Life & Fiction: Grieving Through Fiction

I love how this column I wrote a month ago teams so nicely with the poems I posted last week. I was thankful to have a friend staying with me while Jay traveled, because there is heaviness in writing hard things. She was a loving presence that kept me company as I read my words about losing friends to distance.

She listened with respect and intensity, letting me try the words aloud, never commenting on the meaning-obscuring fog in my voice. Then said the last thing I would have guessed.

“That sounds so sad [a word that I later realized I never actually used in the original article]. I’ve never known anything like that.”

I might have laughed (cheeks still tear-damp from reading). I hope I said, “I’m glad for you.” What I remember is being glad for the shift in me, to speak openly and let the tears fall without apology.

Tears really are a gift.  And so are good, good friends.

In grade school, I read the book Bridge to Terabithia, a story that has been called a modern-day-classic by some, which basically means enough people were surprised by a book they discovered themselves that they insisted other people read it as well.

It is a story about loss. It was written by Katherine Paterson, in response to her son’s grief when he lost his best friend at a young age. I cried when I read that book.

I cried like I didn’t know I was allowed to. My mom did the right thing. She redirected my siblings, held them off. She let me cry.

But I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. I thought this kind of emotional reaction was wrong. The story wasn’t real. The people I mourned with never existed. I didn’t understand this empathetic sadness, and it scared me.

From then on, I spent most of my conscious reading and movie-watching avoiding anything that might invoke a similarly intense response.

I forgot that I’d ever cried at a story. I prided myself at having a firm grasp on reality and separating myself from the sentimentality of those lumpy, leaky women who cried at weddings. Who cried even at movies with weddings in them.

Then, in 2006, fewer than three months after my youngest child was born, my dear-friend grandmother died.

Later that year I read The Thirteenth Tale, and I cried. I didn’t even identify that closely with much in the story, but I cried hard.

I began to consider that tears might not always be about exactly what started us crying.

Penelope Trunk, a career coach and blogger, once said something that I’ve co-opted in the paraphrase: “PMS is your body telling you to cry about the stuff you’ve been ignoring all month.”

This is beautiful and freeing because it starts by assigning value to the tears: the stressors that break us open, showing what’s inside, did not create the emotion in some mysterious alchemy. The reality has always been there.


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Life & Fiction: Pick a Genre

Life & Fiction is my monthly column at Wyn Magazine where I apply my experience with Story, reading, and the writing life to the broader goal of mindful, healthy living.

When you go to counseling for the first time, it’s useful—for you and the therapist—to know why.

If you have something specific that drove you to counseling, it can help direct the beginning of your time together. The focus may change, but it’s a starting place.

I think of it as giving yourself a genre to work from.

In literature, or at least, in submitting a book for publication, you need to get more specific than “Dystopian-Paranormal-Fantasy-Romance with SciFi elements and a Chick Lit feel.” I can already imagine the type of novel that would fit that description, and I think it would be crazy-fun to write, but a bookstore, and therefore a publisher, will have to ask, “Where it would be shelved?”

In the same way, recognizing your issue down to a very finite level will probably give you a great deal of personal relief and even satisfaction, but being too specific will also limit the type of help you may receive.


Life & Fiction: The Power of Naming

Life & Fiction is my monthly column at Wyn Magazine where I apply my experience with Story, reading, and the writing life to the broader goal of mindful, healthy living.

Names have power.

It’s a consistent story element across cultures and epochs.

Possessing someone’s True Name gives you power over him or her.

Guarding your True Name, or sharing it, is an important part of either protecting yourself or expressing your trust in another person.

In the Bible, the first man, Adam, is told to name the creatures, and there are those who tie this naming to the position of authority he was given in the created order.

Real-world parallels I can imagine are all the TV shows, movies, and novels where protecting (or discovering) the cover identities of secret agents is the core goal.

The name for anything is a word, and words hold power as well.

Words are one of the few tools we humans have for imposing order on the world around us. (There are other tools of course, such as numbers, but I must leave the treatments of those to other types of souls.)

Once we’ve named something, we’ve put it in its place. We’ve laid the foundation for how we will interact with it, how we will treat it. A word gives shape to the liquid intangibility of feeling and experience. A word is a vessel for truth and connection.

Using words to describe an emotion (or jumble of emotions) moves our experience of that emotion from the reaction parts of the brain (amygdala and hippocampus) and into the part of the brain where all of our “grown up” thinking happens (the frontal cortex).  This is where we want to be making decisions from.

The emotions don’t completely migrate; you don’t necessarily stop feeling angry, afraid, or grief-stricken, but through naming, you enter a process that allows you to move from feeling helpless into a place where you might be able to take action.

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Real-World Magic: Not Speaking

Image courtesy of ACSelcuk via stock.xchng

Someday, I really hope that I write a serious essay on the existence– or at least the definition– of different types of magic.

Today I’ve settled for discussing the first on my mental list: Spells of Silence.

Those exasperating moments when the story is extended by a piece of information coming out a moment (it’s always just a moment) too late.

Let me begin here: Fairy tale silences are beginning to make a lot more sense to me.

How many people, today or at any time in history, have been trained to explain what they can’t explain?

Can you imagine saying, “I’m under a spell, dear, and if you see me in my human form, I’ll have to go off and marry an ugly troll princess.”

I mean, I am one of the most articulate, word-ready people I know (Sorry if that sounds bad, it’s just true), and I have found myself mute in the face of certain circumstances, certain people.

This even comes after years of practice talking about how confused I am, or how I don’t have the words for something. In those situations I would keep talking (or journaling) until I reached some kind of coherence, or at least the next action point.

That was when I didn’t understand fairy tale silences.

Image courtesy of Michael & Christa Richert via stock.xchng

But something changed with the depression. I wonder at times (in the present) if I would have had some kind of help–more help– if I had tried harder to say how broken I was.

For the most part I kept quiet, because I didn’t have any better ideas to give people to give me, and I was pretty sure that criticism without offering alternatives was shameful. That was complaining and it  recalled countless references over the years to “the children of Israel” after they’d been led out of Slavery in Egypt.

“Here they’d had so great a deliverance and now they were complaining about the food?”

I had little to give in terms of nurturing energy, and I imagined that I was caring for others by keeping the weight of my problems off of them.  It made me feel nobler or more generous in my isolation and loneliness.

Image courtesy of Michaela Kobyakov via stock.xchng

I’ve since learned that “Self-blame is a symptom of the disease [of depression]:” That “people feel ashamed of being depressed, they feel they should snap out of it, they feel weak and inadequate. Of course [they do:] these feelings are symptoms of the disease.”

And these symptoms all go a long way to keeping us shut up.

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To the Pure all Things are Pure

Or, to be less poetic, Who you are will direct what you see.

Some years ago I was in a storytelling workshop where we analyzed and discussed a Native American tale.

In it a girl sleeps beside a lake no one is supposed to visit alone.  A snake comes out of the lake and impregnates her.  When her pregnancy begins to show, the other villagers drive her into the wilderness. It is there that Lightning, the shining daughter of the old man of the mountain, finds her and brings her home.

The girl ends up marrying Lightning’s brother, Thunder, and after the young woman has his baby she wishes to take the child back to her village to show him off.

When she returns she tells the villagers who had been so unkind about her new family. They are fearful of her powerful new relations, but she tells them not to be afraid, because they are all family now.

It was a fabulous example of how much story can be crammed into few words (the original was less than half a page), and we spent a fair amount of time with it, discussing images, motifs and how one might learn to tell the story.

My favorite part of it all was the ending, I felt it was a wonderful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation.  I thought it was beautiful how the girl was able to forgive her home village and be happy after her tragedies.

I said so, and another woman present looked at me as if I had three heads.

That’s not the way she saw it at all.

“I thought it was about getting revenge.  You know, ‘Don’t be afraid of the storm’ so they’ll be careless and get zapped by it.”

And I’m sure I gaped.

Hurt People Hurt People

It’s not an excuse or a justification.

It’s simply a fact.

As a creator of fiction, one of my jobs is to make a story make sense.

At times I’m sure this is my primary motivation for writing: to have a place where stories make sense. As in, now.

Villains aren’t just evil to make life difficult for the main character; that’s too narrow a purpose. That’s living for someone else, and far too selfless for the best villains as I imagine them.

~ ~ ~

Antagonist is a more broadly applicable word than villain.

Most of us will not encounter a terrifying villain, in the same way that most of us will not change the world in any masses-remembered way.

I’m just talking statistics here. How many people do you remember of the billions that have come before?

It’s a math thing, not a despair thing.

And many, many people face villains the way that many people make a difference in a way known only to few.

How widely something is known does not change the power or significance of what we experience.

Antagonists may be out specifically to hurt us, for reasons of their own, or they may simply be thinking of themselves, pursuing their own goals, and we get run over in the process.

I highly doubt the individual who stole my iPhone last week heard my nutrition talk, took personal offense at my content or my speaking style and decided to take my phone to spite me.

Far more likely is the scenario when s/he saw the cracked thing in its dirty case, unattended, and decided it was worth taking.

Really it had nothing to do with me, personally, but it has seriously disrupted my life, and disappointed me (in no small measure because it was taken at a gathering of Christians).

Yes we’re allowed to be disappointed. That we’re warned doesn’t mean our feelings and reactions are tied.

What we’re left with is how we will respond to the hurt that comes into our lives.

Because if we’ve been hurt, we have hurt other people.

This is really hard to think about when we’ve been hurt really badly.

We see and feel our own hurt, and depending on many things, our own hurt can be big enough that it fills up all our available vision.

We might not see what we are doing to others, and what’s even sadder, we might not care.

The reason I call this even sadder is that this attitude (I’ve been hurt so much I shouldn’t have to be careful.) frequently drives the next iteration of wounding.

The fact is, we’re all hurt. And that ties us to the truth that we have hurt others.  May still be in the process of hurting others.

And ignoring this reality won’t make it go away.

Two responses I see are necessary: awareness and humility.

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