I’ve named this blog driving in the dark after this E. L. Doctorow quote about writing:
‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
This has always resonated with me, not only because I know it to be true of writing, but because I know it to be true of life too. To say something about me and what drives me – through the dark and otherwise – I’m kicking off this blog with a little story from my own life. It’s called driving in the dark:
I know what it’s like to drive in the dark. Seven years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I got in my car, wild-eyed with grief and fatigue, my tiny baby in the back, and drove the 200 miles from Manchester to South Wales. I had breasts full of milk, no money in my purse and no real clue where I was going. I trusted that the cranky old sat nav someone had given me would take me there.
I’d recently learned that my husband, my playmate and soulmate for as long as I could remember, had fallen in love with someone else when I was pregnant. That he was still in love. I told him to go and he wanted to go. I knew that I’d be bringing up our son pretty much alone, though I didn’t fully understand then what that would mean or on what kind of journey I was about to embark. On his leaving, I’d taken a long, slow, horrified intake of breath and was still yet to exhale.
Earlier that year, we’d made a plan to spend New Year with old friends in a cottage in South Wales. When I’d called to cancel, explaining what had happened, they begged me to go anyway. I needn’t worry about paying for the room, or about anything. ‘Just come,’ they said, ‘and we’ll take care of you both.’
It was early evening before I finally decided to make the trip. A new driver, I was afraid of unknown roads, of hazards, of roundabouts and of parking. Mostly, I was afraid of other cars. Scared of anything and everything, really, outside of what had until then been my small, comfortable sphere of existence. I packed a few things in the boot and bundled my sleeping baby boy into the car seat in the back. I sang us all the way down the motorway. I sang lullabies and nursery rhymes and every song I knew from memory, just hoping he wouldn’t wake. I sang to soothe my baby and I sang to calm my anxious heart, which since my husband had left had been chasing around my chest like a small panicked animal trying to get out.
When, after three hours of driving, my boy woke to feed and wouldn’t settle, I pulled over in a layby on an unlit, icy road in Snowdonia and, surrounded on all sides by dark snowy mountains, I held him to my breast and soothed him to milky bliss, feeling awed, as I did every time, that there was only me, only me in the world that could do this for him.
I settled him back in his seat and took out my ‘phone to let my friends know that it would be a while before we got there. There was no signal. And as I started tentatively back on the icy road, I realised there was no signal on my sat nav either. No voice telling me where to go or how to get there. I took my heart in my hands and inched along the icy roads with only my headlights and the gleam from the snowy mountains to guide me. I sang to soothe my baby and I sang to soothe myself.
As I drove along the dark unknown roads, I felt that I was further from home than I’d ever been, but also closer to it than I’d ever been too. I was cold, lost, vulnerable and somehow powerful beyond measure. Singing my fear away, I realised that the small, panicked animal had disembarked somewhere along the journey and a new feeling had settled in my chest. I’ve since come to recognise that feeling as courage. I know now that I’d never felt it until then. I’d never had to. And it was nothing like I thought it would feel. It had nothing to do with knowing what I wanted or where I was going and everything to do with knowing who I was, who I really was, when everything else was gone.
It was just before midnight when I arrived at the cottage. I still have no idea how I found it, this tiny old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, but I got there without the sat nav and without my ‘phone. My friends took one look at me on the doorstep, my baby in my arms, and a strange look, no doubt, in my eyes, and they bundled me into the house with kindness and put us straight to bed. They did not wish me a Happy New Year, and that was a kindness too. Over the years that followed, I would learn how to accept such kindness and love coming, as it did then, alongside pity and concern. I’d learn to feel a new kind of gratitude and a new kind of shelter. ‘We gave you the nicest room,’ they said, as they settled me and my still-sleeping baby into the huge feather bed with the crispest, whitest sheets I’d ever seen.
The next day, we walked on the beautiful beach in St. David’s and talked about everything. As we stood to rest and look out to sea, there came from the beach huts behind us the sound of frantic footsteps and we turned to see what seemed like hundreds of people, thundering down the sands towards us and then past us, whooping and laughing and unsettling the soft white sand. They raced for the freezing water as though their lives depended on it. And when they reached it, they plunged in, some of them holding hands with others, some of them alone, some of them in wetsuits and – did I imagine this? – some of them naked and they screamed and shouted and brought in the brand new year with a great big slap of icy water on their skin. I wish I could say that I joined them, but I didn’t. Not that time anyway. What I did do, though, was breathe in the sea-salty air and, finally, with relief, exhale.
Happy New Year.