A charmingly relatable and wise memoir-in-essays by acclaimed writer and bookseller Mary Laura Philpott, “the modern day reincarnation of…Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr, and Laurie Colwin—all rolled into one” (The Washington Post), about what happened after she checked off all the boxes on a successful life’s to-do list and realized she might need to reinvent the list—and herself.
Mary Laura Philpott thought she’d cracked the code: Always be right, and you’ll always be happy.
But once she’d completed her life’s to-do list (job, spouse, house, babies—check!), she found that instead of feeling content and successful, she felt anxious. Lost. Stuck in a daily grind of overflowing calendars, grueling small talk, and sprawling traffic. She’d done everything “right” but still felt all wrong. What’s the worse failure, she wondered: smiling and staying the course, or blowing it all up and running away? And are those the only options?
Taking on the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood, Philpott provides a “frank and funny look at what happens when, in the midst of a tidy life, there occur impossible-to-ignore tugs toward creativity, meaning, and the possibility of something more” (Southern Living). She offers up her own stories to show that identity crises don’t happen just once or only at midlife and reassures us that small, recurring personal re-inventions are both normal and necessary. Most of all, in this “warm embrace of a life lived imperfectly” (Esquire), Philpott shows that when you stop feeling satisfied with your life, you don’t have to burn it all down. You can call upon your many selves to figure out who you are, who you’re not, and where you belong. Who among us isn’t trying to do that?
“Be forewarned that you’ll laugh out loud and cry, probably in the same essay. Philpott has a wonderful way of finding humor, even in darker moments. This is a book you’ll want to buy for yourself and every other woman you know” (Real Simple).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I Miss You When I Blink
It’s the perfect sentence, but I didn’t write it. My six-year-old did.
I was sitting at the desk in my home office, on a copywriting deadline for a client in the luggage industry, wrestling with a paragraph about suitcases. I leaned forward, as if putting my face closer to the computer could help the words on the screen make garment bags sound exciting. My little boy lay on his belly on the rug, “working” to pass the time until our promised walk to the park. He murmured to himself as he scribbled with a yellow pencil stub on one of my notepads.
“. . . and I miss you when I blink . . .” he said.
It stopped me mid-thought. “Say that again?”
“I miss you when I blink,” he answered, and looked up, pleased to have caught my attention. He turned back to his notepad, chattering on with his rhyme (I miss you in the sink . . . I miss you in a skating rink . . .). When he ripped off the page and tossed it aside, I picked it up and pinned it to the bulletin board on my office wall.
I turned those words over in my mind while I folded laundry that afternoon. I thought about them while I brushed my teeth that evening. I repeated them to myself as I lay awake in bed. I said them out loud as I sat in traffic the next day. I miss you when I blink. I thought, How cute.
Over the next several months, I saw the note on the wall every time I walked into my office, and the phrase lodged itself in my head like a song lyric. I played with the words when I had writer’s block, tossing them about like a squishy stress ball. It would make a great title for a sappy love poem, I thought, one where the poet can’t stand to lose sight of his lover even for a split second. Or an album of goodbye songs, dedicated to a time or place that’s disappeared. Maybe a country ballad about a lost hound dog. The one that got away. Anyone could be the “you.”
It was a few years later when it occurred to me: You could even say it to yourself.
We all keep certain phrases handy in our minds—hanging on hooks just inside the door where we can grab them like a raincoat, for easy access. Not mantras exactly, but go-to choruses that state how things are, that give structure to the chaos and help life make a little more sense.
A friend of mine uses “not my circus, not my monkeys” a lot. It helps her ignore her instinct to get involved in things that aren’t her business, and it also makes her remember that people have all sorts of reasons for the things they do, many of which she’ll never understand. It’s useful for both behavior modification and acceptance.
“No one’s getting out of here alive” is one of mine. I find it motivational and comforting. I say it to myself when I’m marching along on the elliptical machine, because it reminds me that there absolutely will come an end to my time on earth, and if I want to push it off as far into the distance as I can, I need to get my heart strong and work off the sugar I consume every day. I say it to myself when I’m trying to calm down and deal with a jerk, because it helps me put things in perspective. We’re all going to die, and would I really die with more points if I took this person down, or should I have some empathy and grace and let our differences go?
Over time, “I miss you when I blink” became another one of these phrases. It helps me live in the moment. It slows me down and makes me absorb each instant instead of rushing, because I know already how much I miss things that happened in the past—how they’re right there behind my eyelids but also gone forever. When my now-teenage son is doing something very teenage son and I’m having to ask him for the eighth time in one evening to pick up his inside-out pants from the bathroom floor, “I miss you when I blink” helps me be more patient. He was six just a second ago. He’ll grow up and leave me in another second. “I miss you when I blink.” It captures the depths of my love. Could he have meant all this when he was little and scribbling, or was he just trying to rhyme with “sink”?
There’s no way he could have known.
So he also couldn’t have realized how perfectly “I miss you when I blink” captures that universal adult experience: the identity crisis. But there it is.
The old stereotypical identity crisis happens in midlife, to a man, and it features a twenty-five-year-old dental hygienist and a pricey sports car with an engine that sounds like a helicopter. The new stereotypical identity crisis happens to a woman, often when she’s turning forty, and it involves either a lengthy stay in Tuscany (ideally in a picturesque cottage) or a very long hike (maybe the trail to Machu Picchu? preferably with a large backpack). But the “I miss you when I blink” kind of identity crisis, that’s something else. Something under the radar, much more common.
For so many people I know, there is no one big midlife smashup; there’s a recurring sense of having met an impasse, a need to turn around and not only change course, but change the way you are. It can happen anytime and many times. As we leave school and enter the real world, as we move in and out of friendships and romances, as we reckon with professional choices and future plans, and sure, when we hit midlife, but earlier and later, too.
I think this repeated need for recalibration happens partly because so many ways of being are pitched to us—particularly to women—as either-or choices: You can have a career or a family; be a domestic goddess who cans her own strawberry jam or a train wreck who flaunts the wine in her coffee mug; wear a blazer and tote a bullet journal or stick pencils in your messy bun and wipe paint on your jeans. Pious or profane. One thing or the other. Even whether or not you buy into those dichotomies seems to be an either-or proposition: You believe in “having it all” or you believe “having it all” is outdated bunk. Pick a way.
And it’s true that at any given second, a person is doing one thing or another. I can swallow a bite of toast right now or I can whistle the theme song from House of Cards. I can’t do both at the exact same moment or I’ll choke. But our lives aren’t one suspended moment, a single either-or choice; they’re a string of moments, a string of choices. Going from one moment to the next is not always a comfortable process. Sometimes it hurts, like when you realize your child no longer needs you to be his daily sidekick, and you have to adjust to a new role in his life. Sometimes it’s a comedy of errors, like when you decide you’re ready for a fresh start and you buy a whole wardrobe of pants and blouses that seem sleek and smart in the dressing room but in the light of day make you look like you’re about to give a PowerPoint presentation on a golf course. Sometimes you know one phase of life is ending—you’ve outgrown a relationship or reached the end of a long project—but you don’t know what the next step is supposed to be. You feel sure you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you absolutely, positively cannot stand still one minute longer, all of which is insanely frustrating.
That’s what small identity shifts look like in everyday lives. Not the stereotypes.
The kind of crucial points in life I’m talking about are the ones that often go unseen, that most of us would feel embarrassed to call crises. They’re the ones a friend might talk about while sitting on your front steps in the dark at midnight after a dinner party, stalling because she doesn’t want to go home. Or because she hates her job. Or she’s scared something’s wrong with her kid or her spouse. Or she just saw one of her notebooks from college in a drawer, and she feels so detached from the person who wrote those brilliant notes about Virginia Woolf, and she’s worried that smart twenty-year-old has disappeared and she’ll never get her back, but she thinks she might want to try. She misses herself when she blinks.
I miss you when I blink. I have felt it so many times in my life, at points where I didn’t really know who I was anymore, where I felt that when I closed my eyes, I could feel myself gone.
I still have that scrap of paper my son wrote on all those years ago, before I had any clue that what he was writing would become my touchstone. I didn’t know then what a versatile refrain it would become.
I use it all the time. When I feel pressure to do the one exactly right thing—which I feel all the time because I am a human and a perfectionist—I remember all the selves I simultaneously have been, am, and will be. I miss you when I blink means I know all my selves are here with me, and I know we can do this. Saying it to myself is like a coach pushing a player out onto the field and saying, “You’ve got it. Just do what we practiced.” It’s like a parent placing a hand on the shoulder of an almost-grown child heading out the door to the prom, saying, “Remember who you are.”
Sometimes I think, Dammit, I will never be fifteen or twenty-five or thirty-five again. Those lives I’ve lived are over. And I get a little wistful, thinking I might like to get some of that time back. But then I remember my twenty-one-year-old self sitting in my cubicle at my first job out of college, feeling utterly confused and wishing she could disappear, and I think, Hey, young-me, it gets better. I swear. Worse sometimes, but also better.
And when I have anxiety attacks about the future—What if right now is the happiest I will ever be and I’m not appreciating it enough? Will I reach the end of my days having never lived in France or made enough people happy or learned everything there is to know about outer space or being able to do a split? Am I eating enough anti-oxidants? What will I be doing in ten years? In twenty?—I say I miss you when I blink to myself, and it means, Get a grip. Don’t panic. To figure out where to go next, look at where you came from. If you got here, you can get to the next thing.
Sometimes, in moments of memory or daydream, I feel the different iterations of myself pass by each other, as if right-now-me crosses paths with past-me or imaginary-me or even future-me in the hallways of my mind. “I miss you when I blink,” one says. “I’m right here,” says the other, and reaches out a hand.
Table of Contents
I Miss You When I Blink 1
Everything to Be Happy About 9
The Perfect Murder Weapon 17
Wonder Woman 27
Mermaids and Destiny 45
Disappearing Act 51
Good Job 67
This Guy 81
Welcome to the Club 89
The Window 97
Me Real 107
The Expat Concept 121
The Pros and Cons of Joining the Ruby Committee 133
Sports Radio 143
Rock You Like a Hurricane 153
No Safe Place 163
A Letter to the Type A Person in Distress 173
Stuck in Traffic 179
Diane von Furstenberg's Apartment 185
Nora Ephron and the Lives of Trees 193
This Is Not My Cat 199
Ungrateful Bitch 209
Sloths on a Waterbed 213
And Then the Dog Died 221
"Wish List 231
The Unaccountable Weight of Accountability 237
Blind-Spot Detection 243
The Joy of Quitting 249
I'm Sorry, Mindy Kaling 259
Try It Again, More Like You 265
Previously Published 276
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for I Miss You When I Blink includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mary Laura Philpott. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Mary Laura Philpott thought she’d cracked the code: Always be right, and you’ll always be happy.
But once she’d completed her life’s to-do list (job, spouse, house, babies—check!), she found that instead of feeling content and successful, she felt anxious. Lost. Stuck in a daily grind of overflowing calendars, grueling small talk, and sprawling traffic. She’d done everything “right,” but she felt all wrong. What’s the worse failure, she wondered: smiling and staying the course, or blowing it all up and running away? And are those the only options?
In this memoir-in-essays full of spot-on observations about home, work, and creative life, Philpott takes on the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood with wit and heart. She offers up her own stories to show that identity crises don’t happen just once or only at midlife; reassures us that small, recurring personal re-inventions are both normal and necessary; and advises that if you’re going to faint, you should get low to the ground first. Most of all, Philpott shows that when you stop feeling satisfied with your life, you don’t have to burn it all down and set off on a transcontinental hike (unless you want to, of course). You can call upon your many selves to figure out who you are, who you’re not, and where you belong. Who among us isn’t trying to do that?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “It’s the perfect sentence, but I didn’t write it. My six-year-old did (1).” What did you initially think the phrase “I miss you when I blink” meant and what you do you think of it after reading the book? Do you think it was a good choice of title for this collection?
2. “We all keep certain phrases handy in our minds—hanging on hooks just inside the door where we can grab them like a raincoat, for easy access. Not mantras exactly, but go-to choruses that state how things are, that give structure to the chaos and help life make a little more sense (2).” Do you have one of these? What is it and where did it come from?
3. “For so many people I know, there is no one big midlife smashup; there’s a recurring sense of having met an impasse, a need to turn around and not only change course, but change the way you are (3).” Have you ever felt this way? How did you get yourself out of it?
4. Mary Laura mentions finding her brilliant college notes about Virginia Woolf and feeling detached from that person. What is the version of yourself that you miss most?
5. Are you a perfectionist like Mary Laura? Why do you think so many women define themselves as perfectionists?
6. Have you ever thought of your life as an endless to-do list? Mary Laura finds herself checking things off, getting to the end of her “successful adulthood” list, but feeling more disoriented than ever, like she hasn’t arrived anywhere (12). How can we remain goal-oriented without finding ourselves at this impasse? Is being goal-oriented even something to strive for? Is the impasse inevitable?
7. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to say, ‘I’m just an average person,’ or ‘an ordinary’ person, because I am also a lucky person. I was raised in a loving home and grew up to have another loving home, and I do not suffer from dire physical, financial, or situational disadvantages that so many people struggle under. But being fortunate doesn’t mean you won’t reach a certain point in life—many points actually—and panic (13).” How can we recognize the privileges we have while still treating our own struggles and feelings with respect?
8. “All of us have one prevalent personality trait, no matter what other qualities we possess. There’s always one ingredient that flavors everything else about us. The cilantro, if you will (16).” Do you think this is true? And if so, what’s yours?
9. Mary Laura writes about the trope of blaming your parents for your flaws: “So there you have it. When I was growing up, my mother was a hard-ass, and she turned me compulsive. It’s all my mother’s fault. Or: When I was growing up, my mother was my cheerleader, and she made me successful. It’s all to my mother’s credit (26).” How do you view the effects your parents had on you? Is there another way to look at this?
10. “In school we’re taught to do our best, but we’re limited by the bounds of what we understand to be right—and ‘right’ looks different to everyone (35).” Do people ever fully learn that lesson? How do you teach kids what’s right and wrong while also teaching them that right and wrong look different to everyone?
11. Have you ever dated a person who was “totally wrong but really fun for a little while (49)”? Spill.
12. Do you believe that the potential selves you could’ve been “exist as surely as my past selves do and as truly as the real, right-now self does, too (85)”? How did reading that make you feel?
13. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation about the weather or traffic and wondered, “Have conversations always been like this (122)?” How do we get into conversational ruts (with our friends or our partners) and how can we get out of them? What do you do to break through the small talk?
14. At the end of Mary Laura’s solo retreat in Nashville, she writes in her journal, “I am too smart to go back to being miserable (172).” How do you feel about this sentiment?
15. Mary Laura believes you can always start over. Do you? Have you? Will you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Next month, read either Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert or Wild by Cheryl Strayed with your club. What is the difference between those memoirs and this one? Which approach appeals to you more? Have you ever wanted to “leave it all behind”? Do you think it’s possible to radically change your life (or even your mental state) without doing something so radical?
2. Check out Mary Laura Philpott’s Instagram (@marylauraphilpott), sign up for her book recommendation newsletter Blink, read some of her recent articles, or watch her TV show. Then, read another of the many books she recommends!
3. When’s the last time you picked up something entirely new, like playing the guitar (136)? Did you allow yourself to take yourself seriously and fully try? If you didn’t, why not? Think of something you’ve always wanted to try, and take the steps to make it happen.
A Conversation with Mary Laura Philpott
You tell this story in the book but it’s such a great place to start—what did you notice working as a bookseller that made you realize a book like this was necessary?
I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count: A woman walks into the bookstore — shadows under her eyes, keys in her hand like she has just a minute before she has to be somewhere else — and makes her way over to the nonfiction section. She starts pulling down memoirs and essay collections and reading a few pages of each. She might get chuckle or get a little teary, and her shoulders start to relax a bit. The books she’s gravitating to are memoirs by people who have burned down their lives and started over, set off across the world with a backpack, left their friends and family behind to do something crazy/grand/hilarious/huge and become someone new. There’s something in those books that strikes a chord with her.
But then she puts those books back.
She approaches a bookseller and says something like, “What do you have... kind of like these, but...” She means, “What do you have for me?” She means, “What do you have for the woman who longs to make some kind of change but isn’t about to blow up her life? Where’s the book I can relate to?” This woman — all these women — need a book that tells their story and makes them feel seen.
I was well into writing this collection when it occurred to me: This could be that book.
Which version of yourself are you missing most right now?
If I could hop in a time machine every now and then, I’d go back and be college-me for a while. What a time. Living with all my friends? No responsibilities other than to read and learn? And I might also go back to the time when I had two little babies at home, but only if the time machine would bring me back to now, because good lord, that was exhausting. I don’t miss any past version of me so much that I’d want to have it back forever. I love my 40s, partially because the lessons of my 20s and 30s are behind me, even if I do miss the version of my face that didn’t have these bags under the eyes.
You open the book with lyrics by The Decemberists, “We know, we know, we belong to ya / We know you threw your arms around us / In hopes we wouldn’t change / But we had to change some / You know, to belong to you” What made you choose that opening?
Oh, that song. I love it so much. Apparently it was written as if it’s from the perspective of a boy-band singer who wants to change his music and do something new, but he feels stuck in his old image, held in place by fans’ expectations. Forget that for a minute though, and just listen to the chorus. It’s about longing to change your life while still holding onto your essential self and the people who matter to you most.
As someone who is “addicted to getting things right (16)” and feels like “everything in life is a test (17)” what was the process of writing an essay collection (a pretty subjective endeavor) like for you? What were some of the decisions you needed to let go of? How well did you trust yourself throughout the process?
One of the toughest parts of this process came when I had about a third of the collection finished. Somehow I got fixated on the idea that before I wrote the rest of it, I should be able to outline it, maybe even sell it as a proposal. But I couldn’t picture exactly how the rest of the book would go, so I kept talking about it with people — like, “What do readers want in a book? What’s the best way to plan this out?”
The problem was, when I listened to other people tell me what they thought the book should be, I’d then spin my wheels trying to fulfill their expectations. Creating something based on what you think other people want doesn’t tend to produce great work, at least in my experience. I got stuck that way for a while, attempting to please people and earn approval for something I hadn’t even fully written yet.
Finally, I took the advice of a fellow writer who to told me to stop talking about it, quit trying to envision an outline, and just write what I wanted and needed to say. So I spent about a year and a half writing without a plan — not totally sure whether this growing pile of essays would come together into something coherent or not. It turned out I could trust myself so much better once I shut everyone else out, and in the end I had a solid book draft to work with.
What was the main difference between the process of working on this book versus your first book, Penguins with People Problems?
Ha! I had so much fun creating Penguins with People Problems, but that was a far smaller-scale endeavor. I’d been drawing those birds and posting them online for a couple of years, so by the time that publisher came to me and said, “Hey, we’ve stumbled upon your cartoon,” it took only a couple of months to draw enough new material to make a book. I Miss You When I Blink took two-and-a-half years to write, nearly another year to edit, and I almost gave up on it a hundred times. I love writing essays, and I’m probably more of a natural writer than I am a natural artist, but it’s much deeper, harder work than sketching a bird. (I’ll always keep doodling, though.)
What was the most challenging section of this book to write and why?
Honestly, the most challenging part was figuring out which order to put things in once they were written. I use drafting software called Scrivener, which makes it easy to move chapters or essays around, but ultimately I had to print the whole book on paper, cut it up with scissors, and move pieces around on the floor until the arc worked itself out. It’s one thing to say, “Here are 30 things that happened to me.” It’s a whole other art form to be able to say, “Here are those 30 things arranged in a sequence that doesn’t just tell a story about me, but illuminates something readers will find relatable and true about themselves.”
In writing this book did you ever struggle with the “Shit, what right do I have to feel this way (151)” thoughts? How did you overcome them once again and give your feelings the respect they deserve?
Constantly. I’d go through cycles where I’d think, “Oh, who even cares? Why am I writing this?” But occasionally one of these essays would be published individually somewhere, and every time that happened, I’d get gushing, heartfelt messages from readers saying, “YES, thank you for putting into words how I feel.” That would remind me that this project was bigger than me and my own feelings.
(I also inevitably got messages like, “Shut up. You have no real problems.” There’s something bizarrely motivating about getting a comment like that from a stranger — like, oh, you think I should shut up? You want me to stop? WATCH THIS, BUDDY.)
What has surprised you most about readers’ responses to this book? Is there a particular essay that has seemed to grab people the most?
I’ve been floored by the response. It actually took me a little off guard at the beginning, the degree to which people I’d never met felt comfortable sending letters and emails sharing their personal experiences as a way of showing how the book resonated with them. I’ve heard stories about people’s childhoods, their career crises, their kids, their relationships... So far, the essays that get the most response are probably Wonder Woman, The Window, and A Letter to the Type A Person in Distress, but at this point, I think I’ve heard from readers on nearly all of them, which just amazes me. It’s an honor to be entrusted with people’s stories.
If people read this book and identify with feeling stuck in life, what would you tell them to do next?
I don’t know if I’m in any position to give advice, but I guess I’d say, first of all, just know you’re not alone. Everyone around you may look like they have their shit together, but I guarantee you most of them have some sort of chaos going on. So if you’re dissatisfied or lost, you’re in good company.
Then you might ask yourself, “Of all the commitments I have and things I’m doing, which things are absolutely necessary?” There’s a difference between “I have to do this” and “Everyone expects me to do this.” You don’t have to do things just because you’ve been doing them or because you think someone might get mad if you don’t. You can quit more than you might think. And once you quit things, you have room to do other things. People might balk at first, but then they’ll move on to minding somebody else’s business. Grant yourself permission to change.
As a bookseller, when someone asks you, “What should I read next?” how do you go about answering that question?
First I ask, “What’s the last book you read and loved?” Then I help them find some facet of that reading experience in another book. I like to get people to try something fresh and different, but with most people it’s easier to do that if you start with some of the elements they already know they like. Baby steps toward trying new things!
Why do you think independent bookstores are so essential, and how can readers best support them?
Well, do you want to read something that hasn’t been served to you by an algorithm? Want to browse? Want to admire beautiful rectangular objects, learn new things, crack yourself up, or take home whole fictional worlds that fit in your purse? That’s what bookstores offer. They’re cultural hubs for communities. (Libraries, too! Libraries are magical.)
The best way to support local stores is by shopping in local stores. Get your beach reading there. Buy gifts there. Meet your friends for coffee there. When you’re posting about books on social media, link to the books you like on your local store’s website, so people can click over and order them from there. If you don’t do business with stores, they won’t stay open. And then you’re living in a place with no bookstore, and what fun is that?