The Road to Wish Things

Down the street and around the corner from our home is a nature trail. Our family of four loves this long, paved path; almost every day, we walk or bike on it. (And sometimes, I end up carrying my younger daughter’s bike, and occasionally her too, back home. If you’re one of my neighbors and you happen to be reading this, then you know this is true. 😉 )

One afternoon recently, Anna and I were on the Rail Trail together. Anna pointed to a sunscreen dispenser, and wondered if her scooter could use a few squirts. “Scooters don’t need sunscreen,” I told her.

“But it would be fun, Mom.”

We moved along.

Spring is in full bloom, and Anna and I admired the deep-green grass and myriads of wildflowers on both sides of the path. Then Anna exclaimed, “Look, Mom! A wish thing.” She squatted down and pulled up a dried dandelion, not yellow anymore but puffy white—perfect for blowing.

Anna blew it, of course, after she made a wish. She spoke it out loud, so I heard her wish—and it made me smile—but it’s not my wish to share here, so I won’t. I’m sure you understand, friends.

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Possibly the best thing about parenthood, for me, is having the chance to experience childhood again. Moments like that—stopping to admire “wish things”…taking a deep breath…exhaling a wish.

Believing it will come true.

What we wish for evolves the older we get, the more life we see. In my experience, the wishes of our youth tend to be longish, and specific. For example…“Please can I have one of those watches that lets me talk to my mom from across the playground, that I saw another kid talking on to their mom? In pink, please, please, please.”

Flash forward about 20 or 25 years, and when we blow on dandelions (if we do anymore), we often exhale wishes for good health, or more good times together.

I read once that it’s similar with job titles. When you start out in your career, your job title usually is longer, more specific. One of my first job titles was something like “community programs and public relations assistant.” Or maybe it was coordinator rather than assistant. Still, I had about six words after my name in my email signature, when only one word is needed to describe the person in the top leadership position: CEO.

  …the wishes of our youth tend to be longish, and specific.

Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. And I am. I’m not Jane Austen famous, or J.K. Rowling rich, but I’m so thankful to be doing what I love to do. I am grateful every day that I get to work with words for a living. It was a wish thing, from my childhood, that actually came true.

Would it be nice to, someday, be rich and famous too? If that were to happen—a huge if—it probably would be nice, sure. But by now, I’ve seen enough of life to know that those are not the things that make me happy…that take my breath away, as a dandelion through my daughter’s eyes does.

Because I’m a writer and, by default, book lover, I read to my daughters quite a bit. A couple of months ago, we read a book together for the first time that we just loved: “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney. This is a beautiful story about a little girl named Alice Rumphius who dreams of traveling to faraway places, living in a house beside the sea and making the world more beautiful. She, too, makes her childhood wish things come true.

Miss Rumphius makes the world more beautiful by (spoiler alert!) planting lupine seeds near her seaside home, eventually covering “[f]ields and hillsides…with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers.”

This story is beautifully illustrated as well, and the girls and I marveled at the celebration of nature in the pages of “Miss Rumphius.”

But by now, I’ve seen enough of life to know that those are not the things that make me happy…that take my breath away, as a dandelion through my daughter’s eyes does.

Yesterday evening, Grace, Anna and I were on the Rail Trail together. We stopped at a park; the girls practiced cartwheeling and played Pirate Ship on some outdoor exercise equipment. I had left my phone at home so that I wouldn’t be distracted, so I sat on a bench and…well, that’s it.

I could have attempted some pull-ups on the exercise equipment, or joined in the fun of Pirate Ship, but…yeah, I just 100 percent loved sitting on that bench. 😉 The evening sun felt good.

As we got ready to head back home, Grace exclaimed, “Look!” She was pointing to a cluster of tall, skinny blue flowers. “Lupines!”

“Are you sure?” Anna and I looked.

I’m not positive, but I think Grace did find lupines in the park. The girls were delighted to have found something they had read about in their beloved story. I was happy they could get just as excited about lupines as they could about pink smartwatches.

As my daughters get older, I hope they still take the time to stop and admire lupines, squat down and blow wishes on dandelions.

I hope their wishes come true.

I hope yours do too.

The road to wish things.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: Heartland—A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

heartland coverThere were moments, as I was reading Sarah Smarsh’s debut nonfiction book “Heartland,” that tears suddenly filled my eyes, preventing me from reading the words on the pages I held in my hands. I felt I was there; I felt everything. Subtitled “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” this book beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.

Published in 2018, the story itself is excellent, a thoughtful, thought-provoking and compelling read. It is part sociology, part poetry and wholly engrossing. Beyond the story (seven chapters), I also very much appreciated the Acknowledgments at the end.

Why the Acknowledgments? Because “Heartland” is memoir, a true story. Much of what makes it so compelling is the characters—real people from Smarsh’s life, many of them still living. Their experiences (often colorful, sometimes painful to read about) give life to this creative nonfiction narrative of living and working in the 20th- and 21st-century Midwest. Smarsh recognizes this and thanks her family in language as beautiful and important as that of the rest of the book: “With deepest reverence, thank you to my family for surviving, with humor and dignity, the difficulties that allowed this book to exist. When I asked for their blessing to tell our shared past, they bravely answered yes…Because it might help someone else, and because it is true” (page 290).

…[“Heartland”] beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.

When I write creative nonfiction, similar questions weigh on me. Why do I want to share this (true) story? For me to put something of my personal world in a public space, for me to ask for loved ones’ blessing to share, some meaning to it all has to exist beyond, “This is a good story.”

There is meaning in the stories that Smarsh shares of her family. The underlying meaning is that entrenched economic inequality can keep the American dream out of grasp for a portion of Americans (in this case, her family’s generations of wheat farmers and teen mothers). Meanwhile, “the American dream” is so entrenched in our national mythology that those who fall short of achieving it may hold themselves as individuals completely responsible, rather than considering the systemic barriers to rags-to-riches realizations.

In the first chapter, Smarsh vividly yet pointedly describes, “That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure” (page 29). She goes on to write, “You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”

The whole truth that Smarsh goes on to explore includes issues such as access (and/or lack of access) to education, jobs and health care; teen pregnancy; and domestic violence.

Smarsh’s depictions of her female family members’ experiences with domestic violence were particularly disheartening to read, I found. Throughout “Heartland,” Smarsh notes that we may “live in different Americas and thus have different understandings” (page 39). Later in the book, she considers these differences as they relate to class and domestic violence. “In theory, women were being liberated during [the 1960s and ’70s], but the poorest of them had the least agency for independence in real life,” Smarsh writes, adding “Domestic violence occurs at all socioeconomic levels, of course, but the woman who can’t afford to leave will have more chances to be killed” (pages 217-218). Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.

Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.

A subtle yet omnipresent theme that Smarsh threads throughout “Heartland” is motherhood—her motherhood, although she does not (currently) have children. Growing up, Smarsh is pained to know that any child she has, as a poor young woman, would almost certainly grow up poor too, the odds stacked against him or her. As an adult, she achieves professional success (a tenure-track university professor job) and personal success (“a big house…with vaulted cedar ceilings,” page 283). One night, she realizes with both joy and sorrow that from this moment on, any child she has, if she does, would not be that poor child from her lifelong visions. “A cycle had been broken,” Smarsh writes, “and the place it tore was between me and you” (page 285).

Smarsh remembers that she “cried so hard” (page 285). But why? Why cry when you have achieved what you set out to do, when others might even say you embody the American dream? The reason why is because it’s hard to say goodbye.

It’s hard to say goodbye, always. To anything…even for a good thing, or a better thing.

Another recurring theme is women, and their strength, especially during difficult times. Smarsh’s observation on page 209 struck me: “In some ways, where I grew up there was less of a line drawn between men and women than I’ve found in more privileged places. The women who raised me cooked in cafeterias, drove tractors…moved boxes in the stock rooms of discount stores…The men I grew up around didn’t scoff at a woman’s capability.” The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.

“For the women I knew,” Smarsh adds on page 212, “work wasn’t a liberation from the home or a revelation of self. It was a way of life—familiar, essential, and unsung for generations.” Powerful, humbling, honest.

The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.

Smarsh reveals that the story of the American dream is a complicated one, a not-so-cut-and-dried narrative. For example, she notes in Chapter 1, “Grandpa Arnie loved working the land not for the price of wheat per bushel but because smelling damp earth at sunrise felt like a holy experience…Work can be a true communion with resources, materials, other people. I have no issue with work. Its relationship to the economy—whose work is assigned what value—is where the trouble comes in” (page 43).

Despite the complications, Smarsh’s story strikes a chord of hope at the end, for an “honest economic system” (page 288) sometime in the future.

“It’s complicated” may well describe much of the story, and the history, of Smarsh’s “Heartland.” Smarsh herself shares, “When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kids of people. I knew it wasn’t right, because both sides existed in me—where I was from and what I hoped to do in life, the place that best sustained me and the places I needed to go for the things I meant to do” (page 125), poignantly concluding with, “Straddling that supposed line as I did, I knew it was about a difference of experience, not of humanity.”

A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective. And what if the people in charge—and every one of us, really—could give that perspective a try sometimes?

A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective.

Why did I read “Heartland,” and why might you? I love nonfiction, and memoir. “Heartland” is both those things. I appreciate voice, especially a writer’s voice that is fresh, honest and evocative without veering into sentimentality. Smarsh’s voice is all those things—Hemingway-esque, at times, as in “A Moveable Feast.” I minored in urban studies in college (not that minors really matter), and have always been interested in the related topics of sociology and economics. “Heartland” is a first-person study of sociology and economics, against the backdrop of a Kansas countryside.

If you love nonfiction or memoir…an authentic voice…and/or sociology and economics, then you almost certainly will love “Heartland” by Sarah Smarsh.

Photo credit: Simon & Schuster

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

The Best Job I Ever Had

This past month, I edited rĂ©sumĂ©s for a few folks. As I was working on the documents, I marveled at their array of jobs and experiences, the different, sometimes divergent steps along the way that led to now…and the next steps that were to come.

I thought, too, about my own professional biography—the various positions, the circuitous career path, the pauses that have come with parenthood. I’ve done a bunch of things, as you probably have too. My favorite thing? Working as a tour guide at my college, in Richmond, Va.

My official job title was “student admissions representative.” I served as an SAR from my sophomore through senior years, and I earned minimum wage, if memory serves. Something like $5.75 per tour, and each tour was about an hour, usually a little longer.

A few times a week, I walked prospective students and their families around the college campus. Showed them around, gave them local restaurant recommendations for lunch or dinner at the end. The SAR position allowed me to be with people, tell stories and spend time outside—my ideal trifecta.

Beforehand, the students and their families would have heard a presentation from the school’s admissions officers—facts such as application deadlines, number of majors and study-abroad programs, “where are they now” regarding notable alumni. Data. My job was to add the flavor, the feeling, the inside scoop…and I loved it.

I don’t know how many tours I gave in all, and I don’t know, either, if anything I ever said, on any of those tours, made a difference to anybody. I can say that parents seemed to trust me on my restaurant recommendations; I probably did drum up some business for Palani Drive, Mary Angela’s and Strawberry Street CafĂ©. Beyond that, though, I just don’t know.

It was fun while it lasted.

My job was to add the flavor, the feeling, the inside scoop…and I loved it.

During my senior year, I started thinking about what to do next, post-graduation. I was majoring in English, and had wrapped up an internship with a novelist, Erica Orloff, herself a graduate of the University of Richmond. Erica was gracious, instructive, inspiring—an amazing role model. How cool it would be to be like that, I thought.

I thought, too, about how much I enjoyed people. Being around them, hearing their stories and sharing mine, and—when I could, and when it was needed—offering a word of encouragement, some positive energy. I began researching graduate programs in counseling, and marriage and family therapy.

Every program I looked at required undergraduate courses in psychology and statistics, and I never took those classes. As much as I loved college, I didn’t want to prolong it with an extra semester (or two). So I stuck with writing.

My underlying goal with writing, though, is to encourage, as I would have done in a counseling setting. Whether through a mini essay like this, or a work of fiction, or someone’s rĂ©sumĂ© or business proposal—my hope is that the finished product is something that brings positive energy to the world.

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I happened to read an excellent Atlantic article, “What I Learned About Life at My 30th College Reunion.” Maybe you read it too. Writer Deborah Copaken notes, first and foremost, “No one’s life turned out exactly as anticipated,” and I had to smile because…#truth.

I also smiled at her second observation (teachers and doctors seemed happy with their choice of career) and chuckled at her third (somewhat the opposite for lawyers). Then I had a chuckle at my own expense regarding No. 5, “Speaking of art, those who went into it as a career were mostly happy and often successful, but they had all, in some way, struggled financially.” (I recently joked with a friend that my e-book royalties alone won’t cover the cost of the girls’ college tuition.)

Copaken’s No. 13 struck a chord too: “Nearly all the alumni said they were embarrassed by their younger selves, particularly by how judgmental they used to be.” Life is eye-opening, and humbling, and I’m a better person now (stretch marks, cellulite and all) than I was then.

Education, medicine, law, the arts and so many other fields—so much to choose from, so much we can do. After dinner one evening, Anna (age 3) toyed with some career choices, astronaut and firefighter among them. “I want to be the boss,” 7-year-old Grace announced. Stanton and I exchanged a glance: mm-hmm, sounded about right.

Life is eye-opening, and humbling, and I’m a better person now (stretch marks, cellulite and all) than I was then.

I write every day, almost. Sometimes I get paid for the work I do. Other times I don’t. Now, for example, I’m writing my first novel; my goal is to sign a publishing contract with a small press by the time Anna starts kindergarten. Along with what I take care of for our family life these days, I still try to honor my writing life. Because if you tell people you’re a writer (and I do), you should write. You should aim to get published too ( 😉 ), but you definitely should write.

Once Anna joins Grace in elementary school, I’ll be sending out my own rĂ©sumĂ©. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to find a job that’s a good fit. I’m excited to have colleagues and co-workers again. I’m uncertain (scared?) of what hiring managers will think of my current “title” of freelance writer/editor, which (not coincidentally) began shortly after my first child’s birth. I have no clue how everything will work out.

But one thing I know for sure.

College tour guide? It’s going to be hard to top that.

P.S. If you’ve never been to Richmond and happen to find yourself there…go to Palani Drive, and get the Shenandoah wrap. Grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, apples, Gouda and sherry walnut dressing—one of the best flavor combinations ever. You’ll love it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.