Let’s just go ahead and call this week’s blog a failure. The challenge for the class blog is to do new things, out of our comfort zone, to see what thoughts and words will flow. Instead, I went back to something old, not something new. I dipped back into medical journalism, taking on a three-day freelance gig tweeting for @SCAINews and writing for PCRonline at a conference in San Diego. The kind of thing I’m actually good at.
The comfort found there was, well, discomfiting. Weird but easy. Like I’ve been dating someone truly great, someone new, who I truly love, but then an old flame called and we decided to hook up for the weekend and it was really, really good, but now my head is spinning. What was I thinking, going back! What if I’ve ruined everything I’ve got going on now?
I showed up early at press registration worried that they might not even give me a badge. I’ve always had the luxury of being a staff reporter, on a team; I’d never gone to a meeting as a freelancer. But there I was, a mustache of sweat trembling above my upper lip while I rehearsed some lines as to whom I was working for and why. I’d brought my official Canadian Association of Journalists press card with me even though it expired last year. No: I let it expire. To hell with it! This year I’m not a journalist, I’m a writer.
Other reporters came and queued behind me while I was registering but I didn’t turn to see who they were. I was too anxious about being outed as a quitter and a fraud. I was reminded of all the times Fedex showed up at my house with packages from head office that needed to be signed by the Medscape Global Director. I’d pretend I was protecting the Fedex guy from my lethal attack dog and snake a hand out through a crack in the door so he wouldn’t see what I was and wasn’t wearing. I needn’t have worried. The woman at media registration greeted me cheerfully by my first name and handed over my badge. All that lip sweat for nothing.
I wheeled around to face the other reporters and realized I knew them: smart, kind, interesting folks from the big American dailies. We’ve gone out for fancy dinners over the years and exchanged stories about vacations and weddings, then split the bills so we could expense our separate publishers. They weren’t registering, they were waiting patiently for me to turn and tell them what the heck I was doing there. Why did I leave my post in the first place? Was everything okay? Later, on an escalator, I hollered a hello to Steve, the editor who replaced me at my old job, on the adjacent escalator: him heading up, me heading down. “A metaphor for your career,” quipped my friend Mike, who used to work for me and now works for Steve. Then added: “JOKING!” when he saw my face. Everyone wanted to know the same thing. Where did you go? What are you doing now?
I’m trying to write a book, I told them and they’d nod. Lots of them had written books. Fiction, I’d clarify, and their eyebrows would jerk upwards as if I’d just admitted to taking a tourist flight to Mars. How’s that going, they’d ask, and I’d shrug. The truth is, I have no idea.
I’d also say: I’m taking some time and watch them search my face for the what and the why of it. Because how does one take time? Take it where, exactly? I can’t store it up and I’ll never know how much of it I have to set aside or spend, and whether I’ve gone and blown it on some frivolous caper when I should have been squirrelling it away for something bigger.
I’m glad I went to the conference. I was grateful for the chance to see so many old friends and colleagues I miss and admire. What a rare treat to do something I’m actually confident about and to bump into the very people who used to read my work, who’d hug me spontaneously in the over-air-conditioned corridors and say: You are missed. It is not the same without you. I’ll come back to medicine sometime, I reassured them. I just don’t say when that might be.
As a bonus, Abraham Verghese was the key note speaker and gave a beautiful talk, quoting e. e. cummings’s “i carry your heart with me,” then later followed me on twitter (!). That in itself was worth the airfare.
Home again, home again, I dress in comfier shoes. My class work and my book have been drumming their fingers, huffing about the days of neglect. At first I couldn’t look them in the eye because they knew where I’d been and disapproved. Instead I did my taxes, I wrote up some invoices. I resealed the floor tiles in the shower and baked bread from organic sourdough starter originally smuggled into Canada from a hamlet in Bavaria. I even hand-washed some delicates. Yesterday, finally, I opened up the waiting file and it’s not as terrifying or terrible as I remembered. So I got down to work.
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FWIW: I’m back at school, taking a course requiring me to write a weekly-ish blog, sometimes about the works we’re reading in class, sometimes about new encounters or experiences, particularly those that involve other art forms. Class blogs are here, here, here, and here. If these posts seem different from those in the past, this is why.