There’s something about that line that speaks to me.
Lately, I’ve found myself having a near-obsession with birds. Not real birds, but folk art birds. The kind in profile, that are painted and embellished, and look as unlike real birds as it is possible to get. During my latest trip to Asheville, my grandmother insisted that I go through all my great-grandmothers old craft books. And in them I found pattern after pattern for these birds. Bird statues, bird mobiles, bird appliques, bird sculptures, paper birds, cloth birds, clay birds, wood birds… It was like some kind of sign, because I had previously spent hours scouring the internet for folksy bird patterns and came up empty handed.
I don’t know why I’m so drawn to the birds, except that they’re colorful and friendly, a little quirky, and make me feel happy. People who know me well know that I’m a deeply grounded sort of individual. I dislike flying — literally and figuratively. If you had to describe me in zoomorphic terms, I wouldn’t be a bird. And maybe that’s where the attraction lies.
I read an interesting interview today about Lady Gaga’s new tattoo. What, I’m sure you’re thinking, does that have anything to do with the conversation topic? Bear with me.
First of all, I like Lady Gaga’s music. It’s catchy, fun, better than some other options on the radio. But Lady Gaga herself? I hadn’t given her much thought, to be perfectly honest. But according to the article I read, this is what she recently had tattooed down her arm: “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” It’s a quote by Rainer Marie Rilke. I’ll admit I was a little impressed. I don’t really have a thing for tattoos (although I could probably be persuaded to ink a 1940s pinup to my bicep as a conversation piece), but as a writer, I can’t think of anything more appropriate to permanently etch on myself. And then she added something else in this interview that I can’t quite get out of my head. The article said “Rilke’s ‘philosophy of solitude’ spoke to her. The New York native called solitude ‘something you marry, as an artist. When you are an artist, your solitude is a lonely place that you embrace.'”
We talk here a lot about the demands on us as mothers, about how we’re pressed for time and space and energy to write. But one thing we don’t talk about is the inherent loneliness that comes with our chosen occupation. Recently, on my personal blog, I wrote about how being creative and near-mental illness go hand in hand. Part of that is likely due to the fact that creative people have deep, complex inner lives. As such,we’re driven by the compulsion to write (or create) that Rilke speaks of, and soon live mostly in our creative mind. Add to this the loneliness that is inherent to motherhood and you really do have to learn to embrace the solitude or you lose yourself in it.
Which brings me back to the birds…
I said it once before, but it bears repeating. Creative mothers are like caged birds. Our children have clipped our wings, our families, and the sheer domesticity of our mothering lives have become our cages, as have our responsibilities, and financial obligations. We can’t escape from any of it, but then again, maybe we don’t want to. Motherhood was a conscious choice we made. As was following the creative path. And yet we all yearn to fly around. See the world. Live in it a bit.
But ironically enough, life isn’t so free and easy for birds either.
They spend an inordinate amount of time caring for their young. According to a birding website at Cornell University, “Sitting on a nest may look easy, but it involves more trade-offs than meet the eye. When birds sit on eggs, they are not simply relaxing. They are regulating the temperature of the clutch… Although most people think of incubation as a warming process, birds may need to cool their eggs by shading or moistening them in hot environments. For example, one pair of Black-necked Stilts at southern California’s Salton Sea made 155 trips in one day to soak their belly feathers in water to cool their eggs.” It went on to say that, “Incubation requires a balance between sitting on the eggs to maintain their temperature and leaving the nest to refuel by foraging. Incubation thus involves a series of trade-offs: a female gains energy by leaving the nest to forage, but she must expend energy to rewarm or cool the clutch after returning.”
Isn’t that an apt metaphor for the life of a creative mother? And what bird, or mother, has the time to carve out time for relationships with all that traveling back and forth? Sitting on her nest, creating life, is not different than one of us being holed up alone in her studio/office/corner of the sofa working on her latest project. I look at birds differently now. Sure they like to hang out in flocks and travel the world, but when parenthood enters the equation, they are as tied down, lonely, and exhausted as any of us.
I think back to Cathy’s most recent post, where she described the temporary nature of parenthood. And I think of the yearly cycle of nest building, baby hatching, and nest leaving I witness each year in my own backyard. My boys are bigger now than they were yesterday. Soon they will fly away from me. Soon I will have plenty of time for free-flying and writing. But I will not want it. I will want my boys back.
Maybe I am more like a bird than I thought I was. And maybe I should look to the bird as a symbol for the course my life will take. Right now is my time to hatch my clutch, but soon I’ll have to fly anyway.