Pennies for a Conquistador

Today Good Letters welcomes Jessica Eddings-Roeser as a regular contributor. Jessica holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. A former high school teacher, she now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and daughter. We are glad to share her words with you.

If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.
—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The first time I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek I was in grad school and teaching full time. Each morning I rose early to drink coffee and write. Then I put on black eyeliner and three-inch heels—my own carefully calculated self-image designed to sensationally guide unruly high school students before moving on to happy hour.

Afterward I’d head home to brew more coffee and read stacks of books till my eyes closed. I lived every moment like a conquistador trying to dominate the new world: I had a degree to obtain, one hundred and fifty-five students to educate, a social life, and summer adventures to plan.

At that point in time, Dillard’s cabin in the woods was too slow, too small, and too unkempt. I thought the cobwebs in her corners needed to be vacuumed, and I hurried past them, pausing for one incredulous moment as I read the words, “It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.”

Pennies are worthless, I thought to myself, and turned the page.

When I had a baby I planned to be the same woman I’d always been. Conquering was what I did, so I would keep reading smart literature. I would still work and socialize, taking turns between eyeliner and coffee. After all, adventures abound on the other end of a plane ticket, and babies are free to fly.

But outings require preparation, thought, and an extra set of clothes. And while mountains wait in the west and ruined empires erode in Peru, naptime drives me home midday, and bath time is at seven.

I still try—my husband and I attended our first concert in months last week; but at eleven o’clock I begged to go home, barely able to keep my eyes open. My daughter woke extra early the next morning. Ears still ringing, I hoisted her onto my hip and stumbled to the coffee pot, smudged eyeliner glaring back at me as I passed the mirror.

These days my social life involves a baby doll and a puppet, and most trips are to the park or the grocery store. But in the evenings I put my daughter to bed, pour a glass of wine, and head to the deck to read.

And for some reason I’m reading Annie Dillard again—perhaps I knew I should’ve gleaned more from her the first time. I don’t turn as many pages these days, but I swirl my wine and manage eight to ten before going back in to finish the dishes.

I wish I could say I understand Dillard’s idea of healthy poverty. It sounds so much like Jesus’ blessing for the poor in spirit. I know I want that blessing, but only as long as I don’t have to be poor. Staying home to write and care for our daughter cut our budget by half—so this may be a new world, but I’m no conquistador.

In short: the old idols of gold, God, and glory don’t just apply to men in the fifteenth century.

I still find myself bumbling out the door in heels, my head down as I carry two bags and my child—a camel attempting to pass through the eye of a needle, if you will. Half the time I forget my coffee on the counter—eyeliner on hand to apply in the car.

But one morning as I turned back to lock our door my daughter peeked over my shoulder and pointed, “Ohhh!”

Rain had fallen in the night, and a spider’s web decorated our porch, beaming like a Spanish mantilla. Droplets of water hung on every thread; pearls hand sewn on a bridal veil. The work of an eight-legged vampire robed in glory shone before me. I dropped the bags, held my daughter and stared. Perhaps the spider watched us with one of her many eyes until we finally edged away, afraid to turn our backs on this creature and the creation.

I remembered Dillard’s cobwebs and felt ashamed.

Whatever idols I had planned to conquer that day slipped my mind. Surely God is in every cosmic bit of this world, and though I’d planned to be busier than ever, God has pinned me down in my prime and stripped me of my own superficial glory.

I recognize the beauty in this, but I still miss my former self—a lot of the time it feels like I don’t know who I want to be or where I’m going, though I’m seeing more than ever.

I need to vacuum and I’m years away from Peru, but now when my head is down I can see the pennies.

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  • Beautiful. Poetic. Love the variations on the coffee and eyeliner. And that the small person who has so changed your life is the one who showed you the spider’s web.

  • Lovely, Jessica. Many things dramatically change our lives (and our fantasies of our lives); a new baby is certainly one of them. When you get a breather, another book of Dillard’s that I recommend is For the Time Being–in it, I feel she’s seeing the world as God does (though, as a new Mom, you might want to skip over the segments on birth deformities).

  • So lovely. Thanks for this reminder to notice the pennies and cobwebs.

  • Laura l.

    Beautiful, I love reading something that I can’t quite articulate. Thank you!

  • Colleen

    Inspiring, Jessica. I thoroughly enjoyed your take on how motherhood can change your perspective. I too wonder who I am from time to time. I also need to vacuum and am years away from Peru, but I hope when my head is down that I also see the pennies.

  • Andrea Adams

    “…though I’d planned to be busier than ever, God has pinned me down in my prime and stripped me of my own superficial glory.”
    I can totally relate to this line…and everything that changes when we have children…from the practical to the ideological. Thank you for the beautifully written post!

  • Rachel breeding

    Enjoyed it, Jessica!

  • Bonnie Whiteis

    Lovely Jessica. I was about to forward to Andrea, but as usual I see that she is ahead of me. I look forward to reading more!

  • Mary Kay

    Reminds me of my dreams of having a beautiful WHITE sofa in my lovely blue and white living room. My, how that changed after three boys came as our family grew. Nothing changes ones life like having a baby come into the conquistador’s world.
    So beautiful and poetic, the students you might have taught are truly missing a worderful experience not having you as their teacher.

  • Pat S.

    beautiful. thanks for shaking us out of our pursuit of earthly idols, and reminding us of the beauty of God’s creation.

  • Jessica,

    I think we must the same person. I am going through something very similar with my daughter, although I was never a traveler. Creatively ambitious, yes—I love traveling to the far corners of my imagination to retrieve treasures and present them for the world to see. But traveling makes me nervous on the whole.

    I digress though. I am doing my best to keep up these days now that I’m a stay-at-home-Dad. I love my role. I love my daughter. But I am also thinking with a half-baked, sleep-deprived brain, writing in fits and starts, words slipping onto the page like pennies through the cracks of every spare minute I can muster. Writing is going well, surprisingly, but I always feel behind.

    I clean constantly, but the house seems to get messier when I clean it instead of cleaner. Evie tracks crackers and apple peels and whole milk puddles and orange membranes and all sorts of other food debris behind her, and I try to keep up.

    Occasionally, we get to marvel at the everyday wonders. Today I took her to the grocery store, and there were enormous stuffed animals on the shelf. One was a dog. “Puppy! Puppy!” she said. I let her pet it. We smiled and laughed. She tried to climb out of the seat on the cart. These are the little treasures each day proffers.

    Glad to know I’m not alone. I’ve had to give up some of my writing ambition to wipe milk mustaches from my child’s upper lip, but I figure the trade-off is good. I no longer blog. I post links to my writing on my website, but I no longer try to write cutesy, funny, clever little pieces for the amusement of my five readers. I just don’t have time for that. I’d rather write things I want to write when I find the time to do it.

    I’m exhausted, but I’m living. I’m making a point to listen to music, play with my daughter, cook soups I love, and say thanks when my wife helps with the laundry. The big book I began shopping two years ago with an agent is still in limbo. I don’t even care right now. We’ll figure it out. It was my baby. Now I have a baby that accidentally smudges poop on her dress, which means she’s more demanding than the book baby.

    I’m really glad you’re part of the Good Letters team. I love being your peer, and I love reading your work. You’re a fantastic writer with great instincts. You keep on doing that writerly voodoo that you do, and I will do likewise. Someday, we shall emerge from underneath the mountains of diapers that imprison us, and we shall rise and conquer until we realize we’re too tired and old to enjoy it anymore. 🙂

    Peace to You,


  • Sara

    Yes, Annie Dillard does that, doesn’t she. I love that her words were lying in wait all those years, only to suddenly make sense. She does that to me sometimes too!

  • Kirk Herring

    I loved your article Jessica. You are a talented writer. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.