The chat that set me on the path from being a stay-at-home parent to being a published novelist involved a man I barely knew, lasted two minutes, and was mostly about the weather.
It was the mid-1990s and I was a young mother desperate to find a small creative outlet near my Brooklyn home to distract me from endless diaper changes and trips to baby-gymnastics class.
I tried gardening. I’m English, so I had always assumed I had a green thumb. I bought a lot of glossy gardening books, wandered through nurseries in a big hat, and discovered quickly that my only talent was for buying plants. My husband would come home and ask, “Why are there 42 pots of dead petunias on the patio?”
When that hobby failed, I joined a group of moms who brought the joys of modern dance to nursing-home residents. Most of the audience members were in wheelchairs and could not escape our energetically avant-garde performances. I had delusions of becoming a real dancer until one day at lunch when I ordered a large pastrami-on-rye sandwich, only to spot our lead dancer lunching on two aspirin and a diet soda.
Ballroom dance was no better. My husband and I proved we have four left feet between us—and I like to lead. However, one day I ran into a young man from that class, and he changed my life.
“Lovely weather, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. There was silence. We Brits don’t really have any conversational gambits beyond the weather, but I struggled and came up with: “So, do you have any plans for summer vacation?”
His face brightened at the chance to move on from mere pleasantries to a more thoughtful exchange. “Yes, I’m staying home to work on my screenplay.”
“Lovely,” I said. “But I thought you were an accountant?”
He muttered something about hoping to swap accounting for Hollywood, and I smiled—but inside I was angry with this young man who dared to waste his vacation scribbling in his lonely apartment. Not until I got home and drank a whole pot of tea did I calm down and realize that I too had always wanted to write, but had never felt qualified to do so.
I had put writers on a pedestal too lofty for mere mortals, but my brief talk with the writer-accountant inspired me to see that perhaps writing was no more impossible than fitting into a lavender leotard. The very next day, I took a deep breath and signed up for a workshop called “Beginner Fiction.”
Helen Simonson is the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand ($15,amazon.com). She lives in Brooklyn.
2 of 5Pierre Le-Tan
My Boss Taught Me to Stop Trying to Impress Everyone
“Can I see you for a moment, Meredith?” asked my boss, a man I’ll call John. He guided me out of the conference room where a few dozen employees milled around, waiting for a meeting to start, and into his corner office. He closed the door, thereby triggering a heart-thumping Pavlovian response prompted by childhood memories of visits to the principal’s office.
What have I done? I wondered frantically. I loved my job at John’s green retailing firm. And I adored working for John, a Buddhist known for the spare, surprising pearls of wisdom he dropped on the company’s forklift drivers and executives alike.
John gazed at me—pityingly, I thought. Finally, he spoke. “You know, you don’t have to work so hard,” he said. I stared at him uncomprehendingly. Was he reducing my hours? Laying me off? “When I see you in a group,” he added, “you work so hard at impressing people.” He paused as if awaiting my flash of enlightenment.
Speechlessly I reviewed my behavior over the past half hour. I saw myself in the conference room, being my usual New York, type A, extrovert self, flitting around, bubbling at one coworker, then the next and the next. I bristled. That’s not me trying to curry favor, I thought angrily. That’s me being me.
“You have so much to offer,” John said. “Why don’t you try sitting still and letting other people come to you? That way, they can discover the real, wonderful person you are for themselves.” Relief washed over me. My boss wasn’t firing me. In fact, he was complimenting me. Well, sort of, anyway. And as I thought about it, I realized he was right.
My effervescence—the quality for which I was loved and admired (or so I believed)—wasn’t born only of good cheer and a friendly disposition. It was also sparked by my insecurity. Under the guise of connecting with people, I was actually beating them to the conversational punch, setting the terms of engagement, controlling how much of me I let them see.
John stood up and offered me his hand. I let him pull me out of my chair. I followed him back to the conference room, face flushed, mouth shut. Years later, I don’t recall much about that meeting, but I’ve never forgotten John’s advice.
Nowadays I wait for people to come to me. At parties and meetings, I am friendly but stationary. After a lifetime of believing I had to convince people I was worth listening to, it’s not easy to do. But ever since that day, I have tried to remember that I don’t have to beg for people’s attention, which has made me a more contented person. Buddha-like, even.
Meredith Maran is the author of, most recently, A Theory of Small Earthquakes ($16, amazon.com). She lives in Oakland.
3 of 5Pierre Le-Tan
My Mother Told Me She Hated Me
When I was a girl, I fought bitterly with my mom and often said terrible things to her. I am sure I told her I hated her on several occasions, but after one of them, provoked beyond belief, she said she hated me, too. The conversation—who knows how it started?—occurred in her blue LeMans convertible, in the driveway of our suburban New Jersey home, after my orthodontist appointment. She had smooth, salon-styled hair and green-lensed Ray-Bans. I sported octagonal wire-frames, chubby thighs, and messy everything. And both of us were in a fire-breathing fury.
It was perfectly understandable that I hated her. I was in the seventh grade, and there is no better time for mom-loathing than that. But she hated me back? Were mothers allowed to say that? Were they allowed to feel that? Was it true—even in part? The danger of putting certain things into words is that they never go away. They cannot be unsaid. I already believed I was unlovable, and now I had new evidence to stew over. What kind of vile creature is hated by her own mother?
“Oh for God’s sake, Marion,” I picture my mother saying, with a heavy sigh, “still with the melodrama?”
She wouldn’t remember that this event happened, and she might even claim that it never did. But look: My mother’s words on any topic had terrible power over me. No matter how much I disagreed with them, how fast I flew to the opposing camp, how vigorously I discredited her values, her pronouncements and commandments felt inescapable.
Of course, in the end I realized what I had always known: She did not hate me. In fact, her love for me and my sister was the most important thing in her life. From her example, I learned to be direct, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also more gentle, because I learned from her mistakes—like this one.
Adolescence ended, and my conflict with my mom ended, too, though the last embers didn’t die out until years later, when I started having children of my own: initially, a pair of boys, who are now 24 and 22. I will not say their adolescence was simple, but it did not involve the kind of code-red engagement that can happen between mothers and daughters. And my mother—or “Nana”—was there to help: baking lemon bars, treating the boys like princes. One day she even stopped criticizing me altogether. And that was a very good thing. “Helpful criticism” from one’s mother is an oxymoron.
I hadn’t thought of that awful conversation in the LeMans much until recently. These days I am raising a dear, beautiful, and funny 11-year-old girl who sometimes says terrible things to me. Occasionally, in the heat of her hormonal mini-diva rage, she says she hates me.
Guess what I never say and never will.
Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love ($19,amazon.com) and Above Us Only Sky ($15,amazon.com). She lives in Baltimore.
4 of 5Pierre Le-Tan
My Friend Encouraged Me to Open My Heart
Do you remember the first time a wave knocked you off your feet? That’s how I felt when my husband, Tim, and I received our infertility diagnosis. With blunt regret, the doctor told us that there was only a very slim chance we would ever get pregnant. Battered by the shock of loss, we felt as if we were flailing underwater. The next few weeks were spent in a state of dreary paralysis. At night we would sit in our apartment and cry, “How?” and “Why?” Neither of us was yet able to wonder, What next?
At some point thereafter, I found myself bound to inescapable dinner plans at a local bistro with three girlfriends. One of the women, Christine, was so hugely pregnant that when I sat down at the table, her daughter seemed to reach out and wave to me through her mother’s stretched sweater. It had been over a year since I had made the amateur’s mistake of blabbing that Tim and I were “trying,” and so, at restaurant outings like this one, I always detected a slight hush at the table when the waiter asked what I would be drinking. That day, when my beer arrived, I somehow managed not to throw it through a window.
My friend Dulcy launched into a rambling story about a recent job interview. It was not very interesting. She had worn uncomfortable shoes. The supervisor had been odd. Afterward, Dulcy added blithely, she got a message on her cell phone. It was a social worker who told her to conference in her husband immediately. Because, she explained to us in a crescendoing voice, they had been matched with baby twin girls from Ethiopia. We all screamed. We cried. We laughed. We toasted to the wonder of family.
I walked home that night drunk on possibility. After hearing Dulcy’s glorious news and sharing in its celebration, I was struck for the first time with the idea that the life Tim and I had envisioned for ourselves as parents didn’t have to end. Our family might simply have a different beginning than we had imagined.
Two months later, I went to dinner with the same group of women. I ordered wine for the table and announced that Tim and I had started researching adoption agencies. Christine, holding her new baby in her lap, cried. Dulcy, who was about to leave for Ethiopia, where she would gather her new daughters into her arms, cried. Not me. I sat there with a dumb, nervous grin on my face, holding my cheeks so they wouldn’t burst from all that hope.
Karen Valby is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly and the author of Welcome to Utopia: Notes From a Small Town ($15, amazon.com). She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and their daughter, Ava Bekelech, whom they adopted from Ethiopia in 2009.
5 of 5Pierre Le-Tan
My Father Taught Me to Value Every Human Life
In Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, my father and I once ventured to the marketplace, where we encountered an old blind beggar sitting on a burlap sack, his hands outstretched. My father was a prince in the royal family of Cambodia. As his daughter, then four years old, I had known only privilege, so seeing this man moved me deeply. I was too young to understand the awful circumstances that might have brought him to that street corner. But I was old enough to take note of his emaciated body and realize that he was hungry.
My father and I bought him steamed rice wrapped in lotus leaf. As I stepped forward, my father said, “Don’t forget to take off your sandals before you make your offering.” I didn’t understand. In Cambodia, removing one’s shoes, a sign of deference, is done when giving alms to a Buddhist monk. “But why?” I asked.
“We are all beggars,” my father said. “It doesn’t matter what we wear—rags or silk. We each ask the same of life.” So I made my offering, to the confusion and discomfort of strangers watching. On our way home, my father explained that no matter how impoverished the man was, his life was worth as much as any other and he deserved our respect.
Shortly after, when the Khmer Rouge had taken over our country, my family faced suffering, starvation, and the threat of execution. My father’s life was cut short because he was a prince. But through it all I held on to the words he had uttered in that marketplace. Even as my mother and I escaped alone to America and I grew up in this country, amidst plenty, those words stayed with me.
When my own daughter was five, my husband and I moved our little family back to Cambodia temporarily for his work. One day, while we were en route to an outing, we came upon a long row of elders and children heaving water onto the dirt road. I was stunned by their gaunt figures and by the surroundings: the dilapidated straw huts, the leafless trees, the scarred and broken landscape. Our driver explained that the people watered the road to keep the red dust from coating our car. In return, they hoped we would stop to offer food to the children among them.
My daughter, seeing my tears, pulled my head to her chest. “It’s OK, Mommy,” she said comfortingly. “We can get them food.” I saw myself as a child reflected in her hopefulness—the belief that there is always something you can do.
The three of us got out of the car. I gave the people the change I had in my purse; my daughter offered the food we had packed. And when there was nothing else to give, we spoke with them. I was moved by the elders who should have been meditating in the nearby temple, trying to find peace in their old age, but who were instead forfeiting their own comfort to stoop on this dusty road and beg for food. They reminded me of my father, who forfeited his own safety to protect our family during the Khmer Rouge regime.
I think my daughter will remember those elders and the children. And I hope she will grow to understand that neither poverty nor wealth defines us, that our empathy is the highest expression of our shared nobility.
Vaddey Ratner is the author of In the Shadow of the Banyan ($25, amazon.com), out this month. She lives in Potomac, Maryland.