“I don’t know how to start.” That’s Tess talking, slumped on a stool at the kitchen counter. She’s doodling in the corner of a blank piece of paper, stuck on a writing assignment. Those green eyes are willing me to say something, anything, to get the ball rolling. I ask about the topic. I ask for her ideas. I empathize.
“It’s the same for me.” She is not consoled. A writer whose name I can’t remember comes to mind: sit for a morning and if nothing comes, slash your wrists and get it over with. I do not share this with Tess.
The other day, in an attempt to jump-start a new piece, I go to the bookshelf in search of Anna Quindlen. In the mid-late 80’s, Quindlen wrote a weekly column in The New York Times called Life in the 30’s, hailed for its wit, honesty and insight. She and I and another several million women who came of age in the sixties believed we could have it all: love, family, rewarding career. Anna brought us tales from the trenches, poking fun, engaging her brain and her heart around the possibilities and the pitfalls. She bravely revealed insecurities and prejudices, the issues she wrestled with, what made her happy and the things that hurt. She felt like a friend. Some weeks she was me, another eldest child, in her words “a leader, a doer, a convincing veneer of personality and confidence atop a bottomless pit of insecurity and need,” and other times an icon I bowed to. She had her finger on the pulse of a generation of overachievers, pen at hand. She held up the mirror and there we were, en masse, wagging our tails, begging for more.
I met Anna exactly once, in the fall of 1988. She was on tour for Living Out Loud, the published collection of her Life in the 30’s columns. I was home as a full-time mom after years of business lunches and expensive clothes, moving through my day in a tee-shirt and a pair of Levi’s. Ali was a year old. We had a diagnosis but really knew nothing about how this neurological impairment called cerebral palsy would play out over time. Our baby was alert and engaging, smiled often, obviously understood what we said to her, but wasn’t rolling over, wasn’t sitting without support, wasn’t making the kind of sounds that turn into words. I turned to writing. The notebooks were a place to put what I couldn’t say out loud. To the world, to Ali, to my family and all but my closest friends, I maintained the convincing veneer we firstborns master in childhood, the one Anna had nailed on the head.
I ran several miles a week, wrote while Ali napped, tried not to be afraid.
The midwestern roots and natural instincts of a woman accustomed to success kicked in. If we worked hard, if I took her to experts in Chicago, Milwaukee and San Francisco, if I repeated the exercises at home and fed her healthy foods and played Louise Hay tapes in the background, my baby would literally crawl out of this place of fisted hands and floppy torso and be on her way. I visualized the two of us returning in a year to the white-coated specialists who had delivered the diagnosis. I wanted more than anything to prove them wrong. My money was on the long shot: heaps of intervention and piles of love would somehow re-route the pathways in Ali’s brain. I didn’t want a special needs child. I wanted a ballerina, an athlete, a little girl who played the piano. I wanted a star, which is what I have, but in the beginning I was looking for the usual suspects in all the wrong places.
So on a warmish October afternoon I go to hear Anna Quindlen, one of my heros. She talks and reads for thirty minutes and then the women-only crowd forms a line for book signing. Anna sits at a blond library table in front of a stack of fiction, brown hair to her shoulders, belly extended, well into her pregnancy with their third child, a girl they would name Maria.
As the line snakes among the racks, I think about what to say to this woman whose work I adore, idolize and try to emulate. I want to sound less like a fan and more like a kindred spirit. I know, she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist syndicated in newspapers throughout the country and I’m filling journals I share with no one, but still, you never know.
And then the woman ahead of me steps aside and I’m standing at the table, eager as a five-year-old on her first day of school, a little anxious, very curious. The writer says hi and reaches for the book I’m holding. She’s gracious but I’d bet a hundred dollars she’d rather be home with her feet up and her boys in bed. She sets my book on the table, opens the inside cover, asks my name. This is happening all too quickly. I want coffee, a glass of wine, time to chat. I want to connect.
“I’d love to be a writer.” There, I’ve said it out loud.
She lets out a soft groan and raises her eyebrows. “You might want to think twice about that.” Sarcasm with a smile or an Irish Catholic’s confession? Her eyes look tired. “If I knew how to do anything else, I would.” A shallow sigh, followed by the tiniest chuckle. She’s dead serious.
Anna writes quickly, gives me the book and smiles again. Time’s up. I thank her and step into the sunshine. I don’t look until I’m sitting in the car.
For Rebecca — Enjoy! Anna Quindlen
Change the name, and the inscription was most likely what she wrote in the books of the other fifty women in line that day. No Good luck, no Go for it. Nothing so corny as Follow your dream (thank god). A simple Enjoy. And I do. Every time I pick up anything she’s written. Quindlen, the queen of making it look easy.
But we all know better, including a 13-year-old with a homework assignment.
“So Becky, do you, like, think this is okay?” Tess hands me two pages filled with thick scratches, squiggles in the margins, rows of small cursive followed by large loopy letters—telltale signs of struggle. “I’m not sure about the ending,” she adds.
I read the piece out loud beginning with the hardest line of all, that precious first sentence, and work my way to the second hardest, the last.
“How does it sound to you?” I ask.
“I think it needs some work but could we, like, have a snack first?”