a rocks and minerals party

We were making a pavlova—that wonderfully messy dessert that looks like a dried cloud on your baking pan, fingertip crunchy on the outside, soft and marshmallowy on the inside. The pavlova was for friends who were coming for dinner that night, but as we made it—whipped the eggs whites in the thundering mixer for minutes on end—thoughts turned to cake in general, and then desserts on the whole, and we began to discuss the type of birthday party for which a pavlova would be the perfect cake. It looks likes a cloud…a rock…a mineral. And there we had it, our theme for the collective birthday party for the two older girls that summer.

The rocks and minerals theme went exactly as far as thus:

+ jello made with chilled hibiscus tea that shimmered with gemmy iridescence. We pompled this with rock candy bits that looked amazing; and promptly melted into puddles once outdoors. The kids didn’t notice but I wouldn’t recommended the additional step of pompling to you. I would recommend the tea jello—I added some sugar to the chilled tea, the kids loved the color and I could use what I had in my pantry tea cupboard.

+ favor bags: one golden rock candy swizzle stick, one geode for cracking open at home, and a little bag of purple rock candies.

+ a table strewn with our collection of rocks, and a rocks and minerals handbook, plus crayons and paper for those less inclined to fling themselves into ruckus group games, one of which seemed to be cheerfully shouting hello? hello! at each other for ten minutes.

The rest was very simple–play as you wish, run around outside, let the moms gather on a picnic blanket to chat in that sleepy afternoon way that they do, let the babies trip in the grass, let the older brothers look bored, munch on handfuls of white cheddar popcorn, spill pink lemonade, sing, sing twice because the three-year-old was on the couch with a fever and felt terribly left out.

Eat pavlova colored with sedimentary lines of food coloring and sharp pink raspberry sorbet, open presents. Go home. 

Do you open presents at your birthday parties? When we were in Boston it had largely fallen out of favor. The gifts were typically huddled in the corner to be opened after the party, almost as if we were collectively embarrassed by their grandness. But I remember loving that part of parties as a kid. I loved seeing the different things my friends would receive. It was like wandering the aisles of the most personalized shop I could imagine. And I couldn’t wait till they opened my present and I could bask in the joy of believing I had given the perfect gift.

So, we do it now. The kids gathered into such a tight cluster, I could barely see what was happening, but I could see the smiles of pride on the giver’s faces as theirs was unveiled because they would look up and around for a moment, as if to catch the spotlight they were sure was searching for them.

My favorite pavlova recipe, from Repertoire by Jessica Battilana. Making a pavlova makes one feel like a magician master of substance and sugar.

For the meringue:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the meringue: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer). Mix on medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks, then add 3 tablespoons of cold water and continue beating until the whites again hold soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and add the sugar and cornstarch mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. When all the sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more.

Add the lemon juice and vanilla, increase the speed to high, and continue to beat the egg whites until they hold stiff, glossy peaks, 5 minutes more. Transfer the meringue to the prepared baking sheet and, using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, gently spread into a circle about 8 inches wide, slightly higher on the sides and with a slight depression in the center.

Bake the meringue until pale golden, about 45 minutes. The meringue will have a crust on the exterior but still be soft inside. Turn the oven off, crack the oven door slightly (stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it propped open) and let the meringue sit in the oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Once cool, run a spatula under the meringue to free it from the silicon baking mat or parchment and transfer to a large plate. The meringue is best made the same day you plan to eat it. If you prefer, you can make individual meringues; prepare two baking sheets, then spoon four equal-size mounds of meringue onto each of the baking sheets, for a total of 8 meringues. The baking time is the same.

I added a tiny bit of food coloring (the gel kind) to the mixer at the end, then swirled in more food coloring with a toothpick once the meringue was on the pan, just before baking. The cake pictured above was the recipe made three times. I portioned all the ingredients ahead of time and mixed and baked the layers one after another. It fed twelve kids and six adults.

 

to market to market

On a sultry afternoon we arrived with homemade peppermint patties and chilled oreos sprinkled with rose petals and pistachios, an irritable three-year-old, a serene newborn, five hand-sewn felt purses, six hand-drawn cards, and two kids full of optimism. The cookies had to be kept cold. The baby had to stay in the shade. The three-year-old had to be kept away from the money box. It was a moment of balance.

I want, very much, to support my children’s entrepreneurial interests. I want to meet their requests to sell crafts / setup stands / make money all their own with a frank, open gaze that says “I hear you. What an interesting idea you’ve got there.” Kids can learn marketing, money management, product development, and the rich toolbox of manners like eye contact, smiles, and hellos all from a little small business exposure.

I also want to convey ideas like cost of materials, time spent, energy allotment, mom’s general sanity. If I say yes to this idea for our family, I’ll inevitably be saying no to other things along the way. Since we’re new in this town, Joe and I have taken the startup idea of “fail fast” to heart. Try new things quickly and find your favorites like an old local. So last fall when the seven-year-old told me she wanted to have a stand at the market selling art, I said hmmm maybe. This spring I looked up the market manager’s email and emailed her to ask about kid stands. Was that even allowed?

The market manager emailed me back to say they had one day per month when kids were welcome to setup stands and sell whatever they liked. Perfect! I could channel the energy but not sign our whole summer away.

After visiting the market a few times the girls settled on something they thought was deeply underrepresented: cookies. Plus they wanted to sell hand-drawn nature cards, and copies of a simple felt purse they had themselves and loved. We ordered supplies and wrote down costs. I emailed a friend to borrow a table and tent. Joe helped the girls repurpose a box into a sign. We dusted off the picnic blanket and chose some props. One child and I slathered our way through an “easy” peppermint patty recipe from Genius Desserts and portioned them into paper bags. The other child generously peppered rose petals, pistachios, crushed candy canes, and gold sprinkles on Newman’s Os.

Had we had managed to make ten purses, we would have sold ten. But this was their market, not mine, and so we had five, and sold out in the first hour. One girl’s cookies sold faster than her crafts, the other had the opposite dilemma. Across from us a lemonade stand hammered together with a chalkboard listed a special deal if you bought both a cookie and a lemonade. Small tables lined the corners of the sidewalk, kids sitting on blankets demurely hawking rhubarb pie slices and ball jars hand-plastered with marbles.

^^ That’s the only photo I got with the purses, they sold so quickly / I was very busy sitting in the shade acting nondescript. Next time!

Here’s the funny thing about these things: as an adult I focus on product (cost) and result (money). A good idea? You’ll make millions. Spend a bunch of time and barely covered your costs? Must be a bad idea!

But the girls focused on the people they talked to, the way the market felt, how were they were perceived by the adult customers, how proud they were that they never had to ask for help making change, and didn’t defer to us to answer their questions.

The money they made (after paying us back for costs) was quickly spent at neighboring stands. A woman down the way sells polished stones looped onto soft cords. The girls had been eyeing those for weeks.

So it was totally worth it. But I’m glad it’s only once a month.

Oatmeal confetti

Once upon a time it really bothered me to see all the milk and floaty-melty cereal bits going wasted in my kitchen every morning. I didn’t like buying the cereal boxes, which seemed expensive, and the cereal seemed to fill the girls up for about fifteen minutes before they were hungry again. I wanted them to love oatmeal like I did but they were always complaining that I had mixed theirs wrong, made it too hot, let it get too cold. Goldilocks was feeling less like a fairy tale and more like a fable of my life. Maybe I should have tried suggesting walks in the woods while our porridge cooled. Maybe I could have tried calling it porridge.

Flinging caution to the wind, I stopped controlling their bowls. I put out frozen berries, chia seeds, a jar of brown sugar with a spoon, and heavy cream, and let them portion everything. The girls spent the first week heaping their bowls with syrup-level brown sugar. No commentary from me. The next week things seemed to balance out. Now they each make their own delicious bowl and, generally, eat the whole thing.

I also discovered if I used a big glass bowl I could mix two cups of oatmeal with a little over two cups of water and microwave it for four minutes to make the perfect batch amount every time.

When we go by the cereal seduction aisle we have a little routine where they examine the cartoon characters parading past and I say something distracted like, “maybe when we go on vacation.” Take into account the frozen berry mixes and I don’t think this method is saving us any money after all. But I do think it’s a better breakfast.

Once you are undeniably in charge of your own things like bills and phones and the ability to drive, you can take on out-of-control things like placidly overfilling your bowl with odd textures. With that in mind, here are two adult variations that I love to make for myself:

homemade granola, frozen berry mix, marching line of chia seed (the funny thing is I don’t like chia seed in smoothies but I love it as a sprinkle), heavy cream.

heavy cream to the side, sliced banana, coconut sugar (such a crispy flavor), chia seed.

 

 

the June garden

I just ate a lunch of cold chicken and pickles, dollop of dijon. All prepared one-handed because the baby wanted to sit with me. Cold, perfectly bitter coffee to my left, some leftover chocolate torte that I didn’t make correctly–the crust was like butter gravel–but no one noticed. There are at least five glasses of water strewn across the table.

Feels like it’s time for a June garden update.

Maybe the girls will remember the first summer their parents gardened. When their mother invited them individually to see orange cherry tomatoes, as if one tomato every three days was enough to satisfy any appetite. When their dad marked the distance before planting the strawberry seedlings we got from the local parks commission. When the wild grass grew up so quickly around everything we planted that you had to tramp it down just to check on the plants.

When only two of the carrot seedlings came up, and none of the cucumbers.

I reseeded both for a second try; hoping for a very mild early October around here. I’m such a novice that I often read the back of the seed packets three or four times before planting, carrying a ruler with me to get the spacing right. I have two gardening manuals, one Vermont specific and one hardcover from my Maine gardening guru, Barbara Damrosch. I over-research the simplest things, it is my way.

I visit the hall of wonders at the farmer’s market. I cannot believe what they have. We have a single carrot sprout the size of a blade of grass and they are selling bundles of carrots for $3. “They’re probably using row covers,” my friend says. STILL.

-This is AMAZING, I say to one of the vendors.

-I think so, he says, pleased.

The peas haven’t given a single hint that there will ever be actual peas to eat, but the plants themselves are adorable gangly teenagers that Joe and I check on every morning. We find them entangled with each other and any wayward grasses that crossed their path, eager tendrils wrapped around each other’s necks. “Fair Romeo,” one whispers.

One variety that I picked out of the catalog for its garnishing ability has frizzly spastic threads, as if they brushed themselves with an electric hairbrush.

My favorite time to go out is in the evenings after bedtime. Bedtime is a light term here, meaning children have been tucked into their beds, but are likely to chatter and pull books off their shelves for the next two hours. In the morning when I wake them it looks like it rained books overnight; books drip gently off the edge of the beds and pool together on the floor.

The baby isn’t really into daytime naps, so when she goes down for the night a light, loving load lifts off my shoulders. I love to sneak out and pull weeds for fifteen minutes of actual productivity; frowning at what I think might be onion strands emerging at last.

Now I know why people fall for zucchini! It’s so cheerful and easy to grow. Their leaves crisp softly between your fingers like toast. I planted it for its blossoms but the seedlings have come up so beautifully I’ll probably end up with zucchini bounty, just like the rest of them.

The three-year-old styles herself like a member of a local ladies pie society. She and I both love the peppery nasturtium blossoms we planted near a stone wall. It feels wild plucking the blossoms off the plant and munching the soft, brilliantly orange petals between your lips; like a horse eating clover.

The milkweed in the field is about to blossom and I’m so excited to see how the butterflies like it. They’ve been making do with the wilted lilac and the cheery but tiny purple catmint flowers (pictured here). I can feel my excitement for their satisfaction in the new nectar, that’s how much I’m looking forward to it.

common milkweed

We planted a little strawberry patch that will give fruit next year, but all the wild strawberries we’ve since found in the fields have made it feel a little silly. They are scattered everywhere; I love hunting for them. A few patches have reddish ants that have claimed ownership of them. These ants greet you with a numbing-sting bite if you touch their strawberries.

But they haven’t found all the patches.

And there is a snake who loves to soak up sun on the path to the peach trees I bought on clearance at Home Depot last Fall. The peaches, though they were likely raised down south, have set out fruit after their first Vermont winter.

 

ann patchett’s book club

Eight months in, I’m so glad I joined Ann Patchett’s book club. The Signed First Edition Club ships a book to you each month, signed by the author. It arrives in a small cotton bag with a note from the book buyer about why she loved it. Sometimes it has a note from Ann instead, like April’s amazing galactic-friendship fiction, Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger.

I once read a remark along the lines of: If you want people to buy your book, you better be buying their book. As in, if you believe in books, buy books.

And after thinking about it for a while I decided I could commit to buying a new book each month. It is a bigger commitment than one would think. Somewhere in the frame of $30 a month puts it just under our daily coffee bill (we also prefer to get beans by mail subscription. Ah, the country life.).

It’s run out of the bookstore Ann owns in Nashville. Each month the new book shows up in my post office box. Our town gives us this post office box for free because the Postal Service doesn’t come up our road. Initially, I resented this NEGLECT on the Post’s part, but soon I realized it was an enormous advantage, to not have to see your mail every day. Or only seeing it when you wanted to: as an occasion. It doesn’t make the bills less bill-y but at least it makes a stack of them to be looked through with some formality and attention. Ah the mail, I say to myself looking through them with magnanimous cheer. The magazines pile up too. And the notes. All in all, the haul is often satisfying.

Or it could be just the click of the tiny door, the dark key that the girls’ take turns using, and the chatting of pleasantries with the postmistress that feels nice.

Ann has a funny story on the store’s blog about getting the book club going. She used her power as a famous author-interviewer to get Tom Hanks to sign his books for the First Edition Club’s subscribers. She asked for signed J.K. Rowling copies for her members in lieu of getting paid an interview honorarium. I was very impressed by these stories. I can imagine Tom gently sighing as he signed the 600 copies she requested. Circle of publishing celebrity life, he perhaps muttered.

A few other perks: the idea of reading the book very first thing, a book you will likely end up reading eventually so you can participate with the reviews and accolades that pop up later. Maybe you’ll even notice in advance when the author comes to your town on their book tour. And you have supreme gracious lending rights: you can let a friend borrow it and almost guarantee they haven’t read the book yet.

Parnassus Signed First Edition Club

 

Spring

Hi! May I begin with a photo from yesterday morning: coffee and the startling snow? I messaged a friend, worried about her flowers, and she responded, they are shocked, as am I, but we’ll pull through. I loved that. Today the snow was gone and everything was greener for it.

I admit I’m having trouble getting back into the swing–the wooden tree swing–of writing here. The time constriction of life right now is very good for productivity in general, my official to-do list gets done because I only have about 60 minutes every day to do it. But other things that take and generate creative energy have been replaced by holding Esme and gazing at the ceiling, or holding Esme and reading a book, a Barbie Early Reader no doubt, that I really wish Alma hadn’t managed to slip into the library bag. And so on.

I’ve been thinking about this interview with the enchanting Katherine Paterson, author of many books including Bridge to Terabithia. Sometimes with reading to kids, I’m so eager for them to meet books that I fear pull them out too soon. Is there a ‘too soon’ though? What if you meet a character at age seven, and revisit her again at 12? Anyway, on that topic I was I intrigued to hear her say…

I do get worried when I hear parents bragging about their kid is so smart and reads so well that she’s reading Bridge to Terabithia when she’s 6 years old or 7 years old and I think, ‘No, no, no. You need happily ever after when you’re that age. You don’t need Bridge to Terabithia. There’s an emotional readiness as well as an intellectual readiness and you need to make sure that your kid is ready emotionally for the death of another child.

To be honest, the idea of “happily ever after” and children is becoming more and more foreign in today’s culture. We seem to be in a hurry to introduce every social challenge, every world socio-political issue as soon as possible, even as our children are raised with fewer personal responsibilities or chores and with less independence than what would have been allowed in previous generations. Thoughts on this? It’s something I think about a lot.

Another gem from KP on discussing books with kids: “If you know the answer to a question, then it’s not a question.” I love how that affirms talking over books with your children after they age into reading titles that you haven’t, and likely will never, read. The whole thing is worth a listen, I enjoyed it.

till next time xo

from the kitchen cabinet

I’m not sure what it is but lately, I find photography of childhood compulsive. There are several photographers and blogs that I follow only for their incredible ability to capture the exquisitely, painfully, fleeting moments of growing up. Most of them are women. Most of them are mothers. In the same way that a cup of coffee with a friend amid the chaos of your children running each other over with scooters around the kitchen table, these images seem to put their arms around me and say “me too. I see it too.”

One of these photographers is Ashleigh Coleman: three babies, two cats, and a husband in rural Mississippi. I feel lucky to share these photographs from Ashleigh as well as an insight into her feelings as a mother behind the lens. Her talent reminds me of the art-science demand of architecture: the skill to manage light and dynamic, the patience to let the story arrive, and the craft to invite grace into the moment.

I have many favorites among these images, captured on a medium format Hasselblad camera, I’m sure you’ll find yours as well. 

From Ashleigh: For whatever reason, I internalized a model of ideal womanhood as one blissfully fulfilled by responsibilities as a mother. She bakes cookies. Decorates winsomely for all holidays. Plans elaborate homemade birthday parties. Spends hours playing games.

So what if I thought that was the type of woman I would be? Only to discover I am not.

The reality is that everyday mishaps feel shocking. Noise threatens to unglue. Baking rarely occurs. I am terrified of being used up, of losing myself, of not having coherent adult thoughts on world issues, whatever that even means.

Yet. Yet. These are my people. Here. In front of me. Now.

In this short—so older people tell me—intense season of life, one thing I ponder is how easy it is to view children as a herd—hooves always tromping, voices articulating, bodies gesticulating. Mercifully, meditatively, using medium format film gives me room to see the vistas, the light; maybe not in that exact second, but a month or two later, when I look at the scans. It allows me to see individuals with burgeoning strengths and foibles and independent thoughts.

My internal landscape also quiets when I am aware, simultaneously, of the chaos and the reality that this scene is fleeting. They are growing, daily; a fact that shuffles into the background during the monotony of redundant days. When I pause to compose a photograph, in that stillness, before the shutter is released, much need perspective charges into the horizon. Humor arrives.

my mother’s art studio

Hannah, a writer and good friend of mine, once mentioned to me the memories of her mother’s independent afternoons spent painting. Knowing her family was large and homeschooled, I was intrigued to imagine such a vision. I also sensed Hannah’s fondness of these memories and felt I had to know more! For those that homeschool now, hearing memories from a child’s perspective can be a soothing balm to the constant evaluation and re-evaluation that goes on in one’s mind. 

 by Hannah Piecush

When I was seven my family moved from a New England town with sidewalks and shops to one in the woods. We rented an old white parsonage–although my father was an engineer and not a minister–with a grassy backyard edged by a tumbled stone wall, sugar maples, and a dark row of hemlock trees. The house had enough bedrooms–at last–for all five of us children and a small room at the top of the stairs, with a window looking over the back lawn, that was my mother’s art studio.

The studio was big enough for a wide desk and had shelves where my mother kept her calligraphy pens, boxes of pen nibs, jars of ink, tubes of watercolor pigment, paper of all different textures.

Sometime after our move, my mother arranged for mother’s helpers to come watch the older children in the afternoons while the baby slept and she disappeared into her studio.

These girls were probably only ten or eleven, but they seemed so much older than I was. They taught us which things we could eat in the woods–wintergreen berries and clover flowers–and when to look for wild strawberries in the grass. They answered my questions about whether or not bears might come into our yard. One of them was taken with the idea of going caving and we spent hours in the shade of the hemlock trees, where the branches drew over us like a tent, pretending we were deep underground.

I don’t know how many afternoons a week the mother’s helpers came, but I felt a kind of pride even then that my mother, the artist, was up in her studio where she wrote in calligraphy and painted. Just like I was proud that she was a runner, that she ran in the mornings before I woke up.

When my parents met in college my mother says her plan was to be an artist who lived in New York City and to maybe to compete in the Olympics. She was studying art then and on an athletic scholarship in field hockey and indoor and outdoor track. Then she and my father decided instead to have a lot of children. They decided to homeschool us–even though no one had heard of that at the time.

The story of what she originally planned to be was part of our family legend. Never a story told with bitterness or regret, but one that we, her children, told authoritatively to our friends. We always knew my mother could have been quite happy doing something other than raising a band of children. She’s the kind of woman who invents community wherever she goes, who comes out of a convenience store (we used to wait in the car) beaming from whatever interaction she had inside. We were lucky we got her.

Having a family might not come as easily as we had planned.

I have written here before that with each pregnancy I feel a deep sisterly mourning with the others in the room: those waiting for their baby. Statisticians believe that of known pregnancies 20% end in miscarriage and that one in four women will experience one in her lifetime. And there are reasons to believe that the number is actually much higher. I am grateful for this chance to walk beside my friend Susie in her experience, as a reader, through her story.

a note of introduction from Susie (susannawales@gmail.com ): I wrote this essay about infertility and miscarriage nearly four years ago now. I was scrambling for ways to express a grief so often unnamed and to come to terms with my suffering. I sought out many books during those years, some of which were immensely helpful,  namely A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller, and The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippetts (a new documentary about her story was just released). In my experience, the pain of miscarriage doesn’t go away, but it does dull and it does recede. Since that difficult time, I have had the joy of becoming a mother through adoption twice over to two beautiful boys: Victor is now three and Bastion is one-and-a-half years old. I have been astonished at the Lord’s faithfulness to me, and I hope that this description of my journey brings comfort to someone who has likewise suffered.

Content warning: the following beautiful and honest essay contains explicit descriptions of miscarriages. Please evaluate your emotional and mental state before reading, for example whenever pregnant I avoided stories of pregnancy and birth complications.–RR

by Susie Wales

As a newlywed back in 2012, whenever I pictured my life five, ten, or fifteen years down the road, kids were always in the frame. I am the fifth of seven children and my husband Ben is the second of five. We both wanted children and expected to be expecting by our second year of marriage. Then, a couple of months shy of our first anniversary, I miscarried at six weeks. We hadn’t even been trying to conceive but were elated nonetheless that I was pregnant. Then a few days after a blood test confirmed a positive pregnancy and my OB/GYN doctor examined and congratulated me, I miscarried at home. Almost as soon as we had time to cheer, we had lost the baby.

I sat on the toilet and bled, painfully passing bits of tissue. I turned and looked into the toilet for signs of life and scooped up a shiny translucent mass of tissue. I held it in the cupped palm of one hand and gently probed at it with my other index finger, clearing the blood away. My breath quickened. I tore a square of toilet paper from the wall and swaddled the lump of tissue in it. I stood in silence a few moments, the tiny tissue quivering in my shaking hand. Then I lowered it down into the toilet and flushed. “I think I just bled out our baby,” my voice cracked as I shared the news with Ben on the phone. Upstairs under my bed covers, I rocked from side to side and cried.

Three months later, we conceived again and the baby held on for ten weeks before passing in a rush of bright red clots that disappeared down my shower drain. Suddenly, we had bereaved the loss of two children and felt a weight we hadn’t anticipated. Having a family might not come as easily as we had planned.

Though the miscarriages were painful, we were hopeful we would conceive. After all, those pregnancies had come without strategizing, so now that we would pay closer attention, we thought we would get pregnant in no time. But after the fourth month of trying to conceive without positive results, we consulted an endocrinologist. He discovered I have a condition called Factor V Liden, so I may be prone to clotting, which would make any pregnancy more risky. I left those appointments feeling more discouraged than when I had entered. Keep having regular intercourse, he advised, and try using an ovulation predictor kit.

I hoped that each month would be the one.  After each conception window passed, I listened for my body to give me signs of life. When my breasts were sensitive and full, I wondered, “Are they getting ready to nurse a baby?” With every twinge of hunger, I hoped. Was the bloating and cramping just my body readying itself for a growing life? I flipped the calendar to the season in which I’d be nearing the end of my pregnancy and pictured fanning myself in the heat of July or bundling up mid-December. I browsed the “Names I like” document I kept on my computer.  I thought about driving to the maternity clothing store in a strip mall nearby, just to look. I dreaded using the bathroom and then sighed with relief when there were no drops of blood in the bowl.

Then month after month, the periods came. On one of those first several months, in the early morning darkness, I awoke to cramping, and stepped to the bathroom.  My bare feet recoiled when they met the cold tile floor. I eased onto the toilet, my elbows propped on my thighs, and bled. I slipped back under the comforter and buried my face in Ben’s shoulder. He stirred. “Bleeding?” he asked. “It’s…so sad,” I whispered. We repeated this refrain each month as my periods came. And each month, the dreams I had nursed over the previous two weeks dissipated like morning mist.

During my first two years of trying to conceive, it seemed every woman around me was pregnant. At that time, my two closest friends from college were each on their second babies. All five of my sisters in law had just had babies or were expecting. Ben’s friends from college—all younger than me–continued to share their joyful news. Genuinely excited at first, I soon succumbed to self-pity and jealousy.

I felt a dissonance with my body that I hadn’t previously experienced. I have nurtured children most of my life through babysitting, teaching, being an aunt–yet when I wanted to carry my own children, my body seemed to be stopping me. I stood at my bathroom mirror with my hands pressed on either side of the sink and asked my red-eyed reflection, “What is wrong with you?”

During the summer of that second year of trying to conceive, we moved from Virginia to Michigan and started with a new fertility center. After tests ruled out endometriosis, the doctor prescribed timed intercourse and ovulation predictor kits. Back to that familiar recipe: we tried for a few months to no avail. With the new year came a greater sense of urgency and we moved to the next level of treatment. We were introduced to Intrauterine Insemination (IUI). This procedure increases the odds of conception as a doctor places the male’s sperm deep inside the female’s uterus where it will have higher chances of forming an embryo. We were optimistic.

Then after six straight months of failed treatments, we decided to stop and try on our own again. These treatments were getting costly and my heart ached with each disappointment. We took a break from intervention and hoped for a natural conception.

Then six months later, amidst the bustle of Christmas excitement, I realized I was a few days past my monthly period. The next morning I took a pregnancy test and blinked at the two strips on the test: positive. I clapped my hand over my mouth and rushed to call Ben with the news. Could we really be pregnant? I knew I should be cautious, but my giddiness over seeing a positive after years of negatives cast a hopeful spell over my doubts.

For the next month I gave myself shots of blood thinner into the pinched flesh of my stomach each night. The doctor prescribed these Lovenox shots to keep my Factor V Liden blood clotting in check. Each night I ripped open an alcohol swab, rubbed it over my belly, breathed deeply, put in the needle, pressed the plunger down, and pulled the needle out. I had a cold wash cloth ready to apply and gently press over the spot of injection that stung and burned for a minute or so. It took some practice, but after a couple of weeks, I got through the whole routine without stalling. I took five deep breaths and cheered myself on:  “Ok, it’s ok, everything’s ok, you can do it.” It usually took between one and five minutes to gather the nerve and then it was over. It may not be easy, but this pregnancy was progressing, hope was growing.

Two days after my eight week ultrasound, I traveled with Ben to Ohio where he was slated to work a trade show for his company, which sells flavors to the food and beverage industry. We drove five hours to our hotel, wheeled suitcases to our room and Ben eased onto the bed while I headed to the bathroom. When I went to flush the toilet, I noticed three little red drops in the bowl. My chest tightened. I flushed and stepped out to tell Ben I was spotting. While passing bits of blood is fairly normal during the first trimester, I knew that for me, it always preceded a miscarriage. We sat together on the bed, wordless.

The next morning I felt optimistic. I used the toilet and it was blood free when I flushed. After dropping Ben off at his convention center, I drove to a library a few miles away. I arrived about twenty minutes before it opened, parked my car, and dialed my fertility doctor. My shoulders immediately relaxed when I heard the warm, reassuring voice on the other end, “Spotting is very common at the point in your pregnancy.” She said not to worry and planned to see me first thing Monday morning to make sure everything was ok. I smiled into my phone, relieved.

In the library, I found an empty table next to large bay windows that cast squares of light onto the carpet. I set up my laptop and opened up an essay for an MFA program for which I was applying. The essay was about infertility and the despair I felt because of it.  Even though I had spotted the night before, I decided to replay the doctor’s calm words in my ears “this is very normal.” It had been a few months since I’d opened this particular essay about grief and loss. Newly pregnant, I felt I was looking back at the tear-filled writer with compassion. I wanted to offer her the same reassuring voice I’d just heard on the phone and soothe her fears. Although I knew miscarriages usually occur within the first trimester, I was already beginning to feel that this pregnancy was different, spotting and all. We had tried for so long for this one, I thought, this baby will come. I think it’s a boy.

It was after lunch while I was sitting in the children’s section of the library when a sudden a pain shot through my lower back. I slipped my laptop into my backpack, slung one strap on my shoulder and hurried to a large, one-stall bathroom at the back of the library. I sat down on the toilet and began bleeding profusely. Large clots came fast. I felt myself lift up and detach, floating above in the ceiling watching myself. I didn’t cry, I didn’t even whimper. I pushed my fingers hard against my tailbone as each rush of blood and tissue came.  I leaned forward and then sat upright, rocking slowly back and forth, back and forth. I pressed fingertips to my temples and breathed. When there was a break in the bleeding, I pulled toilet paper from the wall, winding it around one hand so that it looked mummified. Then I stood and stuffed the toilet paper between my legs to catch any blood. I reached up to flush the toilet – now piled with clots. I reached my hand up to pull the lever when something made me hesitate. I reached into the toilet bowl, grabbed an in-tact mass of tissue. It glistened and quivered, sliding through my fingers. I gently laid it down on the floor.

I stared at the mass of blood and started to shake. It wasn’t just a lump of crimson tissue. It was my boy’s broken body. I could cradle him in my hands, walk back through the library, out to the withered flower garden by the parking lot, dig up the cold earth and bury him there. I could kneel at his grave and weep. But I couldn’t leave the bathroom with him, not with my body bleeding and my pants around my ankles. What could I do? My phone – where’s my phone? I fumbled through the pockets of my back pack with my one clean hand, grabbed my phone and took a picture of the mass on the floor. You couldn’t tell how big it was so I placed one hand, palm down, on the tile floor next to it. There was no open casket, no eulogy, but at least I had captured physical proof of my baby’s life. Ultrasounds had showed black and white pictures of his tiny frame, but here I held his bleeding body in my own hand. I scooped it up, released it into the toilet, and began to mop up the floor with toilet paper. I kept filling the toilet with bloody toilet paper and flushing and flushing it.

Tears blurred my vision now; they slipped off my chin, into my ears, down my neck. Snot covered my lips. I ran the faucet over my hands until the water ran clear, digging blood from under my fingernails until my finger pads started to prune. My eyes were stinging now. I raised a shoulder to wipe my nose again and again. I tugged my tight jeans back on and with trembling fingers pulled at the zipper on my coat. I stared at the ceiling, at my sobbing reflection in the mirror. I had returned to myself. I pressed the hot sides of my face and took deep breaths. I was going to have to exit the bathroom, wind my way through the library, and drive the ten miles to the convention center and tell Ben what was happening. I was going to need to keep my composure.

I sat in my parked car at the convention center a few minutes, wiping my nose, then made my way to Ben’s booth. I wound around tables with samples of candy, slushy machines whirling blue raspberry splurpies in circles, and self-serve ice cream machines. It smelled like a carnival and it made me want to vomit. I walk slowly up to Ben and breathed the news in his ear. His face fell and his eyes reddened, “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. We stared at each other for a long moment, then my eyes began to burn.  I retreated to the hotel bathroom stall and bled – the clots coming in waves. My body was more in shock than in pain, frozen under the spell of a trauma it was enduring for the third time.

Half an hour later, we started the five-hour trip home. We stopped at a rest area when the blood was soaking through everything and wouldn’t stop. I waddled up to the front doors of the little building, one hand wedged between my legs. I eased onto the toilet, my elbows jabbed into my knees, and held my weary head in my hands.  I released a few more clots and felt some relief. When I stood up, my head swam. I had felt this before—I was about to faint. I whispered through dry lips, “Ben! Ben, Ben, I need help.” I crawled on my hands and knees out of the stall and around the corner towards the door. I summoned a louder voice now, “Ben! I need help!” I clawed at the swinging door and managed to pull it open enough for Ben to hear me where he was waiting in the lobby outside. I fell to the floor, my head thudded onto the tile.

I was lying on my back in the middle of the lobby. It was late, pitch black outside the rest area. No one else was there. Ben peppered me with questions: “Susie, can you hear me? Susie, where are we? Susie! SUSIE!” He was loud and demanding. I shook my head from side to side, mumbling assents. He carried me to the car, laid me in the passenger seat, reached in the backseat and ripped open a plastic container of gummy bears he had picked up at the trade show. “We’re going to get you to a doctor. Keep eating these. We’ve got to get your blood sugar up,” he said as he started the car. I smacked my lips hungrily, chewing and swallowing one gummy bear after the other, relishing the rush of energy, my lips sticky. “Susie, what are you eating?” Ben asked, making sure I was conscious. “Gummy bears,” I said, and smiled despite myself. They tasted so good.

My head throbbed and I still felt light headed but I was coming back to myself as we headed towards an urgent care center about twenty minutes from the rest area. Ben decided to call his parents to let them know what was happening. I heard a couple of faint rings and then his mom picked up, “Hello?” “Hi Mom,” he said. “I want to let you know we lost our baby.” His face twitched. There was silence on the other end at first and then a sigh and moan of, “I’m sorry.” He explained that I was bleeding a lot and we were on our way to the hospital. There was no need to come, we just wanted to let them know. Hearing Ben talk on the phone was like a flashlight piercing the fog. I had spent the last few hours in a haze of shock and now I was feeling the reality: I had miscarried again. It both pained and comforted me to hear him state it so plainly. And I realized in that moment after he hung up the phone, as he stared ahead with his hands gripping the steering wheel, that it was not only my loss but his too.

We reached the urgent care center and Ben carried me in, my legs bouncing as he jogged inside. Someone brought me a wheelchair and pushed me down the hall to a room. I was fully conscious now, and I was exhausted. A nurse put an IV in my arm to hydrate me. I could feel something cold trickle down my arm, then slowly the headache I had the last couple of hours began to subside.

A nurse rolled my bed down the hall to the OBGYN unit and parked me next to the ultrasound machine. Her job was to make sure all of the tissue had been expelled from my uterus during my miscarriage. She stuck a condom-covered, gel-topped plastic wand inside me. My body flinched under the sudden pressure and then relaxed as much as it could as she rolled the wand around my uterus, probing for scraps of the baby I had lost. It felt like an intrusion into a private place, like a cocoon was being torn open and scavenged. She peered into her computer screen and I turned my head to see the grainy, black void.

I had had two ultrasounds in this pregnancy so far—the first was at six weeks. My younger sister was in town and she went to the appointment with me. A large-screened television monitor on the wall across from me showed a blurry, bean-shaped fetus. After the doctor printed and handed me a glossy ultrasound strip, my sister took a picture of me as I pinched the shiny photos, holding them in front of my chest. Later that night I had held a vase of fresh flowers Ben bought me and he snapped a photo—life was blooming inside of me! The next ultrasound was at eight weeks: everything looked normal, the baby was growing on schedule, and its heart was pulsing with life.

Just hours earlier, I had held not an ultrasound strip but the substance of those pictures, the blood and tissue that would later be my baby. I had taken pictures of this lost baby. Now faced with an empty ultrasound image, these evidences became even more important to me.  I wasn’t just imagining him, right? He was alive in there. As I laid in my hospital bed and turned towards the ultrasound monitor, there was no head to toe measurement, no blinking heart, no sign of any life at all. The baby that held such promise in its tiny, webbed fingers had vanished. The nurse glanced down at me, moved her hand from the computer mouse to my wrist, and offered in a weary voice, “I’m so sorry.” A tear slipped down my cheek and seeped into a crease in my neck as she silently wheeled me back to my hospital room.

A doctor with eyes like periwinkle marbles came into my room. His voice was kind: “Well the good news is that you passed everything naturally.” That’s how the medical community talks about natural miscarriage – as passing all of the tissue. This sounds like a win, something to celebrate, like I’ve just passed the test or passed over the finish line. But what seems more fitting is lost. “You’ve lost everything, all of the tissue was lost, someone was irretrievably lost.”

Ben and I arrived home around 2 A.M., heavy with fatigue, and fell into bed. The next morning was a Monday. Ben left for work and I got up and showered, dried my hair, put on makeup: simple tasks that felt brave considering yesterday’s events.

I called my sister and five brothers one by one and summarized in a few seconds the heart breaking result of the last ten weeks. My younger sister burst into tears, wishing she could be with me, telling me she didn’t know what to say. I called my brothers. “I’m really sorry,” one said. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” said another. The conversations were brief—they didn’t know what to say or didn’t want to pry. I was glad I told them. A few weeks later, I got a note in the mail from one of my older brothers. Just three years prior he had endured the unthinkable horror of losing his three-year-old son in a drowning accident. His tiny cursive font read, “There are no words to extinguish the grief and anguish of loss.” His words covered me like a healing salve. I was going to be OK.

striding towards eating your placenta

I confess I was not brave enough to eat my placenta but I did manage to get it home in a food-safe container and into my freezer–two big steps up from my last birth when I rolled my eyes at the midwife for suggesting I’d want to do anything with that thing. So I was delighted when my sister-in-law agreed to write about her brave entrance into the world of health-rumors and nutritional risky business. I love her medley of honest storytelling and humorous side eye at all the threads we find ourselves googling in this day and age.

by Hannah Cusack 

Pregnancy: that time in life in which you surprise yourself again and again. The stories of strange, never-before-seen cravings and inexplicable emotions are over-told, but even still, as you watch yourself (your very normal self!) pass through each phase, it really does not fail to shock. But there are even stranger acts pregnancy invites us to than pizza rolls with peanut butter—anyone else google Evening Primrose Oil in the last trimester and stare open mouthed at the screen, reading that you can not only take it orally but also vaginally? Anyone else do it anyway?

I tend to veer on that side of things in general—I can’t resist a totally unresearched, totally natural, and allegedly miraculous supplement or an old wives’ tale that’s researched and “proven” wrong, but still sworn to be true. I’ve only been pregnant once, but the list of the things I tried during those months without (or even despite) conventional advice is pretty long:

  • Megadosing vitamin c (8,000-12,000mg per day): for overall health and ~vitality~
  • Blending raw frozen chicken livers into my smoothies: basically, it’s a multivitamin!
  • Supplementing iodine: to make the baby smarter, of course
  • Aforementioned evening primrose oil: two ways, to encourage labor
  • Acupuncture during the last trimester: for “sending my energy downward”
  • Collagen powder: to prevent stretch marks and perineal tearing
  • Ketogenic diet: to prevent morning sickness, gestational diabetes, the afternoon slump
  • Incredible amounts of very strong red raspberry leaf tea: for“toning” the cervix
  • Eating raw fish, eating tons of fish: for baby’s brain
  • Planned a home birth: for all the reasons people do that

Other things I reluctantly tried, but tried nonetheless: eating whole pints of ice cream with my husband just before bed, not exercising or moisturizing my skin a single time, getting out of bed in that way you’re not supposed to for the sake of preventing diastasis recti a hundred times every. single. night.

One strange pregnant-person thing that I knew I’d do from the beginning is also the one that many people tend to be most shocked by. In my second trimester, a friend of ours was over for a Bible study dinner and made a joke about how the wildest thing one might do is eat the placenta, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie! There was such an expectation of communal, fellowship-building shock and horror in the joke; it filled me with such delight to say I absolutely planned to. In a different Bible study, years before, I got to know a pregnant person for the first time in my life. She glowed and glowed and then disappeared for a while, and when she reemerged she had a beautiful baby in tow. One night, less than a month before she delivered, she told us her OB had said it takes three years on average for a mother to restore the nutrients depleted during pregnancy. I’ve never found the research to back that up, but it’s always stuck with me. Sometime later, not in a Bible study, I heard about the practice of placental preservation. My first impression was that the idea of consuming the vessel by which your nutrients are transmitted and depleted seems kind of genius.

One way of categorizing the strange things I love to try is this: low risk, high reward. As of now, there are no known risks associated with consuming the placenta, when it’s properly preserved, and the list of potential benefits is impressive: Replenishing your stores of nutrients. Preventing or aiding postpartum depression. Encouraging faster healing post-birth. There are also claims about stem cell therapy, which I don’t know enough about to go into, but are extremely interesting and nothing but positive. For me, the nutrient repletion is enough. Sign me up.

People do it two ways— dehydration or freezing. There are specialists who dehydrate and encapsulate it for you, so you’re truly just taking an extra capsule every morning. The stem cell benefits are only kept intact if frozen, but for all other purposes, dehydration is absolutely fine. I once ran into my midwives’ birth assistant on the sidewalk. She was carrying a drab little lunchbox with a new mom’s placenta inside to go dehydrate. Actually, you can even dehydrate it yourself in the oven! Though then you either deal with using the powder somehow (think smoothies) or encapsulating it yourself, and that’s probably not the thing you’ll want to spend your time on in those early days.

I decided to freeze mine for the sake of simplicity: I didn’t have to hire anyone, and I didn’t have to bake anything. Homebirth made this infinitely easier for me, but as demonstrated by the lunchbox anecdote, it really can be done any which way as long as you keep it very clean. (By very clean I mean use a brand new zip-lock bag.) The most important thing is to develop a simple plan, to be fully executed by someone other than you. Talk to your healthcare provider about your plan, and designate a specific person to handle the passing of the placenta (from medical table to oven or freezer to your re-possession). Talk to your partner about your plan in case you forget to tell other people your plan. I totally forgot to do this—I had the general plan in mind but didn’t designate anyone or talk to my partner about specifics. So if I correctly recall, my muscles were still spasming from childbirth as I instructed my doula to chop and freeze it. She had never done it before, which I say to demonstrate how truly easy it is to do. My midwife stepped in to explain the process of washing it and wringing it out until it’s a “bubblegum pink color.”  So she did that and then chopped it into pill-sized pieces and dropped them into an ice tray to freeze. After they froze, I put them into a zip-lock and back into the freezer. I swallowed 1-3 pieces every day, like a pill, until they were gone.

A final placental anecdote: My husband and I spent the first few years of our marriage living in Northern Ghana where he started an agricultural trading company. We had these massive windows on all sides of our living room, and I decided to start trying to grow some herbs. I had a shelf made by a local carpenter to fit the window that got the most light and gathered some seeds and soil. I spotted some pots along the roadside near our house that looked perfect and took a Ghanaian friend with me to buy them. The woman selling the pots didn’t speak much English, so I essentially mimed to communicate that I didn’t need the lids to the pots. She looked a little surprised. I told her I needed nine of them, and she looked absolutely shocked. The friend I’d brought with me often made jokes with strangers when we were out, so I didn’t think it odd that she was laughing hysterically along with an older woman standing nearby as I loaded the nine pots into the back of my car. As we drove away she just could not get herself together, and eventually she told me why: the pots I bought are made specifically for placentas. Traditionally, new fathers come to the birth site after the baby is delivered to gather the placenta into a single pot, with a lid, and bury it securely. This is rooted in the local religion, which is rooted in superstition, so really, I’m glad that all parties involved were able to laugh. The laughing only stopped when I told her about the plans for my own placenta—she was even more shocked than my Bible study friend who made the Brad Pitt joke.  For whatever reason, my herbs never grew more than an inch.

Hannah’s inadvertent collection of placenta pots and cacti pictured in the opening and closing photos.