So maybe this isn't the perfect image to go with this post, but lately I've been thinking a lot about appetite, hunger, wishes, maybe partly because of my recent birthday, and maybe because, well . . .
In the past few weeks, I haven’t been very hungry. By hunger, I don’t just mean I haven’t felt like eating. I haven’t wanted to write either. In my office I find myself staring out the window and daydreaming. Ideas float by like clouds. A few get written down in a half-assed way. Most are gone—pfft! Just like that.
I’m of two minds about this. One part of me, the part I call my inner-monk, is disgusted by my lack of discipline. You will be no one if you don’t get your act together, it says. You should write every day, three hours at least, like it or not! Sometimes it takes out a whip and gives me a few lashes and screams insults. You lazy, disgusting idiot! Who do you think you are? Look at you! Laying around, sleeping like an old dog in the sun.
The other part of me puts her third finger in the air. She’s always wanted to do her own thing. What’s wrong with being nothing? she asks. Besides, when I’m hungry, I’ll eat. She thinks inspiration follows its own rhythms. She thinks you can't force poems. She reminds me that writing doesn't have to be a painful process.
I am split between these two voices.
They remind me of the argument my mother and I had when my daughter, Suzanne, was first born. I believed in feeding on demand. She believed in feeding a baby (and later, a child) on a schedule. Eating then --in my mother's mind--was a discipline. Something you learned -- you ate when and what you were supposed to eat. Hunger was a limited part of the equation.
As a result, sometimes eating was a kind of torture.
I remember my first day of school in first grade: I was sitting in the front row, and I was holding my belly, which was a big as a basketball. It really hurt (as it often did back then). I had been so nervous about school, I hadn't wanted to eat. But I wasn’t allowed to leave the breakfast table until I ate “a proper breakfast,” which included orange juice, milk, grits, eggs, bacon, and toast. So, at the last minute, I ate it all and fast, sucking it down like a vacuum cleaner in an effort to make it vanish as quickly as possible. I was so embarrassed when my first grade teacher, Mrs. Wallace, came over and asked, Are you okay? Why is your stomach sticking out like that?
Oh, I said, trying to act as if it was normal to be bloated up like a dog tick. That’s just breakfast. Wait until you see lunch.
Needless to say, my parents were strange about food. I don’t think I realized just how strange until I took my six year old daughter, Suzanne, to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving one year. Suzanne was not a particularly enthusiastic eater at that age, and my mother, determined to make her eat everything, chased her around the table with a spear of broccoli as Suzanne fled in wide-eyed terror.
If my parents were strange about food, they were even stranger about weight. We were all supposed to eat volumes, but we were never supposed to get fat. Fat was a four-letter word. My father was the only one with a tendency to “grossir” as my Mom put it with a giggle, as if saying it in French made it funny. My father weighed himself every morning, and he always set the scale ten pounds below zero. Zero, he insisted, was a floating number, and you had to know where it really was. If I wanted to torture him, which I often did, I would adjust the scale, a little at a time, closer to actual zero. I would hear him stepping on and off the scale morning after morning, and then one day, he'd let out a scream, Ninny, have you been messing with my scale again! My mother, in response, would brag that she was almost the weight she was the day she got married--which is saying something after having six children.
But vanity, in my mother’s opinion, was something to be denied and avoided at all costs. On the one hand, we (meaning the women or daughters in the family) were supposed to look nice. But on the other hand, we were not supposed to care how we looked. And we were supposed to be natural beauties, which begs the question of just how natural beauty is.
In a similar way, we were also supposed to be successful but not ambitious, especially as women. And never competitive. I remember once when I was first trying to be a writer, my then-professor, David, told me I should be submitting poems and publishing every few months. Back then, as now, I found the submission process scary, embarrassing, and horribly competitive. So I didn’t do it. So, David asked me one day, How’s the not-submitting working out for you?
Of course, that’s the question my monk is asking me now about not writing.