Once I Was Cool
by Megan Stielstra
Curbside Splendor, 2014
Stielstra’s collection of personal essays, Once I Was Cool, is composed of what feels like effortless prose. She employs a conversational tone making each essay accessible, plus, given the short length of each piece, Stielstra proves she knows which words to use—and which to leave out.
Personal writing has the potential to veer toward confession or even spectacle, where writers describe various traumas from their lives that keep our eyes on the page the way driving by an accident makes us crane our necks to take it all in. Stielstra, though, is able to write just as well about positive feelings and experiences: “What did you do when you realized you were lucky?” she asks in “Totally Not Ethical.” In “How to Say the Right Thing When There’s No Right Thing to Say” Stielstra looks at how to help a friend going through something hard and comes up with this:
It feels nice to be so deliciously empty, so open for new things, like spring and laughter and the future and new memories and newly remembered experiences and all the things you’ve been lucky enough to do, and the knowledge that you still have, at the very least, this single, perfect day to live.
This sentiment is continued in “Juggle What?” as Stielstra relates to Tina Fey’s opinion on the question so often asked of mothers: “How do you juggle it all?”
I think about how lucky I am. It’s a big feeling—a thousand times bigger than my novel ever could be. It’s so big that I almost stop breathing.
My whole life there’s been two things I’ve known for sure: I want to be a writer, and I want to be a mom. And now? People ask how I juggle it all, and what I want to say is, “Are you kidding? My life isn’t a juggle.”
It’s a fucking gift.
“Channel B” appeared in The Best American Essays 2013. The essay is ostensibly about postpartum depression, but it is also more. It’s about feeling alone when you never have time alone. It’s about feeling overwhelmed. It’s about giving so much of yourself to a little living being that it feels like there’s nothing left. It’s also very short and very true. “We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true, and suddenly I couldn’t remember any of them,” she writes about that lonely, demanding time after the birth of her son. The essay goes on to offer hope to any who might be going through the same thing and the language comes around to form a perfect circle.
Several of the essays in this collection acknowledge motherhood in some way. The essay “Felt Like Something” tells the story of Stielstra’s life being saved when a tumor was found via an ultrasound. Becoming pregnant literally saved her life because it led to finding the tumor, which leads to a good metaphor about how children affect us.
[W]hat I realized is this: our children save us. They illuminate what’s been there all along. They make us better than we ever thought we could be… without him I might not be sitting here today, and for that, I will believe. Call it God, if you like. Call it The Divine. Call it Not Atheist.
I call it a start.
While Stielstra writes about life-changing events like having children or going from being single to finding “the one” (illustrated briefly in “82 Degrees”), the collection is filled out with essays dealing with a variety of other subjects. “The Domino Effect” tells a story—a love story—but it also lets us think about art’s place and purpose in our lives as Stielstra shares her thoughts on paying it forward art-wise. “The Right Kind of Water” is an entertaining exercise in trying to get the details for a story just right as Stielstra spends hours in her bathtub to see what water does to the body after so long. “Under Your Feet They Go On Growing” and “It Seems Our Time Has Run Out, Dr. Jones” look at the author’s love of Kafka and Indiana Jones, respectively. Other essays give brief glimpses into Stielstra’s past which brazenly spare no details, from a glass testicle to her third grade teacher crying in the girl’s bathroom. Some of these essays span only a few pages, but most hold their own in spite of their small size, and overall, Once I Was Cool holds its own among others in the genre.