Sometimes big, ugly events crash into our lives and stomp through the marrow of our being, breaking everything in sight.
There's nothing we can do about it.
Over twenty years ago, an ultrasound tech bubbled with excitement, telling us we'd soon be seeing our baby for the first time. When she abruptly stopped the scan and wouldn't make eye contact, our world collapsed.
Five years ago, I walked out to my garden and ten minutes later there were phone messages from every member of my family except my dad. We buried him that next week.
A year ago, I took my mom into the ER and a doctor casually informed us her cancer had spread. Our response: what cancer? I'm now my mom's primary caregiver, through chemo and whatever hell and heartbreak it takes to choose life.
A few nights ago, I woke in darkness with severe pain. Another trip to the ER and an emergency surgery and I'm back on my feet.
Every time we experience one of these massive life changes, our personal paradigm shifts. Our understanding of who we are and how we are situated in the world, in connection or not in connection with others, shifts.
The earth shakes beneath our feet and our teeth rattle deep in their sockets---and we once again search for meaning.
Because that's what we do: we create meaning.
As writers, we're in the daily business of creating meaning. We tell stories not randomly, but with purpose. Sometimes we understand that purpose before we begin writing but, more often, we know the narrative and we add the meaning as we go along. We sense it, lurking there in the plot, sometimes subtle and layered, sometimes set to spring forth and startle us awake to life.
In reaction to paradigm shifts:
- Sometimes our writing stops altogether. After that first miscarriage, it took years before I wrote anything else. Creating meaning for my daily life was difficult enough without creating meaning in stories.
- Sometimes our writing speeds up. In the weeks after my dad died, I became very aware that my life had limits, that I wouldn't live forever, that I needed to make my dreams take flight right that moment. There was no time to lose.
- Sometimes our writing slows to a crawl. After my mom's diagnosis, I continued revising a manuscript about a character who recently lost her mom, but every line eked from keyboard to screen with the excruciating slowness of an IV drip.
That night I was lying in the emergency room, with some heavy narcotics dripping into my blood stream, I saw it all for a brief moment. A family to our left lost a father to a heart attack, a family to our right lost a pregnancy---and I wept. I mean, I truly wept. I felt such pain---both for their losses and for my own---but mostly I wept for the fact that we all experience so much together and yet feel so alone.
Waking up in the recovery room, my first impulse was not to rush to my keyboard to write down my story. My first impulse was to ask the nurse her story. Where did she grow up? How did she get into nursing? How many generations of her family lived in Owyhee County? When she wheeled me back to my room, she squeezed my hand and another nurse asked if we knew each other. She smiled and said, "Not before tonight, but now we're old friends."
Big, ugly things do crash into our lives from time to time. There's nothing we can do about it. And yet, in the worst of our pain, sometimes a story fills the gap, reminding us we're not alone. When we tell our stories, when we listen to the stories of others, we find connections. We may begin the story as strangers, but we part as old friends.
Returning to my keyboard this morning, my writing speeds up. It's no longer about my dream or my grief. It's about the story that needs to be told.