Amherst, Virginia – I needed this much more than I knew when I first applied for a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was working hard translating a book, preparing another book of translated poetry for publication, keeping the house more or less in shape, keeping the family together, attending writing groups, and trying to earn enough money to keep my head above water.
I heard about this residency from a poet friend in Washington, DC. After I had applied, we’d Skype together, and I would hold my hand up, shaping the letters V-C-C-A with my fingers, laughing. It was a long shot, but I really wanted it. When I heard I’d been accepted, a couple of months later, I was ecstatic. As the date for leaving drew nearer, however, I panicked.
I pride myself on being a good mother, on always being there for my three children, even though two of them have already left home. They still need me, and I need them. How would they manage without me?
The residency lasted for six weeks, and I had never been away from my family for such a long time. I pride myself on being a good mother, on always being there for my three children, even though two of them have already left home. They still need me, and I need them. How would they manage without me? A girlfriend whom I had confided in patted me on the back and told me to have fun — adding dryly that she was much too attached to her own children to leave them for such a long time. I bit my lip. I’m attached to my kids, too. I considered shortening the residency. I considered cancelling the whole thing. I asked myself why I needed to travel thousands of miles to do what I was doing anyway: writing.
Now that I am here in my first week of residency, tucked away in the countryside of Amherst, Virginia, I know the answer to this question. I sit in my studio, overlooking a field that leads to a dark and secretive forest. A red cardinal flits through the bushes like a ribbon of silk. Mist curls around the trees and I watch it through the window as I Skype my eldest daughter, Jasmine.
It’s evening in Israel, and I imagine her taking the dog out for the last walk of the day, getting ready for bed. I speak to Raz, my partner, and I hear in the background the wind chimes that hang above the door to the bedroom we share. I would know that sound anywhere, even over the phone when reception is poor. Raz is on his way to bed, too.
I am here, on the other side of the world, the afternoon hours stretched out before me. This is my first week, and I’m jet-lagged and bleary-eyed. The snow that fell the night I arrived has melted. I have six weeks to grow and develop my skills as a writer, to dialogue with other writers, composers and artists who are part of this unique community. The prospect is both exciting and daunting — this tremendous urge to create coupled with my own responsibility to deliver the goods, to live up to expectations. I know I will miss my family, but I also know that this is where I need to be right now.
Joanna Chen has written for Newsweek, The Daily Beast and The BBC World Service, among others. Her lyric essays have been published most recently in Guernica, Narratively and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she writes a column.