Writing with the broken pieces

In the book Heartburn by Nora Ephron, I read this:

“When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage, and when the dust settles, your marriage is different than it was. Not better, necessarily; not worse, necessarily; but different.”

I agree with Ephron’s words, but that’s not the kind of explosion that I want to write about today. Maybe I’ll write about that particular explosion another time. In this post, I plan to keep true to the explosion analogy for life changes and losses. Writing about one particular explosion in my life will help me explain the resultant broken pieces and why I write best with them.

On June 12, 2010, a Saturday, my father died. It was unexpected. He had undergone cardiac bypass surgery and the surgery had gone well. The doctor told us so. After the surgery was over, I got to see my father while he was in recovery. I remember I kissed him on the forehead. He was still out of it. I left the hospital and went home. The next day I didn’t go see my father until late in the day. I remember I got to the hospital in time to see him before visiting hours were over. The reassurances of the doctor post surgery had given me a sense of peace that daddy was going to be well. A doctor at the office where I worked reassured me that the surgery would bring a good result. He shared how his own elderly father felt like a new person after his bypass, how he had started traveling and walking and hiking because he had so much energy. I expected my father to reap the same benefits after surgery, but he didn’t.

His death is the explosion I experienced in my life in 2010. Of course, I grieved just like anyone does when they lose someone they love so much. I felt all the things that one feels when experiencing grief and loss. Anger, pain, fear, vulnerability, confusion. I cried daily for a very, very long time. In the beginning, I cried several times a day. Michael, Geoff, and Alicia were wonderful about comforting me. I received all the hugs, kisses, and comforting words I needed then and now. I went back to work immediately after. I really believed that getting back to work would help me heal faster.

At the end of my first day back at work after daddy’s funeral, a beautiful, kind coworker came into my office and sat in the chair facing me. She said, “You thought it was going to be easier, didn’t you?” I looked her in the eyes and said yes. I did think work would make it easier. It didn’t. Only time has helped alleviate the initial pain. Now, over eight years later, I realize that there is no roadmap for grief and loss and recovery. It isn’t a step by step process that has a defined end point where you can check off all the boxes and say “I’m done!”

I started drinking a lot more during those first years after daddy died. Wine. Red wine in the convenient economy size just for me (quantity was more important than quality). I didn’t share. I even started a wine tasting/selling business that I made Michael help me with. I have always hated speaking in public so I made him do the presentations and I poured wine and handed out tidbits. I thought the extra business coupled with my primary job (I was working at the Rack as a technical writer by this time) would keep me crazy busy with little spare time. I didn’t want any spare time that could allow me to think or feel. We did a few wine tastings but I didn’t make any money at it. In fact, I lost money. I spent too much on the food pairings. The wine company suggested buying a box of crackers, a simple block of affordable cheddar, and a small bag of fun size chocolates. I know good food though, so I shopped at the HEB at Lincoln Heights and bought plenty of the sea salt baguettes, strawberries, good cheese (smoked gouda, brie, Jarlsberg, Gjetost, and camembert) and expensive chocolates. The other expense that killed my business was the shipping costs for the wine orders. I let go of the wine tasting business after a while. It took time for me to realize that I used the business venture not only to keep myself frenetically busy but also to justify my need to have plenty of wine on hand all the time.

The 2010 explosion caused me to fear further loss. I was afraid I’d lose Michael. I remember holding onto our hugs extra long and pleading with him to “please never ever leave me.” He would reassure me that he loved me and wasn’t going anywhere. I needed that reassurance very often after daddy died. Sometimes I still do, but I’m getting better about it. I went through some even crazier behaviors that I won’t detail here because I’m saving them for my book. Suffice it to say that the crazier behaviors were not illegal or immoral. Some people found my actions intrusive and that embarrasses me now. Some friends have wondered why I’ve distanced myself from them in the past years. I admit I am rather a hermit. I even left my job to work at home recently. I am not social. My only company these days are my husband and kids.

I did not do any meaningful writing for eight years after daddy died. I did some journaling for a while and that was helpful. I received the gift of a smart, intuitive, and wise life coach who worked with me for a few months in 2011. She encouraged me to journal and I did. However, I dropped it after a while. I tried to write a science fiction story last year but dropped it, after which I entertained thoughts that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer after all.

Enter Life In My Pockets. I bought the domain in 2015, set up the blog on WordPress, and then just left it there for a long while. I wrote two or three blog posts in 2016, one in early 2017. I felt ridiculous for thinking I could keep myself disciplined enough to be a real blogger. I believed I was too broken to write anymore. In a metaphorical sense, I believed something broke my writing mojo. It was the explosion that did it. I chalked it up to Que sera, sera, and didn’t even try to write for the majority of 2018. In November, however, I felt ready to leave my job and work from home. I wrote a very short blog post about a little banter between Michael and me. I also wrote posts about my early married years in Jacksonville and the murder of that little girl that touched me so much, Tammy Welch. I left my job the first week in December and found something to do at home.

Being at home now for the past two months has been healing. I’m spending a lot of time working on my Python skills. I set a goal to get a Python developer job later this year. I also have started writing regularly. Not just blog posts, but personal journaling like my life coach taught me back in 2011. While cleaning up my hard drive on my Mac, I opened up some long-dormant files and read old stuff I had written. I like what I found and want to finish some of those pieces. The writing I’ve done recently has helped me untangle some emotions and understand the crazy behaviors I have felt so uncomfortable about. I am starting to see now where it all was coming from.

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the past eight-plus years and how profoundly the loss of my father continues to affect me. I still am not able to visit his grave at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetary. Just thinking about it makes my chest feel very heavy. I’m not done healing from my grief, and I thought I should be done by now. I was giving myself a deadline and there can never really be one. I have now let myself off the hook.

I shared my thoughts and feelings with Michael yesterday. He has never, ever judged me for being clingy or needy or insecure during the hardest moments of grief. He is supportive and comforts me whenever I am sad. I shared with him the clarity I’m experiencing about myself. Talking to him about it made it even more clear, and I dove deep into past actions and emotions because I see myself differently now. I am getting softer about myself.

I can never be the woman I was before my father died. Instead, I am the woman who is surviving the loss of one parent the best way I know how. To riff on Nora Ephron’s words, I am not better, necessarily; I am not worse, necessarily. I’m different. The explosion left me with broken pieces that I am using to write and heal and create. In fact, I think I’m writing better and more freely than I have in a long time because of the broken pieces.

Soft Ramen Noodles

I love to write and I’ve done a lot of writing. I was 8 years old when I developed a passion for writing. However, 99.9 percent of what I’ve written to date has not been read by anyone but me. It’s true. Most of what I write isn’t even read by my own family or friends. It’s my own fault. I have a deep fear of failure. I hate to do anything important in public. I have a phobia of being less than perfect, and it causes me to avoid creating something other people will see or hear or read. I frustrate myself to no end because of this phobia, because I really love to write and I would love to be a prolific and accomplished writer. I would really love to be a full-time, self-sustaining writer.

Technically, I am a full-time writer. I write technical articles for a living. Most people think technical writing is boring, and while the subjects I write about can be considered boring, I enjoy the challenge of taking unpalatable topics and writing about them in a way that allows people to accomplish the necessary tasks in their daily lives. If what I write in a day’s work helps someone accomplish a certain task of a technical nature, then I feel I have done my job well. People don’t read what I write because it’s entertaining or interesting. They read what I write because they don’t know how to use a certain product, or they have encountered a glitch in the use of a software or hardware or legal product and they must use my writing to move forward with a task. If what I write helps them to overcome that glitch, then I have done my job and I am satisfied.

But just because I write technical articles that help people accomplish a task does not mean that I have reached writing nirvana. Not by a long shot, because what I really want to do is creative writing, essay writing, feature writing. Most of all, I want to write books for a living. I want to spend my days writing about things that are near and dear to my heart. I want to write about what fascinates and intrigues me and captivates my imagination. I want to tell stories, both true stories and stories of pure fiction, maybe even stories that mix truth and fiction.

As far as making a living goes, I want to continue doing that. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I am earning a living. I get a buzz when I go online and check my bank account and see that money was deposited in payment for work that I did. I like earning money. I feel like I can never truly count myself as an adult until I understand what it is to provide food and shelter and other necessities for the people I love. That is a level of responsibility that is essential to my sense of self-worth.

That said, I want to earn a real living by writing the things that I want to write about. I want my writing to be all in a day’s work, and I want to accomplish that day’s work in my own home. That is the goal I have set for myself, and I have spent days, weeks, months, even years contemplating how I can accomplish it. I have bought books about the subject. I’ve searched the internet for answers to my dilemma. My desire to lead a freelance writer’s life is something palpable to all five of my senses. Beyond that, it is palpable by a sixth unknowable sense that I cannot yet define.

I have come to understand, after a lifetime of desiring a writer’s life, that a writer’s job is to write despite all the obstacles that make up life. A writer must write even when there aren’t enough hours in a day to do so. One must find pockets of time hidden in the fabric of daily living.

Beyond time constraints, as a writer, I need to turn my angst into the millions of words necessary to create the writing life I crave. I find that amusing because I always thought that it was angst that fueled good writing. Maybe it does, but in my case, it is angst that has many times kept me from sitting down to write. I am an introspective person by nature, but writing down the thoughts that swirl within my brain means a level of introspection that I now admit that I fear. I am afraid of what I will find if I dig deep enough. It is easier most days to leave my angst a mystery.  Most days I don’t want to know what’s in there, and I don’t want anyone else to know what’s in there either.

Whether I want to know or don’t want to know, it doesn’t matter now. If I want to be a prolific writer, successful or unsuccessful, it’s time to grab the sturdiest shovel I can find and start digging. It’ll make my stomach hurt sometimes, I’m sure. My stomach is where my deepest feelings make themselves known. I had to pay a lot of money to gastroenterologists only to be told that my stomach was fine. “You need to figure out what you’re feeling that’s making your stomach hurt,” one warm and friendly GI doctor told me. I wanted to grab something heavy and hit him with it. (In my defense, one of my stomach ailments was real, the gastric ulcer I developed the year that my father died. It went away in time.)

I once was an avid diarist, but I stopped because the tasks of motherhood, wifedom, and wage earner left me little time for the musing and thinking that go into keeping a regular diary. Or maybe it was my fear of uncovering my deep angst that made me stop keeping a diary.

When I was 20 years old I bought a used manual typewriter at a neighborhood thrift store in Jacksonville, Florida. I planned to use it to write my way to a successful writing career. The first problem with my plan was that I was taught to type on an IBM Selectric II, a whiz of a machine that took no effort to use at all. The manual thrift store typewriter was a real beast to type on. I did manage to use it to write some essays and meager poetry, but I left it mostly unused in the empty second bedroom of the apartment I shared with my mostly absent sailor husband. I see now in retrospect that I was a very lonely young woman with a lot of unresolved emotions, hopes, and dreams growing inside of me. Those unresolved feelings grew daily when I was alone and continued to grow when my husband was home between workups and cruises. I wrote in my diary less and less as time went on in an effort to keep a lid on my proliferating emotions.

Being a Navy wife was difficult because I was alone more than I was with my husband. When he was away I watched movies on HBO and I went to see movies at the Orange Park Theater on Saturdays. I read a lot of books, and I taught myself to crochet because I had been so impressed by my Grandma Nina’s crochet talent. I attended Navy wives club meetings and I met the wives of the guys that my husband worked with. We exchanged phone numbers and learned a little about each other. But I am a homebody by nature, so I didn’t do a lot of the things that the other Navy wives did. They all had children and they visited each other for play dates and gab fests. A few of them shared about living at each other’s houses while their husbands were at sea. A lot of them hit the clubs when their husbands left. I have never much liked the club scene. As I write this now, it really sinks in how alone I chose to be.

I chose not to get close to the other Navy wives that I knew, with the exception of Maria. We met at the 1984 Enlisted Wives Christmas party. We were on the same team as we played Trivial Pursuit. We hit it off right away. She was a homebody too, and she had two beautiful little boys who reminded me of my little brother back home in San Antonio. Playing with those little boys and spending time with Maria at their apartment was a wonderful antidote to my loneliness. I don’t know who I would’ve become without Maria and little Michael and James in my life. I also realized then that Maria’s time and emotion were devoted to nurturing her children and keeping her household running while her husband was away. I always felt so lighthearted and angst-free when I visited with them.

At home, I kept myself busy, but Maria’s home life with her children made a deep impression on me. Once I caught a glimpse of their family life, I felt more lonely when I was alone. It was loneliness that caused me to want a baby even though I was not prepared for one emotionally or financially. I gave birth to my son in late 1987, the same year that my husband’s sea duty came to an end.

I was happy then because my husband would come home to me every day, and I got to be at home with my beautiful son who brought me immense joy. And so writing was the last thing on my mind, and I made no attempts to write whatsoever. My desire to write left me then. I revived it briefly during the two years that I lived in San Francisco. One cannot live in San Francisco for any length of time without being bitten by a creative bug of some kind. In San Francisco, I took a journaling class for pregnant women, and I kept a journal while I was pregnant with my daughter. Since 1991, when I left San Francisco and returned home to San Antonio, my desire to write has waxed and waned profoundly.

In March of 2016, I was laid off from my job as a technical writer at a large company with a funky, casual atmosphere. It was a job I extremely enjoyed. The layoff caused me to sink into profound depression that lasted four months. When the depression began to lift in August, I started wanting to write again. I started to really want to write again, and I have been whining inwardly about it ever since.

What do I write about? What am I feeling that I must put down on paper? What kind of a writer do I want to be? Can I actually earn a living by writing, or will it always be just an unimportant little hobby? How do I find time to write? If I set aside time and space to write, will I lose time and space with my family? My mind overflowed with too many questions that had no right or wrong answers. My simple truth is that I’ve spent too much time contemplating a writing life instead of living one. But I’m not dead yet, and my fingers and brain still work. Ideas swirl around in my head like soft ramen noodles in a rich, hot broth. My job every day is to put those noodles to work.