Category Archives: existence

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

True to form, my “breezy summer beach read” was neither breezy nor read on a beach. Instead, I read Rebecca Solnit’s 2021 book, Orwell’s Roses. Solnit is an incredibly prolific author, and I like her work, but it is heavy and deep, and I rarely feel up to the task. However, at the beginning of the summer, this copy caught my eye at the local library, so I checked it out and read it whenever grading was complete and babies were asleep.

Here’s the copy that I read.

This book is about Orwell. Politics. The roses that he grew at his cottage. His interest in gardening and the natural world, and the hope that can be found there. Writ large, the book is about labor and freedom and politics and all of the themes of Orwell’s own writing, reflecting on labor and illness in Orwell’s time and also today. Solnit draws links between political strife that Orwell wrote about and the political strife of today.

As you know from my Instagram, I am interested in plants and gardening, especially flowers. I love the idea of growing food in whatever piece of earth one might inhabit. I like my own sheep, chickens, and flowers. I love to take a close look at a plant and watch it as it changes throughout the seasons and over the years. Evidently, Orwell and I have that in common. Unlike Orwell (and Solnit), however, I am less insightful and imaginative when it comes to politics, so I appreciated Solnit’s ability to meld the two together in ways that helped me learn and see these subjects all in a new light.

When I start reading Solnit, I think “This is mostly boring and only a little interesting,” and those thoughts are interspersed with with absolutely lovely prose and engaging content, and I love that about her writing. Reading Solnit is like the good feeling I have after I eat my vegetables and get my exercise. When it comes to nonfiction, Solnit is the realest deal. She also gives me permission to go on long tangents, and take up words and space, because it is meaningful to me, and trust that it will be meaningful to others as well.

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What Remains by Carole Radziwill

What a beautiful book! What Remains by Carole Radziwill is a completely unique book, taking the reader locations you’ve never been—could never go—but also to fully human and universally recognizable places.

It’s no secret that the Real Housewives series are a guilty pleasure, and I always found Carole to be a fun, tell-it-like-it-is, type of “character,” so I thought this book might be decent, but it’s better than that!

A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love

The book takes the reader to the poor gravel roads and streams of New York state, to the haphazard suburbs, to a chaotic, but close family life, to the rush of a bold new career in a city, to war zones, to falling in love (without cliché), and forging deep friendships with “America’s royalty.” Readers see that we all ache, love, suffer, and feel the joy of the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair universally. The life she lives once she’s seriously dating and married to her husband Anthony is (emotionally) much like other everyday relationships, except with better food, clothing, apartments, travel, and lovely places to stay. The reader might be surprised to find that this group of “elites” are thoughtful, frugal, playful, stressed, sometimes uncertain. Aren’t we all?

Radziwill has lived an extraordinary life, and so while this is a memoir, and a genre with which readers might be familiar, it’s is so completely unique in the extraordinary events and circumstances she’s survived. She loses her three closest people in the span of three weeks. Maybe she has survivor’s guilt, but I hope she doesn’t. I hope she is exploring what to do with this big, bold, beautiful life she gets to live. While there is a tight and lovely metaphor about fortune threaded throughout, which works on several levels, the reader leaves the book thinking, “Anything is possible. Anything can happen. Now, what am I going to do with this big bold, beautiful life?”

I read every word and, almost to prove a point, she thanks her bff and sister-in-law, Teresa, who–get this–is from my very own La Grande, Oregon! I am reminded that it truly is a very teeny tiny microscopic world, and anything is possible.

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

I am blown away by the slow burn called A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo. The first and majority of the book is a quiet, steady dialogue between the main character and her “lover.” As you know, I am not a theory hound, but this book was one of few that has made me want to turn steadily back to some of the theories presented in this book, and in grad programs across the world, including my own, and see if I can now find a different way in to them, more my own, perhaps feminine, a more first gen, working-class, creative, put two ideas next to each other to see the new, true, and also beautifully enigmatic knowing that emerges.

I love some of her snarky responses to the rote theories her partner espouses. I found the book to be an incredibly bold and feminist and completely empowering that she takes on subjects that are often, almost always (always?), interpreted through a male lens. She even uses Barthes’ exact same title. So bold! How might I do more of this myself? The book ends with both the theory and physicality of reproduction.

Often I find modern literature to be too cold and unemotional. This book had some of those qualities, but I still felt deeply and identified with many of the main character’s experiences. New motherhood is depicted in almost entirely negative terms, but much of the book is.

In new motherhood, I, too, started to think of mothers in response to every act of killing I heard on the news. These mothers have worked so hard to raise of their children, up until the very moment that their lives are taken. Guo has this exact same insight. We are all one, I suppose.

Finally, the relationship–I’ve felt nearly every one of the feelings or loneliness, isolation, desire, and confusion. I have yelled for him to “Bring wipes” as the baby’s mess grows, only to have him emerge too late, confused and groggy. “When have you had time to listen to music?” The changing home, the changing dynamic, described so uniquely and so true, perhaps especially for the creative woman.

Through it we are two people, changed, and in discourse with each other—lovers.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May was recommended by some well-read and well respected people, so perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. Still, I love the premise, which is about enduring difficult times, even leaning into them, moving through them, and eventually coming back to the light. So much of grief, sorrow, and depression is about stopping it, fixing it, and getting over it. This book is really the antithesis of that, which I find intriguing.

The intro is quite gripping, and this is where the strength of the book lies–when May is sharing her own personal story and experiences. However, there were also so many questions left unanswered. Like, did her husband’s health fully return? Why did she dislike her job? How did her husband and child feel about the author’s “wintering”? How did it impact her closest relationships?

There is also a trend in this kind of journalistic genre, where the author flip flops back and forth between personal writing and inquiry and an informative, lecture style. I am fully engaged by the personal story, but the lecture is always less interesting. First of all, while reading these sections, I often have an overwhelming reaction of “I already know this already.” It seems as though the insights in the lecture are not very insightful after all. Secondly, the transitions between the sections often seem awkward or unconvincing. Lastly, the lectures often feel forced. I can imaging an editor insisting that the author make the reader “eat their vegetables,” instead of just eating the cheesecake (cheesecake being the insights and personal journey).

There were even moments that rang false within the more journalistic sections. The section on wolves seemed particularly fraught. She claims that wolves don’t kill people. (They do.) That they kill more than they need and that’s reasonable. (How is that more reasonable than wasteful? murderous?). Finally, she claims that wolves are irrationally trapped, poisoned, shot, *beaten*, and killed, and that’s when I knew she was going a little overboard. I just highly doubt that these wild animals are tortured (beaten), though I’m not disputing that they are killed regularly by people. Also, I wanted to hear more about the bees.

Despite my complaints, this is a good book worth reading. I myself love restful times for quiet, recovery, reading, and introspection, and this book is really a celebration of that. While how the depression (she avoids this word) started is very developed, I would have loved to see that same development in the middle and then again at the end of her wintering. As I write in the beginning, this is a novel approach to sorrow and difficult times, and I think it’s a healthy approach, one that would be/will be helpful for me to return to in my own difficult times.

The Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France are real bodice rippers, so to speak. You can see how these stories of ancient romance have influenced everything from Shakespeare to Rom Coms since. There is a strong sense of love and loyalty in each story. The same intensity of life and death love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, are played out repeatedly throughout the lais.

the library’s copy

I read through these relatively quickly, after learning about them from a dear one’s scholarship. First, I was looking for significance in fabrics and cloth. I also frequently thought about the fabrics having just read A Short History of the World According to Sheep and learning more about the wool and processes (and abuses) that went in to making these fabrics.

Eventually, I just got caught up in each story–the excitement and intensity of the love, the suffering, and the joy. (Though, as with most romance, the “ever after” is short changed, and I think most of us are left wondering how that part’s supposed to work.)

The lais capture an intensity that is unique to human love and courtship, and honestly, I think it’s a really intense thing worthy of our focus. The main characters aren’t being cool or dealing with their baggage. They’re just strong and perfect knights, who win all of their tournaments, and fair and beautiful women, who are kind and loving and good, so much so that a knight would sacrifice his life to her, a life that many other knights had tried taking many times before. That they are already married to someone else or in some way betraying someone else is a liner note.

These lais are over the top, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous, but they are entertaining. And, they have literary merit too, not only because of their rich history and staying power, but because, as I read them, I was also inspired, for the first time in a long time, to write a few poems myself!

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter is a beautiful book of poetry by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. I don’t usually read a lot of poetry, but this one drew me in and held me there.

The place where I work has a relatively large population of Micronesian students. In fact, a summer program for work put this book on my radar, and I’m so glad it did. I find myself wanting to learn more about this population. From the book I read about the indigenous connection to place, language, racism, climate change, climate refugees, refugees from US nuclear testing, food, love, religion, womanhood, family, and more.

I found myself searching for plane tickets. Just how far away are the Marshall Islands?

The Secret Teachings of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner

I’m including The Secret Teachings of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner on my booklist this year, even though it got a hard skim after the first few chapters, which only occur after a lengthly “Note to Reader,” Introduction, and then Prologue. Finally, the reader gets to “Section One: Nature.”

The book promises to be split into two parts: the first half “Systole” and the second half “Diastole.” Systole promises to be the more linear, factual, mathematical half and diastole the more creative and emotional half of the book. However, the tone and approach is nearly identical in each “half.”

The approach is a rambling mix of pot smoker, metaphysical, mystical philosophy popular in the ’60s. It’s a meaningful and worthwhile philosophy, but it’s definitely a type. The writing is fragmented, made worse by constant quotes by the likes of Thoreau, which constantly disrupts the flow of the text.

My deepest disappointment is that the book promises to explore the emotional and creative teachings of plants, and that concept is completely intriguing and compelling to me. I would love to read that book! Unfortunately, this book does not deliver on it’s promise.

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.

appleblossom

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.