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.

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.

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

Writing Out the Wait

I live in Maine, a state near the bottom of the list of number of cases of Covid 19. Even though 90% of the cases are in my city, I do not yet know anyone with the illness. It’s still easier for me to worry more about the fact that my beloved beach has closed than to be aware of the fact that the world just a few hours away from my door is coping with disaster. Up here my biggest challenge so far is screen fatigue from doing my job on ZOOM. Last weekend I got to revel in the pleasures of being home: doing a jigsaw puzzle in the morning sunshine, organizing the basement in the afternoon, and making pizza for dinner before the delicious pleasure of laughter with my family while we watched The Blues Brothers before bed.

And yet, even when I do not have the news turned on, even when I try to be fully present with what is happening in my own life, I cannot escape the larger reality. In my mind is always the knowledge that devastation is spreading across the world, that my friends in New York, Seattle, Boston, New Orleans and Bangkok are struggling. No matter what I’m doing, every now and then, I hear the phrase Covid Nineteen loud and clear in my mind. The voice is flat, emotionless, but persistent. It is followed by the listing of facts: people, no different from me except for where they happen to live, have lost their jobs; parents are facing the possibility of themselves and their children going hungry; in New York, so many are dying so fast that refrigerator trucks have been deployed to transport the bodies; and perhaps most heartbreaking, people are dying alone.

So throughout the day as I move through my home, nowhere to go, nothing to plan, just time to appreciate the people I love and the life we have, I wonder, how can I possible be enjoying myself, how can I be pleased with the new pace of life here in my own little world when so many people are suffering? It’s a strange place to be psychologically. Beyond trying to stay connected to those I love, and maybe start sewing masks, it seems to me my job now is to batten down the hatches and wait.

In my last post I promised to offer a new tool for moving through this crisis. I encouraged people to meditate. Meditation is a way to slow down enough to witness our own discomfort up close. In meditation, I have found that one of the most difficult things for me to do psychologically is to hold what seem to be conflicting realities at nearly the same time. It is uncomfortable because living with what feels paradoxical takes away any sense of psychological security I have so carefully and unconsciously created year after year, day after day, moment after moment.

As a human being, I have a habitual need to think I can make myself feel safe by imagining I know what’s ahead, by living as if illness and death were not always a breath away. By constantly planning my next move, my next task, my next vacation, I keep straining forward into the future rather than staying with what is present.

When I stop moving, when I sit still, I can see more clearly not what I want my life to be, but the reality of what it is. This can be emotionally upsetting. Yet it can also be a huge relief. When I stop and see what’s actually going on, I can put down the constant burden of illusion I carry. I can stand up a little taller without its weight and look around from a new place. I can see my situation more clearly.

Right now, clear-sightedness is essential. We are in a time that demands each of us be able to function with full access to our best intelligence. And we can only think well when we recognize what’s actually happening around us. Right now, that is hard. When things are confusing, painful or sad, we want to cling even tighter to the illusions we’ve created. When we fear that our safety and livelihood might be taken away from us, our tendency is to try to maintain our distance from what threatens us. Right now many gun stores are overwhelmed with business. Online ammunition site Ammo.com reported a recent spike of 70 percent in sales. Almost all of us are worrying about the future, putting energy into planning to protect what we have. Alcohol (the kind you drink) sales are climbing, another indicator that we are trying to numb ourselves to the terror at our doorstep.

Constantly running away makes it hard to think clearly, constantly denying our own pain makes it hard to know what to do. But allowing ourselves to actually experience, embody and express the emotions that carry so much energy in our bodies, leaves us feeling calmer and clearer. We need to recognize, allow, feel and release what we try to deny in order to diffuse the negative power.

Writing in a journal, like meditating, can makes space to more clearly experience what is. When we journal, when we write without regard to audience or logic or accomplishment, when we write with the same attitude with which we meditate, with a sense of non-judgmental allowing, we can begin to know ourselves better, to see our situation more clearly. And often, when we do this, when we see how challenging things are in our lives and the current situation, we begin to find a sense of compassion arising. We look at ourselves as we might look at a friend who is going through something hard, and we might be able to say to ourselves, “Wow, that’s really hard. No wonder you are struggling. I’m sorry it’s like this right now.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti writes, “The highest form of human intelligence is to observe yourself without judgment.” That’s what I strive for when I write. I try to do nothing more than release what’s troubling me, record my own suffering by writing it onto the page. When I do this, I start to see myself from a new vantage point. By noting (as I might in meditation) the images of illness, death, and fear that haunt me, I begin to access a compassionate, patient part of me. This part can hold my worry and witness my feelings of pain enough to allow space release, for healing.

And then I can move on. By writing down what’s hard, I let it go. It no longer cripples me with the drag of its insistence to be noticed. When I treat myself with enough care to slow down and allow what’s happening inside me to surface, I can release it. And then, I get up from my work with a sense of spaciousness in my mind and heart, better able to think about how to serve myself and my world at this time.

— Catharine H. Murray, Author Now You See the Sky