“Do Marines like cake?” “Does God have a butt?” Conversations with a five-year-old

“Do Marines like cake?” “Does God have a butt?” Conversations with a five-year-old

“Mommy, you’re a hippo.”
“I’m a what?! Why?!”
“You’re a mommy hippo. Because I want to be a baby hippo.”
“Oh.”
“I’m a baby hippo, but I’m also Denzel.”
“So like a baby hippo whose name is Denzel?”
“No, sometimes I’m a baby hippo, other times I’m Denzel.”
“OK.”
“Mommy, you’re also a baby strawberry.”
“WHY AM I A BABY STRAWBERRY?”
“Because it sounds nice. Daddy is a watermelon.”
“OK.”

***

“Are Marines allowed to ride in elevators by themselves?”
“Yes.”
“Do they have guns?”
“Yes.”
“And unicorns?”
“What?”
“They wear unicorns?”
“Uniforms!”
“Mommy, you’re laughing too hard. You’ll pee yourself if you don’t stop.”
“Says the kid who accuses Marines of wearing unicorns.”
“Do Marines have to eat dinner?”
“Yes.”
“What if they don’t like their dinner?”
“I’m pretty sure they just buck up and eat it anyway?”
“So they don’t cry?”
“Not over stupid stuff like dinner.”
“What do Marines cry about?”
“Serious stuff. Probably.”
“Like when people die?”
“Like when people die.”
“Does everyone die?”
“Eventually, yes.”
“Do Marines like cake?”
“Of course they do.”  Continue reading ““Do Marines like cake?” “Does God have a butt?” Conversations with a five-year-old”

Why don’t you treat men this way? The false dichotomy of “mother vs. artist”

Why don’t you treat men this way? The false dichotomy of “mother vs. artist”

This post of on combining art and motherhood made the rounds this past winter. There were a lot of responses, public and private. Two of the more recent responses made me feel like revisiting the issue:

1. The Divided Heart is a more honest exploration of what it’s like to be a mother and an artist. I’m sorry, but I think you are over-compensating and it shows. For decades, women have been quite open about how combining great art and motherhood is almost always an impossibility. One blog post on the matter from someone who sold one play is not going to convince society.

2. All due respect, Natalie [sic], but people like you lure promising artists towards breeding, and the results are almost always disastrous. I wonder if you’ll change your mind when your kid is on the therapist’s couch, discussing the ways in which mum neglected him so she could make her Art, and he almost certainly will be.

So to address all that:

Who the hell are you to argue that women can be both mothers and great artists? You’re nobody! But it’s not about me.

The idea that you can’t reconcile being a mother with being great artist is, today, a peculiarly Western concept. In many other parts of the world, women just get on with it.

One of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, was a mother. Nobody goes around wringing their hands on her behalf. One of Russia’s greatest painters, Zinaida Serebriakova, was a mother – and, once again, people really didn’t make a big deal out of it. Continue reading “Why don’t you treat men this way? The false dichotomy of “mother vs. artist””

I am not your monkey: on motherhood, art, and presumptuous bullshit

I am not your monkey: on motherhood, art, and presumptuous bullshit

The other day it happened again.

I was talking to a friend about the eternal issue of having kids/not having kids, when the friend said something like,

“I guess I just care too much about art and changing society for the better. Who has time for that when they have a child?”

**beat**

“I mean, I guess you do, Natalia. Well, sort of, right? I assume you’d be able to do so much more with your life if you weren’t a mother.”

**beat**

“I mean, there’s no harm in admitting it. Right? You don’t have to admit it publicly. You can admit it to me. Yes?”
Continue reading “I am not your monkey: on motherhood, art, and presumptuous bullshit”

Temporary shelters

The snow falls silently on the graves of the people I love
On the graves of the people I would have loved
If given half a chance
The sky above my house is made of remembrances of raven wings
And amethyst
The pear trees my dead grandfather planted
Offer their bark up to be kissed.

*****

I was in London recently and I was very happy – in a way that I’ve never been before while in London, my unattainable city, the place I’ve always loved and which had never loved me back. I think this happiness came from not caring.

“You’ll love an Englishman, of course,” my grandmother’s fierce cousin, the late Yevgeniya Andreyevna, told me once. “And loving him will be like cracking open a snail shell – that is to say slimy and cold.”

I was seventeen, had never had a boyfriend (yet alone loved anyone), and didn’t realize she was making a prophecy. She was very fond of making casual prophecies back then, as easily as she refilled my wine glass at dinner, and every one came true eventually.

I remembered her when I walked through Mayfair, when I couldn’t tell what it was that beat inside my chest – my heart or a pair of dark raven wings.

And I drank champagne in her memory when the city lay beneath my feet – a scattering of rare jewels, satisfyingly hard to the touch.

You cannot love London too much. You have to turn your back on it and scowl at it over your bare shoulder and then turn away again. Possibly for years. And London, being London, will be proud for a while, but then it will ask you back for a spell, and it will make you very happy during the whole of it. Only you must always say goodbye first and close the door very firmly behind you. Go under the cover of darkness, go, go, one boot in front of the other. Life is getting shorter, life is thinning out and chipping on the edges, all you can carry away with you is, as usual, God and love. Everything else will be too damn heavy and not worth the strain on your shoulder.

*****

Øystein Bogen and I gave a joint seminar on the Ukraine crisis & the propaganda war surrounding it in Oslo a few weeks ago. I think we did a good job – well, Øystein certainly did, I think I became too emotional in places – and I think it was that evening, in that beautiful city where candles burn on tables throughout the winter, that I accepted that the world has changed irrevocably, and there is nothing I can do about it, except tell the truth as I see it.

I associate a lot of pain with my background these days. These veins that run through me – Ukraine, the U.S., and Russia – they all bleed quite a startling red. For the obvious reasons.

I’ve struggled against the new normal, “You can’t be real,” I said. It was like arguing with weather. And it was Oslo that whispered about the futility of that into my willing ear. So dark it was and so lovely. I know now why they call Norway troll country. Or I almost know. (Will I come back? I seriously hope to come back)

*****

In Moscow, even before the ruble starting crashing, there was already electricity in the air. Static. Hands touched in ways that made you gasp.

I lit small lanterns and Christmas lights and listened to the wind lashing the khrushchyovka. Nothing says “temporary” like a khrushchyovka – nothing says “shadows and dust,” nothing says “only love and God.”

I went to the theater and saw my own work up on the stage – or a reflection of my work – and there was joy and outrage in the audience, and I was so grateful. My husband introduced me to the coat check ladies as “the author.” He would do that, of course. He would drag me backstage afterwards, too. If it wasn’t for him, I’d just leave anonymously – but he’s a different breed of person, not shy, and not ashamed of me. This is something I will also always be grateful for (I think I am now at that age when I can begin to use the word “always” and actually mean it).

I’ve been so bitterly disappointed with Moscow, but even so I have clutched its gifts to my chest. Would I have dared to become a mother anywhere else? It was the wildness of this place, the bones exposed through the supple flesh of civilization, that said “Jump!” Now Lev has gotten to be very tall for a toddler, and is mastering sarcasm. The top of his head smells like last night’s dreams. He seems to be growing so fast that I want to hit “pause” – already looking longingly at babies in prams and remembering when he was tiny.

And I am constantly saying “Oh Moscow” and it comes out differently each time.

*****

The book is going well so far. (What book? THE book. Or possibly A book. I don’t know right now)

*****

And I woke up again in my father’s house and the night was already dented in several places, losing out to one of those slow, scruffy winter dawns. And I said, “I am not prepared to go on this journey, but I am always going on it anyway, I’m not sure where the journey ends and where I begin. It feels like a dress rehearsal for death. Or life eternal. I can’t tell anymore.” And there was nothing anyone could say to that, but there was still good coffee in the offing, and sometimes, that’s the best that any of us can hope for.

That was a crazy game of poker

…Is how I’m going to sum up the last four years or so. It was funny and scary and cool. I became a playwright, and a mother, and I did a lot of journalism of the sort I’d always wanted to do, and I also did a lot of management that tested me in surprising ways and showed me that we’re all human underneath.

Of course, the really crazy thing is that the funny and scary is only just beginning.

In order to properly reflect on the possibility that my life is about to change yet again, I took a few days off from Moscow and went to Kiev with the toddler. Daddy stayed behind to edit his new project. The toddler and I walked around hand-in-hand, he fell asleep on my shoulder in the restaurant, he saw a lion at the zoo and they made eye contact for a long time. Making him his evening tea, I reflected on the fact that This is it and nothing else matters. And putting him to bed at night, I sat on the balcony with a glass of cognac, and watched the marbled skies above the city turn to midnight ash – as I have done many times before.

The grapevine that my late grandfather had planted with a friend still sneaks its way up our building, and birds fly up and pick at the grapes, nearly flapping their wings in your face. In the dark, the overripe pears from the tree that my grandfather also planted drop heavily to the ground. The crickets start up and don’t stop until even the people stumbling home from the bar in the park have all gone home. The stray dogs, at last, have gone. A new concrete fence encircles their old hide-out. I keep hoping that not all of them were killed horribly by the authorities – and that a few, at least, found a good home.

I spent most of this trip envying people who have some sort of illusion of permanence in their lives. I do wonder, sometimes, if they envy people like me. I wonder if anyone ever looks down from the safety of their well-lit apartment at the grimy sidewalk below, and have that twinge of pain that the wanderers have all gone and taken their guitars and stories with them.

Kiev remains itself. Our love affair is complicated but never lacking in passion. I come here searching for answers and find them in the most bizarre places. Some years ago, it was a guy wearing a Primo Levi-inspired t-shirt bearing the phrase, “If not now, when?”

This time around it was this silly photo of me taken by my brother in our kitchen one morning:

YOLO

I looked at it, and went, “Aha.”

Stop laughing for a sec and think about it. It’s true that you only live once. And even if you don’t – it helps to think this way. When you close the door behind you, when you climb the afternoon skies, when you look over your shoulder in a crowded street and see the eyes that have been watching you all along – it helps to think this way.