Monthly Archives: November 2010

Out of Practice

“Everything is practice.”- Pele

I feel out of shape, out of practice, out of focus.  The words, they are stretching and grumbling, they don’t WANT to come out and do their job, thank you very much, they are quite content to stay slumbering, to remain curled up in a warm fuzzy pile of possibility. It’s cozy in there. Tangled and twisted, these adjectives and nouns and verbs and adverbs have gotten used to doing nothing, or at least only doing the bare minimum. Over the past month, the words in my life have gotten quite lazy.

The words I use to talk to my son, the “O words” are the laziest. They loll about, drinking coffee with their eyes half open while I wake up O. Only a few words are required to do this job, and it’s the same ones, over and over, and they can do their job with their eyes closed.  “Good morning, merry sunshine!” And then some combination of “Up”, “Arms up”, “No sir”, “stay still” and “milk?”. There is no real effort involved there. And if it’s not a work day, no matter, the O words are still lazy. “No”, “yes”, “not for O”, “eat?”, “it’s bedtime for boys!”, “STOP”, “why are you crying?”, and “I love you monkey!” about covers it.

Then there are the words required to do my day job. These words are a little more alert than the O words, but really it’s the same combination of words every day. And while they have to be ready to jump into action, to clear up a misunderstanding or make the drafting of a legal document more clear, they are really just tin soldiers, marching in place and waiting to be called into action. They are good soldiers, the work words, they follow orders well and don’t think too much and understand that they all have a job to do, however small. There are a finite number of words that get used at work, and there are only a few possible combinations. The words are used to expand or contract, to clarify or to purposefully not clarify, to say yes or no. The work warriors do have a few specialty guys on call, waiting in the wings and doing extra push-ups, in case a situation comes up where spontaneous thinking and writing are required. But these situations are rare, and the specialty guys are too beefed up for their own good, with nowhere to let off steam. These guys also moonlight as my road rage team.

Then there are the good time guys and gals, the words used to talk with my husband, family, and best friends. These words are the chosen ones and they are so good at their jobs that they don’t really need to do anything. They’ve been doing this job for years, and have mastered the complicated short hand and inside jokes and terms of endearment that signify our worlds. They are like Tiger Woods before his fall, like Jay-Z (retired or not), like J.K. Rowling. They are masterful, they can do no wrong, they are just born great. They can do their thing while swilling a cocktail.

These are the words required to get through my day. At the beginning of November, I decided to get more serious about my writing. I planned to devote every Monday and Friday I had off to writing all day, I contemplated getting up every morning before work to get in a full hour of writing, and I was making a Plan. Well, we all know what they say about plans and God and roads of good intentions. Exactly. So of course I ended up working at my day job every Monday and Friday for the entire month of November. No free time, no designated time to write. No getting up early and reveling in my good intentions come to life.

And now, today, is the first day in over a month that I’ve sat in Starbucks and stared at a blank page. I don’t remember how to do this. This feels hard, I feel uncomfortable and out of shape, like I’m staring down a marathon that I forgot to train for. Or worse, I’m about to make a speech I forgot to write. I look around, I think about making a Christmas list, and emailing that friend I haven’t spoken to in a few months, and wonder if I should make a list of stuff instead of writing, because at least I have words for a to do list. Too many words, actually. And not the fun kind.

And the lesson? It is hard. It is work. Writing, words, like everything else, have to be used and exercised and practiced. Every writing book you pick up says you must write EVERYDAY. Write and write some more. Write terribly, write grandly, write drunkenly, write angrily, write happily, write with lots and lots of adverbs, but just write. And even though every writer knows this, at least in theory, we are still surprised by the slap in the face we get when we let the words remain dormant for too long. We are surprised by the reluctance of the words, by how unloose and uncooperative they are. And then we remember. We remember that writing is a practice. It is not a finish line, it is not an ending, it is not perfection. It is messy and unpredictable and glorious and frustrating and heart-breaking and fun. It is what we love to do best. But it is a practice and it is hard work. You can have all the talent in the world and it means nothing if you don’t use your words, everyday. Brilliance can die young, it can fade and it can get rusty. Remember Tiger Woods, Jay-Z,  J. K. Rowling? They work hard, harder than anyone else. They practice, everyday. A million golf swings, a million rhymes, a million words written.

Interesting thing, when I think about “practice”, my first thought is that you practice at something to get good. Sort of like the dress rehearsal. Football teams practice before The Game, which is the performance itself. If I say I’m “practicing” something, the message I’m conveying is that what I’m doing is not the performance itself. But this is actually the total opposite of a writing practice. There is no big game. There is no show to be put on. The practice of writing is the act of writing. Period. End of story.

This post? It’s bad. It’s creaky, the words are grumbling, the adverbs out front, doing the easy work, while the verbs and nouns haven’t really woken up yet. But they are waking up, they are yawning and stretching and getting ready to do their thing.

Because the other thing about writing is that it’s always here, waiting for you, to begin again. The words may grumble and give you a hard time, they may be spectacularly bad for awhile to teach you a lesson, but words never go away, they never leave you. They are here, waiting for you to pick them up again, to practice.

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Think-Make-Think

Struggling to get words, the right words, to line up and pay attention today. Today I want to write something funny but in the writing world, I am not in charge. So today I’m not funny. Today I’m thinking about closets. Yep, closets. But I lost my post and errands call, the glamorous life of a working mom. We have a birthday party to go to, and presents to buy. So for today, I will borrow someone else’s words.

All I want to be is Someone

Who makes New things

and Thinks about them.

– John Maeda

Click link to see Clifton Burt’s usage of the above haiku in a photograph. I think I need this for my office.

Happy Friday.

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From Daughter to Mother

One of the strangest things to me about having a baby is the sudden identity switch that occurs. I suppose it’s not that sudden, you get 1o months to try it on, see how it fits, but that’s all just a dress rehearsal until you actually become a mom. And even now, the 14 months I have spent as a mom is nothing compared to the thirty-odd years I have spent NOT being a mother.

When I found out I was pregnant, my first thought was “Oh my god, I have to RAISE a CHILD.” Not just grow and birth a baby, but actually raise it. My second thought was that I was replacing myself. That sounds dramatic, but hear me out.  I have spent my life being many things, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, downtrodden assistant, lawyer, wife. But first and foremost, I have always been a daughter. I have always been someone’s child, my mother’s child. And no matter what happens, or how much I grow up and pay taxes and do grown-up things, I am still my mother’s child. When we go home or my parents visit, there is still that subtle shifting of place that occurs, and we all fall into position. Whether I like it or not, my place, my label is “oldest daughter”.  No matter how grown up we get, my parents still let us act like their children. They pay for dinner. They let us pick the restaurant, where we want to sit, let us squabble and pout. In short, they put us first.

So once I had O, that sense of place doesn’t quite fit anymore. Because I have replaced myself, generation-wise. Before, it ended with me. Now, I am the in-between, the link between my parents and my child. Now I am not just a child, a daughter, but also a mother. The link is complete. What that means is that I don’t get the luxury of simply being my mother’s daughter anymore. When I return home, my mother still takes care of me, but now I am taking care of someone else.

I was at a family party this weekend.  My mom introduced me to a couple she had been talking with, with the words “And THIS is O’s mom!”  She obviously had been talking about O, as grandmothers do. But it was such a strange thing to hear “O’s mom”. It’s not because at 14 months in that I haven’t gotten used to having a baby. It’s not that I don’t feel like his mother. But that term, those words, I don’t think have been applied to me yet. It’s always “my baby”, or “A’s son”. This was the first time that it was applied to me through him and his identity, rather than as an extension of me. It brought back memories of when I was young, and our parents were simply those ever-present tall people that gave us our boundaries. So it was “Amanda’s mom” or “Heather’s mom”.  Never Donna or Nancy. As a kid, my only relation to them was how strict they were and how much they let us play. It didn’t occur to me that they were individuals, that they had personalities and lives outside of their children.

But what really struck me when I heard myself being identified as “O’s mom” was the immediate thought that I couldn’t possibly be someone’s mom because I would never be as good as my mom.  That I have now inherited the title, and the power and responsibility that goes with it. That I am now responsible for his life, not just his physical life, not just keeping him alive, but the harder stuff, the making-sure-he-grows-up-happy-and-well-adjusted-and-stays-out-of-prison-and-mental hospitals stuff. My second immediate thought was poor O, the part of “mother” was being played by me, the understudy. And he deserves the main star.

My mother is a tough act to follow. I’ve tried to write her letters, to tell her how much of an impact she’s had on my life, to tell her what an amazing mother she is, but I can never seem to write anything that actually conveys even a sliver of what I want to say. It’s like trying to capture water in your fist.

I can talk about how she always encouraged me, but never pushed me. How she let me lead the way and let me be my own person, without putting her own wishes and fears for herself onto me. She encouraged us to participate, to be joiners and a part of things, but always allowed us our own opinions and decisions. She gave us space to fail. She let us make mistakes, and she made sure we learned from our mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, she made it clear what she thought was right and wrong (smoking is tacky, good grades are a requirement, you should always try to brush your hair and put on some lipstick) but she let us find our way. She gave me my love of words and reading. She makes the best cherry pies and sugar cookies at Christmas, so much so that certain family members have been known to hide these items at Christmas parties so they might steal away with one at the end of the party.  She is funny and smart and beautiful and much, much kinder than I am. Though she did once have a cat put to sleep because he wouldn’t stop peeing in her closet. So kind, yeah, but don’t cross her.

But all of those things barely add up to any sort of true description of her. Besides, how can I possibly describe what makes a mother a mother? It’s the multitude of tiny things that she did and does every day, it’s the unseen and unfelt decisions that have shaped me, it’s well, everything. Because everything that she has done since having me has been about me (and my siblings).

And even if it hasn’t always been about us, that’s her genius. She makes us kids feel like we are her entire world. Now that I’m a mom, clearly I see that’s not true. She had a life before me, she has an internal life and relationships and worries and dreams that do not revolve around me. But she never let me know or feel that. Ever.

My mom always used to say that I couldn’t understand how much she loved us, that I wouldn’t understand a mother’s love for her children until I had my own. She was right and wrong about that. Yes, it took having a child to experience the depth and sweet pain that is a love for a child. Yes, once I had O I instantly understood what she meant. But she was wrong that I didn’t know how much she loves us. My mother’s love is a living, breathing thing. I can feel it in the room with us, even over the phone. My mother may have done many things that upset me or made me angry or that I didn’t understand, but I have never, ever doubted how much she loved me.

A few months ago, O and I were visiting my parents’ house. I was sick, with some form of bronchitis, the kind where you can’t sleep because lying down makes you cough, sitting up makes you cough, everything makes you cough. I was feeling especially lousy, but as everyone with kids knows, it doesn’t matter how badly you might feel, the kids keep on going. There is no “off” button, or even a “slow down” button. They don’t intuit that you need some down time. Being sick sucks, being sick with a toddler is it’s own kind of hell. But I was at my parents’ house, which made it all bearable. Because my mom is that kind of mom. She let me rest, let me sleep, bought me medicine, made me soup and grilled cheese. She scooped O up and took over, and I didn’t have to worry because I knew she would take care of him. Didn’t have to even feel guilty, because she’s my mom. It’s what she does.

And then O got sick too. A different kind of sick, almost worse, because he was in pain and scared and there wasn’t really anything we could do at first, as he was just constipated. It was the worst day I’ve had with him since the early newborn days.  He would be fine, playing and gurgling happily, banging things, grinning at me as I sprawled on the couch and tried to breathe without hurting.  Then all of a sudden, he’d get this confused, panicked look on his face and run over to me. I would instantly forget about whatever misery I was currently feeling, and lift him up and just hold him. He would scrunch up on me, hold on as tight as he could with his little hands, and just cry. This happened all day long. I was crying, O was crying, my mom was crying. There is absolutely nothing worse than your child being in pain and you not knowing how to fix it. Constipation is not something that I ever thought was that big of a deal, until you see how far it can go.

But through all of this, I remember thinking, it’s going to be okay. I can handle this, we can handle this, because my mom’s here. I wasn’t scared or worried like I would have been had I been on my own. My mom is one of those women that can be a bit scattered in her daily life, losing keys or her mobile phone. But when it matters, my mother has the take charge ability of a four star general. She is calm, she is decisive, she is in charge. She doesn’t get over anxious or excited, she doesn’t fret, she just has that instinct on how to make things better.

We spent the day, her taking care of me, me taking care of O, her stepping in to take care of O when I needed her too. A full cycle complete, mother to daughter, daughter to son. We did things to make O better I never thought I would do, but we did it with calm and assured professionalism. My mom, because that’s just who she is. Me, because like a good solider, I was just following her lead.  I have never been so happy to see poop in my life. My mom and I changed his diaper, and fell onto the couch, exhausted, victorious.

The thing is, I’m not my mother. I am not even close to being like her as a mother. I am more selfish and moody, more used to having things a certain way.  I am not patient or calm. I don’t know how to sew on buttons or debone a chicken. I don’t sing well, I don’t have her knack for walking into any place and immediately making it feel like a home. I inherited many things from her, many wonderful things, but I did not inherit her calm and easy personality.

But lucky for O, the one thing I’ve got going for me is that I’m a quick learner. And even if I’m not her, even if I will never be as mom-like as my mom, at least she’s my mom. Which means she’s O’s grandmother. Which means something’s got to trickle down. And what I’ve realized, in writing this, is that I am like her in one way, in the most important way. I love O with a capacity that is limitless. I love him so much it hurts when I really think about it. I love him so much that I know I have to let him grow up and be his own person and live a life without me. And no matter what I don’t have as a mom, no matter how many mistakes I make with O, the one thing that he will never ever doubt, is how much I love him. And with that as my foundation, I can’t go wrong. Besides, whenever I don’t know what to do, I can just call my mother.

So thank you Mom. Thank you, for All of It.

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