Scaffolding & Hope

Since spring has made its presence known, my mind has been occupied with two things, scaffolding and hope. If you missed it, the last post dealt with Choosing Hope, and somehow, while writing that, I neglected to include the following Emily Dickinson poem:

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

spring-robin_21176883  by, Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I've heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.


So, hope. Hope and scaffolding, I said, had been my pre-occupations recently.

If you see your life as a work in progress, an ongoing construction and learning project, what is your scaffolding? What supports you?

I experienced a long winter, battling depression and feeling unmoored, ungrounded. In a conversation with a friend and pastor, she brought up the idea that I was feeling “unscaffolded.” It was the perfect image for me to latch onto and ponder.

There have been times in my life when I chose to blindly “go it alone”, and nearly caused my life to collapse in a heap of hedonism, perhaps even hubris. This was true after the sudden death of my father, when I was eighteen, the perfect age to turn to booze, pot and self-indulgence to avoid my grief. It took nearly crashing and burning to help me regain my footing, to allow my existing scaffolding to help me go on. I became a wife, mother and teacher, parts that allowed me to receive and to be scaffolding. When I left teaching at forty-one, the fact that I had two boys at home to continue parenting provided the structure I needed. My personal calendar was synced with their academic calendars and their extra-curriculars, sports, music, theater.

Memorial Day weekend of 2008, I heard the dreaded, “I’m sorry to say that you have cancer.” Two weeks later, my youngest graduated high school.

What was my scaffolding in those days? I faced breast cancer and an empty nest, but while I was sad, I still felt anchored. My scaffolding? Faith, family and friends. It was clear and simple. Later, after surgery and radiation, I found the focus and energy common to survivors. My new-found attention to my writing yielded results. Within my first year of survivor-hood, I stared down my fear of submission and published stories. I began a blog – supporting and encouraging other writers.

As my sixth year cancer-free birthday approaches, I’m wondering why I’ve struggled so this last year with depression, with feeling scattered. At times my collapse has been visible in my home. Unable to move, piles of mostly unread books, literary journals, bills, quarterly statements grew, then spread out and scattered, puddles of undone unknowns. Their presence shouted “loser” at me.

Guilty as charged, I conceded.

But even then, a tiny seed of hope stayed with me. It’s with me still. Maybe I was born with it. Maybe.

But I believe it was planted by family before I have memory. When my parents smiled at me, held me and loved me, they didn’t know they were also giving me the seeds of hope.

I recognize that hope is a weight-bearing pole in my scaffolding. The other three poles? Faith, family and friends. I’m not the artist in our family, but here’s a rough rendering of how I see this scaffolding now:



On the platforms, I see the names of different people and communities who have helped me in this construction project of my life. I haven’t written them in, because actually, I envision them more as pictures, decoupaged onto the platforms. My scaffolding is full of smiles in my mind. I’ve been blessed with too many wonderful family, friends and coaches to begin singling anyone out here. Sorry to my extra special ones! Hoping you know who you are.

In my writing, the platforms between the scaffolding poles (not the other kind of platform writers seek), has been the Red Oak Writing studio in Milwaukee, WI. I’ve made life-long friends there, as well as finding writers whose opinions I value….writers who are not afraid to say when something is not working in my words. Writers who would never offer, “that’s nice,” or “I really like that,” as their only comment on my work. Instead, I’ll get “this chunk slows for me,” or, “is that the right word? It tweaks me a lot,” or, “does the story actually begin here? Were you clearing your throat on the first two and a half pages?” Those are the comments a writer needs!

I’ve also gained writer friends and mentors from writing conferences — especially the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Tin House, NY State Summer Writers Institute, Aspen Summer Words and Bread Loaf in Sicily. With this blog, with my coaching at Red Oak and with my responses to requests from writer friends, I try, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to be a strong member of other writers’ scaffolding. The examples of my great teachers and coaches — Judy Bridges, Kim Suhr, Amber Dermont, Robert Boswell and Luis Alberto Urrea — have shown me the importance of being a giving writer. We all need strong scaffolding, but in a field that requires solitude in the creation, it can be challenging to find – and then remain tied to our scaffolding.

Seek and you shall find.


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  1. Posted April 21, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    Pam, your grace and candor here are beautiful, powerful and inspiring. Thank you. It was good to see you a few weeks ago.

    • pam
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 12:11 pm

      Many, many thanks, Lisa. It was good to see you too. I’m off for a personal writing retreat in May, but maybe in June we could get together and talk writing. 🙂

  2. Glenna Vance
    Posted April 26, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Pam, I truly have been the receiver of your kind critiques. I must admit I was truly oblivious of your emotional condition. I do so wish you well as you retreat in MA and then with your husband on the R&R. Glenna

    • pam
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 1:48 am

      Oh, thanks so much, Glenna. You are a wonderful roundtable member! Have a great summer.

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