Missed Turn

I woke up on Sunday convinced that I have no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.

Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.

On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend Richard teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.

As I pulled out of my drive way, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.

Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.

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Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved fairy tales. Her skin was freckled and unevenly tanned. Her legs always had bruises because she was easily distracted and clumsy. Her hair was not golden like the sun, but that shade of blonde-almost-brown that the adults around her described as dirty or dishwater blonde. When she started squinting at things far in the distance, she had to get glasses. She was a reader with her nose perpetually stuck in a book. She was a daydreamer who imagined different possible worlds than the one she inhabited. Worlds, in which parents didn’t divorce, fathers loved their children unconditionally, people were kinder, she was a princess, and anything was possible with magic.

She imagined a world of enchantment and predictable narratives. She called on these worlds when life around her became too much. If she was being unflinchingly honest with herself, she would have to admit that she was more comfortable inside her head than out. Her imaginings followed certain storylines, the characters were reliable and trustworthy, and evil never triumphed over good. The real world made little sense. People, adults and other children, were mercurial and unpredictable. There were no clear storylines to follow, no patterns that made engaging with others easy or manageable. Kindness quickly transformed into cruelty with little warning. Some days, reality was too much to decipher, so instead of playing with her friends on the playground, she would turn inward to the safe confines of her imagination and create her own fairy tales. Princes rescued princesses. Evil witches were defeated. And often, the heroine would figure out how to save herself. All while, she swung higher and higher on the swing. Her body tethered by reality and gravity, but her mind was gloriously free.

Moreover, fantasy offered up endless happy endings. Real life, on the other hand, had few happy endings. And when the endings were happy, the happiness was conditional and fleeting. Happiness never tried to linger. She often wondered why.

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On Amusement and Misogyny

Over the winter break from school and preschool, we took the kids to an amusement park an hour and half away from our house. Our daughter loves to ride the rides. She’s fearless and wants to ride every roller coaster that she can. She’s not quite tall enough for the roller coasters that boast speeds of 60 or 70 miles per hour and turn you upside down. Their names evoke wild cats and/or natural disasters. As she impatiently waits to grow another inch and a half, I get queasy just thinking about them. She’s so close to being able to do something but not there yet, which frustrates her. There’s a lesson here that many adults I know haven’t quite mastered.

I’m her partner for roller coasters, side winders, flyers, raging rapids, and any other ride that catches her fancy. She screams in exhilaration as I wonder at what age these amusements no longer seem fun. For me, amusement parks offer up creative ways to die. While I hold onto bar across our laps tightly, I also trying to touch her hand to assure me she’s still there. As we are tossed side-to-side, I hope that it is actually not possible for us to be thrown out. When we confront gravity, she finds joy. I find terror. Mostly, I try to figure how I became an older, more easily frightened version of myself.

I used to love amusement parks too. Hardly any ride scared me. Defying gravity was perfect. Roller coasters were simply the best. I loved the feeling of hanging upside down. I couldn’t wait to be strapped into a cart on a rickety track.

As my kid and I joined the line for yet another roller coaster, we found ourselves behind four boys, who each looked to be 10 or 11. They were telling each other jokes followed by raucous and loud laughter. I attempted to ignore them while I asked my kid what she wanted to ride next. Her brother fell asleep, and Chris was holding him while she and I tried to ride as many rides as possible.

She listed the rides in order of her preference. The boys got louder and louder. They were telling each other “your mama” jokes. (more…)

Somewhere Else

She never felt like she belonged anywhere, except for when she was lying on her bed, pretending to be somewhere else.”–Eleanor & Park

I picked up Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park this weekend because I wanted to read a book that wasn’t about the craft of writing, zombies, hippos going beserk, higher ed, or American religions. Someone somewhere mentioned that I should check out Rowell’s novels, so I downloaded Eleanor & Park to my Kindle.

The novel, set in 1986, traces the friendship and later romance of two 16-year olds. Eleanor is the new girl with bright red curly hair and full figure. Her family is poor, white, and dysfunctional. Her stepfather abuses her mother physically and emotionally. Park comes from a loving family. His mother is Korean and his father was in the armed services, but they don’t entirely understand their oldest son. Park loves comic books and music. He meets Eleanor on the bus. Mutual antagonism turns into kindness; kindness morphs into first love.

Never has any other novel I’ve read evoked what it is like to a teenager in such a humane and profound way. Rowell renders the melodrama of our teenage years not as caricature, but as intense, inescapable reality. Everything appears pressing because everything is pressing and significant and life-ending. Bullying is a fact of life as are shallow judgments about worth based on appearance, class, and race. Teenagers come into their humanity fighting against burdens of culture that adults have already accepted as normal and expected. They rail against life being unfair; we’ve already noted that it is and moved on. They think love can conquer all. We wonder if love has the longevity and stamina to conquer the mundane wear-down of life. They think they’re the only ones with these particular problems in these particular times. We recognize the familiar struggle of youth and the pained attempts to figure out what where we belong.

Eleanor & Park transported me back to my teenager years viscerally. The novel dredged up a host of things that I keep trying to forget. (more…)

My Favorite Essays of 2015

Today is the last day of 2015, which means I should probably reflect on the year and figure out my goals for 2016. What I know is that I’m not ready to do either quite yet. I’ve taken a break from writing while the kids have been out of school/preschool for the holidays. I finished my deadlines in December, applied for an MFA program, and spent time with my family without worrying what comes next. For the first time in awhile, I feel refreshed and ready to take on the new year. I have quite a few plans and so many essays that I want to write, and I can’t wait to share what I’m thinking and working on. Soon, but not yet.

I’m looking forward to my writing life in 2016, but I’m glad for 2015 to be over.

Rather than do a list of my most popular essays, I want to share with y’all the essays that I wrote that proved to be my favorites. Some I enjoyed writing, but others were painful. One of these essay took me 48 hours to write, but another took me over two years to finally complete. The topics range from beauty and motherhood to tenure to professorial appearance to coffee to Taylor Swift to pandering to mansplaining to story. Here they are in no particular order. I hope you enjoy reading them.

You’re Beautiful,” Brain, Child, February 2015.

My daughter also finds beauty in me, usually in the moments when I think I’m anything but. In the mornings before coffee, without my trusty under-eye concealer and the benefit of a hair brush. In the afternoons when my energy and patience are low, she tosses the compliment around haphazardly ignoring whether it landed. In the evenings while she snuggles close, she whispers, “You’re beautiful.” She touches my cheek or holds my hand. I hold her tightly, forcing myself to remember these fleeting moments and her kind words. (more…)