Shelter in Place

I grew accustomed to staying indoors, blackout drapes drawn tight, the rooms of the apartment as dark as night. One day, the room shook as someone knocked on our door. Mom shushed my brother and me, pulled down on our hands, and ushered us into the bathroom, as if it were the last bus out, to hide from “spies.”

We slid to the floor, backs against the wall, which hadn’t been freshly painted but cast a wet, plastic scent. Cool radiated from the porcelain toilet bowl at my face. Stale urine lifted from the pink, U-shaped rug. We sat there for the better part of the afternoon as a shadowy blue flickered in through the thin curtain over the narrow window, and it was the color of calm and not agitation, the hue of the slow passage of time and not urgency. And the earth didn’t shake again that day, and the people with their fists upon our door didn’t stay.

Now, we shrink from the threat of danger that shakes us down to our most primordial instincts. And there is nowhere to go but home. We rest easily, await the passing of storm, and let ourselves understand that isolation doesn’t have to beget loneliness. Over the years, we all have learned how to settle our childhood fears out of necessity so we could cope. If there is one among us who had no childhood fears, this is his childhood. For each of us, this time is nothing more than an exercise in learning how to cope.

This does not ask us to cower in trenches or stand as bullets ravage our troops. This does not push us to our knees as malnutrition wastes our bodies. This does not force us to beg in the street as a few coins replace our dignity. This is nothing difficult, nothing asking me to gut myself. Light can still get in.

How to Beat the COVID-19 Blues—Writer’s Edition

The career of a writer is one of isolation. And most of the time, I welcome this fact. It means that if I want to interact with the world, I must initiate conversation and get-togethers with people; I must show up when I commit to showing up. Otherwise, I might die alone (except I do have my husband, and I’m grateful to him because I know he would keep my cats from eating my rotting corpse).

Already, during these strange COVID-19 days, social distancing, while necessary to flatten that R-naught curve, has got me feeling like I want to break out of my introverted skin. The fact that I shouldn’t go to the store makes me know I need pudding. Or applesauce. Or anything else I can purchase for the heck of it just so I have a reason to leave this cozy quarantine. Let’s be clear, I am not into hoarding unless it’s books or sentimental items I can’t seem to part with. I did not buy a stockpile of toilet paper expressly for the Corona Virus panic. But my husband and I did drive around a bit the other night, hoping to find that last lone pack. Even 7-Eleven had been ransacked.

To this I say, WTF is going on?

I think we have lost our everloving minds.

And to this I say, if you’re a writer, here are some things you can do to feed your introverted little heart.

  1. Nothing. Carry on as usual, making those semi-hesitant fingers go clickety-clack on your keyboard, and create masterful content that few to none will read. Rest assured, though, because, humanity has never needed a poem or a fictional tale to distract from real life as much as they do now–except in times of war, genocide, famine, poverty, and utter ignorance. Wait a minute…
  2. Host a virtual write-in. It can be every bit as exciting as an in-person write-in. Each participant will have their own clutter and preoccupations to wade through, making any word count achievement all the more challenging, i.e. fun. Play a round-robin prompt game, with topics like Who Took the Toilet Paper? A Whodunnit For the Whole Family; How Much Sanitizer Could a Whole Hand Suck If a Whole Hand Could Suck Sanitizer? and Create a Dystopia Different From the One You’re Currently Living.
  3. Read. Great readers write, they say, so get your eyes on everything from satire to fake news, and if you view these as interchangeable, pick up something serious like James Wesley Rawles’s How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It (https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-to-survive-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-james-wesley-rawles/1101557608?ean=9780452295834 ). Although, if you’re hoarding toilet paper, you’ve already got all the answers. In that case, may I suggest penning your autobiography one 2-ply square at a time. Hundreds of years from now, humanity, and possibly even extraterrestrials, will thank you as they seek reading material to pass their own uncertain times.  
  4. Binge watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and CBS All-Access. Get a solid grip on what’s already out there before you create the next new big thing in television. Pay attention to three-act structure and character development. Take notes, lots of notes. Until now, you had no idea how you were going to get through all that toilet paper you bought.
  5. Do away, once and for all, with the excuses you’ve been slinging for why you haven’t yet written your masterpiece. You are completely isolated, and the world is falling apart. Maybe the world does need another apocalypse story to provide hope. Or maybe a self-help manual about milking palm fronds for protein or about how self-discipline and social distancing go hand-in-hand when planning to rebuild a healthy community after paranoia and panic wreak systematic havoc across the globe. The options are endless, unlike our resources.
  6. Laugh. Because if you don’t, you’ll most certainly cry, and all those tears aren’t good for much. Rediscover your sense of humor, and above all, be kind. Let’s love each other. But from a distance of six to ten feet.

Just a Thought

I’m thinking about becoming famous. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted, but apparently, these days, in order to sell a memoir, the memoirist must have a “strong platform.” One agent told me she’d be interested in representing me if I had a YouTube channel or a podcast with at least 100,000 followers. I told her I made a couple of make-up tutorials. She didn’t think that was funny.

So, what is a girl to do? Do I continue querying as I am, cross my fingers, and cast a spell in the hope that there is an agent out there (one I happen to find in the haystack of bajillions) who believes in my project enough to take it on and shop it around to publishers? Or do I start a podcast? Or do I take videos of myself wearing fancy hats while I read poetry?

About a year ago, I interviewed to volunteer with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and thought I would be able to help those who struggle with mental illness. Then I realized Sure, the idea of being strong and showing up as an ally for others sounded great, in theory. It was my brother who made me see more clearly what I’d tried valiantly over the years to forget–I’d spent enough time over the years learning how to cope with my biological mother’s mental illness. Did I really have the emotional fortitude to willingly throw myself into that realm again? As a trauma survivor, working in the mental illness sector might not be good for my own mental health. After all, I suffer from anxiety, codependency, and intermittent mild depression. Wouldn’t I need to be some kind of Superwoman, or stupid woman, to open my arms to this? To say to others, your mental health is more important than mine, so let me help you while I ignore the emotional rollercoaster roaring inside of me? Yes. So after attending an orientation and passing an interview to be a mentor, I quietly backed away without even saying goodbye.

I’m not a quitter, but maybe I am. I quit teaching, didn’t I? But maybe that (and leaving NAMI before I’d officially begun) was more about recognizing something important–a calling, perhaps–and letting my inner voice and wisdom guide me to a better place for myself. Recently, someone very wise whom I admire greatly, spoke with me about the inner spirit we all have that has a voice and constantly tries to teach us what we need and in which direction we should roam. Now that I’m a full-time trophywife housewife and writer, maybe all I need is to meditate on this, to give my spirit some tranquility so it can show the true me to myself. Maybe I am supposed to start a YouTube channel or a podcast. I have no idea where to begin or how to sustain such a thing. But every success starts with an idea and I have a few of those, so, at the very least, there’s hope.

Last night, I Googled “how to get involved with programs to help heal trauma,” and I stumbled upon the “Attachment and Trauma Network, Inc.” I had never heard of this, but as I explored their website, I became more interested in the work they’re doing. Primarily, they educate parents and professionals about how early childhood trauma affects neurobiology and learning. They also have programs aimed at helping people heal from attachment disorders and trauma. In the past, people have suggested I volunteer with foster kids or become a foster parent myself. Those ideas put a pit in my stomach, which was probably my spirit guide trying to tell me not to go there. But this network speaks to me in a different way entirely.

I’m a firm believer in the power of using our strengths and talents to improve the world. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could use my education and psychology background to help people improve their lives? As a writer, I could lead creative writing and journaling classes that teach others the benefits of poetry and self-reflection. Or I could do any number of things related to this–things I might not even know exist.

It’s possible that I’m supposed to be a writer. However, recently, I experienced something surprising during a transformational breathwork session. Toward the end of the session, the healer working with me said to listen to my mind, try to hear my spirit speak. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and if I hadn’t experienced it myself, I might not believe it could happen. A voice in my head that was not my voice arose from somewhere–maybe my subconscious–and it told me to “speak.” From that moment, I’ve been seeking ways to use my voice literally. I joined the San Diego Poetry Circuit and read original poetry every Tuesday night. Maybe there are other opportunities for me to speak in a capacity that combines my talents with my interests that also has the potential to help others.

And maybe from that, a platform can be built. I never started out thinking about doing something merely to become famous, and it doesn’t seem like the path I’m supposed to follow, but wouldn’t it be just like a freakin’ spirit guide to lead me to my true calling in the most circuitous way imaginable? Play basketball so you can develop self-awareness and self-esteem. Become a teacher so you can nurture your speaking voice and learn how to be comfortable on stage. Get your MFA in creative writing so you can improve your storytelling and editing skills. Write your memoir so you can see the source of your trauma. Put it all together and speak so you can show others how your resiliency saved you…because if others learn how to be resilient, maybe they, too, can save themselves.

I don’t know. It’s just a thought.

On Quitting Teaching, Revisited

I always cry when I watch Grey’s Anatomy.  Every. Single. Episode. It’s not that I think these people are actually dying.  I am fully aware of the reality of the situation: I am sitting in my big, comfy chair with a bowl of too much popcorn in my lap and Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry at my side, and I am watching a television show.  “It makes me so sad, but I love it,” I tell my husband, who’s a few feet away paying half-attention to the show while he winds down from his tough day managing engineers.  He’s really paying more attention to Candy Crush level six-hundred and something. But he’s tuned in to Grey’s Anatomy a little.  “It’s just a show,” he says to me.  “They’re not real people; none of this is real.  I don’t know why you have to get so upset.” 

At this point I could do one of three things: 1. I could explode into a tirade about how dare he say that and why did he even marry me because this is how I am.  I am sensitive and if he can’t understand that then he should just keep it to himself because he doesn’t need to crush candy and me, too2.  I could explain to him “why I have to get so upset,” which would result in him staring at me and back to his phone with a slight shake of his non-believing head. 3. I could keep it all to myself for my own reasons because the bottom line is I know why I’m crying and that’s good enough for me.  I’m at the point in the relationship where #3 is my option of choice because I’ve learned a thing or two, or fifty about being married.  I’ve learned about my husband, yes, but what I’ve really learned is that I am way too compassionate.  I care about what happens to people, even if they are just actors on television enacting real-life scenarios.  These things could happen, and it is the possibility that a pregnant woman might be fine one moment and then die the next.  And her baby will be cut out of her by brave and skilled, quick-thinking doctors.  The thought that such grief, loss, sadness, despair, and struggle actually does occur is what underlies my sadness while watching this show.  I am also crying for the hope and faith in humanity that these characters represent.  They may not be experiencing real life, but they represent people everywhere who are experiencing very real struggles. 

But my tears aren’t about death. As a teacher of high school students for over fifteen years, I learned how to interact with and build rapport with teenagers.  Many of my students remarked that I was different than other teachers because of my teaching style or because I was “real.”  I tried to impart to them the importance of doing their best while maintaining a healthy balance.  Many of my Advanced Placement students were stressed to the gills because they tried to do too much.  Conversely, many of my “college prep” students were failing or flailing, or both, because they weren’t doing enough.  A significant aspect of my teaching philosophy included the belief that they needed to be their own best advocate, and that their life was going to be impacted by their decisions, academic and otherwise.  It might seem like this should go without saying, but every year, I had many, many students who lacked direction, volition, goals, and urgency.  They made excuses instead of changes. 

Perhaps one reason I felt like I could never do enough as a teacher was that I was supposed to help prepare these kids for college or for life after high school at the very least, but I saw how ill-prepared they were as a whole, and taking my class for 57 minutes a day hardly seemed impactful enough.  It wasn’t my job to counsel them; it was my job to teach them how to master the state standards, many of which seemed impossible, given the students’ ability.  It was as if someone had demanded I teach giraffes to do ballet.  And I loved my students, and I was passionate about my subject.  I wrote with them, showing them how to do what I wanted them to do.  My approach was interactive and animated, and we laughed.  A lot.  I learned how to be a person in the world because of my job as a high school teacher.  And when I went to graduate school, I learned how to be even better because my confidence soared. 

But something interesting happened around my twelfth year of teaching.  It seemed the more of a veteran I became, the more overwhelming the job of teaching the future became.  I saw major problems in the education system and became ethically opposed to how things were being done.  We were forcing students to master Shakespeare, students who were worried about whether or not they should commit suicide.  We were telling students that they had to follow MLA format when they hadn’t eaten for two days.  We were acting as if school was the most important thing in the world and the only thing they should be worrying about when they were being bullied and getting pregnant, and smoking cigarettes in the bathrooms or across the street at break, when they were showing up to school drunk with vodka in their water bottles, joints in their backpacks, and ecstasy in their pockets.  If I had a dollar for every time a student told me about another student who “wasn’t anything like they were in class in real life,” I probably could’ve retired a long time ago on a mountain of cash.  Teens are having sex.  They are smoking.  And drinking.  And doing drugs.  And they are lying to their parents. But the longer we keep pretending like these behaviors aren’t a problem, the more of a problem they become.  I don’t have statistics, but I have instinct.  The culture of teens changes as much as it stays the same, and when adults close to teens pretend like everything is fine or like these things are normal or accepted, teens feel two things: vindicated and abandoned. 

I quit teaching for a number of reasons, one of which is I thought I might be able to make a significant contribution to my community or to society in some other way.  Teaching zapped my spirit because so much despair lurked around every corner, in every desk chair.  While many students wrote to me to tell me I was the one bright spot in their day or that they always enjoyed coming to my class, my heart beamed.  However, I felt like a fraud.  It was and always will be true that literature and writing are important for many reasons. I tried to instill in my students a love for literature, a means to achieve unique and authentic writing voice, and the pertinence of hard work and pride in workmanship, but what I really wanted to do was eradicate the poison that was killing them long before they got to my class. And this was an impossible task. Maybe this is the real reason I cry while watching TV. Grief compounded over the years has nowhere else to go.

Saudade

For some time now I’ve been stuck in this place of longing for people and things I know I will never experience again. It’s a cruel kind of nostalgia that extends beyond memory and into a realm of existentialism that I can’t come to terms with. I’d say it’s a form of melancholy where tangible photos do not exist and love letters have no value.

In reality, the lights have snapped on, and everybody’s home or dead. There is no resurrecting the past.  

…And he said, “Didn’t we have a good time?” So I said, “Yes, the best,” and it was as if we’d never parted but also as if we’d never really known each other. I remember the night perfectly yet not at all. Music blasted into the crowd and lights caught us dancing in the glow of a euphoric, shared experience that lingers somewhere inside of me.

It’s the details that slip—what was said, the time of night, the exact order of events, and how we ended up. There must have been the drive there and back. But did he spend the night at my place or did I drop him home? Was that the night we slept on the floor because his sheets were in the wash? Did we eat cold pizza from the cardboard box in the morning after I traced words on his back that begged him to guess how my heart was flecked with love? It was the kind of love held hostage because our language lived under the covers instead of in the air.

There were so many entanglements then. He’s miles away from me now, so none of it hardly matters. This can’t be a love letter because married women can’t reminisce like that without consequences. This is a memory. A feeling. An irony. One of many sadnesses I carry that taste like good whiskey. Like a toast to things that once were but can never be again. And it’s beautiful just as it is. So I wouldn’t go back even if I had the chance. If I keep him suspended like that, he’ll always be mine and I his in a perfectly parabolic arc, fading away over distance, time, and space.