This was a writing prompt given to me at a community writer’s workshop I attended this weekend. We were given 25 minutes to write. This is what I came up with:
Strategy scares the hell out of me. Mostly because I’m not good at it.
Myers-Briggs says I’m a feeler, not a thinker. I do think, sometimes, from the outside in – but mostly I act. I make, I do, I jump. I do not have the patience to plan.
All around me is evidence of strategy working. Sure, there is talent and skill, but so too is there strategic genius and foresight. My writer friends with their well thought out platforms and perfectly positioned brands. Meanwhile my URLs all have hyphens and nets where there should be coms.
I worry I’ll never string together anything of significance. Nothing remarkable. No mark that lasts. My stops and starts will amount to illegible chicken scratches that become indistinguishable from the grain over the time.
What if I don’t have enough of the good stuff? The practical stuff?
What if I’m all leap and no plan?
I woke up in the middle of the night this weekend with an acute awareness of my limited existence. I could feel my finiteness, and it was terrifying. There I sat, a spot on a very short line, a line with a hard stop ahead. And I had no idea what to do about it. I sat in the fear, soaked in it and tried not to judge or run. I called it courage.
I have written a great many things that I’m proud of. I’ve received feedback and praise and publicity, and now I’ve fooled myself into thinking the whole world is watching and waiting.
It’s pride really. Pride and fear. Well, price, fear, and nausea. The thought of sitting down and coming up with a beginning, middle, and end turns my stomach. And how stupid is it to be scared sick of writing? So let’s just not think about fear today.
“You know, maybe,” a timid voice speaks up, “maybe I’ve lost faith in the relevance of my stories. Maybe I need to remember that the ordinary matters.”
“No,” the old critic brays. “No, you are just lazy and lack willpower. You cannot do the hard things, or even the uncomfortable things. You lack perseverance and stamina and plain old fashion work ethic. You have no strategy.”
“What’s it matter anyway?” I think. I’m but one dot on one short line. There’s no harm in fading away.
And so I put it off for one more day, and I watch one more episode of Friday Night Lights.
Life is a process of constant change, so much so that we usually don’t notice the transformations happening in real time. We look up one day and notice change in hindsight: the kids are bigger, our spouses are older, our bodies are different than we remember. Change wears on us like ocean tides on a beach, relentless and imperceptible.
And then there are changes we see coming, when we can almost fool ourselves into thinking we are braced and prepared for what comes next because this time we have foresight on our side. Weddings. Births. Graduations. Rather than a steady and slow erosion that transforms days into memories, these are the landslides that mark the beginning and end of eras.
The rocks are loose; a landslide is coming.
I got a new job last week. I want to say it happened by accident, but I didn’t slip and fall and slide into a new desk chair. I wasn’t, however, looking for a new job. I was enjoying my many free massages (seriously: so, so many) and planning the Creative Soul Retreat. I was running back and forth between baseball games and crew regattas and Girl Scout meetings. I was trying to adjust my diet and take better care of myself and climb out of the most recent depression hole. I didn’t want or need a new job.
But then a friend mentioned an opening that maybe I’d be perfect for. Emails exchanged on Monday; hired on Friday. And everyone I’ve told since then has said, “oh wow, that’s perfect for you.”
I’m going to be the coordinator for my neighborhood’s business association. My job will be to organize the business community and promote my neighborhood, basically, and I know it’s going to be great because people who have only known me for a few months have said, “and you’re so passionate about this neighborhood!”
I am pretty passionate about this place. After all, I chose to live here after traveling all over the country, chose this place specifically because of how much we loved it – with no friends, family, or job to encourage us.
Of course back then you could say I didn’t know better. Back then I had not spent so much as a single night in Squirrel Hill; I only knew it seemed like the right neighborhood for us in a city we’d just recently fallen in love with.
But now I know better, and we’re choosing it all over again with a new move to a different house – same neighborhood.
In August we’ll be leaving the first and only place we’ve called home here, and we’ll be moving into a place that I suspect will feel even more like home. It’s an upgrade – one I couldn’t have imagined needing when we were fresh off living in an RV for ten months.
When we moved here I had fantasies about what it meant to live in a city. My ideas mainly came from books and TV shows, none of which were actually set in the city in which I would be living. Still, some of those fantasies have proved realistic. The walking, the eating out, the non-stop parade of cool things to do and interesting people to meet. But it turns out it’s also true that in this city and this neighborhood, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a car (still only one though!) and a washer and dryer in your home.
I’m 99 parts excited, and 1 part nervous (which is pretty damn good as happy to scared ratios go).
I am counting down the days to my own laundry, dishwasher, garage, deck, and central air conditioning. I’m also sad about living more than one block away from the very best neighbors and amazing friends. Sure, we’ll still be friends – but our kids won’t walk to school together and I suppose there will be fewer porch drinks when the distance home is a mile instead of a few yards. They have become our surrogate family here, and I’m scared of losing that.
But I am really excited about that new dishwasher.
New job. New house. New chapter.
No one is getting born or changing their last name, but I can feel the big shift of tectonic plates moving in our lives. I can see the early light of a new dawn, and I’m giddy with anticipation.
I think technically it’s been a very long time since I’ve written about it – but every time feels like here we go again. Every time feels like it makes liars out of the days since the last time, the days when I thought I was “managing my depression”.
I’ve been really angry this time around, angry at my body mostly and the unfairness of having to live inside of it. Why can’t I just be normal? Because I’m certain everyone around me is normal and healthy and doing more than managing.
I know that’s not true. I know that lots of people are dealing with lots of things.
But I feel like the only person who needs to sleep so damn much.
My husband doesn’t have to sleep like I do.
Sure, he has a chronic skin condition that flares up and causes head-to-toe burning every few weeks… but he doesn’t stop getting shit done. It’s so easy to tell myself I have it worse.
Forget worse for a minute. I want to admit that I’m angry – and scared, and tired of being tired.
It’s been a few years since my body was this out of whack. The weight gain, the crushing fatigue, the irregular cycles that are usually Swiss-like in their precision. The last time I got like this I made my way to an endocrinologist and was diagnosed with a metabolic syndrome, which is an official way of saying I can’t eat carbohydrates.
I have been eating carbohydrates.
And here’s the thing: I’m too fucking tired to fix it.
The idea of cooking two eggs right now is enough to send me back under the covers. Meal planning and shopping? Just… no.
That’s where I’m living right now: in the land of no.
I do only what I have to. It’s kind of amazing, actually, what that entails and how, exactly, I’m able to get myself up at 4:30 in the morning to chaperone a kid event and work until 10:00 at night when someone else is counting on me… but how cooking an actual breakfast or lunch is entirely too much to handle.
It has always been my motto that the kids wouldn’t suffer: not for my unplanned pregnancy, not for my marital strife, and not for my depression.
I wish I knew how I was making that work, because I’d channel that energy and willpower into the rest of my life. I swear I would… if only I could.
Maybe if I knew for sure that my efforts would matter. I try and tell myself that doing this one small thing will start a chain reaction and the payoff will be huge, but the idea of a chain reaction sounds big and a bit overwhelming. I’ll start tomorrow, I promise. It’s just one more day.
“Does he want to go in the dressing room with you?”
“Your son’s face just lit up!”
“She’s actually a girl.”
“No, she’s fine out here.”
“That was my daughter.”
“I’m so sorry!!”
“Oh, it’s fine,” I assure them.
Emma doesn’t notice most of the time. And if she does, she’s unlikely to say anything. Sometimes she’ll look at me with a mischievous smile and put one finger in front of her lips. She shakes her head slightly and covers a laugh at the little secret we’re in on together.
The secret is that she’s a girl; she just looks like a boy.
“It’s fine,” I say. But I don’t feel like it’s fine. I feel at once protective and embarrassed, maybe even ashamed.
And I am definitely ashamed by my discomfort.
When Emma first announced about a month ago that she wanted to cut off all her hair, I cried. Not in front of her, of course. In front of her I asked why and then told her to find a picture on the Internet that she could show to a stylist.
And then I went into the shower and cried.
I cried not because she wanted to cut her long hair, but because she wanted to “cut it all off like a boy”. For some reason that was the straw that broke the dam.
Emma hasn’t worn dresses since she was two. She hates them. Now, at ten, she’s usually wearing mesh shorts and a Packers t-shirt or jersey – or something old and stained and acquired for free. When she’s “dressing up” she wears skinny jeans and a plaid button down with her black and green Converse hightops.
I admit her fashion sense has always made me a little sad. When I found out I was having a girl I ran home and painted the nursery two shades of pink while fantasies of girls’ weekends and shopping trips danced in my head. I’d teach her how to do her hair and paint her nails. I couldn’t wait to start the journey with my very own mini-me.
But it turns out you don’t give birth to dolls, and instead of a mini-me I got a completely separate and independent human being with ideas and dreams of her own. And yes, that made me a little sad.
It also made me extremely proud. I’ve always been in awe of my daughter’s strong sense of self and amazed at how early it developed. “She’s been refusing dresses since before she was verbal!” I’ve been known to brag.
I’ve fought hard against the label tomboy.
“She’s not a tomboy,” I would assert. “She’s a girl who doesn’t like pink or dresses or playing princess. Who she is doesn’t require another label. Girl can encompass all of that and more!”
I thought I was empowering her and teaching her to embrace and love all of who she is and would ever be. I wonder now if I was also holding space for the possible resurrection of a long-dead dream.
Because I cried in the shower when she told me she wanted to cut all her hair off.
“We’re never going to have grandkids!” I sobbed to my husband on the other side of the shower curtain. “And I’ll bet you money neither one of our kids even go to prom!”
Yeah, because not just one but both of my children are constantly resisting and avoiding social norms of all sorts, especially the gender ones. And you know what? Sometimes that is exhausting. Sometimes it gets hard to constantly have your expectations thwarted and be forced to re-examine the status quo.
“You have no idea what’s going to happen in the future,” my husband said. My mother repeated the sentiment when I got out of the shower and shared my emotional outburst with her.
“And by the way,” she reminded me, “you never thought you were going to be a parent.”
Right. The irony here is that I didn’t grow up with dreams of what parenthood would be like. I didn’t grow up wanting children at all, in fact, and it was only through one very bad financial decision (birth control is so expensive! I said) that I ended up presented with the choice to be a parent. My dreams for my kids – and for myself as a mother – are barely older than the kids themselves.
And there I was crying about unborn grandchildren.
It wasn’t about the grandkids, I told myself. In that moment, on that day, I just wanted very badly for one of my kids to be normal - because maybe that would just be easier.
Of course I pulled myself together. I reminded myself that my kids are amazing. Both Jared and my mother reminded me that any resistance they have to normal is completely my fault, because I have not in any way raised them to fall in line with blanket expectations.
I helped Emma pick out a haircut – one we found by searching “androgynous haircuts” – and took her in for the big chop.
I also had a quick little conversation with her about whether or not she might be transgender.
Hey, it’s 2015 and I read the Internet.
“Em, do you feel more like a boy than a girl?” I asked.
“Are you talking about that” – and here she holds up two fingers and moves them back and forth to illustrate her point – “gender switchy thing?”
“Uhhhh… yes? And how do you know about that?”
“I saw a show about a boy who was born a girl and a girl who was born a boy and they liked each other and then they had surgery and they still liked each other!”
Hey, it’s 2015 and she clearly has way too much access to the Internet.
“Yes,” I tell her, “that’s what I’m talking about.”
“No, Mom,” she insists, “I am not a boy on the inside. I am scared to death of surgery and would never do that!”
Of course my response is, “what if you weren’t afraid of surgery?”
“No, I’m a girl, I just want boy hair.”
And so we give her boy hair, and she is thrilled.
She comes home from school the first day and tells me that she gave “the best answer ever to a practice question! My teacher says I’m a whole new person with this hair!” She also credits her new ‘do for a stellar performance at baseball practice. The kid is glowing practically all the time now, and there’s no hair behind which to hide her radiant happiness.
I can’t believe I ever doubted this stupid haircut, I tell myself.
She comes to work with me on Take Your Kid to Work Day, and everyone thinks she is a boy.
I gently correct them, she is oblivious, and I want to cry all over again.
And that’s how it’s been for the last month or so. I’m riding a rollercoaster of emotions about what my daughter looks like – or rather how others perceive what she looks like – and about how I feel about how I feel about it.
I suggest she wears earrings so people can tell she’s a girl. She concedes she’d like to remember to put her earrings in more often, but reminds me she doesn’t care what people think.
“You said it doesn’t matter what other people think.”
I tell her she’s amazing, and I apologize for having such a hard time with it.
“I don’t know why it bothers me, Emma,” I confess, “but I am so, so proud of you for being able to be who you are no matter how I handle it.”
“You just think people think you’re failing at raising a daughter,” she says matter-of-factly.
“You are so smart.”
“Yeah, I should probably be a therapist or something.”
How can I not be bursting with pride about her?
I wonder if therein lies the problem, or at least part of it.
As mothers, so many of us have a horrible habit of linking our children with ourselves far beyond the cutting of the umbilical cord. Their successes are our successes; their failures are our failures. How you see my child is, by extension, how you see me. We are proud of our children – or ashamed of them – as if who they are is a direct reflection of us.
The bigger problem, the real revelation for me, is that what I was placing value in was how pretty my daughter was.
I would have said that it didn’t. I would have been adamant that pretty is pointless. But I also have often asserted that we are all beautiful, which suggesst that it is important for us to be so.
Maybe Emma already knows something that I don’t: the difference between pretty and beautiful.
She is an artist, and she loves to be surrounded by color and light and luxury. “I can’t help it,” she once told me from the balcony of a five-star hotel room, “I feel better when I’m surrounded by beautiful things!” But she has no interest in pretty.
I admit that I do. I don’t want to keep beating myself up about that; shame is no good. I like to feel pretty and I am conditioned by a particular set of norms about what pretty is. That’s where I’m at right now.
But I’m also at:
…learning to separate my children from my reflection.
…wanting to keep expanding my own definition of pretty.
…examining the value I place on pretty.
…continuing to let go, let go, let go when it comes to my kids.
I suspect I was an arsonist in a past life and that I’d carried those smash and burn tendencies with me into this one. When life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, or it was and i was still inexplicably unhappy, my instinct was to set match to the familiar and do my best to burn the whole damn thing down.
–me, An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness
I’m feeling the old itch again, the need to burn it down.
A jug of kerosene and one struck match seems like the easiest and best solution.
Solution to what? you ask.
To restlessness. To confusion. To doubt. To the choking sense of obligation and the box that has become to small.
My life is fine. By that I mean my real life, the external trappings and the personal parts, are mostly totally fine. The kids are alright, is what I’m saying, and my marriage isn’t in crisis. The day-to-day wheels are still spinning.
But I’m no longer sure where they’re taking me.
I don’t want to write about happiness anymore. Or at least not right now and not exclusively. Not because I’m not happy, but because I feel right now that I’ve already said what I wanted to say on the subject. I know a good content creator could repackage the same message over and over again, but I have no interest in repackaging. That kind of writing doesn’t excite me; I’m more interested in putting words to the discoveries as they’re happening.
I am not a content creator.
I’m a storyteller.
Perhaps I’ve become bored with my own story.
Except that I’m not. I write essays every day in my head, and they die there because I don’t have an appropriate outlet in which to share them. These stories are off-brand or irrelevant or not useful enough to my intended audience.
These stories don’t fit in the box.
And so I avoid the box entirely.
I don’t send newsletters or write posts or update social media channels. I don’t pitch to other blogs in my industry. I don’t write.
I don’t write. I identify as a writer; it’s how I answer the question “what do you do?” But the reality is that I have written and am not writing.
I tell my friends I’m feeling lost and confused, and they are surprised.
“But you’re planning this great retreat!” they say. “And you have the Listen to Your Mother show coming up!” they remind me.
All of that and more is true. I have things going on. I’m doing stuff.
I’m just not writing, and I am a writer.
I’m blaming the box.
The box, the brand, the expectations that are not evolving with me. I’m hemmed in by shoulds.
I want to blow up the box.
“Why do we always have to start over?” my husband sometimes asks. “Why can’t we give momentum a chance?”
I don’t know much about momentum. My experience is with stopping and restarting, a series of grand adventures that are loosely connected by the players. I’d be great in syndication.
But if Netflix has taught me anything it’s that there’s something to be said for continuity and longer story arcs.
I’m trying to give momentum a chance. I’m trying.
But I haven’t quite figured out how to move forward without a clean break. A big break.
Maybe there’s nothing to figure out. Maybe it’s just something you decide to do. Just move forward, just go, with no big declaration or goodbye bonfire. Just keeping put your foot down in front of you in the most right direction and trusting that eventually the journey will make sense.