Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I'm afraid so

Also self-justifying, self-aggrandizing self-righteousness.
that too

And complacent do-gooderism.
okay, I've got the picture

There was something (possibly) interesting I was trying to think about in the last post (which I'm considering suspending for revision or deletion) - something about how unfinished and foolish it can feel trying to be a help to someone not convinced they want the help - but the thought didn't make it into any recognizable form. Even to me, reading it now, fully awake and rested - I come away merely irritated and mildly repulsed.

Maybe it is impossible to use examples of our own attempts at altruism without laying an emphasis on how it is our own example. And aren't we somethin'!

We (meaning I) are always so pleased by our tiny goodnesses. We marvel at our (meaning my own) momentary patience, raggy wisdom, barely-more-than-self regard. That for once I didn't feel resentful at having an evening and morning I would have written used up in symbolic action. That for once I actually carried through on a good intent - not just once, not just offering help, not just sitting down with this young woman to figure out options, not just driving her in for testing once, but actually carrying through with a beneficent plan.

But now reading the earlier post, awake and rested and fully arrived in the safest haven of my childhood, I'm ashamed at the smarmy self-satisfaction of that earlier account. Why should I impose such a thing on you? Why was that the story that occupied my mind last week and the one I had to tell?

Okay, I admit, it is satisfying to be the one to help. And a small pleasure to replay that satisfaction.

Yesterday, for example, I was pulling weeds out along the sidewalk of my parents' home. My dad was fixing cabinet doors in his garage. A little cluster of Navajo boys gathered at the end of the driveway, whispering.

Dad walked out to them, "What can I do for you boys?"

He said later, retelling his story with a clear and simple pleasure shining in his face, that he could tell they'd been building up courage to come ask him something. The tallest boy said, "We were wondering - could you help us fix his bike?"

One thing my dad can do is fix things.

Unfortunately, the tube, which had come free of the tire and wrapped around and around the spokes, was punctured as Dad worked it free. Dad shook his head, "Sorry, boys. Can you get it home like that? Or I can throw it in the back of my truck and drive you home if you'd like?" They just live up the road on the other side of the freeway and their parents know Dad.

One of the boys murmurs to his friend, "My mom is going to kill me."

"Don't you have any extra tubes?" I ask my dad. Because I can't fix things, but I am rather good at suggesting things for other people to do.

"No tubes at all," because Dad is not Fritz who has extra of everything bike-like.

"What size is it?" I start turning the tire over in my hands, thinking maybe I'll go into town and pick one up.

But Dad's already there. "Why don't you leave it here and I'll fix it for you," he says.

And then does. Dad has no trouble following through on things, even when he's supposed to be taking things easy. He runs into town to get the tube and also washers and bolts to put the dining room table back together, and a length of metal he can machine into the missing part to fix the futon, and my mom's shopping list for dinner because the first of my siblings are arriving this evening.

My brother and his wife and their incredible newly-walking, soft-cheeked baby drive in. My cousin's wife stops by (lean and blonde with her spurs still on - they've been chasing bulls all day who broke into the corral with the heifers) to pick up her son who's been scootering with my son up and down the sidewalk. All the while Dad's putting the new tube in the bike. He retells the story to each arrival - with simple pleasure.

That evening the boy comes back with his little brother - wide-eyed and solemn. "Your bike's in the garage," I say when I open the door and walk over with them. Dad has gone on another errand with my brother.

"Thank you very much," says the boy, very serious. "Thank you very much."

"I wish I'd been there when those boys came by," Dad said this morning, choking up a little - in the way our family does - over songs we like on the radio or almost anything, "I was going to put my arm around him and say, 'Anytime you boys need anything, you be sure you stop by.'"

"I'm sorry," I say. "I know," because I do.

Dad sniffs, shrugs, "It's okay. I'll see them again. I'll tell them then." Dad wants to be called on to help, I can see, and will put himself in the way of being called on again. Because it is a pleasure to be able to help. It is especially a pleasure to be useful doing something you do well.

During this past week among cousins and connections on both sides of my family - always a little like looking in a funhouse mirror - all these fractured and exaggerated views of familiar traits - I've been reminded of one family connection who is forever telling stories about being strong-mindedly right.

And indeed, she is often in the right. Always strong-mindedly so. But it struck me that for some reason - it can't be that she doubts her rightness? - these stories MUST BE told over and over.

Are there stories of myself I have to tell over and over?

Stories of being useful and good, despite an inherent flakiness and self-involvement and what I so gently call, preoccupation. I know I am unreliable too often. I forget people are waiting for me, depending on me, I forget to make meals, forget to do things I really don't want to do . . .

So I tell these stories, why? To excuse the "momentary" lapses? Because you know, at heart, I really am a fine human being? Or to encourage myself? See, you can do useful things? Just try a little harder, can't you?

A month ago Fritz's only and older and rather footloose brother called: "Mom and Dad want to sell their house and move in with you. Only they're afraid it will be too hard on Emma."

Hm. The indirect channel of communication is not uncharacteristic.

I don't say much about this. Except, "Of course they can come if they need to." Except, "Maybe before they sell their house they should come stay with us for a month and make sure that's what they want."

Do I let myself wonder if their hesitation is as much that they know my intermittent meals of strange spices and plenty beans and excess greens may be a little hard on them? Maybe they're hoping I'll change to take better care of them? Adopt a global regularity? Learn to cook without so much olive oil and garlic?

Could I?

Would I?

Will I?

Because I want to be able to do what is needed. It has always been our plan, Fritz's and mine, to be able to take care of our parents. His are older and likely to need us first. (Because my dad is fine, despite continued bouts of angina. He is going to be fine.) But Fritz and I had imagined the caretaking time a little further along - with maybe only a single parent, a little less able-bodied, a little less independent. After the girls go to college we can make an apartment out of the family room and downstairs bathroom. I can move my computer and desk upstairs and still have privacy to write (and time?).

And so let's assume for now that these stories (of being good rather more sustainedly than is my wont) are meant as self-encouragement. Can we?

Though it's too bad I couldn't write them a sonnet, or proofread something for them, instead.

Monday, June 22, 2009


"You're home early," says Middlest, looking up from her homework at the kitchen table. It is the last week of school.

"Yep," as I toss keys into the red tin breadbox and walk down the hall.

"Whoa, you're home earlier than you said," says Eldest also, leaning away from the bathroom mirror.

"That I am."

In the bedroom Fritz says, "That didn't take very long."

I shrug, "She didn't have her ID."

"That's aggravating."

"Not really. I wondered. I think she's taking the assessment mostly to stop me nagging."

Fritz grunts.

She's a particularly bright young woman who graduated last week from high school. Our town has been a milltown for generations and the school here has put its emphasis on getting kids ready for jobs in the mill. But the mill is gone.

Last winter, when she kept shrugging everyone off who asked what her plans after high school were -- "Oh, I think I'll live in a cardboard box in New York City" -- I finally blurted out, "You really don't know what you're going to do, do you?" And for a moment - blank fear on her face and a kind of mute gratitude. She came over on President's Day and we looked at her options - she's already taken some community college credit but needed a placement test.

Which test has been the topic of our back-and-forth ever since. "Ready to schedule a trip for the assessment?"

"I've got rugby practice."

"When are we going in to take that test?"

"I don't know. I can't find my access number."

This week, the last before I go stay with my parents for awhile, I turned up the pressure, "So just bring picture ID and we'll see if that will get you in." I wasn't sure it would, but at least it would get things rolling.

Now Fritz says, "So you drove all the way there - for nothing?"

Here's where I don't know how to answer. It's not nothing. This fruitless drive to the main campus of the community college - an hour and fifteen minutes both ways - it meant something. I say, "She felt bad. She said she felt horrible. And promised to find her ID. We'll go again on Friday."

"Well," says Fritz, "I hope you . . . " he has suggestions for what I should have said.

I said nothing except, "Oh, well. These things happen. We'll have to come back in again. When's the soonest you can come?"

Fritz shakes his head at the teaching opportunity missed, he who straightforwardly (as he believes) goes directly after what he wants. If you want a future - he says - you study hard, you go to college, you appreciate those who help along the way. It's as simple as that.

I, on the other hand, believe we are all more convoluted than we would like to believe, yanked and tugged by subterranean currents. I believe, too, in the importance of dramatic symbolic action as a kind of ritual that frees you from the inner maze.

This is a young woman who has never seen a member of her family go to college. And she is cool - she doesn't try things that she's going to fail. So I get to play the part of the geeky, half-clueless grownup (I'm a natural) who nonetheless holds the map to future roads and is willing to drive her the first part of the way there.

"So, you feeling pretty confident about this test?" I ask her when we head out again Friday morning, over-heartily.

"Actually, I really don't want to take it," she says, in a peeved tone which would enrage me if this were my daughter, but is only funny in her (and which reminds me why I am so grateful to the other women who have taken time to mentor my own girls). She's mostly concerned that I'm not going to get her back in time for the barbecue her auto shop teacher is throwing.

"Well, I'm glad then you're taking it for my sake. So I won't have to worry about it while I'm out of town." Even I can hear the jolly dorkiness in my voice.

When we get to the campus, though, she has her ID in her wallet. And she's found her access number. I wait at one of the small tables while she takes the test - talking to my parents on the cellphone, sketching out the shape of my next chapter - pretty near as productive a morning as if I'd spent it at home.

"Here," she shows me her scores a few hours later and waits for my praise. She's done well and I tell her so.  She smiles a tiny smile with pink cheeks.

"Now you just need to look at the catalog and get signed up for classes!"

She groans, rolls her eyes.

The ride home we don't talk about her trip with a friend to California next week. We don't talk about books we've loved like we did a couple of evenings before. It's midday. I feel awkward with the silence. She is bored and carefully patient when I stop off for my CSA share at the farm.

The rest of the ride back to our town she's on her phone, calling friends to track down info about the barbecue - which is, thank goodness, not yet started. But soon. "Can you drop me off by the back of the high school?"

I can.

There is so little I can do.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


"So," says Fritz one evening at the beginning of the week, "what's that second thing you were supposed to do?" He's sprawled across the bed with his hands behind his head, one foot crossed over the other at the ankle.

"You read that?" I've just come in to hang up a newly ironed blouse.

"I always do," he says.

"I knew that," I grin.

"So," he lifts his head, "what was it?"

"Why do you ask?" I feel suddenly shy of answering.

He bristles a bit, "You had to know there were those of us reading who would want to know."

"Can't you guess?"

"Just tell me."


"Listen, I ask you a simple question . . ."

"I answered already. It's Write. To write. Which I haven't done very well," I turn away, then turn back, "But I am doing it now."

He considers this, nods, "Yes, I think you better."

Because, gentle reader, it is true. I am writing. And the writing cometh.

The demon chapter that has been giving me fits of rage and paralysis and naked fear, that chapter (aptly: "The Door") that has been blocking my way lo these many days has at last given way and opened to me.

Though I must say its blockage has been strangely productive. To fill its space I have written six or seven different chapters as the Door chapter - but none of them would let the action move forward. Each of these chapters eventually settled themselves elsewhere in the book, giving a shape to what the Door would need to be to allow passage from before to after, but none was the Door itself. It has been as if I could throw pebbles through the Door, but I couldn't move through it myself.

But now! One version of the chapter which seemed most promising I've written and re-written in the voice of three different personas - I finally tried a fourth - and voila! It fits, it opens and closes, it allows passage!

If it weren't for the endorphin-like bliss of getting it right at last, I would forever give over the tiresome and weary, plodding process of writing.

But getting it right feels better than, or certainly nigh unto as good as . . . and that's what I set out to say in the earlier post - (you know, that blank one right before this one) but the gobble-uns are out to get you if you swing too high.

Because I was going to chortle a little, congratulating myself. Not only had I WRITTEN the chapter, but I had EVIDENCE that I have indeed spent sufficient time with my children to teach them well enough and rather than suffering from my pre-occupation, they were actually gaining competence and skills and independence.

The first day of summer break, while I wrote until noon, the same daughter who informed me as a lisping infant, "You just are suffering the quonsekenses of having children," this being her matter-of-fact resonse to my spiralling appeals that she hush because I was waiting for the right words to rise up to the surface inside my mind and her loud bouncy voice was scaring any other words away - this same daughter got up and went running and after cleaning the bathroom and showing her brother how to iron his shirt (both of which I had asked her to do), then cooked lunch for all of us, made bread, started sewing a dress for herself and then went out to wash the car.

What a daughter!

And my son decided he liked ironing so much (plus he wangled a 10¢ remuneration for every article of clothing he ironed) that he ironed everything hanging in the laundry room and then trolled through the closets for more.

What a son!

(And by unavoidable extension, of course, I thus praise their mother.)

And the next day, as the next chapter opened itself like a flower to sunlight, easily, organically (if still painfully slowly), my other daughter suggested she would make soup - Ahhh! The sound of the vacuum. The sound of washer and dryer running and someone assigned to fold the ensuing warm clothes. Peace and order set in motion.

Which led me to rashly begin a post with this my braggy brag - which of course immediately fouled the line and the writing became painful again and then soup-making daughter decided cooking was boring and she didn't feel like it and came down to lean over my shoulder, "Aren't you going to come up and make dinner for us? That's what mommies are supposed to do. They're supposed to nurture and nourish their children. You've been on the computer all day."

"Not all day," because I had in fact been somewhat useful here and there earlier.

"Well, you've been on the computer most of the day."

"I'm writing. This is what writing looks like."


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Talking Large

If I don’t write about my father having a heart attack a few weeks back, it doesn’t mean I am indifferent to it’s happening.

It may mean I want to pretend it didn’t happen. It may mean I don’t see any need to ask for comfort. Which writing about it would seem to entail.

He had 95% blockage, or 99% - the story changed as my parents told it. They said, Main aorta. Left ventricle.
They said, Widowmaker, laughing at the melodrama of it all.

My dad said afterwards, Wake up call. He said, Full healing and stent and successful surgery. He said, it’s probably not my heart that’s going to take me.

I don’t want to be the one to whom people say, Oh, I am so sorry.

Because he is fine. My mom called me in the night, that night, after midnight. She had flown all day to be with my sister whose new baby was being blessed, criss-crossing the nation on one of those cheap flights that make you wish for a parachute as you pass, once again, over the state you’re aiming for. Dad had called her at each layover, My chest feels kind of strange. No, I think I’ll just go lie down. I think it’s getting worse maybe I’ll drive up to the hospital. By the time Mom made it in to Midway – Chicago, my dad was in an ambulance to the bigger hospital two hours north.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my mom kept saying, calling me after arranging another flight back first thing in the morning, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to wake your sister. This isn’t like me.

It wasn’t like her.

But I felt completely calm. I knew my dad would be all right. He would, I knew it. And he was. That night I made her laugh, somehow, I don’t remember now. Irreverence of some kind, flippancy. It wouldn’t have seemed funny to you, even if I could remember. My mom laughed with relief.

I called my dad again two days later. He was being discharged that afternoon. His voice stronger again already. Calling on my cell-phone, sitting on the stairs of my friend’s house early in the morning while she made pancakes for her daughter and my daughters and some of their friends. We’d had a Mother-Daughter sleepover while our boys were camping out at Fathers & Sons.

Two days later this friend’s father died of heart attack.

The next week the friend whom everyone thinks is my sister lost her mother. She called me, my friend did, more than once through those long last days, I’m going to miss her so much.
I am wading through the mortality of parents and frankly I don’t like it.

Remember, please, why I am even writing here. Remember that I am more than halfway through this year I gave myself to write my way out of whatever it is that seizes me, as it seemed to want to seize me after my last grandpa died this past September. And I have been just fine. I’m fine. And my dad is fine.

Last Friday, when my mom called to let me know she’d got the itinerary of my flight, because I’m flying out in a week or so to stay with them and help get things ready before the descending of the hordes over the 4th and to just be there for the few days while my mom goes to Girls’ Camp, not because my dad needs someone there really, but just – and besides I want to be there just with him and my son to be there with his grandpa, the three of us – why not?

Talking to my mom I heard my dad say something in the background. My mom laughed, Dad asks if I told you about his little incident?

And as she told me how they had had to go back to the hospital this week – nothing serious, tightness again, it will happen for awhile, he has to take his nitroglycerin – I felt my face stretch into this horrible rictus of grief and silent tears roll down my face, then I’d breathe silently in, out, so I could say, “Oh?” or “Good,” and then the stretching out of my face again. It would have made someone laugh to see it.

Until I realized how ridiculous this is. I told my mom, “This is upsetting me more than – I don’t know maybe you can hear in my voice ”

I know, she said. It’s like I’m carrying around in my heart, these days, some little animal.

“So . . . ”

We laugh together, a little damply.

“So, I’m assuming this is a . . . stable . . . form of nitroglycerin Dad’s carrying around?”

Mom shouts with laughter (I told you, some things just are not that funny outside our familiar dialect) and she told me how he plans to show the rowdy boys he teaches in Sunday School the little yellow canister and warn them against over-jostling him.

So if I keep talking largely of, say . . . loss. And magisterially, as from a distance, or sort of rhetorically about sorrows, in a general and unspecified sense, it may be that I’m scaring away shadows.

I’m not afraid of death, not my death. It’s just that I hate to see them go. The ones I love.

It’s because I’m going to miss them when we are apart.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

dust and water: A Meditation on Beseeching

Psalm from lisab on Vimeo.
I find myself watching this, listening to it over and over – a vid from a poet whose work I admire. So beautiful –

. . . The leaves turn their palms, whispering a music of inquiry: What is wisdom? To insist that an end ends all? . . .

. . . If I accuse you, Lord, of refusing me, I find the quarrel within myself. There is honey still, though the hives collapse, and the cupped and clustered flowers, and rain pouring out of the sky's purse . . .

I have been swimming in psalms this past spring – the Book of Psalms – a book more modern and more gaspingly real than I had imagined before reading it for myself. When the psalmist asks
Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee?
it is not as a declaration of faith. The psalmist is not setting up for a rhetorcial, "Yes, but of course."
Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?

Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
The answer in the psalmist’s mind is, “No" - as in - snort of disgust, "No!"

The psalmist is railing, “What good to You is it to let me die, unanswered? I can’t praise you after death, after I cease to exist, only now, only here. Answer my beseeching.” If God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead – what good is my dying? What – and truly without the miraculous revision of the risen Christ – what can this mortality mean? And why won’t You answer me? Why do You let me run as prey to every fear and sorrow, gasping like a hunted deer?
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

I hear, here in this video above, the same beseeching voice.

For me, beseeching first, rather than doctrine – though each, sought in humbleness and hearingly, each truly are only different hands of the same body – but, for me, beseeching is the ground of that being-in-relation-with-God that we call “religion.”

I write that down and immediately the tapping on my shoulder – for James says that pure religion and undefiled is
To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep . . . unspotted from the world
So I am likely wrong. Maybe charitable action and that vulgar* word “obedience,” is the fertile and originary ground.
(*vulgar - meaning "of the people" as our acts must be. And too, obedience is a word not admired, haven't you noticed?, in today's polite society.)

Or maybe we are all different soils, different earths, growing the same good seed separately –
And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth . . . And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred . . .
But this verse is after all not really a confirmation of my position. Because the words I left out say of the seed sprung up on stony ground:
But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.
Does beseeching have no depth of earth? Is beseeching by itself that stony ground that affords no rootage to the seed?

Always I am thrown back on what only I know, thrown back only on what I know within myself.

Beseeching turns me. Doctrine (the words of the Book) lays the path for me to see the way. Action moves me, and moving I am changed.

But, for me, beseeching first.
Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.

I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me?

The perfect music in the background is by Antony & the Johnsons – not an African group like I had at first assumed – i.e. not a newest generation Ladysmith Black Mombazo, nor another Ayub Ogada – but the New York City band of a very pale UK-born, US-raised singer. "Dust and water, water and dust . . . " are the repeated lyrics. Hauntingly beautiful chant. The voice of beseeching.

The sound is definitely African, and I find I am a little put off at first at this New York appropriation of the cadences of African chant. But would it be less appropriation for “real” African music to be woven with these words of a Western white American woman? Is it exploitation, this mimicking, this emulation of a sound? Colonization? Because we long-wanderers out of Africa have no music any longer of our own? Because all music belongs to us all?

Or is this the true voice of beseeching, this borrowed music, sung in full color, despite the pallor of the singer's skin? Because we borrow everything we have. We do not know where we are from, or what we really are. What are we? A vanity, whose days are a shadow that passeth away? Or a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour? Made to have dominion? or made to look after and defend sheep and oxen, beasts of the field, fowl of the air, the fish of the sea?

How long have these calls for Your response radiated up from our globe, out into Your wide expanse? How long still will our songs rise up, beseeching You to turn not an ear away?

Or is it we who turn away too soon, we who seek the silence of a final end? And You, God, who pant after us, who – strangely, miraculously – set Your wide and wise heart on foolish, wilful, wasteful, belligerent us?
Am I a sea . . .
says angry Job to God,
. . . or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?

When I say, My bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my complaint;

Then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions:

So that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life.

I loathe it; I would not live alway: let me alone; for my days are vanity.

What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?

And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment?

How long wilt thou not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle?

I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, O thou preserver of men? why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself?

And why dost thou not pardon my transgression, and take away mine iniquity? for now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be.

“So there,” says Job. “I’ll show You.”

Back-handed beseeching.

Okay, Lord, I dare you.

(O Lord please prove us wrong.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Arcing up through Dark Waters

My friend, you asked if I would ever consider having another child and I bristled.  But you deserve better and so: my story.

I've given birth three times - and you know how much I've enjoyed each one of those three.  I've also miscarried twice – once happily and with immense gratitude, the last time more sadly.  But neither miscarriage was especially heartbreaking for me.  The last one as much a soft grief for the passing of my years of fecundity as for that poor wilted flower bud of a Naomi who showed up in my dreams the night before letting go her tenuous hold on life.  We had planned to name her Meridian or Raina or Marit if a girl.  Toronto, Peregrine, Liam if a boy.  But in my dream she was Naomi - a sad sweetness.

All in all, I'm glad to move on to the next phase of my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I love having been/ being mother to my three. Being a hands-on, fully-entangled mother is what – above all – I always wanted to do. I had always wanted to be –
a mother – like my mom (which meant wide-ranging competence – clothes from flat fabric, bread from whole grains, fixer of toasters and builder of shelves.  Meant also physical vigor, perfect teeth and a beautiful voice, much laughter and bad jokes and how-to-stand-on-your-head tutorials.)

a farmer’s wife – like my grandma (a job in itself and not just the lady who married Old MacDonald.  For those who know, a job that includes sunrise shelling of peas, weeding, planting, raising chickens, irrigating the garden out back, sewing, quilting, baking pies, canning, pickling, churning butter, keeping the village post office, growing peonies and iris.)

a writer – because I wasn’t a sculptor and painter like my other grandmother (and which I understood would entail mostly responding from my shining mahogany desk to fan letters while looking out over the rolling fields below my window.)
as I got older I added
an English professor - like Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis (which obviously meant an English professor who wrote  rather than a professor of English necessarily, and which I’d think of in flashing images of tweed and meerschaum pipes and bad teeth – though, thanks to my parent’s investment in orthodontics, only the tweed was really ever a potentiality for me.)
But a mother above all. I chose my husband first and foremost looking for someone who would make a good father. Also wide-souled enough to make a healthy environment for the writing.  Also trustworthy.  Also physically exciting.  (Sadly unromantic-sounding, I know, but not so bad a rubric after all.) 

I desired my first daughter with an overwhelming desire.

And was floored by the hopelessness, anxiety and sense of betrayal that spilled into me in the weeks that followed. The first week I just gazed at her, a little dazed, a little unbelieving, and very sore because of difficulty nursing. Not that I didn’t love my baby, not that I didn’t treasure the way she yawned, her wise and ancient eyes, her dandelion tuft hair, the sweet smell of her, her brightness and the richness of her skin. But day after day, without ever enough sleep, with never no chance in sight for a full night to recover, with waking hours of constant vigilance and attention, that was harder rowing than anyone outside this story can imagine.

My husband, the youngest of two, had not been sure what to think of being a father, right up until becoming a father. Now with all the enthusiasm of a new convert, he declared his eagerness to have as many children as I wanted. “But the decision is all yours,” he said, for which I loved him, because I wasn’t sure we needed to have more than one.

And she was such a perfect one. So good-tempered, so patient. Once the nursing settled out, once I started getting sleep, the fog began to clear. Joy started to seep back into my life.

My second daughter I chose after a strong sense of certainty poured through me that it was time for another childThe day before my farm-grandma died  I discovered that she was on her way here. The moment I laid eyes on her I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of care and protectiveness. Her birth had been relatively easy. I was increasingly sure of my mothering skills. And she was a beautiful and healthy child, exotic-eyed, silvery-haired. I breathed in the sweet, milky scent of her. Gratitude squeezed my heart like a giant sponge to see the gentleness between these two little sisters, Eldest's delight in the new baby, Middlest's emerging vivacity and instinctive clowning.

But there was no quick bridge over my grief at my adored grandma's death, the first death of someone close to me. Add in weight-gain, hormone storms, sleep-deprivation, a demanding new baby and a strong-minded toddler.

Add: that the rest of my family lived across the country.

Add: that my good husband had been asked to volunteer as the head of our congregation, working long hours visiting the sick and troubled, organizing and attending and planning, and all this after his long hours working all day in a software company.

Add: that my grad school friends were now professors.

Add: But it went beyond addition - my days fell under some unfathomable formula from trigonometry, a conundrum of differential calculus, unresolvable.

I was a mother who wrote small poems in haphazard snatches of time and labored over an ungainly novel that never came to birth.  I was nothing. 

There was a stretch of bleakness here, almost too hard to bear.

I remember one winter day deciding to do only what the cat did – drink water, lie in the patch of sunlight on the carpet, run down the hall, curl up on the couch – and that was a good day. Summer was better: I pulled out chunk after chunk of sod in my tiny yard to make xeriscape garden beds where flowers could bloom in the desert with as little water as possible.

The flower beds spread.

Every week I pulled out another border of sod. "You're such a hard worker," said my neighbors, though the inside of the house would not provide much evidence.

"Are you going to leave any grass?" said my husband when he came home to another pile of sod in the driveway and no dinner. I'd grimace, shrug, turn back to moving plants around late into the night, working by porchlight.

It sounds so innocent to tell it now. I walked the neighborhood, around and around. But there was a constant roaring in me. There were days I would not drive to avoid the murmurous urge to pull my car out in front of oncoming traffic.

I was the sweet young wife, with the sweet young family, married to the sweet young bishop of an aging congregation. My first miscarriage was my third pregnancy, entered stupidly and (yes) angrily, to hush up the comments of doting older neighbors and members of our congregation – to me, Aren’t you going to have any more children? or worst – to my daughters, Ask your momma where’s your little brother? I decided I might as well get on with it, get it over with.  Which is no way at all to welcome a child into this world. 

And wasn't, thank God.  And I did thank God.

I cried out, briefly, when the nurse midwife told me my hunch was right, that the fetus had died, that I would soon miscarry. Tears filled my eyes, fell, dried on my face.  And I stayed up through that nightlong process, reading Barbara Pym’s Less than Angels, hiccuping and laughing until more tears rolled down my cheeks.

No grief the next morning. Relief.

And I felt come into me a strong upwelling, a sending, almost in words, No.  Not like that. I will tell you – in My way – when it’s time to have a child. What I want from you now – is just this: that you raise these two dear ones I’ve put in your care, and also – (there was another assignment – more literary - which doesn’t pertain here).

I hired a babysitter once a week, began volunteering in an adult literacy program, later helped to open up a new literacy center in my own town and became its director, focused time on that second assignment. In time, we moved here to greener hills and softer climate and my husband’s schedule simplified. My daughters started school. I taught a poetry workshop at the elementary.

I remember one day walking up the hill to our house here and feeling that the burden I’d been carrying for so long had dried at last.

Had lightened. And become wings. Honestly - though I don't know how to explain this - for a minute I felt the tugging at the back of my shoulders.

I memorized Levertov’s poem “Stepping Westward” –
. . . There is not savor
more sweet, more salt

than to be glad to be
what, woman,

and who, myself,
I am, a shadow

that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out

on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens

they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me

in fragrance. . . .
If I quote poetry too much, it's because these were the friends who murmured peace in my ears those long months when I was too alone inside my private bleakness.

The years that followed my recovery though were particularly sweet. When I finally conceived my son it was out of a great well of peace and because again, a strong spiritual sending and a brimming up of desire for this child whom I named before he was born: Laughter Flourishes. His babyhood was easier.

Maybe because this time I didn’t pretend uber-competence. I told people that I would be unavailable for a month afterwards and banned visits for two weeks, “No, I don’t want meals. I don’t want phone calls.” I took a break from some of my obligations and maintained only those that nourished me best. I gave myself a year to make it back across that wide water.

The first night home, my milk still not in, I slept through the night, while Fritz walked the floor with our new son. When I woke suddenly in the morning and rushed through the quiet house, searching for them, I found both boys asleep on the couch, heads back and their pale necks bare. The baby under his father's chin, gumming his father’s little finger. “Father-son bonding,” Fritz shrugged off my tearful, laughing gratitude.

A week later, the first day of school, I met my two young daughters at the door. “Oh, Mom, you look tired. Here, give him to us. You go take a nap.” In that moment, I vowed, come hell or high water, I would do what I had to do to be near and available to spell my daughters – day by day if necessary – whenever these two marvels become mothers in their turn.

A few years later, what was to be the last time I miscarried began as a unifying joy of expectation for our whole family, and then became a unifying bittersweet soft sadness.

And despite my in-laws' valiant tongue-biting and my own mother's "Are you sure you don't want more? You do them so well," I 've never felt prompted since to embark on that perilous raft out across the river to ferry across another life.

Because of the difficulty I have with the after part of giving birth, I would not ever want to embark without a strong reassuring prompting. Which is not to say that now I would unwish - that I would go back and sidestep those bleak years. That hard baptism.

I’ve called that time – to myself – a plunge down into dark waters – and an arcing up – a dark rainbow whose lessons of hope have remade me more deeply than simple and easy happiness would have done.

My ancestors were handcart Mormons in the snowbound, starving Willey handcart company and like them, it was "in my extremity" (though an extremity that would have looked like ease to them) that "I came to know God." In the very heart of that bleakness I remember kneeling at the rocking chair – two babies finally asleep and Fritz still at his meetings – sobbing and railing at God. I was not comforted at the time when I felt His Presence come and sit there with me that night.  I should have been amazed, singing hallelujahs at the deep and wise closeness I suddenly felt - that undeniable, attending, listening, ancient and deeply-knowing presence.  At the time, though, it enraged me that God was there, that I could feel God there and close, and doing nothing to fix me.

I wanted to be fixed and made just fine right then.  God just came and stayed with me until the fixing and the becoming fine grew up around me and within me.  God was not afraid of my sadness or rage, was not frightened away by my railing and impatience, but instead taught me by just standing beside me, walking with me day by day, listening to me as I climbed my way out of that post-partum valley.

I have found the memory of that experience very sweet since. A lesson showing me what exactly it means, that business about bearing one another's burdens, mourning with those that mourn. What it means to accompany. To be with.  To walk together.

So.  My story, for you, my friend – not after all about postpartum depression – but how I lived past that bleakness. How I came into a deeper kind of knowing. 

How I know that God is there. 

Is More than just the sum of everyone else’s platitudes. 

Is Deeper than my sorrows. 

Is the Firmament on which I can trustingly stand.

Is the Water and the Rising.


Monday, June 1, 2009

Quantum Guy and MicroNudge at dinner with their children Joy-of-Flight and Nature Boy

“So,” says Eldest, “I made this questionnaire on Facebook and it’s so weird how consistently it’s the same few things my friends all miss.”

“Like?” asks Fritz.

“Where’s your sister?” I ask – because we’re sitting down to dinner.

“She went to bed early,” and Eldest turns back to her dad, “Like what flower I'd be happiest about receiving and what superpower I’d want to have.”

“She’s asleep?” I pass the salad to YoungSon who doesn’t want any.

Eldest turns to me and nods, “She said she was tired.”

“How many leaves do I have to take?” asks YoungSon.

“Eight,” I say.

“So what superhero power?” Fritz asks Eldest.

“Guess,” says Eldest, “ - Telepathy. Elasticity. Flight. X-ray vision. Telekinesis.”

“Elasticity?” says Fritz.

“What’s the telephone thing?” says YoungSon.

“Telepathy? Reading people’s mind,” I say and then to Eldest, “I’d have to say flying.”

“Yep,” says Eldest.

“Really?” says Fritz.

“Always,” says Eldest. “In fact I truly remember remembering that I once flew over this very table in our old house when Middlest was a baby. I just – flew – no one else was in the room.”

“Huh,” says Fritz.

“What about you guys?” asks Eldest.

We think.

“I don’t know,” I say, “Being able to stop evil plans from being carried out. Somehow.”

“Elasticity, now,” says Fritz. “It would depend on how elastic you were. If you were so elastic, you could stretch and stretch, thinner than threads, and then you could be invisible.”

“Except then everyone would keep getting tangled up in you,” I say.

“Yeah, people would keep tripping over your stringiness,” says Eldest.

“So, you’d just drape yourself along the walls,” says Fritz.

YoungSon says, “I would like to explode things and plus all the good parts about flying.”

“And if you were elastic,” says Fritz, “you could stretch your arms into wings and then you could also fly.”

“I think what I’d want to be,” I say, “is to be able to read people’s brains and read molecular structure and be able to go in and adjust things. Like if there’s a bad guy who’s planning to do his evil deed, you just slip in, ‘You are SO tired. You need to take a nap,’ or ‘Candy bar!’ And if something is broken like a bone, or someone has cancer, you just move things back into place or pull out the plug on the cancer cell.”

“So you want to be MicroNudge?” says Eldest.

“Yeah,” I say.

Eldest says, “The problem is – I don’t want to fly to be able to fix anything. I just want to fly.”

“Or how about Quantum Guy,” says Fritz. “You know, like with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. They’d never be able to tell exactly where you are.”

I am suddenly imagining my husband in shiny tights - neither here nor there, particle nor wave, accompanied by a cat that may or may not be dead.

“I’d like to be Nature – ” begins YoungSon.

Eldest says, “You’d need a better name than Quantum Guy, though.”

YoungSon says, “I’d want to be – “

Eldest says, “Mr. Quantum, at least, would be better.”

“No,” I say, “Quantum Guy’s great. You have to have a kind of nerdy name if you’re Quantum Guy!”

“Mom,” says YoungSon, “I’d want to be Nature Boy!”

“Would you?” I say.

“All the animals would come to me and I could change into any animal,” says YoungSon.

Fritz says, “The only problem with changing – what if you change to something that doesn’t think very well? And then you’re just stuck that way?”

“Like a bacteria,” says Eldest.

“Or with my luck,” says Fritz, “I’d change into a bird and get eaten.”

“But if you changed fast enough you could become a seed and just pass through,” says Eldest.

“I think,” says Fritz, “if something ate me, I’d change into an elephant.”

“Oh,” says Eldest, “stomach-ache!”

A beat, while the hapless predator's eyes bug out and then -

“Awesome!” YoungSon guffaws, in that toothy eight-year-old-boy way, as the debris rains down in each of our separate imaginations -

And dinner is over.

Someone pouring light out of the window . . .

"The Open Shutter"by Karl Krolow

Someone pouring light
Out of the window.
The roses of air
And children
Playing in the street
Look up.
Pigeons nibble
At its sweetness.
Girls are beautiful
And men gentle
In this light.
But before the others say so
Someone shuts
The window again.

(translated from the German by Kevin Perryman)
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