I’m in a reflective mood this week. There’s been a lot happening, a lot coming to a close and a lot of memories resurfacing. Two years ago, my memoir, Dear Blacksmith was published by Valley Press. In that same month, my children stopped seeing their father, precipitating two years of unimaginable trauma in family court, and a strange virus blew in from China, upending life in ways none of us could imagine.
As I sit now in my kitchen, wrapped in a blanket, remembering my book launch, the court case has just come to a conclusion, coronavirus seems finally to be retreating and I’m able to look forward with something like hope for the first time in a long time. It’s been an utterly bonkers two years.
I’m listening to the playlist from the launch. Prince is singing Purple Rain and I’m recalling that the last poem in my book features a reference to the song. It’s a piece written in the voice of my lost love, Blacksmith Paul, a message from beyond the grave, willing me to keep going. The last words of the book come from a collage that he made with me on New Years' Eve 2019 and they go like this:
remember to explore
keep on keeping on
you were my inspiration, let me be yours
and most of all,
P.s sorry about the mess.
Boy, was it a mess!
It was a brief and passionate love affair. The kind of romance that books should be written about, set against the sweeping backdrop of the Derbyshire moors where an eccentric hero fell in love with a single mum, rescuing her from her mundane, urban life and then dramatically dropping dead. It was not a book I wanted to write. As I wrote at the time, ‘the end just happened in the middle.’ I was looking for a happy ever after in a great romance novel not a brutal short story. I was definitely not looking for a memoir of trauma and grief; I’d already had enough of that.
Still, it is a beautiful book and a beautiful record of some of the best and worst times of my life. I was proud when I held the book in my hands and proud as I sat on that stool reading from the book in front of a huge audience of people, many of whom had been my safety net when I was in the depths of a kind of grief that floored me over and over again. But I was also sad, deeply sad, because the story of that wonderful love affair was over, packaged in a four hundred page book, wrapped in the photograph that Paul had taken when I thought we were on the brink of forever, and I was left alone to carry on without him, to write a new narrative. And what kind of a narrative do you write when you’ve loved so deeply and lost so traumatically? How do you keep going and rebuild?
Mostly, it seems, you keep going because you have to. But, I also hung onto the lessons that I learned with Paul. I try to stay in the moment, continue to explore possibility and potential and to look for the good in every day. I reach for the light and spend my days (where I can) doing only the things I love with the people that I love. For me this has meant a lot of writing and time spent helping other writers to find their voices, a vocation that fills me with joy on a daily basis. It’s meant the founding of The Writers Workshop, a wonderful nurturing community. It’s also meant spending a lot of time in nature, walking and swimming and escaping to the sea as often as possible. Most of all, it’s been time spent with the amazing friends who have stayed by my side through the multiple appalling events and situations of my life, and especially time with my beloved children. The three of us have been to the kind of hell I didn’t know existed over this last two years but at least we have been there together and there have been many moments of joy and laughter amidst the pain. The memories of halcyon days of ‘home educating’ in the garden will stay with me forever.
I have kept on keeping on because what else can I do when I have the privilege to still be alive? The memory of Paul will always inspire me to keep striving to live my best life. It’s a gift only available to those who have experienced extreme pain. And love? Love infuses everything I do. The only way to counter the darkness in the world is to keep loving. I’ve learned that love takes many forms: the love of friends and family, love for my writing community, compassion for myself and the kindness of strangers. I strive to be a kind stranger always. And I’m proud to be the kind of strange I am.
As for romance, it’s not easy to find that kind of love again as a lone parent battered by grief and trauma, but I keep looking anyway, periodically and half-heartedly. I keep looking because, though I’m ok on my own and full to the brim with self-love, there are some things that only a lover can provide. It would be nice to have a little bit more joy and just a little bit of help from a partner.
Sadly, there aren’t many men who come anywhere close to meeting my requirements these days and even the few that I’ve liked have ended up being disappointing. One was intimidated by my ‘wonderful life,’ and another was put off by my ‘stressful life’. Six years on, I’m unbelievably strong but still vulnerable and any kind of disappointment can floor me. Despite therapy, trauma is still easily triggered and when the last man I was exploring an amazing romantic potential with stopped messaging, I immediately panicked that he was dead. I’m still anxious. My reality is probably too much for him. I don’t blame him; my reality is too much for me too! He’s afraid that he would let me down. Which is what Paul also said. And so I’m cast back again to what I had and what I lost. Paul and I were afraid to take a risk, afraid to fall in love, afraid of our messy circumstances. I’m so glad we took the chance. I know that love is all that matters in this world and I know I’ll take that risk again, one day when someone special wants to risk it too.
In the meantime, I keep writing and loving my way through the precious, wonderful, stressful and horrendously messy days of my life. Two years on, I can still be sad but I’m glad to be alive and grateful, so grateful, for the gift of love and for writing - the one true love that never lets me down.
My book was massively affected by the pandemic. I never even saw it in the 180 bookshops that stocked it. If you’d like to read it, it’s available from all the usual places and also via my website to UK readers.