For each issue, I give myself an assignment. This time I wanted to explore the physicality of emotion. Like many writers I rely on sad tears, a confused shoulder shrug, and happy smiles to show how a character is feeling. It's hard to be original.
If your writing feels too cliche when it comes to emotion, give this exercise a try: Choose a highly emotional moment in your life. Replay the scene in your mind. Let the emotions roll over you again. What sensations do you feel? Weave some of those details into a narrative of the same event.
Below is my NF piece on gratitude:
It begins here, a squeezing in my solar plexus. A sensation rises inside, pops my eardrums and shifts my scalp. I inhale deep as if for the first time. Then let it go like a silent prayer that rises skyward. It’s the physical reaction that seems to accompany the feeling of gratitude. I’ve felt it many times. When I see my kids sprawled all over the living room. When the sun lights up the autumn maple next door. When our dog Bertie stands still to let the cat lick him. But I’ve felt it more so in the last 8 months since my husband was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma.
We’ve spent a lot of time at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. During Fran’s first round of chemo, when reality was still raw, and my security shattered, I remember walking the halls pretending to study the paintings on the walls…
Giant koi swim past the thoracic clinic, and splashes of orange, pink and yellow brighten ambulatory surgery. But it’s the somber Birchfield paintings on the first floor that I’m drawn to. His mud green, grey and brown match my insides. I could walk into those brushstrokes and disappear.
I’ve been here long enough to know there are 68 steps between floors, the cool Dyson hand dryers are in the third floor bathrooms, and that free tea and coffee is available in the hospitality room. I want to tell all the folks waiting in line at Dunkin Donuts, but I don’t. I don’t sign the guest book in the hospitality room either. I’m a ghost floating through the corridors. I don’t want to make an impact here; don’t want to call Roswell home, although I feel safer here than anywhere else lately.
I could wander upstairs but those corridors are filled with nurses pushing computer carts, and patients maneuvering chemo poles and counting laps. Walking among them, reminds me how useless I am. I have no purpose other than waiting. Waiting for Fran to need something, waiting for the next bit of information to trickle in from the doctors, waiting for side effects to kick in, waiting for the kids to come home, just waiting.
Waiting is a heavy coat.
I head up to the solarium. Other than the enormous glass window looking south over the city and beyond to the lake and the Lackawana windmills, it is just your average waiting room. There is a round dining table, small fridge, sink, and brown Naugahyde easy chairs that face the window. I’m looking for privacy.
The clothes dryer is spinning, but otherwise the room is empty. I leave the TV on for white noise, and curl up on the love seat. It’s embarrassing to admit, how often I’ve envied Fran’s plastic mattress and stiff sheets. I hug myself and try not to cry. It’s tricky to relax just enough to fall asleep without allowing a breach in the armor. I need to keep fear in its cage in order to survive.
The door opens. Ugh. Someone checks the dryer. Without my glasses, all I can see is a fuzzy form in jeans and striped shirt. The beads in the woman’s corn rows click as she folds her clothes. She’s obviously a veteran of this cancer caregiving thing.
There probably was once a time when she didn’t know about the free coffee room, or didn’t need to wash a towel and underwear, or keep a toothbrush in her purse.
I’d only started my residency. Will I have to do laundry someday, or put my name on cafeteria leftovers in the mini fridge? Will I have memorized every brush stroke in “Ice Skating in Niagara Square”? Pressure builds. Like a ship beached on a sand bar, my hull cracks. A tear leaks out. My arms tighten around me. I can do this. I don’t want to cry in front of a stranger.
The woman gathers her laundry as quietly as she folded it, and leaves. I can’t hold back any longer and weep into my sleeve.
The door opens again. I stop breathing. I hope it’s not a whole family. I just want to be alone. If I pretend to sleep maybe they’ll go away. I think, maybe I should go back to Fran’s room, although if he’s chatty I won’t be able to sleep there either. And I need sleep.
Something warm lands on my feet, my hip, my shoulder. The weight of the heated blanket melts my muscles. My steeled interior collapses. Such a gift. My ears pop, and my scalp shifts. I breathe volumes. The chemo will work. Fran will be well.
Click, clack. A blur of blue slips out the door. Lifting her up in prayer, I exhale.