I used to be so creative as a child. The walls of our kitchen were covered with my work, colourful paint splattered across every canvas I could get my hands on. But then something changed: it happened on the first day of the fourth grade. Our new teacher handed out beige notebooks with a little house on the cover, blotting paper between every page. I got to work with my usual enthusiasm, but when it was time to show our assignments to the class, I came to realise that my drawing wasn’t very ‘good’. Everyone was in awe of the horse that one of my classmates had drawn. And there was a girl who had made a beautiful, realistic portrait: eyes, lips, hair – all so perfectly captured. Until then I hadn’t had the faintest idea that I couldn’t draw, but there it was. Eleven years of art classes ensued, and how I hated every minute of them. Do schools kill creativity? In my case, they did. For sure. It took me thirty years to build up the courage to say: Master Henk, I won’t be coming back!
Deep down I knew that when it came to healing, I still had some work to do. I decided to dust off my copy of Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman. Herman explains that the first principle of recovery is empowerment. That others may offer advice, support and care, but not cure. For any intervention, no matter how well-intentioned, that takes away your power is not in fact a healing relationship. So I really wanted to learn a way to heal myself, but I wasn’t quite sure how and where to start. And then, on a beautiful summer’s day in the forest I met a wolf. As I looked into her kind and wise eyes, I immediately felt that she was the one to ask for help. The wolf told me a story about how other animals process trauma. A deer who survives an attack will find a hiding place and start to shiver. This helps to shake out the excess charge in her body. Trembling is a natural response to trauma that some of us have unlearned or forgotten. But by trusting our bodies, we can re-member it again.
Last year I had really made up my mind… no more retreats. And then something unexpected happened. I was asked to fill in as a last-minute substitute. No, was of course my answer. Not a chance! Of course, I promised I would sleep on it. As I lay in bed, I thought of Kant, as you do. Kant said: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” So the following morning I said yes – and asked my love to teach it with me. But then the panic started. Am I good enough? What if it’s a total disaster? There was only one solution. I would have to watch Kung Fu Panda. Again. As Shifu was spluttering (“The panda? Master, that panda is not the Dragon Warrior. He wasn’t even meant to be here… it was an accident!”) I was reminded by the old and wise Oogway that there are no accidents. And also, that there is no secret ingredient. You just need to believe!
We started out with a tomato seedling in the window sill. As it got bigger, so did our plans for the vegetable patch. We’ll make diagonal beds, we said, leading up to a circle of flowers. We’ll grow carrots and lettuce and garlic and radishes and pumpkins and peppers and so on and so on… But that is not what happened. Turns out I really love watching things grow, weeds included. And it upsets me to seeing them all piled up, their beautiful roots exposed. So now, instead of a vegetable patch we have a little field of nature brimming with life. There are wild flowers in every colour of the rainbow. Sunflower of course, and marigold, delphinium, oxalis, viola and lots and lots of poppies. Every night I go for a little evening walk to water them. Every night there is a new wonder. One evening two tiny frogs hopped underneath the big green leaves. The discovery of a mysterious bean plant in the middle of the garden, growing there all by its own. And now, even the calabash is flowering.
Each new relationship challenges you in ways you weren’t expecting. For me living together with the one I love means being confronted with my vulnerability, all of my imperfections and idiosyncrasies. Basically all of the things I try to hide most of the time. And then there’s the stuff from my past. Coping mechanisms that used to work are failing and unresolved issues are flaring up like wildfires. As Katherine Anne Porter once wrote, the past is never where you think you left it. Old files that I had neatly tucked away in brown paper boxes and labelled as closed are suddenly resurfacing all over the place. My first reaction was to panic and to try to shove them back into the closet and sweep the rest under the carpet, hoping they would not notice. But there’s no way that you can keep that up. Trying to pretend everything is OK is really draining. So I’ve learned that the best way to deal with it is to accept yourself and your past. To own up to it and be honest about it. To bring it into the light.