"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" -- The White Rabbit, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
As I type this, my first book, SO MUCH A PART OF YOU, a linked short story collection, is on its way out into the world, and I'm thinking about how my life will be different after its publication. I'm curious about what readers will think. How much will they wonder: Is any of this true? Did any of these things really happen? Will they think: Dugan writes about death a lot? These stories have quite a bit of sex? These characters remind me of some Irish Catholics I know? Or, these are Irish Catholics? It hadn't occurred to me, out of all the things readers might find worth discussing about my book, that my age would be one of them.
A few months ago I was thrilled to do an interview -- my first -- with a local magazine. After a pleasant, in person meeting with the writer, I waited out the weeks until the June issue arrived on newsstands. It's fair to say that when I finally saw the piece in print, I was surprised. The writer and I had covered a lot of ground -- two hours' worth -- about darkness and resilience and Catholicism and tenacity in the face of rejection, so it was strange to see the piece lead with this emphasis: Dugan is a late bloomer. I thought back to the interview. I did talk about writing in my twenties. I don't remember divulging my age. I have no recollection of discussing the implication of the number of years I've been alive. The magazine's digital issue is out now, and the tone of the print article has informed the online headline: Tales of a Late-Blooming Novelist.
Late blooming? Really? One of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Strout, wrote her first book when she was 42. If Liz bloomed on time, does that make me six years late? Six isn't that bad, it's less than 10, if Liz is the standard. But what does that make Laura Ingalls Wilder? She was 65 when her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published. What about Alice Munro's Nobel Prize? The average age of winners is 65. I dare anyone to call Alice Munro late, winning the Nobel at the age of 82. Since the magazine's come out in both print and digitally, I've wondered if I were a man publishing his first book at 48, if the 'late blooming' would have been the hook for the feature. There's no way to know, but I doubt it.
I shuddered upon reading the article, in part because it wasn't the first time I'd been called a "late bloomer." When I was 36 and 10 weeks pregnant with my first son, I was at my doctor's office for a routine prenatal appointment. I wasn't in with my doctor, but with the OB/GYN'S assistant. I remember it specifically, because that was when she called me a dinosaur.
Oh no she didn't. Yes, she did. I was shocked, and somehow managed to gain enough composure to articulate my disbelief. How could she make such an offensive and inappropriate comment? She tried to backtrack and clarify in an apology: she meant dinosaur in a good way, because of how many young pregnant women she typically saw -- merely 18, 19, 20 years old -- apparently the ages of every other patient but me. She was impressed with my prehistoric, pregnant self. By the time I left that appointment, my doctor had lost a patient. I found a midwifery practice that had a healthier, more intelligent perspective. During my first prenatal appointment with the midwife, I shared the dinosaur story. Although she was appalled and expressed her sympathy, she also laughed and waved her hand through the air in front of her. "We see women all the time who are mothers at 42!" she said.
Like other things beyond my control -- eye color, body type, certain traits and predilections -- I must come by late-blooming genetically. When my parents got married in 1963, my father had given up his confirmed bachelordom at the age of 36. My mother was 27. While not rare, these were uncommon statistics for the time. Were they late-bloomers or rebels? Pioneers or trendsetters? Maybe they were just busy living their lives. Before she met my father, my mother taught school in Okinawa, Japan and moved from New Jersey to New Mexico with her sister. My father was an ambitious and successful engineer, a ladies' man, the guy with the apartment where there was always a party. He was intelligent, an exceptional craftsman, and when he and my mother met, he was on vacation bicycling through Pennsylvania, photographing covered bridges. They both bloomed throughout their whole lives. No one was checking any boxes.
When I graduated from college in the late 1980s, there was one message that my parents made very clear: You can do anything you want. Try something and if you want to, change your mind and do something else. You can do anything. So I did.
I'll turn 49 in July. I have a wonderful husband, who I've been married to for sixteen years. Before I wrote two books, (my next, The Sweetheart Deal, is out in June 2015), I had my two sons, who are 11 and nine. I volunteer at my sons' school and with Portland's renowned literary magazine, Tin House. But before I became a mother or an author or did any of that, I had, as many people do these days, a whole other life, as an instructor for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The objective of the job is to train a safe and independent team of guide dogs and blind or visually impaired human handlers. It was challenging physically and mentally, and had a steep learning curve. We spent a lot of time in the rain. Not everyone is successful. It's a job where tears are not uncommon. I spent many hours blindfolded and a lot of time spotting blindfolded co-workers. It was also the job that changed my life, and shaped who I am as a person. A person I'm proud to have become.
The job taught me to be confident and patient, and that I was my own best advocate. I learned grace under pressure and how to be direct without being unkind. I learned how to be receptive to constructive criticism, which despite its discomfort was essential for improvement and growth. All of this, at the very least, has made me a better parent, writer and person.
In the summer of 2002, when I was pregnant with my older son, I worked with an 18-year-old college student, Steph, who was being issued her first guide dog. Steph, whose cause of blindness is retinopathy of prematurity, has a twin sister who has no visual impairment. She is bright and funny and was the best kind of dedicated student. But Steph had trouble with 'Juno' work: the simulation instructors do with an empty harness at the very beginning of training to teach students the basic mechanics and concepts of guidework. She'd asked for additional Juno training in the evening because she was determined to get it, and we kept at it. And finally one night, as I prompted her to adjust her stance and her walk, the "Aha" moment materialized. "Polly!" she said. "I just realized, I'm hunched over and hobbling like an old woman! That's the problem, isn't it?" And I said, "Well, yes, that's exactly the problem. Juno has turned you into an old woman. I wish I figured that out and told you sooner." Then we laughed so hard and long and loud in the dorm's hallway that other students came out of their rooms to find out what all the ruckus was about. I wouldn't trade that night for anything.
And so, this "late bloomer" is too happy with where she is now to think what if. The truth is that I simply couldn't have gotten to where I am any earlier than I did. And I wouldn't have wanted to. Everything in my life that happened before I began writing my first book, got me to the place where I needed to be. One of the most gratifying outcomes of all of this has been having my sons witness my transition from "Mom" to author. After school on my book's pub date, my eleven year old told me proudly that he had announced that my book was out to both of his teachers and several of his classmates. A few weeks earlier, my nine year old took a copy of my book (and me) into his third grade classroom for 'sharing' and gave a presentation to his class. He told his fellow students how the ten stories in my book are interconnected, that the book was for adults and that my novel will be published next year. He was clearly proud, which was surprising and touching.
With any luck what my sons will take from my journey is the message my parents gave me: You can do anything you want. With any luck, they won't think twice about what boxes they're supposed to check and when.
I was a student of Latin for four years in high school and college, but I never learned to speak another language. And because my parents encouraged me to pursue my interests, I devoted 10 years of my childhood to becoming an accomplished equestrian, but I never learned to play a musical instrument. So this year I've decided to study Italian. And maybe next year I'll take piano lessons. It feels like the perfect time.