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.

 

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Here Now

I’m writing this knowing my bank account is overdrawn, because I’m still waiting on four, unexpectedly late paychecks. I’m writing this from my couch, where my 19-month-old is sleepily nursing in my lap. I’m writing this two hours before I was supposed to meet friends for lunch, but had to cancel because of lack of funds. I’m writing this in between the tugs on my heart strings and knots in my stomach and angst of being alone.

Yesterday I went to bring my friend who’d just had a baby dinner. While I sat at her table, doing the familiar action that was holding a small baby while trying to eat, carefully picking food I’d dropped off of her incredibly new little frame, I started to seethe in jealousy and self-loathing.

My friend had a housecleaner. She had a mother-in-law staying with her. She had a husband at work who made enough to support the three of them and their house, two dogs, and two cats. She had a pile of boxes of things people had sent her, and a lot of things she’d planned to return because they ended up not needing them.

IMG_6450I looked over at my girls, playing so sweetly together, and thought of when Coraline was just born. I was completely on my own in an empty house just two days after I’d given birth. My cousin had stayed with us for a few days, and left us with a freezer full of pasta dishes, and some friends had brought us some food. Other than that, I was alone with a newborn who screamed if I put her down, and a rambunctious 7-year-old who, though I didn’t know it at the time, had hair completely full of lice.

Though Cora’s dad wasn’t there then, he’s here now. For the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen him almost every day. He got a full-time job and has committed to helping me pay for daycare costs while working with me on a schedule that gives him ample time with his daughter.

Mia’s had a hard time with this, of course, since she just returned from being with her dad for a week. Last night, after the visit to my friend’s house, Cora’s dad came to hang out with her for a couple of hours. I turned to Mia and asked her if she wanted to go to the store for cupcakes.

We live next to this ritzy hippie store, full of organic produce, but they also have baked goods that we can purchase with food stamps. On the way there, Mia skipped along next to me, holding my hand.

“Have I told you how much I love you lately?” she said.

I laughed and said not really.

“I love you so much, Mom,” she said. “You’re the best mom anybody could ever have.”

We ate our cupcakes, and I sat across the table from her while she talked about school, and mentioned one of her friends who was really really grumpy that day.

“Am I ever really really grumpy?” I said, knowing I was often.

“Yeah,” she said. “Like if I’m not listening and I know I’m not listening.”

“I feel like I’m kind of hard to live with sometimes,” I said.

“You’re a great mom,” she said. “You get grumpy, but you just had a baby by yourself. I know it’s hard.”

Lately it’s come to my attention that I’ve exhausted myself for a long time, and I’m beginning to feel the mental and physical toll. My hair’s about half as thick, and going gray. I don’t sleep for more than three or four hours. There are always about five things I need to be doing, not including taking a shower or going pee.

I’m looking for a therapist, though I’m not sure what it’ll do to help.

DSCN2248Despite all of this, I’ve already been published several times this year, and am putting the finishing touches on a book proposal that I hope to send out in the next week. My article through the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago made it to print in the newspaper. An essay featured in the Style section.

These last few months have been life-changing with Cora’s grandparents and father becoming a part of our little family. It comes with its own realizations of my own issues revolving around trusting others. In that sense, sometimes it’s easier to be alone.

IMG_6480Coraline took to her dad instantly. I’m pretty sure on some level she knew she was his. Watching them together has been full of moments of unexpected sweetness. She wraps her arms around his whole head, and runs to him for a hug when he leaves.

All of my desires to find a suitable partner have faded. It might be from a mix of no longer having the ability to put energy into it, to wanting to focus on my family’s recent expansion and how that’s affecting everyone. I published a piece about it in the Washington Post the other day, ending with saying I’d try some sort of casual thing, but even that was too much.

I think it’ll be a long while before I can jump into anything like that.

But Coraline’s finally starting daycare two days a week. I don’t think I even need to say what a huge relief that is. It seems like things are always just on the brink of sailing smooth. Or sometimes they do for a while then dip back down to weekends like this where I have absolutely no money.

Darkest light’s before the dawn, you know.

 

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Finding your Inner Mr. Rogers

DSCN1996Netflix recently made classic episodes of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood available, and I’ve been watching them with the girls. Or, more correctly, I sit on the couch, my mouth gaped open a little, a tear welling in my eyelid and balancing until I wipe it away while the kids putter around and play with the dog.

Mr. Rogers was a sort of hero to me. He was the grandfather I’d longed for. The friend down the street I wanted to visit, the answer to my uncertainty and angst at four-years-old. I used to stand in front of our huge, wood-encased television that sat on the floor, waiting for him to wave good-bye, and I’d kiss the static of the screen, leaving marks for my mom to complain about having to wipe off.

Watching the episodes Netflix chose to release, especially the one with the crayon factory, was to sit as a child again, remembering my small frame and long hair, listening intently to the nice man telling me I mattered because I was me and nobody else was.

I spent the entire month of August hustling to get published. I wrote stories about rape, edited others about abortion, and made lists of how Louis CK and Roseanne molded me in to the parent I am. I submitted, pitched, and submitted more. My rejection pile increased more rapidly than my accepted one, but as of today I’m forthcoming through eight publications, and most of them are new to me and large platforms.

In the midst of all of this, I got accepted to be a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change. This position is the equivalent of running across the room, leaping, and landing in a feather bed.  My boss is an enthusiastic cheerleader of my writing, my story, and talks me up to editors at lunches after listening to me talk for a couple of hours about my struggles over the last decade. Most of all, it comes with a stipend that, with the child support I fought hard to get and receive, pays my bills. My days of constant writing, hustling, and pitching for 12-14 hours a day were done for the time being.

Granted, I have very modest bills. I don’t have a smartphone, cable, a car payment, or high-speed internet. I only fill my gas tank once a month. I have housing assistance and qualify for other programs like free breakfast and lunches for Mia. Federal poverty level is at $16.50 per person, per day, and I’m still under that mark, but not as far as I used to be.

Currently, I just have one piece that’s due next week, and I’m waiting for instructions on another one. I’m taking an online writing class, but other than that I’m not writing. I went from writing over 1,000 words a day to hardly any. I had to take a break from myself. I had to stop reliving those painful moments. I had to shut down and stop being so damn open and vulnerable. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sometimes in a panic, asking “Why am I sharing these things?!” I admit, I’m an avid social media user, and have kept a blog off and on for years, but in this age of publishing online and facing scrutiny through dreaded comment sections, I often felt gripping anxiety over it all, wanting to hide, or pretend my online self wasn’t really me.

DSCN2018Most of all, I had to stop reliving those painful moments, editing my memories to form them into a story arc. Writing about heartbreak was putting myself back in that body, sitting with myself on that porch late at night, feeling that loneliness and isolation again. This wasn’t feeling the warm fuzziness from Mr. Rogers. This was lying in dark rooms, alone and scared.

Instead I’ve been giving myself permission to not write, not work, and take some time to read books or go back and edit pieces I’m passionate about. I take Coraline and the dog for walks, and Bodhi never pulls while we wait for the baby to catch up, holding a leaf or stick she’s found.

It was my birthday on Sunday. I meant to write something about turning a year older, or the fact that it’s the anniversary of conceiving both of my daughters. I wanted to recognize how far we’ve come in the last year, but I don’t need a birthday to meditate on that. I do it almost daily.

The only thing I wanted to happen on that day was allowing our dog, Bodhi, the chance to run without fences, long leads, or a nervous me calling her back constantly. We drove out to the mountains and I opened the door to the truck, watched her hesitate a bit, then run back and forth with the greatest doggy-smile on her face.

We got back to the house, and I ran to the store for dinner stuff. Mia sang “Happy Birthday” to me over cupcakes I’d bought. That night, everything was quiet, and I realized the only adults I’d spoken to all day were two cashiers and a friend I’d run into outside the grocery store. Years ago, this would have sent me in to a spiral of despair and sadness, but I didn’t feel that in the slightest. When I think of my life, minus the tasks of caring for all of us, I feel nothing but contentment. A freedom from want. A happiness. Maybe that’s what growing up means: finding your inner Mr. Rogers. Finding a way to be comfortable with, appreciate and love me because I am me and no one else is.

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Oh! The Places You’ll Go!

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
by the incomparable Dr. Seuss

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.

And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.

You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

 

 

 

step.

Tattooed Underneath His Sweater…

He was born a fool for love
What he wouldn’t do for love
He’s a fool, a fool for love…
She was six and he was seven,
Used to send him off to heaven
When she said, “you are my sunshine.”
The part he always liked the best
When she teased him with a kiss
And she said, “you make me happy.”
You’re a fool for love.
What he wouldn’t do for love,
He’s a fool, fool for love.
Born a fool, you got to
Follow the rule, always a fool
A fool for love.
He grew up he didn’t get much better
Tattooed underneath his sweater
L.o.v.e in blue.

Seems he was never satisfied,
Chasing girls like butterflies
Believin’ every word they said was true.
He’s a fool for love
What he wouldn’t do for love
He’s a fool, a fool for love.
Once a fool, you got to
Follow the rule, always a fool
A fool for love.
Last time I saw him alive
He was standin’ up on the bride’s side
Yelling his objections at the groom.
The blushing bride was my best friend,
She turned around and to him said
“Yes you were my only sunshine then.”
You’re a fool for love
What he wouldn’t do for love
He’s a fool, a fool for love.
Born a fool, you got to
Follow the rule, always a fool
A fool for love.
–Sandy Rogers, “Fool For Love” featured on the “Reservoir Dogs” soundtrack

My friend, Aurora, and me used to belt this song out whenever we’d had too much to drink.  Sometimes, when we hadn’t.  I have been wanting to get this tattoo for well over five years, and a friend offered to pitch in as an early birthday present so I could get it done.

So, on Friday, I stopped in to a local tattoo shop, and a half hour later I looked like someone who’d just attempted suicide.  It feels a little silly.  The tattooist (who was incredibly cute in a very “bad boy” kind of way) actually tried to talk me out of it a bit, saying it would fade or whatever.  I figured fading is fine, if not incredibly acceptable and almost necessary.  I think all tattoos have an element to them that represents a certain time in your life, and fading comes with that, just like your memory fades.  I tried to explain this to the tattooist, but it was while he was digging a needle in my arm, and it didn’t sound as poetic.

May I always remember this time that I fully realized what a fool for love I am.  Enough to get it tattooed on my wrist.

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Eleanor, my leading lady:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”

“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

“It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

“Women are like teabags. We don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water!”

And…finally:

“I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.”

She is my new favorite (dead) person.

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