Laura Lamm, our guest contributor today, wrote this essay as an example for her ENG 100 students at Methodist University where she teaches English. It is about her 2013 experience participating in our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice. Our 2014 workshop is open for registration.
As I cull through and edit almost 800 photos from the Lunes Cerro extravaganza we call Guelaguetza to share with you, I offer you this extraordinary piece of writing to enjoy for today!
My Failed Free-Write by Laura Lamm
Last spring, on the fourth day of the Oaxaca Women’s Writing Retreat, Robin [Greene], our writing coach, had passed around a bag of peanuts. Her only instructions had been “take one and don’t eat it. Well, at least not right away,” and she had laughed in that funny light-hearted way we had immediately loved hearing from her on our first day. Her lesson of this day was “truth starts small” when writing.
Some members of our group were lucky enough to get a whole nut, but some of us only got a half. Robin told us to examine our peanuts for a few minutes and write about them. Admittedly, while game for the exercise, I had thought how much can be said about half a peanut. I was surprised by the details the other writers in the group gave. Truly inspiring words flowed from their lips as they read aloud: crunchiness, smoothness, grooves, dimples, and salt flakes. Each woman had something astounding to say about the small world of her peanut, but I did not meet the challenge.
In fact, if I had been scored in a classroom on my attempt, I would have failed, totally missing any points given for following directions, falling way below the other women writers on the retreat. I would have been that girl in the back of the proverbial classroom who would make the teacher shake his or her head and later comment to a peer, “Poor child, she just doesn’t get it.”
Peanuts make me think of humid August dog days. The ones so bad that my mother would buy us ice-cold Cokes and bags of Lance salted peanuts, and we’d pour the nuts into the top of the bottle, making the Coke fizz until we covered the top with our hot mouths and drank, catching the peanuts with our tongues, stuffing them in our cheeks like squirrels. Small things, like peanuts, make me remember other things. Peanuts also make me think of elephants.
Robin could not have known about my fondness for Coke and peanuts or of my admiration for elephants when she had made the writing assignment. She could not have imagined that I had watched a television documentary, revolving around a herd of African elephants, the night before my flight to Mexico. The elephant herd, which had been large in number, was steadily decreasing because of a drought. That day in Oaxaca, where life was a string of perfect small truths to be discovered, I couldn’t focus my mind on my peanut half even for a brief time. My mind kept wandering to the ancient cow that had many daughters in her herd but had birthed a male that season.
Instead of the nut in front of me, I kept seeing her walking, searching for any water or food to be found. I sat in the safeness of my writing retreat, thinking about how that mother would have loved to have even this single half of a peanut for her calf. He had died that summer in the documentary. His mother had continued to grieve for his loss until the herd splintered into smaller groups that had gone on their way, because she would not leave him behind even weeks after his death. Her daughters and granddaughters stayed beside her until her death; then the eldest herded all of the surviving cows onto their primordial walking path, following the herd’s other females, for what she instinctively knew would be a better life just as her mother had done before her.
No, I don’t think I would have scored very highly on my free-write if I had been judged by an assignment’s standards, and it was lovely that on this retreat I didn’t have to worry about failure. My destiny was not predetermined by a rubric from a filing cabinet. Instead, I was afforded time to reflect on my truth.
I found that I thought not of peanuts or elephants. I realized that I am always emotionally torn by events that revolve around mothers and daughters. I thought of my mother who has led me until she can no longer do so. I thought of my daughter who I am trying to lead, but, like the granddaughters on the African plain, she is willful and head strong—not seeing the path of least resistance that I have already walked. One day she will make her own path because she finds no solace in mine.
In the end, the peanut did fulfill its purpose just as Robin had said it would. It gave me pause to think, and its small truth brought me full circle to a universal truth. As a daughter and mother, I am faced daily with many types of conflicts that all require resolutions; but no matter the pull of each problem, I put one foot in front of the other, on instinct alone at times. I win. I lose. I make a decision only to make another decision, avert this problem to face another. I stand in the face of many adversities. The greatest one being that no matter what I do, I will send my daughter out into an uncertain future just as my mother sent me.
Registration is Now Open