This post is a reflective piece inspired by a Susan Sarandon quote and written by a participant in my winter 2022 Writing Without Fear workshop. She and the other participants gave permission for this to be posted. Thank you, Denise, for the wisdom you shared with the group and for this kind offering.
THE WRITING GROUP
a guest blog post by Denise Esslinger
“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” Susan Sarandon
We were all there because we knew suffering.
We met in an old building that looked like it had known some suffering too. It was nestled between two other buildings which had the effect when you turned in from the street that you were snuggling up to it. In the wintertime darkness, a welcoming light illumined the side door, which was dark brown. The door was detailed with black wrought iron that made it feel like you were entering a castle.
A sign with a horse and carriage hung from the front, which left one wondering if it might have once been a bar. A castle, then a bar, then we were told a hair salon. Now a place of meeting, which had been carefully remade into a space, with its softly painted walls, dim lighting and fireplace, that felt warm and safe. Maybe there had been other incarnations along the way too. We entered a building with a history with our histories. We came with our hopes to be transformed too.
Julie wasn’t the first in the group to suffer, but she may have been the first to understand the power of writing. She lost two sisters when they were young, and her parents coped by hiding their grief. Grief, however, is something that cannot be ignored. It will have its way with you. Julie found her way by writing a book in which she not only processed her grief but rediscovered a passion for writing. Now she finds she has so many ideas being born in her head. She tries to nurture them on paper, note cards and sticky notes, but she sometimes wonders if they will ever grow up. Even though she has more energy than most, there’s never enough time to give each one the attention it deserves.
Anne could sense Julie’s pain and somewhere deep inside it resonated with her own. Suffering can be complex and uncomfortable, so it took a while, but she knew she had to get at it. Hers, like everyone’s, came from relationships. The most important men in her life—her father, her brother, her husband—all had heart issues. She had them too, but hers weren’t physical. They were emotional. She loved them deeply and needed to feel their love too, which she did, but not always.
Mike had known Julie for a long time and her passion for life connected with his own. Although he exuded vibrancy and confidence in his appearance on the screen, it was the fuzziness that surrounded him where you could glimpse the weight of all he carried. The loss of a father who had been his mentor and ideal of what a man could be. The loss of a business due to the betrayal of someone he had called his partner. It felt as raw and painful as a divorce. It was as messy as one too. And then there was the unexpected death of a college friend. In retrospect, Mike felt he should have seen it coming and been there as his friend had always been for him. Mike started writing about a man involved with sketchy money drops. It was intriguing and fun, but then he began writing about the fuzz. He needed to. We all needed to.
Donna met Julie at a lecture on her book. She connected with her open-heartedness and came to the meetings looking casual for her, but there was nothing casual about her. Her hair, carefully applied make up, glittery nails, rings and earrings, turtlenecks and sparkly clothes; even her casual was stunning. Her notebooks, pen and Dunkin Donuts coffee cup were all carefully presented too. Inside, Donna was tuned to a different channel than most. The frequency allows her to sense when tragedy—usually a death—will strike. It was something in her DNA that she shared with the maternal women in her life. She struggled with what to do with it and feared being judged and labeled crazy. It felt like a gift and a curse. Writing, she thought, might be the way.
Lisa joined the group with physical pain. She had calcifications on her right shoulder. A doctor told her not to use it for six months, which was impossible. Lisa lived life at 100 miles an hour with so many commitments and responsibilities. She’s a caretaker- at home and as her livelihood. Her body, however, wanted her attention and care. Lisa came to writing to process what she knew deep inside, but needed to remember. It’s what they tell you on airplanes. You must put on your own mask and breathe before you can help others.
Robin appeared self-contained. It was probably her training as a state police officer that allowed her to appear that way, but it was her writing that revealed her pain. The loss of her father as an infant, her mother at sixteen, her grandfather and uncle too. It was too much loss, too young and all too soon. How would her life have turned out differently if her father and mother had lived? Would she have gone into nursing? Would she have married a man who turned out to be wrong? Would she have become a state police officer? A career she loved even with the challenges of rising to a position of authority in a field dominated by men. Her book would be about her career, but she knew it also needed to include her pain.
As for me, I’m curious about suffering and the healing power of writing. I slept better than I have in a long time after the class we talked about “The Body Bag.” That bag has haunted me for years. It was a healing release to write and share it with you. Why, I wonder, do we suffer? Is it so we’ll learn, or remember, what is most important in life? Does it teach us to value the good times, because we know there is more suffering to come? Or is it what binds us together and helps us to understand and have compassion for one another? As Mike ended his “Outsourcing” piece, I choose the latter. I choose compassion and am grateful for each of you—for all that has brought you, brought us, to this transformational place.
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