Reader Response to Planting: Sowing the Seeds of the Self in One’s Own Writing Room
Last month’s column invited readers to submit a short story or creative non-fiction piece on the theme of claiming one’s own space as a mother writer. In this essay a Literary Mama reader, Kathryn Wallingford, maps the spiritual and physical geography of the writing places that have sustained her throughout a traveling life.
My Sacred Spaces:
Alleluia, My Journal, and a Purple Sleeping Bag
By Kathryn Wallingford
In Lauren Winner’s book, Girl Meets God, she discusses “the most important thing” she does all week. She talks about baking for a Jewish holiday and then later, celebrating Eucharist during the Episcopal service. I have decided the most important thing I do all week is singing “Alleluia,” right before the words of the Gospel are spoken.
I am not exactly sure what I am really singing for, but it sends chills down my spine and I feel differently after singing than I did before. Resigned. Peaceful. I remember the importance of breath.
And after the sermon and the peace are exchanged, after my son grabs a donut and we scurry home, I write down the words I learned. What does Eucharist mean? Why does Father Bryan keep saying Liturgy – what is a Liturgy exactly? I write down the names mentioned in the sermon. Bethany, Paul – I can’t keep them all straight.
A year ago, two years ago, and every year before the present, I cringed at the words God, pray, communion, and the Gospel.
It was not like I was raised outside the institution of religion. Or that my parents were too ignorant to believe that there was the possibility of something greater. Something magical about the folding of rocks and the building of mountains. The words of the Bible just never stuck. They never made sense. I wanted to belong at the over-zealous church camp. The Christmas Eve candlelight service was comforting.
But when I ran into a group of missionaries in the airport of Nepal after a month of sitting cross-legged with Buddhist nuns, and after three more months of Buddhist meditation, an introduction to puja, and receiving tika, I wanted to throw sticks at anyone that gave out a business card for Jesus.
Perhaps Anne Lamott described my faith best as she described her own in Traveling Mercies, “Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus.”
But the words of the Gospel feel most important to me now, so just as I have always done, I go home and I write about it. And after I am done, I write about my kids.
Yesterday, my oldest son told me he was going to call 911 if he could not find his special toy. I guess he needs someone to watch over him too. I tell my journal that.
I have told my journals many things:
September 24, 2000
Clouds lie on top of our village. The clouds will disappear when the monsoon comes. Everything changes when you give it time.
March 10, 2003
The snow geese have said their final goodbye to the trampled plume grass and moved northward.
October 7, 2007
I called my Aunt Marjorie on her 94th birthday and she says that my Mom kept her up celebrating until 1:00 am the night before. She said they needed rocking chairs because that is where all good conversations take place.
September 18, 2010
Red lipstick, pearl earrings, and a butcher knife. I love this woman. La boqueria, Barcelona.
Listed thoughts, one after another. What will happen to all these words when I die? Why do I feel this need for these written testaments? Who really cares?
I guess I do. Maybe because I know they are more than mere recordings, records of snow geese and a butcher knife. It is the act of quantifying and engraving a slice of time that will be a relentless reminder of what was.
My pen hits my notebook and, suddenly, my life has meaning.
The first time I understood this was when my grandfather, Papa, wrote me a note. A simple note.
“You are my sunshine. Call me anytime,” it read.
My mom, brother, and I had driven the hour and a half from our home to visit her parents for the day. My grandfather slipped me this message as we were leaving.
I didn’t think much of the note as we left their home, piled into the ‘87 Buick wagon, and took Highway 49 back to Charlotte. I did think about it when he died a few months later. The note reminded me of the day of our last visit, his chuckle, their turf putting range, and the backdrop of the Uwharrie Mountains.
I placed the card in a green recipe box and put it under my trundle bed. Later, the card would be joined by a spec of gold from Reid’s gold mine and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
But for a while it was just Papa’s words for me. It was all I had left. His written love for me.
But words are more than space holders. There is a life in them, too.
I learned that I could write how I felt when my first crush perfectly coincided with my discovery of Van Morrison. Morrison wrote “Into the Mystic,” so why couldn’t I?
Then, post-braces and pre-high school, I met “Ryan” at the beach and I proceeded to write my love for him. A four-day summer crush and my poem, “Blue,” helped me remember and forget his lasting presence.
By high school, I wrote out of my white, suburban bubble. I wrote book reports on work by Kerouac and Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away. I filled pages at yearbook signings with quotes that questioned our place on earth and the inequality of man and womankind.
After September 11 and a semester spent abroad, I felt helpless. I wanted to mark my place on earth and define my home. The natural world made the most sense to me, so I scribbled in field notebook after field notebook about the folds in the Bright Angel shale and the 5-petaled Spring Beauty. I wrote long letters and sent them across seas. I pressed leaves and told my friends, “I found this Black Gum in a pile of Yellow Poplars. It was red and looked at me. I think it wants to find you.”
Writing came plentifully, easily.
And post-college, the journals continued to fill my bookshelves. Large 8 x 11 inch notebooks with blank pages. College-ruled and narrow-ruled. Fancy leather notebooks. I wrote about living! Summer concerts. Marriage. Starting a life with someone at the age of 25.
Years passed and babies came. I lost my freedom to write. And yet I was plagued with the issues every mother must deal with -- unsolicited remarks about your body, gender-hopeful remarks, my goals for breastfeeding, and how to juggle a career and a family. The question of even forgoing a career all together as a mother.
And I still struggle to write about these questions.
My pen hits the paper with less frequency. My thoughts seem to get lost in lack of sleep, stresses of feeding an infant, and now juggling two children.
But somehow I manage.
I lie here now. It is 3:00 am. One child has an ear infection. I am not sure why my other child is awake. But he is, and sleep is not coming easily tonight. So we pull out the sleeping bags and cuddle close.
Their heads rest on either side, and for once, their squirmy bodies are still. The night is so quiet that my mind wanders.
My sleeping bag rests between their two bodies. This is the same sleeping bag that spent a month in the Absaroka range of Wyoming, hiked the Grand Canyon, followed me to Nepal, climbed peaks in Glacier, and now usually sits in our upstairs closet in Kentucky.
My children are piled on top of my memories now.
Lying here now might be the most important thing I do all week.
One head feels heavy on my shoulder. I peer down. He is asleep. I turn my head to the other side and my other son’s eyelids flicker open and shut and finally close. I leave them bundled on the floor and slither away.
I am awake, so I walk past my own bedroom and creep downstairs. I find my journal. I begin, “My purple sleeping bag...”
I give my words away and my life becomes bigger. These are now the words that give my life meaning.
Kathryn Wallingford resides in Lexington, KY with her two sons and husband. On good days, she writes about science, religion, and mothering. Most recently, you can find her work on HipMama.com.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
In this section of the Birthing the Mother Writer column, I like to take the opportunity to give readers a glance behind the scenes of the editorial process. This month, I have been thinking about rejection.
As mothers, we tend to move first from the core of our feelings – and this can make the process of submitting our writing for publication heart-wrenchingly difficult. I remember my late 20s when I was first “trying to become a writer” and getting rejected over and over again.
My stepdaughter was nine at the time, and one day (which I wrote about in an earlier column), as I was telling her about another rejection letter I got in the mail, she looked at me and said, “Do you have any idea how many elections Lincoln lost before he won one?”
A light went off in me when she said that. It illuminated a wise woman within who said, “Yes, Cassie, mothering is like that. The children teach you.”
What I learned is that rejection, like losing elections, is part of the process.
Fast-forward sixteen years. I am working on this column. And I open my email to find a rejection.
Rejection is hard.
Here is what Kathryn Wallingford wrote when I asked her about the submission and rejection process:
“Writing is such a solitary process for me. I have to really stretch to find a friend/relative/writing group/professor to critique my work. So personal that when I send it away, it's like I have sealed an envelope and I am silently saying, ‘These are more than words given to you,’ not far off from what we say during Eucharist. A piece of my life that I am now offering.”
I get that.
But as the Mother Theodore Guerin, the founder of the Sisters of Providence, the order of nuns who taught me in high school, said, “We cannot do our work if we remain in our nests.”
Yes, we must be in our nests when our children are fledglings. And we must keep our writing close to our chests and bellies when we are first beginning. And any time a project is in its infancy.
But just as fledglings begin to fly as they grow, so must our writing.
So send out your work to the world, again and again, knowing that flight is necessary to come to a landing.