• tarahthornburg

Lift the Concrete: Writing and Living With Your Guard Down

It happens to all of us: Some days we’re floating through life just doing our thing. All is well. Things are going great. And then something happens that causes us to just . . . snap.

Fair warning: If you’re looking for a cute little blog post on how to write better, this is not it. This is some heavy life shit. It’s about writing, too, but I’ll get to that later.

Today I was out walking my dogs like I do every day. The sun was shining. It was 50 degrees in January. My dogs weren’t being obnoxious. They were walking on their leashes like normal dogs — not yanking and pulling me in all directions as they usually do. The day before, we’d finally made friends with the barky Shih Tzu we pass on our route. I call him Snowflake (not his real name), and this morning Snowflake was being chill. Life was good.

“Hello, friend,” I said to Snowflake, bouncing down the street like a Disney princess. I genuinely felt like birds had braided my hair that morning and that nothing could go wrong. Famous last words, right?

Up ahead, I saw a short older guy walking his two dogs up near the elementary school. One was a little brown dog — a mutt — wearing a faded pink jacket. The other was a St. Bernard. As we approached, the little dog came running down the embankment toward us, barking her head off and dragging her leash.

I figured the dog wasn’t aggressive — that she would calm down and sniff my dogs. The older guy called out an apology. I was in a good mood. I shrugged it off. I figured he had dropped the leash by accident and would soon come to collect his dog.

My dogs were interested but not engaging with the little dog. Normally they live for tiny dog drama, but this dog was serious. I opened my mouth to say that everything was fine when the St. Bernard came bounding toward us, dragging its leash on the ground.

For a split second, my mind flashed to that slow-motion scene in Beethoven, where the enormous but loveable St. Bernard comes bounding through the house and shakes off in the kitchen. Slobber and mud fly everywhere. His human is charmingly angry. The dog thinks it’s all very funny.

That is not what happened.

The St. Bernard kept running toward us, letting out a booming bark and heading straight for my dog, Nelson. It was two feet away in a flash, barking and circling Nelson with slobber flying from its jowls. Terror flashed through me. I had visions of the St. Bernard ripping my dogs to pieces before I could get them to safety. Neither of them would hurt a fly. Nelson weighs maybe 45 pounds, whereas this dog was enormous.

Frantically, I tried to pull my dogs behind me, but the leashes were now tangled around my legs as my smaller dog, Luna, cowered behind me. Nelson — poor sweet Nelson — had his ears back and was trying to roll over to be submissive, but the St. Bernard wouldn’t stop circling. He was still barking up a storm, though he hadn’t sank his teeth into Nelson yet.

Finally, I grabbed the St. Bernard by its harness to keep it away from my dogs. The older guy was blundering down the embankment by now, apologizing in a half-hearted sort of way. I stared at him in shock as he took his dog.

We had words. I yelled. I told him to control his dogs or I would. He said his dogs would not be leashed. I told him his dogs were dangerous. What if they’d attacked a little kid? We were literally standing in front of an elementary school. I threatened to call the police. He said “good” — call the police. It was almost a taunt. Steam was coming out of my ears at this point.

I did not threaten to Mace him and his dog, which only occurred to me after the fact. I normally carry pepper spray for humans and citronella spray for rogue dogs, but I’d gotten lazy in the past few months and didn’t have it on me.

By the time I got the dogs home, my blood was boiling. I had all the markers of an adrenaline dump. I felt the way I’d felt all the time when I’d been training Krav Maga. My heart was pounding. My limbs felt charged with electricity. All my senses were heightened. There is nothing in this world that gets me going like the feeling that my dogs are in mortal peril.

I was ready to track the man down and really let him have it. This time, I would say everything I’d wanted to say. I would get out of the car and tower over him. Maybe I’d hit him. Regardless, I would make him feel the fear that I’d felt when his dog had come barreling toward me.

I was in my car without much of a plan when my neighbor started walking across the street. I should mention that my neighbor is 80 years old, skinny, and usually dressed in old jeans flecked with paint and a slouchy baseball cap. He still works as a handyman six days a week, though the work is getting to be a bit too much for him.

I rolled down my window. He asked if my husband was home. Ben frequently helps him with small projects and favors, and my neighbor needed help lifting a 100-pound bag of concrete mix out of his car.

My husband wasn’t home, but I was. I was perfectly capable. In that moment, it felt as though the universe had smacked me across the face. I had a clear choice: Either I could give into my spiral of negativity and try to track down the man to give him a piece of my mind, or I could help my neighbor and forget about St. Bernard guy.

I moved the bag of concrete.

This week, I had planned to blog about a completely different topic, but as soon as I sat down in front of my computer, I knew I had to tell this story. I wasn’t immediately sure how it related to writing, but it felt important because it reminded me of a lesson I have to learn over and over again in this life:

We cannot control the rest of the world, but we can control how we choose to move through the world.

For me, it would be really easy to walk around with my guard up all the time. I live in the city. I’m kind of shy. I have martial arts training coupled with a nervous disposition. For fearful people, martial arts and firearms and home security systems seem like things that might help us feel more secure, when in fact they often serve to heighten our threat sensitivity.

But we cannot live well when we move through the world with our guard up. In the same way, we cannot write well when we write with our guard up.

When I sat down to write this post today, it would have been really easy for me to share another “Top 10” list with you instead of this story. As I was writing this, I worried that it would seem off-topic, self-indulgent — crazy even. I worried the grammar Nazis would get on me for using the word “concrete” instead of “cement.” I worried animal activists would be mad that I considered spraying a dog with citronella and that gun-rights activists would berate me for a perceived slight against gun owners. A “Top 10” list would have been less controversial, but I don’t think it would have helped anybody, and it wouldn’t have helped me process these events.

In writing and in life, there will always be days when it seems as if the world is against us. There will be days when we feel that our work isn’t any good or that people are shitty. Sometimes getting words on paper — or just getting out of bed — feels like pulling teeth. Sometimes you wake up feeling great only to get smacked in the face by a bad review that leaves you second-guessing yourself for weeks. Or someone breaks into your car, steals your purse, and then steals your identity (true story).

When this sort of thing happens, it can leave you feeling like a Disney princess that just got mauled by a St. Bernard. It’s a terrible feeling, but we cannot let it change us.

We must keep writing with our heart on our sleeve. We must write the things that scare us — the things that are true and painful and unpleasant and controversial. And we must have the courage to write the really wonderful things that we are scared to put out in the world.

Recently, I have been working on a nonfiction project for writers. It’s been a long time coming for me, but I have resisted and resisted writing it because sometimes I feel like a fraud. Sometimes I feel that I’m not qualified to give advice or that what I write isn’t unique enough or groundbreaking enough. But I keep telling myself that it’s the book I need to put into the world because I believe it will help people. It helped me, and that is enough.

Some days writing is easy, but what matters is persevering when it is hard. It’s easy to be vulnerable in an anonymous post on the Internet; it’s much harder when someone we know might read what we’ve written.

Some days it’s easy to hold the door open for a stranger or let someone in on the highway when we’re not in a rush. But it’s doing these things when they are hard that tells us who we really are. Moving through the world with your guard down is about having tough conversations to save a relationship, helping out a neighbor when it’s inconvenient, or doing something for a stranger when we’re in a hurry.

This week, I challenge you to lift the bag of concrete. It’s not about being a do-gooder. It’s not about changing the world. It’s about changing how you live in it.

Photo by Chris Barbalis

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