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Lost in Space, in a Good Way
Each year on my birthday, I write a letter reflecting on the past year, what I've learned, and what I'm hoping for. This Substack was actually started as a way to manage my increasingly unwieldy birthday email list. This is a personal letter, and I hope you receive it in the spirit of love and vulnerability in which it is offered.
To briefly catch you up: two years ago, I wrote about the confusion, stress, and hope I felt as I quit my nonprofit CEO job to focus on family caregiving and write a novel. Last year, I wrote about letting go of guilt and embracing a joyful transition to more creativity, play, and family time. If you want to know more, here's a longer reflection on these changes from last winter, when I started this newsletter.
But that was then. This is now. I'm 42 today. And I want to talk about space.
Exactly one year ago, my agent closed the sale of my first novel to William Morrow. This sale ensured the book would be published (it comes out September 5 of this year!). It also ensured--or invited--me to think of myself as a writer in a new way. To be blunt, it paid enough that I can "just" write for the next 3-5 years without needing to take a job.
This is extraordinary. It also prompted some questions about what to do with this windfall. Should I throw myself wholeheartedly into writing fiction? Should I experiment with new ways of contributing to nonprofit arts and culture? Should I dedicate more time to family? Should I have more fun?
The answer (as it often is for me) is yes, yes, yes, yes. I did lots of exploring, caring, learning, and playing this year. But the thing I did most was permit myself space. I've always been an opportunistic person who loves to go all-in and charge hard on my goals. Not this year. This year, I got my work done. I pursued my passions. But I also let myself drift. I let myself wonder. I let myself get excited about something and then put it aside or decide it wasn't right for me.
I realize this may sound feckless, lazy, or undirected. Yes. I think I was due some fecklessness. It helps in my continued journey to let go of a false idea that I'm only "good" if I am doing something "significant." I'm putting those both in quotes because I no longer am confident of what they mean. All I know is that I used to feel I was never good or significant enough.
The irony, vis a vis this new book, is that I'm doing more self-promotion these days than I ever have. Unlike a museum exhibition or a fundraising campaign, a novel is so personal. I'm not selling a community vision. I'm selling a creative thing I made. I'm promoting it unapologetically and cheerfully, and it isn't triggering those old feelings. Why? At least in my weird brain, this novel doesn't feel like a bid for worth or significance. It feels like the opposite. It was a personal thing I wrote for me and my mom. And now I'm lucky to be able to share it more widely. I feel like a person who made a lumpy potholder of love I want to show to the world. The world is big and I am small, so why not write a story about mothers and daughters solving crime? Why not share the absurd joy I feel that anyone, anywhere, might want to read it?
I used to want to be big. But now, I am fully embracing the joy of being a small person in a big world. I feel it right now, writing this letter to you from the tiny ghost town in eastern Washington where we spend the month of July. This is a place of trees and birds, not people. I get bitten by bugs, lost in high grass. The lake is always wider than I can swim. The other night, a herd of cows, led by an agitated bull, blockaded a dirt road and forced me to turn around on a bike ride. Cows are big here. I am not.
This year, I've been lucky to have several experiences in which I felt space grew wide around me. I've felt it in community--as part of a local activist campaign, beach volleyball tournaments, writers' conferences, an international cultural exchange. And I've felt it in nature. Last month, I spent a week in the Grand Canyon with my sister. We traveled down the river with 30 people, and even that large group felt laughably small against the backdrop of the canyon, as if we were tiny rubber ducks in an enormous geological time bath. It felt good to imagine how little a mark we made on that big, wild place. How subject we were to its dust storms, rapids, and hot flashes. And yes, I know very well how humans are screwing up the planet. Which I think contributes to the comfort I feel--however unfounded--when I'm reminded the planet is so much damn bigger than us.
I've also had experiences in the past year where space closed down around me. Scary phone calls about family medical issues, confronting my insecurity about the book editing process, overwhelmed when I'd overcommitted. Sometimes something as small as a harsh email could send me into a cramped elevator shaft of stress and fear, one where the thoughts in my head grew larger as the space around me shrunk. Some of these small space moments can't be helped. But a lot of times, I was the one who collapsed the walls around my brain. At age 42, I want to build skills to spread them out instead.
So that's what I'm trying to do with the gift of this year--to expand the space around me. Sometimes I feel it when I'm writing, inventing a new world in a story. Sometimes it happens when I cook for others or talk to a friend on the phone (I've discovered I love talking to friends on the phone). Often it happens wandering in nature, picking berries on the side of the road, or following my kid downriver.
I'm still a type-A charger at heart. But I measure productivity differently now. A good day is one in which I make something I'm proud of, but that something is usually quite small. A sharp scene. A delicious meal. A good game. A helpful word. It doesn't matter to the world, but it matters to me.
I end this letter as I did last year. Thank you for being in my life. Thank you for showing up, for expanding the space around me with your love and challenge and curiosity and grace. Having you in my life is a gift. Truly.
p.s. If you are interested in my novel, Mother-Daughter Murder Night, you can pre-order a hardcover, audiobook, or ebook now wherever books are sold. If you buy a hardcover from Bookshop Santa Cruz, you can even get it signed at the launch event on Sep 5. I’d love to celebrate with you there.
p.p.s. In writing this, I thought a lot about this terrific poem, Jet, by Tony Hoagland. You might like it too.
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