Features Writing

Writing as an Act of Service

By Lani V. Cox

Photography by Olivia Froudkine-Levy

He was, by far, my worst mistake, my worst relationship. And even though we decided to go our separate ways, I couldn’t get rid of him.

“Could you please seat us together?” He said to the Hawaiian Airlines check-in woman.

I stared at him, gobsmacked. We had just spent the last 20 minutes fighting at Portland International Airport while we dragged our suitcases and bags through lines and crowds. He was relocating to Maui, and I was returning home to Oahu, but as luck would have it, we were on the same flight until we landed in Kahului, where I’d continue on to Honolulu.

“Together?” She looked at me for confirmation while the impatient mob behind us breathed heavily.

My shoulders collapsed. “Fine.”

But the queue would have to wait longer while I reshuffled stuff from my “overweight” suitcase into my carry-on bag, and, as I willed my cumbersome and heavy hiking boots in, leaving the zipper open, I could have sworn I heard from the crowd, Off with their heads!

We got our tickets, and the bickering between us continued with renewed vigor. My friend Susie had given us a ride to the airport and even waited for a bit while we were in the long queue, but Mr. Angry thought she should have gone the extra mile and a half and helped us with our bags. I, on the other hand, insisted that she was under no obligation to help us any further.

At the gate, I tried to create distance, as our shouting could no longer be drowned out by airport security announcements and travelers in sweatpants and neck pillows. I wanted to scream, but instead, I stuffed down my anger, since I didn’t want PDX to announce over the intercom: Could the couple in Concourse C please give it a break already?

***

When I first heard Malcolm Gladwell say that for him writing is an act of service, I sat up straighter. It felt like the driver’s manual that I didn’t know I needed had fallen onto my desk. During years of struggling to be a better writer, I had learned the greater irony, that personal writing is not about you but is instead about something more universal.

Yet, some might feel that “an act of service” is an exaggeration, a self-flagellation, or too high a price for Oxford commas. If anything, writing is often considered closer to the navel-gazing spectrum of careers, which is why, when I heard this from Gladwell, I was intrigued. You could argue that the kind of nonfiction reporting he does is more an act of service than, say, fantasy, or mystery, but I believe Gladwell’s assertion can apply to all creative endeavors.

To serve is to give. And often when writers contemplate why they write, they say: I write to hear myself speak, or to help, learn, grow, discover, release, control, go on a journey, or even leave something behind.

***

Once seated on our overbooked flight, I knew Mr. Angry would be forced by circumstances to shut up. I looked at him in the window seat. Naively, I thought we were going to make like the Red Sea and part ways at the airport. However, he seemed more interested in keeping my attention, no matter how negative or inconsequential the reasons. But I wanted nothing more than to forget how foolish I had been to ignore the early signs of his silent treatments and rage. How embarrassed I was that I allowed a man to make me feel so very small, to the point of hanging my head in shame, and whispering when spoken to.

But that was no longer. Through family connections, I helped him land a job after many months of unemployment, and I was leaving a dysfunctional teaching job for what I hoped was a brighter future, possibly teaching abroad or attending grad school.

I fished out Wideacre by Philippa Gregory, a 656-page tome of historical fiction, from my backpack. We had a six-hour flight, and I was determined to read through it. Silently, I prayed to the novel gods that Gregory would deliver the read that would transport me away from my discomfort and shame.

At first, Mr. Angry tried to bait me with innocuous questions, but after I had shoved my bags in the overhead bin and opened the novel, I was lost in the story of Beatrice Lacey’s bad behavior.

***

I consider myself widely read, not in any grand way, but I’ve been an eager reader since 13. Ever since my family moved from the tropics to the middle of the Mojave Desert in California. Ever since I was stripped of friends and familiarity, books and writing have been my comfort, my solace, my personal pyramid in which to explore under an unforgiving sky.

But reading about Beatrice was a first. It’s not as if I hadn’t read about villains and even sympathized with them, but she kept undoing herself with more and more heinous acts in an effort to control and inherit the family estate, at any costs, including incest and murder.

My problems were microscopic in comparison. Gregory was teaching me what bad girls and bad relationships really look like. I was simply with a guy who had mother issues—and I was getting out. But, of course, I wasn’t thinking about any of this consciously. I was lost in another world. I was connecting with another person who created a world so vivid that whatever I was dealing with peeled away into second place.

We take this for granted, too. We assume that a novel, a song, or a TV series will hold our attention—until it doesn’t. We foolishly forget that writing something amazing isn’t as easy as an accident. To make matters worse, escapism isn’t seen as something positive, but that’s because many folks don’t know how good reading fiction is for your brain.

It’s a stress-release valve in a world of doing. Because after a day, a morning, or one hell of an hour of giving, reading allows us to finally take a break and receive. Reading is a tool that helps us to get better sleep and to be more empathetic. And reading fiction can increase brain connectivity, creativity, and happiness, too.

***

When we landed in Kahului, all the passengers had to get off the plane while the airline people refueled and pretended to vacuum. It felt great to stretch my legs, absorb the humidity, and listen to the trees swaying. Mr. Angry and I walked together in silence until he said, “Well, okay. Bye, Lani.”

It was an awkward parting, one that was done so as to elicit a sympathetic response from me: No. Wait! Give me a hug or a call, or something like that. But, I didn’t respond. Instead, I watched him walk away, feeling a rush of giddiness. I smiled and decided to get a coffee and a treat.

Several hours later, I was back home with my mom. It was she who discovered it, actually. While unpacking, Mom found in my handbag the gold necklace that I had given Mr. Angry for Christmas. My mom and I stared blankly at one another for a few heartbeats. Then I realized he dropped his necklace in my bag in the hopes that when I dug around for my lip balm, which I do often, I would find it; that I would discover the gift and look at him in question; that we’d start talking again, when I asked, Why did you give this back to me? Then I thought about how excited he must have gotten every time I went through my bag.

But I had been too busy reading about Beatrice Lacey. I was engrossed in Gregory’s act of service, her rich historical tale, dripping with desperate attempts by Beatrice to not be another overlooked, oppressed woman of her time. It was Gregory’s first book, penned in a notebook. She even wrote her name at the top, along with the words “best-selling novel.” It turned out to be true, too, and solidified her decision to become an author.

Once I realized Mr. Angry’s intentions, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I couldn’t believe I never discovered his attempted manipulation at the time. At home, I stood transfixed, casting my mind back to the plane and me rummaging around my bag, unaware of his anxiousness and anticipation because I had been absorbed in a good book.

After I told my mom what happened, we both started laughing. It felt good. I had finally cut off a man who did not treat me the way I deserved. Yes, I made the mistake of getting into the relationship in the first place, and yes, I took too long to get out. But I didn’t want to kick to the unforgiving curb an unemployed man. Instead, by helping him, I helped myself.

And I kept reading, flipping pages, and moved my own story along.

~~~

Lani V. Cox is an American expat currently living in her mother’s home country of Thailand. Her work has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Pif Magazine, and Points in Case. Currently, she is obsessed with her newsletter: lanivcox.com.

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger. My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank, Carve magazine, Sou'wester, Patuxent Literary Review, Flock literary journal and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. My articles and profiles appear in university magazines and other nonprofit publications. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I am at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype the literary voices of my fellow native Midwesterners at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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