An acquaintance recently expressed surprise when she discovered that we have decided to go full Santa Clause with our kids. She knows I started life as a Jehovah’s Witness, that most of my extended family still don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter or Halloween or birthdays, or stand for the pledge or the anthem, or any of that. It surprised her that we would choose to fling ourselves so far into “worldly” culture as to embrace Santa.
Our decision also surprises some of our Christian friends who take a more, shall we say, authentic approach to the holiday. It even surprises some of our atheist friends who feel that the revelation of The Lie of Santa was their first step out of the fantasies of religion, and they quietly wonder if we are setting our children up for disillusionment and, well, atheism. And they may be right. This whole thing may be a failed gambit, but dammit I’m embracing it anyway, because I love Santa Clause.
I believe in Santa Clause.
I believe in Santa Clause the way I believe in money, and corporations, and government. All of these things, all of them, are fictions. They are entirely made up. They only exist because we say they exist and behave as if they exist. Money, without our communal belief holding it up, is a lot of wasted paper. The minute we stop believing, and agreeing with one another to believe, that money is money, it becomes paper. It is our very faith in money that creates its meaning – it is only because we believe in it that it exists. And that’s fine. A lot of things are possible when money exists that are not possible when money does not exist (ever try to barter your macrame skills for new shoes?) – it is a very convenient and useful fiction.
Why not with Santa? Why do I have to be able to visit a castle at the North Pole for Santa to be real?
Here’s what Santa means to me. When I was about five or six years old, our family had only been celebrating Christmas for a year or two. We went to Arizona to visit cousins who had also only been celebrating Christmas for a couple years, and none of us were sold on Santa. We weren’t raised with him from birth, after all. So the adults pulled a major coup. They bought all the materials for building a tree house, but kept it off-sight until after we’d all gone to bed, then loaded it all into the back yard in the dead of night and covered it with a tarp. The next morning, after all the dolls and fire trucks had been unwrapped, one of the adults excused himself to the restroom, and jingle bells were heard fading away outside the window. A huge show was made of running to all the windows to see if we could see Santa flying away – and WHAT was THAT?! WHAT WAS THAT IN THE YARD?!
We spent the rest of the day building the tree house, and I was a firm believer in Santa for a couple years after. I don’t remember when I discovered the “truth,” but what I kept from that experience was not the deception, but the magic. My grown-ups cared enough to engineer magic into my life, and I felt that as love. Santa may have been a convenient fiction, the vehicle for the magic, but the love was true.
So when I say I believe in Santa, I mean I believe in engineering magic for another. I mean conspiring for joy. I mean creating (mostly small) miracles. Santa is real when we make him real – not in a punitive, “creepy distant police watchman keeping a tally of your mistakes” way, but in a “you have a secret admirer who cares enough to ambush you with love” kind of way. Remember: There’s room for EVERYONE on the Nice List.
It’s not about money, or materialism, but about attention, and attention to detail, and commitment to another’s joy. It’s about picking a target and knowing what makes their heart patter. It’s about allowing space for play, because play reminds us that we’re human and that hope is real even as the climate closes around us and the news is full of spite and cruelty.
Found on my Instagram this week from @laurajeantruman: “Being joyful isn’t a betrayal of the pain of the world, and it doesn’t make your suffering illegitimate. Those good bursts of joy that come at odd times in our worst years are sometimes the only things that keep us alive.” Santa is my shorthand for all the pockets of joy that were created for me by other people. Why shouldn’t he be as real as money, and Christmas? (Which, btw, if you’ve never googled it, is a co-opted Roman pagan holiday whose symbolism is nonetheless so perfectly aligned with the birth of Jesus that – imho – the holiday remains true in the most important sense even if it is entirely inaccurate – a useful and meaningful fiction.)
Will tracking down a copy of my 4 year old’s lost and discontinued favorite doll, and allowing them to reunite on Christmas morning – complete with photos, doll luggage, and a letter from Santa explaining that Baby Kutto was traveling with him for a few months – solve consumerism, racism, climate collapse, greed, caged migrants, human rights abuses, or any of the other world miseries? No. Obviously. But maybe it will get her in the habit of looking for miracles, and later on, looking for ways to make miracles. And maybe when she’s old enough to make a difference to the world, she’ll find some.
So who else out there wants to believe in Santa? Let’s conspire for joy.
I’m Christian. I believe life begins at conception. I’m still pro-choice. I’ll tell you why in a minute.
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now. I was waiting for a time when I was less busy, so I’d be more ready to deal with the potential fallout from poking the internet, or I was going to wait until I was ready to unleash my shiny new blog, hopefully in the new year. But as I write this, yesterday was the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies, and I saw in my perusal of coverage a striking statistic: 48% of white evangelicals would still support Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court bench even if Dr. Ford’s allegations were proven true.
Let’s say that again: Roughly half of white evangelicals support putting a drunken rapist on the highest court in America if it gets them closer to overturning Roe v. Wade.
There is so much in that statistic that appalls me. The ends-justify-the-means cynicism, the opposite of Biblical hope. The total disregard for survivors of sexual assault in white evangelical churches (there’s no lack of evidence for this cultural trend), the opposite of Biblical care. The total willingness to put their own identity politics at the front, at the expense of literally everyone else’s, the opposite of the gospel call to be a church of all peoples, to reach across and learn to care for your opposite.
There is so much about the whole situation that twists my stomach in knots, but I don’t have a compelling story about sexual assault to share (thank God), though I’ve been groped and flashed like every woman I know. But I can be brave about my stance on abortion, because if ever there was an urgent moment to defend women, this feels like it.
I know a lot of abortion-opposers, and since I was one myself for several years, I can already hear the justification: But this is to stop a genocide! What can be more urgent and important and morally imperative than that?
I’m going to challenge the scriptural authority of that position. Because if you’re willing to sacrifice every other Christian value to defend the unborn, then I think you’ve made abortion an idol.
First, we can only say genocide if we’re talking about people. I’m not going to argue about when life begins, because it’s not the premise of my position, but I would like to point out that theologians across the ages have disagreed on this count. There are Biblical suggestions that personhood begins at conception or even before, certainly, like Jeremiah 1:5. There are also Biblical precedents for the stance that life begins at breath – Genesis 2:7 for example. For centuries, the church believed that life began at quickening, or the first time the woman carrying the fetus can feel it moving, around 18 weeks. Again, my argument doesn’t rest on a specific moment at which life begins, so I’m not going to argue about it, I’m just pointing out that loving and devout and faithful and thoughtful and reasonable and well-meant people have come to different conclusions about this, so any claim to have the Whole Truth about it seems flimsy, suspect, and dishonest to me.
Second, before I get to my actual arguments, I’d like to remind everyone that the Bible does not actually mention abortion. Not once. Not in the Old Testament, nor in the New. The closest it comes is Exodus 21: 22-25:
22 And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
I’ve seen articles arguing this passage both ways regarding fetal personhood. Does the passage establish that fetuses are not full people, because the party is only fined for damage, or does it establish that fetuses are full people, because “if harm follow,” it is treated with the life-for-life standard? The debate hangs over whether “if any harm follow” refers only to the wife, or also to her unborn child – does “her fruit depart” mean a miscarriage, or a premature birth, which nonetheless results in a living child? Many translations will happily make this choice for you, which is why I went back to the King James. Again, fetal personhood is not part of my argument, so I’m not going to discuss it at length, just pointing out, again, that well-read and well-meant people disagree about the meaning of this passage.
But this passage is still not about abortion. Abortion is when a woman chooses not to carry a child to term in her own body. In the Exodus 21 scenario, it was someone else who accidentally caused the injury or death of the fetus. So it was not a woman choosing what happens in her body.
So the Bible doesn’t mention abortion at all. Which is significant, because other ancient texts do.
For example, the laws of Middle Assyria (14th century BC, roughly contemporary with the Pentateuch) you punish a woman with impalement and no burial for causing her own miscarriage. If she dies from the abortion, her body is still to be impaled and not buried, to make an example for all the other women. It’s notable that the same texts give the father permission to commit infanticide if the baby is defective in some way (disabled, disfigured, female, etc.), so the abortion law wasn’t about protecting life so much as it was about protecting a man’s right to make all the family planning decisions in his household.
So the next door neighbors of the ancient Israelites had very strong feelings about abortion, but when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, the God of the Hebrews, who had a lot to say in general about separating His people from the detestable ways of their neighbors, chose to remain silent on abortion. He had reams to say about clothing and fibers and food, but nothing on abortion.
That’s worth saying one more time for emphasis: God had every chance to condemn abortion, and chose to remain silent.
The Roman empire into which Jesus was born practiced abortion regularly at all levels of society and had no laws against it. Jesus has nothing to say about it. Neither does Paul. Neither do any of the other gospel writers.
But they do have an extraordinary amount to say about women. Jesus, especially, is radically pro-woman. He both allows and defends Mary’s choice to sit at his feet, a position (the feet of the rabbi) reserved only for men at that time. He interrupts an urgent mission on behalf of an important man (Jairus) to heal not only the body but also the shame of a woman who has been untouchable for 12 years because of her reproductive health. He gives to women the honor of bearing first witness to his resurrection, when women’s testimony was not considered trustworthy enough to be valid in court. (#BelieveWomen !! #TrustWomen !!) So Jesus cares deeply about the equality and dignity of women. There’s so much more to be said about this, but I’ll leave just those three examples for now or I’ll never get to the crux of my actual argument.
Which is this: even when you consider a fetus a life, there is no getting around the fact that it’s not an independent life. It is a life dependent on the body of another. A fetus requires the willing or unwilling donation of that person’s uterus, blood supply, oxygenation, nutrition, and immune activity. If this natural life support is removed, the fetus cannot survive.
It so happens that modern medicine has created another scenario in which life and death decisions are made around the use of another person’s organs – living organ donation. This is when your cousin gives you a kidney, or your twin donates a lobe of liver. An organ (or part of an organ) is donated, and both parties (in the best scenario) live. Donating an organ requires some preliminary testing, six weeks to recover, and has a very low rate of complication for the donor. And it happens that this is a process that is available to both women and men. So let’s look at how we talk to men about the urgent imperative of giving their bodies to bring life to others.
Here is the list of questions offered by the American Transplant Foundation for consideration before making yourself available for organ donation:
Am I Intellectually Ready?
– Have you spoken with your primary care physician and researched information regarding living donation?
– Do you understand the risks involved in this major medical procedure?
Am I Emotionally Ready?
– Have you emotionally prepared yourself for living donation and do you fully understand the possibility that the procedure may not be successful or could even be harmful?
– Are you ready to live with less than your usual full system of organs?
– Are you prepared to find out that you may not be a match or be healthy enough to donate?
– Do you understand that the testing/evaluation process could potentially uncover health conditions that were unknown to you before you considered donation?
Am I Physically Ready?
– Are you in good physical shape so that you may be able to withstand a major surgery?
– Do you have a healthy organ to donate?
– Will your body be able to live with less than your full complement of organs?
Am I Financially Ready?
– Have you thought through all of your financial responsibilities? Financial responsibilities to think about while you are being tested, in the hospital for surgery, and away from work while you recover are: savings, work requirements, travel expenses, time off of work (paid time-off, vacation, sick days, short-term disability, etc.), follow-up care, lost wages, family, dependents, pets, future obligations, insurance, bills, monthly expenses, etc.
– Do you have insurance protection in the event that complications arise during or after your surgery?
Am I Spiritually Ready?
– Are you driven to donate by the right motives?
Good heavens, can you imagine if we spoke to pregnant women with such deference?
– Have you discussed with your physician the realities of pregnancy, childbirth, and post partem recovery?
– Do you understand the risks and potential complications, including death, inherent in this major medical event?
– Have you emotionally prepared yourself for the realities of pregnancy and childbirth, and do you fully understand the possibility that this process may be arduous and painful, and still not successful?
– Are you prepared to spend the better part of a year physically impaired and unable to perform certain tasks up to your previous standard?
– Are you prepared to find out, partway through this process, that you may be unable to carry the child to term, or it may be unable to sustain its own life upon birth?
– Are you prepared to potentially discover previously overlooked medical problems over the course of prenatal testing?
– Are you prepared for the risk that you may have enduring, life-long changes to your body as a result of going through this process?
– Are you prepared for the risk of death, especially since the US is ranked among the worst in the West for maternal morbidity?
– Have you thought through all of your financial responsibilities? How will carrying, delivering, and maybe rearing this child affect your spouse, your other children, your aging parents, or other dependents?
– Can you take the time from work for prenatal appointments, childbirth, and the optimum recommended post partum recovery time (minimum six weeks)?
– Are you financially prepared for the possibility of complications to the pregnancy and weeks, or months, off work for bed rest?
– Do you have insurance?
– Are you driven to carry this child to term by the right motives?
I mean, really, what are they playing at? Nobody talks to pregnant women that way, that’s not the standard of discourse when THERE ARE INNOCENT LIVES AT STAKE. None of those people waiting for transplants asked to be put in that position! None of them chose to be sick! Where is the mandatory registration as a living donor?! The regulated blood typing, the hand wringing over people who are selfish and irresponsible and fail to sign up when people are dying every year waiting for a transplant?! Where’s the moral outrage?! You’d think people were allowed to decide how much of their body they were willing to sacrifice for another person or something!! Like people were people and not donor organ incubators! With the right and ability to make wise choices for their lives, lives which had value outside of their bodies’ potential to bring life!!
You see where I’m going with this. In the words of possibly Gloria Steinem or possibly Florynce Kennedy, or possibly an anonymous Irish lady taxi driver from Boston, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
When we take the issue of offering portions of your body in sacrifice out of the context of gender, it’s very easy to see how deferentially we treat the decision, and we never presume to infringe on the rights of another person to tell them what they must and must not volunteer to endure for another. We hope that they will make the generous decision, but we recognize that they have choice.
So for me the issue is not when life begins, but the right of body sovereignty for the woman involved. That’s why the position is called pro-choice, not pro-abortion.
I nearly died in childbirth the first time around (twice – first by seizure, then by hemolysis), which makes every subsequent pregnancy high-risk. I love my two children. I love them so much I would fight for them to my grave. And if I were pregnant with a third who was deemed “incompatible with life,” I would like to have the freedom to choose, if we as a family felt it was best, to end that life early, thus sparing my first two children the risk of being motherless for a sibling who wouldn’t live anyway.
Sound like a special circumstance? That’s because every abortion is a special circumstance. I’m sure it’s abused by some, and that’s a tragedy for the fetus, just like people dying on the transplant list is a tragedy (but not a crime, and not shameful). But abortion can also be a tender mercy, an act of dignity, for women in prohibitive circumstances. Women with cancer, or other serious health conditions. Women with dependent parents or siblings, other children with special needs who need a full-time caretaker. Women in desperate financial circumstances. And more.
It’s not a perfect analogy. I don’t expect it to be the last word on abortion, even in my own life, but I hope you can see how the pro-choice position comes from a heart of care for women, just as the pro-life position comes from a heart of care for the unborn. Both are vulnerable, and historically disposable (remember the nameless woman torn limb from limb, or Lot trying to trade his virgin daughters to a rape mob?).
God cares very deeply about the dignity of women. I can’t make you believe Dr. Ford (though I think you should, she was transparent where he was belligerent and evasive), but if the FBI investigation returns with evidence that Judge Kavanaugh engaged in sexual assault at any point in his life, and you tell America’s daughters (my daughters) that you care nothing for their safety or sovereignty, then I’m telling you I think you are sacrificing to a golden calf.
Call your Senators. Thanks for your time.
Helloooo from the jungles of motherhood! It’s been a minute. This month I did a Whole30, and thought I’d briefly resurrect the blog and write it up for anyone who’s interested. I’m the queen of TL;DR posts, so feel free to use the headings to skip around.
Part 1: What is the Whole30 and why did I do it?
Part 2: What was it like?
Part 3: Results, Tips, Recipes
What’s a Whole30? It’s an elimination diet aimed at the foods most likely to be causing you systemic inflammation. What I was actually looking for was a way to do a sugar detox that was safe for a breastfeeding mama, and I stumbled on the Whole30. A bunch of other moms I knew were doing it, so I looked at the website and said, “No way. This eliminates everything I enjoy about food.”
No legumes (including peanuts and soy)
No added sugar, natural or artificial
No MSG, carrageenan, or sulfates.
My life is bread and cheese. So: Wtf are you supposed to eat?!
Well, you can eat any animal protein (meat and seafood), vegetable, or fruit. You can eat eggs.
That didn’t sound so terrible. I could make myself a steak and sweet potato spears for burger night. And I realized that one of my favorite regular dishes, oxtail soup, is totally compliant as is. And most of our Hello Fresh meals (we do 3 per week) can be made compliant if I just skip a component or two (don’t have the sauce, skip the rice, etc.) I thought I could go 4 weeks having oxtail soup and steak once a week each, and tweaking HF recipes. I just needed a few more recipes to rotate in.
And then I realized that migraines are one of the things that can be positively affected by this diet. I’ve had migraines my whole life. I’ve probably lost 1/3 of my life to them. If 30 days of eating differently might give me that third of my life back? Hell yes, I’m in.
I spent a month experimenting with compliant recipes so I would have some easy go-to’s. I planned for migraines (when most food nauseates me) and other foreseeable emergencies. I gradually reduced my sugar intake during that time so that my Detox Week wouldn’t totally derail me – migraines and motherhood DO NOT MIX. Here’s what happened:
Part 2: What It was Like, Day by Day
Week 1: Detox Week
Day1: Coffee w coconut milk: surprisingly delicious.
Day2: My detox headache pussed out before noon. Am I doing it wrong?
Day 3: Seriously, am I doing it wrong? I feel GREAT. Until too much fiber almost creates The Yellowstone Playground Potty Disaster of 2018. 😨
Day4: I’m rocking this party with my baggie of hard boiled eggs.
Day 5: No homemade family recipe carrot cake for me.😭😭😭. PS I’m SO TIRED.
Day 6: I’m obsessed with coconut milk. I FEEL GREAT.
Day 7: i’m…….so………tired…….but not in pain!
Week 2: To Be, Or Not to Be Supermom
Day 8: OMG. I’M BACK IN MY PRE-PREGNANCY JEANS!!
Day 9: Leftovers rock my world.
Day 10: I am SUPERMOM carrying this 20lb baby on a 4-hour hike.
Day 11: I am not supermom. Overdid it on the hike.
Day 12: I have a migraine and all I’m eating is steak.
Day 13: The Day the Baby Fussed All Day Then Took an Epic Poop. Oh, wait, wrong log. I’m getting better at winging it with whatever’s on hand.
Day 14: Stranded in a thunderstorm – my first try at being THAT PERSON at an unscheduled restaurant stop with a hangry preschooler.
Week 3: Avocados and Insights.
Day 15: As coastal liberal elites go, I’m very late to this bandwagon, but I’m finally OBSESSED with avocado. It’s the little black dress of vegetable matter.
Day 16: I’m a lazy jounal-keeper.
Day 17: See above.
Day 18: Made a unicorn cake with my 3yo, and couldn’t lick the spoon or taste one crumb. It was excruciating. I suddenly realized that I associate sugary treats with family togetherness – baking with mom, making ice cream with grandma, junk food binges with Dad. All my strongest cravings this month are emotional – wanting to share a treat to celebrate with people.
Day 19: Mom asked today if I felt a difference. Last week of migraines notwithstanding (chiropractor said I strained a muscle in my shoulder), I’m generally in less pain than usual. I have more energy- I’m down to one cup of coffee most days, and I’m successfully getting up at 5am to have some “me” time.
Day 20: Zoodles are delicious, but watch the fiber.
Day 21: Finally read the entire label on my coconut milk – turns out it’s not actually *healthy* – the amount I drink in my coffee is 50% of my saturated fat for the day. There go my plans to drizzle it on everything forever.
Week 4+: Tiger Blood
Day 22: Getting more flexible with meal prep, and also lazy – totally skipped second breakfast to go to Target, just grabbed a Larabar on the way out.
Day 23: Up and energized at 5am! Starting to feel that Tiger Blood….
Day 24: Dreamed I accidentally ate some gravy that was noncompliant and I had to start the 30 days all over and collapsed in a puddle of tears.
Day 25: This week, my cravings have actually been stronger for my old comfort foods. I don’t need them, but I miss them more.
Day 26: There have been so many cruciferous vegetables today that I fear for the overnight air quality of our home.
Day 27: I’VE FINALLY GOT A MEAL PLANNING SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR ME. After 20 years of trying, it turns out I just needed to be forced to do it for 4 straight weeks and I figured it out.
Day 28: I’m a lazy journal-keeper
Day 29: Did you know you can make sweet potato rounds…. in the TOASTER?! THIS. CHANGES. EVERYTHING.
My Last Day on the Whole30:
Day 30: Our fuse box started crackling, so we had to turn our electricity off and keep our refrigerator sealed, so I spent all day ordering compliant rotisserie chicken and sweet potatoes from the one restaurant in the neighborhood where I can do this, because dammit I signed on for 30 days and I want to finish all 30 days, AND THEN I ACCIDENTALLY LICKed SOME NON-COMPLIANT KETCHUP OFF MY FINGER AT DINNERTIME AFTER HELPING MY 3YO OPEN HER KETCHUP PACKET.
I was so close. Well, screw it. I’m not starting over on Day 30 for a lick of sugary ketchup.
Part 3: Results, Tips, Recipes
Honestly, this is possibly the best I’ve felt my whole adult life. I’m a little scared of the re-introduction phase because I had such dramatic results (I thought), it seems likely that I had some undiagnosed food sensitivities. I don’t know why this surprises me. I’ve known for ages and ages that I’m chemically sensitive, skin sensitive, and sensitive to alcohol and MSG. So why should I be shocked to discover that I’m also sensitive to gluten or dairy? (pleeeeeaaaase don’t let me be sensitive to gluten or dairy…..pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease).
So: I’m generally in less pain. Even when I’ve had migraines, they’ve been shorter and less intense. My pain between migraines is minimal. I have a lot more energy. I can go much longer between meals without feeling a “crash.” And I’m just happier. I don’t know if that’s physiologically related to the food I’ve been eating or psychologically related to the discipline of keeping this regimen, but I’ll take it.
I don’t own a scale, but I did take pre- and post-measurements. So:
So I got my waist back. I was going to post pictures, but they’re just too terrible for words. Not me, the pics – they’re blurry and awful, and the lighting is all yellow and weird and no filter under God’s digital heaven will improve them, I checked already. But I’m back in normal, non-maternity clothes and feel like myself again. Hooray!
I didn’t notice any supply problems, for anyone who is curious. Except maybe once, but I had essentially skipped a meal, so…duh. If you’re breastfeeding, they recommend you eat four meals a day, and try to include at least one fruit or starchy vegetable at each. I thought of my four meals as “Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Lunch/Tea, and Supper.” And stay hydrated, mama!
If you have a system that works for you, stick with it. I’ve always struggled so much with meal planning. It takes half the day and is too detailed, I have too much food, but then on the day in question I don’t want to eat what I planned, everything gets muddled, half the food goes bad, it’s a pain.
BUT NOW I have a system that takes about 10-20 minutes, and then I can STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT I’M GOING TO EAT. Here is my planning template that I ended up with. All I need is to have a specific meal planned for dinner each night, with thought given to our schedule, and then a flexible list of things I might feel like eating for the other meals on any other day. That way I have all the I’m-in-the-mood-for flexibility I want during the day, but dinners, which are much more schedule dependent, are planned and prepped for. When I’m planning the next week’s meals, I take stock of what I still have leftover and plan to eat that first if possible. I go grocery shopping twice a week to keep produce fresh and prevent our refrigerator from becoming so overloaded that I can’t find anything I need.
My favorite recipes!
1. Kitchen Sink Eggs. This is exactly what it sounds like. Dump all your leftovers in a frying pan and scramble some eggs around it.
2. Steak and sweet potato fries. Takes about 30 minutes from setting the oven to preheat to eating. This is something I can eat with most migraines without getting nauseous, so I tried to always have a couple palm-size steaks frozen and ready to go in case of emergency. And when I was really together, I had a ziploc of pre-cut sweet potatoes ready to go.
This became my go-to breakfast after the second week or so. It’s a little sweeter than I wanted for breakfast with all that banana, but it requires little more effort than making a bowl of cereal and it’s DELICIOUS.
5. Oxtail Soup. This was already part of our regular rotation, probably twice a month or so. We got the recipe from our Cantonese-speaking neighbors downstairs. It’s easy, satisfying, clean, and one pot lasts for days.
~2lbs. oxtail (much cheaper at a Chinese market if you have one)
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
~ one head of garlic (original recipe called for less, but we prefer a whole head), minced
~ an equivalent amount of fresh ginger, sliced
1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
5 red potatoes, roughly chopped
5 tomatoes, roughly chopped
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Dump in oxtail, bring back to boil, boil for 10 minutes, drain. This is to “clean” the oxtail – you’ll notice a lot of scum rises to the top of the water, now you don’t have it in your soup.
While that’s going on, clean and chop all your veggies.
Heat a drizzle of olive oil in the bottom of a large stock pot (or your Instant Pot if you have one). Saute onion until softened, then add garlic and ginger until fragrant, then add celery and carrot, stir a few times to release the flavor.
Add the potatoes, tomatoes, and cleaned oxtail, and enough water to cover.
Stovetop: Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for three hours on the stove top (almost entirely unattended).\
Instant Pot: Cook 55 minutes on manual high pressure. Natural release. When I have time to do a full manual release, I do, and then I can fill the pot to the top line. If I’m not going to have time for a full natural release, I reduce the recipe and only fill the pot 2/3 full so I can do a quick release. I still recommend letting it natural release for at least 10-20 minutes before you finish with the quick release.
After serving, if you like, add a little salt at a time until the flavor “wakes up,” although I usually find this broth delicious even without salt. Sometimes I add a pinch of oregano at the beginning just for fun.
6. Greatist made an excellent list of sugar-free breakfast recipes, this is where I found most of my experimental recipes that I wanted to try, including Monkey Salad. Also, the Green Shakshuka and twice-baked breakfast sweet potatoes were fantastic, highly recommend.
7. Protein Salad. My favorite variation was leftover pulled chicken with compliant mayo on a bed of baby spinach with blueberries.
8. Favorite snacks: Tuna on cucumber slices, smoked salmon and melon, cashew cookie Larabars. Okay, you’re not actually supposed to snack on the Whole30, but sometimes life happens.
Has anybody else done a Whole30? How’d it go? What recipes got you through? It was nice to pop on here again and wave at you all. Back to motherhood…..
Much to my surprise, a few people have actually asked me for whatever insights motherhood has offered. I really don’t have any wisdom. At all. Most days, I feel stupider than I did a year or so ago. I’m hoping this is still a combination of water-on-the-brain from pregnancy, sleep deprivation (though I can’t complain much), and a necessary side effect of multi-tasking and constant interruption. I’m a terrible multitasker, I lose track of all kinds of things. So motherhood has not been kind to my ability to, say, answer emails in a timely fashion. I also told my husband I’m reluctant to blog about motherhood because Baby doesn’t really have a say about what’s online about her, and I’d rather err conservatively, and I’m already squeamish about how many pics we post of her on facebook and instagram, even though my privacy settings are set to “Draconian.”
With that said, I do miss blogging, so here are a few random thoughts on motherhood.
- I absolutely love motherhood, so much so that I’m almost embarrassed by it.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with loving your baby, but the difference between my mental state before baby and after baby is staggering. My WORST mothering day, when she refused to feed and just screamed and screamed, or when she was suffering some bad reflux and I spent 10 straight hours bouncing her on our big pilates ball and eating nothing myself, or when I broke down crying at 3am from sheer exhaustion, were emotionally equivalent to an average teaching day for me. I have had children scream and scream in class. I have (easily) gone 10 hours without eating in a teaching day (or peeing for that matter) because I had to spend my lunch hour (which is really a lunch 20-minutes) running around doing teacher stuff. I have cried (many times) from sheer exhaustion on the bus at 6am on my way to school. My worst mothering days still brought less stress, actually, because no one was judging me moment by moment on my choices, writing up my technique, pretending that the always-murky waters of caring for little people is somehow a measurable, product-oriented set of procedures and “standards.” I love my students. I hated my job.
And my not-worst mothering days? Which is most of my mothering days? Pure joy. Baby is so funny. And she loves me. Which is a funny thing to say about a person who can’t even talk. My brother observed that me and baby seem to mostly sit around admiring each other all day, and that’s about right.
Yes, there are moments of boredom, and hours when I wish I had a grown-up to talk to, but to be perfectly honest, I was lonelier before she was born. I’ve not made a secret of my apparent inability to make friends in my current neighborhood (3 years and counting). So before baby, I still wasn’t having any adult interaction. You’d be amazed how much teachers don’t actually get to talk to one another. At least now I have someone to cuddle.
I wonder often how much of my (100% selfish) enjoyment of baby’s company will turn out to be problematic. I hope and pray that whenever she eventually desires more independence, I’ll be able to grant it with wisdom and without guilt, that she won’t feel bound to fill any holes in my life. It’s not her job. But she’s doing it right now just by needing me, so easily and naturally. We’ll see.
And I also have a super-easy baby, and that’s where the thin icing of guilt comes in. (Very thin. Very little guilt. Just a twinge.) Because so many of my friends hated infancy, especially the dreaded Fourth Trimester, and had such difficult transitions into motherhood. I was expecting it to be a lot harder. Which is not to say that it’s not hard, it’s VERY hard, especially if you have a fussy baby. But I don’t. She turned into a good eater once she figured out how, and she slept through the night at 8 weeks with very little encouragement. She did have some pretty bad reflux for the first 8-10 weeks (hence my 10 hours on the bouncy ball), and she didn’t truly get the hang of latching until about the 2-month mark (so I’ve had my share of blisters and plugged ducts), and she doesn’t like to be in anybody’s lap except mine for longer than 5 minutes (just a month ago she decided that Daddy can be in her club), and she utterly refuses to eat from a bottle (we TRIED, believe me), so I can’t leave her with anyone. But I find that I don’t really care. It’ll be a few more short months before she’s walking and exploring and it will be my job to graciously encourage her independence, and I’m totally fine being her one and only for a little bit longer.
And – She. Slept. Through. The. Night. At. 8. Weeks. I get an obscene amount of sleep for a new mom. And there’s no way I deserve this in any karmic sense. I was a terrible baby.
2. Goodness, do I even have a 2? Oh, right – Love.
I’m really not sure I have anything meaningful to say here. Mother love is a huge cliche, and I have a personal pet peeve about mothers who go on and on (and on) about how they discovered the meaning of life when their children were born, with the implicit judgment that women/people without children are necessarily less spiritually developed. I always want to say to such mothers “Just because YOU were a selfish, self-centered egomaniac before your children were born doesn’t mean EVERYONE wasted their child-free years that way.” Which is not to say that all mothers, or even most mothers rub me that way, nor is it to say that I avoided selfish singlehood myself, but I know quite a few giving, mother-of-the-faith women who managed to discover God, Jesus, and unconditional love without the intervening biological experience, and sometimes they would like the world to cut them some slack already.
So a note here to child-free people – you are whole and complete and everything is possible for you exactly where you are.
With that said, I am actually having a whole new kind of love experience with baby.
It’s very hard to articulate. I will probably blab for quite a bit in this paragraph trying to pin it down, and still mostly fail. I think the most different thing about this kind of love is the utter lack of walls. In every other relationship in my life, including my marriage, I have huge intimacy problems. Like – pathological. I am constitutionally unable to let my guard down. A lot of people would probably find this surprising since I’m very open with personal information. I’m totally okay sharing feelings, talking through traumas, sharing my birth experience in detail on the internet. In fact, the more of a stranger you are, the easier it is to share these kinds of small intimacies, because I have nothing invested in our relationship. It’s reflexive, and to be bluntly vulgar, it’s kind of the emotional equivalent of a “flasher” behavior – the desperate need to be SEEN, and the total inability to experience that in an appropriate context. The longer I know you, the harder it is to know me. It’s easier sharing ancient history than telling anyone what I need in this moment, what makes me vulnerable in this moment. I trust no one. Or I trust them to fail me.
So my experiences of love have been maybe weirder than most. High on intensity and anxiety, lots of panic, lots of preemptive sabotage (you can’t hurt me if I hurt you first), lots of focus, perhaps, at times of high anxiety, bordering on obsessive thoughts, lots and lots and lots of mechanisms for keeping people at arms’ length and then blaming them for failing me. Like I said, pathological.
My poor husband, haha.
There’s been a lot of healing, or my marriage wouldn’t be possible. I think I can honestly boast a very healthy cadre of true friends – people who are safe, loving, and affectionate, people who care, people who show up, people who will dig through the hard stuff with me and forgive me my lapses in judgment and generosity.
But I didn’t realize how many walls I still had up until baby came. Because somehow, she bypasses all of them. There’s nothing, not the thinnest film of self-protection there. I am heartbeat-to-heartbeat right up against a love of catastrophic proportions. Catastrophic because on the few occasions I get caught thinking about it (usually late at night, or that one time the babysitter took her for a walk and I FREAKED OUT that I’d let a TOTAL STRANGER LEAVE THE HOUSE WITH MY BABY), I realize how much I would lose if she left. If she were taken. All the little paper walls I’ve built, walls within walls, walls that hide walls, walls that are bigger on the inside, walls that double-back and then dead-end just to confuse you, all of those are useless against her. I’ve spent my entire life trying to protect myself from exactly this kind of vulnerability. That frightens me. Not only because of what I stand to lose, but because of the damage I could inflict on her in trying to protect myself from that loss.
Before baby, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to give up my independence. Now I’m worried I won’t be courageous enough to give her hers.
This is also a cliche, but, just as a plea to all child-free people to be patient with their newly-minted parent friends who disappear and never have anything interesting to talk about anymore*, I’m going to spend this small section dissecting a single incident yesterday; namely, how I spent an hour obsessively checking my baby monitor while baby was napping in the other room. It started because
- She woke up with a bad diaper rash in the morning. Which led to:
- She woke up early from her morning nap, crying from discomfort because she needed to be changed. Which led to:
- I decided to let her lay diaper-free on the parent-bed for a while to air out, which is good for her skin. I had to move her to the bed for this because:
- I wanted to let her lay diaper-free for as long as possible, which meant I wanted to get some other things done while she was laying down, which meant that I couldn’t leave her on the changing table because it’s too small, she might roll and fall off. The parent bed is big enough for her to roll several times before coming to the edge, so I have lots of time to catch her, should that become a problem. Which it hasn’t been yet, but there’s a first time for everything.
- Because she was laying on the parent bed, I had a towel and three diapers stacked under her to catch anything while she was laying there.
- So when she decided she was hungry, instead of moving her to our usual nursing place, I just laid down beside her because it was easier than either finishing her diaper change or bringing the stack of towels and diapers with me. But then (because she’d woken early from her morning nap) she fell asleep, which created several new (minute) dilemmas:
- I didn’t want to wake her up by trying to put on a diaper.
- But I couldn’t move her to the crib with no diaper,
- So I had to leave her on her towel on the bed.
- But the bed is right in front of the air conditioner, and I didn’t want her to get cold, partly for her own comfort, but also partly because when she’s cold she moves more and wakes up early,
- But I couldn’t use her usual fluffy pink blanket (her warmest) because she didn’t have a diaper on and I didn’t want it getting messed up, so I
- Had to jimmy a solution with two of the lightest, softest towels we have,
- But she kept kicking them off
- Which meant she got colder, which meant even more kicking and wiggling, which made it more likely that she could:
- Roll off the bed entirely, and/or
- get tangled in any of the other random things that had accumulated on the bed (laundry, spare pillow cases, toys from earlier in the day, etc.) which
- I couldn’t clean off without waking her up, so in order to let her have an undisturbed nap (a precious thing with a baby),
- I had to check her on the monitor every minute or so for an hour to make sure she 1. didn’t roll off the bed or 2. accidentally suffocate on a clean piece of underwear.
This is how much information was firing simultaneously in my head during one hour on one day in which I left the baby entirely alone. Overkill? Probably. Mark of a new mother? Almost certainly. But it’s mainly my job to keep her alive at this point, and I’ve never been anything if not thorough. So the next time you’re wondering why your friend with the new baby is suddenly really, REALLY boring, please take pity and remember that parenthood traps you (for a while at least) in an endless, endless, endless array of MINUTIAE – tiny, microscopic calculations and choices that, despite their size and boringness, each have the potential of making or breaking your baby and/or your day, and sometimes we don’t have room for much else. We’ll swim out again eventually, I promise.
*Also please forgive new parent bloggers who only have time for a single draft.
*I apologize for the random tense changes in the prose. It’s hard to edit with a newborn. Even when you’re skipping laundry to write a blog post because that’s how you feel more human.
“Do you know your name?”
What a funny question.
“Do you know who this is?”
“That’s Ben. My husband.”
“Do you know my name?”
Meredith is our doula, or birth coach. She has my face between both her hands while she’s asking her funny questions. Sleep comes back to my eyes and I start to drift and there’s a lady doctor standing to my right who wasn’t there before who karate chops my sternum.
“Stay awake. I need you to stay awake.”
Wow. She means business. I’ll try to stay awake.
Meredith is still standing at my head asking me more funny questions. There are a lot of people in the room. Like, a LOT of people. A lot more people than when I fell asleep, and they’re all talking at once. But it feels highly organized, not chaotic, like if you walked into a high-level team sporting event for a game you didn’t know, and nothing that happens makes sense to you, but you can tell that every single movement has purpose and meaning.
“Do you know where you are?”
“At the hospital.”
I can feel my eyes dragging again and fight to keep them open. Karate chop doctor is still watching me.
“Why are we at the hospital?”
“I had a baby.”
I did. I had a baby. They took her to the NICU, I remember. Right before I fell asleep. Back when there were only 4 or 5 people in the room.
I was induced 26 hours before for gestational hypertension, or pregnancy-related high blood pressure. It’s one of the few really good reasons to induce labor before your due date, because it can turn into pre-eclampsia or eclampsia very quickly. Eclampsia is what killed Lady Sybill on Downton Abbey. Gestational hypertension is fairly common, while eclampsia is quite rare, but we like to play it safe in modern medicine.
Actually, I only had “questionable” hypertension. It was off and on, and everyone remarked how lovely all my blood pressures were all throughout labor and delivery. All the same, an early induction seemed the sensible route. I did the first 12 hours unmedicated. Inductions have a reputation for being more painful than regular labor, or at least skipping all the warm-up stages and taking you straight to what they call “active labor,” which is when everything really starts to suck. I don’t have any labor experiences to compare to, but those first 12 hours were pretty hard. I started right after the first treatment with a solid half-hour contraction. 30 minutes without a release. Then I finally started contracting for real, every 3-5 minutes, pain scale ranging from 3-5 (out of 10). Then ranging 5-6 every 2-3 minutes. Then climbing to 7-8 every 90 seconds or so.
After 30 years of migraines, my pain scale is pretty well fleshed out.
0 – pain-free.
1-2 – noticeable, but not worth bothering about. I can sleep through it.
3 – more noticeable. I may or may not be able to sleep through it. I may or may not decide to take anything for it.
4 – I should definitely take something for it before it gets worse. Can’t sleep through it.
5 – The upper limit of full functionality. I can get all my stuff done, but everything is awful.
6 – Rapidly losing functionality. Concentrating more and more on only pain.
7 – Yeah, I’m not getting anything done. There is only pain and the things I can do to manage it mentally. Maybe 50% attention on pain, 50% on pain management (mantras, visualizations, breathing, telling myself the meds will kick in any minute now, etc). Usually also involves involuntary whimpering.
8 – Involuntary weeping. Tears streaming down my face. Ability to focus on pain management drops to 25%.
This is as far as my migraines have ever gotten. I’ve had a few 7-8 migraines in my life. Every single one was very memorable. My contractions had been at 7-8 for a while (an hour? Two? Three?), I’d been contracting for 12 hours, and I was still only 4 cm dilated. I decided I wasn’t up for another 12 hours at this level. Bring in the epidural. Please.
I’d been skittish to try an epidural. There’s something about having a giant needle inserted in my spine that just kind of wigged me out. There are so many ways that can go very wrong. But I have a limit.
My epidural did not go wrong. That was confirmed later. In fact, it was confirmed while Meredith was asking me funny questions. I remember recognizing the anesthesiologist as one of the doctors who had filled up the room, and I remember him announcing, after asking some questions in medicalese, “Ok, so it wasn’t the epidural.” And then he packed his little bag and left.
The epidural had not gone wrong. In fact, it had gone very right. It was like magic. I got to take a nap. In the middle of having a baby. That’s crazy. And the really funny part was, it relaxed me so much that they started wondering if my blood pressure was too low. Hilarious.
Somewhere in there I developed a fever. Not a bad one, I couldn’t tell at all, but they said they’d have to give me antibiotics in my IV, and when the baby was born, they’d have to take her to the NICU for monitoring. Not ideal, but I understand. I’d rather make sure the baby is safe too.
The epidural wore off around 7 cm and they had to give me a topper. Then came pushing, and it turns out my pain scale does have both a 9 and a 10.
9 – Howling. Ability to mentally manage pain drops to 5-10%, even with coaching.
10 – Out of my mind. My body doesn’t even exist anymore. Nothing exists except this tear in the universe that happens to coincide with my consciousness.
Two and a half hours of that. A friend asked me this week if I’m in the “Never. Again.” phase. I told her I’m in the “Planned C-section” phase. 😉
And then the baby arrives, and it all evaporated. Instantaneously. I know that’s a cliche, but it was also a physical reality. All the pain just stopped, and they put the baby on me, and she was slimy and alien and gorgeous and perfect, and we looked at each other for 15 minutes before they wrapped her up and took her to the NICU. And I was so sleepy. There were a few people doing things to me and poking me in places I would normally never consent to be poked, but it didn’t seem important. My midwife called in one of the doctors to do stitching, saying something like, “I can do it, but with something like this, it’ll take me two hour, whereas he can do it in 20 minutes.” That sounds like it might be serious, so I file it away to ask about later (google “3rd degree tear” if you really want to know), but I’m feeling no pain right now and it doesn’t seem important. I just wanted to nap again since I couldn’t look at my baby anymore.
And that’s the last thing I remember before karate chop doctor and Meredith’s funny questions.
Apparently I had an (eclamptic? the doctors were still debating when I was discharged) seizure. And I hear it was really freaky. I completely changed color and was unresponsive. Then I was responsive but not really there. Apparently Meredith had asked me all her funny questions a few times before and I hadn’t been able to answer. My eyes were open, but my pupils were weird, and I could repeat words, but I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t recognize anybody and acted terrified of everybody. My husband says it was a thing to behold, watching all the doctors on the floor descend on the room and go into emergency mode. I lost about half an hour of time. My poor husband will probably have nightmares the rest of his life. When asked how he was by the assistant midwife, he responded, “It’s just so terrifying. All I could think about was Downton Abbey -”
“Stop. Don’t you DARE go there.”
Apparently that’s how scary my seizure was for everyone else. Hubby was not the only one trying not to revisit Downton Abbey. I’m glad I missed it.
After it was clear that I was not going to drift off again, the doctors started gradually peeling off until it was just me and hubby and Meredith and our midwife and the student midwife again. My midwife commented that in 30 years of practice, she’d never seen anything like that. They were glad to have me back. I was glad to be back too, even though I didn’t remember being gone. Hubby went to go find my mom and my sister and tell them what happened. They had followed the baby to the NICU and didn’t know.
I asked for food. More than a day of nothing but ice chips, I was starving. My brother in law had gone way out of his way, all the way uptown, to bring me sushi because that’s what I wanted my post-delivery celebration meal to be, and the nearest sushi place open that late was 50 blocks uptown. They told me I couldn’t eat yet, I had to clear a few blood tests first. We chilled out. They decided I wasn’t ready to move to the post partum ward yet and sent me to the recovery room instead. (I think that’s where C-section patients go post-surgery for monitoring.)
My blood work came back an hour or so later, but it was still wrong. Somehow I had lost a lot of blood, but they didn’t know why, they hadn’t noticed a hemorrhage, so they had to look closer. I had a middle of the night sonogram with more people poking me in places I’m not normally poked, but they couldn’t find the bleed. I asked if I could eat yet, but they said I had to stabilize first, so I’d have to wait for morning blood work. I let Ben eat the sushi.
Morning blood work came back and I wasn’t stabilized. In fact, my blood count was nose-diving. I’d lost half my blood volume in 6 hours. They sent me for a full-body CT scan and still couldn’t find a bleed, and decided that my body was cannibilizing my red blood cells. Apparently that’s a thing that can happen. They announced they were giving me a blood transfusion. Several hours before, they had been giving me a choice between a transfusion and several weeks of iron therapy. Now, they were just giving me a transfusion since I’d signed the consent form giving them permission if it was medically necessary (at which time the midwife who’d started my induction had said she’d never seen anyone need a transfusion in all her decades of practice until that very night, when the girl who was in my room before me had had a massive bleed. We were giving them lots of excitement in that room.) When they were explaining why the transfusion was medically necessary, they threw some numbers at me. I don’t remember what they were measuring exactly (hemoglobin? platelets? something in parts per million?), but they said the normal number was 250. Mine was 50, and still dropping.
I begged for food. I was getting a bad headache from not having eaten in two days (during which time I pushed a baby out of my body). I started crying when I told the doctor about my headache, and she very kindly told me that I couldn’t eat, but there was absolutely no reason why I should have to cry over a headache in a hospital, and she gave me a choice between Percoset and Tylenol. I told her I’d rather never have to take Tylenol for a headache again, and she laughed and said that it did nothing for her headaches either. Then we spent a minute bonding over migraines. Poor girl, she had a migraine when she checked on me the next day. Maybe the bad room juju rubbed off on her.
I spent the day on my wheely bed in the recovery room getting checked every hour or so for blood pressure, oxygen levels, etc. At 10pm they finally decided I could eat a “clears” dinner. “Clears” turned out to be broth, ginger ale, jello, and cranberry juice. I’d never tasted such amazing jello. Life-changing.
The next morning, I had another “clears” breakfast, which was exactly the same as dinner except there was apple juice instead of cranberry. My bloodwork had finally stabilized (apparently I’d had the ideal response to the blood transfusion, which is nice, since so much else had gone wrong). The nice Percoset-offering doctor came back to visit again, asked how I was feeling. I was still ecstatic over being allowed to eat, so my answer was positive.
“Wow. Well, you look a lot better than your labs. Good.”
This became the phrase of the day. At least three practitioners used the same phrase on separate occasions. Though I was a pale, pasty white, and needed help walking because I got dizzy very easily, apparently I should have looked much more like a reanimated corpse, according to my paperwork.
I was finally allowed out of the recovery room and onto the post partum floor, which also meant I was finally allowed to visit my baby. It had been 36 hours since they’d laid her on my chest, and we hadn’t seen each other. If I’d been a little less anemic, I probably would have jumped up and down. As it was, I think I clapped and trembled a little and then cried some.
And she was still perfect. A little less slimy, but no less perfect.
From a writer’s group exercise. Thanks to Nadine for the reflection prompts.
She told God she wanted to tell stories, to spin life from words and infect everyone around her with beauty and hope, to speak the truths that slice like blades, cutting away the rotten, deadened flesh of battle scars. She told God she wanted to burn bright and warm and contagious, light begetting light, fire begetting fire, so the earth would blaze like the night sky. She told God she wanted to cry the tears of the Phoenix, healing the hurts of those with whom she mourned, and calling forth resurrections from the broken, battered children all around.
This is what she told God, and God said that all this was good, and meant, and more, and that she would never be alone or forsaken.
And then God sent her into exile. She wrote alone, she burned alone, she wept alone. Her fire flickered and faltered, grew dim and cold, and she spent herself trying to shore up the wan little ember that remained. With neither strength nor conviction, she muttered the bitter old cliche: “Why?”
And God said nothing.
And God said nothing.
And God said nothing.
It’s hard to live in the moment when the moment seems like the opposite of what you want. Maybe that’s selfish and immature, I’ve lost all perspective, but I found too many moments unbearable, and so I live now at a distance from reality, in exile from myself, coming back to visit a moment occasionally, to see if the sense of it has changed, but it hasn’t, so I withdraw again to my dying campfire of love or self or passion or whatever it was I used to burn with.
I used to find that gratitude journals kept me grounded and present and thankful, but now whenever I attempt lists, I am overly aware of the thinness of the straws at my fingertips. They connect me to nothing, they end a few inches past the end of my reach, and in their futility, they only emphasize my exile and joylessness.
I wonder if my goals are paper puppets, stupid little fantasies to keep me company in the blackness, imaginary friends. I cannot say if I am lost because I’m not even sure I am moving, or that there is anything to move to or from, or if I even have a shape anymore.
A friend and I talked recently about shapes. We talked about the shapes of our bodies, youthful, pregnant, post-babies, post-surgery. She said she used to have this image of herself, that perhaps she wasn’t so pretty, but at least she had a good body. She looked good naked. She said that in her head, this is still how she exists, but that in reality that girl doesn’t exist anymore, post-babies, post-surgery, when her tummy is an alien terrain, unrecognizable to her.
And she observed in passing, as if it were the most obvious, easy thing in the world, that I probably have an image of myself as a creative person surrounded by creative people, and that person maybe just doesn’t exist anymore, and that the trick is in letting go of the old image.
Let the false images die, let the false selves die, let the ego die, die to Me that you may live, for whosoever loses her life for My sake will find it. The words cut me, like blasphemy (but against whom? gods real or imaginary?), both absurd and absurdly painful, and I wonder.
Clearly, something is dying, whether I want it to or not, whether I allow it or not (what a joke!). It was always beyond my control. And God says nothing. And God says nothing. And I hold to the old wishes, and I believe they were affirmed, that they were important, but what if they weren’t? Perhaps they were imaginary friends. And perhaps if I let go, allow the death and (hopeful) resurrection, there will be creativity in a new dimension on the other side. Or perhaps something so foreign that I can’t recognize it at all, like Narnia after the fall of Narnia.
That’s the TOTALLY SUCKY thing about dying selves – it never feels any less like dying, no matter how many times you think you’ve been there, done that. Always the blackness, always the silence, always the pain, always the utter lack of self or choice or dignity.
I can’t frame my life without that image of myself. I don’t know my own shape if I don’t have that to lean into. And maybe that’s the point? Maybe the frame has to die because I am even bigger than I thought. Maybe I’ve been using it as a crutch, to feel safe, filling up the small space I created for myself, feeling important that way, propping up my idea of my life. But I have no schema, no scaffolding, no analogy, no imaginative tool to leap outside of it. It’s a blind wasteland from here. A Great Blank. Like being in the womb (and DAMMIT I WASN’T GOING TO RESORT TO BIRTH ANALOGIES.)
“I can’t believe you did this to me,” she said to God.
And God said nothing.
And they sat in the darkness together for a while longer.
It’s Father’s Day!
If you’ve hung around me for any length of time, you know my father gets kind of a bad rap. You know, he’s The One Who Left, etc. That stuff was formative to my personality, and so tends to get a lot of airtime, but then
I feel bad about that because he has his awesome side too, and this seems like an appropriate day to go WOO-HOO about all that. This grew out of a writer’s group prompt from last year.
My Dad never did anything halfway. Life with him was always a celebration of excess. When he first moved out, he lived and worked out of an industrial warehouse by the train tracks in small-town Columbiana. Looking back as an adult, I think he probably lived there because he couldn’t afford a separate apartment, but to us, who didn’t know from budgeting, it seemed he’d found us a strange, abandoned castle. Piles of alien substances around every corner, sleeping machine monsters, armies of vacuum cleaners standing at attention, and our clapboard bunk beds tucked neatly into the corner where we wrestled and fought and anchored our epic games of hide-and-seek. The treasure room was Dad’s office, in which we weren’t allowed to play, and where one whole wall was covered in sparkling mosaic tile shards, glittering jewels from floor to ceiling, endless patterns forming from the chaos, constellations in his private universe.
Outside the castle, the kingdom was equally exotic. The terrain was mountainous- I can’t remember the substance or color of the towering piles of debris, but they made a perfect landscape for games of adventure, spoil, and danger. And the train tracks, endless and mysterious and deadly, whispered of journeys I would never take, sang of places that only existed in my imagination, and then clamped down with finality on pennies and nickels and my first dog.
That warehouse is one of the earliest place-memories I associate with my father, and the wealth and space and wildness are things that I still associate with him. Dad’s life always smelled of abundance and surprise and magic. There began our tradition of hedonistic feasts – all you could eat pizza, soda, oreos, candies, new toys, and all-nighter movie marathons. Every child’s pot of gold. With my father, every visit was a celebration of wealth whether we had any or not. Why spend a quarter on the grab machines when you could blow ten bucks? Every truck stop we visited in the next decade suffered a shortage of fluorescent stuffed animals after we left, comparing the loot clutched in our small hands. Why spend an hour playing video games when you could spend the whole weekend camped out in front of the Nintendo, working out together how to open that last blasted door in CastleQuest? Why go home when you could go to Niagara Falls, just for the hell of it? Even the car leaked money, one dollar bills growing from the cracks and crevices to be discovered by eager, believing fingers.
It was also at my father’s knee that I learned the keen art of elaborate surprises – both the giving and receiving. When roadtripping, Dad never told us where we were really going. He got so famous for this that as time went on, he was forced to plant multiple layers of false clues about our destination in order to continue fooling us. We always thought we were going to Niagara Falls when we were going to Chicago, and thought we were going to D.C. when we were going to New York. My first surprise birthday party was at the age of 10, at the zoo. When Dad decided we needed to believe in Santa Claus, he and my mom and aunt and uncle went out at 10pm on Christmas Eve to haul in all the lumber for a tree house, and then went to the trouble of sending someone to shake jingle bells under the window the next morning to bring everyone out for the big reveal.
Dad is also the master of Spinning a Bad Situation. What do you do when your restaurant is taking way too long to fill the dinner orders of 5-7 hungry children (allowing for various step-siblings)? Invent games to play with the placemats. Preferably loud, raucus, laughter-inducing games so the staff is encouraged to move you out faster. What do you do with a car full of bored children in interminable traffic? Give the other drivers silly names and invent ludicrous dialogues for them to have with one another. In silly voices. Or just inspire a sing-along. What do you do with a car full of frightened children driving through a violent thunderstorm? Invent a ranking system for the lightning bolts and oversee a game of “Come On, Nature, You Can Do Better Than That. Don’t Be Such A Pussy.”
I learned the art of making magic with my Dad, and to whatever extent I manage to bring a little magic to my students or my friends, I like to think I’m channeling a little of him.
Love you, Dad, exactly as you are. ❤
So, as per typical, I FINALLY saw Frozen months after its initial release. I immediately spent two days catching up on every blog post on the internet that I’d bypassed in fear of spoilers. So I’m a little late to the conversation (again, as per typical). This post will contain spoilers, so if you are living in an even deeper cave than I and haven’t seen it yet, I will understand if you want to skip this for now and hopefully come back later.
Let’s get this part out of the way: It’s not perfect. While some are (hastily and I think incorrectly) hailing it as the most progressive Disney film in history, there are legitimate complaints about characterization, character agency, and plot holes, plot holes, PLOT HOLES. I am highly accomplished in suspending disbelief in order to get lost in a story (stories are my heroin), and even I noticed some of the plot holes.
And I loved it anyway.
I especially felt for Elsa, the repressed but sympathetic antagonist sister, and I can see why her song became THAT SONG. “Let It Go” is going to be the “Part Of That World” for the next generation. Here are both songs if you want to listen again:
And how could “Let It Go” not be the song for the next generation? While Ariel’s song spoke of secret, burning passion, Elsa’s song explodes out of the inner cave, embracing all that latent power and building her her very own ice castle in the sky. No more secret caves for Princesses. Elsa’s song finishes what Ariel’s starts. Almost.
I totally get why this song has hit something deep in the little-girl zeitgeist. Elsa’s repressed powers can be a stand-in for anger, sexuality, artistic or intellectual prowess, leadership capabilities, you name it. Girls especially are taught in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that all of these powers are dangerous, that their natural expressions are not safe for self or others.
And the tighter the cultural bindings, the more likely you will eventually see a dramatic overcorrection. Perhaps even an explosion/self destruction on the magnitude of Elsa’s accidental eternal winter. Other girls bring the eternal winter inside, suffering quietly from crippling depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, etc. (Please note that I am NOT claiming that all, or even most, mental illness is caused by this kind of repression, but I’m certain it’s a contributing factor in many cases). Elsa experiences both of these extremes, first locked away inside herself (almost literally), and then violently erupting when the pressure builds too much. She suffers from an inability to integrate her whole self.
Elsa is so sympathetic a character that a lot of people are confusing her for a second protagonist. She’s not – her character’s entire purpose in the story is to give her sister Anna obstacles to overcome. Also remember, as other critics have done, that Elsa’s solution to her repression/explosion problem is to run away and cut all ties to her responsibilities. She’s the QUEEN. Her plight may be sympathetic, but we can’t point and say “Do as Elsa does” without caveats. While it’s unusual for the antagonist’s character development song to be the runaway hit (the same didn’t happen for Jafar, Ursula, Gaston, or Scar), it still doesn’t make her a protagonist. Frankly, I wish she HAD been a fully-developed co-protagonist, because then her song really would have been the true heir to Ariel’s. Instead it’s a half-way point. This is where my wish-list for Frozen begins:
I wish the story had made room to show more of Elsa’s healing process. Instead, she has a late-stage major epiphany, and we’re left with the usual happily ever after. I mean, it’s a Disney flick, there’s always a too-easy happily ever after, but it would have been nice if, maybe, they had taken one of her post-ice-castle scenes and we could have seen her wrestling more with her power instead of just running from it. I would have loved to see some of the learning process.
Speaking of that, I wish she had shown more agency in her own healing. Essentially, Elsa ends up playing both the almighty sorceress queen and the damsel in distress. She can name and claim her power only by abandoning everything else. She seems utterly helpless to seek real solutions on her own. It’s nice that she’s rescued by her sister and not a handsome prince, but she is rescued. It’s Anna who pursues her, Anna who saves her, and Anna who delivers the info needed to cure the eternal winter.
And let’s talk about Anna for a minute. She’s been accused of being a bit Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with some truth. I don’t think she’s as bad as all that, but I find it harder to like her for personal reasons. Mostly, I am always deeply annoyed by characters (and, okay, sometimes people) who survive to adolescence still dreaming about finding “The One.” This has a lot to do with the gaping chip on my shoulder left by my parents’ divorce. My fantasy of happily ever after was brutally crushed before the age of ten, and anything over 13 years just seems an unseemly age to still believe. Like still believing in a literal Santa Claus. Except more annoying. But that’s just me. One of my many MPDG personality tics. 😀
But again, I don’t think she’s as bad as all that. It’s a little frustrating that her character is under-developed and very naive (which is supposed to make her – charming? Fetching?), but it’s wrong to say, as some have, that her primary objective in the film is to find a man. Her opening “I want” song is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the throughline carries. Again, it’s Anna who pursues, rescues and ultimately delivers the key to healing to her sister. And it’s LOVE. Love heals – how great is that message? Elsa is the badass, but Anna wins the day through love and sacrifice. Her focus and determination to make things right with her sister are what make her ultimately admirable and interesting. MPDG as Christ surrogate. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Although, considering that “immaturity” was Anna’s defining fault, it would have also been nice if she’d matured a little farther by the end of the film. My last wish for Frozen is that, at the end, it was Elsa who had ended up with a love interest, and Anna who had decided to spend some time boy-free discovering her powers, ordinary as those might be. An Ice Queen who is portrayed as both powerful and romance-able, with all the complications that entails, and a MPDG who finds contentment being single, would have been a truer narrative breakthrough in my book. Instead, it’s the “perfectly ordinary” girl who still ends up with the guy prize, and the powerful girl who (still) ends up alone.
Again, this is just my wish list. It hasn’t been my intention to engage in princess-bashing (a popular sport recently), so I hope it hasn’t come across that way. I loved Frozen (we haven’t even talked about Olaf!!). It was tremendously clever and entertaining, and I think it took a couple important steps forward for the Disney Princess narrative arc. Taking the Evil Sorceress Queen trope (Ursula, She of the Poisoned Apple) and making her an abused, vulnerable, sympathetic character with the best song was the biggest triumph in my book. I just like thinking about all the ways we can keep moving forward. Your thoughts are welcome!
Social isolation and depression can become a self-fulfilling circle of pain. In fact, I’m still fairly sure that my current depression is caused largely BY my social isolation, especially because it lifted so almost-completely during the month when my sister (and, thus, many other people) was/were staying with us.
I had a book club last night where pretty much everyone, or nearly everyone, had been feeling isolated for one reason or another, and we were all so grateful to be in human company again that we were tripping over each other to connect. It was like having several sudden gulps of air after being held under water for many minutes – heady and thrilling and life-giving and even a little chaotic.
And this is the problem with the sparse, deep-breath connections you have with people when you’re not living in regular community – every interaction becomes fraught with way more meaning and nuance than it should. In last night’s share-fest, there was a certain heightened, ecstatic breathlessness to our conversation, which was (I think, and I hope for everyone) refreshing and affirming and nourishing. But if something had gone wrong, that heightened quality could have turned a social deep breath into a lungful of water.
I’m contrasting last night’s experience with an experience I had a couple months ago, another deep-breath occasion, in which an acquaintance of mine, who is usually bright and affirming, was apparently having some kind of really bad day (I didn’t ask, it wasn’t a deep-sharing kind of gathering, but her energy, if you’ll excuse the word, was very, uncharacteristically negative). She was muddling through the event, but it was clear she wasn’t very happy, and her humor had taken on a caustic edge. She made one joke at my expense that I wasn’t very troubled about, but then 15 minutes later she made another one that really hit home, highlighted an aspect of my personality that I am aware of and insecure about and ashamed of, and I was kind of done for the night after that.
If I still lived in community, if I had friends readily available for convos and comfort, if I were still surrounded by a lot of people who make me feel safe and likeable, I probably could have shaken this off in an evening, maybe two. I’m 90% sure that this acquaintance didn’t mean anything by her comments. But because I didn’t have enough people around to counteract the negative, I couldn’t be 100% sure, and so her comment crushed me. Crushed. Me. Was this what she really thought of me? I’d thought we liked each other. Do other people talk about me like this behind my back? Is this everyone’s primary perception of me? Is everyone secretly just tolerating my presence? I cried for three days. I was inconsolable. My husband tried heroically to make me feel better and failed. Finally I called my sister, and she knew all the right affirming things to say to snap me out of it. (Have I mentioned how awesome my sister is?).
And the other part of this is that because of the social isolation, I’m not even sure it’s worth bringing up with her. When every interaction is precious gold in the hand, is it worth it to risk tainting one of those moments by bringing up something that she probably doesn’t even remember, because she really DIDN’T mean anything by it? Or what if the reverse happens, and it turns out she really secretly DOESN’T like me – we socialize in overlapping circles, it’s not like I can NOT run into her. So that could be awkward – in fact, could taint many more deep breath occasions down the line. Five years ago, I could have easily been a grown-up and just checked in with her, and even if it turned out she didn’t care for me, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have needed to grieve a little, but, you know, you can’t please everyone, and there were plenty of other people to socialize with, just tolerating each other would have been fine. But now I feel like I’ve been transported back to junior high, where her opinion of me matters much more than I’d like to admit, and so the politics become weird and tense, and checking in about a hurtful off-hand comment seems like a very dangerous endeavor.
Living in isolation seriously skews your sense of perspective.
The thing is that I know I have days where I’m the perpetrator rather than the victim of this probably-unintended negativity – days where I am bringing the thunderstorm with me, and good luck to you if you happen to stand in the way. Depression and isolation only make this worse.
And I hope with all my heart that the friends who have been on the other end of that have had healthy enough communities to brush it off – “Meghan shouldn’t have said that, she must be in a really bad place right now, maybe I’ll say something about it next time we see each other,” but I know statistically that’s not true. We are lonely in the West. Mother Theresa thought it was our great tragedy.
I don’t have a good way to finish this post, so I’ll end with a wish – it is my wish for all of you that you have vibrant, supportive communities, that you dwell in an emotional place where you know you are deeply loved and loveable, a spectacular and unrepeatable member of the world.