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Telling Our Own Stories: Our Children and Internet Privacy

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a private blog. Writing has long been my preferred means of communication, and blogging felt like a natural way to chronicle my daughter’s birth and my birth as a mother. We were 2,500-3,000 miles from our family and friends, and this blog helped make that distance seem shorter.

I posted weekly belly pictures and anticipatory poems about labor (“Here I sit in early labor/Hoping my moans won’t wake the neighbor”). I wrote a post entitled “My Cups Runneth Over” in which I gleefully reported on my trip to the bra store when I discovered that I now filled a C cup. I wrote about my ambivalent feelings about the ultrasound I got halfway through my pregnancy. The image on the screen was so different from my experience of my baby that the moment didn’t carry for me the emotional significance so many women report. “All attention was on that little screen,” I wrote, “but I had the entire universe inside me.”

I posted pictures on the blog for a while after my daughter was born, but telling her birth story was painful and new parenthood was kicking my ass in ways I had never imagined it would (and the blog host started charging money), so I eventually let that blog go.

Between my daughter’s birth and my second pregnancy, Facebook was born. I leaped into the Facebook ball pit and jumped around happily with everyone else, tending my pretend farm, “poking” people, sending magic eggs, updating my status seventeen times a day. While pregnant with my son, I posted weekly belly pictures, and after his birth, I posted photos of us in the birth tub and dozens and dozens of photos of his cuteness.

Then there was some alert about Facebook using member photos in advertisements, and how, based on the terms of agreement, all content on Facebook was the property of Facebook to do with as it liked. I wasn’t really sure how big a privacy risk this was, but it got me to thinking about what I was doing. My son had been on the internet since before his birth and had no say in whether he was there or not. This didn’t seem fair. So, I took down all of the photos of my children’s faces, all of the birth photos, all of the belly photos. Eventually I deleted all content and closed down my personal profile (although it still shows up, and I suspect it might not be possible to delete it entirely).

I started Imperfect Happiness, and carefully avoided posting photos of faces. (Eventually I posted a photo or two of my own face, but I still avoid photos of my kids’ faces.)

I posted stories about my kids, but I never used their names and when my friends would forget and use my kids’ names in the comments, I would edit them. I wanted to post about deep, important issues, but I didn’t want that traced back to my children.

For a long time, this seemed like enough privacy, but now I’m not so sure. Telling my own story is one thing, but do I have a right to tell my children’s stories to anyone who happens upon Imperfect Happiness? Am I betraying their trust in me by exposing our private conversations and concerns to the world?

I felt this way about my daughter first. She’s four years older and much more private than my son. Especially now that she’s on the cusp of adolescence, she seems even more in need of someone she can trust with her secrets. In the past six months or so, I’ve started to feel this way about my son, too. He’s not yet six, but he has a rich internal life that he lets me glimpse and which delights me. I want to resist the temptation to share the things they say as “cute.”

And my children are cute. They are endearing. Every day, they each reveal a heart that’s sensitive and strong and wise in its innocence. I listen with amazement as they reveal their hearts to me and to their dad and to other people they trust. I am one of a very few with whom they trust their hearts. It doesn’t feel right for me to turn around and tell all about it on the internet, especially in that distancing, patronizing “isn’t that adorable?” grown-up way. That doesn’t feel like a good way to cultivate trust.

This has been my struggle with blogging over the past few months. How do I tell about the moving and perception-altering experience of sharing my life with my children without betraying their trust?

Without an answer to this question, I tread carefully. I’ve withdrawn from the revelatory posts I’d previously found so comfortable, and this has left me feeling flat about what I’m writing. I know authors who write movingly without telling too much about their families; I know it’s possible, but I’ve not figured out how to do it yet and so I err on the side of silence.

Just as my children have since their births been engaging in the long transition from being one with me to being individuals, I need to learn how to transition from interweaving my story with theirs to the degree that their stories are merely an extension of mine. Even more difficult, I have to learn to see my own story as not merely an extension of theirs.

 

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Breaking All the Rules

As I drove away from the open field where I left my progeny for day camp, I wondered what I should do with my two and half hours sans enfants. I found myself near a small lake I knew that had a wooded walking path around it, and I decided to chuck my usual need for over-planning and just take a walk in the woods. I had my sun hat and sunglasses with me, and I was wearing my good walking shoes. What other preparations did I need?

In the parking area, I opened my door and a voice in my head piped up with one of the Safety Rules for Being a Woman: “Always tell someone where you’re going!”

I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.

I looked at my phone and decided it was too much like checking in with a parent to call my spouse and tell him I was going for a two-mile walk. I’m a grown woman. I can take a walk without notifying my spouse. (But before I put my purse in the trunk, I tucked my phone in my pocket, just in case.)

With my sun hat shading my face, I started for the trail head. I glanced back at my car and eyed the white van parked next to my driver’s side door.

Another rule popped into my head: “Never park next to a full-size van!”

I envisioned the abduction scene from The Silence of the Lambs.

I shook off the image and headed for the trail head again. I was trying to think of a reason not to worry about the van when I walked by a Jeep Wrangler in which a middle-aged man sat alone, listening to “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

“Morning,” he said in his Massachusetts accent and raised his hand from the wheel in greeting. I smiled and nodded a greeting, and the voice in my head recited: “Buddy up for safety! Never walk alone!”

I’d been on this walk many times with only my kids and had felt only mild annoyance at their pokey walking pace, but now without my diminutive guards I suddenly felt afraid.

I noted the man’s appearance and took a quick look at his license plate and walked on, with what I hoped looked like purpose and confidence. On the trail, I met woman after woman walking alone. After about the sixth solo woman, I began to feel more comfortable. If they were alone and okay, chances are I would be, too.

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Sure enough, the biggest dangers I encountered on the path that morning were the piles of horse poo I had to dodge and the gnats that swarmed my mucous membranes. I was safe despite breaking the rules.

When I was a kid, I imagined that when I reached adulthood, I would eat peanut butter directly from the jar, and I would be confident and courageous. The first dream has come true, but I’m far from confident and courageous.

Here I was feeling nervous about walking around a suburban lake by myself in the middle of the morning. And why was I nervous? Was it because of some real danger at this particular lake?

No.

It was because I was remembering lots of rules that had been drilled into my head and the heads of other women of my generation over the years. Don’t develop habits, don’t go running while listening to music on headphones, don’t go walking alone after dark.

The women I talk to say that they choose to follow the rules (or not) on a case-by-case basis.

“When I run, I guess I should technically have someone with me, but I almost always run alone,” says my marathoner sister. “But the place I usually run is made for bikers and runners, and I know bikers and runners, and I don’t know…I just feel comfortable there.” It’s a group she knows and trusts, if not personally then at least in the abstract, and that leaves her feeling safe enough not to follow all of the rules.

“Of course,” she adds, “if I’m in a rough part of town or I have to walk to my car in the dark, I park out in the open, under a street light and either get a ride to my car or have someone walk me to my car.”

These rules are supposed to keep us safe, but do they really? By following all the rules, do we really reduce our risk of becoming victims of violence? I can’t find any numbers to support that notion. The stats I have found are those that say that violence—both sexual violence and violence in general—is more likely to come from within our homes and trusted relationships than from strangers. Is it possible that keeping all of these rules in mind and being on the lookout for danger everywhere just keeps us feeling anxious without actually keeping us safer?

If these rules aren’t evidence-based, why do people keep telling us to follow them? Is it really to keep women safe, or is it just another way to preemptively blame the victim—or to make women feel like victims before we ever have a reason to?

In my high school gym class, we were doing a section on baseball. The teacher took all of the boys up to the real practice fields with the real, wooden bats and the real baseballs, while he sent all of us girls to the muddy lower field with aluminum bats and rubbery balls that bounced unpredictably when hit. When I met with the principal and told him that the girls were being denied access to decent-quality sports equipment and well-drained playing surfaces, he said, “Did it ever occur to you that the teacher was just trying to keep you safe?”

I was fifteen years old and had taxed my introverted, non-confrontational self pretty heavily by meeting with the principal in the first place, so although I couldn’t quite figure out why wooden bats were dangerous for girls but not for boys, I just said, “No. I hadn’t thought of that.”

When I told my father about the conversation that night, he said, “What about the boys? Don’t they need to be kept safe?” The fact that the reason wasn’t applied to both groups, he explained, was what made it sexist.

My spouse has never been told not to jog by himself. My father was never told to get a ride to his car after dark. If these rules really do keep women safe, wouldn’t they also keep men safe? And if they do, why are we only telling them to women?

Teaching these rules only to girls and women and not to boys and men makes the rules suspect in my mind. Why are girls and women encouraged to feel like we need to be protected both by and from men?

If these rules only apply to women, this implies that women are targeted for violence simply because they are women. If we’re being targeted for who we are rather than for what we do, then it seems there’s a deeper issue that isn’t being addressed, deeper than the need for women to be constantly aware of their surroundings in a way that men need not be.

What does our culture gain by keeping us scared?


Find more Weekly Writing Challenge entries here.

Dreams vs Reality, or What Yeats and I Have in Common (sort of)

Lake Isle of Innisfree

by William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

When my spouse and I lived in North Carolina, we frequented a pub called W. B. Yeats. It’s closed now, the Internet tells me, but in the late 90’s and early aughts they poured a good Guinness. Or rather, the one tall fellow with the longish brown hair poured a good Guinness. When any of the other bartenders was working, we’d order something else, but when floppy-haired guy was there, it was Guinness, and it was good.

When we finally returned to North Carolina for the first time since we conceived our daughter there in 2004, we didn’t visit the former home of the Yeats pub. Instead we spent four days in Asheville. I loved it there just as I expected I would and in some ways hoped I wouldn’t.

Like the poet Yeats and Innisfree, his idealized, Walden-inspired refuge, my view of life in Asheville is not very realistic. Yeats would have needed more than nine rows of beans and a bee hive to sustain himself, and I would probably find that tourists, vintage clothing shops, and Malaprop’s Bookstore would lose their luster after a while.

That last one’s probably not a good example—I’m not sure any decent book shop could lose my interest, and Malaprop’s is far beyond decent—but the fact remains that there are real-life reasons to abandon my Asheville dream.

But in quiet morning moments when I’m walking through my neighborhood and the clouds stack up just right so that it looks like there’s a line of hazy mountains looming on the horizon, I smell the woods and feel the fog on my cheek even in the middle of suburban New England. The mountains call to my heart, despite the protests of my brain.

The Mountain City of Asheville

inspired by William Butler Yeats’s Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Asheville,
And a downtown loft buy there, filled with local pottery and art:
A corner coffee shop will I have there, a book store just down the hill;
And each morning anew I’ll start.

And I shall feel at peace there, for peace through the mountains rolls,
Roaming with the fog of morning to the sunset’s fading glow;
There midnight sings with indie tunes, and noon with bluegrass barcaroles,
And evening full of pleasures slow.

I will arise and go now, for always day and night
I hear the tree tops rustling in the breeze that I adore;
While I drive along suburban roads, or the Massachusetts Pike,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Where is your Innisfree/Asheville? Do you love it for what it is or for what you imagine it to be?

(Note: Since it was first published, this post has been edited significantly to reflect the suggestions of my spouse.)

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Why I Didn’t Answer When You Called

CIMG2907The reasons I will tell you:

I was exercising.

I was in the bathroom.

I forgot to charge my phone.

We had guests over.

You just missed me.

The reasons I won’t tell you:

I was in the middle of a crossword puzzle.

I didn’t feel like talking.

I couldn’t find the phone.

My coffee had just reached the perfect temperature, and a moment’s delay would have ruined the whole thing.

Children were screaming at each other.

I wasn’t yet to the point that I was seeking an excuse to keep me from exercising.

I had peanut butter/honey/soapy water/bread dough/raw eggs/bodily excretions on my hands.

My four-year-old just had a mishap with glue, scissors, markers, paint, milk and/or library books.

We were doing homeschool and if I’d walked away, when I got back I would have had to search for my daughter until I found her hiding beneath the stairs or under a comforter, reading a book by the light of her headlamp.

I was stuck getting into or out of my sports bra.

I was writing a list of reasons I wasn’t answering the phone.

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Your Morning Walk: A Guided Tour

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Grab your fleece—New England mornings are still chilly in May—and begin your walk at the oldest house in the neighborhood. This split-level made its debut just months before JFK was shot, but you’ve only lived here for three years, which means you have another seventeen years or so before you’re no longer considered a newcomer.

Turn left and follow the sidewalk up the hill toward the cul-de-sac that marks one of the farthest boundaries of your nearly two-mile constitutional. As you start up the hill, wish you had brought your sunglasses. The only thing you notice for about twenty feet is the frost and plow damage of the asphalt sidewalk as you try to shield your eyes from the sun peeking over the horizon.

Back in the shade, notice the oak tree overgrown with bittersweet vines. Imagine bringing your gloves early one morning and pulling the bittersweet, a sort of suburban yard version of the shoemaker’s elves. Wonder if you can be arrested for removing invasive plants from someone else’s lawn in the dark of night.

Halfway up the hill a line of raspberry bushes marks the end of the old section of the neighborhood. The power lines go underground and the modest split-levels, ranches, capes, and Dutch colonials give way to colonials that tower over treeless seas of green grass. These are your neighbors. These are people who wave to you when they see you playing with your kids in your lawn. Try not to be judgy.

Round the cul-de-sac and head back down the hill. On your left, notice a song sparrow noisily chasing a cowbird away from her nest. Take a moment to wonder why you think the cowbird’s method of perpetuating her genes is inferior to the sparrow’s and why you silently cheer the smaller bird on.

Notice that the neighbors on the corner have cleared out the poison ivy that used to mingle with their hostas. Wonder if they were able to do this without getting a rash.

At the street you see a golden retriever walking with his human companion. The dog turns to look at you, but the human does not. Don’t greet the human, but smile at the dog and then recall that smiling is a threatening gesture to dogs. The dog doesn’t seemed threatened, but stop smiling abruptly anyway.

The power lines go underground again across the street, but the houses stay modest. Wave at the homeowner adjusting the American flag in front of his house. Notice that the highway sounds which at your starting point sounded vaguely like the ocean if the person hearing it had never heard the ocean before now sound distinctly like highway sounds, with the roar of engines accelerating and transmissions down-shifting through the morning rush.

At the bottom of the hill, blackbirds graze in the dew-covered grass. Wonder where the rabbits are. Are you too late in the morning? Too early? Have they found a different spot to have breakfast? Will they return when the clover blossoms? Hear a rustle in the hedge; turn to look, but it’s just a squirrel.

Around the curve, notice scattered grass seed and strips of sod in the bare patches of the lawn of the house that had been on the market but is not now. Remember the elderly man who used to tend the little fenced garden at the top of the lawn; wonder what happened to him.

Turn left onto the street you think of as ending in a cul-de-sac but which is really a circle. As you round the circle, you are at the farthest point of your walk. Just past this circle is where last year you saw a large snapping turtle sunning itself on a driveway. You see no turtles this morning, just a house cat huddling in a flower bed and a neighbor getting into his car to go to work. Wave at the commuter; he will wave back.

Still looking for turtles, notice two long ears silhouetted by the sun shining through a patch of tall weeds: a rabbit, out for morning silflay. Slow to watch it for several seconds, but it doesn’t stir.

At the corner look up at the chimney of the house to your right. Last spring, a mockingbird perched there and went through his ambitious repertoire, complete with a very convincing impression of a car alarm. This morning, the chimney is bare. You’ve heard cardinals, sparrows, blackbirds, chickadees, and a northern flicker, but no mockingbirds.

Turn right at the corner. On the next stretch of road, two cars pass by and you see another commuter in his driveway. Wave at the fellow getting into his car but not at the drivers of the moving cars.

There are dog pawprints on the sidewalk, but you’ve not seen another dog since the golden retriever. Wonder where the dog-walkers are this morning. Feel a slight sense of superiority that you are out walking and don’t even have a dog.

Turn left and continue up the hill. This is the last stretch of your walk, and the section most likely to induce a sweat. A car approaches and stops in front of a house about halfway up the hill. The word “carpool” floats through your mind.

Look left and see a brown rabbit sitting still like a small lawn ornament in the middle of a patch of grass. Say, “Hi, Bunny!” just above a whisper, and then feel self-conscious about greeting the rabbit out loud.

Walk around the truck that’s parked on the sidewalk, past the storm drain that always smells slightly of natural gas but must not be any big deal because you’ve already called the gas company about it and it still smells like gas, then cross the street.

Your house is in view.

Turn into your driveway, climb your front steps, and as you open the door, brace yourself to argue your four-year-old out of having pancakes for breakfast.

 


 

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Carolina Dreaming

Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina via Wikimedia Commons, taken by Ken Thomas (Public Domain).

I walk along the red clay path past white dogwood blooms. My son spots a black and orange millipede. We stop to watch it cross the path and see a second one on the other side. My children gather rocks and throw them into the creek as I try to capture the splash with my camera. The scent on the air smells a little like sandalwood, but more than anything it smells like North Carolina, like the mountains that loom up to my left.

My mind tries out scenarios of varying degrees of ridiculousness that might bring our family here to live instead of Massachusetts. My spouse could teach at the college. I could join a writing group and maybe get my MFA. I look up homeschooling groups and flute teachers online. But I know we’re leaving the mountains tomorrow, and that living here isn’t something we can do right now. Or maybe ever.

My eyes sting and my belly feels like I’m falling, but I try to remind myself to breathe this place in, to be here now rather than missing it before we ever leave.

Back in town, street musicians—a ragged bluegrass band, a guy with a guitar and a brindle mut, a fellow smoking a cigarette while playing on a synthesizer—provide the soundtrack as we walk by book shops and head shops, art galleries and cafes. We stop by the gallery where the owner of the condo we’re renting works and exhibits her photographs. We talk about how much Asheville has changed in the eleven years since we last visited, which changes are good (an even greater commitment to green living and cleaning up the mountain waterways) and which are kind of mixed (lots and lots and lots of tourists who fill up the parking garages and restaurants but about whom we can’t complain because we’re among them and whom she can’t complain about because they rent her condo and buy her artwork).

We can’t stay long, though, because we’re meeting a friend for dinner, a friend from Salt Lake City we didn’t know was in town until my spouse bumped into him on the street. It’s just a coincidence, him being in town for work at the same time we’re in town for the first time in more than a decade, him passing our building at the same time my spouse was walking back from the ATM, but to me, this is just another bit of the magic of Asheville.

This is just what I expected when we planned this trip. The anticipation of this visit was what infused me with joy as we drove into town and what prompted my daughter to ask as we walked the few blocks to dinner that first night in town, “Mommy, would you be happy if we lived in Asheville?”

That first night when I could barely keep myself from jumping up and down with glee, my answer was an unequivocal “yes,” but now I feel less certain.

Even though I love this city and the mountains where my grandmother’s family have lived for nearly 300 years, even though I love the independent bookstore where the cashier invited me to attend a literary salon based around the book I bought and the Mexican-Caribbean restaurant where I ate transcendent fire-roasted tomato chipotle peanut salsa, would I really be happy here? Would the joy wear off? If I lived here, would the negatives start to overwhelm the positives? Would I start to hate the tourists and long for a quiet place where there are more playgrounds for my kids and where people don’t wax poetic about micro-brewed beer and locally-sourced produce? After a few months or a year, would I do like I always do and start looking for another, better place to live?

In a way it doesn’t matter. Because we’re not staying here. We’re driving back to Massachusetts and our sweet little split-level in the suburbs where we can open our windows and hear the chirping of the spring peepers as we fall asleep instead of live indie rock until 2am from the bar downstairs.


Written as part of the Weekly Writing Challenge theme, Great Expectations.

 

Baby Feet, 05/13/05

A Birth in Fifty Words

When my sobs subsided I steeled myself, and we closed the door on the birth tub and our home birth and entered a world of monitors and medications, threats and confusion. The triumph behind us, I could finally look into my daughter’s eyes; we were the first people on Earth.


Written for The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge theme, “Fifty.”

 

Origins

When I was four, after my brother Josh’s death but before my sister was born, I had a dream that a giant dog was running around our San Diego house. I could see the dog’s fur outside the window as it raced by, and I could feel the ground shake with each of its steps. I knew it was up to me to warn people, to protect my family, but I couldn’t reach to close the windows and no one would listen to me. When I woke up, I told my mom about the dream. “I felt so old, Mommy,” I said. “I felt like I was five!”

After Josh died, my dad came home from cruise early. A black car with white military lettering on the door dropped him off in front of our house. I ran across the grass and jumped into his arms, pressed my nose into his warm khaki Navy uniform shirt, and breathed in his smell of jet fuel, cigarette smoke, and Coast soap.

Later, the three of us sat at the dining room table. We just sat there, the silence buzzing in our ears. I tried to express the impossible reality that we had been a family of four but now we were only three. Into the silence I said, “Sometimes it seems like I can still hear the baby crying.” Or at least that’s what I remember saying. I wasn’t even three yet, so it’s possible it came out differently.

My dad carried me into Josh’s room and showed me the empty crib. “See, no baby,” he said.

My dad had misunderstood me. I knew the baby wasn’t there anymore, I just didn’t understand how that could be. I didn’t try to correct my dad because I could tell that my question had hurt him, and I didn’t know how to say it another way anyway. So I kept quiet and felt the chasm of aloneness widen around me.

I first remember feeling the aloneness the night of Josh’s birth when my mom was away and I was frightened and my dad was asleep. I felt it the morning of Josh’s death, when I stood with my mom in our pajamas at the end of our driveway, watching our shadows stretch long on the pavement, waiting for the ambulance. I felt it in the months after when my mom would fall asleep on the couch; I would blow air into her nostrils to wake her up. She said it was because Josh had fallen asleep and not woken up and I was afraid that the same thing would happen to her, but I just remember feeling alone and wanting her to be with me.

Even then I was trying to figure out the nature of existence. How is it that a baby—my brother—could appear and then just no longer be there? Where did he come from and where did he go? I knew he was supposed to be there at the cemetery where I wore my crocheted sailor suit and wasn’t allowed to pick the flowers. But how was he not with us anymore?

I had sat on the sofa with a pillow under my plump little arm and held him in my lap, had pushed him in his walker and made him laugh, had lain next to him on the living room rug and hugged him, and now he was no longer there.

More than thirty years later, I’m still trying to figure out how it’s possible that someone who is so firmly there one moment can be so thoroughly gone the next. With my own babies, I could feel the possibility of their absence even as I felt their warm weight in my arms. I can still feel it, and they’re a ways from being babies anymore.

I used to write about Josh a lot, but until my blog post last month about the night he was born, I hadn’t written about him since a high school writing class more than twenty years ago. In the weeks since I wrote that blog post, I’ve been looking back and it seems like everything I write is about him, or at least about the confusion and aloneness that I’ve felt in the wake of his life.

It’s possible I would have been confused and alone even if Josh hadn’t died, that this is just my temperament. I was so young when he lived that I can’t remember if I was different before his death. Whatever the cause, my earliest memories are of being confused and alone, and I think that this confusion and aloneness birthed my writing life even before I could read and write. There were things that I had to try to figure out, but because they were things I couldn’t talk about to my parents—the only people who’d known Josh and the only people I felt might have the answers—I had to try to figure them out alone. I paid close attention to everything around me, trying to pick up clues to the answers to my questions about where we come from and where we go, why we’re here for such a short time and what possible meaning there can be in this cycle of birth and death, joy and sorrow.

For more than thirty years, I’ve asked these questions—and, when I was too afraid, avoided asking these questions—in fiction and in essay, in my dreams and in my middle-of-the-night panic attacks, in my irascibility and in my taciturn pouts. I’ve asked and I’ve asked, and I’ve not found any answers. I’m not even sure there are answers to be had to these questions, at least not satisfying ones, but if there are, I feel sure that I can write my way to them.

And so I write.

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (found in Elizabeth Andrew’s Writing the Sacred Journey:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

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Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections (March 24, 2014). 

 

On Being Where I Am

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The road stretches out before me, potholes, garbage cans, and all.

One of my closest friends is in her 60’s. She and I have a lot in common in the way we think and in the way we see the world. She challenges me and grounds me and helps me to be my best self. More than any of this, though, I just love spending time with her.

The other day I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if Linda and I were the same age? If we could be in our 30’s together—or even in our 20’s (why not?)—and had all of that time to be friends? But almost as soon as I had that thought, I realized that even if it were possible, it wouldn’t work.

Even setting aside the differences in upbringing and cultural influences had she been born 30 years later or had I been born 30 years earlier, there is no guarantee that we would be friends at different stages in our lives. If 37-year-old Linda met 37-year-old me, would we even like each other? Would we have had any connection to one another at all? It occurred to me that maybe we’re friends at the exact ages that we could be friends, and it wouldn’t work any other way.

I started walking, so I’m told, when I was ten months old. I wrote my first novel when I was in eighth grade. I nearly left high school my senior year because I was in such a hurry to get on with things. Back then, I defined “things” as either being a circus clown or a long-haul trucker, and then whatever those things led to. Instead, I compromised and finished high school and went to college, where I overloaded my schedule and completed my four-year undergraduate degree in three years. I’ve always been in a rush to move ahead and to learn my lessons as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This was pretty much fine during school when there were clear milestones to reach, but as an adult I have trouble judging whether I’m ahead or not. Even though I’ve accomplished a good amount and learned innumerable lessons in my 37 years, I always feel behind.

But then the other day while I was meditating I had a “eureka!” moment. I know that while I’m meditating I’m supposed to just let the thoughts drift away like clouds or balloons or milkweed seeds, but this one hooked me. It’s this:

I’m in the right place right now. I know exactly what I need to know in this moment and at this age, and it couldn’t be any other way.

Although I get irritated that I didn’t learn some of my lessons at a younger age, that I’m not further ahead intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually than I am, I’m following just the course I need to be following.

Each lesson builds on the last, and maybe I couldn’t have known some of these things at a younger age. If I had fast-tracked those lessons and avoided some of the embarrassment and bad parts of learning them, I couldn’t be where I am now: mother to my specific, individual children, wife to my spouse, friends with amazing people like Linda.

Here is the only place I could possibly be at this moment. My only job is to live fully in this moment so that I’m ready for what the next moment brings.

Some pertinent thoughts from The Faces, who were wearing exactly the clothes and hair styles that they should have been wearing at that moment:

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This post written in response to The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge: Golden Years.

A Writer By Any Other Name

When people ask me, “What do you do?” I get all squirmy inside. I should really come up with a technically true but nevertheless evasive answer, like, “I develop and implement curricula for children learning outside the traditional classroom setting.” Or I could go with, “I read and write reviews about the classics of western literature,” or, “I spend my days repeating tasks only for them to be undone so they can be repeated again.”

Back in my college days and in my early 20’s, I would say with confidence, “I’m a writer.” In our writing classes, we were encouraged to say this as a kind of affirmation. “I am a writer!” And if I didn’t completely believe it, the evidence supported the claim. I wrote every day and then I workshopped my writing with other self-proclaimed writers. I did public readings and published my poetry and prose, if only in the campus literary magazine. The future was ahead of me. Surely I was destined to be published widely and appreciated in my own time.

These days—post-corporate career, post-self employment, post-birth and breastfeeding—I answer with only feigned confidence. “I’m a writer.” The response I used to get was, “Oh? What do you write?” to which I would answer, “Creative nonfiction, mostly personal essays, but I also write short stories and I’m working on a novel.” I could still use this answer because it’s all still true, but now the question is different. It’s changed from, “What do you write?” to “What have you written?”

I’m not sure when or why this shift happened, but I suspect it’s because the wrinkles around my eyes and the silver highlights in my hair mark me as someone who has had ample time to achieve at least some of her youthful ambitions.

It seems a particularly cruel question, but I doubt it’s intended that way. I should, I guess, take it as a compliment. I seem so capable and well-spoken, the questioner just assumes that if they’ve not seen my name on a book cover or in the byline of an article in The New Yorker, it’s the result of their own oversight.

I could just tell them, “I blog,” but I hate to disappoint them. Or perhaps it’s less about disappointing them than admitting that blogging isn’t really what I intended back when I first called myself a writer. It exposes the doubt I feel when I claim that I’m a writer.

But just like in college, the evidence supports my claim. I write every day. I give occasional public readings, primarily in front of my UU congregation. I even publish my writing, albeit in a venue that doesn’t involve getting past editorial gatekeepers.

In her book Writing the Sacred Journey, Elizabeth Andrew refers to writers who write because “writing brings them nearer to the ineffable essence of life.” I write for this reason, and I think this is why I’ve always written. I write for connection. To paraphrase Andrew, I write because it helps me birth myself. I write because I just do. If life tossed me a Robinson Crusoe and I was alone with little hope of ever seeing another human much less signing a book for them, I would still write.

I suppose if I wanted to stifle any follow-up questions about what I do, I could go with, “I write to birth myself.” It’s true, but it’s just not what people think of when someone says, “I’m a writer.” But for me, at least, I think it’s the part that has to come first. If I write from my heart and write the truth—even if it’s fictional—and that leads me to a life that looks more like what people think of as the life of a writer, with book signings and publicity tours and a Wikipedia entry with my name on it, then that’s fantastic.

But if not, I’m still a writer.

Evidence: A pile of completed notebooks. (Not pictured: everything on my hard-drive, nearly 1,000 blog posts (and 100's more on my other blogs, past and present), and dozens of other notebooks.)

Evidence: A pile of completed notebooks. (Not pictured: everything on my hard-drive, nearly 1,000 blog posts (and 100’s more on my other blogs, past and present), and dozens of other notebooks.)