Like all of us, I’ve always been of the belief that actions speak louder than words. But over the past several months, I’ve been thinking about how loud words do speak, particularly if you are a memoirist.
I’ve had many years of writing and publishing (mostly here on my blog) to teach me that those who are written about will read your words closely and they will take them to heart, naturally. I have also had the luxury–I humbly admit–of those characters showing me extreme grace and forgiveness.
My memoir writing journey began in my very early twenties, and because I knew virtually nothing about memoir, other than having read a couple of them, I approached my writing this way: I wrote everything about everyone and used all their real names.
Now, I look at my pages and I see the truth, yes. But I also look at those pages and see real live people with real live emotions, and I have to honor that. At this juncture, having written the meat of the story, and revised it several times over, I have a choice: Do I change names or soften the story? Do I painstakingly sort through and assign similar sounding names to key characters? Cousins, boyfriends and bosses? Or do I keep their names and speak as if they are there in the room with me: with honesty, integrity, and compassion?
Writers in the genre have all heard the same line, “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly.”
It’s a fine starting point, a line to help you get your pen moving across the page. But I am curious to hear from other aspiring memoirists if it’s that same sentiment they think of when crossing over the threshold into querying and publishing.
Because, after all, most books do not become overnight bestsellers. What if we memoirists, in the end, sell our books only to our family members. If your book subject matter, childhood trauma, wouldn’t make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation, well I don’t know what would.
But here’s the thing, when it comes to me, the majority of those who have purchased the books I have self-published are not my family. I haven’t had a Thanksgiving with my mother, ever, and abandonment, whether comfortable or not, is central to my story. I cannot untangle myself from the truths and tell some other story. But maybe I can tell my story with a balance of both transparency and grace. Maybe. That’s what I hope for.
Back when I first started writing The Poetry of Place, long before it had a title, long before I’d changed my mother’s name to Moonbeam, and long before I started dragging my pages through critique group, it was all about the therapeutic benefits of memoir. I didn’t think of it in those terms back then, but looking back I’d really, really, really needed to exorcise my story. I was always a writer, from elementary school on up. So my story–once I finally realized it’s potential–became viable subject matter. And my intention morphed from the therapeutic benefits of writing to the creative challenge it presented: Writing a book worth reading.
So rather than “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly,” how about, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Most people agree with that statement, and I believe the message is being conveyed through my memoir. Therefor I cannot take responsibility, or blame, when expressing, in so many words, something that we all agree is true, that “hurt people hurt people.”
But that’s what it all comes down to, responsibly. Because memoirists aren’t just airing our dirty secrets, but in some cases the secrets of others, too. In turn we have the potential to create a significant portion of someone’s legacy. And that is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Ever.
As I cross over the threshold into querying (that’s the long process of landing an agent or a book deal), and as I refine its final pages, imagining its bound version, I weigh my options. I am trying to strike a balance that honors both what I’ve endured, and protects the inherent innocence of those surrounding the story itself. Because none of us are perfect. Not even close. I think the most helpful advice I have heard is to be as hard on myself in the story as I am being on others. I assure you, given my nature, that my flaws will come across strongly in the final story. No matter what version you get.
We woke up to rain. Big droplets clinging to the rhododendron and sunflowers outside the bedroom window. Every day on the weekend I ask myself the same thing: Should we stay home and clean, or leave and spend money?
It would be a stay home and clean kind of day.
Usually I welcome fall with open arms. If the fact that we named our daughter ‘Autumn’ is any indication…But this year I’m just not as warm to fall. The summer was long, and scorching. One of our farm cats perished in the 108 degree heat. More positively, we managed to get some family time in with loved ones. Long overdue visits and quality connections as we somehow managed to not even get the Coronavirus. Several times, I thought we had. This most recent time impacted A’s experience at preschool — she missed her first whole week. Over a cold. But we rolled with it. Rolling with it is just the way now. Things change all the time. With headlines like, “National Guard Deployed to Drive School Busses in Massachusetts” and “UN is seeking $606 Million in Emergency Aid for Afghanistan After Taliban Takeover,” we’re living in a totally new reality. Disappointments are common place. Ours are minor.
I started gardening this summer. With a lot of cooperation from my fiancé and our neighbors, a plot of food erected itself, now in view from our bedroom window, beyond the rhododendron and sunflowers. My life is layered and rich. We have tomatoes and peppers piling up in the kitchen, and are running out of freezer space. I’m going to miss the days of summer…stretching on and on. Brown shoulders. Blackberries. Golden sunsets.
With the rain, the environment feels to have shifted beyond its allotted amount while we slept. The moon when I last looked was half full — now it appears almost completely full. It is waxing and ready to shine. Last night, a coyote was howling — more like yelping — and it wouldn’t stop. I went outside to make sure it wasn’t down with the chickens, having a feast and tipping us off with its cries. Barefoot on the dry pale grass, it felt like no one was aware of this animal but me. It was ten o’ clock at night and everyone else was sleeping. I shone my cellphone flashlight in the general direction of the coyote — like what was that going to do? When I went back inside and crawled into bed, the yelping suddenly stopped.
Maybe the coyote doesn’t want summer to end, either.
This pandemic, hanging over us like a curse, feels just a little lighter in the summer. We can pretend that things are sunny, even when they’re not.
Then I came across this quote, which I felt echoed the changing season:
“Historically, the Waxing Gibbous Moon symbolized the concept of ‘final steps.’ It is a time of the month in which people strive to complete their projects, just as the moon strives to become full. As such, it represents the hardest part of the month for many people. How the Waxing Gibbous Moon behaves is instructional for our lives. For instance, it doesn’t require the hard work of change. Instead, it trusts nature and energies and always transitions to the full moon, without fail. Thus, we should try to do the same.”
The words were an antidote. Meant to counteract the insecurities I am currently feeling about Autumn being in preschool and, more specifically, my routine changing as a result of that. I used to be on the farm all the time, now I will be in town two days per week, minimum. A temporary sacrifice to provide Autumn with her Montessori preschool experience. I don’t want to give up my work-from-home life, but when quotes like the above one jump out at me, I’m sensing that I need to adapt. I need to have some faith that something good can come from being in town. (It just goes against my instincts. Hashtag hillbilly.)
I will leave you with this, “Through the unknown, we find the new.” If you, like me, are feeling negative about the future because you just can’t predict it; then what better time to attract the things–and places–that feel right to us? My life is a blank page, waiting to be filled with all the right things. Finally, at thirty five years old, I feel like I can trust myself to choose wisely what will ground me. No matter where I am.
After waiting a full five minutes for the lodge’s hot water to kick on in the shower, I wash my hair twice with 2-in-1 Shampoo and Conditioner. Autumn sits on the shower floor, folding and unfolding a damp washcloth. We are on a girl’s trip to track down Dad, who lives off-grid in Northern California.
Sometimes I don’t know if my writing frees or pains me, if it liberates me or holds me captive. We tried watching TV but turned it down to hear the creek outside–Patrick Creek–a tributary to the Smith. Now I bounce Autumn on my foot, trying to soothe her toddler boredom, and somehow keep my pen to paper, too. I’d say she can’t sit still, but the same would have to be true for me as well. (Proof: I couldn’t stay put on the farm this weekend. I simply woke with the urge to ramble home.)
I told myself it was justified to see Dad. Steve gave me his blessing, and then tried to suggest routes and game-plans. But I already had it mapped out in my mind; we’d get a hotel room closest to home. Hiouchi Motel or Patrick Creek Lodge.
The rooms at Patrick Creek Lodge have mission-style furniture and vaulted redwood ceilings. In the past I would have camped in the van or a tent or on my best friend’s couch in Crescent City. But the pandemic has changed everything. You know that.
Driving south on the I-5, the words “Do whatever you have to do to feel alive” came to mind. So maybe that’s what this is really about, more than seeing Dad.
I’d forgotten how when we travel, it upsets Autumn’s natural rhythm. She gets antsy and angsty and now she sits across from me indian-style on the white 70s-style bedspread. “Let’s talk,” she says so we talk about what’s outside the window: bushes, trees, lights, leaves. There are no other cars in the parking lot and I am uncertain if there is an overnight watch person or not. The friendly fellow who checked us in said he was “locking up and heading home for the night.”
A couple and a lady stumbled out of the bar around 7:30 p.m., piled into a full-sized pickup and drove south toward Gasquet (gas-gee). Other than that, crickets (metaphorically of course, because it’s winter in these woods). The temperature registered at 34 degrees but it was sunny and t-shirt weather all day. Of course we only got out at a rest stop somewhere near Riddle, Oregon.
Pacific madrone and redwoods, that’s what I came for. Other than to connect with Dad, the man who raised me. Pacific madrone with its smooth chopstick bark, the redwood groves already shooting up toward the sky, just seven or ten miles into California.
When the sun set we decided it would be best to surprise Dad first thing in the morning, rather than an hour or two after dusk. Dad, like me, is better in the morning. Freshest and sharpest and most optimistic. We both like to have our coffee, too.
As a girl, Dad took me to this very lodge once for breakfast. The waitress seated us by a window where we could watch Patrick Creek flow by. A small porcelain ramekin held strawberry and grape jelly packets. I chose grape jelly to smear on my sourdough toast, not because I liked grape best, but because there were just two choices: grape or strawberry. I knew that a better family, one that would come in next, would have a little girl or boy who would prefer strawberry, and that kids from better families always got what they wanted because of people like us. I knew that my going without kept everything in balance.
The grape jelly kind of tasted like the liquid cough syrup Dad sometimes had to force down my throat. He’d either pin me down on the cabin floor, knees holding down my kid-arms, or convince me that if I plugged my nose I couldn’t taste it, so then I’d just drink it myself. I hoped that kid enjoyed his strawberry jam, whoever he was. I was in heaven just with the butter alone and the creek flowing by.
Dad sometimes liked to elbow his way in to a class above our own–the ski lodge at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, riding elevators in the business district in San Francisco, the fine dining restaurant in The Wharf where we just ordered appetizers, then sheepishly paid and left. Dad has a penchant for experiences he can’t quite afford, and if I am being honest, so do I. But at least it’s a penchant for experiences, not a penchant for things.
“What are we going to do tomorrow, mama?”
“Well, we are going to get up…”
“Use the restroom?”
“Yes, use the restroom.”
“And then what?”
“And then we are going to make mama some coffee and Autumn some breakfast.”
“Yep. And then we’re going to take a walk down to the creek. Patrick Creek.”
In my minds eye I can see the dirt path leading from the lodge, then along Patrick Creek, and under a bridge to where the creek forms a confluence with the middle fork of the Smith River. In a past life, before Autumn, I would make a pit stop here. The middle fork of the river meanders southeast through mossy canyon walls until it intersects with the south fork of the river. You head up the south fork, and that’s where I’m from. I was raised in a single-room cabin that burned down in a fire in the year 2010. Now Dad lives in a fifth-wheel his ex-girlfriend gave him.
“And then?” Autumn asks.
“And then, after our walk, we are going to see Grandpa Rob!”
“See Grandpa Rob?” Autumn repeats, in her high-pitched voice. It’s as if the higher pitched her voice, the more likely she will get an answer she’s satisfied with.
We haven’t seen Grandpa Rob since Father’s Day–five months ago–when we met up with him halfway between his home and ours and ate salmon bagel sandwiches on the bank of the Umpqua River. He didn’t eat much that day, and it worried me. But I am always worried about Dad: worried about him driving distracted, worried about him choosing nutritious over junk food, worried about the steel parts collecting on his property, worried about his future. But mainly, I’m worried that he’s sad, and that I had something to do with that sadness.
Autumn is snoring now. She is laying on her back, mouth slightly open, arms and legs splayed, sleeping off the day. Today was a big day. She said the word “California” and dealt with her mother’s impulsive need to “connect with her roots,” enduring what turned into a 4-hour drive. She kept asking for “Nana” and “Grandpa Norm,” her father’s folks who she is more acquainted with than Grandpa Rob. Dodging fallen granite from rock slides in the road, and manuevering corners I haven’t seen since Aunt Dort’s memorial in March of 2018, I tried to explain, “No, honey, this is mama’s family. Mama has family too.”
“No, I wan’ see Nana.”
I don’t know what to expect in the morning. That’s the thing about mama’s family. It’s the reason we pulled back at dusk, instead of gunning it forward. In the past, I slept on riverbanks or friends couches, desperate to connect with my dad but not willing to endure his lifestyle off-the-grid, which due to his disability and a variety of factors, has degraded some through the years.
But my soft place to land has always been these hills, fog hanging in the treetops like ghosts, white fingers wrapped around the branches of the evergreens. This place hasn’t moved an inch since I left home. Oh, but it has. I’ll be lucky if I can still recognize myself in the mirrored reflection on the water.
I close my journal, place my writing pen beside it on the nightstand, and open up a new Sun Magazine. Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “The Only Real Story” jumps off the page:
“A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wiser or safer than its habitat. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place.”
I didn’t know what to expect in the morning. I didn’t know that we would arrive just in time for coffee, and that Dad would pour me two steaming cups, before hitting the trails just outside the doorframe.
I didn’t know that Dad would be fine, not sad at all.
I didn’t know that we would hike the land of my youth until noon, with Autumn on his shoulders.
I didn’t know that we would crouch by the rivers and streams and say blessings.
I didn’t know that I would harvest bay laurel and Dad would locate a field of matsutake mushrooms.
I don’t know that when no one was looking I would press my forehead into the earth, addicted to the feeling of the damp soil crushing into my third eye.
I don’t know that Dad would go on and on about God, as he always does, and I would just gesture at the nature all around us as if to say, “Yeah, but…this.”
I didn’t know that it would all be intact: the land and the dad, just as I’d left them.
“Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
I’m trying to get them all to live together. Farming and writing. Parenting and writing. The truth is: the adventure is real and I want to tell you about it. But through the years, I’ve separated the two (particularly farming and writing) in my mind. I’ve always had a tendency to do that when it comes to work…concerned that it takes away from my real job of writing.
But farming is our lifestyle. We live on a farm. We live on a farm we are growing. We are business owners—after four years in business, I can finally see that. I feel it. I have hope in it. So when I recently rebranded my blog “Mama Bird,” it’s because I know that my identity–as a mama and a farmer–is at the root of my story now. I can’t outrun it, I’ve tried.
There’s a whole lot I am figuring out, internally, about becoming a mama and farm wife and owner. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. It isn’t simple. It’s typically idyllic, but not always. As a farm wife and parent, I have a lot of domestic responsibilities. But does that pay? This feminist wants to know. The balancing act is sure to be at the heart of my writing.
It’s a season of trust for me, and has been since I’ve undergone such seismic changes: becoming a parent, getting engaged, starting a farm, coping with an ageing parent. I am 35 now (as of yesterday!) and my life barely resembles what it did ten years ago. An immature part of me clings to the idea of who she was and the vision of the life she has lost…but a larger part of me can see my life clearly as one that I’ve built with intention and now am at the center of. How do I articulate that feeling? What do I write about when I used to write about longing…for the life I now have? Do I still write about longing…or do I write about something else now? Do I write about maintaining?
Is maintaining as provocative as longing?
Writing doesn’t just make order of my feelings, it contains all of my life’s experiences—yoked. Or it should.
I enjoy raising animals: the monotonous, physical work, the rhythm of chick pick-up, chick-to-pasture, chicken-to-processor, our sustainable model of raising livestock, watching the rotation of poultry and ruminant out on the pasture, the changing of the seasons in the hollow, the nature of business ownership, the people.
I don’t enjoy mercy kills. When you raise thousands of animals in a year the reality of death, for every living being, becomes a starker picture. It brings to mind metaphor and regularly makes me want to grab my pen and write about it. I never thought I’d have to make the call to decapitate a baby chick or duckling, but it’s a semi-common occurrence, when an animal just isn’t thriving. I place Autumn out of sight of the chopping block whenever I raise my ax. I feel good that I can end the animal’s suffering. But I sometimes wonder if the chick might have made it had I left it alone (though I know intuitively that isn’t likely, and that I made the right choice).
I guess if I were to write about Now, it would be less about longing and more about building. And then rebuilding. Because if that isn’t at the heart of parenting, marriage and farming, I don’t know what is.
Motherhood is complicated. Before I became a mother, my goal was to try to not become one of the moms who changed her social media handle to “Autumn’s Mommy” or who, when talking to non-parent friends, only talked about parenting. Popular opinion seemed to say that moms like that had “lost themselves” and that losing yourself, or changing, was a negative thing. But I want to point out now how very strong those mommies are, and how necessary their transformation was for their child to thrive.
The truth is that there are all different types of moms out there. And the mom who proudly displays her love by saying she’s “so-and-so’s mommy” is probably a really good one. There are moms out there who can manage a household of four kids with grace and a genuine sense of happiness, and others for whom one child seems plenty. There are Scary Mommies (whose “confessions” can be downright frightening) and there are women who have never become moms at all. I think that those women, too, deserve recognition.
I’ve meditated a lot on the things I think women should know before they become parents. I’ve found there are two types of women who I believe shouldn’t have children at all: those who cannot take care of themselves, and those who have a lot of exciting personal or career opportunities going for them that they don’t want to give up.
Of course that’s a generalization, but I’ve found that idea that parenting is mutual now—that dads will step up and meet you equally in the household—is an idealistic one. Statistics point to women taking a huge hit economically when becoming moms, and have even linked becoming parents to the wage gap. (See the “Explained” episode on wage gap which describes the 1-5 years that women take off to manage the household the actual reason responsible for the difference of pay in men and women. Mind blown.)
So as I line up fifteen blueberries in a row on the countertop in hopes of occupying Autumn for fifteen seconds of peace and introspection, I think about Mother’s Day and what it means to me. One aspect of what it means to me is having honest conversations with women about what parenting is and isn’t. And making this information accessible to young women, who may have idealistic visions of what modern motherhood will look like for them. Another meaningful aspect of this day for me is the opportunity to point out how important the work a mother does really is. (See: unpaid work of women in a society that equates high monetary return with success.)
Becoming a mother is such a deeply personal choice, dependent on factors like your current career possibilities, your ability to communicate effectively with your partner, your marital status, your ability to pay for childcare, or your access to free childcare (i.e. grandparents), or not.
I know for me the last factor really impacts my choice to not have any more children. It’s easy for a mom who has both sets of grandparents in the same city to feel that one should have a second child because “no childhood is complete without a sibling.”
But that logic just isn’t going to work for a mama like me.
Many of my readers know I have an estranged relationship with my own mother. Yesterday, I was driving my minivan and I was doing this ultra-mom move where I was throwing french-fries to Autumn in her car seat, which was facing away from me in the back. It dawned on me that my natural mom and I never had a relationship on even this level. The ease of communication that I have with my one-and-a-half year old is the first time I’ve experienced this natural state of a mother-daughter relationship.
“Didja get that one, babe?” I asked Autumn.
“Yea!” She responded, and I could imagine her shoving the salty stick into her chubby face.
A few nights ago, we both started giggling uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Love joy. A similar warmth like the closeness I’d experienced with the french-fry incident enveloped me. Autumn has become an extension of myself.
My own mother, a nineteen year old, hadn’t made the transition to mommy in time for me to experience it. Luckily, when my brothers were born, she did.
I think one misconception is that this transition happens naturally, and for some women, I’m sure it does. But for many others (maybe more than we know), it is a choice.
So if you know an “Autumn’s Mommy” or an “Emmett’s Mommy” or a “Marigold’s Mommy,” consider yourself blessed. It means that despite the world wanting to preserve her “coolness” or “sexiness” or “youth” or whatever it is they don’t want to see change, the woman stepped into her role. And she makes that choice every single morning she wakes up.
A friend invited me over for a visit but I know it’s all I can do to just put the three square meals on the table, support Autumn through her toddler learning, keep our house picked up and in order….and maintain some sense of inner peace and sanity today. I may even proudly call myself “Autumn’s Mommy” and hope that my man sees how hella sexy—and important—the title really is.
This Mother’s Day, I ask that we embrace—celebrate!—the natural changes that come when women adapt to their new roles and realities. Because the truth is that (with the exception of a few) dads change a little bit, but mamas change a lot. And the second that your household mommy stops doing what she’s doing is the second your world becomes unmanageable, messy, and chaotic.
Women of my generation are educated and have more opportunity than ever before yet many have adapted to become someone’s mommy. I want to point out the absurdity of expecting them to not lose some aspects of their earlier selves during the transition to nurturing, teaching, and raising our young. I raise a strong mug of coffee to Somebody’s Mommy today. You sexy as hell.