Choose Your Own Adventure

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My friend T and her ’86 Volvo, Chit (after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) on a stretch of highway somewhere in the southwest.
I used to wish I was from the Midwest, where people speak in gentler tones and kindly turns of phrase. When I was young, I thought it would be fun to be in TV commercials and wished we lived in California, preferably Hollywood. After spending a week in the waves on Block Island, I thought it would be romantic to live in an isolated community out in the middle of the sea. I was always dreaming of somewhere else.

Even now, I imagine different places, different lives. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you want to follow the path into the woods, turn to page 61. If you want to venture into the cave, turn to page 21.

And that’s as far as I got this morning when I began this post, before the day spooled out in ten different directions. Certain items on my list resist being checked-off, mainly those that require sustained attention, like writing my friend T a letter for her 40th birthday, which was a month and a half ago. Determined to finish and mail it, I wrote the letter in scraps of time throughout the day.

I started to write about our road trip, the one we’d always dreamed of as little girls. We played her dad’s 60s records, Joe Cocker, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and imagined driving out to California in a VW bus. As it turned out, we chugged along in her ’86 Volvo over the course of a month from New Mexico through Arizona to southern Cali, camped in Joshua Tree. In San Diego a friend took us across the border to Rosarita and Tijuana. Then we headed up through Cali. L.A., the Pacific Coast Highway, the Redwood Forest, Yosemite, Death Valley. Then we cut back in to Las Vegas, Zion National Park in Utah, past Shiprock and back home to Santa Fe.

I know, I’m listing all the places and skipping the stories. But anyway, I was writing memories to her like, remember when we drove away with the book of CDs on the roof of the car in Joshua Tree and lost all our music? Think about that for a minute. A month on the road, desolate highway stretches with no radio signal–and when I say signal I mean antenna. We had one cassette tape, a 70s disco mix from college, and damn if disco doesn’t still make me think of winding our way around the sharp curves of Pacific Coast Highway at night.

And then I wrote, remember how we read Barbara Kingsolver out loud in the tent at night by flashlight or in the car on those afternoons the road seemed to go on forever?  We read Small Wonder, and I want to say we had The Bean Trees along with us, too. Or maybe I’m just remembering The Bean Trees because we both loved it so much as teenagers. Either way, I’d forgotten all about Kingsolver and reading aloud to each other until I began writing her that letter. That’s the funny–and magical–thing about writing. You can have an idea about what you’re going to say, an idea about what you think you remember, but when you set pen to paper, you will surprise yourself every time.

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Backcountry in Zion, hiking to “The Subway.”
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Inside “The Subway,” where the monoliths meet and form a tunnel with pools of icy blue-green water. Just as I slipped, T rescued me. There is another story here, the one about the person who took this photo, a man our age named John who we happened to meet the night before in the pitch black, all of us gathered with a group of astronomers and massive telescopes. I saw the red ring around Saturn, crisp and clear. John had just arrived and had nowhere to camp. We told him he could camp at our site for the night. In the morning we saw his pick up with the custom cabin he’d built himself. It was outfitted with gear and functioned as both a bunk and storage. He decided to venture with us into the backcountry. No trails except for the odd cairn, no park rangers. A 700-ft drop into the canyon and up a rocky, winding river. In his pack, John had a water purifier and iodine drops, and throughout our trek, he pumped and purified water for all three of us. There was no way to carry all the water we needed for an 8-hour hike, and without him, I suspect we would’ve gulped river water and hoped for the best.
(Post 253 of 365)

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Mandala

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This is the closest I get to making visual art these days, arranging rocks from the ever-growing pile on the deck. My husband and daughter are arrowhead hunters and rock collectors. We have rocks in the garden beds, in pails, in pockets, on the front porch, in the stroller, on dressers and bookcases, on the fireplace mantle, in the washer and the dryer. They are always bringing the beach home with them.

(Post 197 of 365)

On Finishing

When I was at art school in France (a million years ago), I returned to my limestone studio cave one afternoon to find that my small painting of pink wildflowers and green leaves, loosely rendered, had a torn piece of paper tacked to it that read: This is done. It wasn’t signed, but I recognized my instructor Kevin’s writing. The painting came together quickly, in just a few hours. I’d considered it a sketch. But the note made me pause. I stood back and looked at the painting with fresh eyes. In fact, the painting was finished.

Yesterday I brought my final working draft to class. So many sections sliced, a few carefully chosen sentences woven back in, all the pieces arranged in what I hoped was the right order. Marcelle’s first words were, This is finished.

It’s difficult to know when any piece of art is finished, and it’s important to know when to stop. I’d feared I had edited all of the energy out of the essay. What a relief to know the energy is still there and that the ending works. I will tinker with it a little more, thread through a few more sentences, make those final cuts. But it’s almost there, just a few small revisions away from saying, This is done. (I think…)

(Post 127 of 365)

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Not-So-Young Mom

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This post has been in the works for over two weeks, eked out in bits of stolen time, back-burnered by the bigger priorities of mothering, essay writing, and paid freelance projects. This morning I set up my toddler with Cheerios and Daniel Tiger, but she was back in thirty seconds talking to me about her toothbrush and the cats and the zipper on her shirt, asking for milkies, please. There I sat for a few stolen minutes–why do I always feel like a thief?–trying to shape my thoughts around  A Portrait of the Artist As a Young MomKim Brooks’ article in New York Magazine.

When it was first published, the subtitle read: “Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” Interestingly, it now reads: “Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?” I suppose “domestic life” is more all-encompassing? Either way, I was eager to read this piece as the writer-mom juggle is my current life story and the reason I began this blog. I expected to be shouting an internal hell, yes as I read Brooks’ essay, so I was surprised when I found myself countering her.

First, I think “enemy” is a little harsh. When I’m searching for time, undistracted moments to get the words down while simultaneously juggling the demands of caring for a young child, I see domestic life not as the enemy but as a competing priority. It’s the entire reason I began this blog: to find time each day, to stay tethered to myself, to recover my writing voice, to connect with other writers, to see if I can hack this thing amidst the endless demands of motherhood and life.

Here Brooks encapsulates the recurring thought in my head before I became a mother, the reason for so many stops and starts with writing and art throughout my 20s and 30s:

“…a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer…”

Guess what’s also thankless, involves untold hours, can’t be monetized, and is largely undervalued by our culture? Motherhood. And perhaps it’s this kinship between art and motherhood that makes them feel so incompatible. Doing both doubles the frustration of working long, unpaid hours that are also invisible to the outside world. Brooks turns to other writer-moms for answers, asking, “Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?”

“Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”

“Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.”

Again, I see kinship. Art is all of those things, subversive, destabilizing, undermining, and so too is motherhood. What else subverts your entire existence the way motherhood does? Becoming a mother destabilized my life. It undermined what I thought I knew. Nothing else has taught/teaches me so well how to make meaningful art like the journey through motherhood. It’s the making of art while mothering and managing domestic life, the limited time, the depleted energy, the distraction, that presents challenge. There is also the rarely-mentioned matter of economic resources. It reminds me of some of my favorite advice on writing from the author Joy Castro:

Be happy with small. Some days you can only write a little. Some days you can’t write at all. Leisure, class, and the absence of family responsibilities have a great deal to do with who manages to find time to write every day. I was a no-book writer for several years, and then a one-book writer for several more. Don’t flagellate yourself if you’re not one of the lucky ones. Do what you can, and persist.”

Don’t flagellate yourself if you’re not one of the lucky ones. I spend more time in this state of self-blame than I care to admit, perpetually trying to carve out writing time while also feeling like I’m failing at every turn. Then the brilliance of Aya de Leon sliced through my failure rumination with Portrait of the #WriterMom as a Member of the Working Class. This is the essay that made me shout hell, yes.

“Because domestic labor (raising children, keeping house, doing the emotional work of relationships) isn’t seen as labor, women are robbed of the ability to see ourselves clearly for the labor we do in families: most mothers are part of the working class. Although there is great variety in the conditions of our lives, we spend most of our time engaged in arduous, entry level labor. Yes, we love our families, and it has its rewards. But it’s work. We do the work of raising people for the society. Our labor is consistently exploited. No pay. No labor unions. No national policies to support us.

Contrary to popular myth, artists are also part of the working class. Not the artist identity, but those of us who are actually busy steadily making things. This is another delusion of our society. Artists are associated with privilege and elitism. To be sure, in our society it is a privilege to be able to work with one’s mind and to be able to put one’s visions out in the world. But the actual doing of the art is work. For most artists, this work is either unpaid, or very poorly paid. Few of us can make a living. We often work in terrible isolation. We have few unions and guilds to protect us except at the highest levels. Our labor is also consistently exploited.

Although the labor conditions of motherhood and artists are both bad, the system maintains its power by teaching us to blame ourselves. Mothers spend a great deal of time feeling anxious and guilty that we’re not doing it right. Artists spend a great deal of time feeling insecure, discouraged, or fraudulent. Both groups would be served by understanding that these labor conditions are so terribly under-resourced that they set us up to fail or to always feel like we’re failing. If our lives as moms or artists aren’t going well, we are taught to believe it’s our personal deficiency, when it’s actually a function of the society’s structure.”

While I was the person making starts and stops with writing and art during my 20s and 30s, settling for office jobs that felt much safer, de Leon was “the type of artist who hustled.”

“In my life, I’d already had to learn to make a living from my creativity, because, prior to having kids, no one was going to underwrite my creative career. Not my parents, not my partner. Not any wealthy patron or institution. I have certainly learned to hustle even harder as a mom…”

The learning curve has been steeper for me. I’m learning the hustle now, and motherhood is my teacher. Mothering steals almost every hour, and yet nothing else has taught me so well about the art of time management, about fine-tuning my own habits in order to find every spare pocket of time. I had no idea how much free time I had, nor such an acute awareness of time escaping, until my beautiful baby subverted my life. As much as caring for my child seems to drain every resource, as inefficient as it feels to edit while breastfeeding and rolling balls of play dough, motherhood also serves as catalyst and companion. Not since my 20s have I been so eager to describe, to capture, to explain, to story-tell. I would argue that, for everything motherhood steals from us, it gives back twofold. Eventually Brooks arrives at this place.

“Despite everything, I have to say that having the kids grew me up in a way nothing else could have. And basically, I needed ten years of mothering before I was like, Whoa, hey, this is what I’m meant to write. And now I’m working on a novel that I love and it feels like the kids gave me that by remaking me.”

Motherhood literally reshapes our brains, our bodies, and our emotional lives. The new me, the writer-mom me, is the writer who wakes at 4:30am and spends nights at the library, the writer who finishes, the writer who submits her work, the writer who bears rejection, the writer who finds her courage again and again.

(Post 99 of 365)

 

Threads: 69/365

It’s an odd process finding one true thing to say about myself every day. Truth can be simple but doesn’t come easy. Possible threads drift through my thoughts daily, but I don’t always want to write into them. I was twelve years old the first time I ever boarded a plane alone. I believe that singing a song you love at the top of your lungs can be a form of prayer. I talk to trees and plants. Zoos and other places that imprison wildlife make me weep. One of the reasons I stay home with my toddler is so that she can be in the dirt and fresh air, on the beach and under trees. I struggle with the way writing pulls me away from my daughter and my husband. When I was twenty-one, I visited Cezanne‘s studio in the south of France, crouched on a hillside with my canvas while the wind blew dirt and twigs into my oil paints, and I painted my own Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Birds: 54/365

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Lidia Yuknavitch says we have to look for what repeats in our work; this is how we find our metaphors.

In the tag cloud on my homepage, I watch the word “bird” becoming bigger and bigger as it’s used more frequently.

Chris now sets out for the eagles with his camera at first light.

As I’m folding laundry in Isabella’s room, it occurs to me that the three drawings hanging on her walls are of birds. I began a small series of pencil drawings during the time I was trying to get pregnant, as one year gave over to the next and it all felt so uncertain, so endless. Drawing felt meditative and grounding.

I’m not sure what all these birds mean, but it seems worth taking note.