blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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JULIE HENSLEY

Nursing Art

Stories used to hit me like weather. There was a time before I was a mother, before I was even a student of writing, when I would write in twelve hour spurts, surfacing in a kind of dream light, yellow-green and dusted with walnut leaves like the backyard after a summer storm. Back then, writing was an affair—something I could press my mouth and body against, something I could wake up next to, limb-tangled. And now? Now those hours and their damp, sun-warm afterglow seem more myth than reality.

I can no longer say I love writing; instead, I need it. I need to write every day. Of course, I don’t. Not in this laundry-on-the-kitchen-table, spit-up-clotting-my-shoulder, half-graded-papers-littering-my-writing-desk kind of world. ¬†Ideas no longer come to me on the wings of the muse. They hover like a strange taste in the back of my mouth. Eventually, a good one might plant itself in my gut like the pit of a cherry, hang there for months until I can work it out. I consider my characters and the landscapes through which they move for many weeks before I dare open a new file on my laptop. In order to continue writing, I’ve had to invite it into the forgotten moments, into every silence. There it is, in the blossom of my newborn daughter’s mouth against my waiting breast. And there, as my son’s head—which shines like sun and smells of warm grass—lulls into my shoulder.

Now, by the time I sit down and put my fingers to the keys, I’m always ready. Nothing like paying a babysitter ten dollars an hour to keep you in the chair. And still, every story has a different conception, a different labor.

I began writing “Expecting” in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I was working as an instructor for the summer residency of Eastern Kentucky University’s MFA program. My daughter was not yet born, and my son was two, old enough, finally, to spend a few hours a week with a nanny. Each morning my husband and I walked through cobblestoned alleyways, past brightly painted doors, down to the city center—el Jardin, where a thick hedge of Indian laurel shaded tinkling fountains. Women in long skirts sold bags of woven raffia as children with wet, dark eyes chattered underfoot. There was a caf√©—el Montenegro—where we would write, and it was there, sipping espresso, that I crafted all of “Expecting.”

But I had been making my way into that story for years. I had written twelve connected stories, a cycle with the working title Landfall, and I had finally reached the point where I was toying with this ring of stories, trying to fashion them into a complete narrative arc. There was a restlessness to this work, a deep frustration. I was not unlike my son, his head bent over a line of wooden blocks. Occasionally, my fingers would tingle with the urge to hurl one of the stories across the room. I couldn’t seem to find the perfect order. No matter how I placed them, one narrative thread—really the most important narrative thread—left me feeling anxious and unsettled. These weeks were, I suppose, a kind of quickening. I felt I owed Cora something more; I felt she had something more to tell me. In an earlier story in the cycle, she yearns for a child, and I really wanted to know if that yearning was ever fulfilled, even if only in an indirect manner.

I must have drawn on some of my own family history in carving out the answer. My younger brother, really my cousin, came to live with my family when he was six. Both his parents had died, and my parents—well into their forties—tried to raise him as their son. I had watched them struggle, as so many parents do, to guide him safely through a turbulent and extended adolescence, a period of rebellion he still hasn’t cleared, and that summer in Mexico, a new mother myself, I was suddenly very curious about what my parents felt.

Grace’s narrative may have grown out of San Miguel itself. While that city, a national historic landmark, attracts a number of expatriates, to me, it still felt enough of a foreign country that I experienced a sense of dislocation. Horses drinking from centuries-old fountains, the serpentine feathers of stomping native dancers, the mother I watched balance two children and a meringue pie as she throttled a four-wheeler up Calle Quebrada: the imagery of Mexico rendered me an outsider. And surely it was that sense of alienation that led me to Grace’s voice.

Ultimately, I can only guess how any of my stories or poems come to be. The same way, these past few weeks, stretching our new daughter out between us, my husband and I trace the line of her eyebrow or her earlobe, speculating how the intertwining of our genes could explode into something so separate from us. Something so beautiful. Each night, as I nurse her to sleep, I feel privileged. Despite how flawed I am, she thrives. And I think art is just that way. Every time I read one of my stories in print, the hours I spent shaping it compress into pure magic. Each time I’m surprised, and each time I’m grateful.  end