Forgetting About Baby

When I was pregnant, I dreamt often of forgetting my baby, as many pregnant women do. In one dream, I frantically retraced my steps through SanFrancisco, alone in a strange city, and finally determined that I must have left him at the restaurant. I called them from a pay phone: I know this is sort of strange, but by any chance have you all found a baby? They had.

My theory is that those dreams are a function of the pre-motherhood self being unable to fathom how one could possibly ever keep track of anything 100% of the time. Just think how many times you have lost your keys, phone, wallet, and you can imagine why one would worry.

This is of course all before you give birth and discover that you are inherently connected to your baby as if by a powerful spell, that you cannot re-orient the internal compass that always points to him and fires the alarm if ever you step too far away.

It is not fail safe, nor is it impossible to lose your baby. But it’s a lot harder than losing your keys.

A few weeks ago Joseph had a play date with some of my friends’ kids, two twins who are just a few weeks older than him. I was stunned by how independent he was, completely happy to explore a totally new place without my help, and form his own friendships with the other babies.

I came home and reflected that he’s becoming his own person more and more all the time, that he’s about to start walking and then he’ll be a toddler, and I’ve still not even come to terms with the fact that I’m a mother and a bona-fide adult. Somehow even his existence still manages to shock me.

Once, I was sweating in the mid-afternoon sun in the yard in front of the Birdhouse, talking for a moment to Charlotte and touching a beaded sweater hanging from a wire hanger on a rack of yard sale clothes. When I looked down Joseph was standing there holding on to the edge of a faux wood end table, his bare shoulders sweating under the straps of tiny blue jean overalls. He was looking up at me with such intentness — huge dark eyes and small open mouth with the corners turned down just so, the sun lighting his hair up copper.

For that split second it is as if I have never seen him before, this small person who is searching my face and wondering how to feel. I stare at him dumbfounded, so he tries a smile and a small half laugh, hee! I remember to smile back, Hi, bub! Whatcha doin’ down there? And the unshakable intimacy of our relationship floods back.

I experienced this one other time, back when we lived with Elizabeth and Ruby. Joseph had fallen asleep for his nap on my bed and I had gone to work elsewhere in the house. He slept for so long and I became so engrossed in my work that I was actually shocked when I walked back into the bedroom and saw his naked sleeping body sprawled on the lavender colored sheets. For just that moment, my mind reeled, Where did this baby come from? And then I placed him. Right, he’s MY baby.

At the time I filled up with all kinds of shame and guilt. What kind of mother is actually shocked to find her baby still sleeping where she left him? Can I really so easily forget his existence entirely?

But now, many months later, I ask different questions.

Do we ever really come to terms with the existence of our children? Or will the unlikely miracle of their existence continue to astonish us to perpetuity? I kind of hope it does.

Do we ever really come to terms with Motherhood? Or do we on some level always see ourselves as we were before? As just Lauren: Lauren who loves finding a perfect watermelon or a gallon of fry oil in the dumpster. Lauren who loves crashing around in a mosh pit on the floor of the Pilot Light, who places her half-drunk beer on the ledge over the door before stepping out onto the sidewalk to bum a cigarette. Lauren who loves to ride her bike as fast as she can over the Gay Street bridge, green painted iron flying by, Lauren who spends days on end sewing a dress by hand.

I am all these still even though I can no longer practice these happinesses in these forms. But I am also the mother of Joseph. My compass points towards him as irrevocably as the mapmaker’s points north. This has been one of my harder tasks of motherhood, to understand that who I was before my baby was born and who I am now is really, truly, actually, the same person. It’s been me all along, and at the same time there’s versions of myself that might as well be dead for how close I can come to touching them again. I am slowly regaining lost bits and pieces, gathering them in the basket of my skirt as though for a witch’s brew that will somehow produce a version of myself that I can recognize. But it’s not likely, is it? We are brand new and recreated every day, and this is something to feel joyous about, and unafraid.

Joseph is my son.  I can still barely believe in the reality of this statement, and I’m starting to think that that’s just fine, that in fact I might count myself lucky to have the privilege of living in touch with this staggering and unresolvable mystery.

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My Blue Coffee Cup

There is a blue coffee cup sitting on my writing desk. It is chipped at the lip and I like the feel of the small rough spot on the tip of my tongue as I pour into my mouth black coffee that has not been hot for hours.

The mug was my grandmother’s, part of a set of Bibey pottery that was divided among her descendents at some point in the long slow process of losing her. It is a sort of murky version of robin’s egg splattered with royal blue spots.

It is clunky, unrefined, heavy. Impossible to set down on any surface without it’s making a solid clunk. Certainly we have more beautiful mugs in the cabinet, more carefully made, more aesthetically pleasing. Mugs with thinner walls and finer lips, more perfectly rounded and trimmed. The bottom of this one looks as though it was scraped carelessly from the shelf, dipped in the nearest bucket of glaze, “BB” scratched on hastily for good measure.

Still, every morning this is the mug that I choose. How attached we become to our objects.

When Joseph was in the hospital with RSV, tubes coming out of his head running to the plastic IV bag and wires dangling from his big toe to the wall, I nearly lost track of myself. We were only there three days.

The room was decorated with an “outer space” theme which meant that the walls were dark blue and they’d glued a border of planets around the room at the ceiling. The crib was designed as though they wanted it to look like a jail cell, and his wires made it impossible for him to sleep next to me like we did at home. Most of the day I sat in the one green plastic chair, holding my baby carefully so to not bother his IV, and staring at the empty TV screen.

The hospital brought me meals on a tray the color of yesterday’s oatmeal. Underneath the Tupperware lid left over from the 1970’s, there was a white plate with a single slice of white bread, a perfectly round scoop of mashed potatoes (the kind that arrives as a box of powder), and a piece of meat drizzled in something brown. Mostly I ate the snacks that friends brought from the outside.

One morning my friend Rose brought me a cup of black coffee from the Hawthorne House in this goofy chipped mug the approximate size and shape of a soup bowl. There was a big triangular piece missing from the rim so that I had to sip carefully from the other side. I was so happy to see that broken mug, I laughed out loud. I kept it by my chair all day, the coffee in it slowly reaching its familiar room temperature.

I’m not materialistic and in the grand scheme I don’t think our objects matter very much. But I do have to recognize that sometimes our objects talk to us, or perhaps that through them we talk to ourselves. That mug was such a comfort, such a reassurance that I am still who I am. It gave my heart a point of reference and kept me from losing track of myself inside that hospital which housed me and my small son but refused to acknowledge the human beings that we were. Even the fluids that supported his weakened little body, the careful monitoring of his quickened heartbeat, were accomplished without a human hand.

In to that void came this silly broken cup, this message from our home, our community, our microcosm culture, that said: “Hey, we see you. We know who you are, and we’ll be here when you come back.”

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Falling In Love With Letters

 

Once I fell in love via a correspondence of letters.

Well, maybe “fell in love” might be a bit strong language. I had met him only briefly, we had both stopped our bicycles at the same stoplight. I told him his bicycle was beautiful (which was true) and he told me it was borrowed (also true).

Turned out he was only visiting an old friend and was leaving town in a few days, to return to his job leading groups into and out of the backcountry of Colorado.

The correspondence lasted a number of years. There were some periods when we did not write at all, and other periods when I would stay home for a whole day when his letter arrived reading it again and again and crafting the words to send back.

The experience was powerful, dreamy, romantic. There was a winter that he wrote me many letters from an observation tower, where he sat watch over a horizon of snow covered forest. The latent fiction writer in me writes Rapunzel on a chalkboard and draws an arrow pointing to the word, crossing their arms in front of their chest.

There are pieces of myself that can only really be reached with the written word, parts of the human experience that can’t be testified in conversation. These are the parts that I sent in my letters, and these are the parts I received back. We wrote of dreams and ideas, thunderstorms and runes in canyon walls, mountains, hope. What we exchanged were prose poems, were symbols and images. I came to know him through the shapes of his letters on the page. I came to imagine his hand, pausing uncertainly, leaving a small bleed of black ink into the fiber of the paper. It was an intensely intimate relationship, an exchange enacted entirely through a language of papers and handwriting, envelopes and drawings, scraps, poems.

Although no word was ever written explicitly acknowledging so: I was entranced.

One day I opened a letter that said he was coming back to Knoxville again, to visit his family. My heart raced. I looked around the bedroom beyond my desk. Coming here? It was impossible and thrilling

It was fall, the grasses dry and rattling, the sky constantly looming grey. We walked the mowed path along the bend in the river that holds Seven Islands Wildlife Preserve, hands swinging uneasily at our sides. Later we sat at a booth in Pres Pub until the bar closed, drinking pints and arguing amicably with my friends. Even later we hiked the 12 miles to Mt. Cammerer fire tower and back, digging our boot toes into the snow and watching the spindly trees emerging from their crusted white blanket, tracks of animals long gone preserved in crystal and filled with purple shadow. We tried hard to find it, but we were left grasping at straws without our language of papers and ink.

In the end we had to resign ourselves that something had been lost forever when we met in presence. The relationship that had sustained itself in deepest intrigue for as long as it existed in written word had instantly crumbled at the physical meeting of two incongruous individuals. We have not written since.

 

 

Do I think that our letters lied? No, nor do I think our relationship of correspondence any less true or valuable.

For the last six weeks I have sat with an amazing group of writers as led by Holly Haworth in a writing intensive held at the Birdhouse Community Center in 4th and Gill. One of the gifts of this experience has been an essay entitled The Limit by Christan Wiman. In it, he tells us:
To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.

 

The act of writing shapes our memory of our experience in the world, but this is the way that our memory is structured, as well. The act of remembering deteriorates our memories, and every time we revisit a favorite moment the experience becomes less the reality of what it was. Over time it becomes a story that we tell ourselves. It becomes part of our personal mythology. I do not see this as a loss, I see this as meaning-making.

 

 

I have been writing for my whole life. I can remember a lined journal bound in blue denim printed with glitter stars full of wild and looping little-girl handwriting telling the stories of my dreams. I wrote a heap of mediocre five paragraph essays in High School, a heap of slightly less mediocre 5-7 page essays in college. I have written scores of letters, and many of my favorite relationships have been sustained in this way. And all this time I have kept a journal.

Mediocre assigned essays aside, all of this writing has been only for me. Even the letters were mostly for me. Writing has been the way that I transform the infinite and disorganized information of my experience of being alive into a mythology of sorts, into a set of stories that I tell myself, into who I am and where I come from.

When I started this blog it was mostly for myself, too. I wanted a reason to push myself to a sort of coherence in my writing. My journal is, as it should be, full of half-thoughts and half-sentences, streams of consciousness and the occasional seething rant or wallow in miserableness. Sharing my stories seemed like a great way to push myself to the next level of crafting them.

Last I checked, 170 people read my last blog post. Frankly speaking, that scares the shit out of me. The first post I wrote two months ago got six views. All of a sudden people are calling me a writer, and at least once a day in the middle of a conversation someone will say, “Yea, I know. I read your blog.” Somehow it dumbfounds me every time. “You read it? Why?”

Just to be clear: I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing here. I’m just trying to make some sense out of being alive, the same as everybody else.

Just to be clear again: I’m so glad you all are reading this. If the sense I make is of value to you, too, then I am so happy. Just don’t go getting any funny ideas like I’ve got it all figured out, cause I can assure you I’m just as muddled as the rest of us.

Darning Trauma

I used to have dreams all the time where Boone would come back. He’d break down the front door and I would have to flee out the back with the baby, run down the alley, seek shelter at the collective Hawthorne House down the street. I imagined myself hiding as deep in the belly of the house as I could manage. My friends would be at the door, negotiating. They could hold him off, I reassured myself. These dreams spilled over into waking life. I replayed them over and over in my head, as I walked down the street, as I drove home from work, as I stirred the onions. I had different ones, too. One for the coffee shop, one for the grocery store. They became my daydream nightmares, these were the musings with which I would occupy my mind when it needed occupied.

I finally started seeing a counselor in September just after Joseph was born. It was a free service provided by the Knoxville Family Justice Center, and the wait list was long. My counselor gave me a word for my day dream nightmares: Paranoid Fantasies. She also gave me a name for what I was experiencing: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

At other times in my life I have rebelled against diagnoses. It can be defeating and even dehumanizing to have your experience labeled so authoritatively: You are depressed. You have an anxiety disorder. The language itself takes the healing out of your hands and suddenly you must trust the authority of the counselor or the prescription to fix you. But this time, the diagnoses was affirming, in the same way it was affirming when the adviser at the Family Justice Center said definitively, “What you are describing is abuse.” You are not over reacting, you are not attention seeking, you are not making this up, what you are facing is real and heavy and other people have experienced it too.

When I was most truly in danger, I was so protected from my own emotions that I simply didn’t experience the appropriate fear. Once I was safe again, my heart still carried around all that unprocessed & unfelt emotion. Thus, the nightmares. An outlet for appropriate fear. For the same reason, I found myself living out fights we never had, pouring in to them every ounce of anger that got swallowed as so many stones into my belly. It all poured out of me, and once it was gone, so were the nightmares, so were the daydreams. They had finished serving their role.

A few weeks ago, Boone came through town. He stayed only one day, and did not attempt to see me or contact me. But only the fact of his presence kept me up all night, worrying which heavy and blunt object I would reach for (at the time we were then living in South Knox County, and escape to a friends’ house was no longer viable), planning which interior room I could hide Joseph in.

I have a tending to want, even to expect, that healing be linear. I want to check the box off and move on to the next step, someday reaching a finishing point after which I will never look back. But of course this is not true of any of the processes of the earth, and it certainly is not true of the human heart.

Christian Wiman writes in his essay entitled The Limit: 

It did happen, though. It marked me. I don’t believe in “laying to rest” the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.

And yet I’ve come to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that like an illness some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, pain may be its own reprieve; that the violence that is latent within us may be, if never altogether dispelled or tamed, at least acknowledged, defined, and perhaps by dint of the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to use; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called “normal unhappiness,” wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not “closure,” and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.

 In July of 2008, a man entered the sanctuary of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire, killing two people and injuring many more. It was and is still my church. This was my first significant experience of a violation of my safety, of my safe space, of my sanctuary.

Many years later I had a dream. I was holding a delicate white porcelain vessel, a sphere with a small circular opening. Inside it replayed in miniature, eternally, the scene in the sanctuary that day. Everything was red. With gentle fingers I was darning over the opening with a thin red needle and thread, lovingly enclosing the scene inside it’s vessel, where it would play forever.

Last week my mom, Anne Whitney, shared with me her beautiful piece of writing about that day in July of 2008. She told me how she was surprised how the feelings all came back up as she wrote down the words, even eight years later. She ended it by saying:

And so I hug my daughter. And I play with my grandson. I laugh with my friends. And I go on living.

 I’m still a beginner at this. I’m still working out how to transform my trauma into workable energy, how to keep my fingers gentle as I darn over the opening. I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of the nightmares for good. I do know that I’ve come a long way in this process of healing, and I also know that I will continue to carry these porcelain vessels for as long as I live. These are my responsibility now, my work to carry, and the darning may go on for a very long time.

It was Dorothy Day who said: No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do. She was referring to activism and the fight for justice, but the longer I live the more I am sure that our fight to heal our world must be rooted first in our fight to heal ourselves. And so I go on working, and so I go on living.

Red Heart Mending No.2

Red Heart Mending No. 2, Lauren Hulse, Charcoal on paper, 2013

 

The full essay by Christian Wiman here.

Read Anne Whitney’s full piece entitled that summer.

This post inspired by the word: Nightmare

Moving

“I’m moving again,” I said, sitting on a tall stool in my dad’s kitchen

“Again!? Jeez LOU-ise!” My eight-year-old brother Jack responded, wasting no opportunity to lay on the drama.

It was not an unreasonable reaction. Since I left my parents house in 2008, I’ve moved too many times to bother with counting. I’ve lived in a double wide trailer posing as a freshman dorm, a spare room in my friend’s mom’s house, a big crappy white house off Broadway with four 18-year-old-boys, a tent in the backyard of the Poison Lawn with my then boyfriend, an airstream camper at a NC farm, a drafty barn loft, a backyard shed, a random assortment of structures posing as homes and a handful more actual houses full of friends scattered across Knoxville like dry beans over the kitchen floor. Point being: I’m pretty familiar with this moving thing.

In the last year-and-a-half, I have moved six more times (an average of once every two months). I moved out of the little white house on E. 5th Avenue where I’d managed to stay for three whole years (the longest time I’ve lived anywhere as an adult) and across the country to Boise, Idaho where I landed in a backyard shed with my then partner. I should say: my abusive-alcoholic partner, although these are not things I was awake to at the time.

From there we upgraded to a boxcar with a wood stove dropped in the hill country some 30 miles outside Boise city limits. It was breathtaking beauty and the terror of isolation and the comfort of wildness distilled into one place, mixed up with snow despair and pine needles and gumption. When we first went there, I sat in the pine duff and between my feet I found that I was staring at a shard of a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary. In the writing of the story of my life, a more romantic or barren location could not have been chosen in which to play out this chapter. In the middle of the winter I discovered I was pregnant, woke up to my situation, and left.

I drove back to Knoxville in time for February, the starving month. I spent that month at my mother’s house, allowing my body to begin the process of re-learning what it means to be safe before moving out to a grey rental just across the Tennessee River. It was a holding room, a place to wait on the outskirts of my real life while until I was ready to make a full re-entry.

In that first rental house we didn’t even have a couch for three months and on the day I brought Joseph home from the hospital, I found a handmade card on the dining room table that said my roommate wanted to leave. I reacted so powerfully to this new un-safeness that I couldn’t even talk about it for a number of days. Not to anyone, and when I finally did it was mixed up with a whole lot of tears on the couch I’d finally bought for $25 from Am Vets.

So, I scrambled frantically for a new place to live, and when Joseph was 8 weeks old I once again loaded the belongings that were no longer only mine, but ours, into the back of the car and moved us deeper into the county south of the river, setting up residence in the attic bedroom of a beautiful historic farmhouse in a place where the stars still come out at night. It was and is owned by the most genuine and giving woman a person could hope to know, and whose three-year-old daughter became Joseph’s first idol.

When I landed there I was welcomed so completely and so without justification that I actually suffered from imposter syndrome. Why do they treat me with such kindness? They must be mistaken. No one who really knows me would treat me this well. But we passed the winter together, stoking the wood stove, and over time I came to believe that at last I really was safe, I really was welcome, and it wasn’t a mistake.

But then I chose to move again.

Finally, after so much running away from, after so much frantic scrambling just to provide a stable and safe home in which to sleep, after so many floors dropped out from under me, I am moving from a safe loving home into another safe loving home.

This is an amazing position to be in, and I need to name that many people will never experience the place that I am right now. While I am trying to understand my own experiences of not being safe I have to remember that every day there are hundreds of tiny unsafenesses that I do not have to experience simply because I am white, because I am straight, because I am temporarily able bodied, because I am young, the list goes on. This is just to say: I see the privilege from which I speak.

The house I moved in to belongs to one of my very best friends, Rose. She bought it in a moment of incredible courage and belief in the possibility of intentional, loving, committed community and – joy of joys – asked if Joseph and I would join her in seeking it.

This is how we found ourselves, just this morning, talking to each other through an open doorway, both of us covered in splotches of primer and paintbrushes in hand. There is something to this act of painting a room: it is a certain kind of commitment, and a willingness to do the hard unpleasant messy work to make it into what you need.