Mar 31 2016

This Is My Poem About Leaves

Actually, this is the story of how Gwyneth Paltrow un-paralyzed me.

She doesn’t know this story. We are not friends. I mean, no doubt she’s perfectly pleasant — although people sure love to hate her for allegedly being an out-of-touch wackadoo — but I, for one, am grateful for her accidental guidance toward a ridiculous epiphany.

At the writers conference last month, I met with one particular professional who wanted to know if I had a “platform.”

“Well,” I said, “I have a blog.” I knew this was a semi-right answer because the conference offered dozens of sessions about how it is ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL to have an online presence.

“How many people read it?”

“Some, actually,” I replied. “Some people. I mean, it’s not crazy. But it’s definitely more than, you know, my parents.”

“Mm-hmm. And what’s it about?”

“We moved to California about ten months ago — I was pregnant at the time. So there’s some stuff about relocating and a lot of stuff about parenting. It’s kind of a mix.”

“So it’s a mommy blog, then?”

…Oh. Is that what I have going on here? Is that what this is? I considered my own posts and the posts I’d written for other sites: there was certainly a whole lot of mom-ness at the heart of most of it. “I…I guess it kind of is,” I said.

She shook her head. “There are a MILLION mommy blogs. If you really want to develop a platform, you have to do something completely different.”

Her words paralyzed my fingers for weeks afterward. They struck a special kind of nerve, because they managed to breathe life into a niggling worry I’ve had ever since we moved to California, when I was forced to leave teaching and hesitantly declared that I would “try to write” instead. I can’t be the only person who’s ever battled this fear: What if I have nothing new or important to say?

In recent weeks, whenever I attempted to write anything, that question thwarted any inkling of creativity. I’d type up a title and think, Someone’s probably already written about that. Delete.

I brainstormed chapter ideas for my next manuscript and then looked at them forlornly. I bet this has all been done before. Delete delete delete.

And days passed wordlessly, stories squashed in the back of my mind like grapes — pop! pop! — because everything that could be said had already been said and I was clinging to the tailpipe of some bandwagon about a thousand years too late and therefore writing was pointless and instead of typing while my children slept I suddenly found myself on level 426 of Candy Crush. (Yes, I still play that. No, you have not accidentally time-traveled back to a post from 2013.)

Then one day last week I went to Target because we were out of baby wipes, and as I stood in line (with a cart full of Spring-y home decor and my 89th pair of flip-flops and a sun hat for Peaches OH AND ALSO the baby wipes, which I almost forgot, because Target will do that to a person), I skimmed a magazine article about the launch of Gwyneth Paltrow’s new beauty collection. ANOTHER celebrity makeup line? I thought. Didn’t Jessica Alba JUST do that? And Drew Barrymore and Salma Hayek and every other A-, B-, and C-lister on the planet? How many lipsticks do we need?

When the answer smacked me in the face, I almost giggled: a million. There are A MILLION beauty products on the market, but Gwyneth DID. NOT. care about that. She didn’t wince at herself in the mirror and say, “You know what, someone already invented mascara, there are millions of eyeliner options available, Sephora is full up, there’s no room for you, goodbye.” No. She found a business partner in Juice Beauty and she did her thing. She didn’t say, “It’s already been done.” She said, “Here you go, world. This is MY version.”

We need more than one makeup brand. We need more than one fragrance. There can be more than one fantasy series, one memoir, one impressionist painting. In a romantic comedy, there is a distinct formula — you can consult just about any Kate Hudson movie to confirm — but each story is a little different. There are A MILLION pop songs, but people keep cranking them out. There are A MILLION photographers, but that doesn’t mean you should stop taking pictures. Henry Ford didn’t NOT make his car just because Karl Benz got there first. Apple went ahead and released a phone even though everyone was obsessed with the BlackBerry. Before Edward Scissorhands, there was Frankenstein. Before Twilight, there was Dracula.

It has been done. But if there is only one story, there are a million ways to tell it.

One of my new favorite quotes is from a book by Jordan Rosenfeld, in which she discusses a poet friend with a penchant for nature themes. She told a teacher, “I want to write a poem about leaves, but that’s been done so many times.” And the teacher replied, “But every poem about leaves is different. Write your poem about leaves.”

So yes, there are a million “mommy blogs.” But I cannot start writing about Snüffenblurken just because no one ever has. I can’t be inauthentic just to build a platform. I have to write about the things that are important to me, and at the moment those things are intensely centered around motherhood. Is there already an article about the perils of potty training? Definitely. Probably hundreds of them. Has some other mom already posted about her child’s sleeping habits? Feeding habits? Nose-picking habits? For sure.

While that feels kind of depressing, it should also feel incredibly liberating. Everything you could say has already been said — but not in your voice. Not in the way you would say it. We are forever sifting through a vast array of shared experiences — grains of sand that, from a distance, appear to be just one expansive beach — and they are similar, but separate. No one has lived exactly your story. It is only yours to tell.

Just in case you clicked on this to read an actual poem instead of some broad, sweeping metaphor: I searched through my college creative writing portfolio and found that I HAD ACTUALLY WRITTEN A POEM ABOUT LEAVES. Who does that? College freshmen who are studying sonnets, that’s who. I’m way more of a Good-Poetry-Shall-Not-Rhyme kind of girl — but like I said, it’s a sonnet, iambic pentameter and all.

It’s embarrassing because, hi, this is something I wrote more than 15 years ago (!!!…thanks for making me feel ancient, college portfolio), and also eye-opening because I am obviously STILL trying to learn this lesson I so smugly thought I’d mastered at the ripe old age of eighteen.

Leaves and Minutes
As children, we would race on recess break
Beneath the spinning leaves of auburn-gold,
Extending slender fingers, which would take
The Autumn Dancers in our gentle hold.

Those were the games of precious preschool play
Until the branches, bare, glared stark and thin.
Back then, the leaves were only leaves. Today,
They’re minutes I will never catch again.

I’m learning how to let the past slip through
My outstretched arms, encourage it to fly;
If I cling to my Old, I’ll have no New,
So now I smile as times go tumbling by.

There’s beauty in a life that’s lived unplanned:
Such blessings in each leaf to graze my hand.

Oh, the irony. I still miss you, Michigan. I still think about you always, and I still wonder if we might return home in time for my children to have a Midwestern upbringing surrounded by their extended family. I am clearly still clinging to my Old, but I’m also trying my absolute best to accept all this newness.

The struggle to embrace change is a story that’s been written a million times, I’m sure — but here you go, world. This “mommy blog”? This is my version.

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

14 comments on “This Is My Poem About Leaves

    • Beautiful poem. It brought tears to my eyes. I too was born and raised in Michigan and have now lived the second half of my 41 years in Arizona. I share many of the same feelings and thoughts that you expressed in this “poem”. Keep up the great work. Mommy blogs, Michigan blogs, moving blogs, California blogs, teaching blogs, it’s truly great.

  1. You are your mom’s daughter!
    I worked with your mom at Country Oaks and admired her teaching skills; especially when it came to writing. You obviously picked up a few tips from her before college.
    Keep it up! I enjoy your shared thoughts in written words!

  2. Once again – YOU are so amazing……
    I truly enjoy YOUR writings and can understand somewhat YOUR feelings about living far from “family”…. it is challenging and YOU are making the best of it.
    Back in 1963/64/65 I too lived a long distance from everything I had known in growing up in Michigan. Recently married and pregnant — no friends, unfamiliar territory – no GPS…
    Eventually returned to Michigan and all that I was familiar with and loved. We have many challenges in life and have to survive in whatever ways we can. We are survivors….

  3. Beautifully written love the leaves poem but more importantly what I love is you’re writing from the heart and doing what you love….. I loved every single post you do

    • Absolutely! Those things are a whole lot more important than a makeup line, eh? (Unless the kids have kept me awake all night. Then some under eye concealer is pretty effing important.) 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *