I feel a sort of freedom these days, which could be a reason why I'm posting this here on my blog and not on facebook. Of late, I've been finding FB a bit too constraining, a place where there is this very public persona of the person that is Sandy, rather than the more intimate, private me, which is suited to conversations with close friends, but is always ill-equipped for conversation in a room full of strangers. I had the thought, lately, that I could post here on my blog and just be honest, because who the hell visits THIS site anymore?
So I've had some major changes, in both my life and my writing. On March 9, I received a call from my brother, Tommy, one so frantic and breathless I thought he was having a heart attack right there on the phone and had somehow decided it was a good idea--though God would only know why--to call his baby sister, because I only live something like 700 miles away in Chicago, and so of course I could be right over, to help. These initial thoughts were jarring enough, that he was dying, that my brother was dying, right there on the phone, that there was nothing I could really do but tell him everything would be alright, though clearly it was not alright, clearly something was very, very wrong.
It took a few chaotic seconds to make sense of what he was saying through those labored breaths, and to realize that no, he wasn't dying. He was quite literally shivering, because he had just jumped into bitterly cold water. What had happened, he explained, was that my father was missing. A rescue crew was searching the creek that runs through my father's farm property in Pennsylvania. So certain was my brother that our father had been swept up by the high flood waters while trying to clear storm debris from under a bridge that he had jumped into the murky, turbulent waters to search for him. The water had shocked my brother. He had to get out, he said. The water, he told me, was too cold, too high. There's no way he would have survived, my brother said. Sandy, he told me, it's bad.
Hours passed, and I waited for the phone to ring again with any sort of news. It is an odd experience to wait at such a great distance, while the rest of my family--brothers, sister, mother, grandchildren, aunts and uncles--gathered. It was even worse to find out bits of new information from the television coverage of an event that so personally affected me. The helicopters flew low, overhead, at my father's farm, the reporters eager for a story. I went on-line and saw how flooded the creek was, how it had spilled over into fields I used to play in as a child. I could see the road that led to my childhood home, see my brother's truck parked there in the driveway, view the rescue team, the boats, the waiting ambulance.
After five hours they found my father, his body tangled up in tendrils of a willow tree that had fallen across the creek during a recent Spring storm. I had a simple thought of gratitude for that downed tree. It had kept my father on the property he loved, and kept his body from washing down the creek more than it had. It could have been so much worse, I thought, the recovery efforts could have taken days then, and not hours.
There is a lot more to say on the subject of my father, his death, and my trip home for a funeral, the suddenly changed shape of my family, and how this affected all of the family dynamics. For now, I'll simply say that I never cared to think how much my father held our family together--I don't think I ever gave him even the smallest amount of credit for that--but now I realize how the sheer force and presence of him somehow kept us all in check, for better or worse. When he was gone, it was a free-for-all. Tempers were high. Old sibling rivalries reared up. We simply didn't know how to be, without my father there to shape us, our actions, our words. We were like grown children again.
My father always used to talk about luck--that he was unlucky, that I was lucky--that these two fates were determined by some complicated equation having to do with both our Hungarian and Polish ancestors and our sins in previous lives. I frequently laughed when my father spoke of luck, though I held onto an old-world sense of superstition. I burned sage to bless my home. I read tarot cards, and palms. I mentally said a prayer each time I heard a siren. I raised my feet from the floor when driving across railroad tracks. But I had never entirely agreed with my father, too: I believed a person also made his or her own luck, too, good, bad or indifferent.
Still reeling from all that had happened, and feeling rubbed entirely raw, my husband and I came home and hoped that life -- our life, our very lucky life that we made, together -- would settle down. But within three weeks, my kitten came down with a rare virus that affects one in five thousand, and died. Within another two months, my older cat died. I would spend months in a state of quiet panic as I lay in bed at night, analyzing every complaint my body issued--a pain in my shoulder, a little tightness in my chest. When it stormed one day and my dog still insisted on going outside for a walk, I was paralyzed with fear and got no farther than the bottom of our steps before deciding that it was a considerably unwise choice to be outside walking a dog in a storm, that it was decidedly unlucky. I thought, really, lightening could strike. It could strike me.
I am still thinking about all this, about family and fate and sudden changes. I've been writing about all this since late March, cranking out loose material that is, to my surprise, non-fiction. And I think I'm going to go for it. I have even gone so far as to promise my agent work, if only because in promising her something, I mentally affirm a deadline and then hold fast to it.
For now, I am putting away the novel I started after PRECIOUS, Resurrection Fern. I had written about two hundred organized pages when my editor suddenly asked to see it, and the response toward the partial was tentative. There is nothing wrong with tentative, mind you. After all, it's a big book, and, truthfully, there were some things in that partial I hadn't worked out, things that probably made the writing feel less credible. What, for example, did I believe about God? About healing? In that fictional world of Wallo, I simply didn't know yet. But beside narrative 'kinks' not worked out, and general length (the book would have been close to 400 pages, realistically) there is always the fear that new writers who don't have initial 'break-out' successes have, that of essentially being dumped and forgotten about at their house--a very real issue for many writer friends I know.
I'd be lying if such hesitation at a critical stage of writing didn't make me lose some heart. When I sat down I doubted more and more. I suddenly worried not about my writing skills or belief in the overall story I'd dreamed up, but about what was 'MARKETABLE' and not, what was in line with what my audience might expect, and what was too divergent (and maybe best saved as say, novel four, but not novel two). I rewrote and rewrote just because I couldn't stop writing. Maybe that book is, as someone close to me said, the kind of book to put out, say, 4th or 5th, and not the kind of book to follow up my debut.
For as much as writers don't often talk about it, these perceived setbacks happen all the time in publishing. But then something happens--a father dies, a family changes--and it begins to feel like it was inevitable, that all that older writing was filling time before something even more pressing came along. Now I find myself thinking of my father's very simple credo, that it just is what it is. No point in holding onto something, just on the insistence that it NEEDS to be next, or because my life is generally so ordered that I seldom change plans, or direction. The non-fiction I've been writing feels pressing, so I'm going with it, gonna ride that wave, and so forth. And if that is in line with my first novel and therefore somehow more marketable in the end, well then, what can I say? For all the frustration that the novel was causing me, writing non-fiction these days has been like opening up a rusty old valve somewhere near my heart, and, though writing is never easy, well lately it hasn't been so hard, either. Maybe this is a sign to let go a little, to let my ordered world open up a little more and go with the great flow and cycle of birth and death and rebirth, to let myself be carried a bit, and trust that my father was right--that I'm not unlucky but lucky--and the fates have my back. Regardless, I am feeling very contented knowing that the new work can now land, quite freely, in the best hands possible for it.