Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

So lately I’ve been inspired and terrified by all things NaNoWriMo (not doing it) and NaBloPoMo (not doing that either). And even though I’m not in a place where I feel ready to tackle these, it has me thinking about the way I write, the way I blog, and oh pretty much the way I do most things. And that is: with a healthy dose of overthinking and nail-biting. I’m starting to think I’m just an old dog, but in the spirit of all the writer bravery out there this month, and because we should never feel too set in our ways to try something new or buck our fear of change, I’m going to write this post free-form, without agenda or editing.

I started tapping these words after I stepped out of the shower, droplets of water falling from my hair onto the protective case of my iPhone. I continued on my laptop, and plan to type, type, type and then hit publish. All in one sitting.

And yes, it’s scary.

Maybe I’ll discover that I’m not a good writer. That I’m really an editor. Or maybe I’m just really crafty at using a thesaurus. Or that I need another word for really. Right about NOW.

That I’ll never be good enough to write a bad first draft and go from there.

That I’ve always wanted to be the kind of writer—the kind of PERSON—who doesn’t overthink, who doesn’t care so deeply about what other people think of her, what she’s wearing, how it fits, how it feels to walk down the street in it. I’ll just be walking, living, breathing, writing. Doing. Living. Crap, I already said living. Crap, I said crap. Did you know I curse a lot? I tend to edit out the expletives. But not today. Don’t look back. Keep moving. Forward. Onward. Oh my gosh, this is liberating, freeing. Maybe you’ve stopped reading—maybe I don’t care. Maybe I’m finally letting go. Of the fear, self-doubt. All of it.

I want to be one of those people who waltzes through life, not tripping on corners and curbs. Not miscalculating her steps—not calculating them at all. Because, oh my god, who calculates steps?? I learned how to walk 33 years ago and have been doing it every day since—I should be able to do at least that without such effort.

You know the people I’m talking about, though, right? The ones who never blowdry their hair because it’s naturally perfectly straight—but they’re nice enough to whisper in confidence that they ‘wish it were wavy like yours’ when you pay them a compliment. Their clothes hang off them just so, and…is this really what I’m writing about? When left to freely roam, my mind turns to self-consciousness and straight hair? Yup. Sometimes I think about that stuff. More than I care to admit. (That’s a funny phrase. Because aren’t you admitting whatever it is, even while saying you don’t care to?)

I want to be someone who doesn’t care what others think, but gives them something to think about.

The boys will be stirring soon. Is it wrong that part of me dreads when they wake? I’m just so protective of this time—these quiet early morning hours, this peaceful house. Before a single word is spoken in the day. Before we put our mark on its placid perfection.

I’ve always considered myself an extrovert. But now I willingly trade nights out for an early bedtime so that I may wake in the pre-dawn darkness and just be. Still. A function of parenting? Writing? Change? Are we always who we innately are? Or do we evolve and grow to become nearly unrecognizable versions of our former selves?

I’ve always thought that as we age, our idiosyncratic personality traits deepen. We become more intense versions of who we’ve always been. And so. I’m slightly troubled, but more intrigued, by my elusive extroversion. By my newfound desire for quiet and solitude above all. I suppose it’s just a function of the imbalance of it in my life right now. I’m still endlessly curious about people, but lately, prefer keeping them at arm’s length. Watching, observing, taking them in, but at a distance, not summoning the energy to interact.

(Hopefully you weren’t coming for any neat takeaways or profound conclusions today. Just musings here.) This is probably a one-time thing. I feel like I’m walking down Fifth Avenue naked. Stripped bare. Don’t look! Don’t read this drivel!

But it’s good for me to be more spontaneous and self-assured—in my writing, in my life. To let go, release. To not always be wound so tight. To not always be met with ‘wow, you need this’ in the chair massage at the nail salon (guilty pleasure—scratch that, just pleasure—look at me, offering qualifiers so you won’t judge. Oh I’m hopeless.).

So today, friends, I’m not editing. Not this post. Not myself. Not any of it. The curtains are down, the red pen is at rest. This is me. Raw and real. Take me as I am. Not airbrushed, not edited. Warts, typos, and all.

Because I worry sometimes about these carefully curated online presences of ours. Because vulnerability is a beautiful thing—perhaps one of best things we can offer each other in this all-too-anonymous world. Authenticity too. The currency of imperfect me-too-moments, traded in exchange for comfort and connection, friendship and reassurance.

Even if not quite this extreme stream-of-consciousness, I may start posting rougher, lighter, less polished, more spontaneous pieces every now and then—more riffs on my day, thoughts as they come, as I have them—not months in the making, hewn, hacked, hemmed and hawed. But fresh and true.

Alright. Go forth. Be you.

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Disclaimer: The real me couldn’t hit ‘publish’ without giving this a once-over.

Today, it’s raining. The lone desk lamp throws warm light on the yellow wall. A half-eaten bowl of Rice Chex sits to my right. I can hear the faint sound of clothes turning in the dryer downstairs, the commuter train in the distance, the slick rush of cars on the damp main road just beyond the front window.

I collapse into the black folding chair across from my laptop. I exhale.

It’s like I’ve stolen these hours. These sweet, empty hours. A quiet slice of carved out space and time. Rare, fleeting, mine. The older boys are at school, the baby may be there, too—for the few hours a week he goes—or maybe he’s napping. Husband is at work. I’m alone. Or at least it feels that way.

Suddenly my shoulders tense. My mind involuntarily ticks off the other things I could be doing. Something for my husband or children. Or someone else.

I feel…guilty.

There are always more dishes to wash, a load of laundry piled high enough to demand attention, stray toys littering the house. Errands—the bank, school forms, dry cleaning…Texts and tweets and e-mails that linger in my inbox until I just want to ‘mark as read’ so the bold font will stop staring at me accusatorily. On any given day, we need something from the store. Bananas. We always need bananas.

~

I stand in line at the market, growing increasingly agitated at the small talk between the customer ahead of me and the clerk. The clerk upon whom my schedule, my freedom now hinges. A desperate helplessness sets in—that feeling of losing control over your time. Inevitably my irritation turns inward, and I silently chastise myself for not being more patient.

This is a familiar scene.

~

Early one morning, I tap at the keys when a familiar name flashes at the bottom right hand corner of my screen. A dear friend from our old town was sending me a message. It read, just wanted to say it’s always nice to see your name online early, comforting, I might add. you can keep writing, just wanted to send love to you and your boys.

Tears welled, blurring the tiny black letters until they appeared to be dancing on the screen. You can keep writing…I don’t often hear that. What it sounded like was, You can keep doing this thing that’s all yours, this thing that’s just for you.

~

Oh I am lucky. My days are filled with sons and sweatpants, milk mustaches and mac ‘n cheese. Battles are now waged out of the courtroom over broccoli and deadlines refer to Angry Birds limits, not motion filings.

But the hours that I can spend as I wish, where my mind can complete a thought from beginning to end, are too, too few. They are punctuated by naptimes, lunch preparation, preschool pickups…they are intruded upon, interrupted, cut short.

And here’s what I fear:  that one day, I will look back only to see, in the uncharitable light of retrospect, a mother distracted. Because this writing thing is a double-edged sword. Simultaneously helping me live within the moment, my senses piqued, noticing more—but also removing me from it, stealing me away, transforming me into an outsider looking in. Greedy with my time, unrelenting, always leaving me wanting more.

So I wake before first light, stealing these hours from the night. When I can sit with the quiet loneliness in the empty space of unscheduled time.

Sometimes I need to get out to clear the cobwebs of our chaotic little life from my cluttered mind.

Sometimes the road will call me to it, and I will spend some time there as the sun sets and dinner is served. Remembering that I am a whole person separate from the pieces that seem so inextricably a part of me now.

I will allow myself to travel, if only in my mind…away from my present, away from my people. Knowing full well my feet will always carry me back, my arms open wide, my ears filled with the songs of the road.

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Little

He stands perched on the top step of the hallway staircase and hurtles his soft, round body into space, trusting with full faith that my arms will find him.

Middle

His father reprimands him for toying with a fragile keyboard. Ashamed, he approaches me with his head hanging low, face contorted into a silent pre-cry. He burrows his flushed cheeks in the space beneath my chin. He fits perfectly there—the crook of my neck still his chosen retreat when the world comes crashing down on him.

Big

We take a walk on a rare morning alone together. Sometimes I keep pace beside him; sometimes I fall back, letting him lead. To see what he can see. A toss of the head, a hand in his pocket, a glimpse of adolescence.IMG_8970

Now he asks that I not stand in the open doorway as he boards the kindergarten bus. I acquiesce, while secretly looking on through the side window as he walks the concrete path.

He falls one morning, scraping his knees. Instinctively, I run to him, giving myself away. When I reach him, he’s already lifted himself off the ground. Yet still he takes the hand I offer. This time, we walk together the rest of the way.

Wordlessly, he climbs aboard to be gone for the balance of the day. Are you ok? I call after him, needing more. Squinting in the early morning light, I catch a thumbs up from the school bus window. Enough.

 ~

A shift, as subtle as it is certain. As unsettling as it is reassuring. We sway, unmoored, tossed about in time’s turbulence—our heads wind-whipped, cheeks chapped. Our feet seeking steady ground. And always weighing. When to catch them. When to let them fall.

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“Act as if you’re a writer. Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal.”

- Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

I’ve been invited by Lara Anderson to participate in the writing process blog tour. Lara is a gorgeous writer whose words always touch something deep within me and make me gasp with their beauty and truth. I’m so grateful our paths have crossed in this writing world, and I’m touched she tapped me to participate next.

I have loved reading about other writers’ processes—and many times, these posts led me to some of my now favorite writers (or led me to love them more)—like Lauren, Lindsey, Debra, Zsofi, Amanda, Jessica, and Denise, to name (more than) a few. I’m humbled (and a bit intimidated) to take my turn…

What am I working on?

Although I’ve kept (what I refuse to call) a journal for most of my life, I’ve only recently begun writing regularly, in a deliberate way, with purpose and finished pieces and publications. Until about a year ago, the demands of home and work felt paramount.

At first, I felt compelled to submit, submit, submit to every place I could think of, everywhere I saw the work of writers I admire. I was driven by a need for legitimacy and clout as much as my signature impatience—both a great virtue and vice. I was hardwired to seek validation by some objective metric.

Eventually, the thrill of exposure waned and in its wake, I was left with a deep love of the process and a handful of really brilliant writers to follow and befriend. What I loved most was the writing itself. Stringing the words together. Creating something that revealed my heart. Connecting with others through words.

Most days I feel like a fraud. My legal training was highly formal; surely I can’t wake up one morning and simply declare myself a writer? No, I’m no writer. Often, it seems, I churn out muck. Who are these gracious people showing up, reading my words?

But I love it. I can’t stop. As Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Am I allowed to love it this much? Am I allowed to do this? Is this a thing?

I’m working on finding out.

~

I always have several draft essays in the works—either for this blog or to submit elsewhere. If a piece is more personal or less linear, I’ll put it here. If I think it could have more mass appeal or fits well with another site’s voice, I’ll pitch it. Lately, I’ve enjoyed publishing more on my own site because I can control the content and timing. I have no schedule for when or how often I post on this blog—I write when I have something to say, and I hit publish when I feel it’s finished.

I’m also mustering the courage to start what I affectionately call, “The Book I’ll Never Write.” It would be memoir-esque about my complicated relationship with religion and love, faith and philosophy…and in my mind, it’s all so cathartic and profound…but forget I said anything; I don’t think I’ll ever get up the guts…

For now, I’m slowly working on an essay that skims the surface of all this—of what I believe to be my story if I ever had one. It feels, in short, like what I’m meant to be working on.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Oh goodness, I don’t know. Does it have to?

At times I feel insufferably generic, but I truly believe everyone has a story to tell and only they can tell it.

And I love that there are kindred writers in my world—their words fill my days. Theirs are the voices in my head pushing me to do better, go deeper. They help me see what’s possible.

Why do I write what I do?

I write mostly about the small, mundane moments of my day-to-day life as a mother of young sons because this is my now. It’s what I’ve got. But writing about it, I’ve found, helps me not wish it away, not miss the meaning in this messy life. I like to find the story in the ordinary day.

I write to find comfort in the commonality of it all—we’re all in our own homes, going about our separate, solitary lives, but maybe, just maybe you’ve felt this way too? You’re out there walking alongside me, even from many miles away? Even if we’ve never met?

I try to write authentically about my own ordinary existence and hope it resonates with others.

How does my writing process work?

I rarely, if ever, sit down to churn out a full piece start to finish. Rather, I write in the crevices of my day, around the edges of a life filled with little ones and little time. I tap thoughts and triggers into an app on my phone as they come to me (how remarkably unpoetic) and once a theme or coherent idea emerges, I try to string it all together in my early morning hours.

I carve out 4-6am every morning (3am if I’m really inspired) to write before sunrise with my coffee companion (always in the same yellow mug, and piping hot). I love everything about the early morning and starting my day with nothing but my quiet, coffee, words. I’ve tried to write at night; it’s a bad idea.

Often one of my boys will have wandered into my bed in the middle of the night. He will breathe deeply beside me as I tap the keys, sometimes stirring. I often wonder if deep in the recesses of their minds, my sons will remember me, their mother, sitting and writing in the dark as day edges out night.

When I write, I tend to sit hunched over, shoulders tense, on the floor, in a bed, or in the least ergonomic chair I can find. And I bite the skin on the insides of my fingers—a horrible habit I’m trying to break. I also forget to eat.

When I have an idea burning a hole in my pocket, I’m restless until I get a first draft down (thanks again, impatience). Then I let it sit—a sorry unstructured mess of half-thoughts and unfinished sentences. But the polishing and playing with words, the whispering them aloud into the darkness, the writing and rewriting…well, that’s the best part.

Even when I think a piece is done, I let it sit for one more day. I leave it alone, while somehow simultaneously taking it with me, walking around with it, letting the words breathe, and giving my mind the space and clarity it needs to return.

Then, after I submit or publish a piece, I perform my ritualistic, unproductive post-mortem where I obsess over what I could have written better.

Next Up…

And the tour continues…I’d like to ask Kim Simon and Alisa Brownlow to share their writing processes next.

Kim was one of the first writers I followed, fell in love with, admired from afar. I love how she masters both humor and heart with sincerity. She’s got snark and sweet to spare. When I click over to one of her pieces, I know I’ll either be laughing hysterically or on the verge of tears. She has an achingly beautiful, relatable way of writing about motherhood (read this or this). She’s also doing admirable work through the I Support You movement to build support and understanding among all parents—formula-feeders, breastfeeders, everyone—no matter how they feed their children.

Alisa is a writer I’ve come to “know” more recently, but I’m so glad I found my way to her words. They always resonate, delivering those “me too moments” I crave—like here and here. She authored one of my favorite “About” pages on a blog ever—although it’s on her old site and I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it here. Also, gotta love another ex-lawyer turned writer mama.

 ~

So here’s to this writing life…and this blog tour, because while writing may be a solitary pursuit, I couldn’t do it without knowing others are out there toiling away too.

We were crowded in the elementary school gym on a 90-degree day with no A/C. We were told there would be babysitting; there wasn’t really. Our almost-kindergartners were whisked away…I was left behind to chase after my two younger boys, the sweat gathering on the nape of my neck as I cursed my black skinny jeans. There were introductions, policy overviews (dress code, lunch program, dismissal protocol…). I barely caught a word.

Somewhere between doling out the fifty-billionth snack and doing laps with the umbrella stroller in which I discreetly tried to monopolize the ineffective, giant floor fan, the co-chair of the Parents Association approached. She was a woman not much older than me with a shock of black hair, tailored pants, kind, knowing eyes and a gentle smile. She offered to watch my younger boys so I could walk down the hallway with my newly minted Kindergartner to see his classroom – to, as she put it, “have a moment.” I felt the tears come; I choked them back. My sons were having none of it, so off we all went.

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A whirlwind of put-those-toys-back-where-you-found-them later, I knew it was time to throw in the towel. We clumsily gathered our things and what was left of my dignity and headed for the door. (Not before stopping at the complimentary bagel spread so the baby could dump a full cup of OJ on himself—the stickiness of the juice mixing with several layers of sweat.)

But the details don’t really matter now, do they? These are insignificant, external things, after all. The real problem was with me. Something nagged at the corners of my mind and heart. What did I really need? What was I seeking? A way to neatly tie up the sum of my son’s childhood until now with a nice, pretty bow? So I could feel ready for this? So he could?

I summon the little I glimpsed of my son lined up, ready to walk off to his new classroom. He stood proud and tall. There was a little wave, wasn’t there? Maybe even a self-assured “bye mom.” And he was gone. I felt a sadness I didn’t expect. We’d said goodbye like this before—he’s a day care veteran, after all. But this was different somehow.

Wasn’t this what we all hope for? That our kids become these self-sufficient beings, capable of walking off—first down the hallway, then down the street, across town, and ultimately out of our household to create another—without us?

Have a moment. The words caught. That was just it, wasn’t it? My utter inability to have this moment. To hold it, savor it, squeeze the marrow from it. To stash it away in my special box of precious letters and artwork. To preserve it for all time. It was passing me by even as I was living it.

Have a moment. Instead I was lost. In the sweat, the distraction, discomfort, the ceaseless chase as the younger boys wrestled free to roam the school hallways. I tried to force myself to shut it all out, to focus on what was happening. On this milestone—for me and my oldest boy.

It was, of course, on the road, as we drove away with the sweet school at our backs, when the tears and clarity finally came. Have a moment. I needed that moment for me. He was fine. Ready. And it’s not about me anymore. Tomorrow, a bus comes and takes him to a classroom I will not frequent. He will live whole days I know little about. I will curtail my curiosity; I will ache for details, get few.

We are two separate people, he and I. We may share the same temperament, the same strong-willed stubbornness, a love of what’s right and fair, and all things carbohydrate…the same sandy hair and wide green eyes, ever reluctant to let go of a day and drift off to sleep…

But I carry him no more. No, I couldn’t if I tried. Now it’s nearly dawn on the day I will wake him to board the bus alone.

We will have a moment. And many, many more, my sweet boy. As he becomes a little less mine, a little more his own, a little more the world’s. And I will take them with me, always.

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A postscript: Shortly after I published this post, he woke with a start, dressed quickly and without a fight, and was ready 45 minutes early. Hardly any appetite, yet still I felt a need to shove a waffle in his unwilling hand. I blink, and the bus is here. How many school buses had I seen in a lifetime? But this one had come to carry away my child.

“Mom, when you get off the bus, wave to me, ok?” I mouth “I love you” through the window; he gives a pound in return. One last wave, a smile. I choke back tears, turn, and go on with my day…two other little boys needing me still.

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