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Marissa Lingen

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Back from Starry Coast [Sep. 30th, 2015|10:08 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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So last week I spent a week in a beach house in Charleston doing the Starry Coast writers’ workshop with ten strangers. No longer strangers after a week together! I had very little idea what to expect, other than the immediate practicalities, but I went in with a great deal of hope, a bunch of chocolate to share, and a theory that I could deal with almost anything for a limited time.

It. Was. Great.

I am used to coming out of critiquing sessions and having to think a long time about what I want to do with the ideas I got there. While the ideas here were diverse and sometimes contradictory (as they should be!), I got so much clarity of path that I’ve been doing the revisions right away before my local writers’ group meeting, rather than waiting to triangulate from it. I really loved how much variety in project there was, and how the structure of the workshop let us line up with the manuscripts we had the most to say to in the in-depth critiques. I came out of it so energized and ready to do this project and also the next, completely unrelated one. I am also prepared to boost the other projects when they’re done and ready for some cheerleading, because there is some serious stuff going on there. You’ve seen the post-workshop smugs of, “I got to read that first!” before, and I’m sure you’ll see them again from me. (Because I did.)

When I’ve read other people talking about this sort of workshop setting in the past, they have burbled about sitting out on the porch looking at the ocean to critique their novels, and I have gone, yeah, okay, ocean, porch, whatever. But! We sat out on the porch looking at the ocean to critique our novels and it was so great! I think it was Desirina who pointed out that a certain amount of relaxation helps, and that was definitely the case here. For one of the crits it was raining gently. There were dolphins in the sea going by.

And the sea. Oh my dears.

So…the vertigo, as I told you before I left, continued terrible. But I wanted, oh, how I wanted, to go in the Atlantic anyway. In addition to having no sense of balance whatsoever, I have gas permeable contacts–you know, the little tiny ones that wash easily out of one’s eyes–and no sport goggles or even sport band for my glasses. So: no sense of balance, no ability to navigate the beach with my cane or get into the water safely, no ability to tell up from down once in the water, very limited vision.

I packed my swimsuit anyway. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. I thought, well, if there isn’t a time when the weather is good, if there isn’t a way the beach is situated so I can do it with help…most importantly, if I don’t decide that I can trust anybody to help me…we’ll just see what happens. No assumptions.

You can see what’s coming. Everyone there, everyone, everyone was beyond wonderful about my vertigo. Seriously. All week long. I’m choking up writing this, because I literally cannot imagine that they could have been better if it had been planned around me, which of course it wasn’t. Nobody was sitting around fussing, that would have been far worse. People went off and did things without me that I couldn’t do all the time, and that was great, that was how it should be, because if they were hovering going, “Now…no one can do anything if Marissa can’t do it too!” that would have been awful. But. I cannot think of one single person who did not very casually help me out, offer assistance when it was needed, take a moment to seamlessly take their turn being the one to see that something was bothering me and lend a hand. Every. Last. Person.

If you haven’t dealt with a balance disorder, you might be thinking, oh, well, good, you got nice people. Or even “good people.” And I did. But nice people, good people, even people who know me well, screw this stuff up all the time. I’m pretty sure that at least one of the four people who kicked my cane out from under me coming home in the Atlanta airport was probably a very nice person–they just weren’t paying attention. For the workshop I got nice, good people who happened to be observant in the right ways to make dealing with my very nasty health problem as easy as it could possibly be under the circumstances. I am so grateful to every single one of them for that.

So on Friday when we didn’t have anything else going on, Molly and Michael helped me into the ocean. They each took an arm and held me steady, and they helped me out as deep as I wanted to go and let me experience it, vertigo and all. It was amazing. It was a three-dimensionally utterly disorienting experience, because the sand does what wet sand does under your feet, and so the only solid points of reference I had in the universe were their arms. But I felt utterly safe. They were not going to let anything happen to me. And Molly is a natural at guiding people with a balance disorder, saying what the terrain is going to do and what’s going to happen with the waves. In the middle of it all, the sun came out from clouds and was even more dazzling to my vision, and my inner ear started doing very slow backflips (that is, axis of reference doing complete spins so that up was at some points literally down), so if there was some kind of space station salt water sand and pool system, it would probably be very much like that, terrain leaving under your feet as you stepped, water coming up at intervals utterly unpredictable to you, light feeling more or less omnidirectional, only sensation and the safety of trust in other humans doing what they said they would.

I referred to going in afterwards as “sobering up,” because it very much was. The aftershocks stayed with my system significantly for hours and hours afterwards, the sensation in my feet and my balance system of who-knew-what. Unnerving. Fascinating. Worth it.

The thing about a balance disorder is that you get very accustomed to what you can and cannot do safely, and having something that feels new, that is new, but that is also completely safe–that’s rare and precious. I haven’t captured a tenth of it here. It was a great gift.

There were other lovely things that were much more mundane and easy to describe–cooking and eating other people’s cooking/baking, going out for meals, going to the Hunley museum, playing games, hanging out talking until all hours, companionable reading in the common living area–so great, so great.

I’m paying for it now. I did basically the second half of the workshop entirely on adrenaline. Food is not at all my friend right now (I failed at gelato, just for reference–I made a try at a bowl of homemade gelato and failed), and I am so disoriented that when I woke up in the middle of the night the other night, I had zero physical cues for where I might be. Like, up, down, sideways, who even knows. It was the level of disorientation where you hold very still because the bed might or might not decide to abandon you, and without any sense of gravity, you have no idea which direction will be the wrong one that will make it do that. So I’m trying to get a little better rested, hoping that the meds will kick in (ANY MINUTE NOW DAMMIT)…and still revising this novel as many hours a day as I can manage, because the next one is breathing down its neck.

Everyone needs to spend time on how to get better. No matter what stage you’re at, no matter what kind of thing you’re doing, you need to spend the time with other people examining it, turning it over, thinking about what makes it work and what could make it work better. And this was a week dedicated to that in some very concrete ways. I wish that for all of you, whatever it is that you’re doing, at whatever level.

So: workshop. Yeah. Hell yeah.

I didn’t catch up on things like posting the link to the interview F&SF did about my story, and then tonight I saw a best stories of the year so far link on IO9 mentioning that very same story. I am pleased and abashed and feeling like I am not doing my share to promote the issue of F&SF it’s in. But honestly, at the moment the thing about “I would forget my head if it wasn’t attached” is particularly apropos because it doesn’t feel as though it is. So if there’s something I should be doing for you in the next little bit and you’re afraid I’ve forgotten, please remind me! I don’t mean to have forgotten.

Oh, one last somewhat relevant thing in that regard: I had already read Robert’s gorgeous first novel The Glittering World before the workshop, and now I know him, and he is doing an audiobook Kickstarter! Audiobooks are important for access! Audiobooks are fun for the whole family!…um…the whole parts of the family you will allow to listen to really dark fantasy, anyway. Maybe just the more grown-up parts of the family in this case. Anyway, go check it out.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: redbird
2015-10-01 04:10 am (UTC)
Oh, most excellent!

(I am sorry the gelato failed you, though.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-01 11:24 am (UTC)
It is excellent gelato. I failed the gelato.
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From: diatryma
2015-10-01 04:20 am (UTC)
I spent the weekend on the shore of Lake Ontario, and it was astonishing how calming the beach could be.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-01 11:26 am (UTC)
I keep resolving to find more opportunities to get up to the big lake. Because it is the best lake. It says so right on the label; everyone agrees. Even for a day trip. And I have stopped forgetting how happy it makes me to come up over the rise and see the big lake.

But the big lake is...well, I now have the urge to get people to help me in it, too, but that time of year is gone now. And even when that time of year is back again next year, it will be a very chilly embrace.

I think I want to anyway.
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From: diatryma
2015-10-01 12:40 pm (UTC)
One of Angela's birthday traditions is that she goes to a beach when possible. A few years ago, I loaded up a grocery bag with rereads and she went to Okoboji, not realizing that this is Iowa, not California, and our lakes close for the season. She was the only person staying in her motel, and often the only person in the diner. She still went in the water-- end of September in Iowa is different from end of September in Minnesota, and if it's Superior you mean there's much less water to heat up-- but it was more a ritual wading than a phone-ruining splash.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-01 12:57 pm (UTC)
Yes, I do mean Superior.

I have waded in Superior with vertigo, with help. I adore wading in Superior, especially off the rock beaches. (THE ROCK BEACHES ARE THE BEST.) But even wading, at the end of September--well, the Edmund Fitz went down in early November, and I guarantee you nobody was swimming in a swimsuit the month before, and wetsuit swimmers were likely few. The big lake is never warm, that's its glory. You go up in August and it's still not warm. The rocks are sun-warmed and hard under your feet, and they stay put, and then the lake is so cold, so clear and so cold.

I love my big lake.

And up to my ankles wading is different. With my big lake it's worth it. It's just...yah. Not the same.

Do you know my big lake story? I give you that, here. It's very short. And here is Meg Hutchinson's big lake song to go with it, here.
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[User Picture]From: ckd
2015-10-01 04:22 am (UTC)
How wonderful that you could have that experience!
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2015-10-01 04:49 am (UTC)
How phenomenal. So thrilled for you. :D
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From: swan_tower
2015-10-01 08:03 am (UTC)
Oh, that sounds fantastic. And thank you for writing so vividly about the experience; it helps to have that window, to understand what good accommodation looks like.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-01 11:46 am (UTC)
Some parts of this particular accommodation are really hard to predict. For example, one of the people I love most in the world is physically incapable of watching their personal space in terms of not bumping into people if they are sharing a kitchen. I have talked to them about it. Others have talked to them about it on my behalf. They are trying very hard and very earnestly. It is something they honestly cannot notice themself doing--if you are both getting lunch in the kitchen and you are reaching up for a water glass in the cupboards, they will bump your shoulder just marginally as they move past to get into the fridge. They will not mean to. They will be trying not to with all their conscious mind. But they are physically unable to keep the edges of their physical person that much in mind.

For someone with normal balance, this could be fine, or it could be mildly annoying; if it's someone with normal balance who is coming out of a serious trauma, it could be emotionally triggering, which is its own bad stuff I will not speak to here because it's not mine to speak to. But for someone with basically no functional balance at the moment, preparing lunch in a kitchen with that person is exhausting. Spending a week in a house with that person would have been incredibly difficult. Every time they bump you into the cabinets, it takes a minute to regain function. Every time you're jostled, the world has to realign noticeably.

So some of the accommodation was things like me getting a main floor bedroom/bathroom and getting help on the stairs when we left/were out in public/etc. All sorts of small things. People giving me an arm, getting me water, checking in with how I was doing. But some of it was that I got really lucky in just plain how they handled themselves.
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[User Picture]From: teadog1425
2015-10-01 12:11 pm (UTC)
Apologies for intruding on the conversation, but I was really struck by what you describe above, as it mirrors something I have found with horses.

Some horses find it veryvery hard to know where their edges are... i.e. they do not have a good sense of where their bodies are in space.

They tend to scrape themselves going through a doorway, because they misjudge where they need to angle themselves to avoid the frame (and then get anxious about these doorways that just bite them out of nowhere).

They tend to bump into people without really registering it (and then get anxious about these people who are suddenly cross with them for no reason that they can see).

They tend to be anxious about loading onto trailers because they cannot judge whether they fit into the enclosed space that they can see.

Often what helps these horses is a Tellington Touch approach of gentle stroking over the surface of their bodies - the gentle touch rewires their brains to pick up signals from their body-edge (i.e. their skin) and rewires the proprioceptive awareness of where their body begins and ends and where it is currently standing in space/within the environment.

Horses that have this difficulty have sometimes developed this lack of sensitivity as a way of compensating for physical discomfort - e.g. they have ongoing low-level discomfort in their feet, so they just remove most of their awareness from their feet, and become really clumsy about where they are - stumbling, tripping, difficulty balancing on uneven surfaces etc - or there is discomfort somewhere else in their body, so they just, on some level, check out of their bodies as a coping mechanism (this can be very obvious (zombie-like horse) or very subtle (clumsy, 'stupid' horse)).

Some of this can also be linked to an emotional confusion about where they begin and end - these horses also tend to be very reactive to the emotions of other horses and people, as though the emotions themselves are contagious in the way that a more grounded, confident horse wouldn't experience - and/or to an emotional distress that causes them to check out of their bodies as not a safe place to be.

I don't know whether this is a useful piece with regards to your experiences above, but certainly in horses, this is not something that the horses are consciously choosing to do, but it does seem to be possible to rewire their awareness of their physical self and their 'edges' to increase that sensitivity. I have no idea whether this works for people as well, but it seems as though it might.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-01 12:15 pm (UTC)
The problem is that it is a lot to ask of a person who is not living with one. If it was a housemate, a spouse or other life partner, quite possibly this level of rewiring would be a reasonable thing to ask. But for a loved one who lives somewhere else and is not experiencing it as a problem in their life but as an aspect of your disability...you see the issue?

I don't experience the comment as intrusive at all. It's very interesting. I'm just not sure that it works as a solution in this specific case.
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[User Picture]From: teadog1425
2015-10-01 12:24 pm (UTC)
Yes, I completely agree - I was not at all sure that it worked as a potential solution for this - the parallels just really struck me strongly!

I guess the only other thing is, it would make me wonder whether the person found that they bump into things more generally without consciously realising it - in which case the rewiring might deliver benefits to them in terms of less general bruising, rather than just in terms of your benefit, but I completely see your point and agree about what feels possible under the circumstances.

I had labyrinthitis just over ten years ago now, and though the worst of the balance issues resolved afterwards, I don't have as good balance as I had before - luckily I have a very tolerant horse, who is used to me overbalancing gently into her at various points! It's nothing close to your experience, but my sisters still talk about the 'hilarious' time when I kept falling over (I didn't - it just felt as though the ground was tilting away from me all the time) - I don't think people really understand how disorienting it is until they've been through it - but I also _loved_ your description of the sea dipping above - a really evocative distillation of the experience into words for me. Very powerful! (And emotionally powerful in other senses, because I find it almost impossible to put myself in those circumstances of depending physically on people, and so that bravery on your part and their stability really touched me.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-10-01 12:47 pm (UTC)
I am so glad no one around me finds it hilarious when I fall. I think I would have a hard time feeling warmly towards them if they did.

I am not always great at asking for help and trusting others to give it appropriately, either, so this was indeed really good.

I think one of the things that can contribute to more bumping is upbringing. If you were raised in very small living quarters or with quite a few people, the idea that you would have a bubble of space around you that you would only break deliberately to express affection is one that can be extremely foreign. Whether it's ten children in a farmhouse or four in a city apartment, if there just isn't room, one of the adjustments some people make is to habituate to other people in their personal space very quickly. (Others go the other direction and the bubble around each family member/housemate is inviolable.) And even when they're not in that situation any more, it has defined itself as normal in some very subconscious ways that are difficult to undo. I don't know for sure, it's just a theory, but it seems not an unreasonable one.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-10-02 01:10 am (UTC)
This sounds frighteningly familiar. My spatial sense definitely varies with my emotional state. You know those jokes about women who can't parallel park when they have their periods? That's me. (I can, actually. But I have to think my way through it very carefully, and talk myself out of feeling guilty that I am like this, and, and, well, sometimes it's easier to park somewhere else.)
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-10-01 12:51 pm (UTC)
Yippee! I am so very glad that workshop was excellent in all the ways!
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