Straw Flowers

Straw Flowers
"Straw Flowers" by L. Folk

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Compassionate Christ




Christmas morning I read a page from Incandescence, Readings with Women Mystics, and familiarized myself with one Marguerite d'Oingt, a French nun and celebrated mystic, who lived in the thirteenth century and is recorded as one of the earliest of French women writers. In her recorded meditation, Marguerite d'Oingt meditates on carrying the child Christ and then the crucified Christ in her arms. She reflects on how the latter was just as light as the former. Christ had come into the world virtually weightless and left the world virtually weightless. I thought of how compassionate acts create lightness, and Christ's act of coming into the world, Christmas, is a manifestation of His first great act of compassion; His last, being the crucifixion. I meditated on this and then my father burst through. His spiritual geyser had reached me and I burst myself- into tears. My father must live there, in Christ's compassion, as a massless being, as energy, light, pure love. My father, as I have witnessed, has the power to do (this is the Physic's definition of energy, to do, to make change) and that is exactly what compassion is, love in action. He's behind the scenes, working at our lives, enriching them. I have no direct evidence of this; it is only what I know viscerally.
Compassion is always the answer. This is something I tell myself. For me, compassion is the intersection of Christianity and Buddhism. (Thich Nhat Han said once that “Buddha and Jesus are brothers” or maybe that is the name of one of his books?). The Christ of compassion and not dogma, is the one I seek. His compassionate acts can be divided into two types, those we can understand: consolation and teachings with parables, and those we cannot understand: miracles. I believe Christ's capacity for compassion was so intense, it had reached a mystical level and this gave him a certain lightness, to walk on water, to turn 5 fishes and loaves into 5 thousand, to resurrect the dead.
I have not been so compassionate as of late due to my discomfort with this pregnancy. I am always ready to rip someone's head off. A few weeks ago I went to my sister's house and there was a car blocking her driveway. The house next to hers was having an estate sale and the short, narrow street was crowded with cars everywhere. I was annoyed, furious someone could be so inconsiderate. A man came out of the house and I curtly asked if the car blocking the driveway was his. He said, calmly, that it was, and that he was very sorry if he had caused me any inconvenience. He would be out of my way in a minute. The compassion in his voice effectively diffused my fury. I noted this, was ashamed afterward.
I want this pregnancy to be an act of compassion, but I struggle with it being so. I have always been so free to do whatever I want and now I feel so restricted, so heavy. It's been 41 years of selfishness. I am also terrified. If I feel this uncomfortable now, what is going to happen to me in four months? How heavy-footed will I be then? Fear pummels me and my mind flashes up all sorts of ugly scenes of bed rest and preeclampsia and bursting hearts. What have I done? I ask myself at night, when I can't sleep, can't rest, and my mind spins.
And then in the morning, it is different. I want so much to see their faces, feel their warm bodies, love them, be with them. But I am already with them. Through the Christ in me, my compassionate Christ, I can meditate on this.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tell-tale Heart Beating in My Ear and Other Pregnancy Oddities




I feel as if I am wearing someone else's body. The large belly is a tortoise shell, or a watermelon. The ear, a permanent metronome, a constant beat I can synchronize with exercise repetitions or steps when walking. The boobs, eggplants come high summer. The feet, strange unravellings there, at the heel. But the body does not discern which ligaments to loosen and I am unravelling everywhere, as if I am a ball of yarn at a kitten's whim. The lower back, well, same ol' familiar pathways of pain; that is the old body chiming in, the familiar. The hair seems to have benefitted; it grows long, has luster and volume like those heads you see in a Pantene commercial. The stomach is forever a misanthrope, grumbling with whatever I give it. The lungs, slightly restricted. They want to rise up, but someone has tied them to a tree.
I do what I can with this new body. I get it moving in the morning; I stretch it, try to fill it with air, let it leak out slow, bathe the bulk and limbs. Adorn it with clothing and jewelry. But inertia is steadfast; I give in and the beating of my own heart begins to irritate me. Perhaps my sinuses are clogged, or maybe I have an ear infection. Take care of that says the brain, now fully awake at 3 am, but I don't. Relaxation is fleeing. At night I wrestle with myself, kick off my right heel to turn myself on my left side, then, a few moments later, kick off my left heel to turn myself on my right side. I've been warned about sleeping on my back because I've been told the babies could crush an artery to the heart. I told my doctor I always sleep on my back; does this mean I am going to wake up dead? My doctor is a soft talker, has model cheek bones and blue moons for eyes. No you will not wake up dead, he said.
This tell-tale heart ticks away the moments of this pregnancy; I confess, I can't wait until it's over. I look at magazines, of lithe women in gracious yoga poses; I see them running on the street or dancing on stage. I dream of myself dancing, weightless, rising up into the ether. I feel like I should be dreaming of babies (think of the children! Adele said to Edna in The Awakening). Shouldn't the anxiety dreams about leaving them somewhere be kicking in? I feel the quickening inside me- life, theirs. Not mine. There, there, my mind says and then I forget all about it. My love for them is buried, as the quickening is buried under flesh, under all of this immediate discomfort. When I read about unfortunate happenings to other mothers, spina bifida in the first trimester, a heart-wrenching choice, I well up with tears. My love for them throbs.
Not them, I say to myself. Please God, not them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Cold, Hard Truth: Men Get Published More Than Women (Revisiting the Issue from a Personal Perspective)



My brother and I are both struggling writers. I write primarily literary fiction and he writes commercial fiction. I have been writing for about 10 years longer than he has. I needed a master's degree for teaching and was highly devoted to my writing so I chose to get my MFA from Vermont College. I also read an article written by an agent (whose name escapes me now) advising all unpublished writers to get an MFA because it would up their chances. My brother does not have an MFA. My fiction and poetry have been published in various literary magazines, not of “Ploughshares” caliber mind you, but noteworthy nonetheless. My brother has never been published in a literary magazine. Despite my credentials, my brother gets more attention from agents than I do. This has always left me a tad bit flummoxed and somewhat peeved.
Let me say here that I do believe my brother has talent in writing. I wouldn't pick up his book off the shelf, but I do see the quality. His stories are comparable to those of Dan Brown, with secret books, scrolls, rings, etc. (He did write a World War II biopic which departs from this, but that was non-fiction). My literary fiction has prominent female characters and protagonists. I do have round male characters, but they have not made it to the forefront as of yet. My fiction is about women's lives. I have tried to sell and have queried some 500 agents regarding my two novels: a coming-of-age story about a woman who becomes an artist, and a woman caught in the snares of polygamy. Both queries generated requests for full manuscripts; I would say about three for the coming-of-age and 13 for the polygamy story. I heard nothing from the agents who requested the full manuscripts for the coming-of-age, and several non-committal emails about how the polygamy story should be rewritten. Once I rewrote the polygamy story, I was dropped. I have been told I am a good writer...but “I don't feel I am right for this book” so many times, I could cry.
My brother is on his second agent. He had one for the non-fiction book, which was almost sold, and just recently another agent had voiced interest. She had reviewed his manuscript while she was a junior agent at a reputable agency and went looking for him on facebook when she decided to go off on her own. My brother talks to agents on the phone, has been compassionately guided through rewrites, has been encouraged by agents and publishers alike. The only time I had actually talked to an agent on the phone was the day she called me up to tell me to stop emailing her; she had rejected my work but her email wasn't getting through.
I had hypothesized that my brother's attention from agents stems from the fact that he writes mostly commercial fiction. As much as agents say they are interested in character-based novels, they are really very much attached to plot, to story, to, dare I say, gimmicks and hooks. The success of stories like The DaVinci Code and The Time Traveler's Wife are evidence of this. This is not to say these books are necessarily “bad”, but they are written to entertain. I regard literature as art through the written word. I believe in poetry in the prose. There are no gimmicks in Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Margaret Atwood's Surfacing or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. These are the writers I try to emulate. They are now beacons in their own right, now, but where does that leave me? I wracked my brain over my lack of success with agents. I thought it was due to the fact I focused primarily on literature, and society's need for entertainment over art. And then tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize and threw a wrench in my theory.
(Note: tinkers is a wonderfully poetic novel and deserves its praise and popularity, but there are many novels like this one written by MFA graduates and faculty that go unread by the general public every year. Also, Dan Brown deserves praise for elevating women in religion and Niffenegger for being an artist, professor and a respected author, but I digress...)
The good news is, last week I was informed by Rebecca Olson, the senior editor at Calyx Press, that my book, the coming-of-age-as-artist novel (or kunstelrroman), was accepted for publication. It was total validation for me and I could not be happier. This, however, has prompted me to act because the hunch that I had and have, that I am a good writer, that I am worthy of being published despite my failure to get an agent, is valid. I pulled up VIDA's numbers and read the articles on the imbalance of male and female book reviewers and books reviewed and I was astonished. I had ignored the issue before because, as said, I was convinced by the commerciality versus literary theory. But “the numbers don't lie”.
(Note: VIDA's newest numbers reflect the Best American series in poetry, fiction, and essays and yield the same imbalance between men and women writers).
The New Republic's Ruth Franklin, in response to VIDA's numbers, tallied men/women authors published by 13 publishing houses in 2010 including Norton, Little Brown, Harper and came up with that same overwhelming imbalance of men authors to women authors. Independents like Graywolf and Melville House were no better. Franklin looked at lit mags next and Tin House, Granta, and The Paris Review all published approximately one third of women writers. She explains how “for many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract” and the editors of these magazines are “gatekeepers”. Franklin quotes Robin Romm from Double X: “The gatekeepers of literary culture- at least at magazines- are still primarily male.”
Editors at lit mags aren't the only gatekeepers though. Agents also fall into that category. I personally know five male writers with first novels/short story collections and all of them have agents (some of them are on their second ones). I know five female writers (myself included) with novels/short story collections and none of them have agents. Two of these women have books published by or forthcoming from small, independent presses. I know of one woman in the next town over, Brunonia Barry, who self-published her book The Lace Reader which did so well it was eventually bought by William Morrow.
Here's the real kicker: all of the agents representing my male friends are women. So much for the male-gatekeeper theory.
Okay, so my evidence is anecdotal, but it does represent the trend.
So what's the reason for this inequity? Do men submit more? Are they more aggressive? Maybe. My brother is very aggressive with his submissions, but he has been encouraged. If I had that kind of encouragement (“You're almost there!” “I admire your writing but can't represent you, here's the name of an agent who might...” “I'll pass this manuscript around the agency” and on and on) I would be as equally aggressive.
Do women write primarily about women and are therefore shooting themselves in the foot for being attractive to only half of society? (My husband will barely hold my purse for me while I go to use the ladies room). But wait, female readers comprise the majority. And Jane Austen's stories are beloved, as is Sex in the City, for that matter.
In the words of Herman Cain, I....don't.....know.
What I do know is this, when a door is locked to you, you stop knocking on it.
Mary Ann Evans changed her name to George Eliot for a reason.
The harsh reception of Kate Chopin's The Awakening in 1904 ultimately caused her to stop writing and she died without the recognition she deserved.
I've looked at short story collections from the 1960's (my brother-in-law was an English major) and have found only one women writer in all of them: Katherine Mansfield. What, no Woolf? No O'Connor? No Cather? Nope. Contrary to what Meghan O'Rourke writes in Slate, writing has been historically dominated by men.
And I know damn well history repeats itself.
This is why institutions like Calyx Press, A Room of Her Own, and She Writes are so important. With these organizations giving women a voice and turning out quality writers, women have a chance at leveling the scale. Maybe then the rest of the industry will wake up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Starfish and Snowflakes

December 4, 2011

I think I've been suffering from writer's block. I spend the day fighting the urge to pull the blanket over myself and curl up on the couch. I have ideas about doing things, writing things, but I only think about doing them. With all this thinking about and not thinking in I have become immobile; this is writer's block at its best. Or is it the pregnancy that is making immobile, still sick...this leads to thinking about doing and not doing because I can't do. This is when those little thought needles poke at me: what are you going to do if your babies are sick? What about the publisher that's deciding on your book? Cerebral palsy, MS, down syndrome. My brain grapples with protection; how do I protect myself from tragedy and disappointment? What can I do? How do I condition myself? I can't.

I have read that the Buddha said enlightenment always accompanies you, no matter how stuck you are. I sit on the mat and call God's name like a baby bird calling to its mother for food. Is God the sheer radiance of the sun that parts the leaves of the trees and hits my third eye? My third eye conjures up a starfish, or is it a snowflake? Five pronged, delicate, with ornate design. Intricate. Unique. And I sit here wondering why this image has popped into my head. In the winter when it is cold and dark, it is easy to see the hardship. And yet, if you look closely at the snowflake that has fallen on your glove you can see the beauty and design behind winter. It may appear to be only barren and cold, like an artist's drought, but it isn't. You just need to observe more closely. This is enlightenment.  

Pregnancy has brought its own kind of winter and hardship, but one could argue my body is being artistic by creating these unique, fragile forms inside me. I have tapped into another side of my creativity. Body creativity.

The starfish, on the other hand, is something I am not entirely familiar with. I have never found one walking these north shore New England beaches. I can only surmise it lives at the bottom of the sea, just offshore. It clings to things.  But it is hidden. So starfish are abstract to me, and the babies are too. I know they exist, but they are hidden under water, clinging to me. I see them in ultrasound pixels, but these pixels are separate from me. I try to connect with the babies, ring my Tibetan bowl, meditate by holding my belly. My desire is to put these little abstractions at ease. Josie falls into a deeper sleep when I ring the bowl; her doggie eyelids droop and her tail gives a sudden wave. I have to believe this sound is universally soothing, even to abstract forms.

Tomorrow we do the fetal survey. I'm nervous.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Elevated Amongst the Bones of Ancestors


November 19, 2011

At 8 AM, God winks his wide bright eye at me, as if I am doing something right. At 9, a walk up the hill with my dog amongst the gilded and pale; Autumn has spread and folded her russet wings. We walk the same route looking for new relics, a glistening stone, a hawk's feather. At 11, I think of hunger, my dead mouth. I envision their illuminated, capsulized forms writhing and practicing being bodies. I dress my outside self, weigh the day. It weighs forty pounds, but is lifting.
I perform, walk the tight rope with firm hips, discriminate between foods. A bubble rises and pops at the back of my throat echoing their needs. My body is their body.
At 5, the sky looms like breath and I lie supine like a queen, amused by the trees, some in evening gowns of shot silk, others in naked tree flesh. It is an ephemeral dance of sensuality and regality in this waning November light. At 7, God's great eye closes. Later, the dreams of strangers will find the crook of the Earth. Their souls will fill the sky with amorphous shapes, bodies filled with glistening light radiating forth from a million facets in the shapes of gilded flowers and eggs.

November 27, 2011

This past Thanksgiving we took the long trip to Pennsylvania to visit my in-laws. It was a much needed respite from my harried life (although Wednesday's traffic wasn't fun and made us doubly harried). On Friday, after we had a spent a day gorging ourselves, we went out on a little scavenger hunt to find the graves of Richard's ancestors. It was a nice day, relatively warm to be meandering among the idyllic farmland and hills. We found the grands, the greats, the great greats, the great great greats, and the grand daddy of them all: Lorentz Klein, great great great great grandfather to my husband who came over on the ship, the Phoenix with his father Philip and made a home by the banks of the little Lehigh. Lorentz and the rest of Richard's patriarchal side were German immigrants; their tombstones were etched in German with ornate letters we could only surmise by the numbers associated with them. Lorentz had a flag and was easy to find because he was in the militia during the Revolutionary War ( a private, I believe). We also found one of his sons, Christoph, who was rumored to shoot himself cleaning his gun. The Klein family home was just downstream of the little Lehigh river, down the street from the graveyard. It was a fine house, built of flat river stone up on a hill. Anyway, I wrote a poem about the experience and made note of how these pilgrims buried in the earth had a link to my own children buried inside me. The poem is unfinished, but it still makes this point.

Above the valley where the little Lehigh flows
The Klein house, built of gray river stone
tops a green knoll and has its eyes on the river.
Years ago, when the sons of the settlers lived,
they figured amongst that small river life,
dug for crayfish among the fertile banks
or doused cloth like the heads of infants,
the lazy draped trees with their soft trusses
at their backs, the brambles at the banks
with tart berries swallowed whole by lovers,
with its wine-like juice on their tongues.

Imagine now, flour in the creases of the palms
of the eldest girl, the moist rise of bread
inside the hearthstone with her thoughts
baked inside, a woman's rising stitch
that extends the life of cloth, a man's groaning
bones in the fields, the sinew of his muscle
toiling with earth, coaxing it, coaxing it.

Imagine also a boy's hands, tugging
at the hollow knobs of udders, the toll
of the bell in the fields of the beasts'
return, the formidable toll of a higher bell
on Sundays where a log cabin chapel
houses their pious heads bowed
in the direction of the pews as the river
flows high or low, a constant murmuring
under joined voices, a source of water
for their daily ablutions, for beginnings
and ends.

We ramble among their graves, elevated
among the bones that once knew motion
that once knew the same code of blood
now pulsing through the nascent forms
inside my womb, that code of what
you will be, diggers by a different river
lovers with wine-like juice on your tongues.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subtle Branding, In Memory of My Great Grandmother

Subtle Branding

Summer's wealth manifests itself
in the last of the leaves as my beating heart
pushes blood to their hungry bellies.
The aurora behind my eyes darkens.
The cave straight down the middle of me
echoes their grunts.

My husband chops wood
out in the yard as my father used to do.
Sometimes I confuse the two.
Dad, I want to call down to the cellar,
Dad? Dad?

Now here is Philomena
a floral house dress hiding her girth,
walking the path behind the woodpile.
I have known the inside of her home,
the smell of camphor and gas,
the rumble of her cauldron of sauce,
the braised letters of the old language
flavoring her telling of tales.

Gathered around her, her aging children
with stories of their own
with slender goblets in their hands,
salami rolled between their tongues.
They sailed the world, gambled, sang
and sinned
Told one another:
Don't tell Mama. Don't tell Mama.

Behind the woodpile, I led Philomena.
I was the great granddaughter,
the American, who wanted to show
the old mother my world.

Philomena, with her stockings rolled
down to her ankles, her soft leather shoes
molded to her bunions, was afraid.
Of what I knew not. Wild dogs?
Gypsies? These were of the old country.
But conquering one new world
was enough for her.

In the silence of the light,
I turned her around. She held firmly
to my arm and we both mute, carefully,
one soft molded shoe and sprite sneaker
after another
made our way back home.

It is evening and slender limbs
trace their names between the planets.
My husband has stacked the wood.
My children nap down in that cave
among the stories scratched into the wall.
The light of the fire blazes,
a subtle and gentle branding of each letter
into the backs of their skulls.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Birth Mother, Warrior (on the day we remember all warriors)

 
November 11, 2011



Yesterday one of my students, I'll call her “C”, cornered me at the end of class, as she does nearly every class, to tell me her tales of woe. Usually I want to run away. Yesterday, I stayed and listened as C told me the last time she was beat up. She had gone to pick up her son from his father's house, had rang the doorbell and the father's sister answered the door, casually talking on her cell phone, or “making it seem like she was talking on her cell phone,” as C said. She put the cell phone down, asked C how she was and then “bam” punched her right in the face. Before C knew it, she was on the ground being kicked and punched by the sister. The father of her son stood near by, egging his sister on, “Get 'er, get 'er.” C caught sight of her son in the corner watching his mother get beat up and screamed, “Not in front of my son! Not in front of my son!”
“I don't want my son to know that violence,” she told me, “but I'm doing a miserable job of keeping it from him.”
I have to say here that C is quite a character. Yesterday she came to class in a white t-shirt; you could see the pink bra underneath that matched the pink hat on her head. She is pretty, has long hair, a model face and body. She desperately wants to pass my class as she desperately wants to escape the violence in her life and the mistakes she's made. She used to fight all the time and she knew how to be ready for it: tie the hair back so it can't be pulled; don't wear long dangling earrings so they can't be ripped from your ear lobes. But now she said, she has softened with the birth of her son. She's no longer out to get people, to thrash out at them, kicking, punching and screaming to survive. She put a restraining order on the boy's father (who had also beat her up) in hopes of keeping his violent, drug trafficking lifestyle away from her son and then lifted it because he pleaded and cried. And now this, caught off guard and attacked by his pit bull sister.
While I felt compassion for C, I couldn't help but want her to find that warrior spirit of hers, get off the ground and beat the shit out of the sister. I wasn't clear on how the fight ended up; there were some threatening words and she eventually scrambled away with her son. Whatever. I guess my point is, the warrior spirit in me recognized, was awakened by, the warrior spirit in her.
Years ago a friend took a picture of me at the beginning of a trail in the woods. I was wearing a down vest that was too small for me and carrying a long stick that resembled a staff. The tight vest looked more like a corset and reminded me of the armored corset the goddess Athena is often shown wearing. I always hated that picture because by fleshy thighs were quite elephant-like and unbecoming in gray sweat pants. But I think back to that picture now and see why my friend had complimented me on it: I may have not looked pretty, but I looked confident.
Now in the throes of pregnancy, still feeling nauseous and exhausted- wasted really- nearly all the time, I need to find that warrior spirit to face my physical and mental challenges. When you're pregnant at 41, when you're pregnant at any age nowadays, the onslaught of tests and worst case what-if scenarios are enough to bring you to your knees never mind the physical discomforts. My mother tells my sister and I when we worry, to pray, pray, pray, but praying feels too much like begging and I'm not particularly clear to whom I am prostrating myself. As I said in another posting, God isn't Santa Claus.
It feels more right to meditate on the god inside me, particularly the warrior-goddess, the one with the courage, the strength, the faith, yes, and the cunning. Maybe it is not a violent strength, maybe it is a more a self-possessed, confident strength, founded on compassion for oneself and one's children; the warrior guided by awareness and compelled to make the right decisions at all costs. I wish that strength for C as well.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mary and Elizabeth



Mary was wearing a borrowed white cotton maternity shirt that reminded Elizabeth of spring, when she herself would give birth. She wondered if she too could borrow the pretty shirt after Mary had her son and didn't need it anymore. Mary sat on the couch and lifted the shirt so Elizabeth could see her smooth, round belly. Elizabeth was intimidated by the vast expanse of skin, the winking belly button eye. Wait, wait, Mary said, here, here, he's kicking. Mary put Elizabeth's hand over her warm skin but the baby did not move. She waited for awhile and then took her hand away.  Elizabeth rested her old bones back on the couch next to Mary. Mary smiled contentedly, feeling for her son's movement. Elizabeth was worried. Elizabeth, the older one, first in most things, would be second to give birth. She thought of her own burgeoning belly and aching bones and chastised herself for not doing the necessary exercises to feel limber and young. She thinks of Mary giving birth, of the muscles inside her clenching, of Mary screaming and sweating for hours. She worries there will be complications; there always seems to be complications. Labor is a woman's work; she must descend then, into the underworld of pain and one by one surrender each organ to the work that must be done to bring a child into this world. It is great effort combined with great sacrifice. She wonders if Mary considers such things, but she doesn't ask her because she knows Mary doesn't want to talk about it. She has told her so, several times before. But Elizabeth can't help but weigh the alternatives; the descent into the underworld of pain or the wash of numbness to accommodate an acute slice to the womb. Cutting the womb seems to her a sacrilege, an invasive intrusion to such a serene place. Women have told Elizabeth about the sheet that hides all, all the blood, the sharp metal utensils, the baby itself. “Youth is given up to illusions,” she once read. “It seems to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race.” But Elizabeth is not young.
Why is this portal of birth so severe? And if she is drugged and feels nothing, is she somehow at fault for not doing her woman's work? Will the baby suffer for it? Will it become obese and lazy, non-committal in relationships?
Mary has researched all the necessary accoutrements for her baby, including but not limited to car seats, cribs, changing tables, etc. She has forwarded websites to Elizabeth regarding these items, as well as other articles on pregnancy. She avoids all deli meats and especially goat cheese. Mary knows the size of her baby week by week, and its corresponding fruit or vegetable size. Right now she's got an eggplant and Elizabeth two lemons for the twins she carries. Elizabeth remarked how that seemed right, because the saliva in her mouth was continuously spewing out, as if there was something exceedingly sour and tart inside her. But she was overwhelmed by the information, by the accoutrements, by the nausea and she did not have to tell her sister this. “You need to be grateful,” Mary told her. Elizabeth reprimanded herself for her feelings. Yes, grateful. But still, why is nature so cruel?
Work, she tells herself, not cruelty, preparation; a woman must begin practicing giving up her own needs, her independence and it begins with pregnancy.
Mary tells Elizabeth the baby is doing something with his hand; she can tell the difference between the hand and a foot now; she is that in-tune. Elizabeth herself feels nothing inside her but the groaning of her ligaments. She feels guilty for each one of her aches and pains. She feels remorse for her heavy thoughts.
Mary pushes up her girth from the couch, pulls down the white cotton shirt and kisses her sister good-bye. Elizabeth watches her leave, how she maneuvers herself through doorways and down steps. “Blessed, Mary, are you as a woman,” she thinks, “and blessed is the child you will bear.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nature's Grace and the Rise of the Diaphanous Moment


October 23, 2011

A blight has taken the maples; their leaves are shriveling before they take on exuberance. I find this unsettling. Last week, I walked the beach one gray morning and there were long strings of fish eggs, gelatinous red masses that suggest a salamander's hand. Josie crouched every ten feet or so with her ball between her paws and nudged it down for me to kick. Sometimes she pulls a Charlie Brown and takes it away from me before I get to kick it. Other times I hit it haphazardly, still others square on and it glides across the broken mussel shells. We play this little game while making our way north toward Dane's Beach. I reasoned then, how the clouds were padded so thick and the water lapping at the shore was not unlike a womb. But then again, I see wombs everywhere these days. So I walked the beach northward in my water womb world thinking of the blight in the maple trees and Annie Dillard's essay on “Seeing”, feeling like I should write something similar. I was inspired, but jealous. Dillard's close observations of the uninterrupted natural world are breathtaking:

At last I stared upstream where only the deepest violet remained of the cloud, a cloud so high its underbelly still glowed feeble color reflected from a hidden sky lighted in turn by a sun halfway to China. And out of that violet, a sudden enormous black body arced over the water. I saw only a cylindrical sleekness. Head and tail, if there was a head and tail, were both submerged in cloud. I saw only one ebony fling, a headlong dive to darkness; then the waters closed, and the lights went out.

And...

What I see sets me swaying. Size and distance and the sudden swelling of meanings confuse me, bowl me over. I straddle the sycamore log bridge over Tinker Creek in the summer. i look at the lighted creek bottom: snail tracks tunnel the mud in quavering curves. A crayfish jerks, but by the time I absorb what has happened, he's gone in a billowing smokescreen of silt. I look at the water: minnows and shiners. If I'm thinking minnows, a carp will fill my brain till I scream.

I notice the difference between adult gulls and their yearlings, how the yearlings follow their white breasted mothers crying and calling out continuously until she gets it in her head to take off over the waves. The babe follows. She tricks him, boomerangs back. (Will the independent artist spirit in me want to flee her crying children?) He figures it out, turns around and lands beside her crying and crying. Sometimes she relents and feeds him with a scrap of oyster or clam. He still cries. He is bigger than her, speckled, dirty-looking, incessantly demaning. She is svelte white with a touch of gray and a strong yellow beak. In the sand, there are rivulets, water trickling in arabesque designs. I think of taking a picture of a section, undisturbed, without footprints nearby, but then I walk along and forget about it. I walk and there is always something that interrupts my walking, a bottle, someone's lost pile of dogshit, the spray paint defacing the stone wall advertising the rights of Occupy Boston. I look northward to the Misery Islands with the power plant at my back; when I have to turn around, I regret it, because my view is spoiled by stacks and tanks and power lines. I'm jealous of Annie Dillard's uninterrupted nature, her startling moments as a witness to nature's grace.
Such glimpses are never guaranteed, never expected. They are gifts and the surprise factor adds to the element of grace, like the day I walked the paths through Phillips aside the reservoir and saw the specter of a deer's tail. (It must have been a buck; they're more clandestine). Josie went to investigate and the deer evaporated in mid air. There was another chance meeting, with a hawk, also in Phillips. I saw the full breast of him, speckled, his regal sloping shoulders and prominent beak, the glance of his eye. He spied his prey, spied me, his prey again. He ascended upward like a god, above the canopy. Then there was the owl in Ravenswood, walking with Maureen and Ralphie. My father had just died. We saw a flurry of gray; I can still see him looking down upon us, his stern brow. I thought my father's spirit occupied the bird; something had to drive him there; I wasn't one to see owls.
These brushes with nature's wild grace, totem spirits, are too few for me. I have a hunger for more, but there is always time and logistics and money that keeps me bound to home and routine.
But I have my own nature's grace happening inside me, lest I not forget. I try to commune with these little beings, imagine myself inside myself. Here is a poem about that:

Diaphanous Moments

Water rains down
from the roof of my mouth
and pools at the ligaments
of my tongue.
This morning my uterus
coughed up a dustball,
the discarded claws and dander
of the rabbits burrowing silently
in the soil of my womb.
I place myself inside myself
and witness the slow crawl of atoms
of silence and sinew and sweet-meat.
I spy, float between you,
tethered by thought strings.
See there, a twitch, a solitary stimuli,
the trajectory of a comet aside
vacant ovary moons and a whirling
saturnine bowel with probing eye.

I open my eyes
and the solar system shrinks.
There is a dark cave to my stomach;
out belches dust, the murmurs
of the supine and sleeping hares.
They feed. They dance.
I am chained to this incubator,
to these belching caves.
I pray for the blessing of the fleet.

People tell you all sort of things.
Secrets. Lies. They hoard
the glistening pennies in the well.
They say nothing.
I wait for those diaphanous moments,
those gems when I see
my child hand in God's hand,
my child's hand in my hand.

There is a footpath
off the precipice.
It too is diaphanous.
It spans the length of the chasm.
I walk there, blind.

I can only reach them through imagination and poetry. Yes, there is the ultrasound machine and yes I revel at their images, but science is the intercessor. The babies are on the screen are away from me. My brain can't comprehend how the pixels describe their universe inside me.

My sister says that when you feel them move, you know. That bit of quickening, that kick of baby limb, tells all. Until then, I will have to reach them in other ways.
 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bittersweet Grace


October 16, 2011

As of late, I have felt too tired and sick to realign my mind so the default status of depression and frustration has virtually usurped me. I'm not particularly sure why depression is my default status, but I surmise it may have to do with the profound dissatisfaction I have with society. This is no new news. Perhaps it is the mounds and mounds of junk mail we are bombarded with, or the trite, impersonal conversation between myself and my neighbors, or the ridiculousness of television (most especially the vain, schadenfreuden-esque reality shows) or the vision-less, idiocy of the tea party wack-nuts, or the abusers of children, women, men, animals and/or the environment, or the wounded veterans, or the monotony of marriage, or my miniscule paycheck for the mounds of effort I put into teaching. To combat all of this, I escape into imagination, my writing, and I haven't been able to do that. I haven't been able to fully recuperate from the world. Moreover, the house is a mess, there is hair everywhere -both mine and Josie's- toothpaste globules in the sink, the ring around the tub, an endless supply of dishes, the crumbs on the kitchen counter. What I have found is that virtually everything in this world takes some sort of effort, and to realign your mind is no different. So what I sit down and meditate for today is grace: the gift of well-being and peace that comes without effort.
This past week I experienced grace for the first time in years. I have been especially apprehensive to carry three babies, but I decided to do it because I could not bear to “reduce” one. So I was going to involve myself with the monumental effort of carrying triplets. Last Friday when we went for the ultrasound to see how they were progressing, Baby A and Baby B were jumping and gliding across their sacs like little nymphs. Baby C, however, was curled on itself, still. There was no flickering of heartbeat. I wept when I saw the little thing. Baby C had given up. I did not realize this was grace at the time- I was filled with grief and empathy because Baby C, believe you me, I feel like giving up too, sometimes, and I say to you, Godspeed, little one, stay behind the veil until you've got all the strength you can muster up to make it into this world, because, my angel, it will take nothing less.
So I was spared my efforts and bittersweet grace had descended and I pray with great fervor for the two bless ones who remain.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Limbo



I am in limbo, that place between Heaven and Hell where my unborn wait with me. In the world of limbo, there are dreams. In the first dream, I am back at our house in New Jersey. My father bought it back, some twenty seven years after he sold it, and it has been reconstructed with an indoor pool and expansive rooms with views of Lake Como (limbo dreams apparently have no sense of space). I was excited to go back and live there, to swim in the pool, call up my friend Noelle, go for walks in the woods. But despite this excitement, there was something inside me that said this was all wrong. I had no business being at the house anymore. I wasn't that person anymore, a daughter, a sister, and only these. I should, something said, resist the temptation to back to the past. Next thing I know, I'm riding a bus and Anne Sexton is the driver. She tells me to get off because I've got too much baggage. (I've got too much baggage, Anne?) I take my cart of baggage and roll off the bus into the green grass. I push the cart home, but then everything disappears. Next thing I know, I am at Lollapalooza or some other music festival and one of the musicians makes fun of my Italian heritage. I charge him and we fight, but the fight is more like a dance. I wake up with a horrible, sour taste in my mouth. I am sick again. I am pregnant with triplets.
If you look up the word limbo in the dictionary, you will see that it is a place between Heaven and Hell for the unborn and unbaptized. It's fitting for the triplets and me; they are unborn with respect to earthly life; I am unborn with respect to motherhood. I think we're all afraid. Or maybe they are not afraid and I am; they seem to know exactly what they are doing. But maybe I'm not caught between Heaven and Hell (although at times, it certainly feels like it); maybe I'm caught between the past and the future, between what I have known and what I will know. And what I have known is safe and glorified and what I will know is, right now, terrifying and unreal.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Somebody's Daughter, the Forgotten Entry


This was written a few weeks ago, but I wanted to make sure I got it in for September.

September 3, 2011

Pregnancy has taken over. My body his a mind of its own. Sensation, thought, upside down. Everything in the yard is pale and I find it bothersome. I find most things bothersome. And yet this vat of pregnancy hormones has made it difficult to be motivated and do something about all this, the yard, the dog hair, the dirty bathrooms. I covet my failures and blip above the surface every now and again to see how life goes. The successes are small. Even this pregnancy, a major success, has somehow become small. Why is this? Because it is all so abstract. The baby (or babies, dear God) are cells now, the cumulated size of a pea. If you're going to love something, you've got to love that pea, which is somewhat of a leap. (You could love the idea, but that too, is a reach.) So what I notice is the immediate, the heavy, drugged vat of pregnancy keeping me from living life they way I want to. It's selfish. It's short-sighted.
So I look for answers, skim the pages of prose by the Buddhist monk Pema Chodrin:

Whatever arises, no matter how bad it feels, can be used to extend our kinship to others who suffer the same kind of aggression or craving- who, just like us, get hooked by hope and fear. This is how we come to appreciate that everyone's in the same boat. We all desperately need more insight into what leads to happiness and what leads to pain...
It's easy to continue, even after years of practice, to harden into a position of anger and indignation...In the moment we choose to abide with the energy instead of acting it out or repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities- love, compassion, joy, and equanimity- evolve from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.

I watched Dateline's Somebody's Daughter (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032600/#VpFlash) last night, a story regarding the remains of eleven women found in the West Mesa desert outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. These were fallen women, “crack whores”, who left their families to sell their bodies on the streets of Albuquerque for drug money. I was first struck by the title because I had used the term “somebody's daughter” myself in a scene in one of my novels where the protagonist, a respectable woman of the nineteenth century meets one not so respectable:

The harlot rose, clicked her fan shut and pushed a stool underneath me, “You should take a load off your feet, those boots can’t be comfortable to toes all smashed inside like that,” she said.
Her gesture, while appearing to be kind, was indeed terrifying; I had no intentions of spending my evening here. I finished my water and was ready to dismiss myself when the barkeep came 'round from his bar and sat close to the girl, fixing his eyes on me. I had noticed at his belt, the polished barrel of a revolver. He grunted to clear his throat, as if to say something. I rose to my feet in haste and gathered myself, having received what I needed and ready to rid myself of them. “Sure you don't want to stay 'while? I'm certain we kin find a room fur you here, and Molly kin shew you round the place,” the barkeep said. He spied one more look at me, his eye roving around my dress and turned to the harlot, touching her chin ever so delicately and lovingly, “You need a woman friend these days Molly?” He was a man approximately father's age, the hair about his arms thick, speckled with gray, his bald head gleaming with perspiration. He raised a thin, bony finger and gently ran it down her bare shoulder.
The words left my lips before I could catch them, “If I may declare sir, this young woman is someone’s daughter.”
He continued to pet her and said, “This here’s Molly Miller and she ain't got no one to call 'er daughter. 'Sides me o' course.”
The story of one of the women, a Michelle Valdez, was a videography taped by her father and was very effective in portraying the transformation of a girl with “a future as bright as the New Mexico sun” to a drug-hazed prostitute arrested on the streets of Albuquerque. You see the girl Michelle dressed in Halloween costumes, blowing out candles, opening presents, excited about life. Then, an immediate transformation with the onslaught of the teenage years; Michelle is more reticent and withdrawn. You see Michelle, pregnant at the age of 13, holding her baby and your heart breaks because the despondency in this girl's face is too much to bear. At 41 I feel the limitations on my life already in my fifth week; I have only a glimpse of what it must be like to have the rest of your childhood erased.
Michelle's child was eventually taken away from her and raised by her grandmother and you see Valdez's videos of his granddaughter opening her birthday gifts without her mother around. Sure that's heartbreaking too. But it doesn't make me feel animosity toward Michelle. I feel animosity toward life and how incredibly unfair it can be; I could easily spiral down into indignation. It's right there; it's accessible. But instead of doing that and falling victim to emotion, I can name it and step away from it. I can also recognize the compassion in the situation, Dan Valdez's love for his daughter, Ida Lopez's determination to find the “sinister force snatching women off the streets”.
Bravo for Ida Lopez, a detective who kept track of the missing woman, who asked questions, who brought it all to the light because she believed prostitutes had souls too. Somebody different would have just tsk tsked and filed away the reports because these women weren't “valued” by society. And that's the thing that infuriates me the most. If you go online and type in crack whore, you will see all sorts of derogatory jokes, videos, and whatnot. Here's one that's especially noteworthy: http://efukt.com/1642_Crackwhores_Gone_Wild.html. It's not the drug dealer or the killer who is the lowest of the low; it's the crack whore. Society seems to have the least sympathy for them. What's the psychology behind this? I can't help but think it's patriarchal in nature, this primordial male exploitation of the “weaker sex” at its most pitiful. And I don't mean pitiful as in pitied, no; I mean pitiful as in worthless. It would take another woman to find justice for these forgotten women, a woman whose mind wouldn't harden by society's fixed views.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tear Down This Wall, Mr. Gorbachev

 
September 29, 2011

I sit on my mat and pull out my hair, make a little nest I can gather together and throw away. My husband is at the bathroom sink doing his male toilette. Josie lies like a slug on the chaise and sighs. I read, but am inspired by nothing. I am disheartened by the long day of nausea ahead, the gray skies, the predictable hours.
“Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.” These are the words in my mind. 
  What wall?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Unhinged, then Hinged.


September 28, 2011

“The urge toward form is the urge toward God” Charles Wright says in his poem, “Scar Tissue”. I'm not sure I see that as true. God lies behind form, is formless. God is more like Mecca, a direction. We can angle ourselves toward or away. Away, and life can well as high as the morning sky and pummel you to the sand where you bob up, dazed, frantically searching for all of your lost items. I am learning, ever so slowly, to orient myself toward God. Only then, do I feel the ground beneath my feet.
So this morning I got out of bed and rolled out the mat and looked up at the light coming in through the window. I tilted slightly to the north; it was a symbolic gesture. I thought about hearts, opened hearts, awakened hearts, beating hearts. I said, “God”. I read some poetry. I tried to stare into the intergalactic space of my mind. Stars rushed at me. I became frustrated. I said, this is enough, and rose to go eat a muffin. As I rolled my mat, I thought of my father's faith in science. My father had a very logical mind, was an engineer for most of his life. I used to find scraps of his papers with his firmly pressed letters and numbers; his attempts, failures, successes to look for answers to his math problems. When he got sick with cancer, he treated the doctors like gods. Sure he went to church like a good Catholic (I still remember him singing the Holy Holy in a soft baritone voice to himself) but his true faith lie in science, and later, specifically, medicine. He spoke of those doctors with such...reverence. And I used to wonder why. So they're intelligent, so they have saved people, but they're men, just as you are a man, and men only go so far. My father did everything they told him to; he was the perfect patient. They told him to have radiation, he had radiation. They told him to have brain surgery, he had brain surgery. They told him to do chemo, he did chemo, and he did it with a smile on his face, believing in the doctors' command of life. He wanted so desperately to live. I'm not sure where my father's spirituality was back then. I'm sure he had his personal prayers and a private relationship with God, but I didn't get a glimpse of it. I saw a man desperate and at the hand of doctors and then ultimately furious his body wouldn't go the way they commanded it.
Now I go headfirst into my own dilemma and I am wary of doctors, their onslaught of statistics, their professional, stoic dispositions. I have yet to meet one doctor I consider to be whole, to be of scientific mind, yes, but spiritually inclined, or maybe not spiritually inclined, that's too dangerous for this society, maybe just truly compassionate. When I leave their offices, I am unhinged. Jelly. Fearful. I'll do anything they tell me to, just like my father. I start to convince myself I can handle watching the needle puncture that beating heart and silence it. Hell, I never wanted three babies and sure as hell not all at once. I'm no mother-woman (credit Kate Chopin, The Awakening). And then a little voice says, how do you know what you are? The tide of opposite thinking always washes back in. I hinge myself back together. What if they're wrong, I start to think. What if I can do this?
What disgusts me most about these fertility doctors is their complete disrespect for life. They pump us up with zygotes according to some chart and feel no qualms about going in and “reducing”. There are some doctors who spend day in and day out “reducing”. And I want to say, Well do you have to be so fucking cavalier about it? Shouldn't there at least be a moment of silence?
There must be a middle road, one where you walk with an open mind and an open heart. Only then will I find the answer.