On fears, unhappy accidents, & writers following their own timelines
I have always been afraid of stairs.
In darker moments—literally when the sun goes down—a staircase becomes taller somehow, bending off into unknowable, impenetrable shadow. The fall down is longer, more dangerous. The prickling sensation along the spine comes. I start hurrying up. I can’t look behind me. I have to keep climbing. I can breathe only at the top.
This has been a fear ever since I was young, often rooted in specific detail to the different staircases of my childhood: the hard corner before the banister in Saugerties, the creaky sweep past the leaky window in Pennington, the ladderlike steps to the loft in Kerhonkson, the red hallway and then the lower-level steps of Woodstock, the long steep passage with the painted face at the bottom in West Hurley. When I think about it, it’s not the stairwells and creaking steps themselves, but more the act of turning my back and climbing. Perhaps it’s a fear of being followed. A fear of being eyed from the shadows. A fear of being pulled down into— what, I don’t know. A fear of falling in all the imaginable ways you can fall.
This spring, I hurt myself on the basement stairs in the Philadelphia rowhome we’re renting.
These stairs are a short pass of creaky wooden steps, gray-painted and open to the dark below. This basement is unfinished, concrete floors with open areas of dirt and exposed beams, and it’s where we do the laundry. After living for twenty years in New York City and needing to use a costly laundry service because there was no close laundromat, this feels like the height of privilege. (This plus a dishwasher! Modern conveniences I appreciate with every usage!) But I always feel a little out of sorts when I enter the basement.
In a strange loophole in our lease that I didn’t understand but was told by the landlord’s real estate agent that it is fine and perfectly standard, we are renting the whole house except for the basement. We are allowed to store things in the basement and use the washer and dryer, and no one but us will have access to it while we’re here, but technically it’s a no-man’s-land. It doesn’t belong to us, even temporarily. In this way, the basement seems to belong to the house itself.
Beside the stairs is a separated area through a doorway that we call the brick room. In it is a light bulb on a string, the water meter, and… a random pile of bricks. It’s a small, dark cavern, and I am aware of it—very aware—whenever I climb the stairs into or out of the basement. I am always aware of the brick room. Sometimes I think of it while falling asleep in bed three narrow floors above.
It was an ordinary morning. The laundry was finished and folded and I was heading back upstairs.
At first the climb back up was innocuous. I was aware of the brick room, but I didn’t look at it. It was daytime. There was no reason to allow any space for fear.
I hoisted an admittedly overfull laundry bag over one shoulder and time seemed to slow as I took my next step. A thought of the brick room crept in, but maybe even calling it a tangible thought is giving it too much credit. It was more a sliver of unease. I was stepping up and somehow I slipped, and in that long breathless moment I teetered, the weight of the laundry bag pulling me down toward gray concrete floor, toward bottom. I righted myself, jolting forward, and felt a small lightning strike of pain in my shoulder as the strap of the heavy bag pulled. But I made it upstairs. I rushed to the top of the steps, got out, closed the door, locked the door, dropped the bag, laughed at myself, and that was it.
Only, no. This was about to be a lasting injury that I’m still dealing with. Whatever I did to my shoulder (I thought it was only my shoulder) caused incredible pain in the weeks after, turning into a numb arm and hand, an inability to turn my neck or carry things or bend over, sharp prickling pins and needles running straight through to the tip of my index finger. My right arm, my right hand—my writing arm and hand—were barely usable for more weeks than I want to count. Doctors’ visits told me this injury was in fact a pinched nerve in my neck. That’s why my arm was burning with fizzy pain and why half of my hand was numb weeks and months later, and why it was painful to sit in a chair and attempt to type words on a computer, let alone work on my book at my desk.
Such a small thing, a slip on the stairs. I caught myself. I didn’t fall. And yet.
It goes without saying that my book deadline hit a frustrating roadblock, my momentum lost. I blamed the staircase. I blamed myself for over-stuffing the laundry bag. I blamed my irrational fears.
It’s months later, and I’m still healing. The rush of pins and needles in my arm and hand is far less frequent, and the pain is much more manageable. I can sit at my desk now, propped up with pillows and with a new ergonomic setup to keep my neck from bending. I’ve found ways to help (OMM therapy, stretches and other exercises, THC tinctures, Dragon Anywhere dictation software though thankfully I can type now without much/sometimes whole days without any pain). I’m getting better, yes, but the truth is this injury set me back for months. I ended up asking for a class I was due to teach to be canceled (technically postponed to spring), I stepped aside from other opportunities, I lost hold of my book. I had an allergic reaction to pain medicine and lost more time, then when I was leaving my house only for masked physical therapy twice a week, I somehow caught COVID and lost two more weeks of time.
I lost so much precious time.
I have always been irrationally afraid of staircases. Yet if I think on it, this isn’t the first time I’ve hurt myself on a set of stairs (the cold iron steps outside Think Coffee on Mercer Street, the sweeping stairs that begged for leaps in Nef Studio at MacDowell), so it could simply have been healthy bursts of premonition.
What happened may have delayed me (and frustrated me), but it has also given me a forced pause, a time to rethink and reimagine, and re-listen.
Don’t concern yourself so much with what’s behind you.
Don’t worry about who’s watching.
Maybe I was wanting this to be a quiet, tucked-away announcement no one may ever read about why my next book is taking so long, but I also know this is only the latest obstacle to come during the writing of the third draft. There were other difficulties during the pandemic and during other drafts, other pits of dread and brick rooms of lost time and heartaches and mistakes, let’s be honest.
How many staircases are between me and the finishing of this book? What is there to be afraid of at the bottom… and also at the top?
Keep steady. Keep climbing. Don’t look back.