LifeWriting Competition: 2018 Winners

Here are the winners of Story Circle's LifeWriting Competition, chosen for their freshness and originality, and the clarity and authenticity of the author's voice.

The writers are responding to questions about Uncertainty: How many times in your life have you been uncertain—really uncertain? What kinds of uncertainties did you experience? Financial? Professional? Romantic? Physical (as in health or illness)?

We invite you to think about one of these periods of uncertainty that stands out in your memory. Tell us about the kinds of creativities that emerged in your life as a direct result of letting go of the certainties you cherished and that cushioned you and made you feel secure. What did you learn from this period of uncertainty? How did you grow?

  1. Thirty-Two Words for Peace, by Linda Wisniewski of Doylestown PA (FIRST PRIZE!)
  2. Temporarily Unable No More, by Debra Dolan of Vancouver BC CANADA
  3. Uncertain Heart, by Susan Corbin of Austin TX

We know you will enjoy these stories as much as we do. Congratulations to our winners! And look for an announcement of our next competition in June, 2019.


Thirty-Two Words for Peace
by Linda Wisniewski of Doylestown PA

It was a blue-sky summer evening and I bounced on my heels and grinned. At seventy, I had finally made it to Paris. My husband and I eagerly waited in line to climb the Eiffel Tower. But the line wasn't moving.

"I'm hungry," I said, hoping for a view from the restaurant on the second level.

"Me too," said Steve. "We'll be up there just in time for sunset."

At the ticket window, a Middle Eastern family waved their arms in the air. Nearby, a handful of Japanese tourists milled around wearing puzzled expressions. Then a man in a business suit appeared, shouting first in English, then other languages.

"The Tower is closed temporarily! You may wait at least an hour here or proceed to the exit!"

Steve and I exchanged a glance. Hundreds of tourists murmured around us. Nobody smiled.

I looked back at the entrance where a guard in a security trailer had peered into my open backpack before I stepped out, excited and happy. Now the entire atmosphere had changed.

That same afternoon, we had walked down the Champs de Mars, named for the God of War, to see twelve glass panels engraved with the word Peace in 32 languages. Built for the millennium, the plan was to dismantle them after three months but they were still standing.

After a short walk from the glass panels, we stepped into the trailer, paid the admission fee for the Eiffel Tower, and proceeded to a small doorway. We were used to the drill back home, at the Empire State Building, the county courthouse and every airport - open your purse, lift your arms, remove your jacket - and with rueful glances as our eyes met, we complied. Built as a temporary structure for the 1889 World's Fair, the Tower was one of the most famous sights in the world, and an obvious target for terrorists.

After the unexpected announcement, we - and probably other couples with romantic dinner plans - wondered if we should stay. All at once, soldiers with assault rifles and stern faces strode up and began going through everyone's bags. I felt a shiver of fear.

Another man in a suit rushed up and spoke to the soldiers, who then moved to close the gates. One soldier turned to the crowd.

"You must exit across the plaza!" His face and his voice conveyed high alert and we knew there would be no more questions.

"Let's go," Steve said, taking my arm. We crossed back to the entrance with hundreds of people speaking into cell phones. I never thought to ask anyone for information in my high school French. The police looked much too busy to approach, and the eyes of the soldiers were hard, unblinking.

"What do you think it is," I asked.

Steve shook his head and shrugged. "No idea."

But, of course we had an idea. We watched the news every night. We knew about the coordinated attacks here the previous November, when over 100 people were killed at a football match, cafes and the Bataclan theater. But on this lovely summer evening, we didn't speak of it, as if saying the words might make it happen again. To us.

At least we were together. To the right of the trailer, tourists crowded before three open gates. A man shouted "Men!" and pointed left, then "Women!" and flung his arm to the right. Why were they separating us? My footsteps slowed and I thought of holding back but the crowd surged forward, carrying me along.

"See you outside!" I called to Steve, as he disappeared into the flow. But my promise was no comfort. I was alone in a crowd in a foreign country. I reminded myself to breathe and looked through the black iron bars of the fence for a sign of my husband on the street outside. When I was almost at the gate, a uniformed woman pushed her palm hard against my chest.

"You wait!" she shouted, then ushered a woman with a young girl through ahead of me. She patted my body from head to toe and examined my backpack, the same one I had opened for inspection on the way in. Trembling, I kept my expression sober so she'd have no reason to hold me back.

At last, I stood next to Steve on the sidewalk outside, catching my breath. In the street, police cars careened to a stop, and sirens blared in that high-pitched scream we knew from foreign films. Enough, I thought, wanting to get away. I pulled on Steve's arm.

"Let's find a restaurant. I'm starving."

We walked toward our hotel as more police cars screeched to a halt across the intersection, closing off the street behind us. I exhaled my tension as we left the commotion behind.

At the first bar along the way, we sipped cold beers, devoured hot mussels and shared our admiration for the businesslike French police. As I sat back and watched the people of Paris go about their evening, I was overcome by tenderness. For them, and for us. Yes, this kind of thing happened back home, but I'd never been so close before, never seen such calm in the face of danger. I held Steve's hand across the table, grateful beyond measure.

Back at the hotel, I checked the news online.

"Eiffel Tower Evacuated!" French authorities were calling it a false alarm by a new employee who mistook a drill for the real thing. The next day, I read that a backpack or "suspicious package" had caused the evacuation. Whatever the reason, a new reality had set in, dusting our visit with sadness.

Early last year, French officials announced plans to build an eight-foot bulletproof glass wall around the Eiffel Tower. In the new millennium, hate can kill without warning, even on beautiful summer evenings. Nearby, twelve panes of glass stand engraved with our longing.


About the author:
Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who lives with her retired scientist husband in Bucks County, PA and teaches memoir workshops at the home of Nobel Prize author Pearl S Buck. Her work has been published in literary magazines as diverse as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Massage, The Quilter, and the Christian Science Monitor. Linda's memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman's Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage was published by Pearlsong Press. She writes a blog about the connections we make when we give each other time and space to be heard.


Temporarily Unable No More
by Debra Dolan of Vancouver BC CANADA

It is shocking to hear that I am labelled disabled; not temporarily unable as I have been telling myself for over two years waiting with optimism and patience for seemingly innocuous injuries to heal. After numerous rehabilitation appointments and comprehensive assessments of my mind, body and health history I have discovered that I may never fully heal from a sudden and significant hit to my head; one that I don't even remember. I may, in fact, be a small percentage of the concussion family who has to accept that life as I had known it is over. Having recently met the requirements for "severe and prolonged," with everything I do being in the context of discomfort intensifying to pain, the time has come to embrace this new reality for non-acceptance will only limit me further.

So many questions still unanswered: Is my age and gender a factor? Is the location of impact influencing recovery? How can this be possible without even a bruise? Why a late onset of warning signs? Did I further injure myself by pushing forward normally during the first few weeks? I still can't grasp it. I hate being a statistic for the unexplained. I do not want to be a member of this club; nor do I like being catapulted into feeling aged before my time.

I went so suddenly from having a meaningful active life to being utterly displaced. There has been constant battling with aloneness and uncertainty. The cruelty of this situation is that I am capable of doing everything that I did prior to the wounds; however, now I can only do one thing for about 20-60 minutes at a time, not in immediate succession without adequate rest and never in an environment of multiple conversations where light or noise creates even further fretfulness. There is a never-ending ritual of pacing and regulating activity to not escalate painful fatigue. If I do the laundry this afternoon can I prepare a proper dinner for myself this evening? If I want to meet a friend for a chat-and-coffee in my neighbourhood tomorrow can I go for a walk today? If I have a medical appointment in the afternoon can I risk talking on the phone earlier? How much time do I need to rest between writing a letter, balancing my chequing account and watching a documentary? How much can I read and write in the same day?

All I still know is that the pain persists, the mood swings and irrational behaviour persists, the high need for quiet and rest persists, and the energy, vitality and ability to engage in life's wonderful offerings has virtually disappeared into slices of wakened hours highly controlled. I have learned two significant things since the accident: when I venture out, I have so earned that walk in my neighbourhood, the weekend getaway, an afternoon matinee or lunch with a friend; and I don't want to be with anyone who cannot accept me for who I am right now and who I am right now goes with me everywhere.

My rehab continues to force me to leave home every day and sometimes I dread the prospect of seeing someone I know and having to listen to more unsolicited advice or saying a polite, "Fine, thank you," to the ubiquitous, "How are you?" I often feel judged by what others do not know or do not understand about my circumstances. I have always cared about what others think and I have a high propensity to self-criticism. In my solitude, I'm examining my own adjudication of others and accepting that I cannot change what others may think. I once worked with a woman who stated she had migraines that would incapacitate her a few times a month. Although I was polite and professional in acknowledging her condition I used to mutter under my breath and think to myself, "Really? She's not at work again? Another Friday or Monday I have to pick up 'the slack.'" I never really believed her; I couldn't see it. Now when I look in the mirror I don't see it either.

The unending exhaustion that never goes away is difficult to explain to anyone. It is not the tiredness you feel after a day spent in the garden preparing for spring or the weariness you experience after a long difficult mountain trek or a night spent studying. It is the unreserved bone and muscle collapse one has when the flu zaps your get-up-and-go forcing you to bed or all balanced thinking dissolves when you have been on a plane and in airports, over multiple time zones, in the last 30 hours. As time moves slowly along I have learned to live with it better today than I did last month or last year and my tolerance has increased as my sheer will to visit someone or do something knocks it to its knees. Yet pain demonstrates its power when after a small victory I find myself gasping for breath or needing to spend the next day horizontal in silence alone. There is always it seems a higher personal price to be paid. I have learned to talk to my pain and negotiate with its sensibilities. "Pain, I have been invited to a wedding. What must I sacrifice to attend?"

I have been encouraged by a multi-disciplinary support team to write out-and-at my feelings related to the injury and its effect on my life. Given I have journaled regularly since youth I understand the benefits to me and possibly others. I also understand the inherent emotional risks of spilling myself onto the page as I wrestle with the realities of disability. I have fear of my words being used to hurt me further or being misinterpreted. Nevertheless, in recent months, I am discovering a side of myself, and strength within, that I have never known. I believe I can find my own ways to regain my life as pain is an incredibly personal experience. I now live a ridiculously simple peaceful existence in calmness and solitude, mostly alone. I am attempting to find the sweet spot of accepting limitations through injury yet feeling free and with capacity. I have always had a deep, personal relationship with my life having never treated it as a casual fling. I want to continue through this experience to cherish it and appreciate it and learn from it. Is this knowledge leading me to understand my purpose in the year I turn 60?


About the author:
Debra Dolan lives on the west coast of Canada in Vancouver. She's an avid reader of women's memoir and a solitary daily journal writer for nearly fifty years. As she recovers from a prolonged head injury her simple, peaceful, contemplative life life expands in unexpected ways. A member of SCN since 2009.


Uncertain Heart
by Susan Corbin of Austin TX

Is my Evie going to die? This was the question terrifying me as my husband, John and I drove from Dallas to our home in Austin on a cold and rainy December 26th morning. I feared we would lose our youngest grandbaby at 10-months old. Yet, I tried to maintain some hope that she would pull through, as she had fought for so long already. She made it through liver surgery at 2-months and heart surgery at 8-months. Now at 10-months her heart was failing.

I felt so helpless knowing that there was nothing I could do to change what was going to happen to her. She was in Dallas' Children's Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and the staff there was doing everything they could to keep her alive for a heart transplant as soon as an organ became available. I kept thinking about her being on a ventilator, on a machine called a ventricular assist device to help her enlarged and damaged heart, and now they were going to put her on dialysis to assist her over burdened kidneys. My fears were that surely no one could survive that much organ support, especially not a baby.

The night before we had a generous Christmas dinner at the Dallas Ronald McDonald House with our daughter, Becky and her family. There were so many other families with sick children staying there over the holidays. The dining room was full of good food smells and the sounds of children happily opening gifts. The volunteers made sure that everyone received a present. A smiling volunteer handed me a small package wrapped in festive paper with "female" on the gift tag. I had to chuckle to myself at the impersonal address, but after I opened it to find a little notebook, I was very pleased and thought, "How appropriate for a writer."

As my husband drove through the slight mist towards home, the uncertainty of Evie's fate had me thinking about how we make plans with a certainty that we will complete those plans, but we don't really know what will happen. The course of a life can change with a phone call.

I had to get these thoughts on paper while they were in my head. From my purse on the car floor, I pulled my new little Christmas gift notebook and wrote the following words in road-jostled handwriting:

There is this
sprite
fairy
thought
knowledge
Flitting
along
beside
behind
intermixed
With every plan
promise
commitment
That I make.

While I
want to
plan to
make
do
accomplish
the thing I planned,

Another something might happen that is
more important
supersedes
interferes with
Those plans.

This is always true
Regardless of whether or not I
acknowledge
realize
know
That truth.

Sometimes in certain situations this knowledge is closer to the surface than others.

At this point in writing the poem, my phone rang. I saw on caller ID that it was our daughter Becky, Evie's mom. With some trepidation I answered it.

"Hello."

Becky whispered, "We have a donor."

"No! Oh, my God, really? That's wonderful!" I exclaimed

"Yes! I can't believe it. Where are you?"

***

The next day after a phone call assuring us that Evie had survived the transplant surgery I finished the poem. Still no one knew if she would survive the post-transplant or not, but at least there was more hope now. I added these lines:

In certain circumstances this knowledge is
Crystal clear
Absolutely understood
Sure.

This uncertainty of a plan becomes very real in extreme situations
Towards the end of a pregnancy
The end of a life
A donor organ becomes available for transplant

The uncertainty feels like
A limbo
A floating foggy space
A gray uncertainty
Of too many possibilities

In which I know any plan I make
Could be
Might be
Is hoped to be
Unmade in the beat of a heart.

The donor's family thought they would spend more time with their child who died. This life or death uncertainty is so foreign when your child is healthy. The sad fact is that accidents happen, even to children. What generosity they showed in donating their child's heart for a transplant. We love and honor that unknown family for their gift to us.

Evie made it home though it took several more months of hospitalization and therapy. She and her parents are dealing with loads of anti-rejection drugs, antibiotics, and special needs. We enjoy and are grateful for every day we have with her knowing that her future is precarious and uncertain. I've written many more poems about her and her brave family as uncertainty pushes me to the edge of my world and opens my creativity.


About the author:
Susan Corbin is many faceted woman: retired from the University of Texas, Ph.D. in hand, 67-years old, married 46 years to the man she met at 15, mother of two and grandmother of 7. This phase of her life is becoming dominated by writing. If genetics is any indication, she has much more life and writing to come.