Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Sweater for Rachel

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my niece, Rachel Grace's, death. She was born many weeks early and lived for about 48 hours. Just doing my thing -knitting, writing, trying to make meaning from the circumstances- I seem to have come up with the draft of a book. This is a DRAFT of the introduction, but in honor of Rachel it seemed appropriate to post it today.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that the birth of any baby can be a gift to the world. It does not matter to me if the child has physical and/or cognitive challenges. It doesn’t matter if the child will only live a few days. The child is perfect. Nonetheless, the circumstances around his or her birth can be staggeringly imperfect. Of course, we want easy lives rather than hard ones for the babies in our lives, and so we prepare. We give up coffee (!). We take more naps. We listen to Mozart. In that same spirit, we acknowledge that full-term pregnancies are better for babies than shorter-term ones. In the case of a premature infant, something is very wrong, even if just for a short time.

It may seem silly to knit for such a non-standard situation. How many babies can this affect, after all? The answer is “a lot,” but that is not the point. We knit for many reasons. We soothe ourselves with knitting. We knit to show love when words fail us. We knit when we don’t know what else to do. There’s a vague sense of disquiet, that “something’s wrong” feeling, when a knitter finds herself without her knitting. We knit because it’s our art, quibbling about the distinction between art and craft aside. In short, we knit because doing so is part of who we are.

Moreover, it must be said that knitters flourish in bad times; it’s where we are at our best. Whatever the problem, we try to cushion its impact with soft, warm yarn, knitted up with all the love we can muster. I know for a certain, lived truth that the stories of premature babies do not always end happily. Rachel Grace, my niece, lived among us for about 48 hours. She was our perfect Rachel, just as the world and our family needed her to be; nothing about her life was a mistake or a failure. And yet, she died. Knitting has a role here, too. I knew that she would probably be born premature, and I knit anyway. She never wore the things I made for her, and that matters not at all. Knitting those things was no sillier, for sure, than the fact that I was knitting receiving blankets for a baby born at the end of June in Alabama. That was probably way stupider, actually.

I will argue that knitting for premature babies is no more futile than any other knitting. If you only judge its immediate utility, knitting is always futile. Babies outgrow garments as quickly as we can knit them, sometimes after only one wearing. I have been known to misjudge entirely, and a knitted garment NEVER fit its intended recipient. Knitted garments cost more to make than their mass-produced counterparts. Certainly, my time could be more productively spent in other ways. (Dusting comes immediately to mind.) And yet, I will argue to my last gasp that knitting still has merit.

Knitted baby garments warm and protect. They organize rituals, as we see with, say, knitted baptismal gowns. Knitted toys are fun and harmless when thrown. Knitted blankets welcome babies into families, as in “Auntie Andrea always makes the receiving blankets. Here’s yours.” And they even mark life transitions. Auntie Andrea also makes (has great intentions of making, anyway) the afghan that accompanies a college freshman off to his new adult life. Premature babies need many of these same life markers; we just have to provide them faster.

Sometimes, though, even knitting is not enough. In the case of the howling grief that accompanies the death of a child, it was not. My next line of defense is to write. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. And when even that fails, I teach. Healing from Rachel’s death required all three. This book is the result.

I have designed patterns specifically for preemies and micro-preemies. You will find the standard baby wardrobe of hats, booties, and blankets made tiny. But more than that, you will find garments that accommodate the machinery and wizardry that attempt to mimic the simple elegance of a mother’s body. You will also find patterns that allow for the interesting social bonding that occurs between a tiny preemie and his or her parents. And finally, we have to acknowledge that on some level reducing the number of pre-term babies requires not better technology but better care of their mothers. In that spirit, I have included a pattern for mom. It’s not exactly a public health intervention, but it’s a symbol that at least part of our focus needs to be on her.

Alongside each pattern, you will find an essay based on my reflections as I designed and knit each item. I claim no great wisdom. I don’t even claim small wisdom, come to that. But I have walked this road, and if my experience helps anyone then so much the better. And finally, on the off chance that the sale of the book results in any actual money, it will be donated entirely to the March of Dimes in Rachel’s name, to help ease the lives of all babies.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Not those fantasies. Calm yourselves.

When the kids were little -and from time to time, driving me right 'round the bend- I would toss off fantasies of my alternate life. You know, the life where all is peachy, no one's diaper needs changing, no plumbing breaks, and one meets up with only interesting challenges. Yeah. That life ;)

Leaving to go live on the beach and sell margaritas to the tourists was a favorite. Or, I would threaten to join a communal household where my only tasks were making bread and knitting for the community. This would be a LARGE communal household, apparently, since there are quite a few other tasks involved in managing a home. The details are a little vague, obviously, but it goes without saying that this household too is near a beach.

Of course, the fantasy life would be every bit as much trouble as real life; we all know this. However, humans also still occasionally fantasize about starting over, taking the path not chosen this time.

I was given that opportunity to start over (tragically, minus the beach part)-although it felt like a cataclysm at the time. My life today has very little to do with my life a few years ago. All my fretting about this life's new challenges is just the admission that being the grown-up in my own story is occasionally hard. However, it is way better than NOT being the grown-up, that's for darn sure.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Freak Out

Michael teases me about my goals and my goals having goals and possibly being a little obsessive about this process. When I tell you that my current goals list (scheduled for completion two years from now) is 39 PAGES long, it's possible that you will agree with him. I think I agree with him, come to that. But, it's what I do, and it harms no one.

Much of those 39 long pages is just a rephrasing (operationalizing, in annoying social science lingo) of the amazing discovery that I get to make the rules now. So I blather on about ontological frameworks and questions like "what is health?" and try to figure out what that means for me and how I might get there. Then I move on to "what do shelter and haven mean for me?" and then I muse about how I want my house to be THAT, whatever that is. On and on through "scholarship" and "community" and "creativity".....

Seriously, you ask????? Yeah. Seriously. It's a wonder I get by with 39 pages ;)

"Thou shalt not freak out" is one of my new rules -a rule I have a great deal of trouble following, I might add. It's easy to focus on the not-yet-done(kitchen ceiling still an embarrassment) and the impending disasters waiting around the corner (I refuse to even speculate here.) Would it be easier to stay centered in the moment, not borrowing trouble (as Jill so frequently has to caution me against), if I had some kind of spiritual practice?

Probably. Sundays without church still feel a little ungrounded to me. On the one hand, I certainly don't have time to sit somewhere and be annoyed (occasionally even enraged) for an hour. They ought to at least pay me, if that's going to happen. On the other hand, I miss the liturgical punctuation to the week. I miss the days when there was a community that I loved there. I miss the good and wonderful things that Catholicism can offer and seems to so intentionally have turned its back on. (Thou shalt not end sentences with a preposition is apparently not one of my rules.)

So, granting that I can't "do" Catholicism in its current form, is a fledgling/returning yoga and meditation practice enough? I think it could be, but it isn't quite yet. I do think, though, that the lack of a spiritual dimension to my life (What is spirituality? That will be good for another few pages of musing!!) is part of why the weekends are so formless -not that that's the biggest problem of a lack of spirituality.

Maybe it's time to go on a retreat somewhere -even if just with a tent,a book, and my journal. And possibly a bottle of wine ;)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Middle-Aged Bridget Jones

"At times like this, continuing with one's life seems impossible... and eating the entire contents of one's fridge seems inevitable. I have two choices: to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood and eventually be eaten by Alsatians... or not, and this time I choose not. I will not be defeated by a bad man and an American stick insect! Instead, I choose vodka. And Chaka Khan."

I had a very strange day yesterday. Mostly sleeping, as it happens. And beating myself up, for the entertainment value of it all, I suppose. I mean, seriously, most people ENJOY the weekends. What's wrong with me that they make me feel pathetic? What's wrong with me that...... blah, blah, blah....

Then, the little iPod shuffled to Chaka Khan belting out "All By Myself" and I realized that I was having a Bridget Jones day. For crying out loud. As darling as she is, she is 30 and I'm, well, not. (Although, one shouldn't prematurely rule out the possibility of chasing Colin Firth down the street wearing only one's underwear.)

OK. It's over. Seriously, that kind of self-pity is just boring. There are plenty of things to do, plenty of things to feel powerful about, proud of... There are plenty of interesting things to work on. Today will be better.

Carved Anew by the Details of your Devotions

It’s Mary Oliver’s thought. “You too can be carved anew by the details of your devotions.” And in fact, this is the plan. I have concerns about not getting everything done. But they aren’t the concerns of a flibbertygibbit who wanders from one thing to another, starting them all and finishing none. Not quite. Or not every day, anyway.

Many things languished during my ill-fated marriage. Love, certainly. But also attention to the house, attention to my professional goals, …well, you get the idea. To address this situation, you know by now that my goals have goals and that I have charts and mind maps and vision boards to prove it. I hope you know –I hope I know, come to that- that I am working on most of these neglected areas and that I have the rest waiting patiently in the queue. I’m relying on a hope that there is a psychic difference between “ignored” and “planned,” even though the reality feels the same at this particular moment.

I do wonder (worry is too strong a word) if my concerns are not sufficiently weighty. Can I be a scholarly expert on refugees and global homelessness if I spend all my public blogging time reporting about my house, or yoga, or the cats? Is that really where my attention is? Where’s the gravitas?

Well, first off, is it not possible to be simultaneously a serious scholar and light-hearted? Few are. I get it that I’m walking a weird path here. But I just don’t think I can maintain grave and serious across the lifespan of a career. Well, I know I can’t. But I also know that I have something to contribute. So, stipulating that I know how to behave in public places, can’t it be true that I am fundamentally unimpressed with much of the academic posturing I see and still be serious? Light-hearted is not the same thing as air-headed. I want to carve that path, and have that path carve me.

More importantly, though, I don’t think it’s an indication of flightiness that I am spending so much time thinking about my house and gardens and yoga and cats. These are also things that anchor a life. They are things that root a life in a place and a time. And they shelter me. I lost safety –not the way the people I study have, heaven knows- but that loss jerked my life into a new path. Feathering my own nest, tending to its structure and stability, remind me that I am creating my own safety. (As much as anyone can, that is.)

When I get frazzled and a little unhinged (and it happens, and not just to me, I remind myself), well-meaning people advise me to slow down. Do less. Well, first of all, I’ll obsess about however much work is in front of me -no matter how slight-, so slowing down won’t really help the stated problem. Moreover, if I do less, then I won’t get everything done. A lifetime is not enough.

So, I really am looking at this mission expansion idea.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kitty Snuggles and Mission Expansion

I was quasi-thinking while still mostly sleeping this morning. Cillian and Claddagh come to wake me up at about 4:00 in the morning. They pat my cheek with their paws. They nibble on my fingers, if I have carelessly left them available outside the covers. I am NOT open to these gentle suggestions. I have to get up at 5 anyway, but the difference between 4 and 5 is really important to me. Claddagh politely gives in and goes back to sleep at my feet. Cillian is younger,feistier, and holds out for play-time somewhat longer. Eventually, though, I fall back asleep, while still in the middle of petting him. He concedes more or less gracefully, and with my hand on his back, we all sleep for another 45 minutes or so. It's cozy and sweet, and the only consequence is that I have to change the sheets slightly more often than I would otherwise.

This having pets thing began so innocuously. Claddagh adopted us. Then he needed a buddy. I looked around, and it was done. And now my life is bigger and richer. Not simpler.

Hang on for an impossibly tortured segue. I just this week wrote a draft of a paper suggesting that, in spite of hideous fiscal pressures, this is not the time for universities to be risk-averse. The answer to our troubles is not, I think, retrenchment and mission truncation; it's large-scale collaboration and expansion. Assume I made my case, just for the sake of argument ;) I wonder if I was talking to myself. ("As usual", mutter my children.)

Maybe it's like the cats. Perhaps my flailing around, trying to organize and simplify and eliminate is the wrong approach. Perhaps a richer life is LESS simple. Where do the ideas of expansion and collaboration take me, I wonder?

Yoga and Writing

I am late to the dance, as usual, but I'm in. School's out for the summer, and I don't want to lose my writing mojo. And I really don't want to lose my yoga mojo. So, this is perfect: New Project.

In 21 days, I can get a boat-load of writing done @ 800 words a day! In 21 days, research shows, a new habit forms. My yoga is pretty much at five days a week already, assuming you count a restorative hanging-around-on-the-yoga-mat enough of a practice for one of those days. Nonetheless, yoga will be that much closer to fully reintegrated into my life. It will be mine again, and my heart (the metaphorical one) and my body crave that.

So, what should I write about for 21 days?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Math-Rat Report

He's gone -moved away -to New Jersey (I think) for the summer, and then presumably off to UT-Austin to be with one of his lady-loves. Why she would sign on for this is beyond me, but she is not my problem.

Here's the thing. I've been in a mostly-silent dither with myself for a few weeks now. I knew this day was coming; I just didn't know the actual date with any precision. All my pals would say things like "Won't that be SUCH a relief for you??!!" Clearly, the right answer was embedded in the question, so having been a good student once upon a time, I would dutifully provide that answer. But it wasn't quite what I was feeling.

And of course I can't actually describe that feeling with any accuracy. There was some sadness. Some irritation, certainly. Some glee -now I get the kids all to myself. (Picture me rubbing my hands together in anticipation...) Some astonishment (and a smidge of shame) as I see the distorted and abusive patterns than evolved over the days and years. I knew I was wanting unreasonable -even mutually exclusive- things. Within seconds of each other, I would think "he's not even going to say goodbye??" followed by "you would just smack him if he showed up." There's this never-ending dialogue between what I'm apparently "supposed" to feel and what I do feel.

So, quite by accident, I learned last night that he is gone. It's weirdly serendipitous that I'm using my new home office for the first time this week. I'm still getting used to it, but I'm totally loving it. So, I was sitting there, working on a paper in my yummy yellow office. (Remind me to post pictures.) And the this way-that way dithering on the subject of Math-Rat was ....gone.

Huh... I thought. This must be what peace feels like. And I went back to writing.