Today I was haunted by a snippet I heard on satellite radio. It went something like this. You can't bypass your life's journey. It is the cocoon that nourishes, and then releases your spirit.
Ironically, I came home to the news that my niece's mother will probably die tonight. Kendra has metastatic breast cancer that spread to her bones and brain. Her daughter, Nichole, is married to my brother's son, Chris. I love the two of them as if they were my own children.
It's been a painful journey for me because my mother died of breast cancer when I was twenty-nine. This journey with Nichole has brought back so many memories. One of the hardest lessons in life is letting go. Whether it's guilt, anger, love, loss or betrayal. We fight
to hold on and we fight to let go.
It is a day later and Kendra died last night. I am comforted by the snippet I heard on the radio. And because of it, I imagine Kendra's soul released like a butterfly from its cocoon. I see how beautiful she is as she flaps her wings and flies.
Nichole was lying in bed next to her mother, holding her hand as she emerged. The symmetry of the image strikes me as incredibly beautiful. Kendra ushered Nichole into this life and Nichole ushered her mother out.
So this is my blog. What does this have to do with writing? Everything. We write when we hurt. We write when we feel joy. We write when we are so confused that we don't know where to turn. And we write when we want to give comfort to someone we love so much. We write when we know words don't help at times like this, but we just don't have anything else to give. And so, I give this to you, Nichole.
As a child I wrote in my bedroom closet. It was the way I expressed emotion and sorted out the enormous complexities of living in a house with four brothers and a father nearly destroyed by war. The closet, tucked safely behind my skirts, blouses, dresses and coats, was a safe place to express fear, anger, love and confusion. I could ask questions and often answer them for myself through the words that rushed from my brain to my pencil.
Very early on, I discovered that writing uses concrete details to evoke emotion and thereby move the reader to a place of feeling. When I first tried to do this, I wrote about the things that mattered most to me. My two children as toddlers in Tucson, the way their plump brown legs ran toward the swimming pool. The sweat that glistened like crystals on their skin. The way my son's blue eyes laughed from the inside before the sound tumbled over me. How my daughter's hair smelled after a shampoo--like apples just beginning to decay.
I wrote about canning tomatoes at the double white porcelain sink with my mother. She would peel and I would stuff those mushy red orbs into clean mason jars because my hands were small and could fit through the mouth of the jars. I'd write about the feel of the juice as it crawled up my fingers, tiny golden seeds sticking to my skin. I'd remember picking blackberries along the railroad tracks with my cousin, Linda, and my little brother, Bruce, now dead from a heroin overdose. I'd write about the way he sang Beetles songs and wore his hair to his shoulders. I even wrote about the first time I had sex and the left inguinal hernia that made itself known that night. And I learned that good writing is always an exercise in empathy. We must feel for our characters the way we feel for ourselves and the people we love.
Today, in an old notebook from high school, I rediscovered the draft of an assignment to write a letter to me from my ninety year old self. This is what I wrote at seventeen:
"You must slow down and enjoy each moment. It is not as important as you think it is to always be doing something. Take more time to sit quietly and absorb the life going on around you. Take more time to feel and less time to think. Walk in the woods and listen to the sounds the leaves make beneath your feet, hear the insects in the tall grasses. What are they telling you? Roll in the leaves you rake into piles the way you always did as a child. Achievements mean little as time moves by us. In the end, what matters most is who you love and how well you have loved them."
I was struck by the wisdom of seventeen year old me pretending to me ninety. And I felt so lucky to have spent a lifetime writing and holding on to the things I'd written. I've discovered that writing is the gift that returns again and again--the message constantly changing as we do.