My Quiet Life

“Only the heart knows how to find what is precious.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I am an only child growing up in the San Fernando Valley. My eyes are deep-gray and curious, two impending storms. My head is a mass of uncontrollable curls that I hate to have brushed; they are snarled, the color of tarnished pennies. The days are long, hot, a constant summer. I eat grapes from the vine that grows through a chain link fence in our backyard. Run back and forth between our house and the neighbors’ in my bare feet. Prick my finger on a bird of paradise and discover the metallic taste of my own blood.

It couldn’t have been then. Those times were far too plain. Dare I say innocent? No, it must have been later, when fame was not something that was distant, something reserved for other people. It must have been when the allure of the spotlight was right there in front of me, when it had become a part of the décor.

Wilshire Boulevard, West Los Angeles. I ride the elevator up eighteen floors. Wind through a maze of upholstered cubicles. Nudge open the door to my father’s office. He is on the phone, stacks of papers piled in front of him—loans, contracts, tax returns. The smell inside his office—leather and freshly pressed shirts—puts me at ease. I collapse into the chair opposite his desk and wait. All of my father’s clients are in the industry. To my right, a framed platinum record hangs on the wall—a client. To my left, a framed movie poster that’s been autographed by the lead actress—also a client. Sometimes we visit his clients on set or on location. Sometimes he gets invited to movie premiers and takes me along. At concerts, we pick up our passes at will-call, and security ushers us backstage. Everything about this life seems so normal that I never think to question it.

But somewhere along the line it happens. A belief hatches and takes hold. It starts out a tiny seed, but then it grows and grows and becomes something huge and immovable. And the belief is this: That in order for my life to be meaningful, I must do something big, something noteworthy, something brilliant. That everything else is only secondary. That it’s not okay to be ordinary. To be small. I carry this belief around with me, a boulder strapped to my back, for many years. It is a fulcrum, the unconscious apparatus from which the rest of my actions splay like watercolors running from their source.

I sit here now, holding this younger self of mine up to the light, the young woman who placed all of her worth, every last drop, in the hands of other people, in the external. She didn’t know then, couldn’t understand at the time, that while those things are pleasing, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to the peace of living a quiet life—my quiet life.

In my quiet life, I am alone in my bedroom arranging words on the page, an early summer wind rustling the leaves on the lilac, the cat dozing in the perfect crook of my lap. I am walking the beach with my son, our hands locked, cool green water pooling around our ankles, midday sunlight bending across the waves, shattering them into thousands and thousands of tiny beads. I am driving to the nursery after baseball practice to buy more annuals—strawberry-red verbenas, shoots of fiery salvia, tiny mustard-yellow daisies. I am digging and turning the rich black earth, planting something real, something living, something that will take root and blossom and spread.

My younger self hadn’t realized that the greatest achievements take place privately, that our true treasures are self-contained, and like geodes that have yet to be cracked open, the world can’t see what waits inside; only the rock itself knows of its secret internal cavern, glittering quietly, light burning underneath the solid shell.

I have three pretty stones that I keep beside my bed, right next to, occasionally on top of, an ever-growing pile of books. Sometimes I place one of them in the palm of my hand: the one I’m holding now is a silky Mediterranean blue, slightly larger than a robin’s egg.  I close my eyes and trace its surface with my fingertips. I feel its cracks, its lacerations, in other places, where it is smooth, cool. I think about the great mystery of the human heart, its capacity for love, how easily it is wounded, and how in spite of both, it beats on. I think about my own beating human heart, and how sometimes it feels so full that it might just spill over.

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Summer Reading

Typically, this blog is a place where I share what I write. But reading is a huge part of my life, and I’m ALWAYS curious to hear what other people are reading, so I thought I’d take a moment to share my summer reading list:

  1. All The Light We Cannot See,  Anthony Doerr. I’m actually pages away from finishing this book and already mourning the loss. This is the first book of Doerr’s I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. I’m in complete awe of what he can do with the written word. This book goes down as one of my favorite novels of all time. I highly recommend!!
  2. Understories, Tim Horvath. I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet, because the author happens to be a friend. Understories recently won the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Fiction. Tim was also a presenting author at the 2014 Nantucket Book Festival, right alongside two of my favorite authors, Dani Shapiro and Katrina Kenison. Aside from all that, Tim is smart, and incredibly funny, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that his book will be the same.
  3. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion. I’ve read six books of Didion’s, all of them non-fiction. She is also one of my favorite authors, and this novel of hers has been sitting on my nightstand for months, because I keep getting sidetracked by other books. I’m interested to see how Didion’s fiction compares with her non-fiction.
  4. Between The Acts, Virginia Woolf. Several months ago, all I could read was Woolf, one book after another. It’s been a while, and I’m really looking forward to having her words floating through my mind once again.

What’s on your summer reading list? I’d love to hear!

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Trips to California

June 2013 073

It was the first time I understood that my grandmother was dying. I say that I understood. I didn’t understand. I was told, but I didn’t understand. I had taken the morning flight out of Boston, and that afternoon, gone to visit her at the hospital in Inglewood. Her hospital room had not looked or felt like a hospital room at all; it had, in fact, reminded me of a cathedral: it was spacious, it had tall ceilings, and the walls were all bare, except for a calendar that had been hung too high. I distinctly remember my aunt, who was there with me that day, standing on her toes to reach the calendar. She had a pen her hand, and was crossing out the days that had passed. I asked her why she was doing this, and she replied, “So Mom will know what day it is.”

One year later, I fly out to California to visit my grandmother again. This time, she is not at the hospital in Inglewood, but at the nursing home on Washington. This time, I am a mother, and my daughter is with me. The lightless building smells of urine, and I am immediately put on edge by the sound of someone moaning. I locate my grandmother’s room. Her eyes come to life when she sees my daughter. I place the baby down next to her, on the bed with the thin white blanket and the metal rails, and feel uneasy about it. This room, unlike the other, is not spacious, nor does it have tall ceilings; it has three beds separated by floor-length curtains, three televisions, and I can’t remember whether or not there is a calendar on the wall. Another resident is also having visitors, and they are speaking to one another in Spanish. On our way out, I encounter a toothless man being wheeled down the hall. He sticks out a finger to touch my baby’s cheek. I let him, and feel uneasy about it.

It is on this same visit to California that someone, I can’t recall who, transports my grandmother from the nursing home on Washington to my aunt’s house, in Cheviot Hills, where we celebrate her final birthday. My grandmother’s body is slack, and she is as small as a child. She is wearing a blue hospital gown, covered with the thin white blanket from the nursing home. She is placed in a leather recliner on which a large bunch of party balloons has been tied. She holds my daughter. We gather around the two of them and pose for pictures. This is a farewell party as much as anything else, though I do not grasp this at the time. I still do not understand. And here is another thing I don’t yet understand: this will be the last time I see my grandmother outside of the nursing home on Washington. Outside of the lightless building that smells of urine, where the moaning had put me on edge. Outside of the shared room, with the three beds, where her days might or might not have been crossed out on a calendar that hung on the wall.

At this point, the latter wouldn’t have much mattered. In those final months of my grandmother’s life, so many things she had felt strongly about before had lost their importance and, although I never thought to ask her, I have to think that time, especially time, had become irrelevant. My grandmother no longer cared what day it was. But at one point in her life she would have cared. She would have no doubt cared a great deal.

There is the morning of my grandmother’s service, on the chartered boat in Marina Del Ray, when we scatter her ashes, when the fine particles of her fly up with the wind, and then settle themselves on the murky waves of the Pacific Ocean. It is an overcast morning in January, a Saturday. It is a short trip: we have flown in the day before, we leave the following morning. I am three months pregnant. I have on an unstylish pair of pants and no makeup. My daughter is tired. I wrap her in the pashmina I have borrowed from my step-mother, and she rests her head on my lap.

At some point, after we have been sailing for a while, the captain cuts the engine, and my father rises to say a few words. Mid-sentence, he loses his ability to speak. I do not recall having ever seen my father cry, but in this moment, I recognize that he might. I can’t bear to look at my father, so I look at my husband, who is looking at my father.

And then something happens, something both as trace and as definite as the salt that is present in the air. My father lifts his face, and he sees my husband, who is looking right at him. Here are two men, business men, men who spend the majority of their waking hours organizing, problem solving, handing out orders like rations, but right now, there is nothing either of them can do. A hard line has been drawn. No amount of moving around the pieces, of negotiating the terms, will ever change the outcome. It is something like a shared recognition of their helplessness that passes between the two of them, and the exchange is so incredibly tender that I cannot take it. My eyes fill, and I’m forced to look away once more.

Water sloshes up the sides of the boat. The California coastline, teeming with life, stretches along one side of us; on the other, an endless expanse of ocean and sky. There is the solid warmth of my daughter’s head on my lap, one half of her face exposed, pale and glistening like a crescent moon. I feel slight pressure in my pelvis, the stirring of a new life blooming inside of me. The captain restarts the engine. Sunlight breaks through the cloud layer, flecking the rocking waves with silver.

Some Thoughts on Happiness

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Right now in my life I am incredibly happy. I think it’s honest to say that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I could go through and list all the things that are currently going well, of which, right now, there happen to be many, although I’m pretty sure that this happiness is the result of something other than the matter of things simply going well.

For one thing, I have reached a place where I am beginning to understand, finally, what makes me happy. I mean truly happy. This seems like such a simple concept, to understand what makes us happy, but it’s not. It’s far from simple. It’s far from simple because it requires first another action that is also far from simple: not shying away from one’s own feelings. In the process of understanding what makes us happy, we must also understand was doesn’t make us happy. What hurts. I know now that reading page upon page of exquisitely crafted prose makes me genuinely happy. As does watching my children, their faces flushed and marked by the earth, swordfight with sticks out in the yard. I also know now that having one too many glasses of wine and deciding to Google people I haven’t spoken to in years just because I’m feeling “curious,” does not make me happy. It leaves me with the most peculiar sense of being alone in the world. I am aware of this now, though I didn’t used to be.

I have also learned that I have a list, not a long one, of certain happiness requirements. I know, for instance, that I require a certain amount of time alone to read and write because these two activities, reading and writing, are central to my well-being. They are central to my well-being not because I can’t survive without them but because I can’t be happy without them. I know this because I have tried. Here’s the tricky part. Currently I don’t make any money either reading or writing. Neither one of these activities helps support my family. Both are for me and only me. Everything about them suggests that they shouldn’t take precedence on my to-do list, everything about them but this: whenever I try to convince myself that this solitude I yearn for like clear cool water on parched lips isn’t absolutely necessary, I am left with nothing more than a brittle shell of myself, a self that can crumble at any given moment and be blown away like dust.

Happiness, I’ve learned, also means not falling into the trap of isolating myself, believing that I can, or that I have to, figure life out on my own.

It means not comparing myself to others

It means remembering to say thank you often.

Of course it’s not all so cut and dry. In the midst of all this happiness there is also upheaval. Isn’t that the way it always goes? Right now in my life I am engaged in the work of turning over stones. Heavy stones that have been sitting there for years. Stones so deeply embedded in the earth that they don’t want to move. And yet it’s time for them to move. But change is hard. Right now in my life there is uncertainty, the kind of uncertainty that goes hand and hand with change. This uncertainty requires courage. Courage to trust that I’m making the right decisions. Courage to allow the cards to fall where they will. Courage to, as Rilke says, live the questions.

And this is mainly how I know that I am happy: I have a growing awareness of the fact that life isn’t black and white. I can be confused and hurt by a relationship and at the same time feel an enormous amount of love toward the person who has both confused and hurt me. I can have a day of feeling mostly depressed and out of nowhere be brought to my knees by the thin amber light filtering through the kitchen after dinner. Both heartbreak and heartbreaking beauty can, and generally do, exist together, in the same day, in the same hour, side by side, in the very same moment. So I can just stop waiting for it to be otherwise.

And of course there is always the robin. The robin who gathers sticks for the nest she has built in a small evergreen tree just outside our backdoor. There was a nest in this same tree last year and the year before. I can watch the robin with her sharp black eyes, her diligence, and her humble determination to complete the task at hand. And I can remember what a privilege it is to be here, witnessing this sacred act, living this prismatic and bountiful life, even when it hurts.

My Writing Process

I was delighted and honored when my friend Amy asked me to join along in the series of posts about writing that have been circulating around the blogosphere lately. I discovered Amy’s blog, My Path with Stars Bestrewn, a couple of months ago, and I instantly fell in love with her writing.  Some of the very first words of Amy’s I ever read were these: “We don’t have to look too far to find opportunities to share love. Opportunities are right here, right now. The only prerequisite is a pair of eyes to see and a heart willing to give.”  This last sentence is, in short, what Amy’s writing does for me: it opens my eyes, it opens my heart.

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“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. “ –Joan Didion 

 What am I working on?

What you read on this blog is what there is. Occasionally, my posts will appear elsewhere, but these are all posts that have, at least up until now, appeared here first. In other words, I have no big plans up my sleeve. I’ve only been writing (regularly) for about a year and a half, so I still consider myself to be in the childhood of my writing life. In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro talks about “writing in the dark,” or the period of time when a writer is just starting out and there are no labels, no good or bad reviews, and no expectations to encumber her. “In the dark,” she writes, “you are free to grow like a moon flower, to experiment without consequences. There are no limits, no definitions.” This is the sacred space in which I see myself. I think that, ultimately, I would like to write a book, possibly a memoir, but I’m also being intentionally protective of this present time. I don’t feel a need to push or rush anything. Right now, I’m finding my voice. I’m discovering what I want to say and how I want to say it. I’m letting myself take chances, grow like a moon flower.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure I have a good answer for this one. First of all, I’m not exactly sure what my “genre” is. Yes, I’m a blogger. Yes, I’m a mother. But I don’t think of myself as a “mommy blogger.” I think that the main, and perhaps the only, way that my work differs is that it is written by me. It is therefore entirely at the mercy of my sensibility. I am an only child of divorced parents. I was born and raised in suburban Los Angeles. I attended a small liberal arts college on the East Coast where I met the man I would eventually marry. I pursued a career as a professional actress for a time. I am the mother of three children. I have chosen to raise these three children thousands of miles away from where I was raised, both literally and figuratively. All of these life experiences are a factor in my writing because they are a factor in me. They have formed, and continue to form, my unique lens on the world. This lens is the only tangible difference I can see.

Why do I write what I do?

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.

I wrote these sentences back in November and every word of them is still true. I write to create some sense of order around my experience. I write to stay engaged in my life. I write to know how I am feeling and what I am thinking. Anything that I write is a reflection of me trying to do these things. Often, I won’t even know what I want to write about until I actually begin. For instance, I recently started on a piece that was supposed to be about time—the passage of it, my anxiety over the passage of it, and so forth. As I began writing, it became clear that what I really wanted to write about was my grandmother who passed away eight years ago, and more specifically, about the time just before her death. The focus of the piece shifted from time in general to a certain time in my life when my grandmother was about to die. I suppose there was a part of me that needed to understand this experience more, to give it a shape.

How does your writing process work?

Write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and on and on and on, until I arrive at something I feel mostly satisfied with, which chances are I will rewrite again at some point. I’m an incredibly slow writer. Once or twice the stars have aligned and I nailed a good portion of something on my first try, but this is usually not my experience. Virginia Woolf describes her sentences as having been “struck with an axe out of crystal.” I think this image is about perfect. This is how writing feels for me much of the time. Despite the arduous nature of it—or perhaps because of it—I derive immense pleasure from striking my axe again and again and, ultimately, this is why I do it. If I did not enjoy it, there is no way it would be worth my time.

I write six to seven days a week for about an hour and a half. This happens in the mornings, after getting my kids off to school, and on the weekends, while they are watching cartoons. Having this kind of a schedule, where writing is built into my day, right alongside eating and brushing my teeth, works really well for me.

I would also have to consider reading to be a part of my process, because I find that my writing is profoundly influenced by what I read. It’s to the point that I have to be thoughtful about what I pick up. Annie Dillard says that a writer must be “…careful of what he reads, for this is what he will write,” and I agree with that statement wholeheartedly. I have no set schedule for reading; I simply do it whenever I can. I don’t like watching television, so there is time to read most evenings, after I’ve put the kids to bed.

 

I’m very excited to introduce two writers I adore, Jessica Braun and Julie Burton, who will be sharing their answers to these same questions next week:

 

jesse

Jessica Braun is a writer, erstwhile yoga teacher and mom to two girls. She does most of her writing on yellow Post-it notes while driving or making dinner, many of which end up stuck to the bottom of someone’s sock. She lives in a suburb of Philadelphia and blogs at www.nocigarettesnobologna.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

julie-b-color-profile-picJulie Burton is an experienced writer specializing in any and all aspects of parenting, relationships and finding balance. She is a wife and mother of four children ranging in age from 10 to 19, and soon-to-be author of a self-care book for mothers. She has been writing ever since she can remember and her children have provided her with some of her most treasured material. She blogs at www.unscriptedmom.com.

 

 

And my lovely friend Amy, whom you met at the beginning of this post…

amyA self-described closet writer who surprised herself by making the decision to dip a toe into the blogosphere this year, Amy VanEchaute lives in Illinois with her husband, Jeff. Together, they’ve raised three (splendidly) literate children. Amy studies and reveres nature, subsists on poetry, and chooses peace for her daily portion. She enjoys sharing her photos and her perspective on My Path with Stars Bestrewn.

 

 

 

Reminders

 I’d gone outside to get some air. A telling phrase, isn’t it, get some air? As I write these words I am reminded of a teacher I had during my first year of acting school who, whenever we were up in front of the class performing our rehearsed scenes,  if we had started to become evasive in what we were doing, would shout at us from her chair, “Say what you mean! Mean what you say!” I hear her shouting at me now, so I will tell you, what I really mean in this instance is that I’d gone outdoors to ease my restlessness, that familiar “itch” behind the wall of my chest, which can sometimes be, as it was on this day, debilitating.

I might also tell you that on this day I couldn’t get anything done, which is true, but this might imply that I was having trouble thinking straight, which is only partially true. The itch, when it comes, is really a matter of not being able to put down a thought, of clinging to it, turning it over and over in my mind with such intensity that the rest of life recedes into the background. I literally am not capable of focusing on anything else. For those of you who have never experienced what I am talking about, there is a very physical sense of having been reeled in by a thought and unable to let go of the line. Of having gotten hooked. On several occasions, after having gotten hooked, I have actually had to command myself to get up and walk out of a room otherwise I would have spent the next several hours sitting right where I was, alone and “thinking.”

Having lived with this for a good portion of my life I have become fairly clear about two things: that the itch itself is fear, and that the resulting action, scratching the itch, is based on the false belief that by ruminating on something long enough and hard enough I can somehow control or change its outcome. I believe the appropriate word for this is obsession. Anyhow, I’ve been through this itch-scratch cycle enough times by now that it seems only logical I’d have figured out that no amount of scratching can ever actually assuage the itch. Unfortunately it doesn’t work this way. Fear doesn’t work this way.

Getting back to where I was. I’d gone outside to get some air, or rather, to scratch the itch. I began pacing the backyard. My breath was vaporous, my eyes watery from the cold air. It had in fact been so cold that day, and in the days preceding, that the snow on the ground had frozen solid. A heartbeat in my head, the early afternoon sun on my boot, frozen snow cracking beneath me every few steps.  These are the only details that I remember.

Do you see how there is no substance to this story? The reason I haven’t provided any substance is because it’s simply not there. I can’t tell you exactly what I feared. I can’t tell you the various strategies I had devised that day, if there were any, to get around whatever I had feared. I can’t even tell you the moment that the fear began to dissipate. That point when the lens shifted and the fear and my life began their well-practiced act of switching places, the former receding and the latter emerging, until finally I felt like myself again. I can’t tell you because I don’t remember and I don’t remember because it is no longer relevant. The nature of the itch is such that when it is present, which could be a matter of hours or it could be a matter of days, I tremble along, only halfway inhabiting my life. But once the clouds pass over, once the fear is behind me, whatever I was concerned about seems insignificant, occasionally to the point of humor.

You will always see light after darkness. This is the message I received in a fortune cookie on the night I discovered that my daughter had lice and we ordered Chinese takeout. It is also the message that I stuck under a strip of tape to the cover of my Moleskin notebook. I stuck this there, where I can see it regularly, not because I need convincing, but because I frequently need reminding.

And I frequently get reminded.

Just the other morning, while making his bed, I buried my face in my youngest son’s blanket. It was the white crocheted blanket that I received as a baby shower gift when I was pregnant with his older brother. The blanket was never used by his older brother and has always been my youngest son’s. He has slept with it every night since he was a baby. Just the other morning I buried my face in my youngest son’s blanket and breathed him in, and I remember how my entire body relaxed, as if it had been submerged in warm water, and the whole world,  everything around me, was suddenly clear and beautiful, and I thought to myself, “You know, it’s really all right.”

 My three constant reminders. 

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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.

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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