|Emma, Abbey and Sophie
on the Mississippi
In Memphis, we’ve been having severe thunderstorms the past several days. Our dog, Abbey, an Irish Setter, suffers from severe anxiety attacks whenever she hears a rumble. It can be a train, a truck passing by, or a jet overhead. But when she hears thunder and sees lightning, she goes into full-blown panic mode. Her heart races, her breathing speeds, her eyes dart back and forth and she paces the floor looking for somewhere to hide. She cannot even bark. Her emotions are almost frozen with fear. Last night as loud thunderclaps roared, this beautiful red-haired 60 lb. dog jumped up on the bed and landed on my head. Nothing like waking at 3:00am to a mouthful of dog fur. No amount of soothing will calm her down. The bathroom is her “safe place” – she puts her head behind the toilet and stays there until the storm is over or when she can see sunlight.
I cannot imagine what happened to her in her past that causes this reaction. We got Abbey when she was four years old, a rescue dog. She had been kept in a cage for four years. That would be enough to cause panic in me.
With people, sometimes it’s the same reaction (well, maybe not to the extent of hiding behind the toilet) to a circumstance or environment. We are compelled to protect ourselves. Fear and anxiety are basic instincts, and without fear we would do even more of the foolish things we humans do. Statistics report that one out of every 75 people will experience anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their life. There was a point in my own life, a period of about three or four years, when I experienced panic attacks. Now it’s the sweaty palms reaction. Happens every time I am scheduled to preach, or speak before a group.
I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve submitted several novel manuscripts to countless agents and small presses, and one of the novels even made the first cut of 1000 in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. Several of my essays have been published, and a story has been a finalist in a contest. I have no problem reading my work in my writing critique group, but the truth is, I would need serious courage to read before an audience if asked.
I remember the first time one of my stories was read aloud to the entire class. It was in the ninth grade in a very warm Hawkins Junior High classroom that smelled of sweat, chalk dust and old books. The English teacher read my story, out loud, putting in little check marks with her red pencil as she went along. To the snickers of my classmates, I sank down lower and lower in my desk with each tic of that red pencil. I vowed never to write anything again. I continued to write in my journals, but that was for myself only – I let no other eyes read my words.
Ten years later, with three children and an abusive husband, writing in my journals was how I survived. I wrote poetry, short stories and brief descriptions of events. My husband at the time thought I was writing about him, and after I filed for divorce he snatched up all 30 journals and dumped them in the Barnett Reservoir. He never read them. I know this because the writings were not about him. They were about survival. We do what we have to do.
In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, it is the role of the Deacon to sing the Exultet. I was expected to learn this and sing it at the Easter Vigil three years ago. Now, those of you who know what this is, and if you’re a musician, you know that this is a difficult piece for anyone, even those who can read music. It is especially so for a novice who cannot read a note of music and has a voice like a frog. With sweaty palms and a quickened heart, I did it. And I’ve done it three times since. With gratitude to Geoff Ward, the organist and choirmaster at St. John’s, who has extreme patience with this non-musician, my fear was calmed.
A story about Aunt Neill in 1938
Family Circle magazine.
I’ve been reading lately about the world of creative non-fiction, when memoir-writers create fictionalized accounts of their life experiences. Two examples are Alice Munro‘s The View From Castle Rock, and Jeannette Walls’s Half-Broke Horses. The authors have the command of language and detail that makes these stories almost mythological. Walls writes that she considers her book less of a novel and more of an “oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years.”
I have a project that I’ve been working on for years involving my great aunt, Neill James. I began to write about her life, but at some point a voice took over and began to write about the effect of her life upon my own – about how her courage gave me courage, and about how her experiences opened a world of travel to me. When I realized that this project was moving towards a memoir-type work, I let a family member know. That family member’s reaction was, “I didn’t think this was going to be about you, I thought it was going to be about Neill. I don’t think people want to read about you.”
|Aunt Neill in her
Reindeer Herder costume.
With a little anxiety, I will persevere, but I won’t be hiding behind the toilet – I’ll tell my truths out in the open. It’s a story worth telling – even if it’s for my own reading. It is a story of transformation. And it will be my truth, sweaty palms and all.