Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Silver Maple

In our glass-fronted cabinet among our seldom-used fine china and various vases, there is a small ceramic music box, glazed a deep cobalt blue, with a moon and sun on the lid. The box belongs to my daughter, as do its contents—a collection of samaras from the silver maple tree that grew in our yard in Omaha. When we were regretfully leaving that house—and that tree—in the late spring of 2010, I remember the moment when my daughter, five at the time, rushed into the house cupping in her hands a small mound of maple keys that she had collected from the yard. “Be sure to pack these,” she told me, transferring them carefully into my open hands. “I’m taking them with me.” Since I was then in the middle of packing up some of the more fragile items in the glass-fronted cabinet, I simply placed them in the blue china box before packing it away.

Our silver maple, a grand tree about a hundred feet tall and fourteen feet in circumference, produced a bumper crop of samaras that year; they were everywhere—all over the roof, covering the back lawn, punctuating the front yard like a spill of blond commas. As the movers traipsed in and out of the house, sealing up boxes, moving out furniture, they brought the samaras in with them, and when we finally began to open our boxes in our new home in Connecticut, the samaras began to tumble out of the book boxes, the dish boxes, the toy boxes, reminding us of all that we had left behind. I kept finding them for weeks, months, until the last were finally swept out.

I first laid eyes on that silver maple in May of 2009, just weeks before my grandmother died, and I last saw the tree in May of 2010, when we left Nebraska, but in that single year I spent more deliberate time with that tree than I have with any other tree. From the time we moved into the house in early summer, I went to that tree every day.  I went to it because it was a magnificent tree. I went to it because my children played in its shade. And I went to it because I was mourning the death of my grandmother, and a tree was the sort of stalwart and silent companion I wanted in that time of grieving.

A couple of months into my acquaintance with the silver maple, I began photographing the tree every day. On some days, I took a single shot, and on others, I took dozens. I took close-ups, photographing its leaves, its bark, its buds, its branches, its keys. I took photos at every time of day—morning, midday, dusk, night—and in every kind of weather. I photographed the tree in the wind, the rain, the snow, the ice. I took pictures in the fall, the winter, the spring. I took shots from the backyard and from the roof, from my son’s bedroom window and from the back porch. My plan was to photograph the tree every day for a year, but my project ended when we moved away just shy of the nine-month mark.  I missed a whole summer with my tree. I wanted more time.

Still, I know something about that tree. Still, I have 1,736 digital photos. I have been meaning to write about the silver maple for nearly three years. I have been meaning to write about the tree and the photos and my grandmother and grief. Maybe this is a start.

When my mother was helping to clean out my grandmother’s house in California, she found the blue china box sitting on the dresser in her bedroom. In the weeks before her death, my grandmother had written my daughter’s name on a slip of paper and put it under the box, one of her final bequests. When my parents came to visit us in Omaha, they brought the box with them. And then we filled the box with samaras and brought it to Connecticut.

On a snowy January day when school is cancelled, I take the blue box from the glass-fronted cabinet and open it for my daughter. “Remember these?” I ask her. We haven’t moved the box since placing it in the cabinet in the summer of 2010. She gently lifts a papery samara from the box. “Oh, yeah,” she breathes. “This is from the tree that used to be in our backyard.” She lifts the maple key over her head and lets it twirl to the floor. “I remember when they would fall from the tree and I would chase them.” We carefully count the samaras—there are fifteen—and place them back in the box. “I miss that tree,” she says. And together, we remember our tree.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hiking with Jeremy

My mother, who is not a hiker, has asked me on several occasions why I hike. “Why do you need to go climb up on the mountain?” she asks me in Russian, always in a slightly judgmental tone, as I load up a pack with water and rain gear and prepare to set out. She leaves the rest of her question unsaid, but I hear the criticism. Why do you spend a whole day hiking when you could be reading or writing or doing something useful with your time? My answers are usually evasive, laconic. “Because I can,” I might say. “Because it’s what I do.”

On most trips back to California, I go hiking with Jeremy at least once. He is in his early seventies and hikes nearly every week in the summer, somewhat less frequently in the colder months, sometimes with one of his grown daughters but most often alone. He’s ascended Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., three times, most recently at the age of sixty-five. I haven’t accompanied him up Whitney, but I have done several grueling day hikes with him, including a twenty-four mile trek up Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. In the summers, we hike in the San Bernardino Mountains. In the winters, when the mountains are snowy, we hike in the desert at Joshua Tree.

“Do you ever write about hiking?” Jeremy asked me on a hike last summer. “Well, no,” I said. “Not really.” Because, I thought, hiking itself is so much like writing. Looking at that trailhead or that empty page, I always begin with resistance. I am reluctant to get going, and yet, as I do, as I slowly begin to warm up, I am reminded again why I do this. As I get into a rhythm, as I lose sense of time and distance, I am astounded at the views around me, at the ground under my feet or the words on the page. And then the hard parts come upon me when I think I can’t possibly keep going, that what I am doing is simply too hard, too grueling, not worth the effort. And yet I go on, and the drudgery somehow gives way to moments of euphoria when I believe, for an instant, that I have found the one thing that I was destined to do on earth. But this short-lived rapture is inevitably followed by the exhausting parts, the painful parts, the long dreary slogs up endless switchbacks. Then there is the false hope that comes with believing the end is nearer than it actually is; there is the disappointment in reaching a plateau that only reveals a clearer view of the difficulties that still lie ahead. But finally, finally, when I reach the top, the view is always grand, even when obstructed, because the view is as much a looking inward as it is a looking outward. And when I am finished, when the hike or the writing is complete, I feel the deep satisfaction that comes with using my body for what it was intended to do and spending a day in a worthwhile pursuit.

On that same hike last summer, I asked Jeremy, “Why do you hike?” He thought about his answer for several minutes as we walked steadily along in silence, trudging through a long series of switchbacks. And then he told me his answer. Since we were hiking at the time, I didn’t write down his answer verbatim, but waited until we took a break to take out my pocket notebook. His response, which I try to recreate below, is, I think, better than mine.

Why do I hike? It’s hard, and sometimes it’s painful, and you’re out in the elements, and you often have to do the same parts of the same trail over and over, but when you reach your goal—if you reach it—it’s an accomplishment. You’ve done something. It’s more than sitting around the house or going out in the yard and walking around. And if you do it more than several times, if you keep hiking, it gets in you. It gnaws at me, and then I have to go hike. And I see people who don’t get around well, or at all, and maybe someday I won’t be able to get around and I’ll be in a wheelchair, but for now I can do this. This is a gift. We have this gift.

Why do I write? Why do I hike? Because I can. Because every day that we work hard to do something well is a gift.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Birth Stories

In early 2005, I sat in a classroom scribbling notes while the members of my fiction workshop discussed the novel excerpt I had handed out to them the previous week. In the opening scene, a young woman is fleeing across the ravaged Russian countryside during World War II. As members of the class discussed my work, I jotted down numerous comments about my depiction of the war, my use of language, my knowledge of Russian culture. Then a young man cleared his throat and started to speak nervously.

“Umm, this scene where she gives birth?” he said. “It just didn’t seem real to me. It seemed too easy. I mean, obviously I’m not speaking from firsthand experience, but I think giving birth is a lot harder and takes a lot longer. I just found that section hard to believe.”

Although I was not supposed to speak while my work was under discussion, I couldn’t help myself.

“I’ll know about that soon enough,” I said. “Then I’ll be able to revise it.”

The students in the class chuckled. I was hugely pregnant, about two weeks away from giving birth to my first child.

No doubt the members of the class—none of whom, as far as I knew, had ever given birth—believed that I had been inspired by my own pregnancy to write about a pregnant protagonist. In fact, in my novel I had written two separate birth scenes, involving two different protagonists, before I ever became pregnant. I had always recognized the importance of birth stories, even before having one of my own to tell.

Each birth story is unique. All mothers have them, a different narrative for each of their children. We begin by rehearsing the story well before it even happens. We take birth classes to learn the basic plot, the possible twists and complications. We write detailed birth plans, outlining just how we want the story to go. We imagine the birth, again and again. We rehearse and rewrite. It is supremely important, because if each life has a story, that story begins with birth. That is why, I think, many mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births. Those stories belong to us, but they also belong to our children. And we mothers are the keepers of those stories for our children. It is up to us to tell them where and how they began, to weave for them the narratives of their origins, their earliest years. Life is about storytelling, and we want our stories—and our children’s stories—to be true and good.

My own birth stories are not exceptional or amazing, except that they happened to me. And because while laboring we are in a place beyond words, we can never adequately tell our stories. Giving birth is a cohesive experience, yet we are left with disjointed, fragmented impressions. I can give my children only bits and pieces. When my daughter asks, I will be able to offer her only the sparse, bright gems of experience that are still with me, that I can put into words: The erratic contractions we timed all night, my husband working diligently with a stopwatch and notebook. The questioning: Is it real? Is it time? The drive to the hospital, the bright, crisp world of late winter. The nurses who didn’t believe my labor was real because I was withdrawn and silent, calm as in a trance, awaiting the next wave of pain. Elvis on the muted hospital TV, singing with a lei around his neck. The glint of sun on cars in the parking lot below. The unexpected, rapid delivery. The alarmed nurse telling me not to push, that she still had to call the midwife on the phone. The midwife rushing in just in time to catch the baby. The robust, squalling baby girl, mad at the sudden shock of the world.

I knew none of this when I first wrote that scene in my novel. So yes, after giving birth, I know more. I can write about it firsthand. But in another way, I am no closer to telling my character’s story. It is her birth story, not my own. Giving birth myself is not enough. It is not a credential for writing fiction. To tell my character’s story, I have to enter her world, in a sense become her. I have to write the birth story that is uniquely hers.

And yet, I believe there is truth in the old adage, write what you know. Maybe I can get to her story through my own. All of the characters, all of the stories, that we access as writers of fiction come through the lens of our own experiences. Write what you know. Just as every mother is different, every birth is different. With the coming of the new year, with my son’s fifth birthday approaching, I have been remembering his birth. Write what you know.

This is what I know: My second baby was due December 25. I wanted a fantastic story. Driving through a winter blizzard. A Christmas Eve baby. A completely natural birth. A Christmas baby. He was late. I then hoped for a New Year’s Eve baby. A New Year’s Day baby. He didn’t cooperate. A week late. Ten days late. My wants became simpler. A birth. A baby. Soon.

This is what I know: It is nighttime in winter, and I am in labor, by myself, on the living room sofa beneath the picture window, in a small house in a small windblown town in the Nebraska Panhandle. I am watching the stars, listening to the furnace tick on and off. Outside, crabapple trees rustle quietly. I am still, so that I do not awaken anyone. My husband will need his rest for what lies ahead. There is no sense in both of us staying up all night. I’ve snuck away to be in labor by myself. Between contractions, my thoughts are lucid, calm. I see myself as a participant in a story. I think of the new life story that will unfold out of this quiet winter night.

This is what I know: A contraction pierces my stream of thoughts, a blaze of pain, and then the gradual abating. The story will come. The dawn, the almost-three-year-old daughter I must calmly say my goodbyes to, the potholed road, the patches of snow dotting the yards, the gray winter sky. The small hospital where no other babies are being born that day. Asking to be in the water. No, first the fetal monitoring. No, first the doctor must come. No, I’m too close. No water allowed. There is no time. He he is here, so soon: my howling nine-pound boy, peeing on the doctor first thing.

But for now, I am still here, alone in the night. And this is what I know: I ride the crest of another contraction. The story continues. I think of the ultrasound technician who told me twelve hours ago: you’re not close. The doctor who told me eight hours ago: you’re not close, we need to induce. They do not know. I am close. The induction will never take place. I am close. I wait for my baby to tell me when. He takes his sweet time. I watch the stars. I listen to the trees. I am blessed on this night. The contractions come. I do not count them, I do not time them. I know it is the real deal. I let my story—his story—come to me.