A few months after my 15-year marriage ended, I hired a clown and part-time muralist to paint a large white luster quote across the navy wall of my Brooklyn dining room.
“Sell your cleverness,” it read, “and buy bewilderment.”
The quote was by Rumi, the 13th-century poet and mystic, and to my great surprise, it suited me. Finding myself without a fixed storyline at age 46 was hands-down terrifying. And at the same time it bought me a kind of freedom. My bewilderment was the result of a deeply painful and unexpected series of letting gos, to be sure — but also offered a vigorous shake down of set assumptions and beliefs, and the opportunity to now say yes to ideas I might never before have seriously entertained.
Slowly, I began to enjoy sleeping diagonally across the bed. And sitting in bars alone with a book and a cocktail.
When my friend Amelia called me from Chicago to ask if I’d be interested in flying to Melbourne, Australia for a few weeks to serve as the media liaison for the largest gathering of spiritual leaders in the world, I said yes. When, a few months after that, an old journalism school classmate reached out from where he was living in Bangalore to suggest I consider spending a month volunteering at a unique boarding school near him South India, I wrote to the school immediately and was on my way in no time.
When an acquaintance raved about her recent “divination” with a West African spiritual elder, I booked a session with him myself. A week later, Malidoma Some was seated across a table from me. “You must make yourself like a cottage,” he instructed. “You must create a new sense of home and power and belonging. And from there, you’ll be given the opportunity to contemplate how to help others view their circumstances not from a reckless, tragic perspective but from an initiatory one.”
That made a lot of sense. So (but of course!) I set about following Malidoma’s advice. On the nights that my two daughters were staying with their father a mile away in Park Slope, I (with the help of my dear friend Yazmany Arboleda, who I’d met at that boarding school in India) turned my Prospect Heights brownstone into a “Brooklyn cottage.” And for the next three years, my home served as a part-time lab and incubator for writing workshops and storytelling evenings and cooking classes and meditation sessions and pop-up art shows and any other intriguing notions that I or various members of my community were interested in exploring.
In the middle of all this, I realized I was still lonely post-divorce. I needed to unearth a tribe of women who were walking a path similar to mine. In the context of what I’d created, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to sit down and create a workshop to locate the very thing I was missing. So even though I wasn’t a therapist and had never before been a workshop leader, I said yes to that too.
The workshop, I imagined, would offer the opportunity to engage in writing experiments, to bear witness, and to gently and courageously explore ideas of grief and ideas of gratitude.
After our introductions, I imagined us each taking pens to paper and writing for several minutes, beginning every sentence with the words “I mourn” or “I surrender.” (If nothing came up, we’d simply write those words as if they were a kind of incantation, until something did.)
I imagined next sharing photos, and stories, of ourselves together with the person we were separating from — giving voice and name and texture (not to mention tears and laughter and grimacing as necessary) to what was.
And finally, I imagined returning to our notebooks to investigate what there was to be grateful for. Every sentence we’d write would begin with the words “thank you” (to the departing partner, to the universe, to oneself, to whatever or whomever seemed to suit us at the moment). And as before, we’d simply see what came up.
There’d be poetry and flowers and good things to eat and drink. The novelist Chris Abani had spoken about the South African philosophy of Ubuntu in a TED talk I’d seen not long before, and I liked his description of it: “The only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”
I wanted a workshop where we could be human together.
So I put what I imagined into play. And that was five years ago! I’ve been leading Grief and Gratitude workshops several times a year since, to a total of about 250 women to date. The workshops have been mostly hosted by the wonderful Elise Pettus at UnTied.net, and are also sometimes run out of my living room, and other living rooms, and soon will be offered by The Woolfer.
Even though I feel well-healed from my own marital split a decade ago now, I find it a continuing privilege to meet with women at the poignant and painful and often strangely promising moment they find themselves in the middle of theirs. Why? Because to borrow from Harvard Divinity School’s Kimberley Patton, I’ve come to believe that that the broken heart is the starting point for everything that matters. It’s what happens in the days, weeks and months after life brings us to our knees that remains deeply interesting me.
As I wrote in a recent Grief and Gratitude workshop free-write, “The mourning permits the surrender, the surrender permits humility, the humility permits grace and the ability to be present for others and for myself. I accept mourning as part of what makes my life valuable and true. I mourn and I rejoice.”
The Woolfer will be hosting a Grief and Gratitude Workshop and Dinner with Jenny Douglas on May 8th in Brooklyn.