Part 5 (2/2)

Black Milk Elif Shafak 86300K 2022-07-22

Her dark eyes smoldering with agitation, Miss Ambitious Chekhovian gives me a faint smile. ”The point is, my dear, jugglers can manage only the moment. That's it. They can do motherhood and do their jobs. That much is true. But just how far can they rise in their careers? That is another question.”

”Literature and writing is more than a career,” I say.

”Exactly,” she says. ”It is a lifestyle. It is a lifetime pa.s.sion. An artist needs to be ambitious and pa.s.sionate. You don't work nine to five. You breathe your art twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That's why you should consider a hysterectomy.”

Half an hour later, we are back in the park, sitting on another bench-the four of us, feeling drab, almost drowsy. That is what happens when more than two finger-women get together. This much quarreling tires us all, draining our energies, yet these Thumbelinas do not know how not to quarrel.

”h.e.l.lo, everyone! May I join you?” It is Dame Dervish, suddenly mushrooming on the bench, like a Sufi version of Houdini.

She wears a plain smoky-gray dress and a long cloak of the same color, fastened with a pearl brooch. The hem of her dress is fluttering softly in the breeze. She wears a necklace sporting the name Hu,7 written in Ottoman script.

”Welcome, dear Sufi,” I say. ”Come and join us.”

”Thank you,” she says. ”I feel welcomed, but I wish you could as well. Look at yourself, always evaluating, always in haste. Sometimes you try to do five things at once and then fall flat from exhaustion. Do one thing at a time. What is the hurry? Give yourself over to the moment. Time does not exist beyond that. The Seven Sleepers in the Qur'an slept for three hundred years in a cave, but when they woke up they felt like only a few hours had pa.s.sed.”

”Do you want me to sleep?” I frown.

”I want you to stop competing with time.”

I try to give myself over to the moment, and realize I don't have a clue what that really means.

”Dame Dervish . . .”


”Do you think . . . I mean, if I ever were to do this, not that I want to, of course, just a question, if I were to someday . . . I mean, hypothetically . . .” I take a deep breath and try again. ”Do you think I could make a good mother?”

Her dark green eyes widen, creasing around the edges. ”If you fulfill three conditions you will make a wonderful mother.”

”What three conditions?”

”First of all, G.o.d needs to want it, so a new chapter must be written in your storybook,” she says. ”Second, you need to want it, of course, deep in your heart, and your partner's, too.”

”Well, what is the third condition?”

”The third condition has to do with the fishermen,” she says. ”You have to learn what they know.”

”Not the fishermen again!” Little Miss Practical says with a snort, raising her hands, palms up.

I look around in bewilderment. What could these fishermen possibly know about becoming a mother? What could they know that I don't know?

”Dear Elif,” says Dame Dervish, as if writing me a letter.


”Have you ever seen a fisherman run at the sea? You can't have-because he, who you call fisherman, doesn't chase fish. He waits for the fish to come to him.”

”Which means . . . ?”

Dame Dervish regards me for a beat before she answers. ”It means: Stop running after the waves. Let the sea come to you.”

Just then a young mother pus.h.i.+ng a stroller in front of us and jolts me back to my senses. Despite myself I look at the baby-her pink fingers, powder-soft hair, dimpled cheeks-and I find myself smiling.

”Come on, let's go. What are we waiting for?” asks Miss Ambitious Chekhovian, pulling at my arm. ”Time is money.”

”Let's go and read novels,” says Miss Highbrowed Cynic.

”The shortest route,” orders Little Miss Practical. ”Let's catch a cab.”

Suddenly, I don't want to hear or see any of them. At least for a while. ”Go ahead,” I say gently, but firmly. ”I'm staying.”

Thankfully, after a few protests, the four finger-women leave. Arguing among themselves as to which road to take, they walk away on their little feet, their voices trailing off into the air.

I notice a fat, tawny cat nearby, following them with his fixed eyes. Can the cat see them? The thought first excites, and then frightens, me. What if the cat confuses them with mice or birds and tries to gobble them up? But to my relief, even if the feline could see my finger-women, he shuts his eyes and resumes his nap, realizing, perhaps, that they would give him indigestion.

Taking a deep, deep breath, I watch the little women exit the park. What am I going to do with them? They make everything harder for me, and yet I love them.

For one long moment, I, too, want to be a fisherman.

Of Poets and Babies She was the girl who wanted to be G.o.d so that she could create the entire universe from scratch. Such was her desire to live with real intimacy; she couldn't fit into her body or her past. In her youth she was a teacher for a while, though it didn't take her long to decide that being part of the workforce was not for her. She was made to write. Determined to earn her living from her writing, never satisfied with what was placed in front of her, she pushed and shoved. Waiting patiently for tomorrow to come didn't suit her well. She wouldn't make a good fisherman.

To her close friends she was Syl, to her family, Sivvie. To the rest of the world she was Sylvia Plath.

Her marriage to Ted Hughes has been the subject of numerous heated discussions among scholars, feminists and nonfeminists alike. Many have taken either her side of the story or his but the truth must lie somewhere in between, in a hue other than black or white. The essays and books written about her-even after all these years-tend to be as emotionally charged as she was. Perhaps somehow all her biographers end up falling in love with her.

Hers was a rocky marriage that caused much pain. Yet, like many other relations.h.i.+ps that ended up similarly, it had started out as an uncontrollable magnetic pull. They were two poets in love: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Shared metaphors, conflicting subjectivities, powerful personalities. Can two poets be in love without competing with each other in the long run? It is not impossible, of course, but it is hard. They were young, headstrong and free. They had things to say to each other and a world to change together. Thus, they fell in love, fought endlessly, made love with pa.s.sion and urgency, did and said things they bitterly regretted later, forgave each other and themselves, all through words. Words were their particular pride.

There is a poem she wrote t.i.tled ”I Want, I Want.” The central figure is a G.o.d-like baby who is yet to be born. Immense, bald and openmouthed, this is not a cute, angelic baby but a powerful natural force that wishes to come into this world and demands to be given love and attention, and gets them. It is a baby that wants to be. The poet uses a volcano as the symbol of feminine fertility-the ability to breed, broaden and bear life within. But a volcano is also a dangerous and destructive force. Even when it is asleep you cannot be fully sure that it will not erupt at any moment. It cannot be tamed. It cannot be predicted.

Throughout her life, Sylvia Plath underwent various anxieties with regard to womanhood and motherhood. First, she feared she was sterile and could never have babies. Then she lost many nights' sleep fretting over the pains of giving birth. How excruciating was it? Would she survive? And once she had babies, she worried about the outside world and its cruelties.

But she was equally convinced that being a mother would add great things to her life and to her writing. After having a baby, she was going to be a different woman-one whom she would depict in her poems as a superhuman being, a magical mortal who was transformed with the mere touch of a baby's pink thumb. In her diary she wrote, ”I must first conquer my writing and experience, and then will deserve to conquer childbirth.” Another time she said, ”I will write until I begin to speak my deep self, and then have children, and speak still deeper.” Maybe she was right, after all. She would write her greatest work, Ariel, after becoming a mother.

Before long she gave birth to a daughter, and sixteen months later to a son. Staying at home to raise her babies was a critical choice, but one that she made. From then on, she would take care of her house and her family, and write her poems and stories. Sometimes the two occupations would overlap, and she would find herself scribbling pages and pages in her diaries about changing diapers and baking chocolate cookies.

As she immersed herself in household, she would watch from the sidelines the goings-on in the literary world. She took note of the new works being published and the emerging writers being feted, especially the female ones. She was no stranger to envy. Just like she was no stranger to anger, angst and self-destruction. And that perhaps is one of the things that makes her so real and her presence so palpable so long after her death. Plath openly and brazenly wrote about the myriad dark energies in life that we all recognize but often pretend not to.

In the repet.i.tive rhythm of daily habits, she felt both elated by and frustrated with her motherly duties. Her husband, in the meantime, continued frequenting literary events they used to attend together. He carried on with his life as it had been, writing his poetry, making new contacts, fortifying his fame. Perhaps fatherhood was not as great a rupture in a man's life as motherhood was in a woman's. Or perhaps, she suspected, it was just their own unique situation.

Inasmuch as babies were powerful metaphors in her poems, poems were babies to Sylvia Plath. When she spoke about her works that were not yet complete, she called them ”unborn babies.” She even described how her poems smiled at her, how ”their little foreheads bulged with concentration,” and how they changed every day, moving their tiny fingers and toes. She was the mother to not only two children but a thousand poems. And there were times when they were all hungry and crying at once, craving her attention and compa.s.sion, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't keep them all happy.

Her split with her husband was a major turning point in her life. After the emotional breakdown, she decided to put herself back together in a more indomitable way, to reinvent herself, to become a brand-new woman. She was ambitious. She was talented. She was alone. Often she started the day at four in the morning-the one or two hours that she had to herself before the children woke up were the most precious time of the day. The poems she wrote during those months are perhaps her brightest-such as ”Medusa,” ”Daddy” or ”Lady Lazarus,” where she shocked her readers by saying, ”Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” At the kitchen table, in the bathroom or in bed under the covers, she wrote wherever and whenever she could, scribbling furiously in her extra-careful hand, at an incredible speed-as if she were racing against G.o.d, against the men she loved and loved no more, against her numerous shortcomings, each of which she despised.

There is a poem she called ”For a Fatherless Son.” It is about a father who has left his home, his wife and his children. There is more sorrow in this poem than resentment, more surrender than fight. One can sense that something changed in her. For it was not quite rage or rebellion she experienced but a feeling of perpetual sadness. She spoke of the emptiness that was left in her children's lives after their father's departure, an absence that grew beside them like a tree that they would have to learn to live with.

That was the stage in her life when she desired to be many things at the same time, and excel equally in each. A mother, a housewife, a writer, a poet . . . She wanted everything to happen immediately and flawlessly. Perhaps she was also in love with her creations. She stubbornly retained the belief that she could be an ideal mother and an excellent poet: the perfect Poet-Mother. It was not an easy combination, especially in the climate of the 1950s, when everyone thought a woman had to make an either-or choice. She refused to choose.