When I get behind the wheel, I’m a driver who sings along with the radio, or her iTunes playlist. It’s one of my small pleasures in life. It embarrasses my children, I’m not sure what my hubby thinks of it, and my neighborhood awarded me a “most likely to sing in public” award, so it’s hardly a private predilection, though I think of it as so.
But I hide my emotional response to songs. (Unlike my emotional response to some stories. It’s family lore that mom couldn’t finish her up-til-then fabulous out-loud rendition of A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Or the scene in Kathi Appelt’s book The Underneath where the mother cat dies. I cry just thinking about that.)
“One of Us” by Joan Osborne choked me up last week while I was stopped in traffic on my way to ferry the 13 y.o. to his cello lesson. Good grief, I chided myself. This is hardly a question that should provoke weeping!
The song was released in 1995, placing its rhetorical question (“What if God was one of us?”) well before 9-11, before the Virginia Tech shootings – before all sorts of events that have changed the way we “do business,” at least in my neck of the woods, at least business having to do with how we regard each other as citizens: Are you patriotic enough? God-fearing enough? Where I live, plenty of local government bodies pray before they open their meetings, and the prayers aren’t typically interfaith. They are predominantly Christian. What if God were sitting in the audience, waiting to give her-his two cents worth on the latest zoning ordinance? What if God were Muslim? Jewish? Or … agnostic, uncertain which interpretation of herhimself to endorse?
Which led me to … which interpretation of my self is “me”? Am I who my extended family thinks I am – keeper of my mother’s journals & letters? Am I “just” a housewife? I feel like my mother role is non-negotiable, though I know plenty of women ditch it in favor of – well, a myriad of different things. Mostly involving silence and solitude. (See Anjelica Huston’s provocative portrayal of a mother in The Darjeeling Limited.) I choose to be wife and friend, though of course both those roles have dormant seasons and dry spells along with summer songbirds.
I heard an interview on NPR with Gustavo Perez Firmat a Cuban-American poet who feels betwixt and between. While my writer self has the (dis)advantage of mastery over only one language, I still feel alien amongst non-writers. Not friendless, exactly, but – one step removed. And subsequently a bit lonely. I’ve been wishing I were more “normal” so I could be . . . more normal.
Plus, I’m done (as in sick-to-death-of and have-revised-enough-times) with my novel and no new short story ideas have whispered in my ear and I’d rather shoot myself in the foot and run ten miles to a hospital than contemplate another novel.
So. I’ve been thinking, enh, maybe now is a time of life when you need to focus on being mom and wife and friend and community member. I caught a virus that laid me low enough to need antibiotics, and then my 10 y.o. got sick and needed allergy testing followed by multiple doctor appointments for a weird rash (idiopathic poison ivy, the cure being prednisone, this boy who can run a sprint triathalon with virtually no training, yeah, put him on steroids and . . . you do the math).
And then … there was the Trifecta Weekend.
Back in July, when I took myself away for a retreat week , I signed up for the James River Writer Conference in Richmond, Virginia the first weekend of October. I put it on the calendar in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and I announced to my family that I WOULD attend this conference. I reserved a hotel through Priceline. Nonrefundable albeit affordable.
Then the 13 y.o.’s soccer schedule was announced. Tournament that weekend. In Richmond.
Then the triathalon the 10 y.o. wanted to run this fall because he was too young last year was … on that weekend. In Richmond.
Then engineer hubby found out his big contract wanted to have a ribbon cutting ceremony that weekend. In California.
I yielded to reality. Even with the help of friends it was going to be, uh, impossible for me to spend a couple of days at a writer’s conference AND get my kids everywhere they needed to be. I didn’t have to go the conference, I told myself. I was focusing on my wifemotherfriendcommunityparticipant roles anyway, right? Besides, my writing excitement had dissipated. I would be better off managing my kids’ schedules. Chauffeuring, making sure everyone had enough water and bananas after their physical exertions.
Then engineer hubby’s trip was delayed. Due in large part to a disheartening explosion in the lab, but he wouldn’t be on the west coast that weekend, a silver lining of sorts. He decided to race in the triathalon as well.
Then the conference organizers re-arranged some things so I could still “pitch” my novel in a one-on-one meeting with the agent of my choice. I couldn’t attend the first day of the conference, but the second was do-able.
And so we went. Two cars, two bikes, tri-shorts and tops, one soccer ball, one set of cleats, two squirmy sons, a gazillion water bottles and bananas, the husband and I, and a printout of directions because “Poodles Hudson” the GPS has been flaky of late.
I had a blast at the conference. I bought ten pounds of books. I soaked up ideas about the sacred and profane from an interview between Joseph Williams and Karl Marlantes. I heard from memoirists about their families’ reactions to their stories. The agent liked my pitch. I walked back to the hotel in the autumn’s warm late afternoon light and didn’t go straight up to the room. I sat in the coffeeshop and laid plans for a return to my writer self. Turns out I do have a few story ideas knocking at the door. But they weren’t coming ’round while I was busy trying to be like everyone else.
The opening session I attended included this quote, attributed to Franz Kafka: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
Not exactly flattering, but accurate.
I’m (re)discovering that I have to recommit myself regularly to writing. I thought I knew enough about “practice” to practice what I preach. Turns out I don’t.
I’ve had to coax myself into resuming the discipline of morning pages. I’m wearing out the buttons on my timer for ten-minute writes. Because it remains, after all these years, scary to sit down in front of a blank page.
Scarier to court insanity, however.
What’s something that fills your creative well, something you don’t do often enough for yourself?
Schedule it! Do it! Halloween aside, our communities and our selves — all of them! — don’t need half-dead spirit monsters. Life is too short to dawdle: all of us need to sit up, take notice, and write our stories, be it with literal pen and paper or music or dance or fabulous meals for our families and friends, or telling the Town Council what you really think about the latest zoning ordinance.
‘Cuz there are times when our other roles have to be front and center.
But my writer self is at my core. And when a song – or a book – makes me cry, I need to listen closely and wrestle a bit with the why and wherefore of my tears’ origin. Perhaps we all do.