Memoir As Medicine: The Healing Power Of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (But Gorgeously Yours) Life Story
Synchrodestiny got hold of me recently. I had just gotten off the phone with Esalen Institute, planning my first post-pandemic 5 day Sacred Medicine workshop at Esalen in May and a month-long Burnout Recovery For Health Care Workers & Therapists in the fall, when my phone rang. It was Nancy Slonim Aronie, my very first Esalen teacher, who I wrote about in my book The Anatomy of a Calling, and who taught the Writing From The Heart workshop that I credit with making me a real writer back in 2007, when I had just come out of the hell of my Perfect Storm and had not yet written a single book.
Nancy wanted to tell me a story about how she had gotten a book deal for her new book Memoir As Medicine, a book deal she says I was convolutedly responsible for because one of my clients, who heard about her through me, wound up introducing her to the publisher who gave her a book deal. To thank me, she invited to host me at her retreat center in Martha’s Vineyard, to which I said, “How’s next Tuesday?”
It just so turned out I was flying to Boston two days later to help a friend celebrate his birthday. The two of us could come to Martha’s Vineyard and visit with her. She squealed. Less than a week later, I was with Nancy, reading the galley copy of her new book Memoir As Medicine, which launched yesterday!
While I was there, I used one of the writing prompts from the book to write about my time there, and I want to share it with you and invite you to use the same prompt to let your own muse have a little fun! Here’s mine. What’s yours?
WRITING PROMPT: Write a vivid description of something so we can feel — with as many senses as possible — what you’re talking about.
We had taken the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard the day before, and our hosts had asked us to ferry over their favorite treats from the local Jewish deli where Jeff lived. As our hosts were preparing breakfast in the artistically appointed cottage lit with stained glass windows and decorated with the MacGyver inventions of Joel and quirky creations of friends, they were talking about a whole smoked whitefish that was included in the deli booty.
“We should take the whitefish off the bone, so it’s easy to eat.” “No, we should leave it on the bone, all in one piece, so they can see how pretty it is on the plate.”
“Oh. My. God. It’s so big it might as well be Moby Dick! This is the smallest fish they had? How are we ever going to eat all this?”
I snuck in for coffee and then scooted out to the guest house, hopefully unnoticed.
By the time breakfast was served, the decision had been made. The whitefish was served whole, cut in half but still with gills and scales as perfectly articulated as a pen and ink drawing. It was so beautifully presented I wanted to capture it in a photo but felt too shy, having eavesdropped on their conversation about it, to do so. Back in the guest house where we were sharing a cottage but not a bed, I had told Jeff, who was folding up the blankets on the sofa he slept on, to make sure he commented on how impressive it looked, all in one piece.
With bagels decked out with lox, fresh tomato, sliced red onion, and chunks of whitefish and with steaming coffee in hand, we sat in a circle around the coffee table, which doubled as the dining room table in the small cabin. Certainly, because I’m allergic and cats love it when you play hard to get, the cats jumped in every chair I might sit in before I sat down, so I finally knelt on the floor.
Inspired by artist Shiloh Sophia’s bohemian “Café Time” ritual, we took turns taking creative center stage. According to Shiloh, Café Time has very specific “DO’s” and “DON’T’s.” DO pick something intended to delight, inspire, incite self-inquiry, provoke, or overload someone with pleasure, like a throwback to a French salon laden with music, art, poetry, or scholarly conversation. DON’T talk about politics, money, work, or what you’re currently discussing with your therapist. DO seduce your audience, but DON’T actively initiate sex (although it’s okay if it’s a side effect of all this creative stimulation!) DO plan ahead, maybe even the night before, teasing those you intend to delight with what you might share during Café Time, searching throughout the day before for the best possible Café Time confection. DON’T give it away too soon. Let it marinate, like flirting and foreplay, evoking anticipation for what’s to come.
With one of the cats finally settled on her lap, Nancy read from her heartbreaking memoir about her son who was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 9 months and multiple sclerosis at nineteen. She transported us so fully into the Connecticut shaman’s makeshift upstairs jungle that her wheelchair-bound son Dan couldn’t reach up the long stairs that Jeff’s forehead sparkled with beads of humid tropical sweat. Because I knew Dan had died, I knew this story didn’t have a traditionally happy ending, complete with shamanic miracle. But I didn’t know until she read her story that Nancy had experienced her own miracle. The shaman had blown smoke on Dan’s crippled legs, but as Nancy explained with a croaky voice and tears welling up like ice melting around a frozen spot in her heart, it had been Nancy who learned to run that day, freed, at least a little bit, from the heavy weight of a mother’s burdened need to save her son.
While Nancy read, I watched her husband of many decades Joel, who caressed the second cat while watching Nancy with the softest gaze. I felt a pang of envy and wished a man would gaze at me that way. Joel obviously knew the story but listened with the attention of someone pretending it was all news to him. A conversation spun off about women and tears and how the men in our lives respond to them. I heard Nancy suggest that Joel didn’t quite know how to comfort her when the tears came.
“But they come so often!” he exclaimed, and we all laughed.
I could see in his eyes that the gift he offered looked less like the warm hug Nancy might crave when the tears flowed. His way of attending to her many tears was to invent and mass-produce a gyroscopic round tissue box that rocked and rolled and never toppled over, something only an inventor whose wife had every good reason to cry a lot might think to create. Joel’s Café Time shares had happened the night before- with the toroidal smoke gun that blew perfectly round rings of nontoxic white smoke like the opium-smoking caterpillar holding a hookah from Alice in Wonderland. We had ooh’ed and ahh’ed over the impressive poofs that floated into the air as if someone was offering up a ceremonial peace pipe.
As Jeff read from his own book, I felt a surge of unwarranted pride, as if by bringing him into this moment with Nancy and Joel, I could somehow claim credit and win gold stars by proxy from his talent, intelligence, discipline, sensitivity, and hard inner work evident from what he was reading. I had read his book several times, so I was paying less attention to the content of his share than to the strange energy between us, the simultaneous magnetic draw that pulled me close to his body and the even stronger invisible forcefield that repelled and pushed me away. I wanted to hold his hand but didn’t. I felt a burst of gratitude that the four of us were in the room together with the smell of last night’s wood smoke lingering, as if the shaman’s smoke and Joel’s smoke signal gun were bonding us all together with invisible threads I hoped would stick. Since my divorce and the death of my parents, I missed being part of a family. I could almost imagine we were one.
When it was my turn to show off for the teacher largely responsible for handing me my writing voice on a platter of unabashed love when all I’d ever known was criticism, I flashed back to Esalen where we had met 15 years earlier, when I was her insecure, heartbroken, grieving and lost student. Back then, writing any book that would get published was years in my future, long after the countless tequila-soaked rejection letters I would burn and throw into the ocean. Nancy had given both roots and wings to my literary voice. Over the years, I would come to think of her nearly every time I rewrote a sentence because I realized I had held back on including the reader in the vulnerable emotion I felt too scared to disclose, like how I had cried when Nancy called me only a week earlier to tell me a story about how the roots and wings she had given me at Esalen had come full circle back to her own book deal for her new book- Memoir As Medicine.
The gift Nancy had given me all those years ago had been medicine indeed. And it wasn’t just Nancy. My father had just died a year earlier when I first arrived at Esalen, and Joel touched that part of me hungry for a father. As a new mother, I had just quit my job as a doctor after believing my whole life medicine had been my calling, as if the part of me that became a doctor so my father would finally pay attention to me had died along with him. But it only took me nine months (nine months as an OB/GYN!) to figure out that you can quit your job but you can’t quit your calling. I had not made a mistake by becoming a doctor. I just hadn’t found quite the right medicine yet. I discovered the real medicine in that circle of backjacks with sixteen people validating, believing, attuning to, empathizing with, and sharing what they loved about each other’s heart-melting trauma stories. Nancy and Joel had given me back myself, and I had never forgotten how utterly transformed I felt when I left Esalen that week.
The story I chose to read at Café Time was unimportant. What struck me more was that Nancy had given me the confidence to believe that my story mattered, that I mattered, that other people would one day care about what I had to say and how I said it, that maybe, just maybe, I could even make a living as a writer someday. It was the same conclusion Jeff came to in his book, Nancy came to in hers, and I came to in mine- that the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell about ourselves, the foundation of who we really are underneath all the survival strategies we cloak over the golden Buddha inside us, are perhaps the mysterious medicine that can make us miracle-prone.
We kept going with Café Time, pondering why innocent people have to suffer horrible tragedies, laughing at Stephen Colbert mocking President Biden’s State of the Union address, and feeling the quiver of uncertainty in our chests and bellies as we wondered whether we were entering World War III. I could feel the ghosts there with us, my mother who had been to this very place for a writing retreat, Dan who had railed against the furies and finally let go, and Jeff’s father, who had just passed to the other side only a month earlier, leaving behind the memory of the club he had beaten Jeff and his brother with. I could also sense the ghosts of Civil Rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass and others, who Jeff was studying in his attempt to make sense of the morality of non-violent activism against violent bullies right as Russia was invading Ukraine. They wove a tapestry with the conflict-avoidant parts in us all that just wanted peace and unity and polarized with the parts that wanted to crush Putin and punish him for his unprovoked violence against innocent Ukrainians. I knew the outer wars would never stop until we stop warring inside, fighting ourselves and neglected our hurt inner children, but I felt helpless to move the needle in any meaningful way that could stop the mass suffering. Jeff and I both studied seemingly miraculous cures, but perhaps some suffering is too great to be cured; it can only be carried on the wings of compassion.
As the second cups of coffee were running low, I could feel my former lost self, the one who brought my coffee cup into that wood-paneled workshop room at Esalen with the hummingbirds circling around the windows outside, as if they were jealous to miss out on all the love in that room. There were no hummingbirds here in wintertime in Martha’s Vineyard, but the rising sun glinting on the stained glass window over Jeff danced like there were, if not hummingbirds, fairies of light, flitting across the sheen of Jeff’s hairless head. I was mesmerized by the light show, but also aware of something strange happening in my body.
I could feel the pulse in my chest I had come to recognize, the thump thump I had first felt at Esalen after another of Nancy’s students had suggested I visit the “energy vortex” in the redwoods, something that sounded bizarrely “woo” to my science-loving and mystery-fearing mind. I first felt the pulse when I was standing on the bridge with my hands on the metal railing. Boom boom boom. It was rhythmic and steady, and I timed it. Fifty beats per minute, about twenty beats per minute slower than my own heartbeat. What was it? The heartbeat of the redwoods? The vortex itself? The power lines coursing overhead?
It took me years to conclude, whether it’s true or not, that this was the pulse of a coherent energy field. If someone had put us on a monitor, I suspected the four of us would have had synchronized heart rate variability and synchronized brain waves, like a choir does when they’re singing together or those in a drum circle do. Maybe Shiloh was onto something. Maybe Café Time wasn’t just a way to start the day with delight. Maybe Café Time was a strange sort of energy healing itself, one that bonded those who participate in a vortex of creativity, flow, love, gratitude, delight, and…caffeine.
*I’ll be teaching a Memoir As Medicine class on Zoom with Nancy Aronie for those of you working on memoirs or wanting to do so soon, so stay tuned. And until then, feel free to join us at Healing With The Muse, where Nancy and I taught together this week and you can still access the recording from the archives if you join now!
Order Nancy’s Memoir As Medicine
Join Healing With The Muse to join us live for our next session or watch all the past archives, including me and Nancy Aronie from this week!
Preorder my “memoir as medicine” book Sacred Medicine