Especially as I watch events unfold like the university massacre in Kenya--where 150 Christian students were executed for their beliefs by members of a terrorist group pretending to be acting in line with Islam--I begin to think religion is the bane of our world. When a father tosses his child into cold bay waters from high atop a freeway bridge, I doubt there is a god. When thousands of women and children in Nigeria remain missing after being kidnapped by terrorist groups like Boko Haram, I definitely doubt that the god up in his heaven is the one I've long believed I know. Still, my faith remains. Like lint on a black shirt. Like a cat hair interrupting the surface of a fresh cup of coffee. Like a plastic bag tangled in the branches of a tree. Inexplicable. Unexcisable. Inconvenient.
I'm in the midst of a thoughtful and provocative anthology titled Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics & Atheists. Little interests me more than philosophical writing by poetic people on their personal systems of belief. Every one feels like a touchstone for me. They remind me to live an examined life. They remind me of all I have in common with the majority of mankind. It is a peaceful, hopeful, thoughtful, reasonable majority, and one I'm happy to point out does exist.
In Anne Perry's essay What Do I Believe?, I came across this gem:
That brings me face to face with my black dog of a word: obedience. I have no respect for disobedience nor for an instant do I advocate it. As children, we must begin by obeying. We are not safe to do anything else. But I want to move as fast as possible to the concept of learning, discovering, eventually doing the right thing because I understand it, and it is who I wish to be! To do something because I am told to and will be rewarded for it--or punished if I don't, or even to please God--is not a worthy purpose. It may have to be part of the process, but my goal is to become the person who does the brave, honest, or kind thing because it is my nature. It is not what I do; rather, it is who I am.
I want to be brave, not just look like it; be honest because I have no wish to lie, above all to myself. I want to help others because I see my own pain in theirs, and I want to ease it--for them, not for me. It may be a long journey!
Here in my safe, happy corner of Oslo, there is little I can do to stop angry, violent people from doing angry, violent things to those who are helplessly located in the path of destruction. All I have are my prayers and my vote to affect the big picture, and often both of these things seem laughably inadequate. But I can work on myself toward a definable end, namely the one Anne Perry so eloquently outlines here. I can examine my own life and actions and affect the people in my path, encouraging them to do the same. Who knows? Perhaps this butterfly effect will reach someone who has known real peril. Perhaps the good can still own the day.
As I close in on the birth date of my daughter, I'm also reassured by quotes like the one above. Life is a long journey, and hers is just beginning. Obedience will be one of her first, cognizant stages in life. She will be looking to Jonathan and me to guide her choices. But I will want her to know that we'll still be learning, too. That all of us are lumps of clay.
I received a past due notice from the university library this week. I owe them 80 nok and a Norton Anthology of American Literature. The book has been sitting in our front hallway awaiting its return since last month, but I haven't been on campus since just before my birthday. It turns out that, even an easy pregnancy like mine is too taxing in the last month to make sitting behind a desk for four hours twice a week worth it. I miss being in school, but I'm happy with the reason.
My baby girl, my little Hazelnut, is due today. We discovered my pregnancy fairly early, at exactly four weeks, so this day has been a long time coming. At the same time, the pregnancy has moved smoothly, so my moments of real impatience have been few. I wanted to feel her sooner than I did (21 weeks). I wanted to start to "show" sooner than I did (26-ish weeks). And now... I want to meet her!
For a control freak, pregnancy can be especially strenuous. We can't control any of the aforementioned milestones. We have no idea how our labor and delivery will go. Instead, we dutifully watch what we eat and how much we exercise, and we read book after book about pregnancy and childbirth until we have at least a false sense of control on that issue.
Here's the stack I've worked through over the last few months. My favorite was Becoming a Mother by Gro Nylander. I read the English translation of this Norwegian classic, and its reasonable, encouraging tone made me confident about motherhood. It's one of two books I'm bringing to the hospital with me. The other is Australian midwife Juju Sundin's Birth Skills, which has equipped me for labor. By that, of course, I mean that I understand that the pain I feel will be purposeful, and I hope this will alleviate my fight or flight reflexes and keep me calm. I also have a list of strategies to help me cope with the pain. Whether I will have the presence of mind to execute those strategies when the big day comes is anyone's guess. But still, a false sense of security is better than none at all in my world!
Beyond that, I found the two What to Expect books to be a little cliche, but the First Year edition should be a good reference. And I'm very pleased with The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp. Here's hoping his fourth-trimester philosophy makes as much sense in concrete as it does in the pre-baby abstract.
Last night, I led what may have been my last Oslo Writers' League (OWL) meeting for a few months. At the tail end of an unseasonably snowy day, ten of us managed to make it to Cafe Fedora (our generous hosts) to discuss the third OWL anthology. At this point, everyone contributing to the anthology has swapped their pieces for critique. So, to start us off, I ran through a few tips on revision... that dreaded, necessary next step.
Take a couple of days between accepting feedback and attempting to apply what you learned to your manuscript. As noted in an article titled Write First, Edit Later, "Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you'll know which."
Now that someone else has given your piece a read, it's a good time to ask the big question: Does the story achieve its goals/the goals of the author? This is a question the author alone can answer. Remember that, once the story is out there in published form, you can't stand over the shoulder of every reader interjecting page flips with, "What I meant to say..." or "See, that makes sense because..." Once released, your story is open to each individual's interpretation.
Revision is the author's chance to take feedback from initial draft readers and use it to make certain that the story works on the appropriate levels. It is interesting? Is it memorable? Is it surprising? Is it easy to follow? Is it consistent in pacing and/or voice? Even if you didn't ask your reader these questions beforehand, go back and ask after the fact.
The opening line
Stephen King makes the case for the importance of the opening line: "We've talked so much about the reader, but you can't forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who's actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it's not just the reader's way in, it's the writer's way in also, and you've got to find a doorway that fits us both."
Now, I'd say that the writer's way in is only important in the first draft. It's the thing that gets your pen onto the paper, which is sometimes half the battle. Finding an opening that is unique, beautiful, gripping, informative, all-of-the-above for the reader is something that can best be done in revision. Use the fresh pair of eyes offered by your critique partner to help you identify the ideal opening. Often, you've already written it, but it may be buried deeper in the piece.
Native Norwegians stood stranded at bus stops, boots deep in drifts of white, scratching their heads and wondering how they could have been so wrong. Within the last few weeks, optimistically, gravel has begun to disappear from the sidewalks. Clusters of crocuses were planted in boxes outside apartment buildings and storefronts. Usually, the Norwegians aren't so far off about the onset of spring, and I depend on them to let me know what's happening. (I'm a Californian. I don't know how to identify seasonal shifts. I got a pedicure yesterday.)
I had to dig my snow boots back out of my closet, reluctantly stuffing my sweet, little spring-pink toes deep into the shearling. I had to put on my parka again. Thankfully, after telling the Hazelnut to suck in, I was still able to zip it all the way up over my bump.
It took me a while to process the question a friend posted on Facebook.
Can some of my feminist friends please enlighten me as to why I would offend you by saying that a model in a photograph has a "come & get it" look?
I turned it over and over in my head. The expression "come and get it," even associated with a female fashion model, didn't trigger my disdain or wrath. But it did make me blink. I got that feeling I used to get when fly fishing (poorly). A light resistance, a snag, when my fly caught on a bush behind me or in a clump of reeds on the opposite bank. It passed up the tippet, the line, the rod, and played against my palm. Notice you're stuck, said the feeling. You can unstick me if you're careful and dextrous. Just don't tug too hard or too rashly, otherwise, you'll lose the fly.
The phrase/cliché "come and get it" not only objectifies the woman in question, but places her in a position where she's objectifying herself for her (male) viewers. The phrase is overtly sexual in nature and implies that "it" can be taken from her by the men in question. Given the long history of women being subjugated to positions of sexual property/territory by men in power--at best conquests, and at worst collateral damage--any self-sublimating terminology like this could be seen as insulting.
That said, we all know the "come and get it" look. There's a reason it's a cliché. And my brand of feminism includes the expectation that women living empowered lives in first world countries are aware of their own sexuality and how to guard it or wield it as they see fit. I begrudge no woman the right to dress or speak or act in a way that calls a man to "come and get it;" nor do I believe that dressing, speaking, or acting that way relieves men of any responsibility in a sexual transaction. So long as the "come and get it" is an invitation, and the woman casting the glance is capable of consent, I have no problem with it.
It happened. A miracle. Someone (other than me) woke up one day and realized that Oslo was sorely lacking in the Mexican Food department. Yes, there's Taco Republica near the river, one of my favorite Oslo restaurants, but the cost of two tiny (albeit delicious) tacos there will make you want to cry into your extremely expensive Corona. Absolutely worth the price on a special occasion, because the ingredients are incredibly fresh, and the corn tortillas will melt in your mouth. But for an everyday Mexican craving? Not realistic.
Enter El Camino.
Patterned after America's super-successful Chipotle chain, El Camino offers a streamlined, build-it-yourself menu: burrito, bowl, or tacos. Ingredients are fresh. Tortillas are made on-site. It's a fast, flavorful experience, and the cost is absolutely reasonable by Oslo standards.
I am egg.
I am shell, white, yolk. I am fertilized.
I am haven. I am universe.
I am holding on. I am necessary. I am perpetual.
I am passing the time and counting down, but also keeping a record of these moments.
I am the only one who can feel her.
I am feeder. I am breeder.
I am cliché. I am tradition.
I am gene pool.
I am eternal.
I am quiver, oyster, envelope, compass.
I am a planter box. I am prairie.
I am heavy.
I am round.
I am passed over by the eyes of strangers.
I am envied. I am scorned.
I am offered chairs.
I am strong.
I am limited in my range of motion.
I am limited in the range of what I can eat and drink.
I am thirsty.
I am whole. I am hopeful.
I am two hearts, two brains, two tongues.
I am singing to her in the shower.
I am reading to her from my favorite books.
I am nesting.
I am sleeping, if miserably.
I am unsure of my footing and pausing on the stairs to breathe.
I am daunted.
I am undaunted.
I am full of dreams. I am peaceful.
I am aquarium. I am marsupial.
I am doing nothing new in the history of womankind.
I am doing everything new in the history of me.
I am lost in thought, forgetful.
I am attuned to the emotions of the children of others.
I am aware of my own mother's sacrifices.
I am brave. I am dependent.
I am lusting after my husband. I am dormant volcano.
I am potential energy.
I am half an equation.
I am pod. I am capsule.
I am en route to delivery.
I am tickled by kicks that land behind my ribs.
I am forced to stand up abruptly.
I am spilling over with words. I am learning a new vocabulary.
I am open to change. I am unwilling to slow down.
I am never alone.
I am hamster ball.
I am confident. I am bound to make mistakes.
I am incredulous that responsible adults will soon send me home with an infant to care for.
I am vibrating.
I am waves in the ocean. I am wind against the wheat field.
I am the keeper of a generation. I am gripped by fear at random.
I am primal.
I am evolutionary.
I am wrapped around a gift I don't get to keep.
I am prepared only to be surprised.
I am preemptively heartbroken.
I am protective. I am armed for bear.
I am destined for pain.
I am swollen with grace, pride, and water-weight.
I am always in the bathroom.
I am threshold. I am crossroads.
I am arms wide open.
I am time bomb. I am one beat in a universal rhythm.
I am a volunteer. I am selfish and foolhardy.
I am wishing on stars. I am speaking to God.
I am waiting.
I am patient and impatient.
I am, for a little while longer, at least, still...
As much as we're aware of the short term challenges of parenting a newborn, Jonathan and I are constantly considering what will come after that. After the incessant diapering, the breastfeeding, the sleep training and failures and subsequent exhaustion, the just-barely-managing-to-maintain-sanity-after-four-straight-hours-of-screaming, etc. We can't practice any of that stuff. It's just going to come. If we have the stamina, and if we remember to rely on and support one another, I have a feeling that, given our basic competency in life, we'll survive that stage. All three of us.
From there, the questions become bigger. More philosophical. More nuanced. What can we do to make her a compassionate person? How can we teach her to respect the natural world? What should our reaction be the first time she lies to us? Which manners are most important, and how much stress should be put on her to learn them fast and follow them? Can ambition and self-motivation be taught without also damaging her psyche? Must we allow her to make our mistakes all over again for herself?
Yes, I know it's impossible to answer many of these questions. But I love that we're asking them now. Jonathan has the mind of a philosopher, as well as of an engineer. Hearing him devote time and energy to the prospect of fatherhood warms me all the way to my toes. My cup runneth over.
In his memoir Hitch:22, Christopher Hitchens makes this observation about fatherhood:
To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase 'terrible beauty.' Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it's a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else's body.
I know my husband's heart better than anyone. He chose me to be its keeper for the rest of our lives, and I continue to be honored by that choice. Knowing that there soon will come another human who has an absolute claim to his heart, too, is a little scary. His heart has always been safe with me. I hope it will always be safe with her.
Photo: Last summer, we visited Telemark with some friends. On the back terrace of the famous timbered Dalen Hotel, after a round of aquavit, we found an antique spyglass, which made Jonathan's whole day.
Last week, we lost Jonathan's grandpa, George D. Camp, at the age of 92. Unfortunately, we were unable to fly home to California for the funeral and memorial service, but we did have the chance to send something to be read at the memorial service. Jonathan and I talked for a long time about his relationship with Grandpa Camp, and I used that as an inspiration to write something in Jonathan's voice and from his point of view:
grandpa's hands were large, squared off at the fingers, and always in motion,
whether he was building a new machine, swinging a golf club, or telling a story
at my parents' dinner table. He was quick to laugh, and this was indicative of
his happiness and fulfillment. After all, he'd accomplished so many of the customary
goals of American men: a long, loving marriage, a healthy family, a home he
built himself, and a career that provided for his wife and children. By every
indication, my grandpa was a simple, old-fashioned man, embodying all the best
parts of what have been termed "traditional American values." It would be easy
to sum him up this way, but his legacy in my life is far more complex.
losing Grandpa Camp, I've been trying to put my finger on what exactly he gave
or taught to me, personally. This has been difficult, because I cannot recall
specific lessons about the "hot side" of an electrical outlet, or how to mark
off the foundation of a house. These practical lessons, along with so many
others, I picked up from my dad and his brothers, my Uncle Don and Uncle Gene.
These three men--capable and intelligent and fun and generous with their
knowledge--shaped me directly into the man, husband, and soon-to-be father I am
today; and Grandpa Camp was the genesis of all of that.
Today, many people see only the mystery in things: plumbing, circuitry, a car's engine, the internet. So long as these things work the way they're supposed to, the average person has no interest in understanding the way they work. If a thing breaks, these people call someone like my grandpa. He saw the world through a different, less passive lens. He believed in the inherent logic of the world built around us. This was not an idle curiosity, but rather something active. Not only did he wonder how the mechanics of things functioned, he wanted to pull those things apart and put them back together. And that's exactly what he did throughout his life, a practice that made him both inventive and dependable.
Curiosity is something most of us are born with, but curiosity left unencouraged is almost useless. Grandpa stoked the fire of curiosity in his three sons, and that was passed along to me. Today, when I walk into a room, I see more than four blank walls. I see what is likely behind them. If I'm not certain, I want to know, and I'm willing to pick up my tool box and set to work finding out. I will hammer through the dry wall. I will lift the hood of the car. I will reverse engineer a difficult piece of computer code. This is what Grandpa Camp gave me: Confidence in my own competence.
hope to instill this same valuable trait of character--this constructive curiosity--in my own daughter and, in this way, to
allow Grandpa's legacy to channel down into the next generation.
I grew up without grandparents close by. My Grandpa Ed (Pancoast) died before I was born; my Grandpa Pete (Campagna) lived in Illinois, so I saw him only a handful of times. When I met and married Jonathan, I inherited his grandparents, all four still living and lovable. We spent so many holidays and birthdays with them. I blew out candles on the same cake as Jonathan and Grandpa Camp. The grandpas exchanged war stories at the dinner table; the grandmas debated the best way to wring the neck of a chicken. When Jonathan's Grandpa Wilson passed away at the end of 2012, I realized how close I'd become to these four beautiful people. I consider them my grandparents, too.
My brother-in-law, Josh, recorded the memorial service for us. We watched last night, which made us feel close to the family. Grandpa Camp was a wonderful man of god, a generous human being, a builder, a legend, a good neighbor, a loving husband and father and grandfather. I wish he'd been able to meet his first great-grandchild. Now I'm just hoping the Hazelnut considers arriving a couple of days early so that Jonathan can continue to share his birthday with someone he loves. Either way, we'll always take the time on April 16 to remember Grandpa Camp.
So, it's gray in Oslo. Again. This year, there's no escaping it, sadly. Oh, how I wish we could. Last year, we snatched up a cheap airfare deal on Norwegian and ran off to Malaga, Spain for a few days in February. Those memories are all that's sustaining me right now. Sunshine. Sea breezes. Churros dipped in chocolate. Sangria. Tapas. Flowers.
Our first day in Málaga was sunny and bright. We walked straight to the famous Cathedral of Málaga, which we could see from our hotel room window! The Renaissance era church is decorated with detailed stonework and brightly colored mosaics.
The cathedral is most notable for its lone bell tower, dubbed La Manquita, meaning The One-Armed Lady.