I’m delighted to say that Mommyish has published a personal essay of mine, about how my past as a scornful teenage lifeguard caught up to me at the town pond this summer. My scorn of mommy things (and therefore of myself) lingers, and can still be experienced in things like the title of this post, but hey, I’m working on it. The scorn is slowly but surely morphing into ambivalence.
The essay is called I Used to Judge the Boring Mom at the Pool. Now I Am One.
There are two ponds in the story and no pool, but I didn’t write the title. At any rate, it captures the sentiment. This is one of two personal essays I’ve written since I applied for college, and I’m beginning to understand the form. It’s my first nonfiction publication. My friend Joelle, who writes enviably good creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, convinced me that as a fiction writer used to writing scenes, I had the tools I needed to give it a shot. As a beginning essayist still getting a handle on the form, I thought I’d write a little about how this one came about.
I thought this piece through while standing ankle-deep in water, guarding my kids. Old habits die hard, and those teenage lifeguards have a lot of kids to watch. Plus they might be hung over. I encountered a truly disgusting quantity of Band-Aids in the water on the day I did most of my thinking, and I knew I’d start with that detail to set the scene. I also had an anecdote that’s been in my repertoire for twenty years, and I knew the time had come to put it in writing. It’s amazing how my telling of it has changed. It made me want to cry when I was seventeen, and it makes me want to cry now, but for totally different reasons. I worried that the idea of the older self looking back at the younger self’s folly might be a tired trope. The reason I went with the idea was because being in almost exactly the same environment I was in twenty years ago brought back incredibly powerful and specific memories of those summers I spent lifeguarding, and details combined with an ability to see patterns are, I think, some important components of storytelling. I had never personally experienced Proust’s madeleine/memory thing (and I freely admit I will probably never read Remembrance of Things Past), but now I get it. As memory triggers go, I’d prefer biting into a cookie to having to touch a wet used Band-Aid, but I’ll take my magic where I can find it.
The years I lifeguarded (from ages 16-22) were the years I was devoting enormous amounts of energy to figuring out who I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live. I will never stop trying to figure those things out, but my days of thinking only about myself are over. My lifeguarding years were also the years I really started writing and eventually said out loud that I wanted to be a writer. A fellow lifeguard, five years older, who was already a painter, was probably the first person I said it to. He’s still a painter, and he was my first real life model of someone who was devoted to being an artist. I wanted to put that in the essay but I couldn’t make it fit. It was too much. Maybe it’s a different essay.
I saw something else this summer that I couldn’t manage to cram into the essay. A camp comes to the pond every day, and the counselors stand in the water watching the kids. One of them, a girl, wore a hat and aviator sunglasses. A boy, maybe seventeen, emerged from the pond, removed the glasses from the girl’s face without saying a word, dripping water on her shirt in the process. He put them on and took up his spot a few feet away. I assume he’d asked her to hold them for him while he swam and I missed it. Neither of them said a word, and they both played it cool, smiling just a little. But OMG, it was crackling. The girl, I was sure, would recount this to her friends, dissecting the details, and all three of us knew (though they didn’t know I knew because I was invisible to them) that they’d be together by the end of the summer. What glee I felt at having witnessed that scene, and how happy I was not to have to participate in things like that anymore. The excitement of things like that was, well, exciting, but the anxiety was exhausting. In the end, it was too tangential to the piece, but this is my blog and it can be a little rambling, right?
I steered away from personal essays for a long time because I felt I was lacking life experience. I simply had no essay ideas. The idea for this one pretty much walked up, took me by the shoulders, and shook me. It would have been crazy not to write it. There’s one dirty little secret that I didn’t mention in the essay: for four hours one day a week for most of the summer, I hired a babysitter using grant money I received. The day I wrote this essay, I dropped her and the kids off at the pond at 10, hightailed it to Starbucks, and got a draft down in a couple of hours. I spent another hour cutting and revising, sent off a pitch email, and picked everyone up by 2. I wanted to see if I could manage it in one work session, because I knew what writers got paid for blog posts, and I wanted to keep my hourly rate at least slightly above what I used to make as a lifeguard. The first place I pitched it to didn’t take it, but the second one did. They were lovely to me, and I’m so grateful they decided to use it.
I’ve been wanting to say something about this feeling and this time of my life for years. I started a few times, but I just couldn’t figure out what to hang it on. Once I figured out I could use my experience at two town beaches twenty years apart to say it, it came quickly, but it’s been brewing for a long time.
It’s not usually that easy — the writing or the publishing. I can think of only one other piece (a short story) that came easily, and that happened twelve years ago. If I’m going to write more essays, I’ll probably need to sit down and think of ideas. I’ll probably need to write some that come out hopelessly dead on the page. I’m starting to think it might be worth it.