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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slow down, you move too fast.

empty shoes.  It’s Monday.  A pair of little shoes sits empty at the front door.  I think of the feet that fit inside, and I miss my children.  They are asleep in their beds and I miss them.  Because on Saturday I had to attend a class for work.  All day.  And on Sunday, I graded papers. All day.  It’s 6:45 am and I’m leaving again.  The weekend went by, as all weekends do, and I can’t be sure if I saw them.

When my oldest child was still an infant, I determined something about myself:  I would never be a stay-at-home-mom.  Not only were we unable to swing it financially, but I found I just wasn’t made for it.  I wasn’t good at it.

baby boy.  But things are different now.  I’m different now.  It’s been almost seven years, and we’ve had two more kids since then.  I’m patient now.  More understanding.  And I almost feel like I know what I’m doing.

Lately, I look out into the rows and rows of faces in my classroom, and I remember something a teacher friend said to me the first time she met Georgia:  “I took ten years off when my kids were born because I thought, ‘Why am I spending all of my time with someone else’s children when I could be spending it with my own?'”

the middle one.

It’s true; for eight waking hours each day, I am with another mother’s children.  And my own children have me for less than four.  Sometimes, my middle one mistakenly calls me “Miss Kerrie” or “Grandma” the way my teenage students call me “Mom,” and I think that everything is confused.  I watch as my girls, tucked inside their beds, struggle against sleep to hear another chapter of The Phantom Tollbooth because they just can’t stand to miss anything.  I look forward to breaks and summer, and panic that they’ll be over before they’ve even begun.

Maybe it’s the way we started 2013:  three cases of strep and a ruptured eardrum.  PANDAS (and its residual effects).  A stomach virus.  Broken cars and air conditioners and refrigerators.  Jane’s anemia.  All before the first week of March was over.  And it makes me think that if I was just around more, if I just took better care of them, of everything . . .

We work too much.  This world moves too fast.

I find myself wanting not to stay home, but to be home. Not because I think it would this is the way i want to remember her.be easier (it wouldn’t), but because I want to see my kids. I don’t want to miss watching them grow up. I want to brush my daughter’s hair in the morning before she goes to school.  I want to talk with her over breakfast. I want to go to her birthday lunch bunch on a Wednesday afternoon.

Because the truth is, there will always be other teenage students.  But my kids aren’t coming around again.

My husband jokes that we could sell the house and a car and live out of the pop-up camper somewhere in the country.  And there’s a part of me that thinks that idea isn’t half-bad.

twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go

This was my yesterday:

3:00am — Teddy wakes up, due either to the recent time change or the molars that haven’t quite burst through his gums (but they have created blood blisters of a lovely purple hue, so that’s something).  He is bottled and changed and goes back to sleep.

3:33am — The cat wakes me up because he’s hungry (he’s always hungry) and there’s no cat food so he gets two slices of turkey in his bowl.  This is his third life.

4:00am — Alarm goes off.  Snooze.

4:09am — Alarm goes off again, for real this time.  I get up, ice my coffee and write 577 words for NaNoWriMo, mostly about boiled peanuts and a town that’s burning down.

5:49am — I iron. I shower.  With an audience:  Mommy, are you done yet?  At least she hands me my towel when I open the door.

6:55am — I drop the two youngest kids off at daycare.  I wave to the crossing guard outside my daughter’s school.  We’ve never actually spoken, but I’d like for his name to be Stan.

7:45-8:42am — Homeroom/Period 1.  Creative Writing.  We discuss villanelles and attempt to write them. Them:  Wait — all of the A’s have to RHYME?   Me: Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

8:45-9:33am — Period 2.  Honors English II.  We write our own Analects for surviving high school, Confucius-style.

9:36-10:24am — Period 3.  Sometimes this is my planning period.  Sometimes it’s the period I try to comfort a seventeen-year-old boy who is haunted, tormented, by memories of his father’s death.  I know too well what his eyes look like when he cries, and that makes my heart hurt.  For him.

10:43 — 11:30am — Period 4.  AP English Literature. We analyze The Second Coming.  We beat it to a pulp, until that rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem.

11:34am — 12:21pm — Period 5.  Honors English IV.  We pretend to be Macbeth, and reflect on our own bloodthirsty madness.  Them, accompanied by their synchronized fists pounding on their desks: MacBETH! MacBETH! MacBETH! BeWAAAAARRRRE MacDUFF! 

12:21– 12:46pm — Lunch Bunch. Yes, every day I eat lunch with a number of teenage boys.  They burp a lot.  Among other things.

12:50 — 1:37pm — Sixth Period. English IV.  Oh, Good Lord.  They drive me crazy.  But they make me laugh, too.  It’s quite a predicament, really.

1:41 — 2:28pm — Seventh Period.  I cover sophomore geometry for another teacher who has an appointment.  In the last few minutes of class, a girl has a seizure at the front of the classroom.  I kneel on the floor, not really knowing what I’m supposed to do.  I stroke her hair and wait for her eyelids to stop fluttering.

2:30 — 4:00pm — After school.  I grade three sets of vocab quizzes while a student makes up a test.  I eat a sandwich that a student left for me.  It came with its own container of honey-mustard dipping sauce.

4:30pm — I pick up my children from daycare.  We rock out to One More Night on the ride home.

5:00-6:00pm —  Dinner. Me:  Sit down. Her:  But–  Me: Sit down.  The Other Her: But–  Me: Sit down!  Who walks around while they’re eating dinner?  I walk around while I’m eating dinner.

6:15pm — I notice my husband sitting across the room from me.  We wave.

6:30-8:45pm — Bath #1. Bottle. Crib.  First-grade homework.  Accelerated Reader.  Twice.  Or three times.  Bath #2.  Two bedtime stories.  Bed.  I try to sneak away when I think the littler one is asleep, but the eyes open.  I’m caught.  Her: Why aren’t you rubbing my back?

8:45pm and Beyond! — I pull the least-wrinkled school uniform from the sky-high pile on top of the dryer (the ones on top of the dryer are clean; the ones on top of the washer are not).  The PTO wants to know if I’m coming to the Board meeting Tuesday night.  I’d like a beer, but then, I’d also like a bed.

It sounds a lot like today, actually.  

*Thank you to my writer-friend, Olivia O’Bryon, for encouraging a post like this.