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