Making Out—Where is My Mind? Artist, Spiraling.
Making Out is a series centered on how Jess Burnquist, mother, writer, and teacher is "making out' as she processes adolescent issues amid the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.
It has taken me decades to understand that I function better when I’m doing a lot. Sometimes my doing a lot doesn’t feel like doing much because a desk and chair and keyboard are central to my mode of production.
Sometimes my doing a lot feels like the most to my incredible partner and husband who man’s our fort like a hero when I’m juggling the teaching of five classes, my writing dreams, life.
Most times my doing a lot feels like a tug-of-war between my roles of wife, mother, teacher, writer. Who is winning here, I ask myself. Out loud. In the car. The grocery store. In my classroom when it is full of students.
I used to be embarrassed by my tendency to talk to myself. Then I started to listen—not to the self who is articulated by external definers of successful women. She’s like an evil mashup of Oprah, Martha Stewart and Cosmo. She’s the teacher who called me average when I was 15. The jerk at the gym whose eyes linger on my full hips and thighs. Forget her.
The self I try hardest to tune into is most reminiscent of my pre-pubescent self. That girl who felt power in her mind and body before society worked at removing it—the self who said, “You can do this.”
Once, a friend asked, “What’s your urgency? You’re always doing.”
I couldn’t reply immediately because I had begun to dance with the word urgency.
It is the perfect word. Urgency isn’t blind ambition.
Nor is it burdened.
It is a labored breath.
When I was in 2nd grade, I arrived to school on an April day, it was a week before my 8th birthday. My usually terse teacher instructed the class to form a circle. I wondered if her story would be about Clifford the Big Red Dog, or marine life. I was irritated because I was reading chapter books. Also, she tended to spit when she hit the consonant ‘t’ with her sharp tongue.
Instead of a story, she told us she had a very sad and important announcement.
Our classmate, Amy, had died in her sleep.
Amy had a headache and told her parents she was going to take a nap.
Amy did not wake up.
My teacher said something about heaven, but I was already out of my mind.
I loved Amy—we played pretend school and space and lava games daily. The week before we had practiced handstands, singing a round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat and laughing wildly. I still had sand in my scalp.
It would be years before I could have a headache and not get lost in my loss of Amy.
It would be years before I could have a headache and not expect to die.
Before I blew out my birthday candles, I wished for Amy to wake up then watched as my wish melted, pooled into hopeless globs atop white frosting.
In high school, my close friend, Crystal, came to school with a lump on her hand. She said she was getting it examined because it hurt. One doctor told her it was just cartilage, but she had a bad feeling. She was right. It was cancer. She died a month after turning 19.
I still can’t speak to the hollow her absence has carved. Maybe I never will.
She is preserved in my memory, but she is fragmented.
An auburn curl.
The lilt of her laugh.
Cuticle-moons on the nails of her slender fingers.
In retrospect, these losses tethered me—keeping risk at bay.
Perhaps the unmooring began when my children entered their adolescence. I knew it was time to listen to my powerful self. I am ready to try, fail, and succeed. Is this the most important lesson I can impart to my children?
Asking this question means being able to name myself beyond wife, mother, teacher, writer.
Answering this question means confronting mortality.
So. Okay then.
I want my children to remember my love for them in the right trick of sunlight, my quick turn of phrase, the way my eyes conveyed everything to their father, how sound vanished when I read, how I could lose time in the act of creating—how saying it right was more important than just saying it. How I worked to make art and to expose them to the value of the art of others, the way the perfect song at the perfect time could make me drop everything and demand them to listen, how I showed them that loss should inform them how to live fully, how to take a leap of faith in the power of themselves. How I taught them to solve some problems upside down. The strength of my voice when I told them, you can do this.
Right now, The Pixies are in my headphones and I am thinking of Amy and Crystal. And I am thinking about how there is an art to doing that is similar to the art of being. I am going to stop thinking now. See me call my children into the room? See me tell them the lyrics? See us sing with our feet in the air and our heads on the ground?
* You may find archived installments of Making Out, and other work by Jess, at http://www.jessburnquist.com/.