Susi Prescott had it all. A large, busy family, a school teaching job she loved, a home on Sydney’s leafy North Shore. But with the sudden demise of her 30-year marriage, her world crumbled.
In 2017 she released a book about how she rebuilt her life after 50 and her resulting Peruvian adventures. She sent a copy of “Where Hummingbirds Dance” to Balance and we were so enthralled by her tale that we interviewed her about the book and what’s next.
Here is a transcript of our interview:
Susi, your book is a powerful and raw account of the emotions you experience through your divorce. Was it a cathartic experience writing the book?
Fifty odd drafts ago, the very first versions of my book were certainly a case of putting fingers to keyboard to help me express my chaotic emotions and impressions at their most intense.
However, as the story developed, that is to say, as I lived it and wrote it down, amazing people crossed my path and incredible situations presented themselves.
Gradually, I found myself more and more able to put my feelings into context, into perspective, to see connections and reasons; to understand them, their causes and their effects. The book was ten years in the living and writing, and this corresponded very closely to my healing process.
I would not use the word ‘cathartic’ to apply to the final ‘Where Hummingbirds Dance’ as this book is most certainly not an outpouring of emotion.
Over the years, I have worked towards balance and fairness in my writing, and sections which once seemed so necessary to express have been gradually excised for the sake of a narrative which engages the reader and gives motivation to turn to the next page and continue.
This process has been very much reflected in my attitude to my own life, as I find myself saying, ‘No, I don’t need this anymore’, and letting things go.
Do you agree that there are stages of grief following divorce and what were they for you?
I can only speak for myself. For me, there was first the profound shock, a feeling of the rug being brutally whipped from beneath my feet.
A leaden, physical grief which settled as a weight at the pit of my stomach, a sick jealousy that I no longer had the right to even know, let alone be a part of, my husband’s world. I couldn’t stay still . . . as well as my usual exercise routine I walked, and walked, and walked. All over the suburb, uphill and down dale, my mind empty beyond my breathing and the pounding of my feet.
This produced a wonderful euphoria which, combined with the meditation and jazz ballet classes I began the week after he left, helped my unfailing optimism and wild imagination to start their tricky work, seeing ways to turn this disaster into an opportunity.
The rest is history! But I should add that the path was often rocky, and sometimes it seemed that no sooner had one grief been addressed, than another would take its place. But somehow I had faith that nothing would be sent my way until I was strong enough to cope with it. And this was certainly a self-fulfilling belief.
It seems like a lot of women get mad about divorce, then after a while blame it all on themselves. It sounds like when you wrote the book, you attributed a lot of blame for your divorce on yourself and felt you had to leave it all behind and run away from it all to start a new life. Looking back do you think this helped or could you have found peace another way?
I had always known my faults over the course of my married life but it seemed that, no matter what I tried, I was powerless to do anything about them. I was stuck in a spiral of frenetic activity coupled with plummeting self-esteem, and something enormous had to change for me to ever become sufficiently self-aware to resolve this situation.
When it happened, I immediately realised that I had to embark on a life-transforming process. I stayed in Sydney to see my youngest daughter through her final school examinations, which gave me the opportunity to begin practising meditation, a path which at once began delivering profound change and realisation.
But I knew that, once my daughter had completed school and enrolled in university, I had to grab the opportunity to leave and go far away, not only to heal further, but to realise some long-cherished dreams.
I would never, ever regret what I did. It was the perfect fit for me. But it had its very tough moments!!
What advice do you have for women going through a divorce right now?
Divorce is horrible, for everyone, and I would not presume to give ‘advice’ which indicates that my way of coping is better or worse than anyone else’s.
All I can relay is the message which worked for me. ‘It seems as if your world has fallen apart, but keep your eye on the bigger picture because actually it hasn’t, and if you can remain open-minded, you may well find an opportunity in this dreadful thing which has happened to you.
Make space in your heart to let the Universe surprise you.’
What did you learn about the finances of divorce? What advice do you have?
My ex-husband is a very kind and reasonable man, and he was scrupulously honest and fair in all matters financial. Sadly, this is often not the case and I know of many women who have found themselves cut off, and worse still, their children.
So as well as having to cope with the grief and shock, they have severe fears about day to day survival. I have such admiration for women who drag themselves out of this mire and triumph. I realise now that it is important that both partners in a marriage are equally up to speed with the finances.
This was certainly not my case, as I was too busy bringing up the children to even express an interest, so really, I am not qualified to give any advice.
Having said that, though, ten years later I have learned to trust my gut feelings in that department as they are usually right!
What is your relationship with your children like now? In the first couple of chapters of the book you describe being very isolated from them and their lives going on without you. What do they say about that period looking back?
I did suffer terrible homesickness during the first years in Arequipa, but I finally realised it was for a nuclear family life which would no longer be mine, if I had remained in Sydney.
I think that in fact I suffered more than they did, as they were just getting on with their independent adult lives. Three came to visit me in Arequipa, and the fourth has been a great help in establishing my social media presence for fund raising.
Ten years have passed, things seem much more settled, and I have been really touched by their support during the publicity rounds for the release of ‘Where Hummingbirds Dance’.
The work you do overseas is amazing and it’s largely because you had the courage to stick it out even when things were going badly and were difficult (like when you were assaulted). What advice do you have for other women looking to help overseas in third world countries?
Well, I don’t know about courage, a lot of my determination to stay even after the assault and kidnap came from sheer stubbornness. I had given up everything to embark on this adventure – my full time job, my home, my Sydney life . . . there was no way I was going home with my tail between my legs!
To women looking to help overseas I would say simply, ‘Do it! Prepare yourself as well and efficiently as you can, but beyond that, take a leap of faith. Leave your preconceptions at home and be prepared to accept and learn.’
What do you wish someone told you before you travelled the first time?
Nothing, actually, because when I first travelled I was 21 and I wouldn’t have listened.
Travel and living overseas have been a lifelong learning curve to be embarked upon at my own pace.
I can take each step only when I am ready.
Tell us about the school and charity in Peru? How can our readers help?
Colegio Elohim is a school in the squalid desert squatter slums outside the town of Arequipa which provides education for the neglected, abused and severely marginalised children of the area.
When I first arrived there were 130 students, now there are 250, and the school has grown from a shambles of shacks to a sleek four-storeyed building. I teach English, train teachers in methodology, and mount campaigns nationally and internationally to raise funds for equipment and, most importantly, to pay the teacher salaries.
The school is a registered Peruvian Educational Institution, run by a Director and an administrative committee of which I am a member.
We now have a fledgling secondary class for our most at-risk students, and we are offering vocational studies in electricity, cookery, sewing and hairdressing to attempt to furnish them with some means of earning a decent living when they inevitably leave us aged around 14 or 15.
The project is registered with the Australian not-for-profit Global Development Group, as J728N, Empowerment through Education, Arequipa Peru, with a byline, ‘Giving marginalised Peruvian children an alternative to teenage pregnancy and a life of crime’, all they can expect if we can’t deliver the education, love and self-esteem they crave.
This website is linked to my own author website, http://www.susiprescott.com
We desperately need sponsorship of teacher positions, as we receive no assistance from the Peruvian government. A junior teacher salary is $Au 6,000 per annum, while a senior teacher with benefits commands $Au 10,000 per annum.
What’s the most beautiful place you have visited?
I tend to measure beauty not as scenery, but the whole effect of the moment and experience.
As such, I collect beauty at a rate of many moments per day, from my Sydney balcony, reading a book with the afternoon warmth on my back, to the stunning sunset; from the contentment and floating sensation after a swim at North Sydney pool to the peace of riding home over the Harbour Bridge after a jazz class at the Wharf.
In Arequipa, the dance of colourful hummingbirds in the jacaranda outside my window can mesmerise me in delight, and of course the exhilaration of Latin dance is intoxicating.
These are only some which come to mind, but I have always made a habit of visiting many, many beautiful places, wherever I am, over my lifetime. As regards straight scenery, I couldn’t possibly choose. I have been utterly blessed and spoiled for choice.
Tell us something, our readers wouldn’t know about travelling or a secret place off the beaten track they should visit?
Particularly off the beaten track, you cannot imagine what assumptions the locals are making about you!
About Susi Prescott
Susi Prescott taught French and wrote freelance for sport and outdoor adventure publications before the release of her first novel, ‘Astrolabe’, in 2005. Two years later she left Australia to work as a language educator in Nepal and Rwanda, finally settling in Peru. She visits Sydney regularly
“Where Hummingbirds Dance” is available in all good bookshops in Australia, and on Amazon internationally as hard copy or e-book.
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