Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Prompt 262. Stillness in a Busy World
& a prompt by novelist Cleyvis Natera on breakthroughs in despair
These last few weeks, I’ve been working a lot. I have a handful of different projects in process, and every day at 3:30 a.m., hours before the sun rises, I’ve been waking with a start. Likely my nervous system has been on overdrive—because it’s not like I set an alarm for that godforsaken hour. It’s so early that even River objects. When I begin rustling around, she gives a kind of groan, as if to say, “You’re going to make me get out of this warm bed and venture out into the cold to that unheated potting shed you call an office? Really?”
In light of all this busyness, I was looking forward to a respite from the grind this week—a Hudson Valley retreat hosted by a friend. It had been on my calendar for weeks, and I was eager for a break from work meetings, emails, and the siren call of productivity. The plan was to go hiking, hang out with old friends and make new friends too, to eat delicious dinners—to simply have fun. And it began exactly as I imagined. I arrived Monday night at the most beautiful country inn. It was raining outside, which made a candlelit dinner in a refurbished old barn all the cozier. I was feeling a bit tired, but that’s the norm for me, and I was just so happy to be there.
I woke up the next morning at the usual 3:30, did some reading and writing, and was looking forward to picking flowers at a local farm. But as the hours passed, I started feeling worse and decided to go back to my room. And that’s where I stayed for the rest of the retreat—as a fever spiked, as my throat became sore, and other symptoms of what I now know is Covid appeared.
At this point, I’m definitely on the other side of the worst of it. My fever has abated, and I feel a little better each day. Having undergone my second bone marrow transplant during the Omicron surge, getting Covid was something I’ve held as my great fear. But I’m very fortunate that my immune function is high enough now that getting a cold or even Covid isn’t as dangerous to me as it would have been, and I’m now in a position to balance the risks of getting sick with my desire to be out in the world.
In fact, just before the flower picking commenced, before I knew what was wrong, I wondered, “Should I just muscle through?” But I didn’t go, and I’m so relieved I sequestered myself rather than exposing more people. I’ve heard of lots of friends and acquaintances who’ve been hit with Covid recently, and it’s a good reminder that taking a few extra precautions as this wave moves through could make a big difference.
Now I’m convalescing at home, with Jon in the guest room, with my dogs for company and occasional naughty entertainment. And by that I mean: at one point I went to fetch something from the garden, and I returned to find Sunshine had gotten a hold of the one box of tissues I had left—which when you’re a human blob of phlegm feels like a precious resource—and she had not only pulled every tissue from the box, but had also shredded them, and as pieces floated up and around, she was prancing through them as if in her own personal snow globe. She was so delighted with herself that I couldn’t even be that mad.
And while this week wasn’t the retreat I imagined, perhaps it was the retreat I needed. After several days of nonstop sleeping, my body feels better and my head feels lighter, and when I took a peek at those work projects yesterday, I felt a renewed vigor and clarity. Over the years, I have come to regard these moments of convalescence as rare opportunities for stillness in a busy world, and I’m trying to savor the quiet. It’s a lesson I have to relearn again and again—that rest is as necessary for my mind as for my body.
Now onto today’s guest essay and prompt—by my sweet friend, the novelist Cleyvis Natera. Cleyvis and I met at a writing residency back in February, and we instantly bonded over our shared love of words, our time in bone marrow transplant land, and how sometimes it’s in our darkest moments that we find the light. Her piece is oh-so-gorgeous and wise too, so please, read on.
Some Items of Note—
If you missed last week’s virtual creative hour, we posted our notes from the Hatch: “On Reading as a Springboard.” Carmen led last week, and she shared a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary and talked about how reading figures into her own journaling practice. You can find a recap of the hour and some springboard prompts here.
In need of a little pick-me-up? Every Friday, we send up our small joys in a chorus of collective gratitude—such a gorgeous song. Mine involved adventures in braiding challah bread with my dear friend Lizzie. I’d love it if you added yours—here!
Did you miss our Letters from Love workshop with Elizabeth Gilbert? A truly sacred and healing experience, it’s still available by video replay. And as one community member said, “I wished I could’ve been there live, but the power was not diluted by time in the least. I wrote my letter as if it had been waiting for a long time, and heard something I have not been brave or wise or present enough to recognize. Feeling so much gratitude!” Paid subscribers can access it here.
Prompt 262. Breakthrough in Despair by Cleyvis Natera
When my husband and I decided to start a family, I’d been writing fiction for the better part of a decade. While in my MFA program, I’d written one novel that had failed. I’d quickly turned my attention to another project, a book I initially found easier to write, which made me confident I was guaranteed to succeed in publishing it.
Yet life has very few guarantees. As the years passed, the book became more complicated and difficult to write; the story seemed to slip through my fingers. Eventually I became so disappointed by the heartbreak of rejection I left this other book to the side. There were other ways to have a meaningful life, I told myself—after all, I had a thriving career as an executive in corporate America, I was a new wife, and I wanted to be a mother. I repeated it often, especially when I felt the book and its characters tugging at my imagination.
There is no way to describe the way despair can alter our sense of reality. During some routine pregnancy tests, my husband and I found out our first child, a son, would be born with a dangerous blood disorder, sickle cell anemia. It was a terrifying disease; I’d seen my older sister suffer from it since childhood. I was determined to do all I could to prevent my child from experiencing such pain.
After my son, we were blessed to have a daughter who was a perfect bone marrow match. But the blessings during that time in our lives are difficult to calculate. The first bone marrow transplant failed to engraft. After many difficult conversations, we decided to try again. Then only days after the second bone marrow transplant, while we rested and played silly games in a light yellow hospital room, our son’s appendix burst. It was a dire situation. He had no immunity, so the surgery could be fatal, but the appendicitis might also end his life.
We lived suspended for three days while the doctors treated our son with antibiotics. Each day extended before us endless and sepia-colored. I remember not sleeping. I remember trying to eat and having the sensation that everything tasted either of cardboard or too salty. I remember having a thirst that overwhelmed me, that wouldn’t go away no matter how much water I drank.
I found myself oddly dissociated from my life, and I felt my mind drifting to the characters in my long-untouched novel time and time again.
But suddenly I had an unexpected understanding: the fear of losing my child brought into stark relief the losses my characters had suffered. It also made clear an error I’d made—attempting to write about gentrification, womanhood, about grief, about displacement from the self, the community without talking directly about love. This was the breakthrough I didn’t realize I needed.
My son recovered from the appendicitis after those terrible three days. A few weeks later we learned his second bone marrow transplant was successful. He emerged sickle-cell free, ready to rejoin the world after many months of isolation with health and an endless curiosity that blooms and blossoms as he gets older.
The breakthrough I experienced in that moment of despair injected life to a story that might very well have remained buried. Neruda on the Park was born out of the deepest moment of despair I’ve known as a parent, as an artist, and as a human. Every time I hold my book it sparkles with all the love and grief I lived through to earn the right to write it.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about a time you had a breakthrough in despair. What did you learn? What did you do with that knowledge?
Cleyvis Natera is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Neruda on the Park. She studied psychology, literature and creative writing at Skidmore College and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from New York University. Her fiction, essays and criticisms have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, The Kenyon Review, and Kweli Journal, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Barnard College in New York City and at Antioch University's Low-Res MFA program in Los Angeles. She lives with her husband and two young children in Montclair, New Jersey.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Love in a Time of Cancer, an installment of my advice column Dear Susu, where my mother Anne Francey and I discuss how to endure suffering and setbacks, and answer the question, “How do you get through?”
On the Spiritual Dividends of Pain, a video replay of my Studio Visit with the writer, actor, and director Lena Dunham, where we talked about believing people’s pain, asking for what we need, and canceling plans
Letters from Love, a video replay of our workshop with the bestselling author and speaker Elizabeth Gilbert, where she shares her decades-long spiritual practice for combating self-criticism and tapping into an ocean of unconditional love