DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Saying yes, and writing again

SUCH A PLEASURE to talk with my friend Alice after a series of emails. Hearing Alice Derry’s voice on the phone is like hot tea with honey.

Alice, formidable poet and professor, is generous to the core. She’ll give a free, public Studium Generale talk in the Little Theater on Peninsula College’s Port Angeles campus at 12:35 p.m. this Thursday, and then guide a free workshop.

The talk, scheduled months ago, has her reading from her essay and others in the new book “Widows’ Words,” a collection of writings by women from all over the country.

After the hour-long program Alice will give the writing workshop for people who have lost a spouse or other significant person in their lives. To join, contact organizer Kate Reavey at [email protected] or 360-417-6268.

When Alice first told me she might do this reading, she wasn’t so sure it would appeal. “It seems like a sob event,” she said last spring.

“You’re so direct,” I replied, and we laughed.

Alice’s mate of 33 years, Bruce Murdock, died suddenly of heart failure in 2014. During the ensuing months, she remembers, she hated poetry, hated writing. All of it seemed meaningless.

Instead, “I self-medicated with novels from the 19th century,” from Dickens to Austen and George Eliot. These tomes were as far from her own life as she could get.

Alice also went walking. Solace awaited in the mountains, in being alone with the trees. She felt a kind of union with the animals and plants up there.

Eventually Alice returned to writing; her friend Tess Gallagher told her about the then-nascent “Widows’ Words,” subtitled “Women Write on the Experience of Grief, the First Year, the Long Haul and Everything in Between.” She penned a piece for it titled “The Most Precious Fit,” drawing on the journal she kept after Bruce’s death and on C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed.” Ironically, that Catholic author showed Alice, who’s not at all religious, how his path had matched hers.

Her essay is rich in truth and detail. And while I was expecting it to be hard going, it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve read all year. “Most Precious” shines out from the middle of the book, surrounded by writings of women young, old and in between. Titles include “See! I Told You So” by Mimi Schwartz, “Make Lemonade?!” by Lisa Menn, “Becoming Maggie” by Maggie Madagame and “Ten Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died” by Debby Mayer. Each grapples with the question of how to continue life after losing a part of yourself.

“I’ve never said yes to an essay prompt before,” Alice told me, adding she’s still amazed that she chose to participate this time. “Widows’ Words” is available from your local independent bookstore, on the shelf or via special order.

A year and a half ago, Alice added, she wouldn’t have wanted to give a public reading. Now “I think I can say some things that might be helpful or interesting. One helpful thing, I think, is the idea that you have to go through the whole process. … You can’t dodge it. If you dodge it you’ll have a worse experience down the road.”

After walking through the fire, you are a different person.

“One day at a time is how I’m living these days,” Alice told me. And she has nearly completed another book of poetry: her ninth. This time the words descended on her, and she wrote them down.

This fall has been filled with poems, memories — and beauty. Alice is able to notice it now.

“You’re driving up,” she said, “and suddenly, there’s this beautiful red tree right in front of you.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Nov. 20.

Reach her at [email protected]

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