But There is This

They told us it was coming a week before it did. This rage of wind and air, racing across the sky.  Hurricanes come and go when you live in Florida. Last October, it was Matthew.

That was a bad week, but not because of Matthew. I miscarried that week. They told me my pregnancy was likely ectopic. They thought the baby had formed somewhere beside the home that it should have grown in. Another organ claiming that honor for itself.

We were supposed to go to Switzerland and Amsterdam that week. We had tickets to the Anne Frank house and I spent those agonizing days leading up to it re-reading her diary for the first time since 8th grade.

“I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time.”

Things got so bad my doctor told me I could no longer fly because of the uncertainty, around the same time the airlines canceled our flight. I stared out at the wind through my front door windows the night it hit. It whistled and stung and in the morning it was gone.

The baby was gone.

~

Irma, they said, would be a big one. Irma - a name I’d never given a thought to before. Who names these storms? Who decides that a name someone might give their child should also be the name of a weapon of mass destruction? Why do we humanize this event?

In literature we assign themes to the stories we read. Man vs. Man, Man vs. God. Man vs. Nature. 

That last theme keeps resounding in my mind. After viewing the coverage of Harvey in Houston, and seeing the devastating effects of Irma in parts of Florida and the Caribbean, I have decided that the theme in all of this if there is one, to such devastation, is Man vs. Nature. Because it is not God. It is the world He created, but I do not believe it is God.

~

For a week we prepared for it. I went to the grocery store nearly every day. They called me when new shipments of water came in and me and Claire raced there. They allowed each of us two cases of water. 

The shelves were bare. Long lines snaked around the corners, people waiting to fill their tanks with gas.

We considered getting out, but where would we go? 

Kevin is a resident and can’t go far from the hospital. I’m 35 weeks pregnant. And in some strange way, this is our home. I watch footage of people who won’t leave - even their houseboats in the harbor in the eye of the storm. And we call them crazy and we mock them from the safety of our homes, tucked into a blanket in front of a television.

But in the end, it is their home. A place that can be transplanted, of course. A place that can be destroyed. But home, nonetheless.

So we stayed and we waited, as a swarm of color and light made its way to us. The freeways were jammed with people making their escape. The panic was felt in every encounter.

“Stay safe!” people called out to each other for days before the storm. Not “Goodbye,” but “Stay safe!”

And that broke my heart.

~

I saw my doctor two days before the storm. She gave me literature on what pregnant women need to know before a natural disaster. Pack your medicine. Stay hydrated. Consider going to a shelter.

“It’s not a myth that more women go into labor during hurricanes and a full moon,” she explained. “So get to us if you have to. We’ll be here, all night.” But then she also gave me literature on a home birth. Pictures of a baby exiting a womb, along with step-by-step instructions on what my husband would need to know.

When I asked him later if he could do it if he had to, he shrugged. “What other choice would we have?”

~

The night of the storm we ate dinner with friends who then slept at our house. It was a good thing they did, because when they returned home in the morning, a huge tree had fallen through their fence.

Then there was nothing left to do but wait. 

By the time it made its way to us, it was a Category 1 storm. But the wind was so strong I thought our house would shatter. Windows rocked. The trees behind our home danced. Something, repeatedly, kept hitting the nook by the kitchen but when I looked out to see what it was it was black.

The power flickered off, leaving us in a home we prayed would withstand this nature. I began to have contractions. Shoots of pain down the center of my belly - yawning and stretching into both familiar and unfamiliar pangs. I took deep breaths. I squeezed the arm of my snoring husband. I willed them to leave.

Claire began to cry because it was dark. I fell asleep, finally, in her room, my arm extended to her tiny bed, our hands clamped together.

I needed her, possibly more than she needed me, though we might call it a draw. It wasn’t the first time my love for her sustained me. It won’t be the last time.

~

We woke to a changed world. Lakes formed where none were before. Trees were flung from their roots onto their sides like tin soldiers, falling flat onto their faces, muskets raised to the square. An eerie quiet hung in the air. Humility, maybe, or fear. Possibly a combination of the two. Maybe an acknowledgement that at their core, they are the same.

~

It might seem strange to write about a storm that really didn’t change my life. We did not lose our home, as so many have recently. We did not have to flee - to join the mass exodus of fellow humans, the stop-and-go on the long streets away from the storm. We did not lose our lives. I did not have my baby.

But I feel profoundly changed, somehow, by this storm. Reminded, not for the first time, but for the first time in full consciousness, how small I am. How a rippling circle of color and light can descend on us and crush everything we have built.

There is no power at my house as I write this. I may venture to Starbucks, or the hospital, as we have been doing daily to get internet, to post it. Sweat is beading at my forehead. Everything in our refrigerator has to be thrown out. 

In the evenings, after Claire is down, me and Kevin look at each other and shrug. What do we do now, with no light and no electricity? No television or football. Not even books. We have only one flashlight to light our pages.

The first night we laid in bed. We talked about our daughter, and the one who will join us soon. We talked about living in a place with hurricanes. We played a game of Life on his phone, passing it back and forth. I was Berta, he was K. Berta has five sons, is an accountant, visited the Grand Canyon. K is a veterinarian who found buried treasure and won a game show. 

I went to check on Claire, who I thought would be fast asleep. But a glow surrounded her face instead. She held her beloved kitty light in one hand, turning the pages of a book with the other. When she was finished, I watched her put her book on the floor, and carefully, tuck the light by her face and pull the blanket over her resting feet.

Thank you Irma, I thought. For one of the most holy scenes I have ever witnessed.

A game of Life played on a phone. My daughter, who put herself to sleep, surrounded by books. And the stars, that shone through our open windows - the only light left.

~

A new favorite poem is by Barbara Ras. “You Can’t Have it All.” 

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back. . . 

And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.

There is the voice you can summon at will, like your mother’s, it will always whisper, you can’t have it all.

But there is this.

~

I think of those words when I look at the still-bare shelves in the grocery store. When I pad around my dark house in the middle of the hot night, my swollen belly keeping me awake. When I watch people who have lost so much in my city and the people on the television as they attempt to restore what once was.

You can’t have it all.

But there is kindness splayed across the wet grass like dew. There are loved ones who call for the first time in a long time, to make sure you are alright. There are still the stars, a sun who rises in the morning, a baby who continues to grow. 

There is a husband, whose arm you can grasp. A daughter whose world remains unchanged, the magic of childhood the only reality you want for her - intact, unchanged by this frenzied storm. 

You can’t have it all.

But there is this.

currently

There's a lot to say. I'm not sure where to start, but time moves so fast that if I don't start consciously trying to remember certain things I know I won't. I don't remember much of the past six years. Claire as a baby seems so distant that when I see pictures I hardly believe it's her, even though I was there for all of it. She has always been a two year old. An eternal two year old.

On a walk the other day she said, "It's too high!" When I said, "What's too high?" She said, "The sky is too high." I think about that sometimes now, how far away the sky is. How this world we walk and move and rest in is just turning slowly, all of these houses slowly rotating, blurring into whites and pinks and blues all lit by the same sun until the thought makes me dizzy. 

I'm working on a couple books and querying a couple books. It worries me that I don't have as much faith in my projects as I used to. I love starting them, love the plotting, love the characters who begin to do things as I breathe life in them hour by hour. But then their story is done for me and I just sort of shrug and halfheartedly send them out to agents. I wish I had more fire for the publishing part, but I don't. I like the writing part. I like the living in the story part. I'm afraid that all of these characters will never be known by anyone but me. I'm afraid of getting lost inside the stories when the outside feels like too much. I'm afraid that if I'm not careful I'll get swallowed by this love I have for something that doesn't seem to love me back.

Kevin works long hours. 12, 13, sometimes 15 hour days for weeks at a time before a day off. I feel so sorry for him in the early mornings when he carefully wakes up. I hear him in the shower, rummaging in the kitchen, locking the door, before returning back to my sleep. The other day one of his patients told a social worker he didn't have the bus fare to get home. He asked if he could stay in the hospital a few more days. Kevin gave the social worker money for him and asked her to tell him it was from a special hospital fund. It was one of a dozen things he told me about his day, really an afterthought. He asks for nothing but gives so much. He's good to the bone.

Lately he's been telling me stories about his mom. She used to tell him when he complained about being hungry that he, "could have all the apples he wanted." She would sing to their parrot. She's still in her coma-like state. It's so heartbreaking we try not to talk about it but it's been almost three years. We visited her at Christmas and sang songs and held her hand. She doesn't know he was there, so I try to love him the way I would want someone to love my child. I'm not the best at it. I try.

Claire hugged me the other day and said, "I so much you." And I knew just what she meant. We move away from home and marry strangers who become family. Before we know it, we have this whole life and it's so much.

Home in Florida

I suppose it happens every time I move. The lost feeling. The sense that I'm here, and I'm not. The notion that home is where the heart is is laughable, because we can't always have our home - our life neatly tied up in the same place, the same people, the same existence.

Perhaps in an attempt to realign myself, I like to get lost when I move. I let my GPS take me there, wherever I'm heading, and then I bravely turn it off on the way back, hopeful that my mind can retrace its steps. I test new roads, unfamiliar to me on routes I have learned. Some of them surprise me - rows of neat houses, white shutters, manicured lawns with no one in sight. And others are less tidy, littered with debris from the bushes, but children playing - more of them here. Why is that the case?

I came expecting to spend more time with Kevin. After six weeks apart I began to feel like we were no longer married. More like good friends who were looking forward to getting reacquainted. But his days and nights bleed into one long, continuous string. He is neither here nor there. Well I suppose, he is there, not here, but when he's home, during those rare, brief patches, I remember. We were married once. We still are. And I like it that way.

Claire has begun to feel less like the needy, restless baby I once had and more like a dear, quirky little friend. I schlep her to new places - school, the library, stores, the church. She grips my sweaty hand. She thanks me for absolutely everything. A cup of milk, a high-five, a "bless you" after she sneezes. I thought, the other day, how before I had her in my life I felt chronically misunderstood. But she reads me, she watches me. She takes care of me even, which is the sweetest surprise of my life. At each new age I think, "This is my favorite." I hope I say that until she's sixty-five. I hope each new age is my favorite, each discovery of hers such a gift.

I meet people. Kind people. They're everywhere until I need them, and then they are nowhere. I remind myself what it's like to make friends. They take time. And then I call an old one, to remind myself that I have people who love me somewhere in the world. 

"It will start to feel like home," Kevin told me the other night. "I want you to write down how you feel right now about this place, because in four years when it's time to leave, you'll come back and read it, and you'll remember that you can build and rebuild again."

I suppose he's right. We are not perennials, left in the same place to resurface year after year, born new, whole and green. We are transient, moveable. Our bodies tied to one another, tied to survival, scattered across this world that feels at once minuscule and vast. 

But the love? At times it hits me that it is the only perennial thing left. A miracle, budding in each new place, with the same people, some new ones too, resurfacing after a long winter.

time punch

I'm getting older. And I don't mean that in the rickety bones sense, although my eyes have creases that weren't there before, and there are some around my mouth, too. I mean that I'm starting, finally, after five years of marriage and a year of being a mom and several more of being a college graduate and working professional, to realize that others view me as an adult too, and not just as a kid or entry-level. 

I spoke to some teenage girls in church and they were telling me how strange it is to no longer be the kids in primary. "I know!" I said. Because I am just like them, right? I am just as young and fresh as they are - aren't I? Are we ever the age we feel we are?

I have dreams about the weight of adulthood. Dreams where I have nowhere to run and I have to protect my family and myself. I tell Kevin about them and he shrugs, used to bearing this weight of responsibility. "It's just life," he says, but it's terrifying in ways that I'll never again be as young as I am right now, in this moment. I'm always getting older, and along with that so is my baby and my parents and everyone else I love. We're all getting older at the same rate.

These are not new things to say. If anything they are the naive words of a twenty-something who in three years will be a thirty-something, but they are still my realizations. Blank, terrifying and sweet somehow, the knowledge that our biological, chronological, spiritual clocks tick-tick-tick, and we, as humans, can only tip our heads to time, and promise that we will do more in the unknown space ahead. 

Best Scene

Whenever I'm feeling uninspired, I turn to YouTube. Where else? 

There's so much junk on there, but there's so many beautiful things too if you know where to look. This clip is my go-to. I used to tell people my favorite movie was Wicker Park, but then realized it wasn't the movie I liked. In fact, the movie itself I didn't really like - but I was willing to sit through it all just for the feeling I had when watching this final scene. So here you go. I saved you 2 hours of your time. It is so, so beautiful.

p.s. my favorite movie now is About Time. I watched it on the plane on the way to Thailand and then immediately watched it again. I've never done that before, but if I wasn't so jet-lagged I'm certain I could have watched it a third time.

a book could be written about any one of these feelings

23 EMOTIONS PEOPLE FEEL, BUT CAN’T EXPLAIN

 

  1. Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
  2. Opia: The ambiguous intensity of Looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
  3. Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
  4. Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
  5. Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.
  6. Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
  7. Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
  8. Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
  9. Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
  10. Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.
  11. Vemödalen: The frustration of photographic something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist.
  12. Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
  13. Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
  14. Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
  15. Lachesism: The desire to be struck by disaster – to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire.
  16. Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
  17. Adronitis: Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.
  18. Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
  19. Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.
  20. Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.
  21. Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
  22. Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
  23. Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective.

Sonder and Onism especially, for me.

The Science of Improving Performance

So, I'm obsessed with this Time article. Please read it. It's so fascinating to me, but of course the writing portion was the most applicable to my life, seeing as I'm not an elite athlete or musician at the moment.

Here's what it says about improving writing:

Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

From Talent is Overrated:

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Off to practice my prose Ben Franklin style . . .

on writing now

It's harder than it used to be. Well, and easier too in a way, but mostly harder, because it's been a long time since I started, and I expected more to come of it all. I mean, sure I published a book, which is not a small feat, but that seems so distant now in a strange way. It's hard to remember the time when I was writing Star, because I have all of this other work that is consuming me now. 

That, and a very small and needy human.

I've heard it said that, "Nothing will make you feel better but doing the work." Which I agree with, of course, but for someone as impatient as I am, writing a book, or several books, feels so hard and lonely sometimes. My colleagues are my characters. And they're unapologetic and selfish most of the time. I feel better having done the work of course, but often wonder if the work is anything but words on my screen.

Writing books is not for the faint of heart. Neither of course, is medicine, or law, or engineering, or accounting, or any of the other occupations we humans have drummed up but I am a writer so I'll allow myself to feel equal parts grateful and frustrated with this path I have chosen and has just as decisively, chosen me. 

It's the worst thing in the world, but it's really the best, too. And now that I've reached that conclusion, I suppose there is nothing else to do but slog on. 

Books that Have Made a Difference

I used to subscribe to O! Magazine, Oprah's publication which is a fantastic magazine, (although it always bothered me that she was featured prominently on the cover, month after month. Even if you have a magazine named after you, it seems a tad narcissistic, even for Oprah... )

Anyway, she had this feature every month when she had a celebrity or author or special friend of hers share about five books that made a difference to them. I used to love this short feature, because it was fun to think of what books have made a difference to me. That's such a different question than, "What is your favorite book?" It also seems to change with every book I read, because my latest read is usually my favorite since it is the freshest. Still, I think it's important to consider the question. What books have made a difference to you? 

So here are mine:

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Good Poems - Garrison Keillor

I know, blah blah blah. I've talked about this book on my blog so many times I should be ashamed. Except for, I'm not. Because I've read the poems in it so many times I should really buy a new copy out of fairness to contributors. It's the best introduction to poetry out there. It has soul and humor and it's not intimidating and unapproachable like some poetry can be. It's a necessity on every book shelf.

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On Writing - Stephen King

This book has made me a better writer, period. I've read several books on writing, and most I enjoyed more than this. (Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird come to mind) but I learned the most in this one. It's the only Stephen King book I've read, and it is phenomenal. 

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

This book is untapped creativity. One of the most creative books I've ever read, with imagery so rich that I continue to think about details from it almost five years after I read it. I think about it whenever I feel like there is nothing creative left, that all of it has been taken somehow. It is original and fresh. 

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

My senior year of high school I had this AP English Lit teacher named Mrs. Woolsey who changed my life in a hundred ways, but one was with this book. She told our class one Monday morning that she finished a book over the weekend. Someone asked, "What is it about?"

I remember her getting solemn, still. She replied, "I don't know how to describe it. But I do know, that it is about love." 

She was right. If the world were to end (which, spoiler, it does in this book), and I had to rebuild from scratch, I would use this as an example of what love means, what it is. I went to Target after she told us about it (yes this was pre-Amazon,) that afternoon, and read it. It may have been a little advance for me, probably too dark for that time in my life, but I understood it in the same way she did, that it was about love. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith

I read this once. In seventh grade, over the course of almost the entire year. We had a free-read period every Friday in English, and my teacher had a copy. I started it as a way to impress my peers - most of them reading Harry Potter and some clinging onto R.L. Stein with a fierce devotion to their past. (I should give them more credit. More likely they were reading similar books, but I felt important reading this one.)

It spanned the course of my year. 40 minutes of reading once a week, and at the end of each class period I was disappointed, having to wait an entire week to re-enter Francie's world. I've considered re-reading it since, of course, but I'm not sure I could recreate that experience and I'm afraid of disappointing myself. This book made a difference to me, because it taught me that dreamers have always been out there, that I'm not alone in the universe, that hard things make us better people. 

I want to hear your lists, if you feel comfortable sharing them. Maybe I'll even create a new series on my blog - Oprah style.

*Let me conclude by noting that I no longer subscribe to the magazine, because it wasn't worth the money after Lisa Kogan left her long-standing spot as a columnist and Oprah posed alongside her younger self (yes not just one but two Oprah's) on a cover. Evidence below: