Motherhood & Words

Both D and I were out with the stomach flu last week, and I’m having trouble getting back in the groove. Usually illnesses don’t keep me away from my computer; I work even when I’m not feeling well. But the stomach flu is, of course, a different kind of animal, and for much of the week last week I was incapable of doing anything other than lying in bed. I hadn’t felt that shaky since Stella was born and magnesium sulfate was pumping through my veins. And before that, it was when I had food poisoning in Panama during Carnavál. (That was the result of pure stupidity. Who eats pink potato salad from a street vendor when it’s 100 degrees? I’ll spare you that story—it’s much too long and disgusting to share here.)

By the end of last week I did feel better, but I was busy with the girls because both of them were out of school, and then I just didn’t feel like working. Then D and I celebrated our eleventh anniversary. (How have eleven years already gone by?) And I spent the remainder of the weekend playing with the girls and curled up on the couch reading Olive Kitteridge.

Maybe in part it was this book that made me feel incapable of work. I felt heavy with the lives in Elizabeth Strout’s stories, heavy with their disappointments and betrayals. I couldn’t put the book down—Strout really is that talented—but I also found her stories terribly depressing. Short stories are often depressing, I think—there is something about the short form that can handle intense melancholy in a way a novel cannot—but the stories in Olive Kitteridge were filled with such loneliness that it was almost unbearable for me. All those affairs! All of those long, lonely evenings, with children grown and living far away, disinterested in the lives of their parents!

But of course there were moments of hope and connection in these stories, as well. I was so grateful for the last story, so grateful that Strout ended the collection with a sense of connection (even though it was tempered with sadness and regret). And I love the moments in so many of the stories in which Strout reminds us to live in the moment, to not take what we have—what we are living—for granted. I love this paragraph from “Tulips,” one of the stories in which Olive is the main character. Olive is remembering what it felt like to watch her son’s soccer games:

There was beauty to that autumn air, and the sweaty young bodies that had mud on their legs, strong young men who would throw themselves forward to have the ball smack against their foreheads; the cheering when a goal was scored, the goalie sinking to his knees. There were days—she could remember this—when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure. Maybe it was the purest she had, those moments on the soccer field, because she had other memories that were not pure.

I want to be quietly joyful. I want to know that I’m living life as I’m living it. I want my children (and D) to know that I am there, present, living with them, enjoying our lives, even on those days when living is hard. I’m not sure what I need to do to make this happen. Maybe it means I don’t turn on my computer on the weekends. Maybe it means stopping each day and taking stock, appreciating what we do have.

How do you stay in the moment? How do you remember to be quietly joyful?

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Julie on October 25, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I find that circumstances usually conspire to remind me that I haven't been in the moment. We've had the flu at our house this week, too, and being "stuck" at home, reading to the kids and watching movies, has actually been really nice.

    I think the universe knows when we need to be slowed down. I wish I clued in faster and didn't fight it, but I'm working on that part.

  2. cath c on October 25, 2010 at 11:11 am

    i'm glad you're feeling better and happy anniversary!

    i wasn't feel so well for the past few days, just a cold, but it got the better of me, and i was trying to sew halloween costumes…so i needed to hear your last bit, as i am feeling rundown and bored this morning.

    i am grateful for the quiet i am unexpectedly having this morning. the rest of the week will not be so quiet by the look of my calendar.

  3. Elizabeth on October 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I resisted reading Olive Kittredge and then fell right into it. I don't remember it being short stories, though — I thought it was a novel! Am I thinking of a different book?

    I'm glad that you're over your flu and look forward to more posts!

  4. Andrea on October 25, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I keep that book in my car for times when I have long waits and nothing to read (or knit)…that way I only take it in small doses…it is heavy. I am horrible at staying in the moment…always rushing on to the next thing and the next, worrying about having too many things to do and not enough time. Four-day weekends are one of the few times, when you get that extra day, then another extra day, when I can feel myself slow down and enjoy things a bit. Thanks for the mindfulness reminder!

  5. Life As I Know It on October 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I loved that book, as lonely and dismal as it sometimes was.

    Staying in the moment is difficult. I think it goes against human nature to be fully present in the moment we are living. We are programmed to move forward, to keep going, to make a better future.
    My kids and yoga help to keep me planted where I am.

  6. kate hopper on October 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Julie, I totally agree. I'm glad you're all feeling better.

    Cath, thank you. And enjoy your unexpected quiet this morning.

    Elizabeth, I've heard it called a novel and a collection of stories. I think it's either a "novel-in-stories" or "linked stories." Maybe the former because it does have such a strong narrative arc connected with Olive and Henry.

    Andrea and Life as I Know It, I am definitely a rusher, as well. Maybe I should take up meditation?

  7. abby on October 27, 2010 at 12:55 am

    I know all about the evocative autumn air. Our daughters, who were born at 23 weeks gestational age, were due in early October but made their appearance in early June. Our survivor, who is now 4, came home mid way through the month of October (and has, as a result of this, a special affinity for Halloween, since it's the first holiday she spent at home).

    Anyway, I just found your blog and wanted to send you a shout out as a fellow mom (?) who writes.

  8. Lory Manrique-Hyland on October 30, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Great blog. I'm trying to "follow", but it seems to fail when I click…OK, will try and remember site and visit again! Lory