Bookshelf, The Work of Becoming

what i’m reading + navigating the next

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Of course, of course, I know that I can’t know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there’s only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don’t mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what’s coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I’ve seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it’s all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true – two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather’s side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of “we didn’t know this coming; we couldn’t have known.” I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn’t planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn’t have known, then, what she knows now. That she’d spend more of her life married than not married. That she’d give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they’d each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we’re young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy “what’s next” is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It’s an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I’ve been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I’ve read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I’m looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family’s central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It’s a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me – the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I’m not even sure what; I just known that I’ve been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I’m currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I’ve read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again – or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I’m trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

Overcoming, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

how to undo fear

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a party and not know what to do, that there would be a party and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a gun, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford a car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

Journey to Health, Lovely Living, On Writing, The Work of Becoming

how to start 2017: intentions for a new season

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I love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness, and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself, and the year that came was strange, disorganized, and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before Christmas, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (this language makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It helped in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking for myself instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

Overcoming, The Anxiety Files

The Anxiety Files: This Land is Mine and I Can Choose What to Let In

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For the last couple weeks, I’ve been moving at a velocity that frightens me.

Most of this activity has been necessary—work demands, groceries need restocking, and friends have birthdays that need celebration—which made it okay for a while. But then, this miniature season of vibrating stress started to feel more like a state of being, and all my protective walls began to draw themselves up.

At some point in the last few days the strong current of life-moving-a-little-too-fast intensified into a flood. I could feel it in my body. The stress took on a dangerous physicality. My heart beat had become a bang, even when I was still, and inside my rib cage, my lungs snagged on rib bones, sharp, painful breath. My fingers fluttered. A tight, heavy ache had set into my shoulders, and my pupils were constantly dilating. Stress had hijacked my body, and, to extend the metaphor, was about to hand the controls over to my illness.

Anxiety is a darkness that lives inside of me. It feeds on stress. It delights in my fraying. It is chemical and inhuman, and it is intent upon my undoing. I know this, because I’ve been undone by my anxiety, been ripped apart and left hollow by onrushing adrenaline and unchecked cortisol in my bloodstream. I’ve been left bared and scared and sobbing in a downtown transit station by the toxic chemical imbalances that do deadly things me.

When I was first diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I had no tools. I was given a vocabulary and a set of breathing exercises and a prescription for Zoloft. For a long time, that was enough. That was a compounding miracle, actually. That alone helped me. The medication steadied the neurological reactions that I still don’t fully understand. It allowed my body to become healthy again. It gave me the time to seek out the rescue I needed, and then, after I’d come back to the land of the living and the laughing, it gave me the safety to experiment with other weapons against my anxiety.

There are some tricks I’ve learned—apples and chamomile tea helps, as does deep pressure on the tops and sides of my shoulders—and some powerful coping mechanisms—deep breathing can reset the nervous system, and loud music distracts my thinking. There are a handful of other weapons I’ve gathered, that do more than just beat back the anxiety, but actually serve to feed my humanity. A phone call to a friend or to a parent can stop a panic attack in its tracks. And very little can stand up against Isaiah 43:2, because “when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

More than all of these things, though, I think I’m learning how important making choices—before I hit the point of panic—really are. I say “I think,” because this is such a new revelation (a baby of a thought), because maybe I’m totally full of shit. But maybe I’m not.

At least for me, panic and anxiety operate entirely outside of choice. If I slips into the really heart of anxiety or panic—that tenting of vague, oppressive, overwhelming fear and danger—I’m usually past the point of choice. I’m in survival mode, and I am hanging onto whatever edges of reality I can, hoping that when I emerge, the damage won’t be permanent. (I have to believe it never will be).

But that period beforehand—that time that I was in this week, where I could feel the flood of life intersecting dangerously with anxiety, but before I was caught up and swept away in it—I am still autonomous.

This life I have, this body that I’m in, this soul—they’re mine. They’re mine to be the gatekeepers for, and they’re mine to protect from the threats within and threats without.  (Those of you who are wiser, more experienced, less blind are saying what did you think they were, Torrie.)

This land is mine to let in and let out, and if I am healthy enough, cognizant enough, tuned-in enough, I can chose to pull up my walls against the external factors that trigger my internal illness. This weekend, I took Friday off. I sat in a coffee shop, and I read. I wrote. I edited my novel manuscript. I stared out the window at passing cars. I watched individual leaves shake and stir in the wind. I had lunch with my dad, and I drove with a friend on errands errands. I moved slowly, and I breathed deeply, and I weighed every decision by the questions what will this let in? and what will this keep out?

And you know what? I feel like a whole person again.

My fraying edges have been bound up, and the internal shaking has been stilled. My anxiety has been beat back down, and for a little while at least, it should stay there.

Overcoming, The Anxiety Files

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.

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.