The Squatter

There’s a squatter living in my head and she doesn’t pay rent.

She picks at everything I write and says: “You’re not a real writer. You write blog posts and Facebook snippets and ten-minute freewrites and none of it amounts to anything.”

She hisses: “Your books aren’t real books.” (No matter that three very real books are on the shelf.) She growls and taunts: “You need to go underground and do nothing but write for a year, get off of social media, and come talk to me when you have a manuscript.”

My wife observes that this doesn’t sound like me — and she’s right.┬áIt’s not my voice. It’s the squatter’s.

Call her my inner critic. I’m pretty sure she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as she will stop at nothing to cut me down, keep me off-balance, and make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon. We — my wife and I — go for a short walk by the river. “I feel like I’m this close” — holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to having a panic attack.” I take a deep breath and she squeezes my hand. I feel a surge of shame. “I should know better,” I think to myself.

I describe to Mani how scared I feel.

“Is it fear — or anxiety?” she asks, ever so gently. We start talking about the difference.

Fear = clear and present danger. Someone has broken into your house. Your kid was supposed to call an hour and a half ago and won’t answer her cell phone. A bear is running in your direction. You are choking. Your are a person of color and a cop has been trailing you for the last two miles. You’re being followed.

Lives are at stake. Maybe even yours.

But in this moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s the last day of February and we’re walking along a stretch of the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. I’m taking a break in my work day to go with her to our local butcher.

* * *

Earlier in the day, I paid our March rent and gave thanks. Then I looked at our PayPal balance, and my mind — or rather, that squatter — started up with me.

“This might be the month when everything stops,” the squatter had said. “And you’re getting a puppy?! What are you going to do if you don’t make enough money?”

Really, lady? Do you never take a day off?

Then I remembered: She takes plenty of days off. Then she comes around, usually for just two or three days a month, and does everything in her power to freak me out completely. She convinces me that we are going to be destitute within weeks, that I missed some kind of magical window, and that my self-employment success has been a fluke for the past three years. My number’s up.

Oh, and by the way: Me even writing the word “success” is basically professional suicide, because I’m not supposed to be proud of my work or claim that it’s going well. (Maybe she’s a Jewish squatter and this is her superstitious edge coming through?)

* * *

“No,” I tell Mani as we walk. This isn’t fear that has me in its grips. This is good old-fashioned anxiety.

How can we be sure?

It’s entirely about the future and the past. None of the things coursing through my mind are grounded in real time. I’m jumping ahead and creating all kinds of dire scenarios, inventing stories, and going back over the places where I’d surely made fatal mistakes as a new business owner — ones that everyone can surely see but me. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing comes crashing down.

I feel some relief, having told Mani what’s on my mind and weighing on my heart. So grateful for her presence and gentle reality checking.

You know what she tells me?

“You have a 100% success rate at surviving every single time you’ve ever felt anxious.”

She is right. One-hundred percent. I think back over so many of the most perilous passages of my life and can’t deny it: None of them have killed me.

* * *

It takes courage, so much courage, to keep going when there are no guarantees of anything.

The minute I return to the truth — that there is a guarantee of death — I come back to the solid ground of right now. The panic subsides, the tides go out and the full moon rises.

That night I have a dream where God tells me I’m working hard enough, doing enough, helping enough people. God tells me it’s ok to relax.

I wake up in the morning and decide to give the squatter a blanket and some lunch money. After all, she’s frightened. I’m the only home she’s got — and she keeps moving me closer towards the truth.

Notes from the Body Shop

Image: Steinar Engeland

Today’s super sexy dispatch from the front lines of real life is brought to you from the body shop, where I’m having my trusty Toyota inspected. The sticker had a giant 7 on it, which means I’m approximately four months overdue for this grown-up task. The TV monitor tells me it’s 38 degrees outside. If I’d thought to bring my laptop, writing this would be a bit easier than pecking my phone keyboard, but when I left the house I hadn’t planned on coming here. You grab time when you can. Which should in no way be misconstrued for grabbing pussy when you can. Stop that shit.

Speaking of stopping, I got such a sweet note this morning. The person wrote that she feels orphaned without a writing community, and spends more time wondering if her writing is any good than she does actually writing. I nodded my head as I read, as she had named something so true.

Going it alone is sometimes the only way; getting super quiet, internal, and self-contained can do wonders for creative gestation. If anything, I vacillate this time of year between craving a cave of silent solitude and a communal table with a big pot of soup and a shared hunk of bread. The balance can be hard to find. But when it becomes true that we’re thinking a lot about writing but not actually writing, or we’re writing but being hyper-critical of ourselves, or we feel like the lone tree falling in the forest, or we can’t seem to maintain any momentum– these all point to the moment when to reach out for a hand in the dark is not a bad idea.

I had a coaching call this morning with a woman who wants to jump start her blog and revive her newsletter. She had some questions, which I sneakily turned into more questions (“very sophisticated,” as I told her, and we laughed). The best part of our conversation was hearing her excitement grow as she articulated how she wants her reader to feel, what qualities she imagines her writing conveying, and what kind of structures she knows work best for her. Just before we wrapped up, I asked her: “So what’s your plan?”

I felt my heart beating in my chest. I felt the chair beneath my seat and heard her voice across the miles as if she were sitting across from me over mugs of strong coffee. She took a breath and began: “My plan…” And I thought to myself, what a small miracle this is, that she has a plan! The plan will certainly change over time, as all plans must. But knowing your next step, now that is nothing to sneeze at.

There’s a time for having no idea what the next step is and expanding your ability to stay in that discomfort. And then there’s a time for reaching out, for saying hey, I could use help with this. Or huh, what if I tried x, y, or z.

Now, as a complete non sequitur, why is it that everything I write winds up sounding like Ecclesiastes? There’s a time for this and a time for that!

Maybe it’s because we’re always facing these choices: What is it time for in our writing and in our lives? Whether on a grand scale or a micro one, this seems to me to be one of the most continuous of life’s many questions. Getting the car inspected is a no-brainer, though even that has taken me months longer than perhaps it should have. I used to have a teacher who’d say everything happens right on time. We could parse that one out for the rest of our lives, or not. I’d rather just start and keep going.

Well, my car has passed its inspection for another year, so it’s time to wrap this up, pay my $35, and head home. There might have to be a wee nap in my near future. What’s in yours?