A version of this essay first appeared as part of Literary Mama’s After Page One series on craft.
Dear Clarence, my creative genius,
The last time I wrote here, in my only journal, I had just arrived in a hotel room in Istanbul, belly starting to swell from five months of growing Acacia and finally in the midst of Sistercation. There were two twin beds with the whitest of sheets and a king sized headboard nailed to the wall, in case we were feeling romantic enough to move furniture. Aly and I had just arrived from Athens and I was memory keeping- trying to write just enough detail to summon the images later. I didn’t think it would take over two years to dust off snippets like “moussaka with cats for dinner” and “flying into Zurich over Alps.” Those phrases won’t mean much to anyone else, but with your help, just maybe I can make those memories transferable. At the very least the world should know how the air fills and surrounds you with the echoing presence of God during the call to prayer and that street roasted chestnuts will draw every morsel of saliva from your mouth and leave you feeling as chalky as the coals that prepared them.
The name Clarence doesn’t typically ooze of art or romance – it, perhaps, conjures up the image of a sexy librarian- but I couldn’t shake it. It wasn’t so much me naming my creative genius as it was the genius presenting himself to me. The only other Clarence truly familiar to me is George Bailey’s guardian angel in It’s A Wonderful Life. I have curled up on my parents’ couch each holiday season for decades to watch George slowly come to his senses, and have slowly come to my senses about the truth in that movie as well. Clarence, the wingless angel, did more than just keep George Bailey from jumping off of a bridge. He demonstrated in a dozen different ways how George Bailey’s story mattered. That no one can replace George Bailey to his wife, children, employer, brother, and town. George was under the impression that there were a thousand other people living their lives better than him and that silence was acceptable, or even best. Then came Clarence. Pointing out to George -and to me-that there is a world that needs our stories. George needed to live and I need to write.
I’m trying to recall when your creative genius has come to my writing since that Wednesday in Turkey when I shoved you away. I’ve sensed sparks of you in town from time to time: at market in the rainbow of produce, on our block in the wrinkles of the can collector’s face, in the sleepy ramblings of my two year old at nine PM. All of which have inspired and are worthy of inclusion in a New Yorker essay. Do you remember when you came to me at the workshop through Earl? Earl with his stories of friendly bedroom mice and pinning Hulk Hogan; there has never been a sweeter muse than that man with his toothless grin and a Betty Boop tattoo dancing on his upper thigh. I was going to write a whole series of stories about Earl, my super hero with cerebral palsy. I jotted a few outlines in my well-worn planner, and then stopped, because creative goals are scary and what if I fail? You did well there, Clarence, and then I faltered. The reservations of writing outweighed the possibilities until life, one particular little life, made it clear that there are far greater fears than creative floundering.
Mothering cracks me open and spreads me out and the few words I’ve been able to retain on this journey are the most precious of my existence. It may not be my most impactful work, but it is the only work that no one else can do. This is what I want to savor. You have peered at me through Acacia’s unfocused, newborn eyes. You have smothered me in her six month arm rolls. You have tormented me in her teething and fevers and head bumps. I have recorded just enough of those moments to tempt you to stick with me. Just enough memories kept to know that if I summon and you decide to visit we can work something out. You weren’t the one threatening to leave, though, I can see that now. You have been a patient genius, Clarence, biding your time in another area of my being until I was able to commit.
Every Tuesday in a round, wooden sanctuary a thousand angels get their wings. Bells peel throughout the church and amidst the cringe inspiring wrong notes, a spark carries on. Music is how the creative me has been sustained through the blanket of motherhood. You aren’t just my writing genius, after all, you are my creative genius. When my rhythm of self was off, I could escape into the music and feel confident in that syncopation. There is syncopation to writing as well, but instead of coordinating with twelve other musicians I have to coordinate with my twelve selves. The past, the future, the present, the mom, the sister, the wife, the daughter, the friend, the counselor, the citizen, the neighbor, the person. Are you the conductor, Clarence, or am I? Regardless of who’s in charge here, I see that there is work to be done. Polishing away at the tarnished bronze, the mending of tiny holes in the fingers of fitted gloves – these are the tasks that hold the door for a glimpse of the musical awe factor. The opportunity to witness genius in song -or in words- can only occur if you show up and muddle a bit through the clumsiness.
I’d like to take a cue from you and bridge the gap. Every week after rehearsal I drive by the café in town that stays open late. The lights there stay on later than my mama body can handle; 11pm is for between the sheets, but we can meet until 9pm, maybe even 10pm, you and me. I can see us now. Ordering a decaf chai latte and settling into the padded corner booth to rediscover one another after years of poor maintenance. I’ll stare at the exposed brick wall more often than I should and attempt to lip read the second date conversation across the room instead of doing the work, but eventually we’ll write some words, and then a sentence, and then a story.
I do hope you’ll come.
Your recommitted vessel,