Minimalism: A Movement for the Elite

I write this just 60 minutes after finally putting my 2-year-old to bed. After putting away the toys, dishes, and giving my dog some much-needed affection. Even though it is closing in on 4AM, I am sitting at my desk instead of getting into bed. I know I won’t sleep.

For most of the evening I held my daughter as she threw up. When she finally closed her eyes and slept in my arms, I sat up, scared to leave her on the couch so I could rest in bed, and scared to put her in bed with me in fear she’d puke in my hair. And now I know that even if I do try to sleep next to her, I’ll be jarred awake every time she coughs, which she does a lot, since she’s been doing that all week at night. Only now, I’ll panic that she’s throwing up again.

But tonight, as she slept in my arms, I finally watched the new documentary about Minimalism.

I’d been putting this off. I probably wouldn’t have even watched it, but I engaged in a debate on a friend’s Facebook thread over the last couple of days, furthering the point I made in an article in The New York Times that minimalism is classist.

After watching the documentary, I realize now more than ever that I am a minimalist in nature. When I moved out on my own as a teenager, then moved dozens of times through my twenties, I gradually whittled my belongings down to what could fit in my truck, which, at the time, was a Toyota Landcruiser from the late 80s. I prided myself in this. The things I had were of value, if only to me. I was never a materialistic kind of person who needed a ton of shoes or clothes. I had books and journals. My rule was that, if I didn’t need to use something through four seasons, then I probably didn’t need it. (I made an exception for outdoor gear.) I constantly culled out shirts and pants. I rarely bought new clothes. If I brought something in, I put two in the donate bin, and so on.

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Having a child a decade ago changed that. I needed household furniture. I needed a couch, a table, and a few other things to make a house a home. At the time, I worked as a maid in houses of people who were what I considered to be very wealthy, even though they weren’t super rich by most standards. They had homes like the ones that I’d grown up in in the middle class with separate dining rooms, living rooms that were hardly used, and sometimes an extra room meant for an office. Some of these places were lavish with extra rooms for doll collections or garages just for recreational vehicles–all things I saw collected enough dust that 1) the people who owned them worked many long hours to afford them and 2) didn’t have time to clean so 3) spent money for me to come in and clean.

It didn’t seem to me that these people were necessarily happier because they had these homes. When I looked at what my daughter and I had–a small studio with what we absolutely needed and not much else–the simplicity of that seemed, well, simpler, but also happier. Yes, I, too, worked long hours, but it wasn’t to afford the stuff, it was to afford our $550 a month rent. I worked long hours because I wasn’t paid much–just over minimum wage.

Minimalism preaches mindfulness in purchases, and it makes me think to the times I spent hours mulling over my Amazon cart full of Christmas presents for my daughter. I could barely afford anything, so the things I purchased had to be well thought-out and few. Buying anything for our home meant toiling over what I absolutely needed vs. what I wanted, and I hardly ever bought the latter. More so, I held on to things because I couldn’t afford to replace them. A cheap, 10 dollar set of pots and pans lasted me nearly 7 years.

When I wrote the article last Spring, it was in reaction to the documentary’s trailer, which showed scenes of people rushing box stores on Black Friday as a reason for needing this movement, or part of it anyway.

My first thought was “Those are poor people. They don’t need to hear about minimalism. Their homes and the lives they live are minimal enough.” Now that I’ve watched the entire documentary, I feel the poor-shaming even more. Those scenes are shown almost as comic relief, with circus-like music played with it, between testimonies of (usually) white men who had corporate jobs saying their lives were miserable despite having a house full of things.

In one scene, Joshua Fields Millburn reads a poem he wrote, talking about the things he needed to buy when he moved. He listed off things that I would never have dreamed of affording. Things that seemed ridiculous, as a poor person, to even consider purchasing. I’d never stepped foot into an IKEA. I’d never known rugs for decoration. Rugs were to keep feet warm, if I was lucky enough to find someone who could give me one they no longer used. But there he stood, complaining about the ability, the privilege, to buy these things.

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Living in small spaces forces you to only keep things that have purpose, often multiple ones at that. This is a poor person’s way of life. The reason those people are rushing in mobs to buy a television or toy is the sales are low enough for them to afford them, and they have often saved up to do so. They will bring that item home like a prize. It will distract them from the crushing hopelessness they feel on a daily basis. Sometimes by the hour as they lie awake at night, adding up money coming in vs. money that needs to go out. A poor person’s accounting that goes down to the cent.

To tell that person they don’t need it would not only be a waste of time, but trite. Like a person who’d just eaten at a nice restaurant telling someone at McDonald’s they don’t need to supersize. Just because you have the means to afford more, just because you have the privilege to say no out of a philosophy you preach, doesn’t give you the right to tell someone counting their pennies to afford a special treat that they don’t need it while hoping they will buy your book instead. Hoping they pay to take your online class. Hoping they purchase something that will profit you.

The Minimalists strive for quality over quantity. As a person in poverty, I could only afford the cheapest clothes. Even used clothing was too expensive, and I often found myself shopping at Walmart’s clearance sales for my daughters. I wore my work pants out until my company told me I needed new ones, and to replace those was a hardship.

So yes, I write this post in the middle of the night, arguably now early hours of the morning. I write it out of anger. I notably write it as a person who considers themselves a minimalist. But most importantly, I write this as a person who has lived in poverty, who was forced to unload carloads of family heirlooms in a donation box because I didn’t have the space to keep them at a time I needed them most to remind me, as a new single mom, that I wasn’t alone.

Sometimes, us folks in poverty need to know that. That we’re not the only ones in this fight for survival. Because, you see, we can’t choose to give up lavish lifestyles and instead spend money on experiences, or going out to eat with friends. So please, all I ask is that you don’t pull poor people into your philosophy, your conversation, and especially don’t shame us. Don’t point to us as a need for a movement you wish to profit from.

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A Life’s Canvas…in Pants

My running joke over the last year whenever I need to travel to the east coast for work has been whether or not to wear my Carhartt pants. My oldest daughter sometimes asks whenever I have a local public event: “You’re not going to wear those pants, are you?”

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It’s not a joke for me to say that a girl never forgets her first pair of double-kneed, Carhartt work pants. I bought mine in Valdez, Alaska at the age of 24. When I walked out of the store, strutting a little in my purchase, an old-timer looked me up and down and said, “New Carhartts, eh?”

I slumped, a little deflated, anxious for them to have the weathered look on the other legs around me. Carhartts are an Alaskan’s uniform, along with bunny boots, and hoodies from the Salty Dawg Saloon. I’d been living in Fairbanks for five years on my own after spending the bulk of my childhood in Anchorage. I felt I’d earned them. Now I had to properly wear them out.

Moving out of Alaska several years later didn’t change my style of dress. Over the years, they’ve been as much a part of me as the tattoos I’ve collected on my skin. I’ve gone through countless pairs as a maid, landscaper, hiker, and rock climber. I’ve worn them out but refuse to let them go, so they pile up in my closet. Even though I need the space I respect their history more.

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Carhartt released a commercial recently that one of my oldest friends from Alaska shared with me, saying it could have been me portrayed, instead of Jason Momoa. I think I’ve watched it a dozen times, especially the last segment:

From the ultimate highs, to the moments that brought me to my knees, there has been one constant. Something that stayed with me through all of this. 

Like a home on the road; a comfort disguised as armor. I see it every time I look down at these tattered old pants. They’re my battlefield.

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Every scratch, ding, laugh, and cry is recorded in these pants. Every mark is a memory.

Every tear adds up to the life I always wanted to live. Everything I am is in these pants.

And there will come a day, when I’ll be gone, and my children or my grandchildren…they will find these beat-up old Carhartts in a dusty corner somewhere, and they will know this is the canvas of my life. 

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I watched this not only as a mother to daughters, but as a daughter who ran up to her dad when he came home from work, inhaling the scent of his weathered Carhartt coat. He seemed confused when I begged him for it as an adult. I wore it for a while before hanging it in the closet. Though I somehow managed to misplace it through moving around so much over the years, I still know where every worn spot was.

A little over a week ago, I sat in a small studio at the Center for American Progress to record a video testimony. They emailed this morning, asking for some photos to go along with it. I found one of Mia, at about ten months old, playing in a dresser drawer beneath the bed I slept on at the homeless shelter we lived in. Draped over the bed, dirty from landscaping, are my weathered Carhartts.

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As I looked through other albums for more photos, I saw how much those pants were my constant, arguably as reliable as writing. They’re more than a joking part of my brand, or something I associate myself with. Like paper and pen, they’ve been a companion.

…everything I am is in these pants…

I’ve never written an ode like this to them. It’s in the single digits outside today, and I know I’ll pull on my Carhartts over a pair of long johns before pushing my feet into some Sorel boots. These are actions I’ve been doing for over a decade, and will stay with me for many more. I’m closing in on living more than half my life outside of Alaska, but I’ll never truly be out. Alaska will always be in this girl.

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Sometimes You Go To California

On Tuesday night of this week I stood at a podium in front of a class of about 40 students. In my hands I held out a printed copy of the essay I’d recently had published through the Longreads blog about Whitney Dafoe. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d read it out loud. I’d practiced over a dozen times in the previous few weeks. My voice shook, even when I was alone in my apartment, and sometimes my eyes stung and watered.

“This piece is really raw for me right now,” I said. I didn’t say why, and instead started to read. I would have to explain that I’d been at Whitney’s house the day before. That I saw in a book a photo I’d taken in Alaska of him standing on his work truck to take a picture. That over the weekend, I’d seen his mother burst into tears over hearing the lyrics of a song. And through it all had known, once again, that he had no idea I was there. I’m sure I would have lost my composure halfway through.

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Photo courtesy of the Davis-Dafoe family.

Every time I looked up, I saw blank faces, mouths agape, and one student was audibly crying. I felt horrible, but owned my decision to read the essay. I force ME/CFS in people’s faces so that, someday, it won’t be a depressing conversation.

I’d gained a new person to carry constantly in my pocket that weekend. Jamison Hill and I had been friends through email and text for several months, and a large part of my trip to California was the chance to meet him in person.

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Photo courtesy of Jamison Hill

Jamison, for those who are unfamiliar, was featured in my friend Ryan Prior’s Forgotten Plague along with Whitney. Jamison’s the one in the documentary’s trailer who’s laughing, his dimples going deep into his cheeks, his bright blue eyes shining despite being one of the millions missing from ME/CFS. It’s been six years since, right around Thanksgiving, that Jamison went to the gym early in the morning like he always did, and couldn’t finish a workout he normally did thoughtlessly. His story is one of the terrifying ones: he went from being a physical trainer, a model, an amateur body builder, and otherwise active 22-year-old college student to in bed, sick, getting rapidly worse in a matter of years.
Before Jamison submitted a story for me to publish at the Blue Ribbon Foundation’s “Share your Story” section, I’d only heard that he’d become as bad as Whitney. I’d seen GoFundMe fundraisers to help with housing, medical expenses, and treatment. When Ryan spoke of him, his voice grew soft; a tone I’d come to recognize in the ME/CFS community as a person who’d taken a turn for the worse. A person who was living a form of death.

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Jamison later explained that he’d been in a cave for the last 18 months, unable to tolerate daylight, clothing, speaking, or chewing. Coming out of it through saline IV treatments was a rebirth. Even though he had a chance at a new life, he was still unable to sit up in bed. But he could make sounds that people understood. He could eat food. He could communicate with people through email and text.

I knew most of this through reading a lot of what he’d written, but to see it was something else entirely. Ashley, Whitney’s sister, drove me, my daughter Mia, and Janet, Whitney’s mom, to Jamison’s house three hours east. We arrived at sunset, enamored with the view from the porch. Janet was the first one to go in and visit with Jamison. I was the second.

Before going back to his room, I was worried what germs I might have on my clothes. A simple cold virus could knock him down further. I was worried seeing me would cause him to crash. But mainly I was worried that he’d go beyond his limits and wake up the next morning feeling horrible and unable to move.

When I read what Jamison wrote about meeting me in his blog, what stuck out the most was that he’d hoped seeing him, smiling and sitting up would give us, his largest group of visitors in years, a new hope for Whitney.

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But Jamison’s just like that. He’s easily one of the happiest, lovable humans I know. In the months of us emailing and texting back and forth, he’s gone into frustrated rants maybe twice. And a few times I had to specifically ask for them. Seeing him, sitting there, knowing he hadn’t gotten out of bed in almost two years, I was completely in awe of his ability to maintain any semblance of who he’d been six years earlier.

So we smiled at each other. I hugged him a bunch, and held his hand. We made jokes, told a few dating horror stories, and then it was time for me to give him a break.

We texted late into the night. I kept asking him the next day if he felt all right. He said yes, and said he wanted to see us again. So I bought him some tea from his favorite little shop, and some fudge. We drove up to his house at sunset again, and took some pictures on the porch. I went inside to use the bathroom, and snuck across the hall to Jamison’s room.

He had thick blankets on the windows and the lights off. I couldn’t see anything, then saw the faint light of the screen of his phone–his signal to tell me where he was. I saw his shape then. He wasn’t sitting up. He was on his left side, bent over almost in a fetal position, his cheek pressed against the bed. Crashed.

I felt his hand reach out for mine and sank to my knees at the same time. My other arm went around his back, my right cheek on his head. He only had boxers on with a sheet covering his legs and feet.His mom came in to open the curtains all the way so we could see each other. I stayed that way for a bit, whispering that he should have told me he had what ME/CFS patients call “the world’s worst hangover.”

He wanted to know how long we were staying, and where we were going next, and, of course, offered ideas of where to go eat dinner. He couldn’t talk like he did the day before. Most of this I either figured out through pantomime or he had to type out on his phone.

I went in the second time after everyone else had visited to kneel down by his bed to say goodbye. He held my hand tighter, and whispered “I’m so tired of this shit.” I told him I think about him constantly. That I love him. And that I’d miss him dearly. That I’d be back to visit as soon as I could to be there more than just an hour or two. “I’ll spoon you next time,” I said, and he chuckled.

I stood out in the living room, watching Janet hug Jamison’s mom, Kathleen. “We have amazing sons,” Janet said. They were crying. A stark contrast to the night before, when we’d been celebrating recovery. Kathleen went in to check on Jamison and he wanted us all to come back, stand in the hallway, and wave goodbye one more time.

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Mia Land, Stephanie Land, Jamison Hill, Ashley Haugen, and Janet Dafoe

“He just wants to see your faces again,” his mom said. So we stood there, blowing kisses, waving, watching him do it in return from his dark room. The cave. For the next day, as I told him I was on my way to the airport he’d text “Damn. Don’t go.”

From the moment I’d left the hallway of his room I hadn’t wanted to. I didn’t want to drive away from Whitney’s house, watching Janet and Ron wave goodbye. It’s a different sort of grief, to feel too helpless, too far away, and isolated.

After I read the essay the next night, one of the students asked me if I had any advice on writing. I told them what everyone says: to sit in a chair and motherfucking write. But the next day Jamison reminded me of the necessary part that needs to exist before that.

There is only one thing you should do,” Rilke wrote. “Go into yourself. …confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? …if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity…

Jamison writes everything on his phone. He can’t use a laptop, can’t stand looking at the screen. He wrote the last bit of his book looking at his phone through tanning goggles. That amount of passion, that desire to write words, humbles me. Even though I am finishing this post in the chaos of bedtime with a two-year-old on the floor tearing apart paper and throwing markers, it would take a crazy amount of passion for me to write this out on my phone. I’ve written in journals since I was 10 years old, and I deeply admire Jamison’s amount of “must” to write. To live.

 

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Announcing, my forthcoming memoir: MAID: A Single Mother’s Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home

Announcing, my forthcoming memoir: MAID: A Single Mother’s Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home

On June 16th, I celebrated my youngest daughter Coraline’s second birthday. While she opened presents, I relished the memory of her entering my life. She was born a month after I’d graduated college, during a time when I was totally unsure of how I’d find enough work or how to make it as a freelancer. This year, as I watched her eat cupcakes, I felt our journey intensely—how far we’d come since the beginning— in part because that afternoon, I’d accepted an offer with a publishing company, Hachette Books, for my book.

announcementExactly 11 months after my essay about cleaning houses was published on Vox and went viral, I accepted the offer for my memoir—an expansion of that essay. For months, I’d spent what I felt were luxurious hours not writing for pay, but working, quietly at night, with a sleeping baby in my lap, crafting the perfect book proposal with my agent, Jeff Kleinman at Folio. It felt incredibly strange to be going after something I’d wanted since I was ten years old, and at first, I didn’t have much faith in it. For over twenty years, I had been writing, reading, and studying the art of writing. It was shocking to even have an agent.

Three years ago, I shared an essay with one of my writing instructors, Debra Earling, who now heads the creative writing program at the University of Montana. It was a piece called “Confessions of the Housekeeper,” which I’d written in a workshop the semester before. Debra and I met one afternoon at a coffee shop to discuss writing and my application for the MFA program. I timidly handed her the pages from across the table and got up to order coffee. When I returned, she was sitting in the exact same position, but with her hand clasped over her mouth.

“This,” she said, looking up at me. “Stephanie, this is going to be a book.” She went on to describe, in detail, my book tour, and my success, and even my finding love. It rolled out of her, like a fortune. On my walk home, I remember skipping a little. Someone believed in me and in my story.

Fullscreen capture 7162015 24823 PM.bmpI would work on that essay for the next two years, chiseling away at it little by little. When Vox bought it for $500, I about fell over. It seemed a massive amount of money, especially since I had spent the last eight years on assistance programs, and my current hourly wages from various freelancing jobs were about $10.00. I thought it would surely be the most I’d ever receive for my writing. When the essay went viral, with almost 500,000 hits in the span of three days, my career took off. Within two months, accepted a position as a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change, and had several more pieces published, including one through Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

In May, just before sending out the finished book proposal, I was finalizing a new essay with an editor at the EHRP, which would go on to be published in the print edition of the New York Times. I also sent her my book proposal–all 70-some pages of it–and asked if she might be able to show it to Barbara. Maybe Barbara could possibly read it, or even write a few sentences about it?

Two days later, she emailed back with sentences in quotes from Barbara, my journalist hero, a woman I have long admired:

“We need more books like MAID, with the view from the fridge and under the couch. Stephanie Land has something to teach us about both sides of the inequality divide. Neither is what you are expecting.”

barbaraquoteWith that, MAID became real. My book, my memoir, was finally happening. Not even a week later, I accepted an offer from Hachette Books to bring my story out into the world.

I spent four days talking to editors, publicists, presidents, vice presidents, marketing teams, and senior editors from publishing houses all over the country about myself and my book. I felt so small, just some girl in Missoula, Montana. I paced around my living room, headphones in, gesturing wildly. It seemed unbelievable that I was talking to the very publishers who had been responsible for bringing my favorite writers’ words into the world.

The sleepy Thursday afternoon of Coraline’s birthday was the first day since the publishing conferences had begun that I didn’t have any scheduled calls. The only call came from my agent, asking me what I thought about an offer by Hachette Books. Because four or five publishing houses were about to make a bid, they had made a preemptive offer to take my book off the table, in order to keep it from going to auction.

Hachette had been my last call the day before, and it wasn’t like the others. I talked to a group of four people, and all said they’d reacted to my story differently. Krishan Trotman, who would  become my editor, is also a single mother, and we gave each other a verbal fist-bump. I could tell by her voice that she felt a passion for the message I wanted to share.

During the meeting, I felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable. When they asked me what scared me most about writing this book, I answered honestly and easily. I closed my eyes, breathed in, and told them my fears of not writing the story as it played out in my head. Of not getting it perfect enough. Of jumping into something so huge when I was so small.

When Jeff called the next day to ask if I wanted to accept their (amazing, incredible, beyond my wildest dreams, life-changing) offer, I held my breath.. Alone in my tiny apartment, I said yes.  And then went out to buy cupcakes for Coraline’s birthday.

IMG_9341A couple of weeks after I accepted the offer, Krishan and I spoke again on the phone. “I just have to tell you,” she said. “Our office, our floor, is all open. When we received the news that you’d accepted our offer, everyone jumped up from their desks to cheer, and started hugging each other. Even the CEO of the company came out to give me a hug. I’ve never seen anything like that in publishing before. It was amazing.”

When I told this story to my best friend over a celebration dinner a few days later, she got tears in her eyes. While I’ve told this story several times to friends throughout the last couple of months, I haven’t been able to formally announce it through my platforms. There was a part of it that didn’t feel real unless I talked about it. This summer has been a hibernation of sorts, an internal resting and journeying, knowing that I was going to begin full-time work on the book in the fall. I slowed down with work, and stopped hustling to pitch and publish articles. I gave myself time to mentally freak out. I made some feeble attempts at planning the next two or three years, all the while knowing that I had no way to even imagine it.

While in this limbo period of time, waiting for the publishing agreement to be negotiated, I have worked less, which has meant less income. For most of the summer, the cupboards have been almost bare. Now, I’ll still have to budget, plan, and live the same life we are, but I can buy the groceries I want without feeling anxiety building in my chest as I watch the total increase at the register. I can get the axles fixed on my truck. Hell, I can get a real stereo for my truck. I won’t have to stare at this little piece of paper next to my desk, detailing which bills are due on what date, and for how much, figuring out who I can pay and when, and who I can skip.

I’ve been sitting on this news for so many long days. Publishing this post and sharing it with all of you is what finally makes it real. So I celebrate today with all of you, my friends, and followers, who have stuck with me through all of these years. Thank you for your support. Thank you for reading. I can’t wait to share my book with you. I can’t wait to change the stigma and narrative of single mothers in poverty. I can’t wait to raise my voice for the domestic workers who aren’t paid enough to make ends meet. I can’t wait to bring attention to how the system of government assistance fails millions. And I can’t wait to share my own journey, the moments of heartache and beauty, the bone-numbing exhaustion, the deep love I carry for my daughters, and the pride I feel for having gotten where we are today. With all my heart, thank you for being someone I can share my story with. Thank you for being someone I can depend on to read it. That support will carry me through the next year of this new journey, and writing this book, tentatively titled:

MAID: A single mother’s journey from cleaning house to finding home.

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Creating Security when the World is Scary

My response to the news over the past few weeks has been a mixture of anger, sadness, helplessness, and fighting for reaffirmation that my decision to bring my children into the world was a good one.

10305337_10152245834408282_559586058682218791_n (1)I brought my girls into this world promising them I’d take good care of them. I grew them and birthed them with hope they would prosper in our community and wherever they decided to go as adults. I made a choice as a woman, as a single woman at that, to take on this responsibility of providing them with the basic needs of food, shelter, love, and safety.

In a span of several days, I saw news stories of people dying in streets, in front of their children, in front of people peacefully protesting, while trying to provide for their family, and my response was to clean.

We live in a small apartment-about 670 square feet-and even at that size I cannot keep up on the deep cleaning. When I used to be a housecleaner, I learned the difference between light, maintenance-type of cleaning, like wiping counters and giving the toilet a quick brushing, and the deeper cleaning that is done from your knees. The deep cleaning that makes your arms ache from scrubbing marks off of walls, sticky spots off floors, and reaching behind the toilet to wipe away the dust and hair.

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I started sorting through cupboards, throwing away expired food that I’d hung on to out of the old habit of not wasting anything. Some were years old, and I tossed them knowing I’d at one time carefully packed them in a box, bringing them to our new home that I could afford without needing roommates.

IMG_0832A living room free of dust and a hallway mirror without spots wasn’t out of my want to have a clean space, but my biological need to provide a safe home for my children.

I started sorting through my older daughter’s room, clearing out years’ worth of crumpled papers and past art projects she did on rainy Saturdays. If she’d been looking over my shoulder, she most-likely would have objected. But in my experiences in gutting out her room, she returns from visiting her dad, hugging me for helping her climb out of her tendency to save every special rock, every bottle cap, every Happy Meal toy.

For three full days I ignored work, fought through having a slight version of my daughter’s stomach bug, and cleaned. The outside world had turned into a scary place. I had to carve out a tiny space where they could run to, fall asleep in, and wake up to Saturday morning breakfasts.

IMG_0872As a mother, I sometimes resist the complete and total surrender that comes with caring for my children. I also fight to make sure I can say to them sincerely, honestly, and openly “I chose to have you because I wanted you, and I have never regretted that decision.”

Sure, there have been times that I questioned, or thought I’d grossly overestimated what I could physically and emotionally handle, but for the most part we get through our days just fine. Most nights I don’t long for a different life. I am content and often happy with the life I have chosen.

But I can’t protect them from heartache. I can’t shelter them from scary things happening in the world. I can’t keep important people from leaving their lives without saying goodbye.

But I can give them my arms, my beating heart felt through my chest, and a safe place to call home. I can give them food. I can let them fall asleep in my lap. I can sit with them. I can give them myself whenever they need.

 

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Saluting the Ghost Ship from the Shore

If things had gone according to plan, right now I’d be in the Dulles airport in Virginia, after a red-eye flight, five hours in to my eight-hour wait for the rest of my group to arrive, probably on my fourth cup of coffee, attempting to complete assignments and invoices and pitches at a little table in an airport cafe.

Instead, I’m watching my toddler inhale a breakfast of pasta with red sauce while watching that weird Minions movie for maybe the sixth time in the last few days. She’s had pink eye and a cough sort of thing since the weekend, and it was the final straw in deciding to stay home, and cancel my trip to D.C. this week.

I’ve had a day to process this, and it brought up a lot of questioning my identity, feeling like a ghost of myself, sitting there on the couch all day, breastfeeding a small child who I’ve long-since wanted to wean.

EmiliaWhen Mia was little, I lived in close proximity to her dad, and she saw him every other weekend. Even though this wasn’t the best situation for us for various reasons, it still afforded me time off, and a back-up person if I really needed one. Though I never went anywhere, I did get a chance to catch up on homework, work extra hours, and recover from my life as a single parent. I could date. I could go out. I could even, you know, have a guy sleep over.

With Coraline, it’s been a little different. I rarely get to step away, get a break, even when I really want to.

The trip I’d planned to D.C. was almost identical to my recent ones to New Jersey and the Bay Area in days of the week and length. I confirmed my usual babysitter was available. I bought tickets for a super cheap price. Then the woman who runs Cora’s daycare said she’d be closed that same week. My babysitter said sure, he could do all day. I set aside money, worked extra hours, to afford to pay him while I was gone. Then, a week before I was supposed to leave, he ghosted me.

IMG_0415I spent the next few days sending possibly hundreds of texts to arrange a schedule involving seven people. It was too late to board the dog. I found a place for Cora to go during the day, and a pet-sitter to come hang out with my anxious dog for a little while at noon. I devised an insane schedule that included people Cora didn’t know all that well. She’d be shuffled several times a day, and spending the nights at my house with her dad, who lately has had a difficult time getting Cora to sleep. Mia would also be shuffled around from school and with the neighbor and was pretty much in charge of caring for the dog in the morning and at night.

For some reason I felt horrible leaving this time. I was stressed over this conglomeration of a schedule falling apart. I didn’t know some of the people well, some of them at all. I feared Cora would be confused, upset, and missing me more. I missed my main person to take over the operation of the ship that is my life for a few days.

I’d been so worried over this, I didn’t prepare my house, my fridge, myself, for leaving. I didn’t mentally go over the trip, and try to prepare myself for taking the Metro around in D.C. I’d be meeting with a senator, and my boss’s boss at the Center for Community Change, and I had no idea what to wear.

By the time Cora showed signs of pink eye, and spent the day before I’d fly away on the couch, nursing, and sleeping, I started to prepare myself for canceling the trip.

This was admitting defeat for me. I’d tried. I probably still could have gone. But despite the several jobs I may have, my one job is to be there for my kids when they need me. Even though I don’t describe myself this way to people, I am a mom first and foremost, and a single one at that.

But I feel like this limits me and my abilities. I fight to overcome my past, I fight to overcome being in poverty, I fight to overcome the stigma that is being a single mom with two kids with two dads. I fight for resources and a community to keep us supported. And I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed.

Because I’m also fighting to have a successful career as a writer, and possibly author, which will require me to travel. I start to question my abilities, as one “I can’t” bleeds into several: I can’t work this week, I can’t shower, I can’t sleep, I can’t go to the store because the baby’s sleeping on me or I’m too exhausted or I just don’t have the energy to care about anything we might be out of except for coffee.

Cheryl Strayed, as the Dear Sugar advice columnist, once wrote:

“Has sleep deprivation and the consumption of an exorbitant number of Annie’s Homegrown Organic Cheddar Bunnies taken years off of my life or added years onto it? Who would I have met if I had bicycled across Iceland and hiked around Mongolia and what would I have experienced and where would that have taken me?

I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

So yesterday I surrendered. I saw not making the trip as saving hundreds of dollars in what I would have spent in child care. I finally broke down and bought a microwave. I ordered out for dinner, and might every night for the next few days. I stopped drinking a never-ending cup of coffee, didn’t work, dozed off while Cora slept, and went to bed at nine.

Cora woke up several times last night, angry that her nose was stuffed, that her eyes were full of crust; and wanting water, to nurse, or me. In between, I slept. Like, really slept. I could have slept most of the morning. I didn’t need any other reason to prove that I needed to stay. I desperately needed some down time.

It’s taken me a few hours to write this out this morning. Cora’s sleeping in my lap, and I’m refusing the urge to work. I needed to write selfishly, to process, to digest my decision yesterday, be confident in it, and salute the ship from the shore.

 

-step.

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.

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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.”

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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.