On Being a Writer

I always harbored romantic notions of what life as a writer would look like:

I thought I’d live in a cabin in the mountains. I’d leisurely make coffee each morning, warming my hands on the mug, preparing for another day of brilliance. I’d walk my Irish Setter, Maggie, unleashed along the sun dappled mountain trails, wearing a sweater (both me and Maggie), still holding that cup of coffee. Then I’d settle down at my desk overlooking the forest and a small creek, and begin to write. I never envisioned a computer, so God only knows what I was writing on. A typewriter, maybe? Which would work. Because writers never make mistakes and they never have to revise. Not really. Just an added comma here and there. Brilliance would emanate from my very being. And my sage wisdom about life, my tremendous insight into the inner working of the universe, would flow into my characters with ease. People would clammer to buy my latest work. I’d be revered and mysterious.

Here’s the reality of my life as a writer:

I get up at 5:30 a.m. not to write, but so I can grab a minute to myself for mindfulness & meditation–which is key to my being able to write later on. I do get to sip a leisurely cup of coffee as I bask in my morning quietude. That’s about the only similarity between the romanticized version of me and, well, ME.

I do have a dog. She’s a bouncing, drooling mess who I adore but who will never, ever go anywhere unleashed. And I can’t have a cup of coffee while I’m walking her, unless I intend to rejuvenate my skin with the wonders of caffeine. Because you know I’d be wearing that cup of coffee.

I write at my kitchen table, while telling the dog to stop barking at passersby and intermittently throwing a toy for her to keep her entertained. I have written a middle grades novel, which felt brilliant as I was writing it. But now it needs revision. As all writing does. And that doesn’t feel brilliant or romantic. It feels like work.

I write not serenely staring out at the lush mountainside but casting sidelong glances at the mountains of books that need to be cleaned, scanned, and sorted–inventory for the used bookstore that became part of the dream. Because every story matters. Mine. Yours. The ones in books and the ones yet to be told.

Writing involves practice. It’s the constant jotting down of thoughts and ideas. It’s grabbing a minute to write a blog post. It’s revising for the good of the story–because you believe it deserves to be told and is therefore worthy of your work, your effort.

Writing is messy. It’s not linear. But that makes it a lot more like me. I can relate to its ever evolving nature, its immediacy, its fits and starts. Nothing is more rewarding to me than immersing myself in stories.

But I’m going to be honest: my dog hates wearing sweaters.

Mattie Sue & Bizby

All said, it probably took an hour for the boat to meander across the glassy lake. A few times she’d tried to use the tree branch as an oar–but that threatened to send her in endless circles. She’d opted to search out constellations instead. Which is why, when she reached the other side of the lake, she was snoring softly. And why she didn’t realize she’d drifted aground until she heard her own name.

Mattie Sue plodded out to the boat. Splash. Splash. Splash. Her galoshes squished on the muddy lake bottom. Just when the lake threatened to overtake her galoshes, flooding her feet and weighing her down, she clambered aboard the little craft. It was a sturdy little boat, not given to capsizing. And she was a slight girl–wispy, folks called her. But she was strong, too. She took the piece of tree branch she’d carried from the shore with her and pushed the boat out off the sandy bottom and into the lake.

She considered starting the motor, but then thought she might draw attention to herself. She wasn’t sure if anyone was awake to hear it or not. Based on the brilliant explosion of stars above, she guessed it was close to 10p.m. She didn’t really need to crank up the motor to get where she was going, though. Better to take it slow and just let the water move her.

All said, it probably took an hour for the boat to meander across the glassy lake. A few times she’d tried to use the tree branch as an oar–but that threatened to send her in endless circles. She’d opted to search out constellations instead. Which is why, when she reached the other side of the lake, she was snoring softly. And why she didn’t realize she’d drifted aground until she heard her own name.

“Mattie Sue?” a timid whisper of a voice called out to her. She shook the sleep off, grabbed her bag from the boat and hopped out. Immediately, her galoshes filled with water.

“Oh, hellfire,” she hissed.

Almost imperceptibly, a giggle came from somewhere along the shore.

“Bizby! Where you at, Bizby?,” Mattie Sue whisper-yelled.

A mess of blond hair popped up over the blackberry bushes. Bizby had obviously been busy with the blackberries; his freckles–which usually stood out like constellations themselves–had all been obscured by sticky, purple juice. “Bizby!” Mattie Sue fussed, “you’re gonna make yourself sick. All them blackberries.” She shook her head. She trudged out of the lake, stopping to empty her galoshes at the shoreline.

When she finally made it over to Bizby, she glared at him and muttered, “I ought to give you a whoopin’ for laughin’ at me.” Then, quickly, before he could get his feelings all hurt, she flashed him a smile and ruffled his hair. She knew she kinda babied him, but she couldn’t help it. Bizby’d had a hold of her heart since he was just a little guy. He still wasn’t all that big, if you really thought about it, his being 5 and all.

“Brought you some supper,” Mattie Sue said, plunking the sack of food down on the ground. Bizby grabbed it, in search of a peanut butter sandwich no doubt. This kid was gonna turn into peanut butter, sure enough, if he didn’t lay off.

He turned to Mattie Sue. “Fank ooo,” he choked out, over the sticky peanut butter and white bread.

“Welcome,” Mattie Sue said solemnly. They liked to try to keep things light, but the reasons Bizby was out here weren’t no joke. Mattie Sue pulled back her blonde hair into a ponytail. “Now you wait til I holler at you to come back, you hear? I don’t want you wandering up while he’s still there.”

Bizby nodded without looking at her.

“Pinky swear me, Bizby. C’mon. I need to know you’re takin’ this serious.”

Bizby stuck out his pinky, and Mattie Sue looped it in hers. “Promise I’ll come fetch you when he leaves tomorrow. This one’s a long haul–probly 2 weeks on the road at least. Reckon that’ll give us enough time to build you a little lean-to out here for the next time he comes through town.”

Bizby wrapped his arms around Mattie Sue and squeezed. She felt tears sting her eyes. She swatted at them with the back of her hand before Bizby could see.

“You sleep good now, hear?” She whisper-yelled over her shoulder, as she pushed the boat out into the lake.

As soon as she’d cleared the sandy bottom, she closed her eyes, bowed her head, and whispered earnestly, “God, if you’d keep Bizby safe, I’d be real, real grateful. And please, God, gimme the strength not to kill that mean ol’ sonofabitch ‘fore he leaves town tomorrow. Amen.”

 

 

 

Photo: https://unsplash.com/@emsbabee

Less Clearly Defined

In the round mirror marred with the black flecks of age, she saw herself. More accurately, she saw a version of herself. The stoic, bookish librarian version of Eustice had given way to something entirely different. Her long hair framed her face in a wild tangle. The sun making its way into the room lit her wild hair aglow. Her eyes, sooty with mascara and eyeliner, looked to Eustice both exotic and repulsive. She eyed her reflection warily, as if it might suddenly speak unbidden. But they both remained silent.

She found herself tapping her fingers to the click-click-click of the blinker. She looked up, startled. The green light swung gently on its wire. The sky was a charcoal smudge, not ominous as much as declarative. As if affirming her assessment, a large rain drop met the windshield with a splash. A horn sounded behind her. She glanced in her rearview mirror. A line of cars wound down the road. A red and white pickup truck behind her inched closer, nudging her forward.

She made the left turn. But only because that was the direction her blinker guided her. Not until she saw her house, purple with green trim, in the distance did she begin to make sense of where she was. She pulled into her driveway. She got out and opened the hatchback. She pulled two grocery bags from the back, wrestling to maintain control of the bags and close the hatchback. Victorious, she headed to the front door.

“Charlie!”she grinned, as the small, white wire-haired dog bounded into her legs as soon as the door cracked open. She put the bags on the floor and knelt down to pet Charlie. Only when she scooped up the dog and held him while he licked her face did she remember.

I am Eustice Walker.

She fed Charlie and put away the groceries. She went to put the milk on the shelf and almost knocked over a glass of orange juice. Where had that come from? Eustice shook her head, hoping to cipher the glass of orange juice occupying her refrigerator. Since she was a kid, Eustice had avoided orange juice. The pulp rendered it viscous and repulsive. But now, there it blithely sat, mocking her with its presence.

Eustice had no idea how the orange juice had manifested itself in her refrigerator.

She sighed and moved to put the granola bars on the shelf in the pantry. Except there was no room. Another box of granola bars already occupied the space. She looked down at the box in her hand. Chocolate sea salt. Eustice detested chocolate sea salt. She was certain that snacks should be either salty or sweet, not a strange amalgamation of both. Yet here she stood, holding a box of chocolate sea salt granola bars.

She shivered. She put the box on the counter. She grabbed a piece of paper from the magnetic pad hanging on the refrigerator. Images of Magritte’s art appeared on each sheet, a gift from her a friend who understood Eustice’s love of the absurd. Quickly she frowned. She supposed that she loved the absurd in abstract. Because when the absurd was purchasing chocolate sea salt granola bars, she wasn’t sure she loved it at all. In fact, she was quite sure she did not.

On the piece of paper, over Magritte’s The Great War, Eustice carefully penned the following:

Kindly find a different spot for your granola bars. I was here first. In fact, this is my house. And please develop a more refined palate—at least when it comes to granola bars.

She signed her name and stuck the note on top of the box of granola bars. Then she slumped down onto the floor and let Charlie climb up in her lap. The strange food loitering about the kitchen didn’t bother her as much as the fact that she had no idea who was leaving it there.

Eustice gently set Charlie aside and stood up. She felt an intense urge to struggle against … something, something amorphous, ill-defined. She could pinpoint with certainty the vague sense of malaise settling over her. She traversed a path toward the bathroom, side-stepping a pile of clothes. She glanced at them. Aqua pants. Her favorite purple tunic. A white and pale pink checked scarf. Her high top sneakers had been haphazardly discarded by the wall, one tumbling over the other in a state of disarray that she could not abide for more than a few seconds. She went over and aligned the shoes with the baseboard, one next to the other, toes just touching the wood. She straightened them. But she did not put them away. Why should she? She hadn’t left them there.

Eustice stepped up to the sink. She stared at herself. She’d always been fascinated by the face in the mirror–so familiar and, simultaneously, so foreign. Almost as if her reflection didn’t match who she felt herself to be, deep down, at an elemental level. She looked interesting, if not a bit bookish. Her strawberry blonde hair, which she’d gone to herculean lengths to tame that morning, now made a rather half-hearted attempt to say back in a ponytail. Her tortoise shell glasses took up considerable real estate on her face, but she loved them in part because they provided a shield, a barrier between her and the world. She stared intently into her eyes. Hazel. Lightly lashed. She wondered if people could read her when they looked into her eyes. She always felt so transparent, exposed, out in the world. But now, when Eustice studied herself in the mirror, she looked guarded, perhaps even mysterious. On second thought, her freckles probably relegated her to something closer to quotidian. But, at the very least, today she looked…complicated.

Eustice made her way into her bedroom, Charlie close at her heels. She looked at the bed, carefully made, with the navy blue quilt folded down just so. She saw her favorite sheets peeking out from underneath—white with tiny red rosebuds scattered across the fabric. The orderliness of the room settled her. She removed her shoes and lined them up parallel to each other by foot of the bed. She lay down on top of the quilt, resting her head on a navy blue shammed pillow. Although she found it markedly less comfortable than the red rosebuded pillow laying beneath it, Eustice couldn’t bear to disturb the fragile sense of propriety that her room offered. To be frank, this room, with its predictability, grounded her. That was too precious a commodity to unravel with the peeling back of a sheet and the tossing of a pillow. Besides, she’d only be here for a few minutes.

Eustice opened her eyes. A cold dread spread slowly through her. How long had she been lying here? What day was it? Where was she meant to be right now? She drew in a deep breath, as her mind raced to right itself. It was obviously morning. The light was too weak and fragile to be evening. The sun was waking up with a yawn, not flaming out at day’s end. She sat up. She felt something pinch the skin just under her waistband. She reached and scratched the spot absently. Her hand froze, only for a moment, then grabbed at the tag her fingers rested on. She pulled it out, fighting a quick slide into complete panic. She examined the tag as best she could, her neck craning up and back in an effort to read the words and numbers that staggered in and out of her vision. She recognized the name of the store printed on the tag. It was an upscale boutique downtown. A boutique she’d never been in. She tugged the tag out a bit further and felt her mouth go dry. $150 might be the standard price for couture. But for Eustice, who prided herself on the collection of classic, vintage clothes she’d culled from thrift stores across the city, $150 bordered on the obscene.

She felt an urge—or was it more like a pull?—to pounce out of bed and leap over to the mirror. She wanted to move. She felt wild inside. Chaotic. In short, she felt entirely unlike herself. But years of self-control and measured responses quickly subjugated these queer impulses. She climbed out of bed with almost imperceptible motion, as not to wake Charlie who slept snuggled against her in a ball. The rhythmic sound of his breathing soothed her. She walked slowly to the mirror, head down. When she arrived directly in front of the mirror—she knew she had reached the spot because she could see the legs of the antique vanity that she’d painstakingly restored—she looked up slowly.

In the round mirror marred with the black flecks of age, she saw herself. More accurately, she saw a version of herself. The stoic, bookish librarian version of Eustice had given way to something entirely different. Her long hair framed her face in a wild tangle. The sun making its way into the room lit her wild hair aglow. Her eyes, sooty with mascara and eyeliner, looked to Eustice both exotic and repulsive. She eyed her reflection warily, as if it might suddenly speak unbidden. But they both remained silent. Eustice took note of the green metallic eyeshadow smudged across her eyelids. She approved of the color, which complemented her hazel eyes, if not the heavy-handed application. Eustice turned her head slowly, side to side, examining herself. Geometric golden earrings jingled softly as she swung her head. A new addition, she noted. As was the army green jacket. She crossed her fingers that it wasn’t a boutique purchase, as she ran her hands over the fabric searching for tags. But this jacket seemed to be vintage. Hopefully from a thrift store. She made a note to check her credit card for unauthorized purchases.

Eustice stood back and examined herself in the mirror again. She felt elated and terrified. Her reflection mocked her uncertainty with a smirk. She reached up reflexively and touched her necklace. It was still there. She breathed a sigh of relief. She’d worn this necklace–a tiny golden puzzle piece with her name written in script across it–every single day since she entered the world. A thought flittered across Eustice’s brain and made her heart pound. Her stomach clenched. Trembling, she made her way over to her desk. She regarded the small, lavender box sitting neatly on the corner of the desk. She hesitated. Then she inhaled sharply and slowly removed the lid. Once satisfied that the contents of the box were in order, Eustice put her hand to her chest and took a few deep breaths. Distracted, she rubbed the charm on her necklace, as she had innumerable times before, and resolved to move on with her day. She turned on the shower and let the room fill with steam. Then she shed last night’s costume, scrubbed away the makeup, and emerged from the shower wholly herself again.

Eustice put Charlie in the passenger seat of her silver, economy sedan. She had been only 13 when, on a bright Spring morning, her father presented this car to her mother. He’d led her outside by the hand, counted to three, and stripped away the blindfold with a flourish. She remembered precisely how her mother looked, receiving such a tremendous gift—a gift her father purchased by toiling at odd jobs in secret for two years: she squealed, then covered Eustice’s father in kisses, tears streaking her cheeks. Her excitement felt electric.

She was dead one week later.

Her mother’s sudden death changed Eustice. She immediately took up the mantle of responsibility, cooking, cleaning, ensuring the house ran impeccably, efficiently. Eustice focused on her studies with laser precision, earning top honors every semester from the time of her mother’s passing to the day she finished graduate school. Eustice could not—would not–tolerate messiness, not even in grief. She demanded perfection from herself and from others in her orbit, personal or professional. While, admittedly, this practice netted Eustice relatively few friends, she judged them to be of a superior caliber. In Eustice’s estimation, she had achieved the markers of success and stability: a slow and steady rise in position at work and the purchase of her own home. Yet… she battled a persistent, nagging belief that she needed to pay penance for her mother’s early demise.

Eustice shook herself free from these thoughts. She found them oppressive, dark, and superstitious. She rolled the window down slightly for Charlie and tuned in to talk radio. She wound through the streets toward her childhood home. The neighborhood, once a solidly working-class neighborhood, had shifted in recent years. Rusted-out cars and broken toys littered the once painstakingly manicured lawns. The street where Eustice rode her bike until the streetlights beckoned her home was now a haunting row of derelict and decrepit houses. Eustice fought back tears. What did it matter now anyway?

Her car rolled to a stop on the same driveway where she’d learned to roller skate–in a rainbow tank top, hot pink shorts, and cumulous cloud knee socks–at seven years old. She cut the engine, scooped Charlie out of the seat, and walked determinedly toward the front door. She pushed her key into the lock and turned it halfway to the right, the way she’d done thousands—maybe even tens of thousands—of times before. She stepped into the cool foyer. Eustice called out for her father. Then she stopped. She inhaled sharply, then let out a jagged sob. Of course he didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer her calls anymore. She, Eustice Walker, was an orphan now. That word, orphan, broke her and sent sobs ricocheting off the empty walls. The house looked orphaned, too, ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

Eustice stifled her sobs and took a deep, shaky breath. This wouldn’t do. Losing control couldn’t alter her reality. They were both gone, her parents. All there was to do was move forward. She’d only come to do one final walk through before handing the keys to the real estate agent. Methodically, Eustice combed through every inch of the house. She walked through each room, checking behind doors and in closets for scraps of her parents’ lives left behind. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to Eustice for these artifacts to find their way into someone else’s hands. No, Eustice was their family’s historian; she was, herself, a living artifact. She intended to be a good steward of every piece of their legacy, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

She pulled down the attic ladder. Almost imperceptibly, Eustice shivered. She hadn’t been in the attic since the day she’d found her mother there, unresponsive. For a moment, she didn’t know if she could force her legs to do the work required to climb the ladder. Even on her rather limited budget, Eustice had hired movers to clean out the attic for her. They stacked the attic’s contents in the kitchen, where she’d sorted the crush of mementos, memories, and prosaic junk. But now she was pressed up against the final moments in her childhood home, the house where she’d last seen her mother alive. Eustice knew it was her responsibility–her sacred duty if she was being gut-wrenchingly honest—to venture into the attic and ensure no scrap of her parents’ life was left forsaken. Warily, she placed her right foot on the ladder and pulled herself up a rung. Her heart thudded; her breaths sounded short and shallow. She willed herself into a (slightly) calmer state and continued up the ladder, rung by rung.

She reached the apex and extended a shaking hand toward the attic door. It creaked open. Eustice squinted into the glare of sunlight and dust. She drew a breath in and shuddered. It smelled exactly like she remembered. Seventeen years compressed into one second. Grief rendered time meaningless. Eustice simultaneously existed in the moment of loss and somewhere on the eternal grief continuum. She glanced around the attic quickly, scanning for missed boxes and, seeing none, was about to make her way back down the ladder. But she saw something. Or, at least, she thought she saw something. She couldn’t be sure. But her uncertainty fixed her tightly to the attic ladder.

Eustice dreaded the emotional work of turning around to investigate the—what was it? A piece of paper? But she knew herself. She’d be mired in a torrent of regret if she left anything behind. So much of them had already been lost. Everything mattered. Even a discarded receipt told a story. So did the a long-forgotten grocery list. These were fragments of their story, a testament to what she’d lost. She collected these artifacts with fervor. Eustice forced herself to climb back into the attic. She walked breathlessly over to the place where she’d found her mother, crumpled on the floor. It was in that exact spot that the paper had settled.

Eustice picked it up gingerly. She moved as if she was afraid to disturb her mother’s spirit. Which felt absurd. Eustice prided herself on her realistic views regarding religion. Namely, she was an atheist. She did not believe in an afterlife. Or spirits. But she did believe in knowledge and history, and that’s why she was here. She picked up the piece of paper and turned it over. It was black and white, with two prominent white blurs. It took Eustice a moment to realize she was looking at a sonogram. Her mother’s name was at the top. Eustice looked at the date printed in the margin. She frowned, folded the paper, and placed it carefully in her back pocket for safekeeping.

Eustice heard a low whooshing noise. In and out. In and out. She felt soothed, lulled by the noise. She felt herself receding, fading. Eustice heard the whoosh-whooshing again. But this time she was able to fight her way through, back toward consciousness. It wasn’t daylight. But the lucent moon reflected against the ocean. Eustice sat up with a start and flung her hands out to the side. She heard a snuffle, just as her hand brushed Charlie’s soft fur. Eustice sighed and stretched back out on the sand. The unseasonably warm ocean breeze settled her, as Eustice tried her best to fill the gap between her parents’ attic and waking on the beach. She looked down at her watch, but instead found only her naked wrist. She laughed. None of this was funny, of course. Losing large chunks of time hardly qualified as laughable. But it was excruciatingly absurd. Eustice–who valued routine, order, and precision above all else–now found herself on a beach, in the middle of the night, miles and miles away from home, with no watch. She laughed again. Charlie stirred next to her. She gathered him in her arms and stood up to begin the odyssey back home from wherever she was.

Osipidy Beach. 280 miles from home. That’s where she’d woken up. Uncovering her exact location didn’t require much sleuthing. She’d just followed the shoreline north until she ran into a sign that declared Osipidy Beach to be “The Place Families Find Themselves.” Eustice thought that sentiment odd. She assumed the sign-makers intended for families to discover their most essential selves in the throes of this striking coastal tableau. Eustice, on the other hand, wondered how many families ended up here just the way she did—with no forethought, no planning, no real desire to be here at all. Regardless, the families at Osipidy Beach probably at least knew howthey had arrived here, if not why. Even that was a mystery to Eustice.

She turned to look back at the ocean. The waves pounded rhythmically. The lights from the sleepy beach town did nothing to disturb the brilliance of the stars or the moon’s luminescence. Eustice felt infinitesimal, insignificant. She also felt universal, infinite. She felt both exquisitely, without conflict. She sat back down on the sand and took in the landscape.

Stay.  

Had Eustice heard that? Or had she just felt it so strongly that it seemed audible? An undeniable pull to stay overwhelmed her. She needed this place right now. She knew it deep in her bones. Eustice, who believed in facts, science, and concrete knowledge, intuited that she needed to stay. Right where she was. On this beach. She shifted slightly to make herself—and Charlie—more comfortable. As she burrowed a little deeper into the sand, something crinkled. Slid her hand into her back pocket and pulled out the paper she’d retrieved from her parents’ attic. She ran her fingers over the image, brushed the paper against her lips, and stuck it back in her pocket. She laid back in the sand, pulled Charlie close to her, and let the ocean coax her back to sleep.

Eustice woke up to the smell of bacon. She opened her eyes, expecting the weak light that crept into her bedroom each morning. Instead, she saw a sky aflame with oranges, yellows and pinks. The sun marched a slow, steady path higher into the sky. Eustice watched the sun rise until it hung contentedly in the sky. She felt a sharp pang of hunger and turned her attention to breakfast. Following the smell of bacon and something sweet, like maple syrup, she stumbled onto a little hut on the beach. She walked up to the service window and leaned her head partway inside. “Got a menu?” she called to no one in particular. Typically reserved and ever-mindful of decorum, Eustice couldn’t seem to control her volume or her hunger.

“On the chalkboard,” a cheerful, disembodied voice called back.

Eustice stepped back, then laughed. The entire front of the building was a chalkboard. The menu wove its way around the facade. She saw, to her surprise, that in addition to the typical breakfast fare, this little beach hut served two different kind of veggie omelets. When she got up to the window, Eustice, a vegetarian for the last 15 years, ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich with a side of sausage. She sat down at the picnic table and devoured her breakfast, stopping only long enough to give Charlie one of the sausage links. She went back to the counter and ordered pancakes and coffee.

She paused briefly in front of the table that held the different varieties of sweeteners and creams for the coffee. She eschewed the powdered creamer, and instead chose whole milk. She contemplated the Stevia for a moment before grabbing two packs of raw sugar. After she’d assembled her coffee, she took a tentative sip. Then another. Eustice, avid tea drinker, sat down with her inaugural cup of coffee and stared at the ocean. She felt the picture in her back pocket crinkle as she shifted.

Stay.  

Eustice stayed at the beach for 3 days. Some locals proffered a tent and taught her to cook over a campfire. She expanded her palate, sampling local seafood, as well as a preponderance of local fruits and vegetables. She wandered the beach all day in a violet two-piece bathing suit (she’d never worn one) and cut off shorts. The ocean air made her hair curly and windswept. Her cheeks were sunburned. She was dirty. She hadn’t had a real shower in days. But there were no more blackouts. No more missing time.

On the fourth day, she bought a bus ticket back home. Not because she wanted to. But there were loose ends, affairs that needed to be reconciled. One couldn’t just hide out on the beach forever. Time to go home. To be responsible. Time to be Eustice again.

As she boarded the bus, Eustice felt an immediate longing for the ocean. She disregarded it. She was, in fact, beginning to examine her behavior over the past few days with a certain disdain. She’d been forced to board Charlie at a local veterinarian’s office. Eustice felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment as she lied to the vet: her friends unexpectedly abandoned her and she needed to return home via bus to collect her car. The vet graciously accepted her lie. Now Eustice had a modest goal: travel home, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep. As she boarded, Eustice became keenly aware that she smelled …. earthy. The lingering smell of campfire mingled with the ocean salt. Eustice felt the contempt of her fellow riders. She attempted to run her fingers through her hair but found her fingers mired in tangles generated by days of salt and wind. Eustice felt the sting of shame as she sunk down into her seat. Mercifully, the steady movement of the bus lulled her to sleep.

Eustice slept so soundly that the bus driver had to shake her awake after all the other passengers had disembarked. She peered out the window as she gathered the few things she’d brought with her—the bikini that now seemed immodest and juvenile, the shell necklace that she’d strung on the beach. She felt ridiculous. What was it that people said? You can’t run from yourself? Wasn’t that precisely the foolishness that had consumed the last four days?  Eustice gathered herself with fresh resolve. As reached into her back pocket to look for her wallet, her fingers brushed the picture that she’d kept on her person the entire trip. She wasn’t quite sure why, other than in was part of the history she felt so ardent about preserving. She shrugged her way out of these troublesome thoughts and stepped off the bus.

No.

This time, Eustice ignored the voice or feeling or whatever force seemed to be pulling her back to the bus and away from her home. She pressed forward. Her motions slowed. She felt like she was pushing through viscous air. She pressed on toward home. Clearly, she was exhausted. She walked the few blocks from the bus stop fighting a growing dread. Finally, she stood in front of the purple house with the green trim. She’d painted the house purple the same day her father was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first irrational decision she’d made. She’d stood in the hardware store, looking at paint samples. She had a neutral yellow in her hand. But she felt drawn to the purple. She saw her hand reach toward it. And then it was done. She bought the purple paint, chose the green trim against her better judgement, and then she had a purple house. At first she was ashamed of her house. Every time she pulled up in her silver, economy sedan, she felt her cheeks burn. Who was she, Eustice Walker, to choose a color so bold? But now, seeing the unapologetic purple gleam in the sunshine, the purple felt right.

She unlocked the door and went in the house. The spaces she loved—her reading nook, her bookshelves teeming with classic novels, her rigid orderliness—felt confining. Eustice climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She pushed open the door. Clothes littered the floor, as if someone had tried them on, found them wanting, and dropped them right there, moving on. The shoe rack sat empty, discarded by its inhabitants in favor of helter-skelter accumulation on the closet floor. Eustice experienced, like a distant memory, the urge to tidy the room. But this chaos somehow made her feel more balanced, more sure. So she stepped over piles of clothes and made her way to the small, lavender box.

She pulled the picture out of her back pocket. Folding it and unfolding it for days on end left it a bit worse for the wear. But now she could see the images more clearly. There were two. Feet touching. Her hand went to the puzzle piece around her neck. With her free hand, she reached out to the box. She opened it carefully. Inside lay a tiny, perfect puzzle piece with a name written in script across it. She closed the box, lay the picture next to it. She made her way to her bed, fell down face first, and drifted off to sleep.

She awoke with a start, sure it had happened again. She blinked heavily, last night’s mascara sticking slightly. She looked down at her feet. Purple suede boots. She felt the initial trill of terror. Or was it excitement? She bounded out of bed and ran over to the mirror. She looked at herself. Her curls bounced wildly. Her hazel eyes stared back. She broke her own gaze and  scurried around the room, gathering the odd assortment of clothes, make-up and earrings that had made their way into her house during the last few months. She threw them all into a bag and tossed it by the door. She began the laborious task of straightening her room, hanging all the clothes on hangers, lining the shoes up meticulously on the shoe rack. She organized the vanity and made the bed. She arranged the pillows. Satisfied that all was in order once again, she stepped back and admired the sparse decor, the orderliness that bespoke a life completely under control. A measured, responsible life.

She made her way to the vanity and picked up the picture that lay next to the lavender box. She pressed it to her forehead for a moment before folding it and putting it in her back pocket. She opened the lavender box and took out the puzzle piece. It felt almost weightless in her hand. Made for an infant, it was delicate. The perfect match to the one she wore. She took off her necklace and removed her puzzle piece. She fit them together. Eustice and Amelia. She took the sonogram back out of her pocket. Eustice and Amelia. Tears stung her eyes. She picked up the puzzle piece and strung it back on her necklace.

She turned and walked out of the room, shutting the door behind her, leaving an orderly room, a clearly defined life, and a tiny golden puzzle piece with Eustice written in script.

Tetherball & Sprinklers…And a Black Eye

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

Whap! The ball flew up at a 45-degree angle, then caught at the end of the tether before it came whizzing back around at me. I was ready. I’d perfected my tetherball stance this summer.

Whack! I smacked it hard. With my face.

“Oooff!” I yelled, covering my eye. Lights zipped back and forth underneath my eyelid like fireworks.

Percy came running over. I could tell right away he was trying not to laugh. Which really got me steamed.

“What the heck, Perc?” I shouted at him. I knew he didn’t mean it. But, gah, I hate to be laughed at.

“I… didn’t… mean… it… Stella,” it took him forever to get it out already between all his laughing.

“Whatever,” I said, still mad. “Let’s just finish playing. I’m gonna smoke you.”

“That black eye you’re gonna have is gonna have your mom smokin’ mad for sure,” Perc said, looking maybe a little more sorry than before.

“Oh for real?!?” I said, quietly, gently touching my eye. My mom was always on and on about me acting more like a girl. Trying to explain to her that there are all kinds of girls that act all kinds of ways had gotten me nowhere quick. Now I was going to have to explain a black eye? At least I hadn’t gotten it fighting. Whew. She’da really lost it them. I’d probably have to wear a dress and bows for the rest of the summer if that had happened.

“Maybe my mom’s got a steak we could put on it,” Percy said, grabbing his canteen and knapsack off the ground. “And I know she’s got popsicles, either way.” Percy looked real hopeful, but probably more about the popsicles than fixing my busted eye.

“Okay…” I said slowly, throwing him off the scent of my next move. “Race you there!” I took off running. Poor Perc was never gonna catch up. I was faster than him, even when I didn’t get a good head start.

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

We ate our popsicles in a hurry. It was hot. And we wanted to go play in the sprinklers, which Percy’s mom always let us do. My mom woulda had a conniption, not so much because of the sprinklers but because I just stripped down to my underwear & ran around like that. I mean, I don’t carry around a bathing suit everywhere I go. And besides, people wanna make a big deal of stuff, but it’s not like I have boobs or anything like that. I’m 9, for the Pete’s sake. Besides, if boys don’t have to wear shirts, girls shouldn’t either. What’s fair’s fair.

Percy and I chased each other round and round until I finally called Uncle because I couldn’t catch my breath. I flopped down on the wet grass, with the sprinklers still going, and closed my eyes. The thing about being with Percy was that I could just be. If I wanted to close my eyes, I did. Just like that. He never asked what I was doing or why. I like that in a person. People should just let other people be sometimes.

After I’d caught my breath, I sat up and took in my surroundings. Judging by the sun, it was already late afternoon. I might as well go home and face the music about this stupid black eye. With any luck, Mom would be over being mad by dusk, when I was supposed to meet Perc at the hidden hammock to catch fireflies. If she was still mad, I’d have to climb out my bedroom window and shimmy down the tree outside my window. I mean, I’m all up for tree climbing adventures, but sometimes it’s just easier to walk out the front door, you know?

Perc & I went inside so I could dry off. I put back on my clothes (minus my underwear, cuz it was wet from the sprinklers) and towel dried my hair. Percy’s mom helped me squeeze out the ends real good so I wouldn’t be dripping all over the floor when I walked into my house. My mom’s real particular about that kind of stuff.

When I got home, I took a little pause on the front porch before heading inside. I took a deep breath and pushed open the front door real slow. I really wanted to make it upstairs without Mom seeing my black eye. I tiptoed up the stairs. Just when I thought the coast was clear, I heard Mom call out, “Stella Louise? Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said as cheerful as I could muster, still hoping to avoid the Black Eye Talk.

“Well, come on in here. I want to hear about your day.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled. Mom hated it when I mumbled, but she was gonna hate this black eye even more.

It took her all of two seconds to let loose. “Stella Louise! What happened to your eye?!” I knew enough to know she didn’t really want an answer, so I let her keep going. “How many times have I told you that you need to get some decorum, young lady? I mean, Lord have mercy. How many times can you get a black eye? Or get stitches? I mean, when I was your age, I was playing hopscotch every afternoon, neat and clean as can be. But you? You’re all a mess! And what happened to your hair?”

“Hopscotch?” I said hopefully.

“Get on out of here, young lady! You go upstairs, take a bath, and run a comb through your hair. I want you to look presentable by the time your father comes home for dinner. And don’t ask me about going back out tonight. No, ma’am. Don’t you dare.”

I sighed and trudged up the stairs. Looked like I’d be shimmying down that tree after all. No matter, though. Percy’d be happy to see me, even if I’d likely show up wearing some stupid dress.

Photo by Piotr Chrobot on Unsplash

3 Things That Were

A gritty, honest exploration of change, loss, and joy as it’s unfolded in my life.

I was a drunk. Before I took the first swig of cheap whiskey, this was my truth. But its burning release convinced me that salvation resided at the bottom of a bottle. I was a drunk and so I tracked my ovulation obsessively, discussing pregnancy probabilities over happy hour drinks. I was a drunk and a lesbian, and so I borrowed some sperm off a friend’s husband, inserted it into my vagina—with a syringe. No turkey basters here—and then downed bourbons to celebrate my first step toward motherhood. My partner and I agreed to refer to the embryo-in-waiting as Tank. If it survived that level of inebriation, it’d surely be a rough and tumble little guy. I was a drunk and so I popped Clomid with cocktail chasers. I’d spend plenty of time—9 months of it—sober after I got knocked-up. No need to over-achieve. I was a drunk and so I planned on boozy playdates, if the damn kid would ever get here already. I was a drunk and so I went to inseminations hungover, the previous night’s indiscretions emanating from my freshly scrubbed skin. I was a drunk and so I believed I could wash off shame, hide it, hide me. I was a drunk and so one day I walked into a mish-mash of strangers, sat down, surrendered, and 12-stepped my way back into sanity. I was a drunk. And then I wasn’t.

I was pregnant. Blood draws, inseminations, peeing on sticks. Jockeying to order frozen specimens for perfectly timed delivery. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Ticking off days. Willing my way to two weeks. Then, trepidatiously peeing on a stick. Bargaining with God that if this time it would be different… I never finished that promise. What could I offer God, after all? I’d wait the requisite two minutes, add an extra 30 seconds on for good measure, and then look down. NOT PREGNANT. Such a bold proclamation. So impervious to my begging and pleading. Sometimes, instead of a NOT PREGNANT insult from a pee-soaked stick, I’d wake up a day or two before our interminable two week wait to a torrent of blood. Bright red. My own body mocking me. But one time, this one time the gods of the pee-stick gave in. PREGNANT. I waited. I pulled out another stick. Peed again. PREGNANT. I was pregnant and so the torrent of blood work started. HGC levels. Were they rising? Yes. Yes. I was pregnant and so check again. Check again. Poke. Prod. I was beatific. I was pregnant, and so we scheduled our first ultrasound. 5 weeks. Woosh. Woosh. Woosh. That heartbeat made me believe. Finally. I was pregnant and so, we scheduled the next ultrasound. 7 weeks. Woosh. Woosh. Woosh. But fainter. The sonogram tech called for the doctor. They measured the images. A little small, it seemed. The embryo seemed a little small. But there’s still a heartbeat, they cheered. The air left the room. I nodded when they asked me to come back in two weeks. They’d check again, they said. Maybe it would be okay. I was (still) pregnant, so I made an appointment. 9 weeks. Silence. I was pregnant. And then I wasn’t.

I was married to a woman. We fell in love over loss—I’d lost my way. She’d lost her brother. We sat in a bar, proding our wounds. “Will you always light my cigarette for me?” I asked. “If you’ll always look at me like that,” she responded, coy. We lost ourselves in each other—lustily, drunkenly. Then, like children reprimanded for impropriety, we agreed to set about playing house. The play was a farce. I was married to a (drunk) woman, and so 5 years later, we packed up our (emotional) baggage and shipped it off accompanied by all the whiskey in the house. We showed bits of ourselves timidly to each other. Sober felt stark, devoid of blurry edges. We, at long last, knit together enough hopes, dreams, Clomid, and donor sperm to make a baby. She came into this world, pulled out of my belly, fist high in the air. An indomitable spirit. Four years later, the woman I married said, “I am not who you think I am. I am not who I thought I was.” I was married to a woman, and so began a season of becoming—of transition—for us. I was married to a woman. And then I wasn’t.

Photo Credit: Georgia de Lotz on Unsplash

Living with What Is (in Pugs & in Life)

I’ve finally, finally learned that, if I’m struggling, it’s likely because I’m trying to deal with what I wish was, instead of dealing with reality. If strapless dress had been dealing in reality yesterday, I wouldn’t have gotten chased down by a pug.

I set out for my run late yesterday afternoon. It took some convincing—some internal bargaining—but I finally won the argument with myself, laced up my shoes, and bounded down my driveway and up the street. I made it three blocks before I was accosted by a pug. That’s right. A pug.

“Stella*! Stella!” I heard someone yelling. Not frantically. Just as if Stella, whoever Stella was, might need some help refocusing her attention.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wiggling, snorting black blur headed right for me. I heard tags jingling and quickly surmised that Stella wasn’t a wayward child. She was a dog. A dog with a keen interest in me.

I kept going as Stella ran as fast as she could (which really wasn’t all that fast) after me. By now, her person, who’d been sitting placidly on a blanket on her front lawn, was trailing Stella. I stopped. Because I am full of mercy.

The woman jogged up wearing a long strapless dress with a shabby chic floral pattern. Her hair was swept up in a bun. She was apologizing profusely. With as much good-will as I could muster, I assured her that it was fine. She tried to scoop up her dog, who by now had actually gotten distracted and was headed in the opposite direction in a sort-of-speedy mosey, if you will. Honestly, the way pugs move kind of defies description.

About this time, the male significant other of the woman in the floral, strapless dress walked out on the porch. He immediately started fussing: “Bring her back inside. She’s going to run right into traffic. Why do you have her out here anyway?”

I immediately got it: this woman wanted a lazy afternoon, laying on a blanket in the beautiful Atlanta spring weather, with her dog snoozing beside her. But this dog wasn’t the snoozing kind. By the guy’s reaction, I’m not sure the dog had been outside—like maybe ever. Certainly not to while away the day on a blanket in the sun.

Girl, I thought, you’ve got to learn to live with the pug you’ve got.

Oh. My. Lord. YES.

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we all learned to live with the pug we’ve got? You think you don’t have a pug? Hold up.

Maybe your pug isn’t ACTUALLY a pug. I’ve had lots of pugs:

 

My personality: Probably about the 100th time I got scolded for being overly-sensitive as a kid, I started to wish I was different. Not so sensitive. I saw my sensitivity as a character flaw. My feelings always seemed so outsized. As I got older, I tried to take the edge off my BIG feelings with alcohol. Yeah. That worked brilliantly. (Not really.) But, after I got sober and sorted some things out, I began to embrace my sensitivity instead of fighting to change it. Now, I can see that it’s my sensitivity that allows me to connect with people and form relationships quickly. I got to reap the benefits of this oft-denigrated personality trait when I learned to live with the pug I’ve got (instead of numbing, or fighting, or denying).

My relationship: Do not tell Simon I called him a pug. But, for real, I increased my suffering exponentially when Simon transitioned by pining for what was instead of embracing what our relationship had become. I wanted to be married to a girl. I mean, I had been. Kind of. Not really. It was confusing. But I liked being a lesbian. It was a label I felt comfortable with, one that had described my reality for two decades. Now, suddenly, I was married to a guy. A real cute guy. But I just kept wishing for something different. I couldn’t even see Simon, for all my wishing for something different. Know what, though? When you don’t face the reality of what you’ve got, you risk your pug running out of your front lawn and right into traffic. Fortunately, I learned to live with the pug I’ve got (and embrace the hell out of that pug) before things fell apart. It was a close call, though.

My kid: I know, I know. I write about my kid’s utter amazingness all the time. But when Jane was in preschool, I wrung my hands constantly over her being a follower instead of a leader. She had this frenemy that seemed to have complete sway over her. Jane and this frenemy would gang up on the other little girl in their dysfunctional triad. Then, later on in the week, the frenemy and the other girl would be mean to Jane. I was in a tizzy. Was I raising a mean girl? Why couldn’t Jane take control of this situation? But, in order to address the frenemy situation in a meaningful way, I had to learn to live the pug I got. So, I started addressing Jane just as she was, at 4 years old, instead of addressing the 17 year old I hoped she’d grow into one day. I looked at the ways she was hurting. I saw her confusion and frustration. Once I clearly saw reality (the places she needed to be built up, the character traits that needed positive reinforcement), I could deal with Jane as she was. And you know what? She still talks about the lessons she learned from that first frenemy relationship.

I’ve finally, finally learned that, if I’m struggling, it’s likely because I’m trying to deal with what I wish was, instead of dealing with reality. If strapless dress had been dealing in reality yesterday, I wouldn’t have gotten chased down by a pug.

Maybe we could just all agree to try a little harder to learn to live with the pugs we’ve got.

 

*Name changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

 

Photo Credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

7 Reasons to Love Seven

When I found out I was (finally) pregnant, I fundamentally misunderstood what was about to happen. I mean, I wanted a KID. What I got was, well, a baby. Turns out, babies aren’t really my thing.

When I found out I was (finally) pregnant, I fundamentally misunderstood what was about to happen. I mean, I wanted a KID. What I got was, well, a baby. Turns out, babies aren’t really my thing.

Let’s be clear: I loved MY baby (don’t ask me to hold yours). She was perfect, very loved, and she made stellar faces.

 

What more could I have asked for?

I took that baby everywhere with me. I ate taco off her head once (the scenario involved a sleeping Jane, a baby Bjorn, and a very hungry me). We did mommy & me swim lessons, storytime at the library, a crafting event here and there… I tried to find something new and fun to do with her every day—even though most days we wound up at Publix for the free cookies (SPRINKLES!).

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Simon swears Jane’s got such a kick-ass vocabulary because I talked to her incessantly for the 3 years I stayed home with her. I don’t know about all that. Her first contextual phrase was “Dude. Seriously?!?” when a guy cut me off in traffic. But, it’s true that from the minute I saw her, I wanted to connect with her, to understand what she saw in the world. I wanted to really know this tiny human—but tiny humans are SO MUCH WORK.

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The other day, as I watched 7 year-old Jane playing with her friends, I realized that this is it! This is the age I daydreamed about when I thought about having kids. Seven is spectacular!

7 Reasons I Love Seven:

    1. Seven tells stories. So many stories. About a kid at school eating his shoe or someone falling down (on purpose, of course) or dancing in class (dancing is VERY amusing). She tells serious stories, too—about kids who had bad days or made bad choices, or kids moving way or having trouble at home … It’s these moments when I can see her compassion at work that I realize what a whole, fascinating little person she’s become.
    2. Seven loves to laugh. Everything is funny. I stumble over a word I’m trying to say. Hysterical. Simon spills water on his shirt. Riotously funny. Sometimes she laughs so hard when she’s telling a story that I can’t understand half of what she’s saying. But I end up laughing right along with her. Because kid giggles = irresistible.28059042_10156099009572889_3214456958509982927_n
    3. Seven’s got playground insults. Yep, we’re full on into “I know you are but what am I?” Also, “Cheater, cheater, lemon-eater” is real big right now. (I thought it was pumpkin-eater, but what do I know?) Also, anything that involves butt or poop is not only a great insult but VERY funny. I kinda think it’s funny, too. But then again, my response to just about everything is “Your mom.” Apple, tree, and all that.
    4. Seven reads books. Jane started reading independently this school year. She reads chapter books now. And each time she opens a book, I know she’s opening an entirely new world… it’s magical. For me and for her. (And, yes, we still read to her. Right now, she and Simon are working their way through the second Harry Potter book).
    5. Seven thinks deep thoughts. Jane and I talk about real world stuff all the time. No topic is off limits: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bullying… When we’re in the middle of these conversations, I never know how they’re going. There’s no real litmus test for am I saying something that will inadvertently land my kid in therapy in 10 years, you know? But Jane ponders some of these conversations after the fact and comes back with really good, critical thinking questions that make me so hopeful about how she will navigate her way through the world.29683507_10156191825082889_4802467397519797248_n
    6. Seven embraces being a nerd. Jane loves to learn. She sits in her room and does math problems for fun. She writes books on the side (mostly non-fiction about our boxer, Delilah). She adores her pink glasses. And she freely admits that she’s excited about nerd camp this summer (a camp run by the school district for brainiacs. No, it’s not ACTUALLY called nerd camp. But in this house, we like to call it like we see it).
    7. Seven is incredibly self-confident. Jane feels good about herself. She knows that she’s capable, strong, and kind. She loves to run. She says she’s an expert bike rider (even though she’s been riding for about 3 weeks). She believes that everyone wants to be friends with her. And she embraces the world whole-heartedly.

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I look at this miraculous person, this seven year-old, and I think—oh my Lord. She is so much like me. And so very different. She’s a person. A small complex human, who both needs me and doesn’t.

She’s seven. And seven is magic.