Ten years ago, I welcomed my first students to the Healing Writing Class at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support in Athens, Georgia. Little did they know how nervous I was. I was no “expert.” Yes, I had a life-long passion for the written word resulting in a respectable number of publications, and fifteen years of teaching college English. But my main impetus had been an intuition and desire born of my own mid-life journey.
I was thirty-nine and my writing career seemed to be on track. My novel had been a finalist in a national contest, I had a scholarship to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and I had been publishing regularly in small magazines. Then, suddenly, everything changed: my father died, I suffered severe complications in childbirth, I was diagnosed with a mysterious and intractable illness, my husband had emergency heart surgery, my mother collapsed with a brain aneurysm and I became her caretaker. Did I mention I had a thirteen year old daughter?
Just three years after placing my novel in the contest and acquiring an agent, I collapsed. Bedridden, unable to track a line of print to read or write, I was told by the experts that there was nothing that could be done, that this would be my life.
Intuition is an interesting thing. Despite all the evidence confirming the experts’ assessment of my condition, I didn’t believe my fate was to ride out my life in bed. Yes, I could and would make the necessary adjustments to accommodate my new status as an ill individual. I accepted that I was ill. But I didn’t accept that it was the end of the story. I felt there was something more. And so slowly, very slowly, this tractable Catholic girl defied the experts, and handhold by precarious handhold, I pulled myself up and out of the pit. I had told myself that if I was able to work again, I wanted to work with people who had also been in that pit or who were in it, people like me who were bedraggled and raw and dirtied, but also avid for life.
I saw myself as a facilitator, not an expert. I was a fellow traveler, offering to others what had always been a great source of strength and healing to me–poetry, stories, the written word, that intimate and potent communication of one soul to another. What I had not fully grasped was how blessed I would be by my new work. Each participant brought her own unique mix of pain and despair, hope and joy, understanding and bafflement. As we struggled together, witnessing and supporting each others’ emerging integration, we were enriched in subtle and untellable ways. What I had only sensed, like a mole feeling her way underground, that this was the work I was meant to do, was confirmed when I left each class spent, joyful, and profoundly grateful.
Our book, A Communion of Sorts, is an anthology of work that has come out of the workshop. Of course, the real work is what happened within and between the participants as they wrote and shared their writings. The stories, poems and memoirs in the anthology point to that more ephemeral work. In our book, you can witness the chaos and pain of cancer and its treatment, but you can also share in the solace of memory, and in the often unexpected joy that surprises, even in the darkest hour. I hope you will join in our Communion of Sorts.