workshops at the shelter: aka, what we write about when we write about avocados

The rule is this: write fast. No thinking allowed, no revising, no stopping. The rule is to write fast and only for a few minutes at a time. It’s important not to wander into the everyday stuff that takes up all the space in our heads. Especially now. For the length of this workshop we are not given over to thoughts of everyday muck, nor do we dwell on the why of why we live in a shelter— why they live in a shelter. I’m a volunteer. I can go home.

They choose their own notebook, their own journal for the writing exercises. People donate dozens, all of them in a variety of colours and sizes, and this is a big part of the workshop, this gift of blank pages. They take their time choosing, some have difficulty with decision.

For the writing, we use visual prompts and random words, things like cuticle, dragon, avocado, and the women always go Avocado? For fuck’s sake, we’re running for our lives, do you know how hard it was to leave, to come here, to not have the first clue about what happens next, because we don’t know what to do because all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever been told, is that we’re stupid and worthless and all we’ve ever done is give away our power because we believed, still believe, we’re stupid and worthless, because we’re deflated, broken, so fucking broken, and because he threatens suicide unless we come back, threatens to kill our dog, mess with our kids, he’ll find us he says, so why the fuck are we writing about avocados when all we can think about is what’s happening to our dog, because we couldn’t take our dog, we didn’t have a choice because this was the day we had the strength to make the move and it might not come again and so we just ran and it doesn’t make sense to be writing about avocados when all we want to do is cry, to replay it all over and over in our minds, the way it started, the way it was only emotional in those days, he has a temper, sure, but he loves me, he loves the kids, he always says he’s sorry, and how this time was always the last time, the last black eye, the last broken arm… he promised, he cried, he begged, because he’s really just a teddy bear underneath, he is so in need of love and we need to be needed, what else do we have? And you’re telling us to write about avocados? Why? Tell us why.

This isn’t what they say out loud, no one person has ever said it all out loud, but it’s there with every new group, in the expression on their faces, the impatient tap of a foot, the slump of their boredom, the question why?

And so I tell them: I don’t know… let’s see why.

And remember, I say, write fast, don’t think, don’t revise, and I’m amazed, every time, that they pick up their pens and begin.

And what happens is that avocados take them to the colour of a sweater they once loved or hated, which reminds them of the aunt who knit the sweater and that freezing night it rained and they all played Clue and somebody made popcorn with sugar instead of salt… and it goes on from there.

And this small memory always comes as a big surprise as they break the cycle of everyday thoughts, even for a short time. Not only that but they often tap into a part of themselves they’ve never shared with anyone because they didn’t think it was important.

And this is where the magic happens: when they read their work out loud and realize people are listening and laughing and crying and for a moment it occurs to them that they matter, that they are so much more than their present circumstances, so much more than what they’ve been told they are.

And so the woman with missing front teeth writes about shelling peas during a time of severe abuse, how the garden was her refuge. Another remembers her mother’s stew pot, the colour and texture, the smell of pork and cabbage, the way it felt to warm her hands on it. She says she hasn’t thought of that for twenty years, been too busy on the streets, making a living.

The woman who writes about leaving home at thirteen, the way she pauses and looks up to see if you’re shocked and how in that half second you can see that thirteen year old kid in her eyes.

A woman who was working as a trader in the NYC office of Merrill Lynch on 9/11 writes about how she left the building minutes before the plane hit, how she remembers bodies falling. She has the idea she made eye contact with some of them. She had a life until then, she writes, a career. But after that she fell apart, nightmares, survivor guilt; she took refuge in drugs. She’s all bones now and her face is scarred and covered in scabs. She says one of the great things about the shelter is that no one cringes when they look at her. She says that this group, the writing, the sharing of stories is the first time she’s felt joy, the first time she remembers smiling in years.

A 31 year old woman with six kids tells us about something called fricot, a New  Brunswick comfort food, and a former journalist with a black eye gives instructions for making a no-fail pot roast she swears will melt in your mouth.

The young woman with seven kids who has driven across the country.

The 17 year old who writes about praying for a baby so she’ll have someone to love her.

The woman who writes: I remember the soft hum my mother makes while baking.

The woman who writes: I want to acquire the skill of being able to say the difficult things.

The one with pink hair who writes about peace…peace be with you, she writes, peace out, I wish I had a piece of blueberry pie.

The teenager who writes about arriving at the shelter at one in the morning, alone and scared and how the next day was her birthday and how the shelter staff and residents surprised her with a cake that afternoon and how she’s still in awe that anyone could be so nice.

And the woman from India who, through an interpreter, tells us about a happy childhood, playing tennis, her mother’s cooking and the mango tree outside her bedroom window and then how, in Canada, she was essentially a prisoner in her home, beaten by her husband, not allowed to go outside or talk to anyone for six years.

From a selection of visual prompts that I bring in and place on the table… a button, Canadian Tire money, a stone, a crayon… a woman picks the bar of soap and, in tears, describes the hugs of a grandmother who smelled of Ivory. And in another workshop, on another day, another woman picks the same bar of soap and writes about how when she was five or six, her father asked her to have a shower with him, and how it turned out to be… in her words… not a normal shower. She reads her piece without emotion, the only tears are ours.

The woman who chooses the stick and I immediately think how ridiculous of me to bring a stick. You never know what will trigger bad memories, but a stick? That pretty much screams poor choice. And yet. The woman who chooses the stick writes about how one day in the park with her kids her son picked up a long thin branch and at home snapped it into four pieces and said This is us, we’re broken, but we’ll always fit together. She still has the pieces and writes how she plans to mount them on the wall above everyone’s bed if they ever find a home.

I bring the stick to another workshop and the woman who chooses it writes about the beauty of trees without leaves.

This is the part I never get used to. These women who’ve just done possibly the most difficult thing they’ll ever do, leave their homes, almost always with nothing, their abuser’s voice still ringing in their head, telling them if they walk out that door I’ll kill you or someone or something you love, and it will be your fault they say. They won’t be accountable for what they do. You’ve been warned, they scream, it will be your fault.

And yet… they write about the beauty of trees without leaves.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that even though they don’t know each other and will only share bedrooms, the kitchen, the TV room and smoking area in this shelter for a few weeks, a couple of months, they have an uncanny ability to feel each other. I marvel at how they know exactly what to say and when, or when to do no more than silently pass a box of tissues down the line.

One afternoon, close to the end of a workshop, after we’ve been writing and sharing stories for an hour and a half, I put out the visual prompts for one last exercise. A woman who has an easy laugh and leans forward to hear the stories of others, chooses a red feather and writes about a daughter who committed suicide two months earlier. No one in the room had any idea. She smiles as she reads, knowing how her words will affect us but wanting somehow to keep it light, to not become a downer. Her daughter, who is now an angel, she writes, loved to collect feathers and had this idea of maybe opening a shelter for women called Free to Fly.

And the woman who can’t decide between the prompt “I remember…” and “I believe” so I decide for her, I suggest she use I remember and she groans and starts writing and when she’s done, she drops her pen and covers her face, her shoulders shake with tears and I say how sorry I am, that it was a stupid prompt, that I should have given her I believe instead and she says, no, that she needed to do this, she needed to see it, she says, to remember, and then she reads out loud all the remembered things, the smell of her mother’s Exclamation perfume, her child’s birth, the love, the song, the dance, the chardonnay, the pain and the hunger, the strength she needed, the power her ex held, the day she changed, she remembers the money, she writes, the death, the rebirth. I remember never forgetting.

The women named Dylan and Raven, Cheyanne, Sue and Brenda, some of them tough as they get, who cry when they write about lilacs.

And the women not mentioned, and those who have yet to leave their homes, who stay because he is her family, because For Better or For Worse. Because to leave is failure; because she came from a broken home and doesn’t want her kids to come from the same place. Because she will be seen as pathetic for having stayed so long so it’s better to stay even longer and not let anyone know.  Because she looks fine and manages to function even though she is so messed up emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically she can’t even see straight but still, it’s easier to hope than leave, so she hopes he will be in a good mood today, and when he isn’t… it’s too late again.

And the youngest of women, no more than a girl, who chooses a dark brown feather and writes about the elders looking down from the eagle’s nest, how grateful they are to those who have come after them, who continue to tell the story of their people. She can hear them, she writes…

I can hear them. Can you?

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This essay originally appeared in The Malahat Review,  (Summer, 2018)
The shelter’s writing program has not been running since covid. I think of the women often, the women who make the hard choice of coming here to save their own lives, who with other women and children build a community, and who eventually create a new world beyond these safe walls… who knows where and how.
I think of those who because of covid no longer have easy access to safety.
I think of them often.
And I miss writing with them… and talking… about avocados.

♦♦