What if I Never
Facing the off-key music of infertility, pregnancy announcements presented a minefield of potential emotions.
Some friends and acquaintances posted sonograms; others artfully lettered chalkboards or cleverly arranged images of miniature shoes flanked by grown-up sizes. Tiptoe as nimbly as I might, I often set off a series of explosions. A few seconds of happiness followed by the gall of jealousy. Observing the rule of threes, shame—over feeling anything at all—set in, sending me away to lick my wounds.
Years of coming up short harden a heart, no matter how much you bend toward the light.
Something as miraculous as new life should provoke undiluted joy. And after all the internal combustion, joy lingers. But where lack feels acute, doubts and questions corrupt. I still waste far too many minutes wondering whether someone wanted it enough, asking why them and not us, counting up their kids, and thumbing through the dictionary for a definition of “fair share.”
Years of coming up short harden a heart, no matter how much you bend toward the light. Softness tries to break through like green shoots through gray cement. But hardness remains, eager to remind that damaged buds only grow so tall.
Shameful as it is, I sometimes feel a familiar twinge when writing friends announce a new book or post pictures of freshly-inked publishing contracts. A cheer, an ache, then cymbal crashes of confusion and guilt. An accounting of dues paid or unpaid, and the question “Why not me?” replicate themselves.
Satisfaction eludes some of us more than others. Peace of mind makes itself especially scarce when we answer the constant call of expectations. Articles, essays, poems—all occupy a certain purpose and place, offering a moment’s illumination. But writers write books. They exert staying power. At least that’s the narrative we absorb.
A writer without a book—or a book proposal resting uncomfortably somewhere in the cloud—reads like a less serious and ambitious person than their peers.
We gush about books, stack books upon pedestals, cajole each other toward first pages of first drafts. Even writers with books to their names find just a moment’s peace, fielding questions over the themes and timing of the next one.
Most days I long to place a moratorium on the phrase “You should write a book.” These five words mess with the heads of people who should be writing books and people who shouldn’t. They warp the reality of those who constantly hear them and those who hear them voiced to everyone else. The goals we normalize and breathlessly pursue station creative souls near a merry-go-round. Some run to keep up; some grip the bars for dear life. Others sense their stomachs getting sick and calculate what it would take to jump.
Babies and books constitute a strange comparison. We assume a level of command over one process we never ascribe to the other. Writers reach their goals through diligence; would-be parents live with purpose, but remain subject to a phenomenon. Stop talking about it and do the work. Take your publishing destiny into your own hands.
Such counsel fails to account for two realities. Truth is, every milestone sits somewhere beyond the locus of our control. Creation and procreation depend on good fortune and timing, on circumstances and conditions we might never see. We forget something fundamental when we accept full credit.
Also ignored: the daunting nature of something elevated to a status it cannot bear. I reject the myth of soulmates when romance is concerned. Yet I presume upon the nature of creativity, pining for the one great idea that waits for me. Until it reveals itself, inertia.
Beauty and clarity are not beholden to the ways we order winners and losers.
So much of my life, what I do and don’t do, boils down to cowardice. I fear taking the necessary steps to write a book and fear what it means if my name never stretches across a paperback cover. Bringing these fears to light, I experience the cold-water shock of true words.
“You’ve written a book a dozen times over,” my wife graciously says as she sifts my concerns, pointing to the catalog of articles by my hand.
I take refuge with Isaiah, who says God’s word never lands with a thud. Like snow and rain that fall and saturate the earth, it always repairs and revives. If my own words bring momentary relief or create a covering of soft, downy white, who cares what form they took—or how long they lasted?
I want my friends to send good sentences into the atmosphere. Their words fall like welcome, healing rain; they still my heart like a snowy sky. My wrestling never completely crowds out my rejoicing.
I also want to know my writing matters. That, whether I write a book or not, every word counted for something. Some days I want to send a flare skyward, then see it returned. Message received, it would say. “Will I be OK?” the next flare asks, then I wait for another signal in the sky.
What do we do with all the iterations of “What if I never” that swirl around inside? No one wants to blink in the face of regret. Everyone longs to matter beyond what they accomplish on paper. All our “what ifs” keep us from present faithfulness. But the remedy consists of more than simply dropping the questions and living for the moment.
Looking out for ourselves, and one another, means rejecting the rules of zero-sum games, games that yield no victories. Beauty and clarity are not beholden to the ways we order winners and losers. True concern also means turning over the tables of expectation with a few well-timed words of affirmation attached to nothing in particular. Knowing that no accomplishment, or lack thereof, fully defines us enables us to recover the ability to rejoice in others’ successes.
The more we declare that “I never” isn’t something we wear forever, we kick against the goads that keep us from loving our neighbors and ourselves.