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.
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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Freelancing has an odd flow to it, or no flow at all, really. A bumper month is the payoff of work from two months before. Once I got a couple of regular gigs that together are a steady stream of money coming in, I stopped pitching stories to other outlets. I worked on my book proposal, and sometimes just didn’t work at all.
It’s easy for me to sink into the ebb and flow of my kids’ constant needs and wants. I allow them to drain me.
This morning Coraline woke up at four, making an odd kind of desperate wheezing noise. She’d cough, and cry a little, but still directed me to the kitchen to get her something to eat. I relinquished, got up, and turned on the coffee maker.
These are moments I wonder what it’s like for parents who have a partner. Does one person get up at night if another has to work early? I imagine the “off-duty” one still getting up, offering help, or relief. Maybe when one finally gets up for work and finds the other half asleep, watching Sesame Street with a sick toddler in their lap, they smile at each other a bit, trade places, and one can take a shower or stretch or pee. I guess I don’t know. I only have what I can imagine. I’m not sure I’ll ever have anything else.
Photo on 12-17-15 at 5.26 AMCora’s been saying her version of words lately, and asked to go in her backpack. I paced around in my living room and kitchen, handing her apple slices, starting my day in the stillness and dark, except for the glow of the multi-colored lights on our fake Christmas tree.
I’ve been struggling with getting in the mood for Christmas this year. Mia has been relentless with her requests for gifts. It doesn’t seem to matter what I get her, there are always five more requests in line after it.
I sat on the couch this morning and watched her get ready for school. She sneezed, and coughed, flipping her bread with an egg in the center in the pan to cook on the other side. She put her snow pants on, then sat next to me on the couch. I could tell by the dark circles under her eyes that she was sick.
“Let me feel your head,” I said. She wasn’t warm. Or at least not as warm as the limp baby in my lap, who roused at the sound of my voice. Coraline sat up and immediately hugged and kissed Mia.
I wish sometimes that this could be Christmas. Quiet mornings, in the glow of lights, and not a build-up to another early morning of opening gifts. I want to enjoy these two warm bodies next to me that were once part of my own.
This year will be the first Christmas in a very long time that we’ll spend with family: Coraline’s grandparents and aunts and uncle and cousin. Her grandma came to Mia’s Christmas Pageant at school. Her grandpa comes over and cooks dinner with them. They’ve taken Mia in as a bonus grandchild. I sit back and try to enjoy these things without my lack of trust keeping them at too long of an arm’s length. I’m happy for my girls. I’m happy for me, too, if I allowed myself to admit it. I’m still getting used to grandma and grandpa calling once or twice weekly to ask when they can see the girls again. That’s never happened to me.
10173640_10152613732603282_2581214178596635514_nWe do have much to be thankful for at the end of this year. Last year, I had nothing. The girls’ presents were bought with money from donations and money I literally found. I sent Mia off to her dad’s on Christmas Day and when I called to ask if she’d landed okay he called me a dip shit. I dread her leaving for a week this year again. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.
Lately whenever Coraline’s tired and wanting to nurse, she drags around the U-shaped pillow, following me as I try to eat and use the bathroom. I’ve been trying to not let her take these little naps during the day so she goes down by nine at night. The other night we both sat on the floor, taking turns pulling the plungers out of syringes with her laughing at the popping sound they made. It was almost midnight, and I’d tried to put her down three times already. But I sat there on the floor with her for an hour, knowing she’d never remember it, but I’d never forget it.
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2015111095125545Coraline’s been sleeping on her own lately, and this morning I sent Mia off to catch the bus to school and am now sitting in a quiet house, enjoying hot coffee for exactly 35 minutes and counting. I want to poke my head in to the bedroom to check on her, but I know it’ll wake her up. I get moments to myself at night, too, and end up pacing a little, ready to jump out of my seat if I hear her whimper. Her sleeping on her own has been one of those quiet moments of success that give me a chance to breathe without asking someone to help me do it.
Yesterday I did an interview for a radio station in Australia about the housecleaning essay Vox published back in July. The essay I’m turning into a book. I have to pinch myself often that this is my life. Yesterday was definitely not an exception, feeling a literal 15 minutes of fame. I had friends come over to listen to it, had a few beers, and ordered out for pizza. Coraline covered herself in spaghetti and we all patted our bellies full of food we didn’t have to cook ourselves.
It’s hard for me to celebrate, and it was especially hard for me to invite friends over to celebrate with me. I usually allow moments like this to pass. I believe that if I give them attention, I might jinx them in some way. If I poke my head in to check on them, recognizing they exist, they’ll vanish.
DSCN2175I’ve been going out on dates lately. I’m not totally sure I even want a boyfriend, and “relationship” has the same ick-factor of the word “moist” when I say it, but I thought it’d be good to try. I am happy single, but there are moments, during the holidays especially, where walking down a street alone in the midst of bundled up couples is too much to bear without feeling a little tug of sadness and wanting.
One of my dates asked about my writing, since I put in my online profile that I wrote for a living and it was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was ten. I told him I’d published some essays, and had kept a journal since I was a kid. He nodded in a “that’s nice” sort of way.
Later in the date he asked what I had going on that weekend and I told him about the Australian radio live interview. His jaw opened and his eyes got wide, and I went on to explain who I wrote for regularly and that I was preparing a book proposal for an agent who’d contacted me.
“I didn’t realize I was sitting across from a famous person!” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that in a joking or sarcastic way or not.
I turned my head and said, “Yeah, I guess I’m a little famous.”
Being able to tell people about my job isn’t about that, though. For years I battled overcoming an inner voice in my head, the voice of my ex, who said I was worthless and that no one was ever going to love me. He said I was selfish for pursuing a college degree in writing, because I’d always be struggling and costing the tax payers money from being on government assistance.
Being able to tell people about my job is being able to say that I am successful. A professional, even, though most of my writing is done half-lidded and in pajama pants. I’m just at the start of my career, and it’s something I have to pinch myself over daily. I’ve had so many years, the last five especially, of showing my writing to people and being rejected, heavily edited, or watched them frown and tell me it needs some work. So I worked at it. It’s exciting to have things click, to find my voice and have the courage to use it, and get paid to write.
I almost threw up yesterday after the interview. It was only 15 minutes and I had no idea how many people had tuned in to listen, or just happened to be in a place on Monday morning in Australia where the radio was on that channel. My dog had horrifyingly barked through the middle and I fought through the distraction, but still felt awful. I had to stop. And breathe. And give myself that quiet moment of recognition. Not to relish, but to give credit: “You’ve worked hard to get here. Sit and enjoy it for a second.”
I guess I could say that about just about anything, but those moments are my favorites. Getting a chance to drink hot coffee in a quiet house ranks pretty high on the scale, too, though.
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Lately my nights are no longer a sleep, but naps lasting a few hours that I awaken from often. Work is this never-ending thing that I feel guilty stepping away from. I feel guilty watching a movie. Because deadlines and assignments and research projects and all the reading I must do. Then to write. And edit. And rewrite.
My recent and startling ability to pay bills and have enough money in the bank to pay another month’s worth has thrown me into a battle of comfort and mistrust. I feel like I should be working even harder to maintain my momentum. Because who knows when the floor will drop out again. Who knows when the truck will break down, or when I run out of stories to tell.
Every word and thought and event seems to shape itself into a beginning middle and end in a perfect 800-word format that I can send off in a pitch.
Yet my life feels pretty dull. I work around the clock, looking for subject matters, writing, waiting on emails, hunting down payments, and in the midst is a toddler and kid and dog who I love but only have a few minutes at a time for. I crave showers and eating while sitting. I pass invitations to go out due to exhaustion and being past the point of unkempt and because my right eye is permanently bloodshot and I’m not sure why other than maybe I just keep it open too much but then wouldn’t the left one be red too?
I know there’s balance in here somewhere. I know this is hard because of Coraline’s age and my lack of affording full-time child care. But maybe I like this life. This nocturnal existence I’ve created for myself, staying up past midnight to tap at a keyboard, writing and forgetting.

The New Apartment

Our apartment in 2010, above the freeway in Mount Vernon, Washington.


I’ve been writing about our little studio we lived in five years ago a lot lately, in such a nostalgic way. I thought we wouldn’t get out of there. For a time I thought I’d clean houses for years, possibly a decade. I thought that little room and those piles of dirty rags and the car that constantly broke down was our fate. I thought that was what being a single mom meant.
I used to sit out on our porch at night, after I’d wrestled Mia into bed, chain smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking when I could afford it, and sometimes when I couldn’t. The days hollowed me, and left me shocked in my shell. I miss it, the crinkling of the paper and the yellowed fingers. The stained lips from wine in jugs and scribbling in journals by the light of an outside yellow bulb. I miss being that romantic notion of the artist, and a tortured one at that. Maybe I just miss the smoking, though I don’t, really.
It’s almost 12:30 and I should peel off my clothes and go to bed. I need to get up early. I need to nurse Cora through the night while she turns herself in circles in the bed, snuggling up to me one minute and kicking me the next. I’ll have dreams about hiding under thin sheets with a man in beach houses under swaying palms where sand-filled shoes are left by the door. I dream my skin is tight with a fresh burn from the sun and wake up to the dryness of the Montana winter that is slowly creeping in this year and its looming makes me nervous.
I hesitate to write on my personal platform about struggles I have. Because I do love this life. I know my old self who climbs and hikes and gets out of the house often to dance is around the bend. That raising babies on your own is tough and unimaginably hard and I’m not sure how I do it most of the time. But it was nice to decide to write here. To know that this writing is for me.
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For a lifelong introvert, freelancing is not exactly a career of choice.
The last year has been one, long, continuous struggle to get people to notice me. I’d historically been an avid Facebook user, but only with people I’d quickly agree to have coffee with. Deciding to freelance meant building a platform. It meant blogging again, an act that took me nearly six months to do after being on hiatus for two years. It meant adding every acquaintance, every high school classmate, every person I’d sort-of-heard-of-maybe-even-seen-once-in-person as a Facebook friend. That was enough, for a while.

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My Bukowski “Bluebird” Tattoo

For most of the last three years since I’ve been submitting work for publication, I’ve given the equivalent of a public reading of my own work to maybe a few hundred people at a time or less. Instead of being on stage, I’m in the middle of a swarming stadium, and the ones listening are peppered throughout crowd. I longed to write something that people would stop and pay attention to.
“I just want to go viral for all the right reasons,” I said to a friend, a week before I did.
When it was all happening, and the bad comments were coming in and my blog had 60,000 hits, I ducked even harder into my little apartment. I read articles on going viral, because what constitutes as going viral anyway, and found this quote from Elyse Anders of Mofo Nation, who’d experienced her share of negativity. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can’t make it go away that easily,” she said. “It’s like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you’re standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.” I’d gotten what I’d longed for. Everyone, all hundreds of thousands of them, had noticed me reading my essay. But some of them went to great lengths to call me a cockroach.
I’d had an agent contact me and put all of my time and energy into getting a first chapter of my book written, and decided to focus on scenes I rarely tell close friends. Eventually, I started eating regularly again. Well, if you consider frozen pizza to be “regular.” I got Mia back and everything was back to normal. But I was changed.
DSCN5133Sherman Alexie’s been known to call the feeling after reading his work in front of people a “Vulnerability Hangover.” When I’d told my neighbor how many people had clicked on my articles that weekend, she said, “That’s like, more people than the entire state of Montana!” My friends started calling me “the famous writer,” even though I repeatedly brushed it off.
With highs come the lows, and then a settling. What now?
For the last few weeks, I’ve taken a crash course in freelancing by way of a few Facebook groups and many late nights of reading how-to articles and publications I want to submit to. I have a list of editor emails open on my desk. I’ve made close to 20 pitches. I’ve sent out that first chapter for review and have started an ebook. I work every possible moment that I can, staying up until two in the morning most nights with a sleeping 14-month-old in my lap. My wine consumption has increased, as with the coffee, and visiting the deli at the hippie store down the block.
Being an essay writer and spending hours and days and weeks on writing about things where you are the main character is not especially fun. There are some nights that I get so sick of my own self I shut the laptop, then open it again a few minutes later with a sigh.
An essay going viral didn’t prove that I was a good writer. I still have a hard time believing I am a lot of the time. Sure, there are titles that people click on more than others, but I kept hearing from people that they’d started to read my article and couldn’t stop. They appreciated the honesty. They told me that again and again.
I had a piece go up on The Mid today. It was something I’d written like I am writing now—late at night, with a glass of wine, and while nursing a baby. In the past, I anticipated getting published by reading what I wrote obsessively, trying to calm my fear of telling the story. This time, I read it on the site the day it came out, all the way to the end in one go, without cringing at sentences that could have been said better. At the last sentence my first thought was, “Wow. That was good!” instead of wishing I could retract my submission like crumpling a paper and throwing it in the wastebasket.
Putting myself out there as a freelancer and book-writer-dare-I-say-author meant winging it in the worst way at first. Because I still wanted to be a writer that I wasn’t. I wanted to be the lyrical, poetic description, literary author.
But I’m not that kind of writer.
I don’t fluff. I don’t wring every last ounce of emotion out of sentences. I write, for the most part, like I speak. I tell stories. I have conversations. I found that voice a long time ago, but going viral gave me the courage to speak it clearly, despite the crowd.
And, it turns out, from the looks of the scraps of paper and notebooks with barely legible notes scrawled in them, I have a lot to say.
So, there’s that.
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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.
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“I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”
And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.
And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.”
-Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Keynote Address, University of the Arts, 2012

Emilia and Coraline

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