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Farm to Tablet: On Taking up Space

Summer has hit full force now, and everything is wild with it. The plants, the pests, the turkey poults, who keep breaking free despite our creative caging attempts. I rise when the first hint of light starts slipping between the curtains, and I tend to the garden and animals before it gets too hot—filling buckets, scattering grain, scratching eggs off the undersides of leaves, watering the bare garden rows I've reseeded. When the kids wake I start them off on that day's tasks—chores, a bit of schoolwork, music practice. I throw in some laundry, empty the dishwasher, prep dinner, answer mail, schedule an appointment, start a grocery list, examine a limping chicken. I explain a math solution, demonstrate a piano rhythm, treat a scraped knee, answer a hundred random questions. And at some point during the day, I slip away to write.

To lay my eggs in secret places

Sometimes I take the kids to the house of a friend who is also trying to work several hours a day with young ones underfoot. Our children parade from room to room while Sarah and I burrow down into our respective worlds. Occasionally one child or another will approach me and announce something nebulous.

“I made this bracelet out of rubber bands.”

Or, “I'm going to go outside.”

Or, “I have a mosquito bite on my buttcheek.”

I'll respond by staring at them blankly for a moment while my mind resurfaces. “Huh,” I'll finally say, or, “Sounds like a plan,” or, “Yikes.” If the child seems particularly determined to begin a conversation, I'll say, “I love talking to you, but right now I need to get some work done. Let's talk later, when I can really listen.”

Normally, prioritizing work over people awakens my guilt. I wait for my inner critic to boomerang back, as it does on such occasions, whispering, It's not really work, and you don't really have to do it, in the voice that grew much louder after my kids were born. I'm fairly certain it targets all artists, but especially women when they take time for something that is not expressly in the service of their family members, or, if not that, then at least in the service of some profitable outcome.

Profitable outcomes

For well over a decade now I have treated writing like the job that it is. I have had to treat it like a job because I learned long ago that if I wait for inspiration to seize me, I write once every two months, if that. I've met countless people who want to write as a matter of general interest. (It sounds so enticing, doesn't it? Scribbling up worlds while the dog dreams at your feet and your waiting coffee sends up wet ribbons of steam?) But I know of far fewer people – one, to be exact, maybe two – who purely and regularly want to write when the time for writing arrives, when they must drop all available distractions only to grapple with the bald horrors of their own ineptitude, and then with all of the bumbling, failed attempts that follow. (And yes, despite my many years of writing, this remains my process.)

For most of us, myself included, writing is a discipline, and a difficult one. Besides motherhood, it is the hardest job I've ever had. And yet I have needed so deeply to do it that I have chiseled it into my days with the will of Zeus. I have written while my children slept, either impossibly early or impossibly late. I've written in parks, on porches, in churches with playplaces, at McDonald's until the kids tired of the playhouse with its plastic slide.

And just last week at the barber shop

I have tried hard not to burden anyone else with this work, but because it has required my time and attention, it has taken time and attention away from other pursuits—social justice concerns, a job that paid much more, a cleaner house, friendships, extra time with my kids and husband. And so all along my inner critic has accompanied me. There are much more pressing things you could do with these precious hours.

People have tried to talk me out of my guilt, and I have tried to argue myself out of it, too, mentally cycling through my standard arguments. Maybe eventually I will make money at this—there's only one way to find out. Maybe my work will increase the amount of empathy in the world. Maybe my attempts will teach my children determination and perseverance and sacrifice. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The top of my head has tossed these possibilities back-and-forth while all the rest of me bows under the weight—not only the weight of the work, but also the weight of guilt that has constantly attended it.


But lately, for whatever reason, my inner critic has finally fallen silent on this score. I'm not sure why. Partly it's because I finally have a book coming out in the world, but there's more to it than that. Maybe it's because I've fully arrived in my 40s and the welcome limitations of its landscape, where one accepts that one is necessarily fleeting and inconsequential and lucky as hell to be alive and doing what one wants. Maybe it's because I spend much more time now with plants and animals, all buzzing toward the purpose of their joy as aimless yet honed in as a honeybee. And maybe it's because I am finally beginning to believe what I have always tried to convince myself of—that my work requires no justification. I deserve to take up space with my writing, even if it benefits no one besides myself. I deserve to do the work I am driven to do, regardless of its reception. Not because I have worked so hard for so many years to find the time, not because it teaches my children a dedicated way of life, not even because my words might improve the world. But simply because I am alive and able and drawn to do it. Because I exist on my own, apart from anyone else, and because at my core I am still wildly myself, like the turkey poult, slipping off on her own to see what might happen.

Two peas in a pod
My debut novel is available for pre-order here,
and next month I'll be sending out dates for Out of Esau launch events!
So stay tuned, beloveds. And thank you!
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Writer · 14641 Waterloo Munith Rd · Grass Lake, MI 49240-9495 · USA

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