I’ve been saying yes more. Releasing my protective posture. Opening up. And, suddenly, everything is changing.
Running, like writing, is essential to my well-being. I’ve been back at 4.5 miles a day for the past year and it feels so good. It clears my head, makes me feel strong.
On Tuesday a writer friend and I were looking at each other’s work, just some fragments from a prompt. The conversation drifted to the challenge of finding enough time to write…those slivers of free minutes among parenting, work, job search, school, and all the big and little demands that comprise a life. How is our energy best spent? Am I stealing time from my child, my spouse? Doubt edges in. Is writing even worth it?
The short answer is yes. HELL, YES. We picked up this conversation again in an email. I talked about the publishing industry and then music…and how it’s worth carving out your place, whatever your artistic medium. Writing, artistic pursuit, is about process and discovery and connection. But here’s the thing – even apart from all that, writing is just something I have do. It’s something I’ve never been able to stop doing. It is essential to my life. Writing and connecting with other writers, talking about process and craft, talking about art and life, it lights me up. It’s who I am.
If you are some kind of writer, if you are some kind of artist, mostly what you’re doing is, you’re bricklaying. You’re taking a brick and you’re putting it place. And you’re taking another brick, and you’re putting it in place. No one’s going to do it for you. Elves will not come in the night. So if you do not put down all of these bricks, the wall will never get built. And if the wall is never built, the rest of the structure will never get built. It won’t exist. So you pick up another brick. And you put it down. Then you pick up another brick. And you put it down. And that’s how you build the temple of art.
This daily practice feels exactly like that – bricklaying. Every day, I pick up another brick. And I put it down. Ten days of bricklaying and I’ve already connected with other writers, had dozens of meaningful exchanges and conversations, and I’ve gotten more writing done in these last ten days than in the last six months. So, I will keep on. I will pick up another brick, and I will put it in place.
I love a roaring fire. Bonfires on the beach, campfires, and right now, a fire in our old fieldstone fireplace. The way it dances. The way it talks. Crackle, hiss. The way it mesmerizes and lulls. A book by the fire, heaven.
It’s one of those mornings. I wake up worried, a whirlpool of panic threatening to suck me in. I’ve been up since 3am with a coughing baby who soaked through her diaper. There’s a lot of crying, coughing, nursing, holding, rocking. I’m afraid it’s croup, but I know it’s not croup; it doesn’t have the bark. Eventually she settles on my chest like a newborn, though she is far (and not so far) from newborn. Her legs stretch down the length of my thigh and her toes rest at my knees now. Her head is tucked under my chin and I’m breathing her wispy hair. We doze for a bit and then she’s up at 5:30am.
Coffee. Dishes. The panic makes me edgy and grumpy. I try to push it down, not let it creep up into my voice. Switch out laundry. Scoop cat litter (my favorite). I go through the morning routine. I keep moving. My fear is mostly around not knowing what’s next. I text my sister who texts me back with assurances and a virtual slap for focusing on my regrets instead of my accomplishments.
A text from a friend jolted me out of my anxiety and back into the present. Then I happened upon Jennifer Berney’s beautiful essay On Infertility and Magical Thinking, which talks about the struggle to get pregnant, all the magical thinking that takes hold, and the truth of how you feel when you reach the other side.
The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.
My second blog post was about being a magical thinker, but I also believe in that last sentence of Berney’s: We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all. It is only by chance you reach the other side of that solitary struggle with a baby in your arms. Though were you to ask my mother, she would tell you that she prayed my daughter into existence, and I believe that too.
There have been few times in my life I’ve known exactly what I wanted. But I knew with absolute certainty that I wanted a baby. A single-minded, desperate yearning. I wished on eyelashes and birthday candles and dandelions. I saw acupuncturists and herbalists and endocrinologists. I meditated on lunch breaks in my car. I went to a shrine in New Jersey to pray at the feet of a statue. We nailed a wishbone above the bedroom door. For months we looked at ultrasounds of my ovaries, squinted at vague underwater black and whites. The tests drained all the insurance money and told us nothing. Unexplained infertility. Like the universe shrugging its shoulders at us.
For two and a half years we tried. Eventually I took the last of the insurance money to a different doctor. They began by repeating the same blood work, which had all been fine just a few months before. Chris was playing hockey at night back then. There was a Russian team who liked to get rough, and Chris took a puck to the mouth and face-planted the ice. He didn’t even call me until after he’d been to the ER to get stitched up. His eye was purple and swollen shut. He had a giant lump on his forehead and four stitches in his lip. That week my blood work came back, and according to the numbers, my ovarian reserve was gone. Poof, just like that, no more eggs. Even if we could afford IVF (which we couldn’t), it probably wouldn’t be successful. (There is a metaphor in here, both of us beat up, done in.) Then came Mother’s Day. My period was late, as it often was. I didn’t dare take a test – the irony would be too ridiculous. I was dreaming again, those whispers of hope floating like ash. So I waited two days. Two days after Mother’s Day, a positive pregnancy test. Poof, just like that, I was having a baby.
This story is lost from my day-to-day. A baby will make swift work of wiping out your former life. You are rooted in the ever-changing present and jolted forward by the rapid motion of their growth – and yours. Time stands still during sleepless nights and evaporates everywhere else. You try and catch it – it can’t possibly be moving this fast. Sometimes you are so tired, so touched-out. Impatient, delirious, frustrated, worried. Other times, joyful to the marrow of your bones, happiness coursing through blood vessels, rapture thrumming in your organs. It undulates. It ripples. It surges and swells. And you swim, a novice and a natural born swimmer both at once.
Worry clouds memory, makes me forget precisely how lucky I am. My angel girl, my heavenly creature. Here we are together! Gratitude suspends worry. We go to the playground and run through snow and slide down slides together. I push her as long as she wants on the swing. I sit in the passenger seat of the car and nurse her into pure contentment before we go. I hold her while she naps, staring at those long eyelashes and rosebud lips, perfect face. I have the life I dreamed of. My wish come true. My prayer answered. I shouldn’t worry so much.
*This post was edited on January 28, 2016.
Yesterday I used all my sporadic spare minutes to write, longhand in the last pages of my beat up green notebook. A Lidia Yuknavitch writing prompt. She’s generous enough to put a few prompts in the videos on her YouTube channel. I haven’t written from a prompt in years and years. Lidia’s are so different – they crack you open.
There are so many things I want to write about in this space that flew through my mind yesterday: the crushing weight and the letting go of perfection (those self and/or societal and/or familial-constructed ideals, which are really just myths), longterm/extended breastfeeding – or as I call it, breastfeeding, feeling like a counter-cultural freak sometimes (a lot of times), the happiness of having a local writer friend, the gift and privilege and sacrifice of being home with my daughter, never finding my footing in the corporate world, fear of not knowing what comes next, the way my thinking becomes blocked – until it finally occurs to me that summer will come again, green and warm and happy.
I put off yesterday’s post until 8pm, and after filling those notebook pages, I had nothing left in me but two sentences.
The more I write, the more I surprise myself. There’s what we think we want to write, and then there’s what actually spills out onto the page.
Whatever I’m feeling, it’s written all over my body, all over my face. There is just no hiding it.
Two carrot cakes are cooling on racks in the kitchen and the house smells like love. It’s always an early start around here. The moon was big and bright through the trees in our backyard, the snow still perfectly untouched.
In the midst of shredding the carrots and finding room for my big cookbook on the counter, Chris is making eggs and toast and the cats are asking for breakfast. Isabella pushes the stool over and climbs up to reach the Cuisinart and presses the “on” button for the first time with her strong, tiny two-year-old finger. She jumps, startled, and then a big smile blooms on her face, so delighted with the spinning eggs and sugar she set in motion all on her own. I don’t want to forget that moment.
During the cake making and breakfast cooking, the carrots remind me to grab the chicken bones from last night’s roast and get a stock going. While the eggs and sugar spin, I toss celery and onion into the stock pot, and then wash the breakfast pan. Efficient, fluid multi-tasking in the kitchen, that’s my thing.
Later we’ll go to a family gathering at my mom and stepdad’s to celebrate their birthdays. And I’ll bring the cake, my favorite way to say I love you.
It’s finally here, the first real snow, a blizzard with big wind gusts and swirling flakes. Drifts on the front porch. The mute grey sky. Cats curled up. Baby napping. Chris clapping out wood and re-stacking the pile. I got the fire going again. Crackle, hiss.
I love the peacefulness of snow, the way it makes everything quiet. No cars, no sounds. That tucked-in, hunkered-down feeling. It throws a blanket over everything, even the chatter of anxiety, my frequent companion.
That’s something I’ve realized about this daily practice. Just four days in, and it’s already redirecting my thoughts. It forces focus. It quiets the swirl of rumination. It brings peacefulness too.
My daughter was born during a cold and snowy winter. We lived by the water in a second-floor apartment, and I can still hear the scraping rhythm of her dad shoveling the long driveway while we looked down from our warm perch. Spring came like it always does, as an affront and a relief, crocuses and mud and stark sunshine. Every day I bundled her up and walked the two mile loop over cracked sidewalks that gave way to beautiful homes and smoother sidewalks and onto the boardwalk along Long Island Sound.
The geese and ducks return first. Then osprey swoop and dive, chased by groups of little birds trying to protect their nests. As the air warms, cormorants arrive and perform their hide-and-seek magic, diving deep and popping up again twenty feet away. Summer isn’t promised until the egrets appear in the estuary, long white elegance rising from the mud. Last come the regal great blue herons.
The birds’ arrival mean babies are coming. Not all of them make it. Sick or fallen or pursued by an osprey, casualties are inevitable. There would always be a few dead baby birds on the sidewalk or nearby in the grass next to beach roses waiting to bloom. One of those stark-sun days, pushing my little bundle in the stroller, we came upon a tiny, featherless creature on the sidewalk, so newly fallen its big eyes blinked and its beak mouthed a silent plea. I was tortured. I should have moved the doomed creature to the grass and offered up a hopeful prayer that its mother might rescue it. But I was a fragile new mother who couldn’t accept even the smallest death.
I felt panicky as I carefully scooped the bird into my left hand, transparent skin pulsing in my palm. I imagined my warmth was comforting as I pushed the heavy stroller with my right hand and balanced the bird in my left, still a mile to go, fearful of bird germs near my baby and not having any idea what I’d do when I finally got home. I jerked the stroller one-handed off the curb and back into the neighborhood, over sidewalks cracked from frost heaves and tree roots, my left arm outstretched with my palm up like an offering. The baby bird was still breathing and blindly searching the air the way every baby does.
At home I laid it gently under our holly bush. I needed to wash my hands and get my own baby upstairs before I could figure out what to do. I called my husband and a friend for advice, looked online, still pretending I could save it. When I made it back downstairs an hour later to check under the holly bush, it was being devoured by ants.
New motherhood felt raw and vulnerable. My entire being contracted with fierce protection, a myopic laser vision focused on my daughter. But inside, an expansive empathy spread and extended to every living thing, especially the small and helpless. Most days my world did not go beyond that two mile radius, but my internal landscape stretched out like a western vista, big sky country reaching up into my heart.