In the fall of 2000, when I went back to Ghana for a couple of months after Koro had passed, once the first few days of seeing people and getting things settled were out of the way, I began to spend the majority of each day alone out at the shack. Back there, the daily tasks involved in living simply at my home in the bush gave me plenty to do, effectively wiping away the disturbing question of “what to do now” that had been plaguing me during the couple weeks it had taken me to get back there. And any spare time I had was spent writing. I was not yet writing much about the emotions I was feeling or the loss I was experiencing, or even about my life with Koro; I was just… writing, something, because for some reason, I needed to do it, just as much as I needed to fetch my water. I wrote incessantly, feeling the need to record everything I was doing, even just the simple tasks of my day – all the necessary chores; it was as if I needed to see, in the words on the page, a confirmation that I was still alive, that my life was indeed continuing on without him… I was very much broken. But yes, I was still alive, still waking each morning – the raucous roosters pecking around my tent unfailingly prevailing upon me to rise, and I was still writing.
And without my realizing it, like a little miracle… the healing process found its way to begin.
Back in America that winter, while staying with my mom in the suburbs of Chicago, I began to write about all that I had not been able to approach back in Ghana, began to process all my emotions and the many things that had happened within just a year’s worth of time. Writing is my oldest practice, my tried-and-true best way to connect with myself and know myself, as well as to find the guidance I need to take each next step along my path, and it has always been my main method of processing my experiences, of facilitating their settling into me. Somehow when I see the words unfolding on the page, my experiences or emotions or directives make more sense to me, and as they take their shape – the shape of story, they seem to gain a certain substance that contributes to the ground on which I stand, on which I step forward. At that time, I had so very much to process through the writing. And, too, by then I began writing to remember, desperate to capture on the page all my precious memories of Koro and my life with him, so as not to lose any of it. Meanwhile, I read like mad, reading others’ stories keeping me feeling, in this place that always lacked community for me, connected to some kind of community, even if just a sort of literary one. Books and writing felt like my strongest lifeline.
Coming out of this most recent trip to Africa, which included the long-anticipated revisiting of that highly consequential past home in Ghana, it felt so fitting to return to my mom’s sweet little townhouse in the suburbs for a long stretch, and with a heap of writing work on my plate; it felt like coming full-circle. I could tell I was “in the right place at the right time,” and I was extremely thankful to be there. Since she moved there while I was in college, my mom’s house has always been a place into which I can retreat and do whatever I need to do, without much distraction; and sure enough, I did find it quite conducive to the “cave time” that I was hoping to get there – the reasonably uninterrupted time alone to go deep into the writing work that awaited me – deep into my inner cave. In fact, my time there involved even more of a cave-like existence than I had anticipated, as the “Polar Vortex” began making its way to town literally the day I arrived. It was an interesting juxtaposition, to go from the extreme heat of West Africa, where I was constantly in the fresh air, to the extreme cold of a hard-hitting winter in the Midwest, where I was shut indoors nearly all the time, windows sealed, the air outside so cold that it was actually hard to breathe it in. It had been nearly a decade since I had done a “real” winter – with snow and ice and bitter cold, and all the rest with which I had grown up – so long that I had forgotten much of what it was like, how it involves a somewhat alternate way of being.
But the cold only made my being there feel all the more fitting, as back in that winter of grief and mourning following Koro’s passing, I had also arrived at the start of what was to be a particularly harsh winter. Now, in the midst of our Polar Vortex, when the cold refused to give us a break and the snow just kept falling… when that stillness following a fresh snowfall would seep inside of me, slowing everything down… I often thought of those times past in which I read my way through these winter hibernations. And thinking of all the books I enjoyed during those quiet times, of the adventures on which they took me and the emotions they stirred inside me… it encouraged me to come to terms with “putting myself out there,” with making sharing my writing just another part of the writing process – a part which, for whatever reason, I simply have known I have needed to start doing for a long time now, and has seemed more and more important in the past couple years.
Back in that winter of 2000/2001, for a long time, the writing was pretty much my only means of expression, as I was not really talking with anyone about all I had just been through – or was now going through. My life at my mom’s house has always involved an extremely limited social world, and within that insular reality, no one seemed to know what to say to me concerning my experience in Ghana (with which I was, understandably, entirely consumed) – so, for the most part… no one said anything at all. (For months, the most I spoke of my life in Ghana was during a trip to the dentist, when my dental hygienist asked me about it.) I had the feeling that no one with whom I was close was capable of dealing with hearing about what I was experiencing, that it was all just too difficult. So I poured everything into my writing.
But when I eventually quite unexpectedly shared all with a rather random woman I had just met, I found that it made a huge difference for me – that I learned so much through telling my story, especially with regard to the heartbreak of losing and grieving for Koro; that having my experience witnessed by another living, breathing human being seemed to make it all the more real; and that it somehow moved my healing process forward by leaps and bounds. Now, at my mom’s house following this last trip to Africa, back in the same exact physical place, which had changed so little, around the same people – Mom and cousins, again processing my experiences in Africa through the writing while in the solitude of my suburban cave… but this time taking the chance to start to put sharing my writing into practice… it felt like progress, like I was taking some sort of big step forward.
To write, to later read through that writing, to shape some of it into a story to share with a wider audience than just myself – each stage in my writing process has always offered me a way to give my experiences a chance to find their place within me, to settle, every part of the process providing a deeper level of integration. But to now follow through with the sharing, to go through the motions necessary to actually get the writing out into the world, this much was new for me – and fairly daunting; for a long time, sending a post generally felt like taking a giant leap off a cliff into a dark and hopefully deep pool of water below (not the kind of thing that has ever appealed to me), and it often involved several preceding nights of insomnia. But it did get easier with practice, to get the ego out of the way and let the writing continue on its ride out into the world. And at some point along the way, sharing actually began to feel like uncovering another layer of my healing process. Just as I had known that I needed to write so constantly when I was at the shack after I lost Koro, I felt the same urge now to share – just knew I needed to do it, and just as the act of writing had been healing, the sharing of the writing now felt healing as well – but in a new way.
This new dimension of healing felt more expansive, and more collective – a result, I suppose, of that divine magic of connection that can manifest through sharing. Maybe, too, the further a story I had been carrying around got out into the collective consciousness, the more the collective could help me hold the weight of it. Or perhaps it simply had something to do with the story itself being set free, since the writing did sometimes seem to press on me to be let loose, as if it had a life of its own to live. ...What would a story become if not shared? I suppose it is given life, and all the value that entails, through its transmission. …But one way or another, by the time spring finally found its way through the clouds – largely bringing us back to life as it began its long-awaited process of dispersing the chill that had now lingered well past the height of the Polar Vortex… by the time we were at last able to throw open the windows and air out the house… I, too, was feeling “aired out,” exposed – and that there was so much freedom, a sense of lightness, that came with the warmth flowing in as a result.
…In the midst of enjoying this stay at my mom’s house, soaking up a hearty dose of time with her and my cousins, feeling fully present in that reality, I couldn’t deny that my heart also still felt drawn to Africa. The land, the culture, the lifestyle… it all remained ingrained in my spirit, an imprint stamped inside of me, part of the very foundation of my being. And after all that “letting go” I experienced during this trip there, all those feelings of freedom and of laying my past desires or intentions to rest, now I found myself right back in that same old place of thinking, “If not this winter, then probably next winter – back to Africa.”
But it did seem that through this trip, while I certainly did not get a sense of closure concerning the draw to be in Africa, I did gain some closure on a previous mentality around that draw, one involving division, separation – here versus there, America versus Ghana, the West versus Africa. For years after I left Ghana, as I felt the pull back to that rich and challenging environment in which I had experienced so much growth, my life in the States could sometimes almost feel like being in a waiting room, before stepping down the hallway (or through the gates of airports) into real life – involving the shift in consciousness and the sort of immediacy of life, that presence-in-the-now, that I had experienced in Ghana. Life in Africa felt like real life, whereas life in America – at least the version of America within which I had been raised… with its strong focus on the future (so much living or planning for retirement, for holidays and vacations, for emergencies, etc.); and with its population’s widespread habit of somewhat numbing ourselves to our experience, of “checking out” or “zoning out,” engaging in some sort of routine escapism, with our easy access to so many abusable avenues for this – television (foremost on my mind, as it was a big part of my upbringing in what I came to think of as a “suburban spiritual wasteland”), drugs (prescribed or not), alcohol, food, etc.… felt, to me, less real, less true, less genuine, and less full. …But now, following this trip, something inside me had shifted, and the whole thing just felt like my life – here, there, anywhere. Even my suburban cave at my mom’s house, this place that had always been kind of a “no-place” for me, was far from being a waiting room, I now felt more than ever before, but something to be cherished, my time there a gift – for one thing, always reminding me of another piece of who and how I am.
Finding my place in it all now, I felt whole, could see that there was no need to decide between this or that part of my life or my self. And as to the grass being “greener on the other side,” it seemed that there is really no such thing as “greener,” but only different shades, variations. Still wrapped in that feeling with which I had walked away from Guinea – that feeling that I no longer wanted to be anywhere but in the present moment… now I just wanted to be present for all of it, for as much as I am given the opportunity to experience in this life. Yes, thank you, more please.
Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...