How do I write about writing without talking about what I am writing about?
I don’t mean to be cryptic, I don’t mean to build suspense or be tantalizing – because the final product, if there ever is one, will a long way off.
So don’t hold your breath.
So there isn’t any point in my being coy – but I do need to find ways to skirt around the subject of my writing in order to talk about the process, and to acknowledge the incredible gift that has been given to me in the form of a two week stay at an extraordinary residential library in Hawarden, Wales: The Gladstone Library.
I came to be here through the kindness of someone who once would have been called a stranger, before the days of social media – and now is called an “online friend.” Someone I have never met but know and trust through Twitter. We both like birds, and mud, and walking and occasionally capitalizing words not to holler but for EMPHASIS.
Melissa has done kindnesses for me before: I don’t remember how we first crossed paths. She read some blog posts. She said kind things about them. She revealed that she was a novelist. She encouraged me to write a book. She arranged for her literary agency to confer with me – and they offered kind and helpful guidance.
I’ve only done one small thing for her: As she worked on her second, lovely novel and hit a snag she contacted me through Subtext Consultations – and we pretty quickly worked our way through it – sorting through the complex relationship dynamics of the mother and her adult son depicted in her story.
And then 2015 happened, which for me turned out to be a year of caretaking, fear and loss as my dependent mother, and Ellie, a beloved friend, both died after long and challenging cancer treatments. And in the middle of it all, after one death and before the next: Melissa sends another gift:
“Out of the blue, but – could you use two weeks in a beautiful residential library in the UK in 2016 to work on your book? Let me know – scholarships are available and I’ve just put you forward to the Warden, who is really keen. It’s the most wonderful inspiring place have a look here: gladstoneslibrary.org”
Hmm. Let me think a minute – if after a year of exhaustion and doctors and drains and surgeons and ports and home care and death, could I use two weeks to myself to work in a beautiful residential library to work on some imaginary book about what I don’t yet know? And keen. She used the word keen which American’s never use but which is so totally adorable: OF COURSE. OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW? YOU ARE KIDDING ME. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!
I riffle through their gorgeous and comprehensive theological collection by way of the online catalogue and see photos of the stunning reading room, and immediately write the Warden, Peter Francis, (an exceedingly kind man) – and even though I can’t tell him a single thing about what kind of book I might write, or even if I can, I only promise him that I will make my stay of use, to myself and to others. That is a commitment I can make. And I receive word from the library a few weeks later and they say:
I tell Ellie, who is still with us, and she is thrilled and supportive: She spends long weekends at our home, and we talk late into the night, after everyone is asleep about our hopes, our pasts, our fears and our sorrows – I start to tell her stories that I can only tell now that my mother has died. I wasn’t aware, while my mother lived, of any story that I wanted to tell but was prevented from telling – but in the months after her death it is suddenly clear that there are stories that did not and could not exist at all, questions that could not even become questions while either of my parents were still alive. And now, that they were both no longer here, those questions could be formulated, and mysteries could rise up, and searches could be initiated, clues could be pondered, and theories, conjecture, and intuition could assert themselves. I had inherited the seat of narrative responsibility and suddenly I had a legacy filled with obfuscation and mystery to make sense of. And Ellie understands this before I do even. And says so: “Here is start of your book Unnie! You’ll do your ‘Shrink Thinks’ stuff to it, make it all pretty and wise – I mean you’ve gotta have clients who deal with shit like this, right? Or maybe its too personal?”
No, I think this is it. This is a nonsense story in my life that I have to make meaningful now that I own it, and that is the work that every client I have ever seen is undertaking in some form. How to take apparent meaninglessness and exract meaning from it.
And I go back to Gladstone’s on-line card catalogue and I realize that yes, actually, there are questions embedded in these events that are not psychological questions, but are, in fact, theological questions: Questions about psychopathy and deceit and sin and encounters with psychological evil and surviving and healing and resurrecting yourself from it. Questions about the purpose of having empathy for those who can feel none and self-preservation and exorcising demons, and forgiveness and acceptance and the limits of compassion. And the fact that this collection now exists as a resource for me is felt, along with Ellie’s enthusiasm and encouragement, to be confirmation that this is the work that I am now calling “a larger writing project” because it may never be anything other than a large pdf, so I still dare not say “book” because it really still feels just too audacious.
And days go by and we lose and memorialize and grieve Ellie but I hear her supportive voice speaking inside of me every night just before sleep. And months pass and the day comes when I arrive at the library.
It’s beauty is relieving the moment I pull into the carpark and look out the window of my room.
I spend the first few days in my cozy room and in the comfortably appointed lounge, reading about psychopathy/sociopathy. I am saving the reading room, I am saving the stacks, until I have made it through the heavy, dark, ugly part of this work. My routine emerges: Wake at 7:30. Breakfast at 8:30. Begin reading at 9:00. A half hour for lunch, and a little chat with the other guest – all here to study or read or research, many of them clergy but not exclusively so – all gathered to sit and read and sleep quietly near each other to concentrate on something too complex to tackle surrounded by the distractions of daily life. Some are here for a day or two. Some for weeks, some for months.
My routine emerges. I wake at 7:30 to read, take notes, and write. I take a half hour break for lunch. At 4:30 I have a quick cup of tea, and head out to walk through the park, and to search for walking trails through the woods and meadows and farmlands. I look for birds – pheasant, partridge, English robins, songbirds I don’t recognize, owls and hawks that I never see on walks in the US. I regret not bringing my binoculars.
I come home and rest for whatever time remains before dinner. I have a glass of wine in the lounge after dinner, and chat for a brief bit – and then head back to the reading room until 10.
Meals are simple, delicious and nutritious and on site. I skip dessert. I have a box of biscuits in my room when I need a bite.
The reading room is beautiful, quiet, a space as gathered as a Quaker meeting. Each person sitting in focused silence, going in deep, deep into challenging content, alone together. There are desks set in privacy, between bookshelves, around the second floor gallery and large comfortable leather club chairs for those who prefer to curl up. Each person is facing down a blank screen, or taking notes on a text pulled from the archives, or staring out the window wondering, contemplating, reflecting on a literary or academic or spiritual dilemma.
And I wrestle simultaneously with trying to fill in holes and follow up clues from a family mystery, while searching for a through-line for this book, and wanting to find some way for this not to be a pitiful or confessional story, but a story that I have made meaningful for myself and I am not sure that I can. What if owning and surfacing this story and chewing on the psychological and theological conundrums that live within it is only enraging, or heartbreaking, or boring, or purposeless, for me and for others. What if I can’t pull this one through? I resolve that that may be more than enough, and I can keep whatever I produce tucked in a drawer and it will be worth it because it will have filled in some hidden and obfuscated parts of my own history.
But, near the end of my second week, I find the key: I read a phrase that triggers a memory of the first time I heard the expression. Some quick investigation shows me that this phrase, and what I understood of it as a child and what it actually means, is the pathway toward both a personal liberation from a pitted and contentious internal conflict, but also the construct that allows this “longer piece” to have a through-line that reflects my values, and my wish to write about how we find might find meaning in meaningless events, how we are sometimes able to turn sows ears into silk purses.
And it emerges as a certainty. And this key, this theological construct – something I have sought in the psychological literature but never truly found – except perhaps peripherally in Jungian discussion of the transcendent function and alchemy (but I am not such a Jungian so I just briefly scan the densest alchemical texts and the numerology makes me sleepy). And I carry and test this idea in my heart for a few days and it continues to release something small and hard, scarred, and maybe even twisted shut inside of me – and fills that space with light.
And it doesn’t fade over several days. It remains clear and solid.
When I speak briefly to others at mealtime or in the lounge in front of the fire – they all say the same thing: Their time here has been amazingly productive. It is such a special place. They were able to get so much done. They found the missing piece they had been searching for.
And my last night here: a blessing:
I sit by the fire and an older man comes to sit near me. I had seen him at lunch but had kept my nose in a book. We chat about the fire and the English weather. Like you do. And I ask if he is working on researching or writing like so many others, and he says “Oh I just come here to read. But I should write. One day, I should write maybe…” And I ask him what he might write about, and he tells me he is a live-in carer at a religious community for people with learning disabilities – which I translate into American as: a residential counselor for adults with developmental disabilities.
He says that he is filled with stories he could tell, he should tell. Lessons that the residents have taught him. Things that they understand easily that he needed to learn or relearn or be reminded of. He says that each person he has worked with has been a teacher in his life.
And I tell him I know exactly how he feels.
He told me of a woman, who saw him escorting a resident with Down’s Syndrome to an appointment on the bus. How she whispered to him about the grief she felt when she saw an adult with Down’s Syndrome as she second guesses a decision she made to terminate pregnancy many many years earlier, and wondered who her child might have been. And his kindness as he said to her: “I can’t judge you. You made a decision based on what you knew, and what was available to you at the time.” He says “I knew she was grieving, and I knew these are such personal and painful decisions in every direction, I only know it has been an honor to live with the people I have lived with and cared for, for the past 25 years.”
He spoke of the joys and sorrows and the sacred spaces that the residents had allowed him to bear witness to. He told me stories of funerals and celebrations and surprises and the love of families and liberation from them. He talked of the ways the residents grieve, and how they talk to God, and how they love and how this had made him more whole, and better man. Each story he told, his eyes welled up with the holiness of the embodied lesson he had been taught.
He spoke of regrets for things he might have done better or differently over the years, and how he should probably write those down too.
And I said: “I hope you will. I really hope you will. Next time you come, don’t just bring books to read. Bring a nice journal and a good pen and write all your stories down. They are important, and you are the only one who has born witness to them, who has seen what you have seen, and been changed by it and have found what is sacred in each event. Please do write them down.” If I had an extra empty journal with me I would hand it to him with my best pen right then and there.
He responded: “ I just might do that. Six months before I retire I’ll have to buy that journal and come here on my weekends and write.”
And I said:
“You should. You really should. These kinds of stories are the most important kind of stories that anyone can ever tell.”
On Leaving Gladstone’s Library « what a shrink thinks
You are an inspiration and I feel that I want to go to Wales and write re my mother and dementia and our relationship.
I hope you do! It’s a lovely place to write and reflect. Thank you!
Dear On What a Shrink Thinks:
Wishing you more sights.
Your experience reminded of this poem. I am familiar with these feelings.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
BY JOHN KEATS
Thank you for the beautiful poem.
Yet again wonderful Martha. I was thrilled to read you had this opportunity to explore your writing. So eloquent too.
Thanks for the encouragement Liz This whole experience felt like a like a cool drink to a thirsty soul.
So glad you had and took this opportunity ❤
It was too astounding to pass up! Thank you!!
What Blessings: Ellie, Melissa, travel, the library the encounters, Bravo for your venturing spirit and gifted pen, best Julie
After a long frustrating day how lovely to be reminded of beauty and how important it is to keep working toward understanding. Thank you.
I found this piece via a link to your site while looking for some thinking on a therapy issue. I read and loved your Pollyanna piece (having had cancer twice I’m interested in recovery journeys/attitudes) and I was intrigued (as a novelist) to check out this section. And now I see that you were at GladLib last year! I’m a trustee of the library, I was one of the first writers in residence, and am heading there this weekend for a writers event. The spiraling circularity of the connecting links, and the reminder the beautiful spiral of stairs to ‘my’ desk in the corner of the history room at the library, have made me smile in what has been a tricky day. Thank you.