Writing is one of my most beloved methods for being well and staying well. In recent years, I have been surprised by its many benefits, increasingly relying on it as a way of bringing greater clarity and joy to my life. Writing makes me happy.

The specific form is secondary – what matters most is putting my thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper. It may be a flood of unedited emotion in a journal, a sentimental poem scribbled on the back of a shopping list, or a carefully crafted essay … maybe even a three hundred page memoir. In the end it all nourishes me. Perhaps this may be true for you too.

My time invested in writing has provided continual enrichment. It has given me a sense of catharsis, clarified my viewpoint, and communicated my feelings to others. Through writing I become more balanced and self-assured and less burdened and confused. It helps me navigate my struggles – arriving at the other side with my feet firmly planted. What remains are personal artifacts to look back on, and occasionally, even enjoy for their beauty.

Writing can serve so many purposes: self-care, self-expression, creative endeavor, a compelling method of telling your story, or an avenue for connecting with others. Powerful feelings can provide the spark for an evocative poem. Have you made a curious observation? Write about it. Do you have an idea for a little story? Write it! Have you had a transformative life experience? Consider writing a memoir.

When you attempt to say what must be said to someone special, sometimes the words come out all wrong. At a pivotal time, you may be better able to express yourself through writing a letter than approaching your dear one face-to-face.  Although you may be tongue-tied, you are not hog-tied; pick up a pen! It slows the communication, calms the nerves, and allows more time for reflection before the message is delivered. This thoughtful clarity can strengthen honesty and intimacy. Through writing, you can speak your mind.

In getting started, you may experience an unfortunate cultural barrier: writers have long been shrouded in smoky mystery as The Artists. They are often viewed as brilliant, mercurial, tortured and lonely. Perhaps you’re picturing Hemingway: pen-in-hand, scowl on face, scribbling tales of foreign adventure, a near-empty bottle his only companion. Indeed, some writers are shining artists, celebrated icons … fulfilling our romantic ideal of the writer.

But you too have a human capacity to write, even if it will never earn you a dime or an ounce of acclaim. Writing has value for its own sake. Sadly, we have been taught that writing is for the rare “creative types” who are different than everyone else. This is a myth. We can all be writers. There is no pre-requisite to write, other than being literate in the most basic sense. One doesn’t have to be published, intellectually gifted, embarking on the next great work of fiction, or even have an innate talent. And despite the memorialized words of Virginia Woolf, one does not even need a room of one’s own. Anyone can write, anywhere, any time. And everyone can benefit from writing.

Silence your internal critic that tells you your writing must be worthy by some external standard. It can simply be by you and for you. What is within you is unique and has intrinsic value. Writing is simply allowing that uniqueness and value to emerge in a tangible way … on the page. It will serve a purpose, whether it is for you, a friend, or the public. You get to decide.

Many people associate writing with wretched memories from high school English class: composition due … staring forlornly at the blank page, blocked by frustration and fear of failure, awaiting harsh red markings from an uptight school marm. This is not a recipe for creative expression!

Re-define your writer self. Don’t be a casualty of the rigid, repressed, and faulty notions about your capacity with the written word. Rid yourself of these unnecessary burdens – and be free. Just write. No demands. No rules. No red pen. Let yourself play with words, ideas, images. You are only a few strokes away from expressing yourself.

Writing coach and prolific author in varied genres, Julia Cameron, wrote a wonderful book on this subject entitled The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.* Her philosophy is that writing can become a natural, intensely personal part of life. She provides both inspiration and practical tools for making writing a daily practice that is playful, practical and profound. She emphasizes permission rather than discipline.  Cameron explains, “Writing is therapeutic. Writing connects the self to the Self … I have seen writing work less like a tool than a medicine. It is a medicine all of us can make and administer to ourselves.” After reading a few pages, I am twitching with the desire to write. It is good medicine.

I have never considered myself a poet. But in a number of instances in my life, when no other method of release seemed available, I found myself compelled to write a poem.  This is one I wrote when I saw my oldest child, then fifteen, holding hands with his first girlfriend. I was overwhelmed with a mix of bittersweet emotion. I had to describe it. Immediately. But no one was near. I had only the back side of a shopping list and a pen. This is what I wrote:

 

A Mother’s Glimpse

 

I stole a glimpse of them,

on the path near the waterfall.

Walking hand in hand,

awkward, hesitant affection.

 

My boy and “his girl,”

exploring new feelings.

surely welcomed and thrilling,

blindly tumbling into that

foreign land adulthood.

 

And me,

awash in old feelings.

A mother hanging on,

reaching for this man-child.

 

Was it yesterday,

he marched off to kindergarten?

“I can walk alone,” he said.

Assured little man.

 

The tears dampen my face.

Bittersweet liminality,

boyhood and manhood;

so impossibly simultaneous.

 

And me having joined

that army of mothers,

silently waving the unseen banner.

 

Considering, “Did I

give him enough?”

Pleading, “I need more

time. What about …

 

But manhood approaching

makes no allowances

for such uncertainties.

 

He is. He will be

just more of who

he always was.

 

Created, yes molded

(happily by me).

Now emerging his own.

 

A few days later, I even decided to show it to my son. For this fifteen-year-old boy of Scandinavian descent, his response was the height of receptivity and encouragement.

“That’s really good, Mom,” he said.

Not only did I find blessed release in writing it, I had the pleasure of a fleeting moment of connection with my boy. And seven years later, this admittedly syrupy poem is a treasure that brings a reminiscent tear to my eye.

Exercise your right to write … today and tomorrow. Gladness will follow.

 

*Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Penguin Putman Inc., 1998.

 

 

 

 

At forty-eight years old, I have forged through a number of life stages – at times willingly and at times fitfully. There are basically two responses to dealing with the inevitable onslaught of the next stage of life: accepting it gracefully, or raging against it. Having done both, I can say that the former opens one to the grand possibilities of life and the latter leads to stultifying frustration. What choice do we have anyway? You cannot stand still, and you certainly cannot go back. Perennial protesting is pointless.

My advice? Let yourself grieve what is lost. Acknowledge your fear, your reticence, your dismay. And then march into the future boldly: feel it, own it, embrace it.

Irish poet and priest, John O’Donahue, said it best, “I want to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” Precisely! This is the definition of grace amid change.

Every lifetime is a lesson in adjustment. Once I was a carefree preschooler; my greatest challenges were deciding what color of finger paint to use and having to take an afternoon nap. But kindergarten beckoned – the big yellow bus, tying my shoes, and learning the alphabet. From there, I became an elementary student – reading, writing, and arithmetic. I slowly learned to accept the fact that I would never be a member of The Brady Bunch.

Eventually, I was confronted with puberty and Junior High: pimples, body fat, boys, and mean girls.  Suddenly and awkwardly a high school student, exploring who I was and what I believed. Then I had to move into the role of paid laborer, voting citizen, and college student. Career choices weighed on me. What would I be? What was I good at and how could I best contribute? Soon I was a married woman, professional worker, and then a mother.

None of these new roles and stages – career, marriage, motherhood – quite matched my naively inflated expectations. What? This isn’t how it was supposed to be! But honestly accepting the disappointment of the unrealized ideal actually helped invite an attitude of joy and gratitude. Pleasure emerged.

This was especially true in raising my two children. Childrearing has presented an array of stages, from diapers to dormitories. Every age they enter has had its bane and its blessing. Age four was the toughest for them both. (For a time my former cherubs became Surly Boy and Snotty Girl). But kindergarten came along and voilá; along with it, a new equilibrium.

Just when I thought I could no longer take the madness of a particular developmental childhood trait, before I knew it, we were on to the next thing … and then the next … and the next. It was never ending and never permanent. The surprising bends, unexpected turns, and frolicking rapids were exhilarating and jolting interspersed with the occasionally serene and calm.

What helped me avoid feeling trapped in any one state of being was to recognize that it was all temporary. Nothing was fixed. My little ones were always emerging, growing, and becoming. Indeed, I was as well! In the mix, there were some topsy turvy times. My husband and I have had the blessed gift of navigating that whitewater river with them, knowing we are in God’s care, even though the ride is rough at times. Our faith in God is our sacred life vest.

And these curious creatures I birthed continue to morph into new and more complex versions of themselves. The future fills me with anticipation, and at times, concern. I could worry. But I have learned: this too shall pass. They are clay and God is the potter … spinning and shaping them. The cruel world, not knowing their baptismal destiny, threatens to thwart God’s design for them. But I claim the promise, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I am now an empty nester – proud, eager, and yes, a little nervous about my children’s fate. This is a stage that can throw the most balanced of mothers into a tailspin. Relax in … relax out.

The questions abound: What will become of my children when they are not under our roof? Will they make it? Did we teach them enough? Are they equipped for the real world? And what about me? Who am I, if not providing for their daily care? What will my future bring?

I must grapple with all of these questions and their associated feelings. A book I read in college called Passages, by Gail Sheehy*, was a bestseller, and groundbreaking in mapping out predictable life stages and ways people thrive in each. She emphasized a productive and deep “second adulthood” in middle life characterized by continual growth.

“Stop and recalculate,” Sheehy writes. “Imagine the day you turn forty-five as the infancy of another life … Instead of declining, men and women who embrace a Second Adulthood are progressing through entirely new passages into lives of deeper meaning, renewed playfulness, and creativity.”

With that mindset, it is exciting to approach my new stage of life. I am determined to stay balanced through such liminal times. I use a multitude of coping skills. This is essential.

I was glad to see our daughter Grace has learned this as well. After being home for a month she was faced with intense, sad feelings about returning to school, missing her friends and family, and facing the pressure of her challenging courses. At first there was a bit of raging at how hard it all is. However, after some tears, laments, and hugs, she decided to make a list of all the things she is looking forward to when she returns to Seattle. Smart girl! She moved through her struggle, and found her strength to courageously do the next thing.

As for me – when Grace left for college last year – I found that one way to manage my feelings was through writing. Sitting with my husband at a pub, The Back Abbey, contemplating my new stage of life, I took out my journal. I asked myself, “What am I feeling right now?” Then I wrote a little haiku:

 

Empty Nest at the Abbey 

We lounge – long at ease

Northwest winds call

Last tall bird flies free

Old lovers we smile

 

Grieve your losses, but don’t get stuck in protest. Enjoy the surprise of your own unfolding. Be well and stay well my friend.

 Crystal Cove

 

*Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehey, Bantam Books, 1976.  Also, an updated version is New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, Ballantine Books, 1996.

Breakfast in Bed, by Mary CassattI have not been in the mood lately.  First a little down, then a bit flat, then vaguely emotional. Certainly not flowing with creativity. Nothing serious. Just a stale discontent which gets in the way of doing what I want to do. So, I have missed several weeks of posting on my blog. This has disappointed me.

I have also found myself surprised by tears this week. A Taylor Swift song actually made me cry the other day. Could that be a clinical condition? “Why You Gotta Be So Mean” brought up images of the woman I had just had a counseling session with, who struggled with her children to survive years of domestic violence. Then I cried at the Huntington Library upon viewing the Mary Cassatt painting “Breakfast in Bed.” In the mother’s gaze, Cassatt precisely conveys the anticipated loss as the child looks out to the world. I am that mother years later – children off to college, concurrently relieved and sad.

It seems fitting that the post I have been unable to get going on for the last couple weeks is entitled “Not in the Mood.” How can I write about the state of being unable to write, when the condition itself logically prevents it? Virginia Woolf said, “Nothing is experienced until it is described.” So, Maybe I am only now experiencing it … because I am finally describing it. Such an unnerving enigma.

What stands in my way?

Is it distraction? There are so many other things to do. Things that are important that I don’t enjoy doing. Keeping up my house and running hills. Things that I do enjoy doing but that are not important.  Following Facebook and watching Colbert Report. Yet my soul knows it is essential to keep writing.  It is a thing that is important and a thing that I do enjoy doing. It helps me know myself and share myself with others. It allows me to metabolize my experience. But, I need to show up to the page.

Is it fear? The questions pass through me like they do anyone who struggles to create. In writing I am making myself vulnerable. Do I have anything to say? Will it be any good? Will people read it? What if people read it and it is no good? What if people don’t read it and it is good? Damn double binds! Risk looms on both sides.

Is it stress? So much is changing in my work. My job is being re-fashioned as the agency converts to electronic health records. Computer proficiency is not at the top of my resume! And now a position that I have felt confident and energized in for eight years feels simultaneously difficult and mundane. I am not shining these days; rather I feel like the special ed. kid in the back row struggling to keep up. I am tired, frustrated, and self-doubting.

Is it loss? My children have both been away at college for a year now, and I think I have handled it well. Yet, there is a quiet grieving taking place. It seeps out at unsuspecting moments. This grief has a capricious quality: rather puzzling because the empty nest has brought considerable gains – for me, for my marriage, and my ability to pursue other interests. But there is a subtle vacancy that comes and goes. It invades my dreams – lately dreams of babies born, babies lost, babies found, babies growing up only to regress again … bizarre but enticing. Dreams of becoming some mythic marsupial mother – my young stepping out of my pouch and having their walkabout, then tucking safely back in. Amid the soothing rhythm of my heartbeat, their appetites become wet again for foreign lands beyond my reach. They happily trot off, not looking back. I wait. I wonder. I worry. I turn to God, a shameless beggar …

Having now written about these moods preventing me from writing, I discover, that like many things in life, one does not have to be in the mood to write. And I received a delightful surprise: now that I have done it, I am in the mood. Writing about one mood was a stepping-stone to a better mood.

And not just to write. I am approaching something. I am not sure yet what it is. But, yes, I feel a stirring. On a gut level I know it. It is earthy and rich and good and will lift me up and stretch me. As I move through these many colored moods I discover a new and pleasant place. I sense opportunity. I am open.