Mothering

I just read the following to Claire and she loves the last two paragraphs. Me too. I want to write more of this, the lovely everyday. 


I gave birth to Claire in a fluorescent lit room. I kept my eyes closed. My mind worked differently, to protect me from panic at the massive work of my body. For most of the labor and delivery I was calm, or even blissed out. Justin was in and out of the room and the one moment of near fear I remember happened at the first urge to push when I realized my body was going to birth a baby and I had best be okay with the process. I had a moment of fear at motherhood, not the first of the pregnancy and not the last of motherhood. At one point near the end I glanced to my left and saw four or five interns and doctors lined against the wall watching because it was rare for a woman to choose no epidural. I met Claire and Justin followed her to the little station where she was measured and weighed. She was so pink. I shivered and nurses placed a heavy blanket over me. My body lost so much blood I later passed out but no one seemed worried, so I didn’t worry either. I asked to see the placenta. After reading so much about pregnancy and birth, I respected this whole new organ my body grew to support my daughter. The doctor held the slick, deep red placenta up like he was a waiter carrying a tray. Wow, I said. It’s a good size, he said, and dropped it into the medical waste bin with a thwack.

I gave birth to Grant in a dimly lit room. Justin attended me the whole time. My mind again carried me away from fear. This time I knew I was having a boy and we had chosen his name so I said to Grant to move so he was ready to be born. I said to Grant we were together in this. This labor was different. The sensations were less intense. My water broke with a loud pop and splash while I was pushing and my doctor, a Lebanese woman, laughed. Yulla! Yulla! she said. I met Grant whom I already loved. I rested. We ordered breakfast delivered to the birthing suite. In our room alone I marveled how tiny this new person was. I laid on my belly for the first time in months. I nursed my baby. I watched him sleep.

When I met Claire, she was place on my right breast so she looked up at me. When I met Grant he was placed on my left breast so he looked up at me. I love to hold my children in a hug and look down to see them look up at me.

My son has his father’s hands. My daughter has my hands. I watch how these hands work. Grant draws intricate plans for a ship. He rolls bits of paper into smokestacks to glue on the deck of a cardboard ship. He digs in the dirt for rocks he calls gems. When he rides his bike, he sometimes lets one arm loose at his side and once I saw him lift both hands from the handlebar just to see if he could. Claire makes a flat screen alive with whatever world she’s constructed. She taps and scrolls to edit a stopmotion video. She picks up a pencil, a marker, a paintbrush to make the picture in her mind show up on paper. She makes clothes for her doll. Both of my children hold my hand and that is a daily pleasure.

(595 words)

One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

A couple of months ago I sent out an essay titled “The Grave Garden” and a couple of weeks ago the essay was rejected for publication. I started writing the essay three years ago and tacked on the latest expansion earlier this year. The piece wanders. As it is, the essay is what I first supposed it might be, written only for me. I started writing about the death of infant Kaiden, my friends’ firstborn, and the years after when I was surprised by how sad and angry I remained. I remember writing the first draft. Parts were jagged, like you might snag on an inappropriate observation or emotion.

Right now I’m not certain why I committed that first draft to a file. I was already writing about the Senger family, their loss and second son, the community that walked alongside. Their grief would surface in me throughout that first year after Kaiden died, but what also came was the anger I wanted better to understand. What I’ve noticed about my more personal essays is that anything I finally type is something I’ve written by hand before, more than once. I love Natalie Goldberg’s idea that writers compost their ideas, turning over the soil until it’s rich enough to grow the right words. “The Grave Garden” essay as it is, even called finished, is likely one more part of the compost, one more turn of the soil until I know just how to talk about

what I really want to say, which is:

(I just spent ten minutes rewording a few sentences to whittle the years of this lesson to something that makes me seem more wise than ugly). Let’s try this again:

I didn’t want to be a mom more than anything in the world. And when I watched Christie, a woman who wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, grieve the death of her son, her loss underscored the gain I held. I condemned myself for not wanting motherhood, for having to work so hard at enjoying the role, for the effort of love.

Before Kaiden died I wrote a couple of essays about contentment. Envy, comparison and finding contentment. I like to believe I really was on the way to figuring out how to enjoy motherhood, all by myself. I ran, journaled, listened to podcast sermons, laid on the floor to pray, confessed, begged for joy. I was too good at recognizing my lack. If I’d been a little dumber or kinder to myself, I probably wouldn’t have worried my initial fear or ambivalence about parenting meant always and forever selfishness. Also before Kaiden died, my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. Rose’s death shocked my apathy toward marriage and parenting. I was writing a lot about how much a fight it is to just be where you are, to yield to the difficult and boring work of loving a husband and small children, when Rose was diagnosed. Without knowing it, she celebrated her last Christmas. Without knowing it, she welcomed her last new year. And she would not see spring. The morning I learned Rose died, I stood in the shower crying for her son, but also crying for her because no matter the frame of faith and a better place, she was missing out on what I once wished away.

So “The Grave Garden” contains different sorrows. The loss suffered by Kaiden’s parents. My tangential grief for a different kind of loss, suffering what I’d missed having: a first full love of motherhood. “The Grave Garden” tries to make sense of my interaction with the Senger family’s loss and my parallel sorrow. While all the threads belong together, the essay shows me deciphering my emotions and responses in way that feels a little too raw. There is not a tidy way to write any of what I am writing in that piece, but I respect the story enough to find a way to tell it well.

I just finished Educated by Tara Westover. She journaled all the way through her wild growing up years in rural Idaho, all the way through her sense of inadequacy. She learned how to say the truth plainly in the pages of a notebook. And then, much later, she put her experiences together in a memoir that talks intimately about tragic and difficult moments. At no point in the narrative does the reader wonder if Westover is just figuring out what she needs to survive her family, to thrive away from Idaho, to pursue meaningful work she couldn’t have imagined a decade before. While she walks us through her realizations, while we watch her grow, we trust she tells us her story from a place that is through – maybe still in the middle on some days, but mostly secure in her present place.

Perhaps drafting and revising “The Grave Garden” stood in for what I should have done, which is go to therapy. It’s upsetting to write hard words in my own hand. To say to myself what hurts. Really, I think I could have done a few sessions, whacked my way through a couple of big issues, been lifted more quickly than three years of writing about my grief for the Sengers, my grief for myself, the anger. I wrote from the middle. I wasn’t through much of anything when I started drafting the essay. I wanted to be through, I wanted to understand what we learn from such tragedy, what forgiveness I might extend myself, I wanted to know I could be a good mom even if I hadn’t wanted motherhood more than anything in the world. I very much started “The Grave Garden” in the middle and its revision is ungainly but I don’t negate the need for the work. How else might I learn to write about difficult things except to write about difficult things?

(994 words)

The Right Light To See

Another go at a favorite writing exercise, Twenty Little Poetry Projects. Go here to see the exercise in full. I made passes at this exercise for years before I finished all twenty projects. The trick is to lower the stakes. Tell yourself you’re going to have fun. And decide that you’re going to finish the exercise. That means your notebook will look sloppy with crossed-out lines and arrows ordering the parts. Having fun and finishing the exercise means you’ll be surprised by an image or line you’ll want to reuse. Shake your limbs out and run around the yard, pen in hand.

The Right Light To See

My daughter and son are this poem
He is written with invisible ink
She is indenting pencil, erased
margin to margin. The right light
will show me my children

Claire Juliana and Grant Nael stand at the hot window,
surveying Mahboula, and tell me there’s a water truck and
it’s dusty out
I clear my head on dusty days,
take sips of inside air,
stand in the middle of rooms
like I forgot why

When she tells him, Spawn a horse,
he taps the screen three times
When she tells him, Stop exploding my palace,
he taps the screen three times

I say, Go get dressed
My son says, I have a plan in my mind
and it’s about Lego
I say, Okay. Go get dressed
(One day, the plan in his mind
will build a city. One day,
the plan in his mind will take
flesh on its bones, stand and run)
I call, Are you dressed?
He calls, Wulla
I call, We don’t say that

I hold my daughter as long as she lets
She grows taller than me,
in our minute embrace, she grows
stronger than me. I can feel
the day she goes
I cannot feel the day she goes
The long sigh of love is
the top of her head
under my chin
The wall whispers to let go
She runs down the hall,
finds her brother building a
red brick firetruck. She yells,
Holy moley!

If we don’t move, we will remain in this day
Dear holds her breath, stands so still she leaps

This desert is the house of my motherhood,
the green lawn of their childhood and I am a tree,
grown improbably, cracking asphalt for want of
sun and rain, and my children sit in my shade,
though they might cast long equatorial shadows
too, when the earth tilts

We go out into bright dust

I should write all of this down, I think:

From my son’s mouth
trucks accelerate, cars crash

At my daughter’s hairline
a salty kiss

In from outside
dirty palms, dirty feet

Out of the bath
skin the smell of honey

On the living room floor
a nest of arms and legs

I write all of this down. The day inside
The day outside. I lift my page to see what
my daughter and son look like with light
shining through. They are before me, alive
My ink is margin to margin

 

Kleines Cafe, Vienna

This is an essay draft, the ideas from a late morning coffee. Verb tense is a small mess. I need to read the whole thing aloud to hear what I want it to sound like. This next school year will very likely be our last in the Middle East and lately I’ve been feeling more afraid than hopeful for change. Also, this summer I’ve been seeing pregnant women, babies and toddler every third step and that’s turned over more thinking about my early motherhood, a time that remains lovely and difficult to remember. Anyway, there might be something to this start. I’ll find out if I go back to it in a month or two.

The online reviewers give Kleines Café 4.3 stars. There’s a note about Kleines being a café locals go to and a picture of a latte in a clear mug so you can see the band of espresso between the whole milk on bottom and the frothed milk on top. That was the latte I ordered after finding the place a couple of blocks off Stephansplatz. I navigated what looks like easy turns following the blue dot on Google maps and then, even with the café in front of me saying Kleines Café with two doors open to its small rooms, I looked at the map and saw the pin dropped maybe fifty meters further and wondered if there were two Kleines Cafes in the same block. Be where you are, I told myself, and stepped into an alcove of a dining room.

I was going to write. When you go somewhere to write, be a little picky about where you sit. I like to sit at the side or back of a room but not with my back to others because the pause between thoughts or paragraphs is a good time to see what people are like. There really isn’t a back or side at Kleines. You go in and you’re in the middle of the whole room wherever you sit. Cracked, cigarette scarred vinyl upholstered benches line either side of the room. A bar with three wood backed swivel stools is where the waiter double checks orders before carrying trays out to the patio tables where most patrons sit. I could have sat outside but the tables and chairs are wood slatted with spindly metal legs standing on cobblestone. I don’t like to write at a wobbly table. I sat near the door at a marble topped table with enough space for my latte, water and notebook if I set the sugar, salt and pepper and ashtray on a chair. There were two more tables on my side and then a few steps down to the toilets and a narrow hall opening to a second room. I don’t know what’s in that second room. Maybe another bar. The kitchen has to be back there somewhere too.

I ordered a latte and opened my notebook. All morning I’d thought about the regret I have, for a couple of years when the kids were little and I wavered, insecure and angry but recognizing those currents and seeking security and peace in God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m enjoying my kids more now than when they were babies and sometimes I feel bad about that. Some of the new joy is attributable to relative ease of having school age children who tie their shoes, wipe their bottoms, read books and play Lego. And some of the joy stems from a shoot of security I root daily, that I am loved by God. Maybe it was my age or being a new mom, but when the kids were babies I looked at myself and saw this vein of pride that for years had pushed me to seek the approval of others.

Parenting is humbling. And parenting in a social media blitz of links and posts is devastating if you aren’t sure of your own purpose. Even if you are sure. So I opened my notebook to write more about this. I didn’t figure it out. Instead I sort of paralyzed myself playing a highlight reel of my approval seeking ventures.

My daughter strings together nonsensical lyrics, walks through the street pretending she’s a husky, wears polka dot socks with stubby blue leather boots and carries a smartphone made out of a Tic Tac box covered with stickers. I sat in Kleines Café thinking I can’t watch her lose any of that sureness. I thought of my mom too who was my age, thirty-five, when I was a sophomore in high school. What did she see when she watched me walk out the door wearing old corduroys I’d salvaged from St. Vinny’s thrift shop? Did she think I was making it okay? When I was fifteen I had a shell of superiority, not too different from armor most teenagers wear. Now, at thirty-five, I get a little nauseous at the thought like me because it’s a heavy chain to drag through all my places and relationships.

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Writing What You Can’t Say Clearly

This week I’ve been writing about when my friend’s infant son died and the nearly two years since. I was surprised by my anger and sorrow in the days before his birthday. My anger confused me most. I was mad because I was as sad as I was, because I’d gone bitter in my heart toward a few people connected to the loss. And I thought I hadn’t any right to feel the deep sorrow I felt, like it wasn’t my emotion to hold. Also this, my own then shifting sense of purpose in motherhood, hoping for joy after years of wishing I hadn’t married or borne children at all. My friend wanted to be a mother and I prayed for my own desire to change, that I might want to be a mother too. So when it was her baby who died – I still can’t say clearly what I felt – it was like I’d wasted my own motherhood not wanting it enough.

I made myself write about all of this. I hated writing about most of it because it was clumsy and sad. I failed at a didactic conclusion. I didn’t look good on the page.

Then I found a poetry exercise by Susan Mitchell in The Practice of Poetry. It goes something like this: think of a feeling, mood, experience that you have tried to tell but failed at telling well. Now write twenty lines about it. Use as many metaphors and/or similes as you like, but no fewer than five.

I assigned this exercise to my classes. We all wrote poems full of metaphors and similes and by end of the day, I wondered if the process mattered more. I had three starts in my notebook, each making me look closely at the infant’s death and the time since. I opened my notebook again this afternoon and made myself finish the piece. What follows is a draft I’ll leave alone for a while. But I get at something I mean.


 

1.
Empathy is my heart cut, sleep broke. I know to pray. I pray
with few words. I pray in pictures. I pray for her empty arms
like my own are also empty. Then I rise from my knees, find
my children, fill my arms. For days it is like this. I think of her,
I think of me. I am necessary and useless. I hook that thought
until I am more useless than necessary, until my empathy is
stealing grief. When my daughter was a baby, I thought
a terrible thought, that her death would be escape. And when
my son was a baby, I thought my death would be escape.
I am useless but I pray

2.
Even this poem about her son’s death becomes about me.
Motherhood was my tether. I was staked in place, to a
husband, daughter and son. She was glad to be pregnant,
glad to grow big, glad to deliver a boy with dark hair, glad
to learn how, already in love. Her joy was not rebuke but I
watched like a child, wanting to learn how to give myself
to my own children as she did her son. And then her son
died. She woke at night, forgetting he was dead, remembering
again. She’d wanted to be a mother and I hadn’t really,
not really, not at all

3.
I do not steal grief. This sorrow is mine. On the day her boy
would have turned two, we go to his grave. I watch my
daughter and son walk among the dirt mounds of other
daughters and sons. The sky is gray, wind whips my hair
and I pray with few words for many things. Later I am angry
and call my mother who listens and lets me cry because
this loss, this son that isn’t mine, cannot go from me.
When my heart cuts and my sleep breaks for his mother,
even when she and I are gray, I will take a piece of her grief,
hold it as my own