Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Audacity of Honesty

In February 2007, I alluded briefly to Barack Obama's then-new book -- The Audacity of Hope -- in a blog post about my pregnancy and cancer. In February 2008, I sat in the Key Arena listening to Senator Obama address a huge and enthusiastic crowd. He said many things but I remember this: My faith in the American people has been vindicated. Obama is no longer an underdog. A year ago, I hoped he might be the "Next Howard Dean" -- an unlikely if inspiring candidate whose campaign brings politics into a new generation -- but now I'm hoping he'll be the next President. And I'm not alone. I was joined that day in Seattle by the Mayor, the Governor, thousands of convicted supporters, my son, and my six-month-old daughter. In the past year, our faith indeed has been vindicated. So I see our journeys as intertwined, as presumptious as it is to compare myself to him. He's emerged as the best public speaker of our day, so blogging about his writing feels like cribbing John Lennon lyrics. He's so good that paraphrasing him always feels cheap.

And as we've all recently learned, it was Chicago Pastor Jeremiah Wright who coined the term "Audacity of Hope." So it's really Wright who I hear, whenever my audacity calls to mind that phrase. It's Wright who has become "controversial" now, that we've seen quips from his angry "Anti-American" sermons to his African-American congregation. Of course, a competitive Presidential candidate can't say these things any more than he could burn a flag and still be electable. But how bad are Wright's comments? When the U.S. invaded Iraq, I can't count the white liberals who joked that they would move to Canada. Or flew flags of the UN or France when they disclaimed the War. Lots of people were this upset. But dissent isn't un-American -- it's America's lifeblood. This is easy to understand until it gets threatening. And "God Damn America," coming from a pony-tailed geek in a bike helmet, isn't as scary as when it's yelled by a black man.

Obama took this on: the bitterness within black congregations, the racism of our Depression-era white grandmothers. These are obvious and prevalent in the American experience. When our grandparents (who we love) say racist or ignorant things, we're torn between condemning them or excusing them. So we ignore them, and hold ourselves to an impossible standard -- especially in public and among the media -- where bitterness and racism is always condemned but never contemplated. This makes it impossible to honestly discuss even the most basic questions of race and politics. We worry about whether Geraldine Ferraro is "a racist" without critiquing the merits of her comments on race and politics. In doing so, we rush to judge a person -- and sacrifice our capacity to identify and support (even love) them -- but also impair our ability to honestly judge their comments.

But Obama refined the debate. He did so by reminding us that we can love and identify with a person -- our grandparents, our pastors -- while condeming their attitudes (if we indeed do). When we separate our feelings for a person from our judgment of their actions, we refine both. This comes up a lot with moms -- do we "feel judged" when we read critiques of our parenting style (even by someone who's never met us)? Do we "feel guilty" when we do something we know might be wron g(even if we don't really regret the decision?) These are complicated "feelings." But they untangle when we separate our gut feelings from our discernment of information. We can feel fear of hurting our children, desire for approval and belonging, the uncertainty and overwhelming nature of being a parent. But we still can know -- discern information on nutrition and safety, gather new perspectives on discipline, observe what is works for other parents (and what doesn't). If we start by loving and accepting ourselves -- and others -- we should be able share this information, even when it's "negative," without feeling threatened or threatening. With love, we can make friends with moms who are different with us, without feeling vulnerable to their disapproval. And we should be able to speak up honestly when we see right from wrong (where my judgment leads me on the issue of circumcision, for instance), and judge the issue without ever presuming to judge a person.

When speaking of race, Obama said the obvious -- that America is not perfect, but can start to make steps toward perfecting itself. But he went ahead and spoke lovingly of his pastor and his grandmother while condemning what he saw as wrong in their divisive and bitterness. We can't wait for perfection in order to love each other -- or ourselves. But with love can we discern right from wrong, and only then can we move toward a more perfect anything. Now that's audacity. And my faith in Senator Obama (and myself) is vindicated again.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Law and Lawlessness

The University of Chicago Law School recently paid respects to the late Professor David Currie. While I didn't have Professor Currie's as an instructor, his remarks to my graduating class during our hooding ceremony made a distinct impression:

When one of Shakespeare's characters says the first thing to do is kill all the lawyers, it's not another bad joke about the legal profession. It's not Shakespeare himself speaking even in fun. He puts the words in the mouth of a rabble-rousing demagogue who wants to put an end to law and order and liberty and knows it's hard to do while there are courts and judges and lawyers to defend them.It is no less praiseworthy to defend those whom society disdains.

Professor Currie's remarks are not hypothetical. The front page of today's New York Times shows a lawyer -- in full business wear, looking as lawyerly as anyone you'll find in an American court house -- throwing a firebomb. He's one of many: Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is urging lawyers across Pakistan to "convey my message to the people to rise up and restore the Constitution.” Indeed. These lawyers aren't just admirable defending the downtrodden. In the face of national emergency, in defiance of military orders, they've literally taken up arms to defend the very rule of law.

We know that law gives society its fundamental functioning. It's easy to forget that it entrusts the lawyers such a fundamental responsibility. How close are we in the American Bar to being so soberly reminded?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Deep Greens and Blues

So, I don't blog much these days. I'm not journaling or emailing like I used to either. This season of my working/mom life doesn't leave much time or energy to document my thoughts. But we're doing great. Physically -- oof that was rough, but apparently I'm tougher than I thought. The first of many follow-up tests has shown no signs of remaining disease. So, I can take a deep breath and look forward to a long life where I eventually die of something other than cervical cancer. My beautiful daughter is fine, too. Considering all the agony we went through counting the days and weeks until she'd be a viable fetus, she's turned out ridiculously strong, fat, and healthy. There's no sign, anywhere on her, of the whole ordeal. I've looked.

Emotionally, it's a longer road. I'm trying to be honest with myself about the rough spots while enjoying the sweet ones. I don't think I've figured it out yet. I did find unexpected inspiration in this
Sunset Magazine article about Susan Marinello, a Seattle Interior Designer. Her picture caught my eye -- she has a calm and confident look and very skinny arms. The article describes her background (fashion model, interior designer) and her philosophy (enlarging small spaces by bringing outdoorsy palettes inside). When it comes to color, she says, "I'm not afraid."

I loved this -- I love that Susan Marinello is unafraid of color. It makes me wonder why I'm afraid so often. I compared myself to her. Am I afraid because my arms haven't been that skinny since the 9th grade? I tried to dismiss her as a lightweight, with nothing to fear in life than choosing the wrong green or blue. But that devalues the work of any businesswoman with a marriage and big clients -- on a daily basis, she's likely taking on as much responsibility as I ever have practicing law (which can make me afraid) or mothering two young children (which makes me very, very afraid).

Which might mean, that all my trials (literally) and tribulations, in the end, are just so much green and blue. What is there to be afraid of?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Healing Hurts

That's really all I have to say right now. 20 days after surgery, my body is working hard on becoming whole again. My 10-inch incision is shrinking as my belly slowly contracts back to what it was before pregnancy (is "contracts" an ironic word to use, when you don't have a uterus?) Every day I'm a little stronger, but every day something new seems to hurt. The pain of nerves waking up, ligaments knitting themselves together, cauterized veins and arteries casting listlessly around (I imagine) to find a new home.

I think healing is like that. The stronger we are, the more we can feel. For almost three years, I've regretted going into "denial" after my sons' birth. I lied to myself about my feelings and pretended that I was okay with it all. I wasn't. Anxiety and depression seeped under my door like a cold fog, chilling me with an insidious and demanding pain. It took months (even years) before I could look squarely at that experience and all those feelings. But in those early days, in the dark of winter with a newborn -- a new mother, with a new scar and a bunch of new problems -- was it so bad to blind myself? What's so bad about waiting until we're strong enough to feel it all?

So I don't know yet, what I feel about all this. I've tried to write about my daughter's delivery and surgery, but so far I can't even finish the Customer Service Survey I got from the hospital. I just don't remember -- or want to remember -- it all. So far I can say this: That I was hysterical with fear in the hospital admitting lobby. That both teams of surgical staff were poignantly sensitive-enough and conducted themselves professionally throughout the surgery. That I remained conscious, without crying or vomiting, for the entire delivery until I saw and heard my daughter (ten feet away from me under her own oxygen mask, because "she's early" and "her lungs didn't get cleared by a vaginal birth.") I remember saying "okay, Josh, I'm done," to the anesthesiologist (younger than me!) and awoke hours later asking to breastfeed my baby. That I did feed her, and fell in love so suddenly that it surprised me. That I hit unimaginable physical and emotional lows in the hospital, but came home, and started to get better.

That's all for now. The baby and I are fine. Having a newborn is demanding, but I remind myself that this is only "for now" -- my baby wakes up every three hours at night, for now. She nurses ravenously and then spits up in my hair, for now. She is sometimes unconsolable, sometimes precious. Sometimes her socks fall off and get lost because they are so tiny. For now. So we are fine. I find myself welcoming the challenge and not overwhelmed by the cold or darkness that I expected. For now.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ready or not . . .

Our baby will be here by Thursday. This is both thrilling and daunting, as I guess pregnancy always is. Like anyone in their 39th week, I'm ready to be done with the heartburn, the waddling, and the constant bathroom trips. Thankfully the weather has cooperated and we've only had a few uncomfortably hot spells this summer.

I'm joking that, having done the newborn thing before, at least we're not naive enough to look forward to it. Of course it will be wonderful to meet our daughter. But I hear myself saying "I'm ready to be done with this insomnia . . . " Oops. I know what challenges are to come. But I know other things too -- like my baby won't die from a sloppy nail clipping. I know more about my own strength. That I can survive on less sleep and fewer meals than I'd like to. I have a two year old who likes to say, "I a baby bird. I love you, Mommy Bird!" So I'm starting to understand why I have children in the first place.

The cancer thing is getting hard to ignore again. When I got diagnosed during my first trimester, I was consumed by the urgency -- one doctor after another telling me I'd need an immediate hysterectomy, regardless of whether anyone was living in my uterus. Then the tumor was safely removed, and I was consumed by relief. And it was easy to forget how serious it is. So I've spent most of this year complacently enjoying my time at home and planning for the new baby.

My anxiety crops up unexpectedly. Hearing the question "when are you due?" when I have a planned surgery date (which I'd otherwise fight tooth and nail). Listening silently while other moms talk about breastfeeding challenges and birth control (there's not a whole lot out there on nursing under the shadow of surgically-induced hormonal arrest). Definitively sorting maternity and baby clothes because I know this will be our last child. I don't fit in with most pregnancy discourse, and it makes me nervous.

Last week we met with the surgeon who described the details of the procedure -- the "dissections," the incision, the transfusion risk, the bladder complications. Nothing too unexpected. I still found myself dizzy and choking back tears. Could this really be about me?

I want to focus on the positive: the healthy, beautiful baby girl who will be joining our family in a matter of days. But I don't want to ignore the pain and loss. It's inevitable to lose one's sense of self with a newborn around. And when that self is physically or emotionally injured, ignoring it doesn't help. Survivors of birth trauma can find it impossible to admit any regret or suffering about their baby's delivery. Our culture tells us to pick between grief and love -- as if caring about birth is a self-indulgence that we could overcome if we only appreciate our children enough. As if we must judge our feelings instead of listening to them. At least I know better now.

I'm listening.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Talk Softly

I keep meaning to type a quick update . . . after so much turmoil earlier in the year, everything has settled down to the point that I find myself without much to say. I'm spending the summer stretching my budget beyond previously unimagined limits (this turned out not to be the best time to find a new job), planting peas and building "railroad castles" with my toddler, and enjoying what I can about the third trimester of pregnancy. Our daughter will be here in the middle of August.

Sometimes I feel remiss in not writing more. But I'm discovering the freedom of living beyond words. After years of school and desk work, constantly typing up all my ideas and feelings, it's liberating to live life without stopping to imagine its narration. Or as our son reminds us, when we get too worked up in debate and analysis around here, "Too woud, Mommy Daddy! Talk softwy." And sometimes, the quieter we are, the more peaceful it is.

I'm hoping that this might help when the baby is here, in those early days when our family is reduced to its fundamental functionings of eat and sleep. When Malcolm was born, I struggled to explain and express every detail of my Parenting Experience. Even my paradigm of being a "more intuitive parent" was entangled in intellectual conviction and cognitive research. Even the most intimate aspects of my family's experience -- our cloth diapers, our breastfeeding, my cesarean scar -- I strained to mentally justify, to respond to counteraguments (imagined or real), to politicize. Of course, it was good to care about my choices and even to become an advocate. But it exhausted me. At one point I realized that I honestly could not count higher than "two." And ultimately, mothering a newborn is impossible to think your way through (or around).

So we'll try again. To move through this next big challenge while really letting go of explaining and documenting it. To languidly answer "I don't know" to doctors and nurses who quiz me about infant care. To doze in sunbeams like a cat. To talk softly. To touch and feel and care for my children. Without rationale, without explanation. Accountable to no one but them.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Partly Sunny

This season of my pregnancy has been like a Seattle Spring. Moments of delicious, lilac-and-saltwater saturated sunshine, and moments of stark chill and darkness -- those times when we rush inside from the backyard to curl up under a blanket. Some days are sunnier, some are colder, but any given day could be forecast as “partly cloudy,” “showers,” or “partly sunny.” Which never really tells us what to wear, or how long we can be outside before coming in from the cold.

But most days really are partly sunny, if we‘re lucky and pay attention. And so I’m thinking of my life as “partly sunny,“ too. I’m expecting a baby girl, and enjoy the giddy relief of carrying her through the second trimester. I'm also preparing for a radical hysterectomy, as cancer treatment, when she is delivered this summer. Fear and thrill, grief and joy. It would be dishonest to say that the happiness outshines the anxiety. To pretend everything is fine is to lie -- and no more practical than wearing a sleeveless maternity dress on a day forecast for rain. Still, I’m inspired by what Elizabeth Edwards said, when asked whether encouraging her husband’s Presidential campaign, in the face of recurring breast cancer, is a kind of denial: that she will continue to deny cancer control over her life, every day that she continues to live.

So where's the balance? With luck and mindfulness, I can honestly immerse myself in sunny moments: The lush May branches arcing over our heads as I push my toddler’s stroller through the leafy streets of our neighborhood. His surprised exclamation that “we are FRIENDS!” as we cuddle before bedtime with his head on my growing belly. My daughter’s incessant thumping inside me -- already insisting on her own independent rhythm -- so much like the occasional bumping on the other side of the bedroom wall, as my son stirs in his sleep.

When I let myself rest in these sweeter times, I can feel the sun on my face and be fully thankful, in that moment, for all of our blessings. As my son sometimes says, looking around at his toys or our dinner table, “We have SO MUCH.” And we do. And when the clouds roll through -- when I’m temporarily chilled with the stress and fear of what’s to come -- I know better than to pretend it’s sunny. Sometimes, all we can wish for is a blanket to curl up under, and cry -- if we need to -- until the moment passes.