Writing and Worry: Wish You Were Here

May 1, 2020 § 13 Comments

m_bergmanBy Mary Bergman

I am a worrier first, a writer second. I started writing as a way to deal with my worries, to untangle them, to hold them up to the light and to see them as they truly are, not as they exist in my mind, magnified. Sometimes it works.

My usual worries have been temporarily suspended. Of all the scenarios I played out across endless hours walking along this eroding coastline–the power from the mainland being cut, a meltdown at the nuclear power plant on Cape Cod, a labor strike on the ferry, a toxic algae bloom that upended our shell-fishing, a pandemic never crossed our minds. Before early March, it was as though I could feel every part of this island as it washed away, every grain of sand as it rolled out from under the foundation of a cliff-dwelling house and into the sea.

Is it strange to say I miss my old worries? They had dwelled with me, and I dwelled on them, for so long.

I used to aim for 1,000 words a day. 10,000 steps a day. I was going to walk the 80+ miles of coastline. I woke up at five and went to the gym and wrote and worked at my day job and watched as many sunsets as I could. I remembered things. Now it is enough to follow the tidal shifts, to think six hours at a time. Some days, I feel lucky to be able to live minute-to-minute.

People ask me if I am writing these days. It isn’t easy, but it feels necessary to try. I write about memory, nature, and place. But it is surprisingly hard to write about place when you are stuck in that place. Distance, both in terms of time and miles, have allowed me to write about my childhood growing up at the edge of the world. Now I am trapped on an island with my memories, even the ones I have tried to push to the corners of my mind. The boats run infrequently now, but at least the ocean still churns and the wind still howls. The head of our hospital uses terms we understand–he speaks of the pandemic like it is a hurricane, and we are just getting hit with the outer bands. We do not know where the eye of the storm is.

My anxiety reached a fever pitch one Thursday, a few days before this part of the world began to rapidly shift. The sun was out and the tide the lowest I had ever seen it out here, the full moon and the winds conspiring. The shallows were transformed into a runway of sand, combed so by the receding waves it appeared as though tines of a giant fork had been dragged across the sea floor.

Becky and I walked along the shoreline and I could feel her shoulder as it brushed mine, as she offered me a piece of bread, ripped off with her fingers. I ate it. I have been thinking about that simple act of sharing food, and how distant it seems now. How could I have known that was the last meal I would share with a friend until who knows when?

Somehow the only thing that made sense to us both, and has made sense to me since, was dipping into the sea. The water here is about 43 degrees Fahrenheit in spring. This might sound like torture to some of you. But it is about the power inherent in having control over my body temperature in a world where there are no thermometers left. It is about being in another element for a few moments. More than anything, it is about being held by the ocean, suspended and weightless, when human touch is so fraught.

Maybe someday I will know how to write about this time. Until then, I am learning to live with these new worries and old memories, and writing postcards.

Mary Bergman is a writer originally from Provincetown, Massachusetts who now lives on Nantucket Island. She is a regular contributor to A Cape Cod Notebook, a place-based radio essay feature, on WCAI, the Cape and Island’s NPR station. She can be found at www.marybbergman.com, on Instagram at @north_country, and in the sea.

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