My True Story of Living with Mental Illness

My True Story of Living with Mental Illness

I mentioned last week that I had an essay in a new book anthology called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness (In Fact Books, 2016). I felt like a million bucks when the essay was accepted. I’d responded to a call for submissions that a friend sent with a lightning bolt of an idea, and then I wrote the essay with something of that same lightning-bolt intensity. There is nothing better than those moments, when you’re a writer, when the work kind of pours out of you and you can feel that it’s good, that it’s powerful, that it’s flowing. To have that recognized, with an acceptance letter from a reputable literary journal—there may be nothing better. When I learned that ultimately, only 20 essays were chosen from over 600 submissions, and mine was one (I think publishers like to tell writers stuff like that to stroke their very fragile egos, and it works!), I felt, again, just great: proud and honored and humbled and grateful.

But when the book arrived last week, there was that title staring me in the face: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness—and a catchphrase that went something like: “In these pages, you’ll meet twenty people surviving mental illness”—and I was one of those twenty people. It was enough to make a girl feel a little, well, vulnerable, especially when I excitedly emailed my mom and my mother in law and people close to me to tell them and then wondered if I’d freaked them out.

“What interesting company you keep!” my mom said. I understood her hesitation to be really excited for me; if L. published an essay about something deeply personal I’m sure I would feel a similar sense of disquiet. So I immediately felt this urge to qualify, e.g.: “the essay isn’t about MY mental illness, of course…”

But of course, it is.

The Backstory.

The mission of SMAYS is to demystify mental illness, which is still, in this country, roundly feared and loathed. To talk about it. To admit to it. And so, while my essay in the book, it’s true, is much more about someone else’s mental illness—about a romantic friendship I had in my twenties with a guy who’s a diagnosed schizophrenic—it is also about my anxiety, and my belief that at the end of the day, even those who suffer from the deepest kinds of madness have something in common with those of us who suffer from more “acceptable” forms of it (depression and anxiety).

As I say in my essay, “We are all at least a little bit crazy.”

The Process.

Last August, right before I left California to spend two weeks with my family in Maine, I got an email from an editor at Creative Nonfiction (the literary journal that houses In Fact Books) saying that they liked the essay I’d written and were interested in publishing it, but that they needed me to strengthen and revise one part before they decided for sure. So off I went to the East coast, to be with my close-knit and very boisterous family, all of whom were on vacation, while I also had a two-week deadline to revise this incredibly personal essay that I’d come to care very, very deeply about. And so, for those two weeks, I lived a double life. I was half-present with my family, drinking wine in the evenings, laughing, joking, going for paddle board rides in the ocean and attempting to relax, but inwardly, I was completely obsessed with the essay. Every spare moment I had, I was holed up in my room, writing. Or at least, shifting commas around and looking for entryways into what felt like dark and difficult territory.

Then I’d emerge, smiling and happy and in my bathing suit, ready to go for a swim.

It was all a bit jarring. What felt so difficult about it, I think, was that even then, in the writing stage, I felt some sense of shame for the work. I was writing about meeting a man who was obviously troubled, at a time in my life when I decided to take on some of his trouble, because I was troubled, too. I was in grad school at the time we met; I was learning that I suffered from anxiety; I had bestowed upon myself this weird eating disorder that involved not consuming an ounce of fat and running for an hour every day; and I was also learning how to be an adult (read: making choices I wasn’t sure my parents would approve of). I was learning that something that sounds just terrible, and terrifying, on paper—I am sleeping with a diagnosed schizophrenic who’s on welfare—can, in reality, be something safe, real, and very much okay.

It had taken me fifteen years to get the opportunity to really reflect on this strange and powerful friendship that I had kept from most of my family at the time, sure that they wouldn’t understand. And there I was on vacation with them, writing about it.

But I did it, and the revised essay was accepted.

And so, at the great risk of freaking out my mom, here is a short excerpt from my essay “A Little Crazy.” Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider buying the book (details below). It’s full of powerful stories.

The Excerpt. 

“My friend did not seem like the stereotype of schizophrenic that I knew from movies and television. He did not hear voices anymore, at least as far as I could tell, and he was never violent. He was obviously depressed, though—depressed in a way that suggested sadness from some place far beyond the present. Sometimes, he became slightly manic, and he frequently became confused. Often, when we talked, I wondered if we were having two separate conversations. He might, for instance, lapse into sullenness, into silence, as though he’d forgotten I was there; then, all of a sudden, he’d brightly ask a question only tenuously related to what we’d been talking about. Some days, his veneer seemed so thin he was almost translucent, like the smallest insult or hurt would break him.

“Many times I wondered if our friendship was worth it: the bad moods, the sudden decisions that our evening was over, the weird outbursts of criticism.

“But at other times, Will behaved like an endearing child, entirely genuine. Unlike most of the guys I knew, he did not resort to ironic retorts or mannered responses. He had the laugh of a ten-year-old, this sweet, bubbling peal. One day, he invited me over to play a rented video game. It was a Saturday, and I had planned to spend the day relaxing after a week run like boot camp: exercise, teach, fast, write. So I said yes. Will couldn’t handle any hint of violence, and the game was a lush but G-rated fantasy, something about a princess who needed to travel through a maze to reach her castle. We played it on his aging, thrift-store television for hours. I remember the day as though we spent it happily, goofily stoned, but we couldn’t have been: Will didn’t put any substances into his body besides chromium picolinate and copious amounts of vitamin C. But being with him sometimes felt like an altered state.

“And after we’d played the video game, we pushed aside the controls and had sex on his bed. We had this implicit understanding: that we would still have sex. Not always; months went by when we were, simply, platonic friends. But then we’d fall into bed together again. I welcomed this. I had no compunctions about it, no hang-ups. I didn’t care or know if he slept with other people. I didn’t possess jealousy or longing where he was concerned. For the first and the last time in my life, I didn’t equate a sexual relationship with love or the pursuit of partnership.

“Not that I didn’t love Will, in my way. We shared a rare kind of intimacy. We made gluten-free toast in his kitchen at 2:00 a.m., eating it, giggling, in our underpants. I saw him through a fractured, dissociated breakdown in my apartment after a thunderously loud Lucinda Williams show, the only time I saw him approach behavior I might call aggressive, though all he did was yell. We wrote an article together once. (He insisted I take the whole byline, though he had paced around my apartment feeding me lines like I were his secretary: “No wait, write this, write this…”) I watched him engage with the world as if he were doing everything for the first time: trying out a job, losing a job, finding a new apartment, beginning a new project. Because Will’s life had once shattered to pieces, he didn’t care what it would take to make it presentable, defendable, normal. For me, every venture felt like an obligation, a step on a ladder that led somewhere I was supposed to want to go. With my anxiety and my stupid eating disorder, I spent all my time climbing, and climbing, and climbing. What was at the top? I don’t think I knew.”


Buy Show Me All Your Scars at Amazon

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Susie Meserve 2.0: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (and no, I’m not talking Brexit)

Susie Meserve 2.0: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (and no, I’m not talking Brexit)

Hi friends!

If you’re reading this, you might have noticed that things look a little different over here at susiemeserve.com. I’m delighted that my month-long project to overhaul my website is officially complete (though the experts tell me I will continue to tinker for weeks and months to come). I’m really happy with how things look and feel on this new-and-improved site. I’d love for you to take a look around, see what’s new, and read some of my published work (all neatly organized, now, on the “Writing” page).

Things to note:

  • My blog is now called More Than a Mother. As you’ll recall from my last post, “Writing Motherhood,” I’ve decided to embrace writing about my experiences parenting L (and, uh, more). You should still see these posts in your WordPress reader or in your inbox if you’re a follower. As ever, thanks for reading, sharing, “liking,” etc.
  • If you’d still like to get my posts the easy way, do nothing at all. If, however, you’re not yet a follower and you’d like to become one—or if you’d prefer to receive emails from me about new blog posts AND other happenings (I’ve just had an essay out in a new anthology; I’ll be doing a reading in Oslo, Norway, this summer), then please sign up using the form that pops up when you read or on the one that appears in the sidebar on the Blog page (just to your right). I promise to keep email to a minimum! I know none of us has as much free time as we’d like.
  • I’ve got a new Facebook author page! If you like what’s going on here, please “Like” me over there as well.
  • Thanks, as ever, for all of your support.

Back next week with more news and tales of being More Than a Mother.

—Susie

The Work of Building Fences

The Work of Building Fences

It was quite a weekend.

On Saturday, I attended an “energetic boundaries” workshop up in Sebastopol, a beautiful little town about an hour north of here. Now, I know what you East-coast types are thinking: a what? 

I must admit that when my friend An Honest Mom invited me, I had to pause. I’m capable of all kinds of “woo-woo,” but on the other hand, it sounded a little nutty. But when I looked back over some of the events of this past year, some stickiness that’s been troubling me in my life and relationships, I realized that my boundaries could use some work. There’s the way I say yes to everything, and the way I worry all the time about what other people are thinking and doing and feeling (sound familiar, anyone?). And there’s the way I let other people’s opinions and thoughts invade my space and my psyche to the point that I kind of lose myself. These are patterns I’ve been in for years and years; many of us are in these patterns. I hoped that an energetic boundaries workshop might help me shift some of this, so I signed up and went.

I’m always hoping for miracles, and yet, it turns out, miracles are for other people.* Nonetheless it was a great day of experimenting with ways to get really clear about who I am and who other people are— and not to confuse the two.

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Most significantly, I realized, on the drive up to Sebastopol, that the boundary between my writing and what other people think about my writing is so thin it’s like the membrane of a bubble. A few days earlier, I’d found myself in a conversation about my writing that I did not have any desire to be in. A friend was, in essence, giving me advice I had never asked for and frankly did not want. It filled me with a kind of slow-burning and quiet rage—and later, disappointment in myself for letting that happen. But these kinds of interactions have been happening to me for years. It’s a little too easy for me to hear a question like “what’s going on with your memoir?” and start equivocating and rationalizing and dealing with a whole cadre of internal feelings to the effect of you, Susie, suck, you suck, you suck. And so, en route to the workshop (I like to get started early!), it occurred to me in a fit of nascent practicality: I do not have to talk about my memoir if I do not want to. And it is okay to say that!

(Hey, friends! Yeah, don’t ask me about my memoir right now. Some stuff is in the works; I’ll let you know when it gets published. Thanks.)

And yet, and yet—somehow I’ve been believing all these years that it’s not okay to say no. Not just to obligations, but to sharing information. Private people? They mystify me. I seem to think that when someone asks me a personal question that I have to answer it. That when I reveal something, I have to reveal everything. My writing, it turns out, despite being personal in nature, is also deeply personal TO ME, and there are very few people with whom I’m comfortable sharing the heartache and joys of that enterprise. And yet, when someone asks, there I go, blurting out the whole shebang, then wondering why people feel like it’s okay to give me unsolicited advice. Wondering why I feel so damn violated and angry.

The workshop did not solve all these problems, of course (see above, on miracles), but it did help me to articulate some of this. And it helped me to see, at least, the ways that I worry all the time about other people at the expense of myself. Not just my kid, but also B, whom I was tracking the entire day in Sebastopol: what’s he doing? Is he mad that I’m gone all day? Is L okay? Has he located the hot dogs I told him were in the fridge? And in the midst of the workshop, in what felt like the most uncomfortable and intense moment of the day: am I invading the other participants’ energetic space? Do they like me? Am I totally annoying? Should I change my behavior in some way? It reminded me of the friend who had made me uncomfortable the week before with her questions about my work: was I so worried about her safety and comfort that I ventured into territory I did not want to be in?

I think I did.

And so, reader, resolved: not to do that anymore. Or at least, to notice, to remember that I am allowed—no, required!—to protect myself from other people and to be autonomous. And to say no. How liberating!

But here’s the funny irony of last weekend. We got a tortoise. 

He arrived on Friday night, and our initial excitement was palpable. L was in heaven; B called him “Buddy,” as in, “Oh hi, Buddy, hi Otto,” in a cute voice you’d use for a kid, proving once again that my husband has the world’s greatest capacity to love of anyone I’ve ever known (Otto is a reptile with a brain the size of a peanut; he is the least cuddly creature on earth). But when I got home from my workshop on Saturday afternoon, I learned that Otto had spent most of the day roaming the yard, eating chard, pooping, and stressing out the neighbors, because he’d broken through his makeshift barrier.

And so whereas on Saturday I worked on my metaphorical fence, on Sunday, in the sweltering heat, I worked on a physical fence to contain the newest member of our family.

Something about this felt like a delightful kismet—and a reminder. Because Otto the Tortoise is testing both the physical boundaries of our yard and also my energetic ones. From my studio I have a clear view of his pen, and it’s all but impossible not to look out the window every five seconds to see whether he’s moved from his nighttime hibernation spot yet, or whether he’s still pacing against the walls of the enclosure trying desperately to get out. I’m not sure what the lesson is, here, but I know it’s something about letting go. About remembering the circle of rocks I drew around myself on Saturday as a physical representation of the space I’m allowed to take up on this earth. About not worrying so much about other people/reptiles.

Because there, I suspect, is where miracles happen.

SOON THEN

But miracles are for other people.

Here things right themselves and it grows humid again

and though we’ve stopped watering the garden—

earth crumbles at the base of an eggplant—

still, it feeds us. Who declared a weed a weed? What if God

is a criminal? You say: if God made hands, God made ghosts.

Hands would run right through ghosts.

Ghost speared by hand, hand surrounded by ghost,

both feeling just a slight warmth, a gentle rocking,

like a love poem, or a sense of soon, then.

© Susie Meserve, 2016

Hey! If you love this post, please click “like” below! And thanks, as ever, for sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anywhere else you think it should live. If you’d like to learn about the energetic boundaries workshop, message me over on the Contact page and I’ll put you in touch with Aimee M. Thanks.

I Will Not Waste My Life Part Two, OR: Inviting My Kid to A Friend’s House on a Sunday Morning in a Desperate Effort to Write

I Will Not Waste My Life Part Two, OR: Inviting My Kid to A Friend’s House on a Sunday Morning in a Desperate Effort to Write

Long time.

It’s almost the end of National Poetry Month and I haven’t even posted one poem. This time of year is a killer: taxes, mid-terms, spring soccer, and a rash of birthday parties. Why were so many children born between February and April? And why do they all adore my son and want him to come for cake, ice cream, and super-fun activities that I’m sure I will never be able to measure up to come July, when L turns seven? (Though the climbing gym was pretty great.)

I’ve been remembering the post I wrote a year ago about Not Wasting My Life. I’m still fighting that good fight, but I’m also facing a lot of questions about what an unwasted life is supposed to look like. Should I be making lots of time to lie in the hammock, enjoy L, take long walks, and meditate—can you even imagine?!—or should I be working every spare minute on my writing, when I’m not being the best mother, teacher, and wife I can be?

I was sucked into this recent article in The Cut by Kim Brooks called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom: Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?”, in which Brooks describes her slow-dawning realization that it’s impossible to be a great mother, a domestic Goddess, and a dedicated writer. As she says, “Surely, I thought, there was no reason in the 21st century that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized…I was so confident in this conviction, in fact, that it took me almost a decade to admit to myself that I was wrong.”

And if that sounds like a crazy thing to think, well, welcome to my head.

Brooks goes on to detail many things, including the number of terrific contemporary novels that take up this theme; and, most poignantly for me, her decision to cut out what she calls “the white noise of parenthood,” e.g., playdates, birthday parties, dance lessons, soccer, PTA, and swim class, in order to create more space for her creative work.

I read this as I was sitting at L’s Friday afternoon soccer practice, as it happens, an experience that, while mildly pleasant because it’s been sunny, and there’s another mom I like to talk to, and I’m happy for L that he’s got a great coach and seems to be learning a lot of good skills, is also a bummer—a bummer because we used to have leisurely Friday afternoons together at home, L doing his thing and me doing mine, until soccer practice became Another Thing We Have to Do.

I was already feeling a bit like the weird parent on the sidelines because I was distracted, watching L run drills just occasionally, immersed in my three-inch thick novel, a notebook and pen furtively stashed in my bag, when I turned to Twitter to see what was up. When I found the link to this article, I absolutely sank in—I basically swallowed my phone. I’m sure I was nodding my head emphatically and groaning like a crazy person. Because to say I can relate to the dilemma Brooks describes is an understatement. I live it. I nearly shouted out loud when I got the part in the essay where she quotes her writer friend Zoe Zolbrod:

“The truth,” [Zolbrod] says, “is that I think I’m a better mom when I’m not writing. I’m not writing right now and I’m enjoying the kids more. I’m better at home when I’m writing less.” When she’s engrossed in her work, it’s different. “My eyes glaze over or something when I’m going off into that other place, and my daughter notices it and doesn’t like it. Like we’re sitting on the floor coloring together. And I’m getting in my zoned-out space and she’s always watching to see when I do that. ‘Don’t make your face like that,’ she says. She just watches me really closely, and she’s less satisfied with what I can’t give her. She senses that I’m keeping something to myself. It never feels like it’s enough.”

I have written before about this dilemma, about this constant feeling of distraction and how I would love, at the end of the day, to actually feel done. To not be off in another place—writing a scene in my novel, or absorbed in my anxiety about getting published—when, actually, I’m with my husband and kid. But I don’t think, crazy as this may sound, that I realized that in order to lessen this sensation I could just say no—to a birthday party, or soccer practice, or piano lessons, or any number of other (arguably optional) parental obligations, in favor of myself, in favor of the selfishness a writing career demands.

As the late Philip Seymour Hoffman says in The Big Lebowski: “That had not occurred to me, dude.”

Had it really not? I mean, of course it had, in that abstract, not-possible way we think of so many possible changes we could make in our lives. I’m not totally crazy; I haven’t volunteered for a PTA board position or anything. But nonetheless, I have always been a little too ambitious, in small and perhaps, let’s face it, probably gender-prescribed ways. When I was in grad school, living alone, I did not subsist on ramen noodles; I cooked myself intricate meals every night, because it brought me pleasure, of course, and because it quelled my anxiety to eat well. And now, with a kid, a husband, and a full-time teaching gig, I still cook those kinds of meals, almost every night. I make my own granola too, and bone broth a few times a month, and while we have a house cleaner, she only comes once every month or six weeks. And somehow I became the room partner in my kid’s class when the other parent decided to switch schools, and I not-so-mysteriously ended up on the aftercare committee, too.

Perhaps, because this force lives in me, this force that tells me to be all things to all people, I have transferred this force to L, too, insisting that he not only brush his teeth every morning and have a healthy packed lunch, but that he also do his homework and practice piano and make it to soccer every Friday afternoon and again on Saturday mornings. And who is the person who reminds him to do all these things, who prods and nags and enables? That would be me. I am much like Brooks was before she woke up, which is to say—I have, for all these years, thought that I could Do It All; and in many ways, I have.

But at whose expense? Does L like this life? Do I? Would we both feel happier if we just ate frozen pizza a couple times a week, if I’d graciously let another parent be room partner, if Friday afternoons were still ours? Even if I didn’t spend that time writing, mightn’t I spend it doing the other kind of things—paying bills, tidying, email—that free up my writing time during the week? Or, God forbid, sitting in my hammock just thinking, exaggeratedly not wasting my life?

***

That evening after soccer practice, I talked to B about the article. “I need to carve out more time to write,” I told him. “I want to spend every weekend with you and L, because I miss you during the week, but I’ve realized that I can’t. I need to start taking some time on the weekends to write, or maybe even a weekday evening, because with teaching and all the other obligations, I’m just not spending as much time writing during the week as I need to.”

Guilt, that old monster, rose up. B, with his nine-to-sixer, has less time during the week than I do, and despite everything I’ve said above, that must make it sound like I bustle about like a charwoman, taking care of all the housework for my man, he’s (almost) as engaged in the domestic sphere as I am: he does most of the laundry, cooks breakfast most days, bakes all our bread, maintains our garden, and is as involved with bedtimes and bath times and all the rest as I am. A tiny voice in my head whispered: selfish. 

“So can you take L to soccer on Saturday morning?” I asked, even though I had plans on Saturday afternoon, too.

And, of course, because he is a decent human being, he said yes, and I spent the time in my studio, writing.

At the end of Kim Brooks’s article, she seems to come to a place of acceptance that all of us moms who write must, obviously, come to. She maintains her resolve to cut out the “white noise,” and, brilliantly, if a little unrealistically, she swears she’ll do a yearly artist’s residency—a week away, every year, just to write. But she also accepts that doing both things well is doing both things poorly: you rob Peter to pay Paul. You neglect your parenting, or you neglect your writing. It’s this elusive idea of balance, and you just have to make it work.

In my mind’s eye, I can see the possibility of an artist’s residency every year, and of saying no more. This life beckons to me like low-hanging fruit, just barely in reach. I’m not quite there, yet, though. I will, undoubtedly, continue to take on too much for my child at the expense of my own work: I’ll still cook these great meals, and feel guilty when I don’t return phone calls, and volunteer for too many activities at L’s school.

But I’ll also, I’ve decided, hold a little more space for myself. I’ll say “no” more. And I’ll think, as a friend reminded me to, to realize what I am giving up when I say “yes.”

This weekend, B was away, up in Portland partying it up with his college friends. So I had to do soccer; in fact, I had volunteered to bring snack (old habits, old habits!). But on Sunday, I called some other parent friends and asked whether they could take L for the morning so I could work.

And because they are decent human beings, of course they said yes. 

And there I sat, writing, enormously relieved to have put this down.

——

Further (Great) Reading:

Curtis Sittenfeld on The Pool, in which she asks why it is only women novelists who are asked how they “balance” writing and parenthood:  “The Secret to Work-Life Balance? There Isn’t One”

Aya deLeon on her blog, in which she posits that writer moms of color have never assumed that there will be “balance”: “Portrait of the Writer Mom as a Member of the Working Class”

Beautiful Book You Must Read: Holding Silvan, A Brief Life

Beautiful Book You Must Read: Holding Silvan, A Brief Life

It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because Knausgård manages to elevate the domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.

But last week I halted everything to devour a memoir called Holding Silvan: A Brief Life by my new friend Monica Wesolowska. 

IMG_2859

In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is determined to have massive brain damage—so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.

It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:

“During the part when Silvan is actively dying—if that’s not an oxymoron—I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and hold. This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”

I did—I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement—I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.

I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon, and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.

Happy, poignant reading,

Susie

If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this and this out.

 

 

Who Am I, Anyway?

I’ve been ruminating on identity a lot lately.

Me.

Me.

At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was—in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.

Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all—you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow—that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?

And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days, too, speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received—a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.

So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.

At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged—we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”

“How old are your kids?” one asked another.

“Ten and eight. You?”

“Seven and five. You?”

Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”

And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion, I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.

But it also means smarting when, at a babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.

But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.

“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.

And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.

IMG_2811Mine—”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”—all from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds—seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.

And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.

Like walking through a fire.

—-

Sharon Olds’s poem “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood”

**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the Madness Radio Book Launch! With Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California 7pm. Hope to see you!**