Business Musings: Shock, Survival, and Forgiveness
In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I was in a serious car accident. A tow truck, racing another tow truck, went the wrong way on a one way street, blew a stop sign, and slammed into my boyfriend’s tin-can of a car.
I can still tell you many, many details about that night. I had just turned sixteen. My boyfriend Michael, my friend Mark, and I went to our friend Phil’s house to watch Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, because the episode was about Star Trek (yes, I was a nerd, even then). We were not drinking.
The TV episode ended and Mark, Michael and I climbed into Michael’s car (his grandmother’s car, really), and headed from the wealthy side of town where Phil lived toward my parents’ house, miles away.
We fiddled with the seatbelts because, like masks now (in America), shoulder and seat belts were controversial. It was a political act to wear one. Ultimately, we all ended up wearing ours. That was truly luck; we were goofy teenagers, and we had been goofing.
We drove a few miles past the MacDonald’s where Mark worked and he got agitated because someone had moved the garbage to the wrong side of the parking lot. He and I were discussing the garbage bins when our world exploded.
The loudest noise I’d ever heard, combined with a sudden shock, and what seemed like very bright lights (but might have been some kind of physical reaction) happened all at once.
And then we weren’t moving. We had spun to the middle of the road. We were crammed into a ruined car.
A police officer ran over, asked us if we were all right, and we had no idea. Michael was crying, his glasses destroyed. The front part of the car had cratered in on my knees. All of the windows were broken.
The police officer told us to stay put, then said he knew who had done this, and had seen it all and would take care of it.
I managed to squeeze myself out of the car. The passenger side had taken the brunt of it all. If I hadn’t been wearing that seat and shoulder belt, I would have launched through the windshield, and most likely died, or been extremely badly injured.
As it was, I should have gone to the hospital. I had bruises on my knees that lasted my entire sixteenth summer. A bruise ran from my right shoulder to my left hip, something I also had the entire summer. Who knows if there were internal injuries. None of us was smart enough to get checked out.
All of us went to the nearby police station, and gave statements. The cop drove us home, dropping me off first. It was a different time: no one spoke to our parents. No one took us to the hospital for safety’s sake.
Michael was an emotional wreck, but seemed uninjured. The same with Mark, who was not an emotional wreck.
But everything changed after that night. Besides the bruises, I don’t remember ever seeing Michael again. I suspect we were done with each other, and this cemented it.
He was heading to the University of Chicago in the fall, anyway. And our luck, as a couple, was awful. On our previous dates, he’d also ended up in tears because his car was stolen, which was why he had been driving his grandmother’s car for this particular outing.
I can remember him repeating over and over again, This is Grandma’s car. She needs it for work. She’s going to be so mad.
That accident remains vivid in my mind for a variety of reasons. We’d been having so much fun. Everything seemed rosy. Michael got into his school of choice. We were doing the nerd thing, passionately discussing one of our favorite topics—Trek—and we were heading home after a great night.
Then, all of that stopped. Michael suffered the worst of it, with the car and the glasses. Mark the least, from what I know. I was stiff and sore. I lied to my parents about the bruises because my parents were abusive, and I couldn’t predict their reaction. They never knew I was in an accident, and that it had happened waaaaay past curfew. The other things my friends and I had planned for the week and the summer were impossible now, because none of us had a vehicle. And there were grown-up things to do, like insurance and new glasses and paperwork.
Some grown-ups didn’t do their jobs. The cop didn’t call for medical help. Instead, he buried the accident. The tow truck drivers were arrested six years later for doing the same thing. The previous violation had never made it on their record.
That feeling, though, of everything going beautifully, and then stopping with a bang, a flash of light, and a sudden shock to the system is so palpable I can almost touch it.
I’ve had that feeling at other points in my life, but none as dramatic as that one.
And that feeling—that in-motion-and-then-frozen feeling—is how this past March felt to me. We went from going along, discussing inconsequential things like a TV show and the garbage bins behind MacDonald’s to a life-and-death situation, with no transition at all.
I’m still bruised, but I’m moving forward. I’m lucky; right now, most everyone I’m close to is doing fine, both financially and physically. Emotionally, everyone I know has achieved some version of utter train wreck.
But we’re coming out of that. Back in May, I wrote a post called “Schrodinger’s Future,” in which I mused about the various futures we were facing—a fast recovery and something of a return to normal or a prolonged change that will lead us to a world we don’t recognize.
We now know where we are. We’re in that prolonged change. It’s a transition, and we’ve finally hit it. All of 2020 will be a year of half-measures, making do, and getting through.
Frankly, I find knowing where we are calming. I now know how to proceed day to day. I don’t like it, but I don’t have to like it.
I, you, all of us just have to survive it.
The knowledge of where we’re at, though, took me out of survival mode. I’m no longer obsessively reading the news every day, trying to figure out where we are. I’m donning my mask when I go out. I make that daily calculation—is it worth the risk to my health (and Dean’s health) to do whatever it is I am planning to do?
I can calculate risk now. And, more importantly, Dean and I are agreed. We consult if we’re going to do something outside of our usual schedule, based on the level of risk.
We are more or less staying home, but we did anyway, since we work here. That sense of ease, that feeling of no longer being on the knife’s edge, has made it easier to focus, although not always easier to work.
I’m one of the few people I know who has made the mental transition out of survival mode. (If one of us gets sick, I know I’ll head right back into it.) Now that I know how we’re going to be living day to day, I’m willing to live day to day. I don’t need to be ever vigilante for another tow truck, coming at us out of the dark.
Because I’ve made this transition, I can see other folks who haven’t. In my various social media feeds, I’m watching writers talk about their process or their lack of one. Writers, discussing how their work has changed or just plain stopped. Writers, who can’t face any of their usual projects, and who are feeling lost and don’t exactly know why.
Everyone knows the changes in their writing habits come from the pandemic, but most don’t understand what to do. And many people are worried that the changes to their writing methods are permanent.
Are those changes permanent? It depends on the change. They seem to fall into two categories.
The first category is a complete inability to work on fiction at all.
That’s related to another post that I wrote, back in April, that this crisis is a really big deal for all of us. We’re grieving. We lost an entire world. It’s gone now, receding so far into the past that some of the events from January feel like they happened five years ago, not six months ago.
Another reason for the inability to work is that you might be in survival mode. A lost job, sick family member, or an illness of your own is a big event, and you’ll need to work through that before finding your normal again.
But many folks who still have a job and are physically healthy are also in survival mode. Because they’re still processing all of the changes in the world around them, and trying to figure out what those changes mean going forward.
If you return to the car accident analogy from above, you’ll might be able to see clearer.
Of course my old boyfriend, Michael, was in survival mode after the accident. He had to do a lot of things, not the first of which was dealing with his grandmother’s lack of transportation, his own glasses, and all of the other problems caused by those idiots in the truck.
I had bruising and my chiropractor believes that my back issues started that night. But once I channeled my inner diva, I was able to go swimming, wear shorts, and answer questions about the nasty purple and yellow bruises that ran along my body.
I suspect I was able to recover a lot quicker than Michael. But I still felt the impact, and I am sure there were lingering problems that oblivious teenage me was unaware of.
Same accident: different reactions and recovery time.
And that’s okay.
Just like you wouldn’t expect someone who had been in a serious car accident to immediately resume life as it was before, you shouldn’t expect it of yourself. And if this pandemic has seriously injured you and yours, then deal with the injuries, and give yourselves time to recover.
Even if (especially if?) those injuries are emotional.
Your subconscious is probably processing the changes, and doesn’t yet have time to go into a fictional world. There are times in life when not paying attention is dangerous. And when you’re inside your fiction, you’re not paying attention to the real world.
That might not be emotionally safe for you right now.
That’s okay. At some point, your subconscious will let you know when it’s safe to retreat into fiction again.
The second category is an inability to work on a certain type of project.
You started something pre-pandemic and are no longer feeling that project. Normally, I’d say that you should power on through and get it done anyway. Usually saying that you’re not feeling it is an excuse.
But right now? Maybe you’re not ready to write something light and fun. Maybe you can’t write something dark and depressing. Maybe you’ve lost the thread of the story in all the trauma of the world changing.
Some projects might firmly and forever belong in a pre-pandemic world. You might not be able to return to them, ever. And that’s okay. You’re not the same person you were in January. You’ve been through something you couldn’t even imagine in November.
Some projects will come back when you stabilize. When you let joy back into your life or you can face the darkness that you were writing about. The project will be there waiting for you.
The solution might be something else though. It might be something simple like writing a palate cleanser. You have moved on to thinking about things you couldn’t imagine six months ago. You might need to write about those things. You might need to write in a genre you’ve never tackled before, or about a subject matter you’ve never thought of.
An image might be haunting you. An idea might be floating through your head.
Rather than wait to write those after you’ve finished the project you started before the pandemic, write them now. Get them out of the way. Clear your mind so you can either return to what you were doing before, or so that you can move on to other things.
In September of 2001, I was writing a Smokey Dalton novel. Those are always a difficult write for me, because Smokey’s world (1968/69/70) is not a pleasant escape, but a dangerous place. Then 9/11 happened and our world became dark and dangerous.
I had a week or so of complete focus on the news, as I tried to process. I worked through a lot of assumptions I had made about the world around me that turned out to be false. It was an edgy, jittery fall.
I was grappling with a feeling I had, about loss and change and war. I found myself thinking about the attack on Pearl Harbor a lot, and listening to the music of World War II with its focus on home and a world that was out of reach.
I couldn’t get back to Smokey, so I tried to put those thoughts on paper. They became my story “June Sixteenth at Anna’s,” part of which was set in June of 2001, before the destruction.
Writing that story freed me to continue writing the Smokey Dalton book. It was as if I had had a discussion with myself, and figured out whatever it was I needed to learn.
The solution to stalled writing might be as simple as giving yourself permission to write something just for you.
Or you might be undergoing a sea change.
Remember, we were all just hit by tow trucks racing on a one-way street in the dark with their lights off. We had no idea those trucks were coming, but they changed our lives.
In an instant, really, as the world measures time.
We are in a new place. Like any new place, it will take time to learn all its ins and outs. We have to explore it and understand it—and survive the transition into it.
If you’re dealing with actual life and death issues, from someone being very ill in your life to a major loss of income or career, then give yourself time to recover. Take the pressure off your writing. There’s enough pressure in your life.
Write for fun or relaxation, or give yourself permission to take a break.
If you’re dealing with other issues that have come up because of all of these changes, then give yourself time to deal with them. Maybe you can write; maybe you can’t. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
Remember, this is a very tough period right now, and you’re—we’re—in the middle of it.
Think on that car accident and ask yourself where you fit. Did you get injured? Lose your glasses, your car, your livelihood? Lose your comfort driving? Lose your focus on the future that was, the future that no longer will be?
Then think about it, long and hard, and imagine what you would say to a person who had been in one of those accidents. Would you give them sympathy? Tell them to do whatever it took to take care of themselves?
If so, then why aren’t you doing the same thing with yourself?
If you take the shock that the world has suffered in the first few months of this year, and imagine it as a life-changing car accident, it’s easier to get a handle on the future. We’ve all been through situations that have changed our lives in an instant.
The strange thing about this pandemic is that we all went through that life-changing instant at the very same time.
But even if you’re in the same car with a friend, and that car gets hit by a tow truck, you both won’t have the same aftermath. What happens next depends not just on where you were sitting in that car, but on what you need to do to rebuild your life and move forward.
We’re all rebuilding, by the way. We’ve all lost something. Some of us might have gained a few things too, even if what we gained is just a sense of perspective.
I really shouldn’t use the word “just” when it comes to perspective. Perspective is what enables us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and continue.
Get a little perspective on your writing. It might not be the most important thing in your life right now. It might not even be the tenth most important thing in your life right now.
You will reassemble your life. Your world will form around this transition, and eventually, we’ll all wake up in the new world, created from this turmoil.
You will be writing in that new world. You might even end up writing a lot in the latter part of the transition.
But be kind to yourself in the midst of the change. Change is confusing, chaotic, and hard. Think of the lights, and the sirens, and the shards of broken glass all over the street. Think of the bruised knees and shattered glasses.
Focus, not on the moment of impact, but on the things it will take to rebuild. We are moving forward, whether we recognize it or not. And a new world does await.
We will get there.
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“Business Musings: Shock, Survival and Forgiveness,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Mechanik.