I changed jobs in 2021, ostensibly to free up mental space, if not hours, for reading and reviewing. Did I? Eh. Teaching independent study meant 150 fewer students and my very own cubicle. And I have certainly been released from many of the bullshitty anxieties of classroom teaching. But I didn’t account for being new, especially to a job where nothing is intuitive. I didn’t account for bringing my perfectionism with me. I didn’t gain much mental space yet.
2018 found me aphasic, trying to read, write, and pretend I was fine while my language skills unraveled. This was a side effect of the drug, Topamax, prescribed to me for migraines and epilepsy. I lost nouns, verbs, and names. Not great for a critic. I spent most of the year stymied and confused. Aphasia is a beautiful word, isn’t it? It’s also called Dysnomia; the language of losing language is cruelly euphonic…
I was afraid to look too excited at what the neurologist said, afraid to want something so much that I’d make it happen. I pushed the heels of my hands down into the vinyl seat of the chair. I looked at the oatmealy floor. “I don’t?”
A year ago, I took ownership of epilepsy. That word. My diagnosis didn’t change my reality, but it sure as hell changed my feelings. It changed my routine. More sleep, no booze, less stress. It changed my future. This was my new life.
Two months ago, I stepped out of a Sprouts market and into the sun. I’d only been inside for five minutes to use the restroom. I stalled on the sidewalk, blank. I had no earthly idea where I’d parked my car. It didn’t take long for fear to settle into the spot where a simple memory of my parking spot should have been. Did I park on the right? The left? How far back? Was I even parked in the lot? I was scared. How could I not hold a thought for five minutes? If I stood there, would it come to me? It did not.
Three months ago, I sat down at a table under the redwood in our yard to review a novel for Kirkus. I’d read the book. I’d made notes. I had opinions. I’ve written countless reviews. Pull quotes from the text. Fight through frustration. Explore. But that day, language failed me. Every tenth or so word felt like it was behind a cloud, inaccessible. I just couldn’t remember them. Not complicated words. Words like ordinary. Words like compare. Words like implication. Being unable to conjure your own language is terrifying.
A year ago, I woke up from a nap with my face covered in blood. My tongue was split on the side where I’d mashed it between my molars. I felt misery, head to toe. Stiffness, a cold dread. I submitted myself for prodding and scanning: EEG. MRI. Neurology. Referral. After that seizure and a series of subsequent episodes where I bit my tongue in my sleep, my doctor prescribed Topamax to address my dual brain issues: epilepsy and chronic migraines. Topamax is no joke. It requires gentle ramping up; it makes the patient lose weight, and it affects cognition more than a little. Soon after beginning the drug, I was plodding around, dazed. I was tired all the time. My thoughts were unclear. My doctor assured me that the fogginess would settle.
It didn’t settle.
First to go were names. I would be telling a story, and I’d forget the name of a coworker I’ve worked with for over ten years, someone I talked to daily. Was I good at covering and laughing it off? I didn’t want to think about that for too long. I developed tricks to mask my blank memory. “Tell me your last name?” I would say as a student of six months came up to ask me about her grade. I relied too heavily on the class seating chart. Thankfully, none of my students called me out. My friends kindly ignored my pauses. After names, I lost chunks of text. Stories I knew and had taught for years disappeared from my mind. When my students would ask about something they read in the chapter the night before, I’d say “show me where in the chapter that is?” and hope (again) the moment would pass. I struggled to pull my thoughts together about a book. My ability to connect anything was gone.
Topamax affects speech and memory in the brain. Aphasia–difficulty with speech and language–is just one of its side effects. So are memory loss and confusion. After months of Topamax, I was “losing farther, losing faster…” like some fucked up “One Art.” I tried to write that review for two hours in our backyard, then I went to find my husband. “I can’t write,” I said, feeling the prick of tears in the corners of my eyes. “Not like I don’t want to, or I don’t know what I want to say. I can’t find my words. I can’t get to them.”
I was sad and confused. I tried to continue with both of my jobs: teaching English to reluctant high schoolers all day, reviewing books in the wee hours of every morning. But I couldn’t concentrate–not on my own narrative or any story. I define myself entirely in terms of comfort with language. Everything I do involves words. The phrases we own and the stories we remember become our personalities. I’m wary, when I write, of my syntactical habits; I’m suspicious of what writes easy. But I know I have to write to survive. Both of my jobs require fluency, ownership, and memory. I love to find patterns, to connect disparate ideas. What does a novel mean? How can I capture the diction of a passage? Does this book do what it sets out to do? How do we access the world it describes? What questions does it ask? Topamax blurred those thoughts. Every page I read was separate. Each sentence, its own thing. Teaching was exhausting. Reading and writing were near to impossible because the Topamax moved into my head.
People in epilepsy forums call it “Dopamax.”
Two months ago, after losing my car, I told my neurologist I wanted to wean off of the drug. I wasn’t living if I couldn’t write or speak. “I’m done. I can’t take this anymore,” I told him. He gave me instructions to stop taking the drug. But to my horror and surprise, he also told me flatly that if I stopped, I was at risk of dying suddenly in my sleep. People with nocturnal seizures are at risk for SUDEP: sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, he said. Off the drugs, the risk increases. At no point in the last year did he bring up SUDEP; it only came up now as a threat to make me take the medication. My feelings about sleep became complicated, which isn’t good for someone trying to avoid nocturnal seizures. I did a lot of crying. I took Topamax for two more weeks, but I didn’t feel like myself. I talked to my husband and finally decided that fear of dying was keeping me from living. I weaned myself.
Off the Topamax, things brightened. I found words. Clarity returned to my brain like blood through a sleeping limb. It was time for a second opinion.
This Thursday, I sat in an office at a local epilepsy center. I recounted my story to a different neurologist who specializes in epilepsy and seizures. He’d already reviewed my record. He listened patiently for a half hour as I gave him dates and symptoms, my story of observations and lists. He asked specific questions about each episode where I’d bitten my tongue. He agreed that my initial episode was a seizure, caused by sleep deprivation and stress. But he had a different opinion than my original neurologist about my subsequent episodes of tongue-biting.
“I don’t believe you have epilepsy,” this new neurologist said.
A year of Topamax. A year of fog, and panic, disordered memory. A year of teetotaling. A year of consternation. Laconic speech. Panic about death in my sleep.
“You don’t. I believe you had one seizure, but the rest of these ‘episodes’ aren’t actually seizures. I think you damaged your tongue during your seizure, and now it’s sensitive. I think the biting is caused by your tongue resting between your teeth. We know your seizure’s cause–sleep deprivation–and if you haven’t had another one, you don’t have epilepsy.”
I don’t have it. That word. Now I’m hoping to take the rest of them back.
It took me 16 years to stop being afraid of my students on the first day of school. 17, if you count my year of student teaching when I showed up to observe other teachers and got tossed into a classroom to sub. Not that I knew what I was doing that first year–that year it seems fair that I quivered in my bad JC Penney pantsuit and stumbled through another teacher’s activities with five classes of kids who were only a few years younger than me.
This is the kind of thing you don’t admit out loud, the being nervous. Or, I guess I don’t hear teachers say it, which is why I’m writing it. Last year I finally came to grips with both the fact that I’ve always been nervous on the first day, and the fact that I was finally not. I know plenty of teachers who say they’ve never been nervous, that they don’t care. These are normal people with human emotions (read: not psychopaths), so I’ve been thinking about why that’s the accepted posture. I definitely don’t think it helps new teachers.
Teaching is weird. It’s you, but it’s also not you. I’ve always understood my teaching self as a character and my class as an act. I have referred to my job for years as The Mrs. Partington Show, and that’s not as much of a joke as it seems. The Mrs. Partington in my classroom is me, but she’s me if I carefully selected all the parts of me that were appropriate for teenage interaction and parent scrutiny; she’s the nice me, the patient me. She’s the me that wants to hear about your freshman football game and will joke with you about Fortnite. The me who wants to spend a lot of time talking about data or how someone is not a great test-taker. That is not me, friends. She is not the me who gets down with an episode of Dr. Quinn on a Thursday night or the me who hides in a hammock for the whole summer with Tristram Shandy. The part of that that’s hardest to reconcile is the human self that stands in front of those kids and that views the emails from the parents–she gets hurt when real conflict happens. The character doesn’t shield the real me.
That’s what I used to be so nervous about on the first day. The whole will they like me? thing. I care. Again, there are so many teachers in my life who deny any attachment to likeability, but I feel like there was at least a kernel of that at one time that inspired them to go into the profession. To say it another way–maybe they respected a teacher so much that they really learned well, and they wanted to have the same relationship with kids. And what’s wrong with being likable? I like students. I don’t think it makes me a strange person to admit that likeability plays a role in education.
I wish there was a magic phrase that helped me stop being nervous last year. I heard so many pieces of advice from veteran teachers that I tried to implement for my first decade and a half. Most consistently, the one about not being able to get meaner as the year goes on. While true, the problem with that for me was that I’m not a harsh disciplinarian, either. Frankly, a lot of things just don’t bother me. I tried starting my year off as a drill sergeant, and it didn’t last–it was as inauthentic as any other time I tried to do someone else’s shtick. The surest way to fail as a teacher is to try to recreate someone else’s thing. I had to figure out how to do this as me.
What finally clicked in year 16–which is late for such realizations, but here we are–was that if I paid less attention to myself, and I focused more on recognizable student behaviors, my job became more about gently correcting course a thousand times a day rather than putting on a show that was so fabulous it would hold everyone’s attention for 5 hours. What I know now is that students act the exact same way every single year at every point in the year. There is nothing new under the sun. I can nail it down almost to the day–when a kid will blurt out a joke to make the class laugh as I’m trying to teach. When someone will draw a penis on one of the desks. When a girl will burst through the door crying because her crush broke her heart. When they will leave a mountain of trash under their desks or destroy one of my books. And in the midst of all of this comes waves of different feelings toward their teachers–anxiety, then suspicion, then rebellion (this one lasts a while), and then a long stretch of comfortable learning, joking and testing the waters of adult conversation. Somewhere in there, we read and write.
This year, year 17, I overslept on the first day of school. I could blame it on the medication I’m taking or the fact that we had three days of soul-crushing meetings just before, but I’m sure it’s because I wasn’t nervous. The first day brought plenty of other challenges–large class sizes and enrollment issues, especially, but I spent most of the day being amused by my students. I enjoyed getting to know them, and I enjoyed the pressure being off. Everything was new, and everything was exactly as it has been for the last 16 years.
I read something about meditation long ago–that you’re not supposed to punish yourself for letting your thoughts drift. That it’s better just to note your thoughts and gently direct them back toward your breath. To just breathe. My role in the classroom is the same. Redirection.
Someone told me once that the best thing you can tell your spouse is often “that sucks”–as in, don’t try to fix things when they’re upset. Don’t try to tell them what to do. Just listen and say, “that sucks.” Because what most people want is to be heard, the feeling that someone else cares about the hard things that happen to you. More often than not it’s what I want: just acknowledgement. Saying “I know exactly how you feel” is untrue. Telling me what to do is awful. And you can forget about “just relax” or “it’s fine.” Well. I am lying about one thing. It wasn’t a person, it was an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but it still changed our marriage. “That sucks” is often just right.
Three months ago, I went back to church. Do you see how I buried that in the second paragraph? It’s hard to write about. A little embarrassing. Church sure has a lot of different connotations, doesn’t it? I feel you forming an opinion. I have an opinion, too, because it’s been almost 20 years. Church is a loaded word, conjuring either a closed mind, or too much liberty with the word of God, depending on which peanut butter you buy in 2018. And my tendency is usually to hem in whatever bits of myself might be most interesting or bold so I don’t offend. But that’s exhausting. At almost 40 I just want to be. Like RuPaul says, “what other people think about me is none of my damn business.” In the last year our cruel president’s policies and my health issues have clarified my sense of self. Remaining silent or immobile is a privilege I don’t want. But I don’t want to do good alone, either. I want to work within in a body that does good for others in the community and the world. I finally realized that the place I’d grown up, a small congregation of the United Methodist Church with its policy of inclusion and a history of serving vulnerable populations–was it.
As a kid, I liked any part of the church service that was said in unison. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and speak along with the prayers that hummed around my head, while the light warmed my ear from the stained glass windows. Often, though, I’d snuggle into my grandma’s side, bow my head and run my finger along the sewn-in seam on the knee of her polyester pants while we prayed. I loved the sounds of the Lord’s prayer. Especially: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass againstus. All those good S-es that the debt/debtor people miss. I struggled, then, to think of any trespasses against me. I always had a list of my own.
My church wasn’t cool, but it was earnest. I stopped attending around my late teens–not because I gave up on religion, but because I looked down my nose on my church’s simple and steady routines; they didn’t seem like enough. Please stand for the reading of the Gospel. You may be seated. Let us pray. The creaky pews, the casseroles, the basement fellowship time. Puppets. Choir robes. Powdered lemonade. I wore my Methodism–which comes to me by both sides of my family tree–like a scratchy hand-me-down sweater. I shed it the first chance I got: I was attracted to my friends’ sparkling mega-churches—where people raised their hands in worship and sang the refrains of songs over and over with their eyes closed. These churches had rock bands and LCD screens, dark lights, and altar calls. We were married by a dear pastor in one of those big churches when I was 20. I felt happy there, but when I look back I wonder at the spectacle. It seems like some churches are designed to draw people in to entertain them with the show rather than to inspire service to the community at large. (What rock concert would Jesus attend?) Where I settled, there was so much emphasis on judgment–never from the pastor, mind you. But I can’t avoid the memory of so many prayers for friends in our circle who had “fallen away,” so many whispers about other people’s sin. And so much daily, constant anxiety about my own. It was easy for me to get lost. That wasn’t the case where I grew up, and yet it was the world I found myself absorbed into by my late teens. In 2000, around the time I was married, a group came to a church service to speak about Prop 22, a precursor to California’s Prop 8 Marriage Initiative. I was hardly woke, then, by any standard, and it still felt wrong. Really wrong. I didn’t feel like my heterosexual relationship was in danger if my gay friends could get married. I was disgusted by how people acted in the name of God. Soon I gave up and stopped attending.
For almost the same time that I’ve been avoiding church, I’ve been teaching public high school. In some ways, that was easier. There are strict restrictions about what I can say and what I am allowed to teach. I could never–and would never–espouse a particular political or religious view as the only view in a lesson, and yet my entire job is interpretation. When my job as a critic is quite literally to have opinions, it’s a strange dichotomy. So in the interim, it has worked to believe, quietly, in God. I am positive that I believe in God in such a different way from most people, anyway, and for a time, I felt like that might be wrong. In 2014, I reviewed Sara Miles’ City of God for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Miles, a Director of Ministry at a congregation in San Francisco’s Mission District, writes in her memoir about taking ashes out into the Mission on Ash Wednesday. “God so seldom means just one thing to any individual, much less the same one thing at a time to a whole group,” she writes, “and so worship spills out every place God meets people.” This idea and Miles’ account of faith interacting with the vibrant city spoke to me, so much that on a solo trip to San Francisco, I visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I just wanted to see it.
I’m not sure why that detail should be important to you. I’m not sure about Mr. Rogers, either, except I want to tell you that I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor the other day, and I sat alone in a theater, crying a little bit as I watched him tell college kids that they were valuable just because they are, thinking about what a bold idea it is to be loving. Thinking about how many of my students need warmth. “Love is at the root at everything,” he said, “all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” It’s the same feeling I had when I watched Nanette, the groundbreaking Hannah Gadsby comedy special on Netflix, last week. It doesn’t matter why we choose a different kind of story. It’s risky, right? To be open to all people? To believe them when they tell you who they are? Our patterns of storytelling are built around heroes and victories. Power. Mistrust. On a national level, we’ve decided right now that we are going to be in this moment where winning matters. Where having matters. Where everyone is a liar. Going to church right now, being a part of a community, listening, serving others, speaking out, choosing love–these feel like acts of defiance–especially with a group that dedicates itself to serving vulnerable populations.
I’m not even sure if I’m conveying this properly.
I walked into church again on April 15th of this year because I’d just finished a book about recovery by an author who felt like she was too smart for AA’s scripts and clichés. In reviewing the book, I had to examine my own biases–I found that the author’s disdain for the rituals of AA grated against a part of me that felt comfort in repetition, in belief, and in gathering together with others who will listen, or in being someone who says yes, I will be here for you. But also, I read an echo of the pride that made me leave my home church almost 20 years ago. I decided to finally push past my embarrassment about not having gone for two decades and just go. Last Sunday, I sat next to a woman about my age. During the sermon, the pastor asked each of us to think of a time when we had felt most alone in the world. Then he asked us to turn to the person next to us and share. (Church comes with more interaction, now, I guess.) I won’t tell you what the woman shared, but it was painful. I thought about that advice from Parks andRec as I listened to this stranger who was incredibly vulnerable. As she spoke through her tears, I tried to offer a more eloquent version of “that sucks.” I shared something in return. We stumbled through a conversation, but it had value. 2018 often makes me feel like I need being human classes. Church feels like my way to reach out rather than to reject, right now. A way to acknowledge the humanity of the people around me. Earnest connection, which is something.
I have Epilepsy, and I feel a little weird about it.
You will remember that I had a rough autumn of bad health: headaches and insomnia and tongue-biting in my sleep. I felt like I couldn’t control my stress, and I was on the verge of tears all the time. My doctor thought I might be having nocturnal seizures, but he didn’t know for sure. My EEG was inconclusive, even though I bit my tongue in the middle of it. He gave me a long list of things to do to improve my health, and that was overwhelming and hard. Many of those things were for the migraines, and a few were for the seizures: cut out all caffeine, make sleep your new religion, cut the stress. Plus the old medical standard: wait and see.
I started taking Topamax to treat both problems: the chronic migraines I’ve had since my twenties, and the [maybe] seizures. If I stopped biting my tongue, that would tell us something. Well, I stopped biting my tongue. I started feeling way better. It’s amazing how groovy you can feel when you’re not biting your tongue all the time. About three months into the meds, I had another appointment with my neurologist, and he said that we could assume it was seizures, and I should stay with the meds.
Then as is always the case in the spring, I started having discussions at work about next year’s teaching schedule. Immediately, my stress level was through the roof. My health was better, but barely. Worrying about it getting bad again was going to make it bad. I tried to be honest about my health issues and take things off my own plate, but I struggled to say no because I’m a wimp. I felt like I should have a doctor’s note on file so it would be clear that I wasn’t making this stress/seizure stuff up. It’s hard to explain something that you can’t see. It felt like dumb excuses. I asked my neurologist for a letter that explained my condition. I didn’t know how to convey what it was, anyway. Did it have a name? Was there something more specific than nocturnal seizures? Could he put it down on paper in a way that would make sense so people wouldn’t have to Google what was wrong with me?
He did. It took about a month, but he finally sent me a letter, which said, “Heather has nocturnal seizures caused by Epilepsy.”
The funny thing is that I wanted the letter so nobody else would have to Google anything about me. But the letter sent me Googling. What the Google Machine told me is that Epilepsy is what they call repeated seizures without a known cause. So: me. I think my neurologist didn’t use the word at first because we didn’t know, and then he was just being more specific, referring to the specific type of seizures.
This is what I tell myself, anyway. Because he just hadn’t used that word at any time before.
But I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. For at least the last 15-20 years, I had a terrible daily headache, and I woke up every night in the middle of the night with anxiety and insomnia. That’s not happening, anymore. I still get headaches, but they’re rare, and they usually have a specific cause. I’m still sad I’ve had to cut so many things out of my life–don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty much off caffeine, soda is gone, and I haven’t had a drink since October. I don’t take OTC pain meds more than twice a week. But I’m at a point where decaf tastes like real coffee, and the amount of uninterrupted sleep I get has made a notable difference in my energy, anxiety and migraines. The meds help, but I think that all the lifestyle changes were huge. Damn it.
And I’m not having seizures. To my knowledge, I’ve only had two since October. One, about a week after I started on the meds, and another a few weeks ago. Both times, I was up way too late, and I was unusually stressed. That tells me that what I’ve been doing is working. Sure, it stinks to leave our friends’ houses early, or to go upstairs when my whole family is still hanging out, but I’m better.
Not having seizures all the time is great. I can recommend it.
What we call things doesn’t give them any more power than they have on their own. I know this. As Eric says, nothing is different in my body now that I have that letter. And yet: feelings.
Of course, this isn’t a static emotion. What was first a panicky hate for his long list of changes has grown into an affectionate grumpiness for the smart man I wish hadn’t been right. Damn him.
In September and October of last year, I kept waking up to bite marks in my tongue. Bad ones, ever-worsening. Besides being confusing, they made teaching difficult. One day I woke up from a nap with my face covered in blood from a deep wound in the right side of my tongue. I didn’t wake up when I bit it. I felt like shit: heavy, weird, and confused. Every muscle ached. Fearing I’d had a seizure, I made some doctor’s appointments.
I was worried because there is something in my head. This isn’t a figure of speech. Midway through getting my MFA a few years ago, when my migraines increased, I had what seemed like a cursory MRI before I could be put on Topamax, a daily migraine medicine. During that MRI, the technician slid me out of the tube and asked me a bunch of questions that were too pointed to seem normal. Have you ever had an MRI before? No. Have you ever had any head trauma? No. Are you sure? Yes. Has anyone ever told you that you had any abnormalities in the left side of your head? No. And at that point, the technician told me she needed to push me back in and do the MRI all over again because she couldn’t be sure of what she saw. My Ativan had worn off. I couldn’t reach my ears through the head cage to get the earplugs back in. I lay there and I cried through the booms and clangs, in full panic attack. What was in my head? An arachnoid cyst, just behind my left ear. My general practitioner wasn’t great about helping me understand it. She sent me an email. She said they’d keep an eye out, wait to see if I had any neurological symptoms. And that was that, for a few years. So when I bit my tongue, when I suspected this might be a seizure, I was terrified.
I promise you, this is about coffee, too. I’m getting there.
My tongue-biting episode led me to the neurologist, which is where I should have gone after that first MRI. He asked me if I wanted to see the last few MRIs of my head. He showed me the surrounding, healthy, brain tissue. He told me I was probably born with the cyst because my brain had grown around it. He said that it couldn’t be causing either my migraines, or the episodes I was having now because of both where it’s located and how it hasn’t changed in several years.
See? I told you he’s smart. He’s kind and comforting, too. That made it hard to ignore him when he told me that I needed to give up caffeine and all OTC pain meds for two to three months if I wanted to make my headaches better.
“How often do you take over-the-counter pain medication?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably four days a week?”
That answer was too high.
“And how many cups of coffee a day?” he gestured to the cup in my hand.
“Oh, this? This is green tea.”
“Green tea has caffeine in it, too.”
“I know. But, uh. Just one cup of coffee a day.” His fingers fluttered across his keyboard.
Diagnosis: rebound headaches. People like me who have chronic migraines can get them from being too used to caffeine and over the counter pain meds.
Prescription: cut out all over the counter pain meds, any use of Imitrex (a migraine medicine I take when I get one), and all caffeine for two to three months. A “wash-out.” After the “wash-out,” I could return to these things, but in an irregular pattern. Caffeine was okay, as long as it wasn’t every day, and I had to do one week a month with zero caffeine. Pain meds no more than twice a week. The hope was that it would lessen my headache frequency.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “Your headaches are going to get worse before they get better.” No Tylenol, or Motrin, or Excedrin. Nothing. No coffee, or green tea, or black tea.
He wasn’t wrong. The two weeks I cut caffeine were awful. I weaned myself with decaf (first three quarters caffeinated, then half, then one quarter, etc), then decaf for a few days, then nothing. Water and herbal tea only. It sucked. When I say “it sucked,” I mean that I had headaches and I was tired and I hated everyone and my body ached. And I wanted to murder my neurologist a little bit.
He also cautioned me that in order to stop the seizures, I needed to get at least eight hours of sleep, and I needed to “reduce my stress.”
This is my sixteenth year of teaching high school, but it feels like my first. We have all new curriculum–entirely new anthologies–as well as new novels at each grade. I teach two grade levels, which means I am teaching something new to me four times a day, every day. Not to mention learning one hundred and fifty personalities and trying to accommodate each soul as it needs to be taught. We also have an entirely new, entirely confounding computer database this year (and in the fall, I was a trainer for our staff), and the combination of new computer system and 180 days of new literature–times two grades–proved to be more than I could fit into my brain. By the second month of school, I wasn’t sleeping. I would wake up at 3:00 AM, worrying, and I’d think, well, that’s an extra hour of work I can get done. I’ll just get up and create a user guide for the computer system. I was borrowing sleep from both ends of the day, falling asleep late and getting up early. Usually I would wake sometime in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I’d lay awake trying to make lists of all the things I needed to do.
Sometime last fall, my friend Lizi sent me this podcast from NPR, with scientist Matthew Walker. It inspired me to start harassing my children by telling them that “sleep is the Swiss Army Knife of health.” I believe it, though. The podcast is wonderful, and I can also recommend his book. Cliff Notes version: if you ain’t sleeping, you gonna die, friend. I was putting myself at risk every day. The real science behind how much we need a real chunk of sleep is pretty scary, and my recent brush with nocturnal seizures is proof that I need to stop messing around.
Robbing my sleep was the worst thing I could do. I just didn’t know. I’m a morning person because I like the peace of a quiet house. I like the sunrise and the sound of the coffeemaker. But that means I need to be an early-to-bed person. I like knowing that I’ve given time to the most important task on my list so I won’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day. But I was taking so much time from sleep that my body was shutting down. My neurologist diagnosed me with nocturnal seizures. (Biggest contributing factors: sleep deprivation and stress). Since I left his office in November, I’ve been religious about sleep. I’ve set an alarm to get in bed (not to sleep, but getting in bed about an hour before I want to be asleep makes a huge difference). I try for eight hours, but I usually get about seven and a half. You know what’s happened since I started getting all that sleep? I haven’t been sick once.
Giving up coffee was emotional, in a surprising way. I didn’t realize how it was linked to writing and reading, entirely a part of my routine. I got past the caffeine withdrawal after a few weeks, but I never made it to a point where I didn’t miss the emotional pull. I gave up soda, too, but I couldn’t care less. But at 8.5 half weeks, when a bad day finally sent me over the edge and I gave up on this “wash-out,” it was because I needed a cup of coffee. For my feelings. This process has taught me both that I have a serious lack of vices, and that I am tied more to a daily cup of Joe that I thought. More than once as I tried to muscle through, I thought, maybe it’s just worth it to have headaches, because I really, really love coffee so much.
But of course my doctor was right. After the initial miserable pain, my headaches lessened. I still have them, but more more infrequently. Not being able to take even a Tylenol made me pay attention to headaches before I got them. Before, I’ll admit that I’d just get a headache, and then worry about it later. Now, I’m more likely to try to prevent one before it starts. I’ve found that a lot of my headaches are from bad posture: specifically, sitting badly in bad chairs. I sit to read or type for long periods of time. I need better neck pillows and desk chairs. My tension headaches often turn into migraines (I had three migraines during my “wash-out,” and I couldn’t take anything for them. That was fun.) An added side effect of cutting caffeine was that I slept better.
I found that without coffee, I ate more. I had less of a reason to get out of bed. (Who gets up for tea? Not me.) I realized I drink coffee when I’m bored, rather than eating. I also found that I had to be more honest with myself about how much caffeine I’d been consuming before. Sure, I only drank one cup of coffee when I was home, but if I was out, one “cup” meant a Venti black coffee, and usually a large iced tea somewhere else in the afternoon. Oh, and when I was stressed last fall? I’m sure I was also pounding down the Coke Zeroes. So if I really think about that answer I gave the doc? It wasn’t honest because I wasn’t telling myself the truth. No wonder I had headaches, and no wonder I couldn’t sleep. The other thing this taught me is that most people are completely stupid when it comes to how much caffeine they’re consuming. Decaf is not caffeine-free, dummies. Now I know that herbal tea is just gross water (I never really got on the herbal tea train, although I will say mint tea and chamomile are the least offensive of the herbal teas), and it’s not good, but most people are just downright ignorant about what they consume.
I made it 60 days without coffee or pain meds. I couldn’t do the full three months, but I’m still glad I did it, and I do feel like it had a positive effect on the number of headaches I’m having. For now I’m sticking to decaf for as long as I can, and I’m still not drinking coffee every single day. More importantly, I’m still trying to sleep close to eight hours, and I’m practicing saying no to the constant demands on my time. That’s the hardest part of all of this. It feels like my health is under control, but barely. I need practice.
Last year–January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2017–I used the 1 Second Everyday app to capture our life in seconds. The final video is about 6 minutes long, and I love it so much.
Admittedly, it stressed me out a little during the year. I ended up thinking I accidentally deleted what I had so far in early March, and I cried for about 2 days straight. But I recovered what was missing, and I kept it up (almost) faithfully for the entire year.
It’s a little peek into our ordinary life, and I know I’ll be glad to have it for years to come. There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of pets, a lot of swim meets, and a lot of books. Enjoy!
A sweaty man in a polo shirt stood near me this afternoon, making a comment he thought I couldn’t hear. “Oooooh,” he said to the women in his group (they all looked Boomer-ish, or at least Boomer-adjacent). “Maybe I need to take a selfie with the wall, too.” They all laughed like they’d invented farts. Ha ha. Burn. We are funny Boomers. This selfie-taking girl is bad because she is young. We are so awesome because we only point our cameras outward.
What a turd.
I was taking a selfie in front of the sign outside the National Air and Space Museum, and I wasn’t in anyone’s way. I wasn’t flipping the bird. I wasn’t wearing a pink hat. I wasn’t even thinking bad thoughts about Paul Ryan. I love America, and I think museums are rad. The National Air and Space museum is a hotbed of dadsplaining and crying toddlers, anyway; it’s not a silent or serious place. It’s a noisy, crowded petri dish of humanity and space ice cream, as it should be. It’s fucking cool that we fly. We put a man on the moon. Let’s let our nation’s toddlers climb on some jet parts–maybe someday they’ll want to do science. That seems to be a thing America needs.
If a 38 year old mom wants a picture in front of a museum, why is it a big deal?
This guy’s comment got under my skin more than it should have because it’s a sentiment I’ve heard several times this week. Almost as many times as I’ve heard someone mention the humidity or the number of steps they’ve taken, I’ve heard a Boomer complain about young people taking selfies. I have bitten my tongue.
I get it that I’m doing the same thing I hate. #notallBoomers. But I don’t know how to write about this without pointing out that all of the people who have said things around me about selfies this week have generational commonality. People’s age is not what bothers me, it’s their judgement.
Listen. I take selfies because I’m smart enough to realize that a picture of a building or an open expanse is boring and meaningless in history, personal or otherwise. None of my descendants want a picture of the books in the reading room at the Library of Congress. They can find that on Wikipedia, anyway. But they might want pictures of me in that space, having an experience. I do. I want to remember what I felt when I breathed that cold air in the card catalog room. To laugh at my hairstyle, years later. To remember the scent of old pages. To remember a moment. Photos help you do that.
I take selfies because I regret all the pictures I don’t have of myself when my kids were young. This is a common thing with moms. I was really good at documenting their lives when digital cameras were new. But it felt stupid to put the camera on myself. Now I want pictures of myself being alive. Nobody goes to the Library of Congress to do research and says thank goodness nobody kept any records in the past, because they really maintained their self respect. Nobody ever researches genealogy and says I wish I had fewer pictures of my great great grandma.
I was excited to be at the Air and Space Museum for two reasons: first, the same reason I was excited to be there as a kid. My third grade teacher structured our entire school year around space history. She had just been to space camp, and we spent the year studying missions in suits we made out of cardboard and foil; we read transcripts from mission control aloud, and did complicated reenactments where we sat in overturned desks that simulated Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. I thought that being an astronaut was completely attainable as a girl in the 1980s. Space was my first cross-curricular study. But the second reason I wanted to go today was that I interviewed David McCullough in 2015 about his Wright Brothers book. I wanted to see the 1903 flyer with actual knowledge of what their risk meant to our country. Nothing self-centered or lame (I think?). Pure American patriotism and curiosity.
I was alone, in that sea of polo shirts and clean sneakers. I also wanted to share my experience with my kids, who are across the country, and they only way I was going to be able to do that was by putting myself in the frame of my own pictures.
We don’t need to talk about how technology has changed, how it’s just easier to take a picture of your face now because you can see the screen and hold a tiny computer in your hand. Or how one of the laziest ways to criticize young people about today is how they look down at their phones all the time. As if there’s inherent evil in a glowing screen compared to newsprint or a book. But for crap’s sake, people have always been using print and other media to distract themselves from boredom. We read on our phones now. It’s not always bad; a person’s responsibility for their behavior and conversation is a better indicator of their dickishness than whether or not they look at a screen sometimes. I would venture to say that making fun of people within earshot is ruder than glancing down or texting a picture to someone you love.
It’s also worth mentioning that one of my favorite things about the Wright brothers’ story is that their connection to bicycles was judged harshly by older generations at the time. The olds saw bicycles as a way for young people to get themselves into trouble. They were sin machines. No matter the decade, there’s been some piece of tech that felt scary and like it might possibly lead the younger generation right into the pit of hell.
But here’s what it comes down to: don’t take selfies if you don’t like them. And don’t be such a loud jerk. If you want to complain about something, be a lady and get a damn blog.
Bernadette Murphy wants to challenge your preconceptions about the kind of woman who owns a motorcycle.
Once upon a time, Murphy, now an LA writer and professor in Antioch’s MFA program, was a room mom for her children’s Elementary School classes: a woman who wore Winne the Pooh jumpers and bought into a vision of placidity. But when her father died, she bought a Harley, reassessed her life, began to dabble in risk, and started living for herself.
Harley and Me is Murphy’s memoir about learning to ride a motorcycle, but it’s so much more. In the vein of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Harley and Me is a journey narrative. But Murphy contextualizes her journey with scientific, historical, and cultural references. Harley and Me makes us evaluate not only how we see motorcycle riders, but how we see ourselves as women, mothers, and risk-takers.
Murphy and I spoke about neuroplasticity, becoming The Fonz, and the bio-chemistry of bonding with a machine.
Heather Scott Partington: You write, “Awareness of death, it turns out, is a critical force motivating human behavior.” What did it mean to you to take on such a monumental risk? How did it shape your awareness of the current moment, and of who you want to be?
Bernadette Murphy: I bought my motorcycle the day after my father, my last remaining parent, died. He had always seemed such a huge figure in my imagination, a strong, nearly invincible and wholly tangible human. I could not imagine that one day he’d get older and die. But of course he did. Experiencing his death changed how I saw things. If death came for him, the most solid human I knew, it was coming for me, too.
We live in a culture that tends to play down and hide the reality of death. Recognizing just how limited my time on this planet actually is has motivated me try my hand at a slew of wild adventures. I used to always think that there’d be more time later if I didn’t take an exciting opportunity when it was offered. But guess what? The chance may not roll around again. I need to make sure I do the things I really want to do in this life, and inhabit my life as fully as I can while I can, because there will be no do-overs. And while I know I take my life in my hands every time I mount my motorcycle, it reminds me that I take my life in my hands every moment I draw breath. Driving across town, doing my daily routine. There’s no knowing. So why not go do the things I want to do – I’m going to die one day, either way. Of course, I take all precautions I can – full-face helmet, riding armor, classes on how to be as safe as possible.
HSP: How did you deal with sexism or sexist language on your rides, and at the rallies? How did you reconcile for that with your pre-riding worldview?
BM: There’s no question that the sexism is rampant in the motorcycling culture, especially among riders of a certain age. It’s been gratifying to meet an emerging new crop of young female riders who are breaking all the boundaries and just basically leaving that sexism in the dust. Check out The Dream Roll, The Women’s Moto Exhibit, and Babes Ride Out. These are groups of women (usually younger than me, but they include me, too, in their gatherings) who get together to ride and forge their own culture. They’re not focused on changing the sexism of the old-boy network. Rather, they’re focused on their own riding, their own community, their own strength. This is what I love about them: they just can’t be bothered focusing on what they don’t like about the male-centric aspects of the moto world. They’re going off script, off road, to forge their own path. And though this is not their goal, I suspect that by doing so, they will help transform the misogynist culture.
Personally, I don’t tend to go to motorcycle rallies and events like the ones you describe – they simply don’t appeal to me, unless they’re women focused like The Dream Roll. Last summer, I rode from LA to Washington State to camp out in a field with 280 other female motorcyclists. That was a blast.
HSP: The chapter about Fonzie is great, and oddly enough I love that Henry Winkler was a little afraid of the bike–he was such an icon, but it was more of an accessory to him than a way of life. What did it mean to you to speak to him? And to reconcile the reality of the Fonz with how you had seen him when you were younger?
BM: Speaking with Henry Winkler was one of the highlights of writing this book. I’ve had a crush on him since I was 11 years old, and still have a crush on him to this day. In fact, my infatuation only got deeper after the conversation because he’s such a thoughtful, authentic, and willing-to-be-vulnerable human. He’s just really present and I connected immediately with that quality. From talking with Henry Winkler, I saw that that he, like me, has struggled with the issues of being clear about who he is, claiming himself fully, being true to who he is. What a wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right path! I also came to see that I had stopped emulating the parts of the Fonzie character I had so admired. Instead of wanting to be Fonzie, to some degree – to the degree that I wanted — I have in fact become him — or at least, my female version of him.
HSP: You write that women have an innermost thermostat that tells us how much joy, love, and success we think we deserve. What did this journey teach you about what you deserve? What lessons do you think other women can take away from your time on the bike?
BM: I learned that I have been shortchanging myself my entire life! Especially as a young mother, when finances were tight and kids needed so much, I had learned to deny my own needs and wants, to reduce my desires to as small and easy-to-contain a package as possible. And with good reason. But now what I’m finally breaking out of that scarcity and lack mindset and working to reset my joy thermostat, and finding that my dreams and desires are huge! And that when I embrace them and think it might actually be possible to pursue them, I am so very happy and content. Notice I didn’t say that when I get them I’m happy. Getting them is almost beside the point. Knowing it’s possible and that it’s okay for me to embrace these desires is the thing. For a long time, the voice in my head repeated the same toxic six words: “Who do you think you are?” Who did I think I was to believe I could have a rich and wonderful life, to do things that were wild and exotic and just plain fun? That voice kept me stuck for most of my adult life. Now when it pops up, I remind it that I’m a beloved child of the universe who deserves these things as much as the next person and that I believe good things are in store for me.
HSP: Why do humans get risk-averse as we get older? What chemical changes start to happen when women decide to accept risk into middle age? You write that risk is necessary, that “one thing seems certain: avoiding risk altogether is actually an unhealthy state for all of us, male and female alike.”
Risk taking (in whatever form – taking a drawing class, traveling abroad, learning a foreign language, ice climbing, mountaineering, etc.) rewires our brain. We use new muscles – literally and metaphorically – that increase our neuroplasticity. This is a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on which way you go, because the brain chemicals support the change. If we take more risks, our brain chemicals give us a reward and then we want more of that reward so we continue to take more risks. And if we stop taking risks, the reward cycle is broken and we find comfort in taking fewer and fewer risks. The reason this is so dramatic for women in middle age is that the childbearing chemical brew we talked about earlier has convinced us to take as few risks as possible. And unless we actively try to break that cycle, we’ll continue taking fewer risks until we become stuck and unable to take any kinds of risks at all. If we’re not growing and evolving, we’re dying. It’s a truth for all living things.
HSP: Did your experiences change anything about how you talk to your [adult] children? You write about how difficult it was to explain your risk-taking to your loved ones. I’m wondering if it changed how you want to parent them, or the message you want to communicate to them, even though they’re adults.
BM: My kids taught me more about risk taking than anyone. They haven’t (yet) gotten stuck in that “let’s take a safe path no matter what” thinking. They still believe so much is possible. And they got me to do the same. This has changed how I parent them. I have to believe that if I’m safe in the hands of this universe, that they’re safe, too. That I personally no longer have to be the guardian of their safety. I’ve done a good job raising them and I believe they make good and healthy choices for themselves. So if they make choices I don’t believe in or support, I have to let it go and let them do what they’re going to do. It’s possible they are on the exact path they need to be on and that any interference from me is only going to mess that up. And if the choice they make ends up hurting them, they will have learned something I couldn’t have taught them in a million years.
Plus, I have to embrace the fact that bad shit happens in life and there’s little I can do to change that. They could get hurt doing a risky thing, but they could also get hurt not doing a risky thing. Parents are quick to warn their children about all the lurking perils if they take risky options. But they seldom tell them about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly heated water, if they don’t put their true selves on the line. That’s what I tell them.
HSP: What new risks are you taking now? Has your family’s reaction to your risk-taking changed since they read your writing about it?
BM: The biggest risk I’m taking right now is holding my partner, Edmond, in my thoughts and in my heart as he climbs Mt. Everest. He’s one of the 200-plus climbers currently on Mount Everest*, on the brink of the first attempts in three years to make the final ascent to the world’s tallest peak, after fatal avalanches cut short the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Here’s a piece I wrote about it.
My family is divided on my risk taking. My kids, my partner, and two of my brothers are supportive. My sister, my stepmother, my ex, and some others still think I’m crazy and that if I’d just quit this stuff my life would be better. What they don’t realize is that my life is now the best it’s ever been.
HSP: Can you share a little about your research related to Oxytocin? The results of your tests were astounding.
BM: Oxytocin it the cuddle compound that we create in our bodies when we have sex, nurse a baby, feel deep love, even pet a dog. It causes us to trust and to feel connected and warm with others. I had this theory that my embrace of my motorcycle was tied to this neurotransmitter. I believed that as my 25-year marriage deteriorated, and as my kids began to fly the coop and didn’t hug me and need me in the same way, I was going through a kind of oxytocin withdrawal. Embracing the motorcycle seemed to reverse that. But from a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Oxytocin, the neuroscientists tell us, can only be produced with contact with other living, active beings. You can’t increase your oxytocin level with a machine. Or so we thought. We took my blood before and after riding my motorcycle and found my oxytocin level jumped a good amount – as much as a groom’s oxytocin level jumped in one experiment, just after he’d taken his vows. I believe that riding the motorcycle helped me have a deeper relationship with myself and that that is responsible for the oxytocin leap. Of course, this little experiment was just done on me and just done once, so it’s not scientifically valid, but it does lend credibility to my theory.
HSP: What are you working on now?
BM: I’m working on a novel about a woman who teaches at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and who engages risk – but risk of the more emotional kind. She learns that her version of her past is not the true story, and then has to change her life to incorporate this new information.
I’m also toying with a possible book project on the nature of women’s leadership and the role marriage plays in it. I’m particularly interested in 1) how marriage as an institution is dying away in Iceland and what that means to the culture, and 2) how the women of Rwanda took over many leadership roles there after the genocide there (when a large percentage of the men were killed and women had to step up into government and leadership positions) and how that change in gender balance of those in power has made for a healthier, happier country. How those two topics fit together and what I might do with it, I don’t know yet. But that’s what I’m tinkering with.
*This interview was conducted in the spring of 2016.
Purchase Harley and Me at IndieBound or Amazon.
More information about Bernadette Murphy can be found here.
This morning we watched The Battle of the Bastards again and I tried not to look away from all the stabbing. It’s been a big week in TV as we’ve tried to wait out whatever viral thing has lobbied its way into our family’s respiratory systems. Resistance is futile: five seasons of GOT, some Voyager and now The Fall, plus cold meds. TV feels like as good as any other way to mark the passing of mucous and the old year.
But this isn’t a good riddance to 2016 post. My 2015 was much harder, physically, and though 2016 surprised me, in some ways its helped me to grow up and figure out what matters. So, good on that. It feels icky to me to claim one year as the worst year ever in the same way it makes me squirm when people thank Jesus for winning a football game. Maybe my anxiety is about trying to pin that kind of power on one arbitrary thing. I do have one thing to say about the political mess of 2016: I just hope–hope–that 2017 brings more civility. America matters to me a whole lot, and so does our fundamental right to disagree with each other and still hold on to our humanity.
Anyway. Here’s what happened to me and my most important humans in 2016. It was a good year for our family.
Being a parent of non-toddlers is the strangest combination of longing for the wonderful little teeny people who used to live here and complete delight in the friendship of the newer, big people. I don’t begrudge them the fact that they’ve grown, and it’s the most wonderful thing to have these two whip-smart dudes to talk to. But I won’t lie: when Henry had a ridiculously high fever a few weeks ago and draped himself across me like a rag doll, I ate it up. (Along with his germs, which is why every one else got sick shortly thereafter). Henry is 11 now, and Addie is 14.
But they’ve done more this year than just get taller. Henry is in sixth grade, but taking math at the local junior high every afternoon. His coding and gaming hobbies have now expanded into building computers. I’d like to claim we saw it coming with Legos or something when he was three, but everyone says that thing about Legos proving your kid is a genius, right? We couldn’t have imagined what kind of mind he’d have for all that now. He’s just following his curiosity, and we’re trying our best to let him, whatever that means. He’s also a nut for anything related to mythology, ancient history, and puns. He played volleyball for his elementary school last year and joined the swim team with Addie. His favorite stroke is butterfly. He is a good and kind boy, and he makes me laugh every single day.
Addie is at the high school with me, which is nice. She bit a big bullet and did summer school there to get two classes out of the way so she could take both Spanish 2 and digital arts electives during the year. In both her summer school classes and her first semester, she worked her tail off and earned straight As. I’m incredibly proud of what a good student she is. She is a maniac of a reader and such a good writer. She had to read Ender’s Game for school and Eric and I had never read it before, so we both read it too. We ended up in a heated family argument about whether or not Ender was a hero. She was so mad about the book (I loved that!). But more important to me than arguing about books is the fact that she’s still the same kind, artistic, and sympathetic soul. I really enjoy getting to spend time with her every day as we drive to school and set up my classroom in the morning. It’s been a good chance to see her for who she really is, now. In addition to swimming on the swim team again, Addie has been volunteering regularly for the Sacramento Zoo as a part of the Zoo Teens program this year. I’m so proud of everything she is, and everything she has ahead of her.
Eric had a good year too. He got a promotion in place at a job he loves, so he can keep doing the work he likes with the people he likes. He taught several training classes for his office at McGeorge and for various other state agencies this year. He continued to do all kinds of improvements on our house and completely remodeled our garage from a nasty, dusty heap to an organized storage space and working shop for Maude (the other woman, his 1954 Ford Customline). Last spring he and his dad put up solar panels on the side of the house so the kids and I could enjoy a heated pool; I spent my entire summer enjoying the fruits of their labor and getting a ridiculous tan. Eric’s made friends with our neighbors, and continues to be happy to run over to our friends’ homes to do handyman work and fix-it jobs. I feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who is a book smart lawyer (and a great editor for my reviews), and knows how to fix things.
My sister, Melissa’s, family lives about five minutes from us, and our kids are constantly connected. We had to tell the five of them this year that they can’t just arrange sleepovers on their group text without checking with adults–this week we’ve had to institute a code word to confirm that they checked with the other parent for approval. The best thing in the world is seeing (and hearing) our five noisy kids knock around together. They’re loud, but they love each other. When Melissa and I were pregnant with Luke and Henry we used to daydream about how close our kids would be. The older they get, the more they all want to hang out, and it’s even better than we hoped.
I didn’t work on reviews as much as I have in previous years. Part of that was by choice–twice this year I took breaks from social media and review pitching because the cycle of keeping up with publishing news and books that were coming out during such a contentious news cycle was making me weary. I think the larger consideration was that this was (and will continue to be until they graduate in 2017) such a different year with my AVID class. I’ve had the same class of amazing kids since they were freshmen. This fall, I shepherded 30 of them through the college application process and FAFSA process, and it almost defies description, it was so taxing. I take the responsibility of their futures so seriously, and I was so nervous for most of November that I’d miss something or mess up somehow in helping them. They didn’t get done early (as I’d hoped), but they got done by the deadline. I’ve been trying to forgive myself a little for not reading as much and not reviewing as much because I know teaching full time and college app assistance took all of my energy even when I wasn’t doing anything. I couldn’t turn my brain off and stop worrying about them when I’d go to bed. The amazing part of this is that for the last few months, I’ve gotten the most amazing texts as these kids get into college. I am so proud of them. They are great. But holy crap, helping 30 kids apply to college at the same time is no joke. No. Joke.
Critical work was slower this year, as I said, but probably more rewarding. The more I do it, the more I see that it is both what I want to do and what I am meant to do–but the more I continue to see what I have to learn. But 2016 brought me some big opportunities: I was fortunate enough to be asked back to do a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books again, and early in 2016, I interviewed Yann Martel for Goodreads. His publisher ended up adding the interview to the paperback version of the book, which was published in November. Just before the election, I interviewed the brilliant Michael Chabon.
The best thing this year, hands-down, was my trip to DC with Kitty to tour the West Wing with a friend from high school. It was incredible, not only because being in such a historical place is beyond anything I can put into words, but because on our way to DC, we were rerouted to North Carolina and had to drive all night to make it. It was, in terms of travel mishaps, a pretty big mess. But navigating our way out of the mess felt like a huge accomplishment, and getting to see the Oval Office, the Press Room, the White House, and then so much of DC with Kitty, was a real gift. I’m incredibly grateful to our host, Katrina, who welcomed us into her family and home while we were there.
I spent a lot of 2016 overscheduled. I don’t say this as a brag or a badge of honor. It means I’m doing something wrong. Working full time as a high school teacher and part time as a book critic and whatever time you count it as when you’re a mom of two kids who cooks and cleans and shops and does all the things? That’s too much. I’m not happy with all of it and I spent a lot of 2016 trying to figure out how to do less and there’s not really an answer. Some of it I want to do while I’m lucky enough to have the kids here before college. I don’t want to sacrifice my time with them. So maybe 2016 was just about a shifting of priorities, or a pondering about whether or not I can be patient or still keep myself in the publishing world if I’m not still out there trying to prove the same things I was proving two years ago. I don’t have answers. But I worried a lot in 2016.
Things I don’t care about: staying up until midnight (tonight or any night), making a resolution for 2017, having any answers tonight.
What I do know: every year with this family gets better. I am lucky to be loved and to have people who let me love them and spend lots of time with them.
Myers traces America’s Rock & Roll roots in an oral history account of groundbreaking songs. This is a funny and compelling collection of short pieces. You could read it in any order, and you can give this to someone who isn’t a fan of longer reads. Myers does a nice job of weaving together details from each song with trends in American history. In an era when you can find a lot of information about music online, Anatomy of a Song still feels like something special.
Amend’s novel is based on the real-life story of married spies living in the Galapagos islands before WWII. Come for the spies and oblique historical references. Stay for the lush descriptions of Galapagos and the complex takes on marriage and friendship.
Margaret Atwood has a little fun with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she sets in a prison literacy program. Only because this is Atwood, there’s a play within the play on Shakespeare’s play. It’s full of literary “Easter eggs,” and charmingly readable. No worries if you haven’t read The Tempest. You’d be okay either way–but it’s only a two-hour listen on audible if you’re into that. You know I am.
For the pal who likes creepy tomes: Ali Shaw’s The Trees
Overnight, a dense and nearly impenetrable forest blankets modern-day England. Panic, alliance-forging, and heroic journeys ensue. Bonus points for freaky tree creatures, and a little bit of mythology. Plus, this is some amazing cover art, right?
For the cousin who is into smart/sad short stories: Desert Boys by Chris McCormick
People “don’t know how un-California most of California is,” Chris McCormick writes, in one of my favorite sentences of 2016. Desert Boys is a nostalgic, bleak, and beautifully rendered collection about identity and growing up in the harsher parts of the Golden State.
Silver’s dark fairy-tale manages to feel both old and new. This is a book that draws on our associations with fables, but also asks us to examine what still happens to women now. Silver’s protagonist, Pavla, a dwarf, undergoes several transformations in the book, and you’ll have to take some magical leaps. Silver will force you to really think about time. Weird and different. Loved, though, and got lost in it.
Every Kind of Wanting is about six lives entangled in a messy plan to conceive a baby through surrogacy. Just as in life and in the best bingewothy dramas, everyone is lying, and everyone has something to lose. This book goes there; Frangello is a fearless writer, but her greatest strength is writing with empathy. You’ll be thinking about these characters long after you finish reading.
For the reader who likes a challenge: David Means’ Hystopia
This book is weird: an alternate history where Kennedy’s assassination is unsuccessful, and the Vietnam war rages on while subsequent attempts on the president’s life are made. The conceit of the book is that it’s told as a series of notes about a found manuscript. There are so many layers to the thing that it is really difficult. It’s an incredibly dark and a tangled narrative. And great.
If you want to support a new writer: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This debut novel (and winner of the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35 for 2016) traces the lineage of two half-sisters’ lines, and spans 300 years of history. Each chapter tells the story of one generation, so it’s not a linear novel, but more like a novel-in-stories. The form mirrors Gyasi’s message about broken links between the families sold into slavery. Homegoing is a stunning debut.
My recommendation for just about anyone on your list: Michael Chabon’s Moonglow
This novel is getting all kinds of attention for being written as a memoir. That conversation obscures (a little bit) the fact that this is just a damn good story. Chabon’s narrator is retelling his grandparents’ history as told to him on his grandfather’s deathbed. There are several intertwining storylines, and Chabon is just a master of weaving the historical into the personal. Moonglow touches on everything from rocket science and Nazis to python hunting at a retirement homes in Florida. I enjoyed it so much, and it’s a good bet for just about anyone on your list.
or: My failure to attain complete enlightenment after reading one book on Buddhism and embarking on a half-hearted three day social media fast.
Gosh, I’m lonely. That’s a hard thing to own. It’s so hard to admit because it seems like you’re begging people to give you something. That’s not it, though. “Mrs. P, do you want a hug?” a kid asked me today. I really didn’t. Not from her. But did I? Yes, from the right person. This is the way it’s all wrong.
I’ll back up.
I’m lonely because I took myself off of social media. I’m on time out because I can’t handle it lately and you can think what you want about liberal crybabies, but I can’t handle reading what conservatives are writing right now, and I can’t handle reading what liberals are writing right now, and I certainly can’t handle what any fake clickbaity news sites are writing right now. I can’t handle what people are writing right now about what went wrong, or what they’re writing right now about what might happen in the future (what is all that, anyway, except noise?), and this, coupled with my unhealthy pattern of website checking and the infinite scroll means my habits are in need of a break. Time. Out. I was filling hours of my life with a twitchy greed for headlines and statistics. Statistics!–Math for liars. No good can come of hoping for the one statistic that will make everything right, because statistics are manipulation. Like writing, but without the secrets that make us feel human.
So I’m off social media, except Instagram, because I figured it’d be safe to look at pictures of brunch and calligraphy and ballet dancers and Yosemite. It has been, mostly.
And I read a book. You’re not shocked. Before I logged off Twitter, I saw Aimee Bender recommend When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. It helped. It really did. In my 20s, when my nervous system went haywire, and Christianity’s steadfast answer to my anxiety disorder was basically, hey, God said don’t worry, so just tell your mind to knock it off because not trusting Him is a sin, I gave myself permission to seek other help. To get alternate cell phone coverage for the same calls, as it were. Mindfulness and meditation work well for me when I practice them, and Chödrön’s book, a primer on Buddhist philosophy about pain and suffering was particularly right for me this week.
I’m saying I’m anxious. I’m saying I feel bad for a million reasons.
Chödrön writes a lot about leaning into the sharp points: about how our nature is to try to turn away from pain, or to run from it, or hide. I’ve always found this to be true of my anxiety. The more I try to hide it, the worse it gets. The more I try to pretend it away–this happens when I play the nice girl or don’t let myself get mad–the more my body will tense and rebel with an inconvenient flush of adrenaline. Chödrön’s philosophy is the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is unavoidable, but that it is resistance to it that brings us trouble. (Duh, right? But also, yes.) Chödrön says it better than I am, and this is not a book review, so I’m not going to quote it. If you want to read it and read about how to get pointy with your pain, it’s easy to find. There are some nice bits about hope and how expectation sets you up for more suffering, and those parts gave me a big oof.
Anyway, back to social media. It is driving me mad to stay off, but I’m trying to pay attention to that feeling. To ask what I feel when I want to get online, rather than filling that bad craving immediately with a constant scroll of words that feel important. Or validate me or my views. More than anything, I know I go online because I want to have company. I go to my phone so often because I’m lonely. When I sit in my office by myself in the morning, just after I finish writing, I’ll check my feed. When I take a break and walk to the bathroom between classes at work, I’ll check my feed. When I sit in the car and wait for Henry after school, I’ll check my feed. And this one hurts: when I lay in my bed and I’m lonely because the other people in my house aren’t hanging out with me, I check my feed. I am married, I have two children and a bunch of friends, and I’m lonely. A lot. There are not a glut of people walking around who want to talk books, writers, and publishing. So I go online obsessively. It’s easy. Is it too easy? I genuinely don’t know. Is it replacing something better that I could have, or is it filling the emptiness of something I do not have? This is what I am wondering.
My life got so much better when I found a literary community. But since I live in northern California, these people exist, primarily, in my pocket-sized computer. So while it’s keeping my election-anxiety at bay to avoid the news and stay off social media, it’s aggravating a different anxiety to separate myself from these real friends. What I wonder right now is if I only feel like I have people.
What is it when you’re stuck in a pattern of unsuccessful connection? When you get yourself through a frozen, tough stretch, when you get to yes, I need people, and I know I need to step forward and dial numbers and hit send, but the people aren’t there? When you’re voicemailing hard, trying not to sound too eager, like hi (voice cracking, the almost cry), I’m, uh,hi… and you’re both pretending you don’t know they hit decline on your call.What is it when your every call is returned with a text? When you do talk, what is it when you feel them leave before they go? The flipping to another screen? You sense the pull of the game, the twitter feed looming. The better thing in another room. You know why they don’t stick around because you’re trying to get yourself out of this, too; it hurts to stay open on the single screen of yourself. But you want someone, you need someone, and not the someones who bark at you at work. What is that? You can’t say hey, stay here, please? because do you even know what you want besides a person more patient than you? This feels like poor aim. Like being a freshman in high school, like not knowing how to stand in your own jeans. Like your sweatshirt is hitting you at the wrong places when you try to talk, and your skin is erupting with the awkwardness inside.
I’m as cranky as ever about our life on a sport schedule. Yes, I do think my kids swimming competitively is wonderful and yes, I know it makes me a jerk to complain about it. My crankiness has changed a little over the last few years. Does this matter? I am 100% less resentful of having to sit at the pool for an hour or two while the kids swim laps; I am 100% more excited about watching them compete. But practice? Pfft. I find the pool calming and I generally find it to be a good place to work (in my car at the pool, that is). Eric and I share driving duties. But I’m still cranky about the usual things: having to talk to other parents, having to eat dinner at weird times, having to not see my husband most nights, having to cajole the kids into putting on suits when they feel tired/angry/hesitant.
This is parenting. This is parenting. This is parenting.
Eric just left to pick up Addie from the pool, after driving cross-town twice to get them both there and then bring Henry home after he was done so he could avoid the wind. I just stayed home to stare at the wall. Tonight, everything is difficult. I thought that not having Henry play baseball this year was going to mean more ease. Ha.
AWP and LATFOB blinded me–as all writing/book gatherings do–with a flash of too-bright inspiration, followed by a heady sadness. Sadness for what? Nothing real. I’ve visited nerd land enough times to know it is a magical fairy illusion–one where I wear my best clothes and my best hair and most eager smile–and one that in no way corresponds to the life where I go to Costco to buy TP, or tell my freshmen every day to sit down and do school. I have zero desire to try to live in that imaginary space, and in fact I leave these nerd conventions feeling exhausted. But I also usually feel sad, a reasonless sad that seems to always manifest in a frustration with my schedule, lack of time, lack of energy for doing everything I want to do, etc. So today I’m pissed at swimming. I’m pissed at my job. I’m pissed at the hours it takes every day to transport two kids up from schools just miles from our house. I’m pissed that tonight when I went to cook rice, we were out of rice. So dumb. It’s the chafe of wants against have-tos, the old feeling like I have to be too many things to too many people, when I want to be alone, in my red sweat pants, writing for me (or, let’s be real, for someone who wants to pay me in US currency). I want to ditch the Mrs. Partington persona and shut down the HSP show. I want write and be impolite and and have energy for it and walk out of my office occasionally for hugs from my three people. Swimming gets the brunt of my frustration only because it’s the new thing in our schedule and if you’re going to parent someone who does a thing, you really can’t suck at making them go.
I am treading water in my critical career. I am pushing and pushing. I want to quit every night. I’m afraid to rest. This is writing.
We’re fighting about money. Getting married on tax day seemed funny 16 years ago.
What is this post? I’m trying to keep moving. I am staying up because I don’t know how to do the ten minutes where I lay in bed before I fall asleep. I am dreading that tonight. If I stop, I have to feel it pull me down. I have to wake up and do it again tomorrow. Nothing in my life is bad. But today I’m over my head.
Dorothy Rice’s memoir and art book, The Reluctant Artist, is a meditation on the author’s relationship with her father, and her efforts to catalog his extensive body of work. The artist, Joe Rice, was dedicated to completing a painting a week, yet despite creating a plethora of striking work, he never showed it or sought recognition for his art.
I recently corresponded by email with Dorothy (a good friend from my time at UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program) about writing the memoir, her father’s lasting lessons, and how she came to publish The Reluctant Artist through Shanti Arts.
Heather Scott Partington: How did The Reluctant Artist come about? What was its path to publication?
Dorothy Rice: The project began with an essay I wrote while taking taking community college classes at American River College. That essay, “The Paintings in the Rafters” told the story of an afternoon when my sisters and I got our father’s permission to haul a dozen or so paintings down from the rafters in his garage, where they had been stored (wrapped and taped up) for over twenty years. The essay was first published in the American River Review and then reprinted in the Still Point Arts Quarterly, an arts magazine that I found via the writers’ resource Duotrope. The editor of the Arts Quarterly, Christine Cote, was drawn to the art. She published several full color photos of my father’s work along with the essay and asked if I was interested in working with her on a book about my father and his art. I developed a proposal and we entered into a contract whereby I agreed to deliver text and photographs and she to publish the book.
I had no clear idea of what the text would be when I began but it eventually took its present shape, as a memoir touching on the ways in which the artwork affected me as a child, a young adult and throughout my life and, in particular, how my father’s lifelong pursuit of the arts inspired and fed my own creative aspirations. Because my father was always a very reserved man, the artwork had always seemed significant and important to me as manifestations and windows onto an interior life he kept mostly to himself.
HSP: Was there anything about the format of the book (art + prose) that presented a unique challenge or opportunity? Can you talk about how the book came together in terms of layout?
DR: The layout was primarily the purview of the publisher. She shared sample fonts and approaches to the layout with me, but to a great extent I deferred to her design expertise. When she first began to layout the project she had hoped the photos of the work could be interspersed with the text and placed near to where they are mentioned in the narrative. But she found this too cumbersome and instead opted to put most of the artwork and photos at the back of the book, with only a few images at the beginnings of the sections.
We did review several cover designs before arriving at the final. I knew that I wanted the self-portrait I call “The Green Man” on the cover and, for her, that posed some initial difficulties as the image is dark and dominant. We compromised on a smaller photograph that deemphasizes the starkness of the image. I had also wanted to use the title “The Green Man” for the book itself, but arrived at the compromise “The Reluctant Artist” after discussing with her the potential redundancy of the artwork and the title being so closely aligned.
What intrigued me the most about the publisher’s approach to the book was that she was wanted a full sense of the artist and his life and was therefore interested in including family photographs and other items of a more personal nature than I would have thought to include in the project without her encouragement. Her publications, at least in my experience, are an unusual blend of art and literature with a strong focus on visual presentation.
HSP: In the book, you say “I tuck things away for safekeeping.” Do your family members have a sense that you remember things better than they do? Or differently? What has your family’s reaction been to the memoir you’ve written about your memories of your dad?
DR: I think I have a reputation of “not letting things go,” of holding on to bits of information for later use. In terms of my father and his art, I was probably very irritating at times in terms of keeping track of where everything was and of what had been photographed and what remained to be done. For several years it was a kind of compulsion to gather the complete record and document his art on a website I created as a sort of online archive. Now that the book is done and there is something to show for those years, family members are very supportive and, I think, touched that we now have this unique memento of our father, who, in many ways, was an enigma to us all.
As far as memory, I think I have an amazing memory and that I recall many incidents complete with dialogue and other details. Yet I have learned from working on memoir projects these past view years that memory is mutable and that my “truth” isn’t always someone else’s. Our minds all work differently and it has been interesting to hear my sisters’ different takes on the same events. I did have several family members review the manuscript before it was finalized and made a few tweaks in response to their comments, not because I had it “wrong” necessarily, but because different wording could better capture how we all remembered things. For example, as I tend to be more pessimistic by nature than my sisters, my take often reflects that bent.
One thing that has been very heartening, and affirming, is that several family members (immediate family, cousins, nieces, uncles) have remarked that I captured Joe Rice, that my portrayal of my father felt true to them. Also, my memories have triggered deeper remembering for them, which was an important reason for putting the book together, to keep his memory alive. Other readers (i.e. non family) have expressed that the portrayal of my father resonated for them because of their own communication issues with a parent, spouse or other loved one. It has invoked the universal difficulty inherent in really knowing another person, particularly when that person is far from transparent. Also the notion of a person quietly pursuing their passion for decades (art in this case) without fanfare and seemingly with no need or interest in any outside approval or acknowledgement has also been a source of inspiration and interest for readers, as it has always been for me.
HSP: You write that your father “had a distinct way of speaking”–how do you think his speech, and to some degree, his art–reflect the man that you came to understand him to be? Do you feel like you truly knew him?
DR: Interesting question. I always assumed his speech–he would sort of hesitate as if gathering his thoughts and then speak slowly and clearly, enunciating in an almost exaggerated way–had something to do with having come to this country in his early teens from the Philippines. But thinking about it, it could also have simply been that he was a man of few words and he didn’t take them lightly. He always thought before, and while, he spoke. His best art, to me, is careful art–the plotted geometric and surrealistic images of the 60s and 70s, so perhaps there is some concordance there.
HSP: Can you talk about the intersection of your dad’s life with some of the interesting figures in San Francisco in the 60’s?
DR: My Dad was an extreme introvert, so his life didn’t intersect with anyone’s in any obvious way. However, he was well read and aware of what was happening in the art world and therefore conversant about artists and art trends. Some of my fondest memories are of visits to museums and galleries and discussions about tastes in art. Like me I suppose, my father was not a joiner, of anything, and he avoided most social events that weren’t mandatory.
HSP: What do you wish you could ask your dad now?
DR: Related to the question above, I wish I knew more about artists he admired, artists he may have worked alongside or taken classes from at the San Francisco Art Institute, or earlier in undergraduate or graduate school. I always wanted to know what art meant to him, why he did it, why he had no interest in sharing or showing. It honestly puzzled me that as his health began to decline it became clear he hadn’t kept any kind of record of the things he’d created, no notebook or list. I would mention paintings or show him something on my website and he would be surprised, pleased too usually, and say he’d forgotten all about that one.
But, to be honest, I realize there’s no use wishing I could ask him things as he probably wouldn’t have answered in any way that I would find satisfactory. I asked lots of things along the lines of my questions above while he was still alive and received monosyllabic responses at best, more often only a wry smile and a wrinkled brow, as if to say, “what’s it to you, nosey pants.”
HSP: I know The Reluctant Artist took several forms before it was a memoir and art book. What might readers be surprised to know about those earlier versions?
DR: Well, I was always inspired by my father and his art, but I had also always wanted to be a fiction writer. So initially I fictionalized his life and thought it could be some kind of novel. Then, when I began taking writing classes and going to workshops, one instructor suggested I turn my novel into a murder mystery to liven it up. “Throw a dead body onto page two,” was his exact advice. So I did that and spent several years churning out a murder mystery, complete with San Francisco Irish detective, crazed hippies, one victim tossed from the allegedly haunted tower at the San Francisco Art Institute, the other strangled with her pearls in a dank basement. Very noir, very lame, very out of my wheel house. That novel resides in a drawer in my office, well actually, on the floor behind my desk.
HSP: What’s your next project?
DR: I am working on a memoir inspired by my experiences as a mother. I never planned to have kids yet I ended up having a child in my 20s, 30s and 40s, one every nine years, plus two stepsons who came into my life with my third marriage.
This year, with my youngest child leaving home for college in the fall, I find myself reflecting on the journey, three decades during which I have been many kinds of mother—single, married, step, involved, neglectful and merely misguided. That said, who knows where it will lead.
The Reluctant Artist is available for purchase here.
More information about Joe Rice can be found here.
More information about Dorothy Rice can be found here.
Photos of Joe Rice’s artwork used with the author’s permission.
Mom, don’t make me. And don’t make me say I don’t want to anymore. She didn’t have to speak the words. I read it on her face and drooping shoulders. She rubbed her upper arms and pressed her mouth tight: Mom, I don’t want to feel like this.
Parenting a thirteen year old is no horror the way people try to convince you it will be. It’s so fulfilling and fun. But if you’re paying attention–if you’re really listening to her words and silences, if you’re trying to equip your daughter to fight her way into a harsh world, it can hurt.
We were at a family wedding. She was surrounded by love and loud music and Christmas lights. But even in safe spaces, biology makes the thirteen year old mind a liar: telling girls that whatever feelings they have must be wrong or awkward, that having opinions is anathema to the crowd. People kept asking her to dance. She didn’t want to. This was the crisis.
I tried my best to break it down in love: Have your opinions, Ad. We don’t control our feelings. They just happen, and nobody can say they’re wrong. You have the right to not want to do anything that you don’t want to do. Mom, she said finally, out loud, (those pleading, wet eyes!) I know it’s okay for me not to want to do things. (I exhale.) But I feel bad when I have to tell people that I don’t want to dance.
This is being a girl. At our table, I resist the urge to tell her this, to make it about me or about women and opinions and consent and being listened to and taken seriously and about not pleasing other people, but that’s what it is. Even though being a woman is different now. She is already growing up in a world that never didn’t have lady astronauts and world leaders and CEOs and computer programmers, where she can vote and make legal decisions for herself and expect to be treated and paid for what she does. But scrub that away, and there’s still fraction of society that’s not going to take her seriously because she is female. Even if nobody has told her that yet, she has internalized it, mixed with her own shyness and good girl tendencies and teenage hormones. This is where I do bring myself up–the irony of those three words–where I acknowledge that genes and my own fears have gently nudged her toward this conflict she’s having, even though we’re in the safest of spaces.
It wasn’t a moment that ended in a scene. My pep talk landed as much as it was going to land, and then we just looked at each other. Nothing happened until her loving father (the girl whisperer, we call him) scooped her up for a twenty minute walk outside, artfully using his skills of comfort and distraction to help her feel better. I was inadequate to the task, and by the time they walked back into the ballroom, all was well.
It’s naive to think that all is well permanently, or that the reason I’m still thinking about this almost three weeks later is that it’s just about parenting. There are several truths operating here:
This isn’t about me. This is about my daughter being 13 and having hormones.
My own struggles with having opinions are kind of relevant.
Because yes, she is changing faster than she can see, and yes that means discomfort. And discomfort for growth is good, the kind I want her to have. But also, this: she has a mom who spends much of her day afraid to speak her mind, and always has. I remember shopping with my mom and grandma when I was about her age, and they would hold up items of clothing for me to consider. How about this, they’d ask. Yeah, that’s cute. I like it. Mmm, hmm, I said, even to things that looked awful. I couldn’t say so, even to things I wasn’t trying on, because I was worried I’d hurt their feelings. Nobody told me this was the case–in fact, I am positive I was told the opposite–but other messages about gratitude, about being considerate, and about being good were louder. And high school was a training course in learning to please: I sublimated my actual opinions time and again because it made things easier. Ballet. Church. English class. If I could figure out what someone else wanted me to say or do, I’d make them happy. Being a part of a big family didn’t make me this way, but it was fertile breeding ground for my thinking. In a big family someone else is always happy to tell you how things should be. Want to double down on that? Marry young into another big family. Try not to rock any boats. Understand nothing about how to have opinions, assert them. Speak up for yourself only once every few decades, with disastrous results. Resolve not to try again for years. Repeat.
I really think about it, there was a short time when I didn’t care so much what people thought (or even think that anyone considered me and what I had to say). This short time coincided with early adulthood, becoming a mother, and the fact that I had yet to have any online connections. But it’s different now. For the last several years I am really chafing against the sense that I need to keep my mouth closed.
What changed? I have more opinions, actually. Louder ones that seem to want out. The realization that I don’t have to enjoy things that other people enjoy, and that things about the world that make me mad–like, screaming mad–seem not to bother other folks. At the same time, I’ve developed a weird dichotomy of personal and professional lives. Being a teacher in the social media age is scary. Trying to be a writer at the same time is ludicrous. Take one moment, one word out of context, and I’m through. As a result of my fears, my teaching has become purposefully bland. Sadly numb and devoid of most of my personality–the weird quirks I used to use to shock and joke and provoke teenagers through the books I’m teaching. What other way is there to be, now? I can’t find one, so I push my real self down, hide her from sight. And ironically, at the same time, my real self has flourished. I’ve ventured into the world of writing. Ideas. Conflict. An art entirely shocking and contrary to the kind of work I’ve chosen for myself in a stodgy institution built on the illusion of righteousness and propriety.
It isn’t just my job, though. Social media makes me uneasy. It’s a double edged sword, because so often it makes me unlonely–it gives a sense of connection to an introvert sitting alone in her bedroom. But in the past year I’ve just seen how my relationship with social media is one-sided. I read and read and post pictures I like; I am addicted to the online stories, but I am afraid to be myself. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job or afraid I’ll lose the constant feed of voices, the people who are always there. (The same people who share their own opinions as easily as sticks of gum.) I fear the fight, though, or more so I fear letting people down. So I do what I’ve always done. I let people think I agree. I let myself believe that “no” needs to come with an apology.
This year I don’t have a resolution, so much as I have an intention for myself, a way to try to be. It’s not a resolution because I expect to fail regularly, and I want to allow myself the inevitable, intermittent failure that happens when you try to change. But my intention in 2016 is to speak my mind. To bring some of the authority I can summon in my writing to my real damn life, and to be smart about how I do that, but to do it anyway. Because I don’t know how much longer I can keep looking at my daughter–my beautiful, smart, worthwhile daughter–and tell her that she is not only allowed to share, but worthy of any opinions and feelings and desires she feels–if I can’t look in the mirror and tell myself the same.
2015 was half a year. Well, it only felt like half.
Some years take longer than 12 months. But not this one. This year was a blur from June to December. I’m okay with how it all turned out, but I feel like I’ve been zombie-shuffling through my own life for most of it. I try not to think about that too often, because doing so makes me pretty anxious.
I only ever look about 5 minutes into the future: What do I have to do next? is all I can ever handle asking myself, because the big to-do list is overwhelming. This 5 minutes/next thing is my survival mechanism. But that kind of myopic view isn’t so good for savoring moments. The year just happened to me and I didn’t really notice it because I was too busy looking at the next thing. Always afraid I’d forget something. Always afraid I wouldn’t get it all done.
And yet: it’s past midnight on the east coast, almost new, and so much has changed. Addie is in her room watching The Office and sketching; Henry is working on his second coding course. They both look like different people than the still-semi-kids I knew in 2014. And for crap’s sake, we’re all sitting in a different house. 2015 brought change, whether I was paying attention or not.
I looked at my calendar this morning to remind myself of just what I did in 2015. It was fitting to discover that on January 2 of this year I had the first in a series of hoop-jumping appointments and MRIs that would lead to my hysterectomy in June. My hysterectomy led to my subsequent inability to heal properly and move on in any meaningful or final way until very, very recently. 2015 was about that, mostly. Uteruses before duderuses, as Leslie Knope says. And it was about trying to figure out how to care about all the other things (school, sports, reviews, getting out of bed, etc) that I’d committed to, if my body wasn’t going to cooperate. Is this my adult life? Yes, I’m still wondering, and I know 36 is kind of well into it to not really have a definition nailed down. There have been years adulthood felt like having to do the hard/sad/gross things even when we’re scared and without any guidance because now we’re the ones in charge. But this year adulthood has been an exercise in continuing to meet obligations even if my body is telling me to shut it all down so I can go back to bed.
Perhaps this is the same exact thing.
Our move was another insane time and energy vortex, but of course that was worth it too. I think hearing about my incredulity about our new home must be getting so old to anyone who doesn’t have a sense of just how bad the real estate market got for a while. (Are there people who don’t know this? Or maybe just people who didn’t get stuck upside down in a tiny home?) But I had gone through a process–years upon years long–of frustration with our tiny, not-perfect house, and then I’d fully grieved the fact that we would ever move out of there. Or at least mourned the idea that we were going to be able to make a change in any timeframe that seemed reasonable, and we’d resigned ourselves to faithfully paying our woefully ill-timed mortgage, come hell or high water. I thought we might have to stay where we were until the kids were in high school, and I had accepted it. So if it seems like I’m surprised daily by the alignment of stars that allowed us to move into a home that actually meets our needs (and surpasses them), you’re reading me right. I know we did this, but we are lucky enough not to do anything alone, and the help we had getting here was amazing. And really, some of it was just the luck and good fortune that comes from years of working the same damn jobs and going school and eventually making things happen for yourself (which is to say, not luck at all, but hard work). Our house is perfect for us, which is what matters to me, and I am still in awe of the fact that any of it worked out.
2015 included the same smalls joys that I’ve enjoyed for a long time: Cooking. Reading in the quiet house before everyone else wakes up. Lots of time with my cat snuggled into my knee pit. Eric, making me laugh and reminding me that nobody knows me better. Henry, dancing and dripping his way down the hall in a towel after he showers at night. Addie wanting to read and draw and chat. There’s not much about my slow life that I don’t like. I have to try to remember not to fill it up with things, because it’s often what happens when we’re just home that makes me feel the most me.
This was a good year for book reviewing. I haven’t counted exactly how many, but I reviewed a ton of books. I had my first review in a major paper, a review of Sarah Gerard’s beautiful book, Binary Star, in the LA Times. I had more reviews in the Times. I got to go moderate a panel at the Festival of Books, and then I got to interview David McCullough over the phone. Las Vegas Weekly took me on, and many places continued to ask me to work for them. 2015 was amazing in terms of the opportunities I was given, and I tried hard not to waste them. The toughest thing about trying to establish myself as a critic is to stay hungry: to keep reaching for new things that feel too far away while still trying to maintain what I have. But this year felt easier than the first year, and when I get too frustrated or I feel too inadequate (which is frequent), I have to remind myself that it’s all still pretty new. And it’s only getting better. Slow and steady is enough.
I wasn’t that happy in 2015. I am okay with this, though. There’s peace in knowing that you can be unhappy, but still okay. Or that you can get through something without having to feel good about it. I was not shaken to my core, or broken. I was inconvenienced, annoyed, taxed, and pressured. But none of that hurts too bad. I am pleased that 2015 happened, and I know I will be happy again. I have hope that eventually I will not be so tired. I am looking forward to what comes next.
I’m drinking whiskey and eating sugar cookies. There’s a full moon over the creek. Eric and I just watched Boyd Crowder get sprayed with nameless bad guy brains on TV. Merry Christmas from us and Raylon Givens.
This has been the most low-key of our sixteen married Christmases, and especially more so than last year’s. Then we thought we had some free time between family gatherings, but it was really just that I’d incorrectly written down the time we were supposed to be at dinner. Last year was peaceful for a few hours, but then there was a lot of (my) phlegmy, embarrassed crying while we scrambled to get across town.
This year we’re just home. We ordered pizza at 2:00. Pizza. I’ve been in my PJs all day–I did take a shower, but I reapplied pajamas. This is an achievement in holiday celebration: to leave one’s house to celebrate with family, but remain in Bumble pants. Because of a little bit of stomach flu in Eric’s side, Big Partington Christmas is postponed for a few days. I have done nothing productive today. I thought about reading, but the closest I got was napping near my book. There are about four hours I sat alone on the couch in the sunbeam by our Christmas tree, and I can’t account for what I did.
It doesn’t feel like Christmas, but it does feel great. We opened presents here this morning and walked our way through what will surely be a Christmas–our first Christmas–we’ll remember, simply because it was new. New is weird in the moment, though. Being together was good, as always, and the fact that we have more space has still yet to wear off. This dummy of a year ended with us settling into a place that’s so full of possibility. And our kids spoil us by being so polite, thankful, and well-behaved. I just can’t communicate effectively how much I enjoy them. I don’t sleep the night before Christmas because I can’t wait to see them open their gifts. This year was no different, and seeing them as big people in our big new house was great.
I’m forgetting to mention that last night we had traditional Christmas Eve at Grandma’s. No soup, because a gift of a giant ham to Grandma and Grandpa meant a menu change. This is perhaps why I am craving broth today–but that gives me an excuse to get something cooking this week. Last night was good, easy. Just family being together and lots of thoughtful gifts from the most amazing grandparents a person could have.
After our Christmas morning at home today, we drove to my mom’s (in our PJs) to exchange gifts with my parents, sister, and brother in law. Our kids can’t get enough of their cousins right now, and the frenzy of tween/teen energy was enough to fill the house. There were the best kind of creative, personal gifts. I ate my weight in doughy, homemade cinnamon rolls. Last night I had some of my mom’s (also homemade) crescent rolls, so today was just more of the dough diet. I am hoping to round it out tomorrow with something fried, since lately most of my consumables are yeasty and/or covered in buttercream.
Things I want to remember: Henry, buying cat leggings for his sister and insisting we all get Christmas jammies. Taking selfies with Grandpa Ed. Special gifts from Grandma Lila with handwritten gift tags that say “Love” over the From. Addie, spending all morning testing out the makeup in her new Caboodle from Melissa. The fact that they still make Caboodles. Eric, being so good at Christmas, so acutely aware of what makes his kids and wife happy. Finding TWO Mervyn’s boxes, even though Mervyn’s closed in 2008. The perfect smell of coffee and bacon and cinnamon rolls and cheesy breakfast potatoes at my parents’. Sharing sour watermelons with Roo. Henry snuggles in front of the Xbox, while he explained to me things I don’t understand about games I’ll never play. The 20 minutes Cookie was actually nice to me. Eric’s red flannel.
I can’t complain. My heart is already full, and Christmas isn’t even finished yet.