Find her at susannahconway.com
note from editor: Hi Mavens! We’re thrilled to have Susannah as our special guest today. She just released This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart, a book that starts at her story of loss and grief and shares her journey of how she was able to reconnect with her creativity, and herself.
I have it and can attest that it’s beautifully written, poetic and moving, with exercises at the end of each chapter and her gorgeous photos throughout. I highly recommend it for anyone who is on their own journey of self-discovery! – jena
When bad things happen in my world there are a few things I do to regain my equilibrium, things that I honed and practised in the years after I lost my partner in 2005.
Going through bereavement and having to rebuild my life from the ground up was excruciatingly hard, yet those years have brought so much into my world I can’t help but be grateful for what I’ve learned. Going through the fire is when we truly learn what we’re capable of.
My way back to my self started with a blank Moleskine notebook. I’ve been keeping a journal on and off for the last 28 years so it’s not unusual for me to want to write stuff down, but back then it truly became a life line. Grief can be an achingly lonely place, and when family and friends aren’t there you need a place to vent, to rant, to obsess, to examine— my notebook became the container for everything I was feeling. I wrote in it every day, sometimes for several hours at a time, purging every thought and feeling onto the page.
In the second year of my bereavement I found my way back to my camera. I’d studied photography at art school but life had taken me in other directions in the years that followed. It wasn’t until everything had been stripped away that I had space to explore my creativity again.
I’d started a blog, and wanted to share more of my world alongside the writing: falling back in love with photo-taking got me out of the house and back out into the world. I was excited to learn about digital photography, and soon after started shooting film again. Every image I created was like an affirmation, proof that I was re-engaging with the world around me.
Years later, when I moved to a new city in 2008, I found myself existing in yet another liminal space, ready to move on from the heaviness of my bereavement yet not sure what the future held. For the first few months I teetered on the edge of depression, wishing I could go back to my safe old life, yet knowing the only way was forward.
That was when my journalling practise and camera rescued me once again. This time I knew to get out of the house and find a place to sit and write. On an early photo walk I found a coffee shop to retreat to, and spent hours there nursing a single caramel latte as I wrote out how I was feeling and began asking the questions that needed to be asked. How do I feel? and What do I need? soon became How do I want to feel? and What can I do to make that happen?
When your head’s a mess it’s amazing how the answers will come if you just let yourself get quiet enough to hear them. And that’s the key — creating space in your head and heart so you can re-find your focus and work your way back into the present moment.
Getting out of the house and into a different environment helps enormously. Sitting in a place you’ve never visited before — a museum or cafe, a park or the beach —takes you away from the triggers of your current situation and helps to bring you back to yourself.
We carry our stresses with us, of course, but something new to focus our eyes on helps the stresses recede a little, coaxing them back into perspective. In the depths of my grief I would take long walks along the beach, the salty air bringing clarity and relief. To this day it’s still walking with a camera in my hand that calms me the most.
It’s often the case that we don’t know how to look after ourselves until we really have to — that’s how it was for me at least — but the threads are there if we look hard enough. Our first priority is to navigate the panic and fear and survive the crash, but in the days and weeks that follow it’s possible to unravel what we’re feeling and start to make sense of it all.