Reflections

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This morning a gentle snow fell. Chris brewed coffee. And the brain fog from this cold began to lift.

It’s been one of those weeks when this 365 project has felt challenging. Challenging, but not impossible. Life never fails to get in the way. But if you carve a path for yourself, you’ll eventually create a smooth groove, one that allows you to stay the course even when other forces attempt to push you in a different direction.

Committing to this year-long daily practice has been life-altering in big and small ways. One of the things I learned very quickly was that fear will rise up again and again, and there is no choice but to walk through it. I had to contend with my fear of being seen, my imposter syndrome, and my self-doubt with every step, from writing to submitting to publishing to promoting. Every step was an act of courage. Until courage became habit. And the fear piped down.

I began the project with no real idea where it would go. I had planned nothing beyond putting words on the page and hitting publish every day. That alone felt daunting enough. I hadn’t planned to take writing classes or give a reading or attend a professional conference. I didn’t know I would spend those first months writing and revising one essay, a strange process that came out like a prose puzzle. I spent so many nights at the library trying to figure out how to piece it together. When an editor asked to publish it, I was beyond thrilled. My secret goal was to get a piece published before my birthday, and somehow that little dream came true. But I hadn’t anticipated how publishing a personal essay would make me feel exposed and raw, how it would make me want to tuck myself into a dark closet for a couple of weeks. Nor was I able to anticipate how moving it would be to receive emails from women struggling with the same challenge. Women who shared their stories with me. Women who told me I’d given them hope. Looking back, there was so much contained within the experience of a single essay.

2016 was a year of learning and growth and connection. I feel rooted in myself. I feel strong.

A few of the highlights: I turned 40! (Holy wow, still getting used to that number.) Brain,Child Magazine named me New Voice of the Year and invited me to become a contributing blogger, a dream come true. I saw Roxane Gay speak in NYC. I grew my first garden in our new backyard (and wrote and published an essay about it). I attended my first professional writers conference. I weaned my toddler. I voted for our first female president with my mother and my daughter by my side. I had my first poem published.

This year was big. How do I top it? How do I keep up the momentum? My mind spiraled toward a hundred different goals and dreams. I couldn’t focus. Then on New Year’s Day, a nasty cold virus took the wind right out of my sails. I had no choice but to pause. Be still. Let my mind drift. The word that came to me was tethered, a word that’s come up a lot over the course of this year. Daily practice has kept me tethered to myself, to my art, to consciousness. This project will end, but I want to stay tethered in the new year. Shortly after, I received an email saying I’d been accepted into a writing course I’d forgotten I had applied to during the holiday mayhem. And there it was, an opportunity tying me from one year to the next.

For writers involved in a daily practice or considering one, there’s a terrific article up at Brevity today, The Power of Listening to What Your Practice Demands. I’m also thrilled to announce that my writer/author-friend Rachel‘s newest book Writer’s Boot Camp, A 30-Day Crash Course to Total Writing Fitness has just hit bookstores. I ordered my copy today. I can’t think of a better way to kick off a new year of writing!

(Post 353 of 365)

 

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If the Season We Could Keep

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement during this wacky week of Intro to Potty Training. I swear I’m going to stop writing about it. Today is a better day for no particular reason other than it just is. These last few days I’ve wanted to hit fast-forward, but last month I wrote this essay about the moments I wish I could keep, and it’s on the Brain, Child blog today. A good reminder that there are so many little joys and that things are changing all the time.

(Post 324 of 365)

 

 

 

Homestretch

I’ve been feeling this feeling, an anxious what-next sort of feeling as this project nears the end. After I write this post, I only have 47 left to go. You’d think I’d feel relieved–and part of me does–but I’ve also gotten used to it. I’ve worn deep ruts in the road, and the tires roll right in. I think about the writer I was, the person I was, when this project began, and I can say unequivocally that I’ve changed. I am rooted in myself. When I’m seeking an answer, I know I have to search within. That’s something you can give lip service to, but it’s another thing to do the work, that internal search, to practice self-trust. I’ve spent so much of my life searching for answers outside myself when I had only to pick up a pen. And I did. I wrote. Again and again. But I abandoned it again and again. This time I dug in. Stubborn and unrelenting. On the days I wanted to quit, the days it felt too hard, I had to find ways to push through. Ultimately, I had to change my life in order to accommodate the writing. That was the part that never caught traction before. I dropped artistic pursuits because I couldn’t justify them and/or because they became difficult. The changing, the act of assessing my life and figuring out how to make room for my writing, is perhaps the most interesting part of the project for me. I stopped having a glass or two of wine in the evening. I reclaimed those evenings and I reclaimed scraps of morning and nap time and often said to hell with dinner and jumped in the car to head to the library the minute my husband got home. Adjusting my habits hasn’t been easy on my little family. Throughout the process I’ve been wracked with guilt for not giving my whole self over to them, for stealing so much time, and unpaid time to boot. I mean, who do I think I am? I’ve questioned whether it’s been the best thing for my daughter. It makes me a less-available mother. It also makes me a less-available spouse. Tonight there was a half-opened bottle of wine on the kitchen counter leftover from my best friend who visited on Wednesday night. I’d taken it out of the refrigerator to make room for water bottles and orange juice. My husband saw it and said, “Oh wow, you’re having wine tonight?” He sounded excited. I explained I was just making room in the fridge. He sighed. “Are you disappointed?” I asked him. “Eh, I just thought you were actually going to relax,” he said smiling. I guess I really haven’t been much fun. Maybe not since the last time I had a glass of wine, back in June at my birthday party. And before that, not since sometime in early March when I realized that even one glass of wine cut into my writing time. I’ve been operating like someone on a mission. Because I am. And it’s true, I don’t relax. I mean, today I did yoga, so that was something. And on Wednesday, when my friend visited after I got my daughter to sleep, and we chatted by the fire, that was a lovely time and a potent elixir for all my anxiety. I talk a good self-care game, but it’s often a struggle. And right now, it’s a Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. and I’m writing and my husband is upstairs snoring. He fell asleep putting our daughter to bed. There’s lullaby music playing. The last log on the fire just dropped into the embers. I should probably wake him. We should hang out. Relax. But I’m going to keep writing. Because the thing I wanted to say, the thing I’ve been thinking about as this project wraps, are the guideposts that led me to the project to begin with, among them the women I’ve come to think of as my literary godmothers. Cheryl Strayed, for one. I wrote about her in the beginning, and highlighted her in my first post, when I felt like I needed to be official about things and have a premise for the project, back when I still felt obligated to explain myself. Cheryl Strayed and her beautiful book WILD. Cheryl Strayed writing from her guts. Cheryl Strayed who hiked into the wilderness alone. Cheryl Strayed who stripped herself of her surname and claimed her own identity. Cheryl Strayed who bet on herself. Again and again and again and again. Cheryl Strayed’s melodic voice on Dear Sugar, her inhibition, her feminism, her Midwestern charm, and her advice: “to write like a motherfucker.”

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

And maybe I’m anxious about the project ending because I’m really just beginning to find my footing, my voice, my truth. I’m only now beginning to get free of the trap of what I thought this thing was supposed to be. I’m only just now digging up my courage to tell you all the things I want to say. Have I ever really explained the way my daughter cracked me open to my core and revealed my truest self, my feminism, my fearlessness? Have I yet written the words that I write because of and in spite of my daughter? I’ve had to trust that all the time I steal in order to write ultimately makes me a better person, better thinker, better writer, better mother. That this best version of myself, deeply flawed though it may be, is my greatest offering.

(Post 318 of 365)

Doing the Imperfect Work

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I haven’t found my way back into the Flash Nano groove, but I’m saving the prompts to work with when I’m ready. There are a few writers in the group who’ve fallen behind and/or dropped off. Others are going strong, even firing out submissions of new pieces as they create them. I find this fascinating, the rapid pace and the confidence to send work out into the world almost immediately.

I sit on my writing for a long time–maybe too long. Recently, a writer/editor-friend was quick to call out my perfectionism after critiquing one of my pieces. She declared the work ready for publication. I’m always surprised to be associated with perfectionism because I feel so very flawed. Of course, that’s the perfectionist’s trap, always striving, rarely accepting that anything is ready or exactly right or ever good enough.

Perfection stymies. It halts. Writing, and especially daily blogging, is an exercise against that inertia. There are twelve hours in a day, and within them, I must cobble together some sentences. I must try to make sense of things. It’s a small act that propels me forward. I cultivate momentum.

Daily blogging leaves a trail, evidence of all the days the words don’t come easily, ideas fall flat, time runs short, motivation flags. But accepting imperfection means the thing you want to build gets built. Where there was air, now stands a structure. Perhaps just a series of rickety steps. With time and practice you become a better builder, you inch closer to the dream of becoming a master craftswoman.

Lorrie Moore says, “I don’t go back and look at my early work, because the last time I did, many years ago, it left me cringing. If one publishes, then one is creating a public record of learning to write.”

I’m certain I’ve talked about the trap of perfectionism more than once over these last 302 days, but it’s a lesson I have to learn again and again. So, dear reader, if you’re like me, too often caught in the trap, fear not the publish button nor the Submittable page. Keep writing. Keep floating your words out into the world. Offer something up today. I promise I will, too.

(Post 302 of 365)

 

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

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My friend T and her ’86 Volvo, Chit (after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) on a stretch of highway somewhere in the southwest.
I used to wish I was from the Midwest, where people speak in gentler tones and kindly turns of phrase. When I was young, I thought it would be fun to be in TV commercials and wished we lived in California, preferably Hollywood. After spending a week in the waves on Block Island, I thought it would be romantic to live in an isolated community out in the middle of the sea. I was always dreaming of somewhere else.

Even now, I imagine different places, different lives. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you want to follow the path into the woods, turn to page 61. If you want to venture into the cave, turn to page 21.

And that’s as far as I got this morning when I began this post, before the day spooled out in ten different directions. Certain items on my list resist being checked-off, mainly those that require sustained attention, like writing my friend T a letter for her 40th birthday, which was a month and a half ago. Determined to finish and mail it, I wrote the letter in scraps of time throughout the day.

I started to write about our road trip, the one we’d always dreamed of as little girls. We played her dad’s 60s records, Joe Cocker, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and imagined driving out to California in a VW bus. As it turned out, we chugged along in her ’86 Volvo over the course of a month from New Mexico through Arizona to southern Cali, camped in Joshua Tree. In San Diego a friend took us across the border to Rosarita and Tijuana. Then we headed up through Cali. L.A., the Pacific Coast Highway, the Redwood Forest, Yosemite, Death Valley. Then we cut back in to Las Vegas, Zion National Park in Utah, past Shiprock and back home to Santa Fe.

I know, I’m listing all the places and skipping the stories. But anyway, I was writing memories to her like, remember when we drove away with the book of CDs on the roof of the car in Joshua Tree and lost all our music? Think about that for a minute. A month on the road, desolate highway stretches with no radio signal–and when I say signal I mean antenna. We had one cassette tape, a 70s disco mix from college, and damn if disco doesn’t still make me think of winding our way around the sharp curves of Pacific Coast Highway at night.

And then I wrote, remember how we read Barbara Kingsolver out loud in the tent at night by flashlight or in the car on those afternoons the road seemed to go on forever?  We read Small Wonder, and I want to say we had The Bean Trees along with us, too. Or maybe I’m just remembering The Bean Trees because we both loved it so much as teenagers. Either way, I’d forgotten all about Kingsolver and reading aloud to each other until I began writing her that letter. That’s the funny–and magical–thing about writing. You can have an idea about what you’re going to say, an idea about what you think you remember, but when you set pen to paper, you will surprise yourself every time.

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Backcountry in Zion, hiking to “The Subway.”
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Inside “The Subway,” where the monoliths meet and form a tunnel with pools of icy blue-green water. Just as I slipped, T rescued me. There is another story here, the one about the person who took this photo, a man our age named John who we happened to meet the night before in the pitch black, all of us gathered with a group of astronomers and massive telescopes. I saw the red ring around Saturn, crisp and clear. John had just arrived and had nowhere to camp. We told him he could camp at our site for the night. In the morning we saw his pick up with the custom cabin he’d built himself. It was outfitted with gear and functioned as both a bunk and storage. He decided to venture with us into the backcountry. No trails except for the odd cairn, no park rangers. A 700-ft drop into the canyon and up a rocky, winding river. In his pack, John had a water purifier and iodine drops, and throughout our trek, he pumped and purified water for all three of us. There was no way to carry all the water we needed for an 8-hour hike, and without him, I suspect we would’ve gulped river water and hoped for the best.
(Post 253 of 365)

Cusp

 

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This morning, crisp air and a backyard littered with leaves. The geraniums are still bright in their pots on the porch, the black-eyed Susans happy, the trees green. It’s the light, full in the sky but not generous enough to spill dappled patches into the yard that tells the truth, speaks seasonal cusp. There are still warm days left, but they are fleeting. Almost-fall is a particular feeling. I can locate it in my sternum, anticipation and a slight unease curl into each notch of breastbone, until the season makes it’s leap into red and orange, jackets and boots, pumpkins and mums. For now I’ll balance in the teetering in-between, crunch of first leaves, everything still green, the day warming toward t-shirt weather.

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Just after writing this, sunshine found its way into the backyard.

(Post 237 of 365)

Imprints

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Fossil palm frond with fishes. Early Eocene (50 million years ago). Lincoln County, Wyoming. Currently on loan at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, CT. 
I believe that during times of transformation, when we are vulnerable and malleable, experiences and images, people and places, imprint upon us deeply, the way they do during childhood. We carry fossils in the soft clay of our bodies.

When my daughter was a baby, when I was a malleable new mother, the days stretched out long before us. We read lots of books and took lots of walks and sang lots of songs. Around the time she was 7 months old, I discovered that the Peabody Museum had free admission from 2-5 p.m. every Thursday. The timing was ideal since my daughter only napped in the car. She would fall asleep on the drive to New Haven, and then I’d let the car idle in the parking lot, enjoying a blissful half hour of reading while she slept.

Inside the museum, we spent most of our time in The Great Hall, a place imprinted upon me from childhood. I would slowly circle her stroller around the colossal Brontosaurus. When she was learning to walk, she toddled between the smooth benches and the exhibit railing, the great skeletons towering above her. Soon she was off exploring, walking through the different rooms, making her way up the stone stairs.

Today, a rare unplanned afternoon before us, I ask if she wants to visit the dinosaurs and she says, “Yes, yes!” This place, imprinted, feels familiar and sacred.

Today we did not need a stroller. She follows the dinosaur prints herself and swats my hand away when we reach the stairs, announcing, “I can do it myself!”

We practice pronunciation as we go. She recites: Triceratops, Neanderthal, javelina, sarcophagus.

She points to Darwin and asks if he is Santa Claus.

Darwin’s work showed that at a very basic level all life is related. The vast diversity of plant and animal species, including humans, has evolved over time from one original source. 

We make our way to the fossils, the palm frond and fishes discovered in Wyoming, preserved for 50 million years in siltstone. Underwater evidence. These things we get to keep. Does that many years count as forever?

(Post 219 of 365)

July Garden

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The July garden is a joy. Bright yellow marigolds, tomato plants twice as tall as the toddler, and still growing. We wait for the green fruit to ripen. Fennel fronds sway. She names the herbs as she picks them, basil, lavender, oregano, parsley! We harvested our first eggplants and sautéed them in olive oil. Delicious! I want the season to stretch out long and lazy, to slow to child’s time. I can’t help making this wish again and again, please last.

The children held hands, leaning
to smell the roses.
They were five and seven.

Infinite, infinite—that
was her perception of time.

-Louise Glück, “A Summer Garden”

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(Post 194 of 365)

 

Milk and Cake

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Detail of Camila’s Ceremony by the artist Alonso Guevara.

It occurred to me just last week, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry doorframe. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday, June 11, is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler–the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty–is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see, how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood. From singular being to synchronistic dyad, nourishing and nurturing on the primal plane.

When my daughter was six or seven months old, a sort of hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to Chris, it’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people. I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly. How Breastfeeding Changes Your Brain speaks to the plasticity and creativity of the lactating brain. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about so much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting so much as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the doorframe, baking half-birthday cakes.

(Post 138 of 365)

Out Loud

Reading my work out loud is becoming more comfortable (or less uncomfortable). It’s all about getting past that space where the first breath meets the first word.

Writing in this space feels more comfortable too. Sometimes there’s still that prickly feeling when I post something more vulnerable, when I’m up for telling a bigger truth. But it doesn’t last. In less than twenty-four hours my focus shifts to the new day’s truth. Days fly. I’m watching them add up. I’m feeling all the shifts and changes. I’m growing accustomed to living my life out loud.

(Post 113 of 365)