Monday three weeks ago, I received a phone call from our family physician’s office confirming a diagnosis of salmonella for the 14 y.o. (almost 15!, he reminds us daily). Twenty minutes later the phone call was from my dermatologist’s nurse: a biopsy of a spot on my forehead was positive for nodular basal cell carcinoma, which sounds impressive but is really fancy-pants talk for sun damage (I am hoping thinning hair isn’t part of my aging process, so I can cover any scarring from the upcoming “excision”).
That was not a particularly good morning. And altho’ the teenager’s condition, uh, solidified within 48 hours, he lost a fair amount of weight and muscle, is generally exhausted (9+ days of zero nutrition really takes it out of a body), and, last week, developed “reactive arthritis,” apparently not uncommon after a major infection. This pretty much dashes on the rocks his hope of trying out for the basketball team.
As this news sank in, I told him a story: in forty years, when he’s accepting a lifetime achievement award for coaching, he’ll credit this fall’s misfortunes as the circumstances that set his course. I received a flash of a half-smile beneath the almost-teary face he was controlling.
Of course, who the heck knows what his lifetime achievement award will be, or if it will be one that’s acknowledged by the World at Large, or one that’s more private, the award some of us receive when we are willing and able to accept it. Forgiving partner, loving children (literal or figurative) and vibrant, interesting friends.
This more private award is the one I’ve been reminding myself of these past two weeks, as I read the NYT Book Review and ponder the (im)possibility, at my age (forty six but no elixir of youth in sight) of having a multi-book career. Of having an any-book-published-at-any-time-ever career. Blerk!
But one morning last week when I woke my in-box held a lovely note from a neighbor, acknowledging our family’s bit of bad health luck and affirming my role as a writer. I burst into tears. I hadn’t realized how much I needed affirmation of my writing. What an unexpected gift from my extended community — a community I wouldn’t have if I were devoting myself tirelessly to getting published.
The tension between tending to one’s “real life” aka community, and “creative process” is one that Janna Malamud Smith devotes a chapter to in her new book, An Absorbing Errand. On the one hand, solitude is important for the sustained effort creative work requires; on the other hand, without community, “people get weird” [Smith’s words].
My struggle to balance writing with the labor of being a mother, wife, friend, neighbor and citizen has yielded a diverse harvest, one where I receive half-smiles from my sons and honorable mention for a very few stories. I don’t have anything published. I don’t have a grand insight about my life’s tensions, accomplishments and failures. I don’t have a consistent strategy for sustaining my writing (OK, that’s a lie: I try for at least 15 minutes, daily). I don’t have a poetic image to share that captures the fraughtness of it all.
But I am having fun in my geeky, writerly way, wrestling with that fraughty-ness. I’m nominating myself for a lifetime achievement award in the category of fun and fraughty-ness. I do not say this frivolously: our deepest laughter inevitably leaves us leaking tears as it ebbs.
Here’s to all our individual bests, and the path that leads us to them … as Susan M. Watkins put it: “I think that wherever your journey takes you, there are new gods waiting there – with divine patience – and laughter.”