On Ekphrastic Motherhood


Little Petra has been sick--not too sick, other than the first night, but enough to stay home--these past few days, and I was lucky to have a lightning quick Jury Duty stint and nothing pressing work-wise and to therefore have this cozy home with her and to really enjoy her. 

Yesterday for a half hour instead of her napping, both of us snuggled under the blanket as she peppers me with questions about God and Jesus. (She is playing Mary in her school's Xmas play.) Laughing as I try to answer. Not that I don't know the stories--I do--but because I don't know how to explain that Jesus was the son of God but also God. Is, not was. I don't know how to satisfy her constant follow-up questions about why he doesn't die and how he wasn't Joseph's son. This are unanswerable questions, maybe, is the answer. You have to have faith. Finally I refer her to my mom. She has better training to handle this toddler catechism. 

"Ask Mimi," I say, hoping that will end that line of conversation. "Or Vovo." (That's Alex's mom, still a sort of practicing Catholic.) 

"Why?" she asks, head just barely peeking out from under the blanket.

"They learned about this growing up. Pops wouldn't know much. He's Jewish."

"He's Jewish?" Petra says in that question/repeat way toddlers have of prolonging every conversation.

"Yeah." It looks like maybe we can move on to some other topic or some other toddler project that won't quite work. "Oh yeah, Jesus was Jewish," I add, laughing as I seemingly unravel my own logic. 

There is something about life with a toddler when you are really able to experience it--of course even without "real" work there are of course a million other things to juggle and manage in the course of a day--but there is an entirely different quality to having the chance to sit down on the floor and do puzzles and cut-outs and flip through books of Fun Things to Do with Toddlers as you wistfully put aside Fun Things to Do with Babies into the giveaway bin. 

I'm always impressed with the way Sarah Bousquet captures life with her toddler on One Blue Sail--the moments of pure magic but also the irritations and frustrations, not All Joy and No Fun like in Jennifer Senior's book but the joy and the fun and the fury and the difficulty of having anything work out the way you want it to. The constant obstacles. The staggering variety of them.

We try to make paper cut-out snowflakes; Petra always makes that one essential cut that splits the thing apart. 

We make pomander balls but the skin of the orange skin is too tough and too loose for Petra to get enough traction. Somehow the balls all fall off the top of the cloves, leaving the spikes that dig into her fingers.

We finally try a leaf project but they won't stay put, I can't find the tape and the glue is dried up. 

We could cook together. That's a little weird maybe with Petra sick, but who cares. No, she doesn't feel like it even though all the nights when both kids help with dinner, Petra screams about not getting to do any of the hard things, now, with all the time in the world, she'd "rather watch you Momma."

And "I'm just going to watch you" doesn't mean sitting nicely in a seat in a stable position. Hah! For an active 3.5 year old little girl it mean sitting up on your knees and then losing your balance, and knocking over multiple cups and finally a bowl of cereal. 

It means pulling out various cans from the pantry that are dusty because of the peeling, cracking paint on the ceiling in the pantry. Cans that I therefore don't want around anything I'm cooking until I've had a chance to wipe down the top. 

It means peeling onions we don't need for this recipe. 

It means trying to get out the little broom from behind the stove and realizing it's jammed back there and begging for help to get it unstuck. It means me jugging and washing my hands constantly and getting that harried look and feel and thinking--why do I have that harried feel when I am home cozy inside on this nice cold gray December day with a cheerful three-year-old? 

That has to be just me. It's not the neighbors spontaneously staying for dinner with three kids who leave stray pieces of quesadilla in the kids' beds and don't leave until 9:30 on a school night. It's not the in-laws shouting directions to me in half-Portuguese about not adding the salt to the fejoida until the end. It's not the outrageously picky friends of Wally's who don't like anything at all even pizza or the amazingly unpicky kids who are starving way beyond what I'd expected after school and scarfing down granola bars and apples with peanut butter so fast I can't keep up and then bagels and burritos and finally I think to make popcorn because that will give me a minute to look around and gulp some water and pull myself together while the popper heats up.  

No, if I'm harried now, with just little Petra here, then that's me. That's "on" me. That's my nature, to be easily rattled. To be flappable.

Books together on the couch! Surely that should be peaceful. Easy. Surely that means I can take a deep breath, right? 

But no, she turns the pages too fast and has a way of continually positioning her head just in front of the words I am trying to read and shifting and shifting in my lap so that I find myself reading fast or paraphrasing to get through the page before the unyielding Keeper of the Pages pulls it away from me. 

This (above) was all from a few days ago. And as as happened in the past, I feel I've strayed from the post by not posting it at the time. I've become detached from it. I hadn't finished it, but also don't know what "finished" would mean. Sometimes I'm okay with posting scraps. The here's-what's-happening-now glimpses. But you can't post those kinds of scraps after the fact.

Now I am here on a Sunday, doing laundry, cleaning up after our little Hanukah dinner last night listening to "Every Bell on Earth will Ring" by the Oh Hellos. My sister and her family came over to play Hanukah bingo and make latkes since given the timing this year, the holiday will otherwise get squished into/steamrolled over by Christmas. (Note for next year: Gluten-free Italian spiced bread crumbs are not an adequate substitute for matzoh meal).

I haven't written enough. Or, more truthfully, I've written tons, but pieces here and there, unnamed word docs on the laptop, beginning posts, handscrawled journal entries. I haven't attached anything together and it's starting to catch up to me and make me feel slightly anxious. Like the days are getting away from me. Like I'm letting them get away.

I remember back when I was home with Wally all day. Often in the evenings after Alex got home I would leave the house to go write. Pre-blog days, I'm talking about, when Wally was 1 or 2. At times I had various “real” projects to work on. Some children’s books; some housekeeping tips work for hire gigs. In the fall of 2009 I tackled NanoWrimo. I worked on short stories. Those never went anywhere. Sometimes I went back to the novel I’d written feverishly, furiously—a draft that is—before I turned 30. I couldn’t salvage it. It kept appearing to me as Nick Carraway describes Gatsby’s house, “a huge incoherent failure.” I tried a spinoff novel told from the point of view of a minor character. 

Many times I managed only to free write. That’s it. A conversation with myself. I’d set up in the library or a coffee shop—my favorite was Birch in the lobby of the Gershwin hotel—and sometimes the chaos of the day begin to assemble around some line of thought. Usually that would take a while. First I would have all kinds of complaints. All kinds of frustrations. Half thoughts and spectral memories and things I should have done differently or people that took me off my course and then the re-framing, reminding and recrimination---No, they didn't take you off course. The neighbors who pushed you to come to the pottery sale. The friend who insisted you meet for lunch on a busy day, near where he worked, of course. The gardener giving the poetry reading in the West Village who has sent me so many invites, this time I really must go. 

I let myself get off course. “They”—the people I blamed—were just the excuses of the hour. 

I admired someone’s recent tweet about always preferring to stay home with a book instead of meeting people out. I feel a kind of jealousy/admiration whenever I hear about someone say things like that. I think I’m a wanna-be introvert. But that doesn’t fully describe it. It’s not that I want to spend time alone—reading or writing or taking long baths—and just won’t do it. I do do those things, well okay, not the bath part. But I also say "Yes" to a million other things. All at the same time. I feel pulled toward entropy. 

I think pre-kids I was able to find enough quiet, even out in the maddening crowds. You can wear headphones. You can race along in your own word, in your own head. With kids, you move slowly. People talk to you. Everyone talks to you. The neighbor across the hall who needs you to order Gregory Porter's Live in Berlin album. The woman walking her dog on West 21st in public health who wants to talk about how you might be able to work together. The woman on the 18th floor who wants to organize an arts and crafts get-together with you. A mixer, for seniors and kids. It's a great idea, right? With the kids, you can't just run along with a polite smile. It's the same as with a dog, I suppose, but the experience I had with a dog was in Brooklyn and mainly in Prospect Park, where I could be alone. Better than alone.

In Brooklyn every day I took long walks in the park with our pitbull whippet and though I always loved it, I don’t think I realized how essential those long stretches of internal quiet were. I came across other people, of course, crunching leaves, baseball games. But not stimulation. No one asking anything of me. Nothing much to navigate. No new data to take in. Time for internal monologues. Time for re-focusing, sorting, re-arranging. Even if I couldn't sort things out in writing, I could do it in my head. Now I can't keep anything straight.

I'm so annoyed by the building pile of papers following me around--not even contained by a journal, but just loose papers...scrawled on both sides, mostly unreadable. Even from just say the past 10 years, they're overwhelming. Do I just box them all up? Recycle them? Scan them? Read through and salvage pieces worth saving? I glance through them with a highlighter in hand.

I cut my foot on a piece of glass in the East Village and then went with my physics friend M. for two beers at McSorley's and sat at a table full of Israelis before I realized I needed to get stitches.
Ellie was so happy at the beach yesterday. Splashing and falling into the sand. Building castles, singing happy birthday to the waves. “Have fun in Dragonland.”
I am on the way home from Ruth’s engagement party at Union Bar.
Notes from Walden. "As long as possible, live free and uncommitted."

It's hopeless. For now they'll have to be boxed up and shoved in a closet somewhere.

All that writing was just process. Why can’t I carry over the logic of “process” to toddler projects? Just accept the jagged flow of it, the lack of final project. The obstacles shouldn't matter. Why can't I sink into the the being, not doing. The mediocrity of it, like Wendy Mogel suggests. I don't care about the flat muffins or the crappy stick figure art, so why do the obstacles feel so draining?

It's more and more clear that without a steady writing practice, I don't seem to have the internal resources to fully embrace that obstacle-laden path of the toddler project. Anne Lamott tell us "...dedication to writing is a marching-step forward from where you were before." I need to continually chart out that "marching-step forward" and when I don't, less tolerant of mis-steps, less open to discovery, less open overall.

No wonder we are drawn to glossy family magazines with pictures of dimensional reindeers standing resolutely against the cut-out pine trees. We imagine the parents sipping decaffeinated green tea on the couch and the smiling kids gluing on the last shiny sequins. The parent leans forward every  now and then to open a stubborn bottle of glitter. Things are falling into place easily. They are crafty, steady-handed. Outside, democracy is being dismantled look the other way, but this parent-child pair is putting the finishing touches on the gum-drop covered windows in a gingerbread world.  

Last winter, Wally came home from a birthday party with a project he had only partially done. He had a cardboard house and these various little clay figures that still needed to be "kilned" I think he was saying. I was doing a bunch of things at once, like always, maybe making trying to get the kids a snack and working on my motherhood and imagination paper and straightening up Petra's dress-up clothes and playing "Let it Go" on the piano so Petra could sing along.
I asked Wally what he meant by "kilned" and tried to figure it out and put the clay figures into the small toaster oven and meanwhile I got pulled into a fascinating chapter in a motherhood journal by LoriLyn Greenstone. Here she writes about the work on her blog:

"In the self-portrait 'Ekphrastic Mama' I began with a watercolor of myself reading to our middle daughter. She was between two and three years old and had worn out the feet of her sleeper. To give her more room I cut the feet off her sleeper, leaving her toes exposed. Later, when I painted this scene, the watercolor of the child was fresh, but the self-portrait felt over worked. Like many self-portraits, it was unflattering, but worse, it was dull and muddy. 

I set it aside for almost eight years, and then, while working on a Master’s thesis using ekphrasis to join writing with the demands of motherhood, I took it up again, feeling a need to try something experimental. 

With little to lose, I tore pieces of notes and journals, art catalogs and old letters to collage over the mother, myself. Then I went back in with paint to pull out a few details. I left the child alone, and as I worked, the painting took on new meaning. The mother was made of words as she sat reading to her child, who at the time didn’t yet have many words. This was the self-portrait I needed to create, a story of sharing language with a child. Then later, when I wrote Ekphrastic Mama, a chapter in Motherhood Memoirs: MothersCreating/Writing Lives the editors chose the painting for the book cover."

And perhaps it is no surprise that I burnt the clay figures nearly beyond recognition. We smelled smoke at the same time and went running to the toaster oven. 

"Oh no!" Wally cried out.

"Move back, move back," I shouted at the kids as I grabbed a towel and pulled out the tray. I'm sure I swore a bit. I apologized, I tried to salvage, I declared them unsalvageable. I admitted to total failure. "I'm so sorry Wally." 

"Why did they burn?"

"I guess it was too hot."

"But why did they burn? They looked fine when you checked them and then like 5 minutes later they were totally wrecked?"

"I shouldn't have turned the heat up."

"But how did that happen?"

It wasn't like him to keep asking such a basic question. I wasn't sure what he was going for, or maybe it was just his way of letting out frustration.

It happened because I turned the heat up too high. Or because I used a toaster oven when maybe you're not supposed to. Or because I didn't bother to figure out what "kiln" meant. Or because I didn't even try to find or Google directions. Or because I had the music blasting too high. Or because I was trying to get research done and attend to two wild kids at the same time. Because I'm not careful. I'm not steady. I'm easily overwhelmed, and sometimes it makes me shaky and anxious and other times it makes me ecstatic and happy and ready to create. I don't stay with one project. I don't follow through. I don't set limits. 

In my head, swooning over the words of LoriLyn Greenstone, I kept thinking of an answer to Wally’s odd question, not a good answer, but one that pleased me. "It's because I'm an "Ekphrastic Mama." I never said it out loud, but it kept sort of ringing in my head. 

I knew that wasn't the right use of the term ekphrasis, which has to do with using one form of art to portray another. But it sounded so perfect in my head. Just kind of jangled. Ekphrastic Mama. Yes, that's me. It sounded like someone who plays music too loud in the evenings, who overcooks pasta, who decides to make salted fudge on a whim, who dances wildly around the livingroom to Marble Sounds "The Time to Sleep" until someone bangs an elbow, who tries to make a frozen lantern when she should be setting the table, who suddenly announces she is bringing the kids outside in pajamas to see Orion on the clearest, coldest February night. That is maybe the fun part of that Ekphrastic Mama. But there's a downside, too. And that's something I'm more and more aware of. That all the "Yes"-saying, to others, and to the kids, too, creates an unreasonable level of chaos, especially with no one to reign me in. Without reigning myself in, I’m so given to the pulls of the moment that I don’t think about carving out the time for more invisible goals. If I have to work, I can squeeze it in. But the idea of a schedule and plan for a time just for my own writing, to saying “No” to the frozen lantern, to “kilning” the clay at that busy moment, to the neighbor who wants to make folk art Saturday morning, it is something that doesn’t come naturally.

And yet I am realizing more and more that I can’t fully sink into, embrace, appreciate or even given the right attention to the quiet work and fun and sometimes No Joy and sometimes joy of projects with toddlers especially if I don’t fill up my own resources by writing in a committed way. It is like sleep. Or exercise. Something I have to make time for because it holds up the structure, it’s necessary to the integrity of the whole day. It is necessary, pace Thoreau, to be both free and committed.

Perhaps Ekphrastic is right, not only in the silly way I was thinking it sounded like (some combination of erratic and ecstatic), but in the way Greenstone adopts it. I returned, today, to her words.

“With little to lose, I tore pieces of notes and journals, art catalogs and old letters to collage over the mother, myself. Then I went back in with paint to pull out a few details. I left the child alone, and as I worked, the painting took on new meaning.”

I too, have little to lose, tearing old notes and journals, collaging over my new self. To see the children in front of me, though, I need to “pull out a few details.” When I do this with writing, I can attend to the barrier-filled, joy-filled, passage in front of me. Then the bright, messy tableau of real life takes on new meaning.


  1. Oh Rachel, thank you for the kind words about my blog! This post got me through the craziness of last week! You capture it so perfectly, the harried feeling born of a long day indoors with a toddler. There is that cozy moment snuggled under the blankets together, but much of it is a series of short-lived failed projects--the dried glue stick, the crumbling cloves that make pomander balls an impossible craft, the cereal box that inevitably goes flying when you switch to a kitchen task. Is it all mindset? I ask myself, why I am so good at this on some days and terrible on others? Harried. That's it exactly. What a relief it was to read your words and know I'm not alone.

    The burning of Wally's creation that needed "kilning" made me laugh--thank you for writing that in scene. I felt like I was right there in your kitchen. I destroyed a few batches of Christmas cookies last week in my distraction. But your distraction sounds much more joyous and fun and swirling with the music turned up and everyone dancing and moving from project to project with Greenstone's quotes floating like bubbles in the air around you. That's how I picture it all, like a fantastic party that's such a wild good time, the school project is forgotten and charred and even that is it's own conversation-provoking event. I want to be the Ekphrastic Mama who sings and dances to distraction, who is so full of energy hopping from one exciting thing to the next, matching the children's boundless energy.

    There is a pause, that turning inward that comes with writing. The necessity of it. "Something I have to make time for because it holds up the structure, it’s necessary to the integrity of the whole day." YES. And the collaging over the mother self, what an incredible visual representation of how I feel all the time... a messy, glued-together, jagged-edged ongoing metamorphosis. Yes, writing allows us to pull out the details and make sense of it all: the children, the chaos, the quiet moments, motherhood, self. (There I am writing "self" last--so telling.) "When I do this with writing, I can attend to the barrier-filled, joy-filled, passage in front of me. Then the bright, messy tableau of real life takes on new meaning." Stunning and insightful writing. Your work here could easily take the shape of a book of essays. I'm so grateful for the way it enriches and helps me make sense of my own experiences.

  2. The way you spin yourself into understanding...or if not understanding, into working on (working through? Too Freudian?) this process and combination and connection between art and motherhood is amazing. You are a frenetic beauty; art falls out of you and flows through you and you put it down when and where you can...is there anything more critical than that? You are a creator of beautiful things.

    And this: "I haven't written enough. Or, more truthfully, I've written tons, but pieces here and there, unnamed word docs on the laptop, beginning posts, handscrawled journal entries. I haven't attached anything together and it's starting to catch up to me and make me feel slightly anxious. Like the days are getting away from me. Like I'm letting them get away."
    This is exactly how I am feeling, have been feeling, for months.

  3. Both of these comments bring me so much joy! What generosity to take all the time to respond here. I will answer soon and hope you know how thankful I am.

  4. After this appalling delay...Sarah, it's intensely gratifying to think of any post getting you through any week. I wonder too, is it all mindset, is it something arbitrary (seemingly arbitrary, though I suppose in reality anything but) like how much sleep one got or is it some distracting though that makes focus so difficult? Pre-occupation? But no, sometimes the un pre-occupied days are by far the hardest.

    I'm also thrilled to hear the story about the burning of the creation that needed "kilning" made you laugh.

    On your blog you so often sound to me like precisely that Ekphrastic Mama you describe. Joy & swirling & constant conversation...

    Self - last! Yes, how imperfectly perfect that that is where you place it. Jagged-edged is me all the time. Yet I suppose that gives us access points, ready and available for mining.

    I truly thank you for the compliments and encouragement about essay-writing.

    Amie - not too Freudian at all - "working through" is by far one of my favorites of all his infinite contributions...Not sure I'm worthy of your high compliments but nonetheless they make me incredibly happy. You have set a different course this past fall, helping others with their spinning and working through...a noble aim...and meanwhile the writing still flows...I am always hoping for a line from the shape of me/(you).


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