Updated: May 21, 2021
“The world is only tolerable because of the empty places in it…when the world’s filled up, we’ll have to get hold of a star. Any star. Venus, or Mars. Get hold of it and leave it empty. Man needs an empty space somewhere for his spirit to rest in.” Doris Lessing
I spent almost all of last week entirely alone. No work, no friends, no family, no baby. No distractions. My very own writing retreat.
At first, it felt strange. I noticed the passing of every hour. Teaching is hardly a profession for clock watching, so I’m not used to being so aware of the passage of time. Breakfast, lunch, nap time, dinner, lessons, break time, my daily life is usually fitted around a fixed schedule dictated by the school day or my baby’s needs. Suddenly, everything was possible.
I went a bit manic. Changing activities every hour or so to cram in as much as I could. Reading, scribbling notes, eating, writing, watching TV. It felt like I had to make every minute count.
And how the words poured. On the first day, 3,000. Then 5,000, then 6,000. After three days I’d managed to write as much as I thought as I’d get done all week. I would have the luxury of reading it back over, making notes.
As the week progressed, the pace changed. I went and sat on a bench in the sun and read my book for a whole hour. I sat in a pub garden and had a ploughman’s with a cider.
Once the words were done I started looking into other things. Events I could go to. Friends I could meet up with. Opportunities to be a little bit more of the activist I would like to be.
But then, an interaction in the pub garden led me to realise that there might be something else behind my need to scrabble around and do as much as possible.
He could see me, making notes on printed pages, reading things and making notes. I’m sure he was just being polite. He asked what I was doing. I cringe to say it now, but I replied with, “I’m trying to write a book.” What a response. I still have such a lack of assurance in my status as a writer that I had to use the word ‘trying.’ He then proceeded to mansplain to me how to drink cider. Apparently it needed ice. Or I should drink halves when it’s hot. And I just sat there. My need to not make other people awkward overriding any sense of annoyance. To be what he expected a woman to be. I’m way more defiant in my head than in person.
I started to wonder why I was so desperate to account for every day. That I would have something to show for my time away. It occurred to me that, as I had left my eighteen-month-old daughter for a week, I needed to feel that it was productive. If not, what kind of woman leaves her baby?
It’s absurd. All the times I’ve taken her to visit family or friends without him, so he doesn’t see her for a day or two. Or the fact that he has been away several times without us. What underscores all of this is the bizarre belief that a mother is entirely necessary to a child and a father is a welcome but not fundamental addition.
I’ve just read Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Not only is it an amazing feat of non-fiction in terms of how she devoted eight years of her life to researching, talking to and living with these women, it’s also a fascinating insight into female desire. How it manifests itself, how it can be moulded and shaped by childhood experiences. But mostly, how it is a feared and mistrusted thing, even a disgusting secret, to be subdued and hidden away. I recommend it for the wonderful writing as much as the stories, but it got me thinking about my own desires and their place in my life.
Even if I had just spent a week, sitting in my pyjamas and watching TV, eating endless bags of salt and vinegar crisps, I should not need to justify it. I have been with my daughter almost every day for the last eighteen months and if I need time away from her, for whatever reason, then I shouldn’t feel so tied down to a sense of duty to achieve something great while I’m away.
I know, next week, it will all resume. In a matter of hours, minutes even, it will feel as though I never left the classroom. The things I have put in my calendar and booked in this lovely quiet time will feel like burdens when they approach, extra things that will just make me feel more tired.
Only, this week has reminded me that I need them. Even if they wear me out and mean I need to go to bed at 7:30 the following evening. Maybe, whether you have kids or not, stepping outside the people that need you, if only for an evening, feeding your own desire, rejuvenates the energy that you need to go and be all you can to them the following day. Everyone needs to be able to make their own memories.