It has been almost a year since this story was written. The writing process fascinates me in so many ways. Having taken nearly a year off from working on it or even reading it, then going back to it, I was struck with how this particular piece has become a personal manifesto of sorts-it marks a turning point and perhaps was a catalyst for personal development. The first draft of this story was written in conjunction with a very cathartic self-portrait project, and the two parts in tandem helped me get through and build up strength during a difficult time. When I read “Day of the Living” today, it seems that it could have only been written during that specific point in my life. It is the result of a certain set of external variables I was surrounded by and focused on, and my particular internal landscape- comprised of feelings, coping mechanisms, and perspectives developed by my nearly thirty-seven year old self. This is an imperative reminder to take the opportunity to write when that feeling hits–because the narrative and perspective will likely change with the passage of time and the accompanying personal growth-or alternatively without taking the measures to create it, the personal growth may not be as successful or happen at all. I also could not have written this story without the help of my childhood friend, Warren Cox. He breathed so much life, creativity and vitality into this story. I am incredibly grateful for the chance to collaborate with him. The process of writing this narrative together built it into something so much more special–something beyond the words and pages–something beyond what I could have ever could have imagined or done as a solo project.
I hope you enjoy this story!
Title: Day of the Living
Authors: Natalie Wheeler and Warren J. Cox
She awakens as usual with her head resting on two pillows. A side-to-side stretch of the neck causes her to moan faintly and soon produces the loud pressure release pop. Her mind fog is thick and she feels panicked; she’s unsure what day it is. A flicker of hope says it’s Saturday or Sunday. These are the days which gift her with the ability to crawl out of the haze slowly, unlike the jolting hustle and bustle forced on her by weekdays.
Familiar pangs of fear bloom through her. She feels heavy, cemented to her mattress.
She is surrounded by the luxuries of her bed but she’s too disoriented to connect to this comfort. Her phone is within arm’s reach but she doesn’t move for it. It’s funny how such a small container could hold so much—information and misinformation, sadness and happiness, overwhelming possibilities. Certainly the device can answer her simple question. All she has to do to uncover the mystery of what day it is, is pick up the phone and press her thumb on the button below the screen.
But still she leaves it—all too easy to be directed to the major news events taking place overnight. If she were to peep in on anything it would likely be her Instagram feed. There, instead of dire news items—after all, if it bleeds it leads—she would see what those connected to her account have shared.
In addition to friends and family, she is drawn to artists in this social-media space. She is grateful to have connected with artists here who share her passion for creating. She is lifted by the abundant ways in which individual voices and visions create powerful forms of self-expression. And when the doldrums hit her, and motivation for anything seems out of reach, it is connection and creation that nudge her human pulse back to life.
By contrast, the headlines and often grim information from the conventional outlets drag her down, leave her feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Not that she condones ignorance or complacence, inaction. Not that she approves of feeling helpless. (But let’s face it, she will find out the unavoidable news sooner or later; she may be an extreme introvert but she does not live under a rock. Maybe in a bit of a bubble, but not essentially underground where the pervasive info-techno-tentacles couldn’t hope to reach her directly or indirectly.) But her decision is not to pursue unhappiness, or to willingly walk right into a shit storm drenched in it. She checks her line of thought here, and can’t see she’s wrong.
(Fewer and fewer days did not produce shit storms—even if these were mild and drizzling—of news reports and reactions one could potentially be swept up in. Couldn’t be very sanitary.)
Obviously a tangled mass of problems were indicated, but for her part she aimed to make choices that wouldn’t add boulders to this given mountain of depression. Some news stories tended to play in the tunnel of her mind like the echoing calls of lost children; and maybe sometimes those echoes were more like particles sent zipping round at nearly the speed of light in one of those large colliders, causing dynamic little explosions.
This all had something to do with her nature, where it had started out and where it had stayed—in a certain range. It was important to keep in the vicinity of beauty. It was important also that she get out of bed soon, otherwise her body could get trapped there along with her mind. She knows it doesn’t help anyone if she allows herself to slip into the trenches of isolation. She knows too that she should be grateful for having learned how to dig herself out of those kinds of pits. And she is. But she still worries one of these times she will fall in and remain married to the bottom as if sucked to it by the vortex of sadness singing out from underneath.
To dull the sense of this terrifying possibility, she likens the critical artistic process, this dialectic that both keeps and frees her, to something mundane—a task she has done so many times she couldn’t possibly forget how to execute it.
She tells herself it’s like making a sandwich, so simple. It is just as necessary for her to build and eat that sandwich when she is hungry as it is to create something beautiful and provide an exit for the inevitable gusts of sadness which could kick up in her strong and fast. Both art and sandwiches sustain her, prevent her from wilting. Of course it’s not an exact metaphor. Channeling sadness into something leading to release and happiness requires considerably more time and care and energy than piecing together two slabs of bread and fillings. In the end what is clear is that she cannot or rather, should not seek out negativity on her own. She had the sense some others could, and even felt compelled, to feed on the daily bread of disaster, but for her there was much danger in this.
Staring at the blank-page-whiteness of the ceiling and still feeling sewn to her sheets, she remembers the notes she wrote in her phone the previous night and wonders if they will resonate now. If so, might they resonate with others? She has cultivated the belief that making even one person feel connected or inspired, or being responsible for a single smile, is quite a feat. There was definite, if not concrete, value in this: beauty and inspiration with conscious intent were a kind of currency, an essential market to any economy. But can her work have that uplifting effect on others?
So many uncertainties but she won’t let this stop her process. She has to believe if the art of others helps her then she can help others, even if there is often no immediate reaction or measurable response. Right? She is still an active trader in the art economy, and keeps her outpost lively and well-supplied. Her words and photographs are about her life: her loved ones, visions and experiences, how she feels, what she thinks. Sometimes she fears her life might be too mundane and too true-to-life to be considered art. But what other honest place is there for her to pull from and create? Maybe her writing is simply self-indulgent blabbering bullshit. After all many have written before her, many are writing now and will write in the future. What difference can it make if she writes?
But when she writes it is hers and hers to do with whatever she wants. There is power, freedom, and universality in it—there has to be.
Her photographs, meanwhile, might be seen as a mess of confusion. They do seem all over the place in terms of genre (this is the case despite much advice along the way to pick and stick to one genre, but she just won’t be shackled like that). Her abiding instinct is to take photographs of what speaks to her, and that is a very wide field indeed. A flower, a look from a child, a self-portrait with her middle finger posed provocatively (yes there is still poignancy in this despite its being far from original). She knows there is something more to the question: she wants to pull power from that refusal to self-confine, and with that strength break down boundaries. She wants to show herself thoroughly through her lens and words, even if—particularly if—it disrupts widespread notions of compatibility, vulnerability, or what is socially acceptable. She is a loving mother and wife but she is also: ugly, beautiful, scared, brave, punkish, boring and vanilla, silly and thrilling, serious, sexy, frumpy, hungry, starving, happy and sad, energized and weary, straight weird, straight normal, simple and complex, fortified and vulnerable. She’s a lover, a fighter, a rebel, a peacemaker, an artist, a woman. She is a person, and maybe now is her time to take a chance. Such a chance could not be worth it if it did not encompass all of her dimensions.
Her thoughts are spiraling, and she wonders what exactly her contribution on this day—whatever day it is—and for that matter in this life should be. That nagging question announces itself like an aggressive telemarketer: does it even need to be shared? And if so with who and how best to do it? Do we really make a difference by sharing with others what is of value to us, our impressions of the things occupying our minds? Love. Compiling time. Smiles. Hugs and kisses. Laughter. Listening. Confiding. Knowledge. The question of space—being lost in it, or found, or the ongoing quest to find enough of it. Art. Food and drink. Money.
Yes, she concludes. This is very likely the general idea. At least those are the things she values and needs to explore. Her art needs to address all of it, and requires a full time commitment and ongoing engagement. She wants it to live outside of her but still with her. Maybe what she needs is to be seen, truly seen in all of her forms and facets in order to find self-acceptance, and in doing this she can make real connections with others.
What day is it anyway? The phone is there but feels so far away, just like the people she’s somehow linked with inside it.
The questions persist. Were her artistic efforts sufficient to improve anything, to make a dent in the seeming cascade of violent and spirit-sapping events? The better we know people the better equipped we are to help them. With her family and friends, she can gauge when they need help, how to help, and what they need. But other realms are much harder to navigate. There are so many people she doesn’t know, has never met, never seen, who are in need of uplift, support. How responsible can she be to those people who don’t know her, don’t even know she exists? How can she hope to find connection there? Sometimes this line of thought left her with actual aches in her chest.
Aww, what fucking day is it, and how does it even matter?
The days of the week repeat and circle around; whatever day it is, it will change soon, and then will come soon back. And these “days”, they don’t know what day they are, they were just given names and told when they would be starting and stopping. We don’t permit them the power to refuse.
Damn! If only she were a coffee drinker—then her first thought might have been going downstairs directly to get connected to this dark energy drink instead of opening this ultimate can of worms and getting bundled up in worries over what goddamn day it was and where the hell she and her art fit in the world.
On cue her husband walks in the bedroom with mug full of piping coffee, black. She asks him what day it is. He laughs, and she knows it’s a laugh of endearment but it still feels like a failure on her part—the not knowing, the confusion.
She says, “I’m sorry… I am soooo slow.” He raises his mug, smiles. “Oh darlin’ you’re not slow. You are a sports car in a world of minivans.”
It’s her turn to laugh. Vrooom vrooom! Maybe she was like a sports car spinning out in that moment, though this is probably not what he meant.
But why the spinning, this morning and so many others? Was there any value in it, and why couldn’t she just be more of an in-the-moment kind of girl?
Perhaps the more embedded one became in their aspirations the more difficult the simple and basic parts of “real life” became, like the ability to know or care what day it is and the skill of getting out of bed. Or maybe it was simply the product of nearly thirty-seven years of trying to find answers, tracing endless loops of searching for the unknowable. Maybe beneath it all she was just worn out and would have loved to go back to sleep. Where others may have found peace, perhaps she has not. And here again, was it possible she couldn’t even know the answer to that question? Had she found peace? She could only be sure that life was spinning on, Monday to Monday or Thursday to Thursday, year to year, and the nest we make therein is made of loops within loops within much greater loops. It was all too easy to get snared in them, or impossible not to.
Maybe today she can step outside them, find peace.
The sun was up, the dog was not. He was still motionless at her feet on the mattress, typical of any day. The kids were downstairs happily eating waffles and fruit and drinking water. There was routine in her house, though her nature was to resist routine. From the day she was born she would be up with the moon and down with the sun, it’s true. Her parents would attest she was a hyperactive night owl from her October birth, and how her first words were “Here’s Johnny,” from The Tonight Show. She would keep herself at attention until six in the morning watching Sesame Street before passing out next to her exhausted mother on the couch.
She hears the chatter of her children downstairs and curses herself for being so wrapped up in her own mind that she would miss this new batch of shining moments. Of course she had been present for many others like them and will be present for more to come, but she knows it’s these kinds of moments that are the most important, to cherish and share, and she knows how very fleeting they are. Even now they are slipping away.
A few years earlier, in a different home and stage of life, she would have been surrounded by beautiful morning light and she would’ve photographed the scene enthusiastically. She recalls how she would hold onto that happiness and be able to consciously tend to it the next day and the next. It didn’t usually work that way anymore. Now she had to find alternative ways to connect to her art, her visions. The process was more labyrinthine.
Within the far-flung boundaries of the continuing planetary shift active in her and by extension in her art, she is adding more words and expanding on her thoughts, giving deeper meaning to the visuals. Or so she hopes, maybe not—Jesus, she is forever skeptical of herself. The over-thinking leads to the twisting of what she thinks into knotting, paralyzing doubt. She wonders now, in thinking back and pining for sublime things past, if she is just hoping to force something to somehow be there, something that can’t be accessed anymore or has disappeared from within her entirely.
But does anything within us ever really disappear? She doesn’t believe people ever really change. Rather, they shift internally according to the dictates of personal growth and environment. As they grow and work through cycles of healing, they gain access to qualities and vistas that were always within but had previously lain out of reach. She feels steadfast in this thought, even if others might disagree. Finally, something to hold onto!
Building on this new belief, she is able to securely, decisively connect her thoughts, and thereby close a loop. No, nothing really disappears from within. If people cannot really change at their core, then what is within them cannot disappear. Not entirely anyway, even if all of what remains is a thought, a memory, a sense, an inspiration. Then too there may be things we feel compelled to keep locked away and deliberately out of reach. So be it.
Like her children, she is older now, more mature. While she still cleaves to the same instruments, the Canon she calls “Velouria” and the iPhone, “Lola,” the scene is different. The light in the new house—which faces North-South instead of East-West—spills in differently. Still, she knows her vision can’t leave her because it is her, and so must evolve with her; and she knows she can always find the light, whatever the slant, even when it’s not finding her.
Her children, now and forever, so precious and beautiful.
With their voices echoing intermittently in the background, she circles back to happiness and unhappiness. Something like the days of the week, both are always there. They may transform or momentarily hide, they may be intensified or dulled, but they can never leave.
Happiness and unhappiness—intangible states yet the twin pillars of our experience. In this moment she sees clearly she is destined to live with both: a duality built into the human condition.
Yes, and she is firm now in her readiness to embrace the tandem, to find peace in the existence of each.
About the authors:
Natalie resides in Peoria, Arizona, with her husband, two children, and two dogs. Her artistic journey has taken many twists and turns but photography and writing have become the primary outlets for her artistic expression. She is an artist at Offset.com, Lensdrop and Adobe. Her work/photography has been published by National Geographic Your Shot, Lensbaby, Beyond the Wanderlust, and has been licensed for ads by Samsung and other companies for advertisements. Her best days are filled with loving and guiding her offspring and pups, music, reading, creating photographs and writings, hiking, yoga, cooking, and sky-gazing. In the social media world, she can be found on Instagram @natalie_a_wheeler, and as a moderator for @theechoesinside, a hub for self-portraiture.
Warren J. Cox writes and paints in beautiful southern Virginia, where he also works as an academic editor. Beyond creating, he is passionate about human rights, animal welfare, and tennis. His writing or painting has appeared in Eunoia Review, Ducts, Five:2:One, Defenestration, Empty Mirror, Fluland, and other journals. Warren was beyond thrilled and honored to work with Natalie on shaping her beautiful piece, and looks forward to future collaborations with her!