BY LORNA HOLLIFIELD
Happiness is an odd little thing, isn’t it? We have symbols in our minds of what represents happiness, and those symbols vary from person to person. Society also rolls out its own blueprint for us to follow. It starts in childhood: happiness means getting good grades, and being quiet in the halls at school so you don’t have to sit out at recess (cue the operant conditioning). Then, it’s getting into a good college so that you get the right kind of job, so you can get the right kind of house, so you can become president of the HOA and write by-laws about hedges. It’s making sure your oil is changed every 3,000 miles so you won’t end up sitting on the side of the highway in tears. But soon enough, this sort of risk manager’s road to happiness becomes a book of rules that we are to follow without fail. And if it’s all going smoothly—meaning, we have the perfect job, appropriate house, and that big wildcard, our health—we have no right to be depressed, right? Problem is, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves, what do I actually want? Mary Laura Philpott, author of the essay collection, I Miss You When I Blink finally asked herself that question, and it became a book that I couldn’t put down.
Mary Laura (after meeting her I found she’s so personable that I can only call her by her first name) got very good at following all the rules. If it were possible to get an A+ for following all of the social rules set up for us, she earned it. She had amazing jobs, writing for the likes of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and even US Weekly. Mary Laura had climbed to these amazing career heights and settled into a nice life in Atlanta with her husband and kids. She was enjoying perfect health, financial freedom, and a manicured lawn the neighbors would smile at. But she wasn’t happy. She was following rules written by someone else, and following them so well that she forgot to do anything else.
When circumstances caused her own series of “Aha!” moments to start trickling in, she didn’t light a grenade and throw it on her life. She didn’t go on a globe-trotting adventure like Elizabeth Gilbert or peel her toenails off somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail like Cheryl Strayed. She stayed a fiercely devoted wife and mother. But, she slowly began to unravel and rework the parts of her perfectly patterned quilt that didn’t fit in her world anymore. Then she wrote about it and accidentally garnered a near cult following of women who said, “I get that,” to which Mary Laura offers with a shrug, “There’s just something about storytelling.”
Without giving too much away, I want to encourage you to pick this one up. I Miss You When I Blink is the artistic representation of life. It’s a series of snippets, some funny, some sad, some a mix that didn’t even make sense when Mary Laura wrote them, but formed a hero’s journey when rearranged.
When we sat down to discuss the book, she said to me, her light eyes literally transferring adventure and wonder straight into mine, “I wasn’t sure the essays were even sticking together. I wondered if it was all for nothing.” But then she realized it was just a puzzle, and when put together, it meant everything. “People need a reinvention story that isn’t just a blow-up-your-life story.” That’s precisely what her seemingly disjunct sojourn with moments of both determination and defeat have created. I Miss You When I Blink is just the tale of a woman who misstepped her way to true happiness, her own way, with some tradition that fits the mold just fine, and other parts that break the bowl to pieces. It’s a story that proves we don’t have to fit one archetype, but can actually be anything we want to be, keeping the pieces that make sense to our souls and changing the ones that don’t.
Mary Laura leaves us with this thought: “I’m a big fan of ‘and,’ not ‘or.’ Part of the adventure is realizing you can put pieces together that don’t look like they fit at first. You just have to keep working that puzzle…and without the box directions, wedging squares into circles where you must.”