The last words: 52/52

A flat brown package arrived at my door the other day. I had no idea what it could be. I hadn’t ordered anything. It must be a birthday present, I thought, and I brightened, wondering gleefully what it might be and who might have sent it.

A thing about getting older that is both terrific and terrible is that your memory becomes so completely unreliable that every day brings surprises. I had the package all the way unwrapped – oh, it’s a big book! – and had already stared at it for a minute before the title tripped a recognition –  oh, wait. I remember this now. Technically, it was sort of a present, it was just that I was the one who had sent it. I had ordered it some weeks back. It had completely slipped my mind.

Once reoriented, I held the book in my hands, taking in the gold title: The Lost Words. It was bigger than I’d expected, and its size seemed to suggest that it was an important book, a beautiful one that might be, as the cover claimed, magic. It contained poster-sized pages of enchanting watercolor paintings of nature and the outdoors and lyrical words used to describe it all. It smelled vaguely of wallpaper, the gluey smell of a day’s work ahead, of waiting for it to “book”, of imminent transformation for those willing to do the work.

“Once upon a time,” the back cover read, surrounded by drawings of birds and branches, “words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed – until one day, they were gone.”

I think this is what happens to all of us, somewhere along the way, as we grow up. We stop noticing things, or at least stop telling about them. We stop describing things around us as children do: earnestly and truthfully, courageously, completely. Maybe we think the stories don’t – or shouldn’t – matter anymore. We become worried about what the telling will cost us, what we could lose. Or maybe we just get too distracted trying not to lose all the other things that matter – the house, the car keys, one of the children, our minds. But whatever the reason, somewhere along the way, we stop sharing our stories. And we may not even notice, until one day, they are gone.

The back cover of the book went on. “But there is an old kind of magic for finding what is missing, and for summoning what has vanished.”


A year and a half ago, I attended a conference in Narrative Medicine, an emerging field focused on patient narratives and on the stories behind the science, of humanities in medicine and humanity in healing. I was, at the time, leading support groups for young women with breast cancer, and was interested in both the stories my patients told and their universal need to tell them. In our groups, the truth was laid as bare as their sweet bald heads; it was in their stories that they found connection and became a community. I wanted to learn to do a better job bearing witness to the experiences of which they told, and to honor the sacredness of the telling. I wanted to better hold space for their stories.

And then the most magical and unexpected thing happened. You will never guess who I ran into.

As I sat in a small group at the conference, reading poetry and literary excerpts and writing from prompts with speed and without editing, surprising words and themes emerged from a place I did not recognize. I recognized the process, and my love for it, but it had been more than 30 years – since freshman English in college, before all those grueling sciences kicked in – since I had done such things. It started to feel like an unexpected and somewhat magical reunion with someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time, someone who had vanished so completely that, as with the book in the mail, it took a minute for me to recognize her, to remember. I hadn’t expected to meet up with anyone at the conference but I did: I reconnected with a bookish girl I used to know, who once loved to read and write stories and who had dreamed of being a writer, before she was a grown up girl who had become a nurse. Before the science took over the space where the stories used to be.

A thing about life after cancer that is both terrific and terrible is that you always sort of feel like you are on borrowed time. You never forget how you desperately you begged in the dark for time – please, God, please. I need more time. And the memory of this dark night of your soul makes it impossible for you to waste even a little of what the poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life”. And so, once I had summoned and found that bookish girl who had vanished and been forgotten, I knew I had to show up for her. To try to be what I had always known, and in braver moments even said out loud, that I wanted to be “when I grew up”.

So I embarked on this #52for52 project, to keep that promise to her and to my grown up self, too. And if I may once again show my age by paraphrasing a very old John Denver song, some weeks were diamonds, and some weeks were stones. Sometimes I thought what I had written was alright, and even had that one good phrase towards the end that I just loved; sometimes I knew with certainty and despair that what I had written completely sucked. Either way, it sort of didn’t matter; with the end-of-week deadline always quickly approaching, there was neither room or time for excessive editing, for any pretense of perfection. All I could do was to show up week after week on the page, even – and perhaps especially – when the inadequacies of both my writing and myself were most on display.

There were times that I worried, too, about what the stories might cost me, what I could lose in the telling.  I wondered what people would think and if the stories even mattered. If you could tell too much of the truth. But then you showed up.

Yes, even though you weren’t the one who had made that silly promise, you weren’t the one engaged in some embarrassing midlife effort to reinvent yourself, and you weren’t the one so audacious to think you might become a writer just by, well, writing stuff, you showed up, with empathy and with encouragement and in droves. You showed up to hear stories which seem now, as I look back, to be so much of loss: a first-grader trying not to lose her bus pass, a teenager who lost her dad. A young mom lost in endless days of mac ‘n cheese, a boy lost in Disney World and to the real world, too. Erased pencil marks and lost innocence and the end of a job as Santa, The unquestionable loss of any appearance of shit-togetherness while trotting around in a ridiculously on-wrong swimsuit. Week after week, you held a little space for the stories, imperfect as they were, and that felt like space held for us to be imperfect with – and to tell the truth to – each other. It should not be surprising, I guess, since things always seem to go this way, that it was the telling of stories of loss that led to so much being found: courage and connection and community. And of course. the words and writing which – I had not even noticed – had been lost along the way.

I am telling you all of this so that you might know what your part of this has been, what the kindness in your comments and the generosity in your encouragement have meant to me. How much they mattered. I am sure that real writers would have the words to adequately express and convey the depth of their gratitude, but those words remain, even now, somewhere beyond my reach. I will keep looking for those words and for all the others, and when I find them, you will know. But for now, I have only these: Thank you, so much, for showing up.

#52for52 (52/52)

The Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris
Published by Penguin Random House U.K.

22 thoughts on “The last words: 52/52

  1. I’ve kept quiet over the last year – so as to not “get in the way” or clutter things up. Now that #52for52 is over, let me say what an honor it has been to read each piece. Your writing is not only beautiful, but truly authentic – which I’m pretty sure is the greatest compliment I can pay you.

    I wish I could arrange all the wonderful things people have said about your writing, both on this site and to me personally, into a bouquet as it would certainly be more spectacular than any floral arragnement I’ve ever sent! But if I could condense all those comments into one thought, it would be: Don’t stop writing. You have a voice and people want to hear it.

    So take a good break, recharge your battery, give your Sweetie a kiss, and then start writing again. We don’t need a schedule or even a promise of regular intervals, but we DO need to know that something’s always in the works at QuiverVoice and that it will always have more to say.

    So proud of you and so in awe of your beautiful talent!
    XO

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Beth. For always telling the truth and for allowing me get to know you through your words. This post struck a chord deep in my heart for I too just reconnected with my 12 year old self through, of all things, an exercise class that uses moves from ballet. As a young girl, I thought it would be lovely to be a ballerina and my mom signed me up for classes at Betty Merriweather’s School of Dance (real name!). I thoroughly loved the classes. Then, I hit puberty that summer and grew five inches in three months, and it almost overnight to be more difficult for me to make my awkward new big girl body do the graceful poses in class. Frustrated and feeling less than graceful, I let it go when I got into middle school telling myself Betty Merriweather and ballet was for the birds! I “forgot” about ballet for forty plus years–until this past Friday when I made my way awkwardly and self-consciously to my first bar method class. A strange thing happened during the class, I started to smile and relax and really enjoy the exercise. It was a re-connection of sorts and it felt so good. Thank you for your kind and honest story telling. You encourage me to do the same in my life!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marti. I love this so much. Reading about Betty Merriweather’s School of Dance (real name) made me remember Ollie Ryan’s Dance School (real name) and another little girl – this one too short! – and how much she wanted to be graceful. Thank you so much for this! ❤️

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  3. I just met one of my son’s roommate’s mom at graduation on Thursday, and after she heard my story, she sent me your blog post of “Portrait of the mom at graduation.” Thank you for your words. They resonated with my experience and made me feel so okay.

    I discovered your blog on the day you are finished! I hope you will continue to write. Writing feeds ours souls and connects us as one human to another. Congratulations on 52/52!

    Sincerely,
    Tracy

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    • Thank you Tracy, and you are so right about connecting us. I’ll still be writing and enjoying the space to do some different things and take on new projects. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  4. Each week I have checked my inbox for your arrival and I was never disappointed! Through your writings I have been able to reconnect with a different part of myself that had also been in the shadows. I think your memory is mighty keen and you have triggered memories from my past that I had long forgotten but so thankful to now remember. Thanks for letting me share in your journey and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Happy Birthday Beth! Sally

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sally….thank you so much…..believe me, my memory is lousy but it is funny the way beginning to remember something can help us remember another thing, and another, and before we know if we are back in touch with that old self we had long forgotten. It’s been so fun to connect over all of this. Thanks so much for your support! ❤️

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  5. Congratulations, Beth, it is done! You have given us some wonderful stories over these 52 weeks. Often, I found myself in your stories—I am a mother of 4 and have wanted to be a writer since I was young. Never do I think I could have accomplished what you just did. Again, congrats! and keep writing!

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    • Oh, Lisa, but I didn’t think so either, so many times along the way, but it turns out that you can! Thank you for so often stopping by and offering a word of support….I look forward to reading much more of your writing in the future!

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  6. Congratulations on a year well spent ! Your writing is exceptionally beautiful, and funny, and cheerful and so Beth .
    I know you will return to writing after a respite for a job well done.

    Priscilla

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  7. Please tell me you are not finished…because I have uttered at least one “YES!” each time I’ve read one of the 52/52 (and I think I caught them all but I can’t be sure). Keep writing. Please.

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    • Katie, thanks so much for your steadfast support! I’ll still be writing, just with less frequent deadlines and, I hope, a little less panic. Look forward to continuing to share and discuss with you!

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  8. So beautiful and so very true. EXCEPT the part where you don’t call yourself a “real writer.” Beth, you are a superb writer, able to convey your message using beautiful and eloquent phrasing, and heart-felt emotion packed in every paragraph. So wonderful to look forward to your next piece. Love you!

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  9. Thank you. I feel like we’re friends through the internet and look forward to hearing your thoughts each week. Thoughts that make me think and wonder about my own life and words. Please don’t stop

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  10. Of course now I’m crying. I love your stories and the way you write. You are able to remind us all what WE forgot about the young girls that led us to where we are, ourselves. You help me remember what was in my 12 year old heart and how incredibly blessed I have been along the way. I would never, ever change a thing.
    ❤ ❤ <3, thank you Beth!

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    • Susie, you’ve been there each and every week with a heartfelt comment and a dose of encouragement. Your friendship and companionship on the journey – which has always seemed to pop up in the most delightful way – has meant a lot to me over the past 52 especially! Thank you! ❤️

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