Tuesday, January 31, 2006
I talked to one of them the other day: Gina. I was waxing passionate about my thoughts on this confederacy of children – that I had decided to do a free workshop for them, where we would tell our stories and write poetry. “Good luck with it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to participate. I’ve worked through that part of my life. I’m dealing with a sick child now.”
She has – so much as any of us can. And her son has cancer. And I was immediately caught, rabbit-in-the-high-beam style with my desire to distance myself from my own pain by being an expert.
Isn’t that interesting?
I think what I’m trying to do is simultaneously climb into myself and climb out of myself. I don’t want to live cocooned in my pain. I don’t even know if it is pain. It is a story that has brought intense emotion with it. Really, it is a love story. It is the story of love for life, for resurrection, for resilience -- love for my father.
I took him to the opera the other night. Always, these outings with him are so rich and full of stories. Neither of us had been to the opera in at least 20 years. He used to go with my mother and, surprisingly, he said almost nothing negative about her the entire evening. He was full of fond memories of “being among the swells.”
When I was 18 I worked for the opera. The offices were near where Dad worked. He was living in his office, one step from homelessness at the time. He slept on his desk, washed up in the sink. The other lawyers pretended not to know, I think. He was so proud of me, working for the opera. I’d get him free tickets and we’d go together. We saw lots of Wagner that year. I haven’t been back since. Until last Wednesday.
* * * * *
He yells at me all the way from his apartment to the bank. “Turn here. No! Not there! Change lanes. Now! Now! Gun it! God, Tess, you drive like an old woman.”
“It’s like old times,” I say. “Just like when you taught me to drive.”
He stops yelling, slightly chagrined.
Dad just does what he does and usually I get in a kind of Zen state with it. It’s just his way.
He wants to go to the Chinese restaurant across town. I wonder if we’ll get to the opera in time, but decide to go with his lead. He always has the #2 with fried rice and can say to the waiter, “I’ll have my usual,” and they know.
He drives from the passenger seat all the way to the restaurant and all the way back to the opera end of town. Six blocks from the parking garage we hit a lot of traffic. With the opera beginning at 7:30, it is now 7:09, then 7:12, 7:15. “We’re fine,” I keep saying smoothly, feeling his anxiety. “We’ll make it just fine.”
His vision of this area of town is 30 years old. He knows just where he used to park when he went with Mom, just how to get to the cheap seats. But the opera house has been knocked down and rebuilt since then. And the parking garage has some new entrances. It is 7:17. I turn left. “No!” yells Dad. “No! Not there!”
And my Zen state leaves me. “DO not” I holler, “DRIVE for me! ESPECIALLY with so little time left! I know what I’m doing; I am FORTY-TWO YEARS OLD!”
He is immediately contrite. “I didn’t realize there was an entrance here,” he says quietly. “Here, I’ll pay for the parking.”
Damn straight you will, I think, accepting the money. “I love you,” I tell him a second later. “And you drive me crazy.”
He directs me, albeit with less volume, to just the right parking place. I feel victorious over letting him have it. Certainly he deserved it. But he looks a little stunned as we pull into our spot. As if being yelled at made him feel small.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” I say. “Sometimes my temper gets the better of me.”
Yes. My temper. How I’ve enjoyed being the all-powerful victim. Perhaps she is leaving me now. I am, after all, forty-two years old.
How he loves the opera! Up in the nosebleed seats, we’ve made sure to bring binoculars, which we trade back and forth. I remember how I used to read the libretto by the light of the exit sign. Now they put the words up on a screen over the stage. I imagine they’ve been doing that for awhile, but for me it is a new marvel.
He walks with a cane now and I keep reaching a hand out to catch him. But he doesn’t want to be caught. The cane makes a handy weapon with which he could ward off would-be attackers of his daughter.
At intermission I reapply my lipstick and brush my hair in the ladies room. When I rejoin him, he starts fussing with my collar. “It’s sticking up,” he says, though it isn’t. A pause and then, “You’ve still got that fine hair.”
Mom will plunge her hands into my hair and play with it. Just like I do with my daughter.
“It’s gotten long,” he says meditatively. Then, “I’ve got a picture of you with it short; I liked it better short.”
How long did I not hear his tenderness because he’d hidden it so well?
It is nearly 11:00 when we leave the opera house. “What is all this traffic?” he says.
“A concert,” I tell him. “Cold Play.”
“Cold Play,” he says, as if the words make an unpleasant taste in his mouth. “That’s Rock and Roll.” (The Scourge of Decency, Music for Morons.)
“It’s what people have been listening to, Dad,” I say, “For the last forty years.” I think I’m very clever to have pointed this out. “Didn’t you have music that made your parents crazy?”
“No,” he says. “But Budd Raymond sure found it amusing in high school when I suggested 'Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair' for choir class.”
“Because it was Irish?”
“No!” he yells. “It’s Stephen Foster!”
“Oh,” I say, sure I heard my first rendition of it on an old John McCormick album.
“He wanted some old hillbilly music like, ‘Chicken Crowing on Sourwood Mountain.’” He sings a few bars. I join him. “My true love lives up the holler, hey de-ding-dang-diddle-eye-day. She won’t come and I won't foller, hey de-ding-dang-diddle-eye-day.”
We are a couple of secret hillbillies, he and I.
As we near his apartment he makes an uncommon speech. “I wish we’d had more time to talk about your family,” he says. “The last time we talked you sounded so down. I was afraid you had clinical depression.”
He names it. We never used to name it. I thought it was because he didn’t want to.
“Sometimes I do,” I say. “But I’m finding my way out more quickly now.”
I can’t tell him what’s been eating me at home. One of my kids. Things I fear. Things Dad fears. Too painful for both of us. “Things are moving in a positive direction,” I say. Which is true. “Things” are.
“I’m glad to hear that,” he says. We stop at the light. We’re a block from his place. He goes on. “Because I love you so much. You’re my flesh and blood – my cast into the future. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Sometimes, he stuns me with such words -- a string of pearls handed to me unexpectedly.
He didn’t used to be able to say things like this. Does he want to make sure it’s said? Is there anything he’s not telling me?
Do not drive for me -- especially when there’s so little time left. What do I mean by this? How much time is there?
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
“But the tears are right there,” Tara said, gesturing just behind her eyes.
“No, I said. Not really.”
And I think I lied.
Perhaps I can keep tears at bay by keeping people at bay. We learn to laugh, to be clinical and intellectual about things. “My father put a gun in his mouth.”
Yeah, that still catches at my lungs if I let it. So I take two steps back. “My father suffers from bipolar disorder. Or perhaps it’s unipolar with some paranoia. Certainly, the diagnosis has changed over the years.”
How does someone do this whose father left this world with his head in fragments? I have only the imagination of this. The Children of Suicide Club has the reality, the stunned, “Oh, God” moment when they got the news. The thing that was unfathomable to their spouses and friends, who didn’t know what to say and responded awkwardly with warped theology or silence.
My husband had to be that spouse, after the attempt. He had to sit down and explain to me what had happened. I don’t remember any of it except, “Your dad,” and “he took a gun.”
After that we visited him in the hospital for six weeks. I had so much I wanted to say to him. One day he was so looped out on lithium I didn’t recognize him. Another day he made me a cross in the craft workshop. He painted it green. I think it was in honor of all my attempts to convert him. Jesus would make him better, I was sure. He’d be a whole person and the demons would torment him no longer.
And all he could say was, “Why would I worship a monster?”
I don’t know if I ever could make Jesus not a monster for him. Sometimes we can succeed in that, sometimes not. But he did make me a cross.
Here’s the thing I’ve never gotten my head around. My father CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD. He was in the cold basement of the Arctic Building with a gun in his mouth at five o’clock in the morning and he heard someone in the building and did not pull the trigger. Instead he put the gun down and took a bus to the hospital.
Tonight we are going to the opera. I don’t think I’ve been at the opera in twenty years. I know Dad hasn’t. It’s his Christmas present. We’re going to the opera and I have all these thoughts banging around in my head.
Usually Dad and I get to the real stuff pretty quickly. I like that about him. He’s harsh and critical and bigoted and fearful. But he’s as honest as he’s able to be and he doesn’t insist on talking about trivia. He doesn’t change the subject when I bring up something that means a lot to me. Lately, I keep wondering if “this time” will be the last time I see him. I wonder that every time the phone rings and he doesn’t answer. I definitely wonder it every time he gets sick.
So why don’t I try harder to spend every remaining second with him? What is wrong with me?
My friend, Tara, shared with me today that her father had killed himself several years ago. Wendy’s father shot himself in the backyard, Kevin’s on the stairs, Gina’s father hanged himself, Mark’s dad blew himself away. (Note: I change the names of all my friends on this blog, unless I am promoting their work.) At a writing conference a woman at my table read, for the first time, her “why?” poem, written to her late father. I wanted to find her later and introduce her to Wendy, who was also at the conference. But how do you start a conversation like that? Would either of them have wanted one? (I’d have asked first.)
The first time I wrote about this in my own life, my critique group had to hold my hands so I could get through the story without falling apart. I realized that it was as if my father had killed himself, even though he ultimately didn’t pull the trigger.
I’m so grateful to have him still, but I’m wary around him. I don’t talk to him or visit him as much as I feel I should. I’ve been steeling myself against his death since I was sixteen. I share a link with the suicide club because of the shame we all feel in talking about this. No one knows what to do with it. Maybe people talk to me because I am not shocked when they tell me. I’m only sad. I want to heal all their fathers – to take the guns and the ropes away and to sit them all down together to talk about it and know that they’re not alone, they’re not the only ones who ever hit their wives or drank too much or failed in business. I want them to know that inside of them is goodness – it’s still there, if covered over in pain. I want to raise them up out of hell if that is where they are still.
But my friends, their children, have not even begun to express their rage. Instead they get sick, they fight depression, they get scared. Not all the time. These are amazing and resilient people -- every one of them a creative artist – writers, actors, painters. But how does one begin? How does one trust? How do you love the person who murdered your father?
But you do. Even hate is a kind of love. And my father? I adore him, though I neglect him. Every few months when I can’t reach him on the phone, I make the mad hour-long drive to the city, get myself into his secured apartment building and let myself into his unit, ready to find a body. He’s not directly threatened suicide for years now, but his health is failing and he’s letting it go. “Death’s not so bad,” he says. “It’s a natural process.” And if it were anyone else, I’d agree. But he’s been trying to die I was sixteen and since I was sixteen, I’ve been talking him out of it. That’s the story, anyway: that my heroic words have saved him every time. It’s why I wear a big W on my chest: WordWoman Saves the World Again.
Maybe someday I’ll talk to him about Tara and Wendy and Kevin and Gina and Mark, about the lady at the poetry table and my classmate, Fran, who found her father’s brains spattered on the walls when she was in high school. I don’t think I’d phrase it like that. Not this time. I’ve tried to shock him out of his lethargy, but shock treatments didn’t work for him in college, so I don’t know why I’d think they work now.
I’m to the point of compassion now and maybe my father has something to pass on to my friends. Maybe he knows some secret their fathers never told them. Or some secret he never told me. And there is some secret I’ve never told myself. Maybe I’ll write my way to it. Maybe my friends will teach me.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
I’ll get through this phase, really I will. For now, I just need to be mysterious, as if my career is some big freaking deal.
Now, if I actually did widespread marketing like this Pete Hautman guy, I could maybe pull off the mysterious anonymous author thing. Someday maybe I will and I’ll continue posting until then. BTW, his National Book Award book is called Godless. Once I read it, I may blog about it. Stay tuned.
In the meantime… I’ve begun wearing my editor hat more frequently and got a bunch of submissions today. At the moment this is fun. Check back in a few months and see whether I run screaming every time I see the word “submission” in an email. But for the record, I am currently at the “fun” stage.
Other fun was listening to Cristien Storm perform her amazing, compassionate spokenword. She gives me courage to write what is real.
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Any resemblance to these religions is superficial: While the army observes rituals such as praying the rosary and bowing toward Mecca, there is no prescribed theology in the conventional sense. Kony's beliefs are a haphazard mix from the Bible and the Qur'an, tailored around his wishful thinking, personal desires, and practical needs of the moment. Jesus is the Son of God. But instead of saving the world from sin through his sacrificial love on the Cross, he is a source of power employed for killing those who oppose Kony. The Holy Spirit is not the Divine Comforter, but one who directs Kony's tactical military decisions.
Despite dabbling in the Bible and the Qur'an, Kony's real spiritual obsession is witchcraft. He burns toy military vehicles and figurines to predict the course of battles from their burn patterns. He uses reptiles in magic rituals to sicken those who anger him or to detect traitors in his midst. He claims to receive military direction from spirits of dead men from different countries, including Americans. He teaches that an impending apocalypse will usher in "The Silent World," where only primitive weapons, such as machetes and clubs, will bring victory.
--from “Deliver Us From Kony,” by J. Carter Johnson, Christianity Today 12/30/05
My reaction, as I sit comfortably at my computer, is similar to Matushka Donna’s uneasiness. “Our affluent Western society encourages a perpetual adolescence,” she remarks, “devoted to our own ‘self-discovery’ and pleasure on the most shallow level.
I am guilty as charged.
My computer has a filter that will not allow me to post the word “death,” that is d*e*a*t*h onto my blog or into an email. Or at least, it will not let me read that word. I’m not sure how it appears on other people’s computers. Even a post about meeting a publishing d___line was censored. So if the title of this post is “Gospel of,” you know what happened. “La Mort” has been deleted.
Perhaps that’s what I do. I delete atrocities from my radar because I simply cannot fathom them. It is because I am comfortable, but it’s more than that. I don’t encounter such things in my daily life, so I haven’t found any kind of framework for them. I wonder if part of becoming spiritually “awake” is to find the framework for evil so that we can fight it.
One reason I became Orthodox is that the Orthodox do not believe, as do the Calvinists, that humans are inherently depraved. We believe instead that humans are inherently good, created in the image of God. The very breath of God blows through us. God is energy and essence and the energies of God infuse us, as they infuse every particle in creation. Our destiny is to return to this original image, to become “divinized” – to have union with God that is so electric it is like iron placed in the fire. The iron remains, in essence, iron, but it becomes completely fire. It is transformed by the energies of God.
Sin for the Orthodox Christian is “missing the mark,” an archery term. We aim for, but do not always hit the target. The degree to which we miss is sin. Therefore, sin is not the breaking of a law, it is simply the missing of our potential to be the self we were created to be, the Self with God.
When I think of this, I think of it in the context of all the guilt I used to feel over trivial imperfections. Because I used to think of every flaw as the breaking of God’s holy law and hence, His heart, I lived in a morass of self-condemnation. Ironically, this shielded me from true remorse. If everything we do is wrong, we are unable to examine the ways we’ve truly wounded others and take steps to restore those relationships. When we can have self-compassion, we can see the potential for goodness in ourselves. And we can see perhaps more clearly when we are not being our truest selves.
But what about the kind of evil that defies imagining? Do we go back to the old model? Can we have God be the wrathful judge who will hurl these monsters into the pit they undoubtedly came from and torture them for eternity? Isn’t it inadequate to say that Joseph Kony has “missed the mark” when clearly, he wasn’t even aiming? Has Joseph Kony ever desired goodness? Did he desire it as a little child? Who knows?
What we do know is that little children have been tortured into butchery. A whole army of tortured souls perpetuates terror so that terror becomes a force unto itself. But terror is not a force, it is a void. Terror is the cold absence of love.
Is it? How can this be? If God, who is love, permeates every particle of creation, then there is never an absence of love. There is only blindness to it. And cruelty is an effective method of blinding. A wrathful God, who flung his creatures into Hell would be, himself, blind to love. And this is impossible. Hell is here on Earth in towns where children come with machetes and cut off people’s lips. God does not put people there. And they are not there because they deserved it.
And where am I? Here in the paradise of rural America with the rabbits munching quietly in their hutches, a cougar or two that rarely shows itself, healthy children, loving spouse, food on the table. I am supposed to do something from paradise to mitigate life in hell. J. Carter Johnson did something. He went to Uganda. He talked to those children. He told their story. I am sure he will never be the same.
How can I let this change me?
Several years ago, before my first book came, out I went into this funny panic. I was afraid the book would be successful and that I would become obnoxious. I went to this woman at my church and asked her to pray for me. She said something like “send your writing up in balloons; send it around on the Internet,” and I was very irritated and felt she knew nothing about writing professionally. This was probably true. How interesting that I’d be doing this now.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
And then, I happen across this blog written by some whiney writer who talks about despair demons and quotes people who say you ought to belittle yourself.
This is not good, I think. This writer needs to get a grip. She needs some chocolate pretzels, some Monty Python. She needs a big box from her friend Mandy in Texas containing a Christmas Ornament in the shape of a rather busty sphinx with stumps for legs. (Yes, such a package did arrive two days ago. It also contained chocolate pretzels. And I have not yet written to thank Mandy.)
If this blog ever gets readers – an event I am assiduously trying to avoid – it is doubtful they will want to read angsty post after angsty post.
I sometimes read blogs by teenagers who undoubtedly wear a great deal of eyeliner and I want to post replies so that I can keep them from killing themselves. They’ve all got such terrible relationships with their mothers and I could be there. I could fix it all. I’m nice.
But then I don’t post replies.
It is a very odd phenomenon that has people posting essentially private thoughts for others to read. It reminds me of that movie, My First Mister, where the girl writes obituaries for herself and then makes them into paper airplanes and flies them out the window.
Well, I am not writing obituaries today. I could post some angsty poetry, but I think I’ll pass.
The point of this post, is that there is no point. “Have a focus in your writing,” I tell my students. I put little cards on my computer with pithy statements on them to focus my stories. I look for a good lead. I never start a sentence with “there is.” I avoid using the word “I” over and over again. Except here.
Here, I will write wildly bad content. I will ramble and foam at the mouth. I will feel sorry for myself. I will write things that seem, at the time, so very beautiful that I weep all over the keyboard. I will quote monks who lived in caves and I’ll offer apologies for George W. Bush (Okay. Not any more. I’ve reformed. Even if he hugs me and prays for me.)
And why, dear reader, is this so? Because I’m using a medium that requires nothing of me. I can break all the rules. I can bore people. I can even misspell things and make up words like “angsty.” Yes, I understand, I am using bandwidth for this drivel. But people use bandwidth for worse.
All of us need to do a little pretend-audience writing. It’s like journaling, only better. It allows one to be grandiose, to preen, to shoot off one’s mouth. But the trick is NOT to go looking for readers.
When I was first published, everyone who came into my house had to look at my byline. In fact, the most telling comment I got about this process was from a woman at church, at whom I elatedly waved my first story. “Look! Look!” I cackled. “Wow,” she said, “someone with your same name.”
So this is the equivalent of writing a journal and then leaving it, enticingly, in a coffee-shop. You go home and fantasize about all the people reading your despair. Someone will find it. They will care. They will search for you across the void. They will buy you a latte and some chocolate pretzels.
The next week you return to the coffee shop in your black trench coat. You glance around covertly and spot the journal. It’s exactly where you left it. When you pick it up, there is a nice rectangular shiny spot underneath – the only place the dust hasn’t settled.
But perhaps all writing is like that. We’re all trying to have the conversation. And sometimes we do have it. More often, we don’t.
But I know I’d be writing if I was the last person breathing on the planet. I’d write it for the cockroaches. And they’d think it was just beautiful and cry little, cockroachy tears.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
When we struggle against demonic thoughts, the struggle will be considered as a martyrdom. This is because one suffers a great deal when evil thoughts attack, and God, seeing the toil and pain of his soul, considers it to be a martyrdom.
—Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain
Depression, despair and despondency can only be demonic. They do not carry with them any impulse towards the good, rather, they slow the mind, cloud the thinking. There is a prayer to the Theotokos that I used to pray every day. It goes:
O my most holy lady Theotokos, through thy holy and all-powerful prayers, banish from me, thy lowly and wretched servant, despondency, forgetfulness, folly, carelessness and all filthy, evil and blasphemous thoughts from my wretched heart and my darkened mind. And quench the flame of my passions, for I am poor and wretched, and deliver me from many and cruel memories and deeds, and free me from all their evil effects. For blessed art thou by all generations, and glorified is thy most honorable name unto the ages of ages. Amen
That’s a lot of “wretcheds” and I may talk about that later, but what struck me was that I was praying against despondency. I think I gave despondency an almost holy glow when I was younger. It was such a constant companion and it seemed to remind me of what a miserable, sinful creature I was and how much I needed God.
What salt is for any food, humility is for every virtue. To acquire it, a man must always think of himself with contrition, self-belittlement, and painful self-judgment. But if we acquire it, it will make us sons of God.
—Isaac the Syrian
To be fair, I should read about Isaac the Syrian before I say this. Perhaps he struggled with grandiosity and arrogance and so needed to balance himself in this way. But for me, finding ways to belittle myself has never been a problem. And painful self-judgment has come as naturally as breathing. In fact, self-belittlement and self-judgment can become a form of pride. A person who walks around belittling himself will find that his friends eventually become less patient.
What I’m trying to get at is that I cannot let despair sink its teeth into me. I cannot live in a state of defeat. If struggling against this is a form of prayer or martyrdom, let it be my prayer. It is a heavy weight that bears down on me, a demon on my back I must throw off. It is a gray mist that comes in the night so that I am completely enveloped by morning. I will not give in to it. I will not.
Blessed art thou o Lord our God, King of the Universe who hallows this day, who hallows our work, who hallows our minds and bodies, who hallows each minute.
I am living in holy time. Time, even though God is outside of it, is holy. If God is outside of time, he also permeates each moment. If each moment is a drop of God then I can be drenched in them and not be afraid. The time does not slip away as we think it does.
But I do think it does! That’s what is bothering me today. My friend has cancer. I can’t even go see him because I’ll make him sick with my flu. His cancer has moved from his lungs into his bones and it was only diagnosed last week. Whenever someone gets cancer I am immobile. I slip quietly away. It is too huge for me. I can’t avoid my friend’s cancer. I can’t pretend someone else will take care of him and be a sister to him because he wants me to be that sister and if I turn away he will know.
How can God be in each minute and there be so few of them! Why do we live in this seeming finity? Why were we called to exist inside of time during this life? What could be good about that?
I don’t know how to throw the demon off my back unless I scratch and kick and fight. I will pulverize this demon of despair, but I will not be able to do so without facing the finite. I will never get to the infinite until I have come to terms with the finite. And I can’t come to terms with the finite without facing death: my own, my friend’s, my parents’, my husband’s, my children’s.
And if I face death, how will I live? How will it change me? How will it affect the moments I live within? I am afraid.
Monday, January 09, 2006
- Continue emailing people until I have enough signups for my novel class to make it go
- Correct French assignments
- Plan French class
- Work on my novel
- Plan my novel writing class
- I seem to have a cold, which is making me dopey and unfocused.
- Child #4 is doing a math worksheet and asking me questions about it
- Child #3 needs to be reminded about chores
Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art says,
Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.
The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
A good rule of thumb. Of the above list, the work I most want to do is my novel. (The thing I least want to do is have a cold.) I have half an hour until dinner. (Which has been prepared already by child #3. What a blessing.) I wonder if I will feel less defeated if I use it to work on the novel. The classes must be planned, the work must be corrected, the children must be mothered.
Thirty minutes of not being a martyr. Ready, set…
She teaches us that poetry is not only is not equal to, but must speak out of extremity. And that in all extremity: AIDS, disaster, human disaster such as we’re seeing around us constantly — that silence, if it’s not death, it is defeat.
Hearing this, I burst inexplicably into tears. Silence, if it is not death, is defeat. What do I do? I work with words. I use them all the time. I make a little money at it writing stories with biblical themes. Books for children that receive reviews like, “sure to become a classic.” I do love those stories. But most of my real writing is poetry -- the rawest of it read only at gatherings of other poets who’ve seen some trench warfare of their own. Or it’s emails, sparked off by some egroup discussion that got me going. Or it goes into my journal.
“I’ll be the first to buy your journal when you publish it,” another author teased me when he signed his umpteenth novel for me at a conference several years ago. I’d told him I got up and journaled every morning. He doesn’t journal. He cuts to the chase and begins working on his novels immediately after his teeth are brushed. And the man is a marketing machine: novels, magazine work, reprints. I’d asked him how he did it and that was his answer. Write.
And write I do. But. I was listening to Jane Yolen at a conference one time (probably the same conference). She said, “You have to fall through the words and into the story,” and I immediately got what I’ve since identified as the “writers’ conference stomachache.” It was that longing to dive deeply enough into a piece of work that I can get lost there and forget everything: my kids, my friends, my responsibilities – and live just in that story for awhile. Yes, yes, I do this with the children’s stories. I struggle through them at two a.m. and meet the deadline (sort of). The check that comes in the mail afterwards pays for some groceries. The work arrives with illustrations and I say, “Yup, I’m still a writer.” But.
What would satisfy me? I’m not silent. I’m not. If anything I tell too much and then creep away to hide. Writing is about more than self-expression. It is a conversation, a link with the lonely world. Writing brings solace just as reading brings solace. Words leap from the mind to the page and then from the page to the mind of the reader and there is a bond. We hold each other in that moment.
My life is so full. It is loaded with children, teenagers, friends, my husband, my mother, dad, students, colleagues. I can never give them enough. The phone rings all day long. It is not ringing now because it is quarter to one and I’m here with a glass of pear cider unable to sleep. I love these people. I love them so much and I want to give them my time, my attention, my words. And I can’t always. Some days, some weeks, I hibernate. I don’t answer the phone at all. I don’t check my messages or my email. I hide in my house or in a coffee shop with my laptop. What am I thinking writing more words and inviting more people into my life who I cannot take care of?
And what am I being silent about? What will I NOT write about, except in my journal? Is my silence defeat? If I write the last year into poems or essays, would it make the frightening things stay? Words have that power, I’m afraid. That is, I’m afraid that they do. If someone asked me about this I would tell them, “Write! Write all of it!” But I’ve learned these last twelve months that you reach a saturation point in which you simply can’t think about the thing anymore. I used to probe people to get to their deeper pain, thinking that I was a kind of surgeon conducting the necessary lancing of a wound. Perhaps I helped them, but now I understand: some pain requires silence, at least for awhile.
The telling of the story can become a kind of act. You are a trained bear, balancing the ball on your head. The story is full of pathos, of intrigue, of confusion. It elicits comforting words from the listener. You become disconnected from it. Which is what you really want anyway. I’ve developed a story about the last year, and it goes like this: when you experience the things you’ve feared for so long, you discover that the fear was the real pain – the sleepless nights, the pit-of-the-stomach dread. The actual happening is almost a relief. And that’s true. And I’m awake tonight with my pear cider revisiting the unknown future. It is better than the fear, it really is. The pain is almost sweet. You know that you are real if you can lie awake and feel that ache.
Perhaps this is like birthing. I never knew, until I went through labor, how physically strong I was – what I could endure. Now I know. There is hope in all of it.