Last weekend I returned to the former matrimonial home I'd shared with my ex for eight years. He was away, and we had agreed that this was to be my last visit to the house. I took a few things, burned my wedding dress in a ceremonial bonfire and walked away from ninety-nine percent of the contents of the house- possessions I'd inherited or accumulated over my lifetime. Such a strange and freeing experience. I’ve been happily surprised by an increase in my energy since returning home to my apartment in the city.
The following piece was written for O Magazine South Africa at the request of an editor who had been following my blogs. She asked that I include excerpts from blogs I had written as the separation took place. The marriage ended one year ago- on April 5, 2010. On this, the anniversary of that separation, it seems fitting to share the article here.
The Year After
A year ago my marriage of ten years exploded. Stunned, I wrote: I am breathing through an ache in my chest that feels like it will split me open. The term “sucking wound” comes to mind as many breaths are gasping, struggling, wet with tears. It feels like there is a gaping hole in my chest.
I survived doing what had to done, sometimes ambushed by pain: Grief is as kind as it can be, coming in waves instead of all at once- surely a flood that would drown. It’s hard to predict when the next wave will hit. I miscalculate and have to abandon a shopping cart in the middle of the cereal aisle at the supermarket to dash for home and lay down on the cool white tiles of the bathroom floor.
Those first days of the ending felt impossible, disorienting. Slowly I recognized and accepted where I was: How is it that the world continues? The sun is coming up. A single ray breaks through the cloud cover and fills my room with liquid gold. Birds sing the light into being. Traffic starts to move over rain-soaked pavement. I always say I’m fine. It’s a habit, a way of reassuring others that I won’t need much, a way of reassuring myself that things are not that bad. But I’m not fine. It’s a relief to admit it. The sun is rising, the world goes on, but I’m not fine. And that’s okay.
I began to take in the loss, the need to make legal agreements with someone I suddenly felt I did not know and could not trust. Despite the shock, some survival instinct woke up: Jeff arrived at the mediators but refused to talk. Driving to the apartment I see it all before me- legal battles that could take months if not years. With the first real clarity I‘ve felt in days, I shout as I drive along the highway, “I do not want this be my life for the next year! I will not let it be what my life is about!"
Moving forward around material agreements was relatively easy. I sacrificed fairness for freedom- this was my choice. But emotional disentanglement was harder. Jeff and I spiralled down into old arguments that left me depleted, despairing. Friends urged me to cut off communications. And then one friend said gently, “Well, you will stop having contact when you can stop having contact.” Her faith in my inner reasoning allowed me to realize I was seeking something Jeff did not have: an explanation that would take away the pain of betrayal. I stopped the conversations.
I paid attention to what called me back to life: Friends call. It is good to know I have not been forgotten. Private pain can make the world shrink. Some bring rice, spiced salmon and fruit-filled muffins. For the first time I understand why people bring food to the bereaved. The smell brings me back to my animal body, reminds me to eat. The taste says, “You are not alone. You are not done. You are alive!”
Zen teacher Susuki Roshi said, “We don’t need to learn how to let go. We need to recognize what’s already gone.” We tell stories so we can recognize what is gone. It takes time. My friends listen patiently.
Separation agreement signed, I went camping alone in the wilderness: I sit on the cliff looking out over the lake, staring. I’m like one of those wind-up toys, spring finally completely unfurled, making further movement impossible. I’ve come to an abrupt halt. I can go no further. The weeping begins. It’s as if I’ve sprung a leak. I’m full of unshed tears spilling from my eyes. Am I having some kind of breakdown? Perhaps it’s a sign of my survival ability that I’ve set up this opportunity for collapse, a place where nothing has to be taken care of, where I can weep and stare at the wind on the water for as long as it takes for movement to find me.
There are no short cuts. We cannot heal what has not been grieved, we cannot grieve the loss that has not been experienced, and we can’t experience something fully until we do. Slowly, something else begins: Healing happens when I’m not looking, and I’m pulled back into life. I notice the children running in the playground, the tree by my window in bloom. I’m surprised at how life works within me and on me. Like all organisms we are life choosing life. This is how we are made.
The healing was a reunion with aspects of self: I did not know I’d wandered so far from who and what I am. Far enough to have forgotten the fragrance of home- the warm cinnamon scent of the place where I can surrender to unguarded joy. I’d wandered so long I’d stopped missing or even looking for myself. Even my longing had become muted, an underwater echo, blue green and easy to miss. Each day now a little more of who I am is retrieved from the ocean floor. I am welcomed home by my own heart- the prodigal daughter- longed for, looked for, home at last.
I spiralled through layers of grief and healing: Bittersweet, it’s hard to separate the joy of returning to myself from the sadness of missing the one who is gone. What is lost and what is found are tangled together, like legs caught in the bed sheets after a restless night of love-making or loneliness. I tried to earn a shared dream, having forgotten there is no bargaining for faith or love. These are there by grace or not at all.
At fifty-five, my children grown, I explored being alone: What I call loneliness is most often a vague desire to have someone to distract me from some deeper discontent. The truth is that most of the time, I enjoy being alone. There are mundane joys: not having to pick up after anyone else; being able to follow the thread of reading, or writing ,or dreaming simply because there is no one else’s schedule to consider. I walk home at twilight after visiting a friend and stop at a market to buy yogurt, and blueberries, and pale yellow roses. Feeling a deep sense of contentment, I walk slowly, savouring the scent of the night air. I look forward to reading in bed and listening to the sounds of the city slowly subside. The gift of living alone is in learning to truly enjoy being fully with myself.
A new life takes shape within and around me. I’d lost touch with my longing- that inner compass that seeks to take us deeper into being who we are. Without that longing we lose our way, we stop dreaming, we start surviving, and eventually we are ambivalent about even that.
This is my healing: I am making my way back to my own longing. I’d dropped the threads that could lead me back to my centre. I’d talked myself out of knowing what I knew about myself. On some level I must have believed this was necessary to be in with Jeff. I lost myself. It’s good to be home.
This coming home to my self probably would not have happened within this marriage. No one is more surprised than I am to realize I am truly grateful. The pain of separation was searing, but the joy of reunion with my own heart is a priceless gift.