Yesterday I had an episode with my book that nearly convinced me to shut it down. If it had been a terminal patient I would have pulled the plug. The only thing I still liked about it was printing it out and fastening it together with those mega file clips from Office Max. Everything else filled me with despair and loathing. This is the same book that a few months ago I knew to be a bestseller. The only thing that brought me back from the edge was drinking generic apple juice out of Pumpkin Dreams mugs my mom got at the thriftstore for 15 cents, orange pumpkins and black cats painted by an old geezer that the orange cardboard boasts to be one of our greatest American Folklorist. That, and decorating the backyard with severed hands from the Dollar Store. My cousin calls Five and Below the Dollar Store for rich people. The two foam swords she found there have been Henry’s favorite birthday presents so far. For the 5th or 95th time I thought that I should be homeschooling and growing root vegetables in my backyard instead of wallowing in despair with my manuscript. Would I be happy then?
My 3rd grade son’s parent teacher conference has abruptly transformed me into one of those mothers. The pushers, the fretters, the freaker-outers. ME. My son’s teacher, Mrs. X, fast paced and gorgeous, is in her mid-twenties and has more energy than a 6 month old golden retriever. “Your son,” she told us, “is very bright. He’s making straight A’s. But he’s figured out how to do only what’s required of him and nothing more. He’s figured out the minimum requirement.”
“Oh God,” said my husband who looked like he hadn’t gotten a haircut in 3 years. “That’s all I ever heard in school. That I wasn’t living up to my potential. That’s me to a T.”
“And how old were you when you stopped doing the minimum requirement?” asked Mrs. M, staring at him pointedly.
“What time is it now?” asked my husband who dropped out of college, is half way through renovating our kitchen, plumbing the bathroom and digging out a new driveway. He looked at his imaginary watch.
And there I was, terrified for the future of my bright boy who is currently in the 3rd grade making straight A’s. All the boys I’ve ever loved before him—totally genius level, fucked up under achievers flashed before my eyes. How do I get my son to want to do more than the minimum requirement when that’s all we do ourselves? When he’s already announced he’d rather be homeschooled and live on an island off the grid never paying taxes? The answer, I think, as I settle back down into this moment is to love him and do nothing else, nothing else at all. Nothing else is required.
Today there was something about the cold and the light and the cast of trees in the afternoon and the quiet and the loneliness of that quiet. I felt a burning need to make things cheery, to have the feeling of a fire in the stove, a hearth, I desperately wanted a hearth and I didn’t know how to create the feeling of having a hearth on the outside of myself, much less on the inside without drinking something, swallowing something, putting something in my mouth to raise the bar on the thermometer and brighten the wick. It useda woulda been whiskey or wine and I’d already had coffee, tea and hot chocolate—I couldn’t drink one thing more and then a friend suggested instead of triple or quadruple fisting it I take the time to breathe. He further suggested that I think of the most loving thing to do for myself that I could and I burst into tears that exploded out of me like logs going up in flame and I wept for how many people I truly miss and old cold afternoons long gone filled with people I may or will never see again and I cried and cried, even on the way to the bus stop, grateful it was mostly redneck dads who wouldn’t ask how I was feeling and then suddenly I felt better and my eyes were clear and the day was bright again and I hugged my son and walked my dog and I did have one more cup of coffee with hot chocolate mixed in—but that’s just because I was already feeling better.
I felt like a different person on the way up here, like I’m changing. I thought “This is the person I would have been,” but here it is the person I am. I stopped and took pictures, turned the radio off. Missed my son and called him. Felt the intensity of music and driving down country roads the way I always feel it, so that I think I may explode but another mile passes and another and I keep on living. This is when I feel the passing of time most—with a soundtrack and a road. I miss everyone I’ve ever loved and even the ones I didn’t love. And now there are so many different kinds of bird song—up high and then down low and then the bellows of the cows across the river. I used to think only people with no internal world listened to birds but now I think the opposite is true. I’m glad I took a walk down to the river this morning—saw the fog and the trees and the mountains and trains and bridges and the tumbling rural countryside of Virginia that gives back to me a part of my childhood self I had at my grandparent’s house and all those summers camping with my dad in the Blue Ridge that made me feel at least 50% country girl even though I grew up in houses and apartments in the city and the suburbs.
I feel about our writing day the way I felt about the Ropes Course when I was 17 and took an Outdoor Adventure class at the community college with S. A mixture of anticipation and terror and in the end there was too much bad weather and our trip was cancelled but we did get to go camping and spelunking. I never did take that plunge off the cliff with the rope but in some ways I may as well have for all the thinking I did about it in advance. And now it’s time to take the writing plunge again and I feel like I’m at the start of a river or a road that splinters off in a million different directions and I could choose any one of so many and what if I choose the wrong one? All of the writing teachers say that in the end it’s about trusting your own voice, following your own nose, not living in the Hell of Second Guesses and Self Doubt so I’ll try to remember that as I ascend the cliffs of writing today. I thought on my walk, if I don’t have the patience to sew the first stitch when presented with a dress form how will I make the lines out, one at a time, for a book?