This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, Some momentary awareness comes As an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. - Rumi, The Guest House
When I shared some of what has been happening to me recently in my Christmas letter, I said that it was a story about light. Now that it is finished, I think that perhaps this is a story about darkness. But it is also a story about new beginnings, and how the two can coexist. This is a story about winter, and about the coming of spring. This is a new year’s story.
You might think that it’s a little late for a new year’s story – indeed, that is largely what the story itself is about. But yesterday after sitting in meditation for a while, I looked up at the calendar on the wall above my cushion to discover that Tuesday – as well as being Pancake Day – is also Tibetan New Year. This made me smile. Perhaps this story is not late after all. Perhaps it is right on time.
By way of background for those who have not read my Christmas letter: I have had long covid since last July. In November, I suffered a breakdown in the course of which I realised that my illness was largely the result of unresolved trauma and chronic stress. As I began to tell myself the story of what had happened to me, my long covid symptoms suddenly lifted. It was an extraordinary and profoundly cathartic experience, but it was also a profoundly challenging one. Coming out of this experience, I feel in many ways like a new person. But coming out of this experience has itself not been easy.
The old me would almost certainly never have written this story at all. She would currently be driving herself to the brink of another breakdown stressing about getting her book finished. She certainly wouldn’t have allowed herself to write anything else. But I’m learning that this is part of my writing process. (I never had a “writing process” before long covid, unless you count staring at a screen for hours on end thanklessly trying to grind out words.) I’m learning to trust this process: in writing this piece, I’ve found myself reflecting on how change comes to the world, and some of the words I thought would belong here have actually made their way into the final chapter of my book.
I’m also finding that I don’t always get much of a choice about what insists on being written. In the words of Donald Eadie – whose book “Into the Foothills of Transformation” has been an indispensable companion in recent months – “writing has become one of my ways of accepting and integrating what is going on around and within me. At times it has become so necessary it is as though something wants to be born.” This story wanted to be born. So here we are.
I hesitated over whether to share this publicly. It is very personal, and feels both rather exposing and somewhat self-indulgent. But today I picked up my copy of “Wintering” by Katherine May – another book I’ve been leaning on a lot lately, having bought it as a Christmas present to myself after my burnout. “You’ll find wisdom in your winter”, I read, “and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us.” Donald also writes of similar hesitations over whether to share his work, saying that “in doing so my hope is that we may encourage each other to be more open in our shared journey into the depths of humanity.” If it’s good enough for this very wise man and this very wise woman, I thought, it’s good enough for me. So here, again, we are.
When I was acutely unwell with long covid, I listened to a lot of music, and during this time a friend suggested that if I was after something calming and restful I should opt for Ludovico Einaudi. I took her advice, and this prompted me to order some sheet music and to actually start playing my long-neglected digital piano for the first time in years.
The first piece I learned was a long one called Ancora, which means ‘still, yet, again’, or alternatively, ‘anchor’. The second was a much shorter one called Inizio, which means ‘start’ or ‘beginning’. After finishing my Christmas letter, I formed a vague plan to record a version of Inizio and put it up on the blog to coincide with the New Year, to symbolise the fresh start I was making.
My inner storyteller is fond of symmetry and symbolism. She likes to believe that things can be wrapped up neatly in a bow, that the chaos and misery of this life all makes some kind of sense. In December, I became uncharacteristically superstitious about dates like the solstice or the new year. I hoped that these milestones would be the turning point of my story, that from now on I would be able to put all my suffering behind me, to close the book on it and start a new chapter.
I sent my Christmas letter out to a scattering of friends and family, and had an e-mail back from some old friends of my parents called Paul and Polly. “We’re glad you feel you may be coming out the other side, although I’m sure there will be ups and downs as there always are,” it said. “Do take care of yourself.” Perhaps they had astutely detected the hint of over-optimism in what I’d written, my desire to believe that everything was going to be smooth sailing from now on. Either way, it was a salutary note of caution. I tucked it away in my heart, and have remembered it often in the weeks since.
As January rolled around, it transpired that, unsurprisingly, neither my health problems nor the difficult situations I was facing had magically vanished overnight. I became despondent. What happened to my new start? What happened to things getting easier? What happened to life finally giving me a fucking break? I didn’t feel I could honestly share a recording of Inizio in this gloomy mood. Quite frankly, I just didn’t feel like it.
Even then, I still didn’t really get the memo. I told myself that twelfth night was coming up, that maybe this was the point where I would have an epiphany that would finally turn things around. That night, I was woken up in the middle of the night by my son clambering into bed with me, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got my phone out to put on a sleep meditation, and saw that I had a WhatsApp message from my friend Beth. She’d sent me two pieces by John O’Donohue: a poem called ‘A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness’ and a prose piece called ‘The Heart of Winter’. I read them in bed at 3am, and was struck by these words in particular:
“Within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring … Yet beneath the surface of winter, the miracle of spring is already in preparation … The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual slow beat always inching its way forward; change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival. Because nothing is abrupt, the beginning of spring nearly always catches us unawares. It is there before we see it; and then we can look nowhere without seeing it. Change arrives in nature when time has ripened. There are no jagged transitions or crude discontinuities.”
This, then, was my epiphany: that there was to be no epiphany, no sudden moment of blinding clarity when all my doubts and confusion would resolve themselves, when the way ahead would reveal itself and all my troubles would miraculously disappear. That life doesn’t really work like that. That the solstice is the midpoint of winter, not the end, and that new year is just an arbitrary date on the calendar. But that the world still turns, and spring comes along nonetheless.
I texted Beth to say thank you. I said the passage had struck a chord with how I was feeling, with the seeming absence of a fresh start: “Just have to keep the faith that spring will come!” She sent me a heart emoji.
The next day, I picked up my copy of ‘Wintering‘, and opened it at the chapter on Epiphany. I read about the time the author had spent at home with her son during a crisis of their own. She says, “I had to prove to him that the tide would turn.” She draws him a curve in the shape of “a wonky smile” and says, “This is the shape of a good story. This is the beginning and the end. And in the middle, see, is always the lowest point. It’s called the nadir. The moment when things have got so bad that you just can’t imagine a way out. And the fight back begins here,” she says, shifting her pencil a little to the right.
“So after that, it all gets better?” her son asks. “Not quite,” she says. “There are ups and downs, but from now on the hero of the story is working towards a solution. Even with each setback, he gains ground.” (I underline this bit and write in the margin: “Fucking YES!”) Her son draws over the line, makes it squigglier. “So this is what it’s really like,” he says. “This is how stories work.” “Yes,” she replies, “except in real life, it carries on happening. The adventure doesn’t end on the last page.”
Reading this, I realised that the nadir of my latest ordeal was not the winter solstice at all. If we are telling the story of what happened to me in November, then the nadir was undoubtedly the day after I finally got prescribed sleep medication, after more than three weeks of almost no sleep, but was unable to collect it from the pharmacy. I started having convulsions and vertigo and panic attacks and feared that I was genuinely going mad. I now know that I was so tired I had been forgetting to take my prescribed medication, and that these were all withdrawal symptoms – but I did not know that then. Thanks to my husband, and to the friend who kept company with me during this dark night of the soul, I got the sleep medication later that day. From that point on, I was working towards a solution.
But if we are telling the story of my trauma, then perhaps the nadir was the moment of panic and despair that triggered November’s “outpouring of cathartic creativity” (Beth’s phrase) in the first place – the moment when all my walls collapsed and I had no choice but to face my demons. Making sense of my trauma didn’t magically make it go away. It certainly didn’t mean my suffering was over. But from that point on, I was working towards a solution.
Or, if we are telling the story of my long covid, perhaps the nadir was the crashing relapse I’d had at the beginning of October. At one point during this crash, my son climbed into my lap and asked me to read him a story. I didn’t want to let him down – my therapist had explained that the unpredictability of my illness was damaging and anxiety-inducing for him, which might explain why he was pushing me away, and also why we had been called into a meeting to let us know that he was acting out at nursery – so I did.
Afterwards, I literally crawled up the stairs, collapsed into bed, and sobbed. I had not felt this awful since August. I texted a friend and fellow long covid sufferer: “I’m scared.” She reassured me that such relapses were “worse emotionally than they are for your long-term prognosis”. She said that whilst I could not know how and when I would recover, it would not always be like this.
That thought was hard to hold on to in the days that followed. But with hindsight, this was not just the lowest point of my long covid journey, but also the turning point. It forced me to get serious about managing my illness, conserving my energy and prioritising my recovery. From that point on, I was working towards a solution.
By the same token, my new start had in reality begun well before the winter solstice. You could date it to the day after I finally got some sleep, when I spent the morning chatting to my father-in-law, Chris, over a pot of tea. I always used to feel bad when I made Chris tea. He likes it made properly, in a teapot, left to brew for a decent amount of time. I was always too impatient for this: I had shit to be getting on with. So the tea I made him was often made straight into the cup, and if I did use a teapot it was usually too weak, poured out too soon.
That day, I joked that he wouldn’t have to put up with such shit tea from me any more, because the new me would actually let it mash properly. “Perhaps you’ve learned patience,” he said. I said that long covid forces you to learn patience, that you just don’t get better otherwise – although in the process of writing this story, I’ve realised that old habits die hard, and I still have a way to go in learning to be patient with myself and with my recovery. “Zen and the Art of Brewing Tea – title of your next book!” he joked.
I ended up telling Chris a lot of my worries, and learning some things about his own life that I didn’t know. He reassured me that whatever happened, we would still be ok. Afterwards, I thanked him for helping me get clearer on things. He hummed and hawed and shook his head and said I didn’t have to listen to him. “But that’s just it,” I said. “I do want to listen to you. I never used to be good at listening, did I? I never fucking listened to you before.”
Or you could date my new start to the first weekend in December, when my son had been invited to three birthday parties and I made it to two of them. After months of barely being able to leave the house, I was able to buy cards and presents, help make squash and put up bunting, take photos and hold my friend’s baby. Giddy with the excitement of being out, I discovered that apparently – after a lifetime of self-defining as introverted and socially anxious – I was now the kind of person who enjoys chatting to random strangers, who blows kisses at people I barely know. I almost didn’t recognise myself.
Then there was the day I went out to pick up party supplies for my own son’s birthday, and ended up getting lured into the Scope charity shop by an all-purple window display. Purple is my favourite colour, and, as the shop assistant explained to me, turns out also to be the colour symbolising disability rights. Almost everything I tried on was a perfect fit, and I ended up buying myself an entire new winter wardrobe, including two coats (my old one was literally disintegrating). I told the shop assistant that, having been stuck at home with long covid since July, I was quite happy to give them all my money, since I felt I now had a bit of insight into how challenging living with disabilities can be.
As Katherine May writes in Wintering, “this, then, is how I turned my year: not in a single, high-stakes moment, but in a series of gestures that gently acknowledge the change taking place, but which have an eye on the continuities, too.”
There are countless other moments I could have chosen to foreground, countless other stories I can tell about what has happened to me in the past six months. Like twisting a kaleidoscope to reveal different patterns, we can arrange and rearrange the material of our lives in an almost infinite variety of ways as we try to make sense of it all. If we are lucky, the stories we tell offer a window on the truth. But they are never the whole truth. Reality is far messier and more complicated than that.
The other day, I picked up a book by Pema Chodron and opened it at a random page. (I read this way a lot these days, and find that mysteriously, I almost always get exactly the words I need to hear.) The chapter title was “No such thing as a true story”, and it opened with a Taoist saying: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” It was all about not getting too attached to our storylines. A few days later, my friend Laurence came round for dinner and told me about the masters course he’s taking. He said he’d been given the mantra, “Don’t marry your hypothesis – just flirt with it.”
I am trying to take this advice on board. It is said that we are “meaning making beings”, and writing stories is how I make meaning out of chaos. But I’m learning that, once written, stories can acquire a certain solidity. The lure of a good story can be hard to resist, and we find ourselves fitting the facts or our fallible memories to the story rather than the other way around. As Julia Galef argues in ‘The Scout Mindset’, we must remain open to the possibility that the facts don’t really fit the story we want to tell. I am trying not to get too married to my stories. I just flirt with them.
In early January, after I’d decided that Inizio could get to fuck, my mind instead started evolving a piece about Ancora – about the feeling of still being stuck dealing with the same old shit, again, and about the strategies I was using to anchor myself in difficult moments. I thought this would be the next thing I’d write, and that I’d put it up on the blog along with a recording of Ancora. I thought it might speak to people who were also having a tough start to the new year. I started compiling a list of resources that I thought might be useful for others in the same boat.
This also appealed to my inner storyteller’s sense of symmetry. Since Ancora was a piece that had accompanied me in the early days of my long covid, when I’d recorded snatches of it and sent them to a few friends, I thought it would be nice to record the whole thing to symbolise my emerging out the other side. I liked the idea of bookending my experience this way. But then I caught a cold, and life started happening, and most of the words sloshing around my brain about Ancora have yet to be written (although, slightly to my own surprise, some of them have made their way into this story instead). It also transpires that recording a 12 minute piece without making any mistakes is quite challenging, and I’ve yet to manage a version that I’m happy with.
Then one day in early February, as I was getting my son ready for nursery, he said out of nowhere, “It’s going to be sunny all day!” I glanced out the window. It was grey and drizzly. I said, “Well, it’s not sunny right now, but I like your optimism.” We cycled to nursery in the rain. When we got there, his best friend and her mum were waiting for the staff to come and pick the kids up. I got chatting to the mum, who said that she had seen the first snowdrops that morning. We both expressed hope that the endless parade of nursery colds would soon be at an end.
About half an hour later, the sun came out, and it did indeed stay out for most of the day. I decided that I was ready to record Inizio after all. Every day – every moment – is an opportunity for a fresh start. The next day, I was back in bed with another nursery cold. Plus ça change.
A few days later, I came across a postcard I’d made for myself at a workshop on a choir retreat when my son was about five months old. “Flowers grow back after even the longest winter,” I’d written on the back. “You will too.” In some ways, the last four years have felt like one long, cold, lonely winter. But I’ve learned to love winter. I’ve learned to see the quiet beauty in its pale light and bare trees. I’ve learned that winter is a season of renewal, every bit as much as spring – indeed, that there is no spring without winter. I’ve learned to make friends with winter.
It’s still winter. But I finally feel as though spring is on its way.
Last week, for the first time this year, it was warm enough to sit and work outside at the picnic benches in our local park. I spent a good few hours with my head immersed in rent theory, something that would have been literally impossible for me a few months ago – that at times I had feared might never be possible for me again. A young family at the next table insisted on sharing their pot of Arabic coffee with me. As I drank it, their baby grabbed onto my finger and refused to let go.
The crocuses were out in force, poking up through the detritus of last year’s autumn leaves. I liked this image. In real life, there is no such thing as a clean start. The new gradually displaces the old, and during this time the two coexist. In ‘The Heart of Winter,’ John O’Donohue writes:
“Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality begins to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold. At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it?“
I’ve sat with this idea of crossing thresholds a lot lately. What I like about it is that, like Katherine May’s vision of emergence from the dark of winter, it is not about a single big-bang, “high-stakes moment”. At any moment of our lives, we can make a choice to step forward into something new rather than back into the apparent safety of our familiar habit patterns.
I also like the way it acknowledges that this choice is in itself never easy, never painless. As O’Donohue puts it, “At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope … To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging.” In a similar way, Donald Eadie describes a series of dreams in which he began processing his feelings about his unknown father as “a profound and painful and cathartic gift, yet another beginning within the rest of my life.”
I feel blessed to have had so many hands to hold as I negotiate the challenge of this particular threshold: friends like Beth and Laurence, wise heads like Chris and Paul and Polly, writers like Katherine May and Donald Eadie and John O’Donohue. In different ways, they have all helped to give me the courage to keep stepping forward into something new. But I am also grateful for their reminders that this is not some one-shot opportunity at which I may stand or fall, succeed or fail. It is just another beginning within the rest of my life.
I did record Inizio in the end – you can find it at the bottom of this blog. My recording isn’t perfect. It falters in a few places and is a bit clumsy in others, like a lot of new beginnings. Some of Einaudi’s chord spreads are not designed for those of us with tiny child hands. My husband and I are still experimenting with different ways of recording from the digital piano, and I never quite seem to be able to get the dynamic range I’m after. But that’s life, I suppose.
(The old me was an obsessive perfectionist and a compulsive apologiser, and while the new me is becoming less prone to both of these things, apparently I still can’t quite shake the impulse to pre-emptively highlight my own failings before others have the chance to do so. Still, the mistakes in this recording aren’t nearly as bad as I thought they were when I was making it. For that reason, I find it quite comforting to listen to when I feel like I’ve just massively fucked something up.)
Listening back to Inizio, I realise that I’m actually okay with sharing it at this particular juncture, because it’s not exactly a piece that’s redolent of smooth sailing. In fact, I’d say, it’s at times downright tempestuous. Still, despite the darkness and foreboding of the middle passages, there’s a playful lightness to what surrounds them, which I like. I also like the fact that there’s a new beginning right at the end, which echoes the opening theme after the stormy intermission. As Bluey’s mum says (and yes, as the parent of a four year old, this is my main cultural reference point right now): “We have a little cry, and then we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep going.”
It feels like the right sort of mood for February, when the first signs of spring can alternate with blizzards and frost. This is very much how life has felt for me lately, and I suspect I am not alone. Just as night follows day, I alternate between periods of light and joyfulness and spells of darkness and doubt. I have days when I feel like the new me, strong and brave and confident, and days when I feel more like the old me, tired and sad and vulnerable. Some days I find it easy to see the meaning in my suffering, and even to feel grateful for it; some days I find it hard not to wallow in self pity. But for all the ups and downs, I know the line is trending in the right direction. I am working towards a solution. Even with each setback, I gain ground.
So if your heart is feeling February-ish at the moment, then from my heart to yours: hang in there. Life is a constant parade of ups and downs. There is no happily ever after. But the days are getting lighter. Spring is in the air. And every day is a new beginning.