Sunday, June 8, 2014

Turning Point

This is a blog post I wrote to share on author Nova Ren Suma's blog on November 12, 2012. 

            It was the summer of 2009. My little family and I were staying at a KOA camp just outside of Astoria, Oregon. I watched my kids play in the pool—an indoor pool, because of Oregon weather. The whole room was wet with steam, and kids’ screams reverberated off the walls.
            There were lots of families, but one mother caught my eye. Her children were a little younger than mine, also a big brother with a younger sister. I liked the way she spoke to her kids, the way she looked into their eyes, the way she smiled.
            Making friends as an adult woman involves a wooing process. You make eye contact, you smile, you try not to get too much into her personal space, you compliment her children the way a young suitor might compliment a lady’s hair, or her dress.
            I saw this woman and I wanted to be her friend. I had friends back home, but the thing was, I didn’t plan to go home.

            Back up four months. I stood in my kitchen, stirring something in a pot, waiting for my husband to get home and listening to my kids screech on the trampoline in the back yard. It was a beautiful yard. Even though it was in Santa Ana, California, we had chickens in it. For a while there had been a pig named Igor.
            Everything I had was poured into that home, that yard, and those two children. Their childhood was magical. I had made it so, along with my husband’s pretty significant salary and a job that may have been slowly draining his vitality.
            It might not have been that very evening, but it was an evening like that one when Keith came home, sort of a wild look in his eyes.
            “How was your day, Honeyman?” I asked.
            “Well,” he said, “I got laid off.”
            He could have gotten another job. We could have kept the beautiful house. The yard. The chickens.
            Back up another month or two. There was my husband, alone in the garage, smoking another cigar. At first it had just been once in a while; now he was up to two a day, maybe more. I hated the way he smelled. He worked long days. It seemed to me that he spend his evenings hiding from us—from me—in the garage, in the smoky cloud of his cigars.
            He was not a happy man.
            “I don’t care what it takes,” I told him. “Buy a boat. Have an affair. Do anything. Just get happy.”
            So when Keith announced that he had been laid off, we did the math. It was simple math. We could pay our mortgage for two months. I remembered what I had said—Get happy.
I had meant what I said. And I continued to mean it—with most of my heart—as I watched my husband come back to life in the three months that followed, as we finally finished the kitchen remodel and put the house on the market, as we sold it for a price that would allow us to pay the bank what we owed but would eat up all the money we’d put into it, as we sold or gave away nearly everything we owned, as Keith built a bonfire in the backyard, whistling, happy, and burned our scrap wood and broken chairs and sandbox frame.
            And then we were away, away, and my children and I were by turns ecstatic and scared and free and lost. Keith was pretty steadily ecstatic.
            I think that when I saw the woman at the pool, I heard in the way she spoke to her children an echo of how I hoped I spoke with mine, even as I’d uprooted and displaced them.
            I introduced myself. “I’m Elana.”
            “Cheryl,” she answered. We shook hands, maybe. I don’t really remember.
            She asked me what I did. I answered, without hesitation, “I’m a writer. I write Young Adult novels.”
            Now, the truth was, I had never written a Young Adult novel. I’d never written a novel, not really. But the words came out, and they didn’t sound like a lie.
            “I’m a writer, too,” she said. It turned out, she’d sold a novel, published essays, was working on a memoir. She was, I thought, a real writer. Her name was Cheryl Strayed.
            What had brought me to that moment, that introduction of myself as a writer?
            I had written for most of my life, off and on, though all I’d published was a couple of short stories in obscure little journals. I’d studied writing in school, I’d survived graduate workshops. But I’d never introduced myself as a writer. It would have felt presumptuous.
            I always intended to one day write a book, but in the years since conceiving my firstborn, it was like I had amnesia. All my creative energy was poured into gestating, into nursing, into nesting. I didn’t seem to have time for writing, or a need to.
            But now that the house was gone—and with it the pots and pans in every size, the never ending cycle of washdryfoldputaway, the rearranging of toys, the painting of walls, the machinations of housekeeping—now that I lived with my children and my husband and my dog and a ferret in an ugly brown RV… maybe it felt like I didn’t have the right to claim motherhood and housewifery as my job, anymore.
            I didn’t leave the KOA and magically write a novel. We parked the RV not too much later in Corvallis, Oregon, and I got a job teaching at the university—first ESL, and later composition. We rented a house on Roseberry Lane. Keith got to be a stay at home dad. I slogged through stacks of papers.
            I got sick. We moved home to California, living first with family and later in a rented house that may or may not have been possessed. I got better. Keith got another job, and I was home with my kids again. I set up house. We were back where we’d started, in a way.
            But it was out there—those words. I’m a writer. And though motherhood was still beautiful, though it still filled me up in a way nothing else could, I wanted to make the words true. So I wrote.
            Maybe it was because the bad thing had already happened—we’d already lost the safety net of a good job with health benefits, the furniture and the pictures on the walls. Even the walls. Maybe it was because I’d met a woman who was both a mama and a writer, who was beautiful and strong and seemed so sure of who she was. Maybe it was just time.  
            I don’t know exactly the ratio of what caused it to happen, what brought me to say those words. But that day in Oregon, with the clouded-over sky and a whole world of possibilities to choose from, when I opened my mouth to define myself, I named myself a writer.