Every life, [Tomas] Tranströmer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.
A couple months ago my friend, Anna Pulley, shared a link to the advice column, "Dear Sugar," at The Rumpus.net ("The online cure for Ritalin"). The advice that week was to a young woman who was struggling to overcome her demons and get down to brass tacks so that she could, finally, "write like a mother fucker." The post was probably one of Sugar's more famous posts. I immediately cried, and then printed out the whole column so I could have it at hand whenever I need a kick in the proverbial pants.
Sugar is a writer, wife, mother of two and in her early forties. I don't know what else she writes besides this always perfectly timed and deliciously tender advice column, but then again, I haven't researched it. Her advice columns are full of charm, wisdom, and lovely affections like calling the writer of the questioning letter "sweet pea."
And so the question, sweet pea, is who do you intend to be.Advice column #71, which came out last Thursday, is from a man in his early forties who, along with his wife of the same age, is trying to honestly figure out if he (and she) should conceive children and become parents. I'm going to try to refrain from summarizing the reasons he gives as to why he's torn, because you can go read it yourself, and because I want to talk about standing at the docks, myself, staring at those sister ships and how I'm wondering which ships are ghosts, which have already left port, which may be coming in.
I've been happy to find that I'm able to squeeze in a decent amount of reading in my new life. I finished reading Sara Gruen's newest novel two days ago. In typical fashion, because I loved it, I read every word in that book, including the information about the typeset. At the very end, in the acknowledgements section, I found this interesting sentence:
Thanks also to my children, who did not particularly help (and occasionally even hindered) my progress, but whom I thank nonetheless because they are the reason for everything.I love that sentence. Being an artist and being a parent can, at times, feel like a mutually exclusive combination of events and it's immensely reassuring to witness other, famous and best-selling, artists experience of that. I get up at the crack of dawn so that, if my ducks are in a row, I can get some writing in before Salamander wakes for the day. If my ducks are scattered around quacking, flapping, and shitting on the kitchen table I wind up cruising dozens of websites, purchasing cheap books on a whim, researching the names of edible flowers, and reading the blogs of other artist parents to prove to myself it can be done. I shared a description of my morning routine with a friend, a mother of two children -- one newly minted -- a few weeks ago and she said she believed that was the case of mothers since time immemorial.
Another book I'm perusing at present is Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's 1955 book of essays on "youth and age, love and marriage, solitude, peace, and contentment." Each chapter begins with the name of a shell and it was on page 63 that I found the chapter beginning with "Double Sunrise." In this chapter the outdated language and lifestyles fall away to reveal another case, relevant since time immemorial:
The pure relationship is limited, in space and in time. In its essence it implies the exclusion. It excludes the rest of life, other relationships, other sides of personality, other responsibilities, other possibilities in the future. It excludes growth. The other children are there clamoring outside the closed nursery door. One loves them, too. The telephone rings in the next room. one also wants to talk to friends. When the muffins are cleared away, one must think of the next meal or the next day. These are realities too, not to be excluded. Life must go on.Her solution is, I think, an absolutely fabulous one. She prescribes time alone to refresh "oneself" as well as time "alone together" with each loved one: retreats for the individual to experience fresh inspiration and self expression, for the adult couple to revisit and recreate the pure romance they felt when they were unfettered and new, and for each parent with each child individually to wipe away the daily refuse that gathers upon them as they busily are living. She wishes to renew the specialness we all need to feel and which doesn't often happen of it's own accord.
The topic of life choices and directions appeared and reappeared to me in the last couple weeks, like a living tarot card requiring interpretation. I cannot live my ghost life of urban experimentation and misadventure any more. I cannot live the gypsy life of travel and beach dwelling I once imagined. I cannot live any life but the one I am living in this life. I don't regret it this life one iota.
Not regretting it later is the reason I’ve done at least three quarters of the best things in my life.What I'm teasing out still is what this life looks like. I frequently remind myself, and my beloveds, that we must choose ourselves. We must be our own story's heroes. When I change the ninth diaper of the day, sing the twelfth nursery rhyme, cook the sixteenth meal for the month, kiss my man for the four-hundred and thirty-first time, walk the pets down the same road again and again and again I begin to realize that I must choose how I feel about these repetitions and find ways to insert surprises in for myself. I can't simply change the route I take to work anymore.
In spite of my fears, I didn’t regret having a baby. My son’s body against mine was the clarity I never had. The first few weeks of his life, I felt honestly rattled by the knowledge of how close I’d come to opting to live my life without him. It was a penetrating, relentless, unalterable thing, to be his mother, my life ending and beginning at once.
If I could go back in time I’d make the same choice in a snap. And yet, there remains my sister life. All the other things I could have done instead. I wouldn’t know what I couldn’t know until I became a mom, and so I’m certain there are things I don’t know because I can’t know because I did. Who would I have nurtured had I not been nurturing my two children over these past seven years? In what creative and practical forces would my love have been gathered up? What didn’t I write because I was catching my children at the bottoms of slides and spotting them as they balanced along the tops of low brick walls and pushing them endlessly in swings? What did I write because I did? Would I be happier and more intelligent and prettier if I had been free all this time to read in silence on a couch that sat opposite of Mr. Sugar’s? Would I complain less? Has sleep deprivation and the consumption of an exorbitant number of Annie’s Homegrown Organic Cheddar Bunnies taken years off of my life or added years onto it? Who would I have met if I had bicycled across Iceland and hiked around Mongolia and what would I have experienced and where would that have taken me?Oh my. I love her columns so much. I love all of us working to make the world more conscious. All of us trying, endlessly, to know that we are feeling these feelings together and that none of us has the answers to the mysteries of "what would have been."
I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.