This is part of a series of thoughts on what it takes to stick with a very long term project. This section was written a couple years ago, but I wonder if it will feel relevant to creative people in pandemic times! Also as it happens the cicadas are coming back this year! So:
When my children are very small I’m home with them and I am always mothering and almost never writing. I have up until this point always written, wished to write, worked on writing, studied writing, but when my children are small and I’m taking care of them there’s no time for writing, or I mean there is stolen time, snatches of time, moments here and there. I make no money off of what I write and we scrape by on my husband’s income and also, while he is happy to send me off for an hour or two on a weekend to write in a coffeeshop because it will put me in a better mood, he doesn’t consider writing that doesn’t make money to be real work, and so it is not a priority in our household.
And so in these years I devote energy to chiding myself for caring that I’m not writing, because I should just be happy to be home with my babies. I am happy to be home with them, and I am grateful for the intense and detailed way in which I know them as they grow. But also, when I look at it objectively, I’m able to see that it’s not so strange for a person to feel uncomfortable when she has just spent about a decade very intensely focused on a vocation of sorts — whether that was ophthalmology or pottery or carpentry or tap-dance — and then for about another decade or so is essentially unable to practice it. I’m not saying it’s the biggest tragedy in the world, but you can see why it would get to a person.
It occurs to me in these years that perhaps artist/mothers are like those seventeen-year cicadas, who have to gestate for so very long before producing. A paper on cicadas published in the 1937 Quarterly Review of Biology puts it, “while noise is the essence of the cicada as part of the web in man’s history, the cicada after all, is phenomenally quiet through most of its life.” This rather philosophical piece of writing, imploring people to embrace cicadas despite their “jazz-vexed eardrums,” concludes, “Let us endeavor to keep some of them with us as fellow travelers in this our common world of earth and air, mindful that the words of the poet apply not exclusively to the cicada: ‘Short thy allotted space of sunny hours/until thy issue sinks beneath the ground.’”
And what to do with those sunny hours? How can we convince ourselves to steal moments whenever one can, to write, to work, to create — just — because?
Another animal I feel a connection with in my early mothering days are frigate birds. They fly extremely long distances for months on end, sleeping with half-a-brain at a time as they coast. Scientists have found that on these long journeys, the birds’ organs actually change shape, becoming more aerodynamic and better suited for the soar. Scientists call this process “catabolism” and research on migratory birds has shown that “apart from the brains and lungs no organs are homeostatic during long-distance flight. Such organ reductions may be a crucial adaptation for long-distance flight.”
Oh, I thought, when I first read about frigate birds, it’s like being a writer who is parenting. For a long time my full-time job was parenting, and when your days are constructed of the infinite minuteness of feeding, diaper-changing, house-cleaning, bargain-shopping, finding the best free sing-a-long and putting in long hours at the sandbox, your self starts to morph to fit the job, like a frigate bird’s organs. But the writer-self was in there too, gestating, adjusting, taking notes and sometimes, it must be admitted, waiting it out. It’s Tillie Olson standing and ironing, and I think it’s also not unlike Herman Melville during his years working at the bank, or any creative person doing the things they need to do before they can do their creative work.
Suspecting there is something here to help me put all these pieces together, I open up my copy of Heidi Julavitz’s The Folded Clock, which I read some years ago. A folded piece of paper slips out, on which I had written, with an elegant blue ink pen a friend, who has since moved away, had recently given me:
It occurs to me that when you are home with little kids, or maybe I mean when I am home with little kids, each day becomes a work of art. Most of my creativity goes not to writing but to constructing these days — thinking ahead, shuffling together, finding the perfect blend of pragmatism and whimsy — educational and wild — managing personalities and desires and hopes and possibilities — and it’s heightened (or not?) by the knowledge that no one will ever remember it — that the kids will only remember a hazy sense of comfort or unease or fighting with each other or a random day at the park or something. Maybe this is what fuels the desire to record it all — whether it’s Instagram or a blog or a scrapbook —
There are three other notes on the page:
“A long haul necessitates basic trust — that you will live to see it through.”
“Repetitive action becomes a metaphor. Kids on swings — daily meditation.”
“Pleasure in unusual connections being made.”
And then at the bottom of the page there is a series of squiggles, from where my daughter, then 6, clearly took over the blue pen.