Authenticity

Faces gathered in my computer screen from writing rooms across the world. An “accountability check-in” — poets, memoirists, academics, novelists, and essayists, all sharing their day’s writing goals (along with the local weather report during this latest polar vortex) before getting to work.

One writer, after describing her distant view of snow gathering on the Cascade Mountains, explained how her previous day’s work had pleased her; she had “found her way into the magic,” a road not so well marked, and her goal for that day was to find it again.

All heads bobbed up and down in our squares. I have known the absence of that magic. Last summer I felt stymied in my draft memoir. My paragraphs sounded like blah blah blah bullet points. I had forgotten how to sound like myself. Would I find my way again?

Enter our cross-country RV odyssey, a chance to get some distance from the writing project by focusing on getting my family virus-free across the Rockies in a 27-foot house. I did not look at my manuscript once. Instead, I took photos and wrote blog posts, unearthing the seemingly miss-able moments that together add up to life. The new settings after months of sameness, the lack of pressure, and my self-imposed daily deadlines, unexpectedly led me back to the voice I had been missing. Hello there, me! Long time, no see. It was such a relief to find that road again.

There’s a connection between finding that authentic voice in one’s writing and in one’s being. Both can get hidden under obligations and distractions, lost behind the wreckage of mistakes and missed turns.

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity,” said Coco Chanel. Maybe that explains why the word “authenticity” sizzled in my ears during that writing group check-in. The past year has held some of the hardest times of my life. I have needed to know more than ever who I am, and where I stand. For people like me, accustomed to pleasing, compromising, and getting along, authenticity means finding the terra firma from which you do not waver. Owning your truth. Recognizing and resisting the swirling external forces that try to sway or dissuade you. Holding fast to your authenticity — i.e. reality, honesty, faithfulness, trustworthiness, truth — no matter how it threatens those who hold fast to a misguided mirage.

It takes practice, and thankfully practice comes in many forms. Meditation, which starts with putting your feet on the ground to feel a connection to the earth. Or yoga. My teacher, Nicole, watches us through zoom and cues us to take the position of Warrior I and gently reminds us, “your back foot will want to pull away. Press down, and feel the mat press against your whole foot, grounding so you can reach your arms strong and high.”

Authenticity breeds authenticity. Finding it in myself will not guarantee its appearance in my writing, but it helps me recognize when it appears, and when something lesser is trying to butt in. And I know where to look for help: in breaks from the ordinary, in nature, in reading the voices of my favorite writers who sound only like themselves — Anne Lamott, say, or Aimee Bender. Like these authors do for my writing, we can do for each other in living: “When you show up authentic, you create the space for others to do the same.” (Anonymous)

May you honor your authenticity, and surround yourself with others — at a safe distance, virtually, or on the page — who bring it out in you.

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P.S. Book recommendation: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley

I learn more about human nature from a good novel than almost any self-help tome, and in searching for a book on authenticity, I came across a New York Times bestselling novel I can’t wait to read: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. What happens when six strangers decide to tell their truths in anonymous journal entries written in a single green notebook? Something that looks like happiness. It is a “feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits” (Washington Post), and a “warm, charming tale about the rewards of revealing oneself, warts and all” (People). Warmth, charm, and lifted spirits sounds right to me.

(I link to Bookshop.org, which supports indie booksellers and gives readers a discount, but you can also find this title wherever books are sold. wink wink.)

Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes.

Spinning

It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

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Unexpected Gifts

I sat at the car wash, wondering how much longer it would take, wishing I’d postponed this deviation from my tightly wrought schedule. My son had begged me to get it washed, something new for him, so there I was. It could have waited until I had finished my day’s work and chores and ambitions. But those never get finished. I may as well have a clean car to go along with unmet goals.

I readied a big tip (mindful of the myriad ways Carwasheros are shorted by employers), when a “hello how are you” acquaintance sat near me. For years, we have said hello, exchanged smiles as we pass in or out of the elementary school, but our kids are different ages, she has girls and I have boys, and we have never had occasion to go beyond pleasantries.

Except today she carried a book in her hand. A hardback book, I’m saying. Not a Kindle. A short story collection in hardback. Not an Oprah’s choice. We talked.

She said how with three little girls short stories are her only hope. That naturally led me to plug Aimee Bender, local girl made extraordinary, and eventually a sheepish admission to me being a writer and mentioning I’d published a book.

“What’s it called?”

Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood.”

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“I have that. I pick it up all the time.”

“No, you don’t. You have something else that sounds like it.” How could someone not my mother or my best friend have my book on her shelf, and turn to it all the time?

She was certain. “Did they sell it at Village Books?”

“Yes, I did a reading there.” She found my book when searching for inspiration on the shelves of an independent book store, now empty and locked, after the birth of her youngest daughter. My book lives on her shelf with Mothers Who Think, and Brain, Child, two books that inspired my own.

I give thanks for the unexpected gifts a chance decision to run an errand may bring: That every “hello how are you” acquaintance has a unique story and sometimes we are privileged to meet each other in a deeper way if we’re open to it. That my writing has a life beyond my imagination, which may sustain people I have never met. And that a book (even when held in your hand) has the power to break through the mundane to make meaningful connections.

(Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood is available in paperback and, yes, even Kindle.)

Deliver Me for Kindle