Where to find a muse? Look right in front of you.

Muse. (v) To wonder; (n) A mythical source of creative inspiration.

For years motherhood was all I could feel, think, or write about. It drenched me (though sometimes it felt more like drowning) and consumed me. From the first days of feeding, changing, and tally-marking pees and poops (must make sure the pipes work), to driving tests and college applications, motherhood has been a 100% all-in operation.

But the intensity and shock do give way. We do settle into our skin. We do find a new normal. This is not a bad thing for humans, but not optimal for writers. Faded along with the initial shock and the keeping my head above water, went my muse.

I have been in the market for a new muse. While I wait, I write what’s in my heart. My grandmother’s story has a lot to say. She keeps me company — part guardian angel, part gossip partner. I’ve written about her here, here, and here; I’m sure I will write more.

And then there is Maria, who joined our family almost four years ago, just after her 18th birthday. Her story, and our joined stories, lately command my mind. She is a refugee and a role model. A college student and a pre-school teacher. She is like a sister and daughter, a cousin, niece and granddaughter; yet she belongs fully to another family. She is a confidante and a sage, a knowledge-sponge and a striver. She is vulnerable and strong, disciplined and determined, and an empathy-conduit between the worlds she straddles. She is a laughing, living, longing reminder that politics is always about real people.

Feels like the motherhood muse may have a new chapter…

 

 

My Son’s Advice to Keep Going

The writing deadline I gave myself seemed expansive back in January: complete the first draft of a novel by year’s end. But as we creep up on Halloween, that draft remains listless and sprawling, even though the idea, hatched years earlier, still inspires me. There’s something there, I still believe, and I’ve got 10 weeks to get myself to some sort of ending.

I put mediocre words on paper in service of a first draft deadline, knowing even as I write them that they’ll have to be jettisoned. That my own writing sometimes puts me in the mood for a nap cannot be a good sign. Where is the magic? Where is the emotional truth? The keen observation? The aha insight?

Into these doldrums comes Emmett, twelve years old, and the personal narrative he has just completed, his first writing assignment in middle school. He chose to write about the Vermont ropes course.

The fresh Vermont air smelled like what the Earth should smell like, pine cones and wild fruits. The air was also infected by the smell of multiple people sweating. I saw a tree swaying inches below the platform I was on. The area was a forest and everything was green, except for the ropes. I suddenly realized my climbing gloves were coming apart. I knew I had to finish as quickly as possible.

I reached the third net with sweat falling off me and hitting the ground far below. I struggled to keep my grip as I crossed the net. Through my tearing gloves I could see how white my knuckles were. I was wondering what was more white, my knuckles or Dracula’s face, when I heard a cheer from my brother. He had finished the holed wall. He was on the easiest of obstacles: a rope with a ring that you had to swing on. I reached the end of the third net. I didn’t think I could go any further. “Don’t quit! Don’t quit!” I hissed at myself.

He reminds me why I love writing: you can lead someone to feel something deeply. You can place someone not only in a particular space and time, give them the touch of wind and cool air on their skin, the smell of soil and trees, the blisters budding on palms, but you can also lead them to an emotional place, can make them see themselves in someone else’s experience, can recognize their common humanity. I love writing because it is a treasure hunt, searching for a nugget of what I am hiding from myself.

I shake out my body, stretch my arms and legs and get back to it. I search for treasures, trying to trust that if I don’t find them on this go ’round, I’ll be closer to them the next revision. “Don’t quit! Don’t quit” I hiss in unison with my boy.

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This stock photo must stand in for our real experience. Because where would YOU have put your camera???

In Honor of Oliver Sacks: “Home School” Day

Yesterday the little one felt sick-ish. The kind of sick that comes from school starting in August, and it being so hot, and yes maybe there is a little tummy virus going around. The kind of sick that let him swim in the ocean with his brother at sunset last night.

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The kind of sick that inclines his mother to let him sleep past the time he’d have to wake up and rush to get ready for school this morning. The kind of sick that prompts her to declare this Monday a “home school” day, because where his mind travels when unencumbered is vastly more interesting than what happens in any one day of school.

To wit: He enters the dining room this morning, where I am reading Oliver Sacks’ obituary, one of this era’s most unique life stories: sent at six years old to an English boarding school with an abusive headmaster at the onset of World War II; returned home at ten years old, to fall in love with the periodic table of elements and its unchanging, unemotional constancy; taught at eleven years old by his surgeon mother to dissect humans; and growing to become the unconventional, compassionate scientist and humanist we came to know through his words.

It is into this mindset my boy presents himself for evaluation. He holds his stomach with both hands, a low grown emanating from his lips. (And to think he says he doesn’t like acting…).

I look up from the newspaper and feel his forehead, kiss his cheeks.

“I don’t think I have a fever,” he preemptively says. “I feel a little cold.” This spoken observation turns his gears. He sits down next to me and thinks. “You know what’s weird,” he continues. “When it’s 80 degrees outside we feel so hot. But when we touch our skin and we are 98.6 degrees, we feel normal.”  And…I have made my decision. We have a question that will be more fascinating to him than fractions or long division or today’s grammar lesson. I declare today a “home school” day.

I should know better; experience teaches me that his spoken observation will probably be the length and breadth of his inquiry. That I have exaggerated ambitions for how a “home school day” will go. That he will spend his day not exploring human biology but playing Legos (okay, fine) and pleading to watch noxious cartoons (which will turn me into a white hot meanie). But it’s early yet, and my fantasies are not yet splattered.


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So we hope for a day that is not wasted. A day that would honor Sacks, who wrote after his diagnosis of metastasized cancer, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me….to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

I come to my blank page, the calming sound of Legos being sifted and rearranged in the room next to me, and begin a morning of writing. I pray for that unadulterated voice to play in my head, the one that must be captured in the moment I hear it, because it evaporates just as quickly. When it comes it is a flash of nirvana. It is finding true north.

When the words don’t come like that, which is most of the time, I must poke around for them, writing too much, sweeping away the excess. The goal in it all? To create characters that reveal the beauty and mystery of the human experience as richly as the character the world has known as Oliver Sacks — as intriguing, seductive, textured and fascinating a character as any that has ever been written.

The Legos still sift behind me. Questions are asked, prompting more questions — “Are sharks mammals? What makes a mammal? Is it hair? Why do our heads grow so much hair?” A day of inquiry and investigation is still possible. He has yet to sneak off with his iPod, and I have yet to have to snatch it from him, leading to the inevitable kerfuffle. There are books yet to write and to read. Discoveries yet to make. The day is young. Everything is possible.

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