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Story

I’m confronting a strange sense of déjà vu. This week, I’ve alternated between studying for the GRE, writing a personal statement, wrangling both kids by myself (Chris is on travel for work), and relying on coffee to keep me mostly alert.

I feel that I have done this process of applying for graduate school before because I have. In 2001, I applied for my MA in Religion. Now 14 years later, I’m applying yet again, but this time for an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on creative nonfiction. The process feels simultaneously familiar and strange. I know what’s expected of my application. I can prepare. I can still get hives from worrying about a test. Yet, I never expected to consider graduate training again in the middle of my 30s. I imagined a different life than the one I have.

My life changed significantly in 14 years. I’m married with two children. Our 14th anniversary is in December. The cat remains mean, but she’s less playful. The first dog is older, grayer, and deaf. There’s a younger dog, but she’s already middle-aged by canine standards. My sister got married, so did my brother. I now have a niece and nephews. My grandmother died. I haven’t spoken to my biological father since 2007. I earned a PhD and never found that career I trained for. I started freelance writing.

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It’s Personal

Over the next few months, the glorious Liana Silva (@lianamsilva) and I are writing to each other about personal essays. We’ll pivot from her site to mine. It is a conversation in letter form. We hope you’ll read along with us. Here’s my response to her inaugural post.

Dear Liana,

I first read your post as I was making dinner, after I had picked up the Legos strewn across the floor for the third time, after I found an Olivia book tucked in a pile of research in my office, and after I tripped over a cat and then a toddler. Both kids were home from preschool and school, and I’d already warned them both about squabbling over toys and assigned 3.5 time outs. This day, like many others, is one, in which writing feels like it is only occasionally in my grasp. I’m a mother who writes, a writer who mothers.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in the world I ended up as a writer. This appears a strange twist of fate. As my beloved Chris enjoys pointing out, I am an intensely private introvert and yet I write for audiences of strangers (and friends) about topics so personal to me: grief, motherhood, quitting, and my body.

The question is not how did I come to write essays. I think and dream in essays, but rather how did I ever come to write personal essays? I’m the person who actively avoids conversations on the topics that I write about. I smile and nod and look for an exit. I offer up a shallow example of my own or speak in monosyllables. I try to redirect attention back to the speaker away from me. I don’t talk openly. I don’t share.

How in the hell did I come to write personal essays at all? I lay bare my experiences of the world. I dwell in my heartbreaks. I try to find joy. I write openly. Or do I? (more…)

Pretty

This is a piece that I wrote over nine months ago that I hesitated on publishing. Reading over this morning, I am not sure why I was hesitant or what stopped me from clicking the publish button. I’ve lightly revised, but here it is.

“Pretty”

Pretty (adj): attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome.

It all started with a decision about a new pair of glasses. I narrowed my choices down to two frames: one roundish, large, and delicate and the other square and academic. I fell in love with the round ones. They are bigger than my current pair and decidedly retro. These frames seemed like a new start. A new way to communicate my transition from academic to whatever I want to be. These sartorial choice was a move in the right direction, so that my style reflected my attempts to get beyond me as academic. Plus, my five-year old enthusiastically loved them because of the color combination of warm brown and russet red.

Following the advice of Warby Parker, I posted a picture on Facebook to get “necessary” feedback from others. Most commenters liked them, but one of my friends noted that I was “too cute” for these frames.

My confidence deflated. What if these glasses made me look bad? What if I wasn’t pretty in them? I tried on the frames again and again. I polled my husband, my daughter, and my sisters via text. I liked, maybe even loved, the frames, but I worried about my appearence. What would others think?

And then I got angry. At myself. Why did I even care about what someone would think about frames? I’m the one who had to wear the damn glasses. Why did I care? If I liked the way I looked, why did anything else matter?

I’d fallen into a trap that I often set about my looks. I don’t want to be pretty until I do. My relationship with pretty is contentious at best.

I’ll be the first to note that I suck at a certain type of traditional white femininity. I have a pixie cut and visible tattoos. I switch back and forth between my glasses and my contacts.  I rock skull earrings and a smirk. I’m more comfortable in jeans, boots, or flipflops than I ever am in skirts and heels. I wear some make-up (eyeliner is required) and paint my nails (often black). The best I can hope for is cute, but I’ve been told that my “attitude” sometimes gets in the way.

Me and pretty don’t abide one another. We never have. Partially because I bought into the cultural claptrap about how girls and women have to choose smart or pretty. I can handle smart. Beauty is another thing entirely. I know this is a false choice. Yet, I still judge myself by standards of beauty that I detest. I harshly catalog my appearance dwelling on ever-shifting flaws. As a teenager, I hated my nose. I would examine it in the mirror and dwell on its ugliness. Now, my nose doesn’t bother me at all, but I’ve found new “flaws” that bug me.

Why can’t I love how I look? Love seems to far out of reach. I would settle for appreciation or an apprehensive truce.

Much of my body policing, of course, will be familiar to most women. From an early age, we learn to critique ourselves. We become our own worst critics because our bodies matter so much. Cultural value weighs on our flesh and our minds.

I bought the glasses I liked. I wear them well. This is one of my many attempts to come to terms with my body and appreciate it. I want my daughter to be comfortable in her own skin. I can’t teach her that unless I learn to do it as well.

Self-Respect

“I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire with no crucifix in hand,” Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” 1961.

Recently, I had a low week (which turned into weeks), in which every bad decision, failing, and the general wrong turns weighed upon me. I was left unhappy, brittle, and shaken. In truth, these days/weeks come less frequently than they once did. After a year away from academia, I’m no longer constantly plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. They exist as a low hum rather than a blaring radio. I still doubt myself, but I’m mostly content. I’m not quite fearless, but I am less afraid.

I recognized this bad mood as it settled upon me. I even knew why it occurred. Yet that profound feeling of not liking one’s self lingered. It was a discomforting moment where I evaluated my life and my person. The only thing to find was shortcomings, doubt, and unease. I became angry at myself for giving into the existential funk. I know intellectually that my life contains much good and happiness, but it is hard to find my way to it once the funk sets in. My mood runs dark, and my confidence dissipates. Unruly affect trumps intellect every time.

Instead of mentally reciting all of my failings, I picked up Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” I’ve read and reread it many times. Notes scrawl in the margins. Passages underlined in blue and black dominate the page. Didion’s prose is unflinching and brutal. Her stark honesty appeals to me. Her words pierce polite niceties as she forces to think about what happens when we face ourselves. “Innocence ends,” she writes, “when one is stripped of the delusion of liking one’s self” (142). What happens to us when we confront who we are not who we imagine ourselves to be? What are we left with when we inspect ourselves without the benefit of rosy visions but stark assessment? This moment when delusion dissipates is when she “lost the conviction that the lights would always turn green for me” (143).

Self-deception proves difficult. Didion explains:

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others–who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without (143).

To lack self-respect, then, is to be subject to “an interminable documentary” of one’s failures (144). Failures emerge as our constant companions, and we stake our worth on fickle reputations and mercurial approval of others. This is no way to live.  Didion relies upon a phrase that dominated my childhood: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”  While adults wield the phrase as explanation for punishment, Didion notes that the only way to sleep in that bed is to have self-respect, which is our reconciliation with ourselves.  Accepting responsibility for one’s own life is the first step to self-respect (145).

Didion convinces me that self-respect is not something we have or don’t have, but rather it is habit that we can develop through practice. We can train ourselves to recognize our intrinsic worth. It becomes discipline. Self worth gives us the ability “to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147). We abandon those debilitating notions of self that rely solely on the opinions of others. The goal is “to give us back to ourselves” (148).

I find myself working at the habit of self-respect, trying to ignore the notions of who I am that others cling to and trying to find who exactly is inhabiting the bed I made. This process isn’t easy as much of my self-worth has been defined externally by the lines on my CV, the list of accomplishments I could point to, and the desire for people to be proud of me.

When the CV no longer mattered and the accomplishments have no currency outside of academia, I found myself lacking. I craved the external validation that I was used to. I was disquieted by the person I’d become.

In “Bathroom Sink,” Miranda Lambert captures how I feel (like she so often does):

It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see
In my reflection and I can’t get out of the way
I’m lookin’ forward to the girl I wanna be
But regret has a way of starin’ me right in the face
So I try not to waste too much time at the bathroom sink

Here’s the thing: I’m tired of dodging the bathroom mirror. I’m tired of rejection and regret. I’m tired of judging myself by the standards of other people. I’m tired of my happiness being tied to what I have or haven’t accomplished. I’m done with the profound sense of failure that creeps up on me in my quiet moments.

I’m building my habit of self-respect, so doubts annoy me, not paralyze me. The lights might not turn green, but that doesn’t mean that they are always red either. I’m learning to sleep well in the bed I’ve made because it is mine alone.

 

Genre Fiction Saved My Life

I gave up many things for graduate school, and popular fiction was one of them. Training to be a religious historian meant that reading became my job rather than my beloved hobby. I only had time to read the 30 plus books assigned for seminars each semester. I’ve never read so much in my life as I did then. History, theory, methods, and studies of gender and race crowded my book shelves and took over my dining room table. Reading for pleasure no longer fit neatly into my schedule. Instead, I trudged through the books that now defined my life. If I read anything beyond the assigned, I found it necessary to read things labeled serious or literary. At parties, faculty and students would chat about the author of the moment, that critical darling reviewed by NPR or the New York Times. I would nod at appropriate moments. Literary fiction was the only fiction appropriate for scholars in training. Most of what I liked to read was not deemed literary. Trade paperbacks seemed less than serious. Intriguingly, the Harry Potter books were allowed, so I could discuss them without tarnishing my serious image.

I abandoned the books that kept me company from childhood to fledgling adulthood. I loved romance, horror, and that whole genre now labeled young adult fiction. I followed the girls of Sweet Valley High through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, and social strivings. I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, even though I was ambivalent about other children. I devoured anything written by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith. I first gained awareness of reincarnation via Pike, and garbage disposals still scare me of Stine. I worked my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated world of hobbits, elves, humans, and dwarves, though it took many attempts. I read and reread Smith’s Forbidden Game and Dark Visions books. Their covers creased and fell apart. The pages were dog-eared and torn. These books materialized my rough-handed devotion. (I’m still hard on books.) Smith’s books were my favorites. The strength and angst of the female protagonists resonated with me. These were girls who seemed ordinary, but were anything but. They were flawed but heroic. In Smith’s book worlds, the supernatural creeped unexpectedly into our lives, and no one was ever the same.

More importantly, the universes of these young adult books made sense. You could figure out the heroes and the villains (mostly), though sometimes the villains would redeem themselves through profound sacrifice. For me, they were beautiful escapism. These books permitted me to step away from the constant shuffle of life as a divorced kid. My week parceled between my mom and dad. I moved back and forth between two families. Tuesday, Friday, and every other weekend was my dad’s time; the other days went to my mom. Different houses, different rooms, different family members, and different responsibilities. The trade paperbacks moved to and fro with me. I tucked them in my backpack, or purse, before school at one house and read them in the evenings at another. They offered escape from the fraught complexity of living in two places, but never quite feeling at home. I could dwell in realms of extra-sensory perception, vampires, witches, and killer teenagers to avoid the emotional work of being one person who was actually two daughters. Fiction gave me purchase in entertaining simplicity; it allowed me to remove myself from the painful work of being the remnant of a failed marriage.

It should be no surprise that horror emerged as my favorite genre. By my teenage years, I had a firm grasp on how terrible people could be to one another; horror confirmed my bias. Characters harmed and killed one another. They broke down from the weight of the world, and sometimes they escaped terrible situations. I always knew that the monsters were the least of our worries. It is no surprise that I transitioned to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Tami Hoag, and Patricia Cornwell. Thrillers, mysteries, and horror showcased the seedier side of humanity, and I couldn’t seem to get enough. The clear cut morality of these genres also appealed. It was easy to predict what would happen. Popular fiction soothed me as it entertained me. King remains one of my favorites because he knows that horror is about losing who you love. His books tell us something we don’t want to think about: the capacity to love opens us to the experience of horror. (There’s a reason I’m so fascinated with zombies.)

I lost something important, then, when I gave up reading familiar books for serious scholarly pursuit. I would occasionally consume a tale of horror when I couldn’t stand to read another academic monograph, but I always felt guilty and anxious. What if someone found out? When I submitted my dissertation to my advisor, my response was to read the Twilight series. This is not quite the celebration I imagined I would have. I routinely scoured the shelves of the local bookstores to find anything with a supernatural edge. I finally felt free to read whatever I wanted, so I binged on popular fiction. I flew through Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, which I read again and again. I picked up books by Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Cassandra Clare, Rachel Caine, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Holly Black, and Devon Monk.

I uncovered a swoony love for urban fantasy as I rediscovered my love of science fiction. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels and John Scalzi’s Old Man War series are my favorites for escapism. I found that I love some books as much for their particularities and their flaws as I do their triumphs. I like the smart-ass characters that Scalzi specializes in, and I wish I were an unrepentant badass like the mercenary Kate Daniels. When I read Scalzi’s Red Shirts and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing, I ponder tha narrative structure of our lives and our various attempts to make our own stories fit into limited molds. These books let me dream and imagine. They also help me think. I hunker down with books when I need time to process what’s happening in my own life. Books give me the space to breathe.

Yet, I read on my Kindle now, so I can’t see the wear of each book from every rereading. No more torn covers or dog-eared pages. My books no longer fall apart before my eyes. I do see the passages I highlighted that spoke to me, and I wonder what it was about each passage that caused me to mark it. The lines that seemed so important in one reading become less pressing in another. My transition out of academia could be narrated by the books I read and the books I refuse to read. I missed popular fiction. I needed it. Maybe we all do.