I just got back from doing some research at the library before this afternoon's thunderstorm rolls through Toledo. It's been a muggy week and I'm counting the days until less humid air breezes in so I can turn off the air conditioner and open the windows again. I've been getting up early in the morning to water and weed the garden before the hot summer sun rises up from behind the rooftops. For the past few evenings I escaped the house and went hiking in the woods even though mosquitoes think I'm tastier than an ice cream sundae. I don't mind really, for swatting away an insect here and there is worth it to be able to walk beneath a canopy of lush and lovely trees while listening to the birds chattering to each other at sunset. Soon enough the back porch will be cool enough to enjoy at twilight...my favorite time of day.
But until then, I'll take my comfort where I can.
Since The Lace Makers was released in May, I've been editing a memoir about a Polish woman's harrowing experiences during and after World War II. For the past few weeks, my client and I have sat side by side going line by line through the manuscript. It's not been an easy process, for much of what I've been revising takes me back to the research I did last fall and winter. While I've been able to keep nightmares at bay, I'm overwhelmed with mixed emotions and have a hard time focusing on anything.
Still, it's a familiar process. With every novel or book I've written, I have to become a piece of work in order to get to the heart of the story.
Recently I was asked, "How do you write a book? I could never do that."
"I don't know how to do it," I replied. "I just know what to do."
"What's that mean?"
"I set aside time in my planner and put myself in front of the computer, then watch and wait for whatever comes. Typically I shoot for seven pages a day, but sometimes I'm satisfied with just one."
"How long do you write?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Sometimes an hour. Sometimes more. Usually at the end of a project I can work for up to ten or twelve hours a day as I get closer to the finish line."
His eyes widened.
"I know that sounds like a lot," I smiled. "But by then I'm almost done, so it's a relief to just keep going." What I didn't tell him was that it's also a relief to purge whatever shadow and light has been finding shelter in the corners of my imagination.
Robert Frost once wrote: No tears in the writer...no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer...no surprise for the reader. With The Lace Makers, more often than not, I found myself in tears, and near the end of the first draft, more than one surprise wound its way into the story. Many people have written to tell me about their own experience in reading the novel, some ending their emails with I wish there was more!
So today I began the research for the sequel entitled The Promised Land. I figure by the time the book is in print, I'll have spent the better part of three years learning about and trying to embody one of the darkest parts of our world's history. I often wonder why I've been led to delve into the Holocaust and its aftermath. It's certainly not a topic I would have chosen on my own, nor would I recommend it. And yet I remember something I learned during hospice training back in 2000. One of the instructors said that those who are able to be with people during the most painful moments of their lives are the ones who have been able to fully embrace and move through their own grief and sorrow. They know what it means to honor every difficult experience as a pathway to healing.
In the past I'd often use work as a way to placate my pain. Addicted to sugar and stress and caffeine, I hid myself and my emotions because I was too afraid of what it would mean to open that Pandora's Box. Over time I've learned that to sit with myself when I'm most lonely or scared or angry or frustrated is the most compassionate thing that I can do. Instead of contracting away from pain, I now know how to relax into it...to let tears flow if they need to, to ask for help if necessary.
Then I can go out into the world and help others do the same.
I've learned that any writer can only take you as far has he or she has been in their own journey or while walking with another person as they venture into theirs. As for me, I intend to keep on hiking into the metaphoric woods where I know I'll find a host of shadows that might bring me to tears. But if I'm blessed (and I always am), then I'll also discover the enchantment of nature that never ceases to surprise me. Once more I'll understand how to honor the entirety of the forest of life all the while recognizing the individual tree of my own experience.
The other morning while watering the lilac bush by the curb, one of my neighbors drove by and stopped for a moment. Leaning out of her window she smiled, "Good morning, peaceful neighbor!"
What an incredible way to start my day.
I'll remember her kind words as I venture back into research when summer gently melts into autumn. Knowing that I embody tranquility for her has freed me from feeling like a piece of work so that in my home, in yoga classes, through everything I write...I can continue to work for peace.