Kate, one of the members of the Portland Listen to Your Mother cast, recently won an Oregon Book Award for her memoir, Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.
I have only just started reading it, but I can see that it will be just like Kate: funny, warm, smart, sharp. Poignant without being sappy, tender without being soft.
We had our last rehearsal for the show on Saturday, and of course we all wanted to hear about what it was like for her, winning that award. As she shared what she did that day and how she felt, how she prepared a speech and had to cut it down, what it was like to sit in the audience, waiting for her category to be announced, then listening to them read the first few lines from her book and knowing before anyone else that they were hers, I just grinned, happy for her and happy for myself in the way any of us are when in the company of someone else who’s lived our own unusual experience.
Because I won one of those awards once, too. Although 2003 is now seeming like quite a while ago, it’s one of those clubs that you get a lifetime membership to, and you feel an instant sense of kinship with anyone else who also belongs to it.
During the potluck after rehearsal, someone asked me about my book. I said that, like Kate, my experience had been unusual. I hadn’t sent a manuscript out; my publisher came to me. I’d met him in a poetry workshop in college, and in my first years of teaching I hadn’t written much, but I started again when my children were born. When he saw those poems, he told me that I had a book he wanted to publish.
“I started writing again because I wanted to remember it all,” I told these new friends. “Writing is how I remember, how I experience things more fully. I didn’t want to forget anything.” Then someone asked if I’d written any other books.
Well, no, I haven’t.
They asked if I still wrote poetry.
Um, no, not really.
Short prose, then?
Uh, kind of. (Somehow, what I do here didn’t seem legit enough to claim.)
At this point, I felt awkward and uncomfortable and lesser-than in the way I often do when others start talking to me about my writing. I mentioned that when I won the award I was raising young children and teaching high school full-time, and…
I mumbled something about how I always thought I wrote poetry because the pieces were so short, that I could sustain the focus needed to make them be what I wanted them to be.
I added something else about receiving a writing residency a few years later, where I got a whole week to do nothing but write–and how that was a turning point for me, though not the kind my benefactors had intended. I saw what I could do when I had time for sustained focus, how different the writing was…
I’m pretty sure my voice trailed off around there.
What I didn’t say was, after the residency I stopped writing in the way I once had because it just hurt too much. The things I had to write about hurt. My kids were leaving childhood, and I was a newly single mom, floundering in a life I’d never wanted for us. I was still teaching full-time, and the kind of time I saw I needed to write in the way I wanted to was just not something I could manufacture or claim. The margins of my life were too thin. Writing felt like another busted-up dream I couldn’t glue back together. So I let that one go.
Our potluck talk turned to kids, and I found myself connecting with another mom-of-a-high-school-senior. We shared how wrenching this time with our children has been, how the process of letting them go is both exquisitely painful and beautiful. These last few weeks have been especially so for me, as my daughter has been trying to decide whether or not she will go 3,000 miles away to school this fall.
A choice like that brings so much into stark relief.
I came back to an empty house on Saturday afternoon, its rooms silent but my head full of the voices and stories of these women that writing–and sharing my writing–have brought into my life. Feeling the swell of my own regrets and desires and possibilities, I realized that I am not so different from my daughter, poised on the border between one life and the next. Sad and a little scared to let go of the first, but looking forward with hopeful anticipation to the next.
I began reading Kate’s book, which I loved, and then went looking to see if I could find a copy of my own to give to her. Which is where I found this, a poem I’d all but forgotten.
Between My Daughter and Me
There will probably be times of distance,
winds of one disappointment or another
pushing us away from each other–
or perhaps our separation will be literal,
miles of mountains, plains, or oceans
that cannot be easily traversed,
and I will have to remember this day
when she sat snug between my legs
in the bow of the boat, her head nestled
into my shoulder’s hollow as she held my hand
and sang into the wind, the sun behind us
just beginning to sink into warm, brown hills,
the waters below us parting, a rippling mosaic
of light and shadow stretching ahead of us
as far as we could see.
Those words–“miles of mountains, plains, or oceans/that cannot be easily traversed”–were a club my 35-year-old self swung at my 51-year old heart, battering it open. She knew in only the most abstract way that there would come a day when I could not cradle my girl within the confines of my limbs, my life, my love. She had no idea how her words would simultaneously shatter and soothe an older self who would rediscover them at the very moment she is launching her daughter into the sky of her own life, standing on the precipice between what they’ve been to each other and what they are going to be.
Remembering that day in the boat and how complete and whole and joyful I’d felt in those moments with my daughter, feeling so fucking grateful that I’d found the time to gather those words so that fifteen years later I could remember that day in the boat, so that it was not lost in the oblivion of small moments that have made up most of the days of the last eighteen years, and simultaneously grieving all the other moments I have lost since I decided that I couldn’t both live the moments and gather the words, I sat alone and ugly-cried tears of gratitude and grief for all that I’ve been given and all that I’ve lost and mostly for how I just wish there had been more time. More time to hold my children, more time to find my words, some way I could have been more of what I wanted for both myself and for them.
Talking with that other mom, I said what has become my mantra in the face of loss: “The size of our pain is commensurate with the size of our love.” I mean, I get it: I know how much I have, how blessed I have been.
This truth and knowledge makes the pain easier to bear, but make no mistake: It doesn’t in any way lessen it.