Guarding the Self: Some Notes from the Commute

The importance of protecting the inner life against the stresses and assaults of ordinary life seems to be on everyone’s minds lately. Vox Populi published “The Artist’s Task,” an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays, where Oliver argues for the fierce protection of the self  most connected to the capacity to write, imagine, dream, and make art. This self, she writes, is “neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

The way this is written makes it seem like something a different generation might have described as a “higher calling:” like a call to priesthood, or a vow of chastity. Only, the abstention is not necessarily from sex but from the pressures of domestic responsibility. The price of refusal: a kind of condemnation to unhappiness— “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Then, just a few days ago, I came across a similar essay by Lan Samantha Chang on LitHub titled “Writers, Protect Your Inner Life (A Writing Life and a Writing Career are Two Separate Things).” She writes:

“We must wall off our inner selves from the colonizing part that assesses, quantifies, judges. … The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world. Cherish yourself and wall off an interior room where you’re allowed to forget your published life as a writer [and by extension, other parts of your life not related to writing]. Breathe deeply. Inside this walled-off room, time is different—it is flexible, malleable. We’re allowed bend it, to speed it up, slow it down, to jump forwards and backwards, as our minds do. We can … circle back to our thoughts and memories picking and choosing the most meaningful to us. There’s a hushed, glowing sound, like the sound coming from the inside of a shell.”

The context for Chang’s essay is the need to differentiate between the private life of generation and creation, and the public world that has more to do with the marketing, promotion, and reception of one’s published work. Nevertheless, both Oliver and Chang are united in their perception that it is possible to arrive at a more or less clear demarcation of space: there is the messy world, here is your inner room or life where you can consciously claim the freedom to create, if you just close the door.  

This idea(l) of interior space and untrammeled time is one that I too have wanted so badly to pursue. I felt it the first time I lived abroad and away from home over two decades ago. It was for a PhD program, but it also signified a period of time focused solely on my writing. I hoped to rediscover and hone the voice that I felt had become muted and submerged in the process of trying to juggle new motherhood, teaching, figuring out my individual identity; and being part of an extended household—a setting where, for the most part, there was literally no room of one’s own. There were curtains that set off bedrooms from the rest of the living space, and actually closing the door would likely prompt an inquiry as to whether or not something was wrong with you.

I was 30, and had three daughters all under the age of 10. I had them young, just out of college, believing then that the fastest way to obtain my own independent life was to become a mother and start my own family. As I learned fairly quickly, that was not necessarily the case. Hardly yet knowing who I really was, either as a woman or as a writer, I often came undone by the effort to meet expectations: either I must do it all extremely well, or give up something in order to be good at another. And it seems I wasn’t very good at drawing the line or marking off space as a “room of my own.” I was always fraught with crippling guilt and anxiety; it came of being conditioned to believe the choices I made were poor, because as a woman, I should always prioritize others before myself. Things took their toll. One of my college professors who saw me at a conference hailed me thus: “I hear your writing is generally going well; but your life, not so much.”

The year before I left, a big earthquake nearly leveled our entire city in the mountains; the modest house I had just built next to my parents’ home with a government housing loan was damaged; but the foundation was miraculously intact. Miraculously, also,; no one in my family was hurt. Two weeks after, my father passed away, more from natural causes (though indirectly, the stress from what we had just been through). I distinctly remember his words when, months before everything seemed to change, I first got the notice of acceptance into my doctoral program: “You should take this opportunity, because it’s not only for you but for your children. If you don’t take it now, one day you may look at yourself in the mirror and regret it.”

While I was away, my daughters lived in the same home where I’d spent my childhood—a house with sayote vines and an avocado tree in the backyard, past the back steps where we did laundry by hand. The girls were brought to and picked up from school daily either by my mother or by a “service” driver who similarly ferried other kids from the neighborhood. The older two took some music lessons at the convent, and in the summer they attended children’s art workshops at a local university. During the four years I was away, I was not there to supervise homework, help with school projects, sign report cards, buy groceries, make meals and school lunches; tuck them into bed, tend fevers, apply plasters to scraped knees, applaud at school programs, pay bills; put up Christmas decorations, help blow out candles on their birthday cakes, or listen to their everyday woes. I knew and was grateful therefore, that I had family who cared for and supported them.

But I also remember the words of a work colleague, who told me that leaving my children for such an extended period would be selfish, especially because I was a mother. More, that there would be repercussions. “Just you wait and see. Maybe it won’t show now, but there are surely going to be lasting” and by this she meant negative, “effects on them.” I can’t tell how long now I have been carrying this in my heart like a stone, like a wound which opens again and again, especially when I witness any of my children during the times that they did (and still continue to) struggle with things: finishing school, comparing their life trajectory to that of their (seemingly more “successful”) peers, having enough money, finding and keeping relationships, feeling accomplishment and self-worth—in short, figuring out who they are. Two of them suffer from depression; all are afflicted in some way, now and again, with anxiety.  During such times, despite the irrationality of it, I wonder if that former colleague may have been right after all. And though she is long gone to her grave, her words sometimes still have the potency to wield the same kind of power as when I first heard them.

Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens has this passage:  

“Virginia Woolf… wrote that in order for a woman to write … she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself?”  

Which is to say, our abilities to make claims to replenishing space and time are not uniform; they are determined by a variety of specifics—whether women are unattached or married, whether they are single parents, or if they have partners who may or may not share their burdens; if they are poor or disabled, employed or not; if they are women of color, if they have the means to take a physical break from the struggle to maintain life, often not just for themselves but also for others.  

From another part of Mary Oliver’s essay:

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. [italics mine] My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all. There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done….”

Who would not wish to claim this method of work? I am as fascinated by what she says here as I am by the interiors depicted in those furniture and home design magazines that come in the mail—every room glowing with light and clean, bright paint, every shaded lamp and seagrass rug-covered surface coordinated to exude the idea of a beautiful retreat from the hubbub of the world. The shiny copper pans in the spotless kitchen don’t appear to bear evidence of a hundred meals made, with or without mustard. There is no greasy fish sauce bottle or rice cooker in it, its rim sporting a thin crust that can’t quite scrub off from almost two decades of daily service. Instead of a “hushed, glowing” seashell sound, the tumble and hum of the laundry machines is backdrop as I try to engage my or my students’ work. If the phone rings and it is a daughter in the throes of a meltdown, I answer. If the tire goes flat, it must be attended to somehow because how then will I get to work later, pick up my child from school, dash back to campus in time to teach my afternoon and evening classes?

Grief-stricken, it seems I am always tossed from one thing to another, temporarily leaving some in order to get to the next. But friends tell me, and I try to remind myself—there are some stones I really should and can stop carrying around. My wise friend and former student Jillisa says, “None of us can avoid suffering, but we can let it go and move into the next great and beautiful thing, and the next, and the next.” My colleague Janet chimes in, “The sacrifice model is a big fat lie, anyway. So: anybody up for a raid on the purveyors of bullshit?”

So I try to keep working on those recurring feelings of mother-guilt, especially those that magnify my doubts instead of affirming the big love I have always had for my children, no matter that we’ve had to reinvent what family means. As for my creative life: maybe I have slowly come to realize that I work with a different angel—one that after all these years of struggle, has given up trying to fix me to one spot; one that has become the angel of multitudinous distractions, the angel of more than occasional compromise. But also, the angel of the long-distance marathon and the angel of attendant focus (even in public places). I have no fixed time or space for coming to writing, but I write every day, whenever I can. Perhaps the inner life is more like a busy terminal. Or maybe an oft-frequented café with a communal table: when I’m there I can grab a seat, use that small stretch of time to come back to myself, before going off again.  


LUISA A. IGLORIA is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of the chapbooks Haori (Tea & Tattered Pages Press, 2017), Check & Balance (Moria Press/Locofo Chaps, 2017), and  Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass (Kudzu House Press eChapbook selection for Spring 2015); plus the full length works Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015.