From time to time I come across a note:
Find out where you are.
I penned this to myself when I was in a good place with my writing.
Today marks the end of the first week of a two-week writing retreat, ie. dogsitting on the Cape with a four-legged companion called Buster.
Buster and I spent a chunk of time together when he and this work of memoir were quite a bit younger, back when I thought I might finish writing this book, say, in a year’s time.
That was the Spring of 2014 and I was already a year behind.
I wrote through the first draft in the previous winter and the following December the final chapter spontaneously arrived at the stroke of midnight on the eve of my 50th birthday.
Alas, that became the discarded first version of the book.
A dozen incarnations have taken place since.
My memoir is like an app, always updating, never quite right.
Before Buster, there was a snowbound week with a pair of kittens on a mountainside, and after Buster, several wintry weeks on Lake Champlain with a cat named Clyde–including a spectacularly ice-encrusted March, a unseasonably warm Thanksgiving, and another December birthday (my 53rd.)
In addition to retreats with four-legged friends, I sourced the supernatural. An intuitive. a channeler, and a week at Kripalu with the esteemed chakra teacher Anodea Judith.
I also considered an MFA, but the more I worked on the book, the less I earned so an MFA seemed an impractical direction and one that might put too much weight and expectation upon love.
I had loved my writing practice until this book. Had written in a journal every day from 18 (the summer my parents were divorced) to 30. Began publishing as a new mother. Began writing personal essays after my mother died. Began blogging once a book began stirring in me.
I wrote through two memoirs before this one. Both were pleasures to write (one in a single summer, another in a school year’s time); both placed on a shelf until my voice ripened.
But this work was the first time that I brought what I loved into my deepest hurt.
Writing became a stranger then. A struggle. A burden.
It was into this ache that I began to shape an apprenticeship with authors in the form of assisting leading presenters at Kripalu Yoga and Healing Center where I had previously served as an assistant to Let Your Yoga Dance teacher trainings.
It was in my unfolding relationship with yoga, that I came to an understand that my grandmother’s name was Sanskrit for the divine play, the dance of life if you will, and it was through this dance, this play, this lila, that I began to soften around the ancient wound that had made such an apocalypse of my life as a girl of 14.
40 years have passed since that time, and 54 finds me just a year shy of the age that my grandmother Lila was when she died on that bridge outside of Philadelphia on a beautiful July afternoon with my Auntie Fran and Auntie Ruth and their new friend Myra who was driving the Thunderbird that was crushed by the Steven Nosel, age 33, in the Mack Truck.
As I keened into that wound and out of it, I began to open into the larger context of my life which gave rise to an unfolding inquiry about what my grandmother meant to me, and what it meant to have lost her, and how that loss shaped me.
Each layer of understanding delivered yet another invitation and I began to fear that I might never arrive at the center of my longing.
My boat struck something deep.
Sound, silence, waves.
Or perhaps, everything happenedAnd I’m sitting in the middle of my new life.
– Juan Ramon Jimenez
Where am I?
I am beginning my 7th year with a work of memoir that has transformed my relationship with my deepest loss.
Which is to say that even if this work never sees publication, it has served me well. Blessedly well.
My deepest wish is that it would serve others.
Where am I?
I arrived on the Cape with the New Moon just as the flowering trees came into bloom.
I arrived full of doubt and angst and defeat.
When I took my first walk in this new neighborhood (Buster had moved since we were last together), I was stunned by a view that I came across–the sea through the marsh–a communion that I first came to know as a girl at The River Place–a secluded family retreat on the Indian River Bay in Delaware.
It was there that my bold and beautiful, apron-clad grandmother gave a spirited performance of Sinatra’s My Way as it played over the radio.
And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…
The timing of this drama has only recently revealed itself as occuring just six months before the accident.
This past April, I returned to what remained of The River Place for the first time, and except for the boat house which was miraculously still standing, what had once been ours was barely recognizable–the land and the view polluted with homes.
Ever since my return, however, “The River Place” has echoed in my mind.
Am I meant to go back there, I wondered? What is this sudden hold it has on my attention?
Where am I?
On my first morning on the Cape, I headed out into the surrounding area to stock up on provisions, which in my devotion to local and organic took much longer than I planned, and as such, I berated myself, not just for the wasted morning, but for all the time I had spent on this work, so many years, so many versions.
For what purpose?
Just then I passed a road sign:
And then, a pond of the same name.
And today, a chapel.
Sometimes the absurdity of signs is overwhelming.
Where am I?
I had expected to be alone in this apartment on the Cape, but the owner of this second home, above the apartment, is here unexpectedly, not just on the weekends, but full time.
Lissette is an avid gardener and the world she has created around her house is inviting and inspiring and overwhelming–with piles of debris and competing needs for attention.
Much like my book.
Each day she returns to her gardens, and each evening, with a glass of red wine or something softer or stronger, she surveys her work, noticing what is fair and what is missing.
I suppose I am here to do the same.
Over a plate of fish, Lissette tells me that her mother died in a car accident, a loss from which she has never recovered.
Where am I?
In a week’s time, the trees have released their blossoms and floated through the air like white and pink and purple snow until the ground became of carpet of color that has since faded brown, as if the magic never happened.
On that first evening, I took a photo of the tree beside Lissette’s window as it glowed iridescently in the shifting light.
“I planted this after my grandmother died,” Lissette told me, when I came across here working in the garden the next morning. “I call it my Lila tree.”
“What did you say?” I asked, pulling back on Buster’s leash, thinking her Venezuelan accent must have confused the sounds in my mind.
“Lila,” she said, “It’s short for Lillita. It’s what we called my grandmother.”
Where am I?
“The prana flows where the attention goes,” they say at Kripalu.
In a week’s time, Lissette has transformed her gardens in a daily practice that begins before and after she commutes to Boston and back.
In parallel play, I’ve spent most of this week in sublter realms, feeling hopeless, while sensing that something deep is stirring, even as I want to escape the work ahead.
“This feels a lot like the last stages of labor,” I say to Lissette, as we share a pizza in her window seat.
We look out over her gardens as the sky turns rosy and then bruised and finally inky with night.
The house grows dark around us and we remain talking without light.
“Tomorrow is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my mother’s accident,” she says.
Where am I?
As the second week opens on my writing retreat, I pull the table out from the wall, and turn it so that I can face the gardens.
Buster snores at my feet as I write.