I Write Because


“The raw truth of an incident never ends,” writes Michael Ondaatje in Divisidero.

I joined a WordPress daily prompt class just after starting to re-read Divisidero. These words were still running through my head when this prompt came and I thought of them and how writing is sometimes the only way to find the meaning in the endless raw truth of the incidents of our lives.

I write to inhabit the raw truth of relationships long ago lost, of faith given up and found, of people forgotten only until I move beneath the surface of memories. I write to inhabit the raw truth of thing still new and huge, like Claire’s birth and daily changing self, and my identity as mother and partner.

I write to move through the raw truth of literature, of books like Divisidero that haunt and illuminate, that remind us of our own hauntings.

“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell,” Ondaatje writes.

We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.

I write to shape the recurrence of all the stories, my own and those of others, in which I live.


Reading: Words and Music Games For Toddlers and Twos.


In my last post, I wrote about Claire’s language development and my concerns. While waiting impatiently for her first in-person assessment by a speech pathologist, I thought I’d get a couple books from the library to see what else I can be doing to help her with language acquisition.

The first one, Word and Music Games for Toddlers and Twos: More Than 150 Brain-boosting Activities, by Dr. Bonnis Macmillan, is a super practical little collection of ideas on how to interact with your child. It sounds sort of obvious — shouldn’t interacting with one’s child just happen? Well, no, I’m realizing. Interacting with tiny people is a skill. Some people (like my dad) are born geniuses at it, while others of us need a little help figuring out how to talk all day to someone who is not yet able to converse. I often find myself just narrating the events of the day because I know baby needs to hear me talk, but I’m pretty sure she just tunes that out; this book gave me ideas for how to directly engage her in age appropriate ways.

Some examples:

In the bath: “Pick up the fish and say ‘Oh look! The fish is diving, diving, diving under your leg! What is it doing?” Make it dive several times under the toddler’s leg and see if she can tell you ‘It is diving'” (10). [Continue with “the soap is washing, washing, washing…” “the boat is zooming, zooming, zooming…” — You get the idea.]

Simple songs: “Describe what you or your toddler are doing by singing new words to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: ‘Ride, ride, ride in the car (on the bus, on your trike, in the stroller, on mummy’s knee, on daddy’s shoulders…), Gently down the street, Merrily, merrily, merrily, I wonder who we’ll meet?'” (88). [Variations follow; you could go on forever.]

Why I found this book useful:

As you may already be realizing, for the parent many of the games and songs are mind-numbingly repetitive, which is of course exactly what small children need in order to learn language. According to the “Research Says” feature which scatters stats and info throughout the book, “the average number of words parents address directly to their child each hour varies from as little as 600 to 2,000. The more words children hear, the better their vocabulary and IQ scores” (13). Admittedly, I find this stat a little ridiculous: 600 hundred words an hour is 10 words a minute every minute of every hour (which doesn’t sound that bad to me); 2,000 words an hour is about one word for every two seconds of every hour. I cannot imagine keeping up this constant of a stream of words on a regular basis.

That said, I recognize simple the truth behind the research: the more I talk to Claire, the more she will talk, and that’s what I want. I admit to needing help with this. When we’re sitting on the floor playing blocks, my conversation might go something like this: “Where is the red block? Here is it,” followed by 30 seconds of silence while she adds it to the tower. This book shows how to turn that simple interaction into a more active and engaging word activity that now would look more like, “Where is the red block? The block is on my head. Can you put it on your head? Where is the green block? The block is on my foot. Can you put it on your foot?…” Is it overkill? Maybe. But I’m willing to give it a try. There a million books out there on improving communication skills with with your partner; this book gives your tools for improving communication skills with you little one.

Word of Caution:

Like much “expert” advice, I find the “Research Says” feature to be often guilt-inducing. Like this: “Children spoken to most by their parents during the first 3 years of life end up with superior reading, spelling, speaking and listening abilities 5 years later” (67). In my mind this translates to: if five years from now my child doesn’t have superior language skills, it’s my fault for not having talked to her enough. So it’s wise to remember the lyrics to an old Sarah McLachlan song, “there’s always some reason to feel not good enough,” and just take what you can from this book. Feel good about working on adding a couple ideas to your repertoire of baby communication skills and don’t beat yourself up if you never hit the magical 2,000 words an hour (because, really, does anyone?).

Pizza Dough and the Impossibility of Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza

Recently I decided to get over my intimidation and bake bread. I found a recipe in my trusty Martha Stewart Baking Handbook and it turned out fabulously. So I got cocky and got out Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, by Ken Forkish.

My husband gave me this book for a gift (after some broad hints) while we still lived in Ottawa, while I was still working on my thesis, and before we had Claire. A world away. I carried it with me everywhere and read it like a novel (the opening story of Forkish’s founding of a French bakery in Portland does sort of read like a novel). I was fascinated and inspired. And completely intimidated. Poolish, levain, biga…I thought I knew a lot about baking but all this was new to me. Scales, tubs, proofing baskets…I didn’t even have a cast iron dutch oven (I also broadly hinted and got this for a gift — or sort, as my poor husband inadvertently got ceramic instead of cast iron and oval instead of round). In the end, I read the entire book and never baked a single loaf of bread.

Fast forward to today. Claire was napping, I was feeling brave, and opened Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast to  see if maybe the pizza crust was doable. The intro to the pizza section said “use any recipe from Chapter 3.” I flipped to the first recipe and the first step was “Feed the levain.” Shoot. What was the levain and how did I make it, let alone feed it?? You also needed a 12 quart tub — I wasn’t sure what that was and how big it was, but I knew I didn’t have anything like it.

I looked in the index and there was a “Same Day Straight Pizza Dough.” I flipped to that. The suggested schedule said to start the dough at 10AM if you wanted pizza sometime after 6 because it needed a 6 hour rise time, then shaping into balls, then another 2 hour rise. It was 3:00 when I read this. It also called for 7 cups of flour. How much pizza dough did I need??

Defeated, I googled “quick pizza dough” and found a recipe on The Kitchn site, a site that has never failed me, for thin crust pizza. They describe it as “the very best thin-crust pizza dough for a home cook on a weeknight,” and let me tell you: they are not kidding. It whips up in minutes and bakes like a dream. And only calls for 2 cups of flour. The longest part was the five minute kneading time. I found myself watching the clock while kneading and then stopped and just enjoyed the beauty of a simple, nurturing task in a rare silent moment.

I haven’t given up yet on Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast; it has become for me the Everest of cook books. Someday I will read it all again, buy all the stuff, and attempt it. But I might wait until Claire is in kindergarten.

Loss in The Winter Vault

**Trigger Warning for anyone struggling with loss or traumatic birth experiences**
Luck would have it that the very first book I read after Claire’s birth was The Winter Vault — a book about motherhood, or, more accurately, lost motherhood. Motherhood was not something I was certain I would ever experience. We lost two pregnancies before Claire and hers was a high risk pregnancy full of uncertainties and fear. Part of the purpose of this blog is to clarify her in my mind, to begin to grasp the essence of this little being we were never entirely sure we would know. The Winter Vault deals in essences — the essence of motherhood, the essence of a child, the essence of the past. I couldn’t have read a more perfect book at that time, but Claire is now 8 months old and it’s taken me this long to manage to write something about this book, and even longer to write about the experience of miscarriage.
Like another brilliant Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault is filled with Michaels’ fascination with things submerged, layered, buried, excavated. The story follows Avery, an engineer, and his wife, Jean, as they witness the submersion of towns and villages in both the  the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Aswan Dam project in Egypt in the 1960s. These lost worlds are fitting settings for the tragedy of the late term miscarriage they suffer while in Egypt. “A child is like a fate; one’s future and one’s past,” Michaels writes. Like the drowned towns, a miscarriage is the loss of fate and an imagined future. Unlike the towns, there is no possibility of ever excavating the lost life of the child, the lost dreams of what the child might have been, or what you might have been as that child’s parent.
Margaret Atwood once told in an interview of a woman who wrote to her convinced that Atwood was obese because she captured so well the experience of being obese in Lady Oracle (this was clearly pre-Google images). And despite my academic training to the contrary, like Atwood’s fan I couldn’t help feeling that Michaels must have lost a pregnancy, so visceral is this story. When Jean suffers a late term miscarriage, she carries the still child until her body naturally starts labour. The labour is so difficult she believes the child is in fact alive and fighting to be born. When the baby is delivered lifeless, by caesarean, Jean refuses to let her out of her arms. She holds her baby until she falls into an exhausted asleep and Avery passes the baby to a nurse. I cried through these parts of the novel as I never have at any other book; I cried for the pregnancies we had lost, and with the memory of Claire’s body moving in me so recently, I cried at the terrible thought of what it would have been come to know a being so intimately, yet incompletely.
As Jean recovers, an old man advises her, “All your self-knowledge won’t bring you any peace. Seek something else.” Is it really self-knowledge that Jean or any woman who loses child seeks? No. It is body knowledge – the knowledge of the body of that child. Jean holds her baby all night to keep forever in her muscle memory the feel of that tiny body, to try to understand this thing that was once a dream, then a ponderous wonder in her body, now a dream again.
This is what I seek when I hold Claire, to understand the solidity of this creature once only a whisper, a grainy image on an ultrasound, now a permanence. It is why I love the wrap I carry her in – it’s the closest I can get again to the weight of her as part of me. My first two pregnancies ended too early for me to feel this weight. As Claire grew, I knew what it meant to feel her move, to feel that weight, to not know where her body ended and mine began. Her personality revealed itself in the pattern of the kicks, the stubborness with which she pushed back against the press of her dad’s fingers and hands. If I had lost her then, I can’t imagine.
“For months after birth, a child remains in the mother’s body; moon and tide. Before the child cries, the mother flashes wet with milk. Before the child wakes and cries out in the night, the mother wakes. Deep in the child’s cranial vault, the mother’s gaze knits up the dangling synapses.
And when the child is spirit, it is exactly the same.”
Moon and tide. Knitted synapses. So close, Michaels understands, is the instinctual, physiological, emotional connection between mother and child. Sorting through the realization of a lost pregnancy is much like an excavation, a peeling back of layers of loss, emotion and dreams. For Jean, the process is first about adding layers, as she leaves Avery for a time and allows her pain to be buried under the stories of loss she learns from her new lover, Lucjian, a Polish Holocaust refugee in Toronto. He too knows what buried pain is, literally, as he lived through the destruction of Warsaw and helped rebuild its replica over top of the dead. Jean allows her loss to become just another fine sedimentary layer settling upon depthless layers of loss revealed in her lover’s stories. But she also unearths her own deeper buried pain, the loss of her mother. Michaels manages to show how the recovery from loss can be twofold: an inward excavation of layered losses, and a communion with the external and powerful forces of communal grief.
The only problematic aspect of this communal grief that Jean enters into is that the death of her baby is somewhat subsumed and overshadowed by the many deaths witnessed by her lover; it is almost as if she doesn’t believe she has as much right to her grief as those around her. Can loss be ranked? Could Michaels have written the same book if Jean had lost her baby in the first or second trimester? If her child had simply bled from her body would she have deserved to mourn any less? Any woman — any parent — who has suffered the loss of pregnancy at any point would of course not begrudge another parent his or her grief. It is our own tendency to suppress, absorb, hide our sense of loss that we must resist. I wonder how different Jean’s story would have been had she found a community of other women with stories like her own.
Jean’s greatest moment of healing seems to be when she finally allows herself to fully grieve her daughter’s loss by visiting her grave and planting flowers on it, and allowing her husband to join her again in their shared grief. The cultivating of memorials, the sharing of memory — these are things we avoid sometimes when a baby is lost too soon. When I was early in my pregnancy with Claire, I was visiting Saskatchewan and went with my brother and his wife to her family farm. It was a hot day out and everyone was swimming and rummaging in the garden and I was inside lying on the couch chatting with her mother. To my surprise, I told her about our previous losses. To my equal surprise, we embraced as she welled up with tears for our loss, and hope for this new pregnancy. When Claire was born, she sent a beautiful gift, even though we had only met that one time. It was a reminder to me that the excavation of healing is not something to be done alone, and that there is great beauty to be found in allowing others to share in the journey of our loss.