How do you learn to live again when life as you knew it has fallen apart? When her marriage broke down, Mary Jane Grant discovered that the little pleasures can make the biggest difference…
After her husband Stuart announced he wanted a separation from their 25-year marriage in November 2013, Mary Jane decided to move from their home in Canada to London to be near her son, Ryan. She told herself that this was a test of their relationship and that they would find a way to get back together. But in London she found some simple but effective ways to help ease her sadness, which made her feel more alive than ever…
The pleasure of living in the moment
The vibrant city of London was at my feet and I was barely taking it in. Upon seeing something remarkable, I would instinctively reach out to touch my husband’s arm and say, ‘Will you look at that?’ but nobody was there and I felt the sting of rejection. ‘You’ve been discarded, remember?’
Then I went into a tea shop and came face to face with a display of small white pots filled with different types of tea. ‘Smell the teas’ said the laminated sign. I felt like Alice in Wonderland and picked up a cup labelled ‘tranquillity’. The scent of lavender hit me first but also something citrus. I closed my eyes and breathed in slowly, then opened them to look at the tea – tiny buds of pale purple lavender and dried lemon peel. I was present and it felt wonderful.
I walked back to my rented room and instead of looking down, I looked up at the faces of people coming in the opposite direction. Sometimes my eyes met theirs and I must have been smiling because several smiled back at me.
‘Cool air,’ I said to myself as the damp evening chill touched my cheeks. ‘Spicy curry,’ catching an exotic scent as people went into an Indian restaurant. ‘Listen.’ The sounds of rush hour swirled around me. As I walked home I clung to the five senses. For the first time in months, obsessive thoughts of what a lifetime of loneliness might look like were refreshingly absent.
By focusing on the moment, I was not stuck in the past or worried about the future. I could calm the mind and soothe the spirit by doing something blissfully ordinary. Paying attention to our senses is intelligent, not indulgent. It is, in fact, the only way to live fully connected to the world and to each other. The choice was stark – I could continue to stumble through life, senses dulled, heart aching for what wasn’t here, or I could live right now.
The pleasure of wandering
I began to walk everywhere. Using my senses had started to make me feel more alive. Now, more than ever, I wanted the journey and the day, the space and the time to simply unfold. I could appreciate what Rebecca Solnit said in her book Wanderlust, ‘Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once… They unfold in time as one travels along them.’
‘Is that a metaphor for our journey through life?’ I wondered. No matter how much we plan and worry, we can never see round the next bend. Immersed in the green of trees, the cool of the air, the scent of autumn leaves, I had nothing to do but feel the simple pleasure of moving through the world at this moment. The never-ending script that had been my constant companion, so full of babble, interior dialogue, worry and what-ifs, had been nudged out of the frame by a quiet awareness, a simple noting of this and that and a most welcome peacefulness that was new to me.
You don’t live for 80 years. You live today and then today. You don’t live yesterday, you don’t live tomorrow. You can only be alive one moment at a time. This seemed suddenly obvious to me, but why had I lived my life up until now as though something else was true? As if tomorrow mattered more than today? I realised I had spent most of my time designing a future life, while forgetting to live the only current life I have.
If my life is only one moment long, how do I choose to live each moment? If I am ready with a kind word, I will live a life of kindness. If I am quick to offer someone a warm embrace, I will live a life of compassion. If I ask ‘why?’ then I will live a life of curiosity. If I stop to savour beauty, my life will be lifted by what is beautiful.
The pleasure of letting go
In London, I was living in a much smaller place and carrying few possessions. I was feeling freer and happier than when I energetically chased happiness and meaning. Living lightly, I was starting to sense what it felt like to have, do and be enough.
A friend invited me to a fundraiser one evening. ‘But I don’t have anything to wear,’ I said. ‘It’s ten in the morning, you’re in the middle of London and you have a credit card,’ she replied.
I met my son Ryan, who lives in London, and we went shopping. I found a little black dress made of light wool, cut in a slim silhouette. I tried it on and it looked as though it had been tailor-made.
After showering, I put on the dress. It was perfect paired with my new suede high heels. So far, my time in London had been solitary – save for when I got together with Ryan. I was feeling a little nervous when I arrived at the party but as the evening went on I felt my confidence coming back.
‘By the way, I love your dress,’ my friend said when I found her to say goodbye.
What happened next came as a surprise – I started to wear that little black dress everywhere. In my previous life, after its initial debut, this ‘special’ dress would have hung unworn in the wardrobe for months. But now, with limited choices, I wore it often. Every time I did, it reminded me I was living a full life in this fantastic city and doing it all with so little. I thought about all the striving I was leaving behind. I had been trying to have it all, do it all, create a more beautiful home or fashionable wardrobe. Slowly, I was moving away from that, towards a state that felt like enough.
The pleasure of doing what you love
I could see that the void created by the loss of my marriage was now available to be filled with something new. And that was the opportunity to do something that I loved. A new routine took shape. I rose early and walked from my flat to the British Library. My days began to acquire a sense of purpose and focus.
As I spent my time reading and writing, I felt a deep connection with something – creativity brought a feeling of satisfaction and meaning that had been missing in recent months. Working in the library with hundreds of other people eased my feelings of isolation. In following my instincts, I was bringing something – my writing – into existence. No matter how ‘it’ might turn out, the process of creation produces something that can never be wrong – engagement, meaning and aliveness.
The pleasure of appreciation
‘What am I doing here?’ Isolation swirled around me just before Christmas. I was painfully aware of my husband’s absence. Was he sitting in front of the fire with this new woman now?
I held my tear-soaked face in my hands. I remembered what the writer Julian Barnes said after the death of his wife. ‘All couples, even the most bohemian, build up patterns in their lives together and these patterns have an annual cycle.’ As the morning progressed, I moved like someone recovering from a fall – bruised and sore but knowing it was better to work through the discomfort than resist it. ‘Remember,’ I reminded myself, ‘thoughts and feelings, good and bad, will come and go. Nothing lasts for ever.’
To chase only the good feelings while resisting the bad would be living half a life. Wasn’t this what I had been experiencing in the past few weeks? Being present, loving the here and now and allowing life to unfold in the moment? I could see that I had been operating with an implicit assumption: if I got through the pain, I would reach a better, brighter place. What if this pain and sadness was worth much more than that – not something to endure but embrace?
There was a silver lining to what had happened. I got to live in the incredible city of London and spend time with my son, seeing him working and happy. I was free of the obligations that had stolen my creative life in the past. And I was becoming reacquainted with myself – rediscovering parts that had been suppressed for years.
The poet David Whyte says, ‘We use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong. But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human… And of coming to care for what we find along the way.’
The pleasure of starting new life
On a surprisingly warm autumn day in 2016, I briskly walked through the streets of Soho to a small bar on Dean Street. I had dipped my toe into the world of online dating and I was going to meet someone I liked, at least on paper.
And here he is today, just returning from his morning run through Greenwich Park. In less than a month we will be returning to that same bar on Dean Street to celebrate the second anniversary of the day we met. We don’t know what life will bring, but we are living it together now, one small pleasure at a time.
This is an edited extract from A Cure for Heartache by Mary Jane Grant, which will be published on 16 May by Coronet, price £12.99.