Friday, I had what you would call a “fortitude meltdown.” This kind of thing doesn’t happen often with me. I tend to store inner resources so I can muster up the energy to face a bad day when I need to. But I just couldn’t face Friday.
I was registered to attend the AWP conference in Atlanta, a huge conference for writers and writing program directors and administrators – a very academic literary event. Frankly, I wasn’t in the mood to go. But because I paid for it, and because they featured a few classes that would provide beneficial research for my senior seminar this June (a graduation requirement) and because I always plug away and face whatever is uncomfortable when I know something is good for me (particularly in regards to accomplishing grand dreams), I dragged myself out of bed at 5AM to go.
It was raining. Hard. And the forecast was rain for the entire day. This put me in a funk. Then, there was the fact that the night before, one of my chickens had been murdered – ruthlessly, by my beloved Joe. You see, I had decided to introduce my smelly teenage chickens to the coop so I would no longer have to clean up after them in our basement. They are getting big, almost the size of drumstick (they will eventually be real big egg layers), so I thought they must be ready for their true habitat. I put them into the pen and watched all the birds interact for a while, until I determined everyone was getting along. Joe was slightly aggressive, but chickens always scrabble a bit when the dynamics of the flock change (pecking order, ya know) and I could see the spry young ones running away when he approached them, so I figured they would all adjust and get along fine. An hour later, I returned to check on them and one of my Lucys had been killed. The other four were cowering in a corner, frantic with fear. I felt horrible. Responsible. I’m still not talking to bully Joe.
On top of this, the night before, Mark mentioned that we needed to talk about an important business issue. Feeling so blue about my chicken, I asked if we could hold off until the morning. He said sure. I thought he might wait until I got home, but he surprised me and got up at 6am to attend to our short official meeting. We just had a few decisions to make that really didn’t require much discussion, but we always make decisions together in respect to our family business. (Can’t blame anyone when things go poorly that way, I guess) This particular issue depressed me, and trust me, I don’t throw that word around easily, I tend to describe my down feelings as “sad” because “depressed” is serious stuff, and people tag themselves with that as flippantly as they use the word “love” (which I am also very selective in using). Anyway, I can honestly say, in this instance, I was depressed. I knew the whole business ordeal was inevitable, so there is no logical reason I should react so strongly, but for some reason, I just wanted to crawl into bed and cry.
But, I didn’t. I got in my car and drove through the torrential rain to my conference.
The problem was, I simply didn’t want to go. I felt so low. I actually turned the car around four times, planning to drive home, but each time, I talked myself out of it and turned back towards Atlanta. Finally, one hour and fifteen minutes from home, I turned around, this time with true resolve. I was going to bail on my day. I even called Mark to announce I was coming home, thinking that if he were expecting me, it would surely stop me from going in circles like a ping-pong ball that keeps flipping back and forth.
I said, “I’m not up for this writing thing today. I’m coming home.”
He said, “Are you sure? That is not like you.”
“I’m just not in the mood.”
“It might make you feel better. It will get your mind off the business issue. “
“Not possible. Besides which, it isn’t that. It is something else.”
“I don’t know. I just feel low.”
“Then come home. But let’s meet in town for coffee first.”
(I guess this is like a inviting someone into a holding space for potential quarantine. He didn’t want me back home until he had a chance to give me a checkup.)
So we met up at the coffee shop. Mark said, “You OK?”
“I just feel bad.”
“No. Bad bad.”
“Everything. Business. My writing. My chicken. The weather. You didn’t kiss me this morning. Everything.”
He gave me a little pep talk (and a little peck on the cheek ), then proceeded to remind me of everything good in our life, telling me that we still had the power to make different choices if life wasn’t making us happy.
I told him I was happy. I just wanted to take a nap.
“Then, go home and do that,” he said.
So I did.
I went home, put on my pajamas, and crawled back into bed. A few hours later, Mark comes home and sees me in bed.
He laughs. “It’s that bad, is it?”
“I’m not getting up. Ever.”
“OK. I’ll pick up the kids from school.”
And God bless him, he did. Life went on without me.
I stayed in that bed, eating a gross amount of crap (yes, I felt bad about that too), listening to the rain and trying to imagine what nuggets of wisdom I was missing by not going to the conference (which is only held in Atlanta every ten years. My bad.) I didn’t get up. I didn’t want to cook dinner, or check my e-mail, or write a blog, or care for my animals or be a good parent, or read anything, or . . . well, you get it. I didn’t want to do anything. I think I mustered up enough energy to take a bath and read People magazine. That exhausted me, so I went go back to bed.
I wouldn’t say I was feeling sorry for myself, because I am logical enough to remember that my life is charmed and I have all the ingredients for happiness. I also know that we live the life of our own design, and for everything lost something is gained. I must take responsibility for whatever negative things are in my world. Like my dead chicken, or the fact that I rush around in the morning and forget to pause to kiss my husband to start the day right, or that I don’t work to be more detached regarding business, or the fact that I will now have to do more research later on for my senior seminar because I didn’t take advantage of this cushy opportunity to get some info now. The fact is, I may have missed something great at that conference, but I also know I should respect my inner voice and accept that if a meltdown is eminent, it has a purpose. Therefore, I chose to embrace my inner slug. Perhaps my batteries needed a re-boot. I just needed to shut down.
Anyway, I watched about seven movies that day. Ate 7984 calories. A few hours later, Mark joined me. Now, there were two of us imitating slugs. At least I wasn’t lonely. We ordered pizza. The kids were happy running amuck without guidance. Life did not collapse. No one died. I did not fail out of college. None of my problems were solved, but then, none got any worse for lack of attention either. It was just a mislaid day. A rainy, lazy, depressed mislaid day.
And honestly, I don’t regret it. I have to tell you, on a rainy, gray day when your heart hurts, the covers of your warm bed feel mighty good. And the most mundane movies somehow qualify as splendid entertainment. And even cold pizza tastes gourmet good.
Mark did ask me if anything was wrong, or if there was anything he could do for me, or if I wanted to talk, about a dozen times. I guess when a girl doesn’t have a fortitude meltdown very often, it is alarming to witness. I assured him I was fine.
And obviously, I was. The next morning, I got up at 6am and drove to Atlanta to attend the conference – confirming that I really didn’t miss anything all that important. I listened to a few lectures, sessions about writing endings and how to portray mid-life characters with realism, and I heard a few readings. I walked around the bookfair with over a hundred small press publishers and literary magazines represented, and picked up free issues of literary magazines and little chocolates used to solicit potential supporters for their nonprofit presses. All I could think was, “Who reads this stuff except the people writing or teaching it?” The literary world is really just another special interest subculture that perpetuates itself by its own membership. It seemed like a lot of indulgent hubabaloo to try to impress one’s intellectual peers. I guess it makes great contributions to the world, but it seems only the literary folks notice or care.
I got this really strong gut feeling that I was not supposed to be there. I suddenly knew that even though my degree prepares me for it, I don’t want a career in academia. Who wants to deal with all the university politics? And I don’t crave validation by being published in a small literary magazine that only other writing students hoping to get published might read. I looked into the faces of the thousands of writers there, amazed that so many people write – thinking they all looked stereotypically literary minded. They all looked intellectual. Broke. More cerebral than physical. They were people who portray life on paper so poignantly, yet most of them do not have the wherewithal or personality to live a life of their own with gusto. They will work for years at perfecting their ability to construct a sentence and fine tune research just so they can portray the thoughts of a mountain climber with dramatic authenticity – and yet, I much prefer to read a story written by a mountain climber who tells his real story, sans the literary genius. The literary writers take themselves awfully seriously, and I simply can’t do that with my personal view of the world. What can I say? I guess I’m silly.
Looking at the titles of the publications was like staring into the notes of a therapy avalanche. There was very little there I would look forward to reading. Where is the humor that lurks in every aspect of life? The celebration of living? Who determined that good writing couldn’t be based on uplifting subject mater? I know, I know, life is tragic, but it can be a hoot to with the right attitude. I suddenly felt as if the literary world was a dark place, and I just wanted to step back into the light.
Who knows. Maybe I was still in my former day funk and this cast a shadow on my impressions. Probably. I just didn’t feel like belong in this literary world. I am at a point in life where I crave laughter, adventure, and romance. These elements are sadly missing here.
I called Mark and said, “I’m coming home.”
“It’s only 1 o’clock. (The seminar went until 8 that night) Stay. Enjoy yourself.”
“There is nothing to enjoy. I’ve seen what I needed to see and now, I am ready to come home.”
He was silent a minute. “O.K.”
Later, I told him how I felt at that seminar. I explained that for all I now understand and appreciate fine literature, I don’t want to make a career of it. I don’t want to have to work to build a reputation, or “play the game” to fit into this world so I can be dubbed “the real thing”. I did all that with dance. I did the conventions, the teaching, and the career building. I made a name- even made a humble fortune while I wasn’t noticing. And now, I am tired. And I sense that I might kill what I love about writing if I force myself to treat it like a business. The truth is, you can destroy what you love when you make it your livelihood. I know. When art becomes a job it strips the magic away. You start making compromises to “produce” generically so everyone will like the work. You make choices for security rather than following your artistic instincts for growth. I don’t want my writing to be railroaded into what it “should be” or “what will sell” or “what proves I’m good.”
I don’t know how many real heartfelt passions I have left in me at my age, and I surely don’t want to squander those that burn hot. I love to write. I love to compose books and blogs and clarify my thinking with an essay now and again. I want to preserve that core premise. I have to preserve it. My writing must be for me. I do want to publish, and maybe teach and share the joy with others – I’d love to work with senior citizens to help them leave memoirs for their families or something like that. But I want to be an active writer without feeling pressured to achieve. I don’t like the idea of being a professional writer nearly as much as I liked being the owner of a dance empire who wrote books on the side. That was more remarkable by far.
I asked Mark if he thought this was a copout, that perhaps I’ve lost my edge, was burned out or had self-defeating issues or something. Fear of success? Was this a reaction to my feeling inadequate in this arena?
He chuckled and said, “You? Hardly.” Then he said, “It is like the song, there is a season, Turn, Turn, Turn. A season to work, a season to play, and a season to do nothing. I think you have spent years working and driving yourself to accomplish big things and now, you need to just stop. Not do anything. Don’t feel bad about it. You’ve just never experienced a time of non-doing, so it makes you uncomfortable. But it isn’t forever. Trust me, you are still you. One day, you will wake up and be fully fueled with an idea and nothing will stop you from making it happen. It will be writing a book, or publishing a new magazine, or opening a coffee shop or something else. And your time for rest will be over. Then, watch out world. For now, just embrace your nothingness. It’s OK. You’ve earned it.”
“But it feels wrong. Out of character.”
“How would you know? You’ve never experienced this particular stage of life before. It might be the exact right reaction at the exact right time which will lead you to do exactly what will make you happiest.”
“What about you?” (Actually, Mark has been rather a slug too. It is not like us, and I wonder what it means. Is this a sign that we have lost something important, the very thing that made us tick . . . and tick so well? )
He said, “You know the general store they are remodeling?”(This happens to be a building near us in the middle of nowhere. It’s been for sale for ages. We often mention how much we like it – how it would have made a great dance school, but it was too secluded to be good for much else. But years ago in Sarasota, we would have gone crazy for a building like that. We don’t think it’s good for any of our potential purposes now, but we still find the building fascinating. Anyway, someone bought it and they are remodeling it into a small convenience store with a coffee shop now. We watch with curiosity and a touch of envy. But we still think location will be a problem for them.)
Mark said, “I drive by and watch the progress and I am jealous. I wish I had a project like that going on in my life. I’ve been thinking how much I miss having a business, and how much we learned in the years we ran one successfully – how I want to put it all to the test again. I want to dive in and face the challenges without all the business history serving as bad baggage. I’ve been thinking a lot about an art gallery, with or without a coffee or wine shop. Maybe not now, but soon. I feel like I am getting ready. Not yet. Someday. For now, we will rest. And wait for when the time is right to swing the bat yet again.”
I think he is wise, and he has admirable faith in the both of us. I’m grateful. His confidence alleviates my concerns a bit. So, I’m waiting – not in bed like the big meltdown slug I became the other day, but not what anyone would call a real life action figure either.
In the meantime, I am following my instincts, and they tell me to preserve what I love about writing. I will fight the pull of ego and remember that no person’s opinion or public acknowledgement truthfully validates one’s efforts. I believe success is knowing what you need and where you belong. What is important is loving your life; however you might feel compelled to nudge it to unfold a certain way.
Most importantly, you can, and should, wait for a lot of things, but you should never wait for happiness. Take responsibility for that, above all else.