Imaginary Conversations With My Fictional Husband

A room of my very own, in the beginning     © amomnextdoor

A room of my very own, in the beginning © amomnextdoor

I think he said to me once, As long as you can cover the cost of childcare.

Another time he referred to my writing as a “hobby,” but a severe weather system moved in after that, and the thunderstorm that followed obliterated the word entirely from his vocabulary, if not his thoughts. I am the stay-at-home mom of two children under seven—I HAVE no hobbies. If I am writing, it is a necessary act. But how to get him to understand that—this man who reads neither packages nor instructions nor street signs? A steady diet of work emails, the New York Times and the occasional Lee Child bestseller does not exactly constitute a rich and vibrant literary life, from which to judge my scribblings.

But why have they come up for judgment at all? Another time, when a last minute business trip meant I wouldn’t be able to attend my writing group, I told him that I didn’t want my career to always come second to his when making decisions about our time and priorities, just because I earn less money than he does (in fact, at this point in my writing career, no money at all). He conceded the point, but objected to my use of the word “career.” A career denotes a salary, set responsibilities, a defined position in some organization. What you have, he said, is a business. Much as I hate the term, I conceded his point.

So now I am working on a business plan. And the first question that rises in me, like hot magma or the fury of Yansá, is this: why is it my job to cover the cost of childcare? When we married, I was working full time; my husband was jobless and getting his MBA. We paid for his education. Our child was born. I gave up my teaching career and salary, and instead worked full time from home taking care of our child, our house, and him, while he started two businesses. I was not compensated financially for this work. He did not claim the cost of childcare as a business expense.

(A mild digression, since I fear you may be asking, Who is this guy, anyway? I actually have some trouble naming this character–my husband–so central to my life. Many mommy blogs refer to a “DH”, or Dear Husband, but I am put off by the subtle implication of sarcasm in the word “Dear.” Especially since the term most often comes into play when referencing said character’s propensity to throw his dirty socks into the laundry hamper inside out, or put the can opener away in the wrong place. My personal nickname for my husband is the Big Man, because he measures in at a broad-shouldered 6’3”, can carry anything, takes good care of me, and scares the cat. But “The Big Man” has Orwellian overtones and an unfortunate acronym. I could call him more affectionately my BM, and that would be appropriate in so many ways, perfectly capturing the occasional constipation and effort of marriage, but new readers of my blog would definitely get the wrong idea.

I’d settle for Fictional Husband, FH for short, but that might lead some people to question whether this man—who dedicates his life to building wealth for his family, loving his children, and pleasing his wife—actually exists. I really do have a husband, it’s not just a blogosphere fantasy, but I guess it turns out that I’m also a bit of a bigamist. I’ve taken a second husband here in these pages and posts, an absolutely essential member of our family. My Fictional Husband, who does not, actually, exist or say and do all the things I report here, takes the rap for the man I love and married first. My FH is a necessary construct, because this society that underpays its women, undervalues its children, fails to protect and nourish its most disadvantaged members, has banned Art from its soul to worship Money instead—this society comes down pretty hard on both of us sometimes, and I won’t let that confine me, hurt him, or come between me and the man I love. So my Fictional Husband steps forward here in these posts to take up that burden for both of us.)

But back to money. Because that’s what all this really comes down to: time is money, my time in particular, more valuable than ANY segment of our society ever lets on. How do I carve out and protect time for my writing life, if I am not making money from my writing? How can I legitimately claim this as a valuable use of my time, when there are dishes to be done, bandaids to administer, stressed-out husbands to soothe?

Pat Schneider, founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists movement, gave a talk recently at the Pacific School of Religion about her life’s work and most recent book, How the Light Gets In. She spoke passionately about our culture’s tendency to define as writers only those who have had access to education (and money)—writers with MFA degrees, writers on this list or that list, writers with prizes and incomes and bestsellers. In her book Writing Alone and With Others, she suggests that “Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot–it must not, for the sake of the human community–be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

So many voices are silenced when we believe that to be a writer we must sell our work. There is value in a drawerful of scrawled poems, in a stack of brown journals with black cloth binding, in the lists layered on a kitchen door, in the bits and pieces of blogs. And as women who write, we MUST believe that this activity–this art–is worth our time. We must tell that story–we must sell that story–to the men we marry, the men on the committee for the National Endowment for the Arts, the men in the legislature who decide how much money to spend on supporting the arts in our society, and to the children who want their diaper changed, or help with their homework, or another glass of water.

Ursula Le Guin writes in her essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” (Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989) that “the artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbation has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility both to her art and to her dependent children…has undertaken a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible….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.”

I am lucky in my husbands, Fictional and real. They have worked hard to overcome the training they’ve received at the hands of our society, “the spite that so often a man is allowed to hold, trained to hold, against anything a woman does that’s not done in his service, for him, to feed his body, his comfort, his kids.” (Le Guin, 1989) Like many artists, I expect “to work against the total, rational indifference of everybody else” in the world, but at least I do not have to work against a “daily, personal, vengeful resistance.” (Le Guin, 1989) I have a husband who recognizes that I am a writer, and that writers must write. He has built for me a room of my own. There may be days when he wonders what I have done with my time, why the rice is burnt and the laundry festering in baskets. But like Le Guin’s husband, he brings to our marriage “an assumption of mutual aid,” (Le Guin, 1989) which daily brings to life the epigraph we chose for our wedding invitations:

“And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone”

Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers

To my Fictional Husband, and the real man who stands behind him, to all you stay-at-home moms and dads who managed to post to your blog today, to the art that feeds us and sustains us, that challenges and defines us, I dedicate this moment of my time.

Thank you for reading, for this moment of your time.

Scenes From Singapore

Singapore Parliament House @ the Heart of the City

Singapore Parliament House @ the Heart of the City (Photo credit: williamcho)

Singapore was a very difficult place for me to be. No doubt a huge part of that was being so far from my family. I loved the people I met and worked with, saw and tasted many beautiful and interesting things, but after about eight days away from my children, my body started to fall apart.

Last year it was my children’s bodies that deteriorated. I came home from ten days in Singapore to a daughter with a staph infection on  top of hand, foot & mouth disease, and a son with a burst eardrum. This year a bug bite attempted to attack my entire leg before the excellent medical care in Singapore intervened with a timely shot in the butt.

It was an incredible privilege to be invited across the world to teach a writing camp to young Singaporean writers. The kids were eager, adventurous and welcoming. My colleagues were industrious and intrepid about trying completely new ways of thinking about teaching kids to write.

These consummate hosts went to great pains to introduce me to the incredible sights and especially the exquisite cuisine of Singapore.  Although the relentless urbanity, devoted consumerism and polished presentation of this particular city were not to my taste overall, I did find a great many experiences to treasure during my two visits there. Continue reading

Me! Two!

I cannot see your face in the mirror.

Standing behind you at the porcelain sink,

I lean forward so my arms circle you.

Your hair tickles my collarbone.

The green stool is pushed too far under the basin’s edge—

your feet balance precariously on its very back, heels in the air.

But you pushed that stool into place yourself, so I say nothing.

I carefully watch the edges of your scrunched up sleeves as you stretch for the faucet’s stream of water to make sure the water doesn’t creep up your arms,

soak your cuffs. You probably wouldn’t care,

but I learned handwashing from your brother, who always did.

If I put my hands below yours under the water you don’t mind.

Otherwise you say “Me!” and push back against me with your shoulders.

I turn off the tap, give you your soap first.

Lavender fills the small room.

Dissatisfied with your lather

you present your hands to me, thrusting them forward into mine.

I hold your right hand in my right,

your left in my left.

Neither of us speaks.

No sound but the soap as it slips and pops and slows the circles of my thumbs—

mesmerizing circles.

I don’t think about teaching you the right way to wash your hands:

the number of seconds, the length of the ABC song,

sequence of fingernails and wrists.

I feel your small hands submitted to mine like an offering—

slices of mango laid reverently on an altar,

a candle lit beneath a photograph.

These small hands that came into the world curled up under your chin,

remained that way for months

before you reached out to the world,

before you learned to push a flat palm out to say Back!

Stop! Or with a slight flick,

aWay!

Slow bubbles over your upturned palms

One fingernail cut crooked to leave a tiny triangle on one side

scratching at my skin as I massage the tips of your fingers the way I would knead your father’s scalp or rub my  mother’s feet

Thread my fingers gently between yours, softly separating them, not too far apart

Your head turns back and forth to watch my fingertips intently

palpate one hand, then the other.

Soap casts its spell over us both,

and for as long as you are willing

has the power to stop time,

here at two.

Enter Five

Five is hard to pin down. We take him to a party and he sits between Sophistication and Forty-Two, discussing the complex engineering challenges of Legos. He has an opinion about everything, and doesn’t hesitate to interrupt in order to share it. When Politeness reminds him to wait for the end of another’s sentence, he wavers between holding Maturity’s hand under the table, or stormily inviting Temper to come play in his room with him. Curiosity sometimes steps on Politeness’ foot, however, because she’s so delighted by the way Five’s descriptions come out as poems.

Five’s sister is Sturdiness, and he always takes her side, sometimes even whispering naughty ideas into her ear when she gets in trouble with Bottom Line. Five carries a snapping flag of golden silk, which he’s often tempted to flick into your face just to see what you will do. But when he forgets about it, the long fabric unfurls behind him into a magnificent sunrise all unnoticed by him as he streaks from one end of your house to the other, chasing Laughter.

Walking outside with him after a storm, he will stop suddenly to stare at a wheel ditch filled with muddy water. If you ask him what he’s thinking, he’ll tell you that he’s discovered the source of Muck, and suddenly the slick mud will look delicious to you, as if you could scoop it into your mouth and taste Revelation. Five collects the magic stones Beauty points out to him, and saves them in his pockets for Safety. If he comes up to stand silently beside you and tugs your sleeve, always listen. His gifts are small and endless.

Inspired by J. Ruth Gendler’s The Book of Qualities (1984), and my son.

Lao-tzu Was Never a Mother

Quote

The Question:

Photo by Louise Docker

Photo by Louise Docker

Do you have the patience to wait

til your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

–Tao te Ching, Lao-tzu

   trans. by Stephen Mitchell

The Answer:

No, not usually. It seems especially difficult when Five has half the contents of the spice cupboard spread all over the counter, making his sanctioned mini-mixture for an individual tuna melt (the rest of us will eat the standard version, thanks). Actually a mom-approved activity, given that we’re trying to  reconnect after he threw his pencil at me during the homework session and I’m trying to feed my family sometime in the vicinity of six p.m. All of this is fine. Mud settling, water clearing.

Then Two walks into the room, after a long, suspicious silence. Her shirt is half off, twisted around and caught on one arm. Her bottom is completely bare, because in her hands is an open diaper cradling extremely round poop that cooperatively rolls onto the kitchen floor as she holds it up for me to “sThee?” Sometimes it just gets a little muddy around here.

My Questions:

How will my mud ever settle with little feet tromping incessantly through my riverbed? Watch this! Oooh, look what I found under this rock! Do it again!

And did Lao-tzu have children? If so, did he raise them himself? Or have wives, concubines and female servants do it for him?

Photo obtained from Google images. Please notify me of any copyright infringement.