The month before I graduated college, one of my writing professors approached me to ask if the university’s English department could use my senior writing portfolio as a model for future classes. She said it was one of the best she’d ever seen. My sophomore year, there was some sort of essay-on-demand writing-proficiency exam required for all sophomores, and my graded essay came back with a letter saying it was so good, the grader had stopped the rest of the judges to listen to it read aloud. True stories.
I think about these experiences sometimes, mostly how they make me feel (and sound) like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite: “See that mountain over there? What do you want to bet I can throw this football over it?” He takes his bite of pan-fried steak, his hairpiece glistening, and, oh, it’s such a pathetic sight. I guess I’ll take comfort in knowing I’ve done a few things between my supposed glory days and my current life.
It’s been about 15 years since I graduated from college. Before I even turned my tassle, I was working at a small educational publishing company as its managing editor. Since, I’ve worked from coast to coast. I’ve been a newspaper editor where Southern hog farmers and retired Yankees are fighting the final, fizzling skirmishes of the Civil War. I was the editor for the largest private-equity research firm in the Northwest, on the receiving end of a nana-nana-boo-boo letter from Bill Gates’ dad about a typo he found in a report I edited. (Yes, the rich and famous are just like us!) I’ve been a stringer for public radio. I’ve coordinated publications for the National Endowment for Democracy, where I got to meet some incredible champions of freedom, like escapees of North Korean forced-labor camps, survivors of rape warfare in the Congo, and one Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. More recently, I received a Pushcart Prize special mention and wrote a book. See that mountain over there?
Let’s be real. I haven’t landed among the stars, at least not the ones anyone expected. To quote a former classmate of mine from my 15-year high school reunion, a guy with something like 17 children and enough ATVs to entertain them all, “I thought you were going to go somewhere, be something big, like a lawyer or a doctor.” To boot, that was said during all the aforementioned accomplishments. He didn’t even know I was about to become what I am now.
These days, I am a mom and a wife in a Wisconsin home with a loud dishwasher that is making it hard for me to think as I type. My day went like this: shower, wake up the kids, make lunches, wake up husband, wake up the kids again, dry hair, wake up the kids again, make breakfast, search for kids’ socks, diffuse tantrum over socks not being fresh from the dryer, replace said socks with better-fitting socks, search for snow boots, drive kids to school, go to work, blog for a camera company, blog for a jeweler, pick up kids, go grocery shopping, miss yoga, make enchiladas, watch eldest pick onions out of enchiladas, go to science fair, do bedtime, and finally, sweet finally, watch some Modern Family. What can I say? I have two kids and came this close—this close—to choking a passive-aggressive, competitive parent tonight at a school science expo in a cafeteria, where the fluorescent lights no doubt showed off the greasy child-sized fingerprints on my glasses. Every day, I am so much more tired at the end than I intended to be at the beginning. Yes, I have #firstworldproblems. But, God, I love my family so much more than I ever loved anything I ever wrote. There’s that. No, there really is that.
Sometimes I’m plagued by the thought that I have not become what I could become. There are still little voices telling me I thought you would be a big deal. This is when I have to remind myself that life is longer than 15 years between college and now. What am I? Dead? It is no small deal raising children well while still becoming who you were meant to be. In fact, in my case, the two are inextricably related. And so I do my best. I march down from curing the hiccups, negotiating over cold or hot lunch, doing so many endless experiments with baking soda, and I try to turn on that thing—that magic thing—that’s still somewhere in there. Usually I can’t find it. It’s so hard to create beauty when you’re exhausted. In the end, I believe this isn’t a choice I have to make right now. I believe the writing will keep. My kids will grow up and move away, for we all know childhood’s fleeting. But the writing will keep.