Tuesday, October 30, 2007


On the way back from the haunted house, Mia said, "Do you want to see a cloud that looks like a monster head?"

Nora tried to add, "In a. . . In a. . . "

We all knew what she was thinking so we waited for her to say, "sink" because that was the horrific image from the last haunted room that we scooted through before hitting the emergency exit early. Nora ended up with the word "car" so I'm hoping her memory is fading already.

"Mommy, why are you crying?" asks Mia from the backseat.

"I'm not, I'm laughing," and I was. Randy was shaking with laughter, too, at the absurdity of it all.

He whispers, "I thought when you said 1 to 4, that was the age limit!"

I say, "It was in a church!"

What were we thinking? You have to give us this credit: the haunted house was in a church, well in the church school gymnasium. The article in the paper said they covered up all the scary images with sheets during the daytime children hours. One of the organizers even said she had been taking her son since he was two.

I'm sorely tempted to picture this two year old in all his America's Testosterone Home Videos glory, naked except for his Pull-up, doing karate chops while the grownups laugh on the couch. But that would be no more fair and no more kind than trying to foist our responsibility for walking in that church onto his poor mom.

While we were walking through the dark hallways, me carrying Nora, Randy with Mia in his arms, a flashlight-carrying kid just this side of adolescence leading the way, I felt the beginnings of my own horrors - the fear of giving your own child an indelibly awful image, of not being able to comfort her fears so easily anymore, of opening her world to formerly unimagined grownup things.

So Randy and I became the jolliest of underworld guides.

"Oh look, it's train-tracks! Let's go across!"

"Oh, isn't this room beautiful?! It looks like outer space!"

"Oh how funny! We have to get out of this room through the fireplace! Isn't that funny?"

We rushed by the lumps covered with white sheets, but they did have to leave uncovered the latex head coming up out of the sink, didn't they?

The girls have been processing that image for days. Mia telling Miss Molly at school on Monday, "There was a head coming out of the sink!" Nora mixing up "sink" with "potty" when she tells the story.

"I never want to go to a haunted house ever again!" says Mia. "Well, you don't have to!" we cheer.

The kind of brave I want my girls to be now is brave enough to share. Brave enough to stay with the nice neighbor mommy and her son for two hours while I go to Montessori Observation Day. Brave enough to try a new thing, like a bit of roasted cauliflower or miso soup. Brave enough to say, "I ate the candy."

Translate the grownup concept of Sad to Scary and you have the view of the child. There are some genuinely sad things in my family history, the family I grew up in, that is. We've weathered lots of divorces, children who died, mental illness. Mothers and fathers who went away.

And like any part of the past that lies uneasy on my mind, I can say That Has Nothing To Do With Us, the Us, that is, that is my new little family. And you can say That Has Everything To Do With Us but the truth is somewhere in between and right now when the girls are spooked, all they need is our good humor and constant reassurance and a sweet pumpkin patch on the way home with a teepee to explore and three little donkeys, safe, warm and soft to the touch.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

When Childbirth Brings Sadness

PSI: Blog Day for the Mothers Act

You are handed a tiny precious thing after the most exhausting and painful experience of your life and you are expected to give it total care. You are two vulnerable animals, one big, one small, and with luck and some compassionate help, you will both emerge from the infancy period intact and in love.

But you have caught a glimpse of the unthinkable. You hear whispers of the worst - when you sweetly sing the rock-a-bye song of hatred to this helpless bundle, when the wind blows and the cradle rocks, when you are jerked awake for the fourth time in one long night with no desire left to care for her, when you stumble forward driven by nothing but some automatic maternal machine and the vague hope that this will get better, better, in a few days.

I went to see my friend and her new baby. He was beautiful, perfect. Tucked into a round bundle in her sling, his long dark lashes resting on his cheeks, he was the picture of a blissfully peaceful newborn.

But my friend looked at me with hollow eyes. She was transformed. Here before me was a woman I had always and only known as confident, talented, highly competent. She is a friend and colleague I had admired from the day I met her. An excellent educator, hostess extraordinaire, pie baker, quilt-maker, artist, confidante. And all these talents executed with love and laughter. Now she looked lost and tired.

“I think having him was a mistake,” she whispered.

I listened with a sinking heart. I felt helpless. I’ve known deep loss but I had nothing to say in the face of grief like this – how do you comfort someone whose very abundance has created her own despair?

Anna M. Georgiopoulos, MD, defines postpartum depression (PPD) as "is a serious, common, and treatable condition. The effects can be devastating for the entire family. The couple’s relationship often suffers and women afflicted with PPD are at high risk for recurrent depression. Children of depressed mothers have been reported to have impaired cognitive development and behavioral disturbances." ("Routine Screening for Postpartum Depression" in The Journal of Family Practice.)

I tried to respond to my friend with sympathy and understanding.

I tried to tell her the postpartum period is hard, but temporary. But even as I said this, I knew that words alone are sometimes not enough. Tell a depressed person that her thinking is wrong, that she has every reason to be happy and you have only added to the chorus of destructive voices in her head.

I’ve felt depression; I’ve seen mental illness strike people I love. And I’ve learned there are some spirals of despair that talk alone cannot pull us out of.

On October 15, the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act passed the House of Representatives by an amazingly bipartisan vote of 383-3. The bill expands PPD research and services for those women and families afflicted with the disorder.

Melanie Blocker-Stokes’s story is harrowing. The hotel where she plunged to her death looks over the Lincoln Park zoo. I think of her and her anguish every time I catch a glimpse of the Days Inn sign through the trees when we are walking through Lincoln Park. The passage of the bill in Melanie's name is a great victory for her family, and especially for her mother who became a passionate activist for PPD research and prevention after her daughter’s death and for new mothers and those close to them.

However, as Dr. Georgiopoulous continues, “despite the serious consequences and the availability of highly effective pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies, PPD often remains unrecognized and untreated. Routine screening for postpartum depression is not common in the United States.”

In a recent survey conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a majority of doctors do not probe for signs of postpartum depression in new mothers. Of the 228 North Carolina physicians responding to the survey who said they had seen women for postpartum visits in the previous three months, 79 percent said they were unlikely to formally screen the patients for depression.

Here is the published study in the May/June 2007 North Caroline Medical Journal.

The Mothers Act is a bill seeking to increase screening for the disorder. In part, the bill ensures that “new mothers, during visits to a physician, certified nurse midwife, certified midwife, nurse, or licensed healthcare professional who is licensed or certified by the State, within the first year after the birth of their child, are offered screenings for postpartum conditions by using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), or other appropriate tests. If the results of such screening provide warning signs for postpartum conditions, the new mother shall be referred to an appropriate mental healthcare provider.”

You can find out more about the MOTHERS act and how you can support it at Postpartum Support International and Postpartum Progress.

My friend eventually sought out a prescription for an anti-depressant and took it for a time. Her brightness, humor and perception returned. She bonded tenderly with her son who grows more and more wonderful every day.

Today is Blog Day for the Mothers Act. Go to Blogher to read more posts about this important issue.

Here is a wonderful blog by a woman who not only writes eloquently about her own post partum depression, but offers help, comfort and a wealth of information to others who are looking for answers about PPD.

And here is my review of Brooke Shields book about her battle with PPD.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Brent's favorite poem

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because

e. e. cummings

Monday, October 22, 2007

Writing the book

“It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper—by 'diving into the wreck,' to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they’re assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes manageable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief.” Barbara Kingsolver – Small Wonder

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rest in Peace

You know how celebrity deaths seem to come in threes? After the July 30 double whammy of international director greats Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, the other shoe dropped for me with the September death of classic Hollywood actress Jane Wyman. Here in these three artists was a mid-century cluster of craftsmanship and humanity, emotion and intellect.
I discovered Wyman when I watched her star with Rock Hudson in two of Douglas Sirk’s great films, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows This was last year when I was on a Sirk kick after falling in love with Far From Heaven, a film inspired by All that Heaven Allows.
Far From Heaven pays homage to the meticulous mise en scene of Sirk, especially in regards to its emotive use of rich color, the precise movement of the actors and the architectural arrangement of figures and lines in the frame. Julianne Moore is gifted enough to follow Wyman’s lead without irony and fully live in the tightly mannered acting style . . . . But if I start talking about Far From Heaven, I need to compare Julianne Moore’s performance with her turn in Hayne’s Safe and then go on to Boogie Nights and Magnolia and we’ll be here all night . . .

A German expatriate, Sirk was a master of elaborate mise-en-scene in the service of “women’s pictures,” as these purple family melodramas were often called. Sirk made beautiful and swooningly emotional films, but in their day they didn’t receive the respect of more muscular 1950’s offerings – hard boiled noirs, war pictures, social issue films like On the Waterfront, Gentleman’s Agreement.

In both the Sirk films, the Wyman and Hudson characters fall in love, but are kept apart – in Heaven, by social strictures against their age differences, their social status. Wyman plays a widow with two grown children who oppose her relationship with her younger gardener. In Obsession, incredible plot devices separate the two – Hudson not only accidentally kills Wyman’s husband, but blinds her as well. It is only his rapid transformation from n’ere-do-well playboy to savior eye surgeon that can win her love.

In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk’s transformation of a studio backlot into rural New England through the seasons is a sight to see, especially in the sunlit winter scene when Wyman decides to return to her young lover’s home. She fails to hear Hudson call desperately to her from the cliff above! Hudson slips and falls from the cliff! He nearly dies but is nursed by the health by his love!

I suspect that viewers have one of two reactions to this level of melodrama – you either gasp at the audacity of this kind of thing or roll your eyes and turn the channel. I’m won over by Wyman’s eyes. Her bangs. Intense emotion kept at bay but revealed in those trembling lips.

Jane Wyman, 5 January 1917 – 10 September 2007

In another life, I showed Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries to seniors taking a World Lit course at a Chicago all-boys parochial school. The film worked beautifully for our thematic unit on “Young and Old,” which also included Edward Albee’s short play The Sandbox. Nostalgia visits the film’s elderly protagonist, played by Victor Sjostrom, but also surreal dread of death and meaninglessness.

Bergman’s unexpected mixing of the sweet and the harsh in Wild Strawberries is fascinating to me, and reminiscent of Maugham. The story unwinds as an elderly professor drives to accept a lifetime achievement award, revisiting his childhood home. Scenes of light loveliness alternate with pitch black - in one scene, the professor picks up some hitchhikers, including Bibi Andersson as a teenage blonde who laughs, chatters and delights in the high-pitched lilting clucks and lows of Swedish syllables. Then the car nearly collides with that of a desolate couple whose shockingly bitter argument seems to have landed like a rock through the window from another film entirely.

I came across Bergman’s The Virgin Spring on cable a while back. Within a few minutes, even before I discovered who was the director, it was clear a master storyteller was in charge. Purity and innocence destroyed, then brutally avenged. A story as old as time. Academy Award, best foreign film, 1961.

Ingmar Bergman, 14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007

Antonioni’s Red Desert? I remember the sound of it the most – a thick aural stew of anonymous industrial droning and pounding as lovely Monica Vitti wanders through a luridly colored wasteland of modernity . . .

And ah, Blow-Up. Such silly pop pleasures from a usually non-commercial artist. The mimes, the eerie silence in the park as David Hemmings shoots a love scene – or is it a murder?, Vanessa Redgrave laughing with no shirt on, The Yardbirds in concert. London at its frothiest.

Michelangelo Antonioni, 29 September 1912 – 30 July 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Guiness commercial by Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer directed Sexy Beast. Look at this color!

Guinness is good for you. Like Malcolm Lowry's drunk said in Under the Volcano, beer is full of vitamins.

Jack Black- Be Kind Rewind

Gondry owes me some laughs. Just THINKING about "Endless Sunshine" makes me cry.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Around the House and In the Garden

Around the House and In the Garden is a lovely collection of essays about “heartbreak, healing and home improvement” by Dominique Browning, a divorced mother of two sons.

Lest you fear, as I did for a couple of minutes, that the writer’s day job as the editor of House and Garden magazine would have you stumbling as you read over designer names you feel like you should have heard of, or French terms for fancy furniture you’d never want in your comfy home, don’t worry.

Yes, there is a reference to a prie dieu, (hm?) but Browning reassures in each brief essay that meaning lies in the love, the comforting habits and the beauty created within a home rather than the sticks of furniture inside its walls.

The writing comforts and sustains, even as Browning takes us on her painful journey of deciding to leave her marriage, tearing a home asunder, grieving the emptiness, and working towards healing. There is agony on the way. When her son compares her to his father’s new wife, the normally gentle and equanimous author hisses, “Don’t you ever talk to me about that woman again,” and you feel the raw wounds of parent, child, family, home.

But spring returns with its crocus blooms, light enters the rooms again and Browning rediscovers joy in life and its beautiful objects. She writes, ". . . Even though, after several years of being on my own, and still taking to my bed on occasion, overwhelmed, I fell alive again. Attuned to the lives around me. I see beauty, again, and I feel the spirit pulsing in the things of everyday life."

In the spirit of how beloved things of this world can work pleasure on you, here are some of my favorite things this week:

1. Far friends who keep in touch and remind me that “Everything you need has been given to you and is inside you.”

2. The plastic parakeet on a tiny perch on our kitchen counter who chirps via motion sensor each time I walk by. He keeps me company and I don’t have to feed him or clean up his poop. What better pet?

3. Mad Men, continuing to please way past its pilot (ha! Good luck with THAT, Pushing Daisies!)

And 30 Rock, funny as ever (Tina Fey calls her ex-boyfriend and a woman answers so Tina pretends to be a survey company. “How old are you? . . . How much do you weigh? . . . When was the last time you had sex? . . . Well, who are YOU!? . . . No, who do YOU think YOU is?!” Hang up. I’m snorting with laughter.)

And one-third of Tell Me You Love Me – the couple-with-kids storyline. Forget the other whiner characters; this is the plot to follow. It’s an utterly moving portrayal of two good people who are working their butts off to be good parents but have become stymied by the mysteries of each other’s desire. The kitchen table with the kids is their safe cottage; the bedroom is the dark forest where they are lost.

4. Our Toyota hybrid. Because I don’t have to feel guilty driving Mia to school in an internal combustion engine, and waiting in carpool line I get to play with the computer map in the dash, and the CD player. The energy graph that tells me my mileage by the second is my coach in amateur hyper-mileaging as I coast to stops, and confuse other drivers by keeping within the speed limit.

5. Recently spied bumper stickers:

“Isis, Isis, Rah Rah Rah!”

“Mental Illness Runs in Every Family.” I don’t know why this last one makes me smile, but it does.

6. A Mate Latte with almond. “Mate has caffeine, but it is water soluble, so it’s not as much a shock to your system as coffee,” said the Argo Tea woman. I don’t know what she meant, but mmm, it’s good.

7. My khaki-green Free People shirtwaist dress from Crossroads Trading Company. It’s my go-to dress for almost any casual outing. Recycled! Cheap! Flattering!

Shopping at this place does make me feel a bit like the crazy old college-town lady who wears too much rouge and thinks she's still one of the kids, but I get to overhear delicious bits like this in the coed fitting room.

Guy one: Did you try on these True Religions shoes? They’re too small for me.

Guy two: I think these are women’s True Religions. (Pause) I don’t care. They look good.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Party On

The decision to take Mia’s Saturday party away from home was a good one. The children took a walk in the woods on a beautiful cool morning, pausing to play non-competitive nature games along the way. We had sandwiches and the cake delivered to the nature center. Mr. Nicky played a great set, including a special song all about Mia’s day. The children left with pots of pansies and little mouse cookies.

Too much? Of course. But as I was driving home with the leftovers and bags of dirty plastic dishes to wash in my efforts to be a green hostess, I felt good. My freakage was kept to a minimum. It was all over in three quick hours and everyone seemed happy, even poor little Sebastian, who sobbed because he couldn’t sit next to his beloved Mia during lunch.

Feeling good is not very much what I do these days, so this ease of heart made me wonder, with what does one fill her mind when it is not topped off with worry? What replaces anxiety, regret, and guilt when we finally get rid of them – as this believer in recovery knows we can do?

Gratitude? Yes. Problem-solving? Yeah. Writing work – say, new sentence construction? Sure!

In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes the Buddhist belief that one’s thoughts at death will determine the state of one’s afterlife. “Therefore, every moment of life is to be lived calmly, mindfully, as if it were the last, to insure that the most is made of the precious human state—the only one in which enlightenment is possible.” (Interesting. He wrote this in October, too.)

There’s a lot to be said for the Christian idea of constant prayer, filling the mind with appreciation, kind intentions for others in need . . . It’s the requirement of praise and self-abnegation that gives me trouble.

Autumn landed with a boom for me on October 1. Overcast sky, shadows in every corner and gloom in my head.

“I’m ordering a SAD light,” I tell Randy. “You can put it next to your tinfoil hat,” he replies.

My nails are in shreds; the therapist is in Tuscany. (Does this make you laugh? It does me. It’s one of the few thoughts that broke through my funk today – that and the sight of Mia all decked out in a shiny new pink blouse for picture day.)

In last month's People magazine, Jenny McCarthy, who went to Mother McAuley High School on the Chicago southside and has always comes across as very real to me, says motherhood really kicked her ass. Her son at two was diagnosed with epilepsy, then autism and the strain tore her marriage apart.

Today everything makes me cry – the babysitter’s story of saving her best friend from an overdose, the memory of my husband describing my recycling as “militant,” Jon Brion’s soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At least when I'm crying, I'm not screaming. My resilience is kaput. When Eleanor screams, “No! I won’t!” I answer dully, “I don’t care” or just pick her up, my lower back moaning with the strain, and haul her away.

Randy sends me an email with a picture of the Hang In There kitten on a branch. Thank God for patient and funny husbands, even though their eternal failings make the list of what makes Mommy cry.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

To quote Mo Willems, “Party, PARTY, Party, PARTY!”

Yesterday was the final day of what seems like weeks of celebrating our oldest daughter’s fifth birthday.

Monday, her father and sister and I appeared at Mia’s classroom door with fruit kabobs and snapshots of our first little swaddled newborn and her subsequent birthday incarnations: as a big-eyed toddler, a chubby cheeked garden sprite, a little girl engrossed in her cupcake, a curly-haired fairy and, in a shot taken Saturday, a lovely little lady.

Mia beamed as she walked around the circle of children, carrying a tiny globe. A lit candle flickered in the middle of the group; her walk represented her five journeys around the sun. It was lovely.

“You sit back there and wahhh!” reminisced another mom who had been through the little Montessori ceremony herself.

For me, not right then. I was too distracted by the shiny faces and adorable (to me) but solemn (to them) comments of Mia’s classmates (“Does this have sugar in it? Sugar gives me a stomachache.” “I’m five!” “I’m not Mah-gret. I’m MAR-garet.”)

And I was thrilled they all (even picky Mia!) ate up the fruit kabobs. (A mango triangle, cantaloupe ball, pineapple chunk, kiwi slice, topped with a blueberry over the point.)

(I’m having a difficult time writing about this weekend linearly. Every thought sends me off on yet another essential tangent. If my brains were the Internets, this simple list of fruits would bear highlighted links. Links to, say, a site about the local/organic debate, and a Quicktime file of my local four dollar melon making squealing noises before it collapsed in a fishy orange wash of rot on the kitchen counter. Just the words “Mia” and “five” bear enough memory to crash my own internal hard drive.)

(Tangents such as . . . Most use of the links within the blogs that I encounter - including my own - seems earnestly literal. There must be some wired comedian out there using links in clever and ironic ways – a digital version of David Foster Wallace’s copious footnotes – perhaps the man himself? I wouldn't know. I read those kind of funny people in print, not on-line. Or I used to, when I had a little time.)

So, no, I didn’t tear up at Mia’s school. My reflective moment came later - family dinnertime that night. The hour was reminiscent of the holiday season, with the early darkness, comfort food on the menu (pot roast) and Dad assembling the zillion pieces of Mia’s new toy castle.

“This is the fifth anniversary of the biggest change in my life, well, my adult life.” I said to Randy. “Do you mind if I say it’s a bigger change than our wedding?” “No, I don’t mind. Of course it is,” says my husband, who I lived with contentedly for six years before marrying.