Do you remember that college course you took because you heard the professor was compelling, not because you were majoring in that subject or even or had any particular interest in it? I was lucky enough to have that experience; my course was called “Early Chinese Art.” It lived up to its billing, even though the first month was, to my dismay, spent studying 3000 year old clay vessels that were utterly indistinguishable from each other. The professor was mesmerizing and I loved it.
Over 20 years later, I’ve retained a few odd bits of largely useless knowledge from that class: the evolution of dragon designs, the "lost wax" method of casting bronze. Yet what I remember most is the stronge urge I developed over the semester to create something myself. After years pursuing success in academia and spending all my free time on the ephemeral art of performance, I couldn't remember the last time I'd produced something tangible to show for all my hard work. Perhaps because it was my first (and last) class focused on artifacts rather than on words and ideas—even my other art history classes were largely about paintings, which seem somehow less solid than the vessels of Early Chinese Art—I started to feel a deep yen to make an actual object. The squat, symmetrical bronzes we examined were simultaneously extraordinary—so ornate, so ancient—and yet mundane and tangible like nothing else I'd studied. As we studied the process of creating them, I imagined making one myself: carving the figure in wax, creating the mold, melting the wax out, pouring in molten metal. It felt as if it would be satisfying in a way I’d never experienced.
I never realized my bronze-making fantasy. My post-college life took me into theater, film and teaching, where I maintained my focus on words, language and images. I’ve also always been more a critic or appreciative audience for other people’s creativity than a creator myself, unless you count the millions of words I’ve wrangled into sentences, paragraphs and pages over the course of my life. Yet in the age of computers, even those reams of creative analysis and hard-won insights no longer exist on actual paper, but on disks and hard drives, some of them so old I’m not even sure how I would access them. Besides, who in their right mind would want to go back and read my essays on theater and literature now? Not me. However original the thoughts may have been, however lucid their expression, you can’t hold up to the light and admire them.
Lately I’ve been ruminating about my life and the choice I made ten years ago to focus on home and family life rather than working outside, at a “real” job. At my worst moments, I feel stale, stuck,and sorry for myself, wondering whether it’s time for a change. I feel unappreciated—not by my family but by the world at large. Without a paycheck or a professional identity, I’m not always sure I fully exist. Also, my guilt about wasting all the education and intellectual competence I spent years acquiring and developing is nagging at me, increasingly difficult to rationalize away. While this is in many ways a privileged problem, I'd argue it's not simply about my personal happiness. Knowing how lucky I've been doesn’t make my current angst any less difficult to wrangle with.
But recently--and bear with me, this will take us back to Chinese art--I had a revelation while doing the very kind of mindless domestic duty that I worry over. Folding laundry fresh from the dryer, my mind wandered to the feeling those bronzes objects awoke in me. It struck me that I have created something tangible and real without even realizing it. As I creased t-shirts, marveling how big my nine-year-old’s have become, as I carefully folded each pair of underwear even though they will just be stuffed into a drawer, I was overcome by the physical reality of the family and the home my husband and I have made together. Feeling their warm clothes in my hands suddenly felt like hugging their warm bodies, breathing in the laundry scent was like breathing in the smell of their skin, their hair. Somehow, it took their absence to make me conscious of my family’s corporal reality.
These children, this family: these are the works of art to which I’ve devoted myself for a decade. I understood afresh how much more miraculous they are than any inert lump of bronze or clay. That itch I had to create, to complete a project that would be more than ephemeral words and ideas, fulfilled itself in a way I’d never imagined it could. All the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning up, the doctors' appointments, the sleepless nights, the books read aloud: these are the humble but essential tasks that have created the life we have, that are still forming the people my children are and will be. And while I know my struggle to define myself will be ongoing, it sustains and gratifies me to understand the physical manifestation of this creativity in my family. We as parents are all creators, and we should be proud of the work we've accomplished: the results are as tangible and real as I ever might have wished them to be.
What I cooked: