Saturday, August 25, 2007


This all began with my mother. My mother who died one year ago, come Monday.

Six months ago I knew it was time to quit my job, a fast paced, demanding, but also rewarding position in the field of urban and rural planning and community development. I knew that it was time to pursue a new endeavor. Writing. Not really a new endeavor, but a prematurely abandoned endeavor. I knew this with indescribable internal clarity.

I have been writing since I was a child. I never knew if I was good. I just knew I loved to write.

In college, some time in 1995 at the end of a short story writing workshop, my instructor asked me, "Do you know that you know how to write? Really well?" It gave me permission to dream something I'd before been too timid to envision.

I graduated. I moved from the dirty and beloved South to New York. I landed a job at a publishing house. I thought I would work for a while, keep writing, end up in graduate school to get an MFA, begin teaching in whatever university would have me, continue to write, and be on my merry way as a writer. Maybe, one day, even a published writer. This is what the future looked like.

Two months later, my mom had a stroke. A massive and debilitating stroke. Six months into my first real job, I found myself quitting so I could move to my parents' home in northern Virginia to help take care of her. I never wanted to write again. It was not an intentional or conscious lack of desire. I stopped writing as naturally as I had begun. (One day as a ten year old, I was exploring a world atlas and came across Africa. I surveyed the continent. I found Sudan. A narrative poem was born about a girl who'd had to leave Sudan in the midst of war and famine. It was written in first person. What did I know of Sudan other than that, according to the atlas, the Nile flowed through it?)

After taking care of my mom, I found myself working in another publishing house, this time a small university press in Louisiana where I'd grown up and gone to college. I began asking myself, If I am never a writer, what else can I do that will be fulfilling? I'd come to the conclusion that working in publishing was not the answer. I decided that the answer was this: Something creative. Something that had to do with understanding people and place. Something that could better the world in which we live. Something project driven.
I applied to graduate school to study landscape architecture. I went through the three-year program. (It took me four.) It was sheer torture. The entire time.

I got a job. A job I loved (thank god, after the way I'd hated grad school). A job that challenged me and stimulated my intellect. I worked for an amazing woman and with other amazing people. I advanced and advanced and advanced quickly over three years. I kept getting 15% raises. This seemed absurd. (I also worked my ass off. Late nights, early mornings, sleepless nights, heels that were too high worn for workdays that lasted too long.)

This is what happened on August15, 2006. I was driving to work one morning, and a phrase came into my head: I might say something dangerous. I mused that it would be a good way to begin a story. Then, three or four blocks away from my office, something started writing itself in my head. A poem.

I might
say something

I don't know when

I began


my words.

Or why

I thought

it should be a crime


to hide them

in the back of my throat.

It has been

a long time.

You might
about the boys

and the women,

the glistening babies,

or my old mother,

my old mother,

my old sick mother.

The people

and their stories

that I have



You might

hear them.

I could

say something


Or true.


And then what would you do?

I committed the poem to memory, and when I got home that evening, I wrote it down.

I am a woman who keeps many journals. When I die, if someone finds them, they'll see that my personality and my sanity were disjointed. That is to say, I keep several journals over a period of time. I might write in one one day, and the next day, I might make note of something in another journal. Then I might abandon the journals altogether for several months or years, pick one up and write in it, and the following day write in yet another journal. You'd have to map the dates out in a set of five our six journals if you wanted order or chronology as opposed to the ethereal mood I was in when I selected which journal I would write in on which day.

But I have one journal, an object of art, that my husband (then boyfriend) began making 1997. He completed it and gave it to me in 1998. Fresh out of college, I was still writing at the time. He intended the journal for whatever I might write in years to come. The journal, a thick book with six sections separated by woodcuts of insects on rice paper, was so goddamn beautiful to me that I could not bring myself to write a single word in it. In 2001, long after I'd stopped writing, I decided it was time to put it to use. It became the first journal I used as a student of landscape architecture. I didn't entirely fill the pages before switching to a new journal, but it contained nothing except sketches and ideas for plans to be drafted, for spaces to be created.

That night in 2006, as I was about to commit the first new work I'd written since 1998 to paper, I scanned my bookshelf to choose a journal. The one my husband had given me was the one I selected. For the first time, I wrote in it what he had intended it to contain all those years before.

The following week, I pulled out my old short stories. I began rereading them, editing some furiously. One night, sitting in bed, just having completed edits to an old story, I had a thought. I thought, Maybe when my mom dies, I'll pursue writing in a real way. Then I'll have two people pulling for me. 
My first creative writing teacher, the man who'd asked me if I knew I could write, the man who chose to act for a short time as my mentor, had passed away in the spring of 1998, just before I graduated college.

It's not that I expected my mom to die soon. I certainly did not wish that to be the case. It's just that I'd come to accept what the stroke had done to her for all these years. I'd come to accept that she was aging and was unhealthy. And I was, for the first time, acknowledging that she only had a limited time on this earth. (Who wants to believe her parents are mortal?) If you were to ask me on that night, I'd have said, I think my mom's got five or seven years left in her. If you were to have asked me on that night what I hoped for, I'd have said, I want my parents to have a 50th wedding anniversary. That means I need her to be here for another seven years, minimum.

This is what happened on August 27, 2006, twelve days after the first time I'd written something new in eight years and a week after it occurred to me that in the future I might pursue writing, this is what happened. My mother died. My mother died. It makes my throat swell just to write the words, just to see them spelled out, just to hear them in my head. My mother died. I was not ready. I needed seven more years, minimum. I needed those years.

I'd already grieved for her once when I was twenty-four and she had had the stroke, and I lost the woman who I'd known as my mother just as we were beginning to outgrow our angst with one another. And now, at thirty-one, I lost her again and permanently, the woman I'd come to know and love as my second mom, the person she became after the stroke. I felt cheated. I guess I still feel cheated. And like I was too young for this to happen, both times. I try to remind myself that I am not the only human being on earth who has lost a mother. That my three sisters also lost their mom. That women younger than I am have lost mothers and lose them all the time. That some women never get to have mothers, and I had two.

I'm not going to go into the details of how I have grieved, how I continue to grieve. I'll say this. Six months after she died, I knew with certainty I needed to quit my job. I realized I'd taken a short-cut, which turned out -- like many short-cuts -- to be the longer route. When I had decided to figure out what I might do that could fulfill me if I never became a writer, I had skipped something entirely. I had never attempted to pursue writing in the first place.

Once, when I was young, my mother said to me, "Every time you begin something, you quit." It was an innocent remark on her part, but it stuck with me forever. Forever. (The context of the comment - she didn't want to shell out cash for some lesson or class I was begging to take because I'd quit ballet; I'd quit Brownies; I'd quit violin; if I'd started it, I'd quit it -- you name it. And all my starting and stopping was costing her money!) If I were in therapy now, this comment is one of the things I'm certain I would dissect. It's one of the moments I am certain I would discover has handicapped me for years. (It's also the very comment that pushed me through four miserable years as a landscape architecture student. Every time I wanted to quit, I heard her voice, I heard that statement.)

Innocently, I'd forecasted that when she died, I would not only begin writing again, but would pursue it in a real way. I'd practically assigned it to myself as homework. And my mother died just days after I'd dished out the assignment, long before I'd intended it to be due.
Here I am now. I left my job at the end of May. I am a writer. I am not a published writer. But I am a writer. This means I work at it every day. This means I have produced some short stories. This means I agonize over what a character would do or say and whether what I've written is boring or inauthentic. This means I am chronically terrified of revising and editing in spite of my overwhelming awareness that it needs to happen. It means I carry fear, in my heart, that I'll wake up one day handicapped with writers' block.

It means I am just vain enough to believe that what I write is good enough to submit to editors. That I am vain enough to ignore rejections and to keep writing and to keep  submitting. It means I fantasize again that, given a series of circumstances, I'll be on my merry way as a writer. It means I am practical enough to create those circumstances, including having begun freelance writing (because a girl's got to have cash and a resume). And I am mature enough to know that I have to be disciplined and not merely "inspired." This also means I am blogging for the first time in my life. If you had asked me a year ago if I'd start a blog, I might have asked blankly, "A what?" Or I may just have declared, "No way."

But here I am. Spinning out every thread of every spool of the written word. Yes, I want to be published. Doesn't every writer? Mostly, though, I feel a lot like I felt when I was ten years old and staring at a map of Sudan in a world atlas. Like this -- like writing is the best way for me to absorb the world and to then spit out what that world means to me. My most natural way to make sense of the places in which I dwell, the interior and the exterior. It's not sheer torture the way that grad school was. It is sheer joy, and it is also something I feel compelled to do. More than anything, when I say that I am a writer, it means this: I am attempting.

And attempting, somehow, someway, I know, began with my mother. It may very well be the one thing I will not quit. I've decided, so what if I say something dangerous? Moreover, so what if I fail? It would be more dangerous and a deeper failure to say nothing at all. This is clear.

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