It’s Good If I Say It’s Good

I am really used to sitting down at the end of the year and looking back and thinking, “Well, it wasn’t a good year but things got better and you got through it.” That didn’t happen this year, and it’s kind of weird, but I’m not going to complain. When you divorce after a relationship dies a slow death, you have a long string of bad years. It becomes what you expect. And even last year I remember thinking 2014 was terrible and I wasn’t at all sad to see it go even though plenty of good things happened and I ended the year much better off than I began it.

This year, though. It was a gamechanger. I feel more comfortable in my skin. I feel better about what I’ve accomplished. I feel confident about next year even though I have absolutely no idea what next year will look like. 

I set goals at the beginning of the year, nice general ones that I could meet in some way. It was helpful coming off another bad year to tell myself that 2015 could be better and to decide on the ways that could happen. The only goal I didn’t meet was taking pictures of the kids. (I’m sad for the lack of nice camera pictures, but we had a good year where snapping a phone pic often was all we could manage, which is fine by me.)

Mostly, though, this year brought a lot of unexpected joy. I was not expecting a new job, complete with more responsibility, more opportunity, more visibility, and more fulfillment. I was not expecting the bookternet to open up to me the way it did. I was not expecting Hamilton, which brought me my #1 evening of the year and many hours of pleasure. I was not expecting to do the kind of writing I did, including a very public coming out.

I’ve started to define who I am and what I do. I started new partnerships and new freelance relationships. I wrote pieces I was proud of, I pitched and was accepted. I finally started the novel that I kept telling myself I would start “someday.” I more than doubled my speaking gigs, with 7 presentations this year. I read WAY more books than I expected (my goal was 100, I’m past 150)

The unexpectedness is what’s made it so great. I have been steadily expecting little even if I hope for and work for more. The only problem is that I’m not sure I can maintain that. I see the progress I’ve made and sometimes I get impatient when others don’t see it or don’t realize my value and expertise. But I also know that it may not make sense to go back. I may have reached a point where my confidence in myself and my abilities is a critical piece of making more happen and continuing to move up in the world. And that confidence is going to be dashed, it’s just part of life.

I’ve been blogging for over 14 years, and I started writing in earnest as a teenager, but I think this year is one of those critical years where I found my voice. It’s not the first time I found it. It may seem weird to find your voice over and over again, but it’s true. It is not something you find and then it’s found. It is a constant act of rediscovery and rebirth as you catch up to the change in your life and what you’re capable of.

This year I reminded myself many times to stop and appreciate good things. I really needed it after last year, where I tended to get really mentally bogged down in how hard things are. Things are still hard. It’s not that 2015 was the year things got easy. There’s been a little bit of improvement, but it’s still very tight when it comes to finances and scheduling and everything else. I actually did stop and appreciate along the way, and I think it has a lot to do not just with me feeling better this year but with me doing better this year. I really worked on appreciating good things, especially good things I worked for. A lot of that started in the second half of the year and, sure enough, the second half of the year was where almost everything happened. I don’t know what it was exactly, but somewhere around there I started feeling like I could do more. And once my mindset changed, things just happened. (Okay, they didn’t just happen. I worked my tail off and they happened.)

So. I’m really proud to say it was a good year. Even if, from the outside using the criteria most people would use, it was only okay. It was good, dammit. It was really good. I am so aware of every little triumph along the way. And I don’t care if that means I’m not using objective criteria to evaluate it. How I feel is the criteria that matters most to me, and that’s the one that’s been the best of all.

Holiday Spirit

It is Saturday, the 19th of December, aka Christmas Eve at Mom’s House. The calendar has the kids at their dad’s for Christmas, which is fine. I’ve never been a you-have-to-celebrate-on-the-actual-day kind of person. 

It is a lot like a normal day, with the occasional festivity thrown in. 

Graham asks to watch television, we run errands instead. We stop at the dollar store where we will continue my family’s tradition of all the kids buying each other presents. (When I go to my parents’ house for Christmas, this continues, with my dad to this day passing each of us a stack of one-dollar bills to cover it.) This mission involves secrecy and surprise, which is part of the fun, since you’re all shopping in the same store at the same time. Graham is nervous about this endeavor, which I anticipated. He knows that when they split up, I’ll stay with Tessa. He has lost it in the middle of a public place on more occasion when he cannot immediately see me. But we talk it through, the store is small, and Tessa chooses an Iron Man puzzle for Graham quickly, just in time for him to call out for me. I peek in his bag and see a Frozen puzzle for her. We walk to the register, I hold both the secret packages, Tessa says to Graham, “I got you puzzle,” and I immediately shush her and remind her it’s supposed to be a secret. “But it is a secret,” Graham insists, since he doesn’t know what kind of puzzle. By the time we get to the car he tells her he got her a puzzle, too. So much for surprises.

After this delightful trip, it is all downhill as we try to get through a grocery trip. I make threats. They don’t listen. The car cart is certainly the heaviest it’s ever been, have they doubled in size? We ride home with the kids in penitent silence hoping to atone.

At home it is whining for snacks and whining about who doesn’t want hugs right now and finally I cut through it all by letting them at the gingerbread house kit I brought home from work. It buys us about 20 minutes of holiday harmony before they eat all the candy that wasn’t used for decorating and demand more snacks.

As we hit late afternoon we get peak How-long-until-dinner? “One minute less than when you asked me last time.” But finally the time passes. We eat dips (veggies with dip, chips with dip, apples with dip) for dinner and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frozen and wait for the time to open Christmas Eve pajamas.

You always think holidays will be different but with kids they can never get too far below 80% normal. 

 

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

But somehow on Sunday, our Christmas, we manage to get about as close to holiday magic as I think is possible. They are excited and tickled in the 10 minutes or so it takes to open presents. I let them eat all the candy from their stockings. We open Graham’s legos and start to build. Tessa puts on her new necklace. We watch a movie. Everyone plays a game together. Graham helps Tessa with her duplo set. I bake. Twice. 

There are still two time outs (one for each kid) and they’re sent upstairs before bedtime when I’ve about had it and the requests for snacks all day long are nearly relentless and Tessa doesn’t eat the sandwich she asked for and so on. But we have more cooperation, more cuddles, more general happy than usually happens on a day when we don’t actually leave the house. It’s not exactly a Christmas miracle, but it is a pleasant surprise.

The evenings are easier this year. Last year I was really depressed when I stayed up on Christmas Eve to wrap. This year is my second go at single-parent-holiday-prep and because I already know I will have Danny and Bing and Sam Adams there with me, it isn’t so daunting. I also don’t have anything to assemble this year, a plus. (You know, assuming you don’t count the 6 hours I spend helping the 6-year-old put together his lego set. And honestly, I’ll take that because peace and harmony and quiet.) Last year I was much more hung up on everything that I’d always expected the secret holiday wrapping to be, a special little party of your very own. It’s not that I still don’t get disappointed or sad or lonely because I definitely do. But it’s been 2 and a half years and I have not had a serious relationship that entire time and single has become the default. Which isn’t bad, honestly. This is still the rough part, I’m still right in the weeds of the holidays, but it is better. Everything seems at least a little better this year. That is nothing to sneeze at.

I Wrote a Thing

It has been a WEEK. I have learned over the past few years that I have to make real effort to appreciate good things and the good things this week are things I do not want to forget so I’m taking a minute to preserve the moment and take a little victory lap. 

Basically all year I’ve been wanting to up my writing game off the blog. It’s been very tough because time is at a premium. Sometimes I have a lot of paid writing gigs that are important to pay the rent but that don’t help me grow as a writer, and the time I spend on those leaves me without the time to feel through a larger piece.

I spent several weeks reworking the essay I read as my Listen To Your Mother piece for this past year, and I felt really good about how I tore it down and built it up again. It was a great learning experience and more editing than I’ve ever done on anything I’ve written.

A lot of the pieces I’ve been proud of this year were quick, without much planning, like this one and this one. I hit the 1 year mark at Book Riot this summer and I’ve learned a lot during that time. It’s amazing to have a platform with significant visibility that’s also kind and welcoming. I have had incredible support and a safe space to grow and write and experiment and it’s helped a lot.

My output hasn’t been the quantity I hoped for, but I was proud of a lot of my work and feeling like I trusted myself more. Plus there was the blog, still here when I needed it, still a place where I could overshare to my heart’s content.

But I knew for months and months that there were more big pieces inside of me, more things I wanted to write, more essays searching for the right narrative, the right approach. I let a few of them tumble around, waiting for inspiration.

The best night ever, when I saw Hamilton back in November, I was back at my hotel, sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of wine, scrolling through Twitter, trying to get my brain to slow down from the crazy adrenaline rush. And that was when I saw the news about the LDS Church’s new policy on children with parents in same-sex relationships. I had to stop. I had to turn off Twitter, get off my phone, and just stop. I was already emotionally frazzled, albeit in a good way, and not ready to deal with something that, at first glance, looked like it would wound me deeply.

Right after that came Book Riot Live, which kept me busy and surrounded by friends and I kept not dealing with it, using my impressive denial skills. But when I came back home, it was unavoidable. It was all over my Facebook feed, which surprised me. I am a member of a few Facebook groups of progressive Mormons and former-Mormons, so I see a lot of church news, but this time it was coming from people on their personal walls outside these groups. I was struck by their courage. There is a strong cultural pressure to go with the status quo in Mormonism, and when the status quo is a policy with the stamp of approval of church leadership, it moves beyond pressure.

So I decided I would write a thing. I hadn’t actually planned to write one of my big essays about Mormonism, but religion has been an undeniable and strong presence in my writing this year. I pitched The Toast first. I read it every day, I know how thoughtful their readers are, and I know they’ve had pieces written by and about Mormons before. I hoped they would take it, but I wasn’t sure. They took it, and quickly.

So there I was, staring down my keyboard, realizing that now I had to write the thing. That was terrifying.

I started out by procrastinating and deciding to focus on research. Sometimes procrastinating is totally the right choice, and this was one of those times. I put out a call for Mormon feminists willing to be interviewed via email. Several people responded, and I put together a list of questions that explored some background and let them share their thoughts and reactions. It was the best thing I could have done. I needed a little relief from the fear of writing, and I filled it by reading the powerful thoughts and feelings of a group of brave people, some of whom had to use pseudonyms. It helped me figure out the breadth of opinions and responses, which helped guide the piece.

I wrote. Then threw it out. Then wrote. Then reworked it. Then wrote some more. By Thanksgiving I thought I was possibly done. But I was a bit stuck again. I wanted to get feedback but I wasn’t ready to show it to anyone. And then when I gathered the courage, I didn’t know who to show it to. I re-read it, re-read it, re-read it. And finally I realized that my biggest problem may be length. It was very long. Shocking, I know, I’m constantly longwinded. I knew I may need to cut it before submitting. I didn’t know how much to cut, so I emailed The Toast, linked to the google doc with the current draft, and then they surprised me by saying they liked the length and were fine with it.

A friend kindly gave me a quick copy edit. I sent the piece to everyone whose quotes I’d used to confirm that they were okay with the language. And all of a sudden it was done. It was scheduled and now I’d replaced the fear of writing the thing to the fear of sharing the thing.

This is when I should have reminded myself one of my first rules of writing: the scarier it is to post, the better. But instead I just stayed silently terrified, especially because I’d decided that it would be cowardly of me to write the piece and not share it on Facebook since Facebook is what prompted it in the first place. Sharing things on Twitter is different. On Twitter I talk about much more and I do it without fear. On Facebook I’m guarded, and part of that is because I have many friendships with members of the church, both family and friends. Sharing it there would potentially rock the boat quite hard. Especially since the piece casually yet bluntly tosses my sexuality out into the open. (I came out on Twitter earlier this year, and realized quickly that it’s NICE to be out places, but that only does so much to make it less scary. One of the first things I knew about this piece is that this was part of it. And that was absolutely part of the fear, I won’t lie.)

On Monday, the piece went up. My guts were shredded. I worked from home that day, knowing it might be a little emotionally acute. That was a good decision. Because I basically cried all day. And that’s not an exaggeration. The next day the skin under my eyes was creepy-smooth and looked raw, I had to pile on the concealer. They were not sad tears. But every time someone would leave a comment on the piece, every time someone would share their own story, every time someone sent me a private message saying they felt the same way but couldn’t say so publicly, well, the tears would start again.

I wanted to write a piece that acknowledged who I was and where I came from, but that spoke to a larger community’s experiences. And apparently I did that, because the response has been basically overwhelming.

Like this:

 

 

WHAT. I am dead now. And you can put “Killed Mallory Ortberg” on my tombstone. 

A bajillion of my Book Riot friends shared it with much fanfare and pride. Even the OFFICIAL account, which was completely unnecessary and bowled me over.

 

 

 

Nicole Cliffe linked it AGAIN on Tuesday’s Links, my daily must-read post.

toast links I Wrote a Thing

Today it made the links in Ann Friedman’s newsletter, which I was alerted to within a few minutes of it going out.

All of those things would have been enough. But there was more. I posted the piece on Facebook. The comments, the weep-inducing comments, they reminded me of the time I spent feeling so lonely, so screwed up, so lost. It’s been a long time since then, many many years, but those feelings have only slightly dulled over time. Those wounds are just barely below the surface. And my journey was one where I only had to deal with myself, not with any particular policy like the new one. I honestly can’t fathom how much harder so many people have it right now.

The comments came not just from Mormons and former-Mormons, but from people of all faiths. I’d done the thing I wanted to do, I’d spoken to a kind of feeling that goes bigger and deeper than just the one story I was telling. One said, “I came down here to say ‘hello, are you me?’ but it seems we are legion.” I want to take each of those comments, each of the messages, each of the tweets, and put them in a scrapbook and keep it next to my bed. I wish I could give them to my younger, so-much-lonelier self. I think about her often and how I have no idea how she made so many good decisions about her future with no help and no structure around her. 

I write this today not for all of you, but for myself. Because I want to come back to this post when I am feeling down or defeated or frustrated with writing and remember how great it is when it’s good. This is my version of a scrapbook, after all. And it reminds me of how writing is sometimes serendipitous, that you can let something roll around and grow for years before it finds the right time to get on the page. 

Right as I finished the essay, I started on the novel I promised myself I had to begin before the end of the year. And it’s already hard to find the time and mental energy for it, so it’ll be a very long slog before I can write something that’s 100,000 words. Not to mention rewriting, editing, etc. etc. etc. 

But this week I’ve worked hard to stop, to appreciate that I did a thing I’m proud of, to use it to gather my courage for the next step and the next. 

The Moment Is Now

Maybe, if it hadn’t been so taxing and all-encompassing, I might have had that peculiar out-of-body style experience while giving birth. You know, the one where you are doing something but simultaneously you’re looking at yourself doing that thing from the outside and thinking, “Hey, I am doing this thing. That’s crazy.” It certainly could’ve happened during birth, it’s such a trope of television and movies. The feet in stirrups, the directions to push, the straining and sweating. But, like I said, I was too caught up in the moment.

Still, I do have those moments as a parent every now and then. Sunday was the most recent one. I took the training wheels off Graham’s bike at his request. He’s had his bike since July, most kids probably would have ditched the training wheels months ago, but we’re not quite the norm. We don’t live on a quiet suburban street. We have a small stretch of sidewalk, but it’s on a hill. There’s no good place nearby for him to practice, so we have to drive to the high school track 15 minutes away for him to put time in, but we can only do it on weekends and he’s at his dad’s house half of that time. Oh, and Tessa has to be up for it, too, and she thinks riding bikes around the track is super boring. Plus, Graham’s an anxious kid. After he jumped on that bike like he had already mastered it and scared himself half to death because he didn’t know how to stop, he took his time getting comfortable.

We drove over on Sunday after I removed the training wheels. Graham was confident but cautious, which is his attitude more and more these days. He likes to tell me how 1st grade is very hard, but he also tells me that he is learning everything and knows how to do it. 

The first order of business was getting on and getting off. I knew from his prior scare that he needed to be able to stop and get off comfortably. And I knew that just standing with the bike would be harder than the riding part. He’s got the riding down, it’s just managing the bike itself when it’s not in motion. So we practiced a bit, and then he started to ride while I held one handlebar and kept a hand on his back.

We went around the track and I thought, “Oh hey, here I am, like I’m in a commercial for life insurance or something, jogging with my kid as he learns how to ride his bike.”

I also thought, “Maybe I should’ve worn my sneakers.”

By our third lap I just had my hand lightly on his back and I told him, “I’m barely touching you, I’m not even holding you up anymore, so once you go around the corner, I’m going to let go, okay?” 

And to my surprise he said, “Okay, Mom.” And that was it. I let go, I continued to jog with him for a stretch, and then I stopped. There he went. It was the end of the commercial.

 

Training wheels are OFF!

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

It was even the golden hour, for crying out loud. 

Sure, it wasn’t the tree-lined suburban street. It was a beat up and worn out old track at a beat up old building with graffiti, and a sad looking Chinese restaurant across the street, plus a bar where it’s not that unusual to get a strong whiff of pot smoke. But it was our moment, and we took it.

Thanksgiving Non-Planning

I haven’t made my Thanksgiving meal plan yet. I may still have some black beans left over. I may make the Roasted Chickpea and Broccoli Burrito I want to try from Thug Kitchen. I will probably pick up a store-made pumpkin pie and some whipped cream as a special treat to myself. But the only turkey I’ll eat will be the deli meat I got for sandwiches this week.

As you can tell, I am not celebrating Thanksgiving. Also won’t be celebrating Christmas. It’s very likely I’ll give New Year’s Eve a pass. 

I just don’t really do holidays anymore. And I don’t miss them.

I know for most people this is a kind of sacrilege. I’m not saying it’ll be this way forever. But right now, what I want more than anything isn’t to have a bunch of people cook a lot of food and come together to eat it. What I want more than anything is a little break, a little quiet, a little time to catch up. Money is tight, time is tighter, and the opportunity to spend a little time alone with my thoughts, the projects I need to catch up on, and my Netflix queue is pretty great. 

It’s not that I don’t miss my family. But I can’t obsess about it. I’ve missed so many holidays over the years because they’re far away and the time and money just aren’t there to make the trip. The last time I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving was 2006. That came during a brief stretch from 2004-2006 when I actually went home for Thanksgiving. During my 7 years away at school I only went home for Thanksgiving once. My best estimate is that I’ve had 4 Thanksgivings with my family in the past 18 years. Saying I’m used to it is an understatement.

The first year I had Thanksgiving all by myself, the anticipation of knowing I’d be alone wasn’t great. But the actual day was okay. It was just a day. It only has the power you give it.

This week I will clean my house and catch up on my writing and sleep in and go out on a date and catch a matinee. I will slow down my life. I will let things be quiet and let myself appreciate the stillness. 

Honestly, I’ve been to other people’s Thanksgivings before and it’s just not where I want to be. It’s just not the same and I’d much rather enjoy my own day my own way than try to get a knockoff version of the holiday with someone else’s family and someone else’s traditions. 

I haven’t missed any of the holidays, actually. I just kind of stopped celebrating them bit by bit. Didn’t go to fireworks for the 4th. Didn’t get Easter baskets for the kids. Didn’t go on a date for Valentine’s Day. Didn’t do a barbecue on Memorial Day. This may all sound sad, but it really doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a well earned break. Some time off from these traditions that tend to get so bound up in to-do lists and forced togetherness. 

I do a little Christmas for the kids, and we’ll do it again this year. (Although as someone who lives an entirely secular life, I do it mostly because they’re too little to really understand why we wouldn’t celebrate it, especially when their extended family does.) It’ll probably be a few days before with explanations about Santa’s tweaked schedule, but otherwise a repeat of last year’s stripped down version

I won’t say I never get a little sad. After all, this week is the beginning of “the dark times.” That period from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day when it’s hardest to be single and far from family. And lucky me, that period also includes my birthday, so that makes 5 holidays in short succession. But this year when I realized the dark times were upon us, I didn’t feel that sense of dread that I had last year. 

A lot has changed in my head in the last year, even though my circumstances are pretty similar. Last year I felt restless and anxious. There was a lot of pondering and yearning. This year… I don’t know, I guess I’ve settled in. I’m not starting the dark times feeling all woe is me because I don’t have a serious relationship. I have no expectation of getting one any time soon, whereas last year I was still stuck in that “why not me” feeling. 

And maybe I’m actually getting myself pulled out of the real dark times. That new phase really is here, it really did show up, and I really have gotten my brain straight. It feels good. So yeah, I’ll take my week and I’ll spend much of it in my pajamas and I’m pretty happy about that.