Cheryl Krauter is the author of the new memoir Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. It focuses on the impact of the death of her husband, John. Her other books include Surviving the Storm. A psychotherapist, she is based n the San Francisco Bay Area.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?
A: Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go began to live in my mind after John’s ticket was drawn in the Casting for Recovery raffle five months after he died. He had entered this raffle for years, dreaming of a guided float trip for two in Montana combined with a two-night stay at a fishing lodge.
In an emotional moment while hiking a trail at Lake Tahoe, California, I received a call telling me of his winning ticket and then that the trip was kindly offered to me. I took this as a sign of a story that wanted to be told.
The decision seemed relatively simple and clear, the story of fulfilling a promise to scatter his ashes by a renowned river, going in his place and living out one of his dreams.
Yet as I grew deeper into the writing of the book there were many long nights and early mornings when I meandered through the writing like a small stream looking for its release into a mighty river rolling to the sea. The manuscript had a life of its own and took me where it wanted to go.
In the end, the writing revealed the narrative of moving through my grief, again, and again. It became a final love letter, a way to transform the wildness of my sorrow.
As the release date approaches and I feel the book fly out of my hands and into the world, I find myself asking the same question, “Why did I decide to write this memoir?” Your thoughtful question arrived just as I was questioning myself. I thought, “Wow, this is synchronistic.”
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title grew directly out of my work with the editor, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, who was my closet companion in the writing of this book. Her holding, not only of the story, but of me in my initial stages of raw grief, was beyond invaluable.
Odyssey of Ashes was not the original title and when it came time to move into the publication process, she helped me to let go of my original title by working with me on other titles that she believed were more congruent with the entirety of the book.
Out of that exploration, I chose Odyssey of Ashes because it represented my journey from the horror of the early morning when John died, spoke to the travels I took in the deep internal underworld of grief and loss, highlighted the pilgrimage to Montana, and spoke of the winding paths through the complexities of learning to live my life in his absence.
An odyssey takes us through adventures and misadventures in both the inner world of our psyche and the outer world of our day-to-day lives.
Q: The book begins with an epigraph, "Sometimes I go about pitying myself/And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky," an Ojibwe saying. Why did you choose to include this quote?
A: As writers, when we look back, we find themes that run throughout our work. The theme of wind runs throughout this book – some of it emotional and some of it the actual wind and weather that buffeted me about on my odyssey of scattering John’s ashes in Montana.
The quote means to me that we can’t always know where we are going in the present moments of our lives. Life is taking us beyond our own known universe. This is felt as a timeless quality that occurs while grieving.
Wind symbolizes forces beyond the limited perspectives of our conscious mind and carries us when we are crawling through that which we cannot hold ourselves. What may appear to be losing our way is actually a twist and turn on the path we are traveling on. There are moments of transformation that break open our hearts to the depth that grief can bring into our lives and all that it teaches us.
Being carried by great winds across the sky speaks to the mysteries we cannot know but, somehow, must trust. It shows us all that we cannot control or understand. The smaller places we inhabit within ourselves are split apart as we fly off into an unknown and mysterious place that we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams.
Q: How difficult was it to write about the loss of your husband, and what impact did writing the book have on you?
A: It was a wrenching and beautiful process. The loss I experienced took on different forms and was a way to connect with John in his abrupt disappearance from my life.
Writing this memoir was cathartic and brought me time and time again into the wildness of a sorrow that at times seemed to overwhelm me. There were moments when I was sobbing so deeply that I had to stop because I couldn’t see my computer screen.
Now that the book is on its way into the world, I experience a different vulnerability that is almost more difficult. Reviewers might be critical, readers may be disparaging. I feel concerned about the jagged and raw expression of my story and worry that my experience was better left silent than shared.
My work as a psychotherapist and my writing are very connected to what I give to the other person, in this case, the reader, and I was concerned that the book was too personal and not relatable to others.
However, as readers chimed in that they were moved and could, indeed, relate, I felt an enormous relief. In the end, I am grateful to this book for helping me to heal.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: As a psychotherapist during Covid, I am working longer and harder than I have in the 40 years that I’ve been in my profession. I feel that all my work has taken me to this present moment, to be of service during this remarkable and traumatic time.
The books I have written about cancer survivorship, both for patients and their communities as well as clinicians working in psychosocial oncology, continue to generate requests for workshops, classes, and presentations about life threatening illness.
I am currently co-facilitating a group for white-identified members of a professional organization after BIPOC members requested that the white-identified members do their own work and not depend on them to educate us. We are using the book Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad as a template for conversation.
I have also gotten a suggestion to write a screenplay of Odyssey of Ashes and may enter a collaboration with the screenwriter whose idea this is.
Finally, I am planning to write my swan song – a novel that is based on a local homeless artist who sculpts things out of hangers, milk cartons, and other found objects that a person who lives on the streets would collect. I am in my scraps of notes, finding inspirational quotes, an internal rambling process that always proceeds my writing projects.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: That my memoir, while raw and intense, also has moments of humor.
That the work is mythopoetic and includes both Celtic and Buddhist stories that weave through the story as they do through my life.
That fly-fishing is part of the memoir and brings both an experiential as well as spiritual perspective to the story.
That my hope is that others who have experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one will find comfort and solace in this book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb