Fire, Aphasia, and the Spirit World
I had a routine before starting to write. First, I’d read a couple pages of a mystery, or more than a couple. I’d check email, play some solitaire, and finally if I had fifteen minutes left before bedtime, I’d start counting syllables and considering line breaks.
Then I had a baby.
The first few weeks after Rose was born, I would sit staked to the breastfeeding chair and feel a current through my limbs, vibrating deep inside. One night it felt like “I must have it. Take me now, even a baseball bat wouldn’t be enough.” Except it wasn’t sex I wanted; it was writing. I’ve been calling myself a writer for fifteen years; I went to graduate school, I teach writing, and I never found this passion. I have no time for solitaire, very little time for the bathroom, but somehow, I have to write.
I feel like a faucet desperate to open. The handle sticks, and it’s hard to get going, but you know when you’re pressing at it, water is waiting to burst out. It’s the water for the garden. It’s not delicate. It doesn’t have to be drawn up. It’s power. It explodes out at the first opportunity.
I write when she’s pulling the papers out of my to-do pile and putting them in the recycling bin. When she’s fallen asleep in her stroller and she’d wake if I transferred her to the car, I sit on the cement curb of the parking lot, cars pulling in beside me, and write. When she’s fallen asleep on the way home from shopping, I sit cramped in the front seat of the car, my notebook propped on the steering wheel and write. When she’s asleep on my lap, and I can’t reach the computer or a pen, I turn on the tiny tape recorder and whisper what I want to write. I step over her sleeping body to get to my computer and write. I write when I should be asleep. I write as though my life depended on it. Sometimes I think her life depends on it.
As I release her from the stroller because she is screaming, exhausted, refusing to sleep unless strapped to my chest, I feel my jaw clench. Clench like a socket wrench? The black pads on a bicycle? The search for words distracts me, releases me. I have never hit my child, never yanked her, slammed her, bashed her head against the bureau, thrown her from the second floor window. The words are all on the page and out of my body.
I keep a baby diary. It’s full of the mundane arcana of our life: how many hours she sleeps, what foods she rejected this week. I want to remember this information, but this is not writing; it’s recording. There’s no heat in it. I keep writing until the words flare.
Every morning she wakes up next to me and after her morning ritual — nursing, flailing her arms, so I’ll pick her up, grinning at Daddy — I take a good look. Her face is a little rounder, or she has more chin, or less. I’m on high alert. I don’t want to miss it as she tries her first Popsicle, the puckering quizzical look she gives me. I’m watching every second as she slowly squats, lifts a black pebble, and brings it closer and closer to her open mouth.
Rose is gorgeous, courageous, and clever, and she can say “uh oh” with great aplomb, but she doesn’t sleep. Not nearly enough for my sanity. Sleep deprivation makes me miserable, but it’s had two unforeseen advantages for my writing life: aphasia and visions.
She’s taken away my ordinary words. I start to say “telephone” as in “please hand me the,” and my lips won’t go into the right shape. I’ll either say “the thing that you hold against your ear for sound vibrations,” “the sacrosanct totality,” or “turnip”. “Hop along” can mean I don’t know where I’ve put the baby’s white fluffy coat. It’s disconcerting and annoying when I’m trying to grab the diaper bag and get out the door, but it’s also magical. I’m constantly surprised. “Baby carrier” becomes “umbrella” becomes “monster.” I know it has something to do with their rhythm and something to do with the way the carrier has straps that look like tentacles. I’m taking new routes around my brain.
As a writer, I’ve always tried to end up in unknown territory. I want to be surprised. Even more, I’ve always yearned for trance state, to be in that place where wild images just flow. I’m here now. I am so close to the spirit world; I just close my eyes, and it comes. One day I saw a polka dotted ferris wheel, mountains of burnished metal, and the tree from the garden of Eden become an English hedge.
Surrealists play games; shamans go on fasts; I had a baby.
I didn’t suddenly become an artist because of Rose. But, I am a changed writer because of her. I am a charged writer. She threw open the doors to the furnace and blew coals into flame.