Awash with Wonder

tell me a story

OpinionShannon ButlerComment

Recently, I was talking with a new friend about the Amy Winehouse documentary and how it had affected me, and she asked, "But would we care about these stories if they weren't those of famous people?". My answer was immediate, "Yes, unequivocally".  

I already do. 

All of my days are narrated by stories; you could pay me in them. My favourite podcasts are the stories of ordinary people; my favourite genre of writing is always a variation of how our personal stories intersect with the themes of the wider world: personal essays, creative non-fiction, memoirs. I am interested in how people make poetry out of the everyday. I like fiction too, but I spend at least some of the time imagining the author creating the story, looking for traces of them in the way they describe the small, easily forgotten things. 

I wish sometimes that I belonged to a culture where stories were more prized. As a species, humans are storytellers, but there are some of us who have a strong tradition of oral storytelling, and these stories are passed down as warnings and lessons and comfort. My family has stories, but we were not close enough for our shared memories to have even similar themes; it feels sometimes as if we grew up in different houses. Which I suppose is true for a lot of our experiences...and that's why reframing our memories into narrative is so important. 

I do not trust my private stories as much as my public ones.

Danielle Laporte wrote recently that the "body knows before the mind does". This has been true for me. Recently, I received a phone call with news that I did not want to hear. At first, I had that constricting pain that makes your heart feel as if it may stop, but immediately after that, my body recalibrated, settled back into my power, said "This will not be the breaking of me". It was only after I had hung up the phone and began to share the news with other people, to hear their stories and to create my own, that the pain came to stay. I invited it with my stories. As long as I was performing that story for myself, the pain was allowed to wreak havoc on me. And because I felt it, I believed that the story must be true. 

It was not -- at least not the version of truth I had to build my foundations on. So I stopped telling it, and the only way I know how to do that is to write a new one. 


What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, and to be without a story is a to be lost in the vastness of world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.
— Rebecca Solnit

There is power in shaping a story, deciding on the lessons learned -- if any -- and the path to the conclusion, and that power belongs to the storyteller, is bestowed in the writing and the telling. The only closure I've ever found is in writing. It is easy for me to share deeply personal stories. I do not feel exposed; I feel empowered. The stories and the feelings they explore are true, but only while I was writing them. Once published, they are a chapter of my life that I am no longer reliving and that do not belong to me in the same way.

Like writing about heartbreak. I wondered: should I immortalise these feelings? Will people read it and imagine I am a perpetually sad girl? Will he read it and imagine that I will pine for him forever? But the reader's interpretation does not matter in the same way that the telling does. Writing was a private act, an exorcism of sorts, and the reading has nothing to do with me. 

Healing is found in stories, but especially in the writing of them. They lack edges when only spoken, are easily changed by the listener's response. The stories we tell only to ourselves are different: they become somehow more solid, reinforced by our obsessive revisiting of them. It is in writing that stories become something else altogether: ours but also not ours. It's a way to package them exactly how we want, to claim ownership but also release them, to no longer need to carry them in the same way. Some stories will need to be rewritten a hundred times before they become any lighter, but, again, that's where the healing is found. So write down your stories. And then tell them to me. 

notes on heartbreak

Love, PersonalShannon ButlerComment
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.
— Rebecca Solnit

In some senses, I will never not be broken hearted again. 

Even though I know that there is a future for me where he will only be a memory, that possibility does not banish the ghost of our shared future. I know this because of times in the past few months where I have been hit by the full force of my loss. Standing in the grocery store, I’ll see something that should not remind me of him but does, like peaches, and I’ll mourn the fact that he is not there to feel those peaches with me, to choose the best ones, to later stand by the kitchen sink — our kitchen sink — and have their juices drip down our chins, content in the certainty of each other. I long for memories we did not get to create, and each time I experience this, it is another minor death that only intensifies my heartbreak. Yes, these instances will become less frequent with time. I will probably love again, or, at least, create a life that I love. But the hope of that does not change the new hurt that I have acquired and am responsible for carrying. The only thing that will change is the way that I carry it. None of us ever truly gets over the events that devastate us; we just find new ways to manage or ignore them. 

I resent this new hurt. I do not welcome the way that it will change me, the way I will have to consciously force myself to be braver and more vulnerable in all areas of my life but especially in love. I hate every quote that tries to frame suffering as character building or a rite of passage for those who are truly in possession of inner beauty, in the same way that I hate every clumsy cliche offered by the well-meaning people who try to lessen my pain. 

I do not want to heal; I want to rewind time and return to when I was neither changed by love nor heartbreak. Healing will only create scar tissue; I want my unblemished skin returned to me. This is an impossibility, and it makes me angry. Anger is good for a time but unsustainable. Who do I direct my anger at? Me, for wanting love and not imagining how it could end? Him, for wanting me and then not? 

It would be easier to hate him, certainly easier than it is to love him and not have him — but this, too, is an impossibility. It is breathtakingly difficult to accept that someone who once wanted you desperately no longer does. It makes the whole world feel untrustworthy. The truest thing anyone could have said to me in the weeks immediately after the end of my relationship would have been, “I am sorry that he does not want you anymore; I hope that you will survive it” but they didn’t. Instead, they talked about how strong I am, the hope of future love, or how much the relationship taught me. Keep your lessons and your strength and your strange romances and return to me the exquisite relief of being so deeply desired that it was possible to find a home in someone else. 



1. You must let the pain visit 
2. You must allow it to teach you 
3. You must not allow it to overstay. 
—             - Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Three Routes to Healing 

Now it is up to me to build my own home, my own life. I will, of course, and I have hope that I will do it well…but I wish I didn’t have to do it alone. I wanted one thing in this catastrophe of a life to feel lucky, and for me, it was us. I’m giving up on luck now — it is always too short lived — and putting my trust instead in work, in continuing to show up, in me. I am hoping that my trust is not misplaced. 

Already, I am moving on. I am dealing with my emotions in private, unlike in the first week, where I spent a lot of time crying on public transport, unable to summon the energy to wait until I was home to break down like a civilised person. But moving on is difficult, too. Happiness feels like a temporary respite from a new life of muted sadness, and also like a betrayal. My acceptance of the fact that I cannot convince someone to love me feels like failure; a new crack introduced by the realisation that I never had to convince him before. I am resistant, also, to the ways I am withdrawing from the me I was with him and becoming my own again. It is painful to talk to him now because the rhythms of our conversations have changed; we have retreated to the small talk of strangers, asking questions that we never had to when we were still engaged in the year and half long conversation that built our shared life. 

My heartbreak is not new, our love not some mythical experience mere mortals could not understand. But my heartbreak is mine, our love belonged only to him and I, and, in the beginning, I found any advice on how to move on or effort to understand almost violent in its wrongness. I did not want to move on and I definitely did not want to acknowledge a reality where I would “accept that we would never be together again”. I am getting there now though. If there is any lesson I have learned through this — and it was learned begrudgingly — it’s how  I hope to sit with someone else’s pain in the future. We don’t always require someone guide us out of our darkest places. Sometimes, we need to retreat into the strange comfort of the darkness until the light doesn’t feel like such an assault. What is comforting is having someone journey into those places with us, acknowledge that we have a right to experience them, and then wait quietly until we’re ready to come out. 


Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
— Cheryl Strayed

In truth, I do not have one of those people in my life now. I’ve never known how to find them outside of romantic relationships. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that for someone else, in romance or otherwise.   It is difficult to allow other people to be, to not try and impose our wisdom or even our love upon them. My new scar tissue will remind me of this, and perhaps encourage me to try harder. I will have to accept this lesson as the final outcome of our relationship and learn to carry the scar with grace, because, the truth is, I would never choose to rewind to a time before our love even if it meant I could avoid the heartbreak. To erase us is a bigger loss than I could bear. 

on restoration and reinvention

Shannon ButlerComment

I have not vlogged in a very long time! But when I saw that "restoration" was the Speak Up link up word this month, I knew I had to get back in front of the camera. I'm going through a lot of transitions right now (am I ever not?) so I'm exploring how to find a balance between reinventing myself and restoring the parts that have been broken -- with a little meditation on British architecture thrown in, too.  

 

note to self: don't mistake loneliness for love

PersonalShannon ButlerComment

I am greedy for people now in a way that I was not before, and it feels like a weakness. 

I have always thought of myself as a loner, comfortable in my own company. More comfortable in my company than anyone else's. It's why I survived for so long in Germany, living in the kind of isolation that horrified my friends and family when I described it beyond my short Instagram captions. It was not that I thought my adrift-in-a-foreign-land state was a necessary sacrifice, although that was true, too; it also felt like that was the kind of life I was always supposed to live. 

After all, I was surrounded by beauty, I had my thoughts and my (constantly shifting) sense of self, and a love that still made my heart feel like it may burst...what did I need from other people? 

Apparently a lot, or I wouldn't be in England, trying to rebuild a life

***

I am not a control freak nor a particularly disciplined person. I've never found a diet or exercise regime that lasted for more than a few weeks. I have no routines. I do not need people to do things my way or no way (well...that's only half true). What I do demand though is a meticulous cataloguing of my own emotions. 

I want to know if I'm experiencing melancholy or longing or simple boredom. This knowledge helps me to know when I'm treating my emotions with respect (read: not eating my feelings) or giving them more attention than they deserve (read: obsessively thinking about something until I'm crying for no reason). I like to order myself, to know myself, so that when I'm alone, I'm in company I can stand. 

This was a little easier when I was spending a lot of time alone, because I had to be my favorite person out of necessity or drive myself insane. I only half managed it, but I still took some pride in being the kind of person who didn't have an existential breakdown every time they were alone in a quiet room.  

So it is odd to find myself on the other end of the spectrum here in England. I spend so much time surrounded by people, especially working in service, that whenever I find myself with hours of solitary time stretching before me, I reach for the phone, desperate to call someone, even though I have no one to call. 

This happened to me the other day, and as has become my habit, my brain offered up a short mantra: "Don't mistake loneliness for love". Both admonishment and warning, I repeated this until I slept and morning came, bringing with it more hope and less longing. 

***

One of my biggest fears is waking up many decades from now and realizing that I was a woman who was incapable of living without the love of a man. In some ways, this is good. It means that I do not want to define myself solely by who is loving or not loving me; it means that I don't want to spend my entire life jumping from relationship to relationship, never having a true encounter with myself. But there's also a different fear there: the fear of being vulnerable, of needing love. 

When that mantra first came to me -- don't mistake loneliness for love -- I thought it meant that I shouldn't throw myself at whoever was willing and think that the rush of emotions was anything other than relief at not having to face my own shit.  It sounded like yet another reminder to be an independent woman -- the only clearly defined goal in my all-over-the-place life. 

But then I thought about it a little more. 

Mostly I thought about the months I spent in Germany, and how I tried to convince myself that my sadness was some perverse form of self-love; a necessary lesson in resilience and self-reliance. All I learned, really, is that there is a depth of loneliness that could not only break me but also a relationship I treasured. 

And, I don't know, all of a sudden, there were worse things than not wanting to be lonely, than needing to be loved. Of course, there's a balance. There has to be some middle point between finding all your self-worth in the affection of someone else and turning yourself into a loveless, self-sufficient island...but on the way to finding that point, it seems like a safer bet to err on the side of being too needy, too attached, too everything. It, paradoxically, feels safer to be vulnerable. 

So, when I think of that mantra now, I think, 'yeah, don't make the call; learn how to sit with yourself'. But I also think, 'reach out; don't be afraid of needing someone'. The trick is learning to discern what choice is right for the day, in the same we have to discern the people who are worthy of our devotion. Because the wanting, the needing of other people? It's not weakness. It's life. And when I lean into that, it's a much happier life than any I can imagine as a completely independent woman. 

i am my own kingdom

Shannon ButlerComment
"If you want to stake a claim to your life, it begins with shouting, 'I am my own kingdom."  - Saeed Jones

I love the idea of not only being the queen of myself but of thinking of my body as a kingdom in need of ruling. The word evokes opulence and abundance: sprawling, golden fields; rivers, thatched-roofed homes and mountains; and, of course, a castle. I like to think of myself as lush and overflowing. 

When I read that quote from Saeed Jones, I saw Simba and Mufasa, standing on the mountaintop – “everything the light touches is our kingdom” – and myself bathed in light. In the past, kings and queens used to claim that their right to the throne was sovereign; their leadership bestowed upon them by God. They were mistaken, as is anyone who thinks they have the right to rule others. But when it comes to the dominion of our private selves, is that not all of our inheritances?  What is religion – what is life – if not the quest to become better rulers of ourselves? 

I have ideas about the kind of ruler I’m becoming. I imagine that the doors to my kingdom are always flung wide open, the bridge always lowered, but I am not dangerously generous with myself. The message is,  “You are welcome, but you do not own me; I am unconquerable” or in the words of Danielle Laporte, “Open, gentle heart. Big fucking fence”. I have not always been able to look upon my own valleys and plains in admiration, but with each passing year, I am growing into an appreciation of myself that isn't dependent on compliments or comparison with neighboring kingdoms.  I imagine, too, that I am not a removed ruler; I do not spend all my time observing from my throne, expecting my territories to govern themselves. Instead, I am willing to toil the fields, to do the work, in order to enjoy the harvest. I imagine all sorts of things, and none of them or all of them could be true. What matters most is that I do not give anyone else permission to assume a dictatorship over my body, my life or my self. 

This is easy to accept in almost every area of my life, except for love. Love is surrender, and in loving someone, it can feel as if I should share the throne. Even though he was King, Mufasa did not say "my kingdom"; he said "our". Committed relationship is always a dance of how much of ourselves to give away and how much to keep protected. Vulnerability calls for total surrender but self-preservation asks that we do not become careless -- not even for love. Because people leave or they die or they wake up one day loving their freedom more than they do you.

But there is no love -- no real kingdom, either -- without some sharing, without saying, "Here, what is mine is now yours, too". So what happens when everything breaks and you have to ask how much of you they get to keep? 

It seems insincere to try and reclaim it all. If you came alive under their touch, bloomed beneath their gaze, do those parts of you belong to you alone? That choice does not feel generous or benevolent; it feels a lot like trying to rewrite the past while ignoring the implications it has on my future. Great rulers have fallen for less. 

And that's where I find comfort in being the Queen of my own kingdom, even if I did give myself the crown. Now I can say, "Take it all" and mean it as a gift, because I know I have the freedom to rebuild. And that is the purest form of freedom, isn't it? Especially if I don't think of the areas of myself that need regrowth as barren, and instead see them as soil that's been sown with love. Corny, yes, but this is my kingdom. So, I'm rebuilding. Some things haven't changed though. Same open, gentle heart. Same big fucking fence.