When I Write

I write when it feels like I can’t do anything else, when I’m so hollow and hopeless that life seems pointless, nothing more than a series of worn out entertainments to distract myself from the present. At these times life feels like a roomful of toys I’ve tired of.

I write when I know, after years of experience, that even the jar of salted pistachios in the cupboard won’t save me from the present emotional discomfort I’m in, that checking the number of likes on my most recent Facebook post will only leave me feeling lonelier. I write when I am stuck with a feeling, when there is no way out.

When I write, I sit down and let the words out. I never try to be fancy. I simply say what I’m thinking which often can start out with something like “Life is stupid. This is stupid. I have nothing to say.” Not publishable material. But that is not the point. The point of writing when I feel so bad is only to get some relief.

After a short time, the voices in my head start telling me I’m wasting my time, laundry or dishes are more important . But I stick with it. I refuse to stop typing, refuse to get up from the bed or the chair where I’m working. This sitting still takes work, but I stay, and after a while my listening moves beyond the “everything is stupid” level of thought to what’s beneath it.

What’s beneath it usually something sad or hard or worrisome. I write about that. I complain to the page. I put my fears and sorrow into words, nothing literary, just honest. Short words. Half sentences. It’s all right. No standards for “good writing” at these times.

I keep going, through the recording of a hard moment in a close relationship, the misery of a painful childhood memory, the worries of being a parent. Inevitably, if I’m being honest in my writing, I hit a spot where I want to stop, where the staying with the pain becomes too hard. And that’s when I really want to stop. That’s when I feel I cannot write another word.

This, I have learned from experience, is the sweet spot, the turning point, the place where things get so hard, so utterly discouraging that to continue is akin to enduring physical pain. And it is right there that I force myself to keep writing, keep being a faithful observer, narrator, no more than the stenographer in the courtroom, no filters, just the words. If I do this faithfully for as long as it takes, the pain I’m describing, the unpleasant feeling I’m experiencing begins to lighten.

After those nearly insurmountable moments, I keep writing through what now becomes an easier place in the journaling journey. I feel myself coming to the end of the work, and I find what I say to myself in those paragraphs is leading me to an end point. The words may be a reflection. They may be a summing up. Or they may be the most tender part of the experience I’m rendering. I don’t try to make them any of that, but that’s where the dedication to the work takes me. And that is the relief. That is where I can stop and put down the pen or hit save on the screen and get up and walk away feeling lighter, even a little bit hopeful.

I think this calming, healing effect comes when I write because when I stop running away from the feeling, when I move fully into it, I create a psychic space for what I habitually recoil from. When I suffer, pushing away the thing that upsets me makes it expand to fill my internal vision, and I think am alone in all this pain and there is nothing other than this situation. When I write, I invite the difficult feeling in, I make room around the thoughts that are keeping me locked in suffering. Writing both allows the feeling to come to light and, at the same time, lifts me out of the direct experience of it by making me a kind of witness to myself. All of this allows some compassion toward myself and what I’m going through to emerge.

There are certainly other ways to heal. Meditation may lead to more lasting peace because the ego is less involved. Exercise creates endorphins and a generally better outlook on life. Being with friends reminds us of our connection to our human family and, if we are lucky, allows us the best medicine: laughter. As people with feelings, with tender hearts in a culture that revolves around an economy of avoiding feelings as much as possible, we need all these avenues to keep our hearts open and cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. But when I am alone in the dark, and all I can manage is to reach for the keyboard or the pen, I try to remember that it works.


October 21, 2019

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

Starting in Portland, Maine, January, 2020: Writing to Heal: A Six-week Series for Women


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Grief in the Body

When someone comes into our life to love and then is taken away, what’s left is not only a longing in the heart but in the body too. There was a way that our body fit with that other one, that our arms held him, that our cells turned in his direction when we were with him. All that too has been lost and its absence is acute. The touch that was so nurturing like food we didn’t know we hungered for is gone. And we are physically, as well as emotionally, bereft.

With patience and tending, grief of the heart can be transmuted. It is there in the poems we write, the compassion with which we respond to another’s heartbreak, the awareness we bring to love of its double-edged quality that makes us more careful of its power.

What of this physical loss? Can it too move through? This muscle memory of the one we loved? The body in grief can be heavy and slow, the cells no longer springing up in anticipation and hope for that delicious touch of recognition from another. Instead it’s hard to pull oneself up out of bed or out of sadness. But if we follow this spiral of grief down, if we let ourselves be pulled deeper into the heavy darkness, if we follow the physical urges to cry and we yield to the knowledge of the body, we can heal. It requires knowing, resting in, the fact that this state, like everything else, is not permanent, that as the body rests and releases the pain of loss, it will eventually lighten and rise of its own accord.

If we let ourselves experience this, we can remember that this pain and lethargy are only manifestations of the eternal pulse of the cosmos, opening and closing, rising and falling. Just as the stars erupt into brightness and burn out, the heart expands and contracts with each beat, and the lungs fill and empty with each breath, we are forever riding these endless waves of rhythmic, cosmic movement.

I think the physical loss can be transmuted. At first to a small boy’s sweater knit of yellow yarn because I needed something to keep my fingers moving when they couldn’t tousle his hair or wipe away his tears or rest contented on his skin. Later to a good loaf of bread because I needed to feel the silky weightlessness of the flour on my hands, needed the soothing rock and rhythm of the dough coming alive as I kneaded it into shape.

But now the expression of grief, indivisible from the love that defines it, has moved through me in a deeper way, a more full-bodied way. I find myself dancing differently. When I dance now, there is something larger in it than before. There is more room for intentions to move through and be articulated. It feels as though the hollowness, the emptiness, the aching desire, all of which felt as though they would overwhelm have instead left more room behind. Now there is a more space for a fullness of expression, as if, when I dance now, I am pouring something out from those cavities, as if I have created more space in and around my body. I have been stretched open in a way that was almost unbearably sad, but sometimes now I feel that I am a moving part of a world that is almost unbearably beautiful.


Catharine H. Murray,

Author of Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018

A Mother’s Dream

I dreamt last night about my son who died when he was six and worn out from fighting Leukemia fifteen years ago. In the dream, he was healthy, and someone else was looking after him upstairs while I was busy downstairs in a house. I came up to find him in a white, claw foot bathtub full of water. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully at the bottom. After a moment, I realized that he must be dead, unable to breathe under water. I pulled him up and held him, his legs around my hips, my arms around his back. I looked into his beautiful face, his eyes closed. I screamed and keened in the realization that he’d died.

After a few minutes, presumably from all the noise of his momma’s wailing, his eyes fluttered open. Seeing that he might be able to come back to life, I shouted for him to wake up, to come back. Slowly, in little bits of waking, moving his head from side to side, opening and closing his eyes, and finally smiling that unforgettable, mischievous smile, he did. He was alive. I hugged him and felt the indescribable joy of having him returned to me. I even felt proud that I’d raised a boy so healthy that he could survive ten minutes without oxygen.

Later in the dream there was some talk in the family about how I shouldn’t have left him alone with a sitter. “Where was his mother?” was the gist of it, blaming me for his almost death.

This morning, when I told my fiancé my dream, I was surprised by the tears that slid down my cheeks when I got to the part about Chan being alive. I was surprised by the strength of the grief that overtook me as I wept harder, allowing myself to hold the thought of him in my arms, to hold the thought that he might have lived.

If only fifteen years ago my keening could have awakened him when I walked out of our cabin into the sunrise, his body stiff in my arms.

Nowadays I think I’m “over it,” healed. Mostly I am, but his birthday is in a few days. June has always been hard. This year it’s been better. This year I’ve made it this far into the month with no more than some low-level anxiety, which I didn’t recognize until today as unacknowledged grief.

But this dream tells me to remember, tells me to give myself the time and space to feel this loss. Because sometimes I still miss my little boy.

Now You See the Sky, Gracie Belle, Akashic Books, 2019