Return from the wilderness

Or 26 things I’ve learned this last year

Looking back over the past year, many of us feel like we’ve been thrown into uncharted territory. Rob Self-Pierson shares his experience: his journey, finding his way back, and the lessons learned along the way.

In February 2020, Dad endured rather than enjoyed his 74th birthday.

The diagnosis still raw, I remember watching him sit at the dining room table, in our family home, a granddaughter pulling at each arm. Granddad was in too much pain to play today.

Just a month earlier, my dad had phoned to share the news. His back problems were being caused by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. ‘It’s terminal, the doctor told me, but treatable. He says you can go on living with it for years, Rob.’ In March last year, when Dad was rushed into intensive care, he got very close to not seeing another birthday.

I’ve shared Dad’s story many times these last twelve months, in person and through writing. About the chemo, radiotherapy and kidney failure. About my father’s slow return to health last spring. About his brilliant team of nurses and doctors who cleared infections, saved his kidneys and moved him from hospital to hospital, away from a new virus. And about the first time I saw my father break down.

I broke down, too. Sometimes it was obvious, like collapsing into tears while washing up. Sometimes I could feel it happen inside, while I was telling friends I was fine. I wasn’t fine. I was even less fine when a trade mark dispute took my writing studio and left me—this was my feeling at the time—with nothing. I began to drift into a wilderness, away from those things that help orientate us in life.

It’s been a long and enlightening trek back. A wild year indeed. As I reconnect with friends, some who have shared their own stories with me, I’m beginning to appreciate the lessons a year in the wilderness has taught me—about writing, life and everything in between. 

As is tradition in these parts, and because I like a challenge, I’ll share the 26 that came to me first when asked to write this article. Those learned through my experience or other people’s kind advice. Here goes…

1/ Fear is natural

Whether it’s fear of losing someone you love, your employment, even a pitch, fear exists. When I fought it, I lost. When I ran from it, I got lost. When I accepted that it’s natural, I found some clarity.

2/ Acceptance is progress

Looking back, denial made the wilderness feel darker than it was. The moment I accepted some things—Dad’s ill, time with him is limited—the better I understood how to step forwards and find moments of light .

3/ Anger is exhausting

It was easy to get angry in the wilderness. Everything was against me, my life was the toughest, nobody knew how I was feeling… is what I told myself. Allowing anger to roar on by helped me rebuild my energy.

4/ Goodness is energising

Wow there are a lot of good things in this world. Really. Loads. Friends and compassionate strangers and smiles and food and books and art and music and poetry and nature and plenty more. I fed off their goodness.

5/ Nature is regrowth

After a hospital visit to Dad one sunny day last spring, I followed signs to Rooks Nest House. Via magpies, robins, brambles and beetles, I reached EM Forster’s childhood home. I breathed deep, teared up and grew.    

6/ Writing is healing

I wrote about the walk. Reading it now, I can see myself acknowledging emotions, trying to make sense of thoughts and slowly moving forwards. Diary-keeping helps Dad to do the same.

7/ Walking is rejuvenating

I once wrote a book about a year of walks by moonlight. Before the writing healed, the act of walking renewed my spirit and helped me get through challenges. The slower I walk, the more I see, hear and learn.

8/ Detail is everything

Waiting for Dad at dialysis, Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Keep The Customer Satisfied’ came on the radio. I knew the song well, but not its bass line. Focusing on this small part made me love the song even more.

9/ Emotion is inspiration

At times I couldn’t go there; the emotional well seemed so deep I worried I might not climb back out. But when I found the courage and leaned in, what I later wrote felt far more potent than usual.

10/ Purpose is essential

Not brand purpose or social purpose. Not something huge like saving the planet. But, as I heard Esther Rantzen say, ‘A reason to get out of bed in the morning.’ It’s important to have reasons to be and reasons to do.

11/ Routine is useful

Lockdown plus no studio equalled zero work for me. After some sulking, I set myself small daily tasks. Walking, writing, entering competitions, reconnecting with people. Routine supported my being and doing.

12/ Sourdough is unpredictable

Yes, I became one of those. An obsessive one. People even came to me to ask advice on starters and bannetons and the second rise. Of course I hid from them the loaves that doubled up as doorstops.

13/ Kindness is contagious

I’ve never known kindness like that shown by nurses who brought Dad food, treated his wounds, made him smile during dialysis, walked with him around the ward to help his strength. I’m kinder for seeing this.

14/ Friendship is nourishing

Close friends listen and share like nobody else. They’ll walk in the wilderness with you, or suggest a few routes out. The closest will know what to say and what to do to help you feel that things are ok.

15/ Stillness is connection

Between diagnosis and intensive care, I filled every second with something, swatted away thoughts with busyness. The steady beep of Dad’s life support slowed me down and made me connect with feelings.

16/ Time is malleable

In the wilderness, some days blinked by. Others lasted months. The more present I was able to be, the more I felt I could affect time. Some lockdown dinners with my parents, for example, will last forever.

17/ Creativity is catalysing

I once mocked up a design that said ‘Creativity makes the world go round’. Finding it again in the wilderness reminded me of the wonderful 26 projects I’ve been part of. And what’s possible with a creative spark.

18/ Teaching is learning

Last summer, I taught creative writing to my nieces, Grace and Milly. Over twelve weeks, we made wonderful worlds, gave life to curious characters and made magical things happen. I learned as much as the girls did.

19/ Laughter is colour

To teach Milly, 7, Chekhov’s gun principle, we wrote a story full of ridiculously inexplicable things. When the policeman dressed as a banana appeared from nowhere, Milly lost it. Laughter filled our call with colour.

20/ Virtual is limitless

‘Yes, but it’s not the same.’ A friend was responding to the story of my first Dark Angels Zoom gathering, with its candles and creative practices. He was right. Virtual isn’t the same: it’s whatever you make it.

21/ Perfection is limiting

Perhaps even the enemy of creativity. Writing with my nieces, and taking part in 26 member Neil Baker’s Dark Angels weekly gathering, has reminded me to create things to explore, not to arrive.

22/ ‘Wrong’ is liberating

Power-people on LinkedIn tell me to FAIL HARDER, which sounds painful. Instead, I’m learning to accept that things rarely go to plan in life and work. It’s fine because ‘wrong’ often reveals exciting possibilities.   

23/ Reading is restorative

It’s essays, short stories and non-fiction for me. In others’ writing, I find answers to my questions, ideas to challenge my thinking, and inspiration to create in different ways. Especially during long days of lockdown. 

24/ Poetry is humanising

I was never a poetry person before but recently I’ve found my life and experiences in other people’s poems. Listening to Radio 3’s ‘The Verb’, I’ve rediscovered old 26 friends like Inua Ellams, and made new ones. 

25/ Community is vital

A young 26 member came to do work experience with me before lockdown. Smiling big after a day meeting writers, he said, ‘I think I’ve found my tribe.’ Communities like 26 and Dark Angels offer that feeling.

26/ 26 is home

One of my first acts back from the wilderness was rejoining 26. I shared the news with John Simmons, a man who has encouraged me since we first met in 2010. ‘That’s great, Rob,’ he replied. ‘Welcome home.’

Thank you, John. It feels good to be back.

(Happy 75th birthday, Dad.)

—Rob Self-Pierson

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