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Our Muses, Ourselves: Why Women Like Me Run Away From Home

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As my friend Susan Straight and I cross the border from Maine into Canada, the customs agent follows the usual script: Where are you going, are you carrying firearms, how long are you staying?

Then he trips me up: "What is the purpose of your visit? Business or pleasure?"

Susan and I glance at each other. Business or pleasure?

I'm not sure.

Susan and I have crossed this border together before. We met in graduate school and have stayed friends despite the fact that I live in Massachusetts and her home is in California. We usually meet in New York when we both have business there. And, for the past decade, Susan has flown east every summer so that we can drive ten hours north from my house to Prince Edward Island.

This year is completely different because we're actually sitting in the same car. On previous trips to Canada, we always brought so many children that we had to caravan in two vans. We have eight kids between us (me, five; her, three). We've also brought stragglers, whenever this child or that one begged to bring a friend. One summer we topped out at ten kids.

Those vacations were fun -- endless hours of sand castles and board games -- but crammed with chores: cooking and laundry, grocery shopping and vacuuming. Susan is divorced. For understandable reasons, my husband always opted out. So Susan and I were left on our own with the children like some wild combo of Sherpas and camp counselors.

This week, we're traveling to Canada alone in search of our inner muses. We have disguised our sudden decision to have a creative getaway as a janitorial vacation, since we're also opening up our summer cottages -- she bought one on Prince Edward Island shortly after I did, and we rent them out to help support costs -- but our goal is to devote uninterrupted hours to writing.

This goal makes me feel clammy with guilt. But why should it? I wonder about this as we meander along the coast of the Bay of Fundy. Guilt is a useless emotion. Yet I'm prone to it, especially when faced with a choice between what I "should" do and whatever I want to do most -- as if doing something that makes me happy will make someone else unhappy.

Oh, wait: Escaping the home front to write does make the people I love unhappy. When I left this morning to pick up Susan at the airport, my husband was griping about having to leave work early to care for our youngest son, who stood with his forlorn face pressed against the door. My four older kids wanted to know if I'll have email and cell service, "just in case." Even our dogs looked miserable.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her timeless book, Gift from the Sea, my husband and children, my mother and friends, my home and pets, my neighbors and coworkers represent "a whole caravan of complications." Leaving them behind for the sake of creativity makes me feel like I have phantom limbs: I itch all over.

Susan isn't doing much better. Luckily, we have time to talk about this, to shore each other up as we drive north, despite our cellphones singing with alarming regularity as our various children and work colleagues reach out to us through the state of Maine and most of New Brunswick.

Why the guilt? Like most women, Susan and I are people-pleasers, willing to charge in to fill the black holes of need around us, even if that means sacrificing the time and concentration we need to be creative. Making art -- whether it's music, drawing, dancing or writing -- demands full attention and passion, but that ability to focus is easily worn down, especially for women with families.

Especially because, in our culture, art so rarely pays enough to put food on the table. With no money in art except for those lucky few breakout writers and artists, there is no power in doing it. Making art definitely feels like a luxury. Maybe that's because art takes so much time, and it's our precious free time that the people around us want most.

I can feel the hot breaths of everyone I left behind on the back of my neck as I drive.

*

I had imagined us rising early to write. After all, novelist Virginia Woolf proclaimed that every woman needs a room of one's own to do so. But Susan and I are so exhausted by the time we arrive at my house on Prince Edward Island -- a modest summer cottage overlooking Malpeque Bay -- that we can barely force ourselves out of bed once we have those precious rooms to ourselves.

Instead, we lie in our separate rooms as if we've been clubbed over the head. This isn't exhaustion from the drive; it's more like battle fatigue. Or shell shock: my ears are actually ringing a little. I think it's the silence.

We spend the first day doing chores, like that essential trip to town to replace everything from garbage bags to shower mats. We also go walking. The first day, we traverse the red beach around Darnley Basin as if our lives depend upon making it from one end to the other, taking long, purposeful strides, arms pumping.

On the second day, house chores behind us, we take a different sort of walk. This one is a meandering stroll along the shore road that ends at Shipwreck Point. We see people doing more ambitious things: mowing lawns, jogging, carrying groceries into a house. It's almost like watching a movie of real life while we're in motion. We carry no cellphones, no purses. It's just us and the wildflowers and great, billowy white clouds that look like props for a theater piece.

That night, some sort of magic happens. We eat a simple supper of sandwiches and then get to work.

I sit at the little desk in my bedroom overlooking the potato fields and write almost maniacally, churning out sentences which build paragraphs that I might or might not keep. I don't turn out the light until two a.m., because there's nothing to stop me: No big kitchen cleanup waiting downstairs, no cellphone service, no email, no cable TV, no husband. Susan sits downstairs editing her new book galleys. We are completely separate, yet it's perfect, since each of us knows that the other is blissfully working.

I have so many good things in my life. Yet being here makes me realize how fractured my life is, with bits of my attention scattered everywhere like pocketfuls of gravel.

How did I let my life get so crowded?

*

Susan's summer house is an hour's drive from mine. One of her tasks is to buy new mattresses for the twin beds, so we track down a place that sells them at discount. We already have a carload of stuff. Still, rather than make another, separate trip to pick up the mattresses and waste valuable writing time, we jam the mattresses into the back of my Honda CRV on top of everything else.

The mattresses are so long we have to remove the headrests and put our seats all the way forward. I have to keep my neck bent forward toward the dashboard; it's easy to imagine getting decapitated if we stop too suddenly. I do a little praying that the Canadian Mounties won't arrest us for driving with no visibility.

Then I have this comforting thought: This being Canada, the jail cells are probably really, really clean. If I'm locked up, the guards will let me write, and I still wouldn't have to dust or cook.

We make it to Susan's house, then spend the rest of the day vacuuming up millions of fly corpses littering the windowsills and clearing out closets. We're both sore and exhausted by the time we finish. It's too late to go out to dinner, so we dine on fried sausages and potatoes. Then I set up my computer in the dining room and write for four hours. I can hear Susan tapping on her laptop in the kitchen. She is an award-winning novelist whose newest novel, Take One Candle Light a Room, is a gem. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, was put out in paperback this year. We're pleased to be published in this rocky economy. For us, though, the excitement has always been about the actual writing.

I have never been so content as I am right now. Men have always claimed wives and mistresses as their muses. Susan and I have ourselves and, for this week, we have each other. Are we writing masterpieces? Are we even writing something that other people will ever read?

It doesn't matter. The joy is in the creative act.

Women have always found satisfaction in being helpful. There is joy in that and love, too. Women are also creating some of the most exciting and challenging art today. Yet we still aren't catching up to our male colleagues in the arts. Look at the numbers for everything from cinematography to writing, from painting to conducting music, and men win out every time.

Feminists would probably say that there is a glass ceiling in the arts, as there has been in nearly every other field. I'm certainly a feminist. Still, I wonder if more women artists, musicians and writers aren't household names because we don't have enough faith in our own pursuits to give ourselves the time we desperately need to be transformed by a creative vision. Maybe that glass ceiling isn't really made of glass at all, but of sticky little fingers, dishes piled in the sink, and mortgages that demand two incomes.

Not long after my first two children were born -- 16 months apart, so close together that I was in a coma for the first three years of motherhood -- I went to a book signing by a famous mystery writer. He mentioned that he, too, had young children, so I eagerly approached him after the event to ask how he managed to find time to write fiction with young children at home.

"I have a wife," he said.

It's true: even when women have partners or spouses, our significant others often send messages that they'd rather do something -- anything -- rather than take over childcare and housework. It's easy to rant about this, to say that women's lives would be easier if men did their fair share around the house. However, even when our partners are willing to shoulder domestic duties in equal measure, we often get in our own way by refusing to let them. We want to read that bedtime story. We think we're the only ones who can pack the right school lunch. And we long to be the ones greeting the school bus in the afternoon if we can arrange our work schedules to do so.

Many women arrange their lives around the people they love. Unfortunately, that arrangement takes up most of our days. And, as the writer Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, genius isn't a matter of genetics, but of opportunities and persistence: He estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at doing something.

Nobody will give us those 10,000 hours. We have to take them for ourselves.

*

At the end of the week, we walk on St. Margaret's Beach. I'm in beachcomber mode, stooping to pick up stones that catch my eye. Susan wants to climb the cliffs. She hikes ahead of me and is soon clambering around on distant rocks, farther than I want to go without any shoes.

When I'm tired of picking up rocks, I decide to return to the car and get my book so that I can read until Susan returns. Then it dawns on me: she has my car keys.

For a moment, I'm irritated -- why did she have to disappear like that? -- and then I feel helpless. What will I do, all by myself on a beach, without even anything to read?

I sit on a boulder, disgruntled, and pile the rocks I've collected beside me. There's nothing to do but watch the waves wash in and out, frothy and pink on the red sand.

Watch the waves, and think. I remember another book signing I went to a long time ago. This one was by the political activist and short story writer Grace Paley. I asked her the same question that I'd asked the arrogant mystery writer: How did she find time to write with young children at home?

"Day care," she said. "Don't ever be afraid to pay for writing time."

Easier said than done. For most women, paying a babysitter so that they can write, paint, make pottery or dance is out of the question. Even for women without children, trading hours that produce income for hours that produce "only" art seems like a foolish decision.

What a loss for the world, though, to have women's voices silenced because art is our last priority. Even if we aren't making great art, or commercial art, the very act of creating it is a joyful, transformative experience, one where we explore new emotions and perspectives, ideas and values.

I think hard about this while I sit on the beach. I think about the pages I've written this week, too, and about the way my novel is progressing.

And then, after a while, I'm not thinking much at all, just contentedly watching the force of the ocean, and how the waves make the rocks roll around and create such beautiful patterns in the smooth red sand. I build a little pyramid out of the rocks I've collected. I watch some pulpy kelp become draped over a rock, then wash out to sea again. I dig my toes deeper into the sand. I admire the swallows darting in and out of the cliff above me. My mind is clear.

I am just here. I am here, just me. Through writing, I have discovered a wonderfully still place inside me that I've never seen before. It's good to be here.

Eventually, of course, Susan returns from her walk. I write again that night, staying up until well past 2 a.m. solving a particularly vexing dilemma in the plot of my new novel. The images are fresh, and there is tension on the page.

The drive back is lovely and uneventful. Our cellphones chorus again in the middle of New Brunswick, and by mid-coast Maine we've talked to all of our children. Everyone has survived.

We reach my house just before nine o'clock. "Well?" my husband asks. "How was it? Did you write anything you can sell?"

"I don't know," I tell him. "I missed you," I add.

I toss dirty clothes into the washing machine, clean the kitchen after dinner, check my email, walk the dogs, help my son order new parts for his scooter online. I make a grocery list.

During all of this, I can feel my brain starting to thrum with activity. The still place inside me has disappeared again. But at least I know how to get there, and who to call when I need help on the journey.