Writing into Heavy Feelings: Conception Abbey Cemetery and Basilica (PLWP Writing Retreat 2018)

36302987_2187481687935681_4531387245436862464_oIn June of 2018, I was fortunate to be able to facilitate our annual Prairie Lands Writing Project Writing Retreat again.  This year we had a great group of writers, and we were able to write in the conference room, in the cemetery across the road, and in the abbey’s beautiful basilica.

This year was my first time writing in this cemetery after having been at the retreat each year for the last five.  Cemeteries always stun me with their ability to provoke deep thinking, to plant seeds of deep writing that grow in the days to come.  This was also my first year attending Compline (evening prayers) at the Abbey, thanks to the guidance and encouragement of our fantastic Abbey guide, Diane.  It was a magical moment to watch so many robed monks gather around the statue of Mary behind the alter and pray, asking her to watch over them that night and to watch over the world.

Conception Abbey Monks at prayer
Photo from https://www.conceptionabbey.org/monastery/monastic-prayer-schedule/

I think this experience provided significant inspiration for the longer piece I wrote at the retreat and read at the read-around, one that had been sitting patiently in my heart since the springtime.  I called it “You Have To Hold Hands,” and it is about one of the treatment phases for my niece who is fighting leukemia.  Here are a couple of marathon bits that made it into the final essay:

9:47 a.m.: Abbey Cemetery

We sat in the tiny procedure room, Renae in the comfy chair, Sandi by her side, Julie and I on the bed.  Her head lay against the arm of the chair, a flowered headband partial crowning her not-quite bald head. 

Beside her, a nurse held a tiny bag aloft.  Tiny. Not even one tenth the size of a standard IV bag. Filled with milky fluid: precious t-cells extracted through a horrible huge tube in her neck from her chemo-swollen body, just three weeks prior.

10:23 a.m. Abbey Basilica

We prayed in the little procedure room, all in our own way.  Julie and I wore bright Hawaiian leis and tropical sunglasses. We were the T-cell Cheerleaders, we told Renae’s lead doctor. 

“Do you have a cheer?” he asked.

We did.  Once the infusion began, we started it up: “Let’s go, T-cells! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap). Let’s go, T-cells! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap). “

When the doctor told us that we didn’t want the T-cells to become too excited and to trigger serious side effects, we toned the cheer down to a whisper with golf claps: 

“Let’s go, T-cells! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap). Not too loud, though…(clap, clap, clap-clap-clap).” 

I’m grateful to my fellow writers for being such excellent writing companions for the weekend and for supporting me in my teary-eyed reading of that very personal piece. I ended up sharing it with my family, one of the most important audiences in the world.



  1. Appreciate: I appreciate the personal nature of the post. Thanks for being willing to include us through your blog.

    Notice: I notice you’ve changed the set up of the home page on your blog. I like the new tiled look. Feels cleaner/ more organized and highlights the photos. Definitely more visually appealing–nice job on that!

    Wonder: Visiting the monks during prayer sounds interesting. Do you plan on doing it again? I’d like to hear more about what that was like.

  2. Praise: I really appreciated the emotions in this piece. It felt raw – but then balanced by the t-cell cheers. I’ve been wondering about your niece since you mentioned her last week. Hope all is going well with her.

    I love the look of your blog! I really like how you can scroll through and see the different posts. I want to know more about how you accomplished that. It suits lazy readers like myself. I can easily look at the first page and select from a menu of topics!

    Question: Was it hard to read to you family? I imagine it being hard working up the courage. I’ve let my family read some of my things on my computer, but I would never have the courage to read it aloud to them. I’m not sure why that is.

    Polish: I wanted to know more about the retreat and the Compline.

  3. Second comment:

    It’s kind of spooky! Did you notice that when you scroll over the picture on your blog that it takes the picture from color to black and white? That was particularly effective for the cemetery picture!

  4. Writing about feelings is definitely difficult. You seem to have found some light within the dark during that trying time. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am amazed at the courage you showed when sharing it out loud with others. Plus, I loved the fact that you brought bright colors and fun into your niece’s room during such a difficult time.

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