Crashing, Connecting, and Creating by Johanna Harness

06 Jun

Sometimes big, ugly events crash into our lives and stomp through the marrow of our being, breaking everything in sight.

There’s nothing we can do about it.

Over twenty years ago, an ultrasound tech bubbled with excitement, telling us we’d soon be seeing our baby for the first time.  When she abruptly stopped the scan and wouldn’t make eye contact, our world collapsed.

Five years ago, I walked out to my garden and ten minutes later there were phone messages from every member of my family except my dad.  We buried him that next week.

A year ago, I took my mom into the ER and a doctor casually informed us her cancer had spread.  Our response: what cancer?  I’m now my mom’s primary caregiver, through chemo and whatever hell and heartbreak it takes to choose life.

A few nights ago, I woke in darkness with severe pain. Another trip to the ER and an emergency surgery and I’m back on my feet.

Every time we experience one of these massive life changes, our personal paradigm shifts.  Our understanding of who we are and how we are situated in the world, in connection or not in connection with others, shifts.

The earth shakes beneath our feet and our teeth rattle deep in their sockets—and we once again search for meaning.

Because that’s what we do:  we create meaning.

As writers, we’re in the daily business of creating meaning.  We tell stories not randomly, but with purpose.  Sometimes we understand that purpose before we begin writing but, more often, we know the narrative and we add the meaning as we go along.  We sense it, lurking there in the plot, sometimes subtle and layered, sometimes set to spring forth and startle us awake to life.

In reaction to paradigm shifts:

  • Sometimes our writing stops altogether.  After that first miscarriage, it took years before I wrote anything else.  Creating meaning for my daily life was difficult enough without creating meaning in stories.
  • Sometimes our writing speeds up.  In the weeks after my dad died, I became very aware that my life had limits, that I wouldn’t live forever, that I needed to make my dreams take flight right that moment.  There was no time to lose.
  • Sometimes our writing slows to a crawl.  After my mom’s diagnosis, I continued revising a manuscript about a character who recently lost her mom, but every line eked from keyboard to screen with the excruciating slowness of an IV drip.

That night I was lying in the emergency room, with some heavy narcotics dripping into my blood stream, I saw it all for a brief moment.  A family to our left lost a father to a heart attack, a family to our right lost a pregnancy—and I wept.  I mean, I truly wept.  I felt such pain—both for their losses and for my own—but mostly I wept for the fact that we all experience so much together and yet feel so alone.

Waking up in the recovery room, my first impulse was not to rush to my keyboard to write down my story. My first impulse was to ask the nurse her story.  Where did she grow up? How did she get into nursing? How many generations of her family lived in Owyhee County?  When she wheeled me back to my room, she squeezed my hand and another nurse asked if we knew each other.  She smiled and said, “Not before tonight, but now we’re old friends.”

Big, ugly things do crash into our lives from time to time.  There’s nothing we can do about it.  And yet, in the worst of our pain, sometimes a story fills the gap, reminding us we’re not alone.  When we tell our stories, when we listen to the stories of others, we find connections.  We may begin the story as strangers, but we part as old friends.

Returning to my keyboard this morning, my writing speeds up.  It’s no longer about my dream or my grief. It’s about the story that needs to be told.


Posted by on June 6, 2012 in writing


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40 responses to “Crashing, Connecting, and Creating by Johanna Harness

  1. Liz Fredericks

    June 6, 2012 at 4:49 AM

    I started my morning with tears thanks to you. Thanks to you.

    The following line is amongst the most powerful I’ve ever read: “I wept for the fact that we all experience so much together and yet feel so alone.”

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 5:22 AM

      Thank you, Liz. It’s so good to know you’re there.

  2. Zehra Cranmer (@ZehraCranmer)

    June 6, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    Johanna, this is such a beautiful post and I understand it all too well. It was the the story of another that helped me through some tough times, and you know that person. I found myself retreating into my inner world in order to take stock and wake up again, which I did with the help of others, for we truly are never alone.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 5:55 AM

      I understand, Zehra. We each stop, even briefly, to offer a hand to another and we make a difference. I know you’ve done the same. It never feels like enough, but it’s what we do.

  3. JC Rosen

    June 6, 2012 at 5:55 AM

    Oh, Johanna. As I write this, I’m blinking away tears. Hot, sad tears mix with the salty, happy ones, thinking of the milestones in my family’s lives. This is a powerful piece of work. Thank you for the wisdom shared with us.

    Your last lines, “It’s no longer about my dream or my grief. It’s about the story that needs to be told,” resonate with me. Often, getting into that mindset is what pulls me out of the pain and grief of the moment. In a weird way, going into the world I create gives me perspective in this world.

    Take care,

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 7:43 AM

      This makes sense to me. Sometimes we address pain and grief more clearly when we’re discussing something besides our personal lives. In that same way, I often read the writing of others and feel like they’re writing just for me.

  4. Bryan Thomas Schmidt

    June 6, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    Powerful and inspiring. I suffered several major paradigm shifts all at once the last two years that turned my world upside down and set me back to starting over in career, pesonal life, etc. and I can so relate. Thanks for sharing and articulating it so well.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 7:45 AM

      I’m so glad you were able to turn your life right side up again. This kind of healing amazes me and gives me hope.

  5. Nikki Barnabee/@GargoylePhan

    June 6, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    That, after such tragedy and pain, you can still turn to writing is a testament to how powerful the need to write is, and how strong you are. I’m more of a curl-up-in-a-ball-and-shut-out-the-world type myself, although way down the road, the bad things happening do eventually turn up in some form in my writing. But that’s wayyyyy down the road. Here’s hoping we all have something joyful to experience sometime this year, even if just once. How interesting and unique THAT writing might be, coming from a place of elation. And fun. Fun is good. And cleansing. Don’t mind me — my mind is bouncing around today ;-} I hope your mom improves and heals and outlives us all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts — what a wonderful, moving, inspiring post. *Hugs*

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 7:51 AM

      I love your response, Nikki. Sharing joy is part of sharing life too. It is such a gift to let go of ourselves long enough to mourn or rejoice with another. I’m so glad you came bouncing into the comments today. It’s great to see you.

  6. Shari R

    June 6, 2012 at 7:19 AM

    Thank you for sharing and for these morning tears. You are such an amazing writer. I haven’t met you IRL but I too feel that we are ‘old friends’.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      I believe we are, Shari. The writing connects us.

  7. spiritualchocolate

    June 6, 2012 at 7:39 AM

    Thank you for this post, which someone retweeted on Twitter — and I happened to click. No accident, this… I’m in one of those life changing moments now and only blogging about it relieved some of the pain… What a blessing…

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 8:02 AM

      Such a beautiful tribute you wrote for Sug. I’m so glad you shared your story here.

  8. ramblingsfromtheleft

    June 6, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    Johanna, you brought tears to our eyes, yet we also smiled. Those crushing moments can do both, make us laugh and cry. How we survive them and live to tell the story is what makes us who we are. I hope you continue to use those moments to write the stories only you can tell 🙂

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 8:54 PM

      Yes–laughing and crying together. That’s what it’s all about.

  9. Peggy Staggs

    June 6, 2012 at 11:00 AM

    And some changes stay with us, draped over our shoulders like a shroud.
    Thank you.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 8:55 PM

      True, Peggy. We all have to deal with things in our own ways, in our own time.

  10. writesandrights

    June 6, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    So hard and lovely, Johanna. My heart and prayers go out to you.

  11. stephanieberget

    June 6, 2012 at 1:32 PM

    Joanna, like the others your post brings tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me to cherish each moment.

  12. Deborah Batterman

    June 6, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    Poignant, eloquent, and to the point re: what it is that makes us writers. Just shared it with some writer/friends on Facebook.

    • injaynesworld

      June 6, 2012 at 8:08 PM

      Thank you for sharing this, Deborah. And Johanna, the world needs writers to tell these stories so that people do not feel alone in their pain — or their joy. Beautifully written and inspiring. Thank you.

      • johannaharness

        June 6, 2012 at 8:58 PM

        Yes–and as true, we need to really listen to the stories of others.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 8:56 PM

      Thanks so much, Deborah.

  13. maryvine

    June 6, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    My favorite part is:
    Every time we experience one of these massive life changes, our personal paradigm shifts. Our understanding of who we are and how we are situated in the world, in connection or not in connection with others, shifts.
    I so identify as my dad passed a couple of weeks ago. Thanks, Johanna.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 8:59 PM

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Mary. Sending you love.

  14. Kasie Whitener

    June 6, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    Absolutely perfect. Thanks, as always, for sharing your gifts with the rest of us 🙂

  15. Clarissa Southwick

    June 6, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    So sorry to hear you’re going through all this. As usual, your writing lifted us all and made us think. I hope things take a turn for the better. Don’t forget to reach out if there’s any way we can help.

    • johannaharness

      June 6, 2012 at 9:02 PM

      Thanks for being there for me, Clarissa. Means the world to me.

  16. Meredith Allen Conner

    June 6, 2012 at 9:16 PM

    Johanna, I’m so sorry to hear all of this. I hope you are doing better. You have such an amazing attitude and it comes through so beautifully in your writing.

  17. Lynn Mapp

    June 6, 2012 at 9:59 PM

    Johanna, I wept. You touched my heart. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to experience pain? Big sigh. We are not alone. You are right. There is someone willing to take our hands as walk with us. All we need to do is reach out.

  18. @WildlifeFreak95

    June 7, 2012 at 12:10 AM

    Johanna, I can’t imagine how you can go through so much and still write so beautifully. I’m compelled to think when I read stories of suffering from people like you, how do they do it? How is it that in dark times like these, they manage to pull through ? I guess this post answers my question to an extent. Beautifully written. I hope it gets better soon.

  19. Britton Minor

    June 7, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    I have always had a heightened awareness of loss, having experienced it early and often; but there was a day, recently, when I realized that there will not be an “I’ve reached my pain quota and now it will stop” point.

    Now my internal mantra in response to my occasional fear and knowledge that there will be more losses is, “Give me the strength to handle what I must with as much dignity and grace as possible.”

    And then I look around and remind myself that it is the same for us all-traveling through, sometimes staggering through, this bittersweet and stunningly beautiful life wounded yet hopeful; buffeted by the kindness of those who understand how desperately we all need a smile and a constant flow of grace for the journey.

    Beautiful post. I am sorry for your losses, and offer you my wishes that you have adequate (super human) strength for the journey.

  20. Catherine Stine

    June 7, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    Intense piece. I think of the Don de Lillo quote: “Stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror.” And another one of his quotes: “That which we fear to touch is often the fabric of our salvation.” Can you tell I am really into a De Lillo phase?!
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City


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