Sumptuous destitution

Our dear friend Kyo came to visit for the weekend, which was a real delight, as he always brings a lot of levity and thoughtfulness to every conversation. One of my favorite conversations oriented around this Emily Dickinson poem, which he shared with us:

In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy —
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity —

It comes, without a consternation —
Dissolves — the same —
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution —
Without a Name —

Profane it by a search — we cannot
It has no home —
Nor we who having once inhaled it —
Thereafter roam.

It has been rolling around in my mind all weekend — the fluctuating, dissolving nature of mundane joys. I have been thinking of these vanishing delights as I light the beeswax candles or repaint the grout on the bathroom floor or pick up Moses in the morning from his crib.

Perhaps it is fruitless to dissect or name these pleasures, as Dickinson suggests, or even to try to replicate them. They come and go as they please, and we’re left in that ineffable state, resting in our sumptuous destitution. As summer burns away and fall approaches, I find that I am more mindful of these domestic, everyday joys. It shall soon be time to stay in the dull, reportless places, and yet even there, we are experiencing the richness and fullness of life.

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Kyo, Guion, and Moses at Blenheim Vineyards.

The poem hits me strongly because of autumn, but also because of baby.

Now, in month four with Moses, I sense a return to old ways and old pleasures. I didn’t think I’d feel this way in those traumatic early days. I kind of felt ruined, if I’m being honest. And now, things are forever different, of course — gone are the days of spiriting away to a restaurant on a whim! Ne’er shall we leave the house without a tremendous amount of infant paraphernalia! — but the small activities that buoyed the spirits are now capable of being rediscovered. Such as: Painting one’s toenails. Reading a book. Making oatmeal the slow way. Writing words down in a notebook.

Yesterday, for the first time since Moses was born, Guion and I enjoyed one of our “quiet nights” — a screen-free evening for reading and writing. In our recent childless days, we used to enshrine them in our week. These evenings are much harder to come by since we’ve added this little person to our home, but I felt last night how deeply I have missed and needed them. I read a little of Nell Zink’s new novel, Doxology, and tried to get through John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara but couldn’t (it’s almost too lyrical) and felt a vast pleasure wash over me. The days with Moses are full and heartwarming, but the evenings without him can be also (especially now that he’s sleeping through the night!).

(Upon copying the text of the poem, I’m also reminded that Anne Carson has played with it in Men in the Off Hours, splicing Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson with some thoughts on the way we read women. Have you a little chest to put the Alive in? Dickinson! What a bone-chilling genius! I have come off the weekend convinced that we do not talk about her nearly enough and feel that I need to read the giant tome of her complete poems daily, like a liturgy.)

. . .

Obligatory baby photo: Enjoying his first flight! Visiting dearly beloved (and missed) friends in Chicago.

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Strange little big-eyed alien

Before having a baby, I appreciated hearing from other moms that the deep/eternal/life-altering mother-love doesn’t always happen instantly. Even my mom, the paragon of virtuous motherhood, admitted she didn’t love me at first. “You were this strange little big-eyed alien,” she said. “I loved my nephew a lot more than I loved you, and you were my baby!” My dad also chimed in to add that he didn’t really love any of us until we were at least six or seven months old.

Thus established, it now feels freeing to confess that I don’t think I loved Moses at first. The primary emotion I had, after giving birth, was Thank God that’s over, not Bring the light of my life to my chest so that I can gaze upon his perfect brow! I liked him, sure, and I wanted to meet all of his needs and keep him safe and happy, but I wouldn’t call it love. Especially during that brutal first month, my primary emotional state was a mix of bewilderment and exhaustion.

Today, now that we are three months in, I am pleased to say that the feeling has come. I think about him all day long now. I want his little body to be close to mine as much as possible. Securing his joy seems like the only task that matters in life. He is also so CUTE. Just the cutest. I don’t care if I’m blinded by bias; it’s all I can think when I look at him. I mean, look at this little doofus:

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The boy.

All this to say: I am happy that the feeling has come. I suspect it will last. And then, soon, in a matter of months, when he becomes more cognizant, his father and I will both have to work hard to keep him from becoming a spoiled little princeling, lest all this overbearing love make him totally unbearable.

. . .

Perhaps it is a sign that I am getting old, but I long for moderation. I want to regulate and conserve my life. I want to use what I have. I want to keep the company of temperate people.

. . .

“The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption. … If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie.”

— Alicia Ostriker

. . .

A lovely neighbor, the mother of two beautiful boys, sent me an email after Moses was born, asking me how I was adapting to my new life. She wrote, of her own experience with her firstborn son, “I was all strung out and anxious and generally uncomfortable and homesick for my old life for a lot of those early days.”

I loved her use of the word homesick, because I think it perfectly captures this new state of being. It’s a curious homesickness, because all of the trappings of your old life are still there: Your home hasn’t changed. It is the same, and yet your experience of it is completely altered. It is hard not to miss the old ways. I find myself frequently telling Guion, “I miss you.” I feel like I never see him anymore, even though we arguably see each other more than we ever did before.

It is a long period of adjustment, I suppose. At least the reason for all of this internal upheaval is very cute. That helps.

Little lessons learned

Things Moses has taught me

  1. I apparently have a wretched memory for lyrics, demonstrated by my fraught desire to sing hymns to him while he drifts off to sleep. I can only get through a verse before I start making up lines.
  2. I have, perhaps, idolized having a sense of “control” over my daily life.
  3. It is therefore hard to have one’s idols toppled.
  4. I consistently miscalculated how hard this would be.
  5. It is silly to be frustrated with a baby.
  6. Babies cannot be reasoned with.
  7. But I will still try, and I will drive myself to the edge of madness trying to apply reason to the baby’s behavior.
  8. I thus become comfortable with living on the edge of madness.
  9. This edge of madness seems like a new (albeit claustrophobic) home.
  10. So I settle in to this new habitat, congratulating myself for showering, remembering how to drive, and speaking a full sentence in the morning without mixing up any of the nouns.
  11. The new habitat also reveals that kissing babies is extremely delightful.
  12. It is best to do it as many times as possible on any given day.

. . .

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I have an iPhone 5 (yeah, I’ll brag about it); this is the best I can do.

As I suspected, I continue to be very interested in dogs, but I am also more interested in babies on the whole, babies as a universal concept and lived experience. This I did not expect. I even find other people’s babies pretty interesting now. I want to stare and them and find out what they know.

. . .

Pyrrha, our German shepherd, has been a silent angel during these past two months of life with Moses. I wasn’t sure how she’d behave, and I’ve been impressed and grateful for her calm acceptance of this new, often bewildering, creature. She greets him in the morning with a gentle lick to the back of his head or feet, and then she quietly lies down on her rug in the hall, waiting for someone to give her a little attention. She doesn’t stress when he screams (making her the calmest family in the moment).

The other afternoon, I was in the kitchen when he woke up from a nap, and I swear Pyrrha had the purest Lassie moment. I didn’t hear his cries at first, and so Pyrrha got up from her post in the hall, walked up to me in the kitchen and looked me in the eye with concern. She then walked back down the hall toward the baby’s room and stood in front of the door, glancing back at me, as if to say, “Lady, the baby needs you! Please follow me and perform your God-given duties before I have to intervene.”

She’s a good girl.

. . .

During my maternity leave, I was a little depressed to learn that reading is rather difficult while nursing. I can do it if I have a lightweight and semi-floppy paperback that I can hold with one hand, but because Moses has been a rather high-maintenance feeder, I’ve only read a few books during my leave, which is almost up. This has been a bummer. (And no, I don’t want a Kindle. I hate reading on them so much that I’d almost rather not read anything at all.)

As a consolation, I’m really into email newsletters right now. Nicole Cliffe’s has been a daily delight, along with her wise and often hilarious advice column at Slate, Care and Feeding. (Leah Finnegan’s Leah Letter is my other favorite newsletter, but she only writes once every few months. But when she does, it’s worth the wait.) I just wanted to give some public thanks to Nicole Cliffe for getting me through much of my maternity leave with amusing ideas and great articles to add to Pocket and read during that long 3 a.m. feed.

. . .

My esoteric titles are a holdover from my moody days as a teen blogger, which is a real shame, but I can’t help it. I don’t often write posts focused on a single topic, and so choosing some title that could have been a tantalizingly vague AIM away message, circa 2005, well, it continues to appeal to me. No regrets.

A happy haze

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Looks can be deceiving. This little darling looks so gentle and calm, but he is extremely demanding. He does a fabulous interpretation of the demon possessed between the hours of 6 and 8 pm; really, you should stop in for the show. My most common nickname for him is Little Dragon. This is not news to anyone who has had a baby before, but it still feels like news to me.

I am tremendously needed right now, and I can’t say that I perceive it as fun. I would like to be less necessary. From my nursing chair, I watch people walking and biking and running along our street, and I feel envious of all of them. All people who don’t have to worry constantly about a newborn. How carefree and happy all other humans must be! This is a thought I have every day. The other day I think I had three total hours, out of the 24, during which he was not attached at the breast. He is five weeks old now, so we’re apparently in the trenches of baby care, with the expectation that his murderous rages and constant feeding will start to taper off soon. Some days it feels more relentless than others.

We’ve had an army of wonderful support, and I don’t know how we would have made it without our generous community: Family who came and stayed and cooked and cleaned and held Little Dragon while we slept. Friends who brought and keep bringing us food. Doulas who made us feel sane and guided us on all aspects of postpartum life. Neighbors who check in on us regularly. A dear friend who babysat for us so we could go out for dinner. Unbelievably generous mothers who donated their own milk during the week we had to supplement his feedings, so I could work on my own supply and avoid formula. And of course, Guion, always and forever Guion. I knew I liked him before all this, but now I know for a fact that I could not live without him.

Things I am trying to treasure up and ponder in my heart: How frequently the mothers of older children tell me, “Oh, I miss this phase,” when gazing upon my squalling infant. And I think, “You must be insane, lady. I can’t wait until this creature can tell me what he wants and sleeps more than a few hours at a time.” So there is some shift that happens. Perhaps it’s simply that everyone recalls and longs for the seasons past, because they always seem easier than the one you’re currently in.

But there are lovable aspects, which even I can discern in my incarcerated, sleep-deprived state: His milk-sweet breath. The smell of his little head (now beautiful and round, after looking like an old potato right after birth). Wearing him in a wrap. Cuddling with him on my chest while he naps. Getting eye contact. His small animal noises while he nurses. These are lovely things.

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He has no idea how much he’s in charge. But look at that face. Would you dare cross him?

A home birth story

Birth stories are perhaps only interesting to pregnant people (and even then just marginally), but here is a truncated version of ours.

On my due date, May 8, I felt my first contractions while sitting in a meeting at work. I was excited and surprised; I’d expected that the baby would be a late arrival. A calm sense of anticipation and joy marked the next several hours as Guion and I ate dinner (spicy sausage and broccoli over orecchiette pasta) on the back deck and prepared the various places around the house for the birth. I felt focused and ready. Or as ready as I could be.

Contractions began to pick up in intensity around 10 pm, right when we hoped to be sleeping. We’d texted our midwife and doula and the advice consensus was to try to sleep. This, unfortunately, was rapidly becoming an impossible task, as I’d jump out of bed as things intensified. I could not lay still, much less fall asleep. Soon, I couldn’t speak through the rushes, and Guion knew it was time to call the midwife.

Our wonderful birth team (our midwife, her assistant, and our doula) arrived around 4 am. I was already so much in it that I don’t think I had the ability to greet them properly. I recall standing in the front hall doorway, clutching the frame, when our doula arrived. She rubbed my back and then apparently mouthed to Guion, “Wow, you really waited a while to call me.”

At this point, because of how early labor has progressed, I was buoyed by a misplaced optimism that the baby would arrive soon. Alas, this was not the case.

The rest of the story, from my perspective, is shrouded in a traumatic fog. You’d get a much more accurate and detailed account if you asked Guion what transpired from dawn until Thursday afternoon. For my part, I felt simultaneously out of my body and entirely controlled by it. I labored all over the house, in and out of the birth tub, in our bed, in the bathroom, on a chair and ottoman, begging the baby to please come out. He was, however, quite content to hang out in the birth canal for hours. Afterward, our midwife estimated that I’d probably been 10 cm dilated for five or six hours. I screamed for almost all of those hours and don’t recall very much, except for the sweet encouragement of our doula, who prayed for me and read scripture while I moaned, and Guion, who was so strong and supportive (figuratively and literally, as he spent many hours holding me up in my various positions). I also remember a short pep talk from our midwife, who leveled with me while I was in the tub and said, “Abby, you can do this. You have to push your baby out now.”

I knew this was the work of the day, but this whole push-your-baby-out-now thing still took a tremendously long time. I remember hearing birds singing and noticing the golden afternoon light filtering through our living room curtains and wondering what day it was, whether this would ever be over. It was easy to forget why I was in this state, why I was being ruled by this unimaginable pain. In the early afternoon, our midwife sensed this, I think, and encouraged me to reach down and touch our baby’s head. This was encouraging; I had absolutely no idea how or whether I’d progressed at all, and the baby’s head was this sharp reminder of why this was happening to me. I swear I’d forgotten.

Finally, blessedly, after being persuaded to do an impossible forward-leaning inversion and a few other positions to encourage the baby to descend, we moved to the sofa. Guion sat behind me and held my knees with every push. The baby’s head was out, and in one more push, he had arrived.

We welcomed our son, Moses, at 3:17 pm on May 9, 2019, in the peace of our home. I felt totally spent and amazed:

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We are both so grateful to have had such a joyful—albeit long—birth in the comfort of our home and immensely thankful for our incredible birth team.

Moses, on his first day of life:

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And last week:

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We love our little blond boy, and we’re all well and settling into our new life. Every day brings a new crop of delight and anxiety and sweetness.

A new person

Solutions

  • More women in leadership, everywhere
  • Less time on Twitter for everyone
  • At least two clementines a day for the entire season
  • Moisturize your face; it’s winter, you savage
  • Walk your dog(s)
  • Start studying again that foreign language once knew and have since mostly forgotten
  • Tell people how you feel, even if you’re not sure how to articulate it

Our dearest friends welcomed their son, their firstborn, into the world on Saturday. We met him and held him, talking quietly in a peaceful hospital room that overlooked the university and the mountains beyond while this little 6-pound bundle warmed my ribcage. His parents’ faces were alight with an exhausted kind of wonder. They were so relaxed, watching us carefully exchange their baby, and competent. They’ll parent him beautifully, and we are privileged to act as witnesses.

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” — The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Babies and such

This past weekend, Kathryn and I went to visit Catherine and her sweet new baby, Auden.

Visiting baby Auden

Visiting baby Auden

We had such a lovely visit and were so excited to finally meet the little nugget! It’s still surreal to see Catherine as a mom, this dear friend from years past, with whom I used to roll around in the grass with on the quad and steal food from the dining hall. And now here she is, a graceful, competent mother.

Visiting baby Auden

Visiting baby Auden

As you can see, Auden is a complete doll. Can’t wait to see them all again soon!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Last night, we had the fabulous Meredith Perdue, Michael Cain, and Orvis over for dinner. Meredith, as you may recall, was our super-gifted wedding photographer, and we are HUGE fans. Dinner conversation was lively and fun, and the dogs were full of adorable antics.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

After being ruined for all fiction by Infinite Jest, I have finally found my reading stride again, happily resurrected by the cheering power of Anna Karenina. It has been years since I read it, and I am enjoying Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation immensely. So funny, so witty, so readable! Preliminary thoughts: Vronsky is not as villainous as I remembered him, at least not yet. Tolstoy can write women fairly and completely, without the masculine censure that so often creeps into 19th-century narratives by male authors (lookin’ at you, Dickens). Anna is just so human and real. Anyone who judges her should take a good, hard look at themselves first.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Looking forward to a weekend at home to do chores, acquire houseplants, and walk the dog. Pleasant sigh.

Baby Jarvis, sunburns

Meeting baby Jarvis!

On Friday, we got to meet baby Jarvis Pascal, who is just a doll. So glad that he’s here!

Sunday, we went tubing on the James River with the Montgomerys and Klebergs. Tubing on a 105-degree day in a sewage-infested river that was about 6 inches deep = Feeling pretty gross and looking extremely sunburned at the end of the afternoon. Exhibit A, my feet:

Post-tubing feet.
Pyrrha agrees that they look strange.

Still feeling pretty terrible today. My skin is about four different colors right now: Red, brown, pale yellow, and raw pink. I look awesome.

But at least it’s only 83 today! That makes up for everything.

Meet beautiful baby, greet returning husband

Pretty Pellyn! So nice to meet you.
The conquering musician, home at last.

Baby Pellyn arrived last week and I got to meet her (and her Aunt Sarah) on Saturday; Pellie is a beautiful girl with such wonderful, generous, and calm parents! And then my beloved husband finally returned. We had a wonderful reunion. We even ran together (3 miles, we’re getting serious) for the first time ever. It was kind of a big deal. I have a lot to do and so I don’t have much time for pensive reflection. Maybe that will come later.

Babies and old men

Nettles at The Southern.
Happy Phinehas and his dear mother.
Baby buns! Phin is clearly appalled to be embarrassed in this way.

Oh, this schizophrenic half-winter of ours: Snowstorm this morning and now, at noon, it has ceased and the sun is coming out.

This weekend: Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Luke Wilson played at The Southern; Matt Kleberg had a really wonderful opening at McGuffey; I began to re-read and fall in love with Absalom, Absalom! and retract every bad thing I ever said about it; and we got to watch UNC gloriously shame Duke at the McDermott’s on brew day. A very good weekend, by my estimation.

On Friday, I transcribed a painstaking, largely unsuccessful interview with a 106-year-old man, a legend in the industry. These were the important takeaways to me: If you are 106, you have the right to say things like, “Are you here just because you failed in the movie business?” to the unctuous young videographer coaxing you for an answer you thought you already gave. If you are 106, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel like it. If you are 106, your brain will start to winnow out all of the unimportant things, so that when the interviewer asks you to talk about your big career highlights, you will instead talk about your sons and how they graduated at the top of their class and how they tried to avoid going to war and how you named them after your best friends.