Archive for the 'birth' Category

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Empty Cradle

Photo by Kathy Leonard

The Empty Cradle

Kathy  Leonard says, “When I photograph, I do not consciously search out particular types of images, but I find that there is a surprising similarity in many of my photographs.  There is dark and light, great contrast, or “chiaroscuro” as the Italians call it.  I find this juxtaposition of light and shadow very appealing in black and white photography, especially when it serves to highlight the angles or curves of some object. These are the elements that drew me to photograph the wooden cradle. The natural light from the window cast dramatic shadows on the hand-carved cradle and I knew that the resulting image would be stark, simple, and beautiful.”

Kathy Leonard is a professor at Iowa State University.  She studied photography at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received a degree in Fine Arts with specialty in photography. Her photographs have been published in numerous magazines, websites, online journals, and in textbooks and have been exhibited in various venues in California, Nevada, and Iowa.

Limitations, Imitations, and Haiku as Form of Expansion: an Interview with Poet Stephanie Lenox

Poet Stephanie Lenox, headshot

Stephanie Lenox, Photo by Sabina Samiee, Oregon Arts Commission

In “Confinement: A Haiku Sequence in Ten Parts,” (published earlier here at The Fertile Source) the narrator speaks to her unborn child, “My fears feast on you / But even the leaves let go.” This beautiful line in particular seems to hone in on the way a mother’s brain has to rewire itself to accept the responsibility of loving someone we can lose at any moment. The rest of the poem also documents this process (which starts in utero). Can you talk about how the images came to you? And why you chose the form of haiku? How did the conditions of bedrest figure in to the psychology of the narrator?

I was inspired to start this haiku sequence after taking a workshop with Ce Rosenow, president of the Haiku Society of America. Her workshop reminded me that a haiku is so much more than simply a 5-7-5 syllabic form. Since haiku traditionally include images from nature, I wanted to do that in my sequence, but for the most part my imagery is confined to those things I could see from my bedroom window – telephone wires, a few treetops, the sky. I invited nature into my haiku through other images, but for the most part I aimed for images that reinforced the cramped, claustrophobic feel of pregnancy, especially a pregnancy spent on complete bedrest.

I started with haiku in part because motherhood and the preceding 70 days in bed was such a monumental experience – it completely rearranged me – that I wasn’t sure where to begin. So I started with five syllables, then seven more, and I slowly built and layered one image on top of another. (It was also a writing project I could chip away at between feedings, diapers, etc.) The formal restrictions of haiku helped focus me. I also discovered in the process that haiku, while appearing small, is a form of expansion. Without punctuation, it is intended to unfold and expand in the reader’s mind. I liken it to one of those toy capsules you drop into the bathtub that transform into a sponge dinosaur.

In “Last days of nursing,”  the metaphor of the magician strikes me as a clever way to point to the intermediary nature of motherhood—part God, part magician, yet so rooted in tangible and impossible acts, like weaning a child. I believe every mother who has had to wean her child will relate to this poem! Were there other metaphors you considered along the way? Poetry by any other writers you’ve seen covering this topic you’d like to share with us?

This poem is a direct response to the poem “The End of Nursing” in a beautiful book called Out of Refusal by Carter McKenzie. Her poem begins: “Interminable nibbler, attached fish, when / does this end?” My poem, in its last line, answers hers.

I felt so empowered to write about this topic after reading her poem that I practically stole her title and started writing my own version. I’m sure I considered a lot of metaphors along the way, but I settled on the extended use of the magician because magic is messy, or at least that’s the way I envision it. From the audience’s point of view, it’s all illusion, but for the magician and the assistant it’s a rehearsed performance, one that begins with awkward practices and risky errors and that eventually works its way toward mystery.

We understand you are at work on a new series of poems inspired by the birth of your daughter. Can you give us an inside peek at the range of topics you’ll cover? (And let us know when it comes out so we can alert our readers and support your work.)

I have been fortunate to receive an individual artist grant from the Oregon Arts Commission in support of new work inspired by my daughter’s birth. My first book of poetry, Congress of Strange People, will be coming out from Airlie Press next fall. I’ve always been intrigued by bizarre characters and events, and my first book explores this in large part through the use of persona poems. But in my new work, the strangeness has come home with me. I find it in the middle of the night during a feeding. I find it in the ants crawling through my kitchen cupboards and across my newborn’s tongue. I find it in my dog whose severe separation anxiety caused her to consume baby bottle nipples and parts of my breast pump.

I’m also experimenting with imitations of other poets. Theodore Roethke has said that “Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning how to write.” I’m a perpetual student of poetry, so imitations are my way of tracing my poetic lineage through poems that have changed the way I think about what language can do. I like to think of my poems as “offsprings” of the originals.

Any mentors you’d like to share with us?

I’m a member of a poetry response group known as The Peregrines (named so because we meet twice a month at a different member’s house). They apply the gentle pressure I need to keep writing in spite of all the competing obligations. I’ve likewise been grateful for the mentorship of the editors at Airlie Press, the nonprofit poetry publishing collective that is publishing my first book.

Has your experience of motherhood changed your relationship to your writing or your editorial work?

Motherhood has made me more honest about my time: either I do it, or I don’t, no excuses. I’ve actually been more productive since my daughter was born than I was in the years before she arrived. I work during naps and by the good graces of babysitters. My daughter has a bedtime of 6:30 pm, which used to give me a lot of time to work. However, since I’m now expecting my second child, I no longer have the creative energy to write in the evenings.

I wish I’d realized how good I had it when my daughter would sleep in my lap as I compiled an issue of Blood Orange Review or read submissions. I miss the days I could read an entire book of poetry at 3 am while rocking my daughter back to sleep. Now that I have a toddler on my hands, there’s no working while she’s in my presence. But what I’ve learned most from motherhood is to constantly adapt to today’s challenge rather than forcing yesterday’s solution. 

Any programs for writing mothers you’ve found helpful or that you’d’ like to see developed?

The grant I received from the Oregon Arts Commission has been especially helpful for me as a writing mother. It’s paying for the babysitter right now as I answer these questions. Another thing that helps is finding other writers with young children. It’s extremely useful to share one’s frustrations and accomplishments as a writer while the babies roll around on the floor together.

As for more programs for writing mothers, I’m dreaming now, but I’d love to see more daylight poetry readings, ones with a separate room with childcare provided. I think one reason you see poetry audiences aging (at least in my corner of the world) is that young families face a lot of barriers to attending evening events. This has been the part of my literary life most impacted by motherhood. If I’m going to spring for a babysitter, I want it to be for my own writing or a date night with my husband.

Stephanie Lenox lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Her chapbook, The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, was published by Slapering Hol Press in 2007. The work published here was written with the support of a 2010 Oregon Art Commission artist fellowship. She teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review. For more information, please visit her website at www.stephanielenox.com.

Stray Pets

An essay by Jody Keisner

 

Besides the frogs, fireflies, grasshoppers, and June bugs that my younger sister Debbie and I trapped in canning jars, my parents adopted seven cats, six dogs, three rabbits, two hamsters, one duck. And me. I had been adopted as a newborn, and Debbie was my parents’ biological child.  I don’t remember some dramatic moment when my parents told me they weren’t my first set of parents. It seems like I have always known. It wouldn’t have bothered me that I was another adoptee in the Keisner menagerie, except we moved to the country when I was nine, and the lives of most of our animals ended tragically. I wondered if I was next.

Our new home was on four acres in Louisville, Nebraska, a town with a population less than 2000. My bedroom faced a mowed front yard that led to dozens of dense trees. Unkempt pasture and the occasional cow bordered one side of our home, separated from us with barbed wire. The adjacent farmland gave us opportunities to stick our noses into trouble. One dog died from a gunshot wound inflicted by a half-blind farmer, one cat met death from a parasite living in cow pies, and a hamster was flattened under a truck. My mother swore an eagle plummeted from the sky to snatch a lap-dog from the snow. I found my rabbit stiff as a board one morning when I went to feed her, the death ruled a mystery. A furry gray and brown puppy we named Odie, who we liked to roll down the sides of a small hill, disappeared into the middle of the night just weeks after his birth in a cardboard box in our garage. Armed with flashlights and Dad, we walked all four acres. We never saw Odie again.

The cats that roamed our property were once kittens Mom had rescued from a farmer whose only other option was a potato sack and a lake. Our dogs were strays my father brought home from the railroad, beaten dogs that tucked tails between legs and wolfed down food in a few bites. Mom’s dog, Ladybug, was different. She had been handpicked and was our only inside pet; she slept on my parents’ bed instead of in the garage on a smelly blanket with the others. A blonde Pekinese Maltese who always had goo in the corner of her eyes, Ladybug followed Mom from room to room, her toenails clicking on the linoleum of the bathroom or kitchen floor while my mother cleaned. She tolerated my sister and me, lifting her pug nose in the air. She allowed us to briefly pet her before prancing through the house, searching for something more entertaining.

I worried about our pets’ bad luck. Was I a doomed stray that had wandered into our family? Or had I been carefully selected like Ladybug, meant for a life of luxury and coddling?  I wasn’t like Debbie, who always wanted to be around my mother, boiling the spaghetti noodles while Mom stirred sauce or cuddling with Mom and Ladybug on the couch, watching Little House on the Prairie. I preferred to be alone, reading books or exploring the neighboring land with one of the transient dogs.

One day, I studied my mother as she sat on the couch, folding laundry into a basket.  She bent awkwardly to avoid waking up Ladybug who lay curled in her lap. Even though she was only 37, half of Mom’s hair was completely gray.

“Your hair looks frosted,” I said. “Like you had it professionally done.” I knew what “frosted” hair was supposed to look like from seeing it on a magazine picture of Madonna. Mom wouldn’t let me listen to “Like a Virgin” on the radio. She claimed I was too young to know about such things, but I learned plenty from listening to the older boys up the road. The thought of my mother and Madonna sharing a hairstyle made me giggle.

“What can I say? I’m a natural beauty,” Mom said, continuing to fold the laundry.

Mom had never colored her once-black hair or even had it professionally styled. Her beauty routine consisted of a bar of Coast and Pert Plus: Shampoo and Conditioner in One. She sprayed her short “frosted” hair into a stiff, helmet shaped hairdo every morning with clouds of Aqua Net that burned my eyes and made everyone but her cough. Aqua Net was good for other things, too, and I sneaked it out from under the bathroom counter to spray bugs permanently onto the walls.

My hair was what Grandmother referred to as dirty dishwater blonde, but Debbie was a brunette, just like Mom had been when she was a child. I wondered what color of hair my other mother had.

“Why didn’t that lady want me?” I blurted.

Mom looked up at me, startled. She held a pair of Dad’s worn Wranglers, stiff from drying on the clothesline.

“Your biological mother?” she asked.

Ladybug licked her paw and yawned.

I nodded.

She set the jeans in the laundry basket by her feet and patted the couch. I sat a few inches away. 

Mom scooted close to me and hugged me hard. “You are my special gift. I chose you.”

I imagined a room full of rows of crying babies in baskets, displayed like puppies or flowers. I imagined Mom pointing to me and saying, “I want that one.” 

 “You asked me about her once before—when you were very young. I couldn’t believe a three-year old figured that out. That there was another mother,” Mom said, her eyes filling with tears, which didn’t alarm me because she was what Dad called “Sensitive.” Little House on the Prairie set her to boo-hooing, even when the episodes were reruns. Sometimes she choked up just from standing in our bedroom doorways after tucking us in, her hand on the light switch. “I just love you so much,” she’d say. “When you’re a mother you’ll understand.”

“You’re my Mom,” I said. I meant it. Mom was her name, but she wasn’t my only mother.

 

Thoughts about my adoption were mostly infrequent. The concept was abstract. Mom was there, in the flesh, every morning to pick out my clothes and make me scrambled eggs with flecks of ham. At bedtime, she weaved my freshly showered hair into dozens of tiny braids, so that I could have “permed” kinky hair like The Bangles. The process took hours, me complaining of a sensitive scalp the entire time. (In high school, friends would brush my hair into ponytails for track practice because I wouldn’t learn how until college—my mother did it at home!) She was, in my mind, proper—a proper mother.  Mom had worked her way up from bank teller to credit union manager all without a college degree and still quizzed me out of my history books and clipped my toe nails before sending me off to bed at night. She made sure our family attended Mass on Sunday, even Dad who sometimes fell asleep in the pew after working third shift at the railroad.

But by junior high, I started to find the idea of having another mother romantic. I spent hours on the couch with books and with my favorite band, Journey, who contributed the soundtrack to my life. Books offered me an exotic world of mothers, each one I imagined saying, “Pick me. Pick me.” I fantasized about what the other mother would be like. I imagined a beautiful and sad woman dressed in a white, flowing dress, like a character from Gone with the Wind. She would stand in an open door in a house surrounded by tall, swaying grass, watching the same sky as me, feeling the same breeze, wondering where I was. She hadn’t appeared to me, so I made her anything I wanted, a Choose Your Own Adventure mother, like the sci-fi books where I could determine the protagonist’s fate. Sometimes I envisioned the other mother as a horrible woman, unfit to raise a child: a slobbering alcoholic, a hallucinating lunatic, a slut, a bum, a madwoman ready to throw herself off the roof like Bertha in Jane Eyre.

I knew that someday I would meet the other mother and she would welcome me like my favorite Journey song, with “Open Arms.” I mostly kept this to myself, since my recent renewed interest in my adoption flustered Mom, who began claiming she had forgotten. “It doesn’t even enter my thoughts,” she said. But thoughts of my adoption had begun to enter mine all the time.

I learned from Mom that 31 days between my birth and adoption were unaccounted for. “But where was I?” I pestered. “Who took care of me then?”

“I don’t know, honey.” Mom, exasperated, ad-libbed: “Nuns? You were well cared for.”

“What about the eye infection I had when you got me? You said my eyes were a mess! I’ve had surgery on both of them because of it!”

I became certain that every shortcoming I had could be directly linked to those 31 lost days and that I had been irreparably harmed in some way. I read all the adoption books in Louisville’s small school library, many of which theorized that babies removed from their natural mothers never learned how to bond with anyone else. Another book informed me that adopted children would always fear rejection. Suddenly, every possible psychological affliction in the book seemed like it was describing me, although Mom was usually nearby to assure me how special I was.

“You saved my life,” she confided. Mom had lost three babies before they adopted me. “After those miscarriages, I thought I would die. Then you came along.” Her eyes were already misting.

Mom told me my adoption was a closed one, which meant that descriptions of my biological parents were sealed in a file until I turned 25. I decided that until then, I would become the daughter that my imaginary mother would want. I studied every night to earn straight A’s, ran track and played basketball after school (even though I was equally horrible at dribbling, passing, and shooting), stayed away from situations where classmates were sneaking beer and groping each other. The more perfect I became, the more my real mother would mourn giving me up (I didn’t think Mom was my fake mother,  but the word “real” popped into my head whenever I thought of the woman who gave birth to me).

 I often felt out of place, but every kid I knew felt the same way. Some of my friends were even envious. “God,” they’d say. “You’re so lucky. I hate my parents. I wish I had another set I could trade them in for.” My status allowed me to choose my family at whim. I told myself I was not related to Uncle Dean, who smoked pot behind Grandma’s garage during family reunions. I denied relation to a distant cousin, a woman Mom privately nicknamed Dirty Martha, who picked her scabs with grimy fingernails at the kitchen table. When, during our annual Fourth of July family get-togethers, a drunken uncle began hugging our female teenage cousins for too long, I just denied him, too.

Sometimes, though, my biological truth sprang suddenly and without my wanting it. One Christmas day, Mom and Dad, my sister, our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents gathered in the living room before opening presents. A younger cousin and I looked at the new issue of Highlights, racing to see who could find the kitchen appliances and other out of place objects poorly hidden in the drawing of a tree. It had been the best part of the magazine when I was a child, but now I was too old for it. My grandmother on Mom’s side cleared her throat. She pointed at the school picture of my sister on the wall. “You know who that picture reminds me of?” Then she looked at Debbie. “You are your mother’s spitting image, child.” She laughed, pleased and everyone nodded at the unmistakable similarities: the same dainty smile, black hair, and ice blue eyes.  I suddenly found myself swimming in a crowd of faces, but I couldn’t find my nose, my eyes, or my hands anywhere. I felt like the toaster in the Highlights tree: Can you find the item that doesn’t belong?

Debbie had been born my parents’ natural child ten months after my adoption.

“Our miracle baby,” Mom said.

I looked at my younger sister, who sat grinning by our Christmas tree in her lace-hemmed dress, and I felt my otherness wallop me in the head.

 

As a teenager, I relished the feeling of belonging elsewhere, mostly because I found my own parents too strict, too familiar, and too annoying. I pretended I was an uncaught character in a Nancy Drew mystery novel and that my adoption made me mysterious. I passed hours rereading the few documents my parents had recently given me (the only papers available in a closed adoption): my health statistics at my birth, a line or two about the physical condition of my extended biological family, and a succinct paragraph of description about my birth mother. It was the later I was most interested in. “The biological mother was 19 years at the birth of the baby. She has blue eyes and light blonde hair. Her complexion was listed as fair and she is of German descent. She has had two years of college and her interests are artistically inclined.” I told my friends that I was German. My biological mother and I had the same color of hair. I thought she must be a magnificent painter, her canvas capturing what she instinctively knew I looked like. She would paint my hair dirty-dishwater blonde, like hers. I would smile in her paintings, but my eyes would be sad, the loss of each other a secret between the two of us. Sometimes, when we had a hip, urban-seeming substitute in art class, wearing paint splattered slacks, I was sure it was her!

Mom sat next to me on the couch when I called United Catholic Social Services. In a few weeks, I would move to Wayne, Nebraska, a small farming and manufacturing community, to attend classes at Wayne State College. I had told myself that before I moved, I would work up the nerve to make the call. My stomach lurched as I dialed.

A sympathetic sounding woman explained that because my adoption was closed, the state couldn’t release any information to me until I was 25, and even then, no names, only more paperwork.

“Your biological mother has to agree to meet you, honey.” Her delivering-bad-news voice was as soft as a pillow.

“Has she been in contact? I mean, has she asked how I’m doing?”

“Sweetie, it looks as if we’ve had no contact from her, but that’s to be expected. For some women, the entire process is just too overwhelming.”

“Oh.” I was heart sore. How could she not want to know about me? I looked down at what I was wearing—a Jordache T-shirt and tight jeans rolled into pink socks. Mom squeezed my leg. I felt ridiculous.

“But it looks as if your biological father has contacted us. He wanted to know that we placed you with a good family.”

I felt ambivalent towards him. I only wanted to meet my biological mother, the woman who had shared a heartbeat with me for nine months. I had a vision of her filling in where Mom left off. I imagined my birth mother and I would conduct serious talks about literature (Thanks to my American novel classes, I was already becoming a literature snob), boyfriends and sex, and the meaning of life. Mom read novels with cowboys pictured on the cover, told  me my father was the only man she had ever slept with (and only after their wedding) and she was raised Catholic, so she believed that life was a series of good deeds you performed to get into Heaven. I hoped my biological mother wouldn’t really be like a mother at all but more like a cool older sister.

“What now? Is there anything I can do? Can I write her a letter?” I had written her dozens of times, though each attempt frustrated me and eventually ended up in my wastepaper basket.

“Well, sure. You can mail it to us, and if she contacts our service, we’ll send it to her.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something. “Okay.” I set the phone in my lap.

“I’m happy for you,” Mom said, leaning in for a hug. “It’s just, I don’t think of you as being adopted.” Her eyes were welling.

“She doesn’t want to know me, anyway.” The phone receiver was warm in my hand. I held it tightly for a few minutes before setting it in its cradle.

 

Wadded up drafts of letters filled my trashcan, imperfect testimonies and explanations of how much I needed my biological mother. The letter I had sealed and stamped was also unsatisfactory, an overwrought story I called “The Motherless” about searching for faces in a crowd that looked like mine, finding none.  I used the same phrases one might use in a letter to a love obsession, except I kept everything in third person so my real mother wouldn’t see how fanatical I was: “thought of my mother day and night,” “wished my mother and I were near one another,” “not certain who I am without her.” I asked her if we could meet, but the Catholic Charities woman had warned me that she likely wouldn’t want to. I disagreed.  I imagined this other mother to be someone who couldn’t live without me, someone who would understand my teenage self in a way my parents couldn’t. She would never think it odd when I wrote melodramatic poetry or spent entire evenings lying in my bed feeling certain that nobody could feel the world’s pain as deeply as me. I would lie backwards on my bed, my feet draped over the headboard, and write sad sappy poetry that I signed “Clover” because of a four-leaf clover pressed in my dictionary on the page defining leprechaun.

When Mom tried to draw me into conversations like the kind we had when I was younger, when the two of us used to snuggle on the couch, I answered in one syllable words.  How was I? How was my day? Was anything on my mind? “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Leave me alone to be with my important imaginings. My parents were exasperated with the self-absorbed teenager I had become and showed me with a poster that read:  Teenagers, Leave Home While You Still Know Everything. I felt certain my birth mother would not only understand me, but find me a wise old soul full of fascinating insights into humanity. And she, unlike Mom, wouldn’t hang her nylon granny panties on the outdoor clothesline for visiting boys to see.

Amazingly, two weeks after I sent my letter, someone wrote me back. Claire Marie the letter was signed. The last name had been crossed out, just in case, I reasoned, she decided not to meet me and didn’t want a crazed lost child hunting her down. In calligraphy, Claire told me her parents had sent her to a Catholic hospital to give birth to me, a place where nuns had prayed for her forgiveness. My biological father, also a college student, moved to a different town before the pregnancy showed. He didn’t know Claire was pregnant until Catholic Charities contacted him, asking him to sign the adoption papers. Because of the silence Claire’s parents demanded, my birth became a secret that she kept through college and eventually from a husband and two young daughters.  “I will never regret my decision to have you,” she wrote. “Deep in my heart I know that you are beautiful and my contribution to this world.” She prayed and hoped that I was happy, healthy, and loved and wrote that these were gifts she couldn’t have given me then. The letter had a note of finality, of closure. She never mentioned the possibility of us meeting. I slept poorly that night, continually checking to see if the letter was still where I had tucked it under my pillow. My only proof of her existence, I was certain it would disappear.

 

The fall semester passed without Claire and me exchanging another letter. I didn’t forget about her, but she wasn’t exactly on my mind now that I had college classes, parties, and guys to obsess over.  One afternoon I was summoned to the dorm’s hallway phone. Over the past few months, my phone calls with Mom had become increasingly scarce. I felt annoyed at having to leave the dorm room full of laughing co-eds. I answered the phone with an exaggerated sigh, but it wasn’t Mom calling to ask if I was using my food plan and getting enough sleep. It was a woman from Catholic Charities.

“Would you like to meet your biological mother?” the woman asked.

Adrenaline shot through me. My ears started to buzz. “Yes, I want to meet her! What happens next? Have you already talked to my parents?”

 “Honey, you’re a legal adult. You can decide for yourself.”

I forgot. I wasn’t in high school with permission slips jammed into my backpack. I didn’t need to ask Mom before doing something.

“When do I meet her?” I asked; the words were surreal.

Without my ever having spoken with my biological mother on the phone, Catholic Charities acted as the mediator, planning a reunion at Riley’s, a local restaurant in Wayne. I felt like I was about to win a major writing prize or a state track medal (Other than a sixth grade Young Authors Award, I hadn’t won either).

At my request, Mom drove three hours to be with me, to meet the other mother and hold my hand. She picked me up at my dorm room. We drove in silence. My withdrawal into college life was hurting her feelings, yet here she was beside me, humming to an easy-listening radio station.

I stared at the fast food restaurants and the college kids bundled in their winter coats. I hoped meeting Claire would live up to my expectations. I felt a little guilty for so badly wanting another mother, in addition to the perfectly good one I already had. I pictured Mom plugging giant headphones—my sister and I called them her earmuffs—into her Sony stereo and sitting cross-legged on the floor, singing off key to Lionel Richie and Barry Manilow when she thought she was alone in the house, her hair matted down by the band of her earphones. Eyes closed, she swayed and cried when the music really moved her. Watching from the doorway, I muffled my laughter with my hand, but these stolen moments also made me feel safe. Mom would never hurt me. But the other mother might.

Riley’s moonlighted as a dance club on weekends. I had been there with my friends, usually after we drank bottles of Bud Light in my best friend’s dorm room or at one of the known party houses. By the time we arrived at Riley’s on those nights, hoping for someone to ask us to dance, the floor was packed with bodies swaying and grinding. Mom and I were meeting Claire in the restaurant, which was separated from the dance floor, but it was hard for me to dismiss the images of college students, dancing hip to hip, from my mind. I wondered if Claire and my biological father had ever danced, full of a yearning for each other that would produce a love child.  In my mind, a relationship was not worth having unless it was first full of pain. I cried hardest at the movie love stories where the couple had to overcome some self-inflicted misery in order to be together, like in Urban Cowboy when Sissy and Bud tried to make each other jealous because they weren’t mature enough to admit how they truly felt. Couples who made juvenile, passionate mistakes and risked losing each other understood my heart. I wondered if my biological father still loved Claire. How could he not?

Mom parked the car and looked at me. “Are you ready to see who’s behind the door?”

 “I’m ready,” I said. We got out of the car. I grabbed Mom’s arm before she could open the restaurant door.

“I can’t,” I said.  I started to cry.

“You’ve waited so long for this, Jody.” Mom wore one of her work outfits, a navy vest and matching slacks, navy flats. She wore a strand of pearls around her neck; she had even put on mascara and lipstick for the occasion, flare she only wore for funerals or weddings. Her hair had turned from its natural “frosted” look to all-white years ago. Mom suddenly looked older and frail, though I knew she and Dad were in the midst of a remodeling project, and she would carry two-by-fours and aim a nail gun. Mom was tough when she needed to be.

I pulled my winter coat up to my chin and withdrew my hands into my coat sleeves, though I had read in an article on body language that this gesture showed insecurity.

“I’m scared,” I said. What if she didn’t like me? I wanted Claire to be impressed. Didn’t she regret letting me go? Hadn’t I turned out well? I wanted her to think so, even though I felt nerdy. I was more comfortable with books than with college boys.

“We don’t have to go in,” Mom said. She was unusually calm and unemotional.

“No. I’m okay.” I wiped my nose on my coat sleeve. “I want this.”

I stood in the entrance and let my mother enter ahead of me. I could see empty tables. “This is a special meeting,” Mom had said when she called to make reservations. “Can we arrive a little before the restaurant opens?”

Mom saw her first, inhaled and turned to me. “She doesn’t look very much like you,” she said. It was a comment I would think about later, considering how much we looked alike. I felt as nervous as I used to at the start line during a high school track meet, when for a millisecond, I thought how much easier it would be to flee to the school bus. I took a deep breath and pushed past Mom into the restaurant where all of the tables sat empty except for one, where a fair-haired woman sat with a man. I knew who she was immediately. She stood. We were the exact same height. I walked over to her and hugged her stiffly without really looking at her. I didn’t want to cry again, so I went numb inside, a trick I learned to use when my first cat died.

Mom hugged Claire. Even though Claire was only a few years younger than Mom, she seemed like a child in her embrace. Mom patted Claire’s back before she sat down. I sat down between them.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” Mom said when no one else spoke.

I first stole glimpses of Claire’s face while Mom talked about the drive to Wayne. Just the tip of her nose. Then her eyelash, her eyebrow, the curve of her lips. I stared at her hands, which were visibly shaking. Her hair was reddish blonde. Claire wore city attire, a long form-fitting dress, black knee-high boots, hand-crafted jewelry. I was used to seeing my Mom and other Nebraska Moms in Midwestern mom attire: jeans with elastic waistband, oversized T-shirts with pictures of furry animals or a Huskers football logo, and dirty tennis shoes. Claire was an eccentric sort of pretty, more exotic than Mom and more attractive than me. I suddenly felt frumpy in my oversized sweater and jeans. The tanning salon near the campus sold dollar tans, and my face was unnaturally orange. With my inch-high hair sprayed bangs and winter fake-bake, I looked like every other college girl in Wayne. Ordinary. I was sure Claire would know it.

“This is Rick. My friend,” Claire said. “He’s here for moral support. I don’t know that I would have come without him.” Her voice surprised me. Unlike her shaky hands, it was sturdy and low, the way I imagined the matriarchs of my British Literature novels sounding.

“Jody, you can’t possibly imagine how happy Claire is to see you,” Rick said, “Or how much she has thought about you.” Rick’s voice was full of saliva. He spoke each word slowly. I stared at his thinning hair and his wide forehead. His glasses slipped down his greasy nose.

I had thought of meeting my other mother for years, rehearsing reunions in my head where years of experiences would finally be shared. I was unable to say any of those things. Unwilling to face possible rejection, I went mute. Mom filled our silence by presenting the best version of me, how I wrote for The Wayne Stater, my high GPA, the time I placed third in a cross-country meet, my braces in junior high and perfect teeth now. She left out the recent arguments we had been having about my college partying (in my freshman photo album, I held a beer in every picture). I was glad Mom was there to take the pressure off of me. While Mom talked, Claire remained silent and aloof. It surprised me that her demeanor seemed restrained, unlike the warmth of Mom’s.

“The two of you,” Rick said looking at Claire and then me, “just need to snuggle.” Rick reminded me of a salesman in a New Age Store. Everything out of his mouth was sappy and intrusive. I wondered if he had read my letters to Claire. I felt pathetic and needy. I hated him. Rick leaned across the table and put Claire’s hand on top of mine. We all looked at each other. Claire’s hand was cold and rigid. I slowly slid my hand out from under hers and fiddled with my napkin.

“I didn’t want to give you up,” Claire said. Mom looked surprised that Claire was addressing me. “My parents are Catholic. My mother, well, she thought it was so shameful for me to find myself with child. Out of wedlock.” She looked at Mom when she said this, and at Rick, who was smiling and nodding. Then she turned to me. “I didn’t know what else to do. Or how I would take care of you.”

I didn’t know anything about taking care of babies. I didn’t have a boyfriend. Having a child seemed like decades away.  I couldn’t relate to what Claire was telling me even though it was about me. So far the evening had been a conversation between my two mothers. I wanted to say something, but my words really needed to matter when I finally opened my mouth. Did Claire think I was insecure? When I looked at Rick, he winked.

“You and Claire need to spend time alone together,” Rick said. “In order to have those feelings, to really unearth them.” He leaned in towards me. The pores on his nose were enormous.

Mom shifted uncomfortably in her seat and cleared her throat.

“Did she have brown hair?” Claire asked.

“What?” The waiter had brought our salads and my mother had a speared baby carrot on her fork.

“The nurses wouldn’t let me see her. They didn’t even let me hold her.” I thought Claire might cry, but she sat straight up and regained her composure. “When I went down to the nursery, I saw this baby, with this beautiful brown hair. I felt something. I felt like it was my baby.”

Mom winced at Claire’s words: my baby.

“Was it her?” Claire asked.

“Yes.” Mom started whimpering. It amazed me she had lasted so long. “She had a head of brown hair. All of this hair.”

 “Our hands look exactly alike,” I blurted. I’d often thought my hands looked like my father’s. It was a small way I looked like my adoptive family, but now I could see it wasn’t true.

Claire’s eyes met mine. “You remind me of your biological father. You look so much like him.” She placed her hand next to mine on the white linen tablecloth. I looked at our identical hands together. My pinky touched her thumb.

“It’s hard for me to look at you,” Claire said.

 

I knew Claire even less after meeting her. She wasn’t anything like I had imagined. We were still strangers, and it surprised me. I had expected we would have some instant, intuitive connection like a couple who fall in love at first sight. I wanted to see my friends so we could scrutinize everything Claire had said, like we did after first dates. Will she want to see me again?  Did she think I was smart? Pretty? What will she tell her friends about me? Why didn’t I talk more? My English professors could never shut me up, but tonight when it really counted, I just froze. I wanted to look at my hair sprayed bangs in a mirror to see if they looked stupid.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said to Mom. We sat in her car outside of my dorm.

“If you want, call me tomorrow. We’ll talk about it.” Mom leaned across the car and hugged me. She was still belted in. When she pulled away from me, her face dissolved in tears.  “It’s just…” She rummaged in her purse for a wadded tissue. “I just think of you as my own.” Mom was driving back to Omaha, a total of six hours in the car for two hours of dinner. Her mascara was smeared from crying, and her lipstick had worn off during dinner.

It had hurt her to meet Claire. Claire was intriguing, and I wanted to know everything about her because I wanted insight into myself. I liked to imagine a fantasy mother and Mom liked to imagine she had given birth to me. Claire had ended both of our fantasies.

“I guess I’m Claire’s daughter now, too,” I said, but I didn’t really feel like anyone else’s daughter. I got out of the car.

“Yes, I guess so,” Mom said.

Mom lifted up a hand, wiped her eyes with a tissue and waved her signature wave. Debbie and I called it her ‘tootles’ wave: index finger, middle finger, ring finger. She left for home.

That night I lay awake in my twin bed, my roommate snoring in her twin bed across the room. I thought of all the clever things I didn’t say when I had met Claire. I replayed the night in my head with Wynonna Ryder as myself in the starring role of a sophisticated, beautiful, long-lost daughter and Claire as the gracious, loving long-lost mother. In my edited version, we hugged and cried and spoke years of emotions with our eyes.  We were a Lifetime movie. Mom was merely backdrop, the unremarkable but sturdy character who sets up the key lines. I had great hopes for how things might turn out for me and Claire. The next morning I called Mom to tell her all about them. She was in the middle of mixing a dish of dried cat food and milk for her newest drifter. I could hear the persistent “mew, mew, mew” in the background. Mom had named the fluffy white cat Snowball, a sign that she had opened her home to the small traveler and probably her lap.

Other than me, the longest living Keisner-stray—a mixed-breed dog with soulful brown eyes—was nearly ten years-old. None of the others, though, had made it longer than a handful of years.

 “Don’t get too attached to Snowball,” I teased Mom. “We both know your track record.”

 “I know,” Mom said. “I just can’t help myself. What if she doesn’t have anyone else to care for her?”

“She might have a family somewhere, wondering where she is,” I said. When Mom didn’t say anything, I added: “Maybe she’s been abandoned.”

“It just breaks my heart. That someone would abandon such a little thing.”

“I’m glad she has you,” I said.

“Me, too,” Mom said with a sniffle.

I couldn’t predict how the story would end: Snowball might wander off the next week and find the family she last lived with, she might meet an odd and early death, or she might stay with my mother until old cat-age. I was hoping for the latter. We were lucky to have my mother, the other strays and I, however we came to her, however long we stayed. 

 

 

Jody Keisner is a full-time writing instructor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a weight-lifter, and a Real Housewives junkie (the latter for academic reasons, of course). She lives with her husband and young daughter, Lily. She has publications in SNReview, Left Hand Waving, Women’s Studies, Third Coast, Studies in the Humanities, Modern English Teacher, and NEBRASKAland. She is busy on her first memoir, The Runaway Daughter.

 

Light and Gravity: A Sampler of Birth Images by Elizabeth Sobkiw

linoleum cut monoprint pregnant skeleton

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Blue backdrop pregnant body in white with black pelvic bone

 
 
 
 
 
 

Green backdrop pregnant body white purple butterflies and black pelvic bone

 






Detail purple butterflies and spine pregnant body on green backdrop







pregnant body, white plaster, spine and ribs like butterfly




Elizabeth Sobkiw-Williams (www.elizandra.com) is currently an art teacher in Montclair, New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, Matthew. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Studies in 2007, and completed her Masters degree in Art Education in 2011. She is passionate about art, travel, good food, and loves spending time with family and friends.

Read our interview with Elizabeth Sobkiw-Williams conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz:  Pregnant in a Barren Landscape: Art, Control, and Premature Ovarian Failure.

Brittney Corrigan: Three Poems

Guilt Poem: Unplanned

You didn’t want another child.
How you wept, how you weighed,
in those first undertow hours,
what you never before imagined.
You looked up the addresses
of clinics, your hand wavering
between belly and phone.
How such a faint, unformed thing
could ambush you so. Utterly
ensnare you. Knock you
sputtering into the deep.

You were already sinking.
Your boy—your difficult, discordant
child—took all you could gather
of yourself just to make it
from one end of the day to the other.
Where was there room in these riddled,
sapped hours for anything, anyone
else? Where was there room
in your heart, already compressing
with the weight of the descent? And, too,
the fear that blackened you when it rose,
would crush you if you spoke it:
what if this child was fractious as the first?

Everything you’d done up to now
was mustered from love.
You learned to assemble when
he crumbled. Shifted your orbit
to accommodate each essential,
rigid routine. You re-centered
your world to plunge into his.
Accepted the peculiar, unruly shimmer
of his being even as you wished
darkly for an easier child.

So you could not summon wonderment
or joy, feared this new child, insistent
and blazing, would sense how you felt
in the long, anxious months.
And what should you do with this
even more terrible thought that a second,
less arduous child might tamp
your love for the first? You could feel
yourself fragmenting, space debris
left circling in the black.

But with each tide your dark thoughts
were coaxed back to the depths.
As she grew and fluttered and spun,
so you grew to yearn for her coming,
urgent want flooding your bones.
It flattens you to think about now,
how she might not have been. She emerged
smiling, open-eyed and bright and necessary.

It is as if some otherworldly visitor,
sent with a message, decided to stay.
Something luminescent about her,
a glowing specimen feathering the deep.
How everything alters: your axis,
the revolving, the dizzy spin. How you
understand now the need for constellations,
the pull to make connections between stars.
They will keep each other, these satellites,
this sibilant galaxy of two.

Now the universe has two centers.
Or something like the balance of water
and air. Your world is no less difficult
for the changing. Still you dip and tread,
splay ragged at the leaving of the day.
But now you are a two-mooned
planet, spinning as they chase you
through expanding sky. Sometimes
they are too brilliant to look upon.
Sometimes they are reflected in your eyes.

16 Weeks

Waiting for the quickening, those little
knocks and bumps, a new rendering

of Morse code, our own body
language. You’re learning to control

those opalescent limbs. Little
dragonfly, my hummingbird, you hover

at my center, looking for the place
to wingbeat your first hello.

38 weeks

You are gaining an ounce a day
now, little person, growing creases

in your skin like fine folds
of cloth. My belly tightens around

you in preparation for your birth,
making me stand still, hold my hands

over your upturned limbs. Even now,
when I can’t wait to meet you, my whole

body holds you in, holds you tightly,
is reluctant to let you go.

Brittney Corrigan’s poems have appeared in The Texas Observer, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Borderlands, The Blue Mesa Review, Oregon Review, Manzanita Quarterly, Hip Mama, Stringtown, and Many Mountains Moving, among others. She is the poetry editor for the online literary journal Hyperlexia and lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. To read more of Brittney’s work, visit her website; links to her poetry on-line may be accessed here.

Read our Interview with Poet Brittney Corrigan: Second Hearts, Autism, and Mother Writer Retreats.

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.

The Mystery and The Mess: Motherlines and Motherless Women with Poet Andrea O’Brien

photo of poet Andrea O'Brien

Poet Andrea O'Brien

 

In “Child Who Haunts My Womb,” (published earlier on The Fertile Souce here) the speaker in the poem states: I have too much religion / and not enough God in me / to make a right decision regarding carrying a child to term and raising a child. I love how this line highlights that religion (when one is young) might fill one with a sense of  what is “right” while the possibility of bringing a child into the world (when one begins to mature and face adulthood) might call for a more visceral, internal prompting from the God of one’s body. Can you talk to us about this dilemma?

It seems to me we are taught to put the mind above the body, that logic trumps the bodily experience. In many religions, the body’s temporal existence results in it being viewed as less significant than the mind and spirit. What I seek, in this poem and in general, is wholeness—a unity of the mind-body-spirit connection. Maybe it is more particular to the female experience, but for me, the body cannot be separated from the person. We live in a physical world; why would we not expect to find the spiritual in the physical?

By day, I’m a technical writer so I often approach the world—even poems—in a logical, procedural way. But there’s another part of me—the poet self, I suppose—who resists this order and wants to live in the mystery and mess of the world, knowing there are not always answers to the questions.

There’s also a beautiful vulnerability portrayed in the relationship between mother and daughter, as that daughter turns to face motherhood herself, and finds she still needs her own mother: I am still a child / really, always fleeing, / asking, and needing: / how to clean silver, / how to check / transmission fluid…Can you talk about writing this poem and how you decided which aspects of the mother /daughter relationship to include?

I imagine all women continue to need their mothers throughout their lives to some extent, but this is especially true for women who have lost their mothers at a young age. We—and I’m taking a leap speaking for all motherless women—understand loss much earlier in life and experience successive loss, even small losses, as a form of abandonment. I wanted to convey the longing, and the intense need, through the memories of what once was, as well as through the description of what is left unfulfilled.

The motherline is strong; it’s how a woman learns about being a woman—through story, through example—and when that is cut, a woman may feel adrift. The reference point has become a memory.

Maybe that is one reason The Fertile Source is such a valuable resource. It is a place for stories—for a specific type of story—that one can use as a touch point (ah, this is how one person experienced childbirth, and this is how someone else experienced miscarriage).

There’s a difficult backdrop presented in “Child Who Haunts My Womb “as well: the speaker’s mother grappling with illness. Can you talk about the process of writing about such a poignant threshold (birth and death simultaneously) in this poem?

I love exploring the paradoxical in poems and using the structure of a poem to bring opposites into play. From my limited experiences, it seems we have become more and more isolated from death (and birth!). But in nature, we can see all the time how connected birth and death really are. One life ending becomes the fertile ground for a new one. That doesn’t make dying easier to accept. But with passing of time and practicing her craft and a little bit of luck, a writer might transform the stuff of life into art.

Any writing mentors you’d like to share with us?

Too many to name! Early on, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marilyn Taylor, who has since represented the Badger state as poet laureate, was extremely influential. She introduced me to contemporary formal poetry. Even though I write a great deal of my poems as free-verse or semi-formal, I love how writing in form is unexpectedly freeing. Leaning into the structure of a form leads to surprises in subject and language that would not evolve otherwise.

More recently, I am indebted to Leatha Kendrick, whose guidance helped my writing break open in new ways after a long stagnant period. Both Marilyn and Leatha have the unique combination of being both brilliant writers and passionate, devoted teachers.

I have moved around a bit over the years and have found a number of places that celebrate writing: The Loft in Minneapolis, The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, KY, The Lighthouse in Denver. Writing may be a solitary event, but the communal aspect can’t be ignored. Across the many states I’ve moved, I have been fortunate to have worked with many excellent poets and writers.

Can you tell us about your first poetry collection (it’s subjects and themes)?

 My first manuscript, which includes “Child Who Haunts My Womb,” shares many of the themes and images found in the poem (mother loss, family lines and legacies, religion versus spirituality). A number of the poems developed out of the story of my mother’s life with and death from cancer.

And your second, forthcoming collection?

 The second manuscript is still evolving, but it carries forward from the first collection. I would say the poems have become less narrative. Also, the writing seems lighter and more playful, especially in terms of form. Some things I am exploring include ekphrasis (writing poems in response to art work, which I’ve also extended to include ballets); writing two distinct poems driven from the same image or moment; and relaxing the boundaries of a formal poem. 

Other projects in the wings?

 Working full-time often means it is difficult to make the time or energy for writing, but I always have a list of things I’m writing or wanting to write. Foremost, I am eager to finish the second collection of poems. There’s also a little bug that gets me to try my hand writing fiction every few months, so I will continue to follow where that leads.

 As mentioned earlier, I love working from prompts or within a form, which liberates the writing process, perhaps because it takes some of the pressure off when faced with a blank page. I’m always surprised to see what surfaces when responding to a prompt or form. Certainly, the subject has been on my mind; it just develops in a different way.

Andrea O’Brien’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including The Hopkins Review, Connecticut Review, Nimrod International Journal, and The New York Quarterly. In 2007, the Kentucky Foundation for Women awarded Andrea an Artist Enrichment grant to begin writing her second collection of poems. She lives in Denver with her husband and works as a writer and editor.

Jim Richards: Mother of Three, On Your Birthday, and Poem for a New Father

Mother of Three

And pregnant. Two pink lines
on the indicator stick you balanced
on the edge of the sink—one line

for happiness, one for hell—tip
when I touch them, and fall.
This means: you, mornings, evenings,

bent on the bathroom floor,
prayer spewing from your mouth
while three believers cry to you their god

their god: why have you forsaken us?
This means: you curled in bed, cut off
from the unlucky who have never never

never made life like you make it.
This means: I want to end it all
with an image of redemption: new heart,

new body, new face. But I know,
you know, we know just what this means:
our mouths cannot make the words.

On Your Birthday

Today is your birthday, and I’ve done nothing
In preparation to celebrate that moment
Twenty-eight years ago when you came
Through wet pain and warm darkness
Into light, into the first breath of a life
That would eventually and thankfully merge
With mine own. I’m a fool to think a few lines
Written an hour before we meet for lunch
Could make up for what I have failed to do.
Still I write, not knowing why, exactly;
Perhaps because the words I try to find
Are easier to find when I imagine your face
And bring you here beside me for a moment.
You’re sweet, and will forgive me, I know;
It is the way your birthdays have always been,
Swallowed up in the care of home and children.
I see you in a chair, your faced washed
With the sorrow of post-partum, wanting to glow
In the eyes of the newborn in your arms,
And wondering how. I see you kneeling
At the bedside in the dark hours of the morning,
Your prayers drowned out by the infant’s wail.
I see you with a needle in your leg, hours
And hours on the bed, and the burning foreshadow
Of scars growing across your body. I see you.
You are here with me now, for a moment
and I am supposed to say happy birthday.
In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.
Happy birthday, my Love, in sorrow.

Poem for a New Father

Something with the water breaks
inside a man. Did you feel it?
A fresh outpouring, a clarity
rising through bedrock, swelling
through roots and soil, spilling
into the sun. Silent and painless

at first. Then it grows. Did you feel it?
Something with muscles aches
inside a man—contractions
make marriage more animal.
Sweet beast, your life-mate
drops her young in darkness

and a predator circles as patient
as death. Not time, not hours
can tell what fear it makes
for a man to be helpless against
his foe. Two lives that he loves
sink deep into a place where he

can never go. Brother, beast,
I was with you, when your loves
went down, when you were left
alone. I know how much it takes
to hold a hand that’s letting go.
But water, blood, and spirit

come, dust makes a living soul,
and soon it is grace you’re holding
in your hands, a face you know
you’ve never known. It is then,
just then, that something wakes

inside a man, did you feel it?

Jim Richards completed a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston and now teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho in the Upper-Snake River Valley. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Texas Review, Literature and Belief, Poet Lore, and Contemporary American Voices. An avid runner, he writes about his progress toward completing fifty marathons in fifty states at 50before50.blogspot.com.

Read our interview with Jim Richards conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Father Witness: Birth vs. God, an Interview with poet Jim Richards.

 

Rhythms of Women and Nature: An Interview with Artist Christine DeCamp

Christine DeCamp

In your painting “Incubating”, we see a beautiful image of a half woman/half nautilus figure resting in the belly of a fish, kelp or seastrands descending from the top, and rising up from the bottom, which gives the setting of the painting a mirror world quality–an above and below depicted simultaneously. There’s a sense of internal peace and stillness, the eyes of the dreamer/figure closed (the fish/vessel seems to see and steer for both of them). Your work often features these female figures blending self or spirit with the natural world (sort of like female variations on a centaur). Can you talk about the process of painting Incubating? Why is she traveling inside the fish?

The ocean is our Mother of Mothers from whence all life began. It contains all the references to creation, femininity and the mysteries of life and birth. It is also the mirror of our psyche. The woman inside the shell, inside the womb of the fish and inside the waters of the ocean are reminiscent of the process of evolution, creation and the birth process. I can’t really say much about the process of painting it as it is an older piece–and much of my work develops intuitively, which I believe was true in this case.

In “The Birth of a  Moth” we see a brown-winged woman rising up out of an iridescent ripple in a tree stump, three comets or plumes of light emanating from her crown against the backdrop of night sky. The mystical qualities of night also seem to be characteristic of a number of your settings. Can you tell us what nightscapes offer for you? What the stump and moth figure mean for you?

The moth is a cecropia moth–a large and unusual species. I have heard that they cocoon underground, however I don’t know if that is true. They can be quite large–6 inches or so across, and their wings have the appearance of fur, while their antennae each looks like a feather. They have appeared to me several times as messengers at times of significant shifts in my life. They tend to be creatures of the night. The night is a magical time, when our reality shifts and the veils between the worlds are less dense and easier to traverse. Night belongs to the wild, as civilization tends to fear the darkness. The stump is part of a tree, which connects that which is underground through its roots to that which exists through all the layers of being, extending into the heavens. Trees are containers of life force.

Can you talk to us about your inspiration for “Oxum Queen of Waters,” and to which culture she originated? I’m thinking of Oshun (Cuban Santeria), who in one version of her life, is forced into prostitution to feed her children, and subsequently her children are stolen from her. Which part of Oxum’s story are you translating or transmitting here? Here we see her feet in water, mirror in hand, altar behind her–can you talk about the objects flanking her and what they represent?

My painting of Oxum is sort of an amalgam of water and ocean goddesses and their accoutrements. It began with an interesting book titled “Divine Inspiration”, which compared Brazilian religious practices to their African origins. Oxum is seen as a powerful deity who provides a life of wealth and pleasure. She rules over fertility and is the source of children. I have added symbols from other sources as well–such as the Haitian vevers. The rich spiritual heritage that began in Africa and was recreated in our hemisphere is a great source of inspiration and fascination to me.

In “Guardian” we behold a 4-armed figure standing behind the central figure. This painting has a past life feel to it—are those possible incarnations the central figure holds? Or future possibilities? Can you talk to us about the night blossoms, the crown, the hummingbirds, the energy emanating from the hands, what the Guardian might be passing on, what she might say should she speak?

This painting came out of a vision I saw during a guided meditation that was focused on connecting to a guardian or higher self figure. The dark skinned woman in the background is some kind of a healer, spirit or guardian, while the figure in the foreground is a self portrait. The smaller figures–each contained in a bubble like shape are also self portraits from different stages of my childhood and adolescence. The flowers are trumpet flowers, or datura, which is associated with rites of passage and initiation.

In “Lady of Shalott,” we witness a moon ride, flower blooms emanating light, smoke trails like comets, the plume of whale in background, the red slipper of a boat, dreamlike and peaceful. What were the roots of your desire to portray the Lady of Shalott (Tennyson’s poem, musical adaptions such as Loreena McKennitt’s version from The Visit, the Waterhouse image)? Any surprises in process?

“Lady of Shalott” started with the idea of the boat illuminated by the blown glass torches on the bay at night. Some glass blowers I met at a show were making and selling these torches and told me that they had sold some for use on a boat. I loved the idea of that image and the rest developed from there. As it so happened, I was listening to Loreena McKennitt’s song as I was finishing the painting & that is how it was titled. I have always loved Tennyson’s poem and the various Pre-Raphaelite painted versions of the story.

Any insights about your work’s timeline, where is has traveled, where you’d like to see it taking you, in terms of self/spiritual/subject exploration? You also work with sculpture—can you talk about how the mediums you use work together, shape or affect your work? How do you decide which images to cast on ceramics and which on canvas?

My work speaks to the connection of women and nature in the cycles of creation and birth, but with a focus on the larger picture of the earth, and our spiritual path within that world . In my process, I work intuitively and elements are not planned out as to their significance to the greater whole–it is always a mystery and an unfolding.

There is a reason we always refer to “Mother” Nature—and the earth is not Richard, James, or Zeus—but Gaia. The ocean is also referred to as feminine—and fresh water springs in olden times were revered as sacred to the Goddess. Many of those ancient springs later became the sites for cathedrals dedicated to Mary.

Women are deeply connected to earth cycles, the rhythms of nature and anything concerned with the earth, water, animals and plants. Women are part of the creation of life–whereas the male gods in ancient times stood outside of the creation of life. A woman’s ability to bring forth new life was a reason to honor and worship the connection to the greater web of life. In more recent times, it has become a reason to control and manipulate women.

The current work is both painting and pottery. They inspire one another. The work in clay is grounding and satisfying in a primitive and tactile way, whereas the painting is ethereal and mysterious. I go back and forth between the two mediums as the spirit moves me. I usually have several paintings in process at a time–sometimes both acrylic on canvas and gouache on paper. The ceramic process is complicated by clay drying to slowly or quickly and waiting for things to fire, cool etc.

I like having pieces in various stages so I always have something in process to work on. I don’t like to talk specifically about particular pieces that are in process, because I have found that it robs the piece of power. Like an embryo in an eggshell, they need the dark and quiet to develop.

Any words of advice for young artists starting out? Or even seasoned artists trying to stay true to their work?

My advice to artists finding their way would be to work on discovering and developing your authentic self and don’t get discouraged. Find a support system and keep working no matter what.

In her artist’s bio, Christine DeCamp writes:

When I came to California in 1981 I was making sculpture and furniture, primarily using papier mache and mixed media. I participated in many group shows in various venues including SOMA Arts Center, Limn Gallery, San Francisco Airport Galleries and Virginia Breier Gallery. I began painting again in the late 1980’s and joined Gallery Route One in Pt. Reyes, where I had a solo show in 1991. I moved to West Marin and continued to show with GRO, and participate in group shows with the Bolinas Museum and the San Francisco Museum Rental Gallery. I also began showing at the Celebration of Craftswomen, which I continued to do up until 2008.

In 1997, I was one of the founding members of Point Reyes Open Studios, which I participated in from 1997-1998, and then 2005 to the present time. I currently chair the Publicity Committee for PROS. In 1998, I opened a bookstore and gallery in Pt. Reyes called Manfred’s Books. I exhibited and sold my own work there as well as the work of other artists. I had the bookstore and gallery until 2007. Since 2005, I have been participating in various juried art festivals including the KPFA Crafts Fair, the Live Oak Park Fair and other shows in the Bay area.




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