Blocks, Whispers and Cheers from the Balcony

May 03, 2020 4 min read

In Anne Lamott’s beautiful book about writing, Bird by Bird, she says that when the dreaded writer's block arrives it is often because we are trying to force it and that instead we need to let the unconscious cogitate for a while. It means we need to refill our well and trust that work is being done behind the scenes. The unconscious is telling us to leave it with her for a while, to let her do her work. Lamott’s advice is to write 350 words each day while in the midst of a block to keep up the chops and stay with the commitment and habit of daily writing; but step back and take a break.


This week I came up against the same block every day and I was terrifically frustrated. I dug in and gave it all I had but that only seemed to make it worse, with stilted words cracking across the page in wont of meaning. I cannot write with heart when the walls are up and I was reminded of that this week.


I have had some sadness this week. A friend who was more part of our family than friend died last weekend from cancer. He was a second father to my sisters and me and also a best friend to my mother and my father, introducing them nearly 60 years ago. In recent years while he was battling cancer, each time I saw him he would tell me a story about my father that I didn’t know, wanting to infuse me with all of the knowledge he had about my Dad who died 15 years ago – like elders passing on the stories of ancestors. He was a last connection I had in body to my father but he was also much more than that.


When I learned of his death last Sunday, I had almost no reaction until two days later. Sometimes it takes me a bit longer than others to connect to what the news may mean. On Tuesday night at about 11pm the floodgates opened and I felt a deep sorrow at the loss and a gratitude too large to contain for Dave.


I spent the rest of the week following fragile threads of thought and slippery memories. I was trying to tell the story of Dave to my heart and soul, to cut them off at the pass, to close the circle for them a priori  so that the sorrow wouldn’t have to work its way through me. I had the data and was hoping that would be enough. My grand desire was that the 30 minutes I spent feeling it on Tuesday night would suffice.


I recalled the way he always smelled like soap, the beautiful clothes he wore, his shocking blue eyes, stories of his great and varied adventures, and his gentle physician manner. He was an old school gentleman, whip smart, and I loved him as a ship loves an anchor.


It got confusing in there because in all of that analysis, there was a soft whisper in my belly asking to be released instead. I would not be able to cut it off at the pass. I would need to let it move as it had to. The unconscious wanted to do some work and I was trying to push past her, through her, over her. If I was louder, then perhaps the whisper would die down. But, in the wise words of Sia:


There's a scream inside that we all try to hide
We hold on so tight, we cannot deny
Eats us alive, oh it eats us alive 


So I took Anne Lamott’s advice and stopped trying to write Dave’s story in my mind, the story of Dave in my life. I stepped away from the analysis to allow the unconscious to do its work, to give my heart the space to feel without telling it what to feel.


I thought of a meditation class I took years ago at Insight LA. That particular evening we were going to meditate on emotions, something I was loath to do because I was in the midst of a painful breakup. Some part of me thought that if I allowed myself to feel the emotions that they would overtake me and I would be a puddle on the floor at the end of it. I nearly missed that class, coming up with reasons that I couldn’t attend. But, as we know, if the reason is fear then into the fray we must go.


I remembered how that night went. About ten minutes into the half-hour meditation I felt a tear fall down my cheek. Then another. Slowly and tenderly the grief swirled through me, rose to find its way out, and then there was relief.


The word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin word ‘emovere’ which means to move out, to expel, to dislodge. And that is what happened that night in meditation class. While the emotion comes back, it comes back with less force each time we allow it to pass through. And anyway, how fortunate we are to have the courage to love, knowing all the while that loss is part of it.




I talked to my mother this morning and she told me about balcony people, a term I had never heard. These are the people in your life, dead or alive, who cheer you on and support you as you struggle toward who you know you can be. I thought of all my balcony people, some of you reading this are on that list. Also on that list is Dave.


Last night, as I was going to sleep, I thought of all of the wonderful men in my life who have cheered me on, my balcony people, as it turns out. A few tears slowly and tenderly fell as the grief swirled through me, rose to find its way out, and then there was relief.


Many of my balcony people are walking the earth with me now and a few have moved on. Among those, I imagine Dave hanging out with Dad, Grampie, Chuck, and Father Joe cheering me on now.


Dad: “Dave, you sure gave her a run for her money this week!”


Dave: “Gary, obstacles are good for her and look, she worked through it. We done good.”





Notes of Inspiration