What seems like a million years ago I had a baby boy. I was in college and poor and completely clueless. I dropped out of school and moved into my parent's basement. I remember rocking him one night, whispering plans for all the adventures I wanted us to go on together. I was young, and he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and in that moment, tucked deep down in the Earth like a seed in wintertime, everything felt possible.
I've always loved books, my favorites being true stories of female resilience. Growing up poor, I learned very quickly that library books are free, and that is where I found my liberation, my faith, my fire. I've hung onto the words of others so tight I'd swear my fingerprints would be visible on their own real life hands. I once met Maya Angelou in person and for a full five minutes I did nothing but trace her face for evidence of my own. In the pages of books I found my dreams carved out in the shape of other people's impossible realities. Especially the mothers. The true stories of Mothers who make their way in the world have always been my oxygen.
If she did it, so can I.
I believed that with all of my heart. I still do.
But today when we began the unit on the photo essay in my high school photo class, and after we watched the Dorothea Lange documentary, and the students were struck by the fact that she sent her own children away so that she could pursue her art, I asked them, "Do you think it is possible to be a Mother and an artist?"
And at first they were all silent and then they shared about how she didn't really have a choice back then, because women's rights were so backwards, and birth control was impossible, and it was just the way it was in those days. And then they started thinking about their own Mothers and if their own Mothers have reached their full potential and dreams.
And then one of them turned to me, and she said without blinking, "Of course it's possible because, you."
As I type this my cheeks are wet with tears. Of course that moment meant the world to me, but my emotional reaction is rooted in the fact that my very first thought when she said that was to reply, "Well, no, because I'm not really living my full potential at all."
"Look at me, " I wanted to tell her. "I am only a tiny fraction of what I once dreamed I could become."
And maybe it's just the curse of being someone who never feels like she's accomplished enough, done enough, helped enough. And maybe it's the universal plight of being a woman in the world. But. That basement. My baby in my arms. We were going to move mountains together. I was going to go back to school and finish my PhD and publish brilliant books and lecture in the finest educational institutions in the whole wide world. I'd have a small cabin on the water, and write write write and be the mysterious old lady who disappeared into the sunset, happy and fulfilled, like J.D. Salinger.
I dropped out of college after my first month of being pregnant because it was too embarrassing to constantly keep throwing up in the classroom trashcans in front of everyone. One time, in Geography, the teacher actually told me to leave and not come back and I do not blame her at all. It was fine, I reassured myself back then, because I'd just go right back after he was born. I'd breastfeed in the back row, I'd hire a sitter when I needed to study. There was no stopping me.
And look. I've published a photography book that sold out. I've been named Top-30 Photographers in the world. My work has been on the cover of hundreds of national magazines. I created a small business with healthy six-figure profits for years and years and I've met some of the most incredible human beings. I've lived an incredible and rich professional life. Because I had to. Because I had to get off of food stamps. Because I had to offer my children a life I never knew.
But, and here is where I can physically feel my heart cracking in half right in the middle of my own chest, I haven't finished that PhD. I haven't published books of my best and truest writing. I don't have any invitations to any brilliant colleges. And I'm approaching 40 and let's be honest, all of those things don't favor old wrinkly ladies.
I need to pause here to make something very clear. I promise you, I cross my heart, I am acutely aware that what I do have is infinitely greater than what I do not.
Last night I fell asleep on the couch in the light of Monday Night Football on the TV. I was curled up next to a sleeping Lily with my feet rested on Thomas' lap. Braedon was on the floor curled up in a pile of blankets. We have a beautiful home in a beautiful place. We have health. We know what it is to feel love and be loved. It's more beautiful than I can ever begin to put into words.
And yet there is a tiny tapping, a whisper, a calling. She is persistent and patient and penetrating. And she is telling me not to give up. I hold my favorite books in my hands and I hear her crystal clear:
If she can do it, so can you.
I still believe that with all of my heart.
And I'm sharing this because maybe you need permission to keep believing, too.