by Sheila Bender
Transcript of Sheila Bender’s Keynote Address to the Providence Hospice Foundation of Seattle’s
Pediatric Luncheon, September 19, 2013
Hello. Before I begin, I want to thank Leslie Overturf for letting Jill Perry and the Board at the Providence Hospice of Seattle Foundation know about my writing and my work helping those in grief use writing to heal. I want to thank my friends, several of whom are here today, for helping me through the years since my loss. I want to especially thank my daughter, Emily and my husband, Kurt for their help, even as they were grieving.
Let me start with a poem I wrote when my two children were school aged, way before the tragedy of losing one of them:
Poem of Sustenance
This is the poem that stands
in the moonlight singing,
that rises from sleep
because in darkness stars
are seen, because in darkness
you see what you will
and in darkness you dream.
And when fear washes
you away and the moon
is a cold light vanishing,
this is the poem that swims
among the coral casting
its net for the small
yellow fish or the stars.
I was an established poet and author when my son died, but in the months after his snowboarding accident in 2000, I thought I would let my writing go. For weeks, my days were composed of making sure I was at my window to see the sun rise and making sure I was there later to see it set. I felt soothed by the sun’s rays, somehow at one with something larger than my own life when I saw them.
In between those times, I sat thinking that although I had built a writing career, I would never write again. After all, writing was one of my best things and I had forever lost one of the best of my best things. My writing didn’t deserve to be written if my son had died, did it? How could anything ever again possibly be something I’d care to write about, and if I could write about this loss, how could I ever be a good enough writer to do such an event justice?
Even with these thoughts, though, other people’s writing meant a lot to me. I began reading book after book by parents who had lost children to accidents and to illness, whose children were living with terminal illnesses and who’s other children needed their parents’ support at this difficult time.
I read and read and watched the sun and cried but I didn’t write until the March 2001 edition of The Sun Magazine arrived at my house. It contained an interview with shaman Martin Prechtel. He said:
..if this world were a tree, then the other world would be its roots–the part of the plant we can’t see, but that puts sap into the tree’s veins. The other world feeds this tangible world–the world that can feel pain, that can eat and drink, that can fail; the world that goes around in circles; the world where we die. The other world is what makes this world work. And the way we help the other world continue is by feeding it with our beauty.
I had read Rabbi Wolpe’s book Making Loss Matter, about the need to make loss meaningful if one is to survive the pain that will never disappear. Prechtal’s metaphor was what actually provided me with a way to do this–a way a mother understands. I would feed my son. I would feed him with this world’s beauty through writing, whether it was about grief, mortality, loss, love or good memories. I didn’t have to be a perfect writer to prepare a beautiful meal of images and details:
Six Months After My Son’s Death, I Chant to Sing for Him
After Walt Whitman
Out of daily steps and out of drives
on highways, out of hours’ rocky patches
and moments made of weeds, memories come.
I sing the evening I visited my son and watched
his friends working in his kitchen with hops and yeast
and recipes downloaded from the Internet.
I sing the carboys they showed me topped
with see-through tubes and shiny copper
for reading yeast’s performance.
I sing their logs of sugar content and bottled
batches, the way the young men sterilized the bottles
they used, invited people for the harvests
of oatmeal stout and porter. I sing each week
they went to school between their Sunday fests.
Long and deep, I mourn and wake to sing the sun
to rise, to thank my son for time he’s spent
inside my dreams. I sing, I sing and do what
he was doing, siphoning good spirit from sediment.
I could remember and write about other lessons from my children’s growing up:
When Emily was very young, maybe three, she described a dream she’d had. She said, “Mommy ran like raindrops and floated up to the sky. She hung her umbrella up on a cloud and fell back down to earth watering the flowers.” I had flown into the sky and come back down to earth watering the flowers. My daughter told me then that when a happy thing falls, those of us below feel embraced.
I leave the book and the letter on my desk and go outside to the garden in front of the house to pull sorrel and crab grass from the damp earth under moon yarrow. I delight in finding stray California poppies and orange calendula under the rockroses, small juniper and pines. Creeping thyme covers the pathways and I breathe its fragrance as I rest on the steps to my deck. Then I pace the deck, back and forth between its covered and uncovered portions. This house is alive with my son and my son’s spirit. His art is here, not only the photographs he took and the picture frames he made in woodshop and the rendering he drew in an architecture class, but his esthetic is also in the balance of room proportions and dimensions, the window placement, the gentle roof, and the setback from the street.
To my mind, he sits afternoons in the hammock as he did each summer home from college. Evenings, he settles with me on our cedar chairs to watch the sun set, and mornings I hear him taking his kayak out from the crawl space under the house. I know in the phantom life, he pulls the kayak down to the beach on the little set of wheels he put together, then paddles quietly out toward the Olympics, turns right toward North Beach and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. His hair is sun streaked, his arms tanned and strong. He laughs at my worries and tells me that I did a good job of raising him and must trust him. And I know that believing whatever compelled Seth to snowboard on that day without a helmet, whatever it was on that run at Breckenridge, is bigger than his earthly presence and as necessary to me now as breathing. I must trust him. I don’t know how I know that, only that something knows something.
A few hours after I fall into a deep sleep, the light of the almost full moon wakes me. I go outside to look at it and find the sky covered with clouds, but somehow the moon appears to be in front of the quilted sheet of them. I look and I look and I look again. Still, it appears the moon is glowing in front of the clouds, and behind the moon, clouds are bright from the moonlight, like a curtain behind a bulb.
“Light what is veiled,” I think, and I repeat words I memorized from the Prechtal interview in the Sun: “A shaman is someone who deals with the problems that arise when we forget the relationship that exists between us and the other world that feeds us, or when, for whatever reason, we don’t feed the other world in return.”
I will feed my son with what he never weaned himself from–my love and my gratitude for his time here with me. This is my sustenance, the food that needed sowing and harvesting. I could not merely snatch this food from the platters that many served up to me. The small yellow fish and the stars have to take up residence inside; they have to be ingested into every cell of the body. To feed your dead, you must metabolize the world.
I could write to understand mortality and immortality:
A New Theology
for Seth Bender, 1975-2000
Who has no likeness of a body and has no body
is my son, now five months dead
but in my dreams, my dreams he brings the peace in gardens.
And I see him in his smile and he is hardy
in the rolled up sleeves of his new shirt, well-fed
when he has no likeness of a body and has no body.
I see him next to me in conversation at a party
and I believe that he is fine because this is what he said,
because in my dreams, my dreams I sit with him in gardens.
The nights he comes, the cats moan long and sorry.
I believe they see his spirit entering my head,
he who has no likeness of a body and has no body.
In my life, accepting death comes slowly,
but the midwifery of sadness and of shock bleeds
afterbirth, dreams that bring the peace in gardens.
I know that he is far and he is here and he is holy.
Under sun, I feel the energy it takes to come away from God
who has no likeness of a body and has no body
who is in my dreams, the dreams that bring me gardens.
I remembered that Seth believed the more energy you put into living and helping others, the more meaning your life would hold and provide. He loved helping whether it was by digging a trench for water pipes for a relative’s new home, building a shaded bus stop for migrant workers in California’s Central Valley or a Chuppah for his sister’s wedding.
During his college years, Seth told me about a hike he took with a friend in the Rockies, how they had gone to the local farmers’ market in the morning for food they’d carry. He said they’d learned that “you don’t need much if you have the right food and the right stuff.”
Two years after Seth died, with my husband’s help, I translated this philosophy to helping writers by forming a website to facilitate those who write from personal experience. My idea is that: “Taking time to write from personal experience provides the right food and the right stuff for finding what lights our souls and what we have to offer others.” I named the site Writing It Real.
In 11 years, much help has arrived from contributing writers, amazing students and even publishers–Bainbridge Island’s Beth Bacon, who is here today, published a digital book written from my teaching experience: Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief. It’s a beautiful edition with color photographs by Sheila Lauder, who is from my town, Port Townsend, and had contributed her photos to enhance writing exercises in my classes.
So, there are many ways to go on living, to go on receiving, to go on giving. Doing your best thing is one of the most important. Being here today helping to raise funds at Hospice’s Pediatric Luncheon is another significant way.
And expressing the beauty in this life every day is another.
The writing process helps me do that. In addition, I donate proceeds of the sales of my memoir to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s Seth Bender Memorial Camp Scholarships to help other children experience the joy of our NW waters just as Seth did growing up here.
In receiving and in giving, I’ve learned that grief is not only composed of sorrow. It also contains joy–joy of having known Seth, of having had him in my life, of being able to share some of his life and interests with others, of having learned more about my own life from him.
William Blake wrote in “Auguries of Innocence”:
Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine…
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity…
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heaven’s Shore.
Before I finish, I want to share a writing exercise you might want to do. It’s from a poem I wrote composed of four short parts, parts I wrote on separate occasions over several weeks:
I. The moon is in partial eclipse.
Where do I find the light of loved ones,
those here and those already gone?
II. In a recent dream, I walked
from my bedroom to the living room
and outside the window saw a large
coyote sitting in our deck rocking chair.
The animal ran from the chair
into our garden as I approached
the window glass. When I decided
to turn away, he came back.
III. My son at five or so telling his dad to give
him some elbow grease so he could
do a good job helping his grandmother clean.
IV. Been in the garden today, pruning boysenberry vines.
Sweet plumb berries, harsh thorns, green, green leaves.
Each of these parts was a post on my A New Theology Facebook page for those who are grieving. I realized that a question, a dream, a fond memory, and an observation formed one poem under the title “Grief’s Moments.”
You can do this concerning someone in your life. Write observations of the natural world that make you think of this person or your loss; write anecdotes from the life of this person. Write images from your dreams. If you want, post the snippets you write as you write them–via Facebook like I did or in email. Knowing someone is listening can encourage you to write. Ultimately, when you put the snippets together, your title could be “Joy’s Moments” or “Contemplation” or “Missing You.”
May all of us, from this luncheon on, continue to feed the other world with the beauty we find in this one.
About the Author: Sheila Bender founded Writing It Real in 2002 as a way of helping those who want to break their writing out into new forms, revise effectively, and generate more writing. Her many instructional books on writing, published by small presses as well as McGraw-Hill and Writer’s Digest Books, include Creative Writing DeMystified and Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay. A poetry collection, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, a digital book entitled Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief (available on Kindle and iTunes) and her memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, have garnered attention from Seattle University where she is a 2013 distinguished guest lecturer, Providence Hospice of Seattle Foundation’s 2013 annual fund-raising event, and other programs concerned with writing and spirituality. In Port Townsend, she hosts KPTZ’s radio program, “In Conversation with Sheila Bender: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” Proceeds from her memoir help support the Seth Bender Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sheila is the author of Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises To Heal Grief. You may read more of about Sheila’s books HERE. Visit her on Facebook: Writing It Real and A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief
Sheila’s other writing on this blog: Writing Grief