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Grief has found me once again. I wish it hadn’t, but it doesn’t seem to care much for my opinion.

I find I have a story I need to tell.

Three years ago, when I first began to look at taking on my current job, I stopped by the agency for what the man who went on to hire me called a “pre-interview.” He wanted me to see the agency, get a feel for what the job was about, before we ever went through a formal interview process. As part of my tour, he took me around to the smoking area and introduced me to two men – my would be team members – Wes and Jamie.

Wes looked like a hippie: blue jeans, t-shirt, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. His handshake meant business, none of that gentle-because-you’re-a-woman bullshit, and his eyes looked straight through me and read me, then and there. Jamie, taller, balding, his face unreadable, leaned against a post and made some off handed, casual reference to the job being like an Escher painting. I had no idea what he was talking about, but pretended I did.

As we walked back into the office, my potential boss said, “I hope they don’t scare you off. They’re a little rough around the edges.” I laughed, and said, “don’t worry about me. I can handle them.” I meant it. In that brief moment of contact, I knew the three of us would get along just fine.

I tend to be a bit of a loner. And I seldom, if ever, really feel part of a group. Within a week after I took on that job, everybody was calling the three of us The Mod Squad. We connected. We understood each other. And the work we shared connected us even closer. A client committed suicide, and I saw these strong men shed tears over that. We looked out for each other, and the two of them taught me things. Important things about life and death, and being cynical and still being able to hurt for the tragedies that unfolded around us. We laughed so hard we had rules about warning each other to put down the coffee cup before opening our mouths. We argued about philosophy and religion and the meaning of it all.

It was Jamie who discovered Vivian the penguin online, a rescued penguin, outfitted with a transmitter who was meant to be swimming south to his breeding grounds. Vivian instead swam in circles before heading resolutely for the north, and ‘swimming north’ became our metaphor for being yourself and going your own way.  It was Jamie who taught me about Escher, and the twisted realities in his paintings. He was so brilliant he made my brain ache sometimes trying to keep up with him. A bit of poetry, a fragment of song, could bring tears to his eyes, although most people only saw a carefully shielded, unemotional demeanor. He looked out for me, sheltered me, mentored me.

Wes taught me other things. Things like, all of our clients lie to us, and that’s okay. That sometimes you have to break the rules in order to do the right thing. That you can laugh when your heart is breaking, even when you feel that there is no hope. Where Jamie sheltered me, he pushed me. To take risks, to try new things, to step out of my shell.

I loved them both.

A little over a year ago, Jamie fell into a depression, and in the end he shot himself. I was devastated. I was on one of the many revisions of Swimming North, and couldn’t imagine finishing this book without being able to show it to him. It was full of Escher, and penguins, and the odd twists of reality he had taught me. But I kept on.

Wes was also a part of the book. In the early drafts one of the characters was based on him – a ponytailed counselor with a motorcycle, who shared his appreciation for speed and adventure. After Jamie left us, the two of us grew even closer. Wes got promoted and was now my boss. He resisted the title of supervisor, so I called him my Pseudo-Supervisor and we laughed about that. He brought me the Terry Pratchett Discworld books to read – one at a time – from his extensive library that included the entire collection. I was so close to finishing Swimming North, and was looking forward to handing him a copy.

Almost three weeks ago now, on March 26, Wes didn’t come in to work. This was entirely out of character, and when I went to check on him I found that he was dead. He died with an open book beside him, at a time of year when his amazing garden was in full spring bloom. This was fitting for him, and an easy death, if there is such a thing.

But it leaves me, where once I was part of a team, one woman alone. I miss them both. They taught me so much: about this difficult job that I still have to do, about life, about going on. The book is still undone. Every time I face it now, it is an act of love, and an act of courage, because it hurts me. I wanted it to be brilliant, something that would somehow do justice to the unique and amazing human beings that they were. But I am not a genius, and I have no magic. It is a book – an entertaining story – and maybe there is a little something more that runs through it. I hope so.

But I begin to think the real memorial to them is me. They shaped me, as surely as I shape this book. They left their mark on me, filled my head with their sayings and their thoughts and their stories. I’ve been thinking of Swimming North as Wes and Jamie’s book, but I’m beginning to realize that every thing I write will be, in some way, about them. There will be other books, as there will be other losses. And in every word I write there are echoes of my dead. My father, my husband, my grandparents, my friends.

This is comfort. This is a reason to keep on writing. More than anything, it is courage to finish Swimming North, to release it, and move on. Wes always used to say, “Drive as fast as the road conditions allow.” And then add, “Never forget that you are a part of the road conditions.” Yep. This is a writer’s motto, I think, if you think of it as an analogy. Taking it under advisement, I’m writing slowly these days, feeling my way along, but I’m still writing. As fast as current conditions allow.

Honesty time.

The last couple of months have been hard slogging, and I realize that my Blog has suffered somewhat under the onslaught.  Digital Dame commented, in a conversation at another blog site, that she misses the weekend challenges.  So do I.  I also miss the long, unscheduled days off, a sense of freedom, and uninterrupted time to write.  

A week ago, my favorite public horoscope said something like this:  you’re trying to look relaxed while standing on a dock with one foot on a boat.  The boat is moving away from the dock, and you’re going to have to commit to either the boat, the dock, or fall into the water.

Which is a pretty accurate description.  Unwilling to abandon either the boat or the dock, I have predictably ended up thrashing about in cold water, still undecided whether to swim for the safety of the dock or the adventure of the boat.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that, but at least it’s an image to begin with.

Emotionally, I’m still struggling with the suicide of my very good friend.  My job brings me into contact with other suicidal people on an almost daily basis so there is no way of avoiding or silencing my grief.  And as a professional the questions I ask myself  involve more than the usual “how could he do this thing?” and progress to the “how come I didn’t stop him?”  My novel in progress, Swimming North deals with suicide, the type of work I do, and contains a character, Zee,  loosely based on my friend.  He and I had long talks about this novel.  He introduced me to Vivian the Penguin who inspired the whole thing, as well as Escher and certain interesting concepts of reality.  So, while the man is dead, the book and the ideas live on.

What is difficult, apart from the emotional process of grieving, is this: the book is a novel.  The character of Zee is fictional, whatever might have inspired it.  And this conflicts with a tendency to turn it into a monument to the real man and a discussion of philosophical ideas, both of which will kill the fiction dead if I indulge.  So, there is that.

As I mentioned before, a couple of good and insightful readers of my once completed novel Remember made comments which inspired a complete revision.  I’m about halfway through this process.  It’s been painful at times – a rather bloody and ruthless slaughter of hours of hard work and polished words.  And uninterrupted stretches of writing time have been at a premium.  But I do believe it will be stronger in the end, so it’s worthwhile.

On the home front, my partner is still unemployed.  My job is becoming increasingly difficult as the economy calls for tighter budgets.  Over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been working on the newsletter for my association – Washington Association of Designated Mental Health Professionals – I’ve been becoming increasingly angry regarding the lack of value that is placed on the mentally ill in my state.  Not something most of my readers will care about, I suppose, but Washington has less psychiatric beds per capita than any other state in the nation.  Since a big part of my job involves trying to put people into non-existent beds, this is a constant cause of frustration.  I spend hours with vulnerable, hurting, sometimes dangerous people, and expend a great deal of creative energy attempting to solve problems that are simply not solvable.

Which leaves precious little creative energy for writing and blogging.  I resent this.  And so sometimes when I open my Blog and click on New Post, I often look at the screen blankly and can’t think what to say.  There is simply too much.  Weekend challenges, the last few times I’ve tried, simply added to that sensation of one foot on the dock and one in the boat.  Writing has to fit into the corners and crevices of my life right now. Always crowding out some other thing that needs to be done.

Don’t get me wrong – I make time for it, as my family could tell you.  Today I really must find time for some household cleaning activities.  I plan to carry on with the revision of Remember.  There are errands to be run in town.  And, I’m on call again, meaning whatever I plan is likely to be interrupted by the ringing of the phone.  

It’s not all bleak in my world, I must point out.  Outside my windows, spring has finally managed to break through.  It gets so green up here sometimes it seems unreal, a Hollywood set design with special effects.  I’m going to my first writing conference in a couple of weeks.  I’ve refrained from taking on extra shifts in May, so hopefully will have a little more time for writing and relaxation.

As always, please feel free to use this site to share how your writing and querying and living is going.  Inquiring minds want to know.

I am no stranger to grief.

I wish it were not so.  The first 27 years of my life were charmed: I grew up in a healthy family with parents who loved each other and my brother and me.  We were about as functional as it’s possible to be, I think, and I grew up seeing the world as a safe and fairly predictable place.  Tragedy and loss were things that happened to other people and in books, and apart from glimpses of the darker side that came to me through the lives of some of my friends and classmates, I was sheltered and protected.

And then my father died.  I was the fabled Daddy’s girl – I adored him, and his death changed everything.  The world was suddenly not such a safe place after all:  if HE could die, then anything might happen.  His death made me grow up.  I had children, of my own.  I learned to stand on my own two feet.

And then my husband died, suddenly, in a motorcycle crash.   Again, the crushing loss of the individual, and with it a complete restructuring of my beliefs about life, the universe, and everything.  What is the meaning of a world where people die like this, where is God in it all, how do the ones left behind create an entirely new life and not end up small and bitter?

We got through it, my boys and I, and it made us better and larger human beings.  I’ve learned to live life mindfully on the whole, to focus on what is important and let the little things go by.  (Not that I’m perfect in this, but I am learning.)  I have a greater capacity for the grief and hurt of others which helps me in my profession of helping other people who are in crisis.

This past week, my former co-worker and very close friend, a brilliant, warm, funny and totally original human being, ended his own life.  This is a new and different kind of loss, one that again challenges all of my beliefs about the nature of things and my own ability to help anybody else find their way through the morass.  I feel fractured and off balance; even knowing the grieving process from the inside out, knowing all of the tools available to me, all of the wise advice I’ve learned for myself and dispensed to others over the years, still I am once more reeling beneath the assault.

Those of you who have been here know that grief is more than an emotion.  It is a full mind/body/spirit onslaught that sucks up all of your energy.  Eating and sleeping are affected, energy levels cycle from feeling pasted to the couch to a restless frenzy that has you up cleaning house or tackling weird and previously unthought of projects at unusual hours of the night.

Which brings me, inevitably, to writing.  Words can be wonderfully healing things.  Journaling has been my salvation over the years – there is something about pen moving over paper, about pouring out the inchoate emotional mess and making some sort of sense out of it, acknowledging the dark thoughts, even the rage against the dead, in a safe place where nobody gets hurt.

But the other writing, the writing involving plot and structure and carefully developed scenes, that takes energy and energy is at a premium.  There is a healing in it, though, in the careful building of characters and worlds in a medium where there is some control.  I get to choose, in the novels I write, who gets to live or die.  If characters go off into that good night in my stories, I am sad to see them go but at least they’ve had my permission, and they continue to live on the page.  Goodbye’s are said, last moments cherished.  They never suddenly and unexpectedly vanish into the dark.

Swimming North, my current WIP, was inspired by my friend who chose to step out of his life.  Still he is here with me.  He was the one who introduced me to Vivian the Penguin, an unexpected rebel who took the transmitter Scientists attached to him and swam in entirely the wrong direction until he was lost sight of.   Together we came up with ‘swimming north’ as a metaphor for going your own way rather than following the path established for you.  He opened my mind to concepts and ideas I’d never even considered, usually involving twists of reality that constantly made me blink in wonder, finding myself in a real life Looking Glass World.  All of these things have found their way into Swimming North, and so working on this novel keeps him with me.

It also makes me feel a weight of responsibility, as if my words somehow have the ability to keep him in this world, to share his brilliance with others.  I feel small and insufficient to this task, it daunts me.  Rather than being a playground, the book suddenly looks like a quest, and I fear to ruin it by taking it too seriously.  And yet, I begin to feel the need to write.  My muse is sitting across the room shooting spit wads whenever I’m not looking.  “Enough,” she says.  “Let’s play.”

I am looking at the manuscript, a little like a stranger.  I have changed since I last wrote, even though it is only a matter of days.  And I wonder how the changes in me will affect the story itself.  My muse tells me to stop taking myself so seriously, that she will take care of everything as she always does.  “Trust me,” she says.

I have no choice.  To risk alienating her would be to risk everything.  She is a constant.  Through all of the deaths and losses and changes, through all of the brilliant and wonderful things in my world as well, she has been there.  I’ve neglected her sometimes, locked her in closets.  She resents that sort of thing.  She sulks.  So it is time to get back to work.

“You don’t have to write his ideas,” she tells me.  “Write yours, as they were shaped or inspired by him.  Write from what you are, and from what knowing him has made you.  That is the true memorial to him, not your words – the ways that he became a part of who you are.”

She’s right, you know.  She always is.


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