I keep making mistakes. The paperback version of my book You Don’t Look Adopted has errors. Not just typos. The margins are wrong. The print fades in sections. And now, in the essay Living the Mother that I squeezed my heart and guts and brain to write for the blog I dearly love, Manifest-Station, I found five typos after the essay was set in print.
In my past life, the life in which I didn’t write much more than a paragraph at a time, these things would have kept me up at night. I would have felt so vulnerable to judgement. I would have felt dirty. Wrong. In danger of losing any love I had in the world. I would have felt, worst of all, stupid.
One time early in my teaching career, I was being observed by a tenured poet for my semester evaluation. I was handing back graded essays that day and stood fiercely in front of the class, brandishing my red pen. “The ink was full when I started marking your papers,” I admonished the morning-tired students. “Now it’s half full. What a waste of ink--on mistakes that shouldn’t have been made.”
I began calling out names, maintaining a scolding eye contact, student by student, as I gave back the three-page essays. I’d spilled cereal on some. Water on others. I’d done my best to dry them off, but they were not returned in the same condition I had got them. And there was red everywhere. Those poor papers were bleeding.
I felt so proud of myself. So righteous. I was going to shame those kids into caring about their work. I would do what my mother had taught me and teach my students that error-free sentences were the secret to a life worth living. That whatever pride they had in themselves needed to show up on a page clear of mistakes.
Later that week the poet faced me in his office and told me he hoped teaching was not a career goal for me. I was too shocked and hurt to have a conversation. I told him that, unfortunately, it was, and I burst into tears and walked out. I thought he was taking his own frustrations about being a mediocre poet at a mediocre university out on me. I taught my guts out every class. I was meant to be a teacher. Why couldn’t he see that?
But the truth is teaching was exhausting, and I hated myself after each class. Every day, somewhere between driving to school and facing the students, I lost myself. I became Muhammed Ali, only without grace and heart. I was right about everything, and those kids had to listen to me. I was going to make them better. Every day, as I walked across campus back to the parking structure, I had to give myself pep talks, tell myself that feeling like a jerk was part of teaching, that I was okay, that I was doing more good than harm.
About a year after my mother died, my never-great handwriting became indecipherable. I cried a lot. I went to a doctor because I couldn’t read the clock on the wall in class anymore. I had to ask the students to tell me when class was over. The doctor had me stand and touch my nose and then she sent me across the street for an MRI. My confusion worried her, and although I tried to tell her I thought I was just really sad, she thought it might be something more measurably malignant.
My scan was clean. I drove home from the appointment and got lost in Mountain View because, along with not being able to read clocks, I was also no longer able to follow directions, even when Siri was hollering at me.
And I am working at leaving them there. For while it is true that I love clean copy, and while it is true that I do think the printed page is an almost holy object and due great love and care, I also see that if I am easier on myself, I am easier on others, and while perfection sounds clean, real sounds better.
Things just kept spiraling downwards until I decided my life had to change. I’d been running from writing my whole life, teaching it instead of doing it. I packed up my stuff and headed for New York. I was going to write the book I’d been carrying around like a watermelon in my guts my entire adult life. If it turned out I had no talent, then so be it. At least I wouldn’t die wishing I had tried.
I had my breakthrough two weeks into the journey I’d called Write or Die. I had texted my friend that I thought I couldn’t do it, that I was up against the wall of myself and I couldn’t find a way through.
This is from You Don’t Look Adopted:
It was day 35 of Write or Die. I couldn’t stop saying fuck. I’d left New York for the two-week residency on Martha’s Vineyard, and I had walked in the April snow to the one open coffee shop in Edgartown.
What are you afraid of? HBL texted after I sent him the page I’d written that morning with a message bemoaning my ability to find a way into my story.
I wrote back I am afraid that, in the end, I have no story to tell. That the lack of concrete beginning undermines the whole thing and that the project sags under why bother.
I am afraid that I am making excuses and that instead of taking control of my life and taking care of myself financially, I’m blaming my juvenile behavior on adoption. I am afraid of looking at how inconsequential my feelings were when I was growing up. I am afraid of looking at how easily I was given away. I am afraid of how numb I am because underneath is a lot of pain and anger. I am afraid of acknowledging the fact that I think I am valuable. I have to go now, I wrote to him. That last one made me cry.
That’s it. HBL had written back. That’s your story. Keep going. I was shocked. That broken, whiny voice was an acceptable part of my story? That was the part I spent so much energy trying to ignore or cover up. If it was okay to sound like that when writing, then, holy cow, this book was going to be a lot easier than I thought. All I had to do was tell the truth.
This is what I learned: the unsettled parts and the mistakes may be the best part of me. The parts that are most human, most real. As soon as I let go of the hope that writing somehow would make me a better person, more valuable, more real, more worthy of love, it did all those things. But the path is not clean. I am a mess. The mistakes just never end. I read a draft ten times. I read it out loud. I do spell check time and time again, and still, when the work is out in public, every single time I find at least one flaw.
I wish I were perfect. It would be easier to be Barbie and to write sentences that never groaned with fault, but it would be a skating life, a life not worth getting out of bed for every morning.
So, truth be told, I don’t wish I were perfect. What I do wish for is greater self-acceptance and an expanded capacity to love.
Baudelaire called out to the glazier, Make life beautiful! That’s the song I want to pace my days by, my sentences. My heart.
My messy, messy heart.