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Monday, December 31, 2007

an apology and a clarification

A few weeks ago, I wrote about dialogue and posted excerpts from two writers whom I think do dialogue exceptionally well: Yusef Komunyakaa and Cheryl Strayed. But then I went on to say that Cheryl Strayed was an unlikable narrator, and Cheryl Strayed actually read the post.

I hurt Cheryl’s feelings, and that wasn’t my intention. I actually meant to compliment her, but how could she see the compliment in my post when I was so flip?

I wrote to Cheryl, apologizing. I felt horrible, and I needed her to understand that I’m actually a huge fan. I’ve used her essays “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life” in my teaching, and I don’t teach writing unless I think the writer is talented, and that my students will learn from the piece.

What I really meant when I used the word “unlikable” was that it was difficult for me to relate to some of the things she went through and some of the choices she made. (You should read both “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life” because they really are excellent essays. Both were chosen for The Best American Essays series.)

Cheryl and I exchanged a few e-mails, and she was very gracious. One thing that came out of our exchange was how important it is for writers to be honest. Cheryl said, “I think the only way you can write literary nonfiction well is to be honest. Actually honest.”

I totally agree. I’ve tried to write a book that sometimes makes me look bad. I write about things that many people don’t want to talk about or think about. My goal is to be honest. I guess this is why I feel so bad about calling Cheryl “unlikable.” She’s doing exactly what I hope I do in my writing, and my earlier post makes it seem as though I am discounting her. I’m a writer and I should be more careful with my words.

The whole exchange made me want to clarify something about this blog: I’m not interested in trashing writers, especially women writers writing about motherhood. There are enough people out there discarding and marginalizing this kind of writing. My goal with this blog is to spread the word about great writing, writing that touches me in some way, writing that I can’t put down, writing from which I learn something.

So, I apologize to Cheryl Strayed and I’ll be more careful with my words from now on.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

christmas according to Stella

Last night, after reading to Stella and turning out her light, I was lying next to her in bed, giving her a back rub when she said, very seriously, "Mom, Christmas isn't about love."

"Sure it is," I said, looking at her narrow back, wondering where she was going with this train of thought. "It's about love and family and being thankful."

"No," she said matter-of-factly. "It's about presents."

Oh dear.

Friday, December 21, 2007

revision and Némirovsky

I’m sure some of you have already read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. For those of you who have not, you must go out and get it.

Némirovsky was a Russian Jew who had lived in Paris for twenty years by the time the Nazis invaded France. She was a successful novelist and mother to two young girls. After the Nazis occupied Paris, Némirovsky fled with her husband, Michel, to Issy-l’Evêque, the hometown of their girls’ nanny, where the girls had been living for several months. Life was increasingly difficult for them because although they were all baptized Catholic, they were still Jews.

During this time, Némirovsky was at work on what she thought would be her masterpiece—a thousand-page novel in five sections, constructed like a symphony. The interesting thing about the way Némirovsky wrote is that she made notes about her characters, getting to know major and minor characters and plotting out the book before she actually wrote it. After she knew as much as she could about her characters, she wrote the book. This is amazing, especially for someone (me) whose first drafts are usually crappy. I write, then rewrite, then rethink, then re-vision almost everything. And indeed, I tell my students that they MUST revise, that through revision they will find the true subjects of their essays and stories.

Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have re-written—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” And Raymond Carver wrote 20-30 drafts of every story he published.

I know not every writer revises, but it’s so much a part of what I must do, that writers like Némirovsky blow me away. Suite Française is amazing. Her prose is lovely, her understanding of human nature is uncanny, and her characters are drawn so carefully that you know them within a few pages. It’s remarkable, also, that she could write so clearly about the times through which she lived in the midst of actually living them.

Suite Française contains only two of the five sections that Némirovsky intended. In 1942, she was arrested, deported, and murdered at Auschwitz. (Her husband was also gassed there.) The nanny fled with their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, who took with them their mother’s leather-bound notebook as a memento, and made it through the war hiding in various parts of occupied France.

It was 64 years before Denise opened the notebook, 64 years before she realized that it was a novel her mother had been writing.

There are several appendices, which explain Némirovsky life’s and include notes on what she thought would happen in the book. (So although you don’t know have all five sections of the book, you have a sense of what she intended for the last three.) These notes are fascinating because she had such a clear sense of what she wanted the book to be while she was still in the midst of it.

For me, the middle of a book is a messy time. I’m sloshing around in there, almost blindly. I have no idea if what I’m writing will be cohesive or coherent. Not Némirovsky. She knew exactly what she wanted to do: write a book dealing with the “struggle between individual destiny and collective destiny.” And she did it, even though she wasn’t able to finish it.

There has been some controversy about her and her posthumous success because she turned her back on the Jewish community. Pre-war, she moved in anti-Semitic circles, and during the war, she and her whole family converted to Catholicism. You would not know Suite Française was written by a Jew. Nowhere in the book will you find the word “Jewish.” There is no mention of the plight of the Jews during WWII.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, and I feel ill-equipped to comment on what I would have done in the same situation. (How can we really know?) But I'll ask this: if you thought baptizing your children as Catholic would save their lives, would you do it?

Monday, December 17, 2007

blogging in my head

I'm sorry I've been silent for the last week. I've wanted to blog and have actually been thinking about blogging, but it's been impossible for me to get myself to the computer. Partly, this is because I have a new cold (or maybe it's the same cold with new life), and all I've wanted to do is lie on the couch. I've also been very busy, which means, of course, that very little couch-lying has actual happened, and which probably explains why I'm still feeling so lousy. Bad Kate.

My last class of the term meets tomorrow, though, and my last day of work for a couple of weeks is Thursday, so on Friday I'm planning to plant myself on the couch with a stack of books and drink fluids until I puke. Sounds like fun, huh?

Amidst the sickness, however, I have been celebrating a milestone for this pregnancy. I am now 28.5 weeks pregnant, which means the little bugger, if born today, would have over an 80% chance of survival and a 90% of escaping without a long-term disability. My blood pressure is still beautiful--yee-haw--and my wrists still aren't swelling. (I check them oh, four to five times a day.)

It's actually amazing how relieved I feel, even though we still have four weeks to go to pass Stella's gestational age at birth, and I know that having a 32-weeker is no picnic. But a 28-weeker's chances reassure me. I can't help it.

I'll be back blogging regularly now. I promise.

Friday, December 7, 2007

who rocks the dialogue?

This week, one of my students wanted to talk more about dialogue because she was having trouble writing realistic, moving dialogue in her nonfiction. It's a common problem, I think, for beginning writers because their instinct is to write dialogue in a vacuum: he said, she said, he said, etc. I want my students to notice everything else that is a part of dialogue and a part of building realistic characters: gestures, thoughts, description, our presence in space and time.

I think the best way to learn how to write effective dialogue is to look at writers who do it well, so I chose the first page of a couple of essays from the Best American Essay series and handed them out to my class.

From Yusef Komunyakaa's "Blue Machinery of Summer":

"I feel like I'm part of this damn thing," Frank said. He carried himself like a large man even though he was short. A dead cigarette dangled from his half-grin. "I've worked on this machine for twenty-odd year, and now it's almost me."

Even in that first, short paragraph, we know how Frank talks and we know a little about who is--the kind of man who lets a dead cigarette dangle from his lips.

From Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life":

The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week. I was in a cafe in Minneapolis watching a man. He watched me back. He was slightly pudgy, with jet black hair and skin so white it looked as if he'd powdered it. He stood and walked to my table and sat down without asking. He wanted to know if I had a cat. I folded my hands on the table, steadying myself; I was shaking, nervous at what I would do. I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.

"Yes," I said.

"I thought so," he said slowly. He didn't take his eyes off me. I rolled the rings around my fingers. I was wearing two wedding bands, my own and my mother's. I'd taken hers off her hand after she died. It was nothing fancy: sterling silver, thick and braided.

"You look like the kind of girl who has a cat."

"How's that?" I asked.

He didn't answer. He just kept looking at me steadily, as if he knew everything about me, as if he owned me. I felt distinctly that he might be a murderer.

Well, as unlikable a narrator as Strayed can be, she's a talented writer, and she knows how to create real, raw dialogue and believable characters.

One thing I suggested to my students was this: think of a conversation that they’ve wanted to write. Where would this conversation take place? With whom?

Before writing any of the dialogue, describe the room: the light, the furniture, the place—what was the look, the feel? Was it hot in there? Etc.

Next, describe the person. What are his/her mannerisms? Does he run his hands through his hair? Does she twist hers in a knot or fiddle with it? Does he scratch at his eye, pick at eyelashes? One thing that would be helpful is to go home and really look at the people you live with—we don’t remember these things about people close to us because we’re so used to them that we don’t notice them anymore.

After they have the place and person details down on paper, they should write the conversation, including everything around the conversation—the physical space, their thoughts, body language, etc.

So, a question for all of you: who do you think does dialogue really, really well? (These can be fiction writers, too, but it would be great to have some first-person narrators.)

On a blog maintenance note: I'm sorry people are having to log in with a google-blogger account to leave a comment. I haven't changed my settings, and I'm not sure why this is happening. I'll try to get to the bottom of it.

On a sickness note: still sick. It feels as if I actually might be sick for the REST OF MY LIFE.

Friday, November 30, 2007

nora bella

Now D. and Stella and I all have colds. We’re sick and snotty and coughing—my lungs and throat feel raw—and Stella has a wicked fever. When I was awake coughing from 1:30 to 4 this morning, I seriously considered a big shot of NyQuil. (I have a will of steel, so I was able to restrain myself.)

To make this all more enjoyable, a drain pipe in our basement broke on Wednesday and we’re getting the run-around from the plumbers, so we haven’t been able to let water down the drains (imagine what my kitchen looks like, dishes piled upon dishes piled upon countertops) or shower (imagine how grungy I look and feel--or rather, don't imagine it). I’ll go to my dad’s and shower shortly, I promise.

The good news is that I’m now 26 weeks pregnant, which means the baby has an 80% chance of survival and only a 25% of a long-term disability. I saw my doc a few days ago and my blood pressure was “beautiful,” and there is no sign of swelling. I’ll see her again in two weeks and hope for the same report.

But what I really want to tell you about this morning is nora bella, a wonderful collection of hand-made clothes and gifts for babies and kids. I got my MFA with Andria, who owns nora bella, and I knew she was a talented writer, but I had no idea that she was also a rock star of an entrepreneur. You *must* check out these wonderful, crafty gifts. I know Stella would die for one of the dress-up tutus, and I might have to splurge on some fancy burp cloths and some of Andria's too-cool onesies for the new baby.

The wonderful thing about nora bella is that everything is hand-crafted by artist moms. In this age of everything-made-in-China, it’s such a relief to know who is making the stuff you buy. And it looks great. So don’t wait any longer—go buy some crafty baby and kids things at nora bella. Rock on, Andria.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

struggling with structure

No luck on Thanksgiving not gorging myself. In fact, I ate excessively all weekend. And now I have a horrible cold. (Not that these two things are related. I only wanted to point out that I’ve been uncomfortable—in slightly different ways—for many days now. With Sudafed off limits I’d actually go so far to say I’m now miserable.)

But enough complaining. On to more important things:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how successful essays are structured. I’d like to cull a couple of essays from my manuscript, but it’s such a daunting task—cutting and rearranging in an attempt to boil down 300 pages into manageable essays. I know writers who do this regularly, but it seems to be a skill I lack. How does one do it? If I had begun with essays and turned them into a book would it be easier? Or would it simply be a different struggle?

Yesterday in class we talked about structure, and I had my students read two essays: “Moonrise” by Penny Wolfson, about which I’ve already posted, and “The Sound and the Worry” by Suzanne Kamata. One of the reasons I chose these two essays was because both have taken large events that covered years and condensed them into manageable essays. “The Sound and the Worry,” published in the Summer 2004 issue of Brain, Child, is about Kamata’s daughter’s deafness (due to being born 14 weeks premature) and Kamata’s desire for her to have sound and, ultimately, find happiness. Now I know some of Kamata’s story and have referenced other essays and stories she’s written about her twins’ birth at 26 weeks. I know it’s a huge story, so what impresses me so much about “The Sound and the Worry” is Kamata’s ability to focus in on one strand of the story—her daughter Lilia’s deafness—and follow that through without getting distracted by everything else that I know was going on at that time. So impressive.

Wolfson does a similar thing in “Moonrise,” an essay about trying to come to terms with the inevitable end of her son’s life due to Duchene, a form of muscular dystrophy. It’s an essay about her son growing up and deteriorating all at once, about the fragility of life and at the same time about finding the beauty in life, even when it is fragile and finite. She is able to contain sixteen years of her son’s life in mere pages, and it blows me away every time I read it. Wolfson also has a memoir by the same name, which of course I need (and want) to read. Maybe it would help me see how one pulls an essay from a book. (Of course I don’t know if she wrote the book first and then the essay or vice versa. Maybe it doesn’t matter.)

You can’t access either of these essays online, but if you go to Brain, Child’s archives, you can order the Summer 2004 issue for “The Sound and the Worry.” You can find “Moonrise” in Best American Essays of 2002. (I guess you can access "Moonrise" online here if you are an Atlantic Monthly subscriber.) I’m also going to order Wolfson’s memoir, because I obviously need some help.

Also know that Suzanne Kamata’s first novel, Losing Kei is forthcoming in January. I’ll post about it then.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We’re doing double-duty, as we always do—first to D.’s sister’s house and then to my mom’s house. It’s a lot of food for one day, and each year I plan to eat only a little bit at D.’s sister’s. Why must I gorge myself when I know I will have to do it all over again in mere hours? But each year, I eat too much, loll around while Stella plays with her cousins, and then eat more when stomach space permits. It’s a disgusting ritual, but I can’t seem to help myself. Today probably will be no different, but it might be. I’ve started getting heartburn from, you know, having my stomach crushed into my lungs. And when I stuff myself, the acids migrate upward with great enthusiasm. So today maybe I’ll eat in shifts: first turnkey, then potatoes (which ordinarily are not my favorite thing, but which I’m loving these days), then pie. I’ll let you know how it goes.

When Stella wakes up (hopefully not for a couple of hours because I’d like to read more of Suite Française, which I’m half-way through and LOVING), maybe we’ll all go for a (slow) walk to the coffee shop. That sounds so heavenly, so family, to me. There doesn’t ever seem to be time for us all to be together. On weekends, I always have work to do—freelance or teaching stuff—and I often end up at the coffee shop while D. and Stella go to the park. I’m so tired of this schedule. I’d love to have writing and teaching be my work and be able to fit that work into weekday hours. Is it so crazy to imagine not working in the evening or on the weekends? I suppose I would actually need to make a serious income from my writing and teaching in order to make this a reality. Sigh. Someday, maybe.

For the next couple of days, though, I’m going to pretend I have a regular, 40-hour-a-week job, and that I’m on vacation. I’m going to try not to do any work, at all. I’ll let you know how that goes, as well.

I hope you can also enjoy some time this weekend without work. And travel safely if you are traveling. Bon appetit!

Friday, November 16, 2007


I am twenty-four weeks pregnant today, which means that I’m carrying a viable fetus.

When we were contemplating a second pregnancy, and shortly after I became pregnant, I thought that these weeks—24 to 28—would be the most difficult for me. A baby born earlier than 23 weeks has virtually no chance of survival, but 24-weekers have a 25% chance of survival. A 25% chance of survival after four or five months in intensive care, after months on ventilators, after umbilical catheters and IVs in their heads and arms, after feeding tubes taped to their faces, after complications that you only learn about if you are forced to live through them.

Many 24-weekers end up with intraventricular hemorrhages (IVH) because the pressure of the ventilators can burst the fragile capillaries in their brains. This, in turn, can affect motor and mental development as well as cause blindness, deafness and seizures. Even preemies born later, between 30-35 weeks, are at higher risk for sensory integration and learning problems.

With all that I know about what can happen to babies born between 24 and 28 weeks, I thought I’d be terrified when I reached this point in the pregnancy. But strangely, I’m not. Oh, I’m still being careful, watching myself for swelling, and trying to rest (this week unsuccessfully). But I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I woke up this morning and knew I was caring a viable fetus. I have been holding my breath for the last ten weeks, since the morning I woke up in a pool of blood, and now I’m carrying a fetus that has a 25% chance of surviving outside my womb.

Don’t get me wrong—I want the whole nine months. One of my co-workers was due a few days ago and she has just been waiting, wondering when labor would begin, and I thought: oh, right, that’s how most people do this thing. They go nine months and then labor starts and they have their babies. It was as if I was thinking about birth for the first time.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’m still waiting to see what happens. I’m still vigilant. But if I make it past 32 weeks, I'll maybe even ask my doc about a vaginal delivery. For now, though, I know that every week—nay, every day—that passes gives the baby girl inside me a better chance at survival, a better chance at being born healthy. For now, I’ll hang onto that.

Note: I’ve already posted about some of the risks of prematurity, but it’s worth mentioning again, especially because November is Prematurity Awareness Month.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

mothertalk blog tour: the daring book for girls

In May, I participated in MotherTalk’s blog bonanza for Conn and Hal Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys. Now, I hadn’t actually read the book—I’m not a boy and I don’t have a boy, which of course you all know—but I was inspired by MotherTalk’s prompts: recall your own childhoods and describe some of the dangerous or daring things you did, describe how your own kids’ lives are different, etc. One of their questions was what would a dangerous book for girls look like? Miriam Peskowitz and Andrea Buchanan clearly saw the need for such a book, and in Peskowitz’s own blog posts from that week, she focused on the ways in which her daughter was becoming daring.

Well, Peskowitz and Buchanan signed a contract with HarperCollins at the end of May and now, a mere five months later, their book is on the shelves of bookstores across the county. Five months, people. That’s crazy talk. This, of course, makes me feel slightly pathetic about my recent I’m-not-writing-so-cry-me-a-river posts, but I’ll put those feelings aside for a moment so I can focus on their book, which clearly rocks. (I do suppose there is nothing like a book contract to light a fire under one’s ass.)

The Daring Book for Girls is a manual, a how-to for hundreds of activities and games in which girls have participated (or not participated) over the centuries and across the world. But it’s more than a manual; it’s an inspiration. Peppered throughout the book are sections about women throughout history: ancient queens, women in the Olympics, women inventors and scientists, and female pirates, to name just a few. I either did not know much of this information—who knew that Julia Child had been a spy prior to her cooking fame?—or I learned it at one point and promptly forgot it. How could I forget that Queen Boudica, the Celt, rose up against the Romans in Britain, burning city after city in an attempt to purge her country of oppression?

Over the last week, I’ve dreamt of Artemisia and Cleopatra, women battling on the high seas. I’ve dreamt of Queen Salome of Judea, keeping peace while the nations around her fell into destruction. I’ve dreamt of worlds in which women were seen as leaders and respected as such.

How disheartening that this week I was also reading about how young women writers in America struggle to find their voices, struggle to trust their authority, and are afraid to be "too sure of themselves" for fear of being punished by society. For a local meeting of women in journalism, I also read a recent “Media Report to Women,” which reports that women are just 14% of the guests on Sunday morning public affairs programs; that women in Congress receive fewer articles, mentions, and quotes in newspapers than their male counterparts; that although women have been the majority of college journalism majors since 1977, male-to-female byline ratios (in an analysis of magazines published 2003-2005) range from 13-1 at The National Review to 7-1 at Harper’s to 2-1 at The Columbia Journalism Review.

There are some women (and certainly many men) who are afraid of the word 'feminism.' It seems to bring to mind images of butch women who hate men joining forces of estrogen power to conquer the world and make men obsolete. But isn’t feminism really about acknowledging the power and ability of all women, and making sure that we have the same opportunities (and receive the same respect and pay) as men?

One of the things I love about The Daring Book is that it acknowledges the abilities and interests and achievements of girls and women today and of women throughout history. It’s not overtly feminist (the way I can, on occasion, be), but inherent in each of these pages is what feminism, to me, is all about.

Don’t we all hope that our daughters will step out and embrace the world, that they will face challenges and meet them, that they will believe in themselves? I want Stella (and her soon-to-be little sister) to feel secure in their skin, to be strong and confident. I want them to be happy.

The Daring Book can help girls (and their mothers) be these things. It’s filled with hours and hours of outdoor and indoor activities, backed up with history and the idea that all girls can accomplish what they set their minds to. On page one, there is an outline of the essential gear that all daring girls should have. #12 is patience: “It’s a quality and not a thing, but it’s essential so we’ll include it here. Forget perfect on the first try. In the face of frustration, your best tool is a few deep breaths, and remembering that you can do anything once you’ve practiced two hundred times. Seriously.”

How often did I not try something new because I didn’t think I could do it? How often did I fail to push myself to keep trying, keep going after I had failed at something? I could have used #12 as a girl, and I can use it now. I won’t forget to remind Stella of its importance.

Mothers and daughters alike will love this book. Some parts are, for now, too advanced for Stella, but there are pages I’m going to Xerox and put in the kitchen—you’ll know what I mean when you read it—and other pages I’ll go back to again and again.

And really, how could a book that spells out how to make a clock run on the juice of two lemons not rock? I’m glad I have a hard-cover copy of the book because I know it will get dragged through the house and generally beaten up over the next ten or fifteen years. It’s going to need to last.

Check this book out, and read what other bloggers have to say about the book at MotherTalk!

Friday, November 2, 2007

when I'm not writing

I was tagged by kyra at this mom with this writing meme almost a month ago, and I’ve been avoiding doing it. I am supposed to identify five writing strengths and list them here, but I find it so difficult to identify my strengths as a writer when I haven’t actually been writing.

Before Stella was born, I was a writer who didn’t write much. I was getting my MFA, so of course I would turn in stories and essays for my classes, but I let the long hours of summer slip away from me, doing nothing. It makes me feel a little sick to think of all those responsibility-free hours I senselessly squandered. What was I doing? Sitting in front of the computer? Reading? Waiting for inspiration? How silly.

It was only after Stella was born and I couldn’t read or write for months that I really started to write. Then, when I had two hours away from her, I went to the coffee shop and vomited onto the computer. I never waited for inspiration. I had a story to tell and I had to get it down. (It helped, of course, that in a few months I would have to return to the U with a thesis in hand. It was no time to procrastinate.)

In the following two years, I experienced a few dry months of no writing. Maybe I was teaching or busy with a freelance project. I took three months off when I was fifty pages away from a full draft of my book because I was lost. I wasn’t convinced I had a narrative arc. I didn’t know how to approach two difficult scenes in the book. I didn’t know where the book ended.

After the time away, though, I knew what to do, and I wrote like crazy for four months until I completed a full draft.

I love it when, right before bed or in the middle of the night, a thought comes to me: a way out of a narrative problem or a paragraph that sets the tone in a difficult chapter. That moment of excitement—yes, of course, why didn’t I think of this earlier—is my favorite part of being a writer. And I miss that feeling when I’m not writing. I'm a little less alive. But the reality of my life right now is teaching, family, too much work, and an exhaustion so profound that I can’t manage to get up an hour early to write in the morning.

A dream: to have daytime hours three times a week to write and explore and experiment. I’m not going to hold my breath for this, but I thought putting it out there might, in some small way, help.

Maybe focusing on my strengths will also help. It’s worth a try. Here they are:

1. I’m not afraid to tell the truth, to make myself look bad or bitchy (human) if that’s how things went down.

2. I’m willing to say things about motherhood that a lot of people are afraid to say. (You’ll just have to read the book. Some day it will be out in the world. I hope.)

3. I’m not married to anything I write. I’m willing to rewrite and edit and rethink scenes and chapters that aren’t working. (After I thought the book was pretty much done, I went back in and cut chapter 2 and 4 and wrote a new chapter 4 and a new second-to-last chapter. I’m sure I still have more of this to do.)

4. I’m willing to experiment, push myself out of my comfort zone and try something different, even if it flops.

5. I’m always learning—from what other writers say and write and from the world around me.

Okay, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. A little self-affirmation. Maybe I should write these on Post-Its and stick them around the house? (Just kidding.)

So, I get to choose five people to tag with this writing meme: K, moonlight ambulette, A, suzanne, and emmie.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

catching up on a meme

Last night I was faced with the task of hemming Stella’s princess dress. (I know. It’s utterly shocking that she has chosen to be a princess for Halloween.) But I couldn’t muster the strength to go down in the basement and get the sewing machine and try to remember how to use it, so I used masking tape instead. I thought of stapling the dress, but decided the tape would be more discrete. I still have to iron it this morning (to create a professional finish).

It just seems difficult for me to manage anything these days. A thought is a struggle, writing a complete essay an impossibility. My head is an intellectual dead zone. This seems to have extended even to memes. I have two tags on which I’ve been meaning to follow-up, but it has seemed like such a big deal to sit down at the computer and just do them. (I don’t remember being this dull-witted while I pregnant with Stella, but I probably was.)

Here it goes. I was tagged by Jennifer at pinwheels to list seven of my favorite children’s books. I’m reading at a child’s level now, so this was pretty easy. Note that the following books are my favorites. Stella decides on a new favorite every day, so it would be much more difficult to track her preferences.

Ellsworth’s Extraordinary Electric Ears and Other Amazing Alphabet Anecdotes by Valorie Fisher. This book is filled with extravagant alphabetical dioramas. For example: “Pepitas pink paper parasols were particularly popular with pirates. Perfectly puzzling!” Little pirate figurines stand in front of Pepita’s store holding pink drink parasols. I love it. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The page is filled with other P figures. Can you find them all? Therein lies the challenge. Every letter is as much fun as the last.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes. I actually love all of Kevin Henkes’ books, but I thought I should just pick one. Henkes is a master of creating a great kid’s story with enough quirky language to entertain adults. I must also mention Chester’s Way and Chrysanthemum. There is no end to the fun with these unusual mice.

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers, illustrated by Aliki. I’m actually not sure why I like this book so much. A girl goes on a walk with her dad and lists all the things she can hear when she is quiet and just listens. Maybe I’d like to be more like her? Capable of stopping the whirring thoughts long enough to enjoy a walk? (Of course, I’m referring to a time when I could actually think and when I was still able to go on walks.)

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. This is a beautiful book about a girl who wants to be like her grandfather and travel to faraway places and end up living by the sea. Her grandfather tells her she must do a third thing: make the world more beautiful. She grows up and travels to faraway places and settles by the sea, and then finally realizes how to make the world more beautiful. The illustrations are lovely.

Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankhuyzen. This is a true story of the Berlin Airlift and the pilot who dropped candy from his plane over Berlin. I’ll admit it—it makes me tear up each time I read it.

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Harry Bliss. A seriously funny book about a worm and his observations on life. There is one error in this book, which I will mention lest you think it escaped me. (Stella actually noticed it before I did, but whatever.) In some of the early pages, the worms are drawn with teeth, but later in the book it is stated that worms don’t have teeth. Oops. Definitely still worth the read, though. I laughed out loud the first time I read it.

Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully. This is about a girl who doesn’t give up. Her strength and determination inspire a washed-up high wire walker. A good role model for me, too.

I’ll wait on the next meme, a writing meme, until tomorrow. (See, I feel I’ve stretched my mind enough for one day.) I want to specifically tag Toby’s Mom with this meme because she reviews children’s literature on her wonderful blog, but I’d also like to extend the tag to anyone who is interested. Link to your post in the comments, so I can visit your blog for your favorite kids’ books.

Gorge yourselves on candy. I plan to.

Friday, October 26, 2007

persimmon tree

I want to encourage you all to visit Persimmon Tree, a new online literary magazine by older women (their descriptor, not mine). They launched last spring with their first issue featuring fiction by Jane Lazarre and poetry by Ruth Stone. The summer issue featured ten poems by Grace Paley, and the current issue contains Eva’s Kollish’s wonderful essay, “Father,” and eleven amazing poems by Toi Derricotte.

You have to log-in to read Persimmon Tree, but it’s free, and the writing is really wonderful. (Plus, they have a very cool orange background. Who knew orange could be so classy?)

So go log-on. Now. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

a little relief

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been feeling so, so crabby. I’m living with a number of activity restrictions that, in combination, make me feel crazy. I mean, you take no exercise and no sex and shake that up with no red wine, and how would you feel? It doesn’t help that I’ve been working—and worrying about work—a lot lately, which is annoying because it’s not my writing/teaching work, but my pay-the-bills work.

I’d also been worrying about my ultrasound, which was two days ago. I was anxious about what kind of news we would get, and I was also crabby because I felt I had been coerced into the genetic counseling session that went with the Level II ultrasound. D. and I had decided against the blood tests and amnio and all that extra stuff, and I felt that I was now being forced into the counseling session against my will. The receptionist just kept saying, “Well, it goes with the ultrasound, and you are of advanced maternal age.”

I’m 35, people—not exactly elderly. But whatever, I agreed. I was, however, feeling quite petulant about it all, and I realized that it was a distinct possibility that I’d be a bitch to the counselor. I was relieved that D. would be there to pinch my leg if I got out of hand, but it’s generally not a good sign if I sense my bad behavior before I start behaving badly.

Well. The genetic counselor was lovely. I couldn’t have conjured a gentler, more soft-spoken, understanding woman if I’d tried. Really. Why had I been so worried about this? And she made an interesting connection between my grandmother’s two miscarriages and stillbirth (my mom is an only child) and my blood clot. I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her pregnancy losses a lot lately, but I hadn’t made a real connection. The counselor suggested I have my blood tested for a clotting disorder that could be genetic. Very interesting.

And the ultrasound itself was such a relief. No signs of chromosomal abnormalities. No new blood clots. And the baby—a GIRL!!—was kicking around as if she was at Jr. Olympic try-outs. You go, girl.

I’m actually thrilled that it’s another girl. A boy would have been fine, of course. A healthy, full-term baby really has been the goal, though people don’t seem to believe me when I say that. It’s odd how many people just assume that I want a boy because I already have a girl. It seems so old-school to me. But I really never imagined myself as a mother to boys. Odd, I know. But there you have it.

Stella has been wanting a baby sister and insisting that the baby would be a girl, so I thought she would scream and/or jump up and down when D. and I told her, but she just smiled slightly and said in her best teenage voice, “I already told you it was a girl, mom.” Duh.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

on empathy

I’m wondering what would happen if we could—and would—regularly imagine the lives of people, real people in our country and in our world, who live lives beyond our own experience. What would happen to our public policy, and foreign policy, if we didn’t seemingly lack the ability to imagine lives?

It’s impossible, it seems, to be empathetic if you cannot imagine a reality beyond your own. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, partly because I’m reading Lisel Mueller’s collection of poems, Alive Together, which is filled with empathy, and partly because of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School a couple of weeks ago.

Over the week of Little Rock coverage on NPR, I sat in my car, driving to work and driving Stella to pre-school, listening to the speeches from the now-middle-aged Little Rock nine and what they went through half a century ago, and I just felt so sad. Only fifty years ago. That’s nothing. It’s a blink of an eye.

As I listened, and even after I turned off the radio, the image that I couldn’t shake was one that’s in the beginning pages of Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, which describes her experiences as one of the Little Rock nine. That photo is one that most Americans should recognize: the young Elizabeth Eckford walking down the street, a mob of white women— mothers—directly behind her, screaming and angry.

I understand that hate comes from fear. I understand that difference seems scary to people. But what I cannot wrap my mind around is this: white mothers, who have their own children, being able to hate those kids because they were black. How could they lack such imagination? How could they not have imagined what those kids were going through? How could they not have imagined the nine’s own mothers, sitting at home, wringing their hands, unable to protect their kids from all that hate?

I love my Stella so much that the thought of her having to live through something like that makes me physically sick. But my protectiveness doesn’t end with her. No child should have to experience that kind of hate, ever. No mother should have to know her child is living through that kind of hate, ever.

If we were more empathic, if we weren’t so wrapped up in our own lives, would this kind of thing still happen?

I had never read Lisel Mueller’s poetry. She won the Pulitzer in 1997, and her poetry has been published since the late ‘50s, but she was new to me. (I’m forever catching up, and always feel behind my peers in terms of reading…Alas. I'm working on it.)

She’s very talented—obviously—but the thing that struck me more than anything in her poems was her empathy, her ability to see the real people living real lives beyond her own.

From “Captivity” (about Patty Hearst)

In the beginning we followed her story
as we used to follow
the girl in the fairy tale.
Pity and fear. The decent girl
cast out to be cruelly tested
in the dark forest. Sentimental,
we swore she would never falter.

So when she started turning
into her dark sister,
we felt confused, betrayed.
More and more we heard
Tania’s harder tones
usurping her soft voice.
Patty was driven underground.

She turned into Tania and we turned against her;
sooner or later the victim gets blamed.
Perhaps by then we were bored
with the innocent of the story.

From “An Unanswered Question”

If I had been the lone survivor
of my Tasmanian tribe,
the only person in the world
to speak my language
(as she was),

if I had known and believed that
(for who can believe
in an exhaustible language),
and I had been shipped
to London, to be exhibited
in a cage (as she was)
to entertain the curious
who go to museums and zoos...

I wonder: if we tried to write (and think) beginning with “if I had been…” would we be able to better access our empathy? Could we make a difference?

Friday, October 5, 2007

a bookish meme

The lovely Moonlight Ambulette memed me. The original post is here.

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why?
Paperback, because holding a hardcover hurts my wrists. And I like to carry books in my purse and a hardcover would definitely put me over my current fifteen pound limit.

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it…The Queen B, but I'm not exactly sure why. That's just the first thing that came to mind. Do you think anyone would shop there?

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is…Oh, it's too hard to pick a favorite, but I love this from Lisel Mueller's poem "Curriculum Vitae" (Alive Together):

"Ordinary life: the plenty and thick of it. Knots tying
threads everywhere. The past pushed away, the future left
unimagined for the sake of the glorious, difficult, passionate

4. The author (alive or diseased) I would love to have lunch with would be …I think (today) it would be Katherine Ann Porter. I've been thinking of Pale Horse, Pale Rider so much lately.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be…Well, if I didn't have my reading glasses, I could only read in short spurts or I'd end up with a perpetual headache, which doesn't seem like the best thing to have on a deserted island. But assuming I had my glasses, I think it would have to be some big fat anthology. I really love Short Fiction by 33 Writers: 3 x 33, edited by Mark Winegardner.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…Would hold my book at an angle so I could read in bed lying on my side. Maybe it could also turn the pages when I clapped.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…my dad's study.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would beChristo, I've no idea.

9. The most overestimated book of all time is…I'm not sure I can say "of all time," but I just didn't understand the hoopla about The Corrections. Seriously, everyone I know loved it. I couldn't deal. Just couldn't deal.

10. I hate it when a book…is twelve chapters longer than it should be.

Okay, now I'm tagging a few folks: Mardougrrl, This Mom, Susan, Vicki, and Camera Shy Momma.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

forever acknowledging

A few days ago, I took Stella in for her 4-year-old check up. She was all shy smiles, and passed the little developmental tests—drawing circles and triangles, hopping on one foot, balancing with her arms out, identifying the colors on the nurse’s smock—with flying colors. She proudly held out her arm for her blood pressure to be checked, and perched carefully on the seat for her vision and hearing tests. I couldn’t have been more proud of her, partly because she was so proud of herself, and partly because it was her annual exam, and I always feel a little sentimental—and so thankful—at each of this ritual acknowledging the passing of a year.

On these visits, the years—especially the first year—of Stella’s life feel just beneath the surface. I can almost taste the dread and fear, the worry, the careful hopefulness. And as I fill my hands with the antiseptic foam in the doctor’s office, breathing in its sickly sweetness, I am back in the NICU with my 3 pound daughter, in the days and weeks following her birth.

Sometimes I wonder why I do this—go back, remember. It may seem masochistic in a way, as if I’m keeping the wounds open in order to throw salt on them. But though the painful and scary memories are there, I now have time and distance on my side, and all I feel is this immense gratitude.

I also love to see Stella’s doctor, who has been her doctor since the beginning, and has seen me at my worst. (Or almost at my worst. I suppose D. is the only one who has really seen me at my worst—and the dear man still loves me.)

But I won’t forget the day that I called Stella’s doctor, just after she was born. We had been playing phone tag for a couple of weeks because I wanted to set up a time to meet him before Stella’s birth so I could decide whether he was the right pediatrician for us. But when I finally got a hold of him, Stella was a week and a half old, lying in an isolette in the NICU. He told me he’d be down later that day to meet her, and he was. His office was in the same building, only a floor away, but his visit seemed like a big deal nonetheless. He took the time to come see her. And I fell for him immediately—his gentle smile and good humor and the way he kept saying to me and my sister, “You guys, she’s gorgeous. She’s going to be fine.”

Even now, he is always excited to see Stella, and it makes us (me) feel important, like he’s really invested, and I think he really is. I never had a doctor like this growing up, and I’m so glad that Stella does.

After our visit, I asked Stella if she wanted to see the place where she lived just after she was born, and she said yes, so we took the elevator down to the second floor, walked hand and hand down the long hallway lined with then and now photos of NICU graduates, and stopped at the reception desk between the NICU and the ICC.

“My daughter is a NICU graduate,” I proudly told the receptionist. “And I was wondering if K. was working and could come out and say hi.” K. was one of my favorite nurses in the NICU, even though she wasn’t Stella’s primary care nurse. But I would watch her from across the room, how she spoke to other parents, how she held the other preemies. And the day that timed seemed to stop, the day that Stella developed sepsis and stopped breathing, over and over again, the day she lay flopped in her isolette as if she were dead, Kris hugged me tightly with tears in her eyes and said, “I know. I know.” I will never forget this.

K. wasn’t working, but I still felt happy as Stella and I left to search for stickers at Walgreens. Over and over again that day, I hugged her close to me.

I think I will forever be acknowledging this, what feels like such luck.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

kudos and a contest

I've just started my fall Loft class, and it's so nice to be back "in it" again. I love the elated feeling, the "this is exactly what I want to do, what I love doing" feeling I have after a good class. But before I get too caught up in this term, I want to take a moment and recognize all the wonderful work the students in previous classes have done. Please check out Sara's essay "What this writing thing is all about (for me)" at Mamaphonic, Lucinda's essay "My Mother is Missing" at mamazine, Kara's essay "What Would Mary Do?" at Parent Wise Austin, and Patty's essay "Choosing My Words" at MOMbo. You can also check out short essays from Betsy, Lucinda, Sara, and Patty at Cribsheet. They rock, so check out their work.

Also, I want to let you know about a writing contest at MOMbo. You can win $100 in the MOMbo Zone Essay Contest. The essay question: “What’s the biggest SURPRISE you’ve experienced as a mom?” YOUR ESSAY MUST BE 600 WORDS OR LESS! I think the deadline has been extended to October 5th. Visit MOMbo for more details!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

mourning Deilis

I just found out that one of my god-daughters has died. She got very sick and was gone in three days, from meningitis, I think, though this may have gotten lost in translation.

I have only seen Deilis and her twin, Dailis, a few times since they were born, almost ten years ago. I flew down to Costa Rica, to San Vicente, for their baptism, and I’ve been back several times for short visits, but the last time I was there, when I took Stella down to meet Betty and Sara—my other family—and see the place I love, my god-daughters were in San José visiting their mother, my friend Migdaly.

It’s odd and horrible when someone who lives far away dies. It’s as if they don’t really die because you never see them anyway. I forget sometimes that a childhood friend of mine drowned in Bolivia four years ago. I only saw her when she would come back to Minnesota for visits, and even a year after her death I would catch myself thinking about her in the present tense, almost wondering what she was up to. I did the same thing with Gerardo, another friend from San Vicente, after he had been killed in a car accident. When he died, I had already returned home, and I imagine him there still, laughing in the sunlight or sitting on Betty’s front porch, drinking coffee. I know I’ll do the same with Deilis. But I don’t even know how to imagine her. I don’t know what she and her sister look like. I haven’t seen them in over six years.

How do you mourn someone you hardly knew? I need to be there, to see her family, to cry with them.

If I weren’t having these problems with the pregnancy, I would fly down, for the final day of prayers. I would stand in the crowded room of Doña Clara’s house, hypnotized by the low hum of voices, praying Santa Maria madre de Dios, ruega por ella y por nosotros los pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerta. Santa Maria madre de Dios, ruega por ella y por nosotros los pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerta. There would be too much food and it would be too hot, the humidity of Guanacaste in September low and thick in the valley. Pictures of Deilis would be on a table with a doily, surrounded by burning candles. Everyone would be crying. Everyone in San Vicente, said Betty, is crying. She was only a girl, not yet ten, one of my two god-daughters, gone.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

poetry and concentration

I haven’t been able to focus on much of anything during the last week. I had a good report from my doctor: baby is okay, take it easy, no exercise, nap every day. The good part, of course, is that the baby is fine. The difficult parts, for me, are taking it easy and not exercising.

Exercising is what clears my head, what makes it possible for me to not perseverate on my list of daily worries. Running, which I hadn’t been doing anyway, is the most successful way to clear my head, but walking works, as well, and now that I can’t do that, the tension has settled in my shoulders and neck. All this tension, coupled with the fact that I don’t feel quite right, makes it hard for me to focus.

I can’t focus on a movie (my usual evening indulgence) and I certainly can’t focus on a novel or memoir. I just can’t do sustained narrative right now. The only other time that this happened to me was after Stella was born. For months I couldn’t read or write (or even think clearly). The one thing I found that I could do was read a poem. It’s so different than picking up a novel; I don’t have to commit to 250 pages. I can just read one poem.

This week I inadvertently read two books of poetry, both new to me. One was Beth Ann Fennelly’s Tender Hooks, which Sheri at mamazine recommended. The other was Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, which another friend recommended. I didn’t set out to read either of the collections; I thought I would just skim through them and see if I could find poems for my fall class. But in both cases, I read the whole collection.

I love the accessibility of Fennelly’s poems, the way they lure me in with an image familiar to me: chasing a toddler who is clutching something stolen from my purse or trying to pin down my daughter and beg her to prefer me over her daddy, for just one day. Fennelly lured me in, and then I stayed, struck by her skill, her passion, and some dark history. You can read some of her poems and an interview with Fennelly at mamazine, but there are some lines from one of my favorite poems:


People look at my baby and wonder whom she favors. Because
she doesn’t look like me, they decide she looks like her father. I
nod. I nod and nod. But really she favors the great dead one.
My own bad Dad. She favors him, the same brown eyes, the
same scooped out philtrum, that valley leading from nose to
mouth, as if the warm fingers that formed her stroked a perfect
pinkie tip there to sculpt it......See, I love her,
so even from the grave he spites me. Look at him, winning
again, crying in the bassinet. Here I come on quick feet
unbuttoning my blouse.

And Marie Howe absolutely wowed me. I felt the same way reading her poems as I did the first time I read Sharon Olds, just after Stella was born. They are raw and heartbreaking and sometimes so lonely. You can read some of Howe’s poems here and here, but this is one I love:


Just yesterday,
three days after my forty-fifth birthday,
a mild October afternoon,
somewhere around five o’clock,
and maybe the seventh or eighth time
I’d gone to check—

Now that it’s happened, it seems it had to happen.

Still the house had built itself a corridor I’d been hurrying through
towards the sleeping child,

thinking of Sarah’s angel, hearing Sarah’s laugh.

The white curtains billowed slightly in the mild, October wind
—but there was no baby, and hadn’t been.

So, since it seems that reading poetry is all I can do right now, does anyone have recommendations for me?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

a gorgeous placenta

I never thought I would be so excited and relieved to hear that I have a gorgeous placenta. TFG. Baby is alive with a healthy heartbeat, and the clot has diminished to a few very small clots. Apparently, "I bled in the right direction." (Who knew this was even possible?) The big fear was that the blood would pool between the placenta and the uterine wall, which would have been very bad. But it didn't. Most of it drained out of me, and the rest will hopefully reabsorb.

I can't thank you all enough for your thoughts and good wishes.

I still have to take it easy, especially for the next two weeks. I can't lift Stella, much to her chagrin, or carry anything over 15 pounds. But the baby is alive and my placenta is fully attached, and for now, all I feel is relief. I will work a little from home, but try to stay out of the office and not worry about anything except eating and resting.

I'll see my doctor tomorrow and have a ultrasound in two weeks and another one in five weeks. (So much for trying to limit ultrasound exposure. Eh whatever, bring them on.) And now I'm back to my original hope--that I will carry this baby to term, that it will be born healthy and weighing 7 pounds (or even 6).

It is amazing how quickly crisis puts the rest of life--work and stress and daily worries--into perspective. I wish it weren't so hard for me to put things in their proper places without this kind of trauma. But I have a little perspective now, and I'll hang onto it as tightly as I can.

Thank you, again, for all your kind words.

Monday, September 10, 2007

september, pregnancy and me

They just don’t mix. It was this very week four years ago, while I was pregnant with Stella, that my body began to shut down. The level of protein in my urine indicated kidney malfunction. I had gained over ten pounds in two weeks, all fluid. Soon I was lying in the hospital, vomiting and claustrophobic from the magnesium sulfate, my blood pressure suddenly 170/110.

But last week, I was actually feeling good. I was too busy, stressed with work and a freelance article and wondering how I would pull together my Loft syllabus and get a grant proposal written, but other than that, I felt good. I even had a moment of thinking, oh, this is what it’s like for all those other women. I barely gave a thought to preeclampsia, determined to try what my doctor suggested: not worry for twenty whole weeks.

One of my friends who has had more than her share of pregnancy tragedies recently said to me, “You never know exactly what to be afraid of. You worry about one thing and then all of the sudden this other horrible thing happens, and you realize that you never can know what to be afraid of.”

As you know, I have a vivid and neurotic imagination, and I am afraid of many things. But what I wasn’t worried about, what didn’t even cross my mind, was this: waking up at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, my pajamas covered in blood. What I didn’t think to worry about was a blood clot behind my placenta. Which could mean what? Placenta previa? Placental abruption? Just a clot that might reabsorb?

I don’t know yet, but now preeclampsia seems like a ball. Get me to 32 weeks and I’ll swell as much as you want. Get me to 32 weeks and I’ll lie in a hospital bed with magnesium sulfate pumping through my veins for weeks, and I won’t even complain. I swear.

I didn’t think it was possible for me to believe that a 32-week preemie could be my best-case scenario, that it could be something I would shoot for, after all we’ve been through. But here I am, hoping for it.

I go in tomorrow morning for another ultrasound, a stronger one. The big gun. Maybe they’ll be able to tell me more—I hope so. And I hope the little bugger is still there, heart pumping. I want this baby, goddammit. Can’t we get a break?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

the great minnesota get together

On Sunday afternoon, D., Stella, my dad, and I hopped on the bus and headed for the State Fair. The Sunday of Labor Day weekend is not the best day to go to the fair if you hate crowds and heat and are pregnant, but it was the only time that worked for our hectic schedules, so there we went.

Stella loves to ride the city bus, which sadly, we only do when we’re going to the fair. Her excitement at being unbelted in a moving vehicle would have made a quick trip to hell and back worth it. She went from knees to tush to knees to tush, staring out the window as if we didn’t live in the Twin Cities. Who knew?

I had two things on my personal fair agenda. The first was corn on the cob, which is crazy. It’s not as if I never eat the stuff. I live in Minnesota. We have tons of corn here. So why is it so appealing to spend $3 on a butter-drenched ear at the fair? I have no idea, but I kept trying to plan out where we should go first so that we’d end up at the corn booth just when I reached peak hunger. (I do realize that since it feels as if I’m in a perpetual state of peak-hunger, I shouldn’t have been concerned.)

The corn was worth it. Maybe it tasted so good because I was surrounded by thousands of other people grubbing their $3 ears at the same time. (I guess crowds are good for something…)

The second thing I had on my agenda was the simulated tornado. I heard about this on Minnesota Public Radio and I thought, that’s just what I need, to be buffeted by 70 mile an hour winds on a very hot September day.

But the tornado was difficult to find. The first information-booth woman directed us to the education building. That was all wrong. Nothing but college representatives. The second information-booth person suggested I try Kansas (as in Dorothy and Toto). I just stared at him, but what I wanted to say was: Um, I’m hot and you’re not funny. The third person didn’t have any idea what I was talking about, and I began to lose faith. Was MPR wrong? Didn’t I hear about his? Finally, the fourth person I asked said it was in the Channel 5 Building. Aha! I knew I wasn’t crazy! I herded our little group to Channel 5 and there it was: Tornado Alley. We stood in line and shuffled through the area that contained facts about tornados and footage of tornados destroying stretches of the rural Midwest. And then finally, we made it to the simulator, which was a circular room with a bunch of fans blowing in at us. I think Stella was impressed—her eyes were wide—but frankly, I was a little disappointed. I suppose this was bound to happen. I had been thinking about it for days. There were droplets of rain spattering us, which was a bonus I hadn’t anticipated, but the wind wasn’t forceful enough. (This is also something I should have expected. It’s not as if they could usher people into real level 5—or however they are classified—tornado force winds.) Still, I was glad I persevered, found Tornado Alley, and experienced a little cool wind. It was a break from the unbearable heat.

The thing that turned out to be the highlight of the fair is something I never expected. It was a Fair-Do. I don’t ever remember seeing these before, but this year, there were tons of kids—mostly little girls—walking around with crazy spray-painted, sparkly hair. Stella was beside herself. She needed her hair done. She is turning out to be a very girly-girl. She’s tough in some ways—she’s fearless at the park, and I hope that someday this fearlessness will transform her into a brilliant central midfielder on the soccer field (no pressure)--but she loves dresses and barrettes and really, everything girly. So D. and I agreed to a Fair-Do.

My dad, who (I have to remind myself) is eighty and has a pace-maker and probably doesn’t need to be dragged around the fair when it’s 95 degrees, decided to take the bus home early, and D. and Stella and I proceeded to the Kidway, where we were found the Fair-Do booth. We paid the $12 and then had to wait for one hour. In the meantime D. and Stella took some kind of home safety tour while I went searching for fried cheese curds. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever tried a fried cheese curd before, but this felt like the year to take the plunge, and I was right. Other than the unquenchable thirst they inspired, they were fabulous. Such salty goodness.

An hour later, when Stella’s number was called, she decided she didn’t want her hair done. She began to cry. But after a little cajoling and walking her around to see the other kids inhaling the toxic paint fumes, she agreed to give it a try, and she proceeded to stare at herself in the mirror with a shy smile as the stylist ratted and styled and sprayed and sprayed and sprayed her hair. Seriously, the woman emptied a whole can of hair spray onto my child. (Why bother with all the organic food?) Then she began with the paint: blue and pink stripes. (This is on a beehive, mind you, and Stella has a lot of hair.) The whole ensemble was topped off with purple sparkles. It was amazing, like Marge Simpson on acid.

Stella literally sparkled in the sunlight. She beamed. Then everyone stopped to comment, which unnerved her a little. (“I don’t like all these people looking at me.” To which I responded, “You have blue and pink hair. They can’t help it.”)

All the way home, on the bus, down the street to my dad’s house, people exclaimed, “You’ve been at the fair!” and “What awesome hair!”) She would smile shyly and say, so softly they couldn’t hear her, “Thank you.”

What was interesting to me about all of this (aside from the fact that I never imagined letting my child be done up like this and never imagined enjoying it so much) was that it made us talk to people with whom we never would have interacted. There are all walks of life at the State Fair: short people, tall people, Harley Davidson people, old people, young people, disabled people, people of all colors and nationalities. There are plenty of people at the fair with mullets. And this is one of the only times each year when I am surrounded by so many people outside of my friend and work and neighborhood circles. And ordinarily, I wouldn’t talk to them and they wouldn’t talk to me. (This is not in a rude way, but just because everyone there is doing their own thing.) But because of Stella’s crazy hair, we spoke with dozens of people, all of them kind, who wanted to say something nice to our daughter. It reminded me of how insular we (I) are, how tied up in our own lives, and how easy it can be to be put off by someone who seems different from us.

So, I have to encourage everyone to visit their state or county fair. This fair really IS the great Minnesota get together, and I’m thankful for it and for the reminder to always be open and willing to talk to another person.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

it's alive!

We had our twelve-week check-up on Friday and heard the little bugger’s heartbeat. Such a relief. Of course, I have a slew of other worries about the pregnancy, but after an early miscarriage in January, it was a relief to hear that minuscule heart pumping away.

And did I mention that I love my doctor? She played a large role—in a saving-our-lives kind of way—in my first pregnancy, and it’s so comforting to see her again. I grew up going to an HMO, and I never saw the same doctor more than twice. How different it is to be treated by a doctor with whom I share a history, who knows me. And she’s no-nonsense. She never makes me feel stupid for worrying the way I do, but she does try to nip my neurosis in the bud. On Friday, when I mentioned that I was worried about the small jump in my blood pressure, she just smiled, said that the small increase was normal, and added, dryly, “Kate, you’re pregnant.”

“But—” I started.

“Kate, you’re pregnant.”

She then turned to D. and told him he could pull that line out if he needed to, just as a reminder. Okay, fine. I’m pregnant. She also said that I shouldn’t worry for TWENTY weeks. Since I presented with preeclampsia symptoms around 30 weeks, she said that even if I get it again, it’s not likely to happen before then, so I should put it out of my head. (Imagine, 20 whole weeks without worrying!) She also said that because I made it to the third trimester last time, she wouldn’t recommend that I take baby aspirin everyday (which has been shown—in some studies—to lower the recurrence of preeclampsia).

So, it was a good report, and hearing the heartbeat made the pregnancy feel real to me.

After the appointment, we picked up Stella at my sister’s house and told her that she was going to be a big sister. Have I mentioned that for the last few months she has been having tantrums for a baby sister? A friend of Stella’s recently “got one,” and since then, she has been throwing herself on the floor weeping and yelling, “It’s not fair! I’m never going to get a baby sister. I’m never going to get one. I want one right now!” (We have had discussions about the fact that she might get a baby brother instead, but she’s not believing that for a second. She’s got her mind made up.)

When we told her about the baby, she first said a long, drawn-out “no,” as if she didn’t believe us.

“Yes, sweetie, there’s a baby in here,” I said, pointed to my belly. “You’re going to be a big sister!”

Then she began to laugh maniacally. I’m not sure what was going through her head. It’s a lot to process.

But on Saturday morning, it had definitely sunk in. She looked at my belly as soon as she woke up. “It looks smaller today.” Uh, yeah. That’s because it’s morning and not full of food.

Then she wanted to see what the baby looked like, so I found a picture of a 12-week fetus.

“Oh, cuuuuuuuutttttttie,” she said, and then decided to write the baby a note, which included an almost-4-year-old drawing of a 12-week fetus. It was lovely, if slightly inaccurate.

Later that day, she was washing her hands in the bathroom, and I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub waiting for her. She was seeing how much froth she could create between her palms when she turned to me and said, “I’m excited for the baby, but I’m a little scared.”

“Oh, what about the baby scares you?”

She began rubbing her hands together again. “Well, I’m mostly excited,” she said again, as if to reassure me, “but I’m a little scared about changing diapers.”

How serious she seems sometimes. She had been practicing putting diapers on some of her bears, but I hadn’t realized it had been a challenge or something she was worrying about.

“Oh well, don’t worry about the diapers,” I said. “I can take care of that, and you can just play with the baby, if you want.”

“Okay,” she said, and rinsed her hands.

I’d been feeling nervous about the pregnancy, and I’ve actually been very nervous about reliving those infant months, which were not easy for me the first time. But being able to share all of this with Stella has somehow made my worries fade a little. Her excitement and questions and anticipation are contagious. And again, I have that overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am so lucky I have her.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

how hard must you look?

On Sunday afternoon I went to see The Mother Project at the Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis. It was a six woman production, directed by Augsburg College theater professor Darcey Engen, in which the women’s stories about motherhood, relationships, identity, grief, their careers, and how they balance art and work and motherhood were woven together on stage. Their stories were often funny and often moving, and the response to the performance was so heartening. The darkened theater was packed, and after the show, Nanci Olesen, one of the performers and MOMbo founder, conducted a Q & A. So many of the audience’s responses began with “I could totally relate to this...” and “Thank you for your honest portrayal of motherhood.” Over and over again people said how much they appreciated the actors’ honesty and nuanced look at parenting and life.

What I came away with was a great sense of validation: yes, people need to hear the real stories of motherhood—the dark ones, the ambivalent ones, the deliciously touching ones. (This selfishly translated into: see, there is a market for my book.)

How disappointing it was to then read the recent Newsweek article by Kathleen Deveny. A friend had mentioned the article to me, saying that the author had bagged motherhood literature, and unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. How harsh critics are when the personal becomes public, when women write against the norm and debunk those glorious myths of motherhood. Blah.

In her article, Deveny seems to trash all motherhood literature, all at once. She says, “I am bored to death with talking, hearing and reading about motherhood.” Oh gag me with a spoon, Kathleen.

She bags researched nonfiction and the summer's "mommy-lit" novels (her language, not mine). She doesn't mention memoir, specifically, but you get the impression that it's included in her rant, as well. But this is where Deveny's article really falls short. Is she not reading the same literature (and I spell that word out, dammit) that I am?

Almost all the motherhood literature I’ve read (and though I certainly haven’t read it all, I’ve read enough to make some generalized statements about it), is about more than the minutiae of daily life with an infant or toddler or teenager. It is about more than what an average parent does on a day-to-day basis. Most of the motherhood literature I’ve read, like the pieces in The Motherhood Project, deal with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy (the things of life). These pieces are about transformation and how we see ourselves in relation to the world in which we live. Oh I’m sorry, did it sound like I was talking about something universal, like I was talking about “regular” literature? Uh, yeah.

Finding in one’s own experience something universal and being able to turn that into art is not narcissistic (which is how Deveny characterizes women writing about motherhood). It's the work of writers. I love what memoirist Patricia Hampl says: “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”

But when your subject has do with motherhood, people assume that there is no story other than changing diapers, nursing, and tackling toddler challenges. This reminds me of what the poet Deborah Garrison said when I interviewed her for mamazine. When I asked her whether she thought her second collection, which is focused around parenting themes, was taken as seriously as her first collection, she said, "I think that motherhood as a subject can blind people. They are distracted by it—they have ideas about what motherhood poetry should or shouldn't be—and sometimes they can't get past this to really see the way a poem was constructed." I'm afraid the same thing is true for all motherhood literature. People have ideas about what it is or will be and dismiss it out of hand.

But how hard must you look to find really amazing writing that has to do with motherhood? Um, not very far. If you've read 1/4 of the essays or stories or poems I've posted about on this blog, you know. And I'm wondering now, should I send Kathleen Deveny the essays of my favorite mama writers? Could it be that she hasn't read them?

Sadly, she would probably stack them with her other "mommy-lit," thinking, erroneously, that she'd read it all before.