This week’s newsletter theme is informed by a haunting quote from scientist and historian Stephen Jay Gould: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
That American work culture is deranged is widely accepted, but at the same time, hard to see. I suppose it’s like how you assume as a child that your family is entirely normal until you’re confronted by other ways of growing up. So much of our value seems to hinge on what we do to get by, so little on how we spend those other hours when, presumably, we’re frantically trying to squeeze in all the things that actually matter to us. Why is it then, asked John Lanchester, that in so much contemporary writing, work is “as much a marginal detail of a character’s life as her hair color”?
In today’s poem and story, work is a consuming, defining force. It gives characters a sense of purpose that shapes their lives, but is also what keeps them from something more significant, something they are only able to brush up against briefly at the end of the day, when at last they have a few moments with their own thoughts.
You know I had to do it.
Poema 18, from Then Come Back
Comes back from his blaze, the fireman,
from his star the astronomer,
from his disastrous passion the obsessive,
from one million whatever the ambitious,
from the naval night the sailor,
the poet returns from his slabber,
the soldier from fear,
the fisherman from his wet heart,
the mother from Juanito’s fever,
the thief from his nighttime high,
the engineer from his frosted rose,
the native from his hunger,
the judge from fatigue and unsureness,
the jealous from his torment,
the dancer from her exhausted feet,
the architect from the three thousandth floor,
the pharaoh from his tenth life,
the hooker from her Lycra and falsies,
the hero comes back from oblivion,
the poor from another day gone,
the surgeon from staring down death,
the fighter from his pathetic contract,
someone returns from geometry,
stepping back from his infinity, the explorer,
the cook from her dirty dishes,
the novelist from a web of lies,
the hunter stamps out the fire and returns,
the adulterer from rapture and despair,
the professor from a glass of wine,
the schemer from his backstabbing,
the gardener has shuttered his rose,
the bartender stoppers his liquor,
the convict takes up his plea again,
the butcher washed his hands,
the nun quit her prayers,
the miner his slick tunnel,
and like the rest I take off my clothes,
inside the night of all men, I make
a smaller night for myself,
my woman joins me, silence bears down
and the dream spins the world again.
Who is this person?
Poet, diplomat, and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda grew up in southern Chile and showed astounding literary talent from a young age, publishing in papers and magazines while still in high school. He published his first collection, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, at the age of 20; it was widely translated and brought him critical acclaim. When his second collection was published, Neruda was serving as consul in Spain; the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War radicalized him, and his pro-Republican poetry cost him the post. In the 40s, he wrote the epic Canto General while serving as a Communist Party representative in the Chilean senate. He later went into exile after criticizing the Chilean president, who issued an order for his arrest. Upon his return, Neruda’s work became less ideological and focused more on themes of love, nature, and the everyday. In the 70s, Salvador Allende appointed him poet-ambassador to France, and during this appointment Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1973, days after Allende was killed in a military coup.
I Stand Here Ironing
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
“I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”
“Who needs help.” …Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.
She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been—and would be, I would tell her—and was now, to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine.
I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.
Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.
She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer endure” (he wrote in his good-bye note) “sharing want with us.”
I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.
After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better. But it came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.
It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back. Then she got chicken pox and I had to wait longer. When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks. All the baby loveliness gone.
She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now—the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children.
Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.
And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher that was evil because all these years it has curdled into my memory, the little boy hunched in the corner, her rasp, “why aren’t you outside, because Alvin hits you? that’s no reason, go out, scaredy.” I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore “don’t go Mommy” like the other children, mornings.
She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick. Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren’t here today, they’re sick. Momma, we can’t go, there was a fire there last night. Momma, it’s a holiday today, no school, they told me.
But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?
The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.
It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them—too late for Emily. She does not smile easily, let alone almost always as her brothers and sisters do. Her face is closed and sombre, but when she wants, how fluid. You must have seen it in her pantomimes, you spoke of her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses laughter out of the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.
Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to me that second time, after I had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time.
Except when we left her alone nights, telling ourselves she was old enough. “Can’t you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?” she would ask. “Will it be just a little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?”
The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid awake. “It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked.”
She said the clock talked loud again that night I went to the hospital to have Susan. She was delirious with the fever that comes before red measles, but she was fully conscious all the week I was gone and the week after we were home when she could not come near the new baby or me.
She did not get well. She stayed skeleton thin, not wanting to eat, and night after night she had nightmares. She would call for me, and I would rouse from exhaustion to sleepily call back: “You’re all right, darling, go to sleep, it’s just a dream,” and if she still called, in a sterner voice, “now to go sleep, Emily, there’s nothing to hurt you.” Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her.
Now when it is too late (as if she would let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. “Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you something?” And the answer is always the same: “No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother.”
They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country where “she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the new baby.” They still send children to that place. I see pictures on the society page of sleek young women planning affairs to raise money for it, or dancing at the affairs, or decorating Easter eggs or filling Christmas stockings for the children.
They never have a picture of the children so I do not know if the girls still wear those gigantic red bows and the ravaged looks on the every other Sunday when parents can come to visit “unless otherwise notified”—as we were notified the first six weeks.
Oh it is a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds. High up on the balconies of each cottage the children stand, the girls in their red bows and white dresses, the boys in white suits and giant red ties. The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard and the children shriek down to be heard, and between them the invisible wall “Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.”
There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents never came. One visit she was gone. “They moved her to Rose Cottage” Emily shouted in explanation. “They don’t like you to love anybody here.”
She wrote once a week, the labored writing of a seven-year-old. “I am fine. How is the baby. If I write my letter nicely I will have a star. Love.” There never was a star. We wrote every other day, letters she could never hold or keep but only hear read—once. “We simply do not have room for children to keep any personal possessions,” they patiently explained when we pieced one Sunday’s shrieking together to plead how much it would mean to Emily, who loved so to keep things, to be allowed to keep her letters and cards.
Each visit she looked frailer. “She isn’t eating,” they told us.
(They had runny eggs for breakfast or mush with lumps, Emily said later, I’d hold it in my mouth and not swallow. Nothing ever tasted good, just when they had chicken.)
It took us eight months to get her released home, and only the fact that she gained back so little of her seven lost pounds convinced the social worker.
I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.
She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.
There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. Months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.
School was a worry to her. She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness were easily confused with ability to learn. To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an overconscientious “slow learner” who kept trying to catch up and was absent entirely too often.
I let her be absent, though sometimes the illness was imaginary. How different from my now-strictness about attendance with the others. I wasn’t working. We had a new baby, I was home anyhow. Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough, I would keep her home from school, too, to have them all together.
Mostly Emily had asthma, and her breathing, harsh and labored, would fill the house with a curiously tranquil sound. I would bring the two old dresser mirrors and her boxes of collections to her bed. She would select beads and single earrings, bottle tops and shells, dried flowers and pebbles, old postcards and scraps, all sorts of oddments; then she and Susan would play Kingdom, setting up landscapes and furniture, peopling them with action.
Those were the only times of peaceful companionship between her and Susan. I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurts and needs I had to do between the two, and did so badly, those earlier years.
Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking—but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden-and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically.
I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair,” “If I had that skin….” She tormented herself enough about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscious of words before you speak, the constant caring—what are they thinking of me? without having it all magnified by the merciless physical drives.
Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry, the child call. We sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. “Shoogily,” he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, invented by her to say: comfort.
In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis and near hysteria trying to get lunches packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found, everyone to school or Child Care on time, the baby ready for transportation. And always the paper scribbled on by a smaller one, the book looked at by Susan then mislaid, the homework not done. Running out to that huge school where she was one, she was lost, she was a drop; suffering over the unpreparedness, stammering and unsure in her classes.
There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over books, always eating (it was in those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-mail to Bill, or tending the baby. Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings or types at school.
I think I said once: “Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show?” One morning she phoned me at work, hardly understandable through the weeping: “Mother, I did it. I won, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go.”
Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.
She began to be asked to perform at other high schools, even in colleges, then at city and statewide affairs. The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin, shy, she almost drowned herself into the curtains. Then: Was this Emily? The control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives.
Afterwards: You ought to do something about her with a gift like that—but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, has been used and growing.
She is coming. She runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that occasioned your call did not happen today.
“Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” This is one of her communicative nights and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox.
She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way.
She starts up the stairs to bed. “Don’t get me up with the rest in the morning.” “But I thought you were having midterms.” “Oh, those,” she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit.”
She has said it before. She believes it. But because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.
I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.
Who is this person?
Born in Nebraska in 1912, to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Tillie Olsen was known for her quick wit and noncomformity. As a high school student, she excelled academically and started her own humor column, but dropped out at 15 to start working. Influenced by her parents’ socialism, she became a union organizer and was arrested in 1931 for her role in worker protests. Throughout the 30s, she published political poetry, reportage, and a chapter from an unfinished novel about workers in the Great Depression; she also lived and had childrne with Jack Olsen, a longshoreman whom she met while supporting striking workers on San Francisco’s waterfront. In the 50s, she won a writing fellowship from Stanford and was finally able to publish her first story collection, Tell Me a Riddle, in 1961. Her essay collection Silences looked at the effects of discrimination and exploitation on writers. This made her into a feminist icon, and inspired the founding of the Feminist Press. Later in her career she taught at a number of universities, was the recipient of many honors and fellowships, and was memorialized in a 2007 documentary.
Write a poem or a story set in a workplace (however you define that. As is clear in Olsen’s story, a home can be a workplace.)
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org