Monthly Archive for December, 2011

Happy Holidays from The Fertile Source

Happy holidays from The Fertile Source! We will resume normal publication after the New Year.

Into the Center of a Maze:Amy Amoroso on giving birth, motherhood, death, medical school, and writing

Interview by Jessica Powers

Amy Amoroso’s essay, “Hundred Year Old Soup,” was published in The Fertile Source on December 5, 2011.

1. One of the things that really drew me to your essay was the way you discussed how your understanding of what it means to be a writer helped you through the last final gasps of giving breath. Can you talk about that process a little bit more–both the writing process but also the fact that knowing this helped you give birth?

 
 
 

Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Giving birth to Duncan required going into a kind of dream-state. Seth and I took a class called Birthing from Within to get ready for the birth, and one of the things we learned is that the journey into labor is like journeying into the center of a maze. You (metaphorically) turn corners and twist through small places, moving further and further away from your rational brain and closer to your animal or mammalian brain. Our mammalian brain helps us to birth a baby without drugs or interventions. In this state, we don’t feel pain in the same way. But there are things that can take you out of this trance, like fluorescent lights, loud noises, or perceived stress of any kind.

 When things got stressful during Duncan’s birth, I did momentarily come out of the dream-state and it was very scary. I began to doubt that I could give birth at all. But I was able to get myself back into the birth trance by looking down, turning inward, and lots of deep breathing.

 When I’m writing and things are going well, I go into a similar place that allows me to turn off the part of my rational brain concerned with logistics, like the checkbook, the house cleaning, or the grocery list. In this state, I can transport myself to different times and places. I can be the people I’m writing about, and let the story unfold organically.

But coming out of that state in order to edit or revise, requires a different part of my brain. And if I come out of the dream-state too soon and start to layer in metaphor or play with the larger themes before the story has been “birthed,” I risk doubting my instincts, making a wrong turn, and losing the story altogether.

Maybe on some level, I was able to return to my birthing trance because I was familiar with the dream-state of a writer. But I think we all have access to this state. It’s just a matter of letting yourself go there.  

2. Knowing that Duncan was born without breathing, I initially had a very different thought upon reading those lines, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out.” Can you talk a little bit about the symbolic and metaphorical links between a) being an artist, b) giving birth, and c) that awful reality called death?

 When Duncan was on the cart not breathing and I was on the bed holding my breath, I was hit with the reality that he could die, and that everything we’d prepared to bring him safely and peacefully into the world and back to our home, all the love we’d already filled ourselves with for this child, would be for nothing. And that place was even darker than where I was when I was doubting my ability to push him out. I think I was also, on a subconscious level, scared to lose a part of who I was, if Duncan didn’t survive.

 Children carry on our gene pool and our legacy. Art carries a piece of the artist’s soul, and as long as the world is willing to read or look at it, art will live on forever. Birthing, parenting, and writing require my heart and soul. And pouring heart and soul into a work of art that may never be born or that will never see the light of day can be devastating because you’re giving up an integral part of yourself. My greatest hope is that my work, as a mother and an artist, will thrive long after I’m gone from this world.

3. Why do you think so many of us mother writers are compelled to write the stories of our children’s births? What compelled you to write “Hundred Year Old Soup”?

I initially wrote Hundred-Year-Old Soup to heal. When I began it, I was pregnant with my daughter and I knew that I needed to heal the wounds of Duncan’s birth before attempting to give birth again. The first version of this essay was three times as long. In that first draft, I did a lot of exploration to try to figure out why Duncan got stuck and why it happened the way it did. I went down many different paths— everything from blaming myself for my own patterns of getting stuck in my life to blaming Seth for having such broad shoulders and passing them on to our son!

What I finally came to was that none of it mattered and that I just needed to tell the story and forgive myself for whatever I thought I’d done wrong. I spoke at length with Duncan’s pediatrician about the helplessness I’d felt when his cord was cut and he was taken from me. She reminded me that I wasn’t helpless, and that I knew exactly what Duncan needed when I told Seth to go over to him and let him hear his father’s voice. This was a pretty big shift in the way I began to see the story.

I think mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births because they need to understand what really happened. We are so quickly thrust into raising these little people that it is hard to reflect on and process what happened on the day they were born. And too often we hold on to judgment of ourselves for the choices we made—sometimes without even recognizing it.

I’ve been teaching a class on writing birth stories here in Portland at a wonderful community center called Birth Roots. And the work we do to find the heroic moments in child birth is transformative for so many mothers who start the class feeling shame or guilt or remorse about the choices they made around their child’s birth. And it is not like we are just putting our rose-colored glasses on. There are always heroic moments in childbirth—for the mom and the baby. Always.

4. You left medical school to become a writer. Tell us about the process you went through to make that choice. How does your background in science/medicine inform your writing?

My decision to leave medicine is another essay (or book!) altogether, but it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. As a child, I was fascinated with the insides of things. I remember in seventh grade the day we dissected the cow’s eyeball was the day I decided I was going to be a doctor. And as I grew up and became more and more interested in stories, my choice of medicine was reaffirmed because what better position to be in than a doctor’s to hear the most intimate details of people’s lives? My plan was to be a doctor who wrote novels.

There were many heart aches in medical school for me. But in the end, I was not happy doing it. I kept a notebook where I was supposed to keep notes on various health issues and treatments, but instead I wrote about my patients’ lives. I wrote about the sterility of the hospital locker room. I wrote over and over again about how something was missing in my life. Something was missing.

In my second year, I took a class called Medical Humanities. In it, we read poetry and fiction, watched films and looked at paintings and sculptures all related to healing, death, dying, and medicine. It was probably the best class I’ve ever taken in my life. I remember sitting on the ground outside of my pathology lecture hall, reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I never went into my pathology lecture that day. I just sat their reading for two hours.

Eventually it became clear to me that what was missing in my life was writing. And when that reality hit me, it hit hard. I couldn’t go back to the hospital for one more day. I remember one of the mornings after I’d decided not to go back, my mom took me to breakfast and was trying to convince me to just finish out my surgery rotation—if anything for the writing material. It was good advice, because I probably could have gathered all kinds of good material. But I was done and it was the first time in my life that I decided I was going to follow my heart and not listen to the advice that everyone (even those I loved and respected dearly) else was giving me.

My two years in medical school left me with a great many stories and even more layers to weave into my work. Medicine is such fertile ground for writers because it is rich with tension, disappointment, humility, and miracles.

5. What are you working on now? And, how do you balance the demands of being a mother and being an artist?

 I’ve been working on a novel about a fictitious family who lived in the toxic neighborhood called Love Canal in Niagara Falls and lost a son to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The book begins with their twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ila, born seven months after her brother died, on a quest to find out who her brother was. Through stories from her brother’s high school girlfriend, his pediatrician, and her mother, she begins to uncover the circumstances that lead up to her brother’s death, while also coming to grips with her own surprising history.

Being a mother and a writer is a balancing act. I rent a writing shed that’s about two blocks from our house and if I wake up before the sun, I can usually sneak out of the house before anyone is awake and write for an hour at the shed. But if someone is sick or had a bad dream or sad about something else, I don’t get to the shed. And that’s okay, too, because everything feeds the work. If we are constantly running from our lives to get our writing done, we miss the opportunity to be there when life happens. And being there when life happens is the very best material for writers. I will write about all of it at some point.

Hundred-Year-Old Soup

An essay by Amy Amoroso

For Duncan

 

 

I made a pot of carrot lentil soup the day before going into labor. It was big enough for dinner that night, plus two nights during the week. But instead of easy meals for my final days of pregnancy, the soup came to the hospital with us, where it would sit in glass jars on a shelf in the Labor and Delivery refrigerator for days. We never ate the rest of it. And for some reason that lentil soup is one of the details I can’t ever forget.

            Duncan came four days early. He came without crying. He came without breath. And after all of our childbirth classes and birth plans, we couldn’t have been prepared for what happened during his birth.  On the short ride to the hospital, I thought of all the things I’d left undone. There were boxes of baby clothes that needed sorting, the sixty-year-old family bassinet that needed painting, and the cloth diapers that needed another round of washing and hanging in the sun. I assumed, since Seth and I are perpetually late, that our child would fall into line and that I’d have plenty of time to get these things done. I also imagined that after a healthy and hard labor, I would welcome my child immediately into my arms and onto my chest like I’d seen in the DVD’s we watched in class. It turns out that I was wrong, and maybe I should have taken my early broken water as a sign.

*

 Seth and I expected to spend most of the early labor at home, but since my water broke, our midwife thought we should meet her at the hospital. At first we were giddy and excited about meeting our baby, but as the hours went by, time became warped and we stopped exchanging words. Orange leaves dropped from a maple tree outside our hospital window and the sun was high in a blue sky, but I had no real sense of how long we’d been there. Yes, there was pain, but I can’t access it anymore. Not in a concrete sense. I remember breathing like the sound of waves, loud enough to push my thoughts away and deep enough to dampen the sharp edges of my contractions.

            Before I knew it, the sun was gone. An entire day had almost passed and I was still laboring. Most of the details are fuzzy, but I remember chicken salad, a red rose on the windowsill from my sister, and Van Morrison singing Astral Weeks. I wound my way inward to a place inside my body I’d never been before. Numbers, time, even food had left my consciousness. I moaned and moved according to the rhythm of my body. I floated in a Jacuzzi, squatted over a toilet seat.

When it was finally time to push, I was on the floor. Seth and our midwife were there too. Their faces weren’t in my view, but I could feel their hands and hear their words. With my knees bent and my head bowed, I felt like an animal. It didn’t matter that I was in a hospital on the corner of State and Spring streets in Portland, Maine. I could have been in the woods on a bed of pine needles or in the middle of the ocean.

*

Duncan’s head came while I was there on the floor, and I felt immediate relief. But the rest of him didn’t slide out like I’d seen in the birthing DVDs. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was stuck, and our midwife had started to panic. She tried moving me to different positions and then finally decided to help me up onto the bed.  I was reluctant to heave my pregnant body, complete with a newly born head poking out, back up onto the hospital bed. It was the one place I had decided early on that I did not want to give birth. When I was squatting on the ground, I could push every one away and focus. I could imagine I was an animal birthing in the woods the way we talked about in one of our childbirth classes. Up on the bed, plastic monitors flashed digital numbers, numbers I had no concept of at that point. People in scrubs swirled around the room. And the gray institutional doors and florescent lights brought consciousness back to me. All of it lifted me from my birthing trance and I suddenly became rationally aware of what was happening.

            When I was in graduate school for writing, a professor of mine would say, If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out. He was talking about us as writers and the natural flow of a story. It’s only when we start to doubt what we’ve written, when we stop to break down the components of the story before it’s done, that the whole magical gift of storytelling goes out like a light. Giving birth is similar. You work yourself into a trance and you flow there until the job is done, until the pain of it is over, and you have the first draft of a beautiful life. But if you stop in the middle of it and think about what it is you are actually doing, you risk putting the breaks on the whole process.

            So there I was, surrounded by nurses, by Seth and my midwife, and by the reality that it had been 22 hours since my water broke and at 24 hours it wouldn’t be as safe for the baby to be inside me anymore.  I wasn’t sure what kinds of interventions they would try, but I saw in their faces that it was time to push the baby out. Except that now I was suddenly conscious of how much time it’d been since I last slept and how utterly exhausted I was. They were all cheering me on as if I were twelve years old again and swimming in a race. That’s the one, Amy. That’s the push. I wished they would stop. I wished I was back in the middle of the ocean by myself, birthing my child. I told the midwife I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t giving in to anything yet, but for some reason I had to say the words and see what kind of power they had.

            It was then that I saw Seth’s eyes. I mean, actually saw them. Blue, blood shot, determined. He moved his head into my line of vision and somehow lifted me from the hospital room, the bed, the day that had slipped away from us, and said, “Aim, we need to get this baby out now.” He wasn’t mad or scared, just matter-of-fact, like he always is, pulling me back to the work that needs to be done. Somewhere between consciousness and dream, I pushed, and the others in the room chanted, I pushed, they chanted. It went on forever it seemed. But finally, with a nurse shoving my legs back toward my ears and the midwife pressing hard on my belly, Duncan was born.

 *

He came into the world silent and blue. Before I could catch my breath, Duncan’s cord was cut and his slippery soul was whisked away to a plastic cart beside my bed. A nurse pressed on his tiny chest and blew air into him. For seven minutes we waited, suspended between life and death.

            Flashes of what I knew about babies in the womb came to me like tiny dreams, messages from the gods. “Go to him,” I told Seth. “Let him hear your voice.”

            My knees were heavy. My arms numb from pushing the bed, the floor, the tiles in the shower. But I held each limb with such intensity that I was almost hovering above that hospital bed.

            Our midwife yelled to call anesthesia, to get the baby intubated, but the nurse refused. She was calm. She’d been here before. “He’ll breath on his own,” she said, quietly. “He can do it.” Two fingers pumping, lips blowing. Nothing.

            Seth moved from my side to the cart. He took Duncan’s tiny fingers in his own.

            This couldn’t be happening, I thought. After all of that, he had to be okay.

            If the sun and moon should doubt… There was a space just above the light of the warmer, a space full of air and breath and the energy of all the women who’d given birth before me in that room, a space where the sun and the moon had shone, where everything merged together. It was that force, like water coming together at the mouth of a river, that I focused on during those minutes of limbo. I held it with my whole being, that God of the moment, and begged it to give me my child. To make him cry. To fill the room with the missing sound I ached in the center of my chest for. It was worse than what I imagine being starved of water or food would be like, my own flesh and blood nurtured and loved for 40 weeks, tucked safely under my heart, now limp on a plastic hospital cart that seemed miles away.

            The room was painfully quiet as Seth leaned down close to Duncan’s body. “Hey, little guy,” he whispered.

           And then I could see a foot move. Fingers curling. Then, full of the gusto of life and fight, Duncan parted his lips and screamed. He screamed a blood curdling beautiful song. And we all took a long, slow breath, as if we too were tasting air for the very first time. Even though it seemed the whole world had been in suspension a moment before, we now didn’t have time to doubt the animal instinct inherent in all of us: to simply fill our chest cavities with air and breathe.

            Hey, little guy. I still hear those words like a prayer in my mind.  

*

 

Duncan screamed for almost an hour. We cried, too, and laughed, and held him so that his little lips were pressed against our skin. Feeling the warmth of his breath was like feeling sun on my body. When it was over and we were sure he was okay, I walked down the hall to the hospital refrigerator. I was starving. There on the middle shelf in two glass jars was the lentil soup we’d brought from home. It was just as orange as it was the day before. And it reminded me of all the undone things I had on my to-do list. It reminded me of the bassinet, and the piles of clothes, our dirty bathroom and all the things that didn’t really matter. Everything had changed since I last ate that soup. I’d been out to the middle of the ocean, to the woods, to a place only the animal brain can understand. I’d hovered in limbo for what seemed like hours, waiting for my baby to come to life. And I wasn’t the same person. I would never be who I was when I made that soup again. It seemed like the soup was 100 years old as I stood there in my slippers, with my uterus shrinking. 

            That night, Seth told me he felt something different in his heart now. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It’s like waves pulsing in my chest.” He put his hand on his heart and his eyes filled with water. Perhaps he’d been to the woods and the ocean and back, too. We didn’t eat our lentil soup that night. Instead, my sister brought us sushi and champagne.

Amy Amoroso is a writer and mother of two. After leaving medical school, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing and went on to teach writing at George Mason University and the University of Southern Maine. She currently works as a ghostwriter in Portland, Maine and helps women write about their birthing experiences. Amy is working on a novel and several nonfiction essays. Her fiction is published in Alligator Juniper and Upstreet.

 

 

 

 

 




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