My Bully Keeps Asking Me One Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

Rocky CoastIn the last few weeks, I’ve reached some new heights in my still-low-slung writing life. I joined an online writing group, and was paired up with a talented, thoughtful children’s lit writer. I asked friends and family members to read drafts of my writing, even though they had no real incentive to do so. I finished a short story—really finished it, with all the drafts and rewrites to prove it—, and submitted it to a contest, and a few small literary journal. Last night, I sent in my application for a small grant. Hell, I started this blog—that felt big for me.

After years of writing, writing, writing, I’ve started to do small things that are natural, normal, and necessary steps on this mythic path of “becoming” a writer. (Although I’m trying to get myself to believe that I am a writer because I write, in the same way that I am a reader because I read).

Each time I have done something, this mean little voice, with all these mean little worlds, has almost stopped me. This voice that just won’t stop hammering away at me—who do you think you are, Torrie? Why do you think you can do this? Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone, all my fears, and insecurities, and fragile self-worth bind themselves together to remind me that I can’t do what I want to do, and that I shouldn’t do it either. These demons wail together so that I imagine people in my life—kind, compassionate people—thinking to themselves, or saying to other people we both know “why is Torrie doing that?,” “who does Torrie think she is?,” “where does she get off thinking she has the right?”

I am my own accuser, constantly reminding myself that I have neither the talent nor the worth to lay myself before an unsolicited audience. And the nugget at the center of all these interlocking anxieties is this epically large fear that I have of being laughed at—being made the fool by my own self.

Harsh Rocks

I know why this fear is so out-of-control big. It’s because I have these piercing memories of being picked on, and laughed at in elementary school. The most vivid, though not the worst, of these memories is this one amalgamated memory of this same stunt that two or three girls in my second grade class would repeatedly pull on me.

I was largely friendless, ignored, though I didn’t know why, and quite, because I didn’t want to give my classmates more reasons not to like me. These few girls would do this thing where they’d start a conversation with me, in the library, or in the bathroom, or on the playground. All places where we’d have natural reasons to be moving. They’d give me a reason to talk to them, to answer them and try to engage with them, and then while I was talking, they’d move to somewhere I couldn’t see them, and would leave me alone, talking to myself. When nobody responded to me, I’d realize what happened, and I go looking for them, always finding them hiding, and laughing, and asking me how long I’d spent talking to myself.

The most vivid piece of this memory, the piece that was constant each time they pulled this stunt on me, is the sinking, humiliated feeling that I should have known better: Who was I to think that people (outside of my loving family) would want to talk to me? Would want to be friendly with me?

The bridge between feeling the presumptuous wanna-be in my writing life, and feeling the fool in the 2nd grade classroom is this: Both of these experiences involve me reaching for things that I deeply want. In 2nd grade, I wanted friendship; I wanted the girlhood comradery that is silently and inherently promised to school-aged children. Today, I want publication. I want my writing to be given a life outside of me and my laptop. Because in 2nd grade, I was burned when I grabbed onto an opportunity to fulfill that desire, the bully inside of me is now trying to convince me that I am equally as foolish and undeserving of seeking publication/recognition for my writing now as I was in seeking what I thought was a branch of friendship then.

(Is that bridge starting to appear?)

Every day, I fight against that mean little voice inside of me (so much meaner than any little girl) who is constantly accusing me of upjumping my position, of asking for things that I don’t have the right to ask for.

As I’ve started to be bold—or at least marginally bolder—with my writing, I’ve had to do some serious thinking about these internal condemnations, so that, in turn, I am able to banish its presence and power within me.

Here are those accusations, those things that I fear:

  • What I have to say or do is not worthy—does not have value—and I should know that, and I should not act like it does have value.
  • People will laugh, actively and cruelly, point-and-laugh-at-Torrie laugh, because they will see what I cannot: That I am of little value.
  • People will ask themselves the same questions that I, in my accuser’s voice, ask myself. Who does Torrie think she is? (This question kept me from starting a blog for years, and still keeps me from talking openly about my writing).

Here’s what I’m trying to say to these fears:

  • Writing or the written work I produce, does not define my value or worth, and one person, or one review board, or one editorial team also does not decide my writing’s value and worth. I believe in my writing right now, and someday, I may very well decide that what I’ve written isn’t valuable or worthy—but that still doesn’t, cannot, bear wait on my own personal value, or the value I see in my work today.
  • People just won’t laugh at me. Especially not strangers reading my work from their computer screen. It’s actually selfish of me to think that someone would take that kind of time and energy to point-and-laugh at a piece of writing that they don’t like, written by a writer they don’t know. (So many of my anxieties are selfish, or at least deeply self-focused).
  • People probably aren’t asking themselves these questions about me. It’s much, much, much more accurate that people are just ignoring me. Because this fear centers more around people I know (versus people I don’t know or people I won’t ever know), it has more power to weaken me, but it shouldn’t. People who care about me, or who find an interest in what I have to say, will pay attention, and people who don’t know me, who aren’t interested, who aren’t stirred by what I have to say will ignore it. And both are equally okay.

Pebbles

For the last five or six years, I have been toiling away at my computer screen—several different computer screens—writing, and learning about writing, and building an unshakable writing habit. I’ve produced thousands and thousands (literally) of typed and hand-written pages, and I’ve scrapped thousands of pages as well. I have written some really, really terrible stuff, and I’ve started to write some stuff that isn’t so terrible. Lately, I think I may have even written a few things that are coming close to good.

As I start to get closer and closer to good, and maybe even come within shooting distance of publishable, I’ve started to send my work into the world, to family and friends to read what I’ve poured my soul into, and to editors to consider. These are steps towards boldness, and steps towards publication, both of which I desire, and I am so glad to have taken these steps. Chances are, in 4-6 months (the average response period for literary journals, contests, etc.), I will start getting rejection letters, and none of them will say who in the hell do you think you are, thinking you deserved this?

Because I am the only one who speaks in my bully’s voice, and she? She’s a mean little bitch.

Bookshelf: “She’s Come Undone”

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I read. Incessantly, obsessively. I’ve turn the car around because I’ve left my book at home. I bring books to Target, on dates, to work, to friend’s homes, to parties. (I always bring a book to a party; it’s my shield against choking agoraphobia.)

As much as I love reading, though, I hate reviewing books. (Same with movies). The way that a piece of writing, or a particularly story, hits us is so subjective, so dictated by inherently subjective factors. At least it’s that way for me. Reading is an intensely personal and intimate, which means that I love or hate a book, it has more to do with me than it does with the actual book. I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m sending out my “good-bad” judgments out into the online world.

All that to say this: I just read one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a long time, and I want to talk about it. (A recommendation isn’t a review, right? Or maybe it is, and I’m just contradictions and hypocrisy.)

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Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was published in 1992, and I think my mom read it pretty quickly afterwards. I was born that year, so I think I can honestly say I have spent most of my life knowing that this was one of her favorite books. The summer before I left for college, she bought me a copy of She’s Come Undone at a thrift shop in Brooklyn Park, and told me that it’s a coming of age story about a fat girl, written in such a convincingly and authentically feminine voice that I won’t believe it was written by a man.

It took me five years, and four tries to finally read the book, and when I finally did, I loved it. (See what I mean about reading being highly subjective? I wasn’t in the right mood/frame of mind/attitude to read the book the other four times I tried, and thank God I didn’t read it then).

This book washed me clean. It’s all brokenness and hope. This searing portrait of redemption cut across a lifetime of ugly pain. I finished it this afternoon, and when I did every nerve was ringing out with the overwhelming, aching beauty that I found in this book.

It was this small story, stretched out over years and years of one person’s lifetime, about exactly what my mom had told me: An overweight girl fighting through all the demons and angels that life handed her. (My mom was also right in saying that Wally Lamb writes an incredible, real-as-day woman in a first person voice).

As a reader, I sunk into the story line, and could hear the voice of Dolores Price telling me to read another chapter, just another few pages, but this book impacted me as more as a writer. All 600 pages of my airport paperback copy, I felt like I was sitting underneath a fountain. There’s this double-sided thing that Lamb does, where he writes about the violent, ugly, and hateful with same intimate, emotional grace that he uses for the lovely, splendid, and poignant, and the effect is just magic. He writes with this power that stripped his characters bare, stripped his readers bare, and then somehow brought us all up together, more clothed and more human.

This book moved me, and it taught me, and it’s going to stay with me.

(As always, excuse the crummy iPhone photos).

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Stone House FlowersOne of my grandmothers, Grandma Shirley, has been on my mind recently. Maybe because last week, when I was cleaning, I found her wedding ring in my jewelry collection. I used to wear it everyday until one of the turquoise stones, set flat into hand-molded silver, began to chip.

Grandma Shirley died in 2001, when I was nine years old. I remember it being a Monday night that she died (although I don’t know if that’s true or not). On Tuesday morning, my dad shook me gently awake to tell me the news before he left for work. My mom was gone; she’d been one of my grandma’s primary caretakers at the end of her life, and she was in Inver Grove Heights, at my grandparent’s townhouse.

Because I was 9 when she died, and too young to really understand in any meaningful way what death was, I kept her death close to me, rolling it over slowly until it started to take more shape. When I was a college freshman, struggling through the poetry unit of the Creative Writing 101-type class I was taking, I wrote her a poem. In general, I make a clumsy poet, but there was something dear enough to me about this poem that I am at least willing to say I wrote it. (Interestingly enough, though, my first writing ever published was actually a crummy poem, taken by a girl power young adult journal).

I wrote this in the midst of my own fog of anxiety, and for a few months, it was a touchstone for me. A link between this and that, between someone who had loved me, and something I was still learning to understand.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Before her garden became her graveyard,
frothy green carrot tops and poppies,
my grandmother husbanded, kneeling in the dirt,

rearing flowers against disease.
I joined her for a harvest,
Filling baskets with sugar peas and tiger lilies,

as sun melted her cancer eaten body.
She closed her eyes and I
fed her last harvest to the sugar snap roots.

She left a vase in the garden,
and filling it with her last calla lilies,
I drifted for a decade,

through rhubarb stalks and irises,
where I found her vase
tipped over in a windstorm.

Now I pick peas with her coaxing fingertips,
sweet as the ones she blessed herself.
Matching seeds taking root

in soil tilled by hand,
where we each scattered handfuls of her ashes
and now leave flowers in her broken vase.

All the Color I Could Find

Use2Sunday morning, I woke up with aching feet, a scratching voice, and something between a head cold and a sniffle, and I decided to go for a run. I haven’t run since last summer (and even then it was sporadic), but it sound like the right thing for my body, and the right way to soak up what was promising to be the last spring-y day for a while.

Turns out that spring-y weather wasn’t supposed to kick in until noon-ish that day, so instead of the climbing-to-seventy-degree weather I expected, there were puffed clouds, racing grey, and a wind that still whipped with winter’s chill.

I live right on the edge of a large complex of soccer fields, skate parks (didn’t know those still existed), community centers, and nature areas. I headed this way, jumping in and out of the disc golf course to avoid flying discs, and heading generally towards the serenity gardens area. Although it’s a pretty spot, it’s a highly manicured garden area. When I moved to the area, I’d walk there on lazy Sunday evenings to walk through the wood chipped gardens, and the small ponds stocked with orange fish. Lovely, but tamed.

Behind the gardens are a few acres of marshy, swamp land ringed in by other community buildings and apartment complexes. A shallow, scummy creek runs through the swamp. Slow water with algae building up in the summer, and foam moats frozen into the ice during winter. I took a muddy path over towards this area, and paused on a small wooden bridge over the creek.

By some trick of the bearing wind and driving clouds, this little batch of nature, probably left alone only because the wetness of the ground would make for slowly sinking buildings, became wild. The swamp grasses were flattened out, tangled together by the snow and wind, and the trees, gnarled and solitary, held their bare arms stark against the sky.

I got off the trail, down to the level of the swamp grasses, and creek. There’s something special, for me, about getting off the path, especially when it’s pavement or cement (read: man made). I have a small, Neolithic longing to see what land and place looked like before humanity made its heavy mark, and when I get down to the literal ground, this small long gets fed.

Here’s what I am constantly having to remind myself: Getting down onto the dirt, and getting close up with it feeds a part of my soul, but there is so much treasure (As Calvin says: There’s treasure everywhere). The creek still had a thin film of ice, but it was slightly submerged, sinking slowly as open water spilled over the top of the ice from open edges. Foam, the color of heavily creamed coffee, and black dirt were frozen into this crust of ice, and a few pieces of algae—St. Patrick’s Day green—were still present in the stagnant water, leftover from summertime. Grasses (or maybe small birds?) had made these tiny, wild hatch marks in the ice, and rotting wood was overgrown with verdant, fecund moss. The branches of trees and shrubs were beginning to shake off their winter dormancy, their new bark a deep wine-red, shining in the weak sunlight, and dotted over with silver-gray.

I was a hunter, looking for all these riots of color, barely hidden in an area that looked, from up above, so barren and colorless. There was so much of it, everywhere I looked.   IMG_4581Use3IMG_4563Use5

I followed the stream all the way down to two domed culverts that funneled the water underneath the wide, two lane road. Down to the walking path that connected directly to the paths in and around my apartment building.

When I hit pavement, that sense of wild was gone. I actually felt foolish having through there might have been any hint of wilderness in my little walk. All along the paved trails was a different kind of color: Garbage. Caribou Coffee cups with brow residue in the grooved bottoms, shopping bags caught in knobby tree bark, plastic bottles and soda cans, and candy wrappers. All the refuse that we mindlessly, unintentionally, shrug away, uncovered after the snow melt. On my way back home, I passed three piles of discarded Christmas trees, thrown a few feet off the path, into the wooded disc golf course, their evergreen faded. There was even the rotting carcass of a couch, cushions split open, and a shattered glass tabletop underneath it.

The Noise Got Inside: A Body in Need of Quiet and Still

In the last few months, my world has gotten loud. 1620467_10152668126294698_166718703_n In any given day, I will listen to music, and to podcasts on my way to and from work. I will use my laptop to watch reruns while I do chores, and then I will watch an episode (or two or three) of one of the great television shows I’m working through. I will check Twitter, and Facebook, and Buzzfeed, and then underneath my fingertips, there will be a photo essay on Hardwick shepherds in England’s Lake District that is so beautiful it makes me ache. I am an enthusiastic consumer. The stuff that you can get your hands on is incredible. I spend my days immersing myself in this wealth of artwork and information, and most nights, I feel like I got a little more out of the day.

But lately, I’ve been crawling into bed, and my ears hurt from the quiet of the nighttime. 1653533_10152668126599698_624419121_n (2)Before this becomes a diatribe against the digital age, let me say this: I love how many access points I have, literally, on my cell phone. As a writer, it’s like a mainline to magic, but I think I’ve reached a point where I’ve gotten myself too immersed. Connected to the point that what was once inspiring is now inundating. Just last week, I was reading, and found myself unable to hear the words on the page until I turned on instrumental music to drown out my crowding thoughts. I needed a distraction to distract myself from my own distractions.

That level of internal noise is frightening to me.

The mind and the body need quiet, and stillness. They need stimulation too, but with one, you have to have the other. I have always been far too good at consuming constant stimulation without giving myself any stillness, and it’s now starting to show its wear. I am more distracted than I want to be, worn out, too quickly frustrated by slipups in my grand plan. (I don’t want to think about how my consumption is showing itself on my relationships.) What this is all pointing me towards, (and what I’ve been thinking of all the more since I read this stunning request), is that I need to begin to slow down, quiet myself.

In the right moment, the idea of doing this, this intentional backing away, feels dangerous and subversive. I keep asking myself what will I miss if I choose not to consume? What will I miss if I choose to be quiet? Choose to be still? Choose to be alone, or choose to be present? What will I miss if I don’t?

Here’s what I know I want: I want to see and know the people in front of me deeply. I want to feel more readily connected with the present (already difficult for me, because of the anxiety that is as constant as my heartbeat). I want deep joy and meaning in my experiences, and in what I read, or listen to, or watch. I want to write wildly. I want to be still, and to be quiet, and I want to feel the deep stirrings of the human soul—the need to love, to give, to create. I want to live along the pipeline that puts me into direct friendship, relationship, with my Creator, God. 603656_10152668128194698_548563690_n (2)If I’m not making space in my life to seek out these things, or I’m allowing my noisy consuming to eat away at rest and quiet and thought, then I’m endangering myself. I’m endangering the most precious pieces of my life (all things I can’t consume: love, family, friendship, creativity and creation).

I’m not giving up my digital life, or giving up television, or my cell phone. I like these things, and none of it is evil. Indeed much of it is astounding—Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, this podcast where Sherman Alexie and Jess Walters record themselves talking about writing, Better Call Saul. This is beautiful stuff. Instead, what I am going to do—going to try to do—is back away from the excess of it. Learn to be “master of all, and slave to none.” I’m going to try to listen to my body, and hear for the times that I need stillness, quiet prayer, learn to recognize my body’s rhythms and rests. I’m going to try to stop passively consuming junk, and start unsubscribing from podcasts that I only half listen to, start turning off the music I don’t like. I’m going to try to choose more wisely what I do consume, so that when it comes time to produce, I have more of myself to pour out, and less of everything else to sift through. I’m going to try to move through the world with a little more intentionality. Stop trying to throw my arms around all of it, all at once, and start cultivating my ability to experience radically.

Wildest Grace in February’s Gray: Fighting Back a Crippling Anxiety

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It’s nearly the end of February, and I think most people agree that February is better behind us than in front of us. Too far past the first snow fall, a white Christmas, and the novelty of winter, and too close to the snow melt, the return of birds and open water and roadside flowers. It’s a month of gray—February gray. The gray of a city, state, an entire region, blanketed in snow, spattered with slush, dyed dull by the wind, and kept ironclad by the weak sun.

It’s a smack-you-upside-the-head-and-make-you-wonder-why-you-left-your-mother’s-womb gray.

February scares me, and not because of the cold or the wind or Valentine’s Day (who honestly likes this holiday), but because February once tried to tear me apart.

Or, more accurately, anxiety once tried to tear me apart in February.

During the winter of my freshman year of college, the ‘10-’11 winter, the winter it snowed so wet and heavy that the Metrodome collapsed underneath the weight of it all, I got smacked down.

I spent the first five months of college feeling increasingly not-quite-right, but also not-quite-wrong—more reserved, less passionate, much crankier—and then, on February 1st, the bottom fell away. I got turned around and lost on a Twin Cities bus line, and when I was dropped off in downtown Minneapolis instead of the northwest corner of St. Paul, I started to cry. And I didn’t stop for nearly fourteen hours. I cried while I wrote papers, cried while I read, cried while I talked to my friend and new roommate (who didn’t know any better than me what was happening), and then, after a full day of tears, my parents picked me up from my dormitory to take me home—their house was the only place that felt safe.

I was eighteen years old, barely half-way through my first year of college, and I felt like I had already failed.

It seemed like all that college had taught me was that I was not the person who I thought I was. That I was much less of a person, a scared shell of the girl I wanted to be. In those dark days of early February, crippled by something I could neither name nor describe, I convinced myself that that was all that I was ever going to be.

Everything scared me, but it wasn’t a fear that I recognized. I was alienated from the outside world, crippled by my own distortions, living very much on the outside of people and on the inside of myself. My dormitory seemed foreign, campus, though I really loved my classes, was overwhelming in size and scope. I thought I was a burden and an inconvenience in the friendships I was making—thank God that the sweet girls and women who were befriending me never let me push them away. I anchored myself to bad TV, and thought that I was without value and consequence, nothing worthy within me. Better to atrophy than try to make empty look full.

Scared at how I was shrinking away from the world, my parents rallied around me like a two-man army, and helped me find help. I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a minor panic condition. The chemical messengers in my brain, designed to keep fear and adrenaline in check, were short circuiting somewhere along the line, allowing my blood and my brain to be charged with false fears and paralyzing insecurity.

The diagnosis gave me a name and a language to put to the yawning chasm within me, but it did not stop the hole from trying to swallow me. I spent the rest of February, the rest of that spring, clawing through darkness to get at the light.

People who loved me planted themselves, like trees, alongside me, and let me use them as touchstones and as footholds. My parents, though they were as confused and as afraid of what was happening to me as I was, pressed back against my distorted reality. My friends, these sapling friendships that hadn’t been given time to bud, rose up like an old-growth forest, and gave me shelter. The love of a God who promised to know me better than I know myself embraced me, and then braced Himself against my fears.

My recovery, my fight back to the surface, followed the seasons. Through the dull gray of February, when I felt dark and cold at deep, deep levels, into the ugly, melting renewal of March, until all of a sudden, I found myself awake and alive—and glad to be it—watching Seattle light herself up from the observation deck of the Space Needle.

By the grace of God, with the help of family and friends and doctors, my anxiety—generalized anxiety and panic disorder—has fallen back. Not gone (I don’t think it will ever be gone), but what once was a wrecking ball is now a tapping, a reminder of what I need to be healthy, but no longer a thief coming to destroy. It’s been four Februaries since my illness tried to beat me down, and every year above that darkness is celebration and triumph.

A wildest, February grace caught me in my free-fall, and lifted me back up.