The shadow life

Today is my birthday. I am now the age my mother was when she had me. This feels significant, as though the major epochs of my life are framed by the major epochs of hers. I feel as though I have moved from the on-deck circle to the plate (note: I believe this is the first time I have ever used a sports metaphor. I hope it works.) and I’ve got a few chances to do things right before retiring to the coaching staff and gaining forty pounds of beer weight (unless I never lose my baby weight, in which case I’m already halfway there). Some of the basics are in place — part of my life will involve medicine, another will be centered on my partner and my child(ren). Life is pretty good, which is a worrisome state for a writer — not a lot of successful books out there called “Life Is Pretty Good” — but a happy state for a person. An age of anxiety is over and one of steady building has begun. Still, some things still feel mysterious — my creative life, my spirituality, which has gone through many iterations, my role in the larger community (e.g. the world is so beautiful and so broken! How can I add to the former and repair the latter?)

This gets me to thinking about a quote I read in a book once about how there is a shadow life apart from the visible life of jobs and family, a shadow life of dreams, impressions, sensory experiences, inner visions, desires, and unspoken aspirations, a life whose successes or failures can be totally separate from those of the visible life and can be even more important to the happiness of the individual. I am beginning to think that this is where the fire is, what you run from, but hopefully eventually run towards. This is not to say that the visible life isn’t full of deep satisfaction, delight, comfort, and insight — it is! It is where the purpose and structure can be found. But the shadow life is the one you come in with and leave with, the life that belongs to only you. It is the life that no one can take away, even in the midst of tragedy and brutality. In this life there are no value judgments, only experiences. This life can intervene in the visible life for ill — desire that leads to infidelity, obsessions that interfere with work, addictions that drain resources and energy — but it can also be the catalyst for all the most meaningful things — love, creative production, innovation, resistance in the face of injustice.

As this new year begins, a year in which my visible life will be very crowded and demanding, I feel ever more drawn to the shadow life, to the life of experience and the experience of life. The assumption is usually that increasing age brings less and less engagement with the shadow life, but for me the opposite will have to be true, since my younger years were full of worries and exams and practical reasons for not doing many things. With every year I am more fearless, and thus ready to run straight into my own being with curiosity and without judgment. What will happen? I can’t wait to find out. Growing up is so suspenseful….

I used to write poems. I used to write a poem every year on my birthday. Ok, I only did that twice, but it was a good idea. So here goes. It’s 11:33pm, so I have 27 minutes. I haven’t written a poem in over three years, so it seems like a good idea to write one quickly, right now. After I write it, I’ll want to erase it and this paragraph but I won’t.

vanishing point

I looked over a candle
at you                         nothing an opera glass couldn’t see
could be seen                             except you
looking back at me                                     and finding
a point of orientation
in the space between a flame and the sky

Parenthood and creativity: Try this at home!

First of all, let me say this: all this hubbub about the pros and cons of attachment parenting seems misplaced to me. The working-outside-the-home mothers up in arms. The working-in-the-home mothers up in arms. The feminists up in arms. The attachment parents up in arms. The breastfeeding advocates up in arms. Whose arms are going to be left to rock all the fussy babies? In the words of Anne Lamott: Do we really have that kind of time? Is this the most pressing issue at hand? Can’t we just call parenting parenting, admire everyone who is trying to do it well, and leave it at that? I am reminded of an insight I had back in Jewish day school, when there was much made of whether or not one child or the other came from a kosher home. I remember thinking: Do you think the cattle cars are going to stop to ask? (Forgive the macabre here, but when you grow up as the child of a child of holocaust survivors, the holocaust is an acceptable metaphor in almost any discussion–would you like some tea with your Mengele reference?) Which is to say: Do you think that something as deeply evolutionarily conserved as mothering and growing up from infancy to adulthood is going to be thrown off the rails by the failure to use or overzealous use of a sling? No. Let’s focus on the big stuff (disparities in education, childhood obesity, environmental destruction) or at the very least, the useful stuff (how to worm compost in your kitchen and how to get out of credit card debt are current personal favorites).

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about a concept that came up in conversation recently, a concept that chewed it’s way right past “fear of peeing in public” (do your kegels, ladies) to the inner circle of my mental life. The concept was: Being a primary parent is incompatible with doing creative work. As the person currently doing the primary parenting (for three more weeks), my first thought was: I can still do creative work! And my second thought was: Do I still do creative work? (Note to self: Indignation and self-doubt are more related than you might think).

Creativity carries a double entendre in the life of a parent who is also a creative person. Having a child is considered by many to be a creative act and the creative process is often likened to a pregnancy. Now that I am a parent, I am skeptical of this metaphor. Is a child the same as a poem or painting? As the people who “make” babies, can we be credited with their creation? This does not feel true or right. My daughter is a separate person who I have welcomed into the world through the door of my body. We are going to be hanging out a lot and I’d like to help her discover herself, but she is not going to be a product of my intentions or dreams. Nor is it her responsibility to earn validation on my behalf. Before I became a parent, back when I thought there was something poetic about the idea that having a child is a creative act, I asked a friend if he felt that having a son satisfied his creative urges. “Parenting my son does not absolve me of the responsibility of writing.” In other words: You’re not getting off that easy!

I don’t know why, but becoming a parent has made creative work feel incredibly urgent. If I don’t dream and think and write to understand myself and the world, I fear that I will be lost to the day-by-day intensity of parenting. Having a baby feels like someone has hit the play button on the pause of young adulthood and I can now see the close parenthesis of death getting closer and closer in the distance. All of this urgency is curing a life-long case of perfectionism. Good enough is good enough these days. Good is good enough these days. Done is even good enough these days. Et voila: Sleep deprivation has a silver lining.

A smart older woman once told me “I used to be afraid of death. Now I am afraid of not fulfilling my potential.” Now I know what she means. Time is short! There is so much laundry to be done! Don’t forget to do the hard work of being yourself! Now that I have a daughter, the stakes are even higher, because I want her to have a mother who is happy and self-realized. In my case, writing is part of that.

So I’m trying to commit to being a creative person in the midst of parenting (and being a medical resident — I know what you’re thinking: This plan is fool-proof!). My partner — a fiercely productive creative person — always reminds me that being creatively productive is a matter of prioritizing, so I’m going to try to do that. Maybe dishes are left until tomorrow sometimes and a few paragraphs get written. Maybe a thank you note or two (or twelve — sorry friends and family! I love your gifts and am really grateful, just also really tired and covered in spit-up) languish for a while and a couple of photographs are taken. Over time, perhaps it will add up to something that can be shared and discussed and built upon.

If anyone would like to join me in a pact of parental creativity (like a work-out buddy, but more solitary and intermittent) — I’m game! We can make goals, and hold each other to them, and then be endlessly forgiving when things take longer than planned, and check in and inspire each other once in a while. Email me: whatbeginswithm@gmail.com.