Tag Archives: identity

New Baby Boy

How very small my world is just now. A rocking chair, a bassinet, a bed. I mark time by listening to the world outside. Through my window, I hear the store gates open, the car radios blaring, the children laughing and racing ahead of their parents on the way to school.

But, here, just above the raucous world that exists on the sidewalks below, my only wish is to make you happy, my new baby boy, largely because it is so easy. Nuzzle you, rock you, feed you well, sing you to sleep, and you reward me with a contented burp or a sigh, the sweet heaviness of your body melting against my chest.

The mornings are my favorite, when you are finally sound asleep. Your sister comes in like a hurricane, then settles on the bed between your dad and me. She snuggles her body into mine, into the spot that, to be fair, was hers first. I feel so exhausted that I can’t raise my head. For a few moments, no one has to move.

I can smell my children, hear them breathing. I can touch my husband’s face. Those dearest to me in the world are within these four walls, and it feels like being inside a present.

Long and Short of It

It’s just hair.

And, yet, there’s much more to it than that. At least, judging by the amount of analysis, appreciation, and significance we devote to it. I recently got my hair cut short after wearing it long for a while, and I was surprised by how my acquaintances interpreted my decision. Or, really, that anyone interpreted it at all.

I have pretty non-descript hair. It’s straight, brown, and thick. All the way through high school and college I wore it in a plain bob with the occasional sparkly pin thrown in for pizzazz. When an event called for fancy, out came my curling iron (Exhibit A: helmet hair a la senior prom pictures).

After I graduated and moved to New York, I decided to go short. Really short. Having super short hair turned my plain look into something much more interesting. Short hair put the focus on my face, and made me feel bold and sexy. I wore more lipstick and mascara with short hair. I experimented with products to make it spiky, slick, smooth, or funky. I had fun with it, and it suited me. So, I wore my hair that way for about ten years, through those all-important twenties. My hubbie had never even known me with anything but short hair, and my friends who did know me before all but forgot what I looked like any other way.

But, anything gets old after a while. I started wondering what I would look like with long hair. I wanted to brush and braid my hair, things that I hadn’t been able to do since I was a little kid. So, I let it grow. And grow. It was as much a decision based on negligence and laziness as on style, really. Not getting it cut was easier (and much cheaper) for me, especially now that trips to the salon require me to arrange for childcare.

It was different, novel, and even kind of fun to have long hair. But, I missed my signature look. I missed standing out in a crowd. I missed rocking a look that set me apart in a sea of long-haired women. After I finally went back to the salon for the big chop, I practically skipped down the street. I felt the way that vanilla ice cream must feel after it finally gets its hot sauce and cherries.

What surprised me was the reaction I got. People assumed all sorts of motivations behind my decision to cut. Some suggested that I had cut my hair short because of the hot weather. Or, for convenience. Or, so I wouldn’t have to think about it. One friend noted that many “middle-aged women” cut their hair short because they already have husbands and so no longer need to worry about looking sexy or attractive.

Hmmm.

It’s weird that we so associate femininity and women looking good (read: attractive to dudes) with having long, flowing locks. Contrary to what some people concluded, I didn’t think: “Well, I need a low-maintenance haircut, so I’ll go for it, despite the fact that I am basically neutering myself and stripping myself of sex appeal.” I actually think… wait for it… that I look hotter with short hair. Yep, shallow as it might seem, I was only considering my looks – not ease, not temperature, not convenience. I was going for hot and sexy with this here short ‘do. So now you know. And you can continue to analyze at your peril.

I’m Feeling You, Virginia


Behold, my "desk"

Behold, my "desk"

This is my desk. You have no idea the shame I feel, showing it to you.

Calling it a “desk” sends entirely the wrong message. First of all, it’s only desk-like in that it is a piece of furniture with a flat top and four legs. In truth, this piece dreams of one day fulfilling its destiny as a dining room table. At present, however, it mostly functions as a holder for the motley assortment of junk that I find in my hands at any given moment in the day.

Secondly, to say that this is my desk gives the impression that I accomplish work here. And, well, that was my intention. But, I don’t. Or, not regularly. Of all the places that I work – couch, bed, coffee shop, subway – I work here at the “desk” least often. There was a time when this nomadic work life pleased me. I felt so footloose, slinging my computer bag over my shoulder and heading off to catch a few minutes of work somewhere. (In those days, that was the important part: that I was going somewhere. Somewhere where no one demanded juice or dumped markers on the floor or wanted to hear Goodnight Moon for the thousandth time.)

But, now, I find myself discouraged by this necessary transience. When I am working, I frequently need some material or resource that I neglected to pack. My computer battery dies, but I don’t have the cord. Or, I need to find a quote from a book that I know I have back at home on my bookshelf. I feel like I’m in a long distance relationship with my creative self. When we first reunite, it takes a long while to get settled together. I type out phrases, then erase them, self-conscious that nothing sounds right. By the time she and I are in full make-out mode and going gangbusters on some blog posts, I glance at the clock and – for the love of…! – it’s time to pack it in and say our farewells.

Lately, I’ve been longing for a space to call my own. Not a couch in the living room, where I sit like a waiting target for any and all persons who enter and want something from me. Not a dining room, cluttered with the assorted detritus of my life. No, the room I envision is mine alone. It’s not fancy or big. But, it has room enough for a desk and chair. It has natural light. It has walls lined with bookcases and an armchair for reading. A table for a snack, pictures on the walls, and a plant or two.

I’m taking this longing as a good sign. It means that I’m finally unsatisfied squeezing in my work in stolen moments, in any old location. I have serious work to do, work that needs dedicated space and time. Virginia Woolf famously insisted that women need a space if they aspire to have any success at their art. So, I’m wondering: do you have a wonderful space in which you do the work you love? What’s it like? If you don’t have one, what would it be like?

Inspire me, won’t you?  I’ll be over here at the cafe, taking notes while I dream up my writing nooks in the sky.

Digging God and Marcelo

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
I know I don’t look like the destructive type, but I once totaled my husband’s nativity set.

Well, I didn’t destroy it personally, but I did call in some hired muscle in the form of a disturbed dog. When the job was done and the wise men’s dismembered bodies were strewn around the kitchen floor, I secretly did a jig.

I celebrate Christmas, but you won’t find a nativity scene at my house. It’s not because I’m so private about my religion, or because Banana Republic and Zales have killed my spirituality with their ubiquitous marketing campaigns. In all honesty, I believe in God, and I love the story of Jesus’ birth.

But I keep it quiet. Because, let’s face it, it’s just not cool to dig God.

I recently read the wonderful book Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, about a boy named Marcelo with a diagnosis that lies somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. Marcelo has managed to create a world for himself that is comfortable and familiar. He goes to a special school, lives in his tree house, works with horses, delves into religious pursuits, and retreats to his “internal music” whenever life gets to be too much for him. Then, one summer, his father demands that Marcelo enter the “real world,” which translates into taking a job in the mailroom at his father’s law firm. Marcelo’s eyes are opened in some alarming ways, and seeing the real world – our world – through Marcelo’s frank and naive gaze is a little uncomfortable for the reader, because it’s so true.

In one particularly interesting scene, Marcelo and his dad are traveling on the commuter rail together for Marcelo’s first day at the law firm. To calm his nerves, Marcelo takes out his rosary and begins to pray quietly. His father calmly explains that praying is not appropriate public behavior. It’s just not done. I was thinking that the dad was a real jerk, and then I realized: if he’s a jerk, so am I. The dad is right. We live in a secular world, and there are rules we must follow to succeed. In general, people who are considered successful don’t make a fuss about their faith.

I don’t have any need to evanglize, but I don’t want to hide an aspect of myself that is becoming increasingly important to me. It’s hard to imagine feeling comfortable even mentioning prayer, church, or God in a group of my peers, the vast majority of whom do not practice religion. It’s not comfortable to admit it, but even though I’m all “grown up,” I still want to fit in. Shouldn’t I have outgrown this feeling by now?

Acknowledging faith in God makes me feel vulnerable, so I resist. I’ve been too embarrassed to be enthusiastic about religion or, really, about anything that makes me seem less than strong, less than self-sufficient. It’s the same way I used to feel about therapy Getting over that was a necessary step in helping my marriage thrive, and I’m so grateful that I did.

It’s scary to admit to believing in something that’s invisible, or to get help when you need it, or to build a life around loving someone else. It’s scary to need anything, period. People might laugh or, worse, judge me.

Seems a bit late, but I’m finally realizing what people mean when they say, “live your life for you.” My self-consciousness has gotten me nothing, except a bubble of protection from the mockery that I fear. Yet, how many things has that self-consciousness cost me?

Well, church, for one.

Book Notes: A Northern Light

A Northern Light  by Jennifer DonnellyOne reason I  love reading historical fiction books is that, every once in a while, you get the magical feeling of a character stepping out of her time, reaching out across the pages to whisper her truths in your ear, and the amazing thing is that the two of you could be sisters.  It’s like meeting someone at a party who has a completely different background than you but with whom you instantly connect and see eye-to-eye.  Only in this case, it feels even more magical because the person with whom you have so much in common is actually a figment of some author’s imagination and you wonder, "How on Earth did she know??  How did she get what is going on in my head right at this moment?"

In Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel A Northern Light, Mattie Gokey lives on a farm with her father and three sisters in the Adirondack mountains just after the turn of the century. As eldest daughter, she has been responsible for caring for the family and their home since their mother died. Life is hard for Mattie – there is always work to do on the farm, whether it’s milking or plowing or cooking or cleaning.  In many ways, though, she is blessed. Her father provides for the family’s physical needs, selling their crops and dairy to new, upscale camps where tourists come to enjoy the rustic environment. The local school teacher has provided nourishment of a different kind, opening Mattie’s eyes to the wonder of books, particularly books that some consider to be dangerous and corruptive. She is blessed, too, because she has gifts enough to write her own poems and stories. Mattie’s talent creates many opportunities for her, opportunities like leaving the hard life of a farmer, getting a college education, and making a living with her pen.  Opportunities that frighten her because of what they will cost if she chooses to take them.

Mattie is a thoroughly sympathetic character.  She fiercely loves and protects her family and friends, to the point that she feels ready to sacrifice any amount of her own happiness for theirs.  And you could see how she might, not just out of selfless love, but also out of a kind of cultural habit.  There was, and is even now, an undeniable safety in building one’s life around the familiarity of family and duty.  There are several moments in the story – heart-wrenching, dreadful moments – in which Mattie almost gives in to that longing for safety.  And even as I wanted to grab her and push her in the opposite direction – "No, Mattie, they’ll keep you from your poetry!  You’ll spend your paper money on flour!" – how could I blame her for wanting the safe predictability that she could have in a life spent living on her husband’s farm and raising children?

I grieved for what Mattie was discovering, for what we women all discover. The reality of having options is a cruel one, because the truth is that we must choose one path by turning our back on another.  Mattie is so recognizable to me.  She could be my friend here in Brooklyn, just another over-educated woman slapped in the face with the realization of all she might have to give up if she is to make good on those dreams she stoked in college.

When I finished the book, I felt grateful and sad. Grateful to be a woman in a time and place in which the choices are just a little better than they were for Mattie. Grateful to be able to carve out time – even if it’s a very little – for my own work and dreams while being able to experience motherhood.

Sad because, as fortunate as I am, I knew just what Mattie meant.

I love this scene in which Mattie visits her friend Minnie, who is struggling with newborn twins and the responsibilities of a household, and realizes why the female writers she admires – Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott – eschew husbands and children.

“Emily Dickinson was a damn sneaky genius.

Holing up in her father’s house, never marrying, becoming a recluse – that had sounded like giving up to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed she fought by not fighting. And knowing her poems as I do, I would not put such underhanded behavior past her. Oh, maybe she was lonely at times, and cowed by her pa, but I bet at midnight, when the lights were out and her father was asleep, she went sliding down the banister and swinging from the chandelier. I bet she was just dizzy with freedom.

I have read almost a hundred of Emily’s poems and memorized ten. Miss Wilcox says she wrote nearly eighteen hundred. I looked at my friend Minnie, sleeping still. A year ago she was a girl, like me, and we were in my mamma’s kitchen giggling and fooling and throwing apple peels over our shoulders to see if they’d make the initials of our true loves. I couldn’t even see that girl anymore. She was gone. And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for.

I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn’t want to be lonely my whole life. I didn’t want to give up my words. I didn’t to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn’t have to. Charles Dickens didn’t. And John Milton didn’t, either, though he might have made life easier for untold generations of schoolkids if he had.”

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

Mattie is a girl like any of us, going on hope and faith to make the best decisions she can, trying to be true to herself while honoring her responsibilities. This is just the type of book I’d love to read with my daughter WInnie, or my sister, or my friends. I know lots of women figure out how to balance their passion for life with their desire for family, but I also know that lots of women still feel blind-sided when they realize that doing it all means having very little left over. And, if we want not to be spread quite so thinly, most of us have to make choices. This book is a great story while being a lovely portrait of womanhood. Which, it seems, hasn’t changed since Mattie’s time. At least not quite as much as we’d like to think it has.

This post also appears on Girls Leadership Institute’s blog Woosh!

Fall Leaves and Trapper Keepers

In autumn, the leaves change color in much the same way that my hair grays – in large, startling swatches that bloom overnight. Last week, I came across a tree that was vibrant summer green, all except one large bough that popped bright yellow, as if caught with one arm stuck through the sleeve of a bright sweater.

Autumn means industriousness. The trees are the first to get to work. They’ve been taking it easy all summer, soaking up the sun, and now the show-offs demonstrate their abilities in a final, brilliant performance.  Many years on the academic calendar – as a student and, later, as a teacher – have thoroughly conditioned my mind to equate the autumn with a different sort of colorful spectacle – new pens, folders, and binders (remember Trapper Keepers?) of every hue.  As the trees turn and the weather cools, my fingers itch for school supplies, my mind thinks, “Well, time to get back to work.”  Then, in the uncomfortable silence that follows, quietly wonders, “Doing what…?”

Since the birth of my daughter a year and a half ago, I have not returned to my work in the classroom. I miss the new pens, and that feeling of getting organized. (Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the last weeks shopping for bins from IKEA, the thirty-something’s version of the Trapper Keeper.) I miss feeling both excited and anxious about welcoming meeting a new group of students, knowing that each school year holds in wait countless wonderful moments of learning and friendship, countless challenges to be met. I miss the change, too, the sense that one part of the year is coming to an end, and a new one is beginning. The school year gave a comforting and predictable rhythm to my life.

Mostly, though, I miss having a neat answer to the ubiquitous question, “What do you do?”  These days, when someone asks me what I do, my mouth opens, but none of the words that come out seem to fit. “I am a mother,” is the obvious answer. But that doesn’t describe me, not even close. The world of parenting – playdates, music classes, and playgrounds – is too small for me, too local. I long for a way to affect people outside my immediate circle, as I did when I was in the classroom, or when I led workshops for teachers.

I could answer the question with an attempt to describe the evolving truth, which is that in too-short bites of time while the baby sleeps or plays with a babysitter, I am editing books for teachers, I am preparing to teach workshops for GLI, I am reading books and writing about them, while also putting my own stories – both imagined and real – to paper. But, I usually don’t get that far. That answer is longer and more complex than most people care to hear. Plus, it seems too nebulous to be real – aren’t most mothers in Brooklyn also “writers?” It feels pretentious and unrealistic to describe myself as such before I’ve been published.  Well, Shannon, I ask, what’s so wrong with being “pretentious and unrealistic?”  Isn’t that just another way of saying “ambitious?”  I’m in uncharted territory here, and the truth is that I’m scared of looking foolish.  Scared that people might – God forbid – laugh.  At me.

It seems that I, too, am caught with one arm through a sleeve. What is this new identity that I am pulling over my head? What do I want it to be? Being undefined doesn’t feel entirely comfortable, but it feels very true. I am beginning to see the positive aspects of my situation; I have the power to set the terms and the goals, and the power to change them. It’s no easy task, stripping down to the essential parts of my life so I can figure out how to present myself anew. Just ask any tree. I hope and trust, however, in the potential to be brilliant.

 
This post will also appear on Girls Leadership Institute’s new blog Woosh!
 

Photo credit goes to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aunto/

Vampire Confessions

Vampire

Hi. My name is Shannon. And I like vampires.

Let’s not forget the werewolves, witches, and shape shifters. I am confessing to all my darkest secrets right up front. Let’s have nothing but truth between us.

Some people blame their mothers for their character flaws. Well, I blame my daughter. After Winnie was born, I lost my taste for well-written prose – the kind of Literature one can read on the subway with head held high – in favor of what I will generously call “fluff.” We were engaging in marathon breastfeeding sessions, sandwiched between infinite marches to nowhere in Prospect Park. My couch developed a mysterious dent the size and shape of my bottom, and the gravel paths boasted grooves that fit my stroller perfectly. During that time, I just couldn’t find the mental energy to engage with the latest Toni Morrison or Michael Ondaatje.

That was my life. Couch, park, couch park. The proverbial door, then, was open for a vampire named Edward and his wisp of a girlfriend. Understand, this all happened before Twilight was TWILIGHT! Before the Comican craziness. Before vampire fang necklaces were all the rage. (Fang necklaces?? I am appalled! And, yes, I secretly want one.) Propping that book on my knee or on the handle of the stroller got me through some dark days. My daughter got a heck of a lot of “tummy time,” meaning “hush-little-baby-and-stay-on-the-blanket-while-mommy-finishes-this-chapter time.”

Turns out that Bella was just a gateway drug. After her came Sookie. Then Mercy. Then, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Amazon.com kindly pointed out that I seem to be interested in “paranormal romances” (THANK you, customer profiling!) and the site suggests many lovely titles that I check out by the cartload from the library.

All the while that I am wandering around with my latest obsession tucked under my arm, just hoping for a moment or two of reading time, I am becoming increasingly worried. I am wondering what this all means about me. So many aspects of my life have changed lately. I no longer work full time, which means no more pats on the back about how well I do my job, no more paycheck to spend as I see fit, no more community of supportive colleagues. I don’t have the time, money, or energy to spend with my friends the way I used to, so I always feel like I am either trying to catch up with their exciting lives, or making excuses for why I’m not around much. On top of all those losses, I worry that I’m losing my smarts. I worry that all this reading of low-brow books means that I am not as smart, interesting, or worthwhile as I was before.

And yet, even while I fret about my intellect, or lack thereof, I can not wait until my next chance to dive right into the fantasy book du jour. Somehow, I have re-captured a delight in stories that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. I no longer sneak a flashlight under the covers, but that’s exactly how I feel when I’m engrossed in a book in the middle of the night and everyone else is sleeping. I know that I should turn out the lights, but I have to keep reading – just one more chapter! It’s a joyful and familiar feeling.

I’ve heard people say that the best career choices have to do with what we enjoyed as children. Well, what I always loved as a kid was this: reading and writing. I used to stay in bed pretending to be asleep on the weekends, while throughout the house my family went about its business – never suspecting that I was kicking back two books before breakfast. Some were quality books – the Anne of Green Gables series was and is my absolute favorite – but many more were the same kind of silly, predictable trash I am enjoying so thoroughly now. The kind of book in which the girl has to choose between the rogue and the upstanding gentleman. (And she chooses the rogue every time.)

I’m starting to think that this lust for trashy books isn’t much of a change at all; I’m just returning to my roots. In addition to inhaling all the reading material I can get my hands on, I’m also writing more now than I have in all my previous adult years combined. (One of my many projects is my own vampire novel, a fact that I had not admitted to more than two people before now.) It all makes me feel as excited and full of life as I did when I was a kid writing reams of stories to show my parents, teachers, and classmates. How had I ever lost that love of stories, that hunger for words? Oh, yeah. I was busy reading Literature.

I’m having a blast, and I think I owe it all to vampires.

Photo credit goes to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usonian/