Cosmogony

To see him lying there, bloated and nearly naked due to feverishness, tubes like exterior veins protruding out of his neck in a knot of grotesque jewelry, a patch of dark blood–had it gushed?–spread out and dried on his chest, a thrum thrust through my torso like when a plane breaks the sound barrier. He turned to me when I arrived, when I said, “Wow,” careful to keep a certain amount of lightness in my voice, like when you slip on the ice and fall hard but assure everyone concerned that you’re just fine, and he said, “I’m sorry, honey.”

I think at that point he probably knew it was bad since the machine those tubes attached him to was removing his blood, cleaning it, and returning it, in an effort to quickly reduce the number of white blood cells which had been replicating unchecked in his blood. A science teacher, a teacher of biology and chemistry, certainly he knew. But he is also a pragmatist with a healthy shot of optimism. In other words, he’ll face what he has to face, but he won’t think the worst until it’s absolutely proven to be happening. Then it’s a matter of science; luck hasn’t much to do with it.

The women from the blood center who worked the machine, who showed me the bags of his blood, both red and white, mentioned chemo to one another. I didn’t let on that I’d heard, but soon I went out into the hallway to find the hematologist and suggested they make an effort to talk to him about the chemo since he had not been told directly that he had anything that necessitated such treatment. I said all this without so much as a crack in my voice. She was unwilling to commit, to declare it was cancer, to say more than that they suspected a form of leukemia, because the lab results weren’t in yet. But she promised to have the resident stop by and explain what they’d learned as soon as she could track him down.

I went to his bedside, and asked if they’d told him they were going to start chemo, that it was likely leukemia. He said no. He stared up at the ceiling. Tears pooled in his eyes. And then they were gone. I told his parents when they arrived–they drove from Minnesota on a feeling that things were not all they appeared to be, parents who had already lost a son to cancer–, that it was likely leukemia. His mother shook her head, said it might not be, that the tests might reveal a less devastating diagnosis, but I was sure, just as I’d known there was something wrong with our son’s development before anyone else believed it could be true.

The resident explained to us what Acute Myeloid Leukemia was. He used simple pictures on a white board to illustrate what had happened in Mark’s body before we could know it was happening. My memory of these moments is solid–I see the room, his rough sketches, and hear the resident’s voice, a reassuring Indian sing-song, clearly–but I’ve turned the information around in my head so many times, trying to apply some sort of logic to the incredible, that I’m afraid each time I speak that I’m repeating some laughable interpretation of the facts like a game of telephone.

As I understand it, a chromosome went wrong and one rogue cell started birthing premature white blood cells which then replicated more premature white blood cells, ad infinitum, driving the platelets and red blood cells out of the neighborhood that was his bone marrow. And because immature cells can’t do the work that mature blood cells can, his immune system was an inadequate barrier against any kind of illness. The cause is a gene mutation, a mutinous enzyme, a scratch on the record, that caused his cellular production to go awry. If left untreated, the immature white blood cells would proliferate until he is dead. Because this new chromosomal error is uneditable, they must clean out his bone marrow and replace it with another person’s.

Some leukemia survivors regard their bone marrow transplant to be a rebirth. They take pictures of themselves celebrating their new birthday. Some report changes in their bodies–gluten intolerance, overly-sensitive skin, a lingering fatigue. Some make vague references to not feeling quite themselves. But I can’t help but fear, in a kind of wondrous disbelief that the best science fiction engenders, that the man I married, whom I have lived with for the past 20 years, will not, at the end of this odyssey, be the same. Is this the ultimate test of nature versus nurture? Creationism versus evolution?

Our son’s neurological disorder is undiagnosed. The closest we get is to say he has a seizure disorder, but there is no answer to the question: why him? There is no cause determined, no prognosis predicted. The geneticists and the neurologists and the epileptologists and the other specialists have looked at his test results, the scans of his brain, the vials of blood and spinal fluid, the space between his eyes, the shape of his fingernails, and found nothing to explain why he is as delayed as he is. Is he–are we?—just unlucky? Perhaps the world would be a friendlier place for him and for me if we had an explanation for the idiopathic symptoms that plague his development and his safety. Maybe we could put the questions to rest–Is it something I did?–but then what good has that done us in Mark’s case? Leukemia is something that makes sense to doctors; it is an affliction that has a rote protocol. But it doesn’t mean we don’t ask the same questions: why him? why us? what happened?

Life strikes. Bang. Mark’s cancer was like a car crash without the car. One day he was home, then the next he was beginning a month in the hospital, the start of a six month process toward getting cured, and maybe a two year process to become himself again. And yet, I took it in stride. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was the Zoloft I’d been taking for a few years since my anxiety over my son’s health and special needs had turned into constant high wire walking. Maybe it was our son’s recent 3-week hospitalization over the previous Christmas and New Years that had prepared me for another long haul, another effort in compartmentalization, the practice of segmenting my strife from my life.

Because that’s what you do when you abruptly–is there any other way?–learn that your husband has cancer and treatment begins even before either of you has time to prepare. There was no choosing, no strategy, no warning that I would suddenly become a single parent of our special needs child, the primary money-earner, as well as the grateful, if begrudging, hostess to the constant stream of family members and friends and child caregivers and dog walkers and house cleaners who offered their assistance. Every one of the 25 days he was in the hospital, I kept it together. The gun had gone off, the race had begun, the ground moved beneath us, and we had no choice but to run, a marathon and a sprint both. Exertion and fear of stopping forward movement drove every decision, every action.

Most people picture The Big Bang as just that, a big bang. Like a spark and a flame that suddenly brought the universe into being. Energy makes sense. Flipping the lightswitch makes sense. But if the universe truly began not from a bang, but from intense pressure that literally pressed the world into being, then how? I suppose it’s why we look to God; the answers are so minor compared to the wonders of the world, the wonders of blood, the white and the red. One day, long before we knew Mark had cancer, something happened and suddenly? He had cancer.

And maybe there are times in a person’s life that are so combustible that you are fused into another version of yourself. My husband may earn a new life by accepting life from another person, but perhaps he already is becoming someone else. Perhaps it doesn’t take blood to renew the spirit. And perhaps it doesn’t take God either. Perhaps the extreme pressure he is under will change him regardless of the transplant, of the noncancerous cells recreating in his body minutes, days, weeks, and months after. And perhaps the same is true for myself. I wonder, after so much pressure, how much of my previous self is still there? How much of me is memory? And, maybe I wonder, how many times can a person be recreated before the pressure becomes smothering and the light just dies out.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

This review and reflection originally appeared on my company’s In the Books site. This is an edited version. Go there to read this one in full, or for more of my awesome colleagues’ reviews.


Just because creativity is mystical doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be demystified—especially if it means liberating artists from the confines of their own grandiosity, panic, and ego.

Here is the question that I think anyone who creates has had to come to terms with at some point in their lives: What is at stake?

For some people the answer is easy: Nothing. They create, put that creation out into the world without obsessing over it for too long, and the response to their creation matters not one whit. If people don’t like it, so be it. They simply feel the need to put their creation into the world, and they’ve succeeded just by doing so. (Cheers to those people!) For others, the answer is also easy: Everything. These are the people who create obsessively, or avoid creating obsessively, but ultimately the response to their creation is, again, unimportant. To them, the process is what’s important. (Response be damned!)

For most everyone else, the answer is complicated, and their relationship to their own creativity (or perceived lack thereof) is ambivalent at best. But Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear tells us there is nothing at stake unless you choose not to create, robbing yourself and the world of that which you would create. And no, she’s not going to let you get away with claiming that you just aren’t creative, because she believes that creativity is part of every person’s DNA.

If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers—these are our common ancestors.

What is important about the above quotation is that being creative doesn’t have to be about writing stories, or painting pictures, or making birdhouses, or designing t-shirts. Creativity is also about styling your hair and choosing your tie. It’s about throw pillows and selfies. It’s about building a deer blind, it’s about making your own curtains, it’s about singing at the stoplight, its about helping your kids learn how to count using buttons and bobby pins. Because all of those things are creations. The act of making, in whatever small way, will help you access the hidden creative in you.

The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

While I consider myself creative, my life doesn’t really feel enchanted by the process of creating. I struggle with fear on both sides of the creative gulf: I fear the results of the hard work itself will not meet my own expectations, and I fear that my hard work will not be received in a way that meets my own expectations. That fear gets in the way of my ability to create without (self)judgment. Gilbert reveals the key to resolving the fear—that shiny object—our inner magpie can’t help but find distracting: “I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” So if there isn’t anything at stake in the act of creating besides satisfying curiosity? If you simply create (or make, if that’s a more comfortable word for you to embrace) because you do, because you want to see what you can make, then you have no expectations and failure becomes a nonstarter. Fear, to paraphrase Gilbert, will still come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive.

***

I don’t consider myself to be a name-dropper—largely because I am too introverted to know my neighbors, let alone famous people—but I have met Elizabeth Gilbert several times. Now, before I get ahead of myself, I want to be clear: Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t know me at all. But she lives in the same town as my good friend, we have been to Gilbert’s import warehouse several times during which I have been introduced and reintroduced to Gilbert, and I wear a scarf that I bought there often during winter. I even have a picture of Gilbert when she graciously joined a commemorative group photo of my friends during our first visit. As one-sided as our acquaintance is, here is what I can tell you about “Liz” Gilbert: she likes my friend, whom I love very much, so she has good taste. And, more importantly, each time I have met her, she has been warm, friendly, accommodating, and completely… normal. Sure, she was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie based on her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and she has traveled to exotic places and taken risks many of us only dream of taking, and she runs her own import shop, and she is considered to be one of Oprah Winfrey’s circle of influencers, but that’s not the person I met, however briefly. And it isn’t the person I think of when I read her work or wear that scarf.

The reason I am mentioning my passing acquaintance with Gilbert isn’t to say I have an “in” when it comes to interpreting her work, but to explain why I’ve felt compelled to read an inordinate amount about her work over the past, say, 7 years, and in doing so how I’ve been fascinated with how she and her work is perceived in a way that only someone we’ve met, no matter how briefly, bubbles up in our interests again and again. I’ve found myself—somewhat surprisingly because Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t a transformative read for me like it was for some people—in the position of Gilbert-defender.

Why, for Pete’s sake, would Elizabeth Gilbert need me to advocate for her? Well, she doesn’t (and I’ll get to that), but I find myself, more often than not when Elizabeth Gilbert comes up in conversation, even in our book-loving company, saying something to the effect: Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t Eat, Pray, Love. Or at least, she isn’t only Eat, Pray, Love. And she certainly isn’t what everyone thinks of Eat, Pray, Love, especially when its popularity soared and her life, as described in the book, became scrutinized and criticized as the story of “white American privilege appropriating foreign cultures” or a narcissistic ode to “First World Female Discontent.” Over the years, mention of Eat, Pray, Love, like so many other good things that receive backlash due to hyper-fandom, has taken its beatings, and as a nonfiction writer myself, I feel rather passionately about defending other writers who, through memoir, are telling a specific narrative and making choices about what parts of themselves they choose to share in that particularly storyline. The very thing that makes a memoir or personal essay good is the craft, and for any story to be good, the story has to be focused.

So, anyone who thinks they know the nonfiction writer really only knows the story she is choosing to tell. And Elizabeth Gilbert’s story about searching for herself via her travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia is effective for the very reason that she isn’t trying to tell a number of other stories about herself as well. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert is many selves—including an effective, entertaining, and impassioned pursuer of a creative life, for herself and for us, with a deliberately stern opinion of criticism.

Imagine if I’d tried to create a definition of myself based on any of these reactions. I didn’t try. And that’s the only reason Eat, Pray, Love didn’t throw me off my path as a writer—because of my deep and lifelong conviction that the results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.

***

If I’m looking for enlightenment in regards to my own creative process, then the above quote is it. I’ve struggled with my preoccupation with the response to my creative work most of my life. In fact, my desire to control other people’s reaction to my work has hurt my productivity significantly for nearly 30 years. But still, I wonder how this is supposed to work. I mean, as a writer, I want to create something that is meant to communicate my inner self (whether it is my emotional self or my intellectual self) to an audience. And when I get a response that is out of line with that desire, then how is that not failure? How do I not fear that end result and allow it to ride roughshod over my willingness to broadcast my work? (Right now, I’m thinking: why do I insist on messing up a perfectly good book review with my own narcissistic navel-gazing? I mean, what will people think!?!) I mean, what’s NOT to dread about sharing our art? Isn’t that the whole point of being a tortured artist?

Well, Gilbert’s greater philosophy of Big Magic solves this question for us: “A different way is to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration.” Let’s let her lovely and entertaining writing fill us in even more on how a change of perspective can change our relationship with our creative selves:

Inspiration, like any notion of the divine, settles onto us only when we are open to it. Inspiration is beyond our control, so we must stop trying so hard to wrangle it, to wrestle it into submission. Inspiration is not ours to own. Such thinking comes from a wretched allegiance to the notion of scarcity—from the belief that the world is a place of dearth, and that there will never be enough of anything to go around.

Some people may assume Gilbert is telling us to get down on our knees to pray or to cross our legs to meditate in hopes that inspiration will visit us. And while belief is a big part of Big Magic—she has a spiritual, even paranormal kind of relationship with creativity—Gilbert is clear: you must do the work. If you do the work, even the hard stuff that is not inspired, or is a struggle, or is a mess, eventually inspiration will descend, an idea will take root, and the work will take flight. But that ONLY happens when you put your nose to the grindstone.

Hoping for inspiration is hopeless; waiting for the good idea will leave you waiting a good long time. Walking toward inspiration through hard work is the only way you’ll get close to the thing. But what happens if no one else approves of what you do? What if no one likes it? And is that truly fear of failure, or is it hubris? Gilbert doesn’t grant much quarter to either of those factors, because, she believes, creativity isn’t something that can be judged, by yourself or others. Essentially, if creativity is in our DNA, if we are creative, like it or not, there is no failure, there is no flattery, there is no fraternity; there is only fulfillment of your fate.

Look a little further back in your family’s history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.

So really, none of us has anything invested in any kind of notion of success when it comes to our creativity. To bastardize Descartes (as so many have): I am, so I create. Instead of protecting our egos by keeping our art or our expression of our creative selves to ourselves, Gilbert encourages us to tap into a sense of creative entitlement. Because we are born creative, we have a right to create.

[C]reative entitlement simply means believing that you are actually allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

Since I was very young, I have kept a journal. When I was a little older, about 15, I started writing stories. And I was relentless. Granted they were a teenager’s version of Harlequin romances (if only I’d thought to add vampires in 1986!), but I wrote, by hand, on lined paper, a lot. In part, to escape what I regarded as the dreariness of growing up, often alone, on a farm and going to school in a small town; in part because life had already physically and emotionally beaten me up a bit, and the only way it made any sense was to write about it or write myself out of it. The only person who read my stories was my best friend, and luckily she and I were of like tastes (i.e., my writing was great). But my teachers knew I wanted to be a writer, and I still remember those moments of being validated, whether via a gold star, or a comment like the one I received from my English teacher in response to the serious, unsmiling me in my senior pictures: “There you look like Sally the Writer.” (One of the greatest compliments I’d received in my short life.) I considered not going to college in order to start my Writing Life immediately, but I wasn’t brave enough to strike out on my own, so I followed that best friend to college and I believe it was the most important choice I’ve ever made. In Big Magic, Gilbert is suspect of going to school to learn creativity, but for me, I learned at school the kind of writer I wanted to become: a respected one. Which, I suppose, was a double-edged sword. I wanted to be published.

Sure, I’d always wanted to be published, but now I had expectations. I wanted to be published in literary magazines, in anthologies, in collections, and of course, in my own books. Problem was: I couldn’t get down with the rejection part. Just one rejection indicated to me that my writing wasn’t yet good enough; not that I should have faith, as Gilbert believes, that my work would eventually find its rightful place in the world. Full stop.

So I opted for self-protection. I wouldn’t submit my work until it was good enough to be accepted. (Right: how on earth can you know your work is good enough to be accepted unless you send it somewhere? But I wasn’t thinking about that.) I expected perfection from myself. And I expected others to consider my work perfect for their specific purposes. I would write the perfect piece, pick the perfect outlet through which it should be published, and there would be no rejection. My commitment for actually doing the work waned, because who needs that kind of pressure each time you sit down to write? I became dependent on external affirmation to drive me, so obviously external criticism—”Your piece is not right for us at the current time”—stalled my efforts.

So let’s jump to the middle of the story: I stopped writing and I got a job. Luckily, I got a job that required me to write. I started reviewing business books and writing marketing copy, and figured it was enough. I’d become a writer—a professional writer—just like I’d always wanted, right? And a side effect of when your job is to write, and you’re on a schedule and someone is expecting you to generate words, you stop caring about perfection. Yes, you’re still trying to craft the best piece you can, but you aren’t waiting. You aren’t talking yourself out of doing the work. And since we didn’t accept comments on our book reviews, and all I really needed to do was press “publish” on our website in order to be published, I didn’t have to deal with rejection. Win-win for all of us, right? Except I still wanted what I wanted. I wanted to be published and read by the literati. I wanted my own work to make the cut. I wanted to be judged and come out the winner. And most of all, I wanted it to be my story, my style, my thoughts, my internal self, my experiences put in print, because I truly believed that I was a writer. That’s what I wanted, and yet I remained afraid to pursue a sort of multi-layered creative life that included both the professional and the personal.

I cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art. I will fall asleep with my face in my dinner plate if someone starts discoursing to me about the academic distinction between true mastery and mere craft. I certainly don’t ever want to confidently announce that this person is destined to become an important artist, while that person should give it up.

But then life happened. In my case, since I had never birthed the Great American Novel/Novella/Collection, etc., and my job at that time had become somewhat rote, I decided to have a baby. The clock, it seemed to be ticking, and clearly I needed to devote my energies to creating something, and that something would be a child. (Funny how these decisions work: Gilbert set off on her exploration of self after deciding she did not want to have a child, while having a child has set me off on a parallel but very different journey.) I’d never been particularly kid or family-centric, but I figured I’d regret not having children more than I’d regret having them. It was the right choice at the right time. Of course, you don’t always get what you want, and my child was born with a neurological disorder, cause unknown, that is the root cause of his global developmental delays. For the past 10 years, I’ve been living a life I’d never have chosen for myself, because I would never have chosen this path for him. For the past 10 years, I’ve been trying to write my way through this uncharted territory, particularly the hard stuff, particularly the ugly stuff. For the most part, I wrote for myself. But being a writer still means wanting to be read. And while I shared some of my work with friends, and at times I’ve tried to craft that writing into something with a through line, and less often worked on a formal proposal for the kind of book my writing could become, the slightest hint of resistance or critique or even distaste (not everyone is comfortable with the confessional) made me retreat right back into my shell. Those 400 pages of writing? On a zip drive.

Until, life happened again. My husband was diagnosed with leukemia and, around the same time, I read Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. Completely unrelated, but the confluence of these events, my husband’s illness (and again, my need to write my way through it) and Brown’s message about vulnerability and bravery, made me realize that I finally didn’t give a damn about failing anymore. Brown writes: “Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” And I decided to embrace the practice, or as Gilbert would say, “do the work,” and stop wanting something from my writing. Sure, I wanted to communicate with other people via my writing, and I still believed that living a writing life (i.e. a creative life) also included making my work public, but I no longer needed affirmation. I just needed to become a “maker” instead of worrying about being an “artist.”

The art—or rather, any external praise for my work as art—didn’t matter; the creative outlet did. The process did. No, the incarnation did. For the nth time in my life, I started a blog, but this time, I didn’t take it down one week or one month after beginning it. I didn’t pressure myself to craft my work, or to mimic other successful blogs, or engage with a readership, or post on other blogs in hopes of building up my stats. Instead, I just hit the “publish” button and put my creative work on the screen. This process has reinvigorated my love of writing that my previous perfectionism and preoccupation with the end result had smothered. It’s all out there for people to see if they want to see it, in whatever form—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short form, prose poem, lyrical essay, rough draft, memoir, hybrid—my idea is inspired to take. Because it is the doing that matters. And in doing, not every piece I write or revise is going to be good or going to be “enough,” but occasionally I’ll bump right into [my version of] perfection without having tortured my way through the process or denied myself the moment it takes flight.

Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.

And that, I believe, is what Elizabeth Gilbert is trying to convey in her theory of Big Magic. If you sit down at the computer and type the words, it isn’t all going to be glorious or glorified. But inspiration will come and find you if you sit there long enough. (Please feel free to extrapolate that to any creative activity you engage in: Gilbert’s example as she tours to support this book? Karaoke!)

Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

Which is why fear is such a nonstarter for Gilbert, and she says, for you too. Leading a creative life isn’t about the drugs you take, the sleep you miss, the money you make, the tools you use, or the sacrifices you make. It’s about doing what you are doing when you make anything. How easy is that? If you tend a garden, you live a creative life. If you build a dog house, you are living a creative life. If you turn up the volume on the stereo and dance while you clean the house, you’re living a creative life. You are embodying and communicating that which inspires you. If you want more of it? If you wish to make it a practice and access those good feelings regularly, do more of it. Rent a plot of land and go hog-wild with your seeds and your dreams of starting your own salsa-making start-up; once you’ve mastered the dog house, maybe it’s time to buy more wood and build your own garage; Sign up for dance classes at your local studio, and who knows, maybe you’ll fall back in love with tap dancing in the way you’d loved it as a child. Gilbert reassures us that it is actually that simple.

That’s all. That’s what I call creative living. And while the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.

So, to be ready for it, get yourself primed, welcome the idea, do the work, keep at even the uninspired stuff, keep at the stuff that garners you no affirmation or applause. And, ignore that voice that is editing you. Rethink the way you think about possibly failure, or even real failure.

No shame no despair—just a sense that it’s all very interesting. Like: Isn’t it funny how sometimes things work and other times they don’t? Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting.

Right now, I love writing more than I have in a very long time, in the midst of the most chaotic time in my life. Why? Because the stakes have changed for me.

Perhaps I love it as much and as freely as I did when I was writing those terribly unoriginal full-of-teenage-angst romances when I was 15. And I don’t need to set a mood (or go all La Boheme, as Gilbert calls it) with isolation, booze, candle-light and mood-music to do it. (Not always true: as I write this, I’m listening to Deva Premal’s Dakshina because it seems fitting to fostering thoughts on creativity inspired by a woman who studied in India and imports Buddhas.) Instead, when my kid has gone to sleep, or maybe when I wake early and cannot sleep, I write something. And then I read it a couple times, fix a few things here and there, then decide whether it is worth putting up on my site, or whether it needs to simmer a bit longer as a draft, or whether it might never see the light of day because it wasn’t the right idea or execution to begin with. It matters because the writing is important to me; it doesn’t matter because the response is not as important to me.

But isn’t being creative supposed to be more painful or at least painstaking than this? I mean, I have suffered over my writing (or rather, loving writing, but hating revising because it felt like I was overworking the clay) for years! I have started any number of blogs. I have applied for residencies. I have attended workshops and writing festivals. I have tried to shape my writing into short story collections, into novels, into memoir. I have tried, tried, tried, thinking that someday everything would come together and make a cohesive thing, and only then, only when that thing was just right and everyone who read it would see that it was ready for birth, only then could I release it because it was finally finished. Totally wrong-headed thinking, says Gilbert.

Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way.

As cliche as it sounds, my husband’s illness has made me fully embrace that control is a facade and life is too short to worry about getting approval from some unknown critic. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in quality, or that I don’t want my writing to find a mate in the ether that is communion between two people, one who needs to say something and one who needs to hear it. And I’m certainly not claiming genius, perfection, or even proficiency. But what I have to say needs to be said before anyone can hear it. And maybe I need to say it in order to be able to say the next thing that needs to be said and so on and so forth. And maybe one of those things will be written just right, or maybe it won’t, but I’m thinking that the act of doing trumps a life of hesitation.

You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.

As I write this, I’m feeling a little surprised in myself. I have, for many years, beaten myself up for my fear of failure. I’ve imagined myself as becoming one of the courageous, or at least one of the care-less, who writes for writing’s sake, and bombards publishers, agents, and editors with work until someone recognizes the brilliance. I’ve considered myself as having failed my dream because I am not that person. But applying Gilbert’s philosophy of creative living, I see that over the past 10 years I’ve been doing the work. I’ve been writing regularly for my company, and I’ve been writing regularly for my sanity. But I wasn’t ready to let go of my fear or my need for control until my husband’s illness convinced me that being vulnerable on the page isn’t much compared to being vulnerable in love and in life. Putting words on the page and clicking publish isn’t life or death. But it is living.

The Bonsai Club of Milwaukee

We happened upon an exhibition for the Bonsai Club of Milwaukee. It wasn’t intentional, this viewing of shrubs and trees in miniature, just convenient since we had a sitter and we had time. My husband, with thoughts of root systems and leaf shapes, observed, as always, from a distance called science. I paced the maze of planters and pots looking only for what pleased my eye. The bonsai had been judged, and like any State Fair exhibition hall, most of the ribbons remained tacked to the week-old display, all shabby pride with no particulars to aid in understanding the judge’s criteria.

Later, we walked the grounds of the botanical gardens that had hosted the bonsai club’s exhibit, talking about the things we don’t usually talk about. I said, how different our lives are from everyone else’s, and yet, I can’t quite figure out why. He said, things are not so different from the way everyone else’s are. That’s what we say to each other, especially about the dark and about mysteries. I say, things, they are hard. He says, no, things, they aren’t as hard as you make them. But the bonsai, I say…

The exhibition was organized in groups: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced. There was a winner for every category, and various Miss Congeniality-level awards that seemed to laud effort rather than result. It was the beginner entrants that caught my eye. Each show just how people create bonsai–magician’s secret revealed!–with wire. No different, really, than customized cages. Not so different from feet binding. Not that different from rules and policy and politeness, but I knew something else.

The intermediates had already been loosed a bit. Yes, they were still forming, still pushing against restraints, but they already displayed a helium-like lightness to their sparse leaves or needles reaching up for light, for life, that defied the dark and twisted nature of the stunted wood. The advanced were wireless but acquiescent, all quirky beaut, passive acceptance. But those beginner trees, wires twisted up stunted trucks, restrained branches, enforced gravity, little beauty yet to justify the treatment; they defined me where I was just now. I knew what I felt, and the knowing was hard: I looked at my future–all constraint and adaption–and saw little more than a life lived in miniature.

Adagio

Most people claim that time passes too swiftly. Parents in particular. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone exclaim—at a birthday party, at the worrying of a loose tooth, at the advent of kindergarten, in celebration of a baby’s first steps—”They grow up so fast!” No, they don’t. Not always. When parenting a special needs child, one with delays in development, the reverse is true. Time passes slowly. Sure there are still the loose teeth, the outgrown corduroys, the first days of school. The body grows, and time passes, but we are parenting in adagio. There is still music playing but at a pace significantly slower and often less dynamic than the usual exciting, staccato rhythms of life with children. Sometimes, in this special kind of life, time plays out like a dirge. Particularly during the frequent illnesses you have no control over, or during the IEP [individualized education plan] meetings where for several hours a number of well-meaning people tell you, unrelentingly, just how behind your child is, or during the tantrums so inappropriate that it is anything you can do to make the seconds speed by before you can leave Target. Superficial, yet critical: I have been watching the same Elmo’s World episodes for nearly 10 years. I can no longer understand parents who bemoan the passage of time; I crave it. And yet, I also fear it because with each year, my son’s age splits like a widening gulf between the years and his capabilities. My 10 year old is a 3 year old; someday I hope my 25 year old will be my 10 year old.

The hard-won gift of this glacial pace is, however, in those moments when your child, no matter how delayed, shows the mastering of a new skill. Noah did not walk until he was 3 years old. And now, over a year later, I watch him with eyes filled with awe as he runs awkwardly through the grass at our neighborhood park. He did that! It is something he did, that he once hadn’t done! And in those moments, it doesn’t matter in the least that he looks nothing like the other children running around him, that his gait is herky-jerky and he is expressing a level of glee that have most of the kids looking at him like he’s just broken their favorite toy. It doesn’t matter the tears shed or the doctors’ appointments booked or the therapy sessions tolerated. In other words, the time that is past no longer matters. No. Those moments linger like a singular note held after a bold crescendo that is so beautiful, and simple, and clear that it is physically painful the longer it is held, and yet, you can only savor it as long as it lasts. 

There’s No Tail on This Donkey

I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
John Keats

The waiting room is designed to look like a living room, save for the reception desk looming on the far wall and some industrial beverage machines to the side. Fireplace (unlit), conversation groupings of chairs and sofas, done in a 90’s floral, and a small Christmas tree undecorated except for a string of white lights. There is a wall rack of dog-eared magazines, surprisingly current, and a TV blaring the Today Show. When we arrived at 6:00 am, not-yet-two year old Noah still bundled in flannel footie pajamas and me with coffee to-go mug in hand, we were the first family here, had a choice of seats around the room. Now, having returned from the pre-op process and turning Noah over to the nurses, we are left to choose two upright chairs too far away from each other to do the requisite whisper-talk happening between all the couples in the room.

Mark has gone to the restroom down the hall and I sit on the edge of my chair, fingering small silver-plated dog tags that bear Noah’s name and birth date engraved on one side. The clasp on the necklace catches my hair and pulls, so I have since removed the charm and carry it with me in my pocket or purse. Someday I will buy a new chain, but for now, they are my worry stones as I wait to hear news about Noah’s surgery.

They had said it would take about 45 minutes, this surgery on his eyes. His doctor was his usual succinct and bedside-manner-less self when he walked into the pre-op room, somehow looking younger in the light blue scrubs than in the white shirt and bow tie he wears in his office at the Children’s Hospital clinic. There is something capable in the way he wears the uniform that makes him seem athletic though he is over 60. He greeted us, said hello to Noah, held a thumb up in front of each of Noah’s eyes, said, “We’ll be adjusting the medial muscle on the inside of his eyes today,” and we nodded, saying “Yes,” and, “Good.” he said, and turned on his heel and left the room.

Pulling my cell phone out of my pocket, I check the time. It has been well over 55 minutes now. Certainly they would come out and tell us if there is something going wrong. It’s not the eye surgery that bothers me. I mean, it’s not like they are cutting his eye, the vision part of his eye. They are just detaching the muscle and moving it a bit, to create more slack for him to adjust and focus. It is the anesthesia that concerns me and has since the day we agreed to this procedure. Yes, our doctor does seven of these surgeries a week. And having anesthesia administered is safer than driving down the highway. These are things we have been told. It is an out-patient surgery. What can go wrong? Well, death, certainly. Because it can. Because death can come when you aren’t looking, or, as we were, staring right at it.

It was the anesthesiologist that pushed me the last inch off the board, sent me spiraling into the steaming, electric fear of losing Noah that I fight against every day. My arms tingle with it, my ears burn, my stomach roils. It’s the feeling that tsunamis over me during every seizure, every day of weakness, every minute of comparing him to another child. It is our reality to see Noah as compromised, somehow less here than other children, as though he has the breath of a ghost in him and I have to look at his sideways to see his whole self.

When the anesthesiologist said those words, “…it could be life-threatening…” there is a part of me that was expecting to hear it, can handle being here in this room in this Surgicenter on Oklahoma and 108th Street, risking our child’s life in order to improve his sight. It is a slight chance only. The slightest. That what causes his hypotonia is something that will interact with the anesthesia and cause a high temperature, be life-threatening. The odds, well, I think he said they were 1 in 25,000, but as I tell Mark, our child is, after all, our 2% baby.

It is a joke between us, one of those jokes that only the long-suffering family of sick people can tell. We thought Noah would be a lucky kid. He was born at 7am, on the dot; he weighed 7lbs 7oz; and if you add up his birth date—March 4th—you get 7. How could a kid with those numbers not be lucky? We now we say he is our 2% baby because pretty much every symptom he has happens in 2% of the child population. His strabismus? 2%. His small head circumference? 2%. His dairy allergy? 2%. His febrile seizures? 2%. So, would it be within the realm of possibility that this child of our could have that myotonia that could interact with the anesthesia and cause his death? Hell, yeah. It seems pretty possible to me.

Once the anesthesiologist left, the nurses came in to take Noah to the surgical ward. I had imagined this moment, when they would take him away, strapped to a gurney. But instead, a nurse simply took him from my arms and cradled him gently. He is sleepy from the sedative they gave him when we arrived and he appears calm and unconcerned. I am anything but. My arms are empty. I have surrendered him to whatever awaits under medication, under a knife, under the small needle or laser point that will re-attach his eye muscle to his eye. The nurses turned to walk away, and I said, “Take good care of him.” Just as they said, “We’ll take good care of him.” And I believe them. Maybe it is something in their nature that assures me that they are good at their job. Or maybe I have to believe them. I have to trust them. And Noah? He has to trust us. To do what we believe is best. And we have to trust ourselves to know what that is.

Mark and I walked hand in hand down the long white hallway back to the floral waiting room. After we passed through the heavy brown doors, the reception desk in sight, I let go of his hand and dodged into the unisex bathroom. I pushed the lock, leaned my forehead against the door, covered my eyes with my hands, and started to sob. For being an inveterate crier, I don’t much anymore. The challenges over the past year and a half—the resultant maturity?—have caused me to hoard my tears. I wait for days like these to earn the right to cry over them. I am ashamed of all the tears I’ve shed in the past over matters that meant nothing. Tears over money spent and money lost. Insults hurled. Stubbed toes. Minor injustices. Friendships and politics. Too tight jeans and holey socks. So many tears. But now I’ve even stopped crying after Noah’s seizures. Seizures have become a time for action, capability. Perhaps I’m afraid of running out.

Mark wanders over to the beverage machine to check out the offerings. He will buy something sweet like hot chocolate if he buys anything. I ponder a cup of coffee but no doubt it would be bitter. From the corner of my eye, I see a flash of blue scrubs and a doctor, not ours, comes into the waiting room. He approaches the couple sitting on the loveseat behind me. I can’t make out what he is saying exactly, because Mark returns with his cup and is rustling the pages of a magazine as he settles in to read.

From what I can gather, the child, a daughter I think, had a procedure done to correct something that did not happen while gestating. I strain my ears and I hear the mother voice familiar concerns. She tells the doctor that she was careful, that she took good care of herself when she was pregnant, that she doesn’t understand how this could have happened, that her last ultrasound looked good and she kept taking her vitamins. I hear myself as she speaks, her language is my own.
The doctor assures her (does he?) that this is something that happened in the early weeks of her baby’s cellular life, that there was nothing she could have done. That whatever happened just happened. He says, “There’s no tail on this donkey.” And it clicks into place. I’d never heard that phrase before and even as I think on it, it morphs in my brain and doesn’t really make sense. I assume he is saying that there is no way to know anything about what caused her daughter’s condition, her lack of something, or extra whatever. I ponder the tail-less donkey wish I had had a doctor tell me this thing, this profound yet ridiculous thing. I’ve no doubt that he has said it before, reassured countless mothers who want so terribly to believe that nothing that they did while carrying their child in their belly caused the child’s condition. And the doctor says as he only can, with a conviction that comes from the certainty of science, there is no sense in wondering, no sense in wearing the hairshirt, no possible end to such self-incurred emotional cutting.

I create story lines to fit my guilt. It has gotten to the point where I can’t even remember my pregnancy without wondering if I’ve altered the facts. All that seems true from this side of the grassless fence is that I didn’t do enough. I wasn’t perfect enough. I should have refused the wine on my birthday; I should have stopped running on the treadmill for as much as I sweat; I should have taken every last one of those prenatal vitamins no matter how nauseous they made me; I should have only used white vinegar to clean my house.

But I didn’t. And few women do. Do all those things. Perfectly. There are plenty of mothers as we know from all the news reports or even our jobs teaching, aiding or analyzing them, that do not take care of themselves and their babies. And they have perfect children. Healthy children. Typical children. Drunks, teenage mothers, malnutritioned mothers, mothers from every decade, decades which we look back at and wonder at the carelessness, have healthy, typical children. But I do not. For every book I read, for every effort I made, for every pound I lost at the gym, for every wish and prayer I made, I do not have a healthy, typical child. What kind of person does that make me?

My shame is reductive, I know that. We organize people and their actions by category, to make sense of chaos. Because variability and chance are too frightening. We want desperately to believe: bad things only happen to careless people. Death from a car crash, and we wait to hear if seat belts were worn, or drinks were drunk. A rape and we wonder why she would be running in the park that late at night, why she wore that outfit, why she attended that party. A child with learning disabilities and we wonder what the mother did even before he was born to mistreat him. Because those are the promises touted by the morning news programs and promoted by our own doctors. Are you pregnant? Then give up eating: lunch meat, soft cheeses, sushi, alcohol. And make sure you take folic acid supplements even before you consider getting pregnant. Do these things and you will have a healthy child. Don’t do these things and imperfection is your fault.

I feel labeled. By myself, by others. I believe like assumptions are made when they see my child’s wandering eyes. Our society promotes the belief that those who plan, work hard, are disciplined, are rewarded. Level of effort equals level of success. And in my vanity, I’m angry with those other women, those women who took risks and the child reaped terrible results, because I don’t want to be lumped into the same category with them. I want to be superior. I want to be other. I want to go to the gym every day and lose every extra pound, and wake up early and put on makeup and clothing that communicates my accomplishments, so no one looks at me, nods, and says, yup, makes sense that she has an atypical, unhealthy child.

Our mythology solves these problems of responsibility and shame for us. “God only gives you challenges He knows you can handle.” Or, “everything happens for a reason.” Whether it’s God or fate, I am absolved. And perhaps my own guilt is vanity that makes me a god in my own mind. My religious upbringing that reverberates through my adult life reminds me of the sacrilege, that I should have no god before God. But if I were God, what would I have done? Would I have changed Noah but not all the other children afflicted by developmental difficulties, or genetic mistakes, or childhood accidents? What makes me any different than the millions of others who suffer? Why should I get my prayers answered? There is no going back, there is no changing the past, because even thinking it, wishing it, is just a circular exercise since there is no tail to this donkey. Trying to find some kind of order to this life is like trying to put the wrong end of magnets together. You can get close, but ultimately it is a futile exercise that tires you quickly.

In time, a nurse steps into the waiting room and calls our name. Our name: The Parents of Noah Anderson. It is what we are called and perhaps it is the only name that matters any more. The doctor meets us and he appears as rested and relaxed as before the procedure. He briefly describes the surgery, saying it went well, and to come and see him in a few days.

The nurse takes over and warns us, as we walk to the recovery room, that Noah may be cranky as he comes out of the anesthesia, and that we will need to stay as long as it takes for him to drink some water or juice and keep it down. Noah is a champ. Is thirsty. Drinks. Perks up speedily. His eyes reddened as though he has been swimming in highly chlorinated water. When we get home, we take pictures to document (or maybe commemorate, as if this surgery could fix everything that goes wrong in Noah’s brain, as if this will be the turning point) the experience. We did what we could. And that’s all we should ask of ourselves.

Being Seen

A Louis Vuitton bag. An iPhone holder in the shape of brass knuckles. Her iPad cover is pink and tan. Stiff beige work boots, the kind that were in style in the 90’s. Her shirt cut off short, the unhemmed edge curling up, a picture of Tupac entreating us to “Trust Nobody” above her flat belly. A black trucker hat pulled low over her curling extensions, white earphone cords dripping down. She has a beautiful smile as she listens in silent appreciation to what streams—maybe YouTube—on her phone. I’m surprised her fingernails are cut short and may or may not have a light pink glaze over them. I expect her to sport intricate designs on the ends of her fingers, maybe leopard print to match the face on her watch.

There is a man in a Packer jersey and long tan pants over Adidas sneakers. It is 90 degrees, humid, and July. He must have gotten dressed in air conditioning. Sunglasses like those worn by Tom Cruise in Risky Business hang from his hand as he waits for his beverage at the coffee bar. There is a self-seriousness to his face that bespeaks business, maybe investments, but also there is a lingering frat-boy insouciance that keeps the other people in the queue from getting too close to him. When he leaves he weaves his way through the people coming in rather than going around them.

My accessories consist of a pair of crutches and a bead of sweat racing from my forehead to my cheek. The woman at the table next to me, a stack of notecards and an egg biscuit in front of her, offers to help me settle in, but only after I’ve settled in to my seat and I can decline her offer graciously. A cute hipster girl brings me my breakfast, and the only woman working at the café who does not wear her youth culture on her sleeve and could rightly be described as a ‘plain Jane’ brings me my latte. I get the hefty black boot that guards my broken foot from further damage settled on the chair across from me. From this vantage point, I can see the entire room.

I marvel at the slim 50-something woman with the tightly curling hair listen intently, with a kind of melting sincerity, to the man in the yellow shirt and khaki pants and lengthy grey-brown hair who sits next to her, his legs crossed at the knee, youthful brown tennis shoe on his dangling foot. A man in dark-framed glasses, grey pants rolled up just below his knees like how my husband used to wear his when we first started dating, catches me looking at him. I turn away rather than smile like I see people do in movies. Why do we feel so guilty looking at one another?

In 1st grade, I wore a full cast on my left leg and walked with crutches for six weeks following knee surgery. In 3rd grade, I wore a similar cast on the same leg after breaking a bone in my lower leg. Soon after, I wore a body cast from the tip of my left toes to around my rib cage, after another surgery on my upper leg and hip, replete with rods and pins to hold the bone together. There were other surgeries as I grew, and I became adept at using those same wooden crutches each time, racing other kids with two functioning legs down the hallways of our school.

But I never got used to the stares, the curiosity I provoked in people as I moved awkwardly through the mall or at a sporting event. I recoiled when that curiosity compelled strangers to ask me what had happened. I found their blatant interest in my misery self-serving and not at all innocent. I preferred not to be noticed. When I arrived at my college campus for the first time, again on crutches and struggling to participate in the freshman orientation activities, I was conflicted with my need to ask for help from these strangers and my desire to go unnoticed. I preferred to be lonely rather than be perceived as needy.

My son, who is none, now draws those same stares. Small children corkscrew themselves to watch as my son walks awkwardly past them, his hand in mine, his staggering gait mimics that of an actor miming drunkenness. Adults sometimes stare too, but are better at hiding it. They glance over at us, once, twice, three times. You can see the wheels turning: isn’t that child too big for a stroller? Isn’t that stroller bigger than most? Is there something about the drop in his chin, his unfocused eyes, the bend in his wrists? And once they realize their suspicions are true, they look away, self-conscious. Sometimes they smile. Sometimes that smile is warm.

In this cafe, there is the constant sound of coffee roasters spinning the beans, like sitting next to a waterfall and its constant rushing. The sound drowns out the specifics of any conversation, but the collection of voices blends into a drone in my ears. There is a surprising sense of privacy to this coffee shop—each table or booth an island from the rest–despite the activity and the nearly full number of chairs. As I maneuver my way through the tables to get a glass of water, my metal crutches click and creak, lead the way, but to my surprise hardly anyone notices. One man slides his chair closer to his table to give me more room. A woman at the condiment counter asks, “Don’t you just love your boot? I love mine. I still have it for any time I turn my ankle.” I want to say no, but I just smile, lips closed. I’ve never been good with hollow agreement. When I leave, backpack with laptop slung over my back, a man vacates his spot in the order line to hold the door for me as I leave, asks if I can manage. I say I can, this time with honest gratitude because the hot sun of a summer day awaits me and I am already tired at ten in the morning.

It has been over twenty years since I was last on crutches. It’s harder now. I’m heavier. I’m older. After five days, the palms of my hands hurt so much I dread needing to move anywhere. I expect to have highly defined deltoids by the end of these six weeks. Now, I find the “What happened?” not only tolerable but kind. My boot a badge of courage that people can plainly see, something that labels me “soldier” rather than “victim.” I have to work harder to do the kinds of ordinary things that the people around me can do without effort or thought. I sense a kind of respect emanating from them. Why could I not sense that same admiration when I was a child? Why did I feel apologetic and ‘other’ rather than proud and singular?

I might never know the answer to that most important question of my childhood: why was I not able to accept my individuality as a person as not only inevitable, but to be lauded? Why did I hide rather than shine? How is it that I remained unaware of my near-celebrity; I, like the biggest movie stars, couldn’t hide from being seen? Now, I suppose being hobbled and on crutches at forty offers me a chance to re-label myself, a new measuring stick with which to mark my growth. Instead of hiding, I free myself by being seen. Perhaps I can teach my son to feel included by the stares of strangers, rather than excluded? The idiosyncrasies of character, worn on the outside for all to see—from brass knuckle phone cases to achingly hip sunglasses to a big ugly supportive boot to an obvious, intractable disability— are what imprints our existence upon the world.

The First and Only

(This essay appeared in the Death Blues Ensemble album here.)

The first and only poetry prize I ever won was for a love poem. Written to my older cousin, Kevin, the youngest of four siblings on my mother’s side. It was a radio contest and the winners were announced one morning on the local AM station. I can’t remember if my poem was read over the air. Regardless, I had won my age group, and my mother was over the moon. 

In our home, the radio was a constant, especially in the mornings. Amid the local news and weather, we occasionally heard songs such as Dancing Queen, or something by Gordon Lightfoot. We always listened to Paul Harvey later in the day. After my father left for work at Mower County Soil & Water Conservation, having heard the day’s grain prices, my mother settled down with a second pot of coffee and listened to “Party Line,” a call-in show that was not only emblematic of the social fabric of our community, but helped my mother feel connected because we lived so far from town. She had lived her whole life in small cities, in churches, in schools, and being alone with herself seemed to drain her dry. My poem put me in esteemed company, if only for a very few minutes. 

I don’t remember what my poem said or why I said it. In my mind now, I see it written in crayon on otherwise blank notepaper, hearts drawn near the top of the page, but I doubt I was that young, and I doubt my mother would have allowed me to submit it as such. Perhaps she even rewrote it on lined paper with her precise schoolteacher handwriting before we walked the envelope down our long driveway and tucked it into the mailbox, misshapen from too many scrapes with the road grader, for pickup. 

Because she died when I was twelve, I cannot ask her about these things, things that I suspect are fiction, but for which I have no more reasonable memory. No doubt I extolled my cousin’s virtues in the poem, in schoolgirl terms, though I actually knew him very little since he was at least 10 years older than me and living in Minneapolis, a veritable Oz two hours north of our farm, which instantly escalated him to star status. 

Kevin had a job, and money, or he must have, because he would show up late for Christmas gatherings every year with some expensive and hastily-bought gift that, instead of offending us with its obvious lack of planning, thrilled us because we rarely had a lot of money spent on our presents. (My favorite was the Simon electronic memory game, even if I did have to share it with my brother.) We came to expect those gifts, so when he stopped attending the annual Christmas get-togethers because he was spending time with his girlfriend, our Christmases lost the sense of surprise and indulgence, even romance, he brought with him.

It could be that the poetry contest was the first time I believed I could be a writer, or maybe I never thought I couldn’t be one. My mother had been a 1st grade teacher before moving to the country to marry my father, so reading and language and storytelling was something I’d taken to early, not because it was genetic (we were adopted), but because the house was filled with books for young children, and, also, her expectations. 

Most of her old school books were lined up on built-in shelves in the unfinished basement, but she had a small set of bookends on her dresser in my parent’s room that held just a few treasured volumes. Most were religious, and I particularly remember something by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but tucked between two hardcovers was a hand-bound book of poetry, with very few pages, handwritten, and illustrated in pencil. Even now, I can nearly feel the silky twist of rope that threaded through the pages because I stroked it with my thumb whenever she would let me investigate her things, usually on rainy days. 

I can’t remember what her poems were like, or whether they were any good, or if the book was anything more than the result of a school project she’d had to complete many years before, but what I did know is that they were written by my mother. My mother had a book of poetry. A whole book! And it was evident to me then that if something was in a book, no matter the size, it was valuable. And it was precious, not just because she kept it in a place of some honor, but also because it was tidy, and deliberate, and somehow alive with a person’s history. 

Years after my mother died, my father got remarried and anything that my mother had owned of value, antiques collected by a family of collectors, was sold. The profit was used by my new stepmother redecorate the house, erase the lingering presence of my mother, reverse the decay that had started to eat at its edges. Anything that wouldn’t bring in money, like that handwritten book of poetry, was moved down to that partially renovated, but still prone-to-flooding basement. Not carefully placed on shelves, but piled in boxes, one on top of the other like a small city of remembrances. I had no interest in rescuing the objects of my childhood because I was about to leave for college. Well practiced at packing my own memories into boxes labeled simply “Better Times” and storing them in some dark corner of my mind, I had little affection for what I would leave behind. 

Their marriage lasted less than a year; the renovations had not been enough to make two people unfit for each other stay together. My mother’s things remained in the basement as water seeped in each spring and mold grew up the new drywall, my father living alone upstairs, maybe believing the memories stored in the basement would be enough to hold the house, and himself, up.

Our basement had always frightened me as a child, its many rooms hiding spots for spiders and mice, and any other kinds of menace I could imagine. When I was very young, the basement had been used to clean, weigh, and carton the eggs our chickens produced, and the process left behind bits of feather and residue from cracked and leaking eggs long after the chickens were gone.  

When our washing machine broke down and we couldn’t afford to replace it, my mother rolled out a decades-old monster of a machine that had lurked unused under the stairs for years. It washed our clothes in its round gut, but didn’t remove the water that a spin cycle would. She had to wring each piece dry through a press that resembled a large pasta maker. It was hard work, and we didn’t yet know about my mother’s glitchy heart. Later, even after a new automatic washer made the laundry easier, she never descended the stairs to the basement without a small brown bottle of nitroglycerin pills tucked into a pocket.

After she died and the laundry became my responsibility, I’d go into the basement as infrequently and as briefly as possible, dash up the stairs when I was done, especially after seeing my first horror movie, “The Evil Dead.” The basement stairs were free-standing and the large space underneath, with built-in shelves and cupboards, had served as a pantry. There were still jars of my mother’s canned goods—peeled peaches and bulbous tomatoes, yellowed cucumber pickles in pale green brine growing a grotesque virus of garlic and dill—stored amid opened paint cans and retired pots and pans, like bloated body parts in jars in a mad scientist’s lab. 

When my father died five years ago, having spent the majority of 22 years alone in the home he and my mother had had built during the first year of their marriage, my husband and I were tasked with emptying out the house for sale, and we confronted what turned out to be the actual horrors of the basement. After years of flooding, the resulting mold, and my father’s growing poverty and passivity, most everything abandoned in the back rooms of the basement had disintegrated, forming a two-foot undulate layer of debris that had to be shoveled and scraped off the floor. 

We picked through the mess, searching for survivors. An old stuffed bear looked to be in good shape, but, unearthed, it was missing half its face, like some storybook phantom, eaten away by mice looking for nesting material. Even the shelved books were ruined, musty, their pages reduced to dust at the corners or stuck together with damp. I now have four plastic tubs stacked in my own basement that hold a spare number of rescued items moved from that house to mine.

I don’t know what happened to my mother’s poetry book, the one I imagine she had kept on her dresser to remind herself of who she had once been. I’d like to have it now, so I too could have a tangible representation of the faded but inextinguishable passion for words that seemed always to burn within her. Perhaps that’s why she was so thrilled by my poem, that winning poem, despite the obviously questionable object of my affection. Maybe in that poem, she could see herself in me. And she was relieved to know that despite my adoption, I was her daughter, that she had successfully lit a flame in me to write something just as tidy, deliberate, and alive. I wish now that I had written that love poem for her, but then, maybe, it was.