by Laura Valeri
|L et me speak to you as you like: with pretty language flowing through manicured Zen gardens of sense. I understand that preference viscerally. As a younger writer, I used to make love to words. I rolled them off the tongue to taste their sweetness, to imbibe their fragrance, to test their texture. The words in themselves were like edible flowers, sugar-pearled, lovely bouquets of freshness breathing sun and oxygen onto the graced, graceful page. But now, as living teaches me life, words come out rougher and less hewn, like clods of earth, still fragrant and fresh, but pungent. They demand that I dig my fingers into them, that I let their earthiness lift my nails and mark me with vulgar streaks of brown and black, my skin redolent with their aroma. They are more alive, in some sense, but less pretty: they demand that I accept their potential as they are, minerals and water and mud and nutrient and beetles’ wings, dried up skeletons of cockroaches, roots, weeds, the husks of wild bird seeds, messy, yet ordered, alive, real. But how to present a pot filled with clods and ask, do you smell the life in this dirt? Do you see the gods in this crumbling soil? Do you find the seed of lilies and azaleas with the tangle of weeds and roots?
It’s hard to penetrate the readership when words are earth and clod. It is a prayer to a dead god to hope to dump the whole mess of this rich earth and hope that someone may see how the sun favors it, how water embraces it, how life permeates it and wants to move through it, upwards, in beautiful tendrils of green, budding with the promise of a different kind of art, something not so pretty, a little bit thorny, wild and unaccountable, hostile and untamed.
The Time of No Time
Days, and days again, three novels languish, un-nurtured mewling fetuses, half alive, half still belonging to the womb of my laptop’s hard-drive, rotating in unimaginable spins of megabytes, gigabytes, still deformed conglomerates of word just barely with a heartbeat, longing to be fed, to be formed, kicking at the walls of my uterus, demanding my attention. I, the renegade mother. I am not a mother even in real life, postponing what my biology demands of me with the rigors of economy, of a husband who is too old to nurture a new child, of a job that permits no time outside of grading persuasion papers and oral synthesis. I am the American adjunct, just recently turned tenure track at a college too small to appreciate the rigors of art, too large to forgive lapsed time, a phenomena of oppression just bursting to turn into revolution. A revolutionary has no motherhood, cannot afford the luxury of motherhood. My novels are patient; they nudge me gently when I am lecturing, when I am thinking of the children I could have had if I had stuck to my original plan of seeking a job in editing rather than through academia. The novels remind me that I am seven years since my last book, that I’m pushing the limits of what is acceptable of an academic’s scholarship record even here in rural Georgia; my unborn children remind me that I’m already years past the age of motherhood without science, that I should call back the strange doctor who talks of “firing up” my uterus with drugs. I fill my time with grant-writing and course-proposals, student conferences, listserv commentary on the status of budget cuts and their influence on scholastic standards; I am seeking escape routes from the womb; I am abandoning my three children, half formed, whose telepathic cries I hear in the night. I dread coming here, to this place of attention and nurturing, to this place of listlessness and stillness. It is without beauty, a sinister place threatening failure, populated by amorphous shapes that swat at my face like the claws of a perfect predator, taunting me with smells I don’t recognize, a history I don’t remember of landscapes far away.
This is the place where all mistakes are made. If I could insert a periscope through my genitals, this is what my womb would look like, a place of discontent and blood, a place of permeations and membranes, hellishly steamy and cramping. In here, anything is possible, but the burden of possibility rests in places obscure, where the fragile ovule of art is attached perilously to thorny, saw-toothed vines. I must somehow detach it without damaging my perfect ovule, without breaking it or altering its shape out of potential perfection. It must be seduced, wooed in ways primitive and instinctual, such labor so unfamiliar to the overburdened teacher. I would rather do anything, anything at all than be here. I would rather draw schedules, compose rubrics, re-design assignments, seek more grants where my language need not bare the self-effacing demands of nurturing motherhood.
Don’t I have some emails to answer? Conferences to prepare for? I come out of this place quickly, with my held breath still boiling in my plexus now bursting forth with droplets of maroon blood; shreds of placenta on my shoulders marble me with the responsibilities I have forfeited yet again. (Write every day, I tell my students. Without that daily labor, there is no hope for art.)
At night, I lay awake, supine, aware of the peaceful breathing of my husband, pondering my teaching profession, asking why it has so overwhelmed the desire to seek artistic pastures, to till and saw and water and seek budding rewards of ordered words, fields and fields of them, so ripe and nutritious. Instead of art, I nurture strategies. I hungrily seek out calls for submissions. I calculate the odds and order, pre-arranged: submit first to the less than 1% acceptance journals, then to the less than 20%; if already November, one month from evaluation time, submit to the 50%. I line up my oldest children, comb and brush and powder them with blush and send them off in their best Sunday clothes with smiles and practiced introductions. Strategy, I tell them, and kiss them on the forehead as I send them off, hoping to soon receive a letter: I won’t be coming home again this time, Mother.
I used to be woken out of sleep with the drive, like sexual desire, to touch, be close, breathe in the very heartbeats of prose, to trace its imperfect curves, pruning through its branches for the tender new buds, and love, always love, like showers of new dew, like flowing rivulets in irrigation ditches, like rain and sun and the pointed abdomen of bees. This was my labor, a labor I sought eagerly, food I ate like the kisses of my husband-lover. I looked forward to experiencing it on my body, through my senses, and where the nameless places stir inside. Now, this is a frightening unconscious place where I go to shape my children, to will a creation out of the nightmares of no-time time. I hate to be here.
Rushing out of Art
After my first book, the agents wanted my work. They asked for my novel. Where is it? Where is it?
I’d just given birth to my first child. I was still numb with pain, still asleep, and gently cradling my creation, wondering if it would ever lift open its wet eyelids. But agents wanted novels. I gave one the novel that was a stunningly tragic toddler whose hands still curled like the fists of newborns. One agent accepted it, but only after I signed a contract, and then he asked me to change my child, to paint her hair blue and her lips white, and to dress her in the clothes of a clown. Make it funny, he said. My child was too tragic. Its neck looped like a question mark left hanging upside down to dry, tiny blond tendrils sprouting uncertainly from its curved neck, seeking sunlight.
I rush in and out of art. I hold a watch to my ear like the pragmatist rabbit of Lewis Carroll’s fantasies: I lecture my fetuses with charts, which label muscles and bones, which map the course of arteries and veins. This is what you must aspire to, I tell them. I nudge their progress and pull out their crooked teeth with pliers, commanding them to grow new ones quickly, like shark teeth: tenure doesn’t wait. A writer whose first print does not exhaust a two-thousand copy run will never publish another novel, I explain, words that frighten my creation deeper into dank caves mined with sharp stalagmite peaks.
My friend the druid priestess grows me a spell. I ask her off-handedly, but immediately she begins to consider the astrological implications. The new moon is in Pisces, she says. Better if we wait for the Virgo moon, more auspicious for new beginnings. I don’t understand the complexity of this astrology, but I nod, feeling touched by its profoundness. I used to turn my prose to the moonlight, some shred of memory inside me reminding me that the moon is the patroness of women writers, the moon patient and observant, effacing itself periodically, always to come back, pregnant and glowing. My friend Tina gives me an egg – or rather, its shell, painted in yellow and hollowed out of its yolk. She tells me yellow is for my third energy center, the chakra of willpower, aligned with my will to coincide with my Will (the higher power that guides us, in creation and in art). Inside she puts candle, colored in gold, that she burned out inside the shell for the fire of inspiration. She puts camellia petals, a flower representing gratitude and prosperity, a feather for mental clarity, a piece of paper with my intention on it: “May Laura’s novel find its true home in the world, its place that serves the highest good, harming none, so mote it be.” She sends me a note with her spell:
I blessed and consecrated your talisman with incense (a blend I like called Hope) and sesame oil (for opening stubborn doors and finding hidden riches). It’s now soaking in the Reiki bowl — I’ll close it soon and you can have it. Either keep it close or put it out of sight and mind.
I started with an egg, the symbol of promise and potential, contained in the moment. Containers for intention. Kept with the bird imagery, with the swallows and the feather, the idea that your book must fly out into the world and be received in a way that honors its worth. In a way that serves the highest good. The sesame worked to remove obstacles (just like in the Arabian Nights — open sesame!). And the camellia had two-fold purpose — it draws prosperity, yes, but it is also about being grateful. I can’t explain why this seemed appropriate, but perhaps you get it. No matter what it looks like, you must trust that the petition has been heard and answered — and the rest will follow like spring follows winter, like a egg eventually hatches, like the bird eventually flies and leaves home and comes home again. That it has already been granted. This is the letting go part, and some people are better at it. They can look at their talisman a lot (like a reminder that everything is working for it’s highest good). But some people can’t let go in the presence of it and must hide it (out of sight, out of monkey mind, otherwise the energy you place in the talisman keeps getting drawn back to it instead of going out into the universe as it should).
Later she adds:
This full moon (it peaks at 10:38 Tuesday night) is the Storm Moon, also called the Seed moon. It rises in Virgo, a sign good for career and purpose energy:
The Storm Moon also called Seed Moon, Moon of Winds, Plow Moon, Worm Moon, Hrethmonath (Hertha’s Month), Lentzinmanoth (Renewal Month), Lenting Moon, Sap Moon, Crow Moon, Chaste Moon, Moon of the Snowblind. This is the Moon of the maiden and Faery folk. Gather the seeds of inspiration and imagine what they can grow into. Build an Altar to the Moon and bless your garden in the moonlight. Prepare the earth for planting and yourself for change.
In the morning, hours before I open my friend’s email, I have a gentle nudge from the Universe, a tugging for gratitude. As I sleep next to my loving, gentle Joel, who has read four rewrites of the same four-hundred page novel, the one whose painted hair and clown clothes has eclipsed her from polite society with hopeful notes: “We love the writing but there is something in the aesthetics… It’s just personal taste. Please keep seeking more readings and don’t let our rejection discourage you.”
I know that I am lucky. If I give birth to stillborns, still I am a teacher, wise, owl-headed Athena, guarding my fledgling student-writing from danger: how excited I get over the newly-hatched ideas, how their words spread tremulous wings on the page, how, hawkish, I defend it from the snakes of premature criticism. I eat of my prose, a nourishing dirt of poisonous centipedes and dry beetle wings, yes, but always within the great girth of our mother’s mercy. I am reminded this morning by the soundless voice of conscience to open up my heart to the blessing of life. One must be open to receive. I hatch the egg and pop out of bed and after a good day of work, I find my friend’s loving words onto my computer screen. I write back:
I woke up feeling reminded of the necessity and beauty of gratitude. I do feel grateful, though sometimes I think my default attitude is not one of gratitude but one of complaint. So I make a conscious effort to bring myself back to gratitude.
I make my altar with a quartz crystal, a hanging water votive holder, a glimmering moth clip, a clay fairy sitting on a turtle, which my sister in Italy picked out for me from the market in Rome’s Porta Portese, handed to me by my five-year old nephew with the preface: I had to pick one that looked most like you, Aunty. The cardboard box calls my clay fairy Fortune. I place her on my improvised altar, a dried-up stump of tree that Joel and I use to display the crystals we collect from eBay auctions and stone shops: sons and daughters of earth still trapped in matrix, glowing with clarity, beauty and precision. I dust the stump off and light the votive, the incense, two gold candles, place two moonflower seeds on my altar, one next to the egg, and one inside it, to add my own energy to the talisman. I add a granite rock to ground my wish. I place two chocolate eggs inside the nest of tissue paper and a green (heart chakra) cream pod that holds my talisman safe. I bless it with incense, and seal the egg with gold wax. I leave out two offerings to the moon: grapes and chocolate for sweetness and prosperity. I plant tulip bulbs in my garden, and shooting stars, and the rest of the moonflowers’ seeds. I water them with a bowl that comes from the moon-blessed altar. I draw Reiki symbols on my egg, holding it in my hands and meditate to the Universe. I am not schooled in rite, but like art it flows out of me, it nudges me from the heart and into the unbidden consciousness that moves my hands, my fingers, tells me what to do, guides me towards the soft earth, the evening dusk, the first splashes of moonlight. What I want most is to touch my art again, to stop marshalling it in football formation, blowing apoplectically into my whistle, and rather coax it out of the earth with sunlight and love. I hold my egg to my breast. I feel the pulsing of love in my third chakra at that point in my belly where the uterus swells with the pride of motherhood, and I hold still for the Universe to come to me, to whisper its sweetness, to break the birthing waters and let them flood.