Cross-posted from my reader email because I want to be able to find this easily in the future.
I made the most astonishing discovery yesterday. It’s like a dream come true, and literally, it was a dream come true. I’d dreamed very vividly the night before about my mother. She was with my friend Sophie’s mother, and they told us they loved us. It was so startlingly vibrant and intense that I emailed Sophie about it as soon as I woke up. It wasn’t a normal I-was-eating-pickles-at-the-carnival-then-I-was-in-a-garden-with-my-high-school-english-teacher kind of dream. It felt real.
Sophie and I had lunch a few hours later. We talked more about the dream.
Then I went home and in a full-blown fit of writing procrastination, I started mucking out the front porch which routinely becomes our dumping ground for boxes of clothes and books to donate, packages we haven’t bothered to open yet (new kayak paddles, the cable box the internet company sent us that we’ve never hooked up), dog food bags, and all the stuff we just don’t know what to do with.
It’s embarrassing. It’s our “garage” as we have no garage and very few and tiny closets. Guests have to walk through the hell of it to get inside our nice house. It smells like cats (they sleep there at night and every once in while they decide they hate the cat box – gah.) Once a year or so I spring clean it, and yesterday was the day.
Now, a couple of years ago, I cleaned out my office. I KonMarie’d it, getting rid of SO MUCH crap. I also put all the stuff I mean to digitize into cardboard boxes and put them on the porch. The boxes held old photographs, all my old writings, and my mother’s photos and writings.
Yep, my mother was a writer, too.
If you’ve followed my work at all, you already know that she was pivotal to me and who I am now.
In Western Samoa where she was a diplomatic something-something for New Zealand, where she met my Peace Corps father.
My mom and I were really, really close. I considered her one of my very best friends and biggest champions. One of the biggest regrets of my life is not sharing my first completed novel (which went on to be my first published book) with her, but honestly, she was too sick then, and pushing it on her would have been the wrong thing to do. I just really wish she had read it, that’s all.
But as a writer herself, my mother remained as carefully in control of her emotions as she did in every other part of her life. One of her friends once told me, “You know, your mom is my best friend. But I don’t know her at all.”
Oh, yeah. That was my mom. She could deflect attention like she was wearing conversational armor. A primary goal of my whole life was to get her to tell me things about her past. She never wanted to speak of any of it, and not because she’d had a bad youth – she hadn’t. She’d had a delightful one, for the most part. She was just so private. (The apple fell REALLY far from the tree on this one.)
In the articles that she sold to magazines and newspapers, she always wrote about other things. An old-school journalist, she kept her personality out of her work.
When I inherited her writings, I combed through them, looking for something more personal. I found an essay about her being pregnant with me. It was short, but lovely. That was it. Everything else was impersonal and left me craving more.
Yesterday, as I was finally taking back the porch, I found the boxes I’d piled there. Time to move them to new digs! (Not to digitize them yet, oh, no. That would be too much work. Time to move them out of cardboard boxes and into more protective plastic ones which could then be stored in our bedroom closet! More procrastination, ahoy!)
So I paged through Mom’s writing again, for at least the third or fourth time. I found book review after boring book review. Articles on gardening. Birds.
I dropped them all in the clear plastic bin. I lifted the sharpie to write on the outside: Jan’s papers.
And I looked through the bin, to the top folder. It said clearly, The Morning Pages.
My brain stalled.
My mother. And Morning Pages?
Now, any of you who were pursuing creativity in the 1990s remember the Morning Pages. They were a tool in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Basically, whether you’re a writer or not, you start your day with 3 handwritten pages, and you do this for 12 weeks. You don’t think about what you’re writing; you just blab. The words come from the bottom of your soul and the top of your mind. You don’t worry about grammar or spelling. You don’t reread. You can write “I don’t know what to write” for three pages, and that totally counts. (I HIGHLY recommend the book. Grab it if you’ve never done it.)[Important point: They are not meant to be read by others. Morning pages are private, and personally, I’ve never even read my old ones. But Mom expressly left them to me in her will. She put them in the box with my name marked on it. If YOU do the morning pages, make sure you’ve thought about what you want done with them. I don’t care who reads mine because no one would ever get five pages in. I’m BORING on the morning-pages page.]
I popped open the box and yanked out the file folder. It was orange and had black printing on front: THERE IS NO ANTIDOTE FOR TERROR.
Inside were 217 pages of morning pages in my mother’s hand.
I flipped forward. I read a few lines. Yes. These were hers. Really, really hers.
They were from 1996.
I was still living at home then, finishing college and about to leave home for grad school (I was a mama’s girl and never really wanted to leave). I know that I’d started morning pages the year before (and kept them going for years), and I have a vague memory of encouraging her to do the Artist’s Way. I also remember hearing her complain she had nothing to write about, and I remember saying, “No one does. Just write anyway.”
So yesterday, I set the folder to the side. (I’m one of those people who always save the best for last.)
I finished my five-hour clean out. I scrubbed the front porch. I drove to the thrift store with my SmartCar full-to-bulging. I bought some wine and some salt and vinegar potato chips.
I went home and took the chips, the folder, and a glass of wine onto the back porch.
Then I read.
And I found my mother.
I found her. This voice – the one on the page – was the one I heard when she’d had two glasses of wine (one past her giggle limit). This voice was the one I heard in a little osteria in Venice as she told me just the barest bit about her childhood home. This voice was the one I heard on a dark road in New Zealand, lit only by glowworms, as she talked a tiny bit about an old boyfriend.
At Hot Water Beach in her native New Zealand
It was the voice I’d always wanted to hear.
She wrote about her childhood bedroom. About her first attempts at making art (age 7: she diverted a creek to make islands, and covered them with flowers). About her subsequent attempts, tracking them through her life.
She wrote about us. About my sister Beth and her baths. About Christy and her artistic talents. About going to a writer’s reading with me (oooh, she did not like that one poet).
She wrote about her cats. She wrote about her garden and where her love of each scent came from. I learned amaryllis would always remind her of her father’s funeral. That violet was the best scent of all (I actually already knew that one though my knowledge of it wouldn’t come until that trip to Italy.)
And this: I learned that she felt she was locked down by inertia. Her most-frequently used affirmation in the pages (affirmations are strongly encouraged by Julia Cameron) is “I can overcome inertia.”
This is wild. My mother was like me – we never, ever stop moving. We’re always, always doing something, every minute of the day. But she really felt that her creativity was stuck and that it was inertia that held her there.
She would never have said this to anyone. This was a deep feeling, and (as she confesses in the pages), she couldn’t speak these kinds of things. She went mum when it came to emotions or relationship issues, her tongue tied.
But lord, she gets it on the page.
And funny! I’d almost forgotten how funny she was. She was literally the smartest person I’ve ever known, and I knew that, but I’d forgotten her sharp wit, always ready to tease, sometimes a tiny bit too hard (something I can also be prone to doing).
I do, I promise, have a point in telling you this.
Leave something behind.
Oh, god, Rachael, you had to go to the macabre, didn’t you?
Yes, I did.
This is one of the biggest gifts I will ever, ever receive. Last night, on the solstice (which she always loved and honored), I read on the porch until the light faded from the sky and the frogs in the creek became deafening.
I sat with my mother and heard her for the first time since she died almost exactly nine years ago.
I was with her. I was much too happy to be sad.
If you have a writing bone in your body, do this: Leave something behind. Write in a journal, even if it’s only every once in a while. Don’t write about the Things You Got Done; no one cares about a list. Write about how they made you feel. Be honest. I’m only 55 pages in to my mother’s pages, and I’m hoping desperately she says something agonizing about me (she hasn’t yet). Oh, to hear her despair of me ever doing anything with my life (I showed very little promise for a very long time).
I’m only a quarter of the way through, and I’m going to try to take my time with them. Then I’m going to transcribe them so I can share them with family (her handwriting is easy for me to read and very hard for most people including other family members).
I just can’t believe I’d never found them before. I’d looked.
I have a very strong feeling she saved them for me, for now. For the solstice of the year that I would be strong enough to have nothing but joy in my heart as I read. She sent me the dream. (I KNOW, it’s woo-woo, yes, but the only truly prophetic dreams I’ve ever had were about her – twice I dreamed her various cancers before they were diagnosed. And there were more dreams I won’t get into here. It runs in our family – her mother had had the same talent).
Leave something behind for the ones who love you so they can truly commune with you later, so they can hear your specific and wonderful voice. Tell them what you think. Be you. Be true. Be broken and fallible and honest and you.
You’re amazing. I know you’re (probably) not planning on leaving the earth anytime soon, but even if you are, first: you are loved, and second: there’s still time.
Put your heart in a bottle and throw it in the ocean of time. Someone you love wants to find you someday. I promise.
Thanks for reading.
PS – On a really fun business note, The Darling Songbirds just released in audio, and it’s read by the amazing Xe Sands, who I’ve been a fan of for years. I can’t believe she’s my narrator! The other two in the series will be out this summer.
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