Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I Quit

I'm quitting writing.

I just got home from my middle grade critique group, where I told my two excellent, also unpublished authors: "I need to take a break." They nodded their heads, telling me to come back anytime. I took a deep breath and walked away as they started to plan their next meeting.

Some backstory: Five years ago, I decided I wanted to write children's books. Our three kids were very young, and I was surrounded by piles of books of all sizes and fonts and types. I started writing my own stories, playing around with voice and plot and syntax. At the same time, I tried to learn as much as I can about writing children's books, mostly books, blogposts, and my newly formed critique group. After three years of picture books and dozens of rejections, I had a go at a longer format. I wrote an early middle grade chapter book, about 22,000 words, and for the last two years I've edited and revised it.

I still had those three children. I still am surrounded by piles and piles of books. But they did what children do--they grew up some in the last five years. Their baby phases ended and school began. Practices and playdates replaced the long afternoon walks to the mailbox. My husband still works long ten to twelve hour days, so all of the household management and parenting falls to me.

A few months ago, I sent my long, polished manuscript to a few agents. I really thought I was going to get a YES from one. I did not.

Her rejection was the straw that broke the camel's back. (Now that I'm not writing I can use such cliches.) I'm now reconsidering everything, as setbacks usually make a person do. After weeks of soul-searching and wondering and really thinking about it, I've decided to quit writing children's books.

At least I think so. At least for a while. The thing is, this quitting doesn't have to last forever. If I miss it, if I feel empty without sitting down at my computer and typing out a new story, if I want to be involved in the children's literature community as a writer and not just a blogger and aficionado, then I'll pick it back up. This quitting is almost a test, a litmus test to see how passionate I am about writing stories.

But slicing? Essays? I can't imagine not writing those. In fact, the first thing I did after breaking up with my critique group was to sit down, open my laptop, and edit this before clicking "publish." So...see you next Tuesday.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

My Daughter Asked Me About Bad Decisions...

The other day my daughter asked me: "What are some of the worst decisions you ever made in your life, Mom?" I stopped to think. Panic in the form of adrenaline shot into my bloodstream. My mind was instantly blocked by the few enormously bad decisions I've made in my adult life that are too big and too mature to explain right now my ten year old right now. Her question prompted in me an explosion of uncertainty about whether or not I'll ever tell her about those bad decisions. Some secrets are worth keeping for a long time. Maybe forever.

I promised my daughter that I'd get back to her, and this blogpost will be edited and changed (and the above paragraph deleted, to be honest) as a letter to her. I needed to think about my answer. 

As the days rolled by after her question, I thought and thought. I realized that a big chunk of bad decisions didn't come to mind right away because what were horrible and emotional moments in the short run became funny--though perhaps slightly embarrassing--stories in the long run. 

Here's what I came up with:
  • I sure wish I hadn't driven my mother and stepfather's car into the ground when they lent it to me for a road trip with my pals when I was mid-twenties. It was a bad decision to ignore the sound coming from the engine; it was a downright stupid decision to think that "letting the car rest" in the parking garage of our New Orleans hotel while my friends and I did what twenty-somethings do in New Orleans would cure it of its clanking.
  • It was a bad decision to break up with my boyfriend in the car after he surprised me at the airport for my best friend's wedding. I had told him not to come, that I'd wanted to focus my time and attention on being a bridesmaid and hanging out with old friends instead of being his girlfriend and making sure he had a good time around people he'd never met before. When we got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the break up became pretty awkward.

But there are two things that I came up with that aren't funny and probably never will be:
  • I wish I hadn't bought such an expensive wedding dress. My mother was kind and generous and wanted to provide some parts of the wedding, though we (but really my husband-to-be) paid for almost all of it ourselves. Looking back, I can see how I got caught up in the exciting swirl my wedding and I wanted that day to be gorgeous and wonderful and memorable. But a dress with a four-digit price tag that I wore for five hours...? Looking back a dozen years later, I wish I had been more respectful of my mother's money and more frugal about our wedding.
  • I wish I never spanked my children. I don't think I ever spanked my oldest daughter, and I think I only spanked my youngest son a handful of times. But my older son...I can't say the same thing. I cringe at the the count and wouldn't want to know it if it was available to me. I was going through some emotional times when he was going through some terribly obstinate times, but the fact was: I was 38 and he was three. I was wrong.

Some days these bad decisions rise to regrets. Other days, I choose to be kind to myself and grant a little grace today and whenever I think of those bad decisions. I'm human. I make mistakes. Sometimes of epic proportions, sometimes ones that are easy to laugh at right away...or after a few months.

But the lesson to my daughter is clear: Time helps. The passing of time helps one gain perspective on a situation and allows you to view it from a vantage point that is usually clearer and makes the solution a whole lot more obvious. Sometimes that's tricky, because I know I have a tendency to be hard on myself and beat myself up: Why didn't I do X? That was clearly the right thing to do! But when you're in the thick of it, that clarity simply doesn't exist.

So you live. And you learn. And you chuckle at the fact that you thought a few days of rest would solve your car troubles. Or about that break up with your boyfriend in a traffic jam. And about the bigger things you sigh and wish you'd chosen differently. And hopefully you will from this point onward because you've thought about it and learned. On to new mistakes!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Trees I See

I'm sitting on the deck of our house-for-the-week during our family's last hurrah of summer. The deck, like the whole house, is unlike our traditional, cottagey home. It is sleek and swanky, and the railing I'm looking at--well, looking through--are another example of the modern touches. Thick panels of glass mean that there is very little between me and the view. Only sturdy clips to prop up and link the glass together sit on the deck.

Other than that, it's just me and the view.

And the view is breathtaking. I know I'm supposed to be looking at the water. There are orcas and seals, humpbacks and porpoises out there. Bald eagles could fly by any minute. I'm supposed to be searching for them. A couple of neat boats sail past every hour.

But between me and the blue, blue water are seven trees that keep grabbing my attention. I can't keep my eyes off of them.

Six of these trees are tall evergreens. I think they're Douglas Firs, but I'm not certain. We moved to the Pacific Northwest from Virginia last summer, so I'm still getting to know the flora and fauna of the area. Regardless of their correct classification, they shoot from the ground as straight as arrows towards the sky. One has a few reachable branches, but the other five have no low-lying limbs to invite my children to climb...which is fine, because all six are taller than the house, with perches four stories tall. They are perfect for this plot of land because they don't affect the view too much at all. I can see plenty of ocean between their trunks.

And then there's the seventh tree.

This one is completely unlike the others. This one is twisted and gnarly. It is bushy and imperfect. The bark makes this tree stand out even more. There are three different barks happening: One is a predictable, tough shell. The next is the most eye-catching thing about it: a skin as chestnut as my daughter's pony, smooth in some places, bumpy in others. Then, there's the stone gray part of the bark, where it looks like the tree has died but is still in tact. It is the same color of teak after several seasons bleached from the sun. There are hardly any leaves, and I can see no predictable pattern of where the few clumps of leaves grow.

This red tree grows up over the cliff and the water but its limbs twist their way down and out like a wicked witch's fingers beckoning kayakers its way.

I wonder: Is there any moment in this red tree's mind when it wishes it was like the others? Does it spend any ounce of its precious life feeling envy or self-doubt?

How ludicrous! How laughable! What a silly thought! Trees don't have thoughts like that.

And with that, I'd like to be a more tree-like. I want to grow where I need to grow. Grow how I need to grow, trust my instincts that my bark and my hair and my trunk and my limbs are exactly how they are supposed to be rather than wasting precious moments wishing otherwise.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Athlete vs Gambler

A few weeks ago, my eight year old son Ben and I were driving home from his travel-soccer championship game. A  well-earned second place medal hung around his neck. I was still recovering from watching the game, which was a battle between two good teams of boys. It was a low-scoring game but there were plenty of goal attempts and close-calls, many by my Ben. This is his first year in a league with higher expectations, but in part because of his stellar coach, it's still about the basics of ball handling, working as a team, and being a good sportsman. Plus, he still laughs a ton on the field, so I know he's having fun in a serious way.

Ben's an athlete. He doesn't fall far from the tree, because I'm an athlete, too. No, I've never been paid and the idea of sponsorship is laughable. But I ran five marathons and an ultra marathon before he was born and two marathons and one half-marathon afterwards, and now am an age-grouper in local races. And I might be a proud member of the cultish Crossfit community (meaning I go three times a week and run on the other days). I'm training for another half-marathon now.

I love pushing my body and challenging it to do tough things. I always have, and I'm willing to bet that I always will.

But speaking of betting, on that ride home we passed by two casinos in Tukwila, Washington, en route back to our house north of Seattle.

"What is gambling, Mom?" Ben asked me.

"It's when you play cards and try and win money. Some games require some skill, but it's a whole lot of luck." I did my best to explain.

"Have you ever gambled?"

"No," I said. That was why my answer was short sweet.

"Why not?" Ben asked me.

I had to think about my answer, so I took a few minutes. I got into the right lane, put my right turn signal on, and pulled onto the I-5 North, still thinking about why I didn't like to gamble.

"I don't like it because it relies on luck, which is what I work hard to make," I said slowly, still thinking as I spoke. "My hobbies are all about physical challenges--trying to get myself and my body to do things it couldn't last week. To be better than yesterday because my mind and body are working as a team. I like to work hard to succeed, rather than sitting around hoping to get lucky. That's what I think those gamblers do. They hope for the right card. That's just not what I'm about."

"Plus," I added, "Did you see any huge windows in that casino?"

"No," Ben answered.

"Right!" I agreed. "I can't imagine spending hours and hours inside just sitting on my bottom without even looking at nature! I like to be outside and in nature as much as possible DOING cool things. Gamblers seem to spend a lot of time sitting inside. That's just not for me."

There was silence in the back seat, and I knew he was satisfied with my answer. Without another question, I knew he was finished with the topic, at least for the moment.

As we drove north, approaching and then passing Seattle and its hip Space Needle-filled skyline, I smiled. I'm not perfect, that's for sure. I really should stop yelling. I really should scrape up the syrup from the kitchen table where I'm typing. But my athlete-side is showing (and I reinforce with some telling) Ben and his two siblings some good options about how to live a healthy life.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Summer Writing

My big writing goal for the summer was to complete the first draft of the sequel to my early middle grade book. I'm an early-morning-writer, and that habit has mostly stuck this summer. But I'm also a during-soccer-practice writer and coffee-shop-writer in the hours or minutes in which I can squeeze writing.

But I realize summer is not the time to be productive. Summer is a season where I really need to put the tasking and self-imposed deadlines on the shelf a little and just BE. I'm not going to un-stick myself from this summer's writing goal, because although I'm not writing the chapter a day I was earlier in the month, I'm writing a few pages a day. I'm furthering my book, little by little. Any forward movement is good. I'll be fine.

There's just too much fun to be had in the summer to chain myself to my desk right now! The weather is fantastic, my best friend and her son are in town, and the mountains are calling my name to go hike and swim and explore.

And that's why I've got to keep this short. Because I want to still write every day, even if it's just a few paragraphs--do these even count as paragraphs? sure, it's summer, let's count them as paragraphs--but I want to be with my people and in this place more than normal.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Summer Nanny

I hired a summer nanny. Please don’t hate me. 

I do not have a full-time, paying job. However, I am a full-time mother of three and am trying really hard to spend 20 hours a week writing. I’ve got a few published essays under my belt, but my half-dozen picture book manuscripts are aging on a shelf while I actively search for an agent with my completed early middle grade novel. Plus, I’m five chapters into its sequel.

Oh, and I’m training for a half marathon and go to Crossfit on my non-running days. Does that count as justification for a full-time summer nanny? I think it does.

In summers past, I work hard to prevent that infamous summer slide. Right now my children are ten, eight, and six, so in years past they’ve (obviously) been younger and needier. I’ve worked hard to keep my kids moving and thinking and engaged in all their various interests. We’ve gone on field trips, hikes, long excursions to museums and historical places, and sampled all the ice cream shops within a fifty mile radius.

But the summer slide is real in my own life. All of the workout gains I’ve achieved during the fall, winter, and spring gradually fade as I get to the gym less and run significantly fewer miles. My husband and I constantly argue about how much I need to work out, versus how much I should, and want to. As if there is an answer. As if I should have to defend my hour a day of sweat in order to stay mentally sane and physically fit. But that’s a slice for another day.

And, more important, my writing gets stuffed into the very first hour of the day, before anyone else wakes up. This has always been and remains my most productive writing hour, and I grasp onto it with sharp elbows and scowls if you dare interrupt me. But any other writing is counted in minutes, squeezed into the time my kids are watching TV, they’re occupied by themselves (this never lasts) or in the evenings after they’re asleep, during our “couple time.” Which I know is important, but sometimes it’s hard to be present and happy when I’ve not given myself the other time during the day that I need.

Enter Nikki. She’s our summer nanny. We all love her. My husband’s job allows her to be with one or two or all of my children when they’re not in camp, and she drives them around to help me with the different pick-ups and drop-offs and play-dates and practices. It is a win-win situation. No, actually it’s a win-win-win-win-win-win situation because my husband gets a wife who is—for the most part—present and not completely frazzled at the end of the day. Sometimes, I’m even showered. Nikki is earning a big chunk of change to augment her Catholic schoolteacher salary. And my children only get dragged to half the things they usually get dragged to, which means more hours of play with the neighbors and painting rocks and walking their dog.

Whenever that inevitable mommy guilt threatens to creep up and rain on my gratitude towards this happy summer arrangement, I remember the facts: In one week, my kids are awake for about 100 hours each week. Nikki is with us for 40. I’m still doing my share. I’m doing enough.

But I’ve got to go. Chapter six of my book needs to be written, and I have just two more kid-free hours and a whole lot of work to do.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Marathon Mama

In Spring 2007, I received the good news that I won the lottery--I got into the New York City Marathon. At that point, I'd run four or five marathons before and knew a) what I was getting myself into and b) this race would be different from the others. Why? Because when I received my entry confirmation, I was still pregnant with my first child, who was due in early May.

I was a first time mom, so there were few things I knew for certain at that point. But I was certain that I would not be pregnant forever. I was naive enough to be certain that I would be able to start training for the November race about a month after giving birth, although now I'm wise enough to know that I was lucky not to have complications to prevent this plan from happening.

But that is, indeed, what happened. I gave birth to daughter Lorelei the second week of May, and started to count down the days until marathon training. When I got the go-ahead from my doctor, I began the humbling journey back to fitness by way of marathon training, which is always taxing. But in addition to marathon training, I was also adjusting to sleepless nights, nursing a child, and being responsible for this little being. I did fine on both accounts, but my marathon training was hardly rigorous. Because of the hot Virginia summers and my crazy-first-mom habit of never leaving my child, I did a whole lot of runs--including long runs!--on our treadmill.

The New York City Marathon fell almost exactly six months after her birth. And so, a few days before the race, Lorelei, my husband, and I hopped a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City. We attended the race expo, saw a few sights, and tucked ourselves in early in the city that never sleeps. The start of this marathon was miles and miles from downtown--I couldn't tell you exactly where because I'm not a New Yorker and I don't know New York well, facts that come into play a little later. Because of that, we runners had to take buses to the start. We arrived at this staging area, on average, two hours before the actual start of the race.

Did I mention I was nursing Lorelei? As she was my first, I was following all the baby books verbatim and hadn't introduced any solids to her yet. I figured I'd get to that as soon as we got home from this little trip. Did I mention that because I stayed home with her, I never pumped and gave her a bottle? Letting her latch on and eat was a million times easier and faster.

But on this morning, I had provided breast milk in bottles for my husband and wished him luck. Later, I would see the pictures of a very unhappy and very hungry Lorelei sitting, crying on the bed. Those bottles I left him never got touched.

And, worse news for little Lorelei: this was not my fastest marathon. My lack of serious training, the hills of the race made those 26.2 miles horribly longer than the other marathons I'd run up to that point. I couldn't figure out what borough I was in, but I didn't really care. I probably should have stopped, especially when I passed my husband and baby on the course around mile 18. But I didn't stop. I continued, trudged onward with that shuffles most marathoners know well.

And I shuffled and shuffled until the finish line finally was in front of me. I was completely exhausted, but I suddenly found myself with two more challenges: First, I had to find my husband and child in the meet-up area. They were not where I expected them to be, though later we realized we were waiting just yards away from each other and kept moving to find each other. Second, my breasts suddenly realized that they hadn't nursed in nearly 12 hours and were growing harder and more painful by the second. Who knew that my body could find more ways to hurt?

Finally, we linked up. I staggered to them, and my husband tried to explain that he'd had just as hard a day as I had. I did not answer him. I pulled up my sweaty jog bra to get some relief myself and to provide some for Lorelei, right in the middle of the street. I pushed my marathon finisher's medal to my back so it wouldn't hit her and we walked towards the train station. She went from left breast to right and back again for the next hour as we walked through the streets, got in a taxi, and boarded the train towards home. Sometime along that train ride I responded to my husband's ludicrous assertion that his day had been as hard as mine.

After the birth of my other two children, I waited a while longer to run a marathon. For their sake, and for mine!