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Dear Life: Memoir Writers Hold On, Let Go, and Bear Witness



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Sharon, a lesbian activist, reads a moving remembrance of a woman named Rita. Margie uses a flashlight to highlight the words on her pages, passing around her pencil illustrations. Phyllis reads about her husband catching a runaway horse by kneeling still and enticing it with a hand movement. She gets up to demonstrate what he was doing. "Could you all see that?" We could.

Nancy is next; she and Micky joined the group after the book was completed. It takes her a long time to dig through the tote bag of folders hanging off the arm of her wheelchair, and she apologizes. "I should have been more on top of this." She can't find the poem she wants, but picks two others. As soon as she starts reading, her breathy voice gains power. The first poem begins, "I measure time by the length of my hair," and ends, "When it rains, I taste its champagne." The second elicits such an impassioned response that Barbara Sarah trots upstairs to make copies for everyone.

Returning, she reads a piece about Rosh Hashana traditions and her evolving relationship to Judaism. Barbara's known for her earthy, comic riffs about body parts ("Dewlap" appears in holding on, letting go; the first one she wrote was about her bladder) but today's piece digs deeper. When Phyllis notes that Perri hated to miss today's group for services, Sharon offers, "I came because this is a life-giving experience in the spirit of the holiday." Heads nod, and someone echoes, "This is my church."

Craig reads about attending a food truck festival at Fiberflame. His piece begins, "I'm a little bit happy," which he attributes to pulled pork and beer. When he finishes, Abby flags a brief section that "goes soft in the middle," following up with a wide-eyed, "I didn't know they had pulled pork!" Everyone laughs.

Marjorie reads last, sharing a love letter to her late husband, her voice briefly beached by tears. "I always cry," she says with a no-big-deal shrug. In this room, it isn't. From Ruth's author bio: "Preparing an individual story to read to the group each week brings us the opportunity to share laughter and tears—both essential ingredients for healing."

No one can remember exactly when the anthology idea emerged. "We were all reading, and Abby said, 'God, this should be a book!'" is the closest anyone gets. It became a refrain: whenever a piece was especially strong, Abby would say, "Turn that in for the book." But nobody took concrete steps until a friend in OSP's Metastatic Support Group died.

"We said, let's not wait," Carol says. "Let's share the work and get it done." She, Craig, and Marjorie formed an organizing committee to research printing options. "Some of us operate from a more urgent place," Phyllis explains tactfully. "This group has many speeds, and the type A personalities swept along the slower ones, like a big wave."

Some of the book's pieces were chosen by Abby; writers were also encouraged to bring in work they especially wanted to print. Marjorie says, "It was important to us that it wouldn't all be about death and dying," and others concur. In fact, few of the pieces in holding on, letting go deal directly with cancer; some that do, like Carol's "The Wrong Line," are unexpectedly funny. Other topics range from childhood (Suzanne's "The Church Ladies") to marriage (Annie's poem "When Your Husband Leaves You with Every Section of the Times") and burial (Sharon's "Stopping Seven Times")—the whole gamut of lives fully lived.

"There's been a lot of singing in here, and laughing so hard we were all doubled over," says Abby. More than anything else, the work is honest. Renowned writer Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) wrote a book-jacket quote that says in part, "You will never hold a book that is richer in love, life, death, family, the human heart, and humanity."

"When you walk into a house called Oncology Support Project, you've already dropped a lot of pettiness," says Sharon. Phyllis nods, adding, "We're writing about scars we didn't want anyone else to know we had, and the showing of the scars allows them to heal."

Annie agrees. "Everybody's vulnerable. It's scary to admit how vulnerable you've been. It's hard to go deep. I said so to Abby, and she said, 'I don't see that you have any choice.' It blew the ceiling right off."

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