“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Fate. Karma. Kismet. Life.
Whatever word you choose, here’s a thought experiment: If we could see the bigger moments of our future laid out ahead of us do you think we would take pre-emptive action to somehow lessen the pain of life’s blows and to appreciate more fully life’s gifts? Would advance warning help us make sense of what happens to us? Interesting questions. For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his knowing his future certainly didn’t help him sidestep his ‘destiny’. The more he tried to avoid it, the further he pushed himself along the road of inevitability. I’m assuming that the life choices Macbeth made are way beyond anything 99.9% of us will ever make but the play opens up a fascinating thought path – do we have a destiny that will, no matter what courses of action we take, come to its own fruition? I’ve often mulled over the pre-ordained destiny question and I am not convinced about its existence. I’m pretty sure that part of my day today will involve eating chocolate but my instinct is that it’s not pre-ordained! Choices and chance will come into play. The randomness of life is the one thing that is so hard to make sense of.
Tyranny or Destiny
During last summer I started doing yoga outside on the patio. One morning I noticed a child’s face in the neighbour’s window, watching my sun salutations with curiosity. It set me off on one of my thought trails and I started mentally labelling the houses in my cul-de-sac: ‘child, no child, no child, child, child, child, child, child, no child, child, etc.’. As I finished my last ‘downward dog’, I imagined seeing this scene from above and suddenly I saw the randomness I could not see from ‘inside’ my home…or my own psyche. I was surprised that this was the first time I was asking myself the question: was it my destiny to be childless or was it simply a random life event?
It seemed almost too painful to think of my childlessness as completely random. Surely there had to be a reason, meaning or sense to it! Equally, thinking of my childlessness as being a result of my own decision-making was difficult to contemplate. Then, ignoring the discomfort of my thin yoga mat on the concrete, I started to go down that old, familiar rabbit warren of ‘what if…’ What if I’d tried for children sooner? What if I had one more cycle of ICSI? What if I’d gone to another clinic? What if they’d discovered my endometriosis earlier? What if I’d stopped drinking coffee altogether? What if I’d taken up yoga, meditation, exercised more, been more relaxed…’ My mind was automatically going to where control could be bolted on like a metal template over an old narrative. There, under a blue sky, on top of a purple yoga mat, it occurred to me that by trying to make me take the rap for my misfortune, this ‘What-if rabbit warren’ was in fact my mind’s ruse to obliterate the unsettling and complete randomness of my situation.
Whilst I have to acknowledge that my decisions are my responsibility, I/we made choices regarding my fertility and our treatment a bit like a particle colliding with other random particles. In other words, everything that was decided was based on a unique set of circumstances that could only have occurred at a specific point in time. There was no Macbethian soothsayer stirring a steaming pot and telling me that if only I stopped visiting Costa Coffee my fertility issues would be solved! Nor was there a medic or expert who was holding the golden answer.
Doing the ‘looking from above’ exercise was both liberating and painful. ‘Not fair,’ I found myself saying. And it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair for anyone who experiences profound loss of any kind. It’s. Just. Not. Fair. As humans we are programmed to look for patterns. Patterns help us predict and plan. At a very basic level, pattern searching and recognition helps us locate the basics for human existence – water, food, shelter. And so we search for patterns in other things too – such as a way to extract meaning from ‘it’s not fair’. But my ‘aerial view’ of my neighbours’ houses and my ‘child, no child’ exercise made me see there was no pattern – just a very ordinary group of dwellings with folk getting through life, with or without children, the best they can.
Making Sense of Randomness’ Gifts
The other thing I realised in that yoga mat moment (when I should have been doing that bit at the end when you try to clear your thoughts!) was that my drive to write and to create is in fact a way of finding sense of the no sense of randomness. And from speaking to others who are driven to create in some way (and I use ‘create’ in a very wide and liberal sense), I sense that to be able to place thoughts and feelings in some creative frame helps to wrest a little control back from the jaws of happenstance.
For some folk their creativity is cooking or baking, for others it’s the outdoors or woodwork or being the life and soul of the party. For me it has always been poetry. Poetry allows me to engage all my senses and it helps me learn about the world. If I don’t understand it, I write it – and I try to learn through exploration. “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” So said Shakespeare’s Malcolm in Macbeth. Giving words to my sorrow (and my joy) and poetic exploration has helped me through some very tough times in my life. Equally, reading poetry always brings me solace. So often a poem creates a universe of understanding in less than a page-space. Poetry comes to the fore at those momentous moments in life – the births, marriages and deaths – but why not at other times too? One poetry collection that seemed to sum up the complexity of childlessness for me is Lois Williams’ Like Other Animals. Her poetry is full of sensuality, humour and wonder and her writing is so generous that I recognised so much of my own experience in her words. Her poems intersperse moments of joy with the sense of loss that childlessness brings. Her poem ‘Buying Tights at Poundland’ for me beautifully conveys the randomness of the world by describing folk queuing up to pay for their stuff:
…chocolate bars, a jar
of pickles, car wax, vinegar
a set of knives. What if our bargains are
our only words in common?
And by drilling down to the very essence of her experience – a very everyday experience – she somehow manages to bring a kind of sense to the randomness of things.
(A full review of her poetry collection is on my Idiem page.)
It has taken me a long time to find the sense in the randomness and that exploration goes on. Do I believe I was destined to be childless? No, I don’t. I believe that given another set of circumstances and other choices I may have had a child or even
children. Do I regret the choices I/we made? Again, no. They were the only choices we could have made at any given moment in time. But I also believe that the same randomness has brought me wonderful gifts and un-measurable joy in my life. Whilst I don’t see my childlessness as a ‘gift’, my desire to understand my childlessness has brought me gifts – gifts of self-awareness, the drive to create and to find fulfilling activities, the ability to empathise and to make connections with others.Perhaps those gifts were always there, lying in suspended animation somewhere in my psyche. It took the intensity of my experience with my loss – and with the randomness of that loss – to ignite them into something beautiful and worthwhile – something that makes sense.