When a friend registered for Natalie Goldberg’s “Way of Writing” online course, I felt a tug. The idea of delving into creative writing held great appeal. I had treasured Natalie’s Writing Down the Bones upon my first reading decades prior, but I hadn’t put its practices into place. Busy with other aspects of my life, writing seemed a luxury.
Despite the opportunity facing me, I resisted taking the course—simply because of my friend. It seemed too impulsive to follow her idea instead of coming up with my own.
I sat on it for a month before Googling “Natalie Goldberg” and signing up for the course.
The class met weekly, writing together and reading our words out loud. With no feedback —no praise, no criticism. We developed our voices by writing and speaking our words; we found our way to our truths and how to share them.
Natalie’s humor, passion, and commitment inspired hundreds of writers in her course. Don’t feel like you have time to write? Don’t think your work is good enough? Don’t know what you want to write? “Shut up,” she’d say, “And just write.” No excuses. Just do it. She was a Nike commercial for writing.
It didn’t take long for participants to create pop-up groups as they sought to continue the writing practice after the course ended. I quickly joined a local group.
The five of us met on Zoom weekly to write and read together. Amy was a retired journalist; Elena, a published author who had worked in IT; Lisa, a jill-of-all-trades who worked in research labs before teaching creative writing at a community college; and Beren, also retired and raising her daughter. For me, the group arrived at precisely the right time: I had retired one month earlier after decades of working in corporate communications. Writing, but not necessarily creatively. Not what was on my heart. Not what really mattered.
Our group, in fact, often wrote about “What really matters.” Using a prompt enabled us to quickly put pen to paper without belaboring what, or how long, to write. Per Natalie’s guidelines, we wrote in ten-minute stints. A few of us had to release the itch to end each piece with a tidy summary or pithy statement. We eased into the discomfort of ending mid-sentence or mid-thought.
Because of her teaching experience, Lisa served as our de facto leader. She came prepared with prompts that reflected what she had recently read, heard, or done. After a fox tussled with her backyard chickens, we wrote about “chickens.” As we awaited the Supreme Court ruling on Roe. v Wade, we wrote to “Why does it matter?”. And as Lisa started a new exercise regimen, “swimming” became our writing topic.
We soon learned, as Amy said, “If you want to get to know someone, write with them.” You can’t discern what really matters without taking stock of your life and your relationships. You can’t write about swimming without moving like a child again through water. You can’t opine about abortion without sharing your own experience with fertility or the lack thereof.
We grew to understand each other’s longings. To ride a horse again. To walk along the Aegean Coast. To ease a husband’s ailments. To return to Las Cruces. For me—to be at peace with myself, finally.
I’d tried several things over the years to overcome the feeling that everything I thought, did, or said was wrong. Decades and dollars were spent on therapy, antidepressants, yoga, hypnosis, EMDR, and EFT. Let’s not overlook the obsessive running and dieting, which seemed poised to cure me if only I ran a half-marathon in record time. And the kooky cures I tried for bulimia and trichotillomania (hair-pulling): “Take a shower if you feel like eating” or “Count the number of hairs you pull each day.” They did nothing to relieve my urge to eat, purge, or pull.
With a litany of failed attempts, I didn’t expect writing to fix me. I had no expectations. Maybe I hoped for some structure and community as I left the routine and camaraderie of my workplace.
At first, grim and deep words landed on our pages. Our group seemed drawn to expose every situation that brought us shame, grief, or embarrassment. We wrote about these incidents and then spoke our words out loud. My voice would shake as I read my writing, my throat unsure of this new connection between my heart and my head. I couldn’t hold that much emotion without trembling.
Many writes left me emotionally exhausted. Other writes left me almost high. The ability to get the words out and be witnessed with no judgment cracked me open, and rather than holding tightly to my festering wounds, I was growing and expanding in the ways I saw myself and my world.
Although we weren’t supposed to comment on each other’s writing, we sometimes broke protocol. Lisa was the one who reached out after I wrote about childhood wounds to direct me to a writing program that addressed trauma. She was the one who told me about her $800 dental appliance for migraine relief after I shared news of my dentist’s $4,000 mouthguard. She was the one who saw my delight after visiting New Mexico and sent recipes for green chile stew and green chile burger topping and green chile apple pie.
She was the one who taught me that whatever I had to say was all right, or alright. However I wanted to spell it, I was absolutely fine. I was okay, just as I am. She called me brave.
And she was the one, after six months of writing together, who received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer.
It caught her, and us, by surprise. She emailed us to say she wouldn’t be able to join us.
“Just had a lung biopsy. Strange days.”
A few days later, after excruciating leg pain, Lisa went to the ER and shared with us that, “They said the ‘C’ word because of the clots, as malignant tumors tend to throw clots. I don’t feel like I’m dying. But who knows? I’ve never died before in this body.”
More emails, worse news, still the same sense of humor.
“I’ll know more about treatment options after I get with the local oncologist, but the Johns Hopkins doctor ordered an MRI and did a liquid biopsy to see what the heck is going on and if the cancer is susceptible to control via immunotherapy. I feel hopeful and damned inconvenienced all at once.”
Our writing became more urgent as Lisa’s prognosis became clear. Her prompts led us to write about “trial and error” as her doctor explored experimental therapies. We scrawled about “commitment and endurance” when she wondered how much her body could take. And we wrote about “what I’m in charge of” as Lisa leaned into her lack of control over her treatment outcome.
Most of the time, she fiercely tried to beat her cancer. She’d write about mustering faith and hope and how she’d strengthen her body. Then, after we wrote, she’d share: “I’m scared. I don’t want to die.”
I was scared too. I was afraid to be this close to death. I’d never looked someone in the eye when they said, “I don’t want to die” or “I’m scared to die.” I never talked to death before, saying, please don’t come for my friend yet. I’d never seen someone have a conversation with death.
And I feared that, with Lisa’s passing, our writing group would die. That potential loss seemed unbearable. The place where I found a safe refuge, where Lisa first modeled the acceptance and love I later felt from my fellow writers. She created space for us—for me—to be.
Could the group survive her loss? Could I survive if we didn’t?
Our group started to meet twice weekly to accommodate Lisa’s chemo treatments. If she missed us one day due to chemo or its aftermath, we’d connect on the other. We held more tightly to each other as a shift in the group seemed imminent.
We gathered in person once. Before we met, Elena advised, “Just a warning: I’m really tall! People don’t expect Latinas to be tall. But I am!” We laughed at how reality didn’t match what we thought we saw on Zoom.
By that in-person meeting, Lisa felt she had beaten her cancer. Her doctor cleared her to be with us if we took COVID tests. But within weeks, her cancer had come back. Oops. Her doctor had forgotten to order maintenance chemo.
While we poured our hearts into writing our outrage, Lisa found a new doctor and gracefully accepted her next steps. Anger shifted to hope and resolve as a new treatment plan began.
Most of us came and went in our weekly writes due to travel schedules, and Lisa came and went due to her treatment schedule. As her cancer spread, Lisa’s writing with us became less frequent. In our last write with her, she wore oxygen tubes and couldn’t speak. The mucus filling her lungs meant that talking would cause a surge of violent coughs. She listened to us read and then emailed us her writing.
In it, she shared her feminist perspective on our prompt of “rebellion” and then, “I am having somewhat of a personal rebellion these days in that I am fighting with everything I have not to die but to live.”
Amy decided to visit Lisa in her last days, and I could feel it in my heart. The need to be with her, to witness this, too. After all she’d witnessed of me and our fellow writers, after what I’d already witnessed of her. How could I not visit a friend on the verge of death, a friend who knew me better than my lifelong friends, despite our short time together? But I looked at my calendar, the activities slated for the month ahead, and I texted Amy to see if I could wait a few weeks.
“Yes, my pal,” she said, “It will be too late.”
It would be too late to visit Lisa after celebrating my younger son’s birthday, after meeting my older son’s girlfriend, and after moving my friend who has dementia.
Life gets in the way of dying.
Dying gets in the way of writing.
As Lisa no longer attended our writing group, Elena’s attendance waned. Her husband passed away, and as she grieved, she traveled, finding solace with friends and family in Texas and Ohio and treating herself to a spa retreat in California.
Lisa’s godmother came to stay with her in her last days and sent us daily updates. Hearing about her decline, I wanted just one more day with her. Once more to listen to her voice, the rhythm of her words. Once more to hear about the chickens in her backyard, her longing for the New Mexico desert, her recipes for green chile everything.
Twelve of us stood graveside when Lisa was buried, including Amy and me. Lisa’s husband—we knew him so well, even on this first painful introduction, after hearing Lisa write about him—read, first in Hebrew, then in English, Psalm 91. He mentioned that she had requested this: no pomp and circumstance, a simple ceremony. A Psalm. A prayer. A final goodbye.
She planned a green, natural burial for herself. Her body, wrapped in the linen shroud she ordered online, lay atop a flat wooden board. Ropes tied around the board helped the pallbearers lift her, then place her body in the deep, bare hole in the ground. She settled in among the roots and leaves to become one with the earth.
As did others, I shoveled dirt atop her body, ceremonial dirt. Just enough to participate in this sacred ritual but not so much that I would fall on the ground sobbing. I tossed in some greenery.
My final image of her body, the linen peeking through the dirt, rocks, and evergreens, has rearranged my heart. A human body going home. The earth from whence we came and to which we return. Endings and beginnings. The image of her body has stayed with me as an altar to call upon when seeking her wisdom, to conjure a memory of the sound of her voice.
After wiping our tears, after hugging Lisa’s husband one more time, after saying our final goodbyes to Lisa, Amy and I went out for lunch.
“I don’t want our writing group to end,” I said to Amy, clinging to Lisa’s memory and what we had together.
We talked about what was working and what wasn’t; our group had been without Lisa for weeks. It wasn’t the same and we felt the urge to fix it. Invite someone else. Find ways to fill the heart space that Lisa brought. We finally let our “fix it” conversation go; only time would direct the future of our group.
Maybe we need to write to such prompts as “a farewell letter,” “gratitude,” or “what really matters now.” Maybe Lisa gave us some prompts in the obituary she wrote for herself, in which she asked, “What’s important? How do you sum up a life?”
I’m different now than when I took Natalie’s class and first met Lisa and my fellow writers on Zoom. I accept myself more fully, which enables me to accept others more fully. In my writing, I’ve found forgiveness in situations that first focused on anger. I’ve found acceptance in incidents that have gone unresolved. And I’ve found solace to accompany the grief of losing Lisa, and others, too soon.
It’s all been a lesson in compassion, not writing. Writing is just the tool that got me here. And the tool that will get me wherever I need to go next.