It was a throwback week. And a week of looking ahead.
Nearly three months after we were supposed to get together for coffee but got thwarted by a health issue followed by travel and a book launch (not mine), my high school friend and thriller author Allison Leotta (nee Harnisch) and I finally had lunch, along with my friend Kim of Blooming Boy. Although this kind of social outing might be just what some people expect I’m spending my time on now that my daughter is in school, it’s a rarity amid health-related appointments, volunteer work, cooking (as always) and trying to fit in some time to work on my new business project.
But for that one day, Wednesday, September 25, I was more of a writer than anything else.
We talked about Ali’s three successful books and how she’s approached them while mothering two young sons. I’d talked with her about that earlier this summer (my short personal reflection is here and the longer TheDCMoms.com profile on her and a glimpse into her new book, Speak of the Devil: A Novel, is here), but we got more details over lunch, like the fact that her husband never makes it home for bedtime and her post-school childcare options are as cobbled together as anyone else’s.
I dragged out the high school yearbook where my face sits one row above Ali’s, our cascading and fluffy curls mirroring each other in blond and brunette. To the question, “Who wrote all this copy?” I answered, “Me. Mostly me.” Over 20 years ago, I had stayed at school sometimes until 10 p.m. and worked weekends so that someday we’d have a historical document.
A document that quoted Ali, now a Harvard Law grad and hugely successful writer and former federal sex crimes prosecutor when she was a novice on the high school debate team, a team that also included Rajiv Shah, who went on to become the 16th Administrator of USAID.
A document that contained an article pinpointing the moment in time that “Not!” and “Psyche!” and snippets from poorly produced commercials became part of a “teenager’s vernacular.” A document that listed the top 10 songs by which to remember each of our four years of high school, 1987-1991.
It may have only won gold rather than a medalist from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association for all the mistakes I made sometimes alone at the helm while our yearbook adviser was tending to her brain-tumor-addled son, but it’s still got a lot of good stuff in it. I am still informed by the experience of creating that document.
Ali and I had planned this late September lunch date back in June, long before I knew it was the week of George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival, at which she’d be reading later in the week on a mystery writers panel. It ended up to be a day of literary inspiration as that same evening, I went to the festival when it featured Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. That Wednesday night was about the only time I felt I could get out to GMU, so I’d borrowed Kim’s copy of the book and vowed to get it read before the reading, where we met up after my son’s soccer game and her horrendous fight with traffic after picking up two other friends.
The concept of a woman getting past drug use and hiking the PCT on her own was intriguing to me when I first heard about the book last year. When Kim and I attended the Open House at Random House in December, at which the book was prominently displayed but too heavy for me to add to my going-home-on-the-train bag, Kim share how much she loved the book. But I had not even read the flap to know that Strayed’s mother died when she was 22 or that she’d gotten divorced before her hike. I only knew that she did heroin and had an abortion. How ridiculous that simplification seems to me now having read the book and thoroughly enjoyed its tale of self-discovery.
Among the many insights I had reading the book, a few continue to drum in my chest like a vibration that just caught itself in the mirror. The feelings may have been there but now are reverberating and reflecting from the inside out, in all directions.
They are about the profundity of time spent in nature, the importance of writing in my life, and the possible expanse of my relationship with my mom.
First of all, I was practically on the same trail as Strayed would have been if she hadn’t bypassed the high Sierras a month earlier. They were too packed with snow for her to traverse in mid-late June, but by the end of July, we encountered only a little snow, mostly on our silent day when several of us tried the same solo hike and got lost enough to break our silence.
My hike was my college graduation present, one of dozens (or hundreds?) of group trips the Sierra Club ran that summer. But I chose one of the few vegetarian trips and one of the only ones that included a mention of mindfulness in its description and a yoga and meditation practice along with the miles to cover each day.
At 22, I was much younger (and much less well-read) than Strayed at 26, and I was not all alone in the wilderness. But I was alone in a sense, the only 20-something on a trip with more life-experienced people seeking their own brand of bliss as I tried to figure out what mine was.
Now that yoga is a daily part of my life, some 18 years later, and now that I am realizing how profoundly I need time in nature, I see how formative that trip was. I also see that what I learned there was always already in me.
It feels that way with the novel I’m writing. I never wanted to write a novel, just to get a short story to a manageable length if I could figure out how to whittle it away to its essence. That was until out of the sky fell the other pieces of the story that implored me to realize the essence of the story was not in its singularity, but in its connections.
As I read the first part of Strayed’s memoir, detailing the experience of her mother’s death four years before she began her hike, it occurred to me that time — that thing I always feel is inadequate in quantity — is still something I have. She was told her mother would not live past a year, but the 45-year-old woman died only seven weeks later.
Strayed is now 45. I am 40. My mother is 76 and well enough to laugh at my children on the phone but not to visit or to host a family visit without detriment to her well-being. Fatigue is the mildest result, but at least one stroke has also followed the stress of a family gathering, and we are wise not to push our luck. When we do visit, she gets a kick out of my kids but can only enjoy them a few hours a day, and that leaves scant time to talk to me.
My mom and I will never have the kind of relationship Strayed did with her mom, but we are on such better terms now than we were during my turbulent adolescence, even before but especially after my brother’s suicide in 1987. I’m grateful for the progress we’ve made and the many ways she has supported me, but as I read Strayed’s memoir, I realized that there is no reason not to give my mother access to my heart.
So, as I told Strayed after I showed her photos of me in only mildly snowing Sequoia National Park in July of 1995, reading Wild has inspired me to get serious about finishing this book while my mom can still read it and discuss it with me. She told me some months after my daughter was born three years ago, “I know she probably won’t remember me, not very much.” What I want to make sure is that I remember having a conversation with my mom about the work that is in my head and heart. What I want is to know that these characters and their struggles get into her head and heart.
My mom and I spoke on the phone as I drove home from Strayed’s reading, and I didn’t tell her this, but I think she may read it. Even as I work on what I hope will become a business, I want to commit to getting a draft of at least fifteen chapters into my mom’s hands by February 1 so that she can read it and I can visit her on my own, without my kids toward the end of that month, which is traditionally hard for both of us as we celebrate birthdays just a week after the anniversary of my brother’s death.
I want to have this as a goal and the trip on the books before Thanksgiving, once I have checked on school schedules and sports schedules and my husband’s schedule. My dad, from whom I get the writer gene, might have to wait for a workshopped and edited version of the book, but he, too, deserves to be let in more than he’s been.
I’ve just started reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar a compilation of the Dear Sugar advice columns Strayed wrote on The Rumpus. I love her advice to the man afraid of love about how much we stand to lose by withholding it. And I love her advice to the twenty-something writer who complains about her writer’s block. Strayed, or Sugar, tells the sorry but arrogant self-effacer that everything happens only when it is the right time for it to happen. Every day I become more and more convinced of this truth. It is like a lighthouse, a reminder not to try to go ashore where there is none, or when you can’t see what the hell you are doing.
I so appreciated Strayed explaining what I’ve thought for so long but worried was just another symptom of my compromised health ad mind fog: “The kind of brain you need to have as a mother is the opposite of what you need to be a writer,” she said. You need focus and uninterrupted time. She shared that she got more productive writing done on Wild during 2-day hotel stays every six weeks than during most of the time in between.
Courtesy of kind friends who’ve allowed me to house-sit, I’ve taken a few mini-retreats that have been enormously productive beyond anything I can accomplish in my home, even if I have 7 hours during a school day. But they do come at a price to my family and my husband, so I have to choose my time away wisely. And I need to churn regularly so that those precious weekends (or even just short overnights) are for forward momentum rather than simply oiling the gears. So here I am, getting dirty and warming up.
The title of the writer-advice chapter is the final line of Strayed’s reply, advice that I really need to hear, too. I am not one to curse a whole lot on this blog, dealing as it does with trying to find ways through and away from sh-t and toward sunshine, but I really must quote the advice I plan to take, advice the 22-year-old me seems to be drilling into the 40-year-old me in a photo taken just before that 1995 backpacking trip:
“Write like a motherfucker.”
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