Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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Facebook Memories

Facebook memories are one of many garbage notifications I get on my phone. Why do I need to remember that article I posted a link to back in 2010, or one of three hundred book memes that I liked, shared and posted.

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Over a week ago, a photo from 2015 popped up in the feed. It was my feet and the screen of my laptop in front of a window that looked down onto a snow covered lawn. The caption read, “Writing at the library.”

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Nostalgia choked me, not for this moment specifically, but for the time in my life it represented.

Our life on Young’s Drive is enshrined in my memory as ideal. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t compare my now life with life then and feel deprived of something beautiful. The apartment, the town, the pace of life. Those Friday nights, just Tim and I, curled up on the floor with paper plates covered in take out, a board game spread out between us. Evening walks, and hours spent reading and writing and sitting in my favorite library.

Every walk we take is not like the ones down Corcoran street. Every library I visit is not organized properly. Every meal we cook, every game we play, every day I live is not as lovely as…

I lowered my phone, letting the sunlight framed memories slide away and looked over at my sleeping daughter. Downstairs, I could hear my in-laws voices, indistinct but comforting, like the warm smell of a fireplace floating in the winter air. My husband was asleep next to me. The house began to settle and still around me until all I could hear was the sounds of my two love’s breathing and my fingers clicking softly as I typed.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been sick for so long, all these days I’ve spent depressed and disheartened, I’ve been reaching for what seemed a perfect time to erase all the pain and exhaustion of my current life, falling to a point so low that I actually look forward to seeing my daily Facebook Memories notification.

But Young’s Drive wasn’t perfect. I was locked in a codependent relationship that sapped my marriage. I felt like an outcast in my church, and went to sleep every night feeling like something was missing from my life, something more than just the empty bedroom that was supposed to hold in it the baby we lost.

Now is different with blessings and pain all it’s own, but what I would miss out on most if I were to trade then for now is the wealth of personal and spiritual growth I’ve gone through to reach this place. And though this time of pain and sickness is not yet over, God never promised us comfort in this world.

But…

…I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. …For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23 ESV)

Yesterday may be worth remembering, but it’s not worth sacrificing today’s blessings and even sufferings for it’s sake. I’m going to count my now blessings, and put aside then as well as my fears for tomorrow. For my hope is beyond all this and today is enough.

Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine with 10,000 beside.
Great is Thy Faithfulness, Great is Thy Faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

~ Thomas Chisholm

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Open and Honest

One area in my life that I’ve been pushing myself to improve is my total lack of social skills. I am an introvert almost to the extreme, and often find myself content with no other company than my few closest friends. Building new relationships is excessively difficult for me.

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I think one of the reasons I find it so hard is that I kind of hate myself. I see myself as a whiney and annoying person with nothing intelligent to add to a conversation and a waste of space in the room. I labor under the assumption that pretty much everyone else secretly agrees with my self assessment, but are too kind to tell me they’d rather I left. So I leave without being asked. I slip away to be by myself where I’ll read or write or knit or whatever.

Most of this self abasement was encouraged in my upbringing by the way the household was run, and during the darkest periods of my struggle with Depression have led me to some very ugly thoughts. Today, the people closest to me often tell me that I hate myself more than anyone else in the room. I question the complete validity of this statement, but I see what they mean anyway. It would seriously be hard for anyone to dislike me more than I do.

Building relationships with the mental handicaps of Anxiety and Depression, along with my severe introversion, is a steep upward climb, but I recently had a breakthrough that I hope will become a new pattern.

My husband and I have changed churches. Again. These past two years have been the most up, down and unsettled period of my life. Though Timothy keeps telling me that now it’s safe to settle for at least the next three years, I haven’t seen enough in writing to convince me to unpack my emotional suitcase. So when kind and friendly faces in our new church body opened their arms to welcome me, I wanted to walk into them, but also wondered what was going to happen to their presence in my life come September. How much do I open up to these people? How much do I fight against my fears of rejection, only to meet with loss on the other end? Because one thing I’ve noticed in the last few churches we’ve gone to, is that once you’re no longer a member, the people who seemed to care don’t care anymore. It’s like you’ve switched from the goth click to the cheerleaders and you’re dead to all that’s past. All the trying, all the fighting against myself to get close to strangers becomes another example of people not actually caring about me, another example of my not being worth anyone’s time.

But what I’m now realizing is that I’m half the problem, maybe even more than half. My fear of rejection keeps my relationships shallow. Why should anyone miss me when I leave the room? They don’t know me, because I fear being known.

And here I am, standing in front of a woman who wants to get to know me, and I’m stuck. Yes, I’d love to go for coffee with you. It would be good for me in so many ways, and you’re being so loving and kind, but how do I tell you that, despite my being an adult, I don’t often drive places on my own? How do I tell you that I have such crippling anxiety disorder, that I’m afraid to schedule coffee with you on a day when I can’t rely on my husband to be around to prevent me coming home to an empty house?

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My new solution. I just do. I just say it, and hope that, if you really want to get to know me, you’ll help me think of another way. So instead of just telling her the easy bit about not having access to a car, I hear myself admit to her, “I have anxiety disorder, and driving is one of my triggers. I don’t really drive more than 20 minutes by myself right now.” And she says, “I’ll pick you up.” And she says, “I can drive you to the church where your husband is.”

Another falsehood I was taught as a child was that I was never supposed to talk about my mental health issues. It’s a secret that I’m ill, meant for just me and my doctors. So the worse my condition got, the more my relationships withered, the less I wanted to try. People don’t understand, I thought. I’m in the way. They must hate me. I’m such a nuisance. I wish I wasn’t me.

The thing I’m learning, a lesson I can take with me even if we do switch to another church in six months, is that a lot people are willing to help and want to understand, but they can’t do either if I’m not willing to be honest.

Honesty. It makes sense, really. Isn’t honesty a foundational pillar of any lasting relationship?

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Being Brave and Letting Go

Brave art is beautiful art.

My husband reminded me of this after I bemoaned the increasing number personal elements that seem to be creeping their way into the short story I’m handing in for my Fiction Writing class. About an hour ago, I finished my third draft and had so much of my own self and struggles leaking through my fingers into the keyboard that I literally started to cry.

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No, I screamed at me in my head. No, you can’t do this. You know why? Because what if they hate it? What if they say, “people don’t really do that” or “this scenario is so unrealistic”  or “why is she so upset about something so minor?” You know you’ll just run from the room sobbing. You could barely control your emotions BEFORE pregnancy. Now? Now you cry when Han Solo says, “I know.”

I know.

It’s like when that quiet girl from the back of the classroom stumbles in late to Intro to Creative Writing with a tearstained copy of her latest poem:

It’s Over

Weep, weep, weep
Weep on my unrelenting river of tears
Stream that red, red, red
from the bloody bleeding heart he left behind.
We’re done.
I’m undone.
My bosom is heavy with an empty chasm for a heart
Tears, tears, tears
I’m such a miserable fool.

Suck or not, who has the heart to tell her to trash it when you can barely hear her read it over her piteous wails. I mean, look at her bloodshot eyes! Do you really think she slept last night? *The moon shakes it’s head, for it has born witness to her lonely howling.*

Granted, my story isn’t so overt, and thank God I’ve not been told I must read it aloud, but I’m in there. I’m screaming through the characters mouths. I’m laying curled up beside the abandoned child, grasping and clutching at that empty pocket of warmth left behind in the blankets. And it’s scary to be so seen in such an unseen way. No one in my class knows me. No one will see me there in those words. Nothing will hold back their “this sucks” or “what the *&%$ is this #$%@?” That’s good in a way. I mean, the truth needs to be told to me, or I’ll never improve as a writer. But even as healthy as the truth is, it can also be terrifying and humiliating.

Maybe that’s why I hated this story so much when I started, because I always knew it would turn into something more.

Come Friday I’ll have to let it go; I’ll have to watch it fall from my fingers into the hands of 15 strangers who will be reading between the lines of my life armed with a red pen.

This is terror. This is bravery. This, I guess, is art.

To Turtle, or Not to Turtle?

I’m not accustomed to this level of praise from anyone but my husband. My professor is holding out my short story to the rest of the class, my √++ a loud red against the white paper. It’s screaming, “loved it” almost literally, because that’s what he’s written next to my grade.

“Look at the format. This is what you need to do. The heading there, in MLA. And it’s six pages, so now what? She just has to hand in four more and BOOM! she’s done with her portfolio.”

I can’t make eye contact with anyone, barely even my friends. I don’t know if I’m smiling or just red and blotchy. If I am smiling, there’s a good chance it looks arrogant and cockeyed because I can’t tell if I’m pleased or I want to vomit because I’m embarrassed. I thrive on positive encouragement. In fact, I can take nearly any criticism if it comes with a dose of hopeful praise or a sincere, “I love you.” I just get it so rarely that when it comes, I don’t know how to handle it. Usually when he’s reading my stuff aloud, even if nobody knows it’s mine, I turtle. This is when I pull the neckline of my shirt up over my face so the tip of my nose is covered, and stare vacantly across the room at some lonely piece of dust. And for a moment…we are one. Sometimes I throw shade and do this when somebody else’s stuff is being read, just in case anyone’s watching and has caught on to my tell.

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me turtling

I read my story to the group, that’s how it goes for the stuff in workshop. It’s the first piece of prose I’ve handed in for Creative Writing. I wrote it early in the semester, but it took me weeks to convince myself to hand it in for critique. I’ve LITERALLY been having nightmares about this moment since I passed it out. The windowless basement classroom becomes the ninth circle of hell, my professor is Virgil, telling everyone my sins of shitty writing while my classmates chew on what’s left of my hopes and dreams, like Satan on the head of Judas Iscariot. The only reason I didn’t have to come into class with a large consoling cup of peppermint tea (a necessity for my Sci-fi/Fantasy Class) is because I sneaked a peek into his stack of papers and already knew he’d given me an A. *crosses herself and looks gratefully toward heaven*

Just him alone, I can swallow the negative critique. He’s published about 6 collections of poetry and, obviously, knows his stuff. If he says it sucks, I cry a lot, pick up the pieces, learn and grow. But for some reason the critique of my peers just scares the crap out of me. I mean, there’s so many of them, and just one me. And I’m thirty years old for crying out loud! Most of them are barely legal. How freakin’ sick would it be for me to burst into tears in front of them. (“Don’t mind me. I just paid all this money to find out I suck. Thanks for making my Mother right. Again…”)

I finish reading (badly) and he starts up again. More or less, he had nothing negative to say. Just a few suggestions and pointing out of silly mistakes. He praised my use of figurative language, dialogue, alliteration, and verbs. He said my story made him laugh every time he read it. He even praised things that I thought I did poorly. I was worried that my story wasn’t deep or thought provoking at all. I was worried that my characters weren’t dynamic. He mentioned these things, but not in a way that made it sound like it mattered, that somehow my story was still “really good.” He said my piece was excellently staged, “like it could be a scene from a movie. Great use of senses so you feel like it’s real. Like you’re really there.” That’s something about my writing I’m constantly worried about, that my setting isn’t visual enough to draw in the reader.

I’m shuffling and glowing and want him to stop and want him to never, ever stop. I mean, I adored him from the first day. But now? Gosh. He’s on his way to being one of my all time favorites. Honestly, I can’t tell you how much his praise was needed. I’ve had so many down points since the summer. I’ve been fighting and struggling to find my purpose, my gift, what it is I’m supposed to leave behind me. I’ve been told by so many people for so many years that I am this and that. I locked them out, but they are the forever recording in my brain that tells me, You are not enough. You are not enough.

But maybe I am. I’m not Tolkien. I’m not Sylvia Path or Donna Tart or David Mitchell. But I’m me. And maybe I am enough of me to be enough.

Do I think I’ve arrived? No way. I mean, this is INTRO to Creative Writing. Maybe next semester I’ll have a Prof who hates my stuff. Writing is a thing that you’re always learning how to do better, and I’m still so new at it. I know my novels need a ton more tweaking before I should try my hand at querying again. But at least now I have some concrete assurance that I don’t completely suck at this. And sometimes, that little something can be everything.

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So I read, “The Shining”…

I scare a little too easily to take much of a shine to the horror genre, but in the past months I’ve been experiencing a severe emotional shakeup that reaches back to the roots of my childhood. All the raw and repressed pain and anger I’m dredging up has been attacking me in my sleep, filling my dreams with rejection and abandonment.

You may think it strange that I chose a time such as this spend my leisure reading on things that go bump in the night, but I did it on purpose. I wanted to be frightened by something that I knew wasn’t real for a change. I wanted to be able to wake up from a nightmare, brush the perspiration for my brow and say, “well, good thing spiders can’t mate with pirañas. Even the mutant ones,” then roll over and return to slumber bliss.

It worked, with a slight misfire.

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I started reading Stephen King’s The Shining on Saturday. I was feeling crappy, so it seemed a good day to spend reading and hiding from people in general. By bedtime, I was a long ways through. It was dark out. My bedside light was on. My husband was reading beside me while stealing glances at the MLS game on the television.

I’d love to tell you exactly what was happening in my mind during this particular chapter, the tension and discomfort I was experiencing vicariously through the poor five year old hero, but it contains spoilers (for those of you who’ve read it, I’ll say “shrubbery” with the high pitched sharp intonation of a knight who says “NI!” and say no more). I squirmed a little on the bed. I was developing that uncomfortable feeling I used to have as a child, like something could come up behind me if I didn’t sleep with my back to the wall. My back pressed firmly to the mattress, I continued to read.

Five pages later, I slowly lowered the book and said, “Hey babe?”

My husband looked at me. “Yeah?” he said.

“This book is scary.”

This didn’t seem to surprise him as much as it had me. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting it to be this intense. “Yeah?” he said again.

Assuming his apparent disinterest was only due to a lack of communication on my part, I expounded on the current situation with the words, “And I’m scared.”

He cracked a smile. “I’m sorry,” he said, with a sort of amused sympathy.

“What if…” I laid the open book on my chest and looked around the room. “What if we had to sleep with the lights on?” My eyes landed on the closet and I swallowed. “Could we do that?”

I looked back at him. He was just smiling at me. “If you like,” he said. He followed my gaze back to the closet. “Do you want me to open the door?”

“NO!” I checked myself, put my back safely against the mattress again and said, “No. Because I won’t be able to see the bit behind the wall there and…I’ll wonder. No. Better to leave it closed.” I looked back at the book. “And the light on.”

I kept reading, hoping that I would finally hit a spot where things leveled out so that I could repose with a little less fret. I gave up eventually, and spent the majority of the night willing my eyes to stay open in the event of…things. When I did finally sleep for a few hours early in the morning, I had two dreams related to the book. They were significantly less horrifying than any of their predecessors in the last few months. So basically, my plan worked. *gives herself pat on the back*

It was an excellent book by the way and I’m super glad I read it. If you’re not into horror as a genre, but you’re into writing fiction, I recommend getting a copy from your local library and just reading the (not very scary) part one. It was a perfect example of a flawless opening. The background information about the family, including flashbacks, were seamlessly worked in with the current action of the plot, so you never felt slogged down by an “information dump” like you find in the beginning of so many novels. Writing peeps should check that out if nothing else.

So It Begins…

After months and months of nerve induced procrastination, I have officially sent out my first query letters for Us.

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I sent them out last week. My husband wrapped his arms around me, we counted down, and clicked the send button together. Sharon was a major help to me that day, sending me constructive criticism on my pitch which I truly think made it infinitely better. This whole situation is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I keep reading things that say, “It’s never your first novel that gets published.” Maybe that will be true, but I’ve started putting myself out there and that, for me, is a huge step forward.

Though I did a thorough copy edit of my manuscript before I started querying, I am still printing out drafts and combing over them looking for errors. It’s a little disconcerting that I keep finding errors, but at this point I just correct them and move on. As I wait for rejections responses to come in, I’m digging into my next novel, because if it isn’t this one that gets published, it may be the next one. Thusly and thereforths, I need to keep working.

This road may be long and hard, but I love writing too much to just walk away without trying. And now that I’ve started, there is no way that I’m going to give up without a fight.