Flip Side

Photo by Brad Fickeisen

I often attempt to keep things positive in this space because positivity is what fuels my mind, body, and soul. Because good juju is simply good for the soul. But I am also a truth-teller, according to my brief bio on The Manifest-Station, which just re-published an essay of mine on breaking the ties that bind us. And I think this characterization is apt.

I find it impossible to maintain a blog, to be any kind of a writer without revealing some dirty, uncomfortable truths; after all, the honest tales about ourselves are where we find connection. It’s in reading lines like the ones below from Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life,”  within which she spills the hardest truths about her mother’s death, that we find relief. Wherein we realize we are not alone, and we are instantly forgiven of our deepest sins. In the essay, Strayed speaks of long-lasting grief, admitting:

We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done.

I nearly wept when I read these lines; I felt so sheltered and wiped clean by them.

So, today I am straying from my intended focus on positivity to talk about anxiety, the animal that has lived beneath my skin for as long as I can remember. One that grew bigger fangs and teeth once I became a mom.

Picture this. It’s snowing here in Frederick, MD, coming down like cats and dogs, like frogs might’ve rained down during the plagues of Egypt. Like, a lot. And my kid is still at school. Yes, our county has canceled school countless times for a little bit of freezing rain that tapered off in a couple of hours but decided to stay in session on the one day of the entire winter when forecasters predicted several inches of snow. I think this qualifies as the dictionary definition of WTF.

In the county’s defense, we only had a bit of sleet by 8:00 a.m., so I could see why they might bring kids in for maybe a few hours of learning before the white stuff began. I was OK with a few hours, but once my boy climbed into the metal jaws of the school bus at 8:31 a.m., I surrendered control over when they’d willingly bring him home.

By 10:30 a.m., it was snowing fairly a lot, when we finally got word of a two-hour early closure. Two hours early?, I thought. That seems a bit late…. I went about my morning, feeling antsy and unsettled, watching the green grass disappear before my eyes.

Around noon, the fast-coming flakes had ballooned to quarter-size, and the streets were filling rapidly with thick, white powder. This is when panic mode set in. I cursed the county and all of its officials. I cursed myself, too. Why had I let my boy go to school despite my instinct to keep him home? I paced the floor, contemplating whether I should go pick him up myself, a full two hours before he was due for release. But I felt paralyzed, a mama deer whose baby was stranded across an abysmal highway.

Knowing I had to get it together, I started envisioning palm trees, sand, a yoga teacher talking me through restorative stretches. But my chest continued to tighten, my breath growing shallower.

That’s when I heard it: the guttural rumble of the snow plow. My knight in shining armor. I began to let go, just a little. And then a little more. Each time the truck passed up and down the street, in fact, the encroaching tide of panic receded farther back into the deep.

It’s just after 2:00 p.m. now. Snow continues to fall, this time, more gently. I am not sure what all the fear was for, but it rules many of my days despite my best efforts to assuage it. Despite a healthy diet, exercise, pretty good sleep, and a regular glass of vino in the evening.

My house is filled with joy: with too many Lego pieces, Tinker crate boxes, Cricket magazines, and a million odds and ends that my seven-year-old leaves laying about to claim his space within these walls. My husband is supportive and loving, my best friend and most treasured mentor. There’s no reason for anxiety to fill my veins and make my heart quicken with such regularity. There’s no sinking ship, no apocalyptic zombies at my door. There is just me, living a beautiful, little life. So, how can a little snow have me so tied in knots, fearing my child would never make it back to me?

In “The Evolving Anxiety of Motherhood,” writer Courtney Martin speaks straightly about the anxiety which took over once her child was born, about the ever-constant fight-or-flight mode that switches on when we have babies, yet she ends the piece in lightness, relieving the reader of her stress and discomfort, emphasizing the ever-changing state of a mother’s emotions:

The flip side of fear is gratitude. Just as my momma body can be flooded with anxiety for my girls, I now have moments of feeling almost euphoric with an awareness of their well-being. It’s the gift that goes with the risk if I am wise enough to pause and actually feel it.

The afternoon moves on. My boy is quietly playing in the snow with his best friend up the street. His cup couldn’t be fuller. I tap, tap on the computer. The refrigerator hums. The pipes creek from the heat that fills them. Warmth and love expand around me, traveling down the alleyways, melting snow in their path.


Being OK with Getting Dirty

Photo by Ashley Van Dyke

If it’s OK to talk in half-truths, I am not a lazy cook, but I have this weird aversion to buttering the pan (or in my case, smearing coconut oil all over it). Because I dislike getting my hands covered in nutty, stubborn oil that is difficult to wash off, I might avoid mixing together the different types of gluten free flour and baking powder that some very nice factory machine has put together for me so that I can type a blog entry instead of pull my own gluten free flours out of the cabinet and fumble for a recipe that seems adequate enough to make the same crispy on the outside but soft on the inside bread that I know whatever’s in this darn box can offer me.

It’s a silly thing, really: not wanting to get my hands greasy. However, I do eventually give in, realizing that I am not going to have bread unless I dig my fingers into some oil.

This analogy applies to so much of my life. If I were always unwilling to show the dirt beneath the trying-to-be-sophisticated and/or parental persona, I’d never do much of anything real or meaningful. I never would have written one of the essays that put some majorly unresolved issues with my dad to rest. Literally. I think I walked away from my dad for good after that essay.

I never would have screamed yes when my Department Head asked me to teach a literature course, even if I haven’t taught literature to a live classroom of students in ten years. (I have been busy teaching basic essay writing and composition.) I knew I’d be stumbling out of the gate as I learned the pace of the course and the abilities of my students. I knew there’d be no chance of propping up a flawless professor persona for the kids and that some of them might remember Greek tragedy better than I do at this point. I knew these things, and I still screamed yes.

And I have days where I know I can do better even in the moment I am teaching. In these moments, the dirt on my face seems visible, but I am still up there. It’s the only way. We often aren’t ready for opportunities when they arise. Sometimes, we plain don’t know what the hell we are doing, but we’d never accomplish much if we cared too much about that.

This brings me back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s simple, honest, and endearing motivational book entitled Big Magic. She offers such good advice about getting dirty that I keep this book tucked into one of the small shelves inside my wall desk; it’s sitting just below me now, providing good vibes and subliminal reminders that showing up in the world doesn’t mean you are ready. As Gilbert encourages:

The only reason I was able to persist in completing my first novel is because I allowed it to be stupendously imperfect…..I refused to go to my grave with seventy-five pages of an unfinished manuscript sitting in my desk drawer. I did not want to be that person.

Reaping the rewards of any success requires us to simply show up and do the job imperfectly. I am so happy I continue to do it, even if I am still not used to showing the dirt beneath the persona. Yet this is what has sustained me and yielded an even greater harvest of successes.

The Fragility of Time

Photo by Kunj Parekh

What do you do when you read a headline like “Stephen Hawking Knows What Happened Before the Big Bang?” If you are me, your breath quickens and you fall into that other place, like the one from Get Out. What was it called again? Help me out.

And then, if you are me, someone who has finally breathed a sigh of relief after her husband’s 8:00 p.m. arrival, knowing he can take over bedtime duty and she can finally pop open a cold one, someone who’s been writing and rewriting entire blog entries, chapters of unwritten novels, and forgotten essays in her head in between playing “Phineas and Ferb” on the Wii, a Lego Olympics curling game, and heating up cold pizza from last night’s dinner for her young son, who is home today – on her at-home workday – due to a giant windstorm that has literally swept dozens of shingles off her roof.

If you were that person, you’d obviously stop this heavenly moment of newly uninterrupted time, this newfound freedom, when you’re like Kate Chopin’s main character from “Story of an Hour” at the moment she thinks her husband has died, and she softly calls out “Free, free. free….” And you’d urgently read every word of this short article that tells you essentially that there was originally nothing but one little atom before the BIG Bang, and nothing existed but that little guy. You’d read how time gets smaller as you go back into the past; it literally shrinks somehow, and therefore, expands as time moves forward into the future or some such craziness. You’d stop at that point, mind blown, and think how utterly meaningless and pointless existence is, and you’d be sad and devastated that 14.8 billion years ago that one little atom had nobody – and wonder, is that the atom we call God? And you’d naturally segue back to the wind, thinking what a lousy, lightweight drinker she is, stumbling over roofs and knocking down power lines.

Is this what she does with her freedom?

And wonder: Is this all you are, something so easily taken by the wind?



The Beauty of What’s Unfinished

Photo by Caroline Attwood

As I write this, the non-perishable groceries I purchased at 11:00 a.m. still sit in recyclable bags upon the kitchen floor. (It’s now 5:00 p.m.) A pot roast stew is cooking leisurely in the crockpot. Snow is falling in big, hurried flakes, taking its precious time to accumulate, perhaps unsure it has anything much left to say about this feeble winter – as committed to finishing its duties as I.

These moments of partially completed tasks are commonplace in my household. I am always in the middle of something. In the middle of a holiday menu, until the day passes me by and I am left with a fridge full of half-rotten produce. In the middle of three loads of unfolded laundry, haphazardly pulled out of baskets when the need arises or dumped onto the guest room bed for temporary residence.

I am always in the middle of finishing a novel or two – or more likely, three. Always in the middle of writing an essay or four. Always in the middle of composing a message to a friend and a friend and a friend or inviting a family member or a family member to visit. Always in the middle of organ-ing-iz my closet or creating a new lesson plan.

Only, this is nothing to be ashamed of. I am talking to you as much I am to myself. This is how it is, for a reason. Perhaps you are raising a child, or are working and raising a child on your own, or maybe you are working and married but feel like a single parent most days of the week. Maybe you just have too many tasks on your list and are forced to let the little things go for a while.

Perhaps the only way to stay sane – to reach your deadlines, keep the lights on, or ensure your family is fed – means to wear dirty socks for a few days. Means to let the dishes pile up and the newly purchased bread sit in its plastic bag for a few more hours.

Everything in its own time, they say. The red beets I had intended on roasting for a lovely Valentine’s Day soup sit upon my kitchen counter and are now ready to be eaten.

Such is life. We are doing fine.


Photo by Jorge Guillen on Unsplash

Not ready is what I said to myself as the alarm went off on Monday, January 29th, the first day of spring semester.

Not ready is what I thought when a colleague stopped me in the hall to smile and ask if I was glad to be back.

Not ready is what I am thinking as the night winds to an end after a fun-filled night out in downtown Frederick with my husband of almost 10 years.

Not ready is what I think as I view the forecast for snow and look at my half empty fridge.

I am not ready for much of anything most of the time, it seems. How about you? In fact, most of the time, I feel like I am showing up to school with a lesson plan I have never tested, unsure of the students’ reactions. And so each morning I feel slightly queasy as I head into the adjunct faculty workroom to print handouts and peruse my agenda.

I am almost never ready for my son to get on the school bus each morning, feeling I’ve rushed him through breakfast and barked at him for asking to wear sheer athletic pants after he’s been told it’s 17 degrees out. I bark until I howl or until one us caves. I am not always sure who will give first, but I am almost never ready to go through this predicable routine.

And here are some others:

I am not ready for Groundhog Day, even though it was yesterday. I am not ready for spring either. I am not ready for my son to be in second grade but that hasn’t stopped that from happening. I am not ready to succumb to the weight of gray hair or the gravity-resistant slouch in my shoulders.

Some days, I am plain not ready to be in the world of adulthood wherein I must think of 401k plans and life insurance. It feels surreal that I must plan for my own retirement when I am just getting started with my life – and by the way, no matter what age I reach, I always feel I am just getting started with something.

I am not ready for my husband’s hair to be receding simply because I remember him at 31 like it was yesterday. He still has the same smiling eyes and long, hooked nose, my nose, the one I fell in love with, so how can other parts of him have changed? And parts of me? We can go there another time.

And I am barely ready to accept my closet is full of clothes I have worn for decades (some I had to shrink back down into after the post-baby years; I am no super woman). I am not ready for the faded-ness of an old pair of jeans or the tiny holes beneath the arm of a tried and true sweater. But all I can do is laugh to myself at how many years I have managed to wear the same items. Time passes whether or not my shopping habits can keep up.

I am like a tree limb covered in ice, grateful for its protective covering, yet stuck in time, as life buzzes by without me.



When It’s OK to Give Up

Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” which by the way is one of Woody’s most hilarious dark comedies and was truly undervalued by the critics, when Joaquin Phoenix, playing a depressed middle-aged professor, tells his adoring student Emma Stone, “I give up.” He’s speaking in regards to his efforts to accomplish anything significant, like publish another book on the Medieval Renaissance (or some such subject); it’s “just what the world needs,” he reflects in a hopeless, sarcastic tone.

That line was so bitingly true that my husband and I doubled over in laughter. Maybe it’s only really funny when you are in your forties, and you’re truly feeling a glimmer of old age. I am finding the mid-forties can have a slightly darker tinge than the first three years did, but that’s for another time.

The point is, when you reach mid-forty-something, you begin to take stock of your accomplishments in a real way. What have you done? And more importantly, what have you not done? And even more-er (I know, that’s not a word) importantly, what is any of it for? What’s the g.d. purpose?

In connection, there’s lots of talk about grit (the newest term for the growth mindset essentially) in the education world. Grit, that stick-with-it-ness that helps us save for a house or reach a career milestone. Or not kill our kids when they learn to start talking back. (I made that one up.) But as if with anything, there’s the counterargument to this dialogue: what are the limitations of grit? In other words, when should we be letting our students, children, or ourselves give up? When is it OK? How do we know we’ve reached that point?

There are all kinds of things that I give up on: new friends whose bookshelves resemble shrines to Bill O’Reilly, eating the last bite of a meal when I am full, trying to perfectly revise and edit my blog posts (time is short). But how do we know when it’s OK to say, change jobs or end long-term relationships? Or when is it OK to give up on a pursuit to learn an instrument or a new language?

I don’t have the answers, and I am not asking you to solve these questions either. But I do talk to my students about staying with something, about building focus and commitment to their schoolwork, and I also tell them sometimes grit is harmful – when our pursuits and relationships are causing us harm, for instance.

For my own self, though, that line becomes harder to draw. After all, as Angela Duckworth, the leading guru on grit, tells us, “a disposition to endure to the end is the hallmark of high-achievers.” On the other hand, she also reassures us that certain low-level goals can be counter-productive. Maybe getting tenure at your current university just isn’t working out, or perhaps applying with the same company over and over is going nowhere, or your idealistic vision of becoming a famous potter is leading you to spend hundreds of dollars on trinkets that sit on your garage shelves or end up in the trash.

There’s a little relief in sight, isn’t there? By setting manageable, realistic goals, and even perhaps dialing back our dreams to small, incremental steps, we can perhaps become the best of the grittiest among them, instead of the most unhappy.



Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Sometimes, we fall off the horse. We set a goal for ourselves and life gets in the way, whether it be a work deadline, a sick child, another trip to the grocery store for items that always seem to be running low, or just needed time spent sitting in lotus pose or curled up with a soft blanket.  Keeping commitments, as I wrote about in my last post, can be downright difficult, particularly when they involve those unnecessary, frivolous passions of ours.

On January 1, I joined a challenge posed by a woman in one of my writing circles, and the task was seemingly simple: to write for 30 days. I failed miserably at it, although I did succeed quite well at spending more time listening to my wind chime and planning a new curriculum for my research and composition course.

So, even when we fail at one goal, we can be quite good at reaching others – if I can actually count listening to my wind chime a goal…. But let’s not forget that, failing at one thing does not amount to the whole of our lives.

In fact, I have had good practice in recent months doing things I sorely didn’t want to do, like teaching a new 4-day-a-week course at 8:00 a.m. last fall, like living without cream in my coffee, real bread on my table, and chocolate cake on the weekends. These accomplishments should not go unnoticed or unfelt.

Not to mention, we can all do hard things, and let’s be real, taking on a writing challenge is pretty lightweight stuff. So I am getting back on the horse. How appropriate, too, that today is January 25th, the birthday of Virginia Woolf. As of today, I am officially rebooting the challenge.

I came upon an essay the other day in which the author refers to the “room of one’s own” that Woolf is notorious for writing about. The room that needs time and money to obtain but is in our grasp if we put our energy into creating one. In Diana Norma Szokolyai’s piece, she reminds us of how splintered women can become, how priorities become muddled amidst the “triple routine” of motherhood, writing, and career. She encourages us writers (insert your own passion/talent/title here) to do the following:

It is important to accept the triple routine, to even embrace it as part and parcel of the life of a writer. The work of a day job and the work (and play) of motherhood equip the writer with valuable experiences and depth of perspective. Just as we set the alarm to rise for work in the morning, or respond to a crying child in the middle of the night, we owe it to our creative selves to rally the time and energy to write. We may have more to do than ever, but isn’t it also the case that the busier we are, the more urgent the writing becomes? We may find ourselves in the midst of the “triple routine,” but the energy of the writing is tripled as well.

I understand this urgency. I know its taste and smell, its itchy feeling beneath the skin. Yet it’s still all too easy to ignore. For me, it’s not only other commitments that can squelch my writing practice, it’s the lack of belief that something will come of it, that the effort and practice will lead somewhere.

When I was a kid, I hated playing piano. Practicing those darn scales was murderous to my 12-year-old self. Feeling like I was getting nowhere and that playing was pointless were assumptions I held onto tightly. And I still hold onto these childish beliefs.

If I liken my current writing practice to my early piano-playing days, I’d be begging mom to quit about now. Please let me, I pleaded back then. I probably screamed about how much I hated the piano, the lessons, the recitals until eventually she relented. I am sure I wasn’t able to play enough pieces fast enough. That I wasn’t an instant talent. How hard that must have been – and still is.

It’s OK that it’s hard, to admit it. It’s OK to give up even. But sometimes we just need to remember that a bountiful harvest takes time. There will be failures. There will be terrible writing and unclear ideas. There will be days when you feel no one gives a shit, too. But if there is any urgency inside at all, perhaps we owe it to ourselves to commit to something more, to take ourselves more seriously. Even if only for 30 days.