Learn the alchemy
true human beings know.
The moment you accept
what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.
During times of transition, I am called to create, most often in the form of writing. I am sure many others could say the same – there’s something about the space between an ending and a new beginning that is fertile ground for creativity. I’m not only talking about the tortured artist cliché (although I believe it exists for a very good reason), but about every human being’s capacity to create during challenges and times of transition. When the spark to create ignites into a flame, we have two choices: we can walk away or step into the fire. The opportunity for growth is right there; it is right before us burning and yearning for our “yes.” And if we say, “yes,” even a hesitant one, and join in this process, if we stoke the fire, we open ourselves up to a transformative process that is unmatched in its potency and gifts.
Six years ago, when I was in my late twenties, married with a newborn baby, my father was diagnosed with incurable kidney cancer. His previous bout with kidney cancer a few years before ended with a successful surgery to remove his left kidney and a stint of remission that had us all believing he would live a long life. We beat cancer!
When he went to the emergency room with back pain to receive the news that his cancer had returned in his remaining kidney, my father spiraled into a deep depression. He withdrew from his family, refused to talk in detail about his mortality, and wept over my son’s delicate newborn body. After receiving the options (which were all pretty awful), Dad opted for surgery – to remove his remaining kidney and go on dialysis for the rest of his life. At the time, we sat with him, remaining afloat, in hope and denial. Maybe, just maybe, this radical plan would be possible. He was in good shape, ate healthy, and had age on his side. I began writing on a wallpapered blog updating friends and extended family on Dad’s journey with cancer, his surgery, and dialysis treatments. I don’t know exactly what propelled me to start writing, but I do know it wasn’t just to provide updates. There was a push, an inner force, something in my power center that spoke to me. Write, it said. Just write.
It was on my birthday when I woke up, not to my baby crying for milk, but to my phone buzzing on the nightstand beside me. I picked up to hear my dad sobbing on the other end of the phone. “The cancer spread. Promise you will be here with me when it happens,” he said.
My eyes burned with fresh tears. “I promise, Dad, I promise,” I managed.
He was alone in that hospital room because my mom and sister were still in the car en route. The doctor told him the news and then left. And then my dad called me. We hung up without him wishing me a happy birthday. That year he never did. He had other things to worry about, like the idea of having to die alone.
Over the six months between his diagnosis and his passing, I traveled back-and-forth from my home in Colorado to my parents’ home in Pennsylvania every two weeks or so. Eventually, my husband, son and I moved home for the final two months of my father’s life so that I could fully step into the role of caregiver and keep the promise I made to my dad to be by his side for that which he couldn’t name. Death.
This story illustrates my father’s death and also my own ending. I didn’t know it then; I guess I just saw it as an external change being forced upon me. My dad died, and I had no choice but to grieve and accept it. What this change did, however, was propel me into an inner transition. William Bridges says, “In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way yet either” (2). Bingo. This is exactly the “zone” I was finding myself in later that summer when I moved back to Colorado, a new mother under the hefty weight of trauma and grief, and dove headfirst into a full-time teaching job. I didn’t have words for where I was, but I knew that it felt extremely uncomfortable. How was I supposed to just go on with life?
Over the months that passed, I began to see a therapist and grapple with aspects of my dad’s death, especially his crippling fear of death itself. Every one of his birthdays that passed, he would say aloud, as if it was some dark joke, “I can’t believe I don’t have cancer yet.” Given that both of his parents’ lives ended early from cancer, my dad either had premonitions of his own diagnosis or just lived in a cloud of impending doom. Either way, it took a grip on my heart and spiraled me into darkness. I saw how afraid he was of so many things, and I knew the secrets he kept, the smile he plastered on his face. I saw through people’s comments about my family being perfect. “You’re so lucky,” they’d tell me. I was in many ways, but it was far from perfect, and my dad was far from happy. As one would imagine, all of these new realizations about my life were rocking my world.
Enter writing. Lisa Cron discusses why humans gravitate to story. She says, “We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to navigate reality” (16). So I began writing, the kind of writing that Cron describes “like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (24). I understand now that writing was helping me navigate my father’s death as well as my inner changes. When I wrote, I was able to freely process truths that were scary to talk about with friends or family or even in therapy. I began to explore questions that stemmed from the hidden corners of my dad that no one would ever know about. I didn’t want to live or die like my dad. And I certainly did not want to let fear drive me to the point of predicting my own death and then waiting for it to happen. I wanted to live completely present and “out” – in my emotions, ideas, spiritual practices, relationships, parenting – I wanted to live all of it in its messy truth.
I know from personal experience that writing is the most powerful tool for transformation and growth through transition and trauma. But, I know that personal experience is just one piece of the pie. Through my research, I’ve gathered data about what is specifically happening during transition and trauma as well as collected information about the power of story. And finally, integrating the two, I’ve compiled stories from my own and others’ experiences of writing as a way to integrate and transform through major life transition and/or trauma. This series of blogs will serve to share the framework - both research and personal story - for Story Alchemy, which I have designed to be an embodied and healing writing experience for people moving through transition and/or trauma. I will also offer resources and tools for an at-home writing practice. I hope you will find this information powerful, and if it leads you or a loved one my direction, trust it is part of the story.
Citations: The Way of Transition by William Bridges; Story Genius by Lisa Cron