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We visited the cabin just for the day. After dinner I walked down to the lake and sat on the prow of an overturned boat, watching the bluegills float and dart, each with a dab of black on its head. I sat like anyone deeply absorbed, without thought to time, in the small necessity of the moment. I threw a piece of bread I found and they lunged at it; they were so close, within a foot of the shore, the dry sand, wholly alert and ready to spring on anything good that came their way. The slightest sweep of their fins kept them moving, and they drifted past one another, not communicatingat least not in the silent and complex way ants do, with a head-on transmission of scent or passing glances. It seemed they would gather together at intervals, but soon I saw their massing and recombining was random, defined only by the instant, an angle of sun, a stirring above them.
The small butterfly glowed with such cornflower urgency that I needed to see it up close. And when it allowed that, stopping at an algae-covered twig and folding up its radiant wings to one small leaf, it was the color of sand darkened by water; it was a perfect indentation hidden in itself, a hovering thumbprint.
In the cabin on a small round table is a vase whose handle is eye-level when I sit, reading beside it. A mark is visible where the potter attached the handle, a long, glazed smudge in white with blue, etched petals spiraling up it. Rough swatches where the thing was turned can be seen just under the skin of blue wash: as the gesture pulled down, the neck was broughtforth and a lip was formed. It is the motion of birth, any birthrapid hands and a bloom emerging.
I dropped the smallest frog I could find into the cloud of fish. And the cloud moved upon the surface of the water. I did it to see the hungry flash converge. I wanted to see drive, instinct, and plunder; gifts snatched from the literal hand of ... I wanted to see the fish turn to rays, their impulse struck from them, as a bell's music is struck from a silent core. And what was I nowbountiful as any god with a pile of thunderbolts ready to hurl, all desire, all terrible abundance?
* * *
To feel ache as the shape of a child moving, this early on, takes conjuring. It is a choice not unlike any choice of attention I might make in the course of a day, and one which depends, as so much does, on whim: I stop to touch the rough glaze on a cup. Anxious for assurance that all's well, vital, and muscularly fit, I can go for days without having to know this as physical certainty. And holding off knowing, I am cast back: I am that girl who watched a friend's older sister line her eyes in black and add bright blue, garish and creamy against her perfect face, getting ready to meet a boy at the park. And I think, I don't have to do that yet. I head back out into the open air, to the park across the street, to the pond and hills with my friend, who is smaller and faster than I am, who is already wearing, when she can steal it, a dab of her sister's best perfume.
* * *
This clock, my body, changes daily, sweeps and hurtles forth, always forth. How well trained I've been all these years, to record its smallest quiet fluctuations: now a twinge, now a cramp, that's more a pressure, and that, a burning. In the doctor's office, walking to school, I begin to use the language of a tribe, not the private notations of flux and shift, not a brief registering of passing sensation. I say for the first time, about time, and to mark ittrimester.
Two nights ago we heard a rustling up from the sewer. There's a wide gap between the curb and the drain, and just below the grating, a pronounced ledge where a good-sized dog could fit (as happened three winters agoone slipped in and sat shivering until a man with thick gloves from animal control pulled it out, a black lab, angry with fear.) One of the raccoons that lives there emerged. It walked in that mincing, menacing way on its small feet, pacing and loping in front of the sewer, mounting the curb, crossing the street and crossing again, back and forth like a leopard in a cage; but it was the noise it made that first drew us outsidea strange chuckling and hissing admixture, like a large bird's throaty click and then a higher-pitched warm-blooded quaver. Jed thought it might be rabid, and that seemed entirely possibleit wasn't yet dark outside, and the raccoon didn't flinch at the dogs barking nearby. But I knew, I was certain, that others were down there, or had been, and something was wrong. I knew that nothing could be more wrong than a young one missing. That this was a mother pacing and grieving. There could be no match for the fear, for the rage, which brought her out into the light, beside herself with remorse, which looks, I could see now, everything like craziness or disease.
The heavy brown, dark brown, orange-and-white cat walks along the cement path under the hanging vines and sits at the top of the stone steps. Here on its morning visit, it regards the tangle of green before reaching down to lick its paws and wash its ears and face. I've watched this cat for weeks, and it never once cocked its head the way a dog might, listening hard or in earnest surprise. It settles in. And sits. People on their porches do this, look lazily, privately out. I'd always assumed they were waiting for something to happen, or for something to come to them, bearing news. But their very posture precludes the gestures of surprisejumping up, startling, rising from their chairs, angled toward the spectacle. They're in a kind of slow haze; yellow and fine-milled, it hangs in the heat around them. Of course, the porch-sitters might be quietly preparingdays, meals, trips, plots, stories, the next movebut the body's least conscious gestures are so often the mind's that it's hard to imagine even a moment's skittering behind such mute, immobile faces.
Late afternoons, though, the tiny cream-colored rabbit pours itself like raw silk down the hill out back, stopping to eat a ragged dandelion which it pulls into its mouth, without using its paws. Then a hollow stalk of chive. Then it goes, looking about, hopping to the next leaf and the next, eating, then nibbling, then trampling, tamping underfoot the whole range of green on its way somewhere, and somewhere else again.
A poem takes months or years to complete, to feel finished with, or to abandon entirely. Let's say from three to eighteen months. In that range of gestations, a poem can embody the way of the field mouse (23 days) and the way of the killer whale (517 days.) Gestation as time taking what it needs to complete the loop of a head, the loop of an arm, the loopy diversions in the nephrons of the kidney. A loop of thought: I have in me a way of time-marking, with all its attendant fears and burgeonings. "This poem is going nowhere" until suddenly, one daywhich is not one day but an accumulation of, say, 217it pops or floods, is closer than it's been before.
Basho: "A poet doesn't make a poem, something in the person naturally becomes a poem."
This waiting and working steadily is something I know, my body knows, I remind myself. I do not know it easily, but it is familiarthough it is true, too, that the familiar is passed over as quickly as pungent oddities are dismissed if not attended: Why we love whom and what we love. Remind and remember: because she cleans the table in brisk, perfectly efficient swipes. Because the tiger lily's throat is soaked with rust. His hands stir music into air. The mountain laurel's blooms begin as tight, webbed stars.
The child, then, as daily vow.
So if long growth is not only a constituting but also a renewing forcewhat, then, is not birth? The folding of darkness into light is a birth at every shaded increment. The relentless spring summer eases away, blows open, pays again into the fist of cold and the fist gradually loosened, worked flat again, until there, uncovered in the center of the palm, is the damp little tributary of sweat.
Which rises away.
I cannot think to work; nothing comes to me from the larger world; my throat is not catching around any sound at all. I sip water and swallow: just a powerful peristaltic squeeze and the pull and suck of distraction. I am here, but not filled by presence, not observed or taken away. I walk a closed shape and cannot get lost. Too rooted, I am a biological pulsing; though whatever keeps receptivity at bay is, at least, palpable. It is a thick mist of heavy air, a vertigo of stillness, and for this I find myself oddly thankful. I am stuck at work in a narrow hall, dull space between here and there while the home my body has become is busy furnishing away, rounding new corner after corner.
Early morning, and the neighborhood machines pare down the green silence. Soon the hum of cicadas will crest over, and each voice of the neighbor's three dogs will be distinct for a moment. The whine of the saw will come closer, and the lower-pitched mower start up, as, just now, two small planes sketch and crosshatch the air more densely still.
The young rabbit is back; it is growing into its long legs, losing the stiffness in them; the neck is thickening and fur coarsening. And though more graceful than just weeks ago, quick leaps more precise and measured, it is less like mercury down the steps, has lost some of that liquid response to its own uncontrolled speed. Alongside, squirrels run on raw nerve, chatter and dig, trip and run circles around each other, at once playful, aggressive, clever.
It is a morning of simultaneities, the time of day most like, I imagine, motherhoodall cooking while thinking, bathing, dressing while thinking, feeding and jotting, and always, always anticipating need.
And what of the soft, meditative, and singular, not flying from tree to tree in a tumult? What of its drive not to lift a hand to shape or urge or temper anything at all? Not fixing or feeding, tooling or tending, but sitting or standing by a window, in a doorway, an eye, an ear for the day piling, as plates, as cold food, papers, mail do, inexorably up.
By the time the big saw cuts out, it is already afternoon; quiet sucks at the trees, as if a pressure applied has been released, and the silence staggers around a bit until it's steady again, upright, and can spread itself into the empty space, like blood cleanly welling after a quick cut.
For the past week or so I've been watching the Olympic sprinters, their granite faces and taut skin shaken loose by their great pounding strides. Even the ones who tire and crash and bleed make it seem natural to pick up and go on. The force each event exerts on the body and the single-mindedness with which the athletes approach their given tasks, grimly fierce or confident, seem both pure and absurd. I hear how the body can be trained to recover and keep going if the constant of pain is pushed through, worked with: one learns to become a harness, to keep the body both reined and in motion. More interesting, though, than these displays of control, which might even be taken for courage, has been the humility of the weightlifters. Many of them, after trying and failing to hoist record-breaking weights, dropped the black barbell to the floor, where it bounced menacingly a few times like a piston in a steelworks coming to a haltand then laid their hands on the weights before walking away. It could have been a caress or a blessing. They'd simply shake their heads no, an open admission that the body could not pass that furthest point, that a limit had been reached and respected. No grumbling, no gnashing of teeth, no kicking the floor on which the weights fellno anger at all toward the mute weights, those iron wheels hoisted and clamped in place with little pins. The humility or the calm came, I imagine, from a full understanding of a bounded physical self, of what is possible and likely, and ultimately, from undeniable proof of the body's resistance. Here, too, was a wisdom, a practiced ability to discern and accept the limits of one's body. And in that acceptance one cannot be more simultaneously alone with and accompanied by the body, refusing, then accepting its decrees. I would like to think of pregnancy, then, not as a kind of Olympics, with its language of heroicsof conqueror and vanquished, of competitors surpassed or the underdog miraclebut rather as a series of improvised moments, beginning with a step onto a well-tended field, upon which the drama of endurance will be played out.
By necessity, out of sheer survival and the logic of ages, the powerless study the habits of the powerfuland so I must learn, more adequately, the nature of pain, and how, with intent, it comes on. I must learn of its whims and turnings, in order to adapt to or measure myself against it. The myth of the all-giving nature of motherhood, that effacement, may trace its origin to the event of labor, where the body is first wracked, and then, just hours hence, the pain has already drained from clear memory, one act of erasure followed by another. Perhaps the myth begins before this, with the actual language ascribed to the earliest moments of labor: effacement, that act of the cervix ripening into readiness: we do not say a clarifying of the membrane; it is not a translucence, nor does it shadow or sheer or unveil. Effacement: already the language of diminishment locates the body as a site of loss. Loss amidst gain and the promise of riches, yes. But in the best cases I imagine "giving" birth not as a giving up or into, but a parceling out, a lucid weighing and judging of the body's readiness to meet and endure, or otherwise counter the fabled pain. I imagine it's something we've always been training for, with each reaction to pain's twinges or onslaughts, each recognition of our temperament and the accommodations we make for that temperament. If this is the case, and the threshold for pain is, for each of us, as a step up or down into a dwelling, then why, just yesterday, when a friend told of his wife's request for an epidural early in labor, did I feel a kind of judgment wash over? Why, nearly wordlessly, did I think "So, she couldn't do it herself," as if the cries of a hurt animal were not meant as a warning, not meant to call others like it close for help and for comfort.
Sharing. Shares. Partitions. Screens and dividers. Hunkering, clearing out, cramming, suspending. To push aside. To make room for and find that one can always live with lessclothing, time, breathing space. To find all along there has been room for another, to feel increase in the crowded space I am becoming.
Jed moved his work into the basement, and now one room is cleared and waiting. And emptied, it makes a clattering when my foot falls hard on the top stair or I enter quickly. For all the sound it collects, there is a stillness to the bare room; light through the window gathers precisely, and with less to fall on, pours, blossoms, and streams. It kicks itself wide. The bare room, slowly filling with light, with baby things, resembles the odd loneliness of a new friendship, softening. Through an accumulation of talk, by being together at different hours of the day, how the smallest moments accrete toward an intimacy. Yes, the room will be full again and the loud clattering subside, but for now, the spaciousness is remade with a thought: January: the room is a wide field in the country of the house; a snow, a hail is gathering, packing its gray force until the sky breaks open, over the expanse of this scuffed wooden floor we will pace and dance on, over sunspots and nightfall, to make a distance of our child's crying.
Late summer, so much catches the eye. All the heavy green fills the frame of the window, tangles in, and makes of the center pane a small clearing through which I can see weeds grown into the cracks in the steps, white stitches the white butterfly makes in air. Birch leaves flip over, go silver in the slanting sun. And always, when the long, loose vines dip beyond the tangled bush into clear space, I look up and out quickly, respond with immediacy to the movement that catches my eye, though I'm not able to say what I'm looking for or expecting. Instinctively my head pulls up to locate the disturbance, to attend, and yet there's nothing there beyond the circumscribed green, the prop of the moment and its clever gesture, designed, it seems, to snag, of all the indifference surrounding it, my eye, my care.
Perhaps distraction at its most fruitful is a state of richest expectation; or distraction visits when we are most accepting of imposition: are willingly drawn far from routine, invited out of step and consistency and into a puzzle, a puzzlement. Is there a first step one takes then, in belief, in the hope that interruption has with it a gift, is not merely the undermining of intention? Here comes the world suggesting itself, in this form, in that form, and at each turn a chance to adopt it anew, to follow its roots down and routes in.
Isn't this the action beginning, the conflict introduced to the placid-seeming moment? The grain of sand agitating toward its luminous, changed state? And isn't the only thing, then, to accept the mystery coming for you, breaking into your peace, into mine, because I am no longer audience but, moment to moment, protagonist, splintering away from the opening scenes, further into the actand really what else could I do in this drama, watched as I am, by everything out there dipping, crawling, waving, pouring itself out in front of me? Opening, as I will open, into the singular moment.
Later today I will stand up to my ankles in a bed of ivy on the slope in the backyard, and tear climbing vines from the trunks of three close-set pines. The ground there is an overgrown snarl, so the ivy sought breathing space in air. Something lively in the patch of woods is shaking down pods or hitting one thing against another. A line of thunderstorms is moving through, the air weighted past lush, past pulsing, into these last weeks where growth is no longer a burgeoning but a teetering excessa kind of spill, a lapse into spoilage and clabbered in the scent of itself. Even the green of new clover sinks into a darker bed of long grass, a tangle around it, which pulls like a tide. On a clear day at the end of November, light will brighten from further off, will come through high clouds as if pinched, as if trying. Already I am eager for the efforts of that light, for a brown tranquility, curled leaves, a conformity of whites and grays. But first the blaze.
We're waiting for a hurricane. Trees in a state of watchfulness exhale, and the humming current of cicadas rises when the wind thins. It's a nervous call-and-response out there, the limbs in parts thick and lush, in parts thinning and laced with brown, and I am, we are at the edge of it all, held back and listening into, not hearing the significant word or telling pause, but understanding more primitively the cadence of conversation, all tone and intent. Warnings: the car horn blaring and dying as it passes with urgency as if in a fog, out over water, jagged rock, and the darkening sky.
This early in fall, the air is all threshold, stubbornly unformed and resistant to shape. A splicing togetherthe warmth of indoors still on the body as, once outside, the cooler air presses slowly in. Sometimes pockets of air, patches of weather materialize, and it is as strange as coming upon a Japanese paper screen in the middle of a field, some small demarcation in a vaster space.
"You might be feeling anxiety, fear of the future, boredom with the subject of pregnancy in the sixth month" my guidebook says. Perhaps so, but I want to know why, and what are the origins of those generalized "feelings"? The simple affirmation of their free-floating quality isn't satisfying.
"You might continue to experience forgetfulness." I certainly have and it was frightening at first; I was succumbing, yes, but far more diminishing was the book's easy checklist of reassurances: "a lot on one's mind" and "a busy time." What is this breathing silence in the face of questions I haven't the scope to shape yet?
Arriving in a new place, you start from an acknowledgement of strangeness, a disciplined use of discomfort and surprise. Later, as observations accumulate, the awareness of contrast dwindles and must be replaced with a growing understanding of how observations fit together within a system unique to the other culture. Having made as much use as possible of the sense that everything is totally alien, you begin to experience, through increasing familiarity, the way in which everything makes sense within a new logic. Eventually an ethnographer will hope to develop a description of a whole way of life that will convey this internal consistency, in which the height and placement of a chair, the adult response to a crying baby and to voices raised in dispute and the rules about when to relax and the rhythms of the day can be integrated, although never perfectly.Mary Catherine Bateson
It is exactly the friction of a new encounter, the dislocation of being in a new land, the noting and privileging of misalignment, and even the intrigue of discomfort, that makes learning possible. I'm finding that advice (a form of nostalgia in itself) to take it easy or enjoy this time because you won't have it again or the practical tips so many books offer discourage rigorous engagement. They certainly don't urge exploration of confusion, awe, or the wild swing between the two. Is this enormity, the psyche's and the body's, best described as a force to "relax into" rather than one to wrangle with, to form and shape, however partially?
Not naming or thrashing out what it is that distracts allows the atmosphere of this hovering time to remain a hazy numbness or to leak out in back-door ways. "You may be experiencing vivid, frightening dreams," another guide states, and indeed, the angular house we rented by the oceanit was as stark there as December but uncomfortably warmwas slowly being absorbed by green, intoxicatingly green water rising on all sides, soaking the foundation, loosening it, the salty colloidal stir pressing against the glass walls as if the house itself were a fish in a tank and the animated water a threat peering in.
Drowned, overwhelmed, pulled under: all metaphors holding the place of a serviceable language. And so, to begin, a brief list of the unspoken, a clumsy net thrown into the dim pool: What if I don't like my child? What if he is unpleasing to me, as once, indeed, happened mightily, as in "and Cain was unpleasing to the Lord." And how was that fate explained to the child? God's random preference leaves us stumped, but a mother's love, unconditionally given, should surpass that of God? "What if I don't like being a mother?" That is, what if I can't reconstruct a life in which a known identity might resume? "My insufficiencies will ruin my child." And so on.
No wonder my guide poses in chapter 6, "At Six Months," this question: Can't anyone think of anything else besides pregnancy? Of course it wears thin as a constant topic of conversation, as do all predictable subjects and questions, but I think there is more of a plea behind the complaintCan't anyone talk to me about what we're not talking about? And why can't you, who have gone before me, speak what you know? I've had enough of substitutions: Have you painted the room? Do you know the sex? The real longing I hear in the book's cranky phrasing is for a frank reassessment of the terms of our own conversion and conversation.
About the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Bateson recounts: "He was asked what, on the basis of his knowledge of the creation, he could infer about the mind of the Creator." His answer was surely revealing: "An inordinate fondness for beetles." Amusing. And true to his life's close workbut who, I wondered, thought to ask a man who studied beetles about the nature of creation?
Bateson again: "The eye of compassion is as rare and valuable as the beings for which that compassion is felt. Its sensitivities depend on picking out one pattern from the mass and recognizing a kinship to it."
What if we turned that compassionate eye, that delving, adventurous, partial-yet-searching eye out on ourselves, on our own experience as it is happening, or in reflection, or in anticipation of? To ask a womannear giving birth, about to enter that long hall, or having done so years agowhat she might infer about the mind of the Creator ... or, for that matter, what it is she sees now in the face of the rose beetle, the perfect triangle of the mantis's delicate, voracious head?
I heard this evening on the radio about the frigate bird, a majestic thing that makes its home in the West Indies and Brazil, and about how flocks of them with their abundantly long and colorful tail feathers are swept up in the gales of hurricanes and carried hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles and dumped inland in other countries. Some are so tired and emaciated that they soon die, while others take a few days to reorient, literally get their bearings, and then begin the long flight back. I tried to imagine those birds landing in a cornfield somewhere, far from their orange groves, their blue-green water and sweet fine sands. I tried to imagine picking up, intuiting home, and going, tracing back to a place I was pried from, not knowing how I got to the new land or even being able to gauge the distance I was tossed. I tried to imagine those long days and what I would needthe stamina, the compass, the plotting, the recovery, and the will.
I remember the insects, and when my sister, younger by two years, was still unafraid of the transformations from purple to black on the backs of beetles, of the lacy webbing of a mantis's wings and its intelligent, pearl-sized eyes, considering. I remember she held something, one hot morning, between her fingers, a cricket or the parchment shell of a cicada, and showed it to me, or didn't show me, was simply walking around with it, and I told her to put it down, drop it, or worse, recoiled. I remember how she looked at me, surprised she had so misinterpreted, misgauged what to do with insects and how to feel about them. And then she did drop it. Soon after that, she began flinching at the same insects she had once held up to her eye or squatted over. She no longer raised them, plainly and gently, with a child's absorbed, blank attention. And I remember the sadness I felt, having taught my sister to flinch.
And yesterday afternoon, a downy woodpecker landed and walked along the stone steps, listening, then sank its long beak into a crack and pulled up sticky load after load from all the dark wetness in there; it was at its task a long time, never looking up, not fearing for itself in that twitching, cautious, birdlike way. The light doused the steps and the bird was out in the open, itself spotted with light. It must have been overcome: everything it wanted, dark and sweet, rich and unguarded, there for the taking. Its languor made me forget it was a bird, with a bird's nerves, and hollow bones, a heart of fear calibrated for flight. I think its lids must've been lowered in rapture, because no distraction at all could counter the day, the sunny patch where it bobbed and rose, the dark abundance of the cracked stone, that deep well, would it ever stop giving?
Laid out perfectly where they fell in the tall grass, half sunk in the soft groundthe bones of a small cat. And how long did it take for the bones to clean, for the flesh to slip off and the eyes burn away? The shape the body made was placid-seeming, unlike the animals of prehistory, who, trapped in tar in the posture of shock, in half-light on a cave wall, are forever outrunning fire, weather, attack. In caves their broad, simple bodies are sketched in ochre flight; fear is the black cipher of an open mouth, the red oxide smudge on a flank. But I found these bones in the shape of sleep, of full and open expectancy, mid-stride in an airy leap. Waiting for. I learned it takes only days for a small animal's body to decompose at this time of year, to return itself to bone, to its simplest componentscarbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur. To press its outline back into the soft earth, which is a welcoming, rich place still, late summer. A home receiving the body in, expecting it.
Four workmen, one very short, walk together up the long hill. Three outstrip the smaller one, who takes the incline double-time. And I do not think why aren't they slowing but instead am convinced that they couldn't have slowed. That would've been pitythey'd be guilty of pity, and somehow then, complicitous with the fate that granted their height and left him small. They'd have to acknowledge fate's unfairness, and