Friday, April 19, 2019

To Anna on Her First Birthday

My Sweetest Anna,
One year ago today, at 4:55 in the morning, after nearly forty hours of labor, you came sailing into my life, changing it and me forever.

Now that you're here, it's hard to believe that there was ever a time when you weren't. Being your mother is truly the greatest privilege I have ever had.

It was about a week past your due date when your daddy and I went to the doctor for a check-up, just to make sure everything was okay. As luck would have it, the end of that appointment was when you decided to begin your entry into our world.

Like the true individual you are, you took your time with your arrival. You wiggled and bounced and rattled your little nine-months-in-the-making home inside of me for hours before we actually went to the hospital. When I called her to say it might be time, your Nana drove from Santa Rosa to San Francisco in record-breaking (and highly illegal) time. Your Poppy came down as well and we all sat in the living room of our San Francisco apartment, eating Thai food and singing folk songs while your dad played guitar. Every few minutes, you would clench and push inside of me and I would yell at everyone to stop singing, and squeeze whoever was closest until the contraction passed.

Finally, around 11 PM, we all felt like it was time to go to the hospital. I sat between your Nana and daddy in the backseat of the car as we drove to the hospital and held onto them tightly, squeezing hard with every bump we drove over. 

When we got to the hospital, they checked us into our room and we all got ready to welcome you. The doctors and nurses let us know that the reason you were taking a little longer than they expected to come out was because you were turned to the side. "She's looking out the window," your daddy said. I think of that every night when you sit with him and look out the window of our bedroom before you go to bed.

The nurses brought me a big rubber thing called a "peanut." They had me lay on my side, facing the opposite direction you were facing, and hold the peanut between my knees to encourage you to flip back to the middle. I kept it there for hours while you wiggled and kicked and eventually made your way to where they wanted you. 

Finally, the nurses told me, it was time for you to come. Well, not exactly time, but time to get ready for time. What followed was the most surreal half hour of my life. While the doctors and nurses moved around the room, getting their equipment ready to receive you, your dad and Nana and I got ourselves ready. Daddy will tell you that during this time I was acting pretty weird. I kept insisting that he put on more chapstick because I was worried that his lips were dry, and started worrying about all kinds of unimportant things like whether the bags we brought were organized enough and whether I could have a straw in the plastic yellow hospital pitcher I was drinking out of.

When the nurses finally told me to push, you came out faster than any of us thought was possible, and suddenly there you were, a little purple with a pineapple-shaped head that completely freaked your father out until he was reassured by everyone that it would go back to normal soon, but absolutely perfect in every way, on my chest, looking me right in the eyes. In a millisecond, you cracked open my heart and triggered the release of more love than I knew it was possible to feel.

So much has changed since that early morning on April 19, 2018! It took us a little while to get into a rhythm, but together, your daddy, you, and I all learned how to operate as a family of three. And now you can do so many things! You can crawl, you eat all kinds of delicious foods, like avocado, kale (we know, we know, could we be more of a cliché?), Bamba, brisket, chicken soup, mozzarella, ravioli, and blueberries, just to name a few favorites.

And every day you're learning more and more. Soon, you'll have more words (right now your favorites are, "dada," "mama," "dog-dog," "yes," and "CAT!"). You play peek-a-boo like a champ, wave hello and goodbye, and love to offer other people a bite of whatever you are eating, like the generous lady you are. 

And you are always singing! Whether to your Nanny and Gramps on Facetime, to your daddy and me while he plays the guitar, or to the lucky shoppers who just happen to be in the Whole Foods produce department at the same time as we are, you are never not vocalizing and waving your hands around dramatically to entertain those around you. And it is extremely entertaining.

You are growing up so quickly and I know there is so much more to come this year my sweet girl, but I'm in no hurry for you to turn into a big kid too fast. I promise to give you the best childhood I possibly can. I promise to always meet you where you are and support you as you pursue whatever satisfies your soul and makes your heart sing as loudly and clearly as you do in grocery stores.

Thank you for everything you've brought into my life, Anna Mari. Today there will be a homemade chocolate cake, way too many presents, and a family who loves you more than anything celebrating the special girl you are. Tomorrow, you will be one year and one day old, surely ready to conquer the world. Happy birthday, dear daughter. I love you.

Friday, January 25, 2019

i can hear you now

I'm five years old, just a few weeks into kindergarten at my new elementary school. The school nurse leads me down the shady breezeway between my classroom and the main office so she can test my vision and hearing. Taking a test seems very grown-up and I have recently begun to suspect that I am very smart, so I beam as I tell her which pictures and letters I see on the black and white cards she holds up, and raise my hand when I hear the high-pitched dings in the bulky headphones with vinyl coverings, like the ones my father uses to listen to records at night. I am certain I am impressing the nurse with my intelligence and poise. She smiles back at me, further securing my certainty that I am nailing the test.

A few days later, she comes back to my classroom and takes me once again to the office for another test. This time we're just testing my hearing. She says she wants me to take a special hearing test, one that is a little longer than the one we took before. I oblige, happy to demonstrate my talents once again.

This time, after I slip on the headphones and she switches on the testing machine, I hear a few dings, but they are spaced further and further apart with long stretches of silence. The nurse covers her mouth with a clipboard and reads words to me and asks me to repeat them back to her. I recognize some of them, but a surprising number of them don't sound like real words. I say them anyway and she smiles back at me, but every few words, I see what looks like a tiny frown in the corner of her mouth, almost too quickly for me to see, but I catch it.

A few days later, my mother explains that I have a little bit of a hearing problem. She says I need to always make sure I can understand what my teachers are saying. I promise I will.

As I get older, my hearing problem becomes more and more noticeable to me and everyone else. I mishear things all the time, often to the delight of my friends and classmates. A game of "telephone" is sure to be hilarious if I am somewhere on the chain, attempting to hear whatever silly phrase is whispered to me and inevitably misunderstanding it and repeating something even sillier. It becomes my thing--I'm the Amelia Bedelia of Hidden Valley Elementary School. I somehow manage to do pretty well in school. I sit as close to where the teachers are talking as I can. When I miss something, I ask for it to be repeated. But I also start to notice the annoyed tone in others' voices when they repeat things I miss, especially when I ask them to repeat them more than once. It becomes hard to separate others' frustration about having to repeat themselves from frustration with me, so sometimes I decide it's better not to ask them to say it again. Sometimes I make the decision to just not know.

When I am in tenth grade, my parents drive me an hour south of our town to the UCSF medical center in San Francisco, where I have an MRI to determine what is going on with my ears. It turns out that many of my cochlea, the tiny hair cells inside that help filter sound, are damaged, probably since birth, which explains why I have such a hard time hearing. Despite my protestations, I am fitted for hearing aids.

The experience of wearing the hearing aids is terrible. For a few months, I slip them into my ears in a stall of the school bathroom before class and pull my hair down on either side of my face, but they make everything incredibly loud. Background noises overpower the sounds I actually want to hear. Instead of the lesson my algebra teacher is giving, I hear every scratch of a pencil and ripping notebook paper and gum snapping and breathing of every kid in my quadrant of the classroom. Instead of helping me understand my teachers, my brain feels like it is going to implode in response to all the information being hurled at it. I eventually stop wearing them.

For most of my young adulthood, I am embarrassed by my hearing, but I cope. I ask for words to be repeated. I explain that I have some hearing loss. Once I'm no longer a child among children, the teasing pretty much stops. Still, I am anxious every time I enter into a situation where I might have trouble hearing, which is pretty much everything other than sitting across from one other person in a quiet room. If someone speaks quietly or with a mumble, I am lost. I get good at faking understanding, but not good enough that I am never caught.

When I am thirty-six, I give birth to a little girl. We stay at the hospital for three days. Every fifteen minutes, it seems, a different nurse, doctor, or other hospital worker comes into the room for one reason or another. I struggle to hear many of them, but I am so in love with my new baby that I almost don't care.

As the months go by, I start to worry that my hearing will impact my mothering. I'm terrified that I will accidentally miss her cries, so I use a video monitor, even though we live in a one-bedroom apartment. When she sleeps, I carry it around with me, cranked up at top volume, checking it constantly.

My mother suggests I visit an audiologist, just to find out what is going on. I am annoyed with her for doing so, but I make the appointment anyway. When I go in for my hearing test, which is surprisingly similar to the ones I took as a kid, the audiologist matter-of-factly informs me that I have a severe hearing loss and that I definitely need hearing aids. I explain my hesitation, citing my bad experience in high school.

"That was twenty years ago," she tells me. "The technology has gotten much, much better. Now we have hearing aids that can go entirely into your ears, and help to filter out background noise. But also, if you don't get this taken care of now, you could have some serious cognitive issues down the line -- there is a lot of research that indicates that hearing loss can lead to dementia and a whole host of other problems."

And so, two weeks ago, I was once again fitted with hearing aids. They are tiny, imperceptible. They fit completely into my ear canal and cannot be seen unless you are looking.

As she tucks them into my ears and switches them on, I hear the clack clack clack of my daughter's hands on her toys, from the blanket at my feet where she is sitting on the floor of the audiologist's office. I am immediately aware that I would not have been able to hear those sounds before. I pick my daughter up and kiss her tummy which makes her giggle, and I feel my eyes well up as I notice that I have never been able to really hear the richness of her laugh before that moment. We play music on the drive home, and I hear notes in songs I've known for years that I didn't know were there before. That evening, my husband and I have a conversation from separate rooms--something I don't think I have ever done with anyone in my life.

There is still a lot left to adjust to. Because I missed so much, my brain has spent years taking in much less information than it is now, and it is still learning what to do with it all. For the first week, I kept thinking my husband was speaking to me sharply. Eventually, I figured out that what was really going on was that, after seven years together, I was actually hearing the sound of his voice for the first time. He had grown accustomed to speaking to me at a higher volume, and now that I didn't require it anymore, it had a different effect.

I still seize up with muscle memory anxiety when I enter a situation that would previously have been challenging for me hearing-wise, but the experience of finally being able to relax, knowing I'm not going to have to pretend to have understood someone while silently churning with shame on the inside is incredibly liberating.

There's another unexpected pleasure I get to enjoy now that I wear hearing aids, one which I never could have predicted: All day long, I wear these incredible devices which correct my hearing loss by magnifying sounds I am not able to naturally hear, and it is truly amazing. But at the end of the day, when I take them out of my ears and place them in their case for safekeeping, the quiet of my unassisted hearing that surrounds me is surprisingly satisfying. All the street noise disappears--I hear only what is very close to me, like closing the door to a very noisy room. In that moment, it's as if my hearing loss, the source of so much trouble and pain over the years, becomes a tiny gift.

Monday, December 31, 2018

you don't have to like me

A couple of years ago, someone I used to be friends with made it clear in a public way that he strongly disliked me. Truthfully, I didn't like him very much either, but I also didn't feel the need to share it explicitly. Because I didn't care to engage with him in what I perceived as a pretty inappropriate forum, I ignored his comments and that was pretty much the end of it.

While it was embarrassing to be the subject of someone's social media diatribe, I was surprised to find that I didn't especially mind that he had so much distaste for me. In fact, I kind of welcomed it. After all, it made sense that someone I wasn't a fan of wasn't a fan of me, and his loudness about it kind of broke the seal on the whole thing.

I have spent most of my life worrying about being liked. From mean girls on the elementary school playground, to cliques I felt rejected from in high school, to every guy who didn't want to date me, every job I didn't get, and every stranger who called me fat or ugly on the internet, I have taken it all as concrete proof that there was something wrong with me. But being lambasted by someone whose opinion didn't matter to me at all helped to highlight just how meaningless it is to be disliked by anyone other than the people I really care about. And once I wrapped my head around the fact that it was okay to not be liked by someone I myself didn't like, I started to think about how it's also okay to not be liked by a lot of other people too. I'm a complicated person with plenty of traits and habits that might not appeal to everyone. I don't like everyone -- why should everyone like me?

Having a kid provides daily reminders of the limits to my likability. My adorable eight-month-old attracts a lot of attention when we're out together, but strangers who try to touch her without asking (or honestly, even those who do ask first--why are you trying to touch a baby you don't know?) are met by a growling, protective mama bear I didn't know I had living inside of me. And those who offer unsolicited advice on how I should dress, carry, feed, or otherwise care for my baby are not responded to warmly. Sometimes my daughter cries in restaurants or on airplanes, and, while I always do my best to be a good member of society and calm her down or take her outside, sometimes it's not possible and those around me have to deal with the screams of an upset baby. The codependent like-junkie side of me wishes I could find some way to simultaneously prioritize my baby's needs and keep myself in the good graces of strangers, but generally, that is impossible, and her needs come first, so everyone else can eff off. And speaking of whom, my darling daughter is regularly displeased with me. Depending on her mood, my attempts to change her, remove her from the bathtub, or pry her tiny fist off of my foolishly chosen dangly earring might be met with shrieks of protest. But it doesn't matter because I am her mother and it is my job.

Getting comfortable with not always being liked is an ongoing practice, and not easy. From the time we are very young, society teaches women that being liked should be a major priority. Likewise, social media encourages us to derive real meaning from likes, retweets, and public compliments. It's hard to break the habit of constantly seeking approval, but I invite you to join me in trying. Because once you stop listening to the static of your anxiety about the opinions of other people, it becomes much easier to hear what's actually going on inside of you.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

waterworks on aisle 5

There are plenty of things that come with pregnancy to complain about: the first fourteen weeks that brought me nauseous, vomitous misery ("morning sickness" is a misnomer--it was all day and all night); the searing round ligament pain that punishes me if I change positions in bed too abruptly; the ache in my hips and lower back after a long day; the weight of my expanding uterus that pushes on my bladder, making my daily run no longer possible, and punctuating the long walks that replaced it with three to five bathroom stops.

And then there's the fact that, lately, I can't seem to stop crying.

These aren't depressed tears (though depression during pregnancy is a very real and serious thing), nor do I feel particularly sad. Rather, I find myself moved at least half a dozen times a day, thanks to the hormones coursing through my body during this time of extreme change. Everything from particularly emotional commercials, to songs I've heard a million times but which now seem to take on deeper meaning, to the gentle Southwest employee who saw my belly and immediately offered me pre-boarding and help with my extremely light garment bag (I sobbed with gratitude from the moment he scanned my upgraded ticket, through taxiing and takeoff) can bring on the waterworks. But they're often provoked by nothing more than a fleeting thought about how lucky I feel, how great my husband is, or how excited I am to meet my daughter.

And yeah, the crying can be a little inconvenient, distracting me as I try to work or cook dinner or grocery shop (thanks again for checking in, gravely concerned lady in the Whole Foods produce department), but in a funny way, I also kind of like it. I have always been a sensitive person, but as I've gotten older, I've found my ability to feel intense emotion has dulled a bit. Maybe it's an effect of social media over-saturation, or the fact that nearly every day there's devastating news in the world, and feeling it all, all the time, is overwhelming and so I've learned not to let it all in. But this renewed connection to my tear ducts has been surprisingly invigorating. I feel more connected to myself and to the world around me, even when I'm only weeping because avocados are on sale.

I have a lot of hopes for the fast-approaching early days of parenting just ahead, but most of all, I hope I'm able to retain the presentness that the emotional rollercoaster of pregnancy has provided me. I hope I'm able to stay dropped in and connected, so as to be as completely, utterly available to my child's needs while she eats, sleeps, learns, grows, and, of course, cries.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

the knot

When I was younger, one of the hardest things about falling in and out of love was the repeated discovery that no one person was the solution to what I perceived as the giant knot of messiness inside of me. Early love--that point where you know just enough to know you want more--has a way of making you believe that if you can just turn this thing into a real relationship, everything will be okay. Surely, your new identity as partner to this wonderful person will wash away all of your fears about yourself. If you are proven lovable, then everything will be fine.

But then, even when you do actually fall into something real, you find that, despite all that love you're getting, you're still you, giant knot of messiness and all. In fact, not only can it not fix what's inside of you, you find it can be hard to receive love fully when you're distracted by your own inner chaos. You learn that the only way to free yourself of the knot is to attempt to untangle it--and that no one but you can do that. 

Work and success come with a version of this. When you're young, green, and struggling to discover your professional path, it's tempting to believe that one day, when you finally land the right job/raise your profile/acquire enough accolades, you will finally shut down the mercilessly berating voice that has been giving you shit since you accidentally scored a goal for the other team during kickball in second grade. But then success does come in various forms, and that voice still won't shut up; she just starts talking about how you don't have enough Twitter followers and your book sales could be better.

I wish this last paragraph was a recommendation that you try some brand new method I just discovered--some special new therapy that can help you, too, to take your demons to the mat, yank them from their comfortable home, and throw them into the river so they can never bother you again. But it's really just a reminder that nobody actually knows what they're doing. We're all just trying to keep our respective tangled knots from hurting the people we love while simultaneously doing our best to block out our inner critics. And sometimes just remembering that everyone else is trying to climb their own version of the same mountain is the thing that really helps.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

learning to surrender at 30,000 feet

A few years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, I became an easily panicked airplane passenger. I'm not sure what specifically brought it on, but one spring day in 2013, on a 50 minute flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles -- one I'd taken dozens, if not hundreds, of times before, without ever having a problem -- I found myself hyperventilating during takeoff, then gripping my armrests through the light bumps of turbulence, utterly convinced we were going to crash. The smiling flight attendants and very standard pilot announcements from the cockpit, letting us know it was just some normal air pockets, nothing to worry about, but we should keep our seat belts fastened, did nothing to soothe my catastrophizing mind.

Overhearing the whimpers I was attempting to stifle, the woman sitting in front of me turned around and gently offered her hand to squeeze, and a Xanax. I accepted both, and felt slightly better as the drug took affect, but I was embarrassed, and the chemically-induced fog stayed with me for longer than I liked. I knew I needed to find a better solution.

On subsequent flights, I tried box breathing, meditation, valerian root, and an app with a recording that is supposed to calm you down, all without success. Not only was it upsetting to feel so afraid of plummeting to my death for the duration of my flight, it was also humiliating to lose it in front of strangers with the misfortune of sitting next to me. Every time I booked a flight, no matter how happy I was to be heading to the destination, the days leading up to my departure were filled with dread.

Then, on an early morning flight to New York last winter, I took my seat next to an older woman in a bright orange skirt suit, full makeup, her nails jewel-toned talons.

"Good morning! Are you headed to New York for work or pleasure? Me, I'm going to see my daughter and her family. They live in Brooklyn."

"Work," I responded, as it became clear to me that this woman was going to want to talk. She pulled out her iPhone, and showed me photos of her daughter and grandchildren. I did my best to appear calm as it hit me that I was going to have to handle her chatter in addition to my usual fear of flying. I tried to simultaneously breathe and nod at her blather about her daughter's job, what their plans for the week were, and how the weather back east would be.

As the plane took off and hit a few air pockets, I felt the usual drop in my stomach and feelings of unease. The woman paused her story when she noticed I was clenching the ends of the armrests, and holding my breath.

"Oh sweetie, are you scared?"

"Sorry, I just have a hard time with flying," I whispered. I just wanted to get through this--the last thing I wanted was to have a conversation with this stranger about it.

"Listen, the way I see it," she told me, "if this plane is going down, holding onto your armrests isn't going to save you. There's literally nothing you can do about it. Besides, when it's your time, it's your time. "

As she went back to talking about her plans with daughter, I played her words back in my head. As callous as her advice had sounded, she hit on something I had somehow missed: there was, in fact nothing I could do. Because, as crazy as it sounds, I realized in that moment that, on some level, I had believed my fretting about crashing to be way of taking action and control. Just as I believed the worrying I did back on the ground was. Holding my breath, gripping the seat, curling into myself -- part of me believed it was actually making me safer.

As she continued talking, I made the choice to unclench my body and relax in my seat, leaning into the bumps of the plane turbulence, repeating to myself, there is nothing I can do. And the most amazing thing happened: I actually started to feel better. My breathing steadied, my pounding heart slowed. Suddenly the self-imposed burden of keeping the plane in the air with my mind was lifted.

The woman kept up her chatter until I found a moment during a brief pause to politely tell her I was going to listen to some music on my phone. She nodded, and I slipped my headphones in my ears, and turned on Sam Cooke. The plane continued to shake with turbulence, but still, I felt myself surrender. Because even though i was hurtling above the earth in what was basically a very aerodynamic canoe with wings, I wasn't in charge of any of it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

how to pray when you don't believe in god

Most of the time I am pretty sure there is a God, or at least some kind of order to the universe. Most days, it just seems impossible that we are pointlessly existing here on Earth.

But there are days, more and more of them lately, when my ability to believe is compromised. News headlines about children buried alive in Aleppo, too many police shootings of unarmed Black men to count, earthquakes that devastate communities, all lead my belief to wane. I ask the questions we all ask: how can a good and just God, the one I learned about as a child in Hebrew school, allow so much evil into the world? If God is the reason I have such a good life, then why is that same God allowing so many other people to suffer?

I don't know how to make sense of any of it. And as I prepare to spend a whole lot of time in synagogue when Rosh Hashanah begins the Jewish High Holy Days next week, I've been feeling increasingly uneasy about how I will enter into all those hours of prayer. While every year I look forward to the ritual of coming together with my community, uniting in song, and sharing special meals (or, in the case of Yom Kippur, uniting in our day-long hunger), I can't help but wonder: if my belief is fractured, is there even a point to my prayers? Without steadfast conviction, aren't prayers simply expressions of one's desires, fears and intentions? Isn't that just an exercise in selfish ego?

And yet, I cannot deny that expressing intentions is activating in itself. When I take inventory of my desires and needs, I feel motivated to make choices that help make them a reality. When I think about what I am grateful for, I feel happier and more able to face challenges (a phenomenon that has been scientifically proven). When I lean into the feeling of awe that quickens my breath when I see a mountain or the ocean, or that first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge when I exit the Robin Williams Tunnel, I feel the rush of connecting to something much bigger than myself.

There is a Jewish concept called kavanah, which is translated as "intention" or "direction of the heart." It's typically used to describe the fervor with which one should pray. But I wonder if, for purposes of this dilemma, I could think about kavanah in a more literal sense: as actual intention. Because even when I don't feel the passion for God that kavanah is meant to refer to, I can always set an intention.

So maybe this year, when the initial freshness of the service starts to fade, and I find myself growing bored and questioning the purpose of praying to the concept of a God I'm not completely at peace with, I will try to remember that the power of prayer doesn't have to be as literal as an old man in the sky hearing my requests and granting them, like an oil lamp genie. For those moments, when I struggle to believe in that which I cannot see or understand, I will try to focus instead on the things I can see, can touch, can feel.

Maybe then, my belief will start to flutter back into grasp. Or maybe it won't. But either way, my prayers will indeed have power.