There’s a stubborn tightness behind my right scapula: when I fill my lungs the tendons shift with a crackle around the knot. One day, while Bonnie the massage therapist tamed my tension, she talked about her life – migration, marriage, motherhood, mishaps.
Then she asked about my life. Earlier I’d mentioned how disappointed I was to cancel my travel plans. She’d raised her eyebrows, said: “We’re all affected by this pandemic, you know…” There was reproach in her tone. Kneading my gluteals, she asked me where I’d planned to go.
Two months in Indonesia, climbing mountains in Bali and surfing reef breaks in Java, cycling from the north to the south of Vietnam and seeing Angkor Wat, visiting my sister in London, three months thinking and writing at a retreat in the Swiss Alps, finding bar work on the Riviera in the European summer before working the harvest in French wine country for my uncle’s friend, concentrating on my writing again during a month-long residency in a chateau in the Champagne region.
“Oh,” said Bonnie.
“Yeah,” said I.
That’s how we got onto my year off work, my failed marriage and my wanting to get lost for a while. She was quiet. No reproach.
Many people are divorced. My mum is divorced. I am divorced. Bonnie, it turns out, is also divorced. Divorce. The ‘v’ sound drives the second syllable out of my mouth like a runaway train. Divorce is like sickness. So many people get it, lots of people die from it, but statistics feel like a betrayal of each person’s particular pain. So many kids’ parents split up, but citing the high divorce rate is a tone deaf attempt at consolation.
Pain reconfigures people. Many of us know this first hand; my guess is that all of us know it second- or third-hand. Pain is the fulcrum in so many narratives: an elderly couple finally fulfils their dream of moving to France following a tragic terminal diagnosis; a teenage girl falls in with the wrong crowd because her dad is violent and maybe they can protect her from him; a returned soldier, formerly the life of the party, becomes erratic and withdrawn because of his war trauma.
Pain can harden and embitter, or it can tenderise and sweeten. I’ve seen it do both. Pain turned up the brightness on the light in which I examine my assumptions about life. Pain rearranged the way I reflect on the past and redirected the way I dream about the future. I don’t want to become tough; I’m copping the blows in the hope they’ll tenderise…
I let Bonnie’s healing hands work the carnage in my scapulae. After a little while she spoke again. “What do you want in life?”
“You have to know.”
“What do you mean? So much is out of my control.”
“You have to picture the life you want. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
She continued, “Experience it all. Figure out what you like. Choose what kind of person you want to be. Consider the kind of person you want to be with. And, above all else, look after yourself. Nobody else will. That’s not their job; it’s yours.”
“Is that how you got where you are?”
“Eventually. I worked very hard. It took years to finalise my divorce. I built my business. I bought this house. I got my son through school. I quit believing in love, then I met a man who is exactly the kind of person I want to be with, and now I believe again. I just didn’t know it until I saw it.”
“You created the life you pictured years ago?”
“I did. I’m very happy.”
“This isn’t easy for me to hear. Because of my worldview, what I want has never really mattered.”
“But if you don’t know yourself – if you don’t know what you want – who else will? If you can’t rely on yourself, how do you expect others to rely on you? I don’t need to tell you after what you’ve been through that relying on anybody else is not an option. Your responsibility is to know and care for yourself. Love yourself into the strength you need to build the future you want. Live and give from a place of fullness. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit.”
Dressed and beginning the walk home, I looked back and waved at Bonnie. She stood on her porch in a patch of sunshine, barefoot and wrapped in a light blanket like some ancient sage or medicine woman. Or a prophet.