Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Sarah Menkedick revisits Louise Erdrich’s memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance.
Nine weeks into my pregnancy, in the middle of an Ohio woods lit gold with fall, I sat in a small, dark cabin and wept. I had no idea how to proceed and I also understood with a wrenching clarity that I could not turn back. I had no model for pregnancy beyond the asexual lady on the cover of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, clad in neutral sweater and slacks, plain-faced in her rocking chair, an emblem of the dull, docile femininity demanded of American mothers. I was terrified of her blandness and of my own obsequiousness to that book, my careful noting of the iron content in dried fruit and my newfound pedantry about pasteurization. After a decade spent trying to prove my exceptionality, I found myself, in October of 2013, flailing in my newly discovered ordinariness. I felt my life, my identity, my future like shattered glass at my feet.
I took a shower to calm myself and then, hair wet and sick at the smell of shampoo, I ran the five hundred feet from the cabin down to my parents’ house, where I sat on the couch with my stepmother and let loose with frightened sobs. She knew not to attempt rescue, to soothe me with platitudes or plead a strong case for the valor of motherhood. Instead, she sat quietly with my terrible uncertainty on a sunny fall morning and did not turn away. And then she recommended Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance. She had read and loved that book when my brother and I were little. I believe she understood that seeing motherhood through the eyes of a writer would validate and ground it for me in a way that nothing else could.
I’ve been a writer and a reader all my life, but I did not understand books as salvation until I read Erdrich’s. Literature had always existed for me on a plane of leisurely indulgence removed from the urgency of everyday decisions. But I needed The Blue Jay’s Dance as much as I needed calcium or prenatal care. It tugged me from the pit of depression and reoriented me.
Erdrich’s memoir, first published in 1995, is structured around the seasons, and then broken up into mini-essays on topics ranging from labor to fiddlehead ferns to lemon-meringue pie to local cats and duck sex. Erdrich is fond of digressions, and her tone is familiar, intimate, but the book is utterly free of the snarkiness and self-consciousness that define so much contemporary writing by women. She is earnest and yet fierce, insightful, trusting of her own mind, striding into this oceanic subject of motherhood with a calm vision I desperately needed. She merges her pregnancies with her three daughters into one story, one baby, and the book concludes with the baby beginning to walk. She is never maudlin and yet she captures—in narrative, detail, and analysis—the intensity and vacillation of emotion that characterize early motherhood.
I had understood motherhood up until then as either the stultifying oppression of conventionality or an exercise of triumphing-in-spite-of, staying cutting edge and ambitious and successful by proudly suppressing or minimizing the maternal. Erdrich offered me another model: motherhood as profound creative subject, as way of seeing, even as empowerment. She gave me permission to be a woman.
My womanhood had long been defined predominately by my alignment with men: I was a tomboy, I could do whatever men could do, I could dominate male paradigms. In her sixth book, Erdrich taught me to embrace the historically female realm, to see it as a source of distinct strength and unity. “In talking to other women over the years, I begin to absorb them somehow, as if we’re all permeable,” she writes. “Some days I’m made up of a thousand mothers who have given one ironic look, one laugh at the right moment, one exasperated wave, one acknowledgement.” She embraces that fuck-yeah women-are-goddesses tradition that Adrienne Rich also celebrates, and which patriarchy has rendered pathetic and embarrassing. Women of my generation have grown up with the mantra of empowerment–we can dream big, be whatever we want to be!–but empowerment has often demanded reneging on any discussion of distinctly female power, of sisterhood, of feminism. To be empowered is to embrace the male, stifle the female, and keep that distinction salient. Recently, this has begun to change, in the work of writers like Roxane Gay, and in response to the Trump presidency. In this context Erdrich feels newly relevant. Of birth, she writes:
Organized Christian religion is more often about denying the body when what we profoundly need are rituals that take into regard the blood, the shock, the heat, the shit, the anguish, the irritation, the glory, the earnestness of the female body … We wreak havoc, make animal faces, ugly bare-toothed faces, go red, go darker, whiter, stranger, turn to bears … It is our work, our body’s work that is involved in its own goodness.
I had never before seen motherhood as a realm of glory—and not the glory of the meticulously clothed and well-mannered jewel-child but the glory of female domination, utterly mysterious to men. I had never imagined my womanhood as worthy of sustained critical inquiry, as a source of pride unrelated to male approval.
Ultimately, Erdrich taught me to let go of received wisdom and embrace the parts of myself that didn’t cohere, or that directly clashed with, standard literary models of intellectual savvy. As she details her gastronomic journey through the first trimester, I was thrilled to find both an unironic reference to Jell-O and what is possibly literature’s best paean to nacho cheese. “At certain times,” she wrote, “powdered nacho flavoring has, to me, the manna power to ward off all harms and exhaustions.” Louise Erdrich eats nacho cheese. The cheese is still one of the most salient details in The Blue Jay’s Dance. It unlocked a part of me I’d long secreted away: Midwestern, as sincere as it is fierce, yearning to feel as much as to think. Erdrich gave me the permission sought by so many young writers, and women in particular, to slip out of the roles and forms they’ve long assumed essential—serious, rigorous—and write instead toward their own sense of urgency.
I haven’t reread The Blue Jay’s Dance since my daughter was born; it is too painful, in the way that looking at the footprints from hours after her birth is too painful, too wrought with the emotion and beauty and intense vulnerability of the struggle. But like those footprints, I keep the book nearby, a reminder of the often-underestimated force of my mind and body, of my connection with other women. It is the book that showed me a book can be a midwife, an amulet, the crucible of a raw new self.
Sarah Menkedick’s book Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm is out this month.