In the halcyon days of my early twenties, my boyfriend and I lived for a summer in a tipi in a field of wild blueberries. Vermont nights can be cold, especially in June, and we snuggled on our mattress, surrounded by a gold cast-off carpet spread over those berries, and imagined our future: he as a carpenter and I as a writer.
Early one morning while we slept, a woman called outside those canvas walls, “Help!” She and her young daughter lived in a rented room down the road. Her car hadn’t started that morning. She was desperate to get to work. My boyfriend pulled on his jeans and t-shirt, drove her down the road in our Rabbit, and jumped her car.
That evening, she stopped by and thanked him. “Women sometimes get themselves stuck in hard places.”
Tough with brash youth, my tight little heart refused to squeeze out a drop of empathy. After she left, I huffed, “I will never get stuck.”
Years after that tipi summer, I lived on a Vermont back road. The father of our young daughters and I had reached that frigid precipice of mutual contempt and bickering. With both girls in school, he vowed to take early retirement and dig a pond. We had no wealth. I envisioned a harried future of working days for me, returning to a kitchen sink crammed with dishes, floors strewn with crumbs and dirty footprints, the silverware drawer stinky with mouse droppings. Plus, he had tangled with the law by driving without a license or registration, egged on by his new-found ex-felon friend. A contempt of court charge and a bench warrant for his arrest muddied matters. I didn’t need to be a genius, just a grownup, to see the girls and I were better off going it alone.
Perhaps as a kind of karmic comeuppance, I was way more broke beyond a car that wouldn’t start. My income was our sugaring business, which collapsed with our marriage. The roof leaked in the house where I lived with our children. A brilliant orange fungus erupted in my youngest’s bedroom ceiling. In windstorms, panes slipped out of the rotten wooden window frames and broke. Crying and driving one distraught afternoon, I crashed my tiny Toyota. I disconnected the phone, left my youngest alone for hours while I worked, gleaned potatoes from farm fields.
I was stuck.
In addition to my dismal economics, my life’s parameters included two weepy girls (one a furious teen) who mourned their father’s absence.
Simultaneously, as my marriage carapace crumbled, my own interior life awoke. Tillie Olsen wrote in Silences about the daily drudgery women have endured for centuries. (Childbirth was termed “confinement.”) Wryly, this mother of four noted the opening line of her first publishable work began, “I stand here ironing…”
I don’t own an iron, but that domestic line resonates painfully. While my husband was building houses for admiring homeowners, I gasped beneath mounds of laundry and requests for Popsicles.
While I blamed the crash of our marriage on his mental instability, an underlying truth is that I knew I could not write and remain his wife. I had made my choices, too. My writing passion had long since been subsumed by diapers and the crusty oatmeal pot and the necessity of selling maple syrup, converting sap and sugar into mortgage payments and gasoline and the innumerable things demanding money: property taxes and cooking oil and children’s socks. Now I see that void devoured much of my soul, too. Always at the beck of daughters’ or husband’s or employer’s needs, I had unwittingly traded my own virile need for the space to live fully — read, eat, sleep: the fodder of imagination.
I was going to feed my young daughters by any means possible, always, but I no longer believed that was enough. I wanted my daughters to know motherhood need not destroy the mother.
As I plotted an escape route out of my marriage (a steady paycheck, a house he couldn’t enter at his whim) I published my first book, Hidden View. I had written the novel during a decade of precious naptimes or hunkered in my car while waiting for school dismissal. In her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett describes her divorce in her essay “The Getaway Car.” Her mother cheered her as Patchett wrote her first novel and created the life she wanted. In my lonely nights fleeing the thin shelter of marriage, I became my sole cheerleader. I determined to pursue my passion not just for myself, but for my daughters, too. I had to demonstrate that an authentic life — my creative life — mattered.
I am the sole potato and rent earner. I know categorically now what I should have known years ago: writing defines my relationship with the world. Without wealth — as most of us are — a creative life is a dicey proposition. Our capitalist world rewards bankers and investors. But from the get-go I should have demanded my own space. In the end, I claimed that for myself.
As mothers, our own authentic lives should not be the sticky-sweet airy stuff of dreams. Whatever your circumstances — holed up beneath a bridge or taking a Bahamas cruise — you are on your own soulful journey, whether you see it or not. John Cheever famously wrote that writing fiction is not a competitive sport. Nor, I’ll add, is living your life. Write the book you need to write.