standing still

At about 19 weeks, human fetuses begin to hear from inside the womb. The first sounds they likely register are the gurgling of their mother’s stomach and the steady drumming of her heart. Her voice will be a sound they recognize and respond to before ever seeing her face. In other words, by 19 weeks, it will never be quiet again.

The value of silence is something I am trying to teach my son to appreciate as he grows. Because the world is a noisy place. It seems that every inch of available concrete is increasingly being used to prime us to open our wallets. Billboards scream at us from across the highway. Our phones nudge us for attention with chronic push notifications. Even my nearest gas station recently installed television screens on its pumps that blast advertisements 24 hours a day – even if no one is around to hear them. I find this disturbing.

The other day as I took refuge in my car from gas station TV, I recalled running errands with my mom as a kid. I remembered the sudden quiet when she’d park and cut the engine. How the radio stalled mid-song and the world outside seemed to operate as if on mute. I can still remember happily sitting in the cocoon of the car in the parking lot of Market Basket while my mom returned the shopping cart. I remember curling into the pocket of sunshine warming the backseat and just watching the world walk by.

That’s what I want for my son. Moments of quiet observation. Moments where he just has to sit and wonder without some device yelling at him. I want him to understand the importance of standing still.

So I started a new tradition this week. I pulled out our copy of A Field Guide to Western Birds and started birding with Gabe in our backyard. Truthfully I can’t say that he understands the point, but he seems to enjoy being plopped in the middle of the grass every afternoon. We sit on a blanket and I listen for birds while Gabe pulls at the blades of green at his feet. Sometimes the cat emerges from a bush and circles the blanket before returning to his hideaway in the garden.

It isn’t long before the chatter of birdsong begins. Within a few minutes a robin will perch in one of our cherry trees and a hummingbird will zip through the yard. While I’m certain Gabe rarely sees any of the birds I point out, he knows to listen for their call. He pauses from playing with the grass and looks to the sky. His eyes widen and he waits. And for now, for me, that is enough.

Dear Gabriel,

Every night before bed I hold you and whisper a prayer into the space between your neck and mine. Sometimes it’s just the standard Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes I make up one of my own. Deep down I suspect that these prayers are not really for you. They are for me. I think I am really just praying to be better tomorrow than I was today. For you. And for the world I have brought you into.

Every day I watch you play on a colorful mat with whimsical drawings of turquoise elephants in a place where palm trees are pink and the sun actually smiles back. I watch as you furrow your brow as your try to make sense of the world at your feet. Why does everything you throw ultimately, and always, fall back down? What does the color red taste like? Does everything make a sound?

You do. These days you are testing your little voice. I think that is what is most profound for me to absorb. You have a voice and you are learning how to use it.

Your voice can be loud. You emphatically tell me that you do not like it when I use the blender. Your voice can convey excitement. Nothing seems to delight you more than when the cat comes almost near enough for you to touch. Your voice can be gentle. After we nurse, and right before I lay you down for the night, you stand on my legs and coo into the darkness. In those moments it becomes clear to me that you feel safe. I pray that this is always so.

My job as your mother is constantly changing. In the beginning my mandate was simple: Keep you alive.

Six months later my role has already expanded. I am supposed to create a space where you feel loved enough and secure enough to explore it without me. Because you seem to smile biggest when you are showing me the things you can do all by yourself. Like directing a spoon into your mouth. And banging plastic cups together so that they create a noise. (I am certain that there will be times ahead when I wish you wouldn’t.)

These days I find myself silently adding to the list of things I pray for you. Perhaps one day I will share them all. Perhaps one day I will share both my hopes and my fears with you. But right now, all you need to know is that you are loved, that you are safe, and that you have a voice.

Love,
Mom

everyday conversations. from 2009.

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I have been living in 2009 for the last week. And it’s been awesome.

It may have been prompted by 2017 swiftly approaching and my apprehension about what the year ahead might bring. It may have been triggered because I spent Christmas running in shorts and a tank top in Texas rather than baking nine different types of cookies with my mom in Massachusetts. Either way, I have been revisiting nostalgia. Hard. I’ve had 2009 streaming from my headphones day and night – the adult version of plugging my ears with my fingers and singing fa la la la la la!

And I am okay with that. Because this week I heard my grandmother’s voice for the first time in seven years.

It was a conversation I had recorded in my grandparents’ kitchen in Quincy. It’s 14 and a half minutes of table talk. About a chip in the enamel of their 60-year-old stove. My nana protesting the need to replace its light bulb that had burned out God knows how long ago. Details about the City of Boston’s memorial service for Ted Kennedy scheduled for the next day.

It was soothing to hear the sounds of our spoons clinking against coffee mugs and familiar wooden chairs scraping against the floor. I was transported back to a time when I was still living in San Francisco, still trying to find someone to love me back, and altogether more comfortable with uncertainty.

It was a time when my nana – a lifelong Republican – and my grandfather – a lifelong Democrat – were not above crossing party lines. 

Once Nana needed oxygen to assist her breathing her voice took on a quality that sounded as though she perpetually had a cold. As I listened to the recordings my voice is different, too. It’s lighter. Perkier. And it talks too much. It’s the voice of a person who doesn’t yet know what she will lose in the months ahead. A voice that doesn’t know enough to just listen.

I recorded my grandparents because I knew they wouldn’t always be here to give advice. To put life in perspective. I had no idea what I would do with the recordings. At the time I just felt a pressing need to capture their voices. I knew my grandmother was sick. We all did. And I knew she would never get better – even if she didn’t believe it herself.

Nana died less than three months later. I burned copies of these conversations onto CDs (!) for my mom for Christmas. For a long time afterward I forgot about the recordings. Then a year ago I moved back to Utah and started working at the local public radio station. I learned how to use the equipment and the editing software. It was time to revisit the recordings. By then, my phone with the original recordings was long deceased, but the copies survived long enough to be returned to me via USB drive. I wrote this post because I wanted to make some of them available for my family to listen to whenever they wanted. The warning I recorded seven years ago still holds today.

Our conversations often start with enthusiasm for one topic and almost immediately take a hard left to discuss muffins, diverge to talk about Chappaquiddick, return three minutes later to the original topic, before shooting off in another direction to discuss Josh Beckett and whether or not Nana saw my parents on TV at the Sox game. 

I think what I love and miss most about these conversations is that nothing special ever happens in them. Deep down I always wanted my grandparents to reveal something important in these recordings so I left the recorder on all the time because I was afraid I would miss something crucial that would die with them. Instead, I captured the dog’s tags jingling as she came in from outside, Nana’s difficulty breathing, and asides that showed how deeply my grandfather loved my grandmother – even if he never said the words on tape.

As the final hours of 2016 ticked down I was still wrapping up the last of the recordings. I had to finish listening to them to meet some inexplicable self-imposed deadline before the new year. I listened to my 28-year-old self speak of my unborn children as though they were a certainty. It would be years more before I would learn of my trouble conceiving. Of the doubt and despair that came with it. But mostly I listened and just laughed. Below are some snippets of my favorite talks. J, M, D, Mother Hen, and Dinosaur – these are for you.

For the rest or you, I was asleep for the first minutes of 2017. I awoke to gray sky and 15 degrees. I clipped on my Yaktrax and ran along the shoreline of a prehistoric lake that no longer exists. Drops of bright red blood from deer or dog dotted the snow. It was so cold my phone battery died halfway through the run. On the way back I just listened to the sounds of the magpies scattering to higher ground as I passed and my own steady breath as I churned up and down the hills.

wedding speech. or toast? part 2.

After about 10 years of dating, living with, and learning one another, my brother married his best friend last weekend. And I couldn’t be happier about it. My brother and his wife asked their family members to say a few words at the wedding. This is what I said:

When Matt asked me to say something today I wanted to say something meaningful about marriage. I wanted to recite something that would somehow capture the importance of what is happening today.

Initially I turned to literature and religious texts to find some words of inspiration. But to be honest, those aren’t typically the source material I go to for that sort of thing. And the words that ring truest to me about the nature of love and marriage come from an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy last year. He says:

“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”

Now I realize it’s not the most romantic picture of love; but I think it’s much more powerful than that. For me, the most profound demonstration of love has been a tender moment I witnessed in passing. One evening a few years ago when my dad was undergoing chemotherapy, I walked into the kitchen and saw my mother cradling his head in the sink. She was gently washing his hair. I will never forget the look on my dad’s face: he was entirely at peace.

That was when I realized that marriage really is not about who you choose to start your life with, it’s about who choose to end it with. Who you choose to experience the seemingly intolerable lows with, because the highs come easy. It’s about trying to be your best self every day – even when it’s hard.

And that is why I am so excited for Matt and Shea. You two are closing in on a decade of partnership already. You know the lows and highs and how to endure and celebrate them. You know how to affect the course of each other’s day. And I don’t think there’s anything more valuable than that.

I wanted to take a moment to say how grateful I am to Shea for having faith in my brother. For knowing the man he is capable of being and staying with him until he got there. And I am so grateful to Matt. For seeing a pretty a girl across the room at a party and recognizing that she is so much more than that. You guys are your best selves together.

Justice Kennedy says that “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Today that is true. Congratulations Matt and Shea.

Gabriel is dreaming

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Gabriel is dreaming.

His right foot is twitching. He scrunches his nose, frowns, and then his whole body relaxes. A few minutes pass. He stretches, sighs, and makes a chewing motion with his mouth. These days I cannot stop watching my newborn son.

I study his face. I look to his chest and follow its steady rise and fall. At night, I pray to the universe that he will keep breathing after I close my eyes. It is an extension of the same prayer I recited while pregnant and before each ultrasound when I’d zero in on his heartbeat: just keep beating.

I know a man who lost his baby at 38 weeks. We had already thrown him and his wife a baby shower at work. We all tucked paper bills into a card that circulated around our office and wrote generic congratulatory messages. I imagine the contents of the card helped pay for the funeral. The man didn’t come back to work for a long time. And when he did I don’t think I said the right thing. Something like, I’m glad you’re back. I don’t remember if I told him ‘I’m so sorry.’ Because I was.

I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but I thought about him a lot when I was pregnant. Sometimes I would poke my belly to see if I could get the baby to move. To crash into my uterus. To say, don’t worry, I’m still here.

During ultrasounds, it was only after I saw the tiny primordial pump squeeze that I would release the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. During the 20-week ultrasound the doctor began by measuring the baby’s head. I watched her draw a line across the cranium and click. I watched as my baby seemed to suck his thumb and touch his head as though comforting himself. You’re so smart, I thought.

At some point – around 25 weeks – I stopped trying to make the baby move. Because every night the baby moved me. He would stretch out and kick wildly under my ribs. Sometimes he got the hiccups. I wondered if he ever tired of hearing my heartbeat.

We took long walks together in the woods. Sometimes I would describe the trees and flowers I knew even though the baby couldn’t see them or fathom colors yet. However, most of the time I would just walk and wonder about this little person growing and listening and stretching and swallowing inside me. It was strange knowing that he heard every conversation I had with people. Sometimes I wondered if he knew what I was thinking since he was lashed to my side with blood and veins. I breathe, he breathes.

Towards the end of my pregnancy I thought about the moment we would be separated for the first time and forever. I guess afterward we will spend the rest of our lives wondering and who are you?

And now he’s here. Stretching and breathing on a blanket his grandmother knitted him. This tiny stranger in my house who recognizes my voice if not my words. I’m mum. I’m your mum, I tell him when he looks at my face when nursing. Sometimes just saying that phrase makes me cry.

At two weeks old, he doesn’t regard me any differently than the wall behind me. He’s still learning how to see. Right now he understands contrast. Dark from light. Hungry from full. He is ticklish under his chin.

Gabriel was born on a Sunday morning when it was too late to be considered night and too early to be called morning. My husband cut the umbilical cord. I remember thinking: He is free from me. At last. My son.

For the hundredth time in two weeks I count his toes. I examine his fingers. The first flush of fat is forming across his knuckles. I check his breath. Gabriel is sleeping.

fumbling towards spring

My nana could never say the word forsythia even though she loved that damn yellow shrub. It was a running joke in my family. Whenever we’d walk past one in bloom my mom would turn to her mom and say, “What are these called again?” Nana would oblige and inevitably botch the pronunciation. It made me chuckle every time.

The woman whose house we bought took me on a tour of the garden in mid-January. The ground cover was located about eight inches below a sheet of snow. The bushes were in a deep sleep and didn’t seem to notice the cold biting at their bark. She rattled off the name of the flowers and native grasses she had planted wherever there seemed to be an unclaimed patch of sun. She stopped in front a tall bush and stalled.

“This is, this is, this is, oh come on,” she said snapping her fingers at the shrub.
“It is forsythia I think,” I said smiling.

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It was the only plant I could identify in the yard. (I have always been more of an edibles person when it comes to gardening.) I can check on the bush simply by doing the dishes and looking out the kitchen window. We’ve been in our new house for about a month now and the shrub is just starting to wake up. Tiny buds line the branches. I can almost make out the yellow flowers enclosed in the sepals. They seem to waiting for just the right moment to emerge. Forsythia is nature’s timekeeper. They are among the first to let you know that winter is finally over.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about time and tracking my own growth. When my sister was pregnant I had a garden in full swing and fruit trees that I could use as a point of reference.

“The babies are how big now?” I would ask her as I inspected my produce. “When you say the babies are the size of plums are we talking industrial plums or organic plums?”

I needed that kind of visual to acknowledge what was really happening. Each week my parents would snap a photo of her growing belly and send it to me so I could see how she was changing from 2,000 miles away. One of my favorite pictures is of my sister in her third trimester and grampa standing big belly to big belly laughing. (Even with twins, I still think he had her beat.)

The forsythia in my yard will likely have flowered and faded by the time my own fetus reaches viability. Hopefully by then we will have installed raised garden beds in the backyard and my first crop of rainbow chard and peas will already be popping through the topsoil.

I want to think in terms of the 40-week yard line. But the truth is even with 21 weeks down, I feel scared a lot of the time. Every day I hold my belly and ask the baby to give me a sign that everything is okay in there. It’s one thing to lose a tomato to a rogue squirrel, but to lose something that has kicked in you in the bladder is another thing entirely. Especially something that took years to come into being.

My nana died without ever knowing my spouse. Before she died I recorded our conversations every time I went home for a visit.In those talks she always wanted to know about my love life. Not because she wanted me to get married and settle down, but because she wanted juicy details about dating. In one of the last recordings of us nana is audibly bored when I told her that a guy I liked recently lent me his jacket one crisp summer night. She was not impressed.

My grampa did live to attend me and D’s wedding. Grampa was in a wheelchair that my family hoisted on and off a boat (twice) because they are amazing and watched the ceremony from the front row. But I’m not certain he understood why he was there or who we were. Maybe if we had met a year or two earlier it would be a different story. Then again, maybe if we had met a year or two earlier we never would have got married. Because time is funny like that.

This evening I was feeling particularly nervous about the baby so I went outside to examine the forsythia bush. I find inspecting the buds to be a strange source of comfort. Because I have no idea how to care for any of the other plants in my backyard; I won’t even know what they are until new growth appears. And I guess that’s how I feel about me in general, sort of just fumbling towards spring, waiting for that damn bush to pop.

a place to throw rocks

Sometimes you have to move to France for a while. In October 1976, my newly married parents squeezed all of their belongings into two metal trunks and bought stand by tickets aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. They moved to Lille where my dad was in medical school. They weren’t certain when they would return.

Growing up my mum would tell us kids about their tiny studio apartment in France. How they were so poor my dad assembled a desk out of a glass pane from a bus station shelter that he anchored onto cement blocks. They hung the toilet paper from a nail in the bathroom. A blanket served as a window curtain. At Christmas they baked cookies because they couldn’t afford ornaments and made a star out of tinfoil. They hang that same star on their Christmas tree every year.

Because mum didn’t speak French, my dad posted a sheet of phrases spelled out phonetically on the wall beside the intercom in case she was home alone and someone came to the door. During moments of boredom she counted the giant red poppies on the wallpaper. (There were over 300.)

My parents spent a year together in that room. They had no television, no telephone. If they wanted to call home they waited in line at the post office to use the public phone. So they wrote letters and waited weeks for a reply to come in the mail.

“I think it was good for our marriage,” mum said recently. “We had to talk to each other.”

I can understand that. When D and I first moved to Utah it often felt like we had landed in another country where I didn’t speak the language. Our community of friends was a largely transient group of other graduate students and people just passing through that somehow wound up sticking around for 20 years. Everyone always seemed on the verge of leaving. So we leaned on each other. Over time we became best friends, got married, and eventually moved to Texas.

The Lone Star state was home for about two and half years—long enough that we visited every state park within a three-hour drive at least once and traveled to Big Bend National Park twice. In that span, I went back to school, we adopted a homeless cat named Huey, and made some really amazing friends we were sad to leave behind when we moved back to Utah last month.

Over the last three weeks we purchased our first home, bought a table saw, and have started to build a new life here. It’s good to be back in the mountains. They were what I missed most. In Austin, there was no place to just be alone and yell and throw rocks at the sky. I know because I tried to find one.

There are a lot more reasons why we moved back to Utah, which I am sure I will write about in later posts. But for now, I am just enjoying sitting in front of my new fireplace with my favorite little furry Texan at my feet.

The woman whose house we bought moved back to her native Paris. She bought the house sight unseen as a place where she could make pottery and hike in the mountains. After 10 years she said it was finally time to go home.

For me, Boston will always be that place I keep trying to get back to. I’m hoping someday I will find myself inking cardboard boxes bound for Massachusetts. My dad says that sometimes you have to move to France before you can come home again. I guess we will just have to wait and see.