27 June, 2011

Father's Day

I just returned from a trip to the Midwest with my daughter to visit my mother. This is the second year in a row we've been gone over Father's Day, but the timing is best since my husband is gone-fishing (working) at this time of year anyway.
To say we were in the Midwest isn’t accurate, actually, because where we really visited was the North Shore of Chicago, which is a dreamland alternate universe of opportunity, privilege, and wealth. I was happy to be there, though, in a little bit of heat and sun, some time by Lake Michigan, and the chance to see my childhood haunts, which are more lush and lovely than I remember in my mind. I showed my daughter some of the places I used to go: former houses and schools, the little downtown area to which we kids would ride our bikes, and the parking lot on which my dad taught me to drive. I felt a profound gratitude for the privileges I had growing up, particularly when it came to the public schools I attended. My parents struggled to make ends meet in that school district just to give their children a chance for a good education and I am very thankful.
But going to the nearby parks with my daughter was an altogether weird experience. Here, in a place where people have the American Dream at their fingertips, no one talked to anyone but their own. I’m used to my very small coastal town, where strangers do meet and greet, and especially the kids, join in with one another and play instant games of follow-the-leader, which usually then requires some parental intervention, which initiates more introductions and some real conversation. But on the North Shore, I sensed people’s, even the kids,’ suspicion of those they don’t know. I interacted with my daughter and kept to myself, but my daughter was pretty sick of me and my mom, and she wanted to socialize with people her own age. My daughter’s natural tendency is to simply walk up to other kids she’s never met and tell them “okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” so I’d been practicing with her recently about introducing herself. So, here we were in this weird universe and she’d go up to these new kids, and with her sweet little voice and say, “Hi, my name is ____, what’s yours?” I’d even taught her to spell her name because it’s unusual enough that people in the U.S. haven’t heard of it, and so the next question people ask upon hearing it is, How do you spell that? But on the North Shore, the kids would screw up their eyebrows before she was even done introducing herself and they’d walk away. My daughter would look at me with confusion and sadness rising in her eyes. How do you explain to your child that some people don’t trust other people?
Then, one day, we were in a park near the beach and there was a girl there, apparently with her father, who was talking to an old man, ostensibly his father. This girl was about three year old. She wore a dress and a very full diaper, which drooped from her butt like an overripe fruit, and she was very verbal like my daughter. I was sort of fixated on the diaper because it looked about to burst, but in any case, she started talking to my daughter, and played follow-the-leader up and down the slide, and my daughter was giggling and laughing and so happy to be playing with a kid. I looked over to the father several times, as a way to acknowledge that we were interacting with his daughter, and even at one point I had to touch his daughter to help her down from a precarious attempt at climbing some monkey bars, but he really never looked over at his kid. I thought his lack of noticing us was weird, because I don’t generally touch other people’s kids without permission and if I do where I live, parents generally notice. But the dad was deep in conversation with the old man and I decided they had some old business to take care of.
By this point, the new girl was in the sandpit sharing her shovels with my daughter and my daughter was in bliss. Until the girl swung her arm and flung sand into my daughter’s face. Wet sand, with big grains that hurt. My daughter started crying, smearing more sand and dirt into her eyes, then cried more and I glanced over to that father with a look of “a little help over here?” Nothing. The girl who flung the sand seemed sort of surprised my daughter was crying, and I had to do the parenting thing about how throwing sand is not okay, but even I could sort of gather that this girl didn’t quite know right from wrong. The young boy whose shovels the girl had actually “shared” came over to claim his stuff and I realized this verbal diapered girl had twisted the truth about whose shovels they were. At that point, I did talk to an adult, the nanny of the boy, the only person of color in the park, and she was willing to have a bit of adult conversation. The girl went off to play and by the time we left, I never did see her father interact with her even once.
What’s my point of this story?
Well, then my daughter and I traveled back to the Pacific Northwest. To a rain-cleaned sunny and warm, sparkling-through-the-trees kind of day. Before we drove another hour and a half over the coast range, I decided to run out a little energy with her at a park. The park was full of people my daughter’s age and she practiced introducing her little-self left and right. We got to know some folk – the two year old girl who climbed on top of every structure, even the teeter-totter, whose mother said she was “crazy adventurous,” the father of a eleven month old with another kid on the way, the twin girls in summer dressed who shared their “cheesy” snacks, and another cute three year old boy, who took my daughter up and down the big slide as I had a wonderfully commiserating conversation with his mom about the difficulty of the “adjustment period” we have with our sometimes home husbands’ – as hers was a pilot, away a lot, like my fisherman husband. I was so enjoying the sense of community and the mix of kid-play and adult conversation.
I then met a friendly dad, the antithesis of the North Shore diapered girl’s dad, who played with his son and interacted with him as he drove on the car play-structure. My daughter and this boy shared the wheel and took turns in the passenger seat. The father and I talked a bit; I found out he was a journalist, and we discussed some writing things. I got his name, because I like to meet new, local writers and read their stuff. And then when it was time to go, (even I didn’t want to leave) my daughter miraculously didn’t throw a fit, but actually ran to the car to get in. I was so happy to be home, I felt kind of elated, actually.
When we arrived at our house that afternoon, I went about unpacking and taking care of old business. My daughter, away from her own stuff for two weeks, played with her dolls and puzzles and forgotten toys for a long, long time. I’d put away all our stuff, called some people for my husband’s business who needed calls returned, checked my unchecked-for-days email, peered into the living room to see my daughter still occupied, and so decided to Google that cool father-writer from the park before I forgot his name. Apparently he’s quite a successful journalist and has written some stuff I’d be interested in reading. That is, until I found his home page, where his Twitter feed showed that he’d tweeted exactly this: “Surrounded at the park by conversation of Cesarean births. Must e & e (evade and escape).” My elation deflated.
My first thoughts were, “How did I miss that conversation??!!! I was at that park and I can usually sniff out a conversation about any kind of birth!” But then I felt mad. I thought, meanly and snidely, “It must be so nice to have the privilege to evade and escape conversations about birth.” The words “male entitlement” crept into my head.
My better self (who came out a bit later) reasoned that perhaps this father-writer-man witnessed his own wife have an unwanted Cesarean and the memory caused him pain, like conversations about difficult births would remind my own husband of the hardships he saw me go through. I remembered the instant where my own husband had to call my mother to tell her we were transferring to the hospital, and though I’d been in labor for over 36 hours and pretty much was entirely self-focused, my husband started to cry – sob, actually, blubbering out the words “hospital transfer,” – and I realized that the hard, long labor wasn’t only affecting me. I felt terrible for my husband, the father to be of our sweet girl.
I hope the scenario I described above is the case for the writer-dad at the park, because otherwise, his tweet is a dealbreaker for me in terms of wanting to read a word more of his writing. Even if the latter is the case – his wife suffered and perhaps is still sad – throwing out that kind of comment on a Twitter-feed strikes me as callus at best and careless at worse. I mean, what if his wife reads it? I’m sure my husband has wanted to evade many a conversation I had with him about the Cesarean birth of our daughter, but would he say it out loud? No.
So, since I never answered the question about what’s the point of my story, it’s possible I don’t actually have one, only some vague ideas about privilege and parenting, opportunities and education, fatherhood and motherhood, places, people, and parks. I'm perhaps too travel-weary to flesh all these ideas out. I guess we all just do the best we can.

06 June, 2011

Childbirth and Publishing

I’ve been working on this analogy about how the way I experienced the birth of my child is like how birthing my creative work has been. Even though the final outcome of my child’s birth was not what I wanted – i.e. c-section and ensuring numerous complications – the final product, my daughter, is fabulous and wonderful and, yes, the light of my life. And, actually, I have a lot of lovely memories about my labor: my husband being at my side encouraging me, a candle given to me by a good friend burning at the end of the tub where I labored; I watched it burn and knew that friend was with me, the walk I took while along the dark asphalt littered with lovely fall-colored leaves, where sunshine rayed through overhead canopy of huge deciduous trees. So, though the final outcome of the labor took place in a hospital operating room with sterile bright lights, a dozen frantic people, and my body split open – all in stark contrast to the ways I’d hoped the finale of my child’s birth would be – the only moment I really care about is when I saw my child’s face for the first time, with the tiny constellation of melia on her sweet nose and her whole face turning to me when I said, “hi baby,” showing me her gorgeous bright wide eyes of recognition. I am honored to have all those good memories of labor, and quite glad, after all the complications I endured, that I lived to remember them.
In my last post, I mentioned how in similar ways, birthing the final products of my creative writing has also not happened in ways I hoped. Originally, I wrote that my hope had to do with having “enough [creative writing] published to make some money to contribute to my family’s income.” After a conversation with a friend who’d read the post however, I deleted that last sentence, because I’d realized that statement wasn’t completely accurate and was moreover confounding the analogy I am trying to make. (I love that I can “publish” my posts and then edit them later.)
The truth is, I don’t write for money. I simply love writing, and, for me, the act of creating through words is a spiritual and meditative process, with the hierarchy of literary genes, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, helping me to reach these spiritual planes. Plus, I love reading other people’s writing – there are so many writers whose work has helped me understand my being-ness, my relationships, my feelings. The very sounds of words and individual letters and the creation of images to express feelings and thoughts in ways helps unite us all – and so, writing is my passion, and I have done it for years without making much money at it.
So while I would like to contribute to my family’s income via my passion, I realized I have done so via teaching creative writing classes for the local college and private workshops and winning two monetary awards (though both so long ago and slight in remuneration). As far as my own writing goes, I realized, money would just be an indicator people were actually reading my work, relating to it, liking it, perhaps even being helped by it, which is what I really hope for.
But, my other secret dirty truth, or secret dirty hope, besides wanting to help people or to make some money for my creative efforts, is that I also want validation from people whom I perceive as knowing something about writing; i.e. literary bigwigs like publishers and agents. I’m egotistically driven, and that fact is sad, but, nonetheless, true.
The other day, I read an article about self-published writers making a mint on their books and then I did a bunch of Internet surfing in search of what it takes to be successful at self-publishing. I was thinking, as far as money and readership, I could put my novel out there in e-book format, thereby making amends to all the trees I killed writing that novel over a dozen plus years, and appeasing all those friends who’ve been asking to read it for so long. Moreover, thought I as I daydreamed about self-publishing, I could get my AV artist friends to make me a super-cool book trailer I’ll put on YouTube, and then I’ll use all the social media I know how to use, and learn even more about those I don't, to promote myself. I can do all that, I thought as I scampered around my office, surfing, reading, scheming, panting. I’d make some money through self-publishing, and I’d be happy those characters in my novel I lived with for so long were finally out there relating to people.
But, ultimately, I thought, I’d be sad because the literary bigwigs, most likely, wouldn’t notice my novel even for a moment. And then I actually read some of the excerpts of those novels out there in cyberspace, with their cliches and abunance of adverbs – "she said, self-importantly" – and, for the most part, their horrible cover designs. Self-publishing, I realized, felt to me like a c-section birth. Did I really want to do that to myself again? I still feel bad enough about my actual c-section, and what my ego perceives as having failed in childbirth. I don’t know if I could take what I perceive (or what my ego perceives), as selling my long-worked on novel short like that.
This analogy isn’t perfect; indeed, comparing one particular but actual childbirth to the birth of a novel is rather messy, perhaps even bloody, as in, too much over-thinking bloody.
After a few days of dreaming and Internet surfing and reading about self-publishing, the spinigitis in my head reached dangerously feverish temperatures. I had to tone myself down, so I handed my daughter over to my husband, and went to meet with some friends to help get me grounded. When I entered the room, I started to cry at the very relief from my own ego-fever. I admitted how I was sitting at the musty deathbed of a terminally ill man named the Publishing Industry, waiting for his blessing, while the rest of the writers were moving on, taking things into their own hands, letting their novels and books out into the universe and cyberspace. Crazily, that dying breath of validation from the old man who may never quite die was what my ego wanted. I also talked about how I am still sad, two and a half years later, about my actual c-section and how I think, perhaps, it’s time to move on from that sadness, much of which is egoistic in origin in that I did not birth my child in the mother-earth-goddess-fashion I hoped for. I asked for recovery from myself.
And then, outside the window, I heard the familiar grumbling of a diesel truck. I walked outside to find my husband and child in the parking lot. I went to the window of the truck to see my girl in her carseat, her entire face wet with tears and snot.
“She’s been crying for you for an hour. She only stopped crying when I said maybe we could go find you,” my husband said, his voice weary, as he unbuckled her and she climbed out the window, reaching for me.
“I wanted you, Mama,” my daughter said, and she hugged me.
I held her slender little body close against mine, tucked my chin into her little neck, and sobbed. I felt in that moment how the way a creative being is born into the world doesn’t really matter; though it may really hurt. What matters is the final product – the creative life force and the love we feel for that force.
“I want you, too, honey,” I whispered. I kissed my daughter’s cheek, now wet with my tears.
As a family, we walked then to the beach, the sun already set, but the sky streaked with orange and pink, the ocean calm and the slight breeze still holding the only warm temperatures we’ve had all year. My own ego-fever relieved, I breathed in the warm air and felt joy as I looked back to the footprints we’d made in the sand. I don’t yet know for certain what I’ll do with all my creative writing projects still in drawers or those yet to be written. But I know the steps I take to get there, with love and support from family and friends, is the only journey that counts.