I’ve been listening to this song this holiday season. It’s the story of Bethlehem, in a modern setting, refugees seeking a safe place to call home.
It makes me lonesome, and at peace, at the same time. You see, I think I’ve been seeking some sort of refuge myself, for the past five years since my separation. It isn’t the same – it isn’t war. It isn’t utter poverty. It isn’t drought. But it is displacement. I’ve been learning how to rebuild. And so many, many people the world over have to learn this, have had to learn this so many times in so many places for all sorts of reasons. Some dire. But for many, it’s more commonplace. We all lose dreams, at some point. I’m learning not to dwell so much in the loss, but to appreciate what I’ve achieved, what I’ve won. I’ve won peace. And freedom.
My friend, who I met several years ago at a support group for survivors of violence – where I learned what psychological violence is, and that yes, I did belong there in that group of grieving, healing women – saw me yesterday. She saw me. She understood the feelings I am struggling with, regarding whether I can ever really love again, she understood my fears and my fierce protection of my space and time and autonomy. How trust is not a thing easily given, or once lost, ever really regained. She gets it. She has so many of the same scars too. She’s not ready to date, and I admire that for her, even am a bit envious of the differences in her life. How she has full custody. How she is able to blame, and name, and thus move on. Mine, in contrast, is not a story of good-guy-vs-bad-guy. So it’s not so easy to blame. Mine is a story of addiction and mental illness and trying too hard. Not believing in myself enough to walk away earlier. Wanting the future I envisioned so much that I couldn’t see the present that I had. Eventually his mental illness clashed up against mine, and a life-saving choice had to be made. Mine is a story of sadness, and making the best of what’s left. And my friend meets me there, she sees this, she sees me. And she reminded me of what I do have, now. The peace of not worrying about explosive rage – at least, not when my moody teenage son isn’t around. The quiet of a home free from endless debate and opinions and mockery and questions. The freedom from having to soothe tempers and resolve conflict and anticipate and prevent anxiety or constrain the need for control or believe anyone else’s version of reality. Release from isolation. Relief from a constant state of vigilance, every word, action, decision monitored and judged and found lacking.
And so I am thinking about refuge. About what that means. My Christmas tree this year is leaning, from the weight of handmade ornaments I’ve accumulated. That first Christmas, there was barely a handful, on the spindly deciduous tree I’d intentionally chosen, determined to make new traditions instead of just replacing what I’d left behind with copies of the same. And now, five years of rebuilding later, it’s time to either start giving some ornaments away, or buy a bigger tree. This, this is refuge. A new tree, waiting with empty branches, with hope and certainty that they will be filled. And they have been. Slowly, one new memory at a time.
This TED Talk I’ve been thinking about talks of psychological health. It talks about how we need to take this more seriously. How we need to protect it. How much more we value the body than we do the mind. It speaks of how loneliness is defined as how much you feel disconnected socially or emotionally from those around you. Failure also wounds you psychologically. As does rejection. Practicing emotional hygiene means working on your self-esteem, so that you are less vulnerable to emotional pain. It means tackling your rumination habits. It means living in the now, instead of the past (depression-oriented) or the future (anxiety-inducing). My sister likes to remind me that I’m the most cheerful person she knows. Which makes it hard for her to acknowledge my depression, or what I’ve been through. But it also compliments me, as cheerfulness is something I’ve chosen to consciously pursue, as a resilience characteristic, something within my reach, and within my control. My mood is generally not within my control. But my response to it is. And so, I can take my deep psychological wounds, examine them, and choose to address them. Yes, I still feel that deep loneliness, separated not just from my ex and my past, but also from many of my friends who simply don’t live anything that resembles my life. They don’t understand how I can’t identify with their complaints about their husbands not taking on enough of the childcare or housework, or how I can’t tackle my mountain of debt by kicking a latte habit, or how monitoring my kids’ screentime isn’t my biggest parenting challenge. They don’t understand my envy that one of my friends, after suffering a burnout, has chosen to freelance and contract from home from her easier and marketable skillset rather than going back to the tougher work she had been doing in a toxic environment. I admire and honour her choice. But I also wish I had the freedom to make it, too. She has a husband for a safety net, and no young children she has to house. Her work is now simply to recover, not my double duty of both recovering and preventing. But, I tell myself that I will get there too. Someday, my children will be grown and I will be able to downsize and get debt-free. I will be able to let go of a paycheque too. I will have the freedom to write full-time too. I’m practicing healthy self-talk like this, self-coaching, learning to be a better friend to myself. That helps more with loneliness than most social activities I pursue, and it helps me enjoy those that I do pursue more, because I can be fully present, instead of silently criticizing or doubting myself constantly in my head.
And in the meantime, while I wait to get to retirement when I can actually practice the pace my mind and body need, instead of contorting myself into a pace I can barely sustain, I am moving forward with my plan to make and sell some art prints. I’ve had to put this plan on hold in order to save up for the up-front costs of my printing, but Christmas has been kind to my art nest egg. So this one piece of my future is now no longer something I have to wait for. I can claim this for myself, get my art out into the world in a bigger way than just Instagraming it. This is a big step towards healing my sense of failure, of rejection, of building up my self-esteem. Reframing myself. I was an artist before I met my husband, before I had kids, before I began my career. It has been my outlet, my source of comfort, my therapy my whole life long, through every depressive episode and in between. It’s time to set some of it free to go live a life of its own out in the world. Someone somewhere might need to have the results of some of the lessons I’ve learned up on their wall.
I’m approaching my home in the same way. Choosing to make it the home that I want, not just the house I made my escape to. Not just the safe space it is, not just a refuge, but a loved space. A home. One small change at a time. A couple of years ago, I planted a pear tree in my yard. I harvested my first (and only) pear from it this summer. This coming Spring, I think I will try propagating a new tree from a cutting from its branches – I’d literally be branching out. I think I’m ready.
Refuge means so many things. Shelter. A safe place. A chance to take stock, find your feet again, recover. But at some point, we must move on. Refuge is only ever intended to be temporary. Relief. Now, I need more. And this, needing more, is itself an amazing sign of progress. It means I want more from my life – I want to build a life that isn’t just free from the psychological violence I’ve experienced, but that is full of love. Of happiness. Of many small and daily joys.
I heard that refuge song for the first time performed live for me by The Good Lovelies at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, as a Christmas gift to me from my sister. The song talks about unfairness. I’ve learned not to look for fairness. But instead, like the song says, to wear my walking shoes, to ask the gates of hope to let me through. We can all choose to carry gifts of gold. To love the world.
At that concert, these three glorious women sang to me. They’ve been singing to me for years now – I discovered them, thanks to CBC Radio 2, after my separation, when music was often the only thing getting through to me. Music was mine. It was something I could hold on to, I could identify with, I could choose, that was free of my tarnished past or any manipulation. They’ve sung to me in the car, in my lonely kitchen, when I was on my knees sobbing in the shower. They’ve reminded me that no one gets more than they can take. That everything’s going to be alright. When they sang to me at that concert of seeing gold, of the shapeshifting I’ve done, of the heavy lifter that I am, tears dripped onto my lap. Tears of acknowledgement. Tears of knowing.
Every one of us has the choice to live the life we want. Whether we can change our circumstances or not. Whether it takes too many years to change those circumstances or not. We can choose to value the health of our minds as much as that of our bodies.
My Winter Solstice / New Year’s resolution this year is to establish a daily yoga practice in my life. Even if it’s only one stretch. One sun salutation. One breath. It’s OK to start small. But steady. To embrace my inner yogi, to make the time and space to breathe deeply every day, to remember the sacred being that I am, who I am at the core, beyond all the needs and demands and requests and questions and whinings and tasks, and especially, beyond the past. This is the life I want. A life full of music, art, laughter, yoga, health, love. A home, not just a refuge. Messy, and mine.