Have I Seen Too Much?

In what has become a biweekly tradition, I will start this post with a poor excuse.

I haven’t neglected this space and have actually thought about this entry for about a week, but I haven’t gotten around to actually writing it because… life. Life and its many commitments (one of them being jury duty) and my newfound journey into being kinder to myself and unlearning the “I must work hard to earn time off” mindset.

A week and a bit ago, I did two things on the same day that were unrelated at the time but now I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. For one thing, I finished re-watching all of Sex and the City on HBO Max (honestly, adding that subscription to my roster probably contributed to my neglectingprocrastinating, not writing). For another, I went to a haunted forest for the first time in my life.

How are these two things related? In the first Sex and the City movie, Carrie and Miranda are walking around a Duane Reade looking for a Halloween costume for Miranda. As the two women browse the aisles side by side, a small child wearing a mask jumps out at Carrie to try to scare her, only for her to be unfazed.

“You can’t scare me after everything I’ve been through,” she says as the boy’s mom ushers him out of the way. I’m paraphrasing, but the point was that (spoiler alert?), after being left at the altar earlier in the year, she was not moved by an obnoxious child left unsupervised.

Although the remark is obnoxious itself and very Carrie-esque, I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I was, also, unfazed when walking through the haunted forest.

I couldn’t help but wonder, had I also seen too much?

(See what I did there?)
Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

It has been nagging at me for over a week why I wasn’t scared at the prospect of hiking through a trail, in the relative dark, knowing there were things waiting to jump out and scare me. It was a very odd time to have a first-time experience of any kind, but those who had been during normal (read: not COVID) times told me that actors usually get very close to you, getting right in your face in their creepy costumes and forcing you to stop when you really should keep going. In COVID-19 times, of course, anything closer than 6 feet wasn’t advisable or safe, so no one came too close to me other than other hikers. To make up for that, it looked like the organizers put more budget toward the machines and scenery rather than rely on actors to navigate the trail themselves. One of the first few settings was a pitch-black tunnel that, every few minutes, lit up to show a giant fake spider with strobe lights behind it.

After the spider, there were haunted churches, a haunted cottage setting with two hillbilly farmers with chainsaws chasing us (with a 6-foot lead), a haunted pumpkin patch, a freak show section, a haunted museum section, a spaceship section with alien actors running around, ending with an escaped convicts section with a metal song playing loudly in a loop. Sections to overwhelm the senses and scare you, as the announcer said when we went in.

Except… I wasn’t overwhelmed or scared. I was alert. My heart beat faster, my body’s reaction to perceived danger, but I did not let out one scream. I kept walking, leaving my crowd behind a few times, letting my eyes scan my surroundings and stepping around actors clearly positioning themselves to jump out at the next patron. I was uncomfortable in confined spaces and refused to go first when going through doors (although I inexplicably led the way when we first walked into the trail), and that was the only expected reaction I saw in myself all night.

So, why was I not scared and just alert? It is the nature of my anxious disposition that I do not like not knowing what to expect from something or someone, so why was I happy to walk in first? Comparatively, I was very anxious and nervous when I went in for jury duty on Friday, since I’d never done it before, I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid of getting something wrong.

I did some digging, and the research done so far added to the confusion instead of providing an answer. The least-contradicting source was this Huffpost article that isn’t too recent and is about scary movies, but at least it’s very much pre-pandemic so that’s as reliable as I’ll get for now. According to this article, there are a few reasons people don’t get scared while watching scary movies:

  1. They experience the stress that the adrenaline causes differently, almost enjoying the reaction.
  2. They are not highly sensitive people.
  3. They may have experienced fear and discomfort (from age-appropriate scary movies and attractions) from a young age, so they’re more or less used to it.
  4. They enjoy connecting with others over being scared.

I do not fit into any of these, starting with my last entry on my realization that I may just be a highly sensitive person. I do not enjoy the stress reaction of being scared, as the near panic attacks I get when I see a rodent or I’m somewhere higher than the first floor would indicate.

Going back to my Sex and the City connection, perhaps I have seen too much. There is a lot of trauma and Trauma I’ve experienced, like anyone and everyone, and it takes specific stressors and fears to trigger an adrenaline- and panic-led response.

Knowing that everyone in the haunted forest was an actor and wasn’t allowed to get closer than 6 feet for their own and my safety didn’t scare me but, rather, gave me a task: to finish the hike.

I saw It: Part Two recently, so I knew that killer clowns are in vogue and very much not real, but seeing a rat in the streets of Baltimore on Saturday night sent me into a near panic and walking faster to the car.

Walking through the haunted cemetery section, eyes alert and open to dodge the next actor, only meant that I had to walk the trail and watch out for loose branches that may have tripped me. That isn’t nearly as terrifying and anxiety-inducing as the paralyzing fear I feel in my gut when I think of any illness, accident or disease that could affect my dad as he gets older and isn’t in the shape he was 16 years ago when I started living with him full time.

So, after doing skimpy research, reflecting and writing this post, I’m still not any closer to figuring out why I wasn’t at all scared during a sensory-overload experience meant to overwhelm and scare. At least I know I have the capability to be scared, paralyzed and overwhelmed. I have but to think of standing on a rooftop with mice and rats scurrying around my feet while my dad is being rushed to the hospital to feel my heart race and ears ring, like the actors wanted me to feel while walking through the haunted forest.

Orchid

Bloom where you are planted.

If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t change the flower; you change the environment.

You’ve come across both of these inspirational phrases before in times of adversity, or in motivational posters in a doctor’s waiting room.

But what if I’m an orchid?

Photo by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

When orchids are cared for properly, they bloom, wilt and bloom again for years. They require precise conditions to survive and thrive: too much or too little water can harm them; too much or too little light can make them wilt; too much or too little humidity and they won’t bloom another year. Orchids are the flower that you shift your life around to make sure they live, shifting around furniture to let them receive south- and east-facing light, and even adding a humidifier and humidity meter for good measure. Yet sometimes, even with the right amount of light, watering frequency and repotting, orchids don’t bloom.

I have killed many a plant this year, and some haven’t even grown roots. None of them, however, have died out of neglect. I have watered them or removed their water supply if I was advised to. I moved them closer to the sunlight and away from it. I’ve protected them from the cat’s curious reach and let her have free reign of the one that was safe for her (cat grass; a gift for her twelfth birthday). I even tried planting one from scratch: I planted the habanero seeds and tenderly packed the soil before watering it, diligently ensuring that the soil was moist everyday so it could germinate. I watched as two hopeful sprouts emerged from the soil, only to watch them die over the following weeks. I got a miniscule Venus fly trap as a gift and was commanded not to touch it. Only to look at it. Three weeks later, what I tenderly dubbed Cheryl Blossom withered and died a slow death.

There are plenty more plants in my house, plants I’m not the guardian of. These are all thriving: the small aloe vera grows greener every day, promising to have stems large enough to cut for face masks one day. The money tree had a few singed leaves from too much sun exposure, but a careful shift two feet to the left, and he’s growing teeny new leaves. If you sat and watched these plants, they would mock you with their growth. There is even a small red pepper plant that bore a small pepper even though it was left outside all summer, was never repotted and never watered.

Are my dead plants trying to tell me something? To change the environment? That they can’t bloom where they’re planted – they can’t even germinate. Are they a reflection of me and my lack of bloom this year?

Like many a plant optimist, I have said, “This is the last one. If this dies, I’m not getting any more,” only to grieve and flagellate myself for a few weeks at the failure when one more dies before attempting a different kind. I tried my luck at starting an avocado plant from an almost-discarded pit. All guidance said the pit would take two to four weeks to sprout roots, some taking as long as eight weeks. It’s week three, and there aren’t any roots, just tiny white dots forming a ring on the bottom half of the pit, teasing me at becoming roots. This, too, I tenderly look after as much as I (read I) need to and have the common sense to: changing its water once it gets yellowish and ensuring it’s receiving just enough indirect sunlight.

What if this attempt doesn’t bloom either? I have held off giving it a serious name until I see a sprout.

Bloom where you are planted. My dead never-would-be flowers disagree.

What if, like my plants, I can’t bloom where I’m planted? What if I need a different environment? Like an orchid.

I recently read about orchid children and how they take special care to bloom. Most advice is geared toward parents raising sensitive children, even providing a handy 23-question quiz to determine if your child may be sensitive, an orchid. Curious, I took the quiz myself, keeping in mind what I remember I was like as a child and what I’m like now. The threshold for sensitivity in the quiz was 13 – I scored 15. At almost 28, I may have to accept the fact that I’m a highly sensitive person, one who may have been born wired that way and developed into a highly sensitive adult from the trauma and Trauma I’ve endured.

Orchid children are sensitive to their environments and tend to become overwhelmed in loud places, in front of strangers or after a radical, surprise change. Often confused with being shy, a highly sensitive child may prefer to sit in the back of the classroom and not raise their hand even if they know the answer, may be wary around strangers until they get to know them better and may notice the distress of others and withdraw or get upset.

Classic perfectionists, orchids do not do well when told to toughen up, to deal with the stressful environment they’re thrown into. Parenting advice today encourages routines, grounding techniques when the child seems anxious, and balancing the line between letting the child explore, gently pushing them to try new things, and coddling them when they become overwhelmed with a big change. Most of all, parents are encouraged to nurture the highly sensitive capabilities, not belittle them as if they were a weakness.

Because they’re not weaknesses.

By sitting quietly and playing alone, a child can be observant, noticing the colors of the changing leaves or the sounds in the street. Wary of strangers, a highly sensitive teenager may take longer to make friends, but the friendships they form will be lasting and genuine. The sensitive adult who doesn’t participate in workplace banter and watercooler visits may get their work done quicker and be more focused, but will always remember a coworker’s favorite meeting room dessert or ask deep, meaningful questions in meetings that are impactful and useful. The sensitive child will grow up to be an adaptable adult.

Orchid children, like their flower namesake, are highly sensitive to their environment and, if they don’t receive the right care and attention from early on, they grow to view the world as a place to protect themselves from. They learn to always be on survival mode, to retreat when the environment disagrees with them. At least that has been my experience now that I have a term for my personality.

It seems like survival mode hasn’t just been my default this year, but for as far back as I remember. The last time I think I can recall not being in survival mode to some degree was 2015. When I wasn’t constantly thinking, “Just until X happens, then I can breathe easy.” What if my orchid tendencies have been showing through and I just need to find the right environment to bloom out of survival mode?

“Watch me while I bloom,” sings Hayley Williams in the eponymous Watch Me While I Bloom. But orchids don’t bloom on command. When is it my turn to bloom? What does my “blooming” environment look like and how can I get there?

Maybe I’ll get an orchid when I find out.

An Update, Six Months On

When I joined the blogging community, I was conscious of the crowded space I was joining and how difficult it would be to stand apart from the rest. Although that was never my main intention, I knew that most of my voice would be lost in the void. It would have been nice to be noticed, but I never started this blog for anyone other than myself.

I’ve been noticeably absent for a while, and I have to admit that I’ve only given this blog a passing thought this week. Two weeks ago, I prioritized paid work again, and thought I would devote some attention this past week. Then I sprained my wrist.

The sprain doesn’t keep me from typing (obviously), but it did make the beginning of the week kind of painful. I have a brace now that slows me down in everything including typing and writing long-hand, so I have been preoccupied with that this week, doing the bare minimum to go about my daily life while being mindful of activities that may make the pain worse and recovery longer.

If we trace back the order of events that led to this long-healing, irritating injury, it’s COVID related, which is obvious. COVID has also affected the life of this blog and the plan I had for it earlier in the year. Like it has affected many a thing around the world.

Long story short, I was doing a boxing workout using my at-home gym. I’m being generous – my at-home gym is a freestanding punching bag in the yard. I’ve been using the without major issue all summer (it’s a great stress relief), last week I threw a punch the wrong way (or the right way, if I’m optimistic that I hit too hard) and I sprained my wrist. During that same workout, I under-rotated a kick and hit the top of my foot against the hard part of the bag, but (miraculously) my foot was spared any damage.

Where does COVID come into all of this? The only reason I got the punching bag was because I didn’t feel comfortable going back to the gym once it was allowed to open after quarantine, so I figured I’d add a fun way to workout to my routine. A sprained wrist and constantly-bruised knuckles later…

Besides my workout routine, COVID has impacted my writing schedule, aims and goals. Because I’m always home now, endless distractions, chores and lack of discipline has affected what I envisioned as a weekly task. I planned on working on the new novel (and that’s still a goal), but one of the new aims for this blog is now exploring my writing style and habits, and that often means deviating from the content plan I created at the beginning of the year. Not to mention that lockdown drove my friend to create The Artist’s Way group. After finishing the workbook, I know that what I learned informs how I write and create in general, which means I’ve had to be flexible with my content plan.

I worry that the more I write about this, the more this will sound like an excuse for why I haven’t bothered to write for two weeks, and why I haven’t touched my novel in even more weeks. However, this is the best I can do with my current circumstances, and maybe tomorrow will be different. After all, now that boxing workouts are out of the question for a while, my afternoons are free (until I find another way of gym-free working out that I enjoy) and I will make a conscious effort to write more, even if it’s just a few paragraphs.

If I don’t, no one else will. Or, what’s worse, someone else may.

The Baby Incident

It has been almost two weeks since I wrote last.

Well, wrote and published would be more accurate. I’ve been doing plenty of writing, not least for the daily and weekly tasks for The Artist’s Way. I realize now that I haven’t talked about that much on here and now the group I’m doing it with and myself are almost two weeks away from completing it.

The Artist’s Way is about healing, healing one’s creative self and allowing it to flourish and be the guide for our creativity after it’s healed and unblocked. A few weeks ago, one of the tasks was to think of ways to forgive ourselves, to acknowledge whatever the situation was, remember it and let it pass as something we can’t control and to forgive ourselves. Since my biggest self-flagellation weapon of choice is being too hard on myself, I remembered ways I’d been too harsh about my writing, berating myself for not being productive at every instance of downtime I had, feeling guilty for taking out any sort of free time without feeling like I’ve earned it.

This week, as I took two days off work to not exactly go on vacation or disconnect but to be away from my desk (currently writing from the couch), I tried to allow myself the luxury of not planning my time off to the minute and to allow myself to recharge. I realized I hadn’t posted in a while, and when I went back to my content calendar to find planned posts I’d skipped over in the past few weeks, I found another way I like to self-flagellate: ruminating on embarrassing stories.

Those embarrassing stories that nag at you, bouncing around your head and making you wish you could go back and pull yourself away to spare yourself and those around you. Unfortunately, by allowing myself downtime to do nothing, my brain came across this memory from last Christmas, one that still makes me cringe and want to hide under a rock. In a hole somewhere. Close to the center of the Earth. Inside a locked room.

So, enjoy. It’s not fiction today, but storytelling, which I enjoy doing just as much, although I do wish the story itself were fiction and had never taken place outside my own brain…

Image of an adorned Christmas treeing the foreground, with two people blurred out in the background.
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

December 2019. A Christmas party. Not a work Christmas party, but a colleague’s of my mom’s. A direct report of my mom’s. This is important to the rest of the story.

My whole family, including my sister’s boyfriend, was invited, and I was grateful I wouldn’t need to drive everyone home at the end of the night. I started drinking, buzzed on being at the only Christmas party I’d been to that year more than on the free-flowing, self-poured mixed drinks. I didn’t know a great many people, and I was self-conscious that I’d come in as part of a crowd made only ore conspicuous by the fact that my sister was on crutches (she’d broken her foot weeks earlier). The solution to that was, of course, drinking and mingling with those people I did know.

No, this isn’t a story about my making an ass of myself by drinking too much and dancing on a table at a practical stranger’s house party, a practical stranger that would have to see my mom at work come Monday. I knew that going in and I knew to behave myself, to be polite, to introduce myself and be chatty enough. However…

I tried keeping to my crowd, talking to my mom’s manager whom I’d met before. She is talkative by nature and wasn’t drinking as she’d come with her young daughter, so she provided as much conversation fuel as I’d needed. The night went on with party games, raffles and nibbles, and I was even more self-conscious when my crowd kept winning prizes. A stuffed animal here, a reusable water cup there and we were one number away from winning a scanner-printer. I felt people staring and their spiteful thoughts at the back of my head – but I just liked winning free stuff so much…

The first slip happened as some groups started leaving, those with young kids. The living room emptied and there was more room to sit. One of the hosts shouted over my head to those behind me, “Before you head out, let’s do a Sherwood picture.”

Sherwood sounded familiar. It’s the high school up one of the main roads in the city, in the more affluent side of the county. I heard once, forever ago, that while some high schools had yearbook spreads of students with cars, Sherwood had a spread of the best student cars, with Mercedes and BMWs making the cut while Subarus and below didn’t.

This memory played in my head as I said, “Oh cool, you guys went to Sherwood. I went to Wheaton.”

I realized I hadn’t talked to this host much, so in my drunk mind this was my way of making conversation. Sober me would have noticed that he was busy entertaining and organizing his guests for a picture. Sober me would have stayed quiet, especially after his reply came.

“Yes, but forever ago,” he said without meeting my eyes, preoccupied with assembling the crowd.

Drunk me caught the slip, too. Of course. These people were older than me, not by much, but significantly enough that they were obviously adultier than me. By my calculations and by my mom’s intel, they were in their mid- to late-thirties. They had missed my high school years by a lot for me to casually want to spark a conversation about where we went to high school. Even talking about where we went to college would have been too far removed.

If I could have shrank and melted into my seat, with my drink in hand, I would have.

As it often does while you’ve been drinking, time started moving in quick bursts, and my actions were erratic. My crowd and I moved to the garage, where I was told there was a ping pong table and a photobooth. That occupied my time for a while, though I couldn’t say then or now how long it actually was. If I were skilled enough to learn Photoshop, those pictures would be edited to look like they were taken over many occasions, not one monopolized instance. Our crowd was big enough that we monopolized the ping pong table and darts board in the room, but we were conscious of that fact and kept ourselves out of the way, long enough for a young couple and their baby to come and take pictures at the photobooth.

Reader, this is where the story turns.

The baby didn’t look older than one year old, year and a half to guesstimate high. He wore a red onesie that would have looked adorable on anyone else, but it looked particularly striking against his white complexion and blue eyes. His parents held him and took picture after picture, trying to get him to look at the camera. My drunk self tried to be helpful, momentarily forgetting that I did not know these people and that I do not like babies. I was being obnoxious. I tried to get the baby’s attention, suddenly stopping when I realized I was cooing at him like I do at my dog, but luckily by that point the parents decided that they had gotten enough pictures and thanked me, much more gracefully than I deserved.

After they left the room, my dad started ushering the rest of us back to the living room too, trying to herd us like drunk cats. I sat with my parents for what felt like half an hour but could have easily been an hour or two minutes. They were waiting for my sister and her boyfriend to finish taking pictures and join us in the living room so we could grab our coats and go home, as I learned later on.

My parents chatted with the host who had invited us, my mom’s direct report, and it wasn’t necessarily shop talk. The young couple from the photobooth were with us in the living room, too, changing the baby and getting him out of the red onesie.

“We have one more Christmas party to go to, and this outfit has to last that long,” the mom said and chuckled. She handed the baby to the host, who was sitting next to me.

He hugged the baby as he sat on his lap and said, “I really want one.” My mom chuckled at that and the young parents continued to gather their stuff and rearrange the baby bag.

When the host turned slightly away from me to chat to the young parents, I tried my attempt at a joke. I looked at the baby, looked at parents and, very deliberately, scooted away from the child, as if I were repelled by him. I continued to look at him over my shoulder, aware I still had my audience, and scooted away a little more. The mom grabbed the baby away from the momentary sitter at that time, and I turned and giggled at my parents.

“Let me get you guys’ coats,” the host said and stood up, leaving me in plain view of the mom as she tried to put the baby in the car seat. I looked as she strapped him in, wincing a bit as the baby started wailing, not wanting to sit outside someone’s arms.

“I’m just going to leave this right here,” she said to me, pointing to the car seat on the couch next to me. “Is that okay?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” I said, casually and very much oblivious to her tone.

She went to grab her and her husband’s coats from the host’s arms, and they were gone shortly after, wailing baby with them.

Drunk me thought I was being funny. Drunk me was doing a bit about not liking babies and being put off by them. Drunk me did not see how that “joke” could have come off completely different to another audience with higher stakes on the butt of the joke than I had.

Before she left, the mom saw me inch away from her child, who wasn’t doing anything other than sitting and looking around at things he didn’t have names for yet. I was repelled by an innocent child who was doing nothing. To her, I was offensive.

I’d learn this weeks later, well after Christmas, too late to realize my mistake but soon enough to be full of shame. I tried to rationalize my behavior, to excuse it, really. Parents shouldn’t expect their child to be well-liked everywhere, especially not if they come across me. Parents shouldn’t expect people at parties to want to hold their child or want to hear stories about the latest development milestone, especially not me.

But every parent should expect their child to be well-received, not offended like I had done, joke or not.

We’re closer to a new Christmas and I’m still haunted by my behavior at that last Christmas party, with the baby incident only the culmination of embarrassing behavior of the evening. I was the boss’ daughter, acting out and showing off like a spoiled child, earning disapproval for her and for me, for our whole family.

Before COVID and its ramifications, my mom said we’d already been invited to the host’s yearly pool party in the summer. I had been thinking of ways to get out of this invitation since I received it, not wanting to own up to my mom that I was still embarrassed about the baby incident, and wanting even less to run into the young family again. They were close friends of the hosting couple, and they would no doubt be at the pool party, and an apology from me wasn’t enough or needed at this point. Of course, that’s a moot point now.

All I know is that even if we’re invited again, even if it’s two years from now and it’s safe to gather again, I will not be going. They probably forgot about the incident by now or would have done by then, and I would like to keep it that way.

For what it’s worth: Graham, Graham’s mom and dad, I’m very sorry.

Getting Ready to Write: An interior monologue

Took another week off, but you wouldn’t think it for how busy I’ve been. I prioritized some paid work again last week, but I’m back on schedule now and what better way to jump back in than with this week’s topic.

I’ve stalled my progress on the latest writing project for a bit – I actually can’t remember the last time I worked on it. However, one of the many things that occupied my attention last week was plotting this new project, so I’ve made progress but nothing tangible, and having the plotting done actually makes it that much more intimidating to get down to write. So I have to talk myself into it most of the time.

This week’s post is a short clip of what that monologue looks like some of the time, without the specifics of the current project because I’m still waiting for it to look a little more polished before sharing. Enjoy as I let you into some of my thoughts…

Before you go into a snippet of my head, check out this Rewire article I was recently quoted in (it’s wild writing that down…). I’m happy to be able to process an uncomfortable experience this way.

Happy reading!

Image of a journal with 'Write Ideas' on the cover, and a pencil next to it, on a wooden surface.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash. Me talking to myself when I just need to write SOMETHING down.

Right, I just need a drink and to find a comfortable place to sit. I wish I had more natural light. Or a more exciting view out the window. My back aches if I sit like this for too long. Never mind that; need to start writing.

I love and hate a white page. Can’t decide if I like it more than continuing an impressive word count or rearranging whole sections and watching it come together. There won’t be anything to put together if you don’t start writing…

Should I work on a scene I already wrote or start something new altogether? What was that one scene that went through my mind the other day? How is it connected to what I’ve already written? No, that makes sense – start something new altogether.

Asterisks or a few hyphens? Asterisks in the middle or left justified?

Maybe this new scene does fit somewhere that already exists, but where? It could be a continuation of that one scene, I suppose, but then would that tie up that scene and another one? Let’s write it down and see what happens.

I always want to start with dialogue, it would seem, or in the middle of what’s already happening. I guess that could come in handy if I decide to combine this new scene with something else, especially since I end scenes in media res anyway. I wonder if I will ever write multiple scenes in one go, ones that are linked together for once.

I really chase that feeling of getting into a flow and finding that the words just come on the page, like I’m just a conduit and they have already been written somewhere else, at some other point. I wonder if today will be one of those days, where I look up from the page and don’t really see what I’m looking at because my head is occupied with the scene unfolding in the words I’m writing. Not having a particularly exciting view outside the window comes in handy for that.

My back is achy and the page in front of me isn’t less empty… how do some writers get to the point where they hear their characters talking? I can’t even see what mine would be wearing… but I guess that’s okay. That’s not necessarily important to the story and it’s not like readers aren’t smart enough to realize she’s not naked… I wonder what her frame of mind should be on this scene, or what she’s thinking. Maybe she’ll tell me as I write it down.

Maybe she’ll just observe on this scene, and it’ll be one of those filler scenes in between the “really important” parts. If I get through this filler scene, maybe I’ll even write a more important one afterward, one of those that moves the plot along. What if all it takes is one scene to really get the flow going and I end up with a couple of thousand words’ worth? That would be a pleasant surprise, but I first have to write something to make this page look less empty and get the word count moving a bit.

Damn, I never did get myself something to drink… and I might as well find another pillow to prop up my aching back while I’m up.

Goodbye to My Old Journal

I took last week off – it felt like a heavy week all around and my teeny tiny blog didn’t really fit in any conversations.

In the week I took off, though, I managed to write some more of my project. I’m just over 16k words, and it feels great! I certainly didn’t expect to be here earlier this year, when I had no words of my new or old projects.

Also this week, I joined a friend and some of her friends in doing The Artist’s Way. I’d never heard of it, and we’re onto week one. So far, I’m enjoying the Morning Pages, and they feel more like therapeutic journaling than unblocking my creativity, but maybe that’s the start. It is a journey after all, and hopefully by the end I’ll know myself a little better so that this new project falls out of me like stories used to years ago.

And it is thanks to The Artist’s Way that I finally finished the pages in my old journal. Six years, at least three countries, at least two moves and a lot of personal turmoil later, I am retiring the journal that was originally a present. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a me thing, but I was really nostalgic about running out of pages. I still enjoy the feeling of writing on the first pages of a brand new notebook, or even using a brand new pen on an existing journal, but… this journal saw me through a lot and went with me everywhere for a while, especially when I lived in London.

I reread a few pages as a weird exercise – the closest I’ll get to actually reading through it. Handwritten musings and stories are more intimate than typed-up drafts, like an imposition on the version of me who wrote those pages. Out of respect for the person who wrote them (and, to be honest, to avoid the inevitable cringe), I include here some snippets of where I remember being when I wrote those pages. A journey through time is the only travelling I’ll be doing for a while after all…

Do you enjoy new stationery as much as I do, and get as nostalgic as I do when running out of notebook paper?

My journal. Entry from September 2018.

Two weeks after moving back from London, in September 2018. I now know that what I felt was a tough time adjusting and being out of survival mode. With the benefit of hindsight, I would advise the person who wrote that to wait a little bit longer, that the only way out of the discomfort of adjusting to a new situation, familiar as the setting may be, is through it. I don’t think I wrote anything when I was more settled, but again with hindsight, one wouldn’t notice the exact turning point when a difficult situation becomes manageable again.

My journal. Entry from sometime in 2016.

My now-abandoned first novel. I went through a phase while I was in undergrad and for most of graduate school where I wanted my big projects to be about motherhood. My undergrad thesis was three short stories about mothers, and I convinced myself that my grad school thesis would be my last piece about motherhood, that it was the last part of the phase. I’ve never been a mom and I’ve never been pregnant, and I ask myself every time I remember the project, “What made you think you were qualified to write something like this?” Now, Julia Cameron would tell me here to be kind to myself, that that kind of negative self-talk is detrimental to my creative self. Speaking realistically, however, and even allowing for creative license and “being a writer,” I was very much out of my depth at 21, 23, 24 and 26. Yes, I did my research on what pregnancy would feel like and what to expect, but I’d be dishonest with myself if I didn’t admit that I have complicated feelings about motherhood as it applies to myself, and maybe these pieces were me working through those complicated feelings at those ages. I still have complicated (read: unconventional) feelings about motherhood and whether or not I want to experience that or have that role, and maybe that’s what this project was for: not to be published but to help me realize something about myself.

My old journal vs my new one. I was drawn to the “Fables” image because I read Aesop’s Fables as a kid, and what better to draw inspiration for a creativity journey?

Like running out of pages felt incredibly nostalgic, buying a new notebook felt incredibly important, like I had to pick wisely because what if I also end up with it for another six years? Realistically, though, it will only be for the Morning Pages while I complete The Artist’s Way. Or, hopefully, for Morning Pages even after I finish the course, if anything to finish another journal so I can justify getting another new one.

Onto write on these crisp blank pages!

My Journey to Book Publishing

Today is World Book Day and Shakespeare Day, so I’m dedicating this week’s post to my journey into book publishing and writing. It’s also day 37 of self-isolation, and I haven’t been feeling very creative these past few days. I took advantage of last week’s inspiration boost to get ahead on my new writing project and to get last week’s personal essay out of me, but this week I feel drained. I know I’m not the only person feeling drained for a variety of reasons, but I also know I’m not the only one in need of a distraction, of something else to focus on however briefly from this chaotic new normal.

It’s also good to reflect, though, and that’s the approach I’m taking here: self-reflection on where I’ve been to figure out where I’m going.

Stay sane and happy reading!

I hope that one day I stop feeling ashamed that my journey with writing started with Twilight. I was endlessly teased for it in high school, but I can promise you I never wore the t-shirts (to school) and only stuck to bracelets, necklaces or keychains. I never had a Twilight-dedicated blog, YouTube channel or fan account, and my Facebook updates at the time were only about how excited I was to go to a midnight showing of the new movies (yes, I did do that but I never, never adopted the Twihard title).

For all the teasing, Twilight the book had an effect on me, because it was the first author I looked into beyond the backflap of the book jacket. I’d spend an hour or two on the family computer researching Stephenie Meyer and her own journey into authorship, and it struck me that she fell into the job. Granted, Twilight came during the YA boom of the late 2000s early 2010s, when heroines with book sagas and movie deals came out every month, and it could be argued that Meyer was lucky enough to send her book proposal to an editor who read it through dollar-sign-colored glasses. She loved books, is what she said in many an interview, and I distinctly remember her saying she studied English literature in college because she could read books and get a grade for it. That sounded perfect, except that simplistic view of majoring in English Literature lasted me only until my second semester of freshman year.

I mostly enjoyed my literature classes, but my creative writing classes didn’t always feel like work, and I always did the reading for those (I was supposed to read Far From the Maddening Crowd once and I couldn’t even bring myself to use Spark Notes). Workshopping my stories didn’t always feel daunting, and editing and providing feedback on my classmates’ work was enjoyable and a one of my strengths. I’d always feel confident on an edit and prided myself on my instincts, and while that made me the ideal candidate for a book editor career, I had a few turns to my story left.

After graduating college and spending a year in an awful job that at least allowed me to save up, I started graduate school. That decision was the main plot point in my story, and it came about accidentally, too. The novel-writing program that accepted me effectively rescinded their offer but offered me a place in their hybrid creative writing and publishing program, which was shorter and (they promised) just as valuable as the two-year course I initially applied for. I figured that if I was going to write a book someday, I might as well learn about the actual process of getting a book published.

Like my undergrad degree, I enjoyed my creative writing classes more, but that’s as far my creative writing career has gotten for me (until the start of this blog). Like the best stories, mine took a turn from the most unexpected place: the publishing part of my degree. 

I interned at a publisher while I was wrapping up my degree, a publisher I still work for today (three job titles up from intern, thankfully). It’s not a fiction publisher and I don’t read all day every day and get paid for it, but I do have an understanding of how books work. More than that, I enjoy it. I’m not an editor, but I never saw that career path for myself anyway and never worked toward it. I don’t blame anyone who thinks that’s all there is to book publishers, though, just authors and editors. It’s more complicated than those two roles, but I think learning the in and outs would ruin the magic for a reader. Lifting the curtain. It’s not always a glamorous industry, and I haven’t met anyone famous yet or have connections that will make publishing my own as-yet-unfinished book easier than it would be otherwise. 

I somehow ended up right in the middle of the industry, working with books every day and seeing the work behind the scenes. I’ve learned heaps, from how I’d like to be as an author, what I’d like to have in a publisher and (reluctantly but realistically) that there isn’t a lot of money in books unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Suzanne Collins, or you put in double the amount of work it took to write the book to promote it and yourself as a brand.

I didn’t know when I signed up for my master’s that this is where I’d end up, and mostly saw myself writing every day, and I very much didn’t see myself here when I started reading Twilight or watching author interviews on a family PC. What hasn’t changed is the fact that I love books, reading, the written word and storytelling, but now I know that’s not enough to “make it” or make a living out of it, but it’s a start.

A London Love Letter

Where are you from?

It’s a question that gets more complicated the older I get. Does it mean where feels like home? Where does it feel like I’m from? Where was I born? Where I grew up? Where I grew into myself?

The older I get, the more those answers vary, and to spare you the memoir-length answer to the first two questions, I will start with the easy ones. I was born in Quito, Ecuador, but I grew up in Silver Spring, just outside Washington, DC. I only just starting saying “I grew up there” because, as of two years ago, I’ve spent more time outside of where I was born than the time I actually lived there.

When I talk to other people who have spent a significant time in another place than where they were born, the common theme is the fact that where they were born no longer feels like home because they’ve been out of it for so long. By those terms, I’m from here, the DC-Maryland area.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral pictured from the top of One New Change. It’s my favorite place in the world.

That logic gets tricky when I’m in the US, to no one’s surprise. When I’ve been outside the country, most have no issue believing me when I say I’m American. After all, I sound American with the non-regional accent I developed while learning English as a second language (and after I shed my Latino accent tell that only surfaces when I’m nervous or tipsy). Although it’s less common to say I’m American when I’m in the US, the few times I’ve said it in front of my family, I’m quickly berated with “You’re Ecuadorian!”

But am I?

I no longer identify with core cultural principles of the country (except an infatuation with potatoes in all forms), I know next to nothing about the current political outlook and I would get lost if dropped off on any street and told to go to the house I grew up. The last time I went back was 2008, and even then I didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore, and now that it’s twelve years later, I often experience the feeling that other “Others” feel when contemplating belonging: I’m too much of THIS to be fully That, and I’m too THAT to be fully This.

That’s a feeling I took with me when I moved to London, but sadly I didn’t spend nearly enough time there to deserve the coveted “I’m from here” badge and had to settle with “I live here.” I grew into myself in London, and for that it will always live in my heart whether it wants to or not.

London is my three-year love affair. My geographical true love. Through disappointment, heartbreak and loss, London never lost its charm. During tough times far away from home, some people are quick to point the finger at the city, its unfriendly people, rodents in the underground transportation system or extortionate rent prices. Not me. London never let me down.

Leaving London was heartbreak in its own right, the kind of heartbreak that comes when you say goodbye to someone you love because being together isn’t that simple. When saying goodbye is the only option because the alternatives are too complicated or downright impossible. So you part on the best of terms, the friendliest and most loving break-up you’ll ever have.

London further complicated my sense of belonging, because my answer to “Where are you from?” had even more layers, not least because there was never a box I could check off in demographic information forms. There, “Other” was my go-to, the characterization I always avoided at home because it felt harsh, because I had boxes available to me at home. 

Yet, that characterization of “Other” provided added opportunity, the air of “mystery” (but never exotic – I’m not a fruit) that allowed certain foibles that I was ridiculed for at home. Like in college, when I was talking about study abroad to incoming freshmen and how my choice was influenced by my priority of wanting to go to a place where I spoke the language. When I said my native language was Spanish, the response was “I thought I could hear an accent in there.”

Or more humiliating yet, when my answer to “Where are you from?” was betrayed by pronouncing words wrong, like fun-gee instead of fun-guy when describing a mushroom in science class, or saying words that are not correct like “dumbly” or “indignated.” An answer further betrayed when phrases from my native language fit a situation perfectly but there’s no translation, or when my brain beats me at translating and comes up with a word that’s not incorrect but it’s wrong. “Babe, we need a balance in the bathroom, to weigh ourselves.” Because “scale” in Spanish is balanza

But for every foible allowed, there was a microaggression, or a remark I chose to take as well-intended because the alternative was too contentious (too contentious for a former almost-mother-in-law, anyway).  Where are you from? A question that some think allows them to see my culture as a party trick, something to relate to me when they introduce me at a party. “This is Vanessa. She’s Spanish.” How to even begin to correct that?

That’s one of the reasons I love London, because it posed me with challenging questions, but challenging in the way someone you love challenges you so you can find the answer yourself and be better for it. London gave me so many questions, situations and decisions I needed to overcome to arrive at who I am today, and for that, I’ll love it forever.

What Does Writing Block Feel Like? A writer vs someone who writes

Ah, writer’s block. An indulgent excuse or a legitimate obstacle? When is it a legitimate hurdle and when is it something we hide behind when we can’t bear to keep writing?

You’d think with the mandate to stay home and avoid people, I’d have endless time to write now, to be inspired to keep at my new work in progress. And yet, despite not having to commute to the gym or the grocery store, I seem to keep dancing my way around writer’s block and running out of ideas. What does it feel like for me? It actually feels quite a few ways.

Image of yellow and black smiley wall art
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Sometimes it feels eerily like inadequacy. I think about the stories that I love, love for different reasons. I think about the plots, the characters, the voice, the detail; I think about the talented genius who wrote them and wonder, “How do they make it look so obvious and easy? Of course that character would make that choice and the plot would unwind that way – why can’t I think about my own story the same way?” Looking at my favorite stories that have been out in the world for a while, I wonder if I’m cut out for this after all. I can think I’m a writer all I want, but if I can’t deliver what I can see in my head, am I not just another someone who writes?

On another day, writer’s block feels like ennui. Complete lack of inspiration that makes a blank page or screen look like a wall instead of clay to be molded into the picture I see in my head. This version is the one that’s most commonly associated with writer’s block, the lack of ideas, the lack of good ideas. The typing, deleting, retyping and deleting again, but not in the satisfying way that helps one build and carve out the story. This dissatisfaction version of writer’s block goes hand in hand with the inadequacy version, because why would you write, delete and retry unless you felt it wasn’t good enough? At least, that’s the case for me.

The third version of writer’s block for me is the two previous versions turned up to the max. Anger, frustration and hate that verge on rage. There have been times when I hate the story and everything about it so much that I can’t continue writing. I hate everything that comes out, each development point feels unbelievable and it makes me wonder who would read this if I can’t even stand to write it. Sound familiar? It should, because I’ve already written about it.

All three versions of writer’s block for me have their different “cures,” lest they mutate and I have even more excuses to not write. When I feel inadequate, I take a step back and confide in someone who has read my writing before for an ego boost. Vain, but it helps. Reassurance and support go a long way when I feel I shouldn’t be doing this to begin with, because it reminds me that if I don’t write the stories in my head, if I don’t flesh them out and develop them into a decent shape, someone else will. Or, even worse, nobody will and the story will remain untold. If the story isn’t worth telling, why did I think it up to begin with?

Ennui and lack of inspiration are fixed by reading. After all, the best writers are also readers, not just because they’re scoping out their competition, but because it reminds us why we started writing to begin with. Writers are inspired by other writers – don’t we all remember the exact line and writer that inspired us to write in the first place? (For me, it was that scene in Ratatouille when the mean food critic writers his glowing review of the dish – don’t judge me.) When I’m feeling uninspired, I go back and read for a bit, take a break from creating. At the moment, I can’t wait to start reading My Dark Vanessa and Corazon, one for narrative inspiration and one to get me out of my usual tastes.

How do I get past the rage version of writer’s block? A combination fix of the other two, predictably. I get angry at myself for thinking I could write in the first place, so I reach out to my support network and really take a step back from the story I’m attempting, sometimes abandoning it altogether. It took some soul searching, but I’ve taken breaks from certain stories for various reasons over the years, and taking that time away can be cathartic – I often come back with new ideas and new angles from which to tackle the story.

Writing the novel I started when I was doing my master’s has caused me to experience all three types of writer’s block over the years, most recently the rage version. So I’m pivoting – I’m choosing to take a long and conscious break from writing that particular story until it is ready for me, as opposed to the other way around. This choice came partly after a painfully obvious suggestion from a friend – if I hate it so much, why not take a break and write the story I actually want to write? I was very much missing the forest for the tree.

I don’t doubt this new story will present itself with a new type of writer’s block when the time comes, and with the current situation that version will most likely be due to the current world crisis and the fact I can’t leave my house. Until that time comes, though, I will ride this new creativity wave, and try to remind myself that I am not just someone who writes – I’m a writer.

Am I Patient Enough to be a Nurse?

This first “Writing About Me” prompt is also taken from the 642 Things to Write About by The San Francisco’s Writing Grotto (although they also have a 642 Things to Write About Me workbook that’s sitting blank on my shelf…). I’ve always thought James Lipton’s version of the Proust Questionnaire is a good conversation starter (and a good first date ice breaker), and while many of my answers to the questions have changed over the years, the consistent one has been what profession other than my own I would like to attempt.

So here I’ve attempted what I think a day as a nurse would have looked like for me. This entry has been inspired by Adam Kay’s books.

At the beginning of my career, I preferred nights, thinking I’d found a way around getting up early. What I didn’t know was that getting out of bed and going to work would never get easier no matter what time I set my alarm for. 

When my phone goes off at 6:30 p.m. on a January evening, it might as well be morning time that I still struggle to get out of bed. After a shower and a cup of tea, I’m out the door and on the road. With my days and nights fully reversed, nothing feels weird about having an egg sandwich and hash browns at my desk at 8:15 p.m. before seeing my first patient. 

Scanning my emails shows nothing that can’t wait until the end of my shift in 12 hours’ time, so I pop some gum in and go see my first patient. A 19-year-old female on an IV drip after alcohol poisoning.

“Home for winter break?” I ask her. The sooner I get her talking, the sooner I can empty the bed for the next person. Her notes show she’s been here since the morning, with BAC of 0.21, responsiveness sporadic. 

“Yes. I met with my friends from high school before I go back this weekend,” she says quietly. She’s rubbing her head, and I see goosebumps on her arms.

“I see. Well, let me get you another blanket while you wait for someone to pick you up.”

“My dad went home to get me some clothes and said he’d be back.”

“That’s fine. But please, take better care when you get back to school,” I say. I know full well this advice has a 50% success rate.

I make my way to the next room. 8-year-old male with a likely broken wrist. Waiting for results of X-rays, given kids’ Tylenol for pain half an hour earlier. Mom is sitting with him on the bed playing on an iPad when I poke my head in. 

“Hi, my name is Vanessa and I’m taking over for Nurse Ryan. Anything I can get for you guys while you wait?” I never understood nurses who insist of being addressed a certain way. We all got our certification (we wouldn’t be seeing patients without it) and letters besides RN are meaningless for people outside the profession. They only care about doctors versus nurses.

“Do you know how long the results will take?” Mom asks.

“Says here he went in an hour ago, and they’re not too busy back there so it shouldn’t take much longer.” I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not as I haven’t been back to Radiology yet, but what Mom doesn’t know…

“I’m hungry,” the patient says.

“I’ll get you some crackers, or a sandwich since you probably haven’t had dinner.”

His face lights up just as Mom says, “Nothing with gluten, if it’s possible.” Of course.

With a smile and a nod, I go to the next room. 20-year-old female with abdominal pain. Pregnancy test negative, waiting to go for a PET scan for appendicitis. And so I’ve found my favorite for the night.

“Hi there. How are you feeling?” She’s alone, shivering and with tear streaks down her face. 

“I’m just waiting.”

“Let’s get you a blanket. Are you here with anyone?”

“No. I’m from out of state,” she says and sniffs.

“I just started my shift, so please ring that button when you need anything or have any questions, okay?” I made a decision early on in my training that I wouldn’t use pet names for patients. No one takes a twenty-something nurse seriously when she addresses patients by “honey” or “sweetie.”

The triage nurse brings in a brand new patient into an empty room, so my introductions have to stop while I assess him. The man is walking with a limp and there’s some blood trickling down the bad leg. I make a point to mention to triage to at least offer wheelchairs. His face is ashen and his hands are trembling, and a young girl follows behind him carrying a coat. I introduce myself but he looks at the girl instead of at me and doesn’t respond.

“My dad doesn’t speak English,” she says. 

She interprets as I go about asking what happened and checking his chart. The girl keeps an even tone as she rattles off in English then what sounds like Farsi, but the patient sounds agitated and grimaces in between sentences. Once I confirm there aren’t any allergies, I hook up an IV and run to get a bag and painkillers. I leave them to wait for the doctor, hanging his chart in its place next to the door, and grab a few blankets, a sandwich and drink. I could have checked our gluten-free fridge on a slower day, but Broken Wrist’s chart didn’t show any allergies that Mom stated when they came in.

I already lose track of how long I’ve been away from the first set of patients when I give Broken Wrist his sandwich and the doctor is with him. He’s a little teary-eyed as the doctor examines his wrist gingerly, and I know she’s looking to set it in place when she glances at me with the food – she’s had people throw up on her before when she resets broken bones.

“Give this to him when I’m bandaging him up after the doctor is done,” I whisper in Mom’s ear. “To distract him.” She’s so focused on her little boy that she doesn’t notice the sandwich is full of gluten and the drink is an off-brand soda.

I drop off the spare blankets, making a point to make a loud noise as I walk into Alcohol Poisoning’s room. She perks up and whimpers as I drape the blanket on top of her. When I go see Potential Appendicitis, she has her arms around her stomach and is sniffling and grimacing.

When I make my way back to check on Bloody Limp, he’s calmed down a bit and the daughter is on her phone. I make a mental note to go to Radiology to see how far away Appendicitis is from being seen, then get to work on cleaning up the cut on this patient’s leg before the doctor comes in. 

I’m barely an hour and a half in, but I wish I could tell my younger self that there is visibly no difference between a day and a night shift as far as getting out of bed goes. Or as far as looking forward to the weekend, except my “weekend” is Tuesday to Thursday this week. Now where did my pen go…