I first met Eleanor Vincent, memoirist, essayist, and award winning author, in a writing workshop at Esalen in Big Sur California. It was in December 1999, four months after my son Paul took his life. While I was just getting my writing fingers moving again. Eleanor was already writing the first parts of her wonderful memoir, Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story. We have been friends ever since.
And I am so pleased that Swimming with Maya was just re-released in paperback and eBook by my publisher, Dream of Things, this past February.
Join me in welcoming Eleanor Vincent to Choices as she discusses her life since Maya died, the writing of Swimming with Maya, her writing work now, and some of her favorite books, authors, and things to do on a Sunday afternoon.
MS: You have experienced one of life’s greatest tragedies. How can people who have experienced a personal tragedy find peace and meaning in daily life?
EV: I think it’s different for everyone, but in general the things that helped me most were:
- Excellent self-care and self-nurturance – eating well, resting, getting massages and pedicures, taking time to just be and not forcing myself to do, do, do.
- Getting support from people trained in bereavement, both psychological and spiritual. My therapist was a bereaved mother herself, so she really got it, and that was pivotal in my recovery. My spiritual mentor Rev. Margaret Stortz was also very supportive.
- Writing was a huge piece of my recovery. I think it’s very important to have a creative outlet and that could be anything from knitting or other crafts, to painting, to making music – whatever allows you to fully express yourself and your grief.
- Giving myself the gift of time. There’s an old bromide “Time heals,” but I don’t think the simple passage of time healed me. I had to be willing to do the work. Time just passes. In the end, I think love heals – and that could be anything you feel passionately about – over time I felt more love and less grief. I was just so grateful to have had Maya with us for almost 20 years. She was a gift. It’s important to understand that there is no such thing as “closure.” I’ll never get over losing Maya, but I’ve incorporated that loss into my life and learned to adapt to it.
MS: You wrote a beautiful memoir, Swimming with Maya, about your daughter and your experience of losing her. Tell us about that journey and who might benefit from reading your book.
EV: I think my book could benefit anyone because it’s about hope and resilience. Swimming with Maya is a love story – it’s about a young woman who loved life and a mother who loved her daughters, and lost one of them. As parents, we all have to let go of our children. When your child dies, that happens in one terrible wrenching moment. So the book is about the long journey of letting go, of healing, and of coming to terms with Maya’s sudden death. I’ve heard from many parents who have never lost a child that Swimming with Maya helped them become better parents by helping them to appreciate and treasure each moment with their child. Most of all, it’s a compelling story and, while parts are very tragic, parts are touching, or funny, or inspiring. It’s a good read, so I think anyone could relate to it on that level and benefit from it.
MS: What were some of the benefits to you in writing Swimming with Maya?
EV: At the beginning of the process, during the raw writing, I think it saved my sanity. It gave me a space and place to grapple with my feelings. As time passed, and I began revising the book and refining the way I structured it, I think it gave me a sense of control. When I lost Maya, I lost my future and my illusion that I had any control over my life. I was the mother of a gifted young actress and I counted on seeing her face on a movie screen one day. When that dream shattered, I had to create a new future, a new dream. Writing the book gave me a way to channel my dreams for Maya into a work of art that would be worthy of her, and to claim my own work in the world as a writer and an artist.
MS: You have also found a way to keep your daughter alive through organ donation. Please tell us about making the decision to donate her organs. How does that decision feel now after all these years?
EV: I recently met the daughter of the man who received Maya’s heart. Our gift to Fernando extended his life by 14 years, long enough for his daughter Olivia to graduate from high school and start her college career, all with a loving father at her side. She is so incredibly grateful that our gift as a family to her family changed all of their lives, including her brother’s and her mother’s lives, and even the lives and outlooks of extended family members. She recently had her first child, a girl, and she named the baby Maya. It is a tremendous honor to be able to participate in someone’s life that intimately, to actually change the course of a life, to save a life. Organ donation is a great privilege – it gave me hope when all hope seemed to be gone – and that continues through the years. My daughter Meghan met Olivia, and shared what it is like to become a mother, so the younger generation continues the same spirit of generosity.
MS: What should every woman know about becoming a mother beforehand?
EV: That it will be the hardest work you will ever do. That your heart will be broken in so many different ways you’ll lose count. That you will fall in love so deeply and never fall out of love no matter what your child does or says. That it will be the most fulfilling, heart warming, growth producing thing you will ever do. It will change you in ways you cannot now imagine.
MS: What is your writing life like now?
EV: I recently recovered from a pretty serious shoulder injury. During that six-month recovery period I couldn’t write at all because my shoulder was completely frozen. Even journaling for more than five minutes was impossible. So that was tough. But it taught me a great lesson – seize the moment. Put what is most important to you first on your list, not last. So I’ve begun a morning writing practice where I make writing the first thing I do. Some days it’s difficult. I show up late to work. But at least I know I’ve already done the most important thing. My writing has always been the way I supported myself – first as a journalist, and then as a corporate communications manager. When I committed myself to creative writing in my mid-40s, I had to learn to compartmentalize. I’ve always worked two jobs. The difference now is that writing is job number one. Writing is hard work, but it also brings me a lot of joy.
MS: The publishing industry is in a state of enormous flux. What should readers expect in five to ten years? Who will still be reading books and in what format?
EV: My two-year-old granddaughter Lucia is a dedicated reader. She has literally memorized several of her books and holds them on her lap and “reads” them with tremendous expression. She takes her favorite books to bed with her. I believe there will always be a place for books. More content will be delivered in electronic form, but many people like Lucia will continue to want to hold a printed book in their hands. As content migrates online, it draws new readers; people who perhaps did not feel books were accessible to them. Now they are. When you fall in love with a book, ultimately, you will want to hold it in your hands or give it as a gift. No one knows for certain what the future of publishing holds. But I have great hope for the future of books.
MS: Do you have a favorite author or poet?
EV: Too many to name, but here are a few. Jonathan Franzen is one of the great prose stylists working today – his novel Freedom blew me away. I love anything by Ann Patchett, particularly Bel Canto, her novel, and her memoir Truth and Beauty. I love the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk – in particular his novel, Snow. Also Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient, Divisadero, and any of his poetry. I also love the poetry of Ellen Bass, Louise Gluck, Kay Ryan, Chana Bloch, Jorie Graham, and Robert Haas. Lastly I will mention the work of Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who won the Nobel Price in 1928 for her trilogy, Kristen Lavransdatter, the most amazing book about motherhood ever written. I reread it every two years. It always makes me cry. I learn something new each time I read it. Who knew there were feminists in twelth century Norway, the time period of the novel?
MS: Do you have a favorite spiritual leader and what has been his/her influence on you?
EV: Again, there are many. Perhaps the most influential has been Shunryu Suzuki, who brought Zen practice to the West, and founded the San Francisco Zen Center. His book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, profoundly affected my meditation practice.
MS: What are your favorite things to do on a Sunday afternoon?
EV: I love lazy Sunday afternoons, although perhaps what I love to do does not sound so lazy. I love to swim laps and bask in the sun. Another favorite activity is hiking in the giant redwood groves above Oakland where I live. Brunch with my daughter Meghan, her husband Todd and Lucia is another favorite Sunday activity. When Downton Abbey starts again, you’ll find me glued to the TV screen on Sunday evenings.
MS: Please add any thoughts about your life, your writing, your family that you’d like us to know.
EV: My writing seems to be reaching a new level, and I feel very happy about that. I currently have three essays out in anthologies, and each of them is a strong piece of writing in different ways. I’m currently working on a new introduction to Swimming with Maya, with the goal of bringing out an e-book and a paperback within the next several months. I have another memoir I’m working on revising – about a midlife decision to live in a cohousing community that ran off the rails with poignant and hilarious results.
I love being the mother of a fabulous daughter, and I double love being a grandmother. As Anne LaMott says, it’s the bonus round. My son-in-law has become a real son to me, and since I never had a son, that’s been wonderful. Our little family brings me great joy and the satisfaction of seeing life come full circle. My new ambition is to live long enough to see Lucia bounce my great grandchild on her knee!
Thank you so much, Eleanor for being here with me today.
Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story, traces the life and death of her 19-year-old daughter and the subsequent donation of Maya’s organs and tissues. Published in paperback and eBook by Dream of Things, Swimming with Maya portrays a mother’s struggle to recover after a devastating loss and shows how the bonds between donors and recipients can have a positive impact on grief recovery. It was a finalist for the Independent Publisher of the Year Award.
Eleanor’s essays currently appear in At The End of Life: True Stories About How we Die, edited by Lee Gutkind; This I Believe: On Motherhood; and Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs. Other work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Five Fingers Review, The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers and magazines. Her essays, poetry and short fiction have appeared in a variety of anthologies, including The Santa Barbara Review, Across the Generations, and The Napa Review.
She is the recipient of a Community Service Award from the California Transplant Donor Network for her outreach work with organ donors and recipients. Eleanor has also been recognized for writing excellence by a Woman of Promise Award from the Feminist Writers’ Guild and a Mary Merrit Henry Award from Mills College, where she received her MFA in Creative Writing in 1995.
You can find out more about Eleanor at her website.