In Defense Of The Small Life: On Kate Zambreno’s The Light Room

This book is about the beauty of maintenance work, and finding art in the mundane, and it reached me at exactly the right time.

by Niina Pollari

The hardest-working object in my life right now is my C-shaped nursing pillow. It’s been handed down through several babies — I got it from my sister, then I used it for my daughter, and then it was briefly relegated to play room object, but now it’s back to doing the work it was meant to do. My son was born in March, and as I find myself again mired in the tedious meditation on the present that is early motherhood, the pillow is there with me, an ugly and dependable helper. It travels with me from room to room, cushioning my son. It elevates my arm as I hold him for midnight feedings, and it absorbs milk and spit and baby throw-up. It’s printed with gentle, sleepy-looking animals in pale yellows and blues, their colors fading. The pillow gets more dingy by the day, more beat up, its batting lumpier inside of it; I’m sure it will pop a seam sooner rather than later. As a symbol of caregiving work, it’s very relatable. I don’t care to buy a new one, as its aesthetics don’t matter as much as its function does; it supports me as I navigate my newly-small-again existence from upstairs to downstairs and back again. We mark our time together with new stains.

Kate Zambreno’s new book The Light Room (Riverhead; July 4, 2023) is in large part about this: the routines, rituals, and objects that get us through the daily tasks of caregiving and the ways in which we feel the passage of time in simultaneously small and cyclical ways. Whether or nor The Mother can also be The Artist is a ridiculous question discussed to death — of course she can. But attaining the lofty realms of capital-A Art can also seem impossible when you’re stuck on the ground in the repetitive work of caregiving (so often disproportionately the mother figure’s responsibility). This book is a meditation on the practice of art and observation in the mundane. It’s about the beauty in maintenance, and it reached me at the right time as I both am too busy to do, and also desperately want to do, art.

Zambreno has two children; at the beginning of the book, the older is preschool age, the younger a baby. In caring for them she observes the markers of time, the routines that repeat and see us through our days (or nights): “Wake up, take the baby, check the time to see how many hours she has slept, put her on each breast, hoping she is awake enough to feed, try to pick up the mason jar of water and drink some, replacing my fluids, willing myself not to drop the heavy jar on her head.” First of all, how does Zambreno know about my jar? I woke up last night to the baby’s fussing in such a state of dehydration that I chugged 16 ounces of water, and it felt like it just fell through me. “The light on my phone throws a shadow against the wall,” she continues, “making me look like a mountain or a ghost.” This description of mountain or ghost makes me think of the Groke in Tove Jansson’s Moomin series. A melancholy figure with a hill-shaped body, the Groke glides through Moomin Valley at night in search of warmth. The Groke is always alone and canonically female. She’s always been my favorite, though I never associated her with motherhood — now, though, I see that the loneliness of the night mother makes perfect sense here. My own hill-shaped body throws shadows in the night, and then I wake to do it all again, in the daylong series of micro routines.

We undertake the long project of our daily lives and find elevated beauty in it, however laboriously, however long it takes — this seems to me more difficult than being monstrous.

Zambreno also handles the other kind of time, the seasonal passage that makes every moment spent with children bittersweet if we look at it too closely. “A photograph of a child is already an elegy. That was almost a year ago. How is that possible?” she writes. We have, of course, all marked time in increasingly weird ways during the Covid years, and Zambreno deals with this too. There’s a lot of the peculiar labor of the pandemic in the book: masking small children; meeting up for cautious birthday parties in the park; navigating proximity-related tensions with your partner; relegating your whole life (personal, professional) to one living space, its chaos carefully cropped out of a Zoom call. But here too is the “light room” of the title — Zambreno’s descriptions of the room where they did all their living for months and months are luminous. The narrative of the book isn’t only about the growth of children, but still their growth happens and becomes its own measurement of the passing months: “Two teeth that January. A tooth has become for us a unit of time, more than a day, sometimes weeks, waiting for the eruption.” The dynamic teeth and bones of children. How do we not physically see their limbs lengthening even though we spend every day with them, in spite of paying such close attention to their every need and anticipating their requirements?

A book like this, which takes such care in the little details, is in some ways the antithesis of the “art monster,” the artist whose genius is reliant on never concerning themselves with the mundane. But it’s not as if we have a choice: Art monsterhood is simply not accessible during the pandemic to a woman with small children. In this book, the mundane becomes a source of the impulse for art. We undertake the long project of our daily lives and find elevated beauty in it, however laboriously, however long it takes — this seems to me more difficult than being monstrous.

Zambreno finds a bridge between art and the requirements of her own domesticity by looking at the work of artists who worked from the tiny details of their daily lives (not all of them mothers, which I love). Through Zambreno, we read about Natalia Ginzburg and her “Winter in the Abruzzi,” written in 1944 as her family whiled away time with her husband in political exile from the fascists in Rome. English artist Derek Jarman and his garden journal, full of delight in flowers. And, most affecting to me, the daily photography practice of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who documented her children getting dressed and undressed to go outside.

Zambreno writes: “[Ukeles’s] realization, as an artist with small children, that she should document reproductive labor, maintenance labor, as its own art, because that was the only work that she was doing, the repetitive constant work that disappears as soon as it happens.” Zambreno, when she first saw the collection of photos, writes that she was “so out of it that I walked around, pushing the stroller, not realizing until I went to the bathroom that I had chocolate smeared all over my face and the white button-down linen top I was wearing, the only top I had at the time for nursing.”

Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! is worth reading here: “I am an artist. I am a woman. ... I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also (up to now separately) I ‘do’ Art. Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.” This was written decades ago, and still seems fresh. Nothing more needs to be said about why.

Another artist Zambreno returns to time and again is Joseph Cornell, the artist who made his found-object assemblage boxes over the years while living with his mother and disabled brother in relative isolation. She connects his collections of talismanic objects, and those of other collector artists, with the tendencies of children to collect — to marvel at tiny things and arrange them over and over. It’s not that the work is childish, but rather that smallness holds a kind of magic. “The assumption is always that he was miserable,” Zambreno writes of Cornell. “I wonder why a small life is always read as a terrible life.” This, to me, is the revolutionary question: Why do we think the artist’s life requires a grandiosity of scale?

At home, I have a 3-year-old and a nearly 4-month-old. I, too, am trying to write, to make art, desperate to engage creatively with my world somehow. But whole days go by where all I have the time to do is wipe messy little faces, breastfeed, serve small portions of food that mostly go uneaten, unbundle and bundle tiny socks. I help my daughter put her shoes on. I lift my son up so he can better look at me and coo at him to see him smile his wide wet smile. Sometimes I feel like I’m never going to work again, and this book observes that version of me and keeps it company. I’m not looking for self-help in this moment; rather, it’s a witnessing of the validity of the kind of thankless work that care requires.

Zambreno has a facility with descriptions of the mundane, finding in them something marvelous and often funny — she is especially adept at finding humor in endings. (Something I remember thinking as well after reading her 2019 book Screen Tests, which is, among other things, about aging as a woman.) “I’ve mostly stopped searching for wooden toys for my children,” she writes at the end of a section on the rampant consumerism at the heart of the world of “authentic” toys. “I’m not sure exactly why. I feel they have enough. We already have so many toys they don’t use. I’m also just exhausted.” There’s no resolution; the blunt observation just sums up exactly what it’s like when you expend so much energy on something small and particular, and then your children are just done with it. Resigned, you sigh, and put it away, and move on to the next topic. Maybe it’s is a good artistic lesson as well: Surrender to the idea that there isn’t a resolution. I’m really drawn to this.

As much as I might long for more time, more freedom, I find I don’t want to read about artists who have that right now.

Zambreno is in her mid-40s, a mother of two, and a prolific writer, having written nine books on topics that range from personal memoir, literary and art criticism, fiction, and much more. She’s the recipient of a Guggenheim (the funds from which, Zambreno has remarked, went straight to funding family health insurance for two years). I think her prolificness, and I have thought about it a lot, has something to do with her method of continuous note-taking, even while recumbent in bed, nursing a baby. I am writing this piece mostly on a notes app on my phone, trying to do like Zambreno does. I jot down passages that speak to me and thoughts that I have, knowing, or hoping, I will weave them together eventually when I have a longer chunk of time.

As much as I might long for more time, more freedom, I find I don't want to read about artists who have that right now. My optimistic journaling practice is long abandoned; I think in fragments while wiping butts. Right now, for me, and I think for the narrator of The Light Room, too, finding a way toward creation in mundanity feels like the most grandiose project of them all. My nursing pillow! The object, the symbol: a kind of art.

Niina Pollari is a poet and Finnish translator currently located in Western North Carolina. She is the author of the poetry collections Path of Totality (Soft Skull, 2022) and Dead Horse (Birds LLC, 2015), as well as the co-author of the split chapbook Total Mood Killer (TigerBee Press, 2017).