I've made collages at New Year for as long as I can remember. I can't recall how or when the tradition started but I've always loved sitting with my pile of magazines cutting out words and pictures, slowly building up a picture of how I would like the year to look. I prefer it to setting New Year's resolutions that I know I'll break. You can't break a vague montage of pretty pictures and inspiring phrases.
Last year, for the first time in many years, it wasn't the resolutions that got broken though, but my New Year tradition. As I sat down to make a collage, my courage failed me. I was too shattered by grief to contemplate a future and the memory of making collages with my love the year before was too painful to bear. It's not often that you fall in love with a man who thinks that making collages is a fine way to spend New Year's Eve. Not often either that you meet a man who carries logs and an axe up a hill to build you your own personal bonfire in the darkness of winter. I lost that man in 2016 and with him I lost my hope and my way. At the end of the worst year of my life, there were no words or images that could make my future feel hopeful. At that point, everything felt broken. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, too sad to look back and too scared to look into an empty future without him. I didn't want to stay in a place of unbearable pain but neither did I want to move further away from the precious time I spent with him. So, instead of making collages, I did what came naturally to me during that awful year - I sat and put my pain into words, clinging to my keyboard as if it were a life raft keeping me afloat. I held on and rode the waves of grief into a new year.
Now, as I approach another new year, I'm still riding those waves. They're smaller and further apart these days but I can still be floored by them unexpectedly and the truth is that in many ways 2017 has felt even harder than 2016. If 2016 was spent wallowing in a pit of despair, 2017 was spent grappling to climb out of it, trying to navigate my way in a new world with no faith in my map or my compass, no hope that some guardian angel is working for my greater good. It has been hard work battling anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress - the cousins of grief. It has been hard work trying to build a new future. Sometimes still, I feel like I'm back at the beginning. At the two year anniversary of my mother's death in December I was spilling over with tears at the slightest provocation, besieged by crippling anxiety, floundering in the darkness again. Facing Christmas was hard and facing New Year's Eve has been almost as bad. Sometimes things feel so difficult that I wonder if I've made any progress at all. And then I read my blog and look through my photos remembering all of the things that I've done during 2017 and realise how far I've come. At the end of 2016, I couldn't face the future. I couldn't imagine loving again or writing fiction again. I couldn't imagine wanting to live and thrive. Yet, here I am at the beginning of 2018 with new projects on the go and things that I want to carry over from one year to the next: a new boyfriend, a new house, a new novel. I have places that I want to go and things I want to do. Most of all, I have hope.
I've come so far that this year I decided to get out my magazines again and to reinstate the collaging tradition. The collaging tradition is mine. I don't want to lose it. It was painful at first but gradually I found my groove as I remembered the joy of cutting and sticking my new vision together with the pot of glue that Paul left behind. And as I sat here tonight, surrounded by fragments of images and broken phrases, it struck me that the making of a collage is an appropriate metaphor for the process of rebuilding that takes place following a major loss, or losses. Some things you take with you from the past but other pieces just don't fit anymore and in some ways, it feels like starting from scratch, building up from the corners and gradually moving towards a whole. My new life is a work in progress but this year I feel optimistic that 2018 will be better than the previous two years. Last year couldn't be a good year, containing as it did, the anniversary of Paul's death and the loss of his mum. And even though I started a new relationship last year, it hasn't been the saviour that I might have hoped for. New love triggered whole new layers of grief and guilt and fear that I wasn't prepared for. I didn't expect to fall in love so quickly. I didn't expect it to be so terrifying. I wasn't ready for it at all. This year there is less to dread and much more to look forward to. This year I have at least some idea where I'm going. With inevitable sadness, this year I have accepted that I can't move forward without, in some ways, leaving Paul behind. My love for Paul and the tragedy of his loss will always be a part of me like the glue holding the torn pieces together but gradually a new picture is emerging. I owe it to him to make it beautiful and I will.