Thursday, October 22, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

Walking through the Door

We bought our big, old house in hopes that someday we would have a family there, that our children would grow up looking at the plaster medallions, crawling along the old pine floors, and not falling down the enormous staircase. (About tasks that I will never get to, like leveling the rear of the house that has about a six inch difference between the highest and lowest points, I like saying, "My children's children will get to that.") I have spent a couple of years trying to minimize the risks of one hundred fifty years of lead paint, thinking to myself, while sanding, slathering caustic goo, burning myself with a heat gun, and then sealing the past away in a new fresh coat of paint, that I was doing it for my daughter, even before I knew that Nikki was pregnant.

Nikki and I have always longed for a home, a place for ourselves. When we were younger, in our early twenties right out of college, people would come to our apartment in Brooklyn and comment how "grown up" our house appeared.

But for all of our nesting, I had never felt the sense of place that comes with bringing your new born baby home to a house that you bought, labored over, secured, and readied just for her.

Here is a photo of that moment, on the threshold of our home for the first time, on the threshold of a new life.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Billy and Baby in Sling

This is what Rose and I do every morning to help mama get some sleep.

Sometimes people think I am holding a bag. Sometimes they are scandalized that my baby is stuffed into a little pouch.

I am a little scandalized that the sling's maker is called "New Native."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mother to Son

Since Nikki became pregnant, and even more so since Rose's birth, I have been trying to figure out what kind of father I want to be and, more to the point, what kind of father I will end up being no matter what kind of father I want to be.

I remember when my friend's mother passed away a handful of years ago, I sent him Langston Hughes' Mother to Son, which summed up something for me about the love that a parent might give to their child in letting them know the troubles of world and helping make them strong enough to bear them.

Looking at baby Rose, I am entirely committed to protecting her from everything awful and bad in the world. But I also know that the world has a way of toppling the levees we build around our precious things. In the end, I hope that I can teach her that while life isn't always a "crystal stair" that, if we keep climbing, we find landings for rest and comfort and occasionally turn corners that flights down we could never have imagined. Like the one I just turned.*

"Mother to Son"
Langston Hughes

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

* I am slightly worried that my broader, personal reading of this poem sets aside, a bit too much, its racial and social justice message. But my poetry consultant, certified poet Jill McDonough, assures me that "Mother to Son has plenty of room for racial equality readings and personal readings and also things-are-easier-for-the-next-generation readings; none of those interpretations cheapen it, I don't think. I think it's about the giving up, as well as the kinder hard; we all want to give up sometimes, but it's useful to realize other people went before us and didn't quit. And are still going, even."
So breathe easy. And read it however you like.

Monday, September 21, 2009

9/11 Satyagraha

On September 10, Nikki was four days past due at her midwife's office hoping to get some indication that our baby would come soon, that the pain and discomfort of ten months of pregnancy would abate.

It wasn't until Nikki got back from her appointment that I saw the possibility that my daughter could be born on September 11, 2009, the eighth anniversary of the eponymous attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nikki told me that a woman who we had met in our birthing class had been at the midwife's office and, though she was a full week past due, fixing to burst and desperate to have her baby, she had postponed her induction scheduled for the following day because she didn't want her child born on such an inauspicious date.

Nikki's original due date, September 6, 2009, had a comforting numerical pattern, 09/06/09, eclipsed by the following Wednesday, September 9, 2009, 09/09/09, which struck me as a powerful set of numbers.* I had considered our baby's birth on either of those dates, or even on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2009, but had not looked as far as Friday September 11.

Having just moved from New York City to New Orleans a month before 9/11, with family and friends working in New York's financial district, and with my father and step-mother on New York bound airplanes on the morning of the attack, 9/11 was etched into my mind as a day of horror and anxiety. The fact that the attack was exploited as a pretext for war and the curtailment of civil liberties - in ways that may never be undone - only made the day more tragic.

But my wife was in agony so I reconciled with the date, posited that another day of early labor was infinitely less desirable than having our child share her birthday with a mournful American anniversary. I soon forgot all about days and calendars, which I traded for minutes and seconds, when I got home at around three or four and Nikki's labor had become much more pronounced. I timed her contractions - forty five seconds long every seven minutes - which tightened over the course of hours to ninety seconds long every four minutes around midnight, when we left for the hospital.

At the hospital, this continued for another five hours, during which time I tried my best to provide Nikki comfort, playing Bach's Cello Suites and Nikki's favorite arias from the St. Matthew Passion on the little stereo that she had bought for this purpose a couple of weeks earlier, when it all seemed so distant and theoretical. At a certain point, Nikki began to seem really focused, distant, in a place all by herself, and I started playing Philip Glass's Solo Piano Works, thinking that the familiar, round, cyclical musical forms might reach her.

When that ended with Nikki clinging to my shoulders and neck from her birthing tub but still, evidently, hours away from delivering the baby, Addy, our doula, asked what we should put on. I told her that there was an opera by Philip Glass on the iPod, that it was long enough that we would not have to change the music again. "Satyagraha?" she asked. I hadn't remembered its name. I had burned it onto my computer, without even glancing at the liner notes, from the New Orleans Public Library's music catalog a few years earlier. In the scores of hours I had spent listening to the opera, its music and words, though unintelligible, seemed true to me and more clearly resembling life and the thoughts passing through my mind than any music I had heard before. "That's it," I told Addy.

It began with a low voice and a deep string instrument and wound around the room, sometimes urgent, sometimes slack, sometimes almost disappearing into the rhythm of Nikki's contractions and then her pushing. When the baby's head finally emerged in the water and as I held the tiny baby against my standing, fatigued but triumphant wife, the final act of Satyagraha pulsed in the background, and then eventually stopped, unnoticed.

I sent news to our friends and loved ones by text, "Rose Mae Sothern born at 4:57. I am in awe of mother and child."I consciously omitted the date, not wanting to associate the sad anniversary with the miraculous birth of my daughter.

But as time passed, hours and then days spent with this new life, it became clear to me that it was seemly, necessary, for Rose, and others, to be born on this date, for things to occur that could create new anniversaries that might someday eclipse the tragedy, as had occurred at least for our little family. I sent out an email to some friends, this time owning the date: "Rose Mae Sothern was born at 4:57 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009, weighing in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and altogether transforming the meaning of that date in our history for me."

I got a response from Rebecca Solnit, who I had met when she visited New Orleans while researching her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, on magnanimity of people in the face of disasters. She pointed out that September 11, 2001 had been, for the most part, "a day that people behaved beautifully under the most extreme circumstances in New York City, millions of them in contrast to the 19 who sought to destroy." But she made another observation, which gave rise to a sense of wonder, beauty, and synchronicity that tempts me to believe that the world is not simply spiraling meaninglessly but instead is ordered, blessed. She told me that September 11, 1906 is the day that Gandhi began to harnass non-violence as a tool against oppression in South Africa, a method of resistance called "satyagraha."

Without any of us knowing it, Nikki labored and Rose was born on the anniversary of satyagraha to the rhythms and sounds of an opera that Philip Glass wrote for Gandhi and his vision of social justice. It is an opera, with a libretto of sanskrit words of the Bhagavad-Gita, in three acts, the first overseen by the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore, the second by Leo Tolstoy, and the third, the music of Rose's birth, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The name of the opera, of Gandhi's tool for harnessing the might of a people against their oppressors, satyagraha, is a sanskrit meaning "the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence."

On September 11, 1906, again one hundred and three years later, and innumberable times in between, people have seen it and can attest to its power.

*Apparently the date, or its inversion, 6 6 6, inspired a man to hijack a plane in Mexico so that he could bring the coming apocalypse to the attention of the Mexican president. The news originally reported that there were four hijackers but that was based on the hijacker's own representations. As far as he was concerned, he was there with three others, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Family: Rose Mae Sothern

Last week, Nikki and I drove around New Orleans listening to Glen David Andrews' new album, Walking Through Heaven's Gate, trying to get Nikki some distraction from the discomfort of the ninth month of her pregnancy. The last track on the album, Family, struck both of us and gave us some sense of what was approaching for us. It's a spoken word piece with New Orleans poet, Chuck Perkins.

Perkins describes the birth of his child:

It was watching my wife
After eleven hours of labor,

Whose eyes and face

No longer possessed the words

To describe her pain,

So she pushed.

It was twenty years of anticipating

What my child would be

And who she would be

And when I saw the tip of her head,

Before the slap,

Before the cry,

Before I saw her eyes even,

It was like I was about to meet a long lost friend

Whom I had never met.

Early this morning, after an epic, unmedicated labor, Nikki gave birth to Rose Mae Sothern here in New Orleans. I am in awe of Nikki and the little baby girl that came into the world this morning. New Orleans artists have a gift for describing the indescribable, but as much as I like Perkins' description of child birth, he doesn't fully capture the feeling of seeing your wife give birth to your child. I am not sure anyone could.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Handmade by Kittee

Other than my girl Nikki, Kittee is pretty much the cutest girl I know. Kittee was one of the best New Orleanians until she recently moved to the greener pastures of Portland, Oregon. She is certainly the best person in Portland, a city that I have never been to and where I know no one but that I am certain could not possibly deserve her.

Aside from being outrageous cute, Kittee also happens to be one of the craftiest of all God's children (and a vegan chef of such ability that her cooking makes veganism seem to be a lifestyle choice of ridiculous indulgence rather than shirt-haired deprivation). For our little girl, whose due date is today but who has not yet arrived, Kittee made a closet full of beautiful, vegan, knitted sweaters. Each is a work of art.

I am especially fond of the baby shrug, the nicest baby shrug in existence. That shrug makes every other garment in the world wish it hadn't been born. It's why God made fiber.

Can you believe it?