The Question that Haunts: How to BE now?

It was a single candle that broke me open this morning.

I stood outside the French doors of my new writing buddy’s house and peeked into her living room at my spot where I write while she works at the dining room table. And there I spotted a single candle glowing. She’d lit a candle for me, a gesture that opened my thoughts to a large open field I’ve been hoeing this post-election week.

In this field grows a question: How do we BE now?

How do we be with ourselves? And how do we get together with each other and refrain from either howling with fear or simply dismissing the peril with empty aphorisms?

A week ago my new writing buddy and I wrote at my house. It was an age of innocence. We talked about the photos of pantsuited revelers we’d seen posted as we lunched on curried chicken salad. We worked on our books that would perhaps be published and read during a historic presidency, a presidency that promised to represent people like us (women) and protect our right to autonomy over our own bodies. Even if we hadn’t fully imagined the future the polls promised, it radiated a bit in the upcoming calendar pages. January was just around the corner.

But that future never came and instead we awoke into a world where the meanest kid on the playground becomes the hall monitor from hell. Since then those of us who’d imagined an imperfect but reasonably sane future struggle to catch up and to absorb, alternating between fight and flight, strategy and despair. Many have already articulated the enormity of this challenge, including John Oliver who does so with such vigor and needed humor here.

Crucial conversation, protests, and campaigns lie ahead, to be sure. But today and tomorrow:  how do we just be? How can we be there for one another and continue to do the work that compels us? One tweet I scrolled by seemed to capture the essence of this worry: My boyfriend says he doesn’t know how he can deal with four years of me not being able to deal.

I felt for her and for him. I felt for myself, for my family, and my friends. I felt for all the people I know and those I don’t who never wanted this outcome. We are all just so scared! So reasonably and rightfully afraid. And yet, we cannot collapse into fear. We cannot let fear take more from us than has already been taken.

Last Wednesday–the night after the election–I had to teach my usual Wednesday night class at Hugo House here in Seattle. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk, to open my mouth and articulate ideas. In short, I did not want to give. It is my job to give, but I felt I had nothing.

I asked myself, How do I teach when I have nothing?

You pretend that you have something, I told myself.

Of course, I’ve done that type of pretending many times before—as we all have when a personal struggle has us in its grip and yet we still must show up for work. But this felt different because I knew my students were struggling too, that we were all in this together. Yes, that’s right, I remembered: We are in this together.

I stumbled into the classroom, feeling pale and awkward. “I know a lot of us feel badly today, but this work is our hope and it’s our freedom. Creativity can be offer us nothing else can right now,” I said and after I spoke those words, I realized I meant them. Creativity is the safest space I know. When I was younger, I was plagued by my external locus of control. I believed I could only be happy if someone made me happy. But writing has given me something no one else can: A place to lose myself.

Then, I led them through a writing exercise and they got to work. The little gesture—the candle I could light for them—was keeping their writing time free of distractions. That small gesture is also known as MY JOB, the thing I get paid to do.

Doing my job: An item to add to my list teaching me How To Be Now.

  1. Remember: We are in this together.
  2. Do my job.
  3. Light a candle.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and I knew I had to pull away from Facebook. In the empty hours since the election, I’d been reading status updates incessantly, scrolling and scrolling, looking for I knew not what. Solidarity, yes, and I found that. But I wanted something from Facebook it could not give me. I wanted Facebook to make me feel okay and reassured and connected.

I wanted it to teach me how to be now. Yet, it couldn’t.

In fact, it was making me feel less connected and more afraid. I resolved to log off, spend real time with family and friends, and connect with acquaintances through other channels. I bought a real newspaper, made lunch, hung out with my daughter and her boyfriend, laughing at silly memes.

  1. Avoid the places that fuel my fear and feelings of isolation.
  2. Show up in real life.
  3. Lose yourself in the writing.

That afternoon a naturalist from Discovery Park called: Did I still plan on participating in this afternoon’s Owl Prowl?

I’d signed up for a guided walk called Owl Prowl months ago when the meanest kid was NEVER ACTUALLY GOING TO BECOME THE HALL MONITOR FROM HELL. Why would I still want to walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls now?

“Yes, I’ll be there,” I said, even though I wanted to stay home.

       7. Walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls.

When the father of two standing at the back of the group called out, “There’s an owl right now,” I swung around in disbelief. We’d only been standing in this grove of cedars and maples for a few minutes! What were the chances of spotting an owl so soon? We  clustered around him. He started to point, but a naturalist asked him to simply describe the position of the owl and asked others to resist from shining their flashlights at the owl. Even the owl was granted respect and autonomy in this world of twenty who’d agreed to clamber together through this park on this November afternoon that was fast dissolving into evening.

“Okay,” he said, “Look straight ahead of me at the tall tree bending in wind. Halfway up on a clean short branch, he’s there clinging near the trunk.”

We all stared into the dusk. The grey of sky and the black of branches were barely distinguishable. I’ll never see this owl, I thought. Never.

But then I did.


About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
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40 Responses to The Question that Haunts: How to BE now?

  1. mferra says:

    Great piece. Thank you. I feel the same way.

  2. Thank you for these words, for these simple ways to stay grounded and present. A candle is an easy thing to light, and I’ll light as many as I can.

  3. Thanks for this piece Theo. I’m with you on all of these. And did I ever tell you that your book was featured in the bookstore of the Newseum in Washington, DC this past May? I posted a photo of it on FB. And I seriously doubt they will take it down with Trump in town.

  4. Leticia says:

    Thank you, Theo, The passage about the owl and the naturalist is a treasure.

  5. thank you, Theo. The passage about the naturalist and owl is a treasure.

  6. mbousquin says:

    Ah, Theo, thank you for writing this piece. I will take it as a timely reminder to step outside and look for an owl (or the moon or bats or or or…) this evening instead of frantically logging into Facebook to look for “I know not what.” And, yes, we are in this together. The owl concurs.

  7. Kit Cudahy says:

    Holy Shit. Yes, I react strongly. Gorgeous, painful, delving, real. So much said and felt. And to leave us with an owl sighting is the ultimate infinite ending. The mystery of reality. This must be published.

    • Theo Nestor says:

      Kit, thanks for your enthusiasm. It feels good to know you read my words and felt them. Owls, man. Boom.
      And, this blog is the real deal. This shit is PUB-lished. I mean, if someone wants to rerun it and pay me, I won’t turn them down. : ).
      Keep on keeping on. I’m off Facebook until I crawl back so keep in touch via email.

      • Kit Cudahy says:

        Yes! You are always published; I’m just greedy. More should read this. The feelings of the collective need to be analyzed and explained. Anyway, Thank you!

      • Theo Nestor says:

        Feel free to share it far and wide : ).

        I’m curious how many post reach without my breaking my FB fast.

  8. Thank you for this, Theo. Chop wood. Carry water. Look for the helpers. Smile at a stranger. Watch for owls.

  9. Leslie Williams says:

    Hi Theo,Have been thinking of you lately and hope all in your immediate here-and-now is well. (In my family we used to say this awful thing: Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? which is how I feel right now when I ask anyone how they are.)When you get a minute, can you please redirect me to whatever webpage it is that has a good listing of all the low-res MFAs? No, it’s not for me; it’s for a lovely client of mine.Thanks so much,Your friend in Portland,Leslie

    From: Writing Is My Drink To: Sent: Tuesday, November 15, 2016 2:32 PM Subject: [New post] The Question that Haunts: How to BE now? #yiv2991122596 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv2991122596 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv2991122596 a.yiv2991122596primaryactionlink:link, #yiv2991122596 a.yiv2991122596primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv2991122596 a.yiv2991122596primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv2991122596 a.yiv2991122596primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv2991122596 | Theo Nestor posted: “It was a single candle that broke me open this morning.I stood outside the French doors of my new writing buddy’s house and peeked into her living room at my spot where I write while she works at the dining room table. And there I spotted a single candl” | |

  10. rosorr says:

    Thanks for this Theo. I have been feeling very down, sad that my adopted country is influenced by such hatred -hatred I thought I had left behind me in 1969 N Ireland

  11. I think Gretchen Staebler said it well. All those blogs I follow said much the same. We sat in stunned silence for most of a week trying to get our bearings. I have written nothing as yet about it. Too shell shocked to be articulate. I went to my quilt group today and not a word was said. It gave me some space to catch my breath and realize the best thing I can do now is chop wood and carry water. Then write when my mind is clear again. My journal catches the overflow of emotions. How will I be now? Kinder, more inclusive, less judgemental, as much more of the things our new leaders are not.

  12. amyk1960 says:

    Magnificent as always Theo. Thank you

  13. Here in Athens, Ga., a little blue oasis in a red state, we were shocked at the election results. Fortunately our memoir writers group had scheduled a presentation in our library auditorium, Sunday Nov. 13 — “voices of memoir” — 14 older folks reading. We entered the little stage by “Dancing” in to Carole King’s song from the Tapestry album. “I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet/I Feel the Sky Come tumbling Down” . . . the audience clapped and laughed. Then laughed and cried again, as we read our memoirs one by one.

  14. Theo Nestor says:

    Love a blue oasis! That sounds like a perfect Sunday evening.

  15. Marilyn Gilbert says:

    Thank you, Theo. I needed this. I sent ir to my grandaughters and grandsons, and to my writing friends.
    Marilyn Gilbert

  16. Marilyn Gilbert says:

    Thank you for this. I sent it to my friends and family.

  17. Karen Stevenson says:

    If we still lived in First Hill, I’d walk right over to Hugo House with a small candle and a guide to owls, and arrange a thank you “altar” in your honor. This is perfect today. Heres to here and now. Thank you.

  18. Theo, always inspiring and leading the way. Thanks for this calming and reassuring words.

  19. Thanks for this calming and reassuring words in times when we are all trying to make sense of the madness around us.

  20. TinaLBPorter says:

    I’m not sure why I never thought to follow your blog so that I know you are there for me even when we are between meetings. This post is beautiful and I thank you for it. See you soon.

    • Theo Nestor says:

      Nice to see you here, Tina! (I actually haven’t been posting here that much in the last year but felt the need to after the election. There may be more posts coming as I’m taking a much needed break from Facebook for a while).

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