Monday, 19 November 2018
Snowdrops and witch hazel
I'm learning that a book is two stories: the story within the book, and the story of writing the book. The two merge and fuse and blend in all sorts of unexpected ways. I'm currently reading Tom Cox's Help the Witch, a collection of ghost stories and almost-ghost stories. They’re unsettling in a way that I find strangely satisfying. And as I read them I remember his blog posts from last winter, when he was writing the book, having taken himself off to a freezing and remote plague village in the Peak District, to live alone and often snowed in, in an undoubtedly haunted house on top of a mountain. That is commitment. The stories, especially the first one, after which the collection is named and which so far is my favourite, have such a sense of bleak, harsh cold; of the unknowable, the elemental; of physical remoteness and history so close it’s tangible. Tom’s writing - I call him Tom, but I have actually never met the man and don’t know him at all – has encouraged me to think more about the interaction between physical landscapes and our own emotional landscapes, physical weather and emotional weather. As I’m writing a memoir of events which happened just a few years ago, the dance between that story and the story of writing it, between then and now, within and without, is so intimate and so intricate. Right now winter is pressing in and I find myself facing my own winter of sorts.
Last Tuesday, Jon – my husband of ten years and Arthur’s dad – announced that he was ending our relationship. Less than twenty-four hours later, he had packed his bags and gone.
The evenings are eerily quiet here. There’s a post-apocalyptic sense to it, as if the worst has happened and I am somehow still here. As if the walls tremble just a little with the memory of everything that’s happened, everything which is over now. And the future is so uncertain.
It’s hard to know what to say about it, without airing dirty laundry and encroaching upon the privacy of others. (A theme of writing the book, in fact. And Jon will approve this post before I publish it.) I think it’s fair to say that Jon has some problems which we’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to tackle together for a number of years. Those problems are causing such difficulties that it’s time for Jon to step away and confront them alone, hopefully with professional help. He’s determined to do so and we are on very amicable terms. I hope to be there with open arms if and when he sorts himself out, but a lot of damage is done and I honestly don’t know, at the moment, if I will be able to welcome him back. We are all heartbroken.
As the shock subsides, I find myself embracing a new toughness and leaning to the coldness of winter as it comes. I have always loved how sunflowers turn their heads to follow the sun over the course of the day. What a lesson. There were sunflowers in my nan’s garden when I was little and I thought they were magical, growing right up into the sky like that. Arthur and I grew sunflowers this year and I so enjoyed them. I could have wept when they died in the autumn and I had to hack down the stalks and bundle those sad brown husks into plastic garden waste bags. Now I find myself thinking of snowdrops and bright spidery witch hazel and even purple pansies – there is a lot to be said for plants that endure the cold. Resilience is a word often misused, especially in mental health: it’s not invulnerability or imperviousness to damage. It’s the ability to accommodate damage, to cradle it in your hands, claim it as your own, to live with it and grow with it. It’s not the stuff of inspirational posters, but I do think it has its own bleak beauty. It says: everything hurts but I’m still here.
This past week, I have been firefighting practicalities and finances, whilst trying to comfort a devastated little boy and stare down my own grief and anger. But I have not been alone: family are nearby; I have friends on the end of the phone (some of whom have put in a fair amount of overtime this week); and the dear ones of Twitter have sent a steady stream of good wishes. Finances, also, are looking much better than they were, as Jon is going to live with his parents a while in order to keep paying our rent. This means I don’t have to scramble for employment – and employment that would enable me to still do the school run, etc. I have savings too. I can continue to do most of my history work and my mental health work, at least for the next nine months or so, and I can continue writing this book. But, longer-term, there is still a lot of uncertainty, and I want to be transparent about that. I am going to finish this bloody book, though, even if it takes until I’m sixty. I’m still in if you are?
I could never have anticipated how writing this book would be. Your support, since I launched the crowdfunding page, has been incredible, and I’ve read and transcribed and treasured every kind message. You endlessly renew my sense of mission and of hope. The writing so far has been instructive and productive for me, but it’s simultaneously been slow and painful - and it’s likely to get harder before it gets easier, especially now. But I’m going to hang tight and grow through the cold. Everything hurts but I’m still here.
Thanks for being here too.