Tag Archives: grief

WU UnCon: A Conference of Connection

WU UnConIt’s ten days since I arrived back in Australia after attending the Writer Unboxed UnConference in Salem. Ten long days, and I’m only now posting about it. Why? Because if I’d posted sooner, my whole post would have consisted of a disjointed list of unrelated adjectives interspersed with exclamation marks and the occasional unsubstantiated claim that the UnCon changed my life.

But now, ten days later, I feel I’m ready. I’m ready to say that it was a phenomenal, transformational, life-changing, brain-expanding, emotionally-charged hot-pot of creative energy and connection, built around a series of inspiring, enlightening, and incisive workshops.

Or something like that..

Actually, I’ve pondered long and hard about how to share the experience of Salem with you. And as I’ve pondered, I’ve consolidated the things I learned in a deeper and more meaningful way. And thus, I’m ready to share.

I could tell you about the amazing workshops I did — particularly Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”, Donald Maass’s “Writing 21st Century Fiction” and John Vorhaus’s “The Comic Toolbox” — and the ways those workshops have improved my writing and expanded my thinking.

But I won’t.

UnCon Group 2I could tell you about the deep connection I felt with the other writers I met there, many of whom I knew as icons and names online, and the long-lasting bonds that formed during those five days.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the dinner we had as a memorial to Lisa Threadgill, my dear, dear friend who passed away earlier this year, and how laughing and crying with other people who felt her loss so keenly reopened old wounds and yet helped them heal so much cleaner.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about hanging out in a bar at 1:00am on the first evening with a group of people I’d only just met, drinking picklebacks (the most revolting shot I’ve ever tried), and then asking the bartender for his shirt.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the Poker Cabin, and how it felt to be playing poker of an evening after a long day of brain-expanding workshops and conversation, and the surreal feeling of sitting next to an inspirational (and possibly super-human) NY literary agent as I confidently bluffed my way to a winning hand.

But I won’t.

UnCon GroupI could tell you about sitting at dinner on Friday night, after the UnCon was technically over, and collaboratively building a back-story for our surly waitress using all the techniques we’d learned from Don Maass during the full-day workshop we’d just attended.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about Bob Stewart.

And I will.

Before the UnCon, I knew WriterBob Stewart as a name and an icon on the Writer Unboxed FB page. We interacted once or twice, in an oblique way, and I admired his dedication and persistence, but I didn’t know much about him. As the time for the UnCon grew closer, I learned more about him. He was much older (75, I later learned), and had some health issues. He was an accomplished playwright, journalist, and novelist. And, above all that, he was funny and kind and a good and genuine human being.

WriterBobOn the Saturday before the UnCon was due to start, he was bitten by his cat. Due to other health complications, the bite got infected, and he ended up in hospital. The first thing he did was message Therese Walsh to find out if it was okay if he arrived at the UnCon a little late. Which, of course, it was. He checked himself out of hospital early, and flew to Salem, and arrived on Tuesday afternoon.

I spoke to Bob briefly. Just enough to say hello, and I was glad he could make it. But he was there — real, and solid, and not just an icon and a name. He participated in groups, and stayed for evening sessions. And Wednesday evening, after everything was winding down, he complained about feeling a little funny, returned to his room, and passed away.

We found out on Thursday.

I wasn’t having a great day on Thursday. I finished the day with an amazing session that hit me like a brick wall and made me question the validity of everything I’d ever written in my life. Then, mired in self-doubt, I found myself flicking through the memorial book that had been created for Lisa Threadgill. A book that was full of my words. A book that brought all the grief and pain I’d felt at her passing back to the surface. And so there I was, weeping in the lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, when Therese approached and told me about Bob.

WriterBob Stewart. A man who spent his last days exactly where he wanted to be — with a community of writers he’d only known online, in a beautiful little hotel in Salem.

And so I found myself, on that Thursday evening, telling the other attendees that our evening plan had changed. That instead of a discussion of craft, we would be sharing a toast for Bob, and hearing some of the pages from his latest work. And as I told them, I found myself breaking the news of his passing over and over and over.

Some people cried. Others told me stories. One person looked like she was going to faint. Another told me that he’d lost a number of family members recently, and then excused himself to find somewhere private to sit and reflect. And through it all, I hugged and comforted and listened and was present.

UnCon Group 3But once the toast was said, once the memorial was underway, I couldn’t be present any longer. To coin my own phrase, my heart was a new helium balloon floating through a cactus forest. The slightest brush — skin against skin, mind against mind — would break me. I had too much grief, too much emotion, coursing through my body. I had to escape. And so I fled the room. Quietly. Hoping not to be noticed.

But I was.

John Vorhaus*  — a man equally funny and wise — saw me going and followed me out. He rejected my claims that I was ‘fine, just fine’, and he sat with me, and we talked. We talked about loss and grief and self-doubt and pain and all manner of things. We talked until my skin no longer felt electrified, until I no longer felt I was going to explode, until I felt grounded again. And during that talk, during that conversation, he said a phrase that resonated with me both then and now, and defines the UnCon experience for me.

“Cherish your emotions’.

When JV said it, he was referring to the grief and shock I was feeling — that we were all feeling — in the wake of Bob’s death. But it means so much more to me.

he entire UnCon for me.

Cherish your emotions.

Think about it for a minute. How often do we truly cherish our emotions? Conversely, how often do we feel shame or guilt about our emotions? How often do we attempt to hide them/ To wall them away, or move on from them, or pretend they’re not there? What would happen if we truly cherished our emotions — accepted them, not as being bad or good but just as being. How would that feel?

UnCon Group 4How would that inform our writing?

How would that inform our lives?

Cherish your emotions.

It ties in to what Lisa Cron said about specificity and back-story. It mirrors Donald Maass’s talk of finding emotional resonance between our lives and our character’s experiences. It touches on Meg Rosoff’s discussions of voice. But, more than that, it is a model, a mantra, for life.

And so when I think about Salem, and about WriterBob and Lisa Threadgill, and about the close connections I forged, and the games of poker I played, and the fun and hi-jinks I was part of, and the way I got lost every freaking time I walked out of that hotel building, I think of that phrase.

Cherish your emotions.

And when it all gets too much for me, when the homesickness for an event that lasted only five days and yet a lifetime threatens to overwhelm me, I take a deep breath and cherish my emotions. And then I write.

* JV has a new book coming out. I’ve read it. It’s brilliant. And you should totally go and buy it right now. Tell him Jo sent you.

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Filed under Opinion, Writing

When the Death of a Baby is Just a Symptom

Car Seats

There was a news story on the radio this morning about an 11-month old baby who died.

“The infant’s body was found strapped into the car seat of his father’s car, outside a child-care centre in Perth. The discovery was made after the father went to collect his son, and was told by staff at the centre that he hadn’t dropped the baby off that morning.”

The reporter went on to say that the infant’s death was being ruled a “tragic accident”. But I wasn’t really listening.

I wasn’t even there.

I was in that child-care centre with that father.

And my heart was breaking.

I’m there when he rushes in after work. He’s pressed for time, as always, because the day’s work ran longer than expected. I see his forced smile and his tired eyes when he greets the staff. He’s thinking about the next thing he needs to do, always the next thing, pick up the baby, get home for dinner,  put the little one to bed, so much to do, so much to do.

I’m there when the staff double-checks their records and says, “No, you definitely didn’t drop him off this morning. Maybe he’s with your wife?”

I feel the father’s confusion and fear. I want to lash out with him, to demand answers.  Where is my baby? I did drop him off! I remember strapping him into his car seat and…

And he was in a rush.

And he was stressed.

And he was driving on auto-pilot, his mind already on the work he had to do that day.

I feel the moment when it hits.

I feel it like a spider-bites and extreme heights and all-consuming darkness.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there when the father turns and runs — runs! — out to the parking lot. He sees his car, parked just where he left it. And he stops.

Because he can’t do it.

He can’t walk a single step closer. The dread…

I feel the dread like a barrier of pain.

We both know what he’ll see when he looks into his car.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

…but I don’t remember getting him out.

In my mind, I’m there. I see him take one step. And then another. Because the dread has hold of him now. It’s got him through the heart, and that hook is barbed. Oh, is it barbed. It draws him closer, closer, closer.

The tears run down his face. He doesn’t know. And if he did, he wouldn’t care.

Because he can see his little boy now. His little angel. So peacefully resting in a sleep that will last for an eternity.

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there that morning. That fateful morning, It’s so early, and the baby is asleep, and we have to wake him up and make him eat and get him dressed and put him in the car and there’s no time for cuddles and games and time. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Or on the weekend. Yes, definitely the weekend. But today, we have to get to work, to pay the bills, to run the errands, to do, do, do, do, do, so hurry up now, hurry up, we’ve got to get you to child-care, and I need to get to work, and pay the bills, and run the errands, and do, do, do, do, do.

And as I watch the father stare through the window at the body of his beautiful baby, I know he’s reliving that morning, too.

And I know that he would be willing to do anything, give up anything, sacrifice anything, for just one more smile. One more cuddle. One more day. One single opportunity to do things slower, and be present in the moment, and do whatever it takes to not end up here. Here. Standing in the hot sun. Staring at the single greatest “tragic accident” of his life, and knowing that nothing, nothing, will ever erase the pain he feels right now.

He will be standing here for the rest of his life.

I love this man.

I love him because he’s me. And he’s you. And he’s every single one of us. Every person in this world trying to do it right, better, best, perfect for our families and careers and dreams and hopes and futures and everything we’re told we can have if we just work hard enough.

But that is a lie.

No matter how hard we work, we can never erase the mistakes we make, the experiences we miss, the time we waste in pursuing a financial dream that is not even ours.

The death of this child is tragic. But it’s just a symptom. It’s a symptom of the way we live. Or the way we’re so busy trying to do and have everything, we completely overlook the most important things in our lives in favour of more, more, more.

This is not an isolated incident. These types of infant deaths are becoming more common. Last year, 25 infants died when their parents forgot they were still in the car — and that’s just in the US. (I’d look for worldwide figures, but I just can’t bear to read yet another story of a parent’s worst nightmare come to life.)

I have lived this man’s horror today. I’ve been there with him in spirit. I’ve felt the stomach-dropping, gut-churning, finger-tingling terror of realisation.

I’ve cried for him.

I’ve cried for all of us.

And I’ve hugged my children tight, then played silly games with them — even though I had other, “more important”, things to do.

I encourage you to do the same.

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Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion, Random Stuff

Boston: Evil Acts, Epic Unfairness and a Message of Hope

Boston

My puppy woke me up at 4:30 this morning. An hour earlier than usual. I staggered out of the bedroom, told him to shush, and tried to go back to bed. He started barking again.

After the third trip from the bedroom to the back door, I gave up on sleep. I put on a pot of coffee, made myself some toast and sat down to write a blog post. I had an hour of free time before it would be light enough to take Buddy for a walk.

At 5:00am, just as I was at the halfway point of my blog post, my Facebook timeline exploded.

“What’s happening in Boston???”

“Is it true? Were there bombs?? Is anyone hurt??”

“OMG, Boston!”

“The news is saying two people are dead in Boston. Are you guys okay? Were you there?”

I could barely bring myself to click on the news links.

Not again, I thought. I just can’t take it.

And then, I hope no one I know was there. 

I looked back over my half-finished rant about a very First World Problem and I hit the ‘delete’ button. And then I read the news.

I cried.

But around and around in my head went a single thought. This is so epically unfair. Not the loss of life, or the injuries, or the shattered innocence of the children who were at ground zero this time around. That was all too much to process at 5:00 in the morning.

I just kept thinking about the runners.

The other competitors.

The people who had trained and trained and trained to run the marathon.

The people who made it almost 26 miles — and then watched the finish line explode.

The runners who (mercifully) hadn’t made it to the end. The ones who were within a mile of their goal, and were then redirected elsewhere.

For those people, that race will never be finished.

It will never be over.

No matter how many other marathons they run, in their heads they will always be half a mile, or a mile, or ten miles from the end of Boston 2013, watching as the finish line vanishes in a blast of flame and terrorism and unfairness.

Epic unfairness.

Later in the day, when the dog had been walked and the children fed and dropped at school, when I was standing in the supermarket trying to decide whether to buy lemon or lime scented dishwashing liquid, the full weight of the tragedy hit me.

The true epic unfairness.

The unfairness of good people killed in the midst of a celebration of strength and fitness.

The unfairness of people injured, lives derailed, and a long-held tradition besmirched with blood.

The unfairness of small-minded people committing evil acts.

You’d think that by this stage of my life, considering the number of times I’ve grieved and emotionally bled for victims of terrorist attacks, I would have developed some kind of coping mechanism; some kind of system where I could hear about tragedies and just be okay.

But I haven’t.

So I stood in the supermarket, one hand hovering in front of the dishwashing liquid, and I cried.

And then I came home.

Because there’s more important things in the world than washing dishes.

When I got home, I re-read Patton Oswalt‘s statement. I shared it on Facebook this morning, but it wasn’t until I read it again that I was truly able to appreciate the message of hope he offers. Here’s what he had to say:

Boston. Fucking horrible.

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

Just take a moment and say it with me.

“The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

It doesn’t change what happened in Boston. It doesn’t minimise the terror or the grief or the sadness. But it does give me hope.

I hope it does the same for you.

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Filed under Opinion