A Safe Space for Stories

Not long ago I spent two hours in a cozy recording studio with my long-time friend Anne Hallward talking about goodbyes. Anne is the host of Safe Space Radio, a public radio show dedicated to improving public health by giving voice to subjects that can be hard to talk about. The show for which we recorded will be broadcast on NPR stations and is about saying goodbye to people we love who are dying or have already died.

As the host of the show, Anne began by sitting quietly, closing her eyes, and centering herself in silence before a long conversation in which there would be no rush, so no sense of scarcity around her attention or time. I watched as she made a conscious transition into a place of compassion, tenderness, patience and deep listening.

“Tell me about saying goodbye to your son,” she began. At first, as I answered each of her questions with some stiffness and concern about how I would sound, I worried my words would not make sense. Then I started to relax as I realized she was giving me all the time I needed to explain such a complicated, nuanced topic as navigating terminal illness in a child. As I spoke, her expression seemed to offer only quiet, loving interest in my thoughts.

This kind of experience is all too rare in our busy, rushing society, when most people have somewhere to go and some pressing event on their calendar just after their time with you. Anne is one of the busiest people I know. When she arrived at the studio, she apologized for being rushed as she had just returned from a morning of recording in Boston. And I knew after our time together she would be rushing home to spend rare time with her family. But because of her generosity as a listener, the way she beamed all her loving attention toward me with every question she asked, as we sat together in the warm quiet of the studio, it was as if the rest of the world disappeared while I talked about saying goodbye to my son.

Anne’s attention allowed me to return to a time that had a deep impact on who I am as a person, to a topic that is tender and rich with emotion. It is a time I have mostly been able to leave behind in my current life, a time I don’t choose to return to often because I no longer need to. But being invited back there by someone who offered so much interest and kind curiosity allowed me to revisit one of the things that gives my life so much meaning. I was able to return to moments of tenderness, love and heart-rending pain.

I spoke of the time I cried with my six-year-old son, when I was so overcome with sadness over the growing clarity that he was dying that I could no longer hold back my tears, and he held my head in his skinny arms as the tears rolled down my cheeks. As I cried that day, the thoughts shouted in my head: Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’ll never make it if you die. But I didn’t want him to lose hope, so instead I had to change the words before they left my mouth: “I just love you so much. I hate to see you suffer. I want you to get well.”

As I told Anne this story, I felt tears rising to my eyes and the quavering in my voice betray my loss of composure. Anne’s eyes too were shining with tears. I hadn’t wanted to cry, but in that moment when I looked past the microphones across the table at Anne, when I worried about recording such sadness, it was good to know I was heard. It was good to know my heart still remembered how much I lost back then.

We continued after a quiet pause. And I moved back into examining the topic at hand with more detachment. After the interview, as I drove home, what stayed with me was not the views and ideas we’d discussed about death and departures. What stayed with me was the softness of my heart, opened by the simple but precious act of asking and listening. This softness, this sense of opening and depth does not come to us without making a place for it, without invitation and welcome. Anne’s invitation was her gift to me. My acceptance of the invitation was my gift to myself.

Most of us don’t often have the opportunity to be invited to speak in this way. Most people in our lives don’t have the time or attention to give us this kind of opening. This is why I think writing to heal can be so important.

When we write for healing, we, like a good listener, first center ourselves in silence, summoning attention and a deep sense of compassion. When we begin to write, we may feel awkward, stiff, but we keep going, our kinder wiser self patiently waiting while we bumble our way into our stories. When we make time to pick up the pen and ask ourselves about those topics that are tender or raw or generally hidden under the busy-ness of our daily lives, and we then listen with patience and kindness to whatever comes out onto the page, we are giving ourselves a gift. We are letting ourselves touch into places that matter to us. It might feel like there’s no room in the larger, outside world to talk about these topics, so if we don’t ask ourselves about them, if we don’t invite our own musings, they may never come into the light.

No matter what I write when I sit down to ponder on the page, whether it’s an attempt at a poem or paragraphs of complaining, I always feel at least a little bit unburdened by the process. I feel I know myself just a tiny bit better. And sometimes I’m lucky. I can find my way into something sweeter, deeper, more vulnerable in the writing that leaves me especially aware of what really matters to me, that lets me touch into this soft heart. When I make space to write, I am telling some part of myself that otherwise would be neglected, left in the dark, You are important. I care about what you are going through. I am listening. You are not alone.

I don’t know exactly why or how this works, but I am glad it does because doing it over and over has helped me see that my life matters, that the stories I carry are worthy of telling. To know that I am heard, even if only by an audience of one, helps me heal. And by inviting me to speak, Anne, and others like her, remind us how important it is to tell our stories.

To make room for your stories, join me for Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your life, a Live online 5-week Zoom series starting July 23rd, 2020.

Still Grieving Sometimes

Monday I felt at sixes and sevens all day. I tried everything. I changed the sheets, did the laundry, cancelled a credit card, dusted the bedroom, cleared some clutter. I even glanced in the fridge for food that should go. I found left-over rice, hard like Styrofoam, grains of white stuck to the sides of the glass container, and threw it in the trash. I emptied the dishwasher, watered the garden and called a friend to complain. And still I could not shake the feeling of things being not right, like something inside felt crooked, jagged, not settled.

When my fiancé sat down and held me close at the end of the day, I still felt cranky and prickly. I couldn’t put my finger on it. “I should be happy. My life is awesome. Why do I feel so crummy today? I’m such a baby,” I told him.

“You’re not a baby. You’re just having a hard day.”

And then I remembered: the date. June 22nd. As the reason I couldn’t get comfortable in my skin dawned on me, the tears began to seep through. “Tomorrow is Chan’s birthday,” I said.

And then I recognized that this feeling of being unsettled, not right, irritable, was nothing more than sadness. Heartbreak covered over with a thin veil of unconscious denial.

Of course there was denial. Why would I want to remember what tomorrow would be? Why would I want to remember such pain?

But the truth I have to face up to again, year after year, is that my beloved little boy died. Fourteen years now. He would have been twenty-two this year, but I never bother thinking about that. I never try to picture him just a little younger than his handsome, quiet, complicated big brother, a little older than his skate-boarding, skiing, mountain-climbing little brother. I don’t try to see them laughing together as men as they always did when they were little boys.

That night when I found myself crying about the boy I’d lost, I found myself grieving not so much for when he died, as for the life we’d all had together in that little town on the banks of the Mekong River. As the memories of mothering my young family kept floating up to feed my sadness, I felt a sense of the richness and depth of that life, where we lived among dozens of family members, where we were so tightly held in the fabric of that small community, where we walked down the street each day to visit the boys’ great-grandmother and aunt and uncle and cousins a few blocks away.

As we walked by each house, people sat in front usually on a wide bamboo bench in the shade of their doorways, two or three generations together, a toddler playing with an aunt or grandmother, an adolescent boy massaging an old uncle’s tired shoulders, a feisty grandmother sweeping the dust from her doorway, teasing the neighbors with her snappy remarks. All of them were people my then husband had known his whole life. Some were cousins or aunts or uncles, some only neighbors, but all of them shared our joy in the life of our young family. They laughed and called out to the boys, commented on how tall or handsome they were getting. They invited us to stop for a bite to eat or a chat.

Children are all that matters there. The center of everyone’s universe, the children.

In the morning when my mother-in-law entered the yard each day shortly after dawn, she called out to the three boys that lay cuddled in bed with us, “Codte, Chan, Tahn,” Ma mei! Ma sai baht! “Come, it’s time to offer food to the monks.” And off they’d rush to wash their faces and brush their teeth before Cody led the two littler ones running down the lane to their grandmother’s house.

Each night at dinner, family and friends gathered around the bamboo tray of dishes seated on grass mats on the verandah floor with family and friends. The children climbed from lap to lap being hand-fed balls of sticky rice topped with the best morsels of nourishing food by the grown-ups. Afterward, while two or three adults cleaned up, the rest would play with the children, horsey rides on hands and knees, children laughing and tumbling off strong farmer backs, running squealing to statue quiet during hide and seek when the big men pretended they thought they couldn’t be seen in plain sight or failed repeatedly at finding them, and the children laughed and laughed at the adult’s clownish stupidity.

At bedtime, the children chased one another around the bed, under the mosquito net, laughing and shrieking as their daddy tried to catch them while they pummeled him with pillows. And when they finally settled in around him for story time, the laughter from their lips was like rain on the desert of my lonely childhood soul, listening as he made up silly stories for them to dissolve into fits of delight night after night.

All that mattered there were the children.

So I cried and cried that Monday night, remembering the life we had before Chan died, before we moved to the US, leaving the family we loved behind, before the divorce, before my boys grew up, sometimes sad and quiet, sometimes silly and sweet. Before this life.

I know this life I have now is good. I know boys are supposed to grow up. I know mothers are supposed to move into the next stage. I love my life. I am lucky. It is good. And I only miss Chan sometimes.

When I met with the group I teach each Monday night, Women Writing to Heal, it was good to have a place to talk about this. It was good to know that these women, all of them grieving losses of their own, would understand. So I shared with them my sadness, and they nodded knowingly. It was good for them to see that even so many years later, when the grief bubbles up, there’s nothing we can do but receive it, let it move us, cry.

At the end of Monday’s class, when it was time to offer them a writing prompt, I asked: What would your beloved say to you about your own grief?

I wrote:
Oh Mama, I know our family changed. It changed when I died. But it would have changed. That’s what happens. Children grow up. There’s no way around it. Cody and Tahn love you. They will be OK. They have a good daddy and you and a good family all around. There was nothing you could have done to save me. I was sick. I was only meant to be around for a little while. They learned a lot just like you learned a lot. It’s OK.

And you’ve done an amazing job. You’ve healed so much.

It’s Ok for you to be happy mama. It’s OK for you to move on. Embrace your new life.

I think you’re right not to waste time and tears wondering what I would be like if I’d lived to 22. I didn’t. I lived to six-and-a-half and that was enough. That was a good life. That was a beautiful life. Of course you miss it. Of course you miss me. You are human. It’s Ok to be sad today and tomorrow if you need to. But it’s also OK to be happy.

I love you. You were such a good mom to me. You can always be proud of that. You always have me with you. I’m always in your heart. You can call on me whenever you need me. I’m not really gone. Because you loved me that much. And, of course, I loved you with a fierceness that time could never defeat. That is still inside you. Don’t ever forget how much I loved you. Don’t ever let time erase from your heart the memory of how much I loved you. Why do you think I showed it so well? Why do you think I worked so hard to show you all the time?
You can’t forget that, mom. I love you still.

Catharine H. Murray, Author Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018

June 23, 2020

On July 23rd, I will be teaching another 5-week Series of

Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life.

This Zoom class will meet each Thursday morning from 10 – 11:30 AM for 5 weeks.

No experience necessary.

Click here for more information and to register.

How is your heart?

My dear friend Dr. Lenna Liu is a pediatrician at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic which serves diverse & predominantly lower income families in Seattle. She is also a mindfulness and meditation teacher. For the past two months she and the rest of her colleagues and staff at the clinic and hospital have been working heroically to save lives. They have been giving far beyond their normal capacity for work and heartbreak. To help keep everyone going, Lenna sends out an email message every week. She shared this one with me. I asked for her permission to post it here.

How is your heart?

It is so inspiring to work in a clinic full of superheroes–those of you feeding our community, supporting undocumented families, finding face shields, taking care of the sick while putting yourself at risk, calling and talking to families all day, leading us in this most challenging time.

And at the same time it is tremendously humbling. Not only do I think of you all, but I think about the healthcare providers in the ERs and ICUs and the first responders rushing into homes. I often feel guilty that I’m not doing enough, that I should be doing more, that i’m not making enough of a difference.

It’s been said:
“People will ask years from now how did you show up during this moment in the world?”
That can feel like both an inspiring and a daunting question.

It has reminded me of a famous teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace activist.
A student asked him:
“… I am an activist and I care very deeply for the world. Sometimes I feel a lot of despair about what’s happening in the world around us, in terms of violence, poverty, and environmental destruction. What practices would you recommend for those of us who…are in despair about the suffering of the world?”

Thich Nhat Hanh said this:
Imagine a pine tree standing in the yard. If that pine tree were to ask us what it should do, what the maximum is that a pine tree can do to help the world, our answer would very clear: “You should be a beautiful, healthy pine tree. You help the world by being your best.” That is true for humans also. The basic thing we can do to help the world is to be healthy, solid, loving, and gentle to ourselves.

So anything you do for yourself, you do for the world. Don’t think that you and the world are two separate things. When you breathe in mindfully and gently, when you feel the wonder of being alive, remember that you’re also doing this for the world. Practicing with that kind of insight, you will succeed in helping the world. You don’t even have to wait until tomorrow. You can do it right now, today.

I am grateful for this reminder.
Like the pine tree, when a baby is born, she is worthy just in her being. She doesn’t have to DO anything. She has the full love of her family and her community just as she is. She contributes to the world just as she is.

So for those of you who have not stopped your caring, your giving, your selfless and noble efforts during this crisis, please remember that we need you in your fullest being, your fullest HEALTHIEST being. Please pause and take the time to eat, sleep, rest, exercise, nourish your spirit, and be loving and kind to yourself. It is not selfish to care for yourself, it renews your capacity to be your fullest self.

And for those feeling like we are not doing enough or in those moments you feel this way, remember that we are enough just in our being ourselves. Being parents, partners, daughters, sons. Being the voice that admits to feeling overwhelmed so that others can know they are not alone. Being the one who cries so that others feel permission to cry as well. Being the one who sings off key and makes everyone laugh. Every voice matters. We each contribute to creating a rich tapestry of humanity enduring this moment together.

And a reminder of the obvious, we are in a world pandemic. The enormity of suffering and healing needed is beyond any one of us. We each need to find our own balance of doing and being. And by finding that balance, we are being the pine tree and contributing to the forest of healing that this world needs now.

–Lenna Liu, MD, MPH

Seattle, Washington

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Surviving Social Slow Down: First of three Ideas

Some of us are having a hard time. Parents with children home all day have to suddenly negotiate a new family system that may demand more time and attention than before. Workers furloughed with no return date in sight are wondering how to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. All of us have to find ways to stay connected to those we love when we cannot touch each other. Many of us are afraid of illness for ourselves, those we love and those we’ve never met.

We are facing new ways of being, working and communicating, new situations that challenge our minds and our hearts. And for some of us, this can be very hard at times. Many of the places we used to go to find solace or camaraderie have been taken away from us. A close friend’s warm shoulder, a cold beer at a cozy bar, our favorite latte at a lively coffee shop, a bargain at a stylish store, none of this is accessible now.

So rather than avoiding our inner discomfort or having it soothed by the distraction of a friend or a drink or an ice cream or pair of earrings, we now have the very uncomfortable job of being with our own feelings. When there is no where to rush off to, we might notice vague feelings of fear or dread or boredom or loneliness rising up from the places within us we can usually keep out of sight.

There is always the TV, the fridge, the internet and the endless work of home, so we could keep hiding, keep busy, keep ourselves from hearing the insistent voices inside that ask for our attention. But after a while, screens begin to feel less inviting, food loses its appeal, chores exhaust us, and we find ourselves, again, alone with ourselves.

This can be a hard place to be. But the good news is, it can also be a deeply nourishing place to be if one makes the time and effort to pay attention. If we can, rather than flee from our discomfort, sit still and invite it in, we may find some powerful learning takes place, some healing we didn’t even know we needed.

It can be helpful, perhaps essential, to approach our difficult feelings with the clear sense of a container. A container both in terms of time and space can give us the reassuring sense that we don’t have to sit in these difficult places forever, that we will enter into contact with the thoughts and feelings, recognize and allow them, let them be transformed by our loving presence, and then we will move back into the present. So for the three methods I will describe over the next few days, the three containers, be sure to set a timer before you begin any of them. Start with just a few minutes, five or even one, whatever feels just at the edge of your comfort level. And as your practice becomes more regular, extend the period of time you work.

Meditation is one of the oldest forms of opening to the wise part of ourselves. It is a time-tested and effective tool for making space to increase peace in our lives and access inner wisdom. When we stop for a few minutes, sit still, and let the business of our minds settle into relaxed, loving, curiosity, we begin to see and feel what lies beneath the usual speed of our lives. If we do it regularly, we will have better access to our own intelligence.

When we meditate, we make room for thoughts and feelings to arise. And we lovingly receive whatever, I repeat WHATEVER, comes up. We let go of judgment, and we witness the mischievous mind’s offerings, saying to ourselves, “Oh that thought. That’s not me. That’s just the mind.” Or maybe we say to ourselves, “Sweetie, I’m so sorry that this has been here. That is hard. You’re doing a good job despite these thoughts that try to set you back, despite the difficult memories you’ve tried to avoid. Don’t worry. It’s only the mind. You’re just right. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

When the timer rings, acknowledge your good intention in sitting still, in pushing against a lifelong pattern of moving away rather than toward what’s hard. Be pleased with your efforts.

Doing something new that’s good for us, that we’re not used to doing, even for a few minutes once a day can be difficult. I think of each of my life-long patterns (procrastination, negative self-talk, reluctance to be in the spotlight) like a huge tanker moving across the ocean, steady with a tremendous amount of inertia. When I take up a practice to reverse the vector of the pattern, it’s like turning a that ship around. It doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes time and energy to slowly pull it off its old course and onto a better one. But once the turn begins, the inertia has shifted, and the ship is headed in the right direction at last.

After you do the work of nudging the ship in the right direction, reward yourself. Recognize your efforts for the hard work they are. Plan some pleasant, rewarding task for when you finish: water the plants, take a walk on the beach, cook your favorite soup, sit down to a bowl of ice cream.

Being with the parts of ourselves we have avoided for long periods of time is work that requires courage and patience. Be especially kind to yourself, knowing you are working hard to bring your best, most nurtured self to this challenging time.

Time to Speak

We are living in a time when uncertainty is at the forefront of our emotional landscape. We don’t know what will happen in the next few weeks and months as our country goes to the polls to voice our values and decide our direction. We don’t know how those in power will respond if the choice the voters make does not support them. What most of us thought was a stable foundation of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, is under threat.

One thing, however, has become certain throughout all of this. We can no longer remain silent.

And yet, we may wonder, how can I speak? I am not powerful. I don’t know how to put my voice into the call for justice. What do I know about ending any of this insanity?

Those of us who are able, give financial support to the organizations we think will help. We post on social media the words of those who speak eloquently. We march and raise our small voices into the chants of the multitudes. We vote.

What else can we do? we may ask ourselves. There must be more.

I suggest that we bring the tool of writing to this question. The practice of writing connects the potential power of the unconscious mind with the practical power of the conscious mind. When we ask ourselves what we can do in the midst of all this and write the thoughts that arise, we may be surprised to find a pattern to our responses. If we stay with this practice with persistence, we may tap into forgotten passions that can fuel our actions.

So I encourage you to make time to sit still and listen to yourself. I encourage you to wake up fifteen minutes earlier three days each week for the next month. Before you get out of bed, pick up your pen and notebook or laptop, sit up and ask yourself, What do I need to say in the midst of all of this? What am I afraid of? What am I hopeful about? How can I help?” And then you write honestly whatever comes. You write without stopping for fifteen minutes. This way the inner-critic doesn’t have time to get a foothold. You simply keep writing no matter what comes out. What comes out may be something you’d rather not face. You might rather not know that part of you thinks I’ve worked hard to have the life I do. I don’t have time to help other people figure this out or It’s all hopeless. Why bother? Or This isn’t my problem or I can barely manage my own life. How am I supposed to help manage all this overwhelming stuff?

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like your responses, write them anyway. Writing them out is releasing them. Maybe after you’ve written enough of them, they will recede, and a voice that feels more like the part you would like to cultivate will emerge. But you won’t know this if you don’t give the less likable parts room to speak. Listen to them, engage them, thank them. And keep writing.

Through the simple act of showing up to the blank page and writing what you hear, you will learn, day by day, line by line, to honor your own voice. And as you do, your deepest, most authentic voice will get stronger. You will know yourself better. You will have more confidence in your own power, and you may surprise yourself by speaking up where before you were silent.

This is an exploration. The nature of that means you don’t know where it will take you. But if you keep at it, the exploration will empower you. By taking time to sit with yourself, by listening patiently for what is waiting to be heard, you may learn what your role can be in healing our country’s wounds. You may help save our world. You may find a kind of superpower within that you can summon when the time comes. And that time has certainly come.

Catharine H. Murray is the author of Now You See the Sky, published by Akashic Books, 2018

To find support for your writing practice, join Catharine’s live online class Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life starting November 12, 2020.

Cultivating creativity

This spring, for the first time since kindergarten, I have been planting seeds and witnessing their movement from underground darkness into light of day. Watching them emerge from the dirt then progress from spindly sprouts to hardy seedlings has been a delight. And waiting while they did their work beneath the ground was exciting too, knowing what was to come.

As writers and artists, we too must move from the depths of potential to the surface of expression. In solitude we work deep within the rich soil of the emotional world until we have something we can bring out into the light. And if we have given ourselves and our work the right kind of nurturing, it will be unique and beautiful, and others will notice, admire and be moved by it.

Because I believe in the importance of all of us doing our creative work, because I believe by telling our own stories, we can heal not only ourselves but others as well, I am delighted to be helping aspiring writers move into and through this process.

Next month I am offering a weekly online class Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life, Saturday, June 6th to July 11th from 10:00 to 11:30 AM EDT.

I hope you will join me. No experience is necessary. As long as you have stories to tell and a desire to write, you are qualified.

10% of proceeds will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.

For more information and to register, click here.

To check out my memoir, click here.