My sister Nancy tells the story about a time when her boys were under two years old and, as mothers of young children often do to keep from going insane, she visited a friend.
Besides her two sons, Nancy brought along with her a backpack she carried in lieu of a diaper bag. It featured many convenient compartments and was not covered in ducklings or whales as were most diaper bags in the late nineties.
So, Nancy had this backpack and it was heavy. Like, monumentally heavy. And she was at the home of a friend we’ll call Kristin because that is her name. And Kristin’s children were older, so she didn’t need a diaper bag or even a backpack anymore. Gone were her days of baby wipes and fishy crackers and teething rings and nursing pads and sippy cups and pull-ups and nasal aspirators.
For better or worse.
When the time came for my sister to leave Kristin’s house, she put her enormous baby on her hip (no really, he was enormous) and asked her toddler to hold her hand and then she heaved the monstrous backpack onto her shoulder.
She slumped a little under the weight.
And her friend named Kristin looked at her with kind eyes. “Your bag won’t always be this heavy.”
Now, I happen to know Kristin. She is not only kind, she’s also super smart; and I suspect that while her statement was a literal fact, she meant it in a much bigger way.
Your bag won’t always be this heavy.
Kristin was right.
Today, Nancy’s kids are 17 and 19. For more than a decade, they have carried their own bags (sports, groceries, school).
And while I wish I could report that my sister’s days of heavy lifting are over, metaphors are tricky sons of bitches. Nancy has got other bags to carry now. They’ve simply taken on different shapes.
Don’t we all drop one burden only to pick up several more?
Children bring baggage. But so do jobs. Or spouses. Dear friends even, and extended family. Financial worries. Health issues. Loss. Grief. Pain.
Eventually, everyone feels the weight of a monumentally heavy bag.
What we don’t feel is surrounded by Kristins, with calm eyes and wonderful bag-related metaphors.
Or perhaps we do have a Kristin or two, but we think we can’t reach out for one reason or another. Or these Kristins reach out on their own and we tell them
No, thanks. It’s okay. I am fine
even as we slump under the weight.
Why is accepting help so difficult for us? Guilt, maybe. Or pride. The fear that if we admit to one crack in our shell the whole damn egg will be destroyed. Nobody wants to be Humpty Dumpty.
So we tell everyone we’re all right even when we’re not.
But here’s the problem:
When our bags are too heavy, we do stupid things to alleviate the slump. Perhaps we sleep too little or drink too much. We might yell at our kids or curse the dog or stop trying, hoping, dreaming.
We end up hurting ourselves. And worse, we hurt the ones we love.
It’s so silly, really, when help is all around us. Sometimes we slump too far, though, and forget.
When our burdens become too great to bear, we should welcome any support that’s offered to us. Let someone else who cares disperse the weight.
(Like me, for example. I’m pretty strong when I’m not too busy being weak.)
Wherever you are right now, please consider the bag you carry alone. Maybe there’s more than one. You might be staggering under the pressure.
Then say after me:
My bag will not always be this heavy.
(You can do this in the mirror but if you’re anything like me, you haven’t showered yet or brushed your teeth and poor self-image is a compartmentalized backpack all by itself.)
Now. Say it again. Louder.
My bag will not always be this heavy.
This time try to believe it. Then reach out to your Kristin.
I promise she’ll need help with her own backpack someday, too.
But I love them and the children they freeze in words, even as time continues to march on.
A few weeks ago, my son turned 17. My daughter Karly is 15 today.
I’m on the tail end of their living under my roof and I still feel like I’m faking my way through parenthood. In two blinks, they will be gone.
(Unless they’re like me and move back home after college and stay until their father gently ‘encourages’ them to leave.)
So. When will I begin to feel like a real adult?
On July 1st, my son hit a milestone, having been a licensed driver for a full year.
His provisional license has been converted to …umm…I am not sure what it’s called now. Besides scary. The rules and regulations governing a BRAND NEW DRIVER have been lifted. Jack can legally squire others in a car and he’s been freed by law from a driving curfew.
These luxuries were prohibited in his first twelve months behind the wheel. Lawmakers, in their wisdom, knew that becoming a licensed driver is a life and death responsibility. So, they made the boy ease into it.
This got me thinking about the roles I’ve taken on or had thrust upon me over the years – important roles like Teacher, Wife, Mother.
One day I was not teaching, wife-ing or parenting. The next day, I was.
Without a twelve-month probationary period.
Perhaps this is why I still feel provisional…as a person.
Before jumping into our pool, my nephew Riley would stand, toes at the edge, and shout, “Best way to get used to it!” before hurling his entire body into the deep end.
I, on the other hand, lingered on the steps, the water’s chill raising goose bumps on my skin. To this day, I need time to adjust, to wade slowly into a fresh change of environment.
Hot to cold, dry to wet. Alone to….crowded.
Sometimes, however, we cannot inch into our circumstances.
The principal hands you keys to a new classroom. An officiate hands you a marriage license. A doctor hands you an infant.
Good luck. Goodbye.
Baby Jack was wailing as we left the hospital and I remember thinking, “They won’t let us go! It’s obvious I don’t know what I’m doing!”
The nurse wheeled me and my squalling newborn out the door, sending us both on our way. No practice. No restrictions. I simply had to do it.
Every day. Hour by hour. And when the minutes dragged, I cursed our lying clock.
Best way to get used to it!
I’ve been married for almost 18 years. Parenting for 17. Writing since I could hold a crayon. Isn’t it time to stop believing I’m provisional?
Even Pinocchio became flesh and blood, eventually.
I am a wife. A mother. A writer.
Stumbling and staggering to my feet, again and again, I wait for the day when all of this feels real.
I write because I have to.
As someone with many writer friends, someone who reads countless articles about or by writers, who longs to embrace the writing life, I frequently come across this phase or something similar to it.
I am sure that, for some people, the sentiment rings true.
But I’m throwing off my Artist Cloak, right here, right now, and admitting to everyone that I, Julie C. Gardner, do not have to write.
Not even a little bit.
Sure, when I was a toddler, I scribbled in my baby book pretending to write stories.
Later, I kept journals and dreamed of becoming an author. (Elementary school diary entries reveal my desperate desire to trade places with Judy Blume and to marry Shaun Cassidy. Spoiler alert: neither one seemed interested in these opportunities.)
As an adult, I left a career with a steady paycheck to toss my hat into the literary ring, hoping it wouldn’t be trampled by a stampede of faceless rejection.
In short, I began writing with crayons and still write, forty years later, with a computer. In my personal experience, Effort + Success – Failure = Reality.
And reality sometimes bites, right Ethan Hawke? Practically. Psychologically. A lot.
So why keep at it?
Occasionally, I stumble across a poorly-written book and think, “If this guy can be in print, so can I!” Unfortunately, these experiences are more frustrating than tempting, as the siren’s call of someone else’s LOW BAR has proven to sustain me for brief bursts of time.
Eventually, I read something that is beautiful, smart, transcendent. A real work of genius. That’s when I consider giving up. (By ‘eventually’ I mean every single day of my life.)
For some inexplicable reason, however, I wake up the next morning and greet the page again. In the face of other people’s brilliance. At the risk of my own failure. I march on.
(Believe me. I’m as surprised by this as you are.)
I limp along, persevering, although I do not have to. I wish I did. Being compelled to write by some undeniable force might make tackling the goal a little easier.
Because it’s hard to subject yourself to the emotional toll exacted by endless attempts; especially when conventional wisdom suggests you won’t succeed, or at least not in the ways you once imagined.
And it’s even harder to continue when your gut does not whisper this: “Psst……Julie….. Writing is life! The air you breathe! The passion in your heart and better half of your soul!”
My gut whispers, “Cheetos might be tasty. Or Fritos if that’s what’s left in the variety pack.”
So where does this confession leave me? Doomed to remain uninspired? Unmotivated?
With orange cheese dust on my fingers?
Maybe I am lucky that I do not have to write.
I write because I think I’m good at it and I’ve been encouraged from a young age to do so. Also, I enjoy the aftermath of having composed something decent.
Sometimes, I even want to write. But not even that often, if I’m being honest.
If this makes me an outsider in the writer-world, so be it.
Either way, I keep stringing words together. One at a time.
Despite an inner-voice that dares me I to quit, I continue to make writing a major focus of my life. And along the way, I’ve created a blog I love. Met friends who share my dream. (About writing. Not Shaun Cassidy. I think.)
I’ve completed three book-length manuscripts and have been published (more than once) and paid (more than once) for the words I write.
The process is painful and messy, joyous and hard; especially because, at the end of the day, I do not have to write.
But at the beginning of each day, I’m so glad that I can.
It’s the first week of December and I sit on our couch while my family staggers through the front door with an 8-foot noble fir that will be this year’s Christmas tree.
My head aches. My throat nurtures a lump. I’m mad at myself for not being happier.
Just be happy, Julie.
But the last time a Christmas tree stood in our family room, the space still reeked of smoke and the dim light of spring filtered through filthy sliding glass doors. It was March and our tree was a corpse.
Shriveled and dusty, its naked branches hung at a steep angle of defeat, robbed of our collection of personalized ornaments.
Baby’s First Christmas, 1997. The Gardners: Bill, Julie, Jack and Karly.
Some had been sent to a restoration facility in the hopes they could be saved by an ozone treatment. Others, too fragile to survive, had been stuffed by strangers into blue biohazard bags and tossed out with the casualties of January’s house fire.
We’d had to walk away from everything we owned, surrendering our things to the will of salvage experts.
The tree was last to go. I still don’t know why.
It had taken a week for the towing company to haul away the ruins of my car. When it exploded in the driveway – the heat from the flames in the garage igniting its engine – there were still groceries in the back I hadn’t yet unloaded.
For days, people driving past the burned-out shell of my Toyota Sequoia knew I’d bought bagels that day. And grapes. Red Gatorade.
By then we were living in a hotel, traveling through our days like tourists visiting our own lives.
Each morning, we had plenty of clean towels and enough free shampoo to lather, rinse and repeat. Bill and I sipped cheap wine in the lobby most nights at six o’ clock while Jack and Karly perused the complimentary salad bar.
They ate iceberg lettuce coated in Thousand Island dressing. They really liked the endless bowl of croutons.
But we had to suspend our carpool because the Residence Inn was too far from our neighborhood; and since my teenaged kids were sharing a bed, Jack often slept on the floor without a blanket.
We missed our dogs. We missed normalcy. We missed home.
So our insurance adjuster arranged a six-month lease on a rental house and I prepared to solve all my family’s problems. Maybe I hadn’t been able to stop the flames from swallowing our garage, but surely I could make this house into a home.
I held my breath as a company delivered loaner furniture and housewares – forks, sheets, toothbrush-holders, pillows – everything a family of four (plus their two dogs) might need. And just like that, I would make everything better.
I puttered around unfamiliar corners rearranging empty picture frames on borrowed dressers. I stowed a half-dozen fake silk plants in an empty linen cabinet to gather dust.
We didn’t have extra linens anymore.
Once everything was in its place, I stood in the living room alone, fidgeting nervously.
When the kids come home from school, will they feel it, too?
The rooms were furnished but they still seemed vacant to me, a solitary trespasser in an oversized dollhouse with nothing familiar to anchor her. I cooked dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. Jack and Karly sat down to eat at someone else’s table.
Gobble it up, quickly, I thought. Before the real people come back!
I was Goldilocks, except none of the porridge or chairs or beds felt just right.
Tears stung my eyes and my insides roiled.
We are lucky. We are together. What’s the problem?
I’d been quick to tell people (or they told me in an awkward rush) that what we’d lost in the fire was ‘just stuff’ that could be replaced. But I couldn’t replace Jack and Karly’s certainty that my love would always be enough to protect them.
I didn’t know I had to pull the pin from the fire-extinguisher to make it work. And as for the trickle of water that had been too weak to stop the fire? Well.
I couldn’t panic and unkink a hose at the same time.
So I got the kids out of the house and went back for the dogs. I chose not to go in a third time for my computer or car keys. No, not even for the guinea pig.
I told Jack to call 911 and I tried to slow the flames. But I failed.
If Daddy had been home, he would have saved the day.
The thought teased my brain. It teases me still, a year later, as my family wheels a fresh Christmas tree inside our home. What was burned has been rebuilt. Repainted. Restored.
But everything is different.
I now have concrete proof (along with drywall-proof and roof and garage-door and car-proof) that I’m a mother but I won’t always save the day. I can’t.
No matter how hard I may try.
My kids know this now, too.
For months, Karly slept on the floor beside our bed because she couldn’t escape the fear that some other terrible thing might happen. I couldn’t tell her otherwise with any confidence.
After eight years of training, Jack quit going to karate preferring to be with us in the evenings instead of at the studio. Just in case.
We have a couch and a family room again. But what we no longer have – what can never be returned to us – is the sense of total safety we used to feel here. I’ve learned now that I can’t put out even the figurative fires that haunt us. At least not always.
Jack and Karly have learned that lesson, too.
But I’m their mother. So I’ll still try. And fail. Then try again.
I will help my children hang ornaments on this year’s tree.
I wanted to share it here with those who could not be there and to thank you, as always, for your love and support.
I spend many of my waking hours in silence.
Eight of them, in fact. Every day.
Unless I have some kind of appointment (which is rare) or take a phone call (which is rarer), I do not speak a single word between “Have a great day!” when my kids leave for school and “So, how was your day?” upon their return.
For those who know me well, this fact must be nearly impossible to believe.
When I was a child, my nickname was Motor Mouth. I loved chatting with everyone. Family. Neighbors. Strangers in the grocery store. I probably talked to myself a fair bit, too.
More than anything else, I wanted to be heard. (And to marry Shaun Cassidy. Obviously.)
During my years teaching high school English, I talked all day long. To hundreds of people. Or at them. Students. Colleagues. Friends.
And I was loud.
Rumor has it my voice would boom out of the classroom, down our hall, across an entire two-story building.
Shakespeare warrants volume, after all.
But now, the blank page is my audience. A blinking cursor. The buzz of silence.
Tick tock. Tick. Eight hours.
So. How was your day, kids?
Sure, if you get me in a room full of people with whom I’m already comfortable, I don’t shut up.
Just ask my book club.
When it comes to the masses, however, I prefer invisibility. I take comfort in anonymity, this degree of separation afforded by a strictly digital relationship.
I love to share my words. These private thoughts. My guts on a page. But please do not call me on the phone and expect me to answer.
I can’t. I won’t.
I mean it.
Which is precisely why I auditioned for the Listen To Your Mother show.
As scared as I was – as awkward as it is for me to speak (voluntarily) the words of my heart in front of others I know barely or not at all – I simply had to.
I used to sing on stage and play the piano. I even took a stab at acting in plays, although I was truly terrible. Still. I loved performing and was rarely nervous in the spotlight.
Deep breaths. Steady hands. Go.
Jitters? Nerves? Tears?
Now, the prospect of being publicly vulnerable makes me tremble. More than a little.
Here, at my computer, I am safe. I type these words. You read them. Perhaps you comment. “I understand completely,” you might say.
But there is distance between us here. This is not ME, looking at YOU and risking failure. Face to face.
Alone in my silent house, I face no fears of unraveling. Or of falling apart. One word at a time. I am at my desk, now, nowhere near the Listen To Your Mother stage. In front of everyone.
So. Will there be jitters at the show? Nerves? Tears?
Still, I am doing it. At four o’clock on April 27th at The Ebell Theater in Santa Ana.
I will sit beside a dozen wonderful women and wait until it’s my turn to take the microphone and turn myself inside out.
On that day, my words won’t be seen and read.
I will be heard.
A mile from our home (or so it seems, but we are young and the world is unimaginably big) there is a cave to which we trudge on summer Saturdays.
We go there to hide. To pretend. To be more than we are. Or simply different.
It’s marked by shoestring, vine-choked and roofed with mud. We’ll be there soon although we don’t wear watches. I got one for Christmas but it’s lost. Broken. Or both.
It had a Cinderella face and a blue leather strap. I liked it. Just not enough to be careful.
I am careless.
So we’ll have to tell time by the movement of the sun.
I’m pretty sure we’ve been gone for hours. It feels like hours, doesn’t it?
My stomach growls and I think Next time, I’ll remember to bring snacks and maybe water. Also, I will be more careful with my Cinderella watch if I ever get a new one.
The trail grows steep in spots and we run in stutter-steps to keep from falling. At the bottom, I find my fist is full of leaves. They’re sharp and sticky, ripped from branches along the way. Our socks are laced with burs so we sit on baking rocks to pluck them clean.
Carry on. Then, stop!
Squat to stare at the skin shed by a rattler and then at a cow’s skull. Whisper about mortality. And human sacrifice.
Could it happen here?
Of course not. This is a cow.
A breeze kicks up, smelling of jasmine. It’s sweet and lovely, but the hairs on my neck still prickle. Beware of snakebites. And madmen. Hold your breath here. Don’t step on cracks. There.
Someday we’ll come back to play kissing games. Someday we won’t think that kissing’s gross. But today is about sunshine and dried grass and so much space you can’t see the end of it. We must be a mile from civilization. Which is very far.
Almost far enough.
We’ll stay for days. Or until lunchtime.
Thirsty. Invincible. Tempted home only by the promise of cold milk and warm kitchens.
We’ll hide again tomorrow.
And hey! You should, too.
I double dare you.
A year ago today, my family moved into a long-term rental house in the wake of our fire. We’d spent the previous two weeks in a hotel which had its benefits:
Plenty of clean towels in the morning. Enough free shampoo to lather, rinse and repeat. Cheap wine in the lobby each night at five o’clock.
Also, this was the only spoon we had for ice cream. Not too shabby.
But the bright-side dimmed when we realized the hotel was too far from our neighborhood for us to carpool. My teenage kids shared a bed and most nights Jack ended up on the floor.
We missed our dogs. We missed our space. We missed our home.
I knew a rental house would be the answer to all of our problems. Yes, all of them!
Our insurance adjuster arranged a six-month lease for us and a temp-home company delivered loaner furniture and housewares – forks, sheets, toothbrush-holders, pillows. Everything a family of four (and two dogs) might want.
I puttered around the unfamiliar corners rearranging borrowed picture frames on rented dressers. I stowed decorative silk plants in a closet to gather dust and fidgeted nervously, waiting for Bill and the kids to arrive.
Would they feel it, too?
The rooms were furnished but they still seemed empty to me, a lone trespasser in this giant doll-house with nothing familiar to anchor her.
I cooked dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. My family sat down to eat at someone else’s table. Gobble it up quickly! Before the real people come back!
I was Goldilocks, except none of the porridge or chairs or beds were just right.
My point here is not to complain. I realize we were very lucky. We are.
But during our six months in the rental house, I was reminded of the gaping hole between what I think is best for me and what I truly need.
I believed – wrongly – that my displaced family was missing a couch and a living room when what we really longed for were the memories of being on our couch in our living room.
This space between physical and emotional need is hard to describe and harder to bridge.
And yet we try. We fail. We try again.
This is true in writing, too.
I recently completed a draft of a new manuscript and while I have assembled the physical components of a story, I know I haven’t quite shored up the emotion of it. Yet.
My job now is to bring life and depth and range to these characters so that they are not merely rented furniture in someone else’s living room.
I need to make their house into a home.
And if, like me, you’re looking for a book with both a compelling story and deep emotion, allow me – once again – to recommend A Lady in France, by Jennie Goutet.
Then – if you would be so kind – take the next step to show your support of indie writers by reviewing Jennie’s memoir.
We’re in this together, after all; building bridges across the space between, helping each other find our way home.
Congratulations to Renee Schuls-Jacobson, the winner of my giveaway. I’ll be sending her a copy of A Lady in France immediately.
Now go order yours.
“I was destined to take root in France. I know that now, even if I didn’t know it back when I had the dream.”
These are the opening sentences of A Lady in France, Jennie Goutet’s memoir which I’ve read now twice and loved.
You see, I’ve lived within a 45-mile stretch of California for 45 years (see also: my entire life) and have been outside the U.S. only a handful of times. A small handful, at that.
Jennie, by contrast, has lived on several continents, speaks multiple languages, and maintains a group of friends whose diversity rivals the United Nations. She once dreamed she’d marry a French man, then watched her dream unfold into reality.
But that’s only a part of her fascinating story.
There is a rawness and truth about Jennie Goutet. She’s unassuming and gentle. Funny. Real. Her words are straightforward – not at all flowery or sentimental – yet the sentences she strings together are so lovely, you feel as if you’re eating the food she has cooked or smelling the plants in her garden; listening to the laughter of her children; holding her hand.
Her hand is warm and welcoming, just like you knew it would be.
Of course, I’ve never held Jennie’s hand. She lives in France now and – well – I don’t leave the country. Much. Still, I traveled with her on every page of A Lady in France. She took me to Taiwan and the Philippines; Somaliland and Djibouti. To New York and then to Paris.
My heart broke for her in times of loss and soared with her in times of joy.
Although she writes about motherhood and marriage, addiction and anxiety, Jennie’s story is – at its core – a journey of her faith. In the three-part memoir, she details her calls to Christianity (the times she did not answer God and, ultimately, the time she did).
With unflinching honesty, she recalls days of doubt and dark struggles alongside moments of hope and strength.
Jennie sugarcoats nothing about her life, examining both the blessings and the hardships (physical, psychological, spiritual); and although her experiences are one-of-a-kind, the universality of her search for belonging and goodness speaks to me.
We have never met and yet I still feel connected to Jennie. In this book and on her blog, she’s as open and accepting as anyone I’ve known. I hope to greet her in person one day. To hug her and breathe in the same fresh air.
If you read her memoir, I know you will feel it, too: friendship stretching across the miles; love triumphing over time.
You can buy A Lady in France – either in print and/or electronic – at amazon.com.
Then leave a comment here sharing where else in the world you would live, if you could. You might win a copy of Jennie’s book. I’m giving one away because I love it so much.
And I love her.
You will, too.
I’m sure of it.
For the first time in ten years, I did not write a Christmas poem.
(Cue the sobs or cheers depending upon how you feel about Christmas poems.)
Before you get too excited or depressed however, please remember you’re reading this which constitutes something perhaps worse. Or better.
That’s right: The Holiday Letter.
Why a letter? Well, I loved last year’s poem so much I didn’t think I could match it. Also, 2013 was just plain weird and there aren’t a lot of rhymes for Landlady from Hell. Or Insurance Adjuster. Or Fire Truck. (Trust me on this one, okay?)
‘Twas three weeks after Christmas when in our garage,
Some flames started cooking and – Dang. Nothing rhymes with garage, either.
(Now, if you’re thinking ‘barrage’ does. Ha! Julie really dropped the ball on this one, well. You’re my kind of people.)
I didn’t want to belabor the challenges of the past eleven months but I couldn’t completely ignore them, either. The whole fire ordeal was too big and too long and too much. So. I decided instead to make two lists: One for things that changed for us, one for things that didn’t change. At least not much.
What Did Change:
- Our garage door. And our roof. And the driveway, my car, and everything inside our garage and basically the entire garage because it was gone.
- Our exterior paint and stucco (much to the chagrin of our Home Owner’s Association) and also the interior paint and drywall and our flooring (which the HOA doesn’t care about).
- Our electronics and beds and pillows and cushions and anything that needed to be plugged in or turned on (don’t giggle) and our curtains and shades and stuffed animals and lots of books.
- Our address. (For five months while they rebuilt our home and we rented the house of the Landlady from Hell. Go ahead. Try to rhyme it. She won’t let you.)
- Our perspective.
This last one’s tricky. We were already a pretty grateful family but WOW did the fire give us a quick booster shot of HERE’S WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT IN LIFE AND GUESS WHAT IT’S NOT STUFF.
(But you knew that already, didn’t you, Smartypants?)
What Didn’t Change:
- My crow’s feet and gray hair, dang it. They’re still here. I blame the writing. (I’m not sure why, but let’s go with it.)
- Bill’s work ethic. (Someone has to make money while I make gray hair and crow’s feet.)
- Karly’s height. (Sorry, Baby. I think you’re stuck at five feet tall but at least you’re the sweetest person who ever lived.)
- Jack’s sense of humor. (Sorry, Baby. I don’t know what one snowman said to the other snowman* but at least you’re the most hilarious person who ever lived.)
- Our unending love for our friends and our family
and for these two
and these two
who now look like these two
and for you and for each other, multiplied by forever = all the math I care to do today. Or forever.
So in the end, the things that matter didn’t change. We’re still here. We’re still good. We’re still imperfect people trying to be better. And in 2014, we will keep trying. And trying.
May this New Year bring you all the Changes you wish for and the Not-changes you need. (And the wisdom to know the difference. Or something like that.)
With much love (multiplied by forever),
*“Smells like carrots.” Duh.
One of my favorite quotations comes from T.S. Eliot:
“The poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”
I wrote this statement on an index card I kept tacked to the wall above my desk for sixteen years. In that time, I also wrote some terrible poetry but that’s a different story, entirely; one I’ll likely never tell.
What strikes me most about Eliot’s statement is his recognition that we have experiences, sentiment, insights we cannot verbalize – at least not easily – no matter how earnestly we may wish to share them.
The writer seeks to capture an erupting emotion but the subject, the verb, the objects do not cooperate. A precise adjective slips away. An adverb (rarely, please) proves elusive.
Still, I try.
I believe in vain that if I keep at it long enough, if I swap words or manipulate syntax one more time, I’ll get it right. But at what point do I stop? When do I accept what I’ve written is the best it will be? I’ve yet to find the answer to this question no matter how often I turn to T.S. Eliot.
My students used to struggle with their essays. “I know this paragraph sucks,” they’d admit with a shrug to which I would respond, “Then fix it.”
They’d look at me as if I were speaking Latin.
“I can’t fix it, Mrs. Gardner. It’s already written.”
This was one-part laziness, two-parts not realizing their own power over words. I used to remind my students they were the ones in charge. Words do not control you. Words are not alive. They exist for your use. You control the words. So if they aren’t right, keep working on them until they are.
I find this advice humorous now.
How do we know when our work is right?
When I read something I’ve written – a sentence or two paragraphs, an entire page – I often feel as if I’m playing with fresh clay. (I’ll refrain from saying literally here because I know my words aren’t actually clay; yet they feel pliable, something I can push or pull, shift at will.)
I revisit my work again and again, making changes large and small, over and over.
Sometimes what I read seems written by a stranger, appearing on my screen as if by magic.
I came up with that? Huh.
Just as often, I don’t see what I’ve said at all, but instead see what I think I meant to say.
Eventually the time comes when I approach a piece I’ve been picking at for many hours (days, months, years) and the sentences have hardened. They feel like old clay that cannot be shaped anymore. Not without cracking the pot.
Is it funny? Poignant?
Did I accidentally use Latin?
It doesn’t matter. For better or worse, the words are done and I have to let them go even if I suspect they aren’t quite right.
So my friends – whether you are writing or parenting, spouse-ing or human be-ing –
I ask you this:
How do you know when your best is good enough and how do you move forward if it isn’t?
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