Big thanks to my friend and agent-mate Orly Konig for interviewing me about writing, This Bright Beauty, and one of my all time favorite things--coffee! Pour yourself a cup and browse her website while you're there. Orly's first novel, The Distance Home, debuted last year, and I can't wait to read her next book, Carousel Beach, out this May. Check out the interview here.
It’s starting again. The winter blahs. It’s mid-January, past the holiday craziness and New Year excitement. The ground is frozen, the sky is gray, and I don’t see the mountain in my mudroom diminshing anytime soon. (Hello, bulky coats, boots, snow pants, scarves, hats, and mittens without mates!) The days are short, it’s dark when leaving work, and I’ve lived in New England long enough to know that this is only the beginning.
Every year that feeling settles in, a combination of blues and restlessness. I vacillate between never wanting to leave the safety and warmth of my couch and wanting to pack a few suitcases and move to someplace warmer, leaving the entire Northeast in my rearview mirror. I think all New Englanders feel this way at some point during the winter, but island life can really amp up that lonesome edginess, that feeling of What on earth are we doing here? that kicks in as I drive down a deserted Circuit Ave or walk into another empty restaurant.
This year I’m doing my best to combat the inevitable malaise with a new strategy: stay as busy as possible. I booked my kids into extra after school activities, planned several weekends out of town, and am trying to fight my inner anti-socialite and actually get out of my house on Saturday and Sunday. It’s sort of working, but it’s still January and really cold out there.
The other day the temperature tipped fifty. When I got in my car on the way to work, I heard birds chirping, a sound so unexpected and cheerful that I stopped in the driveway to listen. I drove over the bridge and marveled at the golden glow of the sunrise coming up over the lagoon, even pulling over to attempt to capture a photo. I’m not so naive as to actually think that spring is coming. Later that week it was in the twenties again, the sky slate grey and somber. Yet it was a reminder, however small, that winter does give us little pockets of beauty. The trick is to look for them.
This morning, like many mornings, one of my daughters got ahold of my phone. There is something so seductive about that little glowing rectangle that neither of them can resist. I understand its pull, the easy diversion, a quick hit of Facebook or Instagram, a one-minute email check, a message sent or received. I was only half aware that she’d taken the phone, and I soon retrieved it, and we both moved on to other things.
Later this evening, I stumbled upon the snatched minutes my daughter had captured—my husband and I in rumpled Sunday morning disarray, me still in pajamas drinking a cup of coffee, having a conversation with all three of them at once (three separate conversations, obviously). As I watched the video there was the inevitable discomfort of seeing myself but what struck me more was not how bad my hair looked or my pasty skin but instead the comfortable ordinariness captured on film. My daughter asks my husband what he wants for his birthday and he barks in jest, “Peace and quiet!” Then there’s a flash in the corner of the screen of my younger daughter as she trips and falls on something and I get up to comfort her, the camera all the while still rolling.
Watching the video, I had practically forgotten those particular minutes, indistinguishable from the rest of the day except for the fact that my phone had been hijacked by my daughter, a secret documentary filmmaker, capturing a tiny slice of our life. I deleted the video, because who needs all that clutter filling up their storage, and already I regret it. I can imagine twenty years from now, when my children are out of the house, watching a whole collection of these candid videos, and looking back longingly on the simple chaos of such a Sunday morning. These are rarely the minutes we bother filming because they’re so unmemorable, but perhaps this is what makes them important. Life is not all birthday parties, Christmas, and Halloween, it is made up of ordinary Sundays and harried Tuesdays.
So I will use the handy function that allows me to retrieve a deleted item so I can watch this gem some day in the future. In the meantime, I trust that both of my daughters will steal my phone often enough to fill it with snatched memories, moments that remind me to slow down, take a breath, and enjoy.
As I write this, I’m sitting in front of a fireplace, in a cozy house in Maine. My husband is reading, one child is sleeping, and the other is using the new set of colored pencils she purchased this afternoon. It is quiet and peaceful, and I feel more relaxed than I’ve been in a while. We have done something rare—gone away for a long weekend.
It’s not that we never going anywhere. We make frequent trips to visit family and friends in Boston, and we make an annual journey back to Ireland for several weeks to visit my husband’s family. But as much as we enjoy those trips, they are places familiar to us where we spend much of our time zooming here and there, catching up with people we don’t get a chance to see very often.
This weekend is something different. This weekend it is just the four of us, in a town none of us has ever been, without the usual rhythm or routine of a weekend at home.
Once upon a time, my husband loved to travel. I’m more of a homebody, but that’s not the real reason we never go away. First there was all of the baby equipment—the pack n play and baby monitor, bottles, formula, and binkies, strollers and sleep sacks, the list was endless. Then there was the nap cycle, a much-needed break that kept at least one of us chained to the house for several hours in the middle of the day. Not to mention that by the end of the week, we are all darn tired. Add to that living on an island where it takes about an hour just to get to the mainland. Travelling is hard work, and I like my own bed
And yet, after spending several weeks with our two children last summer in Ireland and flying home with them on my own (seven hour flight + overnight stay in hotel + car journey + boat ride=possible hell), I made a remarkable discovery. They were okay. I wasn’t weighed down with gear like a mule, no one fell apart (for more than a few minutes), and they were actually quite pleasant to be with. It gave me a boost of confidence that maybe we were ready to make another trip closer to home.
Last night when we got stuck in traffic, a voice in my head started saying, “See, this is why you never go anywhere!” But then we arrived and settled in to the lovely house we’re staying, and I watched my daughters' excitement as they set up for one of their infrequent sleepovers. We’re doing all right, I thought.
Today we ventured out to do some shopping, and I knew it was all going to blow up in my face. Shopping with kids—does it ever go well? But they ended up surprising me again, my younger daughter somehow occupying herself with a shoe display while the older one helped me find a pair of shoes. In another shop, the younger one played at the jewelry rack, the older one tried out the price scanner, and my husband used the fitting room. We had lunch in a restaurant where the girls tried their first oysters (a semi success) and ended the day in a toy store.
Were there a few tears? Of course. Was there sporadic fighting and fussing? Yes, I suppose a little bit, this is family life, after all. But was there laughing, singing in the car, morning glory muffins, unexpected presents, and the start of a weekend we’ll remember? Most definitely.
In this post on Women Writers, Women's Books, I discuss how motherhood has influenced my writing. For anyone who has ever wondered how a working mom finds time to write a book, here's my answer.
Like many people living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard, my family and I spend a portion of our summer doing the “island shuffle.” Every year, we rent out our Oak Bluffs home for at least a few weeks. Unlike many people on the island, we're lucky enough to have two incarnations of home to spend that time.
We usually start these weeks away by staying at my childhood summer home. The Crystal Palace is a charming Victorian in the center of Oak Bluffs where my parents and aunt still spend every summer. As a child, summer meant cousins. My brothers and I longed for the days of July and August when we and our cousins spent endless days eating peanut butter sandwiches on the beach and evenings eating soupy ice cream on the back deck. As we grew older, summer meant nights spent checking out boys at the Game Room and driving up and down Lambert’s Cove Road looking for beach parties. From the enviable sun-dappled cantilevered front porch to the storybook tower, every nook, cranny, and corner of the house holds a piece of our families’ shared history, and continues to be a gathering place for us six cousins and our growing families.
Next stop on our shuffle is Ireland to visit my husband’s family. We spend the weeks in the bustling coastal town of Kinsale in County Cork, living in the small stone cottage where my husband’s grandmother spent most of her life. Much like I spent my childhood summers on Martha’s Vineyard, my husband spent his summers with his grandmother in Kinsale. From the overgrown garden where his grandmother and great aunt used to pick raspberries to make into jam, to the outhouse the men were expected to use (despite the working toilet inside), to the giant kitchen fireplace where the women used to cook, the house is a trove of memories and history. We spend the month visiting family and reconnecting with old friends, walking along the harbor front, eating Irish potato chips (crisps) and French fries (chips), and sampling the local pubs. As the Irish would say, the town and house are “lovely” but by the end of the month, I am longing for our light-filled Cape on a quiet dirt road.
Finally, it's time to move back home. For much of the year, we take the house for granted or think about the various improvements that could be made. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a deck? When will we ever be able to finish the basement? The hallway could use a fresh coat of paint and the medicine cabinets are falling apart. But upon returning after a stretch away, the house is newly discovered. My eight-year old daughter rushes from room to room, exclaiming over items she’s forgotten but now realizes she missed. “My bed,” she cries, lying down on the mattress that knows the shape of her small body. “My tree,” she yells, climbing the Japanese maple that grows in our front yard. I know the way she feels. I want to do the same. “My kitchen!” I cry, running my hands along the vast expanse of counter-space, massive when compared to the tiny Irish kitchen I’ve cooked in for much of the summer. “My couch,” I sigh, sinking into the soft worn sofa that has known many strangers over the summer months but still seems to welcome me back. Much like my children, I want to chant “Mine, mine, mine,” sprinting from room to room and pointing at everyday overlooked items throughout the house that take on a new significance after the long separation.
Though the island shuffle inevitably brings headaches, I know that we are blessed in that it also brings us a rare gift: the chance to return to the homes that shaped our childhoods and a chance to return to the home we have created as adults.
Vacationing with a four-year-old is a bit of an oxymoron. The two words just don’t go together. I know this already, yet my expectations and reality continue to collide. As my family spends three weeks in Ireland visiting family and friends, I’m getting another reminder. My other daughter is eight now, old enough to keep up with many of the activities my husband and I enjoy—going for long scenic walks, eating out, browsing in bookstores, lounging in cafes. This isn’t always so for the four-year-old. Today, on a beautiful (yet somewhat long) walk, I felt my agitation rise with her every whine and fuss. My husband and eight-year-old wandered ahead, while my youngest cried every time I let go of her hand. Ever the vigilant family photographer, I continued to take pictures along the way, and from these shots, it looks like an idyllic outing. And it was, except for my frustration.
The problem is wholly mine, I realize. She’s only doing what most four year-olds are programmed to do. Her legs are short, she tires easily, and her desire to be close to me trumps everything else.
Since our trip began, I’ve been asking the girls what the best part of their day was.
“Going to the model train exhibit,” the eight-year-old said.
“Holding Mommy’s hand when we walked,” the four-year-old said.
For me, one of the hardest parts of motherhood is being able to comfortably fall into it and let go. Too often my first instinct is resistance--walk faster, stop complaining, finish your dinner, for god’s sake, just try the carrot! Much of this is leftover from those early years when every hour of the day was a physical exhaustion. I was not built for that stage of parenting, and while I did my best, it was a challenge not to be subsumed by it. I envy the women I see who so clearly adore spending time with their babies and toddlers, who just fall headfirst into their time together. For me, my mind was always going a million miles an hour, soaring far from the moment, even while I loved my children fiercely. I acknowledge this now with equal parts shame and relief.
We’re exiting that stage. The daily trials are simple and painless compared to the days of sleep deprivation and never being able to take my eyes off a running toddler. Yet my mentality is a step behind these advances, and I’m still quick to anxiety or exasperation. I need to learn to slow down, rather than persuade them to speed up. There's no need to hurry, I must remind myself. I see the speed in the grown up shape of my eight-year-old's face, her mouth full of holes where her baby teeth used to be. I see it in the growing peace in my house when each child heads to her own room to play. I need to take a lesson from the four year-old, who meanders at her own pace, never in a hurry, perfectly capable of getting lost in the moment without worry of what’s ahead or behind.
“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked her last night.
“When the sun came out,” she answered with her easy smile.
Oh yes. There it is.
This whole mothering gig is hard work.
I’d heard that many times before I had children of my own, and I guess on some level I knew it was true, I just didn’t realize HOW HARD. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I had many people tell us, “You have no idea. You just have no idea.” Helpful, right? These people used to drive us nuts with their “I know something you don’t know attitude.” And then we had kids. And holy moly, we had no idea. I’d never considered myself a self-centered person until literally nothing in my life was about me anymore. When I went to bed, when I woke up, what I did when I walked in the door after work, what I did with my weekend. There’s no such thing as off-duty when you have kids, even if you don’t actually have your kids with you. They’re always in the back of your mind, hovering around the edges of everything else. And as maddening as this can sometimes be, it’s one of the truths of motherhood.
One of the things I hadn’t realized was how hard it would be to maintain my temperament once I became a mother. Most days, I know that objectively I’m a good mom, but man oh man, there are lots of moments throughout each day that I don’t always feel like one.
I’d normally considered myself to be a fairly even-keeled person. As a teacher, I was used to being patient during frustrating circumstances. I didn’t realize how the 24-7, day-in-day-out nature of life with kids can drive you batty, leading to adult temper tantrums, nonstop exasperated sighing, and a brain that feels cluttered with competing obligations and endless chatter (“Mommy, come here. Mommy, look at this! Mommy, can I have more milk, ice cream, vitamins, shampoo, water, fill in the blank.”). I wasn’t prepared for the self-doubt, the inability to curb my frustration, and the resentment of always having to put everyone else first. And I wasn’t prepared for the noise. My God, how I crave quiet some days. But I couldn’t imagine it any other way, and despite the challenges my kiddos have brought with them, I wouldn’t trade a single minute of it.
I pretty much hit the jackpot when it comes to mothers. My mom is kind, patient, nonjudgmental, giving, and easy to be around. We never really went through the “I hate you, you suck” stage. When I was a kid, she was always there, a steady presence in our lives from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed. I’m sure she didn’t always feel patient, and I’m sure there are plenty of times she yelled at me and my brothers, but when I think back on my childhood, those aren’t the times I remember. Those aren’t the feelings I remember. Instead I recall knowing I was loved and knowing that my mother (and my father too, but sorry Dad, this one’s for Mom) would always be there if I needed help. Even as an adult, I know this is true. My mother is still only a phone call or a few hours’ drive away, and I know how lucky I am that I can still turn to her, even if I need her in a different way than I once did. I try to remember this in my frazzled and less than stellar moments. If I can impart upon my children the absolute certainty that they are loved and the knowledge that I am always here if they need me, then I’ve done my job well.
To my own mom, thank you for not only being a wonderful mother to me, but thank you for showing me how to be a good mother to my own girls. And to all you moms out there who are doing your best to keep your head above water, don’t worry about the clean house or the chore wheel or whether all of the broccoli gets eaten before ice cream. It’s not what will be remembered. Happy Mother’s Day to all.
My mother used to tell me that when I was a child, all she had to do was look at me wrong and I’d start crying. “Constructive criticism” would often end with me defensive and in tears. As a teenager there was a lot of door slamming, though my parents seem to have forgotten this part of my adolescence. I still remember sobbing into a wet pillow and waiting for someone to come apologize (for what exactly, I don’t know). Once, in a fit of anger, I slammed our back door, accidentally shattering the glass. The phone happened to ring at that exact moment, and my mother spent the next forty minutes on the phone with a friend. I spent those forty minutes sobbing theatrically on the couch, thinking if I was genuinely upset enough, maybe she wouldn’t get mad at me.
Luckily, getting rejected by agents for almost ten years does wonders for developing a thicker skin. As I bumble through my first month as a published author, I’m getting practice letting things roll off my back, like water on a duck. While I’ve heard from many readers who have enjoyed The Bloom Girls, it’s the little thorns here and there that have a way of pricking the skin and drawing blood. A few recent cringe-worthy, sobbing into the pillow moments where I instead shrugged.
And I know this is only the beginning. There will be readings where only 1 or 2 people show up. There will be bad reviews, possibly in actual publications. People might hate my next book, maybe I’ll never sell another one, maybe I’ll post something on this blog that accidentally causes people to take to Twitter in protest (though I’m so Twitter-challenged that I probably wouldn’t even notice). Bottom line, you can’t please everyone all the time. And that’s okay.
I recently stumbled upon the quote “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” (Neale Donald Walsch). Well, I’ve been out of my comfort zone for the past six months, and I haven’t dropped dead. Want to know where my comfort zone is? On the couch, reading or watching TV with my husband. And as relaxing and comfy as that is, probably not a lot of personal or professional growth is going to happen there. So I’ll do my best to make like a duck and let it all roll off me, empty readings, 1 star reviews, and all.
The road to publishing can be a loooooong one. It took me nearly ten years to finally sign with an agent, and for some reason I kept writing all that time. Since getting a book published, I've thought a lot about what it means to be a "professional" writer has changed. To hear more about how, head on over to Writer's Digest to read my guest post.