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.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


67 and sunny this morning.  The cafe is full of voices.  I love your eyes best in the almost dark of your room at 2am.  Only the nightlight on and your gaze momentarily alert and hung on mine. And the rapid swats of your fists, mummied bats, and the soft places on your thighs, thickening with fat.  You were fussy last night until we went out and looked at a slice of the sky.  Clouds like tumbleweeds.  We sat on the front steps next to the watermelon rinds your sister and father had left behind and we watched them play Captain Hook and Wendy in the front yard.  Thisbe in her rainbow dress tiptoe on the big rock, shrieking about walking the plank and your father, hand curved into a scythe, running the sidewalk gingerly, barefoot, growling invented threats.

Across town, our friend Jennifer is dying.  Across the world, Syria is sizzling darkly.  Today is the anniversary of people jumping out of windows, holding hands.

And so it seems petty to talk about the accumulation of crap in our house.  How the dining room table acquires objects like notebooks and paintings and erasers and watermelons.  How the carpet is taken over by play mats and bouncy chairs and blankets spread out as changing tables.  How below these items the carpet itself is dotted with crumbs and hairs and the fragments of leaves.  How I saw three thick-bodied ants yesterday, collecting their meals from our dirt.  I can feel the dirty laundry everywhere: the basket in your room, Thisbe's hamper, my hamper, the piles on the steps, the socks in the entryway.  And then all the objects that are taken out and put away, over and over again, every day: three different remote controls among the couch cushions, breast pump dangling tubes like a dead squid, pretend cookies and pretend eggs on the floor near the pretend kitchen, overturned ballet shoes, swaddling blankets and pacifiers covering every surface. 

Meanwhile, you are going through some kind of epic growth spurt.  I nursed you at 5:30am and 7:30am and Daddy fed you two ounces at 9:30am (while I was away) and still he called the cafe at 10:15am, your screams in the background, saying I think he still must be hungry.  So I fed you again at 10:30 and 12:15 and 1:00.  I feel exhausted and dry and taken.

It is a good life and a lucky life we have here.  We celebrated Thisbe's birthday two more times last week, once with cupcakes at school and once with an abundance of friends at the park.  Thisbe's first dance class yesterday--a semi-circle of girls in pink leotards and tutus on a gray floor.  The house smelled like chocolate chip cookies today and we ate bean and bacon stew and pickled beets last night for dinner.  Then, while you and your sister slept, Daddy and I drank wine and watched Newsroom, my feet in his lap and his kind hands massaging away some of the long ache of the day.

You are nine pounds and still toying with the idea of a smile.  You cry mostly when you need something tangible and can usually be satiated with sky or wind or the press of our bodies to yours.  You are a blessing to us, sweet baby boy.

The cicadas are chanting their wiry hum.  On the way home from school we count their dead bodies on the ground.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Finding a Rhythm

You are becoming steadily more alert, Matteus.  When you see Daddy or I lean in close, you peel back your upper lip a little in something like a smile.  Yesterday you tracked the silver zing of a granola bar wrapper back and forth for a few minutes and you can raise your head, blue eyes bulging, for fifteen or twenty seconds at a time.  Nights still aren't entirely predicable, but we're edging towards a routine.  Usually a feeding between 9:00 and 10:00 and then another around 2:00 and another around 5:00.  But sometimes there are three wake-ups.  A couple times only one.  The main problem is that you continue to keep Daddy and I awake even when you are asleep with your grunts and growls and mewling.

Yesterday was the first day of school.  Daddy went up to teach (looking dapper in a lime green shirt and striped tie) at 7:30 and then you and Gak and I walked Thisbe to school.  Your sister wore her Hello Kitty shirt for the second time this week.  At the intersection of Highway 3 and 2nd street there was an accident, two white cars nosed against each other, fenders and grills ripped and bent and crippled.  In one car, an older sister was taking her younger sisters to school.  We saw the sisters emerge from an ambulance, twins dressed identically in skirts, backpacks snug against their spines, and cross the intersection to a minivan waiting to whisk them away--presumably to school. 

Gak dropped Thisbe off and then she and I sat on the couch at Blue Monday, chocolate croissant and blueberry muffin between us, talking about my lesson plan (I told her I was going to have students write about their first experience with language) and her manuscript submission (the editor sent a quick e-mail saying she loved the writing and story but nothing more).  You slept in the stroller, flaunting your new double chin, your skin shadowy and smooth in the low light of the cafe.

Then I dressed in a skirt and brushstroked shirt and black Mary Janes and walked up to campus.  Mary Carlsen gave the opening convocation address (after all of the professors whooshed down the chapel aisle, fluttering like nervous birds in their academic apparel).  She talked about coming in right.  Entering into a place both correctly and ethically.  She was talking, of course, about the entrance into the academic year and to the physical and psychological beginnings of the students' life on campus.

And then I sat with sixteen students around a square table and heard about their experiences with language: first words and Frank Sinatra lullabies and foreign languages and the monotone diction of news reporters.  We looked at the syllabus and talked about what makes a poem and then what makes a good poem.  They were lovely--bright and eager.  Thoughtful.  Ready with answers and ready to talk to one another to come up with better answers.  After class Daddy and I walked home and (after greeting and feeding you) took you to the Cow.  Actually, before we took you to the Cow you shat all over me.  One moment I was cooing at you, explaining how much I missed you and the next moment there was warm excrement soaking through my tank top. 

At the Cow, you watched the ceiling fan and Daddy drank a beer and then another and I drank a glass of pinot gris and then a half a glass more.  Gak and Thisbe showed up and sat beside us on the red couch, reading a horrible book about a mermaid Barbie and a surfing competition.  It was lovely.

We make so much out of beginnings.  And we should.  That's why your birth story is here.  That was your beginning and a new beginning for your father and Thisbe and I as well.  But we aren't at the beginning anymore, really. And in some ways I'm glad.  I like routine.  Like predictability.  Like control.  Like knowing what comes next. 

Newborns, however, scoff at those words.  And so, while one part of our lives falls into a rhythm (classes, Sunday school, dance lessons, choir, stacks of papers, department e-mails), the part of our life that is you refuses to be pinned down or predictable.  So our rhythm instead has become the movement from known to unknown, from planned meeting to unplanned feeding, from manicured student smiles to your seedling grin. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Labor Day, Birth Day

Cool and gray today.  It's Labor Day which means that most businesses are closed and the ones that are open are full of people.  We're in Minneapolis today to celebrate your sister's 4th birthday.  She wore her paper crown with the sticker jewels in the car, turning it upside down and backwards in her constant devotion to silliness.  Thisbe also reported on the status of your eyes: "They're open!  They're closed!  They're kind of open!  One of them is open!  Now it's closing!"  And Daddy reported on the status of Thisbe's feet on the back of his seat: "Stop kicking my seat, Thisbe.  Thisbe, put your feet down.  I can still feel that, Thisbe.  Stop.  Stop it now, Thisbe."

The more the tired accumulates in my body, the more the capacity for gentleness ebbs away.  Also, patience.  Baby 411, our go-to baby book, reports four kinds of baby temperaments.  40% of babies are "easy," 15% are "difficult," 35% are "mixed" and 10% are "none of the above."  (Does that even add up to 100%?  It does, I think.  But frankly, I don't have the book in front of me so I could be getting these numbers wrong).  Thisbe was a difficult baby.  No question.  You, however, are a mixed bag.  Most of the time you are either asleep or making noises that sound like a crotchety kitten.  Sometimes you make the crotchety kitten noises while you sleep.  This messes with Mommy because she wakes up and turns on the light and reaches into the bassinet expecting to find your eyes and mouth open and in search of food.  But instead you're asleep, your lips twisting around little perturbed yowls.

The point of all of this (can you tell I am tired?) is that last night Mama was up every two hours with you, sometimes when maybe she didn't need to be because you were just embracing your crotchety kitten self.  There is a very specific hierarchy of sanity that has to do with the number of consecutive hours of sleep Mama gets at night.  Two hour stretches make my mind feel like a Pollack painting or, occasionally, Dali.  Three hour stretches result in Rothko-brain.  The two times I've gotten a four hour stretch since your birth have made me feel decidedly Monet.  I cannot imagine anymore what five or six or seven hours would be like.  My capacity for imaginative metaphor doesn't go that far when I'm tired.  But  I think it might involve a scratch-n-sniff canvas and three dimensional wood nymphs. 

So the truth for today is that I am tired and I am not patient or gentle enough.  Today we are celebrating your sister's birthday and I owe it to her to be gentle and patient.  But anytime she enters a room it feels like a grenade has gone off.  All I do is say, "Don't touch the baby.  Please be gentle.  He's asleep, please don't wake him.  Not right now.  Not so close.  Be careful of his head."  Thisbe received a beautiful stamp set from her aunt Kaarn and uncle Cliff for her birthday and this morning she wanted me to play with her.  I had nursed you.  We had time.  She was sweet and eager.

And I said no.  I went up and took a shower instead.  I stood under the water longer than necessary.  I barked orders at Dada.  When you started to cry I put you in your car seat and got both you and Thisbe settled in the car so I could collect the last of our belongings without hearing your cry or your sister ask (for the 47th time) if that present was FOR HER?  After we got to Gak's house, I left as soon as I could to come here, to the coffee shop.  Today's deep dark Labor Day truth, Matteus, is that sometimes I like my life better when I am outside of it.  That today I am too tired to do the real work of love which would mean digging a little deeper for the gentleness and patience that I likely do possess.