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?
This past weekend, Bill and I went away for a belated celebration of our wedding anniversary and a pre-celebration of my upcoming birthday.
We drove three hours north to Paso Robles while our teenagers stayed home by themselves. For the first time. Ever.
When asked how they’d feel about being left alone, both kids were amenable without being overeager (a small comfort to parents who remember Risky Business all too well).
We then called upon no fewer than six different families (including our next-door neighbors) to be available for contingencies; and as the date approached, we asked Jack and Karly repeatedly if they were still on board.
Some may think this is overkill; others probably think we were insane to leave them at all. To these people, I offer this simple statement:
We know our kids.
For their part, Jack and Karly loved their temporary freedom, rising to the occasion with unexpected kindness toward each other and appreciation of us. When I thanked them for supporting our little vacation, Karly admitted this:
“Mom. It was a little vacation for us, too.”
Indeed, it was.
They got to eat the junk they craved and rest when they were tired. Instead of me nagging them about homework and cleaning up, they simply did it – at some point – on their own.
Because we let them, they took care of their chores, our dogs. Each other.
Of course we were nervous and yes, we missed our kids. They might have missed us back.
But if not, that’s okay, too. That’s not what this is about.
It’s about preparing them to be on their own as much as preparing ourselves to live without our babies sleeping under this roof each night.
It’s the catching of breath each time Jack steps out of the house, his wallet and keys in hand. It’s the details untold after a “Tell me everything!” when Karly returns from her first day of high school.
This tenuous balance of holding on and letting go leaves us grasping at please be carefuls and I love you, toos with crossed fingers and racing hearts.
I know there will be mistakes to forgive and successes to cheer. For them. For us.
But ready or not, they’re building their own lives. It’s our job to give them the tools to do it – brick by brick, breath by breath…
…and then hope our leaps of faith will earn a win-win for us all.
Speaking of winners:
I can’t think of two more deserving recipients.
As for the rest of you? Go buy Heidi’s book immediately. In fact, go buy a bunch of them. They would make excellent gifts for the holidays.
Just be sure to keep one for yourself.
Another first day of school has come and gone and although I’m a woman of words not numbers, I sit in our silent house and count. My son has only two more “first days” before he graduates from high school.
My daughter, three.
When I took a leave of absence from teaching, they were in elementary school. How is it that these babies have grown so much while I still feel so very much the same?
Five years ago I sat at the computer, my days somewhat flexible for the first time in my adult life, and set goals I hoped were attainable. Among them, these:
- Be the best mom ever!
- Be the best wife ever!
- Write the best book ever!
Okay, that last one was lofty. And yet I approached the road to becoming an author with confidence. I believed I could do it. I would do it. After all, I’d waited forty years for these stars to align. I was prepared for this next step. Our family was ready. Eager, even.
So I wrote. I write. I’ve written.
First a memoir. Then a YA novel. A Women’s Fiction manuscript. Short stories and essays. Blog posts. Words for other sites. Still, the days are short and finding a publisher is long.
Especially when you’re afraid.
Of what, you may ask? Well, pretty much everything. But I’ll start with this:
That my manuscripts won’t find an agent (this happened). That I’ll find an agent but no publisher to buy my book (this also happened).
That I’ll sell my book but people won’t buy it. Or they’ll buy it but give it bad reviews. Or they’ll give it good reviews but I’ll have a deadline for the next book I’ll miss. Or I won’t miss my deadline but my second book will flop and everyone will discover I’m a failure.
(These things did not happen but I frequently lie awake at night afraid of things that have not happened.)
So. I fold laundry and wash dishes. I pack lunches and supervise homework. I walk the dogs, restock pantries, mark calendars. I create lists and check clocks; seek things to accomplish, notice what needs shifting, focus on what remains to be done before before before.
I’m very busy achieving the easy stuff. As for the hard?
I wait. And wait and wait.
“Once my guestroom closet is organized, I’ll begin…”
“After Thanksgiving, I can revise…”
“As soon as we’ve unpacked, I might finish…”
“Until the kids are back in school, I really shouldn’t…”
In the meantime, years go by. Half a decade. A chunk of this lifetime during which I’ve convinced myself I’m suspended – held captive by other obligations. This “other” holds me back from accomplishing what remains. I can’t take risks now because because
It’s easier to view the world this way. Easier to believe it’s not your fault you haven’t quite hit your goal (although you’ve certainly made strides). Easier to accept you haven’t realized your dream (although, indeed, it has at times been close enough to taste).
I want Jack and Karly to witness perseverance; to learn they can’t cross the finish line if they place their ribbon in the after after after.
They need a mother who writes and revises and queries and brushes off rejection to begin the process all over again. And so I will.
Because I want them to believe they can accomplish anything if they don’t give up.
I want them to believe, in this small way, that I am brave.
Now, for an example of true bravery, you must read Heidi Cave’s extraordinary memoir, Fancy Feet.
Her story will move you, challenge you, make you believe nothing is impossible.
Hope resonates throughout Heidi’s recounting of a horrific car crash that almost killed her; the breakdown and rebuilding of a broken body and spirit.
Heidi’s journey also plays out in quieter moments: A stoic father saying the words, “I love you.” A hospital orderly helping her wash her face each evening. A future husband bringing her a cup of lemonade.
In each chapter of this book, Heidi’s raw, truthful words depict strength in the midst of unimaginable pain. The sharing of her grief, her determination, her healing is simply breathtaking.
There was so much to live for, she writes in her parting line. So much, indeed.
Please leave a comment sharing what you wish you were brave enough to do and one of you will be selected to receive a signed copy of Heidi Cave’s Fancy Feet.
The rest of you should buy a copy here. Then go be BRAVE.
Yes, you. And you.
So when asked to take a picture to promote this book
(IN WHICH I HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED IN CASE YOU DIDN’T HEAR)
I had to borrow lip gloss from my daughter Karly.
(Although I’d like to think she doesn’t wear this color on her own mouth very often.)
Still, I was determined to work something out for an author bio picture because ohmigosh someone (and by “someone” I mean the amazing Leslie Marinelli) let me be in this book.
I decided I probably needed some nail polish (also borrowed from Karly) and then I dragged a blue bandanna out of Bill’s sock drawer. He wears them to keep the sweat off his brow while running so you can imagine how much I loved tying this onto my own head.
But it was worth it because y’all? I’m a published author.
What’s the book about, you ask? I’m so glad you did. Here’s a blurb from the back cover because I’m still reeling from the bandanna and can’t find the right words to say it myself:
“You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth” is a hilarious collection of true tales by women, for women, about being women—bodily changes, relationships, careers, motherhood, aging, illness, and more—written with the humor and grit that proudly sets In The Powder Room apart.
But be forewarned: we’re holding nothing back. We’re revealing our funniest deep dark secrets—because it’s through our most vulnerable and honest moments that we forge the strongest connections and discover we aren’t so alone after all.
I still can’t believe Leslie picked me, but she can’t back out now because TOO LATE!
For a list of all the fabulous authors in this anthology, visit at In The Powder Room.
And to order the book (because you KNOW you want to) visit my author page at Amazon.
That’s right. I have a freakin’ author page. Who knew I could make one of those?
Well, apparently my mother always believed in me.
And probably Bill, although he does NOT know I borrowed his bandanna for this picture yet. Do you think he’ll forgive me?
Because he looks so much better in it than his wife. With or without the lipstick.
Now please. At the risk of sounding needy, go buy this book here so I can start saving up for my own lipstick and nail polish. (I think my bandanna days are officially over, though.)
I really do love you all.
And a huge thank you to the co-authors. Because of you I get to put this picture…
And in case that isn’t awesome enough, there’s this:
(That’s our book on Amazon right next to David Sedaris. DAVID SEDARIS!)
Yeah. I have no more words.
(Okay. If you know me that’s not true.)
My grandmother turns 90 tomorrow.
As in ninety years.
As in almost exactly twice my age – which will be 45 in eight weeks unless I discover the fountain of youth between now and October 5th.
(Any hints about its locale will be kept between you, me and Ponce de Leon. Pinkie swear.)
My grandma Renis (which – thankfully – rhymes with “tennis”) was 45 when I was born.
It’s strange for me to consider that when she was my age, Renis Ann Anderson was a grandmother already. Even stranger still to think of her being – like me – a wife and mother. A sister, daughter, friend.
Because grandmas are oatmeal cookies and Shalimar perfume; a sweater over shoulders not yet chilly and bobby pins to keep the hair out of your eyes. They are soft skin and warm embraces; gentle compliments for even sub-par achievements. Enthusiastic claps for performances they’ve already witnessed countless times.
My grandmother is a competitive player of games, a fierce lover of her dog, a devoted wife of 71 years.
She reads my blog posts and the comments (for better or worse); she thinks the oil paintings I created when I was ten are beautiful, that the words I’ve written in this lifetime are genius.
She sees only the best sides of me – by design.
Upon reflection, I think my grandmother is one of the few people on Earth who has been able to love me unconditionally – as I expect I will love my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren, should I be lucky enough to have them.
Someday. Not soon. In fact, I hope much later.
I wonder now if they will look at me then and see who I really am:
A flawed person, whose attempts sometimes end in failure; a girl who has been at times selfish, mean or deceptive; a woman who’s striven to be better in the face of her faltering, who still dares to dream and reach and hope and carry on.
I suppose they won’t.
In fact, we are probably meant to know some people only by their bright and shiny surfaces; their goodness and light. They are our examples, our role models; the ones we seek always to please and to make proud.
I’ve spent more than four decades being a daughter, grandchild, sister, friend. In the past two, I added wife and mother to the mix. Eventually I hope to be a grandma, as well. And spending time with my own grandmother inspires me to make this next half of my life better than the first.
To be better in every way – or at least the ways over which I have control.
I’ve known Renis Ann Anderson my entire life but I’ve witnessed only a sliver of her whole self; her lows and highs, joys and sorrows; her losses, wins and ties. I’ve loved the bright and shiny surface that she’s shown her granddaughters and great grandchildren.
But I also know there’s more to her. And I accept that part, too. Just like she accepts me despite my imperfections.
I hope someday to be worthy of this unconditional love; which means the next forty-five years are going to be busy for us both.
So thank you, Grandma. For all that you are. For all that you’ve done.
And of course for all the oatmeal cookies.
With much (much much much) love,
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