Taking Strategic Withdrawals

IMG_0237Mornings have been different lately. We all get up together, and if Cora is extra grumpy, Mia and I switch duties. While I am outside, waiting for the dog to sniff out a good spot to pee and poop, Mia is inside, getting Coraline out of her rumpled, just-slept-in-pajamas, changes her diaper, and puts her in an extra-cute outfit for daycare. I hear them laughing and singing as I walk back inside, a sharp contrast to mornings when Mia was in Kindergarten, when we’d scream at each other in our fight to get out the door.

As a single mom, when you’re in the thick of things, you never see it getting any better. You can’t tap out to take a break, a breath, and do whatever mantras you need to get you through hard times. You have no way out. You just have to grit, duck your head, and push through. So when these sweet moments happen, a type of presence is required to soak it in, in the hopes that the memory will surface when the next tornado of chaos tries to sweep you away.

This morning’s sweetness wasn’t an “I have made it” moment as a mom. Last night, I was in tears over not being able to find a sitter to go to a reading by one of my favorite, and most influential, authors, David James Duncan. I saw him read almost exactly ten years ago at a church in Seattle. There, he mentioned he lived near Missoula, Montana, and that is how we ended up here.

I’m not sure what an “I have made it” moment would be in my field. I’m a writer. I support myself by writing. Living the dream, right? Sure. This month. I have a hard time believing that this life will sustain itself long enough for me to call it a career. I know it could if I wanted it to. If I wanted to continue fighting daily, weekly, monthly, to carve out ways to get paid.

Last week, last Monday, I was on the front page of our local, state-wide, daily newspaper. Even Mia commented that it means I’ve now “made it.” I’m a pro, as she said.

IMG_0220

Being on the front page of the paper made things a little odd for me as a writer, and as someone who had a fresh “Tinder” account. There was no longer an intrigue of “Hm, I wonder what this lady’s all about?” Even going to the grocery store, I avoided eye contact with strangers looking at me, trying to place where they’d seen me lately.

Then I had a spot on a national TV show.

The producers for the show “The Doctors” had reached out to me, but Coraline wasn’t in daycare full-time yet when they recorded the segment. I’d scheduled a sitter, then they pushed it back a week, I canceled the sitter, then they called about five minutes before they were going to record the segment and by the time I’d sloughed Cora off to my incredibly understanding neighbor, they’d already talked about my article and it was over.

Which was fine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about it, in fear I’d be met with criticism. The article, on that day, had been warped on a tabloid in the UK. It was about to go very, very viral worldwide. For the next week, I’d have reporters emailing and messaging me to the extent that I’d shut down the ability to send me messages through my public Facebook page.

IMG_0256For the next couple of weeks, Coraline started daycare full-time, and I worked a staggering amount. In the week I had the reporter and photographer from the newspaper come interview me, I wrote about 11,000 words. I didn’t think of this as “writing.” This was producing.

Producing from a place of raw skin from a controversial article going viral. This was different from imposter syndrome. This was writing with the knowledge that every word I submitted could be rearranged to appear not anywhere close to the meaning I had intended.

Maybe it’s a “with great power comes great responsibility” moment. Suddenly, everything I wrote had weight. A heaviness. Maybe it was imagined, and the only reason I thought people gave a shit about what I wrote was because for a few days they cared a ton. I don’t really know. I write from a small apartment that faces north. It’s dark and cold. By the time I get through my morning rush of writing, reading, answering emails, pitching, and finding interview subjects, I stumble outside, in two or three layers, to find it’s 70 degrees, sunny, and a beautiful day.

*

I hid most of last week. Then I went to a reading on campus, and saw many of my old professors. I talked shop with them about agents and publishing. The heads of the English department shook my hand, hugged me, and congratulated me. John D’Agata raised his eyebrows at me telling him I supported my family by writing. I’d studied his books in school and he signed the one I’d just purchased “From whom we expect great things.”

IMG_0239

Once, being addicted to the rush of freelancing pushed me forward. Now I’m just being pushed.

*

Through all of this, I’ve been single, and a single mother at that. I do not get time off. Almost every moment I have away from my children is spent worrying over how I will afford to pay my bills, which have recently doubled with the addition of daycare and the loss of government assistance.

But when good things happen, when the really really good things present themselves, I don’t have anyone to turn to and point at it and say, “Hey, come’re. Would you take a look at this shit? Isn’t this crazy? I mean, this is some fuckin’ rad stuff happening right here!” and they’d say, “Whoa! That is crazy awesome! Congratulations!” and then we’d hug or something and maybe go celebrate with ice cream and smile and I don’t even know what that would look like in real life. Because my real life is diapers, and tantrums, and caring for two children to the point where, after a weekend with them, I am completely hollowed, and crying over not being able to go see my favorite author read.

So last night, we were all sitting on the couch, snuggled together in a heap of hugs and “nigh-nights” and kisses and the dog trying to get in on it all. I asked Mia to get down a book of essays by David James Duncan. She had to get a stool. He’s on my top shelf. I read the essay he’d signed for me at that reading in Seattle a decade ago called “Strategic Withdrawal.”

            Strategic withdrawal: this prayer: When I’m lost, God help me get more lost. Help me lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this blood-, tear- and love-worthy world that’s never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me

            “We’re all in the gutter,” said Oscar Wilde in the throes of just such a withdrawal, “but some of us are looking at the stars”

            strategic withdrawal:

            look at the stars

 

And look at the stars we shall.

 

-step.

Advertisements

The Vulnerability of a Single Mom Toting Two

My daughter was four when I accidentally told her I’d die. We were snuggled under covers, reading a story, and for some reason she brought up a guinea pig she knew that’d died recently, and she wanted to know why.

“Well, everything dies,” I’d said, in my matter-of-fact atheist way.

“Even you?” she’d said.

I couldn’t go back, and she already knew what I was about to say. The tears started, growing to full-on wails. I couldn’t get her to sleep for another hour, and she slept in my bed for a week.

I’d never thought about the what-if scenarios of my death. Mia’s a badass kid. She’s resilient. We’ve been through so much, I think she can make it through just about anything.

***

For a few years, we drove around in a 1983 Honda Wagon that we’d named Pearl. This car, for her age, was a champ, but had an especially difficult time in the last six months we had her. She finally broke down on the freeway, heading west, at sunset. I knew the sun must be in the oncoming drivers’ eyes. Mia was with me, and I was seven months pregnant with a baby I’d decided to have on my own.

DSCN1562Semis rushed by at 60mph and rocked the car while we waited for the tow truck. This just wouldn’t do. I couldn’t have a car that broke down all the time with two kids. A month later, I found my dream truck, handing over the last few thousand of my tax refund that was my post-partum savings to purchase a 1987 Toyota 4Runner in near-perfect condition.

A little over a year later, I’ve noticed I’m still scared to drive on the freeway.

***

We adopted a dog a couple of days after Mother’s Day, and I’ve since been focused on her rehabilitation. If I get ready to leave, she’s at my feet, anxiously looking at me while I try not to make eye contact. She’s also not the greatest with other dogs. She wants to play, but if the other dog gets in her space too much, Bodhi’s place is on the defensive.

The dog trainer said a rescue is kind of like adopting a special needs child. I hadn’t realized how much Bodhi’s quirks either made me stay at home or fearful to bring her out.

This summer went by with only a couple of trips to the river. No camping, no rock climbing, and hardly any hiking. I sent Mia off to do stuff with friends quite a bit, but the three of us (with the added dog) hadn’t been out much at all together.

DSCN1916Coraline, the baby, is walking and beelines for the cupboards and fridge and especially my desk. I can’t afford daycare, so my days are spent doing twenty minutes of precious work before she’s gotten herself stuck in a box or needs a new diaper or the dog needs walked or someone is hungry again and what a process that is.

On the weekends when I’m not shuffling Mia off to camp, I have about fifteen things I do before I get a chance to make coffee. This morning I neared the level of screaming before I’d even boiled the water.

“Let’s go to a lake,” I said. Mia, the noisy one, jumped up and got on her swimsuit. I threw a bunch of snacks in a bag, packed towels and a blanket, and grabbed the dog leash.

I didn’t put on a swimsuit. I didn’t pack snacks for myself. I knew all my energy would go into wrangling.

We had to drive quite a ways, including a bit on the freeway. The truck ran perfectly, the baby fell asleep on the way, but I still had white knuckles on my hands, clenched to the steering wheel. My stomach had that familiar knot. I kept imagining a tire blowing out, an oncoming truck pulling a camper losing control, or me drifting, catching an edge, and flipping us into a ditch. Breaking down on the side of the road was no longer simply waiting with Mia until someone showed up to help. I had a baby. And a dog who’d most-likely be so traumatized it’d set us back months in training.

This fear had ruled my life for months and I hadn’t realized it.

When we got to the spot by the lake, there was a couple there with a dog off-leash. I kept going, down the dirt road that circled to the other side. Or, that’s what I assumed.

We were on that dirt road for at least an hour, making our way around to the main road again. I loved it. I doubt my phone had reception. The dog threw up twice. There were bumps and puddles and we saw two badgers by their den. Coraline woke up and chatted her happy baby noises while I drove through back woods with a general idea of where we were.

I’d forgotten how much I’d loved this. This throwing everyone in the car and finding some back road that lead to a spot only we knew about. It used to be my specialty.

Our truck came full circle, and we ended up back at our spot again. Mia found a sunny spot a little further down a path with a rocky, secluded beach. I sat on a blanket with a content baby in my lap in the sun, dare I say totally relaxed. Bodhi was tied to a tree and jumped after rocks and sticks. Mia swam completely under the water, looking for special rocks. She gathered at least fifty. The four of us huddled together when the wind picked up a bit and the girls ate their snacks.

DSCN1930“I know I’ll remember this,” Mia said.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Because of the badgers?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I remember weird things, like you licking a napkin and wiping my face before preschool one day. I’ll remember us sitting here on this blanket.”

I put my arm around her, pulled her in a little tighter, and said, “I will too, kiddo.”

step.

That and the Irony

On Productivity with Nursing Toddlers

I just watched Mia drive off to go camping with a friend. They’re meeting up with other friends of mine, going to a drive-in, and heading to some hot springs tomorrow. I didn’t go for several reasons:

  1. It’s like 100 degrees outside and I’m from Alaska.
  2. Coraline being outside means I watch her constantly because she likes to eat rocks and whatever else she can find that’s just the right size to induce choking.
  3. I need to work. (I know, I know.)
  4. The shelter dog that is a tad more work than the baby would hate it.
  5. I haven’t slept well in a few nights, so why pay for or do any of these things when I will most-likely just want to sleep or will sleep and then who wants to sleep anywhere but their bed?

Snapshot_20150801But now I’m sitting here, typing this out one-handed because Cora’s doing that nursing thing where she’s almost asleep but if I move she’ll be wide awake with the renewed energy of a thousand naps. I tend to sit at my desk a lot, trying to write out things, read things, look for places who might want to pay me for written things, and learning on how to cope with this freelancing career I’ve chosen to entangle myself in.

Sometimes I end up on Craigslist.

I’m not sure why I’m addicted to looking through the pet section. I think it’s the drama. I find it fascinating how worked up people get over someone trying to find a new home for their pet when they are obviously sad because they can’t care for them properly. Or god forbid you breed your purebred dog purposefully and disguise selling it with asking for a rehoming fee. You will get called out on that shit.

I wish for honesty in Craigslist ads. Don’t say, “Sometimes she maybe kills chickens.” Say “This dog has a lust for feathered friends’ blood like none other. She’d kill the first robin of the spring.”

Then, you find ones that are too honest, like the mother who got rid of all of her son’s belongings just days after he’d died of SIDS. Every post was more heartbreaking. She even listed those toddler teething crackers, mentioning she’d just bought them and he’d never be able to use them.

I’ve spent the whole summer, the whole last year, doing this.

I make a list of excuses or I guess reasons for why I don’t want to go out. Then I sit at home, nursing Coraline in the hopes that she’ll nap long enough for me to get some solid work done.

I forgot how hard it is, this toddler stage. Coraline’s already wearing 18mo clothes and she can swipe things off my desk with ease. She doesn’t have any solid words in her vocabulary yet, but whenever I chase after her saying, “No, nononoNONO” she smiles, and starts wagging her head from side to side, still moving to throw the remote in the toilet.

She has learned to wave, though, and it’s damn adorable.

I feel myself swinging on this pendulum of depression. Not in a serious, clinical way. There are so many times that you think of how great it would be to go sit at a river and go swimming before reminding yourself that I’d have to bring someone else, and the dog, and if I did go in the water Coraline would start screaming because I’d gone outside her radius, probably choking on a river rock. So what’s the use? I’ve found over the years that it’s worse to plan for a fun, relaxing time and not get it. I’ve learned kids will fuck up any plans you make most of the time.

Last summer I kept telling myself that this summer would be epic. I’m doing that now for next summer. We’ll get out, we’ll go camping, we’ll do hikes where the dog can run off-leash, and, you know, all the stuff I wanted to do this summer.

The girls’ ages have a good contrast to them. I look at Coraline, eating stale Cheerios off the floor, then see Mia packing herself a lunch, getting dressed, and really looking more put together than I ever am, and I can see that this is so temporary. When Mia was little, I had no idea it’d ever get better. Every day was a hopeless situation I’d gotten myself into.

Mia’s going through a phase where she’s not arguing with me constantly and I only make it to the number two when I count to three. It’s weird. I know next week might be different, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

My life is kind of like that right now. I’ve been working for a year to build a platform and get a freelancing career going and it’s dare I say kind of taking off right now. Not so much that I trust it, but the writing comes easily when you’re doing it a lot and sometimes you start typing and everything just makes sense and sounds beautiful and people like reading it so much that you think it’ll last forever.

DSCN4722All of these things are why I had “Nothing is Permanent” tattooed on my arm.

Well, that and the irony.

step.

“More!” “Yay!”

Coraline turns ten months in a few days. She’s standing on her own. She signs “hi” at her own appropriate times, but hardly ever when I ask if she wants to wave at a friend who’s waving back. I often find her signing a combination of “more” and hand-clapping for “yay!” when she’s playing or eating.

I feel the same way about work.

0411151313Since my last entry, I had an essay published in a local magazine. I got hired on as a writer for a website specifically for single moms. My employment with another writing firm completely took off as well, leaving me a little bewildered, but saying “more!yay!” in my mind. I add up dollars over and over, planning for the bills I can pay off, the money I can save, and the possible road trip we can take.

I’m looking at a daycare for Coraline this week, which hurts a little. But I can’t go on staying up until 1 or 2 every night working like this while trying to get a good 20 minutes in here and there during the day. I guess I could for a little longer. I’ve gotten used to working at all hours of the day, every day, at something. I’ve been going non-stop for a few months. Trying. Trying to get to where I am now.

Fifteen years ago, I thought I’d grow up one day and be a writer. Ten years ago I wanted to get paid for it. And five years ago I started the journey to get the degree so I could.

Babies, we just might make it.

step.

On Meeting David James Duncan

journal entry:  04.25.06 tyler street coffee house, port townsend, washington 12:15pm

i think, perhaps, treating yourself to lunch alone at a neighborhood coffee shop during the rush of midday is something everyone should do at least monthly.  i tend to do it weekly.

i went to this book-signing in seattle yesterday.  i’m not sure if i was fully prepared for my feelings in meeting the author that has encouraged me not only be a better writer, but a better reader, a better self, and a better person.  his words have constantly been in the back of my mind, whether it was Gus and his oranges, perched on a riverbed about to meet the woman deemed his soul mate [from “The River Why”], Irwin’s laugh at the end of “The Brothers K,” or reminding myself to look inward and stare at motes of dust.

i think i expected him to be more philosophical and less funny.  he seemed nervous, caffeinated and not himself.

i can’t imagine what it must be like to go on a book tour…

walking into the auditorium i was anxious to see what sort of people DJD would draw.  young fisherman?  old philosophers?  green, yuppie-types?

i was already walking in, feeling a twinge of guilt.  not only had i not read the book, i had just purchased it at Barnes & Noble.  i thought it odd that it was tucked in the back in the “new religion” section.

earlier, after buying “God Laughs and Plays” from the dreaded bookstore chain, i walked up the street to a pub i had heard good things about, sat out on the deck and read the preface.  not only was DJD speaking of something i have a long history with, he was using the Narnia Chronicles as a comparison, a series i had just finished reading for the…oh, 20th time.  i laughed, smiled, furrowed my brow, drank a couple of beers and kept my eyes peeled for someone noticing what i was reading, saying they were attending the same function.  i was even hoping to see DJD himself in some strange twist of fate.  i can think of no other person i would want to buy a couple pints for.

standing outside the town hall, smoking a forbidden cigarette, a man in his 60s walked out to grab something out of his volvo.  i asked him if he was there for the reading.  he said he was, and went inside.

i sat in the next-to-front-row, as close to the center as i could.  a hat sat next to me, which ended up belonging to the man with the volvo.

i sat, clutching my hardbacks and a weathered copy of “My Story as Told by Water.”  the book has gone everywhere with me in the last two years, replacing my ancient copy of “The River Why.”

i heard a woman sitting next to me say she comes to all the book signings, since she’s on the town hall mailing list.  the salty dog sitting next to me asked if i had read his books and what i thought of them, since he had never read any.

people walked up to the front of the auditorium, purchasing copies of books i have grown to consider as prized possessions, carelessly reading the back cover, flipping through the first chapter, then reading the last page.

(yes!  i actually saw that.)

i had to move to the back.

i took notes, writing them in the back of my paperback.

by the time he started reading, i was crestfallen.  is this what making it as a writer means?  selling yourself to book-hungry yuppies looking for the newest dinner conversational piece?

in the end, he read a bit out of “The River Why,” read a lot out of “God Laughs and Plays,” and answered one question by reading more.  he spoke of being tired, misunderstood in his purpose of the new book and spoke to audiences that walked out in response.  of course, all of these things made him even more of a hero to my perky ears.

i learned that he lived in missoula, a place i had already planned to visit.  i learned he’s a guest instructor there, and i silently made pilgrimage plans.  oh yes, montana calls.

i wanted to ask him if he missed oregon.  if montana was a close second–or even better.  i learned he has a 24-year-old son who goes to school in bellingham.  my heart leaped.

my pulse raced as i stood in line.  he said he was working on a new fictional piece, and fiction was something he’d like to do more of.  he seemed to be content to sit, sign, and chat a bit, but it was nothing like i had expected.  i wanted intimacy.  i wished for people in sandals and weathered carhartts sitting around a man in a chair or leaning on a table…like story-time at the library.  this was all too…promotional…too entertaining.

i wanted to wait until everyone had gone, then ask him to sign.  but i feared freaky-stalker status.  by the time i got to the table and look at the greatest living author i have ever known, i mumbled, “you’ve been an inspiration.”

this was not how i planned it.

he did sign my river tooth with glee, and wrote “for Stephanie” above the “strategic withdrawal” essay.

“i like this one,” he said about the piece.

“it changed my life,” i wanted to say.

i suppose all there is to do now is plan that move to MISSOULA, MONTANA.

step.

“Strategic Withdrawal”

By David James Duncan, from the book “My Story as Told by Water”

The page is signed,  “For Stephanie, David James Duncan”

Strategic Withdrawal

any movement inward

–as into a chair by a window the light of which you use only to stare into a cup of tea.

–or as into a habit of tea drinking, as opposed to coffee, because the former behaves so much more quietly within the body, so softly helps open the eyes and mind

–or as in letting the eyes come to a standstill, in some space on the page of the book you’ve been reading, in order to stare at nothing, or at something inside, or at something neither inside nor out-an association-sprung scene, an entire world, maybe; a place so pungent you leave your body to stand in it for a time

–or as in turning over a handwritten letter, before or after you’ve read it, to run your hand across the blank side, written words invisible now, yet palpable in the impressions the pen left in the paper, the strange backward slant you never think of as being there, the earnest weight of the writer’s departed hand, physical track of her thought still traceable, the “handicraft” evident in the paucity of words; the whole page, though we think of the paper as “smooth,” as idiosyncratically and subtly bumpy as the skin of your love’s body, in which also dwells a reverse side, unseen side, of breath, blood, inchoate words, nonverbal language

strategic withdrawal:  any movement backward, away from the battle lines of one’s incarnation (as in the phrase “spiritual retreat” but without the once-in-a-blue-moon connotations of those two words, because the backward movement needed, the spiritual retreat required, is moment to moment and day to day)

strategic withdrawal:  any refusal to man our habitual political or psychological trenches or to defend our turf, for though the turf may be holy, our defenses, when they grow automatonic, are not

any refusal to engage with that testy or irritating or ideologically loud or theologically bloated person in your life-you know the one:  the agitatedly racist or religionist, politically powerful or compulsively processing pedant, co-worker, parent, friend, or (God help you) spouse whose opinions are too poorly formed, too loudly held, or just too incessantly divulged to allow you to achieve peace in the presence of so much clanging banging editorializing mental machinery

any retreat (however ignominous it may seem to the will or the mind or the ego) not just from all such exchanges but from the underlying tensions and history that launch the exchanges (your side of the tensions and history, anyway:  the side you’ve an inalienable right to retreat from)

any movement away from one’s “urgencies,” one’s “this-is-who-I-am” nesses, one’s responsibilities, agitations, racial guilt, sworn causes, shames, strengths, weaknesses, memories, workaday identity, public or secret battlefields

any movement toward formlessness

silence

emptiness

primordability

any movement toward a beginning, as in Genesis 1, John 1, Quran Tao Te Ching Diamond Sutra Mahabharata Kalevala Mumonkan Raymayana Torah Gita 1

and toward one’s own “in the beginning”

toward one’s origin (root of originality); toward one’s ignorance (that underrated state the embracing of which precedes every influx of fresh knowledge); toward one’s amorphousness (state of all clay before the potter conceives a form, wedges the clay, centers it, and begins throwing the cup or bowl); toward one’s interior blankness (the state of the paper preceding every new idea, drawing, poem); toward one’s wilderness (wild: the condition of all worlds, inner and outer, before the creation of the man-made bewilderments from which we are endeavoring to withdraw)

strategic withdrawal:

any attempt to step from a why, however worthy, into whylessness

as in an extemporaneous walk to a destination unknown; a walk during which everything but your movement through God-knows-where becomes the God-knows-what-you’re-doing

or as in going fishing without desire for fish so that desirelessness becomes the prey you’re catching

or as in a stroll to a neighborhood cafe or tavern one or more neighborhoods removed from any in which you’re known, which establishment you then enter not to socialize, read the paper, or eat the (probably bad) food, but just to nurse the single slow drink as you soak, without judgement, in the presence and riverine babble of your city and native tongue

strategic withdrawal:  any act you can devise, and psycho-spiritual act at all, that embodies a willingness to wait for the world to disclose itself to you, rather than to disclose yourself, your altruism, your creativity, skills, energy, ideas and (let’s face it) agenda, myopia, preconceptions, delusions, addictions, and inappropriate trajectories to this world

willingness to drop all trajectories; willingness to boot up with all extensions OFF; willingness not to save the world but simply to wait for it to disclose itself, whether anything seems, even after long long waiting, to be disclosing itself or not

an act of faith then, really:  faith that the world is always disclosing itself; faith that lack of disclosure is impossible; faith that what blocks Creation’s ceaseless flow of disclosures is, invariably, our calluses and callousness, our old injuries and injuriousness, our plans, cross-purposes, neuroses, absurd speed of passage, divided minds, ruling manias, lack of trust, lack of faith–an overabundance of faith, cf. Thomas Merton: “Prayer is possible only when prayer is impossible”

strategic withdrawal:  to step back, now and then, from the possible to take rest in the impossible:  to stand without trajectory in the God-given weather till the soul’s identity begins to come with the weathering:  to get off my own laboriously cleared and maintained trails and back onto the pristine hence unmarked path by moving, any old how, toward interior nakedness; toward silence; toward what Buddhists call “emptiness,” Christians “poverty of spirit,” Snyder “wild,” and Eckhart “desirelessness:  the virgin that eternally gives birth to the Son”

strategic withdrawal:  this prayer:  When I’m lost, god help me get more lost.  Help me lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this blood-, tear- and love-worthy world that’s never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me

“We’re all in the gutter,” said Oscar Wilde in the throes of just such a withdrawal, “but some of us are looking at the stars”

strategic withdrawal:

look at the stars

-Shepherdstown, West Virginia; cross country Delta jet; and Lolo, Montana:  summer 1999

step.