At 3:06AM on March 6th, a scream ripped through a small sterile room. The woman lying on the operating table never thought she would be there: legs double-strapped down, a blue tarp suspended over her head, her body convulsing as the hormones raced and swirled and left her. Like so many things, this was not what she had pictured. And like so many things, ultimately, it didn’t matter. The scream was good — proof of working lungs and a long labor brought to an end.
What is the meaning of life on such a day? Brought into a world that is broken on the day that serves as a reminder of the death of all things. Better to be born on Resurrection Sunday! New life on the day of New Life! I continue to wonder what the significance of an Ash Wednesday birth will have on this life that is currently curled up on my chest while I type around her.
Lent has had a unique place in my life since I first started observing it. I didn’t grow up in a church tradition that practiced Lent, and my ignorance of its value was clear when I thought giving up things like chocolate was supposed to mimic Christ’s sacrifice. Only later, after college, did I realize it wasn’t supposed to be the same as Christ’s sacrifice, but to be a constant reminder of that most sacred gift, and the season of lament began to hold new meaning for me.
There have been Lents that broke me. Or, perhaps, it is that I was already in mourning and the church calendar lined up to allow me to grieve. I have appreciated the coinciding of cold, dark days with lament, and I have read daily devotionals, prayed daily prayers, given up daily distractions. I have mourned the loss of relationships, prayed for the strengthening of others, and sought Christ’s transformation in myself.
There are so many things to be worked out in the active intentionality that Lent provides.
There are so many things to be waited on in the rest and contemplation that Lent demands.
This Lent, however, is starkly different.
Her eyes are almond shaped. She has her grandmother’s lips. Her favorite thing is to stretch her little limbs as far as she can and move as much as possible. She does not like to be swaddled, and she loves to look out windows.
Life doesn’t always line up with the meaning of days. Sometimes you miscarry on Easter. Sometimes you bury your grandfather on the most beautiful sunshine-filled day in August.
This year, my Lent looks like wonder. Wonder at this tiny human who was once inside me and is now outside me. She was born on Ash Wednesday — for dust you are and to dust you will return — and her birth meant no ashes, no church for me. Her birth on the day of ashes didn’t even factor into her name, and yet Evangeline seems the only name for a baby born on this day: Bringer of Good News.
It seems to me there is no better vocation, no better blessing.
Three and a half weeks — the new amount of time I have until March 14th. I know it could be any day, really (March 14th is an arbitrary date designed to give me some planning ability, most of which will be thrown out when the real day arrives), and this is both exciting and nail-biting. Every weekend, we tick things off dresser, changing pad, bookshelves, pack-and-play, and it makes me happy in this new, strange way. As if, on this new planet of coming-motherhood, I am actually going to be able to see a problem/need, and fix it. My life is not a free-for-all, but rather, in some ways, I will still be able to do what I need to do to live a happy life.
Because I promised my husband — and because I think it will be a helpful, cathartic experience for me — here are five reasons I AM ready for motherhood (some just as humorous as the reasons I’m not…)
1.I can tell a good story. Not only that, but I can read a good one, too. When I was in second grade, I would put my little brother down for a nap after lunch (one of homeschooling’s lesser-known-perks). We’d go up to his bedroom, and I’d read him stories before he fell asleep. Sometimes, this looked more like playing/jumping on the bed/not really getting ready for a nap, but mostly what I remember is learning how to read to a toddler.
Fast forward to the five-year-old girl who stole my heart in my early 20s. We spent long summer days swimming in the pool then drying off in the sun, and each time she would say, “Catherine, tell me a story,” her strawberry-blonde hair hanging in thick wet strings down her back. It was easy at first, but then I began to run out of material (she demanded true stories, ones I had lived, so imagination was no help). I needed direction. “Give me a category,” I started to say, and amazingly, this worked. She’d think for a minute, her forehead furrowed, and then say things like “Animals!” or “Cake!” or “Spiders!”. Somehow this was just enough guidance to get my wheels turning. I don’t think there was even one time I didn’t have a story to tell, and now I know what to do if my little one is as inquisitive and story-loving as she was: Give me a category, I’ll give you a story.
2. I learned how to fold the Marie Kondo way. This is no joke. I watched a few episodes, was annoyed with most of the people, and came away with some amazing folding techniques. I don’t know what it is about seeing my underwear, socks, and camisoles neatly lined up in accessible rows that makes me think I’ll be able to conquer this laundry-phobia. It’s so less daunting to look and see that I have four pairs left (read: four days until I HAVE to do laundry), then to scrounge around, wonder if there’s anything clean, and be unsure about how long I can wait. Even the smooth rows of off-white diaper liners are bringing me hope (but have you ever tried to fold baby socks? what is the point?).
3. I own a car seat, a diaper bag, and I will soon be in possession of roughly 24 cloth diapers. I’m pretty sure all you need to bring your baby home is an installed car seat, so I’m a bit ahead of the curve with a diaper bag and soon-to-come diapers. I even have two boxes of wipes, a breast pump (my least favorite, least exciting, and most terrifying product to-date), and various other accoutrements. I have a sweet stuffed bunny from my city-friend (if you’ve been reading this long enough, you might remember her and her many words of encouragement), a string of handmade felted bees from a work friend who knows me better than I’d thought, and other darling and necessary items that make me excited to usher a new life into this challenging and beautiful world.
4. Gabe. At first, this was tossed around for a good laugh between us as I was coming up with five reasons. And then it became the most important. Apart from my God who gives me strength and peace, it is Gabe who makes me the most ready to be a mother. I’m not one for public displays of love for my husband, mostly because no matter what picture I post or what words I string together, nothing really explains our relationship. Nothing can really describe what it’s like to know there is someone who will always have my best interests at heart (and now the best interests of our child). There is someone (other than my mother) who will listen to me as long as I need him to without seeming exhausted (I said seeming…).There is someone who doesn’t get angry at me when I roll over a thousand times while he’s trying to sleep, someone who makes me dinner when I’m just too tired after work, someone who is looking forward to days and evenings when it is just him and our baby because I have choir or work or what-have-you. There is no twisting his arm with this man, and I am so grateful.
5. I have people. There has never been a time when I was left on my own. The grueling hours of reading, writing, and singing in the practice room that came with college were always accompanied by other similarly-worn-out friends who were more than willing to go to a coffee shop and work while simultaneously chatting and sipping London Fogs (or the occasional chai). When I look back on those days, I remember the dark feelings of I’m not good enough, I’m faking this, what in the world will I do when I graduate? Now I wonder if my actual days were as trying as they seemed — without even a car bill at the time, in some ways, I was freer than I will ever be again. But I felt heavy, I was scared of the unknown, and people were there.
Then came the years after college, a blur in many respects, but people were there. They listened to my wonderings, fears, dreamings. We journeyed through years of dating (still one of my favorite topics), career-searching, and city-hopping. They gave me advice, took my advice, and I’d say my early twenties were the years of my biggest transformations. My people taught me how to love better, how to fight in a healthy way, how to sit down at the island of a mature, beautiful woman, pour my soul out to her, and gather her wisdom like pearls. They taught me how to not be afraid to ask for help. I know how to say “Things are not okay, I am not okay,” but then also how to respond when they, too, feel untethered.
And now, in the beginnings of my marriage and that moment right before change comes, I know I am not alone. My family reminds me they are always there, that there is nothing we can’t figure out. My friends hug me when I’m sad and then make me laugh, reminding me that not everything is as serious as it seems. I wasn’t quite sure what my fifth reason for being ready would be, but without a doubt, it is the people in our lives who have made Gabe and me who we are. Why would our baby be any different?
There is such a special sweetness in being able to participate in creation.
Pamela S. Nadav
Six and a half weeks. That is roughly how long before baby Hawkins Knell enters the world. That is roughly how much longer I need to ask for help tying my boots (I definitely never thought I would need to do that), wear Gabe’s L.L. Bean jacket, and gather as much wisdom from those who have gone before. I am waiting with excitement now, much more than fear, and it really became real at the baby shower my sister and family threw for me. There was no denying it: this baby is coming whether I think I’m ready or not.
I don’t know what things are called.I’ve been researching all the accoutrements so many claim are Must. Have. I’m not much of a researcher (I prefer, instead, to make big decisions based on one or two facts, my gut, and the desire for definitiveness), so it is strange to find myself scrolling article after article about the latest stroller/car seat combo, the best crib ($499, Pottery Barn? I think not.), and the best bottles for a fussy baby (I don’t even know yet if I’ll have a fussy baby…) That being said, Saturday I was sitting at my baby shower, surrounded by women I love, opening gifts. It was my sister’s gift, and out came smooth wooden animals for teething. “Oh! Chew toys!” I said. Facepalm. “Catherine, they’re teething rings,” someone said, laughing, and I, too began to laugh. I also was unsure of the difference between a sling and a wrap, but I was duly informed.
I only do laundry once every two-three weeks. This is perhaps the area in which I am least prepared for change. When I was single living in the city, I could stretch my wardrobe to nearly three weeks. This was done with an excessive amount of underwear and just enough bath towels. The only thing that really pushed me to do laundry was running out of gym clothes or underwear, and that was when I had a laundry machine and dryer handy in the kitchen. Now, living in New Hampshire, our washer/dryer is on the same floor as our condo, but it’s down the hallway. I can’t tell you how much I hate walking down that hallway with my laundry basket. I can’t even put my finger on it — maybe it’s fear that someone will walk by. Maybe it’s stressing about remembering to change the laundry over so I don’t annoy our neighbors. I hate it so much that usually Gabe throws in a few of my things with his wash, just to avoid my meltdown.
I don’t know how to simplify my life. I love composting. I know this does not make sense, but every time I open the freezer and pop a pepper top in the Market Basket bag, or knock the tea leaves out of my steeper, I get a surge of joy. I can’t help but marvel at the cycle of life and think about how I am sending energy back into the earth in a way that is life-giving rather than wasteful. However, if you noticed, I said “every time I open the freezer.” That’s because living in a condo does not lend itself well to composting. I’ve struck a deal with my parents that I can bring my frozen scraps to their house, and I do so every time the freezer gets full and Gabe threatens to throw it all in the trash. It’s worth it to me. But it isn’t simple. It isn’t easy. There are a lot of things like that in my life right now. I don’t stock up on staples in my kitchen or snacks at my school because it takes planning, but that makes my days more difficult. I don’t pack my lunches in the evenings to streamline my mornings because that makes me feel like all I do is work or plan for work. I don’t put my reusable grocery bags in my car so I have them with me no matter what because I can’t be bothered to remember. I don’t know how we will make cloth diapers work if I work full-time and currently don’t do laundry. I don’t know how to say no to a new voice student, a coffee date, or a fun dinner out. What I know how to do is freeze my compost, recycle recycle recycle, try to shop frugally, and try to get as much fun in my week as possible. Babies don’t make life easier, they make them more complicated. Yet, I find myself hoping this baby forces me to learn how to slow down, streamline, plan. Fingers crossed.
I function best with 8-9 hours of sleep. And the thing is, this is barely optional. I am not kind, I am not joyful, and I am not organized when I don’t get enough sleep. The kindness I do have some control over, but the organization? No, that is the first thing to leave my sleep-deprived mind. I don’t remember what I’ve said, the names of things, or my schedule. Nursing in the night is going to be such an interesting adventure.
I’m not good at leaving my club. This is the one that is least tangible and therefore, the most interesting to me. I realized this about myself when I had my first post-college relationship. All of a sudden, I was in the “Couples Club,” when I hadn’t even known clubs existed at all. I was invited to events I’d never been invited to, I was asked out to double dates with friends who had never asked me to dinner before, and I found myself frustrated for my single-self, the woman who wouldn’t have minded being a third, fifth, or seventh wheel, but who rarely was given the option. Then, over a year ago, I entered the “Married Club.” This club was more overt. Topics of conversation include: buying a house, investing, saving for the future, who-does-what around the house. I enjoy many of these conversations, but it was not lost on me that my 25-year-old self would have no idea what to make of them. In fact, she would have thoroughly stuck her nose up at the boring details of married people. And now, I find myself leaving the “No-Children Club” for the “Mommy Club” (do I have permission to rename it the “Family Club”? “Motherhood Club”? anything but “Mommy Club”?!). These conversations are different: childcare options, diapering options, feeding options, schooling options. My “No-Children Club” self could barely stand it when people got together to discuss their parenting woes, but I see my time on the horizon, and I am afraid. I like the club I’m currently in. I’d like to stay here. Or, perhaps it’s not that. Perhaps it’s that I’d like to be in the “Family Club” and just do things differently.
While I wonder if these things will make motherhood more difficult, I do not lose heart. I know many mothers who could tell me they weren’t ready, either (but really, what does “ready” even mean?). Just like laughing at my ignorance about teething toys and slings, I am beginning to look at this upcoming change with a sense of humor: Isn’t it funny that I am here, doing this thing? Hopefully my baby doesn’t care about clean clothes, either.
[P. S. I should also say that Gabe made me promise to write a post called “5 Reasons I’m Ready for Motherhood” to even this out. I appreciate the balance he brings to my life.]
I woke up, got ready for work, kissed my husband goodbye, and headed down the highway. I thought: What music fits today? And, oddly enough, it was Taylor Swift on shuffle. The girl who sang “I’m feeling twenty-two!” is who I wanted to listen to on the day I turned thirty.
I stopped at Bagel World, got a marble rye bagel with olive cream cheese, and ate it at my desk before students arrived. I drank a cup of strong coffee. I remembered birthdays past — some lovely, some less-than-so. I remembered it was also my cousin’s birthday; I’d been born on his tenth birthday three hundred miles away, and now we are each starting a new decade.
I remembered going to a wedding on my 25th and sitting with friends from church at a round table with a white table cloth. Having my name called from the dance floor. Standing in front of a room full of mostly strangers as they sang “Happy Birthday.” Feeling remembered. Feeling embarrassed. Feeling cared for. Feeling like twenty-five was unimaginably old.
When I walked through the lunchroom yesterday, the high schoolers sang “Happy Birthday” (they will always remember because I share a birthday with one of their comrades), and then after school, my international students brought me a surprise birthday cake to make our meeting celebratory. Their bashful faces as they presented it to me reminded me how young and shy they still are.
Coffee with my mom.
Tea with my sister.
Then the drive home to my husband who somehow always knows how to make a day special. We had dinner in the cozy candle-lit upstairs of a restaurant we’d been to, but never upstairs.
“This is perfect,” I said. “We’re at a place we know we like, but a new part of it so it feels like my birthday.”
There were flowers from a friend on the table, texts and phone calls from people I love. Singing voicemails and messages of encouragement.
A beautiful typewriter that I wish I could be using right now to write this blog.
All of this is not to show that I had the most amazing day (even though it was amazing).
Mostly, it is to remind myself that turning thirty is a beautiful accomplishment. Many of the people I most love and admire are thirty or have been at one point. With age comes wisdom (if done correctly), and yesterday I felt more excitement about the year ahead than I did sadness at the years behind. That is saying a lot.
[first day of thirty]
I started writing online in 2012, after a birthday that left me particularly sad and confused and unsure. I was certainly happy to leave twenty-two behind, but there was so much that I couldn’t anticipate about the year to come. So, I sat down on my parents’ couch with a French press of coffee and started this blog (or the early manifestation of it).
For seven years, I’ve been thinking, processing, expressing, sharing, and writing in this space that holds so much of me. There have been times when I’ve looked back and cringed at what I wrote. I’ve even toyed with deleting old posts that feel outdated, not me, or just plain silly to preserve my self-respect. I haven’t let myself, though. To write, you need to be honest.
So, what will I do with my first full day of Thirty?
clean my car do laundry (but I did help with a load…) worry about finances think about what to name the baby stress about the right stroller wonder how I’ll write when I have an infant
Instead, I will make stock out of a chicken we roasted this week and vegetable scraps.
I will clean my desk off, rearrange it, and write a blog post about thirty and all the joy that is to come.
I will go for a ride in the car with my husband.
I will watch an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
I will enjoy a day of rest, companionship, and anticipation of what is to come.
More than once, I remember walking down the dark stairs with a soft yellow light coming from the living room that told me: Mama’s up. It felt like the middle of the night, but it was probably just a dark early morning. What was I doing awake? Nightmares? Maybe. But often it was just the turning of my own mind, a good book that eased me both into life and out of it again, or the feeling that life was happening around me even as I slept.
I would turn the corner and see her sitting on the couch in the half-light of a small lamp. A candle burned on the coffee table, ushering in contemplation. A mug of hot tea steamed beside her. I don’t remember wondering why she was awake. I might have asked her, but what sits in my memory is curling up next to her — her book sacrificially (and I don’t mean that lightly) set aside for the curve of her daughter’s body against hers and the thoughts that came tumbling out of her mind and heart and soul.
I am fairly certain this was before she started making me tea…
We share so many similarities, me and my mother.
I have been waking up around 3:00AM these days with restlessness in my bones. I am not one of those people whose creativity grows out of sleeplessness, nor am I productive in any tangible way when it is dark. But right now, I am sitting on my couch with a huge pillow behind my back. I have lit the candle my mother taught me created soft space, and I have a mug of loose-leaf tea steeping by my elbow. It is dark except for the candle, the glow of my laptop, and a faint light on the stairs. I can hear my husband breathing as he sleeps, the sounds of his in-and-out drifting down the stairs, making me not so concerned that I woke him with my movements.
Part of the reason I’ve been waking up is someone else’s movement. The little limbs that grow bigger every day, that seem to kick and stretch in perfect rhythm, over and over again like a drum. This is not frustration I feel. This is gratitude.
Lately, my participation in creativity has consisted of giving feedback to high schoolers’ essays, knitting one or two huge rounds of a baby blanket I semi-regret starting, and attempting to dress myself each morning despite me deep desire to crawl back into bed. No time, no time, no time. That is one phrase I am sick of watching run through my head on a tired reel. Perhaps this is why I’m waking up? There’s time now.
Because I don’t remember asking my mother why she woke up in the night, I am left to conjecture. As I approach motherhood, I am convinced it had something to do with little ones needing her constantly. What is alone time to a mother of four? Maybe she even woke herself up on purpose. Maybe she reveled in the moments of candle-lit darkness, the only ones that brought her quiet, ease, and a settling-in with herself.
And then I intrude, a little girl who never once thought: maybe Mama wants to be alone. It never crossed my mind, and she certainly never made me feel that way. She set her book or her notebook aside as though it had merely been filling time until I came down. She made me my own cup of tea. We rested awake together.
I do not yet have anyone to wander down the stairs and ask me to set things aside. I type away and am free to wonder what the future will hold.
Will I wake in the night on purpose to steal a few moments for myself?
Will I find time to write and think and be Catherine, even when most of my creative energy will be going into shaping and caring for and loving a brand new human?
Will I hold in one hand my desire for quiet contemplation and writing, and in the other welcome my child’s sleepy-but-awake body next to mine?
Somehow, I will do both, I am sure. I will learn how to work with the rhythms that come naturally, as well as create new ones that I need. I see my mother’s desire to steal away time for herself, but also her love for her children. I want both of these things.
And so, I start now. It was easy to swing my legs out of bed, to stop trying to fall back asleep. It was easy to create a warm space for me to finally put some words down.
With practice, I will be able to do this anytime, anywhere, with anyone.
I smile. I am standing in front of a room full of students just before the bell rings.
“July,” I say, evening out the stack of papers in front of me.
“What?!” There is consternation on their faces.
“Why did you wait so long to tell us?” one girl asks.
[this former two-year-old can’t wait to teach her two-year-old how to garden]
When I say the word “baby,” I’m not sure how they’ll react. I’ve taught some of these students for four years, off and on. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bad habit they can’t shake — I chase them from Latin to English and back again. Part of me thinks they won’t care. What does it matter to them, anyway? Apart from an eight-week substitute and perhaps a less-energetic Ms. Hawkins Knell, not much will change for them.
But this morning when I got dressed, I looked in the mirror and thought: It’s time.
There are things you wait for patiently, the time smoothly running as you go about life. I’m not quite sure I know what those things are; they’re few and far between for me.
I wait with anticipation. I wait with a leaning-forward.
Waiting for this baby is different from any other waiting I’ve ever done. On the one hand, I want the day to come tomorrow. On the other, I push it as far away as possible. This waiting is filled with curiosity (who will she look like? what will he enjoy? will she laugh like me? will he have Gabe’s eyes?), fear (WHAT AM I DOING? can I actually handle this? HELP.), excitement (I can’t wait to show the baby the world! share all the things I love! build our family and its culture and itsways!) and doubt (I am not the person to do this).
Along with my excitement, there is so much to process, think about, worry about, freak out about.
One thing I love about my students is they didn’t express any of these things.
They expressed joy.
[I originally bought this as a joke with a student I worked with over the summer. Now, it’s feeling like a not-joke to myself.]
Here were some other gems from the day:
“Can I hug you, Miss Hawkins?”
“Now you can’t drink coffee!!” (I assured him I could, indeed, have one caffeinated cup and some decaf.)
“You have to eat so healthy now.” (Later at lunch, this student walked by me with a twinkle in his eye, nodded at my red pepper dipped in hummus, and said, “Good job.”)
“You’ll have to go to the bathroom all the time!” (This one surprised me — must have experience with pregnancy.)
I never had an indoor plant that survived longer than a month. I remember walking the aisles of Market Basket and gazing longingly at the tiny African Violets in their foiled pots. I’m not sure how many my parents bought me over the years — at least three or four — and their purpley-pink flowers looked soft and adorable on my bedside table. For about three weeks.
We are a family that gardens, yet we are embarrassingly bad at keeping indoor plants alive. I’d say I have a brown thumb, but I don’t. At least not with every green thing. Before I went to college, my herb garden flourished, twisting and vining around the small stone walls we built. In our big garden, there were always cucumbers and tomatoes, onions and swiss chard.
Just never plants in my cranberry-colored bedroom.
Morning glories in my old herb garden.
When I lived in Somerville, an orchid a student gave me languished in my window: too much sun, too much water, too much attention. A succulent turned brown and squishy (who knew you could kill a succulent?!). I felt like a murderer; one born of neglect as much as over-care.
[You can imagine my fear when Gabe, on our third date, walked over the bridge towards me with a big white orchid plant in his hand. I’d been known to kill before, and I’d probably do it again. I tend to connect plants and trees with certain instances; would this, too, speak doom to our budding romance?]
[Said orchid has never flowered again, but it is not actually dead. Read into that what you will.]
I’ve been waiting for my own farm since I was six years old and read Little House on the Prairie — held it like this rosy dream in front of me, like some sort of reminder that even if things aren’t as I’d imagined, someday they would be. Somehow I would find a way to weave writing and singing and family and farming and teaching and faith in a way that would bring me my deepest joy.
Sure, I had (have?) delusions about farm life. I thought staying home every day and tending to my gardens and animals would be this relaxing, idyllic life. Even after years of tending to chickens and working in my parents’ garden, I was able to maintain the misguided notion that farming would help me escape the fast-paced modern lifestyle. Now, I still long for a plot of land, a rolling meadow, goats and chickens and bees. I want a life that connects me with the earth so that my mind doesn’t float too far up in the clouds.
[“This is life,” she said as we walked on the boardwalk along the river. “This is it.” And I realized hours later — or maybe a day — that I can’t keep waiting for things to happen. When I get my farm. When I figure everything out. When I finally stop this yearning. This is life. This is it. What do you want it to look like?]
Plants and art make sense. Gabe’s Mitza made this for us on our wedding day, and the pottery dish is a Christmas gift from my mother.
When we moved into our new home, a condo with no yard, one of the first things we did was buy plants. After potting them, watering them, and distributing them to various sunny windowsills, I was shocked at the amount of ease and beauty they brought to my life. What is it about green things? Suddenly our high-ceilinged home was brighter, cozier, more alive.
I wish I could say that I’ve turned over a new leaf (that was unintentional, but I’m keeping it), and that every plant we bought remains luscious and full and growing. That is not the case. We have a fussy plant that I’ve moved twice, but it still isn’t happy. I tried watering it. I tried not watering it. I would sing to it if I thought that would work. We have a big palm behind our bed that graces us with its browning tendrils upon waking. What is wrong with it? I cannot guess.
Last week, my parents gave me basil, thyme, mint, and oregano after our trip to California proved too long and too dry for the herbs I had (not pictured). I drove to Lowe’s to get terracotta pots, and I couldn’t resist the little succulents leaning ever-so-slightly in their mini-pots. I’m a sucker for spider plants with their babies dangling down, begging to hang from our tall shelf. I bought more than I’d planned.
I spent my afternoon re-potting, watering, arranging, tending.
I spent my afternoon with my hands in dirt (on my kitchen table, not in my garden).
I’m excited for the day when we will be able to have our own farm. When the plants I grow will grow food for our bellies and deliciousness for our taste buds. But right now, I am grateful that I’ve somehow kept a few plants alive, that I am able to bring to life my girlhood dream (even if it’s in terracotta pots), and that dreaming is beautiful, but it is most life-giving when it connects with the world as you find it.
“I love wearing sunglasses,” my mother would say, flipping a large brown pair of shades on. “I feel so invisible!”
When I was little, I didn’t know what she meant. How did covering her eyes make her feel invisible? But even more importantly, why was that a good thing?
__ __ __
I’m sitting in the middle of a seminar on using ancient writings in our own work. My friend, Kate, and I are intrigued by the premise, but neither of us is so sure it applies to what we write. Regardless, the dark-haired, dark-skinned man with the beautiful British accent has us listening attentively to his quiet words. He uses terms I don’t understand, he tries to get us to respond creatively to an upsetting image of a man sitting atop a wreckage that was presumably once his home, and suddenly I am feeling a little anxious. The words I’m choosing to describe the image are not strong. I don’t know Sanskrit or Middle English, or apparently English, as I have to cross-out and write again.
I have so many questions for this man, like how do we use beautiful, interesting words but not sound like intellectual pricks? or, how has this practice informed your own work?, but I am silenced by a young woman in the back. She is perhaps a few years younger than me (or older — at this point, I have no concept of age), and her hand is popping up every few minutes. She is clearly well-educated and articulate (two things we should value), but I bristle against her neediness. I have compassion for her neediness, but I do not want to be associated with it. Her neediness represents my own deep desire to be acknowledged by this writer-thinker man, and now it will never happen.
At the end of the seminar, he leans back in his chair and says he welcomes any questions. Kate and I get up to leave. The young woman from the back hurries forward, eager with even more thoughtful questions, comments. I hear her proclaim herself a Classicist, and I realize why I feel so uncomfortable: this jostling for teacher approval reminds me too much of college, of the constant push and shove of attention-needers and attention-givers. I had chosen not to participate then, and as I leave the tiny room with the loud fan and the thoughtful seminar-goers, my questions and ideas still locked up inside me, I wonder if I missed out, both then and now.
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Saturday, I drove to our day-long choir rehearsal with the top down, a green Red Sox baseball cap on, and a pair of sunglasses. Suddenly, I knew what my mother was talking about. Invisibility, when undesired, can cause pain. Feeling unseen or unknown can pop up eight years later at a writers’ conference in an embarrassing and surprising way.
And yet, invisibility sought is power.
The ability to see but not be seen, to observe unobserved. After all, isn’t that what being a writer is all about? How could one observe the world from a stage? Or the same with artists: the artist observes the subject, not the other way around. As I drove in my unintended disguise along the highway, down the winding streets to rehearsal, I felt as though I saw everything but no one knew what I looked like. I was invisible, it was chosen, and it felt good.
It is strange to me that this same feeling can be so debilitating if not desired. In some ways, I think I imagined myself unnoticed in college, and from there, it became the case. Like I tell my students when they sigh, “No one likes me!”, there is no better way to make sure that is true than to think it. I see them separate themselves at lunch, hide away in their phones or their books, and the self-fulfilling prophecy unfolds before my eyes.
If you behave like no one likes you, no one will.
If you leave a seminar with your questions still bubbling up inside you, no one will be able to engage them.
Maybe your invisibility, then, is always a choice — sometimes desired, sometimes not, but always chosen.
Yesterday, as I was leaving school for the summer, I thought: Why does this always end with a whimper? The build-up, the high-energy anticipation of finals and graduation and students’ summer excitement dissipate, and I am left cleaning out my room, attending meetings, and, at the end of the day, wandering out of the building with the sense that this cannot be the end.
It is the end, though, and the 2017-2018 school year is over. In many ways, this year has been fraught with anxiety. Getting married is always a little daunting, but doing it in November with two days of honeymooning is perhaps lunatic. Poor Gabe had to adjust to my moods and my fears and my intense joy (although he claims none of this was surprising to him), and I was expected to jump right back into my life although it no longer looked like my life. The students never know what to call me, and my coworker says it’s my fault (“Pick one!” he teased). What I picked is too long, so the students are left oscillating between Miss Hawkins, Mrs. Knell, Ms. Knell, Mrs. Hawkins, and the poor things stutter just like I do when I introduce myself to new students.
“I’m M….” I say, shaking their hand, blinking, because if I say Miss Hawkins, I feel like I’m lying. If I say Mrs. Knell, I feel like I’m talking about someone else. Usually, I settle for something like Ms. Knell or even Ms. Hawkins Knell, and the interaction is far more awkward for people watching than it is for the new student who will forget my name entirely.
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This is the first full day of summer, and the first day of my writing challenge: write for one hour every morning. I feel like Hemingway and Woolf and all these writers I admire and loathe at the same time are sitting behind me, with typewriters, a cigarette dangling out of their mouth, and a glass of bourbon, muttering, “Come on, seriously? You’re daunted by writing one hour a day? You haven’t got the stuff.” I hear their typewriter keys clicking furiously even while the birds are singing out my open window, and I think, You’re right. I haven’t.
What is THE STUFF?
I went to a Barre class for the first time at the YMCA last night, and as I worked up the most disgusting sweat and realized the 60-year-old woman in the corner was way stronger than I, I realized that maybe ‘the stuff’ to go to a Barre class and finish without dying is the same stuff I need to do this challenge.
Maybe ‘the stuff’ looks more like writing a 5k than being creative genius.
Maybe ‘the stuff’ is the same thing that gets me up out of bed at 6:00AM during the school year.
Or, maybe ‘the stuff’ is the fake-it-till-you-make it attitude that has gotten me through many of life’s challenges so far.
If I tell myself “You’ve got this!” every morning, maybe I’ll have a slim pile of poems or a well-crafted essay come September.
There’s also the chance that what I will have is not so much a beautiful finished product but a stronger writing muscle. The ability to sit and write for an hour without stopping. The well-worked creativity that has been hiding for some time.
Either way, I don’t know how people write outside of a writing community. That’s what I emailed my writers’ group this morning as I embarked on my first hour of slow and dutiful typing. I know I couldn’t slog through the hard times without other writer friends who remind me that process and product are inseparable, and that a good dose of reality mixes well with some naive optimism.
Summer 2018 looks scary and exciting, and while I may not know exactly what to have my students call me, I do know that as a writer, I am Catherine Hawkins, and that feels about right.
My students are constantly asking me who is my favorite. It reminds me of when I was little and I was convinced that my parents must have a favorite among the four of us siblings — how could they possibly love us all equally? We were so vastly different, bizarre, and needy in our young years that the idea that my mother and father could look us in the eye and say they loved us all with no holds barred seemed laughable.
Now, I tell my middle and high school students that I do not have a favorite. I mean this to the bottom of my soul, to the top of my heart, and all around. I mean it from my Monday to my Friday, from my happiness to my sorrow. I mean it from when I am angry at them to when I think there is no greater joy than hearing young people happy.
I mean it every time I say it.
Because I read these articles, hear these horrifying stories and think: that could be me.
I signed up to teach them, but really this means a lot more than I thought. It means I will help them navigate awkward social situations, I will engage their questions when I am exhausted from 18 hours of waking and walking and talking, and, I realize, it means that I would die for them. Each and every one. And that I wouldn’t regret it. And that this is what it means to love.
I love all of them, I would protect all of them, and I am sick reading these stories and praying that if this ever happens to me, I will not think twice before jumping between my curious, loving, thoughtful, funny, crazy, thoughtless, beautiful students and someone who wants to hurt them.
When I entered this field, I thought the most difficult questions I would need to grapple with were pedagogical and philosophical. I was very wrong.