We are three days away from Christmas. As my checklist grows shorter – presents purchased, cards sent, cookies decorated – I’m able, finally, to get into the spirit of the season. For me, this means letting myself sink into a warm well of gratitude for all the of the gifts God has given me. My health. My family. Fulfilling friendships. Everything I need and more, far more. I thank God, too, for words, for a passion to write, for a voice and a story to tell. Please don’t think me vain or presumptuous; I call these gifts not to say that I am “gifted” but to convey the extent to which they have enriched my life, the intensity with which I treasure them.
In my life, I’ve written for a lot of reasons. As a kid I wrote to be like my older sisters. When I was six or seven years old my family stopped at a restaurant after a day of downhill skiing. We composed poems on white paper placemats while we waited for our food. It was the first poem I can remember writing; it was about winter. I think I drew a picture of a bunny in the corner.
A few years later I bought a diary with a lock and a picture of a gumball machine on the front.I filled it with hideous insults about my fourth-grade teacher. It was the year I discovered curse words, and I used them liberally, if not always correctly. She’s such an asshole. I hope she fucking falls in the ocean and gets eaten by goddamn sharks. It was the same year I started writing horror stories, one about a killer doll (titled “Hug Me”), another about a gun that flew around on its own, shooting people. My “asshole” teacher always gave me an A++ and a smiley face.
In 6th grade my boyfriend, whatever that meant at the time, gave me a journal. He didn’t last, but the journal did. When its pages were filled I replaced it with another, then another. Throughout high school and into college, my journals were a place to put my darkest thoughts, the things I didn’t want anyone to know. Also, they served as a catalog of the names of all my crushes, which I believe will serve as important historical documentation one day.
I majored in English, with a focus on creative writing, so I wrote constantly. I was- am still, I suppose – a person who loves academics for the sake of academics. I would highlight and highlight every text I was assigned, then pore back through the pages looking for a common thread to all the neon yellow. I knew my thesis statement was in there somewhere. I also started writing for the school paper, the Tripod. My weekly column was a tongue-in-cheek examination of party life at the school, and probably should have been titled, “Underage Moron Finds it Unnecessary to Disguise the Fact That She Routinely Breaks the Law”. Luckily my editor’s insertion of the word “hypothetically” saved me from arrest and utter disgrace.
The pen, the page, the keyboard: whatever the tool, they were all extensions of myself, and I’m lucky they were, because I needed them. A few months shy of my 21st birthday I watched one of my friends die. He was ejected from his car when it was struck by a tractor-trailer on our way to the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. We were caravanning, and I was in the car in front of his. Needless to say, I was broken. Having flashbacks, sobbing myself to sleep, hysteria triggered by any reminder of anything related to the accident- broken. (Read more about this experience in my post “The Transformation of Loss“.)
Thank God for writing. Thank God it was something I knew how to do and that I did, twice a week in an advanced poetry workshop taught by a grizzled Quaker named Hugh Ogden. Each day he wore a red bandanna around his matted white hair and sat on the stoop of the English building between classes, smoking. When he grinned, he looked like a maniac. The first time I workshopped a poem about the accident, the room stayed silent after I finished reading. “Oh Jen,” said Hugh, with more kindness in his voice than I could bear, “Thank you.”
I wrote a lot that year, poems that honored Sean’s memory and sought to give his death meaning. “What beauty can be salvaged out of pain?” I wrote. “Life lives, and brings me to myself again.” I wrote poems for his mom, for his girlfriend of six years, who thought that he would one day be her husband. I wrote a poem for the driver of the tractor- trailer that killed him, expressing something like forgiveness.
I healed, mostly. I moved forward. I moved to St. Louis, where I volunteered with AmeriCorps for a year as a mentor in an inner-city middle school. I got interested in teaching, and was hired at a private school to teach 7th-grade English. I met the man who would become my husband. I was happy, and busy. I would try to write, but it felt stupid and hard. I didn’t like any of it, so I stopped.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized how much I needed the written word again. I was working about thirty miles away at the time. Each morning I woke my daughter up, nursed her, and then got in the car and left. By the time I picked her up from daycare I had time to feed her one more time before putting her to bed. I was miserable, exhausted. I truly felt that I was failing as a mother, a wife, and a teacher, that spreading myself so thin couldn’t possibly be the answer. I wanted to scream, but I wrote instead.
I started my own blog. (You’re reading it!) It was only for me, a place to voice my frustrations so that they wouldn’t consume me. After posting once or twice, I included a few of my close family and friends, and eventually I felt comfortable enough to share on Facebook. I know it shouldn’t matter what people say, but positive feedback is encouraging. People I barely knew have become part of this amazing support system of mothers who have all had experiences similar to mine.
And now, at Christmas- and really, every day of my life, I’m thankful for that.