Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.
Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.
I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.
When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.
We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.
My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.
We need the work and the work needs us.
I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.
I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?
My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.
A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.
On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).
Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.
As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?
The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.
It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.
As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.
It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.
I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.
Sometimes being part of the pack means doing your share of the work.
With a head full of the fog of disrupted and insufficient sleep, I listen gratefully to the peaceful snoring of two dogs. I have two dogs again. In truth, I hadn’t been contemplating getting another dog for very long. Until recently, I’d still been discovering the new rhythm to the days after my son moved home from college. My son and I get along quite well, but when it was time for him to move into the dorm in the fall, he was ready for the next part, as was I. I admit that single parenting since the kids were eleven and thirteen had in many ways exhausted me. It was a beautiful, joyful, painful, bittersweet collection of years, and the three of us grew in strange and fascinating directions during that time. It felt as though we were always finding our footing, but we kept finding a way to make it work. Still, when my son left for college, as trepidatious as I was, for him and for me, I was looking forward to it.
He moved home before Thanksgiving, as the university was announcing that next semester would be exclusively remote for most students. What was supposed to be several weeks home for the end of the term and winter break began to unfold differently. It was now the beginning of something longer: the end of term, and then the break, and then the next semester, and then summer. We tried once more to find our footing, unsure of what the balance between independence and family time should look like, now. Other things were happening, too. My eleven-and-a-half-year-old dog, Phin, had begun to visibly pine for the companionship of the husky that lives behind us. As I worked in the yard, Phin would position himself by the fence and stare at Apollo’s back door, waiting for the moment when the dog would bound toward the fence and play chase along the fence line. And at the same time, a friend was fostering a pregnant dog who had just given birth to a litter of eight. Daily, my boyfriend and I watched the progress of the puppies on Facebook. We began to consider the reality of what it might be like to adopt one. We pondered the logistics. And when I contemplated one obstacle or another, I thought of Phin, staring through the fence at the neighbor’s backdoor, waiting for the companionship of one of his own. Isn’t that what we all crave? I kept thinking, we’ll figure it out. We’ll just figure it all out.
Zero is the puppy we adopted. Phin was overjoyed when we brought him home, though the excitement has been tempered by reality. We knew it was going to be a lot of work; Phin did not. The work has begun in earnest. For now, the focus is on potty training and redirecting the natural puppy inclination to chew on everything that moves and everything that doesn’t. Phin is playful and patient, and sometimes, too tired to be either of those things, but the relationship shows every indication of being the type of canine friendship I’ve long wanted for Phin, and the kind that Zero clearly wants too, particularly in the absence of his seven siblings.
Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about companionship, and the work it entails. About the relationship I’m cultivating with my boyfriend. About the ever-changing relationships I have with my children, each tended differently, but earnestly. I think of the friendships I try to maintain, and those that have been difficult to keep up with. Like Phin, most of us seek the companionship of our own kind. In my boyfriend, I see a sensitive, artistic, empathetic thinker, a fellow introvert who often looks at the world the same way I do. We are not like-minded in everything, but to me, it seems as if his heart and brain are filled with as many curious twists and turns as mine. From the time I met him, I sensed he was one of my kind. Being near him, I feel both at ease and exhilarated. I lean in, like one big dog greeting another.
This post has been written in fits and starts. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve let the puppy outside, or redirected his chewing. Yet, it is my job to teach him. It is my responsibility to help him grow into his friendship with Phin, to help him become a good companion for our whole family. Growth and learning are funny things, at once organic and structured. A balance must be struck between intentional guidance and wild abandon. I think of my own growth and learning in a similar way, characterized by focused attention on the things I struggle with and the permission to be unabashedly joyful. Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried to monitor my own ups and downs, my growth and my continued struggles. I don’t imagine I’m always the best companion for the people around me. None of us can be at our best all the time, and it has been a bizarre and challenging year. However, working with Zero is reminding me that I am responsible for continuing to learn how be the person I want to be. When my anxiety spikes, regardless of the nothing or something that triggers it, I witness myself as if from a distance, reactive and fearful. Anxiety is a specter that has haunted me for many years, and sometimes I tire of the work it takes to feel in control of it. It nips at me sharply and persistently, and leaves me feeling harried and hounded. It hampers the way I handle stress and conflict; I become defensive and prickly, though what I want is to be open and sensitive, confidently able to do the work of working through things that come up.
We all have our own work to do, and this is mine, this taming. We keep finding our footing, we keep figuring it out, and we keep supporting our pack in the process.
Sometimes magic finds us; sometimes we have to go looking for it to get through the day.
Part 1. In Which Magic Infiltrates the Everyday
I find myself thinking about magic lately. I think about peeking in wardrobes, and the half-expectation of seeing a snowy landscape and a lamppost on the other side. To be clear, I’m not talking about actually expecting to walk into another world – Narnia, or anywhere else. I’m talking about a spark of feeling that is at once wonder, hope, joy, and something else I’m not sure I’ve been able to pinpoint.
Sometimes, life is all alarm clock and schedule and commute and cubicle. But one recent morning I walked my dog at dawn. The sky blushed, nudging away grey remnants of night, and the chill in the air had no pinch in it. My almost-eleven-year-old-galoot trotted and pulled in his undignified way, lurching toward the joy of the day, of scents and fresh air and movement and company. Rounding a corner as we headed downtown, I saw that the little city tree branches had already been strewn with holiday lights. The glow of the bulbs, set against the peaches and pinks of the dawn, that companionable contrast, made me grin out loud; there was more magic in that moment than I had expected from a Tuesday pre-work walk. Maybe the magic was in how long it stayed with me.
And for the rest of the day, my wandering thoughts strayed Narnian. I thought of all the other things that work their magic on us day by day, though it can be easy not to notice.
I want to notice, and I want to remember the noticing.
I get a little lift when squeezing dish soap into the sink and a stray bubble floats toward the ceiling. It reminds me of my sweet brown dog who died before he should have had to, and how delighted bubbles seemed to make him. He always stayed with me in the kitchen when I did the dishes. And something about that dish soap bubble does more than make me think of him. In that moment the melancholic pull of missing him evaporates, and in its place is that moment of inexplicable delight and peace and . . . something else.
[I think, too, of the way my heart lurches when a certain text tone chimes, pulling all of me along with it, toward joy, as if my heart is the dog on the walk and the rest of me is leash.]
We move through our day, through ordinary moments, walking the dog, doing the dishes, sending and receiving texts. If we are observant, we might find ways to layer joy onto the bones of the moments in our days.
I look at this as some sort of everyday magic. I think that it is in fact miraculous that there is an emotion that lives near joy, hope, wonder, peace, love, delight, all these things, that I cannot name. What a gift that is, especially when you look at the spectrum of nameable emotions, and how familiar we are with the names of all of them, even and maybe especially the less pleasant ones.
Part 2. In Which the Magic is Too Easily Overcome
A couple of mornings ago, I went for a run for the first time in a while. I’ve been avoiding the cold. I used to like running in the cold. I reminded myself of that. I reminded myself that it wasn’t snowy or icy, and that the temperature, though below freezing, was above 0. It was 20 degrees out. Throughout the run, I thought of being done with the run. I thought about how I should have warmed up, and how I was forcing my muscles to do what I often force my brain to do – figure things out as I go. I didn’t have time for a warm-up. Finding my cold weather layers, that was pretty much my warm-up. I thought about metaphors and I thought about my knee and about little crystalline ice formations in my lungs.
I tried to pretend to be some kind of bad-ass when I got home, because I ran a couple of miles in the cold. The dog was not impressed. I tried to hold on to the post-run lift, to hold on to all the things that made me smile throughout the week. I was marginally successfully. But it got to be too much work when costly car troubles and other normal life stresses combined with holiday stresses began to pile up.
Stress and worry seem to weigh so much more when gathered up than all the moments of peace and happy and magic I’ve been storing up weigh. Or, I notice them more than when the stresses dribble in one at a time. But then life happens and the stresses pool together. They somehow increase in density and seep heavily into everything, groaning in a deep bass tone at the base of my skull that their totality is greater than the sum of their parts.
Part 3. In Which Overthinking Leads to Perspective and Turns Out to be Just the Right Amount of Thinking
It is easy to sink, hard to pull myself back into equilibrium. I have to be on both sides of the leash to lurch myself back into what feels like a more natural state sometimes.
Does it sound selfish, this gluttonous desire for joy and love and peace and peace of mind and hope? Why can’t we though, why can’t we want that, why can’t we throw the weight of our selves and seeking behind such pursuits?
I think how upside down the world is, of how much time we spend fighting for the things we care about and how little is left for the caring. Sometimes I feel the panicked pull of it all and I just want reprieve, and when I find it, it is in the presence of the people I care about and I’m reminded that the reprieve is actually the world, and everything else is the noise and clutter. The reprieve is the place where we can’t be hurt and fatigued and wearied by everything outside the door. And sometimes we find it in the quiet place within us, in solitude, though like anything, there can be too much of that.
I wish I could un-upside-down the world, and make the reprieve take up slightly more time than the clutter, noise, work and worry. I’m not good at rationing, though and who knows what balance looks like. I’m trying to be better about savoring, enjoying to the fullest all the moments of reprieve that I can collect throughout a day, a week. I try to not be resentful that the pile of bills or the cubicle or repairs to home and car whittle away at it all, thin it out in the middle.
It takes work, sometimes, keeping ourselves living in the mindset we want to maintain. I like my goofy optimism, I like try-your-best, look-for-magic thinking. I get resentful of the way life eats at that. I think we all do. It’s hard to not take it personally sometimes.
I think that all the art I’ve ever loved in some way captures the joy that exists within a world designed to see it fail, joy like the proverbial canary, like a doorway at the back of a wardrobe that only sometimes opens to a fantastic place, and you can’t always find it anyway. And I suppose that’s why we seek art, because it makes us feel understood, whether it be a painting, film, image, song, or collection of words. Maybe it’s just the art we compose every day, in the way we frame the world the way we want it to be, seeing the way a tree-lit night ebbs into an apricot-colored dawn.
We make art, we make joy, we make love, we make reprieve, we make magic. Because we have to.
It’s cold. I want to write something beautiful. I want to sleep better, more. I’ve started and stopped and started this post over and over. I find the ideas of sleep and dreams floating to the surface. But at the same time, my thoughts are scattered, a little murky. I think of the pond in the nature area where my kids and I sometimes walked, and the lily pads, and the weeds, and the rocks where the turtles sun, and how much my thoughts feel like that sometimes, all a part of an ecosystem, but appearing at any given moment to be quite disparate. Over there floats a blog post about earnestness, there’s one about sleeplessness, and still another about the things we imagine about our future selves. Sometimes it all comes together into a cohesive thread, as I write about it, and I can finally see the themes that have woven themselves into my consciousness for the past days. Other times, things will not coalesce.
Currently, continuity feels elusive, and I wonder if that’s the point of things right now. That sometimes it doesn’t all fit together, and we can’t find the meaning. This week hasn’t been the first time my son has chided me about my desire to figure out the meaning or lesson in something. Like anyone, he has a collection of anxieties he carries with him, but he also possesses a calm, almost Taoist sort of perspective, that things just are. [I should note here too that my understanding of Taoism derives largely from Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.] It’s a view that makes my little mental quests seem frantic and unnecessary sometimes. But, if things just are, then, too, this is just the way I am, so sometimes I have to accept the fact that my desire for synthesis and understanding will sometimes reward, and may just as often thwart and frustrate.
We get stuck in loops sometimes. In various ways, we are taught to look for patterns, in our lives, in our work, in art, music, architecture, politics. Everywhere repeated motifs call out to be recognized. We swoop, circling understanding. I don’t think this effort is without value. We emphasize lessons to and for ourselves. We find new ways to look at the same things we’ve studied for years, how to love, how to grow, how to be brave, how to be vulnerable. We study what things are worth.
At the same time, we can only pay attention to so many things at a time. What’s in our peripheral vision, and what do we fail to notice? I think sometimes of the way we laugh when we see a dog chasing his tail, but I maybe it’s not so funny for him. We catch glimpses of a threat out of the corner of our eye. There’s not much to do once it’s caught. It’s untenable to keep holding on – it is, after all, our own tail – but letting go feels dangerous, because, what if it isn’t? What if it’s something bigger than us? And so we are caught, circling. We are dizzied, we exhaust ourselves, we hold on unreasonably to things that keep us spinning instead of letting go and letting ourselves move differently, forward, playfully, peacefully.
I think of how many times I have written on the same themes, trying to see them from new perspectives. We don’t always know why things feel important to us; or, we don’t know if they should feel as important to us as they do; we don’t know if we should fight impulses, or explore them. Yet, things are as they are; you are, I am. You have your themes, I have mine. Maybe it’s best to not question our themes too much, maybe we should simply acknowledge them as part of us. Does the dog let go once he realizes it’s his own tail? Even so, it’s still his tail. The perceived threat may dissipate, but the thing itself is still a part of him.
This is all to say, fine, then. Let me expend mental energy thinking about time and identity and transitions. Let me think about what it means to be a mother, and ponder “home” as an emotional construct. These are the themes of the hour, or year, of my mind right now. They are not chasing me, demanding my attention; they are part of me, and as such, they simply will infuse what I think, feel, do, and write. I wonder, if the act of such acceptance is what opens the space for new ideas. Once the dog is not so focused on the threat or wonder posed by his tail, is he able to take part in a new activity? Run to a loved one, find a sunny place to nap, discover a treat in his food dish? Who doesn’t love love and sun and naps and treats?
Some things are part of us, whether or not we want them to be, and they remain so whether or not we focus our attention on them. Maybe, sometimes, at the very least, it is okay to take a break from them for a little while. To notice what/who is there in our peripheral vision.
This is not beautiful, not this metaphor, not this idea, not this prose. But some things just are and maybe it is for someone else to apply descriptors. Maybe nothing bad will happen if we stop for a moment, stop trying to figure it all out, though this can seem like an alarming concept, particularly if life has given us the message that unless we pay attention, bad things will happen. So we chase our tails, worried about the proximity of threat, unable to distinguish self from trouble. When the whirl and whine of it become too much and we collapse, exhausted, it is often only to sleep, then to take up the chase again the next day, without pause, without fail, but often full of failure, failure to think other thoughts, to break out of patterns that keep us focused and working hard, but often to no end.
Sometimes it takes only a gentle nudge from someone nearby, a simple, “hey,” to point us in a new direction, to help us, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, to “draw a new circle.” Sometimes it takes sheer force of will. Sometimes the work we do is unclenching our jaw, letting go, and simply noticing.
Sometimes we feel fragmented, abstract; we are connected.
I keep unfolding this origami shape, trying to make a kite.
What’s the right way to look at the work we do? Does anyone notice the difference between folding and flight?
We are told to do the work, and we want to, and it comes as easily to us as flight does to a thousand paper cranes.
It is easy to believe we are doing it wrong. It is easy to believe that there is a dull ache, there are sore muscles, even when we are doing it right.
And everything is right.
Everything is all right.
I’m not not spelling it out in order to obfuscate; I wouldn’t do that to either of us. I’m not spelling it out because the test is wrong, and I know the answers, but not to these questions. We know everything, and we have never known any single thing.
I know this: I draw hearts in Douglas fir sawdust with my fingertip, believing always in yes, now, this.
We whisper wishes into night, day, storm, sun. We whisper gusts. We keep the kites aloft.
Some days I don’t know where to begin. I think of how hard our psyche rushes in the background, trying to escape remembered danger or pain that isn’t anything now, isn’t more than paper in a puddle, but we wake up exhausted anyway.
Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the way we work is in a straight line, as if we don’t loop back around again, as if we won’t need to. And I think of the way a kite stays up, and the way when I was little, I ran in circles trying to catch the wind in the muddy field with my father. My feet in boots navigating slippery clumps of soil, heavy grey clouds churning above his head as he ran for the string that slipped through my fingers.
And I think of catching and holding, and running, and waiting for the wind, and fighting it, and those few moments in between when it’s all just grace and flight and lift and it feels like it’s no work at all.
Let’s give each other the space and grace to navigate, to slip sometimes, to falter. I’ll give chase for you.
Sometimes work is a four-letter word, the way we put ourselves back together every day, for ourselves, for each other. Do we privilege one audience over another, and why do we feel maligned for doing either, or both?
I’ve been gripped for the past several days by a certain melancholy I can’t quite source. Touching base with a number of people in my life, I hear they also feel marked in this way. I think about the things that we sense collectively, the cold heaviness of a loud, mean world. I think of the way it makes us feel separate, though we are feeling the same thing, each in our own way.
I think of this: sometimes the kite string doesn’t simply slip from our grasp because the wind was strong or because we slid in the mud. Admit it. Sometimes we let it go. Sometimes we woke up exhausted. And I think, I’ll chase that for you today. Will you help me start again, tomorrow? I think of the way I was given paper. The way I watched you transform a thousand origami cranes into kite, the way I managed to let the wind take mine again, though getting into the air in that day was a feat, and you said so.
Sometimes I try and take the view of the kite, and look down on the field, on all the endeavoring, and I’m struck by the earnestness of it all, by the web of string, the kaleidoscopic pattern of arms outstretched, by the chasing we are willing to do, for ourselves, for one another, even though you can only see it from this vantage point.
This is the blog post I keep running away from. The reason? I can’t find perspective. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it, what insights to draw from it, because, to be candid, my writing life is filled with frequent rejections and persistent failure. My relationship with my writing is messy in a way that I learn to live with every day but don’t fully comprehend.
I have written since I was about ten, when I began composing angsty tween poems, before being a “tween” was a thing. You were just ten, or eleven, or twelve. Then you were a teenager.
I often say that I love writing, which is true, but as with most loves, there exists a complex array of emotions for which the word is merely a cipher. The things we truly love cannot be separated from who we are.
Trying to Avoid the Pull of the Road
This identity-centric love happens to be a thing that many people have been able to monetize. Many people have found channels with which to share their work with others. It becomes expected that if you write, you do something with it. When I began my freshman year at U of M, I was interested in genetics. After I took my first science class though, and received the first C I’d ever gotten in my life, I wondered if maybe there were other career paths more suited to my strengths. I didn’t know what those were, however. I knew I liked to read, and I liked to write, but the whole point of college was to prepare myself for an actual job and I knew I didn’t want to teach. I’m sure if I’d had a little more confidence in myself I could have successfully pursued the career in genetic counseling I thought I wanted. Later, I would get a C in a poetry class and it didn’t slow me down one bit. In the end though, I sat with an advisor in a little room in Angell Hall. It was time to declare a major. He did the best he could with one more unfocused liberal arts student and told me I should do what I loved, because that was the most important thing, and things would fall into place. I’m still not sure if this advice was sound, but the idea was reinforced throughout the years after I graduated. I feel like for a decade or so the message many Gen Xers received, a message amplified by talk show hosts and self-help books, was do what you love.
Embracing the Longest Road Trip Ever
I declared as an English major that day. Still, I was afraid to take a creative writing class. I focused on literature, and I loved writing about it. A friend pointed me to a creative nonfiction class my senior year, and I was so engaged by it, I began seeking out the professor at her office hours to talk about writing. She encouraged me to write a story and submit it for the Hopwood award, a prestigious writing award at the University of Michigan. I did write. I did submit. I did not win. But the act of writing that story was a beginning for me. Something in me unlocked.
After graduation, I landed a job as an assistant editor with a reference publishing company, hoping for two things: one, that the job would allow me time to keep writing, and two, that maybe it could lead to some publishing connections.
In a way, though it would take many years, it did both. I was only able to finish a novel after I left the company. I began freelancing, and with the power to structure my schedule differently, I was finally able to focus the way I wanted to. I wrote a novel and sent out dozens of query letters. The rejections piled up and the message I internalized was that the work simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps all I needed to do was send out hundreds instead of dozens of letters. Perhaps I needed to get better. Later, still freelancing, and now raising two children, I tried again with another novel, and sent out query after query. The company I freelanced for had purchased a fiction imprint, and I was able to acquire the name of an actual person at the imprint to whom I could submit my query. Amazing Disgrace came out in 2006. The print run was small, but my foot was now in the door. I’d even contacted my former professor, who was still teaching. She came to one of my book signings and invited me to her class to speak. I couldn’t believe it; I finally had some momentum.
That momentum slowed and dissipated, a little ripple dying in the wet sand at the water’s edge. I wrote another novel. I revised that third novel over and over again and kept sending it out. Eventually I put it aside and focused on my freelance work, which now involved a lot of writing. Writing about literature. I was good at it, and I had a lot of jobs coming in. But, the work started to dwindle. At the same time, my marriage began to unravel. In the middle of it all, I applied to some MFA programs, thinking that maybe the reason I wasn’t getting published was because I needed to learn how to write better. It was a victory to be accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts creative writing MFA program. I felt like I belonged. I even did a post-grad semester so I could continue to work on my next novel.
When Things Don’t Add Up
All of the writing, the submitting, the rejections—each act is a lesson in vulnerability, in open heartedness, in loving the work rather than the reward. It would be a lie to say that the rejections don’t break my heart. They do. I imagine myself as a starfish, able to regenerate the necessary body parts to keep functioning. For the starfish, limbs; for me, my heart.
Here I am now, two years post-MFA. I’m working full-time again at the same reference publishing company, squeezing in my writing time in the hours before or after work. In a way, I’m back to where I started. Currently, I have two short stories I’m submitting at various literary journals. They are getting rejected. But many of the rejection letters are detailed, positive notes that praise the work. I feel like I’m close, that soon maybe I’ll find the right person at the right time at the right journal. I also have several queries out for what is technically my fourth novel, and I’ve begun work on a new short story.
I wonder every day if the work is good enough, and if I’m trying hard enough. I’ve failed a lot and have seen so few successes. I lose sleep so I can write. I’ll be paying back student loans for the MFA for a long, long time. I have asked myself if it is worth it and all I know is that it doesn’t seem to matter. Converting the experience into tangible value in order to deem it a sound investment is like saying 2 + circle = purple. It doesn’t add up. I seem to be on a road that meanders in no discernable direction, and I’ve paid to be on it. So where do I go from here? Maybe onward is the only answer.