Friday, July 29, 2011


In most human cultures, birth is a social event not a potential medical emergency... - Geradine Simkins

When I left Monterey, one of the fabulous friends I left behind was my midwife, Maggie. She is an incredibly unique soul -- hilarious, insightful, grounded in layers of experience, politically and otherwise courageous, an amazing artist, an oasis of comfort.

She "caught" Isaac, as they say, and I wish very much she could be here for this baby. I got to spend the first trimester and a half with her.

She is one of the midwives featured in a new book called Into These Hands: Wisdom from Midwives, edited by Geradine Simkins. It is a compilation of the stories of midwives over the age of 50 who have been practicing for at least 25 years, how they came to be what they are and why they do what they do.

I miss you, Maggie!!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

the living and the dead

She has two rhythms now
Another heartbeat
Almost too delicate
To dance to.
-- Taelen Thomas

My friend and colleague, the ineffable Taelen Thomas, wrote that for me spontaneously when he found out I was pregnant with Isaac back in 2004. He wrote it on an index card while we stood off stage together at the performance poetry show I was hosting at the time. I doubt he remembers it. But I always have, and when we were packing and moving I found the card. It's now taped up in the van; it traveled across the country with us, a new dance its purview these days.

As confused as I sometimes become about our decision to have another child, there is a need. It's large and small and touches many circles that don't always touch each other. I think it's safe for me to write with philosophical wonder about some things that have driven me to distraction in the last 5 weeks in Massachusetts because very soon we will actually be in our own house and I won't have to deal with it as my daily reality anymore.

Since we've arrived I feel like we've been infused with the dead. We are staying with someone whose long-time partner is critically ill with cancer. We get updates several times a day after her visits. An understandable obsession of hers these days, death and dying are also what we are regaled with stories of as she sits out the heatwave in front of the newspaper. A couple killed in a car accident. “Isn't it terrible??” A priest who shot himself. “Can you imagine??” A life apart from this black-shrouded barrage of facts? I hope I still can.

Then, amidst other more removed deaths – someone's daughter's husband's father, a guy who used to go dancing with so-and-so... – that we nonetheless hear about often and in detail, a couple weeks ago, Mike's uncle passed away.

We mentioned in casual conversation that we have promised Isaac a bunny for his 7th birthday next year and he's very, very excited. “We used to have a bunny,” our host started. “A cute, black and white bunny. It lived out by the shed. Until one day a raccoon came – I think it must have gotten in through the top of the hutch...” You get the idea. Isaac and I sat shell-shocked at another blood-strewn tale where once there was just a furry pet.

The apparent “serendipity” of death, if you will, has reached such a fevered pitch that even the most seemingly innocent interactions steer in dangerous directions: “Have you ever seen a June bug, Isaac? Look, it's too fat to turn over again from its back!” “There are ants eating it,” my son informs her, taking a closer look, “It's dead.”

Even when we arrived here was curious timing. It was the same weekend I flew in to Jersey last year for my mom. The one-year anniversary of her death on June 19 came 2 days after we got here and continues to shadow me.

As you may or may not imagine, being pregnant, in a new town, grieving, buying a house, blah blah blah blah blah, has brought on more than one meltdown to this poet's constitution. At one point, Mike said, “Do you think you can ask your mom for help?” To which I snapped “NO! I'm tired of dead people. I've had enough of dead people!”

Of course I want her to walk with me, but at the same time it's especially painful right now. And of course the dead and the living can be in conversation, but even Persephone got to come the hell back from the Underworld for part of the year.

It is time for life. New life. Why do you think I am so addicted to farmer's markets? It's about abundance, a coming to fruition, displaying beauty, Demeter restored.

In a few weeks I get to hold the new. I get to feel brand new life, right there in my arms. And I remember this much, the wave of hope will be bigger than all the rest of this. It's time to clean things up, sweep away the June bugs. 

Don't pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living.” - Albus Dumbledore

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


If I were to post a wanted ad for friends, which I indeed need in my new home, I might require a quality that I can't quite put my finger on the name of. Rather, let me tell you a story that might illustrate it.

One day Isaac and I were at the children's museum and I happened to run into a good friend of mine, Alicia, with her twin girls who were probably about four at the time. All involved were please by this chance encounter and after the kids had had their fill of playing restaurant and hospital, we headed out together to a taquería close by.

Waiting for our food at the booth, Alicia pulled out of her purse a copy of Gabriel García Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. “I've been trying to read this,” she said simply. “I brought it along in case.” I have always had a deep respect for Alicia; we have fun together; we can talk about all kinds of things; we were friends before we had kids; we've stayed friends after having kids; she has wrapped her mother world into her preexisting one. Unflappable, she acknowledges the changes motherhood has brought to her life while maintaining her interests, her poise, and her personality.

And in that moment, when I saw the book, not only did I again fall madly in love with her, I understood on some level without a name how it was we came to be such good friends. Anyone who carries One Hundred Years of Solitude around hoping to catch a moment when her twin preschoolers are occupied long enough that she might read a line or two? These are my people.

I no longer have the option of having people meet me pre-kid(s). That's an interesting space for me to ponder.

I can remember when Mike and I first arrived in Monterey and I began my graduate program. It weirded me out slightly that everyone meeting me was meeting me as part of a couple. It was particularly odd seeing how Mike and I were very new to coupledom at the time. We'd taken off together after knowing each other not all that long at all and we had no idea where this thing might go, or if it might just die a quick and dirty west coast death.

I am still relatively new to motherhood and now I will become new all over again. Different baby. Different phase. Different rules. But soon, people passing me on the street will just see the ladywiththebaby. The mom. I have yet to reconcile completely with my mother identity, but in some kind of insane apprenticeship, I've decided the best way to get there is to try again.

We call the baby “Baby-Baby.” Since Isaac will always be my baby, the logic goes that this one must be Baby-Baby. Isaac has somehow shortened it recently to sound a bit like Elvis, lip curled: “Bay-buh-Bay-buh,” he'll pronounce. Our Vegas star will be here in another month or so.

I wrote so much poetry during the time I was pregnant with Isaac, and I've basically written close to zero in the last eight months. I feel the desire to get some out about this pregnancy before it's over, before the new little one appears. It will be the last time I carry a child like this, from within the intimate space of blood and darkness. I am cautious of what things the power of another being will shift in our lives, just as I am also enamored of him/her, protective, mama-bear-hormone in love. My belly protrudes into the world as a tease to me, a taunt representing the directions out and away.

Soon, Mama, I will have the ability to move out there. I will move away from you. I will leap unprotected and you will be lucky to capture the trail of my laughter as I go.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Matt of Matt's Garage

Some of my more faithful and astute readers may recall a passing reference I made to a bar in Iowa called Glenn's – the same one where I was harassed by the pig farmer for my dietary choices – in which I state that the owner's name as Jerry. This didn't seem all that odd to me since I had already under my belt the experience of the garage where the majority of work for the Van had been done before we left for our cross-country trip: a place called “Just Andy's,” the owner, none other than Pierre. I was getting used to this trend, until I met Matt.

Our Mazda 3 hatchback was waiting for us at my in-laws' house when we got to this side of the country. It was not a tearful, joyful reunion as I've always hated that damn car. If you have nothing else to do and want to read about how it entered our lives, be my guest. Here's the back story of why we needed to get it. Here's part one of shopping for the new car. Here's the Mazda deal.

I had to admit after some consideration that shipping the sucker rather than selling it was the route to take. But I wasn't going to like it. My best hope was if it got stuck in a snow bank over the winter, never to be recovered. Or its exhaust system choked with some a swarm of bizarre flying summer bugs, known only in the northeast, their infestations coming every 4.73 years. Or something that would completely kill it, forcing us to junk it and move on with our lives.

Spiteful little be-otch vehicle that it is, it was just the clutch that went, and right away to boot. Expensive enough to hurt, but extremely fixable.

We got a recommendation on a place close by called Matt's Garage and headed in. We discussed the problem with someone there and decided on a plan of action. As we turned to leave, I inquired of the man who'd been helping us his name. He gave me a funny look before answering. “Matt. I'm Matt,” he said, all but pointing to the sign on the building behind us. Oh. What was this new and magical world I'd entered where things are in fact what they appear to be??

After our first meeting and during the time the Mazda was at his place, Matt would call me often. Whenever I'd be expecting realtors, lawyers, inspectors, it was always Matt on the phone. He started every conversation the same way. “Hi. This is Matt.” Like we'd been buds for years. It always took me a second or two. “Matt,” he'd repeat. “Matt's Garage.” I hate that car. But I think I like Matt.

Pretty soon the clutch was fixed, and we were back on the road.

Then, at 8:30am my phone rings. Seems a little early even for my relentless realtor. It's my friend, Matt.

“You in possession of that Mazda?” he says, serious as all get out. “Are you anywhere near Easthampton right now??” he prompts. Having taken note of our California plates but deprived our full story, he was concerned. We were all of about a half mile away and as far as I knew the piece of shit was still in the driveway.

“We found a spot of oil on the ground where the Mazda was parked. I gotta put it on the lift.”

A spot of oil? Big flipping deal. Mister, do you have any idea the kinds of cars I've driven? A spot of oil??

“I can be there in a couple hours,” I told him still groggy.

“Okay,” he said, like he didn't really trust me to come.

The scribbles on scrap paper on my nightstand read like an amnesiac's to do list. I need a new everything, from pediatrician to bank account. I have no friends here; I do not recognize anyone around town. I get lost on the way to Isaac's school. I have no idea where to take my son on these empty, hot days before we are fully settled. But I think it's safe to cross “mechanic” off the list.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

first impressions

I am now in New England where they are bringing things like maple syrup, lawn mowing, and the Red Sox to a new art form. Though I can abide only one of these past times, I am trying my best to fit in.

There are other strange things about this eastern land, for example, the weather. The rains in Monterey, wild and fierce as they are, generally contain themselves to their own season, the winter season to be exact, and we do not see them during summer. Here in Massachusetts, they come and go, announcing themselves with thunderous warnings but falling, as you'll have it, straight down for lack of ocean winds. I have not known rain like this – beginning somewhere in the heavens and dropping in vertical lines to the ground. And on those days when the clouds cover the brutal sun, people shiver and say things like “Gloomy weather!” and my thoughts of camaraderie fall away again. By contrast, they step into day after day of 90 degrees and declare it “beautiful.” Perhaps if you're a lizard and not an 8-month-pregnant woman acclimated to 65 degree summer days. Perhaps if your biggest goal is to mow your lawn and watch the Sox game.

Normally, I hate air conditioners – all that mechanical whirring to send out artificial air. But these days they are not only my friend in survival, their noise is like a cocoon blocking out the immediate world. I like it. It's why I wear earplugs on planes – not because it will stop the shrieks of the toddler two rows up, but because combined with the noise of the engine, I can close myself off from the reality in front of me and the sound and the feel become dreamlike, with a bit of the quality of being under water, and I can better imagine the angels whose wings support the metal mystery of physics through these 30,000 feet. Back in my airconditioned room, in someone else's house, hungry and not at all sure I won't get lost again on the way to the grocery store, I do not know what the angels do here yet. I am, in essence, waiting for the angels.

The trees here do not include cypress or redwood, though I'm told they throw a party in the fall. They will wow me with colors, I'm told, and for this I should celebrate them and dispense with the space in my heart for soft red bark, for canopies that enclose me but do not block the sound of waves. Where do I go to grieve this lack? They were my church.

We arrived on a Friday; it was one of those “gloomy” days. We were greeted by family who were thrilled to see us and have yet to ask us a single question about our five and a half weeks on the road. We go to lunch and sprinkler parks, the latter surely anomalies in water-starved California. We pick blueberries. We wait for our own house. We joke with the bored high school student operating the “Kiddieville” train at the park and who collects her two-dollar fare from behind iron bars. “Are the bars really necessary?” Mike asks, and she laughs in that way people do when they've discovered something about their own situation for the first time, perhaps always suspecting there was a way to articulate it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Northampton, Massachusetts

Okay, enough of this chronicling in an orderly fashion. Here's the live scoop – we've been here for a month. Except, not really *here.* We're staying with Mike's aunt in a town *near* Northampton. I thought my fine readers deserved a quick update, and then perhaps, after this, I can get back to the charming, literary entries you've all become accustomed to. Well, the “entries” part, anyway.

Oh, where to begin?? We have not really processed the trip. We hit the ground running and with any luck may close on a house the first week of August. Just in time to unpack a box or two, rip out the hideous green carpet, then have a baby and let the rest stand in chaos for the following three years.

We have juuuuust a little going on these days: Staying at someone else's house, in the process of buying our own – talking to realtors, bankers, lawyers, home inspectors...I really can't keep up, shopping for lists of things I need for a home birth (as if I have a home), shopping for lists of things Isaac needs for school in the fall, sending Isaac to a summer program, new bank accounts, new car registration, new vets, new doctors, new dentists, new midwives, Mike working at “home,” 90 degree heat, and a dead clutch, to name a couple. (that final bit is not referring to the van, which continues to kick ass and has a twin in town somewhere we've spotted a couple times, but my nemesis, the Mazda, which we shipped and which arrived with clutch ready for the trash – story about Matt the mechanic to follow.)

I feel a wee overwhelmed. If only I were Kramer from Seinfeld and could do everything at once, no sweat. Remember the one about driving the bus and fighting off the mugger? Go here for a blast from the sitcom past:

Maybe we'll just move on for now to a few pictures.

My son is still a goofball.
Emily is still clearly traumatized by the trip...
And misses the port o' potty.
found a cool market for my farmer's market habit.

this sculpture was labeled "Birth" - Do I need to tell you the artist is a man?
One of several favorite doctored signs around town.
Indeed. - more amusing signage.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day Thirty-Eight: Stony Point, NY to Northampton, Massachusetts

This is it. Our final day of travel. My second cross-country drive and I still haven't made it to the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis. Sigh. You don't get everything you want in this world, that's clear.

When this trip/move/uprooting/change/career slaying decision was still just a possibility, people were fond of telling me it sounded like a good idea – if we were in our 20s and had no kids. I wondered at this kind of reaction. Sooooo, the message we want to pass on to our children is stay safe at any cost? If you are unsatisfied, settle. Don't take any risks, and don't do anything hard. When we tell my mother-in-law that Mike can work remotely for his California job through the rest of the year and she says, “And then what??” I expect it. Fear is a mighty and pervasive companion. But, let me put out a mild advisory to the rest of you. Think about what drives your decisions.

As we approach Massachusetts, I grow more and more melancholy. Because trite metaphor follows me like gum on a shoe, there are storm clouds hanging in the sky.

It rained all night last night. Quiet at first, then the trees grew heavy holding too much to themselves and opened their arms to share. And the lightning came.

Isaac, who sleeps on the “second floor” of the van, under the canvas pop up part was not at all in favor of the weather. He and Mike traded places, so I had my little guy with me and in need of cuddles. Hannah – his bedtime lovey – was afraid too, he told me. His tooth was loose and he was afraid of swallowing it in his sleep. So many fears piling up, coming to roost with just this sound of water, the sky giving back.

So often gifts are misconstrued as threats, as if in each of us there lies a Trojan horse waiting to spring terror onto us. Way back in Sedona, when Emily got out and was sitting out of sight on top of the van transmission for three hours and Isaac had to go to bed without knowing if his beloved cat was ever coming back, I told him some secrets of a philosophy I'd been introduced to myself relatively recently. It was time for me to try them out on someone else. I told him that the Universe is kind and wants to help us. That there is more good than “bad” in the world.

He stopped sobbing for a moment and asked me, startled, “There is??” Maybe he believed me. I can hope. Maybe I believed me, too.

I really must thank all the friends that put us up and put up with us along the way -- Christine, Heather, Mark, Sheila & Paul, Lisa & Scott, Barb & Chris, and John. We love you guys and we miss everyone back in MRY!!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Day Thirty-Seven: to Stony Point, New York

It was in the bathroom at the Spring Gulch Campsite in Lancaster County the morning we left for the Hudson Valley that I realized just how far I was from California.

The cleaning woman began her conversation with me while I was still in the stall. It involved missing handsoap, all the times people have taken it and all the places she's found it. (On top of the light fixtures being one of the more ambitious locales.)

When I emerged, the litany continued briefly before turning toward how the president isn't doing anything about jobs, followed by how she is looking forward to collecting an unemployment check come November when the campsite closes for the season.

Following the natural flow of the conversation, she then shared with me the news about her brother's aneurism and stroke two weeks ago.

Hand soap to aneurism is under five minutes – I'd have had to put on a garage sale in California to get that kind of chit chat out of a stranger. This was another land; this was the east, where people who have never seen each other before and will likely never see each other again have been known to talk easily about birth, death, and when the hell the bus might come anyway. I know this space. This is the crowded east, where towns and people fill in the space as fast as trees. PA, NJ, NY...The familiarity wraps around me, but I am guarded.

We are en route to Beaver Pond Campground in Harriman State Park in New York. It will be our last night out on the road. It's raining and green and Emily is meowing like crazy. The views of the Hudson will surprise us with their beauty; Isaac will get his first campfire night since South Dakota; there will be a young deer continually grazing within 20 feet of our site; there will be singing frogs and the discovery by my kiddo of a rock with impressions of shell fossils we will later find out are likely the leftovers of a traveling glacier from the last ice age; we are full circle; it has been quite the prehistoric-heavy trip. Things have changed a little since then -- the highways here are narrow and fast; we will study the map hard-- if you choose one direction you will be on 287 and if you turn the other you're on 278. Stay on your toes and whatever you do, keep moving. Today, that glacier would be a muddy puddle in the blink of an eye.

Before we began, the motto for the trip was SLOW. Ironically, it was Mike that put this out there, along with how glad he was for it. The van couldn't speed. We'd have no choice but to take it down a notch. But almost six weeks later, we must go faster, faster, longer, like someone who needs to prove something because they are different. Physically, I am hating on these northeast roads, my hands constantly around my growing belly.

But I'm proud of our little van. It made it, All this way. Go, Westy, go!

Mike has done ALL the driving. I didn't expect that. I feel vaguely ashamed. But at a certain point, it's like a pitcher you want to leave in the game so he can get his no-hitter.

The rain cranks up as we fall into our last night's van dreams.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Detour: Howling in The Van™

I've started to wonder what our trip would look like to the outside viewer if it were, for example, a reality TV show.

There'd be a lot of shots of the scene out the window from behind my head and just off center to the left. Lots of traffic cones. Lots of red rocks, replaced by grass now. So much grass. “Mowing Ahead” the signs along the highway say. I've started to wonder just how many people are kept employed by the fertile fields of green swords.

There'd be no soundtrack in our reality show since we have had virtually no music. Creeping up on 5,000 miles – number of musical hours might hit four if we're lucky, but only because John in Leesburg, VA hooked us up with some cassettes. Yes, I said cassettes. The van, might I remind you, is 30 years old – it has a cassette player, and only a cassette player. We had a sucky MP3 player and an even suckier hook up to try to get some tunes going and it usually didn't work. The precious battery life of laptops was reserved for other things, and Mike's attempt at a car charger for them almost set my son on fire somewhere left of the Mississippi. 

MP3 player/converter connection. Can I please just remind you that my husband is an engineer...

Between Monterey, CA and Leesburg, VA, our only tape was one randomly left in the van – a homemade compilation called “AIDS Ride 70s.” Any guesses at how many times you have to hear “I Will Survive” before you have zero will to survive?

One through line to our show would have to be Isaac in the gift shops of America. Isaac started the trip with his own spending money. It was money his grandparents had given him over time, tucked in Easter cards and such, plus change he'd amassed, etc. It added up to a pretty impressive sum and we told him he was free to use it on souvenirs along the way. Naturally, what I had in mind was after he'd fallen head over heels in love with some place or event, he'd just have to have a small momento – a magnet, or a little piece of petrified wood. Instead, my son walked through some of the country's greatest landmarks asking “Does this place have a gift shop?” Then proceeded to find a truck to buy. Taos: Sandpaintings? Turquoise crafts? Handthrown pottery? Wrong! Mailtruck. Carnegie Museum of Natural History: Dinosaur skeleton? Book on Ancient Egypt? Try a matchbox of a pickup towing an ATV.

And the port o' potty. That would be big. Oh, didn't I mention the port o' potty before? Must have slipped my mind. By day, an innocent plastic footstool; by night, an ugly necessity for the preggo who must pee every 10 seconds, and the boy, when it suits him. Mike, being superior to the other two members of his family in every way, does not use the port o' potty, though in a cruel twist in the hierarchy, he must empty it. There would be the scenes of Isaac almost tipping it over, the ones of Mike dragging the port o' potty bag to the campsite dumpsters; the ones of everyone's facial contortions the time we left it in the hot van for a week while staying elsewhere and then opened it once again. Is this getting too real yet?

In our reality show, which might be called, The Van (As in, “I'm goin' across the country in The Van, Bitches!”), I'd have to get in the confessional and talk about how many books I brought with me that I haven't cracked. Some of them I brought under the impression that I would read parts of them and use them to write broadly-based, witty commentaries on human foibles. I brought things like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Not that I read either of these things on any regular or comprehensive basis, but I thought they'd be good for quotations and springboard material.

Ultimately, however, when I was hot, and bellified, and didn't have lots of open thinking time, I did not reach for the boys of generation Beat. I reached instead for Toni Morrison and her complex worlds of turn of the century African-American women. Who can explain this, except that boys are smelly and have cooties and Toni Morrison, when asked what book she'd bring to a deserted island, responded that she'd bring blank paper and write her own, kicks the hippie asses of Kerouac and Ginsberg combined.

Nonetheless, we have the Howl bumpersticker on the van. For those who don't know, Howl is the name of a book-length poem by Ginsberg that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (poet and founder of San Francisco's City Lights Books) published in 1957, only to be brought up on charges of obscenity from which he was later found not guilty. A recent movie called “Howl” explored the trial and some of Ginsberg's life. I would recommend it, if for nothing else the peek into 1950s American politics, though I found the whole movie interesting. City Lights is super way cool, and often a peek into current American politics.

I wrote a poem about the famous quote of Ginsberg's,“First thought, best thought” - a sentiment which 1) he knew damn well was bullshit when he said it (you should see the drafts of Howl...) and 2) has caused me great distress in working with young poets who get all starry-eyed at the mention of anything connected to the Beats and have been known to insist that their own crap verse is just perfect without any revision because, well, just look at what Ginsberg said!

While grateful to the Beats for putting down some groundwork for poetic movements, I maintain a healthy skepticism about their poetry and their general sense of craft. You can read a review I did of Diane DiPrima's Memoirs of a Beatnik here. (There also used to be an audio link, but I don't think it works anymore.) Or maybe my skepticism is aimed at the new generation of Beat worshippers. Anyhoo...

My poem (called “Redemption”) begins like this:

Damn you, Ginsberg, for ever saying it. / Damn your whole generation of social rebels / and jazzy-improv lyricists.

Later in the poem I suggest he perhaps come back from the other side for a couple days and recant, since surely eternal meditation must have changed his mind...

You could call a press conference, / broadcasting from City Lights, / Ferlinghetti seated at the table beside you, / copies of Howl piled like flapjacks and crowds/ craning to see.

Tell them you take it all back. / Tell them the angels set you straight / and you’re here to spread the word. / Explain how, besides, you’d never advocate / doing the Times crossword in pen. / Comb your beard with your fingers, well-up / for the cameras, release your flock, / Shepherd Ginsberg, to their imperfect / first thoughts, to wander home / stunned and free / to bleed all over their manuscripts, /
rivers of ink...

Who am I kidding? Poetry and reality TV? That would never fly, although those Beats had an awful lot of sex.

We still need a name for the van – please send your suggestions!

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