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Friday, May 25, 2007

the power of a carol — mothertalk blog bonanza: parenting beyond belief

Today’s MotherTalk blog bonanza is inspired by the new book, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan.

I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to post today because my struggle with faith is one of the main narrative threads of my book, and I’ve been mulling that thread for the past few weeks. I have to admit that I’m a little burned out. But I just couldn’t stay away.

I should come clean: I’m a PK. Not in the actual, father-in-the-pulpit sense; my dad was a professor rather than a preacher. But still, he’s an ordained Presbyterian minister, and this fact undoubtedly shaped me.

I have two sisters, and we all went to church with Dad growing up, but they’re both atheists now. My older sister was an unwavering atheist even as a preschooler. When she was four, she told Dad that she didn’t want to pray to a man who had long hair and wore a dress and never got married. (Who knows from whence that came.) When she was eight and we were told that we all needed to get shots because we had been exposed to someone with hepatitis B, she said, emphatically, “This is why I don’t believe in God. Jesus wouldn’t let this happen to little kids.”

She had a point, but nevertheless, I did believe in God. I was active in my church youth group. I went on mission trips. I prayed regularly. It was only when I was in college and experiencing a severe depression that I decided I agreed with my sister. Sounding like an eight-year-old, I screamed: This is why I don’t believe in God. If God existed, I wouldn’t want to die.

My faith didn’t return after I emerged from the depression. I would go to church occasionally with my dad, and I found that I still loved the music, still loved to stand in the darkened church on Christmas Eve with a burning candle in my hand, surrounded by illuminated faces and the low strain of “Silent Night.” But I could not fully return to church. I just didn’t believe anymore.

But now I have a three-year-old. So now what? Should I take her to church even though my own faith is so shaky?

One evening last December, when my dad was over for dinner, he turned on a PBS Christmas special. I was in the kitchen, and when I came out, Stella was tucked next to my dad on the couch, her eyes wide, her mouth open, her lips moving slightly. A blue-robed choir was belting out “Joy to the World” on the television. Stella was mesmerized.

I had been worrying that I was depriving Stella of some sort of foundation of biblical (and musical) knowledge by not taking her to church, and that night, her beaming face seemed to agree with me.

My dad left the house promising to take Stella to church. I even threatened her with it once: “Get back in your bed right now, or we’re not going to church with Grandpa.” Seriously, did I say that?

We found a book of Christmas carols, and D. and I sang our way through it dozens of times. By the time we went to church, Stella knew all the words to two verses of “Joy to the World.” She was up early that morning practicing.

The church was crowded, and Stella had to stand on the pew to see the pulpit. She alternated between saying, “I can’t see. I can’t see.” and “When are we going to sing ‘Joy to the World?’”

Of course we didn’t end up singing “Joy to the World.” She seemed interested in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” one of my personal favorites, but it just wasn’t the same.

When D. asked her later whether she had had fun, she shrugged. “We didn’t sing ‘Joy to the World.’” Enough said.

Honestly, I was relieved that Stella hadn’t loved church. If she were clamoring to go every week, D. and I would be forced to make a decision I’m not ready to make yet: to go back to church or not. The best I can do right now is to continue to sing Stella her favorite carols and just see what happens.

Monday, May 21, 2007

what a few stitches can do

How annoyingly ironic it was to spend the evening in the emergency room mere hours after posting about my dare-devil girl and my I’m-so-proud-of-myself lack of hovering. I mean, really?

This is what happened: I was in the kitchen washing dishes. Stella and D. were in the other room playing “scary monster,” which ranks second only to “let’s hide under a blanket and pretend no one can see us.”

Suddenly, there’s a crash, then screaming. I yell, “What happened?” but continue to wash the dishes because this is almost a daily occurrence.

D. yells Towels! Now!

I dry my hands and grab some paper towels, because now I know it’s not the usual bump. In the living room, Stella is in D.’s lap, screaming, trying to cover her mouth. There’s blood all over her face and hands, on D.’s shirt. There’s so much blood, in fact, that it’s impossible to find its source.

“She ran into the chair,” D. says. I run back to the kitchen for a wash cloth, ice.

Stella is screaming, her face wet. Blood dripping down her chin and neck.

D. and I are trying to talk her down, our voices quiet, but we may as well be screaming at her in Chinese for all the effect it has. And then I see it, the gap. It’s as if someone took a triangle puncher and punched a piece right out of her lip. Yikes. But I’m still pretty calm: “I’ll call the doctor,” I say.

Then we're in the car. Stella holds a bloody washcloth to her face, still crying. I try, unsuccessfully, to distract her with stories of Princess Stella. I mostly make these up, though I’ll admit that occasionally they resemble episodes of Dora (sans Swiper, of course).

In the emergency room, we wait. The first nurse says she’s not sure we need stitches. The doctor thinks yes, but calls for another opinion. The second nurse says yes. But then she says, just one stitch. It won’t take long at all.

Why I believed this, I don’t know.

Stella doesn’t get one stitch, she gets three. Three stitches doesn’t sound like much either, but they end up taking forever. Seriously, time stops. The suture nurse whips her arm up and down in slow motion. Stella screams, bucks. I’m sitting under her, holding one arm. D. holds the other arm and her legs, after she begins kicking. She’s panting, crying, hyperventilating.

So why, now, would the suture nurse ask what I do? Is she trying to calm me? Does she sense that any moment I’m going to crack and start screaming, as well?

“I’m a writer,” I say quickly. End of discussion. Stella’s body tenses against mine.

“What do you write about?”

“I just finished a book, about Stella, her premature birth.” Why am I talking to her?

“Oh, wonderful!” She smiles at me. Arm up, down, needle into my daughter's lip.

What else does she ask? Where do we live? What’s my degree in? Oh, that’s wonderful! Wonderful!

Finally, it’s over. The nurse leaves. Stella’s shaking, weeping. D. holds her in his arms. I try to stand, then sit again. I feel as if I’m going to throw up.

“What the hell was that?” D. asks.

I shake my head. Stella won’t stop crying. Does she think we did this to her on purpose? One stitch, my ass.

On the way home we stop for raspberry popsicles and two flavors of ice-cream. At home, she gets to stay up until nine and watch Curious George, the movie. I cut up the popsicle into tiny pieces for her. “I can’t talk,” she mumbles. “I can’t talk.” It looks like she was in a bar fight.

I pour myself a glass of wine and institute a new rule: no running in the house. I also try to convince Stella that scary monsters are much scarier when they creep slowly. Yeah, right.

So much for not hovering.

Friday, May 18, 2007

her turn to climb - mothertalk blog bonanza: dangerous boy friday

Today’s mothertalk blog bonanza is inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys, in which Conn and Hal Iggulden lament over the loss of more carefree childhoods, and outline ways to bring the fun and adventure back into boyhood. Now, I am not a boy, I don’t have a boy, and the brothers Iggulden are obviously not mothers, so you may be wondering why I’m writing about this book. I’m writing about it because it touches on something about which I often worry: how to let my daughter experience the world and take risks—have fun—when all around, I see disaster. How do I balance my own fear and ultra-tuned sense danger with Stella’s appetite for climbing and jumping from high places?

When my sisters and I were young, we loved to make potions. We would set up bricks, build a fire, and, in a coffee can, boil grass and water and sticks and berries. Sometimes, the fire engulfed the can. Sometimes we burned our hands.

Other dangers: we rode in the way back of the station wagon, no seat belts; we raced down the street on our bikes without helmets. (Did helmets even exist back then?)

But though we did things that I wouldn’t allow Stella to do now (No seat belt? I’d have an apoplexy if she weren’t strapped in a federally approved car seat!), these activities were always tempered with my mother’s warnings.

We often heard the general “be careful,” but Mom warned us about more specific dangers, as well: never play on a huge mound of sand because you might sink into it and suffocate; never climb into an abandoned refrigerator or you might get stuck inside and suffocate (suffocation was huge); never walk into an elevator until you're sure that the elevator car is really there. (Mom had heard of a woman who hadn’t been paying attention; she fell to her death in the elevator shaft.)

These were the warnings at which we rolled our eyes. Seriously, how often does one come across an abandoned refrigerator? It’s not as if we were playing in a landfill.

We took her other cautions more seriously: never take candy from a stranger; never go anywhere with a stranger, even if he says he knows mom and dad; never approach a car, even if the person inside is asking for directions. And these warnings may have actually saved us. Once, my older sister was walking home and a man pulled up in a station wagon. He whispered something and my sister, with my mother’s admonition ringing in her ears, refused to move closer to the car. She stood on the sidewalk, yelling, “I can’t hear you. Talk louder.” Finally, the man asked, more loudly, where the nearest gas station was. My sister pointed, and he drove off. Hmmm, was he an evil-doer? Perhaps.

There are times when it is better to be safe than sorry, and there are real dangers that exist in the world. But how do I balance wanting to keep Stella safe with wanting her to be strong and brave and believe in herself?

There is a huge climber at the park near our house. The city removed the metal rocket climber that had been there for generations. (I played on it as a child.) In its place they put an equally tall rope pyramid climber. I’m actually not sure that the rope climber is any safer. Can’t one fall just as hard from ropes as from metal bars?

Of course Stella loves this thing, and she loves to climb up high and jump into the sand below. When she does this, other mothers at the park often look at me, their eyes wide. They seem to be saying: wow, you’re brave to let her do that, or, wow, she’s a dare-devil. Then I puff out my feathers, proud of my strong girl and proud of myself for not hovering. But all the while I’m biting my tongue to keep from yelling, “Be careful! That’s too high! Let’s go home!”

My mom probably bit her tongue a number of times, as well. Her warnings were there, of course, but she also gave us a lot of freedom to explore and experiment. She hit a fine balance, and really, other than being a little neurotic, we turned out fine. And I wonder: can I manage to do the same?

Check out the other Dangerous Boy Friday posts at MotherTalk.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

willow room

This morning I woke slowly, to the sound of birds and wind in the trees. D. and Stella brought me breakfast in bed, one of my favorite things.

I held Stella in my lap as we waited for her new clothes to come out of the drier. A bowl of oranges in her hand, she said, “Feed me, mama.” She is old enough to feed herself, of course, and usually I remind her of this fact, but not this morning. I wrapped her in a sheet and fed her slice after slice of orange. Her hair still snarled with sleep, her eyes so blue, I held my daughter close, wiping juice from her chin. What a wonderful way to wake up on mother’s day.

Here is a poem by Deborah Keenan that I love:

Good Dreams Or Milk

Still impossible to kiss the child,
And not see the child explode.
Charles Baxter, Cantata At Midnight

private retreats and public disorders
are in full view now; after a long season
without new life babies ride inside friends
or burn whole into lives, altering paths we’d been lingering on.

there are mouths to feed. my children’s faces
are private candles i sometimes worship at, the touch of
their skin, the implicit blessing that comes when children
are desired, and children are being born again, while the world
lurches in a fouled orbit, tampering with private pledges
made in the night by new lovers, and with lullabies being sung
all over town:
pony boy, pony boy, won’t you be my pony boy?
sweet and low, sweet and low, winds of western seas.
the hush hush words about mockingbirds,
rings without stain,
soft words before sleep,
the comfort of new skin and old songs.

such privacy by gold light cannot outshine the polished guns,
the accomplished liars, the diplomats flaming at the last gates
in every city, easter won’t stay, palm fronds fade
and children’s new clothes are put away with trembling hands
by lovers who bend to kiss the faces of children,
or to hear the daughter’s voice: oh, i’ve needed you so much
today, weary, as if laying claim to some sin.

and the big world’s chapter and verse drone on,
and children are flying apart
and hands cannot reach
fast enough to stop their small, quiet disintegration.

we are here again, we say to each other,
while the children tangle in sheets,
call out for good dreams or milk,
and we pull the blankets up, hungry for them
to wake up alive.

Originally in The Only Window That Counts, this poem is now in Keenan’s new collection, Willow Room, Green Door: New and Selected Poems. If you haven’t read her, this would be a wonderful book to get. Her writing is so true and alive and accessible.

Okay, I’m off to find a home in the garden for the marigold seedlings Stella gave me. Happy Mother’s Day!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

the hearts of birds

On Monday night, I was one of 1300 people at the Mary Oliver reading at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. In the sanctuary, we were seated shoulder to shoulder. Two other rooms (also packed) piped Oliver in via video feed. Seriously, 1300 people paid to see a poet read her work. I kept saying to my friend Marge, “I can’t believe this. Look at all these people. I can’t believe this.” I’m sure I sounded like my 98-year old grandfather. (Every Wednesday, Stella and I take him for errands, and every Wednesday when we pass the full parking lots of Target and Baker’s Square, he says, “Look at all those cars. Where do all the people come from?” He harrumphs, then adds, “Well, that’s good. Business is good.”)

Business is obviously good for Oliver—1300 people!—but how many other poets could sell out a place this large? Some, certainly, and I would love it if the packed house were a reflection on poetry in general as the recent Star Tribune article seemed to assert, but I think that it’s more likely just evidence of Mary Oliver’s appeal.

And she is appealing. It was hard for me to see her because the people sitting in the rows in front of me were positioned in such a way that I could only see Oliver through a small triangle of hair if I closed one eye. (I looked ridiculous, but no one seemed to notice.)

Mostly, I didn’t need to see; Oliver’s gravely voice filled the sanctuary. I understand why her poetry is used so frequently in church services; her language and imagery are so calming. I felt myself settle into the pew. I’m not a calm person (something I’m sure you’ve guessed about me by now), and I love those rare moments when I am fully in my body and am open to the world, to possibility (without allowing my mind to sprint ahead).

I love this line: "nobody owns the hearts of birds."

Oliver was also very funny. She read a couple of poems about her dog, Percy, and I was struck by this. I wondered what would happen if I wrote a poem about a dog. I’m pretty sure that people would laugh at me. This would partly be because I’m not a poet and the poem would be very bad. But I also think that it would, in part, be due to the fact that I’m not a known writer. Is writing about one’s dog something you can do only after you have proved yourself, after you have an established loyal readership? Does anyone out there know of a newly published poet writing about his/her dog?

I must leave you with Oliver’s advice to new writers. She said, “Pay attention and cultivate astonishment.” Hmmm, yes. I couldn’t agree more.

Friday, May 4, 2007

thinking bloggers

Okay, here it goes. This was very difficult for me because I’ve discovered so many wonderful blogs in the last few months. Thank you, again, to Emmie for nominating me. I didn’t nominate her back only because I wasn’t sure if that was against the rules. (Otherwise I would have.) Some of these blogs have already been nominated (some of them more than once). They do not need to nominate 5 new blogs as a result of this nomination.

One Hand Typing: Mardougrrl is a new(ish) mother who is working on a daily writing practice. She writes with such thoughtfulness and candor, and her prose is lovely, always. I so appreciate her honesty and her wisdom.

Gaijin Mama: Suzanne Kamata is an ex-pat mother of twins living in Japan. Her blog just gets me here (visualize me pounding on my chest). She writes about writing, mothering twins, disability, and living in Japan (among other things). Suzanne is a fiction writer and essayist, and I will link to some of her essays when I dedicate a full post to her writing this summer.

ReadingWritingLiving: I have Gaijin Mama to thank for leading me to Susan Ito’s wonderful blog. Though I have read some of Susan’s essays, I didn’t realize she was blogging (because this sort of thing takes me a long time to figure out). But I am so happy that I’ve found her blog, which is a wonderful combination of reading, writing, teaching, and parenting. (This description doesn’t due her justice, so please check her out if you haven’t already.) She co-edited the anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption.

When in Cairo: In this blog, A. and her boyfriend, James, who are North Americans, describe their experience living and teaching in Cairo. It’s part travelogue, part history lesson, part cultural investigation. So timely. They are both talented writers and I guarantee that this blog is the beginning of a book. Check it out before they get famous.

Ask Allison: This is different from the other blogs I’ve nominated, but I’ve included it because Allison Winn Scotch offers so much to writers trying to break into magazine writing, searching for an agent, or who are in the process of getting their first book published. There aren’t many people who are so forthcoming with their trade secrets. If you’re trying to get published (or even if you’re already published), you must read her blog.

Okay, this is the way the Thinking Blogger Award works:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
2. Link to this post AND to the Thinking Blogger Award site so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

awake and thinking

This morning, I woke up at 1:45 a.m. when my darling girl yelled from her room: "Mama, I had a nightmare. Lie with me. Lie with me, mama." Now that Stella is no longer allowed to sleep in our bed, this is a frequently heard phrase in our house (and it is never ignored, which explains, of course, why it’s so frequently heard).

I cuddled with her, and when she fell back to sleep, I snuck back into my own bed and burrowed into the pillow. Then I turned over and stretched my feet off the end of the bed. Then I tried my side and then the other side. But I couldn’t sleep. My mind whirred.

Sometimes, when my mind starts spinning this way, I’m writing. Whole paragraphs appear in my head in the middle of the night as if the word fairy has waved her wand over my sleeping head. (She takes mercy on me because I struggle so much.) Other times, I can’t sleep because I’m worrying about one of my jobs, or my book. Other times, as you know, I’m up and down, checking the curtains, listening for danger.

Last night, I was awake because I was obsessing about the thinking blogger awards. You see, dear Emmie, at Better Make It A Double, nominated me—this blog!—for a thinking blogger award. I am so honored—thrilled really. (Is this how it feels to receive a Golden Globe?) But the problem is that now I must chose five blogs to nominate.

So, I was awake from 1:45 to 3:45 thinking this over. (I’ll post the results of my nighttime brainstorm in the next couple of days; I need a little more time with this.)

Sometimes, if I wake a little later—at say, 4 am—and starting thinking, especially if my fairy friend has visited and has pointed out an important scene I’ve carelessly left out of my book, I will just get up and write, and this turns out to be a gift—everyone else is still asleep, and early morning turns out to be when I’m at my best. (Sadly, I get stupider as the day progresses.)

This reminds me of a wonderful collection of essays called Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival, edited by Marilyn Kallet and Judith Ortiz Cofer. Really, for women writers and mother writers it is a must read.

“Five am: Writing as Ritual” is a short essay by Judith Ortiz Cofer describing how getting up at 5 am forced her to “come to terms with the discipline of her art.” She says: “When people ask me how I started writing, I find myself describing the urgent need that I felt to work with language as a search; I did not know for a long time what I was looking for. Although I married at nineteen, had a child at twenty-one—all the while going through college and graduate school and working part time—it was not enough. There was something missing in my life that I came close to only when I turned to my writing, when I took a break from my thesis research to write a poem or an idea for a story on the flip side of an index card. It wasn’t until I traced this feeling to its source that I discovered both the cause and the answer to my frustration: I needed to write.”

But when you juggle children and work, writing often gets lost. This is why Cofer decided to get up every morning at 5 am to write. “Well or badly,” she says, “I wrote two pages a day for 3 ½ years. This is how my novel, The Line of the Sun, was finished. If I had waited to have the time, I would still be waiting to write my novel.”

In the essay “Writing in No-Time,” Lucy Ferriss makes the distinction between a woman’s “time for herself” and “writing time.” She says, “I’m sure I am not the only writer who has been stopped, just on the brink of a precious hour alone at the computer, with the well-intended comment launched by husband/mother/partner: ‘I’m glad you’re getting this time for yourself.’” Urgh!

Of course writing time is work time, but it’s so hard to justify this if you’re not getting paid for your writing. (Or even if you are. Think, again, of Adrienne Rich.) So, if you happen to be awake at 4, I recommend getting up and writing in the dark, alone, when everyone else expects you to be sleeping, only. It’s the perfect time to write, unless, of course, you have been up since 1:45 obsessing about the thinking blogger awards. In that case, go back to sleep and stay in bed as long as you can.)