a whisper, a knock, a kick in the head

Last summer I took a fiction-writing intensive with the absolutely lovely Meg Wolitzer. For that class, I wrote the first chapter of a novel that had been in my head for some time. As the class discussed the proper path for my anti-heroine to take over the rest of the novel I had become eager to write, a classmate suggested this touchstone. “There’s a Sufi saying,” she said. “First there is a whisper, then there is a knock, then there is a kick in the head.” In other words, the inevitability of my character’s path would be made clear to her even if she refused to accept it at first.

Cut to six months later. I have not finished my novel. I have not even written Chapter Two.I have an outline, but that’s not the same as writing it, especially when you’re not sure the outline is any good.

Plus, who am I kidding? I don’t have time to write a novel. I have three kids with eleventy-hundred extracurricular activities. My email inbox hums daily with the tyranny of the urgent. I’m already over-committed to other projects. I have, for reasons that at the moment escape me, a puppy to take care of. So I do and I go and more and more recently I feel like I’m working all day but not getting anything done.

“I think you need to get back to writing,” my husband told me last month, and last week, and last night. He’s mostly telling me this because he’s tired of me being cranky. But he remembers, even though he had to take up the slack when I wrote my last book, how happy I was doing it.

Whisper.

This morning a dear friend sent me this essay on writing by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan. (My friend and I saw her while out to dinner together last night.) “Thought you might be interested in this,” my friend wrote. Egan starts her essay by saying:

When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.

Have I waited too long? Can I start again?

Knock.

I still wasn’t ready to accept what the universe was telling me. So I went on Facebook, the perfect place to hide from whatever the universe is trying to tell you.

And it was there that I got kicked in the head just by clicking a link.

A writer friend had posted a link to Alexander Chee’s “21 Lies Writers Tell Themselves” from The Awl. I thought it would be fun, easy-to-digest stuff like “Facebook isn’t research.” Then I read Lie Number Six: “My writer’s block prevents me from humiliating myself.”

If there is some idea you both cannot write about and cannot let go of, the problem is usually not with the idea… you may have Stockholm Syndrome with your writer’s block. You may even have dressed your block up with the aura of a tragic romance…

From here, you can go forward with one of two narratives. One is the actual book that you were thinking of and are too afraid to write; the other is a story of yourself as a complete failure. Both will be incredibly detailed and nuanced, but one will be potentially publishable while the other will only ever appear in your private theater of pain (seats one, immediate seating available)…. You need to reverse the polarity—you need to make it so that you are afraid of not finishing, afraid of not getting the writing done, and that you’ve protected yourself only if the writing is done.

 Kick. In. The. Head.

At some point, as Julia Cameron has pointed out, it becomes harder to be a blocked creative than it is to create and to do something less than perfect.

For whatever reason, writing gives me purpose and gives me joy. It just does. And maybe I have gotten sick enough of missing it that it’s time to sit down with my fear.

By the way: I keep Googling around for this Sufi saying– a whisper, a knock, a kick in the head– and I can’t find it. Maybe there’s no such saying. But there should be.

Anyone else want to try this with me?

her ladyship, in jeans

Today is the coldest day in New York City in the last two years.

How cold is it?

It’s so cold that I told Maggie she had to wear pants.

Maggie doesn’t wear pants. Leggings? Absolutely. Jeggings? As long as the rear pockets are non-functional, which in Maggie’s estimation, would make them jeans. But never, ever, pants on a lady. It’s a fashion absolute that has served my daughter well- and since I wore the same Mickey Mouse dress every single day in kindergarten, I am not really in a position to argue for gender-neutral clothing.

One day back in October, the skies opened up briefly. Maggie allowed me to pick her outfit for the day and accepted without comment the hand-me-down cargo pants (with floral embroidery) that I offered. She entered her pre-K classroom with her usual swagger. A male classmate paused from his work laying wooden train tracks to look her up and down.

MALE CLASSMATE: Hi Maggie. You look like a boy today.

It was all I could do to keep her from hysterically running the mile home to change. Who could live with the shame?

In the three months since, Maggie has had no talk of trousers.So it was with some expectation of conflict that I told Maggie this morning that the temperature might require more protection than milady’s footless tights could provide.

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“You have jeans, you know,” I said. (Bought at Lands’ End clearance a year ago, and going by the tag, a size too small for her. But a lady’s maid knows when to hold her tongue.)

Maggie eyed their jaunty patch pockets warily. But even inside our apartment, it was freezing. So she put them on, then stood back to admire herself.

MAGGIE: I think they look good, actually.

ME: Me too! You look just like Mommy!

Maggie raised an eyebrow at me.

MAGGIE: Mommy. I don’t want to look like YOU. I want to look like a teenager.

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Thinks she’s a teenager, does she? In her jeans, does she?

And when does it stop being cool to look like Mommy? I missed that memo.

(Even if I look much more like O’Brien than I’d care to admit.)

dispatch from puppy land

When my mom friends have seen me at school dropoff this week, they’ve all given me the chin down/ eyes up look. The “girlfriend are you kidding me?” look.

This look, I mean. Done first and best (I think we can all agree) by Ms. Marla Gibbs as Florence on The Jeffersons. If you’re not old enough to remember 1970s television just take my word for it.

Anyway, those eyes are all looking at me as if to say: You got a puppy? Uh huh. How’s THAT going? I feel like the moms who don’t have dogs– and who are being begged by their children to get them– are the ones who actually ask me how it’s working for us so far. Those who have dogs don’t need to ask. They just give me The Florence. Heck, I’m giving myself The Florence.

Here’s how it’s going so far. Despite what you may have heard, having a puppy is not “just like” having a newborn. In some ways a puppy is much easier. We tuck Marshmallow into her crate at 10 pm, wedged into a corner so she can get only to a wee-wee pad, her food and water, and back, and then we go to bed until she wakes us with her yapping at 5:30 am or so. I didn’t get a ten-to-five-thirty stretch from any of my kids until they were eating from a spoon.

But a puppy is also harder than a baby, if you have already had a baby or three, precisely BECAUSE they are not a baby. If a puppy is your first “baby,” I think you are so in love with this helpless creature who needs you that you are more or less enchanted with every yip and Tootsie-Roll poop. When you’ve had three babies a puppy who cries when she is not ported about the apartment her every waking moment is slightly less exciting. Furthermore, at the moment Marshmallow is refusing to eat her heartworm pill– a battery-sized chewable that “all puppies love,” according to her vet. Well, not so much. I called the vet today to report how uninterested Marshmallow was. “Put some peanut butter on it!” the vet chuckled. “I’ve never met a puppy who won’t gobble THAT up!”

Doctor Doolittle, meet Marshmallow and my peanut-butter-streaked floors. Now I have a heartworm pill covered in peanut butter deemed doubly inedible by Miss Two Pounds and Fourteen Ounces. If Marshmallow were my first baby, I would probably be Googling and crying about this. Instead, I’m wondering if heartworm is really so terrible.

Lest ye dog lovers be too horrified: Marshmallow cannot actually contract heartworm at the moment because as a New York City puppy without all her shots, Marshmallow cannot leave the apartment except in a tote bag. For the next month she’s an inside dog, “marking” our new rug (give me The Florence look for THAT decision) and chewing on everything (but her heartworm pill). She goes on wee-wee pads about half the time. For five days home this is not so bad. But there is one off-limits poop spot she repeatedly seeks out (behind the coffee table) that reminds me of how my oldest used to hide behind the couch to do his business in a Pull-Up. He did this until he was three. If I’ve got three years of Marshmallow poop on my carpet? Saints in heaven, preserve us.

But then there’s this.

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Joy. Wonder. Delight. Love.

How’s it going? Well. Sometimes? Pretty great.

my thoughts on this Marshmallow eve

This is my last night of freedom.

This is my last night’s sleep to lay abed of a morning as long as I wish. (Like 7:30. But still. The decision is mine.)

These are my last few gulps of the sweet air of solitude and clean carpets.

Drink with me, ye lads and lasses, to days gone by, for ’tis

MARSHMALLOW EVE.

This is Marshmallow.

Tomorrow morning, we will get in the car as a family of five, drive to New Jersey, and return as a family of six.

My good friend Sarah just sent me this email, and I quote:

AHhhhhhh SO excited for you!!!! (Hence the massive overuse of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!)

I read that and think: please, God, let her be right. Let this be something wonderful and not the worst idea I have ever had. Because this is something far more foreign and far more terrifying to me than bringing home my firstborn:

We’re getting a dog.

“We’re not doing anything so remarkable,” David said before bed the other night. “We were probably more remarkable having three kids and NO dog. Plenty of people do it. I feel better telling myself that.”

But I’m not sure he does really.

Why are we getting a dog?

  • One of my kids is anxious. Dogs are a big help with that.
  • One of my kids has some garden-variety sensory issues. Dogs are a big help with that.
  • My kids wore me down. I admit it. I said “no way” seven hundred thousand times and then I just gave up.
  • There is a teeny tiny part of me that thinks I may just love her. If I’m not having a fourth child, a baby animal might not be the worst idea in the world. This puppy might make me- could it be?- happy?

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This is me meeting her last month, when the kids still had no idea she was coming.

I might look a little tiny bit in love with her in that picture.

I am maybe not totally dreading housebreaking a partially-immunized puppy in the middle of January in a twelfth-floor apartment.

Something tells me that my life will change tomorrow. For the worse, pain-in-the-rear-factor-wise.

But just maybe for the better too.

Give me advice! Cause I am a dog novice. What got you through your first days with your pup?