Finding mom in a field full of berries

Steamy heat rising from the tall grass. Yellow jackets at my ankles. Thorns ripping the skin on my hands and arms.

These are my childhood memories of berry picking.

I hated it.

Picking berries was a summer chore in our family, during that small window when blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and chokecherries ripened in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. I grew up on homemade jam sealed with wax lids, one of the ways our mother saved money with eight kids to feed.

It was forced on me. It left me hot, sticky and, sometimes, bloody. So why do I find myself wandering the fields on our property every couple of days through late July and early August, reaching into webs of thorns, plucking plump blackberries from bushes?

Am I becoming my mother?

I have spent a lifetime fighting that possibility.

I loved my mother and I admired her on many levels, but we never really got along. I won’t go into the details, but we could not spend more than twenty-four hours together without breaking into a full-blown argument, even though we talked easily and comfortably on the phone at least once a week.

We drove each other crazy.

I grew up on stories of her upbringing in Nazi Germany, where she was taken from her family and made to work in people’s homes, like many German kids during that era. The Nazis claimed they were protecting city children from potential bombings. It just so happened there were Nazis willing to take them in who needed 11-year-old housekeepers and babysitters.

From her tales, I gathered that a love of nature was her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, it often lured her on unauthorized journeys from her assigned homes, which led to reassignment after reassignment after reassignment. She was labeled a troublemaker, a title she accepted with pride. The need for a particular flower or a certain view was that great.

That craving stayed with her into adulthood and got her into plenty of messes, like the time she tried to drive up Owl’s Head Mountain with a bunch of us in the vehicle, and then couldn’t turn the station wagon around when the rough road narrowed and ended in an area too crowded with trees to even open the doors.

That was mom.

I have always loved nature, but in different, safer ways. I grew up hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and swimming, and continued to pursue those activities later in life. But since we moved to the hills of North Central Pennsylvania ten years ago, I have felt a different kind of pull from the fields, the woods and the water.

It’s a psychological craving that demands satisfaction.

My walks along the trails my husband cleared on our property center me, especially now during all the craziness of the pandemic. I walk slowly, observing the little things – the various languages of the birds, the array of insects and the assortment of plant life, all while noting the blooming seasons of each kind of wildflower. I often take photos, which I enjoy sharing with others on social media.

But when I first saw those plump, dark-purple berries clinging to bushes in clusters along the trails, I felt a new surge of excitement. I immediately rushed home to get a plastic bowl. I covered my clothes and skin in Deep Woods Off, pushed through thorns with bare legs and scraped my hands pulling off berries that were deep among the branches.

What was I doing? Was I becoming my mother?

No.

I do not have the time or the patience to pick quart after quart after quart of berries and devote days at a time to making them into jam. I never force my children to pick with me for hours at a time. I barely gather more than a bowlful from each picking.

It excites me because I love that the land gives me something back. I don’t even have to ask. I love the act of foraging. I love the sweetness of the blackberries even though they leave tiny seeds between my teeth. I love the thought that we could live off the land if ever we had to.

Even though I am not my mother, my walks and my blackberry obsession have brought me closer to her. I have developed a better understanding of the woman who was born a rebel and left everything she knew behind for new adventures in America with a U.S. soldier she had met, and then married after only a few months of courtship.

Nature was her solace while she raised eight kids with a man who eventually left her for his high school sweetheart. It was a connection to her childhood and her home country, a way of coping when she felt out of control. It was something familiar in a world full of uncertainty.

With every berry I pick, I am reminded of my mother, who passed away four years ago at 87 years old. But the memories are not of sweat, stings and bloody scratches. Instead, I am reminded of her determination and inner strength, the drive that fueled her through nursing school in her 40s after her marriage failed, that kept her working until age 71, that earned her retirement with a house of her own and a little money stashed away.

I am reminded of the little girl who slipped out through the windows of strangers’ homes to pick flowers—symbols of beauty in a time of darkness—the little girl who was willing to risk anything for freedom and adventure, the life she craved and deserved.

So, no, berry picking does not make me into my mother. It brings the best of her alive again for me.

Don’t forget to live

I was proud of myself.
All four kids were fed and appropriately dressed, and we had made it to the high school recognition night on time. We’d even picked up my mother-in-law on the way. That was a huge success for me, considering all I had tried to juggle that week.
So I was smiling inside and out as I made my way to the table full of cookies, veggies and cheese with crackers.
Until I looked at my feet to determine why my gait felt funny.
I was wearing two different shoes — both black, both ankle boots, but one with a slightly higher heel than the other. I made the best of it, pointing out my error my family and to the women serving the food. We all had a good laugh.
But I knew it wasn’t a good sign.
Summer was quickly approaching and I wanted to enjoy the time with my kids. Stress was threatening to make that impossible. Something had to give. So I examined my priorities.
There were people who needed me: the kids, my husband, my mother-in-law and my father. My sister was terminally ill and lived a state away. I wanted to be available if she or her family needed me, too.
I wasn’t willing to push the people in my life to the sidelines.
That left two possibilities: my health or my writing, and I had already vowed to improve my health.
The timing was perfect.
I had just finished one novel rewrite and was almost done with a second. My agent would need time to read both. I emailed my agent and told her I planned to take the summer off. She agreed to read the manuscripts over the summer and start the submission process in the fall.
So here we are.
I’ve had wonderful summer with the kids, though it never seems long enough. I was able to be there for my sister’s husband and children when she died. I visited my father in the nursing home weekly and helped with my mother-in-law’s care as she recovered from a heart attack.
My husband and I shared many-a-coffee and glass of wine on the porch, watching the deer.
School starts in less than a week.
I began to prepare about two weeks ago, organizing my notes and my thoughts. As I sat there, I got thinking about the advice so many writers hear and take to heart, that we need to write every day, that daily writing is essential to the craft.
And I got the urge to type.
I wrote a blog post.
The post was picked by a magazine that is well-read by fans of my genre.
I wrote a short story.
The story was accepted in an anthology that will be released next year.
I’m writing another blog post now.
I’m sure daily writing schedules work for those who can do it, but I’ve never had the time. I am fortunate if I can write for a few hours twice a week. Yet it hasn’t hurt me. I’ve completed  four novels and I have an agent who believes they will sell. I took two months off and immediately placed two pieces in publications. I plotted out my next novel during swimming lessons, long walks and long drives
Of course, we all need to practice our craft to improve, but what we often forget is that sitting at the keyboard is only part of the process. Thinking, experiencing, and thinking some more is just as essential.
For two months, I produced no writing, but I wrote in my head, collecting experiences, analyzing those experiences and letting my imagination roam.  My creativity did not fade during my time away from my laptop. Rather, I would argue, it was enhanced.
My advice to aspiring writers?
Write, but don’t forget to live.

Oops. I grew as a writer, but so did my waistline.

Four months ago, my husband bought me a Fitbit.
We live in a large house with three levels on lots of land in the country.
I was sure I’d be racking up those steps in no time.
Instead, I looked at my wrist after a long day of writing, transporting children to school and to various activities, making dinner and putting kids to bed to find I’d walked only a little more than 3,000 steps.
Experts recommend 10,000 per day.
It was quite a shock for a formerly obsessive runner with six marathons in my past, but it forced me to face reality.
I’ve completed three novels over the past five years and I’ve gained an average of ten pounds per novel. (That’s on top of the pounds I’d kept after giving birth to my twins eight years ago.)
Writing wasn’t the only distraction from my health (We moved, built a new house, and our aging parents grew more dependent on us.), but it has been a big one.
And I know I’m not alone in this.
I’ve watched several writers grow with me during this same time frame. Some of us have ramped up our writing to distract ourselves from the painfully slow submission process. Others are newly published authors under pressure to get the next novels out.
We share an insatiable passion for writing, but we have one other important thing in common.
We are all parents of school-aged children.
It makes sense. When we parent-writers look at our priorities, we often find our own health is the easiest thing to put on the back burner. Our health affects no one but ourselves in the short run and we honestly believe the priority shift is just temporary.
We’ll start eating better in a month or so.
We’ll go back to the gym after the holidays.
We’ll get more sleep once this latest project is completed.
But that time never comes.
The months pass as do the years and, as the pounds accumulate and the muscles whither, it gets harder and harder to muster the enthusiasm required to shed the weight and rebuild strength.
Writing is my passion.
It’s my past and my future.
It’s my greatest priority next to my family.
But those numbers on my wrist made me realize writing would have to share that second-place ranking from now on.
I miss running.
I miss being healthy.
I miss the way my clothes used to fit me.
I want to keep up with my kids.
So I started by focusing on my step goal.
No more nonstop writing.
Nowadays, I take breaks.
I walk our quarter-mile driveway to the mailbox. I walk the trails on the property. I walk the country roads. I walk laps around the playground while my youngest kids play. It’s 2 p.m. now and I’m at nearly 5,000 steps.
My efforts have paid off. I’ve stopped gaining weight.
But that is not enough.
My daughter is running on her school’s cross-country team this fall. She needs to build her endurance and I vowed to help her. To do so, I need to lose weight and get back in shape again. So, a few weeks ago, I started doing five minutes of floor exercises every other day and jogging a bit on my walks.
Last week, I ran a mile with her at the track and even did a little speedwork.
I jumped roped for ten minutes a couple of evenings and I swam half a mile the other day at the YMCA.
It’s too soon to see any results on the scale, but something cool happened last night.
My husband and I were talking as we walked the quarter-mile hill that is our driveway at a fairly brisk pace. I realized as we neared the top that I wasn’t short of breath. Not at all. Not even a teensy bit.
That had never happened before.
The feeling that overwhelmed me was much like completing the first quarter of a new novel. I know I have a long ways to go toward my goal, but I feel motivated. Invigorated. I feel like this is going somewhere and that each step brings me closer, just as each paragraph brings me closer to the end of a novel.
My productivity as a writer has suffered, but not nearly as much as I’d feared.
I’m fine with that because when I do finally get published, I’d like to be healthy enough to enjoy the royalties.

Who needs money, right?

For the second time in a year, I let guilt over the lack of a steady paycheck get to me.
It’s not like I’ve been lazy. I’ve written one novel and I’m nearly done with another. I’ve published a few short stories and I’ve started freelancing again.
Oh yeah, and then there are those four kids who need my love and attention.
But my novel hasn’t sold yet, I got paid for only one of those short stories and I can handle only one or two freelance assignments a month while still working on my fiction. The twins are in school 16 hours a week and the older kids go full-time.
I wanted to make a greater financial contribution.
I wanted validation.
The first time I felt this way, I took a job moderating for a national online moms forum. It was great in the beginning. I was on the site often anyway, so why not get paid for it, I figured. I was the lead moderator only two shifts a week and simply had to help out during other times.
What I had not realized was that good moderators must be fully immersed, especially with this particular site, where the moms could get down and dirty, mean and nasty often. I was cooking dinners with my laptop on the counter, trying to ignore the personal attacks that came my way whenever I intervened.
The hours were long. The pay wasn’t great and my stress levels were high.
Worse, I had no time to write.
I finally gave it up after a few months.
That was in the spring.
I’d forgotten the lessons I’d learned this December when a magazine/publisher I write for asked whether I’d be interested in social networking. I jumped at the chance, but I should have exercised restraint. I should have sat down and thought.
The job is a good one for someone who is interested in a career in social networking or who simply wants to earn a few bucks. It involves creating and posting nearly 50 tweets a day on 14 different blogs. Easily done with tools like hootsuite.com.
But doing it right, especially in the beginning, took me away from everything else.
Within a week, I realize that the job was far more involved than I had first believed. If I continued, in the limited work time that I have, everything else would have to end.
Little or no freelancing.
No fiction.
Less time for my kids.
I gave notice today, but said I’d hang in there until they find someone else.
I hope that next time this type of opportunity comes up, I think a little harder and I look back on what I’ve written here because I need to remember a few things:
I am not a moderator.
I am not a professional social networker.
I am not worthless simply because I don’t produce a steady flow of cash.
None of things describe me.
I am a writer.
I am sometimes a teacher.
I am a mother and a wife, who needs to balance all those things to be there when the people she loves need her.
That’s what I am.
And that’s perfectly valid.