Monday, December 7, 2009
People often want to know if you’ve chosen a name. I am hesitant to tell them, even my close friends, hesitant to say this name aloud. Why? It is too easy to gauge their approval or skepticism, and I don’t want to search for another’s approval. To name one’s child feels too intimate, too much a private ritual. Although approval may feel good (“I love that name!” – pat yourself on the back, good choice), another person’s hesitation or lack of enthusiasm can feel…disheartening. You wish you hadn’t told them, wish you hadn’t said the name aloud, taken away from its sacredness.
Even though I am pretty sure that we will go with this name, it still feels too early for my husband and I to call our baby by it. In his present form, floating in fluid, otherworldly, he doesn’t feel like he should have a name yet. Somehow, the formal bestowing of a name seems like it should happen later, after this creature has taken his first breath, after this being has joined our world of light and air, not while he is still in this in-between place. Somehow, calling him by his name too casually places him too soon into our world of category and definition, personality. I don’t wish to place my baby in this world quite yet, in this world where we and then he will write down his identity—first name, middle name, hyphenated last—onto a form. Babies in utero feel too mysterious for this. Like gifts from God we mustn’t be too eager to place our mark on.
When we first found out he was a boy, it even felt a bit strange to suddenly call him “he.” I’ve since grown used to the shift, however, and “he” feels better than “it,” but to make this transition into a distinct pronoun was also to withdraw him one layer away from the mystery. That was a choice we made and not one I regret, for there is something grounding in knowing the sex; somehow it makes this child feel more real. I can understand though why others might not want to find out. And either way, of course, it’s still a huge mystery.
I realize I’m being a bit contradictory. On one hand, I don’t want to assign too many projections on this being, I don’t want to draw him too firmly yet into this world; but on the other hand, the more I can imagine him and practice whispering his name, the closer I feel. I imagine how this baby will quickly turn into a boy, and then a teen, and eventually into a full-grown man. I imagine calling out his name across a playground or out the back door, calling him inside from the yard where he is climbing trees and aiming slingshots. I indulge in these mini daydreams—even as I know to remind myself that not all boys are the same.
How our child will go on to embody the name he is given, no one can say. Perhaps it will fit him perfectly, or perhaps it will hang off him awkwardly someday and he might even choose a new name. All I know is, you choose the name that speaks to you for whatever reason, the one that rises to the top of the list of infinite possibilities. Then you practice holding that name in your heart, whispering it in your dreams. You listen closely, trying to sense whether your child accepts this name, because you want to believe that it was not you who did the choosing.
Monday, November 30, 2009
It’s hard to believe I’m nearing the end of my second trimester, soon to enter the final stretch of preparation for birth and for HUGE LIFE CHANGES-- not to mention entering that physical stage where things start to get more uncomfortable.
I am so grateful for the time I have had during this pregnancy to read, to write, and to ponder this great unfolding mystery. I know that most pregnant women don’t have this luxury, and instead must carry the usual stresses of work and home at the same time that their bodies go through so many cycling surges of joy, fear, worry, awe, and excitement. I wish that all pregnant women could take the time to go into personal retreat, or to at least take as much time to pay attention and listen to their emotions as they do to thinking about practicalities like procuring baby supplies, maternity leave, and childcare.
For what other event do we go through that is as momentous and life-altering as giving birth? Death—of a loved one, or our own—is the only equivalent I can think of. Yet with death, so often we are less prepared for its arrival; even if we rationally know it will come, only in the most opportune situations do we have the emotional and spiritual presence to openly honor and welcome it.
In childbirth, a part of us also dies as we give birth. Pam England and Rob Horowitz write in Birthing from Within: “The mounting intensity of labor forces complete surrender of our body and will, dissolving our egos, ideas, and familiar sense of self. We’re not afraid of dying because there is no “self” left to resist and fear. At that transcendent moment we have become birth itself. This is the spiritual birth of woman into mother.”
I am soon to become a mother. In some ways, this feels like the most natural role I could possibly prepare for, and I trust that so much will come intuitively. In other respects, my husband and I have so much to learn and get ready for. We need to go to childbirth classes, as well as classes in breastfeeding and newborn care. We need to decide where our baby will sleep, what kind of diapers we will use, and where we will fit all the baby gear into our tiny one-bedroom cabin. We need to figure out how much unpaid time off my husband can afford to take (after his one paid week of paternity leave is over), and who we can count on to help us with meals and care in the weeks that follow the birth. We need to write a birth plan that outlines our wishes (although this seems less pressing now that we’ve made the choice to give birth at home), and I need to practice my squats and Kegels (squeezing the pelvic muscles to help prepare for birth), get plenty of exercise, eat enough protein and ingest all the necessary nutrients-- do all I can to prepare for a healthy baby and smooth labor.
I also need (want) to secure a book deal for my old completed manuscript, and make as much progress as possible on my new writing project, because I know that whatever I don’t complete before the baby is born will have to be put on hold for some time. I want to honor my writing projects and life as much as possible in this sweet spacious time I have right now, for I know that it will be a long time before I ever have this kind of stretched out time to myself again.
In short, I have plenty to think about and do, even without formal employment. And this list doesn’t even touch the emotional preparation that my husband and I are going through, that is slowly building in intensity. In January, we will go to our birthing class, a class that will not only teach us about coping with labor pain, but will also encourage us to journal and make birth art, to prepare for our new lives with a focus and intention that is more rooted in the spiritual, and less in the planning/worrying brain. And soon we will also go on a “babymoon,” or at least take a couple long weekends to be alone together in nature, away from our normal routines, acknowledging what is ahead of us, and saying goodbye to what we will be leaving behind.
I want to make sure that we take the time to make ritual. I’ve heard that the period following a birth is one of the most common times for marital issues to arise, and I want to make sure that we do everything we can right now to honor our partnership-- as a couple, the two of us—- as well as what it means that we are already becoming more than just the two of us, as we begin to welcome this new being.
My husband likes to joke that “our lives are over” and anticipate the birth of our child with an “Oh, shit!” tone, especially when talking to others. When I question why he must always give more weight to expressing the fearful side of things as opposed to expressing the excitement and awe that I know he also feels, he corrects himself “our lives as we know it,” thus softening the drama of his claim. Though I know it is healthy to openly express our fears, I want to encourage him to also practice affirming the trust that we will be capable and passionate parents, fueled in new ways we can only imagine even as we will surely be worn by exhaustion. And although my husband has not spent as much time contemplating birth as I have, I can see in his eyes his shifting awareness when I say things about "our baby" who becomes more real each day; and I can hear it in his voice each time he puts his hand on my belly and exclaims how “trippy” it is. The other night when I was spooning my husband, my belly against his back, he finally had to turn around because the baby was moving so much he couldn’t fall asleep.
All in all, my second trimester has been gentle and sweet. I stopped feeling nauseous long ago, I’ve had plenty of energy, and I feel so much more grounded in this whole process. Once we decided where to give birth and I chose a midwife whom I trusted, I could finally relax into the pregnancy, knowing that there was plenty of time to soak in everything else I’d need to know. “That’s why they give you nine months,” a friend said. Indeed.
This is my time-- to be present, to dream, to write, to stay open. To dwell as much as possible in a place of awe and awareness, good health and good energy. To prepare for the birth of my child, and the birth of myself, as a mother. To prepare for the passing of one phase, and to welcome the coming of another.
Into the great fathomless unknown, we plunge. Let us plunge with steady breath and open eyes, my dear, for once we arrive on the other side, we may quickly forget that there was ever another.
Monday, November 23, 2009
My friend Shelley and I started this blog in part because we wanted to create a space where we could put our writing out into the world more openly and freely, without having to agonize over editing and then submit and wait and wait and wait for those elusive acceptances from literary journals. On one hand, it is working. I have shared my writing with more of my friends through this blog than I would through most obscure print publications. I love the instant gratification of pushing that Post button, and then waiting for comments to trickle in. But I also know that I still resist writing about just any old subject here. I hesitate from being too chatty, from posting random thoughts of little substance, or from posting things about myself that feel too personal to share without more distance and perspective. (In that sense, traditional publishing is great because by the time a piece of mine is actually published, I’m removed enough from the emotions it took to write the piece to feel not quite so naked).
But in short, I still have a long ways to go before I truly treat this blog as a place to “write without censoring” or to be “more free on the page,” abstract goals I first espoused. Instead I sit and muse for days or weeks about what my next blog post might be. And I keep telling myself (and Shelley) that it’s okay to post shorter, less polished, more random musings. That if I/we don’t every so often, then we’ll start to take this blog too seriously and not post very much, instead of utilizing it as a way to write more loosely and frequently.
So dare I post this post that in this moment does not feel worth posting? Maybe I will, and then maybe I’ll go ahead and write another one right away, just to try and prove to myself once again that the more you write, the more you discover all you have to say.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Els and Frank wrote to each other as often as every other day, and were apart for as much as half the year. Frank was a merchant marine and spent much of his time delivering and picking up goods from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, as well as ports in South America. For several summers he also fished for salmon up in Alaska, outside of Cordova or in Bristol Bay. Els stayed at home, saving and investing the money he earned. Sometimes she worked part-time as a secretary or an interior designer, but mostly she was good at being frugal and working on their home. She vigilantly planted and weeded; she picked and de-wormed hundreds of apples to make sauce or freeze slices for pies for when her husband returned; she scrubbed and waxed the floors, washed the walls, and scoured the toilet more than I’ll ever hope to do; she sewed her own clothes, baked her own bread and hung loads of laundry up to dry. She diligently reported to her husband how much she saved on used goods or home repairs, and how much she went without so that they could save his hard-earned money for when they were together. For, after all, she once said, let us not forget that money is the reason we are apart.
Sometimes, Frank came home for only a couple months, just enough time to be properly fed and made love to by his wife, before setting off again in the company of sailors. But other times, they’d have whole winters or summers together where they would take long road trips, for up to six months. A few years in a row they drove down to Mexico, camping in the back of their white Ford station wagon at R.V. parks on bluffs overlooking the sea, staying for months within communities of expats, mostly couples or families with young kids. Frank contented himself with reading, walking, and whittling at wood. Els would go to the market and haggle for local prices on produce and meat, then cook hearty, locally-inspired meals on their camp stove like pescado veracruz or beans, tortillas, and rice. Both of them loved to read, and Els loved to write. They collected pre-Colombian artifacts and read up on local history. Many of the things in their home probably came from Mexico—old brass candlesticks, stirrups, pottery, and blankets. They also collected arrowheads, awls, and other old Indian tools at favorite spots up and down the West coast. In the early sixties they started spending whole summers on their new sailboat (a converted Bristol Bay fishing vessel which Frank put a cabin on), the Hoko. From the Canadian shores of the Inside Passage they collected artifacts—old trading beads, tools, and baskets.
Els was a thirty-some-year-old housewife in the 1950s with no children and with a husband at sea. The older she grew, and the more time she spent alone, the more “out there” to many she became. She was interested in psychology, art therapy, classical music, Chinese art and poetry, the mind, belief systems, alternatives to religion. Ever since she was a child, she’d rejected her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and some of her letters hint at a history of mental illness, as well as emotional abuse, in her family. As she grew older, she wrote more poetry and started to paint. She grew interested in transcendental meditation and local politics, even starting her own campaign against smoking in public places. In the absence of a career, close friends, or family, she reached out to join or spearhead various causes, causes that later might have become obsessions, obsessions that existed in her mind.
Frank also loved art and literature, but was less interested in philosophy and causes. It was what it was. If he would have been interested in philosophy, he might have realized just how Zen he was—but he wasn’t. The older they grew, the more it seems he simply tolerated Els’s interests, but did little to try and share them with her. If I had not known Frank in real life and had to judge him solely on his letters, I would find him rather dull. Els wrote long, intricate letters, sometimes filled with gossip and petty remarks, but always vivid with details, dreams, frustrations, hopes, and the wanderings of her mind. Frank rarely responded to the specific things she said unless it was of a practical nature; instead he mostly just stated where he was, what port they’d be in next and for how long, how he’d look for whatever items that she’d requested (stereo equipment, straw matting, Japanese bowls), and how she should feel free to spend money or invest as she saw fit. Then he’d apologize for his lack of verbosity and thank her for her many good letters. Sometimes he might profess his love or his increasing longing for her and would speak of how she was the center of his life. But just as often his letters felt distant and cold, a few hurried scribbles in contrast to her long, diary-like accounts. If I were Els, I would have grown frustrated with his brevity. After all, they had no email and made no phone calls while he was away; all they had was this air mail correspondence. Letters took about a week to get from Seattle to the many far-flung ports. They lived years of their lives in this staggered time, one week apart in their news.
I can only read so many letters at once before I get burnt out and need to take a break. I read quickly, flying past the mundane details about people I don’t know, seeking out passages that hint at the inner fabric of their marriage—why they never had children, how they convinced themselves this was the best arrangement, how they related to their parents and siblings, how they related to each other as emotional, spiritual, and sexual beings. I also search for clues about the house—what repairs did they make or plan to make, when did they plant certain bushes or trees that are now thirty feet high, what was the neighborhood like at that time, how did they enjoy or bemoan this space that I now call my home.
I am surprised to read how from the year they moved in, Els wanted to build an addition and finish the basement. Fifty-some years at this house, and they never accomplished either. She complained of how dark, dusty, and damp the house was, how there was a lack of storage space, and how the basement was filled with mold—the same complaints we have now. In latter years, they had plenty of money from investments to spend on these improvements, but it seems they barely put a dime into the cabin besides whatever repairs they could jimmy-rig on their own. Having grown up in the Depression, they were models of thrift and resourcefulness, but it’s still hard for me to believe that they never put more into their home—which may also represent what went neglected in their marriage.
It’s understandable that the cabin was not a priority to Frank, with him at sea for half of the year, and with them both away during the summers, cruising the Inside Passage from the 60s to 80s. Frank was a wanderer at heart, and Els, at least at first, was a willing and wonderful companion. If I lived alone in this house year after year with no career, and no close friends nor family nearby, without even the Internet to keep me company, I too would surely jump at the chance to pack up and get away into nature for the summer with my only lover and best friend.
As a child and as an adult, I looked at Els and Frank’s lifestyle with admiration and respect. Here were two adults, older than my parents’ generation, who bucked traditional societal roles and lived simply in a small cabin or otherwise traveled and followed their heart’s content. Here were two elders I was privileged to know who modeled so many things that I value in life: a love for literature and art; thrift and a homemade do-it-yourself aesthetic; healthy organic cooking, gardening, canning, and baking; a philosophical mind that questioned the status quo and so-called reality; and most of all, a love for the outdoors, for camping, sailing, and world travel.
All of this is still true—I still admire Els and Frank for who they were and for the life they led. But now, with access to this intimate window into their life through their letters, I have another view of them and their marriage. I see a woman who was incredibly lonely, grasping for purpose, and troubled by her past. I see a man who loved his wife, but who could be distant and inaccessible, and who for whatever reasons chose to be apart from her for half of the year. True, sailing was his bread and butter, but I can’t help but think that if he wanted to, if he loved her companionship more than he loved his capacity to be away, he wouldn’t have stayed at sea for so long.
Unfortunately, I don’t have as many records from the times they were traveling together, the times when they were probably the happiest. Instead, I’ve been left with a record of their gaps and distances, of their accumulated loneliness and longing. I’ve been left with a huge box full of letters, a testimony to a union that was tested, and to a love and loyalty proven yet stretched apart.
Friday, October 23, 2009
My belly is growing bigger. It started growing at the very beginning of my pregnancy; I put on ten pounds, then fifteen within the first few months. I was eating a lot to stave off my nausea. I looked like I was much further along than I was, especially when compared to my friend whose due date was a week earlier, and who was hardly showing at all. I could barely fit into most of my pants by month three. “Oh, honey, are you worried about that?” another friend cooed. I tried to explain. It wasn’t that I was so vain that I was worried about putting on weight during pregnancy. But in this early stage, when I hadn’t even told most people I was pregnant, and when it would not be obvious to anyone, it was hard to not see my growing belly as what I’d been trained to see it for years: Fat. Unsightly. A sign that I wasn’t getting enough exercise and would never be as sexy as I used to be.
For years, I’ve been trained to suck in my belly. Not all the time, but mostly in key moments like posing for a picture or meeting an attractive guy. It’s hard for me to conjure concrete memories of such moments because the reflex is so ingrained in me that I do it without even thinking. Suck it in. Stand up straight. You look better that way.
One day, not long ago, I was walking around the house when I realized that I was unconsciously tightening my stomach muscles—even when no one was looking. I don’t think I ever would’ve noticed just how ingrained this reaction has become, if I wasn’t pregnant. For suddenly, this instinct felt incredibly unnatural, in complete opposition to what my body wants and needs—to expand without restraint.
Bellies are sensitive regions. Not only are women taught to be self-conscious about their bellies and that thin and toned is beautiful, but bellies are also where our qi is centered, our energy, our life force.
Belly consciousness runs through my thread of memory. I remember the violated feeling I had the few times that men who were virtual strangers dared to casually touch my belly. I remember being in a drugstore in Hong Kong once in my early twenties, dressed in a loose shirt and hippy skirt (my baggy clothes phase), and a store clerk asked me if I was pregnant. “No,” I answered. She looked horrified. “It’s… fat?” she stammered. I remember being eleven years old waiting in line to go on a roller coaster ride and the attendant asking the woman in front of me if she was pregnant, and her indignant outraged response. I remember in Pulp Fiction the scene where John Travolta commented about how he loved his lover’s pot belly, and how strange that seemed—and intriguing. You mean, some men might actually like a big belly? That was news to me and the media.
When I was in my early twenties and going through a period of intense solitude, loneliness, and spiritual searching, I used to lie in bed at night and rest my hands on my belly. I’d breathe in and out, feeling it fully expand and collapse, feeling the energy concentrated in my body, my hands and stomach slowly growing warmer. Soothing and centering, this ritual kept me connected to my sensuality and earthiness during a time when hardly anyone was touching me but myself.
Now, of course, things are different. I am married, and I am pregnant, and when I touch my belly I have an evolving awareness that there is something growing inside—within weeks from the size of a bean, to a peanut, to a lime, to an avocado… and so it continues. It still feels somewhat unreal, but I know it will only grow more real, especially the more I begin to feel the baby move (so far, I’ve felt a few flutters which I think is the baby, but I’m not positive). When we had an ultrasound several weeks ago, the technician showed us how a slight jab at the belly could make the baby flip around. And I know that older they grow, the more they can hear our voices. I’ve read of babies who suddenly grow calm when they hear the voice of their mother or father singing a particular song they’d sing to the baby when it was in utero. I’ve joked to my husband that our baby will be soothed by the sound of our cat’s loud purring since he sometimes snuggles up against my belly under the covers at night when my husband is away.
The first time I invited my husband to lean down and say something to the baby, he grew hesitant and shy, and finally was cajoled into it with a funny grin on his face. It was even less real to him, the growing existence of our child, but I could tell that this hesitant initial greeting was already helping it to seem more real. And last week, when I was in tears and needing his soothing touch, I asked him to rub my belly. Without having to say anything, we both now know that he is now not only touching me, but our child as well.
Now, my belly has become big enough that it can’t pretend it’s not pregnant—and it doesn’t want to. More and more, my belly wants to expand with my breath, and bask in its hardening fullness. I am still drawn to colors and folds that disguise my belly rather than accentuate it—call it years of conditioning-- but secretly I am looking forward to the day when clothing choice won’t make a difference—when I must walk around big, round, and unabashedly pregnant.
Each day it’s sinking in how with every breath I take, every thing I eat, every emotion I feel, and every moment I remember to put a soothing loving hand on my belly, I am already influencing the life of my baby. Lying in my bed with my palms against my rounded flesh, breathing in and breathing out, I am reminded of this old ritual I first learned to embrace when I was alone. Once again, I am learning how to honor my belly, how to embrace this sacred vessel that holds together the tender beauty of our contradictions, this meeting ground between our vulnerability and power.
Monday, October 19, 2009
I knew of plenty of people who’d had home births, even if only about one percent of people in the U.S. have them, so it didn’t seem like some aberrant extremity like it may to some. If anything, I felt like many in my extended community were biased toward home births, and after reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and watching the documentary The Business of Being Born, I started to feel that way myself.
Yet as far as hospitals go, I’d heard that Group Health (which I belonged to) was one of the best places to be in Seattle if you were hoping for a birth with limited interventions. Their c-section rate was lower, they had birthing rooms with tubs and options to dim the lights and play your own music, they let you move around during labor and labor in different positions, and in general, they did not seem like the “scary hospital environment” that many of the worst-case scenarios suggested. They also had a team of six midwives that you could work with, as well as O.B.s. I gravitated toward midwives because I trusted they would be more knowledgeable about facilitating a natural birth, and might not rush as quickly to the decision to intervene if labor was taking a long time; I trusted they’d understand the importance of a woman being able to control her environment and be an active agent in her birth.
I was born at Group Health, and have gone there my whole life. It was an easy decision to go there for my first prenatal exam. I really liked the midwife I met with; she was warm, compassionate, and pregnant herself. But there was no way of knowing which of the six midwives would be on call when I went into labor. And after the first hour-long appointment, the monthly prenatal exams were only supposed to last 15 minutes. That meant that if I tried to spread out the rest of my visits evenly with all of the midwives, I might only spend half an hour with each of them total. I would barely know the woman who would attend perhaps the most intimate and painful experience of my life. And on top of that, she might have several women in labor at the same time, and only be able to be with me consistently when the baby started to come out. Her twenty-four hour shift might also end mid-labor, and then I’d be with someone else.
At least there would be a nurse who would be assigned to me and me alone, but I would never have met this woman before. And what if she was the type of nurse who would keep offering me an epidural, even if my birth plan stated I wanted to go without medication? Would I accept the pain meds in a moment of weakness and fear (“I give up, I can’t do this!”)? After all, they’d already had me sign a waver okaying an epidural on my very first nurse’s visit. It isn’t that I am absolutely opposed to an epidural. I knew that there is a possibility that I might want one, and that that would be okay if it is what I decided. But somehow the way I was handed the form with no discussion or information felt jarring.
Nevertheless, I was reassured by the presence of the first midwife I met with. She even shared names of a few recommended midwives who did homebirths when I revealed to her that I was still considering that option. She herself was planning to give birth with one of them. (Who do the midwives choose to deliver with? Hmm, let’s take note of this, I thought).
I knew I needed to do more research. I read up on local midwives and home birth options, and I finally scheduled a free consultation visit with a midwife who worked out of the oldest birthing center in Seattle. I suspected that after meeting with her I would know what I wanted. She spent an hour with me and my husband, answering all our questions about home births and their practice. I expressed to her how confused I’d felt when given the information about genetic testing, and the general rushed and indecisive feeling I’d had about giving birth at the hospital. I felt a deep sense of relief as she listened to my concerns. She even offered an ultrasound so we could hear the baby’s heartbeat—I’d seen it on my last visit, but had yet to hear it. I liked this midwife, she felt knowledgeable and steady.
But surprisingly, I left that appointment actually leaning towards going with Group Health. It was one statistic that stuck with me: she told us that about 15-20 percent of first-time moms who plan a home birth end up transferring to a hospital. Only a very small portion of these transfers happen because of an emergency; most of them happen because the labor is taking a long time and the mother is exhausted, and the mother decides that she wants relief in the form of medication.
One in five. I didn’t want to tell my parents this statistic. My mother had freaked out when I told her I was considering a home birth. My mother, like many people in this country, had uninformed ideas of what a modern-day midwife was. She could only picture some woman in a backwards country with limited training who’d learned the trade by default. All kinds of what ifs? were hurled at me. Instead of being open to hearing the information I’d garnered through research (i.e., that home births have been proven to be as safe as hospital births if they are planned and if you are a ‘low-risk’ pregnancy), she just turned the T.V. on and closed down the conversation.
After a couple interactions like this with my mother, I decided to just not talk to her about it anymore, at least not until I’d actually made a decision. What was the point about arguing the merits of a home birth if I hadn’t even decided it was what I wanted? In fact, I didn’t really want to talk to anyone who had a strong opinion either way. I knew I’d be okay at Group Health; I didn’t feel an aversion to it when my husband and I visited the birthing units on a tour, even if the room seemed rather small and still had a hospital-like ambience. Group Health would be cheaper, but our insurance would cover at least 70% of a home birth, which means we’d owe about $1000 plus the deductible. We could afford that, so I didn’t want money to be a deciding factor. But if I chose the hospital, then my mom wouldn’t worry. And her worrying was something I didn’t want to have on my conscience. I wanted to be fully supported in this birth. I didn’t want to feel like I was fighting anyone for my decision, especially not my mother. I decided to go with the path of least resistance and stay with Group Health. After all, if it were my only choice, I would be fine with it. Maybe for my first birth it was a safer choice. Maybe I could have a home birth next time, if there was a next time.
It was a relief to have “made” a decision. I was almost three months along and I longed to settle into the security of knowing who would care for me. I went to my next prenatal exam at Group Health. First a nurse took my weight and blood pressure and asked me if I had any questions, entering them into a computer. Then, finally, the midwife came in half an hour late. I told her I had brought a list of questions. (Last time, the midwife had said to come prepared since the visit would be short.) She glanced at the clock. “Well, just try and prioritize them.” I rattled them off, conscious now of how “important” were they. I told her about how dehydrated I’d been lately and also asked her about appropriate weight gain, and she made a few quick inquiries into my water intake and diet, but otherwise told me I could consult with a nutritionist. I managed to squeeze in all my questions, including asking her about Group Health’s c-section rates. I’d already heard one unofficial answer, but I wanted to see if the information I got was consistent. “About 20%,” she said, “but it’s rising.” Then, a quick assurance, “We’ll only do what’s best for you.”
Perhaps if I hadn’t done all the reading I had already, I could feel relieved by quick reassurances like this, but now her answer felt hurried and dismissive. It was as if I could hear her sighing, “I don’t have time for this.” She gave me a ultrasound so we could hear the heart beat (I didn’t tell her I’d heard it last week with an out-of-hospital midwife; somehow, I didn’t feel like she’d want to hear this), and that was it. We were out of there in about 20 minutes, only making her 5 minutes later for her next appointment. I hoped she wouldn’t be the one on call at my birth.
Over the next couple weeks, I told people I’d decided on Group Health, but I felt myself relaying this choice with a sense of resignation as opposed to relief. And I still hadn’t told my mother. It was as if I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of that decision, didn’t want her to feel like she was right and I’d “thankfully” seen the light. And I didn’t want to admit to myself how much of my decision was influenced by my fear that if I chose a home birth and ended up transferring to the hospital, that my parents would say, “We told you so.”
How much were my parent’s opinions influencing my decision? Here I was, 34 years old, about to make one of the most important personal choices of my life, and I was still so swayed by what they thought.
I tried to imagine if my parents were completely supportive of a home birth, if it would still be such a hard decision. The answer was no. If they were supportive either way, I realized that I’d probably have chosen a home birth by now. I couldn’t let their fear weigh so heavily on me. But I also had to separate for myself—how much of this was their fear, and how much was my fear? Was there a part of me that secretly welcomed their fear because it gave a voice to my own? Would I feel safer in a hospital, even given everything I’d read about the other set of risks that being in a hospital could bring?
Meanwhile, I kept reading about home births and checking out the websites of midwives, even though I sensed by now that I would not reach my decision by weighing more pros and cons. I’d done my research, satisfied the logical, information-driven part of myself that needs to know the facts. Now it was up to me to reach inside for the right answer. I knew I still felt a wistfulness when I read about home births or heard of others who’d chosen this path. I lay in my bed and tried to imagine going into labor there, as opposed to laboring in the hospital room on the narrow raised bed surrounded by computers and IVs and an unfamiliar staff. I imagined what it would be like to instead have a midwife that I’d spent monthly hour-long prenatal visits with come to my house; to be able to climb into a tub in my living room beneath our A-frame cedar ceiling; to be able to make sure that the refrigerator was stocked with replenishing food for me and my husband, that the music was cued if I should desire it; to ensure that an atmosphere of calm and peace could be created well in advance and that I could go outside and walk circles in my sheltered yard if the labor was taking a long time; that I could lie back in my own bed after the baby was born, and that the midwife and her helpers would stay with us for hours to help us get comfortable caring for our new baby. And that the midwife would then come to my house several times in the coming weeks to offer us support in breastfeeding and answer our concerns. It was about more than just the birth—it was about the whole incredible period leading up to the birth in which I wanted to feel listened to and assured. And it was about the post-partum period too, a period that I knew many of my friends had struggled with, and that was every bit as important to the health of the baby and mother.
But back to the birth itself: more than some idyllic vision of a comfortable, spiritual environment to bring new life into the world through, was the practical knowledge I’d learned that resonated intuitively-- that by being in an environment with familiar trusted people, there was an increased likelihood that I would be able to surrender more easily to the pain and process, that my mind and body would be relaxed enough for my cervix to dilate and open, that I would feel the most trust and safety here in my own home, doing what women have done naturally for centuries. Think about where you feel the most comfortable taking a shit (excuse my crassness)—alone in your own bathroom, or in a public place with strangers watching you? This comparison may seem unwarranted, but I’d read about how the same “sphincter principle” was at play while you gave birth. The mind, your own comfort level, and inhibitions can influence and “hold up” so much. There was plenty of research that corroborated this—the importance of feeling uninhibited and safe in your environment and trusting all the people around you.
More than my fear of the small chance that something could happen that would be better handled in a hospital, weighed my fear that the situation at the hospital would feel outside of my control—the environment, the pressure of decisions made, the increased likelihood of interventions, and the lingering questions I might have of what could have been done differently? Either way, you are taking risks. Which risks weighed heavier for me? Where would I feel most safe? That was the most important question.
I called my husband that night and kept expressing my questions and doubts. He’d been so supportive this whole time of either decision, and hadn’t pressured me one way or the other. “I just don’t know…” I said. Perhaps because of something different he heard in my voice, he said, “I think you do know.” Tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t say anything.
After we hung up, I cried some more, and whispered aloud for the first time, “I think I want a home birth.” More tears rose in my chest and streamed down my face. The next morning, I wrote the same thing in my journal, and again, more tears. That’s how I knew. I hadn’t had this reaction when I’d “decided” on the hospital birth. Instead, that had felt like I was passively giving in to the path most commonly accepted by others. But now, when I finally uttered the words, “I want a home birth,” a joy and relief resonated through my body, the resounding yes that I’d been hoping for, a clear sign that, for me, this was right.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
I got married the first time on the seventh floor of the El Paso, Texas municipal building with Justice of the Peace Tom Rosas presiding. Arturo and I signed the waiver on the forty-eight hour waiting period. We had a Spanish-English option for the ceremony. I wore what I'd put on that morning - an A-line skirt with a colorful floral pattern, a light green t-shirt, my huaraches with the soles made from recycled tires. I don't remember what Arturo wore. I do remember that after Tom Rosas pronounced us husband and wife we exited into the streets of downtown El Paso, jubilant. Arturo turned to the first person we passed, an elderly woman with elegant white hair pulled back from her forehead, and pronounced "We just got married," in Spanish. He translated the woman's blessing for me. I don't remember if she wished us happiness or a long life but we were thrilled, walking hand in hand.
We hadn't planned to get married that day. We'd planned to cross into Mexico as we ventured south to Costa Rica to settle in Arturo's home town. The Mexican border officials scoffed at Arturo's visa; he'd over-stayed a U.S. student visa by three years. They wanted money if we wanted to continue into Mexico. Arturo refused and he stomped out of the immigration office. We sat in our Isuzu Trooper loaded with everything we owned and decided to cross back into the U.S. I didn't have a valid driver's license. Arturo drove; his license was from New Jersey but he had no visa, no residential status. We explained to the first border official that we'd just been in Mexico for the day. La-te-da the hippie couple just wanted to see Juarez, inhale the diesel fumes and drive around in the jammed traffic for the day, you know. She glanced at our packed car and asked us to pull over. I felt jittery. The second border official opened the back end, peered at our stuff, had us open our cooler and said, "Go ahead." We waited until we were a few blocks into El Paso before we erupted with laughter. Arturo had just crossed the border illegally right in front of their faces. What were we going to do now, though? We could get married. Get married? Sure. I loved this man deeply and was now deciding at the age of twenty to leave my studies and follow him to rural Costa Rica.
Getting married didn't help Arturo's immigration predicament. We could have done research to figure this out beforehand but you have to understand, we were in bold, adventurous, passionate love and what could stop us? Someone at the U.S. embassy told us the best thing would be for Arturo to go to the Costa Rican consulate in Houston. On our way there in the middle of borderland desert, we drove straight into a border patrol check point, helicopters flying, dogs sniffing, idling car fumes spewing. The Chicano offical asked Arturo, "Where are you from?"
"Mannasquin, New Jersey," Arturo said,fidgeting with the gear shift.
"Where did you go to school?"
"Mannasquin, New Jersey."
"Where do your parents live?"
Suddenly, Arturo's entire life was solely based on New Jersey.
The official switched to Spanish and told us to pull over. He asked Arturo to get out of the car. In the meantime, another official approached me on the passenger's side and questioned me. He loomed over the rolled down window. Where are you from? Where is he from? What are you doing? I told him we'd just gotten married, that we were traveling. Our marriage certificate in the glove box at my knees. I didn't want to show it to him - it stated that Arturo was from Costa Rica. After a few minutes,I broke down and told him the truth. We were really trying to leave the country. To leave! Meanwhile, Arturo had done the same. They took him into an office and decided to give him a docket, allowing him fifteen days before he had to leave the country.
We eventually crossed into Mexico and drove toward our new life.
Our new life became our organic coffee farming life,
our happy life,
our mountain side shack life,
our divided between Costa Rica and the U.S. life,
our new house life,
our farm turned export-import business life,
our seven day work week life,
our city fighting life,
our rural patching over the pain life,
my life of yearning for balance, for my voice being heard
our business as our baby life,
our life of misunderstandings. Six, seven, eight years passed. In all of those years, I rarely ever called him my husband. We never exchanged rings or articulated any intentional commitment through ceremony. Our love grafted itself onto a dream, a business, a striving to build a right livelihood. I gave every part of myself to this love and its multiple manifestations - our home, our land, our work. We were married for immigration and even while our love existed,I never fully adapted to the words husband and wife.
Many people asked me, What happened? I gave the diplomatic answer, We grew apart(fourteen years separated us in age). I gave the angry reason, I could never count on him to be emotionally stable. I never gave the whole reason with its emotional complexity. It took me forever to leave. The slow painful process of separation dragged me (and him) through its muck. Divorce is dismal terrain and those who've gone through it know what I mean. The pain of divorce embedded a fear in me. Relationships all fall apart. The fear dictated and I listened. I sought solitude and found it in a little cabin with a view through the trees of Mt Rainier.
When Jeremy showed up in my life, I was guarded. I went to a New Year's Eve party alone. When he walked through the door, my heart busted out its break dancing moves. I hardly said three words to him. He called me the next day, launching our dating into the new year. He made great breakfasts. I'd forgotten I liked that meal.Working my social work job that dragged me out of bed too early, breakfast wasn't something I paused over anymore. The weeks built themselves into months. I mastered different story lines for us with endings that always resulted in pain, in separation. I told him as much. This is exciting, I told him, it's like writing a fiction story in which you don't know its ending but you know there is an end. He was patient through all of this talk.
Jeremy's love dissipated my fear, is dissipating my fear. His love is a verb and with his sensitivity to the full spectrum of emotions he has guided me to a place in which it is exciting to embrace a commitment to making a life together. The life he has helped me to see is such a sweet one, a real one, worthy of a ritual with all of our friends and family.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I’ve made it through my first trimester. I’ve had a couple months to process, research, visit midwives, cry, sleep, journal, feel sick, tired and moody, and otherwise obsess about all the decisions we have to make in the months ahead. Now, I feel myself coming out of the intensely private early stage of comprehending, “I am pregnant,” and more willing to let this secret into the open. It has felt like a secret. Like a slowly evolving mysterious new reality to hold, feel, and nurture within silence and solitude. To celebrate—and to mourn—the end of one phase of my life and the beginning of another. I’ve wanted this, I’ve fantasized about it, felt ready for it, and yet “it” could only remain abstract until I started to feel the changes in my body and to embrace the changes in lifestyle-- feeling the tenderness of my breasts, cutting out alcohol and a host of other things, and letting this new reality sink in day by day: my life is changing, and will continue to, in a huge way, for the rest of my life.
My belly has been growing (I guess I am what you call “showing early”), my appetite has been finicky (enjoying a spaghetti dinner one night and feeling repulsed by the leftovers the next day), and I’ve been nauseous (although I haven’t actually thrown up, and I’m happy to report the nausea is going away). For weeks I had to eat something every couple hours to stave it off, and only certain foods appealed (I’ve eaten huge amounts of cereal, toast, and nectarines). My mom’s leftover Chinese food almost always tastes good, but a similar stir-fry that I made myself made me want to hurl. Meat can completely disgust me, or else I can wolf down a Dick’s cheeseburger and fries in minutes. Like any woman who’s spent much of her life watching her weight, I don’t want to inflate beyond the necessary baby weight gain-- but when you must eat to not feel sick, you eat whatever you can.
My cat was the first one I told. I was home by myself with a pregnancy kit and my husband was out of town traveling. “I’m pregnant, Miles,” I said, just so I could say the words aloud, the words I have heard so many times in movies, the words I have imagined saying to my husband, imagined what it would feel like inside. I laughed and shook my head, then called Matthew. I wanted to whoop and cry, but he was in the middle of dinner with another couple and I felt his reaction stifled which stifled mine in turn. “I knew it,” he said. He had thought I was based on my growing, rounding breasts, and his suspicion had helped to trigger my own. “I’ll call you later,” he said and left me to sit on the couch and spin with the news by myself.
It happened so much faster than we’d expected—I’d only gone off the pill a couple weeks before the night I believe we conceived. Matthew had predicted it would happen quickly, but I’d figured it would take a little while-- at least a number of months-- and I was braced for much more. So even though the “ideal” time to get pregnant (by my calculations) would have been a couple months later (so that I could take on a job that lasted the school year, then give birth in the summer), we decided that we might as well start trying, however passively, now. I was eager to start charting my cycles, figure out when I ovulated, let my blood flow in its natural rhythm again after years of being on a pill-regulated cycle. But I didn’t even get to have a period. Before I had a chance to engage in any welcoming rituals or time the perfect night to conceive, I was launched into the reality of my new-found status. No more wine, herb, or that rare, but deliciously indulgent, cigarette. No more sushi or tuna fish or turkey sandwiches (yes, lunch meats are banned due to a bacteria called listeria). One cup of coffee a day was okay, but it was better to cut it out if possible. What am I forgetting?
For the most part, these changes have not been a big deal. It’s not hard to go without wine when you have such a strong motivation not to drink it. (Although I admit, entering month four, I am now looking at my husband’s IPAs and Cabernets with increasing envy). And coffee hasn’t tasted good to me, so I’m drinking just a cup of black tea a day, which I don’t think I would’ve been able to do otherwise. If anything, the hardest thing to give up was my goal of becoming a Writer in the Schools this year. I’d so wanted this, or some other part-time job that was challenging, fulfilling, and could supplement my teaching, editing, and writing work. But now, applying for jobs that I wouldn’t feel guilty quitting in six months or so is out. Now, I have a chunk of time ahead of me which is both long and short, where I would like to be making some money and filling in the growing gap in my resume, but the prospects on craigslist are dismal. As everyone always says though, there is no ideal time to get pregnant. You just have to take the plunge, and make it work.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to sleep as much as I need to. I can’t imagine being as tired and nauseous as I have been and having to go into an office each day. I also am grateful I’ve had time to sit, write, read, and process. To research and consider what kind of birth I want-- do I want to be at home or in a hospital, how important is it to me to feel like I know the person delivering our baby, will I feel uncomfortable in the hospital environment, or will the knowledge that back-up assistance is there in case of an emergency make me feel more assured? How much money are we willing or able to spend to get extra care, like a doula? I’ve read illuminating books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and watched documentaries like The Business of Being Born that have made me wary of hospitals, and opened my mind to the ways in which home birth experiences can be more desirable for many (decreased C-section rate, the comfort of your own environment, increased knowledge of natural birthing methods by the midwives versus a hospital culture with high intervention rates, many of which could be prevented, etc.). And I’ve been introduced to ideas that resonate with me intuitively—for example, the basic premise that birth is a spiritual experience, perhaps even the most spiritual experiences we humans go through, and that the pain of childbirth can be experienced as empowering, transformative, or even orgasmic by some, as opposed to something to be feared or numbed.
There is so much we can choose and influence about our own birthing experiences—at the same time that there is so much that is out of our hands and that we won’t know until we are in it. There is also so much information out there, so many strong opinions on all sides, so many personal preferences and choices. It’s a lot to take in. Especially when your prenatal care should begin immediately, but you haven’t even decided who you want it to be with. And when on your first visit they give you all kinds of brochures and facts and statistics about genetic testing, blood tests and ultrasounds, rates of complications, rates of having a baby with Down Syndrome or other defects when you are 35 or older, and suddenly, you are faced with choices you hadn’t even anticipated, and huge ethical questions about what would you do if you knew your baby would be born with a defect. You want to talk to people about their choices but then you realize you are skirting sensitive territory—for example, somebody might not want to tell you that they had decided they would terminate the pregnancy (a common choice, in fact, though no one talks about it) if they found out the baby was likely to have a defect. Or, conversely, I might not want to talk to someone who would absolutely not terminate under any circumstance, because I wouldn’t want to feel judged if I’d even consider that possibility. You want unbiased information but soon you realize that everyone has a bias and that ultimately you can only rely on your own interior moral compass.
This is just a taste of what’s been on my mind. That and trying to calculate how long I’ll be able to go without buying an entire new wardrobe. That and trying to figure out how to give birth to my other baby—my book—before the rollicking wave of contractions and labor and non-stop care and awe and newness hits me in ways that will make being pregnant feel like… a long introspective retreat with bouts of tears, reckoning, fatigue, fear, joyful anticipation, and ice cream.
Even though I know I’ll continue to discover new questions and ranges of emotion as my belly continues to grow, I feel calmer now, a bit more informed and confident, less anxious. I feel like I am sinking into a new phase-- and coming out of the shaky-is this real-holy shit-first few months. I want to focus on my health and spiritual awareness, and send my growing baby (currently the size of a two-inch lime, or some prefer the fig analogy) good energy and love. I want to enjoy the extra time I do have right now to write, read, and learn how to be a good mama, instead of feeling disappointed that I’m still underemployed and can’t push ahead with my so-called career in ways that I have otherwise wanted to. It’s not an end to that momentum, but a pause, and a pause that so many mothers and friends have gone through before me. They are my role models. And I know I too can learn to find my own balance between work, writing, marriage, and motherhood.
That said, I also know I haven’t a clue what’s ahead of me. A little seed, embryo, fetus, alien, human being—an evolving soul not my own—in my belly.
I’ve known where babies come from for years, and yet, this knowledge is only now beginning to sink in. A human being is growing in there? And will come out of there? Amazing.
Monday, August 10, 2009
"Why does one write, if not to put one's pieces together? From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces: it teaches us to divorce the soul from the body and mind from heart. The fishermen of the Colombian coast must be learned doctors of ethics and morality, for they invented the word sentipensante, feeling-thinking, to define language that speaks the truth."
~ Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
I write from Sevilla where I haven't been writing very much. I have been making postcard collages, putting pieces together literally. I spent my first day in Sevilla looking for card stock and buying scissors and glue, passing the indigenous Ecuadorans or Bolivians (I guessed) selling hand held fans decorated with bouquets of flowers. In this heat a fan is practical. In Sevilla the fan also represents tradition and coupled with ruffled dresses in bright colors Flamenco is the next thing to come to mind. Sevilla's traditions are well-rooted and well-marketed to tourists, the only ones who dare traverse the white hot streets at three in the afternoon when every shop is closed and every sane Sevillano is taking the requisite siesta in an air conditioned apartment. To see these indigenous Americans selling these fans unfurled on cotton sheets spread over the cobbled streets lined with fancy shops struck me - so many layers of entangled history. After I found my materials, I passed the coffee chain Cafe de las Indias.
I've been using collage to address this entangled history. Cutting up images of Sevilla's architecture to create dresses in the frilly style of Flamenco. Cutting up images of Queen Isabel, benefactor to violence across Spain and the Atlantic, and setting her inside windows that line an alleyway called Callejon de la Inquisicion. Putting pieces together literally to make sense of history and the construction of identity.
Monday, July 6, 2009
Our garden is messy, experimental, and doesn’t get enough sun. Our garden is imperfect, as gardens should be. First, we cobbled together a raised bed with old mismatched boards and hauled in a bunch of dirt-- dirt which turned out to be filled with bark and too dense for most of the delicate roots of our greens to push through. For several months, I watered and hoped that the tiny shoots would grow, but they more or less stayed the same size until my husband finally replanted them in soil from our composted leaves. Within days, they were growing. Lesson learned.
We also had to hack down a bunch of cedar and holly branches to let in more light, but our garden is still lucky to see a few good hours a day. In the main bed we planted lettuce, kale, chard, green onions, peas, beans, and zucchini. On our deck we planted tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and peppers in pots. I walk by other people’s gardens and see giant mature vegetables already begging to be eaten, whereas the peas and a few leaves of basil are the only thing we’ve been able to harvest so far. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to eat abundant greens throughout August and September, but for now, we’re still buying our veggies at the store.
Thankfully we are not relying on our harvest to eat or sell, but rather, our garden is a learning project, an excuse to go outside more often and watch dirt absorb water, turn into something rich and fertile, a ploy to get me to be more observant, to notice the speed and quality in which things grow, which direction the stems and leaves are reaching for sunlight, which soil is most thirsty and which is healthiest. And to notice my own distracted and aware states, the ebb and flow of my emotions, days where the watering is rushed or neglected, or days where I am a gentle, observant nurturer.
There’s also something so satisfying of course about gathering a bowl full of peas and cutting them up and putting them in my salad—from garden to stomach in minutes. There’s something so beautiful about being rooted enough in a home where I want to take the time to build and plant and cultivate. This is coming from someone who was wed to the transitory traveling life for years, someone who still longs on a regular basis to take off and live a life undistracted by too many emails or obligations, who has cultivated a love for being places where nobody knows my name.
But those longings belong more to the realm of fantasy right now. For an equally strong urge has taken hold-- the urge to stay in one place, to cultivate old friendships or new ones that have the potential to last a long time. It helps, of course, owning a home. I wonder if I didn’t, if the urge to root would be quite as strong, or if it’d be too easy to give in to the lure of someplace other, a different country, especially China which holds so many keys to my tongue and heart. A place where it is easy to stay in a state of awareness, because everything is vibrantly different and new— until it isn’t, and then you can leave.
What I love the most about traveling is the ease to which one can stay present and aware, open to unexpected encounters or invitations, meeting new people, stopping at the side of the road to take notice, as opposed to being caught up in a mind filled with anxiety about meetings or deadlines or careers or self image. When traveling, your job is to meet your own basic needs: food, shelter, water; running errands like going to the post office, bank, or market; writing letters or emails to keep ties to dear ones strong—and otherwise, to simply stay open to what the day will bring, whether you are feeling tired or energetic, whether you want to seek out another or wander alone.
I suppose I’m talking about the kind of traveling that one sinks into after you’ve been gone for weeks, or months. The kind of traveling where your destinations are only loosely plotted and where you have enough open-endedness to drift away from normal markers of time. Where you begin to forget what day it is, because it doesn’t really matter, and where you feel so utterly alive and in the moment that you wish that everyone could have this same kind of experience—risk letting go of tightly constricted tethers of your identity, risk losing old versions of yourself in order to discover new versions, a new sense of who you are emerging, transforming, changed.
As I write this, I am aware of how this longing for that kind of travel can also be a form of escapism. I’m aware of how most people think that such a lifestyle is okay for people in their twenties, but that people in their thirties or older should’ve gotten over those fantasies by now and commit to a more responsible life. And I am aware of how I still argue for either side—the longer it’s been since I’ve experienced that kind of travel, the more I remind myself that I would like to again—and hopefully in not too long. Yet the longer I was away—traveling, in China, for years apart from my family and friends and the Pacific Northwest where I was raised—the more I longed for a rooted community and home.
I am still learning how to commit myself to one place, one network of people and friends, my writing colleagues and students, my writing, my parents, my partner. And to commit means that it is not so easy to cut loose and go away. It means that I need to learn how to cultivate that same expansive awareness that I was shown while backpacking while on a walk in my own neighborhood, on a weekend camping trip, or in my own living room, in my heart and my mind. I am learning how to find balance, getting older as some might say—and yet, I don’t like feeling trapped in one possible vision of what is ‘realistic,’ never have. So I leave my heart open to the universe to bring what it will, to teach me what I need. I try to remain open to all the possibilities, to stay open to what my heart needs, and to beware of words like ‘should’—or at least to be aware of where they are coming from. You never know, you might still find me on a cheap flight to Hong Kong or a ferry to Alaska next summer. Or, more likely, you might find me here, in North Seattle, digging, watering and harvesting from a new crop of vegetables and weeds.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I am leaving for Barcelona in a little over a week. More than our apartment and its ten minute proximity to the Pacific Ocean, more than the farmers' markets bursting with every fruit and vegetable known to my longing palate, I will miss my desk. This place in the corner of a cream colored room where I've settled into writing over the last several months. A wooden angel crafted in El Salvador and painted in bright colors hangs from my lamp and dangles over a photo from my pumpkin poem project which reads: plan to stay open heart + mind.
My newest collage leans against the wall facing me - a bunch of beets created from torn pieces of drafts of a prose poem that focuses on a market day when I sold vegetables. I superimposed text from the poem over the beets:
Would you like a bunch of beets? I ask.
Not at that price.
Feel my hands
touch this spot in my lower back
find the price of these beets here in my flesh
How much is that worth to you?
I'm selling myself
my ache in these beets
and my love.
In the opposite corner from the lamp and angel, sits a gourd cut in half to serve as a small bowl or cup, the kind used for sipping mezcal in rural Oaxacan towns to celebrate the cane harvest. Inside the gourd I've placed seeds. Of course you have, say those who know me best. Small black beans grown in Sunnyside, Washington, cubaces beans the color of rust picked up on my last trip to Santa Maria de Dota, Costa Rica, maize seeds, one a bright red and called sangre de cristo by its farmer and one large pumpkin seed that I think might be from a massive pumpkin my farming friends unloaded at their harvest party. It took up the entire bed of a pickup truck. On top of the seeds, a slip of paper pulled off of a tea bag with tea bag wisdom: Live with reverence for yourself and others. Are you getting the sense that my desk is part altar?
A small stack of books include the Popul Vuh (needed to find out what exactly happened to the corn god when he descended into the underworld), Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (needed to accurately identify the cliff swallows that have made their mud nests in the eaves outside the window in front of one section of my desk), a journal from 2006 (needed to help jog memories of the Oaxacan maize farmer I met who worked in the bracero program).
Next to the seeds sits a succulent plant with a hawk feather stuck in its dirt. Beside the plant, tacked to the wall a Union Match brand box half way open with a plastic farmer inside as if the match box were his coffin. I leaped on the farmer when my friend's birthday pinata broke over beach sand.
In small glass jars, colored pencils, an x-acto knife and ball point pens splay, pointing to multiple spots on the cream ceiling. I rarely write with ball point pens, preferring fine rolling ball pens with black ink. Ball point pens have a way of creeping into your life whether you use them or not. I've never been to the Santa Barbara Bank & Trust nor to Yosemite but somehow I have ball point pens that advertise such places sitting in my jar. Curious about this, I pick up the clear ball point pen with its vial of blue ink that rests on my desk. Aside from the brand Faber Castell, Turkey is etched onto the pen; something my sweetheart must have picked up in his travels, needing a pen to write a stack of postcards perhaps. I like this - in the midst of all of the things placed with such intention to inspire me through the hard work of writing, these pens have found their place here.
Of course, my desk will be here when I return in three months.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
How long? That’s a hard question to answer, for it’s hard to say when exactly I started working on it (and it’s even a bit of a stretch to now say I am done). A few of the newest pieces still need some revision, and I’m still not convinced that I’ve found the right piece or note to end on, but all in all, it’s more done than it ever has been, with no obvious gaps of stories that still need to be written, and with a nice query letter and book proposal to go along, ready to send to agents. So for the sake of feeling good and moving on, I’m calling it done.
But how long has it taken me? A few chapters have their inceptions in writing I first did ten years ago, and the themes of the book—cultural identity, bilingualism, spirituality, backpacking, China, America, Buddhism, Tibet, compassion, family, relationships, love and more—well I’ve been writing about those for even longer. While I lived in China from 1999-2002, I wrote almost every day—both in my journal and crafting pieces--, and when I returned to live in the States, I kept writing, joined writing groups, took classes and polished pieces for submission. Then from 2004-2006, I started my low-residency MFA program through Antioch in L.A., and had the privilege of more or less becoming a full-time writer. I house sat for friends, sometimes for months at a time—the most idyllic stint being the few months I spent out in Dungeness, Washington, writing from a room that looked out upon wetlands and out further to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Dungeness Spit. Every day I wrote for hours, kept company by Gracie the old Airedale, and Bonnie the obsessive-compulsive licking cat. By late afternoon, I’d go for a two-hour walk by the river with Gracie or else hop on my bike and ride along country roads and out to Dungeness State Park. At night, I’d pick tomatoes and basil from my friend’s garden, make a nice dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and look over the work I did during the day, editing here and there, before retiring to books in bed. It was blissful—I saw no one besides an occasional nod to the neighbors, I was in between relationships so had few phone calls or distractions, and I didn’t even feel lonely. Communicating online about writing and books with my grad school companions and sending a packet of my work to my mentor each month was enough social interaction for me. I was as productive as I’ve ever been, working on new pieces at the same time that I edited the old.
For several years, I house sat like this, lived frugally, and polished and wrote what would become my final manuscript—and the core of my book-to-be. In between idyllic housesitting gigs, I lived in my parents’ basement in Seattle (not a highlight in my thirty-some-year-old life) but a way to keep writing nevertheless. Eventually I learned to call what I was working on my “book,” which somewhere along the way even picked up a title: Searching for the Heart Radical: A Journey Between East and West. By now, I’d had enough feedback from writers I respected to know that my dream of publishing was not delusional, and I’d put enough time and faith into this whole writing venture that there was no way I could turn away-- or feel qualified to do much of anything else.
That brings us to the last few years, the last few years in which I seem to have been repeating the mantra: “I’m almost done, almost done, almost done with my book…” only to see another year go by with progress made, yes, and yet still without a sense of completion. There were always still pieces to be written, or some of the oldest pieces (remember those that had their inception ten years ago?) now needed to be completely rewritten. These stories were important to the manuscript, the stories needed to stay, and yet my writing and voice had grown so much over the years, and sometimes you simply can’t breathe new life into old words, you just need to start over (if you can manage to let go of those old versions that are now imprinted in your head); you need to find a new beginning or angle of entrance, try and articulate new meaning out of the same sets of experiences, frame a part of your life through a new lens. Not the easiest thing to do.
And then there was the question of structure, the order in which to place the pieces, and the question of what to call it—a collection of essays, a memoir, a collection of linked stories? I’d heard that “essays don’t sell”, so I figured I’d better call it a memoir. Except the problem was, I initially wrote most of the pieces to stand alone so some were in present tense, some in past; some chronicled a day in the life, others looked back over a period of years; some were told in a straight-forward narrating voice, others were more lyrical. There was a more-or-less chronological order that I could put them in, but there were all kinds of gaps or overlaps in time, there were pieces that stuck out oddly in tone, and some that still felt amateurish.
For months (years?) I meditated on the question of whether I could indeed call this into a memoir. I drew inspiration from writers like Abigail Thomas or Nick Flynn who had fashioned interesting non-linear memoirs told through multiple points of views (e.g., 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person; or some chapters that read more like prose poems). I started editing out redundancies (for example, I’d had to establish the fact that I was a half-Chinese/half-Caucasian American woman living in China for practically every stand-alone piece, and now these repetitions had to go), and I started filling in blanks (i.e. writing “bridge pieces” that would explain why in one piece I’m here, and in the next piece I’m suddenly somewhere else, or seeing a different guy). Or something like that.
Finally, about a year and a half ago, I sent out query letters and book proposals (with sample chapters) to a few agents and one in particular took interest, asking me to send her everything I had. Yet in the end, although she felt the writing was good, she just couldn’t see it—it lacked a narrative arc and/or a singular idea, it still read too much like a series of stand-alone pieces. I was bummed, yet not completely disheartened. What she said made sense, and yet, there were so many pieces that I had not sent her at the time because they were not yet completed. So I decided that I needed to just finish the damn thing before I sent it out again; that way if it was rejected again (which surely it would be-- on the way to that eventual yes), I would know that it was rejected on the basis of the whole, as opposed to on the strength of the book proposal and about half of the total chapters.
So over the last year or more, I’ve worked on writing those bridge pieces, as well as agonizing through the pieces that have been most difficult for me to write-- important pieces that have admittedly been revised to death (and that in ordinary circumstances I would let go of because I’d learned what I needed to learn from that piece and because not all pieces need to see completion much less publication), but in this case pieces that I simply could not let go of because they were so central to my book. I suppose if I’d just given up on the whole ‘memoir’ thing and decided to call it a collection of essays, these pieces wouldn’t matter so much because you, the reader, would have never know what I was leaving out. But the way it is fashioned now, surely you would wonder what the hell happened in Tibet or why I quit my job in Chengdu, stories that I would have to have gone out of my way to not mention or to disguise their presence, which forced me to ask myself, again and again—what is up with these trouble stories? Can I do without them? And if not, am I willing to do the work to get to the heart of them, in a new fresh way?
Now, I’ve finally gotten the manuscript to a place where it feels whole. Now I just need to keep on at it, query more agents, thicken my skin, get prepared for the inevitable rejections, and that one, important yes. At the same time, I need to keep writing new stuff. As someone who values follow-through and needs to have a sense of completion, I’ve been so focused on this book that I’ve put so much other new writing on hold. Now, I need to consciously cajole myself into experimenting with new subject matters, genres, and forms. Hence, this blog. And hence the new book (which feels presumptuous, yet deliciously intuitive to even call a book) which will focus on my inheritance from Frank and Els, sifting through their writing and things, ingesting their lives and stories, and meditating on home, death, impermanence, what we value in life and what we pass on. (See my last post and future posts for more on this.)
So all of this brings me back to the question: how long have you been working on your memoir? Maybe I’ve been working on it my whole life, and maybe it’s only been the last few years that the actual ‘memoir’ has emerged. All I know is, for now I am calling it “done,” and moving on to the next phase of my writing life, whatever this may bring. I will always be Searching for the Heart Radical, I know that much is true. But I’ve also entered a mellower phase, a settling phase, a phase centered around the idea of being in one place and putting down roots, as opposed to the solitary wandering, heart aching, intense spiritual questioning that I lived through in my twenties.
I joke—and hope, seriously now-- that the next book will not take me ten years to write. That maybe I’ll be able to finish it in two. And I certainly do not want to suggest that others need to take as long as I did to write their first memoir. Maybe I am just one of those SLOW writers, and maybe that’s okay. All I know is, you never know what you will be given from the universe to write about-- as a gift, or an urge, or a compulsion—but when you do sense you have something to explore through words, that you have a story to tell, to uncover, and to understand more deeply through the telling, you need to trust in this gift, and you need to follow it.
You can’t know from the onset how long it will take you to get a story right, and whether or not this ‘rightness’ will then mirror the tastes of the publishing world. But if you are willing to ride that exhilarating, yet difficult edge between writing just for the sake of writing, writing for the process and for what you will undoubtedly learn from it—and writing for a greater audience, writing to craft beautiful sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts that other people can read and gain insight from-- if you can ride this edge, and hold onto your essential love for writing no matter what praise or silence comes of it, then you have what it takes to be a writer.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I live next door to the house I grew up in.
I inherited my home from my old neighbor.
Frank was a good friend. His wife, Els, died ten years earlier, and I was close to her too, growing up as a child. But after she died, I grew closer to Frank and came to know him as an adult. He was diagnosed with cancer during the last couple years of his life, but he still managed to get out and work in the yard, do many of the things he'd always done. He was fiercely independent, stoic, and private, so he never asked for help with anything. Towards the end, he seemed to have reached a certain peace with his life and upcoming death. He died over three years ago in early May.
Frank never told me he planned to leave me his house. I found out when his nephew read Frank's will out loud at a small memorial service held by the family. My breath grew heavy and my face began to tingle. I felt overwhelmed, blown away, guilty, amazed, ecstatic. I didn't know how the family felt about it, this stranger in their midst who'd been left the biggest prize of all. They all seemed to have learned the news before I had; perhaps they'd had some time to digest its shock and thus hide their emotions. I wanted to express to them how much I would honor this gift. And yet, in that moment, all I could do was sit back in a surreal state of gratitude as the others were encouraged to put yellow sticky notes with their names on the things they wanted.
Els and Frank didn't have any children. This last bit of information seems important to disclose to help explain how I was left such a huge gift from someone who was not a blood relative. I only saw Frank once every couple months or so back then. I was living in
Books were great entryways into conversations about life, about literature, about the world. I embarrassingly admitted that I hadn't read most of the classic canon, though some day I wanted to. Once he gave me an extra copy of Pride and Prejudice to read, and try as I did, I couldn't get through it. Likewise, he called one of the books I lent him (Tim O'Brien's The Things they Carried, set during the Vietnam War) the "worst junk he'd ever read." He thought it was a completely inaccurate representation of war, and of course I couldn't argue otherwise. Frank had served during WWII, though he rarely shared his war stories with me. One day he told me that he read a book that was even worse than the one I'd lent him; someone had given him Tuesdays with Morrie, complete crap. I laughed and was relieved that I could agree with him on this one-- sentimental chicken-soup-for-the-soul life and death lessons for the masses. Not literature.
But books weren't the only thing that we connected through. There was so much about Frank and Els, their home-- a cedar cabin surrounded by tall maples and cedars--, and the way they lived that I resonated with. Frank was a merchant marine, and spent much of his life traveling around the world. Els was a poet, and loved to paint, bake, and philosophize about the meaning of the universe. Every summer the two of them would set out in their sailboat, the Hoko, and cruise up the sound into the waters of the Inside Passage off the shores of
They knew how to live a simple, yet decadent life, filled with earthly pleasures. They were extremely frugal, having lived through the Depression, yet their home was filled with treasures from around the world-- woven baskets, wooden chests, woolen blankets, copper pots, bowls of shells and arrowheads. As a child, I relished in the sheltered mossy enclave that was their yard; I inhaled the scent of baking bread, pies, and cookies; I spent hours on their floor arranging smooth black stones into intricate patterns before the giant fireplace. At their home, I felt enveloped in a natural goodness and beauty.
As an adult, spending more time alone with Frank, I looked to him as an example of how life could be lived. One didn't have to spend the entire year working, mired in busy-ness with no time to sit back, listen, sail, cook, and read. One didn't have to acquire a lot of things or a big house or a fancy title or big ego. And one didn't have to only live a settled life or a wandering life, either or-- there were ways to navigate a balance in between. There were ways, it was possible. Here was an elder who understood my impulses. Here was an elder who valued silence, literature, and solitude, as much as he valued people, children, and world cultures. Here was an elder who carried so much wisdom, and yet who was so humble. He knew he didn't have much time. He was a living lesson in how to not cling or hold on too tight. As far as I could tell, he had no regrets. As far as I know, he'd followed his whims and heart in life. And he'd come out okay. In fact, more sane and at peace than almost anyone I knew.
Frank left me a gift, and in moments I am still reeling. After several years of dealing with the probate, a long drawn-out process sorting through possessions and deeds and titles with the family, and a few interim periods where friends or renters stayed in the house, my husband and I finally uprooted from
Now, I live next door to the house I grew up in. I live in the magical secret garden next door, the one with the hidden raspberry patch and giant pile of composting leaves. There is so much more I want to tell you about this still unfolding process -- about the months of cleaning and going through someone else's things; about the discovery of old letters between husband and wife in the attic; the basement filled with artifacts from the sea; the flickers, raccoons, squirrels, and jays that also call this place their home; the yard filled with native plants-- ferns, salal, oregon grape, salmonberries-- and my burgeoning obsession with naming and pruning and caring for these plants that I may very well tend for a lifetime.
Monday, April 13, 2009
I became a farmer in Costa Rica. I made my way at the age of twenty to live in a small, coffee-farming, mountain town. How? First, I fell in love in the States with a man from Costa Rica. I proceeded to drop out of college to accompany him home with our dream of farming organically. We drove thousands of miles across Mexico, into Central America. We reached Arturo's town and his parent's house on a foggy afternoon, waking them from their siesta. His parents were overjoyed with the return of their black sheep son and with me,the young - se ve tan joven, tan joven - gringa wife.
I didn't fully understand until later, when I spoke Spanish more fluently and had absorbed cultural nuances, that by joining the men in the fields I defied the accepted role of a woman. This was 1995. Women harvested coffee and collected coffee wood for cook fires, but carry a back pack sprayer or prune the bananas or thin the coffee sprouts? Rarely, if ever. Much less the daughter-in-law of Egerico Segura, the hard working, respected, land-owning, coffee cooperative board member. Still, this family I married into valued hard work above anything else and despite the town gossip, I won my place in the field with don Egerico and his sons.
I remember my first day in the field. I marveled at the shiny dark green leaves of the coffee plants that rose six feet around me. The day's work: pruning the banana plants that grew among the coffee bushes, reducing the banana clumps to three stalks. Banana plants create folds of fibrous layers to form their stalks and when cut release a sap that stains your clothes and hands. Some of the stalks were as big around as my waist. I whacked at the stalks, turning them to pulp, splattering myself with sap. There is an art to cutting down a banana plant and I needed this first lesson. Arturo's brother appeared by my side. He must have heard the whack-whack-whack of my machete and not the clear cracking of a falling banana. He pointed to his eyes and then back at the plants. Look. I spoke very little Spanish and he refused to speak the little English he'd learned on a restaurant stint in New Jersey. I wasn't sure if my presence in the field was humorous or annoying to him. He aimed his glinting machete at the top of the thick stalk. He sliced down at a forty five degree angle. He aimed his machete up at another forty five degree angle, to cut a wedge out of the banana. Slowly, he cut more of the wedge until he could knock the top part of the plant onto the dirt. Then he took aim at the lower section and with strong, swift strikes of his machete sliced the stalk into sap-oozing sections. He motioned that I shouldn't let the stalks fall onto the coffee plants. Later in the day, Arturo gave me my second lesson: use the weight of the machete to guide your strike otherwise your muscles won't last a day in the field. I already knew, with all of my heart, I wanted to last more than a day.
I memorized the weather of the region. Black clouds barreled into the valley from the Pacific, fierce with lightening, dropping the ocean in a thunderous downpour, often before we could make it home. In the dry season, the hawks shrieked and Egerico said, "Summer is coming." The dry heat could fry thoughts right out of me as I left droplets of sweat on the soil. I felt sexy in my thick-soled black rubber boots, the shoe of choice for every campesino. Shovels and machetes, rock bars and desbajadores became extensions of my own body. We sculpted the terrain in our constant efforts to save the soil's fertility, terracing acres of hillside. Mid-morning breaks became a ritual I savored. Sitting in the shade, drinking lemonade out of recycled Coke liters, and chatting. At the end of the break, the machetes were sharpened; little flakes of steel fell from the blade. The Dota valley and those hillsides and the teachings of Egerico, Henry, Arturo and all of the other men I worked with, turned me into a farmer.
I'm still telling this story today, even after I left the farm over four years ago. I raised my hand at that conference because my experience as a farmer formed me. I am a farmer.
But wait, when was the last time I strapped the leather machete sheath around my waist? When was the last time the back pack sprayer with the faulty lid sloshed its 16 liters of fish emulsion down my back? When was the last time, thinking about my vegetable farming in the States, that I hauled irrigation tubes across hot sandy soil? When was the last time my hands were so callused they snagged on my clothes? I couldn't raise my hand again in the afternoon.
In the spring of 2007, I agonized over a decision that seemed immanent. I had to leave farming and my friends' farm I'd been working on. I was waking up every morning with numb hands. I desperately wanted a new challenge. I cried every day. If I walked away from this work, who would I be? I couldn't see any other story to tell about myself. I can not claim to be a farmer if I am not active in the field. At the same time, I see now, farming, like writing, influences how I experience the world and what I care about. The physical labor with its just fruits is only one element. I've also learned a way of observing from farming, a close eye for "the gleam of particulars" as poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it.
I recently applied for a farming position with a local high school. In writing about my experiences in my cover letter, I wondered about the web presence of the farm I built with Arturo and what these potential employers might discover online. I found the website for the farm which Arturo has turned into a collective. There is no mention of my contribution. I have been edited out of the history of Sol Colibri. I felt a shot of anger. I took most of the pictures on the site. I created the logo. So much heart felt labor after so many years of my life. Slowly the anger calmed to contemplation. Does this really matter? Ego says yes. Does it really matter? Not really. In fact, it's interesting. Look closely at what we choose to tell or not tell. Look closely at how attached I am to the stories I tell about myself. In the end, I am a writer through it all, composing lines, deleting lines, in constant effort to tell a good story. I am a farmer, let me tell you, and I am not a farmer, as I sit here at my computer with soft hands, crafting this post.