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By Judith Ford

This is, I think, the first year I’ve begun to accept the notion that I will one day die. Not that it’s been a big secret. I watched each of my parents die. My mother, who was always the dramatic one, died peacefully, while my father, who’d never been much for self-expression, died struggling and full of fear and rage. Resisting all the way. Someone once said to me that we all die as we’ve lived. Not my parents.

I turned 63 a couple months ago. Not one of those BIG ages, like 21 or 40 or even the big 6-oh, but for me, a signal. A signal to pay attention. There isn’t as much time ahead as there is behind me. I might have said that last year or even ten years ago but for some reason, on this birthday, I got it: not a whole hell of a lot of time left.

When I say that to Chris, he gets all defensive and hyper-rational. Says things like, “yeah yeah, you’ll drop dead tomorrow.” “No,” I say. “I don’t think I’ll die tomorrow, just sooner than I want to.”

My father was 77, my mother was 74. I am healthier than they were. I don’t smoke. I exercise. Will that allow me to avoid the strokes that my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all suffered?

I always imagined, when I was in my 20’s, that I would die, at 84, falling off my motorcycle on a mountain road. I haven’t owned a motorcycle since my first child was born. I’d had one crash and after that, couldn’t ride without awareness of my vulnerability. When I had my daughter, I didn’t think it was fair for me to take that kind of risk any more. I kind of miss my little Honda 90. Was it a 90? I think it was. Its predecessor was a Honda 50, a slow old thing that, when I was 22 and had never owned a car, opened up worlds for me.

Back to death. Yes. Back to death. I had a brush with it when I was 42, a major flare-up of an auto-immune disease I didn’t, before then, know I had. After that, life was different. Everything was different and nothing was different. I mean, I was vividly aware of my mortality and of how much I wanted to stay alive. For months after I was discharged, following many weeks in the hospital, I experienced the world through a bubble of heightened senses, everything glowing and glittery and inexpressibly precious. Then, it faded. Of course, it faded; things that wake you up to the utter wonderfulness of being alive always fade. Routines settle back in. I went back to my habit of writing to-do lists that would choke a cow. Back to my pattern of going to bed each night with my head abuzz with what I hadn’t yet accomplished and must get to tomorrow. Now and then, I would remember. Then 5 years later, when I had flare-up number 2 and once again did not die, I thought I would never ever stop feeling grateful for yet another reprieve.

But I did stop. I do stop. None of us is alive and awake all the time, I guess. Would I want to be? Maybe not. It’s a bit painful.

In the past few years, several of my friends have been diagnosed with cancer and are out of the immediate – but not the long-term – woods. One friend died of Lou Gehrig’s disease 10 years ago. My golden retriever died the same year as my father (1995). My favorite therapy teacher, Dick, died that year, too. How did all these vital parts of my life stop being here, taking up time and space? They were here. Now they are not. How can that be? Not even a jagged hole in the air left from where they used to be.

So when I say I’m beginning to accept the notion that I will one day, sooner rather than later, die, I am whistling in the wind. I have moments here and there where I kind of get it and then it’s gone. And I’m left with the delusion that I have all the time in the world, until I think about it. I do not have all the time. I don’t like it that I don’t have more time.

Three years ago, I pretended to have only one year left. I followed a guide by Stephen Levine, did meditations on the subject, wrote about it, kept notes, but eventually, it all felt like a sham. I knew, the whole time, that I wasn’t going to die at the end of that year. I was pretty sure.

And I realized that, if it were true, if in fact I knew for sure I had only a year, what I would do was… nothing out of the ordinary. I would do the dishes, walk the dogs, fold the laundry, sit at my kitchen table and watch the finches flock to my bird feeders. I would choose to be alone. I would choose only those I love best to be with me. I would go to the grocery store. Maybe I would clean up my files so none of my writing would be inaccessible to my daughter (who is named in my will as the trustee for my writing.) I would go on as usual as long as I could, wanting the familiar, wanting to savor, wanting to bequeath, but quietly.

I know that at 63 my remaining vibrant years are dwindling. So what do I do? I make a commitment to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with my 23 year old son next spring. Why not? There will never be a better time.

I have no grip on this at all. I think it’s a horrible terrible thing to do to people, get them all juiced up on life and then slowly – or all at once – take everything away. Not fair. I wish I could opt out. Of death. Of the many losses of aging.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — DEATH & DYING is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Judith Ford joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Judith Ford


My grandmother, who was Dutch, did an incredible job of spring cleaning, every March, every year she was alive. No object and no surface was spared a scrubbing. Rugs were taken out and beaten within an inch of their threaded lives; walls were washed with a hard brown scrub brush. Curtains taken down and washed. Every closet emptied, every sheet and towel bleached and washed. Everything dried outdoors on a clothesline. In March, Wisconsin is still cold so things froze out there, pillowcases transformed into wrinkled boards. Socks turned into twisted sculptures. She washed every dish and pot and spoon. Then when it was all done and everything set back in its proper place, she’d cover the sofa and chairs and lampshades in the living room with plastic covers. She’d lay a plastic path from doorway to living room couch and into the dining room. When I was around 11, I asked her, finally, who she was keeping everything so clean for and when would she remove the ugly plastic. (I didn’t say the word, ugly, I’m sure). “The plastic keeps everything ready for company,” she replied. “But, “I protested, “Aren’t I company?” I had never once seen her living room without plastic. “You,” she explained, “are family. Not company.” She didn’t need to add that I, being a rather messy child, was one of the reasons she protected her furniture.


My mother didn’t do spring cleaning. She did like to open up all the windows on the first day the temperature rose over 50–to air everything out. I always loved that, coming home from school for lunch and finding the windows all wide open, the house looking like a toothless, eyeless caricature of itself, the air sweet and chilly. My mother hated being a housewife and did not cotton to cooking or cleaning. She did the minimums and stuck to the 50’s schedule that most of her friends observed: Monday clean and do laundry; Tuesday iron; Wednesday, volunteer work; Thursday, groceries; Friday, light cleaning (a lick and a promise, is what she called it); Saturday was the night my dad cooked burgers and Sundays we went to my grandparent’s house for dinner. My mother did what she felt she must but mostly without joy and often with many sighs. She did seem to enjoy ironing (which I so don’t get) and would sing while she ironed, in a voice like Ella Fitzgerald. Singing over the ironing and walking in the mountains – those are the times I remember my mother at her happiest. Not cleaning. Never spring cleaning.


Well, it’s sort of spring now and I am sort of spring cleaning. I’ve been putting hours in every week to clean my attic. It has to be done. We’re selling the house and moving to the country.

I’ve lived in this house for 28 years, married husband #2 after living alone here with my daughter for 5 years, moved that husband and his daughter in, had another baby, raised these kids until each one grew their feathers and flew off. Also raised a cockatiel, a parrot, four dogs and numerous gerbils and hamsters in this house. Can you imagine the debris? My attic had become a combination museum, closet (huge closet), and file cabinet. Treasures and cast-offs that have trickled down to me from three generations and two family lines. The leftover objects include outgrown clothes, games, books, and life directions. My very first poem, written at age 10. A couple of Jessie’s baby teeth, nestled inside the newborn bracelet she wore in the nursery: “Baby girl, Marks-Szedziewski, 2-19-78.” An envelope containing a curling wisp of very blond baby hair, Nic’s first haircut, 1988, a battered and faded pink pair of tiny toe shoes (mine, from 1955, I think; although they might be my aunt Jeanne’s). A hair curling iron (great-grandmother Nettie’s, late 1800’s). Aunt Jeanne’s bracelets from the 30’s. So glad I didn’t throw those away. Hundreds of notes from Jessie and from Nic: I Love You, Mommy. Mommy don’t tell anyone but I love you best. Thank you for being my mommy, You are the best Mommy, Next time you go on a trip, take me too. Mommy, I hate camp. Come and get me out of here, please!please!please! Nic’s version of Jingle Bells, written at age 4 with a few backwards letters, words scrawled across the page, Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Jingle all the way, Oh What Fun on Al’s True Ride, On the One on Holken Slay. Jessie’s school trophies, soccer and swimming, her camp and sports t-shirts, Nic’s academic medals for top scores in the state on the ACT and SAT at age 9 and 10, his IQ testing done at Northwestern U when he was 5.

The way I wept when the tester called me and told me the test results.

I wish I had known more back then how to feed his ravenous brain, his wonderful mind. So much I wish I could do over for him.


I will be 63 in a month. The past is truly the past. There are no do-overs and no time left for holding on. Time, instead, for letting go. For boxing up, and throwing away, for going to UPS to send Jessie her soccer and swim team t-shirts, to send Nic his Pokemon card collection. Handing the keepsakes over to my grown-up kids, handing over to them the job of remembering.

In the process of this sorting and cleaning, I’ve had to remind myself again and again to let go not only of the objects but the feelings. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve longed to have my children back in my arms, on my lap, longed for one more night of reading in bed with Jessie at age 7, one more night of long conversation at bedtime with Nic when he was 10. One more chance to see each of them for one hour during each year of their growing-up – one more chance to drink in the sight of them, their wispy hair, freckled faces, braces and missing teeth, to listen to their piping little voices more intently, memorize each one of them even more completely.

I had expected that cleaning out all this old stuff would help me clear the decks for this next chapter of my life, and yes, I guess that’s happening. I had anticipated reminiscing. I hadn’t anticipated the wave upon wave of memories to be so visceral, so wrenching, so expanding and swooping and full of love. I am not only clearing the decks; I am also rejuvenating both myself and the attic. Am going through some kind of death and resurrection here. Turning myself inside out and right side out again. Right side out and I must admit, a little trembly.

Spring cleaning is a piece of cake compared to this.




About Judith: Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with the piece 25 Reasons I Write. Judith’s other pieces on red Ravine include lang•widge, Mystery E.R., I Write Because, and PRACTICE – Door – 20min. Spring Cleaning is based on a 15 minute Writing Practice on WRITING TOPIC — SPRING CLEANING.

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I



seagulls and the smell of fish

the earth smolders and smokes

there is a fine line between solitude and loneliness

I like to walk that line


pink syrup flowing over rock

the wheat field consumed the trees

sandwich of bodies




II



nothing’s stable, everything shifts


I fly through the clouds

down below a brown landscape

where am I going?


helpless helpless helpless


i see wild stallions galloping

mountains can look like horses, can’t they

I climbed all this way and now cannot find the valley


tree figures run away


froth on chocolate milk

shadows of Stonehenge fall across the snow




III



pieces of cloud fall from sky

I think of traveling, being places where I don’t come from

soft edges on formerly rugged rock

salty lips, the waves pushing me back to the shore




IV



in my memory I see the waves

the colors pink and blue, like a gentle sunset in summer


black rock on a craggy coast

the sea rushed over the village


I think of strangers, and how much I am like them

there were children crying and colors flying





V



my slopes are cooling down

land melting thinning, what’s beyond

I think of the ocean, which I love and fear both

where the clouds meet the land


setting sunlight captured in liquid love


my edges are hotter than my center

papers fall from Heaven unnoticed

I see nothing for miles, I feel empty inside

some days I go back to the beach


I am flying apart







____________________________________________________________________________________


These poems came out of an exercise suggested by red Ravine guest writer Judith Ford, and modified from an event she attended and describes in the post lang•widge. Guests at that event, which was held this past March in Bethesda, Maryland, was an “evening of art, jazz and spontaneous poetry, featuring paintings by Freya Grand.”

Freya Grand’s paintings, pictured above, became the inspiration for our own red Ravine “blog happening,” created and curated by Jude:

So here’s an idea: How about trying a little mini da-da poetry writing sans Steven Rogers’ music? Take a look at any of the Freya Grand paintings in this post (or visit her website). Pick out a piece of music you currently like a lot. While the music plays, quickly, without much thought, jot down five (or so) lines or phrases…. Let’s see what we come up with.



Jude received free form lines and phrases from three participants (including myself). She printed them, cut them apart, and scrambled them. Then, she used playing cards to generate the poem, picking a card, choosing that number of lines, then picking randomly from the bunch. Jude took the liberty of creating stanzas as she typed the results. She did a beautiful job.

Thank you, Jude, for sharing this creative fun with us!


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By Judith Ford
 
 

You’re Invited, lang•widge, March 27, 2010, Gallery Neptune in Bethesda, Maryland.




Poetry is a lot like music. Music evokes visual images; visual art can stimulate poems. Read that backwards and it’s true that way, too.

Last March, while visiting a friend in DC, I had the opportunity to experience all three — music, my friend’s paintings, and a spontaneous poetry happening — mixed together for one entertaining evening. The event: lang•widge. The setting: Gallery Neptune in Bethesda, Maryland.

My friend, artist Freya Grand, paints landscapes. Not your ordinary landscapes. Landscapes filtered through Freya’s vision and open to interaction with the viewer. In Freya’s words, “Painting landscape begins as an internal process. As in abstraction, forms transmit a mysterious secret life, exert a presence.”

Presence was abundant on March 27 at Gallery Neptune, even before the rest of the evening’s events unfolded.  I’ve always had my own strong responses to Freya’s work, partly because I’ve traveled with her to some of the locations she later painted. More because her work is emotional, full of motion and light. Like me, the lang•widge participants responded in their own unique ways.

So here’s how it went: A few weeks before lang•widge, Freya and gallery owner Elyse Harrison asked jazz musician Steven Rogers to preview the paintings and compose short pieces of music in response. Once everyone had had a chance to walk around and see all the paintings (munch on cheese and crackers, drink wine), we were asked to gather in front of a podium and listen to a short poetry reading by Charlie Jensen, poet and director of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, and the poet, Reb Livingston.








            



                            



                                       


Works by Freya Grand, Rock at Low Tide, 48″ x 60″, 2008, Burning Fields, 30″ x 30″, 2009, Cotopaxi, 48″ x 60″, 2006, and Fog, Benbulben, 30″ x30″, 2010, paintings © 2006-2010 by Freya Grand. All rights reserved.




Suitably warmed-up, we were each given a clipboard, a few sheets of paper, and a pencil. As Steven Rogers’ techno-jazz music played, we looked at the paintings again and quickly jotted down short lines. Whatever came to mind.

I was surprised by how much I liked the music. I am not a big jazz fan, but looking at Freya’s work and listening to this weird contemporary music, I found myself enjoying the way the visual and musical bits blended together. Whatever it was I wrote in response — I didn’t preserve any of it —  was full of the light and movement I’ve always seen in my friend’s work.  Hope, change, powerful natural forces, awe, wonder. 

When the four short pieces of music had finished, we reassembled in front of the podium. Volunteers did most of the reading, but first Charlie Jensen and Reb Livingston demonstrated the technique. They chose two from a diverse collection of colored dice. The number rolled determined the number of pieces of paper to be read together to create a spontaneous poem.

The results were surprising, to say the least. Where I had seen light and life, others had seen darkness and death, despair and violence. Sexuality. New life forms. Being lost, being found. Memories of blankets, clouds, and chaos.


 
 

During lang•widge, poets Charles Jensen and Reb Livingston explain the process, draw poem pieces, then read the resulting poetry, photos © 2010 by Judith Ford. All rights reserved.



Here are some of my favorite lines:

smiley in foam, red glee

his daughter in a box, pushed out to sea

I’ve made a mistake coming here

I’ll never eat butter cream frosting again




When my husband, Chris, who loves to perform for an audience, volunteered, things got even stranger. He happened to pick a very long series of lines that were written in five different languages. Chris speaks nothing but English. His courageous attempts to pronounce Spanish, Italian, French, German, and, I think, Swedish, were sidesplitting.

Afterward Chris sought out the writer of those lines, and, yes, she did speak all those languages. She told Chris he’d done a pretty good job at guessing the pronunciations.

I sought out Freya. “Did you realize how much pain and despair was hiding in your paintings?” I asked. Freya is not prone to darkness or despair. She told me she was actually more surprised by the butter cream frosting than the pain. She said something like, “People project into my work whatever is up for them at the present moment.”

Not sure about that butter cream.



Freya Grand and Chris Ford, photo ©
2010 by Judith Ford. All rights reserved.




So here’s an idea:  How about trying a little mini da-da poetry writing sans Steven Rogers’ music? Take a look at any of the Freya Grand paintings in this post (or visit her website). Pick out a piece of music you currently like a lot. While the music plays, quickly, without much thought, jot down five (or so) lines or phrases.

Email them to me at pinkeggs@gmail.com.  After two weeks or so (about August 9) I’ll randomly pick out lines, type them in the order I’ve picked, and post them here in the comments section. Let’s see what we come up with.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Here are two poems created during the lang•widge event; these are also posted on The Writer’s Center website.




1.



this is reversal

clouds coming up through earth’s crust

all my orange drizzles around in dust

I fly over this, I needn’t touch down

Earth is melting

manna comes down

my wings are lifted by

heat from the ground

Lift off!

Earth Burnt and Fractured

Evaporated Anger

Unexpressed Blindness

earth’s breath

greeny pastures of ooze

trudging uphill I see my shadow and a whale

I’m near a synthetic ocean

one that’s flat and even dry

cured epoxy cement

fake lily sky

but here’s where I swim

and here’s where I’ll die

your piano carries me anywhere

you play

standing stones

scottish shore

volcanic mist

walk to the top edge

as above, so below

coolness rising

You and me

never the same

mountain ranges between us

ocean depths……storms

air that we breathe

the only media

that unites

I lived there so long the ocean was like a person to me.

A giant meatball rolling towards its destiny.





2.



East coast sunsets

are less brilliant

but the sand between my toes

feels more like home.

Scary golf course littered laced

and smoking with traps sandy

silken tofu nowhere is there a

flag or a hole to crawl into

Dark fog charcoal wall

surrounding me give me grass

but it wriggles this grass

maybe the rocks will protect me

marshmallow antlers and steamy pea soup

There’s a smiley

in the foam

red glee

misty canyon aerie wheat

volcanic atmosphere rock strewn beach

geyser rivulets

yves tanguy

shadows

cliff hanger

steam

heat

his daughter in a box, pushed out to sea

wash of creation

thrum

pure thin air

Moses parts a red and vanillas sea

A single, persistent surfer.

I’d made a mistake coming here.

bleed





___________________________________________________________________________________________

Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with her 25 Reasons I Write post. Judith’s other pieces on red Ravine include Mystery E.R., I Write Because, and PRACTICE – Door – 20min.

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By Judith Ford


Image by Jude Ford, July 2009, in front of the Mathematics Building, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, photo © 2010 Jude Ford. All rights reserved.


This is my son, at the door of the math building at the University of Michigan. A month after this picture he’d go through that door to begin his life as a math PhD candidate and as a college teacher. He’d discover the frustration of trying to teach calculus to a bunch of freshmen who wouldn’t give a damn. Who wouldn’t share one drop of the passion he feels for his subject. Years before this photo, he’d told me, with tears in his eyes, that he wished more people could see how elegant and beautiful math was.

Despite the beauty of math, it was never enough.

My son started grad school a month short of his 21st birthday. He was overly ready and not ready at all. He’d had a summer of brutal awakenings, realization upon realization of all he missed out on by being a child math prodigy. Not that he could have avoided being who he was. He was blessed, as much as cursed, with an unusual mind, shunned by children who thought he was showing off, trying to make them feel stupid, when all he was doing was using the language and thoughts natural to him. He had a 30-year-old’s vocabulary by the time he was in first grade. I’m not kidding.

He and I had a conversation just a week ago, about his intellectual differentness. He pointed out to me that he’d met a lot of really smart people in the honors math program at the U of Chicago, from which he’d graduated last June. “There are a lot of people out there who are way smarter than I am,” he said. “I don’t think I was all that unusual when I was a kid.”

I disagreed. “Yes, dear, you really were different. It was obvious by the time you were 2. You learned things in big huge gulps. At a rate that wasn’t usual, that was, frankly, a little scary. And you didn’t know how to play with other kids.”

“I still don’t.”

“That’s what was scary to me when you got tested and those scores came back so freakishly high. I knew you were going to be lonely.”

“I don’t remember ever not being lonely.”

“Kids your age were intimidated by you. By third grade, they’d started avoiding you.”

“I thought they all knew this secret thing that I’d somehow missed out on. I thought math could make up for that. I thought it would solve everything. I was pathetic. I never learned how to be a human being.”

“How brave of you to see that,” I think I said. “So now what do you need to do?”

“I don’t have a clue,” he answered.

There’s ivy growing over the top of this door, up at the right hand corner. Brings to mind the academic cliché of ivied walls and the idea that this door, being partly occluded, is yet another incomplete solution, leading to an unknown and no doubt imperfect path. Math, a career in math, still won’t solve my son’s life or end his loneliness.

See the way he holds his arms and shoulders. His uncertainty and discomfort are obvious. And that he’s trying to be patient with me as I take his picture. He squints at me. He frowns. He knows I’m doing a mom thing that, for some reasons not clear to him, I need to do.

Does he know how my heart hurts for him? How much I wish I could soothe away the pain in his face with something as simple as a hug and a bedtime story. How these things, too, are mom things that I can’t help feeling. He doesn’t need to know. I don’t tell him and I try not to let him see.

He tolerates my hug when I say good-bye. He doesn’t hug back. He doesn’t hold on. His gaze, over my shoulder, already fixed on that door.

It’s trite to say that when he walked through that door he walked into the rest of his life. But I want to say it. So I am. He did. He walked into his adult life without a clue. Which is the only way possible to walk into one’s life. And interestingly, the only way that is, in fact, a kind of solution.


Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with her 25 Reasons I Write post. She joins ybonesy and QuoinMonkey in writing about Topic post WRITING TOPIC — DOOR. Judith’s other pieces on red Ravine include Mystery E.R. and a writing group practice I Write Because.

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Veins, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, October 2009, all photos
© 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

Day to day life creeps up on you. Practice falls by the wayside. Goals seem out of reach. Something inside makes you keep going.

Early October was my second time in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin to meet with three other Midwest writers in retreat. We arrived on Sunday, left on Wednesday, but we sure packed in the writing. I nearly filled an entire notebook. We try to meet every 6 months. The first night, we check in, slip sheets on the cabin beds, walk by Lake Michigan, get all the gossip and gabbing out of the way. The next day we dive in.

It’s cold this time of year. One person becomes the Firekeeper. The wood pile needs to be replenished. The fire keeps us warm. There is a need for leadership, someone to time the Writing Practices, lead the slow walking, provide structure for the silence — a Timekeeper. Most traditions have a Firekeeper and a Timekeeper. I am grateful for their effort.

Before the writing begins, we tear off pages of a lined yellow tablet, jot down Writing Topics, and throw them into a bowl. We take turns choosing a Topic and rotate who reads first. Some of the best Writing Practices surface from the strangest Writing Topics. My Other Self. Holy-Moley. The Broken Glass. After a few years of meeting, we have settled into a groove. I trust these writers.

One of the Writing Topics we drew out of the bowl was  “I Write Because…” When the retreat was over, I asked everyone if they would mind if I published the practices. For me, they harken back to the days when ybonesy and I first launched red Ravine (it grew out of our practice). And she has written with these writers, too. Bob and Teri have been frequent guests on red Ravine. Jude was one of our first guests, writing her piece 25 Reasons I Write from one of the cabins near the lake.

I want to share the structure of our writing retreats because anyone can form a writing group. Community is important. For the four of us, meeting together works because we live in fairly close proximity in the Midwest. We can make the drive in 8 to 10 hours if we want to. Last time, Teri, Jude, and I flew to Kansas City, Missouri. We’re thinking about meeting in Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior in 6 months.

I don’t want to make it sound easy. It takes a financial investment up front. And a continued commitment to check in with each other and plan the next meeting at least 3 months ahead. But the rewards are plentiful. Accountability. Support. People who believe in me when I forget how to believe in myself. Some days it feels like our hands are going to fall off from the writing. We crave the silence.

We laugh long and hard. Deep belly laughs. Sometimes we cry.  It feels good to laugh like that, to share meals together. Teri brings wild rice soup from Minnesota. Bob travels with a different kind of Kansas City barbecue each time we meet. Jude prepares her favorite dishes. I don’t like to cook. I volunteer to do the dishes.

The Timekeeper sent me a rundown of our schedule. It works pretty much the same way each time we meet. We follow what we learned from Natalie Goldberg about silence and structure and Writing Practice. Sit, walk, write. We do it because we don’t want to be tossed away. We do it because, for us, it works. It’s one way to write. It teaches discipline. It’s solid. It takes us where we need to go.

_____________________________

 
 

 Writing Retreat Schedule

 
 

Wake up. Silence begins.
Meet for sit, walk, write at 9 a.m.
Sit for 20 minutes.
Walk for 5-10 minutes.
Write: four, 10-minute Writing Practices…one right after the other.
Read one practice, go around the group.
Repeat for the remaining three practices.
Break for 5-10 minutes. (Can break before reading, but usually break after reading)
Return to group.
Write two more practices.
Read them to each other.
About 11:30, break for lunch. Some prep required and we ate lunch in silence.
In silence and on our own until 3 p.m. when we return to the group.
Sit for 20 minutes.
Walk for 5-10 minutes.
Write: four, 10-minute writing practices.
Read each practice write to the group.
Break for dinner about 5:30 p.m.
Break silence.
Dinner at 6.
Talking about writing, life, etc.
Read writing projects we are working on.

 
 

Second Day

Repeat of the first day.

 
 

Third/Last Day

Meet for discussion of goals for next 6 months.
Sit for 10 minutes.
Then take 1/2 hour or 45 minutes to formulate writing/creative goals for the next 6 months.
Meet in group.
Each person discusses goals.
Group comments and person refines goals.

Each member of the group emails their goals to one person who puts them all together, sends them out for review, and then issues final email to group with all the goals listed.

Report to each other on 15th of the month and the last day of the month on our progress…a check-in.

 
 

_____________________________

 
 
 

What I really want to say is I’m grateful for other writers. I admire and respect those who hone their craft, who dedicate time to their practice, who complete projects and get their work out there (no matter how long it takes).

 
 

For me, these self-propelled mini-retreats work because:

  • Follow the same Sit, Walk, Write structure each time. Consistent format.
  • Time to talk, laugh, share. Time for silence. Time alone for reflection. Time to stare into space.
  • No shame, no blame. We write our asses off, we read aloud. No crosstalk or feedback (except around goals).
  • Set 6 month goals, check in every two weeks. Learn that we all go through highs and lows; we all want to quit writing at times.
  • Clarity about money. Split the costs of lodging and groceries.
  • Short visits to museums, cafes, local color, either before or after retreat.
  • Practice feeds practice. Apply what is learned to other practices: photography, haiku, poetry, art.
  • What happens at the retreat, stays at the retreat.

 
Maybe Bob, Jude, and Teri will share more about why these mini-retreats work for them. I was reading through my notebook from early October. There were notes I had jotted in the margins from a conversation we had about what success as a writer means to each of us. What does success mean to you?

What would your writing retreat look like? Go for it. Choose a time. Hook up with other writers. Create a structure. Write. Don’t look for perfection. Let yourself slip up, make mistakes, stop writing for a while if you want to. But don’t be tossed away. Here are our unedited Writing Practices on why we write. Why do you write?

 
 

I Write Because…10 minutes. Go!

 
 
 

____________________

 
 
 

Teri Blair

 
 

I don’t know why I write anymore. That’s the problem. I used to write because I needed to. That was most of my life. Most of my life until I took a sabbatical six years ago. Until then, I found solace on the page; I straightened out my life with a pen and paper. Writing was one of my best friends…certainly a most faithful friend.

And then, I took the sabbatical and began this journey. This concentrate-on-writing-journey. It went well initially. I let myself write all those essays, I joined the Blue Mooners writing group, I studied with Natalie Goldberg, and I starting working with Scott. I sent my work out and even got some small paychecks from editors. But somewhere in there, during these six years, it changed. People started asking me if I had sold anything, asking me about writing all the time. I wanted them to ask me, and then I didn’t. I was losing something by involving everyone, and then it just turned into a pressure. I was writing to have an answer to their questions. Or to feel special. When this was dawning on me, I went to hear Mary Oliver at the State Theater. She told the writers in the audience to write a long, long time before they tried to publish. I knew she was right. I knew I had to go back inside myself if I was going to save this thing that I had once loved and needed and felt close to.

The trip out of the pressure has been much more difficult than the joy-ride in. And now, all I want to do is write, but nothing comes. The voice inside prods: Why do you want to write? Are you going to try to get your life needs met through me? If I come back, will you go down the same old path?

I’m not yet solid in my convictions, though very close.

 
 

____________________

 
 
 

Jude Ford

 
 
I write because…there are as many reasons to do it as there are reasons not to. At this point, after all these years of honing my writing skills, it would feel like a waste – and a loss – to not do it.

I write because I love to read. Reading triggers my mind to come up with my own ways of arranging words. Reading reminds me of what I want/need to say.

I write because I didn’t feel listened to as a kid. Yeah, yeah, I probably talked so much back then that no one ever could listen to me enough to make me feel heard. My father used to like to say I’d been vaccinated with a phonograph needle in infancy. (I just realized what a dated image that is. Who ever associates a needle with sound in 2009?!)

I don’t feel well listened to even now, I guess. I got into the habit, as I was growing up, of speaking less and less and by the time I turned 21, I’d perfected the art of being agreeable rather than speaking up about who I was or what I thought. I didn’t even know, myself, who I was or what I thought half the time.

But I wrote. Starting when I was 19 and left home for good, I wrote all the time. My journals from my 20’s are full of depression and melodrama, poems that sound as young as I was. When I read them now, they make me cringe.

And yet – I remember what those journals were to me at the time, my one lifeline, my safest place, the only place in my life where I brought all of my true self.

I write still so that I can find out who I am and what I think. There are other lifelines now – Chris, my friends, my work – where I also bring my true self but writing remains one of my mainstays.

 
 

____________________

 
 
 

Bob Chrisman

 
 
I write because something inside me wants to tell my stories, put them outside myself and free up the space they take inside me, free up that energy I use to keep the unpleasant ones out of my consciousness. I write because I want to make sense of a non-sensical life, the one I live. Sometimes the connections don’t become obvious until I see them laid out on paper in front of me.

I write to tell my story so that anyone out there who is or has experienced some of the things I have will know they aren’t alone, will know that I survived what they are going through. I write to connect with other people because when I do I feel successful as a human being.

I write because I must. Writing makes me feel free once I’m finished. Starting a piece may prove difficult. I may even avoid writing for days or weeks, but once I begin and finish a difficult piece I feel freer.

I write because writing has introduced me to some of the most wonderful people in the world, people who give me hope that we may deal with our problems and change the world, save us from ourselves.

I write because I must tell my truth to the world, as much as I feel safe telling.

I write because it feels good to see the words appear on the paper as the pen glides across the page. Sometimes surprises happen. Things appear that I didn’t consciously mean to say. Misspelled words give new meaning to what I said, new truth.

I write because writing gives me control over my life.

 
 

____________________

 
 
 

QuoinMonkey

 
 

I write because I love to write. I love writers. I write because it’s a place that is still. I let myself dive into the black. I am honest with myself. Things never seem to be as bad as I think they are when I write.

I write to make sense out of my life. My mother’s life. My grandmother’s life. My crazy family. I write with a community of writers because I know I’m not alone. Because they help me hold the space. Because they are not afraid of what they might find in the silence.

I write to learn about things I would never research if it were not for writing. I write to learn. I write to quell the hunger. I write to still my insatiable curiosity.

I write to help me confront my own death. I write to find my voice, to tap into my inner courage. I write to not feel so alone. Yet writing is lonely. And when I write I am often alone. I write to connect with what is important to me. To connect with others. I write. I write. I write.

I have always written. But writing with wild abandon is something I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I write to push myself outside of the lines. Because I care about the writers who came before me. I write to teach others how to write. Don’t do as I say; do as I do.

Writing practice frees me. But it’s not a finished piece. It may never be a finished piece. Yet it might.

Writing Practice takes me where I need to go. Teaches me Faith. Patience. Courage. Risktaking. That it’s okay to cry. Conflict resolution. What I care about. What I could care less about.

I don’t have to love everyone or everything. Writing is structure. It teaches me how to live.

 

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

-related to Topic: WRITING TOPIC — 25 REASONS I WRITE

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by Judith Ford


actor-jude-suffering

Actor “Jude” Suffering, dramatization of author Judith Ford in Discovery Health Channel series Mystery ER, photos © 2008 by Judith Ford. All rights reserved.




Last April, when Discovery Health Channel contacted me, I’d been working on my book, Fever of Unknown Origin, for over 15 years. I never intended it to be what it turned out to be—a 600-page manuscript with multiple plotlines and themes. It started out as a way to come to terms with a serious illness that put me in the hospital for most of the summer of 1990.

But while I wrote, my life kept happening. My parents got sick and died; their stories seeped into the book. What I thought and felt about my illness, about illness in general and about death, changed. I did countless rewrites. In 2003, I launched a website, www.judithford.com, expecting I’d be ready to market the manuscript within a year. That didn’t happen. I got discouraged and quit writing more than once, each time returning weeks later with renewed vision, scrapping whole chapters, restructuring and polishing what remained. Fever and I had been alone together too long; I’d lost momentum.

And then I received the Discovery Health Channel email. Bill, a “finder” for the network, found my website. He was looking for stories for a new TV series called Mystery ER. “Yours would be a great story for us,” he told me, “and free publicity for you.”

I didn’t jump at the offer. I’d watched Discovery Health Channel once or twice and knew that it aired stories of real people dealing with dramatic medical issues. I wasn’t sure participating would be good for me or for Fever. I told Bill I’d think it over. He sent me a CD with samples of Mystery ER.

The first opened with a woman having energetic convulsions on an ER gurney. The second involved an orthodox Jewish boy who’d contracted trichinosis, somehow, without ever having eaten pork. He collapsed in an ER doorway. While the stories were presented with respect for the patients and what looked like medical accuracy, I didn’t see how my book would fit. It contained no scenes of me passing out or seizing.



more-silly-yoga-poseMy illness had developed in slow motion, starting in 1979 with bone-numbing fatigue, low fevers, and an odd prickly rash. I went to doctors who theorized hypoglycemia, spider bites, allergies, chronic mono. None had treatment suggestions, so after two years of feeling like hell, I created my own plan. It included lots of sleep, no refined sugar or white flour, daily lap swimming, dance classes, yoga, and meditation.

Gradually, I got well and stayed well until 1990, when all the symptoms returned, this time with higher fevers. I also developed anemia, systemic inflammation, and eventually, ulcerative colitis. All dramatic enough to compel me to write but not, I thought, material for a TV show. How could Mystery ER dramatize a fever of 106, an itchy rash, abnormal liver function, and an enlarged spleen? And how in the world could they condense what had become a story about my life into thirty minutes?

“Not to worry,” Nora, the producer, told me. “We’ll just deal with your illness, not the rest of the book, and we’ll write it in a way that’s compelling and authentic.” She offered to come to Milwaukee to interview on camera me, my husband, Chris, and one of my doctors. The show would include clips of our interviews interspersed with dramatizations, played by actors. “And,” said Nora, “we’ll let you mention your book on camera.” It was the promise of book publicity that made me say “Yes.”



chris-ford-and-a-producerThe morning of the filming, the lighting and sound guys took over my friend Judy’s downtown Milwaukee condo. They banished her, her four-year-old granddaughter, and three dogs to the master bedroom. The TV crew moved furniture, set up shades to block the floor-to-ceiling windows, and demanded absolute silence. Each interview was two-and-a-half hours long, including breaks to deal with shifting light, the phone ringing, and the grandchild slinking out to lean adorably—but distractingly—against the wall to watch us.

At first, I enjoyed being asked detailed questions about my illness. What was my life like when it began? Busy, way, way busy. Had I believed my first recovery, in 1981, had happened as a result of meditation and dietary changes? Yes, I thought I’d been mentally and physically amazing. But as we got more deeply into the summer of 1990, my energy flagged. Frankly, having written in so many ways and in such detail about my suffering, I was bored by it.




                                                                chris-ford-anxiously-waiting-for-his-interview
                ruby-and-bear-less-than-amused




I perked up when we got to the part about my friend and former teacher, Dick, coming to the hospital to do a healing hypnosis two days before I was scheduled to have my colon removed. The night after the hypnosis I slept well for the first time in months. The colon symptoms abated and the colonectomy was cancelled. I went home five days later.

Nora perked up, too. “So when the medical people had given up on you, this other form of healing cured you?” Um. No. The medical people had far from given up; they were pumping me full of IV Prednisone and Demerol. They drew my blood many times a day. They’d hooked me up to a chest tube through which I was getting all my nutrition. My turn-for-the-better was sudden and wonderful, but it wasn’t magic, nor was it complete. It took two more months before I could go back to work. I had a serious relapse in 1997.

I explained this to Nora but her fascination made me worry that she was going to spin my story in a direction I didn’t want it to go.

“Did you feel that this was divine intervention?”

“Not really,” I said.




actual-jude-being-interviewed





The questions about what causes and cures disease are big and wide and controversial. My exploration of those questions is central to Fever and impossible to capture in sound-bites. Before I got sick in 1990, I would have told Nora that health was a decision, that most people could make themselves well with a combination of focus, relaxation, right thinking, and right eating. My 1990 relapse, eventually diagnosed as Adult Onset Stills Disease, blew all that certainty and bravado to bits. The only thing I knew for sure afterwards was that life is unpredictable, uncontrollable, precious, and brief.

At the end of my interview, Nora asked me what message I’d like to send to other people struggling with mysterious illnesses. I laughed out loud. “I spent 15 years and 600 pages on that,” I told her. “Give it a try,” she said.

I responded with something generic, like, “Every person who gets sick has to come up with their own sense of meaning.” Later, I wished I’d talked instead about how the illness changed me. How it humbled me. How it taught me to let go.

My doctor, Dr. M, was interviewed last. Just before her session, she whispered to me, “I don’t think I should be here. I don’t think what you had was Stills Disease.” She thought my diagnosis was ulcerative colitis, despite the fact that three other doctors had suggested the Stills label, conjecturing that the colitis had been caused by a drug reaction. I hadn’t had a colon symptom in 18 years. I reminded Dr. M. that even the gastroenterologist had rejected the colitis theory. “No,” she said, “I’m certain.”

Great, I thought. The whole show revolved around the Stills diagnosis. Would there be any show without it? Did I even want there to be a show?

While Dr. M was being interviewed in another room, I sat and worried over everything I had and hadn’t said. I wondered if I was doing my book a disservice, allowing it to be reduced to the one thin, unexamined plotline of my disease.

Nora took a break from Dr. M’s session to tell me, “Your doctor is driving me nuts. She’s giving me paragraphs of medical facts; none of our viewers will know what she’s talking about.”

“And,” Nora added, “she doesn’t think you ever had Stills disease.”

“Can we still do the show?” I asked, suddenly sure I did, in fact, want the show to go on.

“Oh yeah, we can edit out whatever doesn’t fit. It’s just annoying.”

And edit they did. The interview segments that took all day to film amounted to ten minutes of on-screen time.




actor-jude-looking-worrieda-doctor-actoractor-playing-jude-in-the-eractor-jude-throwing-out-junk-foodactor-mom-in-black-shawl-dyingactor-mom-saying-im-dying




“Inflamed,” my Mystery ER story, debuted on September 1. I expected the worst. What if they’d included my inane closing statement about “Everyone has their own meaning blah blah blah”? What if I looked old and dumpy? What if the editors made it sound like I’d cured myself with my mind? What if my story was no longer mine? I felt comfortable enough surrendering to the TV people at the time I signed release forms, yet as the Mystery ER logo lit up the TV screen I wanted to snatch my story back and protect it like the vulnerable newborn it suddenly seemed to be.

But really, the show was okay. More than okay. There were the requisite overly-dramatic bits – like a shot of my hypochondriac mother in a black shawl murmuring “I’m going to die,” and me in the kitchen frantically throwing out all the junk food when I was diagnosed as hypoglycemic. And the silly shot of me sitting in a yoga pose.

The interview sections, though, were fine. I looked okay and sounded smart enough to not embarrass myself. And, thank you very much, “everyone has to find their own meaning” ended up on the cutting room floor. As did all mention of my book. So much for the “free publicity.”

Now, two months later, I don’t mind losing the publicity. Much unexpected good has come of “Inflamed.” The friends who watched the show with me have gotten a lot of mileage out of doing imitations of my moaning mother. My sister-in-law has threatened to give me a black shawl for Christmas. Chris enjoyed seeing himself played by a handsome young actor with great pecs. My life-long running practice, an important theme in the book, made it into the script, and I loved seeing my actor-self running with better form than my own.

In the weeks since the show aired, all kinds of people—neighbors, former clients, the UPS man—have told me how much they liked the show, how impressed they were by the interview segments, and to ask if I’m well now. I am.

But here’s the really great part: Mystery ER lit a fire under me. It gave Fever more definition, more weight. It made me want to finish the book. It matters a great deal to me that a TV channel was interested in my story and that people who saw the show were touched by it.

This past summer, I went to a “How to sell your book” workshop at The Loft in Minneapolis and learned that a memoir doesn’t have to be completed before you market it. I hired a consultant to help me write the book proposal. She told me that mentioning Mystery ER in my cover letter would make busy editors and agents pay more attention. The proposal packets took most of August to write and assemble. Last week I sent out the first batch to eleven literary agents.

I’m doing the rest of the revisions with new enthusiasm, working every day. Fever and I aren’t alone together any more; I can feel my audience now, out there, waiting.




the-silly-yoga-pose

The “Silly” Yoga Pose, author Judith Ford in Mystery ER show
“Inflamed,” photo © 2008 by Judith Ford. All rights reserved.





Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with her 25 Reasons I Write post. Reason #14: “I write to finish this damn book and it isn’t done yet.” (Remember that one, Jude? J)

You can eventually see the show, “Inflamed,” about Judith’s illness, as Discovery Health Channel re-runs all the episodes of Mystery ER. Check your local listings.

Oh, and all Mystery ER names have been changed.

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