Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

If you’ll recall, in December 2019, I was part of a book gift exchange with a group of women who also had babies that year. I was gifted two books by one woman. The first I read and wrote about here: https://sherewin.com/2020/03/09/severance-by-ling-ma/. The second was Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Both were shockingly timely to 2020. Severance was about a global pandemic and Queenie is about, in part, race and racial injustice.

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So, here’s my take on the book. The story immediately drew me in. It starts with some relationship drama, and I am always happy to be a fly on the wall to any and all relationship drama.

But, as the book progressed, I grew weary of Queenie’s antics, and I didn’t always have enough emotional connection to the story to be patient with her as she navigated her failed relationship, her abusive/borderline abusive sexual escapades, and sabotaged her career. Certainly there were reasons, and certainly we would grow to understand them, but I sometimes grew weary in the waiting. (This happens more and more with me when reading works of fiction.)

While her relationships with friends didn’t always resonate with me (which probably says more about my relationship to “friends” than about her depiction), her relationship with her family became the most interesting aspect of the book to me. Fortunately, that narrative builds and builds throughout the story to a nice conclusion. (Not nice as in happy or resolved per se, but nice as in well done.)

Overall, this piece has literary merit, is well done, if a bit too long. I hate to make the comparison, but it really does allude to the Bridget Jones’s Diary story. It’s a workplace romance starring woman who is a mess. It’s a hallmark of British Literature, and Carty-Williams carries it on and makes it her own in Queenie. The author artfully integrates trauma and politics, specifically the #BLM movement. I am glad I read it, and I think you will be too.

Stuart Little by E. B. White

Since my ability to read for pleasure has been severely diminished since 2018, I’ve decided I’ll also keep a tally of children’s books that I read that I think are also worth reading in adulthood. For the most part, we read many, many baby books, but I’m also able to read a page or two of capital “L” children’s literature, and so I try to do that as I can.

First up is Stuart Little by E. B. White. I had never read this children’s classics, and so I snagged it from a “Little Free Library” when I had the chance. It is the first “real” book I’ve read to my child. I read it page by page over the first two years of being a mother, with several months-long breaks in between. There were little images on every other page or so, and it, along with the text, was just enough to sustain my child’s attention for short periods of time.

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our copy

This is a delightful book. It’s about a mouse named Stuart Little who takes himself far too seriously. He lives in New York City, but a few discomforts and experiences compel him on an adventure. He is both honorable and seriously lacking in accurate self-reflection.

It’s E. B. White, so the writing is perfection. Every bit of dialogue enriches the characters. The plot is simple. It’s a child’s book, but somehow the journey seems very authentic to real human experience. It’s a quick read (unless you’re reading it like I did) and well worth the time.

A bonus is that it also reminded me of my grandpa, whom I miss tremendously, who also wrote and told delightfully absurd stories of characters who took themselves too seriously.

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones

I read How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones because it was sitting there, and I’m glad I did. It’s a quick (but not necessarily easy) read. I was immediately drawn into the narrative. He shares what feels like a really authentic account of what it’s like to grow up Black and gay and how and why that felt like a death sentence to him.how we fight for our lives

The confusion, innocence, curiosity, and angst of childhood felt really authentic to me—though his experience seemed even more exacerbated by his firm knowledge that he was *different*. Later, the sex is explicit, and there’s a lot of it, and at times I wondered if it was gratuitous, but in the big pictures, it really did serve an important purpose in the story. And anyway, it’s about a young gay man, so yeah, there’s going to be some sex.

About two thirds or three quarters of the way through the book, when many authors lose their steam, attention to detail, and sentence-level care, this book picks up, ending powerfully as the author’s relationship with his mother contextualizes and heals and, although imperfect, a clear love story emerges that feels true and healing and heartwarming.

The ending is surprisingly, as it becomes clear that this author has achieved the sense of self that he’d been searching for—in some unlikely ways and places that simultaneously feel familiar. I too have suddenly and unexpectedly wept with strangers.

The book made me much more reflective of my own education, especially my undergraduate degree, an experience that, for me, has inexplicably evaded much analysis or meaning making from me. This book also made my world much smaller. I identified with this man in that I too went to a state school on a scholarship, and although it wasn’t the fancy private school to which I had received a partial scholarship, it offered an important education still the same.

Because the book was not too demanding of my time, I googled some of people listed in the acknowledgements section. I read Sarah Schulman as an undergrad! I didn’t realize Roxanne Gay has a PhD in Rhet/Comp like I do! I didn’t realize it was from Michigan Tech, a sister school with my own PhD program that often exchanges “talent.” Not only did the book’s journey resonate with me, I also had the sudden sense that these people were actually my people. This felt like…my circle.

This is a story of a gay black man, but the journey to reconcile the love and harm inflicted by one’s family, the journey of navigating the first years of adulthood (college) and settling into one’s authentic identity amid wildly conflicting pressures, the community we find, the family we choose is the stuff of life and something with which every reader can identify.

planting the placenta

Today I finally planted the placentas that I saved from both of my hospital births. I kept them in case I was struggling postpartum and wanted to have them encapsulated. Fortunately, I never ended up needing to use them postpartum. So, I stored them in the freezer for months with a plan to bury them. I learned that once you have them, there’s no turning back. I moved across two states with a placenta in a cooler on ice. I started to have my doubts about keeping them, but what else could I do?

Finally, it is springtime, and I am settled, and I am planting my first orchard: apples, pears, apricot, and peach. It is time.

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a new fruit tree for the orchard

To begin, it felt like a chore. Get trees. Remember to get the placentas out of the deep freeze so that I can work with them tomorrow. Dig holes. Do it all quickly before the babies wake up from their naps.

I’m so glad I did it though. It was a beautiful and surprisingly introspective process. When I opened the containers, they were so fresh, like I had just given birth. Everything slowed down. The memories of my pregnancy, of growing and birthing these beautiful babies came flooding back as I prepared the placentas that connected us in every way. It was bittersweet to let them go. To put them in the earth felt like letting go of the most physical connection I have with my boys. It’s something I’ll never get back.

I hope I’ll remember. I hope sometimes when I am in the orchard, I’ll slow down, and I’ll remember the absolute miracle of life and the life changing gift this experience of motherhood has been to me.

How fitting that today is also Earth Day. Happy Day!

A’s birth story

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A was born at 7:44pm on December 5th, 2019. He was due on December 1st, although an early ultrasound read a Nov. 30th due date, I rounded “late” to give myself more time. I did the same last year with L. Given a family history of long gestations and big birth weight babies, I wanted to avoid induction pressure as much as possible, while still being relatively accurate and medically responsible. I was in labor with L on his due date—not late at all! However, during this pregnancy, I was bombarded with so many stories of people barely making it the hospital with their second babies and stories of early babies that, despite knowing better, I began to think that I might have a quick, early labor with this baby too. But first, let me back up.

I found out I was pregnant around the middle/end of March 2019. (A few days before, I had submitted an application for my dream job in Oregon.) I was still nursing 8 month old L around the clock and had not yet start my period. So, my only indication of pregnancy was implantation cramping, which happens during a very specific window of time after conception, and, in my body, is a very specific feeling that I’ve only felt twice. Thinking of it now, I cannot draw up the memory of the feeling. But, I know it when I feel it. I noted the date, told T I thought I might be pregnant, and loaded L in the car and made the drive from Driggs, ID to my home in Utah. Around that time, I had also just received word that Grandpa H was dying of kidney failure. Mom met me in Utah, and we began a week of tender visits with Grandpa as his kidneys failed, and then he passed away. Privately, I began taking pregnancy tests and saw that first faint line get darker with each test. I told both T and my mom. Although this pregnancy was a surprise and came to me much faster than my first pregnancy, I felt strongly that this was a precious miracle baby, and I was grateful for the timing. Questions about if and when to have a second child were suddenly no longer a concern. This was how it would happen. This was the answer.

Shortly thereafter, in mid-April, we made our first trip to Louisiana with L. The trip went well, but I felt that first trimester exhaustion and had an upset stomach the entire time—something I never felt with my first pregnancy. When we returned, I had my first prenatal appointment, where the due date was confirmed, and we did prenatal testing to find out, “It’s a boy!” Around this time, I also learned that I was a finalist for the job in Oregon. So, once again, I packed up L, and we made the long trek to Oregon. I felt great the day of the job interview, but it was taxing. I continued to struggle with first trimester exhaustion, upset stomach, and also scheduled nursing sessions with L throughout the day.

Shortly after returning from Oregon, in early June, I was offered the job. I accepted, and by mid-June, I made arrangements to put my house in Utah on the market, with a goal to sell it within a month. That process required cleaning and trips to Utah and packing up my life (once again). My mom came for another visit, which coincided with my uncle Roger’s sculpture reveal at This is the Place Park in Utah. Mom helped me pack, then T came to Utah at the end of July to help finish packing and load my belongings into storage pods, which would be shipped to Oregon. During this time, I was also house shopping in Oregon, via video walkthroughs with the realtor and my mom’s visits to properties. I made a few offers, until finally finding the home I would buy at a great location.

I spent the rest of the summer enjoying my time in Idaho with L, taking long walks in the stroller with him and generally enjoying the slower pace that life there affords. In mid-August, I found childcare in Oregon and moved in with my mom temporarily while I began working at my new job. I also saw the house that I was in the process of buying for the first time. Buying the house ended up having several unforeseen setbacks, and the one month I was supposed to stay with my mom turned into three months. I had repairs and updates completed, and I moved in during my third trimester, only a month or so before A was born, with the help of my mom and T and other family members.

I mention all of this to indicate the intensity of this entire pregnancy. While staying with my mom, L and I shared a small bedroom. He began daycare for the first time, he caught every cold imaginable, and so did I. Antibiotics were even required at one point, and while I was sick, I had regular, painful contractions that made me wonder if my baby would arrive early. T was also supposed to arrive and stay about a month before the due date. However, work obligations kept him away several weeks longer than anticipated.

In the final weeks of pregnancy, I felt huge. I was huge, gaining 65 pounds this time. By far the most difficult part was caring for L while pregnant. Tasks like lifting him, changing him, getting him in and out of the car seat, and putting him in this crib sometimes felt impossible. I held him not on my lap, but beside me now—a emotional transition as I began to feel what it would be like to not be able to fully baby my first baby as much as I had in the previous year and a half.

My due date came and went. At the 38 week mark, I began nesting and became much more motivated to finish unpacking the house. The few weeks previously were spent moving and unpacking too, but I was tired and less motivated. In the last few weeks of pregnancy, I’d finished enough of the interior of the house to feel satisfied and ready for baby.

The due date came and went. I felt uncomfortable at night, tossing and turning, but never went in to labor. At 36 weeks, I was dilated 2-3 cm. At 40 weeks, I was dilated to 4cm. One night, near my due date, I had a wave of hormonal nausea and a painful contraction, followed by another painful contraction. I told T that I felt certain I was in labor, and I tried to sleep. I awoke the next morning. Contractions had faded away. I wasn’t in labor after all.

At around 2:20am on Thursday, December 5th, I woke up feeling uncomfortable. I was struggling with the bedsheets and felt a pop or a shifting in my uterus. Steady, painful contractions started right away. After about an hour, T and I made our way to the hospital, while Mom stayed home with L. I arrived around 4am and was at 4-5cm. About an hour later, I asked for an epidural and the anesthesiologist arrived around 6am. Contractions were not regular (between 3-7 minutes) and never established a regular pattern, which is what happened last time too. I couldn’t talk during the contractions and had to moan and close my eyes and sway to get through them. The anesthesiologist encouraged me to get the epidural then based on my pain level. However, the epidural was not so easy. This time, the anesthesiologist was unable to easily place the epidural. This was not a problem last time, but this time they thought it might be cause of mild scoliosis, which was the first I’d ever heard of it. I did get a severe headache last time, which doctors thought might’ve been the beginnings of postpartum preeclampsia, but the anesthesiologist felt certain that it was a spinal headache. My last epidural did leave my legs completely paralyzed for the duration of the epidural, so I guess that’s not normal.

After three attempts, a second anesthesiologist was brought in. She was tried a fourth time, and then was able to place it the fifth time. (She said it would be her last attempt.) I was so, so grateful that it was finally successful! Especially since I ended up having another very long, slow labor, just like last time. It was definitely not the fast second baby that so many had warned me of. My mom showed up at the hospital around 9am, after getting L ready and taking him to daycare, where he would spend the night, since baby arrived at 7:44pm, which was after L’s bedtime, and the following day. It felt hard to have L spending the night away for the first time, but it was our only option, and at least he was familiar with the daycare.

After the epidural was set, I waited and rested. There was talk of breaking my water (more) because it might have already broken a little. There was talk of Pitocin, which I eventually got, because my labor stalled out again once I had the epidural. After a long day, with little progress, the obgyn came to the hospital after a full day in the clinic and had me labor in hands and knees (more like child’s pose) since I had so much more sensation and mobility with my legs with this epidural. Then, she was going to break my water, but baby had shifted, and she didn’t feel comfortable doing it. After laboring awhile longer, she broke my water. A short time later, I was complete and able to start pushing. Although I had spoken to the obgyn about it, and the birth team, and put it in my birth plan, I was cued to curl around my baby and do purple pushing. Personally, I hate this method of pushing. I feel no leverage in the lithotomy position, and it feels like a frustrating and an unproductive waste of energy. I tried pushing in this way again, at the insistence of everyone in the room, but felt nothing but lack of oxygen and straining in my face and neck.

The obgyn suggested the squat bar, since I had so much mobility in my legs. This pushing felt very productive. After one push, I felt baby’s head move down significantly. I told everyone that the push felt productive. I was then made to lie back after the contraction. Lying back felt unnecessary and bad because baby’s head was descending so much now. With the second contraction, I got up on the squat bar and pushed the baby’s head out. At that point, the medical staff started yelling at me to stop and to lay back. Again, this did not feel good. I could tell that something was wrong, and they began to break down the bed and prepare for delivery. Since this was expected to be such a big baby, I guess they thought that pushing would take awhile. In the meantime, I wasn’t sure what was wrong. I wasn’t too worried, but I was hyper focused. I thought maybe the baby was a surprise breach. Once they were ready, they began yelling at me to push again. Afraid of what was going on, I pushed with all of my might. I knew I was tearing. I knew it was going too fast. I knew that if I could go slower and ease my baby down, it would be better, but I felt I had no other choice but to listen and push because my baby might be in danger. Within just a push or two, trying with all of my might to get the baby out, my baby slipped out of my body and into this world.

I said I wish I’d been allowed to stay in the squatting position. The obgyn said she couldn’t deliver a baby upside down. I said, you might’ve surprised yourself. The obgyn said the urgency was that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. However, later my mom told me that the urgency was that the umbilical cord actually came out first, which can also be dangerous. Despite some lingering bad feelings about the pushing and delivery, the mood in the room was pleasant and celebratory. I would have guessed the baby was having breathing problems because he didn’t seem to cry or breath as much as L did when he was born. However, L was the one that needed oxygen, while this baby was fine. It just goes to show that I’m not a baby doctor, and mother’s intuition is not always right. This baby’s face was quite swollen. His hair was dark. He looked very different than his brother did at birth. He weighed 9 lbs 10.2 oz and was 21.5 inches long. He felt so tiny in my arms. It was hard to believe he was actually slightly bigger at birth than his brother was. How are they ever this small? It’s impossible to remember, until a new baby is placed in your arms again.

I held him, and within the first few hours, he began to nurse. As is common with big babies, he had low blood sugar and needed to be supplemented with small amounts of formula. I felt that the hospital’s standard for blood sugar, hydration, and bilirubin was impossibly high and that most babies probably have to get formula while there, which makes me feel sad for all of the breastfeeding mamas in there. Since this was my second baby, I felt less stressed about formula derailing breastfeeding. But, it was a stressor nonetheless.

L came to meet his brother the next evening. He was sweet and curious. We left the hospital the following day, without a name. Going into labor, we had a few top contender names picked out, but after 48 hours, none of them seemed right. After a few days at home, and a lot of work, and deliberation on our part, we finally found his name.

This baby came to me easily, naturally, and without any effort. I knew my body in birth better, so as labor unfolded, it felt familiar. Breastfeeding, sleeping, holding, even moving my own body was easier and more familiar the second time around. I didn’t yet know him, but he smelled and felt perfect in my arms, and I loved spending hours with him snuggled up against my belly while he slept—easy love.

Severance by Ling Ma

While Covid19 was gaining momentum in China and just barely on my radar, I read Severance by Ling Ma. This is normally not my genre. Not by a mile. But, it’s well written and was gifted to me through an academic mamas holiday book exchange. I was in my first weeks after having a baby, and it was in between semesters. So, found myself with time to read while my baby took those nice, long newborn naps.

Character development: I did not identify with the main character whatsoever until near the end, when she was built up enough that I could see her suffering was human and shared by us all.

Plot: The premise is that a fever, originating in China, steadily makes it’s way through the human race. The “fever” is always deadly, taking 1-3 weeks to kill it’s host. It renders people into a zombie-like state, where they repeat seemingly mundane tasks until they perish by wasting away. The few who remain exist in a strange new world.

It’s a metaphor. It’s all a metaphor. That we’re all zombies going through the motions. That we are our parents’ memories. That existence is a memory. That knowing is memory. Something like that–I’m sure there’s more to it.

***spoiler alert*** below (mild)

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Anyway, if you read it, tell me who you think was fevered in the end.

2019: year in review

Last year I said that 2018 was the best year of my life. 2019 might’ve topped it. In early 2019, I had a six month old baby. I was still up every two hours or so throughout the night nursing my him. I was on a very strict, allergy-free diet and was therefore wire thin. I was finding my stride as a mother, but I was still very tired. I was living almost entirely in Idaho, enjoying a cozy winter inside while the snow fell outside. I took my baby on walks on days that weren’t too cold, and I read the same baby books to him over and over again.

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In March three things happened. I applied for my dream job in my home state. Then, I felt the twinge of implantation that is unlike any other feeling I’ve ever felt before. I couldn’t describe it now, but I knew it when I felt it because I also felt it when I became pregnant with L. The other thing that happened was I received news that Grandpa was dying. Mom and I both drove to Utah to spend time with him in his final says. I quietly took pregnancy tests and watched the thin pink line darken each day.

In April, we made the trek to Louisiana to introduce L to his extended family. It was a lot of work, and I was exhausted from early pregnancy, but I ate two muffulettas and other delicious foods and felt sick to my stomach a lot. We also attended a friend’s wedding. Then, I flew back on my own with L. The flight was only between Dallas and SLC, but it was exhausting. I had to nurse him while sitting next to a (very considerate) older man and was constantly diligent, feeding L, entertaining him, and praying he would take a nap. He was so much smaller then!

In May I had my first prenatal appointment to confirm my pregnancy and determine my due date—Dec. 1st. I also drove with L to Oregon to interview as a finalist for that dream job I mentioned earlier. There, I interviewed around my nursing schedule, feeding L between meetings and a teaching demo. The interview went well, but I was still quite tired from nursing a baby and also being in the first trimester with my second.

By the end of the month, I was offered the dream job. Normally I make pro/con lists for any big decision, but this time it didn’t seem like I was making a decision. I just put my house in Utah up for sale and made plans to move. My house sold quickly, and I made an offer on a small house in Oregon with a few acres, sight unseen. Meanwhile, I spent a long summer in Idaho, still taking my baby on long walks and reading books to him. By now, life with L was much easier. He was doing great, and I was getting more sleep.

In August, I moved to Oregon and made plans to stay with my mom for about a month. That month turned into three months. I lived in an house that was not baby proofed, sharing a room with my one year old, who was a loud, fussy sleeper, while I slept on a loud, squeaky mattress. During that time, L started to go to daycare for the first time, which meant I was hauling my increasingly heavy pregnant body up early every morning, getting my baby to daycare, and then driving to work. Near the end of my pregnancy, this routine became increasingly impossible. Getting L in and out of his car seat was particularly hard.

After my new home closed, I waited a few more weeks for new wood flooring to go in. I updated light fixtures and added a shower the a bathroom. Then, I orchestrated two sets of movers and U-Hauls, and I moved into the home that I imagine I could live in for a very long time.

At last, I moved into my new home with only a few weeks left before my new baby would arrive. On December 5th, I welcomed my second son (that story is forthcoming). I spent the final weeks of 2019 enjoying my new baby, my angel, and adjusting to a wonderful new life with a newborn and a toddler.

Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels

I was late in ordering Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels, so I started reading quickly when it arrived. Then, I slowed way down because it was so good, and I wanted it to last. The book is that rare blend of beautiful language, poetry, insight, feeling, and social commentary. Blending the latter with the former requires a talent that few possess. Daniels does it deftly throughout the book.

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Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels

Her explanation, experience, and insights into mental illness are unprecedented, and as I read, I thought frequently that this book should be required reading in the academic fields that deal with mental health. Her writing provides insights essential (and seemingly currently lacking) to the field.

The book adds feminist insights to the larger conversation. Her insights on being a woman, coping with assault, shaping one’s entire being around the threat and reality of violence are, again, unprecedented. Acute, accurate, informative.

The book is poetic, emotional, and beautiful. I especially found her depiction of love to be beautiful and true. Society forces an awareness, obsession even, with male to female violence from a young age, and, perhaps as a consequence, the author falls in love with the women who have been harmed, who have been murdered, and who have been taken their own lives. As a result, the reader feels the author’s love for all women–a love that functions authentically, but also as a life philosophy, a social commitment.

The reader does not get a tidy ending. The writer leaves Washington State for the dry, hot climes of Arizona. The last two chapters return more to love and poetry. The last two chapters seem like the next book. But instead, as a reader, I wanted a reconciliation with the dead souls who the reader has been holding in her heart. I also want the next book. I hope she’s doing us all a favor and writing it now.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

I’ve lived in Utah for nearly a decade combined, and it has always felt “unnatural” to me. First, it seems to me to be a very delicate desert landscape that is being ravaged to sustain far too many people. In my opinion, deserts should be sparsely populated, while lusher, coastal regions should house the majority of the population. Not only did living in Utah feel wrong in an ecological sense, I struggled to belong, to fit in, etc. I had a great job there and loved the beautiful mountains, but something always felt off to me, and I was certain, even as the years passed by, that this place would never truly be home to me.

That feeling of not belonging began to change only in the past few years. My future began to unfold with new love, new direction, new possibility. Of course, those feelings also coincided with spending more time in the nearby state of Idaho, but I began to feel more at ease in Utah. I got pregnant. I finally bought a house. I felt that I could finally put down roots.

Little did I know, a little over a year after this “settling,” I would finally have the opportunity to pack up and leave Utah. The time has come–soon, I will be jetting off to Oregon, back to the Northwest that I love so much, closer to family, and to a job that (from this vantage point) feels very much right for me.

When I began reading Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, I was a homeowner in Utah. I had recently left city living for a quiet suburb next to Lake Utah. The house was big and lovely and comfortable, with sweeping views of Mount Timpanogos and Lake Utah. I took daily walks along a paved path that skirted the water of the lake. I saw birds I’d never seen before. Cattle grazed in the nearby fields. I grew my son in my belly, and I felt a deep peace and contentedness that I’d hadn’t felt in years–maybe ever. Finally, I could feel at home.

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white ibis in the field behind my house ushering in the birth of my son

Because I am now a mother, reading is slow. So when I began the book, my baby was not sleeping through the night. I read whenever I had a chance, whenever I could keep my eyes open. The short chapters were perfect for this.

It’s a beautiful book. As the author describes the birds of Utah with care and love, my love for the birds I encountered near the shoreline grew. My appreciation for Utah grew. It’s also about her mother’s life and death from cancer, which conjured emotions and experiences I knew too well. I began to savor the book and read it slowly.

Now the book has come to an end, and so has my time in Utah. The book has, perhaps, made it even more bittersweet to leave. She ends with her essay, “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women,” which I’ve read before. It’s precise, powerful, and effective. The book is a blend of Utah’s beauty and of it’s destruction, and it leaves me leaving Utah with gratitude for the time spent here, but also a certainty that this land is meant for visiting, for passing through, and that I (and maybe about a million other people) am not meant to live so permanently in this land.