Sunday, November 19, 2006

When God Comes for Tea

When I was eight years old, I loved to read the same books over and over again. “Try this one,” my frustrated librarian would say, pushing forward a copy of A Wrinkle in Time or one of the Chronicles of Narnia with some urgency.

“No thanks,” I’d say, handing her instead the card for On the Banks of Plum Creek for the fifth time that fall. I was already anticipating my pleasure at going home to my bed in the corner of my room with a two-inch cube of cheddar cheese which I would nibble slowly, making it last until my mother called us for dinner. The books I was drawn to were all about girls growing up a long time ago, girls growing up in little underground sod houses, or Brooklyn tenement apartments, or snow-covered wooden structures buried in a New England blizzard. I liked stories about girls watching their mothers measure out the coffee, precious spoonful by precious spoonful. Girls who knew what scarcity was.

I knew no such lack, or at least that’s what I thought until recently. I grew up in the seventies, and though it’s true that I sometimes had to ford a bridgeless creek to get to school in the Virginia winter, taking off my brown oxfords and shrieking as my bare feet hit the freezing water, I always had shoes. And, truth be told, my mother could have driven us; she just liked the idea of us fording a creek once in awhile. I always had meat on my dinner plate; I slept in a well-heated house, and as far as I know, my parents never measured the coffee, though in those days it came in these horrible tins and was freeze dried. I am sure today’s Starbucks generation cannot even imagine the horror.

Today as I was going for my morning run, I noticed a mother and son waiting, I assume, for the school bus. The mother was just hanging out with her kid—he’s probably eight or so. And she was laughing with him. He was laughing and she was laughing. That was all. But I felt a pang; the same pang I used to feel when I read about Laura Ingalls or Jo March or Francie Nolan, those poor little girls who slept in unheated homes and waited until Christmas to have even a taste of sugar. I felt a twang of deprivation.

My parents gave us everything we needed, but not everything we wanted. We were not poor little rich kids; they were careful not to spoil us. But, like most Americans, they were hungry to improve our lot; not hungry to buy new cars or have us wear the latest fashions—my parents didn’t go out to a restaurant until we were all in our teens, and we rarely went on vacations. What they were desperately hungry for was for us to be well educated. They chose a school that had a fantastic music department and made sure they could pay the tuition, three times over for their three daughters.

And the additional price they paid, again like many Americans, was with their time. I don’t remember ever just hanging out with my parents. I think if asked, they would have called “hanging out” “killing time.” And time was more than money; time was love in the form of hard work, which translated to tuition for the school, which translated to a better life for their kids. I think my parents saw the cultural upheaval of the 60s with mixed feelings. Though they were liberal Democrats, they were not hippies. Though they were passionately in favor of the separation of church and state, they simultaneously mourned the fact that Christmas carols were no longer allowed to be sung at our local public school. And so they both worked from six am until 10pm most days so that we could go to a school and learn Christmas carols.

I woke up at seven am most mornings to find my mother furiously red-lining 9th graders’ term papers, planning her morning lesson and throwing together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I braided my baby sister’s hair and emptied the dishwasher with the Today show chirping the day’s cold war news in the background. We slurped our orange juice and grabbed our books and tumbled into the station wagon to pick up the kids in our carpool, always late to school. My mother was usually not home in the afternoons—either playing tennis or teaching or working for the League of Women Voters –and thus I found an alternate universe in the prairie or turn of the century Brooklyn. My father came home, usually after dinner and he’d kiss me goodnight. For many years, my mother referred to their relationship as “the 19 and a half minute per day marriage.”

Killing time was a real homicide in my family. When my mother found out I was reading the same books over and over again, she yelled at me. “Why don’t you go out and play?” she’d shout on a cloudless crisp October day. “Soon it’s going to be winter!” I still have pangs of guilt if I don’t get out on crisp cloudless days. Thus my morning run.

And yet, here was this woman, hanging out with her son waiting for the school bus. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood. Her son is not that small. Surely he could spend those moments alone while his mother could be getting some work done, or maybe going for a run herself.

I’ve been working all fall on the content for my new Life Composition Creative Day Planners, and I’ve been thinking a lot about time management, a topic I am fascinated with, although I’ve come to prefer the term “time consciousness,” but that’s for a later entry. At one time, I prided myself on having my life scheduled down to the second. Then I became a mother, at the ripe age of 38, and my whole notion of time management—of hanging out, of killing time—became transformed. When my six month old daughter calls me from her position under the elephant which dangles above her head while she’s lying on her Gymini play mat, I stop what I’m doing. I look over at her and watch her face crumple into a squinty eyed grin, her whole body wriggling like a puppy’s, her feet kicking in eloquent joy. I lean over and pick her up and hold her, smell her ears, run my hand gently over that miraculous head, kiss her soft little peach cheeks and look her deeply in the eyes. And I sigh. And I forget about trying to get anything done; I forget about trying to save my pennies for her future education (well--for the moment—it is kind of an obsession for me). But I know that if the income column falls short of the expenses column, I can always sing to her. I can read to her and find her books—new ones as well as old familiar ones. I can let her choose what she wants to read and notice if she’s going back to the same old ones over and over again, and perhaps ask why.

My parents, I should add, have learned how to kill time as they’ve grown up. The Thanksgiving when my nephew William was born was a veritable massacre of time. We did nothing but hang out on my sofas, go for the occasional stroll in the neighborhood, comment on how huge my sister’s belly was and eat turkey. And it remains one of the very happiest weekends of my life. Being an older mom, I am acutely aware of how little time I have with Lila. When she graduates from college, I will be 60. When I went to college, my mother had just turned forty. I don’t have the kind of time my mother had to learn how to relax and hang out. I need to learn at warp speed.

So part of what I’ve come to learn about time management goes to a wonderful proverb that I’ve found in cultures across the world. In Arabic, it’s translated: “Trust Allah but tie your camel.” In Russia it’s “Pray to God but continue to row to shore.” I would reverse it for myself: “Hoard your time like sweet cream, but don’t be afraid to pour lavishly when God comes for tea.” When my husband tells me he loves me, that he’s proud of me, or when he tells a joke and makes me laugh; when my daughter coos and chants “ma ma ma”; when we’re all sitting around the breakfast table in the morning watching the sun illuminate the late November clouds, God has come for tea.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I grew up with folk music. My parents' first date was going to see Harry Belafonte when he was the darling of the Greenwich Village set. Their second date was a Pete Seeger concert. Early in their courtship, my mother taught my father how to play the guitar, and my earliest memories have to do with them harmonizing around the dinner table to "Banks of the Ohio." The first record I remember playing was Peter, Paul and Mommy. And though I eventually rebelled and started listening to the Clash (oh, OK, Captain & Tennille), my first musical love will always be folk music. REAL folk music: not the pabulum served up in the late fifties (Mitch Mitchell, Burl Ives) but muscular leftist populist folk music, dark murder ballads, passionate gospel.

As you know, this led to creating a five-piece rock band with my sister, that at one point in time lived in a van and played in clubs all over the country. Now we tour more regionally and more frequently as a duo, but we still put out a new CD every year and a half and have not yet given away our black motorcycle jackets. We rode the line between the shiny hopeful music of the American left's folk tradition and the alternative rock of the 1990's, trying hard not to be sentimental without being too cynical. "When I am a mother," I thought. "My children will love music. They will not listen to Baby Einstein. They will not have toys that sound like Casio keyboards. They will have authentic instruments and learn songs from all over the world. They will learn about hope from music. And if they can't sing on key, that's AOK."

Moreover (Katryna and I plotted), music shall save the world! If all the kids were busy singing, maybe they wouldn't hit each other! If only George W. Bush had done more of the hokey pokey as a child, maybe he wouldn't be so obsessed with his nasty, unwinnable wars!

To this end, HooteNanny was born.

HooteNanny is Katryna's and my answer to Music Together, ( a national franchise whose theory is that your child's favorite voice is your voice; that the best way for children to have music in their lives in a positive way is for parents and children to experience it…together. So classes begin when children are pre-verbal and continue until they are five. There are lots of call and response songs, lots of international songs, lots of made- up-in-the-moment songs.

On Thursday mornings, I put Lila in the jogging stroller and we walk a mile and a quarter into town on a crisp fall morning. I stop by Starbucks and get the requisite coffee bevies for Katryna and me (a 5 shot Americano for yours truly, a mostly milk iced coffee for her, with 2 sugars.) We meet in front of the building that houses the Northampton Quaker Meeting Center and unlock the front door. Upstairs, the room is still cluttered with chairs for big people. We move these out of the way to the periphery and sit down next to the wall with the outlet, plug in Katryna's boom box. I take out the guitar, tune up and place my capo and picks behind my back and safely out of the reach of curious two year olds. And then the parents and kids begin to arrive: mothers of all ages carry their babies, or hold the hands of their toddlers. Some of the kids are older—up to five years old—and these are the kids we keep an eye on. When we get to the parts of the songs that require participation, here's where most of the good ideas will come from. Like finding out what Aikendrum's clothes are made of (Aikendrum lives on the moon, you see, and naturally, all his clothes are made of food. His hat is made of cream cheese. Depending on the whims of the children in the group, his shirt could be made of spaghetti, his tie could be made of dino-nuggets. Once his entire outfit was made from yogurt. You get to find out what kids had for breakfast by how Aikendrum is clothed.)

We begin each group with a good morning song: Good morning, Lila, how did you sleep last night? Going through and greeting every parent and child there. During the forty-five minute class, we do some movement (like dance around the room to Dan Zanes's wonderful "Pata Pata"), play with shaker eggs, tambourines, sing some lullabies while babies nurse in their mothers' laps. We have given each family a CD and songbook with the music for the ten-week session, and part of the program is about spending time outside of class listening to the CD with your child to develop familiarity with the music. The idea is that the more the kids and parents sing the songs at home, the better integrated the experience becomes.

We end the class with a version of the old folk song "Sweet Rosyanne," whose refrain, "Bye Bye My Rosyanna" gets turned into "Bye bye Lila, bye bye William, bye bye Amy and Zoe," etc. So far, I can attest that five-month old Lila loves the class, spending it looking around at the other moms, dads and babies and sucking on her hand with a big wet grin. William, Katryna's almost 2 year old spins around in a circle, suggests we sing about fire trucks most of the time and sings the songs on his own in the car when Katryna plays the CD. Emails from the other moms in the group reflect this, too. And the best endorsement of all, from the mother of 6 month old twins: "They always nap so well in the afternoons after HooteNanny!"

We pack up our shaker eggs, boom box, guitar, children, stroller, leftover iced coffees and head out into the noonday. I help Katryna load the van, and then I walk home with happy Lila, who is a complete lovey-loo after her infusion of folk music. And even though she is still preverbal and toothless, I could swear she was trying to sing the chorus to "Allee Allee O" as we passed under the falling maple leaves.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Giant of the Valley

When I was a kid, I read a biography of John F. Kennedy; one of those youth bios, cleaned up, Marilyn Monroe-free, which focused instead on his huge, friendly family, his speed-reading of five newspapers a day, and his heroics as a World War II purple heart recipient. When the author remarked on how competitive the Kennedy family was, especially in touch football games and politics, I thought, “What’s weird about that? Isn’t that the way all families are?”

In my family, we play tennis, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuits, golf. We argue about politics, even though we all fall roughly on a demographic between very left of center and extremely left of center. And in August, we climb mountains in the Adirondacks—a New York state nature preserve where there are forty-six peaks over 4000 feet. These forty-six peaks-known colloquially as “Forty-Sixers”(or, cutely, “46rs”)- range in difficulty from an hour and a half’s fairly easy hike (Cascade) to a sixteen-hour day’s bushwhack to bag a viewless mosquito-infested peak (Allen). I climbed my first forty-sixer at age 8 and finished at age 26, along with my sisters. We were fairly incongruous members of the forty-sixer club, most of whom are the kind of outdoorsmen and –women whose idea of a vacation is careening down white water rivers in those little boats that tip over, and then cramponing up glaciers in January. Me, I wear old running shoes to hike and eat my lunch with a knife and fork at the summit.

Nevertheless, in case it hasn’t become clear to you by now, I did not completely escape the competition virus with which everyone in my family is infected. Like Anne Lamott, when I brought home a B+, my parents wondered why I couldn’t have worked just a little harder to get an A-. Though I was a fair athlete as a child-a pretty good field hockey and tennis player, an average but competent dancer—my parents were practically professionals (both are nationally ranked in tennis; my mother was her high school’s star of track and field; my father is actually listed as the 189th forty-sixer in the world). So I have a pretty weird relationship with my own athleticism, which mostly translates to thinking that either I am a disappointment as an athlete, or I am not an athlete at all.

In reality, I am just average. But average athletes can still have a really good time being in their bodies and learning from that unique experience. As a lifelong yoga practitioner, I know that “yoking” body and mind as one does (or can do) in any athletic endeavor brings a oneness and presence that’s incredibly wonderful when achieved. Still, when I compare myself to my one sister who can run a seven-minute mile or my other sister whose serve absolutely devastates her opponents (especially me), I wonder why I even bother to use my body for anything other than loading the dishwasher. Since Lila was born, I have resumed my daily running, something I did in the days when I lived in a sixteen passenger van and considered myself perpetually in training. But then as now, my fastest speed was about a 13 minute mile. Honestly, I am really more of a plodder than a runner. My special talent is that I actually show up and do it every day. Like the proverbial turtle or his new 21st C cousin the Energizer bunny, I keep going and going, even if my speed is glacial. (When I came back from my run just now and moped to Tom, “I run only a 13 minute mile,” he looked up from feeding Lila and said, “Um…did you have fun?”)

My existential sherpa says I have the disease of comparing. Comparisons are odious, goes the 15th century saying, but they sure are fun when you’re winning.

Anyway, I found myself spending a day of my August vacation on Giant Mountain in St. Huberts, NY, following my very athletic husband up the three-mile Ridge Trail. Tom was carrying 9-pound Lila on a front pack plus ten pounds of water, sweaters, a first aid kit, bananas and gorp on his back. Nevertheless, I lagged behind, traveling only as fast as my unenergetic heart and weak knees would allow.

Two years ago to the day, Tom and I had climbed a small, gentle shoulder of this very mountain, a shoulder called Nubble, which took us maybe 45 minutes and gave us a pretty great view, albeit from a low altitude. On top of Nubble, Tom had pulled a box out of his backpack—one of those boxes that won’t open unless you spin it on a flat surface. The flat surface he provided was an old copy of Rubber Soul. Inside the box was a beautiful antique diamond engagement ring. We shouted to the opposing peaks, “We’re getting married!” We kissed, we shrieked with delight, we ran down the mountain to tell my family and we celebrated for the rest of our vacation.

This is the photo of Tom and me when we got engaged in 2004.

Having grown up climbing these peaks every August, I have always known that mountain climbing is the great metaphor for life, itself. It’s the ultimate meditative practice, and by coincidence (perhaps) this very mountain-Giant of the Valley—is the one I visualize when practicing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “mountain meditation”—the one where you’re supposed to imagine yourself as a mountain, calmly watching the weather go by, watching the people crawl all over you, sitting impassively for thousands and thousands of years, losing a tree here, gaining some rock face there. And so, midway through the ascent, I was certain we’d made a terrible parenting mistake and were surely scarring our child for life. Moreover, I got to watch my mind react in all sorts of predictable ways: “why are we doing this?” “I hate mountain climbing!” “I’m starving” “What’s the point? I’ve seen this view three times before!” (Aversion) “This is dangerous!” “The baby’s going to fall out of the pack/Tom’s going to trip/she’s going to freeze/we didn’t bring enough clean outfits/diapers.” (Fear). And “Wow! This is amazing! How can we make time to come up here for more than 5 days a year so Tom can become a 46r too?” (Greed). And finally, ‘”God, I’m bored. This is the most boring thing ever. When will it be over? When will we get to the top?” (Restlessness.)

We had some external voices in our heads too, in the form of an older woman, most certainly a professional mother, who glared at Tom and said, “How old is that baby? You’re going to the TOP?? Don’t you know there are places where you’re going to need both of your HANDS?” Even my father, who had recommended the climb and the route, said, with a pained look as we drove off with his granddaughter in her car seat, “Be very careful with her! She’s only three months old!” And then there were the voices who said to Tom, “Wow! She’s only three months old? Cool! And her mother’s climbing too? You got yourself a couple of sturdy ones!”

Maybe, but I sure didn’t feel sturdy on the way down, when my knees and hips went on strike and refused to work anymore. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I made my way down, sometimes on my rear end, other times on the backs of my hands like a kid playing a game of crab. I fell a lot (Tom is NOT a fan of my wearing of old running shoes on rock face, just for the record). At one point the skies opened up, and it poured on us. Lila wailed for fifteen minutes straight and we felt like DSS should come and take away our child and permanently eradicate our right to be parents. I sat in the middle of the wet trail and let Lila breast-feed, and stared miserably straight down (I think the trail was at a 60 degree angle at that point) and watched a pack of college freshmen from SUNY Cortland zip up past us.

“This is so selfish of us,” I said to Tom, my aversive and judgmental mind hard at work. “What right do we have to stick our child in a pack for six hours just so we can say we climbed a gigantic mountain?” In my mind, I added, “This disease of comparing and competition could kill me and my baby girl! I am the worst person EVER!”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. I pulled the waterproof shell over my head and Lila’s body and listened to her hum as she fed, which is this totally adorable new thing she does. She actually seemed really happy in that moment.

“I guess the work is to see this incredibly sucky moment at just as noble and worthwhile as the one where we got engaged,” I grumbled.

“Yes,” my existential sherpa nodded. “Because this moment is the only one you have. Two years ago doesn’t exist. It’s a memory.”

We got up and continued to trudge downward. I inched along, scooting on my butt, grabbing onto small trees. Behind me, Tom made up a poem for Lila, telling her how he would take her up again when she could walk herself; describing how the trail rose like an upside down stream. He told her the story of how she was born. She stopped crying and, like her mother, listened, captivated.

She was fine at the bottom, when I took her into my arms and snuggled her and fed her again. We drove home, stopping by the vegetable stand for corn on the cob. That evening, I iced my knees and Lila nursed and hummed; Tom cooked dinner. The mountain, no longer real, seemed a benevolent giant, rising calmly above our town.

So how do I feel now, a week later? Still a little sore, but my knees do work again. I found out that formally pregnant people go through a phase where their joints and ligaments don’t work so well and heavy hiking isn’t exactly advised. But I’m fine, and my daily two-mile run seems like a breeze now. NOT that I’m competitive or anything.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

All This Intensive Labor Just So I Get My Heart Broken?

In the proverbial village in which I live, one of my elders gave me a book when Lila was born. The book is called Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual and it’s by Louise J. Kaplan. That’s about all I know, since I’ve read very little beyond and the New York Times since Lila was born, but this much I did manage to glean in my bleary eyed 2am post-nursing readings: the baby and the mother start out as one and, from the moment of conception on, begin a process of individuation. In other words, or from my occasional perspective, breaking up is hard to do.

Lila turned 3 months last week, and after a blissful honeymoon in which she snuggled with us in bed every night, traveled with us everywhere in her Baby Bjorn, Guatamala wrap or hand-me-down sling, happily sleeping on our bodies for hours at a time (attachment parenting experts call this “baby wearing” and we wore our baby with joy!) she began to exhibit very clear signs of wanting some more independence. Now, other mothers and child experts might take issue with me (in fact, I know some who would hang me out to dry for what I’m about to say), but what Tom and I noticed in our child was a distinct unhappiness with the status quo. Where she used to like taking naps on our bodies, she was growing quickly discontent, squirming and fussing after only a ten minute catnap. And yet, when we tried to put her down to sleep in a more independent place (like our bed, her crib, the sofa, a swing, the car seat) she seemed unable to fall asleep, almost as if she didn’t know how. She whimpered and cried and scratched her face and Tom and I looked at each other with the uncatagorizable misery every parent feels when his or her child is unhappy. Moreover, we began to notice that nighttimes weren’t quite so cuddly. By about 2am, she began kicking off her wrap, boxing me in the breasts and generally raising a ruckus. She seemed tired all day long, and yet unable to sleep. What gave?

We talked to every parent we knew, past and present; to our lactation consultant, to our childbirth expert, to our pediatrician. And we got all sorts of advice: your baby’s too young for a schedule; your baby should have had a schedule weeks ago. Your baby needs to sleep with you; keeping your baby in bed COULD KILL THE BABY AND THE MARRIAGE! Etc. Etc. Etc. Why is it that child rearing brings out such strong passions in us? Hmmmm.

The best advice, and the advice we finally took, was this: every baby is an individual and every parent is too. Love your baby, watch your baby, tune in to yourself and make choices in the moment that seem like the next right step. Ah! Familiar advice, finally.

And so, last week, we began to try to “teach” Lila how to sleep. We did whatever it took. We sang to her, we read her books, we held her and rocked her, we lay her in her crib, we let her suck on our little fingers. Once or twice, I even crawled with her into the crib, stroking her back until she fell asleep. Quite early on, we had success with morning and afternoon naps. And then, a few nights ago, for the very first time, Lila went to sleep in her own crib at 8pm. Tom sang her ten verses of “High Ho the Rattlin’ Bog” and she was out. When he came back to our bedroom without the baby, I sat up and cried and cried and cried. I just missed her so much. All this intensive labor just so I’d get my heart broken? Is this the parenting deal? (Don’t answer that.)

When Lila was born, I felt a kind of completeness, a wholeness, I’ve never experienced before. I thought, “all my problems are solved.” It was not unlike the feeling of falling in love, come to think of it. And we all know the end of that story. Healthy or not healthy, soul mate or big mistake, sooner or later a blissful couple who seemed uncannily alike, who seemed like twins separated at birth, eventually find out that one of them likes organic half and half and the other secretly prefers Coffeemate. Or that some beloved in-law is completely impossible for the one not related to her. Or that the perfect guy is actually married (see Grey’s Anatomy, the end of the first season. Can you tell I’ve been completely dependent on Netflix this summer?)

So far, mothering has been somewhat similar. I am madly in love with my child; I believe her to be perfect in every way; I want to spend my whole life staring at her little eyelashes…and I can’t wait for her next nap so I can go do something for myself, like practice yoga, go for a run, write in my journal, cook a meal, take a shower, call a friend and not be interrupted. And then, ten minutes after she’s down, I miss her so terribly my heart feels like her two tiny hands are wringing it. I steal into her room and stare at her sleeping body—is there anything cuter?- and watch as she sucks on an invisible breast, wiggles her toes, her chest rising and falling so steadily. I want to give up my whole life for her.

And I know (from past experience) that that’s not necessarily the best thing I could do for her. When I see families that seem to do it right, I see moms and dads who spend lots of time with their kids AND they have interesting lives outside the house. They go on playdates AND they hire a babysitter to have grown up dates. They listen to Dan Zanes and his Rocket Ship Review AND watch Margaret Cho DVDs. So I practice my yoga and meditation; I (try to) write in my journal (and not always about Lila) I go on dates with my husband and I think about the books I am writing, the songs I am singing, the albums I am working on, the environmental choices I am making.

And I try to savor every single moment I get with this amazing little girl who changes so much from one day to the next. I hold her in my arms and let her nurse, watching as she pulls away to give me one of her half crooked, slightly drunken grins. We are two different people, from two different generations who will have two totally different experiences walking on planet earth. But for now, we’re together.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Our Vegetable Sipping Car

If one defines “religion” as a way of viewing the universe in terms of cause and effect, right and wrong, and involving a set of practices and devotions, then environmentalism is a religion, as much as Christianity, Capitalism or even the beliefs and commitments shared by rabid fans of Star Trek The Next Generation. I grew up among both Christians and environmentalists, and I have to say, I think from a “fundamentalist” or “extreme guilt inducing” aspect, the environmentalists I knew win hands down. My mother worked for the League of Women Voters throughout my childhood, focusing her attention on alternative fuel sources. (Also sludge, but that’s not the point of this blog.) My aunt gives us yearly subscriptions to Co-op America and has been advising me against using anti-perspirant since I was too young to perspire. We bought small cars before small cars were cool (or even that small), and my grandmother referred to RVs as “stink pots.” (Ditto all boats that weren’t powered by wind or muscle.) We composted. We recycled tea bags and aluminum foil, even when they had been used, respectively, as many as fourteen times. I regard recycling as a spiritual path of mindfulness equally profound as sitting meditation or yoga or saying the rosary. We use cloth diapers on our baby, Lila (and gdiapers! They work great! See previous post.) So it’s no surprise that I liked the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. It is a little more surprising that my husband and I have just cashed in all our savings to buy a 2005 diesel with the intention of converting it into what those in the know affectionately term a Grease Car.

A grease car runs on vegetable oil. Yep, the kind you can buy at the Stop & Shop. The kind you put in salad dressing or deep-fry your chicken in. Soybean oil, safflower oil, even olive oil will do. (We’re naming our new car Olivia, by the way; not so much for the oil nor the Popeye reference as for Olivia Newton John from the movie….Grease.) In order to do this sleight-of-pump, one must buy and install (or in our case, have installed) a second tank; the Grease Tank if you will. This tank rests in the well where the spare tire usually is. Then, a fuel line is run into the something or other and you have to operate a switch. You start your car using the diesel tank, and once the vegetable oil is warmed up (a gauge confirms this) you switch over to the grease tank. How do you get the grease, you might ask. If you want it for free (which is part of the point of the whole grease car culture), simply visit a local restaurant, preferably a Chinese restaurant or clam shack where they do a lot of artery clogging deep-frying. Ask the owner if you might have the leftover fryolator oil. They will generally be happy to give it to you since it often costs them to have it disposed of. Then, take home the grease and filter it, since there will be pesky bits of leftover tempura and clam. The filtering situation is a whole other problem, requiring yet another kind of tank. Once you’ve filtered, pour your grease into empty milk jugs. Now, when your grease tank is empty, fill ‘er up. You can even take the milk jugs with you on the road, dispensing with the need to stop at Mobil to refuel; in fact, you can have your rest stop at Starbucks or Whole Foods or Aunt Nancy’s now.

If you haven’t gotten the point already, let me make it for you: this is not for the fastidious. Grease car owners are probably going to get greasy at some point, and even with the best of intentions, so will their car. Said car, when running, will smell like French fries. This is why it’s so incongruous that I of all people am hopping on this particular board.

I’m a girly girl. I like to be clean. Not that you’d know it from the interior of my car, but in theory anyway, I like my car to be clean. Moreover, I know nothing about cars. When I was sixteen, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and while I thought it was a really cool idea—not to mention zen- to get to know your vehicle the way Phaedrus does, I still don’t know the difference between a carburetor and an alternator (I don’t even know what they do, or even whether or not they are in that part of the car that’s under the hood thingy.) I have never changed a spare tire. I kind of know what a transmission is and that it’s bad if it breaks—very bad—but that’s only because I lived for four years in a van that went thorough three of them in rapid succession. In short, I am not handy, especially when it comes to cars.

And, like all good liberals who were brought up to question authority, I notice my passionate authority-busting inner teenager itching to challenge at every turn as I travel this particular spiritual path. So what if I’m using gdiapers? So what, in fact, if thousands of us weirdos are using gdiapers? Landfills are still getting filled at atrocious speeds. So what if I drive on soybeans? If everyone drove on soybeans, we’d run out of arable land in a matter of weeks and the planet would starve to death. And besides, the Chinese are now driving at record numbers which are only climbing; the world’s population is going to be 9 billion in a few minutes. Rather than invent clever ways to get better gas mileage, it remains best to reduce, reuse, recycle—to slow down and do less, drive less, use less, take up less space in the land fills as well as on the freeways. A few weeks ago the New York Times ran a story in their Science Times section called “How To Cool A Planet (Maybe)” about all these crazy ideas of how to stop global warming, including a kind of Star Wars-esque space mirror and a plan to infuse the atmosphere with sulpheric clouds. When are we going to stop overthinking this? When are we going to learn that it’s about doing less, not doing more? So what if I can drive for free, getting 50 mpg? It would still be better to walk into town, ride my bike to Amherst and leave the car at home. Consume less. Live simply so that others may simply live, tread lightly on Mother Earth and all that.

When I am angry and/or exhausted, feeling like my 2 month old in melt-down mode, I want to shut myself in the one air conditioned room in our house and read a magazine. (Not the New Republic either; something really trashing like Shape or People) I have a kind of, “I deserve” mentality that reminds me of the way I used to say “I deserve to eat that sundae since I’ve had such a hard time” when I was an overeater. It’s an adolescent cry of frustration. What I’m really saying is, “Mom, take care of me.” Mom is food; mom is mother earth. To consume is to consume, whether it be food or our precious natural resources.

After we saw An Inconvenient Truth, my husband, Tom said, “We can’t just do things because they’re convenient anymore. That no longer cuts it.” In Walden, Thoreau says, “To affect the quality of the day—that is the highest of the arts.” The reason I’ve always thought recycling was a spiritual path is largely because it forces me to be mindful in a very quotidian way. I don’t put my fruit into plastic bags at the supermarket because I know that if I do, I will eventually have to throw away a piece of plastic, so I’m mindful at the supermarket. When I’ve eaten the fruit, I compost the skin and the pit. This brings me down from my habitual home way up in my thoughts (where I’m doing any one of the following: writing a song, obsessing about my weight, thinking about a client, wondering when I can get back to the novel I’m reading or griping about the messiness of the kitchen sink) and connects me to the earth, literally and figuratively. I pour my water into a glass instead of using a plastic bottle because otherwise, I’m going to have to sort that bottle from the trash into the containers bin. It’s a wonderful way to live, to live deliberately instead of mindlessly. To spend my nest egg on a car, however foolhardy, is to impose a new limit on my finances, reminding me to reduce, reuse and recycle for personal as well as political/global reasons. I can’t think of a better use of my money.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Breaking the waters

The fact that Lila’s birth began with the very unexpected breaking of my waters seems like an apt metaphor for what I have so far (in my grand total of two whole weeks) come to understand about parenthood. I had been hoping to avoid what I grew up seeing all around me: parents blaming their children for ruining their lives and children blaming their parents for the same. Parents complaining that the children fed off of them like parasites and that they no longer had any time for themselves; children claiming the parents never really paid attention to them. One big blame game. But here I was with the facts: the amniotic sack ruptured. An act of God if ever there was one. Not my fault. Not Lila’s fault either, even though some people sent sweet notes saying, “She must have really wanted to be with you guys to come so early.” I myself thought she was eager enough to attend the shower that was scheduled for May 6, she might make her entrance early. But given that she had so much trouble breathing once she arrived on the scene, I quickly came to doubt that her early arrival was her own doing. It’s not like she had a Swiss Army knife in there, or even fingernails. No one’s fault; no one’s plan, exactly. It just was.

Lila arrived and immediately, my life turned inside out, like one of those silk scarves magicians use, with one color inside and the other outside. I felt then and continue to feel completely skinless, as if there is no amniotic sack protecting me from the incredible joy and incredible pain of the world. I look down at her lovely little face and the tears well up in my eyes at the thought that she and I won’t be together forever and ever, that I will die, that my parents will die, that she will grow up and have to go through the seventh grade, that she’ll get too heavy for me to hold in one arm, the way I can now (she’s just five pounds.) In short, I don’t want anything to change from this moment of pure perfection. And, as Anne Lamott stated so potently (and accurately) in her memoir of her son’s first year of life (Operating Instructions), if anything were to happen to her, “I would be f-cked unto the Lord.”

A daughter! A little girl! I have to say, I’m relieved. As all my psychic friends plus the majority of the old wives tales insisted me I was having a boy, I prepared accordingly, buying a blue rug with dinosaurs and eschewing anything pink. I love boys, and was looking forward to raising one, but a girl was what I always wanted, especially as my first child. I have two sisters, no brothers, four aunts and no biological uncles. Even my dogs were all females up until Cody. I went to two all girls’ schools, worked in two different girls dorms, taught mostly girls, wrote songs about mostly girls. I know girls. I figure with all the other curveballs parenthood will surely toss my way, it will be nice to be ahead of the game in this one respect.

What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming, physical love for my child which gripped me from the moment I set eyes upon her. She was placed in my hands and I instantly felt my heart grow at least three sizes, like the Grinch’s. Then she was whisked away and placed under oxygen to help her little lungs adjust to the world outside her watery womb. I didn’t hold her again for thirty-six hours, but once I did I haven’t let go, much. Tom gets to hold her (though we fight over whose turn it is constantly) but no one else. Hey, I never said I wasn’t selfish.

My friend Melany is a neo-natal nurse, and she explained the motherhood gig like this: you take in, you take on, you take over. I liked the sound of that, especially the take over part. So I diligently tried to learn everything the nurses told me to do, particularly in the breastfeeding department. As I was resting in the post partum room, one of the post labor nurses informed me that I was anemic following the delivery and needed to eat more foods with iron. “Beef, spinach and yams,” she said, and of course, wanting everyone to like me and think I’m a good little patient, I immediately began my iron rich regimen, complete with an iron supplement. Another nurse, whom Tom swore was an ex-nun, wielded her authority cleverly, by first telling you that all the other nurses were incorrect and/or liars, and only she really cared enough about you to give you the straight truth. Then she terrified you with the consequences of your doing anything other than what she recommended. Her method of making sure Lila was awake enough to breastfeed properly (an issue as Lila was 4 lbs 13 oz at the time) was to vigorously pinch her tiny ears and rub her head so forcefully that I was afraid she’d give my daughter whiplash. Initially. I took this in, and then tried to take it on once home, only to find that there were other more humane ways of getting Lila awake enough to eat. This same nurse also said the reason Lila was gassy was because of all the spinach I ate. “Iron,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Babies just don’t like it.” And again, I had to remember, no one’s fault; this is just one of those situations. And here’s where the parental transformation reveals itself: I immediately stopped taking the iron supplements (though I continue to eat spinach. The idea that spinach has a lot of iron is a conspiracy perpetuated by the creators of Popeye.)

I’d like to veer off topic for a moment to mention that my whole life is about breastfeeding these days. No one really tells you that your body completely stops being your body once you have an infant. I eagerly signed up for breastfeeding when I heard that breastfed babies have way fewer colds, flus, have lower obesity rates as adults, are more likely to be young Einsteins and Michael Jordans, can leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. etc. Plus, the idea of spending thousands of dollars on formula didn’t appeal when the good Lord gave me plenty of what my child needs for free. But I somehow slept through the part about how you breast feed for a good half hour at a time and have to do a feeding every two hours, three max. Figuring into this equation the fact that premature babies don’t really want to do anything passionately besides sleep, there’s a good fifteen minutes devoted to rousing our teeny child for each feeding. This means, I really am spending more than half my life focused on feeding my baby these days. Once she is latched on and grooving at the job, I have huge impulses to multitask. I want to talk on the phone, check my email, read my Dr. Sears Baby book, have a meal, get Tom to entertain me, watch TV, listen to the new Bruce Springsteen Seeger Sessions CD (a blog topic in and of itself!) and fantasize about doing the laundry and rearranging all the furniture in my house. But if I do these things, I inevitably fail to notice that my baby has fall off the breast and is dangling, half asleep from her little nursing cushion (marketed as-I kid you not-“My Brest Friend.”) Yet another annoying lesson in the virtues of mindfulness.

In the novel I wrote called The Big Idea, there is a character named Rhodie Becket who has a baby named Margarita. Every time Rhodie, a member of a folk band, tried to pick up her guitar and practice a little, Margarita would wail, as if uncannily knowing that the guitar was her main competition for her mother’s attention. Sitting in my customary spot on the sofa with Lila at my breast, I gazed across the room at my own little Martin, once the apple of my eye, standing forlornly on its stand, completely neglected. Once or twice last week, I tried to pick it up. I got as far as tuning it when Lila began crying from her basket where I’d hoped she would take a nap. I had two songs written for her in the womb, which I wanted to sing for her, but she would have none of it. Until today. Today, Tom held her and I sang. I’d like to report that my child awoke, opened her almond shaped blue eyes and gazed at me with sudden recognition and devotion: “That’s the voice and sound I heard so close to my head for all those months in my watery warm little world, the world I inhabited, I thought, alone. But no! She was with me all along!” Nope. Lila just fussed and squiggled around as usual. Her mother, on the other hand, wept big old tears, fusing finally the song with the intended audience. She’ll hear it properly one day, when the time is right. I can wait till then.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On Easter, Being Two Places at Once and Global Warming

On Easter, I wanted to be two places at once. I wanted to be in Long Island with my father’s three sisters and their families. I grew up with these three women, and each one of them is a glorious, lovable and admirable person from whom I’ve learned much and who makes me laugh and think. Their children (I have six cousins) are interesting, funny, delightful people as well, and I don’t see them nearly enough anymore. Holidays with them are more and more rare: we used to spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas together, up until about the year 2000. Since then, marriages, new children, schedules and the general feeling that there are just too many people in the room at cocktail hour have conspired to keep us in different states for many of the holidays.

I also wanted to be with my sisters and their families, who were not into traveling to Long Island on Easter weekend, and I wanted to preach a sermon at my church. Our minister, Stephen Philbrick, is on a four month sabbatical, and we in the congregation are taking turns in the pulpit while he is away. In early March, when trying to make a decision about where to spend this particularly confusing and strange holiday, I realized that if I volunteered to preach on Easter Sunday, my parents would most likely be lured up from Virginia: a pregnant daughter preaching plus the promise of an Easter egg hunt with four grandchildren under the age of five was a sure-fire combination.

The word “Easter” comes from Eostre or Eastre, who was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Thank you, early Roman conquerors for utilizing pre-existing pagan holidays and incorporating the new Christian ones. Knowing this, makes me love Easter more than thinking of it as the painful, difficult story (to me) of Christ’s murder and resurrection. I’m a big fan of infusing Goddess energy into my Christianity. And, being nine months pregnant now, I appreciate the metaphor of early spring as Great Fertility season. I also had spent the Palm Sunday weekend at Kripalu, at a meditation workshop with Sharon Saltzberg. She had said, paraphrasing the Buddha, “When you put a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water, you will have to enlarge the container to dilute the salt.” So I had on my mind this idea of the need to NOT pack a whole lot of salt into my little container, but perhaps instead work on enlarging. Or, to jump traditions, to honor my loved ones, the salt of the earth, but recognize that too much salt overwhelms.

So I stayed, I preached, (sermon is at we had a fabulous Easter brunch at Katryna’s house, we took lots of pictures of adorable children, and I had one of those days I will never forget. It was certainly the right decision. Nevertheless, I missed my aunts.

Just now, I stood on the porch and watched the creeping green work its way into the trees in our backyard; everything is now green but the forlorn black branched cherry tree. Two years ago it was blooming, but last year nothing came at all; it was as leafless in June as it was in December. Still, it’s very beautiful, and it made me sad to watch Tom cutting it down. I am thinking about the two-places-at-once problem. We want to have a vegetable garden, and cutting down the tree will give us both the space and the sun we need to grow one.

When I called my aunt to tell her I wasn’t coming for Easter, I said, “I miss you. I miss all those years we spent having holidays with you. But I need to make time for my new family now.” With the birth of my two nieces and two nephews, not to mention the two brothers-in-law and my husband, my immediate family has grown by 240%. That’s a lot more salt, and none of us has a house that’s 240% bigger.

I’m the kind of person who hates to make a decision, hates to throw out old clothes, shoes, books, records (what DOES one do with those old, beloved, unplayable LPs?). I hate losing touch with friends; I hate the feeling that I’m not able to see people as much as I want to; I hate wasting food; I hate that fear that I might not have enough. I have four careers, and am contemplating starting a fifth one. My life, as a result, is stuffed; too salty. And I hate the feeling of too salty more than almost anything.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the notion of Global Warming has, as yesterday’s New York Times “Week in Review” section noted, “the feel of breaking news” all of a sudden. I’m not new to this issue; I’ve been one of those nervous Nellies who has felt guilty about using air conditioning, eating seafood and having a lawn since 1989. The article I read yesterday pointed out that it’s very difficult to make people change their actions unless the threat of punishment, retribution and/or disaster is looming in their faces. Another point the article made is that it’s becoming clear that the main source of the green house gasses, which contribute to global warming is not one simple factor. Our six million bodies, in addition to our cars, the heat we use to keep our homes warm, the cows who fart, and the fact that the destruction of the world’s trees and forests lowers the O2 to CO2 ratio, all contribute to this phenomenon. The sheer number of us and our many kinds of emissions; our huge appetite for consumption. And yet, it’s really hard for me to get my head around the notion that if I buy this one tube of lipstick instead of wearing my last tube (with a not nearly as exciting color) down to the nub, I am contributing to global warming. Harder still to think that if I choose to have a child, biologically, which I seem to be doing (5 weeks and counting to the due date), I am adding yet another being to this planet.

As a meditation practitioner, I am also not new to this idea that the wanting mind is at the root of my (and the planet’s) affliction. The Buddha said there were three types of people: grasping (wanting, consumption), aversive (fearful, hateful) and deluded (clueless). I have aspects of all three, but I most identify with the grasping/wanting types. When you get right down to it, I absolutely love life and I want more. Last night as I was driving home, I watched the rain fall, and noticed how it is both visible and invisible at the same time, and I noticed the forsythia in bloom next to the fuchsia rhododendron bushes that line my street, and I felt such joy that my baby is going to know this gorgeous, mysterious, marvelous earth. I immediately thought, “I hope there will be springs when he or she is my age. I hope there will be springs when his or her children are my age.” I want more springs! And I want them forever and ever!

When it comes right down to it, the underbelly of the wanting mind is the desire to avoid loss and grief. I want a vegetable garden AND I want a cherry tree, even if it’s a dead one. I want to keep my two huge crates of old LPs AND I want to use that space in my music room for a bookshelf to keep all my books, and the books my child will surely accumulate. I want the earth to keep on producing beautiful cool springs, AND I want to stay cool on hot summer drives in my car AND I want to eat Chilean sea bass, AND I want to have a lawn, even though to do so is clearly not what my land desires. I let myself get too salty because the coolness and space of the flavorless water frightens me sometimes, leaving me face to face with an emptiness that demands my full attention. But letting the emptiness in—enlarging the container, accepting a little less salt—has always proved, over and over, when I am willing to do so, the most peaceful result. I want to spend Easter with my aunts because I love them and because I don’t want to lose them. It is really, honestly sad that I can’t be two places at once, can’t be with all the people I love at the same time, and that fact creates grief. Sometimes the right answer is just to accept that grief and feel it deeply. To feel the space they once occupied and honor it with presence and emotion.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Thoughts on Brokeback Mountain

Warning: May be something of a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie!

Being pregnant reminds me of swimming in the pond when I was a kid. Back then, my family lived at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill was a large pond-or a small lake-that the residents of the hill came to swim in, or later in my childhood, row the communal boat on. I loved the pond and ran splashingly into it in my pink and orange checkered bikini; it was alternating muddy and clear, with soft squishy sand on its bottom. I was allowed to swim all the way to the middle if one of my parents were nearby.
What reminds me of my pregnancy is the way the pond would become suddenly cold, suddenly hot, with no warning at all as I swam towards the middle. Later, I discovered this sensation was caused by hot springs. Some days I loved the surprise, seeing the whole swimming event as an adventure. Other days I wished I could just stay all warm or all cold. A swimming pool had the same water temperature throughout, and some days I just craved the sensation of uniformity. That’s still pretty much the way I feel.
Tom and I went to see Brokeback Mountain a few weeks ago, and yesterday I read the short story by Annie Proulx on which the movie is based. What struck me about the movie (though not the story) was not so much the homophobia, nor the tale of love. What struck me was the misogyny of the late twentieth century Wyoming culture.
When I was growing up, my sisters and I had the good fortune to attend the same church as the groundbreaking sex educator, Mary Lee Tatum. Mary Lee had been married to a gay man and had two daughters with him. When he came out to her, and admitted there was a man in his life whom he loved, they divorced, though they remained best friends. Ten years later, when he died in a hospital bed of AIDS, Mary Lee held one of his hands and his lover the other.
Mary Lee taught the most frank brand of sex ed, and volunteered to lead a class for us lucky church teens.
“Homophobia and misogyny,” she said. “Are two sides of the same coin. Hating the feminine in a man is no different from hating the feminine in a woman. It’s all the same fear and hatred: fear of the soft, the gentle, the emotional: the parts of ourselves that feel things deeply. It’s a mistrust of the heart; a ceding of all power to the head. And really it boils down to fear more than hatred. For the feminine is the most powerful life force on earth, obviously. We’re the ones who make life, who give life. When a man is homophobic, he is ultimately afraid of his own ability to give life.”
As I watched Ang Lee’s movie, I couldn’t help but see how right she was. Also, I had to notice the women in the film, who are largely absent as characters from Proulx’s narrative. In the movie, the women were flesh and blood, beautiful and oddly powerful, even in their powerlessness over Ennis’s and Jack’s affections. I thought Ennis (in the film version) was more crippled by his own inability to speak and communicate than he was by his homosexuality. To be a man in the American West is to be a man with extremely narrow choices. In terms of communication, these choices include simple, uncomplicated utterances, and the language of fists and tire irons: that’s about it. When Ennis and Jack say goodbye at the end of their first summer together, they barely acknowledge their parting. Yet five minutes after they split, Ennis finds himself puking in an alley, as if what’s inside of him needs to come out in whatever way it will. When a passerby sees him, Ennis threatens him with violence. Similarly, when his ex-wife, Alma, finally confronts him about Jack—and refers to Jack Twist as “Jack Nasty,” Ennis yells at her, gives her a “bruised bracelet” and stalks out of the Thanksgiving dinner to pick a fight at the local bar.

To be a woman, I am finding out, apparently means to feel things deeply. I always knew this; after all, one obviously does not need to be pregnant in order to be fully female. Yet being pregnant is a non-negotiable situation (at least at my hormonal stage of the game) and the issue of one’s biology overpowering one’s sociology is fairly undeniable. I swim through these invisible currents of hot and cold without a clue as to what the next sensation will be; I go from pouring rain to dazzling sunshine in the blink of an eye (although one could argue that that’s just the actual weather we’ve been having in New England this spring.). Watching and reading Brokeback Mountain, observing these two characters being plunged ignorantly into a relationship that is much more powerful than either of them ever could have expected, resonates with me. Love is like this, isn’t it? Before I met Tom, I really doubted that I could ever be a good girlfriend. I just didn’t believe I had the kind of time and heart-space I knew people are supposed to have for potential partners. I thought I was too selfish, too wrapped up in my music, my writing, my friends, my relationship with the Connecticut River. But then I met him and I fell head over heels in love. “For you,” I recall saying (obnoxiously) after our first date, “I’ll make time.”
And I’m assuming it’s going to be the same way with this little one who at the moment is kicking my right side. It’s hard for me to imagine any more space in my heart these days: my heart’s pretty full right now. So is my time. I think I wasn’t the only one in the movie theatre who wanted to slap the Ennis character when Jack drove fourteen hours overnight to be with him after Ennis’s divorce. Ennis wouldn’t make enough time for anyone, choosing to work and live in solitude over letting his older daughter move in with him; choosing to hide rather than make a life with Jack.
I think part of the reason I’ve felt like I’m swimming through currents of hot springs these days is that this lesson--that our time really is limited, that our time really is best spent loving the people we love-- is hitting me hard. That paradigm goes directly against the illusion that we are individuals, powerful enough to protect ourselves if only we work hard enough, do the right thing, make the right choices and marry the right people. But those are notions of the head; what I got from Brokeback was that we’ll never get any satisfaction that way. We need to cede our time to the heart, to the simple rhythms and laws of the body; to take off our watches and hand them to the ones we love and say, “Here. From now on you can tell me what time it is.” Because they will, anyway.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Ain't Too Proud To Beg

“Whatever your worst demons are,” said my friend Phila, “They will present themselves while you are in labor.”
Labor. Can’t they call it something else? It sounds so, well, laborious. I am in my twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, and if things go on schedule, I won’t have to worry about labor for another twelve weeks or so, give or take. I shouldn’t be thinking about this now. I should put up my feet and sing “Que Sera Sera,” eat grapes and bon bons and fantasize about the nursery. But instead, for the past couple of weeks, I can’t seem to think about anything other than my birth plan.
Of course, the very term “birth plan” makes seasoned mothers cackle with amusement. “I had a birth plan all right,” said my friend Isabelle. “And I don’t think we or anyone at the hospital took one look at it. Nothing went as expected. And the more I talk to other mothers, the more I think that’s the rule not the exception.”
For those of you new initiates, a birth plan is a woman’s idea on paper of what her labor and deliver experience should be like. Right away, this is a set up. If you want to make God laugh, goes the famous saying, tell Her your plans. And nothing in the labor and delivery contract has any kind of teeth to make it stick. That baby didn’t sign on the dotted line, and neither did the woman’s body.
Also, experience has taught me that expectations are premeditated regrets. Expecting a nice home delivery? Sometimes it works great. If pregnancy is a natural event, which it’s purported to be, why not have your baby in your own comfy bed with your favorite CDs lined up on the changer? Hospitals, schmospitals. On the other hand, my friend Sara had the special birthing tub rented, a midwife on hand and ended up in the hospital with an emergency C section. The really tragic part is that she’s never forgiven herself for being deprived of the joy of witnessing her first child’s birth.
Rarely has a woman told me the story of her labor and delivery without saying at least once, “The one thing I regret is…” Some regrets are bigger than others, but so far I’ve heard few experiences that have been regret-free. And why not? This is an intense physical process. One of the two big ones in life. Why would we expect it to be uniformly glorious? And is it actually something a woman does, or it is something that a woman experiences?
I have dreaded giving birth since I was six years old, watching my own mother’s belly growing bigger and bigger. “How does the baby come out?” I’d asked. “Through your toes?” When I found out where the baby made her exit, and found out the answer to “does it hurt?” I vowed then and there to adopt. Either that or substitute kittens for children.
It doesn’t comfort me much to think I could just have an epidural, either. An epidural (once again, for the uninitiated) is a needle that has to be very carefully threaded into the mother’s spine. I suppose compared to the pain of childbirth, a little shot in the back is nothing, but then again, I’ve had a shot before and I haven’t had childbirth. Besides which, there’s the matter of all the bad-ass young mothers I’ve been hanging out with in my prenatal yoga class. (The class should be called “Spa Pampering for Pregnant Ladies with a Tiny Bit of Movement—But Only If You Feel Like It!” For the first twenty minutes, we lie on an elaborate set up of bolsters and blankets while the yoga teacher swaddles our bare feet to keep us warm. Then we chat about how our pregnancies are going, which takes another 20 minutes. All the women there are due in about a month, which makes me really nervous, because I suffer from abandonment issues and really don’t want them to go away and join the Post Natal class which meets 15 minutes after Pre Natal ends. Also, all the women have incredibly large bellies, which leaves me feeling completely inadequate and like a fraud. I know size doesn’t matter, but…)
“Don’t even TELL them you’ll CONSIDER an epidural!” they shout, practically raising their fists in a power salute. “You’ll give in! Just go in there and HANDLE IT!”
“The pains of childbirth are all in the mind,” says my friend Cindy, nine months pregnant and counting. She and her husband are planning a home birth and working with a hypno-therapist. “Once you recognize the difference between ‘good’ pain and ‘bad’ pain, you really can get through it.”
“But,” I said, “Maybe some women experience pain more intensely than others. And I think I’m probably one of them.”
“That’s a story you’re telling yourself!” says Cindy.
“No one experienced any birth pains before Christianity,” said a second friend, Lucy. “It just a cultural construct. Woman read that because of Eve’s fall we’re all supposed to feel pain, so we do. No one feels pain in non-Christian cultures.”
“But,” I argued. “One in two women used to die in childbirth in the Victorian era.”
“That’s only because of unsanitary hospital conditions,” says Lucy. “Childbirth is a totally natural process! Woman have been having babies in the bush since the beginning of time.”
This is true. But according to the Saving Women’s Lives website (, one in sixteen of those women (in sub-Saharan Africa, anyway) still die in childbirth, whereas the statistic in western Europe is one in four thousand. I shut up though. I like these bad-assed women and I want them to have their home births and not be thinking about fearful things like something going wrong. We all have enough to worry about. They have delightful visions of grand epiphanies during labor, of mystical experiences, or possibly, as Alice Walker suggests in Possessing the Secret of Joy, orgasmic ones. At any rate, they are loyal to the sisterhood, and I love them for that, even as I feel somewhat out of that particular club at times.
Even though I’m scared of shots, I am more scared of pain, and most of all I am perplexed by the thought that this roiling little baby who is currently behaving like a pinball inside my uterus will someday come out of me. Honestly, I don’t care how it comes out. If I need a C section, that’s just fine, though I would prefer to be awake for it. If I have it the good old pre-Caesar way, I hope its exit from my nether parts will not cause too much hard feeling between the two of us over the years. Either way, I have come out of my denial of the facts, and am now ready to consider alternatives. So. An epidural it was going to be. Plenty of wonderful women I know had epidurals and had managed to stay bad-assed. It was settled. I would take the advice of my sister-in-law who said she marched into the hospital to register and said, between contractions, “My name is Mary Epidural McNamara.”
But then, one day last week, as I was practicing my prenatal yoga, I found myself in the classic squatting position. “This,” said the instructor. “Is the famous birthing position known the world over.”
And suddenly I saw myself, in the middle of labor (well, actually towards the very end of it) in this glorious posture, feeling like an Amazonian goddess, dancing on my tiptoes and giving birth to my beloved baby, joining a sisterhood the world over. “I think I’d like to try this,” I thought. And—word to the uninitiated—the epidural is not just one of those shots they stick you with and you’re done, like a shot of heroin. Epidurals are connected to an IV. Also, your legs go numb. No squatting for the pain-free.
For the first time I got bitten by the expectation bug. I got why so many of my friends want to have their babies at home, or at least in a birthing center like the one at our hospital, complete with horizontal poles to hang from while in the squatting position, birth pools to relax those weary laboring muscles in, giant balls to roll around on, or toss back and forth with your husband.
Furthermore, I read about how from 1850-1950 mothers used to be routinely anesthetized—totally knocked out—to have their kids. This isn’t done so much anymore because first off, moms tend to like to be present if not pain-free to witness the birth; and second, the drugs aren’t good for the baby. But what this fact of medical history made me realize is that when the mothers were knocked out, even though their minds were asleep, their bodies weren’t. Their bodies knew exactly what to do: they had contractions, and they pushed, and the baby came out. Therefore it’s the mind that gets in the way—epidural or no epidural. If I could truly see the birth process as one where my body is active but my mind is passive (present, but passive) I might be able to see the whole experience differently. I could see that it had nothing to do with my labor technique or mastery over my fear. I could just keep reminding myself that the ongoing commentary in my head was not really required. So maybe I could postpone the epidural. But maybe they could give me a little Advil to dull the pain?
I called my friend Phila, who had had her baby girl at home, and whom I’d been avoiding as a “Home Birth Nazi” for the past few months. I told her I thought I might have changed my mind. “I could have natural childbirth,” I said. “I want to squat. I want to really go for it. But the thing I really want to avoid is this idea that it’s about me and my achievements. If the birth is easy, it’s easy. If it’s hard, it’s hard. It won’t be about me and how well I planned or how pure I was or how much yoga I did or how Zen I got or how bad-assed I am. I just don’t want to feel like a failure if the pain is too much and I have to ask for an epidural.”
“You know,” said Phila after a moment. “I felt like a failure after the birth of my baby.”
“You?” I said incredulously. “Why? You had a home birth! You squatted! You let the baby tear you! You totally did what you set out to do! You were the queen of bad-ass!”
“Yeah, but I fell apart completely afterwards. I was terrified and an emotional wreck while it was going on. I saw my fear and I couldn’t stand up to it.”
We were silent for a few moments, together on the phone. She sighed. “I’m a perfectionist. And that was the demon I met in the middle of labor.”
“And I’m competitive,” I said. “I’m going to want to turn this into how tough I am, how well I did this. And it’s not about that. It’s about two people having an experience with each other. And we all know how unpredictable that can be.”

I went for a walk later that afternoon. I was listening to my iPod; to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bob Marley and Michelle Shocked. Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” popped on (as my friend, Sheila says, “I love it when God plays DJ!”). That’s the song he wrote for his baby girl right before she was born. It’s the song that my sister was listening to as her first baby came into the world. “Music will get me through labor,” I whispered to myself as I circled the park. “Bob and Bob, John, Paul, George and Ringo; Michelle and Stevie. They’ll be my birth coaches.”
And believe me, if that’s not enough, I’ll be singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” For an epidural, that is.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I'm Still Pregnant

Right now, the gender of our baby is written on a little slip of paper in an envelop in a wooden box on a shelf in our bedroom. Even though I want to be surprised on the baby’s birthday (“it’s the best prize in the Cracker Jack box you’ll ever get,” says my friend Andrea), I couldn’t resist having the information. Just in case. You know, in case someone holds a gun to my head and insists on knowing if it’s a boy or a girl.
I can’t decide if I want it to be a boy or a girl, not that it matters at this point what I want. I can see pros and cons to each. I wanted a girl at first. I’ve got two sisters and no brothers, 4 aunts and no biological uncles. Until I was fifteen I was kind of unsure that boys were actually human, what with their hairiness and seeming inability to put down the toilet seat. Now I like them fine, but it took me awhile. So at first I wanted a girl, the kind who liked pink and ballet and barrettes and Laura Ingalls Wilder. But then my friend Sandy said, “I had my daughter when I was thirty-seven. Do you know what that meant? It meant she hit puberty exactly when I hit menopause! Man, was our house a hormone haven for awhile there.”
So then, being 38, I decided I wanted a boy. Boys like their mothers for longer, or at least they seem to have a shorter window of that mid-adolescent rampant disgust where they insult your fashion choices and your favorite bands. But then again, if I have a son, he will have to worry about balding. My father is bald, and baldness is inherited through the mother, so my poor son will most definitely have that to contend with. And according to this week’s New Yorker, baldness will be completely obsolete by 2036 when my son starts to lose his hair. He will have to get a transplant in the same way kids today have to wear braces.
Also, the more pressing issue is that whole gun problem. Naturally, you can guess that I won’t be one of those parents giving my kid a gun, even a toy one. But from what I’ve witnessed, at a certain age, boys make guns out of really anything handy; a bread knife, a stick, their penis. The toy elephant.
It’s good that we are still a few years away from letting people chose the gender of their baby. And I think we will keep the little slip of paper in the box. I can wait.
Pregnancy is a long wait. Then again, if I were an elephant, I’d have to wait two years.

I have had what the doctors call a “high risk pregnancy.” This is because I am of advanced maternal age (38), have had fertility problems for 10 years, have had a miscarriage and have had a lot of bleeding and spotting. For these reasons, I was told not to exercise—at all—until given further direction.
“What does no exercise mean?” this old addict asks. “No bungee jumping?”
My kind midwife, Pam, a lovely woman with soft skin and smooth dark hair, says, “No walking, except when necessary, and try to park your car in the closest parking spot at the supermarket. No calisthenics or lifting things.”
“Can I do yoga?” I say, desperately.
She smiles. “Maybe a couple of minutes of very mild stretching, but if you are still bleeding, you’ll need to stop. Just enjoy this time of being still. Think of yourself as hibernating.”
And so, from mid October to mid December, I hadn’t so much as walked around our small city park. My husband brought the grocery bags in from the car. I reached for glasses on tall shelves and surreptitiously got a good stretch along my obliques, but other than that, I eschewed exercise, taking this abstinence on as a spiritual practice.

What I missed most was the sky. I missed going for my morning and afternoon walks and smelling the way the air changes, depending on the weather and the season. I missed watching the clouds form and change, watching the way the sun interacts with them. Whenever I was outside during my two-month spiritual practice (which was rare) I stopped and just smelled.

I am now in my second trimester, which, as you know if you’ve been close to a pregnant woman, is purported to be the trimester of joy and laughter, where food tastes great, sex is unbelievable and your energy returns in spades.
“The second trimester is one long celebration,” my friend Julie says.
“What do you mean?” I say. Julie is now the mother of an eight month old. I call her periodically, clinging to her every word as though she is an oracle. First time pregnant women are like this: they drill their friends with detailed questions. Usually the response from the friend, who is of course now a mother, and therefore somewhat preoccupied, is “Hmmm. I don’t really remember if I felt mild tuggings in my uterus at week 15,” or, “No I can’t recall the exact moment when I stopped feeling nauseated.”
What Julie does say is, “I just felt great about myself, hopeful about the future, everything fell right into place.”
I’ve been experiencing this too. At about fifteen weeks, my nausea went away—just like that. Poof! No more nausea. I couldn’t believe it. I felt so good, which made me amazed at how bad I must have felt before. My energy returned in a surge and I wrote, and sang and made phone calls and generally felt like a great Colossus striding about the earth. Not only that, by week sixteen I was given the go ahead to walk and do yoga, after my two month kibosh. My body began to feel like my body again, only with a gigantic annex. My appetite returned with a vengeance, although it’s still mostly for weird things like mustard, vinegar and pickles. Best of all, the week before Christmas I felt the baby move for the first time. It felt like someone with tiny fingers drumming on the underside of my belly.
I am full of joy these days. My baby thumps at me regularly, reminding me that he or she is there, a compassionate witness to my journey perhaps, or maybe just a bored passenger. Either way, I have company. I am reminded of this so often that finally, the pregnancy seems real to me. And what a wonderful unique moment of life, to be so utterly in love with another being, and not even know if it’s male or female. Aside from God, who else do we love like that?