Author Archives: sherewin

looking for signs

I’m pregnant, and before I was pregnant, I imagined that I would document the experience thoroughly in writing, since it’s my mode of processing, communicating, and creating. But, I haven’t wanted to write much about the experience, and I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s because I have no words. I’m impressed with women who can write about pregnancy and the journey to motherhood. However, most of what’s written is more matter of fact or medical or humorous. To me, the experience isn’t entirely any of those things–it certainly isn’t medical and it isn’t funny. It’s a completely physical and spiritual thing. It’s so entirely unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced that, like I said, I have no words. I can say that I love being pregnant. I’m one of the lucky ones who actually feels better pregnant–warmer, stronger, more connected. There’s also a delightful and ongoing sense of celebration between me, my family, friends, and even with smiling strangers out in the world. More than that, though, I am awestruck. Constantly. Every day.

bumps_2-1-1.jpg

a crop of my bump from my maternity photo shoot

Now that I am nearing the end of my pregnancy, I finally (after a busy move, and travel, and prepping a house and nursery, and work) find myself with long days of solitude. These are perhaps the last days I’ll have to myself for a very long time, and certainly they are the final days as my old self–the self before I am a mother and before I am always and forevermore caring for a child on the outside. I am savoring this time. I’m enjoying long quiet days, where I can indulge my whims moment to moment. And in these moments, I find myself looking for signs. First, what day will the baby arrive? Do I inherently know? I find myself looking at the dates on the calendar, each neutral and blank. One of these days will be the day that I experience childbirth for the first time. One of these days will be my son’s birthday. One of these days will be recognized now for the rest of my life.

I try to walk for a few miles on a beautiful trail that skirts the lake each morning before it gets too hot. Each day, I become more familiar with the route. I watch as new wildflowers bud out and bloom. I see new animals: birds, cows, horses, and deer. I notice plants that I think are sunflowers. After a few more days, I confirm that they are sunflowers. Then, I hope I will be able to see them bloom. I wonder if they will bloom before the baby is born. They begin to bloom. I step out of the shower and rub lotion over my belly. I put on a pair of underwear that I like. Will I be wearing these underwear when I go into labor? Will they be ruined?

Each day, there are more signs and questions. If I am to examine my intuition closely, I would say that I still have time, that birth is not exactly imminent. I still have a “to do” list that I’m working through slowly, but steadily. For now, I am satisfied to remain pregnant. I feel big and hot, but good and vital and very alive and still very comforted to have my son growing safely inside me.

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And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach

Ok, I really need to start reading baby and childbirth-related book now. But, before I do, I read And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden. I’ve been a long-time listener of her gardening podcast. The podcast is weird, quirky, nerdy, and good and probably the best gardening podcasts out there. It’s a celebration of plants and gardening, and “how to.” (It’s supposed to have some woo woo, but there’s none of that, really.)

And I Shall Have Some Peace Here is the same way: weird, quirky, nerdy, and good. She’s got this style of writing that’s stream of consciousness, double consciousness. There are always several threads going through each paragraph, sometimes each line. Sometimes it’s funny and intentional. Sometimes it seems that it’s just the way her brain works, and she can’t help herself.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired by Roach to do more gardening, even in my limited and sometimes uncertain space, to propagate hostas, to fertilize my houseplants, and much more. It’s nice to find another person, and even community, who care as much as I do about plants.

However, this book is not as much about gardening as it is about taking big risks and changing one’s life–following one’s calling, even if it means (and it so often does) leaving a life of security for the life you were meant to live.

I liked that about the book. I like that, once Roach leaves the corporate world, she is sedentary and uncertain for a long time before she is able to take meaningful action. The big change might lead immediately to bliss and certainty, but it doesn’t always, and Roach’s story is evidence of that. Oftentimes, big change leads to sitting, and reading, and drinking too much, and eating too much, and staring out the window, and being very alone, but strangely, not really lonely. Your diet falls apart. Your yoga practice falls by the wayside. Until finally you realize you’re doing it. You’re doing the thing. You’re getting healthier, living better, and it all was really worth it. I found her story to be inspiring.

The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha by Diane Glancy

I first heard about Kateri Tekakwitha while reading about her sainthood in Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living Gods. I waded through a few books that reference her in  Erdrich’s latest, but Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwithawas the only one that held my attention.

This is a weird book, and, honestly, even after I’ve finished, I’m not sure if Glancy is being incredibly critical, cynical, or accurate in her depiction of Kateri. It’s a weird fever dream of a book and captivating and poetic on the sentence-level.

Here’s the thing: Kateri almost dies of smallpox. She survives, but is nearly blinded. After that, her life is a series of traumas–constant starvation, constant war, constant torture, murder, and freezing. Her life is a living hell, and then she dies at the young age of 24.

During her short, extremely traumatic life, she converts to Catholicism, following the lead of a few female family members. Christianity is met with skepticism by many members of her tribe, but it is also somewhat tolerated.

As she learns more about the religion, she becomes more zealous. She self flagellates and physically tortures herself in various other ways. She has strange dreams day and night, waking and in sleep. The author, Glancy, paints such a horrific picture of Kateri’s life that the reader can’t help but wonder if Kateri is having a genuine religious experience, or if she is quite predictably experiencing a kind of PTSD-induced psychosis. The latter seems quite reasonable. But, the author doesn’t dismiss Kateri’s experience of God and spirituality either. Religion and Kateri’s mystic experience is at the forefront of the text to the same extent as the torture and trauma.

Like in life, I suppose, the reader is left to wonder what’s real, and what’s spiritual, and what’s an apparition, and which ones are worth believing in.

Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf

For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about pregnancy since I got pregnant, which is a surprise because in the past I’ve enjoyed reading and pregnancy and reading about pregnancy. It might have to do with the fact that I’ve been working on an article that *to a degree* has to do with rhetoric and pregnancy. So, most of my reading in the past few months has been toward that end.

I read Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood by Naomi Wolf, and I loved it! It’s a hefty tome, and I pretty much just sat down one day and read it. I read it for the article, yes, but I’m including it here because it became joy reading as well.

I’ll admit that, throughout the entire reading, I had her confused with Naomi Klein, who’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which I read in 2008, at the beginning of my doctoral program, deeply informed my thinking about political economy. I thought Wolf’s work was more accessible, but I read it voraciously, thinking it would provide the deep intellectual analysis that Klein’s work is known for. I’ll admit that Wolf’s work was far more accessible, less hard hitting, but a nice blend of journalistic blend of smart analysis and storytelling. Wolf’s book is stark and honest, but not so dark that it doesn’t also include the bright side (which I need at this point in my pregnancy).

Wolf’s book is about mourning the previous identity as women change irreversibly to become mothers. The deep estrogenic surge in my body now is physically changing me. I’m aware that I’ll never look the same again. Those hormones are also making more compassionate toward people, toward their stories. I’m aware that this is a biological imperative that will help me have compassion and provide good care for my new infant, even when it is hard. And Wolf says it will be hard. She outright states what I already knew, and what few people can bring themselves to say aloud: that my body will be different, that the hormones will take me to the lowest low, that my love for the baby will be more like an addict’s obsession that any kind of consensual love, that I’ll have less power in my relationship with my partner, that I’ll be less respected as a professional, and that I will spend many sleep deprived months deeply mourning these loses. That sounds about right. And yet, I chose this still. And I’ve enjoyed a beautiful, healthy adult woman’s body for several decades. I’ve earned the highest degree available. I’ve had a professional career that is fulfilling and well-respected. And while I hope I am still able to have a fulfilling professional life, and I hope my body is fit and healthy, I am so ready for something else. For me, the timing feels absolutely perfect. I’ve checked a lot of boxes on my life’s “to do” list. This one’s next.

Here were some lines from the book that I liked:

  • “The medical establishment too often produces a birth experience that is unnecessarily physically and psychologically harmful to the women involved” (6).
  • “[W]omen carrying babies must be nurtured and supported intensively” (114).
  • “I heard comparable ordinary traumas among many women I talked to–what I have come to call “ordinary bad births” (145).
  • A typical sentiment from a woman who recently gave birth: “Nothing happened according to what we had wanted or planned. And we had absolutely no say; the institution just took over” (147).
  • “A number of women who had given birth described a moment at which they felt the medical institution simply took over; oblivious to the mother’s wishes, experience, or concerns” (149).
  • “Midwives working on their own terms do not try to guide births along a path determined by unnecessary medical interventions. Rather, midwives wait, encourage, and prepare the way, successfully keeping medical intervention to a minimum” (151).
  • “I have never yet seen a physician show the respect of informing a woman of waht is required–‘I need to do this procedure’; instead they just cut, often without even telling the woman–sometimes when the baby is just about born; sometimes the husband is shouting for the doctor to stop. Many women find this cut the most traumatic part of the birth. Yet episiotomy is seen in the same light as taking a temperature–it’s that routine,” remarked midwife Elissa March” (193).
  • From Wolf’s doctor during her second pregnancy: “You had to be sectioned last time. You probably have an unusually narrow birth canal. Maybe your body just is not made to have babies.” And, “[M]y doctor wanted to be right about my being in need of his surgical help more than he wanted to heal” (278).

 

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle passed away this year, and so I grabbed one of his books, A Year in Provence, from the library:


I read about one chapter at night before bed when I could (mostly in Idaho) and finally finished it. Last year, as you know, I read a lot of British gardening books last year, plus I’ve been watching The Great British Baking Show: Season 1 and now The Great Interior Design Challenge. What can I say? I’m at the stage of life where the dulcet tones of British sensibility calm me.

The book is divided by months of the year. It’s humorous and gives an accurate account of the culture in south France (as far as I could tell based on my time studying abroad there one summer). Mayle’s descriptions of rich food and wine is divine. You’ll find yourself wanting to crack open that bottle of wine, sprinkle your air popped popcorn with a tiny application of parmesan and possibly a more generous application of truffle oil. It was just the kind of reassuring novel I sought as I gestated through the middle of my pregnancy.

Though I found myself wishing for a deeper description of the property and the home they renovated (what tiles, flooring, wall color, etc. was chosen and why? What plants dotted the pool? The gardens?), I found Mayle to be doing God’s work in chilling out the anxious masses with his descriptions of good food and good wine.

The First Forty Days by Heng Ou

When I first found out I was pregnant (yes, pregnant!), The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou was the first book I ordered. Over the years, as part of my doula training, I’ve read many books about childbirth (my favorite probably being Ina May Gaskin’s Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding: From the Nation’s Leading Midwife).

So much is written about the pregnancy and childbirth, and rightly so, but relatively little has been written about the postpartum period, now sometimes referred to as the “fourth trimester.” So, I read this book to learn more about that period, and I’m glad I did.

My only criticism of the book is that it is quite repetitive and the content is better than the writing. Through the first half, and then again at the very end, it reads more like a book proposal, like she’s still trying to sell the reader on the idea, than like reading the body of a book.

However, it’s absolutely still worth reading. In fact, I highly recommend it for pregnant people, new parents, and their caretakers. The highlights of the book are in the information provided about the postpartum period in different cultures, how to care for a new mother in the first 40 days or 6 weeks after a baby is born. The novel recipes are inspiring, and I found the thoughtful commentary that goes along with each recipe to be  interesting. The images of the meals and ingredients are also gorgeous. I’ve been craving so much junk food that seeing lovely pictures of “real” food has helped me out a bit.

Even if I don’t end up making or eating any of the meals from this book, I think just reading about this postpartum philosophy would help new mothers recover, heal, and adjust. At the very least, I think I’ll probably drink broths and soups and try to stay cozy and warm during this time. I’m always cold, and so I loved the emphasis on prioritizing warmth. I felt like the book gave me permission to do so in general, and I appreciated that.

My doula just recommended Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond, which is another one I haven’t read yet. I think I’ll try it next.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (link below) is just a lovely book. When I first heard about it, I knew I wanted to read it. (If you follow me on Instagram, you know this too.) An immersion into plants, poetry, and botany? Yes please!

The second section is my favorite: “Tending Sweetgrass.” This section is more about plants as they relate to humans, relationships, parenting, and home. In this section, she delves into her sense of belonging (or lack thereof) in the different regions she’s lived in. I identified with this section deeply as someone who hasn’t always been able to live in regions that feel like “home” to me.

The author uses metaphor and parable, and it’s beautifully done, but these sections were less powerful to me. Instead, I gained the most from the sections that seem most connected to her own lived experience. I also loved some of the deep descriptions of the kind of spiritual nature of sitting alone in a patch of wild strawberries, harvesting wild nuts, and the life cycle of the salamander (an animal that I’ve encountered in life and in dreams recently).

Parts of this book are dense, and I found myself skipping through. The end is a beautiful, poetic, and urgent , warning, plea, defense against the rampant destruction of Mother Earth. Sometimes I have a hard time reading this kind of difficult material, but she does it so artfully that I was able to understand it in a new way.

If you love plants, animals, people, and Mother Earth, you’ll want to read this book.

Lines I loved:

“[B]ecoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend on it (9).

“Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away” (10).

“[R]estoring habitat, no matter how well intentioned, produces casualties” (92).

“Being a good mother includes the caretaking of water” (94).

“You can smell it before you see it, a sweetgrass meadow on a summer day” (156).

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende

This is basically Alaska’s version of A Prairie Home Companion (the Garrison Keillor version, not this new stuff). More specifically, it’s like the “News from Lake Wobegon” section of the show, which also happens to be my favorite part. (P.S. I thought Sara Watkins was going to take over the show. I love her speaking voice. I think the replacement needed to be a woman who sounds sort of like a church lady.)

Anyway, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town by Heather Lende is full of that same kind of down homey, good timey accounts of a few births, a lot of deaths (Alaska is a dangerous place, and there many of untimely deaths), and some other stories in between.

For whatever reason, this was a slow read for me, even though the short chapters should make it very readable. I also found some of reflection to be cheesy. There are religious overtones, and, in my opinion, those are always difficult to pull off, and this was no exception. By the end, even though these townspeople are clearly beloved, I had a hard time differentiating one old, dying, charismatic local from the next.

That said, it’s still worth the read, but maybe only if you’re a fan (secretly or otherwise, of A Prairie Home Companion), if you’re from Alaska (I’m not), if you’ve visited Alaska (I have), or if you crave to be immersed in an idyllic, close-knit community that has the kind of face-to-face social interactions that some of us may still remember from before the days of social media (I do).

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Honestly, I’ve just about had it with violations, sexual or otherwise, and the powerful perpetrators of those violences. In the past year, there’s been so much more awareness raised around this issue, and I think as a collective conscious we’re just over it. Time’s up, as they say. Full stop.

So, although Gabriel García Márquez is a favorite of mine (at least One Hundred Years of Solitude is a favorite book), when I read Memories of My Melancholy Whores I was not very patient with the premise. Even so, the author shined like he always does. The main character is a skillfully executed antihero, who helps the reader see the delusional, selfish, and, yes, even sometimes beautiful side of the human experience. I can’t say for sure if the aspect of violation was praised (not overtly, no), or criticized (probably, but subtly). Even still, to me it was worth reading.

Gabriel García Márquez is one of the best writers of all time, so the thing was perfectly written. Still, here are just a few lines I liked:

“Then who was it? She shrugged: It could be from somebody who died in the room” (69).

“Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love” (69 (What can I say? It was a good page)).

“…his…glasses of a hopeless myopic” (112).

Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham

In a development that surprises me as much as it does you, last year, I watched the entire series of The Gilmore Girls. When I was done, I watched the new Netflix reboot. I’m not exactly sure why I did this. Some of the plot lines were infuriating. Some of the characters were inconsistent (Lorelai was such a powerful outspoken person when it came to raising her daughter, but a complete push over when it comes to the men in her life??).

But, I liked the relationship between mother and daughter, and I liked what the show was *trying* to do (and sometimes succeeded in doing), and I liked that I could see a quaint little town, with happy, supportive people, who always felt welcome and at home. Cheesy as it sometimes was, I needed it.

Lauren Graham plays Lorelai Gilmore, and Lauren Graham is also an English major in real life, who evidently wrote some successful, thinly disguised fiction awhile back, and so I thought I would read her memoir, Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between).

It wasn’t half bad. Unlike all of these famous actor memoirs I’ve been reading over the past few years, this book did not appear to be ghost written. I was struck by how much the tone was very much like Lorelai Gilmore’s. It’s hard to tell where the actor/person Lauren ends and the character Lorelai begins. Perhaps that’s because it’s the truth of who Graham is, and that influenced her portrayal of the character, or perhaps it’s because she wrote the book, in part, during the Netflix reboot.

It’s mostly amusing and insightful, particularly if you’re interested in any aspect of the show. I did find myself tiring of some of the schtick, much like I tired of some of the long jabbering she did as Lorelai in the show. But, I’m still a fan. It reads up quickly, and if you’re a fan, you’ll read it. In fact, I’m sure you already have.