A mutual friend, Shelley, frequently refers to Doris as the “sage of Cumberland.” She holds Doris in the highest esteem for the same reason I do. We both met Doris in a Twelve Step meeting and she became a sponsor or guide for each of us in working the Twelve Steps. With Doris, we both felt like we had won the lottery. We couldn’t imagine someone more kind, loving and wise.
Doris turned 92 earlier this year and amazingly has just published a novel she had begun decades ago, Iowa Byzantium“. I say “amazingly” because Doris is blind, having been diagnosed with macular degeneration over 25 years ago. So this post is about Doris’s wisdom and how as a 92-year-old blind woman she published a widely acclaimed book.
When I first met Doris, I was ending a 20-year marriage. My emotional pain was off the charts. One Saturday, at a Twelve Step meeting where Doris was in attendance, I shared with the group some of this pain. “It seems to all come crashing in on me on Saturday mornings,” I lamented.
Doris approached me after the meeting and made a simple, direct offer: “It sounds like these weekends are hard for you. Do you want to call me?”
That was over thirty years ago and Doris became and continues to be one of my closest friends. Doris’s initial wisdom was her willingness to listen to me, no matter how often I called or how long I talked. On bad days, I might call her two or three times. She listened and assured me I was doing everything I could and that my anguished feelings would pass.
As I began to heal, Doris would occasionally comment: “Tom, I find there are times when it is very hard to distinguish grief from self-pity. You may want to keep an eye on that.” She didn’t lecture or go on. She made simple direct statements based on her intuition and experience, and let them sit.
Doris wasn’t a religious person, and followed no particular faith. But she fully embraced the idea of a Higher Power. She prayed to and listened to her Higher Power every day. She would sit for five or ten minutes and listen for what her Higher Power had to say. Then for the next five or ten minutes, she would bring a specific question to her Higher Power. Some days she got guidance, other days she didn’t. This was her way of carrying out the eleventh step invitation of “Praying only for the knowledge of God’s (Higher Power’s) will for us and the power to carry it out.”
At one point after Doris had been in Cumberland for a few years, she received guidance that she was sponsoring too many people and she needed a change. To my shock and that of others’, Doris decided to stop sponsoring anyone. She needed quiet and space and so she gave it to herself. We had to go cold turkey in separating from Doris and her wisdom. After a few years of not much contact, Doris did, however, begin to slowly reconnect with me, Shelley and other friends.
Despite more challenges than most of us could face – blindness, hospitalizations, relocation, and severely impaired hearing, — Doris completed her book Iowa Byzantium. She had started writing the book as part of a writing workshop at the University of MD and in a writers’ group with her professor, Joyce Kornblatt. Doris struggled for years to keep writing. She loved the creative process, read voraciously in print and Braille, and listened to books on tape.
She would dictate her drafts onto audio tapes. She had them transcribed and her daughter and a friend would read them to her so she could make edits. Earlier this year she directed the final edits from her nursing home.
Doris did, of course, get much of the strength and motivation to finish and publish her book from her faith and relation to her Higher Power. But also important is an affirmation she received from her writing professor, Joyce Kornblatt.
After nearly 40 years of being out of touch, Doris learned that Joyce had moved to Australia. Through a friend, she emailed Joyce and asked if she would look at her draft. Joyce said yes and wrote a letter back to Doris to be shared with potential publishers. Her opening statement affirmed Doris’s skill and wisdom: “I was always struck by Doris’s deeply sensitive, richly evocative and psychologically acute fiction.” Joyce’s positive review gave Doris the confidence to move forward with publishing.
Iowa Byzantium is set in Iowa where Doris grew up. It tells the story of an extended family with lives complicated by alcoholism, suicide and the stresses of rural life. Two of the central characters, Uncle Pretty and his nephew Byron, relive their battles with the demons and ghosts of the past as they make decisions based on hope and love.
In her letter Joyce Kornblatt summarized the book this way:
“Let me say first what I admire about this book. She has taken an archetypal situation and given it the power of particularity—a young troubled man returns to his boyhood home, reunites with an uncle / mentor, begins the process of recalling /clarifying / making peace with tragic events of the past. In Doris’s compassionate imagination, Byron and Uncle Pretty emerge as living presences on the page, and less major characters also gather dimension.
“… Place (the rural setting) is beautifully rendered, and becomes a kind of character itself. Here I am reminded of Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner. I don’t know if any of these writers inform Doris’s work, but that their books come to mind says something of the power and facility of her work.”
Joyce taught Creative Writing as a professor at the University of Maryland for 20 years and has written five works of fiction, short stories, essays and reviews. (Read Joyce’s full preface here.)
Another writer friend, Joy Jones, summed up Iowa Byzantium this way:
“We all know Doris is amazing and now the world will know it, too. Introducing Iowa Byzantium, Doris’s novel about untangling family complications. Byron wants to forget and flee his past, but he’s drawn back to Iowa, back to home and forward to a different future. “
Some years ago as I reflected on my conversations with Doris, I thought of writing a Tuesdays with Morrie kind of book to share her wisdom. Instead, Doris has provided her wisdom in her own words. I invite you to experience the wisdom of Doris by reading Iowa Byzantium (Click here for a great read: Amazon.com.)