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27Aug

Wherever You Go

I didn’t mean to fall off the face of the earth… though geographically speaking, we came fairly close this summer. Exactly five weeks ago, I was steaming my waterlogged feet at a campfire in the same Highland glen where Hagrid’s hut, James Bond’s Skyfall estate, and Monty Python’s Bridge of Death were staged. Wind-worn mountains surrounded our tent, their crags still faintly green at midnight. If not for the peaks, we might have been able to spot the Northern Lights. I felt like I was living in a medieval fable, complete with the short, shivering nights and the venison roasted on sticks.

I did not write a single day of our six weeks on the road from Italy to France to home by way of Scotland. I’d intended to, of course. I’d held onto my hope that this half-business/half-pleasure road trip would loosen the time demands clenched around my ribs until I breathed big gusts of words. It turned out, however, that what I had clenched to me were anxieties, and well… you know the saying. Wherever you go…

We drove all the way to the Scottish Highlands, and there I was too.

This has been a hard year, which you may or may not have guessed from the dearth of blog posts around here. The first quarter of 2015 brought the dissolving of three different communities that were dear to our hearts, one isolation lined up after another. I will write about them one day, but I haven’t entirely figured out how to begin processing them within myself. For lack of any more conclusive results (according to a litany of medical tests, I’m fit as a fiddle), I’ve chalked my confusing health issues up to anxiety. I don’t think I’m wrong.

This is a growth spurt year, the kind that moves in drastic lurches and tangled limbs. It aches down to the bone without any obvious cause or cure, and I know we will look different at the end of it even if I can’t imagine the specifics. Truthfully, I can’t even imagine the specifics of next week at this point. My mind is a murmuration of birds shapeshifting in and out of the wind, directed by instinct rather than destination. You’ve heard the motto “Do the next right thing”? It sounds so simple, yet it also assumes you have a single clear direction. What is the next right thing when you’ve fallen off the map?

Generations of soul-searchers before me would answer, “Hit the road!” and we certainly did do that over the span of June and July: eight countries, six campgrounds, two apartments, two hotels, four friends’ houses, 4,100 miles, and a freakish 67°F temperature range that has left me unable to tell whether I’d prefer a fan or a blanket at night. (I’m currently opting for both.) Dan had two different work conferences across Europe, so we packed our car like Tetris wizards and made it a family affair.

We swam in pools, waded rivers, hiked mountains, and invaded every hands-on museum we could find. We went on treasure hunts, followed in the footsteps of Harry Potter, and foraged for our own s’more sticks. We got caught in not one but two transportation strikes and ended up crossing London in a double-decker bus. Completely unrelated to the strikes, we also managed to get ourselves stranded ten miles from our car after a long day at a French theme park. There were bagpipes and goats and crepes and a new tattoo. We ate either croissants or English breakfast every morning because we could. We gained weight, though I am steadfastly refusing to check how much. We forgot what day it was on a regular basis.

Trying not to fall in the pond

Four Bassetts in line 2

Sketching the Eiffel Tower

At the British Museum

Sister snuggle along the Thames

No one died

Scottish swimming hole

Roasting dinner

You can also check out our #franklyscotch trip posts on Instagram.
(France + Scotland = #franklyscotch)

The girls had a blast, though I’m sure they were ready before the end for us to stop referring to every missed bus and rained-out hike as “an adventure.” (Parents gonna parent.) Dan worked like the Energizer Bunny on caffeine and had his mind lit up with possibilities. I vacillated between weightless happiness and abject frustration as the writing-less days slipped by, each one a reminder that travel doesn’t transmogrify us into more capable versions of ourselves. I played hard with my kids and worried hard about what we’d return home to. I was there, and now I’m back here.

I wish I could say what one does with a growth spurt year after the trip has been traveled and the bags unpacked. It seems unfair somehow to return from a long journey without any revelations. Or perhaps that’s my next right thing—to winnow out the wisdom of this summer and let it draw me back to earth, watch it corral my flock of anxieties slowly toward a roost. Growth is no respecter of schedules, after all, any more than it is of geography. This is my gangly attempt at presence then, my place card in the rib-clenching unknown. Wherever in this process we may be, whoever this year is stretching us to be, whatever will emerge from the distances we’ve traveled, here we are.

25May

When a Good Offense is the Best Defense for Abuse

Growing up Quiverfull, I was always aware that we had more to prove than ordinary families did. When we attracted public stares, whether for being out on a school morning or simply for the novelty of so many stair-step children at the salad bar, my siblings and I took our cue to behave as much like miniature, meek adults as possible. I, as the oldest of eight, took this especially to heart. When relatives brought up concerns over my parents’ choice to homeschool, I knew that my grades were our first line of defense. When various adults from church took me aside and told me I could talk to them about anything, I said thank you and clamped my mouth tight around my smile.

Our lifestyle was hard to defend, which made defending it all the more essential to us.

The truth is that we adopted fundamentalist ideologies like patriarchy, authoritarian parenting, and legalism out of fear, not because they bettered our lives. We believed thunder-voiced leaders who told us that isolation from the world was the only way to save our souls. God’s wrath was a specter shadowing every aspect of our daily life from what we ate to how childish energy should be managed, and when we suffered, it was for our own failure to measure up. Telling onlookers the truth was never an option.

Instead, we took up offense as our best defense.

We proclaimed that public-schoolers were idiots with inferior educations as we hid the fact that one of my siblings struggled with learning disabilities that only got worse through horrific at-home “treatments.”

We loudly judged the physical and emotional closeness we saw in couples who were dating (as opposed to family-chaperoned “courting”) while we buried shameful secrets about what can happen in a family when the males are given authority over the females’ bodies.

We declared that children were not safe around homosexuals or social workers or atheists or Democrats even as my siblings and I wore extra clothes to cover the bruises we had sustained in our own home.

I was used as an example of how successful the Quiverfull movement was in producing superior future leaders who would take back the United States for God, though I was told in private that I had no potential and no character, that I was stupid and regrettable and damned.

It’s clear to me in retrospect that promoting our lifestyle was a strategy to deflect attention away from our dysfunction. Mind you, I’m not sure that it worked. My husband points out that having adults continually offer me a listening ear wasn’t normal; many people in our church and neighborhood must have sensed that our home life was much less idyllic than we pretended. However, our loyalty to our beliefs was our shield, and if we had been offered a reality television show from which to champion our choices, I believe we would have taken it.

Yes, this is about the Duggar scandal. It’s about why I was so utterly unsurprised last week when news broke that Josh Duggar has a history of sexually preying on young girls including several of his sisters. While the circumstances of our childhoods were not identical, the ideologies behind them were, and I know firsthand how quickly evil can incubate in an isolated and repressive environment.

It’s no coincidence that Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles whose lifestyle teachings heavily influenced both my family and the Duggars, was ousted from his organization last year after thirty-four accusations of sexual abuse by women who worked for him. Nor is it mere chance that Doug Phillips, founder of another Christian organization that widely promoted patriarchy, homeschooling, and other common tenants of the Quiverfull lifestyle, has had his life unravel over the last year after news of his infidelity and a sexual abuse lawsuit by his children’s former nanny. Despite how adamantly these two men spoke out against worldliness and impropriety during their careers, their positions of “God-sanctioned” power gave them the perfect opportunity to act on their impulses. Perhaps it’s even why they spoke so adamantly.

The best defense is a good offense, and how can you better divert attention from your own sexual behavior than to preach against others’? How can you further distance yourself from a history of child molestation than to take a job publicly implying that LGBT individuals are a threat to children? How can you cover up the sexual abuse perpetrated on and by your children any more thoroughly than to publicize yourselves as the model Christian family? “The lady doth protest too much” may not apply to every situation, but Shakespeare was a better judge of human character than most.

My point is that none of us should be surprised by the news of Josh Duggar’s crimes or his parents’ attempts to cover them up. The system of beliefs under which he and I both grew up creates an environment in which the powerful can inflict abuse with few repercussions, their victims can be made to feel responsible, and defending the family lifestyle is more important than helping the family heal. Growing up Quiverfull taught me to hide family secrets through misdirection, offering up my ultra-modest wardrobe and political rants and Bible memorization trophies to public scrutiny so that no one would guess the horrors happening behind the scenes. Last week’s news is just another reminder that I was not alone in this.

As sickening as the Duggar scandal is to hear, I’m hopeful that its exposure will offer a counterpoint to the façade of a happy, healthy family that they’ve televised over the last six and a half years. The cocktail of movements I call Quiverfull for lack of a more comprehensive term is nothing to be admired. Rather, it is a control-based system that allows—and sometimes encourages—different forms of abuse while publicly touting itself as God’s ideal, and the more people who recognize this in the wake of current news, the more understanding and support we will be able to offer its victims.

28Apr

Let’s Talk About Baltimore

…only, I won’t be the one talking. Instead, I’d like to invite you to listen to these voices with me instead:

From Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray…

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

[Continue reading Nonviolence as Compliance]

From Rev. Dr. Michael Waters:

Multitudes have protested peacefully in Baltimore and around the nation. Yet, a question now arises as to what should be done in response to the violent protests presently unfolding on the streets. Both King and Shakur, themselves young Black men who were victims of horrific acts of violence, would caution America to respond responsibly. For only to address the violence of a minority of protesters and not the systemic violence that has set the stage for their responses would be to reveal historical ineptness…

Baltimore is but a sign of a people who can take no more. While we may not agree with the response, we cannot overlook the cause of the response. Just as Lamar listened to frustrations rendered a generation ago, it is time for us all to listen, anew.

[Continue reading Mortal Men and the City of Baltimore]

From Leah Balter:

I was crushed not because the violence lasted longer than the peace, but because the revolution Baltimore worked hard to create was not televised for what it truly was or is. The revolution was televised as angry citizens burning flags, looting stores and breaking police car windows. This is a skewed portrayal of the protests; it is what the media chose to portray — the media that consumers bewilderingly seem to want.

The real revolution is thousands of people across America standing in solidarity against police brutality. The real revolution is youth activists using their voices and their fearlessness to fight for the future of their generation. The real revolution is people of different races walking through the streets of inner city Baltimore, arms locked, chanting “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray.”

[Continue reading Baltimore’s real, untelevised revolution ]

From a news interview with members of various gangs who met with clergy on Sunday in Baltimore and signed a peace treaty to help their city:

“I don’t agree with what’s going on, but I understand what’s going on, you know what I’m saying? I understand why people mad. But we gotta handle things another way.”

“Me, I basically think the same thing. I mean, we’ve been out here all trying to stop, prevent people from breaking the stores. They hit us with a bomb, they burnt my shirt, they ripped it, and we were still standing right there as a whole. They heard it, but we came right back there holding hands together, and we still, we marched together. Down here, we’re still holding strong. We just want them to stop hurting us so we can just live our life and keep going.”

“Outta all the thousands of people that were down there, you mean to tell me you guys are pointing the finger at us ‘cause we have colors on? No. We’re not, we can’t have that. That is not what we stand for, and that’s not what we’re standing for today. Justice for Freddie Gray.”

“Justice.”

“Justice.”

“Justice.”

“Justice.”

“Justice.”

[Watch the whole video (it’s worth it).]

And in case you haven’t seen this quote floating around yet, this—from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

[Continue reading The Other America]

Do you have any links to suggest from other voices who need to be heard right now?

We’re listening.

 

image source

24Apr

Motherhood, Incidentally

(Photo by our sweet friend Emily)

As of last month, I’ve been a mother for a decade.

I can’t tell you how foreign that sentence feels to my fingers, as nubbly and impenetrable as Braille. “You must have been a young mother!” friends and neighbors say, and the fact is that I still am. This is especially true by Italian standards, where most women don’t start thinking of babies until they’re comfortably settled into their 30s. I feel young in terms beyond age though. Even here in my own comfortable 30s, I’m taken aback by my lack of expertise at each new parenting stage. It’s like being handed a pop quiz called “Congratulations! Despite the fact that you did not expressly condone the passage of time, nor have you had longer than twenty seconds to get used to the idea, your child is now a tween. How are you going to parent her?” and being told that your GPA for life depends on your answer.

(Apparently test anxiety is my go-to analogy for parenthood.)

You may either relate or conclude that I need Xanax when I tell you that my heart clenches up on itself every night when we tiptoe in to check on the girls. One is always nested down inside her covers while the other is sprawled in a modern dance pose on top of hers, and I start to ache immediately. It’s not just because great swaths of time are slipping by disguised as ordinary days, though there’s certainly an element of “Sunrise, Sunset” to it all. It’s more that—to me—love has always been closely linked to fear of failure.

It shares a spot in my top five fears alongside clowns, spiders, dementia, and Jack Nicholson’s grin. The more I love someone, the more terrified I become that association with me will be his or her great undoing. This isn’t based on any kind of logic; it’s more a knee-jerk reaction of the soul, a seesaw ride with perfectionism and the gospel of low self-esteem. Never is it stronger than when I look down at my sleeping girls and see the trust pooled just where their eyelashes brush their cheeks. I’d thought I would be more inured to this after a decade.

Fortunately, one bit of parenting wisdom that I came across when Natalie was a newborn still holds true at ten years in: Keep her clean, fed, safe, and loved; the rest is incidental. That line of thought put a merciful end to my angst when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment and our baby didn’t even have her own diaper pail much less her own princess-themed nursery. These days, it’s soothing my angst over how much screen time to allow* and what extracurricular activities to pursue and which tweenage fads might be gateways to meth. (Rainbow Loom, I’m looking at you.)

*As I understand it, the formula for insuring your child remains technologically on par with her peers while retaining her imagination and the majority of her brain cells is Pn=∆x [f(x0)+4f(xn-1)+f(xn)]/3-∫abf(x) where x is the number of minutes that your child would willingly play Minecraft each day, f is the force vector of whining to sanity on a mortal human parent, and n is the current price per barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon. You’re welcome.

When I was pregnant with Natalie, I showed up at my second prenatal appointment armed with a typed, MLA-formatted list of questions for my ob-gyn. It was full of gems like, I know you said X brand of antihistamine was safe to take, but we’re staying with friends who own cats, and I’m worried that prolonged antihistamine use will hurt the baby, but I’m also worried that I’ll accidentally sneeze her out or something, and also I might be extra-killing her when I put lunch meat on my sandwich? I still remember the doctor’s laugh, kind but genuinely amused.

“I have patients who smoke crack every day of their pregnancies,” he said. “And nine times out of ten, their babies turn out just fine.”

It was nearly the opposite sentiment of the book I’d been reading (What Kinds of Harm to Expect From Totally Normal Foods, Activities, and Social Interactions When You’re Expecting, 2002 edition), and it took some time to acclimate to the idea that my child wasn’t so fragile after all, that my love for her and my good intentions really did carry weight. I’m still trying to get my head all the way around it. The good news is that kids are excellent teachers. The best, really. They’re repetitive and patient, and if you don’t feel like a proper grownup yet after a decade of parenting… well, what of it?

You’ve kept them clean, fed, safe, and loved silly. The rest is incidental.

Bassett girls 2

15Apr

To Shake a Predator

March came strangely to us this year, in like a lion, out like a sharknado. Our usual exhale of joy when the yellow mimosa trees bloom and our gloves are swapped for sunglasses was overshadowed this time by a huge upheaval in our local community. I will write about it one day, once time has smoothed out the creases in my perspective. For now, I’ll simply say that we’re in recovery mode as a family.

I’m still engaged in my odd tango with anxiety, sashaying close and dipping apart to a tune I’m unable to hear. I started taking supplements a month ago after I realized it wasn’t normal to associate worst-case scenarios with every object in my line of vision. I could hardly bear to drive; every other car was on a collision course with me, the engine thrumming through my grip on the steering wheel was a half-second away from explosion at all times, and what if I suddenly developed narcolepsy on the freeway? It was a funny kind of horrible. It still is sometimes. Like I wrote last month, I’m no good at identifying cause and effect—what causes anxiety to swoop toward me on its slick shoes or what spins me, however temporarily, from its grip.

I do know one thing: that writing for me is intricately connected to the dance. This makes me want to spontaneously combust. When I’m writing regularly, I feel strong, easy in my skin, and fundamentally okay. Anxiety can snatch away my ability to write in a hot second though. It tells me that I have nothing of value to offer, that all the opportunities of my life are behind me, that I am incapable, lacking, and so pathetic that I should curl up in bed wearing a burqa for the rest of my days as a favor to the world. It turns writing into torture and not-writing into a slow death.

This is where I’ve been this year, dancing with a predator. It’s why my blog has been so quiet and my email inbox so full. This is not the 2015 that I wanted for myself, and I keep butting up against the impulse to bazooka this whole mess to smithereens. I don’t want to be in recovery mode. I don’t want the ebb and flow of process. Drastic decisions sound so much more appealing: Convince the family to move to Bali. Start a new career in data entry. Say yes to crack. (Kidding, of course, kind of.) Fake invincibility until I convince even myself.

Staying human—that is, staying vulnerable to the learning experiences of life—is always the harder choice, but I’ve tried shortcuts enough times to know for certain that they don’t lead to peace. Inevitably, I’d end up again and again at the choice to slow down, face my limitations, and work through anxiety until I took it. I suppose then that this qualifies as a dispatch from the dance floor. I’ve written this, with actual words, which is the kind of victory worth celebrating with gelato. Tomorrow, however, I might be back to gripping the steering wheel with bone-white knuckles and imagining a large red F scribbled on every last aspect of my life.

It’s okay.

I mean, it’s not okay-okay; I have no intention of spending my life in partnership with anxiety. It’s okay to be working through it right now though. I’m reminding myself day by day that I’m allowed to focus on the tango, even at the expense of normal routines and productivity, because predators aren’t shaken off on their own. It takes two. And also celebratory gelato. And the kind of grace that turns small steps and staying power into eventual recovery.

20Mar

Snapshot From the Tangle

I’ve written before about my inability to grasp cause and effect, due in particular to my early view of God as a cross between Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Jabba the Hutt. If you grow up under the jurisdiction of an almighty micromanaging gangster, of course you’re going to have trouble correlating your decisions with their outcomes. (“What flavor of ice cream would you like?” “God only knows…”) I’ve been considering another factor in my powerless-but-responsible mindset lately though, and if “overwhelm” were a noun, that’s what it would be.

I’ve been going through a rough personal patch for several months now—unexplained health issues, mental and emotional shut-downs, never enough internal resources to go around. Dan keeps assuring me that I don’t have to apologize for the efforts we’ve put into finding a solution, that my wellness is a priority. Here’s where the overwhelm comes in, however. When I try to puzzle out the calibration of mind, body, and soul, all I see is a tangle of interconnected Christmas lights. Miles of them. They loop around every facet of my daily life, stretch far into the past, and disappear above the rafters of my consciousness, and you might as well ask me to solve differential equations in my head as to find the one burned-out bulb.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the possible culprits I’ve come up with:

  • Undiagnosed food sensitivities or allergies (If you say “coffee,” I will hurt you)
  • Airborne pollution
  • Stress for All The Reasons
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • A curse from the stoplight gypsy
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • An undiscovered source of mold
  • Disturbances in The Force
  • Thin-skinned-ness
  • Spiritual dysfunctions of all kinds
  • Those unpronounceable chemicals on cereal boxes
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Delayed onset culture shock
  • Recurring trauma from events in the past
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Some medical mystery solvable only by House, M.D.
  • Chronic worrywart syndrome
  • GMOs
  • Lack of gumption
  • Karmic retribution
  • Mental decline due to compulsive Facebook scrolling
  • Unresolved relational issues
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Not enough exercise/sleep/security/time/confidence/fun/self-discipline/sunlight/peanut butter cups/[basically just insert anything here]
  • General inadequacy of being

More mornings than I’d like to admit, I look at myself in the mirror, think “Oh no, not her again,” and then slump through my day as if I’ve been sentenced to an eternal three-legged-race with Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar

I’m simply not up to troubleshooting the infinitesimal connections that make up a holistic self. How do others do it? Where do they find the internal wherewithal to dive into the tangle and emerge with a clear map of their wiring? I’m always left slightly utterly in awe when a friend tells me she’s suffering from adrenal fatigue or mold poisoning or (if she’s Italian) ailment of the liver. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if I have a liver much less how it’s affecting my overall sense of self.

This is the kind of post that I struggle to finish because I want to tuck the ends neatly in on themselves and say That’s that. I like solutions and “once upon a time”s and big-picture perspectives with proper story arcs in place. At the same time, I know how much of life takes place in the tangled betweens, how staking a claim in uncertainty helps us live it with intention. I know that writing this aloud may very well mean the difference between fearing overwhelm or greeting it as plot development. I know that an in-process self is one of the most generous gifts a person can give the world.

I’m trying to remember that it can be a gift to myself as well.

I’m taking life much more slowly these days, partly out of necessity and partly because I trust the loved ones who keep waving stop signs in my face. I’ve been putting green stuff into my breakfast smoothies and grinning my cheeks off (take that as you will) at Zumba and experimenting with anti-anxiety supplements. I’m veeerrrry slowly unclenching my grip on expectations for productivity, and even though letting goals slip through my fingers looks like the opposite of progress, it feels like sanity. None of this is helping me identify the burned out light bulb, mind you. I’m still eyeball-deep in snarls of theory and inconclusive medical tests, and I sort of wonder if I’m doomed to spend my life as a delicate wilting blossom of bafflement. I’m here though, in the heart of the tangle, learning and growing and claiming each small choice and effect as a badge of honor. As a gift.

image source

20Feb

Fossilized

[Part 1 of this story is here.]

By Tuesday evening last week, I’d spent the first 30 hours of my long-desired writing retreat in a headlock with myself, and I was “cotta” as we say in Italian. Cooked. Burned out, beaten, and too exhausted to keep hurling myself at the wall of senseless panic standing between myself and my blank document.

I suspect that this is frustrating for some of you to read. After all, I was in Tuscany—Tuscany!—with three glorious days all to myself. I’ve watched friends go on similar retreats and thought, If onlyMy assumption was always that prolonged peace and quiet would act as creative steroids. If only I found myself in a similar setting, then I too could produce something out of this world. But now I was there, tucked up on an Italian hillside with a project idea I loved and an awareness of my own privilege cloying the air, and I couldn’t write a damn paragraph. You’ve heard the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”? It would seem that I had gone to Tuscany and run smack dab into myself.

One thing depression taught me about myself years ago is that I will fight to defend my personal collection of shoulds until sheer rock-bottom exhaustion loosens my grip on them. I don’t surrender the expectations I have for myself any other way. And why should I? In the thick of depression, it only seemed right to keep trying harder and harder to act sane, to pacify God and be an uncomplicated wife and smother desperation on sight. If it wasn’t working, I just needed to double my efforts, yes? Not until much later, after the rock bottom and the rebuilding, did I see what a chokehold those expectations had had on my soul.

Now, I’m not saying that going on a writing retreat is anything like going through depression, but I’d certainly arrived at my hotel last week clutching a stack of notions about how the time should go, about how I should be. Privilege-guilt factored enormously into them, as did something else… something I couldn’t put my finger on with all of my thoughts bolting away the instant I got close. I didn’t know what to do with these expectations other than cling more and more tightly to them though. If I let go, the trip would instantly be rendered pointless and earlier versions of my jealous writing self would show up to punch me in the throat to the tune of “Loser.”

Thank God for exhaustion.

If I hadn’t surrendered my weary, 96% certifiable self to the idea of a writingless retreat and clicked over to Facebook for some distraction therapy that evening, I wouldn’t have seen this:

Curiosity not fear
(Liz Gilbert’s Facebook page is a gem. Get thee there, stat!)

And if I hadn’t seen this, who knows how long it would have taken me to recognize the “something else” that had been giving my brain a 30-hour swirlie as fear?

Working with words can feel like trying to choreograph dust motes. Until sentences land on the page, they’re nothing more than airborne particulates, figments of psychology and instinct that tend to dissolve on eye contact. Being afraid of writing is essentially getting worked up over nothing. That was my first thought when I read Liz’s quote. What do I possibly have to be afraid of? I’m here to transcribe thoughts, not diffuse bombs. This is a zero threat situation. WTF, brain?

When I took stock of how I’d been approaching my project, however, curiosity was nowhere to be found. Stephen King refers to stories as fossils that we excavate through the writing process, and ideally, I would have been on my knees with a trowel and an old toothbrush, intrigued to see what I’d unearth. Instead, I was paralyzed at the side of the dig. Because what if I uncovered a fossil so hideous that it made folks clutch their pearls and call their congressmen in protest? Or what if the fossil turned out to be so boring that museum viewers would ask for their money back? Worst of all, what if I had the wrong tools and botched the whole operation? What if I failed?

Fear, meet Bethany. Bethany, Fear.

Getting myself in a staring match with fear was no more helpful to me than beating myself over the head with reminders of my own privilege had been. This wasn’t something I could power my way through. (Depression 101.) When I latched onto the word “curiosity” though, it pulled me right off my petrified feet and through the murk to a new perspective on what I was doing. I closed Facebook and opened Google. Research time.

Writing retreat - research

The rest of my retreat looked very different from the productive type-o-fest I’d expected. I went on long walks in the cold, ordered espressos, and adopted various park benches near my hotel for the purpose of daydreaming. I scribbled sideways and upside down in my pocket journal following looping threads of whimsy. I clipped about a hundred of the most bizarre search results to Evernote (out of curiosity, how likely is the FBI to investigate writers?) and then filled another page with follow-up questions. I still had to beat back the granddaddy of all F-words, Failure, which was all too happy to inform me that I was squandering my retreat and that research was basically procrastination in a pair of pince-nez, but curiosity kept me on a joyful forward momentum that no collection of shoulds has ever prompted in me.

I returned home last Thursday about as tired as I’ve ever been. Winning a battle doesn’t mean you’re unscathed by it, especially when you weren’t expecting the fight in the first place. I’m still feeling tender and bruisable, and I can’t pretend not to be disappointed that I didn’t return from my retreat with a manuscript of any length. I’ll be wrestling with the hows and whys of that for a long time, I suspect. However, I did bring back one significant treasure: the outline of a fossil, as clear and intriguing as a headline. And I’m not afraid of it.

Writing retreat - Bench

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