Lately, I’ve been thinking about I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between me, writing stories, and the growth cycles of plants. Well, one plant in particular: the cactus at the entrance to my apartment complex.
On an average day, cacti are incredibly resilient. They don’t need a lot to survive: mostly just sunshine and a place to soak it in–and water, of course, but very little of it. Here in Austin, they are used to the oppressive heat that characterizes most of our year, and yet the cacti stand strong throughout the cooler, wetter winter months as well, when nights here hit 40 degrees. The generous prickly-pear cactus splaying out near the driveway of our neighborhood was one of these enduring specimens for so long, its bursting pink blooms greeting us when we first moved here last summer. As days shortened and our tenure here lengthened, I wasn’t sure how it would react to the weather in December and January–I’d never lived in a place where cacti were a native species. But it stood tall and strong for so long, even after a day in January where it snowed an unbelievable five inches.
And then, just under two weeks into February, Winter Storm Uri hit. Austin–all of Texas, really–was completely unprepared. For the first couple of days, sparkling rime frost coated everything outside, including the cactus on the corner. It was such an odd sight. Beautiful, surely, but strange, this desert plant coated in crystalline ice. We thought the winter storm would be done after a couple of days, but the harsh weather just kept coming. Even once the snow stopped falling, it took days for everything to melt. After the ice melted off the cactus near the front of our neighborhood, at first it looked fine, normal. Like it would survive. But then, over the next couple of sunny days, the pads of the cactus began to turn pale and brown. They began to droop over on the ground. And days later, though at first it had looked like it had survived the deadly weather, the whole plant fell, seeping and bloated, to the sidewalk.
Right now, I have a lot of empathy for that particular cactus.
I’m someone who thrives when she has a full social calendar, lots to learn, and multiple creative projects. If that sounds stressful to you, it’s because it is. But it’s a stress I’ve been especially oriented to all my life. Like cacti and the heat.
Unfortunately, over the past few years, I’ve had to orient myself to other kinds of stress. Stress over the political climate. Stress over the social injustice that is rampant in our country. Stress over moving (which I’ve done a lot of since college). And, of course, in the last year, stress over a deadly global pandemic. These are long-lasting undercurrents on which I’ve had to learn to float (it was either that or sinking). Like the cactus, I can adapt to longer seasons of winter’s chill–uncomfortable at first, but eventually, they become bearable, sustainable.
But other kinds of stress I can’t stomach so easily–especially when event after event happens in quick succession, like days and days of an unexpected and bitterly cold storm. First there was the insurrection at the Capitol, which was paralyzing and awful to witness. Then our dog got sick on my birthday and had to have an extremely expensive emergency abdominal surgery the next weekend, which scared me and my husband out of our wits. Five days later, I got a call to come back to Michigan (we’d just been there three weeks earlier for the holidays) to say goodbye to my grandfather. I flew home that Tuesday, and I watched him as he passed away Wednesday night. We had the funeral that weekend. I was chosen to write his eulogy, which was an honor, but also, a lot. I was in Michigan for two weeks, then came home on February 9th. Four days later, we were scrambling to get dog food, praying for the power to stay on, and boiling tap water during one of the worst winter storms Texas has ever seen. And, then, after just starting to realize that I might need some help handling all this and finally gaining the courage to start the search for a new therapist, I called fifteen people, and none of them were calling me back. I’d never experienced anything like, well, any of this. It was all new to me. A thick fog of disorientation left me paralyzed, numb, like my whole inner self had been coated slick with rime.
Of course, during this time, work on my novel completely fell away (as did my work on this site). I felt unable to write–most days I was just trying to get through the day. It didn’t help that I’d come to a tricky part in the drafting process: the middle. Truthfully, for all my other previous attempts at writing a novel, this was always the part where it would get too hard. And for the past couple months, this novel was no exception. There’s some time travel, mysterious bouts of memory loss, weird magical creatures that may or may not be real, unreliable narrators, alternate realms, disordered timelines. All of it complicated, none of it easy to write. I froze up.
Despite the constant stress and its toll on my creativity, for most of that time, I thought I was doing okay. Whatever hard shell had come over me, I needed it now because it kept me functioning–it was protecting me from daily rotting into mush.
But Ash Wednesday–the last day of the storm, and our first day of Lent–broke it open in me. Maybe it was something about finally acknowledging the reality of death, the weight of it that had sat on my shoulders especially heavily this past year. The cracks in the ice formed little by little, every time I wrote in my journal, every time I confided in my husband, every time I dared to pray. About a week after the snow and ice began to subside, I found myself huddled under blankets on the couch, unable to move or do much of anything except watch TV and sleep and doom-scroll on Twitter.
The time of near-constant, high-level stress has ended, but it has left me weak, unmotivated, drained. Like a cactus keeled over on the cement.
Disorientation will do that to you.
And my God, what timing–Lent is a season of disorientation. It is a time in which we acknowledge all that disorients us from God and the life we’re intended to live: our own individual wrongdoing, the systems we have put in place that cause harm to others, and, of course, death. Is death not the greatest disorientation?
Disorientation causes us to wonder, to ask impossible questions. Why am I here? Why is this happening? What is the point? When will it end? Will I ever be okay again? These questions can feel almost too difficult to bear. For some people (and perhaps some plants), the heaviness of this state of disorientation destroys them in one way or another.
But I believe it has a purpose, at least for me.
As I’ve been thinking about disorientation in my own spiritual life (and in the life of that poor dead cactus), I can’t help but also examine it through my writer’s lens. As in, what is the purpose of disorientation–for a character, for a reader, or for both–in a story? And does that purpose have any bearing on how I view my own real experience?
My novel (or, rather, what exists of it) is a good case in point. For my main character, I would say disorientation–placing her in unfamiliar or bewildering circumstances where she cant’t quite find her footing, like, time travel or memory loss for instance–will causes her to reveal herself and/or grow in ways that she wouldn’t otherwise. It’s a mechanism to move her character, and thus, the story, forward. Whereas, for the reader, forms of disorientation–in this case, literary devices such as an unreliable narrator or a non-linear timeline–serve a different purpose, which is to force the reader to pay close attention, and to cause them to think about the story in a new way. In other words, the purpose of disorientation is re-orientation.
Perhaps that is what God is doing with me, right now. To the Author, I am both character in and reader of the Great Story. I have both been revealed by my circumstances and been forced to wake up to them. And that process has been hard. Acknowledging that the emotions of the past few years, even the past few months– that the anger, the grief, the fear, the exhaustion, anxiety, restlessness, depression, isolation, and trauma are finally getting to me–is painful. Processing all of it at once feels a bit debilitating, if I’m honest, which is a sign that I need to be more patient with my self–to go slow during this season (after all, “Lent” does come from a root word meaning “slow”) and to avoid hardening my heart to what it’s been through. I need to accept that right now, I might feel more mushy, need more care, more rest, more sunshine than usual. It will be a long road.
There’s hope out there, however. I don’t know where it is or how long it’s going to take or what it will look like, but my guess is that new growth and re-orientation and freedom lie somewhere ahead. It might take a lot of shedding. Pruning. Cutting off what has died, fallen to the ground. But these roots are resilient, and I have to trust that God is as expert a gardener as He is an author.
And spring has only just begun.
Current Novel Word Count: 16,690 What I'm Writing: I've been working on world-building, determining the rules of the magic, and figuring out all the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff for my novel. Also some secondary character arcs. Not much in terms of actual word count, but nevertheless, important meta-writing. Weird Writerly Topics I've Googled This Week: Nothing lately. Writing Exercises I've Done: Nothing lately. What I'm Reading: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Dr. James H. Cone What I'm Listening To: "Your Peace Will Make Us One" by Audrey Assad, "You Are Not Far" by Young Oceans, The Bible for Normal People podcast