comfort isn’t an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don’t need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I’ve made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn’t need shelter from walls or the root. I’ve been out of touch with that part of myself, and I’ve suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water – early spring grasses, a maple leave, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines – life finding its way – giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles on my skin again. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched it move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine – or was it someone else’s?) had loved blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I’m sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn’t see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn’t matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes not of beam and nail, but of existence itself.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” Mary Oliver’s, Upstream

what i’m reading + navigating the next

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Of course, of course, I know that I can’t know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there’s only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don’t mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what’s coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I’ve seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it’s all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true – two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather’s side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of “we didn’t know this coming; we couldn’t have known.” I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn’t planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn’t have known, then, what she knows now. That she’d spend more of her life married than not married. That she’d give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they’d each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we’re young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy “what’s next” is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It’s an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I’ve been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I’ve read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I’m looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family’s central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It’s a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me – the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I’m not even sure what; I just known that I’ve been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I’m currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I’ve read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again – or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I’m trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

How to Undo Fear: On Fear, Fearlessness + What’s In Between

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford another car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

Here’s What I WON’T Quit in 2016: Thoughts on Quit Lit, Staying Put + the New Year

2016a2015 was the year of quit lit. Everyone with a blog, or a Twitter account was quitting something: social media, beer, academia, televisions shows, bread, iPhones, sugar, massive income, the day-to-day happenings of human life. (Hell, I “quit” something, then wrote about it). The biggest of all these stories, though, were the stories of people who “quit” their lives. Who left exorbitant paychecks  to hang out on the beach, who traded Conde Naste for Cape Town, a huge D.C. Home for a grass hut in Mexico. People who, for different reasons, traded the life in front of them for something radically different.

Then they sold their story to magazines so we could know how much better life is from the top of a treehouse.

First, the two caveats I need to include here. One, it is commendable whenever men and women take risks to improve their lives. As long as you’re not abandoning people who depend upon you, then brava for following instinct, need, and passion. Two, I’m going to talk about privilege, and in order to do that, I need to acknowledge my own. I am deeply, radically privileged. I grew up in a financially and emotionally stable home, attended public school without threat of violence, received a college education, and am now on my way to building an equally financially and emotionally stable home. I am very privileged.

Now, here’s what I want to say about these “I quit my life stories:”

At their best, they are interesting and possibly mildly inspiring. At their worst, they are shaming, and they are shallow.

When I first started to see these stories, I ate them up. They were fantasies illustrated with bright photographs (all optimized for my cell phone screen), for the 600 or so words, I enjoyed participating in the escape.

But as I read more of these articles, I became more discerning of the tone of most of these stories. I realized that as much as these stories are explanations of one person’s highly individualized choice, they’re also laced with the insinuation that their choice was the right one, not just for themselves, but for all of us. They were writing because they found the secret to the good life, and if we were choosing to stay (regardless of the reason) we were the real suckers.

“‘I quit,’ goes the text. ‘And you should, too,’ goes the subtext.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic

To quit is to declare that you do not need to learn how to deal with what’s in front of you. It means that your responsibilities, and commitments, and life structures demand so little of you that if you vacate yourself from all of them no one, yourself included, will suffer.

At its very core, it’s a story of privilege. My life was so great, I could no longer live it. Those who can to do this do so because the riches of their first life were so great that they are able to take that excess and parlay that into an easier, more enjoyable second life. I’ve yet to read the story of the public school teacher who quits, moves to Phuket, and starts a beauty blog.

The lie of these articles is that there is life, and there is bliss, and to reach the latter, you must first escape the former. This is a shallow, half-hearted response to the whole vast tapestry of the human experience. A good life, a life well-lived is, yes, marked by risk and by courage, by changing what does not serve and by celebrating what does. But this life is also rooted in relationship, in steadfast presence, and in sacrifice. In staying when it would feel better to leave.

To have weight and dimension, a life can’t be only about passion, but also must be about recognizing and honoring what is set before you.

And what’s set before all of us is different, influenced by background and upbringing, time, circumstance, location, privilege, and a whole host of other factors as randomly assigned as these. What’s beautiful, commendable, worth of story, is the people who take what is given to them, and, with dutiful devotion, show up for themselves, for their families, for the responsibilities that they’re been yoked to. Who create passion and adventure and bliss where they are.

For most people, to quit would not only isn’t feasible, but it isn’t responsible. It isn’t commendable. It’s an easy out in the face of the hard and necessary staying. For many, to quit is not even an option.

“It is a luxury to be able to quit something, whether that thing be a job or a food or a pair of Lululemon Luxtreme Wonder Unders. And it’s a luxury, too, to be able to write about that quitting.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic. 

I am building lives within the hem of responsibility. I know—I’ve always known—that I cannot quit our jobs to travel the world (as much as I’d like to). I cannot cut away from my life here to live a life out in the ever exotic there, no matter how many bloggers assure us I can.

Not only that, but I are yoked to a community of people as well. Relationships take care, and time, and proximity in order to flourish, and I, in turn, need these men and women for our own growth and general human decency. To quit what I’m building here would be to quit, in a way, all of our friends and family, and that would destroy me.

2016aI was raised by a man who worked hard, with little complaint, because he understood that his responsibility to provide for his wife and children was sacred. His three bad habits, he always told my brother and I, were food, shelter, and clothing for Aaron and I. My mother, in response to my father’s work, sank herself into motherhood with the ferocity of deep love.

Planting into a life of responsibility and interdependence isn’t sexy. It doesn’t translate well into a feature story, but it is deeply human. It’s worthy to pursue, admirable to work towards, and it is profoundly, essentially human.

In this new year, I want to hear the stories about those who stayed. Who stuck out demanding jobs, because it’s what they needed to do, and who remained faithful to their partner during trials, because they knew that nurturing the commitment is better than abandoning it.

Life is such that we anchor ourselves to one another, to institutions, to the dutiful devotion of love. To quit, is to wrench those bonds apart—or it is to never form them.

That which we cannot quit gives us context. It gives us weight, and shape, and it gives us access into the sacred. That which we do not quit shapes us into faithful, steadfast stalwarts of lives lived well and true.

***

In honor of the life in front of me, here is what I will NOT quit in 2016:

My job
General fiscal responsibility
Carbs
Coffee
Television (I will learn what happens to Jon Snow)
Writing (because I would wither into a shell of myself if I did)
Hard work
Friendships with extraordinary women
Family

But, because to be human is to contradict, here is what I will quit in 2016:

Sugar (my doctors and health care providers claim I’ll feel better if I do…)
Diet Coke
Possibly cable (because Netflix and HBO Go…and debt).
Comparison (Because it’s toxic. It’s brutalizing to hear that I don’t measure up, and usually, the only person I hear this from is myself. It’s cruel to me, it’s cruel to the specific women I compare myself to, and it’s cruel to the general unity of womanhood.)
Talking shit about myself
Thinking that publication is the reason why I write.
Social media before bed
Uncomfortable clothing
Inaction

Onward, onward, into the New Year!

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Work + Wonder: What I Want From My Twenties

Woman Under TreeLast week, I turned twenty-three, and I feel time, maybe for the first time, pressing itself against me.

When I was a child, time terrified me. I agonized about growing up, and in the dark, I wept, thinking that someday I’d be older. When I turned thirteen, I went with my family to a house party that my uncle and his band played at. He sang happy birthday for me, and I hid, because being thirteen meant I’d be a teenager, and being a teenager meant I was closer to a still unknown adulthood. Even though time was my specter, the hooded thief, I never felt comfortable in my years. I wanted the weight of experience without experiencing passed time.

I feel the weight of twenty-three lived years, and I feel how little this is, how light these years really are. My youngness, my inexperience, my newness and next to it, my experiences, failures, circumstances and decisions, the rawness of being alive.

As I move forward into my twenty-fourth year (it took a birthday card from my dad to correctly understand this math), I am thinking about this time in front of me, specifically thinking about my twenties. This decade is mythologized— at least it seems that way right now. There’s a massive literature this collective, cultural imagination, and according to about 90% of it, I’m doing it all wrong. I settled quickly, took a job that turned into a career three weeks after I graduated. I am paying down debt in massive, shattering chunks, and deferring our wild desire to travel until we’re responsibly able to afford it. I’m building my wardrobe from clearance racks and Goodwill, and I won’t lay down big money on that one great handbag (which, I truly believe, is a mythical object).

Instead of looking at what I want to do, I am looking at what I want to gain, what I want to invest in and take away from my twenties. (It’s a short list).

What I want  is work and wonder.Work BikeWork, because I have a lot of it to do.

Recently, I listened to an episode of the Longform podcast that featured an interview with Cheryl Strayed. The ever-quotable writer said something that I stuck with me (and with every other writer who listened to the episode): “I didn’t just get lucky. I worked my fucking ass off. And then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky. You have to do the work. You always have to do the work.”

This is my work: The pouring of myself and the full force of my humanity into my writing.

The reality is, no matter how many hours I put in or how many pages I write, there’s a chance that my writing will never be seen, and it’s a near statistical guarantee that I’ll never get lucky (at least not 800,000 copies of my memoir sold + a Hollywood movie deal lucky). Coming to grips with that is a constant struggle— some days, all I care about is the writing, other days, the idea of never reaching publication makes my blood cold— but no matter how I’m feeling, I know that I want to work my ass off. I want to do the work, so that if I never get published, I’ll know it’s not for lack of trying, and if I do get published, I’ll know that I worked hard enough to be proud of it.

photo-1434145175661-472d90344c15The other thing I want to invest myself in, give my time and energy and love to, is wonder. I really believe that the ability to experience awe is one of the greatest gifts that humanity has been given. The ability to stand before reverence, and know that the world is big. That it’s beautiful, and it’s mysterious, and despite this you, small you, have been given the chance to see it, to feel it.

It’s easy to lose the wonder, and it’s just as easy to not see it when it’s there. When I was a girl, I loved dew in the morning, thought it was magic, thought each drop was placed there by fairies, thought it was a gift given straight to those who woke up early. I remember one morning in southeastern Minnesota, when my mother and I went for a walk just after the sun had spilled over the horizon. To our east was red and pink and purple, fire in the sky, and to the west was pearled dawn being chased away. I stopped at the top of the hill and watched as dew drops slid down the stem of prairie grasses, shimmying the whole plant and landing in a cup where the grass blade slip off from its stem. Inside every single dew drop, I saw the glory of the world, that sunrise coming up over us, over the mid-summer soybeans, over the undulating hills that glaciers hadn’t razed. It made me cry, and then, I couldn’t understand why, but now, I know that it was wonder, encompassing, enfolding awe at the smallness and largeness of incomprehensible beauty.

I need to feel that, feel the wonder. I need to have my breath taken away, and my notions of beauty laid flat, and I need to feel both small and big, bowled over by the world and yet beautifully apart of it. It makes me a better writer, and much more importantly, it makes me a better person.

I finished The Color Purple yesterday, and as I read the last few pages, I wept. Albert says to Celie, “I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.” 

And it makes me think about my own heart. The more I ask, the more I see, the more experience, the more I do, the bigger I grow, the smaller I get.

Time is still a friend to me. While I know it’s precious, I am young enough to still feel it as endless. Every new year, every new season, I feel its passing more acutely, can see it draping itself on those I love, can see wasting hours piling up. I have no interested in a checklist, in doing for the sake of doing, because I’m a certain age or because a certain blog says so. I want to do my two w’s, work and wonder. It’s these I want to throw myself, sink myself into, because time is passing me quickly, and while I have it, I want to use it well.

What Followed Us Out: My Parents’ Memories and My Own

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This has been happening more frequently in the past few years. When afternoons that I’m with my family stretch long, we—my parents, my brother and I—turn to reminiscing. Yesterday, it happened on the deck that my dad built with my uncle. The shadows were lengthening, wreaking havoc on their shadow-chasing dog. When we do start sharing memories, collectively we only have about an inch of perspective. I’m young enough that I can still feel childhood in my bones, and my parents are far, far from the age where memories turn cloudy and sentimental.

It’s interesting what happens when we start sharing what followed us.

Our memories warp themselves with time. with experience, and with the inevitability fallibility of our chemistry. My parents and I line up our warpings, and try to decide which is truer. I can remember them reading books they can’t remember reading. They try to remember when it was that they went tubing on the Apple River—was that before kids or was it with kids? Was Dad with?

What they remember my dad working and working and working. They were young, with young kids, and the on-call hours for an electrical lineman were good. My dad could work whole weeks of overtime stacked on top of whole weeks of regular work, and still spring back. (Although I remember him falling asleep face-down on the floor when he came home to play with us. We climbed on him, drove trucks over him, played with him still while he slept). My mom remembers tucking kids in to bed alone, and not being able to talk to her husband when he was called out to relight what storms and wind and malfunction had blown out. With pain, they remember their far that all we’d remember of our dad was him working.

I remember our dad coming home. I remember the playing on the floor, and the climbing all around him, and the giggling at where he fell asleep, when he fell asleep. I remember him being home from dinner, and I remember thinking that when my dad was at work, he was building substations, that he’d built every substation in the territory, (because once, he’d shown us one that he had built).

I remember a severe storm that blew our power, and created lakes between our house and the neighbors. We hid under the basement stairs—Aaron with all his books stacked smallest to largest—until the sirens stopped. Then we all went outside. The storm had turned out neighborhood into a battle zone—the wind and the rain and the lightening at war with everything that thought it should remain on the ground. Neighbors were out too, and the adults talked, and compared damage, and we all listened quiet to an explosion that came from somewhere else.

Dad was already working, and because this was before cell phones, we didn’t know where he was. It was well past bedtime, but my mom had packed Aaron and I into our car seats and booster chairs to bring us down to the station, to ask company dispatch where exactly he was, confirm for us that he was safe.

Then he came home with a truck so big it shook the ground when it idled, and this is what I remember—hearing the truck and feeling its tremors and knowing, before I could see it, that it was our dad. He came home to tell us he was safe, and tell us that he’d still be working, and probably to say something to mom that would help her get through another night, another day of single parenting.

I remember him coming into the garage, and having to twist up and around in my booster seat to see him through our car’s back window. He was dark, but ringed with light from the truck behind him, and I think his crew mates got out to say hi too.

I was five, and that’s the oldest memory of have of thinking, and knowing, that my dad was a hero, gone back out in the storm.

Later that night, after my mom had let me crawl into her bed, because dad was still going to be working, she woke me up, and told me to look outside. The power was out everywhere on our block and in our town, but just over the hill that our sat beneath was a fuzzy glow of electric light. I watched it for a few minutes, and then heard the hum as the power in our house came back to life. It was the sound of life for our little house, the sound of our dad’s care for us.

I knew he was at the end of our street—he and a crew who also knew that he had family and small kids on that block. Before he went out into the night to restring power lines and replace poles that had been cracked by straight-line winds, he’d turned our block back on.

I know from my parents that that storm became a “dedicated storm,” which meant that the damage was so bad that all the linemen worked 18 hours on, 6 hours off until the power across the territory was destroyed. I don’t remember him being gone for the next few days, even though I know he was.

I remember falling back asleep knowing, for the second time that night, that my dad was a hero.

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It’s this that we lay side by side in waning summer light. The warpings of our shared lives, of our interlocked memories. My parents both remember the absences, the short tempers, and the times they said no when it could have been just as easy to say yes to us kids. They feel the mistakes they think they made, and sometimes, they apologize, fifteen, twenty years later. When I try to place the pains and fears that my parents carried out of our childhood into the map of my own memory, I usually can’t. There’s no place for the hurts they thought we’d feel, the pain they thought they might have given us.

What followed them out of our childhood wasn’t what followed us.

As a family, we fit our separate warpings into something whole, and try to point to what is true, each of us feeling what followed us out.

What followed me was that light at the end of our dark street.