Nothing but baby and thesis around here for 27 more days. I have help every day. A babysitter, my mom, JJ. I work all the time, until 12 or 1 every night. It will get done, but only if I stay extremely focused. Finishing a dissertation really is that hard. Yesterday, an hour at the beach with JJ and Basil, playing in the sand and watching the sailboats. It was like having one bite of dessert, a small taste of what it will feel like to relax together again.
My days have been a river of one thing to the next lately, baby, shower, breakfast, thesis, baby, park, write, lunch, baby. A nap on a good day. Then baby, clean, cook, baby, baby, maybe thesis, baby, dinner, husband, thesis, write, read, sleep, baby, sleep, baby, sleep.
Then get up, and do it all again.
It’s really hard, this final push of my dissertation, with a one year-old. Thankfully, I have help. A babysitter two mornings a week. My mom a few days a month. A sister now and then. And most importantly, a supportive husband. A partner who’s thrilled to get home and scoot Basil off to the park, who loves being his dad as much as I love being his mom. But still, it’s really hard.
It’s hard to nurse Basil, put him down, kiss JJ, maybe make a cup of tea, and go sit down at my desk, every night. It’s hard to be tired, and to work anyway. It’s hard to think so much at the end of the day, every day.
All this focus makes me lose track of days. Whole weeks go by like a blur of fence posts on the interstate. Thesis baby thesis baby thesis baby. What, it’s Sunday again?
I’ve got so much other writing I want to work on. An essay about motherhood and work, inspired by an excellent post I read last month. Another for a post about how to get things done. And a page of scrawled notes about what it means to be original in the age of Instagram.
Maybe someday I’ll learn how to share these notes and ideas without feeling I have to refine and refine. I mean, we can have a conversation, tell a story, without perfection, right? The more I write, the better I feel at it. But it’s still so hard to post here sometimes, especially when I’m so tired. I can’t wait to have more time for all that other writing.
In the meantime, I jot things down, keep 5 different draft documents open and work on them when I can. And I keep wrestling the wild work in progress that is my thesis. Thanks to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, I think of it as a wild tiger:
“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”’.
I’ve learned that if I “tame the tiger” a little bit every day, I can remain the boss. Sitting down and writing for an hour or two today makes it possible to sit down more easily tomorrow. And when I stick with it, I have days when the tiger is curled at my feet, docile and purring, while my fingers fly over the keyboard with clarity and inspiration. Sometimes even at 11pm.
I feel like most people I know wish they took walks more often, and are always glad when they did. And you’re always hearing about the health benefits of taking walks. As a mother, writing at home, I don’t get very much alone time, so lately I’ve been trying to take walks more often. And every time I do, I think, this is the simple key to happiness.
I bring along a little notebook and pen. I pull my sweatshirt tight against the wind, breath in the fresh air, notice primroses, tulips, a house for sale. I pant up flight after flight of stairs that cut up the hill to Twin Peaks, San Francisco’s highest point. Problems with the current thesis chapter hover in my mind like helicopters, somehow louder and clearer as I walk. Today, I realized this is reason alone to get out on walks. I’m currently inspired by how the novelist Dawn Tripp describes why she runs, in her post for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog Catching Days:
“I don’t run for time, speed, or distance. I don’t run to stay physically fit. I run to find a clearness of mind.”
And later in the post:
“Every morning I go out and run for this precise reason–to find my way deeper into a character’s self, some key turn of a story, to find that certain edge between intellect and free creative thought, to feel that shift in consciousness that allows me to write well. It’s not a state I can simply sit at a desk and think myself into–though many writers I know can. I have to be outside. I have to move. For me, it is that experience of the world–when I can breathe in the wind, the sun, the heat, the salt smell, the cold, and the light until the floss is stripped, and I am right there, in the pulse and life of a separate and entirely real, fictional world.”
What if I walked every day? What might happen in my writing?
Tell me, does walking (or running, or biking, or other movement) help you write?
A Poem by David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
I walk down the San Francisco streets lined with Victorian row houses, and instead of noticing grand rooflines, or the often spectacularly ornate doorways and windows, I look at drain pipes, and telephone poles, and air vents. I crouch down to frame a shot of curling Magnolia tree bark, or the shadow of a twig in the slanting afternoon sun. I wait through three traffic light changes, Basil impatient in the stroller, to capture staples and bolts on a telephone pole.
Maybe it’s because my brain is filled beyond capacity with big ideas from my thesis, and I’m not getting nearly enough sleep. Or maybe it’s the endlessly clear, wide open, blue skies we’ve been having, bright and warm every day. Or possibly the craving for nature, and open space. But lately I go out in the world and focus on abstractions, on lines, on colors. I obsess about images that thrill with their negative space. I take picture after picture of corners, and slants of light.
Want to join me this week? What do the colors, shapes, objects in your daily life look like in the abstract?
This boy makes people smile everywhere we go. From the stroller he catches peoples’ eyes as we walk down the street. “Hi there” they say, “what a happy guy”, grinning in surprise, their tired, distracted faces momentarily transformed. Waiting in line to return a duffel bag, he is perched on my hip, checking out everyone ahead of us. I see first one, then another person break into a wide smile. An older, balding man with twinkling, blue eyes starts making silly noises and Basil breaks into loud, delighted giggles, causing all of us in line to laugh.
It’s 7:30 at night and the house is quiet. I hear a car pass heading uphill in the clear, winter night. I make a cup of chamomile-peppermint tea in my favorite hand-thrown ceramic mug, and prepare a plate of chocolate cookies and almonds to nibble. Then I sit down to work on my thesis, joining the thousands of working mothers across the country whose second shift begins when the children are in bed.
This is my last semester in grad school; I file my thesis in May. The finished dissertation will be about 200 pages. I have 127 written, of which 111 are the important ones, the pages telling a story of my research into the changes immigration brought to two Barcelona schools in 2009-10. It all needs rewriting and further work, but I’m getting there. One night at a time.
What will I do when I’m done? Here is what I thought when I applied to grad school in 2005:
“In my Ph.D. study I aim to further develop my analytical skills and research expertise while looking more closely at poverty and inequality in education. Specifically, I want to learn to evaluate educational reforms using quantitative and qualitative research methods while examining issues around school funding, equality of opportunity to learn, and education and development.”
I know. Stilted, boring, and so serious! What was I really aiming for? I know I was ambitious, and hell-bent on making a different life than the one I grew up in. I’d always been good at school, and continuing to study seemed like the answer. But really, I had very mixed feelings about what I was doing.
Nearly 7 years later, in the home stretch of my program, I’ve concluded the academic life – at least as I understood it then – is not for me. I love the writing and teaching parts, but not the research. The pressures, pretentiousness and pettiness of university jobs weigh too heavy, obliterating the joy of learning, teaching, and discovering new ideas that also come with being a professor. And, it turns out, I want a life a lot closer to the creative one I grew up in than I was willing to admit at 26.
So I’m not going to be who I thought I was going to be. Most of us aren’t, it turns out. But I am loving writing my thesis. No exaggeration. Loving it. Sure, working the second shift is tiring, and I get stuck at times. But working on the thesis has shown me I really am a writer. And I’ve learned enough about self-discipline, and managing unwieldy, long-term projects to write my first book, or start my own creative business, or possibly found a school one day.
For now, another late night of writing awaits. See you next Tuesday, if not before!
In the mornings we walk. We go out into the mild California winter, where the sun warms us despite the cold, and the sidewalk is still strewn with the colors of fall. We walk down the hill, kicking stiff magnolia leaves, brown and shiny as new pennies. At the crosswalk, we play peek-a-boo around the side of the stroller as we wait for the bus to grind to a stop. Then we cross, staying on the sunny side of the street until we get to 24th Street and our first stop, the bakery.
Inside there’s another mom ahead of us, and two blond-haired little ones who nibble on a cookie from the deep seats of a double-wide stroller. “What’ll it be today?”, a young guy with a scruffy goatee asks, and I get a sweet baguette for dinner, and a plain croissant to share with Basil. I pay, then back my way out of the bakery, maneuvering the stroller awkwardly through the glass door until a kind woman in a red coat pulls it open for me, smiling at Basil.
After a quick stop at the drug store for pacifiers and light bulbs, we head up the street towards the park. It’s just two long blocks, but with the hills around here, and the warm winter sun, I’m sweating by the time we get there. I strip off my scarf and jacket, brush the croissant crumbs off Basil, and we plop down on the soft ground to play. The park is full of children today, as it often is at this time. A helter-skelter collage of strollers line the fence. Both swings are occupied, and there’s a child waiting. The teeter-totter bounces back and forth with the energy of four year-olds. A few persistent pigeons peck at the crumbs left behind by small hands, skittering away when a small boy runs by. Basil takes it all in, crawling towards the pigeons, then stopping to watch a little blond girl who toddles toward him.
Mornings like this are why I now love where we live. I can walk to do most of my daily errands. The bank, post office, grocery store, coffee shops, and more are all less than a 10-minute walk. Basil loves being out, watching people, breathing the fresh air. I get exercise, and don’t have to worry about driving. I love it.
But a year ago I was aching to move. Certain we’d leave the city by summer. Be in a place with more space, a bigger yard, maybe hiking trails nearby. But since having Basil my perspective has shifted completely, in ways I didn’t expect. Instead of more space, I’m happy with fewer belongings, and being able to walk everywhere. Instead of a garden, I have my pots of herbs off the kitchen, my flower pots on the front steps. Instead of hiking trails, I have these mornings in the neighborhood, Basil kicking his feet as we walk, our bellies full of fresh pastries.
What do you love about your neighborhood? Has your feeling about where you live ever radically shifted?
The day begins with a jet-lagged baby, awake and ready to play at 4am. There is breakfast while it’s still dark out, and skyping with the abuelos in Spain. Then Basil goes down for a nap as the sun rises, setting the windows across the valley aglow, and my day begins anew with a shower, coffee, writing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. When it comes to writing, or life changes, or even small everyday tasks like cleaning, we often say ‘beginning is the hardest part’. For me beginning can feel as if I were climbing a set of stairs and the first step were 3 times higher than the rest, rising like a mountain before me.
Maybe this is a creative inheritance from my mother, an artisan who has had her own business for nearly 30 years. “I’ve been writing about beginnings” I say when she calls, “what does beginning feel like to you?”. “From experience, I know that to me beginning is more of a challenge than doing it” she replies. “I notice it even when I get in the water to swim, or start my yoga class. But once I’m going, it’s easier.”
Where does the energy to begin come from? Austin Kleon, in his new book on creativity Steal Like an Artist, suggests it’s about being inspired:
“[C]hew on one thinker – writer, artist, activist, role model – you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.”
I agree that inspiration is important, especially when the beginning involves tapping creativity. But I’ve also been thinking how routine, the momentum of doing something every day, can make it easier to begin. When I work on my thesis every day, sitting down and working on it is easier than when I let a week go by without touching it.
So of course, I’m wondering what beginnings are like for you. Which is harder, starting or finishing?