Step Away from the Eyes

I picked up some bad fiction the other day. By that, I don’t mean I purchased it. I mean I actually picked it up, read a few paragraphs, and put it back down. The author began their chapter with a bit about some character’s eyes. Green-gray pools of mystery. Black doorways that held a hint of deception. Seductive golden jewels belying a quiet sadness. That was enough for me.

We can do better than this, people. I know it’s fiction, but nobody spends that much time staring at their own reflection in the town sheriff’s steely gray gaze or sitting in the coffee shop cogitating the corneas of the hipster college kid drinking a chai latte. I know, I know–window to the soul and all. Nevertheless, it’s cliché and overdone.

The nose has smelt just as much as the eye has seen. The femur probably has some good stories (soccer balls and coffee table corners and such). Imagine the ingrown tales a toe would tell. Why eyes?

If it were any other body part, we’d realize how goofy the obsession with eyes can be.

Lona sneaked a glance a Ronald. His smile broadened, but there was something in his ears that gave her pause. Maybe it was the holes, the way the dark recesses of his ear canals pulled her into their waxy depths. She wondered what it would feel like to get lost in those ears, to lie beside him in the moonlight, wanting so desperately to find a Q-tip. His ears told the story of his life: unattached earlobes, fleshy and pink–a cherubic child. A piercing on the left–he’d been a rebel, once. Cauliflowered cartilage on the right side revealed he’d most likely stuck his head in a laundry chute or a coal scuttle. The salt and pepper bristles peeking out–no loving woman to care for him, to buy him a personal grooming appliance or shame him into finding a pair of scissors. Those ears haunted her dreams. 

Big News

I endured a rough patch in April and May. As the weather refused to warm, I engaged in regular self-abuse and derision at my perceived lack of success. I received many a rejection letter for my book. Autoimmune brain fog hampered every effort to write something new (as evidenced by the silence on this site). Spring was a real shit show in writer-land. I was ready to give up and go to law school.

But with the West Virginia Writers’ Conference and the boost of self-confidence I gained in winning that competition, I feel now that I’m still on the right path, and that forward momentum is key to staying out of that mental pit.

Weelunk, Wheeling’s alternative news and blogging platform, has given me a golden opportunity. Every alum of Chatham University’s nature writing program dreams of an opportunity to reach out with their words, to affect positive ecological change. I’ve been given this chance.

My regular Weelunk column, Valley Views & Varmints, will soon be debuting on Weelunk and appearing with regularity!

Yesterday, a picture of me looking sweaty and bedraggled appeared in an introductory post.

Thanks, summer, for your bounty.

West Virginia Writers’ Conference 2017

I’m pleased to write about another fantastic trip down to Ripley where I and two of my fellow Ohio Valley Writers attended the 40th West Virginia Writers’ Conference at Cedar Lakes. I won three awards: honorable mention and first place for two essays in the non-fiction category, in which I competed against 56 other brilliant writers, and second place in the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change category.

What makes the West Virginia Writers’ Conference special, I think, is West Virginia itself. I’ve been to other writing conferences. I went to AWP in Washington, D.C. in February, and it was very businesslike, very efficient. AWP is a monster machine, with hundreds of panels, hundreds of publishers, and thousands of people. I learned a lot at AWP. I also wore myself out to the point of exhaustion. And while I did do some networking, the crowds made it difficult to really forge any new connections from scratch. It’s hard to remember faces in such a literary cacophony, and the faces who did invite me to submit my manuscript said no thank-you several months later. In a perfectly nice way, mind you.

John & Alice joined me at this year’s conference.

West Virginia Writers is like camp. We’re a small state and a ferociously proud one. And while the news will never tell you that we’re full of word artists, they come out of the hollers for this event, and they’re a most enjoyable crowd. They’re friendlier than church-folk, even. West Virginia writers are like puppies: they wag their tails when you show up and welcome you with excitement.

Moonshine under moonshine.

Plus, there’s moonshine. Apple pie flavored. Meta bonus points because I was drinking moonshine while bathing in the Strawberry Moon’s shine.

I learned things, but more importantly, I connected with the other writers in a way I did not do at AWP or any other conference I’ve attended. These are folks with whom you can sit down at any meal in the dining hall – quite literally just plop yourself down with strangers – and become friendly and feel supported. There are no jerks. There are no douchebags. We are bonded by our West Virginian-ness.

The bucolic spirit of Cedar Lakes, Ripley, WV.

And in our state, that’s not a bond to underestimate. Our love of our home, despite all of the negativity it endures from both the inside and the outside, emerges in conversation. It spills out in workshop when the leader asks who returned to West Virginia after living elsewhere and twenty hands shoot up. We are not only proud to be from West Virginia; we are all in love with West Virginia. And no matter how many times we land in the 49th spot on an unenviable list, we resist that label. We’re more than an opioid addiction. We’re more than an incest joke or a color on a political map. This place is our home, our bloodline. And that blood runs through the veins of this conference, too. Our state is our spectacular main character; it creates our narrative tension and our blessed resolution.

Ohio Valley Writers took home 5 awards.

Does this kinship flow at other conferences? I cannot fathom a Manhattan writers’ convention. I can’t imagine passing a group of New York writers sitting beside a bonfire and being invited to join them. In what other world can I approach an esteemed author and come away with a hug or an invitation to call them up for a chat? Who else might toss me a cold beer and exchange a few bad-cat stories or an hour of bluegrass music?

At every writers’ conference, I come away with something of value: a new technique, a business card, a signed book. When I leave Cedar Lakes, I’m also coming home with a renewed sense of community, of deep and enduring pride to be a West Virginian. From the hollers and panhandles of our state the writers come forth for this annual pilgrimage, and though it’s writing that brings us together, it’s our love of our land that we truly share.

This year we took an oath. We swore to support one another in literature and friendship, to remember the great authors who wrote before us:

West Virginia Writers Pledge

And we remain a pack, as the pledge suggests. For forty years the West Virginia Writers have kept the torch burning in support of one another, of the story tradition. It’s one I’m so proud to be a part of.

 

 

What’s Wrong with You? – Part One

This is Part One in a series of honest blogs about my journey into autoimmune disease and my fight against it.

*****

I haven’t done a whole lot of blogging since the end of 2016. It’s not that life has been dull; quite the opposite, actually. I’ve just been too tired to blog.

Tired. Now there’s a loaded word in our culture. We use it a lot, especially when we exchange pleasantries when we bump into each other or on Facebook.

“How are you?”

“Fine. Just tired.”

“Worn out, today.”

“Man, I’m tired.”

We’re all tired. It’s sort of the American mantra. We pride ourselves on our exhaustion because it illustrates how damn hard we work, and if there’s one thing Americans love, it’s hard work to the point of exhaustion. I don’t know why. I’m guilty of it, too. I love opening my planner and seeing the entire week covered in ink, scribbles in every corner. Sometimes I’ll actually make checklists of things I’ve already done just so I can have the satisfaction of checking them off.  Write possum story? Check! Clean up dog vomit? Check! Got the mail? Check–I got the hell out of that mail, today.

Accomplishments make me feel valuable. But I don’t feel valuable these days.

Until now, I’ve only put snippets of this part of my life on the blog. A mention of autoimmune here, a quick joke about OCD there. I brush it off so you will brush it off, so you won’t think there’s something wrong with me on the inside. Because it’s embarrassing to be sick. Because it’s shameful to be resting. Because when you see me at Kroger, I look just fine, and how can anything serious be wrong if I look fine? (“Fine” is, of course, a relative term–sometimes I go without makeup and you go home and tell your family you had a Kraken encounter.) And because when I tell people I don’t feel so well, they inevitably ask me, “Well, don’t you take supplements?”

“Do you take probiotics? You should really be taking one a day.”

“Don’t you go to the gym? It helps your immune system.”

“You really should do yoga. Lift weights? Walk more?”

“What’s your diet like? I always feel sick when I eat crap.”

And even though I actually have been doing all of these things, eventually, the questions begin to morph into statements that contain just a hint of judgment:

“Boy, you sure get sick a lot.”

“They must have a room reserved for you at Med Express. Hah!”

“You know, too many antibiotics aren’t good for you.”

“When I get a cold I just power through it.”

“At least you don’t have cancer.” And this one is particularly awful because I tell myself the same thing whenever I feel like crap: Hey idiot, you don’t have cancer. You’re not dying–you’re just tired.

How do you respond to those statements when you know that, on the inside, something is genuinely wrong? I knew I was getting sick a lot. I knew I was too tired. And no matter how I fought back, nothing changed. What happens when you do everything right and still feel sick?  What do you do when you literally cannot summon the energy to change a light bulb, as I could not last weekend?

After a while, you start to get paranoid. After a while, you wonder if they think that you enjoy being sick, secretly. (Illness is no picnic around here: Shawn maintains a strict schedule of soup, tea, hot baths, and Vicks rubdowns for the unwell, and no, you may not decline.)

For years I’d had general body aches and mild to moderate fatigue. Enough that I felt like a real slacker compared to Shawn, a man born with more than enough energy to power him through life and parenthood. Several years ago, I started having neck and shoulder pain. Huge trigger points formed in my neck–I wrote about it here. My wonderful massage therapist worked them out, but they came right back. My chiropractor moved my spine. The pain refused to abate. Eventually, my GP gave me a fibromyalgia diagnosis, a pain disorder characterized by sensitive nerves and fatigue.

Additionally, I had the weakest immune system imaginable. I caught every cold my kids brought home, and it invariably turned into bronchitis. One year I had to take six courses of antibiotics.

Six.

The problems began to compound in graduate school when I found myself under intense stress. True to the American spirit, I couldn’t simply get through academia; I had to beat it into submission. I worked harder and longer and more intensely than I’ve ever done, for anything. I mean, I don’t even work that hard at being a mom (as evidenced by Benjamin’s report card, which says he gets so wound up in class that he destroys his projects before he finishes them.) And while I did well in my MFA program, halfway through I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease characterized by dry eyes, dry mouth, digestive problems, fatigue (yes, more!), and widespread pain.

Autoimmune issues are believed to be born of stressful events. In the last ten years of my life, I gave birth to two children, lost several dear friendships, was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and got a master’s degree. It was in the cards, I guess. The doctors told me that once an autoimmune disorder is diagnosed, it never goes away, and they tend to multiply as time goes on. Hashimoto’s, Scleroderma, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sjogrens, Multiple Sclerosis. You can only manage the symptoms. They said it will get worse, over time, and it’s not unheard of for a patient to die.

Well, they didn’t tell me that part, but research filled in the blanks. Dammit, WebMD. I just can’t quit you.

I think it’s time for people like me to
stop being quiet about what’s going on. Fear of being labeled a complaining wimp, fear of being pitied, fear of being judged have all kept me from really talking to people about what has been happening inside my body. No, I don’t want to run into you at CVS and answer, “Crappy,” when you ask how I am. I want to say, “Fine.” (Actually, I want to say, “I’ve just won a Pulitzer,” and smugly buy my Sensodyne.) But when I say I’m fine over and over and over, am I really adding anything good to my world? When I deny that there is something wrong with me, something that I believe affects far more people than we realize, am I missing an important opportunity to speak up and speak out? Am I treating myself like the wimp I’m afraid you’ll think that I am?

My silence buys me a pass to continue to feel sick rather than seeking a scientific answer. The more I say, aloud, “I am sick, I am in pain, I am not well,” the more real it becomes. When it’s real, I can no longer ignore it. When I can no longer ignore it, I have to act. Because this autoimmune problem, this deflated life, will kill me if I don’t. Besides, if I’m going to call myself a writer, don’t I need to use these words to add something to the world? You know, something other than stories about Ben and his hatchet collection.

But it’s hard to ask other people to give a hoot about me. We have a lot to focus on in this country, right now. I’m one tiny person who is, at least, still managing to get through her day. Why am I deserving of the time it takes to read a blog about a sore neck? This is why people keep quiet about their personal struggles, of any kind.

I wrote this blog a week ago but have not yet found the courage to click the publish button. I don’t know when I’ll publish it because I’m not quite sure I’m ready to talk about this. I’m not sure my words matter in the grand scheme of things and I’m not quite sure you won’t roll your eyes when you read this.

I went to a naturopathic doctor recently–not a hippie dippie crystal dealer, but an M.D. and a D.O. who have treated patients like me in their clinic, who have science on their side and a plan for me in mind. It’s another attempt at healing, and I am both hopeful that it will work and protectively skeptical that it will not.

I’ve been reading Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She writes far more beautifully about chronic pain and autoimmune disease than I ever could, but she has also inspired me to do the same. I want to write about my journey, a chronicle of sickness and the quest for health. And then I get afraid and close the laptop for another day because I don’t want my headstone to read HERE LIES LAURA: she was sick and tired and forced everybody to read about it.

If you promise to be understanding, I promise to be honest. And funny.

The Infuriating Thing About Un-Readiness

“Excuse me, how’s the book coming?”

The idea of grad school is to fine tune your education. When you apply, you do so because you’ve found the thing. Your thing. The path you want to follow. When I finally decided I wanted to be a writer, I found a program, and people, who would teach me, and they did. I learned, and am still learning, how to write.

I’ve been finished with graduate school for several months now. I have a few publications scheduled in the next half-year, but most days are quiet. Most writing days are solitary, and they end on a cliffhanger: will she finish this book? Will Varmints be worth revisiting tomorrow?

Cliffhangers suck. Nobody likes them, and yet they keep the audience coming back for more. When a television show ends in a cliffhanger, the cast and crew have to come back for the next season. The audience is waiting because they know the plot–they’re invested in it. They watched the buildup, the climax, and the abrupt ending. Not so with writers. Nobody gives a crap if I come back tomorrow, because nobody has any idea that I’m here today. Nobody can see me on this Sunday morning, sitting here in my unicorn onesie with mismatched socks and hair that looks like I just crawled out of a badger hole because cooking Thanksgiving dinner wore me out.

“What do you mean by not done?”

I can tweet the hastag #amwriting until the cows come home, but now, nobody cares until I produce a publication. Nobody is waiting for my draft. Nobody wants to know about the essays I start that fail, or the extensive amount of time it’s taking me to find the proper voice for a middle-aged possum who’s trying to fill out an eHarmony profile in what is starting to feel like the most ridiculous thing I have ever written.

And this leads me to the ever-growing worry that occupies a larger and larger chunk of my brain: What if I’m just not ready?

To my left sits a metal bookshelf I bought at a consignment store for $20. It’s seafoam green and it holds every book I’ve read in the past two years of school. Forty or fifty. Each book bears an author’s name and a publisher’s imprint. Those people did it. They wrote the damn book, they published the damn book.

They were ready. I do not think that I am. And the infuriating thing about un-readiness is that it won’t be moved by force. And while I agree that a writer must, simply, shut the door and write, every single day, the practice of writing may or may not nudge the ready-meter to the left or right. Readiness comes when it will.

“Stop pushing my butt, lady.”

Ever try to move a dog who doesn’t want to? Nugget is a collie-doodle, according to the mutt genetic test. I’ve never thought of either breed as being especially strong-willed, and she’s not, unless I push her butt. Applying force to Nugget’s rump causes her to plant her front paws and push back against me, even when I push her away from things like a knife-wielding Benjamin or a clawed-feline looking to snag a chunk of fluffy tail. And likewise, pulling on Nugget has an equal and opposite reaction: she instinctively pulls away from me. No matter which direction I try to force my doodle to go, she resists me. And yet, it takes only the slightest patience, a brief hint of a kind word (“Come ‘ere, Nuggie”) to move collie-mountains.

If I’m interpreting my own metaphor correctly (and I’m not sure that I am), it would seem that I need to stop pushing my own butt. To be kind to my hindquarters. But also to continually nudge. (And offer treats.)

The book I’m writing has taken several iterations. I have big decisions to make about it, not the least of which revolve around genre. This book doesn’t yet have a home on any shelf, but it will, someday, and at the moment, I’ve written some truths and I’ve written some (fun) lies. I don’t know if those two states of honesty can coexist on a publisher’s desk, on a bookstore shelf. Thus, on any given day, I pick a direction and push myself. A week later I might reverse my course and pull myself another way. And all the while, my inner doodle is planting her feet.

Here, I lose the metaphor. Is the doodle my writing? Is the doodle me? Is the doodle the universe?

Hell if I know. And so I’m forced to wait, to get comfortable with un-readiness while friends around me finish manuscripts and win awards and remove the collars from their necks. And no matter how many essays I read about writers who also were not ready, I find no comfort in this perpetual state of uncertainty.

“We’ll just wait here while you finish the book.”

It’s Schrodinger’s varmint. Until I open the box, the book is both fiction and nonfiction. The book is both complete and incomplete.

And yet, I’m not sitting alone all day, every day, wringing my hands. I’m doing things I’ve wanted to do for two years. I’m out of my office more than I’m in it. I’m having the experiences I need to have, being with people rather than with a computer screen. Until I go out, I’ll have nothing about which to come back and write. My kids missed me when I was in school. Weekend trips were postponed. Walks in the woods put off. Finally, I can and will do these things, despite the fact that they limit my writing time. I’m finding joy in a more open schedule.

Still, the unreadiness clings to me like the scent of wet dog. I get whiffs of it even when I’m out and about, but I can’t seem to wash it off with a definitive end-date. I try to scrub myself clean with pep talks and mindfulness, but these are like the candles I burn to cover up the scent of the foyer carpeting where Nugget poops on rainy days.

I’m not ready to finish the book. I’m not ready to finish anything, today. I’m kind of thinking about chewing a sneaker, though.

I Won’t Stand for This

I’m typing this blog standing up.

And I hate it.

Sure, it worked for Hemmingway and Kierkegaard. Smithsonian Magazine says the average office worker spends five hours and forty-one minutes each day sitting, sending those sitters hurtling towards diabetes and cancer, and that sitting is the new smoking. But still I’ve tried to ignore the growing movement to get us all to stand while we write/work/type. Standing is an awful pastime. Whether or not it aligns my spine, it hurts my lower back. It hurts my knees and the bottoms of my feet. I’ve never been a stander but rather that awkward adult in the corner of the waiting area outside the restaurant who’s plopped herself down on the dirty floor.

Hey Chairy! Today’s secret
word is “chiropractor.”

I got the most wonderful writers’ chair for Christmas a few years ago, to get me through some serious computer time in grad school, and I’ve finally reached the point where my ass has hollowed out just the slightest impression (not because I have a small ass but because it’s a really good chair that doesn’t cave under my weight) and I fit all snugly (and snuggly) in there. This chair comforted me during the long hours of grad school, when I sat staring at my unfinished thesis feeling like a loser and a hack. This chair held me in its warm leathery embrace for two years. It supported me during my thesis defense, quietly, in the background, gently rubbing my gluteal muscles that had tensed into lumps of granite.

God dammit, this chair loves me. And now I’m just supposed to stand up and shove it away? I’m supposed to shun it? To turn my back quite literally upon it while I go on with the work it carried me through?

That’s cold, man.

But the chiropractor won’t have it any other way. Stand, he told me. You will stand. That’s your homework assignment. Stand. Stand and write, lest ye be hunchbacked and askew. Sure, I’m still supposed to sit, sometimes, and this caveat actually further complicates his orders. Now, not only do I have to have a stand-up desk, but I have to have a place where I can retreat to sit as well.

I’ve been getting massages for several years now for my wretched neck. Perhaps this falls under my fibromyalgia diagnosis, perhaps it’s just a function of poor spinal health, but at any given time my neck is quietly harboring a minimum of four giant knots. Most people’s knots can be rubbed out, broken up with pressure, an iron will, and the Lamaze breathing one massage therapist told me to implement during her “therapy.” Ever had a giant knot worked on with intensity? It brought me to the point of tears and puke. I’m thankful to have found a massage therapist now who believes that pain does not heal pain, and she takes a far softer approach and really keeps me running (metaphorically). The thing about these knots is that they don’t break up very well. The big ones have been squatting on the property for so long that the tissue has grown accustomed to being knotted and seems to have some sort of sadomasochistic desire to remain in a state of perverse contortion, which of course brings me nothing but intense pain most of the time.

Two stools and four copies of my thesis work pretty well.

My neck has swallowed up a huge chunk of my life since it began acting up right after Andy was born. I’ve gotten hundreds of massages. I’ve had cortizone injected into the hearts of the knots. I’ve had acupuncture and been dry needled–a procedure during which a physical therapist inserts an acupuncture needle into the knot and jerks it up and down, eliciting a twitch response in the muscle (i.e. it contracts like a mother fucker and then is supposed to chill out and relax, but of course mine never do). I’ve had therapy and been given stretches. I’ve rolled on balls. I’ve rolled on foam rollers. I’ve bought an s-shaped green thingy that allows me to dig into my own knots. I’ve taken enough muscle relaxers to stop a heifer’s heart and enough ibuprofen that the lining of my stomach is sending me signals that it’s ready to die with dignity. I’ve seen four chiropractors (one of whom went on to break my mother’s rib when I recommended him to her), been heated and electrically stimulated. I’ve said, “I feel much better, thank you” and then gone home to lift nothing more than a kitchen chair and ended up in agony again. I’ve lain in traction and hung upside down. I’ve put my legs up a wall. I’ve had my kid rub my neck for a quarter and slathered expensive essential oils all over my skin. I’ve burned the imprint of a heating pad into my flesh.

Nothing has ever offered me permanent relief. After ten years, that really starts to bog a person down. Long drive? Neck pain. Rough night of sleep? Neck pain. Spent 2 seconds looking under the bed for a shoe at a weird angle? Neck pain. Planted a flower? Neck pain. Walked the dog? Neck pain.

And of course, the neck pain has evolved into severe headaches, pinched nerves, shoulder pain, and TMJ disorder (for which an oral surgeon happily offered to break my jaw and reposition it on my face to correct the problem). I’ve swiped so many cards and written so many checks that I could have bought a catamaran by now. A big one. With one of those fun nets in the front where you bounce up and down.

This is utterly ridiculous.

But ultimately, nobody can tell me why this is happening on repeat. The rheumatologist mutters about fibromyalgia. The chiropractor tells me I spend my life with my neck in flexion–bent forward and down. He says, “You’re a writer. That’s bad.”

Tell me about it, dude.

I can’t do much about an autoimmune issue, but I can work on my spine. Technology is evolving far faster than the human body ever could. We’ve taken hundreds of thousands of years to reach this point in our physicality. Cell phones went from flimsy, flippy things to tiny computer screens overnight. Shorter laptops became more popular than taller desktops. Texting. Candy crush. Facebook mobile app. All we ever do is look down, all the time. And for those of us who work on a computer, who spend hours every day working on some god-forsaken essay or tax document or legal brief, there’s no way around flexion.

So, in addition to the $79 keyboard I’ve added to my laptop so I can raise the computer itself to eye level, and in addition to the stand-up desk I’m going to buy for some ridiculous price, I’ve been working–as instructed–on standing erect. (Eat your heart out, Homo habilis.) The result of constrant flexion, it would seem, is a head that sits too far forward on the shoulders. We’re all out of alignment, out of whack. My massage therapist notes my weak neck muscles and has given me an exercise to strengthen them, and I also work at simply standing straight. That’s a tall order for a head that’s been leaning forward for 20 years. Those back muscles are terribly weak, and when I remain in that proper position for more than 10 minutes they start to scream and throb. Small steps I take in this position, small increments of time. After all, you don’t build beefy pecs by grabbing 400 pounds and holding it up over your chest for three weeks because eventually, you’ll tire and break your face.

It’s a shame to think that human bodies are all eventually going to crap out due to our lifestyles. There’s really no way to avoid it, unless we’re off in the New Guinea jungle squatting to poop and climbing trees and doing things evolution designed our bodies for. And if we are there, we’d better watch the fuck out because there are cannibals lurking under every rock. I hear they won’t eat American necks, though. Too ropey. Anyway, we convenience ourselves more and more, make our lives comfier and more efficient. And the time we save Googling on our new LG V20 rather than driving to the library to look it up? We can apply that to our biweekly hour in physical therapy.

Genius.

Eye of round roast cooking in a California red blend.

But back to this standing desk bullshit. While I’m hemming and hawing about what I’m going to buy, and if I am willing to pay for such a seemingly ridiculous setup, I’m working on cheap alternatives. I’ve got an angled stool and an Ikea uber-stool (it’s high) set up on the kitchen counter. For now, it’s the perfect height, and I fully expect my cheap ass to write this way for six more months before settling on a proper standing desk. Perhaps I’ll eventually learn to love my erectness, but for now, I absolutely hate it.

Except for the part about writing next to the crock pot. Every few paragraphs I can season my roast.

Cast a Wide Net

My life has changed considerably.

Two months ago today, I walked off Chatham University property for the last time as a student. It was great, and it was sad. So ended the stress. So ended the process of getting where I wanted to go. So ended my immediate and easy ability to connect with a community of like-minded people.

And so began something new.

But that ending and all of its sweet relief was deceptive. Now, I’m adrift. Now, I realize that I have no immediate goals, no pressing deadlines. And more importantly, I have no one to direct me. It’s been a long time since I was my own boss. On July 25, 2006, my most demanding superior was born, and until the day I began at Chatham in the fall of 2014, he (and his brother) dictated my every action. I met their deadlines. I did what they asked of me. I gave them what they required. So, while moving from that sort of environment to one in which I worked for teachers felt different, it really wasn’t different at all. I still had to get things done. I still had to complete my job. Plug away.

Grad school taught me how well I work under a deadline. Now, I’m just sort of floating around out here. The kids are in their school. I’m left to gather the things I’ve learned about writing and about myself in the last decade and mold some sort of life for myself. And, being just a bit anxiety-ridden and a tad impatient, I’m not handling it very well.

Harumph

I decided to cast a wide net. I’m one of the blog editors for Literary Mama. I do freelance blogging. I help a friend teach third graders how to write personal narratives. I try to write on my own, too, while fighting off the difficulties of Sjogren’s Syndrome that really flare up in the fall. I haven’t seen other human beings for two years, so I’m trying to do that, and I’m a little squishy in the midsection too. So, yoga. Rather than a singular focus (thesis), I’ve divided myself up into many varied parts. I know I want to write. It took me 35 years to narrow my existence down to that singularity. Of all the things in the world I could do, writing was it.

But now that I’ve arrived in this place, I realize that the horizon has just expanded exponentially again, to a world almost as big as the one I knew three years ago. Do I want to stay at home and work on my book? Teach little kids? Teach big kids? Freelance for money? Focus on blog editing and publishing? The singularity exploded into an unexpected field of choices, all of which baffle me and tempt me. Thus, the wide net, or as my friend Amanda said, “Throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks.”

The problem is that I’ve caught too many fish in the net. Some keepers, some trash fish, some tin cans. And now I’ve got this heavy-ass net slung over my back and not enough time to deal with the contents. I have fewer free moments in the day than I did during thesis time, and I’m getting paid for very few of my efforts.

Shawn tells me I need to pay my dues. Write, publish, teach, help out. Casually toss my name out there. Work on my book but not kill myself. Fight to stay ahead of my autoimmune problems. Go outside. He’s right, of course. I stayed in my office, writing for school, for two years. In that time I amassed very few life experiences. The idea jar is empty. I need to fill it back up.

I fish. I know how many times I have to cast before I get a bite. I know how many lures I lose, how many snags take my rig. Fishing infuriates me. Some days I don’t catch shit. Once in a blue moon, I land a whopper.

I may need a little help getting this jig out of the tree.

Wherein the writer collapses in on herself

You know what I suck at?

Uncertainty.

That and hanging up my clean clothing. Laundry itself doesn’t bother me: it’s the part where I have to take it out of the basket where it’s been sitting, clean, for two months, and put it on a hanger. Why is that so detestable? I’d seriously rather just re-wash it and start the cycle of ignoring all over again.

I digress. That’s another thing I do that sucks. I digress all the time. And now that I have no teacher reading my words, I can digress until the cows come home and nobody will say anything. They’ll just hit the arrow button and go back to Reddit. I’m going to digress myself right out of my readers.

See what I did there? I digressed for so long because I’m uncertain. My thesis is finished, my tenure in grad school almost complete. And now I’m sitting here in recovery mode, totally clueless about what to do with myself and so mentally tapped out that I haven’t any energy to figure it out. Many people have told me to take a break from writing. In fact, a writing friend told me recently that when she completed her MFA she took a step back for the better part of a year and that it was a necessary endeavor. She assured me that the words did come back eventually, and now she’s in a pretty good groove, teaching and writing and publishing.

Enter: the control freak. If God took the “O” in OCD and formed it into a gangly pile of legs and sarcasm, He’d have me. And as the human embodiment of obsession, I cannot possibly just sit back and enjoy my time off. Oh hell no. Rather than taking a few months, or as long as I need, to reflect on the last two years of very hard work and considerable learning, I’ve decided it would be far more productive to open and close my laptop forty-five times a day, start a piece, write half of it, announce to the empty room that it’s sheepshit, hit save, and shut the computer. And then go outside and blow cicada shells off the deck, where I berate myself in the overwhelming thunder of both insect and leaf-blower.

I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of behavior they treat with SSRI’s.

Timelines haunt me. I allow them to snake their way into my writerly consciousness. So-and-so wrote blabbity-blah at age whatever. (Annie Dillard, I’m looking at you.) I hardly think I’m alone in this, and the tendency goes way past writing and bleeds into my regular life, which tells me that I’m first and foremost an obsessive and that writing chose me because I’d make it such a great little servant.

But so what if I take a few months off? What’s the worst that happens?

Well, my head tells me that if I should dare to take these months off, to let my guard down and give my body and brain a little rest, that gradually I’ll stop cracking open the laptop altogether, and I’ll stop going into my tiny blue office to write. And that in itself is a slippery slope, because I have a Christmas cactus in there and there’s nothing more pathetic than a dried out Christmas cactus lying dead on the table silently asking me if it really had to die for my lack of a literary work ethic. (The aloe plant, on the other hand, seems to have a sharp tongue, and it would loudly tell me to go fuck myself and drop dead out of spite.)

Good job; get to work.

Chatham’s MFA department awarded me “Most Innovative Thesis.” It was supposed to be “Best Creative Nonfiction Thesis,” but I told so many tall tales of raccoon and cricket that I wrote myself out of that particular category. Nevertheless, it was an honor and I was stunned to receive it. So you’d imagine that in itself would inspire me to rest upon my [very small] laurels for a few weeks, but instead it only served to remind me that I was being recognized for yesterday’s work, while today’s had not yet been finished.

Come on, brain. You can’t even budge an inch, can you? You sick little ganglion freak.

So now it’s June 1, and I’m working on settling down with the blog, and I have an essay in its most raw form, and I have ideas that are reaching for paper but not finding much success. But the children don’t start camp until next week, and somehow they’ve got this idea in their heads that their mother should do fun things with them instead of holing up with a computer and a group of foul-mouthed succulents. And next week Shawn will have a painful back procedure and Andy will have his tonsillectomy, and if the stars align properly, I’ll be driving down to Ripley for my favorite writerly event of them all: the West Virginia Writers’ Conference. The universe is making it difficult for me to focus on writing. God knows I hate taking a cue from the universe, but I may have little choice in the matter for the moment. I’m pretty sure I’m being not-so-subtly guided, but unless I receive a certified letter from Destiny advising me to put myself on hiatus, I can’t be sure.

With that, I leave to water the spider plant before it develops abandonment issues.