Anxiety Knocking on Your Door

 

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Heart pounding, pulse quickening, shallow breathing-these are all very real symptoms of anxiety. I know because my anxiety is severe and at times crippling.

In examining my work as a writer, I have discovered that anxiety stands out as one of the great forces driving my narratives. What I have also noticed is that, when describing the condition, writers, myself included, focus on the physical manifestations listed above. We use these descriptions because they are accurate. Stating that, in the midst of an anxiety attack, your heart rate increases and you feel a pounding in your chest is not melodrama; it is truth.

The issue for the author, however, is because we use these descriptions so often, we have weakened their power. So, my self-assigned writing task for today is to describe anxiety in a way that reflects the truth yet eschews phrases that may, unfortunately, sound trite.

Here goes…

For me, when anxiety strikes, it is like hearing a knock on the front (or back) door. I assume that when most people hear a knock, they don’t panic-unless of course they have committed a crime and are waiting for the police to show up and arrest them.  Most think that perhaps it is a neighbor wanting to borrow a tool or a cup of sugar, or it could be the UPS carrier delivering a package. But, for a person with anxiety, a knock on the door always generates fear. The knock can mean that, in fact, the police have come to arrest you, although to the best of your knowledge, you have committed no crime. Or it could be someone coming to deliver tragic news. Or a home invader is positioned right outside the threshold. That knock on the door brings terror, and that terror spurs all those physical sensations we are going to avoid in this bit of writing.

What’s important to note here, is that if you suffer from anxiety, there is a constant rapping on your door-it comes in the sunlight, the moonlight and the shadows.

It reminds me of something I experienced as a teenager (true story). My father was a prison warden, and high-level corrections staff and their families were required to live on prison grounds, so, when I was ten years old, we moved onto state property. Our house was one of four built atop a hill.  Behind our homes were miles of forest. In front were fields and on the horizon, one of three prisons. For a child, the experience was what you would imagine-lonely and frightening.

One New Years Eve, my parents went out with my father’s colleagues who lived on the street. My brother was with friends and that left me alone on the hill with my best friend who came over to watch movies. I remember it was after midnight and we were upstairs watching Stand By Me when we heard a rapping on the back door.  We ran downstairs to see who it was, but when I turned on the back light, there was only darkness. Nothing else.  We grabbed knives from the kitchen and waited until my parents returned home.

So that’s it. Someone emerging from the darkness to rap on your door.  That’s anxiety.

A side note: a few months ago, I was startled awake by a rapping on the door. I looked at my phone; it was 3am.  I checked on my children before running downstairs and  peered out the window to find nothing. Just darkness.

 

 

 

Writing from Dark Places

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Most of my writing is dark-themes of loneliness, isolation, mental illness and uncertainty weave their way throughout. At times I wonder if it is irresponsible, this putting more darkness into the world. But my writing is born from places shielded from the light-the space under the stairwell where I hide, the corner of the basement where the single sunbeam cannot reach. If I wrote from places other than where I sit, anything I produced would be dishonest.

Before I became a writer, I was a dancer. Dancing was my life from the moment I began my  formal training at three-years-old. I was good-technically-but didn’t possess any real artistry until I felt true and profound sufferance. I could hear the music, move to the music, but could not feel it. Only when I learned fear, loneliness and longing for things that no longer existed did I acquire an understanding that connected me to music and movement. It was that understanding that allowed me to merge the two through dance.

Not until I knew darkness could I understand the haunting ache of Arvo Part’s Tabula Rosa or the torment of his Fratres. Not until I understood fear could I  connect to the foreboding of Marin Marais Bells of St. Genevieve, or the terror of Mozart’s Requiem in D.

But, locked away in a studio listening to these pieces, working through them, I found an almost ecstatic beauty and pleasure in the movement born from them, a beauty that never could have been experienced without the painful feelings and memories the music evoked.

This is the paradox of darkness-with its sadness, comes a heightened joy.

As with dance, so too with writing. Darkness is the foundation upon which beauty and joy is built, at least for those of us fortunate enough to have experienced enough pain to fully embrace the light that emerges from the shadows.

As an artist, a writer, a lover of this wretchedly beautiful world, you must be honest; you must not ignore what exists- the darkness, the sorrow, the joy, the sublime. As Mary Oliver states in “Wild Geese,”

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Read and listen to full poem here.

So tell me writers, dancers, artists; tell me your despair, your fear, your pain; share with me your darkness so that I can tell you mine, and we can learn the truth and beauty of the world that goes on and on….

 

 

 

The Chair at the Bottom of the Stairs

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The original version of this story was published under the title “The Chair Downstairs” in November 2017.

The chair was out of place. The design was early American, so it did not fit in with the rest of the room’s Ikea aesthetic. We used to keep it upstairs in our bedroom where we paid it little attention-probably because it was a catchall for our laundry and usually buried under mounds of clothing. But one evening, when we needed extra seating to accommodate guests, we brought it down to the living room and placed it near the bottom of the stairway. It remained there-a dignified outlier, small and stiff, like something an 18th century scholar would sit at as he pored over musty books by dim candlelight-amongst all our other cheap, assemble-yourself furnishings that young people purchase when they first move in together.

Rarely did anyone choose to sit in the chair. I assumed because it looked so uncomfortable. But there was something else about it-a quality of being already occupied. At night, when I’d turn off the lights, I’d dash upstairs, not wanting to be left alone in the dark room with whatever sat in that chair. I could feel it though, watching me take my leave, and when I’d wake during the witching hour, I’d think about the living space below and wonder.

Eventually we moved, but we did not bring the chair along with us. Whatever company it kept, I was finished entertaining.

The Cat in the Wall

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Hello friends. Over the past year I have been busy working on my book, “The Cat in the Wall and Other Dark & Twisted Tales of Women in Strange Situations,” which I recently published on Amazon. In this small collection of six short stories, I explore the spaces between sanity and madness & reality and fantasy.  Each story includes a different female protagonist at a different life stage-from an eleven-year-old girl grappling with a sinister family secret, to a mother struggling with how to best cope with a child afflicted by a mysterious malady, to a woman whose grasp of reality becomes increasingly tenuous with age. All six characters must navigate a world where the line between what is real and what is fantastic is blurred.

Now that my book is in the world, I hope to be more present here, this lovely place where I have learned so much about the craft of writing.

If you would like to read “The Cat in the Wall,” you can go to Amazon here or click on the link on the right of this page.  You can purchase it in either ebook and paperback format, and the first story is available to read for free.

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There is something incredibly exciting about holding your book for the first time!

 

 

Thoughts on “A Midafternoon Lunch in New England on a Gray December Day”

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I wrote this four years ago, and, since that time, have often thought about the couple in the restaurant. I hope they are still well, but time when you are in your twilight years moves faster. Time in your middle years moves faster; I know because that is where I find myself today-thinking about that restaurant, that couple, my husband and children as we were when I first posted this, and that gray December sky; the same sky I tried to ignore at the restaurant; the same sky that I see now as I look out my window.

Here is the original post (with a few minor edits).

I was intrigued by the elderly couple who sat across from us at the restaurant. It was her, really, who called my attention. She had to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties. And she was beautiful in a hearty New England way. I would venture that she might not have been considered beautiful in her youth, but at that moment, as the beauty of others her age faded, she was vibrant. She was robust, not lithe; her face full and happy; her skin porcelain and glowing. Her eyes were blue, but what struck me most was that the lids did not sag with the heaviness of age. Those eyes sparkled large and childlike. She drank a cocktail and breezily chatted with the gentleman who sat across from her and whose back was to me. I gleaned that he, with his nearly bald head resting upon a neck buried deep beneath hunched shoulders, was older, mid-eighties maybe.

It was a dreary, gray December day, and it seemed that the only place to be was a warm New England restaurant. All you had to do was ignore the view from the window and enjoy the soft lamplight of the indoors. As we shared a bowl of mussels, my husband, children and I chatted about our son’s birthday and Christmas and the wonderful things we planned to do over the winter recess. From time to time, however, I couldn’t help but study the elderly couple across from us.

There was a gorgeous bouquet of peach and white roses on our neighbor’s table. Their anniversary I figured. “How wonderful,” I thought. How long must they have been married? Fifty years, give or take? And still, seeming so much in love. They chatted away, her voice somewhat high pitched and girlish. She reached across the table for her companion’s hand. She smiled and giggled and sipped her cocktail, and, at one point, she belly laughed. It was the kind of deep, uncontrollable, sincere laugh that, unfortunately, you seldom hear. She laughed so heartily that, try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself, and you didn’t want her to stop for the sound of her laugh was so cheerful.

Later, a guest from another table approached the couple to congratulate them on their anniversary. Then she asked how long they had been married, and I waited for the response, certain for it to be forty, fifty, perhaps even sixty years. The elderly lady smiled and said, “It’s our one year anniversary.”

And just like that, the entire narrative I had created for our neighbors dissolved; yet, they were still so captivating, so charming, more so perhaps. Now there were so many questions. What had her life been like? Did she spend the first thirty years of her adulthood in a loveless marriage? Was she widowed while raising young children? Did she have any children? Maybe she didn’t have any. That might account for youthfulness.

The elderly couple continued on, laughing and chatting. I heard her say, “Here we are. Having this lovely lunch in this beautiful restaurant, then we will go home and sit and it will be over.” She reached for her partner’s hand again and smiled and looked at her roses and grew silent just for a moment. But when the waitress came to check on the table, she resumed her happy chatter, commenting that the when she returns she would love it if the sangria had whole blueberries in it. She ordered dessert for herself and her partner-they would share a piece of chocolate cake. She might not have wanted the cake, but she didn’t want the moment to end.

How she worked to hold onto that beautiful late afternoon lunch. I understood. I looked at my husband and our two children. He and I somewhat bewildered to find ourselves in our forties, still with the silly hopes and dreams we shared in our twenties, but different now, tired, worried. And our children. One who has so many struggles and the other who seems to navigate through life with ease but who already shoulders the weight of being the one for whom things seem to come easier. The four of us sharing a beautiful few hours. Just us. In that place. Wanting to stop time. To remain just as we were in that moment.

As the sky outside the window grew darker, we realized our moment was over. Afternoon was gone, having slipped away under a cloak of charcoal sky. Our neighbors stood up to leave. She, tall and straight and carrying her vase of flowers, led the way to the exit. He, fragile and stooped, followed slowly behind. I prayed they would return again for another anniversary.

A Simple Decision


It was between navy and silver violet. She had to decide which before she could proceed. Anne had no aptitude for design, but Christopher left it up to her. The only thing he requested was that she not replicate her mother’s home.

Anne wished her mother, Lucy, were there to help. She had an eye for decorating. Anne remembered when her parents moved to the house on Highland Street, how her mother chose fabrics and patterns with such confidence. Lucy liked traditional design. Anne knew she would disapprove of the silver violet. It would be so different from the hunter green and mahogany colors her mother selected for her own family room.

Different was what Christopher wanted though, and Anne wanted to please him.

But, did Anne like silver violet? She didn’t know. Sometimes Anne didn’t know her own mind.

Damn it. Anne always needed help making decisions. Growing up her mother was forever telling her to change her clothes, change her friends. She was usually right, although Anne still didn’t understand why her mother would sometimes slap her for her missteps. Anne could never hit Lily.

For Christ’s sake, she was forty-three years old. Why was it so difficult to make a decision for herself? Her seven-year-old daughter could say what color she preferred. Lily would prefer silver violet. She would be upset if Anne chose the navy.

Decision made. Silver violet.

 

Today

Today the light shone-the sun beaming through a clear, blue November sky.

As I walked I thought of Mary Oliver and her words:

Do you need a prod?

Do you need a little darkness to get you going?

Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,

and remind you of Keats,

so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,

he had a lifetime.

* From Oliver’s “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” which is published in her collection Blue Horses, The Penguin Press, New York, 2014

But today I don’t need the darkness.

It has done its job.

It has been my constant companion and I am grateful, for darkness has helped me to see this

this beautiful day.

And all I can think is,  “Live.

Live.

It is the only thing you haven’t done;

not really.

Perhaps you tried, but

only in the space of shadows.”

A lifetime should not be reduced to a blot on a page.

The story is elsewhere

on clean, white paper.

written in a pen that doesn’t bleed.