by Sonya Terjanian
My mother bloomed in her forties, but instead of a gentle unfolding, her bloom was more like an explosion. When my sister and I were three and five years old, she moved us all to a homestead in the country, where she began raising goats, chickens, rabbits, fruit, and vegetables. She also started a freelance writing career, publishing articles in The Mother Earth News and Redbook.
That sounds idyllic, but I should mention that she was also a full-time tenure track professor. She would do her farm chores early in the morning and late at night. I remember her pruning fruit trees at midnight, my father aiming a flashlight into the branches while she teetered on the top step of a ladder, shearing away suckers and water sprouts.
She wrote in the afternoons, after we came home from school. I remember her typing furiously in her study, not stopping while I asked her questions or even when she answered, words flowing through her fingers independently from the ones coming out of her mouth.
I remember her baking all of our bread, and canning all of our produce, and killing, plucking, gutting and freezing all of our chickens.
I also remember sitting next to my sister in our Volkswagen van, waiting for our mother to drive us to school, frozen with apprehension as she cradled her head on the steering wheel and sobbed.
She’d bitten off more than she could chew, and we all watched in horror as she began to choke. One night when I was eight she locked herself in the bathroom with some beloved pieces of pottery and smashed them all in the bathtub. Our father took us aside and told us she was “having a hard time with her feelings.” She moved out for a few weeks, but then she came back and started going to therapy. She promised my father she would stop cursing in front of us. Every afternoon she would spend an hour in her darkened bedroom listening to a tape of a man intoning “I feel calm” over and over again. A year later, they sold the homestead and we moved back to town.
My mother had been searching for what Aristotle called eudaimonia—true happiness found by leading a virtuous life and doing what is worth doing. Followers of Maslow would call it self actualization. Those of us who began writing in our forties may understand it as blooming, or, in Sonya Chung’s words, “a digging in, a deep breath, an about face or leap off a cliff.”
In my mother’s case, the leap off the cliff resulted mostly in pandemonium. As a child it never occurred to me to question my mother’s choices, but later in life, as I’ve begun my own artistic journey, I’ve reflected more deeply on her motivations and their consequences, as well as the privilege that made it all possible.
My parents had graduate degrees and full-time jobs. My mother’s foray into homesteading was economically unnecessary; some would even say reckless. These days there’s a lot of impatience for privileged white women making mistakes in pursuit of personal fulfillment (a topic explored sensitively in this Chicago Tribune piece)—from the youthful bumblings of the characters on Girls, to the misfortunes, including divorce and the death of her baby, which Ariel Levy describes in her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply. There’s a sense that women of privilege are not allowed to suffer openly, lest they drown out the suffering of the less fortunate. But that doesn’t mean that their mistakes are not worth making, or that we should be content hanging out in the lower part of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, bellies full, roofs over our heads, never trying to attain a higher purpose.
Yes, my sister and I emerged from childhood with a few scars, literal and figurative. I have a big one running down the side of my rib cage, from the time I slid, face down, off the rusty tin roof of our chicken shed. It sliced me open like a fish. When my mother smashed the pottery in the bath tub, I felt shards of fear and resentment lodging themselves under my skin.
But we grew up well fed and well insulated from true disaster, and our childhood adventures in the country shaped us into the people we are today. All those hours we spent tramping around the fields and woods, unsupervised and untethered, nourished our imaginations and taught us to be independent. All that warm, raw goat milk bolstered our immune systems. And the lessons we learned from raising animals were countless. Nobody had to tell us where babies—or, for that matter, dinner—came from.
I’m not sure who decided to move our family back to town, whether my mother went willingly or my father pushed her to abandon the farm, but by that time I was ready to live closer to the library and to people my age. When I was 17 I left for a big city: Barcelona. Later I lived in San Francisco, then Paris, Philadelphia, New York. I never wanted to pluck another chicken in my life.
But remember the Adrienne Rich quote? “At 45, you put your arm into your sleeve, and your mother’s hand comes out.”
For me it happened a little earlier than 45, when my children were small and I suddenly decided to write a novel. At the same time, I began tending a wild rose bush that was climbing a cinder block wall behind our Philadelphia row house. I was digging in—to the soil of my creativity as well as an actual patch of dirt. A few years later we moved to a house with a bigger yard. I wrote a second novel, and started a vegetable garden.
Learning to write fiction was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (and I’m still doing it), but I went after it with brash confidence. I was headed down a path my mother had cleared for me. I suppose I could have been afraid to repeat her mistakes, but instead, I learned from them. I created space in my life for writing. I gave myself time to read, and think, and breathe. I took small bites and chewed them thoroughly.
This was my privilege: cleared pathways, lessons learned, possibilities raised. Having grown up in the middle of my mother’s own midlife exploration, I was able to imagine one for myself, and then to improve on it. Not many people have that luxury.
Would my mother have been able to take the risks that she did without the security of my father’s income, her own career, and the financial safety net offered by their families? Probably not, and the same goes for me. An Authors Guild survey found that full-time authors earned an average of $17,500 in 2014– well below poverty level for a family of four. I can’t imagine trying to write without child care, health care, or food in the cupboard. Writing requires periods of diligently applied mental energy combined with periods of unstructured free thinking. Neither is possible when you’re struggling to survive.
Bo Ren, a product manager and writer whose parents were immigrants, tweeted last December, “My parent[s] were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization. The immigrant generational gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.” Self actualization is by nature an inwardly-focused pursuit, but, like Bo Ren, we must try to do it with our eyes open to the world around us— understanding the origins of our opportunity, supporting others on the same journey, and lifting up those who weren’t born with the same privilege. It may be difficult or even painful to achieve eudaimonia. But in an ideal world, everyone should have the opportunity to try.
Sonya Terjanian is an author and advertising copywriter. Her latest novel, The Runaways (Sourcebooks, 2018), brings together a poor teenager escaping a dead-end life in an economically depressed town, and an affluent woman escaping her unfulfilling career. The novel poses questions about privilege, authenticity, identity, and art. Her first novel, The Objects of Her Affection, was published under the name Sonya Cobb (Sourcebooks, 2014).
Terjanian’s mother, Lali Cobb, is still writing.
author photo credit: Christy Knell