When You Bring Things Out into the Light

writing fears

I haven’t written anything in over a week. I was afraid this was going to happen, that I’d declare that I was writing again and not be able to write. I’m afraid I’d have something to say and be too scared to say it. I’m afraid that no one will care. I’m afraid to get into it – the space in my head and heart where my writing comes from – and not be able to get out. And all these fears swirl around and around until I can barely think, let alone write.

I keep telling myself to just write and stop worrying. But it’s like a TV playing in the background – you can hear it and try to ignore it, but you know you’d prefer silence. So it is with the voices, the worries, the fears. Maybe this is normal. How would I know? I was twenty-two years old and in a community of writers in graduate school, and never worried about fear or audience or who I was as a writer. I was just trying to pass my classes and do a bit of writing (and by a bit, I mean a bit – I didn’t realize then I should be writing like it was my job).

Back then, I was writing poetry because it’s what I knew to write. I had been scribbling poems into journals since I was a teenager wrestling my emotional life and feeling like there had to be more. By the time I was finishing college and deciding what to do next, continuing on to pursue creative writing seemed as good as anything else. While in college, I wrote about ten poems total, all of which went into my grad school application. Somehow, despite only applying to one program about twenty minutes from home, I got in. Then, the only time I wrote anything was when I had to.

To be fair, it was before the internet truly exploded and writing online was commonplace. Otherwise I would have been writing all the time in a live journal or some other online space. And maybe it wouldn’t have been poetry, but it would have been something. As it turned out, poetry didn’t hold my heart quite like creative nonfiction, but I found that out too late and stuck it out with poetry because by then I had a formula and had circumvented the hard work of actually writing. I’m sure that’s not what you wanted to hear, that I was a lazy writer and had figured out how to do the bare minimum. Maybe I’m short changing myself because it felt easy. Maybe I was a good poet and lost my passion for it. I don’t know.

What I know is that having a master’s degree in creative writing gave me some street cred and a certain level of confidence to keep writing. All of it was quickly deflated when I left the safe bubble of my writing program and went out into the world. I had jobs editing and writing and teaching, but I was never doing the work I wanted to do. When I tried to write something true, I’d get all jammed up and quit. That was often the problem – not knowing how to proceed when I hit the wall, feeling all the self-doubt and letting it win. (And these are problems I still deal with. Where’s my magic bullet?)

When I started blogging, it seemed safe. I didn’t have to get into the deep interior space that made me a writer. I could keep things on the surface and use all my writing tricks. I could call myself a writer without having to do any excavation in my heart. Win-win. Once I started taking pictures and figured out I loved photography too, I had all the loopholes I needed. Let’s make writing as easy as possible and throw everything behind taking a wordless photograph. Great idea.

The thing is, I’m good at photography. That made it easy to hide behind. I tried to make it my everything, put all my eggs in my photography basket, but I knew it would never replace the words, words I knew were inside me, threads I knew would someday need to be teased out. During all of this, I went to counseling. Several times. I dealt with my complicated past, my childhood and my difficult relationships with my parents, and found through the years that I’d deal with them again and again. I always thought I’d end up writing a memoir about my terrible childhood and I better figure it out and get to the other side (where it didn’t hurt anymore) before I could write about it. Here’s the dirty little secret: I’m still not over it. Things still come up. I try to deal with it. I lament that I’ll never be healed and healthy and whole, but it’s a process and it just might never be a complete one. Does that mean I can’t write? I certainly hope not.

What it means is that I have to figure out how to write despite not being whole. It means I have to wrestle my fear and have enough faith that I’ll get to the other side. And maybe I have to believe that writing will be part of the healing process for me. Still, I get so strangled by my own fear that I literally can’t breathe. My stomach hurts, and I’m likely to climb into my bed and cry until I’m floating away in a sea of tears.

And what am I afraid to say? I’m afraid to say that my faith is weak, that my father smashed it to pieces, that he told me terrible things about myself and I believed him, that he told me terrible things about God and I believed them. I’m afraid to say that I struggle almost all the time with my emotions, that they often leave me feeling alone and drowning, and that I’m a terrible sleeper, which only exasperates things. I’m afraid to say that I’m trying so damn hard every day and it never feels like enough, that I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to be a mother with no role model, that I’m still figuring out how to work from home and take care of my family, that I only work about ten hours a week and most of the time it feels like more than I can bear, that I sometimes I love the work that I do, but often I’m deeply ambivalent about it. I’m afraid to talk about the things in my head, deep things that maybe no one else thinks about, my fears and worries, my questions and doubts, how to make meaning out of life and how to keep going when it all feels meaningless. I’m afraid that I’m no expert in anything except uncertainty and the way I deal with it is by drinking red wine and exercising as hard as I can and often walking around feeling like there’s something wrong with me. I’m afraid to be found out as a phony.

They say when you bring things out into the light, they aren’t as scary as you think. Even as I type all of this, I can hear the voices in my head start: Everyone else feels this way too. They’re dealing with it. Why do you think you’re special? No one cares. And maybe some of that’s true, and maybe it’s not. Just last week, I googled how to deal with your critical inner voice and ended up blubbering in my bed about all the terrible things my dad used to say to me. I wrote each of them in my journal, drew a line across the page, then wrote a corresponding phrase for each one, something I can tell myself when the voices start: I am good enough. My thoughts and feelings are valid. I am doing my best. I don’t have to prove anything. I am not alone. I memorized the list, then whispered the simplest prayer I know, “Thank you, Jesus.”

I want to be a writer. I want to keep digging in, digging down deep into the depths of my heart, and writing about it. Here’s what I believe I’ll find: Something good, something true, something beautiful. That we’re all struggling with the same things. That we all want to feel loved and accepted for who we are. That we all have a complicated past and that we’re complicated people. That we have questions and doubts. That the uncertainty of life can be overwhelming. That we want to believe, at the end of the day, that we’re going to be okay. And one more thing: That God is bigger than all of this and even weak faith, faith that’s sometimes barely hanging on by a thread or that’s tossed aside like a child’s stuffed animal only reached for when the world feels scary, can grow from a tiny seed into something larger and sturdier than a seed could ever imagine being.

lindsay crandall writer

Let’s Start Over

lindsay crandall writer

I woke up late, I should say early. I rolled over at 3:30 a.m., glanced at the clock, and thought, ‘I still have about three more hours to sleep.’ Then I laid there, listening to my breath, trying to put off thoughts about what I forgot to do yesterday: take library books back, post on Instagram, send a birthday card. My husband got up for work at 4 o’clock, and I spread out in the bed, hoping to find a bit of comfort so I could lull myself back to sleep. I kept hearing noises – tiptoeing, banging. I drifted off into a strange dream, then woke at 7 to my children screaming, then the little one crying.

I felt exhausted, like I hadn’t slept all night even though I had gotten six solid hours, then maybe a couple of fitful ones. I hate waking late. My preferred wakeup time is 5:50, though I never set my alarm for it. If I wake then, I have a full hour before my kids come out of their rooms, a full hour to get my head on straight. But any time before 7 is preferable to still lying in bed when the kids come out and the day begins.

My son was crying, and I heard my daughter yell, “I’m just trying to get you breakfast!” I felt for both of them. I’ve always taught them to try to do things on their own first before asking for help, but it was backfiring this morning. I heard heavy feet stomp up the stairs, then lightly into my room. “Mom,” my daughter said. “Can you please get up?”

By the time I got downstairs, most of the fussing had been allayed. I kissed both children on their foreheads, then listened to their versions of what happened. “I’m so tired, you guys,” I said. “Just let me get some coffee.” Last night, we had a friend over for dinner. The night before, I was up late at my ceramics class. There wasn’t enough coffee in the world today. But I filled the kettle and put it on the stove, wiped my eyes, and put on some music.

Then the arguing started again. “You’re not my sister,” my four year-old shouted. That’s his response to everything now. Instead of saying he’s frustrated, he writes us all off – me, my husband, my daughter. I take a deep breath. “Guys!” I say, but they can see I’m wavering. I am wavering.

It feels like, no matter how many times I try to help them with their frustration and point them back to love, they can’t help but get into it. Maybe it’s just siblings. Maybe it’s our fallen nature and our selfishness (and no one is as selfish as a four year-old). But I’m suddenly flashing back to sitting in the truck with my brother while our dad was in the bank. We must have been about twelve and eight, and I was goading my brother with everything I had. Name calling, belittling, and finally daring him to hit me. Then, he did. He reached back and punched me square in the nose. But when our dad returned, he didn’t talk to us about our choices or restoring our relationship. We didn’t apologize to each other. Dad just shrugged and said something about how I got what I deserved.

When I became a parent, I swore my children would be friends. We’d be the kind of family that said we were sorry and always kissed each other goodnight. We’d fight not with each other but for each other, and at the end of the day, we’d restore whatever might be broken. But this is easier said than done. In fact, it takes a tremendous amount of work and intention, and for this mama who didn’t grow up with that attitude, it takes a ridiculous amount of energy. Energy I didn’t have this morning. So, it was confession time.

This often happens when my husband is at work and I’m home with the kids. He works for twenty-four hours, so I’m with them for a handful of hours more than that, trying to parent them on my own, and often failing because my partner is gone. Or it feels like failing because I can’t be in two places at once or because I can’t be two people at once. Here’s the script: “Guys, I love you, but I’m having a hard time. I’m very tired (or impatient or frustrated or emotional or whatever). I’m sorry. Let’s start over.” Some days, I say it over and over while I alternately cry in the bathroom. Today, they listen, give me a hug, and suggest we play cards.

I finish making my coffee and sit across from both of them, as they’ve teamed up against me in Skip-bo Junior. The Lumineers are playing in the background and this hot coffee feels good in my hand. I shuffle, then deal, and we begin. I turn the cards over and my daughter says, “Mom, I’m gonna beat you this time.” We both laugh, and I say, “We’ll see.”

Trying and Failing

Lindsay Crandall writer photographer

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.

Burning the Granola

lcp_1488

It’s been years since I last burned the granola. Three homes and one kid ago, five states away. We rented a little bungalow in midtown – two bedrooms, a little more than a thousand square feet – where my daughter took her first steps, and my husband and I walked the neighborhood most days hatching a plan to move back north. I was struggling with motherhood, having left a full-time job I didn’t love to teach part-time and stay home with my new baby. Like many new moms, I felt like I lost my identity and couldn’t fully embrace the fact that my life would never go back to normal. Instead, I’d spend years trying to accept that this – a little face staring up at me, taking in who I was and what I did and reflecting it back – was now normal. 

When I left work two weeks before my daughter was born, I knew I wouldn’t return. I didn’t love my job as a proofreader for a trade magazine. I was bored every day and told by my supervisor to fill my idle time playing games online. I should have been writing, but instead I spent the bulk of my day chatting with coworkers and reading blogs. Once my husband and I did the math – both the income calculations and the math in my heart – we decided I’d stay home with our baby and adjunct part-time at the college. Then, I added in the part about trying to be a perfect housewife and suddenly learning how to cook. That’s what moms did, I thought, and I was determined to rock this mom thing.

I figured out quickly that I hated to cook but loved to bake. This worked out well because my husband loves to cook. So he cooked dinners and I started researching bread recipes and how to make simple, delicious granola, two things that I had no clue how to do. I had read in Kathleen Norris’s Quotidian Mysteries that baking bread was one of her favorite and most contemplative activities, and I found that for myself. It was slow, the kind of work I could fit in around a new baby’s sleep schedule. But granola was a whole other thing. Somehow I’d gotten it into my head that making granola would make me a good mom. If I figured out granola, maybe I could figure everything else out too.

I wanted granola to be uncomplicated. I realized quickly, as I perused recipes online, that granola was perhaps not complicated, but it was also not simple. Many recipes had a too-long list of ingredients, most of them expensive. I just wanted simple. I wanted to throw something together, quickly stir, then put it in the oven and forget. The simpler, the better. No mistakes because being a mama was making me feel like I was always making mistakes. Over a thousand miles from home and family, every day felt lonely and tiring. Even though my baby slept, I didn’t. I was filled with anxiety about who I was and the family I was creating. How could I ever do this? Couldn’t I just make granola and feel okay about myself?lcp_1493

When my daughter was born, the day we were supposed to leave the hospital turned out to be the same day my mother flew in to visit. She and I had always had a tough relationship. She and my father divorced when I was eight; several years and too many fights later, I would move out at sixteen to live with him, not her. She didn’t make granola, but I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t the thing to do in the early eighties. Still, I was riddled with doubt about who I was, what I was doing, and how I was ever going to be a good-enough mother. Just a few months earlier, me with my giant belly and navel turned inside out, we decided to put the past in the past. Now my mother was here, peeking around the hospital room door, me different than when she had seen me last — the baby now on the outside, and me on the same side as her, a mother. 

Something shifted inside me that day – the feeling that I was no longer a child and was now, maybe, an equal, a peer, a friend. I quickly realized I was not my mother’s peer. I was a tiny little girl who needed someone to mother her. I needed her to cheer me on when I cried, to run the vacuum and take me to the store, to tell me about when I was a baby, to answer questions about my childhood. She stayed for a week, and it was both relieving and exhausting. I learned more about her than I thought I might ever know. More about her, more about me. And several months later, in a phone conversation where I was giving her hard time, she would say to me, “You know, Lindsay. You’re a mother.” I would realize she was right. If I wanted to be a peer, a friend, I had to grow up. 

I’d have to learn to make the granola.

So I did. I rifled through recipes and decided to go to counseling. I wanted answers about what I had termed “my crappy childhood” and how I could ensure my daughter wouldn’t have a crappy childhood of her own. I wanted to learn how to be the kind of mother who not only made the granola, but made sure her children felt loved. More than anything, I wanted them to feel loved. 

My counselor suggested we work through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and, to this day, I’m not sure how this qualified as counseling. But at the time, it seemed to work. I was digging in and something was happening. I asked questions about what kind of person I wanted to be, what kind of mother, what I didn’t like about how I was parented, why I was so angry. I journaled all the time, writing whatever morning pages led me to. I also made the bed each day, taught myself to sew, and settled on a simple granola recipe.

I figured out that if I stripped down all the dizzying recipes with too many ingredients, granola consists of just a few things: oats, nuts, and oil. Too much more than that is just getting fancy. Too much more is unnecessary. As my daughter grew into a toddler, I made granola again and again, tinkering with the recipe, memorizing it. The thing about granola is, you can’t just make it and walk away. You have to keep returning to the oven to stir the granola so it bakes evenly and doesn’t burn. Even distilled down to a few ingredients, the granola needs attention.

So, of course, I burned it. I burned granola a lot. I got caught up in my writing and burned the granola. I got distracted by my toddler and burned the granola. I stepped outside to feel the sunshine on my face or chase the dog out of the garden. The granola burned, and I learned that these things take time. Just like unpacking your childhood takes time, and learning to write well and figure out your faith and be a better wife and mother than you think you had and finally being able to forgive.    lcp_1499

And today, as I started tossing ingredients into a bowl, distracted by my children’s questions and my desire to sip my coffee and write, I forgot to set the timer and stepped away from the granola. It hasn’t happened in more than five years, and it didn’t occur to me that today would be the day. I didn’t know that I would open the oven door to a giant cloud and hear the charred oats and nuts sizzling in the pan. The smoke alarm went off and the kids shrieked. My husband turned it off and I said, “I thought I had this figured out by now.”

“It’s okay,” he said, and my daughter, now seven, came over and gave me a hug. “Do you want to play cards?” she asked. I felt foolish for my mistake and realized she didn’t care. She doesn’t care if I can make granola or bake bread or cook a magnificent feast. She never did. I put the scorched granola outside to cool off before throwing it away. The morning was chilly and I wasn’t wearing a coat. But for a moment, the sun was shining on my face and I drew in a deep breath before heading in to play cards.

Writing from the Heart

lindsay crandall photographyI have sat down to write this post several times over the last few days. The refrain playing through my head is, write from the heart. I’m not sure I even know what that means right now. Write from the heart. How?

I keep telling myself to be fearless. Just go ahead and be fearless already. Write what you have to write and keep moving along. But what I have to write, what I have to say, feels like a muddy mess in my heart. Everything in there is jumbled and well-intentioned and feels overgrown like a weedy patch where you might find a few prickers.

creating still life table with flowers and coffee

When I first sat down in October, bright with anticipation over what writing a blog might mean for me again after a few years away, I didn’t have a plan except to be all in. I wanted to show up and be seen, and I’m happy to say I’ve shown up, I’ve been seen. That commitment has brought me so much.

Most recently, I was asked to teach a few more photography classes on Skillshare, which I am over the moon about. It’s exciting and humbling. I’m having to be more fearless than ever. As I considered this opportunity, I kept thinking, how can I not do this? I need to embrace it. This is where my work is taking me.

It’s also taking me more into the world of stock photography, having been invited into a few programs where I’ve been selling my work. I’m really excited about this new venture too, even though most of the work is behind the scenes.lindsay crandall photographyAll of this is so good and, honestly, what I’ve wanted. And now I’m here and it’s here, and I’m reevaluating what needs my attention. I want to continue writing in this space, not so much because I want to keep giving to my audience but because writing here is for me. It is where I slow down and tap into what my heart is saying. It’s where I get real about what’s going on behind the scenes, what I’ve learned, what conversations I want to start.

But here’s the thing: I think I need to let go of the blog a bit. No editorial calendar. No set schedule. No pressure. I want to write from the heart when my heart has something to say.

creating still life table with flowers and coffeeFor now, I need to focus on research and outlines and being poised in front of the camera. I need to take photographs every day and keep doing the creative work that keeps me going. I will still be here working, creating, photographing, and sharing. It may not be in this space every Monday and Thursday morning, but I’ll still be here, tucking those heartfelt thoughts into the hem of my new work. My heart still has a lot to say.

—–

I have an essay up at Makes You Mom on learning to see my children without a camera. You can read it here.

A while back I also wrote an essay for Art House Blog on reading fifty-two books last year. You can read that one here.