Bear with me through fragments: claiming my story

IMG_3436

Snowy night in my hometown, Spencerport, New York.

“Temporary;
I have never heard
 such a word that made 
me feel both
 terrified
and
 relieved.”
–Mandeq Ahmed, “both”

“I can’t abandon
the person I used to be
so I carry her”
–a Tumblr poet, herkindoftea.tumblr.com

“Part of us
is unfailing.     As light
as sun through water.     Though water
is reckless. Waves crash.”
–Carole Glasser Langille,  from “Out of Habit,” In Cannon Cave

“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
–Kobayashi Issa

SEVERE DEPRESSION PSYCH, reads my hospital record. SUICIDAL IDEATION. In bold. All caps. Letters that will never go away.

Stories. People all over the world are claiming them as their own and speaking out about them. My best friend Olivia, in an incredible act of bravery and strength, just told some of hers at http://myensomusings.wordpress.com. (Read it and be floored. Moved. Inspired. Perhaps even changed.) The power of her story, along with a desire to not only know others in this way but also participate in this knowing by being known, has inspired me to tell more of my own. So, here’s a window into mine.

Two weeks ago, I got out of the hospital after vying with a severe kidney infection. I misinterpreted my symptoms and was treating myself for another condition with which I have already been diagnosed instead of seeking treatment for the infection I really had.

By the time I arrived at the hospital, I shook uncontrollably, couldn’t keep anything down, watched my fever rise and rise. The doctor who first saw me in the ER said that I had the highest white blood cell count of any patient he had seen in his entire career–he later compared it to the numbers he sees in Stage Four leukemia patients half an hour before they die. My body was fighting with everything it had just to stay alive.

My fever spiked that night to 104.6, and wouldn’t lower, despite all the medication the doctors tried. That kind of fever can cause brain damage, seizures, and death. As a last resort, my nurses covered my body with ice to prevent me from seizing, and hopefully save my life. They did. I remained in the hospital fighting my infection for six days before being released and having to rest another seven days before returning to my college classes.

Today, as I was poring over my doctors’ notes (the ones they give you when you’re discharged) in a thick manila envelope, I came across the bolded letters in my patient history. Bolded letters in my past. Present. SEVERE DEPRESSION PSYCH. SUICIDAL IDEATION. Always there.

I remember when two social workers came during my hospital haze of fever and painkillers to act concerned and ask me whether I was having “any more of that” since my hospitalization for it last March. Anger flashed through me. Any more of that? I thought to myself. Any more of that? My whole life is battling that. Any more of that? Leave me be. “No,” I answered aloud. “Not of note.”

Melancholy has been inextricably threaded through my history; I think of it as a color-tone in the tapestry of my life, more prominent in certain lights than in others. Since childhood, I’ve been mostly quiet and introspective, down on myself, perfectionistic. I struggled with severe bouts of depression and self-harm in high school, but I had always thought of college as my source of hope and way out – a way out of the small town in upstate New York where I grew up, a way away from destructive relationships, a way to experience freshness and freedom in ways I never before had imagined. So I made sure everyone knew I was serious about getting away and flew 3,000 miles to attend Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.

College was a whole new kettle of fish. I changed a lot over the course of these last four years–dyed my hair then let it go natural again, started running, lost a lot of weight, became a philosophy addict, read buckets of new books, essays, and journal articles, learned more about just how little I really knew, became passionate about issues like race, ethnicity, gender, conflict and reconciliation, and all kinds of other things that I knew nearly nothing about in high school, fell in love, was shaped by my study abroad experience in Ireland, got into yoga and Pilates, became a vegetarian, started working toward veganism, examined my spiritual beliefs again and again, allowing them to shift organically as I learned and grew, made lifelong friends, joined the Sailing Team, did more hiking and ocean swimming than I’ve done in the rest of my life TOTAL, became more independent, developed my perception of my own identity, dreamed big about the future, drank gallons of coffee and tea, wrote, lived fluidly, (all so good) then

almost lost my best friend to suicide. Let the love of my life go. Grappled with my health as thing after thing went wrong. Let the melancholy grow and rise. Stopped being able to get out of bed and face the world on a regular basis. Took four Incompletes in classes the fall of my junior year because I was so depressed (both situationally and physiologically) that I couldn’t get my work done. Was only able to complete two of them over Christmas break. Watched the deadline sail by and the “I”s be replaced with “F”s. (For someone whose identity was so tied to her grades, I’m surprised I survived that, let alone that in combination with everything else.)

I started a new semester (Spring 2014), and got behind again because I still hadn’t dealt with the core issue of my depression. I beat myself up about both of those things. My best friend at school went abroad. I took more phone calls about other suicide attempts of my best friend from home. I felt totally hopeless and powerless to help or even be myself for her. I contemplated leaving school. I contemplated killing myself.

Then I was raped by an acquaintance while on a casual date. I said nothing, and reached out to no one. I watched time stop as my chest filled again and again with the kind of pain that no physical ailment can explain. Time remained frozen until, in a breathless, desperate moment, I called a friend on campus, telling her that I had stopped taking care of myself and that I didn’t feel safe here – that I needed help. We drove together to the hospital, where she sat holding my hand until I was admitted to the psych ward for severe depression and suicidal ideation.

And now, eight months later, I’m here. Alive. After months of intensive therapy and intentional work on my part to process through my past and build self-awareness, mindfulness, holistic health, and gratitude into my moment-by-moment life, I am seeing changes.

But what I’m here to testify to isn’t my journey from “being in a bad place” to “being in a good place.” (I don’t believe it works like that at all. Change isn’t linear in my experience – it’s more seasonal, like life in a garden. I’m not by any means ready for an ultimate victory cry.)

I’m here to testify that it happens. I’m here to testify that it happened, and is happening, for me. I’m here as a reminder that mental illness affects everyone, everywhere, whether directly or by proxy–loved ones, friends, family members, acquaintances, every person we don’t know but to whom our hearts go out. I’m here to let my voice join the voices of so many before me–it is real, it is everywhere, and it needs to be brought into the light. When will we stop stigmatizing it and instead start facing it–facing it with the love, compassion, and care required of any illness? When will we start throwing our hands in instead of throwing them up? When will we start participating in the healing?

I carry my past and myself with me. I carry this heaviness, this propensity for uncontrolled sadness and bouts of deep depression, these flashbacks to the rape, this loss and grief and void. I carry the person I’ve been.

I combat these things with the knowledge that I am capable of overcoming adversity.

I remind myself daily that I don’t just carry the bad things–that I also carry with me the support of my friends, family, and incredible boyfriend, Oliver. I carry with me hope and love and a will to live. I carry with me the desire to let people in similar circumstances know that they are not alone, and help them in any way that I can. I carry with me all of the parts of myself that are in tension with one another, and do my best to hold them there. It’s not my fault that I was raped. It’s not my fault that I hit my breaking point and needed professional help to get back on my feet. It’s not my fault that this stays with me, and always will. I am unashamed. Here and now, I own my story. I own my mental illness. I own my past. These alone do not define me.

Self-acceptance is always a journey, but I’ll say it now – I love who I am. Why have I felt ashamed to say that, or even feel that? Why should I feel ashamed to say that? There is no shame in being unashamedly oneself. None. No shame. And I guess to do that–to be unashamedly myself–I had to start here.

tumblr_lsv3okmi5O1qk59e2o1_1280

Peace. Joy. Wherever you are, may they be yours in abundance today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paradigm plash: that journal entry from a pantser gone planner

What it feels like one is about to scale at the start of National Novel Writing Month.

What it feels like one is about to scale at the start of National Novel Writing Month.

Week Two of NaNoWriMo has officially begun. Cue epic adventure music, or perhaps the tinkling-glass sound of failure, or perhaps both at the same time, paradoxical though it may seem. For those of you who aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month), it’s a widely-used, yearly option designed for committed creativity. It’s for writers who resolve to dedicate their Novembers to cranking out an entire (50,000 words minimum) novel. The 50,000 word minimum means that on average, each writer should be writing a minimum of 1,667 words per day. That doesn’t sound too steep initially, but when you’re set on thinking of yourself as a “pantser” like me (writer slang for someone who doesn’t really like to plan/seem to work best by planning), things tend to get pretty overwhelming pretty fast.

This year, I resolved to change my approach. As against my nature as I thought it might be, I sat down on slowly cooling October nights filled with coconut macaroon hot chocolate, warm vanilla bubble baths, bluegrass fiddle and mandolin, sautéed vegetables over wild rice, brilliant sunsets, and short stories out of Haruki Murakami’s collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, to think long and hard about my novel. This might not, at first, sound like a groundbreaking concept to you (Wow, thinking. Novel. No pun intended…), but it might sound more so when I tell you that usually, I start November 1st with nothing more than a vague idea. In the past, I’ve even started without specific characters in mind. (That, I’ve found, is often a train wreck in the making for me, resulting in a mid-month existential novelular crisis out of which I have pronounced trouble making my way.)

So, I, the unlikely planner, started mapping out settings, doing research, and, most importantly for me, planning in-depth characters in whom I could believe and to whom I could entrust a little bit of faith. These characters have very real quirks and vices, hopes and dreams, pasts and personalities. These characters are distinctive in ways of which none of my previous characters had dared to dream.

Whilst in the midst that planning whirlwind, I realized two very important things about myself and my process: 1) I learned that the act of planning shifts the entire paradigm by which I approach writing novels during the month, in a GOOD way, and 2) I realized that I might be more of a planner at heart than I had ever thought or imagined I could be. All my life, I’ve associated creativity with images of spontaneity and gripping inspiration that take hold in the heat of passion. There has never before been room for planning in my psychological novelizing schema. While I thought for years that this had been enlivening my work, keeping it fresh and innovative, it had also been keeping me stuck, often, in unnecessarily difficult places. I often found myself genuinely unable to move forward. If I didn’t feel “inspired,” I wouldn’t write, plain and simple. I just wouldn’t do it. The very thought of writing be damned, I’d think. I’d make my way to a little café with every initial intention of putting pen to paper, but if I “just wasn’t feeling it,” I would sip my coffee mindlessly instead, perhaps pulling out a novel (which I hadn’t written, naturally) to read, ignoring the nagging little voice that said “just do it.” No more.

Even more mind-blowing than my October planning is the fact that my day-by-day planning has been so successful. I’m definitely a write-in-the-morning kind of person at this stage in my life, so I’ve been carving out as “sacred for generating” the time between 5:00 and 6:30 a.m. Then, during the rest of the day, I’ve been thinking about what would happen if characters t, x, and y were to interact, and allowing these interactions to unfold in my mind until evening. I might jot down a few notes, but nothing intense. It’s more about the mental planning here for me. I sleep on those ideas, then wake up and write a new scene or two based on what I thought about the day before. This non-strenous micro-planning has made it infinitely more enjoyable to sit down and just write.

Just write. A motto I had dismissed with all my heart but now fully embrace.

Just write. Two simple, beautiful, breathtaking words.

Just write. My paradigm plash.

IMG_3360

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing myself a spine: writing as fortification

I like to think of National Novel Writing Month as writing myself a spine. First, literally. I like to imagine that with each page I add to my manuscript, I’m filling a book spine just the perfect size for my story. Perhaps the spine is a beautiful forest green color with gold lettering, or perhaps a dappled grey. Perhaps it looks new, maybe already tattered, lovingly worn. These images help me propel myself forward during the writing process.

Second, figuratively. My writing has become, over the years, so much a part of my life that when I go through “drier” seasons, I feel as though I’m starting to slip away. The revitalization (and simultaneous draining) that significant writing projects bring makes me feel as though I’m building myself up again from the ground up, fortifying myself with each word I scribble into my small observations notebook and each word typed in my new novel document.

I am, in fact, writing a novel this month. Day Two, and I’m already passionately engaged morning, noon, and night in crafting something. This particular novel is something very different than past writing projects, because I’m experimenting a lot more than I usually do with fictitious worlds. I’m getting more and more comfortable dabbling in the broad spheres of ideas available to me. I’m fortifying both the core of my being and my inventive well.

The novel is called Where the Willow Bends, and here is the synopsis I wrote for it on the  National Novel Writing Month site:

Southern Californian Averil Streep, through chance meetings with eccentrics such as a strange librarian, a pair of old men trapped inside a play, a healing mage from a mountain lake near the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and a homeless man named Lawrence Taylor, is lead on a journey that ranges from the Pacific Northwest to New Zealand to a mystical place at the contour of multiple worlds in a life-defining quest. Where The Willow Bends is a tale of borders and boundaries, of conflict and courage, of the bizarre and of the dazzlingly bright forces which guide our lives as human beings.

Now for a few reflections on the novel writing and the notion of fortification.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to fortify oneself through one’s work.

I think I’ve been thinking along those lines particularly because I’ve come to see how dangerous it can be to fortify oneself through one’s perceived identity.

Identity, I believe, is fluid and expansive, shifting beyond our own self-conceptions on a regular basis, and on that basis, I don’t think we can build our foundation for strength on the ways in which we see ourselves. That’s like putting all of our weight into a rotting rod.

My theory is that such foundations are far too easily crushed when we do something outside of our own self-descriptions, surprising and disappointing others and ourselves and causing us to question who we really are. But what we consistently do (although it may point to who we are at a given time) can give us better strength than our identity alone. Our action, I believe, can ground us in good places.

Writing grounds me in a good place. And although I know some of the things which my writing life suggests about who I am, I am not guided by these assumptions. I am guided by the good work itself, which brings me more joy than any words can express. If there is a sacred work for me, it is writing.

A crisp new page, ink stains on my left hand, the rush of the keys as concepts become language–all of this doing is sacred and life-giving. It is life-building. It is fortifying. The writing life, the writing world, the writing grit, is magic. It takes me from square zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye. It restores my sense of peace and centeredness like nothing else can. This month, once more, I’m writing myself a spine.

Be guided by the good work, friends, whatever that means for you, whether writing or gardening, doing yoga or building houses. Whatever it may be, do it to fortify yourself. Peace to you as you let your passion reorient and reconstruct your life this November. Cheers and thanks.

tumblr_lsrf4t4Nfe1qk59e2o1_1280

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sounding the Depths of My Love

For Oliver.

Silently now I surface, sigh, strip
black wetsuit from aching skin, and observe the red sunset
(wistful and wild) from the deck of my creaky catamaran. I’ve spent
months casting sonar, taking data, trying to locate
the limits of it all, the underwater limits of my love.
My boat is full of pearls.

They say what you see is ‘only the tip of the iceberg.’
I, in the name of Being Better, wanted to apprise myself of the underwater
majority, see how wide and white the way I cared for you glowed,
and—most importantly of all—
dive along its glittering limits so I could destroy it. I wanted to hack
the whole iceberg of Loving You into tiny pieces until it fragmented into
unrecognizable ice chunks, current-floating their way to Antarctica,
disintegrating slow. To my chagrin, each chunk I hacked
away rose to the surface not as water or a tiny shard of glass-like ice but as a pearl.
My boat is full of pearls.

As it turns out, my search for the ends
of my love didn’t stop at the tip of the iceberg,
or even at the cavernous reaches of its base. I came across craters, singing
whales thick in their dappled bodies, still, hollow wrecks of ships
deep in the shadowed abyss. I came to the depths of the ocean of me,
but I confess I have yet to come across a square inch
(either in darkness or in pure, blue-green light)
that doesn’t adore the ocean of you.
My boat is full of pearls.

And now, having surfaced and sighed, I remember the oceans in us all–
vast and so separate by many’s standards–and it occurs to me that all the oceans
in the world are parts of the same continuous body.
All of the oceans are one.
Legs dangling, I watch the curve of the speckled horizon dim,
think on that. My boat is full of pearls.

Posted in poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Metanoia and a fireside espresso, please: reflections on life spent curled up and whole

This month, April, has been about dreaming well.

Easter weekend was a whirlwind of berry hibiscus tea, cinnamon-and-raisin brioche with caramel apple butter, blood orange waffles, Asparagus Tartine on toasted baguette with black pepper goat cheese, sprouts, chamomile flowers, and sun-ripened tomatoes, and tropical ginger blends, to be sure. It was a weekend of Celtic fiddle music and a brand new John O’Donohue book bought at the Telecote Book Shop in Montecito. (Warm hoodies and long, flowing skirts and speckled gray wool socks with worn jeans and a whole lot of grace prevailed.) It was an abundance of continued mindfulness practice–mindfulness when I eat, mindfulness when I pray, mindfulness when I rise and in the warm moments just before sinking into a deep sleep filled with the melancholy sounds of train whistles barely departed, during which the mind recounts the day’s mishaps and adventures in flashes and gushing bursts. This year’s Easter weekend, in short, was a gift to the senses. It was a weekend to think about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It was a weekend to be with my dear friend, Ryan. It was a weekend to miss my best friend at home, whose twenty-first birthday fell on Easter itself (Happy birthday again, dearest Olivia). It was a weekend not just to breathe, but to absorb with my whole being the hallowed, earthy scents of new life flourishing in every corner of the visible and invisible worlds.

In the wake of it all–all of the splendid, raw things that weekend brought–my mind is a vat of tectonic tremblings. I’m thinking about eucharistio–true thanksgiving–in the wake of reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, borders and the implications of consciousness in the wake of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, connections and discrepancies between rhythms of love and desire in the wake of my own history. Pieces are shifting inside of me at a rate faster than I can keep track of (intellectual pieces, physical pieces, emotional pieces, whole-being pieces), and I am trying not to let anything slosh out of me too quickly even as the earth inside quakes and fragments. It is still too hot, I must remind myself, from the time it has spent burning in my core. I must let it steam for a while. I must let it steam. Processing it all within myself as deeply as I am able before letting things pour out of me (reactions, actions, decisions, emotive expressions in the form of art) is the challenge-path that lies ready before me, a winding, whispering path marked ‘To Cooler, More Steady Ground.’ Achingly, I am filled with both joy and a sober awareness of the evanescence of life. I am flooded with the grandeur of the fleeting moment.

Alive. The vulnerability that entails takes my breath away. I have dreamed, of course, of times more robust, more filled with peace. I dream about them all the time. The fact that life is blurrier than that–bloodier than that–sometimes makes me want to throw my hands up and shout existential curses at the sky, or call on the spirit of Sartre. But right now, as I sit in the garden alone in the glow of a warm sunset, it is glorious to feel so messy.

And I realize, just like that, that messy doesn’t equal broken.

Dreaming well doesn’t necessitate leaving the now.

Existence curled up and whole does not demand perfection.

Life isn’t always fireside espresso, but when it is–when the birdsong lilts high in the air and the ocean breeze lifts your feet with each running step and you’re planning for a summer working on a farm in Gig Harbor, Washington–you’re allowed to celebrate. You’re allowed to drink in the richness of the world around you and, as always, give thanks for it, no matter how messy you are. Eucharistio. You’re allowed to plant yourself on a barstool before a roaring fire and swig down the rich espresso of life beneath a soft, cyan blanket. You’re allowed to explore your own borders. And, most importantly, you’re allowed to burn.

I will be transfigured yet. Metanoia. For now, I dream of summer and steam.

***

What is transfiguring you in this season of your life, in these raging, lengthening April days? Where are your borders? What, as a living, thinking, feeling human being, are you experiencing in the now, and how is that shaping your narrative as yourself? I would love to pore over your comments. And, as always, you are more than welcome to contact me by e-mail (elizabeth.r.caton@gmail.com) for a more private reception and response. Your stories and perspectives are as precious to me as any story I could ever hold within myself.

cropped-img_6353.jpg

 

Posted in creative non-fiction, essay, prose, question | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For now, a sapling: processing through a year of trauma and joy

Image

Is it possible to experience joy–robust and authentic joy–without experiences of true suffering and/or trauma?

This is the compelling question which Dr. Amy Hollywood of the Harvard Divinity School raises at the end of her The Mystery of Trauma, the Mystery of Joy. Hollywood’s work on trauma and joy is an exploration–through historical psychological and hagiographic lenses and with particular attention to The Life of Christina the Astonishing–of the ways in which human understandings of trauma and joy have been interpreted in relationship to one another by thoughtful communities over time. She invites her audience to consider these relationships boldly and intelligently, inspiring a thirst to know whether and/or how the connections between trauma and joy might be re-imagined, re-theorized, and reworked.

image-21

Referencing theorists from Foster to Freud, Hollywood’s paper explores the question of how the ethical injunction to “believe” trauma victims who seek to tell their stories seems to conflict with the ways in which these cases may not actually be “real” as they are reported, as is evidenced in cases of dissociation and Freudian repression. Such ideas imply that the trauma victim stands outside of his or her traumatic experience, or distorts or is not able to accept it. This discrepancy troubles Hollywood insofar as it seems to conflict with our ability to hold trauma narratives as sacred. Out of this impulse of being troubled, she probes the connections within trauma and between trauma and joy via her work with medieval texts.

These questions about trauma come to life when applied to hagiography, accounts of the lives of saints. Using the medieval text of Christina the Astonishing, Hollywood explores the implications of this narrative, in which a desire for God results, for Christina, in a desire for death. In Christina’s story, dramatic bodily suffering gives credence to her words. Insofar as this text has been interpreted in the past, Hollywood posits that Christina might not be seen as capable of bearing witness to the joy of Christ without the backdrop of her traumatic experience. It is this very assumption that she questions. In keeping with the way in which Dr. Barbara Newman of Northwestern University reads texts like this, mental disturbance often gives way to bodily pathologies in women, and this gives them a closer relationship to the divine—they are able to gain, via their sensitivity, a glimpse of another world as a result of the fact that women’s bodies are (as seen in medieval times) weaker and more porous than the bodies of men. In this kind of discourse, the implication is that the trauma these women experience gives them a space in which they may authentically experience divine joy.

image-27

Hollywood has serious reservations about Newman’s interpretation, because as a result of such a reading, Christina’s hysteria is only seen as “the real thing” in relationship to the trauma she undergoes during her time as a holy woman deeply suffering. Hollywood is interested in the implications of turning this assumption of intimate relationship between trauma and joy on its head. Even as she is familiar with the ways in which previous scholarship on Christina’s joy (and indeed, joy in general) is seen as dependent in some fundamental way upon trauma, these lenses of analysis also concern her and make her wonder whether this connection is indeed essential to experiencing joy. She questions the necessity of the relationship between the two, and asks whether it might be possible to have true joy without a traumatic element or counterbalance.

image-19

Particularly provocative and inspiring is the way in which Hollywood fuses theoretical and literary work with the everyday, namely with the implications that this literature and theory has on ordinary human lives in plausible circumstances. As a pragmatic extension of her questions, one cannot help but be drawn into a private self-discourse regarding whether an individual person’s joy is dependent upon his or her relating this sense of joy to its antithesis, trauma. Is it only by inhabiting our moments of trauma and coming to fully inhabit the pain and sorrow of this trauma that we are able to experience the fullness of joy that we experience in circumstances not dictated by woe?

Hollywood’s question has become my own.

image-17

In order to start working on that question, I’ll confess that last week I received a postcard from New York with a picture of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night splashed across the front, and I burst into tears.

“Dear Bea–” it read. “I concelebrated the Mass today at St. Patrick’s with Cardinal Dolan, and also with Cardinal Tagle, visiting from the Philippines. Then we went to brunch & then to the Museum of Modern Art. Saw this famous painting. Love, Dad.”

My father–the professor in his bow ties, the priest in his chasuble, the confidante in his listening skin–knows me better than almost anyone else. And after an academic year of trauma–illness, broken relationships, Incompletes in classes, and seemingly interminable times of pain spent three thousand miles away from him and the rest of my family–even something as simple as the kindness of a postcard written in his elegant hand (with his standard emerald green ink, naturally) can make me thankful enough to cry.

There are gifts in everything–in the two hour walks with my favorite Religious Studies professor, Dr. Telford Work, on Tuesday afternoons, in fresh, warm apricot chamomile muffins and bottomless foamy chai at The French Press with my best friend, Ryan, in that feeling I get when my bed is made and I’ve just climbed under the covers to sleep, safe and completely relaxed. They’re everywhere–in the flowers that grow beneath the springtime haze of the marine layer, the memories that burn (but burn because they were good and harsh and true), the brand new record waiting to be played.

image-28

Trauma–the ER, the back of a hand, the end of a relationship, academic failure, the inability to breathe. Drowning.

Joy–Cinnabon coffee in the mornings, a day full of laughter, toes in the sand, a date at the Biltmore with one of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met, listening to The John Butler Trio or Victor Wooten while folding laundry that smells of lavender. Rising to the light.

Trauma–emptiness, loneliness, depression, cold.

Joy–letting myself be filled by the things that bring me life, intentional community with others, Strawberry Häagen Dazs, sudden warmth navigated while meeting the eyes of a stranger.

image-26

Would I feel as much joy about these things that warm my being if I had never gone through the aggressive freeze?

Although I am still searching for a satisfactory theoretical answer, it seems possible after thinking about it that the connection between trauma and joy could be a function of the world’s current imperfections, but not a necessary condition of existence for all time. In other words, perhaps this connection between trauma and joy as indispensible is not “the way things are supposed to be” or indeed “the way they must necessarily be,” but rather something temporarily broken, something capable of being restored. It seems plausible that we might as human beings one day experience joy without the necessary backdrop of trauma as a means by which to fully and robustly identify and experience this joy talis qualis.

I will hope. And for now I will do my best to live. Joyfully and thankfully I will live. Lightly, in the butter-yellow sun. Growing–ever growing. I will bathe myself in this warmth. I am a sapling. For now, a sapling. I will focus on growing into myself. I will take my time. Trauma after trauma will unravel me and I will allow myself to heal after each one. I will cultivate joy. All, in the words of Julian of Norwich (my favorite British mystic), shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. I believe her.

***

Image

We whisper our narratives everywhere we go. Here’s to bends in the path and embracing the unknown. Cheers.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing rituals: no panacea, but a short stack of idea-pancakes piled high with raspberry jam

UNAUTHORIZED WRITING ADVICE FROM THE MOUTH OF ONE WHO DETESTS CANTELOUPE

“If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing.”

–Samuel Beckett, Molloy

IMG_6469

Ti–, To–, Silence.

I wear a watch that doesn’t work.

Not only does it not display the right time–it doesn’t tick at all. Dead battery. My older sister, Emily, gave it to me as a hand-me-down in…2007.

I especially tend to don my poor old Elkon (Albert is his name) right before an epic foray into the terrain of God-Awful Writing Projects, as a clarifying gesture to those misguided souls who expect me to work on a timeline. You thought…..But you were mistaken. I’ll take my time. 

The defiant stillness of Albert’s worn band around my wrist is something small, reminding me that delineating a specific time isn’t as important as paying attention to the quality of the moment in which I find myself. Albert works because he symbolizes my conscious choice to tune out the voices vying for my time-oriented attention and give my attention to quality–to sit down and write organically, in the orange-peel freshness of Right Now. He challenges me to be fully present in each moment as I wrestle and dive. I churn out better thoughts when he’s by my side.

Try finding your Albert.

You always huff and puff hardest on the first long run. 

Call me the ostrich.

One of the grandest, most menacing challenges I face as a writer is deciding how to frame my arguments and ideas at the onset of a new project. I’m awkward. Occasionally I start scribbling with an image or other paradigmatic tool already in mind, but quite often I feel as though I’m racing out of the starting gate stumped, feathers malaligned. Cue asymmetrical gallop.

Sometimes locating my rhythm–embracing my even stride–is as simple as sitting down with jasmine green tea (or an espresso, as mood permits), taking a few deep breaths, rolling up my giant sweater sleeves, and beginning somewhere. Anywhere. The first word is always the hardest, I remind myself, and you can always change it later. If you just show up every day, you’re miles ahead of everyone who doesn’t. 

Be at peace with the awkward.

Add patience. Self-gentleness. Rinse, repeat.

When it comes to prep for the process, be bold like Arabica coffee.

Put on your black turtleneck, eat your tomato basil soup, listen to Arcade Fire’s Song on the Beach. Pace along the patio, sautée mushrooms and onions, carve an image of a polar bear into a hunk of driftwood. Pick dandelions or take a chainsaw to something. Dance to The Smiths or The Knife, pull out your ballet shoes and throw on a recording of Chopin, or make amends with your neglected banjo. Blow off the dust. Blow off the steam. Do what works for you. Make intrepidness a lifestyle. Get into the writing mode by finding those things that dazzle you into believing that you can do it. Then (the command you’ve been waiting for) do it.

Take those tributaries. That journey.

I don’t feel equipped to tell that story, narrate that history, take that journey. Just not that one. I have nothing original to contribute here. 

When my mind spins that way, I try to ask myself the question “Why do you feel ill equipped?” before trying strategies via which to feel better equipped. I try to get to the core of it all. And while I expect to realize that I’m attempting something too ambitious–too foreign–the honest voice that almost always echoes back from within after the hard work of my soul searching goes something like this: Too close to home.

In response to that ever-present fear, I’ve found it helpful to think about this:

“Your soul has been spinning stories since the day you were born. And these stories are not yours alone. They belong to your parents and ancestors. They belong to your hometown and region of the country. They are best told in their original dialect, and only someone from the area can do that successfully. Your creativity is likely to thrive and be especially productive when you are willing to face your life at many levels, understand your roots and embrace yourself in the most intimate ways. This doesn’t mean that all of your creative work will be about you. But its power and relevance come from your well. Sooner or later you must go home again. You must face the depths of that well. The parentage, the family story, the tribal story, the story of the hometown or region–all of it contributes to who you are now.”

-Vinita Hampton Wright

Take it home.

A benediction.

May your days overflow with vigor and with ink stains. May you use your energy to sprinkle creativity liberally on all that you touch–liberally like lime juice on your pico de gallo or rainwater on your upturned palms. May you eat toast and nectarines for breakfast, and vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. May you run high and loose in your body and your mind. May you take the time–your time–to do the good work of saying what you want to say without worry and without fear. May you find your rhythm. May you get it down. May you wait to edit. May you tell your own story using the cadences of your very own native tongue. May you believe with your whole being in the urgency of it. May you rip the words out of you like tangles buried deep in your soul-roots. May you expose them. May you hold them out as a still-beating offering for the world. May you unveil with intentionality precisely what you mean to unveil, and protect what needs protecting. May you unravel. May you be willing to bleed. There is grace in both the bleeding and the healing. May you jump. Jump.

IMG_6467

Posted in creative non-fiction, essay, prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment