Freshly Pressed, and Thoughts on Being Super Mom

In the past year or so since I’ve let my blog go dormant, I’ve gotten a few notifications from WordPress. Sometimes they included legitimate comments from readers, but the more occasional ones were all spam, and I thought the email I received from the site a little over a week ago would be no different.

But it was. So. Different.

Krista, an editor at WordPress, somehow found an essay I wrote over two years ago. She liked it so much she wanted to feature it on Freshly Pressed. This digital age is a funny one, and for a minute after I read her email, I thought, “Oh, ‘Krista’ is probably just a computer, trolling sites for key words.” But then I read her email again, and she actually sounded like a human being, who had actually been moved by my writing.

When it hit Freshly Pressed later that week, I started getting comments, and “likes” and reblogs, and followers that trumped my previous numbers several times over.

All this attention for something I wrote such a long time ago has made me feel like I’ve woken up in a room filled with bright lights and party hats. As soon as I sit up, everyone shouts, “Surprise!”

I didn’t know how much I needed that kind of attention, but I did! It’s set my brain on fire.

All around me, the world is loud. My children are loud. My husband is loud. My tea kettle is loud. My new phone, because its speaker is not yet clogged with apple sauce, is loud. My dog has acquired a barking problem, and I’ll be damned if she is not loud. My own thoughts are loud, too.

But for the last year or so, I have been quiet – not writing, barely investing in reading – because if there is anything I want right now, it’s quiet. I want my brain to be quiet, my life, especially when I am alone, to be quiet. Pictures instead of words, if you please.

One could say from all this talk that I am depressed, or not coping very well with the chaos that is life with three young children, but the reality is that most of the time, I love my life. I am deeply grateful for everything in it, painfully aware that in just a few years, I am really going to miss the noise and the mess that trails after my children at every turn. I breathe in the sweet smell of my two year old every night, and I revel in how simple it all is right now. No one is begging for an iPhone; no one’s rolling their eyes; no one is sneaking out, or getting bullied, or having their hearts broken. It’s pretty great, really, in the grand scheme of things.

But my thought life, and therefore, my writing life, does suffer. Until this week, I’d been willing to let that go as an inevitable consequence of the season. It had kind of fallen into the mini-van category: a necessary evil that makes life for a mother of three exponentially more convenient.

The convenience of not writing, though, the luxury of all this quiet, has its consequences. And while I am not exactly sure what all of them are, the sum of their parts equals Not Good.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about modern day Mommy Culture – how our life as mothers has somehow become so defining that it’s supplanted our core identities. Until my third child arrived, I felt I was able to hold most things in balance. Since then, I have (mostly unknowingly) been asking myself the following questions: “Do I want to be: A Mom Who Writes? A Mom Who Exercises? A Mom Who Volunteers?” Etc. etc. — As opposed to being a person who does all of those things and also happens to have a family.

The article in the Times came down pretty hard on our culture, and perhaps rightfully so, but I would also argue that all the Super Moms out there are knowing parties in the madness they’re perpetuating. These high achievers want to be the best, and it doesn’t matter if all we’re talking about are cake pops and class party logistics. They’re women who have had their dreams deferred (and sometimes derailed) by the process of parenting, and like everyone else, they’re desperately fighting the demons of insecurity.

I don’t have it together enough to be a Super Mom. I’m kind of a mess, really. But I feel for them, because I kind of know what they’re going through, and I wish for them that they could just take a deep breath and stop. Their kids don’t actually want them to be crazy.

My kids don’t want me to be crazy, either. Occasionally, I have been – and I am not using the term ‘crazy’ as a colloquialism when I write that. But as I have quietly been making my way through the past year or so, I’ve started to mix a little bit of my old self back in with the new. I started exercising after an embarrassingly long hiatus; I’m taking turns editing this awesome new lit mag; I felt the freedom to sit on a porch swing at the beach house to finish the last few chapters of The Goldfinch, while the dads manned the fort. Maybe writing again, more often, is next. We’ll see.

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A Submission Call … and Some Thoughts on “Calling”

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About five years ago, two of my favorite writers and I launched a fun online project named Proximity. The effort was theme-based and made interesting by each of our different locations – Madison, WI (Carrie Kilman), Atlanta, GA (moi), and a small village in South Africa (Maggie Messitt). For each “issue” we chose a place, usually physical, sometimes temporal, and we wrote a short essay about our experience of it, yielding a diverse trio of perspectives. The project lasted a year, at which point we each felt it was time to move on.

Now, Maggie, Carrie and I are excited to serve as editors of the “new” Proximity, a literary magazine in the same vein as the original. We’ve added Traci Macnamara, an old friend with a stellar writing voice and a concrete sense of place, to the editorial team, and we plan to launch the first issue in January, 2014. Its theme will be “Morning,” and submission guidelines can be found on our web site. Please check it out, “like” us everywhere we can be “liked,” and tell your friends!

For my part, I am having a difficult time transitioning from having full-time “mom/family thoughts” to “mom thoughts” slightly diluted by “writer thoughts.” Everyone still needs to be fed and the kitchen cleaned three times a day; there is still, on average, ninety minutes of laundry to be folded and put away at least a few times a week; and there are things to volunteer for at the kids’ schools, and cookies to be baked, and parental awesomeness to act on.

And yet I now have this separate, highly creative project that I want to contribute to in meaningful, productive ways.

How I can make that happen in the midst of an afternoon like I had yesterday is going to be a work in progress. First, the baby tripped and split his forehead open on the (brick) corner of our house. Once consoled and cleaned up, he then dumped the contents of his diaper on the pantry floor (only to be found by me later, while grabbing canned tomatoes). At about the same time as the head injury, my three year old was yelling at the top of her voice for a headband she could not find among the playroom’s detritus and my five year old was having a monumental, if not historic, meltdown about misplaced butterfly wings.

Did I mention that we were having another mom and her two kids over for dinner and that the dads were working late? Our guests showed up just in time for me to find my 18 month old’s “present” in the pantry.

All is well that ends well, and it mostly did, except that Elizabeth (3) bit Claire (5) so hard on the back while I was putting the baby to bed that I could still see each tooth’s individual imprint fifteen minutes later. And speaking of teeth, I also had to play tooth fairy, which I think is the world’s most ridiculous joke on parents who really, really want their kids to believe in magic for as long as possible. Trying to get a tooth from underneath a sleeping child’s head in the middle of the night, especially when she shares a room with a light sleeper, without blowing the tooth fairy’s cover, is very nearly impossible. (Mission: Accomplished.)

Life does not slow down for me – for anyone – long enough to take stock of where I am and where I’m going. There is no time when I am not doing something, or neglecting something that needs to be done purely for reasons of self-preservation. There is no mossy rock on which to sit on and dream, to organize and plan for the next project, be it familial or professional. I read the work of great essayists, poets and novelists, past and present, and wonder how they found the time and the head space to put thoughts and words together in such beautiful format.

And for a few minutes, I find myself fraught with jealousy and dismay.

Writing is, in essence (and at its best), an act of service to the greater world. I have always wanted to minister to others in some way through my writing – to serve them for the better, because that is what writers, and so many of my writing teachers, have done for me.

But right now, I am spending my life – all the resources my heart and my mind have to offer – on the cultivation of little people’s hearts and minds. It is a service I did not know I was equipped for, but I am. It is a service that I thought would feel like a burden, but it doesn’t.

Yesterday, as I was talking to my amazing sister-in-law on the phone, I brought up Proximity and mentioned how long I’d been out of the game and how crazy it feels to be snapped back into a place of wanting to play again, in the midst of the three kids and the busy, ambitious husband, and everything else.

And she said, in such a beautifully casual way, “Right now you are writing – you’re writing your children’s lives, and one day there will be more time for writing of your own.” I almost burst into tears at the thought of engraving words into the tiny hearts in my care. I had never thought of it that way, but now I will.

How the calling of motherhood dovetails with the calling of writing for the greater good, even if we’re talking about a fairly small audience, is something that I cannot begin to wrap my brain around, but I feel confident, in a way I am not usually confident, that it will.

Editing Proximity-as-literary-journal is the beginning of that journey, and I could not be more thrilled to be a part of it. To learn more: http://proximitymagazine.org/about/

On Writing and an Unkept House

Over the weekend, I was reading a little of Billy Collins’ poetry collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. I love Billy Collins’ work, and not just because, as a former US poet laureate, he’s a high-profile poet. I love Collins’ writing because he finds meaning and humor in every day things and communicates those lessons by composing poetry that feels tangible and well-reasoned. His lines make you think, but not too hard. That’s a feat for a poet.

At any rate, I was reading this collection of Collins poetry on the way to the mountains last weekend and came across a poem entitled “Advice to Writers.” The first two stanzas read:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
 
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

 

I had to wonder if Collins would offer writers with two children under the age of four the same advice, or if he might just say to make sure the diaper bin had been emptied, the breakfast dishes cleared, a path made free of toys, princess tiaras and the previous night’s pajamas.

Later in Collins’ “Advice to Writers,” he writes, “…you will behold in the light of dawn the immaculate alter of your desk, a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.” My only consolation upon reading this is that the man must be crazy; I have a desk, but it is far from being an immaculate altar – it’s currently covered in Claire’s (highly entertaining) artwork, four craft buckets, puppets, and the detritus of our every day lives. It seems my desk has become the sacrifice rather than the altar to which I bring my words for penance.

My house is a disaster. Since August it seems like we’ve barely been home, and when we have been here, I’ve hesitated to put away the unpacked bags, or even to completely unpack them, because another trip was on the horizon. Elizabeth is in that delightful phase where she treats emptying boxes and bags as her full time job, and Claire, my unkempt little princess, tries on several outfits each morning before settling on any one and refusing to let me brush her hair. I folded two massive loads of laundry yesterday while the girls were napping; I can’t bring myself to face the third, waiting for me in the dryer. On days when the girls are at school I often take myself off-location, but honestly, there’s no place like home for writing. I can focus here, even if it is messy, and I can write without feeling self-conscious or pressed for time.

In all seriousness, I get what Billy Collins is saying. I agree that an orderly life most often leads to orderly inspiration, that a mind clear of nagging chores does better work. But if I waited for my entire house to be clean, for my children to be perfectly presentable, dinner expertly cooked, and for all my motherly and volunteer duties to be wrapped up in a lovely little bow, I would Never. Ever. Sit down to write.

So, here I am, sitting on my rumpled couch, in front of my magazine/children’s book scattered coffee table, going after inspiration in whatever form I can find it. Sorry, Billy. I’m taking Annie Dillard’s advice, instead: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

 

 

An Experiment with Self-Improvement

On Monday, Baby E had her one year checkup. I often go to doctor’s appointments with a brief list of questions in my mind, and every time I make my mental notes, I am astounded by the responsibility entrusted to us as parents.

Before each of these doctor’s visits, I feel a little the way I did upon discharge at the hospital, when the nurse tells you everything that could potentially go wrong with your baby and then whisks you away in your wheelchair, holding a precious, burritoed bundle, to the unknown. Whoa.

Before my kids’ major checkups, I fear that I will forget to ask the most important questions, or that some huge, but yet-unknown-to-me parental failing will out itself at the appointment. I strive to look as presentable as the mother of two small children can, as though the doctor will take one look at my under-eye circles and the workout clothes I wear every day and deem me incompetent.

This ritual is ridiculous: no one is going to care whether I have on makeup or not at my baby’s one year checkup, and yet I give it weight, compensating for the insecurity that shakes my confidence and the confidence of almost every mother I know: getting it wrong.

As it turns out, Baby E was, and is, thriving. I remembered to ask all the questions on my mental list. She cried, but not too much, when they gave her her shots. We left, well-tended and on to the next thing. But the prep work that went into that appointment got me thinking about how all our efforts, in everything, reveal a little – or a lot – about who we are and what we care about, and where our insecurities lie. Since parenting is, for me, my most consistent gig, I began thinking about the rules I’ve set for our household, especially for Claire, and how those rules reflect on me.

A few, for example: C may only watch two hours of tv a day, tops; her treats usually have to be earned, not expected; she is only allowed juice (diluted!) once a day.

I know: some of you without kids are thinking, “What are you running up there, a prison?” And some of you with kids are thinking: “Are you kidding? TWO hours of TV? Her brain is going to melt!”

So, I’ve taken a couple of these rules to heart, just to see if I really believe in what I’m enforcing and if life will improve if I, not just Claire, abide by them. I never watch TV, so I’ve started limiting my internet access to no more than two hours of web and email, holding myself to the discipline of not checking email every time I pass my computer. It is amazing how much time can get sucked away by the internet, and how numb I often feel after too much time on Facebook or looking around even at interesting, engaging things online. There is a much richer life to be had in writing, books, folding laundry, cleaning out my closets, talking to friends, etc. and I feel more human when I participate in this sort of mundane, real life stuff. So far, so good.

Lately, well, OK, for my whole life, I have been terrible about drinking enough water. I would much rather have hot tea, juice, Pelligrino, or champagne. I mean, who wouldn’t? So, for the next thirty days I’m challenging myself to drink the recommended amount of water each day – 64 ounces. Honestly, I am kind of bummed out about this, since I really just do not like water that much, but if I expect my children to follow suit, I’d better get on board or change my tune.

This self-improvement/experiment at enlightenment may be kind of silly. As I write about it, it feels a little like a delayed New Year’s Resolution or Lenten promise. Its purpose, though, is sincere: Am I teaching my children, even at the most basic level, about who I am and what I really believe, or only about what I’ve been told to do? Let’s hope the former.

FirstWord/LastWord

Christmas Clairewww.keriecleveland.com

On Saturday morning, Claire awoke in a happy mood, babbling in her crib for a good long while before demanding to be taken out and given milk.  When she finally did “call” for us, Andrew and I were still feeling lazy, so we pulled her into bed  for what we hoped would be some nice baby snuggle time.

But our unmade bed is to Claire a fascinating obstacle course.  She crawls over stray pillows and random coverlet lumps as though she is an all-terrain vehicle, plowing through the rumpled sheets while making sounds akin to a sputtering engine.  In dim light, she finds our faces with her little hands and grabs hard at our noses, or slaps our cheeks.  Occasionally, Claire will face plant into a pillow and suck her fingers for a hopeful moment, but this is just a way to buy some time while hatching a plan for her next adventure. Always, she heads towards the nearest edge of the bed, which is 32 inches high – a number we know because we had to measure it after Claire, at six months, rolled off.

All of this makes for a less than restful snuggle. But it’s fun, and it delays the beginning of our inevitable morning routine.

At some point during Claire’s Saturday morning theatrics, Ivy sensed a good time and bounded onto the bed with us.  The baby, who was delighted, and completely unphased by Ivy’s tail,  giggled and squealed “EyeBee!” All other babbling we have been able to write off as just that, but the “EyeBee” we heard from Claire on Saturday was an intentional first.  She’d put two and two together.  Today, she did it again.  At lunch, I caught her passing  pieces of chicken and cheese to her new best friend, the vehicle for her first intellectual milestone: EyeBee.

Just as Claire ends 2008 with her first word, I end this year closing out “Joyful Things”.  Certainly, as I’ve continued to grow as a writer, this site has become a surprising tool in helping me suss out fake narrative voice – too many of my friends read this for me to go around putting on airs – and, it’s served as a constant reminder that writers are never truly out of ideas.

In closing, I hope this little blog has captured the wonder of the every day, that it has rung true, and that it has pointed to the power of paying attention.  In writing, I think that’s what we’re all after – or at least I am.  I’ll keep doing it, in a somewhat more structured way of Wandering at www.proximitymag.org, beginning January 1.

Proximity is a collaborative project with two of my writer friends, Carrie Kilman and Maggie Messitt, narrative journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and rural South Africa, respectively.  Each week, we plan to spend an hour at a chosen location in each of our cities (coffee shop, bus stop, restaurant, etc.) and write around that theme.  Later, we’ll ask readers to contribute their own posts in what we hope will become a global portrait of common ground.

I hope I’ll see you there.  In the mean time, Happy Holidays!

Next Year I’m Going Barefoot



Originally uploaded by NicaMom

For almost everyone I know, 2008 has been a year full of challenges.

One of my best friends kicked off the year on interminable bed rest, forcing her to miss her brother’s wedding. Another good friend’s aunt and grandmother died within weeks of one another. Claire’s arrival was certainly a joy, but in the beginning those long newborn days felt mighty hard. And then there was Ivy’s seizure and liver failure, Peter’s stroke and associated difficulties. Then, in the latter part of ’08, as we all felt we were coming out of the haze, another friend’s family was mugged at knife point. In the midst of all this, we have also faced down alcoholism, loneliness, a non-profit in financial crisis, a baby in need of a new heart, and two (very young) crumbling marriages.

As hard as it’s been, I feel fortunate that I have heard and felt all the stuff that’s shattered this year. I am fortunate to be a part of a community that doesn’t pretend that everything’s perfect when it isn’t, part of a group of friends that not only offers and delivers help, but also asks for it. And, in the midst of a year that qualifies for us as the most challenging on record, I’m thankful I still want to be and am sympathetic to others. There’s nothing like tunnel vision to fuel an already devastating fire.

All the bad news we’ve received in 2008 has also made the good news that much better. Claire, as she’s grown and thrived, has served up laughter and sweetness better than any healing balm – for us and for our extended family. Friends have safely welcomed five healthy babies this year. My niece, Madeleine, was born, and another good friend recently announced her pregnancy. I got an agent. Our friend John got engaged to a wonderful girl and set an April wedding date. America elected Obama (which made for good news for at least the voting majority). Andrew and I also worked in a much needed, baby-free vacation (thanks, Mom!), have been reminded of what is truly important in life, and – as a direct result of all the bad news that’s been going around – have closer friendships now than ever before.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been one of those “behind every dark cloud is a silver lining” types. Instead, I tend to wonder when the other shoe is going to drop, waiting anxiously for the next big thump. But this year – a year that has been full of big, jackboot sized thumps – it seems that everything that can drop has (even the stock market), and in spite of everything, we’ve found that there is still always something to celebrate … if not in our own life, in someone else’s.

This Thanksgiving, we were weary – as though we’d just survived a harrowing journey – but grateful, ready to head into a holiday season that would lead us out of this worn down year and into a brand new one.  We’re good stock – by which I mean we have determination and that we are fiercely opposed to any sort of prolonged sulking – so I am hopeful for a holiday season and a 2009 that has great capacity for joy.

Speaking of joy … although I will probably post a few more thoughts on Joyful Things before the end of the year, in January, you’ll find my writing (more of it, and more consistently) on a new blog named Proximity – a group project with two of my very talented friends from graduate school. The vision is still in the works, but the blog will be a mix of journalism and essay based on weekly themes, and it should be as entertaining as it is enlightening.

Saving Our Endangered Minds

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to peel myself away from my computer, forcing myself off email, away from the shamelessly addictive Facebook, and out of the comforting synthetic community of online print.

This painfully difficult exercise of going “unplugged” began with a creepy, guilty feeling.  I’d been wasting far too much precious time online.  I knew this without wanting to readily admit it, and while some of it could be chalked up to searching fruitlessly for good (as in, paying) writing gigs, I’d also spent my fair share of free time perusing online sales and eBay listings, nosing through long lost “friends'” pages on Facebook, and checking (and refreshing) my email as though I were expecting correspondence from Barack Obama, himself.

Like the addict I am, I lingered in denial for a while, telling myself that my computer habits weren’t that deplorable, that I still managed to get my work done on deadline, that many of the things I did online, like connecting with old friends, were life-giving, etc. etc.  But then, in an attempt to begin research for my book (which actually involved turning OFF the computer and picking up a real paperback), I began reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy.

Healy, a PhD in educational psychology, wrote Endangered Minds after noticing that her new generation of students didn’t seem to respond to teaching techniques that had worked for her for decades.  It wasn’t just their attitudes that were different; their brains seemed different, too.  Her colleagues agreed.  Healy approached several neurophsychologists and posed this question: Were modern lifestyles altering childrens’ brains in subtle, but critical ways?

Some of the scientists were hesitant to go on the record with Healy, claiming that yes – children’s brains did appear to be changing (and not necessarily for the best) – but that no one could prove it.  Others emphatically agreed with Healy’s hypothesis – pointing to the brain’s lifelong plasticity – and begged her to write a book that might lead to reform, better education, and a greater understanding of what today’s kids are up against.

Healy’s prose is smart and engaging. But what’s kept me reading Endangered Minds are her startling findings: material that was once used to teach middle school students is being used in high schools; standardized tests are easier now than they were in the sixties, but our childrens’ scores are lower; the practice of reading is nearly outmoded, which is bad enough, but students’ comprehension of read materials is also abysmal.  Teachers report that their students today exhibit more aggressive behavior, poor attention spans, and difficulty integrating what they learn in class with day-to-day experience.

TV is often blamed as kids’ greatest intellectual hazard, but the internet and video games are surely rounding the curve, as are busy parents’ lives – one can’t expect a child to know how to navigate his or her world without a parent to plot the course.  Kids’ brains, as limber and changeable as their little bodies, are being molded by electronic babysitters, things that whizz and buzz and blink.  No wonder black and white print seems so boring.

Fifty pages in to Endangered Minds, I felt as though a tiny light was being shined on my dark corner of online distraction.  If children’s brains could be remolded (read: warped) by excess media and a lack of life experience, couldn’t mine?

“Yes!” shouted a little internal voice.  “Keep reading!”

And so I did, finishing Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, picking up Atwood’s The Blind Assassin,  and plugging along through Endangered Minds (“assigned” reading, no matter how fascinating, always feels like more work than fun).

As I spent more time with books than on the internet, I began to notice a change in my own brain: my thoughts were deeper and more complex, and my ideas for essays and writing jobs felt less out of reach.  Reading more has revived my capacity for and love of language; it’s reminded me of why writing is important, and why what I want to write is important.  Reading has made me more certain of myself and my purpose.

Without my even knowing it, all that internet surfing had made me slightly cranky, unsatisfied, and uninspired, like an overtired child.  Now, after drawing some boundaries with Mac, I feel as though I’ve woken up from a much-needed nap.  I’m more alert and settled, eager to learn and to contribute.

While Dr. Healy’s book may sound like an indictment of today’s children and their families here, it’s not.  The purpose of Endangered Minds is to call attention to the shortcomings, and then to propose solutions – a vital read for anyone who has children.

But the point of this posting isn’t to get everyone on a bandwagon for the education of America’s children … it’s to encourage you readers to invest in the plasticity of your own unique and brilliant brains.  As the holidays kick off this week, find some time to turn off the television, unplug the computer and let your cell phone battery die.  Go off into some quiet corner with a steaming cup of something, a good book (that is, a book that is good by your standards, which means it holds your attention) and lose yourself in it.

It may take time to get into the habit (I haven’t quite kicked Facebook yet) – getting into any sort of daily ritual takes patience.  But once you do, you may find yourself seeing the world through a new lens, better able to sustain the blows life brings, and less obsessed with modern day immediacy.