Out of the Woods: Or How I Found My Muse at Walden Pond
I am a solitary person. Where others may seek out company, I seek out secluded places of thoughtfulness and self-discovery. My early appreciation for solitude may spring from the fact that as a twin, I began my life sharing the most intimate and private space of all — my mother’s womb. I am also the fifth of eight children and there was barely ever a quiet moment during my childhood. Early on, I learned to appreciate private spaces and uninterrupted quiet time.
Perhaps I also crave solitude because I’m a writer, and like most writers I’m at my best alone in a room, inside my head, thinking and creating.
Once upon a time, I imagined myself staying at home with my babies and writing in my spare time. However, I quickly discovered that motherhood is not conducive to the solitary life of a writer. Babies and small children pretty much eradicate any possibility of solitude. They have the tendency to interrupt the creative process that, like children, needs constant nourishment.
When Thoreau wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail,” he could have been talking about the life of any modern mother. I love my children dearly. However, by the time my daughter Olivia was three, and my son Jared was one, I was suffering from complete and total mommy burn-out.
Taking care of my two toddlers had become exhausting and unwelcome work. I was overtired from lack of sleep and at times felt isolated and alone in my role as stay-at-home mom. I craved adult conversation, intellectual stimulation, and a break from the tedium. I also was frustrated by endless negotiations with demanding, illogical children. The house was never clean, and I could no longer muster the energy to put away the toys and other little people things that seemed to overflow into every nook and cranny of our home. My life suddenly seemed like an overwhelming, out-of-control, endless to-do list.
Henry David Thoreau had wise advice from his two-year excursion in the woods at Walden Pond: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
But Thoreau wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in his tiny cabin with my two tots. And Thoreau had no idea how busy and complicated life is for a modern mother.
Besides, just like Thoreau I too viewed myself as someone on a sojourn. I believed I was simplifying my life when I decided to eschew a career in order to stay home and raise my babies. In fact, after Olivia’s birth I was riding an unbelievable emotional high. Every movement and milestone was closely observed and celebrated with great enthusiasm. To me, there was nothing mundane about being my baby’s caretaker. I reveled in it all, enjoying every minute detail. I was testing and challenging myself like never before.
I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could
not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.
Isn’t this the same reason I had decided to become a mother? I had a secret yearning, a desire to give birth and to nurture something other than my own personal ambitions. I was willing to take time off the fast track in order to nurture my children.
But I was just totally unprepared for the physical and mental challenges of caring for two young children. I felt pulled in a million directions and there was never enough time to do everything that needed to get done. I tended to chores while the kids were napping; played with my toddler while the baby nursed; and skipped meals, exercise, and sleep in order to accomplish more tasks from my to-do list. I fell into bed each night, exhausted and stressed.
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that
only great and worthy things have any permanent
and absolute existence, — that petty fears and petty pleasures
are but the shadow of reality.
How I would have loved just one night in my own secluded cabin during this time. However, unlike Thoreau, I was a mother, with unrelenting responsibilities and no escape hatch. I began to rely on afternoon naps for my very sanity. If I could get both kids down at the same time, then the afternoon would be a good one. If one refused to nap, there would be hell to pay by the time my husband walked in the door at dinnertime. If both refused to nap, I’d morph into the crazy, mean mommy — the one who screamed, cried, threatened, and cursed. I became a monster.
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.
Trapped in the stifling reality of my domestic life, I began to resent my children. It all seemed like a harsh punishment, a prison sentence with no parole. I could no longer derive any pleasure out of motherhood. I tried to deny my unhappiness, or told myself it was normal to feel this miserable. But after one two many freak-outs, I could no longer bear to see the fear and confusion in my children’s eyes. I could tell they still loved me immensely–but they were becoming afraid of me.
I went into therapy to confront my demons head on. At that first consultation, I was in tears as I described my terrible failures as a mother: “I’m always moody and depressed . . . I’m not enjoying these children, who were planned and wanted. How come motherhood is so difficult for me? Why am I unhappy? Why am I failing?”
Seeing how clearly overwhelmed and stressed I was, my therapist asked me what I did for enjoyment. I answered that I took the kids to the beach or park. She then asked me what I did alone, just for me. I told her that I occasionally snuck out to a Sunday matinee while my husband watched the kids.
She probed deeper by asking me about my life before motherhood. What did I do before I had kids?
“Sleep,” I joked. She laughed too. I told her that I used to exercise several times a week, go out with my husband every weekend, sleep in on Sundays, read as much as I could. As almost an afterthought, I added that I used to write screenplays and work on local independent films.
She was impressed by the writing and filmmaking, and curious to know why I had given them up.
I explained that I had decided to stay home and put my children ahead of my writing and filmmaking, a career as time-demanding and under-compensated, I now realized, as motherhood. I complained that I barely had the energy to get out of bed, and that I couldn’t imagine adding the stress of a job into the mix.
My therapist encouraged me to make time for myself, to carve out a little space so that I could revitalize myself. “Time for me” was a foreign concept. When I wasn’t feeling guilty about falling short with the kids, I was feeling guilty about not meeting the needs of my husband. I had become low man on my own totem pole. The thought of having time to myself seemed selfish and unrealistic. I even felt guilty about taking an hour a week for these Saturday morning therapy appointments.
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route,
and make a beaten track for ourselves.
I had fallen into my own beaten track, a mommy rut. I was so used to the pattern of my life that I could no longer step outside of it and find an alternate path. It was my therapist who helped me sort out my conflicting ideas about motherhood, identity, success, and happiness. I had become stuck in a maternal pattern of nurturing others before myself. I was following the only model for motherhood I had ever been shown — my mother’s.
My mother was from a time and place completely foreign to me. She was raised in the Fifties, during an era that would later be studied by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. My mother and father were strict Catholics – hence the eight kids. My mother believed that mothers gave up everything for their children. She’d often quote from a song, “I gave up the good life to become an ordinary housewife.”
I don’t remember my parents ever going out on a date, holding hands, or even really having a private conversation. With eight kids, they rarely slept alone in their bed, which still makes me wonder when and how they even found time to make babies. My mother believed in laundry, vacuuming, and perfectly made-beds, as if they held the key to absolute success in the universe. But my mother also was a contradiction. She was smart and creative, and she had her own dreams and ambitions too. Somehow, she found time during our naptimes for her own escape — she would write and illustrate children’s stories that were magnificent and beautiful to us, her children, even though they never found a publisher.
My other maternal role models came from popular magazines and entertainment, but I didn’t recognize myself in those representations, either. I wasn’t the all-glowing “Natural Mom” content to stay home and give up all other facets of my life for the sake of my babies. Yet, I also wasn’t “Super Mom” who could attend to a high-powered, exciting, and demanding career at the expense of any personal life. In fact, I wasn’t comfortable with any of the labels doled out to mothers. And I didn’t understand why everyone, including me, expected and accepted that motherhood should completely annihilate my individuality.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
With my therapist’s help, I began to listen to my own drummer and ignore the din from the generic masses. An anti-depressant helped lift the thick fog from my brain. I made time to read again, and realized how much pleasure I had always derived from such a simple pleasure. I signed up for a yoga class and began to recognize the powerful connection between the mind and body. I learned how to meditate to clear my mind of negative thoughts. Gradually I came to realize that I was a creative person who needed to express herself.
I couldn’t do motherhood exactly like my mother, my sisters, my friends, the experts, or movie stars. I had my own personality, my own needs and desires, my very own strengths and weaknesses. I had to make my own path in the mommy woods.
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams,
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will
meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
Over the next year, I continued to make peace with the war that raged inside my mind and body. Through reading, yoga, and meditation I had gained coping skills that helped me remain calm, despite the often-chaotic and pressing demands of my life as a mother. The “time for me” was paying off. I was beginning to enjoy the everyday details of my life again.
During this time I planned a mini-getaway: a much needed change of scenery and a chance to escape the mound of chores inside my home. With kids in tow, I headed to my twin’s home in Massachusetts during the midst of a crisp New England autumn.
On the last day of our visit, I insisted that we stop by at Walden Pond in nearby Concord. I hadn’t been to Walden since I was perhaps five, the same age as my daughter. Because of my developing interest in meditation, I suddenly felt drawn to Thoreau’s transcendental woods.
My children were only mildly interested as we peeked through the windows of the replica of Thoreau’s cabin. It was windy and unseasonably cold for early October and Jared was cranky and ready for a nap. Olivia humored me by posing for photos by Thoreau’s statue, but she was more interested in chasing her little cousin, Lucas. I didn’t expect the children to care about Thoreau’s contributions to our modern understanding of natural living and transcendental meditation. However, I knew they could at least appreciate Thoreau’s (and my own) simple love of the woods.
We slowly made our way over to Walden Pond, a vision that Thoreau described as follows:
In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing is so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; a mirror in which impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush…
On that bitterly cold October day, I was immediately struck by how breathtaking and awe-inspiring it was. Even my children seemed impressed by the magnificent sight. I took a moment and tried to connect to Thoreau’s thoughts, as well as to those who had visited this spot before me. For a minute, I was jealous of Thoreau’s experience. How could he enjoy years of solitude in these majestic woods, when I could not find two minutes of uninterrupted silence in my own home?
I snapped more photographs of my children playing in the shadow of the magnificent woods at Walden Pond.
The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
It was while looking through the lens of the camera at the wonders around me, as if connected to the ghost of Henry David Thoreau himself, that I had a moment of clarity: There is no greater beauty in this universe than that of my children.
I had been so lost in the dark grip of depression, frustration, and personal anxiety, that I often overlooked the most precious gifts before me. Yes, my young children were loud, demanding, and exhausting. They robbed me of even a moment’s peace, and constantly assaulted me with their needs. But they were also the source of my deepest comfort. My children reminded me of my place in the universe and showed me how to slow down and appreciate life. In that moment, I realized that my children were my greatest inspiration . . . my Walden Pond . . . a mirror into my very own soul.
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.
I left Walden for a simple reason: it was time to drive back to New Jersey and get back to my home, my chores, my life. It was also freezing and Jared clearly wasn’t cooperating with my need to commune with nature. Like Thoreau, I had visited Walden Pond and felt its awesome power. Unlike Thoreau, I didn’t need an additional two years of seclusion in these woods to fully grasp its lesson. As I drove home, I realized that I could leave the woods physically, and yet still live there spiritually. It was up to me to bring the peace, beauty, and simplicity of Walden home with me.
I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.
When I decided to start writing again as a creative outlet, I was initially frustrated by my lack of time and my lack of inspiration. It was difficult to commit fully to an idea when other important details crowded my mind. It was hard to feel poetically inspired, isolated as I was at home with a life consumed by pooping, puking, and peeing. I believed that great writers wrote about great things and thrilling adventures. Yet, my life was without adventure, at least as defined by our society.
Thoreau had said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” And during this time I began to wonder, was I truly living? Were my domestic pursuits and my maternal struggles worthy of contemplation and writing? What, if anything, did I have to say?
Blocked and unproductive in my stolen moments to write, I stepped away from the computer and began to satisfy what little bursts of writing energy I had by scribbling away in the journal that I had begun while pregnant with my first child. Some days I just recorded mundane events; a doctor’s visit, a baby’s new tooth, or some other milestone. These were boring details to the rest of the world; yet major events in my family’s life. Other days I recorded my frustrations, desires, or some other emotion. It wasn’t a lot. But it fueled my creative juices.
Something exciting happened just about this time. I discovered a community of women on the internet. I found women struggling with their identities as mothers, discussing the “dark side” of mothering. There were writers out there, brilliantly capturing the essence of the complex and confusing world of motherhood that was either ignored by our culture completely or portrayed as simplistic. I suddenly found that not only did I have something to talk about — I also had something to write about.
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
I put my journal aside, and began mapping out short maternal essays in my mind. Then, in short spurts of time (naptime or school time) I fleshed out these thoughts into real, organized essays. I found I had a knack for it. I found that I truly enjoyed writing about what had become the greatest passion in my life: my children. I discovered that the challenges of motherhood were not mundane or insignificant.
And as a writer, I finally discovered both my confidence and my passion. My children, it seems, gave me an authentic voice.
Now I write, and write, and write. People ask me how I do it. I tell them that I squeeze it in whenever I can. I write while there is chaos swirling on around me. I write in fits and spurts, between making lunches, wiping butts, getting drinks, kissing boo-boos, folding laundry, playing basketball, cleaning up broken glass, giving baths, checking homework, feeding the dog, and breaking up fights between two stubborn siblings. It is my life and my best material: loud, full, unpredictable, and always an adventure.
Still, I have not given up completely on solitude. I steal snippets of it when I can. It has become easier to reclaim some of my former self, as my children get older, become more independent, and spend more time away from me at school. I have also learned to take the time to nourish my soul, mind, and body — without feeling guilty.
And like Thoreau, I have come out of my woods with a deeper understanding of my world and better appreciation for the simpler things. I try not to sweat the small stuff, or get caught up in the music of other people’s lives. I try only to “Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each.”