Rocky shoreline with blue sky, small waves, and smokestacks in distance.

On Kindness and Letting Go

So much has happened since I last posted. I attended the Chicago Writers Association Annual Conference “Let’s Just Write” in March, where I pitched my novel to agents and publishers and got lots of encouragement. I visited my father who was in at-home hospice care in Nashville in April, then went to California in late April and early May to visit other family including my new baby niece, then went back to Nashville to help care for my dad for what turned out to be his final ten days. After a brief stop at home I went back to California to inter my dad’s ashes and mourn with family. Each of these intense experiences would be worth many blog posts, but for now my dad’s obituary which I took the lead on writing (with lots of help from others), will have to suffice. 

After I returned home, we had a shiva service here too. Our lovely temporary roommate from Tergar, Khenpo Gyurme, helped with the setup, our beloved Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman led the service, and our wonderful Jewish congregation and many other friends and neighbors provided technical, musical, culinary, furnishing, and emotional support. It was truly healing to be held in this multifaceted community.

When I came up for air, Don and I started to plan the rest of our summer, and I realized that the schedule had changed for a writing workshop I’d been thinking of signing up for. The speculative fiction track of the Novel in Progress Bookcamp, previously planned for August, had been folded into the all-genres camp set for June 18th-24. On June 4th I emailed Dave Rank, the camp’s founder and director, saying, “Hi, I’ve just come through a period of intensive family caregiving for my father who was in hospice and died May 20th. I see I’ve missed the deadlines. Is there any chance you still have openings in the book coach track?”

Money talks, and so does kindness. Dave checked with Lisa Lickel, the camp’s assistant director and book coach. She said yes, she’d do her best to read and evaluate my manuscript before camp started on the 18th.  (I don’t think she yet knew it was 109,000 words!)  I was apprehensive, since I knew almost nothing about Lisa or anyone else attending the camp. 

Thirty years ago, I wrote a personal essay for a newsletter. The editor was a friend of mine, and he cut my draft in a way I hated. I felt betrayed. Violated. Outraged. At the time I was a member of a feminist newspaper collective and worked closely with authors to make sure they understood my suggestions and consented to changes before going to press. My friend, who had worked in mainstream journalism, said, “I’m the editor, I get final say, that’s just the way things work.” It took me a long time to forgive him, and longer to be able to gracefully let go of words I have written.

In general, I’m a keeper of things. I’m not a hoarder. When I need more space in my five-drawer file cabinet, I sort through it and recycle some papers I no longer need. I take piles of stuff to Goodwill periodically. But I’ve been known to pull things out of the trash in case they might be useful someday. I learned this from my father. When I was a kid, he went through a period where every day he ate a small blueberry yogurt. This was before the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” triangle was ubiquitous, before we knew about plastics choking the oceans. He washed and stacked the containers, making towers in our basement. They got thrown out at some point, probably when my parents’ divorced when I was twelve.

I’ve been through a lot of letting go. I let go of the partner I lived with back when I wrote that personal essay, and the house we owned together. I let go of being able to conceive a child. I let go of the illusion of safety and control when my mother was killed by a drunk driver in 2006. I let go of my breasts when I had cancer in 2015. I let go of the myth of meritocracy as I learned how privilege shapes my life. I’m working to let go of the climate-as-we-knew-it. While I was at Bookcamp Don and I were on the phone every night deciding whether we are ready to let go of the house we’ve lived in for nineteen years in order to move into Arboretum Cohousing where our kids live.

Bookcamp was set at the lovely Siena Retreat Center on the shores of Lake Michigan, pictured above. Lisa Lickel did manage to read my whole manuscript before camp. As we worked through her awesome suggestions and those of my amazing “beta readers,” she gently reminded me that every time I add something to my manuscript, I have to cut something else. I must have grimaced, because she suggested I could keep the cuttings in a separate file in case I wanted them. I laughed and told her about the many strategies I use to let go of words I’ve written. My favorite, if I really love the darlings, is to put them in a folder marked “Outtakes,” and promise them a blog post. 

Sure, I still get upset by feedback on my writing sometimes. I tend to feel overwhelmed and hopeless about being able to fix it. I didn’t feel this way at camp. Lisa admitted she was being extra careful with her feedback because of my father’s recent death. I’d also just received a ton of feedback from other readers, which greased the wheels, and Lisa helped me sort through that feedback too. 

I am grateful for the time, and the kindness. They help with letting go. 

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