Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Yoga One Year Later

Thanks, Yoga District, for inexpensive and "gentle" yoga in our neighborhood

I did it. After over a year, I returned to a yoga class. A "gentle" yoga class. Pregnant, I had tried following prenatal yoga DVDs, but I gave up after quickly feeling (even more) nauseous.

I had been taking yoga classes on and off for the last four years. The regular stretching and exercise helped to center me physically and mentally. Yoga helped me when I was grieving and trying to return to my body after witnessing death. I finally found the courage to attend a class hoping that the movements would connect me to this new body of mine.

Pregnant, miscarrying, pregnant again, giving birth and now nursing, my body has changed a lot these last two years. Sometimes my cesarean scar feels like a warrior's mark. Often my stomach just feels flabby. I don't exactly fit into my old clothes even if I've technically lost the pregnancy weight.

By starting to exercise again, I hope that I can both look even better than my old self, even if that's vain and shouldn't matter, and feel stronger. I don't get as winded as I did when I was pregnant, but I haven't  yet built up my muscles.

I love to take walks and carry the bambino in the carrier, but now that he's grown so much, it is harder to keep up any kind of speed. His legs dangle down and he tends to push against my thighs as I walk, too. (I guess that's a fun game for one of us.)

The "boys" in my life have been models on how to strengthen a body. After serious training, my husband ran the Chicago marathon. My son is now practicing holding his head up, sitting up and standing. I'm hoping to join my husband in modeling good, healthy behavior towards physical activity for our son as he learns to crawl, walk and then run. And he might even join me in doing a downward facing dog one day.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Memoirist Monica Wesolowska on Writing About and As a Parent

Thank you to Monica Wesolowska, author of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, for today's interview with an author about writing as a parent. I particularly appreciate her discussion of finding time to write and how she dealt with telling a personal, and also family's, story. Her memoir explores motherhood, medicine, and the ethics of forgoing medical intervention for a newborn son.

In the opening of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, Monica Wesolowska gives birth to her first child, a healthy-seeming boy who is taken from her arms for "observation" when he won’t stop crying. Within days, Monica and her husband have been given the grimmest of prognoses for Silvan, and they must make a choice about his life. The story that follows is not a story of typical maternal heroism. There is no medical miracle here. Instead, we find the strangest of hopes. Certain of her choice, Monica must still ask herself at every step if she is loving Silvan as well as a mother can.

What kinds of choices did you make writing about your child and including other family members in your memoir?

At first, I didn’t choose. I simply wrote. I had to write. I was telling the story of my first son, Silvan. Ten years ago, Silvan was brain-damaged during birth. He was so brain-damaged that he could survive only on life support, and my husband and I fought for the right to let him die. Silvan lived for thirty-eight days, most of which we spent holding him. 

For years, I didn’t know how to tell that story publicly. Even after I had two more boys, Silvan’s story seemed too sad for others to bear. But with time, my feelings about the story shifted. I could see the heroism in it, and the universality—in the age of modern medicine all of us will have to make complicated choices about death—and I saw the joy and love shining through the grief. 

I wrote mostly about Silvan at first, but as his story took on flesh as a memoir, I saw that to write about myself, my family, and my subsequent children was actually part of Silvan’s story. Though he only lived a brief time himself, he fit into the larger story of all our lives. I just kept writing, hoping that those I wrote about would see it that way, too. 

Did you show family members the manuscript before publishing it and/or ask them for permission?

I waited until the book actually sold to a publisher before I showed it to family. I’m not talking about my husband, of course, who read every single draft. But I waited to show my mother, my in-laws, and my close friends. I waited until it sold and then I immediately sent it to everyone I could think of who might be personally affected by its publication.

I was open to their criticism. I planned on changing things if anyone felt really uncomfortable with something I wrote. I was also prepared to change names and that kind of thing, but I had wanted to sell the book before opening myself up to family criticism. 

As it turned out, everyone was super enthusiastic. Even people I’d criticized seemed fine with it maybe because I hadn’t spared myself in the portrait. I’d tried to be as honest as I could.

More importantly, they said they were glad to have the chance to relive the story. My sister-in-law in particular said she was really relieved to find the same joy in my story that she herself had felt while Silvan was alive. She’d been afraid she was the only one who had found such joy even in the grief of holding Silvan.   

How did/do you balance your roles as a woman, mother and writer? 

I’d spent years before having children writing and trying to publish a book of fiction. I was afraid that if I didn’t publish first, children might become a barrier to writing. I saw Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen as models in their childlessness, forgetting that Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, and so many other writers do both. 

In the end, I couldn’t wait for publication. Silvan’s death did stop my writing for a while, but once Miles and Ivan were born, I found myself writing while they nursed, and on the floor of the locker room at the gym when I was supposed to be exercising. I learned to dip right into my writing during nap time and pluck myself back out at the first sound of a child crying. Motherhood really made me ask myself what I needed to get done in life besides mothering.

Realizing I couldn’t give writing up, I had to figure out how to do both. In addition to my personal drive, I’ve been very, very lucky. My husband has been the major breadwinner. He’s carried so much of this family on his back. I’d actually promised him that if, by the time both kids were school-age, I hadn’t published a book, I’d seriously reconsider the amount of time I spent writing. And then, half-way through Ivan’s kindergarten year, I sold Holding Silvan.

What approaches would you recommend to other parent writers? 

Parenting is all about multi-tasking. There’s nothing more gratifying than feeling like you can do it all: snuggle with one kid while reading to another, cook dinner while helping with homework.  However, writing is the opposite. Writing is serious single-tasking, going deeper and deeper, just to get to that still place where, from the infinity of your imagination, you can find something whole.

For me, my biggest battle as a writer is quieting the mind that, in the panic of not being able to get a sentence right, suddenly thinks that my time would be better spent researching summer camps or buying the kids new socks or just going upstairs to snuggle.  All writers have to quiet the busy mind, but when kids compete for your attention, the distraction goes to a whole new level. Because, of course, what’s more important than writing? Your kids are.

What I have to tell myself is that no parent is perfect. No writer is perfect either. I’m just trying to keep the balance right. I tell stories because I have to, but I also believe the world is a better place because of stories. I want my children to grow up in a world where writers and their books exist. There is nothing as blissful as watching my own children curl up to read. I hope I’m doing a good job as a mother, but I also hope I’m giving them a permanent love of books. I think their lives will be better for it. 

Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. With an introduction by Erica Jong, Holding Silvan explores motherhood, medicine, and the ethics of forgoing medical intervention for a newborn son.  A skilled public speaker, she’s been a guest speaker at hospitals, book clubs, and other venues discussing pregnancy, medicine, and grief. She’s published fiction in many literary journals and anthologies including Best New American Voices and teaches both memoir and fiction writing at UC Berkeley Extension. Read more at www.monicawesolowska.com.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

October: SIDS, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

October is SIDS, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. It is important that we each do what we can to protect against SIDS and other losses, while continuing to support the families who have experienced these losses. October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

In April, 2012, pregnant for the first time, I miscarried. From the moment we learned the news in the doctor's office, I felt alone, surprised and depressed. I didn't understand what had happened and hadn't realized the likelihood of losing a pregnancy. I should have been better emotionally prepared. According to NIH, "Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%."

Since recovering, and and of course not forgetting, I have been writing about the experience in a poetry collection titled Carried. Some poems from the unpublished manuscript are forthcoming in Minerva Rising Literary Journal and Literary Mama.

I've gathered together some resources I found helpful at the time and now as we work to do what we can to keep our bambino safe. While it would be easier to ignore these risks, that's dangerous. What other resources would you recommend? 

Miscarriage Resources & Links (portal to other sites)

Reduce the Risk of SIDS from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) from the CDC

Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUIDS) from the CDC

Safe to Sleep National Campaign from NIH

After a Miscarriage, Surviving Emotionally from American Pregnancy Association

Things We May Not Know from Miscarriage Support (New Zealand)

In my Amazon store, I've gathered together some examples of literature of mourning that I found helpful after this loss and others.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Anniversary Vows & Poems

Every year my husband and I celebrate our wedding anniversary by reading our wedding vows to each other. We usually walk around the monuments by the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., and find a quiet place to sit. This year, with the government shutdown and the rain, we read our vows at home. 

And, with the new addition of the bambino in our family, we've added to the tradition. Since the pregnancy, we've been slowly writing a list of wishes for our son. While it rained outside this morning, we sat together and read both our vows and the growing list to our growing son. 

Here are some of my favorite lines from Our Wishes for You: Things to Learn

Your great great Aunt Dora’s chocolate cookie recipe. 

How to twirl linguine on your fork. 

How to follow a hiking trail and read a road map. 

How to find and read books that will create memories. 

How to read between the lines.

How to merge onto a highway. 

How to drive stick (your father will have to do that.)

That there’s an order in which to watch the Star Wars Saga. 

How, as Nancy Ladd said, “to become ever more completely yourself.”

For more love poems, you might read the background of one of the poems from my poetry book, Unrest. You might also click through to read a recently published poem to my husband. Happy anniversary, love! 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Award Winning Short Story Author Kate Milliken on Writing

When the bambino sleeps, I find time to read Kate Milliken’s prize winning collection of short stories, If I’d KnownYou Were Coming. We met as residents at the Vermont Studio Center in 2007. Since then, she’s been writing, teaching and raising two children. Today she kindly shares some of her experiences as a woman, mother, writer. As a new parent, I was moved by her words. This line in particular struck me, “Kids need to see you trusting other people, so that they may, in turn, learn to trust themselves, to feel confident that they can navigate more than their doting parents.” 

Kate Milliken’s stories are beautiful, from the individual sentences, to the paragraphs to the full stories. Throughout her stories I recognize myself, my fears and other people I’ve known. She ends “Names for a Girl” with “I park in front of a hydrant, outside a bookstore, running in, engine on, to buy this book of names. I am still paging through it, still hoping to find the name for a girl without a story, without a history or a masculine derivation, a name of uncertain etymology. I will have to make something up.” In these fictional, “made up” stories, Kate shares universal, emotional truths.

Kate Milliken’s stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, Fiction, New Orleans Review, and Santa Monica Review, among others. A graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop, and several Pushcart Prize nominations, Kate has also written for television and commercial advertising. She currently teaches on behalf of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and lives in Mill Valley, California, with her family.

Where were you when you learned that you’d won the prize?

We were packing the car for a drive down to Los Angeles. Rushing around, long faced, not thrilled at the 5-7 hour drive ahead-- dependent on the usual kid variables: potty, hunger, general aversion to containment--when my cell phone rang. “Iowa?” Adam, my husband, asked, looking at my phone. We didn’t know a soul in Iowa. But as a writer, a call from Iowa is like a call from New York—you just know it’s your people calling, people who care about the same stuff—words and the way they get strung together—that you do. I didn’t answer. In all honesty, I couldn’t remember if I had submitted to the Iowa Award that year or not. I’d been working on a novel for over two years and my collection of stories had become the older kid in the family, more independent and less worried over. But Jim McCoy, the editor at The University of Iowa Press, left a message asking me to return his call. I remembered then. I had submitted, on the day of the deadline and partially out of frustration, wanting to feel more productive, as I hadn’t worked on my novel that month despite the kids having started a preschool program weeks earlier. I decided that I was a finalist before I called Jim McCoy back, assuming he wanted to see if the manuscript was still available.

On our way out of town, we needed to stop at Adam’s office in Sausalito, so he took the kids up with him so that I could return the call and, you know, hear another human on the other end. When Jim McCoy told me that Julie Orringer had chosen my collection, I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing. Her work has meant a lot to me, so her endorsement made the award that much more special. Yes, I was a blubbering mess when Adam came back down with the kids. I was still on the phone, so he just looked in the car window—knowing he’d be able to see it on my face. He danced in the parking lot. I won’t forget that. Our daughter blushed.

Earlier, Adam had written a note that read, “Hard Drive,” so that he wouldn’t forget to stop at his office to pick up a hard drive for his computer. That note was taped to the dashboard and it stayed there, in front me for the whole 5-7 hour drive down to L.A. I kept having a stupid, giddy inner-dialog with that post it: “Hard Drive.” “No, it’s not! Not at all!” Easiest 5-7 hours ever. For those that have never driven the 5 freeway through the San Joaquin, it can be pretty abysmal—hot, dry, vacant, two different cattle feed lots that stink for miles before you reach them. And now I have nothing but fond memories of that freeway. The collection is set mostly in L.A., so it felt right, finding out then. And that three day trip to visit family turned into a fabulous celebration.

What did your kids say?

Our son was two, so it was just smiles and ice cream to him. But our daughter, at four, was asking a lot of questions about what it meant. She was, I think, made a little nervous by it at first, because we were so excited. But she’s got a competitive spirit, so she quickly caught on to the idea that I’d “won” something. Later I took all this as a chance to show her the stacks of rejection slips I’ve had over the years (STACKS!), so that she could appreciate how much more “the game” is about loving what you do, enjoying the struggle, than it is about winning.

She took my book into school for show and tell last week and then lost it, because it just ain’t that important. I love that.

How long did this book take you to write? 

Nine of the twelve stories I wrote during my graduate writing program at Bennington College. So two years there. But then I rewrote those pieces considerably in the two years afterward. Then, after my daughter was born, I wrote two more. The twelfth story, and the first in the book actually, I wrote after my son was born. So they were spread out over six-seven years. Two stories a year? Yikes. I ought to pick-up the pace! Though along the way several stories were thrown out with the diapers. And as I’ve said, I’ve been focused on a novel for much of the last three years.

How did/do you balance your roles as a woman, mother and writer? 

Big sigh. I don’t know that I do. At least not in any daily way. It’s more of a see-saw…Or…Now I’m picturing a novice tight-roper walker, first time out on that rope with that stick as unsteady as a tuning fork.

I wish I could say that I manage to be the best mother and best writer on the same days, but I don’t. I’ve learned that my writer mind works in cycles. Meaning, I have weeks when I’m mentally fired up and I can crank out a chapter, revise, stay up until midnight messing with it. But when I get up with the kids, I am distracted, my attention divided, staring out windows, hurrying them off to school, their hair somewhat brushed. And then the pendulum swings and there’s a week or more where I’m foggy and every word on the page feels stale, my inner-critic louder than ever. It’s those weeks that I’ve learned to let go of the work and put my energy into mothering, to make up for the other weeks; stocking up on the craft paper, the molding clay, baking muffins with them, getting in longer snuggle sessions, being more silly and letting that serious writer lady take a hike. When I can’t write, when that well is dry, I’m a better mother. So, a see-saw.

I will say, I am not a mother/writer who can write when the kids are present. I’m not sure that’s the best policy. I’ve heard from adults whose mothers wrote and how much they enjoyed seeing their mom curled up with her journal and pen. But I write on a computer and I don’t love them seeing me hunched over that screen. I also don’t want to resent the patter of little feet or the sing-song of their voices and I can’t hear the story when I can hear them, so I’ve had to find ways to separate. It is easier this year, now that my son is in preschool and my daughter in kindergarten, but for almost two years I got up at 5am and wrote until 8am with headphones on, while my husband got up and made breakfast.

Maybe my better mothering and productive writing self overlap more than I’m making it sound, but it took me three years to really see that life could have rhythms on a larger clock, in weeks, versus days—as I can no longer prescribe to a write everyday methodology. And so it simply has to be okay, I have to let myself not write some weeks and, at other times, nod absently at the kid’s questions.

What approaches or resources would you recommend to other parent writers? 

Only write flash fiction and/or Haikus.

No, seriously, having kids is a huge adjustment even in the most conventional of circumstances. It’s a balancing act of everyone’s needs. And then, as a writer, you throw in the needs of your, who, what? Characters?! So it seems only fitting that you’ll feel like a crazy person for a stretch there. If you’re someone with a creative urge, you have a perpetual itch that has to be scratched and you’ll be doing yourself and your kids a disservice to not honor that compulsion. It keeps you sane and they, um, need you sane. So don’t fear a babysitter, if you can swing it. But also don’t fear friends and family helping. I did this for a good long stretch. I thought that no one could do for my kids like my husband and I could and therefore we should be the only one doing for them and so I’d just write at 10pm, after the laundry was folded, and really, I’d be fine when the baby woke at 2am, I’d be totally fine when we were all up again at 5am. Fine. No, not fine. Not at all. Kids need to see you trusting other people, so that they may, in turn, learn to trust themselves, to feel confident that they can navigate more than their doting parents.

I had read this, of course, a thousand times in the baby books, but no one ever really says it loud enough. It needs, I think, to be said to a new writer/parent daily. Multiple times. Really loudly. The air mask scenario in the plane going down-put your mask on first—makes complete sense now.

So take the time to honor your creative urge and take help where you can get it. What’s good for you is good for the bambini.

Learn more about Kate, her writing and upcoming readings on her author website.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Government Shutdown

Last night a librarian told me that the District can fund the city libraries for two weeks during the shutdown. For this reason, and many others, let's hope the shutdown doesn't last that long.

As much as I'd prefer to avoid politics here, it's impossible during the government shutdown. The Republicans must allow our government to provide services to those in need and paychecks to those they've employed to offer those services. Of course, this includes individuals and families, adults and children. In the end, this shutdown reaches each one of us, regardless of whether we are being paid to work today or not.

This article in the Washington Post describes the most painful impacts of a government shutdown, including unpaid federal workers, veterans not receiving benefits, CDC halting the flu program, some food safety operations ceasing, potential disruption of the nutritional programs for women, infants and children, possible closing of Head Start programs and the interruption of disability programs. There's also the fact that scientific research and academic research are halted, weather information is stalled, and our security is at risk. CNN offers a complete list of what's been shutdown.

Click through to read more about WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Food Nutrition Program, which has lost its funding, and available resources for families in need. Here are resources for veterans and military families. Please share other resources in the Comments section below.

I believe deeply that it is our duty to help those in need. The rich must help the poor and the healthy must help the sick. And government, through its many services, plays an important role in this duty. This duty should include offering universal health care, as many other countries do.

Of course, the government can always be improved and luckily we live in a nation that strives and succeeds, in part through elections, to make those improvements. We must each show our patriotism by critically examining our government and working to make it better. I hope our nation improves with time for our bambino and all of the bambini.

Since sometimes laughter is the best medicine, and offers the best explanations, check out Jon Stewart's commentary on the situation

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Four Month Birthday!

Asleep during a walk in the carrier

Our son recently celebrated his four month birthday. Like every parent, I'm amazed at how quickly he's grown and changed. And I'm still amazed that I'm his mamma.

He's now smiling, laughing, vocalizing new vowel and consonant sounds, sitting up with assistance, and, it seems, starting to teeth. He's gone through a few diaper sizes and is now wearing size 6 month clothing.

Sometimes he sleeps through the night, and sometimes he doesn't, but a general routine is starting to emerge. We are becoming better parents as we get to know him and he's calmer as he continues to learn about the world around him.

Our bambino is starting to pay more attention to books when we read to him and he likes to look at clear patterns. He loves to pump his legs in a rocking chair. His eyes and head follow us when we move around a room and he smiles when we lean close. He's already showing some preference for certain toys, books and songs; he cries when he hears me read Shel Silverstein books. Our bambino also shows preference for his right hand when he reaches and grabs objects (or hair.)

I didn't know what to expect and I did my best to make plans and listen to sage advice. Our baby is thriving and our family is happy and making it through, even if there are some tired and stressed out moments in between. My sense of time has completely changed and I'm still writing.

I love hearing him "talk" and going for walks with him close in the carrier. When it is just the two of us, I chat with him in Italian about everything we see and things we might do together, as well as things I've done. He's attentive, at least until he falls asleep from the rocking motion.

I'd say this new adventure is going as it is supposed to be. I look forward to all of the months and years ahead.

Happy four month birthday, mio bambino!