I’m sitting at my desk doing some study, but my eyes keep straying to the window. It’s a gorgeous spring day, the kind that makes you want to be out in the sun making daisy chains, or sitting with your bare feet resting on the back of a chair and your eyes shut, or sitting on the edge of a dock with your toes almost, but not quite, touching the water.
My lucky daughter is outside. She’s with a friend and so far they’ve hung out up high in one of the trees in front of our house, eaten a bowl of raspberries, played hide and seek, whizzed up and down the street on their skateboards, and walked on stilts, and now they’re going off to play table tennis.
They’re eleven, a funny age, both of them caught between being kids and teenagers, intimations of the women they’ll eventually become mixed in with those childlike traits that I hope never completely disappear, because I’ll miss them when they do.
I’m comforted by the fact that upstairs is a bed full of stuffed animals and a desk almost completely covered in tiny little plasticky things that drive me crazy on a regular basis. My daughter, for now, at least, eschews any kind of makeup or nail polish, and is content to wear the same pair of shoes day in and day out because they’re comfortable and what could be more important than that?
Now that they’ve disappeared around the corner I can get back to some work. Or maybe I’ll go outside, too…
I don’t have an office. I have a desk tucked in a corner, with a bookshelf on one side and a wide window sill on the other. This way I’m close to the kitchen, which is essential for making cups of tea, keeping track of what I’m cooking for everyone’s dinner, and also for keeping an eye on homework. It’s cosy, but it works.
Most of the time.
Until, that is, I get a bit carried away with the all the journal papers I’m reading (or not), the various bits of paper that seem to accumulate all by themselves, the sticky notes that mysteriously unstick themselves from wherever they were stuck and float to the nearest surface, and the stacks of books that seem to come from nowhere, piling up to form miniature towers that teeter precariously whenever someone walks past. When this happens, the floor starts to look like my desk and the desk like how I imagine the inside of my head must look.
Which is why I am eternally grateful to have my wonderful research assistant. She keeps me on track, stepping on the keyboard at inopportune times, clicking on the mouse and either deleting something or answering an email when I wasn’t quite finished with it. Or simply sitting right in front of me so I can’t see the screen and purring loudly enough to drown out whatever fledgling thoughts were on their way to becoming something worth writing down.
Whatever would I do without her.
She’s sick, curled up on the couch with a blanket and a few of her favourite stuffed animals. I bring drinks and food, the cat, funny stories, funny voices (for the stuffed animals), tissues, medicine and, above all, myself. I sit and stroke her hair, read aloud from her favourite book, play a gam of Spot It (a stupendous game if ever there was one), retrieve the cat, bring the iPad, fetch another glass of water, and generally do all the things one does when one’s daughter is home sick from school and feeling miserable.
And in the back of my mind I picture a chapter edited, a journal paper read, a topic researched, a brilliant idea put down on paper, knowing full well that even had I had the time it’s unlikely all this would have happened. Because it never does, does it.
But now that I can’t do any of it I am convinced I could have, if only I’d had the chance.
We’re on holidays.
The sun is shining, the sand is hot, the water is warm and the jellyfish, so far, are keeping their distance. We go snorkeling and see stingrays gliding along the sand and schools of fish of all sizes, and in the evenings we watch the sun set over the water. Bliss!
It’s the perfect opportunity for me to do some writing, and each afternoon I pull out my computer for a good hour or so of novel-writing, free from the demands of my dissertation (those teetering stacks of academic papers and books crying to be read and then digested), free from family/house and teaching, and, crucially, free from the internet.
My husband asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to leave my computer at home but I just looked at him in horror. Two weeks without it? Was he insane? How could I leave it behind when I itched to have the opportunity to write just for the sheer pleasure of it?
I sit on our balcony overlooking the ocean, my feet sandy and my brain wonderfully clear, and each day I pick up where I left off the day before, which, let me tell you, is a small miracle right there, my friends.
Some days I look over at her lying in her basket and I know her day is turning out to be much more productive than mine. She always looks back at me with a carefully arranged blank expression, not wanting to destroy whatever confidence it is that I still have, her love for me preventing her from flaunting her high level of productivity and the fact that she gets more done with the flick of one ear than I often do after a full day at my computer.
I don’t begrudge her this high level of productivity. Instead I take the time to observe and see how she does it, although, like all the best magicians, she doesn’t make this easy. No, not at all.
It’s then I start to wonder if the ability to get done what you’ve promised yourself you will do is something inherent, that this ability or the lack of it is immediately apparent that first time you open your eyes and look at the world and that if you don’t have it you probably shouldn’t even bother.
I tell my cat this and, knowing there are no words that can adequately be used to reassure me, she climbs out of her basket and comes to sit on the chair next to me, staring into my eyes, a cloud of fur surrounding her head like a halo.
This never fails to bring me comfort and as a reward I give her some food. After that she goes back to her basket or to the sofa or to some other place where I won’t be able to find her, at least for a while. I know she is giving me the space to think about what has happened, and that if I am ever to complete my next paragraph I must get started, without her.
My cat is a master at the fine art of tough love. And I love her for it.
I’m in the thick of a week of writing.
It’s going really well, in as much as the ideas are flowing and I feel immersed in the whole process…always a good thing.
Seeing as how this is a Phd, I’m in my second year and I’m doing it long-distance, any deadlines at the moment are largely self-imposed. I usually have a pretty tight schedule of house stuff (cooking, cleaning)/being a mother stuff (chatting, chiding, cheering)/writing/teaching/running/music, and today is no different.
So what do I do?
I wave my daughter out the door (she’s almost ten and off to a swimming lesson. Hey, this is Switzerland. The kids always go by themselves!). I sit down on the couch with the cat just for a moment as it’s been a very busy day so far and I’ve got four hours of teaching ahead of me later this afternoon.
And then… I watch Notting Hill from start to finish.
Yes, I use up two of my precious hours watching a soppy romantic comedy. I shed a tear at all the right cliches (oops…I meant moments) and I revel in the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with literary theory, historical novels or research.
And now I feel amazingly refreshed!
I think I might have discovered something…