Thursday, September 4, 2014

It Beats For You

My brother and I recently attended the Forecastle music festival, the first concert we’d gone to together since I took him to see Public Enemy when he was thirteen. I don’t know what we were thinking; clearly this is something we should have been doing since at least 1997. I drank moonshine lemonade cocktails and he drank Heineken and we both counted how many people were wearing My Morning Jacket t-shirts and tried to score free mini-hamburgers from TGI Friday’s, but mostly we listened. The drunken keyboard player in Spoon shook the maracas with an insouciant raised eyebrow. Chris Thile plucked the mandolin with delirious intensity. We heard Band of Horses, Trampled by Turtles, Outkast, Nickel Creek. Words that don’t mean anything unless you know what the bands sound like. 

Scott and I weren’t really into Jack White’s set on Saturday night, so we sat at a picnic table and caught up on things while he played. When you live two thousand miles apart and have four children between you, that by itself is worth the price of admission. When Jack started in on We’re Going to Be Friends in a monotonous, thankfully almost-unrecognizable blues thump, I observed that it was one of the songs on the iTunes mix I had made for Balthazar’s birth, the one that segued so seamlessly from birth mix to grief mix, and that I hadn’t been able to listen to that song since. 

“It’s come on at the gym a few times,” I said. “I always make them change it.” 

There were, and are, songs I avoid. I don’t listen to Little Green by Joni Mitchell if I can help it. Can’t Find My Way Home came on in a coffee shop the other day and it was the first time in 28 months that I thought, as I used to, what a beautiful and perfect song instead of get me the fuck out of here. I still can’t listen to Catch the Wind, can’t even let it come into my mind. But Scott brought up something that I had forgotten.

“It really scared me,” he said as we were leaving, exchanging fist bumps with the kid still working the gate,  “when you said that you couldn’t listen to music anymore.” 

I remember in vivid detail, and have written about, the going blind from grief, but yes, it’s true I also went deaf. There was a period of time in which it was just lost, not only the songs on the sad iTunes mix, but all of it, when the place that music takes you was a place it just hurt too much to go. 

My relationship to music is an ordinary kind of love, but that doesn’t make it casual or trivial. Pop music and I have been on intimate emotional terms since Toto declaring that “love isn’t always on time” from the school bus radio touched some deeply sad part of me. I was second chair, second violin in the County Orchestra. I’ve always sung in choirs and choruses and to myself, and I’m fine, but I’m not gifted. It isn’t a great talent or a career but a mnemonic device,  a gateway to feeling, a portal to transcendence. No wonder my brother was afraid for me. Not being able to listen to music meant that a crucial part of my soul was grievously wounded, and he, of everyone I know, understood that, because he is the same.  

At the end of my grandmother’s long life she had a series of strokes and could no longer live on her own. My mother and her sister made the decision to move her to the Episcopal Church Home. For several months after she arrived there she would grab my arm during every Sunday brunch and say something to me about bringing the car around. At first I thought that she was confused about where she was. I thought she believed she was at Audubon or Big Spring, some country club she could walk out of. Then, as her nails digging into my arm became more insistent and her voice became more urgent, I realized that she wanted me to help her escape. 

I don’t know why she thought I was the one to do it. Maybe it was because she’d been telling me to bring the car around since I was sixteen years old, and I had never once disobeyed, even when the car was hers and it was somewhere in the vast reaches of a mall parking lot and I’d ridden there with someone else and had no idea where she’d parked it. It broke my heart that I couldn't do it. That I had to guide her back to her room, which was quite nice as these things go, which had a few pieces of furniture from her house, but which to her was a prison. 

One Sunday the nursing home had a man playing the piano during brunch. My grandmother was an extremely musical person and had played the piano all her life. She loved Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and seemed to enjoy herself as the pianist made his way through the standards. But when he started in on the folk song Shenandoah, my grandmother broke down in tears. The stroke had taken her ability to write and most of her speech. But diminished as she was, it was clear that the song made her feel, with a powerful grief, all that she had lost. 

After the pianist left, though, my grandmother sat down and played. She didn’t say a word. She played You are my Sunshine and My Old Kentucky Home and all of the others. She played without music. She didn't need it. Her fingers knew exactly where to go.


It’s convenient that my hearing has come back with passionate intensity, because words and I are currently semi-estranged. Words were the foundation of my marriage, so it makes sense that as that relationship changes, everything has to be recalibrated. 

There’s a Beatles song with the lines “Someday when we’re dreaming/deep in love, not a lot to say/then we will remember/the things we said today.” It always confounded me. I remember complaining about it to my mother when the song came on the car radio. Why would you ever want to be in a state in which you had nothing to say? That would not be a condition I would ever want to find myself in. I think she smiled at my youthful naiveté and said something like, when you fall in love you’ll understand. But that conviction that there was nothing worth having that didn’t have words attached to it never left me.

This is how writers fall in love, Leslie Jamison writes in her essay collection The Empathy Exams. They feel complicated together, and then they talk about it. I’ve never read a more perfect or true thing in my life. For seventeen years Jonathan and I talked and talked and wrote and wrote until finally we had come to the end of what talking, what writing, could do. I didn’t know there was an end until it was upon me. 

Words fail. People say that all the time. And I never believed it. Words don’t fail, only the people using them. I always thought, well, try harder. Work them like clay, knead and squeeze them and mold them into the shape you desire. All it takes is a little effort. And if that effort kept me one step removed from feeling, always analyzing whatever was happening and choosing the words I would later use to describe it, well, that was OK. 

Even as I use language to describe its essential failure, I acknowledge that there are other modes of expression that better serve me right now. That has led in what is for me a long-neglected direction. I’ve added people to my life who will go with me to see music and play new things for me. I went to see Three Legged Torso at the Old Church and a jug band at Biddy McGraw’s. I went to see a rockabilly band at The Landmark and The Flaming Lips on the Waterfront and Slint at the Crystal Ballroom. I listened to Blonde Redhead, Afghan Whigs, Jeff Hansen, Wilco’s Summerteeth album. I went to see the Portland Symphony in Grant Park, and remembered that I used to have season tickets to the Portland Baroque Orchestra. I remembered there’s a cd by Bizet still on my Amazon wish list, unbought. Best of all, of course, was the time spent listening to music with my brother. Maybe I’m going to pick up the guitar I was learning to play before Jasper was born so that by the time Scott retires I’ll be good enough to form a brother/sister geriatric band. 

On the last night of Forecastle, the Replacements played. The opening notes sent me back to 1989, when they opened for Tom Petty at Riverbend on their ill-fated Don’t Tell a Soul Tour. I remembered the not-so-nice high school boyfriend I went to the show with. I observed that Tommy Stinson looked like the most cheerful, dapper cadaver you’ve ever seen. Was that Billie Joe Armstrong playing guitar a few steps behind the rest of the band? Was that a Muhammed Ali button on Paul Westerberg’s white suit? And then I stopped thinking, stopped taking notes so that I could describe it later. I even forgot about my brother, standing a few steps behind me. I felt the clear, undiluted joy of the rhythm, the familiarity of the melody, the satisfaction of resolution. It felt good. It felt better than good. It felt like feeling. And that was all I wanted, and all I want. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Happy Birthday

I don’t believe in astrology, but I like reading my horoscope in the Willamette Week. Rob Breszny, who writes Free Will Astrology, is a fount of interesting quotes and references and I often glean something relevant or useful. A couple of weeks ago, he advised those of us born in April to stop being such impatient control freaks. Good advice for the week, though I feel like it could be my horoscope the other 51 weeks of the year as well. I should probably get it tattooed on my arm as a prompt: impatient control freak with a big red slash through it, like a road sign.

I have always been a planner. I make checklists, I make one-year plans and five-year plans. I’ve always wanted to map the future. More than wanted; I believed that my chosen destination would be only slightly harder to reach than Bend or Corvallis. The future was like Breitenbush Hot Springs, maybe: on a small, unpaved road that was still easily plottable on Mapquest.

When Balthazar died, without warning I found myself at the end of the known world. At the place where my life ended. Where the future no longer existed. A place without maps.

Of course I knew that I wouldn’t die. That my life would go on. But I was acutely aware, from the first moment, that I would be someone else. Who, I had no idea. Everything except the fact of being Jasper’s mother was up for negotiation. Writer, wife, Portlander, financial underachiever, introvert, yogi, redhead; I could change it all. It wasn’t time, though, not yet. My body was battered; my heart was broken. I read and I cried and I wrote thank you notes. I waited to see what would happen.

And now it’s two years later. What, exactly, has happened?

I rode a horse in Kauai. Ran a mile in 7:32. Got a cat. Started proofreading again. Wrote a blog that became a memoir. Went to Italy. Got cranky in the Colosseum. Made new friends. Bought a car. Started volunteering at Write Around Portland. Did a deadhang pull up. Read a lot of books. Separated from my husband of fourteen years. Read to five-year-olds. Spent more time with my brother. Ate a lot of French fries.

In the last two years I’ve done a lot of things I never dreamed that I’d do. But there are also other ways to measure change.

In the last month I have reconnected with three of the fairly sizable collection of people I haven’t seen in two years. One reunion was deliberate: I emailed my friend and we went out for drinks. One was completely serendipitous: as a couple of friends and I pulled up to the Starvation Creek trailhead one Saturday, we couldn’t help oohing and aahing over a gorgeous blue-eyed toddler in a pink hat. Then I looked at the woman attached to the toddler. “Let me out!” I cried. “I know her!” The third I happened to run into at Write Around Portland, where he now works and where I recently started volunteering.

I felt a surprisingly uncomplicated happiness at seeing these people again, which is a milestone of some sort. People get a wary look when they see me after a long time. They’re waiting for me to set the tone. So I hugged all three of them. I’ve never been a hugger, but what the hell. Maybe I am one now. Who knows?


I recently told a friend at the gym who is in a place of transition in her life that the crossroads is where the possibility is.

“Are you writing self-help now?” she asked dryly.

I’m really not. One of my favorite books of the past year was Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the self-help industry. And I don’t believe in the life-expanding opportunity created by wrenching change every single day. But when I said it to her, I believed it. Some days, I believe it.

For awhile I was writing ‘Alive to the possibility of happiness’ on the inside of my left wrist. I took the phrase from a book review in which the reviewer used it to describe a character’s transformation. I couldn’t tell you what the title of the book was, or what it was about, or whether the reviewer liked it or not. But the phrase stuck with me. Each day it washed off and each day I wrote it back on. Happiness, if not a reality, is now a possibility.

‘Surrender to chaos’ might be another good reminder for a control freak to tattoo somewhere on her body.


I don’t have a list anymore. Obviously there are things I want to do: refinance my house, get a roommate, get a full time staff writing position, fall in love. Do a chest to bar pull up. Get my heart broken. Fall in love again anyway. Rock climb. Go to a music festival. Dance and sing and take Jasper to Mammoth Cave. I’ve got plans, but I don’t have A Plan. Am I done with Plans forever? Maybe.

“There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one,” Kazuo Ishiguro wrote, which might make me sound literary until I tell you that I picked it up from Free Will Astrology, too.

It’s true for everyone, but it’s something I feel acutely.  Would I be here, doing this? I ask myself sometimes. Would I have met him? Would I have become friends with her? The answer is always ‘probably not.’ But I’m going to stop asking if I would rather have this than that, because that question is moot. I am here. This is where I am. It couldn’t be stopped, it can’t be changed. And so.

If Balthazar’s short, almost life was a beginning that was also an end, the end of my life has afforded the possibility of rebirth. Birth is never easy. There is pain, and rupture. But the only way through is to push on, and at the end is something miraculous that wasn’t there before. Isaiah 43:19 was always one of my favorite Bible verses: “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

To me, that’s not the voice of God, it’s the voice of life itself.  

This is the season of my birth, and Balthazar’s also. Two years ago today I watched Kentucky beat Kansas in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, and, although I did and didn’t know it, Balthazar was dead. One year ago today I canceled my birthday and proofread a preschool curriculum all day. Today is different than both of those days.

I used to think that my birthday would forever be a day of horror. Now I wonder if the opposite will come to be true. Not that there won’t be sadness or tears; that would be impossible. But maybe I will be able to feel the rhythm of Easter and the vernal equinox, the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, instead of getting stuck on Good Friday. Instead of hanging back in the bleak midwinter.

Sons die. They don’t come back. And yet…

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Too Dark

As the two-year anniversary of Balthazar’s death approaches, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of redemption. Though Merriam-Webster defines redemption simply as the act of making something better or more acceptable, redemption is still an old-timey, Jesus-y word. It’s invoked in all kinds of contexts in our secular society: Lindsey Jacobellis is looking for redemption in snowboard cross; a former gang member finds redemption directing a center for homeless youth. And yet no matter what the story, the redeemed appear as if bathed in celestial light, touched by the hand of God.

Which makes the obverse also true.

A baby’s death is such an extreme event I’m not sure that it’s appropriate or even possible to talk about it in terms of redemption. Can it be made better? Will it ever be in any way acceptable? Still, from observing the Facebook pages of other mothers I know, having another child appears to be, if not the path to redemption then at least the sine qua non of healing. The parents still suffer, of course, and always will. There’s no taking that away. The lost child can never be replaced. But by virtue of the fact that the new baby would not exist without the loss of the other, he or she creates an entirely new, joyful future for the family.

It’s not a secret that this was the form I hoped that redemption would take. I asked my husband to try again after Balthazar, and he said no. It’s hard to know how I would have reacted to secondary infertility, or miscarriage, or another stillbirth, or any other scenario in which I failed to produce the requisite “rainbow” baby. I suspect not well. Maybe Jonathan’s right and that would have been the path to madness. But that’s all speculation.  

For a long time I wanted to wear a sign that said, “I want another baby, and there’s no medical reason I can’t have one. It’s him!” With a big arrow pointing to the space next to me. But I don’t feel that way so much anymore, maybe because the space next to me is now empty. I’m creating an entirely new future for myself, and I don’t spend as much time thinking about it.  But redemption? I can’t imagine what that would even look like.

Not long ago one of my Facebook moms, someone I met in a research study out of the University of Nebraska, posted a shout out to all of her friends who’ve had “rainbow” babies. Which I can tell you is pretty much every single woman I know who lost a child this way. Every. Single. One.
I usually just “like” the photos of the adorable children and leave it at that, but I must have been feeling particularly beleaguered that day, because I “liked” the post, as usual, but then I also said, “Please also have compassion for babyloss moms who don’t have “rainbow” babies and never will.”

My Facebook friend deleted my comment. That’s the kind of sad story you should just keep to yourself, you know? 

Even if, like me, you lost your Christian faith somewhere along the way, it’s hard not to feel that redemption shines God’s light on you, deserved or not, and that to fail to find it leaves you in shadow, outside the halo of grace.

An alternate scenario was that my memoir would become my rainbow baby. But I’ve had to rethink that as well, because 20 editors have rejected the manuscript, with variations on the same theme:

“It’s hard to bring this subject to the reader unless you’re Joan Didion,” said one, which in translation means: we will tolerate this kind of anguish from famous essayist, but not you. “Other memoirs of this type have struggled to find an audience,” said another. Until they said that I had no idea that Elizabeth McCracken and Emily Rapp had poor sales figures. My personal favorite, though, is this one: “Its readership is limited because it isn’t redemptive enough.”

It’s an interesting situation, to have your life declared too dark for public consumption. I don’t know what to say except that I object.

One of Jonathan’s friends, who is a documentary filmmaker, said that an audience isn’t looking for the Hollywood ending necessarily. There doesn’t have to be a “rainbow” baby, he said, but I have to have learned something by the end, something along the lines of, I’m grateful for what I have.

I’ll tell you this: I am a better person because of Balthazar. I’m more compassionate, kinder, quicker to help others. I am more open, more vulnerable, more emotionally available, more able to receive help. But to sugar-coat it and pretend that the price wasn’t more than anyone should be asked to pay; well, I just can’t do it. To pretend that I’m actually grateful that my son died, I can’t do it. Would I trade it all to be a clueless mom of two, untouched by tragedy, the kind who would unknowingly say stupid shit to someone like me? Yes I would.

I’ve lost a lot. More than my baby. My place in the world, my idea of myself, who I thought I was. I’ve been stripped down to the bone. I’ve been forced to say, well, I have my health and my brains and, for what it’s worth, my heart, and that’s going to have to be enough somehow.

I suspect that I’m not alone. I suspect that many people are experiencing something similar without knowing how to talk about it. Some of them might be interested in reading about those feelings. It might make them feel less alone. How many, I don’t know. Maybe not enough to satisfy the Viacom Corporation, but more than a few.

Maybe the solution is to wait until redemption finds me. Maybe it’s to take the book to a small press, the literary equivalent of indie film. I am going to look at the manuscript and see if I can rewrite it. But I think it would be a disservice to truth and to all the people out there whose lives are happening outside the confines of the acceptable narrative to tack on some saccharine passage or chapter to make other people more comfortable. That’s not me.

I’m grateful for what I have. It’s not easy. It’s day to day. Sometimes minute to minute.

Is that too dark?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Company of Women

A couple of weekends ago I went to a Bollywood dance party with my friend Jessica. This, it should be noted, was extremely out of character. I always feel really self-conscious about dancing because I’m not any good at it, but this was Bollywood dancing, which somehow took some of the pressure off. How many non-Indian people are good at Bollywood dancing, after all? The relentless dance beat underpinned incomprehensible Hindi lyrics and the strobe light blinked and we twisted our hands in a way that on a couple of redheads looked way more Grateful Dead than Bollywood, swaying and jumping like free-spirited idiots.

It felt great to let go, to sink in. It felt safe, too, being with Jessica. Who does not care how stupid she, or anyone else, looks.

On Saturday I went shopping with three girlfriends. Again, what can I say except that I can’t remember the last time that happened. College? Looking for a cow-print dress at Berkshire Mall? The four of us met at Nordstrom Rack and they tried on dresses and I tried on a black leather jacket and Denise teased me that it matched my badass personality and made me blush. And then I went to Laura’s house and put on a sexier dress than I’ve ever worn in my life and we took the bus to The Nines Hotel to drink Blanton’s and eat French fries with our Crossfit buddies.

A little boy who didn’t live has brought women into my life. Not just a few. A multitude. Some of them I knew already and he has drawn them closer. Others I would never have met, had he not existed. He has brought me married moms and single moms and separated moms, young single women, the newly-married, the long-divorced. He’s brought coffee and tea and drinks and lunch and dinner, dancing and weightlifting and parties. Balthazar has brought me friendship.

It’s not as if I’ve never had friends before, but it’s always been a problematic area for me. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: the most important female relationship of my life was, and on occasion still is, dangerous, hurtful, and empty. It left me unable to trust, reluctant to ask for help, without faith that I could count on anyone. Or anyone female.

When it looked as if I were destined for a houseful of boys, it was a relief. A husband, two sons, even a boy cat; all of my primary relationships would be with men. I don’t have a sister; I would not have a daughter. I wouldn’t be responsible for teaching anyone all of the things I had never been taught myself. I would never have to confront those wounds, those fears.

But life had other plans.

Many years ago I was in a therapy group with a young woman who had recently lost her mother to cancer. Most of the time she came to the group and simply sat, crying quietly, for the entire hour. Occasionally she said, “I miss my mom.” This barest of  language was implicitly understood by the other women in the group. They said the sweetest, most heartfelt things to her in an effort to comfort her. “I miss my mom” meant something to them that it just couldn’t to me. I was completely frustrated by my obvious lack and I tried my damnedest because I cared about her, but I couldn’t feel anything when she said that. That part of my heart was locked, or maybe permanently broken, I wasn’t sure.

Later I met a writer who had written eloquently and devastatingly about the loss of her mother, also to cancer. She was helping me write a memoir about the impact of my mother’s mental illness on me and my family. The thing we shared: our mothers had been our world. But such different worlds.

I read the tour de force opening of her memoir and the writer in me was admiring and the anthropologist in me was intrigued but the human in me was in difficulty. There was a flicker; the Christmas tree lights of empathy illuminated briefly, but there was a burned out bulb somewhere on the line and the whole thing went dark.

She wanted to help me with my writing and I wanted to be helped. Also, I wanted her to like me, but there was this chasm between us. Eventually we discovered the place we could meet: our own motherhood. But friendship was an impossible proposition.

Balthazar changed my family, my future, and he changed my heart.

I’m reaching out in all directions right now and sometimes it feels like a rack and sometimes it feels OK and sometimes it’s downright joyful. I know I can’t do any of this alone. And I find I have women friends who can brainstorm mortgages and tenants and jobs, others who can cheerlead, others who can hatch ridiculous Saturday night schemes. My friends design web sites, they call in favors, they listen, they make me laugh.

Thank you, all of you, from my heart, for all that you are doing for me and all that you are teaching me.