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Getting up off the canvas

August 6, 2013

The Dhamma is the closest to those with broken hearts.
Only when your home has been burned to the ground
can you see the stars.
Do not throw away your suffering;
it is the fertile soil which grows the flowers of truth.

Embrace your pain
and share your pleasure.
Pain is the teaching.
release is the graduation.
~Ian McCrorie, The Moon Appears When Water is Still: Reflections of the Dhamma

I’ve felt the entire range of emotion since my brother died six weeks ago. (Six weeks already?!) A sadness so deep, I could barely get out of bed some days. So penetrating I thought I’d never be able to smile again or laugh or be happy. I’ve raged hard, yelled at my brother for leaving, at God for taking him, lashed out at people for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. (We’re all so terribly bad at dealing with grief.) I’ve laughed when I’ve remembered our childhood and how mischievous we were, how we’d torture our sister until she cried and ran to mom, how we climbed the bureaus and closets and scaled walls; we were so bad, mom says she almost had a nervous breakdown. I’ve cried so hard, my chest hurt from heaving and I looked like I was punched repeatedly in both eyes. I got really sick at one point, my asthma started acting up and an herbalist friend revealed that grief is released through the lungs. (Who knew?) She instructed me on a long list of herbs that would help and I made myself a chicken soup with all those herbs, adding vegetables and memories as I cooked. I cried while I ate it. I cried hard. I was better two days later.

I’ve spent a lot of time reassessing my life and my decisions. I’ve been thinking about this book, my memoir, though admittedly I haven’t looked at it much. I’ve spent the last six weeks documenting the stories mom has told me. The stories my brother and I told each other while he was dying. They belong in A Dim Capacity for Wings.

Disease is not a gift, but it can be an opportunity.

Disease is not a gift, but it can be an initiation into a hero’s journey. Working to navigate the trials, the suffering, and the struggle can lead you to treasures that you might never find any other way. ~Melanie St. Ours, Can we stop telling others to embrace the “gift” of their illness?

Now I understand why I haven’t finished my memoir. All this had to happen. I had to walk away from my brother for a year because I couldn’t watch him kill himself. Mom had to stop talking to me. We had to reunite at my brother’s bedside. My Superman had to die. I had to fall apart. I had to find myself bleeding and battered on the canvas. There was/is just no other way.

 

I’ve wanted to write about boxing as a metaphor for writing since I started boxing back in February. I had to train for weeks before I could even approach the bag. I asked my trainer at least once a week if I could put on the gloves and each time he said, “You ain’t ready.” So I worked harder. I ran further and faster and harder. I did more push-ups and pull-ups. I did more squats and lunges. I increased my weights and my repetitions. And still, “You ain’t ready yet, Martir.” Until finally, five weeks into my training, he told me to put on the gloves and put me on the bag. I lost my breath pretty quickly. “See, you ain’t ready.” And still, I pushed myself. I learned combinations and practiced them at home. I worked on my breathing and increased my cardio to improve my stamina. When I was finally put in the ring with my trainer, he slapped me when I didn’t protect my face and laughed when I got frustrated. “That ain’t gonna help.” He was right. What helped was training. Consistent training. Getting on the bag a few times a week. Running hills and stairs. Weight training. Jumping rope. And not giving up. Going in even when I was sore and irritable and didn’t want to train.

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My mentor Chris Abani once told me, “What makes a writer isn’t talent, it’s staying power.” To become a writer, I’ve had to train myself to go in even when I don’t want to. To write when I’m tired and irritable or angry or sick or sad or just not in the mood. To dig into memory and my unconscious and everything that’s uncomfortable and hidden away. I’ve had to read a lot. Voraciously. And then read some more. I’ve had to write a lot of shit. A whole lot of I-hope-the-world-never-sees-this shit. Bad poems. Bad essays. Bad stories. Bad, bad, bad journal entries. I’ve had to bitch and complain and then get to work. I’ve had to work. Work a lot. Work hard. And then keep fucking working. See, writing is like boxing. It requires consistent training.

It’s like boxing because no one sees and rarely do they consider how hard the boxer trained to get into that ring. To have that fight. They only see the result. If he wins or loses. Like no one ever sees or ever really considers (unless you’re a writer) how much it takes, the energy, the years, the effort, the almost-lost-your-mind-moments, that a writer endures while writing a book or a poem or a collection or a blog. No, they read the piece, either praise or bash it, if they even talk about it that is, and keep it moving.

Writing’s so much like boxing. I’m seeing that even more now, as I’m pick myself up off the canvas.

 

I’ve been writing like a motherfucker these past few weeks. Writing the stories my mom has shared. Memories of childhood that my brother and I talked about during those last three months. Writing about grief and wading through it. What I’ve learned as I go. How I’m managing (or not) and how I’m finally creating a new normal for myself.

Losing my brother has added a new urgency to my work. To this book. To my teaching. Why? Because death does that. It makes you stare at yourself and who you have around you. It makes you question everything, what you’re doing and why and whether you should continue. I know now why I haven’t finished this memoir and although I feel an urgency to finish it, I know this journey isn’t over and I can’t rush it. I’m becoming the writer who can finish this book.

I’ve always known that storytelling can heal, can build communities, can forge love. I know because I come from a long line of storytellers and I’ve seen firsthand the damage withholding does. I know because silence killed my brother. Still, I’ve never experienced the healing nature of story as profoundly as I’m experiencing it now. Now, as I pick myself up off the canvas after being laid out flat, cold, bleeding, unconscious, concussion and all, by the death of my brother.

Because everyone ‘has’ a memoir, we all have a stake in how such stories are told. For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing. ~Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories

The thing with writing stories of our lives is that you have to relive them, re-see them, re-taste their metal, re-hear their loud wails. It’s in the reliving that we heal. But reliving is so very hard. That’s what I’ve been doing over these past few years of writing A Dim Capacity for Wings and over this year or so of blogging. I’ve been sitting with my memories. Letting them sting and eat at me so I can finally heal. And, really, that’s why I created the Writing Our Lives Workshop. To help emerging writers do the same. Because as a writer and a teacher, I am meant to share all that I’ve learned on my journey. And that’s why I reinvent the workshop each and every time, because I grow with each workshop I teach and take, every residency I participate in, every book and essay and article I read. Right now I’m thinking about how I will share what I learned from David Mura’s residency and, yes, what I’ve learned from my grief.

I’ve had to do so much re-inventing to finally pick myself up off the canvas. I’ve had to improvise and now know it’s time to get on with my life, my writing and reading and teaching and storytelling. I’m not the same woman I was just a few months ago. I will never be that woman again but I can be better.  I can try harder. I can use this as an opportunity for growth and expansion and healing. That’s the mission I’m on. Poco a poco. Dia a dia.

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