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Nature Writing, Procreation, and the Human Condition: an interview with Mike Freeman

Two weeks ago, The Fertile Source published Mike Freeman’s essay “Referential.” This week, he answers some questions about the writing life, nature writing, and procreation.

“Referential” is an essay that explores many parallel lines of thought. Among those lines of thought are the havoc that human habitation wreaks on nature; the fragility of nature but its ability to bounce back; and the fear you have, as an expectant father, that the world you’re bequeathing to your child is too damaged. How do you balance the tension of multiple lines of thought in your writing?

I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about that.  Like most people who write, I wish I had the talent to be a poet, as poets expel the most thought from the fewest words.  Emily Dickinson can braid multiple uncertainties into a few lines, thoughts that talented novelists take four-hundred pages to achieve, even then losing much clarity along the way.  Poets are additionally attractive for their penchant to ask questions rather than answer them.  Like Dickinson, people like Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens pose several of the questions that terrorize all people in compressed space.  They do all this best, it seems, with images, or descriptions of the living world, a vividness out of which their various themes emerge.  If I can’t be a poet, I’ve tried to mimic that use of imagery. 

You wrote “Referential” when your partner became pregnant rather quickly after you started trying, to both of your surprise. Despite the mutual decision to have children, your essay explores the feelings of ambivalence you had going forward, considering the world we live in. The sparse lines referencing those feelings speak volumes—the “newfound life burdening her womb.” Now that you have not one but two children, have some of your fears been resolved or have they been strengthened?

My parental experience has amplified every emotion, positive and negative, as I imagine is the case with most new mothers and fathers.  If my fears of what sort of world we’ll bestow were previously unsettling, they’ve ramified exponentially since our two daughters were born.  Keeping pace, however, is hope.  I have no idea what sort of world they’ll inherit, only that it will be different from the one in which I reared.  I hope, however, as that’s most of what I can do, that different won’t mean worse, that they’ll adapt to the changes accordingly and find happiness in the environment they inhabit.  This hope, in fact, has probably eclipsed the fear, which might be a great gift of parenthood.  Blind or no, without such hope mothers and fathers might be sunk.

Can you talk about what “nature writing” can offer for our understanding of the human condition, particularly as it relates to this ongoing project of bearing and raising young?

I’m probably not qualified to answer what the writing can offer, but will speak to what general observation – from which we create everything – might tell us.  People of both religious and secular philosophies are usually in violent agreement about the fundamental questions, something that a day observing nature can verify.  Most religions, for instance, have some variation of the Garden of Eden, a time when humanity wasn’t distinct from nature.  Pure evolutionists feel the same way, though they use a different route to get there.  Now, however, everyone has the sense that we exist in limbo, not entirely separate from nature but not entirely a part of it.  It’s quite difficult to imbibe any other feeling when immersed in nature, even for an hour.  One place where we both simultaneously diverge from nature while running parallel with it is procreation.  Biologists have a distilled, quite dull answer to the meaning of life.  “Life exists to replicate itself.”  While most of us feel there’s far more to it than that, this statement is indisputable.  All life reproduces, and watching many creatures raise their young gives you a great sense of kinship, along with the fantastic risks and exhaustion that parents experience in creating the next generation.  Humans, though, have been so successful that we now grapple with the ingrained urge to reproduce while having the sense that we need to limit that same urge.

You reference Adam and Eve in your essay. In Genesis 1, God charges Adam with taking care of the earth (“subduing” it, in the New International Version) but also to “be fruitful and multiply.” Can you explain some of your thoughts about how, as humans, we can balance our need to protect the world we live in with the imperative that seems built into our genes to “be fruitful and multiply”?

The Bible is difficult stuff.  Terrific stories, terrific themes, some dreadfully unfortunate phraseology.  We’ve had to subdue – or at least beat back – nature enough to enjoy the success we’ve had.  On the other hand, we’ve almost certainly overdone it, which now threatens our drive – whether genetically or religiously mandated – to be fruitful and multiply.  How we balance this I’m not sure, but voluntarily decreasing family size seems to be a good place to start, though I certainly have no desire to judge anyone who chooses to have a big family nor do I have authority to do so.

Another terrific story from Genesis is the Flood, which secularists share as well.  Lately, there seems to be a particularly high rate of apocalyptic prophesying, likely stemming from a collective intuition that humans have become too numerous, too corrupt, to live as they’ve been living.  Secularists point to global warning while those with religious inspiration tout some version of the End of Times.  Again, same anthropogenic catalyst, same catastrophic end, different narratives.  Most of us, then, no matter our background, feel the need to strike some sort of balance between our undeniable success and its impact on the world in which we live.  How that can be done, however, will be a trick, and an increasingly large amount of people seem to crave some sort of version of the Flood, to wipe us clean where we can start anew.  I’m not among these, but I do understand the sentiment.

How has fatherhood meshed with your career as a writer?

As I imagine is true with most new parents, fatherhood has cut away great chunks of time that I normally devoted to writing (and reading, which is of course a great portion of writing).  On the other hand, having children has taught me too much to ever have more than passing regret.  In addition, it certainly provides a great deal of new material.  Our oldest daughter, for instance, has autism, which at the outset is as alien a wilderness as any explorer ever experienced in the remotest corner of the globe.  People largely write, though, to try to understand what questions plague them, if not answer them, and writing has helped in some small way understand our family interplay.

Please tell us about your forthcoming book with SUNY Press.

The book is entitled “Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson”, and centers on a canoe trip I took down the Hudson River.  Karen became pregnant while I was living in Alaska.  We barely knew each other, and I quite abruptly left my home of ten years to come back east in lockstep with the Recession.  Needing a way to make money, or at least try, I proposed the idea of floating the Hudson to reflect upon its cultural influence, using that history to frame our most delicate current tensions – race, labor, energy use, pollution, gender politics, and others.  Throughout, a personal thread wrestles with the anxieties of stay-at-home parenting and family life in general.  The link is here.


Fiction by Lara McLaughlin

How can I describe my marriage to Dag after twelve years? Neither of us felt completed. I had my photography, but only as a hobby then. Dag had his classes, but his writing had progressed poorly. When we got together with other professors and their wives, the evenings generated an air of desperation. We were no longer wild co-eds. We were the establishment, tethered by contracts, by research and publishing obligations, and for most, by family responsibilities. Never did it seem so depressing as when we gathered en masse in each other’s homes. Always there was the ubiquitous discussion of tenure.         

One of these evenings I was in our kitchen, washing plates and glasses with Gina Sugarland, Howard’s wife. Howard was in Philosophy, and lay passed-out across the foot of our bed. Through the envelope-sized window over the sink I could see two other friends of Dag’s in a shouting match over which was more spiritual, the music of John Lennon or John Coltrane. One of them took a swing at the other.

“Holy Jesus,” said Gina, and without breaking her rhythm passed a glass to me for drying. “They’re like little boys.”

“I don’t know. The only little boy I’ve ever known is Dag,” I said, meaning that he was the only male I’d ever known well but as I said it, the comparison did not seem ludicrous. We looked at each other, then broke into laughter.

Gina wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and laid her hand on my stomach. I flinched. “When are you going to tell us?” she whispered.

I didn’t know how to respond.  I had half believed I was only imagining the changes.

“Oh come on.” Her eyes grew big.

“I’m not sure yet.” The hope I’d been afraid of woke inside me. 

“But it’s so obvious!” she said.

I tried to flatten the swell below my waistline.

“Not because you’re showing-of course you’re not. Look at you. Plus it’s the first and all-“ Gina had three children. “But… well let’s put it this way. You’re either pregnant, or having an affair. Nobody looks like you do for no good reason!” She laughed. “You haven’t been to the doctor?”

I shook my head. I didn’t even have a doctor. Not since I had stopped taking the pill, and that was two universities ago.  Years ago I’d played Russian roulette with the pill for excitement. We all did back then. It was a little trick on the husbands. I made one month of pills last for four, then for six, then for eight.  My friends got pregnant.  I took up photography.

The conversation with Gina gave me courage to believe that sometimes strange things, miraculous things, happen. The following week I dropped in at the campus clinic. The young woman at the front desk did not look old enough to drive. I was reminded once again how surrounded by youth Dag was.  Compared to the girls floating through the halls of these buildings, I felt dried up, petrified. I was thirty-three.

“I was wondering if I could speak with a doctor,” I said, hating the timidity in my voice. The young woman looked at me as if I were a puzzling specimen that had been handed to her.

“Are you a professor?”

I shook my head.



“An employee of the university? Spouse?”

“Yes. Spouse.”

She handed me a clipboard. “Fill this out.”

“I really just wanted to talk to a doctor, first. I

“None of the doctors are in right now. But by the time you fill out these forms, and wait your turn,” she nodded toward a room full of apathetic looking young people slouched in plastic bucket chairs, “then I’m sure-

“I was hoping to not have to wait all day. All I really need is a pregnancy test.”

The woman’s eyes immediately slid down to my stomach and back to my face again. She raised an eyebrow. I have never lost my amazement at the unapologetic audacity of American girls. I raised a brow back at her, regaining a sense of outrage.

“Well,” she shuffled for something in a drawer to her right, “we don’t do those here. You’ll have to go to Planned Parenthood.” She handed me a card. “Here’s the address and number of the nearest one.”

I took the card. “Thank you.”

She pursed her lips, and looked back down at her desk.

I had to smile. I was the one carrying a life in me. For the first time I allowed hope to carry me through the lobby, back out into the glaring sun.

I should have called first. I had a habit, perhaps cultivated from childhood, of simply arriving places. It didn’t bother me to find that I had to wait or come back another day. I usually took my camera with me. In my mind, no venture was a wasted one, but Dag complained that the shortest errand became a field trip with me.

“This is not the third world, Riva,” he was fond of saying. “People run on schedules here.”

The lady at the Planned Parenthood was more forgiving. She acted as though my unexpected arrival was her personal failure.   “Of course, we are happy to take drop-ins,” she explained, in a fluster. She flitted around, assembling a clipboard and plastic cup and label, all the while she was talking. “But we could have warned you that a first morning urine sample was preferableunless you are quite far along in the pregnancy” she paused to cast a discerning eye on me, “but, you will probably want to go ahead and have a blood test done also. Just to be absolutely certain.” She handed me the small pile of supplies she had assembled. “Don’t apply the label until after you collect the sample,” she added. “Then bring it to me, and you can fill out all the forms.” She smiled and nodded toward a door. “That’s the ladies room.”

I was dismayed to hear that it would be several days before I learned the outcome of the tests.

“You will need to make another appointment,” the woman said, labeling the vile of blood a nurse had just drawn from my arm. “In a few days.”

“Can I simply call? I have a telephone.” This was one of those things I was likely to say that made Dag so furious. Of course you have a telephone, Riva. This is America.

“Oh no,” the woman shook her head vigorously, and at first I believed she was taking exception to the fact that I had a telephone. That’s where my train of thought had taken me, and so I missed what she said next. Then she said, “It’s simply our policy. When would be a good time for you?”

“To make an appointment?”

“Yes, dear.”

I rehearsed the trip in my head, the long walk to the bus stop, two bus transfers, the shorter walk to the clinic, a wait, and then the return trip. It would be most of the day again.

“As soon as possible.”

“Well, how does Friday sound?”          

Friday sounded far away. It was Monday.

“At two o’clock?”

A two o’clock appointment meant I would not get home before Dag that day- that was, if he came home at all. More and more he was staying on campus to write in his office. Sometimes he stayed all night. 

“Do you have something earlier?” I asked. If he got home before me, he would want to know where I had been and why I hadn’t taken the car. I shunned the car for trips into the city. The traffic, the parking, the enigma of the streets terrified me; Dag said I drove like an eighty-year-old woman.

“No, but I can put you in at ten o’clock on Monday morning.”

“Friday at two will be fine then.”  I had four whole days to wait. Days of wrestling hope pinned by fear. Of being consumed with wonder.


When I returned that Friday, a different woman was sitting behind the desk. I was directed into an adjacent office where another woman was watering plants.  She seemed surprised when I entered. I just wanted to be alone in the safety of my home to ponder it all. I told myself that I had an open mind, that if I was not pregnant it only confirmed what I had felt all along, but as soon as I sat, and then she sat, I realized how much I had let myself hope there was a life inside me and how destroyed I would be if there was not. Before she ever said a word, I began to cry.

The woman quickly jumped up from her seat and came around to me. She held out a box of tissues, and put a hand on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” I sniffled.

She patted me. “It’s alright. Lots of women get very emotional about this.”

“It’s only that-“

“I know. I know,” she said. She sat in a chair next to me, and put a hand on my leg.

I composed myself.

“Your pregnancy test was positive.” She squeezed my knee a little.

“It was? Positive?”

She nodded. Her eyes were filled with sorrow, leading me to think I’d misunderstood.

“Positive means…”

“You are pregnant.” She offered me another tissue.

I blew my nose and smiled.

She withdrew her hand, and leaned back in her seat beside me. “Is this good news for you?”

“Oh yes!” I laughed, and phlegm sprayed out of my nose. “Oh!”

She laughed. “That’s okay. This is so wonderful! Most of our clients are not so pleased.”

“You are sure?”

She nodded, and stood to retrieve a file folder from her desk. “The blood test confirmed it. You are not sure when your last period was?”

“No. I thought I had it a few times but then it stopped and started and was not normal.”

She frowned. “But you have not bled recently have you?”

I hadn’t. Not in weeks. I shook my head. “I am soI just got used to the idea of not having children.”

“Well you are fortunate to be so flexible. Not everyone can make the switch as easily as you. Mentally, that is.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted children. I don’t have any.”

She smiled. “You have one.”

I stared at her, and then I understood. We laughed. A baby! My mind was so full of thoughts.

She wanted to talk about doctors and prenatal care, and I wanted to sing and dance. I wanted to fly to Tenerife to tell Consuela, as irrational as that was. My mother and my father! How pleased they would be. Gina Sugarland and I would go to lunch and celebrate. I do not believe I thought of Dag once.

I promised to make an appointment with one of the doctors on a list she gave me. I don’t remember leaving, or the walk to the bus stop, or the two transfers, or the long, hot walk back home. The house was dark and stuffy, but I flopped happily on the sofa and fell fast asleep.


I would name her Evangeline (I was certain it would be a girl) after my favorite poem as a child. In my mind, I lived out her entire life. How she would look at two and three, how I would dress her for her first day of school. How we would paint together and write bad poetry that would make Dag laugh after her bedtime. The pictures I would take of her, the stories I would read to her, the books she would learn to love to read herself. I would talk with her about life and love, and we would share great secrets, giggling in bed together at night, and holding tea parties in the yard for her dolls during the days. I would brush her long, glossy hair and tie ribbons in it. My mother and father would come visit us and perhaps even stay, all of us together in our home. They would see what a happy family we were. They would forgive me for marrying Dag, for not choosing their god, or their way of life.

Evangeline would be the strand that plaited us together.

I dreamt of the day she would come to me and tell me she was in love. We would talk about love and marriage and babies. Dag and I would love the boy also, and welcome him into our family. We would have grandchildren and they would play in our yard in the evenings while their parents went out. In our old age Dag and I would sit, graying but wise, and watch them play, smiling at the life we had created.

As soon as the pregnancy was confirmed, I wondered at the strength of will that had kept me from clearly knowing before. Suddenly none of my clothes fit. My belly was a small, but tightly stuffed pillow. I had lost my appetite for almost all my favorite foods. I craved salt but could not stomach the smell of vinegar. The signs had all been there I realized; little Evangeline had been speaking to me from her hidden nest deep inside. I determined to rejoice in every ache and pain for the rest of my pregnancy.

Dag was gone evenings most of the time now; he said he was happy and writing better than in years. I chose to not distract him in those first days and simply cherished the time that Evangeline and I shared. I fixed only meals that pleased me, and ate as much or as little as I wanted. I was under no one’s scrutiny. I felt exhilarated and free, even as I carried the weight of my responsibility to the tiny being growing within.

A few days of keeping the good news from Dag lengthened into a week, then two.

I told myself that it would be unkind to disrupt his attention at the height of his productivity. He was developing a body of work, he told me. He hoped to publish again in the near future. He was very secretive about his work, as always, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had a secret this time also.

I called a doctor, the only woman on the list that Planned Parenthood had given me. She was, thankfully, not in the city, but close to the University, and I drove the car to our appointment. Walking from the parking lot to the office building, in the hallways and elevators, the people I met were friendly and responsive to me. Evangeline had brought an aura of goodwill into my life and it must have showed in my countenance, even the way I moved. I felt blessed, touched by God for the first time since I was a little girl.

The doctor was a gentle, soft-spoken woman, much older than me, and kind. After her exam and some prodding of my belly, she told me she thought I was about fourteen weeks pregnant. She showed me how to count the weeks backward to when I became pregnant, and set the date of the birth for forty weeks from then. April 12.

“Of course, babies come when they want to,” she added.

There was so much that I didn’t know about growing babies. The doctor showed me pictures in a small pamphlet of what Evangeline would look like at each stage of development. She was already a little person floating inside me, with arms and legs and fingers and toes. I listened to her heart beating through the stethoscope.

“Are you sure that’s not just my heart?”

“No. Listen,” the doctor said. “It’s much faster than your own heart.”

Evangeline’s heart was thrumming at double time, a tiny, but steady pulse inside me.

The doctor gave me vitamins to take every day, and was surprised to hear that I had not told my husband yet.  “I’m going to schedule you for a sonogram next week,” she said. “That’s where we will take a peek at the baby using sound waves. Your husband will want to be present for that. Couples get very excited about it. The pictures are grainy and difficult to understand at first, but the technician will help you figure it out. At this stage we should be able to see the baby’s spine and heart, most of its major organs, and even count fingers and toes if we’re lucky.”

Years ago, at Connecticut College, one of the wives had a sonogram picture of their newborn hanging on the refrigerator. It was a scratchy black and white Polaroid, but after looking at it a few seconds, I could recognize the outline of a baby’s profile. Their baby had its thumb stuck in its mouth.

I would see Evangeline in a week.

It was time to tell Dag.

He did not come home that evening. I called him at work the next day.

“Can you come home for dinner tonight? I have something important to talk about.”

I heard him take in a deep breath. “Is something wrong?”

“No. Everything is very good. This will be a good talk.”

“Okay. You scared me for a minute. Let’s go out to dinner.”

We almost never could afford to go out. But in my head I imagined the perfect meal, the perfect evening here at home. “I want to make you something special tonight.”

He laughed. “Okay. What is it? Can’t you tell me over the phone?”

“No. You have to wait. Just come home.”

“I’m dying of curiosity here,” he said. “Now you’ve spoiled any chance of my getting some work done.”

“Good,” I said mischievously.  “Some things are more important than work. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Riva,” he said. “I love you.”

An hour later when he walked through the front door, I was resting in the dark on the sofa. I jumped up when I heard the door open and the daylight blinded me for a moment. He was just a large shadow in the doorway, but I didn’t have time to be afraid, because he spoke right away.

“You know I’m a terrible waiter.”

At first I was angry. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I had it all planned, and, as usual, Dag dominated and changed everything.  But when he turned on the light, I saw his face, like a little boy on his birthday, wondering what the surprise was.

“You’re such a baby,” I teased. We kissed. He smelled rumpled and musky, and I could smell the alcohol from the night before still on his breath.

“You’re drinking while you write?” I didn’t mean it as an accusation, but he was the one who always said that his writing was no good when he drank.

He stepped away from me. “Not much. And it’s working this time. It’s good stuff, Riva.” He sounded angry, defensive.

We were off to a bad start, so I tried a lighter tone. “When do I get to read it?”

“Why? So you can check it? You’re the one who doesn’t know anything about poetry, Riva. You don’t understand it, remember?”

I began to panic. This was not the way it should be. “I like to read your work, Dag. You know that. It always sounds beautiful to me.”

“It’s not ready,” he said grumpily. “Is this why you invited me home? So you could interrogate me?”

“I didn’t mean to interrogate you. And do you need an invitation to your own home? Isn’t that an odd thing to say?”

“Isn’t it an odd thing that I would feel that way? Yes it is. That my own wife makes me feel as though I need permission to be here? I think that is very odd.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was dumfounded. As always, he was able to turn the tables and make the innocent words that came out of my mouth seem ugly. I knew I would not be telling him about Evangeline that day.

“You can go now,” I said, feeling stubborn. “The surprise is over.”

“Oh, big surprise. That I was invited to return to my own home. Do I owe you a thank you note for this, Riva?”

It was not what I had said, not what I had meant. “You were the one who talked about being invited. Not I.”

He backed even further away, mimicking me with his hands put up in mock surrender. “Not I, not I, she says. I am perfect. I am pure.”

I started to cry. “Please go, Dag. Go back to your classes, to your writing, or whatever you really do there.” It was cruel, I know. Just when I needed him to make us a family, I drove the wedge between us deeper.

He did go. He slammed the door so hard that it splintered on the hinge. I heard him on the front walk take the bicycle that he used to travel back and forth to campus, and smash it against the cement sidewalk. A moment later the car engine revved, then squealed, then roared away, fading as Dag sped down the road to escape from me.

He did not come home for three days. For the first two days, I was happy he was gone. I did not care if he ever came back. I entertained thoughts of leaving him and raising Evangeline on my own. It was a glorious fantasy. On the third day, I panicked. I began to imagine his dead body lying in the crumpled ruins of our car at the bottom of an overpass. Or worse still, dangling from a rope in his office. I tortured myself with grim scenarios, but my pride would not let me call the University. If he was still alive, let him wonder why I was not wondering. It was a silly game of chicken that I played with our lives that week, more stubborn and proud than humble and forgiving. As the third day became the fourth night I grew increasingly desperate, remembering only his arms, his mouth, his incredible whispering words of love. I told myself I would die of yearning before I caved in and called him, but there was no deluding myself- I was dying of yearning for him.

I tried to distract myself with thoughts of Evangeline and our new life together, but always those thoughts were of the three of us; I could not strain out Dag from the scenarios that played in my head. If only I was not such a mule when he got angry or moody. It was only the artist in him that made him the way he was. It was what I loved about him.

Evangeline, I knew in my soul, would have Dag’s temperament, but we would raise her in gentleness and mercy, not with the harsh, utilitarian outlook that Dag’s mother imposed on those around her. Dag would bring the light of language and philosophy into her life, and I would warm the cold winter of her father’s heart with the warmth of Mediterranean blood. She would be perfect.

Dag returned in the middle of the night. I was in bed, but not asleep. During my pregnancy sleep eluded me at night, then dogged me through the day. I heard the creak of his steps in the hall, and the weary drop of his body onto the sofa in the living room. He was not coming to me. He was merely seeking sleep. I listened to his snores until the sun rose. I fell asleep preparing the words to tell him about Evangeline.

When I woke, he was gone again. Of course, he had needed to return to campus, he had classes to teach. Still, I was despondent at the thought of another day stretching before me, waiting for when he would arrive home. I considered taking the bus to Price Club to look for baby furniture, but my heart was not in it. The only spare room we had was Dag’s office. I could not really submerge myself in redecorating when all his belongings cluttered the room. Dag was a wall that came between me and all my plans, my dreams. I despised him for his self-centeredness. I despised myself for my timidity.

That same day he surprised me by returning only a few hours later. I was ashamed to still be in my nightgown, and the look of disgust on his face when he saw me told me he felt the same way. Still, I was pleased, in a crafty way, because it was clear to see how my breasts had swollen and my belly brushed against the folds of the sheer gown. He would have to notice that. He would understand my listlessness also, once he knew about Evangeline.

“How nice,” he said, throwing his satchel down to the floor. “You’ve slept the day away.”

“I’ve been awake,” I said. “But I have something to tell you.”

 His expression became guarded, frightened even. I took a small comfort in knowing that I still had some power over him, but it wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. Far from it. I touched his arm to let him know all was forgiven.

 “Come sit down,” I said. He was reluctant, like a trapped animal. I pulled him to the sofa, and smiled for him, willing him to relax. If only he knew how fine it could be for us, the three of us, if he would relax. “You’ve been working too hard,” I told him. “And I’ve been selfish.” I began to massage his neck.

He tilted his head a little. I really did feel as if I was trying to soothe a scared rabbit. I had only my words, and I was not good with words. Not like he was. If there were a God in this world, he would surely make my words come out right this one time. So far, Dag had looked only in my eyes, not once at my body, which was screaming the truth for him to see.

“I am very happy for youfor usthat your writing is going so well.  I also have a project, and it has made me distracted lately. That is what I wanted to tell you about.”

“Okay.” He was wary, but listening.

“Thisprojectis a secret from everyone but us for a while. It is growing in secret that is.” Dag was restless, shifting in his seat. I hoped he would guess what I was hinting at, but he continued looking at me with his scared, watchful, eyes. “We are going to have a baby,” I said quickly.

He said nothing, as if he was waiting for the interesting part. Perhaps I had said it too quickly. Perhaps he had not understood me.

“You and me,” I said stupidly.

“Maybe you’re mistaken,” he said, getting up.

“Well, no…” Was he afraid, like I had been? Afraid to hope? “The tests came back positive. I am pregnant.”

“Maybe you’re mistaken about it being you and me.” He took off his shirt and balled it up, tossing it in the direction of the bedroom. It came unfurled, caught the air like a sail and fell lazily to the floor.

“What are you saying, Dag?”

“Only that this is just a bad time, don’t you think? What went wrong anyway? I thought you were taking care of things.”

I had no answer for him.  My mouth hung open, and I must have looked like a fool.

“Oh never mind, Riva. Just forget the whole goddamn thing.” He knotted the shirt and hurled it again; it flew like a missile into the bedroom, and he followed it. Moments later, wearing a new shirt, he walked out of the house. Our little house shuddered from top to bottom as he slammed the door.

I didn’t think of myself, or even Evangeline during those minutes I sat on the sofa.  I thought only about Dag, how he was normally so undemonstrative, how much emotion must have been churning inside him to bring him to the point where he reacted with physical violence against his environment, first smashing the bicycle, now this.  I remembered my father, the sounds behind closed doors, the soft cries, sharp bangs, and thuds of my childhood nights. A primitive fear shuddered through my body at those sounds, now experienced again as a grown up, with an illuminating understanding I had not had before. I saw that life could transform a quiet, disciplined man into a monster, and I knew the helplessness that my mother must have felt, the powerlessness to react.

Dag did not return for another three days. For most of it I lay curled in a self-hug, rocking, like some demented creature. Sometimes the endless hours of silence in the house were punctured by the startling sound of my own primitive wails. I cried for myself. I cried for my mother and father and the whole world of the broken hearted. I don’t remember eating, or sleeping, or getting up to go to the bathroom. By some miracle, the morning Dag returned to the house I was up and dressed and moving in a stupor of efficiency through each day. But I was not a real, waking person.

He never mentioned our conversation, or the baby. It was as though it never happened, as though it could be erased through the sheer neglect of it as a topic of conversation. We went for weeks like that I think. We ate dinner; we positioned ourselves side by side in bed like horizontal posted sentries. Gradually we relearned how to come in contact with each other, a graze in passing, a brush or tap in the bed.  All the while Evangeline was a growing force within me, but I no longer entered the interior room of my thoughts where I considered such sensations.

Finally a morning came when, after Dag had risen, showered, and ridden off to school, the first concrete thought of what this all must lead to scrolled like Teletype across my thoughts.

I had a problem.

I knew, as women do, that there were places to go, things I could do. It was the eighties; such procedures were legal and safe. Gradually over the days, I had conversations with myself, coached myself, encouraged myself, fed myself bits and pieces of gleaned information. Dag became even busier with his writing, and I made excuses to friends who wanted to see us. None of us scrutinized the others’ lives so much that we couldn’t comfortably withdraw to tend to the underbelly of life. We were modern people, and understood that things happened.

I skipped the next appointment with my doctor, instead returning to talk to one of the endless parade of young women who staffed the front desk at Planned Parenthood. I found myself once again in an examining room with my legs splayed, knees and teeth chattering.

“You are quite far along,” the doctor said, in a way that indicated this personally annoyed him. The snapping sound of his gloves as he discarded them punctuated his disappointment in me.

The nurse quickly pulled the paper apron over my legs and lifted my wobbly knees, first one, then the other, out of their metal saddles. I struggled to a sitting position feeling betrayed by my body, ungainly beyond reason. I was only just beginning to show, I told myself. How far along could that be? The woman at Planned Parenthood had told me it would not be a problem, would definitely not be a problem, but this doctor wanted to talk about it.  “Why do you want to do this now? Why did you wait so long?”

How did I answer? I do not honestly know. The thinking, feeling part of me was not there. I was on the sidelines, snapping pictures, balancing light and dark, composition and details. It was a dramatic scene; patient, doctor, nurse, the nurse especially interesting, offsetting the central drama with a look of practiced distraction.

I was to be scheduled for a procedure the next day at the local hospital.  If all went well, the doctor said, I would be able to leave the same day.  He wore his distaste for me like a stain on his necktie. When he left the room, the nurse apologized for him, and assured me that they dealt with these situations all the time. I collected my handbag, checked my pockets, and smoothed my skirt.  She laid a hand on my shoulder before I left, and I felt hardly able to bear the weight of it.

In the hospital waiting room the next day, I was like a child nursing a hurt, huddled in a corner with her belongings gathered around her. I was aware of all that was happening, but it was reduced to mere noise. I remember that a nurse called my name and at some point I put my belongings, car keys, purse, shoes and clothes, into a locker. I was ushered into yet another waiting room with a couple of other women. We wore flimsy hospital gowns, soft and nubby from washing. No one spoke. Another nurse offered me a pill in a little green paper cup. To relax me, she said. I took it obediently. It did relax me. In fact, before my wait was over I began to feel a tremendous sense of wellbeing, even hopefulness, something which had eluded me for quite a long time. Years maybe.

When they were ready, the room they shuffled me into was cold and bright. I lied down on a bed with a thin hospital blanket. The nurse put an IV into my arm.  After a while a doctor came in, and the nurse held my hand and told me to look at her. I felt a sharp pain and a burning in my abdomen as the doctor pressed on my lower belly. When the nurse released my hand, the doctor flipped the blanket over me, and they both left. My legs began quaking, perhaps sensing the panic that was by passing my brain.

I do not know how long I was there. I wondered if it was over, if I was free to go. But I still had a bag of fluid draining into my arm, and my head was swimming with strange thoughts, waking dreams. I might have slept, but a rumbling woke me, a dreadful inner disturbance, like the onset of diarrhea. I needed to get up and go to the bathroom or I would soil myself, and I remember crying out for the nurse, but at the same time wondering how I would manage getting to the bathroom on my own when my head was in such a state.

The nurse appeared at my side, holding my hand again. She looked at the clock on the wall as she spoke to me.

“It won’t be so bad,” she said. “No worse than childbirth, really.”

I had heard childbirth was terrible.

Increasingly, the muddle in my head was not sufficient to distract me from the alarming thrashing in my belly, which no longer appeared to be the onset of diarrhea as much as a violent alien war that was taking place inside me. A grim tickle of a thought nagged at me, and as the inner struggle progressed I became more and more alert, more and more distraught. It was the baby inside me who was struggling, the baby inside me who was fighting for life, not me.

What was happening to me? To us? Evangeline!

It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but with my thoughts in a tangle, the mother in me went on alert. I called for the nurse again. I was frantic.

“There’s something terribly wrong with the baby,” I urged.

She pressed a hand on my belly and then took my pulse.  “It will be over in a while. This is normal,” she said.

This is normal, I thought? “You don’t understand. The baby. Something is wrong.”

She patted my hand. “Any pain? Cramping? Anything at all?”

I shook my head. She was completely missing my concern. Part of me wanted to jump up and shake her in my frustration, but the other part was too tired, too bleary headed.  I drifted off.

The pain woke me. It was iridescent and searing, a scalding clamp. I could not clear my head enough to make sense of it. It surprised me, like lightening, then left, striking again while I was miles away in my mind. I rolled my head and moaned. At one point a nurse put a cool washcloth on my forehead and checked the connection of the tube draining into my arm.

“What is happening to me?” I couldn’t keep my arms and legs still, every part of me was chattering in anticipation of the next wrenching cramp.

“It will all be over soon. Don’t worry.” She pressed down hard on my belly and prodded me from different angles. The blanket was tangled around my feet in a knot. My knees were blue. I wondered if I was so drugged that I was hallucinating. I bit down on my knuckles. It was sometime after that when I saw a man in the roomthe doctor?I couldn’t remember what he had looked like. He stood at the foot of my bed and made me scoot forward. The end of my bed fell away, and suddenly there were the metal stirrups where there hadn’t been any before. The nurse placed my convulsing legs into them. My mind and body coalesced in that brief instant to remind me of what was happening.


I whispered frantic messages to her in my heart. Hold on Evangeline. Don’t let go. Hold on.

“Give a push now,” the doctor said. I was too terrified to respond. Although my body was rigid, inside I was writhing with panic. The nurse and doctor together placed their hands on my belly and pressed down hard. I felt a popping in my bowels, and heard a rush of fluid, like soup being poured into a pot.

Hold on baby. Don’t go.

Someone was talking now. There was a concentration of activity, and I felt the cold, invasive pinch of the speculum, hands from on both sides of me pressing down on my thighs, keeping them still.

“There you go,” the nurse said. She smiled brightly at me. “It’s all over. You rest now.” She patted the blanket where it was pulled up on my chest, and as suddenly as the room had filled with people, it emptied and I was alone.  

I slept until they made me go home.

Lara McLaughlin is the author of the novel Alabaster Houses, from which this story is an adapted chapter. She is currently searching for an agent, while writing a second novel. She has published short stories in the Baltimore Sun Magazine, the Penn Union Magazine by Johns Hopkins University Press, and in a collection entitled Wednesday Night’s Harvest by Seedling Press. More of her writing can be found at

Birth Day

by Stephanie Tames


On the Epiphany my father went fishing. It was the day I was born, January 6, the day the Maji reached the Christ child in Bethlehem laden with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He drove to the Chesapeake Bay to an area he favored with a rock jetty, carefully picked his way along the sharp-edged rocks until he found one flat enough on one side to make a comfortable seat, and settled his gear and canvas bag into various crevices nearby. It was a bright and windy day, neither too gusty nor too cold, a perfect day for winter fishing for striped bass. The surf pounded against the rocks but it was still low tide when my father arrived so the spray from the plumes of cold salt water did not reach him. He kept a careful watch on the tide and the sea’s slow progress as it covered the rock jetty. He had come close many times to being stranded on the jetty as the tide rose and it was too cold that January day to risk getting soaked by the winter sea.

The story has become a family favorite. Everyone thinks it’s funny: as soon as he was told my birth meant another girl – the third in a row – my father gathered up his fishing gear and took off for the two hour drive to the bay. I guess he thought that since family and friends were watching his two older daughters and son he could take advantage of the time. He loved fishing.

I don’t think my mother thought the story was funny. Whenever it was repeated she would set her jaw tight and her lips would thin into what for my mother was neither smile nor frown but the expression she assumed often and which I imagined meant she was somewhere deep inside her head. She would stare at my father who would be telling this story, acting like he was George Burns on stage before an adoring audience.

I can imagine other families with this story: the father, like mine, guffawing, puffing out his chest as he told how it was just another kid, no big deal, the mother interrupting, telling her side like she was Gracie Allen, how she was screaming with labor pains and told him to get the hell away from her and he took her literally; how he’ll pay for that trip for the rest of his life (audience laughs), how he was really only gone a half-day and was back by evening visiting time to take all the children to see their mother and lovely baby sister with long dark hair.


My mother says that she and my father agreed on two children: a boy and a girl. And it happened. My brother came first, then a few years later, my oldest sister. My mother was happy. But just three months after my sister was born, my mother found herself pregnant again. She was depressed. Her health suffered. So when the baby came she asked but was denied a simple operation to tie her fallopian tubes, to wrap the tubes with thread pulled tight like a present so sperm swimming with speed and purpose can not reach the waiting egg. For my mother, it was the only thing she ever wanted.

She knew then she couldn’t take any chances. And she didn’t. But the diaphragm failed her and so did counting the days when an egg floated inside her and she was pregnant again. My father liked the idea of a big family; it was proof of his virility although he would have preferred that his virility made baby boys instead of girls.

After I was born my mother asked again, she said she begged, but the doctor refused to tie her tubes and two years later my brother was born. Whether it was her pleading that softened her doctor’s heart or my brother’s congenital heart defect, my mother finally left the hospital happy: three gifts, a boy and a knot around each of her tiny tubes.


We wanted to be Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. It was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and we talked endlessly in a fog of pot about giving up our pampered city lives to live in communes, bake bread, reject the values that made our parents complacent and uninformed. We went to protest rallies, experimented with drugs, and took many lovers to beds on old mattresses thrown on bare wooden floors. We didn’t think about birth control. At least at first. But one friend, then another, got pregnant and we realized we didn’t want to be Ladies of the Canyon just then.

They must have sensed my mother as a kindred spirit, these young women, friends of mine but mostly of my older sisters, who always ended up at our house where my mother would help them not have babies. You had to know how to work the system and you had to have money. My mother had both. All it took was a psychiatrist who would certify that a pregnancy would be detrimental to the mental health of the mother and a doctor willing to perform the procedure. In the city it was easy to find both. It took time, however, and once it was too late. It was my cousin and she had come to live with us the year before. She hadn’t been getting along with her mother, my mother’s sister, but she fit perfectly in our big house and big, loud family, until she got pregnant. The other girls came to our house in their flowing long skirts and layers of beaded necklaces, sat at the kitchen table, and gave my mother all the details. But my cousin waited, withdrew. She didn’t want to tell her story. I don’t know why. Her mother came to take her back to South Carolina where she stayed indoors so the neighhbors wouldn’t know what she had done. There’s an old proverb: “a small town is a vast hell.” The next time we saw her she said she never looked at the baby, that it was wrapped up tight in a white blanket and given to someone waiting nearby, that the nurses gave her pills to dry the milk in her full breasts and sent her home. She didn’t come back to live with us.

My mother and I didn’t talk about whether or not I was having sex, or whether she approved. All she wanted was to make sure I wouldn’t get pregnant. I guess she didn’t trust birth control pills or trust that I would take them. She talked to her doctor and together they decided I should go to the hospital for a procedure and while there the doctor would place a tiny piece of metal shaped like a “t” in my uterus. There was no need for remembering. Pregnancy would never be an issue.

That night, still groggy from the hospital, I had a dream where I opened the front case of the big grandfather clock in the hall of my parents’ house and out tumbled hundreds of chubby naked babies smothering me under their weight.


It’s barely a twinkle in his father’s eye, that’s what the doctor said to me from his seat between my legs. All I could see were eyes: his head was hidden under a white cap pulled low over his forehead. I could see his mouth forming words behind a mask that came up well over the bridge of his nose and tied high on the back of his head. He was old. It was his eyes, the only thing I could see, that told me how long he had lived.

The waiting area was crowded. There weren’t enough seats, people stood, leaning against walls. Some were so young, others looked old and worn out. Boyfriends and husbands and maybe some brothers looked uncomfortable, out of place. They kept pushing their sweaty palms down the front of their pants like they were trying to wipe away this place and glancing at the clock on the wall, counting down the hours until they’d be out in the pure light of the day away from the oppressive room, outside where they could finally breathe deeply and fill their lungs full to bursting, relieved that for them it was over.

The week before I had come in my Joan & David heels and Evan Picone suit and carried a small jar of pee in my purse. My purse was the same color as my shoes. You had to have a test before they’d put you on the schedule. I walked from the subway station but couldn’t find the office. Now I was late for work and my feet hurt. I was afraid my pee had gone bad but I had to give it to them, hand my little jar to the young woman at the counter and ask please if they would confirm what I already knew. When I walked in everyone shifted, looked up from the magazines they weren’t really reading or stopped their whispered conversations. I felt their furtive gazes. We all knew why we were there. The next week as I sat in the room in those same seats waiting my turn, I looked at every new face that came through the door and watched as unsteady hands held out jars of pee as bright as the sun.

You don’t have to take off all your clothes. Just from the waist down, that’s what they say, but leave your socks on because your feet will get cold. Lay down on the table and put your feet in the stirrups. You’re draped in white. I looked down my sheet-covered body between my legs and could see the doctor’s head, his mouth moving under his mask but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I looked at the nurse, she took my hand, said it was alright.  That night I dreamed again of the grandfather clock and babies, all plump arms and legs like tootsie rolls, tumbling out and spreading across the floor.


When we got married, my husband and I didn’t talk about if we would have children, or when. There were a lot of things about our lives together we didn’t discuss. I had long since given up the tiny “t” in my uterus, been on and off various brands of birth control pills, used condoms and diaphragms, not used anything. Didn’t really think about it. I dressed in my suits, high heels and matching bag, went to work every day happy with my job, the paycheck, the way I felt. When it happened, I knew immediately and I knew it wasn’t right. Like my mother I did not want it, did not want it in the deepest part of my being.

I don’t remember how we made the decision. I don’t remember what my husband thought, if he needed convincing, if I threatened to leave, if I screamed and cried.  I know he didn’t make the decision. It was me. Just me. I knew that it wasn’t a twinkle in my eye. I don’t know if it was in his.


In Japan women visit Buddhist temples to pray to mizuko jizo, tiny statuettes that represent the babies they aborted.  It’s not that they brood over whether they made the proper decision to have an abortion but to help the spirit safely cross the river that separates the worlds of life and death. Sometimes women dress the mizuko figurines like newborns and pour water over them to quench their thirst.

My mother was afraid of the water but she went with my father to the bay to fish and after some time she came to love fishing, too, although she never lost her fear, a fear of drowning of one sort or the other.

When I was young I liked to stand at the edge of the surf and feel the pull of the water and the sinking sand under my feet and dream that the earth wanted me and to prove it with each wave I sank deeper as the earth drew me to its core. I wasn’t afraid of filling my lungs with sand and salty water. But before I slipped beneath the surface I pulled myself from the earth’s sucking hold and dove into the waves and played in the surf as my father stood fishing nearby.  Later, he taught me to fish and I too came to love standing by the water and casting my line as far as I could, from one world to the next.

Stephanie Tames is a writer, longleaf pine needle artist, and yoga instructor living in southeastern Georgia. Her publications include Self, Parenting, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has essays forthcoming in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. She is also a regular commentator on Georgia Public Radio.)

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