Saturday, December 8, 2018

Writing to Heal Loss and Grief: possibilities

Writing has been a way for me to process and heal from loss and grief, betrayal and re-claiming my identity, dislocation and a yearning to belong. I write to articulate what is deepest within, what haunts me and won't let go, and what I am troubled by. That might range from the latest images of garbage floating in the ocean to the sidewalk shrine to mark where a teen-aged girl had been shot. It occurred ten years ago and it still comes up when I write.

Today I ruminate on the passing of both of my parents. I was able to be with my mother so she could die at home. Because of my father's psychological disorder, he was unable to stay home. He was moved to a residential care facility and once he heard the news of my mother's death, stopped eating. The facility took him to the hospital; from there he went into hospice's inpatient unit. Six weeks from my mother's death, he passed away.

These are not easy topics to write about. As I share the words here, I am reminded that I am skimming the surface, presenting the facts. My feelings are many layered and still changing. The relief that I no longer have to worry about something happening to my aging parents while I am not there is replaced by regret that their final years were difficult and I didn't visit more often. Yet, they were able to stay in their home where they had lived for 60 years; they had a comfortable lifestyle, enjoyed visits from my siblings and me; my mom was able to get out to restaurants, shopping, and Longwood Gardens and loved to read.

I want to write about the last weeks of my mother's life. I hope I can capture her grace, sense of humor and acceptance, as well as her disorientation from pain medication. I hope I can write about her disappointment and anger when she learned that I couldn't help her up and down the stairs. My mom hated being confined to her bedroom but we had no longer had a choice.

I want to imagine the last days of my father's life. He wanted to come home; he was upset that he couldn't; if he had been in his right mind, he might have understood why. I have to process that this was not the choice I wanted to make for him and yet there was no way I could deal with his erratic behavior and demanding paranoia.

Writing is like letting down the nets and see what you catch. Like opening your heart and reading a message written in your blood. Like stirring the pot so all the ingredients blend into something nourishing. Like pulling off a band-aid to see if the wound needs more antiseptic. Like a magic mirror that tells the truth. Like a warm hug that comforts you when you discover your heartbreak is just the human condition. Like a reminder that no matter what has happened to us or around us, we are a work in progress and at the same time, eternal and whole just the way we are.

I hope I get to have this journey soon, after the gifts are given, the volunteer roster settled, the anthology edited and ready for the printer, the next meeting, the next discussion, the next submission. For my new year intention, I am claiming time to delve deeper into my family story than ever before. The reasons I ran and kept running. The reasons I stayed in touch. The reasons I went home to be by my mom's side. The reasons I craft feelings into words.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Quieting the Left Brain Critic

When I facilitate writing workshops, I use poetry as a way to enter the intuitive mind. I believe poetry opens the door to the subconscious. The difference between the left brain and the right brain is that the left brain tends to put things in order, to make sense of things, and the right brain makes leaps of associations, what is similar and what is different, according to the senses. In this way, right brain thinking can be more visual, visceral, emotional, and imaginative. It doesn't care if things fit together, it cares that there is a pattern, symmetry, memory and new connections. 

Our left brain is also where our inner critic lives and pokes at us when we are being creative, telling us we are not doing it right, we aren't good enough and we don't deserve to play.
By putting the pen to paper and keeping it moving without listening to the voice saying we aren't choosing the perfect word or right word, we dive beneath the surface. 

The benefits of using poetry as a jump start for writing:

Poetry provides a cultural context and expressive model that supports openness and emotional honesty.
It connects us to our intuitive imagination.
Reading and writing poetry is a natural process for people in pain.
Poetry provides a private experience where an individual can control the outcome.
Writing poetry is joyful and self-affirming even if the topic is painful.
It is a skill that we can continue to access.
It is a way of connecting with others through reading and publishing.
(excerpted from Writing with At-Risk Youth: the PONGO Teen Writing Method) 

Here is a poem and promt I use often in my workshops. The poem has humor and also the specific details: the red dress, the onion rings, the carnival ride. We read the poem and then I suggest the prompt. We don't analyze the poem as it returns us to the left brain. Sometimes the images in the poem trigger our own memories and sometimes they are a catalyst to give ourselves permission to write what we have not dared to speak, or even think.  

 Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook, not
the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication, not
the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punch line, the door or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don't regret those.

Prompt: what I regret and what I don't regret

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Art and Healing: writing as a tool for coping

My healing story begins not with my own healing but with seeking solutions for my companion’s depression. Michael’s periods of depression seemed endless as he responded negatively to every circumstance, whether it was a sunny day of good food, friends, and things to do or a gloomy day of disappointment and things gone wrong. Sometimes he was unable to get out of bed for days at a time. I insisted that he see a doctor. With a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, the puzzle pieces fell into place. Unfortunately, he hated the way the pharmaceuticals made him feel. 

We lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a Mecca for alternative healing, and I began to search for alternatives to prescription drugs. He was willing to try anything, from talk therapy and art therapy to drama class, from acupuncture to homeopathic medicine, from writing class to drumming circles, from anti-depressants to a Mexican limpía, from volunteering at a senior center to Recovery, Inc support group, from Chi Jong to hiking. 

I eventually came to understand that one has to want healing, sometimes with all of one’s strength and focus. It isn’t how much you do or what you do, but the drive to be well has to supersede and overcome the habitual patterns of being sick. A new identity must be created and cultivated, painstakingly and continuously.

Earthwalks for Health was part of my search for ways to heal. Earthwalks connected us to indigenous artists and local sages for a week-end of learning about their traditional spirituality and healing practices. This is how I met Joan Logghe, beloved Santa Fe poet.

It was energizing to hear common themes go around the circle...

Joan was the founder of Write Action, a writing support group for people who were HIV positive. As time went on, they either died or became so well, they no longer had the time or inclination to attend, so she opened it up to anyone with a physical or mental challenge. I was writing poetry with another group at the time and encouraged Michael to attend Joan’s group. He found it satisfying to pour out his brutally honest thoughts on paper and not be judged. One week, he couldn’t attend because he was going out of town so I suggested that I could go and “keep his seat warm.” I loved it and we continued attending together weekly. We both felt we had a home where we were supported and accepted. It was energizing to hear common themes go around the circle and to be reassured that coping with Michael’s moods was not isolating us. 

Joan used the same basic writing instruction that so many writing instructors and writing groups would come to rely on: spontaneous timed writing. Pick a time, put pen to the paper and keep it moving, not stopping to consider grammar or sentence structure of even if it makes sense. Natalie also writes in Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within, “go for the jugular. If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.”

Joan used poems as prompts. In this way, we entered the rhythm of language and I appreciated the exposure to poets unfamiliar to me. She was compassionate and humorous, non-critical and non-judgmental, and was willing to share her own beautiful honest and vulnerable writing, even if it felt “uncooked.” 

As time went on, Michael became more and more mentally unstable. He would rearrange furniture at 2 am; had a serious car accident; started to have panic attacks and bouts of rage for no reason; and either would not answer the phone or talk compulsively for hours. I became more of a care-giver than a companion, lover or mate. I kept the house, buying groceries, cooking and cleaning, but I also opened the mail that he would leave unattended, planned our trips out of town, stayed connected with friends, made sure he kept his appointments, and listened to him talk about himself, his problems, his painful childhood, his lack of inner resources to find work or stay at a job, his lack of self-confidence and motivation, for hours and hours. He no longer wanted to be here, he told me.

“Please let me go, give me permission,” he begged. I can’t believe I am still alive.” 

I was exhausted, frustrated and overwhelmed, working part time at a retail shop, trying to develop my writing skills, stay connected to my almost-adult sons and my friends, and pursue my own interests. And I also had emotional wounds to heal. Once I recognized that I needed to create boundaries, I reached out and was able to receive counseling at Southwest College.

Michael’s mental state continued to deteriorate and he became more and more determined to end his suffering. We discussed suicide often and my attempts to talk him out of it ranged from “we don’t know what’s on the other side” to “What about your sons?” When he confessed that he has kept a gun secretly hidden for two years, I was frightened. Events spiraled until I moved to our friend’s rental and then house-sat for her while she was out of town. Michael and I continued to see each other but I would ask him to leave so I could work. Eventually he planned what he had been obsessing about for years and I came home one evening to the news that he had killed himself.

To be able to pour out my grieving heart onto the page
                                                          was cathartic.

After days of weeping and memorials and his family’s recriminations and time to reflect, I returned to the writing group. A burst of creative energy was released because I was no longer care-giving. To be able to pour out my grieving heart onto the page was cathartic. I felt both liberated and abandoned by Michael’s death. He was no longer holding me back but I also no longer had his adventurous spirit, his companionship, his affection and playfulness when he wasn’t depressed. I was angry at myself,  that I had put up with his abuse, recalling those times when he was critical or demanding of me and other times  when he risked our safety while driving or traveling. A cauldron of boiling emotions poured out onto the page. To know that others were willing to be on the journey, accompanying me through the muck, was life-saving.

Friday, June 1, 2018

How long did it take to write Catch a Dream?

How long did it take you to finish writing Catch a Dream? someone in the audience asked.

I began to write it as memoir as soon as I returned to the United States after three years of living in Israel. It was my way of holding onto the country I had come to love. I wanted to get everything down while it was fresh in my mind. I felt an urgency to articulate what it had like to be on this journey of self-discovery in a country embroiled in conflict. I never felt afraid but the tension was palpable and the shock of coming to the sacred Temple Mount and encountering a ring of soldiers was one I will never forget. There are many specific moments when the reader realizes this is a place where a bomb can go off at any moment, where tear gas permeates the streets, where rocks are thrown and piles of tires are burnt and helicopters fly overhead. And yet, those are not the images that stick in my mind. I remember the moonlight silvering the Mediterranean Sea and the smiles of the vendors in the shuk and the way the stones of Jerusalem turn golden in sunlight and the sounds of the shofar blown on Yom Kippur following me through the streets from many small shuls as I walked home. Mostly I remember the kindness of the Israelis I met, from the friends who took me in, without a thought as to why I was penniless, but with many questions as to what I was doing in ha'eretz, why was I single, and how could I pay for health insurance? to the elderly neighbor downstairs who spent hours at the propane company insisting they deliver propane right away so I could cook dinner.

People are invariably kind when you are hitch-hiking, but Israelis were incredibly helpful and generous through some tough moments. This is what I want to hold onto, as the news tells us that the situation in Gaza is dire and inhumane. How can a nation of people who are kind, intelligent, and sensitive become a nation of people who allow the conditions that are in Gaza to continue? It makes me think that there is more to the story than I know.

But to answer the question: that was 30 years ago. I didn't go back and although I pitched the book several times, it mostly sat in a drawer while I moved on to other projects.

I attended the Independent Author's Conference in Philadelphia last fall and left knowing I was going to publish something. My spiritual home of Unity Minneapolis is planning a trip to Israel this fall. Suddenly I thought, What if I changed it into a novel? The names of Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove popped into my head and everything fell into place. I could visualize these women and it was no longer my personal story but a story about Lily. This felt just right and so freeing because I was grappling with the overly complicated back story. From there, it took me three months to revise what I had, have beta readers give me feedback, revise some more (and more and more) and have the manuscript ready for Bookbaby.

How long did it take to write Catch a Dream? Thirty years. My whole life. Because I wasn't ready until now to really be able to have it out in the world. Now I know why it is important to me to share this story, not only Lily's journey of self-discovery, but the reminder that in troubled times, ordinary people can be judged harshly for what their government is doing. Not only Lily's love affairs but the love that is possible if we stop protecting and defending ourselves and open my hearts to the reality of others who are within our borders.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Jerusalem memory and a question: is forgiveness possible?

An icy wind blew as we struggled out of the warmth of the café into the warren of streets that meandered through the Arabic section of Jerusalem. I looked over at my traveling companions and realized that Sara was shivering inside her short jean jacket. “We have to buy her a scarf,” I mumbled to Carol, my mouth tucked inside the brilliantly striped Mexican rebozo around my neck. We huddled closer together to retain the warmth, Sara in-between like a protected nestling. Because she was a teen-ager, she normally would resent the inhibiting closeness but with this biting cold, did not protest.
Fortunately it was one of the days that the shops were open. The intifada had succeeded in shutting the city down for three days before the cold hit. We were sight-seeing, taking in the garden tomb, the Church of the Sepulcher, the pools of Bethesda, and Solomon’s stables. We only had a little money to duck into the warmth of a café for scalding hot, sweetened mint tea. It felt like pure luxury.
When we found a vendor who sold scarves, we let Sara choose, carefully pooling our shekels together from our pockets, leaving us with twenty argarot and one shekel, about sixty cents USD. But it was worth it to see the look of gratitude on her face, chapped pink by cold. Just as we exited the shop, drifts of snowflakes started to fall. Snow in Jerusalem! Where would we spend the night? I hadn’t told Carol that when I had gotten up to use the restroom, a man had approached our table and offered to buy me for an afternoon. Or was it Sara he wanted? This chubby, shy, tag-a-long was terrified of this strange adventure and fortunately she hadn’t been paying attention to the man’s broken English or hand gestures.  
 Although my feet were numb and hands shoved deep into jean pockets were icy, I was thrilled to be in the holy city of Jerusalem. I remembered that on their way into the city, a man we met on the bus had given me his card. A Christian Arab, Ali repeatedly invited us to stop at his home and meet his family. Impressed that we traveled in the name of Jesus, penniless, adhering to the original Gospel lifestyle, he was respectful. He shook our hands warmly when we parted.
 “Let’s call Ali,” I suggested over the top of Sara’s blond curls.

 “Tomorrow I think we should go north, to the Galilee. We’re not dressed for this weather.”  

“Yeah, you’re right.” I was disappointed to be leaving Jerusalem after waiting years to be here. But I would come back. To add my prayer to the Wall. To wander the streets in a mystical trance. To find my soul crying out for a way to find home.

To be in Jerusalem, to be in Israel, is to be in a place that yearns for peace, but weeps from war after war, on the border and within her borders. Frozen teardrops on this day. How is peace possible without forgiveness? is the question I asked myself.

In 1989, I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I was invited by an American family to babysit, to take their child home when she became too restless to stay. They belonged to one of the only conservative synagogues in Israel. As we walked to the synagogue, the profound silence was cathartic to me. The cessation of traffic was highlighted by the serious, yet joyful mood.  The women dressed in white fluttered in the women’s balcony like doves, the children were free to wander among the men praying downstairs, the sounds of plaintive Kol Nidrei wafted up like smoke from a celestial fire drenching us in holiness. Although I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, I could follow along in the prayer book as we enumerated our sins and asked to be covered by God’s merciful forgiveness.

The High Holy Days are a time of repentance in the sense of self-reflection, to consider harm you may have done to others and ask their forgiveness before God opens to your page in the book of life. I loved the fact that we asked for forgiveness as a congregation, that we were part of a ritual cleansing as well as personal evaluation. The community supported us as we declared those sins, those choices and decisions where we missed the mark, aloud.

Recently I taught a writing workshop at Stillwater prison for the purpose of holding a reading during Victim Awareness week. They wanted to hold a reading to express their remorse and I would do whatever I could to help them make that possible. I told them, “You can’t just write a letter of apology and expect to be forgiven. Your victim may never be able to forgive—but if I were a victim, I would want to know how you have changed. How you are different now and would never commit that crime again. I want to know about the work you have done on yourself.” The word I used is metanoia, literally with-mind, to find mindfulness which is translated in the RSV New Testament as repentance. To me, the concept of metanoia goes beyond repentance, it means that you have changed.

As a victim, it can be a long hard road to healing. It can take years. It can take forever. I was lucky to have a therapist who was able to guide me through the trauma and tell a new story of survival. After years of silence about my rape, I was finally able to speak about it, write about it, read my writings aloud.  And yet, my impulse was to forgive the man who perpetrated the rape immediately after it happened because during the four hours he held me captive, I listened to his story. I knew he was a victim as well and that the violation on my body were the results of his own abuse, humiliation and anger. It is not an excuse. I don’t believe forgiveness needs to include forgetting. 

A few years ago I attended a Radical Forgiveness workshop led by Rev. Sher McNeal. We formed a circle and she read questions such as “Have you ever been hurt, ever been unkind to someone?”  “Have you ever been bullied,  have you ever bullied someone?” The acts of unkindness, abuse, violence mentioned became more and more specific. We were instructed that if we were either victim or perpetrator, to step into the middle of the circle. Then she asked us to look each other in the eyes and say, “I am sorry that happened to you.” No one knew who was victim or perpetrator. Rather we witnessed that with each question, some of us stood in the middle of that circle together. Sorrow and forgiveness included all of us. Remorse included all of us. Forgiveness included all of us. Kinda like Yom Kippur. A covering over us of Divine Mercy.

If my perpetrator had entered the Radical Forgiveness circle with me, would I have been able to look him in the eyes and say I am sorry that happened to you? Would we be able to weep together over his life wasted in prison and my years of PDST and distancing myself from relationships? Would we be covered by the mercy of God? I like to think it could be so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Catch a Dream: why pre-sales are helpful and why I wrote the book

Catch a Dream is in pre-sales on Amazon!

This is what I learned: that if people pre-order a book, once it is released, it is stocked and can be mailed out immediately. (How often have I ordered a book as a gift for my mom and she got it the next day?) If there are not enough pre-sales to indicate that the book will sell well, it has to be ordered as a pod. I guess we no longer want to wait for things and sooner is better ..also, this will impact whether my book shows up on suggested books to read. 

Pre-orders for the ebook will be downloaded on your Kindle device on March 24 and pre-ordered paperbooks will be mailed out April 9.

To tell you the truth, I am scared to death to read my reviews. I didn't write Catch a Dream in a traditional way. It doesn't have a plot with cliff hangers unless you really are invested in Lily's desire to stay in Israel. There is a lot of description because it is a love story with the land as well as the people who live within its borders. It is a critique of the constant violence without exploring the complicated political history. It is told from the perspective of a woman who suffers from PDST and longs to be set free to love, to belong, and for all to live in peace. An idealistic dream honed by heart-break and healing as she learns to stand up for herself at last. 

I am happy to discuss my writing process with you during a personal visit to your book club or writer's group or via Skype but I am not an expert on Israel or Israeli-Palestinian political affairs. I am an expert on the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and how it changed my menstrual cycle, the night I spent in a Jerusalem jail, and the birthday cake that caught on fire using re-ignitable candles. On fruits and vegetables so fresh and ripe, that when I returned to the states I could hardly bear to eat a tomato or peach due to the lack of flavor. Or the way the stores stopped selling bread, cakes and cookies, and cordoned off any products considered treif, that is containing yeast or having the potential for rising, (including some imports that surprised me) during Passover. My downstairs neighbor scolded me for throwing out a crust during Passover (obviously digging in my garbage to check on me) but someone finally told me the secret was to stock up on pita and put it in your freezer: "Everyone does it," she explained. 

I miss the way the Israeli families hung out together to enjoy a concert or the beach. I miss the beach. I miss the quiet during Shabbat and the sounds of the Muezzin at dawn. 

If you have ever dreamed of going to Israel, my book will give you a glimpse of a complex society and whet your appetite to see it for yourself. 

Here's the link to my author page if you are inclined to help me with a pre-order:

A woman’s healing journey begins in a country embroiled in relentless turmoil.
In Israel, Palestinian frustration for a homeland erupts in strikes, demonstrations and suicide bombings and Israel responds with tear gas, arrests, and house demolitions. Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove arrive in Haifa with their children on a pilgrimage. Lily falls in love with the land , with its people, and with Levi, dangerous but irresistible. Eventually she is fully immersed in Israeli life. Her son rebels against the lifestyle she has chosen and war with Syria looms on the horizon. Will she be able to stay? What does she have to give up and what will she be able to keep?