I set a pie on fire tonight.

It’s such a silly thing — the Great Thanksgiving Pie Incident of 2018. I’d been going through the assortment of recipes I managed to inherit from my grandmother, and I thought I might try my hand at a chocolate pie. Mugger almost always baked a chocolate pie at Thanksgiving, and other times of the year, too — it was one of her staples. The recipes I have are all cut out from newspapers and magazines — many are unclear, and some are literally incomplete — and there are probably half a dozen chocolate pie recipes. One of the cut-out strips of paper, however, had an adjustment — “3 corn starch” — written out to the side in Mugger’s handwriting, so I thought that might be a strong contender for the recipe. So I gave it a shot.

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I should probably preface this story by explaining that I literally only cook one thing in the kitchen every three months. I’ve never made a chocolate pie before. I’ve never made a meringue. I’ll be forty years old in a few months, and I’ve never made a chocolate pie. But my mother was 55 when she passed away, and I’m pretty sure she’d never made a chocolate pie, either.

I cooked the pie at the temperature for the amount of time the recipe stated. 350 degrees for 15 minutes. But the recipe added the qualifier “when the meringue starts to brown.” Every time I opened the oven, that meringue was as white as Christmas. I kept it in for another five minutes. And another. Still pretty white — you could imagine that maybe it had a light tan cast to it, but it was nothing what I remembered my grandmother’s looking like.

So I got a stroke of inspiration. Maybe I just needed to put the oven on broil and get it brown. I mean, that’s what you do when you’re finishing up casseroles and frittatas sometimes, right? So I did, and I watched it through the oven door with Kye. And it started to brown and get that weird sugar-sweat on it I could remember being on my grandmother’s chocolate pies.

“See, that’s what it’s supposed to do,” I said. “Now it looks perfect.” Thomas took the baby, and I opened the oven door to get the pie.

And the pie burst into flames. I’m talking, entire pie, high flames shooting out of the oven.

I squealed, or screamed, or cursed — I’m not sure what — and Thomas told me to close the oven door. He gave me Kye, got potholders, opened the oven door, blew the pie out like a candle, and took the (now completely blackened) pie outside. Smoke poured into the house, and the smoke detectors all went off. All the kids rushed into the kitchen to see what sort of disaster had occurred. And I couldn’t stop laughing, because of COURSE I would almost set the kitchen on fire trying to bake a pie.

But the adventure (or misadventure) has given me a inherent sense of peace and belonging, and might be the most perfect thing to happen to me on a Thanksgiving Eve. I grew up in a family of mishaps and missteps — we were determined and passionate as we did everything COMPLETELY wrong and we laughed about it anyway. My mom and her sisters would tell stories about Mugger’s kitchen fires — I think one of them was her burning a cake and the fire department coming to the apartment, if I’m remembering that correctly. Setting a pie on fire while trying to use one of Mugger’s old recipes is such a direct connection — it’s just the kind of thing Mugger would have done, and I could see her finding it hilarious (and also giving me a hard time about it — because, really, don’t you know how the “broil” setting works, Devon?) It’s such a ridiculous example of the legacy I carry, but it’s also a perfect example because it’s so ridiculous — because we were ridiculous, and that is why I’ve become the woman I am.

And it’s why I’m so perfectly matched with the person I’ve chosen for domestic partner and life-mate. Because I can be ridiculous, and he delights in it. Because his family is the same way. And, in fact, the first thing we did was send his parents pictures and video of the entire debacle, which began a storm of hilarious text messages and shared laughter. (And also because he does all of this without letting the house burn down.) I’m the kind of woman who sets a pie on fire, and Thomas is the kind of man who loves me anyway — and perhaps even a little because of that fact. There is no judgment — or, at least, any judgment that might exist is alway overruled by love. 

And then I flash-forward to the future — of Aisling, Kes, and Kye, sitting around a future Thanksgiving table as full-grown, independent adults, sharing the story of that time Mom set a pie on fire. How the smoke detectors went off, how Aisling was so disappointed about not having chocolate pie, how Kes was convinced that if she’d made the pie then it wouldn’t have caught on fire (and she was sure to tell Mom that.) Kye will probably have no memory of it, but she would have been there, and Aisling and Kes will tell her the story, and she will find it amusing to hear. And, by that point, this story will probably lead into a series of Mom-almost-burning-the-house-down stories, because domesticity is not my strong-suit, and I’m sure this will happen again. It will become part of the narrative of our family, a story that is shared over and over, because it’s a story that embodies our values, and that tells a truth about who we really are. 

And these kinds of family stories are the best kind.

I’ve been writing online for over twenty years.

I didn’t make it very far with NaNoWriMo. Two, maybe three days? Less than two thousand words, for sure. I would sit down at the keyboard, but I would bore myself to sleep with my own story. Ultimately, I don’t think the story will be boring. Ultimately, the story will be told, and it will be raw and real and red-eyed, and it will come out of me screaming like a newborn baby.

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But I’m not ready to tell that story just yet. That story is going to be a story about grief, and pain, and loss, and quite frankly I’ve spent the better part of three years living that story, and I’m just now getting to the place where I can get through an entire day not reliving the grisly details of my mother’s death. I’m not exactly eager to conjure up those images again.

That’s part of it, at least. The other part is a surrender to vanity and sloth. I’m out of the habit of writing, and my composition skills show it. It would be the same if I tried to run a half-marathon in my current physical state with no training — I wouldn’t make it past the first mile. My words are messy and clumsy, and I second guess every metaphor. I know the talent is still buried in there somewhere — or, at least, as much talent as I ever had — but I need to exercise these muscles, as they have greatly atrophied.

Instead, I try to make some sense out of my life. I work to build a routine. I hope I stick to it this time. I try to focus on getting my house in order. I start up a weekly accountability program with my dear friend in a different time zone. I read. I make sure everyone in my family is vaccinated against the flu.

And I think, “You know what used to help me exercise my writing muscles? That stupid blog that’s been my on-again, off-again mistress for over twenty years.”

So. Here we go again.

I published a novel.

I should begin this post by saying — I have amazing friends.

I have amazing friends who have always believed in me, and who have always pushed me to do more, deliver more, and make creative things happen.

And I have amazing friends who, in turn, do amazing things. They run podcasts. They write amazing articles for websites. They publish, they create, and they have put so many things out into the universe. And, generally, I cheer and offer support from the sidelines, because they are, in truth, kicking all the ass.

Sometimes, those friends do amazing things that help others do amazing things. And thus, a novel was born.

I wrote this novel a few years ago, as part of my first NaNoWriMo challenge. And then, true to form, I left the novel in my document cloud to collect dust. Why? I don’t know. I have a hard time believing in myself. Having my work out there for others to read and critique makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. And while this novel is far from autobiographical, I still wrote a lot of myself into the pages, and that also makes me feel vulnerable and exposed.

I’d pretty much resigned myself to the act of creating as my way of life. I was no longer concerned with completing a product or ever becoming published. I just wanted to enjoy the process. And while that sounds rather “zen,” it truly was a bit of a cop-out. If I never tried, I would never fail. If my work was never “out there,” I could more easily hide myself from harsh critiques and negative feedback. And if you know me well at all, you know that my totem animal is probably the Cowardly Lion.

Then, my good friend Elizabeth started No Cube Press. And she needed material. And it just so happened I had this novel laying around, collecting dust. So I mentioned I would work on getting it into a quasi-publishable state and send it her way.

And then I went through the long, arduous process of editing a paragraph every week or so.

My mom got sick. My grandmother got sick. After a heart-wrenching weekend of transporting my grandmother to a nursing home in South Carolina, having spent an entire morning in the floor at the foot of her wheelchair, hugging her knees and sobbing loudly while her open eyes regarded me with no response or recognition whatsoever, I got a message from Elizabeth letting me know she was going to send me a galley proof of this book I’d all but forgotten about. She said:

We witness birth, we witness death, and it’s messy on both ends. It’s ok. In the middle, we make art.

Not even a month later, I have an ISBN number to my name, and an author page on Amazon. And it is terrifying. It is all of the things I always feared. I worry I missed something. I worry the book isn’t truly finished. I worry people will read my book and discover things about my personality that they won’t like. I do feel naked and vulnerable and exposed. Posting the link to my book on social media may have been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

But I also feel immensely grateful. Eternally grateful, and infinitely loved. I never thought I would be here. Devon, the girl who can’t even finish her sentences. And now I have a novel. A novel that is currently number #310 on Amazon under the genre “Gay Romance.” That’s not nothing.

So, thank you — all of you, and especially those of you who’ve been on the crazy, ridiculously long journey with me from the very beginning. This would not be possible without your ongoing love and support, and I am deeply and thoroughly grateful.

I think it might be time to do some more writing.

Love letter to Knoxville.

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As of this past August, I have lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for ten years.

I came to this city in pursuit of a dream, lured by the creative writing graduate program at the University of Tennessee. I came to this city as a young single mother, enrolling my wild-haired, fae-mannered daughter into Kindergarten when we first arrived. I came to this city penniless and freshly tattooed, envisioning myself a sort of academic Vianne Rocher from Chocolat.

I came to this city, and I fell head over heels in love.

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I fell in love with my tiny, hole-in-the-wall, one bedroom apartment right off of Sutherland Avenue. I fell in love with Red Onion Pizza and the Pakistani couple who owned it. I fell in love with my morning commute that hugged the Tennessee River as it reflected the morning sun. I fell in love with the campus — the tower where I practically lived, its Q*bert-esque library, the ancient architecture that flanked the outskirts, the bowels of the enormous stadium where I kept my office, the special collections at James D. Hoskins. I fell in love with football — the way the entire city would rally around each home game as if it were the only event in the universe. I fell in love with Market Square — the free concerts, the amazing restaurants, the quirky little shops that seemed to change their names and locations once a quarter. I fell in love with the radio stations — the music, the banter of the disc jockeys, the advertisements for local businesses. I fell in love with Boomsday — such a brilliant, crowded, crazy display of fireworks across the sky every Labor Day weekend. I fell in love with the skyline and its trademarked ostentatious relic from the 1982 World’s Fair.

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I fell in love with the fact that there always seemed to be something to do. I fell in love with the fact that Knoxville had so much culture, and yet it was flanked by mountains and vast expanses of countryside. I fell in love with its solid Appalachian roots and vibrant liberal underbelly. I felt complimented by the city, and comfortable living as one of its citizens. I moved from Bearden to Farragut to Fountain City to Powell, and each neighborhood had its own specialized charm, its own rich history and personality. It was amazing to see such a tapestry of life woven within the fabric of one single city.

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No relationship is perfect, of course. Knoxville’s politics have often been the subject of ridicule and scorn among my friends who have left the state for more liberal locales. The economic climate of the city is just a little less depressed than the destitute Appalachian communities that flank it. The public transit system is lacking. The city suffers from segregation along both racial and economic lines. Nestled in a bowl surrounded by mountains, Knoxville is notorious for its terrible air quality, for its allergens. The quality of the school systems have a lot of room to improve. And sometimes it feels as if the city is dwarfed by the shadow of its university.

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Still, I could never imagine living anywhere else. This city is a perfect fit for me. It’s always changing, and I feel as if I find something new and amazing each year. It’s a wonderful place to play with children, it’s an amazing place to play as an adult, and I feel as if I could spend an entire lifetime here and never become bored or overwhelmed. I’ve come to know her intimately over the past ten years. I will always love wandering her Farmer’s Markets, frequenting her unique pubs and beer gardens, finding little pieces of art hidden in crevices and alleyways. I will always enjoy discovering her history, exploring her backroads, engaging in the ongoing conversation of her landscape. Much like one chooses a spouse, I’ve chosen this city to be my home — to have and to hold, in sickness and in health. And I couldn’t imagine a better match in all the world.

We has a Kes!

The past four weeks have been amazing, overwhelming, and very different from anything I had pictures in my head about what having second daughter 15 years later would be like. It’s funny how the things you worry and stress about the most end up being the things that really matter the least, and it’s the things you didn’t expect or anticipate that throw you for a loop and shake up your little world. I’ve been dying to explain and express myself in depth since this whole thing started, but where do you find time to write when your arms are always full of a baby hungry for yet another meal that only you can provide? I’ve been regulated to quick one-handed status updates over social media while Kes is busily snacking, but even that is difficult since I often have to use both hands with her — one to hold her, and one to push the breast back from her nose so she can breathe while she is eating. Now, at four weeks, we’ve developed a sort of rhythm, so I will try to get down my thoughts as well as I can whenever I can — but I apologize if this entry is a little disjointed and lacks the natural flow of my usual writings. It has taken three weeks to complete, after all.

Kes’s Birth Story

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As I explained in my last entry, the thing I had the most anxiety about beforehand was the surgery itself. I was terrified about the c-section — scared that something would go wrong, frightened about major surgery in general, worried about making the wrong decision. Writing everything out in my last blog entry made me feel a lot better; the amazing amount of support and outpouring of love from everyone in the social media universe only added to that feeling of warmth and comfort. I was able to spend the next few days really preparing for the surgery — engaging in a lot of meditation the day before, getting plenty of rest and sleep, going easy on what I ate the day before. I also did a lot of research online about scheduled c-sections — what they generally entailed, and what I needed to be aware of from a psychological perspective. One of these readings suggested that when you have a scheduled c-section, one of the things you miss out on is the period of transition from pregnancy to parenthood, that this is essentially what labor is. It suggested you may want to take a little time to mark the passage — burn a candle, say a prayer, meditate. I had requested the Labor/Delivery/Recovery suite at the hospital, which we obviously only used for prep and recovery, but I’m glad I had such a big and peaceful room to prepare. I listened to the “Welcome Baby Kes!” playlist I had created on Spotify in the advent that I might actually go into labor, I set up a little hospital altar, and I meditated and breathed and spent time with my husband, with my daughter, with my mom, and with the pre-born baby. We were left alone for the majority of the hour before the surgery, and it was really nice to have that time to sit and contemplate this transition, to continue to calm myself, and to get as prepared as I possibly could for the upcoming event of birth.

In the meantime, Kes kicked and flailed and dodged close to and away from the heartbeat monitors, that crazy bundle of activity I’d been used to watching in my belly for the past several months.

When it finally came time for the surgery, my doctor quickly came in and checked on me, and they took Thomas to get outfitted in scrubs while they wheeled me into the operating room to do my spinal. The anesthesiologist was this really nice, sarcastic, playful lady who did have to poke and prod a bit to get everything correct with my spinal, but who was very sensitive to the fact that I was so very frightened. She asked me if I was prone to panic attacks and offered to get me something for my nerves; I told her I was, but I didn’t think it would come to that. She was so very good about telling me everything — she pinched my belly to see if I could feel pain in all these different areas, and the only place I could feel a little pain was right beneath my breastbone. She asked if I thought I needed more there, and explained that this was for when the doctor was preparing the uterus, that I would feel pain up there. I didn’t want any more pain medication than absolutely necessary, so I said it would be fine — and, true to her word, that was the only part of the process that hurt. My fear was having a bad reaction to the medication, that too much would make me loopy and out of it, and I wanted to be fully conscious and aware of the whole process. Plus, I had a weird sort of paranoia about making an area so close to my lungs so numb. She didn’t pressure me, and she explained that the trembling and shaking that was happening to me was perfectly normal, that it was part of the process. I explained that yeah, I guessed that from the first time around — I should have said, I wish that someone had told me that the first time around, that the massive amount of uncontrollable shaking was one of the things that frightened me so much when Aisling was born. With Kes, I knew and understood that it was part of the process, so it was annoying, and kind of funny to try to talk through, but not frightening at all. They gave me oxygen, but it was in one of those nose tubes and not in a mask, so I didn’t freak out about that, either.

They brought Thomas in then, and he grabbed my hand and didn’t let go until they let him hold Kes. He was my focal point. I told him how funny he looked, because all I could see of him was his eyes over the surgical mask and under the cap. To distract me from my fear, Thomas and I started making guesses about the baby — and the anesthesiologist got in on it, too. What the hair color would be, what the eye color would be. The anesthesiologist kept looking over the curtain and letting me know what was going on, almost giving me a play-by-play. She let me know when they were about to get started. She let me know when I would feel intense pressure. She let me know when they started pulling the baby out. And I could feel it. I couldn’t feel the pain of it at all, but I could feel the tug, the suction, the fact that there was something actively being pulled from my body. Thomas said it was funny to watch the anesthesiologist go from looking at us and giving us comforting words, to looking over the curtain and almost wincing. The doctor himself made an audible grunt of exertion, and he may have said something about the baby being huge — I’m not sure. I just had this picture in my head of the doctor pulling the baby out of my belly in a very cartoon-like manner, pushing against my stomach with his shoe — which I’m sure is not what it was like at all. As soon as they got her head out, I could feel the suction give way, I could feel the release from my body, and I could hear Kes’s strangled first cry — and it was such a tremendous experience. “Kes! My Kes!” I cried out, and started sobbing — tears streaming from my face, so relieved that she was here in the world, that she was calling out to me. Thomas said it was amazing to watch my face, that had been so twisted with anxiety just a moment before, and then to see the immediate joy and relief as soon as she took her first cry. The doctor brought her around right away for me to get a quick look at her — red and screaming, lip trembling, still covered in vernix and goo, and mad as hell — before they started doing the initial cleaning and bundling her up for Thomas to hold.

The nurse took her to the scale, and said, “Okay, so — bets on how much this baby weighs?”

“Eight pounds?” I guessed.
“Eight and a half?” offered Thomas.
“Keep going,” the nurse said.
“How much does she weigh?!” I asked.
“Nine pounds, Eight point six ounces,” the nurse announced.

“You have GOT to be kidding me!” I exclaimed. I then turned my head towards the ceiling, meaning to include everyone in the operating room in the conversation. “This was a GOOD PLAN. This was a GOOD PLAN.” Because I could not in a million years have imagined trying to give vaginal birth to an ALMOST TEN POUND BABY.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the operating room was convinced I was crazy at this point, however.

They bundled Kes up and stuck a hat on her head and gave her to Thomas, who cradled her in his arms and brought her down to my hand so that I could gently stroke her face with my trembling, strapped down fingers. This was the part where they started putting me all back together again, and I could definitely feel a lot of pain and pressure right beneath my breastbone from where he was repairing the uterus.

“This is what I was talking about earlier,” the anesthesiologist said, and I understood what she meant.

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“It’s okay,” I said. “I can handle it.”

The pain was unpleasant, but it wasn’t unbearable. I kept my ears open for anything going wrong, kept a watch on my own mood and level of consciousness, but everything seemed five by five. I listened to the nurses go through a series of counting items — as much as I can tell, they were counting all of the instruments they use during an operation, maybe to make sure that they hadn’t left anything inside me. Kes remained bundled up in her daddy’s arms, and I watched the two of them, grateful that I was awake, alert, and okay, and that I had such a beautiful memory to carry with me of Kes’s birth.

After the operation, they wheeled me into the recovery room, and I was able to set about trying to breastfeed — “trying to” being the operative word, here, since Kes was just not really interested in doing anything but snuggling up with us and drifting off to sleep. I guess she’d had a rough morning! While I was still shaking, I had enough control to be able to hold Kes, and Thomas went to bring A. into the room with us so that we could have a few minutes of bonding time as a new family. A. described Kes as being “a little bundle of adorableness” and told her to not ever change — completely the opposite of what I was expecting. Once we had a few minutes to hug and snuggle as a new family, we brought the rest of our extended family in — and everyone got to delight in our brand new baby. They did take her to the nursery for a while, but they brought her back very quickly, and Thomas and I spent the next three days trying to get Kes to breastfeed, trying to recover from surgery, and trying to get what little sleep we could.

It’s Completely Different This Time

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The birth story and surgery itself was not the only thing that was dramatically different from the first time I brought a creature into existence. The biggest difference was that I had a partner this time around — a co-pilot equally responsible for the parenting and care of this newborn. Don’t get me wrong — the first time around, I was definitely not lacking for support with the help of friends and family that really made all of that possible. Still, there’s something to be said about sharing those moments with the person who helped you create this creature, to look at the eyes and ears and toes together and discuss who contributed which feature to this tiny dandelion seed of your shared genetic codes. There’s something to be said about watching the man you love fall madly in love with a tiny bundle of baby, about watching him care for, comfort, help with feedings, change diapers, and slip into the role of “father” so easily and effortlessly, just like you always knew he would. After all, he’d already slipped so easily into the role of “stepfather” without even really trying. There’s a lot to be said in knowing that you share responsibility, that somebody else is just as invested in this child as you are. I think that’s been my favorite part, watching Thomas fall in love with Kes, and watching him revel and delight in everything about her.

The other major difference was being prepared and well-equipped for the arrival of wee baby Kes. We had everything planned, arranged, organized, and put together, from our financial status, to the nursery, to the items to bring to the hospital, to all of my items at work for my extended maternity leave. With the scheduled c-section, we even knew what day and time Kes would be arriving. I had a moment, in the hazy weeks when Kes was first home, when I was just overwhelmed by how hard we had both worked to make this happen, how badly we had wanted to bring her into the world, how much effort we put into each step along the way. It was so humbling to have wanted something so badly, to have worked so hard at it, and to finally reap the reward of all that hard work — which, of course, resulted in even more hard work, but that’s for the next section of this entry. There were still items that we didn’t know we really needed — we ended up investing in a co-sleeper bassinet, for example, which has been one of the best purchases we’ve made so far, and a relative donated a Boppy pillow to the cause (I have no idea how I managed to breastfeed my first child *without* one of these) — but it made me feel so much at ease to have everything prepared, together, and ready for her as soon as we walked in the door.

Finally, it was really different to move into the space of mothering and tending to a newborn this time around. With A., I was so young, and I really had no routine or life to speak of. I didn’t have any other responsibilities besides schoolwork, which I could do whenever, and I didn’t have anyone else I needed to tend to or care for. My entire life became centered around my newborn, and I had no problem doing so — I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything, or letting anything else go, because she really was the only important thing in my life. I pretty much let my first child give my life direction and meaning, which meant that slipping into that period of being at the baby’s beck and call was a lot easier. This time around, I have another daughter who does occasionally at least need my time and attention (even if, as a teenager, she likes to pretend otherwise) and I have a life-mate that I want to spend time with, that I miss cuddling up to, taking showers with, having long conversations and debates with. Not only that, but years of therapy have shown me that I have my own needs that I should not ignore. In short, I understand that my new daughter is not the absolute center of the universe. However, during the first few weeks of life, any newborn takes center stage and makes pretty incredible demands of their parents, so it has been a difficult balance which, thankfully, gets a little easier each day.

The Hardest Part

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When Thomas and I decided to have a baby, the thing I had the most anxiety about was labor and childbirth. In fact, I told Thomas that I would be facing my absolute biggest fear to bring a new life into the world, but that it was well worth it to face that fear. This time around, however, there was no labor, and childbirth was a lot easier and less frightening than I expected. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was for the recovery process to be so difficult.

I seriously have no memory of the recovery process after my first c-section. I remember being in the hospital, and I remember the process of coming home from the hospital — how much it hurt to walk down the sidewalk on the hill to the front door. After that, I have no clear memory of anything until A.’s umbilical stump fell off and I panicked and rushed her to the ER, which must have been a couple of weeks later. As such, I was completely unprepared for the continual pain, for the physical and psychological drain, and for the absolute emotional wreckage that would be the first two weeks postpartum. Everything felt absolutely impossible and utterly overwhelming, despite the fact I had the amazing ongoing assistance of a husband who got to spend two weeks in recovery with me, and despite the fact that I had family members coming by to manage laundry and chores while I catered to the constant demand of caring for a newborn. I can’t remember ever feeling so completely helpless and fragile in my entire life, and even now a week after the worst is finally over, I still have moments when I feel like my life has been hijacked, where I just have to cry because I don’t know if I’ll ever get more than two hours of continuous sleep at a time again, and I don’t know when I’ll have time to write on a regular basis or when leaving the house will become less of an ordeal. I don’t know if A. was just a much easier baby, or if I’ve lost my ability to roll with the punches in my old age, or if I’ve just blocked out how difficult that first month was in my memory, but it seems like things are a lot more difficult this time around, despite the fact I have so much help and support.

Still, things get a little easier each day. I’m beginning to feel a little more like myself again. In the few hours of the day that Kes is awake and alert, she’s become more playful and more likely to smile, and she is a very cuddly and snuggly baby, all of which help improve my mood. I’ve also found different ways to cope with feedings and lack of sleep, and I’m getting out of the house more (even if it’s just to take my teen daughter places) and beginning to exercise a little. As we come upon the one month milestone, I’m finally beginning to feel like I’m getting the hang of this, and it all feels a lot less impossible. Of course, you could ask me tomorrow, and I might feel completely different about things then — that’s just how quickly things change right now.

Why I Am Sharing

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Yes, part of this entry is simply having a narcissistic record of my personal reaction to childbirth and recovery. I recorded a detailed birth story of my oldest daughter’s birth, and I was amazed how valuable that became, how often I referenced it while preparing for childbirth this time around. But I had no record of the recovery process, and so the emotional tumult of those first few weeks really took me by surprise. I felt guilty that everything seemed so hard, that I wasn’t fully enjoying those moments, that where everyone else saw a beautiful, cooing newborn, I couldn’t help but see a squalling, demanding succubus that was trying to eat me alive — quite literally at times. I was sad that my life had changed so drastically, and overwhelmed that I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something wrong with me. None of the discomforts should matter, right? Why was I not floating on a white puffy cloud of absolute love for my newborn where all the pains and problems simply melted away? Did I not love this child enough? Had I made a terrible mistake in thinking I could do this again after all this time?

So I’m sharing this in case there are other new mothers out there who might be feeling the same way, who might be comforted in realizing they’re not alone. The “baby blues” is, in my opinion, a piss-poor and almost trivializing description of what can happen to a mother’s emotional state during this fragile period of time. Even if you’re not dealing with full-on postpartum depression, you can still feel completely hopeless and absolutely despondent at times. Don’t feel guilty. Reach out and talk to people. Find people you can trust, then vent and bitch your heart out. Open up to your partner and let them support you. It’s okay for you to feel how you feel. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a horrible mother. It just makes you human.

And the cooing, delighted, being-in-love-with-your-baby phase will come. First, you just have to be easier on yourself to allow that space to open up. For me, learning to breastfeed while lying in bed was the transition point. In that position, I could be completely relaxed. I could even doze off if I was too exhausted. Kes wouldn’t strangle as much from my letdown and she could relax, too. Most importantly, for night feedings, my husband could curl up beside me and I wouldn’t feel so alone and isolated. I felt much more in tune with my baby, and could spend the rest of the evening up and awake if I needed to be — I was a lot less frustrated in general. I’m sure that breakthrough moment is different for all moms, but the important thing is to know that it will happen — and if it takes a month or so to get there, you’re not alone. (That being said, if you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, you obviously want to seek help immediately.)

So, that’s the story of how we grew our crazy little family from three to four. That’s the story of how our lives were blessed and changed forever by the arrival of a Kes. That’s the story of how one mother’s heart had to open up slowly and painfully over several weeks, but finally found the room to fully bloom. And that’s a story of how no matter the preparation and forethought, you can still be blind-sighted by the unexpected.

Confession: I'll be having a c-section.

 Twenty years old, pregnant with my first daughter.

Twenty years old, pregnant with my first daughter.

Fifteen years ago, I was a young, single mother-to-be, walking around barefoot, wearing faerie wings, immortal and invincible in the way that only twenty-year-olds can be. Raised by Appalachians and hippies, I had a great deal of mistrust for doctors, drugs, and modern medicine, so I opted for prenatal care at a local birthing center, with the expectation of a textbook, drug-free delivery in a warm, cozy bedroom under the care of midwives and surrounded by people I loved. I enjoyed the empowerment and involvement in my own prenatal care, the fact that I was given so much information and so many options, the fact that I wouldn’t constantly be hooked up to a thousand machines, the fact that I would have complete freedom of movement throughout the process. And, for the most part, I had a textbook pregnancy. Other than low iron which was immediately corrected with supplements, I had no medical complications whatsoever. Sure, I was sick during the first trimester, and yes, I grew to a size where I could no longer reach the clutch on my manual transmission automobile, but these are not uncommon complaints, and I didn’t think I would have any issue delivering my firstborn daughter the way I wished and imagined.

My due date came and went. I would have regular, painful contractions, but I would make little-to-no progress. I drank raspberry tea. I drank blue cohosh tea. I drank Castor oil. I took evening primrose oil. The midwives attempted to ripen my cervix with prostaglandin. Some progress was made, but not enough. Finally, one morning about two weeks after my due date, my water broke (or, at least, I thought it did at the time. In hindsight I’m not sure that’s really what happened.) The contractions, however, were sporadic and irregular as ever, and at eight o’clock that evening, I’d only dilated a couple of centimeters. The midwives stripped my membranes and set me to walking the halls of the birthing center. Within an hour, I was having intense, painful contractions about two minutes apart, and I spent the next ten hours dilating up to five and finally ten centimeters, oscillating between pushing and then trying not to push because there was swelling, and in a general state of unbelievable pain, absolute panic, and total confusion. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what went wrong. The official reason for my transfer to the hospital was “failure to progress,” but that usually indicates a failure to dilate to 10 centimeters; despite the fact it took an eternity and a small army to get me to 10 centimeters, I was, in fact, able to get to that point, so I’m not sure what else could have complicated the delivery. The hospital gave me an epidural and encouraged me to push for several more hours to no avail. My firstborn daughter was finally delivered into the world with no complications via cesarean section. When they pulled her out, the doctor exclaimed that I’d been trying to give birth to something as big as me.

My daughter was 8 lbs., 4.6 oz. when she was born. And I was only 4’10”.

Flash forward fifteen years. Now, I’m a married mother-to-be of “advanced maternal age” with a Master’s degree, working full-time for a large and stable corporation, living in the suburbs of all places. While I haven’t completely shed my mistrust of the mainstream medical community, modern medicine is what makes it possible for both my daughter and myself to be alive right now — it’s what makes it possible for my husband, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was thirteen, to be alive every single day. Modern medicine diagnosed my daughter with autism; created developmental interventions for her speech, occupational therapy, and social skills; and helped her find a way to communicate and integrate with the larger world around her. Because I previously had a c-section, my options for prenatal care were somewhat limited — I could not, at least, return to the birthing center to try a natural VBAC delivery, so I had to pick a different avenue. I went with the hospital where my oldest daughter was born, and I started seeing doctors and discussing recommendations. All of the doctors I worked with were very willing to cooperate with me on attempting a VBAC — as long as I was willing to keep an open mind to their suggestions and concerns as the pregnancy progressed. Once again, I had a fairly textbook pregnancy — no major issues, no health problems, very active healthy baby. It’s been fascinating to me just how “hands off” the doctors are with the prenatal visits. No ultrasounds have been ordered since the standard anatomy ultrasound at 20 weeks — my primary doctor won’t even offer a guess to the baby’s weight since he says it’s impossible to be accurate about such things. I’m healthy, the baby’s healthy, and the past two months have just been basic urine/blood pressure/fetal heartbeat checkups that take about 10 minutes at a time. He did start laughing at me whenever I would lay down on the exam table at about week 36 just because the baby takes up such a crazy amount of room in comparison to my tiny frame.

When I was researching delivery options, I’d decided that, while I really wanted to try a VBAC delivery, I also did not think it was a good idea to go over my due date, so I thought I would give myself up until that point to deliver vaginally, and if it didn’t happen, I’d just go ahead with a c-section. When I explained this to my doctor, he agreed, and suggested that I go ahead and schedule my c-section a month in advance to make sure I had a good time slot, and that he’d be able to perform the surgery.

The thing is, I’ve been embarrassed to confess publicly that I have a c-section scheduled this upcoming Friday.

I’ve been embarrassed for many different reasons. First of all, I’m embarrassed that my body, once again, seems incapable of progressing forward. I joke and say that my womb must have amazing furnishings and killer wi-fi for my progeny to want to stay there forever, but that’s a joke that masks a lot of insecurities. When I first saw the Vagina Monologues, I remember thinking that if my vagina could talk, it would say it felt like a failure since it wasn’t able to deliver a baby. Even though I recognize how ridiculous of a concept that is, I can’t help but still feel that way. I should have tried harder. I should have done more yoga. I should have been more active. I should have been drinking raspberry tea all day every day for all nine months of my pregnancy. I’m also embarrassed because there’s a real stigma about c-sections in our culture today. If you get a c-section, there’s often an assumption that not all avenues and options were fully explored. The doctors obviously coerced you into getting a c-section because it’s more expensive. A successful VBAC is better for the mother, better for the baby. Many of these beliefs are often true, which makes me feel even more guilty about my decision. The other thing I often hear is that mothers don’t create babies that are too large for them to deliver vaginally. I have no idea if this is true or not, but doctors often cite my small size as a possible cause for my failure to progress. That being said, I know that there are women who are smaller than me who have had successful vaginal deliveries of babies larger than my own. Again, I feel depressed and irresponsible. According to the rhetoric, this should be something I can control. I’ve obviously not put the work into it. I’ve not done the research. I’ve not done everything within my means and my power to do what’s best for my baby. So, I’ve hemmed and hawed and hoped beyond hope that I would go into labor before my due date, that I’d be able to have a successful vaginal delivery, that I would be able to proudly share the news with the world that, finally, I did it. Achievement unlocked. Bought the t-shirt.

However, it’s now two days before my scheduled c-section, and I have to set aside this embarrassment once and for all. Despite the intermittent painful contractions, it doesn’t look like anything is going to progress into actual labor. I have to stop beating myself up over this decision, and be willing to move forward and completely accept it. I also need to be able to talk about it publicly, because it’s possibly one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever agreed to do in my entire life, and I really need support from people I care about right now.

 Thirty-five years old, pregnant with my second daughter.

Thirty-five years old, pregnant with my second daughter.

My first c-section was an incredibly traumatic experience for me. This was partially due to the fact that labor itself had been so incredibly traumatic, and that I was not at all prepared for what was going to happen on the operating table — the possibility of a c-section had not even crossed my immortal and invincible twenty-year-old mind. However, I also have a deep reptilian fear of medical procedures. Donating blood is a huge act of courage for me. The nurses had to give me anxiety medication to stave off panic attacks when I went in to have my gallbladder removed. Simple blood tests make me sweaty and nauseous. This time, I know what to expect — I’ve even seen the movie of the procedure from the other side of the curtain — and I know that it absolutely scares me to death. What happens if something goes wrong? My last c-section went very well, all things considered, but there were still minor complications. What happens if I hemorrhage? What happens if my blood pressure plummets? Those things happened before, and I obviously survived, but they were terrifying to go through, and I’m scared of the same problems happening again. Logically, I understand that if I’m in a hospital surrounded by intelligent and capable physicians, even if something goes wrong, they should be able to fix the situation, to fix me — but the fear is still there. What if? And even if everything does go according to plan, there’s still the feeling of pressure, the overwhelming smell of blood, the fact that I won’t be able to hold my baby right away, the extra complication of breastfeeding right after major invasive surgery, the pain involved in recovery.

I try to stay focused on what’s really important. I’m healthy. This baby is healthy. I have an amazing, supportive network of family and friends that will be there for both of us. I have an incredible husband that I get to share this experience with, and he’ll be right there in the operating room beside me, holding Kes as soon as she comes into the world. Whatever the trappings, whatever the procedures, whatever the methods for making that possible, that’s really what’s important, and that’s what makes it all worth it. Still, fear can be a very paralyzing force, and it’s so hard to be brave when there’s something just ahead of you that scares you that much.

On Thursday, I am taking the day off of work, and my plan is to spend the entire day in meditation — utilizing all of the mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques I’ve learned in my various classes, and letting myself sit with my fear and try to let it go. Friday morning, at 6am, I will be at the hospital with my husband, going through the intake and preparation process for our 8am c-section. I will be in good hands, and I will be surrounded by love, but I can use all of the thoughts, prayers, well-wishes, and good mojo I can get. If you get a chance or think about it, please send some my way. And afterwards, we can all celebrate Kes Litha Alley’s beautiful arrival, just in time for the summer solstice.

The Song of the Brier.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Appalachia lately, probably more than I have since I graduated ETSU with my minor in Appalachian Studies over a decade ago now, probably more than I have since I left my mountain hollers of Greene County for the “big city” of Knoxville, Tennessee. I follow a Facebook group called Appalachian Americans, and a few individuals have been posting a lot of pictures to the group lately — everything from historical photos from all around the area, to snapshots of restored log cabins and antique wood stoves heating a cast iron skillet full of beans. These photographs made me remember things, made me think about home, inspired me to pick up a collection of poetry from my bookshelf by Jim Wayne Miller called The Brier Poems. From an introductory note on the term brier: “North of the Ohio River, migrants from the southern Appalachians are known as Briers. Any of several prickly plants, the Brier is in another sense the quintessential Appalachian.” The book essentially focuses on the diaspora associated with the Appalachian who leaves the mountains — how the mountains never really leave you, and yet, when you come back, how you can never really come home again.

I’ve been thinking about Appalachia because it’s been in the news. With the chemical leak in West Virginia’s water supply, I’ve watched my own emotional reaction with a great deal of curiosity. I generally try to gather as much information as I can about newsworthy items before commenting on them or forming a vocal opinion. As I’ve grown older, I’ve resisted engaging in conversations about issues that I feel I know very little about. This issue, however, reawakened dormant angry Appalachian reactions from deep in my soul — angry about the coal industry’s continuing exploitation of the land and the people in the region, angry about the complete lack of emphasis on the issue in the news and mainstream media. Who cares about a bunch of poor mountain folk, after all? Understanding that these reactions are not the most logical and well-thought out responses, I’ve tried to maintain a certain degree of radio silence on social media about the issue, but I would keep up, read articles, watch videos, and listen to that nagging voice in the back of my head saying, just the way it always is.

I’ve been thinking about Appalachia because I’ve been watching a lot of Justified episodes with my husband, who absolutely loves the show and has been trying to get me to add the television series to my queue for ages now. I’m enjoying the show overall. I can’t say from a literary or critical standpoint that it’s the best piece of television out there, but the acting is good, there are some decently strong female characters in the show, and it deals with issues of gender, race, and class in such a manner that really illustrate the shades of gray inherent in everyday life. The most striking thing for me, however, is the rather harrowing picture the show paints of life in Appalachia — or, at least, specifically, economically-depressed towns in the region. We’d been watching season 2, and had just finished the episode “The Spoil” which deals with the subject of mountaintop removal and the relationship of Appalachian people and the coal companies. In that episode, Mags Bennett — a local crime matriarch — delivers the following speech at a town meeting:

“Well, my people pioneered this valley when George Washington was President of the United States, and as long as we’ve been here, the story’s always been the same. Big money men come in, take the timber, and the coal, and the strength of our people. And what do they leave behind? Poundments full of poison slurry and valleys full of toxic trash. You know what happens when 500 million gallons of slurry breaks loose? The gate of hell open… and all that waste rolls down through the hollers, and poisons the water, and the land, and everything it touches. Mining company has a word for those leavings, dunnit? The Spoil. … To an outsider it’s probably hard to understand why we’re all not just lining up and saying ‘where do we sign’? But we got our own kind of food, our own music, our own liquor, we got our own way of courting, and raising children, and our own way of living and dying.”

After watching this episode, I turned to my husband and said, “I have a complicated relationship with this show. I really feel like they’re presenting an accurate depiction of Appalachia, but I wish it wasn’t always such a negative depiction.” I think, specifically, I was reacting to the fact that the people I most identified with in the show were murderers and drug dealers and all sorts of unsavory folk who, at the end of the day, were just trying to make ends meet, take care of their own kinfolk, and hold on to their traditions against all the odds and setbacks of modern life. But I thought about my own experience growing up in Appalachia — I knew many people who were either directly or loosely connected to similar happenings in my own county. I thought of my own family history — stories of pimps, prostitutes, and moonshine when times were hard, stories of distant relatives in gunfights and brawls in bars. In truth, I’m not far removed from that sort of history, myself.

And I thought of my own novel about Appalachia, the novel I finished last year during NaNoWriMo, the one I’ve currently sent to a couple of friends to review for editing purposes. These same themes are pervasive in that novel — the absolute destitution of poverty, the hopelessness of a family trapped by addiction, the vital importance of controlling one’s own land and stake in the world. It makes a certain amount of sense — the novel itself is a modern retelling of an Appalachian Jack tale. It’s just amazing how often I tend to romanticize the mountains, how easy it is to long for home, for simple times, and how easy it is to forget the darker shadows of those beautiful hollers.

“He had to admit it: he
didn’t live here any longer. He was
settled in a suburb, north of himself.”
~ Jim Wayne Miller, “Down Home”

That’s the story of us briers, though. We leave the mountains, because what can we do? There are no jobs in those small mountain towns. When I left Greene County over a decade ago, my grandmother was selling the family farm — the 15+ acres of foothills that I spent my childhood exploring, where I had brought my own daughter to spend her first few years of life. I had my Bachelor’s, but there were no jobs to be had that would help me support my family. There were other reasons too, certainly, but those are the same ones that many briers face — we want to stay, but we know we can’t, and we grudgingly head to flatter land, to bigger cities, to try to seek our fortunes. We struggle to wear the right clothes, to style our hair the right way, to talk good. We always feel a little out of step — our priorities seem a lot different from many of the others around us. Because of that, it’s easy for us briers to get homesick, to hold fast to fond memories of our childhood, to take a deep breath of mountain air any time we hit an elevation over 15,000 feet.

We briers return home often, hoping to feel at ease, to fall back into step, for nothing to have changed. And, often, very little has — at least in the landscape and the daily lives of the small, sleepy towns we escaped from. But we’ve changed. We have to live with that.

“Some left for college, some could only dream
Hanging around town, still wearing their high school rings
I avoid their faces when I come to town
Man, I still don’t know which one of us
has let the other down.”
~ Pierce Pettis, “Little River Canyon”

Still, that doesn’t keep us from speeding down the winding country roads with our windows rolled down, taking in a deep whiff of the dogwood and redbud and cow dung scent, and singing at the top of our lungs as forests, farmhouses, dilapidated trailers, and fields of corn flank us on both sides.

Skin has a memory.

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There’s this little squirmy hitchhiker who has been sharing my body for the past sixteen weeks. They say it’s not much larger than an avocado, nestled in this large, round home that keeps stretching, expanding — showing so much more quickly on this, my second pregnancy. I’ve already traded in for maternity clothes. We’ve only been together four months, but this little creature has wasted no time getting comfortable, getting settled, moving all its stuff in, kicking against my cesarean scar as if it owned the place.

Considering it wasn’t until after Thomas had already moved his bed into my old tiny house that I realized we must be living together, I guess this little critter takes after its father.

It strikes me, as I watch my belly expand beneath the network of stretch marks that spiderweb the length of my body, that skin has a memory. It did all of this, fifteen years ago. It created cushions from my breasts, from my stomach to cradle my daughter, the first tenant of my uterus. It’s been over a decade, now, but it’s simply picking up where it left off, using the same old blueprints to make the necessary renovations.  It’s even stretching along the same fissures, to make sure there’s enough room, to make enough space for this tiny stranger.

What other memories do we carry in our bodies? What other stories does the skin whisper, does the bone keep secret?

Keep Hoping Machine Running.

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I rang in 2013 drinking beer and snuggling on the living room couch with my partner in domestic criminology. It wasn’t the most spectacular beginning to a new year ever, but it was a desperately needed respite from the bustle of what had been my busy life. The next morning, I loaded up on the usual New Year’s Luck with black eyed peas and hog jowl at the in-laws’, and then proceeded to begin a year full of snow days, good food, amazing friends, wonderful family, hard work, and lots of whimsy. 

Some of the highlights of my year involved seeing The Secret Commonwealth in concert for the first time in 15 years, the birth of my beautiful niece Gabriella, watching my daughter become interested in the art of performance and theater, spending a weekend hiking and playing in the Appalachian mountains with some amazing people, spending a Girls’ Night Out in Asheville with my mother, spending my wedding anniversary weekend back at the honeymoon cabin with my husband, celebrating the weddings of several beautiful couples, celebrating my goddaughter’s first birthday, visiting San Antonio for the first time, conducting various fitness & meal experiences with Stacy, attempting to understand baseball in Cincinnati with the help of my coworkers, exploring the crazy secret art of the scruffy little city I live in, getting to see Neil Gaiman speak about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, relaxing and basking in the Perdido Key sun with my family for a week, creating an elaborate Minecraft birthday bash for my daughter, lots of yoga, lots of Zumba, taking A. to her first Renaissance Faire, celebrating the imminent arrival of a new baby Alley, celebrating the any-day-now arrival of a brand-new cousin in the Pacific Northwest, and rejoicing in the end of year holiday season with friends, family, and loved ones.

I began 2013 with three simple over-arching goals: run another half-marathon, try for a baby, and continue my commitment to a balanced life. As per usual, I completely forgot about the three resolutions. I definitely failed to run a half-marathon, deciding that the training was too taxing on my body and that I should stick to 5Ks instead. However, I was successful in the baby-trying, and I feel I was extremely successful in finally finding balance in my life. It’s funny, because I wasn’t even really focused on balance as I have been in the past. Still, it feels like that happened anyway. Maybe that’s the key to finding balance — stop trying so hard and the balance starts happening. One of my mantras of the year was “Eat Dessert First,” and I think I did a good job of keeping that attitude as I navigated the year.

I think if there was a word that would sum up 2013 for me, it would be: “celebrate.” I managed to successfully turn a rather stress-filled, ultra-busy lifestyle into something more manageable, something more sustainable, and something more fun. Furthermore, I didn’t have to make any major life changes to do it. I just had to wake up each morning and be present for the day, for the tasks at hand, and for the people who surrounded me. It sounds simple, but it’s actually a lot more difficult than you may think. Still, I feel like I was able to shed a LOT of the stress I’d been carrying around for years to find a place of peace in my little corner of life.

So, what about 2014? I recently ran across Woody Guthrie’s list of New Year’s Resolutions from 1942 on Facebook, and I found it very inspiring (you can see an excerpt at the top of this post.) 2014 is already going to be an eventful year, as I will see one child begin high school and bring another child into the world. I think it will be good for me to make a list of reminders like this to help keep myself focused when life inevitably becomes chaotic. So, these are not so much resolutions, I suppose, as they are New Year Reminders:

  1. Be Mindful

  2. Keep Loving Yourself

  3. Write Like Your Life Depends On It

  4. Get Lost In Books

  5. Spend Time Just Being With Family And Friends

  6. Keep In Touch

  7. Keep Up With Budgets

  8. Sleep As Much As You Can

  9. Practice And Pray

  10. Keep Hoping Machine Running

The last one I shamelessly lifted from Woody Guthrie. I can’t say exactly what he meant when he wrote it in his notebook, but I like the sound of it, and to me, it means allowing yourself to keep dreaming, to keep creating, and to do the maintenance you need to do on yourself in order to let that happen. One very simple way I plan to do that is to start maintaining a website again, because let’s face it — it’s a lot more fun to tell stories if you have an audience who wants to listen to them.

So, here’s to another year. Let’s continue to celebrate, to do the hard work of living, and to share these experiences with each other. It’s how we keep the hoping machine running.