Last weekend, I did something unusual: I ate breakfast at the coffee shop near my house.
My neighbor is on his school’s soccer team, and the team was raising money by serving breakfast at the coffee shop. The deal was that the players would wait tables, and the team would get to keep the tips. I’m not saying that fond memories of the shop’s French toast—made with homemade cinnamon swirl bread—played a decisive role in my choice to support the team, but I might have thought twice if they’d been serving pickled cauliflower.
Of course, one of the standard writer tropes is how we pack up our laptops or notebooks and head off to a local coffee shop to write. Since I have far more peace and quiet at home than amid a bunch of chattering diners, I didn’t plan to write.
Okay, that’s only half-true.
The true part is that I wasn’t planning to write. The reason was not the anticipated noise, though. It was the fact that at the moment, writing felt too hard.
The past few weeks have been rough. My elderly aunt died two weeks ago, on a Tuesday. We’d known this was coming for two months. It’s difficult to say whether that made it easier or harder. On the one hand, there was time to prepare emotionally, at least insofar as anyone can. On the other hand, every plan had to be prefaced with, “We may have to reschedule, because. . . .”
. . . because I was my mother’s chosen representative to travel to Pittsburgh for the funeral.
I spent Wednesday making reservations. There’s no direct flight out of my local airport anymore, which meant the erstwhile simple one-hour flight was now a four-hour, two-leg-plus-layover experience. On the other hand, by speaking directly with the hotel manager, I was able to secure a discount on a suite in the same hotel chain where I lived for two years after the fire. Airport parking, rental car, cat care . . . one by one, I ticked them off my to-do list.
The physical logistics were less exhausting than the emotional issues. Naturally, my mother was distraught at the loss of her eldest sister. She had also spent the past two months fretting about the extent to which certain family drama might be dragged out into the open when everyone convened. I assured her repeatedly that I wasn’t worried, that I couldn’t control what anybody else did and wasn’t planning to take any bait. I had already informed my other aunt that I had no intention of engaging in anyone’s well-meaning directions about how to handle the matter; I assume she passed this information along, because in the end, all my relatives were preternaturally well-behaved and careful to avoid all hints of the topic.
Still, two months of managing other people’s feelings and expectations, of being supportive, of keeping my opinions (or most of them) to myself . . . it was taking its toll.
In the midst of all this, other obligations continued. Bills needed to be paid. Clients needed their projects. Deadlines needed to be met or juggled, as the case may be. I was careful to download all the necessary files onto a flash drive so I could work on the plane, in the airport, in my hotel room. I arrived at the hotel late Thursday afternoon; I’d hoped to work Thursday night after dinner, but instead I fell asleep on the sofa, sitting bolt upright with my phone in my hand. Friday morning, I strolled down the hall to the breakfast buffet, treated myself to a waffle, and took it back to my room where I spent two hours working before it was time to get ready for the wake. When I returned to my room Friday evening, I called my mother to tell her all about it; at one point, I took my phone and my wineglass down the hall to the bar (across from the breakfast buffet) for a refill, and the kind bartender poured with a sympathetic nod.
The funeral was Saturday morning. Afterward, one of my cousins—the one to whom I’m closest—asked if she could ride with me to the luncheon. Of course, I said. She had spent the day before managing all the guests at the wake, chatting and inquiring about what was going on in their lives and making sure they all felt comfortable. Saturday morning, she swung by the church to make copies of the hymn before heading out to the funeral home where the service was held. She played the piano to accompany the hymn, she gave a eulogy for her mother that kept people laughing, and she managed some potentially delicate moments among family members. Even if I hadn’t already been inclined to do whatever I could to help her out, I’d have said yes just so she could have a few minutes’ break.
During the brief drive, she began to open up. At lunch, we sat at a table of six where conversation focused on local sports. Afterward, when I took her back to the funeral home to pick up her car, we spent more than an hour standing in the parking lot and letting down our hair a bit. Even then, I understood that her burden was far heavier than mine, and so I tried to keep the conversation focused on her.
Eventually, she went home, and I went to the airport. I had three hours until my flight, but it never occurred to me to try to work or write. Instead, I ate a sandwich, cookie, and apple I’d picked up at a gas station convenience store on the way to the airport (all surprisingly good, considering the vendor). Since I knew Mom was waiting for funeral details, I called to fill her in. Then, after navigating elevators and escalators and the TSA checkpoint, I made my way to the gate. Rather than try to work, I read a novel I’d brought along; it did a fine job of being engaging enough to hold my attention without requiring any particular effort. During the short layover, I checked in with a friend who had told me weeks earlier that he planned to propose to his girlfriend the prior Wednesday, after which I hauled my rollaboard and tote bag a full mile to the other end of the terminal for my connecting flight.
I pulled into my driveway around twelve-thirty Sunday morning. Even though I was tired, I unpacked that night, which is not my usual practice. The cats were generous in their forgiveness of my absence. I went to bed around two-thirty, having granted myself permission to sleep through church. When I got up, I read the paper and did errands before settling in to spend a couple hours on the brief. To be honest, the entire time I was awake on Sunday, my overwhelming thought was how much I didn’t want to work. The idea was so strong I felt nearly frozen by it, but the deadline loomed and the client had already exhibited patience. It didn’t even occur to me to try to write so much as a journal entry to work through any of it.
As the week launched, the ice didn’t thaw. Instead, I plunged into the work, making up for lost time. On Thursday, I had my final appointment with my therapist, who had just moved from an office a few minutes from my house to one half an hour away (or more, depending on highway traffic and construction). I talked in that appointment about the extent to which I felt forced to manage everyone else’s needs and desires and choices. I didn’t bother pointing out that she was one of the people whose choices I was having to accommodate, because she knew.
All of which brings us back to last Saturday morning, when I went to the coffee shop to have my breakfast served to me by nice young soccer players. I sat at a little square table with fake wood grain; a yellow post-it note bearing a large “8” was taped to the table so the non-professional wait staff could keep orders straight. In addition to a magazine, I’d brought the notepad bearing my fairly massive to-do list just in case I thought of anything else that needed to be added.
I found myself reading an article about something called “narrative medicine,” in which physicians learn to write as a way of coping with their experiences. As I read, I took my little notepad and began to jot notes of my own. I was well aware that I hadn’t posted on my blog in a few weeks. I’d meant to all week, but I couldn’t quite come up with anything, or so it seemed.
The first words I wrote were, “Too Hard.” I made a few notes about the notion that it can be too hard to write when you can’t afford to tap into what’s underneath because you need to maintain focus, control, discipline, and you can’t afford any distractions. Ripping off the scab means risking that the blood will flow and the pain will return. I noted that if I started to feel everything, I could fall apart, and I didn’t have time for that. There was too much to do for everybody else. My self had to be pushed into the background, but I was so tired.
After breakfast, I set out on my errands. The funny thing was that while I had a list, I largely ignored it. Instead, I did what I felt like doing. I went to L.L. Bean to see if they had an alarm clock I’d seen advertised; they didn’t, but I treated myself to some other things on sale, including a soft red cardigan. A few minutes’ walk took me to Stonewall Kitchen, which was having a massive holiday weekend sale. On the way back to my car, I stopped at L’Occitane and bought a gift for Mom, who loves their lavender hand lotion. I bought seed for my bird feeders. I deposited a client’s check. I freed up space in my kitchen by finally dropping off a large box of book donations at the library.
The next day was glorious. It was the kind of weather that makes everybody come to New England in October. After I’d read the paper, I considered trying to write. I reminded myself that I was behind on blogging and, by the way, I hadn’t touched my current novel in weeks.
Then, I thought about how beautiful the day was. I remembered the day before, as I’d driven through the next town over and recalled a dear friend who used to live there. She and I, both freelancers, spent hours walking together. But she moved away three years ago, across the country.
I knew she and her husband had recently returned from their Trip of a Lifetime, an exquisitely-planned sojourn that took them abroad for five weeks, but we hadn’t yet had a chance to talk about it. Without considering all the other things I should have been doing—yardwork, housework, work work—I texted her and inquired whether she wanted to go for a virtual walk so I could hear about her trip.
Minutes later, on our respective coasts, with our phones in hand, we went for a walk together. I strolled amid the fall colors as she regaled me with stories of places they’d visited and people they’d met. After an hour or so, barely halfway through the tales of her travels, I returned home and settled in on the porch with a cup of tea, reveling in more of my friend’s anecdotes. By the time we hung up after a visit of nearly three hours, I was feeling more rested than I had in a long, long time.
Later that evening, it occurred to me that maybe this is the true purpose of story—to connect us to each other. Unlike the vast majority of my interactions over the past two months, listening to her had demanded nothing of me. My entire role was to enjoy my friend and her tales, and it was bliss.
When we were hanging up, I thanked her for telling me about her trip. She responded, “Thank you for letting me.” While I maintain that it was I who received the true gift, it occurs to me now that this is another aspect of a story—to be fully realized, it must be received. While some insist that writing for themselves is enough, it’s been my experience that for most writers, much of the enjoyment comes from knowing that the story has been read or heard, and that it has brought about the desired reaction—laughter, joy, wonder, awe, fear, puzzlement, a need to think more deeply on something.
Perhaps this is why, in my recent self-protective state, it’s been so difficult for me to write. How can a writer hope to communicate if she’s locked down? When emotions and feelings are being reined in at every turn, how can the writer produce work that evokes an emotional response? I’m certain there are those who would disagree, but to me, at this time and place, it feels most illogical to suggest that an emotionally-closed person can create a story that generates emotion in others. I kept my feelings contained because it was what I had to do. For a time, I forgot how to access them, for myself or anyone else.
My friend’s generous stories of her trip—wonderful tales wrapped in love and friendship—were the best gift anyone could have given me. Those few hours did what nothing else in the past two months came close to doing.
Now, at last, the ice is melting.