Writing Into Belief: Notes in a Quiet Room
July 9, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Karen Richards
I didn’t start out intending to write a memoir. In fact, for many years―ignoring my own deep yearnings―I quietly avoided writing honestly about myself or my life. I tamped down thoughts about the meaning I imparted to ordinary things, the layered, complex connections between events, skeins of colored threads twisting on unruly spindles, tangled and tight in my efforts to contain them. Once in a while I wrote poetry, as if slowly turning a faucet, allowing just a few measured drops to gather at the bottom of an empty cup. But then I turned back the handle hard, and went about my life. I put the poems into a folder in a firmly closed drawer.
Until the pandemic. Stay-at-home orders meant found time. I stepped away from my corporate job to support one child with her college preparations, the other with his virtual learning. Because I tend to rise early, and teenagers do not, I rediscovered the hours I used to spend getting ready for work, hustling school lunches into brown bags, feeding the dogs and taking them out, throwing in the odd load of laundry. Now I opened my eyes and swung my feet into the day, shrugging into yoga pants and sipping from my yellow mug as the light spread across the backyard. The chickens began their clucks and calls as soon as the sun tipped over the tallest trees and bathed their coop in pinky gold. Quiet, sacred moments of in-between.
I didn’t know what I wanted to write, or exactly why, only that I did. My husband’s wise advice: Just start. So began the year’s work: writing a memoir of two threads I pulled and unwound carefully over many months of these stolen mornings, then afternoons and early evenings. The story of my son who had been very ill with depression the year before, and of my family’s pandemic journey sheltering in place, coping again with uncertainty and grief. I wrote to make sense of the world, to understand how things happened and why, and what I could have done differently. Through the writing, I excavated my son’s sorrow, our family’s struggles as he lived in residential treatment for almost half a year, how it changed all of us in ways we could not see at the time. How the hothouse of hours spent locked up together in our house for a lost year both hurt and healed us. As I wrote, I began to know myself as someone else. The kind of parent I had only read about, one ready to step outside myself for my child even as I felt the fear tugging at my pelvis like a contraction. One who would descend into the valley and abide there with him until he was ready to join us again in the light.
I became a patient weaver, the keeper of memories, binding together all we had experienced in the last two years to a single cloth―warps and wefts, colors and patterns―the bitter and sweet intermingled. On the outward-facing side of this textile, patterns swirl and complement each other, harmonious and seamless. But the back shows the knots, the corrected stitches, all the grinding work of my thoughts. My doubts and errors. The polishing and refining of each story arc so in the strongest passages, my words sang with remembered truth and the grace that comes from an honest accounting of pain.
On the last day of the year, I met with my online writing community to celebrate our work over the past months, to mark the moment of completion. Of course, I knew I would have to go back and revise, move scenes from one place to another for impact, chip away at repetitions and words not essential to my narrative. But in the finishing I realized something important.
I had written myself into belief. Spinning and weaving with the work of my humble hands, smoothing the finished cloth, familiar, yet new. Reclaiming my identity as a writer.
Instead of hearing my voice only in my own head―I translated the jumble of memories and impressions, my own uneven transformation as a mother and a person, the words spoken between us―onto the page.
My inner voice waited in the silence of the early mornings, as the neighborhood began to wake, my children to stir from their beds, and my husband to grind beans for the morning coffee. Then she began to speak.
My hands became her instruments of transmission. Sitting at my computer at the bank of east-facing windows reminded me of piano lessons as a child. When I would finally―after hours and hours of practicing the same passage―master a difficult piece, the ebony bench hard against the base of my spine. My fingers would in some moment of imperceptible alchemy know what to do, which keys to hit, piano or fortissimo, where to slow, when to transition gently from andante to lento. Without warning, I would hear the music, become both the singer and the song.
All that was required was for me to allow it to happen. To let go and breathe it into being. Close my eyes and listen, as the notes unfurled into the waiting room. My dormant words onto the unmarked canvas of the empty page. Clear and pure and ready to be heard.
Karen Richards lives in Northern California with her husband and teenagers, two dogs and seven chickens. Her creative nonfiction has appeared online at AndBloom, Resilient Writers, National Mental Health First Aid, and others. Read her blog, the bitter & the sweet at karenrichardswriter.com, or follow her on Instagram at krichardswriter.