Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term “domesticity” as the quality or state of being domestic or domesticated. The definition doesn’t offer enough clarity if you don’t continue the thread by looking into words “domestic” or “domesticated.”
Domestic: reduced from a state of native wilderness so as to be tractable and useful to humans.
Domestic: devoted to home duties and pleasures.
Domestic: a household servant such as housemaid.
To domesticate: to adapt to life in association with and to the use of humans.
In her memoir in essays, Tracing the Desire Line, published in the fall of 2019 by Split Lip Press, Melissa Matthewson opposes the idea of domestication. “I don’t want to be domestic any more,” Matthewson writes as she sets out to explore the possibilities of a woman’s freedom within marriage and her artistic wilderness within the rigid walls of small-town culture.
Months have passed since the author kindly shipped her book to me after I had promised a review. And I have been rereading the book ever since and re-envisioning Matthewson’s ideas of sensual and artistic liberation through the lenses of my own entrapment inside the confines of the notion of domestication. Until today, almost every line of the book is underlined, all margins filled with my notes. My copy of Tracing the Desire Line has opened a space for a telepathic conversation between Matthewson and me. Every paragraph of hers invited me to answer with at least a nod, or a yes. Bold and capitalized “YES!” Some lines opened to essays of their own, all of which have been distracting me from finishing the review.
Over the last month, inside the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been part of the online writing workshop through the Corporeal Writing center. Lidia Yuknavitch guided us into the making of narrative braids – the weaving of different themes and images into one coherent narrative. And only when I started playing with this concept, I realized that braiding was precisely what I have been doing with Matthewson’s book. And moreover, I could see Melissa Matthewson weave her separate threads to form Tracing the Desire Line. Each essay a braid on its own, opening to the themes of domesticity, home, identity and the idea of shedding a familiar skin and leaping into the unknown valley of sexual and artistic freedom; then, all essays together interconnecting organically and braiding exquisitely a story of a marriage that endures and surpasses a change.
Melissa Matthewson’s home environment is a world I have no knowledge of – she writes about life on a farm, about plants and animals I have never heard of, about the changes that she sees in nature with the changes of the seasons. Nature far out from cities. Matthewson portrays her surrounding with such fine detail that I travel into the woods, and I see the birds and smell the flowers, and I hear the crickets, and I watch the sunrise in the open sky without a mere shadow of a skyscraper. I walk the desire line with her. I close my eyes and find myself free in the heart of a forest, forgetting the part where I only knew how to write about cities.
On the other hand, Melissa Matthewson’s interior is more than familiar – her interior is my interior, filled “with desires that don’t fit domestic template (27).”
Reduced from a state of native wilderness so as to be tractable and useful to humans.
“I don’t want to be domestic any more,” I whisper back to her. I don’t want to be reduced to serving the desires that are smothering my artistic wondrousness. A writer needs space to think. A domesticated woman devoted to home duties and pleasures holds no such space.
In Tracing the Desire Line, the narrator acknowledges the pattern of home and family duties and aspires to walk a different path – one of desires. She also wants to invent a myth of a new woman: A fearless woman. “This woman, she’d never do anything wrong, would never have to apologize. She’d wave at the clouds, listen to loud music, make love to a thousand men. She would be a story told around the fire, (22)”.
I have been creating similar new women in my stories, all of them beautiful in their wildness. And I have been sheltering them from readers until they grow strong enough to resist the pull of domestication or until they’re bold enough to not apologize for their passions.
“I read novels and essays and poems about women who teemed with desire, who followed their passions,” writes Matthewson. And I pencil in another YES. Matthewson mentions The Mirror in the Well, a spy in the house of love, and Simple Passion. I still study the audacity and works of Anais Nin, and I love the prose of Annie Ernaux. Micheline Aharonian Marcom was my grad school advisor, and her teachings are the most valuable gift I could have ever asked for. I go back to her prose whenever I need a push and encouragement. I often talk to her through her books. Once, during my MFA residency, in the middle of our talk about possibly Bruno Schulz or Juan Rulfo, Marcom said to me that I must find ways to save on other things, but I need to pay someone to clean my house. A woman writer cannot immerse herself fully into a world of her story if overwhelmed by chores. I acknowledged what she said, but I never listened. I lived in-between realities – one in which I was a mother of young daughters, always busy with taking care of them, and another, in which I was a rebel writer, untamed.
I’ve never cleaned as much as I am cleaning now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Obsessively, as if the virus is everywhere around me, as if I can fix the world with a steam mop and a disinfectant spray.
In this surreal reality, I am, again, fully domestic.
Devoted to home duties and pleasures, the dictionary explains. And I wonder, if I find no pleasures in such duties, does it make me less domestic?
A woman writer needs the freedom to devote herself to pleasures that feed her mind, body, and heart.
“I never do what I am supposed to do,” writes Matthewson in the essay On Coupling. And I think about the path of desires that she took in her writing and her life. This path opens to an incredible journey of a woman who wants it all: “marriage and lovers, freedom and security (29).” A woman who “wants something different than this farm, this home, these children (35).”
In the COVID-19 lockdown, I have imagined a perfect place on earth where I would love to be quarantined. The place where my whole body would open to pleasures. Instagram is filled with #quarantine stories that piss me off every day. People who are lucky to be close to an enchanted forest, a sandy beach, a vineyard in bloom, or those who own pools no matter the size while I live in a ground floor downtown apartment with no patio. The ants made their desire line in my kitchen and they are not repelled by my essential oils solution even though all reviews on the web assured me it would work. I am again living in a city and a country that I had left a decade ago and where I now feel like a domesticated foreigner. Our home is a temporary situation, so, my husband and I are using this time of isolation to design our perfect habitat. But the house of my desires has a view of the sea, or at least a glimpse – a tiny patch of the blue water. So, I try to draw the shades of blue into the space we will be adapting – into the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom.
And I stop to reread the part where Matthewson confesses that she wants something different too. “I want the world (35).”
Just like Melissa, I want to be seen beyond the mother and beyond the wife. I delete the Pinterest board Kitchen Inspiration, and I create Desire Line.
If un-domestication offered me the return to the native wilderness, what would my wilderness look like?
A year ago, I started a story about a woman who set off to challenge the perimeters of desire. She stepped out of her marriage and domestic life to explore the nature and possibility of female sensual freedom. Juliana’s journey like Matthewson’s involves an affair and represents another path toward liberation from the confines of domestic by awakening and deepening senses, sensuality, and femininity.
However, since I started this story, I’ve been finding excuses to not write it. Every time Juliana began a conversation, I hushed her voice to care of the children, to fold sheets, mop the floors, dust the books. If only I sat still to read, to explore the new possibilities of writing. Perhaps, my fall back into the patterns of domesticity happened out of fear that, I, the writer, will cross the boundaries of what is allowed, appropriate, decent. Perhaps it arose out of a universal maternal desire to shelter and protect the family from the tornado of change. Going back to Matthewson’s audacious memoir, over and over again, I gather enough encouragement to proceed. Nothing can be built and created in the nonsensical wheel of chores.
“Let’s break out of the old patterns,” repeats Lidia Yuknavitch in her workshops in Corporeal Writing. Let’s undo the rules that we inherited, let’s go back to our wildness, let’s write from our bodies!
In Tracing the Desire Line, Melissa Matthewson creates a map of how she’ll quietly upset her domestic life. She decides to open her marriage. She imagines the opening to the possibilities, not risks. “The word open. As in exposed, without secrets, without shame.”
Today on the news, they are talking about slowly re-opening. Each country has a different set of rules and guidelines. I am wondering when it will be safe to travel again. I am dreaming of finding a temporary home on a Greek island. In my Desire Line board, I pin a photograph of a woman sitting on a stone wall underneath which the white town is perched on a steep incline, while she is observing a blood-red sunset. That deep Mediterranean blue is what opens me to possibilities. It has always been that blue.
I search for more photographs on the Web. I type “insurgent women” trying to map my rebellion against domestic life. I haven’t decided yet if I want to rebel quietly, or should I turn up the volume?
But first, I must email our architects to say how I hate everything about the mounted library they proposed. I have been collecting the history of the feminist thought that deserves a remarkable library shelf. The kind that stops one’s breath and speeds up the pulse. These women who dared to break the norms and patterns of domesticity deserve monuments and altars, and not a dull built-in shelf.
I will also say NO to the kitchen designed as an afterthought. My desired kitchen is a delightful place, steaming with senses, where, not just food, but feelings and thoughts are prepared with care. And where, over a glass or two of good wine, the books are read and written. My desired kitchen is where the friends share secrets at midnight and where all our problems are solved after a freshly brewed espresso in the morning.
Matthewson’s memoir is an exploration of want, wanting, what is being wanted, and how strong and reliable the desire is. Every time I reread this book, I feel the surge of my passions. I write down all my wants. Every time I reread this book, I feel closer on my path to finding my true self.
I wanted to write the most honest review that would showcase with precision this remarkable work of art, but, like Matthewson, I never do what I am supposed to do. So, with Yuknavitch’s permission to undo the familiar, to break out from the habituated patterns, I will call this non-review a braided narrative of one writer’s experience while reading another writer’s work that she loved so passionately. And, I will also regard this non-review as the beginning of my re-opening, my un-domestication, my return to the wild.
“That’s what this is all about, writes Matthewson, “seek the beauty, want the passion, hold the wild.”
Tracing the Desire Line, out from Split Lip Press, is Mellissa Matthewson’s first book of nonfiction. She is the author of a collaborative chapbook, (un)learning, with Andrea Beltran from Artifact Press (2016). Her essays have been published in numerous places including DIAGRAM, Mid-American Review, Guernica, River Teeth, The Rumpus and Bellingham Review among other publications. She has been awarded an AWP Intro Journals award in creative nonfiction as well as residencies and scholarships to PLAYA, Art Smith, Tin House, and the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference.
She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and currently teaches Communication and Media Studies at Southern Oregon University.
Learn more about Matthewson on her page https://melissamatthewson.com/