The discomfort is telling you something

A pregnant woman has no checklist that tells her: Today, you made toes.

Or: The lungs are finished now.

Or: Good job on the ears, both are done.

Growing a human is a massive endeavor, but the milestones along the way can’t even be seen.

Cells divide into cells exponentially. But on the surface, most of that growth just registers as discomfort: nausea or fatigue or heartburn, until plain old bigness sets in and mom can’t find a good position to sleep.

Enough people have been through this experience that we know what the discomfort means.

We trust it.

A pregnant lady can be reassured by books or doctors or other women who have given birth that yes, these swollen ankles are normal.

*

You don’t have that reassurance.

At times, you are slowly, imperceptibly preparing to give life to a new experience or chapter or project. And all your invisible preparation just registers as discomfort.

Something’s not working. Something’s not right. And you don’t know why.

Because personal rebirth has no set schedule, because creative labor has no reliable timeline, and because so few of us recognize our discomfort as the precursor to change, we mislabel it. We thrash against discomfort, try to delete or fix it, when we could just allow it to give us hints of a birth to come.

You have no checklist that tells you: Today, you’re closer to something new.

But if you’re uncomfortable right now, you might growing exponentially under the surface, and you just don’t know it yet.

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My hope for you this year

For me, 2017 felt like a year to appreciate moments.

My husband and I celebrated 10 years of marriage. All year, my oldest child asked me to tell stories about my childhood. And my newest little one lived her first year with delight, in awe of everything: hands, grass, scrambled eggs.

The year also ended (and the new year began) with some moments so somber I don’t even know how to write about them yet. But if they had to happen, I appreciate that I got to be present to witness them.

May 2018 bring you moments worth appreciating, whatever this year holds.

Neither one of us is getting out of here alive

Someone suggested (as a joke) that we all share a piece of wisdom.

It was Thanksgiving at my in-laws’ house. Dinner was over. A dozen of us had gathered in an impromptu circle of conversation at the end of the day. My husband’s cousin’s husband, who is always joking, suggested we go around the circle and share a truth we would tell the world. So we did.

The wisdom varied from unserious (YOLO) to pessimistic (don’t expect any of your plans to work out) to earnest (tell the truth).

Eventually, my brother-in-law had his turn.

For the past two years, he’s been dealing in one form or another with cancer. And on this holiday, his abdomen was swollen with tumors and a liver inflamed. He’d been awake for Thanksgiving dinner, but much of the day, he’d needed to sleep.

I did not feel surprised that the wisdom he gave us went something like this:

People say we’re all going to die someday, but they don’t act like it. Everybody walks around as if they’re going to live forever. They argue with each other as if they have all the time in the world. But when you’re really, truly looking down the barrel of that gun, you realize: not one of us is getting out of this alive. So we might as well be cool to each other.

I’ve been thinking about that all December.

*

Christmas Eve morning.

My daughter woke me up early and wanted an orange.

In the kitchen, I didn’t grumble at how early she was awake. (I’m more apt to do this than I like to admit.) I paid attention to the sound the peel made when pulled away from the fruit. My brother-in-law’s cancer had nearly overtaken him and he’d come home for hospice care to make peace with the end of his journey. I handed my daughter the orange segments and her mouth opened in a smile.

When someone you love is dying, every moment seems worthy of notice and appreciation.

In a few hours, we would bundle up and drive to my brother-in-law’s house, where his family planned to celebrate Christmas a day early—before his mind or strength slipped even farther away. But at this moment, before the sun came up, my daughter and I sat at the table, just eating an orange together.

I’ve written and deleted and written and deleted what I’m trying to say about this a dozen times—casting around in all seriousness for a piece of wisdom to hang onto. But perhaps my brother-in-law already said it best.

Neither you nor I is getting out of this life alive.

In each moment, let’s be as good to each other as we can.

So your creative project doesn’t change the world…

Even the best, most beautiful work you do today will not fix everything.

If the creative project that calls to you feels frivolous because it doesn’t feed or clothe anyone, do it anyway. The world needs more than just food and shoes.

Or perhaps the creative work that calls to you does feed people or give them shelter. Even then, after all your effort, someone else in the world will still be hungry, or lost, or homeless at the end of the day.

You are not required to right every wrong today. If doing so were possible for only one person, someone would have already done it.

Do what you can do. If we all do the part we are capable of, we will fix quite a lot.

A letter to my daughter on her 1st birthday

Happy first birthday.

Some days, I feel as if you will always stay small. But on other days, like this one, I can sense the light-speed journey that will grow you up and send you out into a world filled with both wonder and love, anger and fear.

Because you’re growing in a beautiful but uncertain world, I want to tell you something that happened before you arrived.

When your existence was still fresh news and nausea to me, I went to a writing conference. I tell you this so you know that I was away from your father—the person I usually lean on—and I was spending time with people I hadn’t seen in a few years. Before dinner one night, I thought I started a miscarriage. I’d lost pregnancies before and the signs were the same. I went outside and sobbed and the whole world felt full of pain and loss.

I intended to tell nobody except your dad. But a dear friend came and found me and lovingly gathered friends around who treated me with the greatest kindness.
It was a simple thing that loving people would do, but it shifted the world for me.

Mabel, your mama unintentionally holds people at arm’s length, worried about being a bother. You’re teaching me another way. From your very beginning, your presence has brought people closer and invited them to show how well they love. Here are a few:

    • The ultrasound tech who spoke kindly as I cried to see your still-fluttering heartbeat on the screen.
    • The midwives who helped me through uncertain months until we knew you’d stay.
    • The circle of good women who blessed me with their words and advice and love.
    • The community of friends that gathered to celebrate your coming and astonished me with their generosity and well wishes.

So many people, all of them loving with a strength you can hold onto all your life.

If the world ever feels uncertain or lonely as you grow, open your arms and let people love you. If you want to help someone whose world has gone dark, open your arms and love them. This world contains far more love than we all let on. Don’t let anyone who’s angry or afraid convince you that isn’t true.

Your name means loving, lovable. May that guide you in every year to come.

Love,
Mama

Who is your mirror? Whose mirror are you?

I’ve been working on a writing project I love—except the ending won’t come together. Loose threads have slipped out every time I try to tie the final knot.

So I talked to a friend who is an expert on giving feedback. She read my piece so far, she told me which parts of the story drew her or kept her out, and she asked me questions. After each of these questions, she asked, “Why?” After each answer, she said, “What I hear you saying about this part is…” or “When you say that, it makes me think of…”

And then it happened. I saw the project clearly. I saw where missteps in the beginning tripped up the story at the end. I saw, start to finish, how to revise so that the narrative hangs together and feels satisfying and does the work that these characters are meant to do.

I already had the answers in me somewhere.

But I needed someone wise and patient to find them, to reflect them back to me so I could see.

Haziness inevitably creeps into any endeavor. If you know where you need to go, but you’re feeling fuzzy or unclear about how to get there, I recommend finding a mirror.

 

The bigger disappointment

My seven-year-old daughter agreed to sing a solo for a crowd this weekend.

As her accompanist, I helped her practice. We walked through how to recover if she got lost. We played a game that gave her the feel for letting the accompanist follow, even if she skipped a line. She was ready.

Before we left home, she said she didn’t want to sing after all. She’d never sung solo before. What if she messed up and felt embarrassed?

After I heard her worries, I told her she had two choices:

  • To cancel and not have to worry about singing anymore.
  • To feel nervous and get up in front of everyone and try.

She grimaced at both. So I said:

Either one’s fine. Now imagine I just told you that you don’t have to sing, you don’t have to worry about it. I’ll just get up and play a song on the piano instead and nobody will know you decided not to. Imagine I just told you you’re not singing. How do you feel?

If she had said relieved, I’d let her off the hook.

But she said: I feel disappointed.

Sometimes we back out of what calls to us because we fear disappointment, without acknowledging that the disappointment for not following through is bigger (and more certain).

So she went. She walked to the microphone and she took a breath and she turned and nodded to me that she was ready and she sang in her clearest voice and after she finished, after we both walked to our seats, she grabbed my hand and smiled and whisper-giggled over and over:

I did it.
I did it.
I did it.

I asked her if she was disappointed that she’d done it. She was not.