Awash with Wonder

the question of safety

Shannon ButlerComment

There is an unofficial ritual that happens at the end of almost every shift. We'll gather, me and the other women who work at the restaurant, having a drink or a smoke, and we'll swap the strategies we use for getting home. Do you feel safe wearing both headphones? Do you carry your keys between your fingers? Do you trade your tips for a taxi ride or risk the walk?  we ask, not looking for answers as much as we're looking for assurance that our constant vigilance is not unique. It's impossible not to talk about the ten or twenty minute journey home and the ways we've learned to navigate the dangers it presents, just as it's impossible not to admit that the threat of danger is the low hum that narrates every woman's life.

Once I got into an argument with a chef when he asked if I it was true that I felt safer walking on the streets in Brighton than I did the streets of South Africa. He was trying to support some racist argument and I responded, "I don't feel safe walking down any street that a man is also walking on". He was incredulous at this. A month before, I had asked a man to stop following me down the street after I'd already told him that I was not interested. He was immediately transformed. His hopeful, almost playful flirting melted into an immediate rage, and he began yelling at me that I was a fucking bitch that no one would want to follow, while continuing to follow me down the street. I saw then how fragile his desire was and how my rejection of him meant that his entitlement would become something uglier, something infinitely more dangerous. If his friend had not told him to leave me alone, if there were not a man there to hold him back, I don't know if I would have made it home that night. Every walk home involves the hope that this will not happen again and the knowledge that it might, and that this time I will have to be more agreeable, pliable, someone less likely to awake dormant rage, and maybe in exchange, I will make it home safely. 

A few days after my conversation with that chef, another waitress will tell me she never feels safe on the streets in Brighton. What is it to move through the world without trying to anticipate the people who may hurt you? 


There is no way to recover from a heartbreak although we all pretend there is. We say "time heals all wounds" as if there is a day where we will magically awake and time will have erased everything we have lost and our knowledge of it, as if time is a wave gently lapping at the shore of our memories, instead of something interminable and unfathomable, which somehow does not pass quickly enough, does not put enough distance between us and the devastation to remove it's immediacy, or moves too fast, six months and then a year having passed and not enough changed. I have tried to adjust to this new fear of hurt, tried to recalibrate it into my being, slot it somewhere with the other hurts, the other indomitable fears that I was born into or acquired. All I've managed is a shuttering of hope. Now, before I contact you, I anticipate the disappointment. It is physical, the way I shut doors within myself, and the impulse is driven by the same naked fear that makes me slip my key between my fingers or quicken my pace. 

This is a loss of self I do not trust time to heal. What is it to love without anticipating the ways doing so may hurt me?  


When customers ask if I like Brighton, I think I respond with an enthusiasm that shocks them. I love it, I tell them, and I mean it. Brighton saved me. So much of my life after college felt accidental. I had an internship that transitioned into a job, a flight that became love, a move and then another and another. Brighton was deliberate. I weighed the pros and cons of moving here, hesitated, fretted over it, and then finally came, even though it terrified me, even though I was so aware of everything I was giving up for something that was still unknown. And every day has been a becoming, a discovery. I could get a job, I could get an apartment, I could build a home. I could walk the streets and feel wowed and hopeful and filled with wonder. I could take care of myself. 

It is the streets that I love the most. I spend so much of my time here walking: to and from walk, to the grocery store, to the pub and dinner and wherever my friends are, to anywhere and everywhere. Driving feels like something I have never done; buses depress me. In the day time, in the first moments when I venture from home, I am filled with such simple joy by everything I see. I am always chasing the light, and I will look for the way it is reflected on the buildings, transforming some bit of architecture or graffiti into something delightfully new. 

There are nights, too, when the streets feel as if they belong to me, where I do not feel like a walking ornament, present only so that the men who are also walking can pass their judgment on me. Walking home from the theatre with my best friend, I will feel giddy at the fact that we have reached adulthood, and that have done it together, after so many years of stumbling -- that we are coming home from an evening of cocktails and plays to our shared living room, where we will drink wine and eat burgers and continue the conversation we've been having for fourteen years. Then the people on the streets will not feel dangerous but like a reflection of my own surprising happiness. A man will offer his onion rings, and I will take one, glad and sure of the goodness of strangers. 

It is these walks that make the other walks, humming with an undercurrent of fear, worth it. 


I call you and your "hello" sounds like "come home". It is these conversations that makes all the spaces between them, electric with uncertainty, almost worth it. 

but who are you going to be?

PersonalShannon ButlerComment
How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?
— Plato

I've spent an embarrassing amount of my life wrapped up in some kind of romantic entanglement. There has always been someone -- a crush, a lover, a distraction -- to reflect back some version of myself I'm incapable of finding on my own. That's what we all want, isn't it? To see ourselves as other people see us, especially when the person doing the seeing is in love. I don't know, maybe not; I have a tendency to misinterpret the personal as the universal. It's why I experience so little shame. 

So much of my life is measured by distance. The distance between the places I left behind and where I have arrived, between who I was and who I'm trying to become, between you and I. I spend most of my time obsessing over the distance between you and I, although the 'you' keeps changing. There is the distance I impose, resistant to commitment even though if you wrote to me about someone like me, I'd tell you to leave; there is the distance I cannot overcome, found in the things we both say and what we mean; and then there are the million fractures of distance, created by the things we want and cannot ask for, by being two separate people who cannot transcend the boundaries of our skin.

It frustrates me that my life is defined by romance more than anything else. It seems...pathetic. But then I don't know what else it would be about. I do not care about having a career; I have no interest in ever having a title to introduce myself with at parties. I'll make money in whatever way I can so that I can keep paying my rent and buying my books. What else is there? I could define myself by travel, but is that a life defined by places or escapism or Instagram photos? My life has already involved too much running to aspire to more. I suppose I would like to define myself by art, but I'm not much of a creator. All my poetry is found in trying to love well and failing. 

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write It!) like disaster
— Elizabeth Bishop, One Art


Relationships have always felt like art to me.

I went to see a play a few days ago,  Fake it 'til You Make It, by the performance artist, Bryony Kimmings. She performs it with her boyfriend, Tim, and it explores his clinical depression and the ways they live with it. It's a performance about masculinity and depression, but it's mostly just about them. I loved to see such a blatant admittance of the fact that they thought their relationship and their life together was art. Of course, all the art is in the expression, and most of us aren't going to turn our fights about laundry into an interpretative dance, but I don't know what intimacy is if isn't the hardest and most beautiful thing any of us will ever try to create and maintain and protect. 

It's in relationship that all the most important, intangible parts of me collide. There's my feminism and my politics and my daily reconciliation of the love I think people deserve with the love I am capable of giving. There is you and there is me and there is the distance between us and the effort we make to close it. Intimacy is erasure. It reminds me of an artist sitting before his canvas, sketching a line, only to step back, evaluate it, erase it and begin again. I become an artist of constant reinvention when I'm sharing my life. Intimacy is a master class in becoming, and I love how difficult it is for me to know myself beside anyone else. I am lost and I am found a hundred times in a day when I am with you, so maybe my life is defined more by travel than love. 

...getting lost that is erotic love, in which the beloved becomes an invitation to become who you are secretly, dormantly, like a locust underground waiting for the seventeen-year call, already are in hiding, that love for the other that is also a desire to reside in your own mystery, in the mystery of others.
— Rebecca Solnit

In this way, I convince myself that my constant pursuit of relationships is noble. I am creating; I am becoming. But on days when I am obsessing over questions of you and I, of the distances we will travel together, I stop and ask: "But who are you going to be?". Separate from the people who love you or don't love you...who are you going to be? Because if I am defined solely by the relationship I am in, every time I travel outside of that relationship, I am adrift again, unnamed and uninteresting. 

It is hard to answer that question.

Am I the things I like?

I experiment with this.

Every time I want to buy a plane ticket to see you, I buy a ticket to a play or an event instead. And every time I want to have yet another conversation about defining what is we're -- with a different you, a different we -- doing, I buy a book instead. I think the idea is to fill myself with so many experiences and so much knowledge that I will become interesting through absorption; I think the idea is to not absorb your idea of me. 

It's a different kind of erasure, a different kind of losing, but it feels like growth in the same way love does. 

And then the question becomes: who am I becoming for? All we ever do is make gifts of ourselves for other people. Some of us give on a grand scale, creating expressions of ourselves that we share with audiences; more of us try to be someone spectacular, or at least good, for the few people who know us well. If I were a true artist perhaps I'd be the first kind of person but I suspect I'm always going to be the second kind. Which means I'm always going to be losing and finding myself in you, whoever you are, and all I can hope for is that it will end up looking a little bit like art. 


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.