Last weekend, I visited Sewanee, Tennessee, for three events for After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events hosted/arranged by the Otey Memorial Parish (Episcopal).
The first event was a Saturday afternoon meeting of the church-sponsored recovery groups, where I met with about 10 folks, plus the groups' leader, clinical psychologist Robin Reed-Spalding. I talked about my own personal story, what it meant for me, and what I think recovery means (not as an expert, of course, just a guy who lived it), and read several poems from After Shocks. The best part was when they interrupted me and I could go "off the prepared script." This meeting went well and lasted almost 2 hours. One interesting thing: I made the comment when I read a poem about the death of a child that this was likely the worst kind of loss, and a woman in the group who had lost her 17-year-old daughter disagreed with me: "The worst loss is the loss you face right now," she said.
The second event was a book signing at the Barnes & Noble, which is also the book store of the University of the South, based in Sewanee. I met a couple of faculty members from the seminary there.
The third event was an adult Sunday school session, very well attended, maybe 2 dozen folks or more. I had only one hour with these folks. I had condensed my opening remarks from the recovery group the day before, and as I was reading poems from After Shocks, they engaged me in a very lively discussion. I had anticipated the "God question," and stirred quite a sensation with my response. The "God Question" is this: "When you faced your personal tragedy, how did God impact your thinking/recovery/grief process?" My answer, very delicately, but very emphatically: He did not. Followed by a list of good reasons, not the least of which is that I don't believe that God involves Himself in our lives at this level, but that really sparks the next question: "Yeah, but...didn't you pray, at least for some type of guidance or solace?" Well, no. I'm not that kind of religious. And in fact, when I was in that little room waiting to see my dead wife's body and the nurse asked me if I wanted to see a Chaplain, I nearly strangled her. Who I wanted to see was my family, so that I could hug them and cry! I didn't want some anonymous chaplain. Then the next question of course, "Well, the anonymous chaplain brings you to the God you already know very well..." And on it went. It was a great discussion. The end point really is this: In recovery situations, you must embrace the pain, bring it inside, make it part of you. The longer you hold that off, the harder the road ahead will be. God can't stop the pain. In my question back to the group: Does God care about my measly, insignificant, Middle Class American pain when destitute children in Africa are raped every day?
In both groups, there was a great deal of interest in editorial details: How did you get all the poets? How long did it take? Any surprises in the process? Why did you self-publish? Lots of great questions. I love this "off-the-notes" type of discussion. I'm much more comfortable doing that than having any prepared remarks.
I'm getting a lot more comfortable talking about those events surrounding the death of my first wife. I realize that I have buried that stuff pretty deeply, and digging it out...it's an exhumation of the past. It's hard to talk so openly to perfect strangers about something that I feel so proprietary about. Dr. Reed-Spalding, the clinical psychologist who ran the recovery groups (and also attended the Sunday school session) said this to me afterwards: "I am sure telling your story is not easy…but by telling your story you help create a safe environment."
I have several more church-based sessions scheduled for After Shocks, and I'll post further thoughts here as they occur.