The other morning, I woke up to a news clip on my desk my mother-in-law sent about Paul Harding who wrote Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010. The article was by Jeff Baker from the Oregonian and the title was “No Longer an Unknown.” Granted, I hadn’t had my coffee yet and may have been surly, but I thought, “nope, he’s still unknown.” I certainly haven’t had time to read his book, though I did read the article, which said Harding graduated from Iowa Writer’s and teaches at Harvard – so, in reality, he’s already had a foot in the door of being known. But, still, I bet not too many people have heard of him.
As I walked into the kitchen to get my coffee, for some reason I thought about Jonathan Safron Foer, whom, I’d argue, more people have heard of even though he didn’t win a Pulitzer. His book, Everything’s Illuminated, was made into a movie, and that event always helps one’s being known-ness. Why I’m writing about Foer is a bit convoluted so hang with me here – but I’m thinking that, even though I write just about every day, almost all of the people who know I’m a writer are my friends, which is fine with me, but I’m still mostly unknown. And I recently went to a lecture about the changes in the publishing industry – ebooks and iPads, and everyone and their brother writing a book – and the unintended negative outcome of the lecture was to solidify the reality that, as a writer, the chances of getting “known” beyond one’s list of friends, Facebook or not, are near impossible. So, when I went to write in my journal the morning I was thinking about Foer, the first thing I wrote was “Everything’s Unfinished.” Forget being known or unknown, forget getting illuminated. In my life, I just would like to get something done.
Here’s an example of the unfinished-ness. A few weeks ago, after a neighbor gave me an abundance of so-so apples, I decided to make a pie for a friend who needed some cheering up. I managed to prepare the apples while my daughter took a decent nap, but then, once she was up, I needed to make the crust, which meant she needed to hang on me and whine every second for me to pick her up. I had pulled out the giant cutting board from the counter and put it on the kitchen table to make this crust, and I explained to her that my hands were too floury to pick her up as I added ice water to the flour and butter, and I thought for sure, by the time I actually rolled the slab out, the crust would end up tough as leather. Although I tried to distract her with a bit of dough, my daughter wasn’t interested in anything but whining and flinging extra white flour all over the cutting board, the floor, the carpet, etc. So I ignored her and rolled and plied and shaped the dough, then added the filling, then added another top layer of crust. The pie actually looked nice, the top crust was poked with fork-holes and had three crafted leaves for decoration. The mess to clean up, however, was ridiculous – flour pasted the cutting board, pans and mixing bowls littered the kitchen, apple peelings rotted in a box on the floor. I had to wonder if my effort was worth the effort. And I had to leave the mess because I knew some of the whining from my girl was because she was getting hungry. So, while the pie baked, I balanced the flour and dough-crusted cutting board on top of the toaster, wiped up the kitchen table, and warmed up some leftovers on the stovetop, all with her clinging to my leg.
My daughter ate dinner, promptly pooped her diaper, and was then not interested in changing it – sometimes she likes to “keep it” for a while, this warm thing she created, and I just have to indulge her as long as I can keep her standing and keep the load from squishing out of the diaper. I’m not talking hours here, but a few extra minutes for her to revel in her accomplishment of a “very big poop.” Anyhow, I thought, “fine, you don’t want me to change your poop, help me clean up this mess.” With her standing on a chair in front of the sink, I leaned the huge cutting board upright in the sink and then she tried to dissolve the paste with the sprayer. When enough paste dissolved and her shirt was soaked, we took off the shirt and scrubbed soap on the board. Since the board towered like an easel, we learned she could “finger paint” with the suds on the board, which served both to clean it and to occupy her enough so I could unload the dishwasher of clean dishes and reload it with the dinner dishes and some of the pots or pans.
All this “cleaning” wasted lots of water, made another mess to clean since my daughter of course sprayed water on the floor, which made a new paste with the scattered flour, and I had to wipe that all up, and when it was over, the kitchen was not even rid of dishes – I still had a muffin pan to clean. I forgot to mention with the leftover dough, I made two mini-pies because part of my daughter’s earlier whine-fest was when she realized we wouldn’t actually be eating the pie I made. So, after the poop was changed, we ate the mini-pies, which made more dishes. I said to my daughter, “we’re done in the kitchen for a while” and I turned off the light.
My next task was to help my daughter focus on cleaning up the living room. I started with the very cool musical instruments she has. I took a drum and made up a “clean these toys up now” song, which only made her dance around the mess in the living room and crawl on me like I was a jungle gym of joy. We played for a while more, and then I started putting toys away. But the fact is the toys never get picked up. Especially since her birthday and then Christmas, these toys don’t even have a place to actually go, try as I might to get rid of some older ones. Plus there’s usually a water glass or a fork or some other random non-toy object she’s found to play with in some random place – like on the CD shelf. I surrendered a long time ago to a clean ideal – I decided many other things were more important than having a clean house.
But sometimes the mess borders on dangerous – like when the rocking horse, and the big red Yoga ball block access to movement in the living room, now also made smaller with the new standing basketball hoop from Grandma and Grandpa, which had already become smaller last year with the huge “Babytropolis” coffee table bought by a certain husband who’d had too much to drink during a fundraiser auction. So, while I usually disregard the mess and play, sometimes I do have to clean up.
Also, even though I said I was done in the kitchen, I realized I forgot about the apple pie filling that had spilled out of the original pie and almost burned down the house by starting on fire in the oven when I was baking the pie, and I thought, “I better clean that up” before I burn the house down for real the next time I fire up the oven. So, in a moment when my daughter inexplicably had to make another poop and went to hide behind the couch for her privacy, I went to scrape off the oven mess, which I had to do by using a metal pie server (is that irony?). I scraped tiny black bits of char into a plastic container, and of course, I didn’t get it all, so there’s a huge burn stain on the bottom of the oven that will be there for all eternity since cleaning the oven is clearly out of the question, but I figured the clean up job was good enough the house wouldn’t burn down. Yet, as I went to throw out the char, I somehow hit the container with oven door and dropped a million black bits all over the kitchen. Another huge mess. I arghed like a pirate and my daughter came in and said “You need help Mama?” And I said, “Yes love, I need a lot of help.” I swept up what I could but decided the vacuum was the only real way to get the smallest bits of char, and so, I vacuumed the kitchen floor, and then, while I was at it, vacuumed the dining area, which had bits of flour and pie crust all over, and a few dinner noodles, and then said, well, I might as well do the rest of the house. My daughter “helped” me by pushing her toy vacuum cleaner, which isn’t a vacuum at all, but a wooden noisemaker thing and we played bumper vacuums as I moved toys out of the way in order to actually vacuum the carpet.
So, the preceding section is perhaps the longest example in the world of unfinished-ness. But still, after all that cleaning that night, the house wasn’t clean. The woodstove was going, and even though I vacuumed up the tiny escaped bits of burnt wood and dust on the tile in front of the stove, wood-ash still layered every surface. Blankets and pillows that have no where to go lay stacked on the floor. Dishes still littered the sink.
I know I’m not the only mom who watches daily chores pile up and topple over into giant messes. And I know I’m not the only writer who toils in obscurity, likely for life. And I’ve always liked the adage that a busy artist has a messy home. But, I suppose, the point of this essay is to assert publicly that I do attempt to clean our house and I do get to the end of stories every once in a while, and that the pie turned out super-good and went some ways in cheering up my friend. Ultimately, my effort was worth the effort.