The corners of the sky glow pink and red as the last of this New Year’s daylight slips away.
I’ve just come through one of the more difficult parenting months of my life. The months ahead do not look less difficult, but perhaps unknown light will emerge around the edges of the darkness. There is, in any situation, always room for hope.
Last night, I journaled about the low lights and highlights of 2017, a practice I learned from Sister Karol Jackowski. I was blessed to take both Spiritual Writing and Nature Writing from “Karol” during my MFA program. From Karol, I not only learned to write better, I learned to live better.
In accessing my low and highlights, I recognized (which I think is the point of this exercise) the kernels of grace that exist in each down turn, each dark path. Many of the seeds of my highlights were germinated in the low lights.
Whether fortune or foe, who is to say, goes a familiar Buddhist teaching.
“Barn burned down, now I can see the moon.” Mizuta Masahide
Our friend and coworker, Aaron, and his band–The Rhinestone Diplomats, had to be playing at Lee’s on that particular November night. Our friend and co-worker, Justin, had to pick you up at Rod and Amy’s house and bring you to LLL, where I was busy dancing up a storm.
We barely made it up the stairs to your apartment.
*Okay, I cheated here. I couldn’t find anything other than Marvin lip synching this song, so I linked to Jack Black singing “Let’s Get it On” in one of my all-time favorite movies, High Fidelity. But my compilation CD for you uses Marvin’s version.
So, knowing you were spending Christmas alone and my kids were with their dad, I invited you to coffee. Instead of meeting you at the coffee shop as you suggested, I recommended one near my house. “We’ll walk over together,” I said. We never found our way to the coffee shop and we shared our infamous “three days.”
But then, once again, you said “This is the last time.”
I said, “Fine. I’m fine” as you dated the girl you met at a New Year’s party. I made you the first in a long line of mixed CDs with a mixed purpose. You made me one in return. “Sideways” was on your playlist for me. I would wait patiently for you to realize what I already knew.
When spring came, I grew less patient. When you were done with the girl from the New Year’s party and the woman from Dallas, I began suggesting outings. I took you to a Jackie Greene concert for your birthday. You kissed me in the parking lot, but would not invite me in at the end of the evening. I saw you hiding in the bushes, making sure I could get my car off the icy, steep hill outside your place.
I took care of your cat while you did a solo trip to Paris. After feeding your cat, I would stand in your closet and take in the smell of your perfectly spaced work shirts.
A few months later, I asked for your help picking out a new digital camera. We’re just single friends helping one another out, I told you. You picked me up in your beater Jeep with the top taken off to let the warm late spring air in. While driving to Best Buy, I told you it was like riding in a boat. That made you smile.
Then I dated the young Buddhist poet. I got sick. You checked on me five times in one day when I was sick; you checked in on me when I was in the emergency room. The Buddhist Poet couldn’t drive. When I was getting better, he biked over the High Bridge with a tincture of yarrow that he grew in his garden. Not long after, I broke up with him because he wasn’t you. Your actions spoke louder than your words. Your actions told me you loved me.
We went out for drinks with my best friend, Shari, when she visited from Montana in August. She told you, “Admit it. You love her.” And you did. You admitted it. You decided to give us a chance, in spite of work rules to the contrary.
We let it be and life let us be together, eventually.
Through the years, we’ve both put this song on many of our compilation CDs. And now, tonight, it really is our Ten Year Night. The night the “we” that is “us” all began, one decade ago. So happy to round a decade with you, my man.
I’m always holding back. I hold back my writing, because maybe I’ll use it somewhere else someday. Maybe there will be a better time or place to put my words out into the world.
I hold back feelings of hope in a futile attempt to tamp down the potential for disappointment.
I hold back feeling joy, in an effort to stave off feeling sadness.
I hold back love. I’m not sure why I hold back love. I sense it has something to do with trying to keep chaos at bay. For me, love and chaos were once intimately linked. At the very least, I know I hold back love when my world is at its most chaotic. For example, whenever my youngest son’s health issues creep into the forefront of our lives, as they have this fall, I fold deeper into myself. My capacity to show love to those in my life declines. My life becomes singularly focused on trying to control the uncontrollable: my son’s health.
I attended Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words writing retreat in northern Wisconsin two weeks ago. It was my fourth time attending this retreat and I always come away with new insight and new words. I’m still shaping some of the essays I started at that retreat and I’m mulling over the direction I received from Kate, other attendees, and my inner guidance: Overhaul your entire manuscript. Begin again. Rewrite it a fourth time. This time, actually retype the whole thing. I’m kind of resisting the direction right now. I know this because I started applying for editorial jobs. Wouldn’t it be better to be an editor again, rather than a writer, I ask myself. I ignore the writing contract that I made with myself last May, when I graduated with my MFA, when I agreed to let my “writing self” have a year before my “get-shit-done self” stepped in and told writing self to get a real job.
Even in my resistance, I’m still thinking about the rewrite and how it will be done, how the manuscript will be shaped so differently this time around. I’m reading about five other memoirs right now (not unusual–I live my life juggling numerous books). Reading to observe structure, more than to absorb content. That said, I’m sucking the marrow out of Claire Dederer’s Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses. I’ve come late to the Poser party, but am so glad I came.
Another bit of wisdom I brought back with me from Wisconsin is an idea that another writer shared. This writer shares a first name with me, so it’s only natural that her wisdom would resonate deep within. She told us she was trying to move from “ego writing” to “soul writing.” She described the difference. Ego writing resists going deep and, instead, slips safely along the surface. Soul writing, in contrast, dares to reveal the shadow side, dares to become all it can be. In other words, soul writing doesn’t hold back.
It feels scary to me, but I am going to watch for the places where I am holding back. In those places, once observed, I will ask myself if I can give a little more. I will take small steps until it no longer seems so scary to give myself to my writing, my loves, my life.
Like birds do, I want to enter each day with a feeling of abundance and generosity. I’m tired of living small; I’m tired of holding back.
I wrote the poem, “I Do Not Have Dreadlocks,” just before turning 40, when my youngest was still a baby. My youngest turned eight years old yesterday and I have dreadlocks now, at least sort of, kind of, maybe. Never say never.
Just over 15 years ago, I got divorced. At the time, I was a perfectionist (and still in recovery today). Divorce didn’t fit into my story about perfection. To complicate matters, in high school, I’d been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’d taken that silly vote as a directive: You must succeed. Plus, I held a very narrow definition of success back then (case in point: I went to law school when I wanted to get my Masters in English, focusing on creative writing). A divorce certainly didn’t sound anything like “success;” instead it reeked of failure. After the divorce, this straight-A student (although law school cured me of my straight A streak), felt like I was walking around with a huge red “F” on my shirt.
But life goes on. You eventually move on. You become kinder with yourself (and hopefully with others) and you give yourself more grace. You develop new goals, like becoming a certified yoga instructor and going back to school and getting your MFA. You begin making lists of venues where you’d like to see your work. One of those lists (written in your journal, where you are known to create many different kinds of lists) included getting published on Jennifer Pastiloff’s The Manifest-Station. (Jen happens to be both a writer hero of mine and a yogi hero!)
Agate just published this poem I wrote about the loss of a treasured tree and the new life that enters through the void of loss. Please take the extra step to hop on out to Agate to read this piece. Agate, where I interned this past spring, is doing a terrific job bringing together the arts and science to promote ecological stability and environmental protection (and respect) in Minnesota and the greater Great Lakes area. While you’re there, check out the fantastic fungi photo by my brother, Scott Fettig!
Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.
With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog (and in Canvas, the online platform utilized by Bay Path), I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that?
It’s been a good week to contemplate the nature of endings. My son, Ethan, just completed his last college class on Friday; he’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing next weekend. For me, that is an ending to celebrate. Back in 2007, when my ex-husband lost everything (thankfully we were already divorced five years at the time and so my finances were no longer tied to his—with the exception of losing child support payments for a time), I had no idea how I’d manage to pay for our two kids’ college educations (although still four and six years ahead). It had always been my goal (was once my ex’s goal too) to do this for Han and E.
In the end, everything worked out. We lived frugally and (thanks to a promotion at work) I saved lots of money in CDs when interest rates were still high. Remarrying helped free up my savings towards Han and E’s college. Plus, my ex was finally able to help out with E’s college. Now, I’ve (*we’ve) done it. I’ve put Han and E. through college. Ethan—bless his heart—knew this distinct goal of mine and he congratulated me (Yes, he congratulated me!) on the day he completed college. So, I’ve done what I set out to do, a commitment made when my ex and I divorced. I’ve completed the raising of those two kids (which is not to say that Han doesn’t still call me every weekend, seeking advice). The rest is up to them.
It’s interesting how easily I celebrate the end of my children’s college years, but my own grad school completion, not so much. I think this is because my own ending creates a void. It’s the void of “what’s next?” especially when you’re a creative and the path is not obvious (as it might be to someone graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering). I see Ethan entering the void as well; he spent yesterday updating his artist web site. Anticipating the void, Kate Whouley, the instructor of my two publishing classes, asked us to draft and submit a signed writer’s contract. My professors have done their part. The rest is up to me.
The void created in the absence of the MFA program is mine to fill. To fill the void, I will keep writing.
The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of this MFA work is that I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But the act of writing (into the void) is what I love and that is why I’ll keep writing.
In honor of this ending, I compiled a list of my top ten hardest endings (in no particular order):
1999: A soulful friendship lost
1979: My black tuxedo kitten—Uncle Beethoven—run over by a car
1986: End of gymnastics career with back injury sustained during a vault
2016: A soulful friendship lost
2009: Putting my daughter Hannah on a plane, heading alone to Japan, effectively ending her childhood
2005: A soulful friendship lost
1988: The summer before college, when I was too entrenched in a binge eating disorder to feel (or understand) my high school losses
2014: My mom selling “our share” in the family cabin that my grandfather built and my last visit as an “owner”
2002: The end of my parent’s marriage, because it came the same year as my own divorce and their ability to parent me (as an adult child) came to an end exactly when I was in need of extra support
1984: The year my brother Scott headed to California on his red Kawasaki motorcycle, my brother Rob moved to the Twin Cities, and my brother Chris returned to college, leaving me home alone to referee my parents’ chaotic marriage
Not all endings are necessarily negative. And even with the “bad” ones above, I can now see what eventually came in to fill the void (except when Uncle Beethoven died). To end on a positive note, here are my top five endings (in no particular order):
2002: End of my marriage
2009: Remarriage ends my years of being single
2017: Second child of my first marriage completes college and I achieve one of my top five lifetime goals by seeing my oldest two kids through college
2010: Han home from Japan (end of Rotary year)
1998: End of short career practicing law
And now, I enter the void; I enter a time of waiting for new structures and experiences to add shape to my writing life.