neurotic

Lost and found

THE SHEEPISH RETURN
Act I, Scene I.
Setting: Desk. Chair. Computer. Writer (ME) in mid-40s, hunched, hair frizzing to high heaven. Lights up on ME typing on BLOG.

ME: Hey, Blog. ‘Sup?
BLOG: New phone. Who dis?
ME: Come on, baby. Don’t be like that.
BLOG: Don’t ‘baby’ me. You’re the one who hasn’t come by in six months.
ME: Please, I’m sorry, I can explain.
BLOG: Six months, and all I get are comma splices. Wow.
ME: No, I missed you–
BLOG. (Snorts) If it were the ’90s and I had a hand, I’d tell you to talk to it.
End scene.

Okay, okay, okay. I’ve been away. I have excuses, none of which are particularly scintillating. Finishing draft + new job + travel + househunt hell + general existential angst = blog neglect. I’ve never professed to be good at this (and by this, I mean blog/social media/communicating with humans). But I also have missed my ramblings, this strange private-public sphere that lets me barf up my mushy writing-life hairballs in the ill-lit hallways of the interwebs. (Reminder: Wear shoes around here, people.)

Chapter XIVVLQ of Bryn’s writing life: No Writing Is Happening (subtitle: I Don’t Understand Roman Numerals). The fiction writing is on pause right now, primarily because I’m wrapping up the semester but also because I’ve stumbled into a bit of a creative dead space. Finished a big draft three months back (good) but have been foundering since, poking at one beached jellyfish of a story for three months with no end in sight (blerg). To mix my metaphor further, basically I cleaned the creative cupboards right the hell out. Didn’t even leave myself a dusty ol’ can of Spam.

The truth is, as I cried to my BFF the other day, I’m feeling somewhat lost, creatively, humanly. That nagging sensation of going in circles, of uncertainty, of being untethered. There are real-life capital-R Reasons, no question, but as BFF reminded me as she talked me off the ledge (again!), this feeling is also capital-N NORMAL in the writing life. We’re always kinda lost as we write, wandering around the spongy, shifting tundra of a story, in the erratic unknown of  the imagination.

This led me to thinking about the Lost and Found — as in a place, or rather, usually a box. In my mishmash of a memory, I have two bins: one at my hometown community pool, where I worked as a lifeguard, and one at the college bar where I worked as a waitress and bartender. What a collection of weirdness in those boxes: smelly damp towels, neon goggles, a lone flipper, broken necklaces, single earrings, sunglasses with loose lenses, left-handed glove, jackets that smelled of cigarettes and sweat and with wadded wrappers in their pockets. The flotsam and jetsam of sun-drunk children and drunk-drunk adults.

As a writer, of course I’m fascinated by such objects: all those potential stories tangled in one stinky box crammed in the bowels of the break room. To whom do these items belong? Who’s missing them? A popular writing exercise is to imagine the drawers and pockets of a character and then to write the story of one of the objects discovered there. Objects accrue meaning. Things can do story-work. And good grief, what heightened emotional stakes in those words, the Lost and Found. To be lost. But, oh, to be found.

But today, as I squirm around at my desk with my dulled mind and rusty fingers, I am most fascinated by the nomenclature: The Lost and Found. Not Lost or Found. And. Small distinction, big effect. An object can be both lost and found at the same time. Not opposite, but circular, entwined.

Time and again, the act of writing is my own Lost and Found. In writing, I am both missing and present, confused and precise, insecure and safe, stumbling and stumbling upon.

If I extend this circularity to myself, to my metaphoric sense of being lost, does this mean I also can be found at the same time?

Well, duh.

Takes me writing to remember it.

The cusp, or, I am not a tree

I’ve had the word “cusp” — “a point of transition between two different states,” according to my handy-dandy New Oxford American — floating around my brain for weeks now. I say it under my breath, savoring its punch, its shift from hard to hissing to plush. This is partly to blame on my morning habit of writing about what’s outside my office window. In the past few weeks, all I could see was a world on the cusp as bare branches grew knobby with buds, as early bloomers (a term I never understood until I moved here) poked their heads out of the earth, shivering in the still-cold dawns. This short, taut moment between winter and spring is one of my favorite things about the South. As I watch those ripening buds, the hints of yellow-green shoots and blooms, I swear I can almost hear a thrum in the air as dormant life stirs, ready to awaken.

The cusp also is a state in which I find myself living these days. Long story short, I recently accepted a new creative-writing teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and so TW and I will be moving to Charlotte this summer. We are selling our sweet little house and leaving our little town, our friends and colleagues from the past six years, my teaching position at the University of Montevallo. This offer and decision has been full of stunning loveliness and gratitude and humility and excitement and tender sadness all at once.

Oh, and don’t forget the anxiousness and fear.

Now that I think about it, perhaps “cusp” isn’t the right word for my state. Maybe I’m just after “uncertain” or “upheaval” or “night terrors.” I’m stressed in small, practical ways and large, existential ways, which means that I’m eating my way through carbohydrates like bleach through cotton. (Oh, and I’m turning 44 in a couple of weeks. Something about being divisible by 11 is freaking me out.)

Ultimately I am not a tree (as far as I know), and here’s thing about trees: they are not terrified about their transition (as far as I know! Maybe they’re like, holy shit, the buds again!). By the end of the change, they’re still trees. As for me, by the end of it all, I will still be human (sadly not a tree), and so I have a few teeny, tiny, cusp-y human questions: What kind of human? Who will I be there? The same as I am here, or was before? And who the heck am I, anyway, here at 44, divisible by 11? How did we all get here? What does it all mean?

Perhaps the word I want is “midlife.”

Okay, okay. Then I remember to breathe for a minute. Oxygen, carbon dioxide. Tree-like but in reverse. I get out the notebook, write it down. I scratch off a few tasks on the to-do list.

What I need to learn to do is trust the cusp. In writing, this is essential: learning to wait, learning to see and listen to what the story wants to be, not what I want it to be. The tree will be a tree.

I look out my window at a natural world no longer in transition. It’s fully spring now out there now, fully awake, bursting with bright, brassy newness. Soon I will have to say goodbye to this view that I have grown to love, that has become part of who I am in ways that I don’t even understand yet. But I know, I know, I know that soon, I’ll find a new view. A new season. And who knows what I’ll see.

To-Do List, Item #15: “You know the escape”

1. Write a 7-day to-do list, like you do every week.

2. Fill the list with myriad job-related tasks. Grade, prep, read, meeting, read, submit, upload, email, grade, grade, grade, meeting, meeting. Watch your pen fill the page, bleed off the page, make your fingers bleed.

3. Every week, write this at the bottom of the page: WRITE.

4. Scratch off each task with heavy, black strokes of the pen to feel as if you’re getting somewhere, to quell the tremor of your stressed nerves. (Don’t think about next week’s to-do list, lurking as soon as this one’s scratched to hell.)

5. Notice, every week, before you crumple up the page, the one item at the bottom of the page that never gets scratched off.

6. Ask yourself: Why isn’t it at the top of the page?

7. Beat yourself up for awhile. That old record. Wallow in self-pity, really get in there and snuffle around in the muck of your self-absorption. Don’t think about the starving children, though! Don’t think about Syria or Libya, don’t think about grandparents losing their minds and bodies, about the jobless, don’t think about all  the things much bigger and more important than you! Nothing stops a good pity party like a reality check!

8. Stare out the window for awhile. Think about the hurricane about to lash the east coast. Wish for safety. Notice the leaves finally turning here in the South, yellow and red and orange, parachuting from branch to driveway. Fall, again. The noun and the verb. Too much symbolism out there in your yard.

9. It’s late October. Think of your father, 17 years gone now. It’s that time of year. It snuck up on you this time. You’d forgotten, in the way that’s not really forgetting, just tucked down in the corners of yourself, because you don’t have time to grieve right now.

10.  Think about how dark this list is. There you go again, depressing everyone! Make a joke, hurry!

11. Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? (Because they taste funny.)

12. Drink more coffee.

13. Here’s the thing about old records: You know what comes next.

14. Turn to the page (the blog, the whatever). Take pen to paper, fingers to keys. Write it out. Get it down, get it out.

15. Think of Mamet’s Redbelt: “You know the escape.”

16. Remember Anne Lamott’s advice: Lighten up, Francis.

17. Lighten up, Francis.

18. Look out the window again. Look outward. Notice something, just one thing, just one good thing. Here’s one: That mutable ashy sky, those lovely trees in transition. They don’t need you to describe them. They’ll get along just fine without you.

19. Hear your husband shuffling in socks on the wood floor of your home, happiest of sounds. Listen to it, feel the hum in your limbs.

20. Listen closer.

21. Listen better.

Here instead.

I have an ocean of tasks that I must do for job-job, but I decided that before the week knocks me off my feet and pulls me under, I would come here instead to snatch a moment of writing.

It looks as though these snatches are all I’m going to be able to pull off for awhile, and while I wish I could promise some zazz or a moment of fire or a glimmer of grace, all I’m hoping right now is that the act of typing will help me remember that I write. I am a person who writes. (Am I a writer? Oh, who knows. Not me, not right now.)

Just now as I was typing, wouldn’t you know, my little mail program beeped and I (of course) looked at it. I swear, as much as I enjoy fibbing, I’m not making this up for the sake of this entry: the email was a big fat form  rejection from a big name journal, one that I had been a little hopeful about because they’d held it for awhile. Bzzzzzzt. Nope. Thanks for playing.

Funnily enough, I was at the Auburn Writers’ Conference this past Friday-Saturday. The keynote, Joshilyn Jackson, gave this wonderful, hilarious talk about her own path to publication, which was chock-full of big-time New York rejection, and how the book that finally made it was the one she wrote when she’d given up on sending out– the one she wanted to write. She spoke about the struggle to be taken seriously when we take on the mantle of Writer. She signed my book, BIC HOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard). I took some lovely workshops, wandered the charming streets and campus of Auburn, met some generous, excellent writers. Definitely a conference to put on your list.

But: I read from the book that I’m working on, and here’s the thing: it didn’t go so hot, actually. Dead silence for fifteen minutes. Lesson learned: Don’t read work-in-progress, ’cause if it doesn’t go well, you will sprout all kinds of fun new neuroses about work that you really, really need to love.

So here I am, just a day after all that rah-rah wisdom, huddled back down under the blanket of writing despair, wondering, yet again, if I made a really, really bad turn all those years ago, if it’s time to take a turn in another direction, toward something less… I was going to finish that sentence with an adjective, but I think it may work just like that: a life without writing would be something less.

Part of my problem is that I really don’t like to be “out there,” as a dear friend once told me at a party, as I scrambled away in a panic from the center of the room and into a shadowed, anonymous corner. By “out there,” I mean, yes, I don’t physically like to be around the humans, save a select few. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like any kind of spotlight, which is why, on most days, teaching is a special kind of torture. So are public readings. I have to adopt a persona to get through any of it, and it turns out that acting one’s way through the week can drain the ol’ energy reserves.

Of course, I also mean that I don’t like to put my writing self “out there” (she says as she types on a public blog. Oh, irony). Nothing profound in that, I suppose. Everyone knows rejection’s a stinker. Some days I can fight it. I duck and weave, punch back, hook hook. I get back up, dust off the sleeves, spit out the blood, tape up the rib. But as I get older, as the gray hair and cheek wrinkles spread like an Ebola outbreak, I fear that one of these times I’m not going to get up.

It’s October now. I again see my father in the leaves. The earth spins onward, and gravity holds. I am still here. And I am here, typing, trying to make something out of this mess. Didn’t quite get there, but here’s to the next time.