I’m at the point in my years when, looking back, I can see that my life has been an accumulation. I live in a place I love, I have a partner of 40 years who interests me and who I love dearly, I have wonderful children, and now the joy of grandchildren too. By my desk is a shopping bag containing the reading copies of my books, dense with small coloured stickies to indicate possible passages and themes for public presentations. There are 13 books, 15 if you include chapbooks, and there’s another due next year. And another in progress. Some mornings I wake with such excitement to get to my desk. (In truth, I am often up in the wee hours to take advantage of the dark and quiet, a working time that I’ve come to cherish.) There were long periods when it didn’t feel this way, I know. When my children were small, I didn’t write much. Well, to be honest, there were years of this. The man who’d been my mentor when I was in my early 20s used to ask me what I was working on—he was a lovely generous man, a good friend, but his life was organized around his work: he had a tireless wife who took care of the details, she drove him to work and she picked him up, she cooked, she managed their active social life, organized huge memorable parties and trips. He’d ask, and I’d think of the house we were extending to make more room for our expanding family, the garden I was growing to feed us well, the bread rising, the laundry that never seemed to go away, the changing needs of those I was caring for, and I’d feel sort of hopeless. About writing anyway. and I do remember days of sadness, of despair, when I felt time was passing, tides changing, and I was flotsam. It’s important for me to remember this clearly and accurately. That a life contains paradoxes. A shopping bag of books and a memory of despair.
I’m glad I came of age as a writer in a time before social media. I’m particularly glad that the years I spent immersed in motherhood and domestic life were what I needed to carry and sort out privately, to remember, to make use of as I could. There were lonely times. A letter to a far-flung writer friend, wanting reassurance that one day I might have time again for my own work, well, it would take a week to arrive and then a response might take another week. We didn’t use the phone the way we would now. Long-distance calls were expensive! I wonder if it’s easier now for someone struggling with the difficulties of an artistic practice? I see people on various social media platforms announce their successes and I wonder about those who are wondering (who must be, because some things don’t change. Small children and their needs, households, work, etc., and the knowledge that there are years of this ahead…) if they will ever write a novel, a collection of poems, paint, sing. How it must feel to watch from the sidelines, the very public sidelines, and wonder.
When the poet who’d been my mentor asked, What are you writing?, and I had to confess, Nothing, I wish I’d known that what was actually happening was that I was accumulating an archive. Like the scraps of cloth I hoarded with the intention of using them one day in a quilt or a braided rug, the details of my life were gathering in my memory, a codex of weather, recipes, observations of how my children learned to walk, speak, how one dog died and another arrived, how our summer camping trips took us to remote rivers, groves of Ponderosa pines, small museums in dusty towns where artifacts spoke to us (or to me at least) with such poignancy. What are you writing, he’d ask. Nothing. But just wait, I wish I’d known to answer. He once confided to a friend that he predicted a very successful writing career for me. If he was alive, I wonder what he’d think now. My “career” has been (continues to be) a modest one. No agent. Books published by small literary presses (to whom I am hugely grateful, not just because they’ve taken my work but because they’ve made a place for other books like mine, small lively currents a little outside the mainstream). But it’s a life I wouldn’t have lived any other way, if I knew then what I know now. If I could reach back and tell the young woman who wondered if she would ever write again, if I could tell her anything, it would be this: Planetary scientists tell us that 100% of the elements in our bodies have their origins in stardust. We are stardust, all of us.