A few people reported that they found my last blog post depressing. “Is it just the end of hope??” one asked, but that wasn’t what I meant, not exactly, and I’m sorry if you, too, found depressing the idea that normalcy is a fallacy. I hoped that by calling out our lives for what they are—unpredictable—that maybe we could make peace with it. I know that when I hold too tightly onto the idea of something being a certain way, when I hold too tightly onto joy, I feel that much more bummed out when it goes awry. A little lightness can help. Witness: when that flood happened, and Ben and I were both minorly freaking out, I noticed that when we had a quick conversation about it, accepted the fact that our house was going to be in chaos for a few days (ha! Try weeks), and hatched a clear plan for what to do next, we both felt a lot calmer.
But the comments I got on my last post made me see how a mantra of “life is unpredictable” could quickly become something like “life is unpredictable…so you should live each day like it’s your last.” And, you’re right—I do find that depressing. That carpe diem thing always makes me feel panicky. Am I living my best life? It makes me wonder. Could I be doing a better job? Answers: a) probably not, and b) yes, of course I could be doing something better. And then what happens? I take up skydiving because I think I should, because I might get hit by a bus tomorrow? What bugs me about the carpe diem mentality is it seems steeped in, among other things, white privilege. And class privilege. Uh, how are you supposed to live every day like it’s your last when you’re poor? Or, in my case, when you have two annoying but adorable kids, plus a very adorable gecko with very specific temperature needs that are stressful to meet?!
But hear me out. Because I’ve had a revelation.
I’m not going to take up skydiving, but I DO think that if life is so unpredictable…I should try a little harder to chase joy. In January, while I was on school break but things were in minor chaos at my house, I found myself feeling like I was wasting every day, not eeking enough enjoyment out of things and not having enough, well, fun. Part of this is the reality that mothers are never really “on vacation,” because even though I wasn’t working I had to rally the kids and make lunches and whatnot and whatnot and whatnot. But when I teased Ben that if he had an entire month off he’d be going on ski trips and day drinking and riding his bike and meeting me for lunch—and he eagerly agreed, and this is one of the things I love about my husband—I realized that I kind of have a hard time relaxing, being on vacation, even just accepting the abundance of my life and the many wonderful things about it.
I have a hard time accepting joy.
I know how that sounds, sort of Marie Kondo-esque, kind of woo-woo, very first-world problem-y, but it’s true: I am constantly rationing pleasure. If I wake up on a rainy Saturday and decide, you know what, I’m going to spend all three hours of Sammy’s nap time watching Project Runway re-runs, because I’m an adult, dammit, and I can make that kind of decision, partway through, I feel intensely guilty and go do some laundry. If I plan to do something frivolous of a Wednesday—say, meet a friend for some day shopping—I temper it by admonishing myself that I’ll have to get up early to write. If I’m sick and decide to read trashy novels for days on end, I get so depressed at not being up and productive I can’t even enjoy them.
And it carries into my work life and makes me worse at what I do. For example, right now I’m really, really trying to make a big mess of things with the poetry collection I’m writing, but every other day a stern voice urges me to stop playing, to stop creating, to start tightening the language and putting it together. Get serious, Suz, the voice urges. Work harder. Even though I know, in some other rational part of my brain, that I haven’t finished the writing/ideation phase yet, that it might be another six months or even a year before I’ve really worked out the kinks, and that NOT approaching it with too much seriousness is exactly what I should be doing.
Why do I do this? As penance? Because I’m so driven by guilt that I just can’t allow myself any reprieve? Because I don’t believe that I deserve the creative process, deserve joy? I’m not sure, but I know that day after day, I’m consumed by guilt. I’m constantly putting myself on cleanses or rationing my wine, curtailing my spending, feeling tight.
There’s a lot of joy in my life. A lot of space. A lot of stuff to be grateful for. And I am.
So. I’m trying to change this. I’m trying to allow myself some space. Some joy in the lovely process of writing poem after poem in the early morning dark, and not pausing to ask whether they’re any good. To take breaks. To drink a fancy cocktail after a tough day without guilt. Because like is short, and I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.
I’ll let you know how I do. And I’d love to know: do YOU ration joy, in your work, in your life? Comment it up, friends.
January is one of my favorite months, even with the rain, even with the dreariness, even with the promise and delight of the holidays over. In January, I get four weeks off…when no one else in my family does. The deliciousness of having weeks on end of paid reprieve from teaching is, well, delicious. In January I schedule all the doctors’ appointments. In January I clean out the closets. In January, I finish entire manuscripts, read shelves full of books, blog like mad, and, sometimes, relax. In January, everything is back to normal.
In my mind, anyway.
Because it never quite works out like I’m hoping it will. One January I found out in the middle of the night, in the ER, that I needed emergency surgery for a ruptured fallopian tube and that I was no longer pregnant. It was the following January when I got salmonella. I had a Big Important Trip a January after that. This year, I ended the holidays with the casual thought, “when things get back to normal, I’ll buckle down on the poetry project I’m working on.” I did, for a day or two—until the morning we went to get the kids up and stepped onto soaking wet carpet. The heavy rains had made it into the house, and I spent the next morning pulling up the carpet and moving furniture. That saga has stretched on; contractors tracking mud through the house for ten days now, heavy-duty fans whirring 24 hours a day, and everyone sleeping everywhere. The little one is in a portable crib in our room; the larger offspring is on a mattress on the living room floor, at least, after he gets moved from our bed when Ben goes to bed. Most nights I crawl in with a sweaty nine year old and a zillion stuffies.
I’ve had this thought so many times: I just need to get over this cold/depression/construction project and then things will be “back to normal.” I’m sure we all do this, search for this elusive normalcy that doesn’t actually exist. I’m sure my friend S thought things would be “back to normal” after she had her thyroid removed—until she plunged into three months of insomnia hell. I’m sure my mom thought things would be “back to normal” after she had her hip operation—until she learned she needed another operation later that year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something my yoga teacher said at a retreat last fall, about how we make these excuses and concessions for the busy times in our lives, as though each time we feel strung out and overextended it’s somehow unusual. “It’s always like this,” she said, and I realized that she was right.
And it’s kiiiind of a depressing thought, I suppose. We humans like routine. We like to think we can do everything. But if we acknowledge that we never know what’s coming down the pike—particularly, frankly, when we have children—maybe we inhabit our time better. Maybe we make better routines, the kind that have some room to wiggle. Maybe we forgive ourselves when we don’t meet our goals and our deadlines. Maybe we approach each day with a little more grace. Maybe we stop putting so much pressure on…January.
I’ve still got two weeks to go of my glorious break. My house looks like a bomb hit it. What’s the point in cleaning? We’ve all had colds. Whenever I start to get some writing done, I’m interrupted by someone needing access to the house, by a phone call. (This blog post has been all kinds of fits and starts!) But it’s all just life. It’s always going to be like this. And in the larger scheme of things, this stuff is, as Pema Chödrön would say, no. Big. Deal.
So, “back to normal,” off you go. For now, I’ll just take the promise of having my children down the hall again before February.
In Norway, this time of year is called the Mørketid, the dark time, and the Norwegians, who are used to it, light candles at four pm and have dinner early and snuggle into their warm houses. Or, if it’s snowed, they put on their skis and head to the lighted trails that exist all over the country and ski and ski and ski. They cheerfully get up in the dark at dawn and go to work. Their creativity in dealing with more than 12 hours of darkness is impressive.
When we lived in Oslo, I started a new teaching job at a public high school just after New Year’s. I was three months pregnant with L and terribly morning sick, and two days a week I had class at eight. So I rose at six in the pitch black and attempted not to vomit as I navigated the shower, some clothes, a cup of tea, and the Trikk, the streetcar that took me to Majorstuen, where I would hop on the subway for two stops. By the time I arrived at Berg Vidergaendeskole there was a gray light, but the sun didn’t really rise until the end of first period.
We humans can romanticize all kinds of things.
We’re in our own dark time in California, which is never sure how to be winter, but tries, and I’m still setting the alarm for six as many mornings as I can muster. It is a strange sort of push and pull, for I really do loathe getting up early, but ever since I learned that the poet Lucie Brock-Broido calls the morning being “wet from the other side” I’ve been unable to shake the notion that this time, this liminal time between night and day, is when the creativity is awakening and the words best flow—or sputter, or crawl. (And, because life is so busy, sometimes it’s the only time of the day, anyway.) Sure enough, I’ve been getting at least a poem a morning, though which are any good, it’s hard to say.
But creativity is a funny thing. Earlier this fall, I took a poetry class and vowed to just write, to generate work, to make, for as long as it took. And I did, all fall. It was glorious. But now, mere weeks later, I feel a familiar antsyness as I start to worry, to push, to want to force that raw, unfinished work into something meaningful—a book, a record, a testimony to the world that I am not lazy, that I am not, uh, bad, that I EXIST. In September, when I read up in Portland with the poet Stephanie Adams-Santos (who taught me about Lucie Brock-Broido), she said that when she writes she tries to scratch some metaphorical itch, to find something inside herself that needs fulfilling and, well, fulfill it. (She actually said this much more clearly and beautifully than that!) In answer to the same question, I said that I turned to my readers to tell me if something was any good. And then I thought about what she said and wondered, what if I did that, too?
So, I guess here I’ve answered my own personal logic puzzle: because I have taken a little break from reading from Little Prayers, because I don’t have something else to publish NOW, because I always feel the glow from a published essay for about a month before it fades, I have been inhabiting this space, on and off here in the December dark, where I don’t feel like I’m any good. Hence the rush to publish something, to finish something, to frantically get out into the world a thing that isn’t even ready yet, just so I can prove something to—to whom? I don’t even know.
How stupid I am, sometimes.
I’m still learning to be a writer: to chase the joy and to find that balance between playful, creative inquiry and brass tacks. And I feel enormously comforted here at the end of this blog post, because somehow writing all of this down, I feel like I have permission to be in the playful inquiry stage a while longer. Brass tacks, be off with you. Glad we had that little chat.
So! In the meantime, while you (and I) are waiting for my second book of poetry (!), if you need a great little gift, you can buy my first, Little Prayers, and I’ll sign it for you. There are more good gift ideas for writers here and here.
And here’s to the beauty and the difficulty of this season. If you want to share what you love or loathe about December, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Warmly and with my best wishes for happy holidays and a fruitful new year,
We had a long and windy summer, you might even say a lazy one. Instead of filling L’s weeks with expensive camps, feeling frugal, I emptied out the calendar and kept him home a lot of the time while Sam went off to daycare as usual. Mostly, it worked, though increased class caps and chatty students meant I was ignoring him more than engaging him in quality time. He did a lot of reading Calvin and Hobbes on the couch, and a certain amount of begging for Plants vs. Zombies on my phone.
But summer in this part of NorCal is—can I say this?—a nothing burger. The climate here is so temperate, the fog a consistent lurker. Summer looks vaguely different from spring in that it’s a bit dryer and a degree or two warmer—or colder, depending how hard the fog lays in. We had some nice times, but we were all holding, like a beacon, our three weeks in Maine at the end of July. There, I knew, we’d have a real summer. There, I knew, we’d have a real vacation (nevermind that The Hubs was working remotely the first week and me, the whole time). My family would be the proverbial village, helping me raise my kids. The weather would be perfect. Etc.
But that didn’t quite happen.
My poor mom wound up with some horrible GI bug the minute we arrived. It went from terrible to worse, and she ended up in the hospital, on IV fluids and antibiotics. My dad needed to be picked up in Boston after his own medical appointment gone awry. And Ben was working. Not “I’ll finish this memo then take the kids swimming” working, but up at seven on the computer and taking calls all day working. So there I was, in Maine, trying to get the baby excited to play with a very nice 14-year-old he’d decided off the bat he didn’t like, and Leo, who was now reading Calvin and Hobbes on a different couch, was confused why none of his cousins were there. My mom was dying upstairs, I had papers to grade, neither of my children were happy, and I thought to myself: this is the same old crap. This isn’t vacation at all.
Now, I don’t mean to complain. I was so relieved that if my mom was going to get salmonella or e. coli or cholera that it happened while I was there. It’s hard to be so far away from my parents, especially as they start to age. And being in Maine is always wonderful. But it’s a place I don’t associate with, well, stress in quite the way I did this summer. With pleasing everyone, or trying to. With all the crap we moms wrestle with all the time at home.
After that first week, my mom started to slowly, slowly get better. Ben took the next two weeks officially off, thank goodness. And while it took us a few days more to get into a groove, and for one of us to get her anxiety under control (ahem), we ended the trip with 14 people packed into one house, with an elaborate meal-organization system and enough swimming possibilities to satisfy everyone. The cousinness was amazing: Sammy and the other two littles racing around the house, terrorizing everyone, playing at the beach, tantrumming on cue. It was a sea of cheddar bunnies and dirty diapers and sand and delicious, delicious bonding.
L cried the whole way into town when we left. Why did we have to go? Why couldn’t we stay for three more weeks?
That’s the thing: vacations end. Routines resume. I realize now that vacationing with young kids is never going to be a tropical vacation—even if it IS a tropical vacation. You’re still going to have to change diapers and feed everyone and manage emotional meltdowns and all the rest of it.
But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to be sweet, sweet, sweet.
Did you attempt a family vacation this summer? What was the highlight, or low point? Comment it up!
For me, and I think for most, the writing life is feast or famine: years of not much happening, then little periods of publication or great strides on projects. And occasionally, it comes all at once.
To wit: I had two essays published this week, within minutes of each other. I’m thrilled. It was a nice personal moment in what’s been a very difficult week politically and globally. I think it’s important to mention that: wildfires in Oregon, the end of DACA, hurricanes everywhere—my heart goes out to so many people, right now.
So if you want a diversion, I’ve got two essays for you.
I kept the rejection letters because I was told to.
In my first year of graduate school, a professor described a poet who’d wallpapered the bathroom with his. Without questioning why one would want their failures staring them in the face while they did their business, I nodded gravely and made a note of it. Apparently, writers saved—and sometimes displayed—their rejection letters.
That first year of grad school I learned all kinds of things about “what writers did.” For one, I learned to say “I’m a writer” when anyone asked, because if you didn’t believe it yourself, then who would? And that night, I went home and started a “rejections” folder, eagerly awaiting my first one.
The second essay is completely different; it’s called “In Praise of Mindful Birthing,” and it’s about how I harnessed a technique I learned through meditation to get me through Baby S’s birth. You can read it over on Elephant Journal. Here’s a teaser:
Fast forward to week 40: I’m sitting on my back porch on a swelteringly hot day. I had a castor oil smoothie for breakfast, followed by a trip to a delightful sadist of an acupuncturist who made me stumble around her office with my feet full of needles. The doula has arrived, and so has my friend Steph.
The candles have been lit.
On the stereo, sacred music by Hildegard von Bingen plays.
I am in labor.
I don’t have time to think about how different this birth is so far, with my candles, my team of women, and my sacred chants, because I’m breathing. I’m having a contraction, in fact. It’s painful, but I don’t think about the next one. I don’t panic waiting for the pause.
And…there it goes. I look lazily around the yard. A bumblebee nuzzles the late summer flowers. I can almost see the pollen on its back as it lifts off. A hummingbird stops by. My feet feel hot on the deck. The birthing ball beneath me sways lightly.
I am not in pain, I think to myself—not at this moment, anyway.
I’d love to hear from you! Got a question or comment? What’s YOUR experience of rejection–or giving birth? Drop me a line, below. And follow me on Facebook, where I just might read aloud from one of these essays a little later today.
Confession: I get really annoyed when people bandy about the phrase “carpe diem” or otherwise remind you to live each second as though it’s your last.
Sure, if you’re some privileged, white, yoga-going, money-possessing, unemployed, free-spirited amazing soul, that probably works for you. The rest of us, however, are working, raising kids, going to school, and fighting the good fight. It’s just not practical—or very pleasant, to my mind—to act like death is imminent so we need to freak out and cram everything in NOW.
That said, I’ve been really loving the mantra I picked up at a women’s meditation thingy I went to a while back: There is all the time in the world. The phrase, which is kind of like the opposite of “carpe diem,” has been getting me through some tough moments of late. The thing is, and this is mostly positive—I’m just wanting MOAR of everything as I emerge from my first year postpartum. More writing, more yoga, more time in nature, more music, more quality time with my kids, more political engagement, more relaxation. Is this possible? Probably not; there are only so many hours in the day. But instead of focusing on the lack of time, or being a maxed out, American mom on the brink, I’m focusing on this idea that there’s enough time to do it all. If something doesn’t get done today, it’ll get done another day. It’s deceptively simple, and sometimes, anyway, it works.
Here are some ways I’m voicing my new mantra:
Sure, spend only ten minutes on the novel. When it gets to feeling crunchy, don’t force it. Take a break and work on something else.
Go to yoga on a Monday even if it means an hour less of writing. Likely, the calming aspect of the class will make you more focused, anyway.
Sit still and watch Baby S play without panicking about what’s not getting done. This will be a blip in the scheme of things. Besides, it’s a real delight to watch him go.
Be in control of your space, but don’t panic if things feel a little chaotic on the domestic front. You can correct them later.
I feel kind of ridiculously new-agey as I write this, but I’m really finding the idea of there being all the time in the world revolutionary. I’m so good at telling myself I’m not good enough, that I don’t work hard enough, that I suck. But if I attempt to approach the world with just a little more space, I find myself a little more spacious: more open to creative ideas and opportunities, more open to joy.
One thing I want less of in my life? Social media. I’m really addicted right now. Some of it is fun—my Facebook author page, where I post articles and photos and updates of my new life with two kids, has been a fun venture. And I’m tryyyyying to pin all my blog posts on Pinterest (follow me!). But it’s too easy to give “all the time in the world” over to trolling friends’ status updates and depressing political news. It’s easy to see time spiral down the drain.
And another thing I want less of? Drinking. We spent every night of our vacation back East on the verge of tipsy. It was fun, but unsustainable. When we got back we teetotaled and ate vegetarian for a solid week (stay tuned for “A Week’s Worth of Vegetarian Dinners”! I also want MOAR food writing, and cooking, in my life). It felt really good to clean up a little, to emerge into my favorite season trying to find my own way to carpe diem.
What are YOU wanting more and less of in your life? I’d love to hear from you.