it took me years to write.


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.


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.


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.)


i learned the truth at thirty-five

On Friday, I will celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday.  Janis Ian had things figured out way sooner than I did.

Typically, I don’t tend to have any reaction to birthdays.  They come and go without much noise.  I don’t get hung up on the number (in fact, for a few months out of this year, I thought I was a year older than I am). But this one has me thinking.  Maybe it’s because, as one friend pointed out, I’m halfway to seventy.  Or, as another one put it,  I’m part of a new age demographic.  I don’t know, yet, if I agree with the idea that I’m now “middle-aged,” but that might be because I’m lucky enough to have a still-living, almost-ninety-one-year-old grandmother.

Whatever the reason, thirty-five seems like kind of a big deal.  For the first time in my life, I think I’m aware of the aging process.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I think I feel or look old.  In fact, from a few feet away, I look a lot younger than I am, and people often mistake me for being in my twenties (until they get up close).  But there are things that do affect me differently now that I’m getting older.  If I wear high heels to work, my hips will hurt the following day.  If I drink too much beer during summer vacation, I’ll start the school year with a few extra pounds. Staying out late on a Saturday night means I’ll spend the rest of the week pining for the sleep that was lost. If I am accidentally tanned in the sun, there’s no such thing as a healthy, youthful glow. Instead, it appears as though I’ve been suddenly wrapped in animal hide.  And I’m pretty sure I have my first sunspot.  Thank you, Florida.

Also, when did the skin on my neck become loose?  I feel a little bit like a turkey.

But what’s nice is that there are some things I’ve come to accept about myself at this age.  The front tooth  I chipped at seventeen is probably going to stay that way because I’ve replaced the filling too many times.  And it’s not like I’m eating rocks or something.  The last time, it popped off as I kissed my daughter’s forehead.

I now know that if I re-establish any kind of serious workout routine, my butt will actually get bigger before it shrinks (and, let’s be honest, it will probably never ever shrink) and so my pants will be tight.  (But the alternative is much worse.  And much squishier.)  At least I’m aware of this ahead of time.

Also, I learned recently that women my age who have birthed and nursed multiple children and still have full and even ebullient breasts have had some kind of surgery or “work done.”  So I’m okay with being, well, naturally deflated.

I feel like there’s a kind of surety that comes with being in my mid-thirties.  And I like it.  I have enough years behind me to finally stand up for myself when I’m being patronized.  Even though I never meant to be a teacher, I’ve started to undertand that I am, in fact, a teacher, and I might even be starting to feel like I sort of know what I’m doing (it only took ten years).  And perhaps, at this point, I’m no longer considered a “young mother,” and so I am free from all of the connotations that come with that term.

The best part about this thirty-five thing is thinking about what lies ahead; if I’m lucky, it’s another whole lifetime.  Maybe more.  And that’s good, because there are so many things left to do.

I haven’t yet published anything of significant length.  Sure, there have been poems here and there, but I was so certain I would have that “book” at this stage of my life. And I’ve realized that if I want to do so (before I meet the next demographic) while working full-time as a teacher and raising three small children, it requires getting up at 4am.  So that’s what I do.

And I was always pretty sure my life would resemble some kind of Country Time Lemonade commercial.  So far, that hasn’t happened.  But I’m working on it.  I mean, I still see it.  So it must be there.

I’ve never been to California.  I don’t know why that matters, but people are often surprised when I tell them that.  At some point, I should probably go to California.  Maybe touch a redwood tree.

The truth is that, at this age, I am wise enough to be grateful for what has been so far.  And maybe still naive enough to be hopeful for what’s ahead.

word to your mother

I was pregnant with my first child when a very wise friend said this: “Women used to pick cotton, squat down to have their babies, and then stand back up to pick more cotton.”

She had already had five children.  She knew what she was talking about.

Six and a half years later, I’m still grateful to her, probably even more so now than I was then.  What she was saying, essentially, was, “Suck it up.  Stop whining.”  And she was right.

The truth is that there are some women who believe we are supposed to be coddled and pampered while we’re pregnant, and even during the birthing process.  But why?  We are not doing anything extraordinary; and by that, I mean we are truly not doing anything out of the ordinary for women.  Women have done this for as long as women have existed.  We are designed for this.

I have even heard that some women now schedule their babies’ births prior to their doctors’ vacation weeks, or specifically when their own doctors are on-call. They have labor induced so that their doctors deliver the baby.  I’m not trying to be a jerk, but other doctors from the practice know what they’re doing.  And so do those delivery-room nurses.  Even when there’s no doctor there.  I promise.

I’m not saying that pregnant women shouldn’t have access to all of the Cheetos and Carribbean beef jerky they desire, but here’s my question:  when did giving birth become a novelty?  A generation ago, women didn’t stop each other on the street to compare birth stories.  The only thing I’ve ever been told about my own birth was that it almost happened in an elevator.   And, probably, in my mom’s mind, that’s the only thing that separates my birth from my sisters’.  I mean, after you’ve had a few, all the stories start to collide.

Maybe pampered mom (who still wants to show off her mommy muscles) = coddled child = something worse than the entitlement generation.

Two generations ago, (and long before that, even) many women worked while they were pregnant, and even shortly after giving birth.  And, a lot of the time, it was physical work. (Family lore has it that my grandfather, while my grandmother was at work, accidentally used Bengay instead of Desitin on my newborn aunt’s diaper rash. Poor poor Aunt Winnie.  I feel like I should mention that she was the first of seven.  I never heard a single birth story from my tiny, powerful grandmother.)

And then there’s this whole pregnant-Yahoo!-CEO thing.  Apparently, we’re now allowed to question Marissa Mayer’s choice to take a “working” maternity leave.  She’s an adult woman (clearly one who does not require coddling).  A grown-up.  She knows what she can handle.  Let’s stop patronizing her.  Let’s stop treating her as though she were some sort of Faberge egg.  On Morning Joe, recently, Brian Sullivan said:

Mayer’s only 37, she is pregnant. So, and fortunately she said she’s going to work during the maternity leave, that — that’s gonna be tough. Y’know. Take some time off. Yahoo’s been in trouble for years. My advice: take some time off. Get your baby. Raise the kid for a little bit, and then, work on the company when you can.

First of all, I feel the need to say that this guy sort of sounds like an idiot (I mean, yes, Marissa should certainly take his advice, because he’s had LOTS of babies.  And where, exactly, does one “get” a baby?).  Second of all, if this is the way men view pregnant women and/or new mothers in today’s society, then our desire to be spoiled only perpetuates the idea that we are the “weaker” sex.  And, this entire movement (if that’s what we’re calling it) seems slightly anti-feminist (to say the least).  When I spoke to my mother about it, she said, “You might want to temper it if you’re going to write about it,” but she knew that I wouldn’t.  The truth is that our strength lies in being able to do what we do without whining, without much complaint.  I’m not saying it’s easy (and, truly, I hate hearing “You’ve had easy pregnancies,” or “You’ve had easy births.”  Uncomplicated?  Yes, thankfully.  Easy?  No.).  But no one ever said it would be easy.

Because here’s the thing (yep, the thing, again):  once that darling baby is here for a while and the “newness” wears off, no one is going to coddle us.  Then, we’re just moms, like all of the other moms who have gone before us.  And whether we’re working or staying home with the kids, the dishwasher needs to be unloaded and loaded (perhaps while we’re fighting off a toddler whose chubby fingers keep reaching for the knives), and the laundry that is piled only a foot from the ceiling needs to be folded.  And it will be a long long time before we get a good night’s sleep.  (Once, when I was nearing the end of one of my pregnancies and probably looked swollen and uncomfortable standing in the office of my school, the parent of one of my students placed her hand on my protruding belly and said, “Just remember:  they’re a lot easier to take care of when they’re in there.” I often think of how right she was.)

Let’s be honest — it’s hard.  But it’s going to get a lot harder before it gets easy.

Woman up.