This Life

I haven’t written much here, in this space, for quite a while.

My problem on the page, one I don’t share conversationally, is I don’t like to write if I have nothing to say. Don’t be fooled into thinking nothing has been happening. So much has been happening, in the world outside of myself, and within.

But every time I feel the prickling of interest, something I want to share about a feeling, a phrase, a book, a moment, before I can get it down in words, it takes flight, like a flock of birds when a wave approaches, and I’m left with nothing but a glimmer, a smoothed out stretch of gleaming sand. I can’t write about such flatness, I can’t capture something without edges, and so I take note, for myself, and walk away.

beach at dusk

Today is Thanksgiving, but I woke up, for the second morning in a row, feeling irritable. I don’t want to be woken up the way I am nearly every day, by my daughter’s thumping gait as she drags herself and her broken foot to the bathroom and back, and then the inevitable creak of my door as she opens it to ask me to help her get dressed, to find her a pair of socks, her iPod, a book.

And yet, of course this is exactly how I want to wake up, if the alternative is not waking up, or not having her in a room adjacent to mine. If something terrible or tragic were to happen to one of us, to her, I would fall apart, disintegrate.

This reasoning should invoke some gratitude, grudgingly, or otherwise, and usually it does. Today I stumbled into her room, bleary eyed and annoyed, and tossed her a pair of socks, which she rejected for dirty ones pulled from the pile next to her bed. I am needed and not needed. She is more than halfway to eleven years old. I try to remind myself that soon I will be needed less, or needed differently, and these thoughts fill me with despair.

Despair! Even though so much of what runs through my mind on a given day is LEAVE ME ALONE, like the title of one of my son’s favorite picture books. Every time I open it up, I laugh in recognition. A frowning grandmother in an old fashioned dress with a babushka on her head surrounded by dozens of grandchildren. Most days I feel like that grandma, frowning in my pajama pants and tank top, trudging up and down the stairs, to and from the kitchen, feeling bombarded by the never ending litany of requests.

But it only takes a moment, a flash of understanding about the fleetingness of time, for the ground to disappear beneath my feet, for longing and regret and sadness to compete with my need for solitude.

I just finished reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life on recommendation from a writer I admire and like very much, Beth Kephart. She wrote an article about her in The Millions and shared it on Facebook, a medium that offers me so much solace, and also wastes so much of my time. In this case, it was precisely the life preserver I needed.

safekeeping

The book didn’t come from my local library because for some reason they don’t own it. They couldn’t even request it via inter-library loan, because not one copy exists in the entire county, which now I realize is an absolute crime. But the librarian told me he would request it elsewhere, and when the book arrived just a couple weeks later, I was pleased to discover it came from Pittsburgh, my mother’s hometown. I love the idea that this book traveled all the way across the state to find me on the other side.

I didn’t intend to read it so quickly. It’s an ideal sipping book, each chapter is perfectly named and comprised anywhere from a single paragraph upward to several pages. There are no cliffhangers, per say, since the book is not linear, and each chapter feels utterly self-contained, and yet, I couldn’t stop. It was one of those wonderful inhalations where the insights and language feel as nourishing as food. I just wanted to eat and eat and eat.

In the morning after a particularly late night, I read several passages aloud to my daughter over breakfast, interrupting her own reading. She finished her paragraph in Harry Potter and looked up, waiting. I read quickly, not wanting to lose her attention.

“They had a big window installed in the kitchen that looked into the woods. In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon slowly being filled to the brim.”

I wondered if she understood the word bourbon meant amber liquid, but even before I started to explain, her eyes lit up, a mirror of my own. Oh mom, that is so good, too good, and I nodded, grinning, delighted to have captured her interest and understanding. Without a prompt, I read her another brief passage:

“Some things are so sad you think they can’t get better, and nothing will be okay. She didn’t make it better, although she tried, later. It got better by itself. He has a wife and a baby girl now. They sleep in the same bed. He lives on an island.”

Stop, she said, it’s too good, I’m jealous. 

I knew exactly what she meant, but I shook my head, no no, don’t be jealous, just drink it up, soak it in, writing like this can teach you so much. 

I let her return to her own book then, and I returned to mine, both of us satisfied.

Days later, here I am, alone in my office, shut up after my irritable morning, finishing a cup of coffee and this precious book. In the span of an hour, the foggy dawn has transformed into a bright and crystalline morning. The birds have come and gone from the feeder outside my window. I now feel sated and calm, having shucked off my anger with solitude and words.

I’ll leave you with this passage toward the end of the book, and maybe one day, I’ll read it to my daughter, when she’s old enough to understand, when and if she has a child of her own, and a need to be alone, to shut a door, with herself and a book.

“What is this longing, she will want to ask. This troubling feeling of more to come. You can make something out of it, I want to tell her. But that’s what her life is for.”

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with ebbs and flows of sensation and memory, of good food and laughter, and maybe a special book you can share with someone you love.

 

 

 

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Summering Like a Mother

I’ve let a lot of things go this summer.

This blog, for example, which has fallen by the wayside these past two years while I poured all my focus into writing and revising my memoir.

Neglect by necessity, you might say.

Not unlike summer parenting. Right now my kids are playing Minecraft for the umpteenth hour despite all my efforts to curb screen time this summer.

It’s midway through a summer with minimal camp and minimal childcare, which means maximum MOTHERING.

river summer 2018

So grateful for this river. 

Despite this, I managed to accomplish a surprising amount. I’ve read a TON of books, including EVERY single Deborah Levy, my new summertime writing crush. I can’t recommend her latest memoir, The Cost of Living, enough. Also, her previous memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know. (Check out the linked reviews from The Guardian if you’re curious to know more.)

levy memoir

This is what I call, reading while mothering.

I just discovered that these are the first two installments of a memoir trilogy, which follow her life as a woman in her 40s, 50s, and the forthcoming 60s. This reminds me of another trilogy I finished this summer, Rachel Cusk’s incredibly unique and powerful, Kudos.

Other books devoured:

Educated by Tara Westover – I loved this memoir, but it also made me anxious because of her dramatic, and at times violent, childhood.  It’s not the quiet kind of memoir that I usually gravitate towards, but I’m so glad I read it.

Podcast accompaniment: the NPR interview that first piqued my interest.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – a riveting novel about women’s prisons in California told (mostly) from the perspective of Romy Hall, a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences (this is not a spoiler).

Podcast accompaniment: Kushner at the Los Angeles Public Library.

summer reading

I adore my public library. 

Also, somehow, despite the nonstop pace of summer at home with two kids, I managed to finish another draft of my memoir.

draft 2

I didn’t expect to have any time to work, but it makes sense that I made the time. Writing keeps me sane by reminding me who I am – in addition to being a mother. Recently, The Sunlight Press published an essay I wrote several months ago about this exact theme: Saying Yes.

A little while ago I walked outside while the kids buried their faces behind their screens. Freshly cut grass stuck to my sandals as I shuffled across the damp lawn, gazing at the overgrown landscaping. The weeds have won, I decided, with ambivalence.

I had attempted to tackle them in late spring, digging the innocent looking green sprouts out by the roots, but it’s the kind of task that has to be done repeatedly, religiously, compulsively, and well, I just don’t have time for that kind of nonsense.

The weeds are officially bigger than the “legit” flowers, and yet, they have flowers of their own.

weeds

Who is to say, really, what is a weed and what is a flower? A convenient argument, perhaps, seeing as we’re living behind a forest of weeds, but still, I wonder. My son has always loved dandelions, one of the most persistent of weeds, and even names it as his favorite “flower.” Who am I to tell him he’s wrong?

A few weeks ago, I tried using kitchen shears to cut a six-foot long stem that had crept across the driveway, but it was so thick – with a circumference of at least one inch – I almost broke the shears. After abandoning them, I used my hands to twist the thick stem back and forth, finally cracking it in half with a satisfying crunch. I dragged it into the woods and flung it a few feet away where I’m sure it will root down and begin again. But that’s another day’s problem.

Sometimes we have to let things go, so other things can grow.

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? 

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.

the-kids-are-alright-1-672-1.jpeg

“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.