Frustrated in the quest to find work and a life you love? Don’t despair, the greatest truth is that our heart always knows the way.
This is the first guest post in our Wholehearted Stories series on Quiet Writing. I invited readers to consider submitting a guest post on their wholehearted story. You can read more here.
In essence, Quiet Writing celebrates wholehearted living and writing, career and creativity and I am keen for a community of voices to be telling their story of what wholehearted living means here in this space. In this way, we can all feel connected on our various journeys and not feel so alone. Whilst there will always be unique differences, there are commonalities that we can all learn from and share to support each other.
I am thrilled to have my dear friend, Katherine Bell, as the first ‘Wholehearted Stories’ contributor. Katherine and I met through an online course, The Introvert Effect, created by Katherine Mackenzie-Smith. When I talked on a group phone call about my planned transition to a more wholehearted way of life, Katherine reached out to me afterwards, sensing a connection in our stories. We have been firm and amazingly synchronistically connected friends ever since, supporting each other and sharing a love of books and especially of David Whyte, who features in this story.
I hope you enjoy Katherine’s story, poem and exquisite photography. My sincere thanks to Katherine for her beautiful contribution to Quiet Writing.
Starting out on my journey towards wholehearted life and work
This is not a romantic story. Certainly others found it inspiring to start with—a quest towards a better life is something we can all relate to … for a time. But when the initial 12 months I had planned (what was I thinking?) grew into 18, then 24 … then five years and there were no tangibles like an impressive job title, a book, or the usual manifestations we take as evidence that someone has a successful life … well, cue crickets chirping and tumbleweed rolling down the deserted street.
Not long after my 39th birthday, with my life in a dire mess, I checked myself into a psychologist. I naively approached this as I would manage a work project, and estimated that I would be fixed before I turned 40. I was about to learn that inner work—deep inner work—is nowhere near linear. My biggest challenge was that I didn’t know what I wanted, despite recognising that I was desperately unhappy. I also felt that something was wrong with me, as the kind of prescribed life my partner of nearly 20 years had envisaged for us—and that everybody else seemed to want as well—was just not me. I felt like the Ugly Duckling, I simply didn’t belong.
A beacon of hope
It wasn’t until a friend passed a copy of David Whyte’s ‘Crossing the Unknown Sea—Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity to me around the same time that I recognised a voice like my own for the first time, and dared to hope that there was another way for work, relationship, life— a way that fit with me, instead of my feeble attempts to contort in ever-increasingly painful ways to fit with it. I can vividly recall the night I started to read it. I was in the bathtub (my Fortress of Solitude in those days) again feeling like the Ugly Duckling. But this time, the experience was akin to the duckling’s heart both leaping and aching when he looked up to see beautiful swans—his own kind—flying overhead. I recognised in David Whyte a kindred other who lived at depth, even though I did not quite know what living at depth was at that time.
This simple, profound recognition was enough to start me on the journey of my own unknown sea. Here, finally, was someone else who had crossed that sea, I recognised his voice, and I knew I belonged in some way to that pilgrimage. Fast forward to the present day, and with a small, knowing smile I say that the recognition was of my own voice. The best gift of David Whyte’s words have not been their beauty, nor their inspiration (as profound as both are) but the validity, the permission, they gave to my own words, my own voice. There was nothing wrong with me after all, I was not a duckling, I was a swan. I had simply been surrounded with voices that did not recognise mine.
With that first heart-leap of recognition, and the simple permission given by the Wonderful Mr Whyte, I took the plunge into the unknown sea towards work, life and relationship that was wholehearted. I tackled the problem in the only way I knew how to at the time, which was to leave my job, home, partner and city in the same week (not recommended) and take flight to the other side of the world for six weeks. My entire known life was in storage, ready to be dealt with when I got back.
In this way I jumped into my own metaphorical boat with not a clue (thankfully) of the squally territory that lay ahead, or that I would feel at sea for several years. I say “feel at sea” as in reality we are never truly lost, or alone, it just feels that way, and part of our quest is to be able to endure the inevitable crises of discomfort, discouragement, or despair. It’s a riding out of the storm, knowing that it will eventually pass.
Allowing our heart direction to emerge
I think the trip was the only part of the plan that made sense, in hindsight. It gave me the relief and spaciousness I needed—both literally, staying in remote parts of the English countryside and roaming open fields, mountains, and wild clifftops in the rain, and metaphorically, in starting to thaw out from what had been a fraught existence, both at work and home, for long years at a stretch. I felt like I was emerging from a coma and needing to learn what was real again. This was in the smallest of ways to begin with, an almost imperceptible turning of my head and simple noticing of what elicited a positive reaction in me, like surprise at hearing the unfamiliar sound of my own laugh.
It was a significant shock when I returned to Australia without a home, job, partner or any structure to my life and needed to take the first breath of my new life. I moved to a regional town near my family, embarking on a series of experiments to find work that worked for me. Work, for me, is of central importance, and my experiences with it not working have been as painful as any of my life’s challenges. David Whyte elevates work to the status of a marriage in his book “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship” and I agree with it being given this priority. This is especially so for those who are creative types—there is no divorcing ourselves from our work, they are one and the same entity.
In Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte talks of “having a firm persuasion in our work” (p.5) and that has certainly been the crux of my quest, taking precedence over relationship for a time. I have grappled with finding work that is heartfelt and resonant, and what has looked like foolishness to others from a financial perspective has been a dogged determination to settle for nothing less. I certainly miss elements of my former lifestyle, but in resolutely setting my sail to my own course I can say I am at peace and happy.
My golden rule is that as mine is the only head to hit my pillow each night, I’m best qualified to set that sail, as long as I am staying aligned to what is true for me. It has, however, been stressful in needing to hold out far longer than I envisaged, yet the alternative—the life I used to live and the work I used to do—is no more an option for me as running a race if I no longer had legs. As Whyte’s friend Brother David said to him “You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers” (p.132).
Discovering my work
The only idea I had about what my right kind of work looked like was that I wanted to write. Knowing that I wasn’t interested in writing fiction was at least a start. I stumbled through exploring writerly activities such as creating a blog, writing poetry, entering writing competitions, and applying for a writing scholarship. However, apart from the cathartic blog and poetry, it felt as though I was contorting myself again into a shape that wasn’t quite right. Thankfully, as Rumi says, “what you seek is seeking you”, and I soon had an opportunity presented to write for a research organisation, work which I found I truly loved. All my clumsy attempts and experiments had in fact been my apprenticeship to the kind of writing I love. In revisiting an earlier journal I discovered the prophetic words:
“My work will be a melange of my heart – not just one thing, it will be a blend of all the things that make my heart glad: writing, thinking, researching; the alchemy of ideas”.
Here was evidence that my heart had known all along, I had just not been in a place to hear it, let alone respond to it.
The benefit of hindsight
Hindsight shows us that all experiences—even the most painful—prepare us for our own particular work. Some experiences are definitive (like David Whyte’s influence on me, foundational stones to the structure of the work which only we can do) and some are transitional, forming the scaffolding we need to emerge ever so slowly until ready to stand and reveal our work to the world.
If I could rewind the clock and give myself some advice to make the journey easier, it would centre on the following.
- There is no timeframe in matters of the heart, especially when needing to find a way back to life after being metaphorically dead as I was. It will take as long as it will take, even if you are just a little lost. Don’t try to plan and control it; it will only cause additional pain. I think one of the most important things is that any emotional or psychic recovery needs to be given the same credence as a physical injury. I have had to constantly adjust my expectations of the timeframe of recovery, likening it to having every bone, muscle, ligament broken and undergoing extensive rehabilitation, and learning to live again being more than a little changed.
- Be kind and patient … with yourself. I wish I had cut myself some slack along the way; I was really doing the best I knew how to at any given point, as feeble as that was.
- The truth is not that everything will be OK, it’s that it already is. Time and time again I have had to remind myself “all is well”. Even in the darkest moments, the truth is that everything is working for us when we are aligned to our hearts, not against us.
- It’s not a journey with a destination. I’m still not there, and I don’t think I ever will be. As David Whyte says, it’s a ‘continuing conversation’. The important thing is that we keep showing up, open-hearted, looking for the Hansel and Gretel trail that leads us ever homewards, crumbs as clues left behind by an engaged and benevolent Hand (whether we understand that to be our God, our Higher Self, or whatever language we use to give meaning and shape to our spirituality).
From the time I first recognised David Whyte’s voice (and ultimately my own) in the bath all those years ago to now, I trust my little boat, metaphor for my heart, to carry me ever onwards. I have nothing to fear while I’m aligned to it. My only request is that after several years at stormy sea, I’m soon taken to safe harbour for a little respite, perhaps where I can feel the warmth of the sun of friendship and community on my face. Then, as it is now, all will be well.
This reflective journey has led me back to a poem that I first started to write as I walked the clifftops in England all those years ago, with my own unknown sea stretched before me. Whilst not originally written with the intention of sharing it, it seems to fit so beautifully into my story that I offer it here.
It turns out (in the end) that I am far
stronger than we all thought.
I chose to be brave at morning’s first light,
however grey and dim it appeared then.
Turning towards the east
to walk ever closer to the Ocean of Who Knows What,
throwing my face and caution
to the biting wind of my vulnerability,
stripped of all pretence and belief
for better, or for worse:
or at last, Ruined.
In angry defiance
—or quiet acceptance?—
I signed up, took the gamble,
declaring “See here?
This, this is my Mark,
my Line In The Sand
of how I will live and be in this world.
And if I die at this brutal hand
at least I felt the sharp slap and bite of the wind,
the driving rain that hurt my eyes and became my tears,
and the aching weight of loss
—how will I bear it?—
but knowing at last,
This was Me
I had reached Land’s End,
And I refused to go into hiding again.
Standing on the cliff buffeted, yet
the cruel sea
Relentless against captive rocks,
I thought “Poor things, they’re just like me…
—pounded and near-drowned”.
Then pounded and near-drowned some more.
In years to come I will know that in
choosing to live
at risk of the Open Sea
in this beautiful and vicious world
that sometimes despised,
sometimes loved me
(I never knew which it was).
About Katherine Bell
Before turning to the quieter world of writing, editing and research, Katherine worked for 25 years in the corporate sector across multiple industries in senior administrative and strategic project roles. Making a tree-change from Sydney to regional NSW several years ago, Katherine is passionate about promoting research that translates into real-life outcomes. She is currently working on forming an alliance with other corporate escapees who share her passion for making the workplace more humane and sustainable, particularly for those who are introverted or highly sensitive. Co-founder of The Edit Bureau she also assists academics in Australia and overseas with getting their work published.
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