Zibby Owens: I had such a good time talking to Janine Reid. I felt like I could talk to her forever after reading her memoir, like I knew her or something. I’m sure everybody says that. Anyway, we had the best conversation. Janine is a mother and the author of the memoir called The Opposite of Certainty: Fear, Faith, and Life in Between. She hopes to help others find hidden strength and hope in an unpredictable world and to inspire all us to come through seemingly impossible times transformed by sharing the story of her own reluctant journey through the completely unimaginable. I mean, how good does that sound? Janine’s work has been published in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and is widely syndicated. She currently lives in California.

Welcome, Janine. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Janine Reid: Thank you, Zibby. It’s wonderful to meet you and to see you face to face through the computer screen.

Zibby: You too. For listeners, we’re doing this via Skype, but just for us, I guess. This is our second try because we had some technical problems. We’re starting over so you all get great sound. Janine’s memoir, I feel silly even sounding so upbeat because although there is so much uplifting about it, it goes into the depths of so much emotion and pain and hope. There’s so much in it. It’s called The Opposite of Certainty: Fear, Faith, and Life in Between. Maybe Janine, you could just tell listeners a little more about the memoir and how you remembered everything in order to write about this time of your life.

Janine: I like to say that the book is about what’s real and true when what’s real and true can’t be happening. Coincidentally, it was born into this unprecedented, uncertain time, so people might be able to relate to that premise. It’s about my trying to be the best mom in the world, as we do. I had a professional career previously. I took all those skills, and I was determined that my kids would never be hurt, scared, or scarred. This is the story about what happens when I come up against a foe that I actually can’t control. How do we manage that? How do we dive deeply inside of ourselves when all these outside circumstances are so unmanageable? The book is about a period of my life which was, of course, very difficult and also extremely transforming. How I remembered it, first of all, there’s some things that I’ll never forget. Then I also have a core group of friends who I was emailing and texting. Thank goodness I had that electronic record because I am a writer. I was a writer at that time. I intended to keep detailed notes. There are some notes, but I have this thing where I keep journals and I don’t know which journal is which. I have boxes, those plastic boxes, full of handwritten notes. What was most helpful was the correspondence with my friends because there was just this element of dropping down and saying, help, this is what’s really going on with me, at that moment. That’s where the book is born out of, literally working from those documents to tell the story.

Zibby: In the beginning of your book, you talk about your son Mason and how at first you thought he just had some mild headaches and a little tremor. The first doctor you saw brushed it off as nothing more than migraines, essentially. Although, you did defend her later in saying — another doctor defended her, I should say, really. Then you get this blow when you find out that he has a brain tumor, and he finds out. You have to deal with him finding out in the backseat of the car and you having to wait for the biopsy. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, is what you basically documented. Yet you did it, and you wrote about it. Oh, my gosh. What was that time, what was it like for you? I know from reading, but just to share with others, especially the beginning.

Janine: I had this illusion that I was safe. I pulled together a life. I grew up in a family with alcoholism. I bring that up because it shaped me. Like the Cypress trees in Monterey are shaped by the wind, I was shaped in a certain way. The way I was shaped was that I was going to control most everything possible, and things could be okay. Here I was in this finding out that there was no way I could — if there was anything I could do to get — when somebody has something in their brain, you can’t dive in. It’s the ultimate powerlessness. Where I did have power was finding doctors and finding that voice inside of me. That first doctor told me basically what I wanted to hear. Your kid’s normal. You’re overreacting. I will take being an overreacting mom any day. Yet my son’s symptoms weren’t going away. We had to keep eking away, keep trying to find resources. Again, being in that time and this gathering storm of something bigger than me — you mentioned telling Mason he has a tumor. I read a lot of books and parenting books. I wanted to do everything right. I certainly didn’t want to be having a conversation with my husband and having my son over here. It was that blow of, okay, this is not good. I think as mothers we take on so much guilt, and in the world too. If you have a misbehaving kid — I remember when my oldest son threw sand at somebody in the sandbox. The mother looked at me as if I had thrown sand at her child. We take on so much. I really believe that I’d rather be wrong than powerless. I’d rather have it be my fault than to not be able to affect an outcome. One of the reasons for telling this story, I realized, is it’s like in our life the safety rails got taken away. Yet I think the story is hopeful. I’m getting a lot of feedback from people that they read the book and they actually feel comforted and they feel positive. It’s not just a sad read. It’s a story, we survived this, therefore… If I can survive the worst and learn these lessons, maybe they can be helpful to other people.

Zibby: Absolutely. I was just saying this to somebody else this week who I interviewed, that it is all an illusion of safety. We’re not safe. No of us are safe. From time to time, we get these big scares. How you cope with it then changes the whole trajectory of the rest of your life. Books like yours are so essential because they give you a taste of what you know but you don’t want to face. Then they also tell you you’re going to be okay too. I think that’s what draws people to books like yours. Yours in particular is wonderful. I think people need that. People need to know that when you hit bottom, you’ll be able to get through it because Janine got through it. Look how she did it, and her husband. It’s something so essential to getting through life, is through hearing stories like yours.

Janine: Absolutely. I agree. I’ve always been drawn to stories of people walking through difficult times. One of the things that I realized, too, is I have been girding myself. It takes so much energy to gird ourselves and to be so afraid in the world. That is one of my defaults. It’s just how I am. I’m wired as a very fearful person. I always say I was not qualified for this job of mother of a child with an uncertain life. Our life has continued to be uncertain. It’s not that I embrace that, like, oh goodie. It’s like extreme sports. I don’t believe in any sport that requires a helmet and a face guard for myself. I’m a very, let’s be safe, let’s be safe. Yet, you know what? I was okay. I found the resources. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy had the ruby slippers all along. I found the resources inside of myself that I didn’t know I had. I’m just an ordinary person too. I think that’s another really important part of the story. I’m not some superhuman extreme meditator. I admire people like that. I really do. I read their books. I’m just an ordinary scared mom. Yet I was able to access these resources and walk through what I really didn’t think I could walk through.

Zibby: Would you mind if I just read the introduction that you wrote which you called An Invitation? Is that okay?

Janine: I would love that.

Zibby: This is after the amazing forward, by the way, by Anne Lamott who was also on this podcast a long time ago. You write, “An Invitation: From one breath to the next, we exist in a place where there are no guarantees. We buttress against uncertainty and resist its gravitational pull. People like me try to control everything we possibly can to be safe. Sometimes, we’re able to pretend that the ground underfoot is bedrock and the sky above predictable. This book is for anyone who is tired of clenching against circumstance (or the news). It’s not a how-to book or a how-not-to book. Oddly, in this story of my anything-but-predictable life, there is solace because there is good, and I often call it God, that illogically shows up in surprising forms, and in the most exhausting and terrifying moments, beauty can be revealed in the imperfect terrain. My hope is to offer a companion in uncertain places, a place to identify in the heart of what’s real and what matters.” That is so beautiful. I don’t know how anyone could have listened — if there’s anyone out there listening who does not want to go buy this book after reading that introduction, I don’t know, I don’t know who you are. No, I’m kidding. It just sets the whole tone for the rest of the story.

There was also one passage I wanted to read about you and your husband, which I also thought was a really interesting storyline narrative as the two of you faced this together and how it affected your marriage. Of course, it’s going to affect everyone in the family. You wrote, “Alan and I have come a long way, and we will still fall short regularly even on the days we look our shiniest on Facebook. It might help that we keep praying together, asking for strength that isn’t limited by our exhaustion and pettiness. We share a life full of things that people disagree about. We blame each other for how hard things get, how tired we are. We argue, we stew, and we come back together. It hasn’t been easy, but so far underneath any hurt feelings, we’ve unearthed the bond that brought us together, that keeps us together. We choose each other one more time, every time. I hope it’s enough.” I’m literally about to cry reading. It’s so good. Janine, it’s so good.

Janine: Thank you, Zibby. I thank you. It’s such a solitary thing, writing a book. You understand this. You’re alone. Does this make sense? Will this make sense to anyone else? It’s so rewarding to have this phase of the journey to see that it is universal, that people relate, that I’m not the only one. My whole life, that’s all I wanted to hear, is, me too. I get it. It’s in that we I find that connection. I call it God. I call that a higher power, that connection of, I get you. I get you.

Zibby: I know you mentioned you kept notes and you knew you would go back on your emails, but were you sure this would be a book? In the depths of all of it, were you like, this will definitely be a book and I’m going to tell my story? Then when were you ready to tackle this as a book project?

Janine: I started writing about it, and I thought they were going to be essays. Then Anne Lamott is also my best friend.

Zibby: Oh, no way.

Janine: At one point, there’s a little twist in the story. Annie says to me, “Here’s your book.” I go, “Book? I’m writing a book?” I took her word for it. I just started writing. I think it was also a way to — the story had to come through me as a writer. Joan Didion has — I used to have it as a screensaver. I’m not good at quoting things exactly. The gist is that she writes to understand what just happened, what’s real and what’s true. What just happened to me and my family? Of course, there are five thousand drafts of this book. The first draft was very much annoying people and the stupid things they said. Then the story got deeper and I got softer. I had to work through some of that resentment. That doctor you mentioned, I still think the missed diagnosis, not misdiagnosis, but missed, I still consider, do I want to drop off a copy of the book at her office? I haven’t decided yet. I kind of hope she finds it. But to what end? I don’t know. My mom at one point said, “Do you have the energy for this?” when it came to that sort of thing. I do need to conserve my energy on that.

The writing, it kind of took on a life of its own. I had to do it. There were times I thought, why am I not writing a romance novel or a mystery? which are also hard to write. There were days this was brutal emotionally. One of the skills that served me well growing up in alcoholism is I can pack away terror like nuclear waste. It was all there. The writing was a chance to process that, to feel what it wasn’t safe to feel at the time, or expedient. As any mom knows, you tuck away what you have to because you have to function. You do what you have to do for your kids. It’s not a question of, I don’t know how you do this. You just do what you have to do. The writing was a chance to do this and process it like that as well. Then the other surprising thing in the writing and combing through, it was like a fine-tooth comb through many drafts of this experience, was spotting these, I call it the improbable good. I think I was focused on the miracle would be that Mason’s tumor would disappear. I even had a moment, I remember — we take Mason for frequent scans of his brain to monitor his tumor because it’s not something that can be removed. I remember looking at my older son who’s three years older than Mason and the thought comes to my mind, maybe I could take him for the scan and we’ll get a clean scan. We’ll cheat on the test. We’ll ace the SAT. Who cares who took it? Of course, I realize that was an absolutely insane thought, but these are things that come up in my mind.

The writing was a chance to try to put some order to it and to find the gray. What I was saying about that miracle — the miracle would be that there would be no tumor. I was so focused for so long on that miracle. I had some people who were very serious about faith praying for that miracle, which would be great still. I would accept it. In being so focused on a miracle looking one way, I could miss a lot of the grace that was happening at any given moment. The miracle of the nurse’s aide who just put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, baby, it’s going to be okay,” those beautiful, beautiful moments that I, in the writing of this, and a lot of them made it into the book, that was the grace of the book project. That was the grace of the writing, was to go, oh, we were cared for every single minute. I say too, how did I end up with more faith in God when a lot of my ideas about how God worked and what God was in my life had to be thrown away? They just didn’t hold up to this kind of a circumstance.

Zibby: Wow. I know you had another job. You talked about yourself heading off with your leather briefcase and your very deliberate, well-thought out decision to stay at home with your kids and give that up. When you did know that you wanted to write? I know you’ve always loved to write. Tell me about your relationship to writing.

Janine: I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always been a voracious reader. It was funny because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I get to talk about myself in these interviews since my book came out, which is fun, it turns out. Who knew? I remember being a little girl. My parents are lovely. We’ve had so much healing of the alcoholism in our lives. My dad is sober a long time now, as am I. There was a moment in my childhood. I remember looking at him, and him raging or whatever was happening. I don’t remember exactly, but I remember thinking, I will remember everything and I will write it down. That is my nature. That is how I’m cut. There was that piece of it. I’d always taken writing classes. I hadn’t believed in myself as a writer so much. I was successful in my PR career. I could write in that way in other people’s voices. Then there came a time when my kids were little and I was home with them. I’d always gotten a lot of identity from my career and a lot of attagirls from my career. Here I was letting go of that coat of identity and feeling like there were certain settings I wasn’t taken terribly seriously, which I resented and didn’t love. I felt like I needed to, for the greater good — for me, it’s hard to put myself first. It just is. I don’t know why, but it just is.

I realized at a certain point for the good of my marriage, for the good of my children, I had to find me. I couldn’t get lost in — I was literally being asked to make soup for kindergarten open house. Can you please make a pot of soup? Lovely idea to serve soup, but you know what? I wanted to pull my hair out. I started taking — what’s wild is the year before Mason was diagnosed — this is, again, that synchronicity in my life. When I look back, I call that God. There was some sort of grace carrying me. I did a year-long intensive with a great writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg. This is a wonderful thing about my husband. When I went to him and said, “I am losing my mind. I need something. I need to feed this corner of me. I need something to bring to the family in terms of me,” and I did four weeks, not all in a row. It sustained me. It was no accident, looking back, that I had this sustenance. I had that core of writing no matter what and that stories coming through me and the truth coming through me — sometimes I don’t know what the truth is until it comes out my hand. Natalie was very big on handwriting, I’m sure she still is, and that when all else fails, pen to paper, what’s going on? I found myself in that again. That’s my experience as a writer. Other people have different ways of doing that. Not everybody’s inclined to lose themselves in motherhood as I am, but I do have a lot of codependent tendencies that I work with. It’s my clay of my life that I need to work with and deal with as I go along.

Zibby: Do you have advice to aspiring authors?

Janine: Just go for it. Go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you your story’s not important. I had people tell me my story was too sad. The first agent I talked to just recoiled as if from a hot flame. He didn’t get it, but it didn’t stop me. Luckily, I had a lot of support in my life where people were like, what the heck was that? No. Keep going. That’s the other thing. It’s important to create the community you need, to find friends who will support you, who will read your work and say, you know what, I just love that line. I love that. What you said there, it just got me in the heart. We need that. We need that support as writers. Don’t give up. I have to say too, my abilities as a writer, I had continued to improve, and they continue to improve. Just keep at it. I guess that’s really it. Don’t give up. No matter what, don’t give up. It’s the answer to all of life. No matter what, don’t give up. If you have that in you that says do it, I’d listen to that.

Zibby: I’m really glad you listened to it because your book was so good. It’s always such a gift when people share all of what you shared. It was just really great. I’m sorry to be so effusive. I’m not always like this, but I just really connected with it and thought it was great. Probably my own need for control and try to make things perfect, I could just so easily put myself in your shoes. It was great. Has your family weathered this current homestay quarantine situation okay? Is everybody okay? Are you hanging in there?

Janine: We’re hanging in there. We’re pretty blessed. We’ve got a nice setup here. Everybody’s home. As a mom, that also makes me kind of happy in a weird way. It’s hectic, as you well know. We all know. There’s not a lot of silence, but it has been nice having everybody under one roof. My daughter came home with a cat from college too. We have a little animal drama, but that’s okay. She learned that from me.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for our chat.

Janine: Thank you, Zibby. It’s been pleasure.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.