“And she started being a cat again…”

Our Annie-Cat

My friend Susan recently told me an inspiring story, and she gave me permission to share it here.

Susan is an utterly sane cat lady. Bona fide. Not long ago a friend at a shelter called her to ask if she would take a cat that had been traumatized. “This cat is going to die if we don’t get her into a home,” Susan was told.

The kitty’s master had died, it seems, and his body had not been found for four weeks. Four weeks! Kitty (let’s call her “Kitty”) survived by drinking out of the toilet. She was emaciated and terrified. She was not improving.

Susan was already at her cat limit, but because her friend was a few cats beyond, she agreed to be a temporary way station. Kitty was put into a guest room, with a hiding place crafted out of boxes so that Susan could get access to her. She had all the food and water she needed. She did not have to worry about other cats (as they were shut out of the guest room), and she was given, to the best of Susan’s ability, just the right amount of affection. All she had to do was eat her catfood, drink water, and slowly get better. After a few days, Susan reports, “she started being a cat again.” Susan began to fear falling in love.

Fortunately a call came that day announcing that a permanent home had been found.

This is the part that fascinates me. They moved Kitty immediately (before she could get any more acclimated to Susan and her safe haven) with as many of her familiar objects (dishes, boxes, litter box, toys) as could be carted along to make her feel at home. And yet, despite human efforts, it was a set back. Kitty spent several days cowering in the bathroom beside the toilet — remember, drinking toilet water had saved her life! — and not acting like a cat at all.

The happy ending is that eventually Susan’s foster kitty did begin, again, to act like a cat, and to thrive. The shelter worker who had announced, “this cat needs a home” was right.

We are all like this cat. We didn’t have enough to eat in childhood, so we overeat. We worried about money in the house where we grew up, so we continue to fret about money. We are not easily talked out of these behaviors. We often are not willing even to examine them.

I used to not have enough time to write, and I continue to feel pressured and threatened,annie cat2 despite my early retirement and my amazing writing life. Yes, I do have my mom to keep an eye on, and my teenager. But I don’t have a lot else that absolutely demands my time. Even so, I feel as though I don’t have enough time. Isn’t this the definition of PTSD? I’m acting as though the old trauma — that inability to stand up for myself and my writing that I experienced years ago — is still true. No great, insurmountable power is standing over me and threatening to take my writing away. I have to say no to some things, of course. But how hard is that?

Your writing does not need a safe cage to protect it. It needs love and tenderness and compassion and affection. It needs understanding. It needs time and patience. It needs a home.

And it has all of these things.








Station Eleven, revisited

When Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, first came out in hardback, I resisted it. I picked it up a few times, reading the opening (I loved the opening), but — oh, gee, it was another dystopia , and did I really want to read or watch one more story about the end of life as we know it? So I mentally counted up the number of books on my TBR list, already waiting at home, and I left it on the bookstore shelf. When it was released in paperback, I went through this process again. When I saw it on CD at my library, however, I could no longer resist. I grabbed it.

I loved Station Eleven. I listened to it (parts of it twice) and then I bought a copy and read it again. It is one of those rare, debut novels that not only hooked me for the first 50 pages — “audacious, darkly glittering” pages — but kept me hooked all the way through to the last page. No fifth act problems (quite an accomplishment, considering that it begins with a staging of King Lear). The structure is magical. We move from the story of Arthur Leander (it’s his enactment of King Lear that gets us rolling), then follow a man slipping outside the theater into a snow storm, and a flu epidemic; we pick up the story 20 years later with a child actress now grown; we move back to Arthur’s first marriage and the creation of an amazing graphic story that will survive civilization’s collapse. And so on. It’s all intricately woven together. Mandel moves so deftly between time periods, and from one character to another, that I — well, that I wanted to tell you about it.

Add to this vignette the fact that my family spent the last few days in our own post-apocalyptic bubble. We thought having a tree fall in our back yard last week — and miss all the outbuildings (hitting only the fence) — was so lucky. Then on Saturday, our main sewer line backed up. Then on Sunday, we lost power. So by Monday morning (the morning of my birthday, mind you), we had been living for 36 hours without toilets or washing machines or drains of any kind, and for 18 hours in the dark, without heat. Power was restored late Monday afternoon, but we learned that the sewer problem was not going to be simple. I couldn’t help thinking of the ordeals of the characters in Station Eleven (and so many other such novels and movies and TV shows), how I in fact have sort of romanticized their stories, wishing (at times) for simpler, pre-Internet (and fully wired offspring) days at the very least.

Gradually, it dawned on me that this is the world my characters — Puritan America and circa World War I — inhabit. Oh! (Insights abound.)

Of course I could drive to Caffe Ladro and order my usual almond milk double latte. I could come to the library and check my gmail. I could get a very lucky phone call from a friend offering us the use of her house while she is away. (Birthday dinner saved!)

And, a little money down the road, we will get access to our plumbing again.

Interesting, what we take for granted until we don’t have it. A friend from Writing Lab reminded me of something Garrison Keillor says: “Nothing bad ever happens to writers; it’s all just material.”

Choosing your own life

CAM00232So yesterday I spent a bunch of time beating myself up for writing that blogpost. For whining. But as often happens, my whining elicited a flurry of emails of support and affirmation and encouragement. In one, several passages from Thomas Merton, including this one:

“The purpose of education is to show us how to define ourselves authentically and spontaneously in relation to our world—not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of ourselves as individuals. The world is made up of the people who are fully alive in it: that is, of the people who can be themselves in it and can enter into a living and fruitful relationship with each other in it. The world is, therefore, more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive: that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. Basically, this freedom must consist first of all in the capacity to choose their own lives, to find themselves on the deepest possible level. A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here and there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions … is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of ‘choice’ when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses. It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.” -Thomas Merton

It would be really cool to be the novelist I dream of being — the Edmonds, Washington, version of Anne Tyler, or a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners historical novelist (since that seems my genre) like Geraldine Brooks. But getting to wake each morning and write, that’s the number one, real dream. That’s what I’m doing. Okay, and hanging out with Emma and Mom…and staying married.

Being “fully and more humanly alive….[making] a lucid and conscious use of [my] freedom.” That’s the goal.



Greatest Fears

alive for a reason“The first thing a writer has to do is find another source of income. Then, after you have begged, borrowed, stolen, or saved up the money to give you time to write and you spend all of it staying alive while you write, and you write your heart out, after all that, maybe no one will publish it, and, if they publish it, maybe no one will read it.” ELLEN GILCHRIST

This morning — floundering, floundering — I read a post on Coffeelicious: “The First 21 Pages of Your New Journal.” I don’t have a new journal, I have a really, really old journal, and the suggestion to write down my fears was a no-brainer.

I’ve been waking up at night in a panic about having quit my job — this is also old — I left full-time teaching 2 years ago. But it was that heart-seizing, PTSD panic I sometimes feel, a fight or flight adrenaline rush when there is nothing to fight and nothing to flee. I wanted to DO something, but there was nothing to do. I had to lie there, I had to list all the things wrong in my life, I had to stop listing things wrong, I had to remind myself that nothing is wrong, I had to remember to breathe. dragon2

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” But sometimes they scare the bejeezus out of you. And you still have to keep inching forward. Not worrying so much about results (will my daughters be okay? is my mom okay? will I ever get a novel published? where is the next poem going to come from? should I go back to teaching? should I go back to waitressing?), but simply doing the next, small, right thing.

For me that means getting up the next morning, no matter how little sleep I’ve had, and opening my journal. It means writing down my fears.

In writing, they don’t look nearly so scary.