“Only when you are lost can love find itself in you without losing its way.” -Hélène Cixous
When I was a small girl, my mother taught me how to make a bed. She taught me how to stretch the fitted sheet that often didn’t quite fit the mattress by beginning at one end and making my way around the four corners: smoothing, adjusting and readjusting as I went until the entirety of the sheet managed to hug its way across the sacred places where we laid our bodies down each night to repair themselves. Standing at the foot of the bed, she showed me how to throw the flat sheet up into the air with a quick wrist-flick so that it briefly mimicked the rippling dome-shape of a playground parachute and then softly settled as an exhale into the length of the bed. She taught me how to fold the bottom corners of the flat sheet up into perfect triangles, using the side of one’s hand to demarcate the folding line and then the palm to smooth the triangle into place, leaving a meticulous edge to be tucked underneath the mattress and secured with one firm yank. She called these “military corners,” and she’d learned them as a soldier’s wife from other soldiers’ wives while my father was in Vietnam learning hard truths about a country that had sent him to war instead of college. The final touches were the pillowcases and the bedspread and you had to fluff the pillows back into their full bodies after you stuffed them inside the cases to make sure they were ready to receive the tired head that would eventually meet them in some darker place.
Most mornings I wake with anxiety. In the moments before waking, a kind of transference occurs, I think, from an overly active dreamlife, and then a residue. A stiff neck, a dull ache or a fire in the belly, a quick heart. A sense that something terrible has happened and will continue to happen that I have no control over. The cheap Venetian blinds on my East-facing window do nothing to dull the piercing sun as the morning burns and I dig for darkness beneath my pillows. Here, in this darker place, I think about what I will write for the day. Or try to write for the day. Will I attempt to work on the nonfiction manuscript? The one I thought was a book when I stood in Goddard’s Haybarn Theater the week of my graduation, reading proudly from its pages, but now, upon closer and more recent inspection, appears only to be a tiny flame licking at something called book. Or will I work on the poetry manuscript? The one I haven’t really told anyone about yet because even though (to borrow and re-phrase language from my beloved advisor, Bhanu Kapil) my sexual orientation is towards poetry, I’ve only just begun to write poems in the time since leaving Goddard, and I’m certain the end result will be nothing short of total humiliation. Or will I try to write a piece for my friend’s column that she has asked me to write: writers writing about writing. But what do I have to say about writing? What could I possibly have to say about writing in this moment of non-writing?
As a teenage girl, I modeled myself after the opposite of my mother. I never wanted to be the caricature of the submissive Catholic housewife that I perceived her to be; the one who appeared to take pleasure in making a bed for someone else to lie in, after hours of washing and folding laundry someone else had dirtied, after picking up the laundry off the cluttered floor of someone else’s room or stripping a bed someone had been too busy or thoughtless to strip themselves. I had no idea what kind of woman I wanted to be, but I knew exactly the kind of woman I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be a woman whose worth was determined by how well she kept house or took care of the people inside it.
Today I felt completely useless as a writer, so I made a bed. I had been trying to write something for my friend’s column and I simply couldn’t. Nothing worked, everything fell flat. I felt stupid and simple and lost, so I stretched a fitted sheet around one corner and began working my way around the bed. I felt as though I had nothing to say, so I made the fitted one hug and then I made the flat one parachute. I made the distance between the top of the sheet and the top of the mattress even on both sides. I wanted to give up. I folded its end into triangles. I demarcated the lines. I considered the bodies that would lie in it to repair themselves this evening. Two writing bodies. Two bodies that often need repair from the work of digging, the work of writing a world into existence that isn’t intent on disposing of their bodies. Two bodies in love. I tucked its corners and pulled firmly to secure them.
How do we measure our worth as writers? And if we fail, how do we continue to write in spite of that real and/or perceived failure? How can we remember in those darker places that failure is a kind of rupture and with every rupture comes new openings, new points of entry, new work to be done. I learned this at Goddard. I learned this from Bhanu. And Rebecca. And Douglas. And Elena. Because writing is work. It is work that we do as we love and it is work that we do as we hurt. It is work that can offer someone a place to lie down and repair. And it is work that often troubles, ignites anxiety, has the power to paralyze someone or perhaps, move them to action. This person is also always you.
I understand now that my mother’s work was in part an offering of love. That she was trying to teach me the method and discipline it takes to offer love through a kind of work that is quiet and often solitary, but is important, necessary, and has value in its gesture even if nobody seems to notice the end result. To find pleasure then in the offering, the contact, the care for another, for every other, for you. To keep stretching and fitting and readjusting as we move around each corner. To do the work. To climb into the bed after we’ve made it and write. To understand the work of writing as an offering of love.
Liz Latty is the author of Split (Unthinkable Creatures Chapbook Press, 2012). Her writing can also be found in make/shift magazine, The Feminist Wire, Jupiter 88, HOLD: A Journal, TomTom Magazine, and the Seal Press anthology We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists, among others. She is a Lambda Literary Fellow and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, as well as the Jackson, Phelan, and Tanenbaum Literary Awards from the San Francisco Foundation. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College, teaches in Manhattan, and lives in Brooklyn. You can find her online at terriblegurl.tumblr.com.