People sometimes ask me, “How is your writing going?”
“Fine, thanks,” I usually say, even when it isn’t. But I am a terrible liar, and lately I haven’t even been able to muster enough energy to say those words.
It’s not that I haven’t written — I still journal some, and I free-write when I’m leading my writing support groups for WomenSafe. I’ve written a few blog posts this year, and put a lot of heart into composing the eulogy for my uncle’s memorial service. But this is the first year in a while that I haven’t written or published anything real, like an essay or a poem. I haven’t been doing what writers are supposed to do — which is to say writing stories and submitting work — and when this problem is revealed by an acquaintance with good intentions, I start to feel a little down.
A lot down, that is.
The truth is, my writing is not doing well. It has been worrying about my girls, volunteering for too many things, going to the grocery store and back. It’s been spending too much time on the internet, scowling at the headlines, feeling rage at the president. It has been elusive, unreliable, and unwilling to show, even when I’m disciplined and create the time and space.
My writing just doesn’t come around anymore and I don’t know why.
I’ve been running a lot instead. So far this year, I’ve run somewhere around 675 miles. Most of those miles were in preparation for an Ultra Ragnar relay race with five amazing friends, but deep down I know that what I’m really doing is running away from my problem.
Sure, I run because it’s social and meditative and healthy and all that shit, but in reality, I run because it’s easier and less painful than sitting at my desk. I run because I can count the miles and track my progress and feel like I’ve done something positive with my day, which is more than I could say if I spent it trying to write some words. For the first time in my life, writing is really hard for me.
My daughter, M, has a learning disability — a complex assortment of attention, executive functioning, and processing speed issues that make it more difficult for her to access her education. The most significant impact of her condition concerns her ability to write.
I recognize this irony. Teachers are often surprised when they discover that I’m a writer — children of writers shouldn’t struggle so much to put words on a page. It’s like some perverse version of the cobbler’s children having no shoes: the writer’s daughter has no sentences.
It’s difficult to articulate without sounding melodramatic the grief you feel when your child does not possess the particular skills that you yourself have taken for granted. And I’m not talking about an unlucky strike to the ego, like being an athlete with a clumsy kid — I’m talking about the skills you need to make it possible for you to function in the world. I’m talking about the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas, the ability to express what you know and how you feel, to show the world glimpses of the treasure within your mind.
It’s in there, that treasure. I know it.
When M is overwhelmed by a writing task, she gets stuck. She can sit at the kitchen island for hours, unable to produce a sentence. She fidgets with her pencil and eraser, her squishy toy, her hair. She picks at her finger nails and releases long, deep sighs.
I routinely check in to see if I can help. I ask questions and offer suggestions, but she stiffens and covers the page. So I leave her for a little while longer to give her some thinking space. When it’s been long enough, too long, I try to coax her from the kitchen, give her permission to take a break. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” I say. “Your teacher will understand.”
Usually, though, I have to physically pull her from the kitchen island, release her grip from the counter, unravel her skinny legs from the kitchen stool. She can’t begin, but doesn’t want to end. There’s something in her that wants to come out; she just can’t seem to figure out how to put it on the page.
I know exactly how she feels.
It’s not that I haven’t written — I write emails and memos to the school, advocate for accommodations in the classroom, negotiate adjustments to the homework. I write thank you notes to the teachers, fundraising letters for the school. I write only what my anxiety will allow me to write — which is to say nothing real about what it feels like to be a mother to a child with learning challenges. Or how my body possesses muscle memory of the worry that I feel — it’s deep and familiar, a worn path that I stumbled onto as a child and have trekked again and again and again, carving a deep ribbon into earth and delivering me to that place I can never quite escape: You Are Responsible for This, and Now You Must Take Care of Everything.
The other day, my mother told me she’d found some old letters I had written her during my freshman year of college. She was going through her belongings in preparation for an upcoming move.
“I ended up re-reading some of them, and I got pretty emotional,” she said. “I’d forgotten how hard it was for you.”
How so? I wondered aloud. I hadn’t remembered feeling homesick — What I recalled was wanting nothing more than to escape and move far away from the dysfunction under our roof.
“You wanted to be there for me,” she said. “I think that was hard.”
All at once my memory of the guilt rushed in — the guilt of leaving my mother behind in an unhappy marriage, of leaving my younger brother in the wake of her depression, of feeling like I’d abandoned them in an emotionally vacant home. I had finally reached the escape hatch with my whole life ahead of me. My mother didn’t have that luxury, and had resigned herself to despair. My brother, nearly six years younger, didn’t have a choice.
“What did you do with them?” I asked my mother. I secretly hoped that she had packaged the letters and mailed them to me, like she had done with so many other artifacts from that period of my life. I wanted them as evidence of all the emotional work that I had done.
“Oh, I threw them out,” she said, without missing a beat.
It breaks my heart when M is paralyzed at the kitchen counter. I can’t leave her there like that, I think. I need to help her get out of the woods.
I try to coax her out, try and try again to coax her out, and then, like a marshmallow in a campfire, my soft compassion contorts into ugly, blackened anger. Anger for all the reasons that parents feel frustrations with their kids: Eat your food. Go to sleep. Do your homework. But this frustration feels different because there is something beyond her control that keeps getting in her way — a matter that goes beyond the boundaries of discipline, requiring skills above and beyond the normal expectations of parenthood.
But also, the muscle memory. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought: I can’t leave her there like that. This isn’t the first time I have felt that what I’m expecting of myself exceeds my capabilities and makes me feel in over my head. I can’t leave her there like that. I can’t leave her there like that.
That might have something to do with it. My writer’s block, that is.
I’ve tried all kinds of ways to avoid doing this work. I tried moving far away, and when that didn’t help, I wrote and published a few scenes from that childhood path and then suffered the consequences. I’ve tried writing about other things. I’ve tried literally running away.
But M is my little zen master, forcing me to circle back and look again. Meditate, so I can be here for the present moment. Even if it takes me all day. Even if it takes me all night.
I twirl my hair around in my hand, winding it tightly around my index finger. A long, deep sigh. Release and then do it again. I have to promise myself that I will keep showing up.
But it’s okay to take a break, I tell myself, getting up from the kitchen stool. Your teacher will understand.
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.
This is beautiful, Mary Heather. The way your thoughts and words cascade allows me a place to float. I can feel your pain and sadness at every slice of white . May you always show up and take breaks whenever your heart needs them. Much love, my friend. -Emily
You also are master. You bet it’s okay to take a break. It would not be okay if you kept going when you need a break. Keep being you, beautiful mother, wife, daughter, writer and friend to so many readers.