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What We Write About When We’re Not Writing

When you can’t write, you write lists. To-do lists. Reading lists. Life lists. Lists of things to be repaired or fixed. Packing lists. Shopping lists. You write longhand in tight, tiny letters that you need paper towels, eggs, butter, apples, chicken breasts, and spinach. You need two half-gallons of milk, because the children are pouring themselves larger and second glasses of the stuff. You make a note of that. Two half-gallons. Write the number two in parentheses, next to the word “milk.”

You don’t write about the fact that your children are growing older, becoming gangly-limbed strangers to you — yet still so familiar when they slip into bed with you in the morning, still needing the sleepy warmth of Mommy. Their bodies, once nestled within you, once so small and vulnerable alongside you, now seem sharper and harder, and larger in form. They are weighty, and bony, and they carry heavy things for you from the car.

You don’t write about the incidental view you had of your thirteen-year-old daughter’s text to a friend, the one where she describes how a boy at sleep-away camp held hands with her at the end-of-season dance, and kissed her behind a tree afterwards. You don’t even tell your husband about this, because it’s too soon for him to know, and too soon for you to say such things out loud, and deem them real. You don’t write about feeling happy for her, even though you are. You hail from generations of Catholic sexual repression, Irish dysfunction and uncomfortable physical distance. You are grateful to see a shift in your lineage, and that you might have played a minor part in causing the remarkable difference. Your daughter is a terribly normal American teenager, stirring in hormones and life, wanting the shaky pleasure of kissing a boy in the dark grass on a hot summer night. This is all so beautiful and frightening and strange to watch while you move through life in an ill-fitting middle-aged suit, oddly seamed at the back by the two halves of womanhood and motherhood.

You don’t write about the realization that another woman and man — your former little girl and boy — will soon be living in your house. Instead, you write down lists of organic produce and hormone-free milk and meat, because you believe it will offer all of you safe and secure passage to that place in the near future, if not immortality itself. You want them to stop growing, and you yearn to kiss their adult cheeks. You want to be here and there. But you don’t write any of that down. You focus on the need for dish soap, instead, and baby carrots.

When you’re not writing, you encourage your writerly friends — the members of your tribe, as another friend puts it — in text messages, notes and emails, and in small packages mailed from the post office. You send links and stories and memes that you think will somehow make all of this better for them. You tell your friends that they are beautiful and brave and talented. All of this is true. You lend them books, and write notes on Post-Its and affix them to the covers. You sign notes to them, with hearts and kisses and hugs and exclamation points for emphasis. Because this will happen! You say. You will be published! You will do this! You quietly envy their abilities at times, and love them even more so for the very same gifts that they possess.

You write to workshop classmates that you’re reading John Steinbeck. You’re losing all sense of time in the dream-like state that is the gorgeous prose of Abigail Thomas. You just reread Roger Angell’s magnificent essay, “This Old Man.” You’re still too afraid to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Not only because the subject matter is so raw and terrifying and true, but because you are sure that her words will summarily kill and silence you. Because you will never come anywhere close. You’ll never even drive past her street of language.

You’re reading Julia Cameron. But you’re not writing morning pages, as Cameron suggests, because the children need breakfast and assurances in the morning. You keep empty journals and ballpoint pens by your bedside, where they sit untouched. You’re reading a battered copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. The name, when typed or uttered, makes you think of that passage you read in Levon Helm’s autobiography, where he describes reading O’Connor’s work while his beloved band went on hiatus. Flannery was so heavy, he said, and he’d stay up all night reading her short stories. You play The Band’s cover of “Don’t Do It” from one of their live albums, and marvel at the integrity of the horn arrangements and the twang of Helm’s voice. You are mediocre, you think to yourself. You decide in your weakest moments that you were never meant to produce anything of beauty.

You write about your lifestyle habits, in journals and to commiserating friends. You’re off sugar. You’re eschewing dairy. Your friend’s been sober for fifty-eight days. You’re giving up carbs. Another friend is dumping the cigarettes in the garbage can, and covering them over with wet coffee grounds. You type phrases like “protein shakes” and “grilled chicken” in ordinary correspondence. You think this will help, and somehow clear your spiritual and physical blocks. You are nearly 46, and you still indulge in magical thinking, imagining yourself immortal if you concoct the correct formula of kale and flaxseed and turmeric supplements. Such phases are so predictable. Tins of goji berries sit dusty in your pantry. Vitamin B-12 gummy vitamins expire on your kitchen shelf. Resolve against sugar succumbs to handfuls of autumn-hued M&Ms. You make Christmas cookies. And New Year’s resolutions. You comfort yourself with the thought that cable-knit sweaters hide a multitude of sins. Until swimsuit season arrives, brash and unannounced. You viscerally sense the rhythm of such seasonal patterns. The familiarity lulls you into complacency. It reminds you of late-night drives as a child on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, when you lay sprawled on the back seat while your father drove home. The seamed sections of asphalt thunked beneath you, and eased you into sleep. Ebb and flow. Up and down. Yes and no. Three pounds up. Two pounds down. You don’t write about chubby and skinny years of your life, because you’re mostly too ashamed of them. There’s so much there to mine, but you don’t. You don’t write about any of it.

You write messages to your friends saying that you’re feeling better, because you’re sleeping through the night again. You don’t write anything at 3 a.m., when you’re awake and anxious and feeling as if you are the only person still somehow alive in the world, noticing the time and the full moon and the twinkling blue crust of snow obscuring the dormant summer lawn outside your bedroom window. You don’t write down your worries about dying before you’ve actually fully lived, even though you don’t know what that means or what such a fully-life-living checklist entails. You’re guessing that it has something to do with wringing every last bit of misguided creative expression out of this bogged-down soul of yours, and about taking the time, all of the time, to let people know how very much you love them. That’s what you’re find-ing your life to be about. Still, you don’t write down the dialogue that streams in your head, or the ideas that come to you. But you say I love you to people much more often. You mean it when you do. Some people say it back. The offering is more important to you now than the receipt. You’re grateful, and pleased when it happens. It means something.

You want to write about pain and shame and fear, about memories and situations and people, about angry, drunken sentences carelessly warbled to you as a young child — ones that still make your insides kink and burn when you hear them offhandedly repeated by random acquaintances. This could happen at a crowded party, or while sitting alone on the subway. Even though the words are spoken in different cadences and accents, they can still unhook your mental passenger car from the train. The sound around you fuzzes. Your skin feels tight. Your lips thin, and your eyes glaze. Minutes may pass, and you’re not fully aware of that. You find your hands in your lap, clenched and laced. That was then, you think. Look where your feet are now. You breathe. You sip wine. You don’t write that down.

You write notes of condolence after people have died. You write out eulogies, tender or funny or intensely personal things which are spoken out loud to rooms full of strangers, but only meant for the deafened dead lying in caskets. You write down things that you never seem to be able to say when it actually matters, and when people need to hear them. As you grow older, you receive more messages about sudden deaths and missed opportunities. The finality is overwhelming to you. You don’t write about that.

You write to Facebook friends about high school and college classmates who have passed away suddenly in their sleep, or who have died in car accidents and from grave diagnoses. You write on the threads of other people’s Facebook pages that you are shocked and sad and praying for their families. Because you are. Because this frightens all of us. Because you remember who she was, and what he meant to you. She was so sassy and alive. He was so boisterous and adorable. You write these things to and about other people. Then, you close the browser and leave your desk.

You text your friends about coffee and lunch and appetizers and wine. You write about who will bring the cupcakes when you get together to celebrate one of your birthdays. You write about the candles. No one ever remembers to write about the matches. No one carries matches anymore, because no one smokes anymore. Some friends drink too much wine at these gatherings, and others insist on seltzer, without explanation. You don’t write about that.

You write an email to your husband, and remind him that you’re both having dinner with the Johnsons on Friday, and that he needs to bring the car in for an oil change on Saturday. You tell him in hastily-typed texts that the garage needs to be cleaned out, that he needs to pick up the dry cleaning, and that your son needs a new baseball glove. You yearn to say more — that you want your face to be traced softly with his fingers more often, to be told that you’re loved and seen, that you are wanted and treasured and valued, in spite of all the ugliness you’ve so callously displayed for so many years. You want to write that you are afraid at times, because you’re unsure if he still wants to be in this life that you’ve so haphazardly built together. You want to ask him deep and stirring questions. You want to write and ask what’s comforting to him, how you’ve failed, what you still don’t know. You want him to write back to you, and say that he needs to be seen, loved, and desired by you as well, that you are enough for him, that you are his happiness and home and safety and fire and comfort and so much of what he needs and wants. But you close such messages with “love you,” and hit send instead.

You’re not really writing, you answer when asked. You’re just not finding the time.

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