A little voice wakes me at 5:45 a.m.: “Mom, can I lay with you?” He doesn’t know what time it is and neither do I. I pull back the sheet and he climbs up, tucks his head into my chest and sucks his thumb. I peek at the clock, then smell his head. Some mornings, I wake this early on my own, but today this feels especially dark and early. He whispers: “Will you put me in my bed?”
We both climb out and I take his hand. It’s dark and we try to walk side-by-side down the stairs, but I have to go ahead – I’m taller and the stairs are narrow. I tuck him in and kiss his forehead, then walk to the kitchen to start the tea kettle. If I’m already up, it’s time to work.
I’ve been avoiding it for a few days, actually sitting down at the computer and doing anything. I want to write. I need to. But the longer I don’t, the harder it is to start. Yesterday, I spent over an hour in my journal writing about how I should be writing but I was afraid. It doesn’t make sense. My head builds a blockade for my heart and the two go to battle. It’s exhausting.
I remember when I realized I had a knack for writing and that I enjoyed it. It was eighth grade honors English class with Mr. Burruto. That year we read The Outsiders and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which I remember with such clarity. We also wrote a lot – Shakespearean sonnets, acrostic poems, and short stories. Mr. Burruto liked my writing and by the time I had woven a story about an older neighbor who only lived to care for the roses in her yard because they reminded her of her deceased husband (all fiction, but still), he was encouraging me to keep going.
After that I would hole myself up in my bedroom at night, writing terrible poetry into tiny spiral-bound notebooks. I would write about first kisses that hadn’t happened yet and often came back to an image of lying on the kitchen floor that I’ve never been able to understand. Writing did something for me. It gave me a place to put my feelings, it gave me safety. When I wrote, I felt understood, even if the only person who was going to read it was me and sometimes I couldn’t understand what I needed to say.
I was also serious about it. When in tenth grade at a sleepover an acquaintance said she wrote poetry, my initial thought was, ‘Not like I do.’ Though I’m sure I said something like, “Oh, that’s cool. Me too.” Two years later, I entered college and realized I wanted to write professionally but it terrified me, so I convinced my English professor that I’d be better suited to study Communication because, I said, I didn’t want to end up teaching. “There are other things you can do with an English degree,” he told me. But he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask. I just marched out of his office, sure I knew what I was doing.
I didn’t. Writing kept calling to me, anchoring me down in moments of distress, giving a voice to my tumult and keeping me grounded. But always in secret. There was safety in the secrecy of it, and that hasn’t changed. So much goes on behind the scenes – writing sentences then delete, delete, delete; shifting ideas, making connections, starting over and over again. It happens in the safety of solitude, a writer’s best friend.
The coffee is made, and I head upstairs to my office, hot mug warming my fingers. It’s 6:10. I might have forty-five minutes. A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast where a writer said she has to write before letting any of the other voices in. She likes to keep her voice pure and unaffected. I’ve thought a lot about that, about writing first thing before the day starts and I take anything in. But my execution is hit or miss. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking I should get up and write, and I don’t move at all because I’m too scared to face the blank page. Sometimes I’m just exhausted and the thought of getting into my heart and mind is just too much. That’s more often the case.
Since I’ve already gotten up, though, today I write.
I learned the term essayer in middle school French class. It means to try. It wasn’t until a creative writing class in graduate school that I’d come across it again, in my text for creative nonfiction. To write an essay is to try. It is to explore, examine, unpack, connect – you try and see if there’s something there, if you can create meaning, or if you actually have something to say. In another class, poetry writing, the professor would often quote Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho”: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
I didn’t know those two words – try, fail – would mean so much.
When you’re young and idealistic, you think that the small effort you put forth in anything will eventually yield the big results you’re looking for. Taking the job, marrying the guy, moving to the city, having the baby – these things will define you and you’ll give them your all, and your reward will be to sit back on your laurels and admire your well-lived life. By the time you’re not-so-young anymore, you realize that you’re exhausted because try and fail have been the overarching themes of your entire life, and not just your life but everyone else’s too. You pour yourself into something, anything, everything, only to find that sometimes the pieces don’t fit and sometimes they do. You make a fool of yourself and swear to do better. You make a mess and then a messier mess. You fail and fail and fail. And you know what? Samuel Beckett was right: you learn to fail better.
As I approached thirty years old, I was so excited. My husband and I had just moved back to New York after six years in southern Alabama. We had a two year-old and soon we’d have another baby on the way. I was certain that turning thirty would finally give me permission to stop flailing around and settle into who I am. I was thrilled at the prospect. I remember telling a friend that I had reconnected with that I was genuinely happy. Then, that year, the ground fell out from under me. I couldn’t adjust to my new job or the fact that we couldn’t afford any help with our daughter. My husband worked an insane schedule and I was alone too much. We had a misunderstanding with our landlord and feared our rental contract wouldn’t be renewed. And my father, who had always been my guiding star in both life and faith, got so angry with me one day that he left and didn’t speak to me for over a year. I was shattered. Thirty was the worst.
I wish I could say that I got it all figured out in the last five years. I wish I could say that everything is sunny all the time and I’ve worked through all of my issues from that one really hard year. I wish I could say that I’m healed and whole and, for lack of a better term, fixed. I’m not. In fact, when I turned thirty-five late last year, I spent over a month in a full-blown panic, worried that half my life was over and I haven’t accomplished anything. When a friend from college said she felt the same at thirty-five, I felt better. But what was that? Was it simply that we thought we’d have it figured out by now?
When I think about the word try, it means a couple of different things. One is to try harder, meaning in my own power by picking myself up by my bootstraps and doing the work. Another is to try again – to just keep going. It’s knowing that despite the hardship and the failure, the sun will come up again tomorrow with new mercies and a fresh start. And, of course, there’s don’t try at all, which I have come to learn means let it go and rest. Each of these meanings have their place. We try and don’t try; we fail, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we have to do the work, and sometimes we have to wait. But no matter what, we have to keep going.
The clock reads 6:57 and I hear little feet on the stairs. “Mom, can you make us breakfast?” I barely had enough time to think and settle into what I wanted to say. I need more time, but I’m realizing that there’s a time to sit and write and, just as important, a time to step away and let it all simmer. I need to go downstairs and kiss my children good morning. I need to make breakfast and wash the dishes. I need to help with homework and make sure everyone brushes their teeth. And in that time, I’ll think about what I’ve written and what I want to say next. Maybe I’ll scribble down notes on a scrap bit of paper, so when I come upstairs later I can finish what I started.