Wednesday, November 27, 2013


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


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