My mother-in-law died this week. It wasn’t unexpected. She was under the care of hospice, and had been declining in health since her husband’s death in 2011. My mom died in 2012. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for close to two years I’ve been embroiled in a family fight over money that has created stress, and with it, debilitating anxiety. We finally reached a settlement agreement a couple of weeks ago, but 2014 has been the hardest year of my life. In 2013, I’d buried my grief and escaped into my work. But by 2014, as family tensions escalated, my grief erupted and I had to stop working. My clients fell away like dominoes, I reduced my teaching schedule to one class, and I hit the pause button on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness.
I stopped working on my memoir for two reasons. First, I was sick—not physically (though I experienced physical discomfort, such as intense jitters and pressure in my chest), but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. I needed to focus my energy on getting better; I needed to slow down my life and take time to grieve, as well as to heal. When you’re struggling to get through the day, work feels relatively unimportant—all you want is to be well again.
But there was more to my not working on my book than that. I was writing a memoir on my “midlife quest for health and happiness,” which I’d thought I’d attained. I was an “expert” on the subject, writing my “success story.” My life had been at an all-time high; I’d felt like a flower in full bloom. The word “flow” best describes the ways in which my life was unfolding—until everything came crashing down around me. I couldn’t help but wonder, How can I write a book about health and happiness when I’m such a wreck? I felt like the oncologist who gets cancer.
It turned out my “raw years” weren’t over. My book is divided into three sections: body, mind, and sprit, and the proverbial shit hit the fan two chapters short of beginning the “spirit” section. It was as if the Universe said, “Now wait just a minute! You don’t know as much as you think you do; you have to live this before you can write about it. Buckle up, I’m taking you for a ride!” Well, let me tell you, it’s been a doozy. Never have I felt so out of control; never have I experienced such fear; never have I trembled, cried, and prayed so often or so hard.
The upside is, I’ve learned a few things. Every illness or malady contains within it an invitation and opportunity for healing and growth. The lessons of spirit have to do with surrender, faith, letting go of what others think of you, and, even more important, letting go of what you think of you. Anxiety shattered my self-image. I was supposed to be a helper, not someone who needed help. I was the kid who always had a “good head on her shoulders.” How had I gone from King of the Hill to hooligan?
The hardest lesson was learning to accept “what is” without judgment. Judgment creates tension in the mind. Tightness creates tension in the body. I experienced both. As humans, we all have pain, but that doesn’t mean we need to suffer. Suffering happens when we resist our pain. So I’ve learned to lean into my discomfort. I’ve also encountered a new word: kindfulness. Stephanie Nash, a mindfulness meditation coach, coined this term. She uses it to refer to bringing loving attention to the body. “We only have so much real estate in consciousness,” she says. “There’s only so much you can focus on at one time.” I’ve had to consider where and how to focus my awareness. I’ve had to learn how to be kinder and more patient with myself. I’ve had to consciously choose love over fear—over and over again. I’ve had to allow myself to be where I am, to befriend my fear. And I’ve learned that we are all much larger than we think.
Thankfully, these past few months, my internal storm has raged less and less, and I sense it has almost passed. I have borne what I naively deemed unbearable. We humans are stronger than we think. When I first heard the news about my mother-in-law, I feared her death might throw me back into the pit out of which I have worked so hard to climb, but I feel calm, and grateful, because she lived a full life and was ready to go. It’s a blessing. This is life. We live and we die. Her death inspires me to live. And for me, writing is a huge part of living. Although I haven’t been writing my book, I have been writing. My journal has been a close companion and a source of comfort during this time. I’ve also written many letters to my mother, and monthly blog posts. Though that’s not the same as working on my book, it has taken the lid off of my internal pressure cooker and enabled me to express myself. This kind of writing is a tremendous release. I let go of what I don’t need and receive universal wisdom, while keeping my writing juices flowing. I liken this process to daily barre exercises, which I did for years as a young dancer.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when to work on a project and when to pause—and for how long. I knew I needed to stop working on my book, and I trusted that I’d be called back to it when the time was right. My mother-in-law’s passing has made me think the time is now.
I don’t have everything figured out, which I know isn’t necessary, but my hand and heart are steady enough to return to my memoir, old friend, who I suspect will deliver me to my next level of healing. No need for perfection. No shame in falling apart, when in coming back together I bring with me new gifts of insight, deeper compassion, and expanded consciousness. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some trepidation. So I’m asking you, my kind readers, for your support, love, and prayers as I begin again.
This post appeared earlier this month in my She Writes Column.
Not long ago, a student who has been taking my classes consecutively for the past three years stopped by to pick up a letter of recommendation for a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship. This same student, during her second year in my class, wrote a novel, for which she secured literary representation last fall. Our class is on summer break and I hadn’t seen her since June. After we took care of our PEN business she shared her growing frustrations with me about her writing career. “I felt like I gave my baby away,” she told me, and then lamented that she rarely hears from her agent and has no idea what’s going on with her book. Unfortunately, for writers lucky enough to sign with an agent, this is not an uncommon story.
We talked about the state of publishing, and discussed pros and cons of conventional, hybrid, and self-publishing. We deliberated over how much the business has changed over the past few years, chewed over the closing of bookstores, and analyzed the advantages of owning the rights to your books. We both agreed on the pleasure inherent in maintaining creative control of your work, and noted that even if you’re lucky enough to land a book deal, you still have to hustle and promote your baby while your publisher takes the lion’s share of your profits. In the end, she came to this realization: “I can either lament the way things are or embrace them.”
An hour before this conversation, I’d sat in church listening to a talk about faith. The reverend had asked: “When your faith is absolute, do things always work out?” The congregation immediately responded, “Yes.”
“Maybe so,” he replied. He paused and added, “But then again, maybe not. When your faith is absolute, things work out only when you’re not attached to a specific outcome.”
This reminded me of an old Sufi story about how things aren’t always as they seem:
One day a farmer finds and captures a beautiful white stallion. All the neighbors gather to congratulate him: “How fortunate you are. Allah has blessed you.” The next day his son attempts to ride the horse, falls off, and breaks his leg. All the neighbors gather to commiserate with the farmer: “What a shame. Allah must be displeased.” The next day the solders come to take every able-bodied man into the army. Because the son has a broken leg, the soldiers leave him alone. The neighbors gather to congratulate the farmer: “How fortunate you are. Allah has blessed you.”
And the story continues. It’s clear as the story progresses that no single event is good or bad.
Perhaps my student’s disappointment is really just a stunning opportunity for her to fully embrace and step into her own as the confident, capable writer and entrepreneur I know her to be. “In today’s publishing climate,” I reminded her, “there’s no need to wait for someone else to make your publishing dreams come true. You can do it yourself!”
The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindi holy book, says, “We may never see the fruits of our labor.” But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t labor. Writing is a labor of love. Why deny yourself its joys and healing gifts? The fruit may be invisible, but if you’re working whole-heartedly, you will definitely feel its sweetness. Look for that. Believe in it.
At the end of his talk about faith, our reverend read a poem called “Do It Anyway,” which was written on the wall of Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta, India. It is a revised version of an earlier piece written by Dr. Kent M. Keith.
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.
I’d like to add:
If you write a book, you may not be able to sell it.
Write it anyway.
If you publish your work, people may ram judgments down your throat.
If you show people who you are through your writing, you may be shamed.
Show them who you are anyway.
Show yourself who you are; this will make God smile.