Last Friday I talked about Absolute Truth, For Beginners, the new novel by Katarina West. I asked Katarina if she would write a post for The Sparkle Nest to talk about how she juggles being a successful author with being a mother, and I was so happy when she agreed. Grab yourself a cuppa, get comfy and read on..
Diana Baylon and The Art of Juggling Motherhood and Work
We’ve all seen Out of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, right? We’ve swooned over that stupendous scenery, and Meryl Streep’s diaphanous wardrobe, and watched the two of them seated on a never-ending savannah, talking about something profound and larger-than-life and romantic. We’ve seen all that, and thought (sighing) that the love story of Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton was stupendous and oh-so romantic… But still, they lived in another era, and another world.
Besides which, they didn’t have any children.
Because it’s one thing to be hugely talented, like Karen Blixen was, and live for your work, and have no children. Try to do that when you’ve got a perennially sick toddler vomiting in your bedroom, and she or he has been on and off antibiotics for the last six months. Try to find that perfect sentence, when you haven’t slept for five consecutive nights.
But before we think that kids and challenging work (or artistic vocation, as it was in the case of Karen Blixen) is an impossible formula, let’s go to another country and era. Let’s go to Tuscany, where I live – and more precisely, to the softly rolling hills above Fiesole, the picturesque village just out of Florence. Because there, hidden behind trees and other vegetation, perches on a slope the farmhouse of an Italian artist Diana Baylon, who lived a life no less radical and romantic than that of Karen Blixen.
Not only did she leave her first husband in the 1940s to follow Beppe Baylon, the great love of her life, who was a World War II fighter pilot and a romantic figure à la Finch-Hatton (and mind you, separation was still considered a criminal offence in Italy in those years, at least if you were a woman). What’s more, those were also the years when she started to forge her own path as an artist, even if she had no contacts in the art world and no formal art schooling. During the decades that followed her enormous talent offered her some recognition, and she became the friend of Picasso and the great Italian painter Fontana. But she never really hit the big scene, possibly because of her stubbornness in not bowing to commercial pressure and following the latest art trends – and yes, most probably because she was a woman. Still, she continued to live in that little farmhouse with her beloved pilot husband, creating astonishing works of art till she died in 2013.
And just between you and me, it’s just a matter of time before some Hollywood mogul will discover her art and life story, and they will make a movie out of her. Out of Florence, they will call it. Or Out of Italy, or… wait a moment… Oh, never mind.
Now why am I telling this story? What’s the connection with Diana Baylon, and Karen Blixen, and your offspring coughing and vomiting in your bedroom? Plus you must go to work, no matter what, but you’ve got no baby-sitter and don’t know how to handle the situation?
Because it just so happened, that Diana Baylon had it all. She had that glorious talent, and a burning desire to create. And she had that passionate love, that of Robert Redford and candlelit dinners on a moonlit savannah. (No, correct that. Let’s make it a candlelit dinner in a Fiesole trattoria.)
And she had two children.
Yes, you heard me. Two children. She was in that same hapless mess as so many other mothers, just like you and I. And since she didn’t have much help either, she was a stay-at-home mum most of the day. Yet after the kids had gone to bed at nine o’clock in the evening, she went to her studio, a shabby-chic outbuilding standing alongside the farmhouse, and started her second shift as an artist, working there till two o’clock in the morning. She was your typical pretty and delicate Italian woman, but as an artist she was the biggest hulk you could imagine, working alone in her atelier with difficult materials, such as metals and stone, and refusing to use any machines. So let me assure you, those were long and lonely nights.
And that’s how she went on, never stopping, never giving up, never doubting her vision or vocation – even if this was the Italy of the 1940s and the 1950s, and female artists were such rare birds that at first even she signed her paintings as ‘Matteo’.
My husband and I visited Diana Baylon’s house on a glorious November Saturday this autumn, and it was an unforgettable morning. After a long tour around the house, after breathing her art and spirit, I sat out in the lovely terraced garden, looking at the panorama of undulating hills. I thought about her. Or rather, I thought about how she had managed to juggle children, art and marriage.
I also thought about my own path, and the first years of motherhood, when my son was perennially sick – and at times so badly sick to boot that we took him for immunology tests at a nearby hospital to find out if he could even have a normal nursery-school-life with hobbies and friends and Christmas recitals. (Luckily, he could… but that was years later.) And since we had little outside help, and lived in an isolated farmhouse not unlike that of Diana Baylon’s, I too was a stay-at-home mum during the daytime, and started work at eight-thirty or nine p.m., when my son had gone to bed. I, too, worked till two in the morning. I don’t remember much of those years… yet what I do remember is the absolute silence of our night-time home. Despite the tiredness, I grew to love that dark and silence, because it truly was a world of its own. That’s how my debut novel Witchcraft Couture was born, and even today I think that part of its mysterious atmosphere is a consequence of the fact that I wrote it during the night.
During those desperate and sleep-deprived years it never occurred to me that I was trying to have it all. No, quite the contrary, there were many hopeless days when I wondered whether I was ever going to have anything at all. Because my work seemed to go nowhere, and I was perennially tired and irritated. And then there was that ill-defined guilt, that constant companion of all working mothers, of being so goddam tired and absent-minded. No matter what I did, that nagging voice never left me.
Back then I believed that the hard years would never stop. But miraculously, they did. When my son started school, he actually stayed there too, instead of returning home with a high fever. Slowly, my life changed too.
But my question is, are you what I used to be? Are you one of those working mothers still fighting in the trenches, with chronically sick kids and bags under her eyes, and no personal life to speak of? If the answer is yes, listen to me. Repeat the following sentences, because they are your new mantra. Print them, and put them into your office, if you will.
You’re tired? Think you can’t do it any more? Then sit down. Take a deep breath. (And perhaps even a glass of good wine.) Give yourself five minutes. Then stand up, grit your teeth, and do what you were supposed to do.
Because what you do matters. What you do is wonderful.
And you will find your destination. You just have to take small steps.
There are many romantic stories about Diana Baylon, but this is the one I love most: they say that every time a true art lover visits her atelier, a delicate butterfly will materialize out of nowhere and flutter amongst her artwork. And true enough, even as we were visiting her atelier a big brown butterfly appeared from behind the curtains, and then danced in front of her paintings. I wanted to take it with me back home, and keep it in my study, so that every time I felt discouraged or lost, I would have her spirit to comfort me. But of course I did no such thing.
And that means that the butterfly is still out there, free and unhindered. So the next time you’re feeling disheartened and tired, watch out for the butterfly. Because it just might happen that there is something delicate and ethereal flying around you, something not of this world. And it’s whispering to you to not to give up, or stop fighting.
Just as she never did.