Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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so i have been working these past two weeks, mulling and toiling and essaying and travailing, over what is now a large sheaf of rough draft garbage, complete and total crap. love’s labour lost. sitting in a broken down house in the middle of a weed patch on the outskirts of the town where my grandparents are buried and my father fled many years ago. smart man. don’t ask me how it came to me that i own a house outright in this town i have never really lived in — that is not really important to this story. more important is why i am here this summer instead of somewhere else more inspiring, doing important work, something with social relevance, or partying in austin at the bookstore i abandoned to the management of my son. i am here quite simply because of a man. my husband. who likes the quiet of this place to write. who likes the economics of this place because there are no house payments.
i tried to tell myself that i, too, came here to write, and that i was going to write an important piece, an essay in fact — a learned article — on a theory of women’s work. a piece of writing for my time and my generation — women who have been nudged out the doors of their homes to go to work and become relevant, to make money, gain power, dress in zoot suits, who have been shamed into contraceptives for the good of their brain development, who have been handed the scrapers to clear out all children from their bellies for the sake of control. rational planning. i wanted to say that i thought housework, really, was important after all. i wanted to tell these women, my neighbors, my friends goaded into sterility, that the babies shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water, that we needed the babies, and that jobs as the men call them — what are they to us?
in the house. stay in the house.
but the weeds around this house have been growing while i have been typing these useless sentences. the water pipes under the house have been rotting, a lake collecting under the floorboards to snakes and crawdads to come and dine it’s mighty fine. neighbors tell me only eight dollars to clear this lot of all its fine tall weedy power. eight dollars and all my fine green forest whisked away, butterflies off to new and less cultivated spots, erotic mockingbirds, nestled with illicit loves in the roots of my weeds their stalks as thick as trees, evicted along with mice, crickets, multitudinous hoppers and peepers, buzzers and croakers, the chorus laid flat by a neighbor’s tractor power. i have been musing and thinking with a knotted forehead thrust, trying to recall the magic of housework, when i did it, long years ago, for a short span of time. it was magic all right. i recognized its economic power. i didn’t need gnp figures to prove my productivity, although gnp inclusion would be just fine.
(gnp. i never understood it. a nation-long loaf of bread perhaps. one huge metaphorical dollar sign.)
and while i have been sitting here stewing and attempting to produce, women, 14,000 of them, have been confabulating in nairobi, themselves attempting the huge job of coming to terms with women’s work.
certainly while i have been typing and retyping, editing and throwing out and putting back in and rearranging and cleaning up and polishing and re-polishing, i haven’t been doing much housework. i did try one day to fix the kitchen drain, where the gadget called the trap had been cracked. but when i tried to replace it with an identical one it wouldn’t fit, even when i banged and screwed and worked and gritted my teeth. so i left it at that. i use the bathroom sink to wash dishes in. since the pipes are so bad under the house, we only turn on the water once a day and fill up jugs. every three days or so we take a bath. since there is only one pan in the kitchen to cook in, there aren’t many dishes to clean, and my husband is very fond of spam and peanut butter. many times we eat at the dairy queen. today he ate a banana split for lunch there while i read the newspaper.
my husband has all the money, which isn’t all that much — the sum of unemployment checks since he is no longer a college professor, phased out of his job. i myself worked in my bookstore this past year without any salary because the bookstore has operated on the brink of financial ruin due to back taxes and multiple problems which i will not bore you with. suffice it to say that i work, or at least i worked there, while my husband gave me a place to stay and food to eat.
i know this sounds humiliating, but the lovegod told me to do it and i did. financial dependence brings out the pet in me. i have grown long and silky fur with a penchant for red ribbons tied in bows around my neck.
there are some, like my son, who do draw a wage from the bookstore — he has earned it due to his reliability. i, on the other hand, have not been reliable. i believe this is due to my left-handedness, which i inherited from my father, a man as i say who took off from this town. no he did not take off from the town, actually, he took off from a farm several miles outside of it. he laid down his hoe one day in the field and took off. for the university. for the military. for the sake of musical ability, which he had without other forms of manual dexterity. i, too, have no manual dexterity, although i type well and do play the piano.
i have tried to think straight and work straight and come to the same kinds of conclusions as the majority of those around me. but i am afflicted by right-brain consciousness which does not labor. it does not churn out logical chains. instead a burst of light comes, when it comes. if it comes. if it doesn’t come, black field. uncultivated. black snake touring the bottom of it.
there is no way that i can write a proper essay. what i have done through many years of practice through long hours of desk time in varieties of schools is to take the little bursts of thought — bright flashes of illuminated landscape, really — and try to thread them, like beads, once i get enough of them to make a chain that might seem to the casual reader to be logical — to have followed one after the other.
and now in my older age i can’t really even do that. i gave it up. i said to myself, several years ago, now look, if you want to write, write out of inspiration. why do you feel like you have to construct this construct? this approved form? your brain doesn’t work like that. for better or worse. it enjoys the dazzle of its own inspiration. feed that thing which is really you inside of there. whether it’s a snake or not. so what?
but this summer the urge to be financially viable came. the priority of money came up again. and i thought to myself, if i sit down with this excellent brain and work on this essay on work, perhaps i can sell it and make these days in this dead town employable. i thought to myself, if i could develop a theory of economics, certainly such a tract would be saleable, being basically economical! (because that is the way this excellent brain of mine works, fundamentalist in its nature, anchored as it is in its own mire.)
but when i began to write, i began to worry — what should i or would i leave out? i would write my own work history of course, telling about the years as a secretary, how awful, how much i missed my children, languishing as they were at home under the care of an illegal mexican maid, how my house then was no house, full of nothing since it was not full of myself. and then i would write about how i stopped being a secretary and began to stay at home.
but then it became sticky. should i tell about the shady friendships i then developed? the acid experiments? the ecstatic revelations which kept me busy? the lack of a broom? the dirty dishes and the sticky floors? if i was going to write a tract defending housework, urging modern women back to these magical jobs of ironing and cleaning, then how was my own history going to fit into that? oh but then of course i got better. after my first husband began to bring guided tours through the house to exhibit the world’s worst housecleaning. but then i got worse — after the divorce. and stayed worse. although i did continue to love my house and to become acquainted with my children whom i began to love above all things.
my children and my creativity. all it takes is a little egg and a little flash of sperm. that egg sits down there in the fallopian curve like a big frog waiting for the bug to fly into its mouth. gulps it down. becomes huge. transforms itself into a baby. what a creation! you can’t beat that.
i bred them and i fed them. now they’re all grown. but i still know how to make a baby.
oh i would have to include labor in this essay. certainly if i was going to cover the whole range of women’s work. how the baby grows while the mother thinks of the right kind of food, the right kind of air. atmosphere. who cares about housekeeping? the baby crawls on the floor, and the mother crawls with it. then the baby grows up and goes to school, and the mother gets the books out, too. and the mother learns and the baby learns, and they become pals.
when i work, i told myself back then, i will work at home.
i was always making resolutions. revelations. after divorce, with no child support due to circumstances again not relevant to this story of women’s work, having to do with man’s work (which he — the ex-husband — was not doing) there was a necessity for some kind of work, some money. money honey. nobody raises children on random bursts of inspiration. unless they become extraordinarily poor.
and so i became extraordinarily poor. money, when it came, came from the gods. it grew on vines which i would accidentally happen upon. people stuffed it in my mailbox. the government sent it to me in coupons. the universities forced it upon me because the literary scientists were interested in my unique brain for experimental purposes. a voice would come to me sometimes at night. it would tell me to go! or come! and i would do it. it would tell me now honey, just lie back, relax. no children are going to die of malnutrition because of your female malpractices, because of your mother left-handedness. sometimes i did panic. once or twice i ran screaming out of the house to the first newspaper rack i could find, tearing through it to the classifieds, reading employment ads until i was exhausted. several times i would finally take up some little job — temporary, part-time, something i felt that even my poor brain might be able to tolerate. but within months the snake at the bottom of it would wake up, the pond dried up from too much fluorescent light and air conditioning, and it would start slamming its coils every which way knocking the gray matter around in the cranium like fluff until i would think that i was being beaten to death from the inside out (which in fact i was!). so i would resign at best; at worst i would simply walk off at lunchtime and instead of returning, lie in the weeds in some park with my mouth open to let maximum sunshine down my throat. then go home and wait for the children.
tell your friends, i once told my daughter, if they ask what your mother does for a living, that she is a freelance writer. a lie of course. a poet i am a writer of free verse, but commercially-lanced i certainly am not.
but i did want to be useful. someone gave me a house. someone else gave me plenty of love. someone else gave me books i could sell, a store, in order to make money. they were all told, i am sure, by the voices to do it. so i do my job. i burn candles. i burn little packet of incense and send smoke back to these givers and lovers. i make up chants and charms. i fold whatever affection i might have on hand into special packages. this is women’s work, for those who are left-handed.
okay, left-handed women, you can tell me that i am defaming all of us. perhaps many of you have become labor leaders while i have simply maintained my right to fuck off. but i am speaking up here for us of the weedy towns. in the empty houses where the children have marched off to adult realms while we still remain in the back rooms fascinated with the rustlings under the floorboards. or for us of the jungles where children still cling like clusters of grapes to the vines.
tomorrow i’m going to take a bus to the city. when the voices say go i go, and the streets in these child-turned-to-grown-up days are as good for housework as a house for the likes of a brain like mine. since i haven’t made the article i intended, i won’t be peddling this to the editors of the major women’s magazines. but i’ll give it to someone since the burst itself was given to me, like a baby grown up and simply bursting out. night has come to the weed patch outside my window. wait comes for those who work. black night. felt objects. stay at home women, whether that is a street or a field, a tent, a house, a tree or a wilderness. listen to the snake. this is my contribution to nairobi.
Pat Ellis Taylor