Just over seven years ago, my son L was born in Oslo, when B had a Fulbright and I got pregnant and we stayed awhile. It has felt, all these years, like something out of mythology, our 15 months in Norway, L’s birth, the four months postpartum until we came back to the States and lived with our parents on and off for over a year, finally “settling” here in northern California. Our lives are so very different now than they were then: Leo’s babyhood is gone, our friends are different, the climate is different, everything.
And yet, when we went to Norway a month ago, there was a way in which absolutely nothing had changed. There was our Norwegian dad-type, Petter Andreas, picking us up at the airport looking exactly the same, and our good friends whose cabin in Sweden we invaded for one beautiful week?despite their kids being now 12 and 10 and 8 and a three-year-old we’d never met, they were almost exactly the same, too. In two weeks we slipped into this state of noticing difference and appreciating sameness. And oh, the comforting, perfect sameness. B and I loved living in Norway, loved almost everything about it. When we left in 2009 I cried?like I hadn’t cried in years, a visceral, wrenching kind of crying; leaving there was the biggest of losses. So?being back felt like slipping into my?parents’ house again at Christmastime when I was?in college: the familiar smells, the dishes I knew were coming for dinner, the scent and feel of my?old bed.?And thank goodness, because a part of me had worried that it wouldn’t feel that way, that Norway would feel not so much familiar and the same but foreign, alien, other.
But no: it all felt very much like the home it was all those years ago, eerily familiar, and when we left this time, there were those wrenching tears again, those eviscerating, devastating tears. It is hard to love a place, and people, who live impractically far away.
Midnight sun in Norway, circa June 2009
I’ve changed so much in the seven years since we left Norway. When I look back on who I was in 2009, I see a woman who didn’t yet know what it was to parent, and to have finished a book, and to have learned how to be a working mom, and all those things that are so central, now, to my identity.?But in one fundamental and surprising way, I’m the same now as I was then.
Readers, I’m pregnant again.
Those of you who follow my stuff know that this is A Big Deal. I’ve published articles about my infertility over the years. Not being able to conceive has been a large part of my life, because we started trying to make L a sibling before he turned two and all these years, our second baby has loomed, an idea, in the background. We gave up, we started again, we decided to adopt, we decided not to adopt. And so imagine my surprise when one of those newfangled, new-age fertility treatments actually?worked and I found myself, in January, morning sick as hell, hormonal, and needing to pee every ten minutes?PREGNANT.
A pregnant me in the Frogner Park, next to the fetus statue
I am not a young pregnant person; I am right on the tail end of my waning fertility or even a little past. I have a seven year old. I have not changed my own child’s diaper in years. I have slept through the night for, oh, six years now.?And along the way of these past eight months of being pregnant I have felt more than a little fear and anxiety about starting over again, even as I’ve felt joy (and more than a little disbelief) that we’re starting over again. The pile of worries I’m contending with, it’s big.
And?that’s why the trip to Norway was so perfectly timed. My birth with Leo was long, complicated, and at-times harrowing, and I’ll be honest that giving birth again is at the top of my worries list at the moment. L’s birth, his origin story, if you will, has?been a part of the Mythology of Norway all of these years. Perhaps because we left so soon after he was born there’s a way that I’ve been dislocated from his birth, like something relegated to the far-back reaches of memory.
So when we were in Oslo a few weeks ago, we took the bus to the hospital and showed L where he was born, and I remembered riding that damn #20 bus up Kirkeveien for my appointments; at the end of the pregnancy, I was up there twice a week for ultrasounds and fetal heart monitoring because they were worried there was something wrong with the baby. We showed L the cemetery adjacent to the birthing rooms where, a sober midwife told us when we first met, the cycle of life was completed. I remembered B walking a hungry and traumatized two-day-old baby around that cemetery when my milk hadn’t yet come in, L so utterly tiny and helpless and beautiful in his little?hat with the stars on it.
And somehow being there made it all more real again, in ways that were hard and in ways that were good. I think every woman, if she’s honest, has some PTSD after giving birth, and standing in the lee of that hospital building looking out at the cemetery, I felt mine. But then there was my seven-year-old beside me, just himself, on his actual birthday no less, whining about how long the walk was going to be back to the #20 bus.
Just our lives, just us, how we’ve been all these years, only very soon, about to change completely.
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As I was ruminating on this post, I really appreciated Annie Reneau’s “Actually, it DOES Matter How You Give Birth,” which you can read here.?Thanks, Annie!
It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausg?rd’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because?Knausg?rd manages to elevate the?domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.
In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is?determined to have massive brain damage?so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.
It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:
“During the part when Silvan is actively dying?if that’s not an oxymoron?I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and?hold.?This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”
I did?I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement?I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.
I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent?press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon,?and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.
Happy, poignant reading,
If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this?and this out.
At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was?in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.
Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all?you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow?that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?
And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days,?too,?speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received?a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.
So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.
At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged?we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another?in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”
“How old are your kids?” one asked another.
“Ten and eight. You?”
“Seven and five. You?”
Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”
And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion,?I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.
But it also means smarting when, at a?babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.
But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.
“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms?at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely?been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I?have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.
And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.
Mine?”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”?all from The?Gold Cell,?by Sharon Olds?seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.
And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.
**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the?Madness Radio Book Launch! With?Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California?7pm. Hope to see you!**?
This happened on the same day that our car, which we had just purchased a new battery for, wouldn’t start in the driveway, and though arguably less crucial to life, and much cheaper to replace, the broken printer filled me with a more terrible sense of loss.?I’ve had that printer for sixteen years. Sixteen years!That’s longer than I’ve known my husband. I bought it when I was in grad school, when I was tired of sending out poems printed all wobbly on my mom’s hand-me-down?ink jet. The HP 1200 LaserJet cost $350, and at the time, that seemed like an enormous amount of money. I remember feeling like an adult, and like a real writer, when I bought it.?It?lasted through countless Apple computers?Four? Five??and has printed countless poems; it’s printed my poetry manuscript and parts of my memoir?and various essays in their draft stages, and many student assignments,?and it was only when I went to print the first forty pages of the novel I’m writing that I mistakenly fed it a recycled piece of paper that was actually two pieces of paper, with a staple between them, and something snapped.
It seems outrageous that after all these years, it was a staple that did it.
But that, I suppose, is life, and if I make too much of the demise of a printer, let?me just say that I’ve had this feeling lately that life is all these concentric circles, these interwoven links, and that everything is connected. So, for me, the loss of the machine that’s helped me put my writing into print for over a decade feels a bit like the loss of an entire era, like the loss of those lovely grad school years when the printer was new, those years when I could spend an entire day working out a poem, bring it to workshop, take it back home and work on it some more. That first year of grad school I lived in a makeshift apartment in a rickety old house in Amherst, and it was my first year living alone in quite some time (I’d had a live-in partner, and college housemates, before?that). I can remember the night I thought drinking?a second bottle of wine by myself was a good idea, and the night I broke up with someone but slept with him anyway, and the night I overheard every word of an argument between my landlords over the recycling bins and whose turn it was to take them out.
And then I moved, to an apartment in Northampton that was as charming as it was noisy, and the printer came with me. My desk was an old door from a house my parents were renovating propped up on two filing cabinets, and the cords for my computer fit through the hole where the door knob would go. The printer was on the far right, and despite this unwieldy late-nineties desktop computer and the large LaserJet, there was enough space for me to sit, comfortably, between them. The desk was in my bedroom, but I’d made a psychic barrier between the bed space and the writing space, and every morning I wasn’t teaching?I’d stumble over to the desk with a cup of coffee and get to work. Some days the poems came like water, trickling easily out of the faucet, and other days they were labored and slow. Always, I’d print them, read them out loud, change a comma, read them out loud again. I drank so much coffee in those days; my anxiety, and my adrenal glands, shudder with the memory.
But was it a simpler time? Of course it was. When writers ask whether an MFA is worth it, I cite those hours at that desk and the feeling of summer camp, like I was writing in Northampton while Leah was writing in Sunderland, with Leslie at her desk in the adjacent room, and the Bens back in Amherst and someone else out in Greenfield, all of us working away like satellites in communication with one another, pausing for whatever; or not working, and pulling our hair out, and blocked?but that was our job, that, just to try to work, not to parent or to homestead or to be married or to publish?we didn’t even worry that much about publishing! Perhaps we should have. But just to do the work. I’ll never get that time back; I’ll always want that time back.
I left Northampton on January 1, 2001. On New Year’s Eve at 9:45 p.m. I’d been painting my blue walls back to white and packing the last of the boxes. Later, I walked over to see some friends. I’d already kissed Laura goodbye, and Leah was long gone, and Mikey vowed to stay in touch (and did). Jim Foley was very much alive. And off I went the next morning, drove out to Portland, Oregon, with my little brother, hitting every winter storm whatever region we were passing through could throw at us. And when he flew back to Boston a day or so later, leaving me to my new life, I cried like I’ve never cried before or since, with loneliness, with anguish, with the deepest sense of loss.
But, and perhaps this was no accident: a week later, I met the man who would become my husband. And then so many things happened that truly feel like fate: us?deciding to travel together for a year, and us getting engaged while we were traveling. And me writing a book about that year of travel, and about my surprise, after always having felt outside of it, to have found a man who truly loved me. That book spanned the next decade of my life. And then we moved?to Norway and had a baby, and when we got back, we tried again, and?again, and again to have another, and I wrote about that, too.
And here I am, terribly pensive of a January morning. L didn’t want to go to school, and his face turned puffy with tears. B tried to rationalize with him about school and its importance, but I eventually just held him and said, “You’re having a really tough morning.” My morning was tough, too: the printer, the car, the muddled-ness, the awful news of the world.
“You’re squeezing me too tight,” he said, but?I wasn’t sure what else to do but hold on.
An act of bravery by a grimacing kid. And a not-so-subtle message unrelated to the rest of the content of this blog post. That is all.
I was so thrilled by the nice response I got to my essay in The New York Timesa couple of weeks ago. Like the other pieces?I’ve published recently, like this one and this one, the essay was deeply personal and more than a little revealing. Besides admitting to sometimes wishing my son would move out to a nice farm in the country for a week or two, I also came clean (again) about my struggles with secondary infertility.
I noticed that when all my lovely friends and supporters?re-tweeted and re-blogged my essay, or shared it?on Facebook, they?kept referring to it?as brave. “A brave essay by my friend Susie Meserve,” one of them said, and another, “Thank you for your honesty and bravery.” Honest, I’ll cop to?always. (Honest to a fault, methinks.) But brave? At the time I posted my snarky little article?about parenting, another friend was publishing a piece about negative portrayals of women of color in television, for which, I’m sure, she received a $%^& storm of offensive comments. And of course I thought about the incredible bravery of?Jim Foley. I was hard pressed to think of myself, in an essay complaining about the boredom and existentialism of parenting, as being “brave.”
I raised this with my friend An Honest Mom, who shared the smart point that we always think of other people as brave before we accept the idea that we ourselves are. And that, for many people, what I did in those personal essays?admitting to pettiness, jealousy, parental ennui, grief, and infertility, not to mention?contending with years and years of rejection?as a writer?is just that: brave. Well, gosh. That made me feel good. After all, I am the woman who spent seven years writing a book about my own anxiety, and how when I traveled around the world with my now-husband, fear kept me from experiencing all kinds of adventures.
That I might be brave for sharing that truth about myself is almost uncomfortably ironic, and more than a little pleasing to think about.
I had been mulling this over for a few days when?I stumbled into a sweet conversation with my son L, who at five seems to have simultaneously inherited his mother’s risk-aversion and society’s ideas about what bravery really is. I was puttering around the kitchen while he drew pictures on the floor and practiced writing “letters” to me and his dad.
“Mama, did you know I’m not as brave as J?”
“You’re not?” I feigned surprise. J is an extremely intrepid friend. He’ll scale anything around.
“Nope. He’s much braver, because he climbs much better than me.”
“Well, you know,” I said in a fit of genius, “people are brave in different ways. Like, for example, I’m not very brave about climbing either, not like Daddy or J. But I’m brave because I write things that people don’t always like, and I write them anyway. And sometimes it’s hard to be a writer, because people say no to you a lot,?and it’s brave that I do it.”
He was enthralled.
“And,” I continued, “I know a way that you’re brave that J isn’t as brave.”
“I do. You do a great job at sleepovers. And J still has a really hard time with them.”
“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down. “I’m brave at sleepovers!”
“Yup,” I said, feeling utterly content?with everything: my tenuous bravery, and L’s.
This question of bravery keeps coming up. L is more than a little obsessed with it lately. Playing “dinosaurs versus dragons,” he’s constantly asking me which team is braver, and his answers reveal a very narrow-minded idea of courage. For example, yesterday he told me that the dinosaurs were braver because they were winning. I suggested that maybe the dragons were braver for keeping on fighting even when they were losing, but no?that was the wrong answer.
I’m obviously more hip to bravery than L, but nonetheless I wonder whether my own ideas about what’s brave have been a little primitive. Like traveling with B. The entire time, I told myself that he was the brave one, because he seemed to be completely unafraid. But maybe, for pushing through my fears, for not giving up, for ultimately deciding I could have traveled forever, I was brave, too.
I don’t know. But?I nonetheless?like the idea of reframing bravery. For many years, I haven’t believed that I have been very brave at all. But I have started to wonder if maybe bravery is something different than I’ve thought.
And, an aside: NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words. Me? I’m shooting for 25,000. It may not be an act of bravery, but anyone who meets that goal, while working and parenting and preparing for the holidays, my hat is off to you.
Stay tuned for the 2014 Literary Gift Guide, coming soon!