Writing as a Spiritual Practice

This is a sermon I delivered in Summer 2017 at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, the church my wife and I have attended for the last seven years.

My wife Courtney and I spent our first five months as parents in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  When our daughter Lucy was born over three months before her due date, there was little we could do for her other than sit by the side of her isolette and read story books to her.  In the beginning, we cared for Lucy in close collaboration with the incredible nurses and other medical professionals who were working hard to keep her alive.  In time, the nurses encouraged us to get involved in Lucy’s day to day care, at first in little ways like taking her temperature or replacing her Sat probes, then stepping up to bigger tasks like giving her a sponge bath in a pink hospital basin.

The nurses also passed along important NICU wisdom.  We were told to think of the safety instructions given by flight attendants before take-off, the one that says: “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your Oxygen mask first, and then assist the other person.”  The lesson was clear.  In order to care for Lucy during her lengthy hospital stay, we needed to take care of ourselves.  Courtney and I tried our best to heed this advice.  We made a point of going out for dinner one night each week.  This became a critically important ritual for us, a time to discuss and emotionally process what we were experiencing, to check in with each other and with ourselves.  We called this our respite time and it helped us survive an incredibly challenging period in our lives.

During my first year as a stay at home dad, I found another form of respite.  I carved out an hour each week for writing.  After dropping Courtney off at work downtown on Tuesdays, but before returning home to Lucy and her home care nurse, I stepped into Caffé Nero here in Jamaica Plain, ordered a cappuccino, and sat down at a large communal table with my notebook and pen.  This was an opportunity to get out of the house and away from Lucy’s ceaselessly alarming medical equipment: the Oxygen concentrator that helped her breathe, the Pulse-Oximeter that monitored her blood oxygenation level and heart rate, the feeding pump that delivered all her food, water, and medicine.

At first, I wrote fiction.  I had read a wonderful essay in the New Yorker about Anthony Trollope, a writer my father greatly enjoyed but I had never read.  Courtney and I started reading the Barsetshire Chronicles, a series of six novels about a fictional Cathedral town in Victorian England.  I began writing stories in the style of Trollope about a fictionalized version of Jamaica Plain and a quirky but resilient little church at the heart of the community.  The writing was a wonderful escape, with its invented characters and their interwoven lives.  While lying in bed at night, I read sections aloud to Courtney, who encouraged me to keep going so she could find out what would happen next.  I took this as a good sign.

That spring, I signed up to lead a summer service.  With that task at hand, I shifted away from writing fiction in order to prepare a sermon about the traumatic start to Lucy’s life and our first year as parents of a medically complex child.  I took a break from Trollope and my fictional church community in order to share our story with our real community.  I was told the sermon should be no longer than twenty minutes and it was challenging to tell our story in that limited time frame.  I told it as succinctly as I could while also leaving time to reflect on those experiences and share some lessons learned about resilience and the importance of community.  The service was also a way to express our gratitude for our First Church family and all you did to support us during that very difficult time in our lives, for the messages of love and support, the countless dinners brought to our house, the help cleaning up our yard when it was overgrown with weeds and buried beneath a deep layer of brown leaves.

Despite practicing my sermon many times at home, I was overcome with emotion on the day of the service.  Afterwards, several people thanked me for telling our story in such detail.  But I had shared only a brief portion of it and actually held back some of the most emotional and traumatic parts, partly due to time constraints but mostly from fear of overwhelming people.  I was satisfied with my sermon, but I felt I had much more to say.  I continued to write one hour each week, but I set aside my fiction and started writing about my own life.  I recalled stories from childhood, mostly memories of my father, and began calling the hour each week in the coffee shop my writing therapy.

I wrote about the last time I saw my father alive and, despite the fact that he was perfectly healthy, just knowing I would never see him again.   I also wrote about the moment, two weeks later, when I knew he was dead, as I watched my mother talking to the surgeon across a crowded hospital waiting room at St. Luke’s on West 57th Street.

I had been brought back to that moment on the day of Lucy’s g-tube surgery at Children’s Hospital.  At barely four months old, Lucy had to be transported by ambulance in a mobile isolette from Beth Israel to Children’s for the procedure.  She still weighed less than six pounds and had to be intubated so a feeding tube could be surgically placed in her stomach.  Needless to say, Courtney and I were highly stressed out that day.  Once she went in for surgery, we were told to sit in the waiting room and to speak to the surgical liaison in one hour and no sooner than one hour.  Time slowed to a crawl as we attempted to distract ourselves with crossword puzzles.  After 59 minutes, we approached the surgical liaison, who called the surgery for an update.  She then reported that the surgery had gone well, they were just finishing up, and that the surgeon would be out shortly to talk to us.  We went back to our crossword puzzles and the waiting room filled with anxious parents.

When we looked up and saw the surgeon approaching us, the present was unfolding in the way the past had just recently predicted the future.  But we were now looking at a different man than the one we met earlier.  Gone was the highly confident surgeon speaking in calm tones about a routine medical procedure.  “There’s been a complication.  As I was closing up, I perforated the stomach.  I am going to have to go back in to repair it.”  Courtney and I shot each other glances which silently screamed, “You have got to be kidding me?!”

Reflecting on this experience many months later, I wrote the following piece in my notebook:

It was all there right in front of me.  The hospital waiting room, the anxious strangers at once on top of me and yet miles away in their own worlds, the surgeon approaching from a distance still wearing his light blue scrubs and surgical cap, his paper mask resting on his chest in defeat.  Then the words: “There’s been a complication.”

The tears did not come right away, but they would come soon enough, after the surgeon brought us to a more private consultation room.  They welled up from an awakened heart, travelled up from my chest and through my throat before pouring out of my eyes without shame or regret.  They were the tears of an adolescent boy that lived inside my adult body, tears upon which I could travel back in time to that moment when my life changed forever.  I was hurled back with such speed and ferocity that I had too much momentum to stop there.  I just kept hurtling back in time to my earliest memories.

I felt that this was the seed of the story I needed to tell.  To fully understand our story as a family, I had to go back to my earliest memories, to those stories from childhood that had shaped who I am, to the formative experiences that brought my wife and me together.

 

In the first reading, we heard William Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which originates from “emotion recollected in tranquility.”  Though I was not writing poetry, I have found in these words an apt description of my writing process.  Sitting in that coffee shop each week, glancing periodically through a large picture window with its view of an upward sloping side street, I often had an emotionally meaningful experience.  As I wrote down my stories, letting sentences flow naturally one after the other, the tranquility I had found gradually receded as memories took hold of me.  This creative process produced something entirely new although closely connected to the past.

The more I write, the more I see patterns take shape and metaphors emerge.  Frequently recurring themes include waterways like rivers and lakes and circular journeys, first taken on my own and then taken a second time after retrieving my father.  Leaving and returning, retrieving and returning again.  These journeys were circles upon circles.

One journey took place during a summer vacation my family took when I was about eleven.  We had rented a house with family friends Pat and John Thackeray in Lake Chateaugay in upstate New York.  On about our second day there, Pat taught me how to paddle a canoe by myself using the “J” stroke, which propels the boat diagonally forward with a strong thrust, and then straightens the boat out with the swoop of the “J.”  With the freedom this new skill gave me, I took the canoe to a small, uninhabited island located in the middle of the lake.  After exploring this terra incognita, I paddled back to our dock to implore my father to come back with me to the island.  We took the canoe out, but instead of moving slowly in an awkward zig zag that is the inevitable result of the J stroke, we glided across the lake in a perfectly straight line.

Another story I recalled took place at the Museum of Natural History when my parents and I attended a gala dinner held there after the museum was closed to the general public.  I grew up down the block from the museum and spent countless rainy days there, but being there after hours was thrilling.  At one point, I snuck away from the dinner to explore the empty, half darkened museum.  I had one destination in mind: the room with the giant blue whale suspended from the ceiling and I knew exactly how to get there.  The room was empty and dark, even more scary than usual.  I slowly made my way down the grand staircase to the lower level and walked underneath the whale.  After sufficiently scaring myself, I hastily returned to the banquet, but I was not done.  I had to go back with my father so that together we could share the sublime experience of lying in the dark beneath a 21,000-pound model of a life sized blue whale.

 

Time is not linear; it is circular.  It does not move in one direction like points plotted along a line on graph paper.   If it did, with each passing year I would move further and further away from my father, who would remain stuck in a ceaselessly receding past.  I used to believe this was how time worked, feared it in fact.  I dreaded the loss of memories.  I hated the fact that I could not remember the sound of my father’s voice; that the number of conversations with him that I could distinctly remember was slowly dwindling; that I could now hardly remember a single one.  It felt like the stories were slipping away like grains of sand trickling through the narrow waist of an hourglass.

I stumbled on the hourglass metaphor only because I got up at 5 a.m. last Monday and started to write down thoughts that were rattling around inside my head and just had to get out and onto a piece of paper.  It was only after writing for about twenty minutes that the hourglass image came to me.  Then I thought about it and decided it perfectly expressed what I had been feeling about the nature of time and the power of storytelling.  If the grains of sand are stories, then they all remain intact; they are just lying dormant at the bottom of the hourglass.  They are not lost forever; they have simply moved from one place to another.  Perhaps they have moved from one region of the brain to another, from short term memory to long term memory.  Or perhaps still, I thought to myself, they have moved from my head down to my heart.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  We can travel back in time.  The circle can be unbroken.  We can turn the hourglass upside down and watch the grains of sand fall down once again.

Those circles upon circles – canoeing to an uninhabited island, then returning to it with my father, walking to the giant whale and then returning to it with my father – were seemingly endless loops of wonder and awe that formed swirling eddies in the water.  After my father died, the water slowly stopped spinning, the memories too painful even to recall.  I finished grieving and got on with my life.  I grew up and achieved a sense of independence.  I thought of my dad and missed him, of course, but I didn’t dwell on the memories.  Then I became a husband and father myself and my wife and daughter became my muses.  They inspired me to pick up a fallen branch from the ground and swirl it in the water, to look more closely at the dappled sunlight reflecting off the lake in summer, to sit once again beneath that giant hollow whale suspended from the ceiling, to circle back once again to my past.

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