Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Reflection Questions

I am continuing in the tradition of answering these annual reflection questions. I got them from Simple Mom. You can find the full original attribution information on my 2009 responses and read my 20102011, or 2012 responses by clicking the links.

This is always a long post. Grab an afghan and get cozy.

1. What was the single best thing that happened this past year?

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Single best thing, hands down: graduating with my MFA in fiction from UC Riverside. Not that I wanted to leave, or anything, but finishing my degree there is something I'm really proud of, and all of the events surrounding my final residency and graduation were really special. I feel like my thesis consumed the last third or so of the year, so it's also fitting that completing the MFA would be the single best thing; it feels like it is literally the only thing.

2. What was the single most challenging thing that happened?

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The single most challenging thing wasn't a thing, it was a process. Working on my thesis really knocked me on my butt, and not in the way I expected. The writing of it was completely doable, but it made me not as present for other areas of my life. I found I could get the writing done, but that when I tried to write and then teach and then parent/wife with what was left, it was so hard. I remember hearing the students who were ahead of me in the program talk about how difficult the thesis quarter is, and it just didn't seem like it could be as big of a deal as they made it out to be. I was wrong. It wasn't that there was external pressure, either. The pressure came from me, from wanting to put my best foot forward and present my best work in that final collection. In some ways that's really thrilling, and that's what I know I need--to be self-reflective--if I'm going to have any kind of career as a writer. When I worked it into the reality of my 2013 life, though, it meant some challenges. Or at least, it meant that I had to really think about where I want to spend my time and energy if I want to be able to be good to my husband and family--and still write.

3. What was an unexpected joy this past year?


An unexpected joy was the publication of my first book review, a review of Aimee Bender's The Color Master at The Rumpus. For so many reasons, this was unexpected and joyful. Unexpected because I didn't expect to have things move as quickly as they have with my book reviewing, or to have editors be as good to me as they have been. Unexpected because I was lucky to get to review the work of someone like Aimee Bender on my first shot. Joyful because I love The Rumpus. And joyful because it got the ball rolling. I've been lucky to have many opportunities since that first review to do what I love--review books--and I am so, so grateful for all of it.

4. What was an unexpected obstacle?

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This year's unexpected obstacle came at work. I made some conscious choices this year to lighten my workload (I thought). I decided to take a year off from teaching AP English--and thought that in so doing, I'd be better able to concentrate on my thesis, writing, etc. But I didn't account for two things: the first is that we have a new schedule this year that includes an additional tutoring period twice a week: basically, another class. Basically, more stress. The second is that switching from AP classes to regular ed classes did mean fewer papers to grade (that part I had right), but really, it hasn't been any different in terms of workload. Being in a "regular" classroom doesn't feel any easier to me than AP. In fact, all I can see is how I have a classroom full of different kids that also need a teacher who is present. Kids are kids. They need a good teacher. The obstacle wasn't really something new--it was something the same. And the realization that I have a job that requires 100% no matter who is in front of me. There aren't ways to teach (at least for me) that feel like less work. And even though that realization made this year more difficult than I thought it would be, it was an important one.

5. Pick three words to describe 2013.

sleepless, busy, productive

6. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe your 2013 (don’t ask them; guess based on how you think your spouse sees you).

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successful, busy, tired

7. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe their 2013 (again, without asking).

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responsible, charming, Dad

8. What were the best books you read this year?

You can read my longer post about books here, but here are some favorites:

Novels: The Barbarian Nurseries, We Only Know So Much, We The Animals
Short Stories: If I'd Known You Were Coming, Simplify, The Color Master, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail
Nonfiction: The Lost Art of Reading, Cooked, The Telling Room

9. With whom were your most valuable relationships?

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Last January, in one of my goal-setting posts, I said this:
I would like to strengthen my relationships in my MFA program this year. I want to make sure these are lifelong friendships, and that once I graduate I have friends from the program for emotional strength, but also so I have a group of colleagues, and we can continue to read and help improve each other's work.
I think this happened. Or is happening. And not really by any action I've taken. Just by the simple fact that I'm surrounded by amazing, smart, interesting people who I want to know now and keep knowing. And the relationship part all happened organically. Or nearly. I did send a ton of letters in the mail, but I love doing that. Having a few opportunities to hang out with my friends outside of the residency "compound" in between stays really confirmed that these are forever relationships. I feel so lucky to have good people. And for the first time in my life, I feel like I found this whole cache of nerds who love all the same things I love. I made this a goal because I knew it was important for my writing life. What I didn't know is how much these friendships would impact my real life, too.

10. What was your biggest personal change from January to December of this past year?

If last year's biggest change was about trying to remember how to say no to things I didn't want to do, this year was, for sure, about asking specifically for what I want. That's not something I typically do, in my default mode, but I felt a sense of urgency about taking responsibility for myself and my writing career as I got closer to the end of my program. It's good that I had that pressure; if I could have stayed in forever, I wouldn't have been as bold about asking to work with the people I wanted on the things I wanted to learn. I asked for help when I needed it. And when that went well (it really did), I let the courage spill over a little bit into other areas of my life. I sat down in one-on-one meetings with editors in June and pitched ideas for things that weren't even on the table. I told myself I was interviewing for jobs that people didn't know they were offering. And it paid off. This is not to say I'm out in the world shoving people around and demanding my due, but as a rule I'm pretty meek. I'm a wait-and-see girl, a hang back and let you choose which place we're going to eat at kind of person. Taking steps to ask for what I want is a big deal for me. I'm hoping I can continue to articulate what it is that I want, rather than being unhappy with what just ends up happening.

11. In what way(s) did you grow emotionally?

I didn't remember until I opened the post a few minutes ago, but my one word resolution last year was love with more intention:
I want to love harder, more consistently, more dependably. I want to choose to love people, even when I don't feel it. Especially when I don't feel it. I want to show my students love through how I teach them, and make an effort to connect to more of my colleagues. I want to reach out to people more who are lonely or hurting. I want to really live love when I'm spending one on one time with the people in all aspects of my life who mean so much to me. I want to love and celebrate every minute of my MFA program, and my writing, and the opportunities that have been set before me, rather than feel like they're chores. I know that word is cheesy as all get out, but I want to live a more active kind of love in practice in 2013.
I don't know how close I got to all the specifics, but 2013 ended up being pretty full of love. I certainly have a lot of love at home. And in my close-knit circle that supports me. Having more new people in my life  to love meant more love came back at me and into my life (sorry, I know this is getting a little bit Hallmarky), which is most definitely a good way to grow.

12. In what way(s) did you grow spiritually?

Spirituality is a tough thing to write about without getting either too weird for people or alienating them altogether. I've been in a strange place with my faith for a long stretch--or, I guess that's not right to say. I'm very clear about my faith and about God in my life, but I've been in a bind about how much of that to express, outwardly. Honestly, because most of the time I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm a Christian because of how so many Christians use that label as an excuse to act terrible. I feel like it's been a good year in Christians, though. In people keepin' it real, being smart, making it about love and the things that matter. (I'm looking at you, Pope Francis.) I suppose my own best growth when it came to faith this year had to do with trying to love people first, and worry about fixing myself, only. I don't think anything bad can come of that.

The other way that I think I grew, spiritually, is that I've come to try to manage my own anxiety by consciously making a place for stillness in my life. The older I get, the more I see that life wants to be busy, crazy-making. I feel more at peace when I have time to be quiet, to think and meditate on the things that matter.

13. In what way(s) did you grow physically?

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This is the first year in a while when I can't make the joke that I "grew" physically because I gained weight. I actually lost weight. Hey! But it's not because I was an exercise beast. I did okay on the exercise front for the first half of the year, but the weight loss came from the stress of my final quarter of the MFA. I think the success I can claim here is that I didn't let things get too bad. My eating habits didn't completely go in the toilet (even with that summer-long addiction to Icees) and I remained kind of physically active. I don't think it will be too tough to go back to working out on a regular basis. Perhaps next year can be a year of physical growth.

14. In what way(s) did you grow in your relationships with others?

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This is silly, but one of the best things in my life for building relationships this year has been good old fashioned snail mail. (I know calling it "snail mail" isn't old fashioned. I'm full of contradiction.) Last fall I started writing letters to a group of friends from my MFA program and a handful of my former seniors who were away at their first year of college. The letters I've gotten back have brought me so much happiness. And in many cases, the relationships I've built aren't with people I would have probably gotten close to, otherwise. Letter-writing has given me the opportunity to compose my thoughts, to add distance and time to difficult situations, to offer advice, to ask for advice, and to get to know some amazing people both older and younger than me. Plus, I love the act of writing a letter, addressing (and decorating) the envelope, choosing the right stamp... I'm such a nerd for mail. It has been an incredible gift. I look forward to starting back up again in the new year, and to (hopefully) adding a few new pen pals, too.

15. What was the most enjoyable area of managing your home?

Um. We get by. I continue to be happy that we can have someone come twice a month and help us out with the deep cleaning. I didn't really enjoy managing our home so much this year. When I'm home in the summer, I like making things run well, but most of the year the house was just stress. I tried not to think about it much this year.

16. What was your most challenging area of home management?

The frigging cat box, which I am always forgetting.

17. What was your single biggest time waster in your life this past year?

The frigging cat box. I'm kidding.

I think this was my best year, ever, in time management. I can tell you e-x-a-c-t-l-y how long it takes me to do anything. Yes, anything. It's all on my calendar. I'm one of those. But that's what got me through. If I sit here and try to think about how I wasted time, the only thing I can really come up with is sleep. But I need that, right? Or TV--that's what Eric would say for me. But I feel like I can justify my down time, too. There's no person alive who can keep going at 100% for all of their waking hours. So yeah, I watched some Chopped. Some Ina. Some Good Wife. Some Watch What Happens Live. Some Real Housewives of Orange County. Some other things that are ridiculous. But I needed a brain break.

18. What was the best way you used your time this past year?

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Reading, writing. Talking to the monkeys about their days.

19. What was the biggest thing you learned this past year?

"Someone gets to do it. Why not you?"

20. Create a phrase or statement that describes 2013 for you.

One page, one book, one day at a time. It adds up eventually.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Little Gift

I couldn't sleep this morning, like most Christmas mornings since the kids have been old enough to tear into presents. I tell them they have to stay in bed until we're up, and always--always--I'm awake before they are because I'm so excited to see them open what we're giving them.

This morning I was awake at 5:30. The appointed time they could poke their heads out of their rooms wasn't until 7:00. I figured I'd keep myself busy and listen for any noise in Henry's room next door to ours. If they were up before 7:00, that was fine, but I wasn't about to go wake them up. (Or wake Eric, which I thought would be kind of cruel. He was up finishing his wrapping until the wee hours.)

I did what I've done in the early morning hours of Christmas Day for the past few years. I read the Christmas story on my smartphone to have a moment of calm reflection before the chaos. To make sure I remember. And oddly, to use something new to put me in touch with something old. (Though someday this reference to my smartphone will seem so dated. So "2013.")

As I read the Gospel of Luke (King James Version, my favorite for this particular story), I was struck by the last part of this:
And the angel said unto them, fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  (Luke 2: 10-19)
I've been feeling pressure to be a certain way this whole season. To respond to those around me in a way they'd like. To have the right thing to say all the time, or have the right thing to give, or even the right look on my face. To be the right kind of mother, or to look as though I am.

I'm confident that others more qualified than me have commented on that verse, on Mary's reaction in that moment, or at least the way it was illuminated in the Gospel for posterity. I'm confident that there is meaning in it I can only begin to comprehend. But this morning, I was comforted to read "but Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." To think about the quiet ownership of her reaction that Mary has in that moment. That she keeps these things, ponders them. It's her choice. Her action is beautiful stillness and contemplation.

Again, I'm not qualified to analyze or interpret. But as someone who likes to keep, to consider, and to ponder, myself, I find comfort there. Freedom to be quiet and reflective.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hamlet, Prince of Charming

We have a joke at my house that I see Hamlet everywhere. To be fair, things around here have been kind of Hamlety. My graduate lecture was about modern novels that echo older works, one being Daniel Wroblewski's The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle, which is a modern retelling of of the play. I've been mired in the details. A bit.

But this summer, Eric suggested I sit down and watch Sons of Anarchy with him, and from episode one I was like, Okay, Ghost Dad (the journals), a murder, Mommy's involved in the plot and there's a "kingdom" (club) to be had. This is Hamlet with bikes. I've since come to read a lot about this being Kurt Sutter's intent. This makes Eric nuts, though, and I'm not allowed to talk about anything that happens in the play if and until it's already happened on the show, too. It's been a really interesting study, watching it side by side and experiencing it differently.

Jax Teller, doing his best emo scholar-prince.

Anyway, here's the debate in my house, which is notable because it's the same question (essentially) that I got asked at the end of my graduate lecture the other day: Does knowing how a story ends (or what happens) because you know the original somehow make it less enjoyable? Eric says yes; he doesn't want to read Hamlet until he's done with the show. He'd rather be surprised. I say no, obviously. Even Shakespeare gave away the endings to his own plays. In the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, he drops that bomb about "a pair of star-cross'd lovers" that "take their life" before anything even happens. It's the unfolding of it all that's the interesting part.

I'm completely intrigued by how these stories are retold and in different settings and with different accessibility. It blows my mind that these stories are still relevant. The interpretation of the original work, when done well--and even in a macho, violent show about a motorcycle club--is fascinating to me. The idea that a story about the murder of a Danish king and his emotionally unstable son could be made completely palatable and relatable to a bunch of people who don't give a fig about monarchies or Shakespeare or Classical literature? LOVE IT.

Don't read any more if you don't want me to spoil anything that's happened in SOA (thus far). I promise not to give away the ending of Hamlet. But once upon a time, I did make a handy chart.

So last week, when I was away at residency, I got a text from Eric just as he was watching the season finale. I don't remember it exactly, but it was something like Holy shit, SOA. Followed by something like You probably know what happened, because Hamlet. I had to wait until I was home to finish this season, but the fact that Tara died--no, that wasn't a surprise. I figured that was coming from the start. Jax has to finish his story alone. But when she died? How she died, and that in her death, Sutter seemed to be sending a confirmation that she was Jax' Ophelia? Fascinating, interesting choices.

Let me back up. The Ophelia thing is complicated with SOA. (I'm sure at this point I've lost probably everyone, but if there's one soul who has read the play and seen the show, thanks for hanging with me.) Jax really had two Ophelias, and, really, two trusted advisors. The roles of Ophelia and Horatio seemed to be split between Opie (Ophelia? Hello.) and Tara, each loving Jax with too much vulnerability, each getting pushed away when Jax had too much to deal with, each offering sound advice when he needs it most. That Opie dies essentially by suicide and Tara dies in the water suggests that the Ophelia role is shared. And even though Tara's death was at Gemma's hand rather than that of a tree branch, you could make the argument that in the play it's Hamlet and family that drive Ophelia to her death. The family pushes her out, she has to die. Same, in SOA. Tara's drowning in the kitchen sink was a message. (And let's be fair, SOA isn't one for subtlety.)

Watching how things play out, waiting to see just how much parallels the original story, that's the fun part for me. Looking for the nuances of interpretation. Waiting to see what choices are made about the source material. But at the same time, I don't think anything is lost if somebody isn't familiar with Hamlet. And SOA has enough original storytelling that it's not just regurgitation.

What I'm saying is: I can't wait for the end.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in Reading

Sometime in the middle of June residency, while attending an editor panel, I decided that I was going to read 50 books this year. I was not on track to do that on the day I decided. I was probably on track to read somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or so, which is what I've done the last two years, and that isn't so awful, but I decided in that moment that in order to prove myself serious about writing (the words spoken by an editor at the panel), I was going to do it.

We're almost to 2014 and I'm almost to 50. I have about half of one audiobook left and I'll be done. I'm going to go ahead and assume I can find five hours between now and January to make that happen. I thought it would be fitting to reflect on what I've read. When I think of this year I'll always think of marking time in books. Plus, I enjoy The Millions' Year in Reading series, so this is my nod.


Let's talk audiobooks, first. Yes, I count them. The words go into my brain. (Let's not have a debate about what counts, okay? People have enough things to feel bad about in the world without wondering if something "counts" or not.) Audiobooks get me out and exercising when I think I get more time with a story. My favorite audiobooks this year were both favorites because of who was reading them. I let Jake Gyllenhaal read The Great Gatsby to me so I'd have the whole story in my mind again when I went to see the movie. And I let Meryl Streep read me Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Two reasons: one, I wanted to listen to Meryl talk to me while I ran on the treadmill (duh), and two, I've never read anything by Nora Ephron. Though I found the book to be slightly dated, it was charming and enjoyable. Gatsby and Jake didn't do me wrong either. Hello.


Every year I try to read a few classics, just for good measure. When I started my MFA program, I used to make myself read one free Kindle classic for every new book I purchased so I could save money on books. I've gotten away from that a little bit, but this year I did read a few. The first was Persuasion, by Jane Austen, which I think cured me once and for all of the notion that I might be an Austen fan. I keep trying, and I keep not being the kind of girl who likes anything by Austen except Northanger Abbey. But I also read (and loved) Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which sent me down a rabbit hole of looking for other Kafka things I have not read. Spoiler alert: there are many. (And, which, coincidentally, reminds me that you should read this Murakami short story in The New Yorker which is a play on The Metamorphosis.) But it wasn't a big year in big, old books. Next year's fat, old book goal: Middlemarch.


As ever, I read--and loved--a bunch of nonfiction books about food. In the sciency/learning department, I was all about Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, and I enjoyed Cooked by Michael Pollan, which seemed like the less-uptight follow-up to In Defense of Food, which you already know I love and make everyone in my life read. I reviewed Provence, 1970 for Bookslut; it was a sweet little book about a bunch of American chefs and food writers gathering in France in the '70s to debate the direction of American cooking (this making me both want to travel and eat more), and I rounded out the year in food books by spending my long drive to Palm Springs listening to an entire audio book about cheese: Michael Paterniti's The Telling Room. The Telling Room is good, if a little long, but it ranks with my favorite light nonfiction reads of the year.


I read a lot of other nonfiction books for class, mostly, two of the best and most disparate being Aleksander Hemon's The Book of My Lives and Denis Johnson's Seek. Both were intense reads, but worth it. Hemon's ends with probably the saddest piece of writing I've ever read--an essay called "The Aquarium"--it's heavy, but it's also where I think he does his best and most piercing work. Johnnson's collection of essays interests me because he often plays with perspective--bringing himself into and out of the picture as he reports on his surroundings. These are serious books, but they're both written so well.


This summer I made it a point to read as much of my professors' work as I could. I started by reading Elizabeth Crane's wonderfully quirky novel, We Only Know So Much, followed by Tod Goldberg's gritty collections Simplify and Other Resort Cities. Simplify, especially, blew me away. I continued by Elizabeth Crane kick by reading her short story collections: When The Messenger is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. All of them, great. (Clearly, I am a fan.) I read Rob Roberge's The Cost of Living, which, hooo-boy, he goes there, and then some. As always, I was inspired by Rob's fearlessness and his clean, precise prose. And this fall I read Mark Haskell Smith's Raw, which made me laugh (at myself, painfully, sometimes), and I read David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading, which made me so grateful that people are making the case for books. I was just so happy that I got to learn and be around all these people who are so smart. I used these books like independent study as I was starting to feel the panic of school ending.


One of the little joys of my MFA program--and by extension, other places I go as a result--is getting to meet other authors and read their books. That isn't yet lost on this small town girl. I enjoyed Jim Gavin's short story collection Middle Men, which celebrates the working man and the ordinary. I met Gavin, along with Laila Lalami (whose novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I also enjoyed) and Hector Tobar at my residency in Palm Springs in June. Tobar's LA novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, is probably the best novel I read all year. It was great to get to talk to all three of these authors and ask them about writing their books this summer. Eric and I also both read and loved Paul Tremblay's witty narcoleptic detective novel, The Little Sleep. It was a pleasure to meet Paul--a fellow high school teacher--at the LA Times Festival of Books.


But 2013 was about two things for me, very specifically. Short fiction and reviewing. I never appreciated short stories before, but I discovered them in 2013. Big time. I read Lorrie Moore's Self-Help, George Saunder's Tenth of December, Jamie Quatro's I Want to Show You More, and Aimee Bender's The Girl in The Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, among others. My vision of short stories is completely different now, which is a good thing, right? (Since I just turned in a thesis full of them...) Before 2013 I didn't think short stories could be fun. I had High School English Teacher Syndrome. Holt Literature and Language Arts had convinced me that short stories were things that could be fit into textbooks, reduced to snippets of literature to torture adolescents, followed, always, by insipid questions about the biography of the author, words like symbolism and theme. 2013 showed me that the short story form is about so many imaginative things. It's a form full of possibility and so open to play. I'm sorry to be cliché: my eyes have so been opened.


My reviews really dovetail with the whole short fiction thing, anyway, since that's what I've ended up reviewing most. But the book that had the most impact on me in 2013 was John Leonard's Reading for My Life. It was assigned to me in nonfiction class (recommended? suggested? I feel like I can't really call it assigned...) once my professor, David Ulin, agreed to work with me on book reviews. Leonard's posthumous collection of book and media reviews showed me, in practice, something that David says all the time. That critical work can be creative work. And reading it helped me see that a critic's reviews end up being a reflection of his life--a biography--in books. Something about that is so beautiful. From the moment I read it, I knew that I was headed in the right direction with my critical work. This is what I'm meant to be doing. I can't get enough of it. And my review work started to take off after that mentorship and study. The books I reviewed professionally this year: Aimee Bender's The Color Master, Luke Barr's Provence, 1970, Cris Mazza's Something Wrong With Her, Kate Milliken's If I'd Known You Were Coming (a favorite), Ethel Rohan's Goodnight Nobody, Jessica Keener's Women in Bed, Kelly Luce's Three Scenarios in Which Hana Saksaki Grows a Tail (another wow), these have all been opportunities to stretch myself and grow as a reader, as a critic, and as a short story writer.

2013 was about learning that I had more time to read than I thought. It wasn't really so hard to read 50 books. And look at all these great things I got to put in my brain.

You can find me on Goodreads to see everything else that I read this year that wouldn't fit into this post. (Like We The Animals by Justin Torres. Where was that supposed to go in my neatly organized blog thing? But it was so good!) And I keep my list of books on the blog here

Thursday, December 19, 2013

christmess

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I would give anything to sit and watch movies with the kids
and this guy for a whole day.

Life is just not having that, though.

We got our Christmas tree up last night, but I would be lying if I wrote about it like some kind of idyllic Norman Rockwell moment. It wasn't fun. I didn't feel well before we started, and it ended with me in tears, crying about how I just can't handle my life right now. I had a migraine Monday night and the meds made me groggy all day Tuesday. Heavy. Head-swimmy, on top of the post-residency tireds. And honestly? I hate decorating for Christmas. All I can think about while we put everything up is how in ten days we will have to take all of it down again. I don't hate looking at Christmas decorations, sitting around, snuggling with my family by the glow of the tree. I love them (the fam and the decorations). But the work? No thank you. I didn't like it when I was a kid and I don't like it now. I want to have Christmas, but I don't want to do Christmas. So there you go.

Especially not this year. God, I'm tired. I don't have anything to give. I feel like I'm trying to rejoin a life that's moving at seventy miles an hour and I'm at a dead stop trying to work up the nerve. I'm sitting here wondering when I get the time I need to feel the things I know I need to feel. The things that if I don't feel, will end up coming out of me sideways. I just need to get to the end of this week and finish my grades at the high school and somehow (when?) buy those Christmas presents I haven't purchased yet and make it to all the family stops we have planned between now and 12/26. I feel pressure to love doing the Christmas decorations--to make things cute and homey and spend a ton of time and energy on something that I'm not really that into because it's a "mom" thing to do. Because other moms like it. And, of course, this gives me the Crazies.

But let's be real. I feel too much pressure right now about everything. Be the good mom, be the good teacher, be the good shopper, be the good cook, be the good wife, be the good writer. I know about half of this is internal, the constant, ridiculous pressure I put on myself to be HSP, the one that everybody thinks can do it all and do it all well, with perfectly coiffed hair and a big smile. That. I told someone at school after hearing for the third time, "Heather, you must never sleep..." that it's my defense mechanism. I feel inadequate, so I make up for it by going overboard. When I was dancing, I saw consistently that the people who got ahead weren't the ones (necessarily) who had the most raw talent. Sometimes they were just the ones who showed up, stayed the longest, never appeared to be tired.

But I'm at a loss about what to say to the kind souls who keep asking me where my Christmas tree/lights/presents are and why they're not done yet. I almost lost it twice yesterday when I got that question at work. Number one, Thanksgiving was uber late this year. Number two, I was gone for almost two weeks in that little tiny window so I could put the finishing touches on my master's degree. Number three: I'm trying my best here, people. I get it that my kids "need a Christmas," but they also need a mom who isn't in the looney bin. I am barely hanging on. I mean barely. And really, let's just pause for a minute to recognize that having a Christmas is about exactly none of the things that hang on my door or decorate my tree. And is there anyone out there, really, who thinks I'd let my two monkeys not get Christmas presents?

The worst Christmas I had was 2008. Eric and I were separated and planning to divorce. I had a tree and I had lights and I had presents under the tree. Eric came over and we faked our way through a Christmas morning for the kids, and it was awful. Then I sat on my couch, alone all day after they left, watching Law and Order in my cold house. And none of it--the tree, the presents, the damn lights on the house, none of it mattered one bit. After that, the things of Christmas just don't matter to me as much. It's the being with people that's the thing. All of the pressure to decorate, the show, it just feels arbitrary. That's not to say I want to undermine the positive image my kids have of Christmas, or that I don't want them to have positive memories. It's just that I think holidays are more complicated than a lot of people would have you believe. So much expectation to feel a certain way. Or to look like you do.

One of the editors I met with last week asked me the simplest question. "What are writing about in your collection?" It took me a few minutes to come up with an answer, but it was this: my whole life is about trying to balance an exterior that looks under control with an interior that is not. I write a lot about ballet dancers and teachers--two professions where the external is carefully controlled, where the "show" is a carefully constructed facade that's about perception rather than truth and you have to keep all the hard work hidden from the audience. And I write about hoarders. I'm fascinated by hoarders, since it seems like that inner turmoil has spilled out for them. It's beyond control. They feel like they're on the losing side of that battle.

My balance is off right now. No, I'm not a hoarder. But my "to-do" is longer than my "done", and I don't have a lot of energy to get after it. I'm not keeping the ugly parts on the inside so well. What I want most is rest. Rest first, so I can be good to my family. That feels weirdly selfish. But there's a crummy thing that happens when you're trying to give yourself to your family and you're not ready. Right now everything feels like it's coming out wrong.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Oops | It's Over

Three days in to residency, it became apparent to me that I wasn't going to be able to do any kind of update posts. Not only was I a mess, emotionally, I wasn't really doing much. I felt guilty about that, of course, like I was ditching class. Me, the one who always made sure she went to at least ten lectures for each of the last four residencies because that was the required number. Not that I was supposed to be in class--afternoon workshop--this time, but having my afternoons mostly to myself made me feel like I was sneaking around. I'm sure that doesn't surprise anyone. I just couldn't bring myself to write about it because it felt like making updates about how I was not super busy with school when I was in school was kind of awful.

But the thing is, when I did go to morning lectures, I wasn't much good. My brain was ping-ponging around in my head from one thing to another. I kind of see how this last residency is set up with a lot of open time, purposefully. I spent the better part of the first seven days prepping for (and worrying about) my lecture. I hadn't been nervous about it until a run-through on day 4(?) that didn't go well. From that point on, I just walked around in a haze and mumbled to myself about Shakespeare. I didn't feel like I could really sit in lectures and absorb a lot of anything. The afternoon free time was good, and I used it to practice. I think that ultimately helped.

I had long meetings with two editors and two agents who had read my work. Since I'm a short story writer (let's all pause and nod in affirmation of the fact that I just called myself that for the first time since ever), there wasn't much that could happen in those meetings, but they were a good chance to get professional feedback. I'm incredibly grateful that I was in a program (past tense... getting choked up...) that allows for that kind of real-world interaction and feedback. Invaluable. Hard to do, trying on the ol' introversion, but completely and utterly wonderful in terms of what it means in my writing life.

The meetings took a toll. And not having workshop--not having that connection to other people and their work--though it was nice in some ways  not to have the monkey of the reading on my back, made me feel all week like I was floating. A part of me felt like I'd been let go already, like I was the girl who was hanging around to say "I used to go here." Already. I was in Purgatory. (God, that's an awful analogy, but I can't think of another way to say it. I couldn't move on.) Sure, I had delivered letters that we graduates had written to the new students on the first night of rez, tried to make a connection for our class. But those new students had moved in to workshop and filled our old seats, not even sensing that we'd been there before. Life was carrying on while the nineteen of us sat around on the patio all afternoon, staring at each other. What are we supposed to be doing? We all seemed to wonder for the better part of the week.

As a residency, it was more of a struggle to get through than others have been. But there were some definite highlights. Margaritas on El Paseo with my girls. Seeing my fellow graduates--my friends--get up and lecture. I feel really proud to have graduated with such a bunch of smarties. Ugly sweater night. And the special graduation dinner that my mentee, Eileen, planned for my friends the night of my lecture. She had my thesis bound for me as a special gift, and every detail of the dinner was just perfect. It felt incredibly special. I felt incredibly special.

Something about the week felt off, though. I decided this just meant, probably, that it was time to go.

And the going, graduation, was a rough day emotionally. Happy: My whole family was there: parents, sister and her husband, E, monkeys, E's mom and dad, and K. Everyone who has supported me all the way through and helped us to make it through school--both me and E--for the last six years of law school and MFA. And I'm so grateful that my "people" on both sides had the opportunity to meet each other, to get to know a little bit more about what makes me, me. To see what my world looks like. More difficult: Things coming together like that is intense. And the fact that it combined with my emotions about having to leave this safe, positive and creative space... it was just hard.

I've been worried for months that I'd go back to my life just as if my MFA program didn't happen. Still am. I felt that tug inside me a little bit that day. And the fact that some of my besties are remaining means I feel a kind of separation anxiety I struggle to define. It makes me feel panicky. It's stupid--I know they're in my life forever, but the fact that they stay and I leave makes me feel grabby and puts a lump in my throat.

Ultimately, the ceremony was lovely and I had a great night. But there is that sad feeling after the lecture, or after the graduation, when you go back to your room and change out of your pretty dress and change back into your jeans and life goes on. And you go out and sit by the fire and stare into it for hours willing the night to go on forever, and eventually, everyone yawns and starts to head back to their rooms and it's just a cold night. You drive home and there's all the laundry. Circle of life.

I do know this: I didn't get a college experience, really. I rushed through. I was only in college for three months longer than I was in my MFA, which was only just over two years. I hated my undergrad, so I just wanted out. And everything that my college experience was not, my MFA was. This program came to me when I needed it as a creative outlet, but it also gave me a do-over. As a way to recognize things within myself that I never knew I was capable of. I came in wanting to write and looking to find something else I could do. I'm leaving knowing what it is I'm supposed to be doing. I'm leaving with so many connections, with so much love in my heart for so many good and kind souls who've helped me to grow. Gah. It almost hurts. It's hard to look at these pictures without feeling an ache. But a good one, you know?

I'm sad when things have to end, but I like that it makes people want to say what they feel. And thank goodness for these people who have an abundance of words. My heart is full of them.

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