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Monday, April 28, 2008

on narrative urgency and single parenting

I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative urgency the last couple of weeks because I recently went to see Charles Baxter talk about and read from his new novel, The Soul Thief. (I dragged both Stella and Zoe out in the cold so I could get my literary fix.) He used the term narrative urgency, which makes sense because The Soul Thief is thick with it. I didn’t want to put the book down. He, quite simply, rocks.

Then I was reading Beth Kephart’s blog, and she posted about a similar thing: the use of present tense and the need for forward movement. Or rather, how you must be sure that you continue the forward momentum of your book or your writing will become precious. (She quoted McEwan.)

It makes me want to dive back into my memoir and make sure I maintain the sense of narrative urgency until the end of the book. I think I do, but I guess I’ll have to see. And if it lags in the middle, what does one do about it?

Am I obsessing about narrative urgency in my book because my life currently seems to lack narrative urgency? Because I am definitely challenged in that department.

I know what you’re thinking: Kate, be in the moment. Enjoy these precious times. (How many people have said that to me in the last week?)

I am enjoying many moments, every day. It seems I could stare at Zoe’s sleeping face for hours, counting her expressions, each of which she inhabits for mere seconds. I can’t get enough of her chubby face when it breaks into a smile. Seriously adorable. And I love to listen to Stella singing along to her princess movies when she doesn’t think I can hear her or when she tells me stories about how the Huns are coming and she has to protect her babies. (This is after she has carried all her stuffed animals and baby dolls downstairs and lined them up on the couch under blankets.) Zoe and I, sitting in the nursing chair will, sadly, always be killed by the Huns.

What I’m not enjoying is how tired I am. Or the way Zoe screams—she’s inconsolable sometimes—even when I’ve bounced her and turned on the water in the kitchen and nothing works and my knees ache and my quads are sore from all that bouncing and carrying on. I’m exhausted. It doesn’t help that D was gone again for 5 days. Single parenthood, frankly, sucks.

I was talking to a friend on the phone the other day as I walked Zoe around the neighborhood in an effort to get her to fall asleep. (It wasn’t working.) Zoe was screaming and I started to laugh. My friend said, “Oh good. You sound relaxed.”

I don’t know if “relaxed” is the word I’d choose. Unless relaxed is a state of mind one inhabits somewhere on the path from exhausted and comatose. No, it’s not relaxed. That’s not right. It’s more like just putting your head down and doing what you have do—picking up the Barbies and stuffed animals and trying not to snap at the sassy four-year-old you love as you coo and bounce the fussy baby you love. And then, as you’re doing what you have to do, the only thing left to do is to laugh because otherwise you feel crazy.

Friday, April 18, 2008

when the escape might not be worth it

My darling Zoe is getting progressively fussier. It’s the must-be-bounced-and-carried-or-nursed-to-fall-and-stay-asleep kind of fussy. Yesterday I desperately needed a nap, but she wouldn’t stay asleep, so finally I gave up and strapped her in the bouncy chair so at least I could shower. Then, I wanted so badly to check e-mail and maybe even write a sentence or two—A SENTENCE, people. I wasn’t even shooting for a whole paragraph—so I drove her around the neighborhood until she fell asleep, then I snapped the car seat into the stroller and took her to a cafe. She slept for all of twelve minutes before she began screaming. I tried to nurse her, but she pulled back, apparently in pain. I was awkward with the nursing because I was sitting on a tall stool and trying not to flash the whole restaurant, so I didn’t notice until I had gotten her back in her car seat (still screaming because nothing I did would calm her) and frantically packed up my laptop that the front of my shirt was soaked with milk. Lovely.

I was finally able to calm her down when we got home, and she fell asleep for twenty minutes before we had to go pick up Stella at pre-school. More screaming, more of me singing the Twinkle variations.

But there was escape at the end of the day. I had a hefty gift certificate for a salon down the street, and I had decided that I would get my hair highlighted. This is a big deal for me—I’ve never colored my hair. So I pumped, nursed Zoe until she fell asleep, and passed her off to D, wishing him luck as I dashed (as fast as I could) out the door.

I left with enough time before the appointment to get a glass of wine at the fancy restaurant near our house, and I was giddy as the waitress seated me at a quiet table. I ordered a glass of Pinot Gris and a cabbage, beet, and bleu cheese salad. Then I opened Charles Baxter’s new novel, The Soul Thief. What could be more divine than a crisp, minerally glass of wine, a salad with bleu cheese, and a perfectly crafted sentence? I was only there for a half hour, but it was heavenly.

Midway through the hair appointment, D called and said that Zoe had been crying for two hours. She did drink a little of the milk, but he couldn’t do anything to calm her. I said I was sorry, but there was nothing I could do—squares of foil protruded from my head like many metallic wings.

D was exhausted when I got home. He was reading to Stella as Zoe wailed. I nursed the poor dear for a long time and she finally fell into deep sleep. She looks so peaceful when she sleeps. All I can do is press my lips to her head and breathe her in.

This morning, when I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, I was startled by my hair. Instead of a washed up ‘80s rock star, I now look like the washed up girlfriend of an ‘80s rock star. I’m not sure this is an improvement.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Knopf poetry and Sharon Olds

As you all know, it's National Poetry Month. And I hope you all know that Knopf will e-mail you one poem every day for the whole month! Yesterday, what was sitting in my inbox? The wonderful "Looking At Them Asleep" by Sharon Olds. So perfect for me right now.

It ends:

oh my Lord how I know
these two. When love comes to me and says
What do you know, I say This girl, this boy.

Read it here.

She got me, again.

Monday, April 14, 2008

reading again

D will be home tonight. He’s been gone for ten days with his new job. I doubt the timing, with Zoe just four weeks old when he left, could have been any worse, but there was nothing we could do about it, so he went.

Stella missed him a ton. Yesterday morning, she was watching The Lion King, and she had gotten to the part of the movie where Simba’s father dies. I was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, when she appeared and clung to my leg, crying, “When is my dad going to come back?” Tears streamed down her face. I felt awful.

I missed him because I love him, of course, but I also missed my partner, my co-parent. You don’t want to know how pissy I was by the end of each day. (Hats off to all the single mothers our there.) I’m exhausted, and all I can say: he owes me, big time.

But the time up north with my mom was restorative (even with all the snow) and it jump-started my reading-mind again. While we were up there, I finished Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father, which I had started before Zoe was born. I liked it very much. Cooper, a middle-aged gay man, is an unlikely writer to be featured on Mother Words: Mothers Who Write, but I have to mention him because I love his writing. I should have included him in my post last fall on writers who rock dialogue. He’s got it down, and in this memoir, the banter between him and his father is wonderful. I can hear it. I can feel it. I also love his essays, which have been featured in Best American Essays, and his memoir, Truth Serum. His sentences are tight, his details alive, and he’s funny, darnit. I laughed out loud more than once reading The Bill from My Father.

I also read some of Grace Paley’s The Collected Stories, which are wonderful for voice, and for minding me how important it is to tell women’s stories, to give voice to our lives. Who can argue with this, from “Debts”:

“It was possible that I did owe something to my own family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.”

Isn’t that what we are trying to do: tell our stories as simply as possible in order to save a few lives?

The third thing I read (in the car on the way home from the cabin, even though I should have been sleeping) was Jon Hassler’s My Staggerford Journal. It’s not a book I would have chosen on my own. My mom, who is a huge Hassler fan, checked it out from the library. She knew Jon Hassler a little, maybe from the years she worked in a bookstore in St. Paul, and when I was young, we would sometimes run into him at the public library in town up north because his cabin was not far from ours.

Anyway, I tore through the book. I love reading about successful writers who didn’t begin writing until their forties. I love reading about how many rejections they received before being published. I hold up their accounts as proof that there is hope for all of us. I also love reading about writers processing their works in progress. I loved the notebooks at the end of Suite Française, and I loved this short journal for the same reason: how wonderful it is to see a writer work out character and plot, muck around in the confusion of a book half-written.

The thing that struck me most about this journal, however, was how incredibly male it was—how incredibly male Hassler was. He had children at home when he first began to write fiction. Granted, they weren’t infants or even young, but they were still there in the house with him. Yet, he was able to take off for a week here and two weeks there. He spent his evenings and weekends writing as far as I could tell. Apparently his wife did all the grocery shopping, all the cooking, all the home stuff. And I thought again how no one ever asks published male writers how they balance fatherhood and writing. This is a standard question I ask of women writers who are mothers, and most reply that they cobble together twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there or get up at 4 am and stay up until one am to finish a chapter after the kids are in bed and the laundry is done.

In January, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kathryn Trueblood, who wrote a wonderful novel The Baby Lottery. (I plan to write more about this here, but you can also read my review of the book on mamazine.) When I asked Kathryn how she balanced motherhood and writing and teaching she said:

“I don’t think balance is the right word to describe what my life has felt like over the years—chaos is more appropriate. I negotiated my tenure-track salary on the phone as my daughter clomped around the house in high heels, flushing the toilet over and over again. But this has taken a toll on me. As women, we are really programmed to take care of other people, but we often forget to really take care of ourselves. Now I have more realistic goals and boundaries. I’m taking a break from novel-writing right now, until my oldest graduates from high school.”

I can’t imagine that Hassler experienced this need to balance writing and fatherhood. From his journal, it appears that writing was his first priority. In the introduction, he admits this. He put his writing before his family, and even says that his marriage couldn’t survive his writing career.

How many writer-mothers do this?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

what happens

when your lovely change of scene gets buried under 19 inches of snow?

  • You stare out the window for hours cursing at the snow that will not stop falling.
  • You become very crabby.
  • Finally, you decide the only way to not go crazy is to actually go out into the blizzard.
  • You try to pull your daughter down the hill to the lake in a sled, but the snow is so deep that sledding is impossible.
  • You sink to above your knees and fall face-first into the drifts. (Your daughter does the same.)
  • Your hair (and your daughter's hair) become matted with snowballs.
  • You throw up your hands and go back inside for hot chocolate.
  • You call a neighbor to plow out the car.
  • You make your four-year-old help you dig sand from the beach and sprinkle it on the driveway so that after two days inside, you can finally escape to town.

So much for spring.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

fresh air

I'm up north with my mom and the girls, and the change of scene helps, though getting ready to leave the house yesterday felt like flying to hell in a very tiny hand basket. I cursed up a storm as I struggled--for forty five minutes--to fold Zoe's co-sleeper into its carrier bag. Meanwhile, Zoe, who has become increasingly gassy and fussy screamed and Stella asked over and over again how long it would be before Grammy arrived. To say I was crabby would be a serious understatement. But when my mom arrived and we had rearranged the car seats for the fourth time, I could do nothing but laugh. Yes, I feel crazy. Yes, it's hard to do anything but juggle my two darlings. But there is nothing I can do about it, so I may as well laugh. (This philosophy won't always work for me, I know, but I'll try to remember that it does help to spontaneously burst into laughter, even if it's a little maniacal.

Once we were in the car and Zoe had stopped crying, I fell fast asleep. (That also helps.)

When we got to the cabin, it was 57 degrees! Stella and I walked down to the lake and threw rocks onto the melting ice, then walked down the road, collecting "sparkly rocks," which are, claro que si, Stella's favorite kind. The sky was the kind of blue you can imagine stepping into. I took deep breaths, filling my lungs with the scent of pine and dirt and melting snow, and I could almost feel the freckles blooming on my cheeks.

Zoe cried and cried last night (her new fussy time) and was awake much of the night, and this is hard on me, of course, but if I can have an hour every day to be outside, soaking up the sun and breathing fresh air, those tough hours are bearable, at least for now.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

a kinder, gentler version

Zoe is 4 weeks old today, which seems impossible. How have four weeks already passed? How have four weeks of me doing nothing but nursing and bouncing a baby just disappeared?

These are hard times for me. I started to feel more like myself at the end of last week—the scary hormone visions (more on these another time) are less vivid and I even read a little last week. Stella seems to be adjusting to life as a big sister. Dinner time is a little more manageable. Zoe is gassier now, but when she smiles (she really smiles, I swear), I press my lips to her downy red hair and feel so lucky. But I’m still so tired and irritable, especially by the end of the day. It doesn’t help that D just started a new job. I’m really excited for him—really—but it doesn’t make me less frustrated with his erratic schedule.

I had this idea in my head (while I was waiting for Zoe to be born) that I would somehow be able to surrender myself completely to these months of caring for my kids, and I’m certainly happy to not be teaching right now and to be on maternity leave from my communications job. But I can’t stop thinking about writing. I can’t stop worrying about not writing. I can’t stop thinking about my manuscript. I fret over essays and stories that are getting rejected and need to be revised and sent out again. I worry about all the books on my self that I’ve been meaning to review on this blog. I can turn off other parts of my work self, but I can never turn off the writer part, and in a way I wish I could put her to rest for a month or so. Be quiet, stop worrying, take this time.

But maybe these moments—when I want to write but can’t—are what make me committed to writing when I can finally get back to it. Before Stella was born I was a writer who rarely wrote. During those long winter months after she was out of the hospital, when we were stuck inside and I was unable to put her down, I couldn’t stop thinking about writing, about the necessity of words. And when I was finally able to go to the coffee shop for a couple of hours, words and images simply poured out of me. I vomited everything onto the computer. A year later I had written half my book. Two years later, I had finished a complete draft.

The truth is that right now I can get only one thing—two things on good days—done each day. On Monday, I went to Target and vacuumed downstairs. Woo-hoo. Yesterday I napped for two hours. Woo-hoo. Today I’m posting this, which is huge because both girls are home with me. I am standing in the kitchen typing while I watch Stella’s soup cook. Stella is watching a semi educational video in the other room and Zoe is sleeping in her car seat. These are stolen moments.

So when would I write? In the evening, I am so crabby and tapped that I all I want to do is watch episodes of The Wire, which I wait impatiently for the mail carrier to deliver. I can’t get up early to write because I’m already up early, feeding the shark.

I know I’m hard on myself—I’ve always been this way. Now would be a perfect time to trade myself in for a kinder, gentler version of me. Is this possible?