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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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!)

 

 

 

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. 

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.

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

 

 

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?