Meeting Memories with Our Senses
a writing prompt & poem + Writing through Grief + September Writing Hour
Welcome to Writing in Company. Each week I share some words and a writing prompt, meant to be jumping-off points for you to write about what matters. Use the prompts however you like—to journal, to draft thoughts for your own writing project, as meditation or prayer ideas, or for another creative endeavor. If this one doesn’t resonate, take a look back through the archive for one that does. Grab your pen and paper, and let your words loose on the page.
Last month in her Substack newsletter Sayable, Lore Wilbert shared a photo and story about a tiny island chapel in one of the Saranac lakes in the Adirondacks of New York. Her brief description of a visit was accompanied by this photo from Instagram.
Instantly, I was transported over thirty years and 800 hundred miles. I wrote this in the comments:
I think I preached my first ever real live sermon in that little chapel in the summer of 1990. I was serving as a seminary student intern at a camp in Saranac Lake, and remember being paddled in a canoe to get there. A magical place!
The memory arrived with a tickle for each of my senses.
The wide open sight of trees and sky through the window behind the pulpit.
The sounds of a small congregation singing, and the creak of the wooden floor and pews.
The touch of the black flowered skirt I wore, damp at the hem from the water at the bottom of the canoe.
The smell of pine and fir trees as wind rustled through them.
The taste of herbal tea shared with me—almost too nervous to drink it.
I haven’t thought about that Sunday morning for decades. Still, the memory of it is strong, even though it took me an hour of internet sleuthing to recall the name of the camp (now defunct) where I worked for a whole summer.
I was 24 years old, and still not sure what I was doing with my life. I was a year into my seminary education, and loving my studies. I knew I was in the right place to learn what I wanted to learn—but why? And to what end?
I had a vague notion of working in retreat ministries, like the ones that had been formative for me as a young person. So I found myself this internship at a less-than-busy church camp where I mostly did office work, listened to The Roches on repeat in my garage apartment, and tried to avoid getting tetanus or eaten by a bear. I was lonely and bored. My supervisor’s marriage was about to implode, and he gave me a middling mid-summer review because I didn’t hang out with his family enough. My friends were doing real ministry in actual churches—had I wasted my summer?
When the chance to preach and lead worship on Chapel Island arrived, I jumped at it. I polished one of my few sermons from my single preaching class and tried to keep the typewritten pages dry in the canoe on the way over. The small gathering of worshipers listened generously and sang enthusiastically. One of them said afterward, “You should do that more often.” I wondered then if they meant that I needed more practice—which was certainly true. I think now that they heard the first echoes of my voice—the one I was just beginning to find.
Here’s one of the songs I listened to that summer. Meeting the memory of Chapel Island brought it back, and I heard it in an entirely new way with 30+ years of perspective.
the time has come for me to speak
uh oh the time has come
and while the silence picks on me
I pray to not be dumb
so I am hunting for the words
just wait til I find some
I need some syllables do you
know where to get them from
when I am in my house alone
my speeches take a week
but from my lips when you are near
a sound will seldom leak
when I was a little girl
I coined a mighty text
looking back I blush to hear
what I'd come out with next
is now the time for me to speak
but what if they talk back
o when I open up my beak
let’s hope that I can quack
and if I do look out beware
the truth is hard to take
And everything for all I care
can jump into a lake
—words & music by Maggie Roche
a writing prompt
This gorgeous poem and prompt have been hanging around in my drafts folder for almost a year. I’ve used the poem online and in person with a couple of groups, so if you’ve written with me, it might be familiar. It’s worth using again. Memories expand and change and this kind of prompt can expand and repeat along with them—like that one old Roches tape you played that summer years ago when you were lonely and a little lost, but a new direction was just ahead and you didn’t know it.
What memory will rise up to meet you today, and what will it bring with it?
Sometimes a memory arrives
with its own soundtrack—
in this case a woman’s choir
repeating again and again the words
deep peace. Sometimes a memory
comes with instructions for locations,
for instance: Best remembered
while walking alone in autumn leaves.
Or perhaps: Don’t remember
while on the phone with an insurance agent.
Sometimes a memory asks you to feed it.
It asks for ice cream, for chai tea,
for black bean soup. It asks to feast
on hours of undivided time.
Sometimes a memory convinces you
it is more than a memory. Proves
it is a part of you. Like breath.
Like tears. Like skin. Like your heart.
Let a memory surface, then write about the sense memories around it—the sights, sounds, touch, smells, and tastes of it.
Writing through Grief - a fall workshop in October
There are two spots left in my four-week writing workshop for anyone who is grieving. Whatever or whomever we are grieving, and whether our loss is old and familiar, or still fresh and raw—writing in company with others can help get our swirling thoughts out of our heads and onto the page, and put us on a path toward remembering what matters.
We’ll gather on Zoom on four Tuesdays in October, the 3rd, 10th, 17th, and 24th, from 7-8:30 Eastern. I keep these workshops small so we all have time to write and read as desired. No writing experience is needed, and grammar and spelling don’t count.
Paid subscribers (thank you!) can join for a 25% discount. A separate email has gone to you with a discount code. Let me know if you need it sent again.
September Writing Hour - this Saturday, September 30 at 4 pm Eastern
My next live writing hour on Zoom for paid subscribers is this Saturday at 4 pm Eastern. If you want to write in company with others, you are welcome to join us. You can upgrade your subscription for a month ($7) just to try it. A separate email to paid subscribers will go out with the link, or you can find it on my Substack tab called Writing Hours. Let’s write together.
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Let me know what you think about the prompt, or come back and add some of what you write in the comments.
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