Guest Bloggers

Guest Blogger Alison Luterman writes about the “shadow”

Alison Luterman Guest Blogger Alison Luterman talks about “how to be true to the complexity of intimate relationships, while at the same time protecting the dignity of all concerned.”

The other night in essay class, a student read her story aloud.  Behind her moving account of her mother’s death, I could sense something missing.

“I can tell from your description what a wonderful woman she was, ” I said. “But there are hints here and there about things that might have been difficult as well.”

“Yes, that’s true,” she admitted. “We got into some tangles, but I didn’t know how to write about that part. Maybe I wasn’t ready.”

I knew exactly what she meant. I also struggle with how to be true to the complexity of intimate relationships, while at the same time protecting the dignity of all concerned. I don’t have any one-size-fits-all answer. I just know that the weight of things unsaid, or said partially, becomes a presence in a poem or story, as much as the words that are actually on the page.

As we continued our discussion, other students wanted to know if they always have to write about “bad stuff” to be considered honest. Aren’t some love affairs or family relationships just sweet? Isn’t mortality, that ever-present shadow of loss that accompanies every human love, enough?

I admit to a certain personal affinity for the shadow. When I was very little, my father assigned me the chore of picking up rocks, finding earthworms underneath, and putting the worms in his vegetable garden where they would aerate the soil. He was probably just trying to keep a six-year-old occupied while he tended his tomatoes and zucchini, but I took my job very seriously. I still like to pick up rocks and see what’s writhing under there. Under the shame, rage, and terror, there lurks raw life energy, that thing we desire and fear the most.

When my friend Carla was dying, she said her favorite word was “bittersweet.” Never had the beauty of life been so vivid to her; never had pain been so intense. That’s the shadow. I don’t know how to get away from it. That’s why there’s a big box of Kleenex on the table at writing class. At the same time that’s why the room often erupts into peals of raucous laughter, and why we all hug each other so hard when our time together is over.

Originally posted March 15, 2015, Alison Luterman‘s Monthly Newsletter.

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11 comments

  1. Kathy Myers

    I recently wrote and delivered a eulogy for my brother in law. A memorial is the ultimate expression of the bitter and the sweet of a life and death. The hairdresser Truvy in Steel Magnolias said “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” and that was the order of the day. There were fond memories blended with sadness, evolving into laughter and hugs. I love Alison’s sharing the experience of looking under rock shadows for worms, and using them to add life to soil elsewhere. Sounds like she is a great teacher; challenging students to include the dark with the light, put the bittersweet chunks in the vanilla ice cream, throw in a few nuts here and there, making a richer concoction—and essay.

    PS: My father had a different way to collect worms for a fishing trip. He inserted a homemade electrified probe into the lawn. It had just enough current to irritate the worms within a three foot radius and cause them to flee to the surface where we could collect the hapless creatures. They sacrificed their lives for a delicious trout dinner.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Oh Kathy, from bittersweet to delicious trout . . . all within a few keystrokes . . . the circle of life, and death. Thanks for posting.

      1. justinefos

        First, to Kathy: I agree with what Marlene said, such a perfect comment on your response.

        To Alison: I was very touched by your writing about the shadow. Reading your story, I considered the word shadow, it made me think of Mid Western skies, that have small clouds looking like big puff balls, and sometimes they take on shapes of creatures, animals, etc. Growing up in Southern Calif we rarely had days like that, and I remember being a child of four to six years old, and afraid of them. I have no idea why I was afraid, possibly the shadows that were cast on the ground as they passed in front of the sun.

        I have heard the word “shadow” also used describing a despicable side that most of us possess, and thus it is hidden in ‘a shadow side of that person,’ some people more than others.

        I very much appreciated your story about finding worms under rocks, and Kathy’s reminiscence, I had to laugh out loud, seeing those worms in my mind coming out of the ground.

        My father did fly casting with flies that he would tie in the evenings when camping, by the light of a kerosene lantern. He would get out his box of many different kinds of feathers, set up a tiny vice in which to hold a hook, and fashion them into the most beautiful flies. Watching him fly fishing was like watching a ballet. I wanted to learn how, to do both but, alas, he felt I was too young to try.
        (Please forgive me for writing out my free-association, but both of your writings just brought all this up in my mind.) Unhappily, the shadows that I had to deal with with my father were not under rocks, they were ‘things’ that he did to me – where is that kleenex when I need it. I guess I lived in his shadow. That particular behavior finally stopped when I was 12, and we had quite a ‘tangle,’ I would not allow him to do what he intended to do. I stood up to him and yelled at him to not touch me! He never touched me again. It was such a strong shadow that I blocked it out of my conscious mind until I was about 34 and there was a TV movie about a girl who’s father committed incest with her. Watching that movie, it all came back. Instead of hiding it again, I told a psychologist about it. I also have written about it. I attempted to talk to him about it shortly after the appointment with my psychologist. He told me our pediatrician, who was also a family friend, advised him to do that behavior to help me protect myself as I became a woman, because I was overly trusting with men. Specifically the men in my parents group of friends, who were all from our church. It found out that Dr. Bill also treated his daughter the same way. In retrospect, I’ve never believed my father was acting on someone else’s advice.

        The good that came from that shadow is, I had learned that talking about painful shadows is so important. I had figured that out long before I consciously remembered my trauma. As an intensive care RN, I took extra time with patients and their families, explaining everything that was in the room, what it was for, if it was being used at the time or not, I encouraged them to talk to each other, patients & family members, about how they were feeling, and what was happening. I coaxed them to ask any questions they had. I would often be asked to be there when the discussions were going on. I would be there if there was any way I could, more for moral support, than to answer questions, and to do what I could to find out answers for them if no answer was available at the time.

        Ninety percent of the families and patients ended up figuratively passing the Kleenex, and often smile through the tears because they felt so relieved to know what was happening, and also to know that they all knew, and had lifted the drawbridge, and crossed over the moat of being afraid to know or afraid to tell each other how they felt, including loving, or upset, or angry. I vividly remember a patient who was about fifty-six with a terminal condition. The first time I met the family, they were very angry with each other, some slight of some kind had set it off. They were under the shadow of grief, knowing their mom probably would not leave the hospital alive. She was my patient for five or six days. The last time I saw them, all eight of them were standing around the bed, holding hands, telling “I remember” stories. Mostly funny stories. Their mom was conscious and alert, and weeping happy tears. They had managed to work through the hard stuff and have a day to be silly and loving, unknown to them, the day before she passed. That next day, they were with her, at her side while passed gently into the night. I loved the love they had and shared that day.

        1. Kathy Myers

          The glare of truth spoken out loud chases away the shadow of secret abuse. Justine eloquently speaks of this. She learns from her experience to share with others and help them to let go of resentment and leave their hands free to hold one another in a circle of connection. Powerful writing and message of “the good that came from the shadow.”

          1. mcullen Post author

            Kathy, the first line of your response is brilliant . . . and could be a quote on a poster in doctor’s waiting rooms. Right on! Love your last line, also.

        2. mcullen Post author

          Justine: powerful writing from the heart. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  2. Ke11y

    At the edge of the ocean, where moon-flowers drip their silver rain, that’s where she is; a woman, dead beneath shipless waves, spreading her light in blues and insolent greens on faraway beaches. She plays there with a child, calling him ‘dear heart.’

    Smiles brighten and break. Tears squeak in the sand.

    I cannot be touched by words anymore. Only visions work. Her nudity clothed in rainbows. Do not talk to me of priests and cathedrals but of leviathans and bright fields that rock and roll. Tell me about the Fisher Maid, sing me a pirate song. Talk to me of pebbles, seaweed and hair flying.

    It felt like trickery; her dying and then to dance on, never to wither but always smell like the ocean. Yes, it was trickery to leave, go hide, and become nature. Abandoned, a child once again, I stood on the causeway, not running into the sea.

    She is adrift with the other ancient insanities in a place before history or religion and where the whistling of death occurs while I am forced to live outside her world, listening to lovesick songs. Tears start. Tinkling’s vibrate in my chest. My eyes fill with the golden wash of sunset.

    Before tides nothing moved. It was a small disaster. Your death.

    Mother and child fell together through a green misty light and turned the abyss blue. Wings rose in the shape of memories as the two fled among steeples and domes, leaving behind their scent and laughter. Grief is like watching a flower unfold. I scrambled, a beggar trying to keep her memory at home, but she sank soundlessly. The veil of death shredding closeness into the past. I was afraid to leave the ocean. To leave her.

    For many months, I walked the ocean’s raggedy edge, sifting through petticoat waves, wondering, waiting, looking…not wanting to find her; frightened someone else might.

    She was beautiful, you see.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Dear Kelly, the opening paragraph draws me in and I think “mermaid” because I can live with that as if “spreading her light” is an ongoing mysterious thing. “Smiles brighten and break. Tears squeak in the sand.” = brilliant writing, especially using “squeak” as a verb. I appreciate the honesty in paragraph three. . . in a “let’s get real here” kind of way = poignant. What prevents this from becoming too sad, “It felt like trickery; her dying and then to dance on, never to wither but always smell like the ocean.” She does live on, like the mythical mermaid. And the next paragraph = exquisite, especially, “My eyes fill with the golden wash of sunset.”

      “It was a small disaster. Your death.” I like the acknowledgement here. I can feel the grief. But it doesn’t feel heavy. It just feels sad.

      I like how the pace picks up with the paragraph, “Mother and child fell . . . ” There is such good energy in the first two lines. . . building to a crescendo, like a wave crashing upon the rocks and then. . . “Grief is like watching a flower unfold. . . ” The wave recedes, revealing the raw emotions, the reality, the stark sadness, the grief.

      Oh, and “petticoat waves.” Yes, exactly.

      The last line = Perfection. Perfect ending to this masterfully written piece. If you find a place to submit. . . this is definitely publishable work. Really great writing.

    2. Kathy Myers

      Kelly; Your prose is so poetic, sensory and visual. I’m glad it finds it’s way to the surface yearly to be tweaked. The topic is so poignant— bitter sweet. Structurally I like the way the piece is bracketed with simple declarations: “It was a small disaster. Your death.” and “She was beautiful, you see.” The effect is to illustrate the shift between thoughts and emotions, from head to heart, complex to simple. Thanks for sharing.

      And i agree with Marlene that the image of “petticoat waves” is great. I remember wearing petticoats under my dresses in the fifties (and so does Marlene I’m guessing:) They were starched with sugar water, and laboriously ironed. The idea that the ocean’s slip is showing makes her feminine and sweet; like the young girls who go shopping downtown wearing tutu’s and tennis shoes.

  3. Ke11y

    Dear Marlene:

    This piece finds its way to the surface around this time of year. I’ll change a word, maybe a line, but always it never quite does, is never quite finished. Your kind words bring a smile to my heart.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Thank you for posting, Kelly. It truly is an honor to read your writing and to have it here, on The Write Spot Blog is a complete joy.

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