I read the news today. Thousands of people buried under crumbling piles of concrete and metal, people screaming for help as the earth continues to judder and heave. Snow is falling. Freezing rain. It becomes difficult, thinking of it, to stretch the mind toward misery as acute as this. I saw a little girl carried aloft by a sea of men whose hands are raised in thanks and prayer and I thought, oh, she’s smiling, thank god, until I rotated the photograph and realized it was a grimace of pain.
Cruel as they are, these acts of nature can’t be avoided. Our planet is alive and moving, hurtling through space, rearranging its furniture. It’s too big and too old to care about the cracking rails of a child’s crib, about walls descending over dinner tables and marriage beds, about the snow it sends to bury people who were busy and laughing yesterday. The Earth is not like Putin, doing it all on purpose.
Here in America, on another plane of existence, we’re discussing whether or not it’s okay to notice that Madonna now looks like a frog. She’s a victim of our beauty-obsessed culture, apparently, instead of one of its authors. We’re not allowed to talk about the role of vanity in this transformation, or how it might be better to evolve out of this thirsty quest for youth and try to become a human, and grow the fuck up, and accept the limitations time places on all of us. I don’t feel sorry for Madonna.
I feel sorry for that little girl and the men who saved her. For the life they were living before the quake and whatever fate befalls them now. For the people of Ukraine, trying to sleep under an explosive sky. I feel sorry for the broken backs and the buried children, for the mothers whose arms are empty tonight.
Sisters, I hope you find your babies. I hope you find some peace.
They say that every writer has one story to tell. Just one, repeated from different angles and with an array of characters, the variety of which might be so vast as to disguise this fact even from the writer. And while I don’t subscribe to the “every writer” part of that statement or any other, I think there’s something to it. I do tend to circle around the same issues. There are a lot of violent men in my stories, a lot of crime and romantic dysfunction. That’s the top layer.
However, underneath all the hoodlum behavior and the warped sexuality is this idea of people being unseen, unknowable to one another. I’m fascinated by the odd things people dwell on, the dark impulses, the shyness and inward recoiling. I think we all share a certain craving to be known juxtaposed against the fear of being judged, rejected, reviled. This is what continually pulls me toward stories about sex and violence, sometimes in combination. It’s the depth at which these thoughts reside. These are the taboo subjects, the impulses lying deep within the realms of human imagination.
I’d choose another course for my writing if I could, or steer my current predilection into calmer waters. God knows it’s done me no favors. I become crippled at times by my own squeamishness on seeing what I’ve written, knowing that I’ve repeatedly opened myself to misreading, to the same moral judgments my characters often face. I have tried over and over to write another story, something cooler, friendlier, something I would choose to read, but I can’t seem to get those stories to the finish line. They don’t expand properly in my imagination. They aren’t real for me, and because they don’t exist in my mind, I can’t bring them to life on the page. They belong to another writer, and in my hands they are hopelessly inert.
My heart is not a light one. It’s heavy, hot, and it resents the narrow rib cage into which it was born. To write is to feed the beast that’s eating me alive. To resist is to pretend the cage was empty all along.
It’s 6:15 am and I’m in Redmond, my temporary nest, drinking coffee from a paper cup. I drove here straight from work and ate a bowl of pasta at the hotel bar, washed it down with a bee’s knees cocktail, and went to bed with a collection of stories by Mark Haddon and a back-up book on my Kindle. Already I miss my husband and my house, my feather pillow with its washed silk cover, my son, my dogs, my soy milk and Winco instant coffee. I miss the view from my window.
I don’t mean this to sound the way it does. I’m enduring no hardship here, and I have a day of solitary delights before me. I’ve sussed out two nearby bookstores and a shop that sells houseplants, as well as a comfy-looking cafe where I can sit for a while and write. This is a day of indulgence that my husband couldn’t enjoy, any more than I could have enjoyed a night in the cold, shouting with the crowd at a football game. We have different interests, different minds. It’s always been like this and it’s always been okay. I miss him, I love him, and I’m glad he isn’t here.
Because he isn’t here, I could get up at 3:14 and take a spiky-hot shower, turn on the lights one by one, play some newfound music he probably wouldn’t like. I won’t have to kill time waiting for him to wake up—he works the night shift, so our schedules do not align; actually, my schedule aligns with no one—or confer about whether to walk along the river or the other way through town. I can eat what I want, when I want, or not at all. I can read a book at breakfast, listen to a podcast, take a long nap. My husband wouldn’t complain about any of that, because he’s innately kind and only wants to please, but he wouldn’t enjoy it. He’s uninterested, but only in the way I am uninterested in the ongoing golf tournament he plays on his phone or the mystifying ranking system of college football. We have been married twenty-one years. We share a lot but not everything.
This has always been okay. Is it still? I’ve come to accept that he doesn’t read my stuff, yet I’ve set heart to paper throughout my writing life, so there will always be a part of me, the better part, that’s unknown to him by choice. That bores him. Yet I wouldn’t want his false attendance, with the boredom shoved down out of some misguided sense of duty. That would be a hundred times worse.
Still, because we don’t share an interest, a schedule, a bedroom, or a goal, we are beginning to drift. It’s a natural process, and not one I’m eager to change. Me shivering at a football game, him with aching jaw at my pages—I can’t see it, don’t crave it. When I hear about another couple’s close connection, my knee-jerk reaction is bafflement. How is this done? How do people join at the hip, share every meal, every inner thought? How do people talk so much? How do they fight? It’s a way of life that could only be performative for us and, if I’m honest, would expose my heart to the person who could most easily break it.
I’m not looking for more. Am I? And what about him? Is he getting what he needs or have I made him lonely with my solitary ways? Maybe it’s time to ask, and seek a true answer:
I have a long weekend coming up and I’m not sure what to do with it. What I’d like most is to spend a few days alone, writing, bumming around near this hotel in Redmond where my husband and I like to stay. It’s near the river, and in summers past we’ve rented bikes to ride along its banks and down to Lake Sammamish. Though I suspect the weather will put the kibosh on any thought of biking, there are still bookstores to enjoy, bougie restaurants, an outdoor shopping mall. There’s also a theater where, instead of popcorn, you can get a glass of wine and a panini, or a cup of cocoa and a plate of warm cookies if that’s your speed. Best of all is the lobby of the hotel itself, which has a lovely fireplace and lots of seating. I have spent hours there writing, staring out the window, finding words where I thought there were none.
I haven’t been to Redmond on my own. It feels very self-indulgent, particularly with the aim of going there to write. I’m not working to a deadline, or even toward a goal—and say that were the case, there’d be no need to travel any farther than my armchair. Writing is a sedentary sport. So it’s hard not to feel guilty about booking a room just for me, to work on writing that’s just for me, to see a movie by myself and have a beautiful unshared meal or three while I’m at it. You’ll admit there’s a lot of moi in this scenario.
And it’s possible that the idea of traveling solo is a little weird. I know that for many people, it would be disconcerting to sit alone at a table for two, or buy a single ticket at the theater. I can understand that. But I have never been deterred. Being alone is a joy. I love the release from responsibility, the calm experience of having to please only myself. I love being silent, not having to carry a conversation, finding myself free instead to simply listen, and look, and think about the feels. I like a long silent walk, a car ride with the music turned up. Book by the fire, an early night, a cup of coffee at dawn with the rain like scattered jewels on the window. I love the gradual onset of boredom and missing those more permanent parts of my life, and bundling myself into the car, knowing that the big square house on the hill and my people and my life are waiting to welcome me back.
We write sometimes to see what we think. What I think this morning is that a couple of days alone will do me good, so I’ve got my booking and the hotel’s confirmation ready in my virtual pocket, headed by a promising first line:
I didn’t know what I’d feel, seeing myself this way. The woman facing me is pitiable, maimed. Two long asymmetrical scars cross my chest: one over my heart, the other low and slanted red like the claw mark of a predator. My nipples are gone, giving my chest a blind quality, or perhaps a muteness, as in one of those horror movies where the character’s mouth is covered over with skin.
Yet my mind is filled with grim delight. The world has taken something from you, and that’s a first. Your chagrin is my balm, my victory, my silent redress.
An idea has settled over me and I can’t shake it off. If you’re a writer, you’ll be familiar with the signs: the queasy excitement, drifting focus, the sense of impending doom. The curse is come upon me, cried the Lady of Shalott. A story looms.
I keep asking whether I have to write it. Will it fuck off and leave me alone, or will it be there every morning at 4 a.m., watching me sleep, waiting to pounce as soon as I open my eyes. Can I pare it down to nothing, write it and be done? Or will it morph and get out of control and take over my life. I’m thinking of the last story I tried to write, for which I sacrificed morning after morning, week after week after month, only to come away with a sheaf of nonsensical garbage and the story in full flight. I’m still bitter about that, and disappointed with myself. I like to finish things.
For this reason and many others, I’d much rather write something short. But the problem for me, which dates back to my days as a photographer, is that I have not been able to master the snapshot. I don’t really understand the structure of short fiction. I don’t know how to frame it, where to crop the edges, how to pluck a moment from the continuum and situate it on the page. Yet I realize, on writing this, that I haven’t actually studied the matter. All my focus has been on novels, and shorter work like flash fiction and poetry has only been for play. So I think what I’ll do, before succumbing to the lure of this particular story, is try to round up some resources and do a little homework. I found this book and this one, and of course I have plenty of story collections already on my bookshelf for inspiration. Maybe I can learn.
And if nothing else, I will have given the story a chance to bugger off and find someone else to annoy.
My god, these men. These foolish, grasping, needy men. Can we not have a moment of peace? Why must we always divide ourselves into teams: on the chamber floor, on the street, in business and religion and cultural constructs of every kind. Red team, blue team, world without end. Competition is their constant excuse for violence, for conflict, dragging everybody in, as if we all must stand behind our leaders at the urinal while they compare their dicks with the dicks on either side. Yours is bigger, honey, let’s drop a bomb on some children.
I do not fucking understand. I don’t understand why old men want to watch the young ones bash each other’s brains out for sport. I don’t understand these flapping ties in Congress, where the ickiest, Trumpiest, smarmiest specimen is still not awful enough to elect. I don’t understand why rich Russian men keep falling out of windows while young Russian men are sent off to maim their brothers, rape their sisters, reduce a child’s crib to ash. What darkness there is in men. And where did it come from? What evil twisted helix has convinced the male ego that our Earth is more than a speck in the cosmos and that their shitty conduct will be remembered by anyone at all. How terribly sad it must be not to grasp the scale, to believe that power resides in the individual and not in the pulse and flow of life itself.
I just do not understand. Maybe I’m not meant to understand. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class American white woman, bred to be docile. And I am. As surely as men will strut the floor in their star-spangled neckties and perpetrate acts of violence both real and legislative, I will continue to hunker in my bedroom, placid, complicit, chain-popping edibles, trying to sleep through the end of the world.
I’ve been thinking about one of our patients. A young guy, rope thin, with pink tips and dark roots, who went to the wrong clinic on his first visit and arrived so late we had to work through lunch to see him. He was sweet about it, though, and doggedly pushed through our paperwork, describing his health history, his symptoms, laying out the mundane demographic details we’re expected to collect. He’s had a lot of injuries. A car accident in the recent past has left his arm with a field of scars like a celestial map around a jagged supernova at the elbow. Then he got hurt at work, more than once, which led to the surgery and the post-op side effects we’re trying to address.
He was crying today as I got him off e-stim. He said it was everything. Getting a divorce, and with two little kids. Trying to work through excruciating pain because the alternative is homelessness and hunger. He’s wondering if it will get better. It’s been so long, and it hurts so bad.
He tells me this, slumped over, screened by his long pink hair. You have to be in a mood to go for a dye job like that, you have to be feeling pretty good. But that pink is four inches in the past, and all the new growth is dark.
His truck remained in its spot outside my window for several minutes after I’d walked him out. Finally I went to check on him. I found him still weeping, hands trembling with pain. I went inside and got him some Tylenol and a glass of water, sent the therapist out to see what could be done. For a while he sat with an ice pack; later I invented a piece of paperwork for him to sign, as an excuse to go back outside and make sure he was alright. His truck didn’t move for a long time, but eventually I looked up and he was gone.
I wish I could have given him a hug, which is what the poor guy needed. But people don’t touch each other anymore.
Back to those new year’s intentions. What to do, where to place my focus. I found a local writing class starting up in January, an adult-ed sort of thing through the community college, with classes every Thursday evening from 6:30-8:00. If this were a Saturday morning meet-up, I’d be all in, but I’m on the fence with an evening gig. I get up early—very, very early—so usually I’m in bed by 8, taxiing down the runway toward sleep. It’s almost a job in itself, this pursuit of sleep, and I get cranky about disruptions to the routine.
But I’ve never taken a writing class, and this one caught my eye. It promises a “safe, encouraging environment,” never a bad thing, with “moderated small group sharing, warm-up exercises, and inspirational thoughts to keep you excited and motivated to write and finish your own stories!” It’s the exclamation point that gets me. “Finish your own stories!” Ta-da!
Evening hours notwithstanding, it might be just the kick I need to start my year. A little encouragement, some gentle motivation. Nothing too strenuous. No one whose poor opinion would wreck me. Of course my writing style is all over the place and grammatically incorrect, but this class doesn’t sound like one in which the teacher would Strunk me over the head for improper use of a semicolon. (Or for using one at all. Why is everyone so snotty about this particular punctuation mark? Why shun the little guy entirely? Can we get over the King’s disparagement and bring it back into the fold?) The course as outlined sounds casual and kind of fun. Not words I usually associate with writing, but…
This is where I left the post as I drafted it this morning, before careening out the door for work. I meant to finish this evening by explaining that I did sign up for the class and was looking forward to it, yada yada. But after I’d registered and paid the fee, I received notice that the class had been cancelled due to insufficient enrollment.
Maybe the rest of the hermit-writers in my community are as shy with their work as I am. Maybe the instructor is unhelpful and everyone knows it but me. Maybe it’s for the best. In any case, my quest for 2023 inspiration will have to be continued.
I got a wonderful Christmas present from the therapist I work with. A plant stand with several tiers, mounted on white metal posts in the shape of a crescent moon. There’s a perfect spot for it at the clinic, just beside a west-facing window on a blank stretch of wall. This is real estate any plant will love.
The trouble now is how to decide which of my collection can be pried from their existing spots and come with mama to work. I have a lot of plants—for the sake of this post, I counted: 126—but I love their abundance, their personalities, the way they settle into their space, all leaves pointed like satellite dishes toward the light. They’re so sweet. So blessedly quiet! Caring for them is a lot of work, of course, but it’s not arduous. All they’re looking for really is to feel at home in their tiny pot of earth, to feel that conditions are suitable for growth. They want what we all want, in fact.
The plants are a relatively new obsession. I used to avoid houseplants because I thought I couldn’t keep them alive. And sometimes I can’t. Some plants become ill, or are attacked by spider mites or fungi, or languish unaccountably as if the will to live has passed. I refuse to be bummed out by plants, so I let go of those that can’t be saved. Over time I’ve gravitated toward the more robust species, the scindapsus and pothos, hoya and philodendron and tradescantia, old-fashioned cissus and upright dracaena. I want plants that have some innate hardiness and are amenable to propagation, plants that don’t demand extra humidity or ridiculous amounts of pest control. Plants have language, if you’re listening, so it’s nice to find those that will sag a little when they’re thirsty rather than turning overnight into a collection of crispy leaves and sticks.
As I look around, I’m finding it hard to decide which little grove to carve out. When I lift a plant from its home, the resulting blank space feels like a loss, or at the very least a disruption. I find this so unsettling that I rarely go about it piecemeal, and instead move all the plants to the center of the room and start over from scratch. Actually, I think this is what I’ll do over the long weekend. A big reshuffle, some potting up, a bit of trimming and fertilizing, a new round of propagation.
And maybe, maybe, as a treat, a few new plants for the office.
I’ve been trying to decide what to do with the new year. Though resolutions are cliche and sometimes problematic, they can also provide a needed course correction, a multimedia cue that it’s time to regroup and gather your wits, make sure you’re headed where you mean to go. This optimistic momentum fades over time, and resolutions rarely succeed, but imperfect efforts can still be valuable. We don’t have to improve our lives like the hero in a rom-com, via soulmate and epiphany. We can meander in the general direction of better-than-now and take it as a win.
So what do I want to do with the year? I’m in a pretty good place right now. Safe in my job, safe at home. I’ve got plenty of things to worry about, always, but there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to worry; a little goes a long way. There are no major hurdles to navigate, only a boot to apply now and then, a romance to feed. Some health-related stuff I need to stay on top of. But nothing that needs a focused effort.
I’m free then to consider what I’d like to do creatively. I have a novel marinating on my hard drive. It’s a good story, as played out in my head, but it wants to be either far longer or far shorter than the scale I imagined at the start. I’m not sure which. I’ve been interested lately in flash fiction, which are extra-short stories, a thousand words at most, designed to leave you with the impression of an iceberg under the surface, a story outside the story which can only be inferred. A writer I follow has talked about writing a novella in flash, by which he means a collection of related flash fiction that follows an overarching theme or plot. His stories are linked by a common item, a stolen car which appears throughout. Brilliant, right? Did I mention the car is stolen?
I love thinking about form. I love people who are creative in this way, who push and pull at our ideas of what a story should be. What writing itself should be, and on what terms we allow it into our lives. This is where I repeatedly lose direction, and fall into the trap of assuming I’m a novelist. I’m not. I’m a writer. It’s a distinction worth considering, because it makes such a difference to the kind of life you’ll build with writing at its creative center. To share a novel is to publish, to set out on the long and complex journey of drafting, editing, reorganizing, proofing, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, then trying to shop the thing around or see to its publication yourself while footing all the costs. You understand on embarkation that this is going to take some time. Some precious resources. You may have to drain your reserves in order to get it done.
I’m just not into it. I’m into writing. I like this space, which feels very anything-goes to me just now. I could publish flash fiction right here, as easily as I’m writing this post. I could read my work aloud. I could compile these journal entries after some time and print a single copy for posterity. There’s no damn money in writing anyway, so why not reimagine the end result in terms that will satisfy me. Me, personally. What does a beautiful, finished bit of writing look like in its final iteration? To me, in my mind’s eye. How do I want to share it?
It’s Christmas Eve. Dinner’s at our place. A giant veggie lasagna, mainly, with some other bits and pieces on the side. Stuffed bread shaped like a wreath, a big green salad. Bananas foster for dessert, with that daring rum-fueled flame at the end. A couple of game hens as well, with roasted squash, because carbs are not for everyone. I did most of the work yesterday, so what I plan to do now is bedeck the rooms in twinkle lights and votive candles, set out bowls of crunchy things and chewy things, bright red tomatoes that pop in the mouth. A patient gave me some fresh chestnuts from her orchard, so I thought I’d roast them, peel them, and saute them in butter, and we can have them with our drinks.
When I say butter, what that means for me is plant-based butter. Okayfine, it’s vegan. Likewise the lasagna, the rolls, the ice cream. I’ve considered myself vegan for at least ten years, but I find the label a tedious weight sometimes. It implies a level of rigor I just can’t cope with. People are always trying to catch you out. What do you mean by sauteing in butter, Averil, I thought you were vegan? And though the butter’s not real, maybe I’m not either. Obviously a real vegan wouldn’t prepare game hens for a friend, she’d find another option, some low-carb vegan ninja shit like the Wicked Chef might do.
But I’m a bad vegan, if you’d call me that. I prefer to think of it as being relaxed. My standards slacken at restaurants and on special occasions. I make no apology for this, I don’t hide it. It’s not a perfect world and I don’t expect perfection from myself. All I’m trying to do, in any case, is incrementally lighten my burden on the planet. That’s it. I’m not here to preach or pontificate about the benefits of eating plants, or throw paint onto anyone’s fur coat. I am only trying to be gentle—on the planet, on my fellow creatures, on the global community. This sounds very woo-woo. I’m aware of that. This is why I don’t tell people I’m vegan until I’ve known them for some time—or until we share a meal together, whichever comes first. It’s a personal decision, one that inevitably draws a reaction. Often, a negative reaction. And I’ll admit it hurts my feelings when people sneer at us for trying to be kind, as if it’s some deeply ridiculous predilection like teddy-bear porn, or a hair-shirt penance by which we are trying to atone. We’re just eating plants, okay? The penance bit is optional, and no one’s asking you to hug a giant oak. You do you. I’ll be too busy stuffing my face with tofu ricotta to worry about your roast beast.
This entry has swung wide of the Christmas spirit I was going for at the start. All I mean to say is that it’s okay to fall in love with the world. It really is okay to care, to make some sacrifices for the greater good. It’s okay to evolve, to change, to be imperfect yet to hold an ideal in your mind that demands something of you. It’s okay to be gentle.
It’s okay to be an atheist and still say Merry Christmas.
To all. And to all a good night.
As a quick aside, I know that if you’re on the blog’s email list, you’re probably getting pummeled by these posts. Please do unsubscribe if that’s going to bug you, as I plan to journal here in the coming months and do not want to annoy anyone who signed up years ago and has since moved on. Go with love, my friend, and many kisses at the door.
Baby, it’s cold. The dogs’ water bowl is frozen over and the steps are outlined with frost. The trees are brittle, shivering in the wind, and the roads have dulled to gray under dangerous sheets of ice. It’s going to take some time to let my car warm up, and I intend to drive like a granny on my way to work this morning. Slowly, slowly around the turns. No long strides when walking.
I wonder how the homeless are coping out there. It’s common to see them on the sidewalks and under bus shelters in the pre-dawn hours, draped with blankets and bundled into layers of clothing, and you can catch a glimpse sometimes of a tent in the forest or a patch of litter to mark a previous encampment. Their increased number has made the city feel vaguely apocalyptic, an impression strengthened by the twitching and dancing on street corners, the way a person might become frozen in place, one arm raised, as though struck by an alien ray gun moments before being vaporized. From my bedroom window a few weeks back, I watched a man shadowboxing his way down the middle of the street with such intensity that I feared he might dislocate a shoulder.
What’s happened to these people? Drugs, sure. Poor mental health. Skyrocketing rent. But I mean, what exactly? We all are on a path, and paths involve steps. What were theirs? Was a monster behind them, giving chase? Did they misread the map? Were there forks in the road or none at all? Did they have a chance and blow it? Do they have regrets, or is it more a fuck-it-all bravado that gets them through the night.
How did they come to be where they are? How do any of us?
I’ve been sitting here for a while, thinking about how to end this page. Thinking about the world, and my place in it, and how much I really want to delve into other people’s pain. To know is to care, and to care is to act.
I’m supposed to complete a self-evaluation at work. You’ve seen one of these, I’m sure. A long series of questions covering various aspects of the job and how good you think you are at it. It’s divided into categories and subcategories: How organized you think you are, how careful, how accurate, how skilled. One to five, line by line. The bosses fill out the same assessment, and afterward you get together and compare the answers.
What kind of sadistic shit is this? Imagine the horror of rating yourself a five in personal appearance and the boss clapping back with a two. Or you think you’re the bomb at interoffice communication only to learn that no one can make head or tail of your cryptic email humor. I mean, unearthing these disparities is the point. I do understand. But for fuck’s sake, this?
For a while I sulked. I did a first draft of the thing, in which I went vengefully down the center column and gave myself a three on every line, in as blunt a response as I could muster given the circumstances. Fuck no, is what this says. I’m checking out.
I’ve sat with this unhappily for weeks. Weeks, I tell you. Why can’t I just play the game? If I’m honest—and why not? where’s the harm?—I’m very good at my job. It’s not a difficult one, but it does need a skill set and mine is pretty good. However to say that, to put it in writing, goes against every inclination. I don’t want either of us sitting around judging me, assessing my worth, giving it a number. Can’t we just have a normal conversation? Why the multiple-choice rigmarole? Why can’t the boss just say, one human to another, “Stop using words like ‘kerfuffle.’ Nobody knows what that means,” or “Quit overspending on pens and use a Bic like everybody else.” Do we really need the one-through-five? My boss is my son’s age, are you kidding me?
I think what I’ll do is pretend to have lost my homework. With any luck she’ll only ask once, and I’ll promise to turn it in but won’t. And if she asks a second time, I’ll say, Look, can we agree that things are ticking along? Yes? Then maybe we can just move on.
I won’t actually come back with that, of course. My boss has bosses and she’s probably supposed to collect this stuff, and she’s a nice person as well so there’s no reason to make her job harder. I’ll bullshit my way through the assessment so she can turn in her own homework, but let it be known that I feel surly about it and don’t wanna boogie.
Work is okay. Better than okay, when compared to the shit show of 2021. That was an awful year. I’d lost my long-term job to COVID and had to find another. At first, it seemed I’d landed on my feet at a pediatric therapy clinic, where I worked the front desk and managed the schedule for ten providers and a passel of wild-eyed children. I loved those kids, by the way. One of my defining features as a human is how much I love children; it’s something everybody knows about me, including the kids, who are gravitationally pulled into my orbit, bearing broken toys and bandaged owies and scraps of paper covered in crayon. They know I’ll make a fuss and ask a bunch of questions and tape their artwork to my desk. We understand each other.
Anyway, I digress. I left that zoo after six months, due to a few too many incidents of micromanagement and a bullying coworker who could not bring herself to leave me the fuck alone. I moved on. And on, and on, and on, and on. I worked at a prosthetics clinic. I spent two days with some eye surgeons. I tried chiropractic, and bookkeeping for a home health service, and middle management. And possibly one or two other jobs I’m too traumatized to recall. I quit and quit and quit. It was a miserable year, and I was lost.
What happened eventually is that I made my way back to where I’d started, the rowdy front desk of a large physical therapy clinic. My god, the relief. I cannot tell you. The familiar faces. The familiar workflow. A kind boss who knew and appreciated me. And it was made even better when, three months in, I got wind that one of the group’s smaller clinics had lost both manager and therapist and would need to make a fresh start. I jumped up and down going me-me-me, and ended up securing that transfer.
At first, I worried that I had made another mistake. The tiny clinic was dingy and unloved, with pots full of dead plants outside and a depressing lack of personality within. I spent an evening wandering around the empty clinic, noting how there were approximately nine hundred paper cups in the storage room, how the sheets and towels were jumbled onto an open bookshelf which loomed like the Tower of Pisa over a nearby exam table. The exercise bike didn’t work. The dryer squeaked. You get the idea.
But it would be mine. The bosses told me to take ownership, and that’s what I did. I stopped by one weekend and tore the dead plants from the pots out front, filled them up with sweet alyssum and flowering perennials. I took down the dusty paper screen on the front door and polished the glass, got maintenence in to fix the bike and replace the damaged backsplash behind the sink. I scrubbed out the fridge. Cleaned the carpets. I ordered fresh white cabinetry with doors to replace that awful bookshelf, washed all the linens and folded them neatly and stacked them inside. I emptied the drawers and cupboards around my desk and reorganized the mess within. (Dozens of boxes of paperclips, what kind of OCD nonsense is this?) I brought houseplants from my own collection and put them in the waiting room and around the front desk. Friends, I scrubbed the bathrooms.
We took over the place in March. It’s just two of us in this clinic: the therapist and me. She’s wonderful, by the way. She specializes in pelvic floor and related issues, so we see a lot of pregnant patients, many of whom have kids they bring to their appointments. I’m the unofficial babysitter during these visits, so I get a lovely hour of kid-time on the reg. I push strollers, cuddle babies, put together puzzles on the waiting room floor. We have beach balls and fire trucks. A fart gun! Colored paper and highlighters, should any small person feel creatively inspired. People talk a lot about the vibe of the place. They say it’s peaceful and friendly. They like my playlist. They like my plants and ask if they are real. Our little-clinic-that-could is now booked six weeks out and we’re hiring another therapist to come in and help. The boss has requested my DNA for cloning.
It’s the right place for me. The right amount of bustle, very little stress. There are Christmas lights on the houseplants and paper snowflakes taped to the window, and although we do find the occasional junkie on the doorstep of a morning, the occasional asshole on the other end of the phone, and a sagging disappointment on paydays, all in all it’s a pretty good gig. I’m grateful to be where I am and have what I have.
So what am I doing here? The kids are all tiktocking, instawanking, tweeting each other the bird. They are creating content—or that modern kind of FOMO-incel discontent no one has yet learned to manage. It’s all about the algorithm, the views. It’s the subtle act of throwing oneself onto the hyperfueled bonfire for the sake of a thumbs-up emoji.
Is that me? Maybe. Maybe it is. I am, after all, here.
I’d like to think that it’s not me. That I give no fucks. I am, after all, here, in obscurity, not part of the scrum. But it’s hard to be sure.
Would it help to state my purpose? I always did that in my childhood diaries. I’d write my name at the front in cursive lettering, and I’d put something earnest in there about how I was going to be very honest, and say only true things, and I’d warn any interlopers that this diary was private and they’d better put it right down or else. The best diaries had a clasp and tiny gold key, which would often become lost before the pages were half filled, thereby locking me out of my own safe space.
This is not that, but the impulse remains. I want to know what I’m up to, at least at the start. And if the key gets lost along the way, so be it. The words will have served their purpose.
Okay then, here we go, in pen, in cursive, right up front: I’m here to journal. To get loose. To care a little more in some ways and a little less in others. I’m trying to level the teeter-totter. To overcome a self-destructive impulse. I have thought—usually while under the influence—that if I could journal faithfully for a while, the entries might provide some raw material. I’m thinking of Jenny Offill’s wonderful books, in which a story is conveyed as a collection of incidents, each minute in itself but rich as anything when the mosaic is complete. This is how life goes, right? Dot to dot, tile by tile, and suddenly a picture emerges and you know what you’ve been looking at all along.
Betsy says we should write every day. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block, and thinks it’s simply a manifestation of some other mental ailment. Depression, anxiety, fear, rage… There is resistance in the community to use the term “writer’s block,” as if to name the malady by its symptom is to give it air.
I can understand this. Writing is scary, and each person has to manage the fear in a way that minimizes the problem and makes it feel surmountable. Of course there are prescriptions to employ when you hit The Wall: Write every day, write off-topic, describe the state of your slippers or the magenta-backed leaves of a plant near your desk. Words on page, ass in chair. It sounds so simple. And in that way, it is. Words are available to us always, at the beginning and the end of every form of writerly distress.
But I think in some ways this approach misses the point of writer’s block, which is not the idea that you can’t write at all but that you can’t come up with anything useful. I have written novels and drafts of novels, short stories, flash fiction, poetry. The trouble is not blockage in the words-on-page sense, but a deeper and more frightful dearth of ideas, of confidence, a resistance to finishing work that doesn’t need to exist. It’s this feeling of being smothered by the sheer volume of stuff that’s already out there. The silliness and hubris of adding a twig to the inferno. It’s this disconnect between the human-scale effort to write a pleasing story and the towering rage of a disrespected planet, which seems to be readying itself for a fresh start.
It’s complicated, is what I’m saying. How do we bring ourselves to care? How do we enlarge a small idea—or decide, perhaps, that smallness is a construct not worth considering, that it’s inevitable, that small things can stand in for bigger ones with or without conscious effort. How do you claim your space, small though it may be, and make it matter, even if only to you?
I didn’t stop writing. In case you’re wondering, I did not. Though the years have continued without my particular commentary, they’ve continued just the same, one upon the other, and I have not stopped noticing the slips and eddies of my own life and the lives of those around me. It’s been my habit to write and read what I’ve written to the point of satiation, then destroy it, Ethan Hunt style, five four three two one. I write when no one is watching and get rid of the evidence. I don’t have the desire or the guts to ask anyone to read my writing ever again, yet having arrived at this position it seems that writing has become more like a secret vice than the kind of productive enterprise I used to imagine it could be.
This is the problem: I want to write. Maybe I need to. But writing without being read has begun to make me feel like a mad old lady talking to her cat. It’s the sound of one hand clapping. A felled tree in an empty forest. Insert your own cliche. The point is that we as a species are fucked to the nth and it would probably do me good to air my grievances and shed a ray of light upon my fears. There’s no need for such goddamn secrecy. It’s not like I’ve got anything earthshaking to report. I’m an ordinary person living an ordinary life, so why be precious about it? Why keep it buttoned to the throat? Writing above all else is proof of life, so why erase the graffiti, the stenciled hand on the wall of a cave. Someone, someday, may want to know that I was here.
And it turns out this space still belongs to me. I must have purchased the blog’s domain at some point, using the name I made up when I needed an alter ego. There was never an alter, of course. There was only the ego I was born with, doing what egos do, trying to leave some trace of itself behind. For a while that seemed to matter. Writing was new for me then and I wanted to see what it could be—what I could be, given the chance. I thought, Here is a path and I have legs, let’s just see where it goes.
What I didn’t allow for was this stubborn kink in my personality that feels most at home on the path itself. I don’t want to get there. Wherever it is, I don’t want to go. I crave the long dim hallway, the locked doors and empty spaces, the sly undercover work of noticing and noting and moving on, the balm of aspirational laziness and lowered expectation. I like being nobody. In accepting my smallness, I become bigger. An ant on an apple, circling the equator, is king of an infinite domain.
And so, my friends, I’m both with you and alone. As we all must be. This is not a revelation. I have no fresh insight, no intellect brought to bear. I am only Estragon, repeatedly trying on boots. But let it be known that I have seen you and walked in your light, that your struggles and triumphs, your profound ennui and unapologetic thirst, your grief, joy, and rage, your vacillations, manic exhaustion, fear, lust, gentleness and loss, your flagrant damned existence on this very fucking apple have not gone unnoticed. I see you. I love you, in my imperfect way. I’m here to provide evidence of the only fact that matters: