A friend read my last blog and gave me a gentle scolding. It sounded to her like I was caving in, backsliding, losing my resolve to put my MFA work above all else and give it 100% for the two allotted years. “You have to make sacrifices”, she said.
I thought about that for a day or so. One of the things that has happened to me in my critique-rich environment is that I’m seeing the advice people offer, suggestions and perspectives from outside my own little bubble, can be very useful if I let them in. I come from an advice-dealing family and quit giving outside counsel much credence somewhere in my teen years. I’ve evolved to a point where I could let it in — sometimes — in limited quantities — when I am feeling grounded, and when it doesn’t seem to contradict my basic sense of who I am. As a firstborn whose first inclination is to tap dance for approval, I have learned that my sense of self relies heavily on my ability to recalibrate my giveashit meter when it comes to other people’s opinions.
So I looked over my last blog, the part about taking back a few of the pleasures, some of the down time. The part about pacing myself. I tried on the possibility that I was surrendering, in some way. Here’s what I came up with.
I’m not too worried about becoming lazy. Work without brakes is a family tradition, and the family joke. When I am not working on pots, I am working on the house, digging fall clothes for five out of the attic, making homeschool lesson plans, working in the yard, working on my website or — for recreation — gathering wood to build a fire and bake hearth oven bread.
But I am determined not to become the family Jane Goodman writes about, both parents working all the time to pay child care for kids they rarely see, and to afford a big house they are never in because they are at work all the time. My compromise is to work my ass off here at home, but it’s still possible to “miss it”.
I am not especially goal oriented with this college program. The MFA is the bar I have set for myself, but it in itself is not a ticket to anything I want, especially. I don’t picture myself launching a teaching career right away, if it means putting my kids in school before they choose to go. Between my seven years in the english department, my husband’s 15 managing a university research facility, and my general impression of what life is like for my current art department profs, teaching looks like a lot of battles, a shrinking budget, a tangle of bureaucracy and very little time to make your own pots. I don’t have the energy for that AND homeschooling. But if I was just in this for the piece of paper, I might be tempted to skate by and do less. As it is, I am in it for the experience, and want every minute I have paid for.
But the reason I am in this — and the reason I am carving tuition payments out of our groceries, out of Christmas — is to learn everything there is to know, in two years. Diana offered me some flexibility with scheduling, but I have not yet taken advantage of the offer. I have never missed a class, plus spend nine hours every Tuesday at the wheel in the EMU studio — and much of the weekend in my own. Last weekend in between family stuff I made half a dozen porcelain-ish cups, another three part Anatolian jug, a giant beetle shaped platter which I then cast in plaster at the kitchen table, and several pots that would never live to see a kiln — plus glazed and fired a couple of big casseroles for a fundraiser auction for homeless transitional housing. I read my seminar homework (postmodern painting) on the drive to buy pumpkins (even though when my kids read in the car, I say, “You’re missing the fall trees!”)
I see plenty of fall color driving US23, but I miss other stuff. I have never met my kids’ lego robotics team. I haven’t seen Molly do gymnastics, been there for my boys’ Tae Kwon Do belt tests, or attended a scout meeting. Grandma takes them to the art museum instead of Mom. Four nights a week they eat dinner with my empty chair, while I microwave yet another plastic tub of white-bean-and-kale soup. I spend much of Thursday with private students or teaching my one remaining guild class, earning the money to pay my tuition. (Half time grad assistantship helps, but I have to pay the other half without being able to make pots to sell.)
I’m skipping the guild Christmas sale this year, though I could use the cash. There’s just no way to make “extra” pots, not to mention fitting in the mandatory meetings, set up, clean up, and sign up to sell. I might glaze and box last summer’s leftover bisque for the little craft sale at the UU church, but frankly, it now looks like a collection of awkward proportions, too sharp rims, “I-never-really-considered-this-heavy-until-I-started-school” weightyness.
Other sacrifices I made to prepare for the MFA weigh on me in a background-mourning kind of way: after 15 years of tending a 30X40 organic garden, this year I pulled out the fences and mowed the whole thing. It’s now an odd colored patch of lawn, with crabgrass, dandelions and volunteer arugula (which makes for a skunky mow.)
I gave away my laying hens after 12 years and tore down the coop.
The absent-ness of big purple eggplants, fresh warm eggs and rows of canned stewed tomatoes in my kitchen doesn’t seem like a quality-of-life issue, but I am beginning to see that I gardened more for the mental health factor than the produce.
So yeah, I feel like I am making sacrifices. The fact that it’s stuff some of my friends jettisoned long ago (like sit down dinners) is small consolation.
While my parents, husband, brother and kids sat down to Tyler’s birthday dinner, I was in the car, doing part of my 200-miles-in-three-days commute.
My littlest child’s last years of being little will be available to me in glimpses, between let’s-sit-down-and-get-your-schoolwork-done and gimmee-a-kiss-mom-has-to-go-see-you-tomorrow-night. I know I still see as much of my kids as my friends who put theirs on the yellow bus every day, but so much of our week now is about work, work, get your work done, do this over, bring me the one you didn’t finish at grandma’s yesterday. Teacher mom is not much fun, and fun mom is only around on weekends — when she’s not in the studio.
This is damn hard. It’s not easy, at 45, to step out of the teacher-who-knows-her-stuff role and sit in the student-who-has-a-lot-to-learn chair. I can be a grown up about it, joke with Patrick and Reem about it, and I DO believe it’s worth the hard work to ferret out all that is wrong with my pots and reach for a higher standard. But it sucks sometimes.
Last night I came in quietly, locked the front door, dumped my bags in the front room and came in to see if the kids were asleep, or still reading. Connor peered out of his loft bed and stretched down to give me a kiss goodnight. “How was your drive?” he asked. “Fine,” I said, “no snow, no ice, no rain. One creamed deer.”
“I heard you cried at school”, he said. (He must have heard his dad on the phone.)
“Nobody saw me”, I said. “I just get frustrated because I can’t make my pots get better as fast as I want them to.”
He reached down and patted my head. I had to laugh at the role reversal. Next my kids will have to go in for a parent-teacher conference so Diana can report on my progress. And wait until I bring home my grade card! I was handed back a graded paper last night in seminar. It’s the first time my writing has come back scribbled with corrections and suggestions since 1988. Even Polly at Clay Times doesn’t do that.
So after a bit of soul searching, I am still OK with giving myself time for guilty pleasures and stolen time. I never watch TV and don’t have many time-suckign habits besides this blog. I can still work circles around some folks, and I have learned that there is a price for pushing too hard (esp.in my 40s.) I get scattered, forget things — I can handle that. I get sick if I don’t get enough sleep or stay too stressed for too long — I’ll be careful. But if I don’t put down my things-to-do list once in a while to breathe in, recharge, and take stock, I become joyless.
I can’t make good work without some spark of joy. I can’t be a good mom without some spark of joy. I can make a little spark go a long way — especially in mid winter, when the world can look pretty bleak — but I can’t let it go out. That means figuring out what can be sacrificed, and what’s not negotiable.
Time to make breakfast, the kids are up.