Quit worrying

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The hardest thing is listening well enough to quit worrying about dying.

–Brian Andreas

As Thanksgiving approaches and Rowan becomes impossibly cuter and more lovable each day, I find myself worrying often about death. Aside from a couple of low points in my teens and early twenties, I have never wanted to die. I am, in fact, terrified of it, not death itself, but of the deterioration, of letting go, of grieving the loss of everyone and everything I love. That or dumbly departing in a flash, with only a single thought before the lights go dark: That was it?

Now that I have a child this fear is greater still. I know my husband would be okay without me–it would be hard for awhile but he’d love again; this is one of many benefits of finally partnering with someone fundamentally whole. But Rowan, he’d have to do without his Mommy. And while I know the village would step in to care for him, the thought of him growing up without a Mommy breaks my heart.

I’m not, as far as I know, any more terminal than always. But the 4 a.m. wakings and feedings give my death anxiety a particularly opportune opening. To ward off this fear I have tried all of the following since Rowan’s birth: buying fancy vitamins and supplements (and forgetting to take them regularly), replacing all of my regular food with keto and paleo food (only to start eating bread and ice cream again within a few days), getting a CSA (the veggies often go bad), buying only local meat (yet still getting some at Publix), joining a gym (and rarely attending), buying an exercise bike (I didn’t use it), buying exercise wear (worn primarily for lounging), swearing to start walking, jogging, or jog-walking regularly (nope), and buying expensive sunscreen (I don’t routinely use).

The truth is there’s no escaping death, and while I can do things like eat “right” (whatever that is), exercise (I’m still hopeful), and abstain from alcohol (thankfully I’m okay there), I can’t control when I get hit by a car or the cumulative effects of all those cigarettes and beers I used to ingest.

I don’t know if the chemical self-abuse started in response to the sexual assaults as a teenager (oh you assaulted me? I’ll show you, I’ll assault myself even harder), or because it was cool and rebellious, or because I’m just prone to chemical addictions. But I do know I imagined in that boozy and smoke-filled haze that I was making an offering to the gods of death, inviting them close but not too close, hoping this would confuse them and and they’d go find someone eating kale and wearing sunscreen.

Now I’m trying to be the person eating kale and wearing sunscreen, but even with just intermittent effort I feel sheepish and exposed, like I’m greenlighting death. Hey, over here! Yeah me with the super greens and SPF 40! I’m stupidly trying to evade you in a game of peek-a-boo where I cover my eyes and believe I disappear.

I’ve got a weird spot on my left breast that is either killer melanoma or a benign birthmark that stretched beyond the size of a pencil eraser when my milk came in; I’m waiting to schedule with the dermatologist until my life insurance policy kicks in this January. I nurse Rowan and sometimes wonder, is he drinking cancer? Then he pulls away and smiles at me, milk running into his endless linty neck, and I dive into his bright blue unknowing eyes, forgetting for a moment that I am mortal, he is mortal, the seas are rising, babies lose their mothers every day, bombs explode, cartels open fire, refugees wait without relief, cut flowers wither and die. I am not an outlier; and death is not an outrage, no more or less personal and natural than birth. Eat the pig, the turkey, compost the flowers, wear my bike helmet, enjoy the pie, buy the life insurance.

Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Butt-face

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sleep matters. Pie helps.

A doodle a day

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Yesterday my mom texted me a few of her recent pen and ink doodles. “Those are so fun,” I wrote back. “I miss doodling!”

I miss more than that, of course–a huge blank canvas and the expanse of unstructured time to enter it. But there’s no sense complaining; I hear Rowan waking from his nap, and there’s nothing I’d rather do than respond to him.

But I will commit to this: until the New Year, a doodle a day. I’ll post here, and write a little too.

If you read my blog via email, I hope you don’t mind the extra contact.

Happy holidays!

Notes to a New Mom

Sunday, November 3, 2019

1 Relinquish perfection, even in the most abstract sense.

2 Outsource everything you can afford to, without losing what matters most.

3 Figure out what matters most. Pick three: health, career, family, fun, friends, creativity. No, you cannot pick them all (see # 1).

4 Refuse to be tormented by the sense that you are not doing enough, and if only you did more, you could have everything.

5 Understand that some priorities must wait; others must die.

6 Refuse to be tormented by the fear that you (or your child) will soon die. It could happen, yes, and occasionally it does. But anything potentially instructive about this fear, you have already gained. Persistent terror grants neither enlightenment nor a stay of execution.

7 So you have figured it out, for now: Family, health, and career. It’s okay to grieve for that which must wait–the early morning writing time, the yet unwritten book, the feeling of wanting, no needing, to paint.

8 Be wary of the impulse to perfect what you’ve decided matters most. In all things, go for a B-minus.

9 Best, on the whole, to avoid sugar. It’s not a replacement for self-care, love, or joy.

10 Trust you will return to your creativity and enduring friendships. Until then relish postcards, scribbles, the faintest taps on the wires of connection.

Intimacy

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Being a counselor involves a lot of intimacy, but as intimacy goes, it’s a relatively dry occupation. Just tears, and a bit of snot, both of which most people are perfectly capable of cleaning up for themselves.

When I signed on to be a mom, I expected work. Work and caregiving. Caregiving work. Messy work. And I was right. But I wasn’t prepared for just how intimate it is. And I’m barely four months in.

I’m not just talking about fluids, although there’s a lot of them. I’m talking about what happens when those fluids mingle with love, dependency, innocence, and sweetness, creating a profound intimacy I wasn’t associating with the effort of motherhood.

I mean, on a day-to-day basis, most people, especially the people we love most of all, don’t stare intently into our eyes while pushing out a massive poo that we then have to clean up. Nor do we sing happy little songs and kiss their bellies while we wipe.

Of course, I realize now that this is parenthood, and caregiving in general. I’m not having a unique experience under these ambiguous crusts; I’ve just entered more deeply into the human condition.

Humans do this for each other. We do it for babies, and we do it for the elderly, the disabled, the infirm. One day the babies–ours or someone else’s–will do it for us.

It’s weird, and beautiful, and the intimacy makes it all okay.

But apparently, I’m kind of dumb, and definitely late to the game. When I told Thomas that I hadn’t anticipated parenthood to be so intimate, he said, “Well, d’uh.”

Dead Palm with Vines

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

My kid is almost three months old, and I finally finished this palm tree.

Dead Palm with Vines 3′ x 5′

Below are the iterations and drafts I tried before I found the painting, or perhaps it found me. Sometimes things take a lot longer than I want them to. I’m glad I didn’t listen to my frustration and give up before I was done.

Where I started…just not a painting I wanted to live with on my wall

Eliminating some noise…
Adding in a different kind of noise while Rowan naps…
Cleaning it up again, but feels too brutalist…
Taking a risk with these leaves, and thinking I’ve probably lost my mind…
Painting all those leaves is a lot of work, and here it’s unclear if any of the work is worth it or if I should just abandon this for good…
But then the image clicked into view and I hummed my way through the rest of it. I like this painting so much more than the original draft. Maybe it was hiding in there all along.

The Rabbit Hole

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Night feedings are a breeding ground for anxiety, and last night was everything from the state of our world (please let a Democrat return to the White House) and fear of dying young to why I can’t go to the grocery store for a few things without spending fifty dollars. Yesterday all of my meals consisted of refined bread products–two full-sized pastries from our local French bakery, a big bagel, an English muffin, and a sandwich for dinner. With potato chips. Oh, I almost forgot about the afternoon bowl of ice cream.

Earlier this week I passed the postpartum depression screening with flying colors at my post-surgical exam, but it’s a tiny bit possible that I’m eating my difficult feelings. What feelings? Mostly anxiety and its associates–our modern version of fear–and last night my Greatest Hits were playing on repeat at 3am, after I broke out a bath towel to cover the massive area of milk Rowan threw up in my bed (I should probably strip those sheets, huh?). Despite my desire to shed the baby weight so I can return to work without replacing a professional wardrobe, I seem instead to be nursing conditions for diabetes. The relationship between food and comfort forms early, though. Rowan often eats when he just wants to fall asleep in my arms, the little rascal.

So this is my life with an almost seven-week-old baby. I alternate between telling myself I need to be better and do more with the maternity leave (more than love and feed and clean Rowan, that is–more to show for this break from work), and telling myself I am doing great, better than expected, nailing it, even. The truth falls one place one day, another the next. I long to be back at work, if for no other reason than to go eight hours without milk on my clothes, and yet I’m terrified that leaving Rowan with his attentive and competent grandma or our highly-reviewed child care center will traumatize him for life.

All this is to say I am basically the cliche of a new, relatively privileged mom on maternity leave. Last night I thought about my privilege, about the choices available to me that others don’t have, and I went down the rabbit hole of how literally everything I do is a political act–what I eat, wear, drive, buy, say, and do. I know my own actions can’t stop the melting permafrost or dismantle the stupid wall, but I also know I want to be able to answer to my kid about what I did when we knew things were really heating up here. Over the years I have easily fallen into despair and apathy about the bigger picture, letting the one-on-one of counseling be my action in the world, and otherwise, because of my privilege, chosen to insulate myself. But there’s no amount of insulation that will stop climate change or children dying in prisons at the border. So what does it mean to move closer to integrity, to act more in line with my values and concerns, while acknowledging I can’t ever do it perfectly, and I can’t expect to turn the rising tide? Yesterday I caught a snippet of a talk Cheryl Strayed gave where she said a yoga teacher once told her that the important thing isn’t to get into the pose, it’s to reach for it. I’m hanging onto that today.

I think Wendell Berry said something very profound when he said that to truly care for the environment we must have a direct relationship with a place. That worrying about the environment as a whole is too abstract; we need to know the lakes and rivers in our cities and towns, the native trees whose health depend on those local waters, and the farmers who need predictable rains and temperatures to bring their lettuces to market. Berry says a major challenge is that people don’t feel rooted to a place anymore; they feel they come from everywhere and nowhere.

The internet contributes to this I am sure. I don’t think we were meant to know what to do about problems in far flung places; we were meant to know our neighborhoods and communities, to take care of each other and the land around us. I’ve grown up in Gainesville, FL and my husband and I intend to stay. I already know the cemetery where I want to be buried, so I guess I have the luxury of a sense of place, something I’ve tried to explore and celebrate in my art–a personal response to the plants and trees that touch my everyday experience.

But I haven’t done the best job of cultivating community in my town. For many years I came home from work, opened a beer, turned on the TV, scrolled through Facebook, and looked at single men on dating sites. Sure, I had friends and I painted and wrote, but I also kept to myself a lot and harbored the idea that the right man would come along and save me from the burdens I’d created. Now I am married and more content than ever, but if I want to go to the farmer’s market with my baby, I still have to see ex-boyfriends who don’t want to see me, as well as folks who knew me when I was a wild and irresponsible teenager. To get to the farmer’s market on foot involves possibly passing any of these people as well, in their homes or cars or yards. Community isn’t all flowers and casseroles. Sometimes it’s just plain embarrassing.

When I was younger I thought I had endless time, thought that I could make my life anew again just with a little effort and the right self-help books. But more and more I feel my life is lived on one big canvas, and I keep layering on top of the old paint to get the composition right. The old paint leaves its texture, if not its color, and there is no getting away from the underpainting, only working as best I can to grow something atop it. It seems to be this way with our environment, too. The damage is done. We’ve lived as we’ve lived. What now, do we keep working at it, keep trying to salvage what we can? Of course we do.

The rabbit hole (and bread products) caught me, but the important thing is to also resurface. And Rowan is great for that, fortunately. He is almost smiling, and when he nurses he now insists on intense eye contact with me. It’s a bit like interstate driving, tediously repetitive but weirdly high concentration–if I look away I’ll miss something important. So there’s the ballooning of fear, coupled with my desire to reach towards greater integrity, for the sake of my kid if nothing else, and then there’s the present moment, where he is crying as he wakes, hungry again. So I respond and the stuff in my head gets quiet while I stare into his big eyes.

I started this website to write about my art and I guess this post does relate to what I’ve been working on in the studio. An old painting of a palm tree, one I’ve never been happy with, and that I’ve tried to repaint several times already, made its way back onto my easel this week for another go. Here it was before I started working on it again.

Not happy with colors or composition, but I like the fluid lines around the trunk

And here it is right now.

Still not happy but motivated to keep working on it

It’s not done yet, I don’t know where it’s going or where it’ll wind up. But I am gonna keep reaching for it, anyway.

Signs of Life

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I almost gave up on this painting multiple times since I started it about a week after Rowan was born, but I am glad I didn’t because I finally finished it this morning.

I’ll probably hang it in the bathroom, over the toilet. Which is to say, I wouldn’t call it my greatest work, but I like what it represents to me: Signs of a more regular life returning.

This is the first week of my maternity leave that hasn’t been packed with daytime visitors. I’ve loved the company, and have socialized more with family and friends in the last month than the whole rest of the year. But those visits, which usually coincide with Rowan’s naps, also impede my ability to do anything else. So I’m grateful for the break in company this week, as it’s allowed me to do a little bit of yoga, art, cooking, and writing–all introverted things that fill me up, and give me energy for the extroversion, attention, and connection that being a new mamma requires.

My dad shared this fantastic article with me, an interview with Wendell Berry.  It’s a lot to chew on, but what’s stayed with me the most is what he says about the value of limits, how they can enrich our lives and provide meaning in ways that unlimited choices just can’t. I think about my life, how it’s taken on more limits (aka commitments) than I ever thought I’d want or be capable of. Marriage, home ownership, a community that shows up for important events, and now motherhood. A career, too, where people rely on me. I suppose sobriety is its own kind of limit, albeit one for which I am continually grateful. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, despite being tired and stretched thin and limited in a number of ways. I’m surprised by this, but I’m actually okay grabbing wisps of time for myself and letting go of the unstructured expanses. Those expanses were almost too big…and allowed more Netflix and snacks than were ever good for me.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is this TED talk my nephew Mason showed me, particularly the idea of accomplishing big things in very small amounts of time. One time, early in my courtship with Thomas, I broke up with him because “I needed to write my book.” (Another time I broke up with him, I told him I was more evolved than he was. For some reason, he still decided to marry me.) I still haven’t written my book, but that’s an issue whether I’m married or single. Since being married, though, I’ve been able to stop drinking, write my first published essays for pay, and apply for a writing sabbatical. I didn’t get the sabbatical last year, but I’ll keep applying until I do. It turns out that having the right person (and people) around me improved my mental and physical health as well as my creative capacity, despite requiring more from me as well.

My favorite Wendell Berry quote, which I fall short of but aspire to nonetheless is, “Every day you have less and less reason not to give yourself away.”

The Nappers (Mason and Rowan)

All the little spaces

Monday, July 15, 2019

Rowan is one month old today, and I’m typing this one-handed as he dozes/nurses in my other. I’ve had three major emotional meltdowns in as many weeks, likely from the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation. There’s a reason they use it as a form of torture, you know? Of course the beauty and cuteness and sweetness continue, but mixed in there I have 1) definitely screamed at and hung up the phone on someone I dearly love, 2) with hostility and not a hint of humor or affection, criticized my husband’s conversational style in front of a friend, and 3) had teeny tiny fleeting thoughts of homicide toward someone who is better off unnamed, though I can assure you it was not Rowan, passed in a moment, cleared up with a little sleep, and involved absolutely no intent or planning.

When people say that parenthood is hard, and particularly emphasize that motherhood is hard, I am coming to suspect they aren’t just talking about the actual mothering. That, for me, continues to come naturally, and is (mostly) a source of joy and wonder. Even in the middle of the night, when Rowan needs to eat two or three times and I’m the girl for the job, I still feel the bond between us–me the milked, him the milkee. He hasn’t even smiled yet, but he has mastered throwing up on me, and still I’m willing to do anything to take care of him. Thankfully, that part is okay–so far, at least.

What’s harder is how this little person is changing my relationship to everything else. Not just to the big, obvious stuff like my husband, my work and time, my energy and my body and my finances. I anticipated these changes, and I was right to. But it’s other stuff as well. Little stuff. Grocery shopping. Cooking. Going to Target or Starbucks (which I haven’t attempted yet). Even taking a walk or a shower (which I have). Let’s not even start on the topic of taking a you-know-what. All of these things are much more complicated than they used to be. I can’t yet predict when Rowan will need to eat, so venturing out into the world as a nursing mom is daunting (though I trust it’s damn hard with formula, too). The built environment isn’t designed for babies and their caregivers. It just isn’t.

***

The other night as we were crawling into bed, Thomas said he couldn’t have predicted the way having a baby would change his life. He said that he welcomes the changes, but it’s an adjustment. I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to talk, but I’m glad I mustered the energy to ask him where he feels the adjustments the most. He said, “It’s all the little spaces. Spaces that used to be for me, and for us as a couple. They don’t exist anymore. Now all the little spaces are Rowan spaces.”

That’s what I’ve been feeling too. Because even when Rowan is sleeping, life is all about being ready for when he wakes. When he wakes, he needs.

I’m grateful beyond words that I get to have this experience. Many people who want it more than anything else are struggling with fertility challenges, some of whom are close friends. So I hope it’s okay to talk about what’s hard and what’s beautiful, both. Because I need this outlet, where I can use adult words and sentences. Even those crafted one-handedly.

My victories right now are small. Instead of time at my easel, which now I get in microdoses of 10-20 uninspired minutes, I celebrate these: My first trip to the grocery store (baby slept through it while I frantically stashed groceries in his stroller), baby’s first bottle (I’m not longer his only option for food delivery), and managing to shower once a day and eat a few meals.

It’s baby steps around here, y’all. Rowan isn’t walking, of course. The baby steps are mine, and for the time being, all the little spaces are Rowan spaces.

Unnecessary Terrors

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Baby Rowan, 11 days old

He told me one time he forgot himself & his heart opened up like a door with a loose latch & he tried for days to put it all back in proper order but finally he gave up & left it all jumbled up there in a pile & loved everything equally.
–Brian Andreas

When my son Rowan was born almost two weeks ago, I was nothing if not prepared. I’d gathered all the essential gear and several non-essentials, too. I’d cleaned the house and shopped for groceries as if I would never have another opportunity shop or clean again. I’d frantically bought last minute baby care things from Amazon Prime, thinking I probably wouldn’t have time for that, either.

And, I’d collected stories. Lots of stories.

Stories is a nice way to put it, because most of the stories I’d gathered were nightmares. Nightmares about breastfeeding, infant illness, postpartum depression. Nightmares about failures to bond, loss of selfhood, the horrors of endless sleep deprivation and the unshakeable exhaustion that comes with new motherhood. Nightmares about c-section deliveries and what could go wrong during and after surgery. Lots of stories.

My husband says this is my personality; I’m a worrier, and worriers tend to prepare for the worst. This is true. But plenty of other people, in-person and on the internet, played their part. I’m not on social media anymore, but still the internet is full of narratives about how hard it is for new moms, about the inequities between men and women raising children, about our awful society that doesn’t support families. I added all of this information to my file of nightmares. If motherhood was an endless hardship, an epic sacrifice, then at least I wasn’t going into it alone.

***

Leading up to the birth, many people asked me how I was feeling. As in, was I feeling prepared? I never knew how to answer this. If I said I was feeling prepared, they’d tell me I could never be truly prepared. If I said I wasn’t feeling prepared, they’d say the same thing, only with a more ominous tone.

So I tried to express ambivalence, which I certainly felt; I gave a guarded, cautious response that covered as many bases as possible. “Sort of prepared. As much as I can be, you know, given that I can never be prepared.” While I said this, I secretly fingered the worn corners of my file of nightmares, knowing that all manner of struggles awaited me on the other side of pregnant. I guess there was comfort in this, the thickness of that file, growing like the mysterious baby inside me.

***

My parents had their first kid in their late teens; the next two came shortly after. I was born into poverty to two parents who had traumatic childhoods and no time to heal, find themselves, or go to college before they married and had a family. Times were different then; they were just following the social clock laid down for people with their cultural, socioeconomic, and familial backgrounds. As a result, my childhood was its own nightmare; I have very few memories that aren’t tinged with the deep dread of when the next fight would break out, when the other shoe would drop. A worrier I am, but I came by it honestly.

By the age I am now, 38, my parents had finally called it quits on their unfortunate union. Mom and Dad then began what I’ve had my entire adulthood to work on—healing past traumas, learning new ways of relating to myself and others, and becoming a reasonably well-functioning person. Somehow, when I gathered stories of what to expect from early motherhood, I failed to factor in my current circumstances. Unlike my own parents, my husband and I have a stable, healthy relationship. We are middle class. We have decent careers in jobs we find rewarding. We know ourselves fairly well. We’ve both been to therapy. I quit drinking entirely, and Thomas almost never drinks anymore. We have hobbies and interests, and a lovely, peaceful home. We can be trusted to water our yard and houseplants. We keep our cats alive. We get routine dental care.

We are privileged, lucky, fortunate–all of it. Unlike so many people, we do not live from crisis to crisis.

***

The logistical preparation I did for the baby was helpful. When we brought Rowan home, I had a serious surgical wound in my abdomen. The pain was milder than I’d predicted, but I was still limited. Strategically placed baby beds, diapers, wipes, swaddling blankets, and burp cloths eliminated unnecessary trips up and down the stairs. Frozen food made for simple meals. A clean house was just plain nice.

But as for the nightmares, so far they have proved untrue. For all my preparation, I never once considered it could actually go well.

Yet going well it is. I’m recovering quickly from the surgery. Rowan arrived a little on the small side, but he’s perfectly healthy, and he’s gaining weight quickly. Nursing has been easier (and so much sweeter) than I anticipated. The whole experience of taking care of his little being feels natural and just…right.

***

I was so scared to get married, and a hundred times more scared to have a kid. I didn’t think I could do it, and on some level didn’t think I deserved to. I certainly didn’t think that freedom, joy, belonging, and connection could come from such massive family commitments.

Tomorrow marks two weeks since Rowan was born. Since we brought him home, I’ve cooked several yummy meals. I’ve started a new painting. I’ve taken a few trips to the grocery store and a couple walks around the neighborhood. I’ve spent precious time with friends and family. Sure, I’m leaking breast milk, but I’m also taking showers every day. Occasionally I even nap.

Admittedly, my relationship to time is different now. While Rowan sleeps, I can accomplish in an hour or two what used to take me several. And yeah, I know it won’t always be this way. Babies change quickly, they need more things, they motor around, they make bigger, stinkier poos, they get sick and get their parents sick. Eventually we’ll have to teach him about climate change and institutionalized racism and cancer and death. We’ll try our best to expose him to wonder and prepare him for our difficult world.

That being said, I was wholly unprepared for feeling an unbearably big and deep love for my baby boy. Nowhere in the stories I collected, at least not the ones I noted or archived, did I expect to experience the kind of overwhelming love for Rowan that I continue to feel.

***

The other day, when I tearfully shared my impossibly vulnerable joy with Thomas, he looked in my eyes and said, “Good thing love isn’t something we have to prepare for.”

I’ve lived most of my life with a lot of unnecessary terrors, and the guards that come with that kind of fear. Now Rowan is here, and I’m starting to think my husband may be right.



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