Painting Sunlight


I was reminded of a remark of Willa Cather’s, that you can’t paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall. If you examine a life, as Socrates has been so tediously advising us to do for so many centuries, do you really examine the life, or do you examine the shadows it casts on other’s lives? Entity or relationships? Objective reality or the vanishing point of a multiple perspective exercise? Prism or the rainbows it refracts? And what if you are the wall? What if you never cast a shadow or rainbow of your own, but have only caught those cast by others?” — from Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird

Seventeen years ago I was in Boulder sitting in my apartment, a converted dentist’s office above a deli across from the Fox Theater. None of my windows ever had screens in the west — you’d throw your windows open to the air rushing in — and I’d propped up something to keep the broken sash open. It was the kind of spring that can come in the Rockies with the blistering clarity of sunlight — and I was reading a collection of Stegner’s essays about land use in the west — which led me to a book by the man who I’d later study with. I didn’t know it then. I couldn’t really even breathe past my broken heart at that point — and I remember more than a few moments spent standing in my kitchen as the bars let out — watching the crowd — lit red with the neon of the theater’s sign, spilling raucously into the street, having come in from some bar on my own — I remember one morning in particular where I stumbled and broke a pottery coffee cup I’d loved and then fell hard on the shards –a scar I still have at the base of my left palm. I couldn’t seen then past the dissolution of what I thought was my only real love-match — a scene that even now pulls at my heart for the girl and boy in that studio apartment staging some play that neither one had lines for –we were similar in that way; we both yearned for a kind of easy domesticity to balance the fear we had in our hearts that we would never settle in, settle down. We were both children of upheaval trying to do it right. I thought about those moments on Aurora –down the street from the 24 hour restaurant where I worked the bar shift — pouring coffee for strippers and bouncers from North Boulder and obnoxious men, one of whom told me once I had good breeding teeth — and I’d walk home from that job at dawn with the semis barreling through on the highway and my boyfriend asleep on our futon on the floor — and I’d peel of my nylons and uniform stiff with the smell of cigarettes and maple syrup and I’d sit on the floor of our stand-up shower. Exhausted. I’d run through the legal hoops of emancipating myself from my mother as far as the University was concerned — worked for in-state tuition so I could afford to stay, both of us going to school, working, and living off our pooled money — from what little nest egg I had from my father’s insurance policy, and from the job he had delivering pizzas when the only time we would have together would be the time I sat in the front seat of his Volkswagen Golf, feet up on the dashboard, the glowing lights of the high-end stereo he’d put in — listening to REM as he ran into the big lit houses with their grand foyers and landscaping.

I taught myself to bake bread — and standing in my kitchen twenty years and hundreds of miles from that place I thought of the arduous task of stirring the dough as it came together, how the muscles in my arms would burn — or my numerous failed attempts at pie crusts. It’s second nature to me now, feeling that texture of the bread dough, earlobe-ready to rise, rolling out the pastry dough — guided by the various kitchen gadgetries that I’d never been able to afford, ones my mother’s kitchen certainly never had — how with a kitchen-aid mixer and a small food processor — those things nearly assemble themselves like magic.

Years ago an old friend emailed me. Just a few lines about the ten years that had passed since we’d last we spoke. “You always did want the white picket fence” he’d said.

He was right, but it took me fifteen years to realize it and still find myself prepared to apologize for it somehow.

I had no problem imagining myself an academic — and in high school I told everyone I was going to the east coast to study foreign relations (this was the end of the 80s) I took Russian. — I was voted most likely to become president. Surprised? More a reflection of my inability to hide my own personal politics than any kind of aptitude for office — I went to a Catholic high school — and on this day when I tuned into the radio to hear about the debate for the cannonization of Dorothy Day I’m reminded of what parts of my father’s cultural heritage I was most drawn to — and I think of it that way, a cultural identification — to be Irish Catholic, even in the quasi-bastard status that I held as the child of a second marriage to a Protestant. I got goosebumps in the bathroom as I listened to the radio while I was brushing my teeth, the scant few minutes I have in the day to pay attention to the world outside Z and her current fascination with horses, fairies, and all things animal-related — asking me at length to make various stuffed animals and playthings talk — and my day is consumed by lengthy conversations between Z and her animals — about me and whatever grievances she might have — while I provide the voice. Pay no attention to the woman behind the Folkmanis Bobcat puppet.

Anyway. In this season — as the mania begins to build that all seems to cycle around acquiring — I stood there remembering who I used to be — so grounded in my belief that I would follow in Day’s footsteps, and how far I am from that now. Sometimes I barely recognize this incarnation — this suburban housewife self. In an exchange with a friend from graduate school I’d said how strange it was when you no longer are connected to anyone who knew you at a certain point in life — how the image of who you were is no longer reflected back at you — and so, do you cease to be that person? I love the life I have and feel so absolutely grateful for it in all its mind-boggling minutiae that I am forever bad at — the organizing and culling, and tidying — like those animated lawn robots we saw in Europe that are just left to their own devices — guided with lasers and sensors — forever roaming the lawn to keep the overgrowth at bay — such are the requirements of the one whose primary duty is to keep the home — the steady tide of detritus — tangible and intangible — that falls to you to keep at bay. Keep the house in paper towels and counterspray, milk and eggs, shampoo — I love my life yet often wonder who I am beyond these walls, am I as I’ve ever been?

I started to listen to an NPR On Being program about Vulnerability — whose tag line is “Courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength” and I thought of my previous post — listened to the beginning of it –but turned it off — I got that hot-wired feeling in my chest that I do when I am too close to something — something I need to hear, to look at — the things that resonate the most — I feel as if I have a divining rod in me — that I know where it is I should be pointed — what it is I’m not addressing when I hastily turn away, turn things off, redirect myself from the booming voice of some Nobel laureate on the radio, or some man or woman I’ve met in some Montana house-party years ago when I had promise and they already had literary standing; I am nearly mute with self-recrimination when, for a moment, I allow myself to imagine where I might be had I taken a different turn, worked harder, as if it all were over — and that’s the most ridiculous part, I know, at forty to wash your hands of it — so you were going to bake bread, and make pies from scratch, and keep house, and raise children with love, and be a published novelist and put your words to work making a difference in someone’s life — how privileged I am to have the time and energy to think any of these things — so filled with guilt am I over that. I want nothing more than for my children to have a fulfilled and joyful life free from the kind of financial pressure that whittles your world to the slenderest of hopes — I would never begrudge them the stability of a life and tell myself to be gentler to myself. This stability is new found and I’m graced with a husband who has never doubted me, always been willing to support my work –whether mothering or writing. Sometimes I wonder if part of this guilt is having been raised by a single mother who was between Friedan and Steinem — she came into her own young adulthood in a world that still expected certain things of women and mothers — and she evolved right along with the times. I heard Barbara Boxer speaking on NPR about what it was like to be in the House in the 80s.

While she says she never felt slighted as a result of her gender in the Senate, she did feel that way in the House. One joke in particular has stuck with her.

“I was in a hearing. I was very new, and I made a strong statement, and one of my male colleagues said, ‘I want to associate myself with the congresswoman.’ Which is a formal way of saying it, but the way he said it was sort of a joke, and people laughed out there in the audience, and it was so humiliating,” she says.

She asked the chairman to delete the comment from the record, and then another colleague said he wanted to “associate” himself with her, too.

Those were the years of my young childhood — the late 70’s, the early 80’s when a working woman alone had to fight to be taken seriously.  I wonder if my mother looks at me and feels as if I have abandoned the cause, somehow — to retreat to a model so like her own mother’s — as if the women’s movement and Feminism, for which I’ve always been a champion, had skipped me completely.

 That was one of Brene Brown’s statements that I heard — that one of the voices in our heads constantly thunders “who do you think you are.” I often wish that I could, as the Buddhist article I read last night suggested, just release any kind of attachment to outcome. Sit for sitting’s sake.  Write for writing’s sake.  There is nowhere I get more tangled up in my head than when I wrangle with my own identity as a writer. I had an epiphany before I even left Montana that what I wanted from life wasn’t literary stardom — but rather, a family.  I remember well the teacher, a woman, who lamented that the men usually published first and “better”.  I’ve sung this song before — wondering how the women — wives and mothers have succeeded at it when I fall into bed at nine o’clock after a day of laundry and dishes and three rounds of meals, diaper changes or toilet-training mishaps, and quick recharge nursing sessions (yes, she’s still comfort-nursing)  and interaction at all hours of the day save those reserved for nap time.

And here I sit with the books and notes for my novel  next to me. I have more to write — about Z’s journey with school — G has cautioned against it ( the school’s underlying philosophy generates a lot of heated debate on the web — though I still really love some aspects I am not sure the larger picture works for our family– and I’ve had the strangest grieving process about it, wishing I could indeed enter into that community, that culture… The more research I did online the more unsettled I became in my own heart) and so I went to look at a Montessori for her — a very different environment — but it was as if I was awakening from some kind of hazy dream — into this very vibrant and busy structured world of the purist Montessori — but it requires a five day a week commitment and I’m not sure that she’s ready — or perhaps I’m not ready to let go of her. It would be wonderful for my writing — to reclaim some time for self — and probably be wonderful for her to enter the world outside of me — but I’m torn.

This is a terrific example of the conflict. I have spent my time writing this while running upstairs and downstairs — making lasagna, keeping her semi-entertained but not so entertained that she wasn’t climbing and dragging chairs all over the place in an attempt to reach things she shouldn’t…I have a difficult time still imagining a return to a kind of concerted literary effort; What I do know is that I have to come to it everyday — like a great teacher of mine, David Long, used to say — just like a bricklayer — come to it every day, brick by brick…

Brick by brick.