On Writing, Short Stories

somewhere among the mountains

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I. Maria Elena   

Now that they’d finished negotiating the streets of suburban Tucson, the busy, distracting noise they’d made had fallen away. Silence rose up in its place, a third sister, ready to ride with them all the way to California.

Maria Elena adjusted the mounted GPS, and accelerated to pass a groaning pickup truck. Cecilia had been useful in relaying the GPS’s direction when they were making their way from their mother’s former home to the freeway, but now that they were on the road that would take them all the way to San Diego, she’d gone quiet, her eyes unfocused and her fingers plucking absently at the waist of her jeans. At least she was driving, Maria Elena though. Cecilia hadn’t protested when they’d retrieved the keys from their mother’s old neighbor, and she was double glad of that now. It was the natural order, that she should drive and Cecilia should ride, but it also have her hands something to do. Maria Elena checked her rearview mirror again, then her left and her right.

“Have you talked to mom yet?”

Cecilia rolled her head towards Maria Elena. “I texted her when we got to the car.”

“Thanks.”

“She told me to call when we got close.”

“Sure.”

Maria Elena nodded, shifted lanes. It had been five years since she and Cecilia had last seen each other. Christmas, with their mother, at the rented house in Tucson. An unremarkable holiday. Maria Elena brought cookies from the grocery store she managed, and Cecilia’s daughter Jamie, seventeen and weeks away from the inseminating incident that would make Cecilia a grandmother, spent the long weekend flipping through beauty magazines. The four woman got pedicures, exchanged gifts, watched a movie, and after three days, left. Cecilia to Fort Worth, and Maria Elena to Colorado Springs.

They’d spoken with more recently—they were sisters, of course—but their conversations were never more than perfunctory. Maria Elena providing Cecilia with a bulleted version of her separated life, and Cecilia doing the same.

They were only together now out of duty to their mother, because keeping her car was the condition upon which their mother had agreed to move into an assisted living facility with her own sister. If she moved, someone would drive the car from Tucson to San Diego. After the deal had been made, Maria Elena and Cecilia decided to make the drive together. Turn it into a long weekend, and help their mother settle into her new home.

Fighting back a beat of irritation, Maria Elena now wished she’d insisted upon making the trip alone: It didn’t need to be a two man job. Her palms tingled in the silence. As children, Cecilia had been the talker, the storyteller, the show. Maria Elena had always ceded attention to her sister, letting Cecilia take up all the air in the room. Why wasn’t she filling their silence now?

“Does mom like her new place?” Maria Elena asked.

“Seems to. She likes living with Tía Irma.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah, I’m glad.”

Cecilia let the conversation drop, and Maria Elena went back to focusing on the road. Traffic was dissipating the further they drove from the city. Maria Elena knew, from a childhood spent bouncing around the desert southwest, that they were driving into the mountains. By the time darkness fell, they’d been among them, their car one of the only ones crossing the cracked and buckled roads.

“How’s the grocery store?” Cecilia asked, rousing herself for the first time since they’d hit the freeway.

“Fine. It’s a grocery store. Last week, we ran a coupon for avocados, and ran out four hours after opening.”

“That’s crazy.”

“It was.” Maria Elena flashed her brights at a semi angling into their lane. “How’s Jamie?”

“Good. Pregnant again.”

Maria Elena sucked in her breath, making a sharp noise that she regretted as soon as Cecilia whipped her head around. “Wow! Her second?”

“Third.”

“Third?” Maria Elena colored. She’d been in the delivery room when Cecilia had birthed Jamie. She’d shared a bedroom with her bassinet. She’d poured baptismal water over the baby’s downy head. “How far along?”

“Still in the first trimester. She’s sick as a dog, though. Something about her boyfriend. My pregnancy was a breeze, but all three of hers have been bad.”

“They’re still not married?”

“No.” Cecilia’s fingers twisted her waistband. “But you know. It’s different now.”

“Of course.”

II. Cecilia

The sun shifted, and the sky split open, a violent, dusty orange. The sun hung, for a suspended second between the clouds and the mountain. Beneath its nakedness, everything glowed. Orange, red, gold, shot through in the dirt. Each sister exhaled.

“I’d forgotten—”

“How big?”

“How beautiful.”

Cecilia leaned her elbows into the dash, drinking in the light. They were driving into a bowl that would life back up into those mountains.

“Texas does not look like this”

“No?” Maria Elena laughed. Cecilia watched as her sister edged the speedometer a few miles higher. They were going ten over the speed limit now. As the cruise control beeped, Cecilia wondered if Maria Elena was trying to shorten the time they had to spend together, and alone. The engine growled softly underneath her. Cecilia cast around for something else to say.

“Somebody once told me,” she said, leaning back in her seat,” that the sun doesn’t set on the other side of the mountains. Only really good girls get to live on the other side, and they don’t have to go to sleep.”

“Why didn’t they have to sleep?”

“Because the sun doesn’t set.”

“But why doesn’t the sun set?”

Cecilia watched her sister’s eyes cycle from the road to the rearview mirror then back to the road. Maria Elena asked her question like Cecilia was posing a riddle, not telling a story. She kept an irritated sigh deep in her diaphragm.

“Because the girls on the other side of the mountain are good. They get more playtime, because they’re good.”

Maria Elena’s lips split open slowly, a smile finally pulling itself over her teeth. She moved slower than Cecilia remembered. Like she wasn’t used to having someone in front of her to respond to.

“Who told you that?”

“Patricia.”

“Mom’s friend Patricia?”

“Yes.”

“She did not.”

“She did too. Several times. That summer she lived with us in Jerome.”

“When did she tell you that?”

“Oh you know,” Cecilia waved her hand, remembering the season they’d spent with their mother’s friend in Jerome. Loneliest place in the world, and at eight years old, Cecilia had thought that even the wind in that town sounded sad. “Anytime I misbehaved. She didn’t like me very much.”

“You’re kidding me.” A produce truck passed the on the left. “She never told me that.”

“Yeah well, she liked you.”

Maria Elena didn’t say anything else. Cecilia looked over at her, and rolled her eyes. Her sister still had as much grace as a rock. Even as a little girl, Maria Elena had held herself in close. When they were teenaged, Maria Elena told Cecilia that she needed to say no more often, and Cecilia, loose from empties she’d been swiping from the bar that Maria Elena worked at, had laughed and told Maria Elena that she needed to say yes. Cecilia could see that her sister still kept herself rigid, so tight within herself that nothing could get out.

“Why did mom let her live with us? She was so awful to me.”

“We lived with her,” Maria Elena said.

“No, she lived with us.”

“At the house in Jerome?”

“Yes.”

“We lived with Patricia. It was her house, not mom’s.”

Cecilia took her feet off the dashboard. “Why did mom always tell me that was her house?”

“She wanted you to think she owned it.”

“Why?”

“Because she didn’t want you to think we were poor.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria Elena was being glib, Cecilia though, her own irritation growing.

Maria Elena laughed, and shook out what was left of her short hair. “You never asked me.”

“Mom’s told me recently that she owned that house.”

Maria Elena laughed again. “She lied to you.”

“I don’t believe it,” Cecilia muttered, “I swear mom owned that house.”

It was a small thing, Cecilia knew that, but she didn’t like not knowing. That had been the first years of her adulthood, after her mother had kicked her out and she and Maria Elena had move away from each other. It had come for her like cold water, everything from which her mother and sister had protected her. Struggle and pain, violence, want. She’d been a young mother by the time she’d had to confront the world, had to learn about it. Even in the darkening car, Cecilia could feel her own foolishness and ignorance. Twenty years old now, but still hot.

“Cecilia,” Maria Elena, said, gentler, “we didn’t have shoes that summer. How could mom have afforded a house?”

Night was coming down like a blanket across the desert, stars beginning to push themselves through the velvet. Cecilia made herself busy watching them out the passenger window. She knew, vaguely, that her irritation towards her sister was not about Maria Elena herself, but the idea of Maria Elena that Cecilia projected, but she didn’t know how to separate the two. It had been too long since she’d truly known her sister. What she assumed Maria Elena thought of her was all that Cecilia knew of Maria Elena. And, Cecilia realized with a sinking in her throat, all that Maria Elena likely knew about her. She watched as Maria Elena adjusted the GPS again, and the embarrassed anxiety of the movement made Cecilia twitch.

“What I remember about Patricia is her giving me Mexican candies,” Maria Elena said, returning to the subject like fingers to a smoothed stone.

“Sticky things, right? With chili powder on them?”

“Yes! You remember them?”

She made a gagging noise. “I remember them making me sick.”

Maria Elena laughed. “They didn’t make you sick; you already were sick. I gave them to you because you wouldn’t stop crying. I pretended they were medicine.”

“Then I threw them back up onto you.”

“Yeah, and I didn’t get a new nightgown until after we moved out of Patricia’s two months later.”

Cecilia smiled. Maria Elena wouldn’t know this, but Cecilia had told her daughter this story when Jamie was sick. When I was a little girl, Cecilia would say, smoothing back Jamie’s hair or rubbing her back, I didn’t have a Mami who took care of me like I take care of you, but do you know who did take care of me, mija, your Tía Maria Elena did…” Cecilia thought about asking Maria Elena if she remember the other stories she’d told Jamie—about the fever that Maria Elena had tried to break by making Cecilia swallow ice cubes, or about the chicken pox that Maria Elena treated by rolling her up in a bedsheet to keep her from scratching the sores—but Maria Elena starting speaking again.

“Mom didn’t actually buy me a new nightgown. One of dad’s sister made me a new one after we moved in with her.”

“We moved from Jerome to Escondido?”

“Yeah, into that little blue house.”

“With all those little kids. That’s right. I’d forgotten about that house. I didn’t think we moved to Escondido until after Abuelita died.”

“No, we moved into her house after she died, but we lived in Escondido for at least two years before that.”

“Yes. With all of the tías.”

“The house of whispers.”

“Who called it that?”

“Mami.”

“Why?”

“Because dad’s sisters were always whispering about us.”

Cecilia leaned her head against the window, looking back through her own memories with as much visibility as she had looking out onto the darkened highway. She had forgotten about the house they’d shared with so many members of their father’s family. She marveled, not for the first time, at the flytrap way Maria Elena had retained the details of life.

“There’s a lot I don’t remember.” Cecilia said quietly.

“That’s ok.”

“I’m serious. There’s so much I’ve forgotten. Like that house. Poof. It just not there.”

“Come on. It’s not like you forgot a trip to Disneyworld.”

Cecilia laughed. “That’s true.”

“You were young, Cecilia.”

“So were you.” Her sister spoke in the way she did when she tried to make something better.

Maria Elena nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Well.”

“What I do remember about Escondido is lighting our curtains on fire when I was sneaking one of Mami’s cigarettes.”

“I remember having to wait outside for the fire department to come and turn off the fire alarm.”

“Mami was so mad.”

They began to climb, a slow ascent that brought the mountains close to them on either side. The sky opened up, a whole galaxy expanding above them. Cecilia felt her sister’s tension ease, and she too let herself mellow.

“Do you remember the car that Mami had with the front doors that wouldn’t open?”

“The one that she got pulled over in because the police thought she stole it?”

“That piece of shit. We always looked like fools climbing in through the backend.”

“What about Tío Ruddy’s funeral? Do you remember how that priest that ran up and down the aisles touching everyone?”

When you feel the wind,” Cecilia mimed, “Or walk through a pocket of warmth on a cold day, that’s your friend, your brother, your son…

“He touched me,” Maria Elena said, “Do you remember that? He skimmed my shoulder with his hand, and Mami yanked me away, and then burst in to tears.”

Nobody had given the priest the same warning that all the young girls received about Tío Ruddy.

“I think that night is the only night I ever remember seeing Mami really, really drunk.”

“That was the night she chipped her tooth, right?”

“Yeah. Falling down the steps outside the bar.”

That fall had changed their mother’s face, taught her how to talk and smile with her lips held tight.

Cecilia and Maria Elena ping-ponged their way through their shared childhood and adolescence, playing their memories like cards laid down in the quiet gulf between them. By the time the GPS chirped that they were halfway to their destination, the darkness had grown so thick that it seemed to expand around them each mile they drove.

“What was the name of that hotel you worked at? After we moved out?”

“Hotel Lotus or Crocus? Hotel Flower Something. Why?”

“Just curious.” Cecilia stifled a yawn as the clock rolled over into the new day. “I was thinking about it the other day. How young we were when we moved out.”

“We were young, but we kind of had to.”

She’d been pregnant. That had been the reason why they had. Jamie was still a secret she’d told only to Maria Elena when they’d packed up their shared bedroom and left.

“Still. I can’t believe that Mami didn’t fight us on it at least a little bit. If Jamie had tried to pull that shit when she was pregnant with the first one.”

“Mami didn’t have it in her to fight us anymore.”

“Fight me. I don’t think you ever gave her any problems.” The heads flashed on an exit sigh, and Cecilia pointed, “Gas station. I need to stop.”

“But at that point, it was both us. She couldn’t have kept me without keeping you. Mami knew that,” Maria Elena said, turning on her blinker.

Cecilia exhaled, almost laughed. She needed a cigarette if she were going to stay awake. As she pulled off the freeway, the lights of the gas station marquee reflected on Maria Elena’s face. Cecilia watched it shift, purple, then red, then hollow white. For a brief moment, the lights erased her wrinkles, and Maria Elena looked like a girl again.

But then she turned off the car, and the dome lights came on. Cecilia looked away quickly, but not before seeing her sister, middle aged and gaunt, in the thin, blinking light.

III. Maria Elena, again

After the gas station pit stop, quiet grew back up between them, sleepy and soft. Cecilia had tried to keep up the thread of reminiscence, but her voice had grown heavy, syllables slowed down. She’d finally nodded off, and Maria Elena had pushed on, reminding herself of all the childhood nights she’d lain awake, worried or hungry or simply sleepless, next to Cecilia.

To her left, a flotilla of lights rose up out of the darkness, then sailed away. Her headlights caught on the glare of a sign: “State Penitentiary,” and underneath it, “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” Maria Elena shivered, and the mountains pushed in closer, immense, and razored, and indifferent. If she veered off the road right now, they wouldn’t crash, but would be subsumed into the chasm of limitless black opening up in front of her.

Maria Elena turned on her brights, and rolled her shoulders up towards her ears, trying to bring energy back to her sleep soaked body. Next to her, Cecilia stirred.

“You still okay driving?” She’d asked the same thing when they’d stopped at the gas station, but Maria Elena had shot down her sister’s offer then too.

“Yep. Still good.”

“Are you?” Cecilia’s voice was barely louder than the hum of the car engine.

“Good to drive?”

“Or in general.” She uncoiled herself from her seat, blinking heavily. Maria Elena stayed silent, forcing her sister into an extended pause. “It has been five years.”

Maria Elena took her eyes off the road, and sought the mountains. She found them in the pitch, a deep, jagged sheath of black cut away from the charcoal sky. Orion the Hunter hung above them, his bow reaching towards the horizon line. She repeated Cecilia’s question to herself, and focused on what she could barely see. There were no lights out here. Just what came from the car, and what came from the stars. So black that the whole earth could have emptied of all its contents except for she and Cecilia. Maria Elena exhaled.

“I’m lonely, Cecilia. Most days, I feel very, very alone.”

The quiet expanded around them. Maria Elena felt the sadness she kept inside start to seep from her, the way that cold seeps from bones. Cecilia’s hand brushed against her leg, the quiet pronounced.

“I’m sorry.”

Maria Elena blinked back the hint of tears. “It’s okay. It’s life.”

“It is.”

She waited Cecilia’s breath to fall back into its metered pattern. Her sister had barely roused herself from sleep—she’d be asleep again soon. It was like when they were children, and Cecilia woke with a bad dream. Maria Elena would like awake and pray that Cecilia would sink back into sleep quickly, that when she woke, she’d have forgotten the night.

“After Jamie told me she was pregnant again, I stayed in bed for a week.” Cecilia said. “I couldn’t fucking believe it. I felt like I’d rewound the tape twenty years, except that Jamie was me, and I was mom.”

Maria Elena sucked air slowly through her teeth before speaking. “Did you tell Jamie?”

“That the news of my third grandbaby made me so depressed I couldn’t bring myself to eat for two days?” Cecilia shifted towards the stars, her voice its own quiet fire. “No. What could I have said? ‘In twenty years, you’ll be a grandmother, and your own daughter will be pregnant, and unmarried, and surviving on scraps. You’ll regret every decision you’ve ever made, and you won’t be able to change a single goddamn thing?’ No. You can’t say that stuff. Not out loud.”

Cecilia’s words burned in the small car. The darkness made a wall around them, and the car became like a cloister, a confessional. Like, to Maria Elena, their bedroom back home.

“Do you regret Jamie?”

“Yes. Every day. I regret who I had her with, when I had her. How I raised, what I gave her, what I didn’t. I love her, but yeah. I regret her too.”

A black grief filled the car, crushed the sisters on each side. They both felt its squeeze.

“Don’t you think that everyone feels that way though?”

Cecilia laughed, a hollow, guttural sound.

“God I hope not. That’s miserable.” She paused. “Do you think mom felt this way about us?”

Maria Elena watched the road bend away from the face of a mountain, and followed its curve.

“I’m sure she did.”

Cecilia sunk into her chair like a popped balloon, and Maria Elena trained her eyes on the highway’s dividing strips, counting them as they rushed beneath her. This was it. Each sister retreated into her own castle of quiet. This was what they had to say to each other. Outside their car, the darkness was shifting, monstrous nighttime creatures pulling their matter up from the unformed black. Maria Elena looked out on them. The mountains, unending. They reminded her of Mission, Texas. Another great, unending landscape.

That’s where she and Cecilia had come undone. Nineteen years earlier. Maria Elena had driven through the night for Cecilia them too.

Jamie father, a boyfriend who’d disappeared before Cecilia’s stomach began to swell, had resurfaced, the baby, by this time, was nearly walking. He wanted them both—Cecilia and Jamie. He had a job on the oil line, a trailer in Mission, Texas, he was ready for them now. That’s what he’d told Cecilia over the phone. That’s what Maria Elena had mocked. That’s what they’d split apart over

The night Cecilia told Maria Elena her decision, they had raged. They did battle, first in whispers, so as not to wake the baby, then in shrieks that Jamie had added her own voice to. They’d split the night open with their fury. Maria Elena refusing her sister her decision, accusing Cecilia of helplessness, spinelessness, foolishness, forbidding her to leave, and Cecilia defending her independence, her competence, enraged at Maria Elena’s dominance.

You tell me no like you think it means something, Cecilia had yelled, Like that word is fucking magic. You’ve been making my decisions for me and my baby. No, no, no. No to everything, but this isn’t about you, Maria Elena. It’s about me and Jamie, and my family.

I’m your family, Maria Elena had screamed back. I’m the reason life hasn’t been hard for you. I’m taking care of you and Jamie. I’m the husband and the father and the provider. I’m your family.

Cecilia, smoldering, hadn’t responded, and after a minute that scraped each of them like a bed of razors, Maria Elena had screamed, then collapsed into great, weeping gasps. The next morning, she helped Cecilia pack, and then she took the driver’s seat, and drove Cecilia and Jamie 1300 miles to Mission, Texas.

Before hugging goodbye in front of the dusty trailer Jamie’s father had presented as Cecilia’s new home, Maria Elena had whispered, He’ll never be your family. Cecilia shoved Maria Elena away, and took Jamie into the dark home. When Maria Elena drove away, she felt a great fissure split wide the earth, and separate her, for the first time, from her sister.

In the pressing blackness of night, Maria Elena remembered how her sister had felt to her in the days and weeks after their separation. Like Cecilia had been sucked away into some unreachable land. The world had never felt so big, nor she so small. Cecilia had become an absence only, a crater removed from her own body.

Maria Elena looked across the car at her sister, asleep again, and instead of the warm swell of intimacy, a gutted emptiness slashed through her belly.

The GPS lit up the car, spitting out a new set of directions. Maria Elena realized that the darkness, so unrelenting only a few minutes before, had broken in front of her. A sheet of gridded lights, dense as fog, shimmied and danced in interlocking ribbons. They’d reached San Diego. They were twenty minutes from their mother’s home.

Cecilia stirred, unfurling her body into stiff angles. “We there?”

“Almost.” Maria Elena said. She heard a sharpness in her voice. “Call Mami. Tell her we’re close.”

Cecilia nodded, and pulled herself back to wakefulness, and the stiff quiet of the previous evening stole back into the car. Their midnight intimacy had vanished.

Cecilia fumbled with her cell phone. Maria Elena listened to the faint ring on the other end of the line, then the sleepy sound of their mother’s voice. Her sister spoke for less than a minute, then hung up. “Mom says that the night staff knows we’re coming. They’ll bring us to her apartment when we get there.”

“Okay.”

Cecilia yawned, and plucked at her waistband one more time. Maria Elena asked her to watch for their exit, and together they murmured street names out loud as they passed them.

Tomorrow, Maria Elena though, her brain suddenly seized with exhaustion, they’ll take their mother to lunch, and then to the supermarket, and the next day, to lunch again, and to the zoo, or maybe the wharf. She and Cecilia would operate in tandem in order to serve their mother, their sisterhood a muscle flexed only for her benefit. That would be all they’d muster. Despite the flare up of their childhood intimacy somewhere in the mountains behind them, too much time had passed for anything else. Too much time and too much sorrow. Too much separation. When she and Cecilia split their shared life, twenty years earlier, they’d broken it.

Her sister pointed out their exit, and Maria Elena turned on her blinker. She thought about crying, but then—decided not to. It had been twenty years since she’d felt the earth crack. If she didn’t focus on it, she didn’t feel what was on the other side anymore.

Behind Us, and Before, Bookshelf, On Writing, This Quiet Place

what stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

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.

 

Odds + Ends, On Writing, Out of Doors, This Quiet Place

going dark: autumn update + thoughts on writing and horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches).

I walked through a small wood. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hopped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other reason than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.

I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

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It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.

I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.