Otherwise

Otherwise
opinions about life, work, and spirituality

Banquet; a day of research in Huddersfield, UK

June 17th, 2013

We uncurl ourselves from the packed train like roly-polies. We hustle out of the station loaded down with backpacks, suitcases, stuffed animals, diaper bags and a silver lap-top. My research schedule for the next two days is packed tight. My daughter, Calla, and my husband, James must accompany me on this foray because we can’t afford separate hotels over the next two nights.

The three of us hurry hand-in-hand through the square outside the station, but Calla breaks free and sprints to an ornate fountain, where she begins to undress. We sprint after her. Our luggage bangs over cobblestone and slaps against our limbs. I sit on the lip of the fountain, and grab Calla. She kicks an enthusiastic and giggly can-can while I attempt to fit her back into socks and shoes. I give up and James places our bare-foot three year old into the stroller. “I want to walk!”, she screams. “You can walk, but you need to wear your shoes and hold our hands,” James says. I attempt shoes again, not bothering with socks, but she returns to the can-can. I don’t have time for this negotiation, I think, I have research to get to! New tactic: laugh along with her and make funny noises as I trap her feet and shove them into her shoes. Her laughter stops. “No shoes!” she yelps from the stroller and flails her feet so that the shoes spin off into the air, plopping down metres from the fountain. James rolls Calla onwards as I snatch the shoes, livid, all but throwing the damn things in the fountain myself.

My play, Wolf at the Door, uses the Luddite movement as a backdrop for the sometimes humorous breakdown of a single family, the Grenfells. As we lumber past Georgian era buildings that would have been familiar to the Grenfells, our muscles ache and we sweat profusely under our cumbersome, heavy loads. The sound of my sobbing child is like the screech of a dental drill, and feels like the sharp pain of tin on teeth. As we rumble past large, square-bricked buildings, I try to make eye contact with locals, but people keep their eyes to the ground or to the distance beyond us. The city feels rough and hard and impersonal. We arrive at the hotel on the last dregs of adrenaline where we are met with a long, steep flight of stairs to the entrance. “Oh, come on!” I yell and kick my suitcase like a two year old in a tantrum. My husband shoots me an angry glance and my daughter cries more furiously. It feels that we too, like the Grenfells, are on the brink of breakdown.

Out of breath and ragged, we dump copious bags and backpacks in our bland hotel room. We barely speak as we quickly head for Huddersfield’s joint public library and historical archives. James takes Calla to the kid’s section, while I rapidly climb to the third floor, through a set of double doors to Reference and Archives. The large room has high ceilings and arched windows, with wood desks lined in the middle, and shelving along the edges, and feels cozy rather than cavernous. It has taken what feels like arduous years, but finally: I’m here!

I immediately approach a librarian and tell her I’m interested in how weavers lived and worked, and how local Luddites organized themselves. I’ve already been to Manchester, I say, visiting a working industrial revolution-era cotton factory where I had to scream to be heard over the clanking and whirring of steel machines. I sheepishly point out that I don’t have much time to conduct my research. The librarian stalwartly enlists her peers, and soon a team of superstar librarians lead me to a banquet of first-hand sources. I allow myself a moment to salivate before digging in; letters of correspondence, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, warrants for arrest, legal documents and even some photos.

I scribble notes, photocopy maps and take pictures of posters. I work solidly and seamlessly. Hours pass in what feels like minutes. I file through lists of weaving apprentices when suddenly a lively, fuschia-bright voice pitches across the room,
“Mommy! Mommy! Are you hungry? I’m hungry! Daddy’s going to take me to get some dinner. Are you coming?” My daughter swaggers across the room and beams at me, while my husband follows, alternately chuckling and apologizing to patrons.

Dinner already?! I look at the clock. The library doesn’t close for another hour. “Mommy! You need to come to dinner,” my daughter implores. A tightness screws across my chest and my head buzzes like radio static. The table before me is spread with books and pamphlets, a buffet of information. I have to stay here, I need my research time! This is what I came to England for! My daughter pats my arm gently, and the gummy smile she’s inherited from me spreads across her face. My husband looks at me, happily hopeful. Ugh. I swivel my head between my family and work.

Choose research; this play’s my baby!
Choose family; I love them, and they’re so hopeful!
Choose research; so little time to work!

The weight of my decision is as heavy as large, mechanized steel across my chest.

I hurriedly ask James if he can tide Calla over with a bun from a nearby bakery and wait for me while I finish. He nods and my daughter gallops towards the library doors, dragging my husband by hand. A compromise because: I want it all. But like Matthias Grenfell, will my desire to have everything undermine all?

Damper the thought. No time for philosophy. Return to research.

Two minutes to closing time, as librarians tug on coats to go home, I slap my book closed, only halfway through. I leave the third floor, my delicious buffet of information unfinished, interrupted. Like a starving beggar thrown an hors d’oeuvre from the doors of an opulent wedding banquet, I feel sickened by what I can’t possess.

I pass through the library’s front doors towards my family. Resentment pours off of me like bubbles off soda. James smiles, half-warily, half-hopefully, from the front steps. My daughter runs to me and places a sticky chunk of current scone into my hand. I take a bite.

The bitter tang of orange rind; the sting of unsatisfied research needs. But then: the sweetness of tiny currents and the rolling, smooth creaminess of butter. The pressure of earlier, the loaded-down exhaustion and subsequent misery dissipate, and with it, my fear and anger. This scone, offered so giddily by my enthusiastic three year old daughter, may not be a banquet, but in this moment, it is more than enough. Tomorrow is another day of research, and it, too, will be enough. My family will live through the chaos, just as we have before. I fall in line with my hungry family as we munch on tasty english pastry, unfinished notes slung in a bag across my shoulders, all of us compromised, but, grateful for this life, like our mouthful of scone; enough.

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Imagine (a work in progress)

October 31st, 2009

Imagine my face,
a funeral procession
A caterpillar of cars in slow motion
carrying the women that weep
inside
A tragic trail,
long and despairing in pallor of grey

So, Now,
Imagine my surprise
when
a surreptitious glance
in the looking glass
(as if I am Alice)
betrays
a youthful (even acned) visage!

Where is the desperation,
the damp and depressing
funereal dirge?
The flowers in their sickly wreaths
The handshakes, back pats and shaking of heads
The black and polished boots and heels
The waxed and dusted wooden floor
The
eulogy
homily
doxology?

Not a trace. Not even a
wrinkle.

The tragedy of
elastic skin.

Autumn Poem 4

October 9th, 2009

You
walked in
dust flew off
the window ledge
dreamily drifted down
on shafts of golden brandy light
following you inside like a love-sick puppy.

you
looked like
late morning sleep
rumpled bedsheets
autumn apples
clumsily (beautifully) posed
on the kitchen counter
begging to be painted
in small still life

you were always late for everything.

Autumn Poem 3

October 9th, 2009

Your hair’s
fresh maple sap
sunshine

Autumn Poem 2

October 9th, 2009

You
smell like
promise
a sweet kiss
garden of fig trees about to bloom

Autumn Poem 1: Thanksgiving

October 9th, 2009

You are
Thanksgiving
in my arms

The turkey dinner, the lit candles,
the spiced stuffing, the wine
and pumpkin pie
the laughter, the easing one’s belt out a notch
the recline on the couch
the after dinner apple brandy
the tryptophan kicking in
the slow and golden
full bellied grateful
nodding off to
sleep.

The Fourth Trimester

July 18th, 2009

If babies had it their way, we’d be pregnant for 12 months. Like elephants.

The secret about young babies, aka newborns, is that they are relentlessly demanding. I wish someone had sat me down during my pregnancy, held my hand, and told me that I was about to give birth to a little Lenin. “Give me your time, your body, your money, your life!” What was once mine was no longer mine, but my baby’s. Just like in communism, they run your life like a dictator. Welcome to the Soviet State of Infanthood.

Oh, they’re cute, there’s no doubt about it. But I bet if Lenin had looked like Johnny Depp, we’d think of him a lot more admirably. Hipsters would bike around on their retro 50’s bicycles in t-shirts with Lenin’s face on it, just like they do with sexy Che Guevera. His statues would still be in place, and young women in bikini tops and flip flops would take pictures in front of them. We claim to be a species of great intellect, but really, show us an adorable face, and we’ll trip over ourselves in subservience. That’s why God made babies with such huge, orb-like eyes, such unbelievably soft skin and such humorously huge heads; so that when we wake up for the fourth time during the night, we take one look at our helpless, adorable, funny baby and forgive her insistent screeching.

The thing about the first three months of babydom is that it’s like an internship at your favourite theatre. You just have to get through it, put up with the demanding hours, the rigorous routine and tedious tasks, and know that it will likely lead to better things. The high-pitched howling will lessen, the intermittent all night feedings will taper off, your nipples will heal, and you will once again have the time to write mediocre posts on your blog. Eventually, your little bundle of joy will respond to you, imitate you, laugh at your cruddy impersonations of people on the bus, and join you for a glass of red wine on the veranda (ok, that’s going to be quite some time from now). And just like your theatre internship, there are times of true glory in those first three months that you wouldn’t trade for a slow, quiet walk on the beach at sunset or a well paid, easy-going (ie. non-existent) job in the arts.

For me, the moment when I realized that my baby didn’t have gas, but was looking straight into my eyes and was smiling -at me- was like being shot in the heart with a bullet of sunshine. It was an explosion that started in the chest and worked its way through the rest of my body. I knew then what it was to be “full of joy”. Just the other day, my wee one grasped her rattle, which I have been flailing in her face for weeks like an aggressive salesperson with the latest cleaning product, and shook it. I swear I could have run up the stairs at the CN Tower twice over, I was so energized.

There are plenty of these kind of moments to get you through “the fourth trimester”. And the other glad thing is that once it’s over, just like that internship, you can wave your hands in the air, shimmy, and congratulate yourself on having not just survived it, but emerged out of it with deepened character, a more thorough perseverence, gratitude for small mercies, and a newfound respect for all those who have gone before you.

Birth Control

June 16th, 2009

So. You think you want a baby.

It’s 2:30 am, and you have not yet gotten to bed. Your body feels like a bag of soggy rice. As you head towards your place in bed, imagining the lovely soft, cottony feeling of your head upon the pillow, you smell something rank. You pick up your little bundle of joy and head over to the change table. You unsnap her sleeper and begin the diaper change. Suddenly: Boom! Floosh! Prrrush!

Your little one has projectile pooped all over the change table and your hand. Now you watch, as in slow motion, as she pees. Your cat-like reflexes are not what they once were due to five weeks of sleep deprivation, and before you can snatch your sweet babe off the change table, you watch the pee run backwards underneath her back, soaking her undershirt. It’s 2:35 in the morning. You, your child, the change table, and any surface within a metre are covered in urine and feces. Your angel begins to holler. The sound of her mewling brings you back in time to when you were eleven and your friend dared you to chomp upon a massive piece of tin foil with your new cavity-filled molar.

You firmly but politely ask your now-awake partner to watch over the wee one, but bewilderingly, she runs out of the room, into the kitchen. “What is she doing?”, you wonder with only the slightest annoyance, “Now is not the time for a bowl of cheerios or a plate of nacho chips!” You call for your partner with only the slightest edge of perturbance in your voice. “This child pooped and peed everywhere! I could really use your help! What are you doing!?” Your partner spins back into the room.

For the ladies: You spin back into your bedroom, breast pump in hand. Your baby will need to eat after this diaper change and you are seriously engorged; your breasts are the magnificent size of five-pin bowling balls, and just as rock solid. If you feed your child in this bowling ball state, milk will spurt into your child’s mouth like water from a fire hose (yeah, I know it’s a cliche) and she will gulp down too much air, resulting in rivers of chunky spit-up. Your mid-wife has cautioned against this, though she really didn’t need to, as you are sick and tired of cleaning curdled milk off the sheets, mattress, pillows, walls, carpet, chairs, walls, the ceiling, your hair, your favorite abstract painting and everyone’s clothing. As you rip your undershirt off (because gone are the days you can wear a sexy little negligee to bed) your partner turns to you with a look that is just slightly enraged. You hold up the pump like a talisman.

For the men: Your partner holds up the breast pump with one hand, the other hand cupped beneath her magnificent breast which is the size of a bowling ball . If you weren’t covered in urine and feces, more exhausted than you’ve ever been in your life, and trying hard not to scream yourself from the sound of your child’s screeching, you would be turned on. But you are not. You are just slightly enraged. “This child has covered my hand in poop, decimated the change table with feces, and marinated herself in her own urine.” (You always get poetic when you are just slightly maddened.) Your partner sighs, and trudges over to you.

The two of you head for pails of water, baby soap, washcloths, clothing, mop, steam cleaner, vaccuum and high-powered pressure washer. As you run for these items in your exhausted state, you glance in the mirror and are reminded of when you were eleven and your friend dared you to sprint after spinning around in a circle 100 times. As the two of you get to work, you pass your newborn back and forth like she is a football and you are in intense training for football season. She is not impressed. At last, between the two of you, you manage to scour every surface in your bedroom, fanagle your child into a diaper, and wrestle her into a sleeper. She lets you know you haven’t done any of this fast enough for her liking. As you head to bed, you glance at the clock which now reads 3:35 am and realize there is still the matter of your partner’s bowling ball breasts. Neither of you feel like another hour of cleaning spit-up after your babe’s feeding, so you rock your howling infant in your arms as your partner hoovers milk into a bottle. Finally, as you hand your child to your partner to be fed, the clock reads 4 am. You sink back into your pillow into a very deep sleep.

It’s 6 am. You have slept for a total of two hours. You notice your child smells rank. You head over to the change table…

E.T Does Tai Chi: The First 24 Hours

June 9th, 2009

Babies born by C-section are beautiful, right? But what about the ones who are breech? Ahem. Let me explain.

As I lay in my cot, sewn together and regaining sensation in my lower body, I ogle my new child: Silky dark hair that endearingly sticks out in all directions. Dark, deep, luminous eyes the color of jet. Skin softer than a sea otter’s pelt. An adorably plump upper lip. Perfect, miniscule ears. Unbelievably tiny, compelling toes. Kissable knees, squeezable arms, squishable cheeks.

But. The top of her head is perfectly flat. Like book flat. Winnipeg flat. As flat as your chest when you were twelve and you cried because you could not yet even fill your teeny-tiny training bra, and the boys called you Pancake Girl. On the bright side, she could have a successful career in basket balancing. She won’t have to carry a backpack – she can carry her books to school on her head. She can compete in the new Olympic sport of head-butting. And win.

And though the hair at the back of her head is so long it extends past the collar of her sleeper, she has absolutely no hair at the front of her head. So, when she stretches her long, graceful neck and utters a high-pitched “creeeeeeel”, it brings to mind an equally lovable character from a popular film in the early 80’s.

My husband, beside me in an orange vinyl hospital chair, holds our little one in his arms. I saw his face when he viewed the luscious paradise of Rio De Janeiro and the Amazon, the sparkling golden limestone buildings of Malta, and the refined architectural beauty of Buenos Aires, but there’s no comparison to the awe and glory openly splayed across his face as he peers at our daughter.

Shoot. I know my face doesn’t look like his. I’m too busy thinking that my poor daughter will have to wear hats for the rest of her life. Where does one find a Bowler these days? Ugh! What kind of terrible mother am I, thinking my beloved baby looks like an alien? And why am I disappointed that my child looks like she’s missing the top of her head? Isn’t any kind of disappointment in these first tender hours of a baby’s life wholly inappropriate? Only three hours into motherhood and I’m already a heretic.

I interrupt my husband’s reverie, gurgle out my thoughts through tears. He listens and nods. “She’s so cute!”, he says. Yes. Well. I think so too, but I still wonder where the top of her head went. My mother enters the room and, once again through tears, I voice my observations. She nods and smiles, “Yeah, newborns are a little funny looking – like little old men.”, she says, “She’ll grow out of it, though.” I sigh. No need to buy a tiny baby Stetson hat. No need to invest in a lifetime supply of baskets. Someday my child will have a skull that extends above her eyebrows.

And better yet, my guilt about noticing my child’s imperfections slowly decreases over the next few days. I become okay with the fact that I’m not blind; that I can see my little one’s faults. Maybe I’m just a little more real than the Magazine-Mom with the hazy eyes.

But. What my child lacks in forehead in her first few hours, she makes up for with elegance. She is a brilliant mover. Her limbs stream slowly, esquisitely through the air. A little like Tai Chi, but with so much more heavenly beauty and depth. As my daughter dances silently in her transparent hospital-issue basinette, it’s like watching smoke curl upwards in slow motion. The twirl of her arm is the growth of a bamboo shoot. The spin of her wrist, a fiddlehead unfolding. The undulation of shoulders, the arc of ocean waves. The stretch of a neck, an arbutus tree branch. The extension of legs, ferns blowing in the wind. I want these moments of my daughter’s divine bodily grace to last forever. I know this dance won’t last, though. It’s a gorgeous leftover from her nine months in the watery world of my womb. So, I will take all the time I can to absorb these amazing moments. These God-tinged first few hours of my child’s life. As I gaze upon my daughter, my eyes haze over with tears, my chest fills with joy, pride and longing. My Baby is so beautiful.

Calla’s Birth Story

May 30th, 2009

Wednesday, May 6th. Two days after the first anniversary of my beloved Grandmother’s death.

James and I drive to the hospital. There is no huffy breathing, groaning, or swearing and no overwhelming waves of contractions, however. Just me, my husband and luggage calmly packed with tiny baby clothes. Our little one is breech, and though we’ve tried everything to lift her “bum out of my bucket” (her bottom is wedged firmly in my pelvis), she will be born by surgery.

I lay in a hospital cot, and wait to be called into the operating room. I tell myself over and over that I am about to meet my child; the little one that’s been actively wiggling around inside me for the past months like a seahorse on steroids. My heart patters in rhythm quickly inside my chest: Baby-baby-baby.

One hour until surgery and a bow-legged Irish research student steps into the room and asks me if I want to be a part of a study that compares the use of morphine with something called a TAP procedure. The research student hands me a brochure. Another student hands me a full length paper on the research study. 45 minutes. I read the brochure. How am I supposed to concentrate when I meet my child in – oh boy – 40 minutes!? What do I know about pain medication? Why has this decision been thrust upon me in the hour of my disconbobulation? Ack, 35 minutes. Concentrate! Right. I press my hands to my head. Focus: Mooooorrrrpphhhiiiinnnnee, or aaaa TAAAAAAAPPPPPP ppppprrrooocceeeeduuuurrree. 30 minutes. One half of one hour before my life changes inextricably. A student pops her head into the room. Made a decision about the research study? Oh goodness! Why won’t these students leave me alone? “I don’t know!”, I want to scream. I read the full length paper. 15 minutes.The charming bowlegged Irishman is back. Great. Do I want to try the research study? 10 minutes, and the
Irishman is shifting his weight from one foot to the next, waiting for my answer…5 minutes. The Irishman lifts his charming Irish eyebrow. Yes, good God, yes, I’ll do the study. Now leave me alone so I meet my child!

I am wheeled into the operating room, away from my husband who is barred from watching the insertion of a giant needle into my spine. “I can’t do this without him! I need him!”, I think. Elizabeth Ryan, a mid-wife from the South Community Birth Program meets me in the room. She smiles. I grab hold of her hand because I am drowning and she is driftwood bobbing atop the ocean. My turbulent ocean looks like this: walls fixed with strange, metallic medical instrumentation, lights that bear down white-bright from each wall and ceiling, and a cot-like thing in the middle of the room in the shape of a cruxifix. I am wheeled onto it. There are platters of metal instruments all around me. Every sound is laced with tin and steel and metal. The room smells of cold surfaces and harsh light. I am about to be cut open. The pull of the ocean’s undertow is relentless. I shake with fright. I try to tap out the rhythm, “baby-baby…”, but my heart climbs up my neck in fear, like a shipwrecked man clings ever higher up a mast. Elizabeth Ryan, my midwife, speaks to me calmly about her travels. Her every word is a buoy in huge waves of fear. I latch onto her sentences. Yes, tell me about Israel, I say, tell me about India, and I grasp at each image of far away places.

My back stings, my legs feel swollen. It is imperative that I lay down immediately on my cruxifix-cot. I will only have mobility in my upper back for the next few seconds, the doctors and nurses say. I lay down. Baby-baby-baby, the rhythm plays out. Suddenly, my husband’s voice. He sits by my side, and I reach for his hand, which shakes. A curtain goes up in front of my chest. My husband’s hand is sweaty. Or maybe it’s my hand. It’s hard to know – our hands are tightly clenched together. If we drown, we go down together. The doctors and nurses begin their work. Baby-baby-baby, the rhythm patters on.

Elizabeth Ryan, the midwife, turns to my husband, tells him to stand. He is cautious, unsure, his hand is still trembling, but eventually he lets go of my own, stands. He appears unsteady, as a man on a ship in strong wind. The doctors tell me I will feel some tugging, and I know my child is seconds away from exiting her watery home.

Suddenly, she is. Angel or alien, she floats above me, suspended in the air. (The doctor holds her there.) Blood drips down from her, splatters onto my face and neck. She screams lustily, and through her wide open red lips, I can see the fleshy inside of her cheeks, her pink tongue. I want to reach out and touch, squeeze her, but my arms are attached to all sorts of tubes and instrumentation. Just as suddenly, she floats away, and I can barely stand it. I want my alien-angel-child.

Then she is beside me, her smooth and ruddy vernixed skin pressed against my husband’s pale chest and stomach. I want to eat her with my eyes, but I can only turn and see so much, attached as I am to medical apparel, strapped down onto my cruxifix-cot. My husband looks like a man suprised to be washed ashore after a fierce storm. Like slanted streams of sunshine liberate a previously cloud-darkened sea, waves of relief and joy play across his face. But I am still at storm, at sea. Who is that person? I want to know her. Please. Give. Her. To. Me.

And just as soon, I am ashore. She, my alien-angel-child, is placed on my chest. Intense heat, sunshine on skin at the beach in July, courses through my neck and head. My girl is no angel or alien but pure flesh, my very own human child. Immediately, she presses her crimson face next to mine, her tiny fingers fiercely pull my hair. She smells of life. Her mouth is on my cheek, a wet kiss from my slippery child. Now she latches on. Suckling at my cheek, she tries so hard to sustain herself in these first few moments of life. I look at my husband, who joins me in laughter at our misguided little one. So new and foreign to this brutal and beautiful kaleidoscope of life, yet such incredible hope and ferocious determination. She is our baby-baby-baby; the rhythm, like ocean waves that beat against a sandy shore, plays on.

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