Rather than in the world itself

The older I get, the more I care about understanding history. I pretend like I have a basic grasp of the sequence of modern world events, but the more I read, the more I realize how facile and shallow my understanding has been. (This is always one of the great, humbling pleasures of reading, in my experience.) To this end, I have been enjoying two riveting books: The House of Government, by Yuri Slezkine, and Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

The House of Government is a saga of the Soviet Revolution, with an enormous cast of real-life characters presented in a Tolstoyan array, which makes for very enjoyable reading. This is a big benefit, because the book is nearly 1,100 pages long. You’re going to want it to be interesting and well-written. Slezkine is a talented historian, with a far-ranging grasp of his subjects, and a personal investment in the history, being a former Soviet himself (who is now a professor at UC Berkeley). I’m learning a lot, and my mistrust of socialism (and of the American young people who claim to love it) only continues to grow.

Say Nothing traces the forgotten murder of a widowed mother of 10 in Northern Ireland in 1972, weaving her tragic story into the overall scope of IRA activity during the Troubles (especially focused on some high-profile IRA actors, such as Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes). Aside from watching both seasons of the (excellent) show Derry Girls, I have been woefully under-educated about the terror and violence that afflicted Northern Ireland for decades, and this book is making quick work of amending this gap in my information.

. . .

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Idiots of the Cosmos,” from In the Land of the Cyclops

. . .

Moses is growing up quickly, and it is hard for us to believe, in the parlance of parents, that he will be 2 next month. He is chatty, curious, and bossy, and we love spending time with him in the garden or squiring him around to all of the local parks. His little curls are coming in quite nicely, too, which makes us loath to give him a much-needed haircut.

It will also be hard for him to believe that he’s getting a baby brother, due late in the summer. Sometimes, I confess, I also forget about this, but that’s becoming increasingly harder to do the larger I get. (And this is a boisterous dude, who is really enjoying kick-punching me as much as he can.)

Guion and I are both excited and frightened about having another baby, as the memories of the doldrums of newborn life are never far from me. (A friend from my writing group just reminded me of the existence of the witching hour, and I felt a fresh sense of panic about that happening again.) But there are sweet things, too, right? Like: Swaddling, putting them in baskets or other small receptacles, smelling their heads and skin, laying them down on the floor and watching them not be able to go anywhere, etc., etc. These are nice things about babies.

The joyful thread

I was talking to Zack yesterday about information overload. He was listening to me complain about all of the micro-decisions and risk calculations that the pandemic foists upon us. I confessed that I had been falling prey to the temptation that more information could give me the answers I was looking for: more studies! More vaccine dashboards! More gloomy line graphs! More news stories! Maybe they would tell me what decisions were safe to make.

Zack listened to me whinge for a while and then patiently reminded me that people weren’t built to handle this much information. We don’t have the internal mechanisms—much less the emotional foresight—to process this much data. We’re not robots, even if we offload much of our daily tasks onto them. The conflicting statistics, studies, and stories are stressful noise to us. We’re not capable of making sense of it all, try as we might. Rather, the flood of information swamps our brains. We fail to make rational decisions (if we were ever making them to begin with). And yet we can’t stop reading the news, checking our phones, listening to the next alarming narrative—at least, I can’t.

I wish I could be more like my toddler, who is obsessed with just one story at a time. This week, his fixation has been telling and retelling us about the snowman he and my husband architected in the backyard. They built and decorated it together, and now it’s all he can talk or think about. The snowman prompted his longest sentence to date: “Rocks… for… some… buttons.” He lives for the snowman. “Snowman” is the first word out of his mouth when I get him from his crib in the morning, and it’s the last word on his lips before he goes to bed. He wants to see it out the window, check on it, make sure it still has its pinecone nose and stone buttons. Yesterday was a little traumatic because the snowman’s head fell off (melted), and some first aid was required before dinner time. But he’s recovered, and I know he’s counting down the hours until he can visit it again. (The slightly warmer weather this week is going to be a real blow to the boy.)

I’m not saying that we should ignore what’s happening or that we should be as relentlessly single-minded as a 20-month-old. But there is something to be said for focusing on a single story, a joyful thread, a hopeful snippet of a tale, or even a local news report. We need to give ourselves a break. We’re still laying claim to the fact that stories matter. But perhaps right now, fewer stories matter even more.

Excerpt from this week’s issue of Story Matters.

. . .

“A marvelous light falls over the beginning of things and over us also, inclined as we are to pick up a shapely stone or a pretty shell. None of this is at all incompatible with a profound sacredness of Being. Early Darwinism was virtually identical with racial theory, the races to be ranked, so it was thought, as stages in human development. Therefore the sophistication of these nonhumans continues to surprise. They are burdened by our prejudices. Surely it is much more scientific to relax the hold of old error and take it as true that the world is as wonderful in its mystery as any theology could hope to express, and that science, rather than impoverishing it of mystery, lavishes new marvels on us day by day.”

— Marilynne Robinson, “Theology for This Moment”

. . .

A little jolt of hope

Most of the folks we know (including ourselves) seem buoyed by a sense of optimism this week, which has been a welcome emotion after one hell of a year. No, we’re not out of the woods, but it is exciting to be near the end of the accursed 2020 with a little jolt of hope.

Croquet conclusion this week.

We continue to play croquet every Sunday and count it as a blessing. This Sunday was absurdly warm (not mad about it), and we also witnessed two hot air balloons lifting off from the nearby field.

. . .

I go through cyclical obsessions, during which I throw myself into a topic and try to learn everything I can about it in a given period of time. The latest? Housekeeping.

This obsession was sparked by visiting the house of friends and feeling personally affronted by how clean and organized it was. I consider myself a decently tidy person, but these kitchen cabinets put me to shame. (I felt even more shame when recalling that this super-clean person in this household also built the handsome cabinetry by hand. I can’t even put together an Ikea side table without help!)

I have also sensed that I need to up my game because Guion is constantly leveling up in his abilities as a chef. (Our division of labor in the household is that he makes all food and I clean all things.) I feel that I must also ascend in my abilities as a housekeeper, but I am also not entirely sure what that looks like. Hence this quest.

I am finding fresh inspiration for the never-ending task of keeping our home. Specifically, I am giving myself daily and weekly cleaning tasks and then larger monthly aspirations. Today, I spent a stupid amount of time trying to clean the gross microwave above the stove (a poor excuse for a range hood), and I booked a window/gutter cleaner, which just feels like Christmas morning to me. I am going to do it! I am going to be less gross!

A thought that has brought me peace is the consideration that it is never over. You are never finished housekeeping. Until you die, your house must be tended. I once had this false expectation that if I really tidied the coat closet well, I’d never have to do it again. This is a lie. I will always have to do things over and over again, because we are living here. It’s a comfort.

How do you motivate yourself to keep cleaning?

. . .

“We have taught ourselves to describe our moral convictions as ‘personal desires,’ implying thereby that they need not significantly affect others. In fact, however, there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments. But there is nothing wrong with asking others to share and sacrifice for what we believe to be worthy. A more appropriate concern is whether what we commit ourselves to is worthy or not.”

The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas

. . .

Our little dude is 18 months old today and continues to be very weird and amuse us greatly.

Favorite activities include talking about the moon; making sure we observe and admire all passing planes, helicopters, trucks, and cars; requesting story time; asking to be held when Mom is currently trying to do three different things; and eating figs from the fig tree every morning with Dad. He’s having a great time! (And his hair is slowly but surely growing back, praise be.)

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.