It turns out that blogging is much more easily accomplished from a Days Inn hotel room in an unfamiliar town during a blizzard than on a birthday or a visit home for the holidays. I’m not sure I have anything particularly insightful or pertinent to put out there, except to express my gratitude for warmth and safety. We sat on Interstate 90 for hours today with our surprisingly patient four month old in her car seat in the back, chattering (I’m assuming) about her hopes that we would change her diaper and feed her again some day. Finally, the state patrol kicked everyone off of the freeway and we found ourselves on even more treacherous country roads. There’s nothing like seeing car after car in ditch after ditch to remind you how lucky you are to be creeping at a snail’s pace ahead. On that potential metaphor, I think I’ll call it a night– only adding that in the past, I’ve spent the first few days of new years looking back and tallying up signs of progress. This year, I would rather look out at sideways snow and be glad that there’s more than a car between it and my family. Snow.
I finally got back to work as an Artist (Writer) in Residence at the children’s hospital last week. My warm-up was an art project at a tree lighting ceremony for chronically ill kids. It went beautifully, but when I got home and discovered I just missed tucking my baby into bed, I was a wreck. All I could think was, how do moms do this? How did my mom do this? Late that night I was as actually happy to wake up at 1 and 4 and 6 a.m. to feed and snuggle my little one. I didn’t know how I was going to leave her for eight hours that day and worried over whether or not I’d left enough milk for her. This must be the Italian mama in me. You know the ones who cook the ten course meal and wonder if that’s enough. In any case, getting back into the swing of things went more smoothly than I expected. It helped that the other artist and dancer I worked with are amazing and that one of the first patients I met said she loved, loved, loved Shakespeare. What I didn’t expect was how much it would affect me to see unwell babies and their parents.
A few weeks ago, I created the word, mom-athy. Now I feel that its definition needs to be expanded. Evidently this sort of deep empathy extends not only to your own ailing child, but also to those of total strangers. You don’t usually take an infant to the hospital unless something is very wrong, so you can imagine the condition of the babies I saw when I first walked through the automatic doors.
Most of my first year working at the hospital I was pregnant. Moms loved to ask me how I was feeling and to tell me about their experiences. Several of them remembered me upon my return and were thrilled to find out that I had a little girl and to see her picture. (I always thought people carried pictures with them to show off their progeny. Now I’m convinced it’s a way to deal with missing them.) I felt so grateful that the baby waiting for me to come home at the end of the day was healthy, and I felt and so deeply compassionate toward the moms who weren’t at the hospital to write stories and paint pictures. Then, I remembered that was what I was there to do.
… and how I became that mom.
You can already guess, this is more minutiae than crucial. If you want something on the grounded and meaningful side from me, go back and read my birth story.
This all starts back when I was a kid and wanted to be an actress more than anything besides having lots of dogs and rabbits and a pony. I took acting classes, got headshots, and did a victory dance when a local talent agency wanted to sign me. Then my lawyer mom read all the fine print and became concerned about someone “owning” any part of her daughter. End of my career, thanks Mom. (Just kidding. I find writing far more rewarding.)
Cut to: Monday night when I got an e-mail looking for babies 1-3 months for a commercial shoot with a certain famous toy company. I thought of my friend’s niece who was all set for college by age five because of the Baby Gap ads she did, asked the potential star’s daddy for permission, and sent in her pictures. The next day I got a call that yes, they wanted to “use” Francesca and maybe me as well. Could I send in a full-length shot of myself? I was flattered, but completely unprepared. I found a couple of candids where I’m holding Francesca, and I’m wearing tennis shoes and not much makeup. Why was I surprised when the response from the agent was… “Yeah. They just want Francesca.”
So, for a hot minute I almost got to live out my childhood dreams. Well, not really. I saw myself as being Juliet at the Shakespeare Theater, not baby mommy on a toy commercial– but you get the idea. Then, I was to await details for the shoot. They pushed it back 15 minutes so that I could make it from teaching my class. Details arrived after business hours yesterday, and required that I complete a New York State Child Performer permit, open up a trust account for the kid, sign a contract (don’t worry Mom, it was non-exclusive), and fill out a W-9. That’s when I remembered that we had no idea where her social security card was. I knew we needed to go apply for a card, but I didn’t anticipate my 3 month old getting a job so soon.
The talent agency was still open late yesterday evening and suggested that we go to the social security office when they opened to get the temporary card. That was the only way. Before dawn, I scrambled to get my little beauty ready, cleaning spit up out of her hair and goo out of her sleepy eyes. And off I went to teach my online guitar lesson class (and to fax in all the contracts and such) while my husband, who had done some fine work in a Bud Light commercial himself back in the day, went with babe in arms to get the social security card. He succeeded and made it home to fill out the work permit online just in time for me to come back and swoop up America’s next top baby.
That’s when I checked my messages. In the span of thirty minutes, during which I was teaching and could not answer my phone (that would look pretty bad when I admonish the students for using theirs), I got three calls. 1. Did you get the social security card? 2. We’re worried you didn’t get it. 3. If you don’t call me back in five minutes, we’re canceling.
I called back. I assured them we were all good to go, but they had already canceled and told the “Mom” (meaning, the mom actress) not to come out. Too late. Too bad, so sad. But I can be her mom! I am her mom! That’s in italics because I thought it but didn’t say it. Let’s be proud of me for that.
Wasn’t I the one who said I didn’t want my kid to be an actor but a “normal” person? Wasn’t I just this morning worried that they might put goop in her crazy hair or that if we stuck with this, she might be wearing makeup at age 3? And haven’t I admonished stage moms and made fun of the mom on Real Housewives of New Jersey for pushing her daughter on talent agencies, coating her lips with liner, and saying “Melania, fabulous!” every time she took her picture? It was raining out; we could have gotten in an accident on the long drive out to the shoot or on the way back. She might have missed her nap, and sleep is precious. She might have gotten hungry or fussy or hated the whole thing. They might have said she wasn’t as cute in real life as in the pictures, although I doubt that. She might have spit-up all over herself again. And the “Mom” might have given her swine flu. The possibilities for disaster were endless.
But here I am feeling like the time when I didn’t get a callback for “Annie” at age 8 after my incredible rendition of “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly,” complete with cockney accent. Kimmi, we could use some Therapy Thursday. You were a child actor/model. She’s not really missing anything, is she?
P.S. How does anybody accomplish anything on this little sleep, let alone be rational or start a glamorous new career?
I was thinking of going to the dermatologist. Should I tell my provider that I have skin? This was my reaction to a dizzying fight over the bill I received for the delivery of my baby and our hospital stay. We’re lucky to have insurance, I know that. But imagine my surprise when my provider wanted me to pay a penalty of several hundred dollars for not clearing it with them when I arrived at the hospital at 2:30 a.m. to have a baby.
“You must have known at some point that you were pregnant, and that’s when you should have told us.”
“You’ve been paying for my pre-natal visits. Isn’t that–?”
“With your doctor. This is a hospital bill. It’s completely separate.”
“Why exactly? Never mind. I did pre-register with the hospital, and we did call you to find out what would be covered months ago.”
This is really nothing compared to the nightmare my friend is facing. After severe back labor at her home for 14 hours, she went to the hospital and was advised to get an epidural. Now she’s got a bill of a few thousand dollars for using an anesthesiologist who wasn’t in network. Evidently she was supposed to ask in the thirty seconds between contractions. They would have told her that he was the only anesthesiologist in the hospital, so I’m not sure what she was supposed to do after that.
With these headaches, you wouldn’t think that women also pay up to 84% more than men for individual health plans that exclude maternity coverage. And in the individual market, only 13% of health plans available to a 30 year old woman across the country even provide maternity coverage (“Still Nowhere to Turn” from the National Woman’s Law Center). Gender rating makes being a woman in itself a pre-existing condition. And if my anecdotes are evidence of the standard, even a new mom with a plan may not be covered as well as she thinks she is.
In Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the lovable narrator, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit (based on Alexie himself), touches on an idea that’s been goading me for years. We spend most of our life running from or trying to get into a particular tribe. By tribe, I mean social group identity.
Being from nowhere once made me feel like I had no place and therefore no “people.” Of course, I have many tribes, probably three of four that resonate most with me. There is something poignant about Arnold’s quote below, with its wonderful teenage-hood ness and cultural context. In 2009, how relevant is the fact that we are being asked to step away from the one or two tribes we clutch to in order to breed some tolerance in this world? Very, I think.
But how does one do this without watering down an identity?
I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream.
I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.
And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.
I found myself online late last night, later than I wanted to be. I try not to be on the computer after 10 p.m. anyway, but it happens. When it does, I don’t like closing the internet browser on a work-related screen or on something disturbing or sad. Instead, I find something good, true, or inspiring before I shut down and go to bed.
Last night, having already browsed my favorite sites of beauty and community, I typed “something beautiful” into Google and hit “I’m Feeling Lucky.” And Google took me straight to the blog titled “Something Beautiful,” subtitled, “When everything seems to be going wrong, something beautiful can really help.” The blogger says, on the About Me page, “When in need of an antidote to negativity, I often turn to beautiful things on the Web. I know when I have found something beautiful because I can feel my inner chemistry change almost the moment it appears on the screen.”
I didn’t even click on any of the links, nor did I plumb the 5 year archive (the site began in October 2004). I felt better, lighter, just knowing that someone else is out there seeking, and finding, the Beautiful.
Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.
“Don’t tell Mom.” = An e-mail from my sister.
“I know.” = My response.
We hadn’t done anything illegal (you’re shocked, I’m sure). We hadn’t broken anything or hidden any evidence, and we weren’t re-enacting the Christina Applegate movie. We simply decided to protect the woman who bore us from: news of the Return of the Thrush. It may not be grammatically correct to capitalize the name of the infection or to put “the” in front of it, but it feels appropriate. We just weren’t sure Mom could handle it, even though she’s dealt with much greater crises with one hand behind her back and the other one cooking a gourmet dinner. You could hear her teeth grind every time she asked, “Is it any better?” and a pained sigh every time I said, “No, not really.” And I might have thought she was overdoing it a bit, had I not discovered for myself that knowing that your daughter is in pain is a whole new kind of anguish.
My mom will never let me live down the day when I told her, “I am too apathetic.” Eight years old, I didn’t understand what she meant by needing to walk in someone else’s shoes, let alone the difference between empathy and apathy. Now I think that empathy isn’t a strong enough word to describe what I feel when I see Francesca’s white thrushy tongue or how I felt when she got her vaccines last week. She looked up at me in horror and screamed what could only be translated as a mix of “how could you?” and “do something about this!”
“She’s going to make me cry,” I told the nurse.
“It wouldn’t be the first time. We had a dad crying in the corner this morning. And a few months ago, I had a mom who sobbed more than her baby. I told her that next time she might want to bring some support. Guess who she brought.”
“Yes. And just by chance, I was the one who gave her baby the next round of vaccines. So then I had baby, Mom, and Grandma all in tears. I told her, ‘Honey, that’s not exactly what I meant by support.’”
Of course, I did tell my mom about the Thrush. That’s why I’m not so covert as to refrain from regaling you of it here. The problem is that no one but Mom can offer the mom-athy I’m describing. That, and the fact that she could tell I was hiding something.
When my mother turned 50, I sent her a card that declared joyfully “Congratulations, you are now officially a crone!” like she’d been reaching for that moment her entire life. She was horrified. She felt as if I’d labeled each one of her wrinkles with a proper name; but I, on the other hand, believed the word crone to be the most flattering thing to call a woman. As a child, I couldn’t wait to escape ingénue-hood for when oh when could I be that crone, an old woman who oozed grace and insight from having lived a life, a real gritty passiona
te life. I once dramatically confessed to my friend Maria, “I can’t wait to be old,” to which she responded in 7-year-old solidarity, “I can’t wait to wear lipstick.” She didn’t understand that “old” for me meant wise.
In pursuit of wisdom, I grew up trying to define it. I assumed that it looked serious–a solemn face furrowed in Deep Meaningful Smart Thought and often staring
into the grassy distance. When I spotted people like this, I gazed upon them like a dutiful servant, terribly impressed by what they might know about the world, but never particularly soothed.
As I step into my 30’s (and therefore become supposedly wiser, though I’d trust a toddler’s insight over anyone’s my age), wisdom is begging for a new wardrobe. Be-gg-ing for it.
What I’ve noticed is that the people I respect the most do one thing consistently… Giggle. This does not mean they lack Deep Meaningful Smart Thought. They just don’t look so burdened by it, or so damn serious. They are airy.
They are light. They do that bending like a reed in the wind thing.
Desmond Tutu has toiled to transform brutal circumstances into reconciliation. But watch him; he laughs a lot. I once knew a Hindu monk who just laughed and laughed at all of my so-vital-to-me questions. An older friend dying of cancer continues to be about the jolliest, most smiley man you’ll ever meet. Often trauma lives behind the laughter. Like, for example, my neighbor. He and his wife trudged through the snow for dinner last night. I called them beforehand to make sure they liked the purple-red root vegetable that so many people despise. He laughed into the phone, “That’s a long story, but I’ll tell you over some beets.” As we forked roasted beets into our mouths, he told of growing up in the Netherlands during World War II. He, his parents and four siblings survived on beets
and tulip bulbs alone–as did the Jewish family they were hiding in the basement. He was laughing as he recounted this memory, but his laughter contained both a profound acknowledgment of that awful reality and an undercurrent of godly bliss. I don’t know how he did it.
None of this comes naturally to me. I sigh sadly over tragedy. And I like to dig up the dirt, examine it under a microscope and then ponder over it for days. My family teases me about being so serious and my friend Katinka recently chuckled as she read my horoscope out loud to me: “Some people might think you are an intense person. Well, this month…”
But my brothers do thrive on making me pee in my pants from laughing. So these days I’m trying (and it’s hard!) to spend more time in that place, that geography on my face. The hard-working crowd saving-the-world-with-a-frown doesn’t catch my eye anymore, nor do the forever-analyzing intellectuals. I’m impressed instead by the belly-laughers–those whose wisdom is finding a collective humor and buoyancy in the muck, those who sparkle with awe, those who allow that childlike simplicity to take them right over.
I am naturally organized. It’s one of my superpowers.
As a toddler, my parents once found me methodically pulling clean diapers out of their box, lining them up along the wall in the hallway, and then placing all of my stuffed animals in a diaper, one by one. As a pre-teen, I would empty my big container of collected pennies and line them up on the carpet in order of their year. Now, I take great satisfaction in a well-constructed Excel spreadsheet, and even my writing talismans on my desk-side table sit in a specific arrangement. I moderate Crucial Minutiae’s comments without second thought, and took deep satisfaction from re-organizing the weekly columns.
When I started meeting professional writers in my early 20s, I noticed that many of them, especially the most commercially successful ones, were naturally disorganized. They are brilliant writers and thinkers who, when they go deep into the writing process, seem to lose all sense of their physical world.
Many of them have outside help to keep their houses clean, themselves fed, their children tended. Books about writing seemed to mention, more often than not, the messy, disorderly process of writing. I took this to imply the bohemian myth: that writers must let bills go unpaid, relationships fall away, dishes piled in the sink, in order to be truly great.
As I began to write longer works of fiction, fear gripped me. Was I too organized to be a real writer? Did I cling too tightly to order and neatness to be able to get lost in an imaginary world of my own creation? Did my natural inclinations make it impossible for me to be a great writer?
I took on my innate qualities as deep shame: shame that I couldn’t make a big enough mess to be a real writer. Somewhere dark inside, I felt like my desire was too big for me.
Last week, I read a blog post that touched me deeply. The gist of the post was that there are two things that inform our lives: 1) who we are or what our skills are, and 2) what makes us happy. The writer remarked that these two things do not always overlap.
Her words settled warm in my belly as, later that day, I whirled through my kitchen with the efficiency of a first-born Virgo Horse, putting dishes away and handling the physical details of my world quickly and easily.
As I leaned down to slip the Tupperware into its place in the cabinet, my soul opened and gave me this, in the form of a question.
What if my natural organization actually supports my writing?
What if it allows me to quickly and efficiently handle the details of my outer life, thus freeing up more time for me to sit down and write?
What if my natural skills work in partnership with my deep desire to write?
In that moment, my fists released the fear and shame that had been cutting deep wounds into my palms. In that moment, I said YES to myself as I am: the creative source and a twinkle of the Divine, with all of my qualities. Every day, I stand more fiercely for my creative voice in this world. My evolution – as a human being, as a writer – continues.
~ ~ ~
Do you have deep fears, perhaps even unacknowledged, that something fundamental about yourself is keeping you from having what you want? Can you consider the possibility that those qualities actually serve you?
I would love to hear from you, in the comments.
Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.
How many children do you have or want to have? Oregon State University just released a study that having a child dramatically increases your carbon footprint.
“The average long-term carbon impact of a child born in the U.S. – along with all of its descendants – is more than 160 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh.”
My response: Obviously. Your response:
Does that mean none of us should have children? It’s a touchy subject. One that grates sufficiently on me. I understand the reality of dwindling resources. Oil. Water. Food. Someone somewhere is going to lose out; and it’s likely that most people who live in my country won’t be the ones picking at scraps.
But my bone is with the field of science, one I respect and value for being a critical workhorse, one I also find heart-numbing in the way it undercuts a round picture of “humanity.” Because science with a capital S depends on numbers. Science rarely charts the emotional human quotient. What about the capacity of an individual to profoundly affect their orbit, whether that orbit is one of high-powered government officials or the small-town residents at the one grocer who need that smile to get them through the day?
My bias: I assume that each individual is born to offer a unique love, perspective and learning in his/her community. One we can all learn from. But….
Environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote an unparalleled book called Maybe One about his carbon-footprint related choice to have one child. He defends only-children as being sociable, flexible and not strange for lack of siblings. Italy already has a drought of newborns; no one is having babies. We know what used to happen and still does happen to infant girls in China (there are 120 boys born for every 100 girls, the most severe gender imbalance in the world).
Yet, overpopulation is one of the great crises of our time. Using science’s own method of checks and balances, do you think having one less child would make a difference? Can you measure the food, oil, water a person consumes against the intellectual, emotional, and social impact a person might make?