Notes on the Writing Life
Jesse and I are walking through a park more quickly than I prefer, as storm clouds glide toward us. We aren’t here for leisure. Our daughter, Hadley, is running a cross-country race, and we’ve come to watch. Thunder pulses and it feels like it’s shoving me in the back. Hadley doesn’t run for 15 minutes and we’ve brought our dog, Corby, so Jesse and I are doing our best to give her a chance to let off some of her abundant energy while keeping an eye on the weather, the time, and Hadley. The air is sticky and electric. My flip flops sink into the gravel and the mud, and when we walk through tall grass it clings to my shins. This is not an ideal situation for running a race, nor is it for watching one, but here we are.
The park reminds me of a race I ran earlier this summer. It was a 5K broken up by obstacles. I tell Jesse this and say how much fun it was while we walk and wait.
“I’d love to run that race competitively,” I tell him while Corby sniffs a burrow. I watch her, hoping she won’t get a mouse or whatever else makes their home in the ground. I ran the race with Harper, our younger daughter, and some other mom friends and their daughters. It was silly and rowdy and fun, which was the point that day, but someday I’d like to see how fast I could complete it if I were to train for it.
I wonder about this desire to push myself. I have no competitive inclinations to beat anyone. It’s always been about me having the courage to not only step toward what I want, but to keep at it. If I can run two miles, maybe I can run three. If I can run five miles, maybe I can run seven. Can I run this hill? These stairs? This narrow, muddy path?
The same has been true for writing. If I can start a blog, can I take a writing course? What about graduate school? Can I publish essays? What about a book?
I’ve been running and writing regularly for over 10 years now, and the answers to these questions have never stayed the same. Sometimes I can run seven miles; sometimes I have to walk after three. Sometimes I can write pages and pages and other times one sentence takes hours. The unpredictability is no doubt exhausting, but it’s also what keeps me coming back. What will happen when I’m frustrated, when I’m feeling strong, when I doubt, when I have faith? Can I use all of what I experience to push myself forward? Can failures also be used creatively and productively?
Hadley is at the front of the pack at the start of the race. She is literally front and center. She’s a freshman in high school and this is her second cross country meet. I point this out to Jesse, and we both chuckle. This is how Hadley’s been since she was born. I don’t think it’s only about being the first, or the best, or the fastest, though that’s part of it. I think that is where Hadley believes she can get as close to the experience as possible.
I remember a time when she was not yet two years old, and just walking, and I’d taken her to story time at the library. Parents were sitting on the floor in a circle with babes on their laps while the librarian sat on a chair and introduced the story she would read. As soon as she lifted up the book, Hadley left me and walked toward the story. The librarian gently encouraged her to sit down and Hadley did so only when she was assured she could be right in front of the book.
Later, when Harper was born, Hadley was constantly grabbing her hand and showing her the very loud, very bold, very energetic world Hadley lives in and loves. Why wouldn’t anyone want to experience life any other way?
Hadley runs past us. She is determined, confident, fast, and I know what she loves about the beginnings of these races. As introverted as I am, I love the positive and hopeful energy that flows around us as we all set off together. She fades from my view and into the woods, where the runners will spread out, the adrenaline will wear off, and Hadley will be in the middle of things.
“Let’s go stand over there,” Jesse says, pointing to the trail across the field. “We’ll see her when she comes out of the woods.”
Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles as we make our way across the field.
Another high school cross country coach, a friend of ours, sees us and strikes up a conversation. “Where’s Hadley?” he asks. I like that he always asks us where she is at these meets, even if he’s a competitor. I tell him she should be running along any second now.
“This part’s hard,” he tells us, and I think he’s referring to the course. Is it because it’s hilly? Narrow? He says, “No, it’s the middle. Now it’s all a head game, and you have to decide who you want to be.”
Hadley comes out of the woods, slower, but still looking determined, and strong. I watch her and I wonder if she knows this about middles—here is where you decide who you want to be. Here is where you learn who you are.
Over the summer, I started taking a jazz class in the same studio Harper takes ballet, jazz, hip hop, and pre-pointe. I danced decades ago, and since we’ve moved to Ann Arbor, I’ve been saying I want to dance again. Most years, I print out the course offerings but I’ve never had the nerve to sign up. My excuses are rational: we don’t have the money, our schedules are packed, the girls have activities we need to get them to and attend.
The truest part though, whether it’s rational or not, is the part of myself that is afraid to begin. When I think about dancing, I think about myself at 17—strong and graceful and confident. I am no longer these things, and while I want to be, while I’m not afraid of doing the work, I am afraid of facing myself in a dance studio mirror, hearing the music, and feeling the parts of my body that, from memory, believe they can do what they once did, and realizing that actually this will be a very slow and continuous beginning, that it will take work to get into the rhythms of the middle that I so love. That in fact, for months, I’ll be beginning, and beginning, and beginning.
But I signed up. Partly because a friend asked if I want to, and partly because I learned recently that there is a question that is asked in a certain tribe to those that are anxious and depressed:
When did you stop dancing?
Now, it is September, and I’ve signed up for the Autumn jazz class. It is 90 minutes instead of 60, and at least right now, it is all technique, which feels like 90 minutes of a beginning. Rarely do I have the moments when I lose myself in the music, making it so what I’ve been studying and practicing solidifies. I would like the relief of the middle, where the work gets deeper, and eventually becomes a part of me.
The experience reminds me of when I had to write annotations alongside my creative writing in graduate school. Annotations are two- or three-page papers on how a book works. They were (and they still are) intimidating and grueling. I never believed I got the hang of them. Each one felt like I was beginning again.
I think of those papers during dance class, because often, our instructor will stop what we are doing and break down the turn, the leap, the step we are practicing, and she annotates it for us—she shows us how the dance works.
During one class, we worked on something called a Surprise Leap. You start to sachet sideways, and your body is to the back of the room. Then, a quick pivot that turns into a jump, that turns to a leap to the front of the room.
I could not do it. Everything I did was awkward and wrong. I’m pretty sure I looked like a chicken that had been thrown into the air.
After breaking the move down, I still was unable to get the hang of it, but our instructor gave us one more lesson: “Keep your head held high.” I always figured keeping my head high was for the middle of the dance, when I knew what I was doing was difficult, sure, but I was more sure of the steps, more confident in my efforts. My instructor said even at this developmental stage, we must present ourselves, and it’s not because we are perfect, or that we’ve mastered anything. It’s because we are beginning.
Her words reminded me of the cross country coach at Hadley’s meet, and what he said about deciding who you want to be. I’m thinking now that this holds true for the middle as much as the beginning of things.
I wait for Hadley at the finish line while raindrops begin to plunk on the leaves overhead. I wonder what she’s deciding about herself. I wonder if she knows that what she’s decided most likely will change. I hope she can find the strength to keep her head up no matter how bad the storm gets; no matter how many times she begins.
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