Monday, October 22, 2018

Confidence and Lessons from 'The Kindergarten Teacher'



The mission and vision of Women’s Writing Circle is to encourage women to acknowledge and share their unique voices, talents and life experiences through writing.

In The Kindergarten Teacher, a movie now streaming on Netflix starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a teacher discovers five-year-old Jimmy's uncanny gift for writing evocative poetry. A poet, herself, Lisa spends her time away from teaching kindergartners by taking a continuing education poetry class. When she reads her poetry, her work is judged mediocre by teacher and classmates.

This sets her up for believing what the world says about her, not what she believes about herself and it doesn't take long for Lisa to become obsessed with Jimmy. Every time Jimmy says, “I have a poem,” Lisa grabs her notebook and furiously scribbles what he says. As Jimmy composes verse off the top of his head in an almost trance-like state, Lisa's own defeatism about her poetry is intensified.

One night Lisa takes two of Jimmy’s poems to her poetry class and reads them as her own. No one suspects they are the work of a kindergarten child. Immediately, everyone sits up and takes notice of Lisa, praising "her" poems, especially the attractive and snobbish young writing teacher who now wants sex with Lisa. Later, she reads one of her own poems to him. “Well,” he says, “it’s not my favorite of yours.”  In the male-dominated world of poetry, she believes him to be the final judge and critic of her work.



The movie is both disturbing and instructive. The message is that creative writing/genius cannot be taught... and that harsh, judgmental critique can suck the soul out of creativity. Lisa begins to view her mission in life as protecting and mentoring Jimmy from a world where the artist is obliterated by forced indenture...working for a high-tech company, the goal Jimmy’s father has in mind for his son. Poetry, the father declares, is a pipe dream.

In her famous morning pages, Julia Cameron advises us to just let our words flow onto the blank page every morning. Writing, she says, is a spiritual expression—you and God are at one.

Encouraging and nurturing everyone is also the signature of Zen writer Natalie Goldberg. In this article, it is noted: "The magic of her method is the belief that anyone can write, that everyone has a voice and something to say."


Unlike Gyllenhaal’s character in The Kindergarten Teacher, most of us do not feel life hangs in the balance if we are not creative geniuses or mentoring one. Since Lisa finds little meaning in her life—her teenage children are glued to their screens and cellphones, her husband lacking in emotional intimacy—she seeks salvation in little Jimmy's poetry and not from within herself.


For me, I love that writing resides in the moment, offering its own distinct brand of solace and continuing education. As a woman, I find that writing offers a pathway to understanding that life is fabric and everything connected. It offers a chance to keep discovering and exploring all that is around and within me.

I use several strategies to maintain confidence as a writer. Here's a few.
  • Don't compare yourself to another writer. Instead, value and affirm your unique voice and skills.
  • Consider avoiding writing contests or book awards programs; many are merely marketing ploys and/or the judging subjective. 
  • Every time you read your work aloud, say to yourself, 'job well done'. It takes courage to read in front of an audience and many never reach that point.
  • Keep working at your craft, but not to where it feels like a grind. 
  • View obstacles in your writing as challenges not roadblocks.
  • Share your work in a supportive group of writers and be open to feedback, including thoughtful criticism.
  • Be authentic and write from the heart. 
  • Feel the passion and silence the inner critic.
  • Listen to your inner voice.

How about you? Can you share a strategy to affirm creative confidence?

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Cynicism of Our Times and Writing As a Gift



I don’t have to tell you that last week was a bad one for women. Yes, I know, it was a bad week for men, too, but we women took it particularly to heart as we watched sexual assault survivors condemned on national television. I feel I have said it all in the past—how living in the white patriarchy forged who I am as a writer. Like my late husband, John M. Cavalieri, who was a rebel in his own right at West Point and in corporate America, I have tackled controversy through my writing for many years.

This was noted in my high school yearbook by the girl who was the editor of our school newspaper. “Thanks for taking on those controversial subjects and writing about them,” she wrote. I don’t remember what they were, but I do know that early on I found my voice, thanks to journalism which offered an avenue to write op-eds about topics that included the need for gun control or a woman’s right to choose.




So, after a half century—the time that has gone by since I left high school—and still seeing women as silenced and oppressed, I felt weary as I attended my 50th high school reunion this past weekend. Who were these people? Why was I bothering to go? High school had been painful for me in some ways, not the least of which it provided fodder for my memoirs as I wrote how I felt somewhat of an outsider. Instead, I found welcome surprises in connecting with folks I didn’t even know well in high school but whose willingness to share their own lives reinforced how essential connections and conversation are to reviving and nurturing the spirit. As writers, we must stay open to the possibility of new encounters viewed with fresh eyes.


A few of us ended up traveling the next day into Philadelphia to visit the Barnes Foundation. As we took in the paintings of Renoir and Picasso and Modigliani, we talked about our lives…two of us widowed, one married, one never married. We shared our hopes and dashed hopes, our travels around the world—one woman had been our exchange student from Japan and had traveled from Tokyo for the reunion—and, finally, our excitement about the years that, God willing, lie ahead.

I think the reunion intensified the importance of living each day. In a class of approximately three hundred, forty-seven had died, including one of my good friends who I had lost touch with over the years. When I saw her picture among those who had passed away, I remembered the sun on her face as she and I stood on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ and her father snapped our photograph with a Polaroid camera …a photo I still have in a dresser drawer in my upstairs bedroom, she in navy sweater, dark upturned hair.


As we continue along this writing journey, we keep practicing and honing our craft. We also stay open to possibility, thanks to good and honorable people. We find inspiration, joy and humor to cast aside the cynicism and the despair of the times in which we live.

Conversations and connections from the past provide more insight into our memories, while increasing our awareness of how important it is to observe and pay attention.

On city streets, as we walked from the train station to the Barnes, I saw a young woman in denim. Headphones glued to her ears, she walked erect like a model, past a homeless woman, dressed in an old gray overcoat, sitting on a bench and incongruously studying the laptop screen she held on her lap. People dressed as Spider-Man posed under the iconic LOVE sculpture across from City Hall as gawkers snapped their photograph, myself included.

The city teems with life in all its wild and strange diversity. It offers rich portraits to be crafted by the writer as she finds her voice and her story, just as great painters evinced their unique style and perceptions in portraiture.

In the end, we are writers, first and always. That, at least in my mind, sets us apart as the chroniclers, the observers of our times. What a gift this writing life is and continues to be.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Our Stories of Trauma Bring Us Back to Each Other




As we read and hear about the lives of others, we can’t help coming back to ourselves. This is the house where I grew up, these were my friends, this was my brother, this is why I wanted to get married…this is the day I experienced the trauma.

The last is especially problematic. It’s tricky. It means stripping away the fa├žade and the secrecy, reliving the pain and fear...taking on entrenched powers. The Government, the Church, the Family...Society.


It is especially problematic for women since writing about trauma is best explored through memoir and memoirs are not literary and are mostly written by females. Or, at least, this has been the mantra of the literary "establishment." When I wrote Again in a Heartbeat, I wrote not about sexual assault trauma, for example, but the trauma of loss and widowhood. Why would you write something so personal, people asked? Why wouldn't I, I responded, although it took me years to get to that point without apology. (Well, you know, it was a healing journey, I would often say to sympathetic nods. After all, isn't memoir little more than therapy?…heaven forbid!)


Can we convince another of our truth? Will they hear me? It seems to me that each of us builds on the other to reach a surprising conclusion. We need each other to expose that it’s not just about us. In the end, famous people get all the attention, but none would be there without the thousands—the millions—who supported and empowered them to make change by sharing their stories


In The House On Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros writes, “When you leave, you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.”

And so we come back together in the circle to share our stories as little girls, as daughters, as sisters, as wives and as mothers. We build on the other, offering acknowledgment and remembrance and hope. 

***




I used to worry about ending up seventy and living alone. Now—although I’m not yet seventy—I relish it. A meaningful life is built on creativity, activism, self-discovery and empowerment.

In the HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts—which I highly recommend—Fonda talks candidly how her whole life was spent trying to please a man…first her famous father, followed by her three famous husbands, Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner. Now, she notes, “in this, my final act, I am concentrating on me.” Fonda, who wrote a memoir, My Life so Far, makes clear that writers are activists and that the strong woman who speaks out is courageous. In the process, she says, “you are going to make enemies.”

Our stories and our lives intersect in powerful and important ways. We can—and should— write something relevant, dynamic, and yes, political. 




As the nation watched the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh hearing this week, the chasm between remaining silent or standing up appeared to close for us women, at least a little.

This “train,” Alexandra Petri, opinion writer for The Washington Post wrote in this column, is rushing forward. The train is trying to crush our spirit, our voice, turn us "into a scream on the tracks."

“I want us to be the train and not the thing thrown under it. I want us to be the thing too urgent to be stopped, not the thing that must curl up apologetically to make room for it,” Petri writes.

And so our stories bring us back to each other—and, ultimately, ourselves. That's what I thought about this week: This is the house where I grew up, these were my friends, this was my brother, this is why I wanted to get married…this is the day I experienced the trauma.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Revisiting Our Past and Reflecting On Its Riches



When we talk about memories it is important to honor them, good or bad. Revisiting the past can either lift you up or break your heart (a quote I heard from Anthony Bourdain about travel), and it’s true. Vivid memories encapsulate defining moments of our lives. And that's worth a lot.


We hear about "fake news" these days. Stories are always made up with an agenda in mind. Don’t investigate, since everyone has a story, but who knows what is true and what isn’t? That is anathema to the writer. If we don't ascribe truth to our memories, we have lost significant moments of reflection and self-discovery—ones we can impart to our readers, whether through fiction or memoir.

Remembering and revisiting the past is not about revision, it's about reflection and the riches inherent in that. Reflection is a learning process. It takes time and patience because it involves ascribing meaning to an event or a person.

At our Women's Writing Circle Childhood Memories workshop on Saturday, our group remembered the past and wrote about parents and family. I said I never felt my childhood held much of interest, until now, in later writings I have done for my work-in-progress autofiction. I always saw myself as an ordinary girl growing up in ordinary way.


"I've felt that too," another woman said. But, still she wanted to learn more about writing her memories, using the sensory details of smell and touch and capturing that moment of meaning of growing up in a large Catholic family. "I have special memories about my childhood, but none seem to make an interesting story to anyone outside my family. I came away from the workshop with techniques to create an interesting memory—use of sensory images and characters," she wrote.


During our free write, a writer said she stumbled upon a memory she hadn't thought about in years, or may have thought about but never wrote down. She left with ideas to write more of her childhood memories in more detail.

Remembering isn't just looking at a photograph—although we brought those to the workshop. It is not a static experience, but one that begs richness of detail...what did the person say, what were the aromas in the room, how does the memory offer a doorway into understanding yourself and others?  We offered each other examples of authors who write from childhood memories; for example, Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums.


Honor your memories. Honor your stories. Honor the honesty and the truth of the child still within you. Writing about my childhood, for example, led to understanding why—and how—a little girl became a writer. I was nine years old, alone in my bedroom, lost in my imagination and my solitary life of being virtually an only child with parents who were not interested in children and childish activities. I began keeping a diary, a journal, a companion of thoughts and events.

Maybe one way we can recapture the joy of ourselves is by letting our adult egos go and follow an uncensored pen across the blank page. Write drunk, edit sober, as the saying goes. It means not worrying about how well it is written or whether all the accuracies have been captured, but focusing on reflection—what it all means. Recapturing the child within us allows us to shed light on the adult world with all its ego-limiting expectations.


One of our writers Saturday presented us with this quote by CS Lewis:



“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

And this from Madeleine L’Engle:

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be... This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide... Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don't ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup."
As always, I am grateful to our writers for helping me find my path and enriching each other. Said one writer, "What I came for today: Techniques, knowledge, ideas. What I take from today: An amazing feeling of belonging to this world of women writers."

Brava and job well done, writers!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Childhood Memories—A Window to the Writer's Story


This weekend I’m offering a writing workshop on childhood memories. What do we remember as a child? Why those memories and not others? Where did we grow up? Who were our parents? Our siblings?

According to psychologists, memories from childhood are predictors of who we are to become. They serve as a window to the writer.

When childhood memories become too painful to write, what to do? I can only speak from my own experience. Writing them—not to mention sharing them—happens when the time is right. For me, writing about verbal abuse and bullying I endured when I was fourteen years old came after the #MeToo movement and other women stepped forward and shared their voices. Then, I felt “safe”—or maybe the better word is validated—that my story mattered, as I wrote in this essay Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Woman Remembers.

Sometimes, remembering our childhood and the people who populated it can be a source of comfort and enlightenment.

One of my most vivid childhood memories took place on an afternoon—I think it was November—in Pennsylvania; a gray day with the smell of burning leaves in the air. There was the juxtaposition of watching my father chop wood and feeling secure with him, but also this sense of loneliness, of isolation in a tight-lipped suburban neighborhood where secrets abounded. Even as a child of eight or nine, I began to become aware of the peculiarities…that the woman across the street, who had two adopted children, including a son who acted out in dramatic and dangerous ways, was an alcoholic; that the family with five children didn’t have much money and most of their toys and clothes were hand-me-downs and the parents never joined the street barbecues or cocktail parties. I suppose what stuck out was this feeling that outside the womb of my safe, little nuclear family, unusual things were happening in a bigger, scarier world.

Sometimes, childhood memories come not in a scene—like my father chopping wood—but a place. In Again in a Heartbeat, I wrote of a memory when I was about six years old in Ocean City, NJ.

When I was a little girl my father held me up in the water above the roaring cauldron of ocean. “Take me out to the hair combers, Daddy!” I shouted, using the name he had for ocean waves. 

I remember the feeling as we rocked up and down in the water, the taste of salt on my lips. I felt safe in my father’s arms, a memory that is acute because I believe it led to a desire as a young woman to be kept safe and warm in a man’s arms. 

Does remembering and writing childhood memories make for better writers? I believe ‘yes’ it does. Self-discovery and self-acceptance of our experiences and our lives and our perspectives gives us confidence of voice, whether writing about ourselves and those we knew, or writing fictional characters from an understanding of human psychology.

I have edited many manuscripts over the years where writers have penned childhood memories. There is this sense, they tell me, that these memories linger, demand to be recalled and written, whether as memoir or fiction, and in doing so the writer finds her story.

That’s where a writing community of supportive listeners comes in. Together, we share our stories, our lives, our memories and travel a journey that begins to feel less lonely, less tethered in the “here and now” and more about something greater than ourselves. Like that tight-lipped suburban neighborhood...it really served as a microcosm of life, a classroom, so to speak, of what was to come in life. Through writing, we learn to love ourselves, love each other, and together make each other stronger—as women and as writers.

How about you? Can you share how writing childhood memories evoke a passage to your story and your voice?

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pros and Cons of Writing About Family by Kathleen Pooler


As Maya Angelou once said, "I sustain myself with love of family." This has deep meaning for the writer. The support of family helps move the writer forward with love and self-awareness. With this in mind, I asked Kathy Pooler to write what it has been like to write about her own family, primarily her son's addiction and her role as his mother, the subject of her upcoming memoir, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother's Story of Hope and Healing. What are the pitfalls of writing something so deeply personal? What are the rewards? Does it bring a family closer together? Kathy has been an integral part of our Women's Writing Circle almost since its inception in 2009 and we are grateful for her ongoing support of our writers. Please welcome Kathy to the Women's Writing Circle.~ Susan

***

Writers who publish memoir face the ethical and legal dilemmas of exposing personal details about family. We all have stories and since we don’t live in a vacuum, these stories involve other people. The main question/dilemma becomes how can I share my version of the truth without jeopardizing family relationships?

Joy Castro’s book, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, is an anthology of twenty-five memoirists who share their stories of writing about their families. Their responses are as wide and varied as their individual personalities and circumstances.

However, a common question that confronts most memoirists is how will my family react to my truth? The key question I asked myself as I wrote my memoir is can I do justice to my version of the truth while respecting family boundaries?

My Story…I started journaling in high school as a way of understanding myself and how I fit into the world, particularly as I faced challenges. I continued to journal throughout my divorce and life as a single parent into my early thirties. When I walked out on my husband with two small children in tow because at that point his drinking was ruining our lives, I thought I was leaving addiction behind. Sadly, I was wrong when I discovered my fourteen-year-old son Brian started drinking heavily. Addiction had been not an issue in my family of origin. The cycle began when I decided to marry Ed, the father of my children who turned out to be an alcoholic.

The thought of Brian turning into his father immobilized me and I once again turned to my journal to ease the pain and gain some clarity about what was happening. As time went on and Brian continued to drink his way into his twenties and thirties, the need to write became so great that I started taking writing courses and began to write vignettes. I sent him the stories to read.

“I had to put it away Mom while I was on the subway and wait until I got back to my apartment so I could sob uncontrollably,” Brian told me the first time he read my writing.

I was finding my voice in the midst of the chaos and he was hearing me. Somewhere along the way, a seed was planted in my mind and heart to tell our story. But he was in the throes of his active addiction and I was still trying to find my way through it all. I knew nothing about storytelling, narrative arcs, themes, etc. I didn’t even know what my story was at that point but I had a fierce underlying hope that things would get better and I kept taking courses and writing…for years.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the pitfalls and rewards of revealing family over the twenty years of writing my upcoming memoir, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Hope and Healing.

The Pitfalls…I am very clear that I am first a mother then a writer. I would never do anything knowingly to jeopardize my relationship with my children. I had to think long and hard about how exposing painful details about my children might affect them.

And yet, how can I write my truth authentically without sharing the dark and ugly side of addiction?

I didn’t know if I could ever publish the story but I kept writing and sharing it with my children. I had to know that they could handle the exposure. William Faulkner once said, “A writer’s only obligation is to his art”. But I knew my main obligation was to my children and I gave them veto power while hoping,in time, they would accept my version of our story.

“What if Brian relapses because of the exposure?” Leigh Ann asked me one day. She was fine with the story but had major concerns about her brother. Then Brian chimed in with “ Mom, I really don’t want people to know about all the stupid things I did.”

I had a lot of reason to pause and reflect on what impact my story would have on my children. Then I did the only thing that made sense to me. I kept writing and sharing. One day, I made a decision. I would not publish this story unless it felt right. If I did publish it, it would have to be for the right reasons. I began to trust in the process.

It is this intention…to share my hope that recovery is possible …for the parents of addicted children that motivated me to keep writing.

Despite all this care I have taken to involve my children in the process, I fully expect that readers will confront me with questions about why I decided to expose my children and what impact it will have on them.

I can only say that I’ve taken a calculated risk to break the silence and reach out to others who suffer similar pain. And if our story touches someone else in a healing and hopeful way, then the risk will be worth it.

The Rewards…Addiction is shrouded in silence and shame. The guilt I carried around because my son was addicted did nothing to help the situation. Writing about it helped me to step outside myself and see the role I played in enabling my son. It helped me to understand and clarify the insidious nature of the disease and its impact on myself and on my children.

Sharing the vignettes with my children opened up a dialogue that continues to this day and has made way for more love, forgiveness and serenity in our lives. And over time both my children became more comfortable with the story. “The more I talk about it, the easier it gets.” Brian said recently.

The idea that the cycle of addiction started and ended with us gives us a sense of empowerment that we played a part in how the story ends. We broke the cycle and are now all free to live our lives on our terms. Addiction will always be lurking in the corners ready to pounce but together we’ve learned how to gird ourselves against its ominous presence in our lives.

For me, writing about my family has been a rocky road that has leveled off with persistence and purpose. The story that has nagged at me for years is getting ready to find its way in the world.

Involving my children in the process, being open to their suggestions and feedback, communicating my intention in writing this story has helped pave the way to its publication. They have given me permission to use their first names but there are instances that I changed other names and places to protect privacy.

My greatest hope is that the people who need it the most will find it and it will give them hope to find their own way into the light of recovery from addiction.

In a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty called “Why Bother?” he says: “Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound the exact shape of your words.”

How do you feel writing about family? Your thoughts, experiences and reflections are welcomed.

***

Selected Resources for Writing About Family:


Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro (2013)

“Writing About Family and Friends in Memoir: Nine Key Questions” by Lisa Romeo on Memoir Matters: Lit Chat blog.

“Memoir or Fiction: Should You Hide the Details of Your Story in a Novel?” by Lisa Shulman on Lisa Shulman blog.

“Fear and Writing About My Father: Memoir Lesson by Susan Weidener on The Women’s Writing Circle Blog.



Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse published on July 28, 2014 and work-in-progress sequel, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Hope and Healing are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories. She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York. She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog: https://krpooler.com/




Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Moving Beyond the Treadmill to Writing and Wellness



I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. One lesson I took away—so much in life is beyond our control. How does this apply to the writer? It’s a mixed bag, but writing offers a form of wellness, which, as we age, can be even more beneficial than an annual exam or unnecessary medical test.

To put it another way: Nurturing a creative life is always good for health, as much—maybe even better—than a run, or killing ourselves on the treadmill.

When I lost my husband to cancer, I felt tempted to discard hope, become a cynic. What was the use of medical science if it could not save a man, who, at the age of thirty-nine, was cut down in the prime of life? And WHY had this disease struck him and not others, who I saw living unhealthy lifestyles?

As it turns out, Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D. in cellular immunology, addresses this question with a simplistic, yet compelling message: Our bodies can turn against us without warning—and it is no one’s fault. We can give up wine and butter and, yes—a healthy lifestyle is beneficial—but we have very little control over something as complex as our bodies and our immune systems. Trillions of cells are rioting within us, following their own paths and programs, forming a proverbial crap shoot, the gambler’s roulette wheel. As my husband said before cancer killed him, “This was the hand I was dealt.”




Our bodies and our minds remain in a constant state of flux, of alliances and conflicts, Ehrenreich notes. This makes a case for writing. Perhaps, this is a stretch, but I don’t think so. As we slow down, contemplate and reflect, writing allows us the opportunity to sort through the turmoil of events and people in our lives. It offers “agency” or action to make the unbearable, bearablehealthy changes that include relaxation and peace of mind. As we write, journal, share our stories, we view ourselves with more compassion or empathy—and this is probably more important—view others that way.




Reverence of the self, or the “I”, can be lethal, Ehrenreich contends. This idea that all we have and know and love goes with us when we die is problematic, maybe because it focuses on extinction and not the eternal.
"Depression, for example, or anorexia or any compulsive risk taking, represent patterns of synaptic firing that carve deep channels in the mind (and the brain), not easily controlled by conscious effort, and sometimes lethal for the organism as a whole, both body and mind. So, of course, we die even without help from natural disasters or plagues: We are gnawing away at ourselves all the time, with our overactive immune cells or suicidal patterns of thought.”

Our psychology can turn into a nasty web of our own making. Writers call it monkey mind or the inner critic; medical professionals might call it depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Traveling is a way to tap into something larger than ourselves. I remember when my son and I drove the entire perimeter of the South Island of New Zealand, observing an almost incomprehensibly diverse ecosystem, from glaciers to rainforests plunging to the sea. The simple lesson: these wonders appeared millions of years ago and belong to the eternal.

As a writer, the idea of focusing on the sum total of all the parts—the world around us—rather, than investing solely in ourselves and our own situations, appeals to me. Take the example of observing a young animal nurse from its mother. What does this teach about our own lives as mothers? As we observe the sun setting over the mountaintop, who hasn’t felt solace in knowing this happened long before we came along and will continue long after we are gone?

In essence, as writers, we resolve to understand how all things are related and interrelated in the cycle of living and dying. For the writer, this requires the power of observation, but also a willingness to move beyond magical thinking…that somehow we can forestall the inevitable goodbye to this life, this self, our books, our words—and that death can be cheated.

As Ehrenreich writes: "It is one thing to die into a dead world and, metaphorically speaking, leave one’s bones to bleach on a desert lit only by a dying star. It is another thing to die into the actual world, which seethes with life, with agency other than our own, and at the very least, with endless possibility."