Thursday, 17 December 2009
Thursday, 26 November 2009
Thursday, 12 November 2009
I have to admit it: High School Musical fascinates me. My children have watched all three movies about 600 times apiece, so I can claim a certain amount of expertise here. It's in the background as I write, on a continuous loop. Lola loves it so much, I find it hard to deny her. The core audience for this movie appears younger than the originators could possibly have imagined: three-year old Lola is cutting and sticking opposite me, but her face lights up when the first scene begins. "I kall moosikawl!" she trills. Here we go again. I am moderately comfortable with the values HSM is instilling in her. Teamwork, Be True To Yourself; you know, the usual. It’s often nauseating, but Ashley Tisdale helps. She’s funny. I don’t like the Be Heterosexual And Find Your Life Partner At School message, but I can mitigate that by talking about lesbianism and experimentation later.
Each film has the same structure, although with its phenomenal success as a global brand and increasing budget, each movie is more glorious than the last. By the third one, it’s become the cultural equivalent of Grease, Chicago and Meet Me in St Louis all rolled into one. It's full of archetypal characters, spectacular dance numbers and toe-tapping tunes, a heady mix of dreadful lines and fantastic ones (the lines are blurred actually; I’ve started to enjoy the worst of them.)
The thing is, the Disney powerhouse is actually teaching me something as well as my kids. All of us are getting something out of it. My children are American after all; they are immersing themselves in their heritage and I don’t mind that. And as for me, well, it shows the value of structure, proves that the formula of the hero's journey simply never tires, even if it is only choosing what university he should go to. It allows me to enjoy something together with my children, albeit for different reasons. As long as we’re all aware of its manipulative nature, it’s hugely entertaining. The best thing about it is when Lola starts singing “I bubbly found” instead of “I’ve finally found” in the back of the car. Then, we all join in.
Thursday, 29 October 2009
Life has particular resonance for me as I write about motherhood and survival in my memoir. I have written elsewhere that there is nothing I wouldn't have done to help my baby live. It was pure instinct; I didn't question it until later. It is so insightful to watch this fight through the lens of mothers in nature, and witness the lengths they will go to in order to protect their young and increase their offsprings’ chances of survival. I was struck by two creatures in particular: a sprawling octopus lumbering across the sea floor, looking for a cave in which her eggs could safely hatch, and the strawberry frog who meticulously places one tadpole at a time in a watery bromeliad cradle high above the ground, well away from her usual home.
The strawberry frog climbs up and down every day to feed its young, which doesn’t sound all that difficult until you realise the frog is only about a centimetre long in adulthood. She seeks out food and does this mammoth trek daily for a month until the tadpoles turn into little froglets; after which, mum takes them home. This total dedication to increasing their life chances is amazing, but what really blows my mind is the octopus. She lays her eggs and nurtures them with her own body’s resources. When their time comes to hatch, she makes the ultimate sacrifice: she dies. Now you’d think that was a pretty stupid thing to do, just when the tiny wee babies are about to enter the world. But she’s hedged her bets. She’s let loose about 100,000 little octopi.
(Online snapshots taken from bbc.co.uk's iplayer here:)
Monday, 3 August 2009
I’ve been reading Edward Humes’ Baby ER, which is all about life (and death) in a Newborn Intensive Care Unit. The book was written in 2000, around the same time Maia was born, and it has brought back a lot of memories, nearly nine years after her death, making me realise the extent of what I’ve done by embarking on this writing task. Nine years of grieving, and the raw bouts of emotion I used to live by are quiet and still, like sleeping lions. Occasionally they rear their fearful heads, but reading that book is an ambush. It’s all so very familiar: there’s the drug addict baby, the meconium baby, the IVF triplets, and the equivalent to our baby, with the bloated stomach and the twisted intestines, though no NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis), the disease that killed Maia. Humes writes only briefly about NEC, noting that the Greek word for death is embedded in the name, and my gut twists in response as I read, the sadness infiltrating my bones.
I also finished Rachel Cusk’s book, A Life’s Work, her memoir of motherhood from a few years back, and that was a reminder of how gruelling parenting really is. Not that I need any outsider to tell me that; I have daily proof, but when Maia died, I not only grieved my daughter, but I grieved motherhood, too. It didn’t seem gruelling to me, then. I was desperate for it. People seemed to forget that I was still a mother, and that was an unspeakable wound to me. I idealised the state of motherhood, so that when I gave birth to a healthy child, I was ready to enter a perfect world, and just like Cusk, I was utterly shocked when it stuck its tongue out at me. I must have been fucked up by it, because I really felt that parenting a healthy child was, at times, harder than parenting an ill one – in the sense that, in the hospital, there are many people caring for your child, and you are never alone. Cusk’s loneliness seeps from every page; only poetry and literature are her friends. Her book is testament to how very, very estranged you can feel, when the “happiest day of your life” comes – and goes.
Saturday, 18 July 2009
Today came news that Henry Allingham, at 113 the world's oldest man, has died. The BBC announced his death saying, “His life spanned three centuries and six monarchs and he had five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild.” They even published a timeline of world events, since his birth in 1896, which bizarrely neglects to mention the Second World War, but includes the death of Elvis Presley. It is, of course, a very public record of what this man has lived through: I don’t know anything about his private life (though it turns out a book about his life was published last year.) I can’t help but think, despite the fact that this man has seen the cruelty of war, he was a lucky, lucky bloke. For what about those people, who have died young, and barely had a chance to make an imprint on the world?
Now I know as well as anybody that luck is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure Henry didn’t feel lucky, ooh, around 1914-18. But this is a man, given the evidence of his large family, who has surely known love, laughter, friendship and success, as much as pain, horror and sadness. I know I’m making a lot of assumptions, but most of them are pretty universal. He’s a man who has experienced the full pelt of life: had a childhood, whether rich or poor, easy or difficult; made decisions, some bad, some good; made mistakes and hopefully learnt from them, and grew up to be a man. Not just that, though. He grew up to be a man the whole country is mourning.
What a plentiful store-cupboard of memories Henry’s family will have to draw upon. When they feel sorrow in their hearts they’ll be able to dry their tears with an old family anecdote, or maybe by sharing one of Henry’s old jokes. By and by, the pain of his loss will be lessened by the familiar but comforting platitude, “he had a good life”. A long and active life and a legacy to leave behind has to be among many people’s dearest hopes and dreams. The contrast of Henry’s long life, however, with my daughter’s pitifully short one of nine weeks, is poignant. It’s not only the fact that Maia’s dead and our time with her was so short and tumultuous, that there are few happy memories to mine. Stephen Levine has written: “the death of a child is a fire in the mind. The mind burns with alternatives that never come to pass, with fantasies of remarkable recuperations, with dreams of adult accomplishment.” Maia will never grow up to be a woman. It’s the adult accomplishments we’ll never see that I miss today.
Wednesday, 15 July 2009
In December 2000, during a raging snowstorm, I gave birth to a baby at 25 weeks. She weighed about as much as a bag of sugar. Not much more than half a kilo. She was living at the edge of viability; we were living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, far away from friends, family and everything we knew. We called her Maia. I’m looking at a Polaroid of her now: it’s all we have. Two large brown eyes peer out from the confines of an incubator. There is no mouth. It’s covered with a gag of white sticky tape, yellowed with spittle, holding two large blue breathing tubes in place. She died when she was nine weeks old. Next to the picture, what remains of her ashes are nestled in an iridescent art-glass vase, etched with a single pink lily, a copy of which is seared into my arm, the memory of her pain made flesh. Dan, my husband, and I travelled to the most beautiful places to scatter her ashes, but we spent the next several years floating in the ether ourselves. In the midst of the worst of the grief, I turned to the letters, poetry and prose of writers who had lost children, people who understood what it was like to drown in self-pity, hopeless longing and utter despair.
As I write, my two-year old daughter is crying out in her sleep and will not relent. She brings me inexorably into the present. “Mummy! Mummy!” she calls from her transitional mattress on the floor, “I want a cuddle mummy!” So I go into her room, kiss her and tell her: “Lola, mummy’s here, everything is going to be alright.” I check on Daisy, Lola’s older sister, snoring quietly in her flowery bed, and I lie down at right angles to Lola’s belly button, reaching up to stroke her head and reassure her. The carpet’s a bit itchy, but I don’t think to change my position: I’m somewhat addled; it’s my birthday after all, and we’ve been enjoying the Burgundy, a good bottle Papy brought back from France and gave me to celebrate in style. I get up a little too soon, telling Lola I’m going to come back, but Dan hears the protests, goes in to kiss her goodnight and tells her what she wants to hear: yes, Lola, daddy will sleep with you in your room, fold down the spare bed next to yours, cuddle you all night if he has to. Sucker, I think. As Lola’s cries turn to song – I can hear her singing Old Macdonald – I sit down to carry on writing, and I can’t help reflecting on what Barbara Kingsolver might call my outrageous fortune.
Kingsolver is just one of the writers I related to after Maia died; another was Mark Twain, whose own daughter, Susy, died when she was in her early twenties. I found extracts from both Twain and Kingsolver, side by side, in one of the diaries I kept with me. So much of the writing I devoured during that time was devoted to grief, and often it would be presented in the form of a journey. Shipwrecks were a common metaphor. I wrote in my diary’s margin: “amazing how the writing I love talks about ships and shipwrecks. Obvious I suppose. But so true.” The contrast between the Twain and Kingsolver extracts I’d copied down in my diary demonstrate that there is a transition from raw sorrow (Twain) to coming to an understanding of sorts (Kingsolver). We have to find our own way through it. Nine years on from Maia’s death, I’m finally ready to write my own memoir: it is a journey into and out of a void, a story about grief. There may or may not be shipwrecks in it, but there’s definitely a snowstorm.
From a letter Mark Twain wrote to a friend after the death of his daughter
(Note: the underlining, caps and comments are all mine, as I used them in my diary):
“Do I want you to write to me? Indeed I do…the others break my heart, but you will not. You have a something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates.”
(I want THIS in a friend.)
“And you know the secret places of our hearts. You know our life – the outside of it – as others do – and the inside of it – which they do not. You have seen our whole voyage.”
(Amazing how the writing I love talks about ships and shipwrecks. Obvious I suppose. But so true.)
“You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail, and the flag at the peak. And you see us now, chartless, adrift – derelicts, battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone. For it is gone. And there is NOTHING in its place.”
From “High Tide in Tucson”, by Barbara Kingsolver
“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for along time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.
It’s not such a wide gulf to cross, then, from survival to poetry. We hold fast to the old passions of endurance that buckle and creak beneath us, dovetailed, tight as a good wooden boat to carry us onward. And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another – that is surely the basic instinct. Baser even than hate, the thing with teeth, which can be stilled with a tone of voice or stunned by beauty. If the whole world of the living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope. The thing with feathers.
What a stroke of luck. What a singular brute feat of outrageous fortune: to be born to citizenship in the Animal Kingdom. We love and we lose, go back to the start and do it right over again. For every heavy forebrain solemnly cataloging the facts of a harsh landscape, there’s a rush of intuition behind it crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.”
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Monday, 22 June 2009
Last week I was browsing the college bookshelves and hit upon a slew of random books, each sparking ideas for themes giving context to my memoir, such as displacement and travel (I lived in the US for 11 years), uses of autobiography (what is memoir but this), and female self-representation (I can’t write a book without understanding my own vision of identity, and particularly motherhood). I found about eight books that I couldn’t leave behind, so I took them all out. When I got them home, it was the smallest, simply written, most unassuming book, Adrian Poole’s Tragedy that had the biggest instant impact. That one word – tragedy - began reverberating in my head and refused to go away. It took me back to a moment over eight years ago, to a coffee shop in Minneapolis, in the heart of the American Midwest.
I was sitting in Starbucks overlooking a snow-filled street, meeting with my bosses, Anne and Mary, before going back to work. I’d had a baby four weeks before by C-section, and was still hobbling around in discomfort. The day was so cold, my nostril hair had frozen (it’s a very odd feeling; when that happens, you know the day is going to be below zero Fahrenheit.) Minneapolis has something of a second city looming over the city streets. It’s called the Skyway, and it’s a consumer Mecca of shop-lined bridges linking offices (and yet more shops) so that Minnesotans never have to go outside. You can insulate yourself from the harsh conditions to the extent that you can leave your house via the integral garage and drive to a heated parking lot in the system: you don’t even need a coat. So there we were, coatless and hatless, sipping lattes in our brown leather armchairs, discussing my new baby: nothing odd about that, except that Maia had been born 15 weeks early. An early Christmas present, as the obstetritian put it.
I was incredibly optimistic about how Maia was doing, and I proudly relayed all my stories about Maia to Anne and Mary. My daughter was robust and feisty for a 25-weeker; at five days old, she’d astounded us by coming through surgery to fix her patent ductus arteriosus. (The “flap” that normally closes at birth, allowing a baby to breathe air, had remained open: it was a common problem for a baby born on the edge of viability.) I laughed as I described the everyday task of changing Maia’s tiny preemie diapers; they swamped her impossibly tiny bottom, which was about as big as a plum. But the best story of all was the one about New Year’s Eve. While everyone else was out drinking themselves to oblivion, my husband Dan and I were holding Maia for the very first time: holding her, skin against skin, heartbeat against heartbeat, trying to pretend that the tubes, the screeching alarms and the flashing lights didn’t exist. In the middle of the intensive care unit, sitting in a rocking chair, I closed my eyes and tuned in to the smell of Maia’s skin, her silken dark head cupped under my hand, the Barbie-like limbs curled up tightly under her soft belly, tickling my own. It was heavenly.
“It’s so tragic,” Anne said.
Tragic? I couldn’t understand what she meant, not at all. I had an amazingly strong baby who was going to survive, despite the odds. She was small and, while what she’d been through was immense, we were convinced the worst was over. What did Anne mean by calling my baby “tragic”? Maia was alive, wasn’t she? I pitied the other babies in the intensive care unit: Maia was in crack-baby company. Their stories were tragic. The nurses reassured us that Maia had had the best start; she was bound to do well. And for the first six weeks of her life, that was true. Having a preemie was overwhelming, it was frightening and stressful, but we had hope, we had good care, and we had each other. Tragedy was not a word I would have picked to describe Maia’s existence.
Until she died.
Tragedy, catastrophe, devastation: these were all words that took on new meaning. I understood them now. They were real, no longer figments of my imagination; they mutated from distant, amorphous, conceptual terms to the here and now. I couldn’t get Anne’s comment about Maia being tragic out of my head. How could I have been so optimistic? I wept at the fourteen days I'd wasted back at work when I should have been with Maia. I’d been saving my maternity leave, so that I could spend time at home with Maia in the spring. I was worried about losing my job if I took extra leave. So I spent two weeks at an ad agency researching ways to sell more dog food, in between breast pumping in a cupboard and seeing Maia at lunchtimes. At the end of that fortnight, when Maia was six weeks old, she became critically ill, and we moved into the intensive care unit to be with her night and day. Three weeks later, I watched my child die. I took the rest of my maternity leave, nursing my grief, my devastation, my catastrophe, instead of my beloved child. I was still pumping milk and Maia was dead. Then, and only then, did I realise what Anne had meant. It was a tragedy.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
Everybody has a book in them, apparently, and I am no exception. In January this year I started a professional writing master’s degree. I thought I might pull off writing a book if I actually knew what I was doing. I still don’t, but I’m starting to feel a little bit closer to identifying what my book is going to consist of. Words, for one. Hurrah! It’s a breakthrough. It’s so easy to tell people you are writing a book – and, as I did, to leave work in 2002 telling everyone with smug certainty that’s what you’re going to do – but it’s not so easy to admit, seven years later, that not only are you nowhere near achieving your goal, you haven’t even started, and furthermore, you don’t actually know what kind of book you want to write. I have been in the dark for a long time.
This week, everyone on the MA course had to pick a specialism, and for me, that choice came down to fiction and non-fiction. In order to make the decision, I had to look very closely at my motivation for writing. The reason I’d given up work to write a book in 2002 was because my daughter had died, and I desperately needed to write and tell the world about it. At the beginning, I shared everything: the grief was my guiding force, and I couldn’t believe anyone wouldn’t want to read about it. I even sent one of my heartfelt poems to the New Yorker: that’s how good I thought it was. (Now I know I was mistaking depth of feeling for good writing. I don’t know anything at all about writing poetry for public consumption.) As time went on, I began to feel embarrassed about my wretched prose as well, and I didn’t want anyone to see my naked grief any more. Deciding to do the master’s course was a push to make good on an old resolution in a way that wouldn’t be just writing-as-therapy. The grief is a guiding force for my writing, but now I understand it is not the only one.
I browsed my bookshelves looking for a sign, something that would inspire me to make the right decision. I came across Isabel Allende’s Paula, a book she began writing while her daughter was in a coma and finished after Paula died. I pulled the book down to examine it again. I’ve read it many times. It is a book mired in sadness, but it is also a book about the joy of living. One reviewer described it as “beautiful and heart-rending…Memoir, autobiography, epicedium, perhaps even some fiction: they are all here, and they are all quite wonderful.” For me, the book was like a grief potion: as soon as I opened it, familiar waves of loss came streaming out of the bottle. I sat curled up in my favourite armchair, lost in the narrative and sighing at Allende’s prose, and realised this was a format I wanted to explore. It reflected something I wrote in my MA application, and somehow I’d forgotten: I want to document my daughter's story and help others understand and deal with grief and loss; I would like to help others avoid feeling, as I did, like an undignified, invisible, stupid human being. Then I wrote to Isabel Allende in bold sorrow and told her I was going to write a memoir.
To my astonishment, Isabel wrote back, not just to tell me she was sorry about Maia’s death, but also to offer some advice. Could I have received a clearer sign? I don’t think so. I am finally going to get my words down on paper, although I am well aware that the hardest part is yet to come: I’ve got to start looking the facts in the eye again. Isabel told me this: “Writing a memoir about loss is like going into a cavern with a candle, illuminating every corner slowly, finding your way in the darkness.” I haven’t gone into the cavern yet, but I’m glad to have found the candle.
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Have you seen the BBC's campaign advertising their poetry season? I saw one of the ads the other day. Frank Skinner was giving directions to a cabbie in the form of a poem. For an instant, it was mildly disturbing to hear the football-mad comedian reciting poetry, but I realised that was because there was something curiously sad and lovely about it. The sadness was in the poem, but I also felt a little sad because we don't encounter much poetry, these days; perhaps the Arctic Monkeys hit the spot every now and again, but it isn't enough. There was loveliness in the language, and in hearing someone 'ordinary' deliver it. I find I encounter the most poetry when someone has died, or another awful thing has happened, and it's so uplifting to enjoy a poem in an everyday way. (I'm so inspired, I just ordered 'A Poem A Day', a book of poetry for children by Adrian Mitchell and illustrated by the wonderful Lauren Child among others.)
Here's a link to the Skinner ad. The verse he recites is from 'Where Are the Waters of Childhood' by Mark Strand:
On the subject of poetry at large, I still haven't managed to track down Mary's dots, the subject of a poem I mentioned in my last post, although I did have a bit of a breakthrough. It was rather exciting, actually. I sent a note to the late poet Adrian Mitchell's agent, and guess who replied to me? Celia Mitchell - his wife. I felt honoured, because not only had she bothered to reply, naming the poem, the collection in which it was published and the page number it was on, she also said I could contact her if I had any problems finding it. (The book is now out of print.) The problem is, the poem she cited - Song About Mary - is not the poem I am looking for. Not a dot in sight. I have ordered a second hand copy of Poems (1964) to make sure, but I fear the mystery deepens.
For the record, here's a link to the Song about Mary that I think Celia is talking about:
Methinks this is becoming a bit of a poetry obsessed blog, so next time perhaps I'll venture elsewhere. Till then, I bid you adieu.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
Welcome to my parallel universe. This is the first blog I have ever created: I have lost my blog virginity, and it feels... terrifying.
Thankfully I found a dotty template, which helps to ease the transition, because I love dots. Love them, love them, love them. You know that scene in American Beauty where Angela is rolling around in scarlet rose petals? I'm like that with dots. Never done it literally of course, but there's something about polka dots that makes me swoon with nostalgia and longing and want to jump into them. Perhaps it's because I'm a child of the 70's, and those dots rekindle happy childhood memories - let's face it, polka dots were the best of a bad bunch, a safe bet among a sea of mustard and fern swirls and other hideous patterns; I still shudder when I think back to a particular tartan jumper in those colours. To be quite honest the dots in this template don't quite cut it: they bear a frightening resemblance to my childhood yellow and green. I'd rather have simple, straight-talking red or vintage blue dots, but I suppose you can't have everything.
While I'm on the subject of dots, there is a poem featuring them that I desperately want to track down. It might be by Ted Hughes. Or not. I've written to the British Library in the hope that someone clever will be able to identify it immediately, but I've heard nothing back; I can't think why. What I remember are the words:
But Mary...Mary had three dotsI've googled it, naturally, and it turns out Three Dots is a clothing brand originating in the "Wilds of California" (LA?), but my Mary's no fashionista. The power of the blog-o-sphere will be truly revealed to me if someone comes up with the identity of the elusive poem. Gah, who am I kidding? The power of the blog-o-sphere will be well and truly revealed to me if anybody reads this. Like Mary, I shall take comfort in my deep and meaningful dots...