Prompt 198. Making Peace with Past Selves
& an essay and prompt by artist & writer Natalie Eve Garrett
A number of folks have asked about the puppy I mentioned last week, so that’s what I’ll start with today. After losing my beloved dog Oscar in February, I’ve been desperate for a canine companion. I spoke about this with a friend who helps find homes for rescues, and she mentioned Fran, a four-month-old shepherd mutt found on the beaches of Aruba, and offered to let me foster her for a long weekend.
Fran is so sweet and so good and so lovely; she wriggles and flops so much that Jon and I started calling her Noodle. But I had completely forgotten what it takes to care for a puppy. The first day was a total disaster, where I was running around, out of breath, cleaning up accident after accident. However, by the end of the weekend, we found a groove. Fran made excellent progress on house training and learned “sit” and conquered our corner of Brooklyn too. Our countless strolls around the neighborhood would’ve felt impossible a few weeks ago, when I was still relying on Dazzy, my bejeweled walker, to get around.
There were so many things I loved, like how we’d crash on the couch at the end of each day, exhausted, and Fran would snuggle up to my neck for a nap. It was the best medicine I’ve had in a very long time. Fran gave me a totally different sense of our new home—being here with her and Jon, playing in our backyard, feeling her joyous, canine energy in the space.
But in the end, as much as it broke my heart, I came to the conclusion that I’m not well enough to have a puppy yet. I pushed myself to my absolute limit caring for her, and this was during a window when all the variables were perfect—when I felt relatively good, when Jon was home, when my parents were here to help. That won’t always be the case, since a new phase of treatment is just around the corner. I want sweet Fran to be lavished with all the energy and attention that she deserves, and as much as I want to, I don’t feel confident I can do that yet.
The heartbreak hits on multiple levels, from the un-met yearning for a furry companion, to the reminder that I’m not going to regain a semblance of a normal life anytime soon. It was also hard because, while Fran was here, I kept getting glimpses of myself ten years ago, when I first adopted Oscar. I remember it as this perfect thing. But compared to Fran, who is sweet, gentle, good with kids (honestly good with everyone), Oscar was very badly behaved, and those first few weeks were kind of hellish. Still it felt doable.
Remembering all this was painful, because it led me to measure the distance between my first bone marrow transplant and my second. I was forced to acknowledge that I’m living with a whole new set of limitations and how much harder things are this time around. I felt sad and angry at these reminders of what was, and a strange sense of isolation from that past version of myself. And truthfully, it felt like a loss.
But the next day, I sat down to review this week’s poignant essay and prompt by Natalie Eve Garrett, and it had a profound effect on me—it shifted my thinking. (Isn’t it such a joy to read or hear or see something exactly when you need it?) In her essay, which is also the introduction to an anthology she edited called The Lonely Stories, Natalie offers a reframe: instead of weaponizing our past selves, we can welcome them as companions, as friends.
P.S. Mark your calendar: Our next gathering of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers, is happening Sunday, June 12, from 1-2pm ET. Hope to see you there!
P.P.S. A few weeks ago, I sent out a Dear Susu column where I answered a question from “Cracked Vase,” who asked “Is it selfish to ask someone to marry you if you’re ‘broken’?” Well, we got a message from Cracked Vase last week where she shared some very exciting news. You can read all about it here!
A quick note to say:
Sweet Fran is still available for adoption! I’m preemptively envious and so happy for whoever ends up with this pup, and I’m hoping our community can get the word out and help her find a home. The adoption is being facilitated by the Barking Meter through Sgt. Pepper’s Friends. Anyone interested can find an adoption application here.
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Prompt 198. The Lonely Stories by Natalie Eve Garrett
Growing up, I used to imagine that all of the past versions of myself were still everywhere I’d ever been. It was a bit like believing in ghosts and a bit like having imaginary friends, but they were just younger versions of me. I’d spend an afternoon romping through the woods alone; at night, lying in bed, I’d picture myself out there, eyes shining in the dark. Part of me genuinely believed that I was still out there, or that day’s version of me was, along with all the other versions of me that had ever romped in the woods. As an introspective, creative, and frequently sick kid, I found this vision both slightly unsettling and profoundly reassuring: no matter what happened, I’d always be there for myself.
Episodes of prescribed solitude were a constant throughout my childhood, precipitated by sinus infections, migraines, anxiety, and chronic fatigue before it had a name. In my elementary school class, I was the one who was “always sick,” although I felt ashamed when classmates would say, “You’re always sick,” as if to suggest that I was never really sick but instead secretly wanted to spend days home alone in bed, my hands pressed against my temples. Overall, I was fortunate: my afflictions were neither severe nor life threatening; I had two caring parents with good health insurance; my mom could take time off of work to shuttle me to doctors and help me recover from two regrettable sinus surgeries. Nevertheless, there was no magic cure. So I waited it out, in the dark, alone. When my head throbbed, there was nothing to do but lie in bed and rest. My imaginativeness was in part a product of all of this alone time, but it was also a balm. It was hard to be deeply lonely when surrounded by the hazy echoes of my former selves.
Now in my forties, with children of my own, I still get those migraines, but reclusive recuperation is harder to come by. Instead, I often find two sweet children jumping on me as I lie on the sofa with a compress over my eyes. In times like these, I’m sometimes flung back to memories of my children’s even-younger selves—the downy ringlets and squeakier voices, the way my daughter said pleps instead of please and my son hoisted himself upright by hugging my leg. Once in a while, I catch a glimpse of my former self in them, too, or spot a shadow of myself out the window, scrambling over fallen trees in the woods, calling me to me. These glimpses of the girl I once was, and in a sense, still am—wide-eyed, fragile, unsure, and brave—help me feel less lonely. Once in a while, I just need that reminder: I’m still here.
Your prompt for the week:
Picture yourself in the company of a younger version of yourself. What would you say to one another? Would it feel like a kind of homecoming? Write it as a scene.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments below, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Natalie Eve Garrett is an artist and a writer. She’s the editor of The Lonely Stories, a collection of personal essays from 22 celebrated writers exploring the joys and struggles of being alone. She’s also the editor of Eat Joy, a collection of stories exploring how food can help us cope in dark times, and The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, Natalie lives with her husband, two children, and rescue puppy in a town just outside DC, along the Potomac River.
This excerpt is adapted from the introduction to The Lonely Stories. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2022 by Natalie Eve Garrett.
Featured Community Member of the Week
Breida Hill lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and works in mental health care. She found the Isolation Journals early in the pandemic, just as she was completing graduate school, and began using the daily prompts as inspiration for writing, drawing, and painting. A couple years later, with her job in full swing, Breida noticed a renewed desire for creativity and began drawing in her sketchbook more regularly. A week later, the Isolation Journals 100-day project was introduced, and what she calls “the serendipitous timing” helped make the habit stick.
“I draw primarily from my camera reel of past trips and hikes, sunny days shared with friends, family, and sometimes just me,” Breida says. “I love the feelings of awe and peace I get to find in nature, and I’m really enjoying the process of revisiting awe-inspiring places through drawing at my kitchen table.”
Learn more about our Isolation Journals 100-day project.
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Dear Susu #5: Marriage Vows & the Myth of the Good Catch, on the source of our self-worth—with an exciting update!
On Achy, Glorious, Hopeful Youth, a discussion inspired by Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter
On Moons and Birds, a reading and reflection on Ross Gay’s poetry and artistic preoccupations
What about taking a middle path in regards to a furry Friend…?
A therapy dog 🐶 who is already trained…?
After my only child (Sam) was killed in a violent crime:
After being like Forest Gump, walking an endless road:
I found Rossi, my Angel pup.
He is my shadow…
Rossi and I send heaps of love to you.
Thank you Natalie and Suleika for this poignant prompt. I actually went to bed last night thinking "I'm so LONELY" and then I woke up to 'The Lonely Stories'. I can't wait to read the book.
The confident, rebellious, 18-year-old girl, arrives at an experimental college in 1974 armed with her adoration of Henry David Thoreau, Buckminster Fuller, and Thelonious Monk, and her lifelong dream to be a wildlife veterinarian. But she quickly discovers that the courses required for vet school are too hard. "I'm not smart enough" she realizes, and she moves on to something else. "No, no, no! That's not it at all!" I tell her. "You've just never had the experience of overcoming big obstacles. You don't know how. You don't even know that such a concept exists. You can do it. Actually you need to learn to do it because you will face obstacles and challenges like this with every single thing you want to do in life." But she doesn't understand, doesn't know how to try, so she pivots to another dream. Many more doors swing open for her, more amazing adventures are handed to her. Again and again she arrives at the very cusp of her dreams, again and again she stands in front of the mountain...and turns away.
She used to carry a whole lot of regrets, but now those regrets have turned into insight and wisdom, and even gratitude for a lifetime as a professional dabbler.