“Is writing healing for you?” I get asked that a lot. And my answer is a most definite Yes, but it has been difficult to articulate how and why.
I recently got a big assist from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, and his book Companioning the Bereaved. He has spent a career studying and writing about grief and debunking the all too common thinking that grief is an illness that can be treated and cured. Dr. Wolfelt also writes “Experience has taught me that it is the mysterious, spiritual dimension of grief that allows us to go on living until we, too, die.” That deeply resonates with me. So does his definition of Sanctuary.
A place of refuge from external demands. A space where the mourner is free to disengage from the outside world. A place where the need to turn inward and suspend will not be hurried or ridiculed.
That’s it! Writing is my sanctuary. That’s where I go to access the spiritual dimension of my grief and, somehow, “it” can access me. Writing is how I probe my deepest feelings, thoughts and questions—my deeper self. It’s how I stick my head into the rabbit hole.
Most think writing is a lonely, reclusive, solitary endeavor. Not for me, it isn’t. When I go into my sanctuary and write it’s like getting on a plane—more aptly a space ship—that takes me to places I could never before have imagined. Even more than the words—it is the act of writing that helps me clarify my thoughts, project them out into the universe and occasionally tap into the mysteries and wonders all around us. We’ve been extraordinarily rewarded with all of the ping backs we’ve received. Think Jody Foster and the film Contact.
Writing has been a facilitator of the amazing synchronicities and miracles we’ve experienced. Because of writing, I’ve made deep, profound, connections with many, many wonderful people I otherwise never would have met. Together we’ve plumbed the depths of sorrow, pain and suffering, and the soaring heights and infinite power of love everlasting. In my sanctuary I’ve repaired and forged stronger, more loving relationships with my family and friends. My sanctuary is the antithesis of lonely.
Others find sanctuary in their church, meditation, long hikes in the mountains, and yoga classes. It’s all good. We all need our sanctuary. Music is another sanctuary of mine, but it’s taken a back seat since I began writing. I’ve got a good story about my music sanctuary I will share soon.
Several years ago I felt a need to learn how to write things other than ground leases and other complicated legal documents. I took a six week class from Judy Reeves, one of San Diego’s best writers and writing coaches. This particular classroom assignment was to speed write in ten minutes a fictional short story about anything we wanted. I recently stumbled across mine. A Place I Go. I think that ten minute window was when I first really became aware of my sanctuary. I didn’t have the guts at the time to tell Ms. Reeves it wasn’t fiction.
A Place I Go
I approach the door which is always accessible to me. Diane is seated to my right, contemplating the blank page before her and thinking about what she will write for this particular segment of Judy Reeves’ Spinning Stories from Memory writing class. She casts a glance towards her cell phone for inspiration. I smell the faint scent of lavender soap and Starbucks coffee. She of course can’t see it, and when I open and step through my door she won’t see me. If she or anyone else in the class should look over they may see a form scribbling away, but they won’t see me—I’m already gone.
As I close the door behind me, its pitch black except for the golden spiral staircase descending, seemingly endlessly—a strand of my DNA illuminated by its pulsating electrons. I take a deep breath through the nose and blow slowly out my mouth, and begin the descent. I breathe more deeply with each step, and intensify my focus as each ledge of the staircase becomes progressively narrower. All extraneous thoughts are encouraged away—there are only the steps. I don’t risk the diversion of counting.
Down, further down, I turn in slow, clockwise, circles. Suddenly I reach the last step; but it’s not a step at all. I’m standing in a small foyer, tiled with flint flecked bright white marble from Vermont. The walls are adorned with brightly colored Persian tapestries. There’s another door made of dark oak, intricately carved with sparrows, lady bugs, monarch butterflies and caterpillars. This door is much larger than the one at the top of the staircase; it’s big—big-as-a-house big. I reach up to the handle a foot above my head and with both hands pull down and push. The door swings open quite easily and I step forward.
I’m outdoors, surrounded by gentle, lushly forested hills, walking through knee high native grasses, intoxicating wildflowers, mustard and artichoke. The sun is directly above in the cloudless, ocean deep, blue sky, its brilliant warm rays poring over and into my body. I close my eyes, breathe as deeply as I can and, as I slowly exhale, my body fills with white light starting with my brain, into my lungs, the stomach, down to the legs and arms and into each finger, toe and sub-dermal hair follicle. Surely I’m glowing.
I open my eyes. I’m walking up a steep grade on a well-used dirt path, winding through ferns clinging to the shade of a dense pine forest that now block the rays of the sun, but not the light within me. Twenty yards ahead there is what appears to be an immense thin wall of clear water that completely fills the field of my vision. It is as though I’m standing before the largest waterfall one can possibly imagine, only the water isn’t falling and there is no thunderous sound of crashing torrents—it’s completely silent and the film of water is shimmering as if the imperceptible vibration of my feet on the path has created a wave of ripples across its mirror-like surface. There’s definitely something on the other side, but the film of water blurs the vision.
George Elkdreamer Sanchez
George appears at my side. He is a Yaqui Indian from Sedona, his brown face displaying the scars and creases of many years in the sun and too many places he should have left an hour earlier. He’s somewhere between early 50s and late 70s; it’s hard to say. He’s wearing an intricately embroidered white dress cowboy shirt, turquoise boa tie, black jeans, well-worn boots and a black cowboy hat with an eagle feather tucked in the brim. A white braided pony tail protrudes from the hat to the middle of his back. Our smiles are ones of recognition and welcome expectation. “Are you ready?” he asks. I nod. “Follow me,” and he steps into the water with me right on his heels. We emerge through the other side in an instant. Our brown robes, tied at the waist with hemp, and bast sandals are completely dry.
We continue on the same path, crest the top of a treeless ridge and find, spread before us, a small valley. A herd of over two hundred mustangs is grazing beside a meandering stream. In the near distance is an immense pole lodge, thirty teepees, and children and dogs of all sizes running slalom through the stakes, drying skins and small cooking and tanning fires. There’s a bigger fire in front of the entrance to the lodge tended by pre-adolescent boys dressed in pants made of animal skin, soft leather moccasins and no shirts to cover their already well-muscled chests and shoulders. Their long black hair cascades over their shoulders and backs, like George’s and mine.
There are several other men and women gathered around the fire—some sitting, others standing—in small groups of three or more, in earnest conversation. Some of them are Indians. This day there are maybe fifty of us and not one stranger—we’ve known each other for as long we can remember. I overhear my maternal grandfather say something about contributing $30,000 a day to the ongoing wormhole research. “Very soon, we should be able to do this in five dimensions.” ‘Soon’ is a relative term and only used here to convey the concept of progress.
Grover comes up to George and me. He’s working on a cattle ranch in what we now call Argentina. It’s 1602 and he’s perfected his Spanish. My father is 19 years old, tan, lean and fit.
There’s someone sitting behind a rough table perched on a tree stump, away from the others. George and I approach. It’s a young man, but I cannot yet tell who it is. There is bright glow around and in him. He’s writing something in a large book. I know him. I feel him. He’s so familiar too me. He’s part of me.
He raises his eyes from his work and we say hello and tell each other we love one another, as we do to everyone gathered here. I ask if he would like for me to bring any messages back. “Tell Brittany and Mom I love them and that everything is good here, and everything will be alright for them. I’m so happy you guys are doing the work with George and the others. Keep it up. It will help everybody.”
I tell him ‘I will.’
“And Dad, it is so cool that you are writing. It’s what you are supposed to do.”
My son looks well and happy. Jimmy and I don’t say ‘goodbye’—that word has no meaning here. George is back at my side. “It’s time to go.” We head back down the dirt path, step through the film of water and I begin to fly above the path. I’m alone. I land gently before the immense oak door. I walk through the portal, close the door behind me and begin the ascent up the staircase.
As I near the top I hear Judy Reeves’ voice. “Does anyone want to read their story? “ I open my door and climb back into the seat behind my desk. Diane is furiously writing on her pad, the fine tipped point of her purple Paper Mate pen ripping the fibers of the paper with a sound that is almost deafening.
is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.
was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002. A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English. Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.