**Note! Special offer for writers interested in my Saturday, March 19 workshop?Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story?in Oakland (1:00-3:45 p.m. at Flying Studios?at 4308 Telegraph Ave.) Bring a friend, both of you get $10 off the workshop fee.?Email me through the contact page on this blog or contact Sandra firstname.lastname@example.org to register.**
I’m really excited about this upcoming workshop I’m teaching with my friend Sandra Stringer on March 19th in Oakland: Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: A Writing and Movement Workshop for Writers.
I’m excited because I’ve been ruminating a lot on the nature of fear, and how it prevents?us from doing good creative work. Truthfully,?I feel like the thing that hinders?me is more like procrastination, and grading papers, and parenting, but nonetheless I think it’s all of a piece: I get?tense in my body?and in my mind?because of work, social, and familial obligations, and I worry that I won’t get everything done, so I act frantic, and then I?don’t carve out enough space to write, and then I?feel bad, and then I?can’t work because I?feel bad, and then…
Anyway, it goes something like that, and I’m excited to do a workshop where we simply slow down for a couple of hours, let the body do its thing (e.g., release), and see what happens. I realize, in fact, that I’ve been craving this kind of time to just be still for several weeks. This is always a busy time of year; the papers-to-grade seem never-ending, spring break is fast approaching, somehow we’re supposed to plan for summer already (!), and we’ve had family visiting and more family coming. (I love seeing them all, so much, and it also means that I lose some writing time.)
So it should be a good afternoon.
In preparation for the workshop, I’ve been reading the famous book The Artist’s Way, which I’ve heard of for years but never picked up. The book is full of interesting practical ideas and an overarching theory that some would probably find a little too much: this notion that, to be an artist, writer, or creative person generally you need to put your faith in some kind of higher power. It’s all a bit 12-steppy, and yet, and yet?there is something about it that really resonates with me. Julia Cameron, the author,?talks about the divine plan and how creativity works through us, like God working through us, and how, in a sense, you just need to make yourself receptive and then do the work and then, poof, it will all work out: you will become a creative and successful person. If you’re not religious, it might sound crazy (and I am not, so at first it was a little alarming for me), but it echoes notions of creativity that seem to be finding me everywhere these days: in this terrific Radiolab episode featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, and in a TED talk she did a few years back, both of which, when I first listened, absolutely blew my mind.
In a nutshell,?Gilbert?suggests that creativity is something outside of us, that creativity finds us, like a muse, or a little floating angel, as long as we’re open and receptive to it. There is something very anti-Puritanical about this notion! I, personally, was raised to work hard and not to expect too much. But for Gilbert, and Cameron, there is this belief that if you’re a good and dogged creative person, if you put the words on the page again and again and again, the universe will reward you with little gifts: a first chapter, a beautiful painting, the faith to keep going.
Whether you believe it or not, it’s?kind of comforting, wouldn’t you say? It reminds me, actually, of my decision to name?my chapbookFaith a few years back. I was obsessed with the word; it cropped up for me in everything I wrote. I think my entire notion?of “faith” at that time?centered around the belief that the words would keep coming, that things would work out if I kept at it.?And in a way, I guess that’s what Julia Cameron and Elizabeth Gilbert are trying to say.
I hope, in my way, to bring some of that wisdom to the workshop the 19th.
Enough philosophizing for today; I need to go get some work done.
But I hope to see some of you at my workshop on the 19th, and, as ever, I’d be terrifically grateful if you spread the word to anyone else you know who might be interested. Note the special offer for bringing a friend! ($10 off for both of you.)
Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press
Yesterday I received my copy of Ghazals for Foley, a book of poems written to commemorate the life of writer and slain journalist Jim Foley, who was a classmate of mine at UMass Amherst. I have a poem in the collection, along with poems by?Martin Espada, CS Carrier, Shauna Seliy, my buddy and writing partner?Mike Dockins, and many more. There is also a short story by Jim that was previously published by Hinchas Press.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy here and spread the word.?Ghazals for Foley is?a beautiful tribute to a beautiful person, and I’m grateful to Yago Cura and Hinchas Press for including me in the project.
ALSO: I’m reading this Friday night at the?Madness?Radio?Book Launch!Feb 26, 2016?w/ Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, Susie Meserve, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St?7pm?Oakland California?(make sure to park carefully and leave room on street). The essay I’ll be reading, called “A Little Crazy,” is forthcoming in an anthology by In Fact Books called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Overcoming Mental Illness.?
I would love to see you there, if you’re local!
Finally, mark your calendars! My friend Sandra Stringer and I will be teaching a three-hour?writing and movement workshop called “Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story” at Flying Studios in Oakland on Saturday, March 19, from 1:00-3:45 p.m. Cost: $75. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word. I’ll post again about it here, closer, of course.
At drop-off at my son?s elementary school in the morning, I look at the other mothers quizzically. My son?s school is racially and socioeconomically mixed, and some of the mothers look like teenagers. Then there are the older moms, the ones who gratefully and graciously eeked out an only child after forty. Some moms hold heavy corporate jobs and arrive in pert dresses and knee-high boots; they look like they?ve been up since five, getting dressed and coiffed for a board meeting. Their goodbyes are loving but swift. One mom in my son?s Kindergarten class wore stilettos every day, heavy eye makeup, and what looked like a flamenco skirt.
Writer mom with a monkey on her back
I imagine all these moms going off to whatever comes after drop-off: coffee with a friend, working from home, flamenco practice, taking care of a loved one or a younger child, a high-powered job or an underpaid, dead-end one. I imagine their ?afters? with awe and, if I can admit it, more than a little envy.
Because, me: I drop off in running tights and sneakers, go?sweat out a couple miles? power walk in the hills before I go home.
Some days, anyway. I teach at a local university, so my schedule is both forgiving and completely unforgiving. I can?t leave work early to attend a meeting at my son?s school if I?m in a class. I can?t take vacations outside of the existing school breaks. Two or three days a week I’m rushing off to class and my husband does?drop-off. But I don?t have an office to be in from 9-6 every day?I don?t even have an office at school?so there are a few hours a week when I begin my work day by popping into the studio next door to our apartment, opening up my laptop, and beginning to write. Landing this career lifestyle was no accident; I cultivated it, and I?m lucky for it. My work life allows me to pursue?three things: not just my job, not just my family, but also, my writing.
My?work life is great in so many ways. But it?gives me a?burden,?too: that I have to actually pursue that third thing, and, I hope, excel at it. And some days, faced with that reality,?I?become a complete ball of angst, tearing my hair out, agonizing over how much work I have to do, not knowing where to begin, and?becoming irrationally jealous of every other mother in the world who does not have this “third thing”?in her life.
I’m dead serious:?I fantasize, all the time, about being a mom who isn’t, also, a writer. I wonder what it would be like to just have a job. To, at the end of the day, feel the normal amount of parental stress and work stress but not the added stress of page quotas and deadlines and query letters. What would it be like to be a corporate executive? Sure, it would suck?but it would also be The Main Thing, and maybe I’d actually be with my kid?when?I’m?with my kid, instead of?worrying about plot lines, character development, or?whether?my?memoir will ever see the light of day. Maybe I wouldn’t worry when I’m cooking dinner for my family that I’m not building my platform, Tweeting something pithy and literary, or reading the latest short story or essay that, as a writer, I. Simply. Must. Be. Aware. Of. Because there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year, believe me.
While?writing all of this?and mulling over whether or not I sound like an overprivileged white woman who’s incredibly lucky to have the kind of life she does?I stumbled upon the essay “On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins, which you must read. No, really, you must. There’s too little space?to explain, here, all its many nuances, but suffice to say it?tells the story of Watkins being dismissed as a woman writer by a man writer?called?a mere “student” by someone who on paper looked like her equal, being hit on, and, when the overture was rebuked, somehow being asked again, as though “no” once was not enough. The incident felt so familiar to me: the (male) doctor who told me “don’t freak out” when I told him I had to make a phone call to my childcare provider; the (male) band leader who made me feel like the world’s biggest idiot when I messed up at a jazz open mic in my twenties; and the times I have?felt lesser as a woman writer, and as a mom to boot, as though there is something inherently frivolous about that existence. As Watkins asks, why do so many of us write for men, seek approval from men, not think we’re good enough as women writers, as mom writers?
And it got me thinking.?
Do I really wish to not be a writer??Or is it just that the pressure to be all things to all people?a great mom, a great teacher, AND a great writer (not to mention a great spouse, a good cook, a terrific singer, level-headed, perfect, tidy, and a sewer-of-inspired-Halloween-costumes, all, traditionally, the things we women do)?is just, sometimes, too much?
Or perhaps it’s that it feels like it’s not enough.?I don’t know, but I do know that when I read this bit in Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” about trying to write after she had a new baby, I felt myself go Ohhhhhh:
“I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I?ll read and what I?ll watch. I don?t want to write like a man anymore. I don?t want to be praised for being ?unflinching.? I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.
I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your ?telepathic heart”…is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it?s even possible.”
I can’t exactly say what I felt when I read this: grateful. Sad. Empowered. Angry. It was a good reminder that yes, writing?for?everyone?is?really fucking hard in the first place. Add to that a job, a kid, and a society that doesn’t always value you, and?you’ve got a recipe for?Not Always Feeling Like It.
I wonder if all moms?have some “third thing,” if I kid myself that being a writer mom is different from being any other kind of mom. I don’t know. I know we all have days when we just want to cast off the many required duties and Christmas shop, or watch a movie, or meet a friend for coffee, or take our kid out of daycare, or blow off the math homework, or get a cocktail at three in the afternoon.
Hi folks! It’s an exciting summer day over here at susiemeserve.com: my first ever guest blogger. I met Lynn Sollitto at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, where we bonded over memoir-writing (and Tweeting). Lynn’s been working on a book about adopting a baby girl?from foster care after serving as her drug-addicted biological mother’s birth coach?and then adopting the baby’s older sister a couple of years later. Lynn’s memoir, Born in My Heart, is about?her girls? adoption, their unique needs, her unusual relationship with their birth mother Ruth, and “the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.”
Below is a chapter from Lynn Sollitto’s work-in-progress, Born in My Heart.?I hope you enjoy!
Chapter Three: Accidentally in Love
Paige in the NICU a couple of hours after her birth
The first rays of sunshine crept under the closed curtains. I dug through my purse for loose change. Angrily, my stomach growled. ?Food?s on the way,? I reassured it. ?Stale, overpriced vending machine food?? My wallet was empty. Although there was an ATM on the first floor, I didn?t want Ruth to be alone when she woke up so I stayed in the room. I filled a paper cup multiple times with water and drank quickly. My stomach was somewhat placated.
Over the next couple of hours, Ruth?s contractions became closer together and more intense. I felt helpless that I didn?t know how to help her. I have been birth coached, but not the birth coach. Ruth wasn?t aware of anything other than her pain. The nurse said it was time to push. A two-person cheering squad, we encouraged Ruth. ?One more push,? the nurse encouraged her. ?C?mon Ruth, you can do it!? I exclaimed, holding her clammy hand. “I know it hurts but it?ll be over soon!? The situation was both hilarious and sad. I was witnessing an intense and personal experience with a woman I didn?t know.
I got a cool, wet washcloth and placed it gently on her forehead. I dabbed her sweaty forehead and pushed her hair away from her eyes. I winced when my finger caught in a tangle from her night of restless sleep. ?You?re strong. You can do this!? Of course, I knew no such thing. In agony she suddenly cried out, ?I want my husband, I want David!? At that moment, the full intensity and reality of her situation hit me: This woman was all alone. She was in physical and emotional pain and I could do nothing to help. Her future and the future of her children were uncertain. I felt gut-wrenching sadness for her situation: a complete stranger stood in her husband?s place.
My hands shook and my voice trembled. ?I know you do, Honey, I know…? I turned away and re-wet the washcloth, a guise to hide the tears welling up in my eyes. Ruth pushed for nearly four hours. Then she gave up. Although the nurse and I urged Ruth on, she stopped all effort. She looked defeated, her energy obviously spent.
The nurse gestured for me to follow her into the hallway. ?She isn?t pushing anymore. We?ll have to do a C-section if she doesn?t keep trying.? The nurse paused and her eyes probed mine. ?Is there anything else about Ruth?s pregnancy that I should know??? Her voice trailed off and implied there was. ?I don?t really know her.? The nurse?s face didn?t change as I briefly explained the situation. She nodded at me then turned resolutely back to the birthing room. Once again at Ruth?s side, she firmly said, ?Ruth, we need to know if you?ve done anything during your pregnancy. You need to be honest so we can help you and your baby! There might be something wrong…? Ruth took a deep breath. Quietly she told the nurse: ?I did meth once. When my husband went to prison and I was really upset.? Suddenly Ruth cried out, ?Is someone going to take my baby? I don?t want anyone to take my baby! Please don?t take my baby!? The nurse reassured Ruth no one would take her baby, then left the room.
I stared at Ruth?s pale, gaunt face. She no longer tried to hide her rotten teeth. She had small scabs and sores, a sign of chronic methamphetamine use. I thought, Once? You?re full of shit! When the nurse came back, she pulled me into the hallway again. ?They?re prepping the operating room for a C-section,? she told me. ?Will you be accompanying Ruth??
Lynn’s husband and son saying hello to the baby
Are you kidding??I thought, excited. Out loud, calm and reserved, I said, ?Yes.? My interest in medicine, rather than my birth coach duties, prompted the decision to go with Ruth. ?I sure hope she turns her life around so she can keep her baby,? the nurse said, then she walked into the room to prep Ruth for transfer. I walked next to Ruth?s hospital bed as we entered the elevator and rode down to the operating room. It was as absurd as a scene from ER or General Hospital. Ruth was wheeled into the OR and I stayed behind in the hallway. The nurse told me to put on a gown and wait until I was called in.
My stomach grumbled; I was surprised to see it was 1 o?clock in the afternoon. Twenty minutes later I was called into the OR. Machines bleeped at consistent intervals. Nurses and doctors milled around in scrubs and surgical masks. A tall surgical curtain just below Ruth?s chest separated the doctors and nurses from her upper body. To the left stood a few nurses next to an incubator, ready to take Ruth?s baby. To my immediate right lay Ruth. An anesthesia nurse stood by her head. He was dressed in surgical scrubs but didn?t wear a mask. Things were surreal; I was an actress in a movie so preposterous it should have been fiction.
I tentatively approached Ruth, touched her arm and spoke. ?Hi Ruth, I?m here. How are you?? She turned her head towards me, eyes unfocused. ?It hurts,? she moaned, breathless. She turned her head to the anesthesia nurse and asked for more painkillers. I fidgeted, awkward and clueless. Should I massage her arm or gently stroke her hair? Should I distract her with jokes or reassure her as the doctor did me when I was in labor? Should I keep my hands to myself and merely stand next to her silently? ?Let me know if you need anything, Ruth,? I finally said. She didn?t respond. The doctors and nurses swiftly performed their job. They explained the procedure as they went. ?We?re going to make the incision. Can you feel anything Ruth?? Ruth muttered that she couldn?t feel any pain. I heard things on the other side of the sheet. I stood on my tiptoes and watched as best I could. Their arms moved around and performed what was routine to them but no less than amazing to me.
?Ruth, we?re going to deliver your baby now,? said the surgeon. I peered earnestly over the surgical drape, obsessed with seeing as much as possible. I forgot my role to assist and support Ruth. Instead, I witnessed the baby?s birth. She was a healthy-appearing, flushed infant covered in afterbirth, with a patch of hair plastered to her head. The doctor announced quite unnecessarily, ?It?s a girl,? and handed the infant to a nurse. I suddenly remembered Ruth, the whole reason I witnessed this miracle. I turned back to Ruth. Was she aware of giving birth in her narcotic-induced haze? She seemed focused on her discomfort and the next painkiller push. I smiled at her pallid face and squeezed her hand. ?You have another daughter, Ruth!?
Through a fog not induced by drugs, I heard someone ask if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord. I froze, dumbfounded. That?s not my job, that?s the father?s job!
Awestruck and surprisingly steady, I asked, ?Do you want me to cut the cord?
Her eyes met mine. She nodded and whispered, ?Yes.?
An understanding passed between us, and an unbreakable connection was made.
I approached the nurse, who waited patiently. I?d never cut an umbilical cord before. I?d never seen one still connected to the infant. I expected it to be brown and firm, a dried up stump like Eli had. To my surprise, it had a greenish hue, and was thick and twisted. As I cut through with the sterile scissors, I discovered it was soft and rubbery. I cut the cord and thoughts of disbelief raced through my head. I cannot believe I?m doing this? Afterwards, the doctors stitched up Ruth. ?It hurts,? she moaned. She got another dose of painkillers.
?Do you want to hold the baby?? A nurse stood to my left, holding the pink bundle of joy. My eyes widened and my hands shook. David should be the first to hold her, not me. ?Ruth?? I whispered. She conceded with a nod. I took the wrapped bundle in my arms, amazed that I had witnessed her birth. I turned to Ruth and proudly showed her her daughter, as though I was the father. ?Look Ruth, it?s your daughter. She?s beautiful!? I gently lowered the baby so Ruth could see her. Ruth looked at her briefly and then closed her eyes. When she didn?t open them again after a few seconds, I straightened up. The PA system played a faint lullaby of bells, symbolizing the newborn?s arrival. I gazed down at this perfect little package, enamored. She sucked on the edge of her tightly wrapped blanket. It reminded me of our kitten, Boogie, who did the same thing.
Then, without warning, I thought, You?d fit in good with us.
I jerked my head up, paranoid someone had heard what I was thinking. Where the hell did that come from?
You can follow Lynn on Twitter @LynnSollitto and check out her Facebook page here.
After I wrote my last post, about not wasting my life, it seemed like everything I read?like?this blog post?and?this blog post?reflected the state I was in. And then I discovered a terrific book by a local writer named Katrina Alcorn that REALLY spoke to me. It’s called Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink and I can’t recall a time I have been so simultaneously wrapped up in a narrative (I could not put it down) and validated by what I was reading. Alcorn describes the several-year span when she and her husband attempted to work demanding, full-time jobs (the kind with conference calls at all hours, off-the-hook?clients, and heavy travel) and parent three kids. In the course of running this rat race, Alcorn stops seeing her friends, stops exercising, fights with her husband, gets very little sleep, and seems to always be getting sick?but she works through it anyway. And then the crippling panic attacks start. Talk about wasting your life.
Maxed Out, in the midst of the kitchen clutter.
Despite the fact that I have only a moderately-demanding job, and only one kid, I nonetheless saw so much of myself in Katrina Alcorn. I of course connected with the?anxiety, but also with the sensation of always wanting to meet?some demand that just can’t be met: a cleaner house, a better book proposal, a smoother commute, less stressful mornings, a faster track to career success. In fact, as I was reading, I could see nearly every one of my mom friends in Katrina Alcorn (even the stay-at-home ones, because, let’s face it, running after your kids all day is a different kind of rat race). And what’s more, I could see my dad friends, too, and my friends who don’t have kids. The book, which couples a memoir-style-narrative with short essays about the realities of being a working mom in American society, ends up being a call to action not just for working moms to have more freedoms and time off, but for all Americans to work more reasonable and flexible schedules.?I recommended the book to about ten people in two days?one of them a friend without kids, one my incredibly hardworking cousin who’s single, and one my own husband.
And now, I recommend it to you. Walk, don’t run, to your nearest library or independent bookstore and pick up Maxed Out.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out Alcorn’s blog here.