Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

Going There

I set out on the open road towards Salisbury, Connecticut, reacquainting myself with the Prius. My beloved beast of a minivan—my comfort, my crutch—had to stay at home with the boys. I know where I am in that van.

I let my mind wander—sinking into the past as I stared intently ahead. My regular rotation of radio stations quickly turned to static, so I switched to ‘seek.’ Sixty-five mph felt too fast a clip at which to pass through the world, and I was grateful for the slower pace as the roads turned more rural, familiarity receding in the rearview.

My destination was a fixed point on a map on my phone screen. But I veered off onto dirt roads whenever moved or when I tired of someone trailing me. I snapped photos, breathed in the clean, cold winter air, blasted Cat Stevens’ Another Saturday from the car speakers as I captured an abandoned farmhouse in the fading light. I felt the freedom and confidence that comes from being on the road alone, beholden to no one, turning off the beaten path into the unknown. Life is in the detours.

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As I neared the Inn, Waze auspiciously read “almost there,” and yet the destination never came. Anticipation building, I drove on for another several minutes before realizing I’d clear overshot it. Left to navigate on my own, I circled back and caught the missed turn on my second try. I parked and looked down; Waze blinked back. “Almost there,” it still read.

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Being There*

The rabbi’s manual in the car console. The Inn on the corner. The ice melt residue on my leather boots. The rocking chairs on the porch. The bible in my room’s desk drawer. The subtle throbbing of the cold sore on my upper lip and the crack on my right pinky finger from the dry winter air.

The bellhop escorted me to my room, told me there’s yoga at 5:30. She must have sensed my reluctance, for she offered, “Another woman in your party may not attend; she just got here too.” An out. Permission to do what I always do, what I do best: watch from the sidelines. Not engage. Forgo immersing into this life and instead only bear witness. Skim, not sink in.

But if not now, when? Did I drive all this way (it really wasn’t that far) to sit in a (gorgeous) room at an inn, alone? Doing nothing new? Taking no chances? I chastised myself with a series of cliché motivational quotes.

Then I sent frantic messages to a dear writer friend: What does one wear to yoga? Something I, admittedly, should have researched before I packed for the trip.

I settled on my oldest, most comfortable black leggings and as I faced my self-doubt in the full-length mirror, the phone rang. It was Dani. It was time for yoga. Let us begin.

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I’m terrible at yoga, it turns out. Oh, I know, you’ll say it was my first time, it’s a practice, you can’t be bad at yoga. But let me stop you right there—I’m bad at yoga. I’m ok with this. It’s good to know.

The instructor’s directions tumble out one right after another. I can’t make sense of them. I’ve temporarily forgotten—I mean plain don’t know—my left from my right. Everyone else seems experienced. The instructions come faster and faster and I’m lost. Utterly lost. I can’t keep up or follow along. My neck muscles tighten. I’m worried about the hole in the inner seam of these old, old leggings. I’m wishing, wishing, wishing for it to be over.

I stubbornly keep at it—not for myself, no. But so as not to disturb the practice of the others around me. Of Dani Shapiro next to me. Worried about everyone else. Not what’s inside, not myself.

Listening, wanting—to be able to do it, to do it right, yearning for positive reinforcement, for external validation. Failing. Falling. Unbalanced, unempowered. Horrible. Just horrible at this. My head hanging down, blood rushing, the strain on my legs is almost unbearable.

Realizing then, in that moment, this is how I live. Looking out more than in. Wondering, worrying about perception, appeasing others more than asserting myself. Never acknowledging, never relying on the intensity of my inner strength, my own self, somewhere, way down underneath it all.

I don’t trust in my body, this body. I don’t give birth naturally. I don’t dance. I don’t assume I will find the rhythm or know the steps. I’m always wondering if I’m doing it right, who’s watching, if I fit in. Mine is not a smooth path through this world. It’s staccato, belabored. Unnatural, overthought. Nail-bitten. Lacking flow.

I can’t get out of my own head.

I’m still on that yellow mat. It’s mocking me. I set my sights on one thing: keeping my balance. It’s a worthy goal. Hard, but achievable. For several seconds, I waver and wobble in place. Progress.

“Breathe,” she says. And I realize…I forgot to breathe.

Here’s the thing, the dirty little secret: I’m never present. My body is often in one place, my mind another. My children are young yet—the oldest barely in grade school. My fingers fasten coat buttons while my mind wanders to what’s next…what else…what’s for dinner…do I need to buy oranges? Where’s the baby? Has he gotten into the markers? What can I be doing in this rare moment while my children self-entertain? Wash the dishes? Prepare their school lunches? Clean up the strewn puzzle pieces in that corner? Lay out their pajamas? When I manage to make it out of the house alone, I smile through gritted teeth, where I hold all my tension, and worry about what the boys are doing back home. Often the pressure to be present bears down more heavily than the weight of everything else I’m carrying.

Maybe I’ll be different one day. When the children are grown, when I can complete a thought without interruption, when my mind is no longer splintered and shattered and seemingly held together with scotch tape.

But somehow I doubt it. I’ve come to understand that this is who I am. Everywhere and always. I thrive on the chaos and overwhelm. On the complexity of being several places at once. On the fight to find myself in a life that could so easily edge me out. It’s the contrasts I seek: waking in darkness, calm amidst chaos, stillness within sound.

I like writing around the edges of my little life. The thrill of fitting it in, tucking it into the corners of my days—a stashed secret I can carry with me through a life filled with so much else. The me I know now is surrounded by boys and noise. And it’s the struggle to find silence that makes it all the more sweet, that makes it mine.

Coming Home

Upon return, I quickly settled back into my life. Within minutes, I’m in the warm minivan, boys buckled in back seats, driving to pick up my oldest from after school science. A weight lifted. An expectation fulfilled.

This is where I belong.

The scent of another writer’s perfume still lingers on my scarf, filling my nostrils as my sons fill the car.

Suddenly, the song I had waited the entire trip to hear found me there—on the road home, driving into the most exquisite sunset as the Northern State Parkway rose and fell…where I could be my whole self.

At first, I felt deflated that the retreat was over, that I had returned. That everything was still where I’d left it. That it was all waiting to swallow me whole.

But what happens right here, at 3 a.m., at my desk in the darkened yellow room with my sweet boys sleeping soundly nearby…this is my writing life. This is the life I love.

We can’t make ourselves anything other than who we are. We can only, we must, bring our true, broken, flawed, idiosyncratic selves to the page.

As I hung my black skinny pants in the closet, the smoky smell of the fireplace from the prior day’s workshop hit me and I was overcome. With nostalgia and regret.

And the deep relief of returning home.

 

*I am only writing here of a small sliver of my two-day retreat experience. There was writing and workshopping with remarkable women, our stories coming together. There was good and hard work punctuated by good and honest mealtime conversation among strangers no longer. There were snowstorms swirling outside and warm fires burning within. There was much I didn’t write about here.

“If you don’t get an au pair, you’re crazy.” My mother looked up from stirring the pasta water as we caught up about the weekend. I’d left her with my three young sons, aged five and under, while I escaped for a rare 24 hours alone and away in Manhattan.

She’s one in a chorus of many who regularly implore me to get more help. I never do.

I had my sons in rapid succession—three in three-and-a-half years. I was never free of hand or heart to giveRelles1 myself over completely to play. Instead I filled our home with newborn needs again and again, feeling far more at ease in the space of those earliest months, when the endless cycle of eating and sleeping leaves room for little else.

Now that the youngest is two, I busy myself with a steady stream of dishes and dirt, laundry piles and lunch prep. My hands are often so full of soiled clothes and stray cups that I can’t possibly catch a ball. My attention divided among my three boys so it doesn’t have to settle on any one. I’m wrung out and weary and most of all, worried—that I prefer it this way.

You can click here to read the rest of my contribution to the thoughtful series on play at You Plus 2 Parenting.

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As the upcoming writing retreat steadily approaches, I’m preoccupied with the drive to get there—the ride alone, time on the open road, snaking New England highway, cloaked in winter. Just me, my radio music, my thoughts. That’s only the beginning, but much as I strain, I struggle to see beyond that.

What I know is that seven women from all over the country will be gathering for a few days to explore each other’s words and writing lives.

As a teen, come autumn, I would attend annual camp reunions in a vast, unadorned synagogue social hall in southern New Jersey. I would travel by bus down the Turnpike as the sun was setting, feeling very adult and full of adrenaline. En route, there were excited, hushed conversations with my companion, or, if making the trip alone, feverish scribbles in a spiral-bound notebook no one ever saw.

Each time, I would marvel at how, from our separate corners of the earth, we all converged at once. Every other day, spent apart, living different lives—in suburban towns along the east coast or on the fringe of cities like New York or Philadelphia. But then, on this day, for a single night, we made our way, our distinct paths meeting in one—lives intersecting.

I often think about inevitability. Random chance. What led me here. What leads us anywhere.

Like last week.

The Cross Bronx Expressway. One car swerves and swipes another. A reckless driver, out of control. Bounces off the median. Stops traffic. We’re not hit, but my husband slows and dismounts. Checks to see that the driver is ok. As a doctor, and a Good Samaritan, he feels obligated to stop. He works, he helps. Our car is situated so the harrowing scene is blocked from view and I’m grateful. I look back to the three boys buckled in back seats, secure, sleeping. It could have been…it wasn’t. We’re fine.

The emergency response vehicles, just arriving, throw their red lights around in our warm van. As we wait, while tapping these thoughts on my phone, I get word that my newborn niece has entered the world. Oh this ironic, fragile life.

An hour later, back home, readying for bed, I flick on the desk lamp and turn off the overhead. My husband sits and reads in the rocker. I climb under the covers and throw my socks to the floor.

A normal night.

It takes so little, doesn’t it? A turn left, a turn right. A millimeter of difference. It takes so little to change the course of a life.

I used to worry about the people I wouldn’t meet, the places I could’ve gone, the life left unlived. But there is always a path not taken. Better to focus on what’s in front of us. On what is–or will be–not what could have been. There’s enough uncertainty in the life we’re living.

We can see only a finite distance ahead; we can’t know what follows. We set out anyway. We carry our before on our backs and we step into tomorrow.

So I sit here, wondering where this road will lead.

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“Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.” —Eudora Welty

Today I’m over at Raising Humans with a guest post on my friend Tricia’s lovely blog.

Tricia is one of those people who blur the lines between real and virtual friendship. I am so grateful our paths have intersected and now run parallel. She is a gorgeous writer and a true storyteller whose words echo in my mind as I walk through my days. Her words have a way of flowing across the page, carrying you with them, until you forget where you began and feel like you are traveling right along with her. She is reassuring and relatable, and knowing she’s out there softens the edges of my world.

She is also gracious enough to open her site to other mother-writers’ stories in her lovely “Growing Together” series. I’m honored and humbled to have my words appear there today.

Please head on over to read the full piece, in which I reflect on what it’s like to raise a son who is so much like me. And then spend some time exploring Tricia’s cyberhome, Raising Humans.

Thanks, all.

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Happy New Year.

I love New Year’s, as I love early mornings. For its promise and possibility. For its quiet reflection. For its gift of a blank slate. But I also love it for being a secular holiday we can all enjoy. For inspiring a common greeting we exchange on days like this when we allow our eyes to meet in passing. An acknowledgment, however brief, that we’re on this same earth, that we’re in it together–a shared understanding that we begin something new. A subtle shift in our collective consciousness. I’ve perennially had a personal challenge to offer ‘happy new year’ greetings as long as I can, and at least until February 1. To somehow perpetuate this common language. (I have yet to succeed.)

I’m writing this in the first hushed hours of this brand new year. Beginning with words. The thread that ties together all our days and connects us one to another.

I often take note of the first words spoken in the new year, as I did those spoken to each of my children upon his entry into the world–as if they should carry some significance. As if they should relay some fundamental truth. Invariably, I muck it up with something mundane. But maybe that’s how it should be.

Like this New Year’s. As mundane as they come. Just the three boys and me, home alone. Dance parties in the den as the sun goes down. Acting silly as only we can, and only with each other. Watermelon and chocolate for dessert. Skipped baths and seven books before bed. A late night made later by jet lag. I rest the baby in his crib: “Goodnight, dearest G. I love you. Sweet dreams.” Whispered last words of the year. Except he uncharacteristically cries out, jet-lagged too, and joins us for stories. Three boys vie for a spot on my lap. We read and sing. I put the baby down for bed once more. Tired, I let my “big” boys tuck me in for a change. They flit around my room, exploring stacks of boring papers, drafting a list of activities for the next day, drunk with freedom. Then they climb into bed with me and drift off to sleep.

Maybe the mundane is the most memorable.

~

I ended last year with my first piece on Literary Mama, exploring Why We Write.

And I begin this new year in one of Jena Schwartz’s wonderful online writing groups, with daily prompts that unlock the thoughts in my head and usher them onto the page.

Come February, I will participate in one of Dani Shapiro’s writing workshops.

And so we begin again. With words. With each other. We break through the silence of this blank page.

Happy New Year.

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. – Vita Sackville-West

I’m writing in the dark, slow and steady…because my kids are young and underfoot, and that’s how it has to be, for now. – Dana Schwartz

The goal is to allow the written word to connect with your original mind, to write down the first thought you flash on, before the second and third thoughts come in. – Natalie Goldberg

That’s it in a nutshell — wondering, asking “what if”, allowing your mind and imagination to wander. – Lara Anderson

Writing… is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. – E.L. Doctorow

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. – Rebecca Solnit

It is the job of the writer to say, look at that. To point. To shine a light. But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention. We develop our sensitivity…in order to bear witness to what is. – Dani Shapiro

…writing is a way to stand still and recognize time, a way to find out just when and where I am. – Alisa Brownlow

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