Creating Life

“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”

My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.

At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.

I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.

“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”

“But does it have to?”

Careful, careful…

“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.

“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”

Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.

How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?

Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.

“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”

Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?

“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”

“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”

I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.

BAM.

Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.

It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.

What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?

She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.

Shit.

“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”

In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.

Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)

Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.

As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.

I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.

In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”

“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.

The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.

I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.

“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”

I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”

It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.

In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.

What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”

Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”

Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.

But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.

As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.

Extra Credit:

Rebecca Walker Explains Rift with Mother, Alice” from NPR

Taking Care of the Truth–Embedded Slander: A Meditation on the Complicity of Wikipedia,” by Alice Walker

“‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem that Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From” by Ann Bauer

Feminism and Tillie Olson’s Silences by Bianca Lech (or better yet, read Silences, a work that shook me way back in the day)

Late winter still life

We can call it late winter, can’t we? We have passed the half-way point, and the crocuses and camellias are now blooming…

One morning last week, as I was gathering my things for the day, there was something about the clutter on my kitchen table that stopped me. It struck me as beautiful, the arrangement of things I did not arrange. The unposed mix of textures, colors, and shapes so pleased me I reached for the camera, trying to capture how it looked for me.

Of course, I didn’t really.

The 17th century Dutch assigned layers of meanings to the objects in their still life paintings, which functioned almost like a code (mostly of judgement, it seems), but there’s nothing like that going on here. Each object is simply what it is: a beleaguered basil in a dull clay pot; an empty Ikea vase; a $3.00 bunch of chamomile from Trader Joe’s; a bowl of common fruit; a chipped Franciscan ware lid sitting on its matching bowl, protecting the salt within it. Apparently, still life paintings rank low on the painting hierarchy–or at least they did in 17th century France. Ordinary, inanimate subjects were deemed less worthy than living ones, but I rather like these things on my table that talk to me without words or movement.

I couldn’t quite catch through the camera how it felt to me, the cluster of objects in late winter’s early morning light, but I can look at the image and hear something of what they are saying: Here is a life with flavor. Some simplicity. Healthy sweetness, and a touch of ordinary pretty.

Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow is a picture book I’ve loved this winter. It invites us to see beneath the surface of things. Over the snow is a still, white world. Under it, hidden from view, a colorful kingdom of animals inhabit rest and safe shelter–a still life of a different kind.

There is, of course, life coursing through the objects on my table: Meals, friendships, memories, outings, unfinished chores. The very beginning of a season’s turning. It’s a mostly quiet life right now, a lull before spring storms. For weeks I have been living, at times, not unlike Messner’s voles, scratching “through slippery tunnels, searching for morsels from summer feasts,” and at others like her snoring black bear, “still full of October blueberries and trout.”

It’s important, I think, to be still from time to time. To stay warm. To rest. It’s important to know what’s beneath the surface of things. To pause and really see what and who surrounds us, from both above and below. To hold and appreciate what we can, as we can, all the while knowing that the crocuses will out, and the season of busy colors will return.

So tell me…

What is on your kitchen table?

What’s going on under the surface of your life?

What kind of paintings speak to you?

Oh, and if you want to see truly lovely still life photos, check out Oh Katie Joy’s Tuesday Things posts. Many times they open with a long string of photos, many of which are still life shots. I dare you to look at those and not see your own home through different eyes. Another master of the genre is Alicia Paulson.

It’s beginning to look a lot like January…

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Christmas,” eh?

And yet, I like it.

I like beginnings. I like cozy. I like sweaters and warm socks and red wine and hot chocolate. Fires in the fireplace. Heavy blankets on the bed. A long happy hour in a restaurant bar with warm lights and small bites of perfect food and deep conversation with a good friend while rain pelts the windows behind us. (How I spent my early Saturday evening this weekend.) I do miss all the twinkly lights on the houses, but when I was driving to work Monday morning, I told myself that there’s a similar kind of something in the way the car lights illuminate the early morning darkness. Even through a rainy windshield.

On my winter break I did a whole lot of nothing much…
…ate good-tasting food (whenever I wanted to)
…sat around tables (with family and friends)
…read (novels and poetry and books about home improvement and starting a business and preventing burnout and embroidery)
…savored (movies, naps, my son’s face)
…laughed (a lot)
…cried (a little)
…moved slowly (through time and space)

I did the things I had to–cooking and cleaning and exercising–but only as much as I had to. Mostly, I gave myself permission to just be. The days passed swiftly, but there was a languid quality to them. Every afternoon I was startled by how quickly darkness descended and by how little I had to show–in conventional terms–for the day that had passed, but it was fine. It was wonderful, actually.

When the break ended I wasn’t excited to return to work, but I wasn’t unhappy about it, either. It was all good.

I have been thinking about what created the sense of well-being that is remaining even as I’ve returned to the routines that had me feeling so spent before the break: sleep, and rest, and physical movement, and connection with others, and creativity, and meaning. I had all of those in spades for two weeks. It was wonderful.

And you know what? I don’t want to give those up. I know that prioritizing those things just listed can feel selfish or self-indulgent or some other negative thing that begins with “self” (and if I had more time I’d do a deep dive into why we think that and how F’d up that kind of thinking is), but I think I’m a better person when I have those things–kinder, more patient, more fun. So, figuring out how to prioritize having that is a win-win, for both me and those whose orbits collide with mine.

January is a perfect time for doing that. It’s a time for the quiet and contemplative comforts of winter, without the expectation and demands of the holiday season. It’s not as outwardly sparkly, but I’m going to be looking for some inside sparkle. Or making some. I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about how to make that happen, but I don’t have any big answers yet.

Dot-to-Dot

My friend Kim told me that she likes reading this blog on Sunday mornings over coffee (see, she already knows what I’m just figuring out about time and how to use it!) and one of my favorite features of my friend Kate’s blog is her Friday Finds, an eclectic and interesting collection of things to read. The offerings below are all, in their own way, connected to the ideas above, and my usual inclination would be to delay hitting publish until I could write some (probably overly long) piece connecting all the dots for you–which would likely mean never sharing them at all, because I’d never quite find the time to do it right and the moment would pass (by which I mean that these particular dots would have been pushed to the bottom of the dot pile in my head by newer dots because the dots never stop coming)–and so I’m going to experiment with just leaving the dots for you to peruse or not, as you see fit. Please let me know if this is something you’d like more of (or not).

The most powerful thing I read this week, about living and dying and marriage and the state of the world. It helped me understand why my own committed relationship (sort of) imploded in the wake of 2016 and really hard personal situations out of my control.

I want to be like Ken when I die. I already shared this on Facebook, but it’s so, so good. As a piece of writing, and as a guidebook for living (and dying).

I want to read and think more about the idea of a secular Sabbath.

This isn’t a read, but it’s about reading. And living. And meaning.

I love this case for blogging, and it’s part of why I’m hitting publish on this post even though it’s not in the state I’d usually want a post to be.

Happy Sunday, all. May you be as good at wintering as my Daisy, who is expert at finding a soft place to land and generally has a pretty good time, which is saying something when your lack of teeth keeps you from being able to keep your tongue inside your mouth.

Of vanishing children, time travel, story beginnings, and affirmations for a new year

Hey, Friends–

Happy New Year! I’ve missed you. Although the holidays have been good (really good, better than they’ve been in quite a long time) I’ve been missing a lot of people lately. People like these two:

My brother and I (circa 1974)

A few weeks ago, I read a stunning essay in the New York Times Magazine, with a line that stopped me: “The writer Joy Williams once observed in a novel that children vanish without dying.” Of course, I thought first of my own children, and all the different versions of them that have vanished and that I miss.

But then I was putting together a photo calendar for my parents, filled with pictures of our little family from the days when we were all living and growing together, and I found myself missing those earlier versions of all of us, who have also vanished without dying.

In the swirl of those feelings, and a birthday, and the holidays, and thoughts about love and loss and passing years, I began listening to Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, a complex, twisty tale that plays with ideas about time and story. Early on, the narrator tells us, “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.” In the novel, time is sometimes non-linear, and different characters experience it differently, even as their stories intersect. When I had fewer years of living under the belt of my life, I would have seen the idea of non-linear time as one that could exist only in the realm of fantasy, but lately, maybe especially because of the holidays, I’ve been feeling like a bit of a time traveler, living sometimes in the past, sometimes in the future, and sometimes in a time out of time–which makes notions of endings and beginnings fuzzy. Calendar years, with time divided into boxes and categorized by numbers, are full of arbitrary divisions that have meaning–if, indeed, they have meaning–only because we have given it to them.

In important ways, the children in the photos above are as present for me as the adults they have all become, even though I can no longer hold them on my lap and my brother and I are long past any lap-sitting days of our own. I miss all the early versions of all of us even as I still have them with me. The girl who sat on my mother’s lap is the mother who held my daughter on hers, and all three of us–my mother, my daughter, myself–are still able to exist corporeally in the same space, today. The years are both far away and close enough to touch; decades expand and contract depending upon how I am looking at them at any given point in time.

And reality, or truth, or story? Those can be as malleable as time, too. I may not be able to write new chapters in my story with those versions of us that have vanished, but I can revise the ones already lived. Or, maybe, I can write alternate ones.

For years, this was a photo of fault:

That’s me, 5 decades ago. First grade. It is the only school photo my mother didn’t buy the 8×10 version of. She said it was a bad picture because I wasn’t smiling.

Although I don’t remember her blaming me, I remember feeling at fault for her disappointment with the image. I knew I’d made a choice to be unsmiling. I wasn’t sad or incapable of smiling, and I understood that smiling was expected. But I was pissed. And I was damned if I was going to give the photographer who angered me the satisfaction of my smile. I hadn’t understood that denying him satisfaction would also take some from my mother.

Later, when I was able to explain to her why I had been angry, this became a story not about my willful failure to be pleasing, but about the cuteness of my righteousness. I was angry because the photographer combed my hair, even after I’d told him I didn’t want him to. Such a trivial thing to get upset about, right? And so, wasn’t that pouty face of mine cute? The story became a funny one, about a stubborn little girl. There was some admiration of my spunk in the telling of it, but “spunk” isn’t a word we attach to anything very serious.

Now, I look at that photo and I see a girl at the beginning of a story she didn’t know was beginning. I see a girl at the beginning of losing her sense of knowing. She knew that she should get to control who touched her. She knew that if you tell someone you don’t want to be touched, it is a violation if they touch you anyway. She knew that it didn’t matter if the person doing the ignoring and the touching was older or male or in a position of authority. She knew how to express her anger about the violation.

She didn’t know, though, that she was at the beginning of a story of losing her sense of knowing, about so many things, and that it would be decades before enough others would tell stories of their knowing about touch and consent that she would finally believe the truth of her knowing back then, in the beginning.

I miss that vanished girl, but she still lives. She’s still me. Or, at least, she’s still in me. I can still feel what she felt, if I travel back in time, a journey that feels both swift and impossibly long. And her story is still unfolding.

Last week, on the subject of new year’s resolutions, a friend told me that he is more inclined toward affirmations. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I’m still not, but the notion has been rattling around in my head in the form of a question:

What do I want to affirm in the coming year?

Even though I find calendar years an arbitrary marker of time, knowing as I do that stories can and do begin every day, I appreciate the chance that our annual marker of a new year gives us to reflect and set intentions. Last year, I created a vision statement of sorts, a list of things I wanted to keep or bring into my life. This list became something I returned to again and again as the days of the year unfolded. Many times when I found myself feeling conflicted or frustrated or sad or meh, I returned to my list, and it always provided clarity and a direction for moving through the feeling and the events creating it.

It was through the list that I came to a new understanding last fall. In the face of a large disappointment in a situation I’d worked hard to improve, I decided that the only way to have many of the things on my list was to stop doing things because I felt I should and only do things I wanted to do. That felt all kinds of (perhaps) selfish and (potentially) unkind, but I concluded it was what I needed to do if I was going to realize my vision.

That decision immediately raised a question I had to consider over and over again, almost daily:

What do I want to do?

Not, What should I do? or What’s best to do? or What will happen if I…? Or, How will ____ feel if I…? Just, What do I want to do?

Often, I didn’t know. I realized it’s a question I’m not used to asking, and I was so out of practice I didn’t really know how to answer it much of the time. To just inquire about want–and not interrogate the want to determine if it (me) is right, wrong, good, bad, healthy or not, as well as what the likely outcomes of acting on it might be–was something I probably began to stop doing back when I was a little girl and learned that I needed to smile if my image was to be worth keeping large and that my boundaries weren’t important in the face of more powerful others’ determinations of my needs.

The more I began asking the question within the situation that sparked it, the more I began doing it in other ones, too. Although stopping at my answers and never considering any other questions would be a short path to becoming a narcissistic jerk, I think the question is one we all need to center in the process of making decisions about how we will live.

In another book I’m reading right now, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout, the authors write about the importance of being able to hear the voice inside us that tells us what is right and wrong, harmful and safe, and how difficult it can be for all of us, but especially women, to listen to that voice and act upon it. There are so many other ones clamoring all around us, full of ideas about what it means to have discipline, grit, strength, and faith. About what we need to find and keep acceptance, safety, and love.

It is especially hard, I think, when we don’t have words or frameworks to name what we know in ways that make sense to ourself and others, as it was for the girl I once was who knew it was wrong for a strange man to touch her hair against her wishes.

As we all move past the artificial marker of time that is a new year (a new decade!) I am realizing that what I want to affirm is the question that emerged from me over the past year (what do I want?) and the importance of asking it. I want to affirm that girl who knew what she did (and, maybe more importantly, didn’t) want–and controlled in the situation the only thing she had control over: herself. I want to keep her from vanishing by living my/our way toward a satisfying ending to the story she didn’t know was beginning, one in which she knows without doubt what is right and what she needs.

Wishing all of you who read here a year of stories full of good things that are right and true for you.

Gratitude and such

The turn from October to November has always felt like a kind of tightening to me, a turning of the calendar screws. Tonight darkness will fall an hour earlier than last night, the days that have already been feeling too short now feeling even shorter still–right at the time they seem to fill with more demands. Every year I tell myself to savor October, the last days when I come home to sunny daylight, the calm before the holiday storm, and every year it flies by as swiftly as the leaves fall. Last week, yet another in which I didn’t finish the laundry by Sunday night and it is still lingering in the basket this morning, a full week’s worth of days later…

…Damn, I got up to let the dog out, and then remembered I needed to unload the dishwasher, and then I responded to a Snap from my daughter, and then I let the dog in, and now I can’t remember what I was even going to say in this sentence.

Which is fitting, no? Back in January, I thought I might be able to change my experience of time–make it feel as if it were moving more slowly–if I slowed down and took more notice of things. If I savored it, I guess. Savoring, though, doesn’t look the way I tend to fantasize it looking. It isn’t long, sunny afternoons on the couch with a good book, or hours working on a crafty project, or slow dinners with a group of close friends, or hours to linger in a coffee shop with a decadent pastry and a beautiful beverage. Not for me, most of the time, anyway.

Although, there was a leisurely lunch with this one day in October.

More often, savoring is something that happens in the moments between: When I see the spider web illuminated by sun on my way to the car in the morning, or when I notice how pretty the herbs from the garden look when I toss them into the pot with a roast, or when, on my way to let the dogs out for the morning, I feel grateful for the twinkle lights I never took off the ficus after the holidays last year, and the way they softly light the early morning darkness.

Sometimes, it’s just the smallest of comforts: the delightful surprise that is grilled cheese on focaccia on a night I get home too tired to really cook; the tiny thrill I feel every morning when I open the door to the flowers still blooming that I planted in June; the warm feeling I get seeing my tired old dogs curled up on a blanket my great-grandmother crocheted that I keep in a basket I once used to carry my tiny preemie babies from room to room.

The best I have been able to do, when it comes to savoring, is to stop for 30 seconds and take a quick photo when I see something for which I feel grateful. When I take the time to notice everyday things, and then spend a few minutes at the end of the month looking at them, I realize that the days and weeks that have passed so quickly were actually full of small wonders. I realize that although it might feel as if I somehow missed the month, I didn’t. Not really. And it changes the story I might otherwise tell myself about what the month (or season or year) has been.

Sometimes I tell others that I really do love my new house, but I wish it didn’t have so much yard. I have said that I spend so much time working in it I never really get to enjoy it the way I’d like to. (See: fantasies, a few paragraphs back.) But when I scrolled through my October photos and saw the nest I found when pruning back the rose bushes, I didn’t remember how sore my body felt at the end of that day, or how frustrated I was when I ran out of time to finish the job and had to leave it–like so many things–hanging. Instead, I remembered the thrill of seeing the nest, feeling like I’d found buried treasure; how carefully I extracted it from the brambly tangle; the cawing and swooping of nearby crows when I pulled it free and sensed that everything is more connected than I know; the minutes I spent marveling at how tiny its bed was.

Right now, writing these words, I realize how much my joy and wonder and savoring happens not in spite of all the tasks filling my days, but in many cases because of them. If not for the overgrown roses, I’d never have seen the nest. On a different Sunday afternoon, I mowed the lawn for what I am sure will be the last time of the season, pleased with how tidy and green it once again looked, only to wake after a windy night to find it, as I rushed out the door to work, covered with leaves. It startled me, the change, and delighted me for some reason I still don’t really understand. Maybe it was in the contrast between what had been and what was that I found something to savor, or the way the leaves looked like tossed confetti. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that the moment was a gift that would not have been possible without the chore that felt like it was keeping me from life’s gifts.

Three days into November, I am still a little sad to see October go, and still feeling a little trepidation about the holiday season now upon us. There’s a line to walk in these musings, some place between too much and not enough. I wish I could figure out some trick to both make time move a little more slowly AND still fill it with good things. I suspect, though, that it doesn’t work that way, and that the only way time is going to move slowly again is for there to be too much of it, which will mean that my life is empty of the things I now love–family, friends, meaningful work, and good enough health to have all those things filling my days.

Catch and release

Last week was a tough one. Not hard in any life-wracking sense, just tough. No illness or tragedy or loss. Just one of those weeks in which your work seems maybe mostly futile, a game of whack-a-mole you’re never going to win, or a dike springing 10 times the holes you have fingers to fill. One of those weeks in which your to-do list becomes so much longer than your capacity to get ‘er done that you abandon any idea you had of being able to stay on top of things.

There’s a gift in that, you know. When doing All the Things is still within the realm of the possible, most of us push ourselves hard to do them. We give up such things as sleep, healthy meals, and time with friends and family. Because All the Things are Really, Really Important, and we want to do them. On Wednesday, however, I realized I’d crossed the border into the realm of the impossible (despite having given up all three of those things in the previous few days), which is why I gave myself permission to leave early Thursday afternoon for library conference starting early Friday morning at the Oregon coast. I mean, if I couldn’t get it all done anyway, there wasn’t really anything to lose, right?

I treated myself to a late lunch at a favorite spot, and I hit the road heading west in full daylight.

And when I got to where I was going, I saw this:

I wasn’t ready for my conference presentation on Saturday, but I did not hole up in my room to get ‘er dun. I threw on my sneakers and high-tailed it to the beach, clinging to the words my friend and colleague Heather had given me that morning: “Give it all to the waves. Let them carry it out to sea for you.”

That is a thing easier said than done.

I was a little melancholy, despite the glorious sun and waves and sand. Maybe, truth be told, because of them. There was a time when I would’ve gone to my conference with a companion, and it hurt to be in such a place alone, with no one to whom I could exclaim, “Isn’t this wonderful!”

There was a family on the beach, their little ones digging with shovels and laughing, their drawers droopy with wet sand, and I missed the children I once got to raise and take to beaches on cold, sunny autumn days.

There was a small dog racing in circles, his whole body quivering with joy, and I remembered how our now-geriatric dogs used to run in just the same way at our river, paws and sand flying.

It was all so gorgeous it hurt, and I started wondering (of course) if those children would have such beaches to stroll on 50 years from now, when they will be my age, or if they would be able to get to them even if they are still here, in the same ways they are now. I wondered if there will still be gulls crying in the air, and mussels clinging to rocks, the same tides going in and out. Even though I know the oceans will likely exist in some form long beyond any of us on the beach will, everything felt fragile and transitory and doomed.

That is when I saw it: A flash of pink in the distance. I took a deep breath (how many friends have reminded me in how many moments to just breath?) and kept walking toward it.

As I got closer to the pink, I saw it was a sprite of a girl, a dashing, dancing speck who clearly was not thinking of planetary change or the passing of things. She was chasing a seagull. Or, rather, dancing with one. It was clear that the gull did not mind her machinations, would flap its wings just enough to get beyond her reach–which was just enough to keep her thinking that maybe, maybe she might catch it.

When the gull flapped, her arms flapped, too, and her legs lifted from the ground, almost like the bird’s shadow or echo. I breathed, and watched the girl and the gull, and listened to the waves, and let it all go: the frustrations, the loneliness, the longing, the fear of future loss.

Heading back to my room and my presentation prep, I passed an older man, alone like me. He caught my eye, smiled, said, “Isn’t it a lovely evening for a walk?”

“It’s gorgeous!” The words burst from me. I am not a words-bursting-from kind of person, usually. I tend not to gush over gorgeousness. I knew the words weren’t just about the beauty of the sun or ocean: It was all of the evening’s beauty, and all of us in it, sharing it.

I was so grateful for that man, a fellow human who could see what I was seeing and who was in it with me, even if only fleetingly. My gratitude even included all the things troubling me; though I’d let them go, they hadn’t disappeared, and I could see then that all of dark, hard things were part of what made the beautiful parts as shiny as they were. There’s something about knowing that everything will pass–that the children will grow, the dogs will slow, the girl will become too self-conscious to dance in public with the birds, and that the man and I will die–that makes it all precious: It’s knowing we can’t catch and hold all the things we love any more than that girl could catch her bird, but that, like her, we try to, anyway.

And isn’t that, really, what the moles and dikes and all our frantic efforts with them are about, too? Trying to catch and protect and preserve what we find beautiful, feeling hopeless when we realize we can’t in the ways we want.

Today, Sunday, as I’m back at home getting ready for another week–the washer running and the counter filled with groceries that need to be put away–I can see that I didn’t quite understand what letting the waves have my worries would mean. I gave them by troubles, yes, but the waves didn’t carry them away. Instead, they washed them clean and tossed them back up on the sand–right where I could reach down to pick them up and put them back in my pocket again, which is right where they belong.

Loose and tight

This is a catch-up post. An, “oh, crap–the blog’s been down for weeks and weeks (months?) and I couldn’t even fix that, much less write anything because: Life” post.

So, that’s not entirely true: I have been doing some writing, but on pieces bigger than those I usually post here. I might try publishing them somewhere else, eventually. But I might not. Hard to say.

Hard to say because I have decided that this stage of life is just one big, fat, second adolescence, with many of the same issues and questions: What am I going to do next? Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I want to spend my time? (And what in the HELL is happening to my body?)

It is nicer than the teen-age go-round with such existential angst in that I have foundational answers to some of the questions. I know what I value and what I like and (most importantly) a whole lot of what I don’t need to tolerate or worry about. It’s a bummer that when I emerge from this transformative stage, unlike the earlier one, I can be pretty sure that my body is going to be in worse shape (rather than better) than it was going in.

Of course, I’m attempting to wrestle with all of these questions in the context of a world that feels increasingly unfamiliar and unstable. That is not what I long thought it to be. It’s hard to know what matters, really, when it comes to deciding how and who to be.

But, meanwhile, the days pass by and: Life.

Late spring and early summer was full of work and family and friends and thoughts and feelings–oh, so many feelings–about all of those things. About time, and love, and loss, and the meaning of life. It’s been huge, and also small. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, and all that.

Ah, who am I kidding? There is no catching up, not really. There’s just picking up–a thread, a conversation, ourselves. That’s all I’m really doing here. Picking up a thing I had to set down for awhile. Picking it up again so I don’t forget what I’ve got.

Yeah…

March on

A few days ago Google photos sent me a little overview of the month of March. Back in January, I made a promise to myself to be more present in my days. To notice them more, so that when I got to the end of another year I wouldn’t feel as if they’d all slipped past me when I wasn’t looking.

I wrote a post at the end of that month in which I looked back over it, which was a way of noticing. The days had been short and some weeks even shorter, but the month looked long in the rearview, when I saw how many good things had actually filled its 31 days.

I meant to do the same at the end of February, but you know how things can go. And here it is nearly the middle of April (or it likely will be by the time I get this posted), but it’s not too late to look back at March. (You can do things like this when you’re making up your own rules as you go.)

I had one really big event in March–a trip with the women of my extended family to my great-grandparents’ first home in Croatia–but the rest of the month was full of a rather ordinary kind of good. The first bulbs poked their heads above ground. I ate a great deep-dish pizza at a library training in Chicago. I got to teach some kids how to use databases. My daughter sent me texts and snapchats that made me laugh. The bulbs grew, and I pulled weeds, and I went for a walk where I took photos of modest little houses for a project I started years ago and will likely never do anything with. I got scared by a spider (which wasn’t exactly good but made me laugh) and ate a great donut and then I took a plane (or three) to Croatia. The bulbs fully bloomed while I was gone.

It was a good month. It’s a good life.

The same day that Google reminded me about my month, I came across this article on living “a mediocre life,” which asks:

“What if I am not cut out for the frantic pace of this society and cannot even begin to keep up? And see so many others with what appears to be boundless energy and stamina but know that I need tons of solitude and calm, an abundance of rest, and swaths of unscheduled time in order to be healthy. Body, spirit, soul healthy. Am I enough?”

Solitude. Rest. Calm. Enough.

I’ve caught myself lately saying, “I’m turning into an old person,” in response to such things as being in bed on a Saturday night at 10:00 or really looking forward to eating German pancakes on Sunday morning at a neighborhood bakery. I say it as if doing such things and/or being an old person is a bad thing. But if healthiness rooted in the presence of small, everyday pleasures–as well as the absence of hangovers, headaches, and drama–is part of being an old or boring or mediocre person, well…bring it on.

We don’t ever ask the bulbs in spring if they are enough, or to be more than they are. We just let them unfurl (or not), and accept that whatever they do is what they were meant to do. We don’t curse the tulips and daffodils for being common or for needing certain conditions to grow. When we see them, we’re just grateful that they’re here, again, both testament and witness to another year, and that we didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to make them bloom.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the way we think of seasons as metaphors for our lives might be all wrong. What if the prime of our life is not summer, but winter? I spent a lot of the past two decades with my head buried, living my way through a lot of short, dark days, doing a whole lot of growing and energy gathering in an underground, crocus-ey sort of way. It was not a bad time, but maybe it was not the summer of my life. Maybe this, right now is the springtime of my life. My mediocre life.

Maybe it’s yours, too?

Stay gold, Ponyboy

You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.

You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.

You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.

What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.

As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.

As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”

As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.

You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.

But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.

Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.

Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.

You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.

Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.

You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.

You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.

You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:

Hold on loosely

When my kids were two, I decided–based on conventional parenting wisdom–that it was time for them to be potty-trained.

I did all the things a parent was supposed to do. I bought a potty seat. I read potty books to them. I talked it up. I took the kids shopping for big boy and big girl undies. I chose a date to begin–our first day of summer vacation. We were psyched and set.

In the first 45 minutes of Operation Potty they each went through 3 pairs of big boy/big girl undies–frankly, a urine output the likes of which I’d never seen–and I deduced that something in my approach was not working for them. “Should we try again another day?” I asked. They nodded their agreement with my new plan, and I think we were all relieved to know that I still had a good supply of diapers.

I decided to wait until they told me they’d like to try again. They never did. “Well, they won’t be going to kindergarten in diapers,” I told myself as we all went back to school that year, a mantra (adaptable to any number of issues) that got me through their toddler years.

Sometime that fall, the daycare ladies took over the job of teaching my children how to use a toilet. My daughter, from the get-go a lover of feedback, extrinsic rewards, and instruction from someone other than her parents, was highly motivated by and successful with stickers on a potty chart. My son, not so much. As that school year ended, several months past their third birthday, he showed little inclination to embrace his big boy undies, no matter which super-hero adorned them. He didn’t care about stickers or M&Ms or any other kind of reward.

“How come you don’t want to wear big boy undies and use the potty?” I asked one day in May. In complete sentences, he explained that he wanted to wear Pull-Ups because they did not require him to stop playing if he felt the need to pee or poop.

“Well, you have a really good point,” I conceded. “No one likes to have to stop playing to go to the bathroom.” I then explained that even though his reasoning made sense, he was still going to need to wear regular underwear like the rest of us.

“Why?” he asked.

Why, indeed? “Well, it’s just something we’ve all decided that people do. You can’t go to kindergarten wearing Pull-Ups,” I added. “They won’t let you.” Acknowledging the necessity of kindergarten, he agreed that he could not wear Pull-Ups forever, and that he might as well begin his life in regular underwear fairly immediately.

I asked him if we could choose a day that we could give up the Pull-Ups, and we reached a mutually agreeable one–the day we were to return from a family vacation in June. On that day he put on big boy undies and never looked back (and never had an accident).

This week those toddlers–my babies–turn 21. 21!

What strikes me most when I look back over the course of their lives is how constant their core selves have been. Although the particulars of their personalities and ways of being in the world are wildly different, both of my children act from places of reason, strong conviction, and a desire to meet goals that matter to them. I understood from their earliest days that I was never going to be able to bluff, bluster, bribe, or BS my children into anything they couldn’t see an authentic reason for doing.

What also strikes me, when I look back at the potty story and so many others, is my faith in both themselves and me. I took the conventional approach to toilet training, but when their behavior told me I’d likely misjudged something, I quickly abandoned it without doubting myself or worrying about anyone’s judgement. Maybe I was simply too tired from the physical crush of early parenting to put up much of a fight, but I like to think I had enough confidence in myself and my children that I didn’t worry about doing things differently from other parents. Once they entered kindergarten, I easily shifted my mantra to the next milestone: “They won’t be _____ in middle school,” I’d mutter when something wasn’t going for us the way it seemed to for others.

Later, when my daughter was in early middle school, she shared her opinion that a friend’s parent was “too easy,” and let her do things she shouldn’t.

I thought of all the things I allowed that many other parents typically didn’t and wondered if she was trying to tell me something about myself.

“Do you think I’m too easy?” I asked, half-wary of her answer. (“She doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” my mother has often said of her, and her judgments can be sharp.)

She thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said. “You’re strict about the right things.”

“What are those?” I asked.

“Mostly safety, I guess. I know there’s some things you’ll never cave on, so I don’t even try to get you to.”

Considering that this child had told me, when she was eight, that she’d realized that I couldn’t actually make her do anything, her perception of my parenting felt like solid-enough ground upon which we could make our journey through their adolescence together.

A time came, though, when that ground opened up beneath me, leaving my son on one side of a chasm and me on the other. Floundering in shock and fear, I lost faith and confidence in both of us.

Maybe I had been all wrong, I thought. Maybe I had been strict and loose about the wrong things. Maybe I should have been more like other parents. Maybe I’d been arrogant to think I knew best. Maybe I had failed him. Maybe I was failing her. Maybe I didn’t really know my son at all, this man-child who suddenly felt like a stranger much of the time. And did I really know her, or was another invisible-to-me fissure going to split wide open, leave me scrambling and clinging to the edges of what felt like an abyss?

“He’s still in there,” my mother assured me, more than once. “He’s still him. Just hold steady. You’ll both get through this.”

I wasn’t sure. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed reflexively for the standard parenting handbook, even though much of it had never really seemed to work for my kids. Because maybe I had been wrong about that, too. Maybe I had just been too weak to do the difficult things parents need to do. I judged myself harshly and for the first time worried about the judgment of others.

My grip on him tightened, hard, as I tried to push him back into the shape of the person I’d thought him to be, the person I thought he was supposed to be. The tighter I grasped, the more he pulled away, and the harder I clutched in return. I’m guessing you can imagine how well that worked, for both of us.

It wasn’t until he was graduating from high school, when I was lamenting to a friend, a teacher at an alternative school, about how he’d completed his last class, that she gave me the first plank in a bridge to span our divide.

“It must have taken him a lot of strength to stand up to all the adults in his life,” she said, gently. “It sounds to me like he met the goals he set for himself, on his own terms, against a lot of pressure to do what others wanted of him.”

“That’s something really positive,” she added, looking straight at me. “That’s a quality that might serve him very well.”

And, suddenly, just like that, I could see him again.

I could see that the son I feared I’d lost had been there all along, and that he was not fundamentally different, really, from the pre-schooler who couldn’t see any good reason to wear big boy undies when Pull-Ups allowed him to meet a more meaningful goal than the one I’d set for him–when all he’d really needed from me was some validation of his priorities and some measure of control over his choices.

What if I’d been able to see and give that later, when the stakes were higher and the challenges more complex? What if I’d looked harder for options amenable to both of us, and allowed him some true choice in which ones to take? What if I’d stopped thrashing around in my pond of fear long enough to have seen that it was, after all, only a pond, and not an ocean, and that he wouldn’t be _____ when he was 21? How might things have been different for him, for us?

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the rear view is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. It was hard to know, at 17, where we’d be at 21. It was hard not knowing if he would be OK, if he would make it to 21. Some kids don’t. Had his story gone a different way than it has, I would probably have a different interpretation of….well, everything.

But it didn’t, and here we are.

When we birth a child, we are creating a new life not just for them, but for ourselves, too. All I really know, as I approach the 21st birthday of life as my children’s parent, is that I have been some combination of wise, foolish, and lucky. I know that the question of how we should best carry our children is a hard one to answer in the particulars, but that in general the answer is to hold on loosely–somehow both tight enough to keep them, but not so tightly that we kill the very thing we are desperate to protect.

As my children and I approach the end of our transition to adult parent-child relationships, my only true regret is that I didn’t understand sooner that my job wasn’t to make them fit into the world as I see it, but was instead to teach them how to navigate their world as the people they were born to be. I believe now that if we think we can make our kids into some image we have of who they should be, we are only fooling ourselves about our power. We are not those kinds of gods. And if we try to be, we risk missing the chance to truly know and love the complex and often confounding and profoundly gorgeous beings our children are, have been, and will always be.

Happy birthday to us, loves of my life. What a gift and privilege it’s been to mother you.