“God, you’re such a moron!” Tsugumi snapped. She sounded furious, and she kept her face turned toward the water. “Whenever you get something in this world, you lose something too—that’s just the way things work.”
– Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi
Five years ago, I cracked open a pretty blue floral notebook, its blank pages crisp and fresh with promise. On the inside cover, in the space under the words “This notebook belongs to,” I carefully spelled out “ADA LOVELACE” in all-caps.
I began filling the journal’s pages with meticulous notes on Lovelace’s collected letters. I was instantly smitten with the precocious child who chronicled the antics of her cat “Mrs. Puff” while dreaming up plans for a flying machine.
The earnest hand-written notes; the attentive, all-consuming care – my early romance with the Ada book reminds me of the pains we often take with Young Love.
Five years later, and three-and-a-half years into this parenting gig, things have…shifted. Ostensibly, I’m still working on a book about Ada Lovelace in popular culture. There’s a rough first draft of the manuscript kicking around on my laptop. I’ve accumulated two academic talks, one public lecture, a podcast interview, and a published essay about Ada.
In other ways, though, my enthusiasm for the Ada project has lost momentum. It’s not just that my book seems no closer to publication than when I started researching it in early 2014. Rejection, copious amounts of it, is a fixture of the writer’s world.
The malaise is mostly internal. When you sit with a creative project for this long, you’re bound to become a different person than you were when you started.
The clarity of purpose and unadulterated curiosity that propelled me toward researching Lovelace have faded a bit. Sometimes, I look at the Lovelace book with the same loving bewilderment that my three-year-old child evokes: we once were two hearts beating in one body, and now he has become an eerily independent being.
At other times, I just want to be free of this self-imposed obligation to usher a first book into the world. I’ve grown restless.
January is the time of resolutions, of bright beginnings, of the Myth of the Better You.
Well, screw all that.
Let’s tackle a different set of questions. How do we stick with the goals we’ve already set? And how do we figure out whether, and when, to let them go?
Getting started is not easy. But recommitting yourself to a relationship with a book/canvas/research question/human partner? Or disentangling yourself from said relationship, when you’ve staked so much of your effort and time and identity on its “success”?
That’s far murkier territory. That’s the true Endurance Test.
Recently, I read this novel from the late 1980s by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto. The quirky, impressionistic story revolves around the relationship of two cousins spending one final summer together in a small, seaside town. The narrator, a young college student, is about to move away from the resort hotel where she has grown up alongside her sickly cousin Tsugumi. Tsugumi possesses a ferocity of temper and spirit, along with a sailor’s vocabulary, that are utterly at odds with the physical frailty of her body. She’s a total jerk, but a lovable one.
Anyway, there’s this one passage that stood out to me. The narrator is saying something wistful and nostalgic about leaving for Tokyo. Tsugumi, who has grown up with the constant specter of her own mortality, has no patience for her cousin’s angst:
“Whenever you get something in this world, you lose something too—that’s just the way things work.”
This concept is nothing new, but for some reason Tsugumi’s words hit me at a gut level.
Like Tsugumi’s cousin, I’ve lived a privileged existence. Motherhood has been the first life event to really break me down. Rather than focusing on loss, though, I need to acknowledge how I’ve grown and what I’ve gained since my son was born. (Not just in terms of the obvious piece of there being a human being who wasn’t here before…)
Letting go of my (perceived) autonomy and control has generated a new sense of play, of freedom, and of community. The challenge of this role has made me more resilient.
Becoming a parent has led to gains in my creative life as well. If I’ve lost some of the spark around my Lovelace project, I’ve also discovered a new curiosity about the experiences of artists and scientists who also happened to be caregivers. That curiosity led me to create this space, and it’s been driving my writing life in the past year.
For now, I am still committed to getting the Lovelace book into print. But I also hope that I’ll have the self-awareness to part ways with the project, or to put it aside temporarily, if other opportunities, other loves, come into the picture.
Fear can tempt us to abandon our goals prematurely. But it can also leave us stuck in the past, stuck with an outdated script of who we are and what our ambitions are supposed to look like. Denying that our world has changed, and that we have changed along with it.
Coming up in Parts Two and Three, a look at athlete-mothers and their Endurance Tests on the track and in the air, on the court and around the globe.