The Gift

Time and again I return to the wisdom of John O’Donohue, an Irish poet/philosopher I first discovered when buried deep in fear and confusion amidst the gradual crumbling of my exiled life in the United States. O’Donohue’s Celtic lyricism, led by his fascination with the “invisible world” and the connection between our inner and outer landscapes, provided me succour and calmed my anxiety. When I eventually left America nearly seven years ago, the only book I carried with me was Beauty, which in O’Donohue’s words was not all about nice loveliness. Beauty, he said, was about a more rounded, substantial becoming: “I think beauty, in that sense, is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”

Just five months after I left — broken, empty, and very unsure of myself — I was invited here to Livingstone by Chris, a lifelong friend who would lead me out of the darkness, and in time, become my husband. This week we celebrated our sixth year as a couple. As I reflected on the gift that we were given — our simple life set amongst the teak trees, living close to the natural world; doing what we love; learning, healing, growing together — I was called once again by O’Donohue’s voice in Beauty. Among those dog-earred, underlined pages he led me to a passage called ‘All Beauty is a Gift’: “We forget that the darkness of the unknown within us is also a fecund soil urgent with seeds of new possibility.”

When you are underwater, flailing, panicked, it’s almost impossible to see a way to the surface. O’Donohue refers to this place as “the interim world”, but as he writes, “Many of the most luminous gifts of our lives arrive as complete surprises. A gift is the most beautiful of intrusions. It arrives undeserved and unexpected. It comes ashore in our hearts carefully formed to fit exactly the shape of a hunger we might not know we had.

… “The beauty of the gift is the secret way it awakens us to growth. Without alerting our anxiety or forcing confrontation, the gift has placed us on the path of change almost before we realise it. And much of the change in our lives happens through struggle and pain. We are confronted with an unattractive direction that we have to take. For weeks or months we have to travel through limbo; the comfort and security of our familiar belonging lies far behind us. Where we belong next has not yet become clear. The days become a struggle of endurance. Yet when the light and the ease return, we recognise the change that has been achieved.

“The gift bequeaths change in a completely different way. Quietly it undoes the knots of false netting that had us entangled and before we have time to realise what has happened, we find ourselves released into a new fluency. Like a parent to the soul, the gift carries us carefully over torn ground until our feet stand free in a serene place where we can recognise that we have been blessed.” 

The gift, my gift, led me here, to Chris.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Did you send this for me? – because your poet speaks directly to where I am at now. I am still at the struggling bit, but waiting hopefully to emerge – where? – somewhere I hope, soon, while there is still time. X

    • Dearest Jen … thank you. I think about you all so often. Sending you masses of love as you navigate this challenging road in front of you. You will emerge, or should I say you are emerging, hard as it is to see right now. I wish I lived closer to you at times like this. xo

  • Oh Annabel, this brings tears to my eyes! It carries me back through those dark, complicated times, and reminds me of the joy and relief I felt for you as it quickly became clear that Chris was where you needed to be. What I love about John O’Donohue’s words is that he allows us to respect the difficult times and encourages us to see the growth we experience as we go through those inevitable periods…and his definition of beauty is sublime!

    • Oh, Cyn … right there, next to me, all through those dark days. But also, here you are with me in the light! 🙂 I can never thank you enough. And yes, John O’Donohue, being Irish and all, knows that without the dark there is no light … yet the way he tells us about it is sublime indeed! Lots of love. xo

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