It’s mid-January, post-Christmas but pre-spring weather, and I’m sitting in my messy bedroom, at my cluttered desk, and I’m staring into a backyard that is overgrown with weeds and blackberry. The drainage pipe that runs water from the rain gutter down is hanging off the house, an arm that reaches into the ivy and alder.
This is an apt metaphor for my life right now: the chaos and mess, the grasping toward something, anything. My house is messy—not terribly unclean, mind you. Dishes, clothes and kids get washed, the bathroom gets tidied. We eat healthily. And yet the desk in the kitchen is a constant mess of bills and junk mail and arts and crafts and pencils and backs of earrings. The front room, the movies and video games scattered, the couch with the pile of fresh laundry. In my bedroom, there’s a pile of clothes I’ve worn this past week, some I can refold and put away, others that need to be washed, yet the pile persists; I have no desire to organize it.
Beyond that, my writing has hit a wall, and when I’m honest with myself, I admit that I haven’t been writing enough. Writing is like running in that you can’t laze for a few months and then expect to finish a marathon without, I dunno, dying en route. Christmas this year, I planned all kinds of homemade presents and crafts and hand-knit items, and I sent not a one. I haven’t sent my brothers their gifts, or my mother, or my dear friend Brad. The kids had all of their things, and we had plenty of good times, and wonderful nights with friends, and lots of board games and singing. At the time, I made the choices consciously, decided that I would put off chores in order to spend time with the Things Three. One of these was the decision to curtail my writing
But the accounting comes, and now it’s January, and the house is still messy, and I’m morose and lead-footed and feeling stretched thin. I see, too, the desires I have, the wants and needs, and the iron-solid beliefs: that I should be able to be an astounding teacher, an amazing mother, and a well-respected writer. All while cooking a three-course, vegetarian, healthy meal every night, managing doctors appointments and bill payments, and the orthodontist and the fencing lessons, and the trips to the library, and by the way, I like to knit, and I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book—have you heard of it? It’s good, the narrative clean and straight forward and persuasive—and I’d also like to clean the front yard, make it a little nicer. I’ve thought about having a garden, you know, in the spring. Cucumbers. Lettuces. Tomatoes. I could plant these things, maybe even do some canning in the summer, and, incidentally or not, the freelance writing market is terrible now, haven’t a clue how I’ll make it through next summer, and I’d like to just teach all year, if I could, or make enough to have the summer off, and I’m trying to apply for a few things, and I’ve pitched some big venues I have a shot at, and by the way, have I mentioned I’m tired?
Sometimes I wonder if I it’s simply that I try to do too much, that I expect too much from myself, or life in general. It isn’t sufficient that I’m good enough at anything—I want to be brilliant at several things. This is a problem, the most obvious reason being that, unless I stop sleeping completely, I don’t have enough time in a day. Last August, I spent two weeks at Soapstone—a writing residency in the middle of the Oregon Coast Range—and I wrote several strong essays. One of those essays was excruciating to write, a narrative about body image and sexual assault and female desire. It is far from perfect, and I am now, some 5 months later, ready to revise it. But the laying down of the basic structure, writing the first three drafts, were so painful and draining that I could not have accomplished it with the kids around, or with a daily job to attend to. I couldn’t have accomplished it without absolute devotion to the writing itself, and the space to do that.
In real life, though, that kind of space and time comes so infrequently, if ever. And then the every day pushes in—the laundry and the dishes and the errands. I see John—the kids’ dad—glance around the house when he drops them off. I see his evaluating eye—how he notices the dust in the corners, the haphazard piles of library books, the occasional mug ringed with cocoa. I cannot decide how to prioritize my life, how to make these choices, and it’s making things harder, more difficult. I cannot quite justify, to myself, the expense of childcare to cover writing time, though part of me understands that if I don’t do this, there will be no book, let alone books, ever. Which would break my heart, if I got to 50 or 60 and hadn’t finished writing a few books.
I started this short piece thinking I would write about SAD—Seasonal Affect Disorder—because when I sat at my laptop this morning, I was convinced I suffered from it—the post-Christmas blahs, the inability to organize, to get things completed, coupled with the coal-smoke sky, the rain. In the laying out of the evidence my mind has been changed, as it tends to when presented with better evidence. I cannot decide, though, how to move through this life I’ve created, what I need to do now.
Last year, the brouhaha between Alice Walker and her daughter Rebecca Walker took center stage for a few moments in spring. In a highly publicized article, Rebecca denounced Alice as a terrible mother, someone who had placed her daughter “after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.” It was hard to read such an indictment of a talented writer. Harder, though, was an essay by Phyllis Chesler, which detailed the complex and difficult relationships mothers and daughters have—famous writers or not—and the ways in which those relationships may reflect feminism and its weaknesses. At the end of the essay, Chesler says, Alice did what other women couldn’t do, or chose not to: “Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women's rights.” Then she addresses Alice’s daughter directly: “Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.”
I hate Chesler when I read this, though the emotion is misplaced. I want to believe she’s wrong. She’s wrong, I say. I say it again. I shout it.
I worry that she’s not.