This past summer, Dan and I took our first week-long vacation without Ethan. We spent it at Wellspring House, a writer’s retreat in the small town of Ashfield, Massachusetts where the general store serves gourmet breakfasts, the hardware store sells homemade ice cream, and both offer an impressive selection of poetry books.
There was magic from the morning of our first full day. A slim, friendly woman let herself into Wellspring House and introduced herself while we were finding our way around the kitchen.
“I have small kids at home,” Erin explained. “So I drive over here to get some writing done now and then.”
“I wish I’d had a place like this nearby when my son Ethan was little,” I said.
“That’s you? Your writing is beautiful!”
We hugged, an auspicious start to what turned out to be an incredible week. Dan and I quickly found our rhythm. We went out for big general store breakfasts, quiet country walks, and leisurely evening meals. We talked with Preston, the generous proprietor of Wellspring house and to the other writers who came through. I even got to spend a lovely evening with an old friend from graduate school I’d unexpectedly run into in town. But most of our hours were spent at our desks — Dan’s in the large airy studio where we slept, mine in a room across the hall named for Phyllis Wheatley.
Meanwhile, Ethan was living with his dad for the week, hanging out with friends and sleeping late on those last days of his summer vacation. We checked in a couple of times, once by text, and once through the intermittent cell phone service I could get by standing in the exact right spot in the yard. I’m not sure how much Ethan thought about the fact that this was time I was devoting to Angie, Don’t You Weep, the memoir I’m writing about my deceased sister. But he was busy and happy which gave me the time and space to focus on it. Eight hours a day to give to my writing. Before long I was addicted and then it was over. “I need to reshape my writing life,” I told Dan on the way home.
To Ona who will someday be a fine author, Mrs. Greenstein, my second- grade teacher inscribed in a book she gave me. To this day, I’m not sure whether she saw the seeds of a writer in my seven-year-old self or planted them. Either way, I’m grateful. I’ve always loved to write. “I’m a writer,” I’d say with confidence when I was twelve, composing poems on the lavender pages of my notebook — choppy, rhyming verse I’d sign with my middle name, Fawn.
After that flowery, adolescent start, I kept reading, writing, and refining. A decade after the Fawn poems, I was lucky enough to be a grad student in NYU’s creative writing program, studying with the poets I most admired — Ruth Stone, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds. My own work began to appear in literary journals. I was a writer, as planned. The problem was, I had — still have — the bad habit of giving much of what could be my writing time to other things.
Someday. That’s when I’ve always told myself I’d give writing my full attention. When I was no longer busy searching for love, after I finished library school, once Ethan started full-day kindergarten, once he was older and more independent. . .
If I were to look at that as a to-do list, I can finally say everything’s checked off. And I do write. In fact, I’m proud of the work I’ve done: the poems, the column entries and essays, the children’s books. Yet, while I’m adamant that people understand that writing is my vocation, NEVER a hobby, I find myself still mostly squeezing it in like a guilty pleasure. An hour after Ethan leaves for school, a stolen few minutes at the library where I work, a Saturday morning unless Ethan’s up early or Dan’s there to linger in bed with me, or a friend calls to tempt me to brunch.
Only lately, which is to say post-Wellspring House, a shift has happened inside me. It felt like a touch of depression, dark waves that came on days I hadn’t made time to write. For the first time in the forty-plus years since Mrs. Greenstein christened me an author, giving myself over to the art has become an actual physical need.
All this, of course, is complicated by my day job as a librarian. As part of the regular schedule, my colleagues and I each work one late night a week. My night happens to be Thursday and on those days I don’t have to be in until 1 p.m. From the start, I’ve protected Thursday mornings, making them my sacred untouchable writing time. I don’t ordinarily think of myself as a morning person, but on Thursdays that’s just what I am — mind fresh, heart as yet un-tugged at. I’ve written my best poems in that glistening window in the middle of the week, and crafted my shapeliest sentences. What I need are more Thursdays, I finally realized. Inspired by a friend at work, Phillip, who does a weekly double shift to be able to stay home with toddlers the following day, I went to talk to the library director, revised schedule in hand.
By tacking a couple of hours onto another day, I now have two sacred untouchable writing mornings. I’d like more but it’s a start, one that lets me breathe.
“It seems like you’re asking for special privileges,” one of my co-workers griped. This surprised me since, while I miss a quiet morning, my new schedule has me there longer during one of our busiest times.
When I reminded her that Phillip shifted his hours around she responded, “He has kids. You’re just writing.”
That stung. I wanted to tell her that writing was as important to me as being a parent, but I kept quiet, afraid it made me sound like a bad mother.
Was I a bad mother? I found myself wondering through that long day. But the next morning, a Thursday it happens, I woke with a fresh perspective. Writing isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am, I thought as I made my way to my writing desk. I have to nurture who I am, if I’m going to be any kind of mother at all.