So often in life, the ripples we cast drift off beyond our sight and awareness. What a gift to experience what can come of words written alone at a desk years before, a generous sharing of self, and the very real difference these can make in very real lives.
Remember the Words to Write By experience my students had with Susan J. Tweit’s work? Not long after my students created their own Words to Write By, I received an email from Susan that she’d love to meet the students. She was driving down from Colorado, on her way to the Women Writing the West Conference in Albuquerque, and might she stop by my class on her way through Santa Fe? Susan and I had never met in person and honestly I was blown away by her generosity of spirit and time, and I knew how much this would mean to my students. The only answer was, “Of course!”
Susan and I arranged for her to come to the Santa Fe Community College campus, and my husband, Noé, met her to walk her to our class. When she entered the class, a literal hush fell over our normally quite rambunctious group – and with the first hug, I felt I was greeting an old friend. My students stared. A real writer whose work they had read. After introducing Susan, my students slowly and shyly (not qualities normally exhibited in our class) began asking her questions.
“Why do you write?” one student asked.
“Because I can’t imagine not writing,” Susan said. “There’s a story in my memoir, Walking Nature Home about the time when I met Billy Frank, the Nisqually Indian leader in Washington state, back in the “Fish Wars” when the tribes were fighting for their treaty-guaranteed rights to fish for salmon in their traditional ways, in their traditional places. He said to me, “No one can hear the salmon. So I speak for him. And the people listen.” I thought to myself, I am not Indian/First American, whatever you want to call it, but I can speak for the land, for the plants and the animals, the communities that we call nature. So I started writing. Of course, I didn’t know how to write, so I had to teach myself…”
Have you ever been in a situation,” asked another student, ” where you couldn’t see a way out?”
“I never, ever imagined being a widow at 56,” Susan replied. “For the first year, I felt like curling up in a fetal position and didn’t want to eat or drink or see anyone. I couldn’t imagine going on. But I realized that life does go on and I had to figure out a way to live in the world. So I did. Not easily, not smoothly. But I did.”
Susan shared aspects of her current writing about her journey with “the love of her life,” her husband, Richard, his brain cancer, and passing away last year.
When I spoke with my students during the next class about their experience with Susan, again and again they spoke of her strength and the healing aspect of writing. Many of my students have suffered great losses in their lives. Many are currently going through challenging times – one student’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and another’s brother just died far too young and unexpectedly of alcoholism. The list goes on and on. In later conversations in class, it became clear to me that their experience with Susan’s own honesty and courage deepened their own.
This struck a deep chord for me. In the just past few years, within our immediate nest of family and friends,several of our dearest friends have lost the loves of their lives. The names, photos, and favorite foods and drinks on our altar for Dia de los Muertos has grown—Scott, Frank, Vince, Dave, Wil, Robert, Fred, and now, Richard. Our friend’s paths are very much a part of our daily lives. Again and again, I am struck with the incredible courage of these women as they both honor their loves and live in the present and create their lives.
The other evening, my friend and agent, Liz, and I were at the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference (Thank you, Anne!) and a woman attending the conference immediately caught both of our eyes with her amazing “hat” of masses of flowers and feathers. Flowers of every shade of purples and reds covered her head, with a spray of purple feathered plumes at the top. When someone complimented the woman on her hat, she said, “Oh it’s not a hat. Each of these is a comb or barrette.” With this knowledge, our staring and interest intensified. During the readings that night, I kept glancing at the woman, trying not to appear to stare, and also trying to take in what it must’ve taken to create this composition. Each individual flower of the masses was a comb or barrette? The overall whole was was an intricate work of art.
As Liz and I left the event, we passed the woman and complimented her. “So, each is an individual comb?” Liz asked. “My husband developed Alzheimer’s,” the woman replied. “I started wearing combs with flowers in my hair to help him recognize me. As the Alzheimer’s increased, so did my combs. After he died four years ago, I just keep adding more.” Her eyes glistened.
I think so often of Susan, Nancy, MJ, Liz, Heidi, Frances, Cheryl, and Mary and their paths. When Susan spoke with my students of her own path with Richard, she deepened their realization of the connection we all share – in both our joys and our sadness. When I wrote to Susan later, asking if I might share what she talked about in class, she wrote back, “I teach with my life.” And my own understandings deepened.
Last week at the end of class, we stood in a circle. In the previous time, my students had read back through the journal entries they’ve written throughout the semester. We begin each class with a journal prompt and writing. I’d asked the students to read back through their journals to see what they notice about the journey of their writing through their journal. As we stood in the circle and each shared, one consistent thread was a discovery that their own thoughts and experiences mattered. When the final student spoke, a woman whose primary language is Navajo, one of 11 children, who spent much of childhood with her traditional grandmother in her hogan and tending sheep, she said, “I learned writing can be about me.” This was a revelation to this now grandmother herself.
Yes, Marcy, writing is about you. It is about each of us and our story. “There have been great societies that never used the wheel, but there have been no societies that didn’t use stories,” wrote Ursula LeGuin.
I share these experiences for all of those times when feel overwhelmed, feel alone, and forget how connected we all are. With each story, written or spoken word, we cast a pebble into the water and send ripples out into the world. Sometimes those ripples touch someone’s heart.
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