Mindful

Two stories: one of grief, the other of redemption.

First, grief. My girlfriend K. was twenty-two when her mother shot herself. Her mother covered the couch with a plastic sheet, aimed the gun at her heart, and called the cops just before she pulled the trigger. K. was called across town to come and identify the still-warm body. The cops then bundled her mother’s corpse in a sheet, which they later returned to K.

“I had to move into the house and live there to oversee its sale,” she told me. “Every night, I’d go upstairs to bed around ten. And every night, at midnight, I’d descend, pour myself a vodka from the sideboard in the dining room, drink it. Then I’d spread out the bloodstained sheet on the living room floor, strip off all my clothes, and roll around on it in the moonlight, howling. And Diana,” she gazed at me earnestly, lovely with her juice-can curls despite the puffiness around her delft-blue eyes, “if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: Don’t roll on the bloodstained sheet, if you can help it. You can make yourself sick with grief.”

Now, redemption. In the foreword to the Penguin edition of House of Mirth, Cynthia Griffin Wolff tells us that Edith Wharton “wrote her way back to health.” She fell in love for the first time at 45, and won the Pulitzer at 59. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been fantasizing about winning the Pulitzer, or the Booker, or the Governor-General’s medal since I was fourteen, so stories like this make me want to leap to my feet and cheer.

In her groundbreaking book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, Virginia Woolf scholar Louise DeSalvo skillfully guides the would-be writer through the minefields of memory. She focuses on process, not product: “It is not what you write or what you produce as you write that is important. It is what happens to you while you are writing that is important.”

Are you learning as you write? Are you transforming, moving closer to your inner self? I suspect the key to not getting stuck in old stories, old grief, lies in sculptor Anne Truitt’s words: “The most difficult part of being an artist is the inner imperative to constantly mine the nervelines of one’s most intimate sensitivities.”

DeSalvo defines the genuine courage that writing takes as “doing something that needs doing that you don’t quite think you have the courage to do but that you keep on doing regardless.” She continues, “First, we must become present to our own pain—we must not deny its existence, we must let ourselves feel it. Second, we must record it honestly—without hypocrisy, dishonesty, sentimentality or idealization. And finally, we must recount it directly. ”

Are you learning as you write? Are you transforming, moving closer to your inner self? I suspect the key to not getting stuck in old stories, old grief, lies in sculptor Anne Truitt’s words: “The most difficult part of being an artist is the inner imperative to constantly mine the nervelines of one’s most intimate sensitivities.”

Writing hard about what hurts, as Hemingway put it, sounds simple. But then, so does staying on the meditation cushion without getting tangled up in thought! In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood writes, “. . . it’s by the inmates of the Inferno, not in the Purgatorio or the Paradiso, that Dante is told the most stories, and also the best ones. It’s somewhat daunting to reflect that Hell is—possibly—the place where you are stuck in your own personal narrative forever, and Heaven is—possibly—the place where you can ditch it, and take up wisdom instead.”

This may mean letting go of the story you think you know and writing, instead, the words that come to you out of emptiness. Much of my novel came as I was falling asleep, or when I was deep in meditation. I opened. I emptied. I gave up knowing, and what wanted me to hear it waited until I was silent before it came to me.

DeSalvo says that through writing, “We come to feel that our lives are coherent rather than chaotic.” She quotes Henry Miller, who said writing for him was “like sewing up a wound.” But we’ve also seen the alcoholism, the madness, the grandiosity of writers. Can I be the only person to wonder, Does writing always heal? Must every wound be exposed? (Garrison Keillor writes: “You can deal with your problems by the time-honored method of shutting up and waiting for them to pass.”)

Mark Epstein points out, “…it is the perspective of the sufferer that determines whether a given experience perpetuates suffering or is a vehicle for awakening. To work something through means to change one’s view…”

Can we, through writing, achieve new perspective on our suffering? If so, writing awakens us to greater peace as we learn, through exploring on the page, what we got from our journey. But danger lies—dare I say these things?—in the literary form of spiritual materialism, the sense that I have to “make real” my experiences by shaping them into a form readily assimilated by others. If I do, I achieve a karma yoga Brownie badge, and simultaneously make my parents proud and garner a scrumptious nugget for my resumé. I prove my erudition to my peers while joining the ranks of those exalted by publication. (The famous contemplatives tend to be the published ones. It’s easy to forget that many other contemplatives through history were no less dedicated.)

Writing hard about what hurts, as Hemingway put it, sounds simple. But then, so does staying on the meditation cushion without getting tangled up in thought!

If you write in a private notebook, are your words as valid for you as they would be if you got to read them in multiple copies with accompanying photos?

“We all need to be witnessed,” Carol Shields observes in The Stone Diaries, “…in our glory and in our shame.” What if some stone in the throat stops us from publicly sharing? Should we try to coax ourselves articulate with books and workshops on “Finding Your Voice”? Or could there be a larger wisdom in the silence that arises from the body?

In the high summer of the soul, we are expansive and chatty, ready to run into the street waving hard copy, urging strangers to “Read this!” In the deep winter (say, the aftermath of trauma), we need to observe stillness if it falls like snow, silence if it floods us, and not badger ourselves about writer’s block.

So writing can have healing power. But so can not writing. We practice nonthinking and nondoing when we meditate. But as Americans, can we value nonexpressing? Can we trust that spring will come?

My mother, 77, and her late friend, Wilna Thomas, went to graduate school together, in social work. Wilna, never married, founded several daycare centers and did their books. So many were her good works that her funeral was heavily attended—even students she had taught in Japan, decades earlier, flew to Canada to pay their respects.

In the last year of her life, she had me over for tea. As I entered her apartment with snowflakes clinging to my sweater, the phrase “rude good health” formed in my mind. Wilna was so small, suddenly, lately. She served us tea in bone china cups, lemon slices in a cut crystal dish, sugar cubes with tiny tongs. She sipped, then set her cup down. “My eyes are so bad now, I can barely see the daycare centers’ books, even under strong light with a magnifying glass. So I spend hours on the sofa, my hands folded in my lap, just thinking about Jesus. Remember this, Diana.” Her blue gaze bored into mine. “It’s who you are, not what you produce, that matters.”

Even now, fifteen years later, my eyes well up as I type. Someone once observed that we write the books we wish had been available to us when we needed them. I’ve typed the foregoing in a rush of concentration, a kind of haze of deep focus, in the circle of golden light shed by a desk lamp at night. I want for us all to bring forth our gifts—of insight, of description, of love for the minutest detail—in time, gently, with adequate support, as we are ready. And in the meantime, I hope that I can stop flogging myself over writer’s block and let myself simply be—in the silence that is also part of recovery, as winter thaws into spring, and grief, like a new bud forming under a dried-up leaf, turns slowly to redemption.

© Joel Dueck

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