by Isabella David McCaffrey
Trying to obey the first of the 10 Edicts before bed last night, I fell asleep over a book. Again. Fingers crossed that reading The Cat in the Hat a thousand times before bed will count for something.
Doubting it as I race to ready my toddler. Her daycare’s strict about us arriving at the random time I picked when I signed her up twice a week, so I could have time to write.
And read, dammit! I need to read more.
Facebook doesn’t count. Twitter doesn’t count. Downloading classics onto my Kindle and then ignoring them in favor of more salacious reads doesn’t count.
Aargh! No ballerina shoes! We must put on real shoes, baby. Like these lovely bear boots. No put on boots? Fine!
We’re going to be late. Another arbitrary deadline blown. Terry, the class leader, will shoot withering looks at me, at the clock, at me taking off my daughter’s coat. Under her narrow-eyed, accusing gaze, I’ll stumble over little chairs and people crawling everywhere. We always miss circle time, coming in so late.
I always thought becoming a mother meant I’d be the one dishing out the guilt.
I’d look for another daycare, but I don’t even have time to … read. We’re still not out of the house. Where’s your sippy cup? We must own ten thousand! How are there never matching tops and bottoms to the damn things? No say damn! I mean, Mommy said zam! ZAM!
What foul fiend came up with sippy cups in a thousand permutations of spherical shape? Why can’t there be just one standard size, or two even, like baby bottles?
Okay, we’re packed … Where is my child? No jump on Mommy’s bed! How did you get through the security gate, anyway?
Oh God, I’m sweating. My hair’s stuck to my scalp. My eyes, when I look into the dashboard mirror, are bloodshot and crazed.
2. Manage Time
All right, breathe. It’s only 10:15. I’ve got my daughter up, fed, dropped off at daycare where Terry chided me for being five minutes late.
“You’re late a lot,” she said, standing in front of the clock like my old boss, Dean Hackley. He wasn’t named Dean; he made us call him “dean,” even though he was the headmaster and could have stolen the painted-smile off a clown, which is why I quit working at a regular job and began this crazy mission of working for myself. All of which I want, half-cravenly and half-angrily, to explain to Terry, but then I realize she has my pre-verbal child in her clutches for the rest of the morning. I bite my tongue and head for Starbucks to self-soothe, instead.
On satellite radio, which I’ve got free for six months, an amenity included in the gift of my new, slightly-used car, Downtown Julie Brown is counting down hits from the 90s, hearkening serious collegiate nostalgia. Spring is in the air, or at least, the ice has broken at last, the slush slinking down the gutters without leaving behind the gray froth you get in the city after a snowstorm.
Even the slush is well-behaved in this small New England town.
A town that doesn’t sell beer after 9 PM or on Sundays is a town filled with law-abiding citizens whose driving preferences are mid-size SUVs, not too small but not too gas-guzzling either. I park my own mid-size SUV in a well-ordered lot that always seems to have exactly as many spaces as is needed.
At Starbucks, a huge banner by the register proclaims the coffee “hails from the Lington region of Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia, just South of the large volcanic Lake Toba.” Of course, no Sumatrans are there to vouchsafe this claim. Instead, a pretty, short blonde with the sleepy eyes of suburbanites who don’t feel the need to watch their back or impress potential celebrities pours the coffee.
“So this really is fair trade?” I ask, flipping the plastic stopper, taking a careful sip of the extra-bitter black stuff like a wine connoisseur, not actually caring but curious to see how she’ll respond.
“Uh huh, ma’am.”
She slides my card, not arguing about making a $4 charge on it, even though, when I opened my wallet, we both saw several crisp greens.
I ought to argue, but what’s the point? Nevertheless, it’s galling that the powers-that-be really expect me to take their word for it that somewhere, in a land far, far away, this coffee was picked and shipped without harm or foul in order that my morning commute to and from the daycare might attain a tingling, neutral piquancy. It’s absurd that they soothe me with a fairy tale like a child—The Toffee in the Coffee!— transforming my own laziness into a kind of solidarity with the workers of the world, glamorizing everyday injustice by coupling it with the carefully packaged but safely distant, exotic.
Still, the Starbucks is on the way, and I’ve made this a bi-weekly ritual, driving back from daycare, picking up a cup of Joe whose asking price is, according to the older, crankier generation, outrageous, although less by a dollar than it was in New York.
Back in the car, the 90s music transforms the morning. As Foxy argues sexual politics with Jay-Z, I relax, sip my bitter brew and imagine today truly might contain a miraculous transformation just as I’d prayed for, way back then, that the Freshman Forty would vanish and frat guys would stop comparing me to Monica Lewinsky.
3. Set goals
Anyway, that’s at least three things accomplished from the list, so maybe I will quickly read the newspaper online. It’s important to keep up with what’s going on in the world, after all. Especially now that I’m living in a distant corner of it. Plus, it’s not even noon yet! Maybe I should just read a few emails first, it’s important to stay in touch … Oo, a kitten and a turtle video!
It’s 1:35 already? How in the name of God is that possible?
4. Manage space
If I reorganize my office first, I think that could really help up me focus, think, manage time.
As Dean Hackley put it when he assigned teachers and students to wash lunch dishes and clean the toilets in an attempt to save on janitorial staff, “Clean’s clean and there ain’t no in between.”
Wow, did not realize how dusty it’s gotten behind my desk.
Ooo … there’s that Macy’s credit card I’ve been looking for!
5. Set boundaries
Terry the daycare leader doesn’t understand that I’m working for myself.
I can come and go as I please, sure: That’s the whole point.
But. Sometimes I don’t really get started until after I’ve put my daughter to bed anyway, which is like the old days when I’d write all night. Can I really be expected to wake up at the crack of dawn after caring for a toddler all day and then writing at my desk all nigh?
Upon reflection, though, it’s pathetic to seek Terry’s approval.
“Never complain and never explain,” Benjamin Disraeli said, but what he didn’t explain (naturally) was that’s not a great way to win hearts and minds.
Isn’t the whole Middle East conflict kind of traceable to him?
Even in my imagination, explaining my circumstances to Terry just makes the situation worse. She lives in Danbury, and, before our Two Day War of Arrival Time started, used to tell me about her life, working two jobs, sharing a car with her sister. There are always dark rings under her eyes and the frazzle aura of a person scratching to pay her bills. My explanations would sound self-indulgent to her at best. Besides, being on the clock isn’t my only issue with the daycare.
The other is the full lunchbox every time I pick my daughter up.
She’s there six hours and doesn’t appear to eat or drink anything despite my frequent “questions” about the problem. But the daycare is only a three-minute drive, so I don’t make a change, always hoping the next day will be better. Plus, I’m busy working on my tortuous novel.
Do I miss New York? Is that the problem?
The truth frightens me when I probe for unhappiness, almost wishing to find it nestled inside me, more like a rotten abscess than an actual thing, a lack not a lump. I search deeper for an obligatory abyss, the proof of my bohemian soul, but my imperturbable depths reveal no lurking secrets or feelings of resentment towards my husband, whose decision it was that we move to Connecticut for our daughter’s sake.
The truth frightens me when I probe for unhappiness, almost wishing to find it nestled inside me, more like a rotten abscess than an actual thing, a lack not a lump.
This complacency worries me: either I’m more shallow than I’ve given myself credit for or the unhappiness is so vast that its edges, like the edges of the far distant universe, are undiscoverable territory.
Or, am I simply contented with this easy suburban existence? The stress and tension of my days being a mommy in New York City are gone. Just like that, vanished are a million woes, chief among them carrying a baby onto the subway and having junkies hit us up for dollars, while the rest of the subway car averted their eyes. Just as I’d been in college, I was too post-partum fat to count as anyone’s damsel in distress. Monica Lewinsky was only good enough for the prince to come on, not come to her rescue.
Remembering the incident sends shivers down my spine. Before I forget the details, I start writing it down.
“Give me a dollar,” the junkie demands.
Maybe there’s a question in his voice that I miss as my eyes are drawn to where he fondles himself.
Maybe that isn’t a dick or a shiv he’s handling. Maybe it really is a pen as the old joke goes, or maybe he’s a kind of new futurist, the avant-avant-garde. A brilliant poet with a poem out in The Paris Review speaking of his addiction to heroin as an experiment into the iridescent, torqued phosphors of modern life.
Still, I fear the wild-eyed man standing over me and my baby, his skin the pasty blue of a demented smurf’s, his eyes bloodshot with crazy and a decoction of drugs.
He made his way straight to us when the F train opened at Fourth Ave, like a wolf sensing our vulnerability—women and children first.
I don’t make eye contact as I give the junkie a dollar. The subway stops. Doors slide open.
“I’m a good person,” he tells me, or maybe the whole car. Maybe himself.
“I know,” I lie. He backs out, staring at us the way good people don’t. I’m not even shaking. I’ve been in New York too long, I think. On the other hand, I’m grateful Mr. Crazy left us alone. I’ve seen men like him attach like leeches to women—usually pretty girls.
Sometimes, I was that girl, trapped, abandoned by the Samaritans (none good, all bad), pretending, while the man balanced the high-wire act of sanity, that his talk was neighborly, that he was talking to these girls the length of their whole trip, recounting conspiracy theories about chickens and gods, aliens and racism, and they were asking for it. Those girls were asking for it. To be spoken to. You could tell, Officer, by the fact they had lipstick on. Those lips wanted talking. Those lips just asking to be raped with hard nouns, nonsensical verbs.
Once on the 2 train in Brooklyn an incongruously well-dressed man chose me second after failing to harass another woman. Sick of it, not even bothering with an accent, I said, “I don’t speak English.”
I moved to the doors and escaped to the platform at Nevins as I heard him shouting, “You do! That was English! What you said. You a Jew?”
7. No shopping: do not shop your story ideas.
I’ve written this novel six times now. SIX! Maybe that accounts for my reluctance to work on it, or my tendency to do anything but write. Maybe if I just send a copy of it to my best friend, my husband, or one of my magazine editors, then they can help me realize what’s wrong with the direction I’m going. After all, everyone needs Beta readers. That’s, like, good business sense.
8. Cultivate your team
It’s 3:55 and I haven’t written a word or researched a goddamn thing! This seems to be happening more and more. I can’t understand why.
I shut the laptop and grab my keys. At the daycare, Terry is gone already to her second job; there’s a fresh-faced college kid, sitting against one wall, gossiping with cronies from other kids’ rooms. My daughter crouches in a corner, playing with a toy by herself, which is par for the course, except that she has an enormous shit in her pants. I can smell it when I come within six feet of her. I go to fetch her backpack from her cubbyhole and see a plate with her entire sandwich uneaten, shoved into the cubbyhole on top of the pack.
Something in me breaks. I hate to be a tattletale, but I finally go to complain to the director for the first time. She’s a grown woman named Bunny with a laser stare that could possibly outdo my former dean’s.
I stutter, “B-bunny?” trying to keep a straight face. (This is harder than with the junkie.)
I ask to speak to her privately.
“Elizabeth is one of our most responsible caregivers,” Bunny speaks icily, referring to the fresh-faced kid who’d been ignoring my daughter’s needs in every way.
I stare at her, unable to respond, which only happens to me when my rage is this intense.
“Okay,” I say. I scoop up my daughter, who’s happily howling up and down the hall, still stinking up the premises. She’s had nothing to drink or eat for hours. My novel, I have to admit, is about to be at another kind of standstill. I’m going to have to take some time off writing to sort this situation out.
There are more important things.
9. Love your readers
If a 400 page book takes 800 minutes or “56,000 irretrievable” heartbeats to read, how can I honor my readers and do my very best work when my own life is so chaotic? My husband isn’t home four days out of seven at his new job in Philly, which he got soon after we moved to Connecticut. Is it loneliness perhaps, this nothing I can’t feel? Is that misery and depression miring me and my writing? Sometimes the most effective way to write is not to. To stop battling the block. Not to write through it but to remove it. Toni Morrison once said she could tell when writers tried to write through the block, and I feel like I could be the poster girl for that problem these days.
Maybe everything I’ve been writing has been crap, because I’ve been avoiding dealing with reality first.
I take a deep breath and pick up my cellphone. My daughter is watching Sesame Street. She has a clean butt, albeit a rash from wearing a dirty diaper for hours.
I hate change. I want to cultivate writerly habits, discipline, be effective, keep forging blindly ahead, but sometimes there’s more to being an artist than obsessing about your own personal mission.
“Ryan,” I say, “I’m ready to move.”
Just as suddenly, I realize what I need to do to my novel.
But it has to wait, because I need to start at square one in life and art.
And, most of all, I need to read.