When Making An Appearance Requires A Disappearing Act
Recently, my husband and I secured a babysitter so we could attend a reception at the Omaha Creative Institute. When 6:15 rolled around, I was exhausted, but I thought I could rally. Until I reread the invitation. “Please join us for an evening of cocktails and conversation.”
I looked at my husband with pleading eyes. “It says ‘cocktails’.Does that mean I have to wear a dress?”
My husband, whose idea of formal wear is throwing on a Hawaiian, short-sleeved, button-up shirt over his t-shirt, shrugged, “I don’t know.”
In my jeans and blouse, I went to my closet and began smelling the underarm area of at all my nice dresses. I can afford to have a few cocktail dresses in my closet, but apparently, I can’t afford to dry clean them on a regular basis. On the hunt for a dress that didn’t smell too ripe, I found one that wasn’t offensive, only to look down at my legs and discover that it’s been a while since I’ve shaved. As I tried to calculate whether or not I’d have time to shave and make it to the reception, my youngest (who was coming down with a cold) latched onto my leg and began crying, begging me not to go.
And that is how I ended up on the couch in my sweatpants watching “Chicak-Chicka Boom-Boom” with my four year-old in my lap while my husband navigated the cocktail party on his own.
Since the birth of our children, my husband has had to navigate lots of things on his own. My husband is a writer and an active organizer. He is a very, very busy man who is driven by the desire to create the kind of poetry community in Omaha that he would’ve loved to have been a part of when he was a young, aspiring writer. And in order for my husband to appear at all the places he needs to be and do all the things he needs to do, I need to retreat and disappear into our house to take care of the children. I don’t resent him for this, but I do get frustrated when well-meaning friends and acquaintances ask things like, “Are you coming to the reading?” Or, “Why don’t you slam anymore? You should slam.” If you see my husband, you usually can’t see me, and if you see me out and about, chances are you won’t see my husband.
As I mentioned in my first post, I recently attended the 2010 AWP conference in Chicago, where I attended a panel called “Keeping Your Debut Book Alive.” One panelist, the novelist Marie Mutsuki Mockett , said she wasn’t necessarily there to talk to us about keeping our debut book alive, but rather how to keep ourselves as writers alive. I appreciate her viewpoint, as it emphasizes (and thus values) process over product, something Americans have a helluva hard time embracing. One thing the panelists all agreed on is that a working writer needs to be blogging as a means to sharpen her voice and keep herself (and her work) out in the world.
I’ve been avoiding blogging for a long time for the same reason I’ve avoided using PowerPoint in my classroom and owning a phone with a keypad for text-messaging. We spend so much of our lives in front of screens, and there’s something incredibly odd and disconcerting about the fact that these screens, while acting as portals to the distant and wild worlds of other places and other people’s minds, can make our lives very, very smalI. Why go to a concert when I can watch the artist on youtube? Why meet a friend for coffee when we can text each other back and forth all evening?
In an effort to be more present in my writing life, I’m in front of a screen, making an appearance right now, typing and thinking, constructing this post. And the dog is lying at my feet, looking up at me, anxious for a walk. A load of laundry is waiting to be thrown in the dryer. And last night, as I began to structure the opening of this piece, my little girls were running circles around me. In working to establish an online presence, I have moments when I am not at all present in my real life. If keeping myself alive as a writer means I must establish and maintain a presence online, the implication is that, if I’m not writing or blogging or posting on facebook, then I’m dead.
One of my favorite Chiapas poets, Jaime Sabinas said we ought to “Live, then write. In that order.” I try not to think about the living and the writing as two separate entities working against one another, vying for my time. But I do. And I am. And this is why I feel conflicted about the fact that this is the first spring in a long time that I’m considering not planting a garden. Too many things in my life need tending right now, and while some part of me knows that while I’m tending to my students’ poems, my daughters may be withering a bit, and while I’m tending to my daughters, my own writing might be wilting, and while I’m tending to my writing, my marriage might be in desperate need of some watering, the last thing I need is to look out my window and see sagging, parched tomato plants, concrete outward signs of my neglect.
For six years I saved a message my grandmother left on my phone about growing tomatoes. My grandmother is incredibly resourceful and wise. She’s been alive long enough to remember Victory Gardens and, growing up, she was poor enough to remember the underwear her mother made for her out of flour sacks. My grandmother lives in Indiana, so when I wanted to grow and plant my first tomatoes from seed, I made the long-distance call to get her advice. After getting my seedlings going, I was planning on transplanting the plants outdoors. Having walked me through the whole process, my grandmother forgot one important final step. It is thus, I came home to an urgent message on my voicemail. “Sarah, Your tomatoes have to harden-off before you plant them outside. You have to put them in the sun a little bit every day so they can get used to it. It’s called ‘hardening off.’”
As I recount this story, I am present in this moment with you, my reader, but I’ve altogether disappeared from my grandmother’s life; she and I are now estranged. When I had a question about cooking or gardening, I used to pick up the phone and call her. Now I just google it (I suspect google is replacing all our grandmothers). Our estrangement is a long, complicated story. The reasons for the dissolution of our relationship are complex and have to do with a pain that is generations deep. I don’t know if my grandmother and I will ever speak again, but I am so grateful to her for that voicemail. I wouldn’t have known about this ‘hardening off’, and there’s something beautiful about the knowledge that something that needs light to live must be taught to learn to accept that light.
Last Tuesday was a beautiful day, and even though I had papers to grade and a house to clean and errands to run, I was determined to accept the light. I decided to take Lucia and the dog for a walk. If you’ve even been on a walk with a four year-old, and if you’ve ever walked a dog, you know that these two creatures have something in common when it comes to pacing. Half the time I was running to keep up with the dog and Lucia, the other half the time I was forcing myself to slow down so that the dog could sniff another glorious patch of grass while Lucia stopped to collect another pine cone. When these two were running ahead of me, I was frustrated that I couldn’t keep up. And when they were stopping to take notice of some small thing, I was frustrated. I wanted to keep moving.
This is the kind of physical, spiritual, and intellectual whiplash we all experience moment by moment, day by day. I want so badly to be present for my children my husband my students my friends and my writing. I don’t want to just make an appearance in these parts of my life, I want to inhabit them.
I want back in. I want to know what’s inside. Here I am, fumbling with these keys, wanting the writing to go on, but not at the expense of living.
Daily Life by Susan Wood
A parrot of irritation sits
on my shoulder, pecks
at my head, ruffling his feathers
in my ear. He repeats
everything I say, like a child
trying to irritate the parent.
Too much to do today: the dracena
that’s outgrown its pot, a mountain
of bills to pay and nothing in the house
to eat. Too many clothes need washing
and the dog needs his shots.
It just goes on and on, I say
to myself, no one around, and catch
myself saying it, a ball hit so straight
to your glove you’d have to be
blind not to catch it. And of course
I hope it does go on and on
forever, the little pain,
the little pleasure, the sun
a blood orange in the sky, the sky
parrot blue and the day
unfolding like a bird slowly
spreading its wings, though I know,
saying it, that it won’t.