What I’m Learning: Part Three

what-im-learning-part-three

“Writing teaches us awareness. It teaches us to pay attention, to savor the moment. It’s like that great Henry James line — a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. Writing teaches you to take yourself seriously and to take life seriously. Scribble down whatever blows your mind. Whether you went to India or whether you were in the express line at Safeway, this thing got your attention so you scribble it down. Then you read other people who are doing the same kind of stuff and you think ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going for.’”

These are the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, when she participated in a conversation with other TED leaders in NY in 2017. Of course, she’s right, especially the part about the other people writing the “same kind of stuff,” especially the part about taking life seriously, especially everything.

I’ve been reading as much carefully chosen, lyrical and narrative writing on medicine and health as I can stomach over the last year. How do these writers do it? How do they sustain a story that includes clinical information and ugly, scientific words, for the length of an entire book? Most importantly, how can I do this? I’ve written about several of these books in previous blog posts: Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight and Gavin Francis’ Adventures in Human Being in one post; Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus and Henry Jay Przybylo’s Counting Backwards in another. I have more to say about others I’ve read, and I’ll do that in future posts, but I’ve decided to dedicate a full post to the book I read, breathless and all-at-once on a five hour flight.

I’m talking about the book that everyone told me to read, once they knew what I was writing. I’m talking about Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire. Continue Reading…

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Writing Is Like Swimming for the Surface

water

So much of writing the story of mothering my medically complex child is like being underwater.

I sit down to write with a combination of resignation and anticipation. There are other things to do — work, digital errands around planning and research for my family, Facebook, the news — and I hover above the keys, unsure of whether this really is the moment to submerge in my manuscript. I think, then, of my friend Andrea, who gave me great insight when I complained that I always got new clients just as I was recommitting myself to the writing.

“Maybe,” she said, with a glint in one eye, “that’s the universe asking you if you’re really serious.”

am serious. Most days, I open a document in my manuscript folder and dive in. Or, maybe that’s not always true — maybe sometimes I dive in gracefully and sometimes I jump in with my eyes closed, a cannonball, splashing words in every direction. Sometimes I open a file, dip a toe into it, and sit on the edge of the writing shivering, waiting, trying to get used to the idea that I’m going in, again. Continue Reading…

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To Be Quiet and Listen

hills

Three weeks ago, I returned from the inaugural Renewal Retreat on La Finca, in the cloud forest outside Bogotá, Colombia.

For almost as long as I have known my friend Andrea, she has talked with reverence about her family’s finca (farm) in the mountains. I’d always wanted to see it in person, and when she offered this first foray into retreat there, I knew I had to go. Rather than submit a travelogue here, I want to share the story of my inner journey. The intention I set before the retreat began was this:

I will write with courage and focus until my story is complete.

Though this was not officially a writing retreat, I had decided to treat it as such for myself. In the months leading up to the retreat, as I neared the end of the book I’m writing about parenting my daughter through her medical mystery, trauma, and healing, I found myself held back. Reliving the experiences while I wrote them was hard, and I fought the focus I needed to get it done. It was a struggle to write in the same house where many of those experiences happened. Sitting at a coffeeshop or at my rented co-working space kept me from writing courageously, knowing that the tears would come and, in public, I’d have to stifle them. Not knowing what the retreat space might look like, I did know that the land around the houses where we’d stay would be vast and, if necessary, I could hike into the forest with my laptop and sob as loudly as I needed.

And so, with a backpack containing my laptop and the notes for my proposal, I boarded the plane that would take me to Colombia.

Nothing had prepared me for the boundless, immense, boastful beauty of Andrea’s family farm. Standing at dusk in the grassy courtyard between two of the houses, I stared into an unending vista of green, undulating land. Aside from the worn horse path that connects the grazing fields for the farm’s dairy cattle, there was nothing to interrupt the work of nature. Ten-thousand feet above sea level, my steps necessarily slowed by altitude, I simply stood and stared. Over the course of the next six days, I lost track of how many times I stopped in my tracks to stare.

renewal-retreat-finca

Because everything I needed was provided by the lovely people Andrea hired to cook and clean, I was left — perhaps for the first time since childhood — with no decisions to make aside from where I wanted to put my body and what I wanted it to do. I opted not to connect to the patchy wi-fi, and so I surrendered my hold on my family at home, too. I woke and ate, walked and looked, stopped and rested, spoke with the other women or chose solitude.

And, finally, I wrote. Continue Reading…

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Released in Retreat

contradictions

A list of contradictions:

  1. I am incredibly grateful that my once-sick child is now healthy, and I am sometimes resentful that I worked so hard to become the mother she needed only to have her needs change entirely.
  2. I feel strong in my conviction that telling the story of my family’s trials and eventual happy ending is important, and I sometimes wonder if there’s anything interesting or unique enough in that story to sustain the interest of my future memoir readers.
  3. I know that the terrible things that happened to my daughter because a doctor didn’t read her chart are the fault of the doctor, and I sometimes look back and see every single time that I failed to push hard enough for better answers.
  4. I know that ending my career in order to care for my daughter has given me the immeasurable gift of being present every morning and afternoon throughout both daughters’ entire childhoods, and I sometimes resent what I know will be a painful and lonely transition when they leave home.
  5. I feel confident that our story’s core lesson — that childhood illness requires attention and respect be paid to the family supporting that child — is a crucial one for doctors and caregivers, and I sometimes question whether I, personally, am really worthy of attention and respect.

These are real conflicts in my head, competing with each other every single time that I sit here, tapping away at my computer to tell this story. Every time I sit down to write, I question all of those things in addition to whether or not this moment is the right time to be writing or whether anything will ever come of my writing or whether the enormous pile of magazine rejections is a message from the universe about my writing or whether what I’m writing is generous or self-indulgent. The arguments inside my head are loud and frustrating. Sometimes they are paralyzing.

So I’m leaving.

I’m leaving my home, I’m leaving my country, and I’m leaving the internet, entirely, for six days on a retreat in the Andes mountains. It will be another series of contradictions: too isolated and too communal; too beautiful and too distracting; too much time alone and too little time to myself. I won’t know what I need until I need it. It won’t be too hot, but it might be too cold. I will come back with my book manuscript complete, however complete is defined when I feel it.

I release myself from the outcome. I release myself into the contradictions and the mystery. Send me love.

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Cream Cheese and Jelly

panini

Last month, my daughter texted me from school to ask me if she could buy a panini press.

“Where would you buy a panini press?” I asked her, mentally picturing the route home from school which includes only an indoor play space for toddlers and a gas station.

“At the school store,” she answered. “With my points!”

It turned out that, against all odds, there was a panini press at the school store where students can “buy” things with the points they earn for good behavior. I tried to figure out how it fit in with the erasers and plastic jewelry and school swag and soccer balls, but I gave up. Maybe it was a toy.

“Sure,” I tapped back into my phone.

By the time she came home, I had already forgotten, but there she was, grinning broadly beneath cheeks flushed with the cold, clutching a gift bag that sagged with the weight of a used panini press. She’d spent half of her points for it, and the teacher who’d packed it away had asked her if it was a gift for me.

“I told her no, it’s for me. I love paninis!” my girl told me triumphantly, hoisting it up onto the kitchen counter. Continue Reading…

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