Break the Wall

I’ve become so accustomed to rejection over the years that now when I see an email reply from a literary agency, I brush it off and dismiss it for lack of getting my hopes up in regards to my writing career. I have been submitting (and getting rejected) to agents for the better part of seven years with my memoirs and essays when all I have been focused on other than making a living is becoming a published author. I want a book deal, I want a book out, I want something published. Since 2012, I’ve been published in magazines and e-books from literary contests and other outlets, but nothing substantial like seeing my name on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble and hearing that someone read about my life story – my life – and felt moved by it in some positive way.

Fast forward to this week. Then rewind to January when my grandfather passed away. He was the oldest surviving prisoner of war in New York and served in Germany in World War 2. He was the most bad-ass, sweetest, understanding human I’ve ever come into contact with and his death has been something I’ve had difficulty coping with since the beginning of this year. Not to mention a particularly nasty break-up in February that derailed me from a proper grief, I’ve felt as if I was shot out of a sling shot this year and lost my footing for a bit.

After Pop died, I revisited a box of old letters exchanged between him and my grandmother during the war – most of them from 1943. There are also miscellaneous letters from my grandfather’s twin brother who died tragically in Japan in November of 1942. That always kills me to know that Pop had to live 75 years without his literal other half; When Arthur died, people said he was lucky for being blown up instead of captured and placed into Japanese prison camps. Pop was already a POW at the time of his brother’s death, and wasn’t informed of it until after he returned from the war in the Fall of 1945 to try and keep his stress levels to a minimum.

Anyway, I digress. With the death, the break-up, an earlier death of my dog of 15 years, and work stress I had what I’d like to call a creative snap where I sat down and pumped out 15,000 words in less than three days based off the letters and stories from Pop. It was a necessary catharsis; it was therapeutic, and in many ways helped more than the therapist I began speaking to in February. I continued on with this story – with his story – and after a couple of months, a trip to Savannah for war research at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, some exchanges with the descendants of the 388th Airborne in England, and a lot of tears (and a lot of editing), I produced a book just shy of 300 pages that encapsulated my grandfather’s experiences in life, love, and loss during the war.

Like I said earlier, I’m so adjusted to rejection that I sometimes find myself blindly submitting my work to agent after agent after agent in an attempt to see what sticks like spaghetti on the cabinet that is the saturated literary market. Just this past week I received three (or four?) rejections with reasons ranging from, “Thank you for your query, but I can’t market you,” to, “Thank you for your query, but I’m actually not taking on any projects right now,” to, “Thank you for your query. Your writing is really good but I can’t take on the project.” The last one was kind of a punch to the gut honestly. That one lingered a little, mostly because I so desperately wanted someone to take a chance on my own story for so long and I wholeheartedly believe that my grandfather’s story takes precedence over everything in my immediate world. Especially with the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Pop and his letters belong to a group of forgotten heroes; good men who went through unspeakable horrors and came back home and still got shit done. I was present for his nightmares – I was there for his recounts of terror. His story deserves to be told and now that he isn’t here anymore, I want nothing more than to be a voice to the voiceless.

Yesterday afternoon started with me waking up from an overnight shift to another rejection letter that was emailed to me earlier that morning. “…it’s a subjective market, keep sending out your work.” I respect that. I get it. The literary market it a spiderweb of just finding the right match. Never in the 100 or so agents who rejected me over the years did I take one personally. I just kept thinking to myself that I had to keep writing. Then, a few hours later in the midst of loading my dishwasher I received another email that started like the rest. “Thank you for your query…” My hopes deflated until I see, “The project sounds very interesting, and we’d be pleased to have a look at 50 pages. Please feel free to send it along at your convenience as either a PDF or Word document. We look forward to hearing from you.”

OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.

I read the same lines over about 46 times. Cue ugly crying. Cue calling my dad in an incoherent, Ron Burgundy in a glass case of emotion sob. Cue my dog not knowing how to deal so he just kept sitting on my foot every time I moved. Cue crying in my kitchen like a Desperate Housewife minus the glass of Pinot. Not even to put all my eggs in one basket because NOTHING is set in stone, but just the mere opportunity to share my work with an agency (who I am yet to name because nothing is set in stone) made my insides melt. After seven years – seven years of no’s, of “thank you, but,” someone is maybe taking a chance on me. All I’ve been doing for seven years is try. And if this opportunity takes off, if I’m able to share the story about my grandfather that he deserves – if I can give justice to men like him – I could seriously die happy.

Why Write

“Do you ever feel the urge to drink to the point of poisoning yourself?”

Never.

I want to be everything she could have been. Before the demons. Before all of her horrible fucking decisions. I want to wake up at 52 years old and think to myself I did it. I dragged her memory as the weight of her corpse along with me to a point where she never got to tread. I feel like I’m in a constant battle of honoring her and being burdened by her. I’m at a crossroads where – seven and a half years later – I still get asked if I ever feel the itch; I don’t ever feel the itch to suffer like she did. At 28, I’ve already suffered enough.

I just got back from a destination wedding in Mexico. It was a beautiful ceremony; I wrote it for my friend, and was so humbled and honored to do so.  I was a bridesmaid. The tequila was flowing, there was zero drama, but I had my little demons. My spies who sat back and watched these beautiful intimate moments between the bride and her mother and scratched on the chalkboard of my mind and said, “You’ll never have this. Ever.” And I just suck it up, smile, excuse myself as to avoid crying and stuff it down because I don’t want to look like I’m making one of my best friend’s weddings about me. I watch their moments like a sappy movie. Everything is romanticized. I look away. I don’t want to. I want to feel what they feel. I want to experience the love of a sober mother.

I never thought my mother didn’t love me. Even at her worst, at her angriest, I never questioned her love. There is a serious influence, though, when a person is so unwaveringly discontent with their own existence that it affects everything and everyone around them. My mother’s self-loathing and resentment left a black spot on everything she came into contact with – including her children. Especially her children. Each time she extended herself to help another I could see a little more of her cup empty out. The closer she got to the bottom of her emotional well, the fuller her wine glass became. And it took almost 21 years before wine no longer did the trick. She opted for Absolut hidden behind the washing machine, in laundry baskets, behind the coffee. The day after she died, the basement flooded with sewage and empty bottles of vodka floated out from behind the dryer. It was like she was communicating from beyond the grave just to say, “You stupid fucks. I was doing it right under your noses. Have fun dealing with the shit show. XOXO, Patricia.” I laughed to myself that day as my dad sponged up a lake of shit knowing my vindictive mother was rolling somewhere in the veil between the dead and the living. She probably heard some of the angry comments he made towards her while she was in a coma and thought, “Let me put a pin in this.” She was always so creative. My dad was certainly experiencing his own inner turmoil; his father died from alcohol related complications in February of 1991. I never knew Grand-pop but from the stories, he was an angry son of a bitch who took out most of his rage on his five children. I always wondered what compelled my dad to continue in that cycle. He doesn’t drink at all, but that’s because of his heart and bipolar disorder medication.

In the midst of literal and metaphorical raw sewage, I existed, suspended, in an unfamiliar ooze that may or may not have been a mental crack. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “Murphy’s Law! If it can go wrong, it will!” She said it so fucking much that I believed for a long time that she just cursed our family. I know now – obviously – that her choices were what created the Murphy’s Law. I spent the months leading up to her death studying abroad at the University of Oxford. It was one of the best summers of my life; I had every intention of going back.  I was invited to apply to earn a Master’s in Critical Literary Theory. But Murphy’s Law happened – it was too good to be true. Those dreams imploded the moment I saw her die. Literally everything in my life lost its value in her last two breaths.

I’m afraid to search for home videos with her voice on them because I don’t know if I’ll find what I’m looking for and the expectation feels daunting. My dad deleted her message off the answering machine because he couldn’t stand to hear her anymore, not thinking that maybe I still needed my mother. I’m not mad at him – not anymore. Grief is really good at fucking people up. Death is the easy part, I learned. It’s the aftermath that’s torturous. The old photos, the dust coupled with blame and anguish – a disgusting stew which we are forced to eat because, ultimately, it will nourish us. Grief nourishes us. Pain heals us. Those who refuse the meal of reality become emotionally starved and that hunger leeches off people brave enough to swallow the stew. That’s why families become so turbulent so often after a death – not everyone has had their fill. And that’s just an exaggerated metaphor of the saying, “The only way out is through,” or Churchills, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” It’s cliche as ever, but who honestly wants to dwell in that type of pain? It’s why I write so much about those experiences; I don’t want them living in my brain, starving me of life. I write about my mother’s addiction because it’s cathartic; because it helps me cope with my PTSD; because I want to help others feel less alone in their burdens.

I turned to writing as a result of one therapist constantly asking me if I was suicidal and another telling me I seemed very self aware and she didn’t think she could tell me something I didn’t already know. It still feels good to vent to a professional every once in a while but I have found for myself that introspection reigns supreme. I notice my energy becomes volatile if I don’t get out what I have to. There’s this little internal battle where I question if I truly have a story to tell of if I just didn’t get enough attention as a child. Insecurity is a friend to the offspring of an addict because people like my mother are professionals at imposing their own shortcomings onto their young. Like an abused animal loyal to its keeper, I knew no different in my house. I knew I was loved, but I also knew I was fat, I’d never get a boyfriend with hair like mine, I looked like as sausage, and I was a fucking pig. But she was also proud of me; I was an academic. I was kind to everyone but I didn’t take any shit. But I took her shit. I took it because, how could she mean any of it? I could just go hide in the closet with a sleeve of Oreos and get straight A’s and she would still drink, but maybe less if my hair was better. If I was skinnier. If I took up another extracurricular.

The harsh reality comes when it’s revealed that people – even our parents – won’t change for anyone but themselves. My mother steadily increased her intake year after year, and no amount of community service, college education, or Oxford admittance made her want to stop. I became a bootleg psychologist trying to learn and understand what makes an addict work, mostly because I was absolutely fed up with blaming myself, and asking what else could I have dont to make her want to continue on. The harsh reality is she woke up each day a little less herself while I woke up each day a little closer to who I’m meant to be. The cards and drawings and memories together decayed in her rotting mind and she slowly succumbed to a monster she didn’t even know she let in until it became her. Photos meant nothing and her life turned into a theoretical experience rather than an actual life, and while she wandered aimlessly I sat opposite her and her curling cigarette smoke still believing she’d snap out of it. Because she loved me. But she hated herself more. Then she died. Nothing fit together anymore and I quickly realized how much she held me together. If she only knew how vital she was. Suddenly my world went dark and my degree meant nothing and I had no home and I felt abandoned and unloved. Her phone number no longer worked and her voice was gone and the contents of my life fit inside a 5×5 storage unit. Then one day, before my fifth move in four years, I open a box to see a card addressed to “Boop,” my nickname from her. And the card says, “You are the Author of Your Life.” And it says, “I love you with all my heart, Mom.” And I hear her voice again. And I go to my fifth home and I write.

Fail Forward

This is about failure.

This is about the inevitability of failure, the understanding and acceptance that sometimes your work may just not fit into the criteria of what an agent is looking forward. Does it mean your work isn’t good? No. Does it mean you have more work to do? Always. Failure is not infinite and improvement should never be finite. This rejection email – my nth one – doesn’t make me cry in the dark, wondering why I’m not good enough to have my book published. It doesn’t make me want to give up writing; it makes me want to write more. Failure and rejection makes me realize just how much this means to me, and how much being an author and a writer means to me.

In a technological world, my phone has become the hub of games, social media, various apps, texting, email – whatever I could imagine. There is no escaping social media if you want to be a known writer in 2019 and I am noticing more and more how I have to mold my image on the internet to become acquainted with other writers and readers of the world in order to share my stories. I’m not a huge fan of social media, but what I have noticed is, the more serious I’ve become about writing, the less serious I’ve become about maintaining a social media image. My output has gone from posting a photo (or more) a day on Instagram to writing something everyday – whether it is a poem, an essay, a thought, or a handwritten entry in my journal. My energy has shifted from image through immediate visual stimulation to providing a story that allows someone to create an image for themselves. And honestly? I love it. I feel like the “me” I write about rather than the “me” I post about is the more genuine form of who I truly am. I feel like I am living a better and more sincere life by letting my words define me than my carefully taken photos of moments in my life I’d rather hold onto than moments I need to express in order to be a healthier version of myself. So yeah, in a sense, in this email, I failed to meet whatever this agency was looking for. And that’s OK, because whoever comes across me and selects me will select the genuine me, the real me, and the business aspect will be a much more enjoyable one. I’m grateful to each agency who read my words and whether or not they want to take on my projects is relative to whatever impact my words may have. I can take the failure because it isn’t really failure. And any failure is a forward failure as I stumble towards the future I want to create for myself.

Psithurism

Standing between the cedar house and salty bath, I curled the earth under my toes, using each blade of grass to brush sand off my feet. The sun was hot and I felt the skin on my shoulders pull tight as the watery evidence of my day was taken into the air and white flakes of salt were left behind as a trophy. A loon, black and slick like oil, perched himself on a piling out in the middle of the creek. He outstretched his wings and we mimicked each other, basking in the summer and patiently drying ourselves. I heard an osprey call out to another, or to nothing.

At this time, sounds were what made sense to me. Everything communicated in succession – nothing of the same language, all understanding each other. The birds cawed back and forth and the water hugged the beach, taking a bit with it each time; it moved up on the dock and weaved among the beach reeds as fiddler crabs all moved at once at the vibration of human feet. I would look down from the dock and they glided across the beach like a blanket, disappearing into their homes, scratching quietly at their walls. I would lay on the dock and listen to the soft echo of water lapping up against the boat, and the boat would then rock gently into the dock, and the dock float would dip back into the water, and the Rube Goldberg of nature would respond. The summer communicated in a way that a child could comprehend, and as an adult, I would struggle to understand again.

I would sit in a wicker chair underneath the tallest oak trees in the world, and look for squirrels as acorns fell to the deck, bouncing several times before settling into place. The chair creaked underneath me while I drank Coca Cola and my grandmother coughed gently every once in a while into her tissue that she hid in her sleeve. Her systematic sips of tea were timed with her exhales as she returned her mug into place. I was the audience to the symphony of summer in the stale July heat, waiting for the finale. As the sun prepared to start its descent behind the houses down the creek, a wind would pick up and I watched as it ran its fingers through the trees which made the branches chase each other in waves. That was the most beautiful sound: the wind through the trees. My hair gently pulled like the leaves above me, unable to see the wind, only what it touched.

When night fell onto the landscape, the wind lay background to the chirps that were replaced by crickets, and the silence never came. The world never stopped, only mine. The water lapped, black and murky, among the reeds and against the boat. The birds passed the hat to the bugs and were settled into bed. Moths and beetles tapped the windows and I listened to the singing world, and the wind in the trees, and joined the birds in sleep.