I stopped writing at fifty. It seemed I had nothing more to say. Me! Who always had an opinion, could give lectures about the state of anything with confidence. Especially to my children. Had no more words. Nothing. Empty. The blank pages of my journal stared back at me, my blog stayed un-updated. Weeks, months have gone by without recording any thoughts or moments bar the list of to do things to remember and brief notes from conferences and workshops attended and led. Where there used to be dotted throughout my journals personal reflections and memories and making sense of things there were now blank pages with only the whispered hope of filling them one day with beautiful, if heart-wrenching, prose. It did not seem so. The pages stayed blank. Open. Waiting. Waiting for what, I am not yet sure. Perhaps waiting for a new life, a new beginning, a new way of recording. One I cannot imagine or create a picture of in my mind. I find myself at the precipice, the jumping off point. Ready to step out over the abyss, trusting that as I step all will unfold – the bridge will appear, the colour will fill in, the landscape will take form. But until then the pages stay blank, open and waiting. Breathing, with a life of their own. A life I am not yet privy to. It is as if I must first learn my own teachings of how it is to stay and be with the unknown. How it is to be close up and intimate with the not knowing, as the haunting title of an essay by John Tarrant informs us – ‘not knowing is most intimate’. Not knowing what is ahead, yet trusting myself enough to step out into that unknown. Just as David Whyte instructs, in his beautiful poem, to take that first step, the step that we do not want to take. Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.
The abyss, however, I already have intimate knowledge of and perhaps it is in the writing of that story that new words and new life will come. That the path over the abyss will light up. It has taken years to see, recognise and fully know the abyss, to stand close enough to the edge to look over and see what has been patiently waiting all these years for me at the bottom. Despite a childhood of reckless and exuberant cliff and tree climbing with little fear of heights, I suddenly one day at twenty-one, on the side of a mountain, panicked, froze, and could no longer go on. I felt immense fear of literally falling off the mountain. A relative gentle slope it was. I had to sit, turn back and scoot off the slope on my hands and bottom, until I reached a level path below. From that day I was fearful, even phobic, of heights. No longer able to easily stand close to or look over the edge. That state lasted for the next fifteen years until the moment I recognised that on that other fateful day I had indeed, contrary to what I had always believed, fallen over the edge into the abyss. That day my psyche shattered and split and a part of me went into hiding, protected from the world in order to survive. That day I no longer belonged anywhere or to anyone. Not even to myself. How wise we are, and how enormous is our capacity for survival, to protect our own fragile knowing until we are ready to see. I continued as near normal, even thriving on many levels, until I finally recognised myself at the bottom of the abyss and was able to spend increasingly longer moments close in, peering over, before eventually climbing down and offering myself a loving embrace and helping hand out. A recognition of my aloneness and loneliness and inability to let others in, a moment of standing close in and being intimate with the not knowing.
It has, since then, been a journey through the shadows of the valley of death. A journey close in with death, mine and that of others. A falling apart and rebuilding of my physical health that I had blindly trusted would always be there. A coming to terms with my shattered self that shame and fear of vulnerability had kept me aloof from. A close friend told me years back how intimidating she had found me to be at medical school. My passions and protests kept me aloof. This reflection, knowing how I had felt on the inside, surprised me, perhaps they should not have. They were some of the loneliest moments channelled into supporting the causes of others. Early adulthood naturally is a time of confusion and pain and growth. Yet not everyone gets to look into the abyss and contemplate how it would be to simple let go into the forever depths of its darkness.
Now decades later, having climbed back into the abyss and loved myself out, I am finally experiencing the growth of my wings. Intimately knowing that when I step out into the unknown a bridge will appear, no longer afraid of heights and increasingly curious at every edge. Stepping close in. Leaning over for the long view toward the horizon opening beyond, full with colour, colour emanating from the splitting of the light as it enters the dark. Perhaps it is time to step out, trust and truly belong to life, to myself, to others. Perhaps it is time to find the words that will open the abyss to and for everyone. An abyss that is not purely my own but one that runs through the history of time, of my time, of my family’s time, of my heritage, the world I have been born into and need to share. And into that abyss the light shines not just for me but for all of us.
At fifty I stopped writing, stepped close in and intimate with not knowing. And through this deep vulnerability step beyond the abyss into the unknown to create new stories.
May we all see, recognise and love ourselves to live in the light with gentleness, clarity and kindness.