The Big Questions
Two very small domestic things occurred this week that started me thinking about trusting our instincts and how we can access our inner wisdom.
First of all, my husband and I hung a series of pictures along our staircase wall. Not, I admit, the normal route to spiritual awakening! But what struck me was the way in which we used our eye and our instincts, moving the pictures a fraction to the left or right, up or down a centimeter, in order to find exactly the right spacing. Each picture’s position was dependent upon the next and the whole display relied on an overall sense of what seemed right. Somehow our eyes were connected to a un-worded inner wisdom. When we took out the tape measure we were surprised at how accurate our spacing was.
The second ‘domestic discovery’ happened when I was clearing out years’ worth of papers from my study. I found a poem I wrote a decade ago that stopped me in my tracks. It was called ‘Letter from an Aunt’ and I wrote it when I felt I needed answers to The Big Questions. How do we survive not having children? What was my place in the world? What happens to my grief as I get older?
I remember being about six or seven when it dawned on me that my great aunt and uncle had never had children. Whenever I asked my aunt why, she always gave a version of her stock answer: it wasn’t part of God’s plan. Even when she was in her 90s, when I believe she must have known at a very visceral level what I was going through, The Big Questions always remained in the air between us. But even as a child I sensed contentment from my aunt and uncle. They lived a long and happy life, were socially very busy and they were always loving and accepting towards other people’s children.
I needed some of that wisdom!
But I had no first hand sources. My aunt was a prolific writer but when I cleared the house after her death I found no journals and no letters from her remained. So I decided to turn detective. Perhaps the clues were there all along? I scoured family photo albums, jotted down memories of my aunt baking scones and truffles, the fresh linen smell of the spare room in which I spent many happy weeks in school holidays. And then there was the photo of her holding me in her arms when I was just a few days old. The look on her face was tender, maternal and proud.
What to do with all this material? A letter perhaps?
The ‘unsent letter’ is often used in therapy as a way of exploring emotions and feelings we might feel unable to, or that are impossible to express face-to-face. The Guardian newspaper does a weekly feature in the Family Section called A Letter To… (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/series/aletterto) in which the writer expresses hitherto unexpressed or seemingly unutterable emotions and feelings to the would-be recipient. These letters are moving and powerful and sometimes the feeling of catharsis is palpable in the ‘sender’s’ words.
But a letter to my aunt didn’t seem quite right. I needed to walk the proverbial mile in her shoes. And that’s when I had the idea of writing the letter she never sent to me and that letter emerged as a poem.
At the time I wrote ‘Letter From an Aunt’ I had been listening to an album by ‘The Cast’ and was particularly moved by a track called Letter from Kilkelly. It’s a haunting song that says so much about the passage of time and the need to do, say, ask and love now, before it’s too late. When I sat to write the first line of the ‘letter’ everything seemed to connect: the rhythm and sense of Letter from Kilkelly’, memories, photos, my love for my aunt, my regret at The Questions never asked. Now, at last, the first line emerged:
‘I kept a spare room immaculate for visiting children
and baked all my love into truffles and scones…’
The rest of the poem seemed to flow from there. It is not my best poem and I’m not sure I would ever send it out into the world. What matters is that the process of writing it gave me access to the landscape of a common grief and allowed me to empathise at a deeper level with my aunt and uncle’s situation.
Another gift the letter poem gave me was that I realised that somehow I wanted children to be a part of my life. Until I researched material for the poem, I hadn’t been conscious of the stiffness with which I held myself in the presence of other people’s babies and children. Finding the photo of my aunt holding me helped me to discover that I feared feeling maternal instincts for any child that was not mine. But here was a ‘letter from’ a woman who welcomed children into her heart and home and my inner wisdom was telling me that, in my own time, I wanted to and, more importantly, I could release my maternal spirit in many ways.
What about the part about the immaculate spare room? Well, that made me smile because whenever someone comes to stay with us there is a mad dash to move the stuff that belongs nowhere to somewhere other than the spare room! So that isn’t going to happen. Sorry, Aunt Grace! But I knew I wanted a home where anyone could come and feel nurtured and loved.
One thing is for sure – when Those Questions are asked by any of the children in my given or chosen family, I will (of course, in age-appropriate terms) tell them that yes, I wanted children and that yes, it is sad that it did not happen the way I wanted. But I can also tell them that sadness can form part of our inner wisdom and can help us access our inner kindness. If we give ourselves space and time, we can ask how that kindness can be expressed. And we might just find our own answers to some of those Big Questions.
Thank you Aunt Grace!
Who helped to build your inner wisdom? Your ‘letter from…’ may take the form of a letter, a poem or a song. It could be a collage of material connected to the person you feel influenced you or nurtured you in a way that meant their wisdom was passed on to you. It could be something you ‘write’ in your head in a quiet moment or as you walk.
Go gently! These letters can bring up powerful feelings so stop if it feels too difficult. The time must be right for you.