Friday, November 28, 2008

It is possible to nurse a 2-year-old and heft a log into the wood burning stove...

...without singeing the hair off either the child’s head or one’s knuckles. You don’t notice how absurd it is (nursing while multi-tasking) until your husband says Jesus, either put the kid down or let me get the pizza out of the oven. It’s easy just to keep on doing whatever works, in the eye of the storm of raising three children, but it’s time. To wean. Soon. Seeing nursing mothers with newborns is always good for bringing me abruptly into the present: my son is now a third of my body height and strong enough to maneuver the breast 360 degrees to stay attached to the nipple while in orbit.

I’m a little at a loss for how to cut him off—since I weaned the other two children when I got pregnant with their siblings. I used to call them 1,3,5,7 nights: my growling, hungry stomach woke me up precisely every two hours to eat. My doctor informed me 67% of mothers wean during pregnancy, even moms with a strong desire to breastfeed—simply because of the nutrient strain it puts on the mother’s body. I was kind of hoping this third child would be the one to just stop. On his own. But. He’s not. Interested in stopping.

The week we weaned our first child was hell—talk to my husband who had been training heavily for an important triathlon. Why now? I remember him saying, as he paced in the living room with our screaming daughter, Vineman race morning approaching. Because I can’t take it any more, I had said, hands on my belly, where the new baby rolled in his amniotic berth. We borrowed the family rocking chair, which would rock smoothly until we were sure our daughter was as on the verge of dreamland. Without fail, from somewhere deep within the crotchety wood—high pitched screaks began. Our girl would wake and whimper; my husband would launch into another round of All the pretty little horses while contorting his back to find the least noisiest place to perch and rock. In the morning I’d take out the Phillips screwdriver and tighten each screw.

Night after night that chair found a way to howl at the critical dropping-off-to-sleep moment. We decided it had to be the family great-great-grandmothers, with little to do in the afterlife except harass us out of our new-age attempts at weaning. Running through my head, in an oddly comforting way, was Plath’s line from Morning Song: One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral. I have so loved nursing each of my children, in turn, and that “cow-heavy” feeling of milk coming in. But I also think of the possibility of a night of uninterrupted sleep. There’s a new ridiculous line noodling its way into my head: All I want for Christmas is my two front breasts...(not that I have rear breasts). That I know of.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I am no Buddha, nor can I get me to a nunnery...

...though at times it is tempting to consider such an escape into the grace of a strict schedule spare of the demands of raising children and navigating marriage: cleaning, food preparation, ritual observance of prayer, the one goal of communing ever more deeply with God (who doesn’t backtalk, at least not 3D). Instead, I can overlay the home sphere with the awareness that reality has given my own temple: this 3-story cabin, the children in it, my husband, the feral cats, our acre of redwoods. There’s no holy removal from the elements—I mean both the four usual elements we speak of (earth, air, etc.) as well as the stormy emotionals. My friend Stephanie (mother of one, confidante-extraordinaire in our shared trackings of all things spiritual) calls it: the domestic monastery. I aspire to create such an overlay.

In the narrowed world of such a monastery, where one’s life revolves around carpool, subscriptions to literary magazines (procured through reading fees to enter written work in contests) provide lift. This week it was Calyx: Journal of Art and Literature by Women and in it I find this passage from a short but powerful prose mother/daughter vignette: After dinner I go outside to let the cicadas vibrate my skin. Sometimes I hum along with them, and if I hit the right note, it’s both good and scary. But I only do this when it’s still light out.—Claudia B. Manley, Of Love and Radishes, Vol. 24, #1, Summer 07 (which I was able to enjoy despite the rejection notice for my work that arrived tucked under the cover. Nothing to take personally—700 poems had been submitted to the poor judge).

So much beautiful work to read, so much to be inspired by, including our new icon of hope, President-elect Obama—consider the open letters to him from thinkers, artists, and writers circulating on the internet, such as the November 6th letter by Alice Walker, who advises Obama: remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. Imagine being the President and trying to balance your public life and your personal life...Makes me grateful for the tiny balance I’m trying to achieve between the quiet interior life of writing, and the slightly more public, boisterous life I am required, and love, to inhabit with my three little monks and fellow High Priest/husband.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

I feel mediocre trying to do it all this season of pumpkins...

(which marks the gradual descent into holiday festivities that I’m struggling to keep simple enough to enjoy). Along with all the other good mothers of America, I stay up late putting costumes in bags and making lunches and baking...and the next day getting the kids dressed for school in the early morning dark since our first night of winter rain knocks out our power. My daughter shrieks, “It’s Halloween and the lights are out...” her joy infectious...and once finally behind the wheel, coursing past the dusky ambers and vibrant reds of the grapevines on Sullivan road, I begin to relax. Two children to deliver to school, one two-year-old to drop off at Grandpa’s, one stop at Long’s for paper napkins, and one final destination with a set of cloth wings, gold skirts and yellow leaves: my friend Karen’s house, where we will don our autumn harvest fairy outfits and head over to the kindergarten to surprise our sons. Karen (mother of four) calms me...when I walk into her house, she’s got a hot mug of tea, a sweet lilting woman singer crooning in the background, and something pumpkin baking for the activity past this one. Over her pot of eye glitter, we list our littany of must-dos and laugh. I’m ok again, in the company of another mother.

Which is why I loved this week’s article in The Bohemian featuring former Sonoma County Poet Laureate Terry Ehret, mother of three daughters: “Rather than fighting the situation,” (of trying to find uninterrupted writing time), “Ehret says she ‘embraced the aesthetic of interruption,’ as a way of mirroring her reality and honoring the fragmentation common to women’s lives” (Bart Schneider’s 10/22/08 Lit Life column). I embraced her philosophy all of Halloween, putting my thoughts about which poems to send Margie’s Strong Medicine Awards on hold until after the kindergarten celebration—when Grandpa and Grandma would take the three children home for the afternoon. If I was to meet my deadline, the power would have to be on at home again so I could print the poems; then there was the checkbook to retrieve from the van at Grandpa’s house. An hour later, wings sticking to my seat covers, I rushed to the post office where I watched the postmaster in Forestville put that magical red postmark on my envelopes. Mailing out submissions would have to count for writing day colliding with Halloween.

Not perfect, but good enough. Like earlier in the week when the kids were fighting and I sent my son to the yard to salvage the pie tin from its fate as second base. Shortly we had pumpkin shards simmering in the steamer, a container full of slime-stranded seeds to toast, and three happy kids with a handful of pie dough. Somewhere in the simultaneous popping of the pine rounds in the wood-burning stove and the vigorous undenting of the pie tin, I failed to notice we’d boiled off all our pumpkin steaming water. Another sacrificial pan, I sighed, at the sight of the electric range burner snake glowing through the bottom. Half the pulp went to the compost, and half to our pie. But even the husband had a second piece of our mediocre pie.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Backsplash--(while we're on the subject...

...of toilets) is the term for what happens to you when you do something for yourself that doesn’t include the kids and they’re loose somewhere in the house minus your hyper-vigilance. (I was going to credit New Jersey-momma-of-two Maureen for the word describing the phenomenon—until she corrected me: she’d actually said, “Blowback,” defined by Wikipedia as: “a term used in espionage to describe the unintended consequences of covert operations.”) I know she'd forgive the Freudian slip--it betrays a mother's position: close proximity to dirt, and other organic, earthy elements.

But we’re not the CIA, so maybe I should stick with backsplash: the 6 dresser drawers strewn about on the floor, because the five-year-old got his t-shirt without you (while you read the latest issue of Sow’s Ear), or the entire alphabet of Scrabble letters jammed between the deck boards (while you scanned Poets and Writers for upcoming deadlines), or the dismemberment of the husband’s G. I. Joe collection one fuzzy head and muscled forearm at a time (while you updated your blog), or the sleepless night after the long nap the littlest takes, when you foolishly wrote feverishly and thought, my God, I’m getting somewhere...when you really should have stormed the little trooper awake and gone back to gluing hairy bits of yarn and damp noodles to construction paper.

But would I go back to the immaculate mid-western post-graduate flat, with its shiny wooden floors, house plants I had time to water, writing desk at an angle to the corner of the room, one load of laundry to wash and sort, the routine of teaching two sections of literature, scoring essays on the side, vacuuming the floor of the crystal/gem store downtown on closing shifts? Nah—best to forgo those pre-marriage days of writing sour love stories with flowery titles better boiled down to include, “UTI in Paris,” “Panic attack in Grand Canyon,” “Chatting again, in bed, about your ex-wife,” or, “Abandoned again for the dog.”

So I remain anchored in time, here (with three children, a husband, five feral cats) in the beautiful mess of a house, and in Egypt, having just finished Michelle Moran’s novel Nefertiti: Queen of Egypt, Daughter of Eternity, imagining what it would feel like to be Nefertiti, birthing her six daughters while opposite her on the marital yoke, first wife Kiya birthed two sons. I ferreted out Moran’s novel because I am working on a series of poems written from various points of view—Nefertiti’s, her pharoah man’s, her sculptor’s, etc. The cost of finishing Moran’s novel? one gnarly morning making pancakes and getting kids ready for school with a reading hangover—you know the one—painful white fog between the eyes...somewhat mitigated by the delicious bliss of having gotten away with reading an entire book (between midnight and 5 a.m) without once hearing, “Mom? Mom?! Where are you?!”

Friday, September 26, 2008

Portable Milton raised over his head... 5 year-old son tears past me in pursuit of his 7 year-old sister. Shortly I hear shrieking and the sound of my book hitting someone’s head or the deck. I retrieve the book, which I haven’t cracked since undergrad days (Paradise Lost and When I consider how my light is spent) noting the mildew creeping along its top edge. The 2 ½ year old son, ever soaking in the antics, opens the front door and the tousle continues underfoot. Who knew watching your children hurt one another would hurt so much? When my daughter was little a friend warned me: that out-of-this-world love you have for your firstborn quickly transforms to out-of-this-world rage when your firstborn injures your secondborn.

When I mentioned at pick-up yesterday that I’d put Siblings Without Rivalry on hold at the library, one mom wise-cracked wryly, “It’s a myth!!” I admit, I’ve read Parenting from the Heart, Positive Discipline, etc., the list goes on....and on an occasional good day I might muster the strength to think: what am I feeling? What might they be feeling? What’s the need underneath this chaos? How might we proceed in a calm and humane manner? etc. And come up with some consequence to still them ("Did you want to keep your play-date with so-n-so?!”) But lately the pull (for them) to get that hank of hair in hand or snatch back the favored fork has been too strong. Talking to other parents with a gaggle of children helps, like my friend (mother of three) who said to me on a walk, “My little brother--I see him once a week or so. I always look at him and chuckle to myself: why would you ever come near me after what I did to you when we were kids?”

Thus, I concede: fighting is normal, inevitable. Boring, actually, to be able to say, “My brother and I? Always got along. Shared our cookies, halved them neatly, kissed goodnight.” Taking my friend’s cue, and since there’s no shortage of psychological research at one’s disposal when it comes to family of origin, I turned to mine. I still remember re-biting the spot where my little brother Peter bit me, since the walk from the chicken barn to the Illinois farmhouse (where my parents were waking) was just far enough for his teethmarks—the evidence--to fade. And the distinct sound of the can opener, its hinged metal halves inches from my ear, whizzing by and hitting the wall. Or wrestling with him on a bean bag chair until his head cracked a pane of the glass door leading to the garden.

But I also remember, just as vividly, when we traveled across country in a wooden camper my father built by hand, my brother, sister and I in the loft, telling stories at night as we hurtled through Wisconsin, Colorado, and on into California...because it was so delicious to make Peter laugh. Not exactly the noble sonnets of Milton, but stories of the superhero we’d concocted, Diarrhea Dan, and his epic struggle to overcome evil using bodily fluids as a weapon. Not a bad way to spend your light: in perpetual tousle on the one hand, in pursuit of laughter on the other.

Friday, September 12, 2008

As long as you are matching socks...

...or removing pubic hairs from the base of the toilet, not a single member of the family needs you. But the moment you open the laptop and reach for the secret stash of chocolate, the kids, followed by the husband, come sauntering in, sensing the disruption in the force-field of attention. My fault truly—a bad habit from the days when the children were first crawling and the imminent threat of babies disappearing off decks or out of windows existed—so of course they’re all used to living in the waves of umbilical hyper-vigilance exuding from every pore of my body. And of course they’re see what’s so worthy of dropping the radar. A little white noise does the trick—turning on the dryer, or carrying the sock basket on my hip and plunking it down next to the laptop. Or browning the celery and onions for the chicken soup, so that little distinct click of laptop opening can’t be heard. When I consulted my writer-who-also-happens-to-be-a-mom friend and my sculptor-who-also-happens-to-be-a-mom friend, they confirmed I was not alone: they too had experienced this phenomenon.

Last Saturday, I got away with reading The Sun while the bacon fried, just long enough to get through page one of “Blind Love,” by Rosa Montero (translated by Claudia Routon in Hunger Mountain’s Spring 2008 issue) and arrive at this line: “The perverse reality is pretty girls, however stupid, are imbued with rich inner selves, always. Meanwhile no one bothers to imagine a lovely soul in a grey-haired, large-headed, wall-eyed woman. A constant companion to my ugliness, this truth festers like an open wound: it’s not that they don’t see me, they don’t imagine me.” You have to read the rest of this Cyrano variation yourself (totally worth it), but I have to say this paragraph made me think about the thoughts we hold about others, and the thoughts others hold about us. How beautiful to imagine beyond assumption, beyond the he-said/she-said of friends in marital strife, imagining instead a more vibrant under-core, their happy potential. Like the photo of my mother-in-law’s husband on his memorial leaflet—tan, barrel-chested, thriving, in his thirties. He’s off, for one last swim in the sea, and I, to my cabin to write, leaving the phone in the house, kissing the kids goodbye for the day (how dare I—folder of laundry, maker of killer organic meals, braider extraordinaire, one-stop healer—tempting them to imagine I might be all that and more).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Today it was possible to revise...

...two paragraphs about a childhood piano teacher—(from an exercise called “Spots of Light” I found in Your Life As Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer, which asks you to balance the writing of dark subjects with forays into bright moments from the same time frame: “from an artistic as well as a mental health point of view, you need light with dark memories. In autobiographic writing as in painting, you need to protect your light colors...”) laptop in the kitchen, the youngest nursing, the five-year-old squeezing a steady torrent of red and blue food coloring into his pancake mix, a good morning despite the shrieking that ensues when, flipping with one hand and balancing the nurser with the other, I accidentally break the handle on the purple purse pancake. It does no good to explain that the purse handle will taste the same whether or not it is attached.

Still, I’m happy here with my sons, the five-year-old asking how to spell “poison oak”, the nurser asleep enough to maneuver down into the bed for an hour nap. The laptop hibernates while I bake with the five-year-old; he’s singing the same three-note song over and over, then plinking it out mercilessly on the piano with his flour-coated fingers. But it buys me a few moments at my own keyboard to right a word or two.

Later when I sit down to play, D will stick to E, the lentil he used to mark Middle C now wedged between. But I know better than to think I can make it through more than a couple measures of Beethoven; besides, it is Wednesday: writer’s group; at 6: 17 p.m. I’ll be escaping with my miss-matched socks, dried pancake batter in the bangs, and a folder with the week’s worth of sentences, heading towards another human being who cares to discuss verb nuances over mugs of Earl and, if we’re lucky, something warm from the oven the husband has prepared: chocolate-chip cookies or a loaf of sourdough oozing with brie.

Monday, March 3, 2008

February, awash in doubt...

...regarding the ability to draft a decent poem or essay. The verdict: sleep deprivation.

So many attempts at soothing the middle child’s growing pains later (Tylenol, Homeopathic and Bach flower remedies, Epsom soaks, thirty-dollar bottles of liquid calcium-magnesium in orange-flavored serums, vitamins, bananas, jungle juice teeming with acai berry antioxidants, arnica rubdowns, tiger balm kneads, the sleeping prophet’s palma christi applied with heat, and the hundredth reading of Rip Van Winkle), I’m reduced to 4 a.m. Google searches for a promising? lead to a site out of the UK on emu oil, since the pain that started in the arches now also radiates from my son’s knees, elbows, and this month, hands.

While he folds his body back into mine, the youngest wakes, aware the source of milk has traveled into his brother’s room. The dueling crying begins and the grueling portioning out of care, nursing one, the other nestled against my back pleading for me to hold his feet, writhing his knees between mine, curling his hands into my spine.

An hour later they’re both asleep. Insomnia sets in; I too wouldn’t mind crawling into bed next to my mother, but she’s across town in the arms her lover. I extract myself from the boys, stoke the fire, make tea, find solace in a passage from Heather McHugh’s essay, The Fabric: A Poet’s Vesalius (December 2007 issue of Poetry): “The body’s blood network wraps a man into his shape, keeps him bound in influencies, fluencies. It is the tree of our family system, with one trunk and many branches and twigs curved about in interlocking bonds, a place of humming hammockwork. It’s a comforting figure. When you look at circulatory man, you see why humans had to hug. But when you look at neural man, you see why humans had to fly.” The exquisite quiet and steadfast company of another thinker, trammeling into the terrain I love.

When the first watery light comes through the skylight, I call a friend in Iowa City. “I feel so old, Mary. What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m ill and I don’t know it.”

“Nah,” she says, “You’re nursing, that’s all.”

Friday-writing-day: here I sit, brainpower siphoned off into the breast milk, my youngest napping in the bed beside my desk, his eyes REM-darting beneath his eyelids as he dreams all I should be writing. In my altered state, Mr. Tart, the lab is here: I think I could follow my son into dream, awake, if I tried.