Tuesday, December 16

Deck Them Halls and All That Stuff

More things we like

As the darkness lingers longer into the morning and falls earlier every evening, I look forward to the holidays. On Hallowe'en, we revel in the darkness. On Thanksgiving, we find comfort in mashed food and pie. And for Christmas, we (those of us who celebrate it) spangle the darkness with lights and song ... and by the time December 25 arrives, the solstice has passed; so though January and February may be dreary, we can at least find solace in the lengthening days.

Much as I love Christmas, hell is other people's Christmas music. Nevertheless, I would like to share my favorite Christmas CDs. But I won't make you listen if you don't want to. I promise.
And it's snowing in Brooklyn!

Thursday, December 11

Abject Things, Part 2

And now, a confession. In truth, my stated project of "considering the relationship between works of imagination and reality, specifically what literature has to say, if anything, about how we should live" may be entirely a defensive act. I love to read, and I want to believe that reading is good. True, perhaps the pleasure of reading could in itself be an argument in favor of reading, except that there are those (the author of this recent book, for example) who would argue that reading does harm to the reader. Also, reading has often been presented as a form of escapism, while as a student of Zen I am committed to living in accord with reality, insofar as I am able to perceive it.

Clearly, given his desire to incorporate "abject moments and moments of spillage" in his work, Aleksandar Hemon is not interested in literature as a vehicle for escapism. And, with his vivid perception and idiosyncratic language, his voice seduces me, and I am able to tolerate stories about experiences that in reality are intolerable either to live or to consider. In our culture, we are encouraged to turn inward and tend to our own little gardens, investing our best energy in ensuring that we look and feel good and that our homes are beautiful and comfortably arranged. Such stories as Hemon's, by calling attention to the suffering of others, puncture the fantasy that by tending to my garden I can shelter myself from the possibility of difficulties or sorrow.

So, given that I cannot actually wish away the abject things of the world, what do I do about my knowledge of the suffering of others? It may be that the knowledge in itself is transformative. Since reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, for example, I've been interested in the connection between reading fiction and empathy, an idea with a history longer than I had realized. In fact, it has even been argued that "novels spread human rights and discourage torture."

Monday, December 8

All Abject Things in the World

To say that I've gone back to work would be misleading for two reasons. One, as a freelancer I generally, though not always, work from home, so I haven't actually gone anywhere. Two, I did some paid work in October, which probably wasn't a great idea (the Critter was born mid-September), but it turns out we do need the money I earned then. Anyway. I'm working again—very, very part time—and trying to figure out how to be a work-from-home mom without neglecting the Critter, my clients, or myself. I've hired no child care (yet?), so it's been challenging, but not too, too bad. However, as you may have noticed, I haven't been able to write any new posts, including one I had planned to post on Thanksgiving. Also, I haven't been reading much these days.

But I have been reading some. I'm a student at the Writers Studio, so in the weeks since the Critter was born I've been doing my best to keep up with the Craft Class. One recent assignment, The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon, has disturbed my peace.

Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, and in his inventive stories, Eastern European history, family history, and personal history are inalienably entwined. In vivid, idiosyncratic language, the stories portray, among other things, life in Stalin's camps, the siege of Sarajevo, and the isolation of a Bosnian immigrant in Chicago. "Don't torture the boy with these stories. He won't be able to sleep ever again," says the mother of the nine-year-old narrator in one story. "No, let him hear, he should know," replies the narrator's Uncle Julius. Perhaps, indeed, I too should know ... but I certainly do not want to know about children sent to Stalin's camps for the mere crime of truancy, for example. I do not want to know about Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, or the body left rotting in a bedroom because it is too dangerous to take it outside for a proper burial.

In an interview, Hemon has spoken against the tendency toward the "purification of life, including your own body" in both memory and fiction. "It becomes this clean, controllable object," he says. "All abject things about it, and by extension all abject things in the world, are presumably not supposed to be there. But if you want to remember the world, it's hard to do it without abject things."

I admit my guilt! I most certainly wish away the abject things of the world, especially from human nature! But wishing things away, of course, does not make them go away....

Tuesday, November 25

Long Time Sun

More things we like

This time last year, the Critter existed only as a wish. In January, at the conclusion of my first prenatal yoga class, when I first heard—and sang—the sixth and last song on our lullaby mix, "Long Time Sun" by Snatam Kaur, the Critter was little more than a cluster of quickly dividing cells. Through the spring and summer, as the Critter grew, I sang this song to him nearly every day, at the conclusion of my morning zazen and liturgy. Now the Critter is a baby in my arms, and I sing to him still. The text is an old Irish blessing, and I've also seen the last sentence given as, "May the pure light within you / Guide your way home." I prefer this rendering of the blessing. I believe in the pure light within the Critter, and may he find a home in this crazy world of ours!

Monday, November 24

God Gives Them the Stars to Use as Ladders

More things we like

Beckett has pointed out that although the fifth song on our lullaby mix is about babies, it's not really a song for babies. Fine; though I think the true reason for his criticism is that he just doesn't care for Sinéad O'Connor's music. "All Babies" is from Universal Mother, her third album of original songs. Despite the gentle, lullaby-like tone of most of the songs on the album, O'Connor's rage is evident throughout, including in this song.

"All babies are born saying God's name / Over and over, / All born singing God's name," it begins; "All babies are born out of great pain / Over and over, / All born into great pain / All babies are crying, / For no-one remembers God's name," it continues. I interpret these lines non-theistically. To me, the song is about Buddha nature, the original perfection of all human beings. How easily I can see that the Critter is perfect and complete, lacking nothing, whereas I can hardly see such perfection in myself. However, like me, those who do not remember their original perfection, who create and live in great pain—all of us—were once babies "born saying God's name."

O'Connor rages against this fallen world, in which children cannot be protected and will, like the rest of us, grow up forgetting their true nature. I think of her song "Black Boys on Mopeds," from I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, with the refrain,
England's not the mythical land of Madam George and roses,
It's the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds,
And I love my boy, and that's why I'm leaving,
I don't want him to be aware
That there's any such thing as grieving.
But there is nowhere she can take her boy to keep him from this awareness.

Friday, November 21

Like Never Before

More things we like

In the book my husband and I used to help us plan our wedding, I found "I Will Always Love You" listed among the most popular songs for the bride and groom's first dance. Bad choice, folks: it's a breakup song.

Meanwhile, I sorta wonder about the fourth song on our lullaby mix, "Songbird." It's in the mix because of the tender, cascading "I love you, I love you, I love you" in the refrain. However, it's also from Rumours, Fleetwood Mac's classic album of songs about breakup and betrayal. Am I mistaken about the meaning of this song? What, exactly, does it mean that the songbirds "keep singing / Like they know the score"?

Thursday, November 20

The Joy of My World

More things we like

I hadn't planned to write about all six songs in our lullaby mix, but I realized that I have something to say about all of them. One purpose of writing about the things I like is, of course, to share them; another is to exercise my critical skills. Can I actually articulate why I like something?

The third song in our mix is "To Zion," by Lauryn Hill. My greatest pleasure in this song—and in all of the songs on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—is the pleasure of the singing. The best singing transforms emotional experience into a thrilling physical experience. In this song, Lauryn's joy in her baby fills the whole body.

If only I could sing as she does ...

Wednesday, November 19

I Have No Thought of Leaving

More things we like

Ah, well, routines. In the middle of putting the Critter to bed last night, he wound himself back up into a colicky fit. Bless Dr. Karp, though; it took all five S's, but I did calm the Critter down, and we slept well last night.

While I soothed the Critter and listened to our lullaby mix, a couple lines in "Beautiful Boy" stood out: "I can hardly wait / To see you come of age." These lines stood out not because John Lennon sadly never did see Sean grow up, but because I feel so different about the Critter. No matter how difficult any given day or night might be, I do not ever wish for him to be a moment older than he is just now. If time must pass, why can't it pass more slowly? And so the second song on our mix is Nina Simone's version of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" This song became a favorite from the moment I first heard it, because it so beautifully evokes the sadness I feel about the swiftness of change and the insubstantiality of the present. Already the Critter is so big, and who knows where my little tiny baby has gone?

Tuesday, November 18

The Crankiest Baby on the Block

Another in an ongoing series on things we like

For a month or so there, we were sleeping. Alas, no more. We've got one cranky mommy here and, I'm guessing from his staccato, high-pitched shrieking, one cranky baby, too. Among our strategies for getting more sleep is establishing a bedtime routine. Our routine includes music. Sometimes we listen to lullabies from around the world. Sometimes we listen to a mix that I put together, which opens with John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy," my favorite among the songs in the playlist.

I don't know much about boys. I am a sister only of sisters, and as a little girl, I didn't play much with little boys. They seemed all sticks-and-stonesy to me, and interested in rough things like football, which I neither liked nor understood. Now I am mommy to a little boy and am grateful for this song for showing me the loving gentleness that boys, too, require.


My husband is named for this Beckett, not this one. Though we certainly are fans of Josh.

Monday, November 17

The Critter Is Born

I started going to Kate's prenatal yoga classes at the Y when I was only about six weeks pregnant. During the rest period at the end of each class, she often read birth stories from Ina May Gaskin's book. These stories helped me prepare for the natural birth that I was hoping to have. Kate also encourages the mothers in her class to write their own birth stories. Here's ours....

*   *   *

Looking back, I now can see the signs that I was soon to go into labor. On the morning of Tuesday, September 16 I woke up at 4:00 ridden with worries about how my life was going to change when the baby arrived. Unable to fall back to sleep, I got out of bed an hour later. With men coming that morning to finish work on our bathroom and a furniture delivery scheduled for the afternoon, I didn’t know when I would be able to get more rest. Perhaps a nap would be possible in the late afternoon … but with men tracking dust up and down the hallway and the cat catching a mouse from just under my feet, the day turned out even more chaotic than expected. I could hardly concentrate on my work, what with my fears that our apartment was no place for a baby to be. I was relieved when the furniture was delivered and the bathroom finished, and I even felt the baby drop, but nevertheless by the time my husband—we're going to call him "Beckett," and he knows why—returned home to clean the bathroom and hallway, I was in tears. Later that night, I suddenly felt a profound sorrow that Beckett and I would be a couple alone for only a short time longer. I kissed him and kissed him and kissed him before going to sleep. I planned to stay in bed late the next morning.

Then, when I woke at 2:18 the next morning to go to the bathroom, I felt a leak that when I stood up became a loud gush slapping down onto the hardwood floor. In distress, I let out a long “Oh!” My first thought that there was no way I could get all that water back into my belly. My second thought was that I would never sleep again. Whether or not I was ready for it, my labor was about to begin.

My worry that labor would not begin immediately lasted only a few minutes. The contractions soon came on quickly and strong. At first I was able to help Beckett pull our things together for the trip to the birthing center, but within about an hour my contractions were powerful and coming close enough that they required all my concentration. Only afterward did I realize just how marvelous Beckett was through those first few hours of my labor. Somehow he managed to pack, keep in touch with the birthing center and my dad and stepmom (who, as high school teachers, wake up before 5:00), time my contractions, and comfort me through them as they progressed from coming four minutes apart to coming less than three minutes apart.

Meanwhile, in an effort to find some comfort, I moved from kneeling on the floor on my hands and knees to sitting on the toilet to lying on my side on the bed. As a long-distance runner and Zen practitioner, I am no stranger to discomfort and pain, but I have always been a wimp about strong menstrual cramps, which, as promised, were just what my contractions felt like. I tried vocalizing but couldn’t manage the low moans we learned to do in my childbirth class, and I felt bad for any of our neighbors whom my wailing might have wakened. At the start of each contraction, I felt my cervix opening, however, so I knew, at least, that my body was doing its job.

Because I live nearby and they were in the midst of helping another woman deliver her baby, the midwives at the birthing center wanted me to hold on at home—if I could—until my contractions were coming two minutes apart. I could not. As it was, I did not know how I would keep myself together for the short cab ride from our home. Beckett and I arrived at the birthing center at 7:00, just after the birth of a baby boy. By this time, I had been in labor long enough to run a marathon and then some, but to my surprise I hardly felt spent. However, I was not managing my discomfort very well. Though I protested that I wanted to remain just where I was, curled up and moaning on the bed, the attending midwife persuaded me to get into the tub, where the warmth and buoyancy of the water was a great relief. The labor assistant then helped me to focus on my breath and to change the pitch of my vocalizations from high yelping to low moaning. At last, I settled in to my labor.

At my first measurement, I was six centimeters dilated and ninety percent effaced. Shortly afterward, when I was only seven centimeters dilated, I began to feel the urge to push. The three or so hours that followed were the most difficult part of my labor. Holding back my wild body felt not like riding ocean waves but like clinging to the back of a galloping horse. Through this time, my labor support could not have been any better. There were periods when three people breathed with me through my contractions—the attending midwife, the labor assistant, and Beckett, who gave me water sweetened with cranberry juice to sip in between my contractions.

The last centimeter was the most difficult, and the encouragement that I was “almost there” did not help. Whereas I know how far a mile is in a race, I did not know how much time or effort this last centimeter would require of me. But finally, at about 11:00, I was fully dilated and no longer required to restrain my urge to push.

My lack of sleep now caught up with me, and this stage of my labor proved to be the most frustrating, though not the most difficult. I tried many positions—squatting in the tub, kneeling with a birthing ball on the bed, squatting next to the bed—and two hours passed without much happening. Then another midwife joined us and suggested that we try "tug-of-war," which gave me the power to get my baby out into the world. I sat on the bed, leaning back on Beckett's chest, the labor assistant and one of the midwives each supported one of my legs, and the other midwife stood at the foot of the bed. She and I each held one end of a blanket that had been knotted to form a rope. At the peak of each contraction I lifted my legs back, pulled on the rope, and pushed.

Eventually, the baby's head began to crown. The burning pain was just about unbearable. I whimpered, but with the encouragement of those around me, I held on for longer than I thought possible. Finally, after some dozen or so more contractions, at 2:06 in the afternoon, the little Critter was placed on my chest. I had thought that I would weep upon meeting him, but instead I was bewildered. I couldn't believe that this wiggly bundle of arms, legs, and wide-open eyes was the baby who had been with me the past nine months.

There were times during my labor that I thought I was nuts to go without drugs, but now I know I wouldn't have wanted to bring the Critter into the world any other way. In another environment, others might not have had the necessary patience and may have resorted to vacuum extraction or an episiotomy. But at the birthing center, no-one ever suggested that I needed anything other than to focus on my breath and trust my body. Every day now I marvel at the secret knowledge of my body, which was able to create and grow this small human being and bring him into the world, and which now continues to nourish him. As the Critter grows and his limbs uncurl, I sometimes grieve that he is forgetting the womb, where he was with me all the time. Sometimes, when I sing the little song that I composed and sang to him before he was born, I even imagine that he misses the womb, where he was always warm and never hungry. But in truth, the Critter never belonged to me alone, but to the entire universe, and I am learning that the task of a mother is not just to nurture, but at each stage, as necessary, to let go. 

Thursday, November 13

Looking Back

To begin my consideration of what literature has to say about how we should live, I look back to an essay I wrote three years ago as my first—and last—column on contemporary literature for a now-defunct Web site. Girl in Landscape is one of my favorite novels (the other two: The Crying of Lot 49 and Persuasion), and in this essay I sort out why this novel matters so much to me.

The essay now raises some questions. Why the emphasis on emotional reality? Is it accurate to equate what Stephen Dobyns calls “the writer’s relation to the world” with what I call emotional reality? What other than one’s emotional reality constitutes one’s relation to the world (ideas about the world, for example)? Finally, what about that concluding reference to writing about myself? I don’t believe that my writing is an act of either onanism or narcissism, but why should anyone else care about what I might discover about myself through reading or writing?

Questions to consider in future … but for now, some notes on what’s changed in the three years since I wrote the essay: I now live in Victorian Flatbush, aka Ditmas Park, no longer just down the slope from the Central Library; Jonathan Lethem has written a seventh novel (more conventional and so less exciting to me than the others); and my then-fiancé is now my husband.

I’m Not Afraid of Aliens, and Neither is Jonathan Lethem

Five years ago, when I lived in the Bronx, I regularly wandered up to 231st Street to browse through the shelves of the Kingsbridge branch of the New York Public Library. I chose Girl in Landscape on the strength of its title. I had read another novel by its author, Jonathan Lethem, the previous summer. As She Climbed Across the Table was okay, interesting—I don’t recall all that much about it anymore—but through the snowy weekend that concluded 2000, I did not put down Girl in Landscape until I finished it. How could he possibly understand? I marveled, wondering how a male adult could so successfully evoke the raw, bewildered rage of 13-year-old Pella Marsh, taken by her uncomprehending father after the death of her mother to live on another planet.

I live in Brooklyn now, just down the slope from the Central Library, where half of Lethem’s novels are shelved with science fiction and half are shelved with general fiction. I’ve read all six novels, but so far I’ve read only Girl in Landscape more than once (three times). In each of his two most recent novels, Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, Lethem has drawn closer to home—or closer to reality, if you prefer to call it that. The most recent, Fortress of Solitude, is also the most autobiographical; its protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, grows up in 1970s Boerum Hill, the same Brooklyn neighborhood where Lethem lived in the ’70s.

In his sixth novel, Lethem arrives where many novelists begin: with their own stories. To get there, he first had to go through what he has referred to as his “clumsy attempts to work out his surrealist impulses in the despised medium of science fiction.” Although others of his novels are categorized as science fiction, Girl in Landscape specifically comes to mind in relation to this quotation, because of its origin in an essay titled “Defending The Searchers,” in which Lethem never mentions Girl in Landscape by name but does refer to it a couple times obliquely as “a novel I’d predetermined should be influenced by The Searchers.” Most likely biased by my own experiences of loss, I cannot see whatever clumsiness there may be to Girl in Landscape; I see only the emotional truths of its metaphors. When your mother dies, it is because the entire Earth is in a poisoned ruin. Life after your mother’s death is in exile on another planet. The father who remains is a politician who lost the election and is left with only empty words. Growing up is the guilty exploration of an alien landscape. Even the vastness of these planet-sized metaphors itself conveys their emotional truth: to lose a parent is to lose an entire world; to grow up is to discover a new one.

Writes Stephen Dobyns in Best Words, Best Order, “I believe that a poem doesn’t try to present reality but presents a metaphor that represents some aspect of the writer’s relation to the world: a metaphor that can be potentially re-experienced and become meaningful to the reader.” As Lethem himself has stated, the most salient aspect of his relation to the world is the loss of his mother to a brain tumor when he was only 14 years old (and she only 36). A writer of novels rather than of poems, he finds in science fiction both an array of metaphors to evoke emotional truths and a framework that “explains” these metaphors as actual events.

The logic of metaphor, of surrealism, of dreams, is not solely literary. It is fundamental: we are always transferring our emotions to other, safer objects. Just a few Fridays ago, there I was: in a blind rage at the Red Sox’ loss to the Yankees, at the drunken Mets fan who insulted my fiancé at our favorite bar, at my fiancé for his complaints about my inane and repetitive mockery of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. In my rage at the game, the Mets fan, my fiancé, I finally let go—and let myself feel my rage and terror over the mammogram I had two days earlier. Six times the technician screwed one of my breasts into a machine that did not give; when I thought I could not possibly hurt more, she screwed me in more tightly. Six times she said, “STOP breathing.” Then I returned to wait in a room with a dozen other smocked women for the possibility that the doctor might call me in to tell me that I had the same cancer that killed my mother ten years ago. The doctor did not call me in; eventually, they let me go, then sent a letter to say that all is well, at least for now. How much safer it was to feel my rage over a baseball game, two days afterwards, in my own bed, in my fiancé’s arms.

And so in Girl in Landscape, Jonathan Lethem channels his grief over his mother’s death through an obsession with The Searchers. By casting his grief in the surreal terms of science fiction, by channeling it through the John Ford western, he gains the safe distance he needs from it, paradoxically, in order to write about it. Then, in subsequent novels, he can successfully take on his material in a less and less oblique manner—as he does in Motherless Brooklyn and in The Fortress of Solitude. And as for me, I chose to write my first column on my favorite book by my favorite contemporary author in the hopes of simultaneously discovering and revealing what I value most as a reader. I find (today? for now?) that what matters most is the evocation of emotional truth: a good book makes my own emotional reality—or, to put it in Dobyns’s terms, my own relationship to the world—available to me. Thus, I also find that in writing about a good book, I write about myself. When I first read Girl in Landscape, Pella Marsh reminded me of my youngest sister. Now when I read it, I see how much she, in her rage, is like me.

Tuesday, November 11

Music for Nursing

The first in an ongoing series on things we like

In our home, we don't go for Mozart for Infants, nor do we plan to limit the Critter's playlist to sappy crap for kids. There's no need to do either. Here's a list of our favorites for nursing.
  • On the very same day that I decided that it should be the first music that the Critter hears (outside of the womb, anyway), a friend of mine suggested that Bach's Cello Suites are ideal for baby. I especially like Bach in the autumn, and thus for my autumn child.
  • Music for Egon Schiele has haunted me since I first heard it one evening at my then-boyfriend's art studio. (This would be the boyfriend who became my husband.) This music reminds me to write poetry not out of some misguided desire for recognition, but simply in order to make art out of my experience of the world.
  • I prefer the subtle, surging rhythms of Music for Eighteen Musicians to the white noise recommended for calming babies. The Critter seems to like it, too. Good for nursing and for sleep.
  • Music Has the Right to Children—indeed.

Monday, November 10

The Variegated Life, Take 2

In Which Raerae Seeks to Revive Her Long-Abandoned Blog ...

I call this blog The Variegated Life because I like the word variegated, suggesting autumn trees tossing the sunlight in their many-colored leaves. I prefer to think of my life as variegated rather than as fragmented, although at times my variegated life—a motley patchwork of relationships, jobs, housekeeping, running, writing, zazen, reading—feels far less beautiful than a sunlit tree. These days I'm not even sure what my variegated life will be, other than a grand experiment in improvisation. In September, I became a mother, which has resulted in no job or running and very little housekeeping, writing, zazen, or reading. In their place, I am developing an intimate relationship with hunger. And with poo. Nevertheless, I write what I can, when I can....

I Write Because I Do Not Know

All summer long, pregnant and due in September, I worried. I worried about the health of my baby, my nutrition (I was anemic), and how little I was exercising. I worried about waking up on time, getting to work on time, getting my work done, how much money I was earning, how much money we were spending, and how much money we were going to spend once the baby was here. I worried about what to put on the table for dinner, the unanswered e-mails filling my Inbox, the crumbs on the kitchen counter, the unpacked boxes from our move in April, our unwashed laundry, the hole in our bathroom wall, the cost of new furniture, the number of cell phone minutes I had left for the month, the radiation from my cell phone, phthalates and BPA, disposable diapers accumulating in our landfills, and the family stories I have not yet asked my ninety-year-old grandmother about. I worried that I will never write another poem; that spring was already gone, then June, then July, and I was not paying enough attention to what mattered most; that my worries were distracting me from a more fundamental reality, which I could observe in the changing of the seasons from month to month and in the new human life growing, stretching, and kicking in my womb. The most I could do was talk to my baby during my morning walks through Prospect Park, telling him about the changes in the weather and trees and how the sky was reflected in the pond at the edge of the Long Meadow. In the evenings I watched baseball and rubbed my belly, and at night I lay down on my side and sang my baby and myself to sleep.

What surprised me most about my pregnancy was how the arising of a new life in my belly deepened my concern with the same kinds of questions that the Buddha began to ask upon his encounter with very different stages of life—old age, sickness, and death. I originally conceived of this blog as a way to consider the relationship between works of imagination and reality, specifically what literature has to say, if anything, about how we should live. Now my project also includes a consideration of motherhood and what it reveals about fundamental reality. I write about these things because I do not know what I think about these things, and writing is the best way I know of finding out....