This week I’ve been reflecting on what 2022 means to me. This year marks two significant milestones: the thirty-year anniversary of completing my graduate degree at UW, and ten-year anniversary of Emily Day (our first family dog). But such thoughts conjure loss and sadness. Could I find a way to rewrite the past for a better future?

Emily on June 28, 2012. Her health had taken a nose dive at age 12.5 and we knew we had to say goodbye. We spent the morning of "Emily Day" celebrating her life by taking her on a car ride, providing her steak for lunch, and doling out huge dollops of love.
Emily on June 28, 2012. Her health had taken a nose dive at age 12.5 and we knew we had to say goodbye. We spent the morning of “Emily Day” celebrating her life by taking her on a car ride, providing her steak for lunch, and doling out huge dollops of love.

Finishing Graduate School, Joining Mountaineers

When I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1990, I had two large goals: to climb Mt. Rainier and to get a graduate degree from UW. I completed the first in May 1991 and the second in June 1992. To me, finishing school marked the end of a long but familiar chapter of my life. I knew how to be a student. But supporting myself seemed intimidating. While I figured out my next steps, I joined the Mountaineers in October 1992.

Flash forward thirty years. This week, I wrote a personal essay for the Mountaineers Magazine celebrating three decades of membership. I got to thinking: What if I reframed 1992 as the start of my life of outdoor adventure, something that carries energy and positivity?

A visit to UW Campus in March 2022, celebrating the cherry blossoms. The "prospective students information day" for my daughter couldn't have been timed any better.
A visit to UW Campus in March 2022, celebrating the cherry blossoms. The “prospective students information day” for my daughter couldn’t have been timed any better.

In my essay, I outlined how The Mountaineers has impacted me. It provides social connections, recreational fun, and adventures around the globe. I also find professional opportunities for writing, teaching, and coaching, and a way to enrich my family’s life. Reframing that year as a beginning, not an end, carries more power. Rewritten, 1992 was the year I committed to following my bliss and connecting with the natural world.

Rewrite the Past: Goodbye to a Pet, Hello to a Passion

Likewise, for a decade I’ve been remembering 2012 as the year Emily died. It took three years before we considered getting another dog. In August 2012, I received a postcard about Write on the Sound (WOTS), a small conference in Edmonds. I needed something to help me get over my grief and move forward again. Maybe formally studying the craft of writing could help.

I attended three full days of workshops and classes, grieving and crying between them. Two sessions stood out. One was about writing picture books for kids; the other was about dream interpretation. Both had a profound impact on me and have shaped me into the writer I am today.

Our daughter says her last goodbye to Emily before heading into the Zoo for summer day camp.
Our daughter says her last goodbye to Emily before heading into the Zoo for summer day camp.

Flash forward ten years. Last weekend marked a decade of attending WOTS. For the past four, I’ve helped run the conference as a member of the steering committee. In 2012, I never could have imagined standing here today: a member of two writers’ critique groups, a blog writer, and a conference co-host, teaching others how to find their unique voices and get unstuck. Could I reframe 2012 as the start of a glorious, challenging return to the world of writing?

Rewrite the Past: Surprising Writing Tips

Of all the wonderful sessions at last weekend’s conference, Shawn Wong, the Sunday plenary speaker, surprised me the most. A teacher at UW for 38 years, Wong moved the Zoom audience to tears with his stories about working with military vets through the Red Badge project. His advice to writers was threefold:

  • Write the truth, not just the facts
  • You can’t change the past, but you can change the message of the event
  • Writing should show what you are trying to learn, not what you already know
WOTS participants in 2019 enjoy lunch and conversation on a glorious fall day in Edmonds.
WOTS participants in 2019 enjoy lunch and conversation on a glorious fall day in Edmonds.

In this post, I am attempting to do all three. I am rewriting my interpretation of the past to be more positive. I now feel grateful for all that happened, good and bad, for I would not be who I am today without the valleys and peaks, darkness and light. My new goal is to focus on those past events that propelled me forward. My blog evolved not because I have answers, but because I’m trying to learn more in order to help my clients and readers.

Try It: Reframe Your Past for a Better Future

If you have followed my blog for a while, you may remember a previous post about reframing self-talk for greater positive gains. Rewriting narratives about your past does something similar. It gives you back control over what the past means to you.

Try This:

What story are you telling yourself that makes you sad?

What were some of the positives that came from experiencing that event? If you went through a divorce, for example, can you focus on the opportunities that followed or on what you learned from it?

Can you focus on the happy memories or life lessons a person taught you who might no longer be with us?

If you are working through the pain of an empty nest, could you look for ways to celebrate your new freedom or new ways to connect with your grown children?

Rewrite the past using reframing: I am grateful for the pain in my life -- including 9/11, the death of Emily, and COVID -- so that I could appreciate all the many joys including my dog Ajax, my lovely college daughter, my husband, my clients, and my blog readers.
Rewrite the past using reframing: I am grateful for the pain in my life — including 9/11, the death of Emily, and COVID — so that I could appreciate all the many joys including my dog Ajax, my lovely college daughter, my husband, my clients, and my blog readers.

If you struggle to rewrite any of your past hurts, please comment in the box below or contact me privately so that we might brainstorm possible ways to get past the pain and get you unstuck. I value and respect all comments and look forward to hearing from you. Rewrite those stories. Onward, upward, forward.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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  1. A very powerful and « delicate » subject indeed, and one I have and still do struggle with. It does not help a lot either that, with the years, the volume of history to rewrite becomes seemingly unmanageable; so many losses, so much sadness, so many dreams that won’t ever come true! But one of the core messages of your post remains true: we do have POWER over our past. It is not as black-and-white as we may initially think it is (loss OR gain); nuances and subtleties matter. My sadness when thinking about the past is sometimes about REGRET and REMORSE, at other times it is about LOSS.

    As I read your post and notice its impact on me, another point you made on several occasions bubbles up to the surface: the need for self-empathy. I have not always made “the right choices”, I have not “seized opportunities” as much as I would have liked… but it is true that I have learned from all these “mistakes”. In fact, they were steps on the way to where I am today (WHO I am today); as such, and since I am humbly liking who I have become, they were necessary and very helpful “growing pains” leading to a better me. “Coulda Woulda Shoulda” does not serve us well; learning from the past and changing, growing, learning (Onward, Upward, Forward?) seems a much better/kinder path forward.

    For a long time (and still on occasion) I felt guilty about absolving myself of all the past “sins”… but acknowledging the past and using it to improve myself just seems like a much more sensible/mature way to live my life. LOSS obviously affects the soul in a different manner but rewriting/reframing is still very much possible. The feelings attached to “never again for all eternity” are sometimes too scary for me to fully embrace (including their culmination when facing my own mortality). But there are always (many) more sides to the story, if only I care to look for them and listen to what they have to say.

    Taking on your “Try This” invite, I decided to look back at one of the most devastating losses I experienced earlier in life: my best friend (and “life” mentor) taking his own life when we were both in our early 20s. His name was Ange (“Angel”, oh how ironic) and we knew each other for 6 years before he left. More than 40 years later, I still often feel his absence in a very acute way. You ask: “What story are you telling yourself that makes you sad?”. There are quite a few sad stories/questions. Could I have done something else/more to help him see a way through his own sadness? How would our friendship have evolved if we had many more years together? What other powerful insights would he have shared with me about “who we are and why we do the things we do”? Could he have prevented me from making the biggest mistakes I made later in life? His influence was so strong that I felt more alone after he left than when my parents passed away within a month many years later. There is so much I would have loved to talk to him about – all the “good” and the “bad” in my life. Would he be proud of what I have accomplished, who I have become? I will never know the answers, I will never be able to tell him how much he helped me be a better man.

    Then you ask: “Can you focus on the happy memories or life lessons a person taught you who might no longer be with us?”. Yes, I have tried… First, I do realize how incredibly lucky I am that our paths crossed when they did; he deliberately “chose me” and decided to invest a considerable amount of his time “guiding me”; as this was at a stage in life when most young adults are trying to figure out “what’s true” and “what matters”, his mentoring proved priceless. What would I have become without his help? Looking at several close relatives and where they are now, the answer could easily have been: someone I would not like very much. Beyond that, he taught me the importance of striving to be uncompromisingly “true to myself” in all aspects of my life, and to be “present/aware/fully engaged” as often as possible… while being kind when I sometimes fall short of these expectations; that my intent and investment are much more important than the result. He taught me to be very careful before passing judgment on others, to do my utmost to first understand them and how they may feel… starting from a foundation of empathy. What he taught me still lives in me and it has seen me though some of the hardest times I experienced; it has also allowed me to enjoy “the good days” to the fullest, reflecting in the moment about how blessed I am to be at the right time in the right place with the right friends. While I can’t say “Thank You” face to face, I can continue to live a life that is often a small celebration of who he was. The sadness doesn’t disappear, but a deep gratefulness and the love of the memories wrap a comforting shoulder around it.

    A final “funny note”: I started writing my comments as my neighborhood experienced a power LOSS; how suddenly I could no longer rely on the small comforts of life (getting my hot tea to start the day, walking around without wearing a ski jacket, etc.); but how it gave me time and space to do something meaningful and enjoyable (reading the post and sharing my thoughts) instead of jumping into the daily grind! I am grateful to the power utility for this small gift.

    1. Gerard, your heartfelt tribute to your best friend and life mentor, Ange, is truly a gift to the multiverse. What I love about what you shared is the message that we cannot know how — or when — we will touch other people. You have touched me with your message, with your questions, with your contributions to this blog, and while we could dwell on all the awful going around us (from global warming to wildfires and smoky skies, from wars to gas prices to pandemic scares to … you name it) focusing on the good — with our gratitudes and musings — makes the yuck more palatable.

      Your early questions point to guilt and loss, while your later questions focus on the positives; I invite you to keep going in that direction. What would you have become without his help is a start — you could take it to “What did he leave me?” “What are my fondest memories of him?” “If I could communicate with him now, what would I say?” It might even help to write an “unsent letter” acknowledging his contributions, a therapeutic writing exercise that can help in healing. These are powerful questions of love, of gratitude, of healing. Ange was put in your path for a reason, just as I believe each person is put in our path. It’s up to us to figure out what the reason is. What our story will be.

      And I absolutely love your statement, “While I can’t say “Thank You” face to face, I can continue to live a life that is often a small celebration of who he was. The sadness doesn’t disappear, but a deep gratefulness and the love of the memories wrap a comforting shoulder around it.” This reminds me of my writing creatively in tribute to my dog Emily. Remembering her fondly — the way she would bark incessantly in the car until the citronella would stop spraying, the way she could pull me on my butt (95 pounds of canine power), the way her slobber spilled down her face in threads — now brings me a speck of joy rather than sadness, but for ten years such memories were painful. I have found the pain never quite goes away, but our love and gratitude can deepen with time, leaving fondness more strongly and the pain less severe, if that makes sense.

      Finally, your GAIN at the power loss is our GAIN in empathy and compassion. Heal, my friend, and remember Ange with fondness. May he empower you ever more to shine in his absence.

      1. Many thanks Courtenay!
        Your post (coupled with the serendipitous power outage) was a perfect invite for me to reflect on the “Ange part of my history”, and to focus my thoughts and energy on how it affected – and continues to affect – my life FOR THE BETTER. Let’s keep making these gratitude and fondness muscles stronger while gently applying soothing recipes to the inevitable aches and pains these emotional workouts trigger.
        GAINward!

    1. Thank YOU, Kimberly, for posting. I thought of some of our conversations while listening to Shawn Wong. Seems like he is doing some tremendous work through the Red Badge project. Onward, upward, forward.

  2. Very powerful story. This is always sad to loose a pet. It takes a long time to heal. We lost our first Scottish Terrier in 2008 and got Rebus in 2015. It is not officially my dog, but some unknown reasons, Rebus really loves her big girlfriend, Silvie.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Silvie Marie. For some people, pets are super important, especially in a time of lockdown. And they are sometimes even more important than the people they come into infrequent contact with. I know I will struggle when I no longer have Ajax, but I am going to love every moment I have with him and take tons of pictures of our exciting adventures so that I can always remember the positives. We can write our own future if we’re aware that we have a choice. I choose! You can, too. Onward!