“I am like a car that does not go faster than second gear, so I can have moments of incredible frustration” explains Caren McCaleb, one of the four women featured in director Mary Trunk’s astounding documentary Lost in Living. As she says this, she is sitting in the front seat of her car, constricted, as she works on an art project while her toddler daughter naps in the back.
The necessity of making art in the margins — of the car, within the day, in the liminal edges of one’s mind — is portrayed in high contrast with the powerful ambitions of the four subjects profiled within this film. The title phrase comes from Merrill Joan Gerber, one of the featured artists, as she takes the viewer on a tour of her overflowing study and speaks about reconciling the desire to make art, in her case, writing, with the other roles she inhabits as mother, spouse, and homemaker. This could serve as the most simple distillation of this film’s premise, but its brilliance is that it keeps revealing, through unexpected intimacy and crystalline honesty, the dimensions of a paradigm almost never acknowledged, if even explored.
Watching this film reminded me of the childhood trick of using a microscope to burn a hole through a leaf. The invisible power of light is suddenly revealed to have a concentrated, incendiary force. So it is for these artists who recognize they are living within a culture that doesn’t reward either mothering or creativity and makes their pairing a particularly difficult embrace. Large themes are illuminated within deeply telling moments, literally, as Trunk tracks these four women over seven years. Trunk frames the blurry moments when each subject tries to reconcile opposing pressures — the need to maintain a sense of identity as a working artist paired with the keen sense of loss — of time, energy, and focus — that having a family also brings. Taboo-tinged discontent rises to the surface alongside other usually disallowed themes — resentment of interruption, fury at being discounted, despair to feel the prioritization of the self erode away. The need to be witnessed, (in all of these contexts), to have a true self be known, is another theme that most women, artist or not, are often not allowed to voice. This is remarkably explored, alongside the desire to be valued. Often portrayed in high contrast to the many mundane tasks each woman performs even as she questions what conveys value — broadly and personally — one of the film’s most gratifying aspects is the presentation of this as a hunger alongside any other basic human need.
The two younger subjects, Kristina Robbins, a filmmaker, and McCaleb, a visual artist, film editor, and vlogger, are friends from college who have their first children within months of each other. Another often unexplored theme is the vital necessity and sustenance of female friendship. Their conversation about how critical their connection has been to each other’s development is breathtakingly real. Later, when a distance opens up between them, their reconciliation is shared on film as they hash out the largeness of that loss. Each calls the other a “soulmate,” breaking with conventional definition of the term, as the nourishment of their bond is frankly juxtaposed against the demands of mothering. Their narratives begin while each is pregnant and ruminating on the changes to come. In one scene, McCaleb practices drawing in short, timed bursts as a way to train herself for what she envisions can be productive, post-baby sessions. When Robbins leaves her son for the first time to work on a film, her anguish and sense of sacrifice is openly measured against her desire to not lose a worthwhile professional opportunity.
The two other subjects in the film, Gerber, and visual artist Marjorie Schlossman, interviewed in midlife when their children are mostly grown, reflect on the secretiveness artmaking required within their generation, and particular to their class structure, when one was foremost a mother, and other commitments were often considered extraneous. They speak eloquently, and poignantly, about the frustration of having their art unsupported and unrecognized, although both are extremely accomplished. The gutting force of loneliness is mentioned, alongside its never distant shadow — depression.
The film’s Facebook page is a fount of useful resources, and generous clips can be found on Ma and Pa Film’s YouTube channel. Trunk offers a “house party” kit with a discussion guide which seems apropos since while the film focuses on individuals, their dilemmas reflect larger, systemic issues worthy of discussion (nevermind change) around honoring ambition, the value assigned to making art, universal childcare, compensation, and more.
The screening I attended had all four artists present and there was a lively Q & A post-film. One theme discussed was how, despite generational progress, many things (dishes, laundry, assumed responsibilities that are gendered) have stayed the same. Applause broke out when Gerber recollected how her husband offered to quit his job and take care of their new baby full time when she was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Yet, after moving across the country to Palo Alto, they discover they are homeless since graduate housing is only assigned to men. Gerber is astute about the other forms of systemic sexism she encounters as a prolific writer in a time in which being “exceptional” was both lauded and cumbersome. Parallel to this is her keen understanding of the ways in which her fiction — largely about the domestic sphere — has been misunderstood or maligned within a canon that doesn’t necessarily value work centered around women’s lives.
Watching the arc of each woman’s career within the film’s span reveals the challenges of trying to achieve success within fields with no guarantee of remuneration, recognition, or even concrete gain at the end of a very productive day. “Making it” is another nuanced concept explored as the sacrifices of growing a career in the arts is measured against the collective affect on each’s family, knowing that, conversely, there is a deep, personal cost in not honoring this need.
Interviews with the adult children of Gerber and Schlossman add more perspective, not always positively, on what it was like growing up with a mother who was preoccupied with more than just her family. In a poignant scene, Trunk asks Olive, McCaleb’s daughter, if her mother is an artist. “She used to be” is her straightforward, but wounding, perception. The subjects of this film ruminate on why making art is so necessary as they wash dishes, contemplate what is needed to sustain them as they fold laundry, and talk about the work they long to get back to as they make dinner. Their love for their children is clear. But each is equally ardent about keeping a burning passion within lit, however oppositional to conventional notions about mothering this may be, and how equally central this is for each, if not more so.