You wouldn’t hear much these days about the Seven Deadly Sins, unless some aspiring social media “influencer” transformed them into Seven Deadly Sins that will Hamper Your Career—or some other impossibly simplified, allegedly self-helping pablum that was then shared on some garbage-filled social channel, receiving “likes” from thousands.

Well. I’ve already digressed, and we’re just getting started.

Returning now to our regularly scheduled program: I recently got reacquainted with one of the Super Seven, we might call them. Her name is Envy.

There was a time, not long ago, when Envy visited regularly, and I got to know her pretty well. You might know someone like her. Envy never fights her impossibly curly hair. She eats the occasional donut, yet never gains weight. She has a doting and faithful husband who laughs at her jokes, regularly brings home a paycheck, and will share in-depth conversations about a favorite Americana artist. Envy drives a sexy, late-model convertible, and nothing ever goes wrong with it. She travels a couple of times a year to exotic, sunny locations with smiling family, leaving the rest of us to admire, or resent (depending on the day), her Facebook vacation photos

And Envy’s powers go deeper, to more important, heart-rending matters. She has all the time she wants to spend with her family, whenever she chooses or may be needed. Envy never endured the gut-wrenching realities of looking for a job, and she never has too much month at the end of her money.  She is never afraid of being alone when she is old.  Most importantly of all, Envy never lost an adored family member to cancer.

Yep, Envy hung around a lot, during some tough times, until gradually I got sick of her. Maybe certain life changes opened my eyes wider to the value of things I had not held dear enough, or perhaps other vices just demanded my immediate attention. Either way, I realized I hadn’t seen Envy in quite some time, when suddenly, a few weeks back, she returned. Unannounced.

It was time for a much-needed break from the office, when a friend at work mentioned she was taking off at the same time. “Taking my grandkids to the beach,” she crowed. “Rented a place right on the water, where we can walk to great restaurants. Going on to Disney World from there. I can’t wait.” Hope it’s a blast, I responded, not as cheerfully as I might have, beating a swift path down the hall and out of sight before she could ask me what i was doing with my vacation. The answer wasn’t going to sound like much, in comparison.

There are indeed many blessings in life these days, but a beachfront condo and Disney junket funded by me for me and the grandkids was not one of them—-at least (she qualifies, optimistic to the very end), not in present circumstances. So, I went back to my office for a private pout and the chance to wish in solitary self-pity that I could bestow such wonders. I shut the door and turned around to see Envy reclining easily in my chair, her high-heeled, embroidered yellow cowboy boots propped up on the desk.

Get out, I began, with less ferocity than I might have.

“I just dropped in to ask about your grandchildren,” she observed, in musical tones. “How are things going?”

Get out! This time, I shouted.

“Okey dokey,” she acquiesced, easing her way to the door. “But I expect we’ll bump into each other again soon.”

A few days later, it was time for a Vacation Day with G-Ma, 2017-style, and this year’s episode was strictly local. My daughter dropped off Sis for a day with me while her brother was off on a camp expedition, and we blasted off in pursuit of Fun on the Cheap. It started at the swimming pool, then progressed to lunch and a prolonged visit to the public library. From there, we sashayed over to a local joint that purveys the most divine popsicles, all made from fresh fruits and whole creams.

As outings with Sis tend to go, the day included a sprinkling of brief but acute tragedies. Her swim float sprung a leak at the pool, and later she went down forward on her elbows and knees on the library sidewalk, shedding a bit of blood and causing severe injury to her dignity. Let’s hope, I thought, that a popsicle has healing qualities.

I parked outside the popsicle place and stood out in the sunshine, leaning in with an extended hand to help Sis hoist herself out of the booster seat in the back. As she pushed her four-year-old self upward and out, she delivered one of those smack-the-head, open-the-eyes moments. And I thought, not for the first time, that I should try as hard to learn from these children as I try to occasionally teach them a little something.

“This is the best day EVER,” she announced, hopping down onto the pavement. “We went swimming, and now we’re getting a popsicle….” She heaved a huge sigh of rapt anticipation, then inquired for the at least the third time, “What flavors do they have?”

I looked up for a brief second and noticed Envy sitting on one of the sun-dappled benches outside the popsicle store. She was watching us, laughing ironically and pointing her finger right at me. I leaned down to grab Sis’ hand, and when I looked up, she was strolling rapidly in the other direction, until she became a tiny dot on the horizon, then was gone.






Picture the following scene:

It’s early on a Saturday morning, and a group of about eight women, some perky and eager, some bleary-eyed and quiet, pull up their chairs around a large table. They exchange a few friendly greetings and begin rustling keyboards or pens and journals into position, while the leader of the group takes her seat at the head of the table and commences the morning’s work with a reading.

On this day, she reads a memoir excerpt, a particular section focused on the author’s memory of her mother’s kitchen and family meals shared there. From the nest of this beginning come her instructions to the group.

“Write about food,” she says. “It could be a memory of something you cooked or ate, some food you shared, a closed restaurant you especially miss for the experiences shared there. Anything about food. Let’s take about 15 minutes. Go.”

Whether the group is hungry or just particularly inspired by this “prompt,” might be a toss-up, but there are wistful smiles and pleasantly thoughtful, contemplative faces all around as fingers begin tapping keys or pushing pens across open, waiting pages. For me, there is an immediate, visceral memory of chicken frying in the kitchen of my adolescence, where i surreptitiously committed my favorite domestic crime: pinching off the edges of the crust to munch the crispy, amber skin and batter as it cooled. Haven’t had chicken that good since, I realize with an inner smile, and I am off.

But on another Saturday, the prompt to the waiting writers is darker, more personal. It begins with a reading on fear.

“Write about something you are afraid of,” she says. “Take 20 minutes for this one.”

Seriously—20 minutes on fear? Maybe, I ponder, I’ll just write about how scary this assignment is.  Sound like a nightmare that would make you break out in a sweat? Maybe too close to an exercise you loathed in a college writing seminar? Exactly.  And yet these women show up one Saturday a month, some of them faithfully, over and over for nearly a decade, for the privilege, challenge, frustration, pressure, sweat, heartbreak and inspiration that all manifest around this table.

The pen pushers and key tappers produce, Saturday after Saturday, work that is as varied in style, depth, and content as the topics that prompt it. Some come to the table as novices, some as published authors of various stripes, including poets, historians, and essayists. This particular group, which the leader named Pilgrim Writers, has attracted writers ranging in age from early 20s to early 70s.

The secret sauce that makes the table a safe place is clearly articulated for newcomers and cherished by the old hands. It is the principles of the Amherst Writers & Artists, a writing workshop philosophy that began in the early 1980s. Amherst workshops are designed not to hone particular writing skills or techniques, but to simply encourage anyone to claim self-expression in any form or fashion the writer so chooses. Work is shared aloud at the table, but there is no critique. Listeners may offer only observations about powerful impressions or strong concepts heard in the work. No acknowledgement or query may ever be made about any biographical nature in the work, and the writer is referred to in the context of piece as “the narrator,” never “you.”

My personal favorite Amherst tenet is this one: A Writer is Someone Who Writes. That means, among other things, that everyone comes to the table as an equal, whether they write only in a private journal or have published an award-winning collection of poems. All voices at the table are honored, regardless of output, training, progress, or any other criteria.

I love this tenet because it exposed one of my worst weaknesses during my very first visit to the table. I heard about the workshop from a friend and registered via email, thinking this would be a lark, an interesting Saturday morning. Maybe it would be a chance to casually stretch some unused muscles, more than 25 years after I began a career as a journalist but later moved on to other jobs. When emailing the workshop leader, I thought surely it was important to mention my many years of writing experience. I noticed she didn’t acknowledge those self-important facts in her response, but didn’t realize why until I got to the table and realized what a colossal, arrogant misperception I had. My experience was, and pretty much still is, utterly irrelevant to the work of the morning.

In fact, the opposite was immediately, brilliantly illuminated, and how many pegs I travelled down when I realized my mistake. It sunk in profoundly when I was listening to a good friend read her work—she, who had never written anything except papers in school, and perhaps, I knew, the occasional recipe. And yet, she delivered a short few paragraphs that knocked everyone present back in their chairs with the utter honesty, clarity and deeply personal nature of her words. My own offering in that go-round: not so much. And while I should hasten to say that nothing about the Amherst format is focused on judging, or competition, or measuring one’s quality against another’s, I still learned that day that claiming one’s voice has very little, if anything, to do with professional training.

It has everything to do with things like commitment, risk-taking, faith, listening, encouragement and, perhaps most of all, courage. Great writing emerges first and foremost from a heart with something vitally important to say, then from a mind willing to step up and say it, out loud, regardless of skill level or vocabulary. Month after month, year after year, some of the most powerful work gifted by writers at the table to the lucky listeners in the adjacent chairs comes from the newcomers, often women who never imagined they could do it and maybe never before dreamed of trying. This is the beauty of the Amherst foundation, which nurtures writers not just to begin, but to keep at it. I am one of those, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

This particular Amherst group, the Pilgrim Writers, will soon celebrate 10 years of writing at what one regular likes to call The Magic Table. Why do the regulars keep coming after all that time? For me, there are multiple reasons. First, all warm and grateful credit to our leader, who is not only the soul of encouragement but a steadfast source of fresh ideas month after month. The fellowship of others who love words is a draw that never changes. Sometimes that translates into the sharing of information on resources, publishing, and writing events. Sometimes I walk away with a tip about something new to read. Invariably, if my own motivation to write is floundering due to diverting life circumstances or flagging inspiration, I come away from the table with the spark reignited. The voice in my own head, that travels through my own fingertips to the keyboard, is unfailingly enriched by listening to the voices of my fellow Pilgrims.
It seemed opportune to dedicate this essay to the Pilgrim Writers on this milestone for me. The G-Ma Chronicles just passed a two-year anniversary, and this is my 50th story published here. The determination to give voice to my ideas about family humor and mid-life foibles took root at the Magic Table and grew from there. So here’s to all the pilgrims, whether new to the journey or seasoned, who show up and put their hearts onto the open page. It’s not an easy thing to do. And a very special salute to our intrepid leader, Amy Lyles Wilson, who shares her gifts of leadership and encouragement so freely, year after year. Long may you Write, each and every one of you. Every word shared is a gift to the rest of us.