Summer Writing, Living

My eyes burned from exhaustion. The kids were bundled up in blankets watching Netflix already and it was barely 7am.

kids

There are just a few more days of school. Summer is barreling toward us. My daughter is eight years old and this fall she’ll begin third grade, which feels unbelievable. Wasn’t I just fretting on my old blog about her entry into elementary school?

Now it’s my son who is closing in on that milestone. Thanks to a November birthday, he has one more year of preschool, for which I’m grateful. One more year until both my kids are in full-time school. That is the dream. The light at the end of the tunnel, my writing time opening like a dam being lifted.

Hours of quiet pouring in. An empty house. It’s what I claim to want, what I do want, and yet, I know it will come at a cost to my heart. The passage of time always does, especially as it relates to my children.

I don’t want to hurry away the hours of summer, wishing, waiting, biding my time – but the struggle to write is real. I’ve been rising early for almost a month now, #writinglikeamother every day. It’s been life changing. If I can get in an hour or more of solitude and work, I am a better mother for the rest of the day. A happier person. The problem seems to be when I don’t.

desk

Like yesterday. Up at 5:40am I was so tired I considered going back to sleep until I heard my daughter’s thundering footsteps in the hall. I crept out of bed carefully, so as not to wake my nighttime visitor, my son, and handed her my phone before heading downstairs. In my mind I’m pleading, please stay in your room until 7, please don’t wake up your brother.

Of course my wishes were not granted.

I slammed down my coffee and dashed upstairs to my son’s cries and my daughter popped out of her room like a jack-in-the-box.

My mood was grumbly. I felt frayed and irritable. Angry, that my time was interrupted.

This is what I feared when I made the commitment to early risings, but life with kids is never predictable. Things change. It’s the one thing you can count on. The only thing.

What I need to do is adjust, adapt. To accept the inevitability of shortened writing sessions, and to be grateful for the ones that last.

When it happened again today, I cursed (more quietly) before running up the stairs. I made jokes about their early rising instead of threats. I put on the rest of The Sound of Music and let myself fall between my babies as we watched, using the computer to pull up a map of Europe so I could show my curious daughter the proximity of Switzerland to Austria as we watched the von Trapp children sing and hike across the Alps to freedom.

Things will be quiet on the blog over the summer, for obvious reasons. I have big goals that I will try not to stress over, like filming lessons for my upcoming grief course, working on my memoir, and living my life.

The summer will fly by, as always, and I want to make sure I’m fully present for all of it, not simply wishing the time away. That will happen on its own, soon enough.

Hope we all have the summers we want, or at least the grace to surrender peacefully to the ones we end up having.

See you in the fall!

xoxo Dana

 

 

Write Like A Mother

Over the weekend I posted this picture on Instagram.

writing desk

It was taken at 7am on Sunday of last week after being woken up at 5:45am by my kid and cat. They often do a tag team on me in the morning, and after years of attempting to fall back asleep, only to rise grumpily an hour or less later, I decided to just get up and write.

I’ve been doing it for over a week now and it’s been kind of life changing. I don’t set an alarm (because I don’t need to, thank you kid and cat) and some days I “oversleep,” which means I get up a little past 6am, but regardless of the time, I stumble out of bed, grab some coffee, and head to my office. My daughter knows not to enter until 7am (thank you Netflix) and when she does I greet her with a smile.

But this post isn’t about advocating early rising, though don’t knock it till you try it.

This post is about being seen.

Getting back to my Instagram photo, I wrote a brief caption describing my new routine and even threw in a hashtag, #writinglikeamother – a big departure for me since hashtags usually stress me out. I have a hard enough time coming up with catchy titles for my short stories and essays.

Shortly after posting, I received a comment from a writer and teacher I admire, Jena Schwartz, co-founder of The Inky Path (where I’m currently enrolled in an incredible 14-day writing prompt course). She responded with, “Love love love love love.”

I stopped where I was in my kitchen and just felt such warmth, and this phrase popped in my head: I’m not alone.

Writing is such a solitary act, well, most of the time, and it’s easy to feel invisible, unseen. Sending out my photo was a way of connecting, of reaching out. The comments I received on Instagram and Facebook made me feel less alone. This is why I do this: blogging, social media, and posting pictures of my desk for crying out loud.

But let’s be real here – there’s a fine line between seeking support and falling into the black hole of Facebook. I know (ahem) from personal experience. The key for me has been finding balance and knowing my triggers.

It’s pretty obvious when I’ve spent too much time online. I start getting twitchy and anxious. Suddenly, people’s announcements about essays and publishing deals make me feel edgy and competitive. That’s when I step away and remind myself about the wisdom I gleaned from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, which is: there is enough for all of us

I believe in that, wholeheartedly, and yet I find myself whispering those words out loud every few days. I’m currently working on a book length project, and there is no immediate recognition or acknowledgment in that, and if I’m completely honest, there may never be. I can’t know or control what will happen to my work, but I know I must do it regardless.

So, my question is, will you do it with me? Will you write like a mother? You don’t even have to be a literal mother, just a writer or an artist with other obligations that pile up in the summer months. Let’s face it, we all have other obligations, it’s called LIFE.

kids summer

My life, my summer.

I already know my summer solo time is going to be minimal, and I’m okay with that, but I want to make the most of the time I can squeeze out. Like mornings. Maybe for you it’s after work, or late at night.

If you’re not too hashtag averse (like I was), consider taking a picture of your workspace before, during, or after you put in some time and tag it #writinglikeamother and I will send whatever support I can (hearts, likes, kind words) your way.

There’s no competition here. This isn’t one of those write-every-day challenges (which for me is a set up for failure) and there’s no need to log in word counts or even describe what you’re working on (unless you want to).

If you want to follow me on blah blah social media, the links are on the right sidebar, or send me a note with your info and I’ll follow you, writingatthetable@gmail.com.

How about we hold each other up when we need holding. Let’s be witnesses for the work we’re doing, even when no one else is looking. Let’s be seen together.

Dana xoxo

 

I’m so pleased to be part of Writing Bubble’s wonderful link-up. Come by, take a look, and perhaps join in!

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Finding Time

I’ve been quiet in this space, but it’s been a busy few weeks in my life. Back to back birthday weekends (my daughter and husband) with a grand finale of Mother’s Day, which always stirs up my emotions. I’m relieved it’s over.

I prefer the quiet lulls between celebrations. Must be that introvert side of me, relishing the chance to duck back into my shell and recover.

Meanwhile, things in my brain haven’t been much quieter, but that kind of work I can manage better. I’ve been tearing through memoir and craft books, inhaling podcasts, and basically gorging on this new (to me) genre. I’m filling myself up with as much knowledge as I can before taking my own leap.

memoirs

 

I never thought I’d be doing this, writing a memoir, and yet here I am, about to begin, beginning. I bought a designated notebook, a special pen, and I’ve been taking notes, writing out scene ideas. I feel like a train, its engine rumbling, steam rising, the whistle about to blow.

But once I get going, how will I continue my momentum once summer begins? The two words “school’s out” used to bring on waves of panic, but this year I’m not feeling as concerned. In fact, I’m making goals.

What the heck?! Two new words spring to mind:

Early rising.

(Well, that’s the goal. I won’t make any promises since this is quite a departure for me.)

sunrise small

Now please understand, I always get up early. My kids still wake in the night, and at least one rises with the sun (since birth, since birth!) and her clomping steps to the bathroom (if she doesn’t stop to peek in my bedroom first) always rouses me. Even if I pretend to ignore it, the cat doesn’t.

My old way was to grouchily flop back into bed and squeeze out a little more sleep, even the restless kind, because getting up at dawn felt like admitting defeat. I’ve fantasized about being the kind of writer who sets the alarm at 5am to write, but after being deeply sleep deprived for eight years, it seems sacrilegious to wake before absolutely necessary.

But then Saturday happened. I slept poorly (thanks kids and cat) and woke in a foul mood. The whole day I felt off, grouchy. It wasn’t until later that I realized why. That morning I had a chance to get out of bed before my kids. I heard my daughter close her door and knew she had turned on her requisite morning show on her iPad, but I forced myself back to sleep. Yet, for the first time ever, I understood that sleep was no longer winning.  What I needed even more, at least in the hour of dawn, was solitude.

I read this post by a fellow writer-mama Sophie a couple weeks ago, Why Early Mornings Are Good For My Well Being As Well As My Word Count, and this line in particular struck a nerve.

“If I don’t take charge of my day, and instead fritter away the beginnings of it in broken sleep, then when I am finally forced out of bed by a hungry toddler I am way more weary than I would otherwise have been.”

I’m more pissy and grumpy, but same idea.

The sleep I get from 6-7am does NOTHING for me. So why not write, or read, or watch the birds flit around the feeder in peace, with no one clamoring for my attention?

I tried it on Sunday and it was like a miracle. Not only did I get some writing accomplished, but by the time my daughter appeared at 7am (as per my firm request and the assistance of Netflix) I was feeling generous and sated as opposed to annoyed and disgruntled. I may have been spotted humming while cleaning the bathroom later that morning, but that cannot be confirmed.

It’s been five days so far, and though I slept in a bit this morning (due to staying up too late writing this!), I’m going to keep on with this habit. There is something incredibly peaceful about being the only one awake and drinking my coffee in silence.

Will I ever set my alarm for 5 or 5:30am? I don’t know, but the idea no longer seems unattainable.

This summer instead of surrendering my writing time, I’ve decided to set some goals. Not small ones either:

  1. Record all 12 video lessons for my grief course (coming to The Gift of Writing in October 2016 if all goes well, click here to be put on the waiting list!)
  2. Write 50 pages of my memoir about me and my mother

mom watching me

The trick is walking the tightrope of trying to meet my goals and not beating myself up if I don’t. All I know for sure is that there is no certainty, not in parenthood, not in life. I can’t predict what this particular summer is going to look like. Can I rise at dawn and still have my wits about me to deal with my two (often sparring) children? Will a babysitter be able to wrangle them or will I have to intervene?

I want to enjoy summer – the laziness of it, the surrender – without stress. Well, without the added stress of deadlines. But at the same time, having a goal to lean toward could serve as my fuel, what gets me through the bickering and squabbles, knowing I have my mornings, whatever may come of them.

What are your summer plans, and do you make goals, or play it by ear? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soaring into the Unknown

“If we can find the courage to face the unknown, we can ‘mind’ our futures more gently. We can examine new ideas, go places we never expected to go…”

– Allison Carmen, Psychology Today

soar

Facing the unknown has never been my thing.

I like having an idea of what’s going to happen next, or knowing what the next step should be. The less surprises the better. Clearly, I’m no thrill seeker. At The Franklin Institute over the weekend we finally made our way into the Brain exhibit. I don’t know why we never ventured in there before. It’s fascinating, and we barely touched the surface.

brain

One thing that struck me was a section about why some people are more thrill seeking than others. Basically, it’s less about choice and preference, and more about the brain and how much of a “reward” we get from risky activities (i.e. dopamine). Looks like my dopamine surges must be minimal, because I’ve always sought the comforts of safety over danger.

The last few months I’ve been struggling over the fate of my novel-in-progress. Maybe struggling isn’t the right word, or I was struggling, and then after Florida I decided to surrender. Since then I’ve been letting my intuition lead, following the faded footsteps in the sand, picking up glittering rocks and shells that catch my eye.

I signed up for a local 4-week memoir class and dove into my own crash course on creative nonfiction, reading craft books and memoirs as I contemplated writing my own.

I let myself consider the “maybe” of trying something new. Of not knowing. Of taking a chance.

Then the other day I was scrolling through the bottomless pit of FB when I came across an article whose title made the back of my neck prickle with recognition. “Why Are We Always Looking for Certainty in Our Lives?”

Whoa. I read it and double whoa. The author honed in on my lifelong tendency to play it safe and assume a sense of control. Then I read this:

“But often we are ignoring new opportunities, stifling creativity and true desires for the sake of certainty.”

Oh, crap.

Fiction has been my comfort zone for my entire writing life; not just the writing of it, but the reading, too. I remember feeling vaguely annoyed that I had to spend one module on another genre during my MFA. I picked creative nonfiction not out of a genuine interest, but a lesser of evils, too terrified about the vulnerability of poetry to consider it.

Over the course of the module, something shifted within me as I realized that fiction and creative nonfiction weren’t as far apart as I had imagined. The piece I wrote for my (incredibly awesome) professor, Thomas E. Kennedy, was called House on the Hill, all about my childhood home and how our high perch offered protection and isolation. He gently but firmly encouraged me to further explore the bruises of memory, some old, others still fresh.

roots

All those exposed roots.

I’ve been thinking of the phrase, house on the hill, over these past weeks, maybe longer, as I contemplate digging more deeply into my past and present. Reflecting on my mother, and my own mothering. The choices I make about my life and art, the choices my mother’s body made for her. The house I grew up in looms large in my mind like a patient ghost, always lingering, waiting for me to return.

And now, finally, I’m ready to go back and see what it wants to tell me.

What side of the spectrum do you lean, toward adventure and risk, or comfort and safety? Do you shy away from the unknown or leap toward it?

I’m so pleased to be part of Writing Bubble’s wonderful link-up. Come by, take a look, and perhaps join in!

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Living in Limbo

I’m reminded of why I love the ocean each time I return.

sunrise

We recently spent a week in Florida. With three days of travel, it wasn’t quite enough time to settle in, to get comfortable, feel at home. But then again, you’re not supposed to feel at home on vacation, are you?

This trip was a whirlwind, and hard in many ways. We went to Disney World first and then spent a few days in Ft. Lauderdale to unwind. But unwinding with kids is kind of an oxymoron. Or maybe just moronic?

Don’t get me wrong, there were highs as well as lows. Vacation is just another piece of life. Your worries and stressors don’t disappear once you step foot on a plane. If you’re like me, they multiply.

On the way to Ft. Lauderdale our brains sizzled in the sunny, claustrophobic car. My husband and I bickered, the kids fought. At one point in the drive I went silent.

By the time we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale I had calcified.

Even the beauty of the ocean couldn’t melt me, and neither did the chic and crowded hotel we were staying at. I felt like an alien around so many smiling and scantily clad people. I wanted to go home.

But we made it to our room, dropped our bags, and then hurried to the beach as the sun began to drop in the sky.

Once there the kids immediately dove into the still warm sand and splashed their feet in the turquoise waters. I stood with my arms wrapped across my chest, but there was a loosening. My husband called a truce. He hugged me and my anger began to uncoil as the ocean lapped onto my feet.

The next day we went back, despite the spotty weather, the ominous sky.

Together we forged into the beautiful sea glass blue ocean. I held onto my young son’s hand while my daughter splashed at my side. I get the sense that the current wants my children as much as I do, maybe more.

My daughter doesn’t need my hand, however, she can swim like a fish. Diving down to the clear shallow bottom and coming up with beautiful shells. She knows to be cautious about the ocean. I’ve taught her that much. But she’s not overly fearful. She leaves her anxiety behind as she dips and dives beneath the waves with a confidence I hope to one day see on land.

bunky on beach

When my husband took her out to deeper waters, I sat on the shore with my son. We played his favorite game. Build and destroy. First I buried him up to his waist with wet shell studded sand, and then he broke through, cracking like an egg, delight lighting up his face.

Then, castles. I built ten, twenty, small structures so he could crush them with his still chubby four-year-old feet.

I sensed a young couple nearby watching us. They smiled kindly at me when I glanced over. I had a moment of self-consciousness, as if I were posing in an advertisement for blissful parenthood. I had to suppress an urge to run over to them and tell the truth. It’s not always like this. You should’ve seen me yesterday. But of course I refrained. The secrets of parenthood have to be discovered firsthand, if at all.

The beach is my touchstone. Every time I sit in the sand and it sticks to every part of my body, I always feel the urge to brush it all away before remembering to surrender. To the mess of it, to any semblance of control. But surrender has never been easy for me. I struggle to find order in chaos. It’s hard for me to sit in discomfort.

Right now I’m at a crossroads with my writing. A kind of limbo. I have to decide whether to continue with my novel, which needs to be rewritten (again), or embark on the entirely unchartered course of memoir.

The question ping-pongs in my head relentlessly. I’m worried about making the wrong choice. About wasting (more) time writing something that will never reach eyes other than my own.

There is no “right” answer. I know this, and yet I posed the question on Facebook. The wise and supportive responses filled me with gratitude, but ultimately the decision is still mine to make.

So I remain here, for now, in limbo.

A place I’m quite vocal about not liking. But maybe my struggle against limbo is more futile than I thought – because what if life IS limbo – the place we all reside between birth and death? If so, then all we can do is surrender to what may come next. To feel our way, as best we can, through each day.

wall quote

If I surrender to uncertainty, in my writing, and in my life, I will move forward. If I surrender to the mess, like I did in the sand with my son, I don’t feel so worried about wasting time, I can smash down the castles I worked so hard to make, knowing I will rebuild. I can create something new on the base of all those broken, necessary, pieces.

Are you in limbo right now? Hovering between conflicting choices? How do you find your answers? 

 

Grief 3 Ways

As you may have noticed, there is a running theme here lately, about grief.

I didn’t intend to write so much about it, but that’s the thing about writing – you don’t always choose your subjects. Sometimes, they choose you.

When my mom died, she was all I could think about, write about, but I kept it mostly private. This was almost nine years ago, when the blogging and online world was quite different. I wrote – as I’ve always done – to understand. It was more instinct than decision. Now, the journals I filled have become a reference for the work I’m doing now.

I’m almost done writing the content of my grief course which I’ll be facilitating on the site, The Gift of Writing, and it’s been quite a journey. Despite all the time that has passed, I’ve learned things about my mom and myself I didn’t know before. That is one of the hopes I have for the people who join my class. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up, you just have to be willing to write.

If you’re interested in receiving updates about the class, click here to add your name to the wait list and you’ll be notified when registration opens.

In the meantime…

grief 3 ways

I recently wrote a guest post on The Gift of Writing called, Every Grief Counts: How to Honor Your Grieving Experience. I feel strongly about the importance of this post because I think there can be a sense of competitiveness and comparison when it comes to grief.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that grief is extremely personal. But the questions still rise up. How long is it appropriate to grieve? Are some losses “worse” than others? Please take a look at the article if you haven’t seen it already, or pass it along to anyone you think may be interested.

I also wrote an essay about my mother and her caregiver, Lucie, and the different ways both women showed me their love. You can read that here, on the lovely site, Mothers Always Write.

Last, but not remotely least, I am so proud of my friend Anastasia for the second book in her Ordinary Terrible Things series, Death is Stupid, published by Feminist Press.

death is stupid

Using her gift of collage and her deep well of empathy, she has created a wholly original book about death – including all the nonsense (well meaning and otherwise) that people say to children when someone they love dies. I urge you to watch the book trailer, which will give you a glimpse at the magic she makes with words and art.

Just to assure you, despite all my grief-making work, I am not at all depressed. It’s spring, one of my favorite seasons, and I’ve seen enough daffodils and forsythia to prove it. Sure, the chilling temperatures are a bit of a downer (and I’m very sorry to my upstate and New England friends for SNOW, not cool), but sometimes I think we forget the capricious, fickle, and teasing nature of April.

It’s still early spring, nestled up against the cold cusp of winter, and maybe clinging to the old season a little more tightly than usual. I imagine a dozing bear, annoyed at being roused, and yearning for just a little more sleep before it lumbers out into the sunshine.

Here’s hoping it lumbers out sooner than later.

 

 

We Share Our Losses

My grandmother wasn’t a happy woman, not when I knew her, so this picture I came across the other day is especially striking.

Pauline and Harry

The joy and openness in her eyes, the width of her smile, radiates joy. Beside her is my grandfather, a man I never met, who died when my mom was eight years old. A man who never felt like he belonged to me, in any way.

His ending was a cautionary tale of a congested heart. Three strikes and you’re out. That’s how many heart attacks it took to kill him. A young man, in his mid-forties, he left behind the love of his life and two bereft children. My grandmother never recovered from his death. It left her shattered and bitter, furious at her bad luck. The life she had imagined turned into dust.

I don’t know how my mother recovered. She had been a daddy’s girl.

When I was a kid my mom rarely spoke about her father, though I’m sure she must have explained to us what happened at some point. I remember how she used to light a yahrzeit candle a few weeks before her birthday on the day of his death. Quietly it would sit on the white countertop and burn without ceremony. For the rest of the year it resided in the rarely used kitchen cabinet filled with dusty wine glasses and an assortment of solitary cups and mugs that had lost their companions.

Looking back, I wish I asked more questions, I wish my mom had been able to share her grief with me. But as a cousin reminded me recently, grief wasn’t discussed openly back then. Maybe my mom thought she was protecting us by keeping it to herself, or maybe her memories were too distant to access, but the space it left, in the shape of a father and grandfather, loomed large in my imagination.

My childhood friend Tamra, who I’ve known since third grade, saw the photo when I posted it on Facebook and made a comment that caught me completely off guard.

She wrote, I see the resemblance with you and your mom. I automatically assumed she meant a resemblance to my grandmother, but when I read the rest of her comment, I realized she had been referring to my grandfather. I stared hard at his jovial good-natured face, searching for familiarity: I saw shadows of my mother easily, and then, I almost saw myself.

I stared at him, this man I had never met, barely knew anything about. Despite all that he was mine. He did belong to me. For a brief moment I allowed myself to imagine what life might have been like if he had lived. A grandmother and grandfather coming to visit, living close enough for me to spend the day, the night, to curl up in his big arms and be read to, held, and loved. My grandmother might have smiled more, and maybe, just maybe she would have been a better mother.

Up until this point I had never allowed myself to stake a claim on this man, to miss him, or mourn his absence. To imagine what he might have meant to me. I felt like that would have been selfish. This was my mother’s loss, not mine. But I was wrong. It was both of our losses. Just like her death is not just my loss, but my daughter’s, and my son’s.

It seems so obvious to me now. We don’t have to hide or hoard grief, we don’t have to pretend it’s not ours to mourn. Like love, there is enough to go around.

The spring before my mother died, when she was weak and recovering from a long winter illness, but before we knew she was dying, my uncle came to visit. Her older brother. When his father died, he became “the man” of the house, too heavy a burden for a twelve-year-old to bear. Nevertheless, he bore it out of necessity, and out of love for his little sister, but it left a bitter trace on him, a shadow of his mother’s twisted anger.

We talked about the past that day, which was unusual. Maybe it was me. Maybe I asked about my grandfather, maybe I offered what I had been unable to offer all those years earlier. An acknowledgment of their deep loss. My empathy.

I listened with rapt attention as my uncle recalled that fateful day of the final heart attack. Their father taken away, and then later, the news traveling back to them, my mother running to her room in tears.

“She couldn’t stop crying,” he said, looking awestruck so many years later.

Those four words hit me hard. I looked over at my mother. Her big brown eyes were wide with sadness and memory as she gazed at her brother. In a flash I saw the two of them as children, trying to care for each other.

Before he left that day, my uncle said goodbye in his usual brusque but loving manner. A quick hug for me and a wave to my mom across the room. She said goodbye from her reclining chair where she had sat for nearly a decade since she lost the use of her hands and legs to multiple sclerosis.

“Go and hug her,” I told my uncle in a low voice. He looked at me surprised. This was not his usual way. I don’t know for sure, but I think her handicap made him uncomfortable. Maybe it was too hard for him to look at her in that chair. But that day I didn’t give him a choice. I took his arm and pulled him into the room.

He leaned over her chair and hugged her, maybe for the first time in years, and I heard him say in a voice so tender, “I love you Susii,” her girlhood name. The name her father must have called her. The name my father called her until she became my mother and decided she was no longer a girl, and to please call her Susan.

The next time he saw his sister, she was under hospice care, unconscious, and close to death.

When I got pregnant, shortly after my mom died, I knew right away there was one thing I’d do differently. My children would know their grandmother. I would tell them her name, show them pictures, and talk about her life, her art, and one day, her death.

There are two of them now, grandchildren. A girl and a boy, in the same order my mother had me and my brother. A strange kind of twinning, but not.

They do not wonder about the blank space as I once did because it’s always being filled.  My hope is that she is as vibrant and beautiful in their imagination as she was in life.

mom and Harry

My mom and her dad, my grandpa Harry

Rest in peace, Harry Cooperman, grandpa. I know I would have loved you.