Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

It’s spring, FINALLY.

finally

The daffodils made their glorious debut a couple weeks ago with their sunshiny yellow heads, but they are already on their way out, shriveled on their stems. Nature is not sentimental, but it is beautiful.

daffodils

Spring always feels so fresh and new, full of possibilities and new beginnings. But also endings. School is nearly over. Just another month until the heat jacks up and I spend long sweltering days negotiating screen time with my kids. I can hardly believe my son, who just started elementary school in September, will soon be a rising first grader, and my daughter will begin her last year before middle school.

kiddos may 2018.JPG

I ask (yet again), how did this happen?

Time just rolls on through like the grimmest of bulldozers, all business, move along people, nothing to see here, but wait, I want to shout while running alongside and trying not to get run over, there’s so much I want to see, please slow down!

Even though time seems to fly by at unreasonable pace, there is often something to show for it. New growth, new goals.

Two years ago, this coming June, I made a decision to write a different kind of book, shifting gears from fiction to memoir. At first, I could barely say the word, memoir, without cringing and apologizing.

Aren’t you a little young to write a memoir? several people asked, though not unkindly and I understood their perspective. I used to think you had to be a certain age to write memoir, and more than that, you had to have an extraordinary story to tell, but fortunately that is not always the case.

As Mary Laura Philpott, who wrote the recent article, “Surviving the Ordinary” explains:

“High stakes make for great reading, but examine any life, and you’ll see the stakes get pretty high for all of us at some point, even if the only decisions we ever make are the ones billions of people have made before us and billions will make again.”

Ah, my ordinary life has a place on the shelf after all. It’s called the universal connection, and if done right, that is extraordinary enough. As Cheryl Strayed says in an interview on Brain Pickings, “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

Another misconception people sometimes make when thinking about memoir is that it’s supposed to span an entire life. YAWN. But (thankfully) this isn’t true. Writing a “memoir” is different than writing one’s “memoirs.” That is called autobiography and should not be attempted by those of us with regular lives. Think historical or cultural figures. Think celebrities.

For us mere mortals, imagine your life as a pie. Memoir is but a single slice.

The memoir I’ve been writing for the past two years is about grief and identity. It’s about losing my mother and becoming a mother in less than a year; how illness and motherhood can transform, and in some cases shatter, an identity. It’s about putting myself back together.

Way back in the summer of 2016, I started writing a mess of scenes. Literally. A MESS. My goal was to reach about 60-70k, a semi-arbitrary number, by my mother’s 10-year death anniversary. And I did. Then, somehow, over the summer I knocked out 20k more words.

In September 2017, with both kids in full day school – FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER – I sat in my empty house and began the behemoth task of shaping my book, finding its center. The goal was to transform a flood of memories into art. No easy feat, and there was no road map, either. I had to do it intuitively, hoping all the craft books and memoirs I’d read over the past year plus had seeped into my brain in some usable form.

For me, revision is always harder than an initial draft, which I wrote about in a post last October. Instead of entering the dream state of memory catching, I had to think analytically. I had to create a chronology and a structure. I had to nail down a verb tense (present? past? both?) and make some rather cutthroat decisions about the scope of my story line. (Remember, just ONE slice of pie, Dana.) Let’s just say my “Darlings” folder in Scrivener is VAST.

Eight and a half months later, I finished my first major revision. As in, I no longer have a towering mound of words. I have a story.

draft

Of course, my work is far from done. I am reading the draft now – and so far not hating it, which is huge! – and then another revision will take place.

My ultimate goal used to be a published book – and in some ways it still is – but I also realize that particular element is beyond my control. All I can do is write the very best version of this book, and that is what I intend to do.

What kinds of projects are you working on? Do you struggle with one element over another? 

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Endless Winter

As rumors of yet another nor’easter arrives in the news, I can’t help but wonder, when the heck will this winter ever end?!

snow day

I didn’t intend to write about the weather. This was supposed to be an update about my memoir. But somehow I’m sidetracked by all the snow still on the ground and the cold chill in the air. Part of me wants to hurry the season along. Enough already. But then I stop myself because I can’t believe how fast this year has gone.

Wasn’t I just worrying anxiously about my son’s entry into kindergarten? Wondering how he would possibly adjust? Well, he did. Not without some bumps, but for the most part, the kid has soared. I am still in awe every day he actually gets on the bus, or jumps out of the car and waves goodbye. I wasn’t sure he would, and some days, I’m still unsure. But most of the time, his resilience surprises me.

Then there’s my daughter, gliding toward the end of fourth grade, a month away from turning TEN. I just reread an old journal from when she was a baby. I couldn’t believe she was already six months old.

How. Did. This. Happen.

Oh yeah. Time.

Do not mess with time. If you keep yelling at it to speed up, it will laugh in your face, spin you around in circles, and the next thing you know, you’ll be sitting alone in your spotless (well, maybe not mine) and silent empty nest of a house wondering what the hell just happened.

My children are growing up. I’m growing older. The stray silver eyebrow hair I plucked out a couple years ago (which inspired an essay on the HerStories Project relaunch) has spawned many sisters, including some brand new face framing highlights. Again, because I’m a novice at aging, my initial thought was, oh my hair is getting lighter, and then I realized my mistake.

Not blonde, gray.

I alternate between feeling completely cool with my gray hairs and rising digits, to spiraling into a black hole of despair over time’s relentless pace.

Some nights after an exhausting day parenting, writing, adulting, I turn off the light and pass the hell out. Other nights I fall into a downward spiral of existential angst, frantically cataloguing my accomplishments, or more often, my lack thereof.

I wonder if I’ll ever publish a book. I wonder about all the time I “wasted” in my 20s. I wonder what my kids will think of me when they’re grown up. I wonder if I’ll be around longer than my mother was for me to enjoy their adulthood. This is around the time I wish I had a sleeping pill.

Recently I got teary on the treadmill thinking about my mom. Certain songs trigger my grief, just like certain songs make me run faster. For a fleeting moment I wondered if there was something wrong with me. If I was obsessed over my mother’s death. If my grief was “normal,” and then I remembered that it was. My normal is this.

Working on a memoir does stir up the past, and I wonder if I’ll think about my mother less when it’s finally done. But I kind of doubt it. Grief is cyclical, and like I wrote in my decade old journal, I will miss my mother for every stage of my life that she is missing, for every piece I can’t share with her.

me and mom.JPG

Writing this book is a labor of love, but it’s a labor nonetheless, and sometimes I just wish it was done already. Part of me wants to speed up the process like I want to speed up winter, but then I remember that I can’t, and perhaps I shouldn’t.

Every moment of illumination, self-reflection, and discovery is another gift from my mother to me, and in turn, to my children who will one day read this book, published or not, so I will remind myself to be grateful for this journey, however long it takes.

(But between you and me, I’m still ready for this winter to end!)

 

 

 

Be the Change

be the change image

This Valentine’s Day our country faced yet another mass school shooting, with another weapon of war, in the hands of another American male. Seventeen dead, students and teachers. Human beings who woke up on a Wednesday morning and went to school only to never come home.

Recently a friend posted the poem, “Days” by Billy Collins, on Facebook. I read it aloud to my nine-year-old daughter, a budding poet and tender soul who doesn’t yet know about the Parkland tragedy. She swallowed her bite of cereal and looked at me with wide eyes. “That is beautiful.”

Now, reading it again, I got an additional jolt – here are the first and second to last stanzas:

Each one is a gift, no doubt
mysteriously placed in your waking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes…

No wonder you find yourself
Perched on the top of a tall ladder
Hoping to add one more.
Just another Wednesday

Seventeen people in Parkland didn’t get a chance to finish their Wednesday.

Yesterday morning, I hugged and kissed my kids goodbye before they boarded the school bus. Then I jumped up and down and blew kisses to my kindergartener. He likes it when I show him how much I’m going to miss him. As I watched the bus disappear from view, I felt sick thinking about all those Parkland parents who said goodbye that morning, or didn’t, and never saw their child alive again.

When you send your child to school, you should never have to worry about them not coming home.

I’m not interested in debating about gun laws or the second amendment (though if pressed, I will say I believe it is more of a privilege than a “right”). If someone feels safer having a firearm in their home, or uses them for hunting – that is their choice and fine by me – so long as they are safely stored.

However, I resolutely and unequivocally believe civilians should NOT legally be able to purchase automatic weapons. Weapons of war. Nope.

There is a lot of talk about the upcoming school walk-outs for students, staff, and families. I understand and support the reasons behind these protests. Recently I heard someone say, “what’s the point?” And then, “it’s not going to accomplish anything.”

I don’t agree. Walking out for 17 minutes, or longer, depending on which protest you participate in, will not make immediate change, of course, but if done with a genuine and lasting intention, it represents something just as important.

Walking out means saying NO.

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“The Kids Are Alright” by Pia Guerra, from The Nib

Teens feel powerless in many aspects of their lives, but imagine how powerless they feel knowing their own schools are not necessarily safe. Walking out to prove a point, to take a stand, to show solidarity to their peers in Florida – and all across the country –IS accomplishing quite a lot.

But it can’t be all on them. The kids need our help.

We should be enraged that kids – amazing kids like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg – have to be strong and inspiring when they are raw with grief. They should be able to cry and mourn without having to be activists, but they can’t, and they know it. Like them, I feel a sense of urgency to make change happen now.

But change only happens with action. If we want to keep our kids safe, and our teachers, and the general public, we have to vote out those who currently wield the power. Every single Republican (and Democrat, they are out there) who lines their pockets with NRA money, who chooses wealth and power over the lives of our children and teachers, simply must GO.

If you want to take action, but feel frozen or unsure about what to do, there are tangible ways to help. First, get off FB and get in the NRA’s face (advice I posted on FB, ha!) and consider joining your local Moms Demand Action group, as I recently did.

Fight back. Don’t let any of the lives lost in these 20 years since Columbine be in vain.

A Return to Light

Today is winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year, but it’s also a celebration. A return to light. Every day, from now until summer solstice, the sun will linger longer in the evening sky.

This reminds me of the mantra I was repeating last night, when my mind crackled with fear and worry about my family: Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.

Sometimes it’s comforting to remember that nothing is permanent. Not the darkness, not a season. It might be the darkest day of the year, but tomorrow will be a little brighter.

mug in window

I’m holding onto this knowledge tightly right now, in regards to my own life, but also what’s going on in the world. I can barely look at the news. I can’t listen to my usual podcasts. I feel sickened by the passage of the tax bill, and all the fearsome chatter in the stream of political emails I receive.

I’m overwhelmed, and with that comes despair and inertia. Fortunately, I know it’s temporary. The fog will lift, things will change. It may go backwards before it goes forwards, but it won’t, can’t, stay still.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember this in times of crisis. My go-to place is usually straight to Doomsday. Def-con 5. When my son has a terrible tantrum, I weep for his future. Every fight with my husband feels like a harbinger of divorce. Another victory for the GOP signals armageddon. Basically, when anything goes off the rails, I panic.

It’s taken me years to learn the basics of emergency management:

stop, breathe, wait

The last part is what trips me up the most, especially when there is no immediate action to take, no quick fix or repair. Just faith, and memory.

There was a time when I wanted nothing to change, when that very mantra set my teeth on edge. It may sound strange, but after my mother died, I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want my grief to lessen. I didn’t want anything to change (well, except for her to still be alive, but that was impossible). When well meaning friends and family tried to console me with the platitude, “you’ll feel better in time,” I wanted to shake their shoulders and scream, “I don’t want to feel better!”

grief covered face

They were right, of course. Nothing stays the same, not even grief. But that’s the kind of lesson we must learn for ourselves. It can’t be instructed or taught. It has to be lived.

Discomfort is uncomfortable. We can’t outrun or hide from it. We have to live through it. Sometimes we understand this instinctively. We choose pain over numbness. We greet each rising wave head on and let it knock us over. We trust that the water will recede, and that eventually, we’ll be able to breath again.

sea-ocean-rocks-waves

No matter what you are grieving or struggling with right now, no matter how big or small, how old or new, I wish you some moments of peace this holiday season.

See you in 2018. xo

Making Sense of the Mess

As some of you know, I’ve been writing a memoir for a little over a year about motherhood, illness, and grief. After reaching my (arbitrary) word count of 70k this past June, I soared to a whopping 90k by September.

draft

While I was thrilled to have amassed so much raw material, a part of me was also terrified. What am I going to do with this mess?

Because that’s what it felt like – a giant hot mess. Memories of my life from childhood to present day all poured into a Scrivener file so big it took over my computer.

I know some writers enjoy the revision process, but I’m not that writer. Or at least, I wasn’t.

But recently I realized something. The reason revision scares me is because it requires a transition. A switching of gears.

Writing for me is an intuitive process. Often I don’t know where I’m going until I arrive. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved the E.L. Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

foggy road

Of course some writers outline and map out at the onset of a project, but I prefer walking around in the dark.

This requires faith. You have to trust that where you end up, is where you need to be. You have to trust that nothing is a waste, even if it ends up in the trash.

You have to recognize the voice of Fear, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book on creativity, Big Magic, and steer it gently but firmly to the backseat of your mind.

You have to ignore the voices in your head – and outside of it – that say your story doesn’t matter, that no one cares. (Thank you Cheryl Strayed for your fantastic rebuttal of the stale argument that all memoir is narcissistic.)

You have to be willing to turn on the lights. You can’t revise in the dark. The fog must lift.

Recently, I listened to several interviews with Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. During a Writers on Writing podcast, she spoke of her process, detailing exactly how she goes from a literally messy handwritten draft – which was 1400 pages for her latest novel, Manhattan Beach – to a published book.

While her first draft is deeply intuitive, she switches to her analytical brain during revision. She is also unapologetic about the quality of those initial pages.

“The book was bad,” she stated in a recent New Yorker profile.

This isn’t a humble brag or false humility; it’s the truth. The point of a first draft is not perfection. The point is to make a mess, but the trick is not to be afraid of it.

A few days later I stumbled upon a quote from Alice Mattison’s craft book, The Kite and the String, that has quite literally changed the way I’m looking at my current messy manuscript.

“When a draft looks terrible, I don’t try to convince myself that it’s actually good or even that someday it will be, only that it’s my job to work on it whether it’s good or not.”

YES. That’s it, that’s what Jennifer Egan was talking about when she discussed her process of writing and revision.

“It’s pretty unpleasant,” she said about the first read-through, but after taking copious notes, she creates a detailed outline of revision. Then she begins the painstaking but focused process of analyzing the material.

The goal for each revision, which she does chapter by chapter, is to “bring it up a clear notch.” She does this repeatedly, over years. Each time the revision outline gets shorter, and each time the book gets closer to the final product.

It made me think about a rock tumbler, how over time, and after a series of lengthy steps, you can transform dull rocks into gleaming stones.

shiny stones

So that’s what I’m working on now. Raising each chapter up a level, again and again, until the work is done.

keep swimming

Dory was onto something.

I’d love to know what projects you are working on, and if you think any of this advice may help or inspire you. 

Off They Go

If I wrote this post yesterday, it would be unrecognizable.

Yesterday, on the eve of my youngest child’s first day of kindergarten, I was a teary anxious mess. Internally. Outwardly, I was holding it together. By a thread.

I kept having these dual and seemingly contradictory thoughts:

I am absolutely ready for him to go to kindergarten.
I am absolutely NOT ready.

Both felt entirely true.

We spent our last official “Mommy Day” at one of his favorite places, the Crayola Experience, playing with model magic and posing for silly pictures beneath a cascade of melted crayons.

Off they go 1

I tried my best to remain present. Not checking my phone or thinking about the udon soup I planned on having for lunch. Instead I inhaled his sweet smelling head and tried to snuggle him as we rolled out clay and cut them into shapes.

“Stop it, mom,” he said with a smile, pushing me away. I went in for more and he put up his hands.

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.”

I watched two moms enter the room with their matching set of children, a toddler and a baby each. They held their infants while attempting to reign in their antsy three year olds. One toddled off toward us, pausing to stare at Leo, who was too busy cutting out gingerbread men to notice. I thought about how not so long ago I’d been one of those moms, but now I felt the distance expand as I drifted out of that frame and into another.

After finishing up at Crayola, we left for our respective treats: for Leo, a frozen yogurt topped with M+M’s, and for me, a bowl of steaming hot udon and veggies. A couple bites in, I felt my throat tighten up. After a few more, I could barely swallow. Here I was, getting what I wanted, and yet, I felt no pleasure.

I wondered if tomorrow’s milestone would feel similar. After years of aching for a quiet house and time to myself, I was about to get exactly that, but I had no idea if it would leave me feeling hollow or filled.

Turns out, both. It’s always both.

This morning I woke early, making lunches, filling backpacks, with enough time left over to make a batch of pancakes. Leo had a hard time getting out of bed, my bed, where he had appeared sometime in the night.

“I’m scared, Mommy,” he said, burrowing beneath the sheet. “I don’t want to go to school.”

“I know, honey,” I said, giving him a snuggle before luring him downstairs with the promise of Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes.

And then it was time. Sneakers on, backpacks slung onto shoulders, and out the door.

My husband said, “how about a first day of school picture?” and I froze, thinking Leo might refuse, or suddenly realize the thing he had feared all summer long was actually happening. Maybe he’d cling to my leg like so many preschool mornings, or run back into the house. But to my surprise he smiled and posed with his sister.

off they go 2

Then the bus slid into view. I put my phone away, too nervous for photos, afraid that trying to capture this pivotal moment would somehow jinx it. I had led myself to believe it might not actually happen. Maybe he wouldn’t get on the bus. But it was. Happening. We crossed the street, his sister leading the way.

He hesitated for a second. “Go on,” I said, and he did.

My baby got on that bus and sat down, disappearing from view. My husband and I stood at the end of our driveway, watching the bus begin to pull away.

We waved, and to my surprise, my son’s face appeared. His sweet smile framed by the window, and his hand mimicking ours, and then he was gone.

I felt a swell of emotion begin to rise, but when my husband asked, “Are you okay?” it subsided. Tears reversed. All the worry and anxiety had melted away, leaving me feeling empty, but not in a bad way.

“I think so,” I said.

My world is changing along with my children’s. I don’t have babies anymore and this is both a relief and a grief. We graduated that stage, albeit a little reluctantly on my part, and my son’s.

We’d been clinging to each other rather tightly these past few years. Perhaps because I suspected he was my last, I’d been holding on a bit too hard, or maybe it was just the right amount.

But this morning I let him go, and then, hours later, he returned. My little guy bounded off the bus and into my arms, giving me the tightest, sweetest hug.

I don’t know what tomorrow will be like, or next week, or next year. I don’t know how or if my heart will break or swell when I drop him and his sister off at college.

Probably both.

off they go 4

Time as a Wrinkle

I have whiplash from this year. It went by in a blink. Wasn’t I just meeting my daughter’s new third grade teachers at Back to School night? Didn’t I just sign up my son for his last year at his beloved preschool?

first day of school 2016 copy

First day of school 2016.

Last day of school 2017

Last day of school 2017

My son will be entering kindergarten in the fall and my daughter beginning fourth grade, both seem unbelievable. In September, both of my kids will be in full-time school, my days opening up like a blank book. Isn’t this the light at the end of my stay-at-home-motherhood-tunnel? And yet as the light bears down on me, I’m struck with nostalgia and grief.

Recently I came across a saying about parenthood that stopped me in my tracks.

The days are long, the years are short.

Leo preK graduation 2017

He entered the school as a two-year old. Now he’s barreling toward six.

Yes, oh yes. But would I want to travel back to those early, painful, excruciatingly days of new motherhood? Long on exhaustion and tears, short on sleep and freedom? Maybe.

***

The tiger lilies are back, as they always are every June. A welcome to summer and a bittersweet tug at my heart. They were my mother’s favorite flowers, or so I tell myself. She’s not alive for me to confirm this assumption. But I know she planted them along the railroad ties holding up the massive dirt hill our house was built upon. Every year they returned. Even after she stopped walking. Even after she and my father moved out. Even after her death. Even now, ten years later.

tiger lilies 2017

Ten years. Want to talk about whiplash? Try looking back on a decade after a death.

In ten years, I went from my early thirties to my early forties. I went from being a young married woman without children, to an older married woman with two. I went from being a devout but sporadic fiction writer to a devoted and slightly frantic memoir writer. I went from losing myself to finding something new.

Two days ago, on June 21, I went to visit my mother’s mausoleum by myself. It felt less like a depressing pilgrimage than a welcome, dare I say almost giddy, escape from my family. (No offense, family.) I packed a bag filled with old journals, new notebooks, notecards, my mother’s book, and my computer. My plan was to write a scene or two of my memoir in her presence. It would be my way of honoring her, and myself.

That morning my daughter made a collage for me to tape on the granite wall, and I printed out a picture of my kids at the pool, their arms wrapped around one another, grinning with the promise of summer, plus a class picture of each.

10 years holmdel

The year before I decided to take the kids for (almost) the first time (Emma had been once as a baby, and Leo in utero). We had a nice day with my father. Spending the bulk of our time at the park across the street, as my mother intended, and then stopping briefly by the cemetery to hang our tributes.

9 years holmdel

Exactly what my mother would have wanted.

This year my daughter did not want to go. The day before I gave her the option, no pressure. “It’s too sad,” she told me, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “You don’t have to go.”

She understands now, the significance, and she has always felt more deeply than most kids her age. “I had a talk with Grandma Susan’s blanket,” she told me earlier that day, “I wish I could have known her. I wish she was alive to meet me.”

Oh, me too. Me too.

Ten years in a blink.

Time heals all wounds, so the saying goes. Well. Anyone suffering a loss knows that is complete bullshit.

Time does nothing of the sort. Like one of my mother’s favorite books suggests, time is a wrinkle. It may stretch out taut over the years, growing smoother, but then in an instant it can snap back together, meeting at the seams, scrunching into a messy ball.

There is no finish line to grief. It’s a forever orbit. We keep going round and round.

Like the seasons, like the school years. The tiger lilies come back every summer, and thank god. They are a reminder of my mother, of her love, of her endurance in my life, and in my children’s, despite having never met them.

We bought journals the day after, my daughter and I. We are summer journaling together, an idea borrowed from a writing friend. Every day we will write or draw a little bit.

journal 2017

“What are you going to write about,” she asked me this morning. “Will it be something sad?”

Oh, this kid. She knows me so well.

“I might write about visiting Grandma Susan, but that wasn’t all sad.”

She looked confused, so I explained how beautiful my drive home had been. Blindly following the directions on my fickle GPS, I went down roads I’d never seen before, passing stunning farmland, huge cows with stripes that looked painted on, and red barns that gleamed in the post-rain sun. I looked for a rainbow, but found tiger lilies instead, stopping on the side of the road to pick a handful.

We sat down to write and she marveled at my speed, and what she thought looked like pretty script, but to me it was the usual messy scrawl, my fingers unable to keep up with my brain.

“It’s so good,” she said, after I read aloud what I had written.

I shook my head, gently steering her in a different direction. “Journaling is always good. It can never be bad.”

So much is a contest to her already. She’s entered the age of acute self-consciousness, anxious about how she stacks up against her peers, against me.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for us. I think about how my mother always wanted her children to exceed her, surpass her. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be an either or. We can all shine. Me and my mother, me and my daughter, me and my son.

We continue on, rolling forward, and back. Repeating old mistakes, and learning from others. The lilies will wilt and die, but there is comfort in knowing they will return.