March 31, 2020 § 43 Comments
We woke up and everything had been different for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Maybe a call came—your friend is dying. Or, I think we should take a break. Or a text, WE WOULD LIKE TO INFORM YOU THAT PUBLIC MOVEMENT RESTRICTION HAS BEEN IMPOSED.
Maybe we woke to the memory of weeks ago, some faraway country tracking their citizens, an alarmist friend stockpiling taco mix, our partner still warm-eyed and cuddly. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the pandemic, the break-up, that moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.
How can we write? How can we read?
How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the midst of the unchangeable?
We search online—everyone else feels this way. The internet is a giant support group. We are still falling. We are all caged with the family we want to love, or alone in a room we used to love. We click angry-sad-angry-sad, wondering why gallows humor isn’t funny anymore. Fear comes in waves—numbers on a graph, an admired person now sick, now dead, the disgust and despair of watching our leaders flail.
We go through the motions. My students need an anchor. My child must be fed. If I meet this deadline I might get paid.
Neighbors whose politics disheartened us now make us rage. We try to forgive, to trust in karma, that something bigger than ourselves is in charge, that there is still a plan…isn’t there?
My best friend dies suddenly, a year ago today, the last day of AWP. The doctor tells me over the phone she is not comfortable, she is in pain. He takes my word that I have power of attorney, that she is a DNR, and I sing poorly through the phone held at her ear, hoping somewhere inside she hears me say goodbye. I fly across the country to clean out her house, reconcile with her estranged sister, hug distant friends in person for the first time. We gather around a garbage can, throw away a thousand photographs, making fun of old hairstyles and appreciating my friend’s artistic eye. We resurrect her hard drive and read her work; re-home her elderly cats. I take home her phone and try to crack it. I write about her. The bottom of the world has still dropped out, but words are a bucket in which I can carry water. Words are an axe with which I can chop wood. Each time I touch a page she edited, I touch my old world, the world in which she is also alive and reading my words. The words are a lifeline from a better past. The words are the seed of a pearl.
We guard our families, while others endanger us. Our ex-lover shows up to get the jacket we hoped he’d forgotten. We wash our hands a hundred times. After a few weeks, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. Our calendar clears, disappointment somehow better than hope. We sit down again. Five minutes, can you do five minutes? We tinker. We find the rhythm and lose it. We struggle to say something, anything, on the page. We are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We spend our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not just for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, one day there will be a world again, a world in which stories matter. Our words say, our stories matter still.
When my friend was alive, she told me a parable.
The novice asks the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet salvation, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. To weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told. To salve the need for human connection, more dangerous and more precious than we have ever known. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us that we exist independent of our grief and fear. Reminding us the world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Thank you for this . . .
You’re welcome ❤
On Tue, Mar 31, 2020, 7:26 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:
> Allison K Williams posted: “We woke up and everything had been different > for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced > waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become > familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Mayb” >
A beautiful thing, this.
Thank you ❤
From your FURY essay? Fabulous.
A rewrite of the 2016 version 🙂
So beautiful and true–our words, our stories, matter even now. Especially now.
So much yes.
Thank you, Allison. Wake early, walk, shower, breakfast, contact family and friends by phone or email, watch something cheerful/read/knit/read/bake bread/read, hug, repeat.
Walking, biking, cooking, typing ❤
I was talking with my sister in law in Seattle on the phone. Three friends of hers have died of covid19 and we shared the connection to HIV in the 80s—we both lost friends in those years. My mother’s care and eventual death just about destroyed me, but then we must “Chop wood. Carry water.” Today, I dug soil in the garden till I could barely move. It felt good.
Whenever I see your name as the contributor to Brevity Blog in my inbox I know I will read it during the course of my day and that I will have something to contemplate from a literary standpoint. This piece is so inspired even as it recognizes our universal floundering in these times. This one I’m going to read twice. Maybe more.
I’m really honored by that, and glad these words ring for you ❤ Thank you!
Allison, I’m so sorry for this difficult day for you. Thanks for sharing the beautiful wisdom of your friend.
Thank you ❤️
awesome. I love it.
Too many tears first thing in the dang morning. Sharing with my online students who are just learning that they have the right and the responsibility to tell stories too. Thank you xo
Thank you for sharing – I cried through writing it, too…Well, the first draft of the middle 🙂
Thank you for this. I love that it was first an essay that you wrote in 2016. My sister died in January of that year and I stumbled then as I am stumbling now. I will carry your friend’s wisdom and your eloquence and generosity with me as I carry on. Thank you.
Sending you love – it’s so hard to lose them, isn’t it?
Oh Allison, that is beautiful.
Thank you ❤️
I needed this this morning, Allison. Thank you so much x
You are so welcome ❤
So much wisdom, so needed. Just a few gems to carry with me:
Fear comes in waves.
Chop wood, carry water.
Weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility.
Five minutes. Can you do five minutes?
Love to you, Allison
Reblogged this on Hereby Hangs a TALE and commented:
What a powerful read. When we lack the words to express ourselves in the midst of this pandemic (or other things), we have the good fortune to rely on others -such as this writer.
Just thought I’d share.
Very well written, I love the way you worded it.
Just simply beautiful.
Thanks for sharing, powerful read. This is the type content that we need, real.
Oh, goodness. This is beautiful, Allison. I hope it’s OK if I re-blog–with a proper intro to you and this site and an insistent urging that my readers come right here every day. This is what I needed tonight, feeling so useless and silly turning back to the empty page. (Also now I have the Van Morrison song in my head that quotes that parable. He sings: “Chop that wood. Carry water. What’s the sound of one hang clapping?” And that’s good, too!) Be safe and well! And thank you!
Please do and thank you for sharing, I really appreciate it! Yeah, it’s the getting over the “useless and silly” part that’s tough ❤
I sense free writing here with maybe a quick edit for more clarity or deepening perceptions, truer persona. Good. Real. Grabber. Please get in touch. Chuck Neighbors, a man
I was chopping wood tonight and this last year.
This was beautiful, thank you for sharing.
A beautiful and touching piece
Reblogged this on Rust Belt Girl and commented:
“There is still a plan,” I hope…I pray. On this Palm Sunday I share with you this post I found to be such a comfort, this week. Our stories–whatever they might be–are, as Allison K. Williams writes, “our valuable labor.” Stories, yours and mine, are also a comfort. This morning, my kids and I shared in the story of Christ’s Passion through virtual Mass over Facebook. It was weird, but the familiar words, along with the priest’s vestments of red, his blessing of spring green palms, were a rote and ritualistic balm. That’s the Church’s labor–its chopping of wood, its carrying of water. Whatever your story or labor, I hope you share it with someone today. I thank Allison K. Williams, Brevity’s Social Media Editor and a wonderful memoirist, essayist, editor, and coach for sharing hers. I encourage you to check out Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and Allison’s other work at idowords.net. Be well! ~Rebecca
Thank you, Rebecca – and that sounds like a beautiful way to worship with your family.
Thank you, Allison. Always a joy to share your words!
What a lovely piece. My book feels so faraway right now that even though the next chapter is due at the end of the month to my writing class I, who am always finished a week ahead of time, am unable to work on it. I will think about chopping wood and carrying water. Thank you.
what an amazing writing
Thanks for the reminder that even our simple, seemingly mundane stories matter. Perhaps they matter more when the world spins hopelessly out of our control.