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.
This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant?who grew up with?dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.
Fall’s diagonal light
Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between?what should go on?in, say, chapter 2?is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what?to write.
Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could?somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.
But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.
Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot?laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out?probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m?in what we might call the ideation phase.?Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.
Nonetheless, I?am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)
And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.
It?s raining colored paper.
No, birds?cardinals, orioles, and canaries,
swooping, dipping towards the hard surface
of the road, then gone. It?s the cornfields
have turned to paper, and a pumpkin
spills its guts on a front stoop.
A boy discovers it and starts to cry.
Who would do such a thing,
bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?
Something in him falters.
He imagines his house on fire: water boiling
in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.
He thinks about God and Judas
and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,
wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails
to splinters. He stares out at the fields,
counts minutes till schooltime, his breath
a neat circle on the window,
because it?s cold this October, already?
and there in the road is the flock of leaves,
swooping, dipping into the hard surface,
then gone. They touch down, and then they?re gone.
The cornfields have turned to paper,
and behind them the sky.
? Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001
Hi folks! It’s an exciting summer day over here at susiemeserve.com: my first ever guest blogger. I met Lynn Sollitto at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, where we bonded over memoir-writing (and Tweeting). Lynn’s been working on a book about adopting a baby girl?from foster care after serving as her drug-addicted biological mother’s birth coach?and then adopting the baby’s older sister a couple of years later. Lynn’s memoir, Born in My Heart, is about?her girls? adoption, their unique needs, her unusual relationship with their birth mother Ruth, and “the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.”
Below is a chapter from Lynn Sollitto’s work-in-progress, Born in My Heart.?I hope you enjoy!
Chapter Three: Accidentally in Love
Paige in the NICU a couple of hours after her birth
The first rays of sunshine crept under the closed curtains. I dug through my purse for loose change. Angrily, my stomach growled. ?Food?s on the way,? I reassured it. ?Stale, overpriced vending machine food?? My wallet was empty. Although there was an ATM on the first floor, I didn?t want Ruth to be alone when she woke up so I stayed in the room. I filled a paper cup multiple times with water and drank quickly. My stomach was somewhat placated.
Over the next couple of hours, Ruth?s contractions became closer together and more intense. I felt helpless that I didn?t know how to help her. I have been birth coached, but not the birth coach. Ruth wasn?t aware of anything other than her pain. The nurse said it was time to push. A two-person cheering squad, we encouraged Ruth. ?One more push,? the nurse encouraged her. ?C?mon Ruth, you can do it!? I exclaimed, holding her clammy hand. “I know it hurts but it?ll be over soon!? The situation was both hilarious and sad. I was witnessing an intense and personal experience with a woman I didn?t know.
I got a cool, wet washcloth and placed it gently on her forehead. I dabbed her sweaty forehead and pushed her hair away from her eyes. I winced when my finger caught in a tangle from her night of restless sleep. ?You?re strong. You can do this!? Of course, I knew no such thing. In agony she suddenly cried out, ?I want my husband, I want David!? At that moment, the full intensity and reality of her situation hit me: This woman was all alone. She was in physical and emotional pain and I could do nothing to help. Her future and the future of her children were uncertain. I felt gut-wrenching sadness for her situation: a complete stranger stood in her husband?s place.
My hands shook and my voice trembled. ?I know you do, Honey, I know…? I turned away and re-wet the washcloth, a guise to hide the tears welling up in my eyes. Ruth pushed for nearly four hours. Then she gave up. Although the nurse and I urged Ruth on, she stopped all effort. She looked defeated, her energy obviously spent.
The nurse gestured for me to follow her into the hallway. ?She isn?t pushing anymore. We?ll have to do a C-section if she doesn?t keep trying.? The nurse paused and her eyes probed mine. ?Is there anything else about Ruth?s pregnancy that I should know??? Her voice trailed off and implied there was. ?I don?t really know her.? The nurse?s face didn?t change as I briefly explained the situation. She nodded at me then turned resolutely back to the birthing room. Once again at Ruth?s side, she firmly said, ?Ruth, we need to know if you?ve done anything during your pregnancy. You need to be honest so we can help you and your baby! There might be something wrong…? Ruth took a deep breath. Quietly she told the nurse: ?I did meth once. When my husband went to prison and I was really upset.? Suddenly Ruth cried out, ?Is someone going to take my baby? I don?t want anyone to take my baby! Please don?t take my baby!? The nurse reassured Ruth no one would take her baby, then left the room.
I stared at Ruth?s pale, gaunt face. She no longer tried to hide her rotten teeth. She had small scabs and sores, a sign of chronic methamphetamine use. I thought, Once? You?re full of shit! When the nurse came back, she pulled me into the hallway again. ?They?re prepping the operating room for a C-section,? she told me. ?Will you be accompanying Ruth??
Lynn’s husband and son saying hello to the baby
Are you kidding??I thought, excited. Out loud, calm and reserved, I said, ?Yes.? My interest in medicine, rather than my birth coach duties, prompted the decision to go with Ruth. ?I sure hope she turns her life around so she can keep her baby,? the nurse said, then she walked into the room to prep Ruth for transfer. I walked next to Ruth?s hospital bed as we entered the elevator and rode down to the operating room. It was as absurd as a scene from ER or General Hospital. Ruth was wheeled into the OR and I stayed behind in the hallway. The nurse told me to put on a gown and wait until I was called in.
My stomach grumbled; I was surprised to see it was 1 o?clock in the afternoon. Twenty minutes later I was called into the OR. Machines bleeped at consistent intervals. Nurses and doctors milled around in scrubs and surgical masks. A tall surgical curtain just below Ruth?s chest separated the doctors and nurses from her upper body. To the left stood a few nurses next to an incubator, ready to take Ruth?s baby. To my immediate right lay Ruth. An anesthesia nurse stood by her head. He was dressed in surgical scrubs but didn?t wear a mask. Things were surreal; I was an actress in a movie so preposterous it should have been fiction.
I tentatively approached Ruth, touched her arm and spoke. ?Hi Ruth, I?m here. How are you?? She turned her head towards me, eyes unfocused. ?It hurts,? she moaned, breathless. She turned her head to the anesthesia nurse and asked for more painkillers. I fidgeted, awkward and clueless. Should I massage her arm or gently stroke her hair? Should I distract her with jokes or reassure her as the doctor did me when I was in labor? Should I keep my hands to myself and merely stand next to her silently? ?Let me know if you need anything, Ruth,? I finally said. She didn?t respond. The doctors and nurses swiftly performed their job. They explained the procedure as they went. ?We?re going to make the incision. Can you feel anything Ruth?? Ruth muttered that she couldn?t feel any pain. I heard things on the other side of the sheet. I stood on my tiptoes and watched as best I could. Their arms moved around and performed what was routine to them but no less than amazing to me.
?Ruth, we?re going to deliver your baby now,? said the surgeon. I peered earnestly over the surgical drape, obsessed with seeing as much as possible. I forgot my role to assist and support Ruth. Instead, I witnessed the baby?s birth. She was a healthy-appearing, flushed infant covered in afterbirth, with a patch of hair plastered to her head. The doctor announced quite unnecessarily, ?It?s a girl,? and handed the infant to a nurse. I suddenly remembered Ruth, the whole reason I witnessed this miracle. I turned back to Ruth. Was she aware of giving birth in her narcotic-induced haze? She seemed focused on her discomfort and the next painkiller push. I smiled at her pallid face and squeezed her hand. ?You have another daughter, Ruth!?
Through a fog not induced by drugs, I heard someone ask if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord. I froze, dumbfounded. That?s not my job, that?s the father?s job!
Awestruck and surprisingly steady, I asked, ?Do you want me to cut the cord?
Her eyes met mine. She nodded and whispered, ?Yes.?
An understanding passed between us, and an unbreakable connection was made.
I approached the nurse, who waited patiently. I?d never cut an umbilical cord before. I?d never seen one still connected to the infant. I expected it to be brown and firm, a dried up stump like Eli had. To my surprise, it had a greenish hue, and was thick and twisted. As I cut through with the sterile scissors, I discovered it was soft and rubbery. I cut the cord and thoughts of disbelief raced through my head. I cannot believe I?m doing this? Afterwards, the doctors stitched up Ruth. ?It hurts,? she moaned. She got another dose of painkillers.
?Do you want to hold the baby?? A nurse stood to my left, holding the pink bundle of joy. My eyes widened and my hands shook. David should be the first to hold her, not me. ?Ruth?? I whispered. She conceded with a nod. I took the wrapped bundle in my arms, amazed that I had witnessed her birth. I turned to Ruth and proudly showed her her daughter, as though I was the father. ?Look Ruth, it?s your daughter. She?s beautiful!? I gently lowered the baby so Ruth could see her. Ruth looked at her briefly and then closed her eyes. When she didn?t open them again after a few seconds, I straightened up. The PA system played a faint lullaby of bells, symbolizing the newborn?s arrival. I gazed down at this perfect little package, enamored. She sucked on the edge of her tightly wrapped blanket. It reminded me of our kitten, Boogie, who did the same thing.
Then, without warning, I thought, You?d fit in good with us.
I jerked my head up, paranoid someone had heard what I was thinking. Where the hell did that come from?
You can follow Lynn on Twitter @LynnSollitto and check out her Facebook page here.