It has been a hard year, or so your new therapist likes to say, filling the silence in her small office, two padded chairs facing one another over a small table, after you’ve spilled some new petty frustration about the kids, your girlfriend, your life. She sips her water and peers over at you kindly. It’s not the sort of kindness you cannot muster up for yourself, but you’re happy to have it from her. Even if her sympathy demands payment.
Then again, every year, when followed down the wrong rabbit hole—the year your brother learned he had cancer, the year of the separation, the year your grandmother died—can be described as a hard year. All the years are filled with their own quiet sadness and longing, their own private joys. This is the true accumulation of a life, nearly hidden from the world.
Mother e-mails, asking why you haven’t cashed the check she sent for your birthday. For a week, the check lay on the small IKEA bookshelf in the living room, held in place by an old whiskey bottle, a beautiful piece of deep amber glass. The check was cashed a week ago, which mother must have known, or forgotten about in the space of five days, which makes you wonder if she’s starting to lose her mind. Mother has always had such a wonderful mind. She used to read to the three of you children—Tolkien, C.S. Lewis—night after night, her voice was the fabric that held together the day.
She asks after the book she’s sent, a new collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. The two of you have already discussed the book, but she seems to have forgotten this as well. You don’t trust the book by Tom Hanks. It’s easy to become a writer when you’re already famous, nearly impossible when you aren’t. You don’t say this to your mother. The light filters in through the two small windows in your apartment, resting on a turquoise pillow she purchased for you the last time she was in town.
Now you have children of your own, six and eight, two electric balls of energy and need. So you read James and the Giant Peach or One Hundred and One Dalmatians, trying to stitch their day together in a way they’ll remember fondly, or so you hope. Maybe they’ll forget all those times you raised your voice, sent them off to their rooms while rage coursed through you.
Raising children is just about hope, hope they’ll grow up well, hope they’ll remember the magic and not the quiet hours of desperation, hope you’ll be friends for the rest of your lives. But that’s external, from inside the life of raising a child, changing diapers, rooting through school bags, battling over underwear, or an afternoon spent playing UNO, the idea of whether they’ll love you or childhood feels opaque and largely unimportant. You’re just trying to survive the fucking day.
This morning, in the branches of the mangy pine outside your window, denuded branches, fingers of wood, a group of fat blackbirds fills the air with morning song. You’re almost forty years old. Mother. Her youngest has grown into middle age. Older now than your first memories of her by nearly a decade. The truth is, you don’t really have a first memory of your mother. She always seems to be there.
But why the distancing gesture of you instead of I? You almost always use I and have become intensely interested in personal essays on the grounds that the minutia of other lives, their pettiness, their minor successes, vanities, and imperfections resemble something like truth. Or maybe you’re just prurient and sexual liaisons, divorces, and substance abuse give you a strange kind of thrill, a knowledge that you’ve met your people, the damaged.
You subscribe to leftist magazines, believe in socialism and the need for collective action. And yet, you also sit on the couch, in the morning, you sip coffee, haggle with the children, daydream at the office, scrawl a shopping list on your phone, think of relationships ending, the sadness of twilight, and these essays capture that. Here are my people: they are often small-minded, pretentious, and grandiose, but they love to write about the way morning dew hangs from a coneflower, the way a marriage failed them, about the way a summer camp shaped their identity.
These essays are more representative of human experience than one more story about how the world is going to hell. It’s not that things aren’t going a bit to hell, but life persists in a myriad of ways, and you want to remember the way moonlight breaks on water, and the way a memory folds around your father leaving, how impossibly large his fingers seemed as they held you at the zoo.
Why do you contradict yourself so often? The truth is you primarily read essays about the world going to hell and the ills of mass incarceration. At least in those spare moments of the day, between this task and that. But those essays, which you read in The Point, N plus 1, Harper’s, The New Yorker, though they inform your thinking and politics, toll-like church bells, distant, but not central to the formation of your soul. Perhaps it’s just a personal weakness, this feeling of distance. But even though you’ve given up on the idea of a soul, still, you want to read about what it feels like to be a human, to be sad on the coast of Spain, ambling the streets of Barcelona after the end of a long marriage. You want to teach other people in the classroom about the ills of the world, be a part of the body politic. And yet, in the quiet of the day, often you want the small facts of life. In fact, now that it’s written, your feeling probably is a failing, one of your many that people now simply describe as privilege. You are already like Rome, a palace of ruins. This is not a time for ruins.
You wish that your writing had distinctive through lines, but it never has.
While you were getting my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, the second person was spoken of with disdain. The older faculty members who shepherded you through the program while not so secretly wishing you’d all vanish, so they could write, regarded it as a gimmick. And a lot of you found the imperative of the second person jarring and manipulative. It forced the reader to inhabit a story that wasn’t theirs. Nothing was happening to them, but the constant and repetitive framework of you developed a false urgency. You were supposed to weave the fictive dream, not construct a shortcut.
Of course, all writing is sleight of hand, so maybe the argument is merely that of a curmudgeon, resistant to change. It’s just the sentences in second-person stories took on such a monotonous quality. Though perhaps the sentences were merely a tic of beginning writers, which you all were, the average age in the program was about twenty-three, and we reproduced a lot of repetitious and banal sentences.
Only the poets in the program ever wrote anything that felt finished at a line level. They didn’t bother connecting all of their ideas. Instead, they let the reader flow from paragraph to paragraph, moment to moment via association. They said something profound and moved on. One of your favorite lines from a workshop, a line break then.
Profound—In favor of things being found.
You’re awake again at six am, the fan whirring overhead, and the children still mercifully sleeping. Lately, your son has taken to waking up just after you, too early for him, plying you with morning questions because he loves you in the idyllic way only a child can. He loves the whole world in a naïve and empathetic way, which nearly breaks your heart because the world will break his. And you can’t help but answer his questions, put your computer down and wonder if you’ll ever write anything meaningful. You also can’t help but wonder if not sitting with him in the morning as he plies you with questions would also be missing the meaning.
The night before your daughter said you hurt her when you carried her into the bedroom. She was out in the living room after being warned five times that she needed to sleep. She refused to go, so you lifted her up and carried her limp body down the hallway.
You didn’t ask me if you could pick me up, she says. You’ve taught the children the phrase, my body my choice. I fell asleep on the ground because of you, she says.
Your daughter believes the world is a criminal and she, the victim. She often accuses her brother, you, her mother, your girlfriend of treating her unfairly. These claims bear very little relationship to reality, but they are her version of reality, in which, the scales of justice are constantly being weighed—he got more Cheerios, more compliments, a larger cookie, more love. She is damn near insufferable at times, as are you.
And now you’re awake, trying to write something brilliant, but you’re thinking of your daughter. You’ve read a number of personal essays about tough children, about children of divorce, children who are hard on their siblings, trying to piece together what’s happening for your daughter. Years ago, when your son first learned to sit up, a fat mound of lumpy flesh, when your daughter was two-and-a-half, you’d sometimes hear a thwack and then his loud cries. It took you a few times to realize she was walking by and pushing him over. You tell this story at parties by way of explanation. Eight now, she has a spray of freckles across her nose, your daughter, and she is fiercely intelligent.
Your girlfriend suggests your daughter talk to a counselor at school about the separation and impending divorce. She might be right. Other people in your life are often right, but you’re tired and don’t like to admit it. You don’t like conflict. Everything is always fine. The mess of separation, three years now, has already been made.
And now is the phase of clean-up: meditation, yoga, therapists, long conversations with friends, your girlfriend, your former wife. Now is the era of bookmarking articles about self-improvement, managing anger, managing finances, managing to pack lunches, make breakfast and have the children to school or camp on time by yourself.
But the children?
They’ll be fine, we say. The kids are all right. They’re resilient. You think what you mean is the therapy bills won’t come due for decades. Children are forced to carry on in the midst of other lives. They have games and clothes spread across two homes now. Your son complains that he doesn’t have enough pairs of shorts.
Your son says, “You and mommy started living apart because you were having a hard time. You wouldn’t want to have another baby and have them hear you arguing because that’s not good.”
You have always considered yourself laid back. But when the children are with you, you set up a rigid set of routines, brushing teeth at 7:42 exactly, reading a book, Harry Potter and something by Roald Dahl until 8:15. Then it’s ten minutes with each child individually before they fall asleep. This structure seems to help the children, or maybe it just helps you. During your time, your son insists that you play games of Pokémon or build elaborate Lego sets. Most nights, you vacillate between love and boredom. He says, let me teach you how to build a robot. Because, the truth is, he’s better at building with Legos than you. Life is full of shame.
The problem is you and your former wife are both peacemakers, who want everything to be fine. And so the two of you avoided conflict long enough that you lost touch with each other completely. Life was in a state of constant upheaval, work trips, romantic entanglements, but the two of you keep pretending like it was just another Wednesday morning.
But, of course, it is just another Wednesday morning. Every year is hard. Every year the earth spins on its axis, paychecks appear and cars rush past on the street below. And you wake up early to write and wind up thinking about the children when you mean to write an essay about the marginal tax rate. Doesn’t everyone know it used to be much higher? But you suspect, all over this political city, lit up currently by blossoms, azaleas, rhododendron—other people are awake and brooding on the children. Everyone is tired of brooding over nationalism, over corruption, over stupidity, and the children are awake and clamoring for cereal. Your daughter sleeps with the light on after reading for hours most nights. And then she is so quiet, this tenacious human. All you want is for everyone to quietly read books.
You would say, dramatically, which is typical of you, of men, that this is the year you’ve become tired of life. But you’ve been tired of aspects of life since you turned twenty-three. It was that year you started to realize, working at a boring office job in Michigan, that life was about foreclosing opportunities, closing the door on other relationships, other jobs, other trips, other career paths, other lives. In the mornings, sometimes you chant the maxim, you get what you get and you don’t get upset to the children. Bullshit, you think. You do get upset. You get upset at a myriad of things you lack, a book contract, a rich and reclusive uncle who’s leaving you his fortune, a fancy car. You wish the life you had didn’t feel so externally determined. In therapy, you’re reminded that it isn’t, but so much time has passed living with this misconception.
See how quickly you leave the thought of the children to worry about your own concerns? Your anxious daughter, a spray of freckles across her aquiline nose, your deep brown eyes reincarnated, is still asleep. Sometimes you can’t shake the feeling that she knows the right thing to do and chooses not to. Sometimes, after she’s asleep, you worry you are angry at your eight-year-old daughter.
You think to yourself, maybe this is the worst thing I’ve ever written, blaming my daughter for her behavior instead of myself. You know you need to set a series of strict boundaries to help her flourish. The culture of big-city self-affirmation isn’t going to tell you to set firm boundaries. Rather, you’ll be reminded to love as though it were enough. It rarely is. But maybe that’s why you used the second person in this essay, to create the proper distance for you to be the asshole in writing you sometimes are in life.
Structurally, this is usually the part where you describe your daughter again, the softness of her brow in sleep, the way her honey-blond hair fans across the pillow, how you kiss her on the bridge of her nose and are filled with hope.
But that isn’t this morning. This morning, which is like any other, you are up with the nameless brown birds at the window, writing about how she’s responsible for some of the dysfunction in her life. So why not write it as it is, instead of how you wish it was.
As a child, you were very romantic, inventing elaborate stories while you climbed trees, narrating lengthy fights between G.I. Joe’s, plastic dinosaurs, and second-hand Transformers. Eventually, you moved into reading fantasy books, playing video games, always at a distance from reality. Interactions with peers who you didn’t know extraordinarily well terrified you.
You felt, all through elementary, junior high, and high school, that an essential part of yourself was held at bay. That you possessed something, an insight, a joke, a particular perspective you buried because you were terminally shy, embarrassed of speaking, embarrassed of yourself. For years, you went to church, said nice things to people afterward, while wondering if you even believed in God. Maybe everyone’s life is about burying themselves underneath an avalanche of social niceties. Maybe you’ll ask your therapist in a few hours.
You think, when they talk about the perspective of a writer, perhaps they just mean someone who is intensely shy and becomes self-focused as a result. The idea you have something other people somehow aren’t seeing even though you’re the cause of the obfuscation is a bit silly. You are a bit silly.
Your daughter is like you in many ways. At school, she does the right thing, in part because she has buried her fierce personality under a persona of success, of rule-following. She’s following a similar path as you, performing an elaborate version of the self, but she’s different too. The frustration you buried for so long at performing for other people, even though none of them ever asked you to, didn’t come out until your thirties. She’s not as shy, not as bent on pleasing people, but she looks to the external world to validate her, just as you still often do. And it will never be enough, but how do you tell that to an eight-year-old when you can’t tell it to yourself.
The other day, your daughter had a writing class, and she tried her hand at writing a poem. Every time you go to the bookstore she finds the volume of The Best American Poetry 2018 and reads your name. You don’t tell her what you tell everyone else, your inclusion was pure luck, the piece was originally prose until the magazine changed it. Rather, you tell her you’re a poet because you want her to be proud of her dad.
She says, has anyone ever compared the grass to the sea?
Yes, you answer, probably. One of the most famous poems in American history is called Leaves of Grass.
She says, the boats moving across the waves of grass.
But also, I wrote a poem about the sky, she says, and maybe I liked that one better.
What was it? you asked.
Something about the night sky looking charcoal.
That’s lovely, you say.
Days later, many edits into the essay, you think of the Myth of Sisyphus. Your mother had wanted to be a writer, but she’d had difficulties in life and wound up raising her three children virtually on her own, barely writing, and she passed the desire on to you. And then you’d gotten your MFA and had some publications and success.
When you originally wrote this essay, the rough draft ended by saying you didn’t know if your daughter would ever change. You wondered if things would always be hard. And then she started telling you about poems, about boats in grass and charcoal-covered skies, and instead, you wondered, if briefly, if she’d slip her hands around the stone, hold it close, push it further up the long hill.