January, 2013 archive
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?
Walks are my escape when we’re visiting JJ’s family in Spain. In winter, I put on layers against the cold, pull on socks and sneakers, and wrap a scarf around my neck. “I’m going for a walk”, I tell JJ and his dad, “listen for Basil”. Then I walk downstairs, grab the remote to exit through the garage, and breathe deep. I walk up the hill, noticing the overripe pomegranates on the neighbor’s tree, hanging like jewels on the bare branches. I cross three short blocks, down a hill and up another, cross the street, and I’m in “Los Pinos”, the pines.
Today the air hangs heavy with mist, and my breath loops out in front of me like a filmy balloon. The pine trees rise majestically through the mist, the ground below them bare but for a carpet of bright green grass that reminds me of spring. Magpies swoop from branch to branch, and I can hear the low rumble of doves. Tufts of white rabbit fur dot the ground, though I can’t imagine where they’d be; the acidity of the pine needles inoculates the ground against the growth of underbrush.
I pass a couple walking their dog, but mostly I have the trails to myself. The quiet washes through me like the first fall rains, pouring over streets cluttered with fallen leaves. Walks have always been an escape, but nowhere is the quiet and drifting thoughts they bring more important than here. Maybe it’s because I’m American and the Spanish are more social, or maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, who needs quiet time. All I know is that each visit there reaches a point where the constant interaction with family, interruptions when I’m reading or writing, company for breakfast, lunch and dinner, stops feeling warm and dear and starts making me edgy. And so I take walks, often with JJ and Basil, and sometimes, deliciously, alone.
Today I do two loops around the pines, pausing to lean against the damp bark of a tree to spend five minutes writing. Then I walk home, swinging my arms and breathing deep, thinking, ‘I want to start my day with a walk like this every day’.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to claim the identity of writer. To come out of the closet, so to say. To stop thinking my obsession with stories and words has to be private. I’ve written and written and squirreled away hundreds of pages over the years, everything from conversations to descriptions of the cities I’ve called home. I’ve read about other writers’ process, and listened to radio interviews, and read books with an eye to metaphors. But I’ve always been afraid to call myself a writer.
What does it take, to claim what we’ve always wanted, or known ourselves to be?
For years I ached to have a child. In 2012, I had my Basil at last, a squirming, sunshiny boy who’s now 10 months. I claimed the identity of mother instantly and completely when I pushed him out, worried over him in the NICU for 48 hours, brought him home to our snug apartment. But then I claimed it little by little as I got used to how others saw me, what it was like to go everywhere with him. I continue to claim it as I learn about naps, and cooking for a family, and what it means to parent with JJ, and how to be myself while caring for my child.
Claiming the identity of writer has never been instantaneous or complete. I heard Barbara Kingsolver once say in an interview that she didn’t imagine she could be a writer as a kid, because only dead, white men were writers. And look at her now. In Animal Dreams, her fourth book, she writes as part of a letter from one sister to another:
“[T]he very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof (p.299)”.
I figured out a long time ago that I hope to write. It’s time now, at the dawn of 2013, to live inside these writing hopes, occupy them as a place where sunshine can pour through windows, where flowers can bloom, where writing can become something that belongs to me.
A new year. A new beginning, on this blog. An essay|story|post here, every Tuesday.
Want to join me? What do you hope to begin, this year?