contest, Uncategorized, writing

Must I Write?

This post is my participation in the writing contest “You Are Enough: Your Calling Your Storyhosted by Positive Writer.

“This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.” -from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

Must I write? How else to explain my frantic scribbling on a legal pad as I sat next to my husband’s hospital bed while he slept?

“I don’t know how you do that,” he said, eyes suddenly open. Ashamed, I stopped writing mid-sentence. What kind of wife writes while her husband lay recovering from heart stent surgery?

“I’m sorry, I was working on my column that’s due tomorrow. I can work on it later.” I was shoving the pad into a tote bag when his hand on my arm stopped me.

“No. I meant I don’t know how you can write like that; filling pages with words so effortlessly. You have such talent.”

“It’s what I do. I write.” He nodded. It spoke volumes of my husband that he could even begin to understand the pull of the pen when few non-writers do.

Though I’d wanted to be a writer since childhood, it wasn’t until I’d given birth to my fourth child and abandoned the pursuit of a master’s degree that I attempted writing for publication. In the ensuing years I gave birth to four more children and began homeschooling. As an outlet for my creative energy, I turned to my childhood pleasure of putting pen to paper, maintaining a semblance of self amid the selfless act of intense mothering.

baby on backFor the next twenty-five years I honed the craft, working it around mothering; getting up before sunrise every morning to squeeze in an hour of wordplay. When an infant fell asleep in the car, I’d pull over to the curb and scrawl in a notebook I carried in my purse. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet and compose while toddlers splashed in the bathtub. I’d eagerly volunteer for child bedside duty so I could finish up an essay by the dim glow of a nightlight.

Hours after my husband David’s cancer diagnosis in 2006 I pondered how I’d go about writing about it. How else to bear the possibility of losing my life’s partner but through writing? I blogged my way through my mother’s lung cancer treatment four years later. In the months following her death, starkly awakened to my own mortality, I made the decision to take my writing seriously. That winter, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point.

My husband would offer to watch the kids, hand me a mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to Mom’s empty house, my private writing retreat. There, I found the solitude and silence I’d craved for so many years. I accomplished more writing in those three months than I had in the previous three years, grief the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of a creative mother my muse.

my writing retreatEven after the sale of the house, the creative fire that had been ignited in me continued to flame. By early 2012, I’d begun teaching coupon workshops, writing a weekly newspaper column, and obtained a literary agent who pitched my ethnographic research on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing. My husband reveled in all of it, driving me to presentations to claim a seat in the back of the room. During my first scheduled workshop, as I worked the room animatedly, my glance landed on David. My breath caught in my throat at the look of utter adoration on his face.

“I loved seeing you that way,” he commented on the way home. “You come alive in front of an audience. You’re flying.” David had become the wind beneath my wings. I reminded him I couldn’t do any of it without him.

And then, I had to.

Less than two weeks following that hospital bed encounter in March 2012, my beloved died in his sleep. The next morning, fingers thick with grief, I penned one of the most difficult pieces of writing I’d ever done; my husband’s obituary.

It would have been easy to give up the writing, workshops and public speaking. Instead, remembering the look on his face and those words at the hospital, my writing took on a frantic pace, borne of pain and a renewed determination. A corner of the couch became a paper nest. I’d sit for hours, surrounded by piles of papers and books. I journaled, blogged, wrote essays, polished one manuscript, and began another. Seven months after David’s death I signed a contract for the book that had been his idea. By the time it was released in 2013, my eight-year-old grandson was dying too; losing a three-year battle with cancer.

barnes nobleI’ll never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble window display of my book. I felt nothing, numb with cumulative grief. In the ensuing six years, I’d sign five more contracts, becoming less anesthetized with each book’s release.

In February 2017 I revisited my muse through notebooks and a memory book Mom had left behind. I read letters she’d written me, marveling at how her words and wise advice could still inspire me, years after her death. I flipped through scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings about her art and photos of the various woodcarvings and paintings she’d completed, realizing anew that nothing had stopped her from creating. Nothing. Not raising ten children, poverty, or the death of my father.

mom woodcarverJust as nothing would stop me from writing. I began another book, chronicling that legacy of creativity. In it, I demonstrate how we are all built to create, whether through painting, gardening, music, or like me, as a wordsmith.

Must I write?
I’ve built my life around it.


What about you? Is writing your calling? Do you have a story about your writing? I hear it all the time in the writing workshops I teach. “I don’t have time.” “I’m not good enough to be published.” The reasons, the excuses, the self-doubts. If you have it in you to write, don’t let anything stop you. I didn’t. That’s one of the messages in Positive Writer Bryan Hutchinson’s new book “Serious Writers Never Quit.” serious writers


A Milestone Moment

I woke up yesterday morning with the desire to bake scones.

Perhaps only another widow can understand this, or someone who has lost interest in cooking due to some other life disruption, but this was one of those milestone turning points in a path of grieving.

Grieving? Still? I expect that is the thought that goes through some people’s minds when I refer to grief. It has been more than six years since my husband died. Five since my grandson’s death.

Let me qualify that statement. While I no longer consider myself actively grieving the triple losses of mother, husband and grandson in the space of three years,  I’ve accepted the fact that  we don’t reach the end of grieving until we are greeted by our loved ones at the gates of Heaven.  We loved someone and we must now live with their absence. I still miss my dad and it has been 32 years since he died.

The path is one we have to travel alone, though others can help us navigate the twists and turns or companion us on our journey. Ultimately, in the end, it is the individual who must choose how they will react, what they will do with the loss, what their life will look like without that loved one. With prayerful discernment, God will guide them; to the right people, the helpful books, a support group, or whatever it takes for their healing. The Great Healer designed us to heal.

During this journey, and I expect it to be a life-long one, there will be pivotal moments, distinct shifts, some of seismic proportions; getting rid of the loved one’s clothing or possessions, the removal of a wedding ring. There will be life-affirming events when the absence of that loved one becomes sharper but the beauty of the moment overshadows sorrow; a daughter’s wedding, the birth of a grandchild.

I suspect I disappointed my adult children this year when I informed them I wasn’t up to making a Thanksgiving meal. Except for the year my husband went through cancer and we shared a Pizza Thanksgiving with my mother, and when we went out to eat the year David died, we’d always shared a traditional Thanksgiving meal, either at my house or hosted by someone else. But somehow baking a turkey and all the fixings this year felt insurmountable. I knew the traditional Christmas baked ham dinner would probably be fine, but not Thanksgiving. It didn’t really make sense, but November was proving to be a difficult time for me. Perhaps it’s understandable, considering the year’s events. In no particular order, the measurable stressful (good or bad) events of 2018 included: loss of an income, the need to find a different job, a bout of shingles, a book manuscript deadline, a daughter leaving home to work on an organic farm in California, a job search, the subsequent house hunt and corresponding house sale, the release of a new book and expressive writing workshops in conjunction with it,  the great purge of household items and sentimental possessions necessary for downsizing from a four-bedroom, two-story house, to a 760-square foot one, two garage sales, the packing followed by the actual move, and finally, adjusting to a new town and different job. Add in the aforementioned daughter returning from CA to stay on my couch until she found an apartment and the fact that not only did I move away from the only support system I had in the form of my older children but I also left a Bible study group that felt like family, and well…maybe the idea of eating out somewhere for one holiday wasn’t such a bad idea.

Still, when one of my daughters playfully commented she’d be going to her friend’s house for a “real Thanksgiving” the words stung. “Remember when you used to be the cooking Mom?” she added. I understood. She missed the mom who’d make meatloaf and baked potatoes and applesauce cake for her Dad every Sunday. I miss that woman myself.

Because a lot of the cooking I did before David’s death was for him. While I didn’t always like planning meals, for the most part I enjoyed cooking. I wasn’t neccesarily a skilled cook, but David appreciated every single thing I made, thanking me after each meal.

After David died there was a period when the local deli where my daughter worked was our go-to place for a drive-through lunch. True, as the mother of an employee, I had the privilege of half-priced meals. But when I pulled up to the drive-through one Monday at noon and the owner already had our meals prepared, I was too embarassed to continue the practice.

So, I became the Grandma who fed her grandkids microwaved Weight Watcher’s meals. Little Jacob knew to go to the freezer to get the dessert of a Little Debbie fig bar. (And I haven’t purchased them since his death, so now I’m the Grandma with no cookies, just like my mother was. I understand now, Mom!)

It isn’t that I never cook, but I haven’t enjoyed it much without the appreciative audience. When I began cooking more for myself, I discovered my daughters didn’t much care for the pot of oven stew or hamburger cabbage soup I’d make on Sunday to last my workweek. Or the baked chicken and my favorite apple/carrot/raisin salad. One daughter became a vegetarian for a good eighteen months, ruining the cooking enjoyment of every dish that called for meat.

As for the applesauce cake, I think I’ve made it once in six years, and without the husband who raided the pan in the middle of the night, much of it ended up leftover, eventually too stale to eat.

Occasionally, one of my adult children would ask me to make one of their favorite meals, and I’d invite them over to enjoy a home-cooked meal. I mostly ignored their request for my potato salad since I’d always made it for their Dad. I didn’t even like it.

I actually thought I hated cooking until my brother-in-law, Dave, requested two of my old signature meals (lasagna, and porcupine balls with corn casserole) when he and my sister Joan visited from Florida. He reminded me of the pleasure of cooking for someone who appreciated it.

So when I woke up with the very real urge to make a recipe I’d pretty much abandoned with David’s death, it felt like another one of those shifts, not of seismic propostions, but distinct nonetheless.

It took me awhile to locate the Scottish Scone recipe I used to be famous for. (okay, not famous, but it was a recipe that had often been requested of me) I finally discovered it typed on a pink piece of paper inside the family cook-book I’d put together years ago. When I realized I had no raisins in the house, I opened a dozen little 100-calorie individual bags of walnuts and dried cranberries I had, sorting out what amounted to half a cup of cranberries, which would do in a pinch. Then I went about the sifting and mixing, enjoying the unaccustomed kneading of dough on a flour-covered countertop.


With the small domestic chore, I realized something had changed. I felt that shift. Whatever I was feeling in November; a weariness with changes, heightened loneliness… was different. Not quite gone, but better.

Abby and I enjoyed a warm scone fresh from the oven. I took the remaining ones to a “Women’s Christmas” event I facilitated at my workplace last night. There were, indeed, a few appreciative comments and more than one person requesting the recipe, but it wasn’t really about that.  It was about that small but distinct shift.

I’m just one broken person in the world of broken people.  I’m not going to be Betty Crocker anytime soon. I’m just a single working mom doing the best I can, and yesterday’s best just happened to include one awesome plate of scones.


book review, Compassionate Friends, grief, Heal Your Grief, Uncategorized

September Vaudrey coming to Dubuque, Iowa


colors of goodbye
“This book is beautifully written. I have to admit, having a 19-year-old artist daughter myself, I spent the majority of time reading this book with tears streaming down my face. I even sobbed through a couple sections. That said, I’ve been through tremendous loss myself, so it was a cathartic read. Though I’ve never lost a child, reading Vaudrey’s story helped me understand my daughter’s terrible loss. We all loved our Jacob, but for a mother to lose her child is heart-rending. Still, Vaudrey manages to give hope and light to a topic that needs to be talked about. Her daughter Katie was a beautiful soul, and her mother does her and the topic of the loss of a child justice.”- from my June 13, 2016 Goodreads review

The author, September Vaudrey, will be speaking Friday, November 2, on “Boulders Leave Craters,” as part of the Heal Your Grief retreat at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Those who wish to hear her speak do not need to sign up for the entire retreat weekend, but can pick and choose from a roster of speakers and workshops. Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite Heal Your Grief.