Aren’t we lucky we get to range, roam, and hunt one another in this sun-field of longing, a culturally acceptable lifelong pursuit between women. . . .?!—Tania Pryputniewicz
HER KIND: In the essay “Chi/Ori, or, the Mother Within,” Chikwenye Ogunyemi writes: “From a literary perspective, Chi as inspiriting muse gives the writer the courage and determination to institute, identify with, or counter a discourse. Traditionally, it is the mother who teaches the child to express the self in words and to develop the tactics to cope successfully in conflict, hence the primacy I accord the Chi as mother.” Was your mother (or a mother-figure) your Chi?
RH: The very simple response is yes. My mother was, and remains, an empowering example of what is being here described as Chi. My mother grew from a small town preacher’s daughter to the unrelenting force that she is today. Among her life’s professions are those of government administrator and crusader for people with special needs. She divorced my father in the ’60s when I was ten. She was propelled into a new life as a single mother with three children and one thousand miles from any family supports. She quickly returned to her native New Mexico, where her parents lived, took a full-time job with the state, and, eventually, re-married. That second marriage, however, was not without snares. Through it all she maintained her strong will and spitfire individuality, going on to establish a non-profit organization that she spearheads still today.
One memory I have is that when I was perhaps 11 or 12, armed with educational flyers given to us by my mother, I traipsed through town with my little sister distributing said handbills to businesses about providing equal access for individuals in wheelchairs. To this day I can hardly look at a handicapped ramp and not think of my mother. Surely as a result, the picture that I witnessed, and subsequently, the language associated with this reality, was one of full inclusion of all persons and things. I learned that it was not necessary to distinguish between types of people on this planet and that each holds an important song inside them. My own personal song sprang forth as poetry.
Today, my mother is among my strongest advocates for promoting my voice. Poetry is not a genre for which one can anticipate a broad audience. But my mother’s weekly input by telephone or words spoken across the dinner table—we live in the same city—is always supportive and reminds me to project my very best in all things at all times. This statement just made me laugh a little to myself. Something to do with the “Golden Rule” that she taught me and that she learned from her parents before her. The cast of characters that my mother assembled around her was a disparate crew; some of them were not easy to navigate with or around. Still, in this presentation of both smart and troubled souls, I found fodder for the stories that my poetry might reveal. I found that I could talk to, and give access to all. In living this kind of an expansive life, I gain access to powerful buildings and my way into important rooms.
TP: Robyn, your mother sounds like a strong, resilient person. I love how you framed your discussion of her second marriage as “not without snares;” I think as daughters we watch our mothers and their predicaments so carefully, tracking the good as well as the hard, taking to heart and building on their lessons once fledged from the home and having to navigate our own loves and lives. I also love the generous way you came to see the people in her orbit (“the disparate crew”, “both smart and troubled”) and that you glean/ed inspiration from them. And how lovely that your mother so actively supports your writing life and comes into that room with you on such a regular basis. Does she write (poetry or other writings) aside from her writing in service of the special needs community?
I struggled initially with this question. My early relationship to poetry stems from my connection to my father, nighttime dreams, the piano he played for us as we fell asleep. Wordplay was king—nailing exactly the right phrase with oddity and texture. He loved (and still loves) to concoct “freeze-dried poems” (Archipelago, Rutebaga, Winnebego) and has kept alive a running dream of “An All Night Polish Bakery,” shepherded us in countless hours of artwork on the wooden kitchen table after he and my mother divorced (I was12). So he stood for all things spiritually spectacular and possible, artistically, to be made radiant with words.
But to get back to this question of Chi, in the realm of my body, the Chi I need to withstand the circumstances of my life, and thus bring this body to the table in order to write, comes directly from my mother. When she and my father got jumped in the park as newlyweds, it was my mother’s fierce commotion that scared off the thieves. When I was eight or nine and the car slid off the icy road in Illinois and we walked for miles through the near white-out back to the farmhouse, the sound of her voice anchored me, talked me past the biting pain of my toes against my boots.
The early marriage dynamic I witnessed between my parents, likely more a generational side effect than premeditated, juxtaposed my father’s brilliance as a musician against her subsidiary, lesser (according to society) intellect; for example, she didn’t get a license to drive a car until right before the divorce. As a mother myself now with three children, operating often as a single parent, I marvel at her, how she raised us three children in a remote Illinois farmhouse. We moved to California, she learned to drive, started a caning business with a girlfriend, and after so many other transactions that belong to the private story between my parents, ended up divorced from my father. To help care for our family, she started out as a janitor and worked her way through various jobs in sales until she became a successful real estate agent. I remember vacuuming the bank’s carpets, emptying out the trash in the house of money, proud of her for finding her way to solvency and independence (which she pulled off with a wicked sense of humor and spunk I had to leave home to fully appreciate).
I’m curious to hear what you have to say about your mother’s relationship to words (first paragraph) and also, has the relationship to your mother made its way into your own poetry? If so, will you quote me a few lines?
RH: Tania, we are meeting at a like place. I hear you evoking the same questions that I feel now raised in my body the way one taps a melon in the market to test it’s ripeness. I think the “starter question” we were given about the power we witnessed and, subsequently, may have absorbed from our mothers is not an easy one to answer. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a prize in a tiny paper envelope in a Cracker Jack box or a startling vision as viewed through a pinhole camera pointed at a rare solar eclipse. There are layers and layers—the good and the bad taken to heart, as you said. What is most poignant for me, I am thinking as I write this, is the understanding that my mother’s power may have, on the one hand, poured into me with promise, and on the other, that her power may have taken her farther from me. The end result may have been the same, however, and that is, for me at least, that even the very busy absences—of both my mother and father—formed in me a solid place in which to work. Does that make sense? In watching my mother push back against the difficulties (her second husband’s alcoholism, for example) she only came more into herself. She had to bring all her body and heart wisdom to the table. I admire her for this, but I also wonder, even forty years later, why she put herself through the daily trials.
I have written much about my mother. And yes, she is a writer as well, though her writing forms as newspaper columns and in books she has written about projects that were initiated as a result of the New Deal in the 1930s. But let me find a few lines written, as you requested, about my mother to share. The poems I have written about her, just like this current dissection we are sharing, range from tender to not so. The poem that comes to mind is a mild one, but one that is weighted in its imagery of multiple generations of women/mothers in my family, and perhaps that is the power in my mind as I write this—the way my mother has carried forward the strength of a particular lineage of which I am part. The following lines are lifted from a piece whose central “character” is a christening gown that has been worn for four generations:
. . . This dress smelling of cedar that my mother saved
wrapped in tissue in its yellowing box is a testament
to the mothers and fathers who came before—
Oakies and Texans on a trajectory for New Mexico and to the future
where they will deliver the mail, stitch necessary quilts, and teach . . .
Like your own mother’s “fierce commotion” that startled thieves in the park (what a fantastic story!), it’s the perseverance and the noise too that my mother has made through the years, even when she wasn’t perhaps making a single sound, that I respect and that I repeat. It’s also the fight maybe, for lack of a better word, that I see welling up in my 16-year-old daughter. Startling as it is to watch at times, I know that my daughter carries the anvil of righteousness that will ultimately give her tremendous fuel. She has learned this from her mother and her grandmother.
What are the good and the bad witness that you have learned? Do you still find “countless hours” for your artwork? What do you think precludes your creative indulgences?
TP: I love your metaphors (melon tapping, pinhole camera, eclipse). I love your epiphany here: “the understanding that my mother’s power may have, on the one hand poured into me with promise, and on the other, that her power may have taken her farther from me” and how that contradictory truth formed your own “solid” relationship to your work as a writer.
I like that way of looking at the perceived gaps in attention from one’s parents—a beautiful example of calling on one’s positive witness. I think writers, poets especially, tend to be empathically predisposed. Hungry to assign meaning to events. Unfortunately, for me I often track the unfair, the painful, the mind-rifts I witnessed my parents navigating—poverty, the borders of mental health and security—with greater weight; some of that has to do with early sexual trespasses I experienced in my pre-teen and teen years. Moving into my forties, I find I am less haunted by trespass, more drawn to the challenge of arriving at the imagery of epiphany. Shifting perspective like that takes time, and tracking it, maturity as a writer. I’m ever struggling for the wider perspective.
To be a little more fair to the poetry I currently write and its obsessions, I’m fascinated with personae poems about iconic women—I “try on” their power story, sifting through the imagined day-to-day details for some truth about the relationship between charisma, danger, and female perseverance, asking how can one be female, absolutely grounded in one’s power (sensual, strong, intelligent), and remain independent? I remember in 6th grade reading The Cinderella Complex, and My Mother/My Self, books my mother left on the back of the toilet in our house.
But I also distinctly remember being confused: ok, so I am not supposed to want a prince. I am supposed to take care of myself. But what does that look like? And then I watched my mother go through her separation from my father and land on her feet, watched myself reject (with a healthy dose of skepticism), then finally accept (gratefully, with relief, in my 30s) the structure of marriage. One thing my mother passed on to me was the conviction that I needed a focus outside of a relationship that had nothing to do with that relationship. For me, that focus has been writing.
In jostling with my 11-year-old daughter (witnessing our strings of words, the intensity of them, how mercilessly they push us through our emotional paces) I’m reeling in the testing ground of power and love, and thinking about Chi as fueled in part by desire, longing. For a bit, I was taken aback. Until I remembered. My own ferocity. Kaliedoscoping back to the earliest desire to sit lulled in the circumference of my mother’s lap. Maybe I came into this incarnation with that ferocity, maybe it has little to do with my mother and how she loved me or didn’t, maybe it has to do with my brother, born ten and a half months later, who feels often like a twin, and split her attention so early on. But what daughter ever thinks her mother’s love is enough?! Especially, a first-born daughter.
Here’s one of my favorite summations of this dilemma, from a poem in the collection, A Different Beat (edited by Richard Peabody). Poet Brigid Murnaghan wraps up “For My Mother” with the following stanza:
As the wise old woman said to the king
“Be your first born a girlchild
She shall know the love of men
But will search an eternity for
The love of a mother.”
Aren’t we lucky we get to range, roam, and hunt one another in this sun-field of longing, a culturally acceptable lifelong pursuit between women (especially between mothers and daughters)?!
Right now, I’m aware of a darker Chi (a sort of projected fear of my daughter’s longing) I’m struggling to balance as my daughter nears the age I was when I experienced two sudden events: my parents’ divorce and certain physical trespasses. I want to shepherd my daughter across this threshold with perspective, not fear at the fore. I’ve gradually channeled my own backwards reaching “mother longing” towards spirituality, such hands-on experiences of divine heat through the medium of Reiki and the lifelong pursuit of poetry where the questions matter as much, if not more, than any arrival at some final truth. But trust me, I still need my actual mother . . . nothing like her voice on the other end of the phone line during a crisis to calm the nerves. How can just the sound of a voice, a resonance, a pitch, do that?! Lovely.
One of ten children in an Irish Catholic family, my mother spent a great deal of time on her older sister’s hip. Think of the cacophony of voices in that home! For my two siblings and I to war over her love and attention seems paltry by comparison. I’m grateful for this conversation, with you Robyn, for it has caused me to stop and take stock. What will our grown girls some day decide we passed on to them? Makes me want to open my heart a touch wider to my children, when I can bear to, against the current strain we live under (my husband works in a city, an airplane’s flight from us most weeks; home on the weekends).
And no countless hours for raw creating, thanks for asking Robyn, but the few I have count. . . .I consider my three children the great focusers of my life. There’s no courting the muse anymore, I write wherever and whenever I can (outside of ballet lessons, in the parking lot, mostly in the kitchen where the laptop lives and I can simultaneously make dinner). And now with my third child finally launched in school, the challenge has been budgeting time between my own private writing and the other hats I equally adore wearing as editor, instructor, blogger, interviewer, etc.
How does your daughter experience your mother? How do you see the lineage (tender, or not) most viscerally felt, by her? By you? Are there other gifts you wish to pass to your girl, in the window of time you have left with her under your roof? Does your mother know what she gave to you? (Forgive the barrage . . . feel free to choose a few and cut others, if you wish . . . I’m just playing, making up for lost time . . . .)
RH: I strongly suspect that the haggard muse is reading up on tips (no doubt via a variety of blogs these days) to court us anymore, rather than the other way around. Anxious mother trying to get the attention of a distracted child. I primarily write now too when a small snippet finds its way to me and then often between tasks; generally this happens when someone says something lyrical that resonates; but sometimes it’s something ordinary that I carry around with me until it breaks free. I have a piece inside me not yet written, for example, about the image of my mother as seen from behind as I enter the house. She’s ironing. The television is on. President Kennedy has just been shot. Lately, I am sketching other poems too as portraits—the picture of a homeless man with all his belongings on his back and another of a woman whispering to her husband she has no intention of dying as she is taped to a ventilator only to succumb four days later. One of these characters is real; the other sprung whole from my imagination. It’s likely these mythic players—mythic, that is, as I craft their wings and clay feet—are derived in part from the troupe to which my mother introduced me or, in the present day, arise as a result of the permission she granted me to see the larger world. Even the world that is not always easy. And maybe she didn’t actually give me permission. Maybe I just took it and she ultimately understood, even as I talked back or skipped piano lessons, fought with my siblings, moved away when I was a teen. Maybe it was the hard in life that brought me to a creative life.
Writing is perhaps my way of stretching the “lineage” to incorporate both strangers and friends, which I learned from my mother. Maybe this is the poet’s prerogative or even her responsibility, the task of creating modern fairy tales for our children. Maybe these tales will circumvent the threat of divorce and alcoholism. Maybe the fables will create options, if only in the imaginations of our listeners, for alternative orbits. I think truly the gift I can present to my child, and that my own mother brought wearily home to me, day after evening after day, is the raw and tender mix of the real and the made up. I understand that a children’s story is best written incorporating a monster and/or a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In this way the story’s hero is allowed to eventually master and overcome the impediment, and in doing so, will find the power that she holds inside—her Chi. Hallelujah to the soundtrack you articulated, the resonance and the pitch in the very voice with which we grew up, the heartbeat of the mother, the “lull” and the “cacophony.” What an epic poem our daughters are growing into with their own “string of words, the intensity of them”—be it high-wire excitement or angry-adolescent angst. But then, they are hearing our voices as well as weary, winged mothers.
The epiphany you have written in your last post is a stunning and simple one: “For a bit, I was taken aback. Until I remembered. My own ferocity.”
One on-line dictionary gives the definition of Chi as the circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things; in traditional Chinese medicine the balance of negative and positive forms in the body is believed to be essential for good health. Whether you learned it from your mother directly, or from witnessing her life as it is now superimposed on your own, I believe that you have described Chi precisely in your recall of your parents walking “the borders of mental health and security.” We have, and continue, to learn balance. It was my mother’s presence as well as her absence that built the house I live in today. Where would I be but here if not, in large part, for her?
TP: Arisa, and the women of VIDA, thank you for pairing us to engage. The conversation turned into an integrative mirror (in which to appreciate what my mother gave me as well as a pause in which to consider what I wish to pass on to my daughter as a mother and a poet). Robyn, I’m breathing easier under your insights about this dual pilgrimage (grueling and rewarding by turns, both of us daughters who are mothers to daughters). I take to heart your final reminder that Chi encompasses the beautiful and the dark, how true that the pretty half alone won’t suffice: “Maybe it was the hard in life that brought [us] to a creative life.”
I’d love to see an artist’s rendering of the “haggard muse” trying to court us busy mothers, would be curious to read her fairytale. I’d subscribe to a blog titled, “The Haggard Muse.” Wouldn’t her posts vacillate between funny, gritty, angry, exhausted, and exhilarated? Here’s to “weary, winged mothers” everywhere, and “the raw and tender mix of the real and the made up” you remind us to offer up in our work.
Robyn Hunt once ran printing presses, assisting in the production of poetry books. Today, she lives in Santa Fe with her husband and daughter and works in social services. Her writing is found in various publications, including, Mothering Magazine, New Mexico Poetry Review, Sin Fronteras, and Written with a Spoon.
Recent poems by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Tania Pryputniewicz appeared at Blast Furnace, Prairie Wolf Press, and Stone Canoe. Her photo-poem montages, made with photographer Robyn Beattie, won Juror’s Best of Show at the 2012 2D3D Visual Poetry Exhibit, LH Horton Jr. Gallery, San Joaquin Delta College. Poetry sculpture and posts in support of the book she is writing for women bloggers based on her Transformative Blogging courses appear on her website: taniapryputniewicz.com.