Sit Down, Look Up

I am revisiting Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything : Notes on Hope, a gift from a friend back in 2019 that’s been sitting on my nightstand ever since. It’s a short read, but a lively, incisive, and meaningful one, so after I finished I turned to page one to start all over again. As long as we are living the same, strange day over and over, I might as well read the same, wonderful book.

When I left my full-time job back in June 2019, the idea was to write more, to see where this sporadic, 11-year exercise in putting pen to paper might lead if I actually committed to it rather than squeezing it in here and there. But life had been so, so hectic up to that point, and it was summertime, so first I gave myself a few months “off,” perhaps to reconnect with a quieter, less-busy self and, I don’t know, make a vision board or something, whatever Creative People do. I have no idea. I think they make vision boards.

It all sounds so quaint now. Because, as we know, no sooner did January 1, 2020 roll around, and I decided to buy a new computer and do the damn thing (still no vision board; whatever)…and then the world broke and suddenly everyone was always around. Pacing, doing cartwheels in the living room, nervous, untethered, needing so many snacks.

It’s 2021 and they are still here, sitting at the table with me. School opened for a hot minute, closed again, then opened, but who knows for how long? There was a Spring Break, of course. We ride the wave with patience. Or try to, at least.

Are you still writing? Are you writing about THIS? Are you taking notes, at least? Do you keep a journal?

I do keep a journal, actually, albeit a somewhat formulaic one, with little prompts to which I devote about ten minutes a day. No matter : writing is writing, they say. Or I say. It’s like doing a ten-minute yoga stretch on a day (year) you don’t work out. Something is better than nothing. Right?

The problem is that I have developed a COVID-19-related ADHD of sorts. I would like to focus on something, anything, but must contend with a steady drip of interruption in the form of lost erasers, unexpected ChromeBook crashes, sudden impulses to experiment with food coloring, squabbles over what afternoon show to watch, a bouncy, bored nine-year-old throwing herself into handstands against the couch where I’m sitting, a 12-year-old frustrated almost to tears over pre-algebra homework…and I wasn’t kidding about the snacks.

I can barely take a shower and drink 8 glasses of water a day, much less write an essay.

Which is where the comparison creep begins. The world is full of she-roes : women with three, four kids who are holding down jobs and running charitable foundations and lobbying government and home-schooling and influencing and getting raises and getting featured in the New York Times. There are the friends in graduate school, the friends who are teachers or frontline workers; these ladies are killing it, and I get overwhelmed when I forget to buy milk? Pull it together, woman!

I didn’t used to be this way. Indeed, this is a relatively new phenomenon for me, this internet-enabled rabbit hole of self-doubt, one brought about by the reductiveness of conveniently being “not working” when the global pandemic rolled around, and therefore the most logical person to manage the family through it. No one’s employer got the short shrift. The kids have the undivided attention of a parent all day. We didn’t have to sacrifice an income. It is a privilege, and not one we take for granted. And it was a choice. I remind myself of this often; choice is its own luxury. But as time drags on and my self starts to feel slightly ghost-like, I understand that this arrangement was not without trade-offs.

Would writing help? I don’t know. My growing sense of inadequacy is demotivating. I go make lunches. I absent-mindedly decide to grow out my natural hair color. I do some sit-ups. A year into this…thing, I can hold a plank for five minutes. See? I have discipline.

I was talking to my aforementioned friend about this, the one who gave me the book, about how I’m trying to divorce myself from the notion that to be valid, to be relevant, I must prove that I am productive. I do dishes compulsively. Take odd little task-oriented consulting jobs for 5, 10 hours a week. Anything to demonstrate Doing Something. Sitting and writing and being creative while not getting paid and the kids zombie-out on the iPad isn’t doing something. Also it takes focus which, as I have already stated, I seem to have lost.

My friend responded with wise words about the dangers of the Worship of Productivity, reminded me that there was a time when the so-called Contemplatives and Thinkers were venerated. She encouraged me to write. Sent me an article from The Atlantic about mathematicians and the importance of just…thinking. (I love her.)

I listen to other people’s writing as I take my daily walks. I listen to Carvel Wallace’s heartbreakingly beautiful Sunday Read, Facing the Wind, and it stops me in my tracks on a walk, literally. I stand there, on a path by the river in the cool morning, and cry behind my mask and sunglasses as he reads his own story of pandemic parenting against the backdrop of racial injustice and unrest (please, please read or listen to it yourself — this description is woefully inadequate). I am floored by his eloquence, by how accurate, hard-hitting, and universal his words land, despite the deeply personal nature of the story, despite the differences in our experience. I allow myself — briefly, alone on the path — to stand in the vulnerability of parenting in general, but also in this moment. I allow myself to admit that, in fact, I have very little idea what I am doing. I am making it all up as I go. I am getting things wrong. I am inspired. I am unnerved.

Now THIS is writing, I think. The essay ends. I wipe my tears and retreat to the safety of snack-making, to think.

It turns out that masks and sunglasses make for very good weeping in public. I’ve done it a lot this year : every day that nothing happens, I am moved in some way by the hugeness of what’s happening. I’m a world-class weeper. But I don’t want to weep in front of the children. The world is upsetting enough. I might not have a clue, but I do have a job of sorts to do, and — goddammit! — there will be safety, joy, surprise, and consistency, even if outside our door there lies uncertainty and the abandonment of all expectations. Parenting : an act of sheer will.

Like several moments in my career, it is as if I landed here without planning it, and while the work can be lonely and frustrating with a high chance of burnout, it is also fulfilling and I kind of love doing it. So maybe I need to cut myself some slack? Maybe I should just make a vision board out of Goldfish crackers and early-morning walks by the water and healthy, happy children. To quote Hamilton (which my daughter has watched 43 times in quarantine) : Would that be enough?

But here is Anne Lamott again, admonishing me, as she does her elementary-school aged writing students, to just sit down and write already. “Stories are when something happened that you didn’t expect, that lead to some deep internal change in yourself or the main character. Tell it.”


She also suggests that we just “keep our butts in our chairs for a while, grip those pencils.” So maybe the problem is simply that I keep getting up, putting the pencil down. (For this, I blame the snacks.) Or maybe the problem is that I’m just looking straight ahead, searching for the light at the end of the tunnel, not necessarily noticing that there are skylights overhead, forgetting to remember that today I may be in the rabbit hole, but tomorrow I may have the chance to pull someone else out of it. You never know. It’s wild out there.

Maybe today, I will let the kids make their own snacks. Maybe they will have Klondike bars and Doritos standing up in the kitchen, dropping crumbs everywhere, and I will be distracted by the nutritional deficiencies of these choices. Maybe I will regret it. Or maybe, just maybe, I need to decide that today, that would be okay.

Leave a Comment