In her 2012 Ted Talk, novelist Karen Thompson Walker describes fear as "a kind of unintentional storytelling that we're all born knowing how to do…Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next…How we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives."
Walker's novel, The Age of Miracles, resides in the canon of pandemic literature, in which the Earth starts rotating strangely on its axis, time slows down, people grow sick, food supplies wane and society begins to crumble and divide.
In our current shared reality, the Earth appears to be rotating normally, but the COVID-19 pandemic, with its concomitant illnesses, deaths and societal shutdowns, provides plenty of real-life events on which to focus our fears.
We asked entrants into this year's nonfiction category to reflect on fear and anxiety, perhaps expecting most would center on the current pandemic. While some did, many others mined other experiences to offer reflections on our current moment. All found imaginative and creative ways to query the unavoidable uncertainty and fear life sometimes delivers.
In "Raven's Offering," first-place winner Kimberly Gotches reclaims Edgar Allen Poe's hectoring bird with one that provides more solace during a time of unrest and uncertainty.
Second-place writer Joan Brooks Baker returns to childhood in a piece of creative nonfiction that evokes the anxiety and fear of the unknown within what should be the safety of family.
And Juan Blea considers his own history of living with fear and anxiety in an alcoholic home, and learning to soothe it through the joy of writing.
Each of this year's entries—and there were many—deserve recognition. All of the writers offered personal vulnerability and insights much needed during this time. While fiction writers can decide "what will happen next," as Walker says, the rest of us will have to wait and see.
But in the meantime, sharing our stories and, yes, our fears, will help us through.
The Raven’s Offering
By Kimberly Gotches
After I bought and had lived in my condo for almost six months, I felt the familiar urge to pack up my things and run. I'm not sure what brought it on that time. It may have been the maggots crawling out of the rotten potatoes I had forgotten, or it might have been nothing at all. When it first snuck up on me, I tried to name it "Delayed Buyer's Remorse." That would be easier to face than my "what-am-I-doing-here-what-was-I-thinking-why-am-I-not-who-I-thought-I-should-be-by-now" kind of thoughts.
I felt the familiar tightening in my chest and then the sharp flutter in my stomach—short fits like a bird just learning to use its wings.
I grabbed my car keys and flung myself into my car. I wasn't thinking about what I'd leave behind or where I'd go. New Mexico is hot in July, and I flinched when I touched the steering wheel. Undeterred, I turned the key in the ignition, but the car wouldn't start. It coughed and fumed, and in its last breath said, "No more. We have moved 12 times in 10 years. I'm exhausted."
I sat there until the sun was just starting to go down. I was tired. I was tired of reacting to the flutter inside me. I could still smell the exhaust wafting towards me, smelling like rotten eggs. I admitted defeat. I left my car and returned to my condo.
I headed straight to my freezer for a tub of woe-is-me vanilla ice cream and held the Hershey's chocolate bottle over it, but hesitated. Freezer burn. Does freezer burn make ice cream unsafe to eat? You could get sick. You hate throwing up. This is just you being anxious. But sometimes you're right…It only took a single flutter to convince me to toss the ice cream. As I turned towards the trashcan, I heard a loud…thud.
Lily, my Yorkie, ran to the patio door, barking and scratching against the glass. I rushed to the door. It was dark, so I flipped on the light. Right in the center of the 8×8 enclosure, was a small pile of black feathers. A slightly curved beak stuck out. It's a baby raven, I thought. It looked straight at me with bright, blue eyes. I knew, instinctively, it was not just any raven—it was my raven.
When I first arrived in New Mexico, I spent a day walking around the Plaza in Santa Fe. I came upon a store called KESHi (Kay-SHE). The sign said, "Zuni pottery and fetishes."
Intrigued, I walked inside. An older woman with a long, white braid over her shoulder greeted me from behind a glass counter. Everywhere I looked, I saw pieces of pottery. But I saw nothing for fetishes—no whips, handcuffs…
I approached a large basket that was sitting on the countertop. It was full of small, stone animal carvings. I pulled out what looked like a turquoise bear.
"These are fetishes," said the woman. "Zuni carvings. Each one holds the strength and wisdom of the animal."
"Which would you suggest?" I asked.
"Oh, no. That is not for me or you to decide," she said. "The fetish chooses you."
She instructed me to walk around the store. The walls were lined with shelves full of hundreds of carvings. I briefly held a purple rabbit in my palm. It was cute, but it wasn't coming home with me.
It was the raven who found me. She was all black and her small specks of bright, blue eyes fixated on mine. I placed my raven on the counter.
"Hmmm," said the woman. "The raven sheds light on all you don't want to face." She stared at me harder than anyone had looked at me in years.
I looked down, pretending to search for my wallet in my purse.
The woman took out a golden jewelry box. She lined it with a pillow of white gauze and gently placed my raven upon it. Her fingers were both wrinkled and nimble. She then took out a packet of purple powder. "Corn meal," she said. "Your offering. You sprinkle it like this." She waved her fingers from the edge of its tail to the tip of its beak.
The woman placed the lid on the box. She nodded at me when she handed it to me in such a way that I instinctively did a mini curtsy.
I noticed Lily scratching on my patio door again, and looked back into the bright, blue eyes of the raven on my patio. I remembered that I'd never again opened the box or given an offering to my fetish. My raven seemed to ask, "How could you forget me?"
"I'm sorry," I said.
She turned her head away from me.
I took out my phone and Googled, "what do I do if a raven falls into my patio."
I learned July was the end of the season for raven fledglings to leave their nests. According to Google, it was unlikely she had fallen. She had either jumped or her mom pushed her out.
Moving to New Mexico had been my jump out of the nest. When I announced my intention to leave my safe, suburban life in Illinois, my mother assumed I'd lost my mind.
"What if you have no internet?"
"What if a snake comes up the toilet?"
"What if you run out of gas in the middle of the desert and there's a dust storm?"
I didn't have the answers. I enjoyed my safety nets—gas stations on every corner, 24-hour pharmacies, living near an Apple store…
Just thinking about what it might be like brought on the fluttery feeling in my chest and stomach. When I was a little girl, anytime I got the flutters, I would lay against my mom's chest. I would try to match my breathing to hers—slow and steady.
I escaped to New Mexico so I could breathe on my own and so I could outrun the flutters. But my flutters had followed me.
"How did you get here?" I asked the raven.
I looked above my patio. There was no nest that I could see. It's like she simply fell from the sky.
Google recommended feeding her dog food and water. I poured a bowl of each and slipped through the patio door, careful not to let Lily out or the raven in. I slowly bent towards the ground, and she flapped her wings. I fell backwards, spilling most of the water. What if she attacks me? Can birds have rabies?
From then on, I watched the raven from behind the glass door. But she wouldn't touch the dog food or the water, and she made no signs that she was capable of flying.
I knew what I needed to do. I ravaged through drawers and shelves. Finally, I saw the glimmer of the golden jewelry box.
I opened it and was only partially surprised to see the raven fetish was gone. What was left in the box was the packet of purple powder. The offering. I grabbed it and hurried to the patio.
I knelt, slowly, before my raven. She lifted her head. The feathers around her neck were sticking straight out, like a court jester's collar. I slowly opened the packet of corn meal and sprinkled a pinch of the purple powder from the edge of her tail to the tip of her beak. I wanted something grand to happen in that moment. But she simply stretched out her neck and patted the ground with her feet. Then she stopped moving for so long my legs got numb.
I sat on the ground and continued to watch. Each of her moves were slow, deliberate. At one point she fluttered her wings. This is it. But she stopped moving again. After hours of watching, I started to mimic her movements.
Stretch, pat, flutter, pause. She was the embodiment of exactly what I craved.
Flutter, pause. She was not a slave to the flutters. She knew how to exist with the flutters. Stretch, pat, flutter, pause. We moved together in the in-between, before the dark turned to light, and I felt something very new to me—a deep sense of peace.
I went back inside, laid my back against the cool glass, and I fell asleep.
A stream of light flooded the room.
I bolted up and pressed my face to the glass, searching for my raven.
My patio was empty. I opened the door and walked to each corner, to be sure. She was gone. The sky that day was the brightest blue I'd ever seen it.
Anytime I look up now, I think she's staring down at me. And anytime I feel the flutters, I pause. I take a deep breath, and I sprinkle an offering—from the edge of her tail to the tip of her beak.
A former youth librarian from Chicagoland, Kimberly Gotches now shares her passion for storytelling in New Mexico. She is a communications strategist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and active member of the Storytellers of New Mexico—a nonprofit that promotes, supports, and encourages the art, knowledge and history of storytelling. In her debut book Under the Branches, she tells stories about drawing strength from her family tree.
In the Car
By Joan Brooke Baker
A rare treat, family dinner at a fancy New York restaurant was planned for that night, just the four of us—Father, Mother, Alicia and me. Father had made dinner reservations this time; he usually didn't, which would result in a sad "no more seating for an hour" disappointment.
I had dressed up in my new party dress. I waited, ready, standing at my usual spot—my wide-open bedroom window—to gaze at the sweep of soft rain falling on the pedestrians in the early-evening rush hour. Steam, hotter than the heavy air, rose up from the sidewalk. Dusk was a particularly good time for people-watching as the hurried crowd crossed Park Avenue and waited on the median—hesitating, calculating whether they could make it across the next two lanes before the cars started up, or before a heavier downpour started.
Father called out from the hall. "Let's go, the garage brought the car around, it's parked downstairs." I heard the coat closet door open as he retrieved his summer hat. "Come on, I don't want a ticket, and I have to stop for an errand before we go to dinner." I shut the window, and ran out to the apartment vestibule for the elevator's arrival.
Father drove fast, then slow so he could compete with the changing street lights. He made revving engine and squealing brake sounds, to make us laugh. "Oh, John, please just drive," Mother said with a bit of an irritated laugh, but my parents seemed in good moods that night so Alicia and I hoped for a non-bickering evening.
Ten minutes later we pulled over and parked at the curb of 71st Street and Third Avenue. Father turned to all of us. "I'm running up to my secretary's brother's apartment right over there. He needs help with a letter to Immigration. I'll be back in fifteen minutes, no longer. Lock the doors, and turn on the radio—Lawrence Welk is on with his band."
"Oh, no, Daddy, we don't like him, he's awful," I said.
"Now, Joanie," he chuckled, "we do like him. He's smooth, makes you feel sweet and good, especially in this heat.
"Hurry John." With the window down, Mother urgently called out to Father as he tried to fast-step away, "I don't like us parked at this place. It's grimy. Why do you have to go see this person now? And the car's air conditioning is hardly working."
"It's okay, you'll be fine. But, yes, I'll hurry."
The tension, the fights that started with a gesture, a word, a laugh at the wrong moment seemed to be in the air as Father left. Usually, as children do, we thought their fights might be our fault. It took me years to recognize that the source of irritation in Mother's tone, aimed at us, was meant for Father. Now I know, as we sat in a hot car, parked on a dreary curb, that Mother imagined Father not going to Mr. O'Donnell's apartment at all, but instead toward a quick flirtation.
I learned how to get out of the way. Sometimes Mother seemed to be spinning with anger and we didn't know where it would land. "Alice, take a Miltown," the tranquilizer of the day, Father would demand.
The hazy drizzle gave Third Avenue an eerie somberness. We were parked alongside, almost under, the Third Avenue "El" train. The rhythm of the El's clanking beat threw off a sound I liked. Passing trains created shadows on the sidewalk; they looked like monsters, and Alicia and I giggled at their creeping movements. Mostly the city didn't scare me; it was about fun.
Mother turned to us in the back seat. "Come on, children. We'll look out the window and talk about the people out there. You like that, don't you, Joanie?"
We were quiet for a while until Alicia said loudly, "Look, Joanie! Look at him, that mean man pulling the dog so hard."
I rolled down the window and yelled, "Don't do that, you bad old man!"
"Joanie, stop that! Shut your window," said Mother sharply, pressing her fingertips to her temples. "That loud train. I hate the noise. And don't kick the back of my seat."
Without warning she turned to us with a scowl on her face and said out of the blue, "And girls, don't talk to strangers. Bad people are out there. The city's not safe for little girls. And I'm really talking to you, Joanie."
"Why me? I don't talk to strangers. Who said I do? Maybe it's Alicia who talks to strangers."
"No, it's you, Joanie. Alicia's older, and she knows better. Yesterday, when we were on Lexington Avenue, buying the cherry pie around the corner, you stopped a man with a big dog. I know you wanted to say hello to the dog, but the man just didn't look agreeable."
"But if the dog is nice, the man should be nice." I sat still with my hands in my lap wondering why I had annoyed her. "And you talk to strangers too. I've seen you. And, you're not scared of the subway either. Sometimes you pray down there. You told me that too."
Mother laughed and turned around to pat my cheek.
I laid my forehead against the car's window pane, and wondered why the window remained cool in the heat. "Why can't I open the window? I want the raindrops to splatter inside," I announced.
"You should keep the window closed because it's dangerous out there, that's why." When Mother got mad, I didn't think she looked so pretty anymore. "See those men pushing each other, going in the bar?" she asked.
"Yeah, maybe they're all going to get drunk," Alicia said with a slur that made me laugh.
Mother rummaged in her handbag and pulled out a handkerchief. She felt better with a handkerchief in her hand. She shimmied herself over to the driver's seat. "I have the keys right here. We could drive around the block."
"But then Father won't find us," Alicia said with a rising sob.
Mother's two hands gripped the wheel.
Her mood changed, as it often did. She turned with a terrible frown to look straight at me, and said in that scary voice: "Joanie, now listen to me: You're only 9. You're a friendly little girl—too friendly—and you want to talk to everyone. But you can't." She gestured at Alicia, "Ask Alicia: she knows. Some people are bad and mean. Yesterday I heard a horrible story about a man who grabbed a little girl, pushed her down—a friendly little girl just like you—and did terrible things to her fingernails. He ripped…"
"No, no, don't tell me! I don't want to hear!" I screamed over her story, sticking my fingers in my ears.
I started crying. I yelled, "No! I hate it when you tell me horrible things. Stop it, stop it. You scare me." I pushed her hand away. "Why do you do that? You tell me bad stories. Where's Nanny. I want to get out." I pulled the lock up and opened the door. Alicia cried and tried to hold onto my leg.
"I don't want to be in the car, I'm scared," I blurted.
Mother reached over and pulled me back in, back into the perfumed scent of the sticky leather seats. "Okay. I'm sorry, Joanie." She dabbed at her face with her now messy handkerchief. "I won't say anymore. I just got upset." She turned toward me. "It's this place. I don't know. Lock the door."
The three of us became quiet. Mother had her head in her hands but then called back to us without turning. "Don't you girls want to climb over the seat and sit up front with me?"
"No, we don't want to. Alicia and I want to stay back here." I squeezed my eyes shut. My hands were curled up in fists to protect my fingernails.
Soon we saw him. Father waved and opened the door to the driver's side. He waited for Mother to move over to the passenger seat, but she didn't budge. We were in tears. Mother's voice, a mix of anger and relief, asked why he had taken so long, her voice rising in irritation when he didn't answer. "Didn't you realize it's dangerous here? Where were you?" She demanded. "Those men in the bar; they looked at the car funny; we were all scared."
"Yeah, and it's hot in here," Alicia chimed in. "Mother wanted the windows rolled up so we were boiling and we couldn't breathe."
I whimpered, "I don't want to go anywhere. I want to go home. I want to be with Nanny. She'll make me supper. I'm not happy anymore."
Father was mad. We could see his face turning red, two shades darker than his auburn hair, as he leaned down to look at all of us—from Mother to Alicia to me. "What could have happened?" he yelled at Mother. "The girls are crying. I was only gone twenty minutes or so. Oh damn it, Alice, why couldn't you take care of this?" He hit the top of the car hard with his fist, and Alicia and I cringed. "What have you done, what happened?"
Mother glared at him. "How dare you?" she cried. She pushed the car's door open, getting out in one big lunge. "Why is it always my fault? And just where were you? You weren't with Mr. O'Donnell, were you?"
He glared back at her but said nothing.
Alicia and I cowered in the back seat. We'd seen her really mad before and could feel something bad coming. She turned and suddenly moved to the curb in big strides, unlike her usual ladylike way. Our heads out the window, we saw her pick up a beer bottle and throw it against the bar's door. "That's what happened, and I'm mad," she exclaimed.
Two men lurched out. They shouted at Mother standing tall in front of them, "What the hell are you doing, lady?"
I cried out, "Please…don't…stop."
Father grabbed Mother and somehow pushed her into the passenger seat. I knew Father wanted to fight—I had seen him punch a taxi driver once—but instead he shouted back at the men, "We're leaving. Don't worry. I'm taking her home, it's okay."
He threw himself behind the wheel. The tires screeched, Alicia sobbed, I sat on my hands and closed my eyes.
"We're going home," he shouted to the back seat.
"But we were going out to dinner. You said we were going to have family fun," Alicia said.
"Your mother ruined the fun."
Joan Brooks Baker has been a Santa Fe photographer for a long time and is now an aspiring writer with a recently published memoir (June, 2020) entitled The Magnolia Code.
My Happy Place
By Juan Blea
Nowadays, it seems like dark forces swirl around us at an overwhelming level and create inescapable fear and anxiety. The pandemic coupled with both national and local political division dogpile on top of already scary and worrisome lives. I mean, being a parent means living with fear: I don't know of any parent who doesn't worry about their kids' health and happiness. But even those among us who aren't parents live with fear and some form of anxiety about finances or work or sickness. It really does seem like fear and anxiety are far more common than the cold nowadays.
I've spent a ton of time studying anxiety and fear. I grew up in an alcoholic and violent environment and I have no doubt that my own battles with anxiety stem from my childhood development. The reality is that I've never known life without fear. With alcoholism a constant presence and the unpredictability it brings, I never really knew peace. I was always aware of something lurking in the shadows. Heck, something was always lurking in the brightest light of a summer day. I was always afraid of something. Even now as a middle-aged guy, bouts of dread hit me. Sometimes, the anxiety is so strong that my mind races faster than a super-charged five-liter engine and I feel like I could vomit my stomach. Not its contents, the actual organ.
My own relationship with fear, anxiety, and alcoholism led me to formally studying their processes such that I can learn and teach ways to manage their negative impacts. I've learned that while there are no easy answers, there are ways to prevent anxiety spiraling out of control. Those ways are rooted in managing the heart.
Now, managing the heart may sound poetic and metaphoric, but it isn't. The heart is intricately linked with the mind and in learning to feel the heart's pace in order to slow it down, the racing mind will also slow down. There are a bunch of ways to slow the heart: deep, slow breaths; praying; meditating; and physical activity are all effective ways to slow the galloping heart. But for me, there is one way that is most effective. I call it "happy place writing."
Here's what I do: When I feel my heart beating faster than usual, I know that my mind might start giving way to speeding ruminations. I'll then pull up a photograph of places I've been in which I've experienced peace, happiness, or both, and then write without any objective about what that place means to me.
For example, there's a place high in the Pecos Wilderness where the Panchuela, Jack's, and Cowles creeks all flow into the Pecos River. My dad and I used to fish there regularly, and over the years, I've taken quite a few pictures of various scenes within that area. There's one location in particular, that I return to in my mind's eye whenever a bout with anxiety threatens to overwhelm me.
My dad died of cancer a couple of years ago, and a few months before he died, we went to our spot and fished for a couple of hours. His cancer had progressed, and it had become clear that there wasn't much we could do about it anymore. His treatments had begun failing and he was needing regular blood transfusions. His anger and depression had grown with his cancer's progression, which in turn meant that my own fear and worry and anxiety levels were off the charts. On this particular trip, he was able to walk the few hundred feet to a spot where a rock juts over the rushing water and provides an overhang under which fish enjoy their lives. The river provides them with an abundance of critters that they snack upon without much effort, due to the way the water pooled under the jutting rock.
My old man wasn't the best fisherman. He'd always put too much weight on his line and use items like corn for bait. Not sure where he learned his techniques, but fish stayed away from his line, even in the most "can't-miss" spots like the one under the jutting rock. Although he was stubborn, as most Vietnam-era Marines are, his hands were cancer-weakened and he let me set up and cast his rod. Within a few seconds, he had his first bite. Minutes later, he was stringing a fish. Then another. That particular day, he caught his five-fish limit and was king of the river. I grabbed my camera in order to document his banner day. I called to him as he strung his last fish and he turned to me and gave me a thumbs up. My camera and I captured that moment.
Whatever pain and anger he felt, and whatever anxiety and fear I felt were completely gone in that moment. He was happier than he'd been in months, and even though he'd get really sick in the weeks and months to come, that particular day there was no cancer or anxiety. All we felt was a father and son bond that not even death can erase.
When fear and anxiety grip me and my heartbeat speeds up, I grab that picture and let my mind wander to that particular day. I then grab a pen and scribble in my notebook and invariably remember details I thought I forgot about things we discussed or how cancer disappeared on the edge of the river. I'll let my pen go where it wants to go with as little conscious thought as possible and before long, my heart rate has slowed and whatever I'm far better able to manage whatever circumstances that may have triggered the anxiety.
Writing may not be everyone's elixir, but it works for me. There are countless other ways to arrive at a "happy place," but reflecting on one of the last really good days my dad and I shared dissipates anxiety just as it did that day. The key to managing anxiety, ultimately, is managing the heart and finding ways to slow it down so that it slows the racing mind with it. Fear and anxiety may rule today's dark world, but they don't have to rule our own lives. My hope is that we can all learn to find those happy places where love and light comfort us and weaken fear and anxiety's dark grip.
Juan Blea is a writer and substance abuse counselor living and working in Santa Fe. He blogs at jblea1016.com.