Gathering ‘Round Our Grief

IMG_1447This cabin in the woods is empty now, but on two rainy days in early June it embraced twenty-four souls who gathered together to write their hard stories, the ones they can’t share with just anyone. Sometimes not even themselves. Not quite yet.

When I preach, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us,” I mean it, whether you whisper your story to yourself, mail it to your Uncle Bud, or shout it out for the world.

Not everyone who came to write with us during the 2018 Haden Institute Dream and Spirituality Conference at Kanuga shared aloud what they’d written. They didn’t have to, and that was part of the deal.

“Come write,” I say to anyone who will listen. “That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to say a word if you aren’t moved to do so.”

Even that—the writing—is, of course, challenging. I tell clients that writing is as hard, and as easy, as “Just do it.”

After we wrote in response to prompts in the little cabin, when I asked for readers, three women sitting together would, all at once as if they had practiced, shift their eyes toward the floor. Like synchronized swimmers. They made it clear they didn’t want to speak. I didn’t compel or cajole or criticize. I let them be.

Later, two of the ladies would tell me they just couldn’t talk, but that afterwards, in the privacy of their room in the lodge or on a bench by the lake, the words—and the tears—came. They were grateful, they said, and I reminded them that they had done the work. All I did was invite them to try, make the space as safe as I could, and remind them they are not alone. That’s one of the best things sharing our stories can do: Connect us to others—those who grieve just like we do—which is everyone, if they’re honest. All of us have it, that thing that threatens to silence us and prevent us from engaging fully with the life that remains. The life that is.

You might miss your father, dead some twenty years, while the person next to you in the grocery checkout mourns the children he never had. Your neighbor regrets marrying her husband, and your yoga instructor hasn’t spoken to her sister in three years. We’ve all got something.

My goal is not to force people to dwell on what might have been or is no more. Instead, I encourage people to put into words those tender parts of life so that they might gain a little perspective, perhaps. Make a little space in which they can take a breath between the loss and the present day in order to better absorb and honor the gap. We live more fully when we take it all in, even the loss. Maybe especially the loss. I am among those who believe our greatest gifts are uncovered in our greatest tenderness, those places we hesitate to touch for fear something might break loose. Famous people have said it better than I can, like Henri Nouwen:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” (henrinouwen.org)

I believe that “service to others” begins with our willingness to connect to our fellow pilgrims through our hard stories. Heartache to heartache, soul to soul. Story to story.

Go Collect Yourself

IMG_1875The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.

Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.

Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.”  She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.

As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.IMG_2684

In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.

Dear 2018: Whatever Happens This Year, Please Don’t Demand That MayBelle Be a “Change Agent,” “Goddess,” or “Warrior”

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Or worse, a “badass.” MayBelle doesn’t want to be any of those things. She just wants to be herself. Maybe, in this new year, a more refined MayBelle, or even the most MayBelle-iest MayBelle she can be. But she refuses to be overwhelmed/intimidated/shamed by messages implying that she needs to be different—that she has to re-create who she is—in order to live a full life or make a mark. Her middle-aged MayBelle-ness—overweight and prone to worry, proud of her accomplishments while embarrassed by missteps, aware of time passing but still hopeful—simply has to be enough.

So in the coming days, 2018, MayBelle plans to “center down” as Howard Thurman says in Meditations of the Heart. She will rise to her strengths as often as she can. She hopes to help those in need when she’s able, tend her loved ones with care and compassion, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, push herself to be healthier, follow her heart, improve her skills, and in all things give thanks. But please don’t tell MayBelle every day has to be awesome, New Year, because some days aren’t. Some days are just plan ol’ days, full of mundane events and interactions. And while MayBelle believes there is usually something extraordinary in the ordinary, other days are so challenging they can only be endured. It’s life. And life requires more than positive thinking and exhortations to be a “badass” or claim one’s inner warrior. MayBelle actually hopes she doesn’t read the word “badass” again in all of 2018, and she’s glad her precious mother is not here to see how commonplace such words have become. (Pardon her prudishness, but MayBelle, for one, does not need the f-word on a coffee mug.)

Surely MayBelle doesn’t have to be a change agent or a goddess to live fully, serve others, pursue her dreams. She just has to be herself. So, 2018, you will not find MayBelle berating herself if every day isn’t off the charts fantastic. You won’t catch her strategizing for world–or even neighborhood–domination.

Instead, MayBelle will be over here doing the best she can. Paying attention to the world around her, writing her heart out, and helping others do the same. Making adjustments as needed, relying on grace, and counting her blessings. If she loses a few pounds or gets a book deal in the process, great. If not, she’ll still be pretty bada**.

Love,

Real Life

 

“Ten Tiny Changes”: The Artist’s Way

 

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I’m beginning to realize that my current sensitivity around the state of the world and the state of my own emotional well-being is not just a day or two of the blues. It is a tender stage of life I must make my way through.

At fifty-six, I find myself restless, wondering if I’ve done enough and curious about what more there might be to do and what it might look like. New career? Different town? Stay the course? Get a facelift?

Some folks say I think too much, worry more than I should. Guilty as charged. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to be what I am: highly sensitive and hyper aware. And I’m too old for that now. Instead I choose to embrace these qualities and work with them as best I can. There are some upsides: curiosity, empathy, creativity, trustworthiness, and a willingness to hang out in the trenches with people who are hurting. Some of the challenges include: taking on problems that aren’t mine to solve; an inability to filter out what I don’t need to absorb; overreacting to perceived injustices; and accepting what’s mine to do and laying down the rest.

In order to make my way in the world without becoming completely overwhelmed, I need to get quiet and listen deeply—to myself and my Creator. One way I’m doing that right now is by working my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. The current assignment is to list “Ten Tiny Changes” I’d like to make and then crafting goals from those. This an effective way to streamline what’s important to me. For example, from “I want to publish a book,” I get, “I will write every day.” From “I would like to teach part time,” I move to, “I will apply for the adjunct job at the university.” From “I would like to start my spiritual direction practice,” I come up with, “I will reach out to friends in the spiritual community for advice.” Wanting to lose weight morphs into, “I will walk five times a week.”

It may seem straightforward, like a “no brainer” to those who are more single minded and pragmatic, that you would list your goals and then set about tackling them. But for someone like me, who can become convinced fairly easily that I should be doing something else–or worse, that I should “be” someone else–the act of breaking my goals down into “tiny changes” is helpful. Let’s see how it goes…

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. How do you focus and make progress on your goals and dreams?

Upon Waking: Week Two of The Artist’s Way

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I’m two weeks in with The Artist’s Way Workbook, and have done my morning pages every day except for one. Not sure why I forgot that day, but I got right back to it the next morning and I’m glad for the practice. It’s helping me unload some nighttime/early rising thoughts, and providing a sense of both inspiration and accomplishment. I’m not reviewing the pages or belaboring the content, per the instructions, just writing and releasing. I can’t say it necessarily alleviates all that weighs on me, but it’s helping, this practice, and it’s even revealed a couple of story ideas for The Big Project I’m working on.

I’ve taken two Artist Dates, one to garage sales in search of art supplies—found a great drop cloth and paints—and another for a walk, during which the aim was not exercise but nature observation. Captured a few pictures and collected some acorns and horse apples and such. This is not earth-shattering blog content, I realize. But The Artist’s Way is equipping me for building a foundation upon which to rededicate myself to the writing life, a life I have fought against with jobs that don’t suit me and depression that threatens to stifle my efforts and betray my confidence.

“You must love to write and bear the loneliness,” says Robert McKee in Story. “But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.”

From Regret to Writing: Working The Artist’s Way

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I have friends who say they don’t like to use the word “regret,” I guess because they don’t want to admit they’d appreciate a do-over or two. I’m okay with the word, for I think if you don’t have at least a couple of regrets then maybe you haven’t really been living. As for a definition, the dictionary says: “to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).” If you’re telling me you’ve never been blue about a misstep or a neglected chance, I’m not sure I believe you.

Certainly there are things I would have done differently: I wish I’d lived in New England for a while, mainly because I’ve convinced myself everyone there is really smart and attractive in a rugged yet sophisticated sort of way. I would have been less uptight when I was younger, and taken a few more risks.

But the One Real Regret I’ll have is not doing more with my writing. I’m not even sure what that means just yet, but I’m going to find out. And I’m hoping that by talking about it out loud it will become more real somehow.

First step: Making my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. I’ve long been familiar with Julia Cameron, and have relied on her books in my teaching. When I heard her speak in Santa Monica some twenty-plus years ago, I knew her work would influence me. I just didn’t know it would one day be the creative lifeline I view it to be now.

This week’s exercise focused on “enemies of your creative self worth.” Write it all down, even something that might seem petty, came the instructions. It all matters. So I let rip about some dismissive things said to me as a teen, and a boss I had in my twenties who was so careless with his authority that a year after I’d quit a co-worker called to say he’d just pulled with her what he had with me, telling us we might have chosen the wrong profession, even though there was no evidence to suggest that unless you counted his arrogance. Man do I sometimes wish I could show him how well things worked out for me in that very profession, but I don’t regret not telling him off, for that would just be, well, rude.

It might not make sense for regret to lead me to The Artist’s Way, but it has. And I’m going to trust it’s where I need to be every day for the twelve weeks laid out in the workbook, writing my Morning Pages, doing the exercises, taking my Artist Dates. Listening and learning—or re-learning or un-learning—and reporting back: to myself, to you, to the Creator.

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. Do you have a potential One Real Regret? If so, how might you prevent it?

A Good Enough Day

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Upon returning home from an idyllic two-week trip to my favorite place, Chautauqua , I was met by a frantic puppy with sharp little teeth, loads of laundry, work to catch up on, and a world in upheaval. Being the highly sensitive person that I am–a middle-aged goober who can feel overwhelmed in crowds or when witnessing conflict–it all seemed too much. So yesterday I concentrated on the basics: Take a shower, make at least a little progress on an editorial assignment, and keep the two appointments I had scheduled. I’m glad I did, as I’m always made better when I get up and go, even if the movement is slight, like a short walk through my neighborhood. As evening settled over Nashville, I headed for my gratitude journal. This practice of stopping and taking stock both reassures and renews me, and I can get off center fairly easily if I don’t do it. Honoring that which matters is a sacred act.

To wit: Friends who didn’t freak out when I met them for lunch and said, “Good to see you. I may cry while we eat.” Instead, they offered, “Go ahead. We might, too.” The three of us are in that stage of life where we’ve lost—or our losing—our parents; our health is throwing us curve balls; and we’re letting go of some time-bound dreams while still pursuing the ones we care about the most. We are doing the best we can, and we are not giving up even if we have to slow down a bit and order salads instead of cheeseburgers.

In my younger days, I probably thought “good enough” meant I wasn’t living up to my potential, or that I was settling. At this stage of my life, I know it means the freedom and self-assurance to live well, without comparison to others’ accomplishments or accumulations, without wondering “Would my life have been better if…?”

So on this day, I’m thankful for a good therapist, the playfulness of said frantic puppy with the sharp little teeth, a husband who knows how to cook, my writing partner who sat across from me for three hours as we wrote our hearts out, and this amazing sky.

It is good enough and plenty.

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. What are you grateful for, at this very minute?