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.

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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.

Surrendering to Spring

Shortly after a late winter storm blanketed our region with snow, someone tipped off Mother Nature about the arrival of spring.

In a matter of days our backyard went from a smooth expanse of crystalline white, to big messy swaths of slush, to sopping pools of mud and flattened grass. The thick slabs of ice I thought would never disappear drained back into the earth.

icy leaves

The night before the seasonal shift, after an entire winter virus-free, my daughter succumbed to the stomach bug. Within days the virus spread throughout our family, picking us off one by one.

While my son slept feverishly, I stayed in his room, fighting off my own growing nausea.  In the morning when I told my husband about how I literally willed myself not to throw up, a feat he unfortunately did not share, my daughter pointed out my hypocrisy.

“Mom, you always tell me it’s better to let it out.”

It’s true. I do say this. In fact, I just doled out this advice the day before when she was sick. She’s like me. We both fight it.

“You’re right, honey, but I needed to be okay to take care of your brother.”

But this wasn’t entirely true. I also needed to be okay because I hate getting sick. I’m terrified of surrendering to the will of my body, even if it knows best.

There was a moment in the night, at the peak of nausea, when I had to look away from my son’s lava lamp because the rising yellow bubbles made my stomach roil. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly, hyper aware of every internal rumbling, when a sentence popped into my mind.

We’re all just our bodies.

I felt a sudden nostalgia for all the nights I simply went to bed, without pain, without worry of being sick. Like many people, I take my health for granted until something goes wrong. We’ve all had this kind of realization. When we’re sick, or watching over a sick loved one, when we’re battling an illness, or facing a new diagnosis, we suddenly understand what’s at stake.

Without our bodies, we don’t exist. I suppose this is up for debate, but for me, that’s how it feels.

During my sick vigil with my son, his body was restless, and he moaned a little. I put an arm around him and my palm ended up against his chest. I could feel his heart beating quickly, every surge, every whoosh, almost as if there was no barrier between my hand and his most important organ. Under my hand was the sheer preciousness, and precariousness, of his life.

little guy

When my mother died, one of the strangest, and most painful things to come to term with was the fact that I no longer had access to her body. I couldn’t hug or sit beside her. One day her body was there, lying on a bed, struggling to breathe, and the next, gone. I didn’t just miss my mom. I missed her body. I had taken it for granted.

It’s been almost a full week since my daughter came home from a birthday party feeling nauseous and our family viral saga began. In that time, the snow has melted. While we’ve been recovering, winter has surrendered to spring. Uncurling its cold claw, making room for warmth, for new life.

The backyard is muddy, the trees remain bare, but there is new green grass sprouting, and one of the daffodil buds by our mailbox has a distinct yellow casing.

daffodil bud

I point it out to my son, warning him not to open it. He touches it gently with his finger as we marvel at what’s wrapped tightly inside.

Choosing Discomfort: Time to March

hear-our-voice

Recently my husband complained about the weather. “I’m done with winter,” he said, glancing out our kitchen window at the muted gray sky. All the snow had melted leaving behind the messier side of the season.

I agreed. Winter without snow looks, and feels, especially dreary. But I know the monotony of these cold spare months will eventually turn into spring, and the contrast between the two will be a gift.

I’ve always felt this way about seasons, about life. How we need the light and the dark, grief and joy, to feel fully alive. If we want to taste all the flavors, we must drink out of every cup, even the less appetizing ones.

Choosing the cup of discomfort, for example, instead of ignoring it. This has been on the periphery of my mind for years, but it rose swiftly to the surface after my country’s recent presidential election result.

What a wake up call that was, to many people I know, in particular, white people. Getting more particular, white women. Even more so: Myself.

Women of color, people of color, were not surprised. There was a scathing and funny Saturday Night Live sketch about this “phenomenon.” A group of white liberal city dwellers (in a neighborhood that looked suspiciously like my old one in Brooklyn) choked on their glasses of wine watching the election results while their two black friends rolled their eyes and howled in laughter at their ignorance.

It’s uncomfortable being called out as a rube, even more so as a perpetrator, but that’s what you are when you stand by and do nothing. When you’re even a little surprised by the widespread virulent and rampant racism that has been around for decades, centuries, that people of color live with every single day.

A writing friend wrote a short and fiery post entitled, MLK Isn’t A Holiday. “It is a call to action,” she said. But more often than not, for white people especially, it’s a day where many Instagram and Facebook feeds are rife with hopeful images and love filled quotes, mine included. Then, nothing. Until next year, Dr. King.

I squirmed in recognition. I have been that person. I am that person in some ways, but I’m changing. It’s a daily practice. It takes effort, and often, it’s uncomfortable.

This Saturday I’ll be attending the Women’s March on Washington. I signed up in November, a week after the election. Early on there were rumblings of discontent. About leadership, about the proposed name (The Million Woman March, which had been an African American women’s protest in Philadelphia in 1997).

Some white women couldn’t understand why there was a controversy at all. Why they were being asked to “check their privilege” and let women of color lead the way (literally and figuratively).

But the women who sowed the seeds of this march knew why. As momentum gathered, it was clear that after an election where 53% of white women voted for Trump, they alone could absolutely not lead this march.

I was relieved when minority activists took the helm and the march was renamed. The Women’s March on Washington is a respectful nod to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington in 1963, and came with a blessing from his daughter, Bernice King.

Racism within feminism has been a sticking point for decades. Transferring the bulk of leadership to minority activists was a chance for this march, and feminism, to go broader and deeper than the core concepts of equal pay and reproductive freedom. Those rights are vital, of course, but they are not the only ones that matter.

This quote from a recent Vogue article explores the layers of meaning behind the march:

“Where past waves of feminism, led principally by white women, have focused predominantly on a few familiar concerns—equal pay, reproductive rights—this movement, led by a majority of women of color, aspires to be truly intersectional. So though the Women’s March has partnered with organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America—and though second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem is now an honorary co-chair [along with Harry Belafonte] —the march’s purview is far more sweeping. Women are not a monolith, solely defined by gender; we are diverse, we represent half of this country, and any social justice movement—for the rights of immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, for law enforcement accountability, for gun control, for environmental justice—should count as a “women’s issue.”” 

Women’s rights are human rights, to quote Hillary Clinton, and on Saturday, January 21st 2017, the day after the presidential inauguration, women and men are coming together to raise their voices and their fists in protest.

womens-march
Can’t make it to Washington DC? Check out this incredible list of sister marches across the country – wait, let me amend this – across the globe.

https://www.womensmarch.com/sisters