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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

merry christmas!

Merry Christmas, friends. I hope you have a lovely holiday. I'm gearing up for two ham dinners today and four waves of gift-giving in the next two days. Stella is beside herself with excitement and Zoe is happily oblivious.

Safe travels to those on the move.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

red enough

Last week I posted about how people smile and gush when they see my little, beaming Zoë. What I failed to mention is that after some of them have exclaimed about her hair and her smile, they turn to me and say, “Where does she get the red hair?” or “Does she get the hair from her daddy?”

I try to keep the irritation out of my voice when I say, “She gets it from me.”

Then they look at me in a confused way, as if I had just told them that the red is actually from my grandmother, who happened to come from Mars, and all Martians have red hair, didn’t you know?

Sometimes they smile slightly, and say, as if they were humoring me, “Oh, I guess I can see that.” As if they had just conceded something. As if they were agreeing simply in order to placate me.

Now, I’m the first to admit that my hair has darkened and dulled over the years, but it’s still what I would call red. It’s still more red than blonde. It’s still more red than brown. It still put a check mark in the “red” box when I get a new driver’s license.

But many people seem to think you are only a redhead if you have flaming, crayon-red hair. I don’t know anyone with hair that color, do you? I know people with carroty red hair, with dark, auburn hair, with rust hair. And then there is copper. That’s what Zoë has, and what I had as a child: hair the color of a flashy new penny.

Okay, so I’m sensitive about my hair. When I was in high school it annoyed me when someone told me I was strawberry blonde. I felt as if they were trying to push me into another category, a whole different set of people. They were trying to make me a blonde. “My hair is not blonde,” I would insist. “It’s red.” And sometimes I would even clarify: “It’s actually copper.”

I have always identified as a redhead. It’s part of who I am. My grandmother was a redhead. One of my sisters is a redhead. My father was a redhead before he turned gray. And as a child when people called him red, he shook his head emphatically and declared his hair golden. (Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen that word; I would have called it auburn. Regardless, it’s obvious where I get my hair sensitivity.)

I put up with years of comments about how I must be Irish and how I must have a temper. (All redheads must be the alike, you see. We must come from the same stock. We must have the same temperament.) Invariably, I would become irritated and, if the commenter persisted, angry. I remember when my junior-high Spanish teacher insisted I was both Irish and hot-tempered. I said no, but he wouldn’t let it go. Finally I yelled, “I’m not Irish!”

He smirked. “But you certainly do have a have a temper.”

I was shopping with Zoë and Stella at the mall the other day and a salesclerk, an older man, began asking about the origin of Zoë’s hair color, and when I said it was from me, I thought he was going to have an apoplexy. “You can always tell,” he said loudly, “who is really a redhead.”

Hrrrrmuph. Oh please I was going say, giving him my most withering look. But he went on: “Hopefully you daughter will keep hers.”

He then expounded on the fact that Zoë was such a happy baby because I stayed home with her. (I had admitted, after being questioned, that I worked from home, but all he cared about was that I was at home, fulfilling my motherly duties.) I have all sorts of things I wish I had said to the blowhard, but I rushed out of the store, dragging Stella by the hand before I could think of them.

Now I am wondering: What is red enough? How much red do you need in your hair to be considered a redhead? I also wonder why this is such a big deal to people. Why do they feel they need to draw a line, put me in my place? Are they are worried that if they didn’t, all sorts of people (impostors!) would go around calling themselves redheads when they really weren’t?

Just imagine: thousands and thousands brunettes and blondes laying claim to something to which they had no right. The world might shift off its axis. The sun might fail to shine. Armageddon, people. It could happen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I don’t post about Zoë very often because, well, she’s a baby. She does baby things: covers her face with pureed carrots; scurries around the wood floor collecting lint and trying to get it into her eager mouth before I intercept her. She dances, rocking her body like the tiniest Deadhead when she hears any kind of music. She smashes bits of spaghetti onto the wall. And she sleeps and poops and cries and laughs. I’m not sure how interesting reporting on her progress as a person would be to readers. I admit that sometimes even I, her own mother, get bored after the twelfth time I have rolled the tiny soccer ball across the rug to her and squealed with exaggerated glee when she triumphantly holds it up to me.

But I wanted to take a minute to say how precious she is. It is difficult for me to believe that just a year ago I was sick and coughing with perpetual cold and heavily pregnant with her. How full of worry I was, counting the days until I was 28 weeks, then 30, then 32, ticking off each milestone with a statistic on survival rates and the probability of a disability. It’s difficult for me to believe that she came out of me at 6 pounds, which then seemed so huge and now seems unimaginably small. It’s difficult to remember those early months, holding her constantly, bouncing her for hours, staying up until she finally fell asleep nestled in my tired arms.

Zoë is now nine months old. She smiles easily and often, at strangers and people she knows. She is indiscriminately friendly. When I am out at the grocery store or Target (the two main places I go), people stop me constantly, huge smiles on their faces: “What gorgeous red hair!” “Look at that smile!” “She just made my day!” “She likes me!”

Wouldn’t it be nice if, as adults, we could walk around smiling, and we would get the same response? But if we pushed our carts through Target, making eye contact and giving everyone a huge smile, people wouldn’t think we were adorable. They wouldn’t tell us that we just made their day. Most would look away quickly and think we had a screw loose. (I’m speaking for the Midwest here. Things might be different elsewhere.)

Stella and Zoë and I have all had colds this week. (Mine has turned into a sinus infection, per usual.) But because I wasn’t feeling well, I did something I rarely do these days: I lay down with Zoë and we napped together. How luxurious, even with her coughing into my face and wiping snot on my shirt. She woke at one point and sat up, and I thought that was it, nap over. But then I picked her up and she fell back asleep on my chest. She’s a baby that likes to be on the go and she rarely allows me to cuddle her, so I had forgotten what it felt like to have her head on my chest, her face inches from my own. I touched her soft forehead and marveled at her hair, which, in the sunlight, is the color of a new penny. I gave her the softest of kisses, not wanting to wake her, not wanting the moment to end.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

blog love

Sista GP at a southern thang awarded me the Uber Amazing Blog Award last week. Thank you, Sista! I'm honored!

Now I must nominate five (or six) other blogs for the award. This is difficult for me because I love so many blogs, but here it goes:

speak softly—what can I say? Whether Vicki is writing about the loss of her son or editing her manuscript, I’m there.

from here to there and back—I just know that if I haven’t read Kristen’s blog for a few days, I miss it, and I miss her.

this momKyra is f****** hilarious.

when in cairo—A's writing about living and teaching in Egypt is often funny, often poignant, and always lovely.

A moon, worn as if it had been a shell—Reading Elizabeth’s blog is like taking a refreshing dip in irreverence. She’s not afraid to say anything.

A Girl’s Garden of Menopause—Ellen is hilarious and also irreverent. What is it about irreverence that gets me these days?

Okay, now these bloggers are supposed to:

  1. Put the logo (award image) on your blog or in a post.
  2. Nominate 5 (or 6) blogs that you feel are Uber Amazing.
  3. Let them know that they have received the Uber Amazing Blog Award by commenting on their blog.
  4. Link to the person who gave you the award (which would be me, of course).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

tonight! don't miss it!

This year’s Mother Words reading will feature the writing of my very talented Mother Words students, past and present.

Who: All mothers and friends of mothers
When: Wednesday, December 3, 7 pm - 8:30 pm
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave. S.E., Osseo, MN

The reading is free and open to the public, and there will be wine and beer and snacks for purchase!

Directions: From St. Paul/Minneapolis, take 94 West to County Road 81 North. Take 81 north until you pass Hwy 169. Just past 169, there will be a Marathon gas station on your right. Turn right just before the gas station. The theatre is in a strip mall (but don't let that discourage you—it's lovely inside.)

Come and see why I am so proud of my students!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

what we can count on

I’m embarrassed to say that I had never read anything by Ellen Bass until last week, when one of my lovely students (thank you, Ann!) e-mailed me this poem after it had been featured on Writer’s Almanac. (I’m reprinting it here with the author’s permission.)

After Our Daughter’s Wedding

While the remnants of cake
and half-empty champagne glasses
lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering
in the slanting light, we left the house guests
and drove to Antonelli's pond.
On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried.
A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light.
"Do you feel like you've given her away?" you asked.
But no, it was that she made it
to here, that she didn't
drown in a well or die
of pneumonia or take the pills.
She wasn't crushed
under the mammoth wheels of a semi
on highway 17, wasn't found
lying in the alley
that night after rehearsal
when I got the time wrong.
It's animal. The egg
not eaten by a weasel. Turtles
crossing the beach, exposed
in the moonlight. And we
have so few to start with.
And that long gestation—
like carrying your soul out in front of you.
All those years of feeding
and watching. The vulnerable hollow
at the back of the neck. Never knowing
what could pick them off—a seagull
swooping down for a clam.
Our most basic imperative:
for them to survive.
And there's never been a moment
we could count on it.

Whoa. I love this: “The vulnerable hollow/ at the back of the neck. Never knowing/ what could pick them off—a seagull/ swooping down for a clam.”

This poem is from Mules of Love, but her newest collection, The Human Line, looks wonderful, as well. I plan on getting both of them.

I love when something falls into my lap (or inbox) that speaks to something else I’m reading and thinking about. When I read this last week, I had just finished talking about Julie Schumacher’s essay “A Support Group is My Higher Power” with my advanced Mother Words class. (I will review Julie’s first novel, The Body is Water, here at some point in the future. She has also written four wonderful young adult novels and a collection of short stories.)

A Support Group is My Higher Power” is about faith and acknowledging how little we can do to protect our children. The essay describes where/how Schumacher found strength during her daughter’s struggle with serious depression. She writes:

Most of us, taking measure of that world, make a series of promises to our children when they’re very young: I will protect you. I will help you to make sense of your experience. You will not be alone.

As our children grow up and away from us, inheriting the world’s complications, we discover how poignant and futile those promises are. We begin to suspect that our love for our children, although essential, is also inadequate, because no matter how fervently we love them, we can’t keep them from harm.
Back to Bass: "Our most basic imperative:/ for them to survive./ And there’s never been a moment/ we could count on it."

Back to Schumacher: “In banding together to tell the truth about our own and our children’s suffering, we have found resilience; and we have kept the terrible vacant loneliness at bay. Our belief in ourselves as parents has been compromised, but that’s probably all right. Most of us aren’t looking for certainty anymore so much as a complicated acknowledgment of what is.”

I think all parents have that realization at some point: we cannot protect our children forever; we cannot count on their survival. What we can do: hope and pray (if you are a person who prays) and do our best.

My family is not a family that prays. We say grace before dinner only if my dad has joined us, and only then because my dad is an ordained minister. But recently, I’ve felt the need to mark dinner, mark coming together at the end of a hectic day, with something, so before we eat, we now go around the table and name one thing for which we are thankful. The other night Stella said, sounding so grown up, “I am thankful for Zoë and our home and our family.” My heart nearly broke with love.

Today I am thankful for Ellen Bass and Julie Schumacher, for all the writers who write the difficult and beautiful and heartbreaking truth about motherhood.

I know that many of you who read this blog have had a very difficult year, have experienced intense losses: a child, a sister, an aunt, a mother. I know that some of you have lost your good health, that you have been in and out of the hospital, missing your children as you sleep in cold white rooms. I count you among the things and people for which I am thankful this year, and for you I hope for relief, for some kind of quiet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I suppose it is impossible to hold onto the refreshed, I’ve-just-had-a-vacation feeling for very long once you are home and have stepped again into the day-to-day responsibilities of work and family and life.

A few days ago I slipped on my running shoes and I noticed that they were still caked with the fine sand and limestone of Turks and Caicos. D and I ran only once while we were on vacation, down the pale curve of the road behind the villa, a salt marsh on one side of us, the ocean on the other side. It was amazing, but it was also very hot, and my face was flushed for hours afterward. As I headed out the door the other day, it was freezing. I wore layers of clothing, and with each step, I could feel that sandy limestone give way to the dark, fertile soil of the Mississippi River basin.

I love Minnesota, I do. But since we have been back from the Caribbean, my body has revolted. Everything—my sinuses, my skin, my sense of well-being—seem to be rebelling. Last night D and I were sitting on the couch under a blanket and he said, “It’s a little ridiculous how much I think about our vacation, how much I miss it.”

Me too. I guess I need to try harder to find balance and time to relax here in the Twin Cities. But realistically, when would I relax? My days are carefully mapped out: today I’ll write for 25 minutes at the coffee shop, then I’ll begin reading student essays. When I get home, I’ll feed Zoë and hopefully she’ll sleep for an hour so I can continue my class prep. Then D will come home early and he’ll watch Zoë as I teach, etc. etc. On the days Zoë doesn’t sleep, however, I’m screwed, and have to stay up late to finish my work. But I’m still so tired (re-entry? trying to fight off a cold?) that it’s difficult for me to make it to 9 p.m.

I remind myself that I would eventually get bored if I spent my days lounging in the sun and swimming in warm water. (Wouldn’t I?)

I would miss teaching, certainly. I love thinking about narrative arcs and narrative urgency. I love my students. I love to watch as they make discoveries after laying themselves bare on the page. My classes this fall are especially rewarding, and I don’t know if this is because I’m more focused—I don’t have my communications job to distract me anymore—or if it’s because the make-up of personalities in each class is just right. Regardless, I feel totally at home in the classroom and invigorated after each class.

This year’s Mother Words reading will feature the writing of my very talented students, past and present. I want to invite all of you local folks to come and be inspired:

What: Mother Words reading
When: Wednesday, December 3, 7 p.m.
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, Osseo, MN

I’ll post directions as the date approaches, and I do hope I’ll see some of you there. In the meantime, maybe I should get one of those sun-lamps. Then for a few minutes a day I could pretend we live somewhere warm.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

a week of celebrations

I’m back in town after a week in the Turks and Caicos Islands for my sister’s wedding. I didn’t even know where these islands were when Sara first mentioned them. I had to look them up here to realize that they are a chain of islands southeast of the Bahamas. Providenciales, the island where we stayed, is close enough to Cuba to pick up Cuban radio. How cool is that?

I was so busy before we left on November 1st that I hadn’t thought much about where we were going. I was finishing a grant proposal, teaching, thinking about the elections (and voting early, of course). So when D and Stella and Zoë and I arrived in Providenciales, tired and sleepy on Saturday night, I peeled off layers of clothes, took a deep breath of humid air, and thought, oh my God, we’re in the tropics. We’re on vacation.

I’ve always wanted to swim in the Caribbean, to step into water that color, clear and light. When I was in junior high, I searched magazines for photos of tropical islands and taped them to the wall above my bed. I loved the contrast of sky, sand, water. I positioned my favorite island photo, which I had snipped from a calendar, so that as the sun set in frigid Minnesota, it would hit the photo just so, illuminating it. And I would imagine stepping into it, disappearing into that deserted beach.

Sunday morning, when Zoë woke us all bright and early, I walked out onto the balcony of the huge villa my sister and her fiancé had rented for the week, and it was as if I was stepping into the photo from my adolescence. I stood there, looking down at the pool and the ocean, and I thought, this is it, the photo. I am here.

On Sunday, we got settled and swam. Stella was in and out of the pool and ocean a dozen times. We also went grocery shopping. The islands don’t grow anything to speak off, so groceries are exorbitant. My sister warned us that food was expensive, but I was thinking expensive in the way organic vegetables are expensive compared to conventional vegetables. No. Food there is three times as much as it is here. A box of Cheerios was nine dollars. A cantaloupe eight. I know that most of the world spends a much larger percentage of their income on food than we do here in the United States, but this was mind-blowing. And as we returned to our luxurious villa, I couldn’t help feel guilty thinking of all the people who live and work on the island—the construction workers and maids and waitresses. How do they afford to eat?

There are problems with these islands—there is a great deal of corruption and very little environmental protection. They have some of the worlds most beautiful corral reefs, which they will destroy quickly if they don’t take measures to protect them. Instead of gifts, my sister and her fiancé asked that donations be made to an organization that works to protect Turks and Caicos’ natural resources.

I felt uncomfortable at times even being there, knowing that fast growth with little regulation due to tourism is part of the problem. But I couldn’t help enjoy myself. We split our time between the villa on one side of the island, and the resort on the other side where my mom and step-dad were staying. We went for a sunset cruise on a huge sailboat. We went snorkeling, floating above parrot fish and barracuda and long fingers of purple and orange corral. (Some of our snorkeling group even saw a shark.) We went kayaking around the small islands near the villa. I felt the need to keep stopping in the middle of whatever amazing thing we were doing and acknowledge how amazing it was: I can’t believe this. We’re kayaking in the Caribbean. I can’t believe it. I just saw a barracuda.

Sara had her computer with her and offered it up if I wanted to check e-mail, but I refused. I needed a break so badly, from my phone and e-mail. I needed a real break, to be renewed and refreshed. I was.

Tuesday, CNN was on all day, of course, and between swims and naps and eating, we watched the long lines of people here at home, waiting to vote. I was a little sad not to be here on election day, not to wait in line and feel that energy, but it was also nice to be able to put it out of our minds for an hour at a time as we floated in the ocean. Tuesday night, we ordered pizza and sat glued to the television, watching as states turned blue or red. I went to sleep about 10:30 because I didn’t think the election would be called early, so I missed hearing Obama’s speech live. The next morning I jumped out of bed and, when I heard that he won, I screamed and screamed, and then was overcome by such immense relief that I felt dizzy and had to sit down. Wherever we went in the following days, people congratulated us. Everyone we met assumed we were thrilled, which, of course, we were. I was amazed by how relieved and excited they also were. On the Cuban radio station, people from all over the Americas were weighing in, hopeful: Obama Obama Obama.

I don’t know what the wedding on Friday would have felt like if Obama had lost. We would have still celebrated their marriage, of course, but we would have felt heavy.

As it was, the wedding was amazing, right at edge of the ocean in front of the villa. Sara was gorgeous. My dad, who had been nervous all week, performed the ceremony, as he had for Rachel and for me, and he did great. The ceremony was followed by champagne and appetizers and then a dinner at a restaurant on the other side of the island: Conch spring rolls, an Asian-inspired salad, and fresh grouper over fried gnocchi. I ate until I almost exploded.

The travel was long, but overall, Stella and Zoë did really well. We are home now, and the leaves have fallen, there is snow on the ground, and the sky is gray. But I still feel refreshed, and those pictures from my childhood bedroom walls have been replaced by a real picture: I am floating in the teal ocean, watching Stella laugh as she cannonballs into the pool a few yards away.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

mea culpa

I haven’t been much of a blogger recently (as you very well know), and I’m not only sorry, I’m embarrassed. I’ve never let myself go this long without at least one skimpy post. And it’s not that I haven’t thought about blogging; I’ve thought about it every day for the past two weeks.

I thought about it after I attended a wonderful poetry breakfast at a friend’s house a week and a half ago. One of the editors from Graywolf Press was there, and he offered a short poetry tutorial and described what made him say yes to a collection of poems. I nodded and laughed, my brain beginning to sparkle and snap with coffee and words. I wanted to post excerpts of a few poems he read: Tony Hoagland’s “America” and William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.” I wanted to post about how the morning was bright and crisp, and when I left the breakfast, I stopped and bought a book—Jhumpa Lahiri’s new collection of stories—and how I drove home slowly, along the river, holding the rhythm and words of the morning for as long as possible.

I wanted to post about my ninth anniversary, about the lovely dinner D and I shared, the delicious bottle of wine we drank, the molten chocolate cake we devoured. I wanted to post about the first bottle (of milk) that Zoë drank. She finally—at almost 8 months old—took a bottle! Hallelujahs went up all around our house.

Over the last week I kept thinking oh, I’d like to blog about that, but then three days would go by, and it would feel too late. I’m afraid I can’t keep up with anything right now. It’s as if time is evaporating, disappearing faster than I can move, faster than I can think. November should be better though—post election, post my sister’s wedding—and then I’ll be back here regularly. I promise.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

forgetting and remembering

I keep having dreams in which I lose things or have them stolen: credit cards, my purse, a huge backpack from a train platform. In each dream, the same thing happens as soon as I realize the loss: my stomach sinks in that oh-no-I-can’t-believe-it kind of way. This is always followed by shame. How could I have let that happen? How could I have been so careless?

These dreams aren’t new to me, but I don’t usually have them in succession. So what’s going on? I imagine it has something to do with stress. I have a lot on my plate right now with teaching and writing. I’m also trying to work on some grant applications and get ready for my older sister’s wedding (which is in a few short weeks). I have reduced childcare this week, four kid parties to attend in the next two weeks, and evenings that I have booked with writing groups, volunteer committees, and socializing. I’m sure I’ll forget to write something on my very long to-do list, so each night I play out this worry, this carelessness. Unfortunately, these dreams don’t diminish the stress; they heighten it.

It doesn’t help that lack of sleep and lack of estrogen make me very forgetful. (That’s where I’m placing the blame, anyway.) I forget events, things I said I would do, but I also forget words, phrases. The other night in one of my classes, I was trying to think of a word. I knew the meaning of the word I wanted, knew there was a word that meant what I was trying to say, but I couldn’t reach it. I stumbled, tried a few others, but they didn’t fit. Finally, one of my students said it: deliberate. That little word was the one I needed, but I couldn’t pull it from the recesses of my mind.

It is very rare that D will say, “I already told you that. Don’t you remember?” Usually I am saying that to him, not the other way around. The first few times this happened I protested. No way, you didn’t tell me that. Now I simply shrug: Really? Oh. Oops.

But even though I’m busy and forgetful, things are still good, better than they have been in a while. I am enjoying teaching so much—I leave both classes feeling high, looking forward to the next week. I’m finally writing again, even if it is only a few hours a week, and I’m excited about what I’m writing. The work is slow, but it’s moving. And my daughters are lovely, wonderful. Zoë is seven months old and the most joyful baby I have ever known. Oh, she has her moments, certainly, but she mostly very happy, sending these loud squeals out into the world. I am stopped multiple times at the grocery story by people commenting on her disposition. (She is especially happy strapped to my chest in the Baby Björn.) And Stella seems so much older to me these days. Yesterday while Zoë napped, we played in her invented world, she chattered excitedly, I did as I was told (stay on the ship; eat this appetizer; don’t put your foot in shark water), and we had such a nice time together.

Last weekend D and the girls and I went up to my mom’s cabin, just the four of us. He’s finished traveling for the season, and this was our celebration—a weekend away. It rained most of the time we were up there, but still, I felt so happy. We were together for three whole days, and his Blackberry wasn’t ringing and beeping and vibrating the whole time. (Who knew I could hate a phone so much.)

There was a break in the rain both Saturday and Sunday, and I was able to go running. I usually run on the hilly dirt road that we named “the whoopee hills” when we were young. It was flattened and widened years ago, but it’s still hilly, and I love being at its high, far end, the moment I turn around to see the lake on one side and fields and fields of corn on the other. Unfortunately, there are some aggressive dogs that live along this road now, and their owners let them run free. As I pass the house, they charge me, teeth bared. I like dogs, but not when they are snarling at me. These dogs actually scare me, and this weekend I didn’t want to have another encounter with them, so I ran along the shoulder of the busier road.

I was disappointed at first, but as I headed out, over a small hill, I came upon the farm where my older sister used to take horse-back riding lessons from a young woman while we were in grade school. I had completely forgotten about Jill and her farm, but as I ran by, I could almost see Rachel and me sitting on the tall wooden fence around the corral, watching Sara do laps, her face set in concentration.

I continued to run, passing a field of cows, fields of dry corn, more small farms. In the distance, fields gave way to trees: bright orange and yellow, deep red. The sky was slate, and I couldn’t get over it, how brilliant all those colors looked against that dark gray. I ran and ran and then turned around and headed back to the cabin, not missing the whoopee hills at all.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

penny wolfson on palin

Penny Wolfson, whom I quoted in my long and controversial post, has a wonderful essay about Palin, disability and reproductive rights at Beacon Broadside.

"Moonrise" is featured in Suzanne Kamata's new anthology Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, which was published by Beacon. I haven't read the book yet, but I know I'm going to love it. It contains writing from some of my favorite mother writers.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

on bladders

I have been busy these last weeks prepping classes and teaching and prepping and teaching. I’m teaching two classes and a couple of Saturday 1-hour writing labs at local libraries this fall, so I’m officially back in the swing of things. I’m busy, but interestingly I feel much less scattered than I did a month ago, when I was still working part-time at my communications job. Everything I’m doing now is about writing, and that feels right, like the proper fit for me. But still, I’m busy, and it’s been difficult for me to carve out time to sit down and blog. I know, the ignored sister, my poor blog.

My hope is to schedule some serious blog time (whatever that means) into each week, but I haven’t decided where that will fit yet. I can’t take up my morning writing time to blog or I’ll never finish the essay I’m muddling around in. I can’t blog while Zoë naps because that’s when I prepare to teach. I can’t blog after the girls are in bed because by that point it’s difficult for me to string sentences together, and besides, that’s when I hang with D and drink my wine and watch something on television (or read or prepare more for teaching if I must).

For now, I’ll leave you with this conversation I had with Stella a few days ago. We were in the bathroom, and she was getting ready for bed. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and she stood on her stool ready to wash her hands. (Chubby, sitting-up-by-herself Zoë was downstairs with D.)

Stella turned to me and said, “What if we didn’t have bladders?”

I smiled. “I guess the pee would just run out of us, wouldn’t it?”

“Like dogs?”

“Well,” I said, “dogs actually have bladders. It seems like they don’t, doesn’t it? Because they’re always peeing outside?”

“Yeah,” she said, then looked at me and raised her eyebrows (an expression that means she has a fact for me.) “Mice don’t have bladders,” she said seriously.

“Really?” I didn’t actually know.

“My Gram told me,” Stella said.

“Oh?” I said. My mom, a former second-grade teacher, would hardly make that up, would she?

“Yeah,” Stella said, lathering the soap between her palms until it was frothy, “Snakes don’t have bladders either.”


“Yeah, but I figured that out by myself. I looked in a dictionary.” She turned to me again, hands dripping with soap. “And,” she said, eyes wide, “in the picture, there was a silver thing coming out near its belly, and it was poop and it was silver because snakes eat metal sometimes.” She shrugged then, in that off-hand way she does, like it’s no big deal, all of these things she knows.

“Wow,” I said, loving her in all of her invention and curiosity. I was pretty sure snakes didn’t eat metal, but I really had no idea whether snakes and mice had bladders. Is this something most people know?

I love it when Stella comes to me with a fact. She loves to begin sentences with, “Mama, did you know…” Often I am ignorant, didn’t know whatever fact (made-up or true) she is sharing with me, so I simply exclaim and nod and encourage her.

And often my daughter is right. This is what I’ve confirmed about snakes:

“Because snakes do not have a urinary bladder, the urine is not stored, and the ureters empty directly in the cloaca.” (And maybe when waste exits the cloaca, it looks silver or at least it did to Stella?)

And mice:

“Mice do not have bladders; they will relieve themselves at will anywhere.”

I learn something new everyday, things I didn’t even know I wanted to learn. And now there is something else for which I can be grateful: we have bladders and we do not relieve ourselves at will anywhere. Think of the mess.

Friday, September 19, 2008

barbie: a windfall

I spent last weekend cleaning and re-cleaning and shopping and re-shopping for parties in honor of Stella, who turned five on Saturday.

Five—it’s hard to believe.

Every year on her birthday, part of me relives those scary days leading up to (and following) her birth. This year, those memories were particularly close to the surface because for the first time since she was born, she was celebrating her birthday on a Saturday. I woke up Friday morning and thought, yes, it was a Friday, five years ago, when I woke up huge and bloated and knew something wasn’t right. It was a Friday when my dad and sister took me to the hospital. (D was in Seattle for a soccer playoff game.) It was a Friday when my blood pressure became dangerously high.

When I woke up at 5:30 with Zoë on Saturday morning, I thought, yes, five years ago I was also awake at 5:30, queasy from magnesium sulfate, waiting to be induced and waiting for D to arrive home on a red-eye flight.

Stella’s birthday was a day of contrasts. I stared at my beautiful, five-year-old daughter as she scurried around our packed house, giggling with her friends, and I wondered: is this the same child as that skinny three-pound baby I delivered? Is this the same child, the one I hovered over for all those weeks in the NICU? I kept trying to hug her, to squeeze her tightly, and she kept wiggling away, saying, her voice full of exasperation, “Mommmmm…..please stop!” I couldn’t help it. I just wanted her to know how much I love her. I wanted to reassure myself—yet again—that she’s okay.

She’s totally okay.

And she’s totally into Barbie. Who knew that five was the age of the Barbie?

For several months now, she has been very “into” the Barbie princess movies, and I have to admit (reluctantly) that I like them, as well. They feature strong young women who save kings and queens from being poisoned, restore fairy kingdoms, and rescue each other from trouble. There are problems with them, of course: Barbie is always very white and very blonde; princes are often stepping in at the last minute for a miraculous save. But the movies stress friendship and believing in yourself and standing up for what you think is right. (Does it sound as though I’m justifying these? I am.)

Stella was at a birthday party a few weeks ago, and her friends (who are twins) each received a Diamond Castle Barbie. This is the newest of the movies. The doll sings, and when she sings, her heart-shaped necklace lights up. When Stella saw these matching Barbies at the birthday party, her eyes sparkled. (I kid you not.) The Diamond Castle Barbie moved to the top of her birthday list.

I shrugged. Oh, alright. I passed the word: she’d like the newest singing Barbie and stuff to go with the newest singing Barbie.

Well, she got that Barbie (and two others). She got Barbie clothes and a Barbie scooter. She got two Barbie movies. She got a Barbie tea set. (I’m probably leaving something Barbie out of this list. Who can keep track?)

A few years ago I hated Barbie. I cringed when Stella got her first one. I didn’t approve. I realize I was being hypocritical. After all, I had played with Barbies. My sisters and I spent endless hours—days, really—enacting complicated stories with our Barbies. We were inventive and imaginative.

Why then was I so against Barbie? Well, mostly it was her physically impossible measurements, the unrealistic body image. I didn’t want to set my daughters up with that as an ideal. But the Barbies of today are a little more realistic. Her oh-so-tall-and-slender physique is still unlikely, true, but they toned it down enough to be anatomically possible.

I still don’t want Barbie’s body to be the ideal for Stella or Zoë, but that’s where conversation comes in, doesn’t it? We’ll talk about what it means to be fit and healthy. We’ll talk about real versus fantasy. We’ll work that part out. (I still do hate their clothes, however. Why would they make such skanky clothes for a Barbie doll? Luckily, I still have some of the clothes my grandma knit and sewed for our Barbies years ago, and I’ve thrown them into the mix to balance the trashy sequined halter tops. But really.)

I’ve caved, I know. Maybe I should be more hard-lined about this. But when I was upstairs yesterday changing Zoë’s diaper and I heard Stella signing along with Alexa, her new Diamond Castle Barbie, I couldn’t help smiling. She loves the dolls. She’ll invent stories and lives for them. She’ll spend hours playing with them. And we’ll just deal with the rest of it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I want to thank all of you who commented on my last post. I was really scared to write about such a divisive issue on this blog because, quite frankly, I like to be liked. I don't like to rock the boat.

In this case, I'm glad I rocked it. I think some good discussion arose from it. I agreed with so many of your comments, and even when I didn't agree, I could understand you. That feels like a first step to me. And this is my hope: that we will not shy away from controversy and that we will begin to really discuss these huge, important issues. I hope that we will talk about reproductive justice in the context of our lives, in the context of faith, and from a historical perspective. I hope we will work to reduce the number of abortions in this country without making abortion criminal. I hope that we will begin to support women and families with real, common-sense public policies. I hope we will educate young people so that they are able to make informed decisions about their sexual lives.

Thank you for reading and thank you for your comments. Once again, I find I'm grateful that I started this blog, and I'm grateful to all of you for reading it.

I'm over at Creative Construction this week. You can check out a much lighter post there.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

a long and controversial post

I’ve been thinking about this post for some time. I was going to write it last January, on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but then I was busy being pregnant and tired and sick with a series of debilitating colds. I was going to do it in February, when I wrote a review of Kathryn Trueblood’s The Baby Lottery for mamazine, but I was still pregnant and sick. And then sweet Zoë was born and I was just too busy. It was easy to put off because I didn’t actually want to write the post. I knew it would cause controversy, and I was worried about alienating readers.

I can’t put it off any longer. I wouldn’t feel right. I can’t put it off any longer because it’s not only a personal issue, it’s a political one, and it’s an election year. And I can’t put it off any longer because McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin, like McCain, is anti-choice. This doesn’t surprise me—he wouldn’t have chosen her otherwise. Why does it bother me so much, then, that she is what she is? Is it because she doesn’t think abortion should be legal even in the case of rape? Is it because she went so far to say that she would not allow her own daughter to get an abortion if she had been raped? Is it that she says abortion is wrong in every case (except when a woman’s life is in danger), but opposes comprehensive sex education for young people, upholding that abstinence-only is the only sex education that kids should get? (Perhaps her own daughter would not be pregnant if she had received fact-based sex ed. Just a thought.) Is it because she failed to pass legislation that would support single parents by cutting funding for teen mothers in her state?

All of the above. All of these things bother me. And it bothers me that she claims some sort of moral high ground on abortion and everything else because she calls herself a Christian.

I hate to break it to her, but most religious Americans believe in treating woman as responsible moral decision makers. They believe in supporting women and families. They believe that abortion is a decision between a woman and her God. Indeed, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism all have official statements in support of reproductive choice.

Clergy even fought for a woman’s right to choose abortion before abortion was legal. Prior to Roe v. Wade, a group of clergy in New York established what was called the Clergy Counseling Service on Abortion, helping women find safe abortions. The counseling service expanded to include over 2,000 clergy nationwide, and after Roe v. Wade, became what is known today as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. If you have never seen From Danger to Dignity, a documentary film about the Clergy Consultation Service and the struggle to legalize abortion in this country, watch it. Watch it. Watch it—especially if you born after 1973.

Abortion, you see, is not a black and white issue. We like to say it is because in America things have to be bad or good, right or wrong. But that’s not really how we live. We live complicated, muddy, very gray lives. And the decisions we make about reproduction are also complicated, muddy, and very gray.

There are two books I’ve been thinking about in relation to this issue: Kathryn Trueblood’s The Baby Lottery and Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise. Trueblood’s novel is about five women, college friends in their late thirties, who find their relationships strained when one of them, Charlotte, decides to have a second-trimester abortion after delaying the decision in the hope that her husband will change his mind.

I like what Kathryn Trueblood said last winter, when I spoke to her on the phone about the book:

“Most people have some ambivalence about abortion, and are at least a little conflicted about it, but we never talk about those feelings, and it was important to me to present some of those feelings here. I think we, as a country, have not progressed in our discussion of abortion.”

The novel records the voices of Charlotte’s four friends as they struggle to bridge the gap between what they should feel and what they do feel about Charlotte’s decision. Charlotte is an alcoholic and wouldn’t make a very good mother. She’s in a sad, lonely marriage. But she could have terminated earlier, no? I went back and forth, disliking her and feeling sorry for her. It’s complicated. It’s muddy. There is no black and white in this story, just gray, and that’s why I respect it. It felt real to me.

Penny Wolfson’s book is a memoir about her son, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The book is about watching him grow up and deteriorate at the same time. It’s about genetics and what it means to know oneself on a molecular level. I have posted about her essay of the same title, which is one of my very favorite essays. The memoir is very good, as well, though I didn’t love it the way I love the essay. (I think this has to do with the longer form, and what happens when you turn an essay into a memoir.) I do think it is an important memoir, however. One of my favorite parts is the chapter in which Wolfson is pregnant with her third child. Girls are carriers of the disease, but it only affects boys. If prenatal testing shows the fetus is a boy and has Duchenne—a fifty percent chance if it's a boy—she will terminate.

In this chapter, Wolfson responds to a column by Anna Quindlen in which Quindlen states her opposition to amniocentesis, saying, “The only compelling argument anyone had made to us for amnio, which is not entirely without risk, was made by my doctor, who asked us to consider the possibility that we could not devote sufficient time to the needs of the children we have now if we were looking after those of someone so much needier. We considered that argument, and let it go. Having more than one child always means a willingness either to give less to the others or to stretch yourself more.”

Wolfson responds:

“I don’t completely disagree. But I am still, somehow, furious. If she’d had a child with a genetic disease, I think, she might not have felt the way she did. She might have known more about stretching herself, about how there are limits. How easy to think in black and white ways when the gray things haven’t occurred yet! If the gray stuff hasn’t happened, you can feel free to have that third baby or fourth or as many as you like. The future seems open.”

When she contemplates an abortion, she says, “Whatever pain, physical and otherwise, I can imagine from such a procedure pales beside the vision of another boy with muscular dystrophy, another boy genetically programmed to degenerate.”

(She did not end up terminating. The CVS showed her son would not have Duchenne.)

Wolfson is very brave, and I dare anyone to judge her. How can we judge something we have not lived? Unfortunately, we do it all the time. (I’m guilty of it, as well.) But this is part of the problem: we lack empathy. We lack understanding. We seem unable to move beyond our own narrow experiences in the world and imagine being in someone else’s shoes. This is a dangerous way to be.

Back to Palin: Another thing I dislike about her is how she uses her son (if, indeed, he is her son), who has Down syndrome, as part of her pro-life platform. I know hundreds of pro-choice women who would choose not to terminate a pregnancy because of Down syndrome. Pro-choice women and pro-choice families make this decision every day. It is the decision D and I would have made, and while I was pregnant with Zoë, we decided against the testing because we knew we would not terminate our pregnancy because of Down syndrome. This does not make me any less pro-choice. (Know that I would have terminated, however, if our twenty-week ultrasound had showed fetal anomalies incompatible with life.)

I like what Kate Trump O’Connor says at the end of her Brain, Child essay “Not One of Those Mothers,” which is about being the mother to a son who has Down syndrome:

“Since Thomas’ birth, I have struggled with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the increasingly early prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. I do not want to impose on the personal choices of other, and yet I do not want fear—the fear of difference and the fear of our own inadequacy—to make life and death decisions for us. We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s something Thomas, with his determination and persistence, shows me every day.”

Abortion is never an easy choice. I don’t know anyone who takes it lightly. I don’t know any pro-choice person who is pro-abortion. I think, as a nation, we need to do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions, and there are ways of doing this: by making contraception, family planning services, and emergency contraception available and affordable; by providing people living wage jobs and the resources they need to start a family if they choose; by providing holistic, comprehensive sex education to all of our young people.

It’s a muddy, complicated issue, so let’s address it as such. Let’s not force it into one-line slogans. Let’s not make it about religious people versus secular people. Let’s give the real lived experiences of women and families space. Let’s listen to their stories. Let’s try to understand each other and be empathetic. Let’s support common-sense public policies that will give women and families real choices. And as we do all of the above, let us not forget that making abortion illegal won’t reduce the number of abortions; it will simply kill women.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

six unspectacular things about me

I was tagged by Ellen at A Girl’s Garden of Menopause, which I love, to list six unspectacular things about me. This won’t be difficult.

Here they are:

  1. I am almost always tired.
  2. I am newly addicted to granola bars (any size or flavor).
  3. I want to be a gardener, but I hate to weed.
  4. I finally have wireless internet at home and no longer have to pirate my neighbor’s wireless. (They cut me off, so I had no choice.) Note: I don't think they cut me off on purpose. Regardless, it had been a year, so it was time.
  5. I love Neil Diamond, especially the really old stuff.
  6. It’s difficult for me to listen to music and think at the same time.

Meme Terms & Conditions
1. Link the person who tagged you
2. Mention the rules on your blog
3. List 6 unspectacular things about you
4. Tag 6 other bloggers by linking them

I tag:


Monday, August 18, 2008

how far is the ocean from here

I’m here at the coffee shop near my house, the one where I wrote the majority of Ready for Air, and it’s exactly where I need to be. The sun is streaming in the windows and I’m all by myself (with the exception of the other customers, of course, but I don’t have to carry them around and rock them. Hell, I don’t even have to talk to them. It’s delightful.)

I will usually keep this time sacred for work on the book, etc., but today I just had to start my morning writing with this post about my friend Amy Shearn’s debut novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here.

I met Amy in a fiction seminar at the University of Minnesota, and the first time I read her writing, I knew she’d be famous one day. She’s that good. It’s no surprise, then, that I love her debut novel. Her prose is so tight and lyrical, and I was immediately sucked into the life of Susannah Prue, the young surrogate mother who leaves Chicago for the Southwest just days before her due date. Susannah’s car ends up breaking down in the middle of the desert at the Thunder Lodge motel, where she interrupts the quiet lives of Marlon and Char Garland and their beautiful 17-year-old son, Tim, who has special needs.

There are two narrative lines—one set in the Southwest at the Thunder Lodge and the other set in Chicago. The latter follows the development of Susannah’s relationship with Kit and Julian, who paid her to carry their baby, and describes the events leading up to Susannah’s flight from Chicago. By the end of the book, these two lines merge, with tragic results.

From the first page, I was drawn in to the arid landscape of the Southwest, which is so pervasive and powerful that it almost becomes another character in the story: “There the horizon had a weight she hadn’t know a horizon could have; a plain unvaried by cactus or tree, unstirred by lizard or coyote, undimpled by even a shadow, only here and there the slightest swell of hills.”

It’s a triumph of a first novel, a delight to read. Amy took some time to answer a few questions for me. Here is our e-interview:

Kate: Your language is so rich. Can you talk a little about your process? Do you wait for the perfect sentence or do you get the writing out and then revise? Or a combination?

Amy: It's really a combination. I tend to write slowly and obsessively, so that a lot of the time a sentence comes out pretty close to finished. My favorite moments of writing are sitting at my desk staring off into space and trying to think of the exact right word or image. But I think this obsession with getting the sentence perfect can be a form of procrastination, so I try to convince myself to move on after maybe 3 sentence rewrites to avoid getting mired in the never-quite-done-ness of the language. And then of course I go back later and tinker some more.

Kate: Can you talk a little about the using an omniscient narrator? Did you begin writing the book this way or did this develop later in the process?

Amy: When I started writing the book it was all close third person, very much inside Susannah Prue’s head. But about halfway through this started making me feel a bit claustrophobic. Not only that, but Susannah isn’t necessarily the best person to listen to all the time. She’s not terribly good at empathizing with others, though she tries. So I ended up feeling like I needed all the different perspectives in order to really tell the story. Some of the most minuscule dips into other perspectives -- when you suddenly get a paragraph from a passerby, for example -- were inspired by the shifting point of view in Mrs. Dalloway. I loved the way Woolf employed this device, and felt that it made the fictional world feel more full while also offering even more perspectives on the main character herself -- not just how people close to her see her, but how strangers see her, too.

Kate: How did you begin working on HFITOFH? Did you know you wanted to write about a surrogate mother?

Amy: It really started with this image of a pregnant woman driving through the desert, and a feeling that somehow the child wasn’t hers. The process of writing the book was really about me explaining this image and the mysteries behind it to myself.

I was fascinated by the idea of surrogacy in the same way that I’m fascinated by all of those weird things the human body does that almost seem like science fiction but actually are real. Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, organ transplants, even just your everyday average pregnancy -- the human body is so amazing and bizarre. That, and I’d also been writing lots of stories for my graduate thesis that involved people trying and failing to care for one another, so I guess I was still playing with that theme.

Kate: It seems that you wrote this incredibly fast. What is your writing schedule? (On Zulkey you said you don’t ever write on the weekends. Can you talk a little about why writing needs to be treated like a job?)

Amy: That’s funny that you say that, since I feel like I actually write very slowly. I’ll sit down for two hours and come away with a single page, or less. But if you do that every day, 5 days a week, for a year or two, then voila, you’ve got a draft. For me, writing pretty much only happens if I’m disciplined about making time for it. But then I also need weekends to see my husband and friends and do weekendy things. It’s all about balance.

When I was writing HFITOFH I was very strict about writing in the mornings, 5:30-7:30, before work. It’s a little easier now that I only work 4 days a week, so I have an entire day to devote to writing and can combine that with the early mornings. My Fridays are sacrosanct: just writing, all day, until I collapse! My ideal schedule would be writing from about 6-11 every day, but that hasn’t quite aligned with real life yet. We’ll see.

Kate: Can you describe the editorial process? (How much did you have to revise/change the manuscript after it was sold? Can you also talk a little about what it’s like to work with an editor?)

Amy: I think I was very lucky in that I got magically matched up with an editor, Sally Kim, who understood and loved the book in many ways better than I did. She’s just a miraculously careful and intuitive reader. First she gave me general notes on the shape of the story, and suggestions on which of the characters could be better developed. My editing process was probably unusual in that I added more than I cut. Scenes and backstory were added to flesh out certain characters.

After this general first pass Sally gave me really detailed line notes, plus her thoughts on what I’d changed so far. I don’t think every editor gives line notes, but they were such a pleasure to have, and her eagle-eyed attention made me feel so much less nervous about sending this thing out into the world. Finally there was one last pass from her, then the copy edits, and then the proofreading marks. All told, I ended up rereading my book about 1,000 times, until I felt like I could have recited it by heart. It was a rigorous, exhausting, and sometimes tedious process, because I got so sick of every last word, but it was also a wonderful experience, one which taught me a lot about writing and novel-making.

Kate: What was the most valuable part of your MFA program? How did it prepare you to begin writing this book? (Because you began writing it almost immediately after the program, no?)

Amy: I did begin this book right after the program. A few weeks after graduating my husband and I moved to New York and it was here that I started writing the book. I remember wanting to get the grad school voices out of my head and just trying to writing something freely, without thinking of anyone ever reading it or judging it or anything. I think a lot of the energy of the book comes from me thinking, feh, I’m just going to write something I like and who cares if no one ever reads it.

That said, grad school was immensely helpful. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers like Charlie Baxter and Steven Polansky who really pushed me and made me think about what I was writing and why. One of the most helpful experiences of all was having Maria Fitzgerald as my advisor for this novel I was writing. Over one summer, she basically put me through novel-writing boot camp, encouraging me to rewrite and rejigger and reconsider again and again. That novel ended up getting revised into oblivion (my fault, not hers, because I listened to too many people’s advice -- an easy pitfall of the writing workshop), but I feel like I gained some sort of muscle memory that made it possible to write HFITOFH.

Oh, and I shouldn’t leave out my classmates. I arrived at my MFA program expecting a certain degree of snobbery and pretentiousness that turned out to be, in my class at least, entirely missing. My classmates were these smart and thoughtful readers, and there seemed to be an overall emphasis on real feeling rather than flashy prose; sincerity rather than cynical glibness. I tend to go for flashy prose, actually, and probably a bit of the cynical glibness too, so I learned a lot from this down-to-earth emphasis on feeling and sincerity. So many readers of my book have talked about how much they loved the characters, and I don’t know that I knew how to be as sympathetic to my characters before the program, if that makes any sense.

And of course, I met Kate Hopper in my MFA program! That was pretty valuable.

Kate: Gee, thanks, Amy.

This is a lovely novel. Amy is also partly responsible for my new morning writing schedule—her 5:30-7:30 schedule helped inspire me. So thank you for that, as well, Amy!

Sunday, August 17, 2008


I’ve been in such a funk this summer, which is unlike me because I love summer. I love the green and the heat (within reason) and the long days. But the days have been so very long with the two girls, and I’m always scrambling to squeeze in one more thing. I have been taking Zoë with me to work for a couple of months now, and frankly, it doesn’t work. She usually falls asleep in the car on the way there, but she wakes up after about ½ hour, and then I nurse her and put her on the floor next to my desk or hold her as I type. I share the office, which is slightly larger than a broom closet, with two other people, and while they are gracious about my crying and fussy baby, I know that they must want to wring my neck or Zoë’s neck or both of our necks. So, after another ½ hour, I pack up my things and the baby and head home. Zoë sometimes falls asleep again on the way home, only to wake up as I pull up in front of our house. By the time I nurse her again and bounce her and get her ready to fall asleep for real (whatever that means), it’s time to go pick up Stella from whatever camp I’ve enrolled her in for the week. Sometimes Zoë falls asleep for a couple of hours in the late afternoon, during which I work a little and play with Stella. Later, we have dinner, Stella showers (she has declared herself too old for baths) and we read books before bed. All of these things are accompanied by Zoë’s fussing and crying and Stella’s late-afternoon whining. (Sometimes Zoë cries so much while I’m reading to Stella that I just put her in her crib in the other room and let her wail as we make our way through the three books of the night.) When I finally get them both to sleep (about 8:30), I pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the porch and stare out at the street, semi-comatose. This is when D usually gets home. We talk for a bit and often watch an episode of The Wire, which is fabulous and heartbreaking. Then I go to bed, wake up three times to nurse Zoë, then begin the day all over again.

Things will be easier in a couple of weeks because D won’t have to coach in the evenings anymore, so he’ll be home to help with dinner and kids and bedtime. Also, I’ll be done with my job in two weeks, and that will be a relief.

But the thing I can do in order to de-funk myself is to carve out serious writing time, and I’m determined to do this. D has agreed to go into work a little late so that I can write everyday from 7-9 a.m. It’s the only way I will make progress on the essay I’ve begun. I also need to dive back into my book because I finally figured out what it is really about. If I were one of my students, I would have pressured myself into this discovery about, um, a year ago, when I finished the damn thing. In workshops I always ask them to identify for the author what the piece is really about. But I failed to heed my own advice, failed to answer my own questions. (I hate when I do this.)

But this morning while I was changing Zoë’s diaper (after waking many nights feeling despondent about my “this is no market for this” book), I realized that the book is really about learning to live with uncertainty. Having a preemie is the situation, of course, but the real story is about uncertainty, control, and having faith that I will be able to handle the unexpected. (If you haven’t read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, you should—she’s the one who makes the distinction between a memoir’s situation and its real story.) Knowing what the book is about won’t change the perception of my book as a preemie book, of course, but it will make the book better, and this makes me feel hopeful again.

The other thing that makes me feel hopeful is that D will be back tonight (he’s been gone all weekend), and tomorrow I’ll start my morning writing. It will help snap me out of my funk. I’m sure of that.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

what vacation?

I am up north this week with the girls and my mom and grandpa and my older sister and her fiancé. (Up north is what we say in Minnesota to mean anything north of the Twin Cities.)

On Saturday, I led my “Writing Family” workshop in Park Rapids, and it was so much fun. Out of the 21 participants, 3 were men. Men in class—who knew? I haven’t had a man in one of my classes since I taught at the University of Minnesota. And really, those undergraduates weren’t really men yet—they inhabited that nebulous space between boyhood and manhood. Something like being a pre-teen, I guess. Pre-man?

Anyway, it was fun on Saturday to have a little thoughtful, writerly testosterone in class.

We covered a lot of ground in 3 ½ hours: we discussed the use of concrete details and how to develop three-dimensional characters, strong scenes and believable dialogue. We also discussed ways for them to tap into their reflexive voices. They wrote a lot, and they were good. It’s so inspiring for me to sit in a room with a group of people writing at the same time. You can almost see the creativity rising like steam from their bent heads. It made me excited to begin my fall Mother Words class.

I would like to say that I’m now spending the rest of the week relaxing, but it’s not very relaxing to be out of town with my two darling girls but not with D. He’s home, working, and feeling bad that he’s not up here with us. As a former teacher, it’s been very hard on him (and me) that he’s working so much this summer. We’re used to coming up here for a couple of weeks every summer. Every morning he would golf, then play with Stella in the afternoon, and fish in the evening. (And we would cuddle and go for walks and sometimes sneak into town for a movie, just the two of us.) But now he’s at home, working ten to twelve hour days. And when he gets home from work, he’s been working around the house: re-grouting the bathroom window and assembling the crib in Stella’s room. (Zoë has been in a co-sleeper in our room up until now.) He’s talking about painting the porch, as well, but that seems excessive.

So I’m up here and it’s gorgeous, but I miss D and I miss his help. My family members, and especially my mom, are so helpful with Stella and Zoë, but I always feel as though they are doing me a huge favor—which they are—by taking Stella down to the beach or walking Zoë until she falls asleep. I don’t feel I can say, “Hey, can you watch both of my kids while I go down to the dock and read?” And I know it can be hard to have a very active almost-five-year-old constantly saying, “Auntie Sara, Auntie Sara, Auntie Sara, look at me, look at me!” Not to mention how hard it can be on people’s nerves to have a screaming baby around.

Speaking of my screaming baby, she is now sleeping sounding in her stroller next to me, and maybe I’ll even have time to finish this post before she wakes up. The little dear is five months old today, and this seems impossible. How did it happen so quickly? (The days don’t go quickly, mind you—they are sometimes excruciatingly slow. But the weeks and months seem to fly by. That funny trick of time—how elastic and changeable it is.)

Zoë loves to grab for things now, especially when I am trying to feed her rice cereal or mashed blueberries and apples. The food gets everywhere, and when I try to loosen her vice grip on the spoon, she lets out a piercing pterodactyl cry and glares at me. I sense that she will be just as stubborn as her sister. Where did this come from, this steel will? Hmmm.

Ah, I can hear her now, waking up, so I’ll sign off and post this now or it will be days before I get back to it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Evan Kamida

I have been feeling heavy and sad all week, ever since I learned that Vicki Forman’s son, Evan, died unexpectedly.

I have never met Vicki in person nor spoken to her on the phone, and yet, I feel as if I know her. I suppose this speaks to the power of her writing. It was through her blog and her column at Literary Mama that I got to know dear Evan. So my heart is heavy as I think of her and her family and their terrible loss.

If you’d like to contribute to a memorial, please go here. You can also honor Evan by photographing flowers on a swing. Learn more here.

I hold my daughters especially close this week and will not take anything for granted.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

a quartet of mothers

Nanci Olesen of MOMbo fame will be performing "A Quartet of Mothers: The Familiar, Desperate Edge of Everyday Motherhood" this weekend at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis as part of the Fresh Ink Series.

Two plays are part of the event: "I'm Telling" and "Child of God." Shows begin at 8 p.m. tonight, Friday, and Saturday, and at 7 p.m. on Sunday.

Nanci says, "If you aren't a mom, you have one. Come see and hear us!"

The Illusion Theater is on the eighth floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"6 or something"

Stella came home from soccer camp yesterday with a huge grin that revealed a gaping hole where her left front tooth had been just hours before.

“I can’t believe it! You’re such a big girl!” I gave her a crushing hug and demanded the story.

She reenacted the biting of a baby carrot and the way her tooth “fell right out.” She left out the parts about how she was covered in blood and she cried and cried, but D filled me in on that later.

Every fifteen minutes for the rest of the afternoon, she would jump up and run to the mirror to check the gap in her teeth. “I look like a real big girl,” she said proudly. “People are going to think I’m six or something!” Her eyes widened and she shrugged. “I just look like the biggest girl ever!”

She has seemed like such a big girl to me lately. Last week, she spent mornings at art camp and this week she’s at soccer camp. (Monday, she wore her new cleats, shin guards, bright red socks, and the Boca Juniors uniform that her uncle brought back for her from Argentina. I braided her long hair into two braids, and she looked so grown-up!)

She wasn’t too keen on art camp at first, and even told me in the car that “it just isn’t that interesting” because they were only drawing things, they weren’t getting to “make things.” But that changed mid-week, when they each made a magic bird. And by the end of the week, she had made a sparkly magic wand and a fairy house. (Camp ended up being interesting after all.)

Part of her seeming grown up is her decidedly teenage attitude, which rears its ugly head now and again. (She even said, “duh” to me the other day. I’m so sure.) This sort of thing makes me cringe and think I’ll have to grow much thicker skin in the next decade to prepare for the real teenage years.

But she is also incredibly sweet and verbal, and she loves being a big sister. She makes Zoë laugh and laugh by jumping and twirling across the living room, and she rocks and sings to Zoë when Zoë is fussy. And always, my heart breaks a little when she says, “You’re the best mama in the whole world and daddy is the best daddy and Zoë is the best baby!”

The other day her cousin Espen, who is two and a half, was over, and the two of them were sitting at the small table in the dining room, eating chicken nuggets. I walked out of the room, and I heard Espen say, “Ste-lla? Do you think I’m cute?”

“Of course you’re cute, Espen,” she replied quickly, almost indignantly. Then they both started to giggle.

I’m so proud of her. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to go off to soccer and art camps when I was not yet five. Of course, she didn’t have much of a choice, but still, I’m proud of her for going and learning new things and meeting new people all by herself. I love my big, big girl.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

i'm back

Sorry for my recent silence—we just returned from nine days upstate New York. We spent the first week at my aunt’s cabin in the Adirondacks, then drove down to the Catskills for my closest friend’s wedding.

There is nothing like leaving the Twin Cities and the day-to-day grind of life to put things back in perspective for me. My aunt’s cabin, which is on Indian Lake in the Adirondacks, is second only to my mom’s cabin on my list of favorite places. I love the deep, cold lake and the way the green mountains seem to rise straight up from its dark waters. I love the long, steep walk back to the cabin after being down at the lake. I love making hearty soups in her tiny kitchen and eating out on the deck in the chill of evening under tall trees. I love that there is no cell phone coverage or internet access.

Stella spent the days paddling around on her kick board with floaties on her arms and Zoë was happy as a clam as long as she was in the Baby Björn and moving. Though the days were sometimes long, it was wonderful to be together as a whole family and not have to worry about juggling the two kids on my own.

The wedding was here, and it was lovely. Claire and I have been best friends since 7th grade, so prior to the weekend, I spent some time thinking about all the things we have experienced together over the last twenty-some years and how integral her friendship has been in shaping who I am. Together we shared in the silliness of early adolescence, the challenges of high school and college and the huge changes of early adulthood. Our friendship has not always been an easy one, but it has proved strong enough to weather the challenging times, and for that I am extremely grateful. She is so dear to me, and I was so happy to be a part of her marriage to Ed, whom I also love.

My gratitude for my family and my friends has helped make me feel so much calmer as I re-enter daily life. I’m trying to be more deliberate about when I will work and when I will just play, and be more realistic about how much I can accomplish with my writing. (We’ll see if I can sustain this more balanced perspective.)

But I also want to give a shout out to all of you, my more recent friends. I am so grateful for your words and for these friendships that have blossomed over the internet. Thank you!

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I’ve been feeling so stretched lately—juggling the two girls and work and life. D has been working long days, and sometimes I feel like screaming. (I did, in fact, scream in the car the other day when Zoë was wailing and Stella was whining. I just screamed, and I scared the sh*t out of Stella with my outburst. A really proud moment for me.)

Luckily, we got away to my mom’s cabin last weekend—all four of us! I spent months there every summer as a child, and it’s still one of my favorite places. Stella loves it as much as I do, and she was so excited. She chattered the WHOLE WAY (4 hours) up there, asking, “Are we there yet? How much farther? When are we going to get there?”

I went running a couple of times, read a little and napped. Monday morning was gorgeous. D and I sat on the dock drinking coffee as Stella threw pieces of bread into the lake for the sunfish. (Zoë was up at the cabin being bounced by grandma.) It was breezy, and I just lay on my back, listening to the rustling of the Aspen trees, their leaves waving in the blue blue sky like a thousand tiny hands.

Then D and Stella and I went for a canoe ride and saw two bald eagles perched in an oak tree. One flew off as we approached, but the other sat there, head tilted to the side, watching us paddle around the point. A bald eagle never fails to make me draw breath. I can’t get over the fact there were so few of them—I never saw even one in Minnesota as I was growing up—and now I can canoe 100 feet away from one.

I didn’t have a chance to pick up any of the wonderful novels you suggested, so I took up a book that has long been on my shelf: Before and After Zachariah by Fern Kupfer. It is a memoir about what happens to Kupfer and her family when her son, Zachariah, is born severely brain-damaged. It’s heartbreaking. But that doesn’t even begin to describe it. As I read, there was a jabbing pain in my chest, and I felt, quite literally, as if my heart were breaking.

As you know from the books I discuss here, I love honesty. I have so much respect for a writer who writes the hard truth, even when this truth may cast her in a less than flattering light. Kupfer is not afraid to put it all out there—the anger, the sadness, the way that Zachariah’s condition wreaked havoc on her family. She’s not afraid of writing anything (or so it seems), and for this, I respect her tremendously.

At two years, four months, Zachariah is institutionalized. He cannot walk or stand or sit or talk. He cannot hold up his head. His developmental abilities are that of an infant. He cries constantly, only ceases when he is being held and rocked. Kupfer and her husband pass him back and forth, becoming more and more distant and angry with each other. For years they don’t get answers from the medical community to their long list of scary questions.

She writes: “There is a part of me that unequivocally rejects Zach, rejects who and what he is, as part that turns from him, even as I hold him in my arms, delighted to feel his breath against my neck, to kiss his face.”

She writes: “I’m not sure anything we’ve done for Zach has really helped him—I know it hasn’t in any significant way. What has helped me more than anything else has been talking to other women who have handicapped children, a cruel common denominator that cuts across the divisions of economics, of education, of social class.”

She writes: “Often I’m angry at strangers. Dull, sloppy women in supermarkets blithely wheeling their normal kids. Sometimes any woman with normal kids seems to me carelessly unaware of her good fortune. Last summer in Virginia I was sitting with Jan, Eddie and Zach in their strollers, waiting to go into the therapy room. Across the room a woman was chasing a toddler who looked teasingly over his shoulder as he ran, shrieking with delight. But she meant business. When she caught him, she smacked his behind several times until his giggles turned to tears. “Stay put,” she commended, putting him down in a chair, “and don’t move. Don’t you ever move.” Jan and I sat looking at our children. Jan turned to me with clenched teeth: “I feel like shaking her,” she said.”

This book once again confirms for me the need to respect people’s lived experiences. There are those who judged the Kupfers for institutionalizing Zach. But how can anyone judge her, them, when they didn’t live their lives, didn’t survive the day-to-day with Zach and his many needs?

Some of the most heartbreaking parts of the book for me were the scenes with Zach’s older sister, Gabi. How faithfully she loved him, how graceful she was, at age five, when all of the attention was focused on Zach. At one point she says to her mother, “I’m just feeling very hostile toward Zach…I think he gets entirely too much attention around here. He’s all you ever talk about. Sometimes I just feeling like yelling, ‘You dumb baby, you stupid-liar-dumb baby.’”

Kupfer agrees to let Gabi yell that to him the next morning, but the next morning, when Zach wakes crying, Gabi calls her mother instead: “He needs you.” When Kupfer asks Gabi if she wants to yell at him, she says, “’No, I don’t feel like it anymore.” Then thoughtfully, ‘Maybe just telling you was enough.’”

This book was first published in 1982, and reprinted in 1988 and 1998, so the language she uses to describe her son’s condition is not the language most people in the special needs community would use today, but I hope no one will hold this against her.

Near the end of the book, Fern Kupfer addresses her readers: “Those of you who are reading this and have normal children, those whiney miracles, fall to your knees by their bedsides; let gratitude burn forever in your breast, an eternal pilot light.”

I promise, Fern, to be grateful. I promise not to scream in the car anymore. I promise to think of Zach each time I begin to complain about my hectic life with two healthy kids.