I’m very pleased to introduce author and friend, Priscilla Warner, as my 34th Studio Guest.
Priscilla is the bestselling author of Learning to Breathe – My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life and a co-author of The Faith Club.
- After I read Priscilla’s guest post, I thought: this is wonderful. The peak moments in life can be dangerous. Somehow we think they are final moments or predictive of the future — that life will always be this invigorating, seemingly perfect, or pain-free. But everything is in a state of continual flux, and in many ways, we are all stories without endings. Each moment merging with the next, like the green leaves in our backyard that will soon be poetic shades of yellow, orange, red. Each breath becomes the next breath. But what is this process, this universal reality, teaching us?
- The need to let go of “self,” comes to mind. The mortal self we are attached to is simply part of a mysterious cosmic dance. But our spiritual self is timeless, likely returning to its sacred origins when our bodily form is no longer “ours” to “possess.”
- It also seems the life theme of peaks and valleys is teaching us that things (life circumstances and situations) aren’t inherently good or bad. They simply are. Still, it can be very difficult not to judge our life experience. The conditioned mind is happy to tell us how to interpret everything around us as: good or bad. Going beyond that sort of reaction can usher in a more sustainable peace in our daily lives, allowing for a deeper contentment to emerge. The kind of contentment that isn’t quite as dependent on external conditions.
- So here is Priscilla … please help me welcome her to SunnyRoomStudio. I hope she will decide to publish the work she describes in her guest post (so many publishing options these days); perhaps, the right person will read this and contact her. Most of all, though, I extend my gratitude to her for sharing an important aspect of her life journey in this sunny creative space for kindred spirits. May we all feel inspired to stay in touch with our intuition, and to experience what we “know” again and again, until we become what we know. (I agree, Priscilla, about the Hollywood movies … but maybe we all need less drama in our lives anyway. Maybe we just need to learn to breathe. Sounds simple enough, but as your book title so aptly points out, we are always and forever, “learning to breathe.”)
- Welcome to this sunny space … we are all kindred spirits on a journey called life.
The Year I Stopped Writing Memoirs
by Priscilla Warner
My first book was published when I was 53 years old, and I was thrilled, shocked, scared and delighted (kind of like when I gave birth to each of my two sons.) After writing 24 children’s books, two novels and two screenplays, all unpublished, I was ecstatic to be a “real writer” with an actual book in hand to prove that point.
I’d stumbled upon the entire experience, when a friend casually connected me with two women – one Muslim and one Christian – who were looking to write an interfaith children’s book, and I became “the Jew” in what evolved into an adult memoir called The Faith Club. For several years, my co-authors and I toured the country, replicating our intense experience with interfaith dialogue, speaking in churches, synagogues, mosques, colleges and community centers.
The book tour exhausted me.
I’d been suffering from panic attacks for decades, and although I appeared to be functioning just fine, happily married with two beautiful sons, I felt like a fraud every time I popped a Klonopin to fly and another one to speak to large, eager audiences. I’m emotionally addicted to this medicine,” I told myself. “And that can’t be good.”
In the skies above Oklahoma, after a particularly grueling tour through the Midwest, I opened up a magazine and saw yet another story about Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains. “I want the brain of a monk!” I decided. “I want everything that goes along with that brain – like peace and tranquility, loving-kindness and compassion…”
I also wanted to stop touring for The Faith Club.
So I landed in New York and wrote a book proposal. “I’m going to learn how to meditate!” I announced to my agent. “I’m going to meditate my way from panic to peace!”
A year later, I finished the first draft of my memoir Learning to Breathe – My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life. I’d studied with some of the finest Buddhist teachers I could find, and been healed by therapies like EMDR and Somatic Experiencing. I’d developed a very grounding meditation practice and jokingly referred to myself as a monk in a minivan, touring the suburbs and my local strip malls with a kind of peacefulness and calm I could never have imagined that I would access.
Who knew that my experiment would work?
I appeared on The Today Show when my book was published, and told the world how calm I was. I received moving emails from readers who’d suffered silently for years, as I had, and found comfort in my journey. I continued to deepen my meditation practice as I struggled to care for my mother, now in her 12th year of Alzheimer’s Disease.
During the decade when I’d written both The Faith Club and Learning to Breathe, I’d also written about my mother’s slow, steady descent into a state where she no longer knew who I was. While I blossomed as a writer, she sat in diapers. While I toured the country, meeting thousands of people eager to share their experiences with me, my mother’s world grew smaller and smaller, until she was moved to the locked unit of an advanced Alzheimer’s ward. I had to hire caregivers for her, handle all of her finances and health care issues, sell her house, deal with its contents, settle her into two different rehab centers and three different nursing homes, until she finally received the proper care.
Surely I could get a book out of this grueling experience, I thought.
Despite the fact that both my agent and editor had told me Alzheimer’s memoirs were not big sellers, I worked on my story of struggling to accept, love and care for my mother harder than I did on any of the other 26 books and two screenplays I’d written. I wrote 200,000 words on the topic. I thought I could tell a story that millions of Americans caring for loved ones could relate to, particularly if they’d struggled with those loved ones before the disease took its toll.
What I was experiencing with my mother was a double loss, my therapist told me. I was losing the mother I actually had, as well as the illusion that I would ever have the mother I wanted.
And then I experienced a third loss.
I showed the first fifty pages of my memoir to my agent. When she told me kindly and sensitively that although my experience was beautifully written and captured, she didn’t think it was a saleable book, I sank into a depression.
I wasn’t sure that she was right about my book’s potential to be published. Even she agreed that I might find someone else to represent it.
But what I knew in a deep, profound way, was that my days as a writer who worked out her pain on the page were over.
It’s not that I didn’t have more pain in my life to work through.
My father-in-law died in a sudden, tragic way. I struggled with turning sixty. I saw friends suffer through all kinds of challenges. My dream of being a mellow monk in a minivan, tooling around the suburbs spreading joy and bliss, turned out to be a bit of a fantasy.
I tossed and turned at night like other mortals. I regained the weight I’d lost to appear on The Today Show. I gobbled down chocolate and meditated every day. Both tools kept me afloat, but I learned that happiness, like the thrill of being published, comes and goes. That learning to love myself and others is a lifelong practice that often doesn’t go smoothly. That no matter how many times I’m thrilled with an experience – when my heart soars and I feel at one with the world – another experience arises where I feel downcast, unable to cope, despondent and confused.
I’ve spent the last few months picking a lot of blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries and raspberries on Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve worked hard to create a vegetable garden where tomatoes thrive but any kind of legumes are a flop. I’ve loved getting my hands dirty and refuse to wear gloves. I want to feel soil under my fingernails, and meditate to the plop of each berry I pick in silence, as it falls into my pail.
I don’t want to write.
Maybe I should write about my inability to write, I thought as I picked the last of my Sungold tomatoes the other day.
But then I woke up at 4 am and realized that maybe I should just live my life.
I’ve experienced my share of unique moments. I’ve written about a host of them. In doing so, I got to feel special. I got to feel that all of my suffering had somehow paid off. I also got to distance myself a bit from the pain and issues that embarrassed me deep down inside, that made me feel I was all alone in the world.
Now I am feeling very much a part of the world. A tiny speck.
I’m not feeling funny enough to write the kind of fiction I used to write years ago. My sons are young men living on their own, no longer providing me with the charming anecdotes that inspired my children’s books. I can’t find movies produced in Hollywood that I want to sit through, so the thrill of writing screenplays eludes me.
I’m going to live my life for now without writing.
And “The Year I Spent Picking Berries” will be a story I tell just to myself. ~
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived.
~Henry David Thoreau
Visit PW’s website or follow her on facebook, twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, where she now spends her days happily procrastinating.
Next journal post, Number 17, of Seeing It Otherwise: September 27th.
Seeing It Otherwise is an online spiritual journal for 2013. Together, we are exploring perceptions, assumptions, and reactions — and creating an opportunity to journal or meditate on the ideas, questions presented. Blog posts serve as brief journal entries every other Friday morning. Thanks so much for being here.
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