Diary or Memory: Which is the Reliable Narrative?

May 19, 2014 § 10 Comments

Blue Daily DIary cover on andreabadgley.com

I’ve been reading through my diaries, and have found plenty of scandal that made me laugh so hard I cried*:

We all hate Crystal now. Guess what! We’re having a prom! (April 15, 1986; 11 years old)

We don’t hate Crystal.  I’m glad because she’s a lot nicer than Hilga [who determined who we hated and who we didn’t]. We didn’t win quizbowl. (May 10, 1986; 11 years old)

Today was my first day of middle school.  We have 4, hundred pound books and we have to carry them home and to school and all that junk. (August 25, 1986; 11 years old)

I love Teddy so much!  He’s so cute.  He’s got blond hair, he’s tan, he’s got pretty straight teeth, he eats a lot. (October 12, 1986; 12 years old)

I was always into straight teeth.

But what is strange to me is that these things that I’m reading from my 11-year-old self are not the things I remember from being 11 years old. The people I mention are contemporaries of plenty of people I do remember, but until I read my diary, Crystal and Teddy had evaporated completely from my psyche.

It makes me wonder about the whole trustworthy narrator thing. Several times I have read my own words and thought, that’s not how I remember it. In my little blue diary I wrote that I was excited when I started my period, but I don’t remember being excited. I remember being mortified because I couldn’t get to the bathroom and I was afraid I’d have a stain on my jeans and omg everyone is going to know I’m on my period.  It seems strange that the memory that I’ve carried with me my whole life is so unlike what I recorded on the page.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote a beautiful book, When Women Were Birds, in which she inherits her mother’s journals, a tradition within her Mormon clan. Her mother told her, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And when Terry looked at them, after her mother was gone, she found that they were all empty. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice is Williams’s grappling with those blank pages – why are all the books empty? Where is her mother’s voice? Why would her mother buy all these journals, not write in them, keep them, and then pass their silent pages down to her?

There are many entries like my first-period entry, entries that jar me in their discordance with my memory. The memories that stick with me are the ones I took for granted at the time, that weren’t remarkable to an 11-year-old girl, that didn’t merit recording in a diary.  Like how pretty the marsh looks in summer, when a storm is coming, and the grass looks neon green against a blackening sky. Like the mud-romping shoes I made with my brother, and the heavy stillness of the marsh at low tide, when the sun beat down on us, and I could barely breathe through the thick humid air. Like laying on my clean, cool white comforter and reading books after I’d showered, when I was rewarded with coming inside into the air conditioning after Mom had turned us out of the house for a few hours.

None of those things – the marshes, the mud-romping shoes, the books I read – made it to the pages of my diaries. I know because as an adult I wanted to write about them. These scenes are vivid in my memory; if they are the things that stick with me from childhood now, they must have been important to me then. Surely I can mine my diaries for details.

Alas, no.

Perhaps Willams’s mother recognized this, this limiting of narrative that a journal necessitates. Perhaps she knew that what she recorded on the page – the page that would eventually be passed down to her daughter – would be but a small part of her whole experience, and that words on a page would inevitably narrow her existence to anyone who was not her, who did not have her memories that filled the negative space between the lines, the everyday things that she took for granted, the things that didn’t merit recording in a diary.

When I began scanning my teenage diaries, I could only read a few minutes before having to go outside and soak up some sunlight. They take me into that dark place of adolescence, of not being sure who I was, of being a follower, of wanting desperately to be liked, of trying not to stand out. It doesn’t feel good to go back to that place. When I read the melodrama of my 16-year-old self I think, my God, I hope our kids never read this, they’ll think I was a miserable soul.

In my memory of teenage life there is glee that balances the angst recorded in my diaries. I remember riding with the top down on my VW Super Beetle and singing at the top of my lungs. I remember slumber parties with pizza and cake and Pretty in Pink. I remember laughter with my best friends, and coffee at Daybreak Café, and reading our musings about the universe to each other at Waffle House, smoking cigarettes and eating grits.

In my diaries there is only venting. In my teens I wrote when I was upset, when I needed to process. Anyone who found these diaries would only get the darkness, and not the light, of my teenage life. A writing buddy inherited her mother’s diaries and what she finds there distresses her. I told her about my teen diaries, and how filled with angst they are because I only wrote when I needed to vent, when I needed a place to sort my thoughts and vomit emotion. This was eye-opening to her, that perhaps that was her mother’s method as well. That perhaps the pages did not tell her mother’s whole story.

Maybe Terry Tempest Williams’s mother knew this as well, that journaling to sort, to process, to vent, to vomit could leave a powerful and potentially inaccurate legacy.

Despite what I’ve learned about the (un)reliability of my childhood diaries, I don’t care about incongruity when it comes to my journals as a new mother. What I remember about my colicky newborn son’s first weeks is desperation. When I remember myself during that time I picture my eyes as a dying horse’s – wide open and rolling in panic. What I remember is do-gooder’s poo-pooing my anxiety, saying “Oh, colic usually goes away after three months,” and my fright that I wouldn’t make it that long. What I remember is standing in the street waiting for my husband to come home so that I could hand our screaming son to him. So that I could collapse into tears myself.

What I wrote about in my journals were our son’s laughter, his coos, how fulfilled I felt holding him, gazing at him, feeding him. How he melted my heart.

He turns his head and looks straight into my eyes. And then he smiles. No matter how tired I am, when he does that it’s all gone, and I’m head over heels in love. (December 28, 2003; Mom 29, Baby 4 weeks)

Those journals and the joy they contain show me that I wasn’t the monster I remember myself being. The words that chronicle our son’s first year do not reflect the angst I remember but instead record the glee.

I like the Mormon tradition of Terry Tempest Williams’s family, of women’s voices being passed down through the generations through their diaries. I am sad for Williams that her mothers journals are empty, and she does not know why. Perhaps her mother was wiser than I and knew that whatever she wrote would tell a slanted tale, and knowing her words would be passed down, she could not be free with them. By leaving the pages blank, she gave Williams a gift of exploration, a wide open story instead of a narrow narrative.

I was not that wise or creative. Instead, after toting my childhood diaries around for 28 years, never considering that my children might one day read them, I find myself wondering now – is this the narrative of my life I want my children to know? Is it true?

My husband has always told me I’m a black and white person, that I see the world as This or That, rarely as a blending of both, as I’m currently doing, pitting diary against memory, as if one were truer than the other.

In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true. – Paula McLain, The Paris Wife

Memory and diary are not mutually exclusive. They both contain truth. As a woman with a fickle memory, I would have once said that the diary was the truer – it is a written record of the events of a life as they were happening, when they were fresh, when time and consequences hadn’t yet shaped them into something more or less than they were at the time. Now, though, looking back on the bits I chose to record and holding them up against the memories that never made it onto journal pages – the blank bits behind the words – I realize that my memories are equally real, equally valid as records of my life. Diary, memory – it is all true.

I don’t know what I’ll do about my childhood diaries. I’ll keep them through our kids’ teen years to remind me what it was like to be that age, but after that I don’t know that I’ll pass them along. Those aren’t the story I want to tell.

My motherhood journals though. Those I’m hanging onto. Unlike my childhood diaries which disappoint me that they don’t contain the memories I cherish, my motherhood journals make me so grateful I want to cry. My motherhood journals do not tell the whole story, but they tell the story I had forgotten was there. My motherhood journals tell the story I want to remember, and am thankful the pages record: the joy, the wonder, the beginnings of brand new lives. They tell the story I want to share with my children – their story, our story – and we can fill in the blanks together with our memories.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

Chaperoning the fourth grade field trip to Jamestown, Virginia

May 2, 2014 § 7 Comments

Wet socks
Wet toes
Tangled hair
Muddy shoes
Bad coffee
Gritty eyes
Happy son.

First of all, let me just say that teachers are saints. If you have a child, or even if you don’t, I’d like you to please take a moment to silently applaud the teachers who are taking care of our nation’s children: teaching them history, encouraging manners, spending entire days with rooms full of children who aren’t their own, smiling, clapping, telling our kids they are awesome, dispensing hugs and band aids, and cleaning up barf on charter busses to Jamestown. Every time I am around our children’s teachers, I am in awe of what they do, and I am deeply grateful for them.

This past Monday and Tuesday I chaperoned our son’s fourth grade spring field trip to Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown, Virginia. Our son has been excited about this trip since the first week of school when they found out they’d be going. Fourth grade Virginia curriculum includes Virginia history, and in our school and many others, that means a field trip to the places where the United States as we know it began. Our son raised money selling Virginia Diner peanuts, and after many long months of preparing and waiting (and a five-hour bus ride in the rain) we donned ponchos and foul weather gear and stepped out into the drizzle.

The thing I love most about my job as Mom is doing things like this. Even though I bitch and complain about having to be around all these kids, and how loud it’s going to be, how it’s going to be like herding cats, how we have to be vigilant about keeping the kids away from the river, and constantly counting heads, and looking for the ever-shifting red hood, blue poncho (distinguishable from the other blue ponchos only by the pink soles of the shoes that peek out from the bottom), clear poncho with a blue hoodie underneath, and green raincoat – even though I complain about all of this, the thing is, the kids are actually awesome, and I secretly love every second of it.

I love volunteering in the classroom, I love chaperoning, I love watching our children in their non-home habitats because I learn so much about them when I’m present but not in charge, when I’m standing quietly on the sidelines. In sports I get to see how motivated our kids are, how they interact as a team player, whether they respect and respond to their coaches, how they react to winning or losing. In the classroom I get to observe while our children’s attention is focused on something else; I get to observe the other kids in their class – who are the attentive kids, the class clowns, the sweet ones, the troublemakers?; I get to experience the teacher’s style; I get to see when my son laughs, which lessons engage him, which kids he gravitates towards. I get to see what his days are like so that when I ask him at the end of a school day, “How was your day?” and he says, “Fine,” I am able to accept his introversion with grace because I will have an idea of his experience, will be able to picture his classroom, will know something of his day beyond the one-word answer he gives me.

On field trips I get to experience what they experience, I get to learn what they learn, and most fun of all, I get to witness their unfettered joy at being out in the real world, learning real stuff – stuff that they learned from books and in the classroom but that is so much more exciting when you experience it in real life. In Jamestown I got to see our son’s interest in the Powhatan canoe, the way he scanned it from stern to bow with his eyes, held his hand over the still-warm coals reenactors used to burn a hollow in the tree trunk. In Colonial Williamsburg I got to gently prod him because he was lagging behind, too busy taking pictures in his awe. I got to hear him giggle at the slapstick 18th-Century Grand Medley of Entertainment – the type of theater production Thomas Jefferson might have attended – at the Kimball Theatre. I got to watch him touch the plaque that marked General George Washington’s church pew, I experienced the pride of hearing him explain the Virginia House of Burgesses – the first assembly of elected representatives in our country – to our tour guide, and to seeing him sit on a jury in the Capitol building’s courtroom.

The following day, with aching muscles from the cabin’s hard mattress, with no real coffee in my system, with puffy eyes and ratted hair, I got to experience with our son the feel of the Yorktown encampment on a cold, wet, muddy, raw day. I could not imagine being a soldier there, wet and dripping and sleeping on the mucky ground, and I think the day gave the kids a tiny feel of what it might have been like for our Revolutionary War ancestors. Despite the cold and wet, the kids loved the musket demonstration, where the reenactor explained the difference between the match-lit musket of Jamestown and the flintlock musket of Yorktown, and where she showed them how to load and fire the weapon. They gagged and squealed “GROSS!” when our guide demonstrated the surgeon’s tools on volunteer musket-maimed kids, and they grinned as they squeezed into tiny solider tents.


The kids were pretty worn out by the time we stopped at the battlefield, the real Yorktown battlefield, and stood where George Washington stood, on the same ground that General Washington paced and strategized and gave orders from, but their exhaustion did not stop them from shouting out answers when their teacher stood atop a bench with a semi-circle of cannons around her and asked, “What happened here?!”

“The Siege at Yorktown!”

“Who won?”

“We did!”

“Who surrendered?”

“General Cornwallis!”

“Where is Surrender Hill?”

“Redoubts 9 and 10!”

“Well let’s go look at them!”

And she jumped down from the bench and all the kids ran for the hills. We oohed and aahed and paused to take in the panorama, and then the kids were running again, towards the busses and their potato chips, their DSes and their pillows, as we, the parents, dragged our tired feet from the battlefield. We basked in memories from the trip on the long, dry drive home, where our work was done and where our little ones munched candy and worked quietly on their trip journals, watched videos and giggled, and slept the beautiful sleep of children.

Tiny Buddha

February 25, 2014 § 30 Comments


Over the years, I have become a less patient housekeeper, easily annoyed by trinkets and knickknacks that add nothing to my life but more work: remove trinkets from shelf, dust shelf, wipe trinkets, notice chips in trinket bases and grime in trinket cracks, fetch toothpicks and toothbrushes, deep-clean trinkets, place trinkets back on shelf, arrange, rearrange, check watch and cluck tongue when I see I wasted more than an hour of my life removing dirt from inanimate objects.

When I became a more diligent housekeeper, when I began dusting on a weekly basis, our trinkets transformed from sentimental, significant mementos into useless, meaningless crap that got in my way when I tried to clean. In the past year, we have purged kitsch from our home, and I am proud to say that our shelves and tables are now trinket-free.

Well, almost.

What remains on our shelf-tops are sources of light (candles and lamps), pieces of earth (smooth gray cobbles from rocky beaches), and a small, jiggle-bellied laughing Buddha from our pre-children life. The little Buddha is fashioned from black resin; a chalky green, like oxidized copper, etches the lines of his happy grin, his belly button, and the laugh lines that crinkle the corners of his eyes. My little Buddha fits in the palm of my hand, and when I look at him, he giggles: of all the objects I pitched on my path to happy housekeeping, of all the things I was able to detach from, I could not part with him, The Buddha, whose philosophy advocates non-attachment as a path to contentment.

My little green Buddha sits among smooth stones on the low wood shelf near my writing desk. He reminds me of another life, when my husband and I were young and newly married, when we lived in College Park, Maryland as DINKs (double income, no kids). On weekends we explored the Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware that lay outside of the D.C. Metro area: Annapolis, Sugarloaf mountain, the western shore of the Chesapeake, the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. We sailed, we hiked, we ate seafood in Annapolis, drank beer in Baltimore. And one weekend – a rainy weekend in winter, maybe even Valentine’s Day – we booked a room at a bed and breakfast in Rehoboth Beach. We traveled to a summer beach in winter.

I love summer beaches in winter.

At Rehoboth, we huddled against each other in a raw drizzle as we walked the empty boardwalk. The ice cream kiosk was shuttered, low clouds grayed the sky, and most of the shop windows were dark, even at midday on a Saturday. We paused to look out over the mist-shrouded beach. Wintry Atlantic waves crashed on tan sand, and wisps of my straight hair curled against my temples in the wet, salty air. I smiled against my husband’s shoulder. We had this all to ourselves.

When the cold worked its way through our coats and into our bones, we found a side street parallel to the main drag, where in addition to the neon Bud Light signs, we saw a cozy coffee shop, a sidewalk sandwich board with a chalk drawing of a steaming bowl of soup, and a few pottery and gift shops whose windows glowed like hearths. I saw crystals and tiny Buddha statues through one shiny pane, and the bell jangled on the door when we whooshed into the warmth from out in the cold. I fingered geodes and handmade straw brooms, flipped through incense boxes and nodded at the proprietress with her long silver hair and reading glasses that hung from her neck on a beaded chain. When I came to the glass shelf of Buddhas, the laughing ones with the fat bellies made me happy, as they always do. I picked up the one who looked like he was holding an umbrella, smiled at my husband and said, “I’m getting this one.” I held the little Buddha in my hand like a talisman.

Four years later, I think I suffered postpartum depression when we brought our infant home. Or perhaps it was post traumatic stress disorder. My life as a new mom, and our life as a new family, shocked me in its differentness from what had come before. Gone were our freedoms: freedom to travel unencumbered (diaper bags, toys, diapers, baby), freedom to sleep (10pm feeding, midnight feeding, 2am feeding), freedom to take romantic weekends away (single income, with kid). I felt trapped, without an outlet, stuck in this new life forever. I remember driving by a restaurant one night with our baby in the back seat. I looked into those warmly lit windows, saw couples smile at each other across a bottle of wine, heard cutlery clinking in my mind, and I burst into tears. “We’re never going to be able to do that again!” I wailed.

And the laughing Buddha laughed.

Over time, my depression transformed into delight as I let go my clinging to our old way of life. It helped that our infants did not remain infants forever, and that in a few short years, our babies have become responsible little people who sometimes stay home alone, who cook their own eggs and grilled cheese, and who surprise me into belly laughs that crinkle the laugh lines at the corners of my eyes. They hike and camp; they write comics and crack jokes; they snuggle and say, “I love you, Mom.”

My little Buddha has moved with us from state to state, home to home, shelf to shelf; he bore our children with us, watches as we raise them, hears us read books and tap keyboard keys and eat pizza while we watch TV. And no matter where he is, no matter what room or state or shelf, he sits relaxed and laughing. He reminds me of romantic rainy days both past and yet to come, and of the transformation of depression into delight, and of the deep, happy-soul laughter our children surprise out of me on a near daily basis.

Some things carry meaning that is worth dusting off every week. Some things are worth hanging on to.

This is my entry for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Object.

Walking on ice: a story in three pictures

February 21, 2014 § 21 Comments

Photograph: Tiny pine cones on frozen Pandapas Pond, Blacksburg, VA February 2014 by Andrea Badgley on Butterfly Mind

Photograph: walking on ice on frozen Pandapas Pond, Blacksburg, VA February 2014 by Andrea Badgley on Butterfly Mind

Photograph: Tiny pine cones in hand on frozen Pandapas Pond, Blacksburg, VA February 2014 by Andrea Badgley on Butterfly Mind

On February 1, 2014, my husband had an itch to hike the woods around Pandapas Pond. It was a sunny, 50 degree Saturday after two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and we had seen pictures in the paper of folks skating and ice fishing on the pond. I asked if the kids and I could ride along. When we arrived, he waved and disappeared into the forest, and our children and I wound our way down to the iced over water. College students walked across the pond’s hard shell – all the way across – and threw snowballs through sunlight. Our kids begged to go out on the ice, and all I could see was them crashing through. I was terrified. I told them to stay near the edges – the surface looked wide and treacherous, more of a lake than a pond, really, with all that shockingly cold, surely fathoms-deep water beneath a thinning sheet of cracking, melting ice. I white-knuckled my camera; I told myself, unclench your jaw. I reminded myself, Breathe, as they ran reckless, full speed, heads-back, mouths-open-in-laughter races on the sun-warmed ice; as I stepped onto pond’s slushy skin. I probably lost five years of my life that day, but our kids remember it as one of the best days of theirs.

This is my entry for the weekly photo challenge: Threes

An unexpected lunch

January 22, 2014 § 5 Comments

Zippers and buttons clank against the metal drum of the dryer: snowpants tumbling after a morning romp in fresh snow. Our eight year old daughter, her hair a stringy mess of snow-wet tangles, blows on a pot of boiling water, trying to make the starchy foam go down after adding a cup of dry elbow noodles. Our ten year old son forks the scrambled egg she made him. “Since eggs are better when they’re hot, will you watch the noodles while I eat this?” he asked her.

It is Tuesday. A school day. I look out the window and watch snow fall.

Now they both peer into the boiling pot. They wear pajamas at lunch time. He is teaching her how to cook pasta. After – after I empty the dishwasher then reload it – I will make hot cocoa while I grind nuts for almond butter, then scrape the food processor and grind nuts for nutella; I’ll only have to wash the bowl and blades once if make the butters back to back.

I sit at the table eating a lettuce wrap with my left hand and writing with my right. A tomato slips out the end of my wrap and splats onto my plate. Our daughter groans when I ask if they’ve grated Parmesan for their noodles. “Well, you don’t have to have Parmesan,” I say. She slumps her shoulders and stomps to the cabinet where we keep the box graters. She sticks her lip out. “I want Parmesan,” she says as she jangles metals together in the cabinet, “I just don’t want to grate it.”

Welcome to the world, kid.

Our son stands on a stool and stirs the pot with a wooden spoon. Steam rises in front of his red, snow-play cheeks. The window next to him fogs up in the corners; beyond the glass panes are white-covered cars, a line of white along the top rail of the park’s split rail fence, sticky clumps of white on twiggy tree limbs.

Our son lifts a noodle from the steaming pot with his wooden spoon, steps down from the stool, and walks to the kitchen sink where he runs cold water over the macaroni spiral. He tastes it and says, “Mom, the noodles are ready. Will you come pour them out for us?” That’s the one step I’m still uneasy about: our eight- or ten-year old carrying a pot of boiling water across the kitchen and pouring its heavy, hot load into a colander. I set down my pen and my lettuce wrap, remove the napkin from my lap, and drain the pasta for them.

He takes over then, spooning noodles into bowls, drizzling olive oil, bringing his sister’s portion to her at the table. The kitchen counter is strewn with Parmesan cheese shreds, measuring cups, pots, pans, the tub of spreadable butter, a macaroni box. A dry elbow crunches under my slipper, then another. Parmesan curls litter the floor.

One thing at a time. I’ll teach them how to cook, then I’ll teach them how to clean.

Our children have finished their plates and await their hot cocoa. Soon, after the floor is swept, and the counters wiped, and the dishwasher is running (again), we will pull downy pants on, hot from the dryer, and we will traipse out the door to go sledding.

This is my entry for the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Lunch Posts.

Got grit?

November 4, 2013 § 16 Comments

a professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit - writing quote by richard bach

– Richard Bach

I apologize for writing about writing again, but I’m having a moment. A moment of feeling crushed by Friday folders filled with requests – money for the art fundraiser, canned goods for the food drive, volunteer hours for the PTO, donations for the fall festival – and workload stresses for my professor husband, and soccer and swim tournaments, and party planning and gift triage (wish-list management, shopping, ordering, returning) for both kids’ upcoming birthdays smack in the middle of holiday season, and endless requests of “Mom, can I have a pear? Mom can I have a bandaid? Mom will you take me to Target? Mom, can you cut this tag? Mom, what’s for snack? For lunch? For dinner? Mom, can I have a piece of Halloween candy?” all piled on top of all the normal everyday demands of laundry and groceries and cooking and cleaning and ironing and play-date scheduling and initialing homework and driving to sports, and everyone wanting and needing and requesting, including me wanting for myself – I want to write – and I’ve got nothing left to give. To anyone. Anymore.

In the face of this, I’m having a moment. A moment of I can’t do it all. I can’t write and do everything else. I can’t fulfill my role of supporter with any kind of grace while also dedicating fully to my “writing career.” As I develop my skill set and hone my craft, I want to go deeper, but as CEO of the household, I have to pull back. And if I can’t go in all the way, I figure why go in at all.

I was thinking this way, thinking of giving up, thinking “I’m silly for even considering myself a writer, of saying I’m working towards a ‘writing career’ – it’s not a career if nobody’s paying me!” when I heard Angela Duckworth speak in a recent episode of the TED Radio Hour. The episode’s title? Success.

In her talk, Duckworth, who is a recent MacArthur Genius grant recipient, explained that IQ wasn’t a predictor for success in her seventh grade math students. This was curious to her. If IQ couldn’t be used to predict academic success, what could? She began studying other groups – military cadets, rookie teachers, salespeople – asking in every instance, “who is successful here and why?” Over and over again, she discovered “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success and it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ.”

What was it?

“It was grit.”

Grit. A favorite word. It’s in my lexicon.

As Duckworth explains:

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long-term and then working very hard at it.

My husband and I have talked about this before, that it seems that talent and aptitude do not guarantee success. Though I feel he has both in spades, when everyone in our families made a big deal about his PhD, he downplayed his talents, claiming the degree was not an indicator of intellect. It merely indicated that he had endured. He had a career goal, and the PhD was required to achieve that goal, and so he just kept going until it was done. He didn’t give up, even when it was really, really hard.

The same was true for me with distance bike rides and triathlons. I’m no athlete. Phys Ed class brought down my GPA in high school. But as a young adult, when I committed to the AIDS Ride, to raising $2000 and riding my bicycle from North Carolina to Washington DC, I didn’t give up. I didn’t complete the 330 miles at the front of the pack, but athlete or not, I started, and I didn’t quit, and so I finished.

And when you start something, and you don’t quit? You finish. You succeed.

I have the same passion for writing as I did for those athletic events, only I don’t have as much time to dedicate as I’d like. I’m chomping at the bit. I want to take it to the next level. I want to write and write and write, I want to spend 3 or 4 hours a day writing, I want to pursue ideas that require concentration and focus, I want to run with it. But I also want to be Mom, and I can’t do them both and do them both well, and that makes it really, really hard. It makes me want to say I can’t run with this, what’s the use, this isn’t working, I am Mom, not writer, I quit.

Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. – Angela Duckworth

I’ve completed an Olympic distance triathlon. I’ve birthed two babies without painkillers. I’ve been a stay at home mom for ten years and have not thrown a child or myself out a window. I can do slow and steady. I can endure.

When host Guy Raz asked about how we might build perseverance, Duckworth replied, “believing that change is possible inclined kids to be grittier.”  By knowing that change is possible we can believe that persistence will pay, we can acquire grit, we will recognize that even when failure seems eminent, we can succeed on the other side because failure is not a permanent condition.

I know change is possible. I know that every situation is temporary, including these Mom years, when our kids are young, and they need me. My perceived failure as a writer is not a permanent condition. The moment I’m having? The one I mentioned in the lead of this post? It will pass. In fact, in the time since I began drafting this piece on Saturday morning, and now, as I finish it up on Sunday evening, it already has. Change has already occurred. I no longer feel like quitting. And as for the sprinting? I don’t need to race. I want out of the gate, but I can keep warming up for a while first.

I can do slow and steady. I can endure. One day, maybe ten years from now, maybe fifteen, I will get to the point where I no longer feel the need to put quotes around my “writing career.” I’m gritty, damn it. I will succeed.

How gritty are you? Take Duckworth’s test here to find your grit score.

From writing to parenting: the mundane matters

October 9, 2013 § 15 Comments

“The only time I have anything interesting to write is when I go on vacation.”  (“No way,” “That’s a bunch of crap,” from around the room).  John, in my critique group, was talking about how he has a hard time coming up with new material in his regular life.  “You know, on vacation everything is new and exciting,” he said.  “It’s the only time I see things with fresh eyes.”

I knew what he was talking about.  It’s a lot easier to write about something new and exciting than to write about something old and ordinary.  Or maybe easier isn’t the right word.  Obvious.  The world is much more obvious when it’s novel, which then makes it more accessible.  We are more apt to note it when it smells different, when the scenery changes, or when the people are unlike the ones we interact with in our daily lives.

“What do you do in your regular life?” someone asked John.

“I’m a contractor.  I remodel kitchens and stuff like that.  Nothing exciting,” he said.

“I think that sounds pretty cool,” I said.  “I don’t know anything about remodelling.  I’d love to read about the houses you renovate around here – what they looked like before, what they look like after, and how you transform them.”  I pictured a sledgehammer to cabinets.

“And the people you remodel them for,” someone grinned.  I saw a young, upper middle-class white couple, both Type A personalities, wearing pressed button-down shirts and polished pointy toed shoes, pointing and gesturing in the kitchen doorway as they give John his instructions.

John looked around the table at us.  “Really?  It seems boring to me.  Like, who would care about this?”  Then he chuckled and gave a different description of his customers than I had imagined. “Well, the clients are interesting,” he said.  “I’ll give you that.  Women have disrobed for me when I walk in the door.”

“That really happens?” I said.

“I would read about that!” someone else said.

“See?” Les said.  “You could write a blog: The Handyman of Love,” and we all laughed.  John looked thoughtful and scribbled a few notes on his notepad.

This is a constant struggle for bloggers and personal essayists, to consider their life experience interesting enough to write about.  They live it every day.  It is ordinary to them, and it is difficult to see what could be interesting about the minutia of their daily lives.

A few weeks after the Handyman of Love writer’s group, I drove by the corn fields where I had been certain on a recent run that the Children of the Corn were going to jump out and get me, and a tractor pulling what looked like a tiny red barn was – reaping?  I watched from a stoplight, and my mind filled with questions.  What is the machine called that’s cutting the corn?  What is the action called that the tractor is doing?  Reaping? Harvesting? Threshing? All of the above?

The traffic light turned green, and when I arrived at the school to pick up our kids for dental appointments, I said, “Hey guys, they’re cutting down the corn.”

We had watched the corn grow all summer, gauging its height with each passing week.  “Do you think it’s as tall as you?”  I said to the kids in early July.  “I think it’s as tall as you, Mom,” they said to me in early August.  “Look how tall it is now!” I pointed in September.  “It’s even taller than Dad!”

Our son’s face lit up as he bundled into the car, “I want to see them cutting the corn!”

I explained what I had witnessed on my way to the school.  “There was a green tractor pulling this, this,” I had no idea what the thing was called that the John Deere was pulling.  “This red think that looked like a miniature barn.”

We crested a rolling hill and I could see the corn fields.  “The tractor drove along the edge of the corn,” I said, “and it pushed the stalks forward, and cut them, then I saw stuff shooting backwards into the little barn.”  I gestured with my right thumb, pointing it backwards over my shoulder to show how the stuff shot.  I wished I knew what the barn thing was called.  “Leaves and ears of corn it looked like,” I said, my thumb still pointing backwards.  I wished I knew what the cutter thing was called.  How to name the process I witnessed.  “And after the tractor passed, the corn stalks were gone.  Just broken stubs in the ground.”

I put both hands back on the wheel and looked out the window. I didn’t know the process well enough to describe it to our kids. I didn’t have the right words.  This everyday ordinary event to the farmer was a complete mystery to me.  Every step I tried to explain to our kids it was in my face that I had no ideas what words to use – “red barn thing” – or how to explain the process.  The farmer, if he were a writer, might think his work, driving a tractor around the edges of a cornfield, making the square smaller with each turn, was too common sense, too mundane to bore or insult his readers by describing it.

But something I learned from both John (the handyman of love) and the farmer (with the red barn thing), is that one person’s plain old everyday life is new and unknown to another.  As a writer, I must constantly remind myself of this.  Every time I sit with words and think, this is obvious, everybody knows this, I remind myself that nobody else has lived my life, nobody else is inside my head (y’all should be thankful for that – it’s crazy in there), and that if I am to write well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.

Last weekend, after we cleaned the dinner dishes and were getting ready for our Friday night ritual of watching Merlin together as a family, I said, “Let me take my makeup off and then I’ll be down.“  I started climbing the stairs.

“Can I come watch you?” our daughter asked.  She’s seven.

I stopped on the staircase and sighed a huge sigh.  I just wanted to get this done and be downstairs on the couch with the kids and a blanket. “Really sweetie?  It’s not that exciting.”

She hung her head.  “Okay.”

The mysteries of John’s life as a handyman, and my ignorance of the process of harvesting corn popped into my head, along with my own constant reminders when I’m in writing mode to not dismiss everyday details.  It occurred to me that this end-of-the-day routine is totally mundane to me, but our daughter never seen makeup removed before.  It is new and interesting to her.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I said.  “Of course you can watch.”

We walked upstairs together and she leaned in the doorway to the vanity sink while I put my hair in a ponytail.  I grabbed my blue Estée Lauder bottle and pumped cleanser into my left palm.

“What’s that?” our daughter asked.  Until this point in her life, she had only used a bar of soap to wash her face, even when she played “makeup” and had to remove it.

I turned the bottle so I could read the label. “Take it Away Makeup Remover Lotion,” I said.  “It’s not as harsh as using soap.”

I dabbed my right finger into the dollop of cleanser and explained, “You should always wash makeup off at the end of the day.”  I dabbed cleanser on my forehead.  “It’s not good for your skin or your eyes to leave it on.”

“What makeup do you have on?” she asked.

“Powder, blush,” I dabbed my nose, my cheeks.  “Eye shadow, mascara,” and I dabbed my right eyelid, then my left.

“What about eyeliner?”

“Nope, no eyeliner today,” I said.

“What is eyeliner?” our daughter asked.

So many things I take for granted. “Eyeliner is the makeup you draw on at the base of your eyelashes,” I told her, “to line the shape of your eye.”

I rubbed the cleanser into my skin as she leaned in the doorway.  Her hands were in her hoodie pockets and she rested her shoulder and head against the door frame.  After I rinsed my face, I explained the cream for the puffy bags under my eyes.  I read the labels from the tiny tubs of my Lancôme free samples – “Génifique youth activating concentrate,” I said in a fake French accent.  “That means it’s supposed to make me not wrinkly,” I said, and we giggled.

I screwed the lid on the final moisturizer and I kneeled down to our daughter’s level.  I felt closer to her after sharing this little everyday ritual that I take for granted, that before had seemed so ordinary it wasn’t worth explaining.  There’s a certain intimacy in taking part in someone’s daily routines that I didn’t appreciate until that moment.  “Why did you want to watch me take off my makeup?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “I didn’t know how you did it,” she said.  I hugged her, and as we walked downstairs together to watch Merlin, I realized that like contracting and farming are not obvious to me, my life is not obvious to our children.  They do not already know all the things I know as a 39-year-old woman.  As with writing, where I constantly remind myself to not dismiss everyday details, as a parent, if I am to parent well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.

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