Published on May 21st, 2024 | by Jessica E. Johnson


The Hurt Wasn’t Simple: An Excerpt from METTLEWORK: A MINING DAUGHTER ON MAKING HOME by Jessica E. Johnson

And then, in September when Clementine was four months old, I left. Every morning I packed up and traveled south and east along the hem of Portland’s outskirts, an industrial and postindustrial string of man-world enterprises grown up on the Columbia slough—wastewater treatment plant, sugar factory, strip club, strip club, strip club, warehouse, steel company, shuttered lounge—to an outpost of the large community college system where I had for the first time in years a fulltime job with insurance that would cover family. A fulltime temporary job: good for a year and maybe longer if I did it well enough.

In the outside world, I was suddenly visible and unsure of how to dress myself. I did not know when I signed the rental agreement on the breast pump that it had to be transported in an absurdly large, strangely shaped black hardcase. Along with papers, books, and my laptop, I lugged it to meetings and trainings and orientations on the college’s more central campuses, each with its own lactation setup, generally a single room in a distant building, un-reservable, serving potentially hundreds of lactating people.

“Do you teach music? Is that a French horn?” a colleague asked as I wrestled it between tightly packed chairs at a conference table. In the glow of slide shows about active shooter protocols, I thought about what Clementine might be doing in her crib at Kevin’s mom’s house—in her car seat riding along on her grandma’s errands, drinking from a bottle I didn’t prepare. Did I need this job? Without question, we needed the paycheck and health insurance. That was simple and true. It was also true that I found myself leaning into it a good deal more than I had to, drawing energy, at least at first, from having a little bit of space.

The hurt wasn’t as simple as wanting to be home and not being able to.

ACRE Books

How do you prove yourself at an open-access college newly committed to growing the very small percentage of students who stay to get a degree? Not by research, unless it’s into teaching, not through achievement of your own, but with extraordinary responsiveness to students’ encompassing needs and to the agendas of your surveilling supervisors, and this requires conscientiousness, vigilance, and the peculiar skill of flowing, like water, into whatever shape the situation demands.

And how, then, do you let the baby know that you belong to her entirely when you see her mostly on weekends? By promising that she’ll never see you working at home, by vowing to meet the eyes that love you with love instead of turning them toward a screen. And then how do you do all the work that doesn’t fit into the fifty hours you’re away? You do it after she’s gone to bed and before she wakes up and during her school and during her naps, and the house you used to inhabit, the place where you used to notice and breathe, the place where you used to sip coffee and plan meals and invite other people and cut your dahlias and prune your roses and linger in the scent of your honeysuckle, becomes a racing heartbeat, a prickle on your skin, the place where you’re never enough, and the office, the actual source of the uncontrollable workflow, becomes the place where you can, for a moment, relax because at least there you’re in a place meant for you to do the things you’re supposed to do out of the sight of the eyes that love you. There you can perhaps direct your energy to obtaining a Secure Status, which is good for your child in the long run. This is what you tell yourself.

There were two people in these temporary jobs, the other a pregnant woman due to give birth that year. You see her seldom, but she and you both keep track of who is doing what, who is showing up where. You try to make sure the surveilling decision-makers know that you can do this even though. You want them to believe you’re interchangeable with the previous version of yourself who didn’t have the baby. You yourself want to believe that.

In the mornings you lift Clementine from her crib, feed her, hold her, ready her for her ride. She goes easily, clinging to her father like a comfortable primate, eyes up and watching the world as he strides her to the car on his long legs, baby in one arm, leaning on a cane with the other.

He takes her to his mom’s every morning and returns with her every evening, tacking an extra hour each way onto his commute, which was not short to begin with. Still, he often has dinner on the stove—Clementine looking on beside him in a highchair—by the time you walk in late, nipples aching if you haven’t managed to pump enough, your body swollen, your mind painfully alert.

In the evening, you bounce her on your knee, her torso now capable of holding her upright, as she watches bites of food travel from your plate to your mouth. You nurse her again, wrap her tightly, place the pacifier between her lips and lay her in the crib, where she turns her head toward the wall and closes her eyes like a tiny expert on drifting into dreams.

When she’s awake, in brief flashes of intense activity, she nestles her head into your neck, babbles with inflection and expression, raising her eyebrows and squinting slyly, practicing for conversation, and the certainty of her delight and interest pierces you, her memory of your body: you are still—you always will be—her home, and that place that is supposed to be respite and refuge can’t be anything but tired and jagged and fugitive because that is how you are now.

The hurt was not simple. It was wanting to be anywhere and not being able to.

Mom visited often during Clementine’s first year. She looked after things in my house like she’d looked after things anywhere we lived: kept up with the laundry, made grocery runs, cooked dinner, read to the baby (the same beloved book more times than I ever had the patience for), walked the dog, made a rhythm to the day. Her presence, and more so the following absence, suggested the possible centrality of this whole domestic world—as long as there’s a person like her in the house, someone whose only job is tending to the materiality of things.

One night I walked in the door ten hours after leaving, dropped my schoolbag and giant breast pump, scooped Clementine up from the blanket where she was sitting and touched my cheek to hers as she squeaked “Hieee!”

Mom smiled up at us from the couch. The laundry basked held neat stacks of burp rags and neat bundles of baby socks I would not have bothered to fold. Her day with Clementine, I knew, was a series of deliberate occasions—intentional meals, small outings, little projects. There were flowers on the table and a complete meal simmering on the stove.

She made the home that I myself needed, the one I used to make for myself and couldn’t make for anyone anymore. She curated and inhabited a spatial and temporal sufficiency that could make me feel on the days when she was there like things were alright in some fundamental way. A small glass of wine sat on the end table beside her. A notebook and pen rested on her lap.

“I don’t think I could have done what you’re doing,” she said as her expression went soft.

Why did these words inflate a balloon of inadequacy in my chest? The balloon expanded right up to my throat, where words might have deflated it, but there were none.

Something about me was wrong. Unnatural. Wrong in my body, wrong in the hardness of my edge, wrong in my failure to keep faith in the work of tending.

She was talking about herself, not me. But I heard a suggestion. She believed I had some other choice, the one she often took: turning away from what’s hard, finding a form of what might at first seem like radical simplicity in a barebones setting.

The place she would seek out is not one you can work toward, fight for, or slowly accumulate. It’s a place inside yourself reachable only as the world falls away. She swerves from one kind of difficulty, but I knew, having grown up with her, that after swerving, you might look around and find yourself in the middle of other problems.

Excerpted with permission from Mettlework: A Mining Daughter on Home by Jessica E. Johnson (ACRE Books, 2024)

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About the Author

Jessica E. Johnson is a career community college instructor based in Portland, Oregon. She’s the author of the book-length poem Metabolics (Acre Poetry Series), the chapbook In Absolutes We Seek Each Other (New Michigan Press), and the memoir Mettlework: A Mining Daughter on Making Home (Acre Books). She is a contributor to Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry, and her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Paris ReviewTin HouseThe New RepublicPoetry Northwest32 PoemsRiver TeethDIAGRAMAnnulet Poetics, Terrain, and Sixth Finch, among others. She co-hosts the Constellation Reading Series.

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