Saturday it dawned on me that it was the one-year anniversary of my last day of work as a community planner. A few days earlier, May 27th, had been my mom’s birthday. She would have been seventy. On that day, I hadn’t felt like saying much about it. I thought of her all day. I skipped work and watched As the World Turns and Guiding Light, the soaps she watched faithfully. I contemplated how she would like the new semi-documentary style recording technique Guiding Light is using. I decided she wouldn't be a big fan, but that she'd adapt.
I wondered if it is morbid to think about the age she "would have been." Since, really, in the grand scheme of things, dying means she could not achieve seventy. The words running through my head: If she was still living, she would have been seventy. No. She would not have been seventy, because she is not still living, and would not have been still living. The self-inflicted one-way argument about pre-destiny. I guess I believe in the idea that there is some greater being that made it so (her death) because it was the right time. That in every circumstance possible, it was still intended that she would not live past 68. And therefore, she would not have been seventy. But that other voice is always there wondering what could have been done differently - how life could have been lived differently, been extended.
My mother was gorgeous. I have this picture framed and hung in my hallway:
I cannot count how many times this photo has lead me to stop in my tracks and astound at her beauty. Even as a child, I used to stare at this photo, trying to imagine my mother as that 30 year-old staring back - that woman who was preparing to journey to the US.
I stayed in North Carolina with my dad and sisters for a week after her death. It was late August of 2006. When I came home, I took three more days before I returned to work. I was still in touch with my landscape architecture thesis advisor (for whom I am now working on the City Park, NOLA project), and I remember that she emailed me to check in. I responded that what I really felt like doing more than anything in the world was quitting my job so that I could do nothing but write and teach myself how to garden. I added that I knew it was my grief speaking and of course I wouldn't do anything so drastic - but that, at the moment, this was my gut instinct:
Quit. Write. Grow a garden.
The instinct planted itself deep. Because six months later, I'd given a very advance 3-month notice to my boss. Those months passed quickly, and on May 31, 2007, I had my last day. I took a week to pretend I was on vacation, and I read the novel The History of Love. A co-worker had given it to me because it was, in part, about a man who took a long time to discover he was really a writer, that it was not merely his fantasy. It was a beautiful novel. And it motivated me to begin writing. I began with a daily journal. I began the journal by setting goals.
Here are some of the things I said to myself (with some degree of embarrassment, I'll share):
June 9, 2007
When people ask, “what do you do?” I will say, “I am a writer.” It is official. My husband, friends and family will now say, “she is a writer.”
What does my life as a new writer look like to me? I have been trying to visualize, trying to unveil this long-sought fantasy for myself. At this moment, it means these things:
I write every day at the same time each day (right now, just for the daily exercise of it – writing every detail I can muster of every memory I can muster and writing character vignettes of the many characters I’ve been exposed to in the past few years) .
Eventually, I write everyday toward the goal of completing a short-story collection (at the end of one year I would like to claim a full collection).
I read every day (for pleasure and inspiration and to absorb unconsciously the techniques of others’).
I exercise regularly (3 times/week? – for health of body and mind).
I eat well, which means I grocery shop once a week and cook regularly.
I keep my house clean and neat and in order (again for health of body and mind. For balance).
I read literary publications and at least two newspapers regularly (3 times/week) for education – story ideas, what editors are publishing, ideas of where to send what (which means I must subscribe to these).
I create a master list of publications and their reading/submission periods along with a master list of which of my work is ready to submit.
I teach myself how to garden (again, for health of body and mind, and simply because I’ve always wanted to say of myself, “I have a green thumb.” Also, there are quite a lot of metaphors in the act of gardening, and I would love to write about them.)
I am a good partner in life to my husband. A good wife and friend and collaborator of ideas and a collaborative initiator of these ideas.
I record my random thoughts regularly (be they dreams, insights, story ideas).
I edit regularly the work I have already written (for discipline and improvement and so when I am fully or nearly satisfied with what I write, I will know that I adequately scrutinized the work beforehand – that I tore it apart before I put it back together).
I fold all of these things into a routine during this first year as a writer. A steady, reliable, disciplined routine – this is what it means to me to be a writer right now, in the first year. The first year is one that I can see with all clarity.
In the near future – beginning in the end of my first year and into the 2nd year, it perhaps means these things:
Practically, I find a way to earn income through my writing (as a grant writer, a freelance writer, a freelance editor?)
Of course, I publish my fiction, short stories first. (Later, essays? Novellas? Novels? Articles? I have a goal of one to two stories being accepted in the first year.)
For my health, I begin training for a triathlon, because I have always wanted to do this.
Somewhere in the 2nd year and into the third and fourth year, it may mean these things:
Maybe I enter an MFA program. Maybe I do not.
I continue publishing my work.
I secure an agent to represent my work.
I travel and write about my travels.
I participate in a triathlon!!
I learn to speak fluently another language (French seems obvious, because I already know a small bit; Spanish seems practical because I’d like, someday, to live in Latin America; Punjabi seems appropriate, because it is part of my very own heritage and because I should never have unlearned it; and Portuguese is my fantasy, because there is no other language that sounds to my ears so passionate and soothing and musical at once.)
I learn to sew (both to honor my own eye for fabric and texture and pattern and simply for well constructed clothing, and to honor my mother’s artistry).
My husband and I live near water. This is imperative to my mental health.
These are the things I can see for my first four or five years as a writer.
Some of these make me laugh now - the attention to cooking and cleaning and eating well. But really, at the time, I'd been living in such poor health - working 50, 60, 70 hours - stopping to eat birthday cake in the office or cookies or other junk, surviving on coffee, gorging on a real dinner late at night, ten o'clock, maybe, packing on the pounds all the while. And my house was a wreck. Our clothes were never clean.
I haven't accomplished everything. And I'm shifting the order of things, but not consciously. Learning to be a writer has happened in a fairly natural manner. Learning to garden has come less naturally, but occasionally, along with some losses, it does come to me - the green thumb I've wanted.
There is myself, but here are other things I am growing.
SONG: That Teenage Feeling and Favorite, Neko Case