the beat goes on

IMG_0491

 I like routines. Call them rituals, if you’re feeling fancy. Call them predictably mundane, if you’re feeling twenty-two. I love rituals and especially writing rituals. When my bloggy friends cover the same topic again and again, I find it as comforting as soup. Ordinary, yes, but still damn good. Besides, it is downright tradition to become boring with age—probably also to love soup more too, come to think of it.

Let’s all slow down and have a bowl of soup! I will someday happily exclaim to my eye-rolling grandtweens.

thirtysixWhether because of motherhood or just plain aging, I’ve grown increasingly fond of writing and reading about the commonplace. There are writers who have elevated this practice to a fine art. Take, for instance, David Sedaris’ New Yorker articles on topics such as: shopping trips to Tokyo with his sisters, the turtle he watched being fed pizza, and his adventures in fitbit-induced garbage clean-up [See also: Commonplace by Dina Relles]. I am not quite so clever in how I write about my experiences. I am always telling, rarely showing. But before you think I’m digging for compliments, you should know I’m okay with that truth about myself. I’ll get to that in a moment.

When I turned thirty-six, I felt an itch again to write about my age, an age that pulls me closer to forty than thirty. Though only a year had passed since I last wrote about age, I’d begun to feel a persistent shift that, imperceptible as it may have been to the outside, was monumental in my head. But it felt a little too indulgent to travel that road again so soon, even for a self-obsessed navel-gazer like me (I’m paraphrasing from one of my favorite blog comments of all time. Thanks for setting me straight, Anonymous Troll!).

Then again, screw it. Life is short. Let’s talk about me again.

Now seems like a good time because I just celebrated my half-birthday. Yes, I still mark the passage of these milestones, if only in my mind, but an Eeyore’s sigh has replaced an exclamation point at the end of the thought, “Closer to my next birthday than my last.” Timing is also good because Vivi just turned eight, and I have been wanting to write her a letter on her birthday.

When Vivi turned six, I stopped my tradition of writing the girls birthday letters on my blog to give them some privacy back. In this era of oversharing, I’m still glad I did that. But one thing I miss is being able to pull up the letters to reread at any time. Although I may have written the girls private letters for their recent birthdays, Lord knows where I put them. The greatest thing about blogging about my family, as I’ve often repeated, is that it keeps my memories in a place where I can find them later.

Inspired by my friend Kristen, who wrote a series of real and poignant letters to her daughter called “If you ask me…,” I’m sharing some changes I’ve experienced lately in the form of a letter to my daughter. I hope that by charting my growth, my girls might learn these lessons earlier than I did, but I don’t pin all my hopes on that possibility. I recognize people change throughout their lives as part of normal growth. As Auden pointed out:

“Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

-W.H. Auden, found on an archive post on Gretchen Rubin’s blog

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.01.23 AM

Some references I make below will be way past their expiration date by the time Vivi reads this letter, but “you,” the Other Reader, might be interested in them, so here they are:

And as for the bomb I drop mid-letter about moving to Boston, I realize I’m burying that lede. But it’s a story for another day, and if you read on to the end, you’ll get the gist of why.

Dear Genevieve,

Eight is an age I recall well. You are so like me in so many ways: your tendency toward organization and planning, your passion for recording everyday life in a journal, your love of letter writing, and your desire to make everyone happy. These traits will serve you well; though your sensitivity and openness will certainly lead to being hurt, I do not worry about whether you’ll come out strong from those situations. Here’s where our likenesses diverge. I know you’ll stand up for yourself because a braver girl has never lived than you. Thanks to Glennon Doyle Melton, I have learned to tell you that your only jobs are to be brave and kind, and I hope you believe it. You already live up to the task.

Because I know it will please your organized heart, I tried to pool my thoughts below into categories. But enough explaining. Let the navel-gazing start!

1. acceptance

I don’t want to give you the impression that I obtained confidence suddenly in my mid-thirties and that, “you will too if you just hang in there long enough!” Rather, I had to make a conscious effort to build up the courage to accept my flaws, realize that I deserve love and support, and stop saying ‘I’m sorry’ unnecessarily. You say you’re sorry a lot right now. I try to undo that need for you, even though I realize I’m likely the person who put it in your mind to begin with, since it’s what I do. Call it a product of being raised in the genteel south.

It’s not that we should never apologize, just that sometimes we do it so much that it becomes burdensome to other people, like a tic, a need to be reassured that everything is okay. Sometimes it is better to say thank you instead of apologizing. Like yesterday, when I was late picking you up. I looked your teacher in the eye and instead of apologizing profusely, I said, “Thank you for staying late with them. I appreciate it.” An apology would have required him to say something like, “No worries!” In this case, my thanks gave him recognition he deserved for the good deed without forcing him to make me feel better about myself.

Acceptance, to me, means acknowledging you aren’t perfect and forgiving yourself for those imperfections, even embracing them. Your quirks are what make you, you! I learned this lesson from Gretchen Rubin when reading The Happiness Project and Better than Before. A big part of her message is to accept your quirks as part of who you are.

Here’s a quirk of mine that I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. I talk and talk way past the point that the other person has understood my meaning, and then I keep on talking: I am a teller, not a shower. Gretchen calls her rule, “Be Gretchen,” because she realized that although she was odd about certain things, it made her happier to accept those things and be different than it did to try to fit in. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one too.

Maybe the primary message to Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In was for women to build up their confidence enough to accept their flaws and stop apologizing, although I didn’t take it that way when I was reading it. She seemed to be saying, “Everywhere I go, women are doing it all wrong!”, but I couldn’t glean any specific tips from her. It was like, “Get a mentor! But don’t ask anyone to be your mentor because that’s too needy!”

But luckily, Sheryl isn’t the only source of feminism; there are far better badasses in my generation. Cheryl Strayed is my (and everyone else’s) writing guru and all-around feminist badass. Her Dear Sugar essay, “Write like a Motherfucker,” is the stuff of legend. Recently she offered a great counterpoint to the challenge to “Stop Apologizing.” She noted there are two kinds of apologies, the one we give when we’ve done something wrong, and the other that acknowledges someone else’s pain. “I’m sorry you’re hurting,” we say. It took me a few sessions of marital counseling with your dad to acknowledge the merits of such a phrase, but I’ve grown to accept it, and the more willingly I offer it, the more natural it becomes.

Feminist comedians are doing a great job of moving the conversation forward. Amy Poehler is another example I look for in a public mentor. In fact, I recall back when I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants that my favorite story wasn’t even about Tina herself, although she too is a feminist badass. It was instead the anecdote regarding Jimmy Fallon having told Amy a joke of her’s wasn’t ‘cute,’ and Amy shouting at him, “I don’t fucking care if you like it!” This is 100% Boston Badass Woman (she’s from Burlington), and it’s the primary reason I’m excited to move you back up to that area this summer. Boston has its flaws, chiefly its latent and blatant racism, and it is as cold as well digger’s ass in January. But it is also a place that raises women who stand up for themselves. I have no doubt you’ll do just that.

Last September, on my lady-friend trip to Colorado, I devoured Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. It is a feminist manifesto. Read it. But first, brush up on some of the best of Amy’s comedy, like Parks & Recreation and clips she did on SNL, like her Sarah Palin rap from Weekend Update when she was a week away from delivering a baby. PURE comedy gold. Amy’s insistence on her point of view, and her unflinching ability to look straight into anyone’s eyes and say, “I deserve to be here!” inspires me.

palinrap

2. grace

I’ve been hearing this word more often in the context of describing my actions toward others (and by ‘more often,’ what I mean is: at all). Of course my first reaction is to mimic Elaine, “You think I have GRACE?!” I’ve never been described as graceful in the physical sense, for obvious reasons, i.e., several broken bones, countless bruises, etc. But on further thought, I truly believe when I’m described as having grace it’s because of #1 on my list, the self-esteem that comes from accepting ourselves. It’s like that old adage, “You can’t forgive others until you’ve forgiven yourself.” Or maybe that’s a brand new adage I just created, and if so, you should use it. It’s a good one. You could insert other words for forgive, like love, tolerate, admire. It works!

The older I get, the less black and white the world is becoming. I think it’s by seeing most situations as gray, by admitting I can’t see all sides and that there are plenty of mysteries and complexities to any situation, that I’m able to offer others grace. Whatever grace I have to offer always comes back to me again. I still fall short so often, but the good and bad news is we never stop having chances to offer and receive grace.

3. slay

Around my birthday, my neighbor begged me to come work at the public health non-profit organization where she had just started a job because they needed so much help. I didn’t exactly saunter into that room, but I will admit I was the most nonchalant I’ve ever been in a job interview. I have to imagine it’s how many men probably approach their everyday lives, but for me it was highly unusual. The thing was, they loved me! They wanted me even though I was up front with them that I didn’t want to work full time and that I probably wouldn’t take the job for more than six months. I got the job!

I came home from that day feeling I could do anything

“The perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.” -Viktor Frankl

The hurdles that had kept me from pursuing my dream of nursing school were still there, but I decided that day to stop telling myself it was impossible and just DO IT. I sat down at my computer and immediately got to work doing the last few things I needed to apply. I registered for a microbiology class at the local community college and modified my new work schedule to allow me to attend the lab on Friday mornings. I asked my old faculty from graduate school to write me recommendation letters, again. Then I wrote a damn good essay, closed my eyes, said what the hell, and sent my applications to Northeastern and Columbia.

When the holidays came, I stuffed my face too full of food to do any real pondering, as usual, except for the time spent preparing for my annual “I need to cleanse my body of all this sugar!” elimination diet/eating disorder. When I was still emerging from that yo-yo, I got the word. It seems that Columbia could use a gal like Justine. And I was all:

ray-ban-smile

I’ll admit my reaction after elation was to wonder: why me. I mean really, why me??

A week later, I witnessed Beyoncé’s incredible Formation video and Super Bowl performance. The confidence it must have taken to dream up and enact a sea of female dancers dressed as Black Panthers, and the courage and power she demonstrated on that stage in front of thousands of white male football lovers and millions more on TV…well, it awed me. Then the negative reactions that followed such a wonderful display of powerful female art dismayed me. But in another way, I felt boosted up by the positive reactions from the girls and women between your generation and mine, whose voices rose up above the hate to say that we will not suffer the disregarded and diminished fate of the women who came before us.

Then a fog lifted from my brain, and I immediately thought, I KNOW WHY ME. Me because I worked my ass off to become a birth doula even while damn near every person within earshot of this decision would offer their unsolicited opinion of why this idea was no good. I did it anyway, not because I knew it would help my career, but just for its own sake. In discussing the success of his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said, 

“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Me because I’m the one who had to schedule middle-of-the-night sitters so I could kiss you tiny toddlers on your sleeping cheeks after I dragged my ass out of bed to attend 30-hour births. Me because I’m the one who stood by the side of fifteen brave laboring women, three of whom were LGBTQ, while they attempted to navigate a health system not always committed to giving them the evidence-based births they wanted and needed, and did not even necessarily recognize their right to be mothers. Me because I am the hen who ground every last grain to make bread. 

Even though you know by now that I turned down Columbia to go to Northeastern in Boston instead so I could bring you girls home again, I will always be able to say I AM the reason I got into Columbia.
Because I slay. We slay. You slay.

Love, Mama

Advertisements

#Muse15: Day One

I’m posting this recap a month after attending the Muse & The Marketplace conference, which is good in that I had time to digest what I learned but bad because I’ve probably already forgotten some of it. But better late than never, I suppose! I will publish notes about days two and three in separate posts to prevent further delay.

This year was my first time attending the conference, which is put on by the non-profit writing organization Grub Street. A latecomer to the Boston writing world, I only recently learned about Grub as a resource for writers. Even though I knew I was leaving in a few months, I decided to join as a member anyway, and I plan to check out their online classes once I’m in Atlanta. From all I’ve heard and seen so far, it’s a great organization. The first day of the conference is a blur more than just because so much followed it; it also occurred after I had been up all night at a birth. I missed the first lecture and arrived just in time for the second.

Session 2: “Writing Your Memoir: What to Leave Out,” Kathleen Spivack

Kathleen Spivack was a generous teacher, making me feel at ease right away. She ignored the podium in favor of a chair at our level and immediately asked us to raise our hands if we were working on a memoir. The first shock of the conference was that almost everyone raise their hands but me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised since we were in fact in a class with memoir in the title, but I guess I thought there’d be others like me who were only dancing on the periphery of the idea.

In our first in-class writing exercise, Spivack asked us to ponder a few things about why we write memoir; firstly, “Who am I writing it for?” To figure out what to leave out, she said, you should ask yourself both, “What would I be okay with others reading?” and “What would I write if I could include everything?” and compare the two answers. A writer must be careful in deciding what to leave out because if it’s a central part of the story, the reader will know something is missing. I scribbled the following quote furiously to get it all down, so it might be a partial misquote:

Memoir is a testimony. Think about lifting it beyond the personal. Think of your book as a gift to the world. -Kathleen Spivack, #Muse15

Her final advice was a piece of wisdom I’ve been given before, but it was worth hearing again. “Write an essay version of the book,” she said, “to help organize and give it structure.” I wonder if this is how many books arrive in the world, starting as essays that ignore the writer’s pleas for brevity.

I spent lunch in quiet reflection of all the lessons I had already learned, mulling over the passages of other authors’ books they had been so bold in sharing. I flipped through the list of speakers, growing increasingly bowled over by the overflowing lists of accomplishments. I closed the booklet, took a deep breath, then opened it again from the back and noticed a place for writing thoughts and notes. I decided then to set some intentions for how I wanted the conference to go, since I could see that it would be over in a blink.

Fun exercise in the back of the #Muse2015 booklet: resolutions! No excuses; play like a champion.

A post shared by Justine (@justine_uhlenbrock) on

Session 3: “Ask the Editor,” Pamela Dorman

Pamela Dorman’s style was the first thing I noted about her when she began to speak. I would later note the same of many of the speakers, that they were the most comfortable in their skin and wardrobe. I am not sure which came first, the intent or the success, but I choose to believe the old adage that we should “dress for the job we want.”

Another possible reason for my eyes wandering to her wardrobe first is I was in an altered state from the all-nighter birth. I willed my brain to stay awake, but the warm room and lack of caffeine began lulling me to sleep. I eventually had to jump up and go find some coffee so I could enjoy the rest of the lecture instead of nodding off mid-sentence, so I don’t have many notes from this session.

One fun fact I learned was that Dorman started as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. She mentioned two books as examples of great works she published in various genres. The first is Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a novel by J Ryan Stradal that is being published this summer, and the second is The Middle Place, a memoir by Kelly Corrigan. She likes publishing books that are “voicy.” If it’s a memoir, it needs to read like fiction; it’s not enough to be a good story. If you really want to be noticed, make the first 25 pages “sparkle,” Dorman said.

 Session 4: “How to Write a Symphonic Conclusion,” Jacquelyn Mitchard

The first thing you should know about a talk about Mitchard is bring a recorder. Her quotable phrases fly by infinitely faster than you can write or type. She lectured with authority and charisma on the topic of ambiguous modern endings; in the 21st century, she says, books just stop instead of ending, as we focus energy instead on clever beginnings. One example I managed to jot was David Foster Wallace’s first sentence ofThe Broom of the System, “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet…” (incidentally, I stumbled upon this review of the book, which I loved even more because of its spot-on mini-review of Franzen’s The Corrections at the end, which I will not affiliate-link to because it irritated me too much).

Mitchard argued writers should end with purpose, just as they do with beginnings; she offered encouragement, promising writers can be as good at endings if they see them as important. So why are there so few symphonic endings? She postulated writers and readers are both fatigued at the end of a book and have a longing for characters that clouds judgment for how the story should end. Mitchard pointed out that a good ending makes the reader feel smart and included and is generous of heart and mind. Most importantly, a great climax, conclusion, or denouement “…restores the reader to the outside world as though it’s safe to do anything.”

It’s romantic to imagine that writing is like driving in the fog, but good endings only happen if you decide how to end it. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15

As many speakers would do throughout the conference, Mitchard reminded us of Ira Glass’ storytelling advice; describe, then reflect. She offered some examples of endings to study:

Mitchard also offered a few endings she was dissatisfied with because of a lack of focus on a good ending: Gone Girl and basically every novel by Cormac McCarthy, who she said—much to the delight of the room—tends to end his novels with random scenes like a man eating an egg.

My favorite part of the session was when Mitchard invited us into her own writing process. She said often an ending will not be working as it is. Instead of fighting it out, she suggested scraping it if it’s not working, saving it elsewhere for later, and starting fresh. She doesn’t believe in prologues or epilogues, which she said tell the reader what to think and how to feel. Of her own characters, she said:

If I left my characters alone, they would open a bag of Doritos and a can of Bud and sit on the couch doing nothing. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15

Instead, she said she must intervene and tell them to get up and start acting like people. Contrary to common wisdom, planning doesn’t destroy creativity. Now there’s some food for thought.

Did you attend #Muse15 or read any good recaps elsewhere? Though I’m late to the recap party, I still see an occasional post pop up. I’ll link to some of my favorites in the next post.

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 {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.

dig deep

Hey y’all, did you hear we got some snow recently?

dig deep - heirloom mothering
This is even before the extra two feet that put us over the fence line.

If we were in the upper midwest right now, I probably wouldn’t be talking about the snow. When we lived in Madison, we got tons of snow as a rule, so we learned quickly to shut up and shovel, and we joined up with the continuous outdoor events. In fact, in the northern parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, you can burn off the cabin fever with huge outdoor festivals at the end of February.

Around here, people have learned to deal with snow, but I wouldn’t exactly say they’re excited about it. Cranky pants is more like it. I’m not exactly excited about it either, but I’m looking at it as much as I can like a fun life experiment. I hope the kids will remember this winter where they’re able to play inside a snow tunnel their daddy dug out for them in the back yard. I for one will not soon forget the cocktails and cooking projects and cabin fever. One of the positives of the snow is that it forces you to exist in the present moment–and to drum up compassion for others, who you know are as miserable as you are–which is a state of mind I find challenging to live in at other times.

dig deep - heirloom mothering

This morning I stepped outside to 33 degrees and felt like stripping my coat off. There is a day every winter when the sun angle feels just right that your brain decides it is going to be okay. For me, that day was Friday, and for Nate, it’s today. Apparently the birds agree. All of a sudden our crows and bluejays are being joined by sweet sounds of (not quite yet spring) cardinals. I am soaking up the sun from where it comes into my bedroom window, and this feeling of warmth is slowly healing my winter doldrums. It is only after the bird song penetrates the silence that I realize how truly quiet it was, and I am practically in tears of joy at the sound. How I wish the sun would hurry and melt the snow, but I know we still have weeks to come of these giant unforgiving mounds. I hate these mounds of snow as if they had personalities and actually decided to come mess up my life. I realize it makes no sense, and yet, there you have it.

In honor of today’s reprieve, I’ll share our newly perfected cocktail, the bloody mary. It’s good for a day you’re dreaming of warmer times.

a mean bloody mary
serves 2

Blend together:
1 c. tomato water + 3 tsp. tomato paste (or substitute 1 c. tomato juice)
1/2 tsp. worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. hot sauce (Cholula is our go-to)
1/2 tsp. prepared horseradish
1/4 tsp. tamarind sauce (can omit; I used it on a whim after it came with take-out Indian food) 1/4 tsp. fish sauce
dash cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/2 c. vodka, chilled

Serve with:
lemon wedges
celery sticks
1 c. ice cubes
salt & pepper on the rim