My Summer Vacation

Dear Writing Friends,

I am sitting in my air-conditioned office on the white couch where I like to write. I’ve got less than an hour to get something done. Shira and Steve are home making t-shirt transfers from Shira’s drawings—until 10:00, when I revert back to the Mommy Pumpkin.  I’ve spent more time than not as the Mommy Pumpkin this summer.

My daughter’s school – which I adore and feel privileged to send her to – takes summer vacation the old-fashioned way, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That’s three weeks longer than our local school district. And while I’ve managed to find her camps to keep her well stimulated, there have been many weeks with unstructured days and little direction. Frankly, I thought we’d spend those days the way we spent our weekend mornings last spring—sitting at a bookstore or a coffee shop, reading and writing. I love this time because we can be together and I can still get some work done. But Shira’s creativity kicked into high gear this summer and mostly she’s wanted to stay home and make things – t-shirts, layer cakes, songs. I’m more of a studio assistant than a free agent.

I remember walking at Town Lake several years before I had Shira when a thought flashed through my mind that changed the course of my life. I had recently discovered Writing Down the Bones, which I picked up to help me through my dissertation. But when I sat down at my kitchen table and set the oven timer for ten minutes, I discovered whole worlds inside myself that had nothing to do with academe. I wanted to write and I wanted to be mom. Watching a family of geese take off over the water, I thought how beautifully these two things – motherhood and writing – would go together.

Flash forward. I’m sitting in a rocking chair in my darkened bedroom while my infant daughter sleeps. I’m sitting as close as I can to the window where I have the blinds cracked opened just enough to see the words on the page I am reading. Shira only sleeps for twenty minutes at a time and then I have to nurse her back down, so I have to remain in the room. And what am I reading?  A Question of Balance, Artists and Writers on Motherhood, by Judith Pierce Rosenberg, and Sleeping with One Eye Open, Women Writers and the Art of Survival, edited by Marilyn Kallet, and Judith Ortiz Cofer. In these interviews and essays, women share their experience and offer advice from the trenches. One mother writes about the wonderful nanny she hired, happily returning to her studio just a few weeks after her baby was born—not an option I was willing to consider given how long I had waited for this baby. Many mothers recommend waking an hour before your little one in order to write during the peaceful hours before dawn. Seeing as my daughter woke at least five times in the night and was up and at ‘em for good by 5:00 a.m., that wasn’t ever going to be an option for me. But I wasn’t necessarily looking for the perfect solution, merely for solace and the hope that it could be done. The book that scared the crap out of me was, Silences, by Tillie Olson, which pointed to the gaps in literature where women and working people disappeared into labor that rendered them too depleted to set words on paper. I loved Olson’s short stories, but I hated her book. I didn’t want to believe I had to sacrifice my dream of writing for motherhood, and fought with everything I had to make it not be so.

When Shira was four months old, I hired a nanny three hours day, trudging to a café or bookstore with notebook in hand—although I was often wracked with guilt or so tired I’d spend my time pouring over a mountain of books on getting your baby to sleep instead of writing. By the time Shira was a toddler, she napped for more solid blocks of time. I’d often doze with her for twenty minutes and then tiptoe to the kitchen to make tea and write. There’s a hush over a house with a sleeping baby that’s perfect for writing. I also learned to write in short spurts, grabbing five minutes on a park bench, or my all time favorite, propping my notebook against the shopping cart while waiting in line at the grocery store. I never gave up, although my determination didn’t always serve me. I would exhaust myself to the point of complete uselessness before I threw in the towel and did something to restore myself. I often sacrifice self-care for writing—to my detriment.

I’d like to say that having a child hasn’t slowed down my writing, but that would be bullshit. I’ve lost countless writing hours sitting on the floor pretending to have tea parties, standing behind a swing set, planning birthday parties, supervising play dates, making salt dough, decorating cupcakes, building Lego castles, and so forth and so on. Not to mention, Shira is still not much of a sleeper, and because of her current bout with anxiety, she needs as much attention as a toddler. Which brings me back to summer vacation.

Despite the erratic and unreliable schedule, I somehow I managed to squeeze out a chapter of my book this summer. It was less than I hoped to accomplish – I won’t divulge my high faulting, overblown plans for the season – but it’s something. I also made a stab at an essay I’ve been thinking about for some time. It’s a mess, but it’s a beginning. And I whipped up a new essay, which came unexpectedly after a strange incident on an airplane. That was the gift of the summer. There were so many interruptions - a trip to California, a visit to Sea World, an incident of anaphylactic shock, plus a very disturbing series of phone calls with a major creep – I have plenty to write about. It doesn’t do anything to move my book forward, although it gives me writing juice—and I’ll take it.

When Shira was about seven months old, Tillie Olson came to Texas. I signed up for a program with her at Gemini Ink in San Antonio, dragging Shira, Steve, and the family dog to a nearby hotel so I could nurse between sessions. In the morning Tillie met with individual writers and commented on our work, which was thrilling. She told me I was a real writer, that she loved my characters, and that she would help me publish the story she had read. She also kissed me on the cheek and took a picture with me. But it was a remark she made in the afternoon seminar that made the biggest impression on me. We were sitting around a table with Tillie at the head, white haired and drifting in and out of lucidity, when someone asked whether it was detrimental for a woman writer to have children—at which point she became clear as the sun. “Children take time away from our writing,” she said. “No doubt. But they give us a life to draw from.” It’s true, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my daughter, including essays that I’ve been paid for. But I don’t think that was her point. It’s the challenge of raising children –the struggles, the stress, and the grief – that brings us face to face with our own humanity. Children crack us open, help us see the world, not only through their sense of wonder, but as I have witnessed in recent months, through their own struggles and pain. This is the ground of compassion that is necessary to write true and clear about our crazy, broken world.

Recently I wrote to Natalie and told her how hard things were at home. This was her response: “Life is hard. The important thing is to take it on and be there with it.”  You show up for your life, you live it—and then you write about it.

Writing Topic: My Summer Vacation

This month’s quotation:

Do what you can at the time of your life that you can. Make out of those limitations, out of those scraps, whatever art you can, never losing your ambition, never losing your aspiration, don’t blind yourself to what you really can do.

Tillie Olson, from Silences

Monday Night Practice Group – Fall Session

Using the structure of Sit/Walk/Write as I learned it from Natalie Goldberg, my intentions for practice group are as follows: 1) to hold a space for practice, something to hold us up over time, 2) to create a structure that will carry us into the week, and 3) to create a community around meditation and practice, a time to gather and connect.

Dates: Monday nights, September 19 and 26, October 3, 10, 17, 24

Time: 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.

Location: Congregation Beth Israel Chapel (3901 Shoal Creek)

Cost: $100

I have a few spots open for coaching this fall. Let me know if you’re interested. More information, check my website: www.inprocesswriting.com.

My best to each of you.


(C) 2011 Saundra Goldman