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Haven Winter Series #2

For the last few winters, I’ve offered up my blog as a place for other writers to share. I’ve spent a few weeks posting their words while I’ve focused on my own writing. This year, I’ve asked Haven alum to write a short piece describing something they’ve learned or a way they’ve transformed through our writing retreats. I’ll be sharing two pieces per post over the next couple of weeks. This is the second post, written by Erika Putnam and Patricia Young.

SSSssshhh! by Erika Putnam

Winter’s first soft snow is falling outside.  I am in a remote town on a solitary retreat determined to finish the final edits on the memoir I have been writing for the last four years.  Doubts creep in as I am re-formulating the story arc.  Shortly after my second cup of coffee the critical writers committee starts in my head.  They sound like a cluster of grey haired librarians who have the tone of laying hens in a chicken coop.  The old one with wire rimmed glasses says, “Who do you think you are to write this book?”  The skinny one with the chin hair pukes out, “No one wants to read your droning stories, honey.”  The pecking at my sacred writing heart goes on and on amongst the hens.  Their nasty voices have me pushed right up against my quitting edge.

The last time I wanted to quit being a writer was a year ago, September 2012, at the Haven Writing Retreat.  We were nine strangers sitting in a misshapen circle reading out loud from pieces we had written.  Cindy read a play about a feisty teenage daughter fighting with her cranky mother and refusing to get out of an old car.  Our erotica writer started stumbling, blushing and gasping for air when she got to the part in her story when the buxom blonde was making a move on the business man.  Mid-sentence she abruptly stopped that story and began reading to us about a pair of trouble- making hooligans in the Deep South.  Sweet Emily delighted us with a children’s book complete with cheerful watercolor paintings of dainty butterflies.  Then, there was me who was reading about my, oh, so broken heart.

“No, don’t quit, keep going,” said our facilitator, Laura Munson, in a soft and encouraging voice.  From the right I felt an encouraging hand touch my back.  With hesitation I took a deep choppy breath and began again.  It was the chapter and scene where I was shamefully telling my husband I had filed for divorce.   It was challenging reading my work to strangers but as I read my own story and gave voice to my unfolding sorrow, the emotion began filtering back through my bones.  I was the exposed woman depicted in this memoir and I wanted to stop reading her life out loud. I didn’t want to be that messy, that vulnerable, that woman who had lived this scene.  Surprisingly tears turned into sobs.  This was not like me.  Tissues came from all directions.  Again I heard Laura’s voice compassionately pressing, “Keep going.”  I shook my head “no” as raw emotion had taken over reasoning.  She encouraged me further, “We want to hear. We are right there with you. We want to know what happens. Please, read on.”

On days like today, when my committee is speaking harshly, I do consider quitting.  I don’t want to write words that make me vulnerable and I don’t want to feel the fear that comes with choosing brave sentences.  I am lucky to recall being supportively held by the other writers at Haven.  We were a community of writers hearing our own voices, relating to our individual writing journeys and collectively fanning the same embers of desire to create books that should be written and read.  Those tears, on that night, with those writers remind me to daringly SSSssshhh the dream stealing librarians and “keep going.”

 

Haven – August 2013 by Patricia Young

My journey to mindfulness in writing began when a woman I had never met, never heard of before reached out to me one night, when I sent an email I never expected to be read.    I can hear her voice now when I read her book and blogs.  She mentioned a possibility – a balm perhaps to sooth the soul which in turn heals a shaky spirit and worn out heart.  This writing retreat was SO much more than what you will read about.  Haven becomes a part of you, and you it.  You will walk away with something rekindled, or something completely new – but you will carry home something intimately personal and very powerful.

I mentioned to you the email:  not once did she ask me then or now to buy her book or a mug with her name on it, containing tea made in Whitefish that promotes good grammar!  Not once did she fill me with false hope or expectations that ‘THIS retreat will launch my professional writing career! This is exactly what I needed to succeed!’  Haven is not promising enlightenment – you must find that for yourself.  Montana is where I found my courage.

Going to Haven was an invitation to come and experience something uniquely personal.  To do this in not only a safe environment, meaning you could say what you wanted to, what you needed to without judgment or ridicule,  but you did this within the support of a circle of writers while  immersing  yourself in the surrounding beauty.  I was changed simply because I was there.

My “ah-ha” moment was during my one on one session. I could not ask for a more amazing gift than to have her all to myself for an hour, pouring over writing I didn’t know I needed to write.

I’ve always LOVED to read silently, but especially out loud.   Yet never have I poured out anything so unfiltered, opening myself to possibilities way more powerful than anything ever allowed before!

Laura read my writings.   She actually gave a crap about something I had to say!  And then she did something else wonderful.  She wrote comments on it!  Yep, she did and not in red ink – but with recognition and inspirationally bold and in capitals with arrows and excitement! It was golden, it was tangible, it was honest.  This was real.

She called me “A woman creating her life”, then read her comments out loud – “lightness & depth & playfulness & wisdom all together is rare” and circled them, telling me, I CAN WRITE!!   If there was any doubt before, it vanished!  She took my hand from over my mouth and allowed me to take another step in words.  The shadows faded to dawn for me at Haven.  I have no doubt they will for you too. Be brave.

Breathe Deep, Think Peace

 

 

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9/11– The Survivor Tree

As featured on the front page of the Huffington Post 50 on 9/11/13 

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I’ll admit it: I have been afraid to go to Ground Zero. Since 9/11/01 I’ve probably been to New York City ten times. I have no excuse but just what I’ve said– Fear. Fear of what? The horror? Empathy? Sympathy? My imagination? The human heart? That there would be an element of voyeurism? That somehow it wouldn’t be memorialized in a way that felt reverent?

Then I met Christie Coombs.

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One World Trade Center– the day they put the antenna atop the building

She came to one of my Haven writing retreats in Montana. I started Haven in an effort to be of some sort of service in this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. Writing is the primary way I know how to process life. I write as a lifeline, as a seeker, and to understand. People who come on my retreats are made of the same heart language– kindreds who are often in a time of transition, longing to not be emotional victims in response to the pain that has come their way; longing to heal through creative self-expression. For Christie, that pain began on that fateful day when her husband, Jeff Coombs, died on Flight 11 from Boston, bound for LA, only to meet with a destiny that forever changed the world. And Christie is writing about it. We need her to. It gives us permission to see further into what we experienced that day in person, on TV, or radio, or in newspapers and magazines across the globe. We need the personal stories of the people who lost the most. To know what it was like microscopically, then and now, and she is not afraid to do just that.

She started the Jeff Coombs Foundation and works tirelessly to honor his memory through giving back to families who have suffered great loss and are rebuilding their future. She has turned pain into answering the most powerful question I know: what can I create? And she answers it every day.

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The Survivor Tree

A few months ago, I was in New York on business, and Christie invited me to come to the 9/11 Memorial. She offered to drive down from Boston, and to show me around, including the temporary museum which holds personal effects and photos salvaged from the site, as well as the church down the street which served as a community gathering place and held first responders as they did their brave and unconscionable work. And she showed me the “Survivor Tree,” a pear tree, which she explained miraculously made it through both the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, as well as 9/11.

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As we stood at the memorial, staring at the cascading waters that run down the footprints of each tower, and the bottomless, yet re-generating square hole in the middle…sending water back up and down, flanked by the names of the dead…I was breathless. I didn’t know what to feel or what to say or what to do with my hands or how to even stand there. I just went on overwhelm, watching people embrace and weep, but mostly watching Christie for cues.

She told me the stories of the people on Flight 11, whose family members she now holds dear. She humanized it– told me the way it went down from the pieces they have all put together, paired with the facts from the airlines. It’s gruesome and brave and terrifying…and it just…doesn’t…make…any sense. Not at all. I’ve never wanted to make sense of something more, standing at that memorial, looking at Jeff’s name carved in metal alongside the other fallen from Flight 11.

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I looked at her, running her hand over his name. Should I intrude upon the sacred moment between the two of them? Should I leave her alone? What was she feeling? Did I have any words that might help? Of course not.

She saved me: “There’s no sense to be made of it, so don’t try,” she said somehow smiling as I let the tears go.

“You give us permission,” I said.

When we finished our time in what I believe is the most reverent place I’ve ever been, she said, “I want to show you something cool.”

Cool, I thought? How could there be something cool in any of this? And she took me to the gift shop. There, she showed me a necklace–leaves from the Survivor Tree cast in metal. “I’d like to get this for you,” she said, bringing it to the counter.

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Christie and me in NYC

It meant the world to me in that moment. I have it over my desk as I write. We can all bloom, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Life doesn’t make sense. But the action of paying homage to the pain, creating something that builds community and reverence out of the inevitable ashes of life, feels essential in our healing.

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Nobody wants to earn this VIP ticket, but Christie uses her “membership” to the memorial park with a sense of belonging; pride even, but always wishing she didn’t have to learn this lesson. She is a master at finding and building community in tragic loss, and the day we spent together at the 9/11 memorial changed my life. Thank you, Christie, for showing us how to survive…even in this.

To all those who lost loved ones in 9/11, I send you love from Montana.

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Jeff Coombs

The Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation:
Welcome to the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation website. The Jeff Coombs Foundation was formed to assist families who are in financial need because of a death, illness or other situation that challenges the family budget. It also provides emotional support to families by funding special outings and fun events. Committed to education, the foundation helps fund enrichment programs in the Abington Schools, and awards scholarships to graduating college-bound seniors and students in private high schools.

The foundation was created in response to the incredible outpouring of support Jeff’s family received after he was killed on Flight 11 in the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. Christie, Jeff’s wife, and their kids, Matthew, Meaghan, and Julia, wanted a way to “pay it forward.” They began raising money to help others in November, 2001. Since then, the Foundation has raised and distributed about $50,000 a year in Jeff’s memory.

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