I started reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs last night. It is haunting me, affecting my dreams, because the voice in the early chapters is one I hear in my head all the time.
An image from my dreams of last night: Three pieces of fried chicken–two legs and a breast. My younger brother and husband are there. My brother takes the two legs, my husband, the breast. I worry about whether it is enough for them.
When I wake up I realize I didn’t even think of taking one of the pieces for myself.
The voice of the novel is like the part of myself I think of as Invisible Woman, the one who works behind the scenes, serving others and perhaps never getting around to her own art. It is the voice of both the main character in the novel, an elementary school teacher who is really an artist, and her late mother.
We are haunted by what we have not done with our lives because there is always another mess to clean up, another demand waiting to be met, someone else’s work to help with, and we are good girls. We let these things take priority. It is not in our nature to put our own work first, it simply isn’t. And sometimes this makes us really angry, not at the world but at ourselves.
However, recognizing this aspect of myself doesn’t send me into a tailspin any more. Invisible Woman has her own ways of doing things and sometimes it works out well, in a way that serves my purposes as well as other people’s. Here is a story about that.
Recently I agreed to host a dinner party for two Congolese businessmen who were visiting church agencies in the area to learn about church finances. I agreed because I believe in showing hospitality—an Invisible Woman trait. I agreed because it seemed like a simple thing, hosting a potluck for an unknown number of guests. However, potlucks require a critical mass of guests and dishes and it became apparent, in the planning, that this one wouldn’t reach that number, so I just went ahead and cooked an entire meal. This is usually no big deal for me but I was tired that day and would have preferred sitting in and watching a movie rather than pulling out my outgoing, French-speaking hostess self.
These events usually turn out to be worth the effort and this one did, too. It took a while for the Congolese men to warm up but the other Americans carried the conversation until they did and then, toward the end of the meal, I mentioned our desire—my desire, which I have persuaded my husband to share—to visit Congolese Mennonite churches sometime in the next year and listen to as many choirs as possible, to do what I’m calling choir tourism. And to write about this and maybe put together some videos.
The Congolese businessmen lit up and became downright chatty. And this is when Rod, the agency director who was squiring the Congolese about, pointed out that the first women were going to be ordained in a major branch of the Congolese Mennonite Church in September and October of this year and would I like to go and write about that?
Well I most certainly would. The ordinations, I know, will be occasion for grand celebrations, with lots of choirs joining in. It is the kind of event I was looking for.
I didn’t tell Rod that I would rather not write on assignment for church publications, that I had been set on writing entirely for my own purposes (I’m not saying “book” yet even to myself). I didn’t tell him that this next trip to Congo was to be a kind of self-test of my seriousness as a writer, a test of whether I had enough confidence in my own work to spend tons of money, uproot us for a month, and plan an arduous and complicated journey just so I could write.
I didn’t say any of this because the opportunity seemed just too serendipitous. Of course I can do some articles. The assignment will, in fact, force me to be serious about interviewing and making notes. I won’t get away with the kind of vague intention I harbored last July when I concluded that I simply wasn’t up to writing about Congo. I didn’t have the chutzpah to do interviews, the energy to write down all my observations, yada yada. No excuses this time.
Still, I managed to write quite a bit on that trip, and I had written even more on my first trip, when I had my laptop rather than the iPad with the onscreen keyboard (which I never got used to and, believe me, writing technology makes a huge difference). As for the energy I need to work hard, I’ve lost 20 pounds since last July. I am renewed, revived.
I can’t believe I shouldn’t take this opportunity to do something for someone else and use it as a way to support my own art. The money, the discipline, the deadlines will all help. I may use some of the money to hire my friend Charlie Malembe, an ambitious young Mennonite journalist in Kinshasa, to help with the interviews. She doesn’t yet know how to write for a US audience but she’s a great interviewer. My stringer. I will happily share a byline with her.
This is the way of Invisible Woman. I don’t have to do everything by myself, for myself. I am a team player. I seize opportunities that provide the momentum I can’t quite generate myself.
And, of course, the tiny bit of effort I expended to feed those two strangers (chicken grilled, not fried) will no doubt be repaid tenfold on this next trip. The Congolese are magnificent hosts.