Bruce will probably come home today. I am picturing myself–tomorrow morning–writing.
A conversation with a friend, earlier this summer, reminded me of this Author Magazine interview (I blogged about it last October, too). We’ve all heard the mantra, “One day at a time,” but sometimes 15 minutes is enough. Kim Kircher, in her memoir about her husband’s illness, and her work on ski patrol, makes it crystal clear. Life, and writing.
I had an interesting insight earlier this month, a small one — I could have missed it had I blinked. Most Tuesday mornings from 10-12 I join several other women to drink coffee and to read and talk about … well, about everything. We don’t all make it there every Tuesday, and we don’t always study what we’re supposed to be studying, but as I look back at the two years I’ve been doing this, I can see it’s become a sustaining practice.
One of the readings we’ve shared is Joan Chittister’s The Monastic Way, which is a monthly pamphlet with daily inspirations on a given topic. In July it was “Celebration,” which felt especially relevant as my family gathered to celebrate my niece’s life. Earlier this year, the topic was “Home,” and as my name means house or home in Hebrew, that felt directed straight at me.
In August the topic was “Discipline,” but I misplaced my pamphlet and when Carolynne offered to photocopy hers for me, we both immediately got distracted and forgot. “Discipline,” I remember thinking. “I really need that right now. Maybe it would help….” But then (and here was my flash of insight) I thought, “No. What you need is to give yourself a break.” And then the thought was gone. I went immediately back to fussing and fuming about not getting enough writing done.
It turns out that discipline — at least of the writing kind — has not been what I needed this month. What I needed was to let go of my big goals, to forgive myself for not getting my work done, and concentrate on my family.
It is what it is. (For that matter, if you’re trying to rock that baby and you can’t relax into it, you might try waking your husband to take over. Or call your mother, or a friend. Take a break! When you come back, you’ll do better.)
Yesterday Bruce had surgery — adhesions from scar tissue were causing the small bowel obstruction, and that (by this point) was the best case scenario. No bowel resection. No colostomy bag. He’ll spend another week in the hospital getting going again. And he HATES the hospital.
When I work with my creative nonfiction students on their stories, I try to impress on them that a successful life needs the same elements as a successful story. Stories need conflict and resolution. They need heroes. They need action. They need — most of all — an author who is paying 100% attention to what happens and the consequences of what happens. That’s what I was trying to get at in my last post. You are the hero of your own story — even when it feels like it’s about everyone but you. The trick is to be fully present.
On Thursday, I was not fully present. I felt like two people — one who was saying and doing kind things but only because she felt she had to, and another who was pissed off and did-not-want-to-be-there.
Somehow, by Friday, I had turned a corner and I knew what I had to do.
It’s like the difference between rocking a baby when you are tense and sleep-deprived and mad at your husband (couldn’t he get out of bed and rock the baby?!), and when you just let yourself relax into the chair, look into your baby’s eyes, and, well, be there. If you’re 100% there, no matter what it is, then it’s your story. So far as I know, that is the only way to make it your story.
The wine is for my cousin Patrick — my maiden name is King, and my dad grew up in Oregon. (I wish Patrick could drop by to help me drink it. I could use some conversation, preferably about Yeats or Herbert or Dickinson.)
I spent 12 hours today at the hospital with my husband. He has been in the hospital since Monday night when he was admitted with severe stomach pains and diagnosed with an obstruction in the small bowel. Maybe. He was sent home Wednesday afternoon, but we were back in Urgent Care by 8 p.m.; he was readmitted to the hospital Thursday morning. Feeling sleep-deprived and, generally, as though I needed to be put in a hospital bed myself, I thought of the words of the Puritan divine who, on his wife’s death, wrote something in the order of “God has been ever vigilant to test and strengthen my faith.”
Really? Sometimes our “real life” means paying attention to somebody else. Anyway, my goal last night was to get a good night’s sleep. Today my goal was to talk to Bruce’s doctors. They are not in agreement, but we’re getting closer to a diagnosis.
While teaching this spring, so busy with my students that I couldn’t sustain more than a few minutes of writing each day, I kept myself going with the thought, “This summer I will write.” I imagined writing 3-4 hours a day, at least. Hasn’t happened. This summer has been a marathon of caregiving — my mom, my girls, now my husband. I have scarcely had a single day that was not somehow interrupted.
Interrupted? I believe that’s called “life.” I suppose it would be cool if I could have 90 days of uninterrupted work, but in fact I really like my family. I like being available to them. As I tell my mom, “I’m glad I have a mom.” I’m glad I have my girls. I am eager for Bruce to get well and come home and take back his usual role as “Chief Cook and Bottlewasher.”
Today, when Bruce had been whisked away by a competent x-ray technician, I took my notebook out of my bag and said, “Okay, Bethany, write for 10 minutes.” I wrote for 12. Then I closed my eyes and I think I nodded off for a few minutes.
Now it’s 10:15. I’m drinking a glass of wine and watching TV with my girls.
I’ve had a busy weekend, and I can’t believe it’s already Sunday evening. I haven’t done much writing, but I cleaned my house, entertained guests (and talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne, movies, children, and my novel), and I thought a whole bunch about my novel. Meanwhile, my friend Carla Shafer is doing the August Poetry Postcard fest again this year, which means writing an original, new poem each day and mailing it. She shared this one with me, too:
(Postcard of timedelayed stars above Mt. Baker)
Follow the Arc
Stars spinning away from the earth
a curve becoming a wheel
waves falling from the sea
snowballs flying from grip to hit
a hand ready to clasp
cats’ tails, orgasms, rainbows
shadows tracing glaciers
along the the rib of a mountain
a story on the way to its end.
It’s my third morning of work — back on the novel — and, just as I predicted, I’m feeling better about it. And about life.
I’ve also been reading The Pen and the Bell, a splendid new book about writing and meditation by Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller. One exercise they suggest is to write about how one begins.
This summer I haven’t been getting up early. Even when I get to bed at a decent time (last night, for instance) I sleep until six or seven in the morning. This morning, it was seven o’clock when I opened my eyes. But by 7:15 I had made coffee and was headed out to my cabin. Or, “The Potting Shed,” which is what I call it. I flipped on some music (Shostakovich), and my electric fireplace (no heat today, just the flicker of flames), and turned on a lamp.
Some mornings I light a candle, too. It was so warm this morning I skipped the candle (and soon turned off the flames — who needs the atmosphere when it’s 75 degrees at 8 a.m.?). I got out my journal and scribbled, pretty aimlessly, for a while. Then I picked up my notebook.
I read aloud. I made some notes. I found my laptop (in the house, in Annie’s room as she borrows it to do her math homework and never returns it). I typed up what I have on the midpoint event. I’m killing a character — just a minor one — but it’s hard! I tend to watch out for my characters as if they were my children, and even the bad ones get all kinds of attention and positive efforts lavished on them if I’m not careful. “How does this advance the plot?” “How does this contribute to the main character’s emotional development?”
I wrote a very bad first draft of the death scene. I printed it out.
And now to do a little more.
That wasn’t so much how I start as the whole lollapalooza.
Over and over people say to me, “How nice that you’re not working this summer.” That’s what I want to write about tomorrow.