Life-blood: Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. Harper Collins, 1995.

I wish I’d read The Blue Jay’s Dance a year and a half ago, when I was trying to rebuild my writerly self eighteen months after the birth of my son. In a flurry of frustration and aloneness, I read everything I could find on writing and mothering: Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath. For some reason, Louise Erdrich’s book never made it onto my horizon before now.

It’s the book I was looking for back then.

The Blue Jay’s Dance tells about writing and mothering in the first year of a baby’s life. Erdrich had six (six!) children when she wrote this book. The first three were adoptive kids who came with her husband into their marriage, the second three were all girls she birthed. The baby in the book is a composite of this latter trio.

Erdrich’s text shows how writers work: it stages the stillness, quiet, and observation that a life of writing requires, and the walks, musings and meanderings needed for story-telling, invention and problem-solving. She watches insects, flowers, and birds with an interest that is both scientific and poetic, and writes about the small and everyday in way that is absorbing. She describes the pleasure of nursing and the pain of birthing without cuteness, gore or cliché. And she tells with refreshing honesty how writing and love are occasionally at odds:

Women writers live rose nights and summer storms, but like the blue-eyed jumping spider opposite our gender, must often hold their mates and families at arm’s length or be devoured. We are wolf spiders, carrying our babies on our backs, and we move slowly but with more accuracy. We learn how to conserve our energy, buy time, bargain for the hours we need. (143)

The Blue Jay’s Dance is an intensely bittersweet book. It’s about birth, but also about death – of grandparents and beloved animal companions. It’s about how time goes too fast, and how we both want our kids to grow and to stay little forever. It’s about the realization that when your baby is big, you will be old, and about how every minute gained for writing and work comes at a price. It’s about parenting with a lover and colleague, and staying strong and unified when it’s easier to divide and resent.

I didn’t want this book to end. When it did, curiosity got the better of me, so I did a quick  search to find out more about Erdrich.

It was devastating.

This woman, so positive, brilliant and balanced, and who thrice came through the Year-One-Firestorm of Motherhood intact, had the carpet pulled out from under her soon after The Blue Jay’s Dance was published. First: divorce from Michael Dorris (the dissolution of the “literary love affair of the century”), ugliness surrounding alleged sexual abuse of the adoptive children by Dorris, and finally Dorris’s suicide.

All this fills with me with a deep sense of compassion and admiration for Erdrich who has continued, despite all of this, to work amazingly well.

Just last year she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

You can read Michael Dorris’s obituary in Salon.com here. It sheds some light on the writer’s marriage and collaboration with his wife, as well as on Erdrich’s career.

[Photo of Louise Erdrich at Darmouth by Joseph Mehling]

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“Toute same” (It’s the same thing)

My father died very suddenly when I was eighteen years old. Shortly after his funeral, my mother dreamed he came back to life. She couldn’t explain how; he was just back. The weird thing was that the dream seemed largely to be about the bureaucracy of death. My parents sat on the couch for a long time trying to figure out how to navigate the funereal red tape in reverse. How did one undo a death certificate? How would they reinstate his credit cards and financial records, and how was he going to explain this at work?

My dreams about him are less comical.

I once had a swimming dream where I could see him under water, but could neither reach him nor get his attention. I kept yelling Tėte! Tėte! (Dad! Dad!), diving down trying to reach him as he swam away.

In my last dream, he was lying in bed at our old house wearing blue pajamas. My mother lay beside him. Downstairs, both the the lights and stereo were on, and on my way to bed, I thought to myself how careless my father had been in not turning these off. I had a feeling that there was something strange about his being up there in bed, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. I knew I hadn’t seen him touch my mother in a very long time, or kiss her, or help her in any way, and I couldn’t figure out why. Until I remembered, and woke up.

It took me years to forgive him for abandoning my mother at the moment when she really began to need him, when her Multiple Sclerosis finally became debilitating. Perhaps I even blamed him for worsening her condition. It’s no coincidence that she began using a cane shortly after his death. The stress of his death had brought on an attack.

I have now lived longer without my father than I did with him. I no longer blame him for dying, or for leaving my mother alone in this world, or for making her sicker. I am no longer angry at him.

Instead, I concentrate on my mother as she continues to live and to persevere in her own way.

Ten years ago, she told me in a terrible phone conversation that she didn’t think her body would last another decade. And yet, here she is. She is wheelchair-bound, and has lost the use of three of her four limbs, but when she turned seventy a couple of years ago, it felt like a victory against death. Her life is still hers to live and her story still hers to tell.

I have no doubt that the shock of my father’s sudden disappearance is at the root of my drive to remember and record life stories. Writing about him, about my grandmother, about Šimaitė, Djaout, and others is the one way I know how to fight oblivion and darkness.

Life-writing. Death-writing. Toute same, as my three-year-old son would say in his fusiony Franglais. It’s the same thing.

And if my father is the death in my life-writing, my son is the life in my death-writing. He is both the reason I get up and the alarm clock that wakes me. In many ways, it’s for him that I remember the dead, because I want him to know their stories too.

[Photo by slightly confused]

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Women, Writing and the Angel in the House

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks a series of questions: Why have women traditionally written so little when compared with men? What needs to change in women’s lives in order to make writing possible? And why have women been so absent from literary history?

The answer, she suggests, lies in the conditions of women’s lives. Women raise children, have not traditionally inherited wealth, and have had fewer opportunities to make the money that would buy time for writing. Women rarely have partners who cook and clean and carry (or share equally) the burden of home life. Our lives have long been and largely continue to be fractured, shared between child care, kitchen duties, family obligations.

To write, what a woman needs most is private space (a room of one’s own), money and connected time (that only money can buy).

Woolf wrote her thoughts on women and writing in the 1920s, a time before all the ostensibly labour-saving devices like washing machines, slow cookers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, and so on. Most North American women now work outside the home, and most can probably find a corner in their houses to call their own. Problem solved? No. Despite all this, we still find ourselves fractured and split.

At least I do.

The first year and a half of my son’s life – he’s now three – shattered my understanding of myself as a writer.

They say nothing prepares you for the realities of having a child: cliché, yes, but true. Although, on some level, I must have understood that my writing would suffer after my son’s birth, I still wasn’t prepared when, for the first time in my life, the thing that made me who I was became impossible to do. Writing suddenly found its place at the bottom of a long list of other priorities, and fatigue only made matters worse.

Only once my son grew, and after making a series of decisions about child care, home care, and food supply did I begin to relocate as sense of my former identity.

In “Professions for Women” Woolf calls this process of carving out writing time, “killing the Angel in the House.” Who is this Angel? She is sympathetic, charming, unselfish, family-focused, self-sacrificing, undesiring, compliant and generous. She is the good wife, mother and hostess. She is Martha Stewart, June Cleaver and Betty Crocker combined.

“Had I not killed her,” Woolf writes, “she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing” (Woolf, Women and Writing 59).

I’ve been back to writing for more than a year, and for now, I think I’ve successfully killed my Angel.

Do you have an Angel to kill?

[Photo: Man Ray’s Virginia Woolf by A Room With a View]

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Two Stories of Ona

True story: A researcher at the archives at Kent State University stumbles on the transcript of an interview with her grandmother. This is what happened to me in 2001, when I made the trip from Chicago to Kent, Ohio to look at two boxes of uncatalogued Šimaitė papers. Inside one of the cartons was a black notebook labelled “Father Juozas Vailokaitis (1880-1953) in Siberia.” A note fixed to its cover read: “This Lithuanian material was found on a shelf in the Archive, unidentified, on January 2, 1994. It has been placed with these other materials in hope that the next researcher can identify it for us.” I almost fell out of my chair when I saw what was inside. It was a seventy-two-page interview with my grandmother.

I saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film The Double Life of Véronique when I was a teenager, and I remember loving it, but not understanding it. What was the connection between the two women who shared a name? How did their mirrored lives interact? Why did one live and the other die? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

Recently, this film has come back to mind with each new mirroring I find in the lives of my two Onas, who shared not only a first name, but second initial. Ona Šimaitė and my grandmother, Ona Šukienė, were born in Lithuanian villages within five years of one another. For both, 1941 was a pivotal year that changed their lives forever: this was the year the Nazis invaded Vilnius, and the year the Red Army deported my grandmother to Siberia. Fragments of both life stories ended up in one box in an American archive to which neither had any connection.

But when I visited my aunt a few weeks ago to talk about family history, I discovered yet another shared biographical detail: both Onas had unofficially adopted daughters named Tanya. Šimaitė’s Tanya was a young Warsaw woman whom she smuggled out of the ghetto; my grandmother’s, a Russian girl in Brovka who reminded her of her own daughters.

I’m not yet sure what to do with this constant doubling. What does it tell us about life? Are we to understand, perhaps, that there are only handful of “starter lives” handed out every generation, and then each individual must do what s/he can with a given template? Have I stumbled upon two variations on the theme of  “the Ona Š. life”? Does this mean that I am living “the Julija Š. life,” and that, if I leave enough behind, someone will find my double in an archive after I’m gone?

I’ve written about the find at Kent State in more detail in an article called “Brovka: Reconstructing a Life in Tatters (My Grandmother’s Journey).” You can read it via this link. (No subscription required)

[Ex libris plate by Žibuntas Mikšys; Photo by Julija Šukys]

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