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


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.