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  • S F Hayes

Out on a limb or winged for flight? On creativity and vulnerability.

Be like the bird who

Halting in her flight,

On a limb too slight,

Feels it giving way beneath her

Yet sings

Knowing she has wings

- Victor Hugo

Songs of Twilight 1877

When my children were born it was both a literal and metaphorical splitting open — and it took me years to smooth out all the jagged edges and rawness of being a mother.

It began with an emergency C-section during the birth of my first child — the literal splitting open. While the doctor’s scalpel dug deep and her hands pressed hard to do the work of forcing my baby out of my womb — I lay there, feeling nothing but a slight pressure — because the doctors had numbed me.

But there was no anesthesia for what came next: that metaphorical splitting open — the moment you fall in love with your new baby and the moment you realize that his fragility makes you vulnerable, too. It’s as if someone has taken out a vital organ and handed it to you without any guidance except the admonition: “Take care of this — your life depends on it.”

In the months that followed, my initial realization crystalized into a stinging anxiety that I would remain exposed in this way for a long time. Perhaps for the rest of my life. The sharp edges of this seeming powerlessness snagged on everything — pierced every action and every decision with fear, doubt, paralysis. Fear that I would make the wrong decision and doubt in my own judgement — because I could not know everything in a world that is often unpredictable. Books and experts were no help; no one agreed on anything, no one had the one right answer. And what’s worse, they seemed to discover a new danger daily.

But all acts of creation seem to involve — no, to demand — this vulnerability; your creation, whether child, art, or scientific hypothesis, is born of you but must be released out into the world to thrive or not.

So how do the creators of the world release their creations into the world? How are you supposed to keep creating and leaving yourself open to the rawness? How can you face those moments, hours, days, when you can’t find the evidence to convince yourself that you can trust the universe to take care with your creation? You fear that your child will be bullied or hurt, or your writing misunderstood and reviled, or your scientific grant revoked because you insisted on studying an unpopular facet of reality. In short, how can you live with this kind of vulnerability constantly?

But perhaps vulnerability is not the right word for it — and this is where the problem lies. Most definitions of vulnerability are about being defenseless, open to attack, unprotected in some way. Is one defenseless, though, as mother or artist or scientist? My epiphany came when I realized that I could learn not to be defenseless.

The bird on the branch in Hugo's poem is secure not because she believes that the branch can’t break, but because she knows that if the branch does break, she can use her wings to keep from falling to disaster. She is not defenseless; she is not vulnerable — she is confident because she knows how to fly.

And so what all acts of creativity actually demand is confidence — earned from understanding that the world is a knowable place and that you can gain the knowledge you need to act when hardships arise. You can guide your child through the bullying if it happens or help him recover when hurt. You can defend your writing or be persuasive that your scientific theory merits study. Branches often break — but with work you can learn to fly.

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Book Review: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem

by Julie Phillips

This is my version of a book review -- a snapshot that includes a quick overview and what to expect. If this piques your interest, you can find in-depth reviews online for further reading.

The Basic Idea:

Each chapter of the book is more or less a short biography of a famous artist and mother, with a particular emphasis on how being a parent impacted the art — the making of the art, the themes of the artwork, and the amount of art produced. In many cases, we are also shown the impact of the art and art-making on the child and their relationship to their artist-mother.

The Upshot:

If you’re a mother and an artist, it is interesting to read about the ways various artist-mothers made it work and the ways they didn’t make it work (children left behind, broken relationships, artworks abandoned) and how societal norms impacted their lives. There’s also an element of you’re-not-in-this-alone; seeing how difficult it has been for these women can be helpful when you’re feeling like you can’t make it work.

The Takeaway:

Though not new, the takeaway is important -- an artist needs time alone to devote to her work (see, for example, Virginia Wolfe’s "A Room of One's Own"), and that time has to be wrenched away from the demands of mothering. It will, however, make you think about your own life, and perhaps highlight aspects of the parenting-artist life that you need to consider more deeply.

Read It If:

You’re an artist and a parent, or thinking of becoming an artist-parent, or if your partner is one.

Selected Quotes:

“This is the baby on the fire escape… the precarious situation in which the child is just far enough out of sight and mind for the mother to have a talk with her muse.” pg 11.

“Art is supposed to be about this kind of intensified experience of life… And that is totally what raising kids does to you, too… Everything becomes heightened, and the range of experience becomes so much greater.” Justine Kurland, pg 116.

“What you have to learn to do is pay complete attention to two things at once.” A.S. Byatt, pg 241.

All quoted page numbers from: Phillips, Julie. The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

  • S F Hayes

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

On September 16, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after she was arrested by Iran's 'morality police' for showing a bit of hair. Her death sparked demonstrations against the government and its dictatorial policies -- and these protests have grown steadily since, with chants of "Women, Life, Liberty" and "Death to the Dictator."

It’s hard to understand the kind of courage these kinds of protests require without understanding what it’s really like to live under Sharia law your whole life, and what risks these people are taking. Because in Iran, to protest the dictatorial Islamic government is an offense punishable by execution. The military guard of Iran has no problem shooting protesters to death on the streets.

I myself didn’t understand the depth of the courage of the Iranian protesters until I tried to write about them. Here’s that story:

I have lived in the United States for thirty-eight years; twenty of which I have been a full US citizen. I’m an immigrant success story — our family of four began life in the US squeezed into one room in my aunt’s house, then in a small two-bedroom apartment, and then eventually in our own home in the suburbs. I had the opportunity to go to college and graduate school.

But before all of that, I lived through revolution, war, and an escape from my country. I lived through extreme anti-semitism and a real fear for my life. I’ve spent nights in basements, sheltering from bombs. I still get a flutter when I hear the whistling crescendo of an airplane landing nearby — it sounds a lot like a falling bomb — but the panic is momentary, because I can remind myself that it’s not an Iraqi missile coming to destroy my neighborhood. I am safe.

When I start to hear and read about the current protests in Iran, I know I must write about it — people need to be aware of the fight for life and liberty that is going on in Iran, and of the egregious dictatorship in that country which, among other atrocities, forces women into subservience, into covering their entire bodies and hair, lest they be hauled off by the ‘morality police’ and beaten, or executed, or both.

So I sit down to write. Soon my heart rate has climbed to well above one hundred, pounding in my chest, beating against me, saying stop, stop, stop. They will come for you. Don’t speak out or your father will be arrested and executed. Your loved ones will disappear in the middle of the night. Stop — because you’re just a girl; an indecent, guilty creature, who must cover up her shame under dark clothes and a hijab; who must stay home and shut up. Just stay home and shut up.

My heart rate stays higher-than-normal for the rest of the day and I spend all night tossing and turning in a fitful sleep, terrorized by dreams I won’t remember except for the darkness and terror they instill in me. I spend the next day in bed, lethargic and exhausted. It happens again and again, every time I write about Iran.

All this from a mere detail — I had always thought of the dictatorial rule I lived under in Iran as just a detail of my childhood, to be laid aside, forgotten, scoffed at. But it’s lived in me for decades and highlights the kind of courage it takes to stand in protest against it.

The compulsory hijab that Iranian women and girls are now burning in the streets in protest is not just a piece of cloth; it’s not a head covering worn in solidarity to a set of beliefs; it’s a chain forced on women — a symbol of bondage and a badge of shame. You are less than, it says to women. Cover your bodies for they cause evil in men. No one should gaze upon you. If they do, it is any man’s right to detain you, to beat you, to murder you.

It’s a wound laid in a woman’s soul, a constant daily beating that erodes her self-esteem and buries her under fear — unless she fights. And these women in Iran, as well as the men who protest with them for freedom, have an immense courage to fight.


More about the situation in Iran:

Follow Masih Alinejad on Twitter for ongoing stories and videos from Iran, like this powerful video from July 2022:

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