Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Worst of Times

2008 was a pretty bad year for our family.

Up to that point, I had thought Hubby and I were pretty strong -- both individually and as a couple. But we were ill-prepared for the Category 5 s***storm the universe sent our way that year. Some of it -- Hubby's injury, Sweetpea's diagnosis -- is public knowledge. Other things are still too personal, too raw to share in a forum like this one.

At the end of 2008 we were still standing but in rough shape: branches and power lines down, debris everywhere ... and that was the stuff we could see. Other damage was less obvious -- the cracks in the foundation, old structural flaws further strained by the storm. Then, in January 2009, Hubby was laid off. So we hunkered down in our battered house, weathering the latest threat and praying for clear skies.

At least, this is the story I see now, looking back. We couldn't always see it while we were in it. We were too busy putting a brave face on things, reassuring the kids, telling everyone else (and each other) we were "just fine." And that was part of the problem. We weren't fine -- and we lacked the skills we needed to process that, to deal with it head on, together. We came close to falling apart.

This isn't the story I was thinking about as we planned for my sabbatical. But we're definitely using much of the time and energy it offers to process and recover from the events of 2008 (and the resulting damage). It's not easy. It involves taking a flashlight into the darkest corners of the attic, the dank basement, and honestly assessing what we find. Then doing the sweaty, back-breaking work of rebuilding: ourselves, our marriage, our family.

Lately I've been working on printing old photos and assembling them into albums. I have literally hundreds of pictures taken during 2008 that never made it any farther than a folder on my computer. As I'm looking through each of these folders, I am reminded that even in the midst of a very bad year, we had some very good times. These pictures shine a light on our family's strengths.

One of my favorite things to do with the kids is to flip through one of our many photo albums, reliving those good times. We've been doing a lot of that lately, as new volumes are added to the shelf.

It's true that the worst parts of our years aren't captured in those albums. The depression and despair we felt at times, the impatience and intolerance we sometimes showed ourselves, each other, and our children are notably absent. I suppose there's a chance that we're still shielding them from the whole picture, giving them only half the story. But I suspect they remember the bad stuff well enough on their own. When they ask about it, I will do my best to tell them the truth.

At the same time I hope these happy memories, carefully preserved in a shelf full of albums, will remind us all there is light even in our darkest moments. Maybe this knowledge will help keep our family going when the inevitable next storm hits. Maybe, thanks to the hard work we're doing now, we'll weather that one a little better.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Waking Up

Last night I was looking through one of the "catch-all" boxes we moved from our last house to this one -- things I knew I wanted to keep at the time but didn't have a place for. Amidst photos from college, spools of thread, and old birthday cards I found a few stray pieces of notebook paper covered in my own handwriting. At the top I'd written only, "Waking Up."

It turned out to be one of the very few pieces of writing I did when my kids were little, this one when Sweetpea was about 18 months old and just taking her first steps (on her own schedule, even then). In these few pages of thoughts, scribbled during a nap or a rare moment alone and then forgotten, lie the seeds of so much I'm still working on today.

Questions like how to play this strange role of mother, cast by our children as their gods, their mirrors, their first experiences of "other" ... and rarely, if ever, on our own terms:

For months, the question "Where's Mommy?" was met with a blank stare, an innocent unblinking gape, as if humoring a crazy person. Later, cheerful pointing: at the clock, the radio, her dad. Mommy was omnipresent. Now she points an accusing finger directly at my chest and proclaims me "Mama," more sure of herself. Mama. Separate. Pleased with the knowledge she can pull my hair and not be hurt. Delights in my predictable yelp as she pinches folds of my neck between tiny fingers.

How to let them grow, and let them go, at their own pace:

Slow as she's been to move I am still one step behind. Even now, I look for her where I've left her, it takes me a minute to comprehend why she's not there.

And of course, how to achieve what some days still seems like an impossible task, to find the common ground between "writer" and "mother":

For the last 18 months it's been harder to breathe, to write. Longer: since the moment I imagined her ... She -- the idea of her, even -- supplanted my will and desire for any other kind of life, and I felt driven toward motherhood like a vocation, a calling. I watch other women and wonder if they somehow feel less or if they have just learned to conceal it, this glow like skin rubbed raw.

She keeps me grounded, but also trapped in the literal, untangling the differences between 'car' and 'bus,' 'cat' and 'dog,' until I almost confuse them myself. Wondering how I ever learned to distinguish yellow from orange, purple from blue. Some days this distracts me to the point I think if someone were to ask me I might get them wrong; afraid someone will overhear me calling the dog a 'ball' or 'clock.' ... How can I be expected to write metaphors in these circumstances?

I opened the piece by saying I felt as though I were emerging from a coma, blinking myself awake. I couldn’t know then how much more sleep was yet to come, how far I still was from daybreak. Nearly seven years later, I’m still waking up.

Friday, March 26, 2010


A few months ago, I asked to have Sweetpea tested for the district's "Highly Capable" program. The more I read about our district's approach to gifted education, the more I could see her thriving in one of their classrooms.

So we did what we could. We filled out the paperwork. We made sure she got enough sleep and ate a good breakfast on test days. We waited for the letter announcing the district's decision. We may or may not have met the mailman (purely by chance) while walking the dog, spelled our last name for him, and offered to 'take a quick peek' through his bag ourselves just to be sure he hadn't missed anything. We may or may not have been asked to stay more than 50 yards away from the mailman in the future.

Yesterday, the scores finally arrived.

My investment in the results was, like most things, complicated. I thought the program would be a good fit for Sweetpea on several levels: the emphasis on allowing kids to direct their own learning, teachers accustomed to dealing with intense and quirky kids, the chance for Sweetpea to interact with more of her peers.

I know part of me also thought that all of Sweetpea's other challenges would be so much easier to take, if only some outside authority would quantify and -- yes -- label her exceptional strengths, in addition to her challenges.

My ego simply wanted my daughter to follow in my footsteps. Being "smart" was always such a big part of who I believed I was. Even now, knowing that my identification with being "smart" was often at the expense of other, equally important traits, the less enlightened part of me still wants that for Sweetpea, too.

If her scores had topped the charts, that part would have felt validated. My kid is brilliant -- see? I am OK. If they had just missed the mark, I have to admit I would have felt disappointed.

As it turns out (I know, the suspense is killing you, right?), some of her scores were as I'd expected, well above average. Others were not. A fire alarm sounded at some point during the testing, and the person who administered the test noted Sweetpea had been "distracted and anxious" throughout the process. Because of the SPD-related challenges, and because the scores correlated neither with one another nor with her classroom performance, the district decided to test her again in a completely different environment.

Regardless, I was surprised to find that in looking at the scores I felt ... nothing. I didn't despair over the lower numbers. I wasn't even tempted to chest-bump the mailman over the high ones. They were just numbers. My experience of my daughter is so much more vast and complicated than any numbers can show.

Next time around, under more suitable testing conditions, the numbers might provide more insight into my daughter's current mastery of second-grade concepts. They might predict with more accuracy her ability to succeed in one of the district's gifted classrooms. Regardless, these numbers don't get the final say about my daughter. They're just one more piece of her incredibly complex picture.

High or low, I won't let them define her. Or me.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Random acts

This morning I got a Facebook message from a friend I hadn't heard from since elementary school. Facebook is weird that way, and often that's all it is: weird. This message was different. This one was a gift.

The man asked if I happened to remember a day, way back in elementary school, when I escorted him to the principal's office after he got kicked out of music class. I said I didn't remember the incident, but I hoped I'd been kind.

I thought that would be the end of our exchange. Another random Facebook moment, quickly forgotten.

Instead, he responded: "You reached back and held my hand. I didn't deserve that ... but I never forgot it."

I felt as if he had reached out a hand to me, a small glimpse of my own, innocent kindness in his palm. I've carried it with me all day.

A gift like that can't be paid back. But it can be paid forward.

The next time I remember someone else's kindness toward me, no matter how long ago it was, I'm going to remind them of it. So they, too, can see themselves for a moment in the light of their best, essential selves.

When Sprout and Sweetpea are in trouble, I'm going to remember that holding them responsible doesn't require letting go of their hands.

And I hope I'll remember to reach out more often to that little girl my friend helped me see again today. The one who, as she walked a boy to the principal's office for his punishment, was probably thinking about how she, too, was sometimes ashamed of something she'd done, some mistake she'd made. And felt afraid of what that mistake might mean about who she was.

I'm going to hold that little girl's hand. I'm going to promise not to let go. I'm going to remind her that she is worthy of kindness. Even when -- especially when -- she doesn't think she deserves it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

When it's warm, I just turn the hose on them.

This morning, as I was dropping Sprout off and racing out the door to get Sweetpea to school on time, his teacher stopped me for a "quick question":

"How do you handle it when siblings fight?"

Not one to give short shrift to such a complex topic, I thoughtfully held an imaginary gun to my head and pulled the trigger.

I regret it now. (And not just because it may have slightly undermined my I-have-no-idea-why-he-keeps-playing-violent-games-at-school-it-must-be-because-he's-fallen-in-with-a-bad-crowd-because-we-certainly-don't-condone-that-behavior-at-home image.) If I'd had more time to think about it, I would have answered more sincerely. Something like:

  • Huh? Sorry -- couldn't hear you. Earplugs.

  • Or: I wouldn't know. I find if you love them enough, they don't need to argue.

  • Or maybe: It's a question of balance, really. You just have to find the right mix of boxed wine and prescription pills.

  • Naturally, I jest. Anyone who's spent more than 10 minutes with me and my children knows I would never drink wine out of a box.

    The truth is, as much as they love and enjoy each other, my kids also fight. They fight a lot. My responses run the gamut, depending on my energy level and how many times that day I've already said, "What would have been a better way to handle that?"

    The "Let them work it out" approach seems logical. Unfortunately, it's also loud, and it generally takes a long time because they're not very good at it. At best, it buys me a few more minutes in the bathtub or on the phone before I have to jump in and deal with it anyway.

    As a younger sibling, I also believe Sprout is at a disadvantage in this scenario. Yes, he needs to learn to stand up for himself, but there are limits when he's dealing with someone who's got a full three years of cognitive development on him.

    On the other hand, Sprout has a gift for doing things that are both just under my radar and guaranteed to push Sweetpea over the edge. There aren't many advantages to having a sibling with SPD, but this is definitely one of them. Humming persistently at a certain frequency can be enough to set her off on a bad day, and the resulting bruise is apparently a small price to pay for an ice pack and some one-on-one time while his sister does a time out.

    For a smart kid, Sweetpea does not always do herself any favors. Just this morning she defended herself by claiming "I did not kick him ..." (which would have made it his word against hers if she'd stopped there, instead of finishing the thought) "... where he says I did." (Sigh. Time out.)

    I could have answered Sprout's teacher with a single word. Because the most effective strategy I've found for stopping the never-ending arguments over such critical issues as who is reading whose cereal box and who is or is not copying whom? School.

    With my first summer as a full-time stay-at-home-mom fast approaching, I'm going to need some new tools in the tired, beat-up toolbox. So I ask you, since you're clearly not late for something important if you're reading this: How do you handle it?

    Monday, March 15, 2010

    If it's a penny for your thoughts, how much for 5 minutes of silence?

    I love my son. I do, you guys. He is funny and charming and asks great questions and makes these amazing observations that let you see things in new ways and make you wonder about things you've never wondered about before and ohmygodtheboywillnotshutup!

    Yet another reason I'm glad the kids look like us. Because otherwise I'd be staring down the barrel of some tough questions about whether he and my daughter really have the same parents.

    When I drive Sweetpea somewhere, she sits in the very back of the van and thinks about things, or reads, or talks to her imaginary friends, or sings along with the radio. Honestly, I'm not sure exactly what she's doing most of the time. But what she does not do is require any interaction whatsoever with me. In fact, any attempt on my part to initiate conversation will likely be ignored.

    I used to find that kind of annoying. I remember thinking, "Gee, I wish I had a child who would tell me what she was thinking." Oh, the universe and its little jokes.

    Because a car ride with Sprout? Let me put it this way: You know how in most churches you can pretty much zone out during the service if you want to? But then you go to a Catholic church and they keep testing to make sure you're really paying attention? It's kind of like that.

    Only it's just you and the priest in a car, and you're working out the ending to the poem you just wrote, or you're trying to have a complete thought from beginning to end, or maybe even just listening to a song you love, and meanwhile the tiny priest in the backseat is saying maythelordbewithyou maythelordbewithyou MAYTHELORDBEWITHYOU MAYTHELORDBEWITHYOU until you realize he's waiting for a response of some kind from you and just when you start to answer "And also with --" he asks you how McDonald's cooks hamburgers so fast.

    And while you're thinking about how to answer that, he's saying, "Guess what, Mommy!"

    "hmmmmmmm ...?"

    "I know how to spell 'space.'"

    "Oh, yeah?" (Still thinking about the hamburger question.)

    "S - P - S"

    "OK, well that's really close, but it's actually ..."

    "You know what, Mommy?"

    "... S - P - A ..."


    "Huh? Oh. What?"

    "I saw those things yesterday? Those things that you control with your body?"

    "The ... you control with your ...?"

    "Those things that you control with your body, Mommy! That we saw on TV? The boys at gymnastics had them? Can I get those, Mommy?"

    (Starting to wonder what he controls other things with:) "Well, maybe on your ..."

    And then he asks you whether a lizard is a turtle's cousin or just his stepbrother. Or wants you to look at how his fingers are two different colors (Just look in your mirror, Mommy!). Or kindly offers to count to 199 for you. Again.

    Then you come home, and your husband asks you a simple question like how your day was or why you're drooling like that or where all the Tequila went and you'd like to answer him, you would, but the last available cell in your brain is working on the family tree of lizards, so instead you just rock back and forth, muttering something about turning the downstairs bathroom into a sensory deprivation chamber.

    Yeah. It's like that.

    Carpool, anyone?

    Why my child will never save the planet ...

    Me: "Hurry up, Sweetpea! I have a million things to do. I swear you walk slower when you know I'm in a rush."

    Sweetpea (visibly slowing down further): "I'm enjoying nature, Mommy."

    Me: "Great. Enjoy nature faster."

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    Being the "best"

    As I was driving her to piano this week, Sweetpea suddenly cocked her head to the side and examined me with uncharacteristic scrutiny.

    "Mommy, you're weird," she said. As if the thought had just occurred to her.

    Within the last 10 minutes, she had also asked me to please stop pointing out the person dressed as the Statue of Liberty (before today, one of her favorite obsessions) and please stop singing along with Jason Mraz (yeah ... not gonna happen, kiddo).

    In response, I made an appropriately parental, disapproving face in the rear-view mirror. OK, maybe I stuck my tongue out at her. Whatever. Stop judging -- you're missing the point.

    The point is, my daughter called me "weird." And although I was working hard not to show it, I was secretly a little pleased.

    Sweetpea is 8 years old, and most days she still tells me I'm her best friend. (You know, when she doesn't hate me and want to move in with the neighbors.) As much as I love it, I know our days as best friends are numbered. At least, I hope they are.

    For years her teachers told me not to worry, that it was "normal" Sweetpea didn't have a best friend her own age. Even as I watched other kids pairing up, we all put faith in the fact that Sweetpea played easily with anyone and everyone. Sunny and irrepressible on a good day, she attracted plenty of friends, if not a "best friend."

    But painful as it is to admit, peer relationships seem to be getting harder, not easier for her. Now in second grade, her invitations to play dates and birthday parties seem unusually few and far between.

    Naturally, I blame myself. When I was working, it wasn't always possible to take the time to get to know other moms. Casual chit-chat outside the classroom or at holiday parties isn't my strong suit. But by now, even I have to admit it's probably not all my fault.

    Truth is, Sweetpea doesn't always seem interested in friendships -- she's just as content to do her own thing, act out her own invented stories. I do arrange play dates, when she shows an interest, but reciprocal invitations don't always follow. Or they don't come more than once. I suspect that school-age peers are less willing than preschoolers to overlook behavior they don't understand, and every year it may get a little harder.

    This year Sweetpea does seem more tuned in to social interactions. It's often a painful awareness, as she sees her friendships falling short. But a little pain might be necessary to motivate changes that will help her form more meaningful friendships.

    Just like it's necessary for her to start thinking I'm a little "weird."

    I'm hopeful this all means she's becoming a little less attached to my hip, and a little more identified with her peers. Believe me when I say I'm not kidding myself. I know this is just the first, tiny step in a long process, one that will often be miserable for one or both of us. But I'm willing to start letting her go.

    So when we got to her piano teacher's house the other day, I said, "Do you still want me to walk you to the door? You know, since I'm so 'weird' and all?"

    Sweetpea rolled her eyes. "Of course! You're not a lot weird, Mommy. You're just a little weird. You're weird like you're my best mom."

    I know "best friend" is a role I can't play for much longer. But "best mom"? That one I can live with.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    Note to Self

    Dear 22-year-old Jill -

    I love you, sweetie, but you can be ... well ... a tad critical. It's time we had a chat.

    First off: You're lovely. Stop frowning when you look in the mirror, go put on a bikini, and enjoy it while you can. Your stomach isn't always going to look like that. Someday you will miss it.

    Please do us both a favor and stop saying you don't know why anyone would buy pre-cut vegetables in plastic bags. You'll see.

    Your tendency to kill plants does not mean you won't be a good mother. But having kids definitely won't make you a better gardener.

    And while we're on the subject ... Yes, you will let your children eat that, they will behave that way in public, and it's not called "using the TV as a babysitter." It's called "taking a shower."

    I'm sorry to say that you won't publish your first book by 25. Or by 35. You're not going to be the best or the worst at anything. But when you realize this, and let go, everything changes.

    You know far less -- but can do far more -- than you think.

    Your husband won't turn out to be quite as perfect as you expected. Then again, you won't be quite as perfect as you expected, either. And you will turn out to be perfect for each other -- just in ways you can't begin to imagine now.

    You owe a lot of people a lot of apologies. Save us time and grief later -- start now.

    All the worrying about Y2K will be wasted energy. In fact, all the worrying *period* will be wasted energy. Stop it. Take a walk instead.

    If I could give you one thing, it would be the belief that you have, in this moment, everything you need. At every step, you are exactly where you need to be.

    Enjoy the journey.

    Much Love,

    PS When the stock becomes available, buy "Google." Just trust me on this one.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    "There's something wrong."

    This week I watched the new NBC show, Parenthood. In addition to a great ensemble cast (featuring Lauren Graham, Monica Potter, and the guy from Six Feet Under) and some damn clever writing, the debut episode includes one storyline that particularly caught my attention: a couple in the early stages of realizing their son may have Asperger syndrome.

    In the pivotal scene, the shell-shocked mother is trying to share the educational consultant's findings with her husband. The father, meanwhile, is literally talking over her to avoid hearing it, clinging to his last shred of hope that with one more small change ("He just needs a tutor!"), their son can still fit into a 'normal' school environment. It's one of those moments that goes on just a little too long and gets a little too painful.

    Finally the mother, increasingly desperate to be heard, says: "It's not just the fear of fire, it's not just the biting, it's not just the tantrums ... it's everything. There's something wrong with our son."

    * * *

    It's not often that a TV show gets it so right. I sat there thinking, I've lived that moment. My daughter has sensory processing disorder, not Asperger's, but some of the characteristics can overlap: social 'quirkiness,' difficulties with emotional regulation, and of course, sensory defensiveness. Because these kids are often high-functioning in other areas, both syndromes can go undiagnosed until the early school years.

    And I remember that moment vividly. That moment when you realize it's not just the tantrums and the maddeningly age-inappropriate biting. It's not just the obsession with tornadoes or fire drills. She's not "just hungry," or "just tired," or "just quirky," or even "just trying to control us." It's something else. Something more.

    Don't get me wrong: this has nothing to do with the fact that, in the TV scene, mom was doing the talking and dad was doing the talking-over. Truth is, I did both. I spent weeks, arguably months, with two parts of my mind at odds: the part still hoping I could find the critical mistake I'd made, the right parenting book, the magic trick I was somehow missing that could make Sweetpea's behavior more 'normal.' And the part with the dawning realization that no matter what I did on my own, it wasn't going to be enough.

    It's human nature not to want to see it, even when the evidence is piling up so high it can probably be seen from space. Once that veil is lifted, you can no longer harbor that image you've had, maybe since before her conception, of the 'perfect' child. You have to admit that your kid is -- and might always be -- different from other kids. Really different. That there's a name for it. A name that is long, and scary, and has the word "disorder" in it, and might mean other things you haven't even considered yet. It might mean that all the parenting manuals in the world aren't going to be enough to smooth the way for your kid or for your family. That you're going to need help -- something you're maybe not so great at asking for.

    At the same time, it's a hopeful moment. Because in that realization, lies the start of healing.

    You probably won't see it for weeks, or even months yet. But looking back, you'll realize that this was the moment when you started to stop blaming yourself and your child for things neither of you can control.

    It's the moment you began to lay down your shield -- that one you'd been using to defend yourself from those aspects of your child you didn't want to see, and your fears about what they might mean for your child and about you. To protect yourself from those looks from other parents, the well-meaning questions, and the persistent and numbing sense of failure.

    And, in setting aside the shield of self-defense, you freed up the hand you needed to start fighting for your child.

    * * *

    In the last scene of the episode, we see the boy's cousin singing in a church choir, with the whole extended family in attendance. We see the gruff, you-just-need-to-toughen-that-boy-up grandfather notice that the boy and his father are missing. He finds them outside, dad standing at a distance, watching his son splash in puddles.

    "What's going on?" grandpa asks, with a touch of impatience. "Get back in there, Max."

    "He can't go in, Dad," the boy's father replies, still watching his son.

    And this is the part where I finally broke down. Because what the father says next, he says without apology, without defensiveness, without a trace of blame: "There are candles in the hallway, and he can't walk past them."

    "Nonsense!" says grandpa.

    And then the dad, again: "It's not that simple."

    It's a sad moment, in many ways. It signals the father's resignation: "There's something wrong with my son."

    But to me, it's also a beautiful moment. It's the moment the father crosses over. He drops his defenses, and he begins the difficult, heart-wrenching work of standing with, advocating for his child.

    The episode ends here. As viewers, we are left with no illusions that everything is neatly wrapped up. We know it's not the end. There will be many more moments of grief, and loss, and doubt, and ... yes ... self-flagellation to come.

    But, heart-wrenching as it is, we also know: Now the healing can begin.

    Friday, March 5, 2010

    Motherhood: A Tragedy in Three Acts

    I have three stories to tell you, and I can't decide which to post first. I guess I'll go with Door #2. (Wait for it ... that turn of phrase will take on additional significance in a minute, but not in a good way.)

    Act 1: Morning

    Scene: Sprout's preschool

    While helping Sprout get changed for swimming day, Our Hero discovers evidence of some less-than-optimal personal hygiene in his underwear. Because she is unbelievably lame and has once again neglected to leave a full set of clean, labeled clothing in his cubby, (even though she is not currently working for money and this type of thing is, arguably, her only real responsibility), she humbly borrows a pair from school. She then wraps the offending undergarment in several opaque plastic grocery bags, stuffs them in her purse, and promptly forgets this ever happened.

    Act 2: Afternoon

    Scene: Kitchen

    Hero (to self): WTF? What is this clump of empty grocery bags doing in my purse?

    Hero stuffs the grocery bags in a cupboard under the kitchen island, also known as the Island of Lost Tupperware, and quickly slams the door to avoid avalanche of mismatched tubs and lids. And promptly forgets this ever happened.

    Act 3: Evening

    Scene: Laundry room

    Emptying Sprout's backpack and starting laundry prompts Our Hero to recover memory of Act 1.

    All-too-familiar sinking feeling accompanies recovered memory of Act 2.

    The End.

    And the worst part, you guys? I cannot find them. So the other posts will have to wait, because right now I have to go burn down my kitchen.

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    Making peace with the mess

    I am addicted to the moment in writing when the magic happens -- when a collection of words and images I'm playing with begins to form itself into a poem, and I can suddenly glimpse order within the chaos. In that moment, though I still have many drafts to go, I feel grounded again. I am "home."

    I stick to short, lyrical works in part because I know bigger subjects would mean more words, more chaos, and a longer wait before order and meaning emerge. I haven't wanted to stay in that uncertain (and often uncomfortable) place any longer than I have to.

    But ... I find myself lately pestered by a subject that is far too big for a single poem. (Trust me, I've tried.) There is just too much here. New angles appear at every turn. No clear meaning or neat structure is revealing itself -- just occasional moments that whisper, Something real is here. Moments promising enough to keep me plowing blindly ahead, deeper into the uncertainty.

    For perhaps the first time in my writing life, I am 10,000 words into something and I don't have a clue yet what it wants to be.

    It's a little like cleaning out a closet. I began with great enthusiasm, focused only on dragging everything into the light, a faint image in my mind of a spare and tidy future. But now I am surrounded with the years of clutter I've hauled from the closet's bowels, and it's time to start organizing the mess. Suddenly I have an almost irresistible urge to flop down on the floor and stay there, weeping and twitching, until someone makes it all go away. Or to stuff it all back in and slam the door.

    It's not just about writing, I know. Marriage, kids, career, friendships ... anything worth loving eventually brings me to a point where my mess spills out of the closet and all over the floor. Then I have a choice. I can do the things I've done in the past: Stuff it quickly away, make it look tidy. Cut and run, let someone else clean it up.

    Or I can attempt something infinitely more difficult. Stay in the chaos. Breathe. Let patterns and meaning emerge in their own time. Wait for the magic to happen.

    The stories of my life -- the one I'm attempting to write now, and the one I'm attempting to live -- are messy and complicated. Rushing to easy conclusions will not do them justice. No neat structures, no tidy morals here.

    Just, every once in a while, a moment that whispers, Pay attention. Something real is happening. Moments interesting enough to keep me taking one more step, then another, into the unknown.