At Miriam’s writing retreats, after listening and responding to each other’s work, we sometimes do a “prompt harvest.” This is where we repeat phrases we heard in someone’s writing that could be good prompts for free-writing. Phrases that are specific enough to be a way in to a topic, but general enough that they could be taken many different directions. For example, on the last afternoon of the retreat, we came up with this list:
Where the wind starts
My father brought me
Laid to rest
It didn’t resolve the bottom line
Only the trees heard
Heart of my avoidance
Then Miriam invited us to pick one and write for 10 minutes. I wrote:
Heart of my avoidance? Fear of death? I feel like I should get a pass on this, after triple negative breast cancer in both breasts. Haven’t I faced into it enough? After my mother was killed by a drunk driver at age 66. After my sister-in-law died of pancreatic cancer at age 37. Could I still be avoiding feeling fear of death?
Sure. Why not? Don’t we all pretty much occlude our fragility, our mortality, as a daily strategy? Strategy for what? For survival? That seems contradictory. Could ignoring death help us survive? Or is it more that we – that I – wish to avoid being scared into stillness, into not living life fully, into not taking risks, like my mother seemed to do?? Yet my pushing hard against fear, pushing it away, pushing it down, avoiding feeling it, avoiding letting it stop me, is its own kind of trap. It’s part of my rushing, cramming too much in.
Like now. Trying to write something profound, when there is a dying mayfly in the grass in front of me. I have seen so many dead ones. This one is still moving, a little. Its legs, not its antennae. Is it struggling to free itself from the grass? Trying to climb up a too-thin, too-short blade, to get its wings into the wind? Its abdomen pulses once or twice. Is it trying to lay eggs? It is still for long moments. Resting? Hiding? In the first moment I noticed it, I saw it move, but then it was still, and I nudged it with my pen to see if it was still alive. Perhaps I scared it, perhaps hastened its death.
It is hard to conceive of such a short life. Yet my own life, compared to that of a redwood, or a mountain, is just as fleeting.
Can you teach me, Mr. Mayfly
How to be okay with death?
What is significance
From a bug’s-eye-view?
Why do I seem to want to get cute and rhymey here? It’s the opposite of treating death as a deep mystery. Maybe that is the heart of my avoidance. Not death itself, not mortality, which I have had many lessons in, but the mystery of it.