Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I once saw a turtle lay her eggs, at night, on a beach in Sri Lanka. We had waited for some time, all anticipation and suspended breath. Upon arrival she made her lumbering way up the beach to make her nest in readiness for birthing. She laid her eggs there in the place where she herself was born. Once her eggs hatched, she would leave her babies to their fate, to flourish or to perish.
It was a poignant encounter, moved as I was at the impending fate of the young and the disinterest, from a human perspective, of the mother. For the turtle, giving birth signalled the conclusion of her responsibilities.
In the course of my life I have encountered many examples of how the ability to procreate does not necessarily accord with the maternal. The latter requires more self-reflection and maturity than the former and is broader in scope.
A deep part of all of us present on that beach in Sri Lanka felt a kind of resonance with the turtle, living as an utterly free being. The concept of a life free from manifold obligations holds unimaginable appeal.
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will. ― Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
When I was fifteen we lived, temporarily, with a friend of my mother’s in her lofty, somewhat shabby house in South London. I adored Doris’s house. For me, it was the very epitome of the bohemian; a piano in the living room, large wooden table in the kitchen and books on beguiling subjects as Astrology and World travel. The parties Doris threw were full of exotica; kaftans, colour and vibrancy. Attendees were, to my impressionable young mind, free-thinking, arty and a little dissolute. My mother would dust off her party frock, aquamarine eyeshadow, ‘Chantilly’ perfume and sip her gin and lime, my mother’s version of letting her hair down.
Prior to this, we had lived on a sprawling council estate in Stockwell with its uniform municipality and absence of variety, architecturally at least. My entire being rebelled against this environment and those like it. I felt that people should not be forced to reside in what seemed to me a ghettoised hell of labyrinthine walkways and underground garages, set alight with monotonous frequency.
As soon as I was able, I spent my Saturdays on Charing Cross Road, mooching for hours in second hand bookshops, wandering through Soho, gazing at West End theatre facades, dreaming of one day treading the boards. I joined the Junior Drama class at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama which provided a positive outlet for my imaginatively melancholic leanings and a context for prising open the shell of my essentially introspective self.
Doris’s Scrabble tournaments were legendary as was her scandalous cheating. I recall stating resolutely one evening, whilst in the midst of a game, that once I was sixteen I could and would, ‘Do whatever I please’. My mother cast me a look which promised, in no uncertain terms, to put paid to that particular misconception. Doris laughed raucously, whilst sneaking a peek at my mother’s Scrabble letters.
My mother failed to realise how serious I was. I was voicing not merely the call of hormone-led aspiration, but the fundamental desperation of the incarcerated, railing against the hemmed-in monotony of our home environs, my parents’ mismatchedness and my mother’s often draconian approach to parenting. My questing mind found this particular brand of bondage and limitation untenable.
My English teachers responded to my enthusiasm for performance and the written word, frequently including me in school trips to National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company productions. All served to feed my ravenous desire for Culture, imagination, expansiveness and artistry.
My mother wasn’t a deliberately unkind person and, indeed, I thank her for some aspects of the discipline she imposed. It was simply that I was a low-maintenance, self-regulating child with an active internal world. I possessed an over-developed capacity for empathising with the pain of others, to the degree that it destabilised me. Unyielding disciplinary structure was unnecessary.
So, I sought freedom. But the paradox of freedom, one comes to realise, is that its intimate companion is responsibility.
You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once. – Robert A. Heinlein
My father died when I was fifteen, one week before I sat my high school Art exam. My Mother died a few days after my thirty-seventh birthday. I was a grown woman, but I had become an orphan. Nothing can really prepare you for the loss of the twin pillars of Mother and Father. It matters not if you were intimate or estranged, whether or not you yourself are a parent. The archetypes of Mother and Father are branded on the psyche.
But she wasn’t around, and that’s the thing when your parents die, you feel like instead of going in to every fight with backup, you are going into every fight alone.
– Mitch Albom
After my Mother died, I felt so deeply the paradox of the responsibility of maturity sparring with the depth of longing to be held by her. Always present, this yearning was held in suspended animation and I was, irrevocably, lost.
For a while after my mother’s death I experienced a ‘dark night of the soul’. I had long desired a family of my own but a combination of timing, my own body or perhaps simply the unanticipated fate of choicelessness betrayed my feeble longings. I was free of family ties and obligations but the full weight of myself, alone, was both terrifying and utterly uncompromising.
People often make assumptions that absence of children originates from selfishness. Ofttimes, comes the slow, dawning realisation that life does not always offer you the choices you imagine you might have. It frequently only offers the choice of how to respond to its limitations. It throws down the gauntlet and asks of you, ‘What now? How will you reconstruct your unimagined present, and forge the uncharted, unanticipated landscape of your future?’
I was confronted with death and loss early. I have attended many funerals and delivered eulogies. It was my decision to cast flowers into my mother’s grave. She was a keen gardener. It seemed fitting. Doris’s daughter attended the funeral and, toward the end of the afternoon, grasped my hand and said, “I hope this doesn’t sound strange, Tess, but I’ve had one of the best afternoons ever.” It didn’t sound strange at all. It was a wonderful afternoon. My mother would have loved it. No doubt she would have donned her aquamarine eyeshadow, wielded a gin and lime whilst asphyxiating us all with wafts of cheap French perfume.
Loss has left an indelible impression but has, conversely, thrown up the question of living. How to live a life absent of what many cleave to as the core of their belonging; family. I never really had much of an experience of family but the mind nonetheless hoists us aloft on the flag pole of expectation.
I was wildly exploratory after my mother’s demise, colliding with abandon at each turn. I married a man I barely knew in a Druidic wedding at Stonehenge and traipsed through more patches of woodland than I can recall, attending rituals to bring my Pagan urges to pulsating life; travelled to the far side of the globe, dated men I met on the internet and regaled friends with tales of those bizarre and, retrospectively tragi-comic meetings. A friend suggested I devise a comedy routine for the purpose of re-enacting my more absurd encounters.
Some, I’m sure, thought that I had lost the plot but, in actuality, I was attempting to write it. I was familiar with death. I wanted life. I cared not what others thought or felt about my escapades and explorations. They, as far as I knew, were not waking, in panic, in the inky darkness, to contemplate the uncompromising nature of their loneliness. Only I know the depths to which I dove to discover that my anchor was intact; rusty and barnacled, but scraping its way along the sea bed of the self.
And so I find myself come full circle, in a sense. I continue to pursue what I have pursued from my earliest memories, to be unbound by ‘should’ and ‘ought’. I recall, as a baby, gripping the railings of my grandparents’ balcony, peering around me in all directions yet finding myself aware of the bars.
I do not run from pain or loss, mine or another’s. Without the courage to face pain we are unable to fully experience gratitude, kindness or to notice beauty in the tiniest of things. I seek equanimity. It resides in the ability to hold the poles of pleasure and pain, standing in the space between. It is in that place, I strongly suspect, that freedom lies.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Essay Contribution By: Tess Palma
Writer, Author, Teacher, Artist and Questing Spirit from the United Kingdom
Thank you Tess for sharing your heart. <3
© Copyright Tess Palma 2014