I’ve been waiting for this all day. I did the breakfast thing, the making-the-kids-lunch thing. My coffee has long been drained. I’ve been playing with my toddler for hours. I even went for a walk. But now, for two short hours, the house is quiet, and it’s my time. It’s time to write.
I straighten my notebooks and organize my pens. I shove everyone else’s crap from my desk to the floor and put on the sweatshirt that’s draped over the chair. (Am I the only one who gets freezing cold when I’m writing? Seriously, it’s a disability.) I sit down, fingers poised over the keyboard, blank document open on the screen.
I have precious little time. But where do I start?
The answer to that question is another question — the essential question for anyone who writes blog posts, personal essays, or anything else people want to read.
What am I struggling with right now?
Well, hold on a second. What is that about? Why does something have to be going wrong in my life for me to write? Can’t I just write a quick story about how things are mostly fine for me at the moment?
I could. It’s just that nobody would want to read it.
This is really irritating for some writers. Many of us read through submission requirements with a scowl. “What do you mean I need to be helping the reader solve a problem? This is a beautifully written story about the time I went snowshoeing in the Adirondacks.” And it probably is very well-written. I bet your descriptions paint a picture of the landscape and convey what you saw and maybe even how you were feeling at the time. I bet it sings to you.
But writing on the internet isn’t about you. When you put something on the web, you’re putting it there so someone will read it. Otherwise, why put it there? And, when you’re writing for an audience, even your most gorgeous, lyrical writing won’t be seen, much less read, unless you’re answering a question or solving a problem for the reader — something that someone might type into a search bar and click the first couple links that appear.
I’ll be candid: That’s why I don’t often put my short stories on the internet. Even if you enjoy a good work of fiction, when was the last time you typed, “short story,” into Google? Never? Thought so. And if you happened upon a short story about a girl and her pet chicken while looking for the answer to, “How to tell which of my hens isn’t laying eggs,” you’d bounce out and look for something relevant.
Writing on the information superhighway has everything to do with the reader and very little to do with the writer
The second you decided you wanted to publish your words alongside everyone else’s words, you gave in to the singular premise that, if you want to be read, if you want to make money, if you want people to know your name and pass along your work to their friends, family, and colleagues — you can’t just tell cool stories.
Sure, if you infuse yourself in such a way that people can see themselves in your writing, they’ll enjoy it more. If you showcase your sense of humor, they’ll be entertained. But if you don’t help them with something in their life while you’re at it, you might as well be writing in your journal.
Instead of typing up amusing anecdotes and sending them off into the black hole that is the blogosphere, and then wondering why people aren’t knocking down your door for more, you’re going to want to change your approach just a hair.
How? With another question, of course.
Why should anybody care about this?
You don’t need to throw up your hands and hit delete on all your cool stories quite yet. Instead, take a look at the story and try and figure out why it’s important to you.
The story could be — as some of mine are — something that was really funny in the moment to someone who knows all the players, but would require too much background for the reader to make writing the story worth it.
Or, maybe during the course of the story, you learned something about yourself or the world — something you can generalize in a way that will help others experiencing the same dilemma. Maybe you learned something about your relationship with your grandmother, or the meaning of life, or why seltzer is so satisfying.
If your answer is the latter, then it might be that your story just needs a new ending, one that makes a connection between you and your reader in a way that benefits them.
Other questions you can ask:
I discovered Bohemian Rhapsody when I was six years old. Around the same time, I discovered I could carry a tune. Or I imagined I could carry one, anyway. You'll have to ask my (very tolerant) family members for their opinion. I'm sure they'll give you the unbiased truth.
Whether or not I was any good at singing, after that day, you couldn't shut me up if you tried. I had found my calling. I would grow up to become a professional singer.
I learned every single word to Queen's Greatest Hits album, of course, but I didn't discriminate. Small town Missouri doesn't exist without country music, and so I made quick work of adding Randy Travis and The Judds to my catalog. My parents listened to rock in the car (I almost said classic rock, but it wasn't classic back then!), and in went Aerosmith and John Fogerty.
During P.E. in middle school, my friends and I would sing Green Day songs as we did our jogging warmup. In high school, we would take over one of the classrooms to sing sad, sappy Jewel songs in floppy harmony. I sang in the car. I sang at work. I sang in the aisles of the grocery store.
I'm sure my compulsive vocalizations caused their fair share of annoyance, but most people were kind enough not to say anything. "You've got a great voice," someone would occasionally say.
"Thanks," I'd say with a grin, my heart swelling with validation.
Breaking news: I didn't become a professional singer.
I graduated from college and went into Teach For America and moved to California and made a bunch of cool friends who did crazy things like leave the house on the weekends - something to which I was wholly unaccustomed.
I'd never been to many bars - I'd graduated college at 20, and ID requirements in Boston were strict. But here I was, a 22-year-old with a group of twentysomething friends doing what people like us apparently did on Friday nights: go to the bar. And at one of these bars, there was a sign, written on the chalkboard over the stairs to the lower level.
Karaoke tonight. ↘️
"Karaoke! I love karaoke," said Christina.
"You should totally sing," said Rachele.
My heart exploded for a second. I'd never held a microphone in my life. I couldn't imagine standing in front of all these people, whose attention would surely be concentrated squarely on me, and doing ... what, the exact same thing I did every other day? Meh, what the hell. I grabbed a song book and a quarter-page slip of paper and a golf pencil and retreated into a corner of the bar to pick my song.
See, here's the thing about karaoke: you can know every word to every single song on the planet, and the minute you get the coveted karaoke book in your hands (Do you want "By Title" or "By Artist?" Big decision!) your mind becomes applesauce. I must have sat for half an hour with that book in my lap, flipping through and trying to find literally any song whose tune I knew well enough to sing it.
And, finally, I found it. Killing me Softly by the Fugees. I loved that song!
"Nicci, you're up," said the DJ and then he whispered in my ear, "The Fugees version is scratched. Is it OK if you do Roberta?"
I nodded enthusiastically. I'd been watching a lot of Hugh Grant's "About a Boy" at the time. Not to spoil anything, but there's a lot of "Killing me Softly" going on in that film. I could definitely do this.
But when the music started, I realized something. I'd heard this song a thousand times, but I didn't actually know it. I knew none of the words, or how they went with the music. So I just stood there, mumbling and trying not to cry, with the redness creeping from my chest all the way to the top of my forehead, until the song was over.
The only consolation is that, aside from my friends, everyone in the bar was so busy with their drinks and conversations, my colossal embarrassment didn't even register.
I spent the next five years seeking redemption for that failure of an outing.
The pub down the street from our apartment had karaoke every Sunday night, and my friends and I would venture out when there was a Monday holiday. We pushed through throngs of sweaty 40-year-olds to play tug-of-war with the song books and put in four requests at once. I built up a list of go-tos, sometimes singing duets with my friends, the regulars, or the host. Roberta Flack's version of Killing Me Softly made the cut, but only after I'd sung it a thousand times alone in my car.
Eventually my friends and I became the regulars. We found other singing spots, too. We knew who had the best catalog and who was using digital equipment instead of CDs. My bachelorette party even contained a stop at a karaoke bar, and somewhere, there exists a terrible-quality mp3 commemorating the occasion.
That was all before gender reveal parties and school drop-offs, when Monday holidays meant we could sleep it off until noon and wake up with a Bloody Mary and go hunting for a fried-ass breakfast.
Fast forward to 2016. I was a mom and a school administrator living in Boston. Even if I'd known where to find karaoke, only in my dreams would I have been able to go sing. But it was February, and I was off the coast of the Dominican Republic. On a cruise ship.
Hear me out. I know literally zero people who would dream of getting onto a floating petri dish with a few thousand strangers in 2022. But remember, this was years ago, and Sail Across the Sun was not just any cruise - it was a music cruise with multiple concerts every day. The smallest ones contained only a couple dozen folks, and you got to meet and chat with the artists between sets. If you arrived early enough to the biggest ones, you could get a spot right next to the stage.
And, of, course, there was karaoke.
More than ten years after my first embarrassing showing, I found myself descending another set of stairs into a huge lounge with a stage at the front. From there, it was all muscle memory. I didn't need to spend a half-hour thumbing through the book: I knew exactly what I would sing. And before I could finish my first drink, I was up.
At first, my fellow travelers sipped their drinks and kept on with their conversations. With the first chorus, though, things changed. Heads turned and eyebrows raised. People started moving and singing along. "All right!" someone said. By the last note, the area around the stage was packed. The applause was like a warm, validating hug.
I turned to leave the stage and was face to face with the lead signer of the biggest band there - someone whose voice and whose music had moved me through two decades. "That was fucking awesome," he said to me. "You have an amazing voice."
If I hadn't already slid the mic back into the stand, I would have dropped it right there. Because what better way to cap off my karaoke reunion tour than with a hug and an endorsement from my favorite artist?
Subscribers to my newsletter this week will get even more fun karaoke stuff like my song list and some embarrassing photos from those days, if I can dig them up. Don't forget to sign up using the form on this page or by clicking here!
I wasn't always this way. I don't think I was, anyway.
I have vivid memories of getting cross-stitch kits from Wal-Mart when I was a kid and meticulously working on them until the very last stitch. I started reading books and then, in short order, finished them. I persevered through crossword puzzles and brain teasers and exquisitely complicated math problems until the very end.
But then, at some point after I became an adult and got busy, after I had kids and got even busier, my husband came up with a nickname for me. Eighty-percent Kadilak.
Oh, my. It's embarrassing to even write those words. It feels indicative of some shortcoming of mine, the inability to see something through from start to finish. In reality, it's more of a commentary on our times and the constant barrage of priorities I've got coming at me with no real means to sort them out.
Regardless of the reason, without meaning to, I somehow turned into a person who gets really excited about something and throws all my energy into it for a while, and then gets distracted by some other new, shiny object and casts it aside. Kind of like how I'll get really into cleaning the bathroom and get most of the way finished with it, and then have to go attend to the dishes and call the bathroom with a clean shower and toilet but a dirty counter good enough for now.
Back in 2018, I started writing a book. No, not The Other Women. Another book. It's called The Space Between, and it took up all my mental energy for several months. I loved that book. I loved the characters, I loved the story, and I loved the setting (a lot of it takes place on a college campus in the 90s). I worked on it on the train to and from work, and I worked on it after my kids went to bed for the night. I talked about it and sent sample chapters to practically everyone I know.
Then I got this other idea and followed it away from dear Evan and Audrey and toward this new dystopian utopia I'd imagined.
I drafted TOW over six weeks at the end of 2018. Start to finish, I worked on that story every single day. Even the days when I was sick in bed with strep throat, or norovirus, both of which happened that month. Even the days when I was in Disney World with my family, I managed to get a few hundred words down. It was hard work, and it took a lot of redirection, but at the end of those six weeks, I typed the magical words, "The End," and I felt a rush like I never had. I'd finished it! I'd written an entire book!
I'm going to have to pause for a second here and say that I was always a terrible student of the writing process. As a perfectionist, I refused to believe in revisiting an assignment after it was finished. I was perfectly capable of doing it right the first time, and my grades were evidence of this point - I never made any changes to my work after that first draft, and I got As all around.
The first draft of The Other Women was not A-level work. If I'd published it as-is, I can imagine all the one-star reviews it would have earned, and for good reason. There was so much missing.
I spent another couple months revising. Or editing. I'm still not sure I know the difference. I had no idea what I was doing. I took a novel writing class, where I learned to be a thousand-times better writer, and during which I did another round of edits. I had a baby, and there was a pandemic, and still there I was, writing and revising and editing. I wrote "The End" at least four or five times during this process, and each time the phrase came with a mix of elation and disappointment. I was so proud to have finished something - but it seemed like I'd finished it over and over again, and I still wasn't really done.
When would the real end come?
And then I talked to a writer friend, Peter, who gave me some advice I think every writer should keep in mind - especially the ones who think it's possible for every single word of their work to be perfect. He said, "Everything you write has the potential to become an eternal work in progress. Don't let it! It's like cutting hair, you can't keep cutting it."
All those edits had made the work better, and there are still improvements to be made, which is why I'm going through one last round of minor edits before calling the manuscript done-done and leaving it the heck alone until the inevitable professional edits that will be required if I sell it to a publisher.
I've gone from refusing to take a second look at my work to being unable to move on to a new project because this one's not perfect. From abandoning projects to sticking with this one for perhaps too long at the expense of other work I could be doing (and neglecting some ongoing projects like my blog, my articles, and my newsletter as I fuss over the right word to describe the shape of someone's face). At some point I have to find the balance and confidence to stand behind my work and move on.
Thanks to Peter, I'm almost there.
Writing is so easy. You just put words on a page, and as long as they sound nice next to each other, you're doing great. If it sounds good and makes sense to the reader, do you really need to do anything more?
Yes. Yes, you do.
Because there is a big difference between intelligible writing and good writing.
I come from a science background. While I apparently used to write a whole lot when I was in middle and high school, most of the writing I did after my frontal lobe developed was in the form of lab reports and... well, more lab reports. I can string words together with the best of them, but I wouldn't call myself creative.
As an adult, I've written things like school handbooks and student spotlights and even website copy, and I've done a fine job. I've even been complimented on my writing, which is funny because I'm basically just talking onto a computer screen.
But it's one thing to detail the materials and methods for a science experiment or detail the varied accomplishments of a ninth grader. Writing words that evoke emotions and get readers invested in your story is an entirely different thing. It's the difference between grabbing a magazine, reading a paragraph, and tossing it back on top of the stack, and rushing home after work so you can cozy up on the couch with a blanket on your lap and your book in your hand.
I don't know if I've ever finished a magazine article. There are books on my shelf I've devoured in a handful of hours.
Best I can estimate, the difference comes down to description. How the writer describes the setting, the events, the character's feelings and reactions, makes a huge difference in the way we connect with the writing.
Am I reading a list of details, or am I experiencing them the way the character would? Am I reading the way the character felt, or am I feeling it for myself? The closer I can get to experiencing exactly what the character does, the more connected I feel to the story and the more likely I am to finish whatever it is I'm reading.
I wrote an essay recently for entry into a competition. I spent a good deal of time on it. It was good. I got really great feedback on it from my beta readers (read: a handful of friends who are gracious enough to read my drafts and encourage me through all my self-doubt). But I knew there was something missing. A writer friend and my favorite editor of all-time gave me the push I needed. "It needs to be more vulnerable."
How do I do that? I bring the reader along with me.
Instead of telling the reader I felt frustrated, I needed to describe the feeling that frustration gave me: "Rage sweeps through my veins and it’s only because of the effort it took to get three children to sleep at a reasonable time that I don’t explode ten years of frustration all over the room..."
Rather than telling the reader how anxious I get leaving my kids with someone while I work, I get specific: "Do the kids have all their school supplies? Is the baby crying too much? Eating too little? When there’s an issue with one of the children, or with the babysitter, I leave and come home."
I didn't talk about the cold leather sofa where I was sitting. I used details of the sofa in my story to bolster the emotional resonance I was describing: "I blink, and tears roll down my cheeks, soaking into the blanket I’ve wrapped around myself. Worn leather stretches between us in a gulf so wide we might as well be on opposite sides of the world."
I watched a video from one of my favorite writers and humans, Rachael Herron, yesterday, that aligns pretty perfectly with this aim: Get Rid of the Word Felt. When you're telling the audience how you (or a character) felt (or what they thought, realized, smelled, tasted, etc.), you're increasing distance and decreasing empathy between reader and character.
"I smelled chocolate" might become, "I inhaled great gulps of the aroma from the nearby chocolate factory every time I surfaced for a breath."
"Lucinda felt a sharp crack at the base of her skull" could instead be, "A sharp crack at the base of Lucinda's skull sent her vision into darkness."
You get the picture.
Readers, don't think about this too hard. I'm famous for ruining reading with all my talk about writing craft, but I don't want that happening to you. However, if you find yourself immersed in someone else's writing, I can bet part of the reason is that they've allowed you to get nice and close with the character.
Writers, think about this quite a bit. If you're writing something other than a scientific paper, I am willing to bet your work could benefit from a quick pass for closeness. A few small tweaks might be all you need to take your reader by the hand on your journey rather than making them sit in the audience.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts as readers and writers in the comments below!
(Oh - did I mention, that essay won an award? Casual.)
Six twenty-three in the morning. I lie in bed, motionless. My husband snores softly from the opposite edge of the king-size bed. Between us, the baby’s breath has settled into that deceptive rhythm that teases me into believing maybe I’ll be able to sneak out and get some work done after all.
I slide my hand out of his grasp and he moans. But it’s a sleepy moan, I tell myself. There's still hope. I move my leg away from him, preparing to slide down the side of the bed and onto the floor. He throws his entire body onto my chest, an adorable and infuriating answer to my Hail Mary attempt to, just for a half-hour, exist as a complete entity unto myself.
My watch is heavy on my wrist; my glasses signal to my eyes, even in the barely-breaking light, that we’re up. But my arms are pinned under and around 35 pounds of warm, sweet frustration.
All I can do is think.
It’s the most inhumane torture I can imagine, thinking all the words in the world with no way to get them out of me. All these fantastic ideas, whooshing in and out of my brain, and nowhere to capture them. That’s the curse of the writer: some of our best words slip right through our grasp, no matter how committed we are to holding on.
I set my alarm to 6:00 this morning, thinking surely I would be able to fit in something before the kids woke up. In the last few months, I’ve gotten really good at modularizing my time, only taking on a task I know I can finish in the time I have at my disposal. Ten minutes? Social media post. Half-hour? Newsletter. Naptime-worktime? Blog post, maybe an article. Full-day?
Bahahahaha! Who am I kidding? I can’t remember the last time I had a full day of writing. Probably before the baby was born, 18 months ago.
But even those predictable, bite-size chunks assume that the time I think I have, is the time I actually have. And when I open up the computer at 6:10 and my child wakes up at 6:20, I haven’t even gotten a chance to log on to all my services before I have to cast aside my list and go tend to someone else’s.
“Could you get up early and work before the baby wakes up?” my husband asked me once. He was trying to be helpful, optimistic. After all, he gets up early and does his own morning things before the kids are up. But that is never the way it has worked for me, and nearly all the days of the last few months have provided stacks of evidence to support that fact.
He got frustrated with me then, saying it seemed like I was giving up and dismissing the idea out of hand. But I wasn’t. I was being realistic. Maybe he can count on that time, but I can’t. And as soon as I start to, I am disappointed and angry and resentful because, more often than not, it gets taken from me.
As I lie here in bed, plans to work thwarted yet again, I respond to that gentle snore with a silent “I told you so.”
I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.
On May 1, 1994, a crash at Italy's San Marino Grand Prix killed Brazilian Formula One driver and three-time world champion, Ayrton Senna. The day before, fellow driver, Roland Ratzenberger of Australia, died during qualifying at the same track.
Prior to this weekend, it was a given that anyone who got behind the wheel of an F1 car was putting his life on the line. That might sound hyperbolic, but a look at the list of Formula 1 fatalities will show that there was an average of 1 death each season for decades prior to this fateful weekend in 1994. The sport attracts the best drivers in the world, but there are only 20 of them. So if you took a spot on a team back then, you had a 5% chance of dying at work.
After Senna's death, the sport did a ton of research into improving the safety of the cars, the tracks, and even the racing suits the drivers were wearing. There are penalties for driving unsafely, and generally the guys understand the gravity of what they're doing and their responsibility to each other. Nowadays, you can watch a race and be reasonably certain everyone will stay safe.
It's this I was thinking of as, once again, I was grazed by someone's side mirror as they passed inches from my bike yesterday.
I've been riding a lot this season - more than any year since I was doing triathlons back in my pre-marriage, pre-kid days. And I love it. The fresh air in my face as I glide downhill, the feeling of freedom and a 160 average heart rate, the smells of nature and fresh-cut grass. But as I ride past the marshes and cemeteries, the parks and business complexes, I can't help feeling that by getting on the bike, I am accepting the possibility I might be killed or seriously injured.
How messed up is that?
A few weeks ago, I was riding along next to traffic when a driver in an SUV took a right turn into the library and almost flattened me. I didn't even have the chance to yell or otherwise get her attention; I was too focused on not ending up under her tires. And did you hear about the 16-year-old in Texas who bowled over a bunch of cyclists training for an Ironman? He went home from the scene with his parents and, to my knowledge, no charges have yet been filed.
I have a number of friends, teammates, and acquaintances who have been killed or had to spend months rehabbing broken pelvises, elbows, and legs following encounters with vehicles. In fact, in 2018, more than 800 cyclists died in encounters with motorists. And it's not because cyclists are daredevils.
The problem comes down to the toxic individualism and lack of empathy that pervades our society. So many people have come to believe they take precedence over all else. Their text or social media notification needs to be attended to now, never mind the danger it presents. They push the burden of awareness to the cyclists, even though a motorist has much more potential to injure a rider than the other way around. Despite laws put into place to give cyclists equal standing to vehicles on the road, drivers of cars too frequently see themselves as more important than the bike rider next to them. They can't be bothered to give space, or to wait for oncoming traffic to pass so they can give a wider berth to riders.
And, sometimes, people are downright evil. What kind of person deliberately chases down a bike rider so they can engulf them in a cloud of black exhaust, or drives inches away when there is plenty of space and the bike is already churning bits of glass and gravel on the shoulder?
A person who believes some people are more worthy of life than others, that's who.
Every time I click my shoes into my pedals, I am forced to trust the people with whom I "share the road" (a term I use quite generously indeed) to revere my life as much as they do their won, which, as we've established, isn't something we can take for granted.
So, while I watch car races every weekend where if a guy crashes into a barrier at over 100 mph he can get out and walk away, I mount my bike hoping someone doesn't send me flying because they couldn't wait to get home to respond to a text about their niece's baby shower next weekend or because they simply thought it'd be cool to watch me eat shit on the side of the road.
I do everything I can to keep myself safe, and maintain a superhuman amount of vigilance when I'm riding. But I can't put a titanium bubble around myself on the bike, like the F1 teams started doing in the years following Senna's death.
So I need you to work with me. I promise it won't require much from you. When you see one of us on the road, just give us a little space. Hang out behind us until there's enough room to get by. Pay attention when you're driving. Most of the time, if you get distracted and swerve off the road for a moment, nothing will happen. But if, at that same moment, I happen to be next to you, you could be condemning my family to a life without me. My kids could grow up without a mom. My husband could become a widower. My parents could outlive their only child.
It's not worth it, and it's easily preventable.
We're all in this together. Can I trust you to keep me safe?
Writing is a huge and complex beast. Harry Bingham once said the trouble with writing, unlike visual art, is that you can’t take a glance at the finished product. You can look at all the details independently. You can get a sense of what’s happening at the word, sentence, or paragraph level. You might even be able to visualize a whole chapter at once, if you’ve got half an hour.
But you can’t just sit back and easily take in an entire piece of writing like you can, say, a painting or a sculpture.
For this reason, I can spend quite a lot of work time staring out into space, trying to visualize stories in my mind. (Yes, I'm still working when I do that. Without the thinking, the writing would never happen.) I freewrite in my handy-dandy Rocketbook. I use notecards or my trusty writing software, Dabble, to shuffle things around. I make spreadsheets where I map out word counts, timelines, and whose perspective we’re following.
But, sadly, I can't get a really good look at the piece without reading the whole of it. And that takes time.
One of the hardest things for me has always been figuring out where to start. And I guess that's because the story's always happening. Life (even fictional characters') is a film that's constantly rolling, and it's hard to know at what point to let the viewer - er, the reader - in. Too early, and they might lose interest. Too late, and they might get confused.
Here are some sample beginnings from an essay I wrote.
I was picking up speed and about to merge onto the highway. I looked over my shoulder to assess the oncoming traffic. Big 18-wheeler in the second lane, but the first was clear. Easy peasy. Except when I turned to face forward, everything went black.
Nope. We're already into the action here, and there's some crucial background left out. What happened before everything went black? Why did it go black? In a book, some writers will use a scene like this as a prologue, starting in the middle to get readers intrigued before going back to the beginning and showing what was happening. But for the story I was trying to tell, this got into the action a little too quickly.
Back in high school, I used to wake up with a stabbing pain in my gut. My doctors couldn't figure out what it was, even after about a dozen tests. One doctor even prescribed antidepressants, in an effort to see if decreasing my stress level would help. (Spoiler: it didn't.)
Bo-ring! This is good background, but if you don't know me, you aren't likely to care too much about this background. It can easily be peppered into the actual story in a way that doesn't bore the reader.
I needed something in the sweet spot between providing so much background that the reader gets bored and stops reading before the story really gets going, and thrusting them into a scene that's compelling but confusing because they don't have enough information to make sense of it.
Finding this balance has been the absolute bain of my existence for as long as I've been a writer and storyteller. I think I've gotten better over time, but that doesn't mean I'm any good at it.
Here's that essay. I'd love to know what you think about how I ended up beginning it. Ping me in the comments and let me know!
Oh, speaking of endings. That's another troublesome one for me. Stay tuned for more on that.
School is back in session, and with it comes a Rorschach of emotions that seem harder to process the more I think about them.
There’s the normal uncertainty that comes up when we send our kids out into the world. Will my kids be challenged? Will they get the support they need? Will their teachers be effective yet also have the right personality to keep the kids engaged and feeling safe? Will they learn what they need to learn? Will they be good friends and nice classmates?
But this year, there is so much more than that. This year, all the usual suspects are joined by a low-level fear that I don’t see going away anytime soon.
Will my kids get sick at school? Will they bring sickness home and get one of us, or their baby brother, sick? Will it spread to our family members and friends who are medically compromised?
A haze of illness is dripping off everything around us, and rather than trusting that we can work together as a community to protect ourselves and each other, we’re in a place where we can’t trust the people around us to simply do the right thing.
Suddenly, taking basic measures to protect the entire community has become secondary to some individuals' "right" to do whatever they please. I don't have to tell you about the people all over the country bucking against any kind of protective measure that keeps their friends and neighbors safe. I don't have to remind you, either, that infections and deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. You might even not need me to share this gruesome statistic that stopped me mid-guzzle yesterday morning as I tried to mainline as much caffeine into my body as possible and tread in the existential dread long enough to parent my children.
Yet, somehow, health and science have become "politics." Basic human courtesy is an "agenda." We can't bring ourselves to actually give a damn about anyone else, because we are so wrapped up in value judging them based on what we presume to be their political inclination.
Here's what I want to say to all the people who fly their Feedumb Flag as an excuse to be abhorrent human beings who can't be bothered to exercise basic human decency because Politics.
Put yourself at risk all you want. By all means, congregate with other future COVID death statistics, packed like salty, recirculated-droplet-breathing sardines in the windowless dining room of your favorite burger joint. Let this disgusting brand of individualism you hold so dear infect you and your cronies from the inside out.
But leave my kids the hell out of it.
"Only 400 children have died from COVID," I heard at a school committee meeting the other day. The capacity of my kids' school is 350. Picture every desk in your child's school, and every car in the parking lot, occupied by a child who died of COVID. Are you sure that's a statistic you want to use to corroborate your stance?
"Children rarely get sick from COVID," I've heard. Without even going into the fact that the Delta variant has a higher infection rate among children, this claim misses the mark. I'm worried about my children, yes. I'm concerned they'll get sick, and I'm concerned they'll have long-lasting symptoms we haven't yet discovered. But, also, if my kids carry around the virus, whether or not they get sick, they can pass it along to someone else - like the many people in our lives who are medically compromised.
And that's not to mention the disruption to learning that comes when students have to be sent home and/or quarantined because they've either been in class with someone with the illness, or because they have a symptom that appears on the laundry list of possible COVID indicators.
I am so appalled by the willingness of people to use their children as pieces in this poorly-conceived game in which we've all engaged ourselves. People are so quick to follow their political party in what should be a commonsense public health decision, and it infuriates me.
By virtue of living in an organized society, we have agreed to work toward the collective good. I could see where this might be tricky if the collective good is in opposition to a person's individual success. But following basic decency and simple public health precautions is in everyone's best interest. Sure, we all have our own individual freedoms. But when exercising that freedom, it's each individual's responsibility to be sure we're not negatively affecting those around us.
I shouldn't have to worry every day that my neighbor's risky behavior is going to put my family at risk.
But I do. And until everyone is willing to make this conversation, grounded in facts and science, that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with basic human decency and the common good, that's not going to change.
There is a saying I've heard many times over the years: If everything's important, nothing's important.
It rings true. It really does. But the problem comes when there are enough things that actually are important that it becomes impossible to accomplish them all.
This started to happen to me when I began teaching. Being a first-year teacher is a fresh hell reserved for only the most naive and masochistic of us. You've got to have the right combination of drive, stubbornness, and support if you're going to get out of there alive, and there were times when I didn't know if I would. The learning curve is so steep that there's always a hundred things you don't know and a thousand things you know but suck at actually doing.
And the kids can smell it.
After five years, I thought I had the hang of teaching - and then I moved to a new school at a new grade level and got to be terrible all over again. Only this time, there were state tests and network-wide initiatives and, well, more things to suck at. There was the teaching, which happened during the school day, but there was also the lesson planning, which generally happened before and after the school day. Everything was so important (and being a teacher is so miserable unless you're decent at it) that I spent hours each day trying to get things just right so I could do something other than fall apart when I was actually in front of kids. Even so, I'd close my computer at 11:00 each night, knowing what I had wasn't quite good enough, but so exhausted I could do no more.
It was a constant state of failure - one that never truly went away.
Having children is a similar state of perpetual shortcoming. There's always something I know I should be doing, but I just can't. If I'm doing well on meal planning, I'm doing a bad job of spending time with the kids. If I'm keeping consistent behavioral expectations, I'm doing a bad job of cleaning the house. And if I'm doing a fantastic job at all the parenting things (which is a dream, let's be real), then there's a 100% chance I'm failing at doing anything for myself. I'm not working out, I'm not reading enough, I'm not doing well at my job.
There's simply not time in the day for it all.
So what do I do? I go in phases. Sometimes I feel like a really good mom. Some days I do really well at my job. Others my writing shines like Aladdin's lamp.
But never all at once.
It's survival mode at its finest, and I've been living here for my entire adult life.
I read a book recently - The Islanders by local Massachusetts writer, Meg Mitchell Moore. I enjoyed the book quite thoroughly, and I identified hard with the character Lu, an at-home parent who aspires to have a career. She's speaking with another rock-star female character, Joy, who says something that tightens my shoulders even now.
"We can't have it all. We have to pick."
Lu's response is desperate, and tears sprung to my eyes when I read it. "You're wrong," she says. "You have to be wrong." I feel those words in my soul.
People will say to prioritize. They'll say it's impossible for one person to do all the things. But it can't be. Because if I have to pick, I'll inevitably pick everyone else over myself. And so I pick survival mode. Catching one of a thousand balls before they all clang to the ground, occasionally asking a kid, partner, or friend to chase after one as it bounces away. But mainly I pick everything, because I can't be whole if I have to choose.
So what's a person to do when everything's important? A person who wants to be a good parent, while at the same time having a career and a self that exist outside? Will it always be survival mode, or is there hope?
Share your story in the comments.
I feel your bass
drum kick, boom-boom,
up near my
heart and so
forceful it can be
seen and not just
Then comes in the
bass guitar, rolling left
to right, slapping
time, the vibrations
backbeat in my
Your hands stay
folded up next to your
smushed-up face, all
the way down
showtime, and then
fingers glide and
flutter, finding the
keys in the
I tap along,
fingers drumming the
snare, toes tapping the
high hat, humming lead
guitar to the tune
of who cares because
it’s just you and
Some times you are
gently as if we have
nowhere to be and
you are content
to stay inside
Others you plug
in and make yourself
unmistakably known and I
wonder what choreography you’re
learning in there, and if
you’ll remember it when
Or, perhaps more
likely, we’ll settle
in to a new
sound, a new
song, a new
dance, just you
Except this time,
like it or not,
there will be vocals.