Planting to heal

Sweet peas and succulents / photos by Jan Haag

So much of my life has come to this: sharing with others the power of writing to help heal the most difficult things thrown at us. Deaths of loved ones. Illness and pain. Loss of every kind. Grief of every kind. I’ve said for years that every writing group turns into a grief and loss session for at least one writer. We have a lot that needs healing. And one of my great joys in life is running writing groups that allow people to write what needs to be written, and, in tiny increments, not only begin to heal what’s troubling them but also to begin to turn it into art.

Jill Batiansila (right) gives advice about how to photograph the succulents in a newly planted teacup.

I recently began offering a monthly writing group in Elk Grove, California, for a nonprofit called Together We Heal, which an amazing woman named Jill Batiansila set up to help people in grief. She considers herself a “professional griever,” having lost her biological father when she was 16 months old. Together We Heal is Jill’s way of “creat[ing] space for people struggling with loss in its many forms and equip them with tools to build a life filled with joy,” as it says on the website.

They offer a grief support group, yoga, a walking wellness class, an art class and my writing group, among others—all for free.

Jill and I were introduced last year through a mutual friend, Margo Fowkes, who runs a website called “Salt Water,” for “those who have lost someone they can’t live without.” Margo, too, is a professional griever, having lost her 21-year-old son Jimmy to brain cancer in 2014. Margo thought that Jill and I needed to know each other, and she was right.

“Let’s host some writing groups,” Jill proposed, and I liked that idea.

Getting tea and cucumber sandwiches

Honestly, the writing groups got off to a slow start, not helped by a waning pandemic. But this week seven people showed up at a church in Elk Grove to write with Jill and me, which was glorious. Several of them were new to writing in a group, a little nervous, which is not unusual. My job is to put people at ease so they can write what needs to be written, and, if they’re comfortable, read it. All we tell them is what we like, what stays with us and what is strong about the writing, as prescribed by the AWA method I’ve used for years. Everything is kept confidential, we don’t ask questions, and we treat everything as fiction—even if we hear the first person “I” in someone’s writing.

Though newcomers don’t feel very confident, there’s always some fine lines and phrases that pop out that I’ll ask to be read again, as do other listeners. Almost no one likes what they’ve just written, I tell people. But other people hear our words differently, and they do hear the good stuff that we can’t yet discern. When they tell us what they honestly like and what’s strong, we can decide later what, if anything, we want to do with that writing. So much of what I do stays in my journal or on the laptop where I write. And that’s just fine.

The day after the writing group, Jill hosted the first Honorary Mother’s Day Tea to honor departed mothers, grandmothers and other important women. Jill served tea, her homemade cucumber sandwiches and yummy cake. But she also brought small succulents to be planted in donated teacups. Jill and her stepfather had drilled each teacup with a small drainage hole, and each woman filled at least one cup with dirt (as well as drinking tea from one of Jill’s collection of cups) and succulents that spilled over the edges like lacy green tendrils.

Planted teacups

The women—one of whom who had recently lost her husband—seemed happy to chat quietly and plant and drink tea, and I watched no small amount of healing taking place at Stone Lake Farms outside Elk Grove where Jill and a team of volunteers raise flowers to give away to people in grief. They will toil on Wednesdays (and welcome new volunteers, too) through early fall to grow flowers from seeds in three long rows, coming several times a week to tend and harvest what blossoms. The rows are bare now, but it won’t be long before they’ll be overflowing with flowers of all kinds.

If this isn’t important life work, I don’t know what is.

The rows on the farm that will soon blossom with blossoms.

The breeze picked up and turned the afternoon cool. Still, you could see the delight in the women’s faces and feel the lightening of their spirits as they tamped down the soil and decorated the soil in the cups with blue glass pieces. (Thanks to bereavement expert David Howell for reading poems and providing those bits of glass and rocks.) It was such a pleasant place to be, and everyone left with a teacup succulent to share or to keep.

“They do well with a little neglect,” Jill said about the succulents. “They don’t need much water. Just a little now and then and a little sunlight.”

Water and sunlight and the kindness of others—not neglect at all, but a recipe for caring, which Jill and the Together We Heal folks do so very well.

Planting teacups with succulents at the Together We Heal Mother’s Day tea.

About janishaag

Writer, writing teacher, editor
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