Last month at my writing group I shared Natalie Goldberg’s rules of writing practice and I wrote about those rules here. I was most inspired by her advice to “go for the jugular”. I shared an exerpt with the group from Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.
“This summer I taught a writing workshop with Kate Green, author of Shattered Moon and Night Angel (Dell Publishing, 1986, 1989). She said something that I have to remind myself of again and again: “If you want to write, you have to be willing to be disturbed.” Pretty good. It’s true.
Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Go for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Be willing to be split open.”
My challenge to the group was to use this as a writing prompt for the next month. Here is the piece I am sharing with the group today.
It was a hot summer that year and even if I hadn’t been on the edge of madness I would have had trouble sleeping. Night after night I lay awake, lost in the middle of my queen sized bed, tossing and turning on blue satin sheets searching for a cool spot and relief from the heavy, hot air in the bedroom.
On those sweaty, long, still nights I often rose from my bed and stepped outside through the patio doors at the end of the room. I sat on the step hugging my knees and looking out over the back yard that seemed to mock me by its enormity. I’m too much for you; you won’t be able to take care of me. Once I had been inspired by the space; now it overwhelmed me.
Sometimes I allowed myself to cry; but mostly I tried hard to remain numb. I struggled to ignore the hot lump of pain that had taken up residence in the pit of my stomach, hoping that if ignored it, it would go away.
On other nights I cleaned my house, down on my hands and knees in the kitchen with my arm moving rhythmically back and forth. Scrubbing the floor was a kind of therapeutic mindful meditation when I thought of nothing but the floor in front of me. Those quiet hours were a relief from the torment of the daytime when I struggled to maintain control, when I made sure my public mask was firmly in place so no one would suspect the madness that lurked beneath.
Some nights I walked — up and down familiar streets past familiar houses where perfect and intact families lived. Sometimes there would be a light on in a house and I could see through the large picture window in the front to the people inside. I found comfort in the sight of these families – they reassured me I hadn’t just imagined the concept of family – that they did in fact exist.
Once in a while I saw her, that ghost of a girl with long, blonde stringy hair. Sometimes she sat under a street light with a book, and I could tell by the look of concentration on her face and by the way she sat perfectly still, that she was being transported through the words in her book to another place, perhaps another time. I wished I could read a book and be transported to another world too, but my mad mind couldn’t stay quiet long enough to read that summer.
Other times I saw her in the distance. I usually heard her before I saw her — she wore a plastic loop around her ankle, and attached to the loop was a long plastic rope with a plastic bell-shaped apparatus on the end. She jumped and skipped and moved her feet so that the device on the end of the rope circled around her and with her other foot she lightly jumped over it when it came by. She was nimble in her movements, her long, slender legs familiar with the skipping routine. Over and over – up and down the street she went – skip, hop, skip, hop, skip, hop.
Most times she seemed not to realize I was there, that I had stopped and that I stood watching her skip. Other times she looked in my direction and our eyes would lock for a moment, and in that moment the fire in my belly seemed to be quenched and I felt whole. It would only be a moment before she broke our gaze and turned around to skip back up the street. Sometimes I was tempted to call out to her, to ask her to stop, but I held back. What would I say to her? What did I have to offer her that would entice her to stay a while longer? My desire for her to stay was selfish, motivated only by my desperation to find peace of mind and relief from the torment that kept me from both sleep and sanity. I could not care for this child.
Eventually I would find my way back to bed where I would fall into a restless sleep for a couple of hours. Then I would rise, put on my public persona, and step out into my life trying to convince myself I hadn’t really lost my mind.
I suppose I hadn’t really lost it, but it seemed I had misplaced it that summer. Grief can do funny things. You can find yourself feeling angry, sad, numb, and hopeless all in the space of an instant. You tell yourself you’re not grieving, you have no right to claim grief as the excuse for feeling the way you do — you caused the situation and to claim grief would be the ultimate in human pridefulness.
But one can grieve for the loss of a dream regardless of the reason for the loss. If I initiated the separation did that mean I bore the sole responsibility? Was I the only one at fault? Did I have no right to grieve the breakup of my marriage? The loss of my concept of family?
Regardless of right, or fault, or anything else I chided myself with night after night, it was the summer of grief and madness for me. It was the summer of learning that the only way out is through, and of being reminded of a little ghost of a girl.