“You must learn to live on fault lines.”
― Suleika Jaouad,Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, 2021
|My childhood and teenage years were spent growing up in Northern California, a life that included annual water rationing during summertime, seasonal forest fires and the expectation that periodically, the earth could move beneath our feet, something which had little to do with a sudden jolt of teenaged romance. The occasional movements of the earth were due to the sliding boundaries, the fault lines that define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has many of these fault lines, and sometimes, as witnessed in the Loma Prieta quake of 1989, significant upheaval and damage–even loss of life—occur.|
Living on the fault lines is not something Californians have to learn; it’s what they do. But the periodic upheaval created by the “fault lines” is an apt metaphor for what happens in our emotional lives when unexpected trauma or life-threatening illnesses occur. In those periods of stress and anxiety, old emotional wounds can also make their way to the surface, adding to the emotional challenges facing you in the midst of a new life crisis.
In 2007, I began teaching creative nonfiction writing for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. My first course was one of several other offerings, and I titled my course “Writing from the Fault Lines: Writing to Heal,” a title that lasted for three years, until expressive writing gained a foothold in public popularity. To distinguish it from the many and varied writing workshops that seem to blossom everywhere, the course was re-named “Transformative Writing.”
Now many years later, I live far from California, having returned to Toronto in 2017. I no longer teach for the UCLA program, but I continue to lead expressive writing groups for cancer and heart patients. This past weekend, while working with an inspiring group of young adult cancer survivors, the Young Adult Cancer Canada “YACCtivists,” I re-read portions of Suleika Jaoaud’s extraordinary and thoughtful cancer memoir, Between Two Kingdoms: Life Interrupted. I paused when I read her sentence, “You must learn to live on fault lines.” The young adult survivors representing YACC had definitely learned that lesson—and then some.
I thought back to the time the word “cancerous” was spoken to me in a physician’s office in California. My husband and had returned to California after nearly 26 years in Canada, only to run headlong into a family crisis full of resentment, accusations and the losses of my parents: my father had died of lung cancer and my mother was lost to Alzheimer’s disease. At the same time, I was overseeing a difficult and emotional downsizing of a nonprofit organization while trying to navigate the unexpected familial acrimony. Writing was my refuge. I filled page after page in my notebook with disbelief, questions that couldn’t be answered and even some misplaced sense that I must have brought on the cancer myself. Yet my initial outpouring soon gave way to the deeper wounds, to losses and hurt I’d amassed in trying—and failing—to deal with the estrangement from my two siblings. My “real” story was not about cancer; it was what lay beneath the surface, pressures within my emotional interior begging to be released.
I have often witnessed similar struggles for some individuals in my writing groups. The experience of a life threatening illness can unearth other, unresolved, feelings. Painful memories or traumatic events of the past can be triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, and as they rise to the surface, they too are expressed in what gets written. Writing our healing stories often goes well beyond the experience of serious illness as some plumb the depths of their lives, bringing into the open what they were not able to do before.
Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you are the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life,
already spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for?
From: “Fault Line” by Robert Walsh (in Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual), 1992.
Emotions can inspire us or hold us hostage. Negative emotions—anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness—accumulate, just as stresses along the earth’s plates. They weaken our ability to fend off illness, depression or disease. Writing allows us, if we let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what we feel and why, and begin to understand or even forgive ourselves and others. It is in the act of writing and sharing our stories that we release the pressure of old wounds, that we begin to heal.
Writing Suggestion: This week, write from your own fault lines. Go deeper in your writing. Explore those sometimes difficult and painful life experiences that still linger beneath the surface.