May this be a samskara etched beneath your surface

*This occurred last year, and I knew it was something I wanted to put into words but I could never quite find the right ones. I began reading Dani Shapiro’s moving Devotion last week, which inspired me to finally sit down and find the words.

*****************************************

The dishes are done, the lights are low, my husband is giving our twin boys a bath, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my daughter as she taps the tip of a pencil on a subtraction worksheet so that scratches of graphite splash across the page. It’s been a long day and I’m thankful to have a little time with her as it winds down, but math is not her strong suit, nor is it mine, and frustration is quick to surface in us both.

“This is the worstest day ever. And math is the worstest thing ever. And YOU are the worstest mom ever!”

I send her to her room to cool down, and she stomps up the stairs defiantly. I take a deep breath. I have yet to figure out if this six-year-old of mine is a bona-fide perfectionist or just incredibly hard on herself. When I finally walk upstairs I find her buried under the covers with a book. I sit down but she says, “I just want to read”, so I let her.

The next morning, I sit outside of a yoga studio as the sun rises on a crisp fall day, towel and water bottle in hand as I wait for my friend as planned. This friend isn’t naturally a morning person so her arrival is questionable, and I already know that if she doesn’t show I’ll bolt.

The only class I ever dropped in college was a yoga class during my freshman year. You see, I pictured the class more happy baby pose than peacock pose; more om and namaste, less backbends and headstands. The problem was not that I was lazy. The problem is three fused vertebrae at the back of my neck and a displaced shoulder blade that limits movement in my left arm. The physical impossibility of contorting my body to somewhat resemble the fluid, polished movements of a yogi left me feeling exposed and disgraced, so I stopped going to class. I quit.

For the next 14 years, I was more conscious of what my body couldn’t do than what it could, even after it carried my daughter through pregnancy and cooperated through labor and delivery. I had become convinced that my physical abilities were limited until limiting myself became my habit, my pattern, my story. It wasn’t until I carried my twin sons to full term, albeit with quite a bit more effort than the first go-round, that I realized I could probably push this body of mine more than I ever thought. I decided to confront that ghost from a lifetime ago. It would be difficult, maybe even uncomfortable, but that was exactly the point.

My friend’s car pulls into the parking lot of the yoga studio, and I’m both relieved and disappointed. Leaving would have been so easy.

The room is packed when we walk in, and I squeeze my mat between the wall and a woman in head-to-toe white doing a headstand. I map my escape route. Leaving is still possible.

But something happens in that 85-degree room engulfed in sweat and sinew and surrounded by yogis of every level. My muscles and joints loosen and relax and something within me becomes unbound. I won’t learn until sometime later that I’ve unlocked what yogis call a samskara, a pattern or story that becomes imprinted upon your subconscious. When you release a samskara, you make room for new patterns, new stories. For now, I simply begin to challenge myself. I’m sure it isn’t pretty or even technically correct, but I feel capable in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s a 75-minute class, but leaving doesn’t even cross my mind until we pledge “Namaste” and begin to roll up our mats.

samskara

image via

Back at home my daughter is getting ready for school and dancing with her brothers. If one were searching for clues to the previous night’s calamity, her disposition certainly wouldn’t give her away. I take the worksheet that now bears the thrashings of an impatient pencil and motion for her to come to me.

“You are so smart,” I tell her. “You can do this.”

She crumples into me and nuzzles her face into the crook of my neck so that I can barely hear when she says, “It’s just that everyone in my class is good at math, and I’m afraid I’m never going to be good, and…” She takes a deep breath as though preparing to relinquish a secret. “I just like books better.”

“I know you do,” I say. “I do too.”

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this to her. Part of me feels like I’m folding into the cultural, if misleading, norm that girls aren’t especially mathematically inclined. It’s even possible that maybe I’ve been pushing her in order to dispel this notion, a big fat Take that! for gender equality. But the truth for me is that I just get words in a way I never will mathematics, and if I know my daughter at all, it is her truth as well.

“Just try your best,” I tell her. “But your best won’t always look like someone else’s best.”

Her curls brush my cheek as she nods her head. I can’t be sure, but what I hope she’s heard is this: You are capable, you are brilliant, and you are you.

samskara

image via

Posted in letters to my daughter, Life, Parenthood | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

A writer’s process

I was tagged months ago in the Writer’s Process Blog Tour Project by Tiffany Clark Harrison, a writer I admire but whose web page seems to be defunct, and Sylvie Morgan Brown. Sylvie is an ex-colleague-turned-friend through this online writing world, and I adore the way she writes, especially when she writes about food. She’s one of those rare breeds who can spin the task of cooking into a savory story of texture, aroma, ambiance, and history. By the time you’ve finished reading one of her posts, you can’t help but feel nourished.

I am forever interested in the writing process. Reading about the ways other writers approach the blank page is like glimpsing a secret of the writer’s heart, and I would love to get a peek into the process by two writers who I’ve had the great fortune of discovering through this blogging world: Dina L. Relles and Wendy Bradford. Dina and Wendy, if you haven’t already participated in this tour, I would love to read your responses to the below questions.

What am I working on?

I wrote my first book on the blank pages of one of those white hardback books you get in school (do they still do that?). I must have been in first or second grade. I don’t remember what it was about, really. I only remember drawing and coloring dozens of bears on the pages because I had decided I was quite good at drawing bears. Whether or not the bears had anything to do with the story I couldn’t tell you, though I’m inclined to think not. I thought this book was an opus, the next great American novel (had I known such a thing existed at the time), no matter that it was not actually a novel, not really a story at all probably, the story arc more of a flat line, the climax nonexistent.

I was always writing and scribbling on anything I could find. My head has always been cluttered with stories, my ears attuned to the lilt and cadence of words, my mind working to structure sentences the way one configures a jigsaw puzzle. I have always loved the way ink glides across paper. I love the way pages can speak, how characters can become as real as your closest friend, and the way that sometimes after you’ve finished a book you realize you’ve found an answer to something you didn’t even know you had been asking. There are the books that leave you asking more questions, asking you to think a little more, dig a little deeper than what’s comfortable or safe, and those are good too. And then there are the ones that stick long after “the end”, the ones you return to time and again to read cover to cover or to search for a specific passage or just to feel the familiar weight in your hands.

My parents had an old roll top desk in the living room of my childhood home, and at some point I walked into the room to find its contents spilled onto the floor, piles of paper and full-to-bursting file folders sprinkling the carpet so that I could scarcely walk without feeling the crush of paper beneath my feet. I sat in the middle of the room and began to pick through the papers. They were stories and poems, all of them written by my mother. This connection between my penchant for stringing words across paper and the realization that my mother did the same planted the seed that writing was an actual thing to do. That authors aren’t, in fact, magical beings granted with the gift of impeccable storytelling. They don’t cast spells in their attics and emerge at daybreak with a tome inked between hardback covers. They are just people. Mothers, even. It would be years before any of her work was published, and years after that until I would learn that she did this by sneaking down to our unfinished basement late at night — gloves on her hands if it was winter — to toil away on her typewriter for hours. With two kids and a business to help run (my father’s), writing during waking hours was a joke, so she sacrificed sleep.

This is what I’m working on. Intentional writing takes sacrifice.

More to the point, I’m working on a variety of children’s book manuscripts (picture book through YA) and finally dipping my toes into submitting parenting/motherhood essays to various publications.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure that it does. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but only in the last five years or so have I been deliberate in studying the craft of the novel and the art of picture book writing. I’ve learned to read and think and see like a writer, and once that happens, once your senses are attuned to the tempo and pulse of everything around you, it’s difficult to turn that off. The person can no longer be separated from the writer. I used to laugh at my mom who would, in the middle of a conversation, grab a napkin or post-it or scrap of paper and start scribbling words or an idea, but now I do the same thing. It’s this heightened sense of awareness that leads me to believe I’m finally ready to focus on my writing in a consistent, purposeful, and honest way, and I can only hope that this will show through in my writing.

Why do I write what I do?

I focus on writing for children because I love children’s literature. I love the art form of the picture book, the fun, quirky characters in chapter books and middle grade novels, and the coming of age stories in young adult novels. When author John Green was asked why he writes for young adults, he said something along the lines of, “Because I think they’re more interesting than adults.” Young adults are in the business of discovering who they are and who they hope to become and why they’re even here in this life walking the path they’re walking. And they’re mostly getting it wrong. Their lives, by nature, are wrought with tension and texture and drama, and I think we can all still access that time of life. Great YA novels are able to pinpoint the passage from child to adult to a painful, telling, scrupulous, and candid degree, exposing those things about ourselves that have long been buried or lain dormant and revealing truths that perhaps we had forgotten.

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” And this speaks profoundly to why I write about parenting and motherhood. I’m stumbling through the dark without a map for guidance, as we all are, and writing about my experiences as a mother and my relationship with my children is my way of processing this magnificent, turbulent, frustrating, taxing, enchanting,  pinch-me journey.

How does your writing process work?

This question is funny to me because it implies function with result, and most of the time I feel like I am floundering through something until it somehow, someway begins to take some kind of shape. I’m only just realizing and getting comfortable with the fact that this is the way I write. Organically. My ideas usually begin with a bit of dialogue or a splice of a scene. Sometimes a word, sometimes an image. I’m not an outliner, though I’ve tried to be one. I’ve taken classes and read books and articles on outlining, but it just doesn’t work for me.

I’m working on a little bit of everything, and that seems to be a problem. I have so many ideas and started drafts for both fictional works as well as blog posts and essays that when I have the time to sit down and focus on writing I don’t know where to start. I freeze. Or I try to do a little with this, a little with that, and before I know it two hours have passed and I’ve written an inch in five documents when probably could have written a mile had I focused on just one. Clearly, my writing process is a work in progress, but as long as I keep showing up I think I’ll find my way.

writing process

What no non-writer can ever understand is that a writer is working even when she’s staring at the sky.

Posted in Blogging, Books & Writing | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Wistfulness Becomes Me

“Pity me that the heart is slow to learn what the swift mind beholds at every turn.”      

Edna St. Vincent Millay certainly wasn’t considering the seasons of motherhood when she penned those words, but this line has been going through my head lately as summer wanes into the first days and weeks of school, the first blush of fall, the first nights of settling into a routine that feels both familiar and new. I say it to myself as a “Get a hold of yourself” mantra when this growing up* business gets to feeling a little too heavy, when the cyclical milestones leave me a little breathless even though I know they are coming, even as I steel myself against them.

*By “growing up” I mean, of course, the kids.**

**Or maybe I mean all of us.

September brings with it a knowing sense that the new will soon become as intimate as the familiar once was novel, and this makes the passage of time all the more evident. And with this evidence an undeniable ache in the heart that is slow to learn.

Pity me not because the light of day

At close of day no longer walks the sky;

Logically, we know that there will be a last day of summer and a first day of school. We know the surface sting of the constant march of time, we know that we can’t slow it down, that the best we can do is to keep up with it, to stand in the red hot center of it as best we can. Give gratitude for the moment, for all of these moments that have added up to one full, blessed journey, and for the moments that will continue to fill us up, moments of blinding joy that we can’t yet fathom. That’s the best we can do. Our minds know this.

But our hearts. Oh, our hearts.

We watch our daughter weave into the crowd and mayhem of students, leaving us with a confident wave and an air kiss goodbye, and our hearts remember the first time. That first kiss. The first time she grabbed our face with both hands and planted a full, slobbery smack on our lips.

We watch our son from the fringe of the playground as another sandbox dweller takes his shovel, and our hearts remember his cries from the moment we first held him in our arms, the way his pinched face looked bewildered and shocked as we lay chest to chest, much the way it does now at the injustice perpetrated against him.

We listen to our daughter read fluidly, effortlessly, and our hearts remember when she climbed onto our laps with her favorite book and pointed to pictures with her chubby fingers until the featherweight ghost of yesteryear settles upon our thighs and words we memorized once upon a time come bubbling from our lips like a forgotten nursery rhyme.

We watch our son take a baseball to the cheek, and our hearts cry out to run to him. Our hearts remember scooping him up and sitting him on the kitchen counter with an ice pack and band-aids as he cradled his blanket and rested his head on the tear-stained shoulder of our shirt.

Our minds remember that we once lived whole, full, happy lives without and unaware of the company of those who’ve become our tribe, but our hearts remember the midnight skin-to-skin, the silky tufts of hair below our noses, the feather-down weight of a newborn and the off-balance shifting weight of a toddler, and the soft skin that stretches across the map of their bones, the topography of which we’ve all but memorized.

Pity me not the waning of the moon,

Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea…

Our minds watch their legs — long and lean and leaving us slowly — and our hearts remember baby thighs doughy as loaves of bread.

Our minds watch them score a soccer goal and our hearts remember the step-fall-step-fall rhythm of those miraculous first steps.

Our minds watch them make new friends and new friends turn into best friends and Saturday nights are suddenly for sleepovers, and our hearts remember bedtime stories and nightlights and kisses goodnight and the please-stay-and-lay-with-me-because-I’m-afraid-of-the-dark nights.

Pity me not the ticking of the minute hand as the years go by; I know I can’t stop it. Even if I could, would I choose to?

And miss all that is to come of our one wild and precious life?

Still. Get a hold of yourself.

Wistfulness Becomes Me

Posted in Parenthood | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Message from the moon

message from the moon

Moon breathes

slumber over cities,

fire hydrants,

sweeping rivers,

a rooftop terrace,

a puddle

that shivers.

Its tender light

threads,

weaves

over alleyways,

cafe eaves,

stone cathedrals,

corner clocks,

peeks

through windows

of bakery shops.

On cloudless nights

its polished light

settles on sailboats,

seacoasts,

a cabled bridge….

Moon’s message

f

a

l

l

s,

whispers

….hush….

Message from the moon

moongazers

Message from the Moon (c) 2009 by Lara Anderson, originally appeared in Falling Down the Page by Georgia Heard, published by Roaring Brook Press. Not to be preprinted without permission of author.

Posted in Books & Writing, Life, Parenthood | 1 Comment

The swim needs to be hers

I was going to finish my post today for the Writer’s Process Blog Tour Project (I was tagged by Tiffany Clarke Harrison and Sylvie Morgan Brown months ago, but summer intervened and I went skipping out the door for a spin around the season). So that post will be coming later this week.

I found myself over at Hands Free Mama this morning, and as I read Rachel’s post on Knowing Where Your People Are my eyes started to fill. (I’m having one of those days where I feel less than. Less than the mother I should be…less than the wife I should be…less than the daughter/friend/sister/writer I should be, so my emotional wiring might be easily affected today.) The part in Rachel’s post that really got to me was the description of her daughter’s fear at swim practice. I know that fear. Mia still has that fear. After countless lessons and undeniable proof that she can swim, she still lacks confidence in her abilities. She’s still afraid of going under.

As I read Rachel’s words my own brand of fear began to nudge itself into my thoughts and wrap its spindly fingers around memories of past swim lessons until a teeming list of questions invoked defense, and I began to check them off.

Had I assured her that I would be there, right there, watching her, waiting for her? Had I pointed out the life guard and coaches who would be watching her too? Had I told her that she was brave and capable? Had I made eye contact with her when her eyes appeared above the surface of the water and searched for mine? Had I wrapped her in a towel and kissed her cheek and told her how very proud I was of her and how much I love to watch her?

Yes. Yes, I had done all of this at every swim lesson because I knew she needed to hear it. And she got the basics down if somewhat slowly and reluctantly. She can do it. So why am I so overcome with guilt that I’m not able to appease her fear, to raise her confidence?

Because I am not her. It’s an obvious answer but one that I still need to be reminded of occasionally. I can ask questions and tell stories and lift her up and soothe her with kisses and open my arms when she needs shelter, but there will always be parts of her that I can’t reach. She won’t always know how to tether and name the whir of joy-sorrow-passion-fear-ardor-grief-concern that shifts and turns within her. I can hold her hand, but I can’t quiet her mind. I can stand at the edge of the pool and cheer her on, but I can’t take that breath and submerge below the water. I can tell her “I’m here” — your people are right here — but the swim needs to be hers.

Posted in letters to my daughter, Parenthood | 1 Comment