Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Claiming Pieces of the Whole

Every Tuesday morning, Cedar and I jump in the car and drive to our PEPS meeting. PEPS is a non-profit here in Seattle that matches new mothers with other new moms who live near their neighborhood. The meetings are facilitated by an experienced mom who gets the discussions going, and for twelve weeks, we take turns hosting the two-hour meetings in our living rooms. We start by checking in and sharing the highs and lows of our week, and then we delve in and discuss the chosen topic, be it sleep or breastfeeding or going back to work and childcare. All the while, we hold and bounce and feed and rock our babies, and slowly learn to trust each other and share that much more.
Last week the topic was “Looking Good, Feeling Good” or, in other words, taking care of ourselves, our health, and our needs. Megan, our facilitator, had us do an exercise where we drew on paper plates. First, we divided one plate into segments of how our time is currently spent. “I’m sorry, what were the other choices besides parenting?” one member asked in complete seriousness, because she hadn’t heard the examples Megan had given. The irony was not missed. What else do we do now besides parenting? How can there be any part of our life now that is separate from the incessant attention, worry, and love that we now direct towards our babies? Is there ever a moment, even when I am alone, writing, that I am not aware of my child and my role as mother-- even if my awareness might be of the fact that I am currently “escaping” this role, taking a breath and rejuvenating so I can go home and give of myself anew?

Not surprisingly, a quick glance at my neighbor’s plate revealed that for her too and probably for all of us, the “parenting” piece of the pie took over the majority—at least two-thirds. On mine, there were other categories like “outings with Cedar” or “walks with Cedar” or “visits with mom and dad,” which, in truth, all could have been included in the parenting category. The largest other category I had was “chores,” which often are hurriedly done while Cedar naps or with him strapped to my body in a carrier, so this can’t really be separated from parenting either. Then came a smaller slice of the pie for “zoning” which I define to mean things like television, drinking wine, listening to music, and checking Facebook—my main activities when I am exhausted at the end of the night-- and on second thought, I made this category a little bigger. “Relationship with Matthew” got a smaller sliver, since he is traveling for work four days a week, and when he’s here we barely get to spend any time together alone. And even smaller slices were delegated to writing, reading, and yard work. 

Yikes. But none of this was surprising. The next step in the exercise was to draw on another plate how we would ideally like our time to be divided. With only a tiny sense of guilt, my parenting category became much smaller, and now took up only a third of my pie; on top of that, I no longer named it “parenting,” but instead called it “Cedar.” This wasn’t a conscious decision to rename it, but it seems fitting in the sense that if I were able to have more time in my life for other activities, then I would not end up looking at “parenting” as this overarching, all-consuming entity, but rather, special individual time that I get to have with my baby. Also, not surprisingly, “writing” got a much bigger piece of the pie, as did a new category called “yoga/exercise,” and another called “Matthew/intimacy.” “Friends and family” also got a bigger piece, “chores/yard” still had a decent-sized chunk (since some things must get done no matter what), and, lo and behold, a new category appeared called “editing/publishing/classes,” or, in other words, my former writing-related “career” which I currently have no time for; if I have any extra time, I’m going to write, not worry about teaching or publishing, for writing is my lifeline. “Zoning” disappeared from the pie altogether, even though I know that this is a lie and I still need my zoning time; but what its omission reflected, rather, was its lack of relative value.  

I left these plates on the dining room table, and later that week Matthew told me he snuck a peek. “It’s good to see that I got as much of the pie as exercise/yoga,” he said with a grin. He was joking, but I still felt obliged to explain to him how the I did this exercise quickly, balancing a baby on one knee with one hand, writing with the other, without time to think about it or be precise, and how my relationship with him was also included within other categories, such as, well, parenting and chores. The “Matthew/intimacy” category referred to intentional, one-on-one time that we get to have together, doing things like going out to dinner, or cuddling in bed. Considering that we’ve had a whole two date nights since Cedar was born, and that on the nights that Matthew is actually home we mostly go to sleep exhausted with a baby lying in between us, I thought I was already giving us a pretty idealistic chunk. But still, being able to see visually how my time is divided helped to put things in perspective. Any way you look at it, we are not getting enough time together-- especially time where we can step outside of our demanding new role as parents. 

What can we do about it? Not a whole lot, it seems, with the exception of learning to make the most out of the time we do have, and taking care to be present with each other, to be loving, compassionate, and aware. Maybe eventually we can enlist more childcare and build in more rituals together so that our “relationship/intimacy” category does not completely disappear some weeks before we’ve even had a chance to realize it. But for now, I think we are doing the best we can. 

I have also been learning, week by week, how much time I need to write, to do yoga, and to otherwise feed myself. And I have been learning that I need to ask for it, and we need to plan for it, put it on the mental calendar, or else it won’t happen. We talked about this at PEPS last week—how we, as mothers, need to plan and ask for the “me time” that we need. Otherwise, if we are just hanging out at home on the weekends or in the evenings with our partners and babes, the mother always ends up being the default caregiver. Sure, it may be “easier” for us to comfort our babies because we spend more time with our child each day, and because we possess the magic boob, but that doesn’t make the cumulative effect of nonstop childcare any less exhausting. 

It was comforting to see how universal were many of the things we were all struggling with as new moms, and each of us made a commitment to plan and ask for more of what we needed. For me, I committed to asking for time on the weekends to write and to do yoga, not just one or the other which is all I can usually get away with in my one designated break. But it is also important to me that Matthew and I have more intimacy and time together. I can’t pick just one thing. It’s all important, and I want it all. 

So far, my asking seems to be paying off; I am progressively getting more time to myself, even if it still doesn’t feel like enough. But as long as Matthew and I keep our lines of communication open, and keep talking and acknowledging that parenting is a fluid, ever-changing endeavor, I think things will only get better and we’ll be able to find a more sustainable rhythm that works for both of us. 

For example, this weekend Matthew is watching Cedar both mornings (which is doubly helpful because we still need to get Cedar more used to the bottle). And then, when I come home, I feel refreshed, with newfound delight at holding my baby again, and with more energy at the end of the night to do anything with Matthew besides mutually “zone out” on our respective computers. It’s an ever-looping cycle, and it is so important that we, as moms who never get to fully leave the parenting role behind (it’s how we’re wired), get that “me time,” whether that means exercise or time with friends or writing or getting a pedicure-- whatever that means to each of us, however we have learned to feel good and rejuvenate—we need to honor it, and to ask for it. To know that asking is not a sign of selfishness, weakness, or greed, but rather the opposite. Our happiness affects our child’s and partner’s happiness in a direct correlation that isn’t that hard to trace. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Owl Cottage

Not long before Cedar was born, I went on a writing residency for three weeks at Hedgebrook. Located on Whidbey Island, Hedgebrook is a paradise for women writers. Seven of us were each given our own cottage in the woods, complete with a large desk, comfy window seat, woodstove, sleeping loft, bathroom, and kitchenette. So much attention to detail is built into these cottages, from the stained-glass flowered window in the loft, to the wooden pegs used to hold together beams, to the owl carved into my wall. The cottages are spaced apart so that when you look out of your windows at night, you can see the light of at least one other cottage as a reminder of the community of women you are working within. At the same time, there is a sense of complete privacy as you go about your day. You are free to be alone and do what you want—and, naturally, I wanted to write. 

I’d wanted to go to Hedgebrook ever since I’d first applied back in 2000. Hedgebrook welcomes emerging and established writers, and has grown more and more competitive over time. I waited almost ten years-- gaining more faith in my voice and vision, honing my craft, and waiting for what felt like an ideal time in my life-- before I finally applied again, and to my delight, was accepted. 

When I applied last September, I was pregnant and due in late March. You can apply to stay for one to six weeks, anytime between February and November. So that left the month of February for a potential residency, which felt like it might be cutting it a little close to my due date. But who knew when I’d next have a chance to get away on my own for weeks at a time? And who knew how much writing I would manage to do as a new mom? Probably not very much. This could be my last chance to make a huge push on my newest writing project. And if I could take big strides with this project, then hopefully I’d be inspired to keep going once my son was born, in ways that I might not otherwise feel motivated. 
In my application, I said I would work on my project about a couple, Els and Frank, whom I grew up next door to, and how when Frank died, he left me their home, along with decades worth of their letters, journals, slides, and artifacts from their lives. I wanted to delve far enough into this project that I would have a stronger sense of what it was about-- beneath the surface, what underlying questions was I exploring, and what structure the story would inhabit.  I hoped to make enough progress on it that by the time my three weeks at Hedgebrook were up, I would not be able to abandon it, and I might be able to even call it a book.

I arrived on a Friday afternoon and was kindly shown around the fifty-some acres of fields, wetlands, gardens, woods, cottages, and other buildings. I looked forward to enjoying the bathhouse with its radiant heating, hand-painted tiles, private shower rooms, and old claw foot tub. The farmhouse was where us seven women would convene each night to be served a delicious meal prepared by a gracious chef, sitting around one table to listen to stories from each other’s lives. Our homes spanned from Cortez Island, B.C. to San Francisco; from Santa Cruz to rural Idaho; from San Antonio to L.A. We ranged in age from our late twenties to our sixties. We wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, spoken word, essays, and more. We were working on projects about Palestinians and their land, about growing up sixteen in Berkeley, about interracial marriage, about illness, about gangs in Texas who break out in song (a Mexican-American adaptation of Carmen), and then some. 
Most nights, after dinner, we’d retire to our cottages to continue writing, or to do whatever we chose to do. First, though, we’d pack our wicker basket full of homemade granola, fruit, eggs, coffee, cookies, dinner leftovers, jars of milk, and plastic containers filled with gourmet soups, sandwiches, quiches, and salads—breakfast and lunch for the next day. Everything was provided for us, and the farmhouse was always open for us to grab a few more cookies from the jar or check out the library filled with the works of alumni. I’d heard that some groups at Hedgebrook gathered after dinner for readings or critique sessions almost every night, and others didn’t. Ours opted to write at night more often than we’d socialize, but as the days went on, some would linger to chat or watch a movie in the cozy, pillow-laden living room of the farmhouse. A couple nights we also read to each other from our work to share more of ourselves, but not so much to seek a critique.

I was eight months pregnant and pretty tired by the time we were done with dinner each night, so most evenings I retired early to my cottage where I’d lie in bed, listen to music, and read old letters between Els and Frank. I felt the pressure of my impending due date and how much I hoped to accomplish in the three weeks I had at Hedgebrook. I knew my main purpose there was not to make new friends, as wonderful as the women were around me. 
Instead, I sank deep into my writing in a way that I hadn’t for years. I kept odd hours, sometimes sleeping in if I’d gone to bed late or gotten a poor night’s sleep, and other morning’s waking early, even before the first light. I rarely did this at home, and I loved the quiet concentration of those early morning hours, settling right into my work with a cup of tea at my side. Some mornings I heard the bard owls calling to each other from the limbs of the firs and cedars that surrounded, and one morning I looked up to find one staring at me through the window. This felt especially fitting, since I was staying in “Owl Cottage,” though I was not the only one to whom the owls paid a visit. One night an owl swooped down and picked the black hooded scarf off of my fellow resident Tamar’s head. Amalia got out her broom and started yelling at the owl up in the tree to give it back, which it eventually did. After that night, we took more care to be aware of our surroundings during those hunting hours of dusk, as we set out down the path with our empty baskets towards the farmhouse for dinner.

What a gift to be freed from all responsibilities-- cooking, cleaning, phone calls, and emails for three weeks. What spaciousness begins to open, a different kind of relationship to the unfolding passage of a day. Most days, I’d work for three or four hours, then read over what I’d written as I ate lunch, then go on a walk down to the wetlands of Deer Lagoon and the beach at Useless Bay. If it was raining and I didn’t feel like venturing far, I briefly wandered the wooded trails behind my cottage, inhaling the damp moss and spring’s first shades of green, before returning to stoke the coals in the woodstove which kept my cottage warm. Then, I’d make another cup of tea and work for a few more hours until the dinner hour of five rolled around, for which I was always hungry. I liked how an early dinner hour allowed for enough time afterwards to still put in a good night of work. 

Before Hedgebrook, even though I had plenty more time, I was happy if I put in a few hours of writing a day. Chores, cooking, shopping, research, emails, phone calls, job searches, publishing quests, and the ways in which so many things at home can distract and clutter the mind ate up so much my time. Now, with the exception of the couple hours of chatting over dinner and a nightly call to my husband, my entire day was devoted to the muse. Thankfully, too, there was no internet in the cottages; you had to go to the main farmhouse or to the “pumphouse” to check your email, and they discouraged you from doing this too often. While at Hedgebrook, I only checked my email about once a week, and weaned myself completely from Facebook; I had no problem staying away. I felt myself eager to drop away from all the mental chatter that goes along with maintaining an online presence. My days felt long and full.

Three weeks passed quickly, and within this time I gained the confidence and vision to begin referring to my project as a book, receiving a wellspring of enthusiasm and support from the others for its potential. I churned out pages of new material, carefully edited and combed through old drafts, and slowly, a structure began to emerge. I was so thankful that I had decided to stay the full three weeks I was offered, instead of only staying two which I’d considered. But Hedgebrook turned out to be a perfect place to spend this last stage of my pregnancy. I ate incredibly well and felt so nourished by the food, by the women, by the extra wood stacked on my porch, the extra protein loaded into my basket, by the land, and by the understanding, respect, and care lavished on us as women writers. 

Never before did I feel so honored as a writer, so validated and understood. I’ve considered myself a writer and committed myself to this process and craft for fifteen years now, and yet, because I lack impressive publications, not to mention a book deal, I often still feel like I haven’t yet “arrived” at the level of “writerhood” that I aspire to. At Hedgebrook, however, I knew I had arrived. I knew that my application had been selected out of hundreds of talented women, that I deserved to be there, and that this was my time. My time to write, my time to trust, to celebrate and to flourish. The universe was giving me a clear message, a gift to inspire and counter all of the doubt and rejections I had otherwise plowed through to stay true to this path of writing. The universe had also given these other six women this gift, and together we could understand on some level all that it had taken for us to get here, without even having to share the intimacies of our story.
On my last morning at Hedgebrook I finally wrote in the journal in Owl Cottage. There were already ten or so journals on the shelf, filled with long rambling entries of those who had been there since the early nineties, when Owl Cottage was built. I’d read through almost all of them during my stay, filled as they were with interesting rants and revelations; with city girls who’d conquered their fear of the woods; with women who had bonded like sisters; and with others who felt misunderstood, left out, or resentful. For most of us, Hedgebrook had been an oasis of creativity and retreat, but there were also those for whom it did not live up to their expectations.

Fortunately, I had nothing but a positive experience at Hedgebrook. Yes, this was my time. Pregnant, on the cusp of motherhood and a whole new way of life. Welcoming these changes, at the same time that I reaffirmed my commitment to writing and to my beloved rhythms of solitary retreat. 
Tucked away in the letters between Els and Frank that I’d brought along to read, I’d found a couple postcards with my cabin’s namesake: the owl. Throughout my stay, I’d gazed at these owls, perched on the windowsill above my desk, the only adornment against the otherwise pleasingly empty walls. Now, on my last morning at Hedgebrook, before diving into the undoing process of packing and cleaning and goodbyes, I glued them into the journal. It felt right to leave them behind rather than to take them with me back to Seattle where they’d soon be forgotten again, tucked within the pages of some book. Then, with smooth flowing black ink, I took a breath and left my mark amidst the others, giving thanks to everything that had brought me here, and welcoming the next woman who would arrive.


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