My Summer of Minimal Effort
milkweed and a manifesto
Recently,wrote about her Big Fat Summer Plans (all of which are excellent and which you should read more about here), referencing the fact that I had declared this summer my Summer of Minimal Effort.
I didn’t go into this summer intending it to be one of Minimal Effort; in fact, I had planned on putting forth quite a bit of effort in the form of a book proposal. But my Summer of Minimal Effort was foisted upon me by both circumstance and an internal screeching of breaks that felt almost out of my control. Spotty childcare was certainly the impetus for rethinking summer and work, but as soon as I allowed the idea of LESS to creep into my brain, it spread and took root as quickly as a single milkweed plant’s rhizome pushes through the soil, creating dozens of new offshoots. A milkweed colony.
I remember feeling an almost visceral sense of lightness descend over me as I typed the words to Virginia in a text. Minimal Effort. What does that mean for me? I’m still writing this newsletter (with breaks), and yes, I’m still responding to emails (but not on weekends), but I’ve taken a break from the ceaseless strategizing I’ve done so much of in preparation for launching Momfluenced. As for the book proposal, I’m embracing a fallow period before I urge my brain into another marathon.
If you want to talk about silver linings, the vicissitudes inherent to writing and publicizing Momfluenced felt shitty at times, but now that the dust has settled, I can say with assurance that the process has been a crash course in surrender. I’ve been able to see with crystalline clarity that I can only control so much, and I can only try so much. After a certain point, my effort is only so many circulations of a hamster wheel racing towards nowhere and nothing.
Minimal Effort means spending more time outside. Reading fun books. Seeing friends. Attempting to make Sydney’s omelette from The Bear. Swimming with my kids while they’re still little enough to want that kind of thing. Watching the newly “patched” (according to the 4YO’s lexicon) house finches living in a wreath on our front door grow. Letting anxieties over “growing my platform” collect dust in the back of a dark drawer in my mind instead of colonizing that same mind and preventing me from engaging with concrete realities in my here and now.
Deliberately saying no to effort—in the completely legally binding format of TEXT MESSAGE to a friend—felt radical after the past fews years (and really, years before that) fully invested in striving and hustling and trying.
To quote our lady Taylor Swift, “I’ve never been a natural. All I do is try, try, try.”
As a little kid, I tried to show my second grade teacher that I was more mature than my 7-year-old peers, that I was someone who really got it, by fucking around on my fill-in-the-blank reading worksheets. I’d turn a typical See Jane Run story into something funny and irreverent to showcase my elevated intellect and enviable wit, and Mrs. Croto would write me chummy little messages in the margins. I was, of course, madly in love with Mrs. Croto. When my mother mentioned to my father that Mrs. Croto’s father-in-law had died (they were friendly), I tried to outdo my previous worksheet bonding attempts by writing on the next worksheet: “If you don’t give me a good grade on this worksheet, I’ll remind you of your dead father-in-law.” My gut still sinks to the bottom of the sea floor when I recall her response: “I’m not sure that’s a very nice thing to say.”
When I was 12 and then 13 and still had no boobs or menstrual blood, I tried to will my transition from little girl to teenager by earnestly doing the exercise Margaret does in Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. “I must, I must, I must increase my bust.” When I finally did get my period in Disney World (I was there with my marching band because I was that cool) I tried to act experienced by popping my head out of the bathroom and desperately inserting nonchalance into my voice as I said, “Anyone have an extra pad?” I didn’t know that you were supposed to peel the outer wrapping off of the pad and dispose of it, and I tried not to feel the pain of all that plastic wrapping chafing between my thighs as I tried not to vomit on the Tower of Terror.
My period didn’t really grace me with boobs, but it did usher in plenty of acne, which I tried desperately to hide (both the zits and myself) with a tube of Cover Girl concealer in the harsh glare of an overhead light in a 6AM winter dark bathroom. The effort in this case only made the truth I was trying to erase more visible.
I tried to be boy crazy like my friends who drooled over Gavin Rossdale on the cover of Rolling Stone and tried not to believe that something was wrong with me because I was more interested and invested in platonic female intimacy than any other kind of romance.
At 17, I tried to feign excitement when a friend made strawberry daiquiris with booze she’d stolen from her parents’ liquor cabinet, but was terrified to lose the only thing I thought I possessed that was worth anything—control—so I tried not to let anyone see me covertly dump the daiquiri down the drain and I tried to do a convincing act of drunkenness.
In my twenties, I tried to be whoever the boys I dated wanted me to be. I tried to be cool. I tried to be chill. I tried to be someone else’s muse so the reflection I saw in their eyes always felt more substantial than anything I saw of myself within myself. I tried not to care when the boys didn’t call or didn’t charge their phones or didn’t want to meet my family or didn’t want me to need anything from them. I tried and tried and tried and when my emotions and needs kept stubbornly rising to the surface, I figured it was a due to a failure of effort.
As an actor, I tried to stand out. I tried to make connections. I tried to be special.
As an academic-in-training, I tried to stand out. I tried to make connections. I tried to be special.
As a new mother, I tried to embody what I’d been taught I should embody if I wanted to think of myself as a “good mom.” I tried to be “natural,” I tried to be peaceful, I tried not to be bored, tried not to be terrified that sleep deprivation would be my undoing, tried not to worry too much that I was a child playing House poorly cast as Mommy. Most of all, I tried to be joyful.
When I started writing, I tried to be smart. I tried to be relevant. I tried to laugh knowingly at erudite comments. I tried to be world-weary, I tried to be knowing. I tried to be creative, tried to be original, tried to have a news hook, tried to have a thought in my head worth $200 for 1,000 words.
As my career slowly grew, I tried not to be jealous, tried not to take it personally, tried not to feel unworthy, tried to feel like I deserved a seat at the table (whatever that means). I tried to collect bylines, tried to collect yeses, tried to not cry over the nos.
When I was writing Momfluenced, I tried to identify patterns, tried to secure interviews, tried to assemble theories, tried to make definitive statements, tried to add my voice to a Cultural Conversation. I tried to be someone who knew how to write books.
In the year leading up to Momfluenced, I tried to garner advance attention, tried to create buzz, tried to send galleys, tried to collect blurbs, tried to place excerpts, tried to land podcasts guest spots, tried to be referred to as “whip-smart,” tried to be a Most Anticipated Debut. I tried to sell.
As a two-month-old author, I tried not to wonder what any of it meant, what it had all been for. Tried not to ask myself what any of it was worth (to me or anyone else). I tried not to wince when reading of another author’s bestselling status. Tried to have perspective. Tried to convince myself the work is the point.
My ears buzzing with the noise of so much trying, I went outside one day in June. I shoveled black mulch into wheelbarrows, felt the burn in my calves as I huffed it up hills, knew I was taking care when I nestled a newly planted pansy into its bed and tucked it in with a blanket of mulch. I watered the mulched, edged, planted-up bed and felt a sense of certainty that required no effort. I hosed out pots, lined them with pebbles, and filled them with geraniums, petunias, potato vine, lobelia, succulents.
I stopped accompanying my morning tea with a knee-jerk social media “check.” What was I checking for?
The days ticked by and peonies exploded, lavender scented the breeze, the pots on my porch overflowed with color. I surveyed the milkweed seedlings taking over one of my garden beds and spent hours watching Youtube videos on transplanting milkweed.
In a field of daisies, buttercups, violets, switchgrass, bluestem, prairie dropseed, and brambles, I hacked at the sandy soil, wenching through the chunks of granite to create a hole where something might take root. Gingerly at first, and more confidently later, I dug the baby milkweeds up, slicing neatly through the taproots. I padded them into their less hospitable new homes and hoped a little mulch would make up for their forced removal from the cushy loam of the garden bed. At sunset, I checked in on them, and most of them were limp, slumped against the still-hot ground. I watered them again anyway.
The next morning, I yelled at my four-year-old to stay away from the “baby plants” and watered the milkweed. They still looked lifeless. But my four-year-old wanted a snack and he was home for the remainder of the week so I packed us up and took us to the beach, where we saw horseshoe crabs mating and he pretended to skip rocks like his big brother. I felt the sun on my bare shoulders. After putting the four-year-old down for his nap, I sat on the deck and read a book for nothing but the joy of it.
The next morning, I watered the milkweed transplants again, and it might’ve been my imagination, but some of them looked marginally less perpendicular. The four-year-old and I picked up the big kids from camp and met friends at the town pool. We ate fish tacos and burgers from food trucks. The adults drank sweating pints of IPA and the kids slurped lemonade.
The next morning, I watered the milkweed plants again and some of them weren’t quite standing tall. But they were trying.