interesting things out of the windows. This time when I glanced back, the man was laughing – helplessly, leaning back in his seat, head thrown back, laughing with complete abandon. The woman had a look of half-amusement, half-indignation on her face and I took it that he was laughing at her; this was confirmed when she threw out a hand and gave him a good-natured shove, flattening him against the passenger-side window. He kept laughing, and she managed to maintain dignified composure for a heartbeat more before conceding defeat; she too started to laugh, and they shared that humour until the light went green and I had to send my attention back to the road in front of me. As I did, I was smiling.

That was all: nothing spectacular, no epiphanies, no psuedo-profound thought; nothing other than two people who like each other enough to laugh at each other, a joking shove absorbed in good humour and not the cause of violent retaliation, and human love in a Holden Commodore.

I’m glad I saw it. And I hope that those two have many more years of disinhibited laughter, mock indignation and joking shoves. The world’s a bit brighter because of it.

Emancipation Day’s surprise.

I’m not a big anniversary person. It’s not that I don’t see the value in commemorating an event, whether it be a wedding, a birth, a world happening, or something smaller, more mundane. It’s simply that I’m not the sort of person for whom anniversaries usually strike a chord. If it weren’t for other people, I’d barely remember my own birthday.

Which is why it was such a surprise today that the second anniversary of Emancipation Day – the day on which I seized my freedom and precipitously fled a dangerous and volatile marriage – knocked me for six.

Last year – the first anniversary, the big one – passed me by with barely a clearing of its throat. I used it as an excuse to eat shameful amounts of ice cream, but other than that, there wasn’t much of it that impacted on me. I had assumed that the second year would be similar: I’d break out a bottle of wine or some nice chocolate, raise a glass in the quiet privacy of my home, and then get on with my evening.

That’s pretty much how it did play out – other than the nightmares, the panic-streaked, sweat-stained, breathless waking from horror to lie in the darkness and convince myself that it was just a dream, nothing to worry about, not real, not a reflection of how things are now. Just my mind trying to work through yet more shit. It’s ok, it’s normal, it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be, stop fretting and go back to sleep.

And then today, sitting in my meditation group, I couldn’t stop the tears that wandered (fortunately) quietly down my face – for the whole twenty-five-minute silent meditation. And all the way from the meditation group to work, where I sat in the car on the street outside the office, listening to the rest of the Vaughn Williams symphony which was playing on the radio, and trying desperately to reclaim my game face.

I did ok. I held it together, and today wasn’t a disaster. I told a couple of friends – briefly – what was going on, and each time I felt the load lighten a little. Each time I was grateful for the presence of a caring person who could tell just by looking that I wasn’t ok.

Tomorrow, I’m sure, will be better, because things are a hundredfold brighter than they were a year ago, and a thousandfold brighter than they were two years ago. I took a hit – a small one – today, and then tomorrow will be easier. And if it’s not, it’s ok, because the day after will be brighter instead.

The day after, of course, contains a choir rehearsal, as well as being the start of a weekend. Of course it will be brighter.

The difficult beauty of an acknowledgements page

So I wrote a book, and part of writing it was to draw up an acknowledgements page. It turns out that writing acknowledgements is harder than writing the book itself.

It’s not that it’s hard to come up with people to thank – I’m overwhelmed by the people in my life who have contributed to who I am, to my wellbeing, to my sanctity, to the fact that I can put one foot in front of another each day. People who have contributed to my writing, my knowledge, my skills; to my very existence on this planet: to the fact that I didn’t step off the edge of the world when life was too dark to see any hope, to the fact that I’ve come through the darkest times in living with post-traumatic stress disorder without unravelling completely.

No – coming up with people to whom I am deeply grateful was easy. What was hard was getting my acknowledgements page down from four-odd-thousand words to a document small enough to be slotted into a book.

That was bloody near impossible.

But I did it, and I’m sitting uneasily with the knowledge that in acknowledging some people, I’m missing out on acknowledging others, even as I’m rejoicing in the opportunity to say the public thanks that I otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have the chance to say.

And I feel like I should write more acknowledgements pages. Not for publication, but because the very act of listing names reminded me of how utterly blessed I am. How profoundly life-giving it is to be surrounded, and to have been surrounded my whole life, by people who nurture me, who love me, and who show me the love of God, who are God and love and light and life itself to me. People who probably have no idea of what an impact they have had upon me, but to whom I owe everything.

If I write a thousand books, I can never write an acknowledgement page which expresses the depth of gratitude I feel.

But it’s almost worth writing a thousand books, to have the opportunity for it.

~

Also, last night’s post was my three-hundredth. Yay.

Hearts, footprints, friends and a bad metaphor.

I can’t remember where I was recently, but I was passing one of those over-priced homeware stores selling those shabby-chic country-style furnishings and decor. One of the signs in the window (I think you’re supposed to hang them on your wall) made some psuedo-profound comment about the people who move through your life, and how friends are the only ones who leave footprints on your heart.

I’m in a pretty crappy mood at the moment so my default is to be cynical, and I have to admit that the cutesey little sign annoyed me, even without the poor metaphor and slightly disturbing imagery. We all, I reflected, have the capacity to leave footprints on the hearts of those whose lives we touch, even if that touch is only fleeting. We all have the capacity to do damage, to tread on the hopes and joys and reactivities and nobilities of the people we come into contact with, and usually it’s not deliberate: it’s insensitivity, or absent-mindedness, or grumpy-mood snappiness, or simply not noticing the shared humanity of the person selling us coffee, or passing us in the street.

What struck me, though, is that friends are the ones who don’t leave their muddy footprints all over your heart (does anyone else find this image disturbing, or is it just me?). Friends are the ones who treat lightly, who leave things better than they found them. Friends are the ones who are careful, and patient, and who are mindful of their touch and the impact that it has. Friends are the ones who know, without asking, those bruised points of tenderness, and who handle them gently. Friends know what pains they can ask about and what pains it’s best to leave alone.

I’m lucky to have friends – utterly blessed, I know that. I have far too much evidence of friendship in my life to doubt it, but I cannot take for granted the fact that my friends are there: a text message away, or in a shared glance across the choir, or at the end of an email. A Sunday afternoon spent in peace over coffee or ice cream. A stupid joke which makes me laugh aloud, adolescent giggles when we should be serious. A greater blessing than I deserve, or that I can comprehend.

My heart is marked not so much with footprints as with kick-marks, scuffs and scars. My friends don’t add to those with footprints – its my friends who are teaching me to heal, and who are patient and loving and hopeful and fun while I do it.

My heart is safe in the hands of my friends. But I really, really need a new metaphor.

Bleakness and a well-snuggled cat.

It’s being a bit of a bleak week. It’s funny – I was feeling stronger, more confident, better about the world and my place in it. Singing was getting easier: my hands weren’t shaking, and the panic attacks seemed to be a thing of the past. I was getting through whole rehearsals and services without the screaming interruption of memories and feelings and fears and that ever-present anxiety. I was feeling ok.

Until, suddenly, I wasn’t. Maybe there was one trigger, too small for me to notice. Maybe there were a number. Maybe it was some unacknowledged anniversary, perceived only in that powerful space below consciousness; maybe it was simply simply the vicissitudes of the chemicals in my brain, or life with post-traumatic stress disorder. Or any or all of the above – who knows.

The upshot though was a panic attack during my rehearsal on Friday night – the first time since Easter Day I’ve had to bail while I was singing (the intervals between panic attacks are getting less frequent – I have to hold onto this), and now the upshot is that I’m feeling shit. Bleak, and lethargic; completely apathetic, wanting only to sleep or tranquilise my mind with banality.

So I have been. As an experiment, I’m treating myself as though I’m recovering from a physical, rather than a mental, manifestation of unwell-ness. I haven’t been to the gym; I’ve read Harry Potter rather than the book on neurology and spirituality (borrowed from a friend and saved as a treat) which is currently sitting on my dining table; I’ve cuddled with the cat rather than doing those jobs I really actually need to do. For the last few days, I haven’t really been a singer – no practise, no preparation, and I’ve struggled to remain connected to what I’ve been singing. I haven’t really been a writer – I’ve barely put pen to paper and there have been a few days where I haven’t even done my self-imposed minimum word count. I’ve spent time with friends, but I’ve been on the outskirts of conversation, grateful to have friends who understand and who allow me to tune out when things get too much. They know I’m not ok, but they’re not pressing me – I’m just getting more hugs than usual.

And maybe that’s ok. This will pass, and I’ll still be a chorister, and I’ll still be a writer, and I’ll still have friends. I’ll still have a floor that needs hoovering, and I’ll still have a job to show up for, and the neurology book will wait. I’ll still be the person I always have been – I’ll just have been in a slight hiatus.

But the cat will be happy.

Blessings are for keeps.

I’ve had a week away from choir, and after time away I always come back feeling just a little apprehensive. As though I’ll get back to find that the chair usually set out for me is no longer there. As though in my absence the choir will have closed ranks, worked out that I’m superfluous to requirements, no longer necessary. As though there’ll be no place for me in that family anymore.

I get where this fear comes from: I still struggle to trust the blessings in life, that they really are for me, that they won’t be suddenly snatched away from me, whipped out from under me, as so many other blessings have been over so many years. It’s not as pronounced as it was, but a part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Only, I’m starting to suspect that it’s not going to. Because the blessings in this new life haven’t been seized and I’m learning to settle into them. Because the friends whose love I so deeply value – and whom I love with all my heart – haven’t decided that I’m not worth having around. Because when I get back to choir after a weekend away, the group opens to include me as naturally as the river accepts another droplet of water, and I slip back in as though I’ve never been away.

Because blessings have been given, and I’m learning that the Source of compassion, the Creator of abundance, doesn’t give blessings and then hold them hostage. The Ground of love is simply that: love. And there’s no love in begrudged blessings, and so they won’t be taken from me.

It doesn’t stop that fear though, and the incredulous sense of joyful relief every time I return to the choir vestry to re-discover a sense of home. And it doesn’t stop me being fervently grateful each time I realise that these blessings are for keeps.

In my own defence, I do know that I’m an idiot.

Stunned at real friendship, and a busy weekend.

It’s been a weekend of wonderful interaction with amazing people whom I love dearly – Friday night, Saturday night, and all day Sunday. Weekends such as this remind me of just how blessed I am: I have friends, who love me and who allow me to love them, and who want to spend time with me. Friends who, at a choir party, put wine into my hand because they know I’m probably needing it. Friends with whom I can sing at the tail end of a night rather bigger than I’d intended it to be – this may or may not have been after some quantity of the aforementioned wine – without me second-guessing myself and the appropriateness of my behaviour. Friends with whom I can debate contentious issues over a dinner table in the knowledge of the mutual respect and liking which underpins the conversation and allows disagreements to be points of challenge and intellectual stimulation and growth, rather than battles which must be fought and won regardless of the cost. Friends with whom I work hard to create beautiful music, and who understand why it’s sometimes harder for me than it should be, and who care for me in that. Friends with whom I can have a scrappy takeaway dinner around my dining table after a long and demanding day of singing, without having to worry about the fact that I haven’t done my washing-up or folded my laundry since the middle of last week.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to the point where I can take such friendships for granted. Friendships for me have always been dangerous: people to find out the secrets I can’t share; people to take me away from my ex’s control; people to “radicalise” me into thinking that it’s not ok to face abuse and denigration day after day after day. And after ten years in captivity, I haven’t yet become desensitised to the utterly wonderful novelty of being able to be completely myself, and draw attention to myself at times (hello, wine), and laugh with abandon, and debate a fascinating topic without being afraid of punishment in the dangerous privacy found behind locked doors. At several points during the weekend, I found myself sitting stunned at my good fortune, unable to believe that this is my new reality, and has been for over a year now, and will continue to be. I no longer cringe in anticipation of the blow that will shatter my newfound freedom, expose it as a pretty and vacuous illusion – but there are times when I gape in wonder at the realisation that it’s not.

Having said that, my liver is in the running for Employee of the Month (I think we’re going for a hat-trick: December, January, and now February), and so I think it’s time for a quiet week.

A week of grateful reflection and a reminder of the fact that I am in fact this blessed. No idea why, but then, I don’t need to know.