Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney and Martin Sheen

The weather is turning.  Humidity gusting away and coolness coming off the trees, the river, the soft faces of passers-by.  You had a good sleep last night.  At 2:00 and 5:30 you woke, acne invisible in the lamp light, just your lemur eyes turning on and off over the curve of my breast.

Yesterday was the St. Olaf faculty meeting and my first work-like day away from you.  Your father and I sat at a table with freshly-dressed faculty members and ate mini-quiche and almond braids and cantaloupe and talked delicately about race and identity and constructing an inclusive classroom.  I wore a new shirt Gak bought for me from anthropologie; billowy enough to cover my still-swollen belly and broad enough at the chest to cover my still-voluminous decolletage.

Seamus Heaney died today.  Irish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.  A man who could carve a poem around nature or war or love or family or work and who (by all accounts) was actually a kind human being.

Your sister spent the morning at the state fair with Gak and Ampa and Karu.  I imagine her attention and desire captured by puffs of cotton candy and stuffed panda bears and mechanical horses lifting themselves into perfunctory circles.  I imagine the whining and the wet heat pressing her bangs to her forehead.  The smell of the sheep barn.  The search for a patch of curb without cigarette butts or sno-cone residue to sit upon while eating a warm bucket of quarter-sized chocolate chip cookies.  When he was little, my brother Michael wanted to sit on each and every tractor or farming implement.  When I was little (and later, when I was bigger), I wanted to play game after game on the Midway.  Wiffle balls into goblets, water guns wishing horses down a track, rings around the throats of milk bottles.

Meanwhile, your father and I sat at lunchtime and watched "The West Wing" while you nursed.  Then I wrapped you in a sage green swaddle and set you swinging and came here, to the cafe, to drink a latte and eat a peanut butter filled chocolate.

In less than a week I will walk back into a classroom where I am supposed to help students learn how to write poems.  Theoretically, good poems.  The irony being that you have to write a lot of bad poems before you can write a good poem.  A lot of bad poems.  And then after you write a good poem you still have to write more bad poems.  Failed poems.  Awkward, incompetent poems.  Poems that know too much about themselves and poems with cliches as familiar as glass.  Out of all of this--the river and baby acne and mini-quiche and stuffed pandas and Seamus Heaney and Martin Sheen and ideas about race in the classroom--you have to choose something to write a poem about.  You have to feel some kind of urgency about a fragment of the world and you have to write it down.

One of my teachers at some point explained (perhaps quoting someone else) that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again with the expectation that at some point you will get a different result.  This is also the definition of prayer and poetry and hope.  And sometimes we are called to make a space where this behavior is not seen as unreasonable, but rather as the most important work we do.

Monday, August 26, 2013


The heat has become fairly unbearable.  Yesterday the heat index reached 102 and today and tomorrow promise to be worse.  So we've been hunkering down inside which feels a little odd since the view through the window shows sunshine, green grass, blooming flowers, and the neighbor cat, Piggy, prancing through the yard with a green stalk of something between his teeth.

Your acne is waning a little and your skin is flaking mostly around your temples and hairline.  Last night you woke at 1:00 and 4:30.  The 1:00am waking included a lovely diaper blow out that resulted in me peeling wet clothing off your red, writhing body while you shrieked.  When you woke at 6:00, I handed you to Daddy and went to the guest bedroom to sleep a while longer.

Last night, because it was too hot to go to the park, we watched the movie Brave and ate frozen pizza instead.  The mother/queen in Brave is turned into a bear by her rebellious daughter.  The two then spend the rest of the movie trying to undo the spell so that the mother/queen doesn't remain a bear forever.  Your sister sat on the edge of the couch, entranced, licking the icing slowly off the top of one of her leftover birthday cupcakes (we celebrated early with Grandma Gail, Grandpa Michael, and Great Grandma Judy). 

I feel tired and bleary.  My brain, my clear thinking, is just around the corner.  I can see its shadow.  In an hour I will take you to Baby Talk where the nurse will weigh you and the lactation consultant will tell us the best time of day to pump breast milk.  Other Mamas who also look bleary but who have applied eyeliner and mascara defiantly anyway will ask questions about heat rash and sleep cycles and gas and tummy time.  A few Mamas will stand to bounce their babies and a few will nurse and some will hold a pacifier snugly between baby's lips and stare off blankly into space.  Life is an insistent drum that beats and beats and beats.

Meanwhile, this has been a summer filled with death and the reminders of death and the closeness of death.  Cancer, mostly.  In the liver, breast, blood, and brain of people I love.  And though, as your father lovingly reminds me, we are all one day closer to our own deaths with each day that passes, these illnesses feel so unfair, so early, so entirely not OK. 

And I know I am supposed to recognize that life and death come together, that mostly we live suspended somewhere in between.  And I know I am supposed to be grateful for your insistent suck as a reminder of the cycle of life.  But sometimes I feel numb.  Not grateful or horrified enough.  Just a slow melancholy simmering.  I suppose because much of life and death is actually mundane.  It is wiping bottoms, getting a person fed, bringing the person to the doctor, checking her body daily for signs of change, searching his eyes for understanding, waking in the night and touching the pillow beside you to see if she is still there. 

Of course all of these acts have a completely different kind of resonance depending on whether they are edged with joy or loss.  But I wonder if many new mothers get depressed because when other people meet the baby they are overwhelmed by the Joy of Life on a Grand Scale while most of the time, a new Mama doesn't live there.  She is caring for a body. 

We are caring for bodies.  We are awaiting the care of our own.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Sleeping Volcano

Thisbe has been, thus far, a terrific big sister to you, Matteus.  She sings to you, strokes your eyebrows like little caterpillars, pushes you on the baby swing (as high as it will go), strikes the silver triangle as near to your ear as possible, fogs up your face with her breath, and dons her high heels and practices flamenco on the hardwood floors while you sleep.  And when you're awake, you adore all of it.  You follow her with your gorgeous, slightly amphibian eyes and purse your lips and wave your hands around in excitement.  And most of what Thisbe says and sings to you involves words like I love you and you are the most beautiful brother in the world.

But along with Thisbe's exuberance over your arrival has also arrived a preoccupation with death.  I'm not sure if this is simply a natural developmental stage or if subconsciously she wondered if I might die when you were born or if she suddenly recognizes that the seam between life and death is tenuous, that somehow your passage from seeming nothingness into existence has opened up questions about the passage from existence back into nothingness.

Whatever the reason, Thiz asked your father a bunch of questions about death right after you were born.  Now, however, the preoccupation with death as well as the latent ambivalence about sisterhood is coming out indirectly, in pretend play and in song lyrics.

Two days ago, while I cooked dinner, Thisbe made play-doh pizzas at the breakfast nook table.  This naturally progressed into a scenario in which Captain Von Trapp was trying to kill Maria and Maria was proclaiming that she didn't want to die.

Later, as we colored, Thisbe said, you know what would be sad, Mama?  
What?  I asked.
If wolves came and bit off baby brother's head. 
Yes, I affirmed, that would be sad.

Yesterday, as I nursed you, your sister approached with a play kitchen knife.
I'm going to pretend to cut baby brother up into lots of pieces, she announced casually.  Just pretend.
Nope, I said.  We're not going to pretend that.
I'll just cut you then, she said.
Nope, I said.
Just feel the edge of the blade, Mama.  It's not sharp.
I reluctantly lifted a finger off your head.  You're right, Thisbe, it's not sharp.
Then your sister turned back to her kitchen.  I guess I'll just cut some bread then, she mumbled rather despondantly.

But perhaps my favorite incident was a recent lullaby that began with oh brother I love you and you are the most beautiful baby in the world and ended with sometimes the wolves will come to eat you and sometimes the volcano will pour fire all over you.  Maybe your sister is a psalmist at heart.

Daddy thinks it's best not to intervene too much in this kind of play, that it's a good and healthy way for your sister to work through these emotions.  And most of the time I think he's right.  Although, as the worrier in the family, I also see myself in an unattractive suit testifying before a jury about the early signs of sociopathy in my daughter.

As a writer, I am jealous of your sister's unfiltered access to all of her emotions.  Obviously, as adults a filter becomes necessary so that we don't sing to the grocery clerk, I said paper not plastic, paper not plastic, oh woman with the intelligence of a crayfish.  But as adults we also learn to feel shame, to feel apologetic for experiencing the darker emotions in the first place.  It is a relief--though mildly appalling--to watch these feeling wash through your sister, to hear her sing them out in a song and then put on her green velvet gloves, ready for whatever comes next.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Differing Parenting Strategies

The temperature is on the rise.  Coming in with the clouds like a low gray steamroller.  When I left the house this morning, Daddy was on the phone setting up a golf game and you were upstairs in your bassinet, crying.  "The baby's crying," I said to your dad, just in case he couldn't hear over the intense interaction about tee times.  "I know," he said, "but I'm starving so I'm going to eat something first and let him cry."

Sometimes your father and I have what one might call "differing parenting strategies."  Or that's what one might call it in a blog post.  When faced with one of these "differing parenting strategies" in real life I often call it "what the hell are you doing?"  Daddy and I are a little bit better at navigating these differences that we used to be but sometimes I still go a little ballistic, like when Daddy gardens in the back yard and lets Thisbe play by herself in the front yard.  Daddy doesn't watch as much Law and Order as I do and thus is not quite up to date on the number of pedophile-vampires that exist in the world.  Mommy has to take on a lot more of the worrying which, your father often points out, is a completely unproductive energy suck.

In addition to the parenting variations in our household (where, in actuality, we're generally a good team and on the same page about most things), you have been born into a moment in time where the parenting advice circulating in American society is abundant and contradictory.  Over the past few months I've learned that my children would turn out better if I: let them play with knives, avoided affirming accomplishments, roughhoused more vigorously, encouraged them to run around the neighborhood in packs, shunned time outs, wore them more regularly, did not feed them snacks, fed them a perfect balance of organic protein and vegetables, forbade screen time, demanded disciplined practice in areas where they excelled, demanded nothing but creative play, and encouraged the consumption of small amounts of dirt and grime.

As someone who is not a particularly confident parent and as an academic who reads in order to figure out how to behave, all of these different prescriptions alternately reduce me to laughter or tears, depending on the day.

Even now, when parenting you requires nothing more than taking out my boob every couple hours and wiping poop from the underside of your scrotum, the job is still overwhelming.  Though at this point, it's not the choices that overwhelm (left breast or right? bassinet or swing? Ergo or Moby?) but the unrelentingness of it all.  Daddy is going golfing today for five hours (six if beer enters the picture).  I can't yet wander away from you for that long.

Last night you woke at 12:30 and 3:30 and 6:30 (well, I guess 6:30 is officially morning but I went back to sleep so it doesn't count).  This was a terrific night for you, especially since you went back to sleep after each feeding.  But I often watch Daddy while I feed you.  The curve of his shoulder, his strong chin, the long slow breaths of deep sleep.  I teeter between deep love and spiny jealousy.  For a while at least, Matteus, we are in this dance together--the waking and feeding, the waking and feeding--and it is sometimes incredibly lonely here.  I miss my own self.

But it is also incredibly intimate: your sharp tugs on my body, my thumb smoothing your silky dark hair.  And the sound of you swallowing, a sweet hollow noise that fills and fills the darkened room.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Surface of Things

Today is the fourth or fifth day in a row of absolutely perfect weather.  Blue skies, puffy white clouds, temperatures hovering in the mid-70's, light breeze.  Northfield appears to be a bustling, idyllic town.  The runners stand in half circles outside the coffee shop, a farmer sells sweet corn from a parking lot, kids in flourescent T-shirts swarm over the playground, women in wedge sandals and capris peer into the yarn store, men in white undershirts sleep below the bridge, their fishing lines taut in the current.

Your father and I spent the last few sleepy afternoons watching episode after episode of a new show called "Broadchurch."  So new that we were watching it illegally.  The show involves the death of an 11-year-old boy in a similarly idyllic town.  Episode by episode the brokenness beneath the idyl reveals itself (drugs and sex and betrayal--all the usual suspects) and by then end, of course, you're meant to realize that at some level this was a community of strangers.  That no one knows anyone else entirely.

Meanwhile, your face is the opposite of idyllic: angry red bumps, some with white centers, rouged on your cheeks, speckling your chin; skin flaking in white flecks from your eyelids, your forehead, your temples.  Before I introduce you to new people I announce glibly that you've got acne and leprosy, that you aren't winning any beauty contests right now.  Stop saying that, said a member of my writer's group last night.  He's beautiful.

But some part of me doesn't want others to think I'm the blind mother who can't see that her baby is *not* beautiful.  And the truth is that I want you to be golden and shiny and perfect.  I want your features wrought from porcelain.  I want gasps from strangers.  And I'm ashamed that I want these things and ashamed that I care so much about beauty.  Studies show, of course, that attractive people have an easier time in life.  Our society, certainly, does not favor excess weight or acne or overbites.  Maybe part of my embarrassment comes from a desire to protect you, to want the best for you.

But also this is all I have of you right now.  This is all that's knowable.  All that I can share of you with others.  As the days pass I can add smaller details--that you love to be cuddled, don't like to sleep on your own in the daytime; that you turn your head toward your sister's voice and stop crying when you're fed.  But I can't talk about your generosity or your sense of humor or your desire to wear Mama's high heels.  Part of me is frustrated that where I see a perfect addition to the world others might see ugliness and imperfection.

When Thisbe was born, I could only see her as a new parent.  I thought she was gorgeous, perfect.  When Thisbe was about six months old I remember going back and looking at her newborn photos, dumbfounded by the realization that she had looked like a strange and wrinkled alien much of the time.

With you, Matteus, I simultaneously see you as mother and as stranger.  Beautiful and ugly.  Finely wrought and finely marred.

As adults we generally get to know the facade first.  We put our best face forward.  We live together in community and let our brokeness writhe below the surface.  It is a challenge and a gift to watch your face each day, Matteus, to watch for signs of your sweet soul rising to the dappled surface of your skin. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Birth Story

I need to write your birth story down here, today, before it washes away in a sea of oxytocin and breast milk.  I'm giving you all the details, even though many of them are pretty boring.  I'm giving you the narrative of "and then and then and then" so all the scraps are here, somewhere, before I forget them.

On Tuesday, July 30th, we went in for my 38 week appointment.  I was 3cm dilated, 80% effaced and at +1 station.  I've almost forgotten all those numbers already.  But in the two weeks before I'd been thinking about them constantly.  Googling to see when women with similar numbers had their babies.  At the appointment, Doctor Ripley swept my membranes.  That kind of sounds like a Pink Floyd album title.  Swept Membranes.  Anyway.

Then I went to Blue Monday and drank a latte and ate an English muffin with peanut butter and read Red Moon, a book about werewolves.  Every time a werewolf attacked and ripped the flesh off someone's face I hoped a contraction might couple the scene, that the graphic nature of the lycans might cause my uterus to contract in disgust.  But not so much.

By 3:30, though, I started having contractions.  About 7 minutes apart.  Grandma Ricki (aka GAK) was already in Northfield playing with Thisbe.  She stuck around to see if the contractions would get stronger.  Gave Thisbe a bath.  But the contractions drifted away.  So I sent her home.

I sent her home mostly because the week before (37weeks), I'd had six hours of contractions that lead nowhere.  I even went into the clinic and the Norweigan doctor looked inside my hoo-ha and reported that "something's cooking."  Meanwhile, an incompetent nurse who was training another nurse in incompetence said things like "well, I've never used THIS machine before!  Let's see if I can get it to work!" and "at this point you should ask the patient how she feels and then reassure her that everything is going well."  Then she would look at me and say "how do you feel? everything is going great!"  Maybe you refused to come out that day because you sensed the level of stupidity hovering in the air.

The contractions came and went throughout the evening.  Some stronger.  Then long breaks without any contractions.  Daddy bought me a peanut buster parfait.  We watched Law and Order.  I called Bonnie and mentioned I might be in labor and she said she'd keep her cell phone by the bed.  I slept from 10pm-1am and then woke up to even stronger contractions.  I texted the doulas (Meg and Cassie) and Meg asked if I needed help managing the pain.  I said I didn't.  I still wasn't sure I was in labor.  The contractions still weren't close together but the ones that did arrive intermittently were strong.  Breathe and clutch the pillow strong.  I thought about waking up your dad but he's fairly sleep dependent and I figured if you were going to be born today then I wanted him to be awake for it.  I thought about calling Gak, to let her know I might really be in labor, but that seemed pointless too.  So from 3:30-5:00am I slept, but woke every 25 or 20 minutes with a contraction that made me breathe and clutch.

Finally, at 5:30 I woke your dad.  I called Gak.  I still wasn't sure I was in labor but I knew that given the strength of the contractions I was going to be pretty pissed if I wasn't.

I took a shower.  I went for a walk around the park.  The morning was foggy.  A caul creeping over the town.  I remember seeing spider webs stitched over the grass, little square hammocks of white web.  I remember two pigeons or doves on the telephone wire.  I couldn't see them clearly, just the outline of their round gray breasts against the white sky.  I wore gray yoga pants and a green tank top and black sweatshirt.  It had been (it still is) unseasonably cool.

Gak arrived with Lunds bags full of food.  The contractions still weren't regular but the ones that came had me stopping to breathe, had me leaning over the dining room table on my forearms.  Finally at 7:30 we called Dr. Ripley at home.  She said I should go get checked out at the hospital.  We told Gak we'd probably go out for breakfast afterward.

We arrived at the hospital at 8:00am.  I didn't bring my bag.  Your dad took a picture of me in front of a statue of a ring of people floating/dancing in the air.   I struck a very awkward floating/dancing pose, cell phone clutched in hand.

The nurses hooked me up to monitors and checked my dilation.  I was 6cm.  They told me I wasn't going anywhere and your father left to get my hospital bag.  I texted the doulas and told them that now would be a good time to come.  Now and quickly.

While your father was gone, before the doulas arrived, your heart rate dropped during a contraction.  Within 30 seconds I had an oxygen mask over my mouth and the hands of two nurses on my body, trying to turn me to a position that would take you out of distress.  I was on my knees, then on my side, then on my other side.  All I could think was that I was going to have an emergency C-section and I was going to be all alone.  I was thinking how very ironic that would be.  Also that I was terrified.  Also that it would all likely be OK.

And it was.  Your heart rate bounced back up again.  Your father returned.  Then the doulas.  Then Amy.  I was 7cm.  On my hands and knees in a black skirt, black sweatshirt, head pressed into a pillow.  I don't think I opened my eyes for the next hour, until you had emerged.  It was a weird, deep place of pain I was burrowing into.  I remember the Taize chants on the I-pod.  I remember Cassie's hands on my sacrum, her gentle touch.  I remember Meg telling me, as the pain got worse, to vocalize it.  And then those weird animal noises came out of me, the low, long groans that belong to birth and mourning alone.  At some point I asked if an epidural would help your heart rate issue.  Amy said it would likely make it worse.  I went back to burrowing.

Then my butt started to hurt.  There's no elegant way to say that.  The butt hurting is the sign it's time to push the baby out.  So they checked me again and I was at 10cm.  They turned me around so I was on my back.  There was a pop and a gush and my water broke.  Then Amy was saying hold your breath and push through your butt while I count to ten.  Now again.  And again. 

And I did.  And after 8 minutes you were born and on my chest.  And the euphoria started up because you had a face and a blue writhing body and fingers and toes and red pouty lips and a round chin and an overbite and sweet blue eyes.  You were in the world.  Your father bent close and kissed us both and cried.  We were in the world together, all of us.  9:43am on July 31st. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Word of Explanation

When your sister was born almost four years ago I started a blog for her.  I called it Dear Thisbe and wrote to her as often as I could.  You were born eleven days ago, Matteus, but constructing a blog just for you is not as simple a task.  Here's why:

Yesterday, as we drove up to the Cities for a birthday party (for Agnes, Greg, Michael, and David--four of your aunties and uncles) you started to squak in the back seat.  You were justified in your squaking.  It was time to eat and you were hungry.  Your father and I began discussions about pulling into the Target parking lot so I could nurse you.  In the meantime, Thisbe started to sing to you.  One of her wavering, invented songs in her "head voice" (Grandma Gail taught her that).  She sang about windows and trees and stop signs (and any other objects that entered her vision) and she sang about her wonderful brother and the love in her heart, the lyrics essentially a combination of the Care Bear theme song and a grocery list.  And you fell asleep.

So this is the reason that though I will write to you in this blog it can't really just be FOR you.  Your story is already caught up in the story of your sister.  You are already part of her song.

And you are already this soft sweetness in the middle of our family, Matteus.  Your father and Thiz and I are all first borns, all stubborn, all intense, all fiercely independent.  I hope you will have a dose of all those characteristics too--but so far you are far more willing to watch us quietly with your gorgeous blue eyes, far more willing to sink into contentment when your hunger has been satiated, far more willing to be rocked or sung or bounced into sleep.

So this blog is for you, Matteus, but it's really the story of our whole family.  I chose "Rhymes with the Familiar" as the title because all four of us have odd names that rhyme with more familiar words.  We introduced you to the world by saying your name rhymed with Amadeus.  Thisbe rhymes with frisbee.  Etc, etc.  But also the title comes from that sense of coming close to what is known or understood without ever actually arriving there.  Your sister loves to rhyme but she prefers (already) slant rhymes--the ones that don't quite fit, that have the echo of another word but not exactly.  I think we are a family of slant rhymes.

But before I begin to wax too poetic I should also mention that last night you peed on your face.  Which I'm hoping is somehow a homeopathic cure for baby acne.