Slow-Cooked Sentences

For Chez Danisse, an update

Rachael Conlin Levy

I’ve come to a place without a view, a place where I conserve words and watch my footing because there are rocks to trip me and my ankles have been known to give out. In this uncertain place, my contributions seem small, unimportant, overlooked. You noted my silence. I invite you to walk with me a while, mindful of E.B. White’s advice that a writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” as together we tread this uneven path.

As I said, I’m uncertain, blurred at the edges as a writer and mother, and this scares me. For years I’ve thrashed about with my writing, much like the inexperienced swimmer flails in the water, managing to stay afloat, yet nothing akin to swimming. In these same years, I’ve worked to raise independent children, and with three of the four now adolescents the job’s description changes. For the mother, better or worse will depend on my children’s choices. As for the writer, better or worse will depend on my determination, and honestly, I am so tired of flailing I sometimes want to sink.

That admission sounds like defeat, and giving up on the dream of writing feels like giving up on the self. But writing for its sake alone isn’t enough for me. I want the work to be accepted, and praised. I feel embarrassed to admit this, and so I take solace in the words of Leah Hager Cohen, a wise and successful writer who still shares my craving.

“At best, such a desire grows out of valuing a connection with others, wanting to be informed by their perspectives, and hoping for a feeling of mutual recognition, a feeling of: yes, I am not alone in the world. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about wanting our art to find a home in the hearts, the souls of others. Where I think we get into trouble is with the notion that whether or not we reach this goal gets determined by a highly selective elite in whom we have invested sole authority to confer access…,” Cohen wrote in “The Fortress and the Fool.” “Because the very natural wish for evidence of our worth can mislead us into thinking that writing is about winning accolades.”

I have no mentor to share my doubts with, no one who might guide me back to my writing notebook, no one to gently close my fingers around a pen and tell me to continue. Now that I’m alone for five hours a day people expect results. Now that three-fourths of my children are teen-agers capable of caring for themselves (though to a lesser degree than I’m comfortable with so I stick around to make sure they regularly eat salad and shower), I expect results. But now is not enough. I’m aimless, tripping over stones, unable to navigate my way. I’m a white woman, middle-aged, and privileged because I can choose to either write or waste those five hours. And today I’m idling them away, nursing a cold as I sneeze ten times and a small amount of pee escapes my bladder and wets my underwear. A price of motherhood. There is a tightness in my shoulders, and my feet will not warm. I pull back the quilt on my bed, made an hour earlier, and crawl in, sighing because it’s warm there and the sun’s shining through the eastern window. I close my eyes and red glows beneath my eyelids. I sleep for a little while.

You wrote about a mother-artist’s struggle with aimlessness in your book “After the Sour Lemon Moon,” where a young mother leaves her family for a year in order to recover all she’d “lost and wanted returned.”

“I was tired of holding up the foundation, being so vital. I wanted to shed my importance and become a mere cog, a simple expendable part of the whole,” the mother, Sophia, said. “… It is widely believed that if a mother leaves her family there is something irreparably wrong with her, something rooted in her core being, something present long before she was a mother.”

I was simultaneously drawn to Sophia, who would abandon her family in order to preserve herself, and repelled by her because she could, with ease, build a new life that included little thought and no space for her two little girls. The persistent, binary view that a woman’s life must be either work or family, books or babies, shackles me, enrages me, defeats me. I put your book down. Months later I read it to its end and learned that Sophia abandons this second life, too, so that she might wear the mantle of motherhood, again, although not that of wife.

“There are many ways to live a good life. Mustn’t there be as many ways, if not more, of being a good parent?” she asks. “Is our culture too rigid in defining our parameters? I believe the answer is yes.”

I’d have liked the book to contain a road map to that sweet life because I’m in need of such direction. I ask myself “Where is the story?” as if it’s a place, a land from which I wandered away. Rest eludes me. I sleep, heavy and deep with dreams, sometimes, and sometimes without, but always, every morning, I wake and am tired. I drag my body up from this nightly death and walk among the living. They have places to go. They have ideas. They have plans, projects, people. I have emptiness: An empty mind and an empty day except when there is laundry, and cleaning, and trips to the grocery store, and paying the bills, and a walk with a friend, and doctor’s appointments, and physical therapy appointments, of which there are many, so my days are filled, only not with what I want.

Recently, I discovered a map and a mentor in Ursula K. Le Guin, who worked after her three children went to bed, and, when they got older, during school hours. In her book “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places” is her 1988 essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” which explores the rewarding and difficult experience motherhood is for a woman artist.

“The artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbration has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility to both her art and her dependent children with no ‘tireless affection’ or tired affection to call on, has taken on a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible. But that isn’t how the problem is posed — as a recognition of immense practical difficulty. If it were, practical solutions would be proposed, beginning with childcare. Instead, the issue is stated, even now, as a moral one, as ought or ought not,” Le Guin wrote.

It’s easy for me to be preoccupied by the small, technical issues of my work, things that will not matter at the end of the day, like whether I shall write with a pencil or pen, or if this desk promotes bad posture and causes carpal tunnel syndrome. Perhaps both, because as I write the last sentence I note that my back is curved so belly meets breast bone, and my wrists ache. I straighten my spine, rotate my wrists.

Continue, I say to myself.

About what? I ask.

For whom? I ask.

For you, I answer.

But you will not read this, no one will read this ever. Typed into a program that no one can read because of a password that I cannot remember, it is protected. Disappeared off the computer the second I disconnect from the internet, it is lost. Sentences protected and lost. This is my life, protected and lost.

It’s taken me all morning to get to this point. To open the screen and begin filling a blank page with new sentences. First I copied old sentences, written maybe six years ago, and then rewritten and published, then copied again and rewritten into a longer story that was not published but critiqued by a class, and just now copied a fourth time into this space with the intention of rewriting it. Again. Words so dramatic and dull they desperately needed to be deleted, so I did. I deleted the words, some five hundred words, and started with zero, an honest number, reflective of my ideas at this moment and my energy level, since, remember, I’m also catching a cold.

You asked about now, me, this morning’s state of mind, and why it’s been so long since I’ve sat at my cramped desk and written sentences whose only physical manifestation will sit in my muscles as cramped shoulder and aching wrist. But let me continue because pain is a sum gain over emptiness, especially pain which I can use to justify my irritability with others, with my children, with Marcel, but really with myself, though no one will know it, not even me after I close the computer and forget the words.

“There is less censure now, and more support, for a woman who both wants to bring up a family and work as an artist,” Le Guin wrote. “But it’s a small degree of improvement. The difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”

The morning began after I returned from biking Ivan to school. It began with a third cup of coffee and a cream truffle, and then time spent in bed sleeping, and then time spent in a hot bath with the last slice of cold pizza whose red grease smeared the two pages I’d printed of the aforementioned story that I tried to resurrect, but couldn’t. It was no Lazarus and I am no savior. I’m not serious about reviving the story, but I’m going to try to save myself from this cold by taking handfuls of vitamin C and a shot of fire cider, which leaves the taste of onion on my tongue and sends me searching for a second truffle and the cup of coffee, now cold. I wash the onion away and replace it with a taste I prefer, bitterness and black grit at the bottom of a cup.

Where was I? Somehow, after being in and out of bed two times, after feet were warmed in a bath, and hot water eased the knots in my right shoulder, after I dressed for a second time noting that the day was half gone, I began this. Is it story? No. There is no beginning, no ending, only a bit from the middle, the soft core gone lax, muscles cut by childbirth and atrophied from inattention, so that the spine can’t hold itself erect but curves into a defeated and deflated navel-gazing letter C. Could it be a story? Only if my life, protected and solitary, soft with silence, is a story. Which, again, it isn’t because story is an artifice, a fake form imposed on the bits and pieces of life that included sneezing and wetting one’s underwear and choosing not to change it but to let it dry, knowing that the rest of the day I would trail the slight scent of urine, which none but a stray dog would detect as we waited together in the school yard for the bell to ring, and it would wag its tail in friendship anyway.

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10 responses to “For Chez Danisse, an update”

  1. amanda says:

    Rachael, I felt the same way whilst reading AFTER THE SOUR LEMON MOON—loved her, was repulsed by her, then ultimately inspired to figure out how I can be a better parent AND writer. And Parson’s writing was brilliant yet spare. I loved reading your thoughts on the book and your own struggles. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m sure I am not entitled to these thoughts of mine, not with my luck in life, yet still, they exist. There is a heaviness in having reached my age, an age where my ability to make certain choices have passed, and know I have chosen childlessness. It is done. Is it freedom? Is it pure selfishness? Is it handcuffs? Will it soon lead to regret? Is it a gift I have given myself, or is it a result of the disconnection between my mother and myself, the result manifesting itself in my fear to take on a role she was not able to manage with me? These are all questions I ask myself. And the climbing back into bed and the aimlessness and the searching and the cold coffee, it all finds its way into a childless writer’s life. As I enter this third day of a strange tiredness I find myself unable to shake, read your words, and sit here hunched over this coffee table typing, knowing I have not found my Ursula K. Le Guin, and crying for so many reasons they are simply a blur, I try to believe there is something here for both of us, some sort of seed you have planted that we will both tend and see grow into something gratifying.

  3. Andrea says:

    Oh, Rachel. This really hits a nerve. Nerves. The flailing and the wanting to sink. But not wanting to, really. But still flailing. Wanting a mentor. Bladder control. Wasting precious, precious time. I have to admit, I envy you your five quiet hours. But I am plenty good at squandering my precious few moments of quiet. I could probably also demolish whole days with time-wasting nothingness. Wish I had some words of wisdom, a path to point toward, but if I knew where the path was, I’d be too busy racing down it myself. Only that your words are lovely. Always, your writing is so tender and insightful and careful. Every word feels lovingly placed. I know one blog comment is not enough scaffolding on which to build the confidence to write, but I hope it can count for something. Stretch your shoulders and your wrists, and write, write, write.

  4. I think it’s wonderful, Denise, how we can make different choices, you and I, and still our lives touch. Threads of interest tangle into a small knot, a connection that we tug and discover is strong, true. Thank you.

    Andrea, I like that we are rungs in one another’s ladders.

    Amanda, I think “After the Sour Lemon Moon” is about being true to the self. Ultimately, I don’t know if the mother succeeds. I share her taste for freedom, but not her method: running away. I want to believe that I can be the best mother for my children by being the best writer I can be.

  5. Dad says:

    Hi there Rachael,
    Finally getting back. This is great stuff. Only an accomplished writer is able to publish the humanness of us all as well as you are now doing. Quite sophisticated material yet so personal with its revealed vulnerablilities, long suffering goals and strengths for all of us to see and, yes, feel.
    Super!

  6. Sarah says:

    Rachael, I’ve been thinking about this post so much — all through yoga after I’d just read it, over the weekend, in bed last night. I know that feeling of pressure, that sense of ‘if not now, then when?’. I think back to my early 20s when I worked a part-time job so that I’d have time to write & all I can remember is afternoon after wasted afternoon. There was a lot of making coffee. A lot of going back to bed. A lot of wandering round the museums of London so that I wouldn’t have to go home & write. Anyway, from now — a place with three children & very little time — I can already see the pressure of the near future when my youngest will be at pre-school or school & I’ll have a small block of time each day. But still, I think you need to be gentler with yourself. To remember that you need space to dream & think & just let your thoughts roam — the kind of head-space that you just don’t have when you’re with kids. Walk, garden, stand in the shower — whatever — but take yourself away from the page for a while. Play with the words in your mind until something calls you back to your desk. Keep going, give yourself space & time; give yourself the support that you’d give to your kids. You’ve shown here how beautifully you write — how your words can reach out & touch people. Keep going!

  7. Nib's End says:

    That curving of the back where belly meets breastbone is the cupping of light, of the candle flame of passion. It happens to me when I am most consumed.

    And some of the sentences are not lost; they have simply wandered beyond your reach. Some of them have crossed a continent and found me here sitting curved over my computer with my wrists resting on the edge of the table. And they have breathed a bellows-breath over my own flickering flame.

    Your writing is beautiful. Truly.

  8. To all who have written here or emailed me, to friends long held, new and unknown but friends all the same, I say thank you.

    To Nib’s End, I am honored.

    To Sarah, your words of encouragement and advice are taken to heart.

    And finally, to my dad, thank you for reading.

  9. Nicole says:

    Hi Rachel

    You’re brave (much braver than I)! You write so honestly and well, with words raw and real they hew out art from life.

    I think as mothers especially, we’re expected to do magical things with time. Split it a million different ways which is unrealistic. Yet we all do it and in the process somewhere selfishness entwines art like some kind of poison ivy. Then creativity becomes a life or death struggle.

    I have two beautiful girls, a four-year-old and a nearly four-month-old. I also am trying to be a writer (I have the rejection-letters to prove that!) Time doesn’t belong to me: as I was typing this, I was also ignoring the little one crying. Then I picked her up and attached her to my breast and carried on typing with one finger. It’s taken twice, maybe three times longer than it should have to write this comment. That’s my life at the moment.

    You’re post was very real, very inspiring. Thank you! And whatever you do, keep writing!

  10. Oh Nicole, I remember those earlier days of nursing while typing, phone at my ear as I interviewed someone for a freelance article. I chuckle cringe, and serve up a silent prayer for a moment now past.

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