Erma Bombeck and the Flu

I know there’s a joke in here somewhere.

… I opened the window and in-flu-Erma!*

“Huh?” – you. Let me explain:

I recently returned from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton. The workshop was uplifting, inspirational, informative, fun, and, apparently, contaminated. I began my journey home last Sunday morning filled with renewed passion, brimming with ideas and motivation. By the time I pulled into my garage half a day later, I was filled with new fever, brimming with body aches and chills.

I spent the following several days in my husband’s recliner watching Netflix, sipping tea from my new Erma mug, and alternately layering on blankets and kicking them all off in a sweaty panic that left me shivering, exhausted, and indelicately profane. The days are a blur to me, except the discovery that I was not alone. The Facebook group for conference attendees began to look less like a networking platform for writers, and more like a hospital ward roll call as more and more of us posted about our ailments.

You Can Flu

As my mind melted into the flu fog, I feared that all I had learned at the workshop would fade into the mist never to be rediscovered. Practical tips on getting published lost forever in the shrouded moors of my memory. Soundbites, precious wisdom nuggets, and the inspired surety that I CAN WRITE – all wandering in the haze that might inexorably claim them.

The Facebook group flu fighters and flu sympathizers continued to post. Complaints of headaches and wracking coughs, jokey attempts to out Patient Zero, and our pathetic commiseration soon looked a lot like witty banter. My contributions evolved from “flu here” to attempts to make my Comrades in Condition laugh. And it dawned on me: I’m back. And then I made this t-shirt to share with the group:

Erma Bombeck Lousy Flu Shirt

I realized I needed to write a post to go with it. And that brings us to the here and now. To my fingers once again flying over the keys as I try to paint a picture with my words. I find myself where I belong, in my element, plucking words out of the air, shaping them, bending them to my will where I can, and abandoning them where I am unable. My purpose realized, my passion ignited and leading the way, I am my fullest self – as I was when surrounded by like-minded individuals at the conference.

Just like that, the vapor thins a bit and I can see into the foggy wasteland of my mind. Hidden among the debris and rolling mists is all I took away from the weekend.

Just there! Alan Zweibel regales us with stories pulled from his own memory moors. His career is sweeping and impressive and more than I ever dreamed of for myself, and, yet, he refers to the collective room as “us” and “we” when discussing the craft of writing. Because he believes that we are doing the same thing, even though he’s him and I’m me.

Look! Here’s Katrina Kittle leading a class on description. As a strictly non-fiction writer, it’s not entirely applicable to me. But wisdom nuggets don’t care who you think you are. They plop themselves down in the midst of all you were certain of, and detonate. In the mess following the mind blow an altogether new thing emerges. I still need to decipher this new thing, work out what it all means, but I know already that I love it.

Conversations with other attendees, (is that patient zero?), laughing, crying, awkwardly managing both at once, a solid ten minutes obstructing sink access in the bathroom while talking to Kathy Kinney. It’s all coming back to me.

Snapshots and pearls shake off the miasma and begin to organize themselves once more into coherency. Hallelujah!

Several months ago, after deciding that the number of hours I spend sitting in my desk chair was incompatible with physical health, I raised my desk up and ditched the chair, creating a new standing work environment. I tell you this now so you can understand why, at this moment, the overwhelming feeling I have is holy shit my legs ache! Ah, yes. The flu. Despite the recent change in fog density, I am not all better. Standing at my standing desk while writing this is more activity than I have engaged in since arriving home from Ohio. I can’t do it a moment longer. So this post, which very well may be utter nonsense borne on a flu-addled fog, ends now.

*Part of a historical nursery rhyme dating back to the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop flu epidemic.**

**Look at that- fiction!

Letter to my son on his 9th birthday

Each year I write a letter to my kids on their birthdays. To see more birthday letters, click here.

Dear Luke,

Happy birthday! Today you are nine and that’s a pretty big deal! These letters get harder to write each year. As I watch you stretch out and morph into the nine-year-old boy you’ve become, I find it more difficult to quantify you, to fit you into words on a page, into birthday platitudes. You are still all the things you ever were – kind, enthusiastic, silly, funny, engaging, in constant motion – and so much more. You are your own person, wholly apart from me; but I can’t help think of you selfishly, in terms of your effect on my life. Your impact on my life has been colossal to the point where words fail. You are a seismic shift, forever changing the landscape of every part of my life and every element of my nature.

You challenge the limits of my character time and again, always revealing the exact measure of my goodness and magnitude of my faults. At the same time, I see glimmers of my best self shine through you, in your words and deeds. And occasionally I have the unique privilege of seeing me as you see me. The heady sense of my role in your life has me wake each day resolved to be better.

Your words and deeds also remind me of just how vexing I found childhood and growing up. Like you are, I was fiercely independent minded. I challenged authority and I spoke out against perceived injustices. Now I often find myself torn between empathy for your feelings as the downtrodden child and frustration at your resistance to comply. What I’m saying is, I get it. I didn’t like being a child. It didn’t suit me at all. I longed to be my own master. I resented my position as subordinate, especially when I disagreed with whoever was in charge. And I disagreed a lot, like you do. It’s my life’s great irony that I find myself in the role of authority over a will as strong as my own, that I am now the flip side of this coin.

I can’t protect you from the adversities that lie ahead as you approach your adulthood. I will sympathize and offer guidance where I am able, but often your conflict will be with me. I understand that you feel my authority is unfair. I so clearly remember the feeling, the certain knowledge that I didn’t need to be governed. But I did, as you do. (In my adult life, I haven’t been as certain of anything as I was of everything when I was a child.)

You will resent my rules, my structure, my decisions that force you to abandon your course. I am not here to break your spirit, my sweet boy, only to see you through your childhood safely, to provide you with the tools you need to be the man you will become. My job requires boundaries that you’ll hate, limits that you’ll push, and rules that you’ll break. I get it, but I can’t give in.

While I see so much of myself in your strong will and limit-pushing ways, you are gifted with some characteristics that are entirely unlike me. Your energy is unequal to anything I’ve ever experienced. The vigor and sheer intensity of your spirit is incredible. You are a gale force wind, torrential rain, a tornado. This thing you have is powerful and you can apply it towards whatever end you desire. Sometimes it proves difficult for you to hold, and you are overcome by the turbulence. But you’re getting stronger, better at managing it. I know that with time you will have a firm handle on it, and then you will be a force to be reckoned with!

This unbridled storminess of yours is paired unexpectedly and wonderfully with an innate tenderness. The combination is breathtaking. You can do great things and will impact the lives you encounter along the way as deeply as you’ve impacted mine. Like meteor-hits-Earth impact. I’m grateful that I have front row seats for it. Your future is so bright. You will be simply amazing.

Tenderness

For now, though, you are nine. All this potential bottled in a small, wiry package. You stand on the cusp of some pretty big changes as you transition from little kid to pre-teen, at once so grown up and still my little boy. I cherish the little boy side even as I welcome this new, surprisingly tall person. Every day I marvel at some new facet, a new moment of maturity. And then you dissolve into my little boy again- giggling uncontrollably at something your sister has done or needing a hug of reassurance.

I know you need extra support and compassion, and it should be me who can always give you those things. I’m sorry that I’m not calmer and more even-tempered. I will try harder to be the mom you need and deserve.

I fought so hard and for so long to finally be in control of my life, and then you. You are entirely not in my control and all my efforts otherwise are absurd. This is the universe laughing at my childhood notion of an adult’s control, laughing at my fight to be in charge. One day, the universe might laugh at you too. And I hope it does, because having you as my child has turned my life upside down in the greatest ways and I am better for it.

 

A boy's energy

Much of this letter is over your head. I don’t expect you to understand. What I hope you do understand is that I love you bigger than I thought possible and more than I can express, and that I am so proud of the person you are. I feel incredibly lucky to be your mom and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My life is immeasurably richer because of you and all you bring.

Happy, happy birthday to my affectionate, exuberant, bustling boy! You’re nine! You’re growing up right before my eyes. Let’s do this together.

I love you.

Love,

Mom

To see more birthday letters, click here.

 

 

Embracing Forty

 

Today I am forty. Time has certainly stamped its passage on my person. My body carries the years in various and sometimes surprising ways. And yet, as I face this milestone birthday I don’t feel the dread our culture says I should. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t delight in my ankles that now click strangely, or the two lines between my brows that serve as irrevocable proof of too much scowling. But I accept these changes as I’ve accepted all the weird changes my body has gone through up until this point. Why shouldn’t I embrace forty with the same optimism and celebration that I felt for all my big birthdays?   

Remember turning ten? Double digits! Back then getting older was called getting bigger, and it was the best.

How about fifteen? “Oh my God I am as far away from ten as I am from twenty! Soon I’ll be independent! Look! Boys!”

Twenty was a great. It felt very much like the perfect age, except for one small inconvenience that was cleverly solved on my next birthday.

At twenty five I felt like I really came into my own. I was a real grown-up and I click-clacked through my grown-up life in my fabulous grown-up high heels.

I threw myself a party at thirty. This would be the last big birthday in my life as I knew it. I celebrated my untethered freedom, understanding that soon everything would change.

My thirty-first birthday was memorably uncomfortable. My body was stretched beyond reason, carrying a ten pound passenger. My son arrived two days later.

For my fortieth birthday I’m having the biggest party of all. Far-flung friends from different chapters of my life are coming to visit and celebrate with me. I couldn’t have thrown this party at any other point in my life. I wouldn’t have these friends had I not lived the entirety of my forty years.  

Tonight I will wear a dress in the most perfect shade of cobalt blue. Underneath it I will don the underthings known only too well by women my age. Underthings that smooth, suck, lift and support. Underthings I didn’t need at twenty. Instead of lamenting my forty-year-old, post-kids body and its corresponding underthings, I’m going to revel in the dress I simply could not have owned half my lifetime ago. In the mirror will stand my imperfect form in its lovely dress looking its best, underthing-assistance notwithstanding.

Next I’ll apply make-up. Like the underthings, I accept the tools of the trade. Concealer and foundation help create a close-ish proximity to my twenty-year-old complexion. She didn’t have my laugh lines or the dark circles under my eyes. She didn’t have all those laughs or the hefty responsibility of motherhood either. Time’s presence might be written all over my face, but a few strokes of a pencil will bring out my eyes, unchanged.

At the end of the night I’ll take off the dress and the underthings and likely sigh in sweet relief. I’ll slip into something more comfortable. (No, actually comfortable.) I’ll wash off the makeup and apply the arsenal of skin care products that I didn’t have or need or know about at twenty. I’ll check on my sleeping children and fall into bed with my husband, all of whom I also didn’t have at twenty.

Why bother dreading forty? There is only one alternative to aging, and it is far less appealing. The passage of time will continue to mark me and take from me, but it will also continue to give. To dread forty is to throw in the towel on the rest of my life. My first forty years were full of various experiences, relationships, changes, surprise, and wonder. I expect no less from the next forty.