On Being An Only Child

Seldom have I given much thought to the fact that I was raised an only child. If you were to ask me, say, one year ago, how this one piece of information has influenced my life, all I would have told you is this: from the moment I knew I wanted children, I also knew I wanted them to have siblings.

I spent a good portion of my childhood alone, mostly waiting for someone to appear or something to happen. I waited on a metal picnic bench to be picked up from school, its cool ridges impressing themselves onto the back of my legs, the sky revealing two or three early stars. I waited curled up in an armchair, staring out at the thick, velvety darkness, searching across the canyon for the headlights of my father’s car driving home from work. I waited with a fly on the veiny part of my forearm determining how far I could tilt my arm before it flew off and, when it eventually did fly off, whether I could entice it to land on me again, while my parents spoke with a relator about buying a house. I waited, I waited, I waited.

I also spent a good portion of my childhood with adults, and because fitting in with children my own age was for me a frequently excruciating and unsuccessful endeavor, I preferred it this way. I accompanied my parents to crowded parties where people sipped champagne from plastic cocktail cups and often there was nowhere to sit. Portions of these memories still remain quite vivid. I see most clearly the three of us—my father, my step-mother, and myself—arriving at a party. We have moments before parked our car along a curb of a Santa Monica side street, and are now walking up a driveway toward the house, a one-level stucco. I am trailing behind them. I become aware of a vast energy, a movement—the movement of people from behind windows, the movement of the city, the movement of salt air from the ocean that is several blocks away—and the way all these different forms of movement have come together at this one point in time and are now brushing against my cheek.

Would it have been different if I’d had a sibling or two to share this moment with? Would I have paid as close of attention? Would I have felt this movement? Would I have attended these parties at all?

Being an only child also made me by default the center of attention. Not that I was showered with attention. To the contrary, I was actually given a good deal of independence for someone my age. But when attention was given, I was the only one there to receive it—usually.

There was a girl, the daughter of a family friend, who was close in age to me, both of us around ten. She was a child actress, this girl, which is not entirely uncommon where I am from, with an impressive singing voice for a girl of ten. She and I got along fairly well, and for a few years, she and her mother would come to parties that my parents gave, where, encouraged by her mother, she would stand by our piano and sing.

When she sang, people drifted in from other parts of the house and fixed themselves on her, this ten-year-old girl, who had the voice and poise of a full-grown woman. I remember standing among these people, unable to see over their heads, feeling suddenly very self-conscious, and also feeling something else, something new. Her voice, though undeniably beautiful, had the slightest shrillness to it, a forced effect that I clung to, and with repeated exposure, came to dislike immensely. As I stood there listening, listening to her voice rising up and out, forcing its way through walls, ceilings, even through skin, I felt, for perhaps the first time in my young life, the disorientation of envy.

That experience being what it was I can also tell you that I was never entirely comfortable being the center of attention. Occasionally I reveled in it, though usually when swimming in those waters the pleasure was partial, as if one or more of my limbs remained unsubmerged. There was a time, though, when I truly believed that nothing would make me happier than being the girl at the piano who could sing unabashedly with a crowd gathered around her. I am speaking here in metaphor, as this wish had nothing to do with singing and everything to do with having won the approval and earned the applause of a room full of people.

As it turns out I am not, nor have I ever been, that girl at the piano, and those circumstances would have never led to the happiness I imagined. I am fairly certain that had I decided to go down that path I would have been left feeling vacant and dissatisfied, and perhaps even landed in one or another Southern California rehab.

As a child I frequently fantasized of a life with brothers and sisters, a life within a large bustling family, similar to, not so coincidentally, the one I have today. Although sitting here now, with a clear understanding of what such a family life looks like—which, not surprisingly, is a far different picture from the romanticized version of my youth where the “bustle” aspect was dramatically downplayed, if not overlooked altogether—I’m not sure how well I would have fared in that environment, being the sensitive and rather inward person I am. I would have, of course, fared, but perhaps I would have turned out differently, perhaps less sensitive, less inward, though who can actually say? And this, right here, is of growing curiosity for me.

How do the various pieces we are handed—here you go, this is your life—influence who we ultimately become? These pieces, which may or may not exist in union with the essence of who we are, and yet, undoubtedly, create who we are. We may yield to them or we may battle them or often we will do both, but either way we can’t deny their influence over us. And if we stripped away these pieces, these roles we are given to play, like they are layers of paint that have been brushed over wood, how would the grain underneath appear? Would there be a visible grain at all?

Some Advice from Virginia Woolf

“What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.”

Some words speak to us. I read the above passage, from Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, in bed one night. I underlined it with my pencil and then placed the book face down on my stomach to let the words sink in. I recognized that they had hit a nerve. Woolf is talking, of course, about writing, but her words spoke to an ongoing challenge of mine, as a writer, yes, and also as a person.

Not five minutes later I found myself on Twitter. And when I say “found,” I literally mean “found,” as in I have no recollection whatsoever of how I got there, and therefore no explanation for the distractibility of my mind on that night, how it swung, in less than five minutes, from one side of the forest over to another. But I suppose that part of my story is not what’s important. What I want you to know is this: I scrolled through my Twitter feed only half paying attention—the other half, it’s likely, was still with Virginia Woolf—when I came across this other bit of writing advice, which I quote directly as it appeared: “How to write: MAKE yourself do it. MAKE yourself stick it out for half an hour till you are in & paddling. That’s what it’s like on most days.” These words belong to Anne Lamott.

The polarity between these two pieces of advice, both of which, as chance would have it, I encountered in less than five minutes of one another, and both of which, as chance would also have it, came from writers I admire, struck me. I also knew instantly where I stood, which piece of advice I needed to take to heart and which one I needed to let slip away.

MAKE yourself do it.

I have spent my entire life making myself do it, pushing past my own resistance in order to get “somewhere.” It’s true that after I jumped in and acclimated to the waters eventually I paddled. I can see, though, that the cost has been high.  Often I’d paddle mindlessly, without any clear picture of where I was headed. I kept going because on some deep, terrifying level it felt imperative to paddle harder and faster, to never stop moving. Overriding my feelings time and again has cracked me apart, created chasms of disconnection. Like a body target at a shooting range, there are holes in me everywhere. Feelings come up and they are unrecognizable. I don’t understand the language of my heart, often I can’t even hear it, so accustomed have I become to silencing its cries, its warnings, its pleas for help.

As an early adolescent I watched my inner circle, which  in the years I am referring to was comprised of my father and my step-mother, racing along on the hamster wheel, chasing the promise of something different, something better, off in the distance. All of our basic needs were met—we were clothed, we were fed, we had shelter—still there was an underlying restlessness, a feeling that this in itself wasn’t enough. It was necessary to keep working toward something. Our daily habits, my father’s in particular, reflected this restlessness. He, my father, left for work in the morning by six, and most nights he didn’t come home until eight. He also worked weekends and often holidays. He worked, in part, because he had to. But also, he was in his comfort zone at the office. Working was how he defined himself, and it just so happened, he was very good at it.

If you were to ask me to name my father’s dominant personality trait I would say: knack for stick-to-itiveness. He has a unique ability to set his mind to a task and follow through with his agenda no matter what is going on around him. The entire city of Los Angeles could be on fire and he wouldn’t be impeded: he would park in the parking garage, stride into the elevator, and ride the eighteen floors up to his office. It’s a quality that lends itself in equal parts to self-discipline and inflexibility, laser-beam focus and blindness to the bigger picture. It can be extremely frustrating for others to deal with, and yet it has enabled an otherwise poor Jewish boy from Chicago to become a successful self-made businessman. For better or for worse, I inherited this from him.

I agree with Anne Lamott. If we are writers, it is essential that we make ourselves show up to the page repeatedly, because beyond showing up to write, little else is within our control. But it’s this second part, not the first, I find harder to swallow. Occasionally there will be a day I don’t feel like writing, usually when I’m faced with the task of creating something out of nothing, splashing that first bit of paint—no, flinging; it’s much more like flinging—onto the large blank canvas. But for the most part, making myself sit down and do it is not my problem. What I find much more arduous, sometimes impossible, is the opposite motion: pulling back. Allowing the writing to develop at its own pace; sensing when I’m pushing too hard and would be better off doing something else, like folding a load of laundry; standing in the middle of creative disorder (“the flood”), and trusting that I will, in time, find my way.

I’m a snail of a writer. I write a little every day, with exceptions here and there, gradually chipping away, like a miner, at whatever it is I’m working on. I can’t bulldoze my way through anything. When I try to force it—and you’d better believe I have tried—the result is disastrous, every time. One of the things I find most intriguing about Woolf is how well she understood this about writing. She didn’t treat her mind like a workhorse. Her mind was her diamond. She knew when it needed polishing and care. She recognized that the push and pull—work and recovery—go hand in hand. She gave herself permission to go slowly, to step away from the work, to rest when she needed it.

Some words speak to us. “…lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous…”  This is the advice I must yield to now. The advice, each time my nerves start to fray, I must allow to wash over me. To not be drawn in like a magnet to the momentum of the world. To have faith that each day I will be given what I need (even though, as the Rolling Stones have reminded me on several occasions, this might not be what I want.) To also have faith in my ability to work with what I have been given. To remember how little control I ever actually have. And, that there is no race to the finish line. No awards given at the end to those who accomplish the most. All I have, all that matters, is what is right in front of me. “There’s no hurry.” This is what I’m currently being taught, as writer, as a person. 

The Whole Thing Matters

Life is not a series of stops and starts, it’s a continuum. The past never goes away. Even when it appears that we have washed our hands of it, there it is beneath the surface like a current moving us along.

Two summers ago, I sat on an airplane from Los Angeles to Boston, flying from my old home, where I spent the first twenty-five years of my life, back to my current one. As it often does when I make this trip, my mind was by turns conjuring up the past and pushing it away. Here were my roots spread out on the table before me like a fortune teller’s cards. And yet it was no mistake that I decided to settle and raise a family three thousand miles from everything I had ever known. Sitting there in my cramped coach-class seat, I happened to be reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, when I stumbled over these words of Terri St. Cloud’s:

“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.”

As I read and reread those two sentences, something in me released. I had a vision of my life, everything I had ever been, done, or witnessed, as a great mosaic. I literally saw myself piecing together the fragments, using the chips and shards to create a work of art: a life that was a work of art. What a concept this was. This meant that no color or shape or texture was wrong. Every last drop had meaning. I knew that much of my life had not been pretty, but perhaps, when viewed within the context of a whole, there was flow, or at the very least, a unique design.

At some point my vision drew to a close, the plane touched down.

It’s now two and a half years later. I am sitting on my daughter’s bed, blankets askew, and the cat purring contentedly in my lap. I’m thinking about how these words still ring true, and how also, not much has changed.

My preference, just as it’s always been, is to slam the door on my past. And, like the dutiful handyman I am, apply caulking around the edges where anything might be capable of seeping in. To give you an example, I have kept a journal over the years on an almost-consistent basis. But once these journals are filled, they no longer feel alive to me. There is an odd detachment that takes place after that final sentence has been written, so that instead of storing my old journals in a drawer, or high on a closet shelf, I tear them up.

(I recently thought it would be a good idea to begin saving my journals, so that’s what I’ve been doing. But the idea of rereading them still isn’t digestible. Just yesterday, I was alone in my house and opened one for the purpose of witnessing my reaction. I read one segment. The writing seemed childish and foreign. I looked over my shoulder, embarrassed, as if someone could actually be watching me, and then promptly closed the cover.)

In a similar vein, it is also characteristic of me, every couple of years, to embark on, not minor, but massive wardrobe overhauls, purging myself of any item that reminds me of a different time, that doesn’t feel current, and I don’t mean in the fashion sense. Throw it out. Move on. Clear out the old, the worn, the excess. I revel in that feeling of newness, of a slate that has been wiped clean. The relief is unmatched. It’s what I imagine a snake feels after shedding its old skin: lighter, lifted of a burden. But What, I ask myself, is really going on here?

I am not about to suggest that one should never, heaven forbid, clean out her closet, or that one doesn’t have the right to do as she pleases with the pages of her own diary. However, I have given these habits of mine some thought, and when I trace them back to their roots, both point to an element of distaste for the past. Get it away from me. To the idea that, back then, I was doing it (life) wrong. I wasn’t really living then. Now, however, I’m on the right track. I’ve finally got my act together.

Where do such thoughts come from? Of course I was living yesterday, a year ago, ten years ago, twenty. The living might look different, in some cases drastically, but it was, without a doubt, the best I could do at the time. I know this, and yet.

There’s so much talk these days about living in the present. But what are we to make of our pasts? I have no desire to get stuck in mine, though it’s clearly not worthwhile (and I don’t think possible) to completely do away with it, either. To bag it up, heave it over my shoulder, and toss it into some bin at the Salvation Army. No. In order to understand who I am now, I must first understand who I have been.

Move forward.

Make the whole beautiful.

Can one ever really move forward without first accepting what has been?

And so, something is calling to me again to unseal the door. To let all that I have shut for years out to come trickling back in. To lift up the pieces, like a child curiously plucking stones from a riverbed, and run my hands over and around them, feeling the weight, the ridges, the soft spots. To say, This is my life. The whole thing matters. There are cracks, yes. And there is also beauty, so much beauty.

Expectations

I am sitting by the window of a café on a frigid morning, quivering slightly, because I have had too much coffee. The view from where I sit is bland, monochromatic. The sky is formless and the color of a stone. The road washed pale with salt. The snow has lost all its charm by now. It, too, is an ashen color, and, dirty and hard, creates a cumbersome barrier from road to sidewalk. Still, I can’t help but think how the room I sit in is warm. As was the coffee I drank too much of. And, as I write this, a seagull, white as the snow was on the day it fell, drifts easily through the blanched air.

I have been thinking recently about expectations. How, as a general rule, our belief about what life is—what we can and can’t expect from it—impacts the amount of suffering we experience. As a child, for instance, I was raised to believe that life is good. When I use the word “good,” I’m referring to what feels good, to health, to happiness, to kindness, to a road that is smooth. Life is essentially pleasant, or at least that’s how it should be.

This was not something anybody explained to me in words, but it was, very effectively, taught through a language of signs. Painful feelings or encounters, any kind of strife, were not acknowledged as being alive and real. Instead, I was taught, or rather shown, to turn away from them. Pretend they didn’t exist. Oddly, these things lived right alongside of us. They inhabited our rooms, walked up and down our staircases. Thousands of arrows were often pointing right at them. And yet always, they went unnamed.

Now all of this was subtle and intricate, as human behavior is. To better explain myself, it would be helpful to bring in someone very dear to me—my father. My father was only a year old when his own father died of a heart attack. We all have our wounds, and growing up fatherless, I believe, is the great fissure that runs through my father’s life. As a child, I knew that my father had never known his father, that this was the way life had panned out for him. But I never knew how he felt about this reality of his. It being the 1950’s, certainly he experienced a different sort of reality than the majority of the children he grew up around. What did this difference feel like? How did it look? Every once in a while some raw bit of sap would seep out the corners, but mostly what I saw was the mask he wore every day, along with his dress shirt and tie, a mask that had built up like a kind of plaque over him, through the repeated motion of turning away.

I don’t blame my father for this. He was merely doing his best to survive and provide for his family in a culture that stops at nothing. That prides itself on its very ability to persist in spite of pain. But here’s the snag. In my family, this was taken one step further. Pain wasn’t acknowledged and then trudged through. Pain was altogether denied. So the message passed on to me was: Don’t feel your feelings unless they are good feelings. You are not permitted to have struggle. There is something liberating, I think, in declaring that a day was hard but it was lived nonetheless, and that tomorrow one can start anew. But this kind of talk was not tolerated in my house. If words like these were spoken, which mostly they were not, they were automatically snapped in half. Come on, how bad was it really? Well it’s nothing compared with the circumstances of so and so.

I grew up in Southern California, in a suburb of Los Angeles to be precise, and I have, on more than one occasion, wondered if this mentality isn’t regional. I toss this out there only lightly, because I certainly can’t claim to speak with any authority for an entire population. I find it interesting, though, that my husband, who grew up rurally, and on the opposite coast, was not raised to think this way. My husband was taught that life is downright hard—only a fool would think it otherwise—but the grace of God is vast, so you pray, and then you get on with it. Don’t get me wrong. This mentality has its own potential for neuroses. Here, though, at least one is shown that suffering falls within the natural order of things. In other words, this mentality includes the missing link—proper expectations.

What happens when we go through life thinking that every day will be a happy one? That people will always be kind. All problems have a solution. That illness, betrayal, and death aren’t factors that all human beings must, at some point, contend with. The answer is: we will constantly feel like we are coming up short. If I have learned one thing, it’s that denying the existence of suffering, in any form, will only create much more of it.

I never thought it would be so hard to give myself permission to feel my feelings. But it turns out that it is. And yet if I can, when life isn’t easy, remind myself that I haven’t, somehow, gotten it wrong. It’s okay to have struggle. It’s all par for the course. That instead of turning away from what hurts, I must turn towards it. Sit down in front of the fire, and watch the orange-and-blue flames shoot and smolder. In this way, and only in this way, life is good. It is very, very good.

Go Ahead, Take It

“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything…” –Joan Didion

Something inside of me is about to shift. I can feel it. The energy of this shift has already taken hold. Early contractions in what is likely to be an arduous and drawn out labor. But before I get ahead of myself, I will begin with photograph—and, yes, in case you’ve noticed, photographs are a theme for me recently.

I am not in the habit of liking photographs of myself. But every now and then a picture of me emerges that I do take a strong liking to. There is one specific photograph that comes to mind as I write this. It was taken when I was much younger, sometime in the year that followed, I think, my high school graduation. I remember having it pinned to a bulletin board, among a dozen or so other photos and odd mementos, in the bedroom of my first apartment.

But what I am thinking about today is not the actual photograph itself. I am thinking about how it ended up in the hands of someone else. Or, more specifically, how I allowed it to end up in the hands of someone else, this picture of me that meant something. Because one day a sweet boy with a cleft chin and a face speckled with acne asked me if he could have it, and I responded without the least hesitation, “Go ahead, take it.”

As I have said, the photograph is not what is important here. Nor is the boy with the acne, the cleft chin, and the sweet demeanor. The boy is long gone and the girl in the photograph still exists clear enough in my head. Her cherry-stained lips, her hair braided in two halves, her cloth Mary Janes with the embroidered dragon at the toe, all these elements are fully intact and, for the moment anyway, reconciled. She waits for me on a shelf somewhere, neatly folded in tissue paper, and I will pull her down when necessary. For now, it’s the other thing, those four words—Go ahead, take it—that I can’t put away.

Here is something odd. I really, truly, don’t think of myself as a generous person. Kind, yes. Big-hearted, that too. Generous, however, is not a word I would use to describe myself, and it never has been. I can be terribly stingy, a total miser, about sharing, for instance, food, my portion of the bed, the two pillows I must sleep with every night or else. I am not generous with the dust particles of life, all the day in and day out details that rest there on the surface and can be easily swept away by the brush of a hand. These I grip until my fingers are white. But it is also true—and here is what’s odd—that over the years, especially when I was younger, I haven’t the slightest issue with giving away not the dust, but the framework, the planks that, hammered together, allow everything else to stand upright. “What was that? You want my self-worth? My peace of mind? Go ahead, take it!”

It isn’t anger or remorse that I feel when I think about how much I’ve given away. It’s something more like distant sadness. That feeling one gets seeing a young person, whose years are still stretched out before them, on the streets, and knowing that he or she has taken a wrong turn in life. It’s that sigh, that shake of the head, that feeling of what a shame. My heart goes out to my younger self, and I wonder on occasion what my life would look like today if she’d had the wherewithal to make different choices. If she hadn’t felt it necessary to carve herself up like a cake and hand out the pieces with a smile on her face. One for you, and for you, and don’t forget that tormented soul there in the corner, an extra-large piece for him. If she’d had the audacity to stand her ground and say, “No, you can’t have it. It’s mine.”

To walk around, even on those days when one feels incapable of holding her head up high—indeed, even more so on these days—with the awareness of a self that is worth protecting and going to battle for, this is self-respect. And this might very well be the great work of my life. So here I find myself where I first began, on the verge of something new, some new behavior. Small signs they are, but visible nonetheless. This is what I’ve noticed:

I am more likely to consider my own feelings in, for instance, an argument, as opposed to pushing them into a corner like some neglected houseplant, and rushing off to rescue of the other person’s feelings. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of anything that stirs the pool of vulnerability more violently than having another person upset with me, especially when that other person happens to be someone I care for deeply. And in the past, I have gone to great lengths to avoid this upset. While all along, of course, I’ve been shooting myself in the foot. One can never really care for another at the expense of denying her own feelings. This tactic may work for a while, but ultimately the denied self becomes a breeding ground for resentment and the dagger in any relationship.

I am also less inclined to be swept into the lure of the bright and shiny—fame, recognition, rungs on the ladder, all measures of success in the worldly sense of the word. Putting too much stock in these things is another indication that self-respect is lacking. Because though they are potentially wonderful, they are also weightless, a beautiful iridescent bubble floating purple and gold on the wind. They are fleeting, quick to pop. They appeal to me still, for their hooks are embedded deep in my flesh (more on this subject at another time), but I am increasingly skeptical of them. Now more than ever, when their sultry voices call out to me, I find myself backing away and shaking a stern finger, “You’re not all you’re cracked up to be, you sneaky little rascals. Now go back to bed!”

What interests me more these days is that which resides at the very heart of self-respect: Quiet fulfillment. Making a nice dinner for my family. Creating something beautiful out of words. Helping my daughter work through a conflict with her friend. Petals on an award-winning rose these actions are not. They are, rather, seeds strewn in a plot of the richest earth. They have, as Joan Didion writes, “nothing to do with the face of things, but [concern] instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.” Anyway, this, I suppose, is the direction I am headed.

A Photo, A Reminder

A photo is taped to the door of my armoire, on the inside. It is of the backyard of the house in California where I spent the better portion of my formative years. But specifically, it is a photo of the wood deck, stained in a deep shade of chestnut by my own sixteen-year-old hands, where I used to lie on my back and disappear into my surroundings—the rush of traffic from below; the temperature outside that went unnoticed, possessing neither heat nor chill; the enormous dome of sky.

The sky. When I think about the photo of this place where I used to disappear with some regularity, always, in my mind’s eye, I see a sunset. A sky streaked with pink and orange light. But, yesterday, when I pulled it down from the door of my armoire, for the purpose of writing this, the first thing I noticed is that it doesn’t look this way. That there is, in fact, a thick, purplish-gray cloud layer, with patches of light and dark swirled throughout, like a watercolor painting.

Still, the rose bushes are blooming and full, as I remembered, vibrant coral and fiery-red clusters. The grass appears healthy, as if it has not been deprived in any way. Palm trees spike against the horizon, the familiar backdrop of my youth. There are also the mountains, the Santa Monica Mountains, floating there in the distance, rounded and weathered with a suede-like softness.

And then, of course, there is the “I” who took the photo, the “I” who you cannot see at all. Who knows what was going on inside of me at the time? The photo is not dated and I have only a scant memory of taking it. But wait. Here is a clue: the two terra-cotta planters standing there off to the side, huge and empty. Their emptiness makes me think that the photo was taken as a last photo, after the house had already been sold. That when I angled the camera—some non-digital apparatus—at my subject, it was with shaky hands, knowing it would be my last time here.

What was I hoping to capture and preserve with that one final click? Surely, it was not just a piece of earth, or even all the memories, scattered on the ground, through the air, like dust swept in by the Santa Ana winds. In this place, there were tears shed of what, at the time, felt like the deepest kind of anguish, over boys, over my own nagging loneliness. There were entire afternoons spent with a best friend, wet from the swimming pool, gossiping, and smoking cigarette after cigarette. There were crowded parties where police helicopters circled overhead, blinding us with their searchlights, while we raised our middle fingers in protest. All these things came and went here. But it isn’t them I want to touch.

The thing that pulls me in now is that which has remained inalterable all these years. What I can sense living and breathing within the neat edges of this glossy rectangle I hold in my hands. Looking at this photo, I am reminded that while I am comprised of my experiences, all of my former selves, there is also a part of me that is infinitely more expansive and enduring than they are. A part of me that nothing—no amount of successes or failures—can ever touch.

Perhaps it was this thing, call it what you will, I used to search for when, as a teenager, I would stretch my body along those slats of wood and disappear. It was connection I sought then, connection I seek now.

In grad school, I had a professor who said to me once, “There is something in your writing that is free. Hold on to that. Don’t lose it.” I was twenty-five at the time, and I had no idea what he meant. I do now. He wasn’t just talking about writing; he was talking about life. How it creeps up on you with children and mortgages and health problems and all its other Responsibilities. The days stack beside each other like dominoes in a uniform row. Years begin to fall like cards in a hand that shuffles them. We get caught up in the immediacy of things, the urgent matters, and if we’re not careful, we will lose sight of what is free in us. Hold on to that. Don’t lose it.

But are we ever really lost from ourselves irreparably? I don’t think so. Because no matter how far I stray from it, that part of me—that part in every one of us that is fixed and true—is always right here. It waits for me patiently, expectantly, anticipating the moment when I will once more look to the sky and remember who I am.

Moments of Being

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“A great part of every day is not lived consciously.” –Virginia Woolf

All of my life, or at least as far back as I can remember, my mind has been like a race track where the events never end—noisy, fast-moving, non-stop. Thoughts cling to me and I can’t seem to set them down, not even for a moment. It is also worth noting that this trait, like the unfortunate appearance of spider veins, has only gotten worse with age. Indeed, somewhere along the line—College? The day I became a mother?—I crossed the threshold into bona fide worrier territory, and now that’s pretty much where I reside, all tensed up like the insides of a container labeled contents under pressure.

And yet every once in a while there is a break in the chaos. A stretch of time, typically not a long one, when time itself seems to have slowed down. I know no better way to explain it than by comparing it to the memory of floating on my back in a swimming pool as a child. At some point, when my face had grown too hot with sun, I would release the muscles that held me up and allow myself to sink. I’d surrender everything to that soft cool water, falling, falling with great ease, until finally there it was: the pale-blue bottom pricking my back like a cat’s tongue. That sinking sensation, that feeling of living my life as light and effortless as a dandelion parachute—no matter what the current conditions are—is what tells me I am here.

When I am here, I am aware. I see the colors. I smell the smells. I feel my feet standing on the wood floor. I notice how the patches of ice encrusted on the driveway appear rose-colored at certain times of the day. There might be messes in the corners of my house, as their usually are, but gone is the need to compulsively straighten them. If I have had a bad writing day, or spent the morning grouching at my kids, I tell myself that next time I will do better. That one never stays in any one place for too long.

The thoughts don’t go away. But somehow they reduce to the tiniest crystalline particles, like the slants of snow that blow past my window for days following a big storm, all translucent and glittering.

When I am here, I am not living on autopilot. I don’t check social media or email like it’s a bad tic. Nor do I think in tweets or Facebook status updates (this is never a good indication of where my mind is at). Instead, I ask myself, Is this what I really want to be doing now? Is this a good use of my time, my energy? Both of which, at this point in my life, are precious (and limited) resources.

I wish I could say I inhabit this place frequently. I don’t. The greater part of my every day is spent running around in a haze, in that perpetual churning and grinding of the mind. It is not lived consciously.

Virginia Woolf, whose writing I can’t get enough of lately, describes what I am talking about as the difference between “being” and “non-being.” “When it is a bad day,” Woolf writes, “the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

And though I have never, and I mean this quite literally, been one to set goals for the new year, this year I have one. It is to adjust my proportions, to have more moments of being, less moments of non-being.

I have my work cut out for myself, truly. Because, to really live this, and not just write about it, it’s going to mean doing less, and it’s painful for me to even put these words on the page, let alone put them into practice. It’s also going to mean being consistently (much) easier on myself. Not buying into the part of me that believes where I am now is not good enough. That happiness and fulfillment are somewhere else, just beyond reach.

But perhaps most importantly, it’s going to mean finding ways to regain perspective, so that when times get hard—which they will—when there is illness, exhaustion, conflict, all those disruptions both large and small—which there will be—I can release my muscles and sink in, as if falling once again through the soft cool water.

 

My friend Nina recently wrote an inspiring essay–if you have the time, read it!–about the importance of implementing small, specific changes to make our resolutions achievable. Without a doubt, this is the necessary next step for me. I’ll be sure to keep you posted!

This Is My Life

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These are some moments from the past few weeks, moments I want to remember. Of course, right alongside my daughter’s hand-made paper dolls, my youngest son resting in his father’s arms, and the amber-colored light that filled the sky the day we brought home our Christmas tree, there has been life. There have been sleepless nights, strep throats, a swell (seasonal?) in sibling rivalry. There have been to-do lists that never end. Plenty of time spent wandering around thinking  I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. There has been the loss of a loved one and the painful memory of the loss of another. Times when it has felt like there is loss all around me. And yet I remind myself, This is it. This is my life. And I’m so grateful to have another day.

Remembering My Grandfather

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My grandfather passed away what was a few weeks ago now. It isn’t like me to write about this, about him. The wound is too fresh. I feel far too vulnerable. It is much more my style to get tangled up, as a cat caught in yarn spins awkwardly around itself, in the panic and hypochondria that typically set in right about now.

If I have learned one thing, it’s that fear is my go-to emotion; it is also, very often, my entry. Fear is the swaying bridge suspended high over the rough waters that I must first cross, before I can feel anything else. But the air is thick, and gray with fog, and I have forgotten how to walk. So I will write.

Here goes.

My grandfather, Robert Lee Smith, was my grandmother’s second husband, and not my mother’s biological father. There was no shared blood between us, and yet this fact couldn’t have been more irrelevant. I knew him as my grandfather from the moment I was born, and our connection was buoyed by our sheer familiarity and affection for one another. I called him Bob.

Bob grew up in Missouri and he grew up fatherless. His father had been the state governor, and his mother, at the age of sixteen, had been his father’s one-time mistress. Above all else, what I remember about Bob’s childhood—a trinket I picked up as a child myself and have never put down—is that he developed an infection when he was very young that led to complications with his eardrum. To prevent him from going deaf, he underwent an experimental procedure in which the breast of a hummingbird was placed inside his ear, and there it stayed for the rest of his life. As a child, I pictured that hummingbird’s breast tucked inside Bob’s ear dozens of times; in my mind, it was—and still is—covered with the softest blue feathers.

One time, roughly eighteen years ago, Bob and I—had it been on a dare?—jumped into a swimming pool, fully clothed, holding hands. That was the kind of grandfather he was, game for just about anything. He was also the grandfather who rode shotgun while my grandmother negotiated the sharp curves of Benedict Canyon, a concerto on the radio, the entire car smelling of my grandmother’s sugarless bubblegum. The two of them were inseparable. In his eyes, she was a masterpiece. He regarded her with the same reverence and appreciation one might a sacred work of art.  The only time I remember Bob scolding me was when, in a prickly mood, I’d been rude to her, a line for him that could not be crossed.

Bob was a talker, the kind of person who could strike up a conversation with anyone and walk away with a dinner invitation, or an emphatic reminder to call if he was ever in a bind; he was the grandfather who drank coffee after lunch, which he brewed with a cone-shaped filter placed over a mug; the grandfather who got stabbed in the hand during the 1965 Watts Riots.

Bob was the grandfather who told stories. Much of what he shared with me, with any of us, about himself, what he had done in his life before he met my grandmother, was so jaw-dropping, so fantastic, that if I had taken the time to think about it, I might have raised an eyebrow, and yet I never once did.

Bob possessed an unwavering sense of loyalty. He would go to great lengths, regardless of the inconvenience, to take care of those who mattered to him. I cannot count the number of times Bob dropped a project mid-task after I’d called to say I needed something—moving boxes, help painting the condo, someone to assemble that dresser from Ikea.

And here is where I come to a gaping hole, a disconnection. It feels wrong to be writing about my grandfather in the past tense. Already, I have had to go back and edit my words several times, because I have written about Bob as if he were here, as if he were capable, even, of reading what I have written about him. Everything remains so fresh, so palpable. His laugh, for instance, is clear sound. I see him standing at the kitchen counter, brewing his mug of coffee, telling a joke. I hear his low, raspy voice saying to me “sweetheart,” calling up the stairs to my grandmother, sound echoing off the cold walls.  I feel with absolute certainty that if I were to return to the house in California where I grew up, there he would be, sitting in a corner chair with his legs crossed, reading a Robert Ludlum novel.

The memories—should I even call them memories? There isn’t a trace of haziness to them—exist in full color; they hold with the vibrancy of wet paint. Bob coming through the front door in a white sweatshirt with the words “Carpe Diem” printed across the front. Bob bending backwards under a broomstick while Chubby Checker’s Limbo Rock plays on the stereo. Bob at the sink, drying dishes with a cloth. The warm-hearted Bob, my grandfather, the man with the feathery hummingbird’s breast in his ear.

As I sit here now, the sun is shining over my favorite pond, shattering its surface into hundreds of glass beads, lights that flash and pop with increasing intensity at each gust of wind. The longer I stare at it, the faster the light seems to move, until it stops moving altogether, having become an unbroken reservoir of white. A dull ache settles through me.  It creeps down my throat, penetrates the tender hollows of my stomach. I walk slowly forward.

About Me, About This Blog

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I don’t like the questions Who am I? and What is this blog about? They feel overwhelmingly wide-open and hopelessly confining both at the same time, and also impossible to answer in any coherent, never mind concise, way. And yet it is necessary, I realize, to provide some tidbit of information about myself and the nature of my blog, so here you have it, the three things I can tell you for sure: I am a writer, this blog is a place for me to share what I write, I write about my experience.

It’s true that there are subjects that resurface in my writing. It is also likely that several of these subjects are fixed, stamped on me permanently. I, for instance, will always be a mother, an only child of divorced parents, someone who was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. These strips of my experience have been, and continue to be, layered and bound. Together, they form a solid mass, an ever-evolving lens through which I view every detail of my life. I can’t imagine that the various components of this lens—themes?—won’t always be present in my writing, at least to some degree.

The hesitation I feel when asked to describe who I am or what I write about comes from my awareness that there is, on the other hand, so much fluidity. And that I can only illuminate, as with the small pool of a spotlight, where my lens is pointed at this particular moment in time. I will not, as I am now, always be a woman in her mid-thirties immersed in the simultaneous rapture and exasperation of mothering a preschooler, a first grader, and a third grader. Who knows if I will continue to be smitten with the small New Hampshire town where we live? I certainly hope so, but really, who knows? All this is to say that I find it extremely difficult—as I have said, impossible—to articulate to my satisfaction who I am, what I write about, without the nagging concern of having to go back tomorrow and say it all differently.

Of course it could be that I’m overly sensitive about committing myself on account of how this blog started out—on what, to me, seems like the other side of the mountain from where it is now. I began posting here about a year ago, in late November 2012, with the intention of launching an online health coaching business. If you go back into the archives, you will see that some of my early posts have titles like Stressed? One More Reason to Eat Your Kale and The Beauty of Coconut Oil.

That my heart wasn’t in health but in writing—and in particular the kind of writing I do here, these personal essays—nudged at me quite early on, though I can’t tell you for certain the moment I finally gave in. I do know that at one point I caught myself comparing chia seeds to river stones and thought then that something might be up.

Writing isn’t new to me. I have written in one form or another most of my life. Although this business of calling myself a writer is entirely new, and still feels fraudulent. What I have learned over the years is that when I am not writing, I feel like a central valve has been sealed, my blood flow constricted, essential parts of me gangrene and wither. There is also, when I am not writing, the unnerving feeling that I am hiding from myself, which in essence I am doing, since I am unable to think through even the smallest matters unless I write them down.

So, ultimately it wasn’t that I found writing about health unimportant, or even uninteresting; it was that there was more to say. And, that there is only so much leeway within the parameters of a blog whose purpose is instructional, as most health blogs are, and whose readers come not for the experience of reading a post, but to take away something pragmatic, something “useful.” It has never felt natural to me to write under the burden of having to be useful.

If I had known from the start what I know now about the direction this blog would take, I would have settled on a different name. I remember the morning my husband and I came up with Nourished Mom, we were sitting on wicker chairs in a glassed-in sun porch in Vermont, the wide windows of which overlooked the snow-covered mountains. It was a warm day, unseasonably so, and all around us, since we had the windows cracked, we could hear things—roof, trees, earth—in a state of thaw. I remember, too, getting that ping of rightness when one of us—I can’t remember who—said it aloud for the first time. It seemed like the perfect name for what I wanted to do: help mothers care for themselves.

And yet somehow, even now, the name is not inaccurate. The irony is that I am the mom who has been nourished. My writing here has filled me in ways I never would have imagined. It has brought me vigor, wholeness, the, as Virginia Woolf calls it, “exquisite tremor of life.” Equally as unexpected has been the community of writers I’ve encountered online over the last several months, those kindred spirits flittering about whose worlds have miraculously collided with mine, and who regularly have me nodding in agreement to what C.S. Lewis describes as the spark of friendship, that moment of “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.

If there is one point above all others I wish to make clear it’s that I’m grateful beyond measure to have this place to share my writing and, of course, to the people who take the time to read it. I can’t fathom that it will ever not seem incredible to have my writing read by others. That these sentences I have carved out of air one at a time, alone, in odd places around my house, usually with my cat and a cup of coffee nearby, are now floating around in someone else’s mind. Incredible.

family

This photo was taken last year, but it still reflects where my lens is pointed right now: my favorite people, my favorite place

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Welcome!

Thank you for visiting my blog! My name is Jessica Halepis. I am a wife, a mother, and a writer. I live in New Hampshire with my husband and three children.


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Favorite Quote

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

- Unknown