Musings on language, images and life

Month: November, 2010

The Shift

The tears come easily these days. One could chalk this up to the pregnancy hormones raging through my bloodstream, or the fact that I come from a emotionally expressive gene pool. Though these elements certainly play a role in producing the thick droplets that fill my eyes at a moment’s notice, there’s more at play.

My relationship with concept of motherhood has always been a tenuous one. No, I don’t have “mother issues,” at least the typical kind. In fact, my childhood and adult relationship with my mom is one of the best I know of. However, for years I was nervous — even scared– about what motherhood would mean for me. As a “striver” who has always wanted more and pushed myself in nearly every aspect of my life, I’ve always been wary of what motherhood would cause me to give up.

When I was deeply entrenched in academia, I would often think about how, though I desired it, I really didn’t see motherhood as something that would fit into my life as I envisioned it at age 25. This tension manifested in several articles I published on motherhood and maternal symbolism in Francophone literature, not to mention in my daily interactions with those closest to me.

Even after I left the traditional academic rat race, started teaching, created my own business and committed to spending my life with an incredible partner, the thought of pregnancy and motherhood still sent chills down my spine. It wasn’t that I doubted my ability to carry a child or be a good mother. In fact, I’ve always harbored the totally unfounded assumption that I’d be a great mother. The fear came from the fact that I couldn’t reconcile the image I had of myself as a professional, a writer, an adventurer with the image of “Mama Jen.” I envisioned myself trading what could be an incredible future for a minivan, PTA meetings and Facebook statuses about lack of sleep. It scared me. I couldn’t get beyond it. So, I put it off.

Then it happened: The Shift. Biology started giving me the “it’s now or never” nudge (as many women in their 30s experience). More importantly, I began noticing models of motherhood that appealed to me— those based on reciprocity and reward vs. loss of self and total sacrifice. I don’t know why it took me so long to notice these models, after all, I grew up in one. I learned that having a child didn’t mean the end of my travels or the death of my autonomous, creative self. It represented a shift, to be sure, but not a loss or disavowal.

When it came to motherhood, I had confined myself to a discourse of “giving up” rather than “adding to.” I had trained myself to think of it as an all or nothing proposition, not a natural extension to the life that I love. In reality, adding another person to this adventure, giving him or her the opportunity to experience the things I hold dear, to know the incredible people I know, will be extremely gratifying. Discovering what this person can teach me will change me in ways I cannot even begin to fathom. It will be difficult, it will be heartbreaking, it will be satisfying, it will force me to grow in unimaginable ways….and I can’t wait.


On giving… and getting

Last year, my family decided to rethink our holiday gift-giving practices. Instead of hitting the crowded, soul-sucking mall or staying up late and scouring the Internet for the “perfect” gift  (or the “well, this will have to do” gift) to tuck under my parents’ billowy Christmas tree, we decided to donate the amount of our choosing to charities that meant something to the other family members. Looking back, it seemed like a no-brainer. We had homes, jobs, food, clothing, healthcare, access to education, the arts, media, travel opportunities and many people in our community did not have these things.

I remember anxiously awaiting the matching funds day sponsored by GiveMN (it’s Nov. 16 this year if you’re interested). I woke up early, made a cappuccino, and snuggled onto the couch with Michael and my laptop. We gave to our favorite organizations right away (a gift to each other), and then began “shopping” around for charities for my mom, dad and sister. My mom had requested that we give to two organizations that are near and dear to her heart, Empty Bowls and ResourceWest (formerly the Hopkins-Minnetonka Family Resource Center). When I hit “submit” and saw that my dollars had been matched by local corporations, a shot of holiday warmth ran up my spine.

The night of our family Christmas celebration, the tree (bedecked with festive trinkets my sister and I had made over the years– think glittery styrofoam and velvet-covered tuna cans– and ornaments my dad had lovingly selected for us each year when we were kids) sparkled in the corner and the smell of “burritos” (an admittedly Midwestern rendition–my sister’s and my favorite childhood meal) emanated from the kitchen. Unencumbered by materialist tokens, we were able to focus on our priorities, interests and passions for an entire evening.

This is not meant to be a “hey, check us out, we’re do-gooders” kind of post. To be honest, there is a very selfish component to philanthropy. The charge I got  from knowing that my dollars were going someplace good, someplace important stayed with me for months. Knowing that my family members had put in so much thought as to where their money should go made me proud, really proud. These intangibles, these emotional-chemical responses are what really “made” my holiday season last year.

In the middle of our burrito dinner, my mom announced that she had a surprise. “Oh great,” I thought. “She got us presents anyways and now we’re going to look like idiots because we didn’t get her anything.” After dinner, she told us to bundle up and get in the car. I was giddy as Annie, Michael and I crammed into the back of Mom’s Prius. Annie giggled uncontrollably as Michael tried (unsuccessfully) to harmonize to holiday songs on the radio. Mom danced a bit in her seat and Dad smiled at us in the rear-view mirror. We were all so “in the moment” that I forgot to wonder about our destination. As we pulled into a residential area and rounded the bend, Mom squealed “There, you guys, look!” It was a tall, old tree completely covered — trunk to twig– with thousands of strands of white lights. “Magical!” We all got out of the car, linked arms, and stared up at the glittering tree as tiny snowflakes brushed our cheeks. Magical, indeed.


Some of life’s most fulfilling moments are the ones when I perceive the imperfect beauty of the objects around me. Wabi-sabi. I was first introduced to this Japanese aesthetic philosophy at a pottery studio I visited when I lived in L.A. Roughly put, Wabi-sabi is the practice of recognizing the beauty of elements that are  imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It encompasses that which is humble, unconventional, or even paradoxical.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

“Wabi” is used to define the type of beauty that relies on its imperfection. For example, an asymmetrical hand-thrown vase versus a mass-produced symmetrical one. “Sabi” describes the kind of beauty that comes with a natural process of age and use, such as peeling paint.

When living in a culture that privileges soulless consumption, newness, youth, uniform perfection and cleanliness, wabi-sabi provides a powerful antidote. It encourages us to consider history, source, and craft. Though it is, in essence, an aesthetic philosophy, wabi-sabi gives us a framework in which to consider the representational value of the objects in front of us as well (if age or signs of use are integral to the object’s aesthetic value, then we are pushed to consider what caused the object to age, what it meant in the past and means to the present). Thus, Wabi-sabi allows for and encourages the intersection of object and narrative.

I won’t pretend that I’ve studied wabi-sabi extensively (though I would like to at some point) or that I consistently practice this philosophy. What I can say is that it has provided a term and a construct to a previously undefined (by me) pull I’ve experienced toward that which is imperfect, gritty, irregular and antiqued in objects, art and literature.