The act of writing causes me turmoil. When I sit down to write it takes me three hours to part the emotional overgrowth of years to find my state of grace. It took many years for the emotional overgrowth to occur and I work very hard to clear it. I’m Catholic and I contemplate the meaning of the word grace every day. There is a state of grace that I didn’t learn about in Catholic school.
I prepared to write this by researching the word grace. I thought it necessary to learn about all the different kinds of grace that exist in the realm of faith and belief and humanity. I couldn’t find a definition of grace that satisfied me because the grace that I experience is different. It involves my ability to take the creative flow within me and use it to put words and ideas down on a page.
This is a grace that I feared I had lost. Sometimes I still think I have lost it. I remember that in high school I wrote every single day. Every thought and word and deed in my life at that time ended up on paper, white paper ruled in blue with three holes punched on the left side so that I could place it in a notebook. I had more notebooks full of my writing than I had makeup, clothes, shoes, or jewelry.
At the moment, I am frustrated by trying to type on my Macbook Pro while wearing a large, heavy watch on my left wrist. This is a metaphor for my struggle to write for the last few months. Ideas, thoughts, and words don’t flow as easily as they used to. That’s why I have moments of fear that I have lost my ability to write. I fear that I abandoned the daily act of writing for so long that my source of grace took flight and went on a search for someone who better deserves it than me. My God, but that idea scares me.
I have considered myself a writer since I was a child. When I was in the third grade it all made sense to me. I was eight years old when I discovered two miraculous things. The first was that I could think of ideas that energized me. The second was that when I combined my ideas with the letters of the alphabet I could make the words that are breath and life to me.
I wrote my first story in the third grade. I told my parents my homework was to write a story about pain, and so I wrote a story about a woman who was badly beaten by her husband. When I finished writing it, I gave it to my parents to read. They didn’t like my story at all. My father told me that I should write nice stories, not painful ones. I said nothing in reply, but I had a secret. I had lied to my parents. The teacher did not give me any homework. I made up a fake assignment so that I would have a legitimate excuse to shock the hell out of my parents. I succeeded. The story about the husband beating his wife was severe. I described the physical beating using vivid words. I described the pain that the wife experienced as well as the rage that the husband felt. I described his fists meeting the skin of her face and body. I remember my words to this day. The story was much too traumatic for my parents. They did not like what I had written about or the way I had written it. My father told me not to write things like that anymore. I didn’t listen to him. I was proud of my story, and I was pleased with their disturbed reaction. My words had evoked a powerful response from my parents. It scared them and I was glad. As my parents walked out of my bedroom, I heard my mother say “She’s a very good writer.” It was the first time I knew that writing gives me power and grace.
I wrote more and more as the years passed, but I didn’t share my writing with my parents again for a very long time. Much later in 2008, I maintained a blog and I wrote about my experience with bulimia from the age of 12 through 18. I wrote that I saved my own life by asking to see a therapist and by writing down my feelings every day. My parents responded to my blog entry with hurt and anger. It was a part of their life that they did not want to remember. My writing made them relive the pain of seeing their daughter suffer. Once again my writing came to blows with their emotions. I took down that blog post and I felt horrible that I had hurt my parents. I don’t think I’ve forgiven myself yet. I am not eight years old anymore. I have no need to shock and hurt people with my words, but I do need to explore my memories and feelings through my writing. I stopped writing personal essays and didn’t take it up again until last year. I don’t write to cause others pain. I write to heal my own. This is my state of grace.
Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik talks about writing in an interview with Glamour magazine.
“I think writing is the most natural because it’s literally just an outpouring of my brain. I don’t have to please other people, which is what acting is. I don’t have to meet an academic standard, which is what being a scientist is. It’s been really freeing to be able to write.” – Mayim Bialik
I can never seem to find the exact quote or the source of the quote. Internet searches yield variations on the theme. Regardless of who said it or how it was said, this sentence applied to me in 1984. I was a fool and a child.
After the murder of Tammy Welch, I became nervous. I went about my daily routine, but there was a sharp edge to my life that I had not felt before. I had gotten a job as a teller at a credit union, and work was my biggest distractor. I went to work, came home, and ate take-out mostly. I watched tv, visited with friends, or went to the movies. It had become too cold and windy to go to the beach. I had settled into a routine. However, there was one glitch.
Every morning I had trouble starting my car. It became a regular thing and I had to allow extra time every morning to get the green Chevy Nova going. I didn’t like my job or my manager, but I was glad to have the distraction from my inner thoughts. For eight hours a day, I focused on the credit union members, keeping my till balanced, and tried to steer clear of my very mean manager, Darlene.
My introspective nature often made me unaware of my physical surroundings and the people around me. I was an expert at tuning out and turning inward. Loneliness made me more introspective. Tammy’s murder had made me more aware of the sinister aspects of the world around me, but this only made me want to retreat from the world. One weekend I noticed that a new tenant was moving into one of the apartments above mine. I saw the moving truck and a strange vehicle in the parking lot, but I did not see my new neighbor until the day he knocked on my door.
When I opened the door, there stood Gary. He was a 32-year-old man from Tennessee. He was in the Navy. He had reddish hair and a mustache and was polite and friendly when he asked if I had a kitchen funnel he could borrow. He said he had made a batch of barbecue sauce and he needed a funnel to pour the sauce into bottles for storing in his fridge. I told Gary that I didn’t own a funnel. He thanked me and left. I looked out the window and watched him walk to his car and drive off.
A week later Gary came to my door on a Saturday. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve been having trouble starting your car in the morning. It sounds like your spark plugs need cleaning. I can clean them for you if you’d like.” I took him up on his offer. I grabbed my keys and went outside to open up the car. Gary lifted the car’s hood and set to work checking and cleaning the spark plugs. I left him to his work and went back into my apartment. When he was done with the job, he knocked on my door and said, “I’m all done. You shouldn’t have any trouble starting your car anymore.” I thanked him and closed the door. It never once crossed my mind to be wary of him. I didn’t think it odd at all that he’d fixed my car with only my sincerest thanks for his payment. I just thought he was a nice neighbor.
Work had become a problem for me. I had grown tired of having to protect myself from Darlene’s constant scrutiny. As an inexperienced teller, my learning curve was a stressful one. I’d worked in retail in San Antonio, and I had never cared much if my cash drawer balanced. I didn’t like retail, and now I didn’t like being a teller. I felt as though Darlene was waiting for me to make a grave error so that she could fire me.
The credit union was closing on Christmas day, but I couldn’t go home to San Antonio because I was scheduled to work on Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. My birthday was two days after Christmas, and I really wanted to spend the holidays and my birthday with my family. I took a chance and requested the entire holiday week off. Of course Darlene said no.
Nancy, one of my coworkers, was a very nice lady. When she saw how disappointed I was when my time off request was denied, she immediately invited me to spend Christmas day with her family. She was so sweet. For our office Thanksgiving party, Nancy had brought in a bowl of cooked and spiced cranberries that was absolutely delicious. I asked her for the recipe and she happily gave it to me. The only kind of cranberry sauce I’d ever eaten was Ocean Spray Cranberry Jelly. It popped out and onto a dish in the shape of the can it came in. Nancy’s cranberries were freshly made. Until then, I had no clue that grocery stores sold fresh cranberries. Nancy planted a seed in my brain. I’ll write more about cranberries in another post.
I did not have a thick skin n 1984. I felt raw and nervous. Rebecca, the book written by Daphne Du Maurier, is #3 on my list of favorite books. I have read it too many times to count. There is one particular passage that resonates with me because it reminds me of what it felt like to be 19, newly married, alone, and far from home. Were it my own story to tell, I’d replace the age of 21 with 19.
“They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.” – Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier
I was very unhappy at the prospect of spending Christmas in Jacksonville. Just about all of the navy wives who made up my circle of friends were leaving town to spend Christmas with their families. Most of their destinations were close enough for them to drive the distance. I appreciated Nancy’s invitation to spend Christmas at her home, but I wanted to be in San Antonio with my family. I also wanted time away from Darlene and what I perceived as her hostility toward me, her micromanaging style, and her tense face. I reached a boiling point. It was bad enough that I had to be away from my husband. I didn’t want to spend Christmas with strangers. I decided to go home. I knew I wouldn’t have a job when I returned to Jacksonville after the holidays, but I didn’t care. I was youthfully optimistic about my job prospects. I’d find another job after the new year. I wanted to ring in the new year with my parents, my sister, my little brother, and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
My last day of work at the credit union was December 20, 1984. I told no one of my plans not to return. I went home and packed a couple of bags and asked a friend for a ride to the Greyhound bus station. I didn’t have the money to fly home. I remember that the ride was long and tedious. A lot of the passengers were in military uniform. I was so anxious to get home that I called my mom at every stop until she told me to stop wasting money on the phone calls.
I made it to San Antonio and it was so good to be home. There was one fly in the holiday ointment however. I had a guilty conscience about abandoning my job. I wanted to be rid of the guilt and kept thinking about how to close the door on my credit union job. I still had the key to my cash drawer. I felt awful about walking out on my job with the cash drawer key in my purse. It nagged at me and I needed to resolve it. I pulled an empty envelope out of the hall closet in my parents’ house. They always had a lot of envelopes. I scribbled a quick note to Darlene, letting her know that I would not be returning to my job. I slipped the cash drawer key into the envelope, sealed it, stamped it, addressed it to Darlene in care of the credit union, and mailed it out. I felt kind of bad that the key looked like it might cut through the envelope because I hadn’t bothered to remove the key ring. I knew it might get lost in the mail. I decided not to care. I was glad to be out of a job I disliked so much, away from a manager who clearly disliked me. The key and the job were gone from my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed the holidays and my birthday with my family. Mom and dad threw a New Year’s eve party and I got to hug and kiss all my aunts and uncles. I wore a silky gold blouse and a soft white skirt for the party. I felt pretty and happy. The festivities were great. The trip went well except for one thing. I missed Michael immensely.
The day after my birthday, my sister came with me to the San Antonio International Airport where I bought an airplane ticket to Jacksonville. I flew out of San Antonio on New Year’s day. I hugged and kissed my family, and I cried as I boarded the plane. Back in Jacksonville, my friend and neighbor Nancy picked me up at the airport and drove me home. I let myself into my apartment, too exhausted to be nervous or afraid. I went straight to bed and slept in the following day.
I woke up to the sound of a knock at my door. It was Gary and he had two brand new plastic funnels in his right hand. “I thought you could use a couple of funnels in your kitchen!”
In the summer of 1984, I was a newly married Navy wife away from my home in Texas for the first time in my life (I didn’t count the frequent family trips to Mexico during my childhood). Away from my parents’ ever mindful care, I felt free and unencumbered by restraints of any kind. My husband, Michael, was at sea more often than he was home, and I had a car all to myself. I drove to the beach on Saturdays, alone. I drove around in the evenings and got to know the city, alone. I went to the movies, alone. And through all this, I was never, ever afraid.
The August 1984 murder of young Tammy Welch was a watershed day for young 19-year-old me. Tammy and her family lived in the same apartment complex that Michael and I had just moved into. Tammy’s murder changed my view of good and evil, of youthful positivity and the loss of innocence. The day before Tammy was murdered, I believed wholeheartedly in the basic goodness of humanity enough that I slept with my bedroom window open whenever I wanted. I often forgot to lock the door of my apartment and, although I knew it was an unwise move, I wasn’t afraid of anything bad ever happening to me. Michael and I had arrived in Jacksonville, Florida in late June and during those first 60 days I had met only the nicest people and had been pleasantly surprised to find that the residents of our apartment complex were friendly, fun-loving, swim-happy people. There were many fellow Navy wives to get to know as well.
After Tammy’s murder, I learned what it felt like to be truly afraid. Suddenly, I was haunted by that large empty field covered with weeds as tall as me located just steps away from my front door. It was now a sinister and frightening thing to look at. Anybody could walk out of those weeds and make their way into my apartment. The news that Tammy’s murderer was still at large made me feel even more anxious and fearful. That killer could be in those weeds. My family and my husband were far away from me, and I felt completely alone.