Carving a Sacred Place

Nate Favors from The American Hands Project by Sally Wiener GrottaToday, I will write.

Because it is time.

I’m not sure when I last wrote. At least a year. No, it was more like a year and a half, except maybe for a couple of essays and one or two very short poems. I’m not talking about the reviews and features that currently represent the bulk of my livelihood, but my core writing. The novels, stories, poems and essays that reach through my throat into my gut and haul out my voice through my heart.

I write because pouring myself out onto the keyboard is how I have always tried to make sense of a senseless world. I don’t understand the pain we cause each other, the hate, the distortion of love. War and tribalism. Walls between individuals, between tribes and nations, that are built up brick by brick over years of preconceptions and propaganda. So I create stories to try to help me find the right questions to ask that might yet explain the inexplicable. Perhaps, I can also use it to try to navigate my way through the morass of this new world that now envelops me.

I write because through words, through Story, I have long discovered myself. So I shall write with the hope of rediscovery, not of the woman I am or have been, but this new woman I am now forced to become. Without my compass, without the living breathing other soul who lived within me, by my side, facing each morning as a new adventure to be shared.

Where do I start? At the end? That’s one simple sentence. Three words. Daniel is dead. In my novel The Winter Boy, I wrote, “How people die shapes our world.” Daniel’s death was a bitter one. Not at home as we had hoped, but in a strange hospital, surrounded by people who didn’t know us; the tube he never wanted silencing his sweet voice until he had nothing more to say. That brilliant mind is now forever silent.

I return to that moment so often, trying to reshape it into a story I can live with. I torture myself with “if onlys.” I ache to hear him say my name just one more time. To talk with me, to brainstorm until we find a solution, a way out of this emptiness. Our brainstorming sessions were always so fertile. But the hours of the day, the minutes of the hours are now fallow.

So I write. To finally hear my own voice, fearful of the pictures I will draw in my minds’ eye. Yet I must.

Because it is time.

The problem is I don’t know what or how to write now. I can’t yet bring myself to open up the novels I was working on. Nor am I ready to look at Daniel’s Black Bear One. He had left me notes on how he wanted to finish that novel about the village’s volunteer ambulance corps, telling me I could do it for him. But how can I return to the village of Black Bear, PA, the world we created together, each dipping into the same pool of characters and locales to write his Honor and Adam V and my Jo Joe. Someday, I’ll finish Black Bear One. for him. Someday, I hope to write my other novels set in Black Bear, as well as those in the Alleshine world of The Winter Boy, and others I have in the works or planned..

Not now. Not without Daniel, when he was so integral to my creative process.

First, I have to discover who I am without Daniel. Not just half of Team Grotta. The woman who was blessed to know and share an unconditional, all-encompassing love, and now has… what? It feels like nothing. Yet, I know I am not nothing. If for no other reason than Daniel loved me, believed in me. And all that is left of him is me. The woman his love helped to create. The woman who needs to continue to create herself, to honor that love.

Death is an absence. A black hole. I will never fill that gaping emptiness. I am learning (or trying to learn) to accept that aching, ghastly truth. So how do I go forward?

Rabbi Tsurah August suggested that I meditate. I recognize the wisdom in meditation, and I have often enjoyed directed meditation. The peaceful inward journey that allows one to reach out into the world and connect. But my recent attempts at meditation have been fruitless. In any moment of silence, I return over and over again to the scenes of last year. The year of horror. Of our fight to save Daniel’s life. Of Dad’s death. The stress and responsibilities of learning home hemodialysis, puncturing Daniel’s arm mercilessly so we could clean his lifeblood with a monster of a machine five times every single week.

No, I won’t write about all that right now. I’m not ready for that either — the past. Even in crisis we remained Team Grotta, believing that as long as we were together, as long as we were the entity that was so much stronger than either alone, our minds and our love conjoined could deal with and learn from whatever came. Someday, that too I will write.

Not now.

I often tell my lecture audiences that the trick to writing is to write. So for present, I won’t worry about what I will write. I will sit at the keyboard and let my fingers tap out the words my mind and heart feed them, not worrying where they are going or what they will create. This is the only form of meditation that works for me. The searching inward through words, through story, to discover whatever it is I need to find, to express. Maybe, eventually, it will help me reconnect with the world as well as with myself. Whoever that self is now meant to be.

Okay, that’s decided. But, until yesterday, the practical problem remained… how? The everyday has become so much more difficult to navigate without Daniel. We were partners in everything. Now I must do it all. Such is the state of grieving that not only am I only half of a team, I struggle to accomplish even my usual share of daily tasks. I have lost my focus, for I have lost my compass. With all that I must do to keep home, pets, career and self going, how can I ever find the time, the energy to create a work of art or of fiction?

I said that the problem remained until yesterday. Why yesterday? Because, I suppose, I was ready to hear what I’ve known, what writers, artists and the religious faithful have known ever since art became a human purpose. Whenever I’ve been truly productive it was because I scheduled my creative time, setting aside a portion of the day to write or work on my pictures. Writing used to be in the morning, before lunch. (Sometimes, I ended up pushing lunch further and further back into the afternoon, when I couldn’t pull myself away from the writing.) Working on my pictures was most often late at night, after emails and phone calls were stilled. Afternoons and evenings were for the income-generating non-fiction work I did for magazines, journals and website publications, plus researching, proposals and contract negotiations, email and all the rest that kept our careers going. It was a routine schedule that worked for me, and I was able to write my novels and prepare my fine art photography for exhibition on a regular basis.

But I’ve lost that sense of daily rhythms. The erosion began with all the various medical crises chewing up our days. Doctors appointments, hospital stays, rehab, dialysis training and the exhausting tasks of navigating health industry bureaucracies. Thankfully, Daniel and I were together through it all, in many ways closer than ever, even finding opportunities to relish simple pleasures and tender moments. However, we were dealing with new realities that sapped my creative energies. His too for a while. Then he rallied. Daniel was a fighter, holding onto life with two fists, finding joy even during some of the worst times. He somehow managed to finish his novel Adam V, outline Black Bear One for me and in the last month or so, he returned to the brilliant novel that will now never be finished called, appropriately, Silence.

Not me. I couldn’t seem to find a new rhythm, a new place in the day for my writing.

Then yesterday, I was at our monthly women’s Torah study, led by Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum. I am not a religious woman. I do not believe in a personified God. Ritual and other trappings of religion hold no meaning for me. And while I wish it were otherwise, I consider the afterlife nothing more than an appealing mythology that gives comfort to others. While I respect individuals of true faith, I do not share their spiritual journeys or their unshakable convictions.

My beliefs are grounded in people, in the wondrous connections we can make from one mind or one heart to another. I also have a deep and abiding faith in human wisdom and Jewish traditions. And I love to learn, to explore ideas with others (especially people who may not always agree with me), to delve into ideas and history, and unearth new syntheses inspired by what we discover. That was one of the core aspects of Daniel’s and my relationship, and what we often sought in conversations beyond the two of us.

Torah study gives me that and more, because through it I have found friends who may be different from me but with whom and through whom I have found so much to share. Together we tap the ancient to find the relevant, and to push ourselves toward questions we didn’t realize we needed to ask.

Yesterday, we finally finished discussing the Decalogue, what is commonly called The Ten Commandments. I won’t go into the fact that no one has been able to put a definitive number onto them (may be as many as 13 depending on where you put the breaks in the Hebrew). Nor are they truly commandments (what are called mitzvahs). I am not a Hebraic scholar or expert enough to debate the fine points of Torah. What ignited my imagination yesterday was the discussion over the Decalogue’s “remember the Sabbath” in conjunction with Deuteronomy’s “keep [protect] the Sabbath.”

Rabbi Peg caught my attention when she said, “There is no difference between the profane and sacred.” Something that rang true for me, because that is how I feel about Daniel and me, how we saw the world around us and the bond we shared. “Wherever we are, we stand within the sacred.” What else is life? Or love?

Daniel wouldn’t have used the word sacred, because it’s too laden with historic and societal baggage. Still, he understood our connection as such. Look at any of the pictures of him that I took. When he gazed at me, he saw all this and more. He saw me, the spirit that called to him and joined with him in our wondrous journey together. For me, nothing is more sacred than that. And, yes, nothing is more profane, because it belongs to the earthly, to our flesh and blood humanity.

But day-to-day trivia can sometimes drown out what gives us meaning, what lifts us up into the realm of awe. Rabbi Peg asked us to consider how we, as individuals, carve out a sacred place within our lives. For her, it is the lighting of the Sabbath candles. She said that the Hebrew word kadosh (holy) is “a verb of action. To make holy…. When we bless the Sabbath candles, we are sanctifying the space and time [of the Sabbath day].” She added, “We can sanctify things… A sanctuary is a place made by human hands into a new reality of holiness.”

For some reason, her comments brought me back to an issue I’ve been considering quite a bit recently. A couple of decades ago, our friend Katrin Eismann (who was raised in Europe) mentioned that at the beginning of every year, she would take out a calendar and decide which month she would take off. Though it’s a common practice in Europe, I was dumbfounded. How is it possible to take an entire month off and expect that work and connections would remain the same when you return? It seemed even more unattainable for us, as freelancers.

However, recently I’ve been wondering if I couldn’t figure out some way to designate one month every year as my time – my sacred place, so to speak – for sluffing off my mundane responsibilities and devoting myself to my writing and my art. When I mentioned it to Peg, she suggested (quite logically) that I could start with one day a week, a Sabbath in the widest and perhaps truest sense of the word.

An obvious solution. Most people who aren’t freelancers take off weekends, though I’ve seldom managed it. But why not just one day each week? What responsibilities do I have that couldn’t wait a single day?

Not that I hadn’t considered that solution before. After all, I spent years devoting set hours in most days to my creative endeavors. Even if I don’t have the strength and energy,to try to live the creative life I shared with Daniel, I still dreamed of finding a hidden corner away from the weekly grind where I could rediscover my voice. But dream is all I did. I never got beyond the hope that someday, somehow, I would get off my duff and do something about it.

Why did I finally decide yesterday to act rather than just dream? Perhaps, as I said before, simply because it was time.

So yesterday, I determined to take today off, to carve a separate space in time, a sacred place in my week to write whatever might come into my mind. It seems to have worked well enough to be a beginning. All day today, I’ve lived within this rambling essay. During my bath, words bubbled through my mind the way they used to, so that I scrambled out to get to a keyboard before they dissipated. At lunch and again during my late afternoon walk with Watson, I considered what I had written and what I would add to it. Okay, it isn’t one of my stories or poems, or even an essay in the traditional sense. More a stream of consciousness. Still, it is sacred as well as profane. A space outside the mundane, where words found shape, ideas grew and questions beyond those about death and profound loss took seed.

Taking a page out of Katrin’s playbook, I am now going to look at my calendar. Not to find a month in the year, but a day in the coming week to be my Sabbath, my time of being. It won’t be the same day every week, because my life is too chaotic. Sunday was a good choice this week. Next weekend I’m giving a workshop at the Everhart Museum on Saturday and attending an event on Sunday at the Barnes Museum. So, let me see…. Thursday looks like a good choice.

Yes, Thursday it will be. And when Thursday is at an end, I will choose another day, and another day, and another day….through each of the weeks ahead.

I will write. Who knows what it will evolve into or when (if?) I will once again return to my “real” writing on a daily basis?

All I know is that it is time.

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