I didn’t sleep much last night. This isn’t that uncommon, and hasn’t been for much of my life. What was new were the ribbons of sentimentality leapfrogging an overactive, restless mind. It feels like I’ve been on auto-pilot for…. decades, really, but especially the last couple of years. A smiling, happy-go-lucky, perfectly fine pilot running on fine-tuned dreams of creating a happy childhood for the two most important people in my universe: my daughters. Everything I do is for them because they are my whole world and I would trade not a single second of the last sixteen years because, if I have nothing else, I’ve been their mama : the only title in this life that I care about. The small stumbles, the quiet successes, the failures and all my insecurities are the pieces of motherhood, and map the whole of my heart.
Awhile back, I finally finished, and then finally published, Haven, a really emotional book that, if I’m really honest, I’m not sure I was actually ready to write. When I talk about the books, I’ll happily speak about Ash, Anna, The Character, even the memories within its pages. Recently, a reader messaged me about Broken and Taya; talking about that book was like revisiting a forgotten friend because it doesn’t get the same attention The Character or Dance For Me does. It makes me heart-happy if someone wants to talk about one of the books because those characters are the only friends I’ve ever really known. Despite the seriousness of their pages, despite the nightmares provoked by the memories buried within a “story,” talking about them brings me peace and comfort, even the ones I can’t personally re-read.
Haven is different.
It has been from the very start. I can’t re-read it, not even it’s careful chapters and I can’t even think about it without feeling my fingers curl into my palms and my entire body stiffen. I’m thoroughly convinced the reason Ash showed up mid-writing of this story was because I was not okay and who and what Haven means to me was too fragile, too raw, for me to see her as a character. Ash showed up to remind me that, because it was a book, I could write the ending. As the author, I could claim control over how the story was supposed to end. Occasionally, I’ll get a message from a reader about the story and, admittedly, when the first one I got, I skimmed over it and let it sit for two whole days (that’s unheard of, if you know me: if someone takes the time to reach out to me, I am not going to make them wait for a response. Making someone wait two whole days for me to write back to them—-literally unheard of) because my heart started racing as if I were having a panic attack every time I tried to opening the e-mail. What if the reader, this stranger I didn’t know, said something — it wouldn’t take much at all for me to come utterly unglued.
Very shortly after publishing Haven, I started having the Kid dreams again. These are a series of dreams that always happen in order: the first one isn’t so bad, but it leaves me feeling sad. The second one is a little worse and I usually wake up in the middle of the night and check to make sure I have something like a baseball bat or a lamp or something heavy near me… just in case. But the third dream in the series…. where this little boy and I are in an empty room, void of everything but a chair. The door is locked and the room is filling with something — it’s not water, but it looks like water (for the purposes of explaining the dream, I’ll call it water). I start to panic and stand on the chair, holding Kid in my arms. Kid, he slips beneath the water, and I search for him frantically, noticing as a I do my father standing outside the door, looking in. When I realize Kid is gone, the water starts receding and I stand, shaking, waiting to find his body. But, when the water is completely gone, Kid is nowhere in sight, disappeared. Then the locked door unlocks, freeing me. Except… not. Except I wake up feeling terribly caged, guilty and more alone than words can describe.
These dreams don’t come every night , but since finishing Haven, they’ve come more frequently than I care to admit. And the final dream in the series is enough to scare me mindless as soon as it gets dark.
Then, I felt alienated from people I truly love. I felt guilt for working from home because I should be in the other room with the girls or at least coming up with stuff for them to do. I felt guilt when I started going into the office because I shouldn’t be away from them. Feelings of inadequacy in literally every area of my life washed over me in waves, day after day. I failed in relationships (romantically, yes, but also familial and in the few friendships cultivated), I failed at careers (because who was I kidding to think I fit in with real executives), I failed at writing (yup; sure, I make money with the writings and, yes, readers do occasionally message me but, really, in the scheme of things, they are more like personal diaries than real books). Ultimately, I was hurt. Very, very hurt. And, slowly, the smiling, happy-go-lucky person I was supposed to shrank under the weight of realizing anew just how unimportant I was in the grand scheme of things.
And that was enough to make me retreat, spend time building higher, stronger walls, walls made of silence. If I didn’t speak, if I didn’t make waves, then I couldn’t be hurt anymore and the Kid dreams, I reasoned, must have been brought about because of Haven. Once she faded, the nightmares would go away, too. And, once that happened, I figured, maybe I’d be able to relax the death grip I’d taken my heart in.
Well… it wasn’t long before the walls effectively closed me into a cocoon of silence. I all but deleted social media. I changed the name of the blog’s address (from thestoriesthatmatterblog to tiffinijohnson because I couldn’t see or even think about the phrase stories that matter without crying; were they stories that mattered, really?) and I just maintained a routine carved out over many years, a routine that would hopefully help my baby girls. The walls prevented me from feeling as overwhelmed. They also prevented me from feeling much of anything; I wasn’t sad or angry or any of that. I was just numbed.
Last night, a message from a reader popped into my inbox. Faint stirrings of …. excitement? ….. crept into a tiny piece of my heart as I opened the message. The message wasn’t overly emotional, it didn’t go into detail, it just said the blog and a couple of my books had “changed [her] life” and she wanted me to know. I still don’t understand why I did what I did next but, after responding to her e-mail, I came to the blog and spent a few minutes re-reading some of the posts, trying to understand how these simple, uninspiring, bland posts might inspire or help someone. That’s been my ultimate prayer for the writings. My grand dream for writing has never been for self-healing (that’s a side effect I reap the benefit of , sure, but it’s never been why I write) ; my grand dream has been to write stories that matter, stories that could strike a nerve with someone and whisper to them, you’re not alone.
I couldn’t read much of the blog posts; I couldn’t re-read any of the books she mentioned, not a single excerpt. But, for the first time in awhile, I wanted to re-read the writings. I wanted to remember and feel the joy that these characters have always brought me. So, I re-read about half of Me. A sad book, yes, but also told in third person and woven with pieces of people I’ve utterly and completely adored. It reads like a true story, not a memoir, and, as such, it’s been comforting more than once, even though the main character Abrielle makes me cringe. I found myself chuckling and drawn into the story. I wrote this book! I know the ending, I know every chapter intimately and, yet, I was drawn in and found myself enjoying something.
On the one hand, I’m a very emotional person. I feel things deeply and I love having true conversations that are meaningful. On the other hand, it’s very, very hard for me to tell people in person how I feel — good or bad. I like to think I’m steady, someone for others to count on, someone reliable and calm and strong and sure. Being vulnerable runs a risk of being abandoned and although I’m, frankly, more comfortable with that then I used to be, it still is scary. And I’m always worried about what the other person needs or wants from me; what if I say something that they don’t want to hear? Writing or making things — the other day I wrote the girls each a poem and left it for them to find on their pillows, they each get at least one letter a month added to their book of letters that I plan on gifting them when they get married — is the only fair way I know of sharing how I feel because it doesn’t require anything from the other person, not even an acknowledgment.
Anyway…. tomorrow is a new day and have you noticed lately how warm it is? Or how bright the sunshine is? I noticed that today. And I went online and purchased a live butterfly kit — we used to do this every year — it comes with five live caterpillars that you feed and watch and then, ultimately release. Butterflies are magical and I could write an entire novella about how and why. I also thought about the 100th anniversary Tuesday of the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Women’s Right to Vote. On August 18, 1920 when the amendment was ratified, my state wasn’t overly thrilled with this change and, when everyone else in the country rang bells to celebrate it, we did not. On Tuesday, at noon, all across Tennessee bells are going to be ringing and you can look at that in any number of ways you want, positively or negatively, but still the fact remains : those bells will be symbolically righting history, regardless of the number of intervening years.
I’m looking forward to that.
And the fact that I’m looking forward to that simple thing, and to the arrival of some live caterpillars, and the writing of a (very long) blog post and scheduling school lessons for the upcoming week and that, when I heard thunder earlier, it made my heart leap because I love thunderstorms….. these are the makings of hope and the stirrings of a (slightly battered) resilient, passionate and still joyful heart.