No single thought is more important than any other, at least at the outset.
The trees remain bare all over the city. From my chair on the third floor of the main library I can see across the city to the hills on the opposite side of the fjord, and it is all still black and gray and white. An overcast sky, mottled whites and grays, snagged by the lazy gray turns of seagulls. Spring is on the verge. Spring is tightly wound. Spring is kinetic. There is a paper cut on my thumb. The man beside me at the desk has neon green plugs stuffed deep into his ear canals to block out even the slight rufflings of pages, the scratch of pens, the gentle tapping of keyboards, the sniffing back of running noses, the gurgle of upturned water bottles, the muffled footsteps, the swish of closing doors, the whir of a distant printer, the whispered questions at the reference desk, the unzipping of backpacks. All white and gray noises--delightful sounds--of library life. The man with earplugs finds even these distracting. I don't envy him. And perhaps I am him, too. These sounds now populate this paragraph because I couldn't or wouldn't shut them out and focus on something else. But this is as it should be, perhaps, if I stick with my original thesis. In the moment, unguarded, open, no single thought is more important than any other.
My semester is drawing to a close. There are a few weeks left, but most of it will be dedicated to research and paper writing. Finals come in mid-May, but there's much to do before then. I find it easier now to sit someplace and focus on my assigned readings and writings. I find it easier to tap into that sacred vein where I keep my words and release them onto the page.
In the beginning--January--it was not like this.
Honestly, I felt a bit dead. When I tried to read, the stuff--plot, philosophy--couldn't find purchase in my mind. It was like throwing undercooked spaghetti at the kitchen wall and watching it bounce stupidly and disappointingly to the floor. It was like trying to eat something delicious with a no taste buds. Ash in my mouth. Not for the first time since my daughter was born, I began to wonder whether I would ever be the same again. Whether it would always be this new, numb way. Dread came in a flood and sat there, a stagnant pool. When I moved, everything felt heavy. Heart, hands, head. But I kept trying. And there were, occasionally, shudders and sparks that reminded me of my old self.
It was Whitman that got the gears moving again. A bilge pump. "The young mother and the old mother comprehend me."
It was Hemingway that said, "Don't worry. You have always written before."
Offered in memory of Mimi Chiang
In the fall, I had the honor of receiving an invitation to write an artist's profile for Brygg Magasin's debut all-English issue. Brygg is a big, beautiful magazine covering Scandinavian culture, with an emphasis on coffee. (Brygg is Norwegian for brew.) I opted to interview Kenneth Karlstad, a young, award-winning Norwegian filmmaker. We met at a cafė downtown and talked for a couple of hours, and I drank my first coffee. Ever. Because I wanted to stay true to Brygg's mission... and because I'm a 32-year-old mom of an infant, so, though she is a "good sleeper," I still desperately need caffeine.
Kenneth was a great interview subject. Easy to talk to. Candid. Funny. And we were both pleased with how the piece came out.
In September, the Oslo Writers' League (OWL) launched its third annual anthology, These Twisted Roots. Our whole crew gathered in one of the beautiful halls at Deichmanns Biblioteket, the main library in town, and lots and lots of people showed up to support us! (Turns out offering beer and wine for sale in a gorgeous library really brings in the crowds.) Authors read. A choir sang (Dagsangerne på Sagene). We auctioned off the work of our resident illustrator, Evelinn Enoksen. And all proceeds from the sale of the book and the auction--roughly 17,000 kroner on the night--were donated to Redd Barna, Save the Children - Norway, and its work aiding Syrian refugees.
What a night! It's taken me six whole months to get over the excitement. Okay, okay. It's taken me six months to get my act together and post a blog about it. I'm writing this now with one eye on my busy, busy, busy nine-month-old daughter. She's everywhere, and she takes my brain with her for the ride.
Anyway, I'm proud and happy to say that "Invisibility," which is possibly the best short story I've every written, is one of the fine works available in These Twisted Roots. You can buy your copy today via Amazon, soft cover or Kindle, or via The Book Depository, which offers free international shipping.
A couple of photos from the night:
TOP: Deichmanns Biblioteket on the big night; MIDDLE: Me with my partners in crime and hilarity, the inimitable Zoë Harris and the incomparable Chelsea Ranger; BOTTOM: All the OWL authors and poets who could be present to celebrate. Such a great group!
If you're a writer in Oslo, you're welcome to join us. The Oslo Writers' League meets monthly in the basement of Deichmanns Biblioteket; but you can also join our Facebook group and lurk for a while until you're ready to take the next big step. We're already prepping for our 2016 anthology. Hope to see you there!
It takes guts to say, I am an artist.
I read to my daughter: I am an artist and I paint a blue horse and... a red crocodile and... a yellow cow and... a pink rabbit...
Jonathan juggles to distract her while I clip her nails. How did they get so long so fast? Her fine motor skills are developing quickly. I have the pinch marks on my throat to prove it.
Then I sit in class and sip my coffee. The coffee is new. It makes me shiver with energy, at least for a while.
We are reading Joyce. Easy Joyce. Dubliners. When the teacher asks if anyone has read Ulysses, no hands go up. I volunteer, "I've tried and failed to read Ulysses," which gets a laugh and murmurs of agreement from the class.
I think of Ireland. We visited two years ago and traveled from Dublin to Killarney by train. I wrote and enjoyed both the flicker of emerald fields through the windows and my own reflection in the glass. It was a simpler, vainer time. There was a stop called Mallow. I ate butterscotch ice cream. We tramped the Dunloe Gap.
Back to Joyce. "Araby." I wonder what a rusted bicycle pump is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There are people who are compelled to write what they see, what they know, what they think, even if it isn't popular. Even if it is ridiculed. Even if it earns no money. Glimmers are all they need.
I listen to a podcast. The host says she has decided not to use the word "should" anymore. There is no need to obligate herself to the whims of life. When she does that, she saps her energy and emotional health, leaving only a depleted version of herself for her husband, daughter, friends. The people who ought to receive the best of what she can offer.
Ticket controllers move through the tram car. This happens frequently now. A change since we moved to Oslo five years ago. The boy across from me shrugs and gestures to his dead iPhone. He can't pull up his ticket. He waits for the control officer to give him a receipt for his fine. Instead, the officer reaches into his pocket and presents a portable iPhone charger, a small purple cylinder, and the boy is able to show his ticket. I can feel his relief.
A bitter wind fights the static electricity for control over my unwashed hair. The next bus is eight minutes away. I stomp my feet to warm them.
When I'm acting in my role as mother, I am keenly aware that I'm not reading enough, that I'm falling behind on my schoolwork, that my writing life is disintegrating in my absence. When I'm acting in my role as student, I am painfully aware that I am not holding my daughter in my arms, teaching her, protecting her, enjoying her. When I'm writing, which is almost never, I know I'm neglecting my home, as well as the work I would get paid to do. I am divided against myself.
I felt my mind shudder. Like a disused door pulled unexpectedly over warped floorboards and open for the first time in many dusty years. Like a cold engine under the rusted hood of a car long parked in the drive. Like the thick, taut, chestnut skin over the hock of a horse bitten by the first nasty fly of summer. Like the empty shake of the faucet head after the pipes thaw and water surges forth again.
It happened in my 19th Century American Literature class at the University of Oslo.
Some might think 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday is a bit early for Walt Whitman's famous ego-trip (or transcendental treatise) "Song of Myself". Not I. It's one of my favourite poems. Fourteen hundred-odd lines. Alliteration and assonance and anaphora abound. Catalogues of people and jobs and points of origin. Hot, sweating, teeming, odorous imagery. Free verse. God and god and you and I and democracy and sex and the procreant nature of our species and a lens on the world that zooms in and out and violently, reverently in again.
Being back in the program after a year of maternity leave has not all been easy. Leaving the Cheeks with her dad three days a week took some adjustment. And though I managed to step into the classroom setting in the same old way--taking a seat near the front, speaking soon and loudly and often--I felt rusty, to use a seriously predictable cliché. I still feel that way in Week 3.
But as we delved into Whitman's "Song", zeroing in on one of my favourite sections, the dust seemed to shake itself out of the crevices of my brain.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
My teacher chose me to read these lines aloud. Lines I love dearly and have thought about a thousand times since I first read them as an undergrad more than a decade ago. Lines I'd forgotten, along with all other literary references and artistic trivia, due to my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter.
Ammetåke, the Norwegians call it. Breastfeeding fog.
Reading again of grass and the many things it could be--for Whitman, for you, for me--I felt my mind shudder. Like the sulphurous snagging of the head of a match dragged fast across the rough panel of a matchbox. The rasp of it was delicious even in its unsparking first effort. I could smell the potential.
I offered my close reading of the text and enjoyed the viewpoints of my classmates. When the two-hour lecture ended, I sighed with pleasure and exertion and packed my bag in a hurry so as to return home for a couple of hours and see my husband and daughter. That's how fast my mind can regress into those lower gears. It's a relief. A retreat.
But suddenly a girl who sits near me in class was standing before me. Her eyes were wide and bright, her smile the same, as she asked, "Do you teach?"
I struggled to pull myself back into student mode. My mind shuddered. Like a stick shift pushing against a sluggish clutch.
"I have taught," I answered carefully. "But only writing."
She nodded. I recognised in her all the things I was in the years before I became a mother: enchanted by literature, smitten by learning, eager and interested and dying to be the one who has the answers if only to keep these conversations going with any kindred spirit wiling to join the fun. And then I heard myself say:
"Actually, that's why I'm here. I want to teach literature someday, and this degree will allow me to do that."
Would you believe, friend, that my time in the rabbit hole of early motherhood had made me forget that? I'm in school for a reason. There is a goal. A return to an original dream. To teach. To connect Whitman and his everyman, all-consuming love, pondering of the divine skin-to-skin with people who have never read him before.
That goal feels far away. Impossible, to be honest, particularly with my mind in this shuddering state.
"You would be a wonderful teacher," she said.
This time, beyond the shudder, there came a spark.
We barely remember what life was like without her. Until we do. And then we wish for the old ease. Time, energy, money, the ability to focus on and tend to one another. But then we hear her wake from a nap, and we both want to be the one to collect the grinning, nine-month-old babe from her crib.
I was asked if it's been worth it. This monumental change. This tectonic shift. The trials and tribulations of trying to change something that wasn't in need of changing by being crazy enough or foolish enough to stuff something else bigger and shaped differently inside of it. Was it worth it? The way no single thought will remain solidly in my mind; like undercooked spaghetti hurled at the wall, everything just bounces and flops disappointingly onto the kitchen tile.
She is worth it because she is here and full of exuberant, inspiring promise. And because there's just nothing else you can say about having a child once she's no longer a luxurious and naïve hypothetical.
She is worth it because she overwhelms us with joy at odd and surprisingly frequent moments. And because she looks exactly like both of us at the same time, even though that doesn't seem like it should be possible.
I don't know that I'll ever forget those first dark, chaotic weeks of her infancy, but maybe I will. I'm still not myself. Often I feel like I've ransomed my intellect and my emotional well-being just to have her.
Worth it. Absolutely.
Or at least that's what I'll say without thinking about it too hard. After all, anything less than reckless and total commitment to the cause of motherhood will get you branded as some very unfortunate things in this world.
And besides, I love to sing to her--Red River Valley tonight at bedtime--and I love to kiss her toes, and read her books, and brush her hair. I drop down on all fours in our dirty hallway to coax her forward in the rolling walker. I burn my fingers as I skin hot sweet potatoes to puree and I wipe her running nose again and again. The indiscriminate ma-ma-ma sounds she makes send my heart scampering in my chest, because soon she could say it to me and mean me all at the same time.
Won't that be something? Her Eve moment. Naming the things that walk, crawl, swim, and fly in her garden.
This is motherhood. Parenthood, actually, as Jonathan is now on papaperm three days a week.
We've put the ball in the air and we're moving downfield. Tomorrow we get the keys to our new home. It's all so adult, I can hardly stand it. And though we're exhausted, and though we sometimes question who we are, and though my self-esteem has been hobbled, and though our bathroom often smells like dirty diapers, we wouldn't trade that little girl away.
She tried to pinch a freckle right off my soft, fleshy forearm today--thinking it was just another small thing to be inspected and picked up--and I laughed through the smarting tears in my eyes, because that girl is the most precious, perfect little being in the universe. And we get to keep her for a while. Guide her, guard her. It's a privilege.
You couldn't pay me to have another, I don't think. (And Norway would!) But this little one, this Cheeks McGee, this Little P, this dancing baby... oh, we thank everything from God to our lucky stars for letting us be the ones who have her.
Perhaps, one day, my brain will unfracture; perhaps my hands will refind their places on the steering wheel of sanity. Until then, I'll be taking photos and videos of my giggling, squeaking, precocious girl child and hoping she'll look back on her life with us one day and decide it was all also worth it.
The husband and wife who stormed a work party and murdered 14 people in San Bernadino yesterday left behind 6,100 rounds of ammunition, dozens of unexploded bombs, and a six-month-old daughter. A six-month-old daughter. A six-month-old daughter.
Just when I didn't think these acts of terror could be any less explicable, a mother leaves her six-month-old daughter to follow her husband on an errand of murder and suicide.
A six-month-old daughter. A six-month-old daughter.
My daughter just turned seven months. She is a delight. Her eyes are incredibly blue. Her cheeks are as soft as whipped cream. She is strong, dexterous, curious, patient, determined. Her innocence abounds. The only way I could abandon her on the way to commit an act of violence would be to do it on her behalf. To throw myself in front of her. A mama bear. Walking through fire because it's the only way to secure her safety.
Maybe that's what this woman believed she was doing as she worked in her garage, fitting together the parts of a makeshift bomb. Or as she knelt to pray. Over and over again.
I feel ill at the thought of this woman, because new motherhood binds us. I don't want to be anything like her, but we are alike, simply because having a new baby requires a level of base, primal, survivalist thinking that is unique. I know how many diapers this woman has changed. I know how long she has stood on aching feet, holding a warm, wiggling, wailing bundle. I know she has sung lullabies and blown tummy raspberries and counted piggy toes and played peek-a-boo endlessly. And I can't sync any of those rituals--rooted as they are in tending to the future--with someone who sought violence on any level.
Then again, mothers are sometimes soldiers.
"Tell me this isn't the worst the world has ever been."
Yesterday, after the Hazelnut had been tucked into bed, I sat beside Jonathan and pleaded with him to help me sort these things through. The honey-sweet smell of our baby girl's freshly shampooed hair still clung to my nightshirt. "Tell me that we haven't brought her into the scariest time in history."
It took a few minutes of discussion before we agreed.
No. The world has always appeared to be on the verge of absolute disintegration. World Wars and Cold Wars. Epidemics and pandemics and plagues. Holocaust and genocide. Religious fanatics and witch burnings. Mankind has been attempting to annihilate itself for centuries. The rise of mass shootings in the United States and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East are only the latest in a long, sad, predictable string of avoidable catastrophes, and have replaced things beaten back by the better elements of our society (e.g. HIV/AIDS and other diseases, destruction of the world's rainforests).
This didn't cheer me up.
Since the November attacks in Paris, I've been sitting under an especially dark cloud. I still go out almost every day. I dutifully dress my baby girl in layers of wool and fleece, buckle her into her pram, pull a beanie low about my ears, and walk out the door. I remember where I was on 9/11, and I know that hiding at home and changing my personal prerogatives means the terrorists win. So, we go out.
Sleet melts in the gutters, and I move the way the Norwegians do on the colder days, leaned forward to avoid slipping on black ice between the painted white stripes in the crosswalk. The tree branches are bare and dripping with moisture in the perpetual shade of late-autumn this far north. Until recently, I have always felt safe in Oslo. Even after a Norwegian Christian man set off a bomb in front of the Labor Party's buildings downtown, then massacred almost 70 children on an island in the fjord, I have felt safe. But I'm losing my grip on that feeling.
A pair of cafés. A concert hall. A soccer stadium.
A work party.
A Planned Parenthood office.
A shopping mall. A movie theater. An elementary school.
Today, Oslo's police force is armed. When we moved here, beat cops didn't carry guns, but that changed as terror threats against European cities began to rise. The government almost disarmed the police again recently, just days before Paris. Now I doubt my daughter will ever see the peaceful, optimistic city we once moved to. Rather, she'll grow up believing that all law enforcement officers must carry weapons because criminals are likewise armed, and she requires that level of protection.
Perhaps she'll be right, too, which is more depressing.
Good god, what do I tell her.
And who am I addressing when I say things like Good god?
Every time I see a news story like this one, I hear Lieutenant Dan's voice in my head. Where the hell is this God of yours? he asks Forrest, a man of childlike faith. Indeed. Where the hell is this god of mine?
Politicians slink around and pay lip service and cower before the dismal and confounding fact of the NRA's power. Some of these politicians even claim to pray for an answer to tens of thousands of gun deaths. More than 330 mass shootings in 2015 alone. The Daily News ruffled some feathers today by declaring on its front page that God Isn't Fixing This. Which is true. It's not fixed. Some people think He can't, because He doesn't exist. Some think He won't, because He does exist, but He isn't involved in our everyday lives. Some think He can and will, and so they keep on praying. And some don't think about it at all, but toss out the sinfully easy hashtag with their morning coffee-and-status-update, as though that counts for something.
I did that after Paris, too.
Dear Husband & Father of Our Child,
Thank you for stopping by the grocery store on this cold, drizzly morning to pick up bread and milk. Our cupboards need refilling so much more frequently these days, and the kid isn't even eating solid foods yet!
And thank you for swinging by Crepes d'Elen for a pain au chocolat, as well. It was a lovely treat to have awaiting me after I failed to put our daughter down for her morning nap. Again. After having been cried and screamed at for almost twenty minutes in the dark.
Drinking a cup of hot tea and eating a French pastry allowed me to hold it together a bit longer. Meanwhile, you played on the bed with our daughter, distracting her from her fatigue, making her smile. You know, by juggling or making hand-fart noises. Whatever works.
Isn't that smile beautiful? And isn't it a rare kind of privilege to be one of the two people on earth who know exactly what to do to coax it from her?
I love watching her draw a tiny, pink palm across your face, perplexed a bit by the texture of your stubble. This is Daddy, she is thinking.
Daddy. The guy who woke and sat up in bed beside me last night at 3am as the kid cried herself into an unprecedented frenzy. This, after I'd fed and changed and burped her. We were all up for more than an hour for the first time in months. Your hand on my back as I sat on the edge of the bed, sighing heavily at the thought of returning to her room again--oh, again--made the whole thing infinitely more bearable. Your level of calm maintained my level of calm. You refusing to blame me for any of these tough moments makes it easier for me not to blame myself.
Well, no. I still blame myself for every failure--major or minor--but I don't have the added pressure of your blame. And I can turn to you in those dark moments of self-flagellation and hear you say, No, she's not still awake because you're doing something wrong. She's still awake because she's a baby. She's 25% the product of what we do and 75% random banana. (Which, by the way, is my favorite thing you've ever said to me. Ever. When she goes bananas, I always think of this. It saves me. It save us all.)
In one of the least explicable parts of early motherhood, I find that, after battling to get her down for yet another nap, and finally finding some peace and alone time, I spend some measurable amount of that priceless time flipping through photos and videos of the kid sleeping in the next room. As if I miss her. Which is true. This shocks me. It's like the way I miss her when I manage to get away for a quick, afternoon run--the way an astronaut's body must miss gravity while in space. I run in a loop, and I find myself picking up the pace to get back to her, even though my bondage to her was what I was running gratefully away from in the first place.
These days, the Hazelnut is more alert than ever. She bounces and wiggles when she wakes up and sees me. Being awake is her joy. As I hoist her from the crib and press my lips to her cheek, I am simultaneously overcome by two thoughts:
Look how marvelously big and healthy she is, and
Where is the the little newborn she was just yesterday?
There's so much I won't miss about those first weeks. For example, how in the dark I was about why she was upset and how I might stop it. Attempting to problem-solve through the air-raid level of her wailing.
Actually, come to think of it, that's it. That's all I won't miss. I mean, I wouldn't want to go through the physical discomfort of labor or breaking in my breasts for nursing again, either, but other than that, it wasn't so dreadful. What I do miss is the general tininess of her. The crumpled, curled-up look of her. The dark eyes meeting the light in the room as if for the first time each day.
She is always making new sounds. The latest is a high-pitched peal that seems half sigh, half screech. She explores the bounds of her mouth with itself, sucking at nothing and pushing her tongue in behind her upper lip so that she looks like a little monkey. Every part of her seems to be moving unless she's asleep or leaning that way. I'm exhausted and I yearn for her to nap long and deep and without needing me.
Then, the second this happens, I begin watching videos captured after her last bottle of the day before--huge smiles and prolonged, happy noises--or of her twisting on the activity mat in a bid to roll over. Or, many weeks ago, swaddled and gazing uncomprehendingly into the camera's lens uttering the faintest, least intentional, most darling series of little coos. What a thrill that was, and how far we've both come since then. My heart cracks at this thought.
There's no going back. There's no again. From here on out, there is only new and different and forward and bigger and louder and more complex and more sophisticated.
That crack in my heart mends quickly under the balm of hope for the future--hopefulness being a byproduct of the mere presence of such unabashed and vital youth in our home every day--but there remains a scar. A hairline of glistening, slightly stretched skin. It joins the rest of the little splinter-sized heart scars: one for the first night we moved her out of our room; one for the first time Jonathan fed her with a bottle, and my breasts went disused; one for the first onesie she outgrew; the swaddle we discarded; the first time she seemed to recognize her name; the first time she looked for me when placed in the arms of a stranger. All these good milestones I prayed to come to pass. They hurt. And they are what make me want to run into her room and pull her close and breathe her in just the way she is now. Bottle the moment. Never let her go.