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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

heartbreak and hoping

Oh why did I do this to myself? Why?

For class tomorrow, I’m having my students read Susan Ito’s “Samuel” and Suzanne Kamata’s “You’re So Lucky.” I chose these pieces to spark discussion about point of view, emotional distance, and writing about heartbreak. But I’m not going to talk about how talented I think both of these writers are or how pieces have been crafted because my response to their writing is so personal. I must, instead, record that.

You see, I’m sitting on my front porch in the sweltering heat, balling. I’m not talking a tear or two. I can’t catch my breath.

“Samuel” is Ito’s essay about her first pregnancy, which ended when she developed severe preeclampsia (it would probably be classified as HELLP syndrome today). At that point (and in 1989), the fetus, her son, was not viable. He needed two more weeks inside her to even have a chance at survival. But Susan would not have made it two weeks. She would have died. The only way to cure preeclampsia, no matter how far along the pregnancy is, is to deliver the baby. But because Samuel was not yet viable, the doctors had to stop his heart. He was evacuated.

Now, the whole essay is heartbreaking—clearly—but the part that hit me hardest was the moment when Susan’s husband, John, is taking her blood pressure in his office. They have no idea she has preeclampsia:

“I heard the Velcro tearing open on the cuff, felt its smooth blue band wrapping around me. I swung my feet and smiled up at John, the stethoscope around his neck, loved this small gesture of his taking care of me. I felt the cuff tightening, the pounding of my heart echoing up and down my fingers, through my elbow.

“The expression on his face I will never forget, the change in color from pink to ash, as if he had died standing at my side. ‘Lie down,’ he said quietly. ‘Lie down on your left side. Now.’”

I can see this. I can feel it in my bones. I know what it is like to feel hopeful and innocent. I also know what it feels like to realize your pregnancy is over, finished, that nothing will happen as you planned.

I was sent to the hospital for bedrest at 32 weeks because I was leaking protein in my urine and had swollen up like a blowfish. But, my blood pressure was still normal so I was just going to the hospital for bedrest, so they could “watch me.” When I arrived at the hospital, my blood pressure was no longer normal. It was 170/110. There would be no bedrest. They had to get the baby out.

Of course, I had a viable fetus, and I would later overhear a NICU nurse say, “A 32-weeker can practically walk out of the womb.” Well, not exactly, but we were lucky. We are so lucky. And maybe it’s because I know how lucky we are that I can’t stop crying now, as I read how things could have been for us, too.

I feel the same terror reading Kamata’s story. “You’re So Lucky” was written as fiction, in the second person, but it’s autobiographical, about the premature birth of Kamata’s twins at 26 weeks and their stay in a Japanese NICU. Kamata writes:

“You had been planning on starting a program of Mozart and poetry in the seventh month, had already picked out a layette in the Land’s End catalogue. You had just started wearing maternity clothes and ordered a gray cotton dress which hadn’t even arrived yet. You had an appointment the next week with a doula recommended by your hippee friend who lives in the mountains.”

But nothing goes as planned, of course. You must give up all your birth dreams.

In both Ito’s and Kamata’s pieces, I read part of my own story. And in fact, the first time I read each piece, I had an oh shit writing moment: I’ve written what she’s written. And it’s true. I talk about the “pre” in preeclampsia in a way similar to Ito. I describe being afraid to touch my baby in a way similar to Kamata. But now reading the pieces again, months later, I just say yes, that’s right. You’ve got it exactly right. I relive it through their words, their experiences, and now I can’t stop crying.

The other reason I can’t stop crying is because I can imagine it happening all over again. Their stories and my own are still a possibility for me. No one can tell me, exactly, what my chances are of developing preeclampsia again. And so I sit here on my porch in the sweltering heat, clutching my barely eight-week pregnant belly, balling and hoping and feeling crazy that I put these two pieces on my syllabus this summer.

But I had to because they do what I’m trying to teach my students how to do: write heartbreak without sentimentality, craft stories out of devastation.

Note: “You’re So Lucky” appears in the new anthology Not What I Expected: The Unpredictable Road from Womanhood to Motherhood and “Samuel” appears in It’s A Boy. I would also like people to remember that the latest abortion ban upheld by the Supreme Court does not contain an exception if a woman’s health (or life) is in danger. A fetus, even a nonviable one, has been given more weight, more importance, than a woman.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I had a very long weekend. It was the USA Cup, which is (for those of you who don’t follow youth soccer) a week-long tournament in Minnesota that draws kids from all over the world. They descend on the National Sports Center by the thousands to play their little soccer hearts out and bake in the sun, on field after field.

I wasn’t there—I’m not that crazy—but D. was, because both of the teams he coaches participated. This meant that he was gone ALL DAY Saturday and ALL DAY Sunday. Now, you know I love my daughter, but that’s a lot of uninterrupted Stella time.

The mornings were great. We cuddled and looked at her baby pictures, something she loves to do. Her voice becomes sort of tiny, and she says, “Ohhhh, so cutie,” as she looks at each photo, even the preemie ones in which her three-pound self is sporting an IV in her head and a feeding tube taped to her cheek. So cutie.

We arranged barrettes on the floor (by color and style), after which she put them all in my hair. I should really post a photo of this. You’d be stunned by the sparkle and shine of fifty barrettes at my hairline, but I don’t want to make anyone jealous.

Then we went to the park. She flipped on the ropes and hung upside down, and I tried not to tell her to be careful too many times.

But by mid-afternoon, everything changed. Too much sun? Not enough lunch? Too much ice-cream? Probably all of the above.

On Sunday, it happened at the THIRD park we visited. I told her it was going to be a very short visit because I had just hauled her tiny ass around Lake Calhoun in the Burley. We were almost safe at home, but I said, hey, okay, what the hell, we can stop one more time. But the kid loves the monkey bars, and the monkey bars at this park were too high, so I had to hold her up as she lurched across them, and, well, I’d had enough. I said she could go one more time, and she agreed. I sat down on the bench, but the bugger started lurching across them again.

“Support!” she yelled, and I had to come to her rescue.

I was stern. “I said that was it with the monkey bars, but you didn’t listen to my words, so now we have to go.” (We’re trying out consequences for not listening.)

“No,” she said, and ran to the swing.

“No, Stella. We’re leaving.” I just wanted to lie down on the couch for a minute. Is that so wrong?

She began to scream and yell. “Push me, mom! PUSH ME!”

“I’m sorry, but you didn’t follow directions, and now we have to go home.” (Hard core, I know.)

She proceeded to flop onto the ground, sand flying. “You’re not listening to MY words! This is my choice, mom! This is my choice!”

She kicked, she screamed, and I was so, so tired that all I wanted to do was sit down and cry. Instead, I picked up her flailing self and strapped her back in the Burley. She bellowed the rest of the way home, her face red and mottled. Strangers on the street stared at me.

We recovered, of course. I hypnotized her with a book of Christmas carols. This was a little embarrassing because my neighbors were outside gardening and I’m pretty sure they could hear every note of my off-key rendition of “Away in a Manger.” But it was worth it. Rapport was reestablished. We took a shower, went to the grocery store, and picked up Peter Pan, which we watched as we ate a “picnic” dinner. Nothing like a little racism and some good old stereotypes before bed. Ah, but Stella loved Tinker Bell.

She was asleep by 8, and I thought I might muster the energy to watch a movie of my own liking, but I was so tired that I had to go to bed, as well. And that was just one weekend. My heart goes out to all the single mothers out there. Hang tight, sisters.

Monday, July 16, 2007

mothers' words speak volumes

Check out the Star Tribune's parenting blog, Cribsheet, where I guestblogged about my Mother Words class. Writing from four of my students will appear on Cribsheet this week, one essay each day, beginning today, so please check out these wonderful, emerging voices. They make me proud!

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Yesterday Stella and I were running errands and I mentioned that Gahgee (what she calls my dad) was going to baby-sit because D. and I were going to a party. She got all teary and said that she didn’t want us to go and didn’t want Gahgee to come over. And then she said, “Are you guys leaving straightaway?”

Straightaway? Where the hell did she get that? She sounded so grown-up, and oddly, so British.

I’m thinking of it now because I miss the little bug. She’s spending the night at D.’s dad’s and step-mom’s house, and I’m really feeling lonely for her. It’s weird because she would be asleep if she were home, and it’s not as if I’ve never been away from her. She used to spend the night at my mom’s occasionally, but that was before she began sleeping through the night (which was, seriously, only two months ago). And usually when she slept there it was because D. and I were going out and were going to be late. (We can get really crazy.) Those nights away from her carried with them great benefits: night out, good sleep.

But D. and I weren’t going out tonight. He had to coach, so I drove home to our empty house by myself feeling sad. I actually didn’t know what to do with myself, so I plugged myself into the IPod and went for a run. I don’t usually run with music, but I cannot get enough of the Tsotsi soundtrack. It’s fabulous. I *love* Zola. (Hip hop in a language other than English can be so, so good.)

Anyway, I know Stella will have fun at her grandparent’s house because her cousins are sleeping over, as well, and I’m sure that at this very moment (2 hours past her normal bedtime) she is screaming and jumping around due to consuming way too much candy.

Missing her this much, though, reminds me the novel I just finished: Leila Aboulela’s The Translator. It’s about Sammar, a Sudanese widow working in Aberdeen, translating for Rae, a secular Islamic scholar. Sammar and Rae begin to fall in love, and as they get to know each other, they reveal their complicated pasts.

After Sammar’s husband was killed in a car accident, Sammar returned to Khartoum, and ended up leaving her two-year-old son, Amir, with her mother-in-law. She returned to Aberdeen to work on her own, paralyzed by grief for her dead husband. She admits wishing her son had died rather than her husband, and didn’t feel capable of loving him for a long time. I thought this was so interesting, such a different reaction than I imagine I would have (especially in the face of my current pining for Stella), but I do love when an author can make me experience the world in a new and different way.

Aboulela is very talented. Her prose is elegant, and the pace with which the story unfolds is just right. I love this line from a scene in which Sammar is sitting in a conservatory during the Scotland winter: “Tropical plants cramped in the damp warmth and orange fish in running water. Whistling bird flying indoors, the grey sky irrelevant above the glass ceiling.” As a Minnesotan, I can totally relate to this. I love to go to the Como Conservatory in January and walk among blooming orchids, breathing in the earth and plants.

This was her first novel, and I think this fact shows in some places—the ending, a heavy-handedness about her belief in the superiority of Islam, and some of the literary devices she uses—but still, I liked the book. It made me think, which is always good, and I do believe she is a talented writer. So, check it out. Her second novel, Minaret, is already on my bookshelf, and I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

Okay, I’m off to sleep now, and hope I won’t wake up in the middle of the night worry about the little bug.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

garrison revisited

A month ago I posted about Deborah Garrison's new book, The Second Child. I had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah on the phone a few weeks ago, and you can read my review of The Second Child and an interview with the author at mamazine. Enjoy!

Monday, July 9, 2007

there is nothing like

becoming dizzy with blue sky and rustling leaves and swaying trucks as I stand among birch trees, staring straight up

lying in bed at night, listening to the eerie call of loons, back and forth, across the lake

a daytime moon holding watch over a field of newly-plowed hay

Stella’s excitement prior to her first fireworks

the lake at sunset, when the trees on the other side become golden and the rocks underwater bright, and there is no sound except paddles dipping into water

the voice of Vusi Mahlasela

a doe and two fawns stopped ahead of me on my run, their ears and tails twitching as they watch me, before bounding into the forest

a monarch caterpillar making slow work of a wide leaf of milkweed

watching my daughter play in the same sand and swim in the same water in which I played as a child

reading a novel in the daytime

Thursday, July 5, 2007

reading recap

I have been relaxing up north (which is how we refer to Northern Minnesota), so I’m only now posting about the first (and hopefully annual) Mother Words reading.

First, if you are ever in Minneapolis and have a chance to go to a reading at the Open Book, where the Loft Literary Center is housed, you must go. The building is gorgeous, full of exposed beams and brick—such a lovely place to teach and listen to writers read. We filled the Target Performance Hall with over 80 people!

Nanci Olesen set the tone for the evening with her engaging voice and wonderful writing, with which many of you are familiar. She read a number of short pieces, including her laugh-out-loud essays about watching her son play baseball and of nightly dinners in a circus truck. She also read the heart-wrenching essay about talking care of her sister’s young children as her sister undergoes chemotherapy for a brain tumor. You can listen to Nanci read her writing at MOMbo and Minnesota Public Radio.

The second reader was award-winning Bonnie J. Rough, who read an excerpt from her memoir about being a carrier of the genetic disorder ectodermal dysplasia. Bonnie’s writing is beautiful—gasp-out-loud gorgeous. It is no wonder that she was just awarded a Bush Artist Fellowship and a McKnight Artist Fellowship. She is so poised and so, so talented. When her book is out, I’ll be sure to let you know. You can read one of her essays online in the New York Times’ Modern Love column.

I was the last reader, and I chose to read part of a chapter of my book titles “A Tenuous Hold.” I consider it one of the darker chapters in terms of subject matter, but people laughed, which was a huge relief! It helped, of course, that D. was sitting right in front, smiling up at me. I was more than irritated with him during this section of the book, and I had to pause mid-read to tell him I loved him because he’s such a good sport about me making public our lives. In this particular chapter it’s his blatant disregard for detail that makes me feel especially crazy, and as I read, he just grinned away at me. Thanks, D.

After my reading, we took questions from the audience for about twenty minutes. Someone asked how you know you’re ready, how you know you have enough distance to write your life (We all had variations of “get it down first and then craft it.”) Someone asked about what Nanci’s kids (who are teenagers) thought of her writing about them. (They don’t seem that interested, though she does allow them to review what she writes before she airs it.) We each took turns responding to questions, and then retired to the lobby to drink wine and continue chatting. Though I coordinated the event, and invited both Nanci and Bonnie to participate, I didn’t anticipate how well our styles and subject matters would compliment each other. I was ecstatic, and I hope it will be an annual event!

Thank you again to MotherTalk, MOMbo and the Loft Literary Center for sponsoring the event, and stay tuned for information about next year’s reading. And thanks to everyone who braved the traffic and parking to be there!