Lark Ascending: Turning darkness into gold
Winter, and the holiday season in particular, can be a difficult time. It’s dark and cold, and — perversely — we are expected to be jolly. During these shorter days and longer nights, many of us feel blue, as the organization Building Hope pointed out in an ad for several programs designed to combat seasonal depression. Studying the ad a few weeks ago, I noticed that Building Hope was offering a one-evening writing program called the Alchemist’s Workshop.
The program appealed to me: I write, I needed to get out of the house and see other human beings, and I was depressed.
But other contradictory arguments came to mind. Maybe attending this program would be a bad idea. What if I bumped into people I knew? Would that be weird or awkward? What did I really have to be depressed about, anyway (aside from the fact that my mother just died in September)? And the most flimsy excuse: The program was right during dinnertime. What if I got hungry?
After deciding to participate in the workshop, I discovered there was one more reason I didn’t want to be there: How does someone who is depressed, but does not want to appear depressed, actually behave in a group of other depressed people?
Fortunately, once the evening began, we quickly got down to writing, and I turned my attention away from this personal head-trip. Also, there were snacks.
The assignment was to choose a current, personally difficult situation and write about it three ways. First, from the gloomiest perspective; second from a neutral perspective; third, deliberately taking a positive or optimistic view of the situation. At the end of the exercise, people could volunteer to read their three versions.
One person wrote about the anguish of his breakup with a longtime girlfriend; another wrote about his job being eliminated right before Christmas; a third wrote about being arrested and wondered anxiously if any of us in the group would recognize her from mug shots in the newspaper. I wrote about the once-joyful activity of getting a Christmas tree, which this year filled me with sadness because, with my mother’s death, all my parents and grandparents are gone.
Here’s what I learned at the Alchemist Workshop: Yes, I did know some of the participants in the group. In fact, one person came up to me and said, “Do you write a column for the newspaper?” I answered nervously, feeling exposed, “yes.”
“I really liked that piece on Mister Rogers,” he said. The world did not come to an end with me being recognized.
And next, it is exhilarating to witness another person — or yourself — try to get at the truth of something confounding or intractably painful, to dare to be vulnerable in the presence of others. The courage it took each of us to work through our difficult stories filled me with hope, for myself and for humanity in general.
Lastly: it’s so important for each of us to tell our story. This is not the same as “owning your story,” a phrase that implies that your story exists outside of you, and you come along and take ownership of it. What is great and empowering about the stories of our lives is that we decide how to tell them. They exist as our creations. Take, for example, the workshop’s exercise of writing about a particular event from three vantage points. The truth is expressed in all three versions. And each of us has the right and the creative opportunity to choose which way we want to tell that particular story.
As I was leaving, one of the participants came up to me and said, “I am sorry about your mother. I had a terrible time growing up. From the way I see it, you are so lucky to have good memories, to have people who you loved enough to miss now that they are gone.”
This fellow writer gave me an unexpected gift, which I thought about as I walked to my car: There is always another angle from which to view your story.
Creating our stories as we see them is a way to take the chaos and the beauty of our lives and define for ourselves who we are and will be. It is how we take dark times and turn them into gold.
Editor’s note: For privacy’s sake, the identities and stories of participants in the Alchemist’s Workshop have been altered.
Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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