Allowing Joy to Pierce Your Heart: Lessons On Coming Undone for New Growth.
I’d stepped outside to put down a dish of milk for some cats, and as I turned to go back in, the door slammed shut and locked.
It was early morning, I had on a nightdress and nothing more, not even slippers. I’d only been in the house one night and barely knew my way around.
It was small, stone-built, and very old. To one side there was a lean-to full of logs, roofed with ancient terracotta tiles, many cracked and broken. Above it was the open bedroom window, my only way in. So I balanced a plastic garden chair on a table, an upturned plant pot on that, then three bricks. From this wobbly pinnacle, I could just heave myself up onto the edge of the roof.
It was tricky guessing which tiles might be strong enough and crawling up to the wall beneath the window on all fours. Then one big heave, or actually quite a few, before I made it in. Lying on the bed, gasping for breath, I told myself I would never, ever be so careless again.
During that month, it happened twice more, I simply varied the time of day and my clothing. Anyone noticing — and being on the edge of a small village, they probably did — could well have thought I did it for fun: Look, the English woman’s at it again. But each time was as terrifying as the first.
I’ve always been a slow learner, I can’t think of anything I picked up quickly and easily from Day One. I wouldn’t say it’s been a disadvantage, but it’s made for a long journey.
This was my foretaste, a month in Tuscany to make sure I was ready. Then before long, I left everything behind — husband, family, home, business, cats, most of my possessions. For quite some time, it was as terrifying as scaling that roof — the language, driving, shopping, eating, bureaucracy, all in another culture.
At the outset, I had no plan other than to start again. Start what never entered my head, it was a big enough leap to just get up and go. I was 60, had worked obsessively most of my life to the exclusion of joy, in fact to the exclusion of feeling much at all, and was close to a standstill.
Italy was the right place, hearts on sleeves everywhere. The volume of morning chatter in the baker’s was such that I thought there was a full-scale row in progress. It was just what I needed — noisy, lively, heat-of-the-moment living, gradually breaking down my British reserve until I too could laugh, cry and rage as the feeling took me. I was there for five years. It was enough.
A visit to the UK didn’t feel like going home any more, I found driving tame and had to go easy on the accelerator. But I got restless and knew it was time to move on.
So then to France — a cooler, more gentle culture, a whole new start again. My head was so befuddled with language that I would resolutely begin a sentence in French, slip into Italian, and apologize in English. It was another dismantling and re-building, and it took quite some time to adjust.
To anyone else, it seemed inexplicable: What was I doing, at my age? Why didn’t I just settle down somewhere and stay there? I couldn’t give a straight answer because I didn’t know. I was simply following my instinct to keep going, with no end in sight, no clear vision of the life I wanted, and privately, bursts of doubt and despair.
There were bleak periods — long illness, running out of money, borrowing to survive. I tried several times across the same number of years to create a new identity and put myself and my offering out into the world. I’d feel excited, it would launch quite well, and then gradually fizzle out. In hindsight, my heart wasn’t really in any of them, I was just re-working the past.
I knew that we are all conditioned from birth to believe and behave in particular ways, as many and various as the backgrounds we come from, and that this is what shapes us. But I hadn’t grasped quite how much. It’s been a long and painful experience accepting that what I became over a lifetime was a container for other people’s expectations. I didn’t really know, nor had I ever done, what I wanted for myself.
It would have pleased the vision quest in me if these moments of self-revelation had come when I was sitting by the lake, watching sunlight on water, waiting for them. But I found they were just as likely to arrive whilst boiling an egg, so I learned to stay open and listen.
But life was not all about difficulties. I gathered a family of cats and a dog who were also lost, there were a handful of treasured friendships made along the way, and I grew even closer to the natural world around me. I’ve never been troubled by solitude, and am grateful for the peace and space to just be. And gradually, joy was piercing my heart in ways I’d never felt before.
Then I read something written by a beautiful young woman called Cynthia Occelli: “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” A lightbulb moment.
I knew I was changing, in what felt like random ways. But I hadn’t strung it all together and understood that the real work going on was breaking down the old, so that something new could grow. I just needed to stop carrying around the remains of who I used to be.
The changes I’d begun to notice were subtle, welcome and warming. I’m no longer as exercised by judgment and criticism, and can see how much time and energy they devoured when left unchecked. I feel comfortable knowing I can stand for something without having to be against anything. And I’ve learned that I can love everyone, but I don’t have to like them — except for myself, and that’s mandatory.
It’s all so much easier on the soul. And at last, I believe I can write, I am writing, and I will write.
Sometimes it’s been hard to shoulder the disappointment of people who were invested in keeping me where I was, and who I was, in order that they may remain comfortable. And that hasn’t just been those I left behind, but sometimes also those I met along the way. I cared about them. It’s lonely when backs turn against you because neither can they grasp what you’re about, nor can you explain.
There are now fewer people in my life than there have ever been. And I think that’s how it had to become, so that there were fewer opportunities available for the destruction of my previous default mode: fixing someone else.
Because at last, I know what I want to do with my life, instead of what I always thought was expected of me. There’s something I want to create, I have a lot of research to do, and a community to gather and grow. It’s all-consuming and fills me with excitement and anticipation that my life will open and expand now.
In small moments, I think, “You’re 70, who’s going to listen?” On big days, I feel my vision wrapping round the world.
This time I’m following my heart, my passion and my intention, and it’s all a new experience. I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to make it all happen, but it matters more than anything that I try.
Ana Onatah lived a conventional life, with a conventional career that eventually led to running her own business. She became a supremely qualified workaholic who dedicated herself to over responsibility, with a perpetual focus on what was undone rather than what was achieved. Life, as such, fitted in round the work, and was not much fun. At 60, she found the courage to break out, left the whole lot behind, and began again in another country. For the last 10 years, she has read, studied with gifted teachers, scoured the internet, taken courses and workshops, all in the pursuit of heart-opening self-understanding. It’s worked. Her passions are writing whatever moves her to tell a story, being close to nature, and feeling that connection with all living things. At last she has found what she wants to do with her life, and is planning her next career.