The Stories We Don’t Tell

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Photo by Adam Marcucci on Unsplash

When I was a teenager, my mom and I used to sit on the front porch as she’d tell me–usually with a touch of our family’s famous dark sense of humor–about her many brushes with danger. There was the time, while living in late-1970’s NYC, that a man followed her off the subway. When realizing she was alone and in danger, she began singing show tunes at the top of her lungs and acting so insane that she got him to back off. At least that’s the story I remember. I always keep that tactic in my back pocket.

Then there’s the date that went wrong. It all seemed fine until he pulled the car over and asked if she was interested in seeing his Vietnam knife collection that he kept under the seat. She rapidly talked her way out of that one–talked so fast and about so many things that he didn’t know what to do. And then he took her home.

The stories go on an on, each with a shared laugh (an empowering laugh) between she and I, along with a new lesson that I stored in my brain in case I someday find myself in the same position. On top of these, were all the stories of the 1980’s theatre world and grad school culture, directors being so terrifying with women that my parents later discouraged me from applying to certain BFA programs–where those men now worked.

In the 90s, my family went through several years of hell related to sexual assault. As it is not yet my story to tell, I will choose to remain vague. But I remember having a particularly dark thought at the start of it all while watching a NJ Lottery commercial. “Oh I get it, just the way you can win the good lottery, you can also win the bad one.” I was eight. For years, I became overly aware that I could win the shitty lottery at any time if I wasn’t prepared. I decided, wrongfully, that it was all in my hands, that I could handle these situations if I “trusted my gut” or knew how to talk myself out of it. If I didn’t buy a lottery ticket, maybe I couldn’t win.

Society, as luck would have it, backed up this idea. Don’t walk home late at night, always diffuse the situation with a smile, be careful what you wear. It’s in your hands. In 7th grade, they split up the boys and girls for a sex-ed talk. I learned a few self-defense moves while the boys in the next room, a friend told me, learned about contraception. Perhaps he lied. Either way, the message stuck.

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Finding Organic Structure

Two fellow writer friends recently inquired about how my book was going. It’s a legit question—eight months ago I flaunted online that I’d written 85 pages of said manuscript before going totally silent about it. Since then, I’ve barely been able to look at it. It actually took writing 85 pages about my Caminos and everything that came before and in between to realize that I had no idea how to write a book. My lack of formal writing training has finally caught up with me.

No, I’m not waiting for some golden strike of lightning to show me the way to write this thing, or even for the possibly never-to-be-seen opportunity to go back to school. I simply don’t know what the story of my book is. What do I have? Two, five-week hikes across a country, a childhood filled with stories that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck, a year of trauma therapy, and all the details in between. Believe it or not, this does not make a story. It makes a very long journal entry. Lucky for me, I no longer have shame in sharing these stories. I do feel that I own them–I am ready to be my own narrator. So, that’s good.

But as I mentioned in my post on Tuesday—I have a pile of memories, stories, and lofty themes that could make endless books that I sure as hell wouldn’t want to read. Maybe someone would, but not me. I’m not putting down my experiences, I just haven’t found the proper way to honor these memories yet.

So how do you do that? The last chapter I read in Natalie Goldberg’s book dealt with finding organic writing structure. Instead of depending on the 5th grade essay structure—roman numerals and all—she suggests that a writer must find some way to structure their writing that works for them. For her, this came after decades of writing with little structure at all–as I’ve been doing quite unsuccessfully. When she did find something that worked for her, she was finally able to sift through that pile of thoughts living in her writer’s mind.

One of her journaling tactics—and eventually her writing structure—comes from jotting down phrases, sights, stories and anything that inspires her throughout her day into her journal. When she sits down to write something longer, she writes one or more of these at the top of her page and sees what comes out within these ideas. This allows your brain to ramble within a theme, it brings out the actual story you need to write—opposed to restricting yourself to the jail that is linear memoir writing.

I’ve done this bunch of times on this blog—my birthday month of stories, the acts of connection series, and even a list of Camino stories that fizzled out. But perhaps my structure has been too tightly held—too much pressure to create something interesting every day. I could, for example, move through the Camino towns as the inspiring word at the top of the journal page. I could try to tap into where my mind lived while walking through each of these little Medieval towns.

So yes, I have 85 sing-spaced pages of gobbledygook (did you know that’s actually a real word? And that I’ve been saying “gobbledyGOOP” my whole life?).  Anyway, what I wrote is not my Camino story. Perhaps it’s all the “this is what people will want to read” crap that I needed to write first.

I do feel a bit like I’m starting fresh, but this time, I’d like to at least be prepared. As I continue to write about not writing, I welcome any book, blog, or class suggestions for those also in this strange boat.

Perhaps one day I’ll look back on this post and say, “How nice! I had no idea I’d eventually write the darn thing.” Who can say.

For now, I’ll go back to sipping my cup of coffee in a bouncy plastic chair outside my favorite coffee shop where I currently sit. The guy next to me is mansplaining college courses to his–daughter? niece? friend?–even though she knows way more about the whole thing that he does. I’m dying to cut in to tell her that she doesn’t have to decide what to do with her life yet, and that no matter how much she plans and trains in one subject, she may still end up sitting in a coffee shop chair trying to recreate her artistic career at 31. But perhaps not.

Learning to Write Again

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon painting two old adirondack chairs that we found on a curb in Cape May while on vacation. Frustrated with my writing, I hauled my grouchy self to Home Depot with a hoard of feisty gardeners and purchased outdoor furniture paint, some gorilla glue, and a whole bunch of sandpaper. For someone who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, the chairs don’t look half bad. I’m writing from one right now, rickety, gorilla-glued armrest and all.

My paid writing life seems to alternate between weeks packed with work and those with ample time to work on my non-paid, personal writing. I am currently having a slow week–hence the chair painting. I also made a cake and some really fancy-pants iced tea. Have I written anything I’m proud of this week? Negative. But look at that Santiago cake!

The one productive action I made toward my writing this week was to pick up one of Natalie Goldberg’s books I have yet to read, Thunder and Lightning. She begins the instructional collection with a harsh warning and a bit of regret. Her most well-known book, Writing Down the Bones, was one of her earlier publications, and now she wonders if she naively damaged those that she encouraged toward a writer’s lonely life. With the start of this book, she cautions her reader. “Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind, the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back. But I have made the journey and I have made it back–over and over again, I will act as your guide.”

Though her earliest book continues to provide guideposts for my writing, I can’t blame her for my questionable life choice. I’ve had a nagging narrative playing in my head since I was a kid. I even remember–during a particularly tense ride home in my parent’s car–planning to open my future book by describing the lightning storm that grew in the distance above the soccer field across the street from our house. If only I knew how to write anything past that.

It wasn’t until my first hike on the Camino did my writer’s voice have enough time and space to speak up and be heard. I’d hoped this second Camino–the one I completed last summer–would spark something new in me. Instead, as I whined to my husband last night, I’m left with a jumble of thoughts, piled in the middle of a room like a haystack, and I have no idea how to sort through it. Perhaps the older you get, the more discipline one needs to figure out what the hell you really want to say.

Anyway, I’m writing this post about not knowing how to write–one of many on this blog–to simply break my writing dry spell. When I was a kid, theatre was my true love. It was communal, celebratory, full of parties and rituals. Now, I am the only director, cast, and stage manager of anything I want to create–a true blessing and a curse. I no longer have to wait to be cast in something. It is my responsibility to put down the paintbrush, ignore the cake recipe, and simply write–even if it’s garbage.

But at least I picked up a helpful book today. And at least I received confirmation from a wise teacher about the ache that plagues each writer. “Now that you have been warned, let me also say this: if you want to know what you’re made of, if you want to stand on death’s dark face and leave behind the weary yellow coat of yourself, then just now–I hear it–the heavy modern doors of the cloister of no return are cracking open. Please enter.”

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On The Other Side of Oral Surgery

Pain meds + iced cream + ice sculptures

Last night, I broke down crying over a slice of bread because it had seeds in it. Man, was I excited to try that bread, it was supposed to be a victory lap after three-and-a-half days of very successful healing. But I’m not supposed to eat seeds yet, and this bread turned out, had seeds. And that was the end of me. I fell into a pit of self-despair as I poured myself another damn bowl of soup.

Obviously, the break in my emotional dam was not really about seeds. This has not been a good few months. When I got back from the Camino in August, I developed a white spot on one of my gums next to a crowned tooth. As someone with unexplainable dental issues since childhood (one of those issues being a debilitating fear of dentists), this spot sent me into a panic and a slump. As a child, I ate the same amount of sugary junk any other 90s child seemed to eat, and yet my friends came out with clean bills of health from the dentist, and I did not. I didn’t get it. I brushed, I flossed, I used that mouthwash where you squeeze the bottle and it fills up the cup on the top. As an adult, I’m borderline obsessive about my teeth. I was excited to work from home so I could brush my teeth more. I’ve nearly completely cut out sugar and I’ve looked into acid reflux. And so I linked my oral health to humiliation and the inability to do something right. It must not be enough, I must be doing something wrong. No one else talks about tooth issues, so it must just be me, right?

Back to August:

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The Camino List!

I woke up this morning with a new sense of hope. It is the first time I’ve slept soundly through the night since last weekend, and I’m sure it was partially due to the fact that I was finally able to eat somewhat normally yesterday.  I’m still unable to get back to hiking training, but I feel less like the room is spinning every time I exert myself.

I am also beginning to fully process that I indeed only have two more weeks in a full-time, traditional office setting.  I’ve been counting down my return to the trail for nearly six years, and more recently, obsessively counting down the months and weeks.  This trip represents far more than a career change and “vacation.” It is the end of a three-year push to pay off a mountain of debt, to figure out a new lucrative, freelance career and lifestyle, and most importantly–to learn how speak up for decisions and ideas that truly make me a better, more complete person.

But with joy and realization, comes the inevitable travel anticipation–the total “holy crap moment” that accompanies leaving your comfortable bubble and doing something rather terrifying.

And so to both celebrate this morning’s new-found sense of hope, and to recognize my underlying terror of returning to this physical undertaking of hiking 500 miles, I have begun mentally making the “Camino List of Awesome Stuff”–a list that will keep me going through my final 15 days.

Things I’m looking forward to on the Camino

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A Time Capsule of Anger

I try to avoid negativity and anger on my blog.  After all, it’s published online for all to see, possibly forever.  But to be truthful and straightforward–and to recognize the physically and spiritually difficult trip I am leaving for in two weeks–I will respect the crappy feelings as well as the good ones.  So if you are–understandably–not in the mood to read a rant, do not feel bad about moving on.  This rant is for comparison for when I return in August.  It is a time capsule of sorts, here to look back on once I have found some distance.

 

 

Recently, I’ve found that the same people who tell you constantly to “take better care of yourself” are the ones that will also go out of their way to point out why you aren’t working hard enough.  I’ve spent the past four years in a work and family-related “assistant role.”  I’m the “dependable one,” the one that doesn’t get angry, the one that reads all the details and explains them to others with a smile, the one that orders the food, sets up the wedding, puts everything in place.  I am thanked constantly for it–which I find very kind. And yet you know what would be kinder?  A hand when I ask for one.  Since last summer, I’ve been mysteriously sick.  I have bouts of terrible stomach problems, landing me in bed with no energy, barely able to eat for a week.  My joints hurt most of the time, my muscles involuntarily twitch–luckily not enough for anyone to see if you don’t look closely enough.  I am tired and foggy, and feel most days like I am moving through  a physical and mental swamp.  I have asked for space but am rarely, truly given it.  I am told to rest and then called to assist an hour later.

Because when the “helpful girl” admits to being chronically sick, or additionally just sick and tired of being the only go-to person in a community–the contradictory people come out of the woodwork.  Now that I have admitted “weakness” by speaking about my health issues and expressing a passion to move on to a different career, they descend, pleasured to find a scapegoat for anything that can be pinned on the “girl who helps everyone, but messes things up because she desires a life change.” They are the finger-pointers, and only in the privacy of their quiet moments do their fingers really just point back at themselves.  Common phrases include, “Maybe you’re not eating healthy enough.” “Why haven’t you seen the specialist I suggested–that’s why you’re sick.” “You disrespect your anxiety because you won’t take anti-depressants.”  “You probably just need to stay more positive.” “Everything will be fine, just keep doing all the stuff your’e doing.  Oh, and take it easy, you’ll make yourself sicker.”  Or there are the career-related ones: “Some of us can’t choose our careers over having a family.” “You might as well give that artistic thing a try when you’re young so you can come back to this when you want to have kids.” “How does your husband feel about this?”

I know these are projections of their own issues; I know all the logical reasons why this shouldn’t get out of my skin. And yet all of the practical, psychologically friendly pep talks I’ve given myself in the past several months have done nothing to keep my anger, frustration, and bitterness at bay.  I do not like who I am right now.  I don’t like how I respond to people’s needs, coworkers questions, or family expectations.  I knew my anger had over-boiled when the other day, while walking into Trader Joe’s, I became resentful toward the automatic door for not opening right away when I walked my cart up to it.  It’s a shock to everyone who has named me the “calm dependable girl.”  Because right now, I am not that.  I almost yelled at a door in public.

At the same time, this weird wave in my life has shown me that my frustration has significant outside sources, and is not something I’m imagining, or need to “just find a way to get over.” Yes, I need to build up my defenses against the occasional misunderstanding, but no, I will not carry on to simply be the girl who everyone thanks for cleaning up the work they don’t want to do themselves.  I was recently told that I should expect less of people so that I would not be as disappointed when they did not treat me with respect.  What a terrible way to view those around us–that we should expect less of everyone?  Not take their word as truth?  Assume that they will not come through?

I am writing this rant as a reminder for myself when I return in August from the Camino.  I am angry and tired. I don’t sleep a full night because I wake up feeling sick, tense, and angry.  I wish I was better at blocking out the anger around me, especially when it is wrongly directed in my direction, but I will also not settle for expecting less of people.  I will continue to expect that those in my life will strive to be true to their word and kind to those around them, because I am striving to do the same.  I am not a saint, I am no indestructible event planner, and I am not (nor should I be) expected to do everything with a smile on my face.  Yes, I may continue to be disappointed by others–and in this state, I may disappoint them–but I will not lose faith in humanity just because I’ve hit a patch in my life when I feel walked on.

Here’s hoping I look back on this with some peace in a few months.  Until then, I’ll be home sick today, hoping I can eat again.

“But that doesn’t make it okay…”

Cloe Ridgway via Unsplash

Just before leaving the house this morning, I flipped open a book by Pema Chodron that I’ve been slowly reading.  I specify slowly because it’s a breakdown of an eighth-century text called The Way of the Bodhisattva by the Buddhist sage Shantideva, and most of it takes some time to process.  I usually have to be in either a very concentrated or spiritually depleted mood to focus on the densely packed text–and then take a bit and walk around with it throughout the day.

Well, this morning, I was the latter of those two–spiritually (and in this case, physically) depleted.  As I hoped, the book’s message was exactly what I needed to read in that moment.  Not only did Shantideva talk about the damaging and purposeless effects of self-resentment, but I was also reminded of Pema’s tonglen meditation method–or, the process of breathing in someone else’s vices, and breathing out peace.  In this practice, you are fully experiencing someone else’s anger, hatred, confusion; recognizing it in your self; and breathing out peace for both parties. It got me thinking about a dilemma I’ve had during this rough time.

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When a Community Loses the Biggest Energy in the Room

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher asked us to describe the first time we processed the idea of death. As was the case with most of my high school papers, I came up with a much better description of this childhood moment years after writing the paper; still, the assignment has stuck with me for years. If I wrote the paper today, I would talk about my paternal grandfather’s passing when I was ten years old.  I understood the idea of death, but I didn’t yet fully comprehended the human confusion that succeeded someone’s passing, especially when the person lost was one of those “big energies,” one of those people that changed the energy of a room, who drove the conversation and led a community in subtle ways that no one truly notices until the person is gone.

In my limited memories of him, this was my grandfather–a “big energy” kind of guy. At the funeral, my dad–who up until this point I had never seen get emotional or speak in public–told a story (Dad, I’m sorry, I’m probably going to butcher this). As he was driving out to Pennsylvania for the funeral, trying to process what he was going to say in the eulogy, he stared out into the river alongside route 80. Though most of the water was frozen, there was one circle of clean, melted water right in the center of the river. And in that hole of water, was a swan–just sitting, in his own little area of peaceful space, lit up by some sunlight. This serendipitous sight sparked a memory of when my dad and his family first walked back into their Wilkesbarre home after the flood which followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972.  He recounted that the house was nearly ruined, the living room and furniture caked in a foot of mud.  But across the kitchen, my grandfather was clearing off a space on the counter, furiously cleaning a few square feet of space. My dad, wondering if his dad had lost his head, asked why he was cleaning off such a specific space when he was surrounded by rooms of mud–what good could that one spot possibly do?  And my grandfather turned around and explained that all day, no matter how overwhelming things seemed, he would have that one clean space amidst all the mud. It was a space for the swan in the frozen river. Whether it was a well-read coincidence or a sign from my grandfather, the world reminded him of his wise energy and profound lessons, even after he was gone.

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Day 30! Thank you!!!!!

Hi All!!  Even though we’re on our last(ish) day of the fundraiser (I may do an extra something for tomorrow), donations are still coming in!!!!

Thank you so much to Fangzhou Zhang for donating to my fundraiser!  Fangzhou is a very sweet and super-inspiring teacher here at MKA.  I am so lucky to have her as a colleague!  You are the best!

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Day 26 Fundraiser: It Continues!

Even though we’ve reach our goal, the generosity keeps coming!  The wonderful thing about this whole project is that Crowdrise doesn’t cut you off by a certain date or amount, so we can just keep going and see how far we get!

As for two awesome people who pushed me over the $1k mark…

Tom and Anita Bartolone!!

I am so lucky to have these two loving people as an aunt and uncle.  The Bartolone’s welcomed me to their large, caring family the first time I came to the famous Christmas Eve party.  So happy to get to see these two, and everyone else, in just a few short months:)  Thank you, Tom and Anita!!!

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