Out With the Old, In With the Shadow

I have another entry that I thought was going to be my next post here, all about beer, and a sense of place, and where you call home. And given that new year’s coincides this year with a new moon, there is part of me that wants to write about the reckoning of time, and the way, judging by social media, the Gregorian calendar holds so much power for something invented wholly by man…but I’m going to be cliche, and reflect on what 2013 meant for me.

If not to the day then to the week, I spent the first half of 2013 pregnant, and the second half as a new mom (and the last quarter as a working mom), so I have probably lived more in the moment this year than any other year I can remember. Or rather, I’ve spent the year trying to catch up to the moment, and feeling perpetually like I am falling behind. I haven’t had much of a goal to speak of other than: keep myself healthy so I can have a healthy baby, followed by trying to keep this tiny, perfect little person I was somehow deemed worthy of alive. Most days I considered a success if I managed to make myself dinner. 

But here at the end of the year, I think the lesson for me has been learning to accept my faults. I haven’t–not by a long shot. But this year has put me in a place where I’m ready to start trying.

I’ve had this idea of who I’m supposed to be for such a long time, and I find a great deal of my stress comes from when I deviate from that ideal. I feel as though I am supposed to be altruistic, patient, compassionate, empathetic. One who yields with grace and exudes a gentleness that can influence those around me. Somebody who accepts things as they come–water that moves around the rocks and keeps going, on a new path if necessary, without comment. 

And the truth is, I’m not.

I feel. Passionately. Loudly. And frequently without grace. I have high highs, and low lows. I can be very short-tempered, and I can be very selfish. I may move quietly through some obstacles, but others I splash against and make my interruption known.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t be all those other things as well. Maybe I’m not as gentle as the picture I hope to paint, but…maybe I don’t need to be. 

I have this thing I consider to be the “white mage rule.” It’s the same notion as putting your own oxygen mask on if an airplane loses cabin pressure before helping anyone else put theirs on. And it’s hard. But it’s the basic idea that if you’re the one somebody else is relying on to do something, you can’t completely neglect your own needs. I used to think this was awful. I admired any story of great acts of selflessness, and hoped that if tested, I would prove to do what I considered to be the right thing. But motherhood is helping me come to terms with the realities of this.

For example: Thursday night I got hit with a stomach virus. I left work early Friday morning, which meant I would be home the rest of the day, and told Billy we didn’t need to take Kairi to his parents’ that afternoon while he was at work after all. Billy disagreed. He thought if I was sick it was a good idea to take advantage of prearranged childcare so I could get some rest, since if she stayed home I’d be occupied with taking care of her. I argued him on it. What kind of mother was I, to make that decision? It wasn’t fair to his parents or to Kairi for me to stay at home without her. But ultimately he won, largely because I was so dizzy I was worried it wasn’t safe for me to carry her around and try to play with her. I slept the whole time he was at work, and then went to bed as soon as she did that night. And the result? On Saturday I was, while not completely fine, well enough to properly care for her. And I might have been anyway. But without taking a few hours to just sleep, I might not have been.

It felt like the wrong decision, because it felt like the selfless, motherly thing to do was to put my own health aside. But putting my own health aside was potentially endangering her. Taking a small amount of time for myself allowed me to be a better mother for the rest of the weekend, instead of stretching myself so thin in the name of altruism that the only thing I ended up serving was my own idea of selflessness, and not the people I was supposedly giving myself away to take care of.

It’s a hard lesson. And I feel most of the time like I’m making excuses for why I’m not helping someone. But I think that’s what 2013 was trying to teach me. Not that I don’t need to be those ideal qualities anymore, but that I still can be those things even if I do overreact, get angry, and put my own needs first some of the time.

Because I’m now a role model 100% of the time. There’s been a lot of talk over the internet about the way mothers influence body image, and that elementary school girls worry they are fat because they see their mothers constantly critiquing themselves and it teaches them to focus on the way they look. But there’s also the healthy modeling of emotions. I don’t want Kairi to grow up unable to process negative emotions because I try so hard to deny that I have any. Being unable to ask why she got angry, when she sees anger as something she should be ashamed of.

It’s not a free pass to behave any way that I want–but it is an invitation to accept that I am not always calm. I do not always feel peace. That passion and open emotions can be as much a strength as patience and grace. I’ve always been able to accept that some people see compassion as a weakness–if I can use other people’s weaknesses as my own strengths, why can’t I see the strength in my own perceived weakness? 

So if 2013 was leading me towards admitting that I have flaws, I’m hoping 2014 is coming to terms with what they are, and that there’s no such thing as a true good and bad trait (other than the ones that deliberately hurt others, of course). Learning to accept all of my qualities and use them for what they are. Because as long as we’re on a taoist metaphor, it’s the disturbances in the water as it moves around the obstacle that alerts river travelers to any dangers.

I write, therefore I am ______

I’ve never considered myself a writer.

I suppose I shouldn’t say never. I’m certain there was at least some small amount of time in my teenage years I did. The time between when I left fanfiction and came back to it, and wrote a lot of short stories, angsty poetry, and one-acts plays. I know a goal of mine for a huge chunk of my life since puberty has been to have something published–and respectably so. I was never partial as to what. Photography, fiction, research; it didn’t matter what, I just wanted to be published in some way that meant my work was deemed by somebody else to be worthwhile, and for an audience that included more than the others being published, and my friends and family. I still do.

But I’ve never considered myself a writer in the sense that I wanted it to be my career.

Billy says I am a writer, by the simple definition that I write, so I am a writer. Which is funny, since I consider *him* a writer as that *has* been his career goal for his entire life, even though I produce far more words at a far greater rate than he does. But whether I am a writer by practice or not, it’s not my chosen career. It’s a hobby. It’s one I enjoy a great deal. I don’t know if I’m good at it or not. Sometimes I think I am. Most of the time I think I’m just okay. Given the only writing I have available for the critique of others is fanfic which has a limited audience, I don’t know. I’m far from the most popular writer in my fandom, and while I get good reviews, they are few, and mostly from people I know.

Except, there is a story. One story. One I thought of years ago, that I want to tell. I want to write it, and for people to read it. At first it was a dream–literally. This story came from a dream. Then it was something I thought I would write for NaNoWriMo, thinking if Billy and I were writing together it would motivate him to start producing words until he caught enough momentum to do it without my help. Then it became an unfinished work I might pick back up in a future NaNo just to see how far 50k would get me.

But lately, I want it to be real.

And lately, the time to write as much as a grocery list is difficult to come by.

I want to do NaNo this year. Not for this story, maybe not even for 50k. I want to make November 30th my deadline for finishing The Successor, and the couple of off-shoots for it I’ve got in my head. I want to finish the story I started for Jana as a gift-fic last spring. I want to write and post blog entries I’ve been writing in my head for the last year (and in doing so, maybe start writing blog entries with some consistency).

And then, I want to start on this piece of original fiction. Maybe it will be the thing I publish. Maybe I’ll print a few copies from lulu.com so my mom can have a book on her bookshelf with my name on it.

Maybe I want to write it just to prove I’m not a writer.

I just know it needs to be written.

Kairi Elanor

This is a personal post, plain and simple. I want to post it where it has a wider audience than livejournal, but still a more personal audience than tumblr, but this is a personal post with no attempts to disguise it as otherwise.

Friday July 5th at 12:59 am I gave birth to my first child, a baby girl we named Kairi Elanor.  I started writing it right after she was born, but most of my typing has been done one handed in the last three weeks, with very little time to actually concentrate on anything except Kairi for more than a few minutes at a time, but as she is currently having daddy cuddles while I hurry down breakfast, here is my window of opportunity for finally posting her birth story.

It starts at the end of last October, when after several months with no luck there was finally a “+” sign on the home test. Those months felt like they lasted forever until the wait was finally over, and I (moreso than Billy for sure) found myself in a state of extreme happiness, combined with extreme “ohholyshitwhathavewedone.”

I started my prenatal care with the same OB office several of my friends use, without being entirely certain if I wanted to give birth through that office. I am not a hospital person. I’m not much of a medicine person in general, even for minor things like painkillers or cough syrup. My general philosophy on health care is to eat well, stay active, and get lots of fresh air and sunshine, viewing doctors as a first world luxury in place for when something really nasty breaks past all of those preventative measures. The idea of giving birth in a hospital with an OB where I ran the risk of IVs, constant monitoring, strangers coming and going, not being able to move around, and people trying to talk me into medications I didn’t want when I wasn’t sick…it was not appealing. I have a friend who had her baby with the midwife unit at MCV and that sounded like a good avenue to explore–she had nothing but positive things to say about them–but then my friend Colleen asked me about a home birth.

I’d thought about it prior to even becoming pregnant, but wasn’t really sure where to start with researching it–prior to becoming pregnant you think you have time to answer all of your questions, and then it happens and time starts moving much faster than it did before. Fortunately Colleen is a walking guidebook on pregnancy and childbirth and gave me some places to start, and introduced me to a local homebirth midwife. I stuck with the OB office for another couple of months waffling about the decision: I knew I didn’t want to deliver with the OB, but it was a good place to keep receiving care while I debated between the MCV midwives or having the baby at home. I was never actually worried about the safety of a homebirth, which always seems to be the first place people go when you mention it. We’re about 10 minutes from a hospital so if something really terrible happened, we could get there in the same amount of time it would take to get an OR ready anyway, and I just didn’t really feel like there were any concerns (I guess that goes back to the complete distrust of hospitals and doctors–childbirth, to me, is nothing new, and while I disagree  with the *cultural* notion that women are designed for childbirth, biologically we kind of are. My body is hard programmed to know how to give birth whether I ever chose to use that programming or not, and given that my pregnancy was low-risk, I just didn’t see where I needed the so-called “safety” of a hospital. The more I read up on childbirth (from the admittedly biased perspective of midwives), the less I wanted to do with a hospital birth, my fear of unnecessary interventions increasing all the time. Still, there remained the appeal of knowing the environment would be clean, that I wouldn’t be responsible for anything immediately postpartum, and the birth team would have their needs met by the hospital instead of me feeling caught between laboring mom and hostess. The MCV midwives were becoming more appealing, but after meeting again with Mary, our homebirth midwife, and really talking to her, we decided that even with midwives, a hospital birth just ran the risk of feeling too institutionalized for our very, very “trust nature” way of life. We hired Mary, and she took over my prenatal care. (A point of interest, when I first mentioned the idea of a home birth to Billy, his response was “I always kind of assumed you would do that.”)

In order to skip making this any more about my opinions on the difference in attitudes there are surrounding medical interventions in birth (and on birth choice being a huge part of reproductive choice), the only thing I will say about the change in my prenatal care was how much more responsibility was placed on me–and in a good way. At the OB’s office I was rarely asked questions. The doctor I saw was very nice and I didn’t feel bullied by her, but it never felt personal. I think her nurse asked me on my first visit about my birth plan, but even by my last appointment there around 26 weeks I don’t recall ever having a conversation with the OB about who I wanted in the delivery room, if I wanted pain medication or not, were we planning to circumcise if we had a boy, and my feelings on interventions. Mary asked us questions I hadn’t even given any thought to because they’re so far removed from the medical world of birth–what would I like to eat during labor, for instance, and what did I plan to do with the placenta? And that’s not to mention learning about the stages of birth. I’d never heard of “transition,” before. I hadn’t thought about different positions to ride out the contractions since my experience with childbirth is based on pop culture where laboring moms are on their backs and that’s that, and I hadn’t heard of delayed cord clamping. We were planning a water birth because we both love the water and liked the idea of the baby leaving a liquid environment and arriving in a liquid environment, and while it made complete sense as soon as I heard it, I didn’t know that water was also used as a natural pain reliever. I would love to attribute this to my own naivety, but that itself is based on a communal exposure to a birth experience that is more and more out of the hands of the woman actually giving birth.

So, I learned more. Not about the clinical side of how the baby would move, but the holistic experience–the physical stages of labor, the changes I would feel, the mental and emotional states I could expect.

The last piece before the day of labor, goes back to Colleen. The most important thing about Colleen is that she is that friend you just kind of wake up one day and realize you can’t imagine your life without. We met when all of us were working together at Barnes & Noble, and our stories have woven together since in such a way we didn’t notice until the threads were tightly bound. And, as mentioned before, Colleen knows more about pregnancy and childbirth than Dr. Google, and awhile back expressed interest in becoming a doula. I told her that if she did, I would hire her when I had a baby. It turns out I got pregnant before she made a decision about doula training, so I said I would still be comfortable with her being there if she wanted a sort of “practice run” at doula-ing, and thus assembled the birth team.

Kairi was due on July 1st, though for some reason, all of us thought she would come early. Possibly because I’m very short torsoed and we figured she would just run out of room–I know I thought as much because historically I ovulate early. Partly also because in our group of friends we already had two babies born in July but none in June, and partly because there was a Supermoon a week before her due date. So a lot of factors contributed. And I did have prodromal labor in June that kept me up all night, but then disappeared come daybreak. So June ended. July 2nd I had more prodromal labor–much stronger this time and we were sure that was it, but again, it ended.

I did not want a July 4th baby. I am admittedly not very patriotic, but my reasoning was more that I did not want her, as an adult, to find she always had to share her birthday with Independence Day cook-outs and family traditions–fireworks notwithstanding. So when I woke up to very painful contractions around 7am on July 4th, I could only shake my head, figuring that this time of course it *wouldn’t* be prodromal, given it was the one day in the 5 week range I could deliver at home that I *didn’t* want her to be born. But because the last two times the contractions stopped, I kept trying to convince myself it was just gas–I didn’t want to get my hopes up again that I would finally be able to meet my baby.

These contractions, however, were much stronger, and much closer together than the previous ones. Billy was supposed to go into work at 1:30 that day, and we spent the morning wondering if he would be able to make it. It was becoming difficult to walk around, and I needed his physical support through most of the rushes. By the time he needed to leave, we were both pretty sure this was it, but I sent him into work anyway, promising I would call him if I needed him to come home. During this time I texted Mary, our midwife, and told her what was happening, and at one point she called me and determined by how I sounded on the phone that no, this was not in fact gas, and she would be heading our way. I called Billy to home come, and sent Colleen a text.

The rest of the night becomes a bit of a blur. If I’d gotten to this point of her birth story the day after, or even a couple of days after her birth maybe I could articulate what it was like, but this long after the fact, the experience is beyond retelling. I talk a lot about C.S.  Lewis’ essay “Myth Became Fact.” It influenced me strongly in college and I referenced it in my wedding vows, but the basic gist is that you cannot simultaneously describe and experience something–the moment you start trying to describe it, you lose the experience. And I wholly experienced my labor.

Here is what I remember:

When Mary got here, we filled the birth pool, and I discovered that it did not make as huge a difference in the pain as I thought it would (not to say it didn’t help, it just wasn’t a magic cure). The water was not warm enough for me, though I’m pretty sure that’s more because *I* was just so hot it didn’t feel as warm as it probably was. I remember Colleen getting here a bit later and us making jokes over my extreme nakedness. I remember the birth team reminding me to make low moans and horse lips in favor of higher pitched sounds during the contractions. I remember feeling somewhat disheartened that it was taking so long, because after all the prodromal labor and going past my due date I was so sure it meant the real labor would be easier, or at the very least, faster. I remember it getting darker, and hearing fireworks being shot off by the neighbors, and music coming from across the street. I remember feeling very, very weak from needing to eat (I’d had a large, healthy breakfast, which I proceeded to throw up before Billy went to work, and only managed half an apple and some crackers for the rest of the day), and I remember trying to tell Billy how weak I felt, only to have him continually assure that I was strong, because he didn’t realize I was talking about actual, physical drain. I remember being *exhausted,* and trying to sleep in between contractions (which is not that easy to do). I remember feeling disappointed in myself, because I had hoped I would labor more gracefully–quieter, and without the shame of being so darn tired I wasn’t sure I had the physical strength to continue. I remember how wonderful the birth team was with helping me physically and emotionally, and how utterly amazing Billy was the entire time. We had talked about what he could do beforehand of course, and I told him two things–keep me fed so my blood sugar didn’t drop too severely (which he tried to do, I just couldn’t stomach the thought of food), and to keep his hands on me. Billy has the most wonderful hands. Whether I am in a bad mood or not, when he presses his hand against my back, or in my hair, or my face, or my arms, or anywhere, it’s an automatic mood elevator, and I asked him to just do that, because it would help–and he did. He kept his hands on me, and continued to talk into my ear, encouraging me and making the whole thing so much easier. This is not to say anything less about Colleen, Christina, or Mary, only to state exactly how lucky I am and how wonderful Billy is.

My waters didn’t break until well after dark, and it was spectacular. I had been laboring on the bed for quite some time and stood up, and on the next rush, SPLASH! just like on television. And while things did not necessarily get easier after that, it was the beginning of the end. Kairi was posterior at this point so Mary had me try several different (and not entirely comfortable) positions to push through to try and get her to turn, and then, sometime after midnight (at which the others cheered me on that no, I would not have a 4th of July baby, and I wanted to cheer with them but I was *so tired*), Mary suggested I try to urinate–I made it to the bathroom when another contraction hit and it was like somebody had lit me on fire–and so I reached down, and felt something. I called out to Mary and she did a quick exam and said that no, she did not see the head yet, but I knew I had felt something, and that the baby must have just moved back up. Another contraction, more pushing, more of the horrible, wonderful burning feeling, and this time Mary confirmed that yet, that was the baby’s head. So they helped me back into the bed (despite how much we had really wanted a water birth, the water in the tub had gotten cool and it wasn’t quite full and I just wanted to push, to meet this baby who I spent all day working towards), and I pushed and pushed, with Billy behind me, and then there was a head, and then there was a baby.

She cried right away, and they put her on my chest with a towel wrapped over her, and she was slippery and crying and perfect. And someone (Colleen, I think?) asked if we had seen the sex of the child, which we hadn’t yet. I honestly hadn’t even thought of it. I had a baby on my chest and Billy had his arms around me and we were both touching her and kissing her and each other and I didn’t even think to see if we had a boy or a girl. But we looked, and saw we had a daughter, and I couldn’t tell you what was happening outside this tiny little circle that was my family.

Time started again. Billy cut her cord once it stopped pulsing; Mary, Christina, and Colleen cleaned up; Kairi nursed for the first time; they weighed and measured her; and sometime around 4am everyone was gone, and it was just Billy, Kairi, and myself. 40 weeks of gestation, 18 hours of labor, and now suddenly there was a third person in our home for whom we had sole responsibility. I was afraid to sleep, like if I closed my eyes for too long she would disappear, because the idea that this little being I had felt moving around inside of me for so long was now on the outside–whole and separate and so vulnerable–was so surreal. I slept in an armchair with her on my chest, and Billy slept on the floor at our feet–just a few hours, and then naps throughout the next day, and we let it sink it, more or less.

Even now I say more or less because I don’t know if it has fully sunken in. I keep waiting for somebody to come evaluate me, to make sure that we are fit to be her parents. It’s hard to believe that this little person came into our house all of our own decision making–we didn’t have to get permission or prove we were capable beforehand and that just baffles me, because it just feels like something as huge as making a new person should have more red tape involved, and yet–it doesn’t. We made her, and grew her, and birthed her, and now here she is, every day more alert and more aware.

I can’t say enough positive things about Mary and her team, starting from our first meeting where she talked to us about home births. Her knowledge is incredible, as is her support–both at our visits, the birth itself, and the many worried emails she always answered so quickly. If you’re in the Richmond, VA area, I highly recommend her!

I also owe so much of Kairi’s birth story to Colleen, not just for being there, but for being supportive of a home birth from the beginning. On my own, I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to make that choice, but, despite the anxiety leading up to her birth of wanting to make sure the house was ready for me to labor in, and the time immediately postpartum of thinking that yes, it would be nice to be in a place where someone else was here to clean up at all times (that thought didn’t last long, as my mom came into town the next day and did so, so much to help us), a home birth was definitely the right choice. I don’t know what would have happened in a hospital. The only thing I feel certain of is they would have  broken my waters well before they broke on their own–from there, who knows? Maybe that would have sped things up. Maybe it would have caused labor to stall. Maybe they would have tried to put me on pitocin, or I would have caved under the exhaustion and asked for an epidural. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day I had a successful home birth, where Kairi and I are both completely healthy, and I know that my daughter got to control every aspect of her birth story. Having a home birth is empowering, and in a way, a political statement. My success story is proof that women ARE capable of bringing a baby safely from the womb to the world regardless of how interventive medicine wants to be, and while I know it isn’t for everyone, and people make decisions for any number of reasons and this doesn’t make me better or worse than any other mother out there, I like that I will be able to tell my daughter that her first experience of the world was in her home.

And finally a note on her name. While she is not named after the character, I fell in love with the name Kairi (pronounced ky-ree) years ago when I first heard it as one of the main characters of the Kingdom Hearts video games. I know that her entire life she will be called Carrie, or people will assume she is named after the character, and for that, despite wanting to name a girl this for years, I hesitated on actually giving her the name, but Billy really liked it as well and talked me into sticking with it. And given that Kingdom Hearts is a collaboration between Disney and the company that makes the Final Fantasy games of which Billy and I are both huge fans, there’s nothing wrong with people drawing what I understand is an obvious conclusion.

Elanor was more of an 11th hour decision. Billy has always wanted to name a girl Xen (pronounced Zen), and for the longest time that was the middle name we had agreed upon–during most of this time, we were both certain we were having a boy, so I wasn’t as concerned. Then an online friend told me she had dreamed we were having a girl, and I started thinking more about that idea, and it really started to feel right. I had two dreams in my entire pregnancy where the sex of our baby was revealed, and in both of those dreams we had a girl–and in one of them, we called her Ellen. As Elanor was a name I’d benched anyway, it seemed significant, given that Ellen is a derivative of Eleanor. After that dream I brought up the idea of changing the middle name–while I didn’t necessarily have a problem with the name Xen, it seemed harsh–K and X are both very solid consonants, after all. And then there was the dream. So taking a cue from another friend, I wrote the names on our bathroom mirror, and in time Billy agreed with me that Kairi Xen just didn’t look quite right, and he consented to Elanor. The name itself comes from Tolkien. Elanor is a golden flower that grows in Lothlorien, and is the name Samwise Gamgee gave to his first daughter, allowing him to name her something Elvish, while keeping with the hobbit tradition of giving little girls flower names. Sam Gamgee is my mom’s favorite literary character, so it felt like giving her a name for her maternal grandmother as well. Then when looking up information on it one day I saw that Lenore is also a derivative of Eleanor–and my particularly geeky friends might know that Lenore is the name of another favorite video game character of mine, Rinoa, in the French translation of Final Fantasy VIII. Finally, Elle is a nickname, which is also a nickname of one of the key characters in Final Fantasy VIII, as well as a nickname for a character in a story I’ve writing. So really, with all of the built-in acknowledgements in the name, it stuck pretty quickly. Then a week or so before she was born, another online friend had a dream that we had a girl, and that her name started with an E–this was after we knew Elanor would be her middle name, which really just reinforced we had made the right decision. It did take about a week after she was born for me to really feel we’d made the right choice, but now I can’t imagine her having any other name.

So that’s Kairi Elanor’s birth story. The day after she was born I didn’t think it was possible to forget just how painful labor was, but now, it is. Three weeks later even the soreness is gone, and going back to Myth Became Fact, the pain of both labor and the healing afterwards are things I experienced so greatly I can barely describe. I know it was painful because I can say that it was, but the experience of the pain is gone. I’m not in a hurry to relive it anytime soon, but it is only a memory. The present now is Kairi looking at me while she nurses, or her sleeping on Billy’s chest, or the little noises she makes when she is waking up. It’s frustration from helplessness and sleep deprivation at 3am when I can’t figure out what she needs. And it’s a deeper love than I have ever experienced.

Carving pumpkins in the spring

I’ve been working on a story for a few months now that takes place at the end of October, and I needed a scene for a character to observe that might take place on a beach at that time of year, which led me to researching Samhain rituals (Billy and I are what I consider the pagan version of “Chreaster-ans,” or, for those who have never heard that term, the pagan version of Christians who only attend service on Christmas and Easter. We acknowledge the major holidays/festivals, but spend most of the year content in our observation of religion from a philosophical standpoint). And of course, in researching Samhain I came across a lot of images and descriptions of what is probably my favorite time of year, despite the dramatic decrease in sunlight during the day and the drop in temperature.

Fortunately, as spring is breaking here, I can appreciate these images of October and dream about the smell of cider and burning leaves, the feel of the crisp air, and the brilliant reds and oranges of the leaves, and then walk into the dining room and admire my new seedlings, and feel grateful that at 6pm I still have another couple of hours of sunlight–and the days are just going to keep getting long.

I’ve been waiting for spring since winter started–since before, really, since the leaves finished falling and the novelty of cozy pajamas and hearty soups worse off. But here I am, contemplating working on some homemade Halloween decorations, and wondering if I shouldn’t have bought a squash to make for dinner instead of the asparagus I thought I had been craving all afternoon.

The shoulder seasons are a lot of people’s favorite time of year, and it’s not surprising. The pear trees are finally blooming, and my DC friends have been monitoring the progress of the cherry blossoms at the tidal basin for the last week. We have been stirred from the indoor nests we create during the winter, and are looking forward to action–whether it is gardening, baseball, vacations, or simply being able to sleep without shivering. In the fall, we are looking forward, like the trees, to dormancy. These are seasons of change, of movement.

The other thought these pumpkins gave me, is more complex and needs another post as others have written on it far longer and far more eloquently than myself, but it is related to festivals themselves. To the smells and memories that, no matter the season, take place outside. Sending eggs down a river or letting children with baskets seek them out; the burning of a log or the illumination of a tree. We mark the coming and going of the seasons outside (because why wouldn’t we?), and then spend the time in between indoors, waiting for the next time we can go out to mark the changing of a season.

One of the last really nice weekends of last year, I spent with a very close friend who lives just far enough away that for extreme introverts like us we don’t visit each other often. We sat on her deck and enjoyed the remains of the warm weather, drinking wine, and snacking on fresh vegetables. Yesterday, one of the warmest days we’ve had so far this year, I went to visit the same friend and we passed the afternoon in a similar fashion. Last time we talked about my attempts at getting pregnant (I found out two weeks later I was), this time I let her do most of the wine drinking and we talked about her future plans for getting pregnant. We marked the start of the first frost and the end of the last in the same fashion, in what we realized and joked was now our own ritual.

The seasons, ritual, and being outdoors have been linked, of course, throughout history, and we experience that collective consciousness whether we give a name to it or not. In America, we mark the beginning and the end of summer in the same way–three day weekends spent beside a grill, shared with friends and neighbors. In this way, I can sit here and stare longingly at pictures of pumpkins less than an hour after cheering the eruption of pear blossoms.

It is deeply bred within us to mark change outdoors, in the presence of the uncontrollable forces of change that give us cadence. It is the time spent in between, the time spent indoors, where this collective memory is often forgotten and we become either stagnant, or impatient. And maybe we need the occasional picture of pumpkins in the spring and cherry blossoms in the fall, rather than exclusively the secular marketing we’re all so accustomed to, to remind us not of the meaning (for that is personal and diverse), but the experience of the season.

Set Fire to the Rain

I came to the realization last summer that there is no anger more futile than anger at the weather.

Because there is just absolutely nothing you can do with that sort of anger. You can’t write letters to your representative. You can’t try a different method of communication. You can’t dedicate your life to medical or scientific research. You can’t do anything. All you can do is wait for it to change.

I don’t know what the weather was like in the rest of the world this winter, at least in terms of whether it was “normal” or not. Thanks to facebook and tumblr I see people post of course, but it’s harder to gauge if things are happening the way they are expected to based on one person in Arizona, in Canada, in the UK. Not impossible–I trust my friends and their perceptions, but it’s a lot different than seeing an overwhelming majority of the people you know expressing the same complains about the weather you are feeling yourself.

Basically, this winter has been a really terrible time to live in the Mid-Atlantic region. I can’t even qualify that with an “if you don’t like cold weather,” because I remember far colder winters. The weather has just been unstable. My birthday is in October which provides a pretty good frame of reference for my memory of fall temperatures, and this October definitely seemed to get colder, faster. Then we had Hurricane Sandy just before Halloween. Then we made up for slightly warmer temperatures by an exceedingly grey holiday season. Now, days after the spring equinox, we had: temperatures in the 60s on Saturday, the lower 40s Sunday morning, sleet that turned into snow that had accumulated close to 5″ by Sunday night, and I woke up this morning to completely clear roads (despite the fact that it was still snowing) and temperatures in the upper 30s. Oh, and on my lunch break, it dropped 5 degrees over the course of an hour and went from thinning clouds, to simultaneous snow and rain. After the sun went down I’m pretty sure I would have been okay without my coat.

And I want to be so angry at this. I want to be angry at the fact that I’ve been wearing long sleeves since September, that the clouds just Wont. Go. Away. When I have a day off in late March, I want it to be nice enough to work out in the yard. I would love to finish clearing the winter trash out of our flowerbeds before the flowers actually start to bloom, but it’s just hard to do that when there is snow on the ground, it’s raining, or it’s near freezing.

I want to rant about climate change, because that’s the closest to effectual anger I can come up with in terms of being mad at the weather. It still won’t make spring get here any faster, or stop hurricanes from ruining trick-or-treating, but it will at least serve as a way to channel all this rage, right? But science is far better at raging about climate change than I am, and my day off will have come and gone before it does me any good, anyway.

Instead, I have an anecdote.

Last June, Billy and I went to Acadia National Park for our annual week-long camping trip. We’d both always had Maine marked as a place we’d like to visit some day, and figured we may as well go before we had kids and it became a lot more difficult (seeing as I am currently 6 months pregnant, this was obviously a well-timed decision).

What we did not understand when we booked this trip, was how vastly different the weather would be from what we were used to. We read forecasts, looked at historical reports from that time of the year, and we were expecting it to be cooler (a lot cooler–to our credit, we did at least bring enough layers. We may not have intended to wear all of them all the time, but we had them), and that we would probably see rain a day, maybe two. What we got, was a stretch of days that never went higher than the mid-fifties, and rain for almost a solid week. And for a day we went with it. We explored Bar Harbor, had a wonderful meal, talked to a few locals (who quickly informed us we came up about three weeks too soon), and drank some really good beer. Then the rain picked up. And by the time we got back to camp the clothes we were wearing were drenched. And the wind had knocked our tarp partially down so a lot of our gear was drenched. And we hadn’t done a good job of pulling our sleeping bags far enough to the center of the tent, so they had folded down against the door over the course of the day so our sleeping bags were drenched. I don’t think I need to mention the state of our firewood.

Here’s the thing about being out in the woods in an unfamiliar area a 17 hour drive from home: you have no options. In retrospect we could have just gone to a hotel, at least for a night until we could dry our clothes, but it didn’t actually occur to either of us at the time, and given we were in Bar Harbor, Maine on a Richmond, Virginia budget, I don’t actually think we could have afforded a room anywhere even if it had.

So we were upset. I cried. We fought with each other while we restrung the tarp. Then we stood under it, dripping wet, with a fire starter we’d grumbled about but ultimately decided to buy, and clinked together beer bottles with peeling and waterlogged labels, surveying in the last dark grey light of the day our ruined campsite and wondering what to do with all of this futile anger. Our answer?

We set fire to the rain.

Literally.

Using the fire starter, the driest wood we could find, and the sort of determination to get your way that only a Libra-Rat can muster, I built us a fire. It started small and under the tarp until it got strong enough for us to move it to the fire ring, where we ended up with a roaring blaze that did not care that it was raining. It allowed us to dry our clothes, and, armed with the knowledge of what to do (and after a very wet night), to repeat the process the next day enough to actually dry our sleeping bags.

I have a lot of opinions on man’s conquering of nature, and very few of them are good. Not things like climate control, shelter, or refrigeration, but things like artificial clouds that keep sports stadiums cool in the middle of summer, artificial islands in the shape of whatever you feel like paying for them to be, and genetically modified food that is dangerous and unnatural just for the sake of marketability and corporate profit. So, I feel like we cheated that trip a little bit, by forcing a campfire when nature so clearly did not feel that was appropriate.

But I also feel like we compromised. We took what could have been a miserable week of fighting with each other and overspending by escaping the rain in town, and found a way to coexist. It might not have been the most environmentally sound thing for us to do, but then, neither would spending a lot of time in our car, or taking our sleeping bags to dry at a laundromat, or chalking up a 1600 mile round trip to a few nights in the woods and one day of bar-hopping. And by drying our belongings, neither of us got sick, which we would have if we’d spent our remaining nights sleeping in wet clothes and wet bags.

Even though this was less than a year ago (or maybe because this was only a year ago), I’ve come back to it a lot this winter. Some days it helps. Some days it doesn’t. I love hot weather. I love warm weather too, and even slightly cool weather in the fall, but I also love hot weather. I hate cold weather. I understand and appreciate the role that winter plays. I even like a few nights out of the year in my warmest, fuzziest pajamas cuddled on the couch with a cup of hot tea and leftover soup in the fridge. I don’t want it disappear–I am just more suited for climate zones with mild winters with shorter frost periods. Being cold is physically painful to me, and I am very strongly affected by the absence of the sun. So when, three months after the return of the sun and almost a week after the first day of spring the skies are still grey and there is snow on the ground, I think of last summer, and of learning to exist with the elements, rather than running from them or relying on artificial means of controlling them.

Which really just means, I think, that the only way to get over the futility of being mad at the weather is to throw out your arms and surrender to it.

Embracing the Darkness, and the Practice Of Faith

My faith is in my optimism.

I started coming to this realization at the beginning of August, during one of the most stressful, exhausting weeks I have had in quite some time, and it’s come up for me a few times since, in various forms of thought.

I have never had a problem with faith. I’ve spent the better part of my life not feeling a particular affinity to the Christian religion, and spent a lot of time saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” before I finally realized–while walking a pilgrim route rooted in Catholicism of all things–that it has never been religion that I have a problem with. I’m just not a Christian. Growing up in a Christian household that always felt like the sort of thing you didn’t say unless you really, really meant it, and even then, there was always that cloud hanging over your head that just thinking it was a sentence to hell, so it was easier to just dismiss religion in general.

It’s the sort of thing that means something different to any number of different people, but what it really boils down to for me is not a problem with religion itself. I am a person of faith, just not a person who ascribes to the teachings found in one particular holy book.

I say my faith is in my optimism because in the face of a lot of recent personal challenges–my past coming back, my present not making a whole lot of sense, and wondering how much of my future I’m really in control of, 2012 has so far been a pretty bad year for me–for most of the people I know, as well. And I am not a person who sits there on December 31 and thinks about how terrible the past year has been and how much I can’t wait to start fresh. As written in a previous blog post, the new year, to me, is about looking forward, but it’s about a threshold of hope, a feeling that floats on the air connecting strangers to strangers. I see people all the time waiting to dispose of the previous year, and I always wonder. I’ve had bad years, to be sure, but 2012 is the first time I can honestly say I’ve had the thought “is this year over yet?”

I do not feel content. I do not feel peace. I feel stress, all the time. I feel things crashing down around me and I can’t even lift my arms to cover my head. I have very little motivation for anything. I cry constantly, sometimes for no other reason than it’s the Thing To Do.

And yet–I can look around me, and know there is light. I might not feel it, may not even see it, but I still know it is there. Even with any number of awful things happening, I have never lost sight of the fact that light exists, that it’s all around us. I acknowledge that I am not able to see it, but not that is has disappeared, or that I will not be able to see it again.

And that… That’s faith. That’s the basis of it. The unwavering belief in something you cannot see, cannot always even feel. And my faith is in my optimism.

So the next part is… How do you practice that? In a religion-based faith, when you start to despair, start to question, there are Gods and Goddesses, prayers, rituals, holy books, other members of your faith to speak with. But this is–I hesitate to say more personal, as religion and faith are always different, and can be and often are extraordinarily personal. And what I am talking about is still connected to a belief in that which is beyond what we see. It’s more than having a bad day at work but believing the next day could be a good day. It, too, is other-worldy, a belief based on light and love, something ethereal, something higher. A spiritual connectedness.

Not theosophy–this is not a life-force or spirit energy. It’s why I choose the word optimism.

And the question is, when you feel like you are alone in the dark, but you know just outside of that darkness there is light, and that there is nothing trapping you in there, what practices do you take to open your eyes and find that light?

Intention. Gratitude. Love. Acceptance. Charity. Compassion. Empathy. Patience. Opening yourself.

As an HR/administrative supervisor for the largest department store chain in the country, it goes without saying that the holiday season is the busiest time of year for me at work–and my holiday season really starts around mid-August, and lasts through the end of January, with the peak busyness running from mid-October through Christmas Day.

Last year, I got through. The bitterness I feel now, that started well beforehand, and I carried it with me every day. I wrote about it, often. I wrote about wanting to overcome it. But when I was not consciously thinking about choosing to see the good, I did not.

This year, I don’t want that. I want to feel joy, to feel the “holiday spirit” so to speak. I want to be energized when I talk to people, and to come home and feel at home, to do things with my husband, our families, my friends, not just sit around and wait until I feel it’s late enough to go to bed.

Here is another thing I struggle with–accepting within myself that I do not always demonstrate the optimism I feel. That I do despair. That my bitterness and cynicism is not “just a phase,” and one day I will wake up and feel differently, without putting in any effort.

I write when I am struck with the beauty of the world, and it renews me and reminds me of the light that I believe in. But I don’t write about that beauty when I don’t feel it. Why, I wonder? I know that part of it, is I do not like to accept those times. I choose to ignore them, determined they are only passing moods. That the “real me” is the person who, 5-6 times a year, writes an inspiring blog post about how wonderful the world is, if only we would open our eyes. But if I write when that mood takes me, and I am not writing that often, doesn’t that then mean that the rest of the time I am jaded? And wouldn’t that, then, be the “real me?” Or the better question–aren’t they both who I am? And if I am at the low points, but still telling myself “This is not who I am–I am a positive person who believes in the good,” why does it feel like I cannot give those times any gravity? That trying to write from that point of view will in some way validate the fact that I am not always cheerful and optimistic?

And here’s where the practice comes in.

Keep a gratitude journal. It’s something I started doing a long time ago, and then abandoned and never went back to it until recently. I have a friend who does this, and I love reading her gratitudes. And–it’s incredible what that does to a bad day. It’s very simple: write down 5 things that happened during that day for which you are grateful. Or ten things. Or two things. They don’t have to be big. Maybe you got a green light you weren’t expecting, or a stranger held a door open, or your coffee tasted really good. Or the weather was nice. Or you had clean water to drink.

Write out your intentions. For tomorrow. For next week. Next month. I wrote several out for myself for the holiday season last night. You don’t need a landmark like the new year to choose to make resolutions for yourself. Not even specific goals, but a general theme you want for yourself.

Follow through. Read over your intentions. How many of us have been in a class, motivational lecture, or even seen some form of advice on the internet, suggesting you write out your goals and put them somewhere you will see them every day? Do this with your intentions. If you don’t want to pin them to your desk, or tape them to your mirror, put them at the front of your gratitude journal and read over them every night when you write your gratitudes. Think about what you did today that was in line with your intentions, and what was not. Journal about it if you choose, but at least acknowledge it.

Accept your faults. If you’re waiting until you feel like the person you want to be to accept the person that you are, you’re going to spend a lot of time not doing the things you want, because you don’t feel like it’s the time to do them. This is one of the hardest things for me to do, personally. But I’m trying to look at this from the point of view of Maggie the Cat, from Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof:

“When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant…”

Take Pause. When you’re stressed. When you’re happy. When you’re alone, or in a crowd, or with friends. From time to time just stop and observe. In his essay “Myth Became Fact,” C.S. Lewis discusses how you cannot simultaneously describe and experience something, and this is completely true. So while I’m not encouraging distance from experience, sometimes–take pause. If what is happening to you is good, you can take in more of your surroundings. If what is happening isn’t so good, you can more easily see the bigger picture.

These are just the practices that I am trying, but there are any number of others. I’ve spent too long thinking that optimism, that feeling peace within chaos, were things that were inherent. They used to come naturally–but I think it was more the practice of feeling these that came naturally. And as with anything, the more you do something, the more it becomes a habit, and then something you just do.

So, have faith.

Hey! Ho! To the bottle I go!

With increasing conversations between Billy and I about starting a family, the possible proximity of motherhood has, naturally, made me reexamine my drinking habits, which has in turn made me think about cultural drinking habits in general. I had a GYN appointment not too long ago, a new doctor, so naturally they asked the typical questions–do you smoke (no), do you drink (yes), how much (1-2 drinks a day). She asked me to clarify, and I said I have a drink with dinner and often one after dinner, so she nodded, and said “I’ll put down one drink a day because it sounds better.”

I did a decent amount of research on it one night, looking at US drinking averages vs other countries, and the results basically turned out that the US Dep’t of Heath has a much stricter policy than most other countries’ equivalent public health groups, while there is not a widely correlational change in alcohol related illness and death–and in both the US and Europe, drunk driving and violence hold the top two slots for alcohol related death and injuries. Not to say the risks aren’t there, and health problems don’t increase drastically as drinking increases, of course.

It’s not a huge difference. But in the US, it is recommended to not have more than 1 unit/day to be safe. Most other countries with a body that issues any kind of statement say 2, or 2/3 is fine, and a lot of countries have a weekly correspondence to this–such as the US, which no more than 7/8 units/week, vs 14/15 is other countries.

Which really just led to reading about the cultural attitudes towards drinking, which is nothing I did not know, but basically comes down to: in the US, drinking daily is considered a problem, where as getting drunk is not. But in places like Italy, drinking daily is a part of the social and familial culture, while getting drunk is offensive.

And then there is the idea of drinking while pregnant, and the cultural differences there. Almost every body governing public health recommends minimal drinking while pregnant if not complete abstinence, but the cultural attitudes towards it are completely different. Rather than a culture where 1-2 units/week (even up to 7/8 units/week!) is considered acceptable with little to no effects shown in babies’ development, even mention it in the US and you get responses like “you can’t wait 9 months?” or “is one drink really more important than your baby?” (The same research about units/week is true across the board, it’s just hushed a lot more in the US because it’s so taboo.)

One of the comments I found, and oh I wish I could find it again so I could copy and paste it, but it was basically: ‘There are no health benefits to drinking anyway so why would you ever take that risk? Wait until the baby is born and then hire a nanny so you can take a two week vacation and spend it getting drunk while you commiserate that life as you know it is over.’

Because THAT attitude towards motherhood is SO much healthier and better for a child’s development than a glass of wine from time to time, right?

Which leads into another problem with our culture, which is our utter obsession with controlling pregnant women, and our complete disregard for actually helping children and babies. The entire pro-life movement is completely reflective of this. A group of people who uses shame and scare tactics because they love babies, but very rarely do anything to show they actually care about these babies once they are born. Once they enter school. Once they become adults who are damaged because they were born to mothers who were not ready.

And the point of this entry really isn’t about that, but it really is about how obsessed we are as a culture with judging other people. Back to drinking: If someone says they have 1-2 drinks a day, it sounds terrible. But yet, if someone talks about the partying they did over the weekend, bragging about their consumption (that often totals 7-14 units anyway), we find that acceptable because it is–what, social? I find sharing a new, fancy beer with friends social. I find drinking wine or beer with my husband with dinner each night a part of our family culture. I probably drink less per week than the average frat boy, or even less than one of my coworkers’ husbands, who parties with his friends every weekend despite being a 50+ year old retired cop. But because I spread mine out over the course of the week rather than cramming it all into one night, my drinking habits are more looked down upon in this country on paper.

I will try and find some of my sources and attach them. I was doing a lot of this research a couple weeks back and didn’t bookmark the links. But it’s really just… Both annoying, and interesting.

There is also what *else* people drink that is non-alcoholic where I am also far more European, as I really only drink water, coffee, tea, and beer or wine. I don’t drink soda, I don’t drink flavored beverages, I don’t drink dairy, and I don’t even drink that much store-bought juice because most of it is so sugary I can’t stand it. And it doesn’t seem like that is often factored into general public attitudes anyway. I personally find soda to be terrible in basically every regard, and it is pushed on Americans from a very young age, in spite of all the health problems it can cause.

Just… interesting.

Introduction

It has taken me a long time to start a blog. I’ve had a livejournal for years, and started a tumblr awhile back with the intention of it serving as a blog, but have yet to really venture into actual blogging.

There are three reasons for this:

One, is what exactly I wanted my blog to be about. I’ve had a lot of ideas, but I never really could find just *one* that I felt I could consistently write on without either straying from the purpose or becoming redundant.

The second, is a title. Yes, a title. If I was going to claim a small plot of webspace to write about my thoughts and opinions, I needed something to call it. And without really knowing for certain which thoughts and opinions I would be expressing, it was even harder to narrow this one down.

The final reason, is a first post. I have lots of idea for posts, but it’s that first one, the one where I am supposed to give some definition, that had me stumped. I thought about not even bothering with an introduction and just writing something, but then, it seemed whatever that first post is would define the entries to follow. It’s a lot like any sort of writing for me–that introductory paragraph, that first chapter, you have to get it right the first time, or so it always feels.

So, here is the hurdle of the introductory post, and here is me jumping over it.

This blog is going to be a lot of different things. Because rather than narrow it down to one specific topic, trying to pick one interest, I would rather just take those interests and connect them.

This is also a disclaimer, which I may move to a permanent place on this page, but for now: I am very liberal. I suppose reproductive freedom, and marriage equality. I believe that religious freedom means allowing other people to openly practice whatever they wish as long as it is not harming others, and I believe it is our responsibility to care for the planet. This is not a blog about politics, but I have beliefs that are very fundamental to the way I view the world that will come up, particularly in regards to environmental stewardship.

And now that I have gotten this out of the way, hopefully I can start on chapter two, and get this thing going!