Monday, June 28, 2010

tiny lights

I had my very first ultrasound when I was about 7 weeks pregnant with Dora. I'd had a horrible stomach flu the weekend we found out I was pregnant, and the doctor wanted to be sure everything looked good because it took me a few days to feel better. The tiny bundle of cells that would be Dora floated around on the screen, looking a bit like a tiny seahorse. Inside the seahorse was a tiny flashing light - little electric charges pulsing through cardiac tissue, like a miniature lighthouse in the fog. That was the first moment that I actually felt pregnant, the first time I felt some sort of connection with the life forming inside of me. At that time, only Brian and I knew about the pregnancy, and the little flashing light was our secret, the silent tiny life force making its way, lighting up within me like a star being formed. 

 This weekend we drove to Ohio for my cousin Rachael's wedding. I drove alone, delayed by a meeting as Brian and Dora headed north through the West Virginia mountains. It was the first time since having Dora that I made the trip without her. I listened to music, caught up on my favorite podcasts, let my mind wander as the long afternoon shadows turned to darkness, the sun slipping behind the lumbering mountains. I thought again of the tiny light, of the way that one life can be carried within another, that just below my heart, at my very center, a flashing bulb of promise and future could secretly hide. I thought about my mom, as I always do when I drive towards the home we shared, towards her family. I wished more than anything that she could be there with us to see her grand-niece get married, to celebrate another beautiful occasion, another life begun. 

The wedding was lovely, the bride and her sisters glowing like that afternoon sun, bright pink roses all around. Brian played the music, my brother performed the ceremony. Dora played with her cousin, and later danced like a madwoman alongside the white dress, the pink satin heels, the groomsmen in their matching gray suits. Like any good family event, it was mutli-generational - from grandmothers to toddlers. All the tables were decorated with votive candles placed in recycled glass jars of varying sizes - Ball jars, baby food jars, spaghetti sauce jars. My mother would have loved that. 

 On the way home, this time with Dora sleeping in my backseat, I listened to part of a This American Life podcast about murder. I turned it off, for it was too disturbing for my taste. But before I did I heard the story of a woman who's father was murdered when she was 10 years old. She had spent years wondering who committed the crime, gathering evidence, hoping for some explanation. She met with a crime reporter who, upon reviewing what she had gathered, told her to forget it. Instead of being disappointed, she found herself feeling free, feeling liberated from the burden of searching for an answer, a person to blame, the bitter taste of revenge. She thought that her father would not want her spending all of her time obsessing over his death. Instead, she would focus on his memory, and on moving forward in her own life. 

It is very easy to get bogged down in the fact that my mother died, to marvel at the unfairness of it all, to recoil at the friend complaining about her own mother, to be filled with heavy, weighty, suffocating grief at the thought of never speaking to my wonderful mom again. I remember that, the day that she died, I did not want to go to sleep, because I knew it would be the last day in which we were both alive. What would my mother want me to be thinking about, what would she want me to be doing with her memory? Would she want me to think about how she died, how she left so much before her time, how things could have been different? I know all of these are natural thoughts to have, but probably she would want me to focus on ways to keep her in my life, on staying connected, on carrying her forward into my daughter's world in some real and tangible way.

Sometimes I feel like maybe that flashing light is still inside of me, a life being carried forward just below my heart, keeping me warm, connecting with me, staying a part of this world. Perhaps we can keep our loved ones with us that way, glowing out from within. I go to the weddings and the funerals and the family picnics not only as myself, but to represent my mother, who would certainly be there if she were able. She's there, glowing inside of me, a flickering votive in a recycled glass jar, a symbol of life and love that can't be easily explained, that transcends time, that sustains and protects and eases, ever so slightly, the pain of losing her. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Last week I had the privilege of meeting a friend's new baby girl. Both mother and baby were beautiful and serene, getting to know each other in that remarkable, timeless space at the very beginning of life. My friend commented that the baby was very relaxed and laid-back, and she thought that was because she was as well. It gave me hope that perhaps with second babies we can relax a bit more, enjoy those first few weeks a little more, with less fear that the baby will never stop crying, that we will never learn to nurse, that there is something wrong. Surely the knowledge we gain from raising the first baby can be applied to the second, even if the two are totally different.

The mutually reinforcing serenity that my friend and her baby were sharing got me thinking about energy, about the ways we are all connected and influencing each other and subtly altering the course of history, like tiny rivulets of water forging a path across the earth. Being married to a performer, I have learned that the energy of the crowd translates to the musician. The gig goes well if the crowd is dancing and having fun, even if it's pouring down rain outside. But a reserved crowd leads to a stale gig, no matter what the weather. Some challenging tasks energize us, while others suck the energy away and leave us exhausted.

I had a full and busy schedule this past weekend. Saturday morning was spent back at the City Market with Mandy. We got more good feedback on our work and sold a few things, but did not continue the pattern we set at the last market, where we both did very well. We both left feeling tired and hot, and a bit discouraged, but determined to keep going forward, with plans to take pictures of our work and proceed with setting up an Etsy page, finally.

Saturday was also our sixth wedding anniversary, so Brian and I got a babysitter and went out to dinner. We had a beautiful meal on the rooftop terrace at Sazerac, which we have been hearing about. The sun was shining but it wasn't too hot, there was a nice breeze and easy conversation, a lovely glass of Chenin Blanc, so delicious I wrote down the exact name of the wine. Dessert was a perfectly prepared creme brulee and a shared champagne cocktail. We laughed, talked about our beautiful, amazing girl, spoke the honest truth to each other. We felt surrounded by good energy, by love, by a sense of accomplishment in having stayed true for 6 years.

On Sunday, Father's Day, Dora and I spent time together at home in the morning, and ran errands, too. We took Dora downtown to Splasheville, a new fountain in the recently completed Pack Square Park that shoots water out unpredictably as kids and adults run around cooling off in the heat. Dora was shy and unsure at first, but the energy of the other laughing, playful children drew her in, and soon we were bargaining with her to get her home. I spent a few hours that day making a delicious and beautiful lime tart with berries. Supposedly this was part of Brian's Father's Day gift - and it's true that he enjoyed it very much - but it was as much for me as it was for him. Oh how I love gathering my ingredients, following the instructions, making something beautiful and delicious and filled with love. Even when making things from scratch is tiring, I come away feeling energized and fulfilled.

Last night, Mandy and I got together for a little photo shoot in preparation for setting up the Etsy site. We collaborated on each scene in her beautiful backyard, using stone and tree bark and grass and sky as backdrops for our work while David entertained Dora on the swing set. I was completely energized by the photography, as I am by the crafting. I couldn't wait to get home and work with the images. We drove home in the heat to a gathering thunderstorm, and when I got Dora out of the backseat I realized she was burning up. More than just sweaty from play, she had a fever. She immediately went to her room and asked to go to bed. I turned on her air conditioner and fan, stroking her hair as she fell asleep. In my mind, I turned over the possible causes of her illness, from the ridiculous to the probable, returning so easily and quickly to my early motherhood days of high anxiety and wildly creative disaster thinking. I later explained to Brian that the creative disaster thinking is probably some remnant of motherly instinct to protect, to be hyper-vigilant to any possible threat to our young. Understanding it's cause and origin, though, doesn't make it any easier to control or accept, or any less exhausting.

Saturday, June 19th, was also my mother's birthday. She would have been 74. I think about her now and I wonder if she had these same worries, these same questions of identity and purpose and future. I know she taught me to worry the way she did, so I'm quite sure she did her own share of creative disaster thinking every time I stepped off the school bus with a hot forehead. It's easy to believe that our parents always had all the answers, but now as a mother myself I realize that's just not the case. They were just making it up as they went along as we are now. When I stood in the shower the day I went into labor, hot water pouring down over my round belly, my last moments of pregnancy upon me, I tried to think of my mom as she must have felt facing new motherhood, and I realized she was surely as afraid and uncertain as I was.

I have moments in my life in which what I am doing brings me such strong positive feelings - tender moments with Dora, an evening of solid writing, a turn of the embroidery needle that comes out just right, a perfectly prepared lime tart. I'm trying to find out how to be sure that more of my time is spent on these things - these things which energize rather than exhaust me. Like the cause of Dora's fever I turn over and over in my mind the possibilities, wondering how I will ever figure this out. I'm trying to use what I've learned about myself so far in this life to really understand who I am, even when such introspective thinking results in total uncertainty. Surely that burst of energy I feel from certain creative outlets is the universe trying to tell me something. If only I can find the serenity to get to know it, that timeless and remarkable space we must inhabit at times of new life, during periods of transformation, at the beginning of something new.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

365 days

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up my copy of Anne Lamott's "Operating Instructions" to find a suitable quote for my friend Andrea's blessingway. The evening brought together two circles of friends who hadn't previously met, and it was an absolutely beautiful, lovely night. We all read something about motherhood - touching children's books, poems, things we ourselves had written. I read a short blog of mine - written when Dora was teeny-tiny - and the Lamott excerpt. Being an excerpt from a Lamott book, it included the F-word, some political references, made us laugh, and made us cry - everything you want and need in a good piece of writing.

Looking for that excerpt was enough to get me started, and I've been reading a little bit ever since. To be a good writer, you need to read a lot - so I know this is good for me. And I enjoy it. But it also means I've had less time to write. I want to write - even have entire blogs pass through my head in, say, the shower. The time simply isn't there, right now. But sinking into a book these past few weeks has been a luxury, a return to some former part of myself that I have essentially lost in motherhood. I have always loved to read, and when I lay down in bed on a summer night, with the window open and the fan spinning above me, I am a child and a teenager and a newlywed and an expectant mother all at once, feeling the pages slip between my fingers.

I've read this book by Anne Lamott about three times - once before I was married, when it's story of friendship was the most powerful narrative to me. I re-read it when Dora was a little baby, the same age as Lamott's son Sam is in the book, and I found solace in her honest and funny account of the wild swings between absolute adoration and complete desolation that come with new motherhood. Now the book is still touching, still funny, and it is her sadness about her father's death - her feeling that him not knowing Sam is a real tragedy - that speaks to me the most.

My mother had a thing for books, too, and it is through her that I discovered Anne Lamott, and nearly every other contemporary author I have read and enjoyed. She worked in bookstores and libraries throughout her life, and I trusted her literary guidance so completely that, when she died, it had been years since I had picked out a book for myself. After years of following and enjoying her suggestions, I felt lost. There is a comfort now in returning to words I know that my mother read, but I miss the new adventures, too, miss the unfolding of some unknown story that comes in a new literary experience.

The past week has unfolded like Lamott's account of new-motherhood, traveling over ups and downs with the speed and ferocity of a roller coaster. After an incredibly stressful day at work last Friday, I took some engagement pictures for good friends Joanna and Trevor. I had been in tears in my office hours before, and found absolute joy in taking the pictures for them. I came home feeling energized and happy. The next day, eating lunch and babysitting for a friend, my phone buzzed on the table indicating a new email had arrived. I read it, and gasped out loud. The email brought the sad news that a colleague and friend had died, totally unexpectedly, apparently of a heart attack. He had been at a meeting, left the table, and didn't come back. I am sure that the day before, he had packed a suitcase and kissed his wife goodbye for a business trip, but he never came home. On Monday, a friend who attended his funeral said she had been in a room full of people in absolute disbelief. And today, I heard some sad news about another friend, an illness returned for another round.

It seemed almost unbelievable, then, when yesterday the facilitator at a workshop I was attending asked "if you had a year to live, would you be doing what you're doing now?" People around me said yes, but I stayed silent. I'm not sure it's possible to know the answer, and my tendency to get tied up in logistics stopped me from going too far into the answer anyway. What about money? If I have a year to live, I must need health insurance! I can't just quit my job, etc. etc. It's an interesting question, and it does make me think. A year ago, my friend had a year to live, and he didn't even know it. I guess that's the point of asking the question.

If I had a year to live, I'm not sure what I would do, but my guess is that there are a few things I would try to do: Read. Write. Take pictures. Sew and knit and be at the farmer's market every Saturday. Spend time with my girl. Reconnect with my husband. Walk the dogs every day. Vacuum - maybe. If I had a year to live, I'd start picking out new books again.

When faced with uncertainty, Anne Lamott writes her questions on a little slip of paper and puts them into a box by her bedside. This is her way of asking God for guidance. After this week of loss and reflection and returning to words I have loved and read before, I woke up this morning feeling uncertain myself. Perhaps I will always be wondering what I'm supposed to be doing. This morning, I took a cue from one of my favorite authors. I wrote my question on a slip of paper, put it in a little wooden box in the top drawer of the antique dresser in my room - the one that belonged to my mother. Like Anne Lamott, I'm waiting for my next operating instructions. I think maybe a trip to the library is in order. It's almost time for a new book.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

what's in a name?

At work today, I was listening to Pandora and an Enya song came on. I haven't heard Enya for a long time, although I was into her music a lot about 10 years ago. It reminded me of a moment in my labor, near the end, about the time of transition. I was having a difficult time, getting that panicky urgent feeling that a lot of women get in transition. I didn't know that was what was happening, I just knew I needed it to be over. My doctor somehow got through to me, got me to relax and breathe some oxygen and settle down for a bit. Doula Jo asked "Enya or Nina Simone?" One word was about all I was capable of at that point, and I said "Nina", but she started the Enya CD anyway. It was totally fine - either was fine. But it made me think - that was about the last coherent word I said while Dora was still in my womb, before she finished her journey into this world. Did that last word somehow sink into her in a special way, leading her to use it as such a communicative force when she began to talk? After all, "nina" was basically the first word Dora ever used. It may be a name to most, but in Dora's world (and ours, by extension) it had meaning beyond a name. Did my utterance of the word nina at a moment when the entire universe stood still, at the precipice of the start of one life, at the intersection where I grew to become a new person while also losing a part of myself, somehow become the single most powerful and intimate word that could be said?

The strangest thing about this word - or name - is that, in my mind, I think this is not the first time of great transition in which this word has been spoken. I seem to recall that, when my mom was very ill, she would call out to us and say "nina". I remember asking her what it meant. I don't remember what she said in response. I didn't even really remember it until some time much later. Could I be remembering it correctly? I really don't know. But, if I am remembering it correctly, surely this means something. Does it mean that, through the great transitions of death and birth, there is some opening, some place through which communication is fluid and transcendent and elevated above simple conversation? Is there some way that the words my mother spoke at her moment of greatest transition flowed through me to my unborn child, to the spirit within Brian and I that would become Dora, to the baby in the clouds waiting to be born some 4 years later? It is almost too far-fetched and other-worldly to wrap my mind around, and yet it also seems entirely plausible.

I just got back from a road trip to visit my good friend Maria in Georgia. We spent most of the weekend on the "night-night rescue project", which was our attempt to mend Dora's blankie that Maria knitted for her before she was born. She loves, loves, loves that blanket now, and it's full of holes. If it disintegrates completely I'm not sure what we'll do - saving it is pretty critical. We knitted 15 or so little square patches that we sewed to the blanket, and Maria is making a few more for me to attach later. Then I'm going to sew some cotton onto the back to try to reinforce the thing. I think it's going to work. I hope it's going to.

We had a lovely but short visit. Dora was so totally off-schedule that she fell asleep immediately upon our departure, settling into a morning nap as if she were 6 months old instead of nearly 3. I took advantage of the silence in the car to listen to one of my favorite podcasts, the Moth. Included was a story by Roland Rocchiccioli about his experience caring for his mother at the end of her life. She died of liver cancer at age 94. Although their relationship had been tenuous, it was he who cared for her in the end, bathing her, taking her to doctor's appointments, lifting her dog onto the bed as she breathed her last, calling the priest for last rites. After she died, he sat with her body, chatting with her, watching the birds outside, trying to grasp what had just happened. He said, "she brought me in, and I took her out". I have never heard it said that way. He said that he realized that being with someone at their death is just about the most intimate experience two people can share, after which "you can never be ordinary again". I agree, and the only other moment as intimate is that of birth. When you are there to witness a person cross over the threshold between life and whatever lies before and after, it is as if the entire world stops. the universe stands still, all is quiet, and everything is waiting with baited breath for the transition to take place. Everything stands still to allow space for such a momentous occasion to occur. It is at those moments that we are our most human - most animal, even - and also our most spiritual. As Mr. Rocchiccioli said in his story, when someone dies, one second they are there and one second they are not. The life force leaving the body is palpable and obvious, the stethoscope against the chest isn't needed to know that the heart has stopped. The baby entering the world does so with a cry - a natural reflex to draw in life-giving breath, and a spiritual announcement - pronouncement - of their arrival.

As both birth and death can feel like tiptoeing along the edge of another dimension, a glimpse into something beyond what we know or understand, I don't think it's that wild to imagine that a word uttered in death might be breathed into a new life like the life-giving oxygen inhaled at birth. Perhaps that word said by my mom in her final hours hung in the universe around me, waiting to enter the world at the next opportunity, the next time that the space between life and the universe was minimized by so great a transition. Maybe I'm just looking for another connection that isn't there, another way to believe that on some level my beautiful girl and my beloved mother have crossed paths. Or maybe there really is a space in which all those who transition from or to this life are one. Either way, I know that I am blessed, honored, privileged, humbled beyond words to have been there for both of these momentous and life-changing transitions, the two most powerful and intimate moments of my life thus far.