By Daisy Alpert Florin
I met Louise Erdrich in 1992 when I was a sophomore at Dartmouth College and she was a visiting fellow. That semester, I was a French teaching assistant, running “drill” sessions five mornings a week. Erdrich signed up for my section, and so I found myself in the unusual position of being language teacher to an award-winning writer. Erdrich was friendly and self-deprecating—but she was my worst student, her accent thick, her conjugations clumsy.
Reading The Blue Jay‘s Dance, her luminous memoir of early motherhood, it is hard to imagine Erdrich tripped up by any language. Her prose is staggering, breathtaking in places. My copy of the book is covered with frantic underlining and enthusiastic asterisks marking places in which Erdrich captures both the frustrations and joys inherent in raising small children. “Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life,” she writes. Nearly twenty years after its publication, The Blue Jay‘s Dance remains relevant; by keeping the outside world at bay, Erdrich is able to turn her focus inward, creating a story that is both her own and universal.
Divided into four seasons, Erdrich’s memoir describes a year in the life of a new mother, beginning with pregnancy and ending with a child’s first steps. The baby described is an amalgamation of Erdrich’s three daughters; her husband and three older children hover in the background. The Blue Jay‘s Dance is a record of Erdrich’s internal thoughts and struggles, as well as the story of the natural world as seen from the windows of her office. Erdrich is often alone, her main companions the birds, insects, rodents, deer and cats she watches pass by, as desperate for their companionship as a prisoner.
Halfway through the book, Erdrich follows a wild kitten who has disappeared beneath her house through a heating vent. Slithering along the floor of the dirt crawl space in pursuit, Erdrich worries that the house will collapse on top of her. “How many women are buried beneath their houses?” she asks after pulling the kitten toward her by its tail. “How many startling minds, how many writers?”
Running beneath the lyrical descriptions is this vein of frustration, with babies who won’t sleep, home ownership, Erdrich’s near constant longing for a cigarette. But instead of launching into a litany of complaints, Erdrich leans in to the loneliness and isolation to create art. “Life comes on you all unawares while you are stuck in an interim situation,” she writes about the unexpected joy she finds in waiting for someone who is late. “Sometimes I simply feel myself vitally alive in the moment, the interstice.”
It is in this pause that Erdrich writes The Blue Jay‘s Dance, taking advantage of the space that unravels while the baby sleeps or plays with a trail of toys spread across her office floor. “Sometimes I hold my child in one arm, nursing her, and write with the other hand.” What mother hasn’t felt this sense of division? Out of the wreckage comes this book, the words scribbled down while she waits for the peace needed to tend to her “real work.”
I didn’t read The Blue Jay‘s Dance until I was the mother of three children struggling to find my own voice as a writer. As I read, my mind wandered back to the early mornings Erdrich and I shared learning French. She had probably been up for hours writing or caring for her children while I rolled into class each day, my unwashed hair tucked beneath a woolen hat. Did her mind wander back to the children and work she’d left behind as I drilled her on the subjunctive? While she might have been able to imagine my life as an undergraduate at the college she’d attended, it was not possible for me, at twenty, to imagine hers.
At the end of the semester, Erdrich invited me, along with other students, to a reception at her house. As we ate canapés and drank sparkling water, I sat mesmerized by her as well as by the beautiful blond-haired children who darted around the house. I had no idea, yet, what roiled beneath the surface, no concept of the immense strength required to hold up that house.
Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at www.daisyflorin.com.