February, date uncertain.
I am leading multiple lives simultaneously.
This one, in which I spend my evenings researching preschools and my weekends with a hand behind my daughter’s back, spotting her as she climbs playground equipment on her own. Buying cookies from girl scouts, reading the same children’s books again and again, no need to look at the pages anymore. At night in her bedroom, 3 am, the moonlight creeps through the slats in the blinds, painting white stripes across the floor and into the crib. She falls asleep again across my lap. I can barely keep my eyes open, but if I get a glimpse of this nightly, silent ritual — beauty, connection, a human moment — I am grateful to give up my sleep.
Another life, the one in which I went on retreat at monasteries. We’d wake in the darkness for prayer or meditation. It was bleary, difficult for a person used to sleeping in, but walking through the darkened hallways, outside through frost or dew or starlight, I sensed we were all doing something of great importance, thinking only a few ever got this chance to try to be humble in the face of God, obedient to the call of prayer above all else. Ironically, there was a sense, as I tried to do the most basic things — breathing, walking, sitting, feeling the midnight air in my nostrils, my heartbeat, really seeing the particles dust floating in the air in front of my face — as I tried to do all this with renewed awakeness, awareness, there was a sense that this made me special. Sometimes I thought there was something I had — something most people didn’t have — that drew me to these solemn places, these worlds set apart to realize that we weren’t apart from God, from each other, at all.
I make my nightly vigils to my daughter’s room with interrupted dreams hovering around me. She stands at the railing of her crib, crying out. I know where she’ll be and don’t need to open my eyes to lift her up and carry her to the couch. I lift my shirt, wrap a blanket around us. Sometimes she falls asleep, sometimes we both do. There’s no attempt to reach any special state during all this. I am there to fulfill a need; it isn’t about me. I might complain in the morning, but in the night it happens automatically. She calls, I answer. My body can do it without my mind. But there are moments when I can feel that this is something women have been doing since the very beginning, soothing their children in the dark, and I feel connected to those women and their children, scattered through space and time. That kind of feeling invoked by prayers, rituals, the chants, the bells, all these things that help us feel connected to the other seekers throughout the world and the ages.
There is nothing “special” about the act of mothering. It isn’t often hallowed, imbued with spiritual significance. It isn’t done explicitly for God, with God, but with the child. But the “special” feeling that comes up in explicit religious practice must be an error, something extraneous added to the practice itself, diverting attention and energy. Can we act without self-consciousness, self-aggrandizement, self-criticism, or anxiety — can we take care of others, wash the dishes, get out of bed in the morning, sit, not because we want the “credit,” but simply because it needs to be done.
There’s a part of me that always dismissed domestic life, “lay” life, as a lesser means of intentional living, something ordinary rather than sacred, mundane rather than intense, exotic, rare. There’s another part that always lusted after it, reading the blogs of women who stayed home with their children. The ones I chose to read were usually very devout women, traditional Catholics and Mormons, with many children and conservative ideals. Reading these housewife blogs felt like a guilty pleasure to me in my 20s, almost like watching raunchy reality TV depicting lives of extreme excess. I’ve known other women who do this too. Liberal, independent, city girls with careers, advanced degrees, lofty goals. Reading the mommy blogs, we envied the certainties these stay-at-home moms proclaimed, the sureness that their days were spent doing something valuable, that motherhood was their true vocation and purpose, that their ambitions were firmly rooted in these beautiful homes, beautiful meals, beautiful Halloween costumes, happy families, faith. It looks so simple, such a respite, from the perspective of the city striver, dealing with the bosses, the bad dates, the crowds of strangers. These seemingly-so-content creatures living in that world are exotic in their own way.
Another life, a sensual life surrounded by with complex women and dominant men, or men we tried (and failed) to fashion into dominants. The sensitive deviant, naked and surrounded by books and notebooks, writing everything down, hiding everything and hiding nothing. I read an article about a famous French dominatrix, who’d once been a famous submissive to a famous literary husband. Public intellectuals, members of an elite class. That which comes across as sleazy, perverse in the hands of a lesser mind becomes sublime in the very intelligent, the mind capable of subtlety and metaphor. The pornographic is rendered erotic, spiritual even. The domestic life is elevated as well. Once established as smart enough, philosophers and artists can write about anything — their most secret, private thoughts, the most mundane details or their lives — without fear of being called boring or self-absorbed. The difference between theory and the journal can be very slight, it may just be choice of words.