The writer Janet Burroway once famously said that “in literature, only trouble is interesting,” and it’s become a truism in the world of writing. Well, I recently gave a reading where, afterward, I argued that trouble isn’t the only interesting thing in literature. (Honestly, I don’t even think Janet Burroway meant her quote the way we hear it.) And I guess I sounded like a dangerously well-adjusted person for a minute there, because the moderator followed up by asking me how I have anything to write about if I’m not troubled myself. “Doesn’t all literature come out of being miserable?” he said.
Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bupropion, three 150mg tablets once per day, prescribed for dysthymic disorder—that’s depression—usually taken with my breakfast-time glass of cold water.
Though sometimes it’s a glass of seltzer. Because who doesn’t like bubbles?
When my first collection of short stories came out (Between Camelots), a lot of readers asked me the same question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
And I had answers. (In my experience, when you ask authors about their work, we usually do have answers, but we are pretty much guessing, or offering the provisional as fact, or wishing.) My typical answer was that literature in general and short stories in particular are supposed to be sad. After all, per the Burroway quote again, only trouble is interesting. And short stories are long enough to get their characters into trouble, but not long enough to get them out of trouble again.
(This claim of mine is very obviously not true, of course. I can think of a whole lot of good stories where characters end up getting out of trouble. I can even think of a couple of good stories, off the top of my head, where there isn’t any trouble in the first place.)
And then the person would usually go on to ask me this question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
This is the place where I give you the etymology of the word dysthymia. But I haven’t looked up the etymology of the word dysthymia, so I’m going to make it up. Dys probably comes from the Greek for “not” or “can’t” or “against,” or something like that. And thymia, I’m going to say, comes from the Greek word that means “the understanding that good things, lovely things, are also possible in life.”
One thing I know is that there are two worlds: the real world and the writable world. The real world is the real world, every complicated bit of it. The writable world, on the other hand, is what the writer notices and values and sees as material.
The writable world is only a subset of the real world, of course.
In some cases—in some mental states—it’s a very small subset.
Or maybe Dysthymia comes from a single Greek work that describes something big.
I’m talking about an interior howling, a howling that starts up whenever the world reveals a little flaw or problem. You’re out walking and you see a dent in a car door, an abandoned lot, paint peeling from the side of a house, two people arguing, a stray dress shoe lost along the curb, a flush of shame crossing a person’s face. Anything. The size of the flaw doesn’t matter here. Regardless: Howling inside. A howling wind, rising to the chest, a desperate keening, in the throat, cold in the gut.
Maybe this howling—this one voice, consuming but incomplete—is your whole writable world.
But writers worry:
If I do something about my depression…
If I get a therapist, or (even more) if I take pills…
Will it kill the writing?
This can be a very scary question. For a lot of us, sitting down to write is the only thing that ever managed to quiet the howling. Not completely, and not for very long, but still—some relief there.
What if I lose the writing?
Mental illness is the worst kind of illness, it seems to me, because it’s the only kind that produces excuses and lies to protect itself. When you get the flu or break a leg or have a heart attack, you never think, “Oh I should just work through this on my own.” You never think, “Well, this is just my artistic temperament.” You never think, “But I need this problem, for my work.”
Asthma means “You should do something about this.”
Diabetes means “You should do something about this.”
Cystic Fibrosis means “You should do something about this.”
And Dysthymia means…?
You worry that writing is going to leave you.
In fact, you are so committed to writing that you’re willing to neglect your mental health just in case mental health is a threat to your work.
(Does that sound like a person who’s ever going to stop writing, with or without pills?)
Does all literature come out of being miserable?
I’d like to answer that question with a different question: What about all the literature that never arrived because of being miserable?
What would Virginia Woolf have gone on to write if depression hadn’t killed her at the age of fifty-nine? What would Anne Sexton have written? David Foster Wallace? Sylvia Plath? Ernest Hemingway?
First there were the pills that didn’t work or caused other problems—side-effects and whatnot. It took a little while to find the right ones. But now I’ve been on the right ones for something like nine or ten years.
Life is better. And I don’t just mean that I feel better, though I certainly do. I mean that I look at life and see that it is a more complicated, better thing than I used to believe.
The howling has quieted.
And it turns out I still need to write as much as I used to. Or maybe more.
I mean, it’s been a busy nine or ten years, these years of medication:
In the three-and-a-half decades before the pills, one short story collection—my book Between Camelots—was published.
In the one decade since, three more books of fiction got published—including a new story collection and a first novel this year—plus a poetry chapbook, a full-length book of poetry, and a non-fiction guide to the creative process.
This is not the story of a person who’s lost his writing.
Meanwhile, my writable world has gotten a lot bigger. I still write about the sad things, because sadness is part of the world’s truth, but it’s only part of it, so I also write about the ridiculous things, the electric things, the absurdity, the quiet beauty and the louder beauty of things.
A writer who believes that things are only sad is a writer somewhat out of touch with reality.
It’s as if I had been working for many years in a tiny room, staring at a tiny few things to write about, and now I’m working in a great big room—or, in fact, out in the open world—staring at everything, seeing things I’ve never been able to see before, seeing it all.
This also means seeing things—even stuff I’d already been in the habit of noticing—in their full complexity. It’s a bummer that the car has a dent in it, sure, but it’s still a car; it can still take people places. The house with the paint peeling is still a house; people can take shelter there. The two people argue and the other person’s face flushes because those people care about something.
Now, I’m not saying pills work for everyone. I’m not saying therapy works for everyone. (Though I think there are a lot of folks who would benefit from both.) I’m not even saying that pills and therapy solve everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I still need to write is that, when I don’t, I do get a bit sad again. Not as sad as before, but a bit. In other words, writing still supports me. It’s just that now it has help.
What I’m really saying is I no longer believe that only trouble is interesting.
What if your writing had more than one voice? What if it had the whole world to draw on?
After I get done with another morning of writing, I come out of my office and pour myself a glass of water (or seltzer) and start a bagel toasting, and then I open the little prescription bottle.
Bupropion pills are tiny and white and round and smooth. Even taking three at once, even in the same swallow as a B-12 vitamin, they go down very, very easily.
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of seven books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland. His work has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
At six-thirty on the morning of October 1, 2015, I drove a rented minivan down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. I’d taken the red-eye flight from Washington State, where I live, to Newark Airport the night before. I had no internet access, no GPS, no interstate road map. I’d brought hard copy directions for only one route, which highway construction had promptly rendered irrelevant. So, after an unplanned pre-dawn detour through Elizabeth, New Jersey, I blindly picked my way to the Holland Tunnel, subsequently missed the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge, and now hunted for the Manhattan Bridge. On the radio, weather forecasts worried over newly christened Hurricane Joaquin, which could soon make landfall in New York.
I’d grown up in New Jersey and, long ago, had frequented New York City. But now, at forty-four, I felt disoriented by even the few landmarks I recognized. In truth, disorientation had been the leitmotif of my forties. When I was forty-one, Asher, the child I’d raised, moved to Bellingham, Washington, three hours from home, to attend university. Now, three years later, he was a twenty-one-year-old college graduate and had relocated again, this time to New York to begin a doctoral program on a fellowship. He’d initially rented a room in Manhattan’s Vanderbilt YMCA. Today, he began a lease on his own Brooklyn apartment.
After an hour rectifying wrong turns, motorists tailing me, honking, I found the bridge and crossed the East River. Asher had arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes and books. He needed everything. I had a rented mini-van, a two-night stay at a Brooklyn inn, and $1,500. And, in the next forty-eight hours, Asher and I needed to buy, haul, and build an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture, procure every necessary household item from cutlery to curtains, and cobble together a grocery larder from merchandise sold at neighborhood bodegas and Duane Reed pharmacies. Still, as I drove the unfamiliar Brooklyn streets, I paradoxically felt newly grounded, about to be reunited with Asher and with my previous raison d’être: day-to-day tasks of single parenthood. Without those tasks, I’d lost my bearings completely.
I got pregnant with Asher when I was twenty-two, too old to be unprepared and too young to be well-prepared. Parenthood gave me direction; like many young mothers, I grew up because of my child. Before motherhood, I’d been a tepid student who did well in subjects I enjoyed, struggled in subjects I didn’t, and spent very little time studying. As a mom, I had a perfect GPA; I earned a bachelor’s degree when Asher was four, a master’s degree in English when he was five, and a Creative Writing MFA when he was seven. Before Asher, I reliably held down dead-end jobs. By the time he finished first grade, I had a profession. Teaching community college English, I designed curriculum, spearheaded committees, and received tenure shortly after Asher’s tenth birthday.
It’s not as if we didn’t struggle. Motherhood, though, made small triumphs seem not only possible, but necessary. Statewide budget freezes stalemated my salary, but I managed to save four years’ worth of in-state college tuition for Asher in a 529c. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune digestive condition, Crohn’s Disease, but I managed to maintain my schedule despite the disease’s erratic flares. No matter how sick I got, I rarely missed work and never missed Asher’s school concerts, back to school nights, fund-raisers, or doctor’s appointments. I was awake at five o’clock many mornings and still awake most nights at midnight. I taught twenty-five to thirty credits a quarter, a sixty-hour work week I organized, as best I could, around Asher’s six-hour school days. And yet, I managed to read and write a lot. Before Asher, my rough drafts remained unrevised and unpublishable. Now, my stories and essays got finished, sometimes got picked up by journals, and, just before Asher entered high school, my first book was accepted for publication.
I approached his adolescence with considerable apprehension, but Asher was a teenager with excellent grades and SAT scores. He fell in love with political theory and read difficult texts, which he could discuss with striking recall. He amassed an impressive vocabulary, played guitar, maintained friendships, sometimes dated and sometimes didn’t, and sang bass in his high school choir. He had no worst-case scenario teen problems—no tendencies toward violence, self-harming, substance abuse, or devastating dishonesty. He had no trouble at school, with his friends, or with the law. And he had no trouble with me. We shared a 425-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. We invaded each other’s space with our music, habits, and moods. During tense, protracted moments, we got on one another’s nerves. But with the exception of occasional, brief temper flares, we got along. We had to.
During those years, we shared certain tastes: Tim O’Brien, Slavoj Zizek, Phil Ochs, and college radio. We saw Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats in concert. He taught me to like folk-punk. I taught him to like Stephen Sondheim. My leftist political leanings influenced his until his radicalism far outstripped mine. At sixteen, he marched in anti-capitalist protests and wrote original songs, one of which contained the lyric, “Please don’t call me a socialist. You don’t know what that word means.” Once a week, we’d go out to dinner at mid-priced neighborhood restaurants. One hosted a trivia game, and we’d lose spectacularly in categories dedicated to pop culture or the Beatles. We had favorite servers whom I tipped lavishly, a habit Asher lauded and would later adopt.
It was halfway through his senior year of high school when Asher decided to attend college in Bellingham. He would begin undergraduate studies shortly after his eighteenth birthday. That summer of 2012, fueled and afflicted by an almost unimaginable level of anxiety, Asher and I took long walks whenever time allowed. We walked from our Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Ballard, a neighborhood seven miles north, and back. We walked around Lake Washington. We walked the entire length of the cities of Eugene, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. We walked five or six hours at a time, barely speaking except to recycle familiar, longstanding exchanges about punk music, politics, superficial happenings, and light memories. Maybe we were both too terrified of what came next to talk about it. We probably should have talked about it.
The day I moved him to Bellingham, we played Frank Turner’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the One of Me” in the car and sang along to calm our nerves. By the time we’d driven through two counties, even singing was too much, and we played that game of finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, road signs, and business marquis. We seized happily on the Quality Inn when, for several miles, we’d needed a Q.
In his dorm room, I helped him unpack his belongings, putting sheets on his plastic mattress, stacking his jeans and T-shirts in the cramped, musty wooden dresser drawers. I couldn’t identify the lumpy, khaki-colored goo on one of the bedposts and was glad that Asher had arrived before his two roommates so he wouldn’t get stuck with that bed. Even having lived in small apartments my entire adult life, I couldn’t imagine how the room would possibly accommodate three occupants. And, in fact, by winter term, one of the boys would have left school and Asher would have moved off-campus, into an apartment of his own that he’d keep until he moved to New York. But in that moment, I imagined this would be his home for the full year. Before I left, Asher stood just inside his small room, and I stood in the hall. We looked at each other over the threshold. I said, “Well,” and it seemed to occur to both of us, possibly at the same second, that I was getting back in the car to drive three hours home without him. I saw my own panic mirrored in his expression.
Over the next several months, as Asher got increasingly acclimated, and then attached, to academic life, I’d probe the anxiety I continued to feel. Particular fears, I knew, necessarily accompanied launching a child: What if they get lonely? Hurt? Hungry? Disappointed? What if they fail in the very ways they’d most hoped to succeed? What if they begin to regard us—their parents—in our increased obsolescence, with embarrassment and contempt? I shared those fears with most parents, but, like most parents, I also knew these things would happen to my child at some point, that they happen to nearly everyone. So, what was it, exactly, that I was afraid of?
I recalled that, during my years of single parenthood, I’d sometimes optimistically anticipate the roomy, productive life I’d lead after he left for college. I’d exponentially increase my writing and reading; I’d foster animals, go to conferences, make new friends, go to happy hours with colleagues, and join a gym. Instead, my life lost its shape. I went to work and I went home. I carpooled with my boyfriend, a single parent himself with a seventeen-year-old son. We’d say good-bye before dinner-time. He’d go home to the fully occupying duties of parenthood, and I’d regard the long hours ahead of me with alarm. He’d look at me with concern. What happened—he seemed to wonder—to the girlfriend he’d known, to the competent woman who made productive use of her time? I didn’t know. My time, I realized, was now the source of my fear.
I fostered no pets, attended no conferences, and made no new friends. I went to happy hour twice before declining further invitations. I joined a gym, attended briefly, and quit. I couldn’t sleep. Unable to focus, I’d squander hours looking through other people’s Facebook pictures, people who still had at-home children, who smiled with them at dance recitals and family dinners. Or I’d pace my empty apartment, saying mundane things aloud, like, “My goodness, I’m nearly out of shampoo!” Still awake at two in the morning, I’d watch through the window as my neighbor, a woman in her early sixties, staggered to her kitchen sink to pour out the remnants of her long night’s second or third box of wine. I knew she had a grown, far-away child. I worried that, in her, I glimpsed my own future.
I stopped reading and, worst of all, I couldn’t write. I revisited an old manuscript, revised it, re-revised it, and sent it to a publisher. But that was the most I could do. Whenever I tried to begin a new project, the blank document on my computer screen stayed blank. Or I’d write a sentence or two, lose heart, and delete everything. More than writer’s block, I felt the same “blank page” horror about writing as I did about every area of my life.
By late spring of 2013, Asher had been settled at his university and in his off-campus apartment for some time, and—still unable to sleep, read, or write—I started spending evenings in my kitchen, baking. I’d been a competent, though unadventurous, scratch baker when Asher lived with me—occasional cookies or muffins for him, occasional cakes or pies for company. But now, I became fearless. I figured out cream puffs, cake pops, and Turkish delight. I went from someone who knew how to clarify butter to someone who knew how to make butter. To justify the time and money I spent on my habit, I baked for my students. I baked for my boyfriend and his son. I brought goodies to colleagues. I mailed them to Asher and to out-of-town friends. I baked pies for my apartment manager, for workmen coming to fix my sink, for my physician and his staff. I baked all evening, nearly every evening. Then I branched out into meals, doing everything the long way: Manicotti with handmade shells, enchiladas with handmade tortillas, saag paneer with handmade paneer. I bought fenugreek and sumac and saffron. I made meals for anyone I could think of, including a group of women I barely knew, whom I’d met through a Crohn’s support group I began attending because, one evening a week, the group gave me somewhere to go.
More than a year after Asher left for college, a handful of women from the support group began coming to my apartment every Tuesday, after our meetings, to cook with me. They were busy wives or moms with at-home kids, dependent on pancake mixes and boxed foods the way busy people often are. They wanted to learn, and figuring out how to teach them became the organizing principle of my post-parenthood life. No, I couldn’t read novels, but I could read ethnographic cookbooks. I couldn’t write essays or stories, but I could write recipes. We called ourselves the Crohn’s Crones, and we cooked together for nearly two years. At our zenith, we provided make-ahead meals for up to seventy people. For the Crohn’s Crones, I planned menus, disseminated shopping lists, determined the division of cooking labor, cooked, oversaw other people’s cooking, and coordinated packaging and distribution of food. Every Tuesday evening, we’d cook until after midnight, elbow to elbow in my tiny kitchen, crowded so tightly that bruises and burns and broken dishes became weekly expectations. And, every Wednesday, after delivering my portion of the previous night’s food, I’d begin figuring out the next week’s recipes.
Meanwhile, my brainy teen became a true academic. On track to finish his BA one year early, he began to prepare graduate school applications. He applied to five programs, four at others people’s suggestion, and one, the CUNY Graduate Center, which he’d chosen because its faculty included theorists whose writing he admired. I imagined him walking down subway steps in Manhattan, freshly dry-cleaned shirts on hangers, over his shoulder. Compared to his scholarly acumen, my time-consuming cooking project seemed senseless—evidence, I worried, that the productive focus I’d found during motherhood had been permanently replaced by nebulous, dead-end ventures similar to those I’d known before he was born. And as though to punctuate this worry, the very day Asher received his acceptance and fellowship offer from CUNY, the publisher to whom I’d sent my re-revised book, and who’d held it in hand for more than a year, rejected it.
I sent the manuscript out again just before Asher graduated university, Magna Cum Laude, in June, 2015, the day before his twenty-first birthday. He would move to New York that summer and begin his doctoral studies that fall. He seemed delighted, full of hope and excitement. I, on the other hand, lying awake at night, still unable to read or write, anticipated his future with a kind of terrified admiration. Asher had been to New York City exactly once before—a tenth grade choir trip. At just barely twenty-one, he was moving across the country to a city of nine million strangers. He had no housing lined up beyond an extended stay at the YMCA. “I’m figuring it out, Mom,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”
But, during those anguishing weeks he spent at the Y, it seemed perhaps that it wouldn’t get figured out. He answered Craigslist ads for roommates, went to see person after person, place after place. He waited outside a shabby month-to-month basement rental in Queens for a landlord who didn’t show. He’d text me every day. “Moving to New York was a terrible idea,” he wrote once. Finally, he secured a rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and now it was October 1, 2015, and I was here—on a quiet, residential street, outside a charming, old brownstone—enjoying the chance, however ephemerally, to be a mom again. Brooklyn is fewer than thirty miles from Newark. The drive took four times longer than it should have.
We started in high spirits—maladroitly stacking boxes of IKEA merchandise on a flat-bed cart, too heavy for us to push with any accuracy, laughing as we wrangled the boxes into the back of the rented mini-van and then, again, as we heaved them up the narrow stairs of Asher’s walk-up brownstone. We laughed at the municipal, unwelcoming “NO SMOKING” signs in his building’s hallways and at the industrial garbage can his landlord had left behind, a giant in Asher’s 300-square-foot apartment. We laughed as we spent an hour, and then two, and then four, building dressers and bookshelves, and trying to figure out the inscrutable IKEA instructions for his daybed. We got hungry and tired. We hammered our fingers and swore. Just past midnight, we called it a day. Because we hadn’t finished building his bed, he stayed in my hotel room that night. We tried to maintain good humor, noting that one of the room’s beds was a Murphy and that the bathroom’s strange shower, straight from horror movies, had a wall of tiny spigots that looked like grimacing mouths.
The next day, we went to the Target store on Atlantic Avenue. Hurricane Joaquin had blown out to sea, but Brooklyn suffered collateral rains, deep puddles, and strong wind. Crowds filled the store where shelves were largely bare. There were no microwaves, no brooms or dustbins, no curtains, no curtain rods. An emergency exit alarm blared for an hour before someone deactivated it. Later, we would be able to find humor in the young Hasidic children, whose mother was not much older than Asher, tunelessly playing plastic kazoos in the cleaning supplies aisle. Asher glared at one of them and said, “Enough of that,” in Yiddish. The child stopped, looked at him, quickly determined Asher held no authority, and, with increased volume, resumed playing. Later, we would be able to find humor in how the storm blew our cart down the block after we’d unloaded it, about the confused way I’d parked in a taxi loading zone, about my nervous, incompetent driving back to Asher’s apartment. But, at that moment, tense, rain-soaked, and exhausted, we still had a daybed to finish building and groceries to buy. I flew home the next afternoon. We were running out of time.
We finished the daybed at two that morning, went back to the inn, slept a few hours, then spent the next morning finishing whatever we could. We found a small market and bought groceries. Asher would have to purchase and hang curtains on his own. He planned to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Village. He said, “But I think I should go with you to the airport first.” And this time, when I got disoriented trying to find the Manhattan Bridge, Asher was in the passenger seat, telling me, turn by turn, how to find my way in a city he was learning, in a life that was becoming wholly his own. This time, the drive between Brooklyn and Newark took forty minutes.
We said good-bye on the shuttle I’d take to the airport terminal and he’d take to connect with transit back into the city. My stop came first. From the platform, I could see him, still on the shuttle. During my visit, he frequently took short breaks from furniture building in order to exchange text messages with new friends. Now, he already had his phone in hand.
I slept most of the return flight. Something had shifted, though I couldn’t pinpoint what. Asher would come to visit in December. By then, I would have gotten engaged, moved into my boyfriend’s house, disbanded my cooking group, and started reading again. But on the plane back to Seattle, I only remembered something another mother had once told me, after her own child had moved away: “The only thing that makes life as different as when they’re born is when they leave.” And now I recalled that, during Asher’s first year of life, when he was colicky and unable to sleep, days and nights blurred. Then, as now, I needed years before I could discern their structure.
The day after I returned from Brooklyn, the publisher I’d sent my manuscript to, and then had largely forgotten about, accepted my second book. And now, four years after the end of custodial parenthood, I’m trying to relearn how to write. For weeks now, I’ve tried to reorient myself by writing these words. Getting here took four times longer than it should have.
CORRINA WYCOFF is the author of two books of fiction, the short story collection O Street (OV Books, 2007) and the novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016). Her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches English at Pierce College.
This is one of my earliest memories: I am three or four years old, scrabbling for a hold on a fallen tree while a river repeatedly pulls me under. I paw at the bark. The water is cold, moving fast and strong. It churns along with my other memories: the overturned Coleman canoe beating against the tip of the log, my father’s orange cap as he reaches out to pull my mother’s arm. When he has her, she lets herself drift to the sucking water that tries to drag us under the tree. She encircles me with her free arm, holding me above the current. My older sister has been balancing on the log, trying to reach me.
“How old?” I ask my sister Sasha. She is in California, sunny Santa Cruz. I am in dreary, garbage-scented Boston.
“Well, maybe you were two,” she says. Running water and the clink of plates tell me she’s washing dishes. “It was the guy they asked for directions from. They wanted to take us canoeing on the Madison, but he gave them directions to the Jefferson. It was a lot wilder.”
“So the canoe turned over in the rapids and we all caught onto a half-submerged tree, and…”
“Papa got pushed to the bottom several times before he got up. I climbed up the end, but Mama lost her hold of you and both of you were going under.” If I was two at the time, she would have been seven or eight. It surprises me, that this half-figment of half-memory—was my father wearing an orange cap?—is real to someone, that my sister remembers me half-drowning with clarity.
“How awful,” I say, as if the accident had recently happened to someone else.
A few years after that conversation my husband and I are in France for a wedding, in a small town between Nice and Monaco. The small, scruffy beach is next to placid Mediterranean water of such clear, bright blue it feels unreal. No matter where you swim, the water is never murky, and the bottom looks immediate, like a hologram.
My husband wants to dive from the floating dock a little ways off, so we swim towards it, he, the stronger swimmer, in front.
Halfway there I stop swimming. The water is clear. I can see the bottom. The dock isn’t far away. I try to convince myself to keep going, but my heart pounds, terrified of the water, of the depths, of the powerful, gentle-looking mass of a sea that is just longing to pull me under.
I turn around and head back to the beach, crawling onto the sand like I’ve been saved from a wreck, not caring what I look like in my very American one-piece suit and ridiculously pale, freckled skin that’s slathered in sunscreen. I long to be in that beautiful water, but I’m terrified of it. I know it wants to take me back.
It’s not just deep water. I’m afraid of the dark, too, and ghosts, and the monsters under the bed. Frisson-filled, gut-freezing fear that tells me these things are real. It’s their reality that terrifies me—ghosts drifting through my house, creatures beneath my box springs, the dark night as a monolith of unknowable worlds seen through acid trips. Other things that keep me lying in bed, staring into the dark and unable to move: the weeping angels in Doctor Who, ruthless alien races that might someday invade from another star system, a future like that in I, Legend, where most of the surviving human population has mutated into zombie-like beings due to pharmaceuticals gone wrong (I consume a lot of science fiction). And, ever since I read Stephen King’s book Lisey’s Story, mirrors.
Fears of pain, nonexistence, and the unknown. Water holds all of them. To die in water can mean one’s body slips out of sight, taken below on bright, sunny days of children’s laughter bouncing into jet skis’ obnoxious roars. Arms overhead, legs kicking, and then fear itself winding around the ankles to pull gently down. Hair floating upward to greenish light as the body is forced to lie among the muck that ancient glaciers left behind. My phobia makes this end feel like fate. A lingering death, a cold one, leaving not even footprints, just the water and sunshine, laughter and jet skis.
In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the goddess of the ocean. Her mate, Abzû, is the god of fresh water. Tiamat is the embodiment of primordial chaos. Or she is the embodiment of harmony, uniting salt and fresh water for all of creation. She is a serpent, an early form of dragon, or a goddess who made dragons filled with poison. She was killed by other deities, who created the world and heavens from her body. Her tears formed the mightiest rivers.
I’d love to connect my water phobia to ancient creation stories, to turn my human life into sensical narrative. But I do not believe in mythologies. I do not, in fact, believe in anything I can’t see or feel or sense or prove. I believe in mathematics. I do not believe in ghosts or the monsters that lurk in dark lake bottoms.
Why, then, am I terrified of them?
The word frisson describes a thrill of fear or excitement, a sense of foreboding that defies precision. The word’s very existence is proof of our fears. It acknowledges that we are terrified of things we cannot see or sense or know. Our minds are frightened of what our bodies can’t feel—or is it the other way around? Is it the mind’s fear and the body’s reaction, or the body’s fear and the mind’s reactions? Where does the experience of that wild river, the log, my family’s terror, reside in my body? Why does my mind insist there is something down there, in the non-empty spaces of dark matter between rocks and silt and sightless water?
I can see it now, in this barely-lit room where my children are sleeping. It’s sifting around the pine trees and the rustling aspens outside, a nameless something that awakens very real fear. Can you feel it?
An unfinished book sits in my drawer—or, not in a drawer but in a file on my laptop, our new drawers. It’s only partly written, set aside after a cross-country move and a year of living in someone else’s home while adhering to an exhausting work and parenting schedule. I touch the thought of returning to the book and feel wary. I say I don’t have time, and it’s true, I don’t. Not the kind of long, luxurious hours that extended writing demands to achieve any kind of depth. The lack of time I have is crushing. It’s its own being, monstrous and impenetrable like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A weighty horror.
I fear drowning under the lack of time. It holds books that I will never write. In that space is where I will cease to exist, fade away. And yet, why should I feel that way? Why must our names be etched in more than our immediate lives if we are to feel real and whole? Are we so terrified of being forgotten?
(Yes. We are.)
But caution also keeps me from diving into it again. A book is a long, sustained effort. It requires stamina, willpower, a certain quality of fearlessness to keep going when it feels your words have landed you in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been there before; this is the fifth time I’ve headed into those wide-open, unpredictable waters.
I fear venturing out there this time, kicking off again, not sure when I’ll get to the other side, and the petrifying thought of what’s lurking beneath the surface. Writing a book can lead to dark, unexpected places, once you let the words start to flow. What if I get to the middle and run out of energy, and the monsters snake around me as I try to tread water? What if I disappear?
It’s so much easier to stay in the shallows near the shore, penning smaller things, where I can see others’ faces, hear their laughter and splashes, even jump in deep sometimes and come straight back to shore.
My husband and I went scuba diving once on the Great Barrier Reef, back when we were living in Australia. A tour boat scooted us and a dozen or so others out from Port Douglas and the guide gave a perfunctory ten-minute lesson in dive symbols: up, okay, help, shark. I was the only person who had never even snorkeled.
“You a water baby?” he asked me in that brisk Aussie twang. “You love the water?”
“Yes.” I do, I really do. I grew up in Montana, where my family hiked all the time, preferably up into the mountains, where ice-cold lakes sat in tiny dips of valleys. Any hike where I can’t jump into a lake or at least soak my feet in a river at the end of it felt pointless. I would swim in a lake every day if I could.
When he toppled me in, wet-suited and oxygen-tanked, I took a few moments to get used to the mask, and ended up hyperventilating, heading towards panic, until I figured out how to breathe all the way out as well as all the way in. A thirty-second lesson with more impact than years of yoga.
Then I followed the group down, arms at my sides to keep down oxygen use, and I wasn’t scared. Nearly forty feet below the surface, where the monsters supposedly lived, I had no fear. The colors were just as bright as in photos—blue, orange, yellow corals and fish; big feathery growths of red; strange, enormous clams that closed as our shadows passed over. “Don’t put your hand in one of those,” he’d warned us before we left the boat. “You won’t get it out again.”
The water was cold, even through the wetsuit. I emerged hungry for lunch and eager for the afternoon dive. There was so much beauty there, none of the dark mystery that haunted the lakes of my home state.
I’d like my fear of deep water to be about something else, to turn it into a metaphor—for writing a book, for example, or for life and the risks we do or don’t take. But the near-drowning of my two-year-old self and her family, the sucking, surging power of that swift-moving river, were very real. When I long to swim across a lake, and flinch back because the water has become too dark and the monsters are waiting to get me, it’s not about taking risks in life and venturing into the unknown. It’s because I’m afraid of being pulled under and drowning.
We humans, we’re always seeking meaning. We want our suffering to have purpose, our fears to shape into Jungian explanations, our gods to exist. We are storytellers, symbol-makers. We find it hard to accept that not everything can be about something more.
You almost drowned because of our stupidity, says my father.
I almost lost you, my mother says to my sister and me.
The town I live in is built on a lake, and in the summer we take advantage of that fact several times a week. I swim out to the lake’s floating dock with my kids safely lumpy in life jackets. We climb up the dock and my son jumps off and climbs out again, over and over until he can barely keep his head above water. He’d do this until the stars pricked out overhead and the water became frigid, if I let him.
My daughter doesn’t want to go under. After years of swimming lessons, she’s still afraid of submersion and doesn’t like getting her face wet. It’s okay, I tell her, you don’t have to. I sit on the dock and stretch my legs out. She slides down them, gripping my hands, the life jacket keeping her cork-bobbing in the water.
I never learned to dive, so I stand at the edge and jump straight in. Underwater, the tiny bubbles I’ve made fizz around my ears, and I bob to the surface and swim to my kids, listening to the ripple-rill of water over my shoulders. I love this feeling so much, more than almost anything, the splashes of the lake, the mountains chaining the valley. My son wants to swim out farther together and we take off. He can’t see the constriction in my chest, the fear gnawing my toes. I don’t tell him there are monsters out there.
ANTONIA MALCHIK has written for Aeon, GOOD magazine, 1966, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and the managing editor of STIR Journal. You can read more of her work through www.antoniamalchik.com.
A slim, tattered volume of verse with a dark stain on its gold cover is one of my most prized possessions. The book is called Poems for the Little Ones, written by Edie Scobie and published in 1925. The poems in it are rather dreadful:
I’ve dot a lovely dolly
Her name is Violet May
I always take her wiv me
When I go out to play.
It’s not what’s in the book that I treasure; it’s the book itself, which I received from my mother for my eighth birthday. When I opened it, I learned that my mother had also received the same volume for her eighth birthday. Given by her brother, my uncle Arthur, who was eleven years older than my mother, it is inscribed:
To Florence, from Arthur
January 25, 1935
A foundation stone for your future literary castle
Like me, my mother always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, her dream never came true.
Even though I always knew in the back of my mind that my mother had once had literary aspirations, I didn’t think much about it. Growing up, my mother was just my mother: the person who put food in front of me, told me to clean my room, and took me shopping for school clothes every fall. When I became a teenager, my mother was someone to fight with about my short skirts, my long hair, and my militant vegetarian eating habits. As a young woman/budding feminist, I saw my stay-at-home mom as the symbol of everything there was to rebel against. And as a not-so-young woman, I relegated my mother to the sidelines of my life as I pursued my goal of being an author.
Though we always mentioned my writing career during our brief, once-a-month phone calls, my mother didn’t know the whole story. I sent home copies of my books that I knew she’d enjoy and could show off to her friends: picture books like Where Is Bear?, Skunk’s Spring Surprise, A SweetPassover, and Runaway Dreidel! I did not send home books of mine that I knew she’d find upsetting, the thinly disguised autobiographical novels, short story and poetry collections: Nobody’s Mother, The Reluctant Daughter, Secrets, Jailbait, Just Like a Woman, Pillow Talk. These books starred the same protagonist (though she went by different names) who at various times struggled with an eating disorder, found herself in abusive relationships with men, came out as a lesbian, and always viewed her mother with an unforgiving disdain.
More of my books were published, more years went by, and then my mother got sick. She collapsed on a cruise ship and had to be airlifted to a hospital where she remained on life support for ten days. I flew across the country and remained at her side until she was well enough to come home. For hours on end I sat in her hospital room watching her sleep and contemplating our relationship. Our lack of closeness was something that I had always found extremely painful. And I had always blamed my mother for it. But of course it wasn’t all her fault. What could I do to bring us closer? I decided, though it was rather late in the game, to extend the hand of friendship and try to get to know her better.
A month after my mother was settled back home, I went to visit her. After lunch, I peppered her with questions. I wanted to know about her life as a young woman, if she’d dated anyone before she met my father, and whatever happened to her “future literary castle”?
“It’s not important,” my mother said, dismissing my questions with a wave of one manicured hand. Then she changed the subject. “Do you believe all this rain we’ve been having lately? Well, at least it isn’t snow.”
Since my mother was not forthcoming (to say the least) I called my “aunt” Phyllis, who had been my mother’s best friend since they were both ten.
“Oh, your mother was a very good writer,” Aunt Phyllis told me. “I still remember the story she published in Cargoes, Lincoln High School’s literary magazine.”
What? My mother had never told me she had written, let alone published a short story. Luckily my aunt never throws anything away and is very organized. Two days after we had this conversation, a copy of the story arrived in the mail.
I dropped everything and sat down to read, “M is for….” by Florence Levin.
All in all, it had been a pretty rotten day. If only I hadn’t shot my mouth off. It didn’t do any good. It never did. It only made things worse.
Whoa. My mother had written a thinly disguised autobiographical short story about shooting off her mouth? I read on. “Florence” is at the Sweet Shoppe where, “The rain poked an inquisitive finger through the doorway” and the “stool squealed in protest.” Florence, alone, and too upset to order a snack, watches the rain and remembers a recent fight she had with her mother. A huge fight that ends with the narrator thinking, “It’s a difficult thing to admit, even to oneself, that you hate your mother… ”
I had to put the pages down and ponder that sentence for a long time.
When I picked up the story again, it picked up with Florence remembering another recent fight she and her mother had:
“Look at her. She’s sitting there like a princess and I’m doing the dishes.”
“Please, momma. I’m doing my homework.”
“Oh so you’re doing your homework. So I suppose we’ll have to tiptoe around the house until you finish your homework. Pretty soon maybe we won’t be able to breathe if it disturbs you.”
“Oh, momma, please.”
“Oh momma, please. Oh momma, please again. A fine racket she’s got. She sits like a prima donna while I work until I’m ready to drop and nobody lifts a finger to help me….”
And the fight ends with Florence screaming words I had thought, but never dared to say aloud to my own mother: “I hate you, do you hear? I hate you! I hate you!”
As Florence sits in the Sweet Shoppe alone with her memories, an “errant tear chased a freckle down [her] nose.” She studies photos pinned to a bulletin board of “Lincolnites” who are in the military and thinks of all the boys “over there” on Iwo Jima and in Germany.
I picked out the smiling face of my sergeant brother among the bevy of others…..Bob with his white teeth and broad shoulders. Bob who had set feminine hearts aflutter before the days of Tarawa: Before the mail stopped coming. Poor momma. It was such a long time between letters. She must be so terribly worried….
Why my mother chose to change her brother’s name but not her own remains a mystery to me. But no matter. The story ends with Florence coming to a new understanding of her mother.
I thought I had troubles. Troubles—why compared to momma—momma whose eyes had been reddened lately. Momma, who needed comfort so desperately lately. Momma, momma darling.
And as Florence comes to a better understanding of her mother, she suddenly realizes that she is hungry.
My mother’s story absolutely blew me away. It’s extremely well written for a high school student, full of sensory imagery, telling detail, authentic-sounding dialogue, and original metaphor. It makes good use of flashbacks. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Something happens. And in addition to literary merit, I was astonished by the similarities between my mother and her mother, and my mother and me.
Of course I had to telephone my mother right away. After we chatted a bit, I said, “Aunt Phyllis gave me a copy of Cargoes. I read your story.”
It got very quiet on the other end of the phone.
“It’s a wonderful story,” I went on. “You’ve got a lot of talent.”
More silence. And then my mother said, “Thank you.”
“So,” I said, going for a casual tone, “why didn’t you ever tell me about it?”
“I didn’t think it was important.”
“What else did you write?” I asked.
“I stopped writing after that.”
I could almost hear my mother shrug. “I didn’t see the need to pursue it.”
A thought occurred to me. “Did Grandma ever read the story?”
My mother paused. “She did.”
“What did she say when you showed it to her?”
“I didn’t show it to her. She found it. And she wasn’t pleased.”
I wondered if my mother could hear me nodding as I thought about what to say next. “You know, Mom,” I said, “I’ve written some stories similar to this one. Stories I’ve never showed you. Stories that might upset you.”
“So what?” my mother asked. “A lot of things upset me. Then I get over them.”
“Even stories about me and you?” I asked.
“Darling,” my mother said in a gentle voice, “don’t you know I’ve read everything you’ve written?”
“You have?” I asked, my heart pounding.
“Of course I have.”
“And I think you’re a very fine writer.”
I started to cry. “But what about the stories where you and I—”
“It doesn’t matter.” My mother cut me off. “What matters is that you tell the truth. That’s what’s important.”
As I wept, it dawned on me: my grandmother must have said or done something to thwart my mother’s writing career. And my mother was not going to do the same thing to me.
“I love you, Mom,” was all I could say.
“I love you to pieces,” was how she answered.
From that point on, I showed my mother everything I wrote. She was generous with both praise and criticism. She had a good editor’s eye and often pointed out weaknesses in my writing that had slipped by me, the members of my writers group, my agent, and my editor.
Then she got sick again.
During my mother’s final hospital stay, she beckoned me to her bedside. “I’m giving you permission to write about all this,” she waved her hand around the room, “under one condition.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Promise me I’ll never have to read it.”
After my mother died, I felt her presence most acutely while I was writing about her. My mother loved poetry, and I could feel her sitting beside me as I wrote sonnets, haiku, villanelles, and sestinas about her illness and death, and my own grief. Formal poetry provided the firm container I needed to hold my unwieldy grief. Two and a half years after my mother died, my book of poetry I Carry My Mother was published. As I held the first copy in my hand, I stared at the cover with its painting of red high heeled shoes (my mother loved shoes as much as I do) and my sorrow at being unable to show it to her was palpable. I like to think that wherever my mother is, somehow she knows that I made good on my promise. And that she is very proud.
LESLÉA NEWMAN is the author of sixty-five books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she currently teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief.
You’d think, given Russia’s tumultuous history, the country would have a more dramatic landscape than the one it inherited. Its revolutions and massacres cry out for powerful mountains, like the Rockies that defined my childhood. Instead, its few sprawling cities trickle out into miles of taiga—boreal forests, the first obvious shift being groves of aspen trees quivering in that silvery way they have, flashing light from leaves in high summer. Watercolor paintings with a ubiquitous gray-pink winter sky and lone Russian Orthodox Church domes seem incomplete without the aspens. They are rooted in the allure of the country and its history, a culture in which poetry is pre-eminent and the past wrought hard with stoic endurance.
Aspens are communal. A grove of aspens is actually one organism, connected via an underground root system that sprouts from an individual seedling. These underground systems withstand the most devastating forest fires and regenerate with young seedlings—all genetic clones—that can grow up to three feet a year. While each tree itself might only live for a few decades, the entire root system can survive hundreds or even thousands of years—stands have been found in the American West that are tens of thousands of years old.
The analogy to Russia is hard to miss if you know something of the country’s history. Russian communities had traditionally worked as a collective, or mir, bound by a concept translated as “joint responsibility.” A community as a whole, not individuals or families, was responsible for things like tax payments and military conscription. Land was redistributed every now and then as families grew and shrank. The system had been in place for hundreds of years, long before America was formed, and functioned right up until it ran into the Bolshevik revolution. Mir wasn’t an idea formed by utopia-seeking philosophers; Russia’s “geographical vulnerability and agricultural marginality,” as one historian puts it, made joint responsibility a requirement for survival.
Like the mir, aspen trees thrive by virtue of their collective strength and resources.
My Russian-born father told me (incorrectly, it turns out) that aspen wood was useless. He was visiting a few months after I had taken my first woodworking class, and I’d been getting a little obsessive about wood. More often found mixing bread dough in the kitchen or with head bent over a notebook, pen in hand, I’d recently begun using a drill and a sander and filling the back of my station wagon with abandoned stumps and branches dragged out of the woods. I’d been making three-legged tables and driftwood chairs, the sound of the orbital sander whining in my unprotected ears. I’d abandoned my usual flowing skirts in favor of jeans and tried applying a screeching, vibrating axle grinder to the innards of a cedar knot. (I had no idea making a rustic wooden bowl would be so violent.) I spent months making a table out of a solid block of maple, even now marveling at the beauty that emerged from the deep scars left by an indifferent sawmill, how its ripples and honey colors make me feel alive.
I’d lost myself sometime in the previous year. I’d grown numb, then tired, then depressed. My children’s demands crashed onto my head, crushing me into exhaustion as if I’d been sandbagged, and daily I stared out the windows, contemplating what their future would be in the face of climate change and epidemics of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and planetary chaos, wondering what the point was of trying to teach them to read, or forcing them to always say “please,” or denying them as much chocolate as they wanted.
I knew these thoughts weren’t healthy, much less helpful. I needed a distraction that would take me out of the house and require me to do something besides think too much. My head had taken over my life. Every day was split among my job as a freelance copy editor, the thousand fractured moments that came with caring for small children, and writing. Even my leisure time was taken up with books. Mothers like me often say that they’re drowning, but I wasn’t drowning; I was turning into some gaseous substance that moved through the ether, that existed but couldn’t feel. So I signed up for a rustic woodworking class hosted by the local nature museum at random because it sounded more enticing than lectures on birds. In that first class, I spent a day learning to make a chair using driftwood branches and a drill, and I got hooked. Over the next few months, woodworking started to drag me back down to the ground I’d always loved.
My father and I had just dropped my son off at a part-time kindergarten surrounded by birch and aspen trees, and we were taking my daughter, Alex—or she was taking us—for a walk around the property before getting back in the car.
“It’s horrible now, looking at all this wood,” I told him. “I can’t just appreciate it anymore. I want to take it all home and make things with it.”
“Not with aspen.” He picked up one of the hundreds of limbs lying around and showed me: where it had broken off the tree, the branch’s guts were exposed. They looked like bundled fiber optic cable or a bag of spaghetti, except thicker. If you tried to cut it, it would crumble to pieces. Bound together, several branches would barely be strong enough to hold something up.
“It’s no good,” my father said. We walked up and down the driveway of the school’s property, Alex stopping to poke decaying leaves and swing her dinosaur umbrella around, narrating every step we took because she never, ever stopped talking.
“I wish we could do this more often,” I said. My father knew that I had never been a lonely sort of person. But I did get lonely for this: his company, walks and conversations, my family, my home, mountains and trees that nurtured and spoke to me and people who understood me, who laughed at my stupid, snarky jokes. He lived in Russia, back in his homeland, and I in New York, and we saw each other once a year at best, often only once every two years.
“You need more help,” he said, returning to our earlier conversation. I’d told him about feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t mentioned that I was feeling numb and depressed and non-existent.
I’d told my older sister, though. She lived off in California with her three kids. My family was so widely scattered that it wasn’t even deserving of the word. My younger sister lived in Oregon, my mother in Montana, my in-laws in England, and, of course, my father in Russia. I had a few friends where we lived, but not a single one that I could call on for regular help in any but the most dire of emergencies.
“I know. What can I do, though?” We’d talked about my husband and me moving back to Montana. I didn’t know how much help it would give me in the mothering, the living, the feeling of non-existence, but I craved my home like drink, like the coldest, purest spring water that runs off the peaks no tourists ever venture to. I wanted to be there, closer—if not to every single family member then at least to the place we were mutually attached to.
Aspen, I found out later, is actually widely used for random things you never think about—wooden matches and shredded paper packing material, for example, because it doesn’t burn as easily as other wood. It can be used in furniture but is hard to work because it’s soft and tends to shred or “fuzz” (to use a fancy woodworking term), can gum up equipment, and often refuses to take a finish or stain, although its softness makes it easy to shape. While it’s still used in areas of Russia for roofs, the wood has to be absolutely sound or it ends up rotting quickly.
The wood that my father and I picked up had been lying on the wet ground for a long time. It was decaying; we could pull it apart with our fingers. But its community would continue to thrive. Even when aspen trees are cut down, the root system keeps going, sending up multiple clones for every felled tree. Killing the roots requires girdling, a process of carving out a band of the bark, cambium, and phloem in a circle around the trunk. Girdling prevents nutrients from reaching the root system, which will eventually die.
I didn’t tell my father everything: that it wasn’t just parenthood and the lack of help. That my unmooring had a lot to do with how my writing ambitions had shipwrecked a couple of times, leaving me despairing for several months; how I then let the kids’ learning and nurturing slide into too much television and a reliance on packets of organic hot dogs. How useless I felt as a human being. I couldn’t tell him these things. Not when his parents had survived Stalin’s purges, when his father had made his way out of the Siege of Leningrad in the middle of the starvation winter, stumbling in the last stages of dysentery, when his mother had worked night shifts as a metallurgical engineer up in the Ural Mountains and then gone home to hoe potatoes and hunt for mushrooms and chop wood to keep her children alive. They’ve left so much to live up to.
I didn’t tell him how I’d started shying away from a particular shelf in our bookcases, where The Artist’s Way is kept, among other creativity/inspiration volumes of its kind. Memories of all those morning pages—three free-association pages handwritten immediately on waking, as sternly instructed in The Artist Way’s introduction—the weekly artist dates required, supposedly, to nurture my inner artist self, the facing of fears and claiming of goals, of throwing the doors of the inner self wide open to serendipity—they form a tender spot, a sore point, a wound.
My writing ambitions weren’t a secret from my father. I was one of those children who would write short story collections, in crayon on yellow legal pads, and bind them together with yarn and cardboard. In my twenties, I went off to an MFA program after two unproductive years as a journalist. And I worked really, really hard because hard work is the thing I’m best at. The harder I worked, the higher my ambitions became. I formed big dreams. Huge dreams. Dreams of many published books and attendance at notable conferences and magazine editors tapping out emails to me.
Dreams all out of proportion with what I wanted the rhythm of my life to feel like. The continued refusal of those dreams to come true infected my parenting, my friendships; they sucked the life out of all the little things I used to take pleasure in: cooking, making jam, weeding the herb garden, watching the heron fish at the pond next door, teaching my son math. I let those dreams define who I was, forgot what it meant to be a complete human being.
When I started woodworking, I hoped to find myself in the wood, or at least find a sense of groundedness in the physical labor. I started volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill and became ravenous for information: why elm is so hard to mill and work (it twists and warps and its grain runs every which way), what black locust is used for (anything from artsy coasters to decking because it’s as hard as cement), what created that thin, black lacing—like a spare Picasso pencil drawing—in the sliced trunk of maple lying around (spalting, caused by fungus, which makes for beautiful furniture or bowls if caught early and dried thoroughly but makes the wood too weak to use if left to spread). I wanted to learn how to work with different woods, but I also wanted a metaphor for who I was. Secretly, I hankered to relate to maple, like the table I made after the scars were sanded down and the exposed beauty glossed with beeswax and almond oil.
Instead, the more I saw of the whole, beautiful hardwoods laid out under my sander or sliced open in eight-foot lengths on a Wood-Mizer mill, the more I felt crumbly inside, full of barely connected shreds. Like aspen. Prone to rot.
“Leap, and the net will appear,” claims one of the paragraphs in The Artist’s Way, which has been a kind of writer’s bible for almost three decades now. “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,” which I realize now simply translates to “Work really hard and hope for some luck.” Because the bus driver might be a jerk and refuse to stop, or you might trip and fall on the sidewalk, or someone will suddenly block your way.
Where is the space between acceptance and giving up? Between loving who you are and turning your back on hope?
Walking with my dad, I pondered these questions but didn’t speak them aloud. I loathed my own first-world myopia because I was in fact wallowing in the pain of unattained ambition, not fleeing chlorine gas attacks in Syria, or throwing myself around my child’s body while American drones dropped bombs over my Pakistani village. I had never even suffered the self-dissolving pain of miscarriage or infertility, as many of my friends had.
I should be grateful for what I have, do something actually useful with my life, like my father’s parents had managed to do even when faced with hardships that I can barely imagine.
I want to be better, I wished I could tell him. To be less ambitious, less desirous of recognition. To know throughout myself, not just intellectually, that the potentials I once dreamed of and haven’t reached do not mean I’ve failed. I have done many hard things in my life, but this feels like the hardest: To accept that my existence might never be like a shining block of silver maple carved into a work of art, or an oak tree that will last untold generations.
Separated from my family, from the very few friends I have and treasure, from the mountains and pine forests that formed me, my art, my creativity, feels all-consuming, the one thing that defines my structure and growth. Working with wood helped bring me back to earth. I felt made of flesh again, rather than of the ether. But the depression only started to lift when I redefined my ideas of success in terms of fulfillment because when I looked back over the previous few years, the memories that brought me pleasure had nothing to do with writing accomplishments. The memories that glowed for me were nearly all related to my family, to time spent with my far-flung community, and to hiking and walking, relating in earth-bound ways to the Earth I love so deeply: walking the high cliffs plunging into the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Islay with my husband and in-laws, taking ten days off to help my overworked younger sister with her new baby, meals and conversations lasting well past midnight with my Russian relatives, trekking through the islands of St. Petersburg with my uncle, picking Montana huckleberries with my husband, laughing for hours in our giddy way with my sisters. My daughter retrieving her rain boots and umbrella and telling me firmly that she’s going out to “play with the rain.” My son reading a Little Bear story, stumbling but persistent, to his grandparents over Skype. My mother playing the guitar and singing one of her folk songs to my kids after we spent the night at her husband’s backcountry cabin, where the sheer weight of the unfiltered Milky Way made me realize how long I’ve lived under light pollution. That I’d forgotten how arresting the unshrouded night sky is.
The thrill of a magazine’s “yes” for an essay or an agent’s interest in one of my books burns out quickly and leaves no glow like these memories do. Only the act of writing itself comes close, reflects that slow crunch of my hiking boots over dry pine needles fallen on the mountains that are part of me.
In the same way I can work with wood slowly and honor its inner structure, I want to take my writing and transmute both the excitement inherent in success and the sting that comes with every failure. I want the whole process to take a more human scale, to become as creativity should be—not majestic or overwhelming or stunning, but nurturing to everything and everyone that surrounds it, part of the earthbound root system that keeps us alive.
Relating myself and my writing to aspen’s weakness and lack of inner beauty is not accepting a lower state of being. It’s part of a whole. And, when I am gone, my existence can still be worthy as shredded pulp to shelter my community or a matchstick to light a stranger’s way.
Like the members of a mir, like aspen groves, I need community. We all do, just as we need clean water and air, as we need to work and to laugh. To feel that we belong and that we have something worthwhile to contribute is necessary to human survival, a fact I had to lose myself to figure out.
ANTONIA MALCHIK lives in upstate New York, where she sometimes blogs about wood and writing and parenting and philosophy on Pooplosophy. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and can be reached through her website antoniamalchik.com.
When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Croft, had us write an autobiography. She told us to add our address at the bottom, then roll it up, and tie it to a red balloon. That way, she said, someone might find it and write back. After lunch, we walked out to the large field by the school with our balloons in hand. At Mrs. Croft’s count of three, we let them go. I can still see those red balloons floating up and away. I watched mine until I could no longer see it in the sky.
Thirty years later, I entered a rehabilitation facility outside Salt Lake City, Utah. We called it The Ridge. After a four-day medical detox that turned most of us into sleeping lumps beneath blankets in dark rooms, our first task was to write our autobiography detailing how we got there. The autobiographies were our way of coming clean, so to speak. They told us that if we didn’t work through whatever instigated our addiction, we’d go right back to the bottle, the pipe, the pills. They called it “cognitive therapy”: Read and Write Your Way to a Sober New You. To most of the people in The Ridge, a writing assignment was punishment, so it came with a privilege: to go outside. This was enough motivation for most, as the only chance we had to step outside was during the two thirty minute breaks we got between meetings that began every day at 7:15 a.m. and lasted until 9:00 p.m. And even then we were supervised.
I had been writing and publishing essays for years and even had a job at a university in the southern part of the state teaching students how to write them, but it wasn’t until I went to The Ridge that I learned to stop hiding behind my own lies.
Since we were separated into groups by counselor, I didn’t get to hear everyone’s autobiographies, so in the evenings, I’d sit on one of the couches in the TV lounge and read the ones I’d missed. It was like being in a workshop, but one in which no one thought about the writing. The words were confessing. The words were admitting. And it made the writing immediate, raw, real. Years later, I’d teach an introductory course in the personal essay to a class of science majors who, until that class, didn’t know the genre existed. Their writing reminded me of those rehab essays—the lack of self-consciousness, the art they had no idea they were creating.
No one in that place but me and one other guy had been to college. I don’t count a college dean because she only lasted two days. Maybe she was too ashamed to stay. Maybe she couldn’t do without her Vicodin. Most of the patients were railroad workers, farmers, or affluent, bored wives. Most had no job at all—the booze or the crystal meth made sure of that. The only patients who read on a regular basis were me and a twenty-two-year-old bartender.
The bartender woke up in the hospital and was told that he had passed out with a gun in his hand, a plan voided by a pint of vodka. Lanky, dark-hair, droopy brown eyes, now he’d be described as James Franco-esque, but then, he was the guy who liked to read. David Sedaris, Chuck Palahniuk, James Frey. He’d finish one, bring it down to my room. The small lounge across from the nurse’s station had a bookcase, loosely filled with mostly self-help and Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and one surprising Joyce Carol Oates, so his girlfriend brought our requested copies twice a week: Cormac McCarthy, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, because we both appreciated irony.
But we were there to write our own stories, detail every last drunk and destruction, the damages that had led us to the same exact spot, even on the same day, when we’d sat on a bench in early December, me drunk, him discharged from the hospital. That day, I’d stepped behind a glass door, then turned back once more in hopes that I could be let out, that it was all someone else’s narrative. He’d been locked up behind a steel door after his shoelaces and the string inside the waistband had been confiscated. His drinking had come on fast, his reluctance toward his intellect its trigger, his final insistence on an artistic portrait of the disgruntled young man, a bottle of vodka, and a gun stolen from behind the bar. He’d woken up angry, embarrassed, feeling like he was living the life he had failed to end.
The last I heard, he went back to the bar for the afternoon shift, hoping, like some guy out of Hemingway story, that it wouldn’t be as hard in the daylight.
One of the meth addicts had become so paranoid he moved into his workshop behind his house. He’d peek through the blinds, watching his wife and two teenage sons as they came and went from the grocery store, school. Then he had watched them move out.
My counselor’s last words to me on the day I checked out: “You don’t have to be Hemingway to be a writer. You don’t have to be drunk or be sad.”
They’d often tell us that the sobriety rate for people leaving rehab was ten percent, so that out of the thirty or so of us in there at any given time, three would stay sober. The rest of us would go back to drinking or drugs, or we would eventually develop some cross addiction. If we had been drinkers, we might turn to pills. Or pills might be replaced by cocaine. Cocaine by booze. It’s a trick addicts play on themselves, they’d say, kicking a habit while forming a new one. They’d also warn that if we kept doing what we had been doing, we’d be dead. Some of us soon, because we had already done so much damage that “one more drink” would be too many.
What I had been doing was drinking Chardonnay, as early as ten in the morning on some days and as late as three in the morning some nights. I had loved a man for years who suddenly left me, who left our daughter, Indie, when she was four and a half months old. He abandoned us. But I abandoned us, too. I drank myself away from Indie, from myself, from the life she and I had together.
A blackjack dealer had worked downtown Las Vegas at the Four Queens during its opening years, her cans of Bud and a Camel as quick as the cards. The doctors said her liver was in pieces, shards, really.
Most of the time, she slept in her room, a vaporizer belching loudly beside her bed at all hours, her door propped open, the room dark even in the day, her frailty a shadow beneath intricate afghans and a green sleeping bag. She wasn’t strong enough to walk, so we took turns bringing her meals on trays or holding her arm as she shuffled to the TV room. Once, someone found her on the smoking patio, her fingers fumbling to light a cigarette. Such futility, no more damage to be done. She was not well enough to attend sessions on schedule, and when she did, her head lolled to the side in sleep, her body bundled in that purple robe. She never wrote her autobiography. Either she couldn’t remember it or it didn’t matter anymore. When the coughs smothered her, we’d all look down at the floor or our notebooks, offering her the only form of privacy possible in a circle of people who saw her as a cautionary tale. At sixty, she looked eighty. Her raspiness, her weightlessness an ugly whisper from a fast life that not one of us envied.
She had been there at the beginning, she said, one of the invisibles shuffling blind under the blinks of the casino lights. “I kept a can of Bud right there at the table,” she told me once. We regretted it for her, all of it.
The last I heard, her husband showed up, belligerent, demanding to know just how long she had been there before taking her home.
Being locked up in the rooms of a rehab facility for twenty-eight days, certain phrases got repeated until they were just noise, a skipping record: “Fake it ’til you make it.” “It works if you work it.” “Work as hard for your recovery as you did for your addiction.” “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” The head counselor’s favorite: “Don’t sympathize. Empathize.” He’d explain, at least once a day, that when people read their autobiographies or shared in a meeting, we were not to feel sorry for the person. We were to understand, to share the experience, to not distance ourselves with pity. The stories we heard were ours. Or they would be if we weren’t careful.
A man checked out. He showed up two days later on the bench by the nurse’s station. He had been badly beaten, or worse. Someone whispered about a liter of whiskey, a night in the ER, but we never got to ask him. They locked him up in the psych ward.
One guy who left The Ridge on the day I arrived hung himself a week later.
For my roommate, it took only two days before a bender ended with a mess of police cars in the front yard of her Park City home. Before The Ridge, she had done two stints at Betty Ford.
One man died within a month. Sober. He died from all the drinking he had already done.
One man disappeared.
I went back to the university where I had been teaching and made it to the end of the spring semester before I drove to the next town, got a hotel room, then spent the rest of the evening at the bar, convinced that if I didn’t drink at home it didn’t count. It wasn’t a cross addiction; it was cross location. It was fucked up.
One of the railroad men had snorted coke on the long runs in the middle of the night. He chewed on plastic flossers during meetings and wore a University of Texas baseball cap backwards, even though he was fifty.
One night, I sat with him alone in the room where we usually played Scattergories. The room had one window, an elongated table, worn plastic chairs, a closet with extra blankets and plastic sheets. He was stuck at Step 1, the autobiography phase, staring for weeks at a blank page and a pen that would not take his disappointment, the guilt. So I sat across from him and asked questions about his ex-wife, the worst nights, their recent phone exchanges, and I wrote it all down. I asked until he had no more answers, so I started writing the questions then pushed the yellow legal pad across the table. I ducked out of the room, leaving him to stare at the vocabulary of his failings.
He claimed to be friends with a famous author, a woman who, according to him, had a framed picture of his chest x-ray prominently displayed in her living room next to a couple of hanging plants. He liked to draw spirals on the pages of my notebook during meetings. Once, during a session on dream analysis, he told about standing in the middle of a diving board. The psychiatrist on staff preferred Jung and told him that the board was an archetypal symbol of both risk and abandon. After we both left, we spoke on the phone once, me in my kitchen in Utah, he on his cell phone on a rail car somewhere across Oregon. The last I heard was his message on my voice mail: “I’m going to die here, but not before I see you first.”
A train track ran adjacent to the hospital. I’d stand on that porch, watching the lights of the passing cars, and think about scaling the wall and hopping one. One night during a smoke break, one of the psychiatrists came out to the patio looking for me. He said he wanted to meet the Ph.D. who drank a gallon of wine every night. “You,” he said, slapping my back, “are a legend.” I said thank you, crushed out my cigarette, and walked back inside.
Every morning after breakfast, we’d line up at the nurses’ station for our meds and blood pressure check. In the afternoon, we’d do it again. The girl who cut herself was on an antipsychotic drug. The hay farmer cussed and called everyone a “yahoo” before they took him off Prozac. After a weekend pass to visit her son at home, my roommate returned sedate and peaceful, nothing like the weeping, neurotic beauty she had been in the three weeks I knew her. Once when she was out of the room, I opened the top drawer of her nightstand and found three pill bottles and a cell phone. Contraband. I kept her secret and allowed the counselors to believe “she finally got it.” One woman was on something that made her so drowsy she couldn’t stay awake during meetings, which was a rule breaker. And the nineteen-year-old who had been sleeping in the backs of cars on the streets of Salt Lake City tried to charm the staff into giving him “something more.” I stepped up to the window and looked down at the tray. The nurse held a white cup with two red capsules. I asked if I could stop taking them. She said she’d bring it up at the staff meeting. “Not a chance,” my counselor told me.
“All of us,” Montaigne wrote, “have within us the entire human condition.” At The Ridge, they called them “autobiographies.” Montaigne called them essais. In other words, attempts. Sit down and write how you got here. Try to figure it out.
I don’t remember if any of the students in Mrs. Croft’s 1977 second grade class ever received a letter from our balloon assignment. The balloons probably ended up popped or wilted, found by a stranger who had no idea that there had been words. Most likely in the panhandle of West Texas, they drifted into the middle of some field where the blades of a tractor shredded them. I kept all the pages I wrote from rehab. The fourteen pages of my autobiography, front and back, the notebook pages framed in spirals, and the pages from the Vietnam Vet.
He had worked the rail yards in Portland for seventeen years. He was heavyset, always in jeans and a shirt that struggled around his middle. When he sat down, he’d pull at it, this way and that, trying to get comfortable. He had gotten sober before and it stuck for thirteen years until he took some “stuff that blew his head off.” He often fell into coughing fits during meetings and had to step outside for a drink of water, which was also against the rules. He’d shuffle back in, apologize, shake his head at his inability to get through an hour without breaking down. He had dropped out of school. Listening to him read was like watching a man dare the frail of a rope bridge.
On one of the last days he was there, he came to the door of the TV lounge and asked if I’d help him with something. We went out to the smoking porch where he pulled out a form and asked me to write down what he told me. He pointed to the four lines provided beneath the section: Addiction History. “Began using alcohol at the age of fifteen. Pot usage. Meth. Went to AA but stopped going to meetings. Thirteen years of sobriety. Relapse. Three years without alcohol. Came to The Ridge.” I pushed the form across the table. He looked at the words as if they were details in a photograph he couldn’t quite make out.
On his last day, he showed me to two chairs in the hallway outside his room. He said he wanted me to have something he had written. His counselor, also a Vietnam Vet, had given him a final writing assignment, one he didn’t have to read aloud. He handed each one to me, in order, and while he sat with his arms folded and his head down, I sat in the chair next to them and read:
What Joe Lovett Like?
Joe Lovett was a yung idao spud. One hell of a grate guy that we called Spud. All he coughed is talk about Betty. He love to smoke pot and drink beer and stair at Bett pitchers. She was a pairty littal thing. He love to cut trees down with his fifty calorber gun. But we all now he didn’t get to go home. He was the first of the three to be shot in the head. I will always remember him like a brother. God Bless him. He was bless of “19” of his life.
What Was Mike Stratton Like?
Mike Stratton was big boy. He look lik he cought cut trees down with two chops. But he was one big tedy bear. We all called he Miky. Miky was from Orchers Washington. He was ok until we got him riped. He cought of hurt any one of us when he was riped and in a rage. I got know Miky for only “26” days. He was number two of three to be shot in the head. In the short time I got to know him I loved him like he was my brother. Now I know whey we were num all the time we were there. We all tried not to think about it. Like Spud Miky was bless with “19 years of life. I will never for get them. They will always be in my hart and in my prairs. God Bless Them.
What Was John Bires Like?
John Bires was a nice guy. He wought have given you any thing. He was from New York. One of those guy that talk funny. He loved to smoke pot. Then he wought eat every thing. You think he talk funny. When he was riped he talked every funnier. I got know him longer than Spud or Miky. For fun we called him JB. Have you ever hered some one from New York called JB. JB loved to play cards. He won a lot of the time. I hated to play cards with him. He always took my money. I got to know JB longer than Spud or Miky. JB was there for two months. JB was three of three to die. JB also was shot in the head. But this time his head landed in my lap. I just sat there with his head bleeding in my lap. I felt like I wasn’t there. I will never foget them. I wil have them always in my hart. May God Bless them all my Brother.
It seems strange to feel inferior to someone’s pain, to the levels of their addiction, but I always I felt as if I hadn’t done near enough to be locked up with the others. I hadn’t lost my daughter. Or my home. Or my job. I hadn’t lived on the streets. Or gone to jail. I didn’t even have a DUI, which seemed to be a prerequisite. Hearing such autobiographies made me feel one of two ways: Either I had no reason to drink, or I hadn’t gone far enough with my drinking. I worried I was destined to return. Maybe it would take two years, or five, and I’d be back in the circle, reading a much more disturbing autobiography than Sunday morning Chardonnay.
Another thing: they always told us we wouldn’t stay in touch. We didn’t believe them. I didn’t believe them. I was wrong. I have no idea where any of those people are—if they’re sober, if they’re alive.
Once we left The Ridge, we were like balloons released into the air.