A View of the Summit: A Writing Retreat’s Unexpected Narrative Arc

It felt like kismet when I received the email.

“I’m writing because we just had a cancellation on the St. Paul writing retreat, and you’re number one on the waiting list,” it said.

And there it was — the inciting incident that launched my story.

When everything seemed to fall into place, I felt confident the August retreat would provide a welcome creative escape and a nurturing 60th birthday present to myself. After all, August is the most wicked of months. Since the death of my oldest son, Elliot, in August 2018, conflated with too many profound losses in recent years, I have written to grieve — and frankly, survive. Finding my writing roadmap was my objective for the week, but the universe had its own unique take in that.

Little did I know, this retreat would become the subject of my writing, as opposed to the enabler of it.

Perhaps that’s why the impact has been so seismic. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was searching for something outside myself to help heal my shattered soul. But what I encountered was the startling real-time reality that said process is — and always will be — an inside job.

I realize now this transformative experience was less about my creative path and more about my grief journey.

Though I thought I had packed light, I arrived with some extra baggage. Turns out grief behaves like a clingy companion who never checks out and never leaves — brazenly taking up residence in every cell of your body. Sometimes, I feel like my son Ian’s lizard, Carlton, except I can’t ever seem to shed my stiffening outer layer of skin.

So, for this grief-ladened former extrovert, jumping into a bubbling broth of bright, witty women — who also happen to be ten perfect strangers — was a little like diving headfirst into 35-degree plunge pool. Game on, sister. Like riding a bicycle, yes, but also a stark reminder that I have become a completely different person since Elliot’s death.

“Be gentle with yourself,” said one of the angel voices in my head.

On paper (or online), this immersive writing experience felt almost magical — the “Oz” of writing retreats but still layered with complexities. At the top of the list was the pandemic. It was my first time on a plane in a year and a half. In her follow-up email, retreat leader Jess Lourey assured me they were following “Minnesota COVID guidelines,” and they had cut the attendance in half. It still felt strange. Then, there was the Twin Cities location — packed with backstory for me, now viewed through the traumatic lens of George Floyd’s tragic murder last year.

On the plus side, there were memories from my salad days as an intern in the mid-1980s at The Guthrie Theatre, including wacky adventures with my college pal Peter, who was a Minnesota native. It was a time when anything felt possible. From Mary Tyler Moore to Prince to friends in the area, it seemed like the ideal destination after an extended period of debilitating grief and isolation. There would be yoga, meditation, healthy food, and a community of brilliant women, peppered with sassy literary insights from Jess, accomplished writer and professor.

As I approached the shadowy Summit Avenue manse on that first day, it dripped with 19th century charm in a Grey Gardens sort of way. Its cluttered elegance felt both inviting and unsettling. Shabbier than chic, the front porch was festooned with overgrown hanging plants and clusters of peeling lounge chairs with faded cushions. Dangling strands of greenery enveloped the tattered lanai like a lacy antique tablecloth draped over my long-deceased grandmother’s dining table.

My room was on the so-called “garden level,” termed euphemistically since the vine-wrapped transom windows, barely peeking above ground level, had probably not been cracked open since 1925. I tried to appreciate the quaint appeal, but I was struggling to sleep and breathe in the dank basement room with no air conditioning. And the fans they dug out of the closet did not help the sullied, stagnate air situation at all. It felt like a blast furnace at night.  

This was not my beautiful retreat, nor the 60th birthday experience I had envisioned. Once again, my yin clobbered my yang. The blessing and the curse;  bitter and sweet; excruciating and transcendent. It was overwhelming, really—a mosaic of epiphanies, fears, tears, laughs, gold nuggets, connections, wine, hugs, more tears,  sleepless nights, perspiration, Kleenex, mucus, chocolate, thick coffee, and abundant charcuterie.

Let’s just say it was complicated.

In particular, a worsening runny nose and cough came into full bloom on day two, and an IM to my doctor to check symptoms resulted in what I feared.

“Yes, Elaine, get a  COVID test,” she instructed. “The variant is causing milder breakthrough symptoms in vaccinated people.”

I shared my concern with Cindy, one of the hosts, and she said, “Oh dear. I’m sorry. We don’t have liability insurance to drive you to get a test.”  

I was stunned, but fortunately, angels on earth do exist because Lea, my retreat compatriot, came my rescue. Survival mode is my natural state, so I did what was hardest for me—asked for help. My therapist would say I was over-functioning, but I needed a ride. Lea had driven from Rochester, Minnesota, my pal Peter’s hometown, so she had a car. We had hit it off on day one. I knew Lyft would not drive me to get a test, and I had no transportation.

Though I was vaccinated, I could not rest until I knew my status. How could I run the risk of infecting the retreat bubble with COVID? What would happen then? No one was masking. After all, I had come for Texas, where hospitalizations were rising. I was feeling my anxiety ramp up. Handling this was distracting and stressful, to say the least. Shattered any Zen vibe that might have been brewing. And a COVID test was definitely in sync with a restorative retreat I imagined. 

After extensive online searching with my dear Lea’s help, we found the only test available that day at a sketchy “emergency” COVID lab located in the industrial outskirts of St. Paul. It required prepayment, but I was game. We hit the road like Lucy and Ethel trying to find William Holden at 21. It was as hysterical as it was annoying. There were even some madcap antics when we could not find the poorly marked entrance behind the thick, uncut grass. We thought it was scam.

Lord, we giggled and gasped our way across the Twin Cities, laughing through our tears. And miraculously, for a couple of hours that afternoon, I felt my crusty lizard-grief skin dissolve into a puddle of silliness. For just a brief moment or two, I felt like me again — me with a cold, that is. Thank you, Lea for that unexpected glimpse of joy and your extreme generosity.

Not surprisingly, more intrigue ensued as I had to follow up when the results did not appear as promised within an hour. Apparently, the technician had stepped out for some wild rice soup, I guess, but they eventually found him, and it was negative. Thank God.

Back to our program in progress, Jess, our charming, brilliant and earthy retreat guru, was deep into her spectacular curriculum. It’s all a little foggy to tell you the truth, but I can tell from my notes that she offered a keen understanding of how to construct a narrative. It was all about finding clarity and giving yourself permission to sink into the power and value of your story. She was a font of practical knowledge, too — all the brass tacks and tricks to get ’er done. Meanwhile, Cindy, her perky and polished partner in crime, orchestrated our delicious moveable feasts and morning yogas with unflappable panache. Exhaling felt good — especially when the congestion cleared a bit.

But the heart connections among the women were the highlight. It’s ironic that words elude me to adequately describe the experience of a writing retreat, of being in the presence of these amazing soul sisters, but that’s probably because it feels as ephemeral as the tiny fuchsia morning glories that bloomed for only an hour or so in the sprawling backyard each day. Finding authentic community is rare — particularly in the brave new pandemic world. There was a little Oz in the mix.

So, in spite of the mayhem, I believe this week was a long overdue investment in my muse and myself. It taught me to go on cherishing the beauty in the tiniest glimmers of grace. I am grateful for the memories, motivation, momentum, and minor mending of my fractured heart. And I could not wait to get home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

Because there’s no place like home.

Over the Rainbow: On the Edge of August

Maybe it’s the accumulation of almost sixty years of living in this body, but I am feeling the weight of my existence. No, my survival. I feel like I have been in survival mode—consciously or unconsciously for nearly half my life. That takes my breath away. Yet the past three years have eclipsed everything that came before. The loss of my son Elliot three years ago on August 5, 2018, at age 26 is the heaviest of all.

With August just days away, I have been drilling down into my search for a sense of renewed purpose in my life. With my son Ian in the interactive thick of his gaming master’s program at SMU, I have been peeling back the layers of my personal onion lately—asking myself all those daunting and stupefying questions:  How do I find meaning?  Why am I  here? What’s next?  How did I get here? Where do I belong? What should I do? All the usual cocktail party banter. Oh, how festive a good cocktail party used to be . . .

Writing helps. But it can be both an astringent and a salve—like pouring hydrogen peroxide on a wound to make it sizzle with pain, then soothing it with a healing ointment. This is an inescapable reality of living in the ubiquity of grief—a curse and a blessing, pain and gratitude, light and dark—all about finding a way to carry both with grace and aplomb. Ah, but there’s the rub. I seem to be fresh out of aplomb, but that might not be such a terrible thing. Stripping off the hardened layers of figurative varnish, liberally applied over the years to make everything look good on the outside, is probably healthy. Authenticity is definitely less work but more vulnerable. I have found that being present, grounded and real in the moment has its advantages.

Feeling bravely. Letting go. Saying no. Intentionally noticing where I am—to calm my unconsciously triggered nervous system. That’s the work. I can try to override an event intellectually, but my body keeps the score and always wins (referencing a seminal book on the subject by Bessel van der Kolk.) That’s pretty much how I roll now. Simple? Not always.

Process. Trust the  process. But trust the process?

As another August looms, it’s getting harder to breathe, especially since I am about to mark six decades on the planet on the 15th.  I also am remembering my late Aunt Virginia, who would have been 98 on August 6, and my mother, who died on August 22, 2012. Her birthday is August 27, and she would have been 86-ish. I’m a little vague on this, because my mom fudged her date of birth for so many years that she could never authoritatively confirm it. Regardless, August is heavy, and nine years later, my heart breaks for my mother—charming and magnanimous in public, but resentful and insecure in private. And tragically, her devastating stroke snatched her flamboyant life away far too soon—after leaving her paralyzed, brain-damaged and bedridden for nearly two years.

Thinking of Elliot and my mother on the edge of August, I am wondering about the journey of souls and the nature of life. Are Elliot, Mother, Father, Aunt Virginia, Cousin Scott, and my beloved mentor Ann Abbe together in some parallel cosmic dimension watching me try to function? Sometimes, I think so, but I’m not sure. When I interacted with my mother, aphasic after her stroke, she could say only “bah-bah-bah” with no discernible meaning attached. Yes, she was awake and present, but she was not there in a way I recognized. I suppose the mask of her larger-than-life self had dissolved. Being with her toward the end, I learned that souls have nothing to do with speech, thoughts or cognitive function. Her body was a mere vessel, still containing her spirit, but the violent rewiring of her brain’s circuits caused by the vicious stroke had amplified the serenity of her core essence somehow. It’s a strange thing to say, I know, but she seemed blissful, even giddy with childlike innocence. I was grateful for that part and wondered: Was this a glimpse of eternity?

When I was a little girl with my eyes open wide in the middle of the night under the covers, I tried desperately to visualize what heaven would be like. Would God be there? Would we frolic with angels amongst the clouds eating chocolate cake and picking flowers?  Would the streets be paved with gold and diamonds? What exactly was heaven, anyway?

I am still wondering about souls.

While the human being consists of physical matter, the soul is quite literally a piece of God, the Divine. The teachings of the Quran tell us the soul of each individual person is located in the eighth chakra at the top of the head, above the crown chakra. The power is not visible to human eyes, but it’s like the flow of electric current. And New Agers conjecture, “Your soul is your conscience, energy with no form or location that is part of the whole universe. The meaning of life is to evolve your conscience to higher consciousness—the source of all existence.”

Hard to pin down. Even harder to find.

Since Elliot died, I have never reached a point of feeling better— just different, and sometimes surprisingly so. His absence is always present. It never goes away, but maybe I’m learning to accept it—little by little, moment by moment. Not how it could have happened, but the reality that it did. I cherish the moments of forgiveness—for Elliot and for myself.  And then, a wave of grief hijacks me again. Alas, sustainable peace is just beyond my grasp right now, like the elusiveness of a distant rainbow I saw engulfing the morning sky yesterday. For a brief instant, I thought it might be Elliot—gorgeous in its subtle palette but ephemeral in its existence.

Then, I noticed something I never had—the bitter sweetness of a rainbow. Yes, there is beauty in its vivid hues, but it’s contained in a grand arch of sorrow enveloping the sky, the earth in mourning for my Elliot. I stopped in my tracks and wondered if I were the only one transfixed in this moment of poignant beauty. For so many, the rainbow is the ultimate symbol of hope and happiness, the stunning surprise belying the sadness of its form. But this is the way I meet every day and every moment of my life—such an apt metaphor for living with the untimely loss of my flesh and blood, my baby Elliot. The only solace it that he will always be in my heart—and alive in the hearts of so many who adored him.

.

Terms of Debridement: Living into Grief

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)

I have learned something important about grief from wound care.

Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.

In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options.

At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.

Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. Don’t know how I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes too much effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.

One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.

I know it’s unpleasant.

I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to ourselves as individuals with open hearts and tender souls. Being present for each other is what matters – life and death matters. The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.

The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends Chase, Brian and Alec – they are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.

Grief needs air to heal.

We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissues below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement. That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. And, pain plays a role – signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!

Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen, allow and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember the losses in our past and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).

With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but the muck is heavy. The wound can become senescent or old when the cells are still alive and metabolically active but not able to divide and thrive. They are merely surviving, not thriving . . . senescent.

We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.

Meditations on Grief: Telltale Tears

Tears of grief. Tears of joy. Chemically, they are identical. And yet, there are essentially three different types of tears — basal, reflex and psychic. Basal tears lubricate, protect and hydrate the cornea. The reflex variety responds to dust, irritants and allergens. And psychic tears are triggered by our strongest emotions, designed to help us release profound sorrow, as well as overwhelming joy. I think this mysterious dual chemistry of emotional tears is a metaphor for the journey of grief.

Just as I was sitting down to write a journal entry, Linda, one of my oldest and dearest friends (in length of time, not chronology), texted me a fascinating article about tears in the Smithsonian Magazine — and a wish for me more tears of joy today. Turns out, they are the exact same thing. Since I embrace synchronicity, I clicked.

The microscopic images of all three types of tears peppered the article — depicting an entire lifetime, a complex universe in a single droplet of liquid. Oh, the stories they tell. As the article suggests, all the images look like “aerial views of emotional terrain.” Distant, elegant and provocative. That is so Elliot. Immediately, a rush of memory saturates my heart and then trickles down my cheeks. He adored World War I aircraft from day one — mastering the Red Baron computer game as a toddler and scrutinizing ceiling fans as if they were propellers as an infant.

I suspect Elliot was always meant to fly.

These maps are so dense, intricate and difficult to decipher. They all are a tangle of jagged paths, circuitous routes, and sharp corners . . . ins and outs, dead ends and drop-offs. Ah, this is the true journey of grief, and perhaps, maybe, of joy? That is why everything — even the so-called “happy” memories are as cloyingly bitter as they are sharply sweet — piercing my heart as they sometimes bring fleeting wisps of comfort to my weary soul. They are inextricably intertwined, like a strand of DNA. Is that the new definition of moving through grief — moving with grief? Finding a way to experience both love and excruciating pain at the very same time — as one? Still not so sure about the joy part.

No matter what, this is a brave new world, uncharted terrain and an unknown land. How can I possibly know what it would take to feel safe to live with this pain – when I barely know what I want for lunch? And then I question that decision. I think it’s about being fully present and mindful. It requires relentless self-compassion and intentional awareness — moment to moment, second to second . . . and heartbeat to heartbeat.

It’s the only way.

For my dear son and my heart — Elliot Everett Wright (5/17/1992 – 8/5/2018)

Letting Go.

Roses_3_1.0

“Faith consists in believing what reason cannot.”  

– Voltaire

On Saturday, we honored the memory of Everett E. Gantz Jr. with a quiet, traditional Episcopal memorial service.  After nearly 89 years on this earth, my father was still an enigma to many— and to me in many ways. Few truly knew the man behind the stoic, Midwestern-chiseled facade— and the charismatic artist/wife of more than 50 years.  Thankfully, my dear sister Melissa gave a lovely, instructive “reflection” that filled gaps and hearts.

The loss is palpable—and beginning with my mother’s devastating stroke in January 2010, the grieving process has been a lingering one.

Plus, as a single, working mother of two growing boys, remembering to “put the oxygen mask on first” is a constant effort—and a daily focus of my mindfulness practice. However, I am certainly no role model for the “sandwich generation,” and I guarantee you that I still get tangled up in the roughage, as it were.  Still, I have come to understand that the frustrating stubbornness and vitriol I have encountered on “both sides of the bun” often mask the poignant vulnerabilities that quite frequently melt my heart.

Mastin Kipp, one of my favorite daily inspirational mentors, says, “When you let go and admit it, accept that you have moments of being a mess, and you share that feeling at times with the rest of us, then you can step into a larger, freer life.”

So, with another Mother’s Day behind us and a new normal dawning, I have revisited something I wrote several years ago for my mom:

Letting go.

No need to give to feel anymore.

Her bare spirit shines — less the veneer.
Without speech, without talk
Now real.

Transcending words.
The essence of her soul.
Awareness without comprehension,
Cognition, no.

She looks at me finally – and actually sees.

Letting go of need.
Content to be.
Helpless though.
Fights her wheeled prison.
Her body knows now
To bridge the chasm.

There between this Scylla and Charybdis.

And yet he still clings.
Together alone.
Denies to suppress — but never go home.

Letting go of control.
But the seizures defy
The years and the secrets
He insists to know why.

Anger. Passion. Pain.

A stone cold wall.
What a loss — so far.
Tear us apart and we fall.

Oh, to let love  . .  .

So, letting go.

–Elaine