Thursday, May 23, 2013

Some of Chapter One

I've read that there's a tribe in east Africa in which the birth date of a child is not considered to be the day he is born, or the day he is conceived. The child's birth date, the tale goes, is the first day he is a thought in his mother's mind. When a mother knows she wants to have a child, she goes and sits under a tree to listen for the child's song. Once she knows the song, she goes back to the man she wants to have the child with and teaches the song to him. When they make love they sing the song to the child as a way to invite him. When he is born, the midwives and women of the village sing it to welcome him. It is his song until it is sung for the last time on his deathbed.

I suspect this story is apocryphal. It's all over the internet, yet not one of the sites where this story is repeated names the tribe in question. The myth proliferates, I believe, because it should be true. There should be a tribe in Africa that in its elemental, non-Western way transcends all of our debates about when life begins with the recognition that a child begins as an idea, a hope, long before he exists corporeally.

Of course some children begin with a broken condom or an act of violence. It's only in the world of fables that a child comes to a woman in the form of a song on the breeze, which she shares with the father at the time of her choosing. If she is lucky, that hope becomes a zygote and then an embryo and then a fetus and then a baby. If she is lucky. But then maybe she is lucky to hear the song at all.


"You have to decide," I told my husband on my fortieth birthday. "We can try to have another child, or you can get a vasectomy and we can get a cat. But you have to choose one."

My husband and I are both black and white thinkers generally, and to our detriment, so the fact that in laying out the options I offered him only two choices was completely in character. In this case, though, it was hard to see many shades of gray. There are no half-babies, no part-time babies, no 'let's just see how it goes' babies.

It was also typical of one of these end-stage arguments that it wasn't a dialogue. We had been through it all many, many times before. My patience frayed and then snapped and I was transformed into a flinty wife in a Judd Apatow movie.

At the time of my announcement I was setting the dining room table for a ladies' brunch, which was an extremely un-Portland thing to do. 

When my mother was forty in Louisville, KY, she had a closetful of Pendleton suits and a breakfront full of crystal and sterling silver. I had a few pairs of skinny jeans, a cardigan sweater and an unfinished oak bookcase that you could use as a buffet in a pinch. Maybe that was why, when I thought about what I wanted to do for my fortieth birthday, I knew I didn't want a coed party at a bar where my Chuck Taylors would stick to the floor. Neither did I want an intimate dinner with my husband at some restaurant we would have to pretend we could afford. Maybe I was channeling some other version of myself, some Mrs. Dalloway type, but whatever the reason, I wanted a ladies' brunch.

And a baby.

Getting pregnant at forty, unlike a ladies' brunch, would be an extremely Portland thing to do.

“I want to talk about this,” said Jonathan, “but maybe five minutes before a party is not the best time.”

My flower arrangement was extravagantly beautiful and the croissants were delicious. The Mayan truffles from Moonstruck Chocolates were well-received.  I wore a sleeveless blue silk blouse embroidered with a pink and purple geometric floral. As I had feared there was some awkwardness involved in having this kind of party in a town known for donning hoodies as formal wear. One of my friends asked uncertainly if it was OK to tell a dirty joke.

If Balthazar's real birthday is the day he was first a thought in my mind, then it's probably some time in 2008. But that day, April 2, 2011, is the day I willed him into being. Everyone else listened to an ipod mix full of Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams, but I was hearing other music.


I later related the vasectomy vs. cat story to a group of people at my friend Scott's 40th birthday party. I was seven months pregnant by that time, and I spent most of the party sitting in a chair by the window in the dining room, shamelessly scarfing down the South African Indian food that had been catered by Scott's favorite food truck. I stood up and stopped eating just long enough to share what I felt to be the crucial moment of my baby's genesis with Scott, his wife Talie and a woman I had just met, a labor and delivery nurse at the hospital where I was planning to deliver who also had kids at my son's school.

Scott's brother overheard the word 'vasectomy' and turned on his heel to join our group and find out what I was talking about. I was pretty pleased with myself; I don't usually command attention at parties, and Scott's brother was about to publish a very successful non-fiction book. 

Jonathan mentioned that someone he knew had recently endured a botched vasectomy, and the three men winced. He might have joked that, as bad as having another baby might turn out to be, it was better than a botched vasectomy.

Scott’s youngest child was two; he laughed the knowing laugh of the harried and sleep-deprived.

"Don't make it sound like I didn't want Balthazar," Jonathan says to me. "Of course I wanted him."

We joked; of course we did! We had that luxury and we indulged it. And there were anxieties underneath the wisecracking: how would we earn enough money to support him? How would our marriage survive those months without sleep, those years without time to ourselves?

Maybe he will be an easy baby, I said. I had heard that such creatures existed.  A baby with a folkie vibe, a CSN or Donovan baby. In contrast to Jasper, an early fan of ska.


In September we got the cat. Jasper said he wanted a white cat named Fluffy and so we went to the Humane Society of Southwest Washington and found a one year-old male who was white and healthy-looking and who seemed to have a decent personality. He turned out to be a bit of a mess: for the first six months my feet were scratched bloody through my socks, he liked to climb up the fireplace, and even now he sometimes tries to bite our faces. But Jasper needed him, even more than I did. Sometimes he says Fluffy is his brother. Sometimes he says Fluffy is his child. Strange to think it could have turned out this way all along, without all that we’ve lost and all that we’ve gained.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


I spent 2007-2009 writing a novel, my third, called Collision. It was set in the late '90's, and was about a young artist who finds a painting she thinks is a lost Jackson Pollock in her grandmother's attic. To unravel the mystery of how it got there and to uncover Pollock's connection to her family, the young woman must return home to Kentucky, ditch an amoral politician-in-training boyfriend, fall into the arms of a cute art-history grad student, and break into the Speed Art Museum. Her ultimate triumph is the Alberta Ferretti dress she wears to the first show of her paintings, at The Gagosian Gallery in New York.

In choosing to write about Pollock in the guise of what I hoped was a fizzy romance, I was trying to evolve from my position as a writer of straightforward historical fiction about artists. I wanted contemporary characters. I wanted to put a Justin-Theroux-type motorcycle-jacket-wearing New York boy in a moldering Southern Gothic graveyard with a disaffected Southern belle to see what would happen. I wanted to explore issues of place and family. I hoped to be a little less serious, but in a good way.

Publishing was not in good shape in 2009, when it was time to try to sell the novel. The agent who had signed me in 2003 and who had sold both of my published books quit the business and moved back to Australia. I was assigned a new agent, whom I didn't know well enough to be able to determine whether her taking months to read the manuscript and weeks to return calls was because she was unenthusiastic or just monumentally busy. Eventually, though, she sent Collision out to editors at publishing houses.

The publisher of my first two books passed, which I had been expecting and which I thought was for the best, considering how the publisher's marketing missteps had hobbled their sales. But then one by one all of the others passed, too.

My agent's assistant kept telling me they still had a few irons in the fire, until more than a year had passed and I stopped asking.

The book might have been an unsuccessful hybrid of two genres. It might have completely sucked. It might have needed a good editor, or another revision, or a complete rethinking. It might have been bad timing. It could have been all of the above. Whatever the reason, the result was a stillborn novel that ended as a computer file which by now could be too outdated to be opened. Writers don't talk much about the novel hidden in the drawer like a box of ashes.


In the Hindu tradition, of which yoga is a part, the body contains seven chakras, or centers of vital energy. Each chakra is associated with a location in the body, though they are a metaphysical overlay rather than a physical fact. The seven chakras are the root, the sacral, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat, the brow and the crown. The second chakra, Swadhistana, is located in the sacrum. Physically this chakra is the seat of reproduction. Mentally it is the seat of creativity.

Not, I think, a coincidence.

It might be possible to be a writer and a mother and not see the two as coming from the same place. In fact you could argue that the two are directly in conflict. Jasper was born sixteen days after The Painted Kiss was published. Jasper gestated for nine months, while The Painted Kiss took seven years, but once they were born their roles reversed. Like a baby giraffe that can stand minutes after birth, the book was forced to make its way more or less on its own, while Jasper sucked up every available molecule of attention. Still, they are twins of a kind: Jasper bright-eyed and robust, The Painted Kiss pallid and a little weedy from neglect.

I wrote The Wayward Muse while Jasper was a baby. Like siblings fighting for attention, there was an inherent conflict there: taking care of one required a certain amount of inattention to the other. Guess which one got short shrift? I wrote Collision when Jasper was still very small. My first, unfinished memoir, written in 2011-12 while I was pregnant, is Balthazar's dark twin.

For me the will to write and to have children is the same. I don't design buildings. I don't grow tomatoes and can them. Children and books: those are the things I make.

Women who've delivered stillborn babies call the next child they conceive a 'rainbow' baby. Which isn't as awful as all of the angel stuff, but I still find the terminology vaguely irritating, possibly because of the Biblical reference. In the Old Testament, God became angry at the wickedness of humanity and destroyed the world. Later he sent a rainbow to alert Noah and his kin that he would never do it again. The rainbow is supposed to be a sign of hope for the future, a future free from cataclysmic destruction. I'm sure all of the people who died during God's fit of pique, otherwise known as the Flood, really appreciated it.

But rainbows are beautiful. We get a lot of them in Portland, with all of the rain and sunbreaks. To me a rainbow represents two generally antithetical things happening at the same time. Rain and sun. Death and life. Despair and hope.

For me, unfortunately, the 'rainbow' baby is a book.


Someone I don't know well recently said that she had Googled me and had discerned from my publication dates that I must be taking time off to be a mom. It might save face to pretend that I devoted that time exclusively to the raising of my son, but it's just not true. I haven't taken any time off. I just don't have anything to point to. It sure looks like a gap in a resume: what did you do from 2007-Present?

I wrote, to no effect. Coincidence? A run of bad luck? Or something very stuck in that second chakra?

The following are emotional signs that your second chakra is blocked: feelings of guilt, embarrassment, shame, distrust, impatience, a desire to hide, nervousness, anger, a tendency to push for things, holding on, detaching from oneself and going out of one's body, feeling shut down, depression, and years of overly controlling one's emotions.

This sounds like someone I know, though to be fair it also sounds like a horoscope.

Stillbirth is not among the physical symptoms associated with the flow of energy getting stuck in the second chakra, although fertility issues are mentioned. But stillbirth is a thwarting of creativity on such a massive scale it makes all of those unresponsive editors look like rank amateurs.

I can't quit, of course, just because all of my creative efforts for the past six years have been stymied. But it's enough to make me consider Reiki.   

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Now?

So what now?

This is as far as I got. I was going to get through Balthazar's birthday and then...I don't have a plan, for my grief or for the rest of my life.

Every now and then I read an interview with an actor who says something like, “I never had a plan. I fell into acting and just went with it and here I am.” A modeling agent approached them at a mall. They were waiting tables at a restaurant in Malibu and one of the regulars was Harvey Weinstein. I suspect most of them are being disingenuous. Anyone who makes it in Hollywood has got to be ambitious to the point of rapacity. But I know that such a personality type exists, that there are people who are comfortable just floating along, content to see where the current takes them. I've never had much faith that it would take me anywhere worth going without excruciating effort on my part.

I don't trust the Universe. Is there any reason why I should?

In January, Jonathan and I started looking for work, and now, four months later, I have a short-term, temporary job proofreading a preschool curriculum. I managed to secure the gig despite being self-employed as a writer for ten years, with no recent track record of showing up anywhere or working well with anyone. I was hired despite the economy and despite my own grave doubts about my employability. The staffing agency hired me without even meeting me. I think it came down to the fact that a friend had vouched for Jonathan, who in his interview vouched for me, but it felt like a total fluke.

Unfortunately, the file delivery schedule threw a wrench into my plans of focused and deliberate grieving: I had to work on Balthazar's birthday.

Jonathan went on our planned hike in the Gorge on his own. In the afternoon we went to Portland Nursery with Jasper and bought catnip, lemon thyme and two strawberry plants. I told Jasper that we were getting the strawberry plants to remember Balthazar, and that they represented new life.

“Well, he died, so that doesn't really make sense,” he said. The kid's got a point. Plants say, life goes on, but it's true that they mean life in general, not this one life in particular. And that's supposed to make you feel better why?

Stop all the fucking clocks.

Then Jasper went to a friend's house and Jonathan sat outside Cooper's with me while I ate a chicken pot pie. Without Balthazar in there demanding it, it tasted like chemicals, even though it was supposed to be homemade. Then we went on a walk around the reservoir. It was a really ordinary day. Except that flowers were delivered in the morning and a tree in the afternoon.

I got a lot of support, but none of it helped. Well, that's not true. I can't imagine how much worse it could have been without all of the messages. It just doesn't change anything.

Jonathan says I'm doing well, with my new proofreading job and my Crossfit and my memoir. It's true that I can squat 150 pounds and do ten military push-ups and hang from a bar and bring my toes up to reach my hands. I'm in the processing of mastering a complicated Google docs file management system. I'm learning how to handle passive-aggressive emails from twenty-four year-old designers that come in at ten o'clock at night.

If Balthazar were alive I wouldn't be doing any of it, and that would have been better than fine.

When I lived in New York I worked as a legal proofreader at corporate law firms. I had a beeper, like a drug dealer. I was also using a friend's studio apartment as a place to write. He was a medical resident and there so seldom that once I accidentally left a carton of OJ in his fridge and it went bad before he returned and noticed it was there. I sat at his desk and stared at the index cards I'd covered with facts about Gustav Klimt and Vienna, distracted by anxiety. I lived in fear that the beeper would go off and I'd have to stop what I was doing and head to Midtown. Would it be Paul, Weiss, or Fried, Frank? Would I have time to eat lunch?

Then I got a steady gig on the graveyard shift at a firm on Wall Street. It was proofreading in sweatshop form: 24 hour coverage, five or six of us working side by side through the night with one legally-mandated half hour break. Our eyes never left the documents. The pile at the front desk never got any smaller. The opera singer working beside me winced every time I coughed.

The Jamaican women who managed the proofreaders were always trying to get me to stay late. They meant pull a double shift. I sometimes offered to stay an extra twenty minutes. I started taking ephedrine to stay awake, and my heart sometimes raced abnormally. During the day I was a zombie. The night we got engaged, Jonathan and I went to dinner at Florent before I went to work. It felt glamorous to be eating potatoes in blue cheese sauce at 11pm, but I was too exhausted to enjoy it. If I had been proofreading from 8 to 5, or even 3 to 11, I might not have ever left New York. But then my two novels would probably not have been written.

Proofreading satisfies my tendency to OCD; it's like a puzzle. I get pleasure from finding the mistakes; I feel the joy of the red pen. The gratification is immediate, unlike writing. Also unlike writing, there is no meaning in it. It's like being the person who installs the cup holder, and only the cup holder, into the Subaru Outback.

So what, then? Some things I want to do:

Sell Balthazar's memoir.
Live in Spain for a year.
Run an obstacle course race.
Research Fra Filippo Lippi.
Volunteer at new avenues for youth.
Drive from Portland through Idaho and Montana up to Jasper, Alberta, and back down through British Columbia and Washington.
Take Jasper to England.
Get a German short-haired pointer.
Teach ESL in Peru.
Lose the last goddamn ten pounds.
Hike the Way of St. James.
Learn enough Spanish to get by.
Sing more.
Make our backyard a nice place to hang out.
Get a better job that supports our family.
Write a novel about parenthood that is set entirely at children's birthday parties.
Resurrect the Jackson Pollock novel, perhaps in a completely different form.

Maybe somewhere on this list is the thing that will bring meaning back to life. But I don't know if I can plan for it. It may have to creep in on its own.