What I’d give to share a cup of coffee and place a hand on the shoulder to thank you — friends long held, new, and unknown, but friends all the same. I’m grateful for the encouragement and camaraderie I’ve received. And I’m sorry distance and time prevent this circle from gathering at a single table, my kitchen table, to talk writing, laugh over stories, admit frustrations, and share these scones. They are a lot like me right now, tender and not too sweet. I prefer them with a steaming mug of coffee mellowed with cream (which, I believe, is how my husband prefers me — at least in the mornings).
Barley Scones with Coffee and Molasses
Yield: 4 6-inch rounds (8 pieces per round)
4 cups/400 grams barley flour
4 cups/445 grams spelt flour
4 teaspoons/12 grams baking powder
1 teaspoon/4 grams salt
2 2/3 cups/400 grams brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 pound/454 grams unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup molasses
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1/2 cup/120 grams strong, cold coffee
Mix dry ingredients and cut in butter until coarse and lumpy. Combine liquids and drizzle over top. Mix gently and quickly until dough comes together. Divide into four equal pieces and shape each one into a six-inch round. Place on parchment lined tray. Cut into eighths. Sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes. Test with toothpick. Scones should be soft but not wet in the center.
I’ve come to a place without a view, a place where I conserve words and watch my footing because there are rocks to trip me and my ankles have been known to give out. In this uncertain place, my contributions seem small, unimportant, overlooked. You noted my silence. I invite you to walk with me a while, mindful of E.B. White’s advice that a writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” as together we tread this uneven path.
As I said, I’m uncertain, blurred at the edges as a writer and mother, and this scares me. For years I’ve thrashed about with my writing, much like the inexperienced swimmer flails in the water, managing to stay afloat, yet nothing akin to swimming. In these same years, I’ve worked to raise independent children, and with three of the four now adolescents the job’s description changes. For the mother, better or worse will depend on my children’s choices. As for the writer, better or worse will depend on my determination, and honestly, I am so tired of flailing I sometimes want to sink.
That admission sounds like defeat, and giving up on the dream of writing feels like giving up on the self. But writing for its sake alone isn’t enough for me. I want the work to be accepted, and praised. I feel embarrassed to admit this, and so I take solace in the words of Leah Hager Cohen, a wise and successful writer who still shares my craving.
“At best, such a desire grows out of valuing a connection with others, wanting to be informed by their perspectives, and hoping for a feeling of mutual recognition, a feeling of: yes, I am not alone in the world. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about wanting our art to find a home in the hearts, the souls of others. Where I think we get into trouble is with the notion that whether or not we reach this goal gets determined by a highly selective elite in whom we have invested sole authority to confer access…,” Cohen wrote in “The Fortress and the Fool.” “Because the very natural wish for evidence of our worth can mislead us into thinking that writing is about winning accolades.”
I have no mentor to share my doubts with, no one who might guide me back to my writing notebook, no one to gently close my fingers around a pen and tell me to continue. Now that I’m alone for five hours a day people expect results. Now that three-fourths of my children are teen-agers capable of caring for themselves (though to a lesser degree than I’m comfortable with so I stick around to make sure they regularly eat salad and shower), I expect results. But now is not enough. I’m aimless, tripping over stones, unable to navigate my way. I’m a white woman, middle-aged, and privileged because I can choose to either write or waste those five hours. And today I’m idling them away, nursing a cold as I sneeze ten times and a small amount of pee escapes my bladder and wets my underwear. A price of motherhood. There is a tightness in my shoulders, and my feet will not warm. I pull back the quilt on my bed, made an hour earlier, and crawl in, sighing because it’s warm there and the sun’s shining through the eastern window. I close my eyes and red glows beneath my eyelids. I sleep for a little while.
You wrote about a mother-artist’s struggle with aimlessness in your book “After the Sour Lemon Moon,” where a young mother leaves her family for a year in order to recover all she’d “lost and wanted returned.”
“I was tired of holding up the foundation, being so vital. I wanted to shed my importance and become a mere cog, a simple expendable part of the whole,” the mother, Sophia, said. “… It is widely believed that if a mother leaves her family there is something irreparably wrong with her, something rooted in her core being, something present long before she was a mother.”
I was simultaneously drawn to Sophia, who would abandon her family in order to preserve herself, and repelled by her because she could, with ease, build a new life that included little thought and no space for her two little girls. The persistent, binary view that a woman’s life must be either work or family, books or babies, shackles me, enrages me, defeats me. I put your book down. Months later I read it to its end and learned that Sophia abandons this second life, too, so that she might wear the mantle of motherhood, again, although not that of wife.
“There are many ways to live a good life. Mustn’t there be as many ways, if not more, of being a good parent?” she asks. “Is our culture too rigid in defining our parameters? I believe the answer is yes.”
I’d have liked the book to contain a road map to that sweet life because I’m in need of such direction. I ask myself “Where is the story?” as if it’s a place, a land from which I wandered away. Rest eludes me. I sleep, heavy and deep with dreams, sometimes, and sometimes without, but always, every morning, I wake and am tired. I drag my body up from this nightly death and walk among the living. They have places to go. They have ideas. They have plans, projects, people. I have emptiness: An empty mind and an empty day except when there is laundry, and cleaning, and trips to the grocery store, and paying the bills, and a walk with a friend, and doctor’s appointments, and physical therapy appointments, of which there are many, so my days are filled, only not with what I want.
Recently, I discovered a map and a mentor in Ursula K. Le Guin, who worked after her three children went to bed, and, when they got older, during school hours. In her book “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places” is her 1988 essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” which explores the rewarding and difficult experience motherhood is for a woman artist.
“The artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbration has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility to both her art and her dependent children with no ‘tireless affection’ or tired affection to call on, has taken on a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible. But that isn’t how the problem is posed — as a recognition of immense practical difficulty. If it were, practical solutions would be proposed, beginning with childcare. Instead, the issue is stated, even now, as a moral one, as ought or ought not,” Le Guin wrote.
It’s easy for me to be preoccupied by the small, technical issues of my work, things that will not matter at the end of the day, like whether I shall write with a pencil or pen, or if this desk promotes bad posture and causes carpal tunnel syndrome. Perhaps both, because as I write the last sentence I note that my back is curved so belly meets breast bone, and my wrists ache. I straighten my spine, rotate my wrists.
Continue, I say to myself.
About what? I ask.
For whom? I ask.
For you, I answer.
But you will not read this, no one will read this ever. Typed into a program that no one can read because of a password that I cannot remember, it is protected. Disappeared off the computer the second I disconnect from the internet, it is lost. Sentences protected and lost. This is my life, protected and lost.
It’s taken me all morning to get to this point. To open the screen and begin filling a blank page with new sentences. First I copied old sentences, written maybe six years ago, and then rewritten and published, then copied again and rewritten into a longer story that was not published but critiqued by a class, and just now copied a fourth time into this space with the intention of rewriting it. Again. Words so dramatic and dull they desperately needed to be deleted, so I did. I deleted the words, some five hundred words, and started with zero, an honest number, reflective of my ideas at this moment and my energy level, since, remember, I’m also catching a cold.
You asked about now, me, this morning’s state of mind, and why it’s been so long since I’ve sat at my cramped desk and written sentences whose only physical manifestation will sit in my muscles as cramped shoulder and aching wrist. But let me continue because pain is a sum gain over emptiness, especially pain which I can use to justify my irritability with others, with my children, with Marcel, but really with myself, though no one will know it, not even me after I close the computer and forget the words.
“There is less censure now, and more support, for a woman who both wants to bring up a family and work as an artist,” Le Guin wrote. “But it’s a small degree of improvement. The difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”
The morning began after I returned from biking Ivan to school. It began with a third cup of coffee and a cream truffle, and then time spent in bed sleeping, and then time spent in a hot bath with the last slice of cold pizza whose red grease smeared the two pages I’d printed of the aforementioned story that I tried to resurrect, but couldn’t. It was no Lazarus and I am no savior. I’m not serious about reviving the story, but I’m going to try to save myself from this cold by taking handfuls of vitamin C and a shot of fire cider, which leaves the taste of onion on my tongue and sends me searching for a second truffle and the cup of coffee, now cold. I wash the onion away and replace it with a taste I prefer, bitterness and black grit at the bottom of a cup.
Where was I? Somehow, after being in and out of bed two times, after feet were warmed in a bath, and hot water eased the knots in my right shoulder, after I dressed for a second time noting that the day was half gone, I began this. Is it story? No. There is no beginning, no ending, only a bit from the middle, the soft core gone lax, muscles cut by childbirth and atrophied from inattention, so that the spine can’t hold itself erect but curves into a defeated and deflated navel-gazing letter C. Could it be a story? Only if my life, protected and solitary, soft with silence, is a story. Which, again, it isn’t because story is an artifice, a fake form imposed on the bits and pieces of life that included sneezing and wetting one’s underwear and choosing not to change it but to let it dry, knowing that the rest of the day I would trail the slight scent of urine, which none but a stray dog would detect as we waited together in the school yard for the bell to ring, and it would wag its tail in friendship anyway.
The squiggly line moved over the snowy land, marched up the hill and over its humped back. Two straggling cows joined its end, followed nose to tail the line of cows that the man and his horse read. Black cow, white space. Black then white then black again, each cow a word, each space a pause in a landscape of blank verse. The line was thirsty and hungry, having slept through a bitter night and woke to a water trough frozen into a block of ice and grass that cut the tongue. Thin sunshine smeared itself over a thicker layer of snow that covered rabbit brush and sage. Grasses bowed under the weight of ice. The desert was a crumpled paper smoothed flat. The cowboy was cold. A bandana covered his mouth and nose, but there was nothing he could do for his eyes, which watered in the cold and iced his cheeks. He nudged the final cows to hurry along, and the squiggly line ran alongside the highway that flowed out of the Blue Mountains and dropped into La Grande. Steam rose from the cut in the hillside made by the road. Smaller clouds of steam rose from the cows. The moans and mooing of the suffering verbs joined the sound of semi-trucks breaking around the curves. In the puffs of steam and breaths of space, the cowboy read. Her eyes were like champagne. The line peaked the hill and black cow and white space pooled in the cold morning. Words were warm bodies yearning for home, and nothing more was written that day.
“Idaho” sung by Josh Ritter.