Dancing in my Mother's Slippers

1. Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers is a provocative and powerful title. Where did it come from?

Originally, the title was In My Mother’s Slippers, because after Mother died, I had the feeling I was expected, somehow, to take her place in the world. But as I healed, I realized that title wasn’t dynamic enough, didn’t show enough movement and change. Life is one long improvisational dance. I love dancing. We turn and flow and stop and double back and express ourselves. Mom and Dad were great dancers. One of my favorite childhood memories is of watching them waltz around our family room.

2. What was it like for you to write this book? Was it hard to go back into the journal? Did you see healing?

Writing this book has expanded my capacity for gratitude. I’m grateful that I kept the journal. Sometimes it was painful to read it. More often, reading my journal brought me into the experience again, but with a new point of view. I remember reading about a particularly challenging time and being aware, in that moment, that I wasn’t crying. Healing was present. Sometimes, as I was working, I’d go back into active grief, and even then, I knew it would never be as hard as it had been in the beginning. My feelings were, as my husband Lance says, part of The Procession, and I knew they would pass.

There is another aspect of creating the book from the journal that I want to mention. When I wrote the journal, I was trying to digest and understand my raw experience. The act of creating the book for a larger audience was my memorial to Mother, and a delicious awakening in me of a new art form. Dad was with me all the way. I shared sections with him, and we discussed how to handle various parts. He also loved to write, and he was a great storyteller. It was a precious sharing that we had around the transformation of the journal into the book. It was important to him that I share Mom with the world.

3. When did you actually start working on the manuscript?

I started transcribing the journal four and a half years after Mother died. I hadn’t re-read any of the entries before that. Once they were transcribed, I started my editing process.

4. Why have you left the year off the dates in your journal entries?

I want there to be a sense of timelessness about the book. I want people reading it in 2050—or 2150—to feel its relevance to them. Loss is a universal experience. I don’t want people to look at the book and say, “Oh, that happened a long time ago. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

You’ll also notice that I’ve included few descriptions of people in Dancing, few descriptions of our homes, gardens, vehicles. I want readers to imagine themselves on this healing journey, to plug their own details into the story.

5. How did you translate the immediacy and the emotion of your journal into what eventually became Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers? What was your process?

I had to make the language and the narrative work for readers—to explain who people were and add dialogue to show the flavor of our conversations. I started with about 750,000 words from my journal, and pared it down to about 75,000 words. I needed to simplify.

It is interesting to me how many people pass through our lives. Until I had to cut dozens of people out of the story, I don’t think I fully appreciated this. I also cut incidents and meanderings from the journal that weren’t relevant to the story I was telling.

6. Does time itself bring a measure of peace to the healing process, or do you think it was your spiritual journey that brought you peace?

I think both are true. With the passage of time, I was able to think of Mother without crying, to feel more level when I’d get a “zinger.” That’s what I call it when I come across a poem in my mother’s handwriting, or one of her recipes in my box, or a photo in an unexpected place.

But mindfulness was also an important part of my healing. I watched myself. I tried hard from the beginning to be attentive to my feelings and not to suppress them. I cried when I needed to, and I excused myself from activities that gave me no space to be present with what was going on inside me. Being willing to grieve was crucial.

7. Many people seem to expect that they will grieve for a year and then move on. What is magic about that length of time? Is it normal to grieve longer than that?

Once a year has passed, a mourner has experienced an entire cycle of holidays and other annual events. Sometimes a person thinks, At least I’ve made it through it all one time. It will never be as hard again. But it is certainly normal to grieve longer than a year.

In the Jewish tradition, the public period of mourning is a year-long prescribed grieving practice, which often ends with the dedication of the gravestone. But private grief goes on as long as it has to. Each year Jews mark the date of death of our loved ones by reciting the Kaddish, the prayer which praises God and asks for the blessing of peace. We recite this prayer in community, not alone. We expect grief to be a part of life. We’re not told to hurry up and get over it.

8. What surprised you about your grieving process?

Memory loss, disorientation. A failure of competence. I thought at one point that I was losing my sanity. I felt irrational and self-critical. I’d forget to do things. I’d lose things. Then I read in Therese Rando’s book, How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, that the behaviors I found upsetting in myself were well within the range of normal grieving behavior. That was deeply comforting.

9. Would Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers be meaningful for someone who wasn’t close to her mother? For someone whose mother is still alive? For someone whose mother died a long time ago?

Dancing has been meaningful to women and men who weren’t close to their parents. And yes, reading it can help in addressing anticipatory grief. People have mentioned to me that they, like me, feared the death of their parents even before their parents were ill. Reading Dancing can help people look at and come to terms with those fears. One friend who read the manuscript told me that, even though her mother had died thirty years ago, Dancing brought up unresolved grief she hadn’t known she carried with her.

I also believe that reading Dancing can influence a reader’s relationship with his or her own children. It provides a good opportunity to take stock and to make needed changes now, instead of waiting until the end of life.

10. What surprised you most about readers’ reactions?

My friend Georgia read the manuscript and asked if she could share it with her mother, Grace, who was approaching the end of her life. I sent the electronic file, so the text could be printed in a larger font, and Grace devoured it. I was astonished. I thought I was writing Dancing for the daughters. Then I realized that of course, Grace was a daughter, too, and still had feelings about her own mother’s death. But the most wonderful thing was that sharing Dancing prompted Georgia and Grace to talk about death and what they were experiencing, and what they were feeling, and they decided to share parts of that dialogue with me. That was a gift to all of us.

I was also interested and pleased to learn that men as well as women are drawn to the book, and that what I have written is relevant to losses other than death.

11. As you were finishing Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers, your father died. Did writing the book help you as you grieved for him?

Yes. Living in the constant presence of the manuscript helped me remember that I was capable of healing. That time would help. That mindfulness would help. The work held for me a promise. Even in the depth of my pain, I knew that I could heal, because healing always surrounded me—in the profound grief, and in the gradual and wondrous transformation.

12. What other observations would you share about grief in our American culture?

In mainstream culture, people often feel they are expected to get back to business, to return to work or school, to act as if they have put grief behind them, even within a few days of a life-shattering loss. But that really is an act. Failing to acknowledge grief is like stepping into the river at the base of Niagara Falls and thinking you won’t be swept away.

I remember the day I announced at a meeting with colleagues that I was leaving my job because I realized, after a year, that I needed to take more time to grieve my mother. People came to me after the meeting with tears in their eyes and said they wished that they had made that choice. One woman told me it had taken seven years for her to begin grieving her mother. I remember feeling that day that, in taking time to grieve, I was also grieving for all the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do their own grief work.

I think about how we deny the power of grief, and how we often ignore the opportunity it offers for personal growth. I look around me at the anger, despair, fear, illness, the imbalance of our society, and I suspect that many of the people I see acting out in pain and frustration are walking around with unresolved grief. Our lack of awareness is injuring us. This would be a healthier nation if we would face death, acknowledge our grief, do our grief work and move in our lives with the compassion that comes from that work.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Fayegail Mandell Bisaccia. All Rights Reserved. Design by LightWerx Media.
Sunset photo © 2006 Benjamin Fisher. Portraits by Shianna Walker, Georgia King, and Lance Bisaccia.
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