The Power of NOW

No, I don’t mean the National Organization for Women. I mean “Now” as in “this present time.” I am learning all about living in the now these days. Having a baby does that. The meaning of this for me is two-fold:

These days, I can only do what I am doing right this second, which is to say that if I am feeding Claire I cannot also unload the dishwasher or make the bed or go running (though I can read The New Yorker and/or Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child). Having a baby sucks you in in this way; you are, for several stretches of the day, entirely engaged and indisposed, entirely at the mercy of the now.

Secondly, I’ve realized that living in the now means I’ve had to bid farewell to procrastination; if Claire is asleep or happily “playing” by herself, I’ve got to do whatever I want or need to do, and at double the speed. Procrastination used to be part of my daily routine. Now, if I allow myself that luxury, I’ll get absolutely nothing done.

At first, this drove me crazy. I wanted to multi-task the way I did in the old days; I wanted to get things out of the way. The general state of impatience and quickness that once characterized my days had turned into something much more deliberate and mundane. Before, I was always completing one task in the midst of thinking about the next, all so I could get through the things I knew I had to do in order to procrastinate for a good long time with my writing assignments. With a baby, one can only be patient, slow, and available.

Andrew has been worried about me slipping into the MomZone, a zone, that is, where my entire personality and thought life is poured into our child. As anxious as I was about the danger of losing myself prior to having Claire, I don’t feel threatened by it at all right now. Living in the Now, from moment to moment, forces me to prioritize well, to focus on those things that are most important (for myself or for Claire) and to be available – to friends, family members, and even my writing – in ways that I was too self-consumed and impatient to be before. Plus, I recognize that Claire’s absolute need for me won’t last forever, and, furthermore, that she is a great excuse for a myriad of social and professional faux pas.

For example, there are not enough Nows between now and the end of the summer to help me get all my thoughtful baby gift thank yous written; not enough Nows to serve ketchup in dining-room-table-worthy containers rather than the cold, half-used Heinz 57 bottle; not even enough Nows to put on matching shoes to go out to lunch with my husband – Just yesterday, I got home, kicked off my heels, and realized I’d gone out about town wearing one black sandal, and one brown one. So much for thinking I had it all together.

But I revel in the Nows I do have: stolen moments with my good friend Mac, the time between feedings when I can give Ivy some much-needed love, the presence of mind to pick up a freelance job (hip hip!) and complete it on time (hooray!). Most of all, I am grateful that some of my cherished Nows are not when Claire is sleeping, but when she is awake, because the power of Now truly rests in balancing two worlds well: mine, so full, exhausting and complex, and hers, as simple as the smile she shares with me.

Not Forgotten

In the weeks following Claire’s birth, I felt a little overwhelmed. This was to be expected, of course – I’ve never had a baby before – but it’s worth mentioning on the blog that one of the major contributing factors to my responsibility overload (and serious guilt-feelings) was – and is – our golden retriever, Ivy.

Andrew and I got Ivy when she was eight weeks old. At a gas station on the Georgia/Alabama line, we met her breeder, Zegie, a woman with a strong country accent and a sweet disposition, and traded cash for lop-eared puppy. Ivy rode in my lap, trembling, all the way home. She was the softest, sweetest thing, all pounding heart and over-sized paws.

Ivy’s grandmother was a seeing-eye dog and her mother had the sleek, muscular build of an American Golden – more akin to an Irish Setter’s bodacious bod than that of the bulkier British Retriever’s. But it was Ivy, not her good looks or family line, with whom we fell in love. The puppy was all heart; she was feisty and mischievous; irresistibly snuggly; nearly human.

As Ivy grew (and grew … and grew) her heart grew even bigger than her paws, her loyalty stronger than the thump of her ever-swinging, golden-flocked tail. In the worst of times, she has catered to us with a sort of divine sensitivity: when I found out my father had died, Ivy leapt to my side, warming the shock out of my system, nuzzling me, as if expressing some sort of shared grief and deep understanding.

In the best of times, she has only added to our joy.

We talk to Ivy as if she is a human. She has only seen the inside of a kennel once in her life. For a dog, she has an astounding vocabulary, including (but not limited to) “Be patient!”, “Find your collar,” and six to ten names of friends and family members. Ivy knows to expect presents (and a chunk or two of real meat) on her birthday, February 1. In short, we have coddled her into human-hood.

Had Andrew and I decided never to have children, this human-treatment of pet would, though odd, pose little problem. But Claire’s arrival has complicated things. Friends, after congratulating us on Claire’s birth, would often ask – with serious gravity – “How’s Ivy doing?”. And the truth is, she’s done just fine, but we have had our hands full.

To feel loved, Ivy needs two walks a day. If we miss one, she gives us dirty looks. Every now and then, when I am in rapt “conversation” with Claire, I will glance over to see Ivy looking seriously despondent. This breaks my heart. When the baby cries, Ivy will often look away from her and sigh, and I worry about canine depression.

In reality, I know she’s just transitioning to a more sustainable place in the family pack, but the transition is hard. Ivy feels superior to Claire, and in many ways, she certainly is better domesticated, less wild, more considerate. I do like to remind her that she was much less trouble than Claire when she was a puppy, but this does little to placate her.

Going forward, Andrew and I are hopeful that Claire and Ivy will become good friends, eager playmates, sharers of little secrets. If our girl is anything like us, she’ll fall easily in love with Ivy, and Ivy, sensing that deep affection, will love her back. My only fear is that I will be the jealous one then, forced to cede the warm, lovey lump at the end of my side of the bed to Claire – a younger, more fun, less distracted version of myself.

Fueling the Rocket

This past December, when Claire was just a kick and a dream, I met with two artist mentors, Tom and Beverly Key. I was feeling pretty crummy about my pregnancy brain at the time, and nervous about my writing career as a whole, and asked them what I should do. Tom told me, simply, to “fuel the rocket.” By this, he meant to read, to find inspiration in others’ work so that when the time came for my writing to launch I would have a sort of literary reserve from which to draw.

Over the past eight weeks, I have taken Tom’s advice to heart. I have been reading like I’ve never read before, and not just children’s books – although there are some quite delightful children’s books out there – but good magazines, especially The New Yorker and Poets and Writers. I love The New Yorker because its nonfiction is so alive, so juicy, so balanced and smart. Poets and Writers, on the other hand, makes me feel I’ve still got one foot in the literary world. It also makes me feel as though I am still in school, which, in a way, I am.

In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, the poet Mark Doty writes about veracity and memoir. Doty gives the subject a fresh glance, and it is one of the most beautifully written meditations on honesty that I’ve read. But what really touched me was a moment in the essay’s conclusion.

Doty writes about going to a children’s museum in Memphis called the Pink Palace when he was small: “The best exhibit was a tree that had somehow moved indoors. It was huge, at least to me, and dwelt behind a wall pierced with dozens of tiny doors. I could open the doors at ground level myself, and look into whatever scene lay around the roots of the tree: mushrooms, ferns, a stuffed fox. My father would have to lift me up to look into the other doors, and that is one of my best memories of him, the tenderness implicit in holding your son up into the air so he could see.”

As I have been muddling through the first several weeks of motherhood, Doty’s final sentence resonated with me. It captured – in a way I am only now beginning to discover – all that I hope to give Claire: a window through which she can see the world and interpret it for herself. But it also reminded me of my own unique purpose here as her mother. If I am expected to teach Claire new things, to revel in and reflect upon the mysteries and the beauty and the hardship of the world with her, then I must also always be learning.

At first, I wondered if it were all right to spend Claire’s feeding times reading – if she would sense that I was absorbed in something other than her sweet blue eyes – but she doesn’t seem to care. Besides, a steady diet of sound writing is as imperative to me as milk is to her, and this, I think, is the most important thing I’ve learned in the last eight weeks: good mothering means that the mother cares for herself as well as her child.

Yesterday, I went on a swimming expedition in arctic waters; today, I’m in Bengal, tracking tigers. Reading, which once felt like a leisurely, selfish indulgence, now serves a new purpose: it gives me arms with which to raise Claire up, so she can see. It’s exciting to think of all the things she and I will discover together, of the tenderness implicit in that, and how our worlds, big and small, will inform each other.

** My presence on the blog will still probably be pretty sporadic for a while, but not because I want it to be. I’m tutoring through the end of this semester which takes most of the free time I’ve got during the day, but I’ll get back into the rhythm of what Andrew calls “the old life” sometime soon. Thanks for your patience and, as always, for reading!**

Claire.

100_1375.jpg

Three days before my pregnancy came to its welcome end, Andrew looked out our bathroom window and saw something of a wonder: seventeen robins pecking the ground, springing from branch to branch of our scrawny magnolia tree, zipping from one corner of our back yard to the other. Seven more could be seen from the window overlooking our front yard. These precious, red-breasted gifts were only on our property which made for a very bizarre, God-given, Magnolia-esque moment – heavy with symbolism at a time when I badly needed encouragement and promise.

The robin, of course, has always been a sign of spring’s arrival. But, as Andrew and I found out later that day, it is also traditionally thought to symbolize new birth, renewal and patience. By that time, I’d had just about enough of patience, but there was something phenomenal about having nature, itself, remind me of our little one’s assured arrival.

Claire came into the world on February 23rd at 9:56 am. She was, and is, perfect.

On the other side of delivery, I see all the more clearly how appropriate it was that so many robins had gathered in our yard in anticipation of Claire’s arrival; she signals a renewal that is not just physical – though the new baby smell is pretty intoxicating – but spiritual.

To hold a new baby – especially if it is yours – is something like having a tent revival take place in your heart. The patience I cultivated during pregnancy prepared me surprisingly well for the long sleepless nights I have lately been enduring, and there is no encounter – even in the most mundane sense – that does not have an edge of newness to it.

The past week has been a haze of visitors, free food, sleepless nights and diapers. Last night we discovered the power of the bouncy seat; today, because Claire refused to sleep all afternoon, I downloaded Sounds of the Womb, to which she immediately fell into a deep slumber. Due to all this joy and exhaustion, my blog postings will be sporadic for a while. I’ll do my best to keep writing, though.

In honor of Claire’s arrival, a poem about little girls and their fathers:

My Daughter’s Morning

by David Swanger from Wayne’s College of Beauty

My daughter’s morning streams
over me like a gang of butterflies
as I, sour-mouthed and not ready
for the accidents I expect

of my day, greet her early:
her sparkle is as the edge of new
ice on leafed pools, while I
am soggy, tepid; old toast.

Yet I am the first version
of later princes; for all my blear
and bluish jowl I am welcomed
as though the plastic bottle

I hold were a torch and
my robe not balding terry.
For her I bring the day; warm
milk, new diaper, escapades;

she lowers all bridges and
sings to me most beautifully
in her own language while
I fumble with safety pins.

I am not made young
by my daughter’s mornings;
I age relentlessly.

Yet I am made to marvel
at the durability of newness
and the beauty of my new one.

Waiting

1516429596_298747cdb8.jpg

I have never been a very patient person, especially if the things on which I wait seem even remotely in my own control. It’s one thing to have to wait in line at the post office or at an amusement park, but quite another for me to have to wait on myself or my brain to do whatever it has been called on to do.

Growing up, I played the piano. In high school, I especially loved to perform big, dramatic pieces with lots of running eighth notes, but the process of learning the music nearly killed me. As I sat at the keyboard, day after day, learning slowly how to make my fingers conform to the patterns on the page of music in front of me, I wished away my practice time. I begrudged the discipline of hands-separately-then-together, longing for the moment when I would finally get it and the music would flow effortlessly, joyfully out of my fingertips.

This impatience is also often reflected in the discipline I bring to my writing. I am ridiculously intimidated by the blank page and equally frustrated by nonfiction writing’s dependence upon slow research. If I find myself in the middle of writing an essay and realize I need to go back and do more research, I feel like an Everest climber who’s made it half way to the summit, only to realize he didn’t pack enough oxygen to get to the top.

The necessity of having patience in all things makes me a little crazy. I want to jump in head first, roll up my sleeves, and get things done right. At times, patience feels so unproductive that I fool myself into believing that everything would be more fun and/or rewarding if I performed perfectly the first time around. Yet, too often, I overlook the fact that the main reason a flawlessly played Ballade or a well-crafted essay feels so satisfying is due to the work of getting there: without practice, the ligaments in my hands wouldn’t know how far to stretch; my brain wouldn’t rejoice in ideas formed under pressure; my self wouldn’t believe I could be pushed – successfully – to the limits of my abilities, and it wouldn’t even consider taking on the stretch of tougher goals ahead.

This aversion to patience – and what I have to learn from it – has some bearing on my current state of being. After nine months of baby building, I feel I’ve done my time; another week spent in this bubble bodysuit and Playskool will be redesigning Weeble Wobbles to resemble me! This week, I have been willing the pain of contractions, hoping – with little success – that one will lead to another in quick succession. I imagine myself as my body’s spin class instructor, shouting excitedly into my cavernous womb to get moving and lean in to the pain, to let my techno heartbeat put an end to all this pregnancy madness.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned enough about the discipline of waiting to know that there’s good to come on the other side of patience and that these long, impervious days will fade quickly into joy (and relief) as soon as Baby K makes his or her debut. The downside of this is that his or her arrival will only present a long list of more things about which I must be patient, but that’s a worry for another day. And besides, if I had nothing left to learn or wait on, I probably also wouldn’t have anything to write about, and that would be very sad indeed.

Space

100_1256.jpg

A room without books is like a body without a soul.
– Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

Readers, I apologize for the 10 day lapse in blog postings. I hope some of you are still hanging in there with me. I did not have the baby, as some might have wondered, but simply have not had anything to say for the past week or so.

This weekend, just three weeks away from D-Day, we put the finishing touches on the nursery, which used to be my office, and transformed a corner in our guest bedroom into my new workspace (see above photo). In the past, I’ve had grandiose ideas about the place in which I might best write, imagining a small, sparsely-decorated shed in our back yard with French doors, a lot of sunlight and fresh air, or a nice, bright corner room (in some other, bigger house) with ample desk and bookshelf space and inspiring prints/quotations/magazines/journals/art strewn haphazardly around the place.

While I recognize these imaginings as pure vanity, the thought of cramming my beloved books and necessary files in this tiny guest bedroom corner has still depressed me. I knew it was coming, but hadn’t had the energy or the strength to face it. I’ve been using our living room as an office, perching myself Indian-style on the couch (with Ivy by my side) for hours on end, covering our too-large coffee table with reading materials and the Mac, cluttering the biggest room of our home (which is still rather small) with papers, receipts, and whatever shoes I might kick off in the throws of creative process.

This weekend, APK put an end to all that nonsense. He claimed his own nesting instincts with such enthusiasm he really could have been in his own male-style pregnancy trimester. From the glider in the nursery, I watched as he cleaned out closets, shoving two bags of golf clubs, old briefcases, keepsake boxes and random junk into unspecified locations. He artfully reorganized my bookshelf, rearranged furniture, created a make-shift file cabinet for me out of a little table with hidden trunk-space. By the time Andrew was finished, the guest bedroom corner looked way more professional and organized than my previous “office” (a real catchall room) and was far cozier. Thanks to his efforts, I’ve spent the morning comfortably confined by a real desk in front of a window with a hot cup of tea, plenty of books within reach, and Ivy still beside me.

Throughout my pregnancy, I have been the uneasy recipient of well-meaning ladies’ commentaries on how “life will never be the same” once the child arrives, and intensely annoyed by other misguided attempts at humor in which young mothers claim I’ll want to “put the baby back in the womb” once I’ve had it at home for a few days. Gee, thanks – all that sounds like a lot of fun. (To which these people would respond, “Oh, it is fun, so much fun. It’s just a different kind of fun.”)

So it’s no surprise that fixing up a permanent space for my pre-baby self – the self with a writerly bent and time for creativity – has made me feel as though I am claiming a space, however tiny, that will remind me of what I feel called to. It was silly of me to think that a tangible space would make or break my creativity – a means of procrastination I relied on too easily – or to fear that having the baby take over my old office was a metaphor for him/her taking over my brain space/life/general sense of sanity.

In the end, after all this dithering about where my “stuff” would go and where I might be inspired, I’ve discovered that my physical space could be a table at a coffee shop, or a local library carel, or underneath a tree. As long as it feels like it’s “mine,” the details don’t matter much. The more vital lesson here is that I (and any other writer, regardless of motherhood or other life swings) give myself to the mental space of the work, that I make wiser use of my time, that I hole up in whatever sliver of space exists, do what I have been trained to do, and enjoy it.

Yellow Bird

480654230_918d32fbb8.jpg

When I was in first grade, my classroom was divided into three groups: yellow birds, blue birds and red birds.  Although no one ever actually said so, it was clear that the yellow birds flew more slowly than the blues, and that the red birds took to the sky most quickly.  This was my teacher’s gentle way of helping young students take to learning at a pace best suited for them.

I was a red bird, but I loved the color yellow – and perfect, chirping yellow birds – and I thought it unfair that I couldn’t sit at the yellow bird table.  Mrs. Hogston, my first grade teacher – a tiny woman with smile lines around her eyes  and a sweet Southern accent – assured me that I should be a happy little red bird, proud of my feathers, and insisted that I stay at the red bird table.  I did so, but begrudgingly, learning how to add and subtract with one eye on the yellow bird table and the other on my text books.

For most of my life, I’ve kept pace with the red birds and I learned to enjoy it.   Yet, now, at a time when I would most like to be dive bombing with a flock of cardinals, I fear my feathers are turning … well … a tinge of yellow.  I’d heard that pregnancy might do this to me, that words would mysteriously slip away; that I might suffer memory loss; that I might – on occasion – make sense only to myself.  But my little red bird brain eschewed such notions as an old wives tale.  It promised to keep processing the material and meaning of life with utmost efficiency; word retrieval problems were for other sorts of pregnant people — not writers, not teachers, not red birds.    

Yet, as I sit composing this blog posting in Starbucks – writing, and then deleting, and then rewriting and rereading the sentences I’ve written – I feel defeated.  My red bird brain has succumbed to the hormones after all.  I find myself staring at my Mac for longer than necessary, the synapses of my brain firing with less enthusiasm than usual.  Staying on topic is difficult; finishing an essay – impossible.  Sometimes, in conversation, my husband has to help me with words.  That thing on the kitchen counter?  Ah, yes – a coffee maker.  The thing we use to walk the dog?  Right.  A leash.

To make myself feel better about this incapacitation I did a little research.  A study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that 81% of women suffer memory loss and word retrieval problems during pregnancy.  The article called this impairment “significant” – though certainly not permanent – and I rejoiced.  In 1998, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study confirming pregnant women’s memory loss and word retrieval issues would be most significant in the third trimester.  Another study cited “brain overload” and “memory dysfunction.”  Hooray!

It is hard to be a writer; now I know it is even harder to be a pregnant writer.  I wish I’d done this research months ago. I thought I was just losing my edge because I’m no longer in graduate school.  So – as of today I’m cutting myself a little slack; I am preening my feathers at the yellow bird table.  Forgive me if my blog postings don’t make sense, or if you find them boring, or if I write that something is “obvious” rather than “obsequious.” My red bird brain has flown South for the remainder of winter.  Here’s hoping it’ll come back to me this spring.

New Year, New You

2143598133_f3127dca02.jpg

I have spent the better part of today cleaning/organizing my house. If any of you know me well, you might wonder what’s come over me: by nature, I am neither a cleaner nor an organizer.

I tend to stack things in neat piles and leave them to be sorted later … years later. I collect magazines, especially cooking magazines, convinced that I will reference them in the future. I kick off my shoes and leave them lying all over the house. (I then find said shoes lined neatly against the wall beside my closet – thanks to my very neat and organized husband – shaming me out of bed and away from my delightfully good books.)

I used to consider this rather disorganized aspect of my personality proof of my creativity. It was a sort of badge of honor, a testimony to my laid-back nature. But in the past couple of months, something’s come over me: I neurotically sort and organize. I not only clean out my refrigerator, but I also clean – with hot soap and water – its shelves. I recycle magazines. I leave next to nothing on my kitchen counter tops. I sort and file bills. I relish a long walk through the Container Store’s aisles, imagining a house filled with giant, neatly labeled, color-coordinated Rubbermaid bins.

I cannot explain this sudden personality shift, except to say that I think it means I’ve officially entered into the “nesting” phase of my pregnancy. Before last August, I didn’t even know there was such a phase. When a new-mother-friend of mine mentioned it, I laughed it off. Me? A nester? No way.

Oh, but how wrong I was. Over the holidays, I even let my overzealous nesting habits seep into the enjoyment of my time at my mother’s house. She has two refrigerators; I cleaned them both out and organized the shelves by ingredient. I then berated her for the four bags of all-purpose flour I found in refrigerator #2 while ignoring my husband’s gentle, whispered reminders to consider my own repeat purchases of late (cleaning supplies, mostly – a sign of the times).

After I’d laid siege on the refrigerators, I removed stacks of cookbooks and catalogs my mother had left on her couch and put them in a more discreet, but still reachable, location. I wrapped presents with the determined fury of a department store clerk on Christmas Eve. As if my life were hanging in the balance, I loaded and unloaded the dishwasher with furrowed brow; I cleaned off the kitchen table; I swept the counter tops of non-perishables and put them away in cupboards.

There is something divinely satisfying about completing such tasks. But I am also a little unnerved by this sudden, head-spinning change of personality. (No doubt, my mother was unnerved by it, as well.) I wonder if the hormones will ever relent or if I am now – whether I like it or not – a whirling dervish equipped with broom and garbage bag. My only hope is that this productivity and organization will also find its way into my profession – that I will make spreadsheets filled with deadlines I will meet, goals I will strive for and ideas I will act upon, that I will take care of my intellectual life the way I’ve recently been caring for my cupboards.

I would write more, but there’s no time left to muse today — I’ve just spotted a stack of magazines I’ve got to unload.

Godspeed to you all in 2008. Thanks for continuing to read my blog. It’s nice to know you’re out there.

Great With Child – A Book Review

100_1197.jpg

** I’ve decided to take my friend Richard’s advice and begin reviewing books on my blog.  I’m hoping that this will motivate me to read more voraciously.  ** 

There are a lot of books on the market about pregnancy, and even more, I’m sure, about parenting. I dislike these books. I say this a few weeks into my third trimester after receiving (from well-meaning friends and acquaintances) a stack of them almost as tall as my bedside table.

Of these many texts, the ones I’ve thumbed through have left me feeling somewhat uneasy, or alarmed, or angry.  I nearly threw one across the room.  The marketers of these books impose a sort of moral authority over pregnant women, suggesting through various means that one will be an unfit mother unless she reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting from cover to cover.  The books also appear to be written by people who might also, say, have too-strong opinions about things like the NRA, or taxes, or the space shuttle program. Like heat-seeking missiles, the writers target with remarkable focus expectant mothers’ unique vulnerabilities, sending already tweaked-out hormones into a new and utterly unpredictable frenzy.  The authors of these books take on the sort of know-it-all tone that used to make me want to hit someone hard with a kickball when I was in middle school.

My doctor’s first word of advice to me, when I was just eight weeks along, was to rely on her when I had questions or fears and to avoid all books and web sites concerning pregnancy and childbirth. She needn’t have worried.

But among the stack of pedantic, agenda-driven pregnancy books there is one shining gem: Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly. Fennelly is a poet and professor of writing at Old Miss who wrote a series of encouraging letters to her friend Kathleen during K’s pregnancy. In Great With Child – the book that resulted from these missives – Fennelly, who herself has two children, gives pregnancy and parenthood its due while celebrating (and sometimes bemoaning) its mysteries and its madness. She offers Kathleen both grace and freedom, covering topics from miscarriage to the administration of pain medication to work/life balance with a calm, supportive, reassuring voice.

Great With Child will not tell expectant mothers when their babies’ ear drums are forming, this is true, but Fennelly’s poetic sensibilities offer readers a broader, more literary and more powerfully feminist view of what it means to be “expecting.”