Postpartum

Baby Niall, my third child, my little love, turns one tomorrow. As I rode the train into the city this morning, I couldn’t help but remember myself at exactly this time last year: watching the US Open with my husband and two children, aware that in a matter of twenty-four hours, I would most likely be holding my baby in my arms. My husband asked, “I’m going to get some food…what can I get for you?” I thought to myself, “This baby is fully cooked,” and so I requested what would give me the most comfort in that moment: a hot dog chock full of nitrates and a glass of white wine. At 41 weeks pregnant, I had only one dress left that fit me (at least it was Wimbledon white), could barely fit into my seat and was sweating extravagantly, and consumed that hot dog in the space of seven seconds. I was classy. A sight for sore eyes.

The next morning, I accepted that none of my desperate prayers that I would go into labor naturally had been answered, and so we reported to the hospital at 7am for a scheduled induction. After merely five hours (far less than the 40 hours I had endured with my oldest, but a few more than the frantic two I had with my daughter), I said to my husband, “Go get the nurse. This epidural isn’t working any more.” Sure enough, she came into the room, examined me briefly, and declared, “This baby is going to be born in about one minute.” I started to cry. “Are these tears of happiness,” my husband asked. “Yes. Yes, they are.” And little Niall was born in a matter of four strong pushes. He cried non-stop for the first ninety minutes of his life.

My few days with Niall in the hospital were a dream. He slept a lot. I slept a lot. I had a very kindly postpartum nurse with whom I shared some of my anxieties about whether or not I would be able to handle my three children. I asked her if she had children. “I have nine,” she said. “You can do this.”

When I got home from the hospital, I panicked. Niall no longer slept the way he did when I had round-the-clock care. My oldest son’s piano teacher reported that he cried during his lesson and told her of all the pressure he felt to be a good big brother to the baby. That night, as I spent hours nursing and rocking the baby to sleep, he felt neglected and confronted me with his tears: “I am still a part of this family!” My daughter had at least four tantrums in the space of three hours. The children were starting school in two days, and I had lists of things I needed to do to get them ready. I didn’t sleep that night. And I didn’t sleep for the next two nights after that. Not a wink.

Fearful that I would start hallucinating, I visited a local GP. He was merciful: he gave me a strong dose of xanax that gave me some relief from the sleeplessness. But the hormone-induced waves of panic remained for a while, and so the drug became a life-saving support for at least a few weeks. I had to give up nursing. On a park bench in Maplewood, I gave the baby a bottle of formula, and a passerby approached me. The well-meaning woman, after telling me how cute the baby was, asked me if I was nursing at all. I said no, without explanation. “That’s too bad,” she said, with a concerned look on her face. I collected my belongings and began to walk away, mumbling less audibly than I would have liked in retrospect, “And I’m going to push this baby in a stroller instead of baby-wearing him home, bitch!” And then I sobbed.

I turned 40 that November, and the five of us celebrated by going to dinner at a restaurant in our town village. I was exhausted—Niall had been fussy for much of the day, and I felt inadequate in figuring out what he needed. But I got the best birthday present I could have imagined: for the first time, I was able to wear jeans that weren’t maternity, and baby Niall sat in his car seat and smiled at me through the entire dinner. “He loves me,” I assured myself.

I returned to work in January. People would say to me, “It must have been really hard returning to work.” If I didn’t feel comfortable saying it, I certainly felt it: it wasn’t hard at all. I looked forward to those three days at work. I could wear something other than exercise gear (and believe me, I wasn’t wearing such gear because I was exercising). I could put my head down on my desk between sessions. And I could let someone else deal for awhile with diaper-changing and rocking the baby, with the endless negotiations with the older children over snacks and use of technology. I could use my lunch hour to walk the streets of Manhattan and browse in some boutiques. And when I’d return, the children would be thrilled to see me. The baby would cuddle against me as I prepared him for bed. The children would want me to read them bedtime stories and sing them sweet lullabies. There were costs, of course. On one of my days off, I asked my sitter to stay with the baby so that I could take the children to the playground. When we were there, I asked my son if he wanted to throw the football with me. He agreed, but added, “but I’d rather play with [the sitter]. She throws better than you. Can she come play?” I held it together until later that night, when I sobbed. But he woke me up in the middle of the night because he had a nosebleed and wanted me to lie next to him in his bed to help him fall back to sleep. “He loves me,” I assured myself. My husband says, “These children get to sleep next to you more than I do. It’s not fair.”

“It’s not fair.” I have heard this phrase at least a thousand times in my household over the course of the past year.

It was in May that Niall began to embrace the spirit of toddlerhood, even though he was, technically, still an infant. He started to refuse his high chair. He didn’t want to ever sit and play with his toys. He wanted only to walk, but couldn’t do so independently. This meant that I spent three months bent over, holding his hands as he led me wherever he was interested in going. Oh, how my back ached! Oh, how I wanted him to grow out of that stage! But it was at the same time that he started putting his head on my shoulder as I held him. Oh, how I didn’t want him to grow out of that stage!

He no longer needs both of my hands. He can move rather quickly, holding only one. And soon enough, he won’t need either.

My therapist told me that for at least a full year after the birth of each of her five children, she felt like a wet rat. Oh, how I can relate! Just this morning, I got to my office and realized that in the typical chaos of getting myself and the older kids out the door, I had forgotten to brush my teeth. Luckily, there is a Duane Reade on almost every corner in Manhattan, but I also learned months ago to keep a spare toothbrush and kit of other necessities in my desk drawer.

I couldn’t wait to get out of my house this morning. My kids were not cooperating. They woke me up twice in the middle of the night–I was tired. When I left, Niall cried. I felt guilty, but I also felt needed and loved. Now, here at work, I can’t wait to get home to them.

And tonight, as I spend some time thinking about my Niall, my little love, and all that he has brought to our lives, I will treat myself to the best dinner I can imagine: a hot dog and white wine.

Runaway

Recently, my son, 8, and daughter, almost 6, told me they were running away from home. They loudly stomped through the house with their knapsacks, collecting random pieces of clothing, beanie babies and stuffed animals—what is necessary for life on the street. I asked them where they’d go, and they replied that they hadn’t yet thought of that but would let me know once they figured it out. This momentous decision came on the heels of a conflict over use of my iPhone. My son had been playing Minecraft on it for well over an hour, and I, with deep regret that I ever allowed him to touch my phone, insisted that he give it back and take a much-needed break from any screens. He became angry and declared his intention to run away. When they aren’t fighting, my son and daughter are thick as thieves, and so she decided it would be fun to join his cause and run away with him.

There are multiple good ways and bad ways I could have responded. A part of me wanted to laugh out loud—it really is funny to see an eight- and six-year old packing their bags, knowing full well that they have no real intention of leaving. It’s even funnier to see their choices of what to pack—like, their fidget spinners. But another part of me knows that my son, the ringleader here, is trying to express something really important: it can feel really frustrating when someone else is calling most of the shots. “Brush your teeth.” “Put on your shoes.” “It’s time to practice piano.” Tonight, he was building something in Minecraft that meant something to him, and I set a limit—a good and necessary limit, in my mind—that he experienced as too controlling and so threatened to run away as a way of reclaiming a sense of power. I felt for him.

I, too, attempted life as a runaway. A family story that is often shared and laughed about was my own aborted attempt to run away from home when I was six years old. My parents were away, and close family friends (like an aunt and uncle to us) were entrusted to care for me and my four siblings. In our kitchen was a large, oval table at which we sat for our typically chaotic dinners. I can remember becoming enraged when I was told that I could not leave the table until I finished my green beans. I slammed my fork on the table and announced that I was leaving.

This is how I remember what happened next: Everyone laughed. With ferocity, I left the table and found a paper bag into which I could pack my clothes. I ran up the stairs as my older siblings chased after me, taunting me. After filling the bag with as many clothes as I could fit, I headed to the front door, where my older brothers, in addition to their howls of laughter, offered me an umbrella and some hard candy, “in case you get hungry.” As I walked out the door, I heard my sister say, “Be careful of strangers.” They continued to laugh and yell “goodbye” as I made my way down the street. In a matter of minutes, my strident attitude was replaced with terror. On our not-very-well-lit cul-de-sac, it was dark. I turned around and saw that my siblings were now quiet, and my “uncle” had followed me. We sat down on the curb together, where he was able to convince me, rather easily, to come home.

In the years since, I have had many moments when I remembered this scene with anger, convinced of my siblings’ cruelty to me and reminded of how misunderstood I often felt in my family. In more recent years, I’ve looked on the scene with much greater compassion—for myself and for my family. As adopted children, my siblings and I struggled, I believe, to understand and deal with fears of abandonment. I suspect that my siblings’  taunts were, on some level, the only way they knew how to cope with a very deep anxiety that I, a loved one, might leave them. When I returned to the house, I wasn’t forced to return to my uneaten plate of green beans. Instead, I made my way to the bedroom that I shared with my sister and began to unpack my clothes. My sister came into the room, grabbed my arm, and began to sob. “Promise me that you’ll never, ever do that to me again!”

I’ll bet that the members of my family remember the story of when I attempted to run away somewhat differently. Memory can be very tricky. And this is where many families, like mine, get into trouble: instead of being curious about the differences in our memories and what they reveal about our unique, internal worlds of experience, we often get caught up in arguments, sometimes bitter, about whose version of “what happened” is the right one.

I wonder how my son will remember the day he attempted to run away. I hope he will remember that his sister, who loves him desperately and looks to him much more than to me for direction in the world, joined his cause. I hope he will remember that the part of me who took his concerns seriously won the day, over the part of me who wanted to laugh at his 8-year old ways. And I hope he will remember that I told him in no uncertain terms that while I could understand his frustration, I wanted him to stay because I cherish him so much and don’t want to even imagine living in the world without him.

Here is one thing I will remember: later that night, after reading him a story, I lay quietly next to him.  He snuggled closer and said, “Mom, I really wasn’t going to run away today. If I had, I wouldn’t have your phone to play Minecraft. And even if I did have your phone, I wouldn’t have WIFI.” And with that, he turned to his side and peacefully fell asleep.

 

Durham Days

We pile into the car on a Friday. I tell the children that we can take turns choosing songs to be part of the soundtrack of our drive. After my son’s Twenty One Pilots and my daughter’s Katy Perry and a “Wheels on the Bus” thrown in for the baby, I say out loud, “It’s mom’s turn.” My son says, “Mom, could you please choose something that isn’t Beatles-related?” I shoot back, “I can’t think of much popular music that isn’t related in some way to the Beatles.” Through the rear-view mirror, I see him roll his eyes, but there is a smile on his face. I know his secret: he’s starting to really like the music I choose, but he needs me to know that he’s different from me. Later that night, I overhear him in his bedroom singing, “Admiral Halsey notified me, he had to have a berth or he couldn’t get to sea…” We move further west along I-78. I turn off the air and open the windows, and as the landscape opens, my chest expands as I take a deep breath. I begin to shed my city skin.

As we get closer to our property, my two older children begin to argue over who should be allowed to drive down our driveway, which descends two hundred feet from the road to the house. My son saves me from having to broker the hundredth or so deal of the day: “If you let me go first, you can do it the next two times,” he says to my daughter. She is reluctant but agrees. He hops into my lap in the driver’s seat, and she climbs into the passenger seat. I recall my 6-year old self, sitting in my father’s lap as we drove his car along the street of the first house in which I lived, in days when the laws about these things were much more relaxed. “Only in the driveway,” I constantly remind my children. As my feet control the pedals, he masterfully steers us to the garage doors and is able (after months of not having the hand strength to do so) to shift the gear into “park.” He relishes his taste of power. “Well done,” I say, and kiss him on the back of his head.

In the morning, the children and my husband ride their bikes along our quiet road to the Durham Cemetery, where the views of the hills rival those we get from our back porch. I walk briskly with my stroller-bound baby and spot at least four chipmunks, one hedgehog, and at least a dozen different types of bird. The baby tries to match the various calls of the birds with his voice: “Ack, ack, ack!” “Cawwww.” Someday, I find myself thinking, I would like to be able to identify these birds by their calls. Someday quite soon, I reflect, this baby will replace his darling “Acks” with decipherable words.

When we arrive at the cemetery, the children ride along its paths, attentive only to the magnificent views and the excitement of riding surfaces that aren’t flat. My husband rides, too, taking in the scenery, and I walk along, reading some of the gravestones. “Beloved sister.” “Beloved father.” There are unimaginative names, like “Smith” and “White,” alongside less fortunate ones, like “Fluck.” One stone in particular captures my attention: Sarah Jane Long. Born 1832, Died 1862. 29 Years, 11 months, 8 days. I wonder what led to this untimely death. Illness? Childbirth? I hear my children’s laughter as they race along the paths and move along.

Later that afternoon, I head to the garden, instructing my husband, “Do not let any of the children near me for at least 30 minutes.” With my bare hands, I rake out some of the dead leaves that have gathered at the bottom of the zucchini plant and find that it was neglected for too many days: there is a fruit that is almost the length of my arm and is almost as heavy as my 10-month old. I harvest our first pepper of the season: it is a vivid orange and probably bursting with flavor. I cannot wait to eat it and will think of a way to include it in our dinner. I discover with frustration that the damn groundhog that has made its home under our shed figured out how to get under the makeshift fence we constructed and ate every last broccoli seedling I planted last weekend. “Damn groundhog” I say and discover my 5-year old daughter a few feet away. “Damn groundhog,” she repeats with an impish smile. I sigh. I have been in the garden for a mere 16 minutes, but I cannot resist. She is just too delicious and is pleading with me to swim with her in our pool.

Soon enough, her brothers and dad have joined us in the pool. My husband holds the baby, who delights in his little splashes. The two older children want me to play “find the torpedo” with them, but I beg for a few minutes when I can swim by myself. They grant me five minutes, and I savor the feel of the water against my skin as I move within it. My fragile solitude is soon disrupted, as they have begun to fight over our only pair of flippers.

Soon, my daughter is on my back, and we move through the water as one. I feel her legs wrapped around my belly and her arms wrapped around my neck. Things become quiet and lovely. I find myself thinking of Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Truth the Dead Know.” I cultivate/myself where the sun gutters from the sky/where the sea swings in like an iron gate/and we touch. In another country people die. She climbs up to my shoulders and counts to three before jumping back into the water. I don’t mind that my shoulders are sore from the weight of her little body.

After I’ve put the children to bed, I join my husband on the back deck, where we sit and watch the sky change. He has prepared a glass of bourbon for me–Widow Jane, my favorite.  I study the landscape.  On the left is a cornfield–the corn that was, just a few weeks ago, knee high is now as tall as my husband.  On the right is a row of evergreens that reach into the oranges, purples, and blues of the setting sun.  In the center of our yard are five mimosa trees that blossom at exactly this time of year. Their wispy pink blossoms annoy me during the day, when I’m constantly cleaning them up from the surface of the pool and from the beds of the garden, but at this time of night, I find them quite beautiful. “They can be so lovely, but they can also make a real mess,” I remark to my husband. “Kind of like our children,” he responds. Indeed.

We talk more, but both of us really just want to sit together in silence—or, as much silence as the country will grant us. With each sip of my Widow Jane, my body relaxes into a deep repose, and after a few minutes, I say, “I need to get to bed.” He tells me he’ll join me later because he wants to finish his bourbon and drink in the view a bit longer.

Billy Collins is beckoning me from my bedside table. I am so, so tired, but feel I can never go to bed without reading something. I get lost for a while in Aimless Love and at a certain point don’t know if I’m actually taking in the imagery of his poems or am already dreaming. Whatever. The baby will be awake before it is light, and for now, I want only to embrace a long, lovely sleep.

 

Searching for What Was Lost

 

I cannot remember if it was my grandmother or someone else who made the thick pink afghan that was used to wrap me when, as a nine-day old baby, my birth mother brought me to the ground floor of the hospital to hand me to the couple who would become my parents. I do remember being told of the afghan’s importance to my grandmother: it needed to be thick so as to block the touch and scent of that unknown 16-year old girl.

I was startled when, just a few weeks ago, I returned home from a late night at work and entered my 5-year old daughter’s bedroom, where she lay asleep, the afghan clutched tightly in her arms as though it were a favorite doll. She, a child whose intense curiosity takes her on journeys through closets and drawers throughout the house, must have found it, folded in a plastic garment bag in the back of a storage closet, and decided to claim it as her own.

My mother gave me the afghan when I was pregnant with my daughter and told me, matter-of-factly, its history. “We had to provide the clothing in which you’d be brought to us. Your grandmother said that you should be wrapped in this blanket so that your birth mother wouldn’t become at all attached to you and change her mind.”

Then, I didn’t quite know how to authentically think or feel or talk about it.

Now, I know something of the confusion that many who are adopted carry around inside them. Those who are adopted—even those adopted as newborns (like me)—must grapple with a “split existence” that can be challenging to understand and manage (I give credit to the writer and psychotherapist Betty Jean Lifton for helping me to name this better). I carry within me a sense that I belong to a family and community(ies) and yet don’t belong, don’t quite fit in. I experience a sense of being wanted, of being chosen, and yet equally strong is the sense that I am unwanted, rejected. I have memories that span a history that began when I was nine days old, but my body remembers, too, a secret history that began long before.

Then, the only response I knew to give was one conveying gratitude. “Thank you, mom,” I said. She had little idea of the confusion, indeed a whole range of feelings and questions, such a gift would engender within me.

Now, I know better that many who are adopted are trained and conditioned to “know” only gratitude.  We are told “chosen-baby” stories that are aimed at helping us to feel loved and special, but often function to deny, suppress, crowd out multiple, complex feelings and questions. We heard the message, “Be grateful,” in various iterations, throughout our childhoods and even as adults.  My sister, also adopted, recently shared with me her memory of her elementary school teacher’s enjoinders: “You need to always know how lucky you were that your parents saved you.”  I am grateful…for so much. But gratitude can coexist alongside anger, sadness, mourning– the full range of feelings that gestate in such experiences of separation and loss. But this truth often gets lost in a world where it’s much easier, much less ambiguous and therefore more comfortable, to think dichotomously.

The morning after my daughter found the blanket, I told her that it was the blanket in which I was wrapped when I was given to her grandparents. “So you had two mommies?” she asked, even though I had tried in the past to explain what “being adopted” meant. “Yes. I had a mommy who gave birth to me and a mommy who took care of me.” The questions flowed. I let them and did my best to answer them. It’s not easy to answer them, because I’m still searching for understanding and meaning.

That night, as I snuggled with her in her bed, she quickly sat up and said, “Mom, I forgot my favorite blanket.” It had been folded over the rocker in the corner of her room. She quickly got out of bed and retrieved it. She got back under the covers with me and pulled it over the two of us. I wondered, “Her favorite blanket?” Perhaps she knows now that this blanket connects her to me, to my mother, to my birth mother, to larger mysteries beyond our comprehension. Perhaps she just loves that it’s pink and warm.  Perhaps both and more.

I lie back down beside her and let myself be wrapped in that blanket once again.

“The Rat’s Star”

Every once in a while, I feel compelled to re-read something that I read long ago. It is a practice I recommend and a practice in which I plan to engage more often. “You need to massage a text,” one of my graduate professors often remarked, meaning that one read is insufficient if your goal is to truly understand it. I loved that. I also loved the words of one undergraduate professor, who always added to his syllabi his retort to disgruntled students who couldn’t quite understand why they were being “forced” to read contemporary Irish literature, for example, that “none of these texts are boring. If you find them boring, it is because you are insufficiently capable of entering into the world of the authors”—or something very close to that. Good for him for standing up to undergrads, imagining themselves entitled to constant entertainment. These professors helped to shape my view that reading literature helps to build my empathic muscles.

Reading literature is also about more fully understanding my own internal world. Whenever I read deeply, I am challenged to ask self-reflective questions: what do I learn about myself in my encounter with this text? Where does this text find me, and where is it asking me to go? And when I re-read a text after some time, I can ask myself, where have I been? Where does this text find me now?

And so I found myself recently perusing my bookshelves, looking for something to read, and there it was: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton. I realized that it was almost exactly twenty years since I first encountered her work and committed myself to a semester-long study of it. Asked to choose three writers from which I would ultimately choose one, I offered my selections to my thesis advisor and, truthfully, hadn’t given it all that much thought. Pressed to meet his deadline, I hastily wrote down three names : Robert Frost, James Kelman, Anne Sexton. “Interesting selections,” he said, and then asked, “Towards whom are you leaning?” I sat for a silent moment. “I think I’m leaning towards Robert Frost,” I said. “That’s a worthy study,” he said. “But I encourage you to choose Anne Sexton.”

That summer, I studied literature at the University of Edinburgh. One of my classmates was a very attractive and seemingly well-read guy who attracted many a young female student like me, who desired his attention and approval. A group of us sat in his dorm one rainy afternoon. “I’m going to study Anne Sexton this Fall,” I told him. “That’s cute,” he said to me. “Have fun with that. Her work is crap.” I felt humiliated. His dismissal of her felt like a dismissal of me, and it wasn’t long before my feelings of humiliation transformed into righteous indignation. I would be her champion. And I went out and did what many melodramatic twenty-somethings do, I cut off all of my hair. I went to Scotland with hair that hung past my hips and returned with a practically shaved head. My friends and family didn’t quite know how to receive me upon my return.

I truly came to love Sexton’s work that Fall. I discovered that early in her career, Sexton was, in fact, dismissed by her critics. She was too personal, too “confessional”—but this is why I liked her. To my 20-year old self, her work was honest and courageous, daring to speak to the unspeakable—she wrote of madness and motherhood, sex and suicide. Her work was personally resonant—she addressed being a woman in a world often hostile to and dismissive of them. She was a great artist, using interesting images and word combinations—her use of language was disarming and sensual. And as all good writers do, she enlarged my world, opening me up to new ways of thinking and understanding.

One of my favorites—then and now—was “Somewhere in Africa,” a poem from her Pulitzer-prize winning Live or Die (1966) and addressed to her mentor, John Holmes, who had died of cancer:

Must you leave, John Holmes, with the prayers and psalms
you never said, said over you? Death with no rage
to weigh you down? Praised by the mild God, his arm
over the pulpit, leaving you timid, with no real age,

whitewashed by belief, as dull as the windy preacher!

Up until that point, this was the only God I knew—mild, whitewashed. Uninteresting. Not a God worthy of my devotion. There was something very wrong to Sexton about the whole scene—John Holmes entering death to the sound of psalms and prayers he never said, to an unappealing God. No, Sexton would not have it.

If this is death and God is necessary let him be hidden
from the missionary, the well-wisher and the glad-hand.
Let God be some tribal female who is known but forbidden.

Let there be this God who is a woman who will place you
upon her shallow boat, who is a woman naked to the waist,
moist with palm oil and sweat, a woman of some virtue
and wild breasts, her limbs excellent, unbruised and chaste.

Let her take you. She will put twelve strong men at the oars
for you are stronger than mahogany and your bones fill
the boat high as with fruit and bark from the interior.
She will have you now, you whom the funeral cannot kill.

Feminist theologians had been challenging images of Gods for decades by the time I was twenty, but I hadn’t known it. Sexton opened my eyes and offered me a new way of imagining, one that was exciting and almost dangerous. A part of me loved her defiance.

In another of my favorites, “Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman” (also from Live or Die, 1966), she writes to her daughter of becoming a woman:

The summer has seized you,
as when, last month in Amalie, I saw
lemons as large as your desk-side globe—
that miniature map of the world—
and I could mention, too,
the market stalls of mushrooms
and garlic buds all engorged.
Or I think even of the orchard next door,
where the berries are done
and the apples are beginning to swell.

To become a woman, Sexton assures her daughter, is a beautiful thing. She wants and needs her to know that, because

I hear
as in a dream
the conversations of the old wives
speaking of womanhood.
I remember that I heard nothing myself.
I was alone.
I waited like a target.

Sexton was, at times, a terrible mother. Too often, she repeated the abusive relational patterns she experienced at the hands of her parents with her own children—so it often goes. But her poem spoke to another part of her, the part of her who loved her children in a passionate, ferocious way. And she uttered the words every girl child wants to hear, from the depth of her being, from her mother:

What I want to say, Linda,
is that there is nothing in your body that lies.
All that is new is telling the truth.
I’m here, that somebody else,
An old tree in the background.

Darling,
stand still at your door,
sure of yourself, a white stone, a good stone—
as exceptional as laughter
you will strike fire,
that new thing!

I will never forget the conference I had with my professor—the same professor who urged me to explore her work—just days before the final day of the semester. “So, what do you think after spending so much time with one writer” he asked me. “I have come to really love her,” I replied. “That’s good,” he said. “She really needed to be loved.” Sexton’s final years were miserable—she was a lonely alcoholic whose poems became sloppy and sometimes incoherent. She committed suicide in 1974.

Twenty years on, I feel an even deeper appreciation for Sexton’s work. It’s personal resonance for me has only deepened. Before, I could understand, in a felt way, her experience as a daughter, and now, I can comprehend her experience as a mother. I know very well the joy of being a mother but also some of its pain: from the moment they are born, our children begin the process of separating from us. “I burst empty/of you, letting you learn how the air is so./…I am a shore/rocking you off. You break from me…” (from “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960).

I feel that the questions she raises about being a woman in the world are more pressing than ever. We are so deeply ambivalent about, if not still hostile to, powerful women–Is it not true (as the events of this past year show plainly, to me) that even still, the powerful woman is “possessed witch,” “dreaming evil,” “misunderstood” (from “Her Kind,” To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960)?

I know better her spiritual struggles. I am far more devout than she ever was, but I know better, more seasoned by life at 40, what it is like to want to be close to God but feel a great sense of alienation and disconnection. In “With Mercy For the Greedy,” (From All My Pretty Ones, 1962), she writes of trying desperately to believe, while gazing at a cross her friend gave her:

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.

And while I am unable to give up on the whole endeavor that is the life of faith, I share her view that sometimes, it seems that it is only through writing that I find healing, even absolution:

My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
with mercy,
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.

An Armored Heart

When he was six years old, I listened as my son and his buddy engaged in conversation in the back of my car on the way to our home for a play date.  “Will you sleep over my house?” his buddy asked.  My son was quiet, and his buddy continued, “It would be so great.  We could stay up the whole night and sneak into the refrigerator….” My son was still quiet, and so his buddy repeated his question:  “Want to sleep at my house?”  My son pondered for a few seconds and then answered, “No.  I don’t want to sleep at your house.”  His friend was confused and asked, “Why not?”  My son paused for a second and said, in a very matter of fact way, “Because I’m scared.”  “Okay,” his friend said, and the conversation quickly shifted to Pokémon.

This memory came to me as I silently ate my lunch in the lobby of the OmniShoreham Hotel during a conference for psychotherapists.  Earlier that morning, I heard a keynote in which the speaker asked us to reflect more on vulnerability as essential to growth, creativity, joy.  In a workshop, I watched a demonstration of a clinician who masterfully guided a couple as they lowered their defenses and became more vulnerable with one another.  “It is easier for me to tell you that I’m angry,” the wife courageously said to her husband, “than it is to tell you that I’m terrified of losing you.”  And what was most resonant with me was a single image the keynote speaker asked us to ponder—the image of a heart covered with pieces of heavy armor.

I remembered feeling both proud and relieved when I heard the exchange between my son and his buddy a few years ago.  Proud because my son was courageous—the very root of the word “courage” is “heart,” and my son’s naked words, “I’m scared,” suggested to me that he felt safe enough and free enough to speak truly, from the heart.  Relieved because his friend, as many small children do, responded in a basic, open-hearted way.  His “okay” signaled something deeper to my son:  not only is it “okay” that he is scared, but he is okay.  His friend loves and accepts him anyway.

And perhaps this small but significant moment in my son’s life left such a deep impression on me because it is a contrast to my own experience as a child, to the experience of many of us whose hearts have been armored because we learned, in many such moments in our lives, to feel ashamed.

The summer when I was six, my mother registered me for a “Dr. Seuss Day” workshop at the local library.  She dropped me off at the library—for whatever reason, she couldn’t bring me inside, and she told me to go directly to the children’s room.  When I got to the room, however, I saw that the door was closed.  I was late, and I could see through the small, square window in the door that the workshop had started.  A leader, surrounded by happy children donning Seuss-inspired hats, crouched at a small, portable stove, scrambling what looked like a green egg.  For whatever reason, I felt afraid to open the door and walk inside, as if I were some unwelcome intruder, and so instead, I spent the hour walking the aisles of the library.  At hour’s end, I spotted my mother walking into the children’s room, and by the time I got to the room, I could see her talking with the workshop leader.  When I approached, my mother was silent and had a look of embarrassment on her face.  The leader, with a look of annoyance, interrogated me, “Why, Becky, did you not come join us?”  Their looks signaled to me that I could not speak from the heart—“I was afraid.”  Instead, I said the only words I knew to say in that moment—“I don’t know.”  My mother’s face softened a bit, but the leader responded, in a brassy, elevated voice, “Well that’s too bad, my dear, because you missed out on a lot of fun!”  My mother was more tender with me than usual for the remainder of the day, but she never talked to me about what happened.  On some level, I think she wanted to, but she didn’t know how.  Her heart was armored, and I was learning to armor mine.

Here is what I have come to know.  Vulnerability is the process of stripping away the heart’s armor.  For me (and for many who have a history of shame), it’s the hardest and riskiest but most essential personal work.  Without it, authentic growth, joy, love are impossible.

Here is what I also know.  I can’t do the work alone.  Shame has marked my history, but so too has acceptance and love from some people with whom I have felt safe enough to show the chinks in my heart’s armor.  There have been people—not many but enough—with whom I have been able to say, “I am scared.”  “I am lonely.”  “I am sad.”  And those people have wrapped me in the comfort of their love and assured me that I am not alone.  As a therapist, I’ve spent many hours (even in my relatively short career) with women and men who have not been so lucky.  I am grateful.

My son is now almost eight years old.  He went to his first sleepover at a dear friend’s house a few months ago.  I lay awake much of that night, wondering if he felt scared.  When I went to pick him up in the morning, he was upset when I arrived and didn’t want to leave.  It was big.  “He’s really growing up,” I thought to myself somewhat wistfully.

And then a week ago, we chatted in the kitchen as I prepared our family dinner.   He volunteered that his best friend asked him to accompany him for a week-long sleepaway camp this summer.  “He said it would be so great and that we could share a bunk bed.  He’d sleep on the bottom bunk, and I’d sleep on the top.”  “And so what do you think?” I asked.  “I told him that a week seems like a long time for me.  I told him I felt too scared.”  I started to feel my heart beat quickly and noticed myself stirring the bechamel quite vigorously as I asked, “And what did he say?”  Without hesitation and with a sense of deep security, my son said, “He said, ‘Okay, then, maybe next year.’”  And the two got on with their play.

A sense of deep calm washed over me.  My heart felt soft.  “Yes.  Maybe next year.”

In the garden

I started gardening the summer before my mother became sick.  The man from whom we purchased our house was a “Master Gardener” and had bequeathed to us eight raised garden beds, an asparagus patch, and a small orchard of a dozen or so fruit trees.  It was a bit intimidating, but I was eager to take on the challenge of stewarding it, and I was eager to see whether or not it  was something I would come to love.  I had been raised in the city, long before I became acquainted with all of the creative ways that urban dwellers grow their own food, but I suspected that I would love it.  I imagined that it would be exciting to grow my own food—it is.  I wondered if the feel of the soil on my skin and the sunshine on my face would provide calm and healing for my typically high-strung and anxious self—they do.

That first summer, 2013, was wonderful.  Without having had much experience, I grew so much—peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and more.  I tried my hand, unsuccessfully, at strawberries and corn (there was so much to learn).  I discovered a new way of being in the world and found new ways to share myself (and my food) with  friends.   That summer, I beheld a beauty and wonder in nature that I hadn’t yet known, and I unearthed parts of myself that were surprising and exciting.

My mother helped in the garden when she could.  One afternoon, as we worked together to pull weeds and prune where needed, she said, “I have to admit that I’m very pleasantly surprised—I never expected that you’d love this so much, and it’s so nice to see.”  I gazed at my garden and marveled at the work of my hands; she gazed upon me and marveled at the work of hers.

In September of that year,  my mother felt unwell.  Her illness began with what seemed to be a nasty chest cold.  After weeks in which she only seemed to get worse, we guessed it was pneumonia.  A few weeks and several tests later, her doctor noticed something curious on her chest x-ray.  There were small masses in the lining of her lungs.  She was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma.  We learned that even with aggressive treatment, she would most likely live for a few months, at best a year or two.

By November, my mother spent most of her time, when not in treatment, in bed.  Her cancer treatment seemed to be making things worse, not better—she was so, so tired and was often in great pain.  But she ordered my father to get me a very particular gift for my birthday—a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi that could be placed in my garden.  And in the card the accompanied it, she wrote in shaky handwriting the words of his prayer:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love….where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy…For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.” 

By March, the cancer had spread to her brain, and she died in early April, two weeks before Easter.

I have a confession to make:  on Ash Wednesday this year, I didn’t step foot inside a church.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to avert my eyes whenever I saw the crosses emblazoned on passersby.  “There’s a church a block and a half from our house,” my husband reminded me when I offered up the “I couldn’t find a way to get there” excuse.  “I think I’m having a bit of a spiritual crisis,” I told a trusted friend.

I spent some time pondering what was happening in my inner life.  Lent is a reminder of death-my mother’s death, Jesus’ death, my own death.  “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”  Sometimes, it just feels too painful to bear.  So a part of me wants and needs to be defiant.  And sometimes, a part of me wants to wrap myself only in the comfort of denial.   Easter cannot come soon enough.  But I know that it doesn’t work that way.  New life comes, I know, but I have to first walk through the landscape of death.  Every year, I have to work through this in new and very personal ways.   And anyway, I ultimately trust that God always has a way of finding me and bringing me back.

Sometime shortly after my mother died, a guest brought me some potted lilies.  They sat on the mantle of our fireplace for weeks.  I was, understandably, distracted, and it took me a while to notice them—neglected, slumped over, dried up.  “So much for my green thumb,” I thought to myself.  I decided to bury the bulbs by my statue of St. Francis.

The summer came.  We grew snap peas and onions, carrots and summer squash.  We still had trouble with strawberries, but we finally grew a few (just a few) edible ears of corn.  “How lucky I am to have this garden,” I thought.  It was a good, comforting companion in my grief.

But it was the next summer—the summer of 2015—that I noticed them.  I was in the garden, trying to pick and prune and find ways to get my children to participate, and I spotted them.  Two lilies had sprouted at the feet of St. Francis.  I hadn’t known that lilies in the garden usually bloom in the summer.  I hadn’t imagined that those bulbs still carried life within them.  I still had much to learn about the mysteries and workings of the natural world.

Lately, my mother has been visiting my dreams.  I wish I could say that she appears to me as some beaming, heavenly figure, offering words of consolation and wisdom.  But she doesn’t.  In the dreams, she and I are sometimes engaged in some kind of conflict, some kind of heated conversation.  Similar to many people who have complicated relationships with family, my relationship with my mother wasn’t always an easy one, and she died before we had the chance to work everything out.  These recent dreams are not always pleasant, but they are comforting, because they remind me that even as my mother died, our relationship remains a living one.

I think every bird in Durham has shat upon my poor St. Francis, and three years on, he is looking more weather-beaten and weary.  As I write this, I can see him from my kitchen window, overlooking my snow-covered garden beds.  He also has a wise and generous look about him. He will welcome the birds this Spring, in spite of their indiscretions.

And I imagine a time when I can get back into the garden and dig my bare hands into the soil.  I dream of  the first tips of asparagus, peeking up from the thawed ground.  I envision snap peas and peppers and eggplant, all bursting with color.  It will come.  But not yet.

St. francis

Redux

A few years ago, I started a blog which was known as “Grace Notes.”  My first entry was a reflection on my experience of reproductive loss.  After seven or so entries about a wide range of topics, I stopped blogging.  I felt that I didn’t have a clear focus, except that they were rather personal entries, inviting people to consider my ways of understanding my experiences (I am well aware of my narcissistic tendencies–come look at me!)

I’m not certain this blog will be much different, but I love to write and so want and need to keep doing it….