I recently discovered an essay my mother wrote for an anthology in the early 1980’s about the challenges of balancing late motherhood (I was born when she was 50, after having had three sons in her 30’s and thinking all childbearing was behind her), and what she viewed as both her wifely duties and civic commitments. The local anti-nuclear and feminist groups counted on her to lead the next march or campaign, or host the monthly potluck dinner. She had a great dedication to community activism but at times, felt trapped by responsibilities and either resented them or her own inability to say no to others, and yes to her writing.
Jean was the kind of woman that men, women and children easily fell in love with. She had an infectious charm and she epitomized the adage of ageing gracefully. She was talented at many things – cooking, sewing, organizing people into action, writing – which perhaps made it harder for her to focus on one thing as our culture so often wants us to do. With an innate sensuality, a mane of white hair and a throaty laugh that belied her 5’3” frame, she was everyone’s savior but her own. Our Thanksgiving dinner table invariably included an assortment of lonely hearts and stray souls. She came from a generation where the idea of putting your own needs before others was unheard of. Perhaps not that much has changed for many women.
Jean fiercely embraced the women’s movement when it came along, sensing that here finally was the rational and obvious explanation for why she hadn’t yet become fully realized as the writer she truly was. I accepted this dogma, as did the rest of us, my father albeit grudgingly. He was not a huge fan of her nights spent at women’s group meetings or the seemingly endless array of sisters who flocked to Jean’s apron strings for advice and mentorship. Most people saw her as a fascinating, gregarious and smart woman who had lived an interesting and exotic life setting up households in many foreign lands with my father whose work as a hydro-geologist took the family all over the world. However, She shrugged off her domestic and civic accomplishments, as proud as she was of her four children. As the mother of a daughter she had always longed for and thought she’d never have, she vacillated between adoring love and intense criticality, the latter, I came to conclude years later, belied her own inner poltergeists and unfulfilled creative potential.
It has been 20 years, nearly to the day, since her death at the age of 77 to pancreatic cancer. Perhaps because I am now in mid-life and still wrestling with my own self-actualization as a writer, I see her life somewhat differently than I used to. I am less willing to accept the idea that she was not able to accomplish what she had wanted to as a writer solely because she was caught up in the confines of family and societal expectations, but because, as Stephen Pressfield, author of The War of Art contends, she was one of the many victims that Resistance lays claim to. He writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” The truth is you don’t need to be born in the wrong generation to have the deck stacked against you as a female artist. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to let life’s commitments win in the battle to do any kind of creative work on a regular, sustainable basis.
As any parent, or anybody with a life, will know, it is far too easy to let life’s other requirements take precedence. I know all about the routines writers are supposed to have bar none, but truth be told, I suck at getting up at 5am for regular every day butt-in-the-chair writing time. Or staying up late at the other end of the day for that matter. I am currently working on becoming a Writer-on-the-Fly. As a WOTF I will jot down snippets, notes and ideas whenever and wherever I am and attempt to knit them together into whole essays, novels and screenplays. It seems to be my only option because I will not let Resistance win. Had my mother been formally introduced to Resistance 20 odd years ago she might have rallied and found within her a new well of creativity to draw from. Or maybe not.
My mother might not have rallied to her writing again, but she went out like a lumberjack swinging, pissed as hell that she found herself dying when she felt like she had so much living yet to do. And I have delighted in the mysterious irony of one of Jean’s poems finding its way onto the back of a compass, even if it is for sale on Ebay or being haggled over in a distant souk. Somehow not knowing how it really got there seems so in keeping with the poem itself, and with her spirit. We all need a little mystery in our lives and when it turns up so unexpectedly, it is that much richer. There is also something so right in her words finding private little audiences in pockets around the world, as the holder of each compass for a moment ponders perhaps the direction of their lives or simply, which way north is. I picture her soul alighting upon the shoulder of each person who happens onto this compass with her poem, and Jean whispering in their ear: “Live your unlived life. Live it now.”
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad