Updated: Jul 23
Note: This is post #6 in a series of blog posts about my experience attending a 2-week writing retreat with author & teacher Natalie Goldberg on Madeline Island, WI. Start with the first post here.
For homework on our first night of the writing retreat, Natalie gave us the following, simple prompt: Tell us how you came to be here.
"Interpret as you wish," she said. "Write for 20 minutes on this one."
In this post, I'm going to share what I wrote (lightly edited) because I'm starting to connect more and more with those of you reading these posts (and 12 of you have signed up for my upcoming "Long Quiet Highway" workshop that starts Sunday, woohoo!) and I want you to know more about what led me to the 2 weeks with Natalie on an island this past summer and now, to offering workshops.
"It began with Anne Lamott, which reminds me, I'd like to send her a "thank you" card. Maybe I could do it from here! [Madeline Island, WI] I did buy 20 post cards yesterday and 20 stamps after all.
I think it was in her book on writing called Bird by Bird where she mentions Natalie's work- which prompted me to buy Writing Down the Bones. I ordered it then consumed it greedily, like a pelican swallowing a fish whole.
Based on Bones alone, I went online and bought the rest of her books- about 14, if I recall, because you can't find her Chicken in Love anywhere- and then I read them all in 6 months.
I was high on Natalie, on writing, on cracking open my craft after hiding it- my words, my voice- nearly all of my life despite the hundred journals I'd filled and the desire to pull them out of me.
The books were so powerful that I told the women's memoir-writing group that I'd created after moving to CA that we were gonna read one of Natalie's books each month and incorporate her style, her advice, her structure, into our group.
They fell in love with her, too.
I think it was Long Quiet Highway more than any of the others, along with Bones, that helped with the final, big, painful push to write my first book just several months later- it had been brewing in me for over a decade after all- and now I can hold the book in my hands, the cover so sweetly, beautifully designed.
And it was published on my Pipi's birthday, a happy accident which I wish I could say I'd planned. And despite his aging eyes and lackluster feelings about books, he read it in just a few days, telling me in the longest email he'd ever sent me (maybe 3 sentences?) that he just "couldn't put it down."
I was so worried it'd take him so long to read it that I actually put a sticky note on one of the last pages where the acknowledgements were that pointed out my short lines of gratitude for him for his role in it all, being one of my biggest, original fans when I started to leave home over and over again, despite being a man-husband-father who never left home because he simply didn't want to, "Don't need to," he'd once said, "I've got everything I need right here."
Yet he was always the first to read and comment on my travel blogs, never any spaces after periods, everything squeezed in tight- I could picture him slowly poking each letter with his two index fingers on his keyboard at home- he'd even print them out to send to Great Aunt Dorothy down in rural Pennsylvania, where they both had grown up during segregation with separate drinking fountains and divided buses- and now here they both were, reading my stories about living in West Africa, my beloved Senegal, showering me in love and support and urging me to keep going, keep writing- just as Natalie always says.
Two months after reading my memoir, my dad called me while I was on an Artist's Date at Joshua Tree National Park, week 3 into Julia Cameron's Artist's Way journey, and I listened as he explained that Pipi had cancer, that it was bad.
I hung up and let out all the tears I held in during the call. I went into the back seat of our truck and held my dog and cried into her sweet fur until my eyes were almost swollen shut. I flew home to Michigan the next week from LA. Pipi was on hospice just a week later. I got to hold his hand- the skin stretched so tautly; he was a bag of bones suddenly- as he looked into my eyes, my heart, my soul, my life- and told me how much he'd loved the book, how proud he was of me, that he loved me.
It'd be the last book he'd ever read. He died five days later.
So, that's why I'm here."
I know I just copied a couple pages from my journal just now, but that was extremely hard. I still feel such incredible grief over losing him.
In loving memory of my grandfather.
I promise I'll keep writing, Pip.