The Other Side of a Writing Win
No one likes to hear stories about grown adults peeing in toddler-toilets. But I’m about to tell you one anyway.
This week, I received some pretty fun news. Upon returning home from our 5-day, 4-state road trip to see family and friends, I found a publishing contract in the mailbox for my faith and social justice litany collection book. This is a new project, in addition to my memoir and children’s books which are at their editors, that was initially made possible by the Louisville Institute’s Pastor Project Grant last Fall. It’s exciting, because I feel like Upper Room Books is going to be a good home for this work that has been stirring around in me since I wrote Sound the Alarm last August. It’s also exciting, because there’s something about this third project that makes me feel like I’m in it now. We’re doing it–the writing thing. This is lovely stuff, but there’s more to it. And the more is what I want to share today. Let’s jump back.
This time a year ago, I was rounding the corner into year two of my new work as the director of a community arts program and as a still-grieving former member of a recently dismantled intentional community. I was also clobbering into year three of motherhood, all depressed and not realizing it—you know the type. Our Lady of Incessant Identity Crises: thirty and mopey and filled with the angst of one who has lost her place.
I was writing. I’ve always been writing. Writing to over-romanticize a moment, writing to share how “very foreign” my experiences are, writing to “be faithful” and incite movements, writing to process rib-quaking loss—when it was time. Writing to look longer at the mundane and the unjust, writing to find and share story, writing to practice normalizing the unresolved and the tales that end in I just don’t know . . .
I told a Haiti travel buddy once that I feared God was causing catastrophe in my life because God knew I would write about it, and my essays would be used for the faith of others. Like God was divinely sadistic, dependent on my inability to refuse a pen after pain. She reassured me that this was not God, and that pain was just a part of the world, and writing was a gift to navigate it.
So, I was in pain, and I was writing—reflecting a lot on past page-turns, as if I was entering into the second half of life made evident by my ceaseless need to craft commentary about the first (as Fr. Richard Rohr puts it). Subconsciously—I guess—I was attempting to discern who I would now be by finding the common denominators in whom I had been. This was beating itself out of me in the writing of my memoir which had been signed with my first publisher (a big deal in my only-blogging world). Memoir writing while depressed and confused about identity is either the most brilliant or idiotic thing I’ve ever done. As I wait for first pages to return from my editor, I struggle to remember what was even scribbled and saved.
Wow, she really let us see into the tense, unrefined, unconcluded process of a life whose faith has been deconstructed a dozen times and who also had a really hard time with postpartum . . . they’ll remark.
OR they’ll conclude, Bless her heart. She really shouldn’t have submitted this before getting on Zoloft . . .
It was a weird “season” for “carving out writing time,” as they say. Writing parents of small children who either work or keep said children at home during the day know this concept well. Except time is like a log frozen in the tundra, and the carving apparatus is a bendy straw. You’ll get nowhere in that ice before naptime is over.
I tried writing on the weekends, but that was making me feel very sad and guilty about missing time with my son whose raising I was already sharing so much of with a sweet lady named Ms. June. The evenings, post-bedtime, became an option for a brief minute before I remembered that my undiagnosed depression was clamping my eyelids shut around 6pm every day. When my son began fighting his night routine, presenting us with a battle until 10pm many evenings, that thought was damned indefinitely. Desperate, I dedicated most of my vacation days to cranking out chapters, only to get to the end of a precious week and be nowhere near my intended word count.
As a last resort, I began setting a 4:45am alarm to join the #5amwritersclub (a Twitter community) in my living room before the sun met the streets and my family began stirring. I’m not a warm morning person; but I did like the idea of a cozy and quiet stage set with dark-roast and blank pages. Plus, there was a manuscript due. Legally.
But, there was yet another hurdle. In the months of the year when Louisiana HVAC systems go into hibernation, there is no shock to the body between one’s living room and front porch. All is the same gloriously tolerable temperature, and the thermostats retreat. We beg for this time of year during the long, sticky weeks when lip balm melts in cars and no one wants to be anything but naked in their godforsakenly sweltering walks from place to place. Everyone is thrilled about the silence of their air conditioning systems, as they should be.
Everyone, except for the working-mom-writer who lives in a small, ancient bungalow, who depends on the whirring of the vents to dull the sound of boards creaking and toilets flushing. Everyone except them. Except me.
Determined and crazed, I decided that if anything was going to get written, the reality of our home meant that there would be no option for flushing our 18-wheeler-sounding toilet which shared a wall with my child’s headboard. Should a “situation” be yellow, it was to mellow. This trick, learned in Haiti where pipes were old and water was limited, was not wildly uncomfortable for me. I was willing to do this forever and a day if it worked. If it would give me quiet entry into the sanctuary of my living room where I could pull 500 words out of myself before needing to shower.
But it didn’t. Work, I mean.
Even with the flushing problem eliminated, it turned out that the sound of my going was still loud enough to give my kid an invitation for his day to begin. I’d almost make it out of the bathroom and to the coffee pot before I would hear his door swing open. Standing at one end of the hall with my notebook, I’d look at him standing down at the other, asking for pepperonis. And we’d stare, like cowboys in a dual, wondering who would win the morning. Always him.
Almost completely out of options, I became a do-or-die ninja and began sleeping with my phone in my hand on vibrate so that no audible alarm would signal him. I’d jump from my bed, out of crappy sleep, and feel around our dark room and hall…refusing to turn on lights…stepping on all of the boards that I had mapped out as being less loose and loud than the others. I’d scoot into the kitchen like a rat, scuttling back to the laundry room where I’d–the night before–moved our tiny toddler’s training toilet before bedtime. And, well, I’d use it.
In the laundry room.
Of my adult house. With my adult body.
And then, relieved in all the ways, I’d write.
A few weeks (of that) later, I received a grant that made it possible for me to go down one day of work a week and dedicate my Fridays solely to writing for at least a year. I retired the training toilet, set my alarm for 6:30am, and became a better person with less disturbing rituals. I was gaining balance and some long-awaited clarity. Some peace; I feel it more now.
This was a huge grace at a time when I needed time to let writing write me again. I moved all of my efforts and stresses, scribbles and thoughts to this one sacred day of the week which has since served as an investment for me to be able to continue to the process once the grant runs out.
I think about this set of months a lot when I share news like recent publishing deals and some cool connections being made that I didn’t think to hope for in my life. People congratulate and encourage (which is kind), and they say things like how do you do it (which is uncomfortable). As if I’ve hacked the 24hr day. As if I’m not on medication for anxiety/depression. As if I didn’t received 3-5 really sad rejection emails for every “win” that I’ve shared. As if I didn’t pee in what is the equivalent of a casserole dish, in a place that is not a bathroom, for a few weeks before the rest of the world was awake.
My husband says often that there are a few things for which he quite literally gives thanks every single day of his life—the most notable being that he no longer has to do homework. I now have a similar daily gratitude: that there is time in my life that works with my life most every week to write, because I know the alternative. And I am grateful.
But I’m also reminded. That it’s important to share all sides of growth or gains, lest we start to think that people have something more figured out than we do. And it’s important to remember that nobody’s hustling or celebrating their calling or career without their full humanity in the mix, without a double dose of losses and rejections and embarrassment under their belt, and without a few skeletons in their closet or toddler potties in their laundry room.
So, hi. It’s me. I had some cool news this week, and I want you to know that. But I also what you to know that it followed some sadness, some weirdness, some scramble. And that there’s always both.