My manuscript, after many months of working with the publisher, the editor, the team, now mostly fledged, has arrived in the form of bound copies, called in the business, ARCs – Advanced Readers’ Copies. I was certain that seeing my book in genuine, legitimate print would be a high point among my various satisfactions, but when the box arrived, slightly before or after Christmas, and slightly smaller than expected, I slid into an odd indifference that bordered on disgust. Placing the box on the dining room table, I muttered to my wife, “The ARCs have come” – not my ARCs, but the. For weeks, the box remained unopened. It could have been that my mood was bad, I don’t recall; the holidays from Thanksgiving through the New Year are a vicissitude – the worry that follows routines, suspended; the bitter grief, again, of too little money; memories of my father’s stunning demise several years ago, keeping dreadful company with every major holiday from Thanksgiving to MLK Day, and the parts we, my wife and I, played in it; the gathering and drinking and feasting and basking in the gratitude for family; the suffocating phases of the familial press. Maybe the timing was off for the happy receipt of the ARCs, because there the box remained, unopened, uncelebrated, uncertain.
From time to time, I’d glance at the box with a tremor of anticipation as if it were a great hen about to hatch her egg. I might even have patted it as I made my way from couch to kitchen. It did not occur to me to fetch the box cutter and slice through the tape. Finally, tuning into the oddness of this indifference, I willed myself to slice. Under layers of merry bubble wrap they lay, stacked crisply, the ARCs
“Look,” I whispered to my wife. She produced a gratifyingly sincere enthusiasm, and I resumed my mood.
Weeks later, the box remains on the dining room table.
My life has not changed
I thought it would.
This is gonna change your life!
What could I possibly mean by that? What do I think I wanted? Was it my
expectation, upon receiving this glad bundle, to feel a joy associated with motherhood?
Birth metaphors attach to creating a work of art – the long gestation, the prolonged disciplinary phases and parental ministrations as the work matures; finally giving birth. One had presumed this satisfying and neat trajectory, and with the birth, a turning toward the balm of welcome and celebration. But what of the mother who turns, instead, away from her newborn, unable to attach or celebrate?
I am thinking of a cat I once tended. She was not mine, but the care of her fell to me, as my partner then, so very many years ago, was a pet owner for whom benign neglect described her caring. This cat had become pregnant once again. We lived, then, in an ugly, unkempt, little house that squatted in a damp valley. Inside, the cat had found a drawer hanging crookedly from the frame of a broken bureau, and there, amidst scattered socks and underclothing, she expelled her litter. It was the mewing that cued us into the new life that had just occurred. She had them, and then left them – hairless, cold, too tiny even to mew correctly, their mouths, pinholes at the end of undeveloped jaws. We had to drown them, and that was not an easy thing:
. because life, even in this premature, pre-born-born-anyway state runs fiercely;
. because they were creepy to the touch – cold, hairless and squirmy;
. because a drowning vessel did not come easily to hand. We had to scavenge an old pressure cooker:
Remember the days?
She, Puff, the mother, disappeared for a couple of days. When she returned, matted and gaunt, she had about her an aura of despair and hopelessness. I did not love this cat, but I appreciated the honesty of her emotions.
What of the mother who turns away from her offspring, her infant, her work? That is what my relationship to the box of the/my ARCs suggested. Their arrival did not change my life, only revealed what I had hoped they would accomplish for it –my legitimacy, my welcome in and to the world, my place at the table.
The indifference that borders on disgust constitutes a defense against rejection; I discovered, therefore, being drawn to the preemptive: I will get there first with my disgust; I will be the first to reject this, my thing, my work, nearly fledged. I will reconfirm its/myplace outside the circle, before the world can sink its talons.
Oh, dear god.
I tell myself, “This is my table. I can set my place.”
There is work still to be done.