With such a lack of distraction these past weeks, I have been curious to see what would arise in my now smaller world. All of those excuses justifying the endless reasons why I did not write every day, prioritize meditation or prayer, take a walk in nature, stretch, spend an hour on the phone with a friend, were atomized overnight.
I was curious to see what was behind the scrim of all the busy that kept me from the internal yearnings for quiet, the often-unheeded desire to listen to that guiding voice inside. And how would I respond to what I heard?
After the house had been cleaned top to bottom. After many loaves of bread had been baked. After routine was written down and adhered to perfectly for more than a week. After poring over the epidemiology, the science, the math of this pandemic. After feeling the rush to take care of those I thought needed my help. After the newness of situation wore off, I was pulled into introspection.
Many months ago a friend of mine said, “The overriding feeling I get from you Carrie is exhaustion.” I have thought about what he said many times, trying to remedy it in all the ways I know that don’t require coming to a full stop. A full stop would mean a dereliction of duty, a sort of shame wrapped in drive to do all the things.
Oh but there it is. Full stop.
For about five days in a row, around 3pm, an overwhelming sense of exhaustion blanketed over me. Many of those days I took naps that lasted more than two hours. After a week of this, I began to think of what my friend said about the exhaustion and surrendered to it. One day, after a long nap, I sleepily wandered into my study with the urge to write. I sat at my desk and stared out through the window into the pasture that was exploding with spring greens and purples and yellows. Pondering there in the quiet, a thought came to me, a memory about the Angel in the House, a poem written by Coventry Patmore in 1854 about his wife. Here is an excerpt:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
It is not the poem itself that has stuck so many years with me, but instead, Virginia Woolf’s response to it. In 1931 she wrote that “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
Each time Woolf sat down to write, she was filled with this sense of duty, to be gentle in her writing, to be pure, to be unselfish. The problem with this is that it does not make for good writing. It also does not lend itself to fully expressing who we are at any level. Who we are is found deep inside, in the blood, in the organs that thump their way through, in the silence where the soul speaks, and in the full stop. Woolf knew that to reach that place she would have to end it. She would have to kill the Angel in the House.
I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. Thus whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar, or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience . . . . Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
What was my Angel in the House? To whom and to what did I feel a sense of duty that flung me outside of myself? My answer would be similar to Woolf’s but brought into this century. There is an underlying fear of being perceived as selfish as I lock myself away to do the work that calls me. The phone rings, a text comes through, the side door squeaks and I am pulled out – am I needed somewhere? Am I being more responsible if I am at the gym or with a client or laundering my sheets or reading up on mitochondria?
So here’s what I did: on a pink Post-it Note I wrote the words “Kill the Angel” and pressed it to the printer on my desk. I became aware of each moment that pulled me out of my work and questioned it – what situation, what urge, justifies leaving my desk? In what moments can I say, “No, I need quiet right now.” Sometimes the reasons for popping out of the depths are valid but mostly they are angels in the house distracting me from my real work. I can tell that yes, this will be a struggle and I’m wondering if I should buy a case of inkpots.
We all have angels in the house. What are yours?