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Essay Contest Winner: Balancing blocks

Balancing Blocks

“Do you regret it?” he asks.

I almost run the stop sign.

From the backseat, the baby shrieks for more Cheerios, and my husband tries again. “I mean, of course you regret it. But how much? Like, on a scale of One to You-Want-to-Divorce-Me?”

The kids? The move? The fact that I’m no longer in the classroom, shaping teenage minds and influencing our future?

“Which thing?” I finally say.

A horn beeps behind us. Cringing, I wave a sheepish apology and pull through the intersection. We’re totally lost, of course.

We’ve been lost for months.

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Per usual, I am behind the wheel, and Al is in charge of navigation. This is mostly due to my complete lack of spatial intelligence, and also because it makes me nauseated to read things in the car. When I am in control, I feel a little more steady, a little more like myself.

So I drive.

I veer onto a gravel shoulder and look at him carefully, my foot heavy on the brake. He actually asked. He is no longer pretending that everything in California is glittering palm trees and majestic mountains and never-ending beams of sunlight that project unicorn holograms. Maybe we’ll talk about it now: how much I miss my family and friends, the truth of how it really feels to chase a dream.

When his job abruptly moved us across the country over a year ago, I was six months pregnant with our second child and predictably overwhelmed. I’ve always embraced any kind of change by screaming and running maniacally in the opposite direction, so the thought of leaving Michigan – my home for over 30 years – was paralyzing. My entire life up to that point had been conducted within the same 60-mile radius. Even “going away to college” meant a one-hour jaunt from home.

“This job is such an incredible opportunity!” Al said when the call came, sounding like a paid spokesperson for The Committee of Uprooted Lives. “And not just for me, honey. For our whole family. Think about it: You’ll finally be able to focus on writing. You’ll have time to finish your book. You won’t need to go back to teaching unless you want to.”

“I love teaching.”

“Well, I’m not totally sure, but I think there might be schools in California.”

“I love these kids. I love these colleagues.” My eyes stung. “I don’t want to start over.”

Al touched my hand. Back then, he was still patient with my tears. “Let’s just give it a shot,” he said gently. “Try to take advantage of this chance to do what you’ve always wanted to do: write.”

It was the first of countless conversations, all similar and cyclical.

Even though everything seemed to happen in slow motion – the house hunting, the packing, the infinite, heartbreaking goodbyes – by the time we landed in California, I felt blindsided, like someone had conjured an invisible tornado to spit us out here, alone, away from everything and everyone that had ever made me feel safe.

Al was sympathetic at first; but as the weeks wore on and he grew more and more enamored of his new job, he seemed frustrated that I was not adapting faster. We stopped discussing the difficulty of our transition – the transition was over, after all. We had a new life now. Time to toughen up.

I gave birth to my son three months after we arrived. People encouraged me to rest and recoup, to be kind to myself, to take the time to settle in and settle down. “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” everyone crowed, but I did not follow their instructions.

While my newborn slept, I wrote.

Although 12 years of teaching had made me a wizard at organizing chunks of time, this was brand new territory. Gone were the structured class periods and the predictable daily routine – now there were two very small children tugging desperately on one arm and a flood of ideas and half-formed sentences tugging on the other. The baby’s brief naps were all I had, and that was if his sister could be simultaneously occupied. Every accomplishment was stuffed into 45-minute blocks that never quite fit together: eating, sleeping, creating. I wrote in broken pieces, one paragraph at a time, standing up beside the high chair, my fingers sticky with mashed banana.

You will have time to write! my husband had promised, but I dizzily looked around at my world and wondered, When? How? Somehow, we’d both fooled ourselves into imagining the stereotypical “writer’s life,” as if moving to California would land us in an uninspired B movie: me with my laptop, brooding by a crackling fire, a steaming cup of sweet orange tea at my elbow and a contemplative smile on my lips. There would be so many hours of silence and focus and productivity, and I would emerge from prolific weekend writing retreats carrying polished manuscripts already plastered with awards.

In reality, I was drowning in the disorder of my new life, in this new place, surrounded by unfamiliar roads and cities I couldn’t pronounce. It felt like everything I juggled, I dropped. If I wrote in the morning, I worried that I was neglecting my children. If I wrote in the evening, I worried that I was neglecting my husband, myself, my own need for rest. The days were chaotic and absurd but also claustrophobically monotonous. Feed the baby at 3 a.m. Wake up with my daughter, who arose with the sun. Cereal. Cantaloupe. Mismatched socks. Alternating (and often unsuccessful) naps. And somewhere, in between doctor appointments and diapers and baths and all the unpacking, I tried to write one more paragraph. Just one more paragraph.

One paragraph at a time, post by post, I built a blog.

At first, the only readers were my parents and a few extra-supportive friends from back home who wanted to see what was up in California. Each night, instead of sleeping, I researched how to grow a following:

Network exhaustively with other bloggers. Follow their social media channels, comment on their posts, reach out to them via email, join their writer’s groups – and just as it begins to resemble stalking, slowly back away and get to work on your own posts, you weirdo.

Read as many literary journals and magazines as humanly and non-humanly possible.

Submit, submit, submit…

…but only to places that are a good fit. Do the research. Know each audience. Don’t simply fling your posts and pages off the roof of the nearest parking garage and hope they flutter into the right hands.

Just get your name out there, and quick! Hurry! Before someone way more famous does everything first! But wow, stop panicking and calm down, OK? Seriously. This will probably take lots and lots of time. Patience, grasshopper.

The whole process seemed like a summitless mountain, interminable and overwhelming – at least, that’s how I convinced myself it was acceptable to stay in The Safe Zone, to attempt to publish nothing except on my own blog. I told myself, over and over, that there was no way I was eking out anything worthwhile in paragraph-by-paragraph increments.

Almost six months passed before I realized I was afraid.

When my 10th graders studied The Alchemist, they were always appalled by the character of the crystal merchant. The merchant’s lifelong dream is to visit Mecca – he spends years picturing every detail, imagining all the beautiful things he would see and the people he’d meet – but once he is in a position to realize his dream, he will not allow himself to do it.

“What a wuss!” my students scoffed. “Now is the perfect chance to just leave his shop and go to Mecca. But he won’t even try!”

“It’s sad, right?” I used to say. “He’s petrified that the reality of Mecca can’t possibly live up to his expectations, so he just stays in his safe zone forever. For the rest of his life, he lets fear and worry hold him back.”

Months later, in a different state and in a different life, I was about to hit “publish” on my newest blog post when it dawned on me: I was the crystal merchant. But worse, because I was afraid of so much more than disappointment: I was afraid of criticism and push-back and judgment, and I was really afraid of rejection. What if I had come all the way to California, with every opportunity to succeed, and still failed? What if I tried my absolute best to “make it” and discovered that I’d never had what it takes?

To my own surprise, I realized I was also afraid of success – if my work were to be published elsewhere, I might lose track of it. I might not know exactly when it was shared or who was reading it or what people were saying. I might have to relinquish some of that coveted control.

In an effort to keep my words safe, I was clutching them too tightly to my chest.

I pictured my students’ disdain and vowed, I will NOT be that character—not in my own life story. So I took a swallow of wine, modified my blog post, and emailed it to one of my favorite parenting sites.

They published my piece two weeks later.

That first rush of adrenaline emboldened me to release the white-knuckled grip on my words, and surreal things started to happen: my articles were featured in prominent online sites, my short fiction was published in print, and my tiny personal blog grew from dozens of followers to thousands. Some posts have gone wildly viral and some have fallen flat, but in each scenario, the subsequent steps are always the same: Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep trying.

I’ve heard “no” several times since my first submission, but I have also heard “yes.” Both answers are scary and exhilarating. Both necessitate self-reflection. I no longer worry that one rejection means the end of my dream – there will be another chance, and another, and another, for as long as I allow myself to chase it.

The other day, I filed away a disappointing “No thanks, it’s not quite right for us at this time” email while the baby sat at my feet and played with blocks. He stacked them gently, carefully, his chubby little hands steadying each new addition as the tower grew taller and taller. But when his structure became rickety and wobbly and all the wooden pieces came crashing to the floor, my son did not get frustrated. He belly laughed, and he looked at me.

And then he started again.

Yes, baby. Mama will try to remember that lesson.

While my children are this young, I may never be able to construct a complete post or a full chapter in one sitting – so I will continue to build one paragraph at a time. I have to. Writing is the one thing in my upended life that makes me feel as though I have some semblance of control – over the words, the characters, the story – and when I am in control, I feel a little more steady, a little more like myself.

So I write.

 

 

My husband is still examining Google Maps when I spot a familiar street sign on the corner. Wait a minute I know this road. I’ve been here before. I ease my foot off the brake.

“Al,” I say. “I think I know where we are.”

He slips his phone into the pocket of his jeans.

I cannot answer his question about regret. Not today. There is still too much uncharted opportunity on the other side of those tree-studded mountains, which are not always glittery and majestic and sunlit – but for now, they are ours to explore.

I pull our family out of the gravel, and I drive. All this time, we were just a few blocks from home.

 

—Melissa Bowers writes about teaching, moving, and motherhood at MichiforniaGirl.com. Her fiction has appeared in Writer’s Digest, and her essays are featured in several prominent U.S. and international online publications.