A Mother's Writing Life


The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road was full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly 
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I recently came across Mary Oliver's poem "The Journey" for the first time. Reading it, and then re-reading it over and over, I felt like she'd peered into my life and written these words straight at me. It's the first time a piece of writing has spoken so directly to my soul.

I say this because it is only very recently, in a very intense time of life, surrounded by very small, very dependent people, and exhausted from 5 years' worth of broken sleep, that I have decided to take myself seriously as a writer.  I feel that purpose clearly and calmly.

I used to think being a writer meant producing best-selling, literary novels.  I thought it meant a brooding, solitary life. It was an idealized fantasy, and when my life didn't shape up like that, I shrugged, and with more than a little heartache, put the dream in the corner of a dark closet in my mind.  I spent years just living: fucking up, falling down, drinking and dancing, climbing mountains and being dirty. It felt chaotic, and now is even more chaotic: now looks the very least like the writing life I imagined.  But like she writes in her poem, one day I finally knew what I had to do.  And even though this looks like the worst possible time to begin, I can't do anything BUT begin.

I understand now that the writer's life is whatever life looks like, so long as there is reading and writing woven into the minutes and hours.

So I just fit it in: I write, bleary-eyed when I'm up at 5 with a gassy baby; I read while I eat breakfast, pausing to refill cereal bowls or butter another piece of toast; I write while little ones nap, pecking out words one-handed, the baby asleep across my lap; I read a few poems in the evening, lying in bed nursing, half-listening to the boys splashing in the tub as my husband gets them ready for bed. And in a few years, that much further down the road, I'll have the momentum built up to keep going.  I'll have even more time to give to my craft, my passion. I'll be so grateful to have made the start now.  Because it can be so easy to tell yourself that now isn't the time, so easy to put it off and put it off and put it off.  And then one day it's too late and you're left with nothing but regret, cold ashes sifting and falling through your fingers.

The second half of Oliver's poem feels especially true to me: her description of the stars beginning to shine through the clouds, of the inner voice becoming clearer, so perfectly mirrors how I feel about my own life right now. It feels so right, and so easy, and so essential, to be doing this, and doing it now.  To be, as she writes, saving the only life that I can.

Night Sky

Photo via Flickr user Craighton Miller. Licensed via Creative Commons

Morning Pages


The sky has just begun to lighten; the robins start to sing the sun over the horizon.  In bed beside me, Charlotte begins to fuss, as if on cue.  She kicks her chubby little legs, squirming on her back, her face scrunched up as she grunts and strains.  Her belly is tight: I try to massage it but I know my girl needs to get upright.  I swing my legs over the edge of the mattress and hoist us both up to standing.  Instantly, her body goes soft on my shoulder, her grunts quiet.  She burps forcefully as I sneak out of the room, skirting the squeaky floorboards so as not to disturb the boys.

Downstairs where it is cool and quiet, I sit on the couch, baby up on my shoulder or reclined on my propped up legs, and write.  Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist's Way, calls them morning pages.  Others might simply call it journaling. In these early hours of the morning, bleary eyed, I fill 3 pages of my journal with stream-of-conscious writing, my smooth black Sharpie pen pushing the words from my brain onto the page.

Sometimes I write out a vivid dream; sometimes I start by writing my intentions for the day; sometimes it jumps around, from the banal to deeper thoughts and back again.  And some days I get interrupted by a baby who won't settle or a little boy who woke up and couldn't find his mama.  Some days I don't make it to the couch at all, choosing precious sleep. On these days, morning pages may be noon pages, nap pages, whenever-I-get-20-minutes pages. Or they might not happen at all.

I've been writing morning pages, off-and-on, since my grade 13 year of highschool, when a creative writing teacher introduced them to us. I've gone long stretches without them.  They've guided me through emotional crises, they've helped to unlock my creativity.  They are like a talisman for me: on the days that I write them, I feel able to work on another piece of writing, to start a poem or a blog post.  I find that getting that blurt out helps more cohesive sentences to flow.  Those messy, disorganized first thoughts make way for thoughts more lyrical, more musical. During the stretches where I don't write them, don't journal at all, I am usually at my least creative.  I cease to think of myself as a writer.  Morning pages have become essential to the health of my muse, and by extension, the health of my soul.

How about you? Do you journal or write morning pages? What keeps your muse healthy?

Linking up with #WhatImWriting. Please go to Writing Bubble to visit the other participants!


The Mother I Am


The mother I thought I'd be scours Pinterest for the best wheat-free homemade play dough recipe.  She tries to engage a little boy who can't sit still in mixing up the dough.  The mom that I am gets irritated when he keeps dipping his fingers in the salty mixture and licking the salt from his fingertips; she shoos him away and finishes the dough herself.  The mom I thought I'd be proudly brings the tough to the kitchen table, showing her boys how to roll it, shape it, squish it. She is disheartened when one of them eats it and the other declares it too sticky and throws it on the floor. Both boys run away after only a few minutes. The mom that I am brushes past and cleans up the kitchen, sneaking a piece of chocolate while she's at it.

The mother that I thought I'd be has carried a crate full of yarn across the country, each skein an unknit dream of a hat or a sweater to keep a kid warm. She has dozens of cloth diapers, also dragged across the country, waiting to be used.  The mother that I am contemplates taking the crate of yarn to the thrift store as she reaches for another papery Huggies in the endless work of keeping little bums dry.

The mother that I thought I'd be tries so hard to love every. single. minute. of every long day, while the mother that I am just tries to get through to another bedtime without breaking down.

She is not so strong, the mother that I thought I'd be.  Every day, as I move forward in this parenting journey, her hopes diminish, her voice grows weak.  I can barely hear her, now.  The mom that I am is hell-bent on survival, and that makes her strong.  She is wise in that she knows she'll never be able to do it all and love it all, so instead she trudges through, lifting her head up every now and again to appreciate the bits of beauty:

blowing bubbles in the backyard after two days of rain;
the boys playing quietly, side by side;
the baby falling asleep just before I am about to eat dinner;
the low, intimate sounds of all of us sharing sleep.

So I come to you, good-enough mama, strong, warrior woman, with my white flag raised, palms open and empty.  I surrender to her, the mother that I am.

365 2015 day 60