Recently, I traveled to Denver for the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies. It was a conference all about how we can foster awareness and compassion for ourselves and others. A heavy name for an effort at lightening one’s mental load. I was there in my role as a professor and researcher. But, I quickly realized that Gloria and Henry, the characters in my novel Oxford Messed Up, had traveled with me.
While there, Diana Chapman Walsh, a leader in the field and an all around incredible woman, said that we “need to stare down our demons of fear and despair”. And so, as I sat rapt to her talk, I thought about them too. Yes, I realize this was a conference all about mindfulness, but mine wandered a bit. Just a bit.
Fear and despair are powerful forces, especially for two people like Gloria and Henry. And, boy, do those forces feed one another. The despair leads to fears that things will never change and the stomach knot of fear drives them to points of despair. They deal with it differently of course. Gloria bottles it up and ties it down, winding herself so tight she might snap. Her OCD relentlessly reminding her she will never be enough, whether clean enough or disciplined enough. Henry wallows in it, sloppy and disengaged. He isn’t ever going to be enough, so why bother at all? Despite the very different way their fear and despair manifest, they both have these demons in equal parts.
And both Gloria and Henry take a long, long time to stare down their demons. Now, readers will remind me that the book covers five months. While, yes, Hollywood is full of marriages that lasted half as long (or less), I’m not suggesting the narrative arch starts with the battle charge and ends with the victory march. The journey towards the stare down starts for both of them long before the book opens. For Gloria, opting to leave her safe, academic world in the states is the first salvo. For Henry, struggling back from addiction shows he’s got a bit of fight in him. Still, each had a life of empowering and feeding their demons before they met. It’s a heavy debt to pay back. And even though they are young, those demons, or as I call them self-saboteurs, had dug in deep.
And here are these two fresh, smart, insightful young people unable to stare those saboteurs down. Whether Oliver or the nagging voice of Henry’s father pushing back on their efforts, these saboteurs are relentless and constantly present, haranguing the main characters about just how messed up they are, just how little they deserve happiness. After they meet, they are convinced of their loomate’s worth, but still not their own. As their friendship matures, they are able and willing to fight each other’s demons but cannot imagine fighting their own. They have faith that whatever cripples and confines the other is completely beatable and no faith about their own battle.
So they’re stuck, right?
Also at the symposia was Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of mindfulness meditation. My favorite quote from him this weekend was “There’s more right with you than wrong with you as long as you’re breathing.”
That message? That message took me a lot longer than just my early twenties to buy into. But I have. I can now truly say I believe we deserve happiness, that we can cultivate it and love in our lives. That if we love ourselves, and know ourselves and carve out time for ourselves, we are way more right than wrong. It was that belief that led me, in my own trying times, to sit down and write Oxford Messed Up. Because I needed to for my own happiness. So, I bring readers into Gloria and Henry’s lives at the junction when they are going to be able to hear that message: to believe that a person can be really, royally messed up and still be right. Still be loved. Still be happy. I tell their story in the hopes that my extra decade or so (compared to our young lovers) of wisdom, searching, and self-examination helps my readers dissect and see what my characters are going through. And see, hopefully, what is possible in their own lives. I’m a major general now in that fight — the fight that you can choose happiness. And I’m proud as hell that my foot soldiers get it too, eventually. As Gloria is told (but it takes awhile longer for her to hear): “Happiness. Grab on to it. Be defined by it. Choose it.” There is so much more right in us than we realize.