SAME LAKE, DIFFERENT BOATS: The Power of Writing Through Grief

A talkative guy, Walt always said he invented social media.

Last night we wrapped up another grief writing group at HCS.

Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.

Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.

Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.

They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.

And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.

The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.

“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.

People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.

We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.

(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)

We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”

And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.

The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”

Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”

The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.

A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.

All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.

How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.

For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.

It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.

Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.

Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.

We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.

We are writing down the bones.

There is forgiveness. There is gratitude.

When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.

So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?

I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.

I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.

I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.

I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.

I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.

I’m left with peace in my heart.

And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.

Walt told a LOT of stories, but now I see they were always told with love, about love.

PRACTICE AND NOT PERFECT

I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.

I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.

Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:

keep going keep going keep going

Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.

And the miracle happened. As it always does.

Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.

Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)

I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”

“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)

I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.

It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?

I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!

And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.

But simply trying was…..fun.

Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.

With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.

Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.

Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.

It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.

I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.

None of that matters. Just the practice.

It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”

I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.

So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.

But it felt…wonderful.

TURN ON YOUR (CREATIVE) LIGHTS!

Know the habits that keep Y-O-U creating.

I have habits that really fire me up to make art.

I have a lot of habits that drain me and distract me from making art.

None of these habits are intrinsically good or bad. They are just habits that produce different results. The trick is to identify the outcome you want, and see if the habits you’re holding onto support that desired outcome.

For those of you in the back row ready with some snide remark about which habits I’m obviously still hanging on to that don’t have good outcomes (like having candy bars for lunch yesterday)… Look. I get it. It’s not about living a perfect life. It’s about getting back on the horse after he’s spilled you a few times. (Hey! A riding metaphor!)

I have several outlets for my creativity: Writing, making jewelry, fiber work, stamp carving. Today I finally realized that these different outlets need different switches to flip ‘on’.

Here’s one concrete example for writing:

In the morning, I usually make that first cup of coffee and head into my studio to “check my email”. (Raise your hand if you do that, too.) (Ohhhh….so many hands!)

Soon I’m doing a heckuva lot more than slogging through my in box. (Yeah, you know.) Soon I’m surfin’ and networkin’ and tweetin’ and other good stuff.

Now, all this isn’t necessarily a “bad” habit. After all, I like seeing what my friends are up to. I like to explore new venues for my artwork. I like reading funny blogs like Hyperbole and a Half, and watching funny videos on Today’s Big Thing. And we all need down time. In fact, sometimes you just need to waste time.

The problem is, an hour goes by. Every. Single. Morning. That’s a lot of downtime, before I even do anything to deserve it.

It’s not just the lost time, though. I’s worse. It actually drains me of creativity.

If I spend too much time abmiring other people’s art, I start to feel insecure about mine. (“Why bother?? So-and-so’s work is light-years ahead of mine!”) If I read too many other blogs, I start to feel inadequate about mine. (“What’s the use?? He has 10,000 followers, I have a few hundred. And he said it better!”) If I offer too much advice in a forum, I feel like I’ve done my writing for the day.

Either way, the down time ends, and it feels like I did something productive. But I didn’t.

So something harmless, fun, maybe even helpful to others, is good under the right circumstances, and not good in others.

But something happens if I simply stay in the dining room with my coffee, pick up a pen (has to be a Uniball Vison pen, too–no ball points for me!) and start writing my morning pages (a la Julie Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY.)

It’s odd. I always starts out kinda bitchy. From there it goes to whining. Then I run out of steam around the middle of page 2. That’s when I simply blather. “I hate this I have nothing to say who would even WANT to listen to anything I have to say, this is too hard, my new idea for a wall hanging sucks blah blah blah….” And yes, there are many days where I simply write, “Blah blah blah.” In an artistic way, of course.

But somewhere in the midst of the wailing and whining, something marvelous happens.

A new idea pops up. A new insight creeps out. Suddenly, I get something I didn’t get before.

I know what I have to do. I know exactly what my next step is.

Many of my blog ideas come from those awful, whining, boring morning pages. It’s a light switch for my writing, and a pretty powerful and reliable one, too.

Some days I simply forget to do them. Some days I don’t have time to do them. Sometimes I go for months without doing them, thinking I don’t need them anymore.

But I always come back. Because they work.

Now, on the other hand, writing those morning pages is really good for generating an idea for a blog, or an article. But not always so good for my other artwork. Again, because I feel like I’ve ‘already made something.” In fact, I had that insight this morning as I wrote. I actually need to think of another switch to flip for my other stuff.

But now that I’m thinking about what works, and what doesn’t, I don’t think I’ll have to spend too much time figuring that out.

So what is YOUR process? What little habit do YOU have, that helps you flip on the switch to YOUR art?