I’m surrounded by people with stylish shoes and fancy luggage and I think about another life when I used to be one of those stylish, fancy people too. I look down at my hiking boots and bike panniers stuffed with essentials for the journey ahead; it feels surreal, like I’m going on holiday, and I’ll be back in a week or two.
Only I don’t have a return flight.
It’s noon on Tuesday 19 June 2018 and I’m sitting on a train winding it’s way towards Kars. Exactly four weeks ago today I started cycling across Turkey. In the days since, life on the road has begun to take shape, but also; no two days are the same.
Some days I ride for miles, some day for just a few and some days, like today, are rest days – there is no hurry; all I need to do is keep moving forward. It’s a simple life; pack, eat, go. At the end of each day I write, letting memories and thoughts that have been jarred loose on the road spill out onto the page.
The book is taking shape, albeit very slowly. Some days an entire chapter will pour out onto the page, some days a mere sentence, some days I don’t write at any words for the book at all. I gently remind myself; there is no hurry – all I need to do is keep moving forward.
I’ve been writing about the beautiful summer’s evening in 2002 when I returned to London from a work trip, only to find a letter addressed to me in my first husband’s handwriting. I clearly remember holding my breath whilst I opened it, my fingers trembling as I broke the envelope’s seal. “I’m letting you go”, I read, as I dropped to my knees.
I’d been made redundant from my marriage. Effective immediately.
It was what I wanted, but it was also not what I wanted, at all. Almost a year later he’d tell me it turned out it wasn’t what he wanted either, but by the time he’d figured that out, it was too late for us. By then, I was falling in love with someone else, a man who would walk out of my life, almost as quickly as he walked into it.
There’s so much that happened before and after that letter, and this part of the book has been difficult to write; about how we came together and eventually fell apart. It surprises me, how this can still feel painful – I’ve moved so far beyond that chapter in my life, into a much happier one – but perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me at all. Any life experience that brings you to your knees is going to leave a deep and tender scar on your heart.
I think to myself, “If I could go back in time, I’d do a million things differently. Maybe if I was a better woman, a braver woman, maybe if I was the woman I am today, I could have saved our relationship”.
Although I also know now that it’s right we’re not together.
“More importantly though, maybe I could have saved myself”.
I thought I’d hit rock bottom that night, but that was not my rock bottom; I had so much more pain to come. And I would attempt to numb that pain any way I could. In doing so, I crossed the line so many times and increasingly felt the weight of all my bad choices and the people I hurt and the mistakes I made, which would take me into much deeper lows.
I was consumed by my grief. Divorce doesn’t allow you to grieve someone the way you do with death. There’s no gathering of friends and family, so service or prayers, no final moment when you walk away from the grave. People criticise, rather than sympathise, when you become untethered as a result of a loss such as this.
There are things that happen to us in life, and when they do, we have two options; we either use them as the reason to indefinitely justify all manner of bad behaviour, or we use them as the reason to strip our lives bare and start over as better and braver people. Either way, we will never be the same.
I did both: For far too long I believed I had every right to let my life be defined by that man, that day, that letter and that rejection. I had far more questions than I had answers. My wounds remained open and I didn’t know how to close them.
The healing process didn’t happen as soon as it could have; it happened when I was ready. It began almost two years later when I stood, palms facing up in surrender, and laid myself open and vulnerable to life and sobriety and therapy.
It happened when I finally realised that I had to close the wounds, nobody else could.
I had been let go.
I could let go.
It happened when I decided it was time to fall madly in love with myself; when I vowed never to leave this girl again – no matter how many times others did – when I stopped abusing her mind with violent words and her body with violent actions and reminded her repeatedly that she’d done the best she could and that many competing truths can exist at once; whatever she’d done right and whatever she’d done wrong, she was still worthy of love.
It happened when I finally realised that forgiveness was mine, all I had to do was claim it.
On 7 March 2001 my flight from Australia touched down at Heathrow. I was alone, pursuing a dream of living and working in London that I’d originally shared with my first husband. Only he decided he wanted something different, something of his own that took him away from me, for months on end. More than 17 years later and I can still recall in vivid detail how stretched out and scratchy I felt that morning. I’d never flown so far or cried so much. The day before I’d pressed my face against the plane’s window and looked down at the glittering sea as it crashed gently against the sand of my favourite beach.
As I passed through UK immigration, into a country I’d never stepped foot in before, I was met with a low, grey sky and heavy rain.
London was not what it was meant to be. London gave me far more than I would have dared to ask for.
My marriage didn’t last, I gave my dear, loyal heart to the wrong men because I didn’t believe I deserved any better than the ones who were always going to leave – or worse – told me they’d never love me to begin with. I neglected my relationships and my responsibilities and I failed to ask for help and love and support – the very things I needed so badly. I overate and abused my sweet body and I lived in houses I hated with people I didn’t want to spend my time with, and I had to start over from scratch, yet for far too long I spent all my money on clubbing and drinking and on things that didn’t matter in order to escape from my life, rather than taking steps to embrace it.
There are things that happen to us, that cause our lives to explode. We believe they are the worst kind of experiences, but we don’t become everything we’re meant to be by living a pain-free existence; we become as a result of our bad choices and our mistakes and the pain we taste and by learning from our ill-considered attempts at life. When we finally allow those very experiences to turn us into better and braver people – when we learn from them – we realise that nothing is wasted.
London was not what it was meant to be. London gave me far more than I would have dared to ask for.
London was the place where I grew up; where I messed up time and time again until I eventually learnt the lessons I needed to learn. It doesn’t matter if you’ve made a mistake, or many; the only thing that matters is what you do next. London was the place that taught me I could be or do anything but first I had to choose what I wanted to be and do – whilst also letting go of how those visions will be realised – otherwise life becomes something that just kind of happens. A lot of good things came from my time in London; a beautiful second marriage, friendships, a home to call my own and I travelled all over the world with my career and as an independent, solo woman. Yet it was the explosions that eventually made me whole.
Evening, Tuesday 19 June 2018 and the call to prayer rings out across Kars and drifts into the hotel room through the open window, mingling with the sounds of conversation and laughter and honking car horns. City sounds, and the juxtaposition of life.
I look at my naked legs as I sit cross-legged on the yellow quilted cover of the tiny double bed; they’re battered and bruised, but far stronger than they were when I set off on this journey. I’m wrestling with writing a paragraph of the book, flailing around in my mind for the right words; the pain of the past in stark contrast to the beauty of the life I’m living now. A single line plays in a loop in my head, “I did save myself”.
For a long time I held myself in contempt for the amount of time it took to get my life back together. I compared myself to others who appeared to transform their lives in really positive ways following their divorce; who appeared to not only recover, but to flourish, almost overnight. But the time it took is the time it took; there is no statute of limitations for starting over. I held myself in contempt for all my bad choices and the people I hurt and the mistakes I made, but it took those very things and the time spent immersed in my own hurt and healing to reach this place; to become a better and braver woman than the one I was before.
Nothing is wasted. Not if you keep learning and living and loving. What I know now is that some of us feel like we did some things far too early yet in other ways, we feel like we’re falling behind – but there is no such thing as too soon or too late, we’re all on different paths and it’s that kind of thinking that keeps us stuck – the only thing that matters is what you do next.
Nothing is wasted. I carried those words with me as I said teary farewells to my London friends, as I packed up the house I shared with my second husband for 11 years – a quarter of my life – as we sat in an estate agent’s office signing our names on a contract that gives someone else the right to live in our home for the next three years. They ran through my head as I let go of possessions, except for the ones we decided to keep, as we drove boxes of our belongings to go into storage for we don’t know how long. Nothing is wasted played like a tune stuck in my head as I worked with my final clients and then transferred the only income I’ll receive until I don’t know when into my bank account, and waded through the muck of putting my life in order – a life I don’t know if I’ll return to. Nothing is wasted I told myself as I stripped my life bare of almost everything I’d created and held onto for so long – evidence that I did indeed save myself – as I swapped everything that felt comfortable and familiar and safe to take this road less travelled.
I stare at my legs, unseeing, thinking about all the times I longed to escape from who I was, yet learning how to stay with myself is how I found happiness, how I finally embraced who I am. No matter what happened in the past and no matter what happens in the future; nothing is wasted. Take the lessons you learn and keep moving forward, take your time; there is no hurry.
You are who you are because of the unique path you’ve walked. Nothing is wasted.
© 2019 Esther Zimmer