So my husband's dragging me away this afternoon (it's Thursday morning), and I'm thinking, shoot, I don't want to go anywhere, not even to spend several days off-grid, in the woods, tramping around, getting all dirty and smelly and feeling strong, like an Amazonian queen. Which is how I am and feel, at times, when I've put in a good day's hike.
But, for a person who never turns on her cell or answers it even when it's on (that sucker's always on silent, which drives my kids bananas); for a woman who turns off her phones all day, every day . . . I have tremendous trouble unplugging, being off-grid, going away. Always have had. Now, we can chalk this up to childhood traumas or something--and I'm sure that's somewhat true (you don't know true togetherness until you're squashed into a tiny camper, when it's about a thousand degrees outside and even higher inside--you're baking in there and lying on a little bunk hammock with about an inch of clearance between you and the ceiling, and then . . . you have to pee. In a bucket. Right there, while everyone listens . . .).
Yet, when I was in my residency and fellowship, I hated going away, too. I used to hoard my vacation and mental health days; I hardly ever used them up, and it may have something to do with the dread I felt about returning: the killing pace, the emergencies, the constant demands. All that was still there when I got back on Monday morning, whether after a weekend or vacation. (Which is why, I'm convinced, a reason this impending sense of doom rolls over me on Sunday nights. I have a tough time sleeping at the best of times, but forget Sunday night.)
When I'm away--when my husband tells me I'm on vacation--I don't really relax-relax until about Wednesday or Thursday and, then, only grudgingly. (I'm like a Belgian shepherd that way: always on alert.) So, say, about three or four days into it, I sort of unwind and then, boom, before you know it, time to go home. Hardly makes it worthwhile, you know? Always been like this, too. So, gosh, thank heavens for the Internet that allows me to do this NOW and NOT FRET about having ZERO INTERNET access and all that while I'm gone and feeling pressured to get the blog done and OH, NOOOOO... I'm so important, I MUST be reachable . . . without me, all life on Earth will cease to exist . . .
Here's the thing, and I said it a couple weeks ago when I wrote about Facebook, et. al.: you are simply not that important. (Okay . . . I'm not that important, but you understand. It's that prototypical "you" I'm talking about.) Unless you have dying relatives or something, the world will continue. There is nothing THAT all-consuming and life or death for which you absolutely MUST be in touch, tethered, reachable forever and always. Even though I don't feel that way when I'm forced to go away, I've known this for a long time, and here's why.
You want to know important?
Death is important.
People actively dying is important.
People THINKING about actively dying is important. This is why God invented pagers for nurses and doctors, so we would always be around to stop bad things from happening, or try to make bad things right. As a private practitioner, I was available 24/7, and yeah, when my pager went off at two in the morning, I knew that patient wasn't calling just to shoot the breeze. If we were lucky, that patient was only THINKING about jumping off the bridge or taking pills or whatever. If we were unlucky, the patient was TAKING the pills or had a foot off the bridge or broken out a window . . . You get the drift.
When I was an intern and resident, I was tethered with a pager-umbilicus, too, because when it went off and squawked about a code blue . . . that was my cue to hustle because only I, the surgical intern, knew how to slap in that CVP line without dropping a lung or skewering an artery. (That was the truth, too, in the hospital where I trained.) When that pager went off, people were dying or trying to. Most number of times I blundered out of bed and ran to the same patient trying to tank, in a single six-hour period? Eleven. ELEVEN. Try to relax, unwind, get some shut-eye knowing that's out there. Go on. I dare you.
Now, this isn't to brag or anything. All doctors and nurses and techs and EMTs and cops and all that . . . people in those professions all do the same thing. So this isn't about me being so wonderful; it's about me doing my job, the one I volunteered for, entered willingly.
But this is also to make a very important point--well, important to me. It might even explain why I can't walk into a hospital these days without a mild return of PTSD (I'm serious here, folks): the elevated heart rate, the sweats, the semi-flashbacks to blood and guts and all that, the smells that trigger it. It might also explain why I both HATE being on-grid and off it, too; my love-hate relationship with all tech, to be honest, and so my need to venture into the wild and this overwhelming urge, sometimes, to stay there even as all my instincts are screaming that I MUST go back.
People write about your brain on- and off-grid: the feelings of anxiety about going away, the pervasive sense of urgency that you simply MUST be available, that kind of thing. There was a very interesting series of articles in the New York Times a couple years back studying this same phenomenon, and it's worthwhile reading, so take a minute.
What I found the most interesting--for me, personally--was all that stuff about attention: that the demands of a twenty-four hour news cycle, this barrage of information, reinforce the sense you are just SO IMPORTANT--and all that is awfully draining to creativity. (I could go into the neurochemistry of it--and it is REALLY fascinating--but I'll take pity.) We've all heard about the benefits of unplugging, getting away, letting those creative juices flow . . . etc. But so many of us can't do it or have a hard time or feel a profound ambivalence . . . blah, blah. As I think I've pointed out, though, our presence and attention to the minute workings of the universe are not required. The world will keep turning.
For the me of the past, though, this was not so because when I wasn't around, bad things did happen. They also happened when I WAS around; patients still paged me, had a hard time, etc. In fact, I guess you'd say that I lived with the threat of bad, that Damoclese Sword of IMPENDING DISASTER AND DOOM--and it was constant. Coming back after a break--whether as an intern or in practice--I always felt my gut tighten because a patient would've crashed during the night; a previously stable patient would be in the hospital (I'd get these long voice mails about who did badly while I was away, for example); someone would've died . . . again, you understand. So vacation--going off-grid, leaving that beeper on the bedside table--became merely a prelude to more bad, more doom and gloom, and--sometimes--death.
So, not fun.
These days--the me of the now--I'm only a little better, both because there is the PTSD-esque spectre of all that hanging around, just at the corner of my eye, and . . . well . . . because people about whom I care a tremendous amount will die when I step out these days, and that's a fact.
Now, I know you'll think that's silly, but it's true. Yes, I agree, wholeheartedly, with Stephen King and others who've said that a writer must allow time for the boys in the basement to do their thing. Even when I think I know my story, it's when I take a break--mostly, to exercise, and I do that every day, but it also happens after a night's dreaming on it--that the "answer" for how to keep my book alive, my characters doing their thing, all the plates spinning, comes to me. (As it did this morning, for example: I'm leaving in about five hours; I know I'll get maybe an hour of writing in before the rest of going away sucks me down; but I awoke, and very abruptly, knowing precisely what was keeping one of my characters from getting on with it already. That will necessitate killing about twenty pages and rewriting, but that's the work.)
NOT being allowed to continue--being wrenched away--leaves my characters in a real lurch. I know that I will, obsessively, rehash what's going on with them while I'm gone. I'll jot endless notes. I've got an outline, but I'll expand, in my head and on scraps of paper (I always hike with a pen and paper). I do my best heavy-duty thinking on the trail; I know that about myself.
Because here's the thing: I really am these people's life-support system. Quite simply, without me, my characters will wither up and die. They NEED me, Energizer Bunny Ilsa, to keep them ticking.
No, this isn't narcissism, and I'm not psychotic (at least . . . hang on . . . no, I just checked; I'm not). But what I just wrote is the God-honest truth.
If I die tomorrow, my characters enter limbo. They'll never live again, for anyone. I'll never visit them again, and they won't get to live for you either.
So, for someone like me, it's imperative that I stay with them, keep them breathing and suffering and living for as long as I can--becauase only I truly know how to throw in that writerly CVP line for them. No one else can do it--or if they do (say, someone decides to release and/or finish the great previously unpublished, unfinished posthumous works of Ilsa J. Bick), my people won't be entirely the same. Come on, you know what I'm talking about, too; it's WHY no one can write the real conclusion to Edwin Drood, or WHY the Mozart Requiem is both so glorious and yet ultimately unsatisfying because the poor guy DIED after the first couple measures of the Lachrymosa. The folks who came after, trying to finish that masterpiece, ended up only repeating what Mozart had already done, just with different words. (Really. Go listen sometime. You can tell, INSTANTLY, what's Mozart and what isn't.)
Sure, I'm not Mozart. Some days, I'm not sure I'm even me. But I do know that I also unplug from THIS reality on a daily basis--because I dive into the page and the work at hand. You could say that I go on a vacation for as long as I can every single day; I get to go to a different country and leave all this, only to have to return to . . . pay bills, make dinner, etc. Pulling free from my worlds--leaving all those people HANGING--is tremendously anxiety-provoking. Yes, I know when I've done a good day's work. I also know when I've sucked and that novel's really limping along on life support. So I live in a continual push-me/pull-you of only you, Ilsa, will do.
I think this is reinforced by the fact that I'm working on the last volume of the ASHES trilogy. After it's done . . . that's it. No more chances. No re-dos. For people I've nurtured for so many, many months now--crying for them, worrying about them--the moment I truly pen the last sentence, they are . . . unplugged. They won't die, of course. Crack the spine, and I can read about them. But I won't be able to unplug and visit their world and make them live in quite the same way, ever again.
Once the words are set in their mouths, they're set. They'll never again have that chance to grow and become.
Would I have it any other way? Heck if I know. I only know it's the way I--and they--live now.
Okay. I'm gone . . . and this is the sound of me, unplugging . . .