Happy Anniversary to This
Events, workshops & a letter from the archives
I hope your hearts are staying strong during these heartbreaking times. I started this newsletter three years ago and in honor of the anniversary I’m including a Dear Sugar letter from the archives. It’s called “It’s From Darkness That Everything Grows.” First published on December 31, 2020, it was the second installment of the Dear Sugar Letters that I send out to paid subscribers each month. In it, a woman wrote to to say she felt crushed by the times, which, sadly, still resonates now. She asked me how she might fight her way out of the darkness. You’ll find her letter and my answer below.
I’ve got some announcements for the various things I have going on in the year ahead, so I’m just going to get to it.
The first is happening is this week—on Wednesday, Nov 8 at 5pm PT/8pm ET. My dear friend and beloved co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast, Steve Almond, invited me to do an online class/conversation with him about how we nurture and sustain our creative lives when we have a million things pulling us in other directions. You can join us online, but if you can’t be there live your ticket will allow you access to the recording, so you can see it later. The event is hosted by the folks at Five Things I’ve Learned. You can learn more about it and purchase your ticket here.
I’ve also got three workshops on the calendar in the year ahead. I’ll be teaching weekend writing workshops at the Kripalu Center in western Massachusetts May 3-5 and at the Omega Institute in upstate New York Oct 4-6, 2024. Both workshops will also be offered virtually, so you can be there even if you can’t be there. Registration for the workshop at Omega is open now and Kripalu will open registration soon.
In July, I’m returning to Greece to co-lead “a story salon” on the island of Patmos with a brilliant team of artists—Rachel DeWoskin, Zayd Ayers Dohrn, and Brian Lindstrom (who happens to be my dear husband). The four of us led this salon together in 2015 and it was pure magic. Through lectures, conversations, and creative exercises over the course of the ten-day program, which takes place July 11-21, we’ll explore how writing, storytelling, and personal narrative in various forms (books, plays, podcasts, and films) move us closer to truth in our work and lives.
We’ll also lounge in the sun, swim in the sea, and eat lots of feta and olives. The salon is hosted by GoodWorld Journeys, which is run by the wonderful Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey, who’ve been going to Patmos for decades and know all the best spots to lounge in the sun, swim in the sea, and eat lots of feta and olives.
You can read more about the salon and register here.
I’m moving out of 2023 and into 2024 feeling my life shift in interesting ways. My son started college in September; my daughter will graduate high school in June. Things are changing, as they always do, but for me now and over the coming year they’re changing more than usual. I imagine when I talk about writing about journeys in these upcoming workshops, I’ll be deeply aware of the fact that I’m on a journey myself. Moving from this to that, from what was to what next, from one kind of life to another. Exciting and emotional times.
Thank you for reading, friends. Wishing you peace and good health. Wishing you joy and connection. Wishing you ease and delight as we approach the **holiday season, which I know is fraught for some. Wishing you, always, light and wonder and love.
**If you need help with your gift shopping, my lovely friends at Broadway Books are offering my signed books for the book-lovers on your list. You can place your order here and they’ll get them right out to you.
It’s From Darkness That Everything Grows, Dear Sugar Letter #2. Originally published on December 31, 2020.
I feel crushed by 2020—by the pandemic and all the suffering it’s caused to people all over the world, and also by its impact on my life. Here are the things that crushed me in particular:
1. I lost my job, which I loved, and though I eventually found another one, it pays less than my previous job did and it’s not half as fulfilling.
2. My beloved cousin died of cancer last spring and I couldn’t visit him to say goodbye because he lived on the other side of the country and COVID made it too dangerous and complicated to travel. It also made it impossible for family and friends to gather for a funeral for him. I miss him terribly. We were very close—he was five years older than me and like the brother I never had. He was the first person I came out to when I came out at age 19 (I’m 36 now).
3. After months of couple’s tele-therapy and more than a year of thinking and talking about it, my wife and I decided to divorce. The decision was amicable, but I’m still heartbroken. We’ve been together for a decade and, to be honest, I’m not sure who I am without her, Sugar.
4. I’m living alone for the first time in my life and though I generally appreciate my solitude, I often feel lonely. I regularly visit with friends and family over Zoom and sometimes on outdoor walks, but I’m exhausted from so many months of social distancing. I long for hugs, shared meals, casual and easy in-person contact with loved ones and even strangers, especially during this difficult time in my life.
On top of all of this, I feel guilty for complaining. I have my health. I have a job. I have many people who I love and who love me. What kind of woman am I for feeling sorry for myself when so many others have had it far worse than me? But this is my reality. I’m in a dark time. The rational voice inside of me says I won’t always be in the darkness, and I am functioning fine overall, but deep inside, I feel emotionally buried by the losses of this year.
How do I fight my way out of this darkness, Sugar? I’m not looking for a list of practical suggestions (exercise regularly, remember what I’m grateful for, see a therapist, etc.). I’m already doing those things. I’m writing to you because I’m looking for something else, Sugar. A perspective shift in the new year. Please tell me a story that will help me see the light.
Over the course of one winter and spring when I was a teenager, my mother spent several hours a day sitting very quietly in an abandoned barn about a mile from our house in the woods of northern Minnesota. She was waiting for a cat. She’d spotted the cat while out on a walk, when it had bolted frantically past her and into the barn, which sat beside a falling-down house where no one had lived for years. At a glance she could tell the cat was feral, emaciated, and pregnant. Immediately, she did what she’d done every time she encountered an animal in distress. She helped.
Within the hour, she’d returned to the barn with a bowl of cat food. The cat was nowhere in sight, but when my mom returned a couple of hours later, the food was gone. Feeding the cat was one thing, but saving her was my mother’s mission, and so, after several days of leaving the food and returning to collect the empty dish, my mom decided to stay. After she set out the bowl of food, she went to the far side of the barn and, bundled in layers of clothes against the fierce cold, she sat very quietly on an overturned bucket and waited for the cat to muster the courage to emerge from the dark reaches of the barn to eat.
A couple of weeks went by and nothing happened. No matter how long my mother sat there—and she sat there for a long time, in spite of the cold and boredom—the cat would not emerge until after my mother left. And yet, my mother persisted. Another week passed and she sat still and silent as a statue on the overturned bucket, sometimes believing she sensed the tiniest, most undetectable flash beyond the edge of the darkness. Days passed, until one day, the smallest thing happened: the cat revealed herself. She poked her head out and looked at my mom for a second before darting back into the darkness. It went on like that for weeks until finally, astonishingly, the mama cat stepped tentatively into the light and ate in my mother’s distant presence.
I know this progression because at dinner each night, my mom shared reports about the cat. What the cat did when my mom dared to speak a word (run). What the cat did when my mom reached up to adjust her scarf (run). What the cat did when my mom moved the overturned bucket a few feet closer than her usual spot (remained out of sight). What the cat did after she gave birth to her kittens in the box my mother had lined with blankets and wedged into a hidden corner of the barn (eat ravenously, regardless of whether or not my mom adjusted her scarf). And finally, what the cat did as spring edged toward summer, when her kittens were old enough to walk without fear to my mother, so she could—and eventually did—save them (watch from afar and then disappear, forever unsaved).
I’d like to say I listened to my mom with pleasure and admiration when she told stories about her days in the decrepit barn, but I was at an age when I wasn’t terribly inclined to listen to my mom with pleasure or admiration about much of anything, and even though I wholly supported her endeavor, I found her obsessive, almost devout, dedication to it a tad embarrassing.
Did normal mothers spend hours of each day for months on end sitting on an overturned bucket in an old barn waiting for a feral cat to appear? They did not.
And yet, in the years since, I find myself thinking about this particular project of my mother’s surprisingly often, my mind swirling back to it time and time again, until it has become less of a memory of something she did, and instead like a memory of my own—as if it had been me who’d sat in that barn bundled in winter clothes, as if it had been my own fingers and toes that had slowly stiffened with cold by the minute, as if I’d waited in silence and stillness in a torpor of acceptance that no matter how silent or still I was, perhaps nothing would step from the darkness.
I think that’s the part that gets me, Crushed, and it’s also the reason it came back to me as I read your letter. The way my mother accepted that her work each day was to sit in the cold on the overturned bucket, whether the cat emerged from the darkness or not. The humble, bold faith of that. It struck me as the story you might need to hear, the image you might need to hold in your mind right now, at the end of this very hard year, when the most important thing required of you—or of any of us who’ve had a hard year—is to keep humble, bold faith.
I don’t think you’re going to be able to “fight” your way out of this darkness. Darkness doesn’t stand before us like an opponent with its dukes up. It’s diffuse. It enfolds us. It conceals us. It makes us see what we couldn’t see before and prevents us from seeing what will happen next. It keeps us from ever knowing if the cat will step out of the dark corner of the barn. It requires us to wait patiently for a long time until the faintest glimmer of light is revealed. That’s where you are, Crushed. You’re in the waiting, the silence, the stillness, the cold torpor of learning to accept what you wish were not true.
I know it feels like hell to be there. I know it feels like it’ll never end. But I also know the light will shine upon you again. The only way to see it is to trust that someday it will.
Your loss, your sorrow, your uncertainty, your fear, your loneliness—they make you feel buried right now, not because you will forever be in darkness, but because sad, difficult, and painful things have happened to you. It’s no surprise that you’re struggling, Crushed. What I hope you will believe is that the things you experience in the darkness you’ve been enfolded in during this year are the very things that will allow you to emerge from it.
I call these experiences our dark teachers. The lessons that hurt, scare, scar, wound, and almost destroy us are very often the things that make us who we are because they require us to muster what we thought we could not muster—courage, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, love, resilience, strength, generosity of spirit, ferocity of heart. The times we feel lost are the times that require us to find our way. The deepest losses often lead us to our most profound gains.
There is evidence of this everywhere, Crushed. It’s from darkness that everything grows. Including you. Including me. Including everyone who feels crushed by what 2020 wrought, and every year before that too.
My mom died of cancer five years after she saved the kittens in the cold barn. In the last days of her life, she believed that the animals she’d known and loved and rescued were surrounding her. They were snuggled up so closely next to her she insisted I could not sit on the bed beside her, for fear I’d squish a phantom cat or dog. At the time that felt like a darkness upon the darkness, to not be able to hold my mother as she died, but eventually I saw it differently, as Crushed, I hope someday you and everyone who feels crushed will see this year differently. Eventually, I saw what I couldn’t see then—the tiniest, most undetectable flash beyond the edge of the darkness.
What a gift it was my mother felt surrounded by love when she stepped into the light.