Saying 'Yes' to Myself and Writing Full-Time

An Essay By Sarah Bethany // 3/9/2016

Only from relics in the attic did I know my mother had been a formidable painter in college. The faces of her Navajo women were sand-cracked and the flanks of her colts rippled with chestnut flesh.

But while I was growing up, the only thing I ever watched her paint were snowy pansies, pattered with butter yellow, on flowerpots. They were an Easter gift for the neighbors, and she covered the kitchen table carefully with newspapers. My father called her flowerpots dross.

"It takes away from her time with you kids," he said, "and the house."

But he, too, had congealed himself. When I found his splintered poetry on envelopes and the backs of invoices, I called attention to the seaglass phrases. He scoffed. "Dross," he said again.

As a child, I didn't know what this word had meant, but I posited that it was a glossier term for fluff. The silk of milkweed -- blistering in the wind and wiling into squatters.

Before my father had tripped into fatherhood, he had wanted to fly to Madrid and baste himself in poetry. And my mother dreamed of Africa. She drove a jungle-green car and worked menial jobs to put herself through art school. My father spent one summer crumpling paper at his desk, and he scuffed through Spain for a month or two, handing flowers to an ambassador's wife.

Then one errant seed took root and my mother held up a pink cross while sitting on the toilet. She was hardly out of her teens. My father's desk was shoved into a house and unforgotten ghosts flapped, but art was no longer something hefty. "It doesn't put meat on the table," my father said, as if he was a pioneer who now had to gun down bronze turkeys. He instead worked in real estate. My mother sewed quilts and wrote the calligraphy on First Communion invitations. I was the first seed, and five more erupted into sons.

My brothers and I ran rampant and created riotously. We didn't go to school, but stumbled over craft materials in the house. My mother stocked us richly with paints and glitter buckets. We made lighthouses and birdhouses and filled our woods with Sculpey clay creatures. We emailed fantasy stories to each other about Seminole chiefs, and crystal wars, and Boppers, and Léagol (Sméagol's long-lost lover) -- never finishing anything. We peopled our forest with winged Ipses who shot arrows to protect our borders. We dyed the carpet purple, and sifted through drawers for slips, and stole my mother's tablecloth for costumes, but she never stopped us. We strung up balloons in the birch tree to film "The Unexpected Party", and my mother gently carried out trays of iced tea. The message we received was that art was not worthy of adults, but it was wild and for children. Fruitless and our realm.

When I turned eighteen, despite never having finished my home-study course, I was somehow admitted to a liberal arts college. The campus was on a converted farm in New England, and I was ensorcelled by the flaring oaks. But my juicy life of creation ground to a halt in a single day. "Read one hundred pages of Livy," was the order. So I cracked open books of Latin, Roman history, logic, Euclid, political science, and French philosophy.

For four years I turned the crank and squeezed the pap till my brain was bone-dry. I eventually graduated, gasping for breath, and found that my heart had hollowed out. By then I did not want to dredge anything, and I could barely bring myself to trawl the motivations behind my choices. Only once did I pat the rims of my emptiness. Then the sudden thought flitted in: "Maybe I should have written, instead of frenetically reading other people's work for four years. Or maybe I should have painted more, instead of memorizing Doric and Ionic columns in Italy. Maybe I should have skipped college altogether."

After these flutterings brushed my mind, I violently swatted them. My father had told me it wasn't a question of whether I went to college -- it had been "when and where". So I put my framed degree under my bed. I shoved away a sense of self-betrayal and stepped forward to claim the next prescribed step of adult life. Parentally guided again, I shouldered a full-time job and installed myself in an apartment given by my father at half-price.

The loft was like an enlarged dollhouse, and briefly lifted my spirits. I stuffed jugs with Queen Anne's lace and begged my grandmother for her cast iron pots. Moving into my own solitude ripped open a barn of reserves that I had forgotten about: I had stored so much sunshine for myself. Alone, away from family convulsions, I felt a serenity and exploded with a joy that I could hardly contain. I sang in my car, and I decorated my loft with pine boughs. Red candles. Shelves and shelves of books. I even set up a table for writing and painting.

But if my Muse harbored any illusions that we would now return to our childhood creations, she was quickly disenchanted. Life flat-lined into a routine. I felt tightened by restrictions I had never known existed: paying for groceries, for rent, for car insurance, for electricity. But creativity is an unstoppable force, and it eked out in small places. I sometimes put globs of paint on a canvass past midnight, when I knew in five hours I would have to shovel my car out from a snowfall for an icy commute. I let my oatmeal grow cold while I wrote a poem about the morning chimney smoke, and barely got to work on time. I scratched a sentence on the back of a business card at a red light.

But my secret desire was to nurture a novel into life. I sat at a white gazebo on weekends, watching the Canadian geese float across the webs of red and gold. I wrote beams and architecture and skeletal thoughts. But it was stunted magic. Nothing grew feathers fully, and my thoughts were thwarted in their incubation. I was drained by work and by family sawing and by socializing. My spirit might have oozed around the cracks, but the main exit point of my soul was choked. Two years passed in this fashion.

Finally, I knew the only way to save myself had to be to uproot my life, violently and completely. I decided to give up the car, the apartment, the grocery bills, the idea of graduate school, and elected to move to another country and work in an organic garden.

Now, my family saw my move as fanciful and temporary; the sightseeing tour of a restless graduate. My father phoned me to say, "I want you to enjoy yourself, but also realize this is just a side path." (He then generously paid for my plane ticket as a late graduation gift.) I know it was not a staggeringly original idea, as many American youth in their twenties are seeking alternatives to the purely lucrative paths. But for me, what followed my choice changed the course of my life, irremediably.

I chose Ireland.

I had intended to go to the south, because my ancestors hailed from Kerry, but I landed accidentally on the opposite side of the country. When searching online for situations, I was drawn to an advertisement seeking a gardening volunteer in exchange for room and board, at a manor home. The photo showed the mansion, painted orange. It sounded juicy and eccentric -- exactly what I needed to shake up my life. I had contracted myself by email before I even consulted a map. When I drew my fingers up the country, I realized I would not have gone further from Kerry unless I wanted to swim in the Irish Sea.

Neither did I know what the gentleman picking me up at the airport looked like. But I knew him the moment I saw him. He was wearing trousers muddy from gardening and he clutched a tweed cap in his hand. He trotted up to the wrong girl and asked politely if she was I.

"No, no!" I shouted, jumping up with my bag and waving my hand. "Here I am! I’m over here!"

In the car, Sebastian entertained me with stories of growing up in India on a tea plantation, riding elephants and swimming with sharks, until we drove across the bumpy gate of his estate. Carpeting the ground were thousands of velvety snowdrops. The petals glimmered in the rising sun, and a lane swept up to the Georgian-style home on the hill, so breathtaking I said aloud, "I'm in a fairy tale!"

I started working immediately the next morning in the walled garden, with a Spanish girl who was dodging a soured romance and reshaping her life in English. We worked in icy February rains and under a looming mountain. Every day we wedged wet soil for a potato bed. I always opened her bedroom curtains and said, "Oh, what a beautiful morning!" She would roll over and cough. "Jolines. That means it's raining again."

At twenty-three, my new life in Ireland was sparkling and fresh. Within a couple weeks, both the girl and I were marching out with our rakes and shouting songs from "Oklahoma!" to chase away the dew. The days sprouted into months, and spring saw us holding lambs in the forest and cartwheeling into comfrey patches and sliding down banisters, arms full of apple flowers for the kitchen. Sebastian, our self-described "gentleman of the estate", grinned with indulgence at our antics, even when we overflowed the bathtub so that the ceiling leaked into his great-grandmother's parlor. . . or pulled his prized spinach, thinking they were weeds.

While I was coming alive again in the garden, my heart set on fire in the stables. There lived one of the loves of my life. I have heard it said that soulmates are not necessarily romantic partners, but red clay that lay together millenia ago and then one day broke apart. Daniel and I knew each other in the first reedy, ecstatic hug we shared. I instantly loved everything about him, and looking at him was an act of remembering, not of learning. He had creamy skin and his eyes were two blueberries; his jaw was strong, but his mouth was tender. And his hands were long and soft and pink. He was a pianist. Every night I wrapped myself in a blue blanket and settled myself at his feet and listened as he turned the room to a cave of stars. He lifted the ceiling until I saw the Milky Way.

After the last note of Ravel or Beethoven faded, we boiled the electric kettle and talked. Curled up in an olive-gold armchair, I learned about Daniel and his dreams of being a concert pianist. No one I knew from my cookie-cutter American suburbia had been audacious enough to take the path he had. When he was younger, he would wake at four a.m. and cycle through the rain to play the piano in the town hall before school. He often skipped classes to prepare for competitions. But to really advance his technique, he knew he needed to practice at least eight hours a day.

Following this call, at sixteen Daniel dropped out of school altogether. Soon thereafter he magically crossed paths with Sebastian, who offered him a place in his stables, where Daniel could bring his piano with him. The two other pieces of furniture in the room were his bed and my overstuffed armchair.

Though he was only eighteen, Daniel whetted me like iron on stone. I shared with him my dreams of writing.

"But I've never finished a novel in my life," I admitted to him in the manor's yellow kitchen. "I never even put 'The End' on my stories as a kid."

"And do you want to?" he asked.

"Sure."

"Then you've got to believe it. Say it to me now."

"Say to you what?"

"That you're going to finish your novel."

"I want to finish my novel. No, I'm going to finish my novel."

"Well, that had as much enthusiasm as a boiled potato. Try it again."

I raised my fist. "By golly, I'm going to finish my novel!" I exclaimed.

"Don't make a mockery of your real feelings," he reproved me. "Say it seriously."

I was taken aback. "Sorry," I coughed. "I mean, I know I'm going to finish my novel," I tried to say with surety. "I do know it." My voice sounded unusual to me. Exposed. Suddenly I broke down and giggled.

"Why did you laugh?"

"Because this is ridiculous."

"I think it's because you're afraid I'm going to laugh at you,” he said. “Or that I'm not going to believe you."

"I guess so."

"But no one is mocking or doubting you here. It's only me, and I love you. Now say it again."

I looked down at the table. I breathed in and out, softly, quietly. "I'm going to finish," I said at last. "I really am. I want to, and I am. And I mean it." I then dared to look up and his kind eyes were on me.

He said, "I know you are."

That year, sitting in Daniel’s overstuffed armchair and listening to trills and stanzas, I completed my first novel, Martje, and my soul flooded with a deep satisfaction I had not known existed before.

That was four years ago. Since then, I have lived in ten different places in three different countries. I am working on my third novel, and I have written a few novelettes and some short stories and poems.

Everywhere I have gone has been in pursuit of writing. Under a rusty mountain of Spanish gold mines, I received room and board in exchange for English language tutelage. On an Irish island, I stayed at a bed and breakfast for free, because I helped with gardening. In New England, I lived on a llama farm and mucked stalls. I also laid out an apple orchard in a brick house that was reputed to be haunted. I worked at a Vermont sleepaway camp and woke up, hours before any of the campers stirred in their bunks, to write on a buggy porch. I house-sat an eleventh-century castle in Wexford. I was given places to lay my head, and often food. For extra cash, sometimes I nannied for stretches of time.

When I announced that I was moving back to Ireland, and this time for a much longer duration, a concerned relative phoned me. I was standing in a pine forest by the sweaty burn of a campfire, swatting flies.

"I want to support you," she told me, "but I also need to tell you I think going back to Ireland might take you farther off your life path. Might delay it."

I paused in whacking a mosquito. The bile of fear momentarily soured my mouth. I knew exactly which type of life path she meant. A steady job. The career ladder, a mortgaged home, and a weekly paycheck. Permanency and stability. Car exhaust on a highway commute, and only buttons of time popped out at the end of a harried day for anything related to art -- when I might be too tired to lift a pen, too drained to pin together a colored sentence. Squeezing, always rushing.

I inhaled. I exhaled. Then I softly replied,

"I understand your concern, but I actually feel that, right now, art and traveling is my life path. But thank you so much for wanting the best for me."

Today, I am looking out my window, at rosy fields and a distant steeple. It is a misty September morning in southern Ireland. A saucy lark nosedives into a blackberry bush. The berries are sweet and viscous, dotted thickly on the stalks -- so good with clotted cream. The wind whispers over the sea, rustling furze and fen. The fields are shorn. A second draft is waiting to be taken out of its cradle. For now, I am twenty-seven years old. I am a writer, a painter, a poet, and a woman. The journey has not been pristine or perfectly glossy, but nothing ever is -- nor would I ask it to be.

Creating, to me, is not about being published, or being affirmed by others, or trying to prove any points -- to myself or the world. Art is simply releasing the cap that was on my soul. Expressing what is inside. And tonight when the red sun hisses into the sea and the lark harps her last song, my heart, too, will say, "Thank you," -- for the random landing at an orange Irish mansion on the wrong side of a country. . . for the runic meeting of a pianist. . . and for coming to believe I could have a life on my own terms and of my own making.

Comments

I really enjoyed this. Such

I really enjoyed this. Such an exciting life! So happy for your friend and your family. :)

Damaris Ann | Wed, 03/09/2016

"It is the small temptations which undermine integrity unless we watch and pray and never think them too trivial to be resisted."
-Luisa May Alcott

Your writing is soul-feeding.

Your writing is soul-feeding. That's the best way to describe it. I read it and I am in grassy fields with flowers or I'm sitting on a porch in the countryside, and every word is delicious--meant to be savored. This is timeless writing. It is captivating, it is rewarding, it is so you.

Thank you for this. Especially the few lines where you're being forced to declare your desire to finish a novel--I could feel your hesitation. I've been there so many times, when you want to profess what you want, but you hold back for fear of being scoffed at, for fear of your words being soured. I don't know how you managed to express that so supremely and in such a direct fashion, but you did.

This whole piece was beautifully written, wonderfully-paced, and inspiring at that! I resonate with what you said so much. It reminded me of a quote by John Lennon, which leapt out at me so strongly that I wrote it on my wall. (I can't find it now, but I will eventually!) It basically summarizes my feelings on taking the "traditional" path--him saying that he knew he couldn't just grow up and get a job. For a lot of people, that works. But it's always been something that's scared me--having to buy into that. I know I don't after years of homeschooling, but thank you for reaffirming that nonetheless.

I'm going to be attending a liberal arts college too, so we'll have that in common! :) I'm hoping to take advantage of their plentiful study abroad programs--there are places all over the world. France is the goal, so we shall see.

Thank you for this!

Madeline | Wed, 03/09/2016

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

You posted!!Seriously, when

You posted!!
Seriously, when you post...I get so happy and excited as much as I get when I find out that there's chocolate in the house. :) In other words, I know I'm getting a treat, and I'm going to sit down and savor every word/bite.
I loved (italics) reading this. It was so good to get a glimpse of your family and your life. As I read, I thought, "No wonder she is so talented...she got it from her parents!" I kept thinking as I read. You take common every day life and make it into art! Mold it into beauty! You don't have cliches in your writing. You always find another way to say it-a better way.
"I had contracted myself by email before I even consulted a map."
You give detail, paint images. "When he was younger, he would wake at four a.m. and cycle through the rain to play the piano in the town hall before school. "
"Only once did I pat the rims of my emptiness. Then the sudden thought flitted in: "Maybe I should have written, instead of frenetically reading other people's work for four years. Or maybe I should have painted more, instead of memorizing Doric and Ionic columns Italy. Maybe I should have skipped college altogether."

"A saucy lark nosedives into a blackberry bush. The berries are sweet and viscous, dotted thickly on the stalks -- so good with clotted cream. The wind whispers over the sea, rustling furze and fen. The fields are shorn. A second draft is waiting to be taken out of its cradle. For now, I am twenty-seven years old. I am a writer, a painter, a poet, and a woman. The journey has not been pristine or perfectly glossy, but nothing ever is -- nor would I ask it to be." -LOVED this! SO good.

and this:
"I paused in whacking a mosquito. The bile of fear momentarily soured my mouth. I knew exactly which type of life path she meant. A steady job. The career ladder, a mortgaged home, and a weekly paycheck. Permanency and stability. Car exhaust on a highway commute, and only buttons of time popped out at the end of a harried day for anything related to art -- when I might be too tired to lift a pen, too drained to pin together a colored sentence. Squeezing, always rushing."

Once I read E.B. White's essays, and I don't remember it well - didn't study at all, but I just thought of that essay when I read yours. Taking every day life and putting it into words like the above two paragraphs I quoted.

"The faces of her Navajo women were sand-cracked and the flanks of her colts rippled with chestnut flesh." - this was really creative too.

I just really love your writings. This also appeals to us writers, because you speak of saying "I WILL" finish that book. It's really encouraging, and I love working on farms too. We have friends we go to help them on their organic produce farm.

Sarah, I hope you're doing well, and that you will have future travels and writings!

Can't wait for your next post - whenever it is!
And I also really, really agree with everything Homey said.

Lucy Anne | Fri, 03/11/2016

"It is not the length of life, but the depth of life." Ralph Waldo Emerson

^^^

Megan (seeeeeee???!!) basically pulled everything out of the piece that I was absolutely stunned by. How do you do it?!

Madeline | Fri, 03/11/2016

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

TALK ABOUT SOUL FOOD!!!

That's exactly what you girls do for me!! Give me soul food!! Oh, my gosh!
My next project idea (after I'm done with my Jed story) is to possibly write a non-fiction travel novel, stringing together scenes from my adventures (but hopefully having a thread of some kind of single narrative to tie it all together....tricky part) I would write more to thank you all, but I'm road-tripping down to Florida tonight :D Huge hugs. You girls are THE best.

Sarah Bethany | Fri, 03/11/2016

"Roadtripping down to

"Roadtripping down to Florida" - I forgot you live in Boston! Are you passing through NY to go down?! So cool. :)
Sarah, your plans sound great! Non-fiction work also fits you. Like this.

And Homey, you made me smile!! Thanks for calling me Megan. Hahahaha!

Lucy Anne | Fri, 03/11/2016

"It is not the length of life, but the depth of life." Ralph Waldo Emerson

:)

I love this! I also needed it right now, with feeling a lack of enthusiasm for writing and music since there's not much outlet for either for me right now and it seems like the cranky toddler saps any energy I have for it... energy that's now renewed. Thank you!

Kyleigh | Sun, 03/13/2016

This is lovely and affirming!

This is lovely and affirming! I sometimes worry that I could be doing more, taking different classes, focusing my intelligence on other things. But this is what I want to be doing, so it must be right.

There were many startlingly wonderful images in this essay, but this passage was my absolute favorite:

"While I was coming alive again in the garden, my heart set on fire in the stables. There lived one of the loves of my life. I have heard it said that soulmates are not necessarily romantic partners, but red clay that lay together millenia ago and then one day broke apart. Donal and I knew each other in the first reedy, ecstatic hug we shared. I instantly loved everything about him, and looking at him was an act of remembering, not of learning. He had creamy skin and his eyes were two blueberries; his jaw was strong, but his mouth was tender. And his hands were long and soft and pink. He was a pianist. Every night I wrapped myself in a blue blanket and settled myself at his feet and listened as he turned the room to a cave of stars. He lifted the ceiling until I saw the Milky Way."

I adore your writing--it's unique and elegant and wise and unconventional. You're a special talent.

Erin | Mon, 03/14/2016

"You were not meant to fit into a shallow box built by someone else." -J. Raymond

Thanks, fellow writers!!

Thanks, Damaris!! :d

Thanks, Madeline, for saying that my writing is so 'me' -- such an awesome compliment :D And for saying it can transport you... That's awesome that you're going to a liberal arts college, too. And France is also one of my goals -- maybe we'll cross paths there ;) I treasure every one of your comments, always.

Megan! What a long comment!! I LOVED it! And I laughed so much over the chocolate, and found it such a flattering compliment. Thank you for quoting the parts you liked...that's always such a pleasure, to be quoted back to, haha. And for saying I take common life and turn it into art <3 I'll have to look into E.B. White's essays at some point... And I did drive through NY!! Except I let my co-pilot drive through the city part ;)

Thanks, Kyleigh! I often do childcare for work, so I sympathize so deeply. I know how draining a 40-hr work week can be -- I can't even imagine being a full-time mother. I hope you continue to find ways to let that creativity of yours out, because you're such a driven musician and talented writer.

Thanks, Erin!! And definitely: if it's what you want to be doing, it is right!!

Thank you everyone, again <3 Your comments are a veritable FEAST to me.

Sarah Bethany | Sun, 03/27/2016

Oh!

Soul food indeed...I don't know what to say. I think the girls already say it all! you've really made me think, you see--in the last few weeks, I barely do anything I love--in study, you see. But I guess I need to toughen up and do hard work before I can do anything I love.

Thankyou thankyou thankyou!! I wish I could write more...but time is racing away like always, and so is my bedtime! Lovely to hear about your friend and parents :)

Maddi | Thu, 04/07/2016

Goodbye? Oh no, please. Can’t we just go back to page one and start all over again?” – Winnie The Pooh

Maddi, I sympathize so deeply

Maddi, I sympathize so deeply because that was my college experience!! Nothing more frustrating. And yet it can have a good end, too, the hard work. (I didn't feel like mine did, 100% -- I somewhat regretted college; and yet, I wouldn't have certain friends and might not have read certain books. I think if I had been pursuing a particular career, I would have felt its worth more.) I commend you for your hard work!! And I empathize, for not being able to do everything you want right now....it gets better.

Sarah Bethany | Thu, 04/07/2016

Thankyou, sometimes its hard

Thankyou, sometimes its hard to find people that understand :( I've recently realised that what I've enrolled for is not what I want to do and what I want to spend my time and money. Hopefully trying to un-enroll :) I believe in getting somewhere with hard work, but I also want to enjoy and love what I do too.
Thanks for your lovely sympathy!

Maddi | Wed, 04/20/2016

Goodbye? Oh no, please. Can’t we just go back to page one and start all over again?” – Winnie The Pooh

That is awesome, Maddi -- it

That is awesome, Maddi -- it takes a brave soul to re-route right in the middle of things. Sometimes people just plow ahead because it's easiest and simplest, even if it goes against their heart. But it sounds like your priorities are in the right place -- enjoying and loving what you do!!

Sarah Bethany | Thu, 04/21/2016

I THOUGHT I remembered him.

I THOUGHT I remembered him.

Erin | Wed, 10/05/2016

"You were not meant to fit into a shallow box built by someone else." -J. Raymond

HAHAHAHAHA, you were right!!!

HAHAHAHAHA, you were right!!! <3 I was wondering who was going to be the first to connect the dots. . . even though I changed his name in this the first time I posted it (I called him Donal, which he laughed so much at when he learned afterwards). He gave me permission to use his real name. :)

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 10/05/2016

Navigation

User login

Please read this before creating a new account.