Market Basket Babies

My own Market Basket babies on our dream couch.

My own Market Basket babies on our dream couch.

It’s creepy, really, the way I stare at babies in Market Basket. If I didn’t know me, I’d be, at the very least, uncomfortable. Fat babies, especially, get me. How to look away from those cheeks? Those sausagy upper arms? The layers of fat that make up their thighs? When your own daughters are well muscled, when their faces have noticable cheekbones, when their feet are flat and not the impossibly round, handful of feet they used to be, how can you help but stare at other people’s babies? When you remember how sweet their milk breath smelled, how soft their hair used to be, how heavy they could be when they fell sound asleep against your chest, well, is it any wonder you can’t look away?

And, mostly, when you wonder if you appreciated it when you had it — those baby bodies, the warmth and the weight of those people you love most in the world in your arms, on your lap, beside you in bed as you read to them– it makes sense, doesn’t it, that, though the deli line is ridiculously long, and the dairy case is out of your favorite yogurt again, and the aisles are clogged with people who don’t understand how much more convenient it would be if they moved their cart to one side or the other, that what fills you is not frustration or boredom or impatience, but a profound sense of longing.

After an exhaustive search (in the days before babies), I finally found the sofa of my dreams (yes, this is what I dreamt about): an overstuffed, floral cloud of a couch. You fell into it and resisted ever dislodging yourself. And when the girls were babies, we wallowed in it — under an afghan for movie nights, piled together for storytime, stretched out across one another mornings when I drank my tea and they in feetsie pajamas, sucked juice cups full of milk. I remember one day as we sat there, one of them crawled into my lap and I thought: Will I always have a kid on my lap whenever I sit down? At the time, it seemed a legitimate question. I attached no emotion to it. I wasn’t fed up or worried or, even (especially), nostalgic. I just couldn’t imagine people not assuming my lap was fair game for plopping themselves down on. I remember them saying, “I want to sit here,” as if choosing a seat in the theater. Together, we sank into the endless pillow that was that couch.

Bath times it was rub-a-dub-dub, three babies in the tub. We had a system. face to toes, one at a time, hair last. Dennis dried them off and in they came, naked and warm, to lay on our bed so I could give them their massages with vanilla-scented lotion. Later, as we sat and read, their wet heads left spots on my pillows, spots I thought I’d just have to get used to since they were always going to be part of the ritual.

I remember once in graduate school, someone said, “Isn’t it odd to think that there is a last time you’ll hear a certain song?” Graduate school with poets required too much of that kind of thinking as it was, precious and useless and held up to judgement, so I said nothing, walked silently along wondering if any fiction writers would be at the bar yet.

But I think about that now: there was a last bath time, a final crawl into my lap. One day, we didn’t use juice cups anymore. There was the final night we gathered, four in a bed, to read a book from each of the girls’ choosings.

Today, however, I was also reminded by my friend Holly that those warm, snuggly, sweet-smelling babies were also the people who burst into tears at the dinner table when they didn’t like the menu. They were the ones who tortured us on long car rides, who spilled nail polish all over the side of the new vanity and then, in a rush to get the hell out of there, crunched your glasses underneath the soles of their light-up sneakers. They were plan destroyers. They ate possibly toxic mushrooms and choked on plastic Easter eggs. They spent several particularly grueling years clogging the toilet. They wandered away in crowded places just to see how long you could survive with your mouth open in a silent scream.

One day, I decided the morning outing for my three darlings would be the half mile walk up the street to Rowley Country Gardens where we might be able to feed the fish in the ponds. The girls decided to push their babies in strollers. What a picture we must have been: a parade of tiny people with their dolls dressed up in clothes Nana had knit for them! A proud and obviously highly effective mother, following after them with a benevolent smile on her face as she counted her blessings.  Except Justina ran ahead, veering into traffic, and Beatrice thought she was the oldest and should go first so she ran to catch up. Apphia lagged behind and didn’t want to push her baby after the first house we passed. Beatrice flung Justina’s stroller into a neighbor’s yard. Justina decided to leave it there; it only slowed her down so I grabbed it, forcing it back into her hands. Everyone ran up on everyone else’s heels. They bawled and screamed and demanded I push the damn things — which I could only do if I completely doubled over. We had only gotten halfway there when I stopped and lit into them. It was one of those moments that, before you have children, you swear you will never resort to.

When I’d finished, I looked up to see my new neighbor paused over the car that he was washing in his driveway.

“What are you looking at?” I said, wondering how fast I could put a For Sale sign on our house.

He grinned and said, “Lady, I been there.”

This was more helpful, by the way, than what my therapist said when I checked in with her later that week. She told me I needed to lower my expectations.

To what? I wondered. Staying home and watching Bear in the Big Blue House on continuous reel? We went for a half mile walk for Christ’s sake. We weren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, LewisandClarking it.

Ah, but those Market Basket babies. They make it easy to forget, don’t they?

Or maybe, they make it too easy to remember that no days last forever.

Weekend Write-In: Revelations

This week, I’m re-posting a blog I wrote for the Quivering Pen. Check out this great blogsite for reviews, giveaways, the regular feature My First Time , for which this blogpost was written, and lots of other great book stuff.

The books arrived on a September day saturated with light and sun. I feel it now — the heat of that moment, the blood rushing to my fingertips as I ran them along a spine with my name on it. I pored over the ISBN, the copyright, all the things that made me feel not myself, but someone greater! Someone for whom one slice of shelf space in a library might be reserved! I picked up several copies, stunned by their miraculous uniformity, before I finally flipped to the poems themselves and thought: Oh god. What have I done? In my excitement to finally have a book published, I had forgotten that people – especially people I knew – would, for the first time, actually read it.

The next day, as I walked my dog, my neighbor pulled up beside me. “I’m loving the book!” she said. Before I could thank her, she added: “It’s so revealing!” and sped off.

At a signing, a woman told me her husband refused to come. “He was mad at you for a while,” she said. “He’s over it now. That Oak Street Cowboys poem? That was his father who was shot.” I had retold my own father’s story about an argument that erupted over whose homemade wine was better; the dead man was a “ghost sitting on the front steps,/in a t-shirt and workpants, the shoes he’d crossed the ocean in.”

An ex-boyfriend’s mother bought a copy and sent me a lovely card that thrilled me until I remembered the Block Island poem in which her son figures prominently. She would recognize “the scar/below his navel, a cool bowl/you leave your thumbprint in.” Maybe she had forgotten that trip. Maybe she thought the beach sex was made up.

I had not changed the name of another old boyfriend, a name that happened to belong to exactly one person in my hometown for the twenty I’d lived there. The poem itself chronicled part of another relationship, part of a fictional scene, but who would know that? Oh well, I thought, it’s only about having a crush. How harmful can that be? Then, one night, after he had put his colicky twins to bed and drunk some bourbon, my nephew called me. “I really like your poems, ” he said. “But I have two questions: #1 – did you really have your first experience with Cameron B –? and (from a poem derived from a friend’s description of her anti-depressants) #2 do you have an addiction to prescription painkillers? You can tell me,” he said. “It won’t change how I feel about you.”

When I recounted these interactions to one of my writer friends and confessed my fear of appearing in public to read from this surprising tell-all, my friend said, “Poetry isn’t memoir. It isn’t history.”

When I had a similar conversation with my mother, she said: “You’re missing the point. People are actually reading the book.”

Of all the fantasies I’d entertained about the publication of my first book, the one scenario I had not envisioned turned out to be the best part of all: I got to talk to people about poetry, not just my own poems, but poetry itself. I am grateful for those moments that moved me toward a more complete understanding of what poetry is and what it definitely is not.

I also learned that, for me at least, there is some responsibility I hadn’t previously considered. Scribbling in my notebooks while the rest of the world slept, sending my work to small and lovely literary magazines that no one in my real world read, I had not applied to my own work what I have always known to be true: words have power. Meaning is not inherent in the page but discovered by the reader.

Whenever I forget those lessons and begin, again, to obsess about the place my book might secure in some library a hundred years from now, I remind myself of one scene that occurred at a family gathering several months after the book came out. Distrusting my explanation of my poem The Crush, my nephew stood up and read it according to his own interpretation. He wiggled his eyebrows and winked, mastered the let’s-get-it-on tone he insisted was present. Okay, so I can never read that poem aloud again to an audience, but my mother was right: he had read the poem and I loved what he made of it.

Weekend Write-in: Even Though You Won the Nobel Prize, My Mother Still Loves Me Better

Perhaps the room looked a little like this?

This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.

I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.

Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.

But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.

Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.

When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.

However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.

Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.

I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.

Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.

I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.

As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.