Life’s ups and downs

We all have them, the twists and turns, the highs and lows. But how to keep the extremes in check — that is the question. Tomorrow Brook’s first book “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden” will have a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review. the pinnacle of the literati. The reviewer calls Brook’s storytelling “irresistible.” No surprise there, but it’s a highlight of a mother’s life to have the world hear that confirmation. Anyone who’s known Brook since she was a tiny girl with an articulate voice has recognized her gift.

I’m a writer with a small gift — I’m good at ledes, zippiness (as Brook once told me), and snappy endings. Has my writing improved over the years since I wrote horrible poetry as a teenager about the sun shining, blah, blah, blah? Yes it has, immensely.

There are many really superb writers out there, but I remember once reading that persistence is what separates those who write well and those who never complete their projects.

I’ve also learned that there has to be a balance. Working all the time doesn’t cut it; it only diminishes productivity and puts me in a mental tailspin. I need breaks from too much concentration, seriousness, and earnest contemplation.

It’s about not being too hard on myself. Don’t we all regularly commit to finishing a projects like losing weight, getting more exercise, or cleaning the house? I often veer from my projects that I was so adamant about at the start, although I’m obsessive enough to eventually finish small tasks. When it comes to writing, I appreciate deadlines.

I’m so impressed with Brook. She had the determination and self-discipline to complete the huge project of meticulously researching and lyrically writing “Paradise Lust.” I know she had her ups and downs but she did it. Saying that I’m proud doesn’t do justice to her outstanding accomplishment. And now she’s harvesting the fruits from her garden!

How did she surpass the big questions? Sometimes it’s hard for me to get past worries about the big picture. I’ve always loved the E.L. Doctorow quote about writing that Anne Lamott distilled in “Bird by Bird”:

“E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

— Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Little mantras I often tell myself: You don’t have to work on the big picture all the time. Take small steps toward a goal. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes on the prize, even if you avert them occasionally.

Another thought about improving my own mental health as I age — I’ve realized how close excitement and anxiety are. I’ve always been a fan of both, but now I don’t want to depend too much on either to keep me going. Cultivating calm is far more important to me. Not to say that I don’t regress, like now when I’m over-the-top excited about Brook’s well-deserved success.

But I try to give myself a break from either getting too excited or too anxious, knowing that either can easily spiral away from my grasp of what’s really important to me — being a good mother, a good friend, enjoying all I have in my life. So maybe this afternoon I’ll go see the movie “Tree of Life” and look at somebody else’s big picture.

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