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Bright Potential

On Friday, Kendell and I went to the wedding reception of the daughter of one of our couple friends. We’ve been friends with this family for, I don’t know…at least 25 years. This friendship was formed—like so many other friendships and families in this valley—through our being employed at WordPerfect.

I started working at WordPerfect when I was 17 and still a wild child. I went to school during the day (not to my local high school, though, but to the local community college) and then worked from 3:00-9:00, doing data entry. My mom worked there, too, and my sisters, and a year later my friend Cindy (whose dad and brother also worked at WP) would introduce me to her brother, Kendell. WordPerfect had a huge impact on our little valley; it brought so many jobs after the biggest employer, Geneva Steel, began laying off workers in droves. I was young and impressionable and probably pretty stupid when I worked there, but I learned a lot from the (actual, adult) women I worked with.

At Friday night’s reception, I sat at a table with a woman I knew from those WordPerfect days, someone I admired because she seemed so competent. Complete, somehow, a woman with a career that defined her, who seemed entirely comfortable in being who she was.

After I took off my mask, she recognized me; well, actually, she probably only knew me as “Suellen’s daughter,” but she was polite and talked to me like an old friend. She told me about her adult children and her grandchildren, and then she asked me about my life.

“You always seemed like you were so bright and full of potential,” she said. “What have you done with your life since I last saw you?”

And honestly: I couldn’t think of one single thing I could say.

What have I done with my life?

I said something about raising a family and then started talking about my kids. I was surrounded by people so I couldn’t really let her question sink in, but when I woke up on Saturday morning, it hit me.

What have I done with my life?

The Amy she knew—was I bright and full of potential?—was certain she would do amazing things with her life. When I was that person she knew, I was at a huge turning point of my life, when I tried to set down all my rebellious ways and live a “good” life. I pulled on the dress of my religion and tried to wear it like it was a skin, and I tried to wear it for the next 25 years. I was going to be good, and the blessing in being good would be achieving what I wanted to achieve.

Could I have said that?

“Well, I tried to be a good Mormon.”

But she had talked about missions and temple weddings, and if that is the metric one measures “good Mormon” with (and, let’s be frank: it mostly is), then clearly I did not accomplish that goal.

The Amy she knew was determined. Yes: I got married at 19, but I was determined to graduate from college. Eventually I did. Eventually I even got two degrees. Could that be my answer?

“I got an English degree and one in secondary education.”

I know now that a Bachelor’s degree opens some doors, but it is really only a start. After I graduated with my first degree, I wanted nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom. Did I want this only because it was what the LDS faith told me I was supposed to want? That was a part of it, but, no: I loved the time I got to spend as a mom at home with my babies and toddlers. I didn’t want it to end when life made it end anyway, and the fact that what I wanted didn’t seem to matter to God or the Universe or Whoever was so, so bitter to me.

But the truth is, you can only choose one life. It was impossible for me to choose the two things that I wanted: have a family and get a PhD so I could teach literature and writing at a university. (One of my deepest desires.) I know many women actually DO manage those two different choices, but the particulars of my life made it impossible. Or, at least, it seemed impossible. I chose my family, and I love them with all my heart. But there is a part of me that mourns for that Amy who never existed.

So, I guess my response to Barb’s question about what I have done with my life was an accurate one:

I raised a family.

I want this to be enough, but if I am honest with myself, it doesn’t feel like it is. Maybe if I had managed to be a better mother, I would feel like it was enough. But I made so many, many mistakes. There is a saying in the LDS church that people like to repeat: “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” I don’t think I failed, per se. But I could have done so much better than I did.

So here I am. Almost 50, with three adult children and one still in high school. No longer bright, no longer full of potential. What have I done with my life?

I raised four amazing children.

I ran some races, even a couple of marathons.

I hiked a lot of mountains.

I witnessed the suffering and death of both of my parents.

I taught online scrapbooking classes.

I taught high school English.

I wrote some articles for a scrapbook magazine.

I had an essay published in a book.

I became a librarian.

I took a lot of pictures, baked birthday cakes, made meals, did laundry, weeded my flower beds, mowed my lawn.

I helped my husband recuperate from six major surgeries in ten years, not to mention survive a cardiac arrest.

I went to church. I tried to fit in there, tried my best. I taught teenagers and adults some lessons out of the scriptures.

I did a little bit of traveling.

This is the content of an ordinary life. And there is nothing wrong with an ordinary life. It is beautiful, and even if it doesn’t seem like much from the outside, there are many things in that list I am proud of.

But did I fulfill that “bright potential” Barb thought she saw in me?

You know how sometimes time slows down in your head? When she asked me that question, I had that experience. I thought “Oh, God, how do I answer that, I haven’t done anything that would impress someone like her” and my mind flashed through my life and I thought “my truest wish is that I could tell her ‘I am a writer.’”

Then time sped back up to its normal speed and I tried to answer.

Almost 50. The brightest parts of my life in the past. Unsure if I have any potential left.

Was her question a Rorschach test, the first response being the truest?

I know what I want to do with my life. It is the thing I have wanted to do since I was 15 and someone else in my 10th-grade English class stood up and read a poem she had written herself. Since I was 16 and didn’t know what to do with all of the feelings I had, and writing in my journal was one of the only ways I could find to cope. Since I was 10 and read a book I loved and thought I wish I could do that.

How do I do that?

How do I stop wanting to be a writer and actually be a writer?

How do I claim that my other roles—wife and mother and daughter and sister and friend and employee—are important but I want, I want, to do what I have always wanted to do?

Is it selfish?

Is it silly?

How do I convince myself that I deserve to follow the dream I always had for myself? How do I separate what is needed right now (helping Kaleb through high school, saving for retirement, managing the various ways my body is failing, encouraging Jacob to find his way, being helpful to Haley, Nathan, and Elliot) from what I want for the future? (writing that makes me realize: that has always been my problem, putting aside what I wanted for what was needed right now).

How do I find the courage—is it brightness? is it potential?—to say “succeed or fail, writer is where I am focusing my energy”?

Writing this and posting it on my backwater of a blog will not accomplish much. I know the answer: do the work. Try. Don't let the "yeah, but"s get in the way.

But it goes deeper than that. It is about finding courage, yes, but it is about finding that belief I used to have, the belief that I do have potential, that I do have a brightness to offer to the world.

How do I find that belief again?

Thoughts on Sophomore Year

Last week when I dropped Kaleb off at his first day of high school, I had an unexpected reaction. Kaleb and I had a good conversation while we drove to school, mostly joking, and then he told me goodbye and got out of the car. I watched him walk in for just a few seconds—the walkway was lined with cheerleaders shaking pompoms to welcome the students—and then someone honked so I pulled around the driveway and parked for a few minutes. Ostensibly, this waiting was just to make sure Kaleb didn’t need anything, but it was something else, too.

Becky asked me later if I had Feels about taking my youngest child to high school. Shockingly, I kind of didn’t, because it feels so unsure…will he get to stay the whole year? Will it all fall apart? I feel so unsure about how things will go this year with the virus that I don’t think my psyche knew what to do, and so decided on a kind of morose but gentle sadness.

Underneath that, though, was something darker. Something darker and harder and twisted. Something I couldn’t quite label, and it took me a few days, two very strange dreams, and a spark from another conversation for me to start exploring it.

I don’t remember my own very first day of high school. The year I was a sophomore, I was still a gymnast. I went to three classes and then, for the fourth class period, drove twenty minutes to the gym with an older teammate and worked out until six. Then I’d come home, eat, do homework, and start it all over again. That was as normal as my high school experience got, because eleventh grade was a disaster and for my senior year I went to the local community college. English, math, history, biology, art, and Spanish. If you put me back in that high school building, I could walk right to where my locker was. Even though I don’t remember the first day. There are no first-day photos (did people take those in the 80s?) so I don’t know what I wore. I don’t remember which class was first or even how I got there. Did my dad still drive me to school? He must’ve, I guess.

What I do remember clearly was the day of high school registration, which was early in August. I only had one new outfit, because back then my mom would put our school clothes on lay-away until right before classes started. But I loved that outfit, a yellow-and-grey floral print mini skirt and an off-the-shoulder shirt, also yellow. And the white ankle boots I’d gotten when I started ninth grade. My mom dropped me off in front of the school and I walked to where I’d arranged to meet my friends, most of whom lived on the east side and so had come together, given rides by the boys in their neighborhood. My heart sank as I got closer and closer to them, because I realized I was dressed entirely wrong. They all had black on, and they all looked so grown-up and elegant and knowing, while there I was in yellow. My hair felt wrong and my body felt wrong and I didn’t know what to do with my face or my hands.

It’s not that that day was my first time feeling like I didn’t fit in. That feeling had been with me for as long as I could remember. But that day, somehow it felt different. Somehow it felt like an indictment against my…well, I didn’t have the words for it, then, but against my sense of being a woman in the world. It felt like they already knew all the rules, how to dress and how to do their hair the right way, how to talk to boys, how to talk to each other, how to be friends but how to also never trust each other, either.

It was like they had received a letter over the summer that I didn’t get.

When I was in tenth grade, my first year of high school, my parents were fighting all the time. My dad was unemployed and didn’t have a direction to his life anymore. My mom was angry and frustrated at suddenly having to carry the load of being financially responsible for us. They fought all the time and I was alternately terrified that they would get divorced and that they never would. My two older sisters were in different stressful situations which affected the stress levels in our family. (They are not my stories to tell.) My grandpa had died and my grandma, who suffered from dementia, was living in a care home. (My mom was also mostly financially responsible for that bill, too.) We worked hard to make it look, from the outside, like we were a normal, functioning, happy family, but we were not.

Then there’s this: I didn’t really fit in anywhere. My best friend and teammate had quit gymnastics about a year earlier, and I had teammates but no one I thoroughly trusted. Besides, once you’re the girl who has cleaned the gym to pay for her gymnastics lessons, you will never really fit in. I didn’t fit the mold my old friends, from middle and junior high, seemed to fit, the good Mormon girl. My new friends were edgy and rebellious but it was still the same, I still had to watch and pay attention to figure out how I was supposed to act, who I was supposed to be.

So on that auspicious note, my dawning realization that everything about me was wrong, many of it in ways I didn’t even see yet, I started high school. With my mom-dyed hair and the clothes she went in debt for, and before the first term was over I was going to parties on Friday night after gymnastics, and sometimes I drank, and I kissed boys, and I hung out with the kids who did drugs. I kept this secret from my mom and my little sister and my gymnastics teammates, and I was invisible to my old friends, and my new ones taught me so many new things.

By Christmas I had managed to acquire a whole new, almost-all-black wardrobe. I never wore the white boots again.

I went from being a smart, if shy, “normal” girl with a great future in front of her to an angry girl who swore and hung out with the “bad” kids. I did keep my grades up—4.0 my whole sophomore year, even though I had to bluff my way through geometry—and I kept training, until my last meet on the weekend of my 16th birthday.

I didn’t know it, really. My parents didn’t either. But that afternoon at high school registration: that was the spark that started my long, dramatic explosion. Those years weren’t pretty for anyone to watch, and they were brutal for me.

But that is an old story, and not really the point of this writing.

Sophomore class photo

After I dropped Kaleb off, I came home and looked through all of my old photos, hoping I could find my sophomore class picture. I did, and I sat on the floor in my scrappy space and I looked at that girl I used to be. I looked at the picture I had taken of Kaleb before he left. And then I just tried to figure it out. Tried to name that dark, hard feeling.

And I realized: it was anger.

Because no one took care of that girl. When I started to spiral, no one—not teachers or church leaders or coaches or my parents or old friends or anyone—saw anything except I was now “bad.” No one thought…maybe she’s not immoral and awful, maybe she hasn’t suddenly become an idiot. No one thought maybe she is struggling.

They just saw the outside, the black clothes and the cussing tongue, the silver-toed boots and the mood, and they all thought “well, what happened to her?”

Like a piece of beef someone forgot to put in the fridge, I had spoiled. I had gone bad.

“Why don’t you just join the cheerleading squad?” my high school principal advised me (who also happened to be, in the incestuous nature of small Utah communities, my spiritual leader).

“If your problems were as bad as Chris’s, I could understand your behavior, but you have a great life,” my mom told me.

“I wish I could’ve had you when you were ten, but now you’re too old and slow to really improve much more,” my favorite coach told me.

I took their judgement and fired it into shame, and I let the shame fuel my decisions. If I already had that “bad” label, then why do anything else but work to deserve it? If I needed to feel shame for not being from a wealthy family, for having small boobs and muscular thighs, for my high forehead and the fact I preferred books to people—then I took that shame and turned it against myself before anyone else could do it for me.

The tools I had for coping were music, writing, and my messed-up friends. My friends who my mom mostly didn’t like, because obviously it was their fault I had turned bad. In a small way, she was right: they did teach me quite a bit. But I always chose. My choices were based out of fear, anger, shame, guilt, and a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand yet, but still: I chose.

I worked hard to deserve my “bad” label.

So very, very hard.

I looked at that picture of 15-year-old Amy again this morning. I thought…if I could talk to her, would I tell her to choose differently? To find new friends, to stay in gymnastics, to go to school, to not drink, to never, ever even meet that one boy, and then especially not the other one either.

I’m not sure I would.

Instead, I would tell her that goodness isn’t a black-and-white thing. It isn’t a quality narrowly defined by the tenants of one religion. I would tell her to make her bad-ass choices but to remember: she isn’t bad. She is hurting and she needs kindness, understanding, and judgement, and she will find a few people who will give that to her. I would tell her that she gets to define her goodness, and that she will never fit in but that will be OK, because she also gets to define her sense of self. That it is a life-long process, figuring out who she is, where she belongs, how to love herself.

What choices would I have made if I hadn’t made my choices from a place of shame?

I find myself wanting to tell her many things, but more than that, I want to tell some adult: LOOK. Pay attention. Don’t let her slip through this crevasse she’s sliding down.

I’m an adult now, so I understand how hard that is. It is hard to manage your own adult crap and watch out for your teenagers. I’m not really speaking out of judgement to the adults in my past who failed me.

But that dark, hard, bitter feeling? It is anger. Anger that no one was able to see me behind my actions. That no one extended me grace, so I had to do the best I could with what I had, but I never learned to extend myself grace either. Anger that even twenty-five years later, my mom would still talk about my “dark Amy” years with that tone that brought up all the old shame again. That for her, it was always, until she died, about how hard that time was for her.

Also anger at myself that after 30 years, I’m still carrying around this same old darkness, that I don’t know how to bring real light into my corners, that the weight still turns my back into a crook. Anger that all of my unresolved adolescent feelings were too thick to allow me to feel what I should feel about my youngest child starting high school.

But also a sense of resolve. I will never claim to have been a perfect parent. Maybe, as my mom couldn’t give me what I needed, no one can give their child what they need. Maybe that is inherent to the mother/child relationship. I only know my relationship with my mother and my relationship as a mother. I know I made many mistakes and will continue to do so. But the thing is: I always wanted to help them, each one of them, avoid that feeling. That feeling of wrongness, of not fitting in, of not being enough. I tried to love them through their mistakes, instead of judging them. (I wasn’t perfect at that either, but that was my intention.) I will try to never use their pasts as cudgels in the present.

I only have one teenager left. Even though I’ve already raised three of them, I still don’t know what I’m doing. I still don’t know what the right choices are, because they each need something different. But I want to do better with Kaleb. I want my presence in his teenage years to be one of someone who encourages him to find who he is, not who the world thinks he should be. Someone who will recognize that behaviors aren’t always indicative of the type of person someone is, but a reaction to the types of experiences that person is having.

If there is any saving grace to what I went through in high school, let it be that: let it be a way that teaches me what Kaleb will need as he navigates high school, so that when the three years are over, he arrives at graduation with an intact sense of self-grace instead of this half-buried anger I don’t know how to get rid of.

Book Review: This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

They say that all the stars in the sky are actually made inside the earth. Then they seek out the roots of cottonwood trees and slip into the wood, where they wait, real patient. Inside the cottonwood, they’re dull and lightless, like you see here. Then, when the great spirit of the night sky decides that more stars are needed, he shakes the branches with his wind and releases the stars. They fly up and settle in the sky, where they shine and sparkle and become the luminous creations they were always meant to be…and we’re like that too. Dreams shook loose.

This tender landSomewhere on someone’s bookstagram account (I’m sorry I can’t remember whose!) I read a critique of the book Where the Crawdads Sing that it was “Barbara Kingsolver for the Wal-Mart crowd.” While I will heartily agree that this is pretty snarky (and confess that I haven’t even read Crawdads yet) it also made me laugh, as I had just bought This Tender Land to read on my trip to California. Since the cover blurb says “If you liked Where the Crawdads Sing you’ll love This Tender Land,” I had to just giggle a bit, and then spend a little bit of time thinking about book snobbery, Literature versus genre, and the importance of individual taste.

It’s all a scale, really, because while that particular bookstagrammer held up Barbara Kingsolver as an ideal writer of serious books, there are plenty of others who would say she writes liberal pablum. Or this especially witty critique, which claims that Kingsolver writes “a particular brand of woke, middle-aged white lady, serving up the novelistic equivalent of low-cal comfort food.” Zing! (Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers, by the way.)

My point is, everyone is a book snob in some way or another, and someone’s literary transformative novel is someone else’s literary garbage.

All of which is to say: This Tender Land was a great vacation read for me.

Picking which books I take on a trip is a vital part of trip planning for me. I don’t want something TOO complicated or difficult, but I also don’t ever enjoy reading the typical “beach read” kind of novels. (I say that without judgement…if you like them, fantastic! They are just not for me.) I want the book to be dissimilar from the place I am visiting, so no novels about Rome during my trip to Italy. (But novels about Rome before a trip to Italy would be fine!) It also has to be available in paperback.

I’m specific about what book(s) I take on a vacation because the story I’m reading becomes part of the story of the trip experience, and I want them to remain clear and separate in my mind. So, one of my favorite trip memories is lying on the beach on Kekaha Kai in Hawaii, finishing The Fifth Season and then pulling out The Obelisk Gate (both by N. K. Jemisin) and alternating between that fantasy world and looking around at the beautiful beach where my children were snorkeling. The book and the experience are intertwined, but because the story is so different from Hawaii, they are still separate.

But, you know. I make overthinking into a life skill.

ANYWAY. This Tender Land tells the story of Odie, his brother Albert, and their mute friend Mose, all orphans, who live at a school for Native Americans. Set during the 1930s, the story illustrates some of the bleakness of the Great Depression. The school where they live is pretty miserable, although they are fed, clothed, and educated; several teachers, including Mrs. Brickman, the school’s owner and superintendent, seem especially bent on breaking Odie, since he’s a kid who isn’t afraid to speak up for himself. When Odie inadvertently commits a crime while protecting himself, he, Albert, Mose, and a young girl named Emmy decide to run away. Instead of going by foot—kids who’ve run away in the past by foot have always been caught and brought back—they decide to go by river, paddling a canoe down the Gilead River to the Missouri. As they go, they figure out some of the secrets the school was keeping, encounter people who help them and some who want to hurt them, and learn a lot about themselves.

My favorite part of this story was Odie’s grappling with what he thinks God is. Albert points out that while the preacher at the Brickman School’s Sunday services talks about Jesus being a shepherd, what do shepherds do with their sheep? They eat them, one by one. Eventually Odie decides that God is a storm, an uncaring force of nature that brings destruction. Then, as he has different experiences on the river, he begins to have a more complex idea of what the truth might be. He discovers that God is in the land (“God all penned up under a roof? I don’t think so…God’s right here. In the dirt, the rain, the sky, the trees, the apples, the stars.”), the river, the bad experiences and the good ones. Mostly that God is in the people: “We are creatures of spirit…and this spirit runs through us like electricity and can be passed on to another.”

I still haven’t read Where the Crawdads Sing, so I can neither confirm nor deny the similarities. But I can say that I loved this book. It was gentle and sweet, but not cloying. The ending was a little bit too coincidental for my liking…but really, this was a great vacation book for me. When we visited Henry Cowell State Park on our trip—to wander through the redwoods—I stopped at the gift shop after, to buy a magnet (our traditional souvenir), but I also found a pretty bookmark with a watercolor painting of a redwood. When I bought it, the cashier told me that the artist who painted it, Carol L. Liddle, was sitting at the welcome table outside the shop, so I stopped to thank her for her painting. And then I read a bit, looked a bit, read a bit, looked a bit, as we drove down from the redwoods to the coast. Odie’s epic journey and my small Corona vacation are forever entwined, redwoods and fires by the river, the beach and the skeleton of a long-dead Indian child, tide pools sparkling in early-morning sun and a Hooverville north of St. Louis.

And you really can’t buy that at Wal-Mart.

PS: I am eternally grateful that I don't get carsick so I can read while roadtripping! This is from the desert on I-80. This tender land driving

Thoughts on Remaking

Just a little over 17 years ago, I went out on a run in order to think. In order to make a decision: accept the teaching position that was offered to me or not? On the outside, it didn’t seem like a hard choice. I had just finished up a year of school followed by a semester of student teaching. I had my second degree and my freshly-minted teaching certificate, a tight grip on a sort of surety that through teaching I could make a difference and that I would matter. Why wouldn’t I accept it?

Because in my heart of hearts, and in my discussions with my husband, I didn’t want to go to work. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I wanted to walk Jake to kindergarten and walk home with him and Haley in the afternoons. I wanted to drop off Nathan at preschool. I wanted to have lazy afternoons at home helping my kids do their homework. I wanted to have another baby. That was what I wanted.

But what my reality was was that Kendell had just come off of a year of unemployment. He had found a job again, finally, but it didn’t pay much. We were just barely making enough to survive. Me going back to work—even if I had to pay for daycare for two kids on a teacher’s salary—was the best solution.

So I interviewed at several different schools that summer. Down deep, I hoped no schools offered me a job. But, three weeks before school started, one did. And I had to decide: did I chose what I wanted (what I wanted so desperately) or what would seemingly help my family the most?

I took my kids to a friend’s house and I headed out on a run. No music. Just thinking. Just weighing my options. And right as I was running past the library (the library where I now work), I was filled with a certainty: take the job.

Take the job and one day you will understand why.

That day I was prompted to remake myself. To let go of who I wanted to be and to embrace who life was directing me to be. In some ways, I never got over that remaking. I never stopped mourning those lost days of being a stay-at-home mom when Haley was only seven, Jake five, Nathan three. The lazy mornings and after-school afternoons I never got to have with them. The meals I didn’t make and the life-changing stress I didn’t experience.

I did my best to remake myself, until I had the chance to have Kaleb, and I grabbed it. Were the three years I got to stay at home with him a remaking or a reacquainting, a way to try to get back days I could never get back? I don’t know, but eventually I got another opportunity to remake myself when I, on the spurt of a moment, applied for a job at the library when Kaleb was almost three.

That remaking was far less painful, because I could control the choice. I felt like I had a choice, and I chose to do it. I didn’t know I would uncover an identity I hadn’t guessed was in me. I didn’t know I would find my librarian self. But I did, and for the past twelve years I have worked at the library.

I’ve been thinking about that run from 17 years ago a lot, recently. You’ll understand why…I thought I already understood: being a teacher was a sort of gateway into becoming a librarian. That it happened right in front of the library where I would eventually work didn’t feel portentous then, but looking back, I thought what I would understand was just that because I became a teacher I could become a librarian.

But I am wondering if it is something more that I haven’t seen yet. That I will only understand when I look back from some place I cannot yet even catch a glimpse of right now.

Maybe this is the clichéd mid-life crisis, I don’t know.

But I feel like I am reaching another turning point in my life, a hinge that is a decision my life will bend on.

For twelve years I have worked as a librarian. I have been defined as a librarian. I have felt a thrill every time someone asked me what I kind of work I do, and I could answer “librarian.” I have loved it and I have felt like I was doing something that mattered, even if it only mattered to a few people.

But some experiences I have had over the past year or so have stripped me of that feeling—the feeling that my work as a librarian matters and the feeling that I mattered as a librarian within the library where I work.

Unlike that painful, painful choice 17 years ago, to change myself from a stay-at-home mom to a teacher, my reality isn’t really forcing me to make a change. Unlike my choice twelve years ago, I am not stumbling fortuitously into a new career.

Also unlike those other decisions, I am no longer the person I used to be. Along the way, I lost my confidence. In my abilities, in my intelligence, in my sense that I matter. I no longer have the religious faith to believe that if I just work better at being “good” I will be led to an answer or to the desires of my heart.

This choice is on me. This remaking is the one I must accomplish on my own, without serendipity or financial struggles or heavenly promptings.

I can keep working at the library for the next twenty years.

Or I can change.

The world doesn’t care what I do.

I have only one teenager still at home—that baby I wanted so desperately—and while I know you never stop parenting your kids, I am working through the process of understanding how much less they need you as they become adults.  

Do I want to remake myself?

Do I want to stay the same?

How do I remake myself when that confidence and faith I used to have are both gone?

How do I stay the same when faced with the sadness that my recent experiences have brought me?

Do I do what I want? Or do I do what might be best for my family?

Do I choose something more financially secure or do I commit to my writing dreams?

Who do I want to be for the rest of my life?

What part of my reality is set in stone and what part can be changed?

Can I remake myself? With this body that is starting to feel like a pair of worn-out jeans that is just about ready to be left in the bag of one-day-I’ll-make-a-denim-quilt jeans? With this brain that sometimes feels every second of its 48+ years, feels soft and quiet instead of sharp and quick?

If, in 48 years of living, I have come to this place where I am struggling to feel like I have ever mattered, is there any point to seeking out a new direction? Why would I matter in some different situation if I don’t matter in this one?

To be honest, I feel deeply mired in my life. I feel backed into a corner, and it seems like the potential for achieving the ambitions I had for myself is in the past now.

I’m not ready to let go of them, but I also don’t know how to achieve them from this place I have put myself through the choices I’ve made.

How do you remake yourself when you feel entirely lost in the dark?

Book Review: The Wind through the Keyhole by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)

The Wind through the Keyhole

“It hurt, of course, but more often than not the best things do, I’ve found. You wouldn’t think it could be so, but—as the oldtimers used to say—the world’s tilted, and there’s an end to it.”

Wind through the keyholeThis is a companion book, of sorts, to the entire Dark Tower series. You could read it without reading any of the other books; it’d give you a taste of the world and the writing, and you wouldn't need to know everything that happened before. It was published after the last book, but I decided I wanted to read it in the timeline of the series (instead of the publication timeline). It tells of a sort of detour that Roland’s ka-tet takes after they leave the Emerald Palace at the end of Wizard and Glass. They meet an old ferryman, who tells them a few details about the land they are traveling through and, as he boats them across the river, feeds them and warns them that bad weather is coming, a starkblast. He gives them advice as to where they might weather out the storm.

Once they are (barely) safe within a stone structure of an abandoned village, no one can sleep, so Roland tells a story to them, a story about one of his adventures as a teenager, before Gilead was destroyed. Inside that story is a story Roland told one of the people he met; both of these stories touch on the same themes as the rest of the books.

This was a fast read and one I enjoyed very much. You do learn some extra details about Roland and his history, and the stories themselves are interesting. They reminded me a bit of some of the stories from My Mother She Killed Me: touching on fairy-tale tropes but finding different directions. What I enjoyed most was the underlying thread of the idea of stories, and how telling them both helps and shapes us. “A person’s never too old for stories,” Roland says. “Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.”

As a person who has loved reading stories of all sorts her whole life, I agree: we are never too old for stories, which fits nicely into my reading of this series, especially at this time of the world. It has been a good pandemic companion.

Book Review: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)

So do we pass the ghosts who haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically on the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.

(for this book “review”—it’s not really a review—to make as much sense as possible, you’d have to also read the “review” I wrote for the first three books in the series, which you can find HERE . This is less a review than a piece about my reaction and connection to the series, how it is influenced by my dad, by my reading history, by who I was and who I am now. No real spoilers but if you’ve read the books you will understand more of what I write.)

Wizard and glassWizard and Glass (the fourth book in The Dark Tower series) is a book that’s hard to categorize. Is it a retold fairytale? Yes! Is it a western? Well, there are horses running across long, grassy ridges, and desert landscapes, and shoot-outs, so, sort of. Is it horror? There’s a terrifying witch, so, partly. Is it fantasy? Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz come into the story, so, yes, there are definitely fantasy aspects.

I haven’t finished the entire series yet, as of this writing (although I am very close!), but I think this book might be my favorite. It completes the cliff-hanger of an ending from The Wastelands and carries us forward into Roland, Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy’s travels, but it is mostly looking backward: it is mostly the story of Roland’s coming-of-age experiences. (Historical fiction about a fictional character in a place that seems like it could be a historical, if fictional, place in the United States?) After besting Cort and becoming a true gunslinger, Roland is sent, with two other friends, to investigate the workings of the Good Man in the far edges of the community (also to get him out of sight of the court wizard Marlen). Here, he discovers a town that is being corrupted by outside forces that might threaten to destroy the world. He also meets, and falls in love with, a local girl named Susan Delgado. His primary task is to figure out what is truly happening in Mejis, but of course this is complicated by the love story.

I loved this book. It plays with many elements of literary tropes, so it feels both familiar and unsettling, all at once. Plus, the rest of the series feels like it focuses more on the male characters, Susannah notwithstanding, but this feels like Susan’s story most of all (although she is not the only character we experience the story through). As the story progressed, I knew where it was headed—once you know enough of women’s tales, it is not hard to guess what will happen to Susan, even if you are hoping it doesn’t. In fact, I set the book aside for at least two weeks because I wasn’t ready for what would happen. When I took it back up again, I read it without stopping, lying on the couch in my front room on a rainy Sunday, because I might not be strong enough to pick it up again.

This was the last book in the series with a physical copy that my dad might’ve read. (Also the last one that wasn’t a reprint and that included the original color illustrations.) I had it in the cupboard under the bookshelf in my bedroom with the other three books he and I both read, but I honestly don’t remember if I bought it or if I just found it at his house and brought it home. Maybe he even read it first and then passed it along to me. I wish I remembered for sure. I can say that this book felt the least Don-Allman-ish book of the series. (As I’m now reading the last one, I can say that for certainty, but even while I was reading it I felt that way: I’m not sure Dad would’ve loved this as much as I am.)

But it was a fairly Amy-ish book. It does a good job at recreating how intense first love is, how it makes the roots of your teeth burn and strips logic and care away, and how it is made to be a thing that will be destroyed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a feminist work—not at all, in fact, but it peeks just a little bit, side-eyed, at those tropes. More than anything, though, it made me think (again…and perhaps that is what I need to take from these books at this time) of how choice influences life, and what might life might be like if I had made different choices. Also of how some stories circle around your life, long after the events have passed, and how they continue to impact the way you make your choices. How memory haunts you, I suppose. And how the telling of the stories also is important, is almost a continuation of the experience itself.

Storytelling always changes time.