The Secret

That’s the actual pile of shoes inside my front door right now. And that’s more contained than usual. As far as I can tell, chaos in not contained to any one life stage. The following was originally posted on less-please.com in 2017. As that lovely site is no longer available, and since I desperately need the reminder from time to time, I’ve posted again here.

“How did you do it?”

Now that my kids are a little older, moms of younger kids sometimes ask me this, gently probing for the elusive secret to my arrival at this stage of greater sanity.

I understand why. I’ve felt it, too. The certain knowledge that there is some key to winning at parenthood, one that others have found but that’s always just out of my reach.

Can I tell you a story?

It was late morning in our house outside the slums of La Plata, Argentina.  

I was on the couch combing my four-year-old’s tangles. My husband stood in the doorway watching out for street dogs while our puppy sniffed around for the right spot.  The two-year-old was playing, the baby was sleeping, and we had 20 full minutes before we had to leave the house. Peace and harmony.

Then it all happened at once.

The dog caught a scent and took off running. My husband followed, leaving the front door open. The two-year-old announced that he had wet his pants and solved his own problem by stripping off his clothes just as the baby woke up and began to cry.

It was the classic dilemma of motherhood: the baby needs me, the toddler is naked, but if I let the preschooler go now, she’ll walk around all day with a matt of thistles on top of her head. God help me, I prioritized the hair.  

I was still reassuring myself it was the right choice when the two-year-old, stark naked from the waist down, walked straight out the open front door. 

I know, you saw that coming, but can I confess it was a minute before I noticed? Fortunately for my son, though not my pride, a passing neighbor saw the half-dressed, unattended child and came over to shoo him away from the open sewers and back inside the house.

Then, this being Argentina, the neighbor stayed and chatted for a while.

“How did you do it?” the question goes. (What do you have that I’m missing?)

You want to know? I can tell you exactly how I did it.

I did it holding an angry preschooler, while a baby yelled in the back room, a two-year-old ran around with his butt in the wind, and a near-stranger looked on and asked how I was enjoying the recent sunshine.

That really was it. I did it messy, I did it loud, and I did it overwhelmed.

I did it like a lunatic.

I did it like a mom.

That woman sitting on the couch while three small humans exposed her every weakness? She didn’t know any secret.

And that is the best part of the story. The part where the freedom is found. The part where my pride got broken down enough to realize the truth:

There. Is. No. Secret.

There is no magic key that unlocks your best life. There is just getting up every day and living it.

Nothing could be simpler (or more difficult).

My best, happiest, most freeing days as a mother have ended with me slumped on the couch, laughing until I cry. (Or, let’s be honest, crying until I laugh.)

Then I let go of my dream of perfection and I remember the stuff of my real life.

I remember the screw ups. Like the time I thought a sweet hummingbird was in my kitchen when it was actually a giant moth that terrorized my children. Or the time I left the window open at night and a stray cat came inside the house where my baby was sleeping.

I remember the chaos and the clutter and the couch stains and that somehow we still get to the end of every day alive and loving each other so much it hurts.

Because wherever we live and whatever we’re like,  as parents we only ever have to do those two things: love them all and keep them alive.    

Our life looks different now.  The kids are taller and can do things like mow the lawn and discuss important novels and tie their own shoes.  The house is slightly cleaner and a whole lot quieter. But we’re still doing it the same way. Still riding waves of chaos and craziness, of homework and hot tempers.  Still providing entertainment for our neighbors.

We’re still alive, and we’re still in love, and that’s the only secret we know.

 

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People Are Weird. Especially Your Family.

“He’s only a man, Tom.”

“Believe me, I know,” Tom said.

“Do you? You may not worship him like your sister did, but you hold him to a superhuman standard anyway.”

“He’s the one who sets himself up to be superhuman.”

“We’re his family,” Jul said. “It’s our job to see past that.”

-TWIN, Chapter 32

Family. Just that one word made some of you cringe, didn’t it? Family is wonderful. Family is awful. Family is comforting. Family is awkward.

I come from a small family. I have one brother. I have two first cousins. We never lived near either of them until I was in high school. We moved every couple of years while I was a kid, and none of those moves were super close to extended family, so it was pretty much just the four of us (Mom, Dad, brother, and me). That was normal for me.

My husband comes from an Irish Catholic family (yes, that is a descriptor of size). He has three siblings and nearly fifty first cousins. Many lived in the same city he did. His family owned a small business. Extended family sometimes worked for the family business. At least once a month was someone’s birthday or graduation. There was a family party for all of them. That was normal for him.

Whatever you grow up with, whether you hate it or love it, you think it’s normal. Kids are like that; they don’t know any different.

Then you become an adult. You meet more people. Maybe you marry into a second family. Maybe you adopt one. Maybe you make your own. And it hits you.

No one is normal. Least of all your family.

Like I said before, people are complicated. Or as we say in our family, “people are weird.”

“Alexandra had been and was still technically married to a large placid man named James Hancock, who ran a cotton warehouse with great exactitude for six days a week and fished on the seventh. One Sunday fifteen years ago he sent word to his wife by way of a Negro boy from his fishing camp on the Tensas River that he was staying down there and not coming back. After Alexandra made sure no other female was involved, she could not have cared less. Francis chose to make it his cross to bear in life; he never understood why his Uncle Atticus remained on excellent but remote terms with his father—Francis thought Atticus should Do Something—or why his mother was not prostrate from his father’s eccentric, therefore unforgivable, behavior. Uncle Jimmy got wind of Francis’ attitude and sent up another message from the woods that he was ready and willing to meet him if Francis wanted to come shoot him, but Francis never did, and eventually a third communication reached Francis, to wit: if you won’t come down here like a man, hush.

-Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

I mean it. People are weird. Unless you were raised by wolves (in which case, let’s talk!), you were raised by people. And no matter how good those people were, they were strange in some way. They had quirks and flaws and streaks and qualities. They did things that now make no sense to you. They said things that now make you cringe. Right?

Even worse, family members are often not that good. They’re often selfish. They hurt people, thoughtlessly or intentionally. They inflict pain. They cause damage. They run away.

Dad says you still love us. He’s like the perfect poster child for divorce: Adults are complicated! Sometimes people change! But everyone still loves the kids so much! I nodded at him like I was supposed to. But you moved out. That and your supposed love are two supermagnets that repel each other. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make them touch.

-Rebecca Stead, Good-bye, Stranger

That’s the struggle we all face as we grow. Nothing is as simple, or as normal, as it seems like it should be. The people we have counted on fail us, and the people we’ve known our whole lives seem to understand us the least.

Because even though it seems like our families should be the place where we know and are known, it doesn’t turn out that way. With the people who share our blood and the people who share our home, everything is personal. They’re right there in our face, and our eyes struggle to focus. The principle of perspective works against us. We’re so close, we can’t see clearly.

He loves a version of me that is incomplete. I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

–Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

Of course, the intentional effort to see and to understand our families is a beautiful gift. I can make the attempt to shift perspective, to see my brother, my father, my mother as a person and not just a person who affects me. I can make that choice no matter what choices they make. And I should.

But I can also recognize my limitations. I can accept that I will always be too close to set aside my feelings.

I can accept that family isn’t for being objective. Family is for being biased. Family is for being so close that I can’t see clearly, but I don’t really have to. I am for you, whether I get what you’re about or not. We’re on the same side no matter how weird our side gets. Being fully for someone is love.

I can accept that family is close enough to wound me deeply, and if they do, if they have, I’ll have to bear the pain they’ve caused. And while I can and should draw boundaries to protect myself, that distance will also cause pain. That’s how I’ll know I love them. Bearing pain for someone is love.

“There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is a grace too powerful to name…Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”

-Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

I really can’t imagine. But I want to. I need to. It’s the only way. Because there is no normal. There’s no ideal. There’s only real. And I want my real, weird family to endure.

Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.”

-Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

The Case for Laughter

“Don’t worry. All this positivity won’t last. It’s just the fish talking.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

“Understandable. Talking fish would be terrifying.”

Cara stared. “Did you just make a joke?”

–TWIN

Can I make the least controversial statement ever? The world sucks these days. It’s not just lately that everyone with any power is using it to oppress anyone with less power. The world has always been like that. But now I’m one of the grown-ups, and the weight of it settles on me in a new way. I’m the girl who could always fall asleep (anytime, anywhere), and now I have nights where I lay awake with anxiety gnawing inside. I know I’m not alone.

I’ve said before that there’s no running away from negative emotions, that they have to be faced and given a name. I believe that with all my heart.

But I’d be lying if I stopped there. Because naming our pain and fear is only the beginning.

The critical next step is to laugh at them.

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.

–Kurt Vonnegut

My husband and I have been hanging out with hurting people for almost two decades now. We’ve seen some serious horror and lived through some of it ourselves. Sometimes people ask how we’ve kept doing it. Of course, there’s no real answer to that. You keep doing something by, well, not stopping.

But if you want to know one the ways we stay sane, I can tell you: we laugh.

When I’m in bed with a racing mind, my husband makes up songs about our dog. They are epically (comically) bad. When he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, I make fun of the weight or the world or sometimes him. Only because he likes it. We trade memes. We watch a lot of stand-up comedians and a lot of SNL. Please get us started sometime on our favorite sitcoms.

Sure, sometimes we’re laughing to take our mind of things, watching comedy to escape reality, but our favorite laughter is the kind that cuts reality open rather than denying it. Because laughter is a weapon. It’s a shield to protect us from despair and a sword to skewer our dread.

It was a lot harder to believe you might lose a war when you could still laugh on the morning of the last battle.

–Alwyn Hamilton, Hero at the Fall

Laughter doesn’t just represent a hope that we will conquer our present pain or difficulty; laughter is a victory itself. Laughter says, “I may not be able to control this, but it doesn’t control me either.” If I can laugh, I am still myself. No matter what has happened or will happen, those things don’t define me.

Which is why when I sit with a devastated friend and we laugh at the very situation that’s caused them pain, we almost always say, “This isn’t really funny,” but we keep laughing anyway. Because we can if we want to. I may have no choice but to cry but I ought to at least have the choice to laugh. Is it inappropriate? Yeah. But it wasn’t appropriate that any of this crap happened in the first place. The S.S. Appropriate has already sailed.

And that’s how you go on. You lay laughter over the dark parts. The more dark parts, the more you have to laugh. With defiance, with abandon, with hysteria, any way you can.

–Laini Taylor, Strange the Dreamer

But how do you do it? How do you turn to laughter instead of tears? Obviously, you can’t always get there. Sometimes pain is too great or just too fresh. Some things are so horrific, it feels like a betrayal to laugh in their face. But then, it’s those very things that later breed the darkest and most important laughter.

It’s an issue of perspective. Laughter is powerful because to laugh at something, we have to step outside of it. To the person falling, the experience is only pain. To the one watching from a distance, it’s hilarious. Have you ever seen someone walk into a spider web when you are too far away for the web to be visible? In a split second they go from walking normally to gyrating in a dance of waving arms and whipping head. There is no way not to laugh, even though the same thing has happened to you and you remember the horrible sticky feeling. Perspective shows us that though one side of the experience is an unpleasant shock, the other side is a spontaneous and ridiculous dance.

My point here is not that we should keep people at a distance and laugh at them. On the contrary, when we are watching someone fall, we should put ourselves in their place and empathize with their pain. But that same thing can be done when we are the ones falling. We can put ourselves the shoes of an observer and let ourselves laugh at the undignified mess of our own troubles.

That kind of perspective takes practice; you have to consciously choose to engage it. I read an article a couple of years ago in which a famous preacher quoted one of his old professors, giving a series of resolutions for maintaining mental health. The lecture in question was given the year I was born, so I didn’t have high expectations for his understanding of the topic, but what I read delighted me, and I’ve thought about it often since then. Resolution #1 has become one of my regular practices.

1. At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.

–Clyde Kirby, English professor (from a lecture in 1976)

There’s the perspective we need to laugh on our darkest days. I am one tiny creature in a vast universe. This ball spins and spins in a giant vacuum, and somehow I walk its surface and don’t fall off. On the other side of the world, there’s a woman my age walking upside down and convinced that she’s the one who is right side up. We hurtle through space around a flaming ball, surrounded by dangers that could cause our immediate death. And here we are, walking around in our thin layer of breathable air, content to ignore all of it. The whole thing is deliciously ridiculous.

Truthfully, Professor Kirby’s resolutions are wonderful, and I highly recommend you click through and read them all. I don’t share his disdain for introspection, but I do believe in the importance of not getting lost in it. We balance introspection with intentional engagement in the world in all its intricate variety. In that balance we find joy. I especially love resolution 6:

I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.

–Clyde Kirby

Every time I read that resolution, I feel my breathing ease. The freedom to see a tree swaying in the wind and not wonder if its beauty is enough to counterbalance the horror in the world. To not think about how I should really do more to take care of the trees in my yard. To not think any important thoughts at all, but just to look at the tree’s motion and feel the satisfaction that such a thing exists in the world. I can listen to my cat purr or breathe in the fall air, and it doesn’t have to mean anything. It can just be joy.

That’s the lesson of inappropriate laughter. Joy can liv e alongside sorrow and laughter can live alongside pain, and the two don’t have to be at war. They can just be.

And I can take the weight of the world off of my itsy-bitsy shoulders and laugh that I ever thought I could lift all that anyway.

Behind the Door

He had never seen her like this, lost and unsure. Without her unshakeable calm, she was a different Cara.

For the first time, he realized that meant he had to be a different Tom.

–TWIN

I can still remember the day I realized that in the story of my life I was as much villain as hero. I was at that in-between age, not completely a child but definitely not an adult. Most of my free hours in those days were spent holed up in my room with my hands wrapped around a book and my head in some other world where I was someone exciting and wonderful. In reality, of course, I was a tangle-haired preteen in a disgustingly messy suburban bedroom.

That hole of a room was a point of serious contention between me and my mom. (I know, I was such a unique snowflake, wasn’t I?) One fall day, when the room was particularly rank and I wanted nothing more than to be left alone, I remember standing in the hallway, blocking the door as my mom tried to enter. I’m not sure if it was the general horror or if there was some particular thing I didn’t want my mom to see. It could have been unauthorized candy wrappers or moldy crusts of food I had sneaked. It could have been the litter of crayon papers and the soot-blackened china cup where I had been melting crayons over a candle for no particular reason. Whatever motivated me, instead of facing the inevitable (and appropriate) judgement, I stood in the hallway and calmly told my mom that I needed my room to stay private for a few weeks because I was working on making Christmas presents for everyone in the family.

I know. This was a total lie. Not only were there no secret gifts of love, I hadn’t even thought of such a thing until that moment. It was just a noble sounding reason to have no one come inside. And it worked. Whether she believed me or just decided not to press the issue, my mom didn’t even try to enter. I slipped back in and closed the door behind me and felt the pride of my success battle with the depressing knowledge that now I would have to take time away from my self-absorbed daydreaming and crayon-melting to figure out some kind of present to make for people so that I wouldn’t get caught in my lie. Yes, that really was my main concern.

It was only in the very smallest part of my mind that I let myself see what that lie meant about me. That lie, more than any of the other hundreds of little lies I had told before, made my thoughtful and loving and loving self nothing more than a cover for a selfish little hoarder. And the only thing standing between my hero image and my groveling reality was a thin wooden door and some ridiculous bravado.

Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered. She could not decide whether to let them crumble or to try desperately to save them.

–Adam Gidwitz, The Inquisitor’s Tale

I don’t tell my little story to be self-deprecating or to make a mountain out of a pre-teen molehill. I tell that story precisely because it is small, and because I’ve come to believe that this is how most of us are living, a series of small daily decisions to invest more in our images than in our reality. And I’m not primarily referring to the image that we present to others. I mean the images we hold of ourselves and by extension the images of others we cling to as we maintain our own.

You know how much I love words, but I’m afraid they are often our enablers in this self-deception. Words can call out the truth, but they are still just tools to uncover reality, they aren’t reality itself. If we let them, words freeze our thoughts in place.

Fairy tales give the impression that people are easily categorized as good or evil. The characters in novels always have perfectly scripted words to say to express their love or to solve their mysteries. Historical figures are defined with the clarity of hindsight. News articles neatly label people and events, placing them into easily-digested groups.

It’s so easy to believe this fixed picture of the world. Until we spend time with real people.

Real people baffle us by being both wonderful and terrible. Real people seldom communicate clearly. Real people defy definition and slip out from under the labels we give them. Who wants to deal with all that? The snapshot was much less hassle.

And yet we feel so alone.

And each and every one of us standing in the garden that night would take an entire universe of stories with us when we died, the accounts of every small moment that did not seem grand enough to storytellers, which would disappear in smoke when our bodies were burned.

–Alwyn Hamilton, Hero at the Fall

Much as we might wish to be, we are not characters in a story. We are humans, made up of all our moments, noble and craven, grand and ridiculous. We have the strength our fragile bodies can hold and we have a finite set of days to live. We struggle to know what we want because many desires battle inside us. We are a tangle so complex that it takes a lifetime just to know ourselves (if we ever arrive at that sought after destination).

And so is everyone else we know.

Your brother, your wife, your father, your old friend. They are more than just those words. They are a mixture of memories and motivations, of decisions and dreams. Your hero, the one you are most invested in keeping on a pedestal, has deep flaws and will almost certainly fail you under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Worse, your villain has redeeming qualities, which don’t negate their villainy but do complicate judgment. Every human being on earth is fascinating and awful and wonderful and boring.

And that. is. good.

When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.

–John Green, Paper Towns

This is the key to ending our isolation. We have to take the good and the bad together. We have to stop ignoring or condemning the cracks and peek through them instead. We have to accept that it’s complicated.

“But I had never wanted to be her boyfriend. I wanted something smaller than that, and far, far bigger, something I couldn’t yet put into words…I wanted the two of us to be complicated together, to be difficult and and blindingly brilliant.”

-Brittany Cavallaro, A Study in Charlotte

You see the beauty of it, right? I let go of my image of you, and I love you as the complicated human that you actually are. Then I’m free to be loved as I am. I can open the door to my grubby little bedroom and stop inventing gifts that I don’t know how to produce. I release my grip on the narrative of my life and I speak the contradictory truth of me out loud.

I’ve always loved the idea of the Speaker for the Dead that Orson Scott Card presents in his novel Ender’s Game.

“They began to live by it as best they could, and when their loved ones died, a believer would arise beside the grave to be the Speaker for the Dead, and say what the dead one would have said, but with full candor, hiding no faults and pretending no virtues. Those who came to such services sometimes found them painful and disturbing, but there were many who decided that their life was worthwhile enough, despite their errors, that when they died a Speaker should tell the truth for them.”

–Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

As it turns out, speaking the truth about our lives is more deeply satisfying than the most beautiful lie. It proves that we were real, that we lived, and that the truth of our life is something worth telling.

What if we could give one another that gift? The gift of being known. The gift of being accepted. The gift of being.

What if we dared to speak before we were dead?

I have always loved maps. When I was younger, my family would take long road trips, and (anytime I didn’t have my nose in a book) I would sit in the back seat with the big travel atlas open on my lap. Seeing the world laid out in grid lines was both comforting and exhilarating. For me, owning a map was like flying. I could see the big picture, chart a course for anywhere, and with the entire continent on one page, nothing seemed too far away.

Of course, reality is never exactly like the map.

This summer, our family and another took a road trip in a twelve-passenger van. (It was amazing, but you can see why careful planning would be important.) Today, of course, I have Google Maps, and if an atlas makes you feel like a superhero, Google maps makes you feel like a god. Riding high on this power, one day we decided to alter our original plan and backtrack from the Black Hills to the Badlands. The kids really wanted to go, so Google Maps and I chose a route that ran along the southern edge of the National Park (good views! I thought) and that wouldn’t be too much drive time (it’s not far! I thought).

We started to drive. Across a few dirt roads and onto a state highway. Through a small town and then out of that town onto a gravel road. A gravel road that stretched for fifty desolate miles through a Native American reservation where next no one lived and absolutely no one drove. We were alone. With no cell service. On an unpaved road. In the literal middle of nowhere in South Dakota. God forbid someone in the back of that van have to pee. (Someone did.) I gripped the wheel and drove on into the bright blue sky of God-knows-where, and I felt incredibly small in a world that was so much larger than it looked on the map.

“We’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.”

“We spend our lives learning many things, only to discover (again and again) that most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant. A big part of our mind can handle this; a smaller, deeper part cannot. And it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are (whether we like it or not).”

― Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

In a world where every mile has been mapped, where a satellite can find you anywhere and you carry the sum of human knowledge in a device that fits in your hand, it’s so easy to feel that we’re the masters of the universe. We walk around with an unearned confidence, making plans and outlining truth as if we can line up the whole universe and have it all come out right.

We cling to our laws (both scientific and political), to our economic systems, to our theologies as if they are the solid ground that keeps us safe.

We hold up a map and say, “This is the world.” But of course, it isn’t. It’s just our best attempt to draw it.

It seemed, in the 1930s, that the whole course of humanity was at stake. As it very often does today. Too many people wanted to find an easy answer to complicated questions. It was a dangerous time to be human. To feel or to think or to care.

–Matt Haig, How to Stop Time,

It feels like building a system of rules or sticking close to a well-known map would be safe, but in reality, it holds a terrible danger. Because in order to make any system, any map, we simplify the world, and simplifying the world automatically makes us wrong. It’s not that our facts are inaccurate; it’s that they’re inadequate.

Systems fall short because of complexity. The world is vast and intricately detailed. Doctors can study anatomy until they’ve mapped every cell and DNA strand, and still the system is so complex that the body will do things they don’t expect and can’t explain. That’s just inside one physical human body. Should we get started on ecosystems, on solar systems, on human behavior? There is too much to know, too much to understand for our brains to hold it all in place, and every description we make falls short in one way or another (or in millions of ways at once).

Systems fall short because of change. The world is not static, and humans especially are always in flux. Is it true that there are patterns and cycles and predictable cause and effect relationships? Yes! It’s also true that patterns break, people pass away, sometimes whole species disappear, the earth shifts, rocks fall, lava flows, and nothing is what it was before. We can describe what we’ve seen and act according to what we reasonably predict, but sometimes, many times, we will be wrong.

Systems fall short because of mystery. Just outside of everything we know lies the vast realm of what we don’t know. There are very real parts of our world that can’t be experienced with the senses. You may not want to believe that, but to deny that some things are beyond your ability to measure and explain, you will have to ignore centuries of experience and wisdom.

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

–William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Believe me, I feel all the reasons for not wanting to admit how little we know and control.

Staying open to being wrong is terrifying. We all want to feel that we are standing on certainty, that we know what is right and what is true and what we are supposed to do. When we can’t have that, where do we stand?

Staying open to being wrong is humiliating. I like to think of myself as intelligent. I like to feel that I’m wiser and more discerning than most. If admitting I’m wrong wounds my ego, living in a constant awareness of my inadequacy completely deflates it. I’m not a fan of that feeling.

Staying open to being wrong is exhausting. I finished a book this year which took more than a year to conceive, research, and write. By the time I had finished, hundreds of hours had gone into it, along with so much of my mind and heart. Then an editor read it and pointed out the ways it fell short, the areas that needed rearranged, reconsidered, rewritten. It was disheartening to contemplate beginning again, the number of hours left to work, the distance yet to go before I finished. And yet, if I didn’t do the work, I’d be left with a shoddy book.

It would be so much easier to cling to my current pile of knowledge and accomplishments and refuse to budge. So what if my pile is partially garbage? It’s still tempting to say “No! I’m the king of this pile of garbage. It smells awful, but at least I rule here.”

Or I can swallow my fear, put my ego aside, and muster the strength to climb down off of my pile of garbage and build again, build better than before.

may my mind stroll about hungry

and fearless and thirsty and supple

and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong

for whenever men are right they are not young”

–e e cummings

Listen, I know that swimming in a vast sea of the unknown isn’t possible forever. I know that we all need somewhere we can rest. When I say we should build, I mean it. Build theories, build philosophies, build systems, build laws, build plans, build ideas. Build a boat and let it carry you. Walk around on the deck you’ve constructed and be happy there. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve built solid ground.

It is possible to live happily and productively in the tension between knowledge and uncertainty. We can make our peace with being incomplete. We can assert our beliefs strongly and still admit when we are wrong. We can make beautiful plans and still alter them or abandon them at need. We can make maps and still crumple them up when the world shifts.

““Okay, so maybe there are miracles,” she admitted. “The problem is

that we need too many of them. It’s not a workable system.”

“No, I like it. A system of miracles. It’s the best description

of the universe I’ve heard yet. But you’re wrong about one thing. It

does work.”

“So we just sit around and wait for the next miracle?”

“No,” he said. “We work hard, like your father said. We also rest. And

play. We live.”

-TWIN

I’m a logical girl, and I like systems more than most people. But maps are no substitute for the world. Laws are no substitute for justice. Theology is no substitute for God. Plans are no substitute for life.

I don’t want to sit on my leaky raft clinging to the notion that it’s solid ground. I want to work with you to build a better ship. It doesn’t have to be very big; it just needs enough space for us to live. Then we can sail the unknown together.

“Something is happening, here, tonight. I feel it.”

“As do I. But I don’t know what it is.”

“You mean you have no name for it,” she corrected him. “We both cannot help but know what this is. We grow. We become.”

Wintrow found himself smiling into the night. “We become what?” he asked of her.

She turned to face him, the chiseled planes of her wooden face catching the reflected gleam of the distant lights. She smiled up at him, lips parting to reveal her perfect teeth. “We become us,” she said simply. “Us, as we were meant to be.”

–Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic

A Path to the Wilderness: Nnedi Okorafor

That about sums up what happens when I write, too. There’s too much magic in the world to pretend it isn’t there. This is why I’ve really loved reading Nnedi Okorafor. In her work, magic is an accepted part of the real world, though it isn’t a happy elven magic. More of the visceral and terrifying magic. An African magic.

Okorafor’s parents were Nigerian, both came to the USA to study and were forced to stay due to the Nigerian civil war. Nnedi was born and grew up in Illinois, but she began visiting Nigeria when she was young. She was a lover of science and a nationally recognized high school athlete until a complication in surgery to correct scoliosis ended in partial paralysis. That was when she began to write stories in the margins of her science fiction books. Eventually, she regained the ability to walk, but writing had become her life’s path.

Though Okorafor has written more than ten novels, I’ve only read two so far. Both are powerful stories of African women. Both women experience suffering in the form of racial oppression and misogyny. Both are filled with rage. Both rise up to change the world and even rewrite history.

“Human beings make terrible gods.”

― Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix

I read The Book of Phoenix a couple of years ago. It was my first introduction to Nnedi Okorafor, and, appropriately enough, it burned a hole in my brain. Phoenix speaks, and her voice is powerful. She begins innocent, confused but also sheltered. By the end, she burns with rage. The whole book echoes with her fury. I’ll be honest with you, this isn’t the best written book ever. The other characters are a bit flat, and the plot jumps and wanders while motivations get blurry. But Phoenix is such a compelling character that I could not stop reading her story until it had burned itself out. She moved me.

“I was young but I hated like a middle-aged man at the end of his prime.”

― Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

Who Fears Death came to me much later, though Okorafor wrote it first. It’s better written than Phoenix, has many complex characters and relationships, and a plot that is more lineaar, though it isn’t the central point of the work. Onyesonu’s voice is angry, but it is a more controlled anger. It is more mature, which works better in a novel, but which I somehow found less compelling than Phoenix. Still, it carried the powerful drive to force a path ahead, through any number of awful things (and this reading is not for cowards) to a deadly conclusion.

“We’ll never know exactly why we are, what we are, and so on. All you can do is follow your path all the way to the wilderness, and then you continue along because that’s what must be.”

― Nnedi Okorafor , Who Fears Death

My favorite thing about Who Fears Death is the sense of inevitability, the fatalism that walks hand in hand with the rage and will to remake the world. It strikes me as a particularly African tension, and one that those of us who aren’t African can’t totally grasp. I can’t even put it into the right words. Of course, I can’t. That’s why you need to read Okorafor, and other writers like her, for yourself. Some things can’t be explained. They need to be felt.

I’m thankful to Okorafor for letting me share that world, even if just for a few hours.

“Science fiction is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.”

Nnedi Okorafor

“To know someone’s pain is to share in it. And to share in it is to relieve some of it.”

― Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix

The Only Way Out is Through

Originally, TWIN was supposed to be a novel about survival. (It ended up being a novel about family. I suppose that’s not such a very big leap.) I wanted to throw a character I loved into an impossible situation and see how she would solve the most urgent problems first and build up to a sustainable and even beautiful resolution. What would she do if everything was stripped away? Where would she start?

“There was a horrible crunch right by her head and a howl.

‘There’s nothing you can do about that unless you breathe.’ Cara breathed.”

–TWIN

It turns out that all of the heroic deeds ever done have started with breathing. It’s what every soldier did first on the morning of June 6, 1944. It’s what Dr. King did just before saying, “I have a dream.” It’s what your mother did as she gave birth to you. It was Jesus’ last act before he died.

I take a lot of comfort from that when the impossible faces me. I can’t go there. I can’t finish that. I can’t be what they need.

But.

I can breathe. One breath. Then another. And then maybe I can bend my legs. And then I can stand. Another breath. Then another. I open my eyes and look around. And then I take one step.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

–Arthur Ashe

I’ve had this quote on my desk for over a year because this is everything. This accepting the situation you find yourself in. Really accepting it. And then working with what you have.

It’s not that you’re resigned to stay where you are, but that you don’t waste time wishing you were starting from somewhere else. This may not have been the way you planned to go, and maybe it’s not fair that you’re here. But your current location (no matter where it is) isn’t a detour from your life; it is your life.

When I was young, I thought that life was all about choosing your path. You would open the gate and see several roads before you, and it was up to you to pick the best one (most likely the narrowest, least traveled road). Once on your path, your chief concern was not to stray off of it. Like Bilbo in Mirkwood, everything would be fine if you stuck to the road. Let temptation lure you off, and it was all giant spiders and imprisonment.

Now I realize, of course, that life doesn’t work that way at all. There may be a set of paths to choose from in the beginning, but whichever one you choose, it won’t run straight to the destination you think. Life doesn’t pass through Mirkwood, where the road is safe and the only dangers are out there under the trees. Life passes through the Old Forest, where the paths shift under your feet and new paths open in front of you, where you can struggle on in the right direction, but the trees have a mind of their own.

I’m sorry to say there are no shortcuts through the Old Forest. There is only pressing forward, even when you’re not sure exactly where you’re going.

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.”

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

You’re on the way to something unknown, something new. I know the ground underneath you sometimes gives way, and the road is much longer than you thought. But you aren’t alone in this forest. Under these trees, we’re all taking winding paths and tripping over roots and doing what we can. There’s no skipping ahead for any of us, only making it through.

“I walked home in a daze…I cried the entire way…When I walked in, my mother was waiting for me in the main room. She handed me her cup of tea as I sat beside her on the couch. The tea was very strong, exactly what I needed.”

–Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

I can’t give you a pair of wings to fly away from here. I can’t even draw you a map to the end. But I can make a cup of very strong tea. I can sit down next to you, and we can do the next thing together.

We can breathe.

It’s a place to start.