(Once more we’d boarded a long haul flight and were hitting those rough air currents again)
Towards the end of the first 12 months of our daughter’s life, Bill began to develop severe migraines, most likely triggered by sleep deprivation. As time went on these became chronic, until he faced them daily. Just as my strength was returning I went from being cared for to care giver in a complete role reversal. It was very difficult for all of us but I remember a sense of relief to be well enough in myself to be able to do this. Bill was and is incredible. I genuinely don’t know how he managed to keep working through what he was going through. My admiration knows no bounds for his persistence. Pain filled days, darkened rooms, lack of sleep… the pressure was heavy and unrelenting. I realised that I really couldn’t be out touring and on the road again, with Bill in that condition trying to look after our daughter. So as I released my Stone’s Throw, Lament Of The Selkie album, I had to let go of the big push of live work that would normally accompany an album. After two years of trialling various medications, some of which had severe side effects, Bill finally found a medication that did at least help, even if it didn’t prevent the onslaught of the migraines.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. We made the most of the moments that were migraine free and grabbed days at the beach in the sun when it shone (a rare commodity living in Wales) as well as when it rained. We recorded and worked on our creative music projects in the evenings and did our best to defy the ongoing battles of health hardships. As with any chronic condition, it becomes normalised as you learn to live with it.
But there was another turbulent factor that began to sweep across the UK however, namely the political business of “austerity.” The cuts to arts and third sector budgets were becoming increasingly severe. We watched on as our peers and colleagues began to find themselves out of work and then, Bill’s own role as creative director of his self founded arts charity became more and more unsustainable. Revenue funding was nowhere to be found. Eventually the heart breaking decision was made that after running for over a decade the best thing to do with Bill’s People Around Here charity was to amalgamate it into a larger organisation, to enable some of its work to continue. As Bill’s own job searching began, it soon became apparent how crushing and far reaching the regime of austerity cuts have been for so many and inevitably, despite our best efforts, our worst case scenario “that if we couldn’t pay the rent once the charity had ended then we’d have to put our stuff in storage and stay with my folks for a while” is what happened.
Home and studio packed up, just our clothes and an acoustic guitar, our pets, (one of whom has now passed away) and as many toys as we could fit into a bag for our 4 year old daughter.
In many ways for me this latest round of turbulence has felt so much easier than any of the post birth trauma. I can walk, I can function, I can sing, I can carry and lift, physically and emotionally. I can fully engage with life and all the people in my life. Helping to found the One Day Without Us campaign in support of migrants (the week after we packed up our home) was both a great experience and a great distraction strategy. Sometimes it helps to just focus on others, many of whom have far greater troubles. More and more I find myself empathising with the devastation that is faced by refugees…This part of the story isn’t over yet, we’ve lived in limbo, travelling the length and breadth of the UK for interviews (picking up small bits of freelance work along the way) for 11 months… but events of recent weeks have brought new hope with them that very soon we will be back in a home of our own…
People say we have to embrace our pain and my kneejerk reaction is to want to yell “No, that’s not it, that’s missing the point of what pain is, that’s masochism.” Yes, I accept that there will be pain in my life, but that doesn’t mean that I want to run head on to embrace and greet it, generally I’ll run the opposite direction and try to repel it if possible. I want to be spared from pain and to save others from having to go through an experience of it if possible, but I know that sometimes there is just no way to avoid pain.
Going beyond the semantics and working from the understanding that to embrace means to accept, (as in embracing an idea) I can fully comprehend that pain is an essential part of life and that without it there can be no growth.
I do not accept that all pain is justified or “meant to be”.
I do believe however, that all of us are able to take our brokenness and allow something new, beautiful and true to be born out of, and in response to, the wreckage of our lived experiences. This doesn’t have to be via an art form, though it is what most artists do, but it can equally be through conversations, life choices and attitudes. Sometimes we can attribute new purpose, worth and meaning to ourselves that becomes far greater than the initial suffering and that has the power to reach and heal far and wide. Sometimes it’s just about being authentic. Not having a grand plan or wisdom or ambition, just saying, “This is who I am here and now. This is my life.” And through that honest vulnerability others can say, “Yes, I know that too in my own way, this is how it happened for me”… and so as we resonate, we discover we are not alone.
Some pain we can bear. Some pain is unbearable and we break.
So do I embrace it?
I embrace life.
In embracing life I acknowledge that pain is part of the fullness of this mortal existence. If the physical process childbirth reveals one thing, it’s that there is no life without pain.
I learn to embrace the growth I can make out of pain.
I learn to embrace and lean with compassion into the part of myself that experienced pain.
I learn to embrace a process of recovery.
I learn to embrace a process of facing up to pain and in doing so destroying its power.
I learn to embrace a process of overcoming my fear of pain.
I learn to own my pain as part of who I am and I can choose to hold onto it or find a way of letting it go (and sometimes I think I do both at the same time.)
I learn to embrace my story and the sum of the parts that make up the whole.
None of that is easy... (Brief pause for my cynical internal voice moment saying, “You embrace life?! Could you sound any more pretentious? At least suffix it with a…“well I try to” statement...”)
I don’t deny any of the struggle, anger, frustration, bitterness, loneliness, self doubt or hopelessness I experience as I try and I fail and try and fail again. Every now and then however, I find that I can and that I am and that I have managed to learn to do some of the above and that is reason enough to continue to try. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am now (for better or for worse) if I hadn’t gone through these and other experiences.
In telling my story I reclaim the narrative and choose the interpretation that best serves me to continually overcome. I can now perceive myself not as the victim of a specific set of circumstances but as a survivor who finds a way through.
I rediscover my story reflected in the words and lives of others; in the myths and the legends, in the novels and songs and paintings and poems, sacred and secular and across the blurry line where there is no longer any divide, and in those moments of connection my own narrative becomes part of something greater. We are all stories and each of our stories interconnects to make up the epic tale of humanity in the cosmos that has been ebbing and flowing from the moment life first crawled out of the ocean. The pages of our brokenness aren’t always an ending. Sometimes they lead into new chapters of redemption as we regain ourselves, or even just survive to live another day. Sometimes the new beginning comes from a totally unexpected angle as life takes on a twist that we never could have predicted. Sometimes it may be as simple as an unexpected act of kindness or empathy from another human.
The turbulence is never going to stop shaking up the long haul flights of our lives.
Dark days and anxious nights will visit far too often... and stay far too long…
But, if I am going to say that these last five years have taught me anything it’s the truth in the words that Leonard Cohen sang:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”