When I was asked to speak to the Hazelton International Women’s Day celebration several years ago, I was first flattered, then I felt really old, and then I freaked. The request was like sprinkling warm water and sugar on what passes for my mind. A mind that some days feels like a batch of bread dough without the yeast. When I realized I’d said yes and would be standing up in front of a group of brilliant women, well, things started fizzing and bubbling. Mostly with anxiety. When I got down to the work of kneading that dough into some kind of shape, I had a hard time fixing on anything. What did I have to say about imagination? You’re a writer, I was told, you should be able to think of something.
So I started thinking. And for some reason I kept thinking about bread. One of my happiest childhood memories is of coming home from school to the smell and taste of my grandmother’s buns, her cinnamon rolls, her bread. There are many kinds of bread and I’ve been filching and trying bread recipes for years. But although you hope your bread is going to taste good and be nutritious, it’s the work of making it that counts. It’s called being alive.
Lots of hard work goes into making bread and into living both, but there’s an ingredient we often forget about.
And I don’t mean the kind you never have enough of. The time to do all the things you think you need to do and can never get done. I mean the other kind of time, the kind most of us are banishing from our lives.
Here’s my granny’s recipe for buns:
Scald two cups of milk. Add shortening, sugar and salt.
Let sit until lukewarm.
Sprinkle yeast on top.
Beat in one egg, then add enough flour to make a sticky dough.
Cover and let rest.
Turn onto a floured board and knead until dough stops sticking and is smooth.
Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place.
Punch down, form into buns.
Cover and let rise again. Heat oven. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes.
It’s the other kind of time we forget about. The time to let the yeast come to life, join with the air and lift that dough up off its butt. Time to regroup and rise again. Time to kindle a fire, and time to leave the bread to bake. You’ve got to work the dough and you’ve got to let it alone.
I made some of my granny’s buns this morning. And as I punched them down, I thought about standing up and talking to an incredible group of women, women who have already forgotten more than I’ll ever know about living, women who have suffered, women who are way better at having fun. I felt like a fraud. What could I possibly have to tell you?
I may as well have been punching myself as punching down that dough.
Thankfully yeast doesn’t need confidence to rise. It can sit for a long time in the back of your cupboard looking pretty near dead and, given the right circumstances, still rise.
Like you, I was born with my ovaries chock full of eggs. A lot of them flowed away, quite a few were duds, and a couple made their complicated way out of my body and joined us here. Two boys, bless their hearts, who taught me a lot about love, terror and self-doubt. All of us, men and women, are born chock full of those little yeast-like pellets of imagination. They’re inside there, waiting for almost any excuse to rise up.
Mary Oliver, a wonderful and wise poet, calls imagination “a sharp instrument”. It cuts through our isolation and gives us the capacity to feel a stranger’s pain, to understand a friend’s anger, to share a child’s joy, to share the unique experience of being human. But it cuts both ways. We can imagine failure, embarrassment, ugliness, or, heaven forbid, ordinariness, much easier than peace, beauty, brilliance. It may take days and months to grow a story or a song, years to grow a child, a century to grow a tree. But if we don’t guard them carefully, it takes only seconds to cut them down before they reach the ripeness they’re due.
I grew up in a time when we didn’t really recognize the dark side of imagination. Women’s liberation and the pill were new enough to be untarnished. I had no idea how hard women had fought to get there and how terrified, angry and hostile some people were about their victories. Imagination was, to me, something fuzzy and warm. We believed, like John Lennon, that by imagining a better world, we could build it. We would make love, not war. The bad guys would lay down their guns and come with us back to the land.
That the bad guys had ideas of their own, that they were, in fact, part of who we were, never registered.
It took moving into a small community to realize how far many of my ideas were removed from people’s day to day lives. It wasn’t that people here were less advanced. It was that the community was close enough, small enough, for me to be able to see how people could be many things at the same time.
I still had lots of ideas though, and lots of those were about kids. Although I hardly knew any real children, I liked the idea of them. I imagined raising these ideas of children in a warm and fuzzy place where we’d live in peace and harmony and eat whole wheat bread. Where we’d play wholesome creative games, share the work and the fun, and it wouldn’t make any difference if they were boys or girls.
I think these were good ideas and I’m glad I had them. But I wasn’t prepared for the real thing. The gut-wrenching love I felt terrified me. So did the power of my frustration, resentment and fury. No one had told me about that part. When you make something, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes goes places you’d rather it didn’t. The flip side of creation.
And then the self-doubt. I doubted myself as a mother. I probably had my first clue that I wasn’t going to have complete control over what my children thought and did, that maybe heredity, gender and culture had their hands in the bread dough, when Daniel started biting his cheese into the shape of guns and shooting things. When he spent hours looking at a book of drawings of earth movers. When his first phrase was “wheels on it”.
Then one day, when some earnest mothers were sitting around my kitchen table, reality came crashing in. We were mounting a campaign urging parents not to buy their children war toys for Christmas. Another great idea. The kids came trooping down the stairs lugging the machine guns they’d built out of Lego. We looked at each other, aghast. Then, mercifully, we had the sense to laugh, and laugh we did. But I have to tell you, there was a layer of hysteria underlying the laughter.
We’d been imagining a better world, alright, and even getting some good work in on that bread dough. Hard kneading. How had we produced these little wanna be killers? Why did our boys spend hours blowing up Lego with firecrackers? Why did our girls simper and want Barbies? Why did we feel such anger and guilt? I even remember feeling as if I was a failure because childbirth hurt. Was it a failure of imagination?
No. It was misunderstanding imagination. Not accepting that in the work of hatching children, of hatching ideas, there’s a process that requires time out. That requires punching down. That also needs high temperatures. That it doesn’t always go the way you want it and sometimes that’s not so bad.
I learned finally, with the help of my community, and with the help of some great books on writing (all written by women by the way) to accept those parts of the process that feel like time’s a wasting. When everything seems like garbage, when I feel really uncomfortable, I know creativity is happening. I still piss and moan about it, but I know the only way to get over it is to go through it, right through the middle of it.
Mary Oliver calls a poem “a confession of faith.” Keeping at it even when self-doubt is sitting on my shoulder, when my family, my job, and my community want me to do other things, other important things, is my confession of faith.
I’ve got a ragged old poster of Virginia Woolf on the wall above my desk. I’ve hauled it around with me and moved it from wall to wall for at least 25 years. She wrote that all a woman needs to create is a little money and a room of her own. We all need to build that room in our hearts and make sure it’s our room, not one our culture, our friends and family tell us to build. Not the one we tell ourselves we ought to build.
If the noise of the world keeps you from hearing what those little yeast pellets of your imagination need, then it’s time to turn off some of that noise. Literally. Turn off your television, your radio, your computer, open a window or, better yet, go outside, mosey down to the river and breathe. This is important work. It cannot be left until the last.
If, instead of breathing wonderful glorious air, we inhale a culture that tells us what to think and feel with every turn of the knob, what music to listen to, what clothes to wear, what mutual funds to buy, that tells us our truck is too old, our kids need $200 running shoes, that a holiday at a nearby lake is boring and we really ought to go to Mexico, we can’t hear the voice whispering inside of us.
Some of you may be thinking you’re not the creative type; you don’t sing, dance, or paint. Don’t worry. Being creative is hatching an idea and giving it the time and space to grow into something. Every time you think of a way to make your community better, every time you piece together a party, you come up with a better way to run your business, you’re being creative, you’re using your imagination.
But if you’re doing all those things and more besides, and still feel something’s missing, you need to make time and psychic silence to listen to your heart. Put out your elbows, like they tell you to do when the avalanche is coming, and make room for your imagination to breathe even if it feels like it’s buried under tons of snow.
If every second of our lives is occupied with structured pleasure or work, with television and microwaved popcorn, with piano lessons and cross country ski racing, we lose the ability to imagine a world where we are not measured at every turning against an impossible yardstick. We forget that bread doesn’t come from bread machines. We forget the pleasure of plunging our fingers into sticky dough and kneading.
But be careful. Because once you let your imagination loose, once it starts working, you had better tend to it or it will make a godawful mess of whatever spot you leave it in. That yeast may even start to grow in places where it has no business, where it makes you itch and squirm so badly even the best loving won’t take care of it.
Self doubt is part of the process. I realized how messed up we’ve become when we feel guilty about guilt, we feel like losers because we dare to doubt. Guilt and doubt are part of living. It’s time to stop blaming ourselves for those doubts, but there’s no point in blaming anyone else either. A friend said to me she was tired of hearing people tell her how they don’t have time to do what they really want to do. You can’t wait for conditions to be perfect, for there to be enough money, the perfect light, a satisfied family. We can and do create from many different places in the same way we make babies: from places of love, of joy, of hope, of perfect readiness, but also in anger, in resentment and even sometimes in hate. Creating may drive us crazy, but create we must to be healthy and whole.
I’m the only one who can sit down at my desk and write; and it’s no one else’s fault if I don’t. Sure, it helps if I have the support of my family and friends, but they can’t do it for me. And if I really want to do it, they can’t keep me from it.
“A poem is a confession of faith.” So is a baby, so is a home. So is a loaf of bread. A confession of faith that we are here for more than house work and more than a pay cheque. “Imagination is a sharp instrument.” We have to keep it sharp to outwit the horrors that surface in the minds of bigotry, of greed and of fear. Imagining and creating is not something to be left until everything else is done; it’s the most important work there is. And like breathing, it isn’t over until you’re dead. If you win a little level ground, you’re lucky. If you get to the top of something, the only direction is down and sometimes it’s the direction you have to take.
You’ll have to fight for that breathing space, and you’ll have to keep fighting and you know, sometimes the person you have to fight the most is yourself. Every day that I manage to find my way to that room, set aside time and space to feed the sourdough of my imagination, to let it breathe and grow, every day that I sit down to the hard work of punching and kneading that dough into shape, I am offering my confession of faith. Sometimes I write in anger, sometimes in love. Sometimes my poems are terrible, but you know, sometimes, they’re true and beautiful.
In his inaugural speech Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” That light, he said, is in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Every day the world gives us air to breathe is, I figure, affirmation enough. We’re still here; we must have something worth doing. It’s time, right now, to get on with it.