belief

Here is the day

One of the first lines I wrote in the wake of The Vote was “I have lost my words.” I had gone mute with grief and rage and fear. But I had to teach, to stand in front of young scared faces who looked to me to tell them the world would not end. I tried. I found some, cupped them in my palm like pears, sliced and shared what I could.

Weeks have passed, and I still can’t find them. This scares me, since I know, I know, I know: words are the way out. I have known that since I was a girl who slept and woke with books in her hands, my mind and heart on fire. My faith in words has not failed, just my faith in my will. And in the world.

As I sit down to the page now, all I can think of is an old tip on how to write well: Go small. To the short words, those with one beat. Their strength lies in their good bones. I think of a prompt from those same years: Write a scene (or more) with all one beat words.

So I turn to them now, the small, lone, bright ones. I get low, slash through the brush and weeds and lo! There, like lost coins lodged in the dirt. I claw them out, dust them off, watch them glint in the sun. They smell of stars and mint. I scuff their curves with my thumb. They burst, tart as a bell chime, on my tongue. I taste their punch and hiss, their thrust and twang.

Here are some that I clutch hard as we ride out the last days of this rough and dour year:

Fire
As in breathe, go through, hair on, set the world on. Light. It. Up.
As in stoke: for warmth, to cook, to share.
As in The Fire Next Time, The Fire This Time, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, The Mind on Fire. Seek those who write their truths, and take heed.

Rise
As in, Stand. Don’t back down. Know your rights. Know what’s right. Know the facts, and that facts count. Stand with those you know and those you don’t. Hold them up when their knees go weak. Cling to them when yours do.
As in, Wake up. This is real. This is ours now.
As in to the test. Know your strengths. You’ll need them. We all will.
To the surface. Gasp for air. A space to breathe. Float on your back. Watch the sky and clouds and rain, the moon and stars. Then get back to work.
As in the sun will. Look: here is the day. Meet it. Some days you can’t. You just can’t. Oh, love, it’s fine. Hang on. We got you.

Art
As in, write and read prose and verse and script. Words that for me mean pray. The Bad One and his ilk shun this life of the mind and heart as if it is dull, a bore and a chore, when those of us who write and read know: here is where we seek and find hard and good truths. Here is where we find joy. Here is grace and hope. Trust in these acts, for the self, for the world.
As in make. Make films (big screen, small screen), make plays, make sets. Draw, paint, sculpt, print, glaze. Waltz, leap, spin. Bang a drum, sing, pluck strings. Teach and learn. Make waves.

Earth
As in, What on? For real. What the f*ck have we done?
As in dirt. Where we dig and plant and grow.
As in our home. Home to land, sky, seas, lakes, trees, air, beasts, fish, Home to homes, streets, farms, work where we live, die, love, fly, ride, bike, walk, hop, skip, dream, hope. Home we must save.

Heart
As in: Take! You are not alone. The world can crack this red heart of yours, but it can heal it, too. The arc is long. The fight is hard. Chin up, Love. Look back at those who blazed the way. Look now at your feet on the path, at the ones next to you, old and young. Look up. Keep on.
As in, love. As in the greatest of these is. We’re not dumb fools, we who have faith in love. To love is a grand act full of risk and hope and fear. Its wild force —how it wounds and heals, how far we’ll go in its name—is at the root of much great art. Say it loud to those who need to hear it: I love you. You with your flaws, you with your charms, you with your scars. You, you, you.
As in, not hate. To the Bad Man and his vile dolts: you will do much harm, or try to, in the name of hate. Its force is strong, too. But we will stop you. There are more of us. For god’s sake, love wins. (You would know this if you read.)
As in with your whole. All of it. To the edge of what you think you can bear, and one step more.

Beauty
Not a one beat word, but I can’t think of its match, not one that holds the same sense of art, god, thanks, good, and joy at once. At times, beauty is plain: the sky on fire as the sun slides out of the sky, a bare tree at dusk, a thumb on a cheek. For me, it’s best when it comes by chance, when we have to peer past what we know to see it: a man on shift who runs to a sick guest, kneels in puke to hold her head and hand; a shared smile on a train; a drop of dew on a bent branch. Some days, these can bring me to my knees, a bright hot bloom in my chest. We must look hard for them in dark days. They are there, even in the dark. Look, and look, and look. Share them. Keep them close.

That’s all I have for now. But just this act, this search for small words, brought forth more far more than I knew it would.

From my heart to yours. I can’t wait to see what you do.

BC

(pssst For those who like to keep count, there are four words up there (at least that I see) that break the short-word rule: surface, alone, greatest, and beauty. This does not mean the rest of the words are the right or best ones; I’m could find more apt ones, clean it all up, cinch it tight. But as a prompt, it was good work and made me test and push past my first urge. Try it!)

The Bee in the Window: On Friendship and the Creative Life

The bee, a faux stained-glass sticker, hangs on the corner of my home office window courtesy of Gigi, my college roommate and forever soul mate and all-around crafty gem. Poor old thing (the bee, not Gigi) has lost its buzz over the past decade as I’ve peeled it off for—count ‘em—three cross-state moves. Its wings and body are worn thin with holes, the yellow and gold colors faded from years in sunlight, one antenna lopped in half. On the surface, nothing remarkable. Just a kitschy gift from a funny, dear friend.

Except for the story that goes with it.

*

One night, about fifteen years ago, Gigi and I went to a gathering at the downtown Phoenix apartment of a fellow I was dating. Gigi, lovely, thoughtful person that she is, brought alcohol and a festive little gift: a homemade window-cling bee, which she stuck in that fella’s kitchen window over the sink. At some point, we partygoers left our things and walked to a nearby bar. Long story short, at some point that fellow started ignoring me and flirting mightily with another woman. Ugh. So we beat it the heck out there—only to realize that Gigi’s purse, with the car keys inside, was back at his apartment. No way was I going back in to ask him for a g-d thing. What could we do?

“Break in,” Gigi said.

“No, wait,” I said, half-running to keep up as she launched herself back toward the apartment. The girl cheetah-walks, even though she’s only 5’2 on a good day. Despite this height fact, she also always believes she’s as tall as the tallest person in the room.

At the apartment, Gigi rattled the door and then tested the window. Jackpot.

She slid the window open. “Gimme a leg up,” she said.

“No way,” I said. “We’ll get in trouble—“

She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Bryn. Give me a leg up.”

You don’t argue with those eyebrows. I leaned down and cupped my hands. She stepped into my palms, and I hoisted her up. She scrambled inside the window in full view of a busy street, tumbling over the stereo on the way down. She grabbed her purse and started back toward the window but then stopped. She turned back to the kitchen. She ripped that bee off and then climbed back out the window with what I recall as one badass, long-legged, superhero hop to the ground.

She slammed the window shut and pressed the bee into my palm. She nodded. “Let’s go.”

Yep. She was taller than everyone who ever lived.

*

That little bee has traveled with me from Phoenix, AZ, to Nashville, TN, to Montevallo, Alabama, and now to Charlotte, NC. It’s always in my writing window, right in my line of sight when I look up from typing.

Of course the literal story never fails to make me laugh when I remember it, but as Flannery O’Connor said, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”

On the eve of my first book’s official publication, I find myself heart-swollen with what that bee reminds me, sometimes exhorts me:

  • Writing is solitary, but you are not alone. You have a hive, and all your people are (ahem) the bee’s freakin’ knees.
  • The families and friends you love are far away, but they are not gone.
  • The families and friends you love who are gone are still present. In memory, in imagination, on the page.
  • Call your friends. Call your mother and siblings. Send them an email or card just for the heck of it. Tell them, now, what they mean to you. (I love you to the tops of the tulip poplars and beyond, past the broken eggshell of a moon, past Pluto with her giant waiting heart, you splendid, lovely sons-of-guns.)
  • Stare out the window. A lot.
  • Don’t take shit.
  • Fight hard for what’s important, for what you love.
  • You are as tall as those others in the room, so keep on writing, love.
  • Sometimes the world will sting hard and mean in the tenderest of places, and there’s not a thing you can do but weep.
  • “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen
  • You will be afraid. Do it anyway.
  • Give someone a leg up when they need it. Reach back and offer a hand.
  • Say thank you and mean it.
  • You live in a house.
  • You live in a house where you have your own window.
  • You live in a house with another human being who makes art across the hall and who also makes you mixtapes and greets you over dinner with stories about starrrrr stuff and news and jokes and other miraculous things from his bright bonfire of an imagination.
  • “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” –Walker Evans
  • You are g-d fortunate to be here, bumbling around this bewildering honeycomb of a life.
The bee.

The bee.

The good of your writing

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We writers sure like quotes, eh? Tacked up on our bulletin boards, scrawled and underlined in our notebooks, lodged up there in the old noodle like a stray bullet. I’ve got that well-known Woolf passage on an index card among all of the other desk detritus: brown-edge postcards, Jane Austen action figure (with writing quill!), a beer stein stuffed with old nickels. Don’t you love the intricacy of that question: What’s the good of your writing? It’s one I ask myself every day in one way or another. I ask it on a micro level as I work on a story — What’s good in here? What’s working? What can go? — and on a larger level during contemplative long walks, during weepy moments alone in the shower (or, hell, at the grocery store, usually in the cereal aisle), in the deep dark moments of uncertainty: What’s good? What’s at all good about this?

The answer matters. Because writing matters — to you, if to no one else. Understanding that is crucial in pursuing this writing life, because let’s be clear: in most cases, no one is asking you for a g-d thing. No one’s waiting on tiptoes for that lovely little story you’re penning in the wee hours, in snatches at work, in long hours at the desk. Bret Lott’s personal essay, “Why Write, Anyway?,” touches on this idea. About one of his novels in progress, he writes, “Who cares, I had to ask, about an RC Cola salesman whose wife had just left him and how he would then live? … And the answer that came to me, while writing a book no one had asked me to write … was that I cared.” So care. After the people in your life, care about this the most. Breathe it into your serpentine clumps of cells, feel the thrum of it in your veins.

More good news about the good: the process itself. The world’s guffaw that Woolf mentions is real, and it takes on different tinges and tones for all of us, no matter our genders (although, her point remains valid and can be expanded to include the intersections of race, class, and sexuality). Perhaps it is the scoff of your father, a worried frown from a partner. Maybe it’s bafflement or apathy from co-workers. Or maybe it’s sharp, pin-dropping silence from everyone. Maybe it begins externally but creeps inward, becoming the astringent voice of your Inner Critic. But: the very act of writing can be a response, a defiance, to the skepticism in the question. The good? I’ll show you good.

But don’t forget: the process is joyous, too. Think of it: on those best days, hours pass, CDs loop, housework goes undone, plants photosynthesize, the sun slides right off the edge of the sky, and there you are, lost in the bright fire of your imagination, with what Elizabeth Bishop called a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Finally blinking up at the clock or at the dark window is the most stunning kind of joy, isn’t it? Plus, every time you write, you’ll discover something new, whether it’s about technical craft or about a character or about what you don’t know. Every single time.

In Fires, Raymond Carver says, “If the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done your best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.” That satisfaction: you can’t get it off the shelf, in the bottom of the bottle, from the bank. Trying to get a story right, trying to make it good: there’s nothing like it. Tell yourself, as I tell my students, C’mon, break my heart. Meaning: Keep working. Don’t hold back. Make it count. Not for publication credits, not for accolades or money or fame; you want to — must — get it right, for reasons that come only from your own internal pulse.

We can’t know the good of our writing out there in the wide, wide world, only of our hopes for it. Audience is inherent in storytelling, even if the creative impulse is purely personal. Though it’s first important that our stories matter to us, we also want them to matter to others. Something else Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded … whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.”

Finding those stories is part of the good. Look in those corners and alleyways, the real ones and the shadowy ones in your mind. Look beyond the obvious. Look and then look again. No, look. Find, as Thomas Hardy suggests, “the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.” Be that kind of writer. Be good. Do your best. Find some aspect of the fragile, shining human condition, and then give it to the world with the faith that someone, somewhere, will find it to be true.

The heart, ‘that bloody motor’

I’ve been wanting to sit down here in Blogsville and compose a new entry to keep my writing engine warm in what has so far been the frozen tundra of 2014, but I’ve been doing the proverbial spinning in my chair. Yesterday I started an entry about time and compression in fiction, which I’m wrestling with in a new story. But early on, I got bored with myself and my ruminations. The process of figuring out what would be “good” to write about felt cold, sterile, stupefyingly dull.

It got me thinking about why I set up this so-called blog in the first place: to give myself a defined space that, because of its weirdly public-private status, makes me work a little harder than my personal notebook. But I realized that I’ve lapsed into thinking too much about what to write, forcing myself to come up with a subject even when nothing comes to mind. Partly this can be a good thing; I need to push myself to keep working even when I don’t have the urge, or when I’m stuck or listless. But my recent pattern feels different. To narrow it to its most reductive, cliched state: I’m writing from my head instead of my heart.

Oh, the heart. I couldn’t help but think of that lovely passage from Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? … I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.

As much as I love this passage — it’s tacked to my bulletin board next to an Onion calendar headline — the older I get, the more I quibble with the “how easy” part. Were my stars out? Good heavens. Some days I’m not even sure the sun has risen. Writing my heart out? As if it’s breaking out of my chest, exposed to the world? Or until it’s squeezed empty like an old toothpaste tube? Yes, to both. But sometimes, before I can get the old girl back inside, to get back to regular old cardiovascular business, a bird swoops in, tears off a chunk in its beak, and flies away. Sometimes I can’t catch my breath as it tries to fill back up.

A more honest perspective: you will be able to say yes to these questions, but some days it will be unimaginably hard to do so. Some days you will write with boundless joy, your stars like chips of mica at the edge of your sky, your crimson heart as naked as Eve. But some days you will write in the dark, from the pit of your liver — because your heart? she can’t take it right now — and you will do it only to stay alive.

Funny, we don’t say, “I was writing my head out,” even though the head is the metaphoric place of imagination, presumably where our stories begin and flourish. But it is the heart — “that bloody motor,” as Grace Paley so wonderfully calls it in “A Conversation with My Father” — where we lodge desire, courage and fear, love and longing; and those are the parts that make a story live.

And so I must remember to return to my heart, dear reader, even when — especially when — I am terrified to haul it out, afraid that it will be tedious, frivolous, sentimental, bumbling.

Because what if it isn’t?

Letter to a Young Self

Dear Little Brynnie,

Oh, dear.

Oh, dear.

It’s been a letter-y semester in my classes this fall as students try forms as a means of storytelling and essay-writing. I thought I’d give it a shot, too, because the truth is, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. Mom just turned seventy a couple of weeks ago, which meant I was sorting and compiling – pardon my French, honey, and the slang – a crap-ton of old photos. Suddenly there were scanned images of our family all over the screen: Dear God, the haircuts! The polyester! The collars! And there you were, that tiny past version of me: mop-topped, squirrel-cheeked, round-tummied, gazing solemnly, squinting, grinning. I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but we are old now, a lifetime removed from the story that inspired that “little” nickname, our family inside joke. I have known these pictures our whole life, but for some reason these days, I can’t stop staring.

I find myself wanting to tell you everything about what’s coming — as if I could prepare you, which of course I can’t. Our life has happened. There’s this trite saying, which you don’t know yet: You can’t change the past. More and more, Little Brynnie, I’m not sure. I’m starting to think we change it every time we see it again, every time we take the time to reconsider – to remember, to imagine, to re-see – what once was there. It can’t help but change, thanks to our infallible memories and our persistent desire to wonder.  And so here I am.

In the interest of time and keeping your attention — we’re both going to need a nap soon — I won’t go into all of the gory details. To sum up: You are going to be an odd kid. An odd teenager. Introverted, smart, melancholy, dreamy, too empathic, worrisome. All those emotions ride right out there on your skin. This will coalesce into a niggling sense that you don’t fit in. That you are on the outside, even with your friends and family. Don’t worry, honey (although I know you will). It’s not all bad. The fact is, you will navigate that tumultuous stream of childhood and adolescence mostly intact, with much love and humor and sunshine in the mix. Some dark things lurk and will snare you, and I’m sorry for this. I cannot stop it.

The good news: you make it. The mixed news: You have transformed into… an odd adult. Well, let’s call it “quirky.” It’s hard for you to be “out there,” as a good friend put it once. Introversion creeps into reclusiveness. Though it may seem that childhood and adolescence are the hardest parts, it’s these later years when the real complications set in. We forge ourselves in this fire. This is where we become who we are.

The really bad news— well, I’ll just rip it off like a Band-Aid: We lose our father, when we are 24. Though we will lose other dear family, friends, and co-workers, and we will tumble through a kaleidoscope of romantic heartbreaks, this will be the thing that upends us, leaves us untethered. It is as though someone has replaced the crystalline lenses of our eyes. Everything is filtered through his absence: the world no longer contains him, but his presence persists at the corners of our vision. That contradiction will not cease.

I am leaving so much out, all of the extraordinary fine-grained details, which is ironic because that is how we have come to try to see the world. It’s one of the perks of being on the outside: you learn to see differently. You watch and listen and peer and squint, and you see nuances and strangeness that others miss. The good news: Some people in adult life actually encourage this. The great news: we are married to the loveliest of human beings who also sees this way, who understands and embraces our quirks, partly because he is an artist and writer, too.

I guess I didn’t mention: We are a writer. A teacher, yes, as I did note, which as a job in this country is more quantifiable, easier to explain. Sometimes I forget to mention the writer part. Sometimes I forget this part of us, because adulthood? It’s a busy, busy place, full of pressing obligations and mundane demands. Writing takes a lot of time. Believe it or not, just this rambling little letter has taken hours! We don’t always have that time, or the space in our minds for thinking up stories. At your age, you think of writers, if you think of them at all, as the people who make those wondrous books that Mom and Dad have read to you since infancy, the ones that you start reading yourself at age 3 or 4. Oh, how we loved reading stories. Making those stories – and trying to get them into a book form for other people to read – is another thing altogether. While it can be inspiring and joyous, it often makes us feel desperate, and alone, and no good.

Which brings me (I think) to why I’m writing to you in the first place. It’s about this writer part of us. Sometimes— well, often; well, all of the time— I wonder about the path that brought us here. All of the twisting ins and outs, the moments we could have decided to take a different route.

What I want to tell you, Little Brynnie — adorable child; overwrought, melancholy teen; sad, messed-up, harrowed young adult; fretful, frizzy-haired middle-age woman— is this path that we chose? Remember first that you chose it. Lately you have been trudging along, your eyes on your feet. Look up, honey. Look around. Remember why you chose it. Remember? It’s because you were once, and have always been, the odd little girl who dreamed in stories, who couldn’t stop going into her imagination. She couldn’t stop puzzling and wondering about the inner lives of her family and friends and neighbors and strangers. She couldn’t stop seeing the beauty and awfulness of the world and asking, what? why? how? She couldn’t stop trying to figure it out. She couldn’t stop. She just couldn’t.

Love to us both,

Me

Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.

Another kind of swimming

Once upon a time, I used to be a swimmer. I was never all that fast, but I pulled in a few blue ribbons for backstroke on my town’s tiny swim team. In my late teens/early twenties, I worked as a lifeguard during college summers, when I taught swim lessons and got more interested in form than speed. Guards had to clock so many laps a week, and by midsummer, I would be in decent shape, logging around 1800-2000 meters every day or so. I’d hop in the lane, snap on my cap and goggles, duck down and push off underwater, taking a long pull and kick before breaking the surface and launching into a steady freestyle. As the summer progressed, my stroke grew stronger and more confident, my breathing deep and controlled. A constant battler of weight and diets, I felt almost athletic, almost graceful out there in the lane, immersed in my own underwater rhythms, counting pulls and breaths. I perfected a wicked flip-turn.

I tell this scintillating tale because I’ve been sitting here for a half-hour, tidying my dusty desk, running a computer backup, and staring out the window, taking in the happenin’ streets of rural Alabama (my neighbor just pulled in her trash bin AND our other neighbor’s bin). To push the swimming analogy, I guess you could say I’m treading water. Or dog-paddling. Just three months ago, I was in top shape, zipping up and down my little writing lane for hours at at time, six days a week. For these past three months of the semester, however, I have waded in up to my waist, splashing half-assedly at this so-called blog every few weeks. This morning, the Saturday of Thanksgiving break, I woke up determined to dive back in. I wanted to take off in full stroke, to churn up the white space with perfect form and grace and precision. Instead, I’m wheezing and panting midway through the first lap, feeling the amino acid burn, my arms spaghetti-sloppy, my kick anemic.  I lean on the tile gutter, huffing, feel the doughy lump of yesterday’s Indian leftovers in my cramping stomach.

Three months. That’s all it takes for my muscles to atrophy, the flab to form, to lose not just my breath but my confidence. The truth is, it doesn’t even take that long, and the longer I go, the harder it is to want to dive into that cold, shimmering expanse. It’s what I need to do — I know it — but too often exhaustion trumps all.

So here I am, dog paddling in the shallow end, in a flowered rubber cap and skirted tank suit, while other young, lithe writers zip past in their slim lycra t-backs. I bob in their churning wake, choking on the chlorine fumes, wondering if I shouldn’t take up another competitive sport. Like lawn darts. Or curling. Skee ball?

Here’s the thing, though: Dog-paddling is swimming, too. You can get from one side to the other just the same. It may not be as impressive or elegant or efficient, but maybe it doesn’t always have to be about those things. Maybe this visit to the pool is about the chance to feel water on your skin, to feel the gentle resistance against your limbs, to revel in your own buoyancy. From this pace, you can easily flip into a lazy sidestroke or buoyant backfloat (thanks, body fat!). In fact, from this slow-legged, ungainly pace, you can take in the whole scene: check out the hungover lifeguard with her chin in her fist, the kids monkey-climbing around the gutter in the deep-end, the best girlfriends making front-folded “George Washington” hairdos, the boys wobbling on each other’s shoulders for chicken fights. See the boy walking along the fence perimeter, dragging his fingers on the chainlink, singing to himself. Or the girl alone in the shallow end, walking the slick, black line as if it were a beam and she a dancer, for once a graceful gymnast, weightless, lost in a watery world of invention.

From dog-paddle to freestyle is not that far of a stretch. When you’re ready, just take a deep breath, lean forward, put your face in the water, and strike out. Be patient. It’ll come to you. For now, just keep moving. Just keep your head above water.

To-Do List, Item #15: “You know the escape”

1. Write a 7-day to-do list, like you do every week.

2. Fill the list with myriad job-related tasks. Grade, prep, read, meeting, read, submit, upload, email, grade, grade, grade, meeting, meeting. Watch your pen fill the page, bleed off the page, make your fingers bleed.

3. Every week, write this at the bottom of the page: WRITE.

4. Scratch off each task with heavy, black strokes of the pen to feel as if you’re getting somewhere, to quell the tremor of your stressed nerves. (Don’t think about next week’s to-do list, lurking as soon as this one’s scratched to hell.)

5. Notice, every week, before you crumple up the page, the one item at the bottom of the page that never gets scratched off.

6. Ask yourself: Why isn’t it at the top of the page?

7. Beat yourself up for awhile. That old record. Wallow in self-pity, really get in there and snuffle around in the muck of your self-absorption. Don’t think about the starving children, though! Don’t think about Syria or Libya, don’t think about grandparents losing their minds and bodies, about the jobless, don’t think about all  the things much bigger and more important than you! Nothing stops a good pity party like a reality check!

8. Stare out the window for awhile. Think about the hurricane about to lash the east coast. Wish for safety. Notice the leaves finally turning here in the South, yellow and red and orange, parachuting from branch to driveway. Fall, again. The noun and the verb. Too much symbolism out there in your yard.

9. It’s late October. Think of your father, 17 years gone now. It’s that time of year. It snuck up on you this time. You’d forgotten, in the way that’s not really forgetting, just tucked down in the corners of yourself, because you don’t have time to grieve right now.

10.  Think about how dark this list is. There you go again, depressing everyone! Make a joke, hurry!

11. Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? (Because they taste funny.)

12. Drink more coffee.

13. Here’s the thing about old records: You know what comes next.

14. Turn to the page (the blog, the whatever). Take pen to paper, fingers to keys. Write it out. Get it down, get it out.

15. Think of Mamet’s Redbelt: “You know the escape.”

16. Remember Anne Lamott’s advice: Lighten up, Francis.

17. Lighten up, Francis.

18. Look out the window again. Look outward. Notice something, just one thing, just one good thing. Here’s one: That mutable ashy sky, those lovely trees in transition. They don’t need you to describe them. They’ll get along just fine without you.

19. Hear your husband shuffling in socks on the wood floor of your home, happiest of sounds. Listen to it, feel the hum in your limbs.

20. Listen closer.

21. Listen better.

First things first

Holy smokes. Did someone slip me a mickey? One day, I was typing about Halloween and now there’s a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree in my living room.

Poor old blog. Amid these scurrying, overloaded days, it’s always the last one picked, the scrawny four-eyes left on the fence during Dodgeball at recess.

I sit here, half-awake, staring at the boxes that I need to take to the p.o. I am thinking of the syllabi I need to write, of job travels and duties that will eat away my break, of the imminent arrival of house guests, of lint balls under the futon, of gifts we can’t afford, of the folks who have no gifts, of wanting to kick congressmen and Wall Street in the collective breadbasket, of laundry and grocery stores and the obscenity of shopping malls. I feel like an insect, stung through the thorax, spun and swaddled in the white fibrous web of  exhaustion and trivialities and first-world guilt, left to flail on the dirty siding and decompose into a papery husk of myself.

Good heavens. And to think, I started out wanting to write about gratitude.

Please forgive my self-indulgence. It’s been a rough few months (and for whom hasn’t it?).

As I sit here, trying to get a little quiet, I am listening for the writing part of me. That desire that sustains me, even as I trudge forward without it. Right now, it’s hard to hear its heartbeat.

But I also remember this well-known quote from Joyce Carol Oates, which she gave in an interview with The Paris Review: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.”

I love that last bit: “or appears to do so.” Even if we’re fooling ourselves — making believe that we are making change — that’s still something. And perhaps, at some point, through that very act of writing, it will become making belief instead. Which I guess is why I finally sat down here first, before the day took over. To make-believe that I am a writer. To make myself believe.

I will leave this woe-is-me tale on a funnier, random note: I was at a conference, having a grand old time with a dear friend making fun of hipster haircuts, when Joyce Carol Oates walked into the area where we were sitting. She looks exactly as she does in her photos. We all saw her and pretended not to; I’m sure there was a frenzy of Twittering. Oates, wrapped in an elaborate green shawl, then waltzed … straight into the hotel gift shop. I caught glances with another woman sitting nearby. Without missing a beat, she tilted her head, flipped her wrist, and said: “As one does.”

Wishing everyone a joyous, creative holiday season.

ps I will get to that gratitude. It’s there, I promise.