This past December, when Claire was just a kick and a dream, I met with two artist mentors, Tom and Beverly Key. I was feeling pretty crummy about my pregnancy brain at the time, and nervous about my writing career as a whole, and asked them what I should do. Tom told me, simply, to “fuel the rocket.” By this, he meant to read, to find inspiration in others’ work so that when the time came for my writing to launch I would have a sort of literary reserve from which to draw.
Over the past eight weeks, I have taken Tom’s advice to heart. I have been reading like I’ve never read before, and not just children’s books – although there are some quite delightful children’s books out there – but good magazines, especially The New Yorker and Poets and Writers. I love The New Yorker because its nonfiction is so alive, so juicy, so balanced and smart. Poets and Writers, on the other hand, makes me feel I’ve still got one foot in the literary world. It also makes me feel as though I am still in school, which, in a way, I am.
In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, the poet Mark Doty writes about veracity and memoir. Doty gives the subject a fresh glance, and it is one of the most beautifully written meditations on honesty that I’ve read. But what really touched me was a moment in the essay’s conclusion.
Doty writes about going to a children’s museum in Memphis called the Pink Palace when he was small: “The best exhibit was a tree that had somehow moved indoors. It was huge, at least to me, and dwelt behind a wall pierced with dozens of tiny doors. I could open the doors at ground level myself, and look into whatever scene lay around the roots of the tree: mushrooms, ferns, a stuffed fox. My father would have to lift me up to look into the other doors, and that is one of my best memories of him, the tenderness implicit in holding your son up into the air so he could see.”
As I have been muddling through the first several weeks of motherhood, Doty’s final sentence resonated with me. It captured – in a way I am only now beginning to discover – all that I hope to give Claire: a window through which she can see the world and interpret it for herself. But it also reminded me of my own unique purpose here as her mother. If I am expected to teach Claire new things, to revel in and reflect upon the mysteries and the beauty and the hardship of the world with her, then I must also always be learning.
At first, I wondered if it were all right to spend Claire’s feeding times reading – if she would sense that I was absorbed in something other than her sweet blue eyes – but she doesn’t seem to care. Besides, a steady diet of sound writing is as imperative to me as milk is to her, and this, I think, is the most important thing I’ve learned in the last eight weeks: good mothering means that the mother cares for herself as well as her child.
Yesterday, I went on a swimming expedition in arctic waters; today, I’m in Bengal, tracking tigers. Reading, which once felt like a leisurely, selfish indulgence, now serves a new purpose: it gives me arms with which to raise Claire up, so she can see. It’s exciting to think of all the things she and I will discover together, of the tenderness implicit in that, and how our worlds, big and small, will inform each other.
** My presence on the blog will still probably be pretty sporadic for a while, but not because I want it to be. I’m tutoring through the end of this semester which takes most of the free time I’ve got during the day, but I’ll get back into the rhythm of what Andrew calls “the old life” sometime soon. Thanks for your patience and, as always, for reading!**