Tag Archives: overcoming fears

Penn Jillette Took Pictures Up My Nose and Other Life-Defining Moments

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Penn Jillette (left), me (bottom center) and cohorts

About a month ago I got back from a road trip to Las Vegas, more than 60 hours in the car over the course of eight days and one of the greatest experiences of my life. While there, I had the pleasure of seeing Penn & Teller perform at the Rio Hotel and Casino, something I wholeheartedly recommend everyone try at least once. As is their custom, after the show they hung out in the lobby of the theater and took pictures with everyone willing to brave the crowds. As my friends and I waited for our turn, trying to come up with something coherent to say that would do justice to the ninety minutes of talent and hard work we had just witnessed, my husband suggested to me, “Why not tell them Bullshit! saved your life?”

This would not be an exaggeration, not really, not when you put it together with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Steven Hassan, and Christopher Hitchens, the BBC Two specials by Louis Theroux, and the various television shows by mentalist Darren Brown. Not to mention the efforts of my husband, tireless crusader for truth and justice, who never gave up on me even when I spouted crazy cult psychobabble like some kind of animatronic Jesus doll.

Bullshit!, of course, is Penn & Teller’s myth-debunking show on Showtime, which helps people think critically about everything from psychics to recycling. And it was just one blow in a series of well-calculated strokes that slowly chipped away my horribly blockaded mind.

My first reaction to my husband’s suggestion, and admittedly my first reaction to anything, was, “I can’t do that.” That’s what growing up in a high-control religious group does to you. It makes you feel like you have no control. It makes you glad you have no control, thankful someone else has figured it out for you. And that’s how I spent the first 27 years of my life, instantly skeptical of anything that presented me a choice more complicated than which knee-length skirt to pair with which high-cut sweater. Almost a year later, I’m still struggling with that.

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I left this blog for a while because I was frozen in fear of the choice I was presented: examine the greatest paradigm shift of my life by writing about it in something more public than a locked folder on my hard drive, or cower in fear of what might happen if the wrong people chanced upon anything negative I said about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious group my parents raised me in. In typical fashion, I pushed it all away, abandoning the blog and my best outlet for self-reflection. Now, I think I’m ready to go ahead with it, and part of this is because of what I ended up saying to Penn Jillette after he took pictures up my nose.

I chickened out with Teller. We had the privilege of getting a picture with him first, and all of us were so tingly with proximity all we could manage were giggles. When we had our picture and scampered away, I said breathlessly, “I touched him. I touched the fringe of his garment and his power flowed out of him and into me.” The perfect balance of blasphemy and truth to send us over to the crowd gathered around Penn, because now I was going to do it. I was going to tell him that Bullshit! saved my life.

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Penn is a huge man, six and a half feet tall. His thumb is no less huge, and it planted itself square on the shutter button and took at least a dozen pictures of us, quite a few of them an inch away from my face. Giggling, jittery and euphoric, I looked Penn as close in the eye as I could and said, “I just want you to know, Bullshit! saved my life.”

There. I did it. Declared myself to one of my heroes. My work here was done.

“Oh, really?” he said. “How is that?”

Shit. Now what? In hindsight, my plan didn’t take into account that he might actually say something back. But this was Penn Jillette. Of course he was going to say something!

“It helped me get out of a cult,” I said, bold as heck now. “All of us. We were all in it.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said, with the saddest, most sincere voice I’d ever heard from him. This giant, this expert in deception and truth, was sorry for us!

“No, it’s fine!” I said. “I just wanted to say thank you!”

And we tore out of there as fast as we could, scrolling through the pictures he took, our laughter echoing back up the hallway. Did that really just happen?

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I guess it did. The more people I tell, the less ashamed I am. Not that I’m ashamed of learning how to think, how to examine my beliefs and hold them up to the same rigorous standards I expected of the people I used to try to convert as a proselytizing Christian minister, or even of being identified as an atheist. I guess I’ve been ashamed of what the people I used to be close to would say about me if they really knew the extent of my unbelief. Because, if they did, they would call me the worst kind of person, the kind who abandons god and all his “promises” in exchange for a life of arrogant hedonism. They’ll say I’ve become “mentally diseased,” and even though I know it’s a lie, I guess I thought that by keeping my mouth shut, I could preserve whatever memory of me they may have.

But now I realize that’s out of my control. What’s worse, it’s playing by their rules. I’ve played by those rules my entire life, and to tell you the truth, I’m sick of them. I have no loyalty to a religious organization, but by keeping silent about the truths I’ve learned and the harm it’s done to innocent people, I’m still in the game. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. I want to be proud of who I am and the progress I’ve made, and I want to help people who are in the same position I was only a year ago. I can’t do that by pretending I don’t have an opinion. So, if I have to use scary words like cult to convey the gravity of the situation, I will. In my experience, that word gets the point across just fine.

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So I suppose it’s time I made a confession. I was raised in a cult, but I’m doing better now. I’m tempted to say that I’m an atheist, goddammit, but I think I’ll just say I’m an atheist, life is beautiful, and leave it at that.

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So This Is What It Feels Like

Alright, I’m coming clean. It’s been almost two weeks since I finished my manuscript.

The moment I finally typed “The End” at the bottom of chapter 23, rounding out 105k words of my first ever completed novel, I sat back and tried to analyze what I was feeling.

Truth is, though, I didn’t feel a whole lot of anything. What I’d done was certainly an accomplishment–not very many people finish a novel, let alone one that’s been plaguing them since 2007, each passing year stacking the odds against ever seeing anything come of it. But it didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Like so many of life’s milestones, things don’t instantly change the moment you achieve something you want. No magical switch was flipped, clowns didn’t appear out of nowhere with explosions of fanfare and confetti. I simply sat at my desk and watched the cursor blink at the end of line.

That’s what it was, I realized: the end of the line. And like any journey, it ended right as another one began. Except this time, as I set about revising the thing and trying to get it published, I have way more going for me. I have a newly-born self-confidence–not just from actually finishing something, but from slowly coming around to a radically different worldview.

Up until a few months ago, everything I did, everything I wanted and every decision I made was tinged with negativity. It’s amazing what a little perspective can do to your sanity. I have been happier these past few months than I’ve ever been. Things are no longer scary. Things have promise, they have hope, and I know now that I can do it because I have done it: I have made something good. The momentum I’ve built over the past few months is carrying me into a future I very much want to be a part of.

Now my manuscript must age, like all good wine, whiskey, and Angus beef. A very good friend has already read the thing, assured me I’m not crazy, and shown me ways to make it better (proving again I’m crap at critiquing, because oh my goodness the way she puts things puts all my attempts at self-analysis to shame). I’m making notes and biding my time, and while I’m waiting for the right moment to dive back in, I’ve already started on the next one. My shiny new WIP gurgles and coos at a mere 4000 words, having existed in my head for less than a month–which is terrifying to me, considering all my other ideas existed for years or more before coming to (semi-) fruition.

My new idea takes several things I’ve experienced first-hand, adds something I’ve never experienced and never will, and synthesizes them into two brand new characters I’ve already fallen in love with. Someday, I hope you’ll love them too.

If my new WIP was a music video, this would be it, complete with hand-clapping:

Happy New Year, everyone.

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“Doubt Truth to Be a Liar”

I’ve been in a funk lately. Here’s why.

Psychologists use the term “schema” to describe the result of collecting information, analyzing it, and creating a view of the world based on that analysis. A kind of rule book of how things are. These schemata play a part in every decision made, every judgment cast, and every new piece of information we take in for the rest of our lives. It’s a term closely tied to child development–in fact, it was introduced by Jean Piaget, the king of child development himself.

My job as a teacher requires me to observe children under two, record their actions, and ultimate try to guide them by manipulating the information they take in. I give them a bucket of water, they explore the physical properties, I supply the language necessary to categorize them, and then teach them how to clean up. They hit another child and steal his toy, I show them the child’s tears and explain that their actions resulted in someone else’s pain. Everything is a brave new world when you’re brand new to it. Schemata form by the moment. They’re dependent on the environment encountered and the child’s interaction with it. Childhood is, in effect, a 20-year-long experiment in brain development.

Here’s the thing about schemata. They can be very difficult to shake. Another term psychologists like to throw around is “cognitive dissonance.” This occurs when new information presents itself in contradiction to established schemata. The resulting dissonance can be so unpleasant that the individual will go to great lengths to reduce it while maintaining the fundamentals of the established schema, resulting in massively flawed rationalizations. That’s why certain worldviews, like racism, are so hard to dislodge from someone’s psyche.

Last week I endured a viewing of the excellent but brutal Twelve Years a Slave. From our modern, enlightened viewpoint, the white slaveholders in this movie are incomprehensible. Can they not see that their actions have no true basis, are damaging, are fundamentally wrong? We can see it, why can’t they? Our schemata are different. The majority of people in this society are not raised to view entire segments of humans as inferior based on skin color. Though discrimination of course still exists, in both racism and class discrimination, modern enlightened people are not taught that slavery is a god-given right to a select group to subjugate another. So we watch characters behave in intolerable ways and wonder, “How can they be so cruel?” It’s obvious to us.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years a Slave

The most interesting character, in my view, is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is the slave owner who buys main character Solomon Northrup right off the boat, putting him to work on his plantation in Louisiana. Ford quickly discerns the intellectual and artistic capabilities of Northrup and displays a certain amount of kindness toward both his physical and emotional well being, defending him against less compassionate overseers. However, when the time comes for him to make a choice that brings his entire worldview into question, he ultimately fails, and with apparent great inner turmoil. Rather than siding with an individual who had already proven his worth, he chooses to uphold society’s proscribed roles for both of them. You can see the conflict in Cumberbatch’s exquisite acting and in the details of the set dressing, as Ford guards his beloved slave with a shotgun and explains how he has no choice but to sell him to a cruel new master, Northrup’s bloodied head rests on a delicate lace pillow. Ford is so close to doing what he most likely knows in his heart is right, but societal pressures prevent him from overturning his deeply-entrenched schemata. In the end, Northrup is sold, and Ford no longer has to defend his actions to anyone.

All this is by way of illustration. My funk has nothing to do with racism, but it’s an apt analogy, because good people have fallen victim to such lies. Contrary to what people like to think, there were even good Nazis (I keep meaning to watch Schindler’s List). Good people can be taken by lies. They can believe them with every part of their being, and they will die for them. And that’s what scares me, because the people who get taken are much more normal and intelligent than you might think.

Needless to say I am going through a change. It’s been long in coming. Almost my entire life has been dedicated to a single purpose, and over the past seven years or so, in reflection I recognize myself trying to make sense of it. It’s not until your mid-twenties, after all, that your prefrontal cortex fully develops. This is the part of your brain responsible for “executive functions,” which, according to Wikipedia:

differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

Last week I turned 27. Instead of joining the 27 Club, I’m instead learning to think for myself. My schemata have proved to be based on logical fallacies and, in many cases, wishful thinking. It’s all good and well to teach children to obey their parents, but to obey unquestioningly? That’s insulting the intelligence of the child. A child can easily learn why it’s best not to play with fire by playing with it and getting burned. Parents try to avoid that by teaching children to keep their hands off. One method, involving instilling unquestioning obedience, usually results in children testing their parents’ command and playing with fire anyway. Others are more successful. Teaching children how to reason on matters, explaining the facts to them, and helping them form conclusions is more beneficial to the child. After all, the unquestioning child, instead of rebelling against the parent’s wishes, may grow up to fear fire, never learning to discriminate between safe and unsafe use and therefore miss out on the benefits it has to offer.

I am reaching the point in my life where I’m putting what I was taught to the test and discovering where it does not hold up. It is a long and exhausting process, full of disappointment. At times I feel betrayed, but mostly I feel free. Not necessarily free to do whatever I want, like the child who breaks away from mother in a toy store and runs wild, but free to not to be afraid of things that have terrified me my entire life. People are not bad; I do not have to be afraid of them. I can form friendships using good judgment that will benefit us both, unconditionally. I no longer have to turn people away because they don’t subscribe to a particular belief system. I’m free to form connections, share information, and experience love in a way I never could before. 

A little more about that information. It’s the free exchange of information that got me out of this funk. I am grateful to so many people who directly and indirectly were able to remove the scales from my eyes and help me to see reason. If you want more specific information, I encourage you to look at Steven Hassan’s BITE model of mind control. The organization I grew up in hits on all four categories in profound ways.

My goal here is not to write a diatribe against my former belief system. There were many positives to growing up as I did. Other people are working actively to expose the fallacies and are doing much better than I ever could. It is not in me to dwell on so much negativity, although I must admit my first reaction to finding out the truth was anger.

Besides, if I get too deep into the specifics of what’s happening to me, people who read this blog and who currently hold my previous beliefs can get me and my loved ones into serious trouble. I don’t want to cause trouble for my loved ones. I don’t want to force upon them an impossible choice, namely, choosing between me and their beliefs. For my part, I want us all to get along. I want us all to be able to form our own beliefs without fear of reprisal, criticism, or ostracism. If the wrong people gather enough evidence of my “change of heart,” I will be ostracized from the social group I have been in my entire life, and my own family with be restricted from associating with me. I do not want to do that to them, but at the same time, even though they are as much taken by the destructive beliefs as I was, the choice will ultimately be theirs. Believe what others tell them is true, or endeavor to decide that for themselves. And accept the consequences of their actions, just as I have to accept the consequences of mine.

I’ve probably said too much. I have tried to hold back, but my love of truth prevents me.

One final thought about the title of this post. In Shakespeare’s day, “doubt” had the alternative meaning of “suspect.” The line can thus be interpreted to mean “suspect truth to possibly be untrue.” Do not just take someone’s word for it, or the word of a group of people, even every person you know. They can be wrong. Prove it to yourself. Keep testing, keep proving what it is you believe, and never stop.

Alternatively, read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He possibly says it better than me.

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“The Reservation of My Mind”

One of my favorite series on writing is The Atlantic’s By Heart series, where writers talk about passages that have influenced them in some way, usually related to writing. It’s comforting to see people who have found some measure of success doing what I’m doing talk about their journey and process in terms I can understand. It makes me feel not so alone, which is good. Writing, a very solitary activity, can sometimes make me feel like the sole survivor of the apocalypse.

(Already I’ve mentioned this series and had the pleasant and shocking privilege to thank the author myself, Craig Nova, who somehow found my little scribble and commented on it. Sometimes I love this Internet thing.)

Today I read about Sherman Alexie, whose selected quote single-handedly changed the course of his life. (Talk about power.) When Alexie was growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Indians weren’t writers, so he didn’t even consider the possibility of becoming one. He was going to be a high school English teacher who coached basketball, end of story. However, one brush with an anthology of Native poetry, specifically a line by Adrian C. Louis, opened his eyes to the potential he could have if only he let himself realize it: “Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.”

A major theme of this blog has been overcoming a great deal of fear that’s been standing in the way of achieving my dream of publishing a novel. As I chip away at this block, pouring words on it every day for the past year, I’ve started to understand what’s driving me. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked to realize that it’s the same thing that’s been standing in my way.

Alexie understands this better than I do, so I’ll let him explain:

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the res, after all, where I learned to tell stories.

You know, for many years, I felt very insecure about being a writer—it wasn’t Indian enough. And then, one day, I was on stage and it occurred to me: Wait. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that? I’m doing the traditional thing—I’m doing the oldest thing known to humans! Before fire and the wheel, we had stories. Why did I ever let Indians who managed casinos make me feel bad about storytelling?

So there is power in this. I get to pick and choose what the prison means to me, float in between the prison bars, return in my mind when and how I want to. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

What is my prison? The fear that I’m not good enough. Not smart enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, not nice enough and not happy enough. Nothing I ever do is enough. And through spilling my guts on paper, I start to see shadows of why. Maybe I’ll never figure it out completely (or maybe I will and that will be the signal that my time here is up), but it’s satisfying to get hints of it, in what I read and what I write. It’s satisfying to realize I’m not all that unusual, that my dreams and hopes and fears are shared by millions of others who aren’t as different from me as I thought.

Because that’s the thing about prisons. They make you feel alone. Kind of like writing. . . . (How Sisyphean is that?)

As a final note, if you want a more elegant description of the craziness that is the inside-out writing process (that I tried to describe here and at least some of you liked), then read author Andre Dubus III’s lovely explanation of what it means to dream a novel, also from the By Heart series.

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That Fear Thing: In Which I Refuse to Let It Beat Me

Photo by Dan Henry, published Monday, August 26th, 2013

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m afraid of certain things. Ordering take-out, for instance, and social misunderstandings. In another era, I’d probably end up a shut-in like Emily Dickinson, only crappy at poetry because I wouldn’t have the internet. (Without the internet, I’d probably end up like Polonius“Neither a borrower nor a lender be! You’re welcome.”)

Well, there’s nothing like a little actual, life-threatening experience to put things into perspective.

Two weekends ago, they convinced me to go whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. They, as in everyone I love. Knowing I’d be too swayed by my family’s influence to be talked out of it, my husband spent the days leading up to our trip fabricating fantastic statistics designed to scare the crap outta me. “Did you know that three out of four injuries incurred on the river result in hospital visits? Did you know more people die whitewater rafting than from shark attacks?”

Didn’t help matters much that my brother’s girlfriend went rafting on the exact same stretch of river two weeks prior, and within five minutes of putting in, watched her friend’s leg SNAP IN HALF on a particularly notorious rapid known as Grumpy’s. Same river, same rafting company. The massive, sunburned River Leader reluctantly recalled the event, how he strapped his paddle to her leg and hauled her up the bank to the waiting ambulance.

Well, Grumpy’s was not our undoing. Our undoing was a class-five rapid called Broken Nose. There’s an amusing story behind the name, made less amusing in light of our experience.

To say I was terrified would not be an exaggeration. There’s this awful drive up the river that must be endured, padded out in life jackets and helmets on a moldy bus, past every rapid we would have to go down. It was nine a.m., August 24th, the first trip of the day. Every so often the River Leader would lean over and exclaim at some rock or stick and its level relative to yesterday. Whether this was good or bad I could not determine; to me, everything seemed like an ill omen.

I almost chickened out. Waiting in line, carrying our raft down the slippery ramp past Misty, one of the waterfall-like dams used to control the flow of the river, just about undid me. I remember Niagara Falls as a kid: lots of water, bright rain slickers, lots of water and lots of noise. Did I mention lots of water? If someone had suggested getting in a raft affectionately called “The Dinosaur” and going for a spin, my four-year-old self would have told you “No way, dude.”

But in we went, into the shockingly cold water, straining against the might of Misty. “Our raft is the oldest in the fleet,” our guide told us–a rookie herself, in her first season in charge of other people’s lives. “It can’t handle some of these bigger rapids, so we’ll be taking the easier lines and avoiding the big water.” Her tongue ring flashed every other syllable, and I strained to hear. “The other guides call me Hazard. That’s cos I like to steer clear of all those dangerous spots.”

Reassuring, at the time. Though now I’m not so sure that’s why they called her Hazard.

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The Dinosaur glided over the water, the paddling much easier than I thought it would be. We went ten minutes without dying. We only got stuck only a few times. Most of the time we hit the rapids backwards or sideways, spinning down the river like a leaf. I think it was by design. I hope it was by design. My husband knew we were in trouble way before me. Like any good fool, I trusted our guide implicitly.

We had something known as Big Water: all the rapids were classed up. The Class 4 river had become a Class 5. Class 6, of course, being illegal to send inexperienced rafters down, even if they do shell out money for it.

We got stuck at the top of a three-level drop. I couldn’t see anything over the edge. Our guide gave her orders, “paddle one, paddle two, two back,” while she steered. We listened best we could. Eventually, the raft nudged off the rock, and we dipped over the falls sideways.

And stayed there.

I never thought you could get stuck in a rapid. They call it surfing. The continuous fall of the water, combined with the backward suck of the current under the rocks, creates a unique situation in which you literally ride the rapid, never going anywhere.

Under the relentless fall of the water, we instinctively climbed to the higher side of the raft. “Paddle!” came the vague but unneeded command. We paddled, like chipping away at a glacier. Every foot we would gain, every time I thought we might pull ourselves out of it, the circulation would suck us back, the water would swamp us, and I’d choke and sputter. Soon, it became more important to time our breaths than to paddle. Paddling got us nowhere; we had to keep breathing.

The other rafters, lined up along the shore just past the rapids, watched, wide-eyed. Several of the guides stood on the nearest ledge–not even thirty feet away–with worried expressions. You don’t want to see experienced rafters worried about anything concerning you. You want them to laugh and say you’re just a melodramatic rookie, it’s fine. This happens all the time.

They threw us ropes. We held on–what else could we do? We stuffed ourselves down inside the raft, my husband and I pressed together, and held on. I know my dad was there, my brother too, his girlfriend and our guide, but it was just the river, in my ears and down my throat, my husband, tangled in my legs, and the rope, biting into my hands.

I don’t know how long it lasted.

Somehow, they got the timing just right: they yanked the nose of raft just enough to dislodge us momentarily from the suck of the water, just enough to throw me backwards, into Broken Nose. Someone grabbed me, then let go, and I was gone.

Photo by Dan Henry, published Monday, August 26th, 2013

The only apt description is like a cork. I bobbed, against the bottom of the raft. From videos I’d watched to prepare myself for the unlikely, I knew that the seconds after popping up were critical, the few seconds that I could find the raft and get back in before being shot downstream.

I did not want to get back in that raft.

So downstream I shot, floating feet-first as I’d been instructed. This was so different from being stuck. This was free. I had no time to be afraid. I was alive.

“Swim! Swim your little heart out!”

If someone hadn’t said that, I probably would have floated right past the rafts.

Someone stuck out their paddle. I swam with feeble strokes that somehow got me there, grabbed hold, and was pulled as dead weight into the raft. I flopped onto onto my back, coughing up half the Ocoee; my rescuers tried not to stare. The whole thing probably lasted thirty seconds.

Back in Broken Nose, the situation had not changed. I sunk down so I couldn’t see and funneled the last of my strength into not crying. If someone had even suggested the mere possibility of quitting, you can bet your life I would have. Had it been an option, I would have hopped out right then and walked all the way back to Atlanta, leaving a trail of soggy water-shoe footprints.

But they didn’t. However long later, after my family had to abandon the raft one by one and we regrouped downstream, I climbed back into my raft, gave my husband a weak smile, and away we went. It wasn’t long before we started cracking jokes about stopping at every Total Wine on the way home. And, I’m happy to report, I had fun. Every drop sent my heart into my throat, but I’d survived worse. I could do this.

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“I’m sure you’re not happy this happened,” our guide told us at the end, unable to meet our eyes, “but I am. I had to experience something like that sooner or later, so I could learn something from it and try to keep it from happening again. Just sucks that it had to be you.”

Poor girl. None of us felt the desire to tip her. I still feel bad about that.

Most of my family blame her, but I don’t. Things happen. Mistakes are made. Part of the training for becoming a river guide involves swimming the same rapids you later send unsuspecting tourists down in rafts–so you know what it’s like to be afraid, but also so you know how to overcome it. The river is fear-inspiring. And yet, every year, thousands of people are drawn to its unrelenting roar.

That weekend, two women died on that stretch of the Ocoee, one of them in the same manner that almost got me. Except, where I shot like a cork under the raft and down the river, she stayed under until it killed her. We heard the ambulances before we’d even finished our run, screaming up the river toward Misty. The moment I found out what happened, I felt like I was fluttering between those two eventualities: existing and not existing. The line between them is thin and dotted and not always straight.

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So here is where I bring it back around to writing:

Writing is not like whitewater rafting. It will not kill you. It will most likely not become a story you have to repeat for everyone you know, two weeks straight. Most of the time, no one will even care.

But writing is like whitewater rafting in that, when you get it right, it will take the things that scare the pants off you and transform them into something more. Just as the raft glides over the surface of certain death, writing that hits at the tender places of the heart makes difficult things easier, breaks them into manageable pieces. Great stories help us deal with unexplainable loss, or fear, or longing. As well as joy. It does this for both the reader and the writer. The real world can be too hot to handle. Turning it into fiction gives it meaning and makes us understand.

Some people say it’s merely human nature to look for patterns, to find meaning in the chaos. Maybe. But chaos isn’t a very nice place to be, and I would much rather spend my time looking for answers than accepting that we are all just corks, bobbing aimlessly down a river. I refuse to accept that.

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Update on That Asking Permission Thing

Photo by Les Jones

Remember that time I told you I was going to start being more assertive, take risks, and stop being afraid of things that interfere with achieving Greatness?

Yeah, well, here’s the thing. I’m a wimp.

There’s this pretty infamous abandoned gas station in our county that I pass by all the time. Back at the end of the last century, the owner, somehow suspecting he was about to be robbed, staked himself out overnight to ambush the burglars. When they broke in, he attacked them with a shotgun, killing one as they fled the scene.

I can’t remember exactly how it ended up but I’m pretty sure the owner was convicted of some type of murder, and the convenience store has been closed for years. It’s prominently placed at the top of a hill next to a crossroads, quite spooky, roped-off and overgrown. Every time I drive past I can’t help but think about misguided intentions, so when I needed a building for my stencil graffiti artist main character to vandalize, I knew exactly which one.

Well, last night was a dark night, and I was in the area. Before I wrote the scene in question I sat in the parking lot of the abandoned strip mall across the street and took copious notes. (Our county sounds like it’s all abandoned but I promise you it’s actually quite nice.) But the most important part happens in the dark, at night, when I’d never stopped for longer than the length of a red light.

So. Greatness. That was my goal.

I turned at the light and it was extremely dark. So dark I didn’t see the car until I was about to turn into the strip mall. My headlights bounced off the reflective lettering: County Sheriff. Lights completely dead. I didn’t even put on my turn signal, just kept right on going.

Which is so dumb because when I turned around in a subdivision and drove back toward the gas station, he was gone. And I was too chicken to turn into the parking lot and sit–very legally might I add–for five minutes trying to absorb sensory information. I wasn’t even planning on getting out of the car. What were they going to do, arrest me for imaginary application of graffiti?

So there you go. Too wimpy to not break the law for the sake of my art. If this story ever gets published, my main character will be too embarrassed to be seen with me in public.

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Ancient Ruins and Conducting “Research”

This shoe:

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broke the law last week. But only a little one:

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Nevertheless, it is a criminal, a repeat offender even. This is not the first time it has gone places it’s not supposed to go in the name of “research.”

(Dinas Emrys, an Iron Age hillfort and Norman tower outside of Beddgelert, Wales and protected by the National Trust. Taken by me, 2006. Click for closer inspection.)

This time, “research” dictated a trip to Lanierland, a defunct music park in rural North Georgia that in its heyday hosted such acts as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, and most infamously, Kris Kristofferson, whose band inspired a riot because of some unsavory language. It closed in 2006.

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While this was the shoe’s first visit, I had been there once before. In 2005, one year before the park’s demise, I accidentally attended what should have been my high school graduation.

Look me up in the local papers. They’ll tell you I graduated from South Forsyth High that year, but only because the photographer the school hired to take senior pictures delivered mine along with everyone else’s to the editor doing the graduation piece. My family bought a full set; how was he to know I never attended a day of my senior year? In actuality I graduated from a little correspondence school, for no reason other than I didn’t want to keep explaining myself to people asking about all that “college stuff” I hadn’t yet figured out. (As if I was the only teenager in the history of the world with no clue what she wanted to do with her life.)

Despite all this, the universe decided if I was going to pretend to get my diploma from South Forsyth High I had better be there for graduation–even if it was only just in passing. Because that very Saturday morning I really was passing by–creeping, actually, because of all the cars parked alongside the road and the people milling about them. Some I recognized, in blue caps and gowns, clutching shiny new diplomas, hundreds of kids who probably thought I’d either died or gotten pregnant if they even remembered me at all. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

But last week, it was empty.

Normally I don’t like breaking laws (neither does my shoe). However, as I mentioned recently, if I’m seeking greatness, I can’t always ask for permission.

(Though I don’t rule out asking forgiveness! Every two seconds I expected a police cruiser to pull in the driveway, because in my worst-case-scenario brain, they install alarm systems on derelict ruins. Surely they wouldn’t arrest a cute little girl with a camera and an Accelerated Reader t-shirt her baby brother gave her, would they?)

Greatness involves taking risks. Greatness involves putting yourself out there, setting yourself up for possible failure, all the while working toward possible success. I’ve been afraid of things my entire life. Stupid things. If I’m ever going to accomplish anything of worth, I need to start getting over myself.

(This is a promise: someday I’ll finish the Wales story, just as someday I’ll finish the Lanierland story. I can’t be risking my life like this for nothing!)

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