The screen door bangs, shaking the flowers on the table,
zinnias Ella May put in a mayonnaise jar.
She’s upstairs now, packing her cardboard suitcase-
loud in the jar mouth, hoping their words will heal.
The screen door bangs, shaking the flowers on the table,
zinnias Ella May put in a mayonnaise jar.
She’s upstairs now, packing her cardboard suitcase-
loud in the jar mouth, hoping their words will heal.
“She was the mother to not only two children but a thousand poems. And there were times when they were all hungry and crying at once, craving her attention and compassion, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t keep them all happy.” from Elif Sharaf’s book Black Milk, describing Sylvia Plath.
The Creative Takeover
I, naively, did not realize that in mothering there is no escape.
So I have been surprised that at times I have an insatiable need to be alone. And that, at times, the edge of the Earth is not far enough away to get this space. Some days even when I am alone, the thirst remains. Like I am battling to reclaim my sovereign territory that is… my Self?
I wonder, “Is this an existential reaction to being forever linked to the thoughts and feelings, emotions and psyche of another being?” “The outcome of
attachment parenting gone awry?” or “a natural part of the process of carving a parenting path so very different from the models lain before me?”
I am not afraid of the responsibility of parenting. It’s not the long-term, eighteen year thing that intimidates me. It’s the day-to-day relentlessness and total consumption that finds my creativity a neglected dog hovering in a corner waiting and wondering when it will be fed or pet again. To get to the whispers of this inner voice and befriend that inner animal that wants to be heard, I have to excavate. I have to crack open the laminate that encapsulates my soul contents.
The laminate has layers. The first layer is occupied with logistics- meals, appointments, and schedules. The second layer stores all of the emotional considerations- mine and my daughters’ competing needs, hoping that some of the time they can both be met. The third layer houses my big ideas, and the inner battle of what is realistic and doable of them given current circumstances- note: this is a distinctly different conversation than before parenthood, when nothing stood in my way. The fourth layer houses my soul voice. She has to be coaxed out, each and every time I want to get closer to her.
Then if shored up by school pickups, swim practice, or emotional meltdowns, I have to re-melt the laminate layers. I don’t get invited right back down. My creative process doesn’t fit well in between things. It requires open-endedness. Then again, there is who I was before being a mom and who I am now after becoming one.
Before becoming a mom: To write, I needed a day with nothing planned or just a yoga class in the morning, and lots of time for everything to unfold. After becoming a mom: I have an hour and a half between dropping my daughter at school, and my first client. Write. Go.
It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t even know I had a burning need for creative expression before becoming a mom.
After becoming a mother, does personal space exist? Is it realistic to long for it? Any mom will tell you that she is no longer singular after she has a child. Even if she might like to be. Her body was divided, her heart divides, and a lot goes on in the unseen world that keeps us linked to our children. I am sure many fathers feel this way too.
I am going to tell you what no one told me. Motherhood is a spiritual path and therefore there is a burn.
Have you ever felt the burn? A steamy rise from the back of your heart up to the nape of the neck, that feels a bit like all the hairs are going to stand up on end. Pre-baby, I knew the burn as the feeling when I’d had just about enough sitting meditation practice. Of course this is usually the moment where something in the mind is actually about to change, and in its own self-protection the ego wants out. When you remain sitting anyways, you feel the burn. The burn is staying put. On the cushion or the mat, that is an option. As a parent, there is no escape.
As a single mother, this is what the burn feels like:
– a hot guy asks me last minute to go to one of my favorite singer’s concerts, but I have used all my last minute child care options, and can’t leave my 5 year old home alone.
– I am dying to make love to my boyfriend, but my daughter will not fall asleep. I know if she doesn’t fall asleep soon, that I can’t stay awake any longer.
– my daughter starts vomiting the night before I have to travel for the weekend to teach, which I have to do so I can pay my rent, so I have to leave a sick baby. (she was fine; turns out it was a strategic move on her part to see if I would stay)
– my babysitter is 10 minutes late and so I miss the only yoga class I can make it to that week.
– I have a deadline AND the motivation to write (prized combination), and my daughter insists on being in the same room with me.
Motherhood has pulled me like crazy to earthy material existence. I have had to learn to find my intuitive-magical-insightful voice in small windows. I realize there are lessons here.
Motherhood is, in itself, a spiritual path. That’s easy to say, but not uttered often enough. What other formal practice could teach me selflessness at the depth that motherhood has? The sheer ordinariness rivals any Zen meditation retreat. As one spirited yogini mother of two said, “PLEASE send me to a cave, I don’t even need food, silence for days, in a cave, that sounds like heaven.”
The healthy unselfish-ness, and at times dissolution of the self (one definition of Samadhi!), the total recognition that it is not my needs that come first has come as a lived truth for me via motherhood. I am in serpentine entanglement with another being’s rhythms, feelings, and psyche. That connection is a forever-thing, not an until tomorrow thing. Or a walk away thing.
Even if I could take a walk, that would take the edge off, but the entanglements would remain. Because this is my karma- at the center of the center of that word. This is my unique series of patterns and challenges specially configured and delivered to me, in the form of a child. This is for me to grow. And for her to grow. It’s designed to be hard, and delightful. Sometimes I feel like hard rubber when I need to be silly putty. And sometimes I feel like overheated taffy when I need to be a Sequoia trunk. It’s designed to push us, and stretch us. It is not just birth that is a rite of a passage. Motherhood itself is an ongoing rite of passage and there is no question that it is a spiritual path.
I am writing this to stamp it into stated existence, not because I think it needs to be solved or changed. I am writing this in solidarity with other women and mothers who have creative lives, who have thousands of poems written, and who feel the burn. We are not alone and the world needs our children and our poems, and our voices.
1. I am nearing forty when I give birth to my third baby; She arrives three years late, and cries before her body is born. When I bring her up through my standing legs and to my chest, I am awed by the slippery weight of her. She is here, finally, born over the pink tiles of our bathroom floor, and all is right in the world. Her birth ends months of fearful living: I no longer fear losing her; I no longer fear losing myself. I am awake most of the night, the thrill of her running through me. And when they come upstairs the next morning-big brother and big sister-their meeting gives my life defined borders, a completeness after years of living with ghosts.
2. I have been pregnant eight times. The first two times, innocently and accidentally pregnant, led to healthy babies. Then another happy accident and my first miscarriage. I took several months to let my mind and body heal but soon I was pregnant again, and again my body carried this pregnancy until nearly 12 weeks, and again I miscarried naturally at home.
After the second miscarriage I told my husband I was a baby killer. “You’re a baby ICU,” he replied, “your body just keeps holding on to pregnancies, trying to make them work.” His words comforted me, but I still felt like something was wrong, in fact, I wanted something to be wrong. If something was wrong I might understand it; if something was wrong I could fix it.
My doctor called it “bad luck.” Still, I sought answers. I had blood drawn again and again for tests that revealed nothing but my good health. I scrutinized the numbers, researched on the Internet, sought specialists. I had procedures: a hysterosalpingogram, all clear. A hysteroscopy, nothing. For years I had trouble getting pregnant at all. And the next two pregnancies were over days after they began. Finally, when I thought I could not be so unlucky to have another miscarriage, I got pregnant and made it to eleven weeks before bleeding again.
The miscarriages brought me to my knees. I buried the first two sacs and placentas in our garden on Morelos, the third placenta I buried under a fig tree at our house on 8th street. As my bad fortune piled up I kept it a secret; I was distant and sad, my life ruled by a sense of maternal inadequacies I was too ashamed of to share.
Yet my stubborn drive kept on. As I neared the three-year anniversary of my first miscarriage something shifted. It was time to give up, give in. I thought, maybe this person I feel missing from my family will always be missing? Maybe I am not so good. Maybe I am not so lucky. I had trouble trusting my body; I could not dismiss what I saw as a wide and perilous unknown that lay beneath my skin.
3.What dangers are ahead, behind? Within? How do we live, knowing the way of death?
4. I want to tell you: the third child is the same! It is easier! But nothing is the same after five miscarriages. When life is tipping towards forty, and you find yourself mercifully, miraculously pregnant, you do not celebrate a life too soon. The real story went something like this: I held myself very still for twenty weeks, breathing a little when I saw the heartbeat at 6, a little more when I saw the heartbeat at nine weeks and the tiniest bud of leg kicking on the inside. I sighed deep and big, and cried happy tears at twenty weeks when I saw a perfect body on the ultrasound and felt daily kicks. But I was also afraid nearly every day, and occasionally that fear strangled the life from my body until, rigid and heart pounding I would run upstairs to my bedroom closet, hiding this from my kids and sometimes my husband.
Was I ashamed to lose another? Or ashamed that I was ruled by fear? In the closet I would close the door, and laying flat on my back squeeze the gel on my round belly where I knew the baby would be and I then would use the Doppler to find the heartbeat. Only then did the breath, held back, burst through and I would tell myself that this wouldn’t happen again.
I was trying to trust my body, but I also knew deep in my bones that terrible things happen, and they might happen to me.
5. There are parts of this story I am ashamed to share, other parts that I won’t share. How nearly each month before this final pregnancy I felt the familiar sensations of new life attaching to my womb, and yet each month I bled. How I bought my weight in pregnancy tests, and took them with something akin to addiction. How each holiday I imagined the child that wasn’t there. How I began to wonder if I could even call myself mother when I had only two children who were growing and someday wouldn’t need me. I was failing all the time: each month, each year another way to measure my inadequacies.
When I reached six weeks with my eighth pregnancy, I went to see my doctor. I had begun to feel sick. I had food aversions and fatigue. But I had strong symptoms with my other pregnancies that ended in miscarriages so there was nothing I could hold onto, nothing telling me this might have a happy ending. The nurse took my blood pressure and it was so high that she smiled at me and I smiled back. “I won’t write that one down,” she said, kindly. Then it was time. My doctor came in with a buoyancy and hope that I lacked and I waited, gripping my husband’s hand. When she pointed to the flicker, a heartbeat, I cried with disbelief. You see I had come to expect the worst. Good news was harder to grasp.
6. Time is my teacher. This pregnancy is long and short, as time is. It is harder to wait; I want proof of life. At the end of October, when I reach 37 weeks, I start to feel more Braxton hicks. Some are stronger like real contractions. I think: this baby is coming soon. But time is my teacher.
The election comes. I take a picture of a white bodysuit that says, “the future is female” and put it on my instagram feed. I feel a thrill that my daughter will be born with the first female president. Instead, that night, I cry as if mourning the death of the world I thought I knew. I wonder how I can bring my daughter into the world at all. And so my body stops. I am in mourning for weeks. My body waits. I wonder if she will ever be born.
Then one night in late November I bring my third living child into the world. A labor that comes on suddenly and with force; I pace, buck and push through contractions, howl at the night, and howl at the love. I transform myself; make space, move organs, rearrange bowel and gut and tissue to accommodate this baby who came from where? And what? After birth she latches on, sucking and making small sounds. My hair falls down around this total surrender, around the pinkness of skin and the relief that holds me softly like hands against the softness of the mattress.
7. Does time heal all wounds? Or do we just learn to surrender, accepting imperfection more easily? Would I be telling this story if things had turned out differently? I would like to say that she healed me; maybe in some part she did. But aren’t we all in some way on the same path, trying to reconcile light with dark? Life with death?
8. The day after her birth a friend texts me about the rainbow she saw; another comes to visit and describes many rainbows stretching over the hills and valleys on her drive.
There is a rush to stillness that characterizes birth: from inside to outside, from darkness to light. She is born as winter dims the light on our world and we are marooned in the upstairs bedroom as rain pours outside.
Some nights the dark lasts forever. Each time she voices an honest desire to be held, I take her newness into my arms and wait as she latches on to begin nursing. As if in a dream, I am lulled by the steady satisfaction of her drinking, and then she is done, and I am left with the task of putting her down again. I am not a person who prays, yet this is what I begin to do after I set her down: Please, please, I think, just two hours. I check the clock too often. Soon I have scooted my body closer to the man who tethers me with his own warmth and sleep, and I am drifting again.
When giants tuck into my bed before sunrise, I celebrate the interrupted dark. The end of night! It’s finally over! I am exuberant to begin again; to feel the skin of my elder babes who I miss with an ache I didn’t expect three kids in; to rise and drink my fill of warm tea. I pull them close and kiss their cheeks. Only five and eight years old, they are exponential since their little sister was born: eyes are as big as lakes, their faces as tall and wide as the faces cut from Mount Rushmore. The eight year old doesn’t last long in my arms; she comes to me less and less these days. I can imagine all the ways it will feel I am losing her. Nothing lasts forever.
9. I am a mother and a gatekeeper: with the capacity to carry life and also death. I do not know why I miscarried so many times, and after five miscarriages in a row, I do not know why this eighth pregnancy brought me my Adelaide.
Years ago, my brother, an artist, painted a series he called ‘A Welcome End to Knowing.’ Something about this sentiment, that knowing could be the opposite of peace, that one might welcome its end, struck me as true, but it was not until I held Adelaide in my arms that I understood.
I may never know why things happened the way they did, but for now peace: a welcome end to knowing.
when they took you
if they noticed your smell,
that comforting mix of cool metal, warm leather,
and the more elusive qualities of age.
did they have trouble with the downshift
into first, like i always did,
or note the gentle “put-put” scales
of your acceleration?
could they feel the familiar slump
to your driver’s seat,
the way the back grooved just so,
a perfect echo of another’s body?
was that intimacy enough to make even
their heart blush?
was there more than one of them?
and, if so,
did the second one feel
the satisfying heft of your door clanking shut?
were my toeprints still there,
on the dash, and the windshield,
gauzing their view of the getaway route?
did they attempt to unroll
your fickle passenger side window,
finding, finally, that
jingle-jangle rhythm of release?
did they slide, intuitively, into that place
you always held,
elbow slung out the window,
neck nestled against your seat,
hair tousled (illicitly) by the passing breeze?
and did they smile, in spite of themselves
and the cold sting of their departure?
i wouldn’t blame them.
life always felt better from that spot.
were their silhouettes
the same as ours, framed
by the gentle arc of your rear window,
and the ruby glow of your tail lights?
or did they read,
through the noir haze of late night,
like the fugitives they were?
did they feel the way the world looked at you
how you were a gateway
to so many unplanned conversations,
so many unorchestrated connections?
when they looked at you
if they saw only the price tags dangling
from your disembodied parts.
or did they also understand
the shared history they were dismantling,
the planned future they were tearing apart?
did they know
that just two blocks away
slept a man, a woman,
and one little boy,
who would miss you everyday
like a lost piece of their own hearts?
december 28, 2016
I tried to gather my thoughts the morning after Election Day. Over and over I faltered at the keyboard- my fingers coming for words that drift in a mid-air toggle; struggling to face a truth with no room for naivety. Reality seemed a nuanced nightmare; did I wake? Still, of all the campaign disasters, remained a single striking uncertainty:
How could my America vote for Donald Trump amidst court delivered allegations that he raped a 13 year old girl? I never heard her name.
Before you leave this post-election post, please let me explain. This isn’t about him. This is about my sister and me.
Perhaps you should know, in my seething disappointment, in my eye buldged WTF?, I’d fought the urge to create a social media account with which to call out those who callously proclaim they’d voted a candidate into office on the singular stance of anti-abortion. “I sincerely hope that you are a foster parent.” I’d say, or “How many teenagers have you adopted into your family?! They were babies once, ya know.” I imagined replying to: “Women are having abortions, and I’m having IVF, praying for a baby everyday!” I’d get straight down to brass tacks and remind everyone that the privileged processes of IVF include “ABORTION”, and still- ADOPT! if a baby, is a baby. With my capslock, just like that. I’m going to educate someone today, I thought smugly.
It turns out heated melodramas can play on without me and many things can ‘stop a beating heart.’ Truly, it races blind and harsh during online musings where we can all play the martyr, skipping beats at the real deep digs shallowly deleted soon after to save (an already filtered) face. Good thing I sat quietly in witness; in a blue screen haze, picking at burnt toast. In silence, I sat, nudging cold tea bags with my silver spoon. But while I was trying so gallantly to remain un-roused by that whole fucking mess of spilt milk in the comment section of someone else’s blog, I nearly drowned like a damp rag into dishwater trying weeks later to make peace with it. So now, I suppose, I’ve never been more ready to ring out and dress the wounds in words better fit to bind us.
This is about my sister and me.
With the highest hopes for child, on a frigid bloody table, the shrill florescents of an American hospital room blind her. “What’s happening to me? I’m pregnant, is everything going to be ok?” A male doctor scrapes out her insides broadcasting to emergency service personnel with the cold precision of that blade his patient has had a “spontaneous abortion.” This, if you didn’t know it, is medical terminology for a miscarriage. The woman is devastated by life’s lost promise- but the man with the knife will have her hating her body as if what has happened had been Her Choice.
This is about my sister and me.
On another wing, on another prayer, is a woman who’d kept her own promise: to hold no contempt for her motherhood that July night as she’d been grabbed and raped by a stranger. Brave doesn’t even begin to describe her journey, yet her sacrifice hadn’t mattered much to the government she was forced to depend on to pull through those first tough years. Planned Parenthood had the only OBGYN for miles willing to accept her Medicaid card. Food stamps, Welfare, housing assistance… she needed it all. And wasn’t it due to her?
She waits in crowded County offices where the staff is never shy to demean her- formally branding her son illegitimate on every passing document, and divvying out unsolicited safe-sex advice upon seeing young teenage mothers like her. With their children. In waiting rooms. Obscurity is never quite the arms to raise against fact, but neither is the truth when it’s Unspeakable. So sweet she is, her lips are not tight in anger; she holds no grudge, merely urges those secondhand strokes of one bad night to tick her into the more private shaming rather than a public one.
The likes of County Health never could adequately nurse that incorrigible case of Sore Thumb. Her son caught it too the very day he emerged into his new world: the black kid not so affectionately received in an all white hospital, white family, white church, white neighborhood… white school. His very existence perpetuated the racial profiling he was born of: those who look like him are criminals to conquer… even though his mother willed his presence undeniable proof love & mercy repairs all deeds done by men.
Religiously, I have serious spiritual hostility with the same old abortion rhetoric, because: If you are Damned if you do, then why in the hell does it feel so damning even when she doesn’t?
In a hallway, at the grocery store, in my neighborhood: it’s gut wrenching to hear young women just like her facelessly chortled as “Fast” girls. Passerbys huff the words into their arms like vampire cough. And so long as a woman’s time is scrutinized by anyone other than herself, Fast Women everywhere (even those hasty to judge), could never outrun what continues to pass away from a woman’s dignity in Her Choice.
This is about my sister and me.
“I have to tell you something. It’s really important. This is when it started. You need to be careful.”
I supposed she tried to tell me before that day, in fewer words; in subtle ways. “To my sister: Who knows and sees a lot and handles it all remarkably well,” scribbled inside a Harriet The Spy book she’d bought me. An attempt, I think, to break the binding on our homelife; Look harder.
I’d never been to the counselor’s office at school, though there were infinite reasons to do so. My siblings and I were heavily neglected at home. There were never any parents around. Lunch money often came in quarters and pennies, if it came to us at all. Food and clothing were a similar afterthought. The system knew my siblings well; they were disruptive and hurting. I kept school more like a sanctuary. The well behaved, gifted one came as a relief to the staff. “She’s going somewhere; she’s not like the others.”
What’s hers was mine, and I couldn’t keep our secret for long. I walked out abruptly in the middle of my teacher’s screening of Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? I remember how my crying echoed in the empty hallways heading to the school counselor’s office. Unfortunately, that lone resistance march wasn’t the first time I’d heard cries like that in the corridor.
The truth came out; all of it and all at once bursting through cries. My counselor was as lovely as she was wide-eyed and heartbroken. For the first time in my life, I felt like an adult could hear me. The principal came, and in a full room with a tape recorder, the office listened in horror, feeling a new remorse for how they’d been so hard on my unruly siblings, and notified officials. “My father molested my sister,” I told them. “Did you see it?” they asked me. I had not.
My mother came into my bedroom that evening. The completely unfamiliar notion to have her in my space was a bad sign; she’d never even made sure I was home at night. “We got a call from the school today. Your father said he didn’t do it. You are no longer allowed to see your sister.” I started sobbing into my pillow, scared to be alone. She shut the door behind her.
The series of events that follow are disastrous; the systems in place have holes so big young girls drop right through their safety net. Child Services loses herself in the disorder of our home and the first scrub is over my sister’s sexual abuse. The sweet counselor I bore my heart to is in a fatal car crash the following week. The social worker assigned to our case resigns after we flood her fax machine with pleas for help. There’s a family-wide ban of my sister to gatherings. “She’s trouble,” they say, “She’s always been a wild teenager.” And while they all seek to dispel what is Dirty, by sweeping unsubstantiated claims under the rug what they neglect to spot is my own risk; that the tapestry of girlhood is woven together. That if my sister is not safe, neither am I.
In this turbulent time, when help had been systematically denied in a cold defeat, my sister was the only one who came back for me. We did not honor the family ban. She parked two blocks over, and I’d hop into her car; our hands in the sunroof and my barefeet on the dash. I had my place at the dinner counter where she waitressed; I did my homework in the back of a Health Store she helped manage. I slept over weekend nights in her dorm room. My sister, my fiercest protector: she did not turn away; she did not drive into the sunset without me.
I knew enough not to be home much, even if it was by a risk that only girls know. I do not know if she ever had an abortion, or needed one. As a spiritual person, I believe that if she had she will not be judged on the other side of this adversity, just as I believe she should not be judged anywhere on this planet now. Only in some perversion of truth would my sister somehow be obliged to birth my sister. Or that it says something about her lack of humanity and not the lack thereof had an abortion been the safe way out; had it been Her Choice.
The miracle perhaps was never in our own birth; the miracle is we would somehow survive despite it. Light bent between the prism of our same features- a crystal hung rearview from the machine. Why one and not the other? is a vehicle without gas, and those who try to drive it blindly don’t know that they don’t know it goes nowhere. It’s a question social workers use in search of a certain validity among victims based on sex. A question of worth for the majority deciding the legality of abortion. But never a question a sister, like myself, dares ask. The hard truth is unmoving between us; a single unit of Girl; one shining thing split center from her car: light came through because she made it my privilege not to know the side of darkness.
On stark nights of gratitude and not understanding (Never Understanding) all that girls and women go through just to assert the right of their existence, Choice is my prayer. You can not kid yourself how dark, dueling, & incredibly heartbreaking abortion is. In a fallen world, darkness is there whether anyone is in the woods to hear it; darkness is especially without witness. And in such a world where women tell their daughters what not to wear, how not to walk alone at night, when society pedals birthcontrol and not male enlightenment as protection against rape, with all the reminders void of conviction that No Means No each passing generation: Darkness is especially not special at all. To pray in it tears the comforters right off; women do have the work to carry the light through. But life is only as divine as our liberty for love and mercy.
So let it begin anew: there’s a birth coming ceaseless towards the faint of heart; the actualization that a woman’s body is courageously her own; that where there’s no trust, there can be no progress. Grant both with constance. Trust your sister, and live in her faith.
Lady Liberty, I will not turn away; I will not drive into the sunset without you. This is about my sister and me.
Photo by Jesse Chamberlin