She

In the last three weeks, our lives have been taken over by the presence of a tiny new creature in our household — she.

“Is she fed?  Dry?  Crying?  Safe?  Sleeping?”

Our daughter is now nineteen days old, which seems both like an impossibly short and long time.  Starting with the moment that I went to the hospital to be induced, I’ve been wandering around in a surreal time lapse, which is only interrupted by doctor appointments and house visits from friends.  These scheduled moments give me something to differentiate one day from the next, to interrupt the daily routine of feeding, eating, dressing, sleeping, soothing and scrubbing and remind me that there is a world outside of the perimeter of my house.  If it weren’t for these moments, I could so easily forget.

20150225_170844As the days have flowed into each other, my memories of labor have been receding into a series of images. IV drips in both hands that tied me to an uncomfortable bed for twenty-four hours.  Green jello and lukewarm vegetable broth, the cold feel of the epidural, the sound of my water gushing out for impossibly long moments.  The eternal minute when the baby’s heart rate dropped and my midwife called the operating room to arrange for an emergency c-section.  The stiff feel of the oxygen mask on my face, then the moment of sudden relief — as palpable as a breeze — as the machine monitoring the fetal heartbeat returned to making the right rhythm. The unbelievably hard work of pushing out a baby, as ice cubes are put in your mouth and the pain in your abdomen takes over your brain.  Then, at last, the remarkable sight of my long and slimy daughter taking her first cry, while the thick yellow tube of the umbilical cord still connected her to my undelivered placenta.  The sound of my husband being talked into cutting the line that tied us together for so long — and the feel of her warm skin on my bare chest as I carefully prodded her skull in disbelief that this was the creature that had lived so long in my body.

No labor is easy– and mine was certainly gruelling. By the time I was allowed to leave the hospital two days later, I was desperate to go home for an uninterrupted night’s sleep in a room without a light shining in my face.  Once I got home, I spent much of the next week on the couch, healing, crying through the pain of learning to breastfeed and being taken very good care of by family that swept in from overseas to make certain that all I would have to worry about was taking care of she.

She is a “good baby” — she sleeps for long periods and doesn’t cry much at all, though we are still mystified about what to do when she does.  I was worried about my skills as a mother, but aside from breastfeeding, it’s come more naturally than I ever would have imagined.  For the first week, I just stared and stared at her face and tiny body, marvelling at the impossibility that we created this small being.  Sometimes I still catch myself doing it, as she feeds from my body or finds sleep and solace in my arms.  I stare at tiny ears and little blue veins and think about the choices in my life that have led to this moment — and can do nothing but let the love for this creature and gratitude for my life flow in and overwhelm me.

Transition

Yesterday morning, I woke to a few inches of snow covering the asphalt parking lot that the back of my house faces.  My neighborhood is a densely packed New York City suburb of 30,000 people, which could be far worse than what it is, but isn’t precisely what I would call a picturesque environment.  Snow significantly augments its beauty by hiding all the pavement and letting me pretend that I live somewhere far more pastoral and charming than I really do.

Although it is already the end of January, we’re still awaiting our first snowstorm of any significance.  Yesterday, the snow turned to sleet within a few hours and the plows were out in full force, so the beauty of the snowfall disappeared rapidly under their combined efforts.  We are due more snow tomorrow and on Tuesday, which does make it feel like winter has finally hit us here.  The seasonal transition is late this year, but it feels appropriately timed for the events of my life, as I wind down my professional life and move into my last few days before motherhood really begins.

deskviewOn Wednesday, I worked my last day in the office before my maternity leave.  I was filled with a remarkable amount of sorrow, despite the fact that I am still working from home until my labor begins.  I am coming back to work after my maternity leave, but over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly cleaning out my office and bringing home the things that I’ll need to function as a telecommuter, so my office feels echoey and empty. I took a picture of the view from my desk and joked with my Beloved that I should hang it on the wall in front of my desk at home so that I can still feel like I’m part of the energy of my department. Perhaps I have spent far too much time around cats, but the idea of not following following the same routine that I’ve had for the last seven years has thrown me for a bit of a loop.  Logically, I know that it is a temporary change, but my hindbrain hasn’t quite gotten the memo.  I had tears in my eyes as I snuck out the door at the end of the day.

I am fortunate enough to like my coworkers very much. I’ve realized that I will miss seeing them while I’m on leave.  Working from home is not something that I enjoy nearly as much as I feel that I should — I do miss the variety of the small social interactions of our team as we navigate around each other on our way to the water fountain and the coffee machine and the fridge.  We often eat lunch together. I don’t go to work to socialize, but the social life is a big part of why I’ve worked there for so long.  Working from my desk in my basement in my pyjamas is comfortable, but it is lonelier than I would like.  All the same, I do see how fortunate I am that it’s an option for me.

At home, we are quite busy arranging for the last minute provisions and needs of our incoming infant.  I’ve been working hard to try and speed up the labor, as I’ve now been given a deadline for an induction.  Having heard some horror stories about induction, I am  very motivated to invite our daughter out into the world as soon as possible.  This morning, we went out for breakfast in the nearby beach town so that I could waddle down the boardwalk for a while.  I watched the ocean waves coming in, pounding on top of each other in the January winds, and thought about all the fluid surrounding our womb girl.  I’m sipping on raspberry leaf tea and taking my evening primrose oil tablets, as per my midwife’s advice.  I’m waiting and counting false contractions and waiting some more.  I’m writing and knitting at a furious pace, trying to finish up projects before I have a rather less understanding project demanding my attention.  I am spending a lot of time with my Beloved and dreaming of the future.  I can’t decide if I want her to hurry up or if I want these final days of preparation to linger.  All I do know is that change is coming–and it’s coming very soon.

 

Book Review: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracamer99 Perhaps it is the cold that I have been harboring all week, but there was something just delicious about curling up with the freakishly successful Dracula while I was ill.  It might surprise a modern audience to learn that Dracula was written by a pulp novelist and theater manager who specialized in churning out penny dreadfuls.  Likewise, it might be surprising to learn that it far from the first vampire novel, but its success and the sophistication of the storytelling has made it the pinnacle of the genre.  Even the literary noteworthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker to express his admiration for the blood-curling nature of the story, while its more general popularity has made Count Dracula a household name — and a synonym for vampire — for over a century.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, which incorporates the emerging technology of the late 19th century as its characters experiment with phonograph recordings and typewriters to tell their story.  This sense of the changing modern world is a major theme of the novel, and it is interesting to get a contemporary Victorian reaction to emerging technology.  At the heart of the story is Count Dracula, who is made horrific through his intelligence and cunning as much as by his murderous means of eternal life.  The novel quickly becomes a race between the five heroes and the Count as he puts into action his schemes to move to a more populated and modern country than his rural Transylvania.  Although being a member of what Stoker calls the Un-Dead, the Count’s humanity still lingers, although he remains an unambiguous monster with few redeeming qualities.  It is this combination of cold intelligence and monstrosity that has allowed Dracula to linger so vividly in the popular imagination for so long.  We never do discover how Count Dracula first became a vampire, but we quickly learn about vampirism and its dangers to a populated city through his attacks on the beautiful and pure-hearted Lucy Westenra.

Those who have seen the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be somewhat surprised to hear me describe Lucy Westenra as pure-hearted.  Francis Coppola’s vision of Dracula is astonishingly sexualized (or as I like to say, HBO-ified) compared to the original novel.  Although Stoker was a contemporary of Freud’s and it is reasonable to believe that he was familiar with Freud’s psychological work into sexuality, the novel is actually much more interesting for its inspection of the Victorian understanding of the complexities of the psychiatry of criminal minds.  At the heart of the novel is the lunatic asylum, where Dr. Seward records his case notes about his patient Renfield, who has been eating flies and spiders and ranting about the ability of blood consumption to lead to everlasting life.  The reader, who is already aware of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying stay at Castle Dracula, enjoys the irony of understanding the sanity of the mad man, while Dr. Seward struggles to put his ravings about vampirism into modern medical language.  Once the vampiric attacks on Lucy Westenra begin, the tension raises as we understand precisely what is happening to her, but like her doctors, are helpless to interfere.  The novel is filled with enjoyable winks to the reader as we watch the heroes go through their journey and try to figure out what we already know.  In one of the newspaper excerpts in the novel, Stoker writes:

“There is, however, possibly a serious side to the question, for some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat. The wounds seem such as might be made by a rat or a small dog, and although of not much importance individually, would tend to show that whatever animal inflicts them has a system or method of its own. The police of the division have been instructed to keep a sharp look-out for straying children, especially when very young, in and around Hampstead Heath, and for any stray dog which may be about.”

We, of course, understand that there is a vampire on the loose — at this point in the story, we even know who the vampire is, but these small ironies engage us as readers and keep the pages turning.

As in the modern cinematic culture around the Dracula story, Van Helsing quickly steals the show as the brilliant and eccentric foreigner that remains a few steps ahead of his companions.  His eccentricity mainly comes out in his forgetfulness that his patients and companions are people with emotional attachment to the events in the story — he becomes so hyperfocused on stamping out the problem of vampirism that he has delightful slips in compassion such as this one:

“Yes and no. I want to operate, but not as you think. Let me tell you now, but not a word to another. I want to cut off her head and take out her heart. Ah! you a surgeon, and so shocked! You, whom I have seen with no tremble of hand or heart, do operations of life and death that make the rest shudder. Oh, but I must not forget, my dear friend John, that you loved her; and I have not forgotten it, for it is I that shall operate, and you must only help.”

In Van Helsing, we discover the character that is most like the Count — he is a true adversary in cunning and intelligence.  Yet, unlike the Count, Van Helsing does care about those around him.  It is his devotion and love for his companions, combined with bravery and kindness,  which makes us care about his fight to remove evil from the world.

Perhaps the best part of Stoker’s writing is that all of his characters jump off of the page, often because of their language.  Although all dialog is being repeated to us by the characters themselves, we hear Van Helsing’s Dutch roots, Quincey’s American slang, Lord Arthur’s upper-class upbringing and Dr. Seward’s medical training.  Epistolary novels can easily become boring as the letter writers report what happened in past tense, but Stoker keeps it fresh by getting his characters’ words on the page.  It requires a small suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but brings the novel to life.  As an Irish immigrant in London, with extensive experience as a theater manager, Stoker must have had a great delight in dialect.  It does a great service to the novel.

Modern horror lovers will no doubt find the lack of gore in Dracula to be quite tame compared to the graphic descriptions of the likes of Stephen King, but I found it charming.  The novel is no less suspenseful for all that it lacks a modern insouciance to violence — and reading it late at night gave me more than one fit of anxiety and restless sleep.  As with all things to do with the famous Count Dracula…..read at your own risk.  But do read it.

Birthin’ Hips

“You’ve got great hips. A nine and a half pound baby could fit through there. Yours is only seven pounds so far!”  My midwife’s face was gentle and reassuring, the smile genuine.

Bizarrely, I felt a sense of pride at her statement, as though something other than genetics and luck have had anything to do with my good prospects. This misplaced surge of pride somehow counteracted the awkwardness of the pelvic exam, which is uncomfortable and undignified at its very best, and I realize that I am being distracted by my midwife. I think that they must teach this at gynecological school, because every ob-gyn I’ve ever had suddenly becomes chatty the second they start touching my undercarriage.  I’ve got a lot of those moments ahead of me in the next few weeks.

I am very pregnant now. On Saturday, our daughter will be fully cooked, although it is still a little over two weeks until my due date. Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself worrying about labor more often, as my brain finds idle moments in my day. It happens when I close my eyes to sleep, when I am waiting for the train, in the moments when I try to manipulate my increasingly bulky body into clothes that grow tighter and tighter each day.

I only began to enjoy pregnancy a month ago, although mine has not been particularly hard compared to the hell that some women go through. Mine hit me where it hurts me most — in my athleticism and my vegetarianism — which made it hard to bear. There are amazing women who can handle athletics and vegetarianism during pregnancy, but my body could not. That smarted. Maybe that’s why finding out that I’m in a good position to have the labor that I’ve chosen felt like an accomplishment, when it’s really nothing more than luck. I spent the early days of my pregnancy talking up a good game of looking forward to labor for its pregnancy-ending benefits, but now that my bluff could be called any minute, I am becoming less brave.


It’s hard to be private when you’re pregnant. Many women report strangers touching them without asking. I didn’t have a problem with this, other than one drunken acquaintance forgetting to wait for permission before giving the belly a good rub. Still, being a New Yorker means having very little choice about interacting with strangers. I am on a train now, sitting next to a man that I will never know, who keeps glancing at the visibly moving baby in my midsection. I can’t blame him. I can only be grateful that he hasn’t given me the twenty questions that strangers seem to think it’s my responsibility to answer.

“It’s a boy, isn’t it?”

“Do you have a name for it?”

“You’re almost due, right?”

“Are you having twins?”

“Is this your first?”

I get these questions all the time, from people that I presume mean well, who presume that I’m the sort of woman who is thrilled to be pregnant and wants to talk about it all the time. Sometimes I don’t mind. Sometimes I want to forget that everyone knows and to just be treated like my old self again. I am looking forward to our separation mostly for this reason — the ability to be anonymous again, to be able to buy a sandwich without having my personal life questioned by strangers.


I’ve chosen a natural labor, with as little medical intervention as possible. Although I am rather hippy-minded, it’s more that I can’t stand the idea of spending my labor tied to a bed than any desire for a natural labor experience.  An epidural, which is the main pain management option, numbs you from the waist down, so walking is out of the question. The very idea makes me feel claustrophobic and anxious, which is the opposite of what makes the labor go faster. Fast is not a word commonly used to describe first labors and I am expecting that mine will last at least twelve hours, given the experiences of other women in my family. I may not be running, or even walking very fast these days, but now I’m preparing myself for a marathon.

I have some strategies to get through the experience. We’ve gone to the Lamaze class, so I understand the biology of labor and how important being able to relax through the pain will be. I’ve started getting Braxton Hicks contractions, which has given me the opportunity to experiment with breathing techniques to learn which ones work best for pain management for me. The contractions aren’t pleasant, but I’ve found them comforting, even when they hit me in the middle of my work day. I’ve learned that I can still be the professional side of me, even as a hugely pregnant woman. Maintaining that balance — the ability to cooly troubleshoot network problems and think logically while my uterus is clenching so hard that I wonder if it might fall out my back — that has given me a confidence that I can handle the upcoming ordeal. I just hope that my labor starts when I am well fed and well rested, just like I would begin any endurance athletic event.

My old yoga mat is already in my hospital bag, waiting for the hours I plan on spending in cow and child’s pose. My body may try to take over with pain, but my brain has fifteen years of training on how to deal with it. I’ll just breathe in and then I’ll breathe out. And then I’ll do it all again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

At the end of the day, what happens in that carefully decorated labor room is not really my choice. If complications arise that risk Cora’s life, then I’m happy to be tied to that bed and sliced open like a fetal pig. I’ve learned from this pregnancy that I’m already willing to go to great lengths for my daughter, even when those actions are in total opposition to my desires.  All the same, it was so reassuring to hear that my final moments of pregnancy might actually go the way I’ve planned.

Book Review: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Gwape_first_editionThis was not the first time that I’ve entered the quiet world of Johannes Vermeer at the hands of Tracy Chevalier, but it has been a few years since the last time I read this beautifully paced novel. The subject of the novel is self-evident; Chevalier makes a guess at the events that inspired one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, which is of the same title as the novel. In Chevalier’s version of the painting’s origin, the subject is seventeen-year-old Griet, who has been forced by the loss of her father’s career to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in order to support her parents.

Chevalier’s characterization of Griet as an outsider looking in is quite brilliant. Griet is filled with apprehension as she realizes that she must leave her home to live among Catholics but she is also interested in the possibilities of living in an upper class household, even as a servant. These differences of class and religion give Griet an insight into the world of the Vermeers that pulls the reader right into their household and gives an idea of the larger conflicts of 17th century Dutch society.

But again it was the paintings that struck me.  More hung in this room than anywhere else.  I counted to nineteen silently.  Most were portraits–they appeared to be members of both families  There was also a painting of the Virgin Mary, and one of the three worshipping the Christ Child. I gazed at both uneasily.

The beauty of Chevalier’s writing lies in small details and a simple narrative style that fits  naturally into the mouth of a teenaged maid, while teasing the reader’s senses with lush descriptions.

I took up my candle, found the mirror in the storeroom and climbed to the attic.  I propped the mirror against the wall on the grinding table and set the candle next to it.  I got out my needlecase and, choosing the thinnest needle, set the tip in the flame of the candle.  Then I opened the bottle of clove oil, expecting it to smell foul, of mould or rotting leaves, as remedies often do.  Instead it was sweet and strange, like honeycakes left out in the sun.  It was from far away, from places Frans might get to on his ships.

Picked for the job as a maid in the Vermeer household partially because of her father’s professional associations, but also because of her artistic eye, Griet quickly becomes fascinated by Vermeer’s work. It isn’t long before Vermeer recognizes her talent and asks her to assist him in mixing paints.  As she spends more time with him, developing talents that would be unexpressed in any other household, Griet begins to develop a devotion for Vermeer that threatens her position in the household.

Although the daily world of the Vermeer household is filled with many small conflicts and jealousies, the pace of the novel picks up when Griet is exposed to Vermeer’s patron, de Reis, who serves as the villain of the novel. A rich man, he clearly believes that serving girls are one of the many luxuries that his wealth brings to him. When he discovers Griet’s captivating wide eyes, he becomes obsessed with having her sit in a painting with him. As the Vermeer household scheme to protect her without offending the patron that pays their monthly bills, her own family begins pushing her towards a young butcher that has his eye on her. Torn between heart and head, Griet must figure out how to appease her employers, her family and her own heart and mind.

Chevalier brings us on a coming-of-age journey that rings true, as Griet enters her adulthood in a complex but captivating world.  This is a novel that I come back to again and again for its complex simplicity and honest prose, as well as the immersion into an exotic and fascinating world.

Published: 1999 by Dutton, 256 pg.