This week I’m going to do something for the last time. I’m not retiring, I’m just stopping. Most poets don’t retire, partly for money reasons but partly because the most creative years for artists are their 70s and 80s. Plus, when you love what you’re doing, why would you not do it? Making something out of thin air is incredibly enlivening.
I’m about to turn the age my mother was when she died: 67. The day after she died, of ovarian cancer, I began teaching a writing class for cancer patients at our local hospital. I thought of canceling that first Writing to Heal session on the grounds of bereavement, but then decided if I began to cry, I would at least be around people who understood.
That was 22 years ago. Most of my Thursday afternoons since then have been scheduled — first in the hospital, then, when space got tight, in various locations like my back deck, KVMR’s community room, the conference room of a local driving school, and finally on Zoom. I’ve made lifelong friends in this class. I’ve kept people of vastly different political views from fighting. I’ve watched remission, hair loss and regrowth, births, marriages, divorces, and 17 deaths.
I’ve been thinking of stopping for a couple of years, but never quite did. Then in May — on the anniversary of my mom’s death — I thought, suddenly, Wait a minute! 22 years?!? Enough is enough! I need my own time now, to see what will happen.
None of my current participants is at death’s door, and they’re expressing good wishes for my next adventure. I’ll give them my phone number but I’m betting they won’t need it. Long ago in business school I heard some good advice: “Do your best work, but don’t become indispensable.” There are other writing teachers in the world and other ways to boost your immune system besides my kind of expressive writing. One of these days — preferably not this year — I’m going to die, and while of course I hope people will miss me a LOT and read some of my poems, I don’t want anyone so bereft they can’t keep going.
Keeping going is the name of the game, with cancer and writing and cold-water swimming and everything else. But it’s important also to look at where you’re going, and why. Teaching this class is too routine, after 22 years, to surprise me. I need surprising, or I’ll turn into an old lady who just watches Swedish police shows on TV, Heaven forbid.
I can feel something stirring in my writer’s mind — a new idea or project — but it’s at the tadpole stage, I can’t really grasp it. This is one of the best and most mysterious parts of being a writer: waiting for what’s next to rise to the surface. One needs — I need — a lot of open time to make this possible. It’s a little like fishing: the still water at five in the morning and you in your favorite sweater watching the sky get light, being quiet, your pole straight, your line descending into that chilly blue, baited with commitment and excitement.
If you were ever in my Writing to Heal class, or worked with us at the hospital, or are the anonymous couple who funded my teaching for all these years, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.
Molly Fisk was the first Poet Laureate of Nevada County. She’s the author of three books of poetry and four books of essays, all available locally at the two SPD Markets among many other places, and editor of California Fire & Water, A Climate Crisis Anthology.
Editor’s note: This is her 558th radio commentary for KVMR-FM Nevada City, where she’s been heard on Thursday’s News Hour since 2005.