Beginning Again

                                                                         Photo Credit: Bookplates

I recently picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Flight Behavior. I’ve been a Kingsolver fan since The Bean Trees; her writing played a formative part in both my desire to become a writer and my appreciation of beautifully crafted contemporary prose. With the exception of The Lacuna, which I just couldn’t get into, I have relished all of her books. I easily fall in love with her characters, her descriptions and her plot lines, none of which feel recycled from novel to novel. Her voice is never quite the same, but still, you always know you’re reading Kingsolver.

Flight Behavior is no different. I bought it without reading any of the reviews and was astounded to find, on page one, that her writing has actually improved. She seems have fallen in love with language all over again; it is a really beautiful thing to behold. And at a time in my life when I am rediscovering my own creativity, I couldn’t be more encouraged than to read a favorite author who has somehow improved upon a writing style that needed (in my humble opinion) no improvement.

In the past year, I’ve written very little aside from harried grocery lists and little bedtime stories for my girls – three minute, on-the-fly compositions, for only their ears and the quickly darkening sky. Six months ago I started a short story I haven’t finished. I write little essays in my head as I fold laundry, envisioning the sentences in scrapbook form – words on strips of paper without the accompanying pictures. I’ve had neither time nor presence of mind to flesh out the images. But that’s changing.

Two weeks ago, Claire started kindergarten. Peter just joined Elizabeth at preschool. In January, we moved into a house where we’ll stay for a good long while. Life is full of surprises, but as long as we stay steady, I need to find some work to do.

So here I am, beginning again. I’m no Kingsolver, which is great, because that leaves room for lots of improvement. I’ll be posting here and here in the next few months, and I also have a project in the works with a couple of other writers which will be unveiled this fall. Stay tuned!

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Recap

This photo was taken by my good friend and fabulous photographer, Nicole Owens.

If my life were a movie, this is what the past five months would look like.

Cue the music:

Day One: Baby P arrives! We are thrilled and grateful. Big Sister #1 is proud, curious and in charge. Big Sister #2 is deeply irritated, confused and upset.

Day Three – Week 5: Towles’ body turns into an amazing, adrenaline powered machine. She goes to preschool to pick up the girls on the way home from hospital. She goes to Target with her four year old on the way home from picking up girls from preschool. She takes all three children to the grocery store and feels she has conquered the world. There is no task too large for her; she actually believes this with all her heart.

Week 5: Towles & husband plan to go out on first date since baby P’s arrival. A Friday night date (Saturdays are always better). Towles has not showered in a few days. It is very, very hot outside – too hot to go to the play ground, too hot to sit in the shade. Towles has realized that going to the pool with a four year old, a not yet two year old and a newborn is impossible. We have been inside for what seems like weeks. The confused & angry not-yet-two-year-old has drawn all over the couch with black marker. The baby needs milk/diaper/sleep/burping, etc. The four year old is bouncing off the wall. Ivy, the dog, has acquired a barking problem.

Towles is averaging about two hours of sleep per night.

When the babysitter arrives, she lets herself in and finds Towles weeping in the kitchen.

Husband arrives home from work, frazzled. Who replaced his WonderWoman wife & mother with this puddle on the floor? Entire house is electrified by his arrival. Saintly babysitter sends Towles upstairs to take a shower.

Towles cried all the way downtown to this fabulous restaurant. She does not remember eating, but thinks the food was probably good.

Week 5 to Week 12: Towles and Baby P begin to get more sleep most nights. Except, of course, during Week 7 when the husband went on an international business trip and the not-yet-two-year-old insisted on sleeping in a big girl bed in the middle of the night and protested in her crib so loudly and for so long that we were all awake at 4 am for the day – for three days in a row. Towles proved to herself then that she is actually of no danger at all to her children, because she has never in her life been so tired, angry or annoyed, and she managed not even to curse at her kids – yes, this actually deserves praise. She may have yelled, just a little.

Summer turns to fall – Baby P sleeps 12 hours straight on his three month birthday. (This was a gift from God, not an achievement of scientific method.) He smiles and laughs. The not-yet-two-year-old turns two. She begins to like her baby brother, if only a little, and kisses him on occasion. The four year old is still bouncing off the walls, but she is kind about it, anyway, and joyful, and Towles thinks again and again how much she is going to miss the noise and the princess dresses when the four year old goes to Kindergarten next year.

Towles (mostly) stops crying on the way to restaurants on dates. She has also stopped doing things that seem easy unless you have actually tried to do them with a four year old, a two year old and an infant, such as: going to the grocery store, going to the mall, going to a play ground, going on walks, going to Target, going out to lunch, and going to the children’s shoe store. These were lessons, hard-won. We go to pre-school; we come home. On occasion, we go to the library (not downtown!); when we HAVE to, we go to Target (They have awesome kid carts! They have Starbucks in house!). This is it – will be it – for the next year. Towles is OK with that.

Towles has had very little energy for anything other than Pinterest and watching reruns of The Dog Whisperer, and cooking nearly all dinners in the crockpot. She wants to be profound right here, but finds that words, for the first time ever, maybe, are inadequate.

A Letter to New Mothers

I’ve got several friends who are expecting, or have recently welcomed, their first babies this year. Whenever I think of them, I have an instant flashback to my first week home with Claire, which is blurred at the edges with the ungodly sleep deprivation that comes with the gift of parenthood.

I would not say that I handled the adjustment well. I remember my mother-in-law calling me “unflappable,” and my own mother saying how wonderfully laid back I seemed, but this was either a great ruse on my part or it was simply their interpretation of what I remember as a feeling of utter overwhelm.

After talking with two friends this week who now live farther away from me than I would like, I was also reminded of the blessed kindness extended to me as a new mother. These two women – one, the mother of two, and the other a mother of none – somehow knew that I needed help even though I’d been stunned into silence by my new role, and they arrived at my doorstep with encouraging spirits and a peaceful one-day-life-will-feel-normal-again presence for which I still feel grateful.

They didn’t come to chat, or to harangue me with advice, or to coo over this being who’d kept me up all night, but to hold and love my baby so that I could take a shower in peace, or go back to bed, or just sit on the couch and not feel the weight of the world swaddled in my arms. I have never accepted help so guiltlessly.

There were others who brought food (every other day, for seven weeks!), a neighbor who brought hot tea and the sound advice to leave the screaming baby in her crib and step outside for fresh air if necessary, the doctor who prescribed an antibiotic for mastitis without forcing me to come in to her office because she could hear the desperation in my voice. And there was the husband, so constant, so confused about how to help beyond folding every piece of laundry and scouring the kitchen, who  would take the screaming baby on long strolls in the evenings. When he returned, he would find me lying under our dining room table with Ivy, our dog, in retreat.

Four years in to motherhood, despite the toddler tantrums, the big-girl-bed transition nightmare, the what-to-do-when-your-baby-throws-food-and-refuses-to-eat-anything-other-than-blueberries-and-cheesetoast crises, AND the arrival of a new sibling, I still contend that there is nothing more difficult for an independent woman, no matter her work/life plans post-baby, than transitioning to life with children.

Unless a new mom begs for advice, or is really specific in her asking, I generally do not offer it. But there is something about having a handful of friends on the brink of this major life change that’s made me want to put together a top five list of instructions. See below:

1) Get a good pedicure the week you’re due. Face it: you won’t be able to reach your toes to paint them, and labor makes a girl vulnerable enough. While you’re at it, indulge in some delicious smelling body wash, because the hospital provides only antiseptic soap.

2) Read Great With Child by Beth Ann Fennelly. As someone who feels debased by most pregnancy/parenting books, I feel very well qualified to make this recommendation. The book is as beautifully written as it is insightful. Even if you don’t have children, it is well worth reading.

3) New mothers: accept all offers of dinner delivery and/or meal calendar set up. New fathers: The week you return to work, pack a lunch for your wife each day. Don’t ask her what she wants, or whether you have any mustard, or wonder aloud if it is OK to eat yogurt past its expiration date. Just make the lunch quietly and without flare. Make the effort to go to the grocery store and fill the fridge with healthy snacks the new mom in your life can grab (with one hand) easily. For extra points, hide a thoughtful note of praise and/or deep gratitude where she’ll be sure to find it.

4) Know your boundaries. People love to visit new babies and/or families with new babies. They will overstay. You will want to cry and ask them KINDLY to LEAVE. That’s OK. People forget (or else do not know) how exhausting it is to have a newborn. There is absolutely nothing wrong with turning away visitors, no matter how well-meaning. The ones who love you the most will understand.

5) When I became a mom, I felt like I’d entered an entirely new dimension – a scary dimension, a dimension worthy of identity crisis. But it was, I found, also a dimension filled with people who were really great at being moms – confident women who continued to maintain a strong sense of self, thoughtful women who have great ideas about how to raise children who turn into respectful, grateful adults  – and who were willing to talk about how hard the adjustment can be, how exhausting the days, etc. Make friends with people like this, parents you admire who continue to invest in their own relationship while keeping the empowering perspective that the purpose of parenthood has less to do with the precious, well-dressed, cherub-like babe-in-arms and/or the days of apparent drudgery than with the person he or she is bound to become.You will also meet other types of parents in this new dimension; when possible, disregard them.

I have advice on swaddle blankets and sleep methods, too, but really – you’ll figure all that out on your own. For now, young mothers, put your feet up, drink a milkshake a day, and enjoy all the attention you’re getting. Shortly, that’s all about to change.

Art House America published a new essay of mine today: “Death by Neti Pot.” You can read that here.

 

Reflections on a Birthday

It has been so long since I wrote an entry here that I had to reach into the recesses of memory to retrieve the blog’s password. I would like to say I wrote a novel in November, or that I have been doing anything glamorously related to writing at all, but the truth is that a series of pesky illnesses (mine, my husband’s, my children’s) and an amped up holiday season kept me from my goals. The New Year ushered in a wave of nesting activity and general anxiety that I can only attribute to the forthcoming, spring time arrival of Kintz Baby #3 – a boy, of all things … just when I’d gotten the girl stuff down.

This week has given me pause, though. Claire, our oldest, turned four yesterday, and aside from when she turned one – when all I felt was a wave of relief that we’d made it through the first year in one piece – C’s birthdays always give me a happy/sad feeling mingled with pride. Just as I found it hard to believe that the newborn I held in my arms had been living within me for nine months, I often find myself wondering how and when C morphed into who she is today, as if I have not been standing beside her this entire time.

Aside from sucking her index and third fingers backwards when she is tired or contemplative, there is absolutely no baby left in Claire. I am glad for that, happy that this little person of mine is already an individual who can assert herself with confidence, but I am also a little confounded by it, bracing myself for the complexity to come, for the drama of mothering a girl who is both highly sensitive and perilously strong willed.

My ideas about who Claire will become are based on who her father and I are, who we in combination have become, and Claire will surely go her own way on paths that we surmise to be alternately delightful and dangerous. Already, she is riding her bike (new, as of Saturday) with unsurprising flair, relishing the freedom of wheels and her two strong legs, pumping for all they are worth. As her mother, I know that all I can do is provide her with a helmet, a few lessons and a good dose of common sense and cross my fingers she will survive – a harbinger of the future. For now, I feel grateful that I’m only crossing my fingers about a bike with training wheels, and that today I can focus indulgently on the things I love about my girl.

Claire is remarkable to me because she is herself, and also, of course, because she is mine. I love her spunk and her compassion, her preferences for unruly hair, a pair of rainbow fairy wings and a good, solid snuggle at the beginning and end of each day. I admire and am astonished by her ability to dance outlandishly to Lady Gaga in front of all my husband’s co-workers, followed by stranger-hugs all around. I love her curiosity and her penchant for made up words and the hilarity of nonsense. I envy her effortlessly muscular legs (is that OK?) and give myself a little high five for her good hair.

Most of all, I love that I can still look her in the eyes and see the glimmer of who she was as an infant staring back – this little person, waiting for the world. Whenever that happens, she seems to know what I’m thinking – something that is too big to say – and she holds my face in both her hands and kisses me on the mouth; I hope it will always be that way.

Thanks to those of you who continue to check in on me and my writing, even though you know I haven’t had the presence of mind to do much with it at all. I’ll be posting an essay on Art House America’s site sometime in the next couple of weeks, and hope to blog as times allows. In case you missed it, I wrote a second essay for AHA in December entitled “Restoration,” about the healing power of reading. Enjoy!

Life Gets In The Way

I started NaNoWriMo with the best of intentions. My creative pump primed, I dove into the idea of writing a novel in a month whole-heartedly. But then, on November 1, I was hit with a common cold strong enough to force me to bed at 6 pm two nights in a row. The baby was cutting her molars, and she is beginning to throw some truly spectacular temper tantrums – I have no memory of Claire ever flailing as much as Elizabeth has in the past week. If I were a first time mother, I probably would have taken her to the doctor on Monday afternoon; by the time her father came home, she was a little angel again.

By November 3rd, Andrew had inherited my illness and ended up staying in bed for a day and a half. Meanwhile, I’d sort of conveniently forgotten an essay deadline for November 4th, so all the energy I regained in my recovery went to the writing of that little gem rather than the promised fiction. (The essay will appear in the Art House America blog on Thursday.)

Life gets in the way! When it comes to my writing, I have been known to duck and cover for no good reasons, but I have to say that real life just completely sabatoged a healthy start to my first Nanowrimo. Don’t worry (because you are, right? Very worried?). Even though I’ve only written 1000 words of fiction, I am not giving up. I like my characters, but I have no plot. I continue to think that the creativity required by fiction is fun, and while I feel frustrated by my lack of time and energy, I’m going to keep plugging along, writing as much as I can each day, celebrating the mere fact that I am putting words on paper every day – because that has not happened since … graduate school.

So far, aside from learning that writing fiction is not as scary as I thought it would be, and that it might be, dare I say, fun, the freedom from online clutter (Facebook, Pinterest – except when I really need to see something pretty) has been so refreshing. These days, to close one’s Facebook account would really be like opting out of pop culture (and who knows whether I’d still be able to subscribe to Spotify), so I won’t go that far, but there is something really satisfying about the fact that my NaNoWriMo is off to a slow start because of REAL LIFE stuff rather than time-sucking social media stuff.

If any of you parents out there have bright ideas on where to find free time in busy, kid-filled days, please post a comment. I am beginning to think that a 5 am wake up is going to be the only way I can get any real writing done. By the kids’ bedtimes, I’m toast.

A Challenge

For months, I’ve been talking about writing fiction. When someone asks me how my writing is going, I hedge and then casually mention that narrative nonfiction, which is what I’m trained in, doesn’t suit my lifestyle with young children and that I’d sort of like to see what it would be like to make a genre change. This is met with a lot of encouragement. I have good friends and writing mentors; they tell me to do it, and to do it fearlessly and with as little frustration as possible.

Nonfiction has plenty of challenges: uncooperative sources, the perils of the broken tape recorder, the confusing nature of memory and recollected fact, and the inconvenience of truth. But at least the truth, no matter how difficult, offers the writer a framework. Writing fiction is like having someone tell you to tailor a dress to a perfect size four with no measuring tape and no mannequin. Where in the world does one begin? My feeling is that you must have to be very good. A very good writer, an even better reader, a person with a way of seeing things that applies to both a very specific instance or story while offering a broader meaning to others.

I have no confidence in my ability to do any of these things. I am “good enough” in my own head, writing down the things that happen to me or that I find funny or quirky or moving. But I have set such a high standard for fiction writers that the prospect of becoming one myself totally freaks me out. Which is why, for the past month, I have opened my notepad and written a few lines before scratching everything out. And why, for the past week, I have been avoiding writing all together. The thing I want to do scares me to death. It’s a writer’s neurosis, and it is silly, but, for me, very real.

So yesterday, on October 31st, I got an email from Gotham, an online writing center, reminding me that November 1 begins NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month. The challenge? To write a 175 page novel in the month of November. Before I even knew what my little fingers were doing, I found myself signing up at Nanowrimo.org.

I’ve been known to take on extreme challenges before. When I could run only two miles without sucking wind, I signed up for the Chicago marathon, trained for it and finished. In graduate school I decided to take on an immersion project in a city three and a half hours from home. The finished manuscript certainly was not perfect, and it didn’t come without major stress, but I finished it, graduated and felt I could be relatively proud of that accomplishment.

So, here I am at the foot of this mountain. I have no idea how much I will actually write every day, or if I will be able to write every day, and I am NOT going to kill myself to get 175 pages. But I love the idea of the challenge, and I love that I am doing it for no one other than myself and for the joy of creating.

There will be no Facebook for me in November, and certainly no Pinterest, and doggone it, very limited access to email and this beautiful blog. Feel free to send me your sympathies and encouragement, though; I’ll need a month’s worth to get me through!

Surprises!

Photo Courtesy of Digital Agent

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received some nice surprises. The old adage is that bad things often come in threes, but in my case, these good things have come in threes, all delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

It all started when a mysterious package arrived in my mailbox on a sunny afternoon. It was addressed to Prof. Mary Towles Allison Kintz, and there was only a return address, but no name. Inside was Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Essentially, it’s a book about story telling, and the anonymous sender had marked a passage on transformation for me. Miller had an artist friend named Marco who did a project focused on the purpose of life, and when he asked his friend what he’d discovered, he said:

… “[Marco] didn’t know what the point of the journey was, but he did believe we were designed to search for and find something. And he wondered out loud if the point wasn’t the search but the transformation the search creates.” (p. 69)

Now, as it turns out, our friend Todd had purchased a used copy of this book and had its previous owner, in upstate New York, mail it to us. But the marking of this passage came from the stranger, and I sort of love the mystery of receiving someone else’s book marked in such a way that it sort of poses a question to the receiver, whom he will never know.

The second two surprises came on the heels of one another. Last week, I received a hand-written letter from a reader of my Art House essay. She thanked and praised me for it, offering me and my writing such wonderful encouragement I nearly cried. I’m not telling you this so that you can be wowed that I’m the sort of writer who receives fan mail (as this never_ever_happens), but because it was truly one of the nicest, most meaningful surprises I have ever received, and it taught me a little lesson on going out of one’s way to offer praise and encouragement to strangers. It also answered the question I constantly battle: Why does writing matter? It never occurred to me that something I wrote, something that felt so uniquely personal, could reach out and touch another person and lead her to write me a heart-felt letter. The truth is that my beliefs about why other people’s writing (and my reading of that writing) matters have never faltered, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hear a total stranger say to me, “YOUR writing matters.” Wow. I’m still reeling.

Finally, out of the blue, my friend’s Aunt Gail, who is a great poet and screenwriter living a real writer’s life in NYC, sent me a book: Writers of the American South: Their Literary Landscapes. It is a beautiful collection of photos and prose profiling Southern writers and their writing spaces. I don’t know why Gail sent this book to me (unless maybe she felt a little sorry for me upon reading this post), but I have loved learning about how some of my favorite writers – Ann Patchett, Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Conner, to name a few – live(d) and work(ed). It was such a delight to be remembered in this way – to receive a present that I didn’t even know I wanted from someone whose work and perspective I hold in high esteem.

That all of these surprises came in the mail and made my day makes me want to send a personal note to Congress asking it to preserve the USPS. Being the recipient of so much lovely mail has made me reconsider the way I communicate, and it’s reminded me that being thoughtful and intentional is really the only way to live life fully. So now I’m off to put together a care package … for who, I’m not sure. But if I have your address, it may be you!