Monday, December 30, 2013

Home Again, Home Again



And now the party is over.  At least for a day.  Balsam fir needles shagging our carpet, scraps of wrapping paper nestled against the bottom of chair legs, new paints and glitter glue and Princess coloring books clogging the shelves-in-need-of-a-thorough-purging. 

It was negative 13 degrees when we woke this morning.  Chill sweeping up from the floor in the breakfast nook, your sister turning and turning the lid of her vitamin jar to release her new gummies. 

You are becoming sweeter and sweeter by the day.  Less frugal with your smiles, content to sit against the swell of a belly or propped within the crook of Daddy's leg.  Sometimes we have competitions to see who can get you to balance the longest in a sitting position before you tip to the side, a Buddha bowling pin without the reflexes to reach out your arms to catch yourself.  You can grab your toes but you're not yet quite flexible enough to bring them to your mouth.  Your hips have opened and you roll easily from side to side (then you arch your back and strain your head back but can't quite seem to flip over).  You are still a font of snot but now, with the help of the Nose Frida we manually suck the boogers out a few times a day.  It's disgusting and deeply satisfying at the same time.

You will be five months old tomorrow and last night Daddy and I arrived unanimously at the Cry for Awhile Terminal.  I don't think either of us would be capable of letting you cry for hours at this point, but all you really seem to need is about five or ten minutes of shrieking before you turn yourself off--a water spout going full force and the suddenly without warning, nothing.  Silence.  You fall asleep around 6:30pm and then (the last two nights at least) I feed you once, between 2:00 and 4:00.  Then you wake around 6:30am and I feed you again and bring you into bed and Daddy and I prop you between us with a crinkly book and you blow bubbles at the zebra-with-the-girth-of-a-cow or the snail-with-the-snot-silver-shell and we doze in the darkness until we hear your sister's footsteps, down the ladder of her bunk bed and across the floor.  She always stands in the crack of our open bedroom door, dressed in a nightgown and fleece pants, holding Dog Do, hair lifted in the odd angles of sleep, until we see her and call her into us.  Then she crawls over me and nestles in between Daddy and I, facing you, and she sings and talks to you and you smile and smile.

The last week has been full of loveliness: Thisbe lumping through the snow of Lake Harriet with Gak and Ampa and Karu, making snow angels and running the length of the frozen dock; Anna and Martha walking you in a burst of warm weather, taking turns strapping you to the fronts of their bodies; Dot flipping crepe after crepe on the stove, passing us yogurt and syrup and cherry jam; John and Anna and Dot and Mark and Daddy and Mama moving down a snow-covered path in Excelsior, dark figures against a white board, night swift all around us, talking about Amy Adams' side boob and the re-making of the Self in American Hustle; your sister's joy on Christmas morning pulling princess fruit snacks out of her stocking ("He CAME, he really CAME!!!"); Thisbe squeezing drops of color into bowls of white icing; watching the Christmas eve service on a screen because our church was too full; Mama in the fall of snow on Christmas eve, shaking jingle bells in the cold porch light below Thisbe's window; Martha singing the final lyric of a song just outside the door of your room; loaves of french bread filled with artichoke and garlic and cheese, smoked turkey, pans of chicken and wild rice, almond bread, chocolate rum balls, Negronis and Manhattans, red and green M and Ms in a glass dish; your father's sniffling at the end of Frozen and your sister's peanut butter sandwich crust, crushed with sweat in the palm of her hand.

And there was the friction too, the places where we hurt one another, the smaller slights and the larger gaps in understanding.  On Saturday afternoon, Daddy brought Thisbe to a McDonald's to meet Gak.  The plan was that Thiz would spend a night in Minneapolis while we all spent one more night in Excelsior.  But by the time Gak showed up, Thisbe was curled in Dada's lap, crying that she just wanted to go home. 

All four of us, I think, are most grateful for this: to return to our home, to our routine, to the usual. Oatmeal with craisens and the familiar art table at school.  To the red formica table in the coffee shop and the mobile with polar bear and crocodile and bear and whale circling predictably.  To the staticky blankets and unvacuummed carpets and slightly empty, slightly sticky refrigerator shelves.  To the whirr of the humidifier and the chugging of the electric train and the creak of our own floorboards.

Yesterday we got to watch John preside at the church where he's doing his internship.  He was graceful and confident, raising his arms of the prayers, inviting people to sit and stand, lighting the baptismal candle.   The gospel text for the day was about the slaughter of the innocents.  The baby boys Herod killed out of his great fear.  But I am thinking today about what this meant for Mary, to have given birth in a foreign place and then to be told she had to go immediately to Egypt, to flee to further strangeness.  For her, there was no going home, no return to the routine and the regular.  And I am thinking today about the people in our world who have to live like Mary.  Not just the refugees, but those who are homeless or mentally ill and must move forward, always, into what is foreign, unfamiliar, uncharted; who must go, again and again, into unsafe territory.  And I wonder if for Mary, faith came because she needed a home and God was one, a place to rest, finally, that was familiar and sound.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Family Spa Time



Whenever I get stressed out or tired or feel bad, your father always suggests I take a bath.  I don't really like baths all that much but tonight I capitulated because you've been waking up about four times a night and I'm exhausted and achy and have that tickle in the back of my throat that signals impending doom.

And, because you were with Barb The Nanny for three hours today and I was feeling like I should do some sort of special baby bonding, I thought I would take you in the bath with me.  Everyone knows that bathing with your baby is a miraculous experience; you can snuggle and get a sense of well-being!

So I got undressed and got you undressed and we climbed into the bath together and I gazed into your eyes and moved you through the warm water and you smiled and then pooped everywhere.

I screamed for your father and then you started screaming because I was screaming and then there I was, standing with you in the tub while Daddy hosed fecal matter off of you and me and the tub.

Then Daddy whisked you away and I moved on to the "private tub-time" recommended by the article above.  First I dumped in some promising looking bath salts.  They had a picture of a bundle of herbs on the front and all the writing was in French.  The water immediately turned neon green so I squealed again and this time Thisbe came in and said "Ewww Mommy.  What did you do?"  But it smelled OK so I lay back in the flourescent water and listened to my baby cry in the room next door while my four year old turned and turned the doorknob of the bathroom while repeating the phrase "MommyIneedhelp" incessantly.

And I thought, through the haze of joy and relaxation, about the Henri Nouwen passage we read in our advent reflection book today.  It was all about patience and it was very Zen-like and wise about how impatient people long to reside outside the present moment.  And at dinner I nodded and thought about how impatient I am and how much I have to learn.  But later, I couldn't help thinking how Nouwen likely wrote that quote at a desk with a cup of coffee that hadn't grown cold and not while swimming in flakes of excrement.

And so my unheroic wisdom of today, Matteus, is this: patience is a good skill to hone, but there will be times in your life when you are in the poop tub, and when that happens it's also OK to long to reside in a different moment.  And it's also good to feel grateful to the One Who Washes Away the Feces.

(Note: my gift to you and anyone who reads this blog is to NOT provide a picture of this precious moment.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Afterbirth



It was 8:34am on Wednesday morning.  I was trying to get your sister Thisbe out the door to school.  She was wearing her winter coat, her black hat with ear flaps and fluorescent flowers, and her mittens.  But no boots.  And we were late.  Not because I actually had to be anywhere by a set time but because the longer it takes us to get going in the morning, the less time I have for my own work.  So there you were in your exer-saucer and there was Thisbe in her winter gear and stockinged feet, doing a jig in front of you.  And there was Daddy, banging a maraca on a tambourine.  And you smiling like crazy and Thisbe dancing faster and bouncing side to side and making fish faces.  And Daddy beginning the chorus of Jingle Bells for the third time.  And there was me suddenly, yelling at the top of my lungs "STOP LAUGHING AND DANCING IT IS TIME TO GO!!!"

I'm such a winner of a Mama right now.  Winner of a wife too.  Daddy has been stressed out because he has papers to grade and a J-term course to plan and a book manuscript due January 1st.  So yesterday he asked for time to work and I said "yes."  But then he talked to the neighbor in the driveway for twenty minutes while I made lunch and as a result was late getting out the door.  But he still wanted the same amount of time.  So we fought.  Then I gave him an extra hour and said "just be to the party by 4:00."  And he arrived at the party at 4:15 and I was seething.  Hot reptiles slithering around inside me.  You were fussing and I was bouncing you and trying to have conversations about cookie baking and Thisbe kept asking for one more treat and one more treat and he just kept not walking through the door.  When we finally got home I went up to our room and closed the door and didn't come out for half an hour.  We put you and your sister to bed and then the babysitter came and we went to another party and saw people we loved and pretended we were speaking to one another.  Well, to be fair, your father was speaking to me.  I was a wall of mono-syllabic responses.  But pretending to be happy and delighted by the season OF COURSE.

I went to bed curled around my laptop while your father reapplied the Saab's driver side mirror in the dark and sub-zero temperatures.  This morning Thisbe had to sing at church at 8:15am so we were a whirlwind of dumping breakfast cereal into bowls and trading our mugs out from under the coffee maker and wiping snot from your nose and fastening buttons on your sister's velvet dress.  Somewhere in there, over by the coffee maker, your father kissed me on the cheek and said he was sorry and that he loved me.  I mumbled "I love you too" and then reached for you to put you in the car seat and you looked at me and then pooped loudly and with incredible force.

Thisbe did a lovely job singing Away in the Manger and some song about keeping the secret of Jesus in your heart (?).  Then we watched the older children present a pageant complete with fifth grade boys looking mildly awkward, mildly proud, and mildly humiliated to be dressed as shepherds.  At the end of the service Thisbe turned to me and said, "why didn't they show the part where Jesus comes out of Mary's tummy?"

And I whispered something back about how when you tell a story you have to leave some parts out because you can't possibly say everything.

But meanwhile I thought YES.  Where IS the part where the baby comes ripping out of Mary's vagina?  Where is the afterbirth and the oops she pooped in the straw?  Where is the argument Mary and Joseph had as they went inn to inn, finding no room because Joseph was in charge of making reservations five months ago and totally forgot but at least he did remember to get an oil change?  Where is the expression on Mary's face when a bunch of men she's never met show up to crowd her with their oily wool smell three hours after she's given birth?

I love the story of Jesus' birth.  I need it every season.  But sometimes when I go out with my family during the holidays, I find myself trying to form us in the image of the creche.  I want us looking like the pageant version of the story--full of humility and joy and awe (and flattering draped fabric and sweet melodies and glitter).  I am ashamed that the emotions we seem to be doing best in our household at this moment are instead anxiety and blame and rage.

I know this point has been made before.  But I am saying it again today.  I am hungry for the real amidst the cheer.  I am hungry for our telling of this story to include the the howls and sweaty breath of a woman in labor, the fumbling of a father who has to find a way to cut the umbilical cord, and the squalling red face of an infant who has too much starlight directly in his eyes. 

Birth is a beautiful thing but it is a hard thing too.  I wish we worked harder to make room for the confusion and impatience and pain, both in the way we hear the story of Jesus and in the way we hear the stories of one another.

Friday, December 13, 2013

At your four month appointment you were 14.6 pounds, 25.5 inches, big head.  You manage, most days, to insert your thumb in your mouth in what appears to be a fairly satisfactory way.  You lift your toes into the air and then sometimes the weight of them tips you to the right or left, onto your side, in a way that surprises you.  Right now you're wearing a striped orange sleeper that stretches tight across your thighs and a bib (featuring a bulldog and the words 'Ruff and Rough") to catch the flow of drool and snot that is ceaseless.  I nursed you at 12 last night and then you were awake again at 2 so Daddy rocked you and changed you and administered the hated blue bulb syringe to your nose.  You slept, finally, in your car seat and then woke again at 6 to nurse and then to lay against my chest, raising your head to catch my face and smiling hugely, delighted, finding me for the first time again and again.  When people hear your penny whistle shriek they turn (Yesterday, at the Tavern.  Wednesday, at church.  Tuesday, at Blue Monday.) and they smile.  They think this sound is a fluke, a blip, an odd little chirrup.  The do not realize that it is in fact the ONLY SOUND YOU MAKE (other than crying).  It's like living with Captain VonTrapp.  Only your sister singing "My Favorite Things" has not driven you to give up the sound, it instead increase in volume as though while Maria played her guitar the captain had decided to accompany her on his whistle.

Yesterday was a big day.  I invited my students over for the last day of class and they squeezed into our living room and ate brownies and Rice Krispie bars and baby oranges and drank homemade hot chocolate with gigantic marshmallows floating on top.  Gak carried you in the Bjorn and you listened politely to the first part of the class (then you began the penny whistle shrieking and she had to take you upstairs).  The students read their poems and then left in a shuffle of backpacks and hugs and drippy boots.  They were a lovely group and I'll miss meeting with them and hearing their work. 

Then we went to Thisbe's preschool for the Christmas sing.  They tapped sticks and shook bells and belted out songs about crocodiles and elves and candy canes from the masking tape "Xs" that mark their spots on the carpet.  Afterward, Thisbe ran so long and so hard that she finally fell and cut her lip and somehow ended up on the potty with a frozen penguin pressed to her face, Gak squatting in front of her, Daddy trying to dab her blood off his sweater.  Afterward the appropriate period of crying we went to the library and saw the model trains and then (after more meltdown) went to the Tavern for dinner. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Elves are Watching



Advent is upon us along with a half inch layer of sleet that is slowly turning to ice in the darkness as I write this.

Advent means many things in our household but perhaps the most important is my favorite manipulative parenting strategy: THE ELVES ARE WATCHING.  I've only employed it a few times thus far, most often around bedtime.  Thisbe will be squirreling around her room, hiding in her closet or head butting me and I'll look suddenly at the window, an expression of mild concern crossing my face.  "What?" says Thisbe.  "It's probably nothing," I say, "it's just that it kind of looked like...but it couldn't be."  "What?" says Thisbe.  "An elf!" I say.  Thisbe immediately presses both hands over her mouth.  "Watching ME?" she says between her fingers.  "Mmmm hmmmm" I say.  She then becomes an automaton of silence, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, climbing into bed with a haunted look on her face.

Tonight, after going through this same routine again, she made me sing her bedtime song in a whisper so she could hear if there was any sleigh movement on the roof.  Then she said her prayer, which went something like this "Now I lay me...Dear God, please don't let the elves see me when I am being mean.  And please bring the elves and the angels and the presents under the tree into my dreams.  Amen."

Jesus is not super proud of me right now but I bet my father is--right DAD?  My father was (and likely still is) the king of manipulative parenting strategies (though likely he wouldn't call them that, he would simply call it parenting).  His favorites were Nurse Kaethe (in which he lay on the couch feigning illness while I brought him stuff.  For hours.), Ground squirrel hunt (in which he took me to a field by the university where he taught and instructed me to watch for the squirrels to poke their heads up while he graded papers) and Nap Contest (in which the two players lie on a bed, facing one another, eyes closed.  The object of the game is to catch the other person with eyes open so I would open and close mine constantly, like a drunken fish, and he would simply fall asleep.)

When I told YOUR father about my elfish manipulation of your sister he scowled and said he thought it was creepy.  By the time you read this you'll probably be able to gauge what kind of person you are by whether you agree with your father's estimation (creepy) or mine (genius).

Though Jesus is likely not entirely impressed with me right now, he is quite impressed with you, sweet boy.  You were baptized this Sunday.  The first Sunday of advent.  Gak and I pushed your plump arms into the highly feminine baptismal gown that she wore and I wore and Uncle Michael wore and Thisbe wore and we cradled you over a round metal font at the front of the church.  Pastor Cheryl (a former cop) scooped water over your head (some drops from Northfield and some drops from the Jordan River) and Becky lit your baptismal candle and around you gathered Judy and Michael and Mark and Dot and Anna and Radhika and Karu and David and Uncle Michael and Agnes and Greg and Gak and Ampa and a bunch of kiddos from the congregation.  I lifted you up into the air and the Bethelites promised to support you and Thisbe and Lucy and Hattie splashed their hands in the holy water and Becky and Charlie promised to guide you and love you and Pastor Cheryl dipped her thumb in holy oil and made the sign of the cross on your forehead.





Then we went back to our house and ate a delicious pan of chicken and rice made by wonderful DeAne and a salad tossed with dried cherries and goat cheese from Dot and fruit salad and bread from Gak and a cake with buttercream frosting.  You took a short nap and then you were passed from arm to arm and lap to lap until finally you ended up in the exersaucer in the den with all the men, baptized into your first encounter with the Vikings.



Tomorrow is your four month check-up.  You will be weighed and measured, your eyes and ears will be illumined, the flexibility of your muscles and joints will be tested, the size of the soft spot on your head will be assessed.  We'll be given numbers and assurances, percentiles and words like normal or abnormal as a way of coming to know and understand this tiny person that you are.

It is something of a relief to believe that you are known already, known and loved entirely by a God whose love will be with you always.  Becky and Charlie gave you a book to remind you of this, gave you a card with their beautiful words to remind you of this.  Unlike the elves, God doesn't watch you to assess your niceness quotient.  God watches you because loving is knit up in knowing--and Matteus Mark, beloved son, we give you over to this God because we are human and sometimes we will fail at knowing you and thus understanding how best to love you.

Happy Baptism, sweet one.  You fill our lives with promise and we are grateful.  


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fragments



You sit in the lavender Bumbo seat on the dinner table while we eat, mouth motoring, bubbles filling. the crevice between bottom lip and top of chin.  You slump a little to one side or you stick your arms out straight to either side, your hands making tiny motions as though you were circling golden rings on your wrists.

On the way to see Cinderella at the Children's Theater your sister says "But we are not going to see the REAL Cinderella, right?  The real Cinderella is not in this world, right?"  She is wearing sparkly purple tights and pink Mary Janes.  Most of the silver sparkles on the Mary Janes have been flayed off.  I think of the iridescent scales in Bishop's poem "At the Fishhouses."

Your father and I sit at Cafe Maude.  His salmon is the pinked clouds at early sunset and the center of my steak is the last rithe of red before dark comes entirely.  I have a Manhattan with a dark cherry in the center and he has a cocktail called a Norweigan something-or-other because it has Aquavit swiled through.  He says he will buy himself a bottle of Aquavit when his book is done.  He talks about adding the word "subjectivity" to the title of his book and he talks about will and passion and the imagination.  The gravy around the steak is the color of mahogany and tastes like the word sounds.  I am thirty-five.

At the end of the play the characters line the side aisles and invite the children to dance.  Thisbe goes immediately and a ten year old girl who carried the footstool with the glass slipper takes your sister's hands.

It's around 40 degrees and the sky is the brushed cinders of November.  Wind frisking the trees.  I am standing on the sidewalk outside the Northfield Co-op, waiting for a turkey.  Two men and a woman go back and forth between the back of the truck and a folding table, calling out "twenty pounds," "fourteen pounds," "biggest we've got."  A Co-op employee comes down the line holding a tray with white sample cups.  "Chocolate with green tea and ginger and lemon?  Tastes better than it sounds!"  I think of a play I was in during college called "Mad Forest" that was set in communist Romania, how in one scene we were all simply supposed to look like we were standing in a bread line. How we practiced that.  Rehearsed standing in line.  How your body would shift, where your weight would go, where you would cast your eyes after thirty minutes, sixty minutes, three hours.

Your father straps you in the Bjorn and vacuums the upstairs.  You are stoic but attentive.  Your cheeks huge and weighty.

In class we applaud for Brian, a cross country runner, because St. Olaf has just won the Division III championship for the first time ever.  Then we applaud for Mary Clare because it's her birthday.  Then for Rosa because she's been awake since 3am.  Then for Casey just because.  

At intermission, Thisbe and Karu sit on giant cushions and eat from snack cups that Gak has prepared: bits of dried mango, cranberries, a few orange bunny crackers. 

I thought you would be relaxed, smiley, the easy child.  And you are easier than your sister.  But your smiles do not come easily.  You are discerning.  Skeptical.  More likely to greet someone with your large eyes, to study the person for minute after minute while he or she makes one ridiculous face after another in order to coax the joy out of you.  But joy comes when it's ready.

We sit at the breakfast nook, a bird made of tagboard and tissue paper, markered purple and green, floats from the light above us.  We eat sweet potatoes and kale and parsnips and shallots and chicken from the crockpot.  Our only side dish is baby oranges because I don't have the energy for more.  I am aware of the empty space on the plate.  Thisbe peels the orange, lines up the sections on their sides, and counts them.  They look like mummified bodies spooning each other.  You lean and slouch in the Bumbo, trying to get your mouth over Thomas the train, trying to figure out how to get your hands to do your bidding.

After the play, Thisbe takes my hand.  As we walk down the red carpeted stairs she says, "Cinderella is in our world now, isn't she Mama?  Cinderella is really really for real in our world?"  I'm not sure how to answer.






Sunday, November 17, 2013

Night Vigil



Punchy gray clouds and the branches stark, just a few leaves left clinging.  I was admiring the thin purple veins at your temple yesterday, the way they resemble spindly twigs against the sky of your skull.  You bring your hands together now, folded and clasped and then wedged in your mouth, drool slicking the wrinkles of your knuckles and saturating the bib area of your shirt.  You haven't been talking as much the last few days; instead, you seem intent on trying to smell your toes.  When I lean you back against my thighs you pull yourself forward in a tummy crunch that puts Jane Fonda to shame, leaning forward further and further until, if I didn't stop you, you would become a tumbleweed, rolling end over end into oblivion.

We've tried a couple naps in the crib, tried a couple naps with your arms unswaddled.  Varying degrees of success.  Your head is huge.  It is a round house with many floors and a poor design.  Your crown is the widest part but the second level, housing eyebrows, eyes, and nose, is steadily increasing in size mostly due to the plumping of your cheeks.  Your cheeks hang like pillows on the clothesline, sagging above the lowest floor, your mouth and chin, recessed and a little pointy.  It occurs to me that you resemble a dreidel.  And now that you're big enough to sit in your exersaucer, your sister can spin you, although we'll try to dissuade her from using you as a gambling tool.

You tend to have a number of good days of sleep (only waking up once or twice) followed by a couple miserable days (three wake ups).  Unfortunately, this last week your miserable days coincided with two nights on which your sister also woke, first because she peed the bed (through her pull-up; thanks Pampers!) and then because of a hacking cough. 

Nights are strange, in part because I can never entirely remember what happened the following day.  I will remember pulling pink Hello Kitty sheets off your sister's bed, or touching the strands of hair glued to her cheek from snot.  I remember lifting you from the bassinet, the tear of velcro on the swaddle, rewinding your arms, rocking in and out of consciousness.  But sometimes I don't remember correctly at all.  On Thursday morning I was certain you'd woken twice in the night, but when I touched my hugely full left breast it was clear you'd only woken once.

We are part of the world of insomniacs and somnambulists, of bakers and midwives.  We are needles piercing the dark fabric of the night. 

I pray more often these days.  Maybe because you are so new and vulnerable and seem in need of extra spiritual sustenance.  Maybe it's because of the string of deaths this fall, the abundance of grief.  Most of all, though, I think it's because I have this time with you in the darkness.  I tend to whine about the additional chaos created in our house since your birth, the seeming never-ending penny-whistle screams and cackles and exclamations of need and headboard thumping (your sister, not your parents).  But there is more stillness too, these moments nursing you where I'd like to lean fully into sleep but instead am held back, where I linger with you in this place of blurry quiet. Then they come.

Jim and Jennifer and Maggie's husband and Milton and Popo and George and Graham and those who miss them; my friends who have sick parents or have to undergo tests or painful procedures themselves; those who are growing new life or grieving the absence of life; those who are on the cusp of finishing books or dissertations and those who are mourning the absence of work that moves them; those who are contemplating moves across the country and those who are facing the difficulty of learning to love where they are.

And oddly, whereas during the day my efforts to help seem insufficient, whereas I'm hyper-aware of everything I am failing to do (the notes I should write, the meals I should bring, the word of comfort I should offer) at night, in these rocking pockets of quiet, letting those I love pass in and out, this feels like enough.

I am holding you, Matteus, and we are holding all of them.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Flood



Last night you woke at 11:45 and at 4:00 and then at 5:15 and then you woke and woke and woke.  Daddy went in to quiet you, sat on the edge of the glider and rocked your bassinet, but his cough kept waking you and I kept imagining, every time he coughed, all of the germs from his cough spraying all over you, lit in some neon color, like on CSI when they reveal semen or blood with a black light.  So at 6:10 I gave in.  Turned on your airplane lamp.  Scooped you out of the bassinet.  Unwound the blue fleece swaddle.  Watched your little fists zoom into the air (Nanny Barb calls this blooming).  You were ready for action.  Smiles and coos.  A focused blowing of bubbles.  You were happy by yourself beneath the mobile for another 15 minutes.  The mobile which plays either Beethoven, nature sounds, or a heartbeat.  Accompanied, if desired, by rotating stuffed animals.  Accompanied, if desired, by another set of illuminated animals projected onto the plastic umbrella that holds the stuffed animals in place.  It's like a baby orgasm.  Then we went downstairs and I made pancakes for myself and you rocked in your chair and I allowed myself too much syrup.  We played a number of intense games of pat-a-cake in the den before your sister joined us.  Jammies, Dog Do, cherry chapstick (which she applies approximately every 7.5 seconds). 

Two nights ago you woke me in the middle of a dream.  In the dream, water was pouring out of one of our walls, spreading out across the wood floor.  I only had two bowls and I couldn't scoop the water fast enough.  Peder was nowhere to be found and Gak was changing your diaper, too busy paying attention to you to take the water situation seriously.  Finally Micahel (uncle Michael) said he'd go shut the water off downstairs.  At that point I also realized I was kneeling next to the bathtub.  That there had been this place beside me all along to place the water.  But I hadn't seen it.  And shutting off the water, that was a terrific idea, but in the dream I couldn't possibly imagine leaving my frantic scooping to do what really needed to be done.

This is how I feel most days.  Like I am frantically scooping and my frantic scooping is never enough.  The water is still spreading.  The water is everywhere.

I officially dread the weekend.  Dread the hours where your father and I try to balance both of you.  Where 90% of the time someone is shrieking or whining or explaining very specifically the way in which her needs are not currently being met.  Every night this week your sister has had an epic tantrum because we tell her not to do something (touch you, kick us, apply scotch tape to her lips, etc.) or we request that she do something (turn off the I-PAD, eat her chicken, wash the excrement off her hands, etc.) and she continually does (or does not do) the action until a warning is proferred and then she resolutely does (or does not do) the thing ONE MORE TIME, while staring us down so that we then have to follow through on the threatened consequence (no books before bed, no Halloween candy, no screen time, etc.) and she howls (oh how she howls) as though we have told her she has no place in this family any longer.  The water is everywhere.

I watched part of a TED talk this week (short talks in which people offer some pocket of knowledge or motivational truth) in which a lesbian talked about how we're all in the process of coming out of a closet, we're all trying to tell the truth about something.  For some people it's divorce, for others a cancer diagnosis for others depression or addiction.  And she talked about how we're always in competition for whose life is hardest, whose closet is the most dark.  And she said "there is no hardest, there is only hard."  Or something to that effect. 

On the one hand I thought this was a gorgeous truth.  But honestly, I don't really believe it.  Here's how my reasoning goes every day.  This is my hamster wheel of thought:
I am having a hard time right now.
I am having trouble keeping my shit together.
(Yesterday, for instance, I started crying because a man in a hotel ballroom suggested that most best selling novels follow a certain formula, that you have to write a good ending because your ending sells the next book.  "Literature can't be packaged like that," I sobbed to my mother while we walked you beside the hotel pool.  "This is the antithesis of everything I believe.  About teaching.  About my LIFE,"  I added--though that made no sense.  The smell of chlorine everywhere.  "I think it's just one way of thinking about writing," said my mom.  "Well, it's the WRONG way," I sobbed.  And we walked by the water again.)
I am having trouble keeping my shit together but I have two healthy kids.
I have two healthy kids who are both doing great!
I have a marriage that is not falling apart.
I have a house that is ridiculously large (compared to the majority of dwellings in the world).
I am not food insecure.
I am not dying (well, probably not.  Or, as my lovely husband would say: we're always dying!)
I have a job I love.
I have a community.  I have so many amazing friends.
I have three different families that provide both emotional and financial support.
I have a book contract.
I have (currently) a mocha and an hour of free time.
There is hard-er than this.  There is a lot harder than this.
In fact, I think almost every single person I know currently has it harder, in some way, than I do.
I am a pathetic whiner.
I need to suck it up.
I am not sucking it up enough.
I am feeling sorry for myself.
Pity-parties do not make me attractive.
I look haggard.
I have no right to look haggard and I look haggard. 
I should be more gentle with myself.
People who are gentle with themselves end up spending $12,000 a year on facials instead of helping the homeless.
If I were writing instead of worrying about this, I would have a lot written by now.
And on and on and on. 

I don't have any trouble admitting the reality of my emotional landscape.  But I have a lot of trouble believing that landscape is legitimate or that it is worthy of grace.  I have trouble forgiving that woman in the dream, the one who doesn't understand that she could turn off the water at the source or scoop it into the bathtub, the one who can't see that a little water on the floor is not the worst thing of all. 

For that woman, there is only this bowl of water.  And the next.  And the next.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Siblings

Gak, Lisa, Thisbe, Agnes, Mama, Matteus

Glorious fall Sunday.  Wind whipping and churning the leaves so that for brief instants they rise up like the golden sleeve of a half-hidden god.  Wind whipping the local election yard signs into the street, names clicking under tires.  You are at Ricki and Peder's, sleeping (knock on wood) on Daddy's chest while he watches football.  Thisbe and Gak and Ampa and Lisa and Ed are at the zoo.  I told Thisbe to blow three kisses to the penguins.  Lisa is Gak's sister, Ed is her husband, and we don't see them very often.  The last time was five years ago so they'd never met you or your sister before.  Thisbe tore open gifts from them: a Dora horse vet for her and Thomas the Train items for you.  The horse has subsequently been re-named Love and Dora is now Jewel Gold.  Just before they left for the zoo we watched a video of Lisa doing dressage, guiding a horse around a ring lined with low white fences, the horse's movements smooth and controlled.  The horse stops, hooves lined in two even rows.  The horse takes delicate steps backward or canters in a long diagonal, leaning like a ship into a hard wind.

Your father returned yesterday from a three day trip, the first of that kind (i.e. the kind where I am left alone with two children) since you've been born.  I was really actually only "alone" with both of you for approximately 50 minutes, on the car ride from Northfield to Minneapolis.  You immediately started screaming and you screamed continuously for the first thirty minutes.  Meanwhile, Thisbe started asking questions I could barely hear and could only answer in a voice wound exceptionally tight.  Finally I called your father (so that he could in some small way be part of the joy) and handed the cell phone to Thisbe.  As Thisbe handed it back to me (through the scream-permeated air), she dropped the phone.  "Dammit Thisbe!" I yelled.  At which point Thisbe started crying and saying "you hurt my feelings, Mama" at which point I started crying and saying "I'm so sorry I hurt your feelings" and then there we were, all three of us, somewhere in Apple Valley, crying.  "I wish I was in Texas with Daddy," said Thisbe.  "Me too," I whimpered.

Your face grows steadily wider.  When we hold you in a seated position you less and less resemble a bobblehead, although much of the time you study your belly button, chin studiously pulled to chest.  You love to talk, especially to imitate tones, especially lilting high-pitched tones.  "ooohh--eeeee" Thisbe says and "ooooo-eeeee--EEEEE" you respond, smiling in delight.  There is a musicality in your voice that I don't remember in Thisbe's.  Maybe you will be gifted with your father's musical prowess. 

Last Wednesday your father and I sat on the couch after he returned from confirmation class; I was sipping a glass of wine and half-watching a Swedish detective series in which the protagonist is a blond, 34-year-old journalist with two children whose husband has long "work dinners" with women who have longer legs and more bubbly laughs than the protagonist.  Your father had a pile of small orange papers in his lap; he'd asked all of the 8th graders to write down a question.  Anything, he told them.  One wrote, "why doesn't God always answer our prayers?" and another wrote "is it OK to be gay?"  At the other end of the spectrum two students wrote "what does the fox say?", a reference to a current song in which adults dress as animals and do a lot of hip-thrusting in the dark woods.
 
We watched the video of the song today while we waited for Lisa and Ed to arrive for brunch; I did some muted hip thrusts and Gak jiggled you a little side to side.  Uncle Michael and Auntie Agnes looked on skeptically, trying to decide whether to be impressed.  It's been a little odd to see my mother and Lisa together because I so rarely get to do so.  They are lovely and warm and chatty with one another when together so I don't entirely understand why they aren't closer confidants.  I mean, I understand it has to do with the way they were raised, brokenness in their family, differences in who they have become.  Still, it's strange to see Lisa put her glass of iced tea in the fridge, half-full, the way my mother does, odd to hear them talk about butter cake and which set of china their mother used for which holiday.  I have so many siblings and such a different relationship with each of them--it's odd to think that you and Thiz will only get one opportunity for a sibling relationship and stranger still that your father and I have no control how that relationship develops.  As adults you might talk three times a week or you might drop one another an e-mail once a year.

Because my parents are divorced, all of my siblings are half or step or adopted; I've always wondered whether a full genetic blood tie with any one of my siblings would make a difference about how I felt about him or her.  My closeness to (or distance from) each of my siblings seems to have less to do with the amount of time spent with each of them and more to do with whether our values align, whether we're apt to try to care for one another in the same way.

I read an article recently about the importance of siblings (I think the writer had four or five), how siblings are ultimately the people who know you for the longest in your lifetime.  But I'm not sure knowing longest equates to knowing best.  Sometimes I feel like the role of each sibling in a family becomes more archetypal and less complex.  We become a conglomeration of those attributes that our siblings have in a lesser degree.  So you have the responsible/successful child and the artistic/activist child and the nurturing/listener child and the cosmopolitan/sophisticated child, etc., etc.  We all take part in this, children and parents and grandparents alike, because we want each child to be distinct, an individual.  We are always comparing you to Thisbe, especially Thisbe as a baby.  Even in this post I'm saying that I think you will be gifted with your father's voice while Thisbe has been relegated to the off-pitch wonder of mine.  We call you sweet and we call her intense.  And in our efforts to distinguish, I wonder if we leave less room for growth or change or surprise.  I'm so eager to know who you are, Matteus, that I sometimes inflate a single characteristic and call it the person you are becoming.

I wrote the majority of this post at Dunn Brothers in Linden Hills this morning and didn't finish it because I wanted to add a few photos first.  On the way home from the cafe, as I drove by my old high school, I saw an animal trotting across the street.  A cat with a bushy tail, I thought.  The animal wasn't afraid, it didn't disappear into the shrubbery and as I drove closer I saw that it was a fox, its coat a mottled red, its white face dappled with patches of gray and black.  It trotted down the sidewalk and I watched it until I noticed the car behind me, the driver of which seemed far less interested in what the fox might be saying.

Still, today I'm thinking about the people I assume I know best, wondering how often I see simply a version of who the person used to be rather than changing my vision along with them to truly understand who they have become.
Matteus and Thisbe

Michael and Mama

Agnes, Michael, and Mama


Friday, October 25, 2013

The Plateau



The cold has officially arrived.  I caught Thisbe trying to lick the frost off the side of the Saab this morning and on the way to school ("off like a herd of princesses!") she exclaimed gleefully that there was snow growing beside the car window.   The radiators tick their way into life every morning and I bundle you in blankets inside a snuggle sack, socks over your hands for mittens, when we go out walking.  It's been a busy week.  I gave a reading at St. Olaf on Monday, participated in a craft talk on Tuesday, and will hear Salman Rushdie talk at Carleton tonight.  Meanwhile, your father taught confirmation on Wednesday night and plugs away at his book manuscript every night, three ring binder open beside him on the couch, computer on lap, baseball game muted on the TV in front of him.

Your smiles are coming easier and you have discovered how to squeal.  You like to talk best on your changing table; your tongue lifts and draws back in your mouth so you can utter siren-like lifts of tone.  When you want to engage you do so thoroughly.  Little tremors fill your body and you kick your legs and stiffen your arms in your effort to communicate.  The rest of the time you are an entirely stoic observer: saucer eyes, chin doubling down to other chin with the intensity of your gaze.  Last night you slept from 7:00 to 7:00, only waking once, at 4:15--hallelujah!  You're also starting to take naps in your bassinet.  We swaddle you and bounce you on the exercise ball and sometimes plug your whimpering with the green pacifier before creeping, ninja-like, from your room.

At Baby Talk last week I was shocked to find you'd only gained two ounces in the previous week.  You'd gained eleven ounces the week prior.  When I looked startled the nurse (doing the weighing) turned to me and said, Well, they can't go on like that forever.  You wouldn't want them to.  It's a plateau.  That's OK.

And it does feel like a plateau, this space we're in right now.  The insane, do-what-you-can-to-survive period of early infancy has passed (somewhat) and we're edging nearer to routine--to a predictable number of naps, to longer stretches of sleep, to a more adept balancing of two different bedtime routines.  Midterms have passed and though Halloween is frothing all around us, we're in the stretch of late fall/early winter before the stress of the holidays and finals arrives.  There seems to be coasting room and breathing space available here on the plateau.

But (and you must be realizing this is kind of a theme), I kind of suck at thriving on the plateau.  Not that I'm any better in the mountains and valleys of crazy-time, but I find the plateaus of parenting hard too.  When Thisbe was little, every time we hit one of these plateaus, I'd finally think YES!  I have figured it out!  I am master of the nap routine (or teaching self-soothing techniques or administering cry-it-out or offering teething comforts or nursing in awkward places or whatever)  And then, literally a week later, everything would be different.  Whatever rule I'd figured out would be broken.  She'd move from three naps to two or need to be put in a sleeper instead of swaddled.  I learned that at the end of every plateau is a sharp cliff off which one often falls with no warning because one was coasting along so happily on the plateau with the wind on one's face and ABBA on the radio and a little glass of wine in the mug holder and then--whoops!  Free fall into the churning sea!

So with you, Mr. Matteus, I distrust any moment of calm, any startling revelation about baby care.  I am bracing for the free fall.  This means, for instance, that last night I lay in bed at 11:15, blinking like a goldfish, listening for your mewls of hunger.  It means that during your naps I'm always circling the lower floor of our house like a dysfunctional shark, doing small tasks (putting away a dirty sock, washing three or four dishes, smoothing a new tablecloth, hanging up a few of Thisbe's coats, etc.) because I know that at any minute you might wake up and I know (from previous experience) that if I'm deeply engaged in a project I care about, I will resent your waking.  So I try to remain always is a state of preparedness for the shit storm.

This is part of my nature.  To be prepared.  Maybe I was a boy scout in a former life.  Specifically, I feel that if I imagine every possible awful scenario and acknowledge the possibility of each, that this will somehow keep these events from occurring.  It's kind of a professional level of worry.  I think of the Biblical story of Mary and Martha and Jesus.  The one where Jesus comes over to hang out and Martha is buzzing around getting everything prepared while Mary just sits there and talks to Jesus.  Martha gets pissed (as I would) because she is doing all the work of being a hostess while Mary just sits there, drinking a beer (you can imagine who plays which role when we enact this scene at our house).  When Martha complains to Jesus that her sister is being lazy, Jesus tells her she's too worried and distracted and "there is need of only one thing."  While the feminist in me has always kind of hated this story (because I feel like it gives, like, 50 million men the leeway to sit on their asses), the girl scout in me realizes that Martha and I are definitely soul sisters.

And I'm sure there's a whole lot of interpretation about what Jesus means by "one thing"--that it's him or God or salvation or grace.  But today I am thinking that maybe partly what it means is there is need for only one thing--that the message is not about the object, what the thing represents, but the singularity of the thing.  Not ten things, not five things, not even two things.  One thing.  And it is true that in this age of continually multiplying images and messages and screens, I have a deep craving for just one thing.

I know this is a cliche.  Seize the day.  Be present.  Breathe deeply.  Blah blah blah.  I realize you find this same concept printed on the inside of tea boxes.  But as I look out over this lovely plateau, it is a relief to think I am not responsible for enjoying this moment more than any other.  I am only responsible for seeing it.  For sitting still and not turning away.

Just one thing. 


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dim Gold Glow



I have not yet really written enough about you, Matteus.  You're eleven weeks old and twelve pounds, one ounce as of your last weigh in on Monday.  When I measured you yesterday you were twenty-three inches.  That measurement is less reliable though; I used an Ariel picture book at your crown and an Entertainment Weekly (featuring leather-jacketed motorcycle folk) at your feet to mark the distance.

You have brown hair that turns light and fuzzy when we bathe you and slicker and darker the further you get from your last immersion.  Your head is the sweet inverted Bermuda triangle of babyness: huge bulbous crown narrowing to a small chin.  The chin round, the doorknob of your face.  Below the chin are wrinkles that catch threads of breast milk and ferment them so that you always smell mildly of rotting milk.  Your eyes are two blue street lights and your eyelashes are coming in, thicker with each passing day.  You have luscious, pouty, movie-star lips, the lips of a woman named Violet or Scarlett or Annette.  Between the lips, not drool but bubbles so that always you resemble a mother frog carrying a sack of eggs.  Unlike your sister, your nose does not turn up but marches staunchly forward, a knob that matches the chin.

Your thighs and upper arms thicken and thicken.  Such soft sweet tubes of flesh.  Your chest is thinner than your belly, giving you a slight pear shape.  Your nipples almost entirely camouflaged in the skin of your torso.  There is almost always dark lint in the space between your toes, in the creases of your hands.  Below your fingernails, half-moons of dirt that must simply be the skin you slough off from your own body and ours.

Usually you have a good stretch of sleep from 7:00 to 12:30 or 1:30.  Then you wake again at 5:30 (sometimes with a feeding at 3:30 too).  Each time after I feed you I put your swaddled body upright against my chest and pat your back for a burp.  I turn on the heartbeat sound on your mobile and bounce you in time to it, the dim gold glow of the room like a beam sieved from the sun.  Then I put you in the bassinet and step just so on the carpet, near Pooh Bear's head so that I don't hit the floor board that creaks near Pooh Bear's foot.  You usually wake again after the 5:30 feeding and then I jab Daddy awake and he brings you to bed with us where you sleep on his chest, often fitfully, until around 7:30.  Then Thisbe stumbles in with Dog Do (may you choose a better name for your stuffed companion) and I prop you against my bent knees and first you stare at the Venetian blinds, those bars of light and dark, and once you truly wake you turn to your sister who sings invented songs or (today) a butchered version of the Barney theme. 

There is no regularity to your napping yet.  The only regularity is that you refuse to nap in your bassinet.  At night you have no problem with it.  During the day you'll only sleep nestled against a human chest or in the Ergo on a walk through the Natural lands with your father or in the cocoon of your stroller as we bump downtown to Blue Monday.  You always quiet (knock on wood) when we take you outside.  The air on your face is your favorite distraction.

You are trying to figure out how your hands work.  You raise your fist in front of you and direct it toward your mouth but it grazes your cheek instead.  You raise your other fist in front of you and contemplate it, forgetting that it belongs to you.  Sometimes you manage to get your knuckles in your mouth but you don't know how to open your fist yet so the suckling there never satisfies you for very long.

It is obvious, of course, but I am reminded as I celebrate each new dimple of flesh in your body, how inept we are at acknowledging (in a positive way) these changes in our bodies as we grow older.  We take changes as signs that we're creeping toward death, of course.  And we take them as signs that we have failed in yet another way to live up to an image the image of perfection the media mass-produces. 

I am completely guilty of this.  I'm quick to take off my glasses any time a photo is taken.  I apply blush in the morning to make it seem like I have more energy than I do; I apply mascara in the hopes that my eyes might be more striking.  I choose loose tops to cover the mound of muffin top flesh that bulges over the top of my pants.  I wince when I lean toward the mirror and see the gray hairs.  I purposefully don't try to find the white, spider-leg scars of the stretch marks on my inner thighs.  Where once there was taut muscles in my calves from running (marathons!), the flesh there, when touched, now just kind of sways, hammock-like.  I mark these changes as failure if I mark them at all.
This photo was taken yesterday.  Not.

When I was in my 20's I laughed haughtily at any book or television show or magazine that made reference to women who preferred to make love with the lights out.  I felt proud not only of my body but of my confidence in my body, my lack of shame.  And I am not yet to the place where I crave darkness in the bedroom.  But I do want the dim gold glow of the nightlight, the chance to blur my body back to what it once was.  Meanwhile, that 20-year-old self with the strong and gorgeous body leans over a man from long ago, longing for the slow comfort that comes from deep love and good work and children who grow and leap and run--my own cells swimming inside of them.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

On Happiness



During coffee hour at church today, your father was talking about the science of happiness.  How 50% of happiness is dependent on genetics and 10% dependent on one's circumstances but how the other 40% is simply about perspective, about how one chooses to understand one's story. 

I am sometimes not so good with gratitude.  I mean, I can say "thank you" an annoying number of times like any good Minnesotan when someone gives me a tangible object.  But I'm not so good at operating from a place of gratitude, which is a slightly different thing.  In part this is because gratitude in our culture is often communicated via treacly greeting cards and $90 bouquets.  Being self-depricating and full of dark irony seems smart and charming while the language and the behavior of gratitude often seems cloying and insincere.  In a culture that constantly reminds us of all that in wrong, broken, and inoperable, it's hard to maintain a stance of gratitude because it feels a little naive.  And it's even harder to find a language of gratitude that doesn't feel overused and cliche.  But I'm going to try.

Today I'm grateful for what looks like the last gorgeous day in maybe a long time.  Clear, sunny skies and a high of 62.  Pushing you across the bridge on Second Street yesterday I kept thinking about the five months of darkness ahead and then breathing deep.

I'm grateful for your awkward smile, your mouth twisting and contorting as it tries to figure out how to make the lips mean joy.

For your sister's honest evaluation of the world.  During the consecration of the bread and wine today she whispered loudly to Daddy, "Pastor Tim is just PRETENDING that it's blood.  It's not REALLY blood."  I'm grateful for her spindly letters in the attendance book spelling out "Peder, Kaethe, Thisbe, Matteus."

I'm grateful that I have one class this semester and I adore it.  I'm grateful for students who are smart and attentive and kind to one another.  I'm grateful that my job is to get to talk about poetry, that my homework over fall break is to plan a lecture on prosody, on the way words create movement in our bodies.

I'm grateful for your father, who keeps becoming a better and better parent and husband.  I don't mean that he was bad to begin with, he was terrific.  But he's one of the few people I know who takes failure and criticism (and sometimes his wife is a little too ample with the criticism) and listens and does even better the next time.  When Thisbe was born we both really struggled with how to keep loving one another when we were both pouring so much love into your sister.  Last night, after a long and busy day (equally busy for both of us) and while nursing his own head cold, he said, "what can I do to support you better?  How can I help?"  A few weeks after Thisbe was born he picked a few allergy-inducing wildflowers on the way home one day and offered them to me (after telling me he was going to buy a large bouquet of roses but forgot his wallet)--I burst into tears.  After you were born (and a man at the coffee shop asked when my baby was due), he brought me a gorgeous bouquet filled with all of my very favorite flowers. 

I'm grateful for two hours in a coffee shop without either of my children.  I'm grateful to get to be alone with my mind.

For my father, who drove nine hours on Thursday just to see you for 36 hours.  For Dorothy, who flew from her father's deathbed just to see you for 36 hours.  For Martha, who is leading a campaign at Luther to get the seminary to divest from fossil fuels.  For John, who is one of the best listeners I know. 

The leaves, tilting from one shade to the next.  Green to gold.  Crimson to chestnut.

For excessive cleavage. (That's the gratitude version of "my nipples are chafed and none of my shirts fit").

Though I'm not looking forward to winter, I am grateful for these turns in season, for the external shifts that remind us it's OK for our internal worlds to look like this too, for happiness to rise and dissolve and rise again.

The happiest people probably do operate from a perspective of continual gratitude.  But in another study I like to talk about a lot, one done by Dan McAdams, a narrative psychologist,  it turned out that generative adults (not the ones who were happiest necessarily, but the ones who did the most good in their communities), all shared not a position of gratitude, but a similar narrative for how they described their lives.  It was always a redemption narrative.  And though the narrative (and the article) is far more complicated that what I'm going to describe here, all of these adults saw in their lives a passage from darkness to light.  They were changed by a certain event or experience and lived their lives differently thereafter.

I don't see my life this way, though I could write a narrative that followed that pattern and all of the events inside that narrative would be true.  But I do see a continual cycle of darkness and light, passages of darkness as long as a few hours or a year followed by similar bursts of light. 

And then there are times, like the last few months, when we seem to live at the cusp between darkness and light, when every birth is coupled to a death, when happiness is no longer the point.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sunday



The cool has arrived.  Low slung clouds and sprinkles of rain, thick tights and thicker soled shoes.  At church, the mothers have brought out the boots: brown and black, leather and suede, up to the ankle or calf or knee, buckles and zippers, heels and wedges.  Then leggings and long, soft sweaters or short wool skirts.  Some people mark the arrival of fall by the shift in leaf tint but I mark it by the appearance of the boot.

Sometimes I'm not sure it's worth it to go to church anymore.  Here is the play by play of today's service:

Your sister decided to choose a Busy Bag and sit through the service with us.

For the first ten minutes she kept poking me and pointing to the googly-eyes in the middle of a board book about Sam the Minnow.

Then she drew her purple-tighted knees up to her chin and spread her knees wide and balanced the heart shaped Etch-A-Sketch over her crotch.

Then she decided she wanted to go to the nursery.

I came back, sang half of one hymn, and then you started to fuss.

So I took you to the nursery, fed you, changed you, and made it back in time to hear something about Dorothy Day and something about the accumulation of Christian good deeds.

Then I laid you on my lap and you cooed and smiled and I couldn't pay attention to what was being said or sung because even your eyes get into the joy act, curving up and the corners and yes, I will just say it: SPARKLING.  Your eyes sparkle.

Then Daddy decided to get Thisbe for communion.  Rather early, in my opinion.


She could not keep her paws off of you.  She cradled your head in her hands, she whacked the plateau of your chest, she tried to maneuver your fingers around her wrist, she tried to press her lips over yours, and finally she bent her head over yours so aggressively that I heard the crack of someone's bone or teeth and then a piercing wail.  "NOT OK, THISBE" I whispered in my Darth Vader voice, swooping you up and carrying you out of church to contain the crying.

By the time I returned, you were happy but Thisbe was sitting on your father's lap, mournfully carving her name into the attendance book.  "What do you say?" said Daddy to Thisbe.  "I'm sorry," Thisbe whispered, her small voice breaking and tears filling the gullies of her eyes.

I felt guilty so I gave you to Daddy and sat Thisbe on my lap and we looked at a coloring book called "Heroes of the Bible" that featured pages with beared men interspersed with gummy looking birds and turtles.  The one cartoon woman was naked and her boobs were covered with a rainbow.  "I think that's Eva," said Thisbe.  "I think so," I said.

We made it up to communion (FINALLY) and your sister dutifully held out her hands for the bread and politely whispered "Amen."  When she got to the wheel of miniature wine goblets, however, she ignored the white grape juice in the center cups and took the red wine instead.  The woman holding the tray looked at me with a mildly horrified expression and said, "we'll see how far she gets with THAT." At which point your sister threw back the whole thing in a single gulp and did not make a face or seem to register in ANY WAY that this liquid was not standard fare in our household.  The woman holding the tray looked even more horrified.

We marched back to our row and Thisbe kept marching, declaring she was going back to the nursery without a backward glance.

Then you started to fuss again and by the time I'd gotten you successfully sucking your nuk the service was done.

It took us another ten minutes to process to the car, trailing coffee mugs and receiving blankets and pacifiers and Sunday school worksheets.  By the time I got there, Thisbe was tightrope walking the yellow parking lines.  We made it home without further catastrophe.

Sweet baby boy, I am falling more and more in love with you every day.  You love to sleep shrugged against my chest or your father's chest (or Martha's or Sam's or Ampa's...) and when you are fed and full of good sleep you unleash smiles and coos at any adult willing to peer over your round face and offer you their full attention.

And today's terrible truth is that I'm often not sure I'm cut out to be a very good parent of TWO children.  A few months ago your sister was the center of my world.  Now, I often wish that she could be kept in a large, sound-proof, glass box in our living room where I could casually observe her but she could not touch you and I could not hear her or feel the waves of energy that wash off of her, regular and emphatic as tides.  And of course she senses this and that makes me feel worse.

When Thisbe was born, I felt like I had to turn away from myself, or a version of myself, in order to learn to love her.  With you, I feel like I have to turn away from Thisbe, or my old relationship with Thisbe, in order to learn to love you. 

Which maybe is why Thisbe is doing shots of wine at church.  A moment during which I was secretly kind of proud to claim her as my own.



Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Persona and the Self



Sunday.  More gorgeous weather.  70ish and swept skies.  We're at Blue Monday; one of us is asleep and the other would like to be.  We're a family of mild head colds.  Itchy throats and snuffly breathing and deeper bags below our eyes.  Your father and Thisbe spent the weekend at Grandma Judy's farm gathering apples from her tree and making waffles and watching Peter Pan.  You came with Gak and I to a writing festival at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

We slept in a clean but slightly stuffy hotel room, your snuffling and deep-sleep mewling waking me more than normal, an orange street light shining through the parted curtain and across your face as I nursed you at 1:30 and 5:00.  You, sweet boy, were a delight at the conference, snoozing in your stroller or staring wide eyed at the students hustling by in short-shorts, room keys looped around their necks.

I got to hear Mark Saltzman talk about his shifted perspective on the writing process, about how he now assumes he is always doing the best work he can, that sitting down to write (even if you don't write) is enough, that now facing the empty page is a time during the day he looks forward to rather than feeling anxious about.  Anne Lamott talked about writing too.  Mostly what she already wrote in Bird by Bird, but I liked listening to her so much.  She walked onto the stage in front of hundreds of people wearing baggy jeans and scuffed clogs and a long-sleeved cotton shirt and black hoodie.  She didn't ever look at her notes.  She just talked--and it was meandering and the content was not new or life changing but it didn't feel like I was listening to the persona of Anne Lamott or author Anne Lamott, it felt like she was her real, genuine person-self talking to us.  Most authors, you will learn, do not behave like this when they read.  They are purposely polished or purposely unpolished; purposely sharp and witty or purposefully nonchalant and unperturbed.  It's a little like reading a memoir, where you get a version of the author that is not really the author.  But somehow Anne Lamott actually felt like Anne Lamott.

I've been thinking this week about these personas, these variations on ourselves that we present at different times.  If and when these personas are useful and if and when they're not.  I struggle a lot with this, especially as a teacher.  I want to present myself as someone who's smart and self-assured (and, of course, hip, talented, and supremely confident).  As a (fairly) young, female professor, I've felt that I needed to present that persona--in part to protect myself.  To keep students (especially cocky young male ones) from taking advantage of me.

Then, on Thursday, for the first time ever, I got choked up and teary during class.  It had been a week of loss.  Jennifer died last Friday, Charlie and Becky and Lucy and Hattie celebrated their last day at Bethel on Sunday, and then Jim's memorial service was on Wednesday.  I didn't get to hear all of the memorial service because I was outside the chapel, peering through the windows, walking you back and forth in the Ergo carrier, pressing the green nuk between your gums and shushing repeatedly.   But I got to hear bits and pieces and I was reminded of Jim's view of the student as co-professor, of his insistence on bringing his own values into the classroom, not to force those values onto his students, but so they could understand why he taught what he did, why he taught the way that he did.  
We were talking about odes in class.  I asked the students why we write odes.  It's easy to understand the need to write poems about love or death, but why the urge to write poems that elevate?  Then I wrote the end of a Howard Nemerov poem on the board:

"Oh Swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point.  Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind's eye lit the sun."

And the students did a good job responding to all this.  We talked about how the writing of an ode focuses the eye, requires a re-seeing of the world.  And then I said that I know no one thinks of poetry as the critical class in college, that it is interesting or lovely or fun but not necessary (and that's OK).  But that this act of re-seeing a thing, this act of elevating, (Hopkins' inscape, instress) means that we are learning to see more and more of the world as sacred and that when we come to see an object as sacred we are far less likely to destroy it.  I said that's why I show up to class every day.

And that's when I got all choked up.  And I named Jennifer and Jim.  And the students got quiet and wide-eyed.

As I walked home with your father I told him the story.  I said I was feeling embarrassed and vulnerable.  He said that was probably a good thing.  I'm still not sure.  There are good reasons for certain boundaries between professors and students and sometimes it's hard to know exactly where those are, exactly how much of the self is allowed to show up in the classroom.

I have felt a lot of grief over the loss of Jim and Jennifer and the truth is that I didn't really know either very long or very well.  Many of my colleagues had taught with Jim for years or had been in book clubs or mother/daughter groups with Jennifer.  I only knew them peripherally, really.  But maybe the loss feels greater because interactions with them felt persona-free.  It didn't take hanging around with Jim or Jennifer for five years to get a glimpse of each person's bright self.  Which perhaps is what let the rest of us be our own broken, authentic selves in their presence.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Minnesota is spinning day after day of glorious weather.  50's in the mornings.  Cool and bright as we walked your sister to school yesterday morning, you snuggled into your car seat and your car seat snuggled into the stroller, big blue eyes peeking out from below a blue hat featuring bear ears on the crest and bear eyes and snout on the brim.  Your sister wore a black dress with swishy tutu attached to the bottom, argyle tights and Mary Janes with pink sequins stitched to the top.  She stopped to swish her skirt and to watch her shadow swish its skirt repeatedly.  Gak coaxed her along and you observed in all--downtown and back--without making a peep.

On Monday we had your two month check-up and your sister's 4-year check-up.  Vaccines for you and flu shots for the rest of us.  As the nurse pushed her belly against your legs and administered the shots, your father and I stroked your hair and Thisbe held your hand and sang, in a very off-key voice, "IT'S A SIGN OF GOD'S LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, IT'S A SIGN OF GOD'S LOVE!!!" 

You didn't smile too much on Monday and not really on Tuesday either.  This morning you saved big grins for your Daddy and followed him with your eyes as he left the bedroom, annoyed to be left with my face as the hovering blimp in your sky.

We are in the middle of a hard week.  Jennifer died last Friday.  Pastor Charlie gave his last sermon at Bethel on Sunday.  Tonight is my colleague, Jim's, memorial service.  But these losses have made the blessings more acute and I am trying to track them.  Here are a few:

Two healthy children.  The doctor said, "do you have any concerns?" and for once I didn't really have any.  Thisbe wrote "Peder" and "Kaethe" on a page of her Ranger Rick magazine during the appointment and covered each eye gamely and identified square and heart and circle on the placard the nurse held for her.  You inched your way forward on the crinkly paper of the examining table, weighed in at 10 pounds, 2 ounces.

Friends.  E-mails and texts and phone calls that say how are you and what can I do to make things easier or better for you? 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Liquid Chlorophyll





A drowsy September day.  It's 8:30am and the air is saturated with damp warmth.  After your father left for work at 7:30, you sat in your swing in the kitchen while your sister and I ate oatmeal (I with raisins and brown sugar and your sister with a lot of raisins and brown sugar and granola).  Then we drove her to school and you screamed while I tried to say good-bye to her.  She wore a brown play dress with circular gold designs pressed into the fabric and a white sweater featuring two large strawberries and a pair of huge, heart shaped sunglasses.  She only started to cry twice during my 30 minutes with her--once when I said she couldn't have *both* brown sugar and honey in her oatmeal and once when I made her submit to my hairbrush.  She had already brushed her hair using her Hello Kitty brush (which makes a sound like a princess passing through a field of chimes with every brushstroke), but this left a huge, untouched snarl of hair in the back.  Thus my insistence on brushing.  Though it should be noted that prior to this morning I can't even remember the last time I brushed her hair.

After a huge growth spurt last week (12 ounces!) you now seem mildly disinterested in food.  You ate last night at 6:30pm, passed out (after 3 hours awake) at around 8:00pm and then didn't eat again until 1:00am.  Then I had to wake you at 5:00am to feed again because I felt like I was going to explode.  More and more you are happiest stretched out on your back along the length of my thighs, in alert observation of the world.  Today, this morning, after all that sleep, in the gray light of 6:45am, propped against my legs, comforter swollen all around us, Daddy drowsing beside us, you smiled.

Meanwhile, I am still bleeding.  It's been seven weeks since your birth and still--blood.  (I realize this might feel like too much information to older-you or other readers but I figure if Mamas like me have to bleed for seven weeks then other people can at least hear that it happens.  So suck it up, teenage Matteus).  Probably, everything is OK.  But maybe there's still a piece of something left inside my uterus.  I'm not too worried.  Mostly, I'm just reminded that birth is a long process.  That my body is still trying to let go of that story.  My doula suggested that I take liquid chlorophyll.  Which I thought had to be a catchy way to describe something other than liquid chlorophyll.  Turns out, it is literally liquid chlorophyll.  Deep green (can stain clothing!) and peppermint flavored (better breath!) and I think I like the *idea* of drinking the stuff much better than actually drinking it. 


Because the truth is these last few days I've felt on the verge of tears constantly.  Maybe it's the hormones or the lack of sleep or the bleeding.  Maybe it's knowing that our friend Jennifer is taking last sips of water, offering last blessings to her children.  Maybe it's the impending departure of Charlie and Becky and Lucy and Hattie, good friends who leaving Northfield--not going far, but still, departing.  Maybe it's the overwhelming feeling that I currently suck at everything.  I'm not patient with Thisbe.  I have no interest in touching your father.  I forget to ask dear friends about important milestones in their lives.  I'm overdue on approximately 642 thank you notes.  My house looks like it was disemboweled.  I'm not even *in* the classroom today because theoretically I'm recuperating but ironically I suck at that too since I'm actually sitting at Blue Monday, bleeding. 

You're alive.  Which I guess means I'm doing something right.  but your poops have been green and, according to the internet, this means either that you're not getting enough hind milk, that you have a dairy allergy, that your digestive track is maturing, or absolutely nothing.  But it feels like maybe I'm sucking in the milk department too. 

And I know all the things to tell myself--it gets better and this is normal and grace and forgiveness and a messy house is OK la la la la la.  I know that's all true.  But today is a day of feeling fragile and quavery. 

Though it's only 9:15am.  And once that liquid chlorophyll kicks in I may start kicking some serious ass.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Under the Sea



Gray and cool today.  Lovely and soft--in the way that Gray and Cool can be only when you haven't seen them in a while.  Rain fell on and on last night.  I know because when I woke to feed you at 1:30 the sound sank into the air all around us while you nursed.  I'm not a very graceful nurser.  I know it's ridiculous to grade nursing postures, but if they did, I'd be failing.  You eat best in what is currently called the "football hold" which means I clutch your body against my hip and prop your head up in front of me, like you've come to watch TV on the screen of my chest.  To make matters worse you tend to suckle better if the milk comes immediately so I bend over, boob hovering like a swollen cloud.  I want to be the Zen Earth Mama of Nursing but instead I look like the Hunchbacked Eighth Grader of Nursing.

You are working on your smile.  Today, while Pastor Tim talked about lost sheep, about why a changing theology is necessary, you laid on the length of my thighs and gurgled and cooed and stared at your father.  You blew a little nest of bubbles at your lips (on Friday, Thisbe's friend Leo said it looked like you'd been eating soap) and mewled angrily when your sister molested your cheeks or pressed her voice too tight against your head.   The smile is beginning at the edges of your lips, barely perceptible shrugs upward.  But it's even more evident in your eyes.  I don't remember this about your sister learning to smile, but before your lips do anything your eyes get a little glassier, your pupils dart more quickly, eagerly.  I'd crush a line like this if a student ever put it in a poem but it is true that your smile begins in your eyes (I did just gag a little as I wrote that).  We are hungry for it, kind of pathetically so.

Last night we watched The Little Mermaid together.  Your sister is obsessed with Ariel and mermaids although she'd never seen the film.  She has an Ariel castle that plays alarming Caribbean music if you open a little treasure chest in the living room and she has a bath time Ariel that wiggles her tail if you wind the sea shell at her waist.  Daddy recently read Thisbe the Hans Christian Andersen version of The Little Mermaid and so, as she sat on the potty after we finished the film I asked her about the differences between the book and the film.
Well, she said, there's no fish named Flounder or crab named Sebastian in the book.
True, I said.
And in the book the princess the prince loves is not the same as the Sea Witch.
That's true too, I said.  What was your favorite part of the movie? 
I had two favorite parts.  No, three.  When Ariel came out of the water in a sparkly blue dress with legs.  And also the part where she first got legs and also the part where she turned back into a mermaid.

I suppose we are always awed by moments of transformation.  In the book the little mermaid chooses to become human even though she knows she will feel like a sword is running through her foot each time she takes a step.  She wants a different world that deeply.

I know you will transform over and over again throughout your life, little man.  Little transformations and gigantic ones.  From stoic to smiler, from coo-er to demander, from singleton to couple (and likely back to singleton again), from child to adult, student to teacher, cared-for to caretaker.  Some of these transformations will be natural, simply the result of your body and your mind moving forward in time.  Other transformations will be chosen, the result of your strong desire to live as a different kind of person in this world.  My hope for you is that you desire the transformation of the world as urgently as your own development--or that somehow you can come to see your own transformations as part of and necessary to bigger and broader communal shifts.  I have worked for good things in my life--but some of that good work I have let fall away.  Partly this is because we live in such a wonderful town--we drink beer with good friends on Friday and do yoga in the park on Saturday and pick edamame at the farm on Monday.  It is easy to be comfortable here.  And so a lot of times I resist hearing the news of elsewhere; I am not willing to feel a sword entering my foot in order to make sure everyone in the world enjoys the same kind of comfort and safety that we do.  And though I don't wish you pain, sweet Matteus, I wish you the capability to survive discomfort for the sake of a better elsewhere.

But mostly, today, I wish for a smile.