Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here.
Because how do you write about the things that aren’t yours to tell? How do you begin to separate what is yours and what isn’t?
It is a tricky proposition, this. And not only because of the risk of hurting someone I love, but because of what it means to me. Sorting through the seminal memories and moments in my life means really looking hard at where my head was, where my heart was, and what I knew and wanted at the time. It would be easy to look back with the accumulation of experience and wisdom riding shotgun and nod knowingly in the direction of what should have been, but that doesn’t make for a true story. It smacks of justification or pity-partying and paints a picture of Right and Wrong that doesn’t exist in life, to be sure.
The hardest bit is in the owning of my entire, smelly backpack of crap and roses.
Own it, someone says, urging us to stand up for ourselves and not be ashamed of who we are. It sounds empowering – a battle cry for my generation. Owning it is frightening.
Owning it means I acknowledge an attachment to the story and once I’m attached to something, the idea that it could be taken away is frightening. Something owned can also be un-owned. Writing about other people’s shit is the epitome of non-attachment. It says, “That isn’t mine, but I’ll tell you all about it and together we can exchange looks expressing how happy we are that it isn’t ours.” There is a complicity inherent in telling someone else’s story. Telling my story – owning it – feels very lonely and vulnerable.
Owning it also opens me up to the risk of becoming defined by the story I tell; having it morph into a shorthand by which other people describe me or think they ‘know’ me. The complicity has shifted to include everyone else but me as soon as I own my story and tell it honestly.
I’ve discovered that it is so much easier to solve someone else’s problems than it is to deal with my own. I once told a friend. She agreed. And now, when I sense the urge to find the cracks in someone else’s armor, I am prompted to wonder whether it is because I am ignoring my own.
Ultimately, the only lens through which I can see life is my own, and that means that the only story I have the right to tell is mine. Anything else is just make-believe. And, it turns out, I’m not much of a fiction writer, so I guess I’ll just keep sifting through to find the stories that are mine.
Saturday, Sunday, Monday I had hours for writing. The luxury of time meant that I woke early, poured coffee, sat at a rented desk and pounded the keyboard until I had 60 pages. Walks along the beach, more coffee, shuffling pages of memories and piecing things together.
Tuesday and Wednesday I was back in my normal life – driving, cooking, shopping, working at my ‘other’ job which doesn’t entail writing so much as networking and trying to hawk what I’ve already written. But this morning, I could see a way clear to more writing.
First, the tasks that launch the day – packing lunch, toasting bagels, walking the dog.
My mind drifts and swells. I marvel at how much of my writing happens while I smear cream cheese on the bagel, tug the dog along our familiar route, stand in the shower.
I pass dogwood tree after dogwood tree, loaded down with so many blossoms that I can’t see the leaves beneath them. I am struck by the sheer weight of beauty, how it weighs down the branches, the stems of peonies curving to rest the flowers on the sidewalk, their scent rising up to me. These plants with their short-lived bursts of shocking glory are my favorite. The ones with the less showy, compact blossoms that live on sturdy stems and branches barely merit a glance. What does that say about me?
There is a Frito-Lay truck parked along our route to school and I think about how, sometimes, I have an uncontrollable craving for potato chips. Not often, but when it comes it is intense. I imagine being the driver of that truck, pulling over to a quiet alley, climbing over the seat to get to the boxes and boxes, ripping open a bag and plucking one paper-thin chip out and then another and another. Wiping the grease on my pants.
We pass an apartment whose living room window frames a birdcage and I think, “Do people still keep birds as pets?” I remember my sister’s parakeets – one blue and one green. The biting, ammonia smell of their cage, the wooden swing, the way she had to put a blanket over it at night to keep them quiet. What would have happened if we had simply turned out all of the lamps and let the actual night take over? Would they have slept?
Everyone else is gone for the day but there are imprints everywhere. Stray shoes, crumbs on the counter, a favorite pencil on the kitchen table. I am alone to write but the end of the day calls. What’s for dinner? Are there towels clean? What time is my guitar lesson?
It is really tempting to go back to “engineering smallness.” There is a voice on my shoulder that says that nobody would blame me for giving up, moving on, throwing my hands in the air and telling the world that I tried with a wry shrug. That voice says that it is all just too hard to figure out, that the reward isn’t guaranteed, and it might not turn out to be worth the work. In the rubric of our current culture, I need to cut my losses, stop the bleeding, and get moving.
Deep within, somewhere, is the longing to write, to get back to creating, to find the spark that sets the words free and lets them tumble out of me with abandon. It is a yearning for balance, a call to feed my own desires and tell the stories that are trapped inside of me. The voice on my shoulder calls that out as indulgent, selfish, more useless blather that won’t be realized, just like the other two projects I’ve started and nearly finished.
What is it about the path that I’ve chosen that leads me to this place again and again? The quiet, self-propelled churning that makes something I want to share with the world and eventually brings me to a gate that must be opened by someone else. The book I write that never finds a publisher or agent. The work I do that must be taught by someone else. I know that there is some larger lesson here, that I can’t keep piling up what I’ve worked on and believed in for so long without some outlet, some way to get it out into the world.
But maybe that’s the lesson. That it is out there and that has to be enough. Even if it is out there in a small way, for only a handful of people to see, that is enough. Maybe it’s my ego that tells me that I have to get paid for this work in order for it to be valuable. Maybe it’s my ego that says that I have to have sold X number of copies for it to be successful. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the simple act of creating it is enough. Maybe having had the time to do it in the way I did it was the point.
There is this tension between creating and making a difference. I write because I have to, because it is who I am, because I can’t NOT write. Not to make a difference in the world. But I have had a small taste of making a difference and it is intoxicating. I have heard those who say my words have touched them, and somewhere along the way I got the idea that that was my purpose, that I am meant to do this work in order to make a difference in the world. I have even gone so far as to believe that if I can’t live out my purpose, my work is no good, it is meaningless, as is the time I took to do it. Sometimes it is hard to discern between desire and expectation. It is so hard to un-knot the act of creation from the product itself, from the question of what it will do or can do or should do.
And so I spend time soliciting people’s attention and interest – looking for those who are interested in what I’ve created, and in the beginning it is wonderful. I like to talk about my passion, to share it with others, to connect with people who are passionate about the same things. But at some point when I become tied up in what the outcome will look like, I begin to feel defeated. When my fate rests on whether or not someone else likes my work enough to buy it and I get caught up in the minutia of how best to package it and whether I can replicate it or if it is good enough, I have lost my center. I wonder if I will ever find the sweet spot, or if there even is one.
I woke up this morning with a resolve to let go for a while, to let things un-knot themselves, to leave it up to the Universe and I’m trying. It’s surprisingly hard work to “let go.” It requires me to float in a state of limbo, to constantly redirect my thoughts away from imagining what could be and organizing toward that. It means that my usually long to-do list gets tucked away out of sight and I have to find other ways to occupy myself and be alone with my thoughts. I have no doubt that it will all become clear at some point – it always has before. I know that just because I’m uncertain and a little bit scared, it doesn’t mean that I will always feel this way. I trust that I will look back on this one day and shake my head and be grateful that it passed. And I suspect that I will find myself here again in the future. Frankly, it is that which has me the most agitated – the notion that if I don’t learn whatever lesson I’m supposed to be learning this time, I’m destined to do this again (and, if you hadn’t gotten the message, it’s not a comfortable place to be, so I don’t relish the prospect of being here again). But if I’ve learned anything from life, it is that things only get harder when I fight them. And, if I’m determined to live my values and practice courage, I won’t go back to being safe and engineering smallness, I will just sit quietly and wait and hold on to who I know I am at my core.
I am taking an online class taught by Brene Brown for the next two months, and if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you know already that she is one of my sheroes. I love her no-nonsense style of talking that cuts right to the meat of any issue, and I find her endlessly quotable.
The gifts just keep coming. I have read every book by Brene Brown at least once and I’ve compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, written down quotes, and had some of the most fascinating conversations thanks to her work. Her TED talks inspire me endlessly and often, when I go back and re-read parts of her books, I discover things I hadn’t noticed before. She is definitely on the short list of women whose work impact my life every day, who have changed how I parent and learn and make my way through the world. (It’s a pretty awesome list, including the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou).
My most recent revelation thanks to her latest book, Rising Strong, comes as a result of digging a little deeper into the layers of my life. In one part of the book she writes about people who identify themselves as ‘helpers,’ and notes that the trap of using that label to build yourself up is that it becomes hard to be the one who asks for help. I underlined that passage and made notes on a separate piece of paper because that message resonated so deeply with me. For most of my life, I found control and self-worth because I was able to help other people, lift them up and provide emotional and logistical support. Well, to be honest, I didn’t often provide emotional support until I was a lot older. “Fixing” things was a great way for me to feel as though I was being useful and helpful and it kept me from having to feel the pain of others, to truly empathize.
I was in my thirties before I learned about the concept of holding space for others. It took a lot of practice and a willingness to sit with discomfort for me to not immediately leap to problem-solving and balm-offering when I saw loved ones suffering. I am still practicing acknowledging and sitting with a stranger’s pain without rising to the challenge of making things better in some physical, tangible way. Dr. Brown is absolutely right when she says that tying my own self-worth to the fact that I’m a helper means that if I need help, my self-worth takes a big hit.
I will admit, however, to some amount of patting myself on the back when I absorbed that portion of the book. About ten years ago I slammed up against a wall of depression that stopped me in my tracks and if I was going to be able to move forward, literally continue to exist on the face of the planet, I had to start asking for help. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t easy, but I was lucky to have some pretty tremendous people in my life who were willing to support me. I swallowed my
pride shame (I think they might be the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin) and accepted childcare, meals, help around the house. I learned to get better at saying no to helping others in every single situation where I was asked to help and, over time, I began to warm to the idea that I was not an island. So when I read her words about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask for help and accept it, I nodded my head and congratulated myself on having learned to do that.
I should have known better. (Remember the pride/shame thing?)
The universe has a way of smacking me upside the head when I’m feeling a little too smug.
Literally one day after I scratched my notes on yellow lined paper, I was tested. I was feeling good, preparing to get away with Bubba for a long weekend of fun, and I got a phone call that rocked me, that threw me right back into the space I had spent so many years cultivating. I was needed. My problem-solving skills, my particular calm-in-a-crisis, my physical presence was requested, nee, necessary. I spent several hours on the phone working out logistics, asking other people for help and trying to design an airtight plan so that I could keep my plans with Bubba. And while this is my space, my forte, my wheelhouse, I couldn’t help but lose it once everything was in place and things were going to be okay.
What is this about? I wondered. I had averted disaster, well, helped to avert it. Well, asked for help to avert it. Wasn’t this what I was feeling good about yesterday? My ability to ask for help so that I don’t shoulder the burden alone? That’s the goal, right? I had done it. Why was I feeling so awful?
Most of my personal revelations come about when I walk the dog. This one was no exception. It hit me so hard I’m surprised I didn’t fall over. I am pretty sure I made some sort of whimpering noise when it hit me, but I did manage to stay on my feet and I don’t think the dog even noticed.
I have gotten good at asking for logistical help. That much is true.
What I haven’t yet learned how to do is to ask for or accept help holding my pain. I have no idea how to open up and let my pain out into the world so that I don’t have to keep it all myself. I am good at writing about it (distance, anyone?) and sharing my story, but if I am in the room with someone and I am really hurting, I don’t know how to accept empathy without feeling shame.
More work to do.
I have begun a new writing project. I’m not sure whether it is simply something I will do every morning as sort of a free-writing exercise to “get the juices flowing” so to speak, or if it will turn into something. At this point, I’ve given up trying to predict what will bear fruit and what won’t. I have proven myself to be woefully inaccurate at that. So often, I send out something for publication that I think is really damn good and it gets roundly rejected over and over again and then I will write something here on the blog that gets a tiny readership and folks respond by saying it ought to be spread all over the place for more people to see. (By the way, anytime you feel that way about anything I write, you are hereby given permission to share, share, share. Just sayin’…)
Anyway, this new project was spurred by the fact that I wake up each and every morning with a snippet of a song in my head – like an ear worm that I inflict upon myself. The song is generally different every day, and it often takes me half an hour or so to even notice that it’s been playing in the background for a while. It is my brain’s elevator music, but stuck on one phrase so that it plays the same lines over and over again. I am pretty sure I was in my 30s before I realized that this is something not everyone does – wakes up with music playing in their head.
I don’t remember my dreams except for maybe a few times a year, but the other day it occurred to me that perhaps there is just as much good information in the songs in my head. After all, they must be a function of my subconscious, right? Last week, I decided to start writing them all down along with a little journal entry and see if I can find a pattern. Of course, the first thing I worried about was that I might somehow subconsciously influence myself simply by paying attention, so I do my best to write about it and forget it during the day.
I’m six days in and so far, I have no clue. The songs have run the gamut from annoying pop songs (although, interestingly, not ones that the girls tend to listen to a lot – they are more into independent singer/songwriter stuff or, in Lola’s case, Panic at the Disco) to, yesterday morning, the theme song from James Bond – I shit you not. Try writing that one down. There are no lyrics. It’s just “dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun…DUN-DUN.”
If nothing else, it is a reason to plant my butt in a chair and write first thing in the morning, and that I appreciate. Because my brain is so suggestible when it comes to music, if I don’t record the song before I see or talk to anyone else in the morning, it could easily be replaced by another one that the girls are listening to as they get ready in the morning. Or, if Bubba is home, he delights in planting obnoxious songs in my head just to see if he can – his favorite ones are Guns ‘n Roses songs because I can’t stand them.
I’ll keep paying attention for the time being to see if I can discover any trends or valuable insights, but in the absence of that, at least I’ve got something to write about every day.
I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don’t “need” it, it doesn’t happen every day.
It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I’m feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it’s been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, “at least I’m not….” If I am comparing my life to someone else’s, as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group” or thinking about all the ways my current situation could be worse, such as, “neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I’m not homeless,” I’m not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I’m just dodging a bullet.
If I am also making a mental note of the number of “good” things in my life as they compare to the number of “bad” ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn’t make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.
When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life – there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn’t done something – if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be ‘fixed’ or that don’t meet my expectations. This is not always a negative thing – often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.
I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I’m in the zone, it really isn’t. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.
Away from home is such a mixed bag. Time together with three of my favorite humans – Bubba, Eve, Lola – with nothing to do but enjoy each other is something to be so grateful for. Very little is asked of me in the way of my normal home-based duties. There is no chauffeuring, no cooking, no dish-doing, laundry perhaps once a week in some local, worn-formica-and-linoleum coin-op. And, frankly, I enjoy it. After togetherness all day (even sharing a hotel room with these three loves of my life), that 90 minutes of solitude in the laundromat is welcome. I get to see the natives as they do their wash, take note of the water-logged magazines and who brings their kids with them. I have fantasized about making a photo collage of the facilities and the characters who inhabit them – the rusty machines and change-makers on the walls, the folks who walk in barefoot (in Hawaii, anyway) and the tiny Asian men who shuffle in to wash their boxer shorts full of holes.
Summer vacation is a pleasure that flings me altogether out of my routine and nearly out of my skin. I read and read and, while I am often inspired, the only writing I do is to scratch out ideas on a fluorescent pink pad of paper, the threads of which I hope I can retrieve when I return home. By the time I set foot back on my own worn hardwood floors, I am torn between lying down with the pets on the floor and snuggling or restocking the refrigerator with our favorite things and simply retreating to my room to type, type, type. It takes a few days to slog through the email and the mail mail and the ever-present laundry (why can’t I just do it once a week at home? Is that some magic of the vacation? That everyone is judicious with their clothes because they only packed so much? Would it be wrong to just ask everyone to wear their bathing suit every day all summer with some flimsy cover-up instead of shrugging on shorts and t-shirts?).
I am full of ideas and also full of children and pets. There are walks to take, camps to drive to, meals to fix and extra kids to entertain and every summer I hope to stumble on the elusive perfect balance that will allow me to write all I want and soak in every drop of sunshine with my family. I have learned to accept this unease, this tension of desires. This morning, Bubba and the girls all went to the gym together and I asked him, “Is it wrong to say that I can’t wait to be here all alone for an hour this morning?” Walking the dog in the cool morning air, I avoided the route that would put me in chatting range with any friendly neighbors and when I reminded myself to breathe and just acknowledge what I am feeling, the image that came to mind was of a taut guitar string that had just been plucked. I vibrate with it all.
On self-awareness and how much I love it when my kids have it:
– Lola got some sad news yesterday that her beloved mentor is moving to the East Coast. I braced myself for her reaction, given the fast, intense friendship the two of them developed that quickly grew into a foursome with her mentor’s partner and Eve. I knew this was going to be a tough pill to swallow. When she gave me the news, her face was so sad and I had to remind myself around the lump in my throat that the best thing I can do is follow her lead and hold space for her. I hugged her tightly and offered to hang out with her for a bit, but she declined, saying, “Nah, I’m just going to go upstairs and be sad for a while by myself. Thanks.” It sucked for me because I want so badly to soothe her feelings, but I love the fact that she knows herself well enough to make sure she has space to just sit with them for a bit.
– After a busy weekend including one sleepover on Friday night and a matinee of Mamma Mia on Saturday followed by a dinner out with a girlfriend, Eve came down to lunch today and announced that she was putting her phone on “airplane mode” for the rest of the day so she isn’t tempted to answer texts or check social media. She has too much she wants to get done. Hallelujah!
On condescension and unsatisfying “conferences” or “town hall events:”
– A few weeks ago I was invited to be in the room with the Surgeon General and MomsRising constituents to talk about the recent measles outbreak and vaccines. I was told that I would be one of only a dozen or so folks in the room and spent the weekend doing research and polling friends so that I could go in prepared to advocate and ask the kinds of questions that get past the hype and rhetoric. I was, in fact, one of only a handful of people in the room, but it turns out that this “meeting” included nearly 12,000 other phone-in audience members and, as such, we were relegated to asking questions via index card without any opportunity to follow up or challenge misinformation. I later discovered that the Surgeon General was on a country-wide tour of cities with the lowest vaccination rates in the US and I suspect it was more of a PR stunt than any real opportunity to have dialogue with folks about their actual concerns. (To wit; when MomsRising did real-time polls of the 12,000 people online, they discovered that only about 35% of them were concerned about the measles outbreaks in the US and that more than 50% of them are concerned about the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine. He did nothing to address either the media hype or the actual concerns people had.)
– It makes me crazy that my experience was not very unusual. Elizabeth writes here about an epilepsy conference she was invited to as a parent who could share her unique perspectives with medical professionals and other families where she was condescended to as someone who is not a medical professional (duh, that’s the point) and not given the airtime she deserves. I wonder how much the organizers of these events pat themselves on the back because they think they’re providing opportunities for sharing of diverse perspectives. I wonder whether they realize that what they are really doing falls so far short of that it is laughable (if it didn’t make me want to shout and cry, instead).
– I had a great phone call with a friend on Thursday that reminded me how important it is to occasionally revisit the things I do on a regular basis with an eye toward whether or not they still “feed” me. On any given day, there are a number of things on my to-do list that I don’t particularly love doing, but I also have a tendency to get sucked in to doing bigger things that fall in my lap one way or the other and become part of my routine. It’s really easy to just keep plugging along, putting them on my list week after week without stopping to ask if I still enjoy them. And if there is an overwhelming number of things on my list that drain me, I have to also remember to populate the list with a few things that replenish me. On those days, a 30 minute power nap or a walk with a friend or sitting down to read a chapter of my book is just as important as everything else.