Ah, spring break?scantily clad humans cavorting in tropical places, drinking too much. Or: if you have children, a chaotic trip to Disneyland. No?Legoland.
Or, if you’re me, an entire week to yourself.
The way our calendar works, my spring break falls a week before the kids’, and if this was once a little frustrating (I want my trip to Hawaii too, yo), in the last two years I’ve come to see it as The. Best. Thing. Ever. Basically, I have a week of paid vacation while everyone else’s life trundles on. Of course this year I was determined to make the best of it: writing, organizing my house, a decent nap or two, some good books, a yoga class, a haircut, what-have-you.
I’m not always great at relaxing, though, and I’ve had moments this week of feeling like I’m trying so hard to take a load off that I’m not really enjoying the rest. But I’ve also been trying as hard as I can to find some spaciousness in the daily grind, and here of a Friday morning, I’m feeling pretty successful. Yesterday, I did something that always makes me feel like a million bucks: I drove up to a meditation center north of here for a two-hour yoga and meditation class.
And the topic of the dharma talk was wisdom.
Now, I don’t always resonate with the teacher. I like her classes, but at times I’m not on the same wavelength as she is. But yesterday, perhaps because it’s the end of a week of spring break, I felt like every yoga pose was a balm for the soul, every word out of her mouth, brilliant. At the end, she asked us to think about wisdom, and the ways we cultivate it. She reminded us that wisdom isn’t a set of knowledge you acquire; it’s a skill, almost like a way of approaching certain things with confidence. Somehow in there she circled to this notion of choices, how we can be wise about the choices we make, and how, in different areas of our lives we might feel we have a great deal of wisdom?and in others, very little at all.
In the abstract, it might sound a bit, well, abstract. But it turned out the talk was exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my life, this week, when I’ve been writing but also feeling quite muddled about the different paths my writing could take and whether I’m taking the right one. There’s this God-forsaken novel, and then there’s this still-unpublished memoir, but what’s really calling to me are these poems about motherhood, and instead of being the kind of wise soul who thinks to herself, Gosh I’m lucky to have all of this creative stuff spinning out of me, and maybe I just need to make a clear choice down one path and see what happens?instead, I’m the kind of soul who immediately goes to God, I suck. I can never finish anything. I’m doing it all wrong.
The other perhaps more surprising revelation was when she asked us to think of a realm where we did feel wise. Perhaps mundanely, I thought straightaway of my new habit of meal planning. Then I thought of child-rearing. I thought how actually, in the domestic sphere, taking care of my people, getting dinner on the table, dealing with an emotional 8-year-old and a baby who likes to bite, I feel pretty solid in my wisdom. I’m not saying I don’t make a shitload of mistakes, or have dark moments, or even that I’m necessarily a “good mom,” but I don’t feel angsty about my ability to keep things together on the home front. And I feel centered and grounded in this path I’ve chosen, like it’s the right one. Even if I second-guess a decision (time-outs for the biter? Something more holistic?), it doesn’t destroy me. I don’t spend hours worrying that I’m doing something wrong.
And wow, talk about luck. I have more than one friend, amazing, amazing parents, who struggle so much with it, who worry all the time about whether they’re doing it right. (I also have more than one friend having to make the kinds of choices for her kids that are beyond anything I would wish on anyone.) I worry about EVERYTHING, you guys?but, I realized yesterday, not that much about my parenting or my ability to provide for my family. I figure (as this imperfect but charming article suggests) that I’m doing pretty well, and that might be good enough.
It was kind of amazing to put these things side by side: on one, my ingrained belief that every other writer on the planet is doing it better than I am (don’t even get me started on the amazing Lauren Groff?if you haven’t yet read Fates and Furies, get thee to your local independent bookstore), and my sometimes pathological inability to see my own strengths, opportunities and choices. On the other, my realization that if someone ordered me, “Make a palatable dinner for ten out of whatever’s in your cupboards, while both of your kids are home, NOW?” it would be stressful?but I’d do it.?So now, of course, I’m wondering how I take wisdom from the latter, and contribute it to the former.
Maybe that’s a project for next spring break.
Where is YOUR wisdom? Where do you need more? Comment it up.
A hearty thanks to everyone who bought my book or came to my wonderful book launch at Octopus Literary Salon on March 10! I’m now suggesting folks buy it on Powells.com, since Amazon is still all messed up, or directly from me (link on my homepage).
Well, I’m over the moon. Sometime last October, I disconnected the JetPack plugin from my WordPress site, trying to figure out why my site was loading so slowly. Then all hell broke loose?when I reconnected the plugin, no one could see my blog posts. No emails went out. Radio silence. I’ve been emailing the JetPack people every week for four months, feeling totally frustrated, and saying a thousand little prayers that I’d be able to communicate with my readers again. I wrote this blog post, about activism, which maybe none of you saw, and then I gave up. So then today some dude named Jeremy casually emailed to say he’d poked around a bit, updated a few things, and wham?my “Test” post (which you can obviously ignore) went out successfully.
I’m back in action.
And I have so much to say: it’s already spring in California, which is both lovely and deeply unsettling. I’m having a creative explosion in my forties, apparently, because I’ve been playing music (live! Out! In bars!) and writing and feeling good. The Olympics are rocking my world (my husband and I love to watch the snowboarding while inserting our own commentary, full of pot jokes). And, best of all, I have a book out, my first full-length poetry collection. It’s called Little Prayers, and it was published last month by the wonderful San Francisco?based publisher Blue Light Press.
This book was a long time in coming, testimony to the fact that writers sometimes suffer through multiple rejections, and even a 15-year hiatus, before a thing gets published. Here’s a teaser:
A BIRD, A GOD
I?ve been holding something
in my hard fat belly for days
and in the night I wake from dark dreams.
But no one, nothing, is there.
A bird, a God, what was it you saw last?
Was it this?
I?ve forgotten how to read, what language
to pluck from the ears of strangers.
I salute the sun facing a dead blue wall.
I look into the earth.
Were you a tree cutter? Is that how you knew,
by looking into the mouths of trees?
? Susie Meserve, 2018
Local friends, I’d love to see you at my March 10 book launch at Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland, where I’ll be reading with the talented Kate Folk. I’ll also read at the San Francisco Writers Conference this Friday night at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco (free and open to the public! Lots of great poets). And stay tuned for more readings and events this spring and summer.
Just shy of his first birthday, planning for reflection and nostalgia, instead wham boom I?m in the hospital with a?bum appendix. The husband is away, unreachable, mobile stashed in the glove box of somebody?s car. I wanted this for him, a break from the work and the waves. I was not afraid to let him go. Even in the hospital, frantically phoning the school/the grandfather/the good friend/the nanny I am not even quite afraid, it?s not the right word?incredulous might do it. And, perhaps sickly, slightly relieved. Why? It makes no sense.
My milk threatens to dry up after the hospital stay. I blame Nurse Ratchett, reincarnated as a beautiful blonde named Shelley who refuses me fluids, who looks at the breast pump like it is a medieval torture device. It is clear she does not have children or want children or like children. This is okay; parenthood does not, in my book, an adult make. But kindness? Kindness, yes. She brings me Jello and broths so salty if I drink them my cells will shrivel up. She brings me a vomit bag which I fill and hand to her. (Later, in the 1200-word letter I write to the hospital, complaining, I say the best part of my stay was handing over the puke. This is true.)
A week later, shadows in the studio play off the green chair and make me think someone is passing by. I am writing again, or attempting to. My milk has come back slowly, so slowly. I hear voices telling me one year of nursing is enough, one year is good. But I could not take it from him so abruptly. Returning from the hospital, I was greeted by his outstretched fists clutched tightly in the ?milk? sign, his body tense, his desperate crying for me. There was no mistaking it. Why would I take this away if I didn?t have to?
When the husband finally calls from the road two days later, he too is incredulous. ?Hi,? is all he says, but his voice says something else. ?I?m okay,? I tell him, though I do not feel okay: my belly is full of fluid and air. I can feel them sloshing together, waves crashing on a ship?s prow. Later, after he gets home, we will spend six more hours at the Emergency Room. When did they stop calling it a CAT scan and call it CT? The contrast dye makes me have to pee, flushes me head to toe. The pedantic tech had assured me it would. I guess I was grateful to know ahead of time.
Fluid in the abdomen. Start of an abscess. Maybe. Shit.
?Antibiotics,? says Dr. James Starr, ER doctor. ?Three to four days intravenous, incompatible with nursing.? This is the first time I feel fear. Later, moments before they are hooking me up to an IV, he comes in to say stop. ?The surgeon says you can go home with a prescription instead,? he reports, and then I cry again for a different reason.
The pain is like needles. The pain is a dull ache. The pain is like needles. The sloshing gets lesser. The air passes through. The incisions are like angry little mouths, glued shut. I cannot get comfortable. The air lodges in my shoulder. The pain killers make me stupid. I take one a day, tops.
Let me see your scars, the eight-year-old intones every day. He tells me appendicitis is contagious. He tells me he does not want to get close to me. The first night home, I remind him to be gentle. As if possessed by the devil, he leans over to my belly and with both hands, presses. After, wailing, he insists it was an accident. I pretend to believe him. I tell him it is okay.
It was not an accident.
Someone brings soup.
Someone brings flowers.
Someone does my dishes.
The house is still a disaster.
By his first birthday, things are mostly right-side-up again. The mornings have grown colder. In California you watch for these subtle signs of fall. By mid-day it could be any season, but the mornings are crisp. We attempt a walk. In the bath the night before, I noticed my tailbone, jutting out. Three pounds lost in the hospital, all, apparently, from my ass. How many ounces is an appendix? Not that many.
Pounds lost: 3
Hours in hospital: 30
Babies un-nursed: 1
Size of inflamed appendix: 11 millimeters
Pounds of air pumped into belly: too many
Appendixes left: 0
The incident with the appendix cuts something with the baby. It is not so simple as that, for two days, waiting for contrast dye and antibiotics to leave my system, I can?t nurse. It is also that, in that time, I avoided him altogether, fearing his desire. Out of sight, out of mind, I told myself. Lying in bed while someone else takes care of him, I feel for a minute like I never had him. I could let my milk dry up, forget all about it. But I do not. Guilt, I think. When he resumes nursing he kicks at my belly. The two of them, these two boys, slowly batter me.
The eight year old, who has always been in control of his feelings, is acting strange. Mad. Reserved. Finally, I make him say it. ?I was scared,? he says. ?You never called me,? he says. ?I never got to visit you in the hospital,? he says. ?I was so worried,? he says. ?I didn?t know what was happening.? My love for him floods the room.
I?m sorry, I say.
I?m sorry, I say.
I played around with the style of this blog post after reading Jenny Offill’s amazing and experimental novel Dep’t. of Speculation, which I can’t say enough good things about.
For me, and I think for most, the writing life is feast or famine: years of not much happening, then little periods of publication or great strides on projects. And occasionally, it comes all at once.
To wit: I had two essays published this week, within minutes of each other. I’m thrilled. It was a nice personal moment in what’s been a very difficult week politically and globally. I think it’s important to mention that: wildfires in Oregon, the end of DACA, hurricanes everywhere?my heart goes out to so many people, right now.
So if you want a diversion, I’ve got two essays for you.
I kept the rejection letters because I was told to.
In my first year of graduate school, a professor described a poet who?d wallpapered the bathroom with his. Without questioning why one would want their failures staring them in the face while they did their business, I nodded gravely and made a note of it. Apparently, writers saved?and sometimes displayed?their rejection letters.
That first year of grad school I learned all kinds of things about ?what writers did.? For one, I learned to say ?I?m a writer? when anyone asked, because if you didn?t believe it yourself, then who would? And that night, I went home and started a “rejections” folder, eagerly awaiting my first one.
The second essay is completely different; it’s called “In Praise of Mindful Birthing,” and it’s about how I harnessed a technique I learned through meditation to get me through Baby S’s birth. You can read it over on Elephant Journal. Here’s a teaser:
Fast forward to week 40: I?m sitting on my back porch on a swelteringly hot day. I had a castor oil smoothie for breakfast, followed by a trip to a delightful sadist of an acupuncturist who made me stumble around her office with my feet full of needles. The doula has arrived, and so has my friend Steph.
The candles have been lit.
On the stereo, sacred music by Hildegard von Bingen plays.
I am in labor.
I don?t have time to think about how different this birth is so far, with my candles, my team of women, and my sacred chants, because I?m breathing. I?m having a contraction, in fact. It?s painful, but I don?t think about the next one. I don?t panic waiting for the pause.
And?there it goes. I look lazily around the yard. A bumblebee nuzzles the late summer flowers. I can almost see the pollen on its back as it lifts off. A hummingbird stops by. My feet feel hot on the deck. The birthing ball beneath me sways lightly.
I am not in pain, I think to myself?not at this moment, anyway.
I’d love to hear from you! Got a question or comment? What’s YOUR experience of rejection–or giving birth? Drop me a line, below. And follow me on Facebook, where I just might read aloud from one of these essays a little later today.
Confession: I get really annoyed when people bandy about the phrase “carpe diem” or otherwise remind you to live each second as though it’s your last.
Sure, if you’re some privileged, white, yoga-going, money-possessing, unemployed, free-spirited amazing soul, that probably works for you. The rest of us, however, are?working, raising kids, going to school, and fighting the good fight.?It’s just not practical?or very pleasant, to my mind?to act like death is imminent so we need to freak out and cram everything in NOW.
That said, I’ve been really loving the mantra I picked up at a women’s meditation thingy I went to a while back: There is all the time in the world. The phrase, which is kind of like the opposite of “carpe diem,” has been getting me through some tough moments of late. The thing is, and this is mostly positive?I’m just wanting MOAR of everything as I emerge from my first year postpartum. More writing, more yoga, more time in nature, more music, more quality time with my kids, more political engagement, more relaxation. Is this possible? Probably not; there are only so many hours in the day. But instead of focusing on the lack of time, or being a maxed out, American mom on the brink, I’m focusing on this idea that there’s enough time to do it all. If something doesn’t get done today, it’ll get done another day. It’s deceptively simple, and sometimes, anyway, it works.
Here are some ways I’m voicing my?new mantra:
Sure, spend only ten minutes on the novel. When it gets to feeling crunchy, don’t force it. Take a break and work on something else.
Go to yoga on a Monday even if it means an hour less of writing. Likely, the calming aspect of the class will make you more focused, anyway.
Sit still and watch Baby S play without panicking about what’s not getting done. This will be a blip in the scheme of things. Besides, it’s a real delight to watch him go.
Be in control of your space, but don’t panic if things feel a little chaotic on the domestic front. You can correct them later.
I feel kind of ridiculously new-agey as I write this, but I’m really finding the idea of there being all the time in the world revolutionary.?I’m so good at telling myself I’m not good enough, that I don’t work hard enough, that I suck. But if I attempt to approach the world with just a little more space, I find myself a little more spacious: more open to creative ideas and opportunities, more open to joy.
One thing?I want less of in my life? Social media. I’m really addicted right now. Some of it is fun?my Facebook author page, where I post articles and photos and updates of my new life with two kids, has been a fun venture. And I’m tryyyyying to pin all my blog posts on Pinterest (follow me!). But it’s too easy to give “all the time in the world” over to trolling friends’ status updates and depressing political news. It’s easy to see time spiral down the drain.
And another thing I want less of? Drinking. We spent every night of our vacation back East on the verge of tipsy. It was fun, but unsustainable. When we got back we teetotaled and ate vegetarian for a solid week (stay tuned for “A Week’s Worth of Vegetarian Dinners”! I also want MOAR food writing, and cooking, in my life). It felt really good to clean up a little, to emerge into my favorite season?trying to find my own way to carpe diem.
What are YOU wanting more and less of in your life? I’d love to hear from you.
I’m not complaining. Really.?But it does suck to be a working mom sometimes. I’m up half the night nursing. I rally at seven (fine, maybe 7:30), stagger into the shower, out to make tea. Rush the baby to the nanny,?rush back home?to plan class. Pump. Wash the pump. Pack up the pump. Pack up the class notes. Head to BART. Get to school. Photocopy. Teach. Pump. Teach some more. Leave. Pump again at home. Wash the pump. Pump. Pump again. And again. And again.
My Medela Pump In Style?has become a wizened old thing, with a dangerous teaser of mold in the tubing (pipe cleaners, stat!), dried breast milk and dust adorning the stylish black carrier bag, and the bottle labels worn clean from four daily washings (let alone the twice-a-week-which-is-way-less-than-they-recommend sanitizing). My Medela, a gift from a friend, is my constant companion; I perseverate, while I’m teaching, about forgetting it in the classroom or leaving it on BART. I blindly sense its presence, glancing down to make sure it’s right where I left it in the middle of a lecture on “theme” or “sensory details.” If I lost the breast pump, then where would I be?
Turgid. My breasts would be turgid. And the baby might?have to drink formula?(gasp!).?
Breast pump parts drying in plastic “grass,” one of the few baby purchases I have made (and adore) this time around.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not above formula. Baby S has consumed some in his day. But since I have these knockers that have been producing pretty well, and a baby with a champion latch (my friend said we should do a breastfeeding video!), and a whole lot of propaganda reminding me that “breast is best,”?I might as well use what nature gave me.?A working mom can only produce so much, however, and it is a little-known phenomenon (someone please tell me this happened to them, too?) that when the baby drinks from a bottle he drinks much more heartily.
To wit: In a day and a half, pumping three times a day and at?night, glass of wine be damned,?I produce three bottles. The next day while I’m at work? He might want?four. The math just doesn’t add up. When we’re home together, he’s fine; my boobs satisfy. When I’m not there, he’s like a ravenous little shark, demanding more, more, more (see above, under “the miracles of formula in a pinch”).
Working mom makes lunches for everyone.
And so, readers, I pump. I enter the “Nursing Moms Room” at school, praying a student doesn’t pound on the door after spraining her ankle on the stairs, mistaking the meaning of “nursing” in this context (this happened last week). I hike up my dress. I situate the pump, plug it in. Attach the flange to the yellow doohickey to the white doohickey. Turn it on. Pop ‘er on. Scroll through my phone if I can get a hand free. I have twenty minutes for this adventure, plus any time I might need to, say, pee, or make a photocopy, or eat a bite of lunch. God forbid I need to?eat some lunch!
And when I’m done, I pull the dress back down, hopping around on one foot struggling with the zipper on the back (why did I wear this trickily-zippered empire-waist?dress that’s tight across the chest? Oh right, because it hides my postpartum?belly fat). I pack my breast milk into my handy freezer bag, and head back to the classroom, a tiny bit disheveled and hoping?I don’t look like I just had a quickie in the hall with a stranger (I assure you, class, my breasts were engaged in a different pursuit). I teach, perseverating on the breast pump stowed beneath the desk.
Don’t let me forget you, I pray. We need each other now.