This week I enjoyed what is arguably one of the great moments of my writing life. At the annual Maine Literary Awards ceremony a few days ago, The Field House won the non-fiction award and was a co-winner of the John N. Cole Award for Maine-based non-fiction. What an affirmation of all those years of work, what a rush of adrenaline when they read off my name – twice! So why did I feel so unsettled and uncomfortable in the days following this great triumph? Why was I not floating on a cloud of happiness all week?
One obvious reason is the violent murder of 19 children and two adults that I read about the day following the awards ceremony. How can our little paper certificates mean anything next to that horror, or the fact that it was distressingly less shocking than it should have been? But that can’t be the whole story of my disconcerting unease. Nothing felt good or right in the face of that news. Those of us at a distance must find a way to acknowledge and absorb such horrors, bear witness, act to change what is wrong, but then we must somehow continue muddling our way through the business of life, joys and sorrows, disappointments and triumphs.
I tried to untangle my complicated response to winning. There’s imposter syndrome – they must have made a mistake. I’ll never be able to write anything good again; it was a fluke. There’s success phobia, the pressure to satisfy newly heightened expectations. Better not try at all, they’ll be disappointed; too much attention.
But that one confused me. Since my book came out a year ago, I have basked in the success of the book, which came in the form of attention from enthusiastic readers. That feedback has been wonderful. It is unfailingly gratifying to learn that my writing has moved someone, made them happy, sparked new thoughts, inspired them with the life story of Rachel Field. Clearly it’s not attention that bothers me. It is, I think, the aftermath of “winning.” As much as I wished and hoped to win the award, I hadn’t anticipated the feeling of…remorse? My win meant someone else’s disappointment. That sucks. That does not feel happy at all.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled and elated by the recognition that the Maine Literary Awards gave me and my book. It is what I have dreamed and wished for! I feel fortunate, validated, supported, and buoyed up to carry on with my scribblings. I am also, however, prone to sometimes tiresome cerebrations over the complexities of living in this world. Most wonderful things have baggage to go with them. I can’t help hefting the baggage along for a little ways, to see how it feels.
Here’s what I think I’ve learned this week. Those things we imagine will provide happiness don’t always measure up. They’re complicated. Here's what made me uncomplicatedly happy this week: My granddaughter’s smile, a snake crossing a bridge, a palette of spring green seen from a mountaintop, a walk with a friend, a turtle in the grass, old Clara walking all the way out to the back of the field, still going at 14 ½, taking life quietly, one day at a time.
I wish all of you a generous dose of uncomplicated happiness. May it lead you all the way across the field, across the bridge, through the weeds, to a place of peace.
I had one of those epic, solo car drives today on the threshold of Mother’s Day, my mind awash, all cylinders firing, confused and overwhelmed by a flood of BIG, contradictory feelings. The miles flew by unnoticed. Sound familiar? I’m not sure if this phenomenon comes exclusively with age, but it feels dependent on a lifetime stockpile of memory and experience. On occasion, everything rushes to the surface, demanding attention all at once.
Here’s the backdrop: I’ve just spent 24 hours with my pregnant daughter and 2 ½ year-old granddaughter, a couple of hours’ drive from my home. During my visit, little Fiona spent a half-hour performing a close examination of my face while I pretended to sleep, hoping she’d take the hint and settle for her nap. She pushed at my eyelids, stretched my mouth into smiles and frowns, examined the gray hair at my temples, all the while whispering indecipherable stories to her stuffed animals. It was kind of like having a baby raccoon explore your physiognomy with its little padded fingers. At last, draped over me, her breathing slowed and she went quiet. I didn’t dare move for several minutes, but eventually slid myself out from under her little round arms and watched her sleep. Heaven.
Later that night, Nellie marched into the room with a tray full of goodies – flowers, a Mother’s Day card, chocolate-covered almonds, and her cell phone with a live Zoom feed featuring all my other children (two of them expecting babies). Surprise! Happy Mother’s Day Mama! There were those four, dear faces, sending love. I’ll be out of the country on Sunday, unable to receive calls, so their timing moved me and my heart swelled with gratitude. How can anyone be so lucky?
And yet…what’s up with that other cascade of emotion that surged forth as I pulled away from Portland this morning after leaving Fiona at daycare? It felt a lot like grief. What the heck?
Well, maybe it’s all about the passage of time. The last time I got to be with my own siblings and our wonderful mom on Mother’s Day was 2013. My children haven’t lived with me since 2011; they are all starting families of their own. Fiona is no longer a tiny packet of softness that sleeps quietly on my chest; she is a small person with a mind exploding with daily discoveries, becoming herself, gaining independence. Time is skipping along, leaving my past steadily further behind. The miles hurtling away behind me seemed to represent all the years gone by, emphasizing the distance growing between me and what used to be.
Oh yes, I celebrate life’s tenacity! Oh the wonder of it – how it goes on blossoming, evolving, changing! But at the same time, my own life experiences are receding in the rearview mirror along with my husband’s hairline. We’ll do our best to keep up, but our obsolescence is inevitable, one of the few certainties in a world of unknowns.
How do we navigate this world so teeming with rapture and grief, becoming and fading away? We embrace it all, I suppose. We make room for the new and carry our histories along for the ride, as long as little fingers continue to explore, as long as our hearts continue to beat.
Robin Clifford Wood is an award-winning author, poet, and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her children, grandchildren, and granddogs.