Deep Dive into Writing

I’m sitting in our retreat room in Seminar House at Mount Madonna. It is dusk and the sound of wild turkeys is rising over the deck through the open sliding glass doors on the back wall of our meeting room. The sound of crickets fills the air and as the sun sets, a pink glow rises in front of me. I’m surrounded by a circle of writers scratching in notebooks, their pens sliding on pages, deep in concentration, in flow. Our circle of chairs and backjacks has grown closer. People are sprawled, now comfortable with each other, moving deeper and more fully into the material they came to work on.

To lead them into this evening’s writing session, I read my own example of what I wanted them to do. It’s a repeating line exercise, using the same starting stem again and again:

When your mother has dementia, you will face her denial, resistance, rage, and a full throttle battle for independence, a full-on war that rivaled all three teenagers in your family put together. There is a battle over the car keys and driving, over who gets to put the pills in the pill boxes, over whether she can live alone and for how long.

When your mother has dementia, one day, suddenly the fight goes out of her. The war is over. Whether it’s the 20 mg of Zoloft her doctor has prescribed or the inevitable progression of the disease, she gives up, and there is surrender, surrender that makes her mother pliable and placid, agreeable and empty, easy for you to manage, nothing remotely similar to the woman she has been. You are daughter now to a shell, and it’s not easy being the daughter of a shell.

When your mother has dementia, the phone rings a dozen times a day, the same questions, conversations, circles of words again and again and again. You hate those calls, but you love those calls. They keep you tethered to the one true heart that brought you into this world, the one true heart that has been beating next to yours whether you were speaking or not, estranged or reconciled, she has never stopped being there. And you miss those phone calls when they stop. Dialing the phone has become too hard for her, so your voice mail no longer fills with the sound of her voice.

When your mother has dementia and you’re hosting a party for your son’s 36th birthday, you talk to your wife about whether to invite your mother to the party. When you realize that she eats dinner at 5 and is in bed by 7:30, and that your guests will not arrive until a quarter to seven at the earliest, you realize that by the time you sit down to eat, your mother will be begging to go home and you will have to leave your son’s party to drive her all the way across town. You decide she no longer belongs at your dinner table. It doesn’t matter that you already told her about the party. She will not remember it was going to happen.

When your mother has dementia, you kick yourself for wanting to leave her room as soon as you arrive, because today she recognizes you and tomorrow, she may not. You know things will only get worse from here, and that you should appreciate the small things—like the way her face still lights up with joy every time you walk in the room—but still, when you arrive, your intolerance for her lifeless sameness—starts propelling you out the door fifteen minutes after you arrive.

When your mother has dementia, you live in a constant state of grief as she dies a little bit more each day.

After my example, I gave my students the following prompt: Write your own piece following this model based on a loss you know intimately. Examples might be: When your mother goes on hospice, when your boss deceives you, when your daughter leaves home, when your son is an addict, when your wife betrays you, when you can no longer rely on your body, when you’re not allowed to see your grandchildren, when your daughter dies…Begin each paragraph with this same repeating phrase. Write in the second person as I did in my example.

I just gave them 15 minutes to write, and now they’re in small groups sharing their pieces with each other. I love the soft looks on their faces, the deep concentration, the compassion and caring on their faces. I can’t wait to hear what they’ve written when I ask for volunteers to share. They’re getting to the heart of what they came here to do. And it’s only the end of day #2.

The Writing as a Pathway retreat is rolling.

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