One evening about 2/3 of the way through the writing retreat (see previous 3 posts), a lot of the group went off to a sand dune beach after dinner. I was feeling like I was coming down with the cold that had been making the rounds of the group, so I stayed back at the house. I set up at the dining room table to begin working on assembling my “Time Guide” sculpture. It took me a while to figure out how to mix the paper pulp from the papier maché mix with the right amount of water to make a workable clay. I was glad the others were gone during most of this, since I felt self-conscious about not knowing what I was doing, and also didn’t want to disturb anybody with my wandering around with buckets and rags and water and the like.
Eventually I was able to make some snakes of the clay, and wove them in among the quartz and pumice to make “roots” for the s-curved driftwood. The paper clay wouldn’t stick to the wood, but I figured it was because it was still damp, and that was enough for the night anyway. The next couple of days were a mixture of contemplative practice, writing practice, working on my novel, working on moving the virus through my system, and working on the sculpture.
An example of writing practice, in addition to my free-association Morning Pages, was to follow Miriam’s suggestion during breakfast one day that after we get done eating, we do “nugget writing” – short 2- or 5-minute sprints on a specific topic – on “what you can taste or smell.” I wrote:
The eggs were eggy. The cornmeal dry, crumbly, some graininess, and a baking-soda flavor. What is a baking-soda flavor? Slightly salty, slightly bubbly, like a carbonated drink. What is eggy? A creaminess, despite the rough texture of the scrambled egg. A hint of sulfur. My nose is just slightly starting to clog from the cold, not enough to diminish my sense of taste yet, I don’t think. But I’ve just finished a “Fisherman’s Friend” lozenge, so now I am overpowered by menthol. A fiery coolness, a sharpness. It lingers a long time, making the roof of my mouth feel like the vast arched windswept cathedral ceilings of King’s Cross Station in London.
And, after attempting to describe the taste of my oatmeal, and the smell of toast, I wrote:
Wow, this exercise makes me realize there’s no way to describe tastes or smells without reference to other tastes, smells, maybe textures…sulfurous…burnt…windswept… metaphors I guess help, and similes. I guess it’s an inherent limitation of language – that we can only communicate using words that have already agreed-upon meanings. I keep wanting to use – is it synesthesia? – where the different senses cross. To say the scrambled eggs tasted yellow, or the toast smelled dry.
Later that morning, the last full day of the retreat, I began to reflect, as I hadn’t earlier, on the fact that so many of the objects I’d brought from home for my altar—including Yvette’s business card which I’d brought inadvertently—were connected with people who had died. I did some reflective writing about my experience being a sort of “death doula through writing” for James and Yvette. It was a role that had emerged as I listened to Yvette’s raw experiences while James was at Zen Hospice, and I filtered what I heard to create some of the posts for their GoFundMe site.
I took a break from writing and walked down towards the lake, occasionally remembering to feel my bare feet caressing the mossy grass, and notice being caressed by them. I thought, and later wrote:
Perhaps all of this death – the freshly-dead mayfly on the green-and-white metal lawn chair – remembering James, and Will, and Kerstin’s deaths – and my mother’s Yahrzeit, and her ribbons, and Rae’s embroidery – perhaps it all connects, perhaps someone needs to die in my novel about time. Miriam said “the ending should surprise us, and you.” Who would die? Her mother is an obvious candidate. Her father. Her husband? NO! That would be too hard for me to write or is that level of resistance a sign of power? Am I looking for a way to pre-process the possibility of losing Don? A way to write about the shock and grief of my own mother’s sudden death? A way to face into death, as the ultimate source of time anxiety?