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February 1, 2015

Wonder About Parents

readingThe weekend was unexpectedly quiet, all plans cancelled, and unexpectedly long. Thursday night delivered a stomach ailment that felled all of us, and meant we spent Friday lying down and eating popsicles while a brutal winter wind raged outside, and we didn’t really miss it. The children slept for hours after lunch that day, which meant I got to spend the afternoon reading in the tub—such an indulgence. On Friday night, we watched episode 3 of Broadchurch Season 2—we’re wholly riveted, even when it gets ridiculous—before finally getting a good night’s sleep after missing Thursday’s entirely. Saturday was a lot more lying down, and then we watched Gone Girl. This morning we were ambitious enough to go skating, which was wonderful, but it’s all still touch and go—we’re still only 20 hours since the last time anyone threw up. But other than the sickness and far too much laundry and really only eating bread and butter and saltines, it’s been kind of a nice weekend. There is nothing like being ill to make one appreciate feeling better, and nothing like being ill with 2 small sick children to make one appreciate a spouse who is a partner in every sense of the word—for better or for worse.

The whole thing made me think of the story “Wonder About Parents” from Alexander MacLeod’s collection, Light Lifting. It’s the story about lice, perhaps my favourite in the collection, the one I bring up whenever I’m recalling just how extraordinary that book is. That one scene with the father changing his sick baby’s diaper in the truck stop men’s room, the shit covered baby clothes he tosses into the garbage, and how his wife makes him go back in there and fish it out again. Because she likes that outfit, and it was a gift from her mother. That’s a moment so emblematic of the people parenthood turns us into, the absurdity of these situations. Those nights, those crises. We never think about them when we sign up for any of it.

light-liftingWe could never have imagined. I was thinking about this on Thursday night as I lay in bed sleeping in five minute bursts, interrupted by Harriet throwing up downstairs, Stuart on the floor beside her bed, a pile of soiled sheets and blankets growing up in the corner. I could not sleep because I was hearing strange voices singing, every muscle in my body ached, because I kept having to get up and puke in a bucket, and because I was listening desperately for the sound of Harriet sleeping finally, but she wasn’t. (Her door downstairs just opened now, and its squeak has me wracked with anxiety.) Finally at 3am, I went down because I was finished being sick, and Stuart came up to get some sleep. I was awake until 5am beside Harriet but listening for Iris, who woke up then as usual, and then she was sick. And a new pile of soiled sheets was started in our room. By morning (or at least the part of it when the sun was up), we were all sleeping on top of beach towels, those of us who were sleeping at all.

And it occurred to me at several moments throughout that night, that long long night during which the every passing hour brought a little relief because we were that much closer to morning, when I was holding on and holding my bucket as my child cried, thinking, “it really doesn’t get much worse than this.” It occurred to me it had been remarkable luck and not foresight that 12 years ago I’d met a boy on a  dance floor who would become a man who’d take such care of our ailing daughter in the middle of the night, who’d spend the following day doing our laundry as I lay listless on the couch, even though he wasn’t feeling so hot himself. How do you ever, ever know? And what fortune that the whole thing worked out anyway. “You can’t tell anything in the beginning… Could go any number of ways.”

know-the-night“The present tense. Everything happens here,” writes MacLeod in “Wonder About Parents,” and this is what makes the whole thing so mysterious, I think. How did we get from there to here? How did we become this people awash in a sea of vomit, these children wretchedly ill in a way I had no idea people could be ill (and now we even know it’s totally normal. We go through it a couple of times a year now)? If someone had told me about it, I would have speculated the whole thing was unsurvivable. One of oh so many things you think you could never get through, until you do. I am thinking of Maria Mutch’s Know the Night too, and how I never knew just how many minutes there were between midnight and morning until my children born, an unfathomable number. (In Mutch’s book, referring to her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy,” which I think is part of what I’m getting at here.)

Everything was always the present tense, which makes it that much harder to understand how it turned into the past. Like the night, it always seemed to be an eternity until it wasn’t anymore. MacLeod writes, “The place where you wait for the next day to come.”

“We get to choose each other, but kids have no say about the nature of their own lives… What are we to these people? Genetics. A story they make up about themselves.” –from “Wonder About Parents”

“Wonder About Parents” is a story whose workings are fascinating, and I would like to write about it in a more in-depth way when I’m not recovering from illness and the loss of 1.5 nights of sleep. Though I also suspect it’s a story whose wonders are mostly firmly grasped from my current state of mind, if not wholly articulated. The story begins with a couple picking nits from another’s heads, their household under siege. “It’s the third week”.  There is so much laundry. “Can’t go on forever./ No.”

The fiction is part entomological investigation of the mighty louse. “The history of the world indexed to the life of an insect.” The parasitic relationship between louse and human is vaguely connected to the parent/child relationship, something persistent in the sheer determination of louse to be, related to that of the human, of the human’s drive to reproduce. The force of life also bringing with it death—typhus is transmitted by lice, MacLeod’s narrator tells us, and killed 30 million people after WW1. And then a scene with the family lining up to be inoculated for swine flu, all that hysteria, fights in the line-ups that started at 4 in the morning. What we do for our children, the ridiculous scenarios. How fragile is our safety, but still we all go forth.

And then before the children, achronological, but all still present tense, and fertility struggles. You never do imagine the care with which you might end up examining your vaginal mucous, all for the eventual outcome of sailing on a  sea of vomit, tucked into bed beside your finally-sleeping child wishing that you hadn’t bought her a $45 foam mattress (though the vomit would ruin it anyway, so perhaps it was all for the best).

“Desired outcomes. What we want is when we want it. No way to connect where we are and where we were. This is the opposite of everything we’ve ever done before.”

There are the worst nights, hospital visits with babies a bundle in your arms. A reference to the DDT that solved typhus, but dug its way deep into the food chain before anybody noticed. Causing infertility, cancer, miscarriages. “But life adapt. They go on. Become resistant. Completely unaffected by DDT now. Not like us. Trace amounts of it in every person’s blood.”

The baby has kidney disease, “a congenital abnormality.” We’ve seen this girl already in the shower receiving her lice treatment: “A scar on our daughter’s stomach from before.” So we know which way this story will go. But MacLeod leaves us here, in the hospital, the couple only four months into parenthood, and already they’ve entered its darkest places. And how they lean on each other, how they need one another. They are everyone they’ve ever been, squeezed together in an uncomfortable vinyl chair. Wedded to all of human history.

“Darkness in the room. Our baby makes no sound. Only the bulb from the machine now. Inscrutable purple light flashing on the ceiling. Like a discotheque, maybe, or the reflection of an ancient fire in a cave.”

December 29, 2009

Bookish Christmas

Not only did I have a wonderful Christmas, but I received some wonderful gifts for Christmas. Not least of which were the bookish ones, including a gift certificate that will buy me several Barbara Pyms (exciting). In books unvirtual, I had several wishes granted: Penelope Lively’s latest Family Album (which was one of the New York Times‘ notable books of the year), Bugs and the Victorians (which was my heart’s desire), and Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons, which I just finished reading and was everything I wanted it to be.

I am also going to become card-carrying member of the Barbara Pym Society. This is very, very exciting.

November 19, 2009

On Longing: Bugs and the Victorians

After reading this review in the LRB, I am dying to read Bugs and the Victorians. My own interest in literary entomology (because believe it or not, I’ve got one!) arose via Virginia Woolf, who wrote about bugs a lot, and also wrote a wonderful fictionalized biographical sketch of Eleanor Ormerod in The First Common Reader. Ormerod was Britain’s foremost entomologist during the late 19th century, which was a very important kind of scientist to be at that time, and that she was a woman is only one of the many remarkable things about her. She’s mentioned in the LRB review, along with various surprising ways the study of insects influenced Victorian society.

Anyway, the book also happens to be $55, so I don’t imagine I’ll be reading it anytime soon.

June 17, 2008

Moth Love

How strange are bookish connections, aren’t they? Of course, when I was reading Sharon Butala’s Fever last week, I could sense how it would relate to Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which was coming up next. Similar themes of nature, landscape, agriculture, small towns, and the weather. I am two thirds through Prodigal Summer now, and on my knees to Kingsolver, who everybody else already knew was extraordinary, but it just took me awhile to find out. How wonderful to be reading this novel now, with the world around me so blooming, tonight out on my back deck with a cup of tea, and the trees all around, and the birdsong. I disappeared into my head, and into Kingsolver’s amazing imagination.

Anyway, the unexpected connection being the next book I’ve got to read, which is The Sister by Poppy Adams. I’ve got an advanced reader’s copy which betrays nothing of its content, and so was I ever surprised to see that it’s UK title is The Behaviour of Moths. But I would have picked up that title without delay (precedent for good things with moths in their title includes The Peppered Moth and “The Death of the Moth”)! I discover now it’s about an entomologist– and I’ve been obsessed with entomology lit ever since I read “Miss Ormerod” by Virginia Woolf. Anyway, I am excited. Particularly as a third of Prodigal Summer is entitled “Moth Love”, and so I am very excited to see how else these books link up. And then after we celebrate the world some more with Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning.

October 6, 2006

The Creation

I suppose my interest in scientific literature had something to do with my husband’s B.Sc., but I mark the start of its development with the story “Miss Ormerod” by Virginia Woolf, from The Common Reader Vol. 1.. “Miss Ormerod” was 19th Century British entomologist Eleanor Ormerod and Woolf’s fictionalized biography demonstrated to me how well a passion for science translates into good literature. Fortuitously, I was signed up for a course called “Literature and the Environment” the next term, and I went on to read such works as Walden, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Servants of the Map, and last summer I read The Selfish Gene and Silent Spring. Last night I finished reading The Creation* by Edward O Wilson and it’s my favourite piece of SciLit yet.

The Creation is written as a letter to Southern Baptist Preacher, pleading not for common ground, but for a common cause: The Stewardship of Creation. The situation is dire, Wilson admits in gorgeous prose, but it is not too late, and he goes on to state his case in chapters including “Ascending to Nature”, “Exploration of a Little-Known Planet”, “How to Learn Biology and How to Teach it”, “How to Raise a Naturalist” and finally, “An Alliance for Life”.

Like Ormerod, Wilson is an entomologist and magnifies the amazing world of insects, this “microwilderness”. All living ants (there may be 10 thousand trillion) weigh as much as the Earth’s population of human beings. That there are more bacteria cells in our bodies than our own cells, and by some perspectives we could be seen as solely their vessals. He writes, “Each species is a small universe in itself, from its genetic code to its anatomy, behaviour, life cycle, and environmental role, and a self-perpetuating system created during an almost unimaginably complicated evolutionary history. Each species merits careers of scientific study and celebration by historians and poets. Nothing of that kind could be said for each proton or hydrogen atom. That, in a nutshell Pastor, is the compelling moral argument from science for saving Creation”. (123)

*Wilson is listed as “E Wilson” on the amazon listing, which means he is not linked to his myriad other works, which appear as authored by “Edward O Wilson”

UPDATE- Science Top Tens at Guardian Books.

October 19, 2005

Woolfian

It may have become clear that I since I’ve started my masters, I have become obsessed with Virginia Woolf. This shows no sign of letting up and I keeping peppering every day conversation with, “Well, Virginia says…”. Because she said everything. She also wrote a wonderful essay in a collection called “Lives of the Obscure” in her First Common Reader called “Miss Ormerod”. I read it the other day, and really enjoyed it- a very sprightly, creative take on character-driven historical fiction. It reminded me of my new friend Lindsay’s “Sky- A Three Letter Prayer” novel-in-verse about Amerlia Earhart, and of what drove me to write my Mitford poem, and a poem I am currently writing based upon a woman in Margaret MacMillan’s “Women of the Raj.” Anyway, “Miss Ormerod” is a wonderful essay and Eleanor Ormerod is begging for an updated biography. You can learn about her here or thru Woolf’s bio. She was an foremost entomologist in Britain during the late 19th century, a lecturer who introduced entomology as a study, the first woman fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and the first woman to receive an Hon. LLB from the University of Edinburgh. In other Woolf news. I read her Craftsmanshipessay yesterday, and it was fascinating look at the power of words and the challenge of writing.

On Tristram Shandy and a new film. That book has been mentioned around me near daily for the past month or so, and I guess I should read it. (Virginia would agree). Zoe Williams talks art. Russell Smith on the arts. Maud Newton on marginalia.

Mitzi Bytes

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