Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: memory

Three Years Gone, Dreaming of my Dad

Maybe it started when I fell while I was running.

That was June 1st.

5:30 a.m.

Maybe that’s when this rough patch started.

While jogging in the dark, my foot must have caught on a piece of raised sidewalk and I fell forward and hit the concrete just as a minivan was passing me.

Left knee, right knee, left hand, right hand. I saved my face. (At least physically.)

The minivan kept going.

For a moment, I just lay there against the concrete, gauging my pain.

I hurt. But I didn’t think I had broken anything. I couldn’t see how badly I was scraped up, but I felt it mostly on the outer edge of my left hand and my right thumb, which was warm and wet. Blood, for sure.

What else to do but keep jogging home with bleeding hands?

***

I’ve only had a few dreams of my dad since he passed away three years ago, but they’ve always come around this time of year.

In the first dream, I walked into a convenience store and was looking for a jug of milk to buy. (Who knows why. I hate drinking milk.) After I pulled it out of the refrigerator case, I saw four men sitting at a small booth, playing a card game. All their heads were lowered, studying their cards.

I walked over and even though I couldn’t see their faces, I just knew that one of them was my dad. I don’t remember what I said to him, but we talked like we always did — our eyes looking at other things, words passing between us that didn’t really resemble anything like what we really wanted to say.

Like, I miss you.

Like, I love you.

Still, whatever we said was comfortable and familiar enough to make us feel like all was well.

It was then that I realized that my ride was leaving.

“I have to go, Dad.”

“Don’t leave,” he told me, still not looking up. Still staring through his cards.

I kissed him on the head, complete with his bald spot, and I told him that I would come back.

“It will be too long. I don’t want to be alone,” he said.

“I swear, I’m coming back, Dad.”

He didn’t lift his head. He just sat there, sad and withdrawn, just as he did for the last few years of his life. Completely alone, even in the midst of company.

I kissed his head again and walked toward the door.

When I got to the door, I turned around and told him, “This is where we can meet, okay? This is where we can find each other. I’ll come back. I promise.”

I woke up feeling empty.

I’ve never been able to get back to that convenience store.

***

A few nights ago, as the anniversary of his death approached again, I dreamed again of my father.

It was a scene I’ve lived a thousand times before — riding in the car next to my dad, his left hand balanced casually on the steering wheel, his elbow resting on the edge of his open window. He was talking a mile a minute about everything and anything, the way he did when he descended into periods of mania. At first, it was normal. Just dad talking and talking and talking while I was looking out the window.

Then, it started to snow. And snow. And snow.

The drifts piled up around the car as we drove. But then he veered into the parking lot of the K-Mart in the town where I grew up. He started driving in a circle, talking faster and faster, the tires kicking up snow around us. I told him to slow down, but he wouldn’t. As the car picked up speed, we spiraled once, twice, three times, four times.

With each pass, I tried to keep my eyes on a fixed point outside of the car. The McDonald’s. The apartment building. The ATM. Anything that would keep me anchored to reality.

Maybe, if I could keep my eyes on something, I could slow us down.

Maybe, this time, I could be the one to anchor both of us.

Maybe, this time, I could keep the world from spinning, keep him from sliding into depression, keep him from falling and breaking his neck.

But we kept spinning and spinning and spinning.

In my dream, I started screaming.

And then I was beside my mother, and we were looking at a calendar. She wrote down her birthday, May 9th. But then she crossed out the 9th and wrote in dark letters, May 10th and underlined it.

“What year?” I asked.

She wrote “1” and “9” very easily, but then struggled to write the next number. It came out looking like a gigantic “9” and then a “0.”

“1990?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Sure. It all kind of blends together.”

And somehow, I understood that we were deciding when we would go back in time.

We were trying to get back to a time when Dad was Dad.

***

I woke up a few hours later and went for a morning run in the dark.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment? Maybe.

I prefer to say it’s because I refuse to be beaten by a bad experience (although, there are plenty of times when I am).

It was beautiful that morning. The moon was full and still high in the sky at 5:00 a.m. I watched the sidewalk much more carefully than before and walked for a few minutes before I started jogging.

full moon

The Head and the Heart played on my Pandora station.

Darling, this is when I met you.
For the third time not the last
Not the last time we are learning
Who we are and what we were.

You are in the seat, beside me.

You are in my dreams at night.

Turns out,

it’s easier to run with bleeding hands than it is to run with tears.

***

I’m like a lot of people — I only want to believe that dreams mean something when they’re good.

I don’t want to believe that the bad dreams mean anything more than the emotions that I’m working my way through when I have them.

But still.

But still.

A Birth Story in Songs

When the right music finds the right moments, what we see and feel is carved even more deeply into our memory.

Cognitive psychologists have studied this. In long-term memory, what we tend to remember with the most clarity in the long run are the most unusual and emotional moments of our lives. Because of its ability to mirror or even amplify those emotions, music can be an anchor that fastens those memories in place for the duration of our lives.

As I labored this past February during the birth of our second child, the right music found the right moments over and over again.

I don’t think it was coincidence.

To be honest, I made music playlists for each of my births and loaded them with songs that I would like to hear.

But as anyone who has experienced labor will tell you, ain’t no one DJing your birth when the shit hits the fan. In my first birth, we barely touched the playlist once I was in active labor. It just played on. And whatever order I had chosen when I was willy-nilly loading the songs was the order that they played.

I honestly only remember one song from one moment of my first labor. It was the song playing when our daughter was born, “I Will Be Here,” by Steven Curtis Chapman. It was a sentimental Christian ballad that I added to the playlist on a whim, and one that I didn’t even particularly like anymore. Sure, it was a sweet song. It reminded me of those first vows that we said at our wedding eight years earlier.

But it wasn’t really a birth song. And it certainly wasn’t the one that I would have chosen.

So it was surprising to me just how many times the right music found the right moments in this birth. For me, the music felt like another birth attendant.

The songs held my hand.

The songs urged me one.

And sometimes, the songs were the screams from my own heart.

Someday, I’ll share with you a written version of this birth story. I’m thinking about releasing it as a free Kindle Single, if I can make the time this summer to do that.

But for now, let’s go on a ride.

Let’s give birth.

With songs.

February 2, 2017

 

Early Labor: 3-4 centimeters

3:00 a.m.

Contractions every 3-4 minutes. Standing, hips swaying. Eyes closed.

I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t” Bonnie Raitt

Here in the dark, in these final hours
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power

5:00 a.m.

Contractions every 2-3 minutes. Lying on my side on the bed. Leg, dangling off the side to help the baby turn into position.

Landslide” Fleetwood Mac

Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

7:00 a.m.

Contractions every 2-3 minutes and requiring controlled breathing to cope. Lying on my left side, gripping the headboard of the bed. Eyes sometimes open, sometimes closed.

Society” Eddie Vedder

Society, have mercy on me
I hope you’re not angry if I disagree
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

Active Labor: 5-7 centimeters

9:00 a.m.

Contractions every 1-2 minutes. In the birthing tub. Blue light in the water. Legs floating. Head leaning back on the edge of the tub. Holding Doug’s hands as he sits behind me next to the tub.

Hypnotic, oscillating moments of weightlessness and heaviness. Baby pushing between pelvic bones, twisting in each contraction.

A lot of groaning.

“Teardrop” Massive Attack

Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word
Fearless on my breath
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me, makes me lighter
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my breath

Transition

A.K.A Climbing the Ladder and Wrestling with God:

7-10 centimeters

10:25 – 10:55 a.m.

Forty-five second, double-peaked contractions every other minute.

This part… Oh, this part. I will write about this in detail later. It was thirty minutes of my life that I will never forget because it is the second time in my life that I encountered God.

“God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” Moby

Stalled: 10 centimeters

11:30 a.m.

Contractions every 1-2 minutes, but no urge to push. Although completely dilated, my water still hadn’t broken. Back in the tub for pain relief. I pressed my face into the edge of the tub and cried.

Doubt. Such deep, deep doubt.

“Last Man” Clint Mansell

12:00 p.m.

Contractions every 2-3 minutes. When my midwife checked me, she told me that the baby still needed to come down farther. I tried a number of different positions but nothing helped. I asked her (okay, screamed for her) to break my water.

That worked.

“Redeemer” Paul Cardall

Pushing

12:55 p.m.

This is another part that I will write about in much greater detail. For right now, just know there was a lot of screaming.

I mean… Yeah. A lot of screaming.

“Press On” Robinella

Life is filled with bitter music
Breeze that whistles like a song
Death gets swept down like an eagle
Snatches with our shoes still on

Press on

“Welcome Home” Radical Face

All my nightmares escaped my head
Bar the door, please don’t let them in
You were never supposed to leave
Now my head’s splitting at the seams
And I don’t know if I can

“Holocene” Bon Iver

And at once I knew I was not magnificent
Huddled far from the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
And I could see for miles, miles, miles

“The Wound” Gospel Whiskey Runners

The road is long and dusty and alone
I’ve got not place to rest, no place to call my own
My eyes have seen the glory of your love
And I won’t turn back this time
No, I won’t turn back this time

“Work Song” Hozier

When my times comes around
Lay me gently in the cold, dark earth
No grave can hold my body down
I’ll crawl home to her

Birth

1:27 p.m.

henry_glass_february_2_2

“You’re All I Need to Get By” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

Like the sweet morning dew, I took one look at you,
And it was plain to see, you were my destiny.
With my arms open wide,
I threw away my pride
I’ll sacrifice for you
Dedicate my life for you

“I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” Jim Croce

Every time I tried to tell you
The words just came out wrong
So I’ll have to say I love you in a song

Postpartum Hemmorhage

1:35 p.m.

“Do You Realize” Flaming Lips

Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face
Do you realize we’re floating in space,
Do you realize that happiness makes you cry
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

2:10 p.m.

I asked Doug to take a picture of Henry’s face so I could see him up close.

When I saw the picture, what I thought was,

Yes.

That’s exactly right.

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20 Years in Songs

1993

“Weak” by SWV

I am in middle school. And I have a crush on a boy. Let’s call him John Smith.

He’s in my reading class and he sits in the back left corner of the room. I sit in the front right corner.

One day, as I enter the room, our eyes meet for a moment. We don’t smile at each other. It happens so fast, I can’t even tell if he’s just looking to see who it is or if he actually intends to look at me.

Terrified, I look away and take my seat.

I spend the rest of class wondering if he wanted to look at me. Me. Just another overweight girl who was too shy to talk to anyone besides her close friends.

When the bell rings, I look around the room and catch his eye again. We still don’t smile at each other, but he doesn’t make a face or look away.

When I hear this song on the radio as I’m doing my homework, it strikes me. Maybe I’m in love.

I don’t feel like it’s safe to write about this in my diary, so instead, I write I love John Smith over and over on each of my biceps. It’s winter, so my sweaters will cover it up, I reason. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to write this on my arms. But I feel like this is what a girl does when she falls in love. She covers herself with the one she loves–until he’s the only thing she sees in the mirror.

 

1995

“Black” by Pearl Jam

I listen to the radio on my very own CD/cassette player that I’ve bought with my own babysitting money. I don’t have enough money left over for CDs. So in the afternoons, I turn on the radio and press down the play, record, and pause buttons on the cassette tape deck. Then, I wait for a good song to come on.

But I miss this one.

This song is deceptive. It comes on softly, like a ballad, and at first, I don’t think it’s for me. It’s too slow and I can’t understand all of his words, but then he sings out a line that strikes me.

And now my bitter hands… shake beneath the clouds… of what was everything

All the pictures had… all been washed in black… tattooed everything.

I wonder what it’s like to have your heart broken like this. To be so in love that losing it turns your world to black.

It makes me believe that to be so in love is the best and worst that can ever happen to me. And I want it to happen to me.

But I doubt that it would ever happen to a pudgy girl like me.

 

July 2004

“Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessionals

I’m driving in my 1990 Geo Metro with the windows down because this car doesn’t have A/C (or power steering, for that matter). My hair is pulled back to keep it from flying in front of my eyes. And this song is blaring out on the radio.

I am flawed.

But I am cleaning up so well.

I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself.

I’m in love.

I have become interesting. I am loved for my intelligence and drive. My ambition and my doubts. I have become a person with depth, even views on politics. As we talk, my thoughts and curiosities and unspoken plans come flooding out and I shock myself. I’m not putting on a face. I’m not acting a part. I’m finally articulating everything that I’ve been feeling deep in my soul.

I stop obsessing about which jeans and shirts make me look the thinnest. I start enjoying food rather than seeing it as what stands in the way of me being fully loved.

And I am loved for it.

It makes me cry. It makes me feel that I’ve been lying to myself for years. That I’ve been trying to be “the girl that guys love,” some amalgamation of images and insinuations from TV and movies and books about what makes women desirable.

I feel cheated that I’ve lost so many years playing this game.

 

October 2006

“Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”

I’m at a funeral for a friend.

Her family gathers around her casket at the burial site and a soulful older woman begins singing this song. Soon, the whole family is singing together, a hymn that I know intimately, one that I had sung hundreds of times in my Southern Baptist Church.

In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever

’til my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.

It feels like a lie.

My friend didn’t believe in Jesus. I haven’t seen her in years, but I know that much. She loved the idea of magic and truly wished that it existed in this world. She believed in the beauty of a phoenix rising from ashes. She loved symbols and ideas. But religion? Never.

She didn’t leave a note. She didn’t tell anyone what her plans were. She just did it.

With her father’s gun.

On a Friday night.

It’s not until this moment, as her body is lowered into the ground, while her family sings a song that she would have hated but is the only comfort that they can find in this day, that I begin to reconcile this stark contrast.

I begin to believe that people believe what they find comforting–or at least what validates or supports how they want to live life.

And when they can’t live out their beliefs, they destroy themselves. Or others.

And so I think that wherever she is, she is happier than she was on earth.

 

June 2010

“Idumea”

I’m leaving Piqua, Ohio, driving on I-75 South, leaving another funeral.

This time, it is my husband’s close friend and co-worker. A guy he had shared a desk with for the past three years.

It’s one of those deaths that makes you think, Really? Bled to death from a burst vein in his throat? The doctors couldn’t do anything about that?

It feels like a cruel, cruel mistake. Like he went through the wrong door and it slammed behind him before he could turn back. On one side of the door is him. On the other side is his wife, his two stepchildren, and his three-year-old daughter.

True, he wasn’t in great health. He chewed tobacco and subsisted on a diet of cheesy, meaty Penn Station sandwiches that he called heartstoppers. And, yes, he bragged about never touching vegetables.

But he was only 33.

On the way home, I continue listening to the Cold Mountain soundtrack that I’ve just bought. When “Idumea” comes on, I feel my heart tighten in my chest.

And I am I born to die?

To lay this body down!

Soon as from earth I go

What will become of me?

I think about my own mortality.

I want to know that I’m more than a collection of emotions and memory, fueled by food and organs, all covered in skin. I want to be more than all the decisions that I’ll spend my entire life either being proud of or rationalizing.

I want to believe that some part of me is more than brain and body. That part of me is immaterial. Immortal. Impossible to fall into ruin and decay.

I think about whether it’s possible for me to believe in no afterlife. But I’m not sure I have it in me to believe in nothingness after life. My mind cannot even fathom it. But I still think about it the rest of the day.

The thoughts circle in my mind for two more days.

Then, I decide to live.

In the following week, I decide to truly learn about how to portion my food, how to balance what I eat and how much of it to eat. I start drinking water all day every day. I buy a cardio kickboxing program on DVDs.

I drop from 175 pounds to 135 pounds in the next ten months.

 

January 2012

“Swim” by Surfer Blood

My husband and I are driving on the Hana Highway that runs along the northern coast of Maui when we see dozens of surfers out on the waves. We’re riding in a Mazda5 with four of our friends: Ryan, Cate, Ben, and Sarah. It’s the second day of our week-long vacation away from cold, gray Ohio. Our plans for the days are eating and doing whatever looks interesting.

And this looks interesting.

We pull over at an overlook and pile out of the car. Ryan, Cate, and I lean against the railing, pointing at the surfers’ daring moves. They paddle like fiends toward the incoming waves. We watch them stand up on their boards, wobbling until they find their balance. The waves are high. They are tunneling rolling monsters that swallow the surfers over and over again, only for more surfers to replace them. After a wave takes a few of them down, one or two of them escape the wave and skid away safely onto calm waters before they sit back on their boards, looking for the next one. Always the next one.

Holy shit! Did you see that? Get that guy! Ben points out to Doug, who is attached to his camera, angling for the best shot.

We laugh.

Somewhere nearby, a car blares this song over its speakers and it’s all too perfect.

I. Am. So. Happy.

Six months later, I hear this same song at an outdoor music festival in Columbus, Ohio. Instantly, I’m back in Maui.

 

August 16, 2013

“Taking You Home” by Don Henley

It’s 2:00 a.m.

I am in the Mother & Baby room after giving birth to my daughter. All the nurses and doctors have left. My husband sleeps on the couch next to my bed. My new daughter sleeps in her glass bassinet next to my bed. Aching and hurting everywhere, I lie on my side and watch her sleep. No music is playing, but from somewhere in the recesses of my memory, this song comes forth.

I had a good life, before you came. 

I had my friends and my freedom. I had my name.

Still there was sorrow and emptiness, ’til you made me glad.

Oh, in this love, I found the strength, I never knew I had.

I am utterly amazed by myself. That I could grow this perfect human being. That I could survive something as painful and soul-testing as birth–and then live to talk about it.

I know that everyone calls this love, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that what I’m feeling is something completely different.

It’s humility.

It’s awe.

I know now what it costs to bring life into the world.

For the rest of the night, I slip in and out of consciousness as I play this song over and over again in my mind, watching her sleep.

 

“Heartbeats” by The Knife

September 2013

I’m on maternity leave. My one-month-old daughter sleeps in her bassinet upstairs while I’m washing dishes downstairs. Next to the kitchen, the washer is whirring in the laundry room. Late summer sunlight peeks through the blinds. My eyes are so heavy. I find it funny that sleep is not like other things in life. When it presses down on you, you feel light. But when it leaves you, you feel heavy.

This song comes up on Pandora and I’m bobbing my head to it. Then, my hips are swaying. I drop the dishes in the dishwasher over and over again, almost mechanically, getting lost in the song. But that is my life now. Mechanical, repetitive movements chugging along at regular intervals. I close the dishwasher as the song heightens.

I turn it up. And up. And up some more.

It’s in my ears, in my mind, in my limbs, filling me up until I’m nothing but the notes of this song. I close my eyes and I’m pivoting on my toes, twirling and sliding, arms uplifted like the ballerina I never was.

I am lightness.

I’m in the living room, the dining room, I’m everywhere. I’m nowhere. I’m beyond this life that is now mine: endless repeating tasks, punctuated by a face that I’m desperately in love with. One that I’m forever tied to.

I’m my former self.

I’m a self that I have never been and probably never will be.

I’m above.

Until the song slows and quiets and ends. Until its heartbeat stops.

In the silence, I sit down on the ground, resting back against my heels.

Then, I cry.

 

“You’re All I Need to Get By” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

October 5, 2014

I’m at Ryan and Cate’s wedding.

The air is chilly, but we’re warm in the party barn at Polen Farm in Kettering, Ohio. We have danced and danced. We have taken this reception by the arms and spun it around. Melt With YouCareless Whispers, Tongue Tied, Jackson 5’s ABC. I dance the shit out of this reception with Cate and Julie and Katy and Suzy. Even Sarah dances. Jason and David spend the hours knocking back beers and mixed drinks and wine. Ben and Chris are reminiscing. It’s a glorious four hours.

Then, this song comes on and we separate into slow-dancing couples. As I dance with my husband, I look over at my newly married friends, feeling beyond happy for them.

Josh pulls away from Suzy and tugs at Sam’s sleeve. He says something to him. Then, he’s on Ben’s sleeve. Then, Sarah’s. Soon, he’s got everyone gathered in a circle around Ryan and Cate.

And that’s how we finish the song. Dancing in a circle around these good friends, Cate’s face pressed against Ryan’s chest, trying to cover her tears.

I. Am. So. Happy.

For them.

 

January 2016

“Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons

It’s 20 degrees outside and I’m running.

It has been two weeks since the miscarriage. The bleeding is over. The healing begins. I start exercising again, but the dance/cardio-kickboxing doesn’t feel right. I suddenly realize that I need to feel at least a little sexy to want to dance.

And I do not feel sexy in the slightest right now.

So I put on layers, a jacket, and gloves. If I could run in a sleeping bag, I would.

My eyes watch out for ice and snow along the sidewalk as I run past an apartment complex, the post office, and several doctors’ offices. Past the body shop and the Donato’s. My breathing hits its rhythm and the burning in my legs has numbed.

In these bodies, we will live.

In these bodies, we will die.

And where you invest your love,

You invest your life.

And that’s it.

That simple truth makes this all the more bearable.

We love. We lose. We feel pain.

And if we’re really lucky, we find our truest selves along the way.

All of it is beautiful.

Because all of it is life.

Life_quotes

The Thanksgiving Ride Home

On this day fifteen years ago, I was waiting for my father to pick me up and take me home for Thanksgiving break.

I was halfway through my first semester at college. I was taking 18-credit hours because I didn’t know what I was doing when I registered for classes. I remember people saying that 15-credit hours was a normal course load, but I’m sure I thought something like, I’ll work hard now so I can relax a little later.

I didn’t know that it would be one of the last times that I would spend a few hours in the car with my dad. In the years that followed, I would drive myself to and from home. But for my freshmen year of college, my father was my ride.

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Dad and me, 2009

When my dad arrived, I was reading some archaic French play that was the basis for the third essay of the term. That 300-level class had been killing my self-esteem because the reading assignments were so beyond my current reading ability. The task of reading French theater had never been something that I had done before–and here I was trying to read French theater as written by Moliere in 1664.

I knew what kind of ride this was going to be when I opened the door of my dad’s sedan and heard the melodious voice of Rush Limbaugh piping on and on about how Al Gore should just shut up and concede the election already.

“Sounds like a bunch of sour grapes to me!” my dad squealed with delight.

I shrugged, not really having an opinion about the election. I voted as my parents had voted (Republican, a.k.a. George Bush) because I thought this was what good Christians did.

“How was work, Dad?”

“Have I ever told you about the Iron Maiden?”

“You mean the Iron Curtain?”

“Ha! No, the Iron Maiden.” He took his hands from the wheel and wrung them together, a worried look on his face. “She’s bringing the hammer down on all of us.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He shook his head and launched into a long drawn-out tale about some domineering man-hating female boss that was cracking down on all “the big dogs.” I can’t be more specific than that because I didn’t typically listen to most of these long rants. I would just nod and let him talk and talk and talk, waiting for a chance to say something. When there was a pause long enough to interject, I’d say something like:

“So have I told you about how classes are going?”

“And old many others, Sharon. And old many others…” he crooned on, as if wrapping up his story in his head.

“Dad? Classes?”

“Oh yeah, classes? How are your classes going? Tell me how these fine Miami classes are going. Are they edu-ma-kating you?”

I chuckled. He could always make me laugh.

But I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to be proud of me. So I launched into my own lengthy soliloquy about all that I was learning in my 18-hour course load: tracking in the American education system, Moliere, polyandry in Nepal, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how bacteria and viruses each attack the human body.

As I talked on and on, my dad would say, “Oh yeah?” “Hmm…” “Okay.” and “Really?”

At one point, I realized what was happening–we were both talking and talking and neither one of us was listening to each other. 

I was bragging about my own self-importance to him.

He was bragging about his own self-importance to me.

And where was it getting us?  Further and further away from each other.

I slowly let my thoughts taper off and a silence arose in the car. I thought about how inconvenient it would be to grab that damn Moliere play out of my backpack in the backseat. Maybe I could catch up on some reading in the car.

Maybe I could use this time effectively.

Dad fumbled with the dial on the radio to see if he could find a station that he liked. He passed the Rolling Stones, Blondie, Third Eye Blind, TLC, and Stevie Wonder until he found Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Looking Out My Back Door.”

He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and whistled along with the melody.

I smiled.

This was Dad. Listening to a short, simple song about nothing in particular. Just a song about enjoying life, thinking about nothing, living in the moment.

A simple song for a simple life.

And here I was trying to get out of it. Looking for a way to use my time effectively.

I was blind. So blind.

Too blind to understand that there is more to life than using time effectively.

There is more to life than using time.

There is love.

There are moments.

There are fleeting spaces when we have the chance to more deeply connect with our family and friends. But we can’t get to those spaces when we’re too busy bragging and bullshitting.

We only get to these spaces when we’re willing to just exist together without wondering if there’s something better we could be doing. Only when we’re willing to believe that,

No, there is nothing better that we could be doing.

Do I remember anything about that awful play by Moliere?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

But I remember this Thanksgiving ride. I remember that once we got past declaring our own self-importance, we were able to reminisce about memory after memory of growing up with seven people in a tiny house.

The horrible neighbors that poured ketchup on our picnic table and how Dad dumped a bucket of water over the kid that did it.

The time that Dad was floating in Pebble Lake, when a fish came over and bit his nipple, sending him to shore in a full blush.

That one vacation when Dad forgot to put the luggage in the car and Mom said she was sure that she told Dad to do so.

We laughed and laughed and laughed.

That year, Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t the highlight of the break.

It was the Thanksgiving ride home.

 

 

The Hunger for September 11th

September 11th hit me a little harder than usual this year.

I think it might have been a presentation that I gave to 180 college freshmen a few weeks ago—the way they looked at me as I told them my story about where I was on September 11th.

I wasn’t presenting to a political science or history class. It was just a one-credit first-year class for undecided majors. Just a slot in their schedule to hear about different topics to get them thinking about what they might want to do in the future. Because I work with the international student population at my university, I offered to speak to them about the importance of intercultural competence.

As I planned that presentation, I thought about these college freshmen. What I could possibly say to make them understand why communicating with people from other cultures is important?

I thought about my own college experience. I had no international friends. I didn’t even really know any international students on campus. I was in college from 2000-2004—an all-time low for international student enrollment, since the U.S. practically closed its borders after September 11th.

How old would these students have been in 2001?

Four or five years old.

Good grief. They don’t even remember it.

And that was when I decided that I would tell them how I—as a sophomore in college—learned the news of the terrorist attacks and how I had reacted. Because they could see themselves in my shoes, as a young college student.

I would tell them that I didn’t watch the news that morning. That I didn’t even check my computer.

That I had walked all the way to my 9:30 anthropology class, only to be told by my professor that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.

That he didn’t know what else to do besides teach class.

That I had tried to get lunch after class, only to walk away from the dining hall, sick with worry as I listened to the news being played over the loudspeakers.

That I couldn’t call my parents because I didn’t have a cell phone.

That I sat in a French class while my classmates–strangers that I had only known for three weeks–cried together and raged about those people throwing candy and dancing in the streets—and how another classmate defended those people by pointing out that they were Palestinian—and their homes had just been bulldozed by American tanks.

And the fact that this heated and tearful debate had pushed me to think.

To really think.

Are we really good?

What do other people think of us?

Why are people angry at us?

What have we done?

Miami's student newspaper, two days after the attacks

The student newspaper of my alma mater, Miami University, two days after the attacks

I said all of this. It was a powerful, emotional speech that froze all 180 of them in their seats for a solid nine minutes—no easy feat in the age of the smartphone.

But after all 180 of them had filed out of the lecture hall, I was bothered.

Had they really understood?

Could they ever really understand?

Probably not.

They don’t have the emotional memories that I have.

And that’s not their fault.

Just as I barely remember the Challenger explosion—which happened when I was five—these students wouldn’t really remember September 11th.

Still it bothered me.

A lot.

Why?

(AP Photo/The Daily News, Todd Maisel, Pool)

For me, after the dust had settled, what September 11th left with me was a profound sense that I didn’t understand everything.

Perhaps I knew this intellectually, but as I watched the coverage of the United States turned upside down and inside out, I started to feel the limitations of my own understanding. Anthropologists call this phenomenon “strange-making” and it is a key element of rituals of transformation. To see your world turned upside down and inside out shatters your mental constructs and forces you to accept that anything is possible.

Like many Americans, I was transformed by the experience of September 11th. It ignited in me an insatiable curiosity about how the United States looks through the lens of other cultures. That curiosity compelled me to ask questions, to change my major, and to volunteer to teach English to adult immigrants. That curiosity brought me into contact with people from all over the world. And through that contact, I have had the great privilege to vicariously experience the world through a kaleidoscope of different cultural lenses.

My curiosity sent me abroad, and it was through those experiences that I was able to feel culture. Culture was no longer a bolded word in a textbook. Culture became as big, as pervasive, and as powerful as God. And I began to understand just how different my culture was from French culture, Chinese culture, Turkish culture, Saudi culture. And that within these monolithic “cultures,” there is incredible diversity that I cannot begin to fully comprehend and articulate to others.

I feel humbled and blessed to not only have understood this in my lifetime, but to live it every day as I teach international students.

Awesome Turkish people, Istanbul, Turkey, 2008

Awesome Turkish people, Istanbul, Turkey, 2008

At the same time, it bothers me.

It bothers me that I cannot simply just pass on genetically what I have learned.

It bothers me that although I can pass on my eye color and my stubbornness to my daughter, I cannot pass this on. My daughter will still have to learn all of these lessons for herself.

There is even the possibility that she won’t learn these lessons—just as I haven’t learned all the lessons that my father wanted to pass on to me before he passed away.

In the span of American history, I’m sure it bothered many women of my grandmother’s generation that they couldn’t transplant into their grandsons their own emotional memories of watching their fiancés and husbands go to war halfway around the world–as a kind of antidote to war-hungry men.

Just as the mothers of the Civil War couldn’t recreate for their grandchildren the grief of not being able to bury their sons who had died hundreds of miles away.

I’m sure plenty of great Americans went to their graves hoping and praying that someday their grandchildren and great-grandchildren would realize all that they had sacrificed for us so that we may live better lives.

My grandmother, Virginia Tjaden--a woman not to be trifled with.

One of those great Americans: my grandmother, Virginia Tjaden

But we can’t pass this on.

Because what we want to pass on is hunger.

Hunger is felt individually. It emerges from an emptiness, a realization that something is lacking. Hunger cannot be taught. It is felt. Hunger drives us out of our safe havens and sends us searching.

Too often in American parenting, the goal is to ensure that our children want for nothing. We believe that “providing all that our children need” is the hallmark of good parenting.

But this is an illusion.

We can’t provide everything our children need.

Just as good teachers acknowledge that teaching isn’t just transplanting knowledge into a student’s brain, good parents acknowledge that parenting isn’t just telling our children what to do—it’s letting them experience so the lessons stick with them.

But with September 11th, my daughter cannot share my experience. There’s no recreating it.

While the emotional part of my brain never wants my daughter to feel the way that I felt on that day, the rational part of my brain craves that experience for her. I want her to reach the limitations of her own understanding. I want her world to be turned upside-down. I want her to go searching for answers—and then to keep going when she realizes that there is no end to answers.

I want her to feel hunger.

The hunger that will send her searching.

And if I’m always trying to make sure that my daughter is “full,” when will she ever be hungry?

Nutritionists will tell you that it’s not healthy to never feel hunger. Our bodies work best when we allow enough time to pass between meals. Our stomachs speak to our brains and our brains speak to our stomachs.

The same is true of our emotions. We cannot make it our goal as parents to create a life that is always “happy” for our children. Our children need to learn how to experience sadness, frustration, anger, embarrassment, guilt, disgust, and everything in between. When our emotions emerge, we need to make sense of them. We need to feel them so we can move through them.

When we numb ourselves to our emotions, we lose our humanity. Not only that, but we lose the ability to remember, for emotion is a powerful vehicle to transfer experiences into long-term memory. Emotion creates an authentic context. It makes those threads in the web of our memory particularly sticky.

And as I stared out at those 180 eighteen-year-old faces, I saw the truth that September 11th had not stuck to them at all. They had come through those years having no emotional memory of that day. They were unchanged by this day in our history.

But as they listened to my story, their faces darkened. Their foreheads furrowed. They froze in their seats. You could hear the proverbial pin drop in the back of the room in the pauses in my speech.

Telling my story had given them that an authentic context. It had allowed them to vicariously live that day with me. It had given them a reason to pay attention. It had shown them the value of what I was telling them. I love stories for this very reason. They can provide the emotional context that we need to help others who do not share our experiences.

So although we cannot pass on our hunger, we can pass on our stories.

And we should.

We cannot know how they will receive our stories, but that’s not the point. The point is that we tell them. The point is that we give them the context.

Then, we hope that they listen.

And we pray that they learn.

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