it took me years to write.

classroom.

I teach high school English.  At the start of every school year, I write a letter to my students and read it aloud.  For the older ones, it’s all about how life doesn’t tend to go according to plan, that where you see yourself down the road isn’t always where you end up.  And I use myself as the example, which always leads to this question:  “But, Ms. Lavelle, if you wanted to be a writer, why didn’t you just become a writer?”

Aren’t they wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic little darlings? Clearly, they miss the point of my letter.  But, in their defense, one time I did use a metaphor that involved a not-so-easy-to-fold road map before remembering that their only understanding of a road map was made by Google.

“Well, guys, I am a writer,” I say, but then I reconsider.  Am I?  Am I really?  I’m not even sure I know what the term means anymore.

When my original plan (and I won’t divulge the original plan because, after all, I was once wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic) didn’t want to pan out, I tried to adjust.  At some point along the way, I became a teacher and thought, Yes!  I can do this (for now)! There are summer vacations and holiday breaks!  I’m done by 3pm!

left.And so I repeated the mantra I had learned in college and graduate school: The writing comes first.  Be disciplined.  Make a schedule.  Stick to it.  Fifteen years later, I can say that I have tried.

There have been many early mornings, before work, squinting through the quiet dark, watching the window lighten with the minutes.  I’ve spent planning periods (meant for planning, grading, making copies, contacting parents, checking my mailbox, eating lunch, performing lunch duty, using the restroom and breathing) frantically trying to finish a single paragraph. But then there’s an essay on Plath I forgot to grade. Or a recommendation letter I need to finish.  Or a knock on the door from the kid who keeps falling asleep in seventh period.

I had my first child at twenty-eight, a week after I finished writing my first novel.  A few years later came another baby, and two years after that, one more.  Life seemed to hasten its pace.  But I tried to keep some of those early mornings (if I had slept at all the nights before) and just as their bedroom doors closed for afternoon naps, the laptop opened.

But no matter how hard I have tried, I have never succeeded at putting the writing first.

Putting the writing ahead of my children makes me a not-so-good mother.  Putting the writing ahead of my students makes me a not-so-good teacher.  Putting the writing ahead of exercising makes me a not-so-healthy person (and — let’s be honest — just plain fat). My children deserve my attention, my students deserve my attention, and my mind and body deserve my attention.  And so the writing becomes the reward for fulfilling all of the other obligations.  I never meant for it to be that way, but that’s the way it is.

(But, then, it works the other way, too. When I’ve gone too long without writing, everything else suffers.  Because life is all about some kind of balance that I haven’t figured out. Yet.)

Each summer, I tell myself I’ll have the time.  And so here is another July — the first week gone, and I haven’t accomplished very much.  Not writing is very very hard. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that it aches.  I keep at it, working in bits and pieces, in moments, here and there.  There is no vivid and continuous dream; though the hours in my day may be vivid and continuous, they are not quite conducive to writing, no matter the height of my effort or the width of my intentions.

them.Just last week, I managed to draft a poem.  An entire poem.  But the process always goes something like this:

I set my alarm for 4 am so that I can get some work in before my run (it’s July in Florida — morning running is the only option).  At 3 am, my son comes for a visit.  You know, just to make sure I’m still there.  And then he gets in my bed. In his sleep, he inches closer and closer to me until I turn off the alarm and move to the couch.

During the day, I escape to the porch, but the screech of the sliding glass gives me away. And there they are.

“Can I have a Luigi’s?”  Yes.  Two minutes later: “Where are the spoons?”  You might want to check the drawer.  Where the spoons ALWAYS are.

Quiet.

Then comes another one.  “If I poop in my pants, you’ll yell at me and tell me I can’t play games.”  Right. Glad we’re clear on that.

Quiet.

The oldest stops by for a visit.  She sits on a tricycle she’s far too big for, and faces away from me.  She’s bored, even though we’ve already been to the playground and for a hike on a hidden boardwalk today.  I explain that I’m trying to get some work done.  The tricycle stops, and she stares ahead of her through the screened wall.

“But what is your work, Mommy?”  It’s almost a whisper.

Before I can answer (not that I actually have an answer), this comes from inside: “WHERE ARE MY ORANGE GOGGLES?!”

Sigh.  Because, really, what is my work, anyway? (And I know exactly where the orange goggles are.  That’s the kind of space I seem to have in my brain.)

I scribble things down in a notebook, then forget where they came from.  There’s something about dragons, about houses on fire.  There’s something about the yellow-green glow of these afternoons.  I hope it comes back to me someday.  Or I come back to it.

aw.On Sunday, I helped my middle child ride her bike for the first time without training wheels.  The air was thick, and our efforts left us sweating. She took off up the hill in the mid-afternoon sun, and her image was melted still at the top of the street. And I realized: this is my work.  And I can’t discount it.

I’m not complaining.  I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m trying to be realistic.  I’m trying to remind myself that all of this work is valuable, not just the writing. I need to tell myself to keep at it, and it will happen, bit by bit (the same way my hair is growing gray). Maybe there’s another mom out there who didn’t get to write today.  Or yesterday.  Maybe she hasn’t written anything substantial since her first child was born more than nine years ago. And maybe she needs to hear this.

Yes, I’m a writer.  But what I’ve come to learn is that right now, the writing can’t come first. And that it will come very slowly, if at all.  Right now, this — this family, this classroom, this one-line-at-a-time — is my work. This is the work that makes my life. And maybe, someday, this life will make my work.

(But right now, I need to clean up the trail of crackers he’s left that stretches the length of the living room.  He licked off the salt, so they’re soggy and starting to stick to the floor.)

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(don’t) get busy.

20140630_195931I was stuck in midair, on my way to a funeral I had prepared for my whole life but never thought would happen. (When someone lives that long, it’s like a trick; you just go on thinking she’s going to live forever.) It was the first time I had flown in years and the space was smaller than I remembered: a screen just inches from my face, and with each movement, I elbowed my neighbor. From my purse, I pulled what I thought was the most recent copy of The New Yorker because I had been anxious to read that article about John Green being a teen whisperer, but realized that I had grabbed the wrong issue when I left the house in a hurry and the dark that morning. So instead I flipped to a review of a new book (Overwhelmed Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time) concerning our culture’s obsession with busyness. And I have to admit that I identified with the content, the “busier than thou” attitude and “the glorification of busy”  that pervade our lives and Facebook feeds.  It’s everywhere.  And it’s true. We are too busy. We fill our time with to-dos and obligations and activities; in our calendars, there’s scarcely space to breathe.

too much busyness.I’ve been there (most people have, I think); I’ve picked my kids up at aftercare, pulled on their soccer shorts and shin guards and laced up their cleats on the school’s bathroom floor. My husband and I have met in parking lots, traded keys and kids. Then another costume change and on to the basketball court to round out a thirteen-hour day. We’ve performed ballet recitals with fevers and swollen glands, a Christmas show with strep throat. One night I completely forgot to give my daughter dinner before Girl Scouts. (Or was it First Communion practice?) And so we stopped at a 7-11 for some Combos. Yes. Combos.

I don’t glorify that kind of busy; I don’t even want it. But, sitting there, fastened to an airplane seat, unable to get up and go, I realized that I was guilty of a different kind of “busy.”

And here it is:  I am at rest when I am in motion.  It’s genetic, really.  A recessive trait that I have only seen in my maternal grandmother’s side.  But my mother got it, and nana.so did I.  It centers around an inability to sit still, an insistent urge to do and do.  For my grandmother, it was cleaning. When I was young, I assumed that she was a neat-freak. We joked about how much she loved to clean, the way she looked forward to the piles of laundry and the carpets in need of vacuuming. But that was never the case. It was the doing that she loved. The fingerprints on the mirror disappeared with a swipe of her paper toweled-palm. For my mother, it’s cooking. She thinks of what’s for dinner days before. She runs to the store to buy vegetables for the gazpacho. Then she runs back because she forgot the tomato juice. After the chopping and measuring, she stirs.  She stirs and stirs. (And she won’t let you stir, even if it’s your gazpacho. She’ll take the wooden spoon right from your hand.) The chilling overnight is torture for her.

For me, it’s working (which strikes me as a slightly less beneficial affliction than cleaning or cooking).  The writing kind of work, the lesson-planning kind of work, the grading-papers kind of work. I get up too early in the mornings to make my days longer, to make it all fit. In the evenings, after the kids are bathed and the day is almost done, I can’t watch a movie without doing something else.  As soon as my butt hits the couch, I pop back up to work on something.  (The World Cup is on while I type this. I-believed-that-we-would-win!)   When we finally sit together, my husband sometimes puts his hand on my leg not to be romantic but to stop me from moving.

one hundred years . . . It sounds funny, I know.  But lately, I feel like it’s not.  There are days I rush my toddler off to nap so that I can write, and I sometimes cringe when I hear that he’s awake. When my five-year-old asks me if I remember the story she’s recounting, I say, “yes,” even though I couldn’t have been listening with my mind in seven different places. When my eight-year-old goes through a month-long sleep disturbance pattern, I remind her almost nightly that I need to get up early and run.

Right.  Because guilt is going to help her sleep.

And, truly, I’m the one who’s guilty. Of pushing them aside to make the most of my minutes. Of not stopping to watch. Or to listen. Or to breathe.

At some level, we (both the busier-than-thous and the busybodies) have attached a sense of worth to all of this busyness.  Our lives have more value if we’re busier, if we’re utilizing every inch of every day. And what it comes down to, what all of this comes down to, I think, is a misinterpretation of “full.”  So I have to ask myself:  do I want my day to contain as much as possible, or possess a rich quality?

What struck me most about seeing my grandmother in her casket was her stillness.

Before she was two, my middle child earned the nickname “Janey Waney Wiggle Worm” from her teacher. She’s got it, too.

I don’t want her to have a calendar that’s full.  Or a day that’s full. I want her to have a life that’s full.

full.

i’m gonna kick tomorrow (upon hearing my daughter, age 8, say, “i really enjoy writing.”)

kids.

I say I’m a firm believer in telling my kids they can be whatever they want to be.  They have all of the freedom in the world to follow their dreams (I suppose it’s better than raisins and explosions).

But the truth is, I don’t mean it.  There is one thing none of them can be.  There is one thing I won’t let them be.  Not one of my children will be a writer. And if they ask, you can tell them this:  You cannot be a writer because most of your life will be spent not writing. And the not-writing hurts too much.

You cannot be a writer because when you’re a writer, if you’re lucky, you yank yourself from sleep at 4am into the quiet half-dark of the living room.  And you bite your fingernails down to the quick as the clock ticks closer to six or you hear your son kicking the rails of his crib.  Because soon you will be not writing.

On the ride to work,  a steeple silhouettes itself against almost sunlit sky.  The lake reflects it. You want to write it.  Every morning.

prisoners.

You think that it might be sweet relief just to read a line of good poetry.  So you work Yusef Komunyakaa into your senior syllabus even though he isn’t British, but you’ve already covered Owen and Sassoon, so why not? Since you’re on the subject of war, you might as well read Tim O’Brien. You stand at the podium, pouring over each thing they carried.

Two periods later, you introduce an acrostic poem that you’ve read ten thousand times before, and you think back to the first time you read it, which was sixteen years ago now. And you’re moved like the first time you read it.  You stand in front of your Smartboard, wondering for a minute if the students notice, but then the quick ones call out, “It spells Martha Stuart!”  And the rest of them put down their phones long enough to look and say, “Martha Stewart’s dad wrote this?”  You think you hear yourself sigh and say,  “No, that’s a different Martha Stewart.”  But you can’t be sure.

discovering.Your AP class is reading The Road. You’d like to carve it into the pulp of your heart.

You lay your head on the desk and say to yourself, This is a drought. What we have here is a drought.

It’s a number of days before another 4am.  You think of the hours you’ve lost.  The days. The weeks.  The months.  The childhoods.  And you realize that for eight years, you’ve been meaning to write a poem about your daughter being born in the caul. (Which means it’s been eight years and two weeks since you finished that novel.)

You read somewhere that Lois Lowry published her first book when she was forty, and for a minute you’re given a reprieve from the panic.  Until you remember it has nothing to do with publishing.  It has only to do with getting the words out of your body and onto the page. An expulsion.  Maybe an exorcism.  There’s a little towhead named Liza in there, and you know her compassion runs too deep.  But she’s stuck as a shadow because you haven’t written her.  Yet. (Yet is what you keep telling yourself, anyway.)

soccer.You look at your daughter’s face and consider the way it has changed and the way that it hasn’t, and you think, I could write this. Your son has a lying-down tantrum on the sidewalk outside daycare and you think, I could write this. The trees that line the practice soccer field lose their depth and definition as it turns to dusk.  The landscape wears a purple halo and people are suddenly harder to see.  You come close to screaming, I could write this!  I could write this!  I could write this!  

You think it’s an addiction.  Maybe a compulsion.  Until, ultimately, you decide it’s an affliction.  You want to look at a peony and not make it a firework.  You want to watch the Gulf of Mexico swallow the sun and not wonder if “swallow” is the right word. You want to just be a wife.  A mom.  A teacher.  A person who reads books because you like to read books.  That’s all.

swallow.You want to feel what normal is. But you can’t.  And you won’t.

You cannot be a writer, so if you have some obligation to create, take up something else: watercolor or gardening. Grow peonies or peppers. Something that shows you an end result, even if your toddler wobbles over and picks all of your peppers.  At least you can see them lying in the dirt.  At least they’re not just a pile of words.