The Writing Mama (Part 2 of Many)

There’s a kind of a myth of the stay-at-home (homeschooling optional) mom as the perfect homemaker who more or less singlehandedly cooks, cleans, sews, bakes, knits, gardens, preserves her own food and creates beautiful, Pinterest-worthy scenes of domestic bliss. Oh, and writes her own homeschooling curriculum (or at least curates the best) and teaches the kids Latin.

Also, she has many babies and fits into her jeans right away and captures everything in perfect blurry edged photographs.

(She may or may not make her own soap, lotion, bath salts, and lip balm.)

And she writes.

For all her many and varied perfections she’s rewarded with sainthood and/or thousands of fan-followers who kind of simultaneously love and hate her for being so amazing while at the same time wanting to BE her and hating themselves for not being able to come close.

It’s this Perfect Woman who, we think, has something to say to the rest of us. Regular women, the kind who forget to make dinner and dress kids directly from the clean clothes in the dryer, don’t have it in us to write things that other people will read.

sometimes the writing mama will ignore the mess and continue writing with poor body posture.

The truth is that life doesn’t unfold in photgraphable moments and everyone, everyone, everyone has messes in their lives. Once upon a time, I idolized Edith Schaeffer and the way she woke up at 4 to pray and hike and make criossants and put fresh flowers on the table always and stay thing and look pretty and cheerfully serve her husband and children and whatever greasy hippies were passing through while managing to write whole piles of books, sew her own clothes, garden, and–you get the idea.

And then when her cheeky son goes ahead and writes some ‘tell-alls’ we find out that Francis Sr. wasn’t all that nice to Edith, that she may or may not have been slightly unbalanced or at least partially insomniac and enabling of her husband’s rageaholicism, and so forth.

(This isn’t to cast aspersion on dear old Edith. I think she’s a bright, creative and interesting woman, and, moreover, I would be furious if my sons wrote some kind of tell-all about me while I’m still alive. Point is, she had issues. AS DO WE ALL.)

Which, I think, is why so many people love writers like Anne Lamott, who makes no bones about perfection and lets her unbalanced, self-absorbed nutcase flag FLY in a way that makes people feel less alone and so loved and chosen in God’s eyes.

In other words, she offers the reader grace.

But what does this have to do with the writing mama? Just this: your life, writing mama, is allowed to look messy. Your home is too. You CAN serve cereal for dinner once in awhile, you can and should rely on help if help’s available, and your kids don’t need a sanitized home nor one that looks like it would make Martha Stewart proud, because if you want to write, you should, and NO ONE can really do it all.

(If it looks like they can, don’t be awed. Be concerned.*)

And think about your writing as just another part of the work YOU MUST DO.

You think Ma Ingalls left off the butter churning or hoeing because one of the children needed quality time? She didn’t really have that option. She had important work to do at home, so she gave that tiny girl a job, or else tied her to a picket line so she wouldn’t disappear on the prairie and she did her work. If it’s in you to write, then you need to write. Think of it as your necessary work, just as necessary as growing crops, and don’t feel bad when you need to insist that the children play on their own for a while or even (heavens!) watch a DVD while you scratch something out in the fertile soil of your mind. That kind of pioneering sustains your life, too.

*none of this should be taken to mean that in order to let everyone know how ‘authentic’ you are you need to make a full confession before/after/during your writing. Not everyone writes in the confessional mode and, let’s face it, most readers probably don’t care that much to hear all the messy details, unless you manage to make it redemptive, even if only ‘redemption by humor.’ But once upon a time I thought no one would read my writing until I had reached some authentic pinnacle of excellence or something. Somehow or other I figured out that pretty much no one has it together, even and perhaps especially those who most seem like they do.

Countercultural Green Beans–Putting Food By

Five years ago, when we lived in California, our green bean plants were producing half a kitchen garbage bag of green beans per day. It got to the point where we had to take garbage bags of green beans in the car and drive around town (a very small town) to dish out green beans to everyone we knew (and even some people we didn’t really know.) We knew that we’d soon be moving to Scotland, and so putting some beans away for winter wasn’t much of an option for us. But sharing them, of course, was its own reward.

This year, in New York, we’ve again got loads of green beans–an easy 2 quarts a day, and while we’re eating plenty of them fresh, we’ve also been doing a bit of what 19th century folks called “putting food by”–that is, saving it for that time of year when Persephone goes back to the underworld and her mother, Ceres, mourns, turning our lush, green garden a dead and frozen brown. (No, I don’t believe that myth. But I do like it. My mom and I are really close, and you better believe that if one of us had to go to the underworld, we might forget to water the garden.)

my favorite field hand

So against that day, we’re storing up food, green beans among them. Frozen green beans can actually be quite delicious. Our favorite ones are the petite French beans you can buy at Trader Joe’s–and while they’re reasonably priced, I sometimes feel a little funny about the fact that they’ve come from France. I love French food, but we can grow great green beans right outside our door. France is a long way away, and while I love me a good French import now and then, I’d kinda rather see those transatlantic miles used differently (say, to bring Nora here. Hi Nora! Bisous!)

Mom's hands, trimming beans

My mom and I, together, trimmed and washed the beans, dipped them in boiling water, chilled them in ice water, dried them with a towel, and packed them into freezer bags. It wasn’t as hot and difficult as I once imagined such a process would be. In fact, it was kind of fun. Instead of going out for coffee, or ice cream, or shopping–instead of consuming, which we love to do (who doesn’t?) we stayed home and produced something, not for immediate enjoyment, but for future days.

ready for freezing

In other times and places, to speak reverently of such a practice–as if it constituted some kind of virtuous act–would be silly. ‘Putting food by’ was just what everyone did in the days before year-round availability of EVERYTHING NOW! There must have always been a kind of satisfaction in this work, though–the work of virtuous necessity, done (usually) in groups, with laughter, chatting, and singing to make ‘drudgery’ into good times. That’s what I’m grasping at when, in my own fumbling way, I try my hand at gardening and preserving. I’m trying to tread lightly on creation while exercising a homely kind of creativity, making small steps toward a hopeful future, and, in the present, creating good memories fueled only by necessity and love.

gratuitous adorable pet picture