Faith, Nonfiction, Writing Craft

Wild Swings at Opportunity and What It’s Like to Land One.

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“Every now and then, you should land one of those.”

When I was expecting my daughter, I wrote prolifically — mostly about the experience of first-time pregnancy and how alone I felt while I was carrying her. I posted a lot of that writing here, then pulled some of it because I thought I might shop a memoir about it (What’s left of the published posts can be found here. If you choose to read any of that, it works best to read chronologically, which means starting at the bottom, with this post).

I continued to write as much as I could after her birth and, for a number of reasons, ranging from my part-time job as an adjunct instructor, which took me away from home for a few hours a day, to my quickly-acquired proficiency at composing drafts exclusively on my cell phone, I was able to maintain decent output.

She’ll be five in a few months and I definitely feel like I’m hitting a wall. I decided last spring to take first a semester, then a year away from teaching. I’d scored a fellowship with Colorlines.com, where I was responsible for managing their social media and engaging their rapidly growing readership. It was basically a one-year position with the company and it paid much more than I would’ve made teaching and allowed me to stay home with my daughter more, so the teaching hiatus was a no-brainer.

When that job ended last November, I interviewed either by phone or in person with several impressive publications (sometimes for more than one position) and figured my odds of being hired full-time with one of them were pretty high. Five months later, however, and I’m still without a full-time job as a writer or editor — a circumstance, I’ve learned, is fairly common, even among much stronger writing and editing candidates than I. My only income at this point is as a freelance writer — which wouldn’t be a problem at all, if I were writing at the output I used to be able to and if any of the writing I’m able to do paid more.

Something happens when you’re home all the time with a four-year-old who only attends school two hours a day and you don’t have the freedom to leave her in someone else’s care nearly as often as you’d need to, in order to attain the kind of silence you require to generate ideas worth pitching, to actually pitch them, and then to write the piece as quickly as you’d have to in order to win the assignment and keep current with the news cycle.

The mind dulls — and you have to be increasingly inventive about sharpening it. Now that I have no job to escape to (Trust: a job is definitely an escape for a parent-writer.), and home is full of preoccupations, I’m physically tenser and less agile, creatively.

My daughter has special needs and, often, I vacillate between the temptation to homeschool her (which would result in even less writing time and, by extension, even less income) and finding more extracurricular programs for her to attend that will aid in her development in the many hours she spends outside of school. The latter option would also mean less dedicated writing time, but at least I could steal the moments she’d spend in a class or in a social group to try thumbing out a few essays on my phone.

It’s difficult to explain this sort of life to people with traditional jobs, pristine time management skills, and the luxury of undivided work attention. But the short of it is that life with a small child and without a full- or even part-time, out-of-home job is a trial-error, hook-crook, catch-as-catch-can existence. I’m rarely able to get away and the less time I spend in a childfree, silent environment, the harder it is for me to sharpen my writing — or even to maintain its current quality.

A few months ago, I did something I always do when I feel trapped. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone who feels backed into a corner. Indeed, it’s the only way I’ve ever gotten out of a corner — and I’ve been pressed into many.

Here’s what I did: I swung wildly at opportunity, giving no thought to the cost or logistics. I launched myself toward anything that looked remotely like a life raft, reasoning: This could turn out to be sinking flotsam or it could be the very thing that will bear me up and carry me toward a new shore, the right shore, a more permanent solution. 

I got into grad school that way. I was living back home in Baltimore, working a job that barely supported me and my mother, who was living with me. I began to feel trapped by the burden of rent on a two-bedroom apartment and all the other costs associated with living and supporting two people. And then, Sarah Lawrence accepted me. It was the only school of the three to which I applied — all outside of Maryland — that did. That made my decision for me. I needed move to New York. This was 2004. I tried hard — so hard, in fact, that when I didn’t find off-campus housing (SLC doesn’t offer graduate housing), I resolved to take Amtrak from Baltimore to Penn Station in New York, then Metro-North from Grand Central two times a week for classes.

I was so desperate for a big, life-changing leap toward relief that I’d convinced myself this was doable. Then, the first day of classes, it rained. The storm waylaid my train somewhere between Delaware and Philadelphia, and I got to the Bronxville Metro-North Station, a mile or so away from campus, just as my second-ever class as a grad student was beginning in one of the many Tudor cottages on the school’s rolling greens. I’d missed my first class entirely. I walked the mile in the rain with a flimsy hooded windbreaker bearing the college’s name as my only shield from the downpour. I got to class completely drenched and introduced myself in a small voice, shaky with tears.

I knew then — and not a moment before — that it wasn’t going to work. I’d been so tenacious. I had leapt. A door had opened. I had run toward it. I’d followed the prescription of every easy aphorism we hear in life. And I’d gotten my feet on dry ground. Sarah Lawrence was everything I knew I needed then: an escape from years of compound responsibility, a chance to qualify myself for better work, a life of independence and solitude.

But the timing was off. That first day, with its rain delays and its mile-long foot trek at the end of a five-hour commute, let me know in no uncertain terms that this was the dream I was meant to realize, but not under such treacherous conditions. If I moved at that level of haste and desperation, I’d rob myself of the respite I was seeking. I’d merely be trading one type of nerve-fraying stress for another.

The next day, I talked to admissions about deferring enrollment for a year and they granted my request. Those were dark days; I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith at my job (where my coworkers had already thrown me a going-away party and my supervisor had granted my request to telecommute while I studied out of state). Returning to the office was humiliating and demoralizing, even though everyone there was supportive and polite and patient with my daily, nonstop moping.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.

For the next 12 months, I focused on getting out of that apartment, getting out of Baltimore, moving to lower Westchester, and attending the classes I’d dreamed about, with the people I’d met at orientation the year before (who’d all be second-years by the time I returned, graduating during the spring of my first year).

It happened for me — and it was much easier the second time around, in some respects, but it was still difficult to leave my mother without the apartment I’d been providing for us both. That was the thing I couldn’t allow myself consider if I wanted, at last, to escape.

Single motherhood, over time, has backed me into the same kind of corner. I’m financially supporting a child and my mother again. I don’t have enough income to adequately do so. It often feels like I’ve only qualified myself for the kind of work that doesn’t pay regularly, quickly, or sufficiently. I’ve enough credentials to adjunct, but after six years at that, I’m not a competitive candidate for a full-time professorship. I’m good enough to write short essays for part-time income, but not quite desirable enough a candidate for full-time hire at a major publication.

And I still haven’t written the right manuscript — the one I want to send out into the world, the one some generous reviewer will dub, “a promising work from an important new voice.” Doing that often feels fairly far away while I’m parenting, stressing over money, trying to be thoughtful and incisive in all my for-hire writing about the news and trends of the day.

So I did something I’ve been putting off in all the eight years since I graduated from Sarah Lawrence and certainly in the nearly six years between pregnancy and now: I started applying for bigger, broader things. I applied for Code for Progress’ minorities in code fellowship, in hopes that I might acquire a new skill and the chance at earning a livable wage from a single company. I applied for several summer fellowships and retreats. And I applied for a program at Yale that would teach me how to be a better journalistic storyteller.

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Me, before I realized I’d messed up my donation-funds-collection timeline. (And me now — because I’m still hysterically, burstingly grateful to all of you. :))

Some of you know that I got into the Yale program, because you helped me fund it via Indiegogo*. I also just learned that I received a single mother’s fellowship to the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s summer retreat in New Mexico, which covers the costs of registration and housing, but not travel. Do I know how I’ll get there yet? No. No, I do not. But that’s my process. Swing. Miss. Connect. Cross every bridge I possibly can — even the most rickety and unstable among them — just as I approach it. Sometimes, a foot falls through a rotted slat, other times, an entire leg. But I’ve always made it across — or I’ve veered toward a stabler bridge.

Dreams are never neatly wrapped. They don’t arrive already assembled. But you do not achieve them by wringing your hands. You can only lay hold to them by reaching. And your reach must always, always exceed your grasp. Your dreams should leave you storm-drenched and weary. They should make you sob over their seeming impossibility. They should render you sleepless. You should want to throw all the disparate boards and cogs that you thought might interlock and simply don’t. And, if you’re a person of faith, you will always find yourself begging and bargaining with the God you serve. You’ll fling yourself at His feet in surrender.

That way, when you hold the finished thing in your hand, when you arrive at the end result — the brighter shore, the other side of the canyon, you will never be able to say that you got there alone. You’ll understand acutely the limits of your own imagination, your own tenacity, your own income, your own insight. Something a little extra, a little beyond your pale, a little miraculous transpired while you railed and while you rallied.

By God, by jove, by the myriad wonders of risk itself, here you are.

* I can’t thank everyone enough for funding my trip to Yale in June! Everyone who contributed did so so quickly, it humbled, awed, and staggered me. I appreciate it so much and hope I’m able to continue maintaining whatever quality it is that inspired you all to help me. I hope I’m able to continue being, not only the kind of writer you want to read, but the kind of writer who encourages you to write for yourself. If you’ve noticed, that campaign, though fully funded, is still open. That’s because — in true messy-dream-delivery fashion — Indiegogo won’t let me close the account or withdraw funds until after June 13. I selected a 60-day campaign, completely underestimating the generosity of friends and strangers. And now I’m being forced to keep the campaign live and the money in a holding pattern until that 60 days are up.

I haven’t submitted my deposit for Thread at Yale yet, because it will need to come out of my very limited bill-paying money, until I can reimburse myself at the end of June. But I will before the first of May. (Don’t worry, givers! I’m going — and I’m frequently updating you via social media while I’m gone.)

In the meantime, I’m placing the link here, in case anyone who hasn’t yet contributed might feel compelled to make my life slightly easier by giving through Paypal and not via Indiegogo’s credit card form. Apparently funds contributed through Paypal can be immediately disbursed (yet another fact I wish I’d known beforehand).

I’ve already asked a lot and you’ve given beyond my wildest dreams, simply because I worked up the boldness to ask. So I hope it doesn’t hurt or wear on anyone’s patience or kindness if I ask again.

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Nonfiction

A tout à l’heure!

I’m going to Paris tomorrow.

Typing the sentence above, reading the sentence above, and embracing the reality of the sentence above are nothing short of astonishing. Like many accomplishments before it, traveling overseas seemed wholly inaccessible… before I found a way to access it. And, like many accomplishments before it, traveling overseas this first time makes me entirely confident that this experience won’t be isolated. It’s a good thing; travel and I have a longstanding affinity.

Even when I was little, my skin prickled at the prospect of living in (not just visiting, mind you) foreign nations. I remember, for instance, being singularly enthralled with Samoa for a while during middle school. I was convinced I’d move there after college graduation, live in a solar-paneled house and marry some hulking brown, curly-haired “brother.” I also dreamed of England where, I was certain, I’d inhabit a castle, and Italy where, I was certain, everything would seem unyieldingly cerulean (the sky, the water, the architecture). For a while, I thought of Switzerland, until I read James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.” Heh.

Ironically, Paris wasn’t really on my radar. I thought it was too touristy for the type of girl I wanted to be–far more expatriate than visiting outsider. Whenever I considered France, I thought of Cannes and Nice (not yet realizing that these, too, were not exactly the “hidden homelands” of the country).

By the time I finished college, though, with tens of thousands of college loan debt nipping at my heels (debt that made studying abroad impossible), no job prospects to speak of, and a looming family-home eviction, the wind and whimsy were knocked right out of my sails. Like most adults, I got really caught up in earning and spending. Like slightly fewer adults, I also pretty much wrecked my credit by not establishing enough of it and knotting up what little I had.

My dreams of intercontinental jaunts dwindled during the first half of my twenties. There were whole years when I couldn’t seem to imagine a life beyond the borders of Baltimore anymore. And I cried more during those years than I ever have.

Then, the spell broke and I moved to New York, the first of the aforementioned unlikely accomplishments. I got a grad degree–another dream deferred, then regenerated.

I started to think, as I saved a nice lump of money living with roommates, that this leaving the country thing might just be doable, after all.

But I was a little more concerned with getting a job that constituted the tens of thousands more in college loan debt I was acquiring in tandem with that extra degree.

Strangely, I wound up here. In Grand Rapids. Working part-time, sleeping on relatives’ spare-room convertible couch. Of all my life’s circumstances, this is the one within which leaving the country would seem least feasible.

Seriously, even if a seven-foot angel had materialized in a cloud of shimmering dust and told me that I wouldn’t get to leave the country until I didn’t have a place of my own to live and I earned what amounts to above-average part-time wages with no health benefits, I wouldn’t have believed it. I just… wouldn’t’ve.

But here we are.

This Sunday, I’ll be taking two walking tours* of “Black Paris.” I will see where Baldwin spent the final years of his life, where Josephine Baker was buried, where Richard Wright and Chester Himes wrote some of the most popular works.

On Monday or Tuesday? I’ll go to Pere Lachaise cemetery and spend hours searching for the graves of dozens of famed authors.

I’m going to see all that kitschy, must-see stuff like the Eiffel and the Louvre.

I am so doing a happy dance right now. I should upload it (on the little videocamera thing I bought for the journey), just to prove it. A virtual pinch, if you will.

… said all this to say: if you find that your dreams–any of them are deferred, make sure they don’t stay that way.

I’ll see you soon.

* Please. Click the embedded link. I’ve had the loveliest experience with this company and I haven’t even left yet! I highly recommend them, tourist site unseen.

(Click the Baldwin link, too. “Stranger in the Village” is a really great essay.)

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