Susannah Conway is the creator of the remarkable and consistently sold-out online e-course, Unravelling. I asked Susannah to be part of the Wisdom Series because … well, because I love the way she writes.
To me, Susannah’s is the wisdom of grace, light and curiosity. She engages the world with a sense of wonder – and her astonishment with the world engages our own. I am pleased and proud to introduce her to you:
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Despite wholeheartedly believing that each of us carries an ocean of wisdom inside our hearts, I don’t often feel wise. My default setting is usually clueless, downshifting to panicked on particularly premenstrous days. I’ve just spent the last four months writing my first book and during that time there’s been an overwhelming expectation to channel wisdom through my words—I should add that this is an expectation I’ve created all by myself. Because all my life I have believed that The Books are where I will find the answers.
Four days after my partner died in 2005 I was sufficiently in a state of shock to sit down at my computer, log in to Amazon and order ten books about grief—my loss hadn’t hit me yet; I was a robot existing on air and red wine, but I still knew that I needed The Books, that surely somewhere in their pages would be the cure for this ailment that was about to devour my entire life. And I found a handful of books that comforted and helped, and even more novels I escaped into when reality was too much to bear, but The Books didn’t teach me how to accept my loss. I had to work that one out for myself.
Still, The Books brought other joys back into my world—poetry, art, photography, prose. As I tunnelled my way back to a life worth living my home became filled with words and images; the writing that had been a constant throughout my life took on greater meaning as I wrote letters to my lost love, writing out my grief until my hand ached. In the second year, I started penning a blog, and that tiny leap of faith proved to be a significant turning point in my healing; by letting myself be seen again I reached out and found kind hands willing to hold mine—wonderfully supportive readers, new friends from around the world and eventually the attention of a publisher.
So that’s why I’ve been holed-up in my flat for the last four months, ordering my groceries online and letting dust bunnies take over my home. Writing this book has stretched me and pulled me and I’ve loved it and fought it in equal measure, and because I want to share the guts of my story, and pass on the lessons and discoveries, I’ve been retracing the steps I took to regrow my heart; grief didn’t make me wise, but it did help me find the wisdom that had been there all along. It’s very tempting to romanticise one’s healing journey years after the fact—even calling it a “journey” somehow elevates it into a warrior’s tale while simultaneously tying a pretty bow around it—I survived the death of my lover, and now I’m indestructible! Even though I have days when I genuinelyfeel like that, it’s never quite that simple.
Grief cut out all the crap, burning through my life, taking my home, friendships and fragile sense of self, leaving the bare bones of me and the chance to finally figure out what really mattered. And it turned out not to be the things I’d thought were so important. I learned that away from the glamour of city living, the ambitions and the needy relationships, what I reallyneeded was a relationship with my self—it was time to get to know the girl-woman who’d never believed she was worth it. As I unravelled the layers of my self, the hurts of the present lead me back to hurts of the past, my grief opening the door to all the other losses that were lining up, waiting to be truly felt. The cumulative effect of therapy, blogging, photography and writing all helped to stitch me back together again—remade. Reborn. Truly awake for the first time in my life.
I’m six years away from the blast now, and I’ve worked hard to integrate everything I learned into a life that will always be a work in progress, just like everyone else’s. But with every year that passes I find I’m able to look after myself better, and on the days that I’m hurting, I nowknow to let myself sit quietly and reach for the tools that help to reconnect and ground me—my notebook, my camera, my books. I rediscovered the wisdom of seeing and noticing, which is why photography is such an important and integral part of my life now. I know that if I take my camera out for a walk, I have a way to slip back into the flow of my life. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s my iPhone, my Polaroid or my vintage Hasselblad, the camera pulls me out of myself and back into the moment; I find it almost impossible to continue fretting when I’m taking a photograph. It’s my own personal meditation.
Perhaps true wisdom is simply knowing when to do the things you need to truly comfort and support yourself. There are no robes, no chanting, no retreating up a mountain. I’m learning to trust myself, to believe that, no matter what the situation, I know what I need. And if we’re able to look after ourselves—to parent ourselves, in whatever shape that takes for us—we are better equipped to be there for everyone else: our family, our friends, our students, our planet. If we heal our pain, we’re less likely to pass it on to somebody else.
So as I emerge from my book-cave, red eyes blinking in the sunlight, I discover the seasons have shifted and my beloved spring is coming back, bringing the magnolias with her. And all I want to do is run outside with a bag full of cameras, and be thankful I have another day to explore. Because being alive is truly bloody amazing.
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Susannah Conway is the author of This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart (Skirt!, June 2012). A photographer, writer and e-course creator, her classes have been enjoyed by thousands of people from over 40 countries around the world. Co-author of Instant Love: How to Make Magic and Memories with Polaroids (Chronicle Books, 2012), Susannah helps others reconnect to their true selves, using photography as the key to open the door. You can read more about her shenanigans on her blog at SusannahConway.com and connect with her on Twitter @SusannahConway.