30 July, 2011


The other day I got another massage, my first one since Christmas, which is not a good track record in terms of self-care. The massage was from one of those group discount deals in a place I’d never heard of, located in the middle of nowhere and far away from child care. But this massage was a mother’s day gift from my husband and I was determined to use it and not let the group-online site make money off of him by never using their coupon. I dropped off my daughter at her grandma's, said goodbye as my girl wailed away while pressing her nose flat against the screen door as I drove into mid-day traffic to go get relaxed.
The place was in an industrialized part of the boonies, where there are oxymoron-named business parks and big box stores. The antithesis of my usual place of massage. Because of poor signage, I parked on the wrong side of the building where I was headed, then had to walk alongside the building and promptly stepped in a puddle of muddy water that I hoped wasn’t leaking from anywhere gross. The actual massage place smelled of too many essential oils to wrap my olfactory nerves around, had Muzak spitting from overhead, and housed a big receptionist desk that dwarfed the person behind it. The massage therapist who came to greet me was a perfectly quaffed large woman in a floral lab coat – the kind of highly-masked, very restrained woman with a quiet angel voice lilting toward a hint of Southern drawl, who my judging mind thought might actually murder people and bury them in her yard. But I followed her through the beige-painted corridors of the big building, for my muscles were tight and I was desperate for a massage.
I’ll cut this story short – bypassing the weirder details of the therapist’s super long explanation about my upcoming massage, the dark, colorlessness of the room, the fact that I upgraded to a deep tissue massage for $50, and the fact that she wouldn’t touch my feet – and get to what she said near the end of her elbow-digging, painful-to-the-point-of-wanting-to-throw-up massage, “Honey, your tension is not normal, every-day-tense people tension. Something is wrong with your insides.”
After a bit more conversation while she dug her thumb under my shoulder blade, in which I told her I did have gallstones, she turned me over and sneered. “Naw,” she said, her hairdo unmarred one strand during the rigors of her work, “Seems like something else. Your bladder maybe, or uterus?”
“Um,” said I, “Well, I did have a massive hemorrhage after a C-section two and a half years ago.” Then I started to fucking cry. Now normally, I don’t mind crying on the massage table, and indeed I have done it often, but in that strange environs, I was none to happy about the tears rolling into my ears. But to the masseuse’s credit, her mask melted a little and she patted my shoulder.
“Aw honey,” she said, “I see by your tears what I say is true. Your organs have feelings, you know. You need to lay your hands on your uterus every day, going to bed and waking up, and tell your uterus you love her.”
The pain of the massage and the soreness of my butt and shoulders afterwards were nothing compared to having to tell my uterus I love her. But, I have been doing exactly this – laying my hands on my still-swollen belly and saying, “I do love you. You carried our child, you made her so healthy, you helped her become who she is. I am sorry we had to cut you open to get her out. I want you to heal.”
I feel ridiculous doing this kind of healing work. But, that massage woman was just weird enough I figured her intuition must be right. I’ve come out of denial about some physical signs I’ve had in my uterus like cramping and strange, sharp pains. And, several months ago now, I got an abnormal PAP, which I’ll have to get checked out again soon. Until then, I am willing, even if reluctantly so, to do what I can to heal myself.
The uterus – or womb, as I like to call her because the word womb is so much gentler and kinder of a word – is women’s connection to creativity, according to many healing traditions. The fact that my creative life is in flux is no coincidental occurrence in light of new awareness about my womb. There is much work to do on both fronts. I start, besides saying these silly affirmations and deciding on which doctor and/or printing press to spend my money, by reading about the uterus’ connection to the body.
In Debbie Shapiro's book, Your Body Speaks Your Mind, the author says “the womb is the centre of creative life, the darkness from which light emerges, the female heart. Issues that can arise here are, therefore, deeply connected to our inner world, our darkness and most primordial feelings. These are particularly to do with being a woman and/or a mother. Feelings of doubt, guilt, failure, shame, fear, resentment, hurt, loneliness, being unnourished, being unable to nourish - all these and more are connected with the womb.” I don’t know what mother doesn’t feel some of the latter-named feelings – who can avoid such vulnerability when rearing another independent human being? And when it comes to mothering, what feelings are not encountered as tugs in the womb – and not just the dark ones, but also, all the positive feelings like joy, wonder, pride, and regenerating love? Reading that passage, however, does make me ask, how often do I allow myself to feel the full range of these feelings? How often do to I try to stuff the negative one, or spend time on, say, the computer, to avoid the bright glare of the positive feelings? How often do I do self care? (I think one massage every six months would indicate, “not often enough.”)
I’m particularly interested what Shapiro says about the womb as the female heart. As a teenager, see, I had open heart surgery because of a hole in my heart. I’ve always said that experience was a positive one – one where I grew into my womanhood without all the shame and self-consciousness that many other teen girls often experience. The experience of having my only other major surgery on my womb, however, I’ve so far said, has not been similarly positive. But I am now willing to rewrite this getting-old story – to use all the gifts of my creativity to find new light in any darkness I perceive within my womb. No matter what unfolds from here, I know my creative work needs to be strong and deep, loved and nurtured and in quite touch with my wise inside woman in order to heal my wounds and my womb. What if I said my second major surgery was a positive one? What if I really let go of my old story? Who would I be if all that tension dissolved? I am excited to find out the answers and simultaneously pray for the strength to hear them. My hope in writing all this down is that other women and their mythic womanhood wombs feel loved enough to do the same.

20 July, 2011

Blood Loss

Being an artist of any kind is a tricky undertaking. I’m no visual artist; I’m a writer. I see my life in words and I love words, sounds of words, even the shape of letters, and I’m fine not being a visually minded kind of person.
But, like any artist, getting to my actual work is often hard. In my case, these days, I like to tell myself the “getting to” is hard because I have a two year old, going on three, who resists going to sleep with a fierceness and tenacity that any pit bull could admire, so by the time I’ve wrangled her to bed, I’m too exhausted to work, and often too exhausted to accomplish much of anything, like dinner dishes, or picking up around the house. The good news is now she actually sleeps through the night, most nights, and so if I can pull myself together, I can get up quite a bit earlier than her to write.
But lately, specifically since last Saturday, I’ve been having a hard time pulling myself together. I’ve been waking up early enough this week – yesterday almost five hours earlier than my daughter – and so, one would think that’s quite a bit of time to get writing done, much less housework. But I positively frittered away the time. See, since last Saturday, five days now, I’ve woken up every morning with a medium-grade headache, and, I’ve been telling myself I’m too sick to be creative. So, I’ve done things like gone back to sleep, or read random books from my shelves, or, spent hours surfing the web and getting involved in all kinds of online mom dramas that have nothing to do with who I am or what I believe. Plus, I’ve felt a deep need to “process,” about the birth, and specifically, about the hemorrhage I had after the birth. And though I did talk to a few friends about my feelings this week, I’ve also spent a lot of time being down on myself that I still have this need, that I still haven’t healed.
What are the headaches and procrastination all about? Well, I had this thing happen last Saturday, which takes some explaining. I recently joined a collaborative art project comprised of many different kinds of artists, as a way, I thought, of “healing” my artist self, and, also, as I told the coordinator when I joined, healing from the birth. I started this blog, which has been a new and good undertaking, also started under the guise of helping me “heal,” but I decided to join this collaborative art project, too, because I felt I wasn’t getting far enough, that I still had too many feelings about the birth, that I hadn’t healed enough in two and a half years and needed to break through more and move on more. I was hoping doing new kinds of art would help me heal more deeply.
How this collaborative project works is each artist starts with a blank wooden panel, puts their mark on it, and then passes the panel on to other artists who continue to create whatever the piece will become. I loved the freedom of the whole idea, loved getting to work with people who see the world via visual clues, and loved the idea of doing something totally different from what I’ve ever done.
Here’s what happened last Saturday: my mark on my panel (of course) had to do with the birth of my daughter and some of the complications afterwards. And (of course) I used words to make my mark instead of using a purely visual technique. The mark I made was in the upper left-hand corner of the panel and the rest of the panel was still blank. I explained my “perspective” to the group at the art studio and happily passed the panel on to whoever would have it next. The woman who took the panel is a professional visual artist. She creates all kinds of great stuff and has a lot of skills. I was excited she took my panel because I thought she would really do something cool. And she did. This artist, with her groovy blue glasses up on top of her head to keep her abundance of orange hair out of her eyes, mixed some red acrylic paint with water in a small container, placed the panel outside on the grass, and threw that bright red paint onto the rest of the panel with a perfect hit, splattering blood red liquid across the board without messing up the original mark I’d made. This woman, while a colleague of mine, doesn’t know my birth story, and I didn’t actually see her throw that paint. But when I heard the other artists exclaim with much surprise, “wow,” and “ooh,” I went outside to see that panel spattered red in such a way that all I saw was blood. My blood. The 4000 cc’s, that’s six pints, of blood I lost after my child was born. Blood, which in reality, I never saw, but only felt rush of, thrown out of my body much like that paint was thrown, quickly and violently.
That image of the paint/blood has been stuck behind my eyes since then. The image has affected my mothering; I’ve kind of sucked at being a parent this week, I’ve not been present in my heart, I’ve been grouchy and impatient. I’ve complained to myself and others about wanting a break this week in order to heal myself and I’ve victimized myself by saying I haven’t gotten a break due to my husband being gone and not having any other child care options. And though I’ve cried and processed with a friend over the phone in bits and pieces, and written about it in my journal, I still haven’t been able shake the image or the ensuing feelings or the damned headaches.
Until this morning. When I again picked up a random book from my shelf. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. And I read this: “What are we trying to heal anyway? The athlete knows the day will never come when he wakes up pain-free. He has to play hurt. Remember, the part of us that we imagine needs healing is not the part we create from; that part is far deeper and stronger. The part we create from can’t be touched by anything our parents did, or society did. That part is unsullied, uncorrupted; soundproof, waterproof, and bulletproof. In fact, the more troubles we’ve got, the better and richer that part becomes.” I realized, in reading this, that my creative Resistance, as Pressfield deems him, was kicking my ass, loving all the excuses I was making for not writing –the headaches, tiredness, and need to heal.
In the case of my hemorrhage, obviously neither my parents nor society caused that particular event. And while the experience was a trauma, this morning, I’ve taken Pressfield’s words to heart and decided, the better and richer my art will be for having had the experience at all. Even when I saw that blood red paint on the panel, though a part of me was rather re-traumatized, my true artist self knew that paint was a beautiful thing – the red splatter was my trouble being made into art, and, deep down, deep in my bulletproof place, I felt grateful and amazed at the synchronicity of my colleague’s artistic decision to throw that container. My lower self has been playing the victim of almost-dying all week, but my core self, my creative spirit, knows she never will die – she will always be here, be present, and be alive and well, and no amount of blood loss can take her away.
All that said, I don’t know what was up with the stars last Saturday, because one of the other artists collaborating in this project did not attend our session because while driving to the studio, she braked her car just in time to witness a motorcyclist hit by an RV coming from the other direction. She saw debris and a human being flying across and then crashing onto the road. She directed people to do CPR while she called 911. But the motorcyclist died. And the people who hit him (he’d crossed the center line), were devastated. I felt terrible to hear this news, sad for our friend to see such a horrible thing, and sad to hear about such a violent death, even of a stranger. My thoughts went out to the motorcyclist’s family and friends who’d lost him. When I called the woman who’d been the witness that afternoon, she was still in shock; she told the story with police-description, stoic facts, and even she knew she hadn’t processed her feelings. Yet. But she’s an artist, too, so I know she will, and though she may have to do some roundabout, procrastinating activities in the meantime, I trust her healing, soundproof inner self will turn her troubles into art, too.

15 July, 2011

Send in the Clowns....or Don't

My daughter is terrified of clowns.
I found out this fact at our local June parade, which is about the biggest event going around these parts, and ostensibly hails in summertime for our rainy coastal home. For weeks prior to this event, our toddler arts group made art projects, via our local arts center, to prepare to march five blocks in the children’s parade that precedes the big parade. It was my idea to have the toddlers group be a part of the parade, as a fun, accumulative celebration of our year together making art. We tie-dyed tee shirts and painted ribbon-flags latched on to small driftwood handles attached with a fishing swivels to make them easily wave. Other members made a banner with the kids’ handprints and decorated paper hats. The kids all had homemade noisemakers. We were ready.
The night before, when I had my usual trouble getting my daughter to go to sleep, I told the tale of how we needed to rest up in order to hike down the street the next day.
“But Mama,” my girl said, “I’m so exciting to march in the parade.” She made me smile at her sweet misuse of grammar.
The morning of, miraculously sunny, we scrambled to get all our art projects together, figure out how to maneuver into the crowds, find a parking space and meet at the designated spot. My daughter jumped up and down when she saw her other tie-dyed tee-shirted friends. My husband, thankfully, was there to help carry stuff and keep an eye on my daughter among the crowd. All was going smoothly.
I turned my back to unfold the banner and set blanket into the red wagon brought to help pull stragglers. When I turned around, all I saw was the giant hole of my daughter’s screaming mouth, her twisted up face and full of fear, her eyes pouring tears. I looked pleadingly to my husband to discern what was up. “The clown,” he said, pointing.
The clown was a man, dressed in a plum-colored suit, with big reddish-pink shoes and possibly green hair. I can’t quite remember because by then my daughter was on my hip, crying, shaking all over, and pleading to go “hoooomeee.”
“Oh honey,” I said, hugging her trembling little bod, but also annoyed, and surprised, and feeling a bit frantic about trying to herd the other toddlers into the lineup for the parade. “We can’t go, sweetie. We’re supposed to march in the children’s parade.” All I could think about was how this “supposed to” was all my idea.
She would not be consoled. “I want to go,” she wailed. She buried her face into my shoulder as the clown neared to hand her a sticker, her absolute favorite thing. I just held out my hand to him.
“Apparently, she’s terrified of clowns,” I said.
The clown smiled, the normalcy of his face and possibly the stubble of his beard apparent under his makeup. “That’s okay,” he said, walking away. “She’s right to have the instinct to be afraid of a man with a fake smile.” He was so kind.
Another pair of clowns appeared, two women dressed in yellow. My daughter trembled more and I forced her to stay by handing her off to my husband’s shoulders. The parade started. Everyone cheered and whooped and clapped. I waved to people as I carried the banner supporting our local arts programs. My daughter looked suspiciously at any passerby and held her ribbon flag near her cheek like a weapon. Her eyes still watered. It was like forcing her to do the Bataan Death March and was the longest five blocks I’ve ever walked. I felt horrible and was relieved when it was finished.
At the end of the children’s parade, all the kids got a bag of goodies (read: sugar and crap), which helped appease my daughter’s suffering. I had hoped she’d want to then watch the big parade, the horses and floats and monster trucks. But she didn’t. She still wanted to “go!” We walked back down the street and saw a girl with her face painted like a butterfly, face-paint being my daughter’s second absolute favorite thing. Until we found out the face paint was in the clown tent. My daughter, now hiking through the crowds on my shoulders, said, “noooooooo!” We blew by the tent and ducked into the relatively calm, serene space of our local farmer’s market.
We convinced our daughter to at least eat a little something and my husband and I watched the parade from afar, listening to loud old rock and roll music echoing off the small buildings as flatbed trucks rolled through town. We ate lunch and bought some berries. We saw a few people and told about our daughter’s fear of clowns to explain why we weren’t watching the parade. And then we saw another tent of local teens trying to raise money for their extracurricular activities by painting faces. I asked my daughter if she’d like to get her face painted by one of the teens. She nodded happily. She sat down in the chair.
“Tell her what you want, honey,” I said, assuming she’d say a butterfly or a flower.
My daughter looked the teenager in the face and said, “I want to be a clown.”
That’s right. She got her face painted as a clown. The teenager took her time and did a great job with my daughter’s red nose, clown smile, black curved high eyebrows, the whole bit. I was amazed and told everyone how some day I would go back to teaching English and use this story as an example of what irony really is.
On the way home, my husband sat in the back seat with our daughter who asked lots of questions about clowns. “Where do clowns sleep?” “What do they wear under their costumes?” “Are there boy and girl clowns?” At home, she studied her painted face in the mirror and I wondered if she was afraid of herself. That night, exhausted from her day, she only reluctantly washed the paint off her face. I imagine she dreamed about clowns.
I’ve told this story several times in the weeks following the event. My daughter talks about it too, telling people she was at the parade but she was afraid of the clowns. We tried another parade for the Fourth of July, but my daughter heard there might be a clown and cried again to go home. That time I did just leave. Why torture her more?
I don’t really know why she’s so afraid of clowns, but the original clown was right: she’s got good instincts. As usual, my daughter teaches me much about how to live in the world. Here’s a list of the recent things I admire in my daughter.
She feels her feelings.
She doesn’t worry anyone is judging her for having her feelings. (I did sort of judge her at first, and she really doesn’t care.)
She tries to understand her feelings by dressing up as, literally embodying, the thing she fears most.
She asks questions to process and reduce her fear.
She has goals to deal with her fear. Recently, I asked her when she might want to see a clown again. She thought about it for a while, then said, “when I’m seventeen.”
And just yesterday evening, a girl in the park cried at a barking dog. Her grandmother explained the obvious by saying the girl was terrified of dogs. My daughter smiled at me and said, “I’m terrified of clowns.” And then she giggled at her fear as she swung in the swing, her blond hair shimmering like silk around her sweet little head.
We should all be so smart to deal with our fears like her.

06 July, 2011

Ode to a BOFFF

Yesterday, my part-time neighbor sat on his stoop tying his shoelaces when he yelled out to me, from about 20 yards away so the whole neighborhood could hear, “Do you know if you’re having a boy this time?”
My daughter and I were just walking back from the park; she pushed her baby stroller, which was piled with dolls and stuffed animals, and I awkwardly bent over the low handle to help her. I heard my neighbor’s question, while steering my child’s stroller off his gravel driveway, and I took awhile to process what he was asking. But then I got it. I stood up. I tugged my tee-shirt over my stomach.
“Oh no,” I said, “I’m not pregnant.” The pleasantness of my own voice surprised me.
“But,” said my neighbor, with a disheartened tone, as though what I said was a personal affront to him, “My wife said you are.”
My daughter pushed the stroller past the man’s overgrown laurel hedges and I was glad to chase her down, out of sight from him, before I said my usual quip when mistaken to be pregnant, “This belly is just leftover from the last one…” I had seen his wife on the way to the park; we talked about gardening, she showed my daughter and I some of her latest projects. I realized, while walking up the street, she must have been thinking that whole time about my swollen belly and what lurked inside.
What lurks inside is a sensitive subject, of course. I’ve written plenty about the complications endured after the birth of my daughter: the distension of my abdomen, the bloating due to gallstones, and yes, the weight gain. Several times in the two and a half years since I actually was pregnant, people have outwardly verbalized they thought I was “with child,” and, for the most part, I take their mistake in stride, even though their mistake indicates a weirdly public (and in my neighbor’s case, very loud) acknowledgement of my weight gain and bodily changes, which then brings up for me the whole question of how skinny and perfect does a woman need to be to not be mistaken as pregnant. Still, long before I had a baby, I did my share of adolescent struggling with body image issues – weight, slenderness, hair color and amount, facial and body features, etc. – and after the birth, I struggled again with all the changes my body has gone through. I have made peace with my body, mostly because, as a feminist, I find the reality that almost all Western women have body image issues an outrage and a travesty. The issue of body image is not my greatest struggle when people assume I’m pregnant.
What comes up even stronger for me is the reality that I’m not pregnant. That I won’t ever be again in all likelihood. That while I might look pregnant, my belly is entirely empty of a growing, wonderful life. I’m sad I won’t have another child. I’m sad I won’t experience being pregnant again. I’m sad I won’t have a chance, ever in this life, to birth a child through my body the way I’d always hoped and dreamed. What lurks in that belly is emptiness and bereavement, and when people point my belly out to me, I guess I can be grateful, because usually at some point soon after their mistake, I actually get to feel those feelings in the form of crying or banging on my bed or processing with a friend or my husband or the blank page, all of which is hard to find the time to do when chasing a toddler around.
I do find it odd that every time people have made this mistaken assumption to my face, none of them have apologized. Not one said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” or “I’m embarrassed,” or otherwise acknowledged that their blurted-out wrongness about another child on the way might have affected me. I also find it odd (read: sexist) that my neighbor asked if I was having a boy, as if my luck might be better the second time around.
I know I’ve said this before, but ultimately, I long for the days when a woman’s body was revered for its fertility and ability to create life, indicated by her large belly, big breasts, and overall plumpness. The days when “zaftig” was a compliment seem ideal to me (that Yiddish word, by the way, means “juicy.” Doesn’t that just sound delicious?) When I fist moved to our little coastal town, there was a women’s boutique along the main road with an overhanging sign, called – I kid you not – “Ample and Alluring.” And while we laughed plenty about that name back then, I kind of miss that sign now.
In some circles, zaftig females are revered, and indeed, people are out there fighting for them. Bear with me now as I take you on a journey of allegory…
One of my husband’s jobs is to fight for marine conservation, which is a controversial issue where we live. When I was only about seven weeks along with our daughter, the whole newness of the pregnancy a secret only for us and immediate family, my husband had to give a talk to a bunch of locals about the importance of new marine protections that were under consideration by the state government. Confident and assured, my husband stood in front of a crowd of about fifty people, most of whom he and I knew and considered friends, and discussed the science behind these proposals. He taught the crowd about what marine scientists call BOFFFs – big, old, fat, fecund females – who are part and parcel of a healthy and thriving ecosystem, in this case a rockfish spawning ground. He showed graphs up on a screen which indicated these BOFFFs produced exponentially higher numbers of healthier fish who could survive greater fluctuations and stresses in their environment. He expounded the importance of creating protections for these BOFFFs so their spawn would then spill out into the rest of the sea to help create yet even more healthy ecosystems. He then told the crowd that there was a BOFFF among us, and pointed to me in the back of the room and said, “my wife, who’s pregnant.” Our crowd of local friends roared with laughter and surprise and joy, as most of them had known us for over a decade and thought we’d never have a kid. I turned bright red, not unlike a healthy rockfish, and felt a mix of emotions, from the shared joy in the room to wanting to kill my husband for telling everyone I was pregnant so early in the game.
Nonetheless, I soon became known around these parts a BOFFF, and a lot of people looked forward to the birth of our daughter. I’m proud of the comparison now, and proud my husband is out there fighting for us. I’m big, old, fat, and fecund. I have a belly that looks fertile to a lot of people. And, though I spawned only one and sometimes am sad about the fact that I won’t spawn another, I produced one heck of a healthy, strong, independent little offspring who I believe will one day strengthen and fortify our murky human sea.