…Sometimes you need a dose of your own medicine…
One of the blessings of writing my memoir, “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness,” and the essay version of it, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear,” are the notes you get from people. I have been lucky enough to hear from a LOT of people, from all over the world, because the New York Times “Modern Love” column is mighty, and so is Amy Einhorn and Penguin/Putnam. The essay went viral (#2 “Modern Love” essay in the history of the column), and the book was published in nine countries! I never dreamed any of that would happen when I wrote it. I was just writing my way through a challenging summer of rejection from my then husband, and I was fiercely committed to non-suffering in a time when most would call me an emotional victim. I’d suffered enough in my life because of my sensitivity to other people’s actions, and I wanted to look this suffering beast in the eyes and shout Gandalf’s “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” I wanted to finally find emotional liberation from my reactions to the things people say and do to me. I wanted to be even…happy. Which meant I had to become acutely aware of the way my mind works, how it gets in its way, and how it finds its way out of the dark forest. During that six month time of my life, I practiced this self-awareness moment by moment. Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I was even good at it. And always, I learned.
This was new news to many people—that you could find your way out of suffering at a time when your beloved utters these dread words: “I don’t love you anymore.” The responses to the book and the essay were a brilliant reflection of what is at the core of humanity and it drove home something that I have always believed: people everywhere want the same things. To love. To be loved. To feel of value. To be happy. And there are a lot of people out there who are in pain and don’t know what to do with it. They’ve given themselves to a relationship, and their partners are rejecting them. They think that their well-being is contingent upon someone else’s treatment of them. And it’s…just…not. Happiness is in you. It doesn’t get bestowed upon you. Even from the ones who are supposed to love you most.
One of the things I loved dearly about the whole experience (and it still goes on nine years after the book’s publication), were the notes I got over and over, so often saying these words: “Thank you for helping me know I’m not alone.” Because as memoir writers know…writing your heart out starring you as the main character ain’t for sissies. And to know that your transparency truly helped someone out there…makes it a little less hard to write past the fear of self-exposure. It helps give us the courage to be honest, and sometimes brutally so. If you can think, “I am going to let myself bleed in these pages in hopes that it might be of service to myself and others,” it makes it a lot easier to open that vein. The key is to do it from a place of service, and not venom. To be self-responsible the whole way through, with your eye on the service piece. Even so, there are the haters out there. The people who enjoy kicking you when you’re down. It’s easy to have big cojones behind a computer screen. I always just think: I’m glad I don’t have to live in that person’s mind, making people wrong all the time instead of trying to find the light in what it is that they have to say.
This person found the light. And asked a good question. My birthday was this week, and this fan, whom I’ve never met, sent me a lovely birthday blessing on Facebook. I looked back at our message feed to remember who he was, and found his note from 2009 when the essay came out in the New York Times, prior to the book. And then I read my response to it. Boy, did I need those words. Sometimes it’s as if we hold our wisdom in words…so that later…when we’ve forgotten or really need a re-fresher, it’s there for us. This is what reading my own words, sparked by his kindness, did for me, as I bring my son to college in a few days, and come home to my Empty Nest.
Looking back now, I know that the time depicted in my memoir/essay was one of the most powerful times of my life. A true awakening. But we go back to sleep sometimes. Or take little naps. I’ve been so focused on the dread of Empty Nest, that I have perhaps forgotten the blessings. May my response to him, then, help all of us.
Here are our notes to one another:
I was re-reading your wonderful essay last night, and had a very practical question: at one point you talked about “I’d committed to the ‘End of Suffering.’” I see what you mean by not looking to outward success as a measure of personal happiness, which is very wise.
Were there particular techniques or strategies that you found helpful? In my own life, I find it easy to disengage from material success or career success as a measure of happiness, but I still do find myself often defining my happiness through the success of my marriage, which is struggling at this point.
Not looking for any marriage guru advice here! Just was intrigued about the “End of Suffering” idea, and wondering if you had found something that helped. Thank you for the gift of your time.
Thanks for reaching out. I’m sorry you’re having a rough time in your marriage. And thank you for your good question. Here is my attempt to answer it– before breakfast—with my tea beside me: When I think of suffering, I think of the years in my life when I didn’t know I was in pain. Most of that had to do with being a writer and not understanding how I could feel so deeply called to daily arrive at this intersection of heart and craft and mind and intuition on the page…and yet not have that trajectory met. I just couldn’t understand how to bear that pain. What was the point?
Well…finally I realized that I was plagued with some pretty faulty thinking. The act of creation simply had to be enough. So I dedicated myself to that. And immediately– the pain was gone. It was so liberating. I didn’t have to be a victim of something. I never wanted to be a victim– it’s not my true nature. I think of myself as a joyful, powerful person. But I saw how I had been playing that victim role as a writer, and as a woman… for quite some time. Basing my happiness on things outside my control. It truly is insanity and a wise woman helped me to see that.
So when my husband had his own crisis of self…I recognized it. I had been in that place. But even still…I had to let go of him getting through it. It was a moment by moment act of surrender. Returning to the present moment. And being creative in it. I could control what I could create and there was a lot of joy there if only I tapped into it. And joy sure beats pain. “What can I create?” is the most powerful question I know.
But here’s the thing: pain has become our normal in so many cases, and most of us, even those of us who are seekers and aware and practice being so…sometimes can’t see where we’re in pain. And we re-choose it over and over out of habit. You may already know all this. I guess I did too, at that time in my life. I just had never gotten the chance to practice it like I did in that season of my marriage. Sure, I had a large dose of pain after my father died…but meeting with dis-affection is different. It wants to creep into you and tell you that you are somehow bad. Wrong. And the worst: unlovable. But that is simply a lie. And one that we often live into and make true.
So I guess I would say to you on this spring Montana morning with the first red-winged blackbird singing in the marsh, that you don’t have to be defined by your marriage or your spouse. You can be free and even joyful in this time. Regardless of how it ends up. It’s such a wonderful way to live, and dare I say, you become rather magnetic when you live like that. And yes, maybe even quick to love. But that never made anybody a fool, even though our reactionary society will try to tell us this. Not everybody wants to receive our love, but WE can receive our love. In that act of creation. Even this tea that sits steaming next to me on my desk– I created that. And it feels good. So I wish for you creation today. Hope that helps.
10 years later from this season of my life, I send love to us all,
2018 Haven Writing Retreat Montana Dates
September 19-23 (full)
September 26-30 (one spot)
October 24-28 (one spot)
For information about the February Haven Wander: Morocco, click here!
For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here! Now booking 2019!
To arrange for a phone call with the Haven team, email: Laura@lauramunson.com