What Solange’s Remarriage Means to Never-Married Single-Mother Me.

 

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1. “Carefree” is a crossroads, the center of four paths: parent and lover, artist and merchant. You dance in the dirt with hydrangea in your hair and you are wild when you’re expected to be tame. This is where people see you, where sun rays collect in the gold of your skin, so that even in the dark you’ll be swathed in phosphorescent spotlight. And dark it will be when you leave here and venture down each of the roads, where destinations are dim and the underbrush, unwieldy.

The road where you mother: The gravel cuts your feet as you carry your sons and your daughters.

The road you create: You dig until your fingertips bleed for art that feels rich and raw, as untapped as underground oil.

The road that may lead you to love: This is the longest most dubious walk and even when you’ll want to travel it solo, you will not often be alone. Here, you mustn’t forget that your child will become your lover’s cargo. He must carry him as carefully as you do. He must accept that when he joins you on the path where you parent, his own feet will also be cut.

You should watch what you are paving. Turn back to the clearing as soon as you can; your love and your art and your mothering find their greatest sustenance and purest ambition there.

You should marry at the crossroads, where you child and your art and your industry swirl up from the earth and make a sparkling white column of dust. Bask in how high it rises and in the way it all settles again.

2. Everything is inspiration, and when you are working toward something that inspires you, the sweat of your brow is someone’s aphrodisiac. God bless a working mother. God bless the passionate woman.

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3. And sometimes your sister’s sacrifices earn you your freedom. Her years of hiding under an industry’s expectations and artifice allow you to be your truest self out in the open. Then, you coax her authenticity out from the shadows in return. When the world demands your inferiority and calls you a mere facsimile of sun, you keep your light and refuse to be eclipsed.

4. Other lives simply aren’t enviable.

5. We unmarried mothers who have been so afraid have been told to be afraid. We were told we wouldn’t find love, or that the love we might attract would not be worth finding. We were told that missteps preclude forward motion. But there is no shame in having lived through a moment unwisely. Neither mothering after divorce nor having had no husband at all is cause for resignation or shame. The demise of our difficult relationships are no cause to deny ourselves new love.

6. No decision a black mother makes will diminish the Maatkare markers in her blood. We are queens, even us, be we ever so bowed or broken or humbled. We are regal — whether burdened with low-income or beset with incomparable wealth. We are regal when we choose to be, and the choice is all that matters.

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7. Hair, in its natural state, is a halo. But you are well within your rights not to behave as angelically as you appear.

8. Hurt cannot be hidden. It will seep out in the notes and on the page, will be seen in the set of your jaw on the subway. So bare it bravely in the public square, where someone well-equipped to soothe you may see it.

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9. When you are young and you’ve found a boy your age and whatever combusts between you feels like a kind of love, it is fine for that love not last. Even if it results in a pregnancy, even when the baby propels you both toward the altar, it is okay to flee. Marriage borne mostly of obligation flings you forward in ways that will disappoint you; the union itself is a stop so short of what you’d imagined for adult life to be that it may be best to run before it feels far too late. Keep running, with your child’s hand in yours, toward hope, toward extended family, toward your older wiser self, toward the kind of love that acts as a reincarnation.

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10. Single mothers who wish to marry greatly benefit from seeing other single mothers marry. Wearing white and frolicking, with gold bands ‘round their wrists, reveling with the same village that’s helped to raise their children, enacting intimate, in-joking customs as nontraditional as their their premarital lives, dancing silly choreography with their children, who appear quite secure and supportive and happy. It happens, the nuptials seem to testify. It happens far more often than we’re told to believe. It can happen for you.

 

Going Off-Script: On Re-Defining Co-Parenting.

With every visit, you more closely resemble the man I recognize: tall enough to provide shade but slighter of frame than you’ve been for a long while. You’d gotten larger in these last years, enough so that on those rare occasions when I consented to your request for an embrace, you felt unfamiliar inside my arms.

But I suppose this was because there were other reasons you were uncomfortable there.

To celebrate our daughter’s third birthday, you came to town two days afterward, at 7 am on a Saturday. We’ve been warmer with each other for weeks, having little choice but to bond, trapped as we were under an avalanche of bills: reopening closed off corridors en route to an escape, outrunning, outwitting, repaying, rejoicing.

(Maybe love among people like us is just leading each other through labyrinths, is just doubling back after you’ve left.)

At the airport, you asked for a hug. “No,” I said. “Maybe later.” There are the confidences shared struggle restores — and there is affectionate touch, which is earned in other ways entirely.

Even so, I am surprised at our ease, surprised to find not even a hint of the old anger, my insides untightening with you near, rather than winding themselves into ulcerous knots, willing you to leave.

Listen: I am very different. I have loved and lost another. I’ve a life you no longer know and having new things to hold aloft excites me. Even the pain is new; even that is an odd relief. I am still collecting the parts of myself I’ve sloughed while risking fresh affections, still accepting that some things cannot be reclaimed, still wondering if, both with him and with you, the problem is me.

Do I drive you all away by being too writerly, too willing to retreat onto pages, where all the comfort, confessing, caressing and madness occurs in a place apart, when it should performed in person?

Only you know how far I can be from timid. Only I know how dark your days have been. My own days were darkest when something of you sat stirring in me, curling into the girl we gaze at today, in abject awe. Five months is a long time to grow a girl alone. A long time wondering over my worth. A long time spent listening to others’ whispered predictions. He’ll come back, they said. He’s a good guy.

They meant that when you did — and I suppose I always suspected you would — I should be grateful to have you. I should coerce you into marriage so both we and our child could suffer the delusion that neither you nor I would ever leave again.

But I’ve liked the leaving. I’ve liked flitting to spaces away from you — and relearning each other on return. This is the foundation of our friendship.

Before the girl, it was I who did the leaving. I’m sure it was unfair to insist that you were not allowed. But the baby meant you owed me; I knew the script. “Good men” dive headfirst into fatherhood with women they claim to love. It is only the cowards who need time, only the villains who leave.

If I had listened to you, looked at you, limb-walked far enough out that your words were not drowned in the chaos of the he-never-loved-you winds, I may have understood that we would always find ourselves here again: at ease and okay. (But would we have salvaged something worth sustaining? Would we have avoided the avalanche?)

Our daughter is wary when you appear, seemingly out of thin air: on screen, in person. She turns her head away; she tucks her chin. She needs to be coaxed out of an instinct to close herself off.

Of course, she has inherited this from me. It occurs to me now that I do her no favors by not appearing open with you.

This time, I sang her the refrain of a song she understands. Like you, she understands better in song. “Grow-own-ups! Come baaaack,” I cooed. And she turned to you and offered her first hug, ten minutes into your stay. She would sing it to us again throughout the day. It would rend our hearts.

What is rote for us is insurmountable for her. Perhaps love among families like ours is to stop sojourning toward other loves and to settle here. Maybe the only happiness we deserve is hers.

You were only here for two days. On the way back to the airport I said: I don’t want to get back together. You said you understood. And there is something different in these rides away now, a wistfulness, a reassurance.

It has been twelve years. You always come back.

I left the car this time, walked around to your side, offered an unsolicited embrace: brief and fairly far apart, but an offering. You are thinning out again: a recollection in my arms. “All right,” you said to yourself. “All right.”

Maybe the truest love is a resignation. Maybe it is resisting the pre-written script. I do not know.

But here we are. Here we are.

An Assessment of Light.

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The women walked up bearing tote bags, their arms laden with carbon forms and child-things. They are sent to homes in pairs. The wisest among us know enough to feel scrutinized as soon as the women cross our thresholds. We carry ourselves as though we do not know just how much is being observed. One of them wields forms, solicits signatures. The other eyes my little girl and listens, with an ear attuned to difference.

Because she does not know them, she is reticent. They address her by name, and she hears them but does not respond. The women look up at my mother and me, where we sit at opposite ends of a down-filled sofa. “We’ll check her hearing as a precaution.” Since they have stationed themselves crosslegged on our living room floor, Story quickly intuits that they are there for her and they have been invited. She takes it all in: Ziploc bags with colorful wooden and plastic trinkets; a gym-like sack with a small plush Cookie Monster and an Elmo peeking out; a tiny generic bear, seated on our carpet with a tea set in front of him; and of course: the binders, the papers, the clipboards bearing sheets with lines and X’s. The spaces where Mommy scribbles.

While she watches the women, I remember to return her father’s call. It is ten after six in the morning, where he is. He first called at 5:30 am, his time. I was spooning cold cereal into Story’s mouth at record speed, my mind racing toward anything else that needed doing before the women arrived. I had been up since 6, my time, myself, pricked awake by sharp anxieties. “Can I just call you back when they get here?” I snapped, erasing his face from my iPhone screen as soon as he said yes.

He pops up there again now and says hello to the women. Both raise their eyebrows, returning his greeting. I’m reminded how often black fathers are assumed absent or under-involved, how difficult it is for social program workers to hide their initial surprise at a father’s engagement, how quickly they recover.

I have less interest in qualifying things these days. Father “absence” and “presence” will always be relative. It has never served me well to give either much examination. Most days, my mind will go no further than: he does what he can; he does what he can. The truth is: he cares more than I give him credit for. (Of course, this isn’t about credit.)

I prop up the phone so he can see and listen.

“Can you give the bear a drink of water?” one of the women asks.

All three of us — her father, my mother, and I — know that she won’t.

This is, in part, why the women are here. We are no longer sure what is a matter of ability or an act of will.

They have already asked if I’m on public assistance. No, I answered quickly, ashamed at the twinge of pride I felt. I am proud of too many irrelevant things: that Story has no allergies; has never had an ear infection; is too young to remember how many cans of formula I paid for with food stamps (about eight), too young to notice how foolish I’ve been to forgo WIC. And if I’m honest with myself, I am even proud that her father has cleared a morning to watch this assessment unfold on FaceTime. None of this means much, in light of why the women are here. But it’s what I have.

One of them has explained that the program is no cost to us, either way, but that if I were on assistance, the County could recoup some of its operation costs from the state. I wonder what mothers’ already thin resources are being further stretched to make this home visit possible. (Is anyone ever getting all that they need?)

“Give the bear a drink,” the child development therapist urges again. Story sits by the bear, looks at his empty place setting, keeps her dainty hands in her lap.

The women whisk her off to another exercise. The speech pathologist raises a three-ring binder, showing her a page. “Where’s the ball?” They have just played with a ball, hard and hollow, formed of translucent green plastic. It does not look like the ball in the picture. She does not point, even as her eyes train on the ball.

She knows “ball.” She knows 100 words or more, easily. My friend Kristen encouraged me to count them months ago, when I first voiced my worries. For a while, I kept a running ledger in the back of journal with the Eiffel Tower on its cover. I stopped at 92. I didn’t even count the articles: no a or an or the. No reaches.

The women haven’t heard any of the words I’ve counted. They’ve heard a single, quiet string of babble — and here, the speech woman perked up, jotted things down — but nothing so involved as “dinosaur” or, a newer phrase, her longest sentence, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to break it!”

It is a ninety-minute enterprise, and as soon as it ends I must dart out the door and race downtown for a radio interview. I can tell I’ll have to leave before they do in order to make it.

Maybe this is the problem. I am always darting off: into a book or a writing project, into a series of texts, a teaching assignment, into social media initiatives, most recently, into a romance, and always into the far reaches of my mind and heart, looking for the parts of myself that are still recognizable.

She is my true North, of course. I always turn back to her. But how often are any of us sure-footed? How often are we headed in the right direction?

I have been waiting for this day for months, and though I am not as often dreamy and expectant of ease as I once was, I thought the women would fix this. They would tell us how to get her to speak clearly, to babble less and enunciate more. For once, something would be simple.

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books lined up according to size, during independent play.

But speech, they break to us gently, is a symptom, not the core issue. They cannot determine, through this battery of tiny tests, how much of what we say is being understood. Perhaps she is isolating recognized words, but not grasping entire sentences. Perhaps she doesn’t answer or ask questions because she isn’t sure how to arrange what the words she knows. They tell us her play is too orderly; she is more interested in lining things in neat rows than in fashioning intricate worlds.

Were she hitting developmental milestones, in other words, she would not have just offered the bear a drink. She would’ve told us the color of the juice or charged him a million dollars for the privilege of dining in her castle.

It’s manageable, they assure us. The assessment, after all, was to determine how best to address her needs. They say that she is in a good place, at home during the day and surrounded by familiar faces who offer patience and love. They look warmly to her father’s face in my phone when they say this.

And she shows determination. Many of the children they visit run to other rooms when they won’t or can’t engage the women’s activities. Story stands her ground. She is brave.

I am late to the radio station. On air, I do not hear myself. The segment is about how single mothers “make it work.” But this is a topic on which I know too little, especially today.

Back at home, I hold Story close. We all do. I give my heart the rest of the day to adjust to the new light in which I’ve been advised to view my daughter. It is as bright as it’s ever been, as bright as the night she was born.

Mother as Mountain, as Sky.

When he surfaces, so long after you’ve abandoned imagining that men like him exist, you are flummoxed, but only fleetingly. You do not realize at first how ready you’ve been.

You thought you would be more hesitant, that your years since becoming a mother had morphed you into martyrdom, a voluntary consignment: its length the duration of your daughter’s childhood, its berth too wide to breach.

He enters into view and as you regard his easy grin, it occurs to you how long you’ve been blocking your natural flow of endorphins, denying estrogen surges, enabling a kind of psychic sterilization.

You believed you would spend a full 18 years depriving yourself of new love.

But in that flash between flummoxing and pardon, an iron gate has unlatched. You, remembering suddenly that you are all woman, as well as all mother, hear an echo, a flutter: I am no martyr.

If you were, you wouldn’t be hastening toward him. You wouldn’t be brushing your cheek against the course range of hair on his face and purring like a cat who’s found a home. You wouldn’t entrust him with your hands, wouldn’t gaze down at the half-moons scalloped under his fingernails and wish on them.

Your gait is neither measured nor wary; you rushed to him. It has been too long since your heart hoped for more than the half-love that co-parents can sometimes rekindle, for more than the comforts of a companionship not unlike broken in boots or limb-stretched sweaters. You’d nearly forgotten how it felt to steal away when all was quiet and whisper feverish nothings to someone who does not yet know you well enough to discard or destroy you.

It is new, the nerve endings snapping to attention again, the trail of thoughts that lead far away from nursery rhymes and apple juice boxes, and even the guilt you feel at leaving behind the illusions you’d held so long of one partner, one family, some structure you’d hoped could be retroactively whole, the guilt at shattering what’s left of the glass.

It is all so new.

When you tell your ex, he is stunned; he could no more foresee it than you could. You realize you were grasping at the selfsame straws. You realize how empty of half-moons your hands have been.

There are fears you are holding at bay, but rather than repressed, they must be purged. You will not enter this new house haunted. For your daughter must understand her mother as a woman who can handle complexities, who can cast an alchemy of friendship and motherhood and romance that sates us all. She must understand that we do not only receive one chance, one love, one faltering per lifetime. We are a species that thrives amid opportunities; it is only when we bar ourselves from seizing them that we truly fail. She must know that love can be the most nourishing opportunity of all; the more you let in, the larger you loom–and right now, her mother is a mountain, is a sky.

Exeunt.

“Am I a mean person?” I ask, in the minutes after he tells me he isn’t sure he ever plans to marry. But what I mean is: did our relationship break something vital inside you? Are you ambling through this hereafter, ever aware that a cog is rattling, that a filament has burst leaving all in the corner of yourself I once occupied hollow and dark? Am I supposed to be doing something more about this? I will put forth a truncated version of these queries just before we end our call. He will not know how to answer.

Now, he stops short but recovers quickly. “No.”

“You paused.”

“I was trying to find the right word for what you are.”

So am I.

We are two-dimensional to each other now, a collection of sounds and footage, electronic data across thousands of miles. The realest artifact left of those years we spent in love can be heard squealing with glee in the background of our calls or else parroting the few eavesdropped words she can clearly pronounce.

She is the only memento I’ve kept.

It’s all this shifting. Our transitions have been swift and our space so limited. Each encampment is heavier to fold into itself and transport; at every pass, more must be sloughed.

It has always been difficult for me to determine what is worth salvaging.

The word he settles on is eccentric. “You’re very particular. You get upset when people behave in ways that you wouldn’t.”

“That’s fair,” is what I say, though I’m not sure how ‘eccentric’ his example makes me. I think he means ‘idiosyncratic.’ The strangest things cause me internal combustion: being followed by a student to the lectern as I’m entering a room, before I’ve set down my briefcase or taken off my coat; wet footprints on rugs in a bathroom; someone else opening or polishing off food that I’ve purchased; being told what I should and shouldn’t share online; the expectation that I should forget a rejection, when its din and ache still ripple through me like an echoing chime.

I have been mean to him. We both know it; this is not why I asked.

He tells me that he’s comfortable now, that he considers his role as a father to be an honor and a sacrifice, and it is all so familiar, this rhetoric. It’s similar enough to the phrase he’s turned so often before, an idea that, perhaps, every single father must utter a few times aloud, in order to fortify himself for the work that lay ahead: regardless of what happens with us, I’m going to be there for our child. 

I wonder how fully he understands the way this falls on my ears, how clearly the truer sentiment presents itself in the hearing: caring for our child is a point of pride in a way that caring for you was not. 

In all its iterations, I believe it. But it never gets easier to hear, not even now, after we’ve heard and said so much worse.

“Everything is harder, ” he muses more to himself than to me. Then we talk about changing careers, earning certifications, making ourselves more financially solvent. The naivety is seeping out of our dreams, and we hear too little of ourselves in the other’s aspirations.

It occurs to me that this has become an exit interview of sorts, the last and loosest of our ends being tied. All of what I’ve hoped and feared is converging. The years-long work at repairing the rattling cog has finally been exhausted.

My lips part. There are other things I want to say: as co-parents, what we get isn’t so much closure as cauterization — we sear our pain shut to survive our shared duty; there is more than one way for a family to be “intact;” if given a mutually exclusive choice, children will opt for their parents to be happy rather than together; and I am ready — so far beyond ready– to be happier than this. I know you are, too, and this is what we both deserve. Then I’d whisper the confession that always cripples me: no matter how anemic the possibility, I would’ve held on as long as you did.

Next time, things will be sweeter. I will not be coy. I will not secret parts of myself away. I will not offer a man decades when days will do.

This is all I can predict of the next time. But I feel a great sense of relief knowing there will be one. This is not a grace we would’ve been so easily afforded, had we married. This, I suppose, is part of why we never did.

Carnival.

In the gray Nissan Versa that’s hard to afford, my mother sits behind the wheel, our daughter in her lap. I am sprawled behind them, next to the car seat our girl has abandoned for a better view of the lot before us.

For the past ten days, the lot has been transformed from the desolate patch of asphalt outside a mall so skeletal the community keeps vigil around it, waiting for word of its death, to a blinking neon festival of thrills and frights and views from epic heights.

This is its last night in town. We have pulled up and parked just outside the wire fence that surrounds it, our last stop on a customary post-church evening joy ride.

Though we’d planned to bring Story here to see the lights and laughter, the curious gadgetry, acrobatic and colorful, we had no plans to enter. We’d decided she’s still too young. Even the carousel horses seems meant for bigger children. And truth be told, I am relishing the vestiges of her babyhood: the incoherent babbling that still overwhelms her plain-speech; the consternation that crosses her face when confronted with lid-less cups; the way her steady gait becomes a toddle when mounds of grass crumple under her feet. I am often relieved at how the brevity of her attention span exempts us from kids-movie-showings, and so too the carnival feels thankfully premature, the longer we watch the older children prance and twirl and cavort.

But it is the length of time we sit and keep watch that unravels me. The longer we’re there, the more I notice the single fathers, hoisting a child onto their shoulders or pushing a stroller toward lines, entering and exiting Ferris wheel cabins, tucking massive toys under their arms–all the spoils of overpriced games they’d battled and conquered. The longer we’re there, I am inundated with nuclear families: a father, a mother, a toddler and teen; two parents, their twins, and a goldfish.

It’s almost more than I can take, some days, your absence. And this may be because we hear from you each day. This may be because your voice echoes through us as though we are caves. Your email and texts and packages punctuate a kind of loss.

I know to be grateful; I know the work of practiced contentment. It is arduous and long. But it is fashioning within me a bemused patience, a poker face, so we can’t feel the rawness of nerves.

This is my predominant stance, but today there will be no masquerading. Today, the house of mirrors I’ve constructed, so my face will reflect the expressions of those who greet it, is closed.

I crawl out of the car and round the perimeter of the fence. My mother and I have spotted a ride within that is suitable for a girl as small as ours. It’s a series of green baby dragons that rise and go round and round. Each dragon’s hollowed torso holds a mother and child. This is a ride meant for us, a gargoyle built for two.

But I know, even as I near the ticket booth, that I can’t afford this, that I’ll remain on a strict and worrisome budget until my summer adjunct work begins in weeks to come.

Still, I squint at the signs. I take in the pricing: 15 dollars for a modest spool of tickets, 25 for a day-long wristband that would be useless two hours shy of closing.

I stand there, amid excited children, their capable parents, the cars where others sit weighing their options. And I am there far longer than it takes me to do the figuring. This requires no calculus: tonight, the carnival is a luxury I simply cannot afford.

Back in the car, it’s hard to read our daughter’s face. She is unnervingly precocious. Is it possible she’s old enough to be disappointed? Could she comprehend the ways that we have failed her?

It is just a carnival. Questionable rides, paltry parting gifts, empty calories. But is a microcosm of the world I want to give her, the world that recedes as we pull out of our parking spot moments later.

Once we are home, I write a scene in my latest attempt at a novel about conjoined twins wandering a carnival with their mother alone to insulate them. When the last word is typed, I send it to you. You call, having read it, and ask the inspiration. I tell you we stopped at a carnival. I tell you I nearly cried. But it’s hours before we finish the conversation.

– Why’d you almost cry at the carnival? you text.

I type back the description of fathers. I tell you about the budget and resignation.

– Next time, I can send you what you need for the cost of admission. Next time, you should come to me with this.

That isn’t entirely the point, I retort. In some ways, entering the thick of it would’ve been worse than not going in at all.

– It would’ve been a perfect storm of inadequacies.

Rejection, Pep Talks Involving Oil, and My Biggest Fan(s).

I spent yesterday starting a piece called “Everest,” about my constantly evolving relationship with my daughter’s dad, until around 4pm, when I got an email from the one publisher who requested my full pregnancy memoir manuscript, back in December ’11. I submitted it in mid-January, after coming up with an ending, and I’d checked in with the publisher twice over the past five months, since I was initially told to expect feedback in 6-8 weeks.

Now, here it was. Right in my inbox on a Sunday afternoon, a holiday. I knew it wasn’t good news, and I was right. They don’t want it.

I could stop here–and I almost did.

I hate rejection. I’m not one of those slick-backed people who roll criticism off themselves like water and never let it make them question their worth, ability, or purpose. I’m the opposite of that; I absorb every rejection–whether personal or professional, merited or baseless–and try to figure out how to become unimpeachable and beyond reproach. It’s what kept me from submitting to more than 20 agents and small presses in this initial run, and what kept me waiting on this last company’s decision before deciding whether the manuscript is viable at all.

Since everyone else said no or said nothing, it would come down to them. They seemed interested. After the first follow-up, they said they were very carefully considering it. I believe they did.

But I also knew they’d likely pass. I wrote the manuscript the way I write blog entries: stylistically, flowery, purple. And there isn’t much of a market for that in the category of memoir (or in general, I guess, unless you’re exceptional at it and use it sparingly).

In the end, the feedback suggested as much, that if I were willing to be less gauzy and second-person-y and provide a substantial amount more concrete detail, they’d give it a second look*. They said I’m a good writer (“very, very good” is the verbatim quote and thank God for it), but the diaristic nature of the book (which is, they said, in some ways, its strength) ultimately leaves the reader adrift. And worse: the work is too inwardly focused, too inside my head and not conscious enough of the reader.

Craft talk confession: this is my mortal flaw as a writer. Being too inside-my-own-head. I write in ways that make sense to me, not with an eye toward the reader, nor with much attention to time or space. I write what feels urgent and necessary and I’ll stop here before I veer further into that embarrassing self-assessing space that works to reinforce this point.

Anyway, I decided after reading the rejection, that I’d table the memoir (and memoir altogether). It’s the second one I’ve written, both were rejected, and for two reasons, I was partially relieved each time: 1. I was writing about very raw experiences with people impossibly close to me; publishing my ideas about them would damage too many relationships. And 2. Dozens of rejections must mean the work clearly wasn’t as good as I thought it was** and I could spare myself further rejection by moving on right now.

I am not a self-confident person. Most people can sense this about me right off. But I’m also used to achieving my goals with relative ease–except with this one I want most: to make my career as a literary writer (blogging/online writing, awesome as it sometimes is, isn’t quite the same***).

Couple the fact that I’m not used to needing tenacity with my compulsive uncertainty, and you have your reasons why I don’t already have a book or two published.

I was all too eager to go on to my novel-in-progress (because surely, this is the most commercially salable material I’ve ever written and all those other failed projects were just target practice, right?), after a brief existential depression, that is.

And then I read the rejection letter to my daughter’s dad last night. And I kid you not: he gave me the best. pep talk. EVER. It was all the more impressive because, if you’ve been following the excerpts I’ve written about him here in the past two years, you know that the memoir doesn’t flatter him.

Here’s where I should also point out that I am only brave when I’m writing. Afterward, a kind of cowardice kicks in. It’s one thing to blog or to publish. It’s quite another to open your door and field the complaints of a whole torch-bearing village, regarding the things that you’ve written. It doesn’t matter if your account is true; it’s still embarrassing for them and by extension, hurtful.

So though I told him repeatedly that I was writing this book, I never offered to let him read it, and he never asked. It was just another elephant, another bridge we’d cross when we got there. But occasionally, he’d let on that, during our months-long estrangement, he’d read things–things I didn’t know he’d read–so he had an idea of what to expect.

In short, he told me that, even though we’re in an amicable place now, that doesn’t invalidate what happened. “And if that pain can yield you a paycheck…”

He insisted it didn’t make sense to shelf it, because that rejection letter was filled with suggestions for making the manuscript more accessible.

Our conversation contained all kinds of extended metaphors (On conforming to genre expectations–which I don’t: “The industry is a machine that needs to be oiled. You just have a different grade of oil, and no one knows your brand yet. For now, you’ve got to change your formula.”) and plaudits (“I’m your biggest fan. Well, maybe your mom. And Story. We’re your biggest fans.”****)

Suddenly, this Father’s Day skyrocketed from bearable to awesome.

I know I’ve written a lot, but here’s an excerpt from the Everest piece I abandoned, once we got the rejection note:

I promised you the climb, without pomp, with no parade, without paper. I just looked up and saw above me an impossible height and, toward its apex, the specter of you beyond mist, in thinner air. You, insurmountable, a boy fully grown but under-parented, a man without map, baring nothing: a pinnacle. And as sure as the snow caps, the scant breath, the cliffs, I made vows.

I will tether myself to your side, will pull up or scale across or camp in your clefts, will hold fast to the immovable ridges that round you. I will bundle myself against your bite and warm myself with small victories.

These were unconsidered oaths, incalculable and foolish.

I may finish it later.

* More concrete detail would make it a different kind of project, one about which I’m less enthused. I wanted it to read like a kind of fable, not like a series of unfortunate straightforward incidents.

** A writer I follow on Twitter has told me repeatedly how few twenty rejections are. She had a friend who submitted a project to fifty or sixty agents before one said yes. It’s the kind of story you need to hear, but it also makes you queasy and moves you to paper-bag breaths.

*** As much as I love this blog and as much as writing for other sites has affording me a scantly larger audience, it’s the literary writing that will make me a contender for full-time college teaching positions, which is part of my endgame.

**** I’d add my dad to that list. He asks to read everything I write. And then he does.

And Our Little Child Will Lead Us.

First confront the shame. Shame is the behemoth, the Goliath. Fell it, and anything else insurmountable will shrink to scale. The great transmogrifier, Shame takes any form you let it. It may shapeshift into a messy divorce, into unmarried coupledom gone awry, into the solemn head-shake of a disappointed God and the gloat of His more judgmental congregants, into pitying married couples arranging blind dates as though the sight of you alone is as heartbreaking as a one-eyed limping animal in an ASPCA commercial.

Shame, for me, is a vapor: insidious, poisoned, barbed. It is a twin air, near-indistinguishable from oxygen. In order to lessen its paralysis, I have fashioned an elaborate mask, a filter. It traps negative observations and complaints; it purifies the dark confession. It clears the air. But there is always seepage, in places where air is its thickest, in rooms with invisible elephants, in restaurants and grocery stores that become mini-high school reunions.

When the air is too thick to be cleared, when smugness is acute enough to smother, when the task of answering pointed questions threatens to close your throat, it is best to remove the mask. If Shame intends to suffocate, let it come. Let it stifle if it must, but hold deep with yourself, in flattened diaphragm, in taut, expanded lung, in blood that pounds what’s truest through the heart, the knowledge that you can withstand it.

Once you learn to circumvent the shame, develop convenient amnesia. Curtain the crueler scenes, the ones which hinder progress and impede impartiality. Do not rehearse the ugly dialogue, nor swell with the indignation necessary to deliver a self-righteous soliloquy. Forget the well-dressed set, with its four poster bed center stage, where you spent months weeping and rehashing in the fetal position. Retire the ticks you cling to, the shorthand you use to decide on an appropriate emotion. These things will not serve you well in the upcoming acts. Take a red pen to the past. Slash all things that do not matter. They will be many. Focus on the empty pages before you, on the ending that as yet unconceived.

This is how you’ll fill them: start with the loveseat you sat in together last weekend, with your toddler between you, turning bony somersaults across your laps. She stops and glances first at you, then at her father; she has only seen you together at length a handful of times, but never quite so cozily curled as the three of you are right now. She does a double-take, eyebrows raising, and the wisdom of all of her 21 months converge in the knowing curl of her lips. The smile she gives you both–appraising, befuddled, approving–speaks volumes of her expectations.

She wants you civil. Relaxed. At genuine peace with one another. She wants you statuesque and grinning within the white-edged confines of photos. She is not here for your bittersweet memory or mourning, cannot conceive of a life spent reminding each other of wrongs. What she wants is the loveseat. And she will not split hairs about the kind of love it offers, will not scrutinize whether her parents’ affections are romantic or filial, as long as their love for her is unconditional.

This is what you owe her, a relationship as uncomplicated as sitting. This is not something you would’ve been able to give her at birth. It has taken failed previews, missed openings, and more rewrites than you’re capable of counting. It has taken a meticulous removal of the cataracts of offense, which warp and color everything according to their own pain. It has taken admission of your own fault, of the strange revelation that there is more than one way for the two to become one flesh, of the recognition, stranger still, that your incarnation of one flesh streaks through sprawling fields of grass. She casts glances over her shoulder and expects both of you to follow.

As you do, first tentatively, then with reckless, laughing abandon, you forget all the rules you’ve assigned yourself. You are, more than a former couple, more than realigning allies, more than two people who’ve hurt each other profoundly. Your daughter has reminded you that, above all, you are a family.

In this manner, she will ever be your guide.

In the Land of At Least.

Twice I turned my back on you. I fell flat on my face but didn’t lose. – Yukimi Nagano

1.

This love is a leaden zephyr: it will always sink but at least it was made in the image of that which can fly.

Long ago, I gave you my heart in a kite. You wound the string around your neck: a floating pendant, an ascot that sailed against sky. And we walked together, two children in grown-up bodies: a girl in an eyelet dirndl, a boy in a sport coat and knickers. Playing school, playing doctor, playing house. You always wanted to be the teacher, always wanted to be the patient, always wanted to be head of the home. But at least I was never made to wear the dunce cap. At least I was not stricken with incurable disease. At least the home that we built was made of air.

Before long you began your proposals. The first was framed as algebra: if I asked you to marry me on your birthday, what is the probability you would wed me before gaining ground in your career?

n is the number of times you have asked for a compromise that solely benefits you. x is the absence of rings.

Solve for y.

You said my heart-kite became a noose. At least you didn’t die.

The bloom has long since fled this bouquet. It will shrivel like a cancerous thing. Its petals, if pulled, will portend our eventual fate: he loves me; he loves me; he loves me not. But at least you chose each flower yourself, at least you picked them from a garden you tend, at least you did not leave our outcome in the cold and scarred hands of a florist.

2.

These inner children have grown. The girl has turned in her dirndl for a rough-hewn maternity smock. The boy is donning track shoes. They are every bit as mature as we’ve always looked and as wary as aging requires. When the sedatives wear thin in her blood and she raises her heels to push, his hands are not the ones that act as human stirrups, his eyes not the first to be laid on their child. He is not there at all; he has left for a gig. But at least he is called when the infant wriggles free. At least he whispers her name through a telephone held to her ear. At least he flies back one month later, bearing diapers, sleepy midnights, and money.

At least when he arrived, she did not say: this is the least you can do. The literal least.

3.

This family is a disassembled mosaic: three shards of brightly colored glass, devoid of base and of hold. We float on the surface of waters, carried east and west on winds we cannot control. You have slit my sails and I have shredded yours; at least we are not without oars. At least we have not been submerged. At least we’re not lost to each other, in fog. At least you do not question the resemblance of the little shard to you. At least, should we ever find meet driftwood and fasten, we will make something beautiful, to be ogled, critiqued, and admired. At least on occasion, you roll a tiny scrit into a bottle. It says: my decision to remain on this water alone has little to do with whether we’ll wind up together. It says: this drifting will not always be, at least.

I know better than to read this as a promise. I have learned how to interpret you, at least.