Not too long ago my father-in-law passed away. He had one of those slow wasting diseases that makes those who grieve him say things like “at least he’s not suffering anymore” partly because we lost him by tiny increments months and almost years ago. He had not been able to get out of bed or have much of a conversation with us for a painfully long stretch of time as his liver shut down from damage inflicted by gout medication, of all things.
Jim wanted to be at home through this process and my mother-in-law did everything she could to care for him. As he got closer to the end, I worried that she was alone too much. I remembered how lonely it could be in the house with my father after he became unable to respond to us.
“I have my books,” she said. “I do enjoy getting into my stories.”
And in that moment of discussing death and loneliness I had my reason to keep writing.
Don’t get me wrong. My mother-in-law doesn’t read the kind of books and stories I’m writing. Vivian loves to read what my father-in-law called ‘bodice rippers.’ She is into Christian romance where the woman is out on a ranch fending for herself very nicely, thank you, with a hole in her heart she doesn’t even know is there until Mr. Unbelievably Good Looking comes along to fill in with his ever so strong manliness.
These stories worked for her as her husband slowly slipped into a place she could not reach him even as he lay next to her in their living room on a hospital bed. Who am I to judge?
And, in all honesty, I picked up one the other day and thought Mr. Unbelievably Good Looking might make a good read if I let myself enjoy a bodice ripper now and then.
After my husband’s dear mother told me of her joy in books my eyes opened once more to why it’s important for me to keep telling my stories even on the days when I know no one is listening. Some day I might be speaking to someone in great pain who holds onto words like a raft. Someday someone on her way to work might fill with gratitude for those words like I did while listening to Neil Gaiman’s ANANSI BOYS. Maybe I’m full of pride and hubris to think I might be able to offer such a gift. But it also feels a crying shame to not try if writing it holds me up and has the chance to hold someone else up, too.
Mr. Gaiman, the author I have loved most in recent months, has something to say about using stories in this way:
“If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”
I don’t know if I would use the words ‘prison’ and ‘weapons’ to describe how I feel about this crazy ‘real’ world I live in where those I love die in ways I would not choose for my enemies. But I do know that the stories I read and also those I write make the sun come up on the darkest of my days.
And to that end…
If you have an interest in making your own escape into the sunlight in this dreary winter time, I have an idea for you. On February 1st from 10am to noon, I’ll be teaching a short class on creativity and how it connects to the divine. I’ll be using principles from the book the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
Here’s the address and a link to the book. There is no cost. I’d love to see you there if you are interested in creating a world of beautiful escape for yourself and others.
Puyallup United Methodist Church
1919 West Pioneer Avenue
Puyallup, WA 98371