If you ask me what kind of lessons you are learning from your father and me right at this moment,
I’d tell you this.
I think often of the kinds of things we, as your parents, are supposed to “teach” you as you inch your way toward independence. So much of it is practical. How to feed yourself. How to clean a mess. How to read. How to be prepared for certain situations, like playing in the snow. How to cope when things don’t turn out as planned in those situations, like ice underfoot and below zero winds. Much of it is effortless on my part, and I feel good about the strides we’ve already made.
But a lot of what we want you to learn is intangible. Or something difficult to explain, too abstract. At least until lived through or witnessed first hand. On balance, isn’t this the essence of life and living? Survival skills of a different sort, I suppose.
And so it is with winning and losing. Ups and downs. Weathering storms of all strengths. You do not play sports (yet?) and so the notion of wins and losses is not quite on your radar. Regardless, this is probably what you are seeing most around here lately. “Almost had it” and “wasn’t meant to be” being common refrains from both of us. In the blink of an eye I get one essay accepted and then in less than an hour a short story rejected. In one moment there is hope about a possible job offer, and in the next . . . dashed, followed by more potential opportunities coming out of the hopper. Dead hard drives. Untimely illnesses. Missed birthdays. Pause buttons pressed.
But I hope you are also noticing this: our resilience, our letting go, that steady, strong thread of optimism. The bouncing back. Dwelling kept to short duration. Looking through the open door, not staring at the one slammed closed. Remembering that we are still floating, not sinking. Pausing often to laugh—it is a soothing balm for ruffled feathers and bruised egos. Slather it on thick for good measure.
This is how to keep calling it all a win.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
A quick rundown of what I’ve read in the past two months in books (there was no December post), and also just a few online articles that intrigued me in some fashion.
Dear Mr. You, Mary-Louise Parker (memoir told in letters) – Hands down, one of my favorite books I read this year. I will return to it again and again. Her voice—stunning. I aspire to write like that.
The Mountain Story, Lori Larsens (fiction)
Mosquitoland, David Arnold (fiction) – I really, really liked this book. Page turner for sure, and the perfect shortish kind of novel I was looking for during the holiday season. Thank you, Nina Badzin, for recommending this to me.
Very Good Lives, J.K. Rowling (graduation speech) – I love commencement speeches. This one is spectacular—funny, wise, and inspiring.
We Live in Water, Jess Walter (short stories) – I am new to him and passed by his novel Beautiful Ruins a million times in the bookstore (and still haven’t read), but I stumbled upon this book in the library. I enjoyed many of the stories. And, confession time: all this time I thought “Jess” was a woman author. Ahem.
[redacted] – I’m not going to call this book or author out by name, but it was a DNF for me very quickly into the book. Why? The editing. So many cliches and lazy writing. I was annoyed. But more than that? It was a book published by National Geographic and less than 20 pages in a glaring error: spelling the country Colombia as Columbia. I never shut a book so fast. Maybe it was unfair but it made me find the book less credible and I couldn’t go on. Why do I mention it here? Because even bad books teach us, especially those of us who write ourselves, about how we can be better. Nobody is perfect, but with that many eyes looking at a book before it gets published it made me squeamish.
The People in the Photo, Hélène Gestern (novel told in letters and photo descriptions, translated from French) – Interesting concept for a story and I largely enjoyed the book, but the ending left me underwhelmed a bit.
Passing, Nella Larsen (probably more novella than novel, published in 1929) – There’s a backstory about why I read this one recently. I actually picked it (and others) up in the fall while stopping at my favorite used bookstore near my dentist. I tossed it into my TBR bin. But then Maureen Langloss (also former attorney turned writer), a Twitter friend of mine, mentioned on Twitter in the wake of David Bowie’s death that it was on his Top 100 books, and she planned to read it. I never responded to a tweet so quickly, and mentioned I had coincidentally picked the book up a month before and would love to read it in tandem. When it comes to the painful subject of how blacks were (and still are!) treated in our country, I think this book is a must read, and my thoughts about it probably deserve a separate post. But Maureen did write about it, and you can see her very eloquent, honest post here.
Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (memoir/essays) – I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before. What a lovely, poignant book, one that I think many women of around my age and/or similar station in life would enjoy. It’s quite short and can be sipped slowly like a cup of tea on cold day. It brought much warmth to my soul.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris (part memoir/part science text) – This book is not for everyone (heck, Sam Harris is certainly not for everyone) but I enjoyed parts of it very much. It had been on my nightstand for ages and I finally finished it.
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens (memoir/essay) – In a very lean book, Hitchens (now deceased) sets forth in his usual fashion a raw, honest take about his last year of life while he is dying from esophageal cancer. This man can write (which I already knew from his Vanity Fair columns and another book of his I read) and there is certainly a gaping hole in the writing community without him. [Side note: reading Harris and Hitchens back to back made me realize that I sense a lack of atheist women who are also strong writers, though maybe I haven’t found them yet? I’m committed to finding out.]
Thunderstruck, Elizabeth McCracken (short stories) – I stumbled upon the short story “Thunderstruck” in The Best American Short Stories 2015 and knew I had to read more of her work. (If you are looking for new writers to explore, I highly recommend BAS. I’ve bought it for the past few years now.) Many good ones in here. She’s got a great imagination and a keen sense of nuance in a scene and in dialogue.
Space lovers! Look out your windows early next week. Some amazing sights to be seen—five planets at once! Slate has more.
Grumble. This short piece from The Atlantic has my “I kept my last name” hairs on end.
I am not a reader or watcher of Game of Thrones. But, I was still very humbled by this blog post from George R.R. Martin, writer of those books. Dude, if he struggles with getting the creative flow, why am I beating myself up from time to time? Even the greats have their moments. I think it’s important for all of us to remember, whether we are consumers of that creativity or try to work side by side making our own happen. And then support each other when the chips are down.
Aerogramme Writers’ Studio has this list of some 2016 short story writing contests, for any other short story writers out there (there are hyperlinks to contest info embedded in each bold header).
If you’ve read something great recently, tell me! I know so, so many are reading When Breath Becomes Air right now (and I will get to it too), but what else? I need something gooooood.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
If you ask me when you last made me catch my breath, I will tell you this.
Last night I more or less forced you to let me read aloud to you. You’ve been a very determined self-reader these past several months, and regrettably it means you want Dad and me to read less and less to you. We’ve given you wide berth to have time to read to yourself, hoping that we can slowly work our voices back into your bedtime routine soon enough. But for now, we allow you the pure joy of reading alone. For me, it is a bittersweet fork in the road to your independence.
But yesterday we were having . . . a day. I knew you needed to just be still and listen to a story. To snuggle down. To settle in.
I needed it too. The past several days have been heavy on my heart.
So I picked up Flora & Ulysses (Kate DiCamillo), a book I’ve long wanted to read to you. I read a few chapters and then it was time for bed. I kissed you goodnight. With me still hovering over your sweet face in the soft glow of your night light, we both agreed that we were looking forward to reading more of it tomorrow. I walked out and went to my room where I usually read or fold laundry until you are asleep.
A few minutes passed. I heard you get out of bed, somewhat unusual for you anymore. You padded to my doorway and delivered an epiphany about the squirrel in the book. You understood something about a character that totally flew past me, a plot line I hadn’t even seen coming. And it was brilliant. It was the distillation of so much I’ve watched you absorb over the course of your young years. It reaffirmed that you are paying attention to all that is wonderful in life.
You beamed as you turned back toward your room.
And that was when I couldn’t catch my breath.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
If you ask me whether there’s a duty to mitigate your own regret,
I will tell you this.
It’s happened many times, but most recently it was just a few days ago: someone told me, unsolicited, “don’t do it” regarding a relatively permanent endeavor I’m planning on taking. It’s nothing life ending or even altering (at least to me), but it will be something quite difficult to reverse down the road. The suggestion was well-intentioned, but it didn’t sway me in the least. I am very certain about my mind being made up.
Yet it got me thinking: do we have a duty to ourselves to mitigate all possibility of regret? And if we do, how much or what caliber of regret? To me, that line seems elusive if not claustrophobic depending on where it’s placed or how often we are expected to take the least regretful path.
Plus, it’s boring. It renders life sanitized and rote. It obscures the person you are in that very moment.
For sure, I think there is some level of responsibility that we each must take for our capacity or tolerance for living with regret. No one wants to hear you lament about a very poor choice you made because you didn’t think twice. Indeed, there are plenty of decisions that should be made with intention and a clear mind. But it’s a multi-faceted equation that goes beyond “could I possibly be remorseful with this decision x days/years from now?” You could always answer that question in the affirmative because who really knows, right?
Certain considerations should be taken into account, like whether someone else will also be affected or whether it will result in irrevocably harmful outcomes. It’s one thing to dye your hair neon green (it will grow out) or quit a job (you can find another one) because these things, though bold in some cases, are not necessarily permanent. It’s quite another to start smoking or drive 100 miles per hour after three cocktails. Those kinds of decisions can end very badly, and irreversibly so.
Yet a lot of the decisions you have yet to make in your life are in that middle place. The kinds of decisions where regret might not surface, if at all, until well down the road. The kinds of decisions where the full range of inherent risk (of harm, of irrevocability, of regret itself) is unclear at the outset. Whether to end a relationship because it protects your heart more adequately. Whether to start a new one. Whether to tell someone how you really feel with unabashed honesty and forthrightness. Whether to make a complete or unexpected life shift academically, professionally, or personally. For these kinds of decisions I suggest you lead with your heart. I think you will regret those decisions the least, if at all, because you made them in a moment when you were being truest to that version of yourself.
Yes, each of us can always find lessons learned and different kinds of happiness no matter which decisions we make. That is not what this is about. What I am talking about is the notion of stopping yourself from the possibility—whether it be remote or probable—of making a wrong, regrettable choice in those grey areas.
I’m just a few days into 42 years old. I’ve done a lot of the major decision making of my lifetime already. I think that’s why I was a little puzzled by the unsolicited advice I’d received. It had me wondering about the judgement, perceived incompetence, or our own insecurities we unfairly project onto others.
But you? You’re eight. That road of decisions and its concomitant potholes of remorse still stretches out before you unseen into the horizon. You will undoubtedly make some regrettable decisions in your life. We all do. I could sit here and tell you the kinds of regrets I do have, though strangely enough there are not too many. Perhaps it’s a function of my low tolerance for novelty and the amount of lead time I give myself for deliberating the big decisions, like who to marry or whether to have children.
That might not be who you are. My decisions and regrets are not some kind of map I can (or should) hand down to you. You might like a lot more excitement and new adventures. You might be able to make decisions on the fly. You might have more of them to make. You are also growing up in an era where your choices are more easily fodder for others to consume and disseminate.
And so my best advice is this: make enough decisions that present you with at least an inkling of possible regret, honor that possibility, and then go for it regardless. Let your heart hold the map and follow where it goes. Then, when you someday reflect upon those choices and decisions, think fondly of that girl or woman. You will know she lived with her heart leading the way. There is no regret in that.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
If you ask me whether there’s a scar, I will tell you this.
The other evening you asked me about how you entered the world. You were being quite literal. We had talked about it a few times before so I was surprised you had forgotten. Or maybe you really hadn’t—you are one who likes to hear stories many times over.
So I reminded you. But I think it was the first time I mentioned there was a scar. You wanted to see it. I said I would show you the next time I changed clothes, which happened to be about an hour later.
It’s barely visible now. A faint pink smile low on my torso. You seemed astonished at how little had to be cut in order for you to fit through. Of course you were only just under nine pounds back then, but I tend to agree. It is quite amazing.
After you went to bed that night, I realized that I only have three scars on my body from some kind of compromise to my skin, like a puncture or slice. Two of them are because of you: the one I showed you, and one on my wrist where a nurse inserted the IV line I had during those two days of labor.
The one on my wrist is barely visible. I don’t think anyone else would notice it’s even there. But I still see it. A faint white dot. I hope it never fully heals. It brings me back to that day when you made me a mother.
I barely can stand to look at myself naked anymore so I don’t go out of my way to glimpse that tidy small curve where they pulled you out. But sometimes I see it accidentally. It reminds me of my strength, yes, but more so that from the beginning I was never really in control of very much when it comes to you. You and my body had other plans for how you were going to make an entrance. And so it was. It’s a good reminder to see now and again. I hope it never fades.
The last scar is on my leg. It takes me longer to find it now, but it’s there. A shallow line, about an inch long, running along my right shin bone. Suffice it to say the first time I ever shaved required a lot of bandages. I remember it clearly. I was at my aunt’s house in Florida. We were there for her wedding and I pleaded with my mother to be allowed to shave. I assume maybe my cousin was already shaving and I felt jealous. My scar is from the very first time that sharp razor touched my skin. I went too deep.
Isn’t that how all scars affect us? Most of them anyway. They run deep. They are not always accidental. They are not always self-inflicted. They are not always tragic. And they are not always visible like the three I’ve shown you. Indeed I have others imprinted in the center of my heart, only for me to feel the tug and twist of that latent scar tissue time and again. All of us carry those kind of scars. Remember this because each and every scar represents some moment in time where something shifted and redefined who we are, whether only in that moment or forever thereafter. Just like the scars you left behind for me.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
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