And Now We Have Everything

I’ve been really interested in essay collections (since I just finished writing what I hope is one) and have been making an effort to seek out collections by women. A few years ago I read some of Meaghan O’Connell‘s writing for The Cut and found myself laughing and nodding along. I’d been looking forward to her book for months.

Although I saw online that the description of getting the epidural in “Birth Story” made at least two (!) readers faint on the subway, I actually found myself feeling overwhelmed with the tender vulnerability of how closely life and death brush together during labor and delivery. Not nauseated, but actually baby-fever-ish. O’Connell is funny, but she’s honest, too. Her honesty, though, isn’t frightening and grim but intimate and a relief.

O’Connell explains that she started writing more seriously and with more focus after her son was born because she realized if she didn’t, he could become an excuse for any number of things she wanted to but did not do with her life. Although my early motherhood was different in so many ways than hers, this sentiment resonated so much that I wrote her my very first author fan email (!).

I started writing essays about motherhood and pregnancy because I felt like there was nothing out there like what I wanted to read–everything was either medical (potentially useful but not always what I was looking for), glib “aren’t kids jerks” (which is just not my vibe), or uncomfortably saccharine (I’m newly refusing to use the word “sentimental” as an artistic insult…more on that some other time maybe). This book was that. Along with Sarah Menkedick’s Homing Instincts, it begins to fill that void and I have been recommending these two books to every relatively-new mom I know.

Lincoln in the Bardo

I loved this book. I had read some of George Saunders’s short stories with a sort of academic interest (“oh, look what he’s doing here!”) but never really felt like his writing clicked with me. Then, I read “My Writing Education” in The New Yorker and loved it. I loved him–his kindness, thoughtfulness, carefulness.

When Lincoln in the Bardo was published, for some reason I thought it was really long and very historical. If only I’d realized it was about ghosts and the Tibetan concept akin to limbo, I would have read it right away.

As I guess everyone else already knew, it was not a traditional piece of historical fiction. I went through an intense Lincoln obsession in eighth grade and was thinking somehow that knowledge would taint the reading experience (either I’d be mad that I didn’t remember much from all those biographies I read in the mid-90s, or I’d remember so much that I’d be wondering when Secretary Seward was going to make an appearance).

The novel is, again as I guess everyone else already knew, smart and thoughtful and kind and strange and haunting. My mom and I spent some time talking about the minister in the Bardo–what had he done? why was he there?–and finally landed on the idea that he’d feared God, and taught others to fear God, in a way that had prevented him from finding peace with the end of his life (in the novel, and from what very limited understanding I have of Tibetan Buddhism, that acceptance is what allows people to leave the Bardo and begin their subsequent lives). It’s been a long time since I encountered a book that made me want to re-enter the world of the novel rather than do research as a means deciphering the points that confused me.

Her Body and Other Parties

I started reading Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties while sleeping on an air mattress in my sick daughter’s room, which was not the best idea. I knew the stories in the collection were supernatural, but did not anticipate how tense and frightened they’d make me feel. That, combined with worry for my kids in this year of horrible flus, sleep deprivation, and then getting sick myself, intensified the feeling of vague unease and fear. All that is to say: these stories are so good.

They’re ghost stories, though some of them are not obviously supernatural at first. My favorite stories were “The Husband Stitch,” which I’d read a bit about before starting the novel; “Especially Heinous,” which is a sort of meta-fictive take on SVU-type shows that is both frightening in its own way and a provocative commentary on the industry of providing entertainment based on violence against women and children; and “Inventory,” which reminded me of The Road.

Fire Sermon

I pre-ordered Fire Sermon after reading Nick Ripatrazone’s interview with Jamie Quatro at LitHub. I’d read Quatro’s short stories after meeting her at Sewanee several years ago and loved her intensely honest writing about running, love, and faith.

The writing in Fire Sermon is similarly intense, but because it’s a novel (even though it’s non-linear and narrated through journal entries, letters, sermons) I felt a little claustrophobic with the intimacy of the language and the story itself. I loved the structure, though, and felt English-teacher-affirmation when I saw the acknowledgement of Virginia Woolf’s influence. There are chapters that describe Maggie and Thomas’s house aging in a way that reminded me so much of To the Lighthouse.

The concept of passion (even adulterous passion) being spiritual was fascinating, strange, and uncomfortable to consider, but I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable (intellectually, emotionally, maybe even politically).

Last Day of School

This morning I was driving to Trader Joe’s answering questions about No Parking signs, wondering if I’d been giving Simon too many orange vegetables, worrying that he’d fall asleep in the car and think that was his morning nap and then not one minute of a double nap would happen.

We were behind a school bus and Thea told me “can’t see those childrens on that bus,” and I said maybe we’d see some kids waiting at the ends of their driveways for the bus to come.

It’s the last day of school here in town, and I thought about what it felt to wait for the bus on the last day of school. In elementary school, middle school, and in high school when kids are giddy on the manufactured adulthood of taking exams and actually no one is waiting for the bus.

We drove past mailboxes with graduation balloons. And time lurched forward and backwards at once. I was eight headed to field day, thirteen wondering who’d write a full page in my yearbook, seventeen showing up at graduation with wet hair and Birkenstocks. I was twenty-four, an exhausted first year teacher, giddy for summer. I was the mom of a toddler and an infant. And then quite clearly I was five, ten, fifteen years in the future. In the amount of time since I graduated from college, I’ll have a high school senior.

There are a few moments when I remember becoming abruptly aware of time. When I was four, a sixth grade neighbor taught me the word “Bravo.” She was so grown up and poised. In fifth grade, the eighth graders were banned from hugging at school because it was happening too much, too suggestively. When I was a junior in high school, swinging my car keys with forced casualness, I was as old as the captains of my cross country team had been when I was a freshman.

I’ll be thirty five at the end of the summer, but can still feel the dappled shade of the oak trees on my childhood street as the sixth grader clapped and said “Bravo!” Can still feel the uncomfortable but exiting confusion over hugging eighth graders, the novel thrill of being a person who carried a set of car keys. Now I’m a person with two babies in the back seat.

Sarah Menkedick on Louise Erdrich

In The Paris Review’s Revisited column, Sarah Menkedick writes about reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Blue Jay’s Dance” while pregnant.

This paragraph put into words something I’ve been trying to articulate for two years:

I had understood motherhood up until then as either the stultifying oppression of conventionality or an exercise of triumphing-in-spite-of, staying cutting edge and ambitious and successful by proudly suppressing or minimizing the maternal. Erdrich offered me another model: motherhood as profound creative subject, as way of seeing, even as empowerment. She gave me permission to be a woman

Meaningful work

Last night I had dinner with a good friend I’ve known for more than ten years. We’ve run twenty miles at at time together, cried over breakups, met each other’s families, explored the waterfront of Barcelona, worked together…but we’ve never talked about feminism together.

Since November, it is has been hard for me not to see the world–not just the political world, but my own days, life, work–as a feminist. We talked about the ACA repeal and about jobs we’ve left, and I was surprised to realize until last night, we’d never talked about any of this in all those years and miles. How could we not have?

I’m taking a writing class with Michele Filgate through Catapult (my first experience with an online class and I am really enjoying it, particularly for the accountability that classmates and deadlines provide). This week, we read Elisa Albert’s “The Snarling Girl,” an essay I’d seen referenced quite a bit but never read.

I read After Birth about a year ago, and although Albert’s essay-writing style is nothing at all like my own, I think she’s interested in a lot of the same questions about being a writer, a woman and a mother that I am.

Taking care of myself and my loved ones feels like meaningful work to me, see? I care about care. And I don’t care if I’m socialized to feel this way, because in point of fact I do feel this way….
Yes, oppression is systemic, I get it, I feel it, I live it, I struggle, I do. Women are not equal, we’re not fairly represented, the pie charts are clear as day: nothing’s fair, nothing at all, it’s maddening, it’s saddening, it’s not at all gladdening. We all suffer private and public indignities (micro-aggressions, if you prefer) big and small. It’s one thing to pause and grapple with unfairness, but if we set up camp there, we can’t get anything done, can’t get to the root of the problem….
“Real” work is often invisible, and maybe sort of sacred as such. The hollering and clamoring and status anxiety and PR two inches from our collective eyeballs all day? Not so much. So tell the gatekeepers to shove it, don’t play by their rules, and get back to work on whatever it is you hold dear. Nothing’s ever been fair. Nothing will ever be fair. But there is ever so much work to be done. Pretty please can I go back to my silly sweet secret sacred novel now?

A Going and a Return

I’m so relieved, proud, and just plain happy to have an essay up at The Millions. I worked on this piece for a long time–and ultimately cut out about 2000 words before it was publication-ready.

I drafted it long before I was even pregnant with Simon, and I’m struck by the way in which life feels like it’s provided another paragraph (or section?) to the essay. In the weeks after we brought Simon home, women (except for my dad, they were all women) brought dinners, offers of help with either or both children, and the kind of conversation caring enough to allow honest discussion.

For me, friendship as a mom really is different. The intensity of love I have for my children makes it harder (both practically and emotionally) to attach to friends in the way I once thought of as the definition of friendship. But, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how there’s an intensity in asking to hear a birth story or dropping off a casserole or reassuring an exhausted mother that I might not have recognized before. (That’s a thought for another essay.)

Hearts for Love

On election night, I put Thea to bed before going to meet one of my best friends for dinner. All day, I’d been reading Pantsuit Nation posts on facebook and running into neighbors on their way to and from the polls. In the wide net of people in real life and social media who cross my path, I knew two who I thought would vote for Trump. We ran into my neighbor and her two daughters on their way home from voting. Her five year old asked me if I voted for the lady.  

When I let Thea pick out her pajamas last night, she picked “hahts [hearts] for love”.

By the time I came home from dinner, I felt sick. The results were starting to come in and not looking good. I curled up in bed with my phone (we don’t have cable), obsessively refreshing newsfeeds and hoping for good news from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and even Florida at first. (New Hampshire never even crossed my mind.)

Around midnight, just before the big chunk of usually-but-not-guaranteed blue states were called, Thea cried out in her sleep. We just switched her from a crib to a twin bed, so I went in to make sure she was safe. I fell asleep curled up on the end of her bed and slept fitfully all night. Each time I woke up, I though “Michigan and Wisconsin must have gone for Clinton.”

This morning, stunned, sick, sad, and feeling truly scared, we came downstairs. I had a chocolate sandwich for breakfast. Since I can’t drink or consume excessive coffee at 8 months pregnant, this seemed a reasonable indulgence.

I thought about what it means that a man who’s spoken about and openly treated women the way Trump has could be elected. I wondered if even Thea’s generation will ever really believe a woman can be President. I thought, as so many others have, that surely Trump will get himself impeached and we won’t even have him for four years. But then I thought about Mike Pence and conversion therapy and denial of evolution thought about the Supreme Court.

My first job out of college was for the Kerry Campaign in 2004. I worked in Ohio on election night and that was, obviously, a sad day. I fell asleep crying and fully dressed and woke up to relentless rain that only let up after I’d packed up my office and begun the drive from the Ohio River Valley back to my apartment in Chicago.

But, even then… I hesitate to admit this, but even then there was part of politics that felt a little like the World Series. A passion of allegiances and alliances as much as something that really, potently, mattered in the day-to-day sense. I didn’t like Bush, and I felt sad that the work I’d done to help elect Kerry was unsuccessful, but I didn’t fear for our country and I didn’t feel betrayed at the thought of Bush supporters in my midst.

This morning feels different. I can’t stop thinking: there are people celebrating this? Not just a few. A lot.

I know the thing to do is stay and fight. I’m not moving, or even joking about moving, to Canada. My family is here. This is my country. But where to start. Trump and the support he garnered feel so far away from my blue state and yet the threat that this administration poses feels so real. A real threat to the American Experiment, to women, to Muslims, to immigrants, to the freedom of the press, to our international position. To love.

As I’ve been trying to snatch a few minutes to write down these thoughts, Thea is playing with her bunnies, running up to me every few minutes with a request that I “kiss hop.” I see her holding her lamb and saying softly to herself “love Baaa so much.”

So what do we do? What do suburban blue state white women do? What does anyone do?

Dear Chicago

Like many angsty high school students, one of my favorite songs was “I am a Rock.” I loved the line “I have my books/ and my poetry to protect me.” Even at the time I, an intensely sincere and emotional teenager, could have hardly pretended that I was shielded or felt no pain. Still, the idea that books and poetry might offer a different kind of community, a more reliable, self-sufficient source of companionship than my classmates, rang true.

I first heard of the University of Chicago from my ninth grade English teacher. He was the first person, other than my parents, to take my love for reading and writing seriously. In what was typical of my obsessive level of interest in high school I both wanted to be him and wanted to impress him, and when I learned that he’d gone to the University of Chicago, I set out to figure out what this school was all about.

My parents are from the midwest, but I was largely raised in a Connecticut suburb where 99% of my classmates went to four year colleges and of those, a huge majority went to private schools in the Northeastd Corridor. Long before it was time for me to start thinking about college, my mom laid the groundwork for a different way of thinking about education. Both she and my dad, each the first in their families to go to college, had gone to their local state school, and then gone to law school in-state. Before I knew what applying to college entailed, I already knew that I wouldn’t be one of the kids who visited every small liberal arts college in New England or applied to all seven Ivy League schools just because I was a good student. All this is to say, even though learning, curiosity, respect for education were integral to the  world of my childhood, I wasn’t the type of kid you might imagine obsessing over a college in ninth grade.

I know this type of kid, because I taught high school English for seven years, and am now in my tenth year of coaching high school cross country and track. A lot of the students I know apply to ten, fourteen, twenty schools. Without exception, the most unpleasant hours of my career were spent on the phone or in hostile meetings with parents who insisted that I simply must change a B-plus to an A-minus because my draconian grading practices were the only thing standing between their child and a specific acceptance letter.

Because I went into teaching, the name on my diploma has often felt of little external importance: I certainly could have been hired to teach high school English without having attended the University of Chicago.  Many of the best teachers I worked with went to schools whose names never appear on the lists of the most elite, selective, or rigorous colleges. For this reason, it has sometimes been tempting to feel, at least rhetorically, like I could have gone to school anywhere. When I had my daughter last year, I decided to leave teaching in favor of more flexible coaching and freelance writing so that I might spend more time with her. And, because of that decision, I’ve come to see my time at the University of Chicago in an entirely different light.

I love being a mother more than I love anything I’ve ever done. And, as my ninth grade English class and Simon and Garfunkel obsessions foreshadowed, I did not grow up to be the kind of person who feels moderately about anything. On the morning I got married, an acquaintance drove past me running down the street in my hometown with by my college cross country teammates, my hair already blown straight and shiny for the wedding that night. I was the kind of teacher who really had a hard time finding a balance between doing her job well and being consumed by her school, her students, her grading, her own sense of urgency (which is a large part of why teaching and mothering felt incompatible despite the ways in which teaching is often presented, on paper, at least, as a family-friendly profession). But more than the fierce, nearly all-consuming love I’ve had for life’s other passions and obsessions, I love being a mom.

Admitting how much I love being a mother feels a little bit like going back to my five year college reunion to find all of my classmates in PhD programs while I was teaching high school English. I can clearly hear the scoffing I’d have done at anyone who claimed to feel sublimely fulfilled, happy, and at peace with motherhood. I can imagine my friends and I on the fourth floor of the Reg, overlooking 55th street, ridiculing the neo-con brainwashing that must have befallen any educated woman who could say as much.

One of the popular narratives of motherhood is of isolation, loneliness. Before I had my daughter, I imagined this was about time spent without adult company. Certainly, being the only adult in the house can feel isolating, but it is not literal isolation that has made me reconsider Simon and Garunkel’s ode to loneliness.


Never before or since have I felt so at home, so in my element, so comfortable with myself, as I did at the University of Chicago. Of course I did embarrassing things–I was in college. But, I was surrounded by curious, excited, passionate, strange, earnest peers. As much as I loathed my Calc 131 problem sets, I think a lot of that intense sense of belonging is a result of the Core. I remember team dinners at Pierce that devolved into heated debates about Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre’s open marriage and puns about Kant or Aristotle that grew into the kind of inside jokes that left me laughing so hard I gasped for air. Really.

Becoming a mother has made me feel separated from the friends I came of age with and more aware of the ways in which the reading, writing, and thinking I did at the University of Chicago were so fundamental to the adult I have become. But, at the same time the habits of reading, writing, and questioning that I developed while a student have served as an antidote to loneliness. During the hours when Thea naps, I read, I write. Yes, there are crumbs under the highchair and loads of laundry still in the dryer at the end of her nap, but I find that those hours of thought are restorative, both in a quotidian sense and in a larger sense. I’m energized for an afternoon of building trains and knocking over block towers, but I’m also provided with a throughline to the person I’ve always been and am still becoming.

In the years after high school, I’d often have a sort of sympathetic but condescending laugh at my old self when I heard “I am a Rock.” How much richer a life of friendships, romance, family was, how silly to imagine fulfillment could be attained on an island. And anyway, the song is obviously ironic.

Now, though, the pendulum feels as though it has swung back a bit in the other direction. By circumstance, geography, or profession, I’m far from many of those same people who first allowed me to inhabit a world of belonging. Would I love to have a glass of wine with my roommates from 53rd and Woodlawn, talk about ideas both big and small, personal and philosophical the way we were once able to take for granted doing day in and day out? Of course. I long for those easy friendships and the community of Chicago, but I also feel those somewhat trite Simon and Garfunkel lyrics in a new way. If motherhood can sometimes feel like an island, I do have my books and my poetry to protect me, by which I mean offer a connection to some of the most rich friendships I’ve ever known and provide continuity between the present and the person who I’ve spent my lifetime slowly becoming.