Monday, January 25, 2010

Letter to Opal, abridged

February 21, 2010,

My dear Opal, you will be three months old tomorrow and I feel inspired to write you a letter.

You are taking your morning nap on the bed next to me right now. You love to lie on your side, wrapped like a fleece burrito in your favorite blanket with the pink dots and brown edging, the super-soft one that shows up in half the photos. Your arms are gently hugging Elie the squishy elephant-rattle (I think this helps keep your arms from flailing), and the cloud-b giraffe lets out a continuous sigh of white noise behind your head. I have never seen anything quite as perfect, except maybe for the version of you that did the very same thing yesterday.

You are growing and developing in such a miraculous, mind-stopping way. Watching you is like watching an orchid grow—the changes are seamless and fluid and only recognizable if you avert your eyes and come back. When I set you down next to a vision of yourself from one week or one month ago, your growth is unmistakable. That is one of the things I have found with parenthood; I have never paid so close attention to anything in my life. I strain my eyes to see deeper and deeper in and yet so much is still a mystery.

Anyhow, it is tempting to spend your whole nap time frolicking about in the poetry of it all, but I am sure when you are looking back on this twenty years from now, you are also going to be curious about what is (was) actually happening during this time in your life.

Oop—you just woke up. You reach out of sleep like a still-life of baby-superman, lips pursed and back arched like a frying pan. All of this happens before your eyes open like freshly resurrected oysters.

Oh, hello mom. Good morning.

Developmentally, you are doing beautifully. You are holding your head up steadily and can pretty much pull yourself up to sitting if we offer our index fingers to help. You just found your tongue yesterday and have been chewing on it like gum. You also just figured out how to make big splashes in the bathtub and seem intent to study the art of getting mommy wet with your kicking. (I love how you study things. Nothing is automatic and mindless.) You giggle and smile all the time, but make certain to make us work for the giggles so they are never taken for granted. You often take a break during nursing to examine my face with your eyes, measuring it up as if you were gathering apples in a basket with your stare. You love mirrors and can hold on to your rattle and have even been reaching for things. You have an amazing grip, the grip of a rock climber—something many people have commented on (along with the hair and those fabulous ears). I do love a lady with a good strong handshake. You are fascinated with your hands, and explore them with eye-crossing focus using your tongue and eyes, as if each finger has a different personality for you to acquaint yourself with. You don’t currently take a bottle, although we are working on it (with my milk) and you don’t particularly like to be away from daddy or me at the moment. But you love to be held by familiar people if we are close by.

And a word about Daddy. When he gets home from work he is bursting at the edges-- I have never seen a man who is so excited to come home to his ladies. I know this simple fact impacts you in positive ways that neither of us will even begin to understand until much later. Your daddy is one of the lights in your life, and you are clearly one in his, as well. The two of you together are like putting a candle between two mirrors in a dark room, it's magic and contagious. You two really do have a special and spectacular bond and I feel so fortunate that this is the case.

Mommy has learned so so much in these last three months of having you around and it is assuredly just beginning. I am learning to trust my instincts and to relax while protecting you like a mama bear but without protecting you too much. (That one is an enigma to me.) I am learning to be gentle with myself and to avoid over-explaining. I try to laugh at myself, at us, when the day consumes my attention beyond all six senses, and I am learning to let the expectations go.

A dear friend said to us before you were born:
“Before you have children, you spend your time searching for a path (to practice sanity and mindfulness). Once you have kids, the path has found you, permanently."

Truth is, I love being your mother and I want to continue to show up as a better and better version of myself. And I don’t think I would be as inspired to grow in this way if I were indeed, still on my own. I am so glad you are here, honey.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

What exactly do these childrens' rhymes mean?

I was doing a bit of research online the other day, hoping to expand my repertoire of lullabies and kid's rhymes and what I discovered was alarming.

Many of the songs and nursery rhymes we sing to our babies, and have been singing for decades, are more than slightly sullen. And after having given it a little thought, I became very curious about what's behind these glum lyrics that have been put to perky rhythms--where did these popular little ditties come from? These are songs that I have been singing since I was a tiny girl, and it never even occurred to me to inquire what the words even meant.

Let's take "Ring Around the Rosy" as the first example. A song loved by sweet little girls in sundresses everywhere who dance in a circle as they sing until the end when they all fall down in a heap of giggles. An image not at all congruous with the actual historical origin of the song: the Bubonic Plague.
Apparently the symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin (Ring around the rosy). Pockets and pouches were filled with sweet smelling herbs (or posies) which were carried due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells. The term "Ashes Ashes" refers to the cremation of the dead bodies!

And this is just the beginning.

Let's talk about "Rock-a-Bye-Baby."
The lyrics are said to reflect the observations of a young pilgrim boy who had seen Native Indian mothers suspend a birch bark cradle from the branches of a tree. Thus enabling the wind to rock the cradle and the child to sleep!
Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall
and down will come baby, cradle and all.

Egads. Not exactly he image I want to plant in my little one's head as she is drifting off to sleep. Sweet dreams, sweetie. Don't' forget to wear your helmet.

Humpty Dumpty is one that my interpretation was, thankfully, much worse then the actual meaning. I thought it was about a fragile egg-shaped man who fell off a wall and broke into a thousand pieces. A devastating and depressing scene of that which is entirely unfixable:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses, And all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again!

And even though Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England to describe an obese person, that's not what it's describing in this particular rhyme. Humpty Dumpty was actually believed to be a large cannon used in the Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, belonging to the Royalists. When it "took a great fall" from the wall, it broke and could not be fixed, thus causing the Royalists to be forced to lay down their arms!
In spite of being happy to discover this rhyme is not about a egg-shaped man who jumped to his demise from a random wall, I still find it to be a bit serious for a kid's song.

Baa Baa Black Sheep is worth considering.
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

Pretty straightforward, though there is some speculation about the "Little boy who lives down the lane" being a reference to the slave trade. Apparently there was an attempt to reform any non-politically correct nursery rhymes in the 1980's, and this was one on the list. But any reformation was not lasting.

Let's finish off our discussion with the ever-popular "Jack and Jill".
I can remember loving this one for the same reason I loved "Ring Around the Rosey"--it had a known choreography that went alongside the lyrics, it was a full-participation rhyme.
While we chanted:
Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water,
we ran as fast as we could up whatever slight incline we could find.
Then, with Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after, we would roll down the same hill and wind up in a silly mound at the end of the lyric and the bottom of the hill.
But with the slightest investigation, I learned that Jack and Jill came from an oh-so gruesome historical event that someone somewhere deemed appropriate for an upbeat children's jingle.
Fasten your seat belts for this one:
Jack and Jill referred to are said to be King Louis XVI - Jack -who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette - Jill - (who came tumbling after).
My heavens.
I don't know about you, but I will have a hell of a difficult time singing this little cadence with a straight face from here on out.

So there you have it.
A handful of interesting discoveries on the origins of many of the catchy verses I've been reciting since I was barely potty trained.

It's one of those cases where it's probably better not to know, because I'm not quite prepared to compile a list of my own to replace the classics. But if I do, I will surely not base them on the highlights from my most distressing moments.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Good Baby

I am really not a fan of the question
is Opal a good baby??
I know it sounds harmless enough, that people most likely mean it to be a conversation starter, kind of generic fill-chat. They are curious about whether or not she is fussy, how Jesse and I are doing and how closely she adheres to the principals of non-confrontational cuteness.
The superficial things.
That's all fair enough, but I still try to answer this question as mindfully as I can, if only to myself.

It is so natural for people to try and create an entire landscape out of just one tree, to enlarge the only detail they are acquainted with into a faux-whole.
Those who have come for a visit during a particularly peaceful time, who may have held the babe for a long while without even a whimper, who may have even made her smile once or twice, may leave thinking to themselves, my what a good baby.
Those who come around during a time when she is having more difficulty may experience a baby who wants to nurse constantly, who doesn't especially want to be held and doesn't especially want to be left alone and who doesn't want the sling and who prefers high-decibel wailing to surrendering to the eye-rubbing exhaustion that drugs her--the folks who experience those times may take it a wee bit personally. They may think, wow, what a needy baby, what a fussy baby, and my, they have their hands full with that one.

In fact, these are only pieces of a much larger and richer world that she inhabits, a world that consists of mornings, mid-days, middle-of-the-nights and everything in-between. All of her behaviours are more pure and unconscious than most adults can even comprehend, and they are preceded by a cascade of events and reasons. At all times, she is communicating the best and only way she knows how.
So when she cries while mommy is getting a chiropractic adjustment and as we are leaving the receptionist says, "She's a pretty fussy baby, huh?" I am awestruck (probably more than I should be) at the presumption.
No, I say. She is not. She is actually an amazing baby who happens to cry sometimes. (Clear throat.)

The truth is, she is a stunningly good baby if you take a moment to think about her predicament. She happens to have a raw, brand new tiny body and a personality that, only recently, has been forced into a container. It is only right to grant her a decent amount of time to squiggle and squirm, to have an abstract voice without knowing exactly what she wants to say, to kick us away while at the same time wanting to be embraced into the warmth of our chests, to sleep like an angel and then wake up howling, to not quite be certain of this world from the last and from that of sleep, the closest thing she has to bridge the gap.
She is indeed so much more than a Keane painting staring passively into her world and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Now, of course there are times when I would love for Opal to align herself with a certain schedule or list of to-do's I have in mind, but even as I write this, I realize how frivolous these sort of expectations are.
Opal is not concerned with either my expectations or those of anyone else, and when she gives me a giggle or flashes me a silly grin, I am reminded of the delight that comes in knowing her people-pleasing gene has not yet been developed, that her joy is true and unfiltered and I love that.
She still shows all of herself, in its truest form, to her world.
She doesn't yet know how brave this is.

She was encased in darkness for nearly an entire calendar year, so a little bit of protection from all expectations would certainly do us both a world of good.
And yes, she is absolutely a good baby, and a courageous baby, for even attempting to figure this whole thing out.

Friday, January 8, 2010


I love
kissing the back of Opal's head where the hair rubbed off while she was sleeping. I pause for a moment to take a deep, rich inhale while I am there. Someone compared it's swirling, velour mandala to a crop-circle, which seems more than appropriate. It feels like the fuzz of a fresh peach brushing against my top lip as I take a whiff to see if it's ripe.

And then I smell the nape of her neck. A very specific spot clear behind her ear. It's actually less like smelling, more like a hug/hold/caress/sniff. There is so much concentrated into that one tiny pocket of flesh, revealing itself as I squish up my nose the way a bloodhound would:

I smell the remnants of sweat, perhaps from having too many blankets the night before or from where she fell asleep on my bare arm for too long during a nap and when she finally arose, dreamily, unsure, she peeled away noodles of wet brown curls on that side. Or maybe it was from when she cried in the carseat half the way home in spite of my best efforts at rousing her with a continuous stream of "This Little Light of Mine."

I smell my own milk in it's sour, much traveled form-- having come through me and into her and then back out of her mouth in the form of thin, muddled-white rivers, soaking the collar of her fleece jammy and pooling in her neck crease like rain water in a gutter.

I smell the inexplicable scent of skin after having been through a windstorm, in spite of the fact that we take great pains in protecting her delicate skin from the elements.

I smell the faintest residue of lavender bubbles from her most recent bath, as subtle as a memory.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy New Year!

Here we are.
Placed gently into the lap of 2010.
Four days in and I am already becoming accustomed to writing the date x/x/10
on my checks and journal-pages.

Ten years have passed since the Y2k New Year.
An entire decade with its memorable moments gathered like so many shelves of finished diaries and boxes of sentimental nick-knacks wedged into a decade-sized storage unit. What to do with such an impressive collection of junctures?-- aside from spending an occasional Saturday afternoon with a glass of wine and a flashlight, reminiscing. But I'd need to have Jesse watch the baby in order to do that, and I would frankly much rather spend a free afternoon (read: an hour or two under the assumption that an interruption could happen at any time) sewing with my new sewing machine (Thank you, Jesse! Thank you, Santa!)

So, the moments will remain tucked away, collecting dust, or aging like fine wine, depending, until I have reason to go searching for something from that particular period of time, a specific photo or document, perhaps. And in that searching, I will be sure to uncover an onslaught of reminders along the way.
(Think: Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation inadvertently getting trapped in his own attic searching for the holiday gifts he hid up there, spending the time watching old home movies while draped in grandmother's wardrobe with Ray Charles providing a perfect background soundtrack for retrospection.)

I remember very clearly how I spent New Years Eve 1999 as well as New Years Eve 2009, but I don't have much memory of how I spent the ones in-between.

New Year's 1999 I had just returned from a semester of college in London. I was thick and pasty from months of beer, too much and too often, and a daily intake of "proper fry-ups." This particular New Years was charged with the excitement and uncertainty that came from the anticipation of a new Millennium. I remember there being talk of the world as we know it shutting down completely because of the confusion that accompanied a 00 suffix. As we shouted out the last remaining seconds of that particular century with Prince 1999 screaming in the background, the New Year rang in just as it always had, and I remember having an explicit feeling of now what? At that point, I presumably reached for another gin and tonic.

New Year's Eve 2009 was spent at home with my daughter (10 weeks old that day) and my dog.
Jesse went out for the evening as I thoroughly encouraged him to--these days Opal prefers to be with at least one parent, and being the one with the boobs is helpful, to be sure. But when one of us does go out, at least we can report back with news of what it's like on the other side.
So the house was in a particular state of non-action to begin with. Our party began by giving Opal a bath, a favorite pastime for the both of us (she has progressed to kicking in the water and sucking on the washcloth that keeps her belly warm). Things got even more thrilling when we followed up with a lotion-massage in a steamy room, as I composed spontaneous off-key song lyrics to match the tiny body part I was massaging. She nursed while we rocked gently in the glider, which nearly put the both of us to sleep. We continued to rock in the dim light of the salt-lamp in her cozy little room, as I got to talk with my mother, my father and my brother on the phone. I wished them all the best in 2010 and requested they all down a cold one for me.
I didn't even come close to staying awake until midnight, Colorado-time, but I did make it to midnight, Ohio time, and that was plenty for me. No counting down, no noise-makers or drunk people screaming HAPPY NEW YEAR and leaning in for kiss. Just me and my precious-faced kiddo lying side-by-side in bed. She snored just slightly as I bathed in the uncommon and pure silence, attempting to stay awake inside of it as long as my eyes would let me.
And since my wonderful man returned just before midnight, it was a very Happy New Year, indeed.