The shadowlands of a writing relationship

My blogs usually aren’t about writing so bear with me, folks.

This post is an entry to a writing contest. The rules are that the topic focus on “writing and doubt” — two areas I know well.

If I place first, second or third, I win a bundle of cool writing “stuff” as well as promotion for my blog.

And kudos to writer Bryan Hutchinson for this clever marketing idea. This contest not only promotes his book Writer’s Doubt: The #1 Enemy of Writers (And What You Can Do About It) and his new online course — but through the winning essays, he hopes to inspire and encourage writers to keep writing. Here’s the link: http://positivewriter.com/writing-contest-2016/

So, here’s my blog post entry for the Writers Crushing Doubt contest hosted by Positive Writer.

Wish me luck! And may these words inspire and encourage.

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Ever want to give up writing? I mean really give up?

For many of us, the answer is yes. I know I have. Countless times. But when I have doubts about continuing to write or calling it quits, I’ve come to see that struggle as healthy. Those doubts tell me that I am in an honest-to-goodness relationship with my writing.

book-child-dreams-fantasy-imagination-Favim.com-123786And relationships, as we all know, have their good days and bad days. Look at the meaningful relationships in your life now. I’m sure you’ve had contented and amazing times, as well as times when you wanted to walk away from it all. And yet, you stayed.

The truth is, when we are truly invested in and committed to our writing, we are in a real relationship. That means we stay. No matter what. No matter how many doubts we may have.

In many spiritual teachings to “stay” has great power. To “stay” means that we are completely “present” to whatever might be happening. We stay during the days of doubt, rejection and uncertainty. And we also “stay” when we rejoice in a chapter finished and a book finally written and published.

Author Anne Lamott says it this way:

“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

In her classic book Bird by Bird, Lamott also writes:

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

In my own life, I had waited, watched and worked for some time. Among other pieces, I had written an essay that felt intensely personal, too transparent to put out into the world. After many rejections, I shoved it in the desk drawer where it gathered dust for years. One day, however, I gave it one more try.

I brushed off doubt, drummed up faith and sent it off to the annual writing contest of Writer’s Digest magazine. Not only did it place in the top 100 of the inspirational category, but my essays placed in the top 10 the following two years.

So, if nagging doubts show up, they are there to test our relationship with writing and push us through the gritty days of stark fear and terror that come with our craft and our calling. Most likely those doubts will never go away, those questions of  Am I called to do this? Should I be doing this? Does it matter?”

typewriter butterfliesBut we will also have those days of blessed contentment — of a sentence well crafted and a poetic phrase that conveys our hearts.

At the end of one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands, writer C.S. Lewis offers advice that could be applied to our writing:

“Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chooses safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

So, dear writers, we are always living in the shadowlands of our relationship with writing — the pain now is part of the happiness later.

In the end, perhaps doubts are not to be crushed, but to be embraced. They hurt. But they can make us better writers if we choose to move beyond safety.

We can’t have one without the other. And that’s the deal.

(This blog post originally appeared in a varied form in Birth of a Novel blog: https://birthofanovel.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/being-in-a-writing-relationship/)

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The sacred pause

My mother grew up in the hills of Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, much like Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of the Little House on the Prairie books. She and her siblings and parents had no running water, an outhouse, and survived off the land.

They had a few hens for eggs, grew most of what they ate and what they didn’t grow — sugar, flour, molasses — they bought at the general store a mile down the road.

They were connected to the land. And to each other.

old-barn-in-shady-valley-by-George-Wesley-Bellows-133As a child and into my early adult years, I spent my summers in Red Boiling Springs. Not in the home my mother knew, but a few miles down the road in a newer one that my grandfather, a carpenter, had built. It had plumbing and heating and a fine front yard that sloped down to a winding creek. My grandfather planted trees that provided cooling shade and a small bridge across the creek.

On summer evenings, we would sit in wooden lawn chairs he had made, surrounded by the soft breezes and the hum of critters bouncing through the hills, and we would listen. In the growing darkness. In silence.

We had no need for words. We paused, simply resting in nature, bathed in the sweet scent of honeysuckle and staring up at a black canvas of sky sprinkled with stars.

As life took me forward, as it does most of us, I lost that ability to pause. Duties, deadlines, responsibilities. All took me away from what I feel is most important — the grace and gift of quiet and stillness as to connect with my true self and divine nature.

But not pausing had its price. I was stressed out in high-pressured jobs. I yearned for vacations, a space where I could rest and re-create myself. But the time away was always too short and I often returned to work even more depleted.

The truth is, the world doesn’t make it easy for us to be “at ease.” Instead, we are constantly in a state of “dis-ease.”

Psychological-NoiseWebWe live in a frenetic society, surrounded by constant stimulation, if not by social media, then a news cycle that never ends, usually with mass murders or a political system turned upside down.

We are bombarded by noise and distraction. We no longer have time to contemplate or to pause, and if we do, we can find it frightening. Yes. Silence can be frightening. Not only outer noise but the inner chatter invading our mind serves a purpose. Without it, we may be face to face with hurts, sorrows, or the fear that maybe we’re not good enough or perhaps that our lives are a sham.

As a result, we live in a state of restlessness, that we should be doing something else or be somewhere else or checking two or more social mediums at the same time or else be left out.

But silence? The sacred pause? Our peace is there. Our sanity.

When I used to take the train into the city, I would immediately seek the “quiet car.” The other cars were jarring to my system, loud conversations, people talking on their cell phones. But in the quiet car, I could simply contemplate the scenery. Go within. Listen. Be.

A recent study discovered that if you live in a consistently noisy environment, you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

Silence seems to have the opposite effect.

A study published in the journal Heart stated that “two minutes of silence can be even more relaxing than listening to ‘relaxing’ music.” And in another study, periods of silence were shown to actually “grow the brain” — in other words, silence developed new cells in the hippocampus.

But silence is not just the absence of noise.silence

Kathleen Dowling Singh in The Grace of Aging says that silence is the “affirming presence of our essential nature, beyond words.” She also writes that “interior silence allows us to be receptive to insight and allows us to be mindful of intention. It empties the mind, and in that emptying, allows us the experience of grace.”

So how do we find that silence, that pause, that grace? It’s not complicated. We take the time. When my father had a high-stressed job at a TV station, he would often walk away from his desk to the park across the street and simply sit on a bench. He would watch the children playing, he would breathe and remind himself of what was important in life.

I spend deliberate time meditating. I also find that aging has helped. It has slowed me down so that solitude comes more easily and I create space to pause and reconnect with my soul, my spirit.

As a result, I find life more simple and meaningful. I find I am more mindful of what I experienced as a child in the hills of Tennessee — the scent of a summer rain and fresh earth; the cooling shade of a tree; a field filled with the flickering lights of fire flies.

And caring for my dad, who had a stroke, allows me numerous sacred pauses. When he can’t find words, I listen, I wait, and we connect in loving silence beyond language.

natureIt’s easy to be caught up in the noise of life. But perhaps we can make an intention to step back and away, even for a few minutes throughout our day — find the quiet car, walk in the park, sit down to meditate — and find connection with our true essence and being.

It’s as simple as noticing. As taking a deep breath. As giving ourselves the gift of a sacred pause.

Caregiving: Many stories, one story

I cry easily. You can call it a fault. I call it a blessing. My heart is often moved to tears and so it was on this day of attending a Caregivers Retreat.

I heard stories. I “felt” stories.

And as I sat there, in that small circle of nine caregivers, I wept at our courage, our willingness to do the “hard” things in life for those we love, and our struggle to find self-love and self-nurturing in the process.

Before we shared, we were asked to write the name of the loved one we care for and then our name on a slip of paper. We placed these in a bowl on the table. We prayed. Then we shared. Many stories. One story.

One young woman has been caring for her husband who has a neurological, degenerative disease for the last seven years. She has reframed her life, calling it “monastic.” She sees her love and ministry to her spouse as a vocation, as a time of solitude and prayer.

women cryingAnother woman has a small child at home and is expecting another child. She helped her father as he died and now has a mother with Alzheimer’s living with her and her husband. She shared, “My mother is forgetting to take showers. She won’t wash the one sweater she wears every day and gets upset if I wash it.”

A woman in her 70s shared how after a few years of marriage her husband had a tragic fall and broke his neck. He is a paraplegic and she has been caring for him for the last 35 years, while she worked as a nurse and raised children. After her husband’s accident, she recalled standing outside in her garden, asking herself, “How am I going to do this?”

She said: “I’ve learned to tell myself today was good. Tomorrow? I don’t know yet. But today was fine and God was there.”

The Sister of Mercy who ran the retreat said that throughout all of this “God is in the mess. God is WITH us through the mess.”

But how do we find God in that mess? How do we feel that Divine presence and find peace when someone we love is in pain? How do we find balance when we toilet them, clean them, bathe them — how do we give them the dignity they deserve? How do we give ourselves the compassion and care we need doing all that and more?

We didn’t get into answers or solutions during this retreat day. But we listened and witnessed to each other. It was a safe space to express our anger — and there was anger — about why God would allow our loved ones to suffer. Why, as one woman shared, would God visit her mother with Alzheimer’s, her mother who could once arrange a meal in an elegant dining room but now could eat food only with her fingers and hands?

As another woman shared her story, I kept hearing her say again and again, “I keep holding my breath.”

Her words rambled in my heart. This is what much of the last three years has felt like for me since dad had the stroke — holding my breath.

So, as we were given some free time to walk the grounds and gardens, I reminded myself to breathe. Just breathe. That a conscious, deliberate breath was a “yes” to life and a “yes” to myself.

group-of-women-holding-hands-aarpI am still learning, like the rest of us who shared this day, that the most challenging part of this journey is acceptance.

I am learning to accept and “be” with what is, no matter what it is. Whether it’s being present to dad’s pain, to watching his decline, to getting him in the car with his walker and to a doctor’s appointment, to the dread of what any given day might bring.

To the acceptance of the small joys — dad’s eyes lighting up when he sees me, his smile, to hearing him say “I love you.”

Most of all, I continue to learn to let go. Again and again. Of what I can or can’t do, of my hope that others would help but they haven’t (even though I’ve asked), of my own expectations of myself. Of my desire to run away from it all, as many today expressed so painfully.

And yes, I am learning to take better care of myself. Naps. Walks. A good book. Some days it’s easier than others.

In the end, we spoke of choice. About everything. The choice of owning our feelings, to our choice to care for those we love and to care for ourselves as well.

And so, I am choosing. I choose to care for dad because — in my own soul of souls — I feel I am being asked by the Divine to do this right now, to “be” this right now. Many others today felt the same. Many of us felt it a “privilege” to care for those we love.

I am also choosing to love myself, to have more self-compassion, to do “small” things that give me joy.

cargivers brave and dedicatedAt the end of the day, we were asked to take a slip of paper from the bowl and to pray for the person being cared for and the caregiver. I am doing this. Not just for her and her loved one, but for caregivers everywhere.

And as the day ended, I was no longer crying, but thankful. I was in gratitude and awe of our bravery, our courage, our individual and collective journey.

Most of all I reminded myself to breathe. Just breathe.

Moment to moment to moment.

(Blogger’s Note: I have intentionally not used names and changed story details in respect for those present at this retreat.)