Vigils and domesticity

Uncategorized — admin @ 4:29 pm

February, date uncertain.

I am leading multiple lives simultaneously.

This one, in which I spend my evenings researching preschools and my weekends with a hand behind my daughter’s back, spotting her as she climbs playground equipment on her own. Buying cookies from girl scouts, reading the same children’s books again and again, no need to look at the pages anymore. At night in her bedroom, 3 am, the moonlight creeps through the slats in the blinds, painting white stripes across the floor and into the crib. She falls asleep again across my lap. I can barely keep my eyes open, but if I get a glimpse of this nightly, silent ritual — beauty, connection, a human moment — I am grateful to give up my sleep.

Another life, the one in which I went on retreat at monasteries. We’d wake in the darkness for prayer or meditation. It was bleary, difficult for a person used to sleeping in, but walking through the darkened hallways, outside through frost or dew or starlight, I sensed we were all doing something of great importance, thinking only a few ever got this chance to try to be humble in the face of God, obedient to the call of prayer above all else. Ironically, there was a sense, as I tried to do the most basic things — breathing, walking, sitting, feeling the midnight air in my nostrils, my heartbeat, really seeing the particles dust floating in the air in front of my face — as I tried to do all this with renewed awakeness, awareness, there was a sense that this made me special. Sometimes I thought there was something I had — something most people didn’t have — that drew me to these solemn places, these worlds set apart to realize that we weren’t apart from God, from each other, at all.

I make my nightly vigils to my daughter’s room with interrupted dreams hovering around me. She stands at the railing of her crib, crying out. I know where she’ll be and don’t need to open my eyes to lift her up and carry her to the couch. I lift my shirt, wrap a blanket around us. Sometimes she falls asleep, sometimes we both do. There’s no attempt to reach any special state during all this. I am there to fulfill a need; it isn’t about me. I might complain in the morning, but in the night it happens automatically. She calls, I answer. My body can do it without my mind. But there are moments when I can feel that this is something women have been doing since the very beginning, soothing their children in the dark, and I feel connected to those women and their children, scattered through space and time. That kind of feeling invoked by prayers, rituals, the chants, the bells, all these things that help us feel connected to the other seekers throughout the world and the ages.

There is nothing “special” about the act of mothering. It isn’t often hallowed, imbued with spiritual significance. It isn’t done explicitly for God, with God, but with the child. But the “special” feeling that comes up in explicit religious practice must be an error, something extraneous added to the practice itself, diverting attention and energy. Can we act without self-consciousness, self-aggrandizement, self-criticism, or anxiety — can we take care of others, wash the dishes, get out of bed in the morning, sit, not because we want the “credit,” but simply because it needs to be done.

There’s a part of me that always dismissed domestic life, “lay” life, as a lesser means of intentional living, something ordinary rather than sacred, mundane rather than intense, exotic, rare. There’s another part that always lusted after it, reading the blogs of women who stayed home with their children. The ones I chose to read were usually very devout women, traditional Catholics and Mormons, with many children and conservative ideals. Reading these housewife blogs felt like a guilty pleasure to me in my 20s, almost like watching raunchy reality TV depicting lives of extreme excess. I’ve known other women who do this too. Liberal, independent, city girls with careers, advanced degrees, lofty goals. Reading the mommy blogs, we envied the certainties these stay-at-home moms proclaimed, the sureness that their days were spent doing something valuable, that motherhood was their true vocation and purpose, that their ambitions were firmly rooted in these beautiful homes, beautiful meals, beautiful Halloween costumes, happy families, faith. It looks so simple, such a respite, from the perspective of the city striver, dealing with the bosses, the bad dates, the crowds of strangers. These seemingly-so-content creatures living in that world are exotic in their own way.

Another life, a sensual life surrounded by with complex women and dominant men, or men we tried (and failed) to fashion into dominants. The sensitive deviant, naked and surrounded by books and notebooks, writing everything down, hiding everything and hiding nothing. I read an article about a famous French dominatrix, who’d once been a famous submissive to a famous literary husband. Public intellectuals, members of an elite class. That which comes across as sleazy, perverse in the hands of a lesser mind becomes sublime in the very intelligent, the mind capable of subtlety and metaphor. The pornographic is rendered erotic, spiritual even. The domestic life is elevated as well. Once established as smart enough, philosophers and artists can write about anything — their most secret, private thoughts, the most mundane details or their lives — without fear of being called boring or self-absorbed. The difference between theory and the journal can be very slight, it may just be choice of words.

On privilege and independence

money,motherhood — admin @ 3:51 pm

Having a child grants a temporary reprieve from dreams of pregnancy and birth. Of course, there was a long gap after my daughter’s birth before I slept well enough to dream of anything at all. My first dream as a mother felt like a milestone, though I no longer remember anything about its contents. I don’t dream dreams in which she doesn’t exist, even if she isn’t IN them. Now that the baby dreams have started up again, it’s always a second child, once even a third. There was a fugitive birth on a train, a birth in a public shower. A couple days ago I dreamt I was in labor in a hospital that was part shopping mall. One of the exams involved removing a large bone from my pelvis. I waited in a fast-food line with my doula, who had another client in labor at the same time, also in line, ahead of me and doing the heavy breathing. I decided it’d be better to wait in the car, which turned out to have a birthing tub inside it. It was snowing in the parking lot. The baby in these dreams is always a boy. Though in that one dream in which I was on number three, I already had two daughters.

I was out in the hot tub, looking over the city lights with a jet centered on my aching back. I realized the last time I’d been in the tub was back when F. was so small I’d carried the baby monitor out with me. I’d periodically hold it up to my ear so check for any signs of crying over the white noise of too-far-away-from base and the white noise of the Sleep Sheep whale song we played for her. I couldn’t trust her to stay asleep at night then, and I wouldn’t allow myself 20 minutes before the anxiety of being out of earshot was too much. Even if I was in our own backyard. Even with her father in the house.

The invisible tether. It does let up eventually. It took until she was 10 months for me to leave her in someone else’s care. I wanted to do everything myself. I still do that, to a certain extent. But I’ve gotten to that point where I can go to work without her. Traveling without her, spending the night away from her — these still feel very far away.

I was embarrassed to mention the hot-tub above. I grew up poor. I worked myself through college. My mom was single until I was seven. I got free lunch at school, but I honestly didn’t realize I was poor as a child. I had wealthier relatives who occasionally spoiled me in anachronistic ways. Stylish name-brand clothes, vacations in hotels with room-service. I’ve always been a weird hybrid when it comes to class. I have a hard time accepting the amount of privilege I have now; the amount of unearned privilege. I remember thinking, once, that having someone in my life who could eliminate my need to pay rent or pay my own bills would be the greatest thing that could happen. I remember reading blogs of women in this enviable position, who had the gall to complain about it, about what it did to their self-image. I found that infuriating. How could they be so blind to their incredible luck? But I didn’t understand the particular pain that comes from losing some of your self-sufficiency. Especially when you’re used to doing it all on your own. Especially as a woman, to a man. Sacrificing freedom and independence for a higher standard of living doesn’t feel like a fair trade, especially after you’ve become acclimated to the higher standard of living.

I’ve lived in tiny apartments, in rooms-for-rent, often with roommates, in New York City (3 boroughs); Washington, DC; Portland; San Diego. Some of those places were pretty dingy, all of them were at the limits of (or above) what I could afford. But those places were mine, mine alone. I always paid my own rent; I never got help from my parents or anyone else; my checks were never late. I was proud of my financial independence, which I’d forged in my late teens, and I didn’t know how much it meant to me until it was gone. My income now, as a graduate student, is well below the poverty line. 2/3 of poverty, I think. It’d barely cover the mortgage on our house, if that. But I paid all the medical bills associated with my pregnancy and birth. I pay for my daughter’s childcare, for most of her expenses, and that’s about all. I’m fiercely protective of my right, my privilege, to do that.

I can no longer imagine not working, of letting anyone take care of me. I wouldn’t be able to live with that old fantasy. Even being able to get by on my own, without anyone’s help, isn’t enough anymore. I want to have the means to care for my family on my own. I want to be able to put my daughter through college. To take care of my parents in their old age. I finally understand the American Dream. It makes sense, to want more for your children than you had yourself. It is of critical importance to me, more than ever before.

Though it embarrasses me, I’ve gotten used to certain privileges, material luxuries I never really earned, and it’s a strange thing to experience. Accumulating such things doesn’t make me appreciate life with them more, it just creates a certain dread of life without them. First class and business travel is the perfect example of this. It’s not that the first class experience is so amazing. It’s just that, by comparison, traveling in coach seems like such a terrible hardship, so much worse than it ever seemed before I’d experienced a bit of extra legroom and a more comfortable seat and airline employees treating me a little bit more like a human being. Having a hot-tub in your yard, an ocean view from your dining table, living in a city where the 50’s qualify as “freezing”… these things make you feel lucky for a little while, then they just become the new normal, you take them for granted to such a degree that you hardly even notice them anymore. But thinking about life without them does seem hard, and a little sad.

Things that really are blessings, like having a child, like having a friend, are different than material privileges. Life with them is constantly, discernibly richer. Life without them doesn’t seem sad, it seems impossible.

Mere existence

grace,love,reading — admin @ 12:59 am

“Your mother could not love you more or take greater pride in you. She has watched you every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones. So that is the honoring of the child. You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.” — Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.

Note: I didn’t even underline this beautiful passage, let alone star it, or dog-ear the page, on my first reading a few years ago. This is why you have to re-read everything after you have your first child.

The appreciation of existence, mere existence, which is so potent in the parent-child relationship, is so much harder for us mere mortals in other types of relationships. I’ve struggled so hard to convince past romantic partners (and, if I’m being honest here, myself) that I cared not just about what they did or didn’t do or say, but about who they were, their particular personhood. Not a list of attributes or accomplishments — but them, their being.

It’s incredibly difficult to appreciate our own existence. I’ve also struggled with the fear that no one cares about me in this ‘godlike’ way, that I am only appreciated insomuch as I am able to produce, write, make A’s, give gifts, demonstrate kindnesses, etc. My parents, actually, have been among those I’ve feared disappointing in this way the most, throughout most of my life, despite being told that they loved me “no matter what.” It’s just so difficult to know what a statement that even means in a world where praise is almost always handed out on the basis of some external merit.

I’ve also struggled to believe it when friends have told me that they enjoy my company regardless of my mood — that just sitting together is enough, I don’t have to perform or pretend or entertain. But I do think traces of this existence-based love emerge in longterm friendships. Especially those that begin in youth and extend for decades, the kind of friendship where it no longer matters that your lives have taken different directions and you live in different cities and sometimes you go months or years without talking. You know that despite all those things the friendship remains, and you are grateful for that friend’s existence in the world, which makes you less lonely even if your contact is minimal.

With adults, the meaning of mere existence seems to shine through the most in the wake of death. The value of life itself is often so difficult to apprehend until there is some threat of losing it, or after it is gone.

My mother was gravely ill for a period last year. It was a horrifying time. In retrospect, it was truly one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. But in the midst of all this fear and stress, I was struck so powerfully by how grateful I was that she was still alive. Not for “all the things she’s ever done for me,” not for her wit or compassion or intelligence or fashion sense or for the fact that she’s literally read everything, or any of a million things “about” her I could list. Just her life, her existence in the world, her breathing. Her breathing especially. (The epic nature of the breath is made so clear when someone is on a ventilator.) There are so many things “about” the people we love that we love, and sometimes it’s hard to see the what underlies that. When you’re faced with the prospect that someone may no longer be able to do all the things she once did, or display all those characteristics you appreciate so much in her… especially in a context where she’s so sick she’s totally unconscious, and you find still love her, without all that, it teaches a powerful lesson. It’s not your memories of her when she was more “herself” that you love — it’s her, there, in terrible pain, weak, confused, contorted, but alive, still breathing. That’s enough to be worthy of love. Even life isn’t necessary for love, we continue to love those who have died, of course, but it clearly mere life has meaning, not for what it allows a person to do, or think, or feel, but just in itself.

At this time, most of the things that had been stressing me out before the crisis struck — work/life balance, how to progress with my PhD with a young baby, concerns about what I really wanted to “do in life” — seemed so superficial, so small in comparison to the immensity of life itself. My life. Every life.

With a child, your own child especially, a newborn especially, you don’t need any of the tragedy to see straight to this same truth. The idea of loving a baby for what she does in the world is ludicrous, and you don’t yet know what her personality, her intelligence, her talents, her tastes, her limitations will turn out to be. And yet you love her. You love her fully, completely, unreservedly, to the end of time and from the beginning. It is a privilege to love her, to care for her. Her mere existence is a blessing to me, truly. There’s not really any other way to say it.

So it is for the dying, so it is for the newly born, so it is for every person, even you. Even you. When you look into the eyes of a child and you feel all these things, you also realize that your own parents (those very ones you are still so terrified of disappointing!) looked into your eyes in this same way, loving you already, no matter what you did, even if you did nothing at all. I think this is what is meant by the love of God, and we do not need to posit the existence of any supernatural being to find it — it is the seed of all human love (not just parental love), when it is seen for what it really is.

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