on mothers & writing

I went with my friend Anjali to this Q&A talk yesterday. After navigating the odd elevator system that didn’t want to allow us down to the floor of the event—and being reminded yet again of how awkward Bostonians can be when faced with a situation in which they must speak to strangers (A tip, y’all: just smile, for starters)—we finally plopped into our chairs close to the front and found ourselves with a few minutes of idle chitchat to spare.

I happened to notice people in the audience taking candid photos of the authors with their phones and asked Anjali, a published author, what she thought of this phenomenon. She laughed and cheerily replied, “It hasn’t happened to me yet!” But we agreed the lack of privacy must be challenging for a public figure. (In case you didn’t know this about me, I am not the most photogenic in candid photos.)

The opening speaker informed the audience it was only the second time in twenty five years PEN New England hosted such an event. If I had felt lucky prior to that moment for learning about the event, adding it to my calendar, and remembering to attend (and even to shower first!), that feeling couldn’t compare to the satisfaction this remark stirred, with a twist; I flinched under the weight of responsibility to listen up and listen well. Because I can’t wait another twenty five years to hear this stuff and neither can you, I’m posting a recap today.

on mothers and writing - heirloom mothering

Heidi Pitlor, the Best American Short Stories series editor and author of a forthcoming novel, The Daylight Marriage, served as moderator. She asked the group great questions, such as what they did to cope with feeling isolated, how they juggled the multitude of tasks and the judgment of other mothers, and about the beginning of motherhood and writing.

Heidi shared her own story of the clash of the two; once, while nursing her twin infants, she received a call from Alice Munro that she couldn’t answer because she had her hands full but also couldn’t not answer because Hello! Alice Munro. How’s that for an image of the moment we’ve all had in which we realize what we thought we could do was actually impossible? She also said probably my favorite one-liner of the event, while answering a question about how to manage a career, motherhood, and writing:

“I wish I’d married rich almost every day.”

on mothers & writing - heirloom motheringClaire Messud, whose novel The Last Life Mishiko Kakutani referred to as mesmerizing, spoke about her “vague faith it would all work out” and how, while attending the Bread Loaf writers conference early in her time as a mother, she realized she had no idea how it would work out. She compared the extreme sabotage she inflicted on herself by taking on too much to the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, even when limbless, shouted, “Come back here and take what’s coming to you!” As a woman who loves a good Monty Python reference, I decided then Claire must be a cool chick too.

[A note about Claire: I just read a New York Magazine article about her and her husband, New Yorker book critic James Wood, in Vulture, from which I gleaned I should never allow a New York magazine writer to interview me. I thought it a bit snarky and rude. However, I did particularly enjoy this passage:

“There’s been a great deal of closely spaced difficulty to sort through,” she says. “You know that Katherine Mansfield story, ‘The Fly’?” It’s about a fly being slowly drowned in ink. “Well, I am the fly. Every time I hope that things will get better, somebody drops another inkblot on me. So it seems to me if there were a divine lesson it would be to stop hoping that the blots will cease, and instead to come to terms with it … At some point you have to think, All right, it’s not as if someone is promising you something easier or better. You have to be grateful to get it done at all… [The fundamental questions of my life are] how to balance the relation between art & life? (between the interior & external worlds)? how, as a woman raised to care for others, do you claim space for yourself? at what cost? in what state of delusion?”]

on mothers & writing - heirloom mothering

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Megan Marshall (whose book about Margaret Fuller I bought and had signed, woot!) spoke in a measured, gentle way about the challenges of motherhood. She noted how daunting it was to be a mother in the 1980’s, when most of her friends eschewed both marriage and motherhood. She related a funny story about a time the Phil Donahue show wanted her on to talk about her book on single women. After blathering on (her words) about her book, Megan finally admitted to the show’s producer she was feeling exhausted from just returning home from the hospital with her baby, at which point the producer said, “Me too! We have to get you on this show.” The lesson from that experience, she said, was not to hide your true feelings but just be who and how you are.

After growing up a latchkey kid, Megan didn’t want that experience for her children, so she did much of her writing in waiting rooms and in the car at soccer games. She described the crushing disappointment of having a column accepted at the New York Times that she realized she could no longer write now that she faced a mother’s obligations at home. She shared a favorite essay by Anne Tyler from the book The Writer and Her Work, called “Still Just Writing,” which was named for what a fellow parent asked Anne at school pick-up. The most animated I saw Megan was when she took a vehement stance against men who compare book publishing to birthing. “Writing a book is not like having a baby,” she said. Indeed.

on mothers & writing - heirloom mothering

Kim McLarin, a fellow southerner and frequent contributor to WGBH’s Basic Black, is author of a memoir I hope to get soon with the title that makes me chuckle every time, Divorce Dog. Kim offered a raw, real portrayal of a woman who isn’t so in love with the concept of motherhood but then discovered it also brought her “unexpected gifts.” In revealing her truth, she gave us permission to feel the ambivalence creeping in that we’d normally push away. I scribbled down a Virginia Woolf quote she shared:

“Killing the Angel in the House (is) part of the occupation of the woman writer.”

Kim inspired me when she said she wrote a whole book simply by following the 1,000 words per day rule for 50 days. The moment I decided to get over my typical starstruck shyness and come on stage to shake Kim’s hand was when she admitted moving to Boston was a difficult adjustment for many reasons. Thank you, Kim, for saying my truth out loud.

on mothers & writing - heirloom mothering

When facing the audience, Lily King, author of the novel Euphoria, flashed us a bright smile and sparkly eyes. Lily described a moment in her mothering career in which she attempted to calculate how much time she spent with her children compared to writing; she eventually sought therapy for a condition she called “way too much math and not enough writing.” She said that, like Sue Miller when writing The Good Mother, she created awful mother characters as a way to confront her fear of bad parenting. I laughed when imagining her trudging downstairs after writing and feeling suddenly buoyed by her own self-righteousness at being a better mother than the terrible character she invented.

On the whole, I found the authors to be at once intimate and distant, much like our surroundings, which included the furniture of a cozy living room and the sterile lighting and temperature of an operating theater. There were several snafus with the microphones that would have been comical if they had been more able to laugh at themselves and each other. The setting perhaps appropriately reminded us that these were not our friends up there dishing on their difficulties, and yet, slices of the talk were sublime. When questions were opened to the crowd, Anjali asked whether the authors ever needed to let go of a third passion to pursue motherhood and writing, and the authors came alive in their response, in the way that a fantastic question can produce such liveliness.

Later, in response to an emotional outpouring from an audience member about her diffcult-to-follow difficult life, Kim deftly cut right to the point, figuring that what this woman needed was not to be promised she can write now but to be told it’s okay that she can’t. She was sent home with a mission: read the biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, who didn’t write her first book until her 50’s. I jotted her name down as well.

My selfish reason to post these notes about the event is that I desperately want to recall the wisdom—with ne’er a platitude in sight—those kind ladies passed on to me. I fear that if I don’t dump my brain out onto this page while it’s still fresh, I’m doomed. I’ll wake in the middle of the night and flail about in bed, hoping against hope to find the thread of recollection, the way in those first days of motherhood I’d perform a frantic, groggy hunt amongst my sheets for the phantom baby I thought I had fallen asleep nursing but who was actually sleeping peacefully in her crib. But just maybe, if I come back and read these words again later, I’ll remember they gave me permission to fail, to be who I am, and to ignore my kids long enough to write those thousand words a day. I hope so.

read * hear * say * see * eat {6}

My cousin Alice lives in Portugal and cares for a farm of horses, cows, geese, ducks, and sometimes bees. I’ve lost track of how many. She posts gorgeous and adorable pictures of farm life—including the one above—on Instagram (@farmmeral).

Read

Hear

  • Good ones this week! I’m sharing two very special episodes of This American Life, both on the topic of home and how it can influence what kind of life you have (#512: House Rules & #520: No Place Like Home).
  • A great companion to #520 is an older episode of Strangers called Alfredo Corchado: Midnight in Mexico about a Mexican-American immigrant who grew up the son of migrant farm workers and had an opportunity later in life to report on conditions in his home country.

Say

  • I’m looking forward to—slash—dreading this session at Muse & The Marketplace, during which Steve Almond will read to the audience the first page of attendees’ manuscripts, while a panel of authors listen and stop him when they hear something don’t like and explain why. Trial by fire! Terrifying, but you wouldn’t miss it, right? I figured it was an event that would help make the costly price of admission worth it, so I signed up. GULP.

See

  • I get less out of Goop posts than I used to (read: official break-up below), but I did enjoy the “See” Netflix streaming series. I like this “best of movies” list and this list of foreign TV shows.
  • Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk on the culture of shame. You can also read a summary of the discussion here. And did you read last year’s Vanity Fair article? Prior to reading that article, I hadn’t given her much thought after the late ’90’s and had probably laughed at some inappropriate jokes. I’m glad she’s opening up our eyes to the real story behind that media storm, i.e. the betrayal of her confidence by Linda Tripp and a public humiliation cyber-bullying on a scale never before seen in history.

Eat

  • I have a lady-crush on chef Vivian Howard, of the PBS show A Chef’s Life; I’m looking forward to strawberry season so I can make this late-spring arugula salad (“late-spring,” ha, that’s the end of June around here) via Cary Magazine
  • On the flip side of that lady-crush is my break-up with Goop over her beauty milk recipe. Note the ingredients include “lucuma” and “pearl.” Okay sure, no problem, let me go and find my…WAIT THAT IS BONKERS. But we all deserve a break, so in case you’re reading this Gwynnie…

read * hear * say * see * eat {5}

read hear say see eat {5) - heirloom mothering
The Rumpus reader report on remorse (5 times fast)

Read

  • Dina Relles is bringing a new blog series to Literary Mama, the Writerly Roundup. Also check out the Essential Reading selections this month on Bravery.
  • Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful essay in the Washington Post about the perception of time, in his own words: “When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
  • My dad sent me Paul Elie’s gripping New Yorker article about Thomas Merton, the Catholic writer, mystic, and Trappist monk. Here’s a direct Merton quote, the end of which choked me up in self-recognition: “It is possible to doubt whether I have become a monk (a doubt that I have to live with), but it is not possible to doubt that I am a writer, that I was born one and will most probably die as one. Disconcerting, disedifying as this is, this seems to be my lot and my vocation.” And this quote is by Elie: “Here was a person who resolved not to miss the meaning of his life in the living of it. Here was a dangling man who was determined not to go slack.” Lord, let me be brave enough to live up to half his authenticity.
  • Lego beauty tips for girls, via The New York Times. “If Lego insists on focusing the attention of children on personal appearance, then I would be grateful if they would offer tips to the children who actually need it. My boys believe that athletic pants can be worn anywhere, anytime, backwards or inside out.” Commenter #3, FTW!
  • I felt another pang of recognition when I arrived at #7 on this list of 8 Ways Parents Discourage Their Kids from Reading on Brightly (thanks to Lindsey for introducing me to the site).
  • WBUR Cognoscenti Blog: What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Book
  • Dave Barry on his parents (via Karen of Chookooloonks): “Above all, they did not worry about providing a perfect, risk-free environment for their children.” Amen to that. I’m looking forward to reading his new book.
  • In a poignant essay on caring for her dying mother, Heather Plett shares what it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well.

Hear

Say

  • Maybe this will seem morbid to you, but I’m talking about and studying grief and loss. My interest was piqued by my grandmother’s recent decline from Parkinson’s. I’m fascinated with both the discussion of death and lack thereof in our culture (it will perhaps not surprise you, then, to learn one of my favorite courses was Medical Anthropology). A week ago I thought to myself, “I wonder if there’s a way I can talk to other people also interested in this topic in a nonjudgmental group.” I headed to the Internet, where I learned someone had posted event details that same morning about a Death Café in Bedford later this month. According to the site, “At Death Cafés people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” I don’t consider myself superstitious, but that coincidence shouts, “Go there!”

See

Eat

  • I can’t believe I’ve never made fudgesicles. The thermometer passing the freezing mark is all my little New Englanders need to start begging for ice cream, so now seems as good a time as any.

Medium & red lipstick, inception-style

Did you read Robinson Meyer’s article about Medium in the Atlantic? I liked it, especially this paragraph:

“What is web writing in 2015?…Does its writer work for a big website like BuzzFeed...? It’s worth asking the question, because of course — of course — they don’t blog. Blogging — I mean, honey, don’t even say the word. No one actually blogs anymore, except maybe undergrads on their first week of study abroad. 2015 has been, so far, dismal for the art.”

I’ve been feeling this way about blogging as an art form for a while. When I stopped posting on The Lone Home Ranger and started posting here, I chafed against the idea that it was a new blog. In fact, I didn’t even call it a blog and still use the more generic ‘website,’ even though — minus the lack of advertising and side-bar buttons — it perfectly fits the blog definition. I can’t tell you why exactly. It’s not that I’ve stopped following blogs; I haven’t, and I love the blogs I follow now more than ever (with the exception of my all-time favorite, Becky’s terrific blog, which she stopped writing and which I still pine for often). It might just be that I’ve noticed free blogs are lagging when it comes to looking artistic.

I had heard about Medium a few times and seen Lindsey’s post last summer, but I’m not an early adopter so I tucked it away for later. After reading that Atlantic article a few weeks ago, I decided to play with Medium’s tools. For my first try, I revamped the look of my snow essay (n.b.: I’ll save you some reading time if you’ve read it before; the words are the same). I loved how intuitive it was to use, but what really sold me was how much BIGGER and easier the font is to read. Believe me, if I could figure out how to make my font bigger on the free WordPress platform, I would (so far, no dice).

When I found myself headed to my ‘website’ to dish girly details about my experience with red lipstick, I gravitated to Medium again instead. I had some pictures to share, and I love the way pictures can be embedded in new ways there. I’m not sure yet what that means. I like sharing the “what I like” lists, and you seem to like reading them; maybe what I’ll do is keep posting those here and the “story-like” posts will go on Medium. Maybe.

What I’ve got for you today is a sort of mise en abyme: I’m using this post to tell you about the post on Medium, where I tell you about yet a THIRD post that’s up today on Literary Mama. If this confuses you, just head on over to LM to read my After Page One submission. But if you’re as intrigued about Medium as I am and/or are interested in finding out more about how I learned to apply red lipstick, head to Medium as well. And if you’re feeling up to it after all that, let me know what you think of Medium!

Hand-me-down Vera Wang and red lips. Who is that lady?
Hand-me-down Vera Wang and red lips. Who is that lady?

read * hear * say * see * eat {4}

read hear say see eat - heirloom mothering
5-Minute Meditation via Real Simple

Read

    • Kudos to the author of the winning Payton Prize essay on The Rumpus, “Out of the Swollen Sea.” It’s an exercise in successful use of imagery.
    • An essay on Full Grown People that began with a simple haircut appointment is unexpectedly poignant.
    • Terry Ward Goodman’s essay, Dog Days in Brain, Child is searingly honest.
    • Here’s your funny for the week: If You Give a Dude a Kale Chip, via The New Yorker.
    • “The night scene is suffused by a creeping coldness that sinks into your bones in a rush, the kind you only get on a winter night in Massachusetts, in a house like this…” a paramedic’s story about dementia on WBUR’s Cognescenti blog.
    • I loved basketball player Larry Sanders (i.e. not the Gary Shandling character) honest account of why he quit. The journalist summarized his article with these words: “Whether we are athletes or lawyers or writers or accountants or steel workers, we are whole people, complex and varied, and often a tangle of contradictions. And life can be a struggle.”
    • Oh and then there was lil’ ol’ me shouting into the endless winter abyss with my essay on this blog, Because I Could Not Stop for Snow.

Hear

  • If, like me, you need to be lifted up in this dreary month, check out the story about Henry & Jane on Strangers. Henry had a brain-stem stroke at 40 years old but still has a great sense of humor, and his wife Jane, an incredible person, takes care of him and their four kids.
  • After what I would call a dry month, This American Life delivered a whammy, Except For That One Thing. (After Sophia, the Man Who Invented the Calendar, and the Tortoise/Hare, Julie and the Warlord was my 4th favorite story from BJ Novak’s book One More Thing. I have nothing special to add to Book Riot’s stellar review—except that I disagree about the JC Audetat story, I just didn’t care for it).
  • Going back through the TAL archives, I listened to this short story about Santa while I shoveled the driveway, and thusly I learned shoveling and laughing are tough to do simultaneously.
  • Grace Lee Boggs‘ story on the Moth was excellent. I have also gone back and listened a few more times to this man’s story about his mother on The Moth. It’s evokes such strong emotions. I’m in awe of the power of his words.
  • If you’re a Joni Mitchell fan, go listen to “Both Sides, Now” again and then read the lyrics. I am not a crier, but they make me ache in the way only really good writing does.

Say

  • I am so psyched to tell you about this next event, which could fall under “Hear” too: I am helping put on a FREE quarterly reading series, Arlington Author Salon. If you’re local to the Greater Boston/Metro West area, join me at Arlington’s Kickstand Cafe on April 1st (no fooling!) at 7:30pm to listen to three local authors read their historical fiction. I hope you’ll come, and invite your friends!

See

  • Did y’all watch the Great British Baking Show on PBS? I have never been so in love with reality television. There is something very special about the way Brits do TV. I’ll leave it at that so you can go watch. (One more fun fact: The host with glasses and cropped chestnut hair was also the host of The Supersizers Go, a British reality TV show about food that I’m happy to say you can now watch for free on Hulu. Nate, my Dad, and I watched it in England just after I had just given birth the first time. I guess what I’m saying is I will always hold a special place in my heart for that country and their television programming).

Eat

  • Now I finally know what I’ll do with the random dried apricots and couscous in my pantry. Ultimate winter coucous! Gosh, I love the way Molly writes. She is my food blogging soulmate, which I know is a bold thing to say since you might feel the same, but you can’t have her, she’s mine.

because I could not stop for snow

because I could not stop for snow - heirloom mothering

The first snow was romantic. It was also late, according to locals.

Better late than never! chirped everyone.

My neighbor says you’re a true New Englander when you complain both about the lack of snow and its presence. Snow had finally arrived, and we welcomed it for its otherness. Cozied up on the couch, we peered out from our warm cocoon. Those first snowflakes spurred enlightened (read: smug) conversations about how alive we felt.

Sure, it was more snow than usual—the mounds rising up in places like tents smushed too close together—but it was endearing. Besides, it would only be around a little while, we told ourselves. We posed for pictures, spiked our hot cocoa, and cracked jokes about the colossal size of the icicles.

But the snow didn’t leave. Like a free-spirit relative blowing through town, the snow is oblivious to our social code; it camps out on our yard and blocks our car and eats our fence and threatens its way into our home. The snow doesn’t ask us if we are ready, if we can handle a visitor for a month. It barges in and uses too much toilet paper and takes hour-long showers and tells us how we should really be making our own lasagna instead of buying Stouffer’s. It really isn’t very hard, the snow tells us.

*******

There’s a drip, drip inside my bathroom window. Ice dams, they tell me. I push it away, determined to stay on top, to skim the surface, impervious. I am a hollow reed, I accept the things I cannot change, I’m rubber and you’re glue. I’m happy, dammit, I whisper. Break out the sleds, I say, we’re out of here.

But still the snow doesn’t leave. And here I sit, with no river to skate away on.

People call, write, text. How are you? February isn’t the problem, I say. Ask me again in May, I joke. I do not want to bother them. I do not want to seem ungrateful. I know I am supposed to feel blessed, and I do, except when I don’t. When I cannot drum the gratitude I know I am supposed to feel, for being alive, for being warm, for being loved and for loving, that is my low point. I am sinking.

 *******

Winter came and it stayed. It wakes the monster that dwells in crevices. There isn’t room in here for both of us, winter tells the monster. The monster rubs its eyes and stretches and looks around, then steps out into the world, quietly at first.

I plead with the monster in moments of solitude. On my hands and knees mopping up the brown muck, I tell it to go away. I am fine, I grit. Upstairs setting traps for the army of mice that have invaded our home, I add a piece of peanut butter on stale bread. Down in the basement with laundry, working in the dim light of a single bulb, the egress windows blocked out by a mass of white, the whistle and whine of the gusts blowing so hard they rattle the old glass, I repeat between clenched teeth that everything is fine. Outside shoveling, wondering what the hell all this is, really, baffled at its heft, its sheer quantity, cursing our choice to live at the base of a hill with nowhere to put it, I try laughing it off, but no sound comes out.

Now I get why the locals honk their horns so often. If I had a horn in front of me right now, or better yet, a tiny punching bag, I would purse my lips and punch that sucker constantly until spring. I would lie against the horn and let all the world hear it wail.

There’s only so much of this I can take, I say to the snow, to the mice, to the laundry, to the mucky floor, to the monster, to no one in particular. I want the snow to say it doesn’t care, to fight back, to provoke me. Instead, it says nothing. It is not a witty companion. I would settle for a belligerent uncle, but it is not that either. It is a huge stranger passed out drunk on my front porch that I have to step over to get to my car; it is neither interesting nor useful. But still, it stays.

The monster grows louder. It is cold and calculated when it most needs to empathize, hurtful when it most needs to comfort, seeing and hearing when it most needs to ignore. The snow is carving a sorrowful well, which I know in an academic sense can be filled with joy at a future date. In the meantime, I bear witness to my own self-indulgent grief and corresponding self-loathing. I am most especially disgusted by my muted jealousy of the wellbeing of others who soar above me.

******

As a writer and an only child, I am a solitary brooder when I am in the grip of this monster. Thus, talking is tricky. My instinct is to put in my ear buds and drown out the noise, hoping to escape into another world of pen and paper. But I need to talk, my therapist tells me. “It is in that vulnerable place that a window of possibility opens,” she says.

I am not sure I believe her, but I sign up to read an essay out loud anyway, figuring my misery and terror of public speaking are similar feelings. Both evoke a stress response. I imagine my grief and fear battling each other for prime real estate in my brain. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the essay I choose to read is about the sorrow I feel for my grandmother’s sudden decline from Parkinson’s disease.

The Sunday morning of my reading, I bundle up to face the weather; it is snowing again. The lack of other cars on the highway provides a calm backdrop, a near post-Apocalyptic scene of seclusion. I am already feeling a bit better; facing my fear at least gives me something else to chew on besides worms.

On the drive, I turn over Dani Shapiro’s advice I read on Instagram: “Be curious… Curiosity and self-consciousness can’t occupy the same space.” I start thinking about what the producers will be like and what the person ahead of me will talk about. What will they be wearing? This advice is magical. It is actually working.

Into the interview I go, hopped up on curiosity, or maybe just on that bad Dunkin Donuts latte. I know before beginning that my essay won’t be accepted—it isn’t right for this event—but I am glad for the compassionate smiling faces ready to listen. A week later I get confirmation of my hunch; I won’t be reading my essay again.

******

Here is my truth. Reading out loud doesn’t make me feel completely better; swapping fear for sorrow isn’t a foolproof solution, it turns out. But curiosity is still as magical today at quieting my despair as it felt the first day. I think the reason curiosity helps is that it makes me focus on something other than my happiness or lack thereof. When I am curious, I relinquish control of the situation. Curiosity is my brain’s way of acknowledging the outcome is not in my hands.

It is the start of March, a symbolic moment of the coming of spring. Out my window, we are about to get more snow, a reminder that it is Mother Nature—not the calendar—who announces quitting time.

Will we break the Boston record for snow? Stay tuned. I am curious to see what will happen. And for today, that’s going to have to be enough.

because I could not stop for snow - heirloom mothering
God bless them for those grins.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Lindsey Mead and Aidan Donnelley Rowley for inspiring me to write about happiness (or the lack thereof), their final edition of #TheHereYear.