The Juice of a Beet

Here it is, time to talk about birth again. My advance apologies to certain members of my extended family who got squeamish over my recent mention of two "E words" (E-pisiotomy and E-ngorgement) in a single column. But this is, after all, Minnesota Parent, and it happens to be May. Birth is inescapably everywhere.

Even our neighbor's hamster managed to produce a litter of squirming, bald babies in the middle of the night without anyone knowing she'd been pregnant. At the time of this writing, I have five days left to decide if my children can resurrect my sister's old hamster hotel from our attic and put it to good use. As part of the negotiations, we're working on a fair process for defining the word "responsible." Since I'm not sure any of us--parents included--qualify under my current definition, we may need to revise (but I fear revision will result in my becoming a hamster mom).

Outside in our yard, the broad-leafed hostas are almost fully unfolded. Lilies of the Valley have yet to unwrap their foliage, but their abundant spiky brown stalks look like a bed of quills in the side garden. The swamp white oak we finally planted with Lillie's long-frozen placenta under a full moon last August--to commemorate the birth month of all three of our children--is, to our relief, budding out at last. And I noticed yesterday that the lilacs lining the east side of our house are hinting of a bloom.

What is spring if not a living symbol, a dynamic metaphor for birth and rebirth? Now, having swum steadily further from my birthing waters, this metaphor affects me even more profoundly. Unlike the growing number of women who postpone childbearing until their thirties and beyond, I plunged headlong into the warm, temperamental sea of birth and babies in my twenties, producing three healthy children before my thirtieth birthday. With Lillie, my youngest, turning three this summer, I can see dry land on the near horizon. And then what? After nearly a decade of immersion, I sometimes fear my lungs will burn up and explode upon a taste of air.

I recall the immense, surging power of birth--the color of the pain, the images behind my eyes: of spirals and vortices and especially of weeds sliding out of black dirt by the roots--and I feel a tinge of sadness, a gurgle of greed. What if the power I gained through three strong births was not enough? How might I grow by experiencing birth again?

Over time, scraps of answers to these questions have surfaced, in daydreams, among wandering thoughts, during still moments, and in the middle of crazy, hectic days. The power of birth is not finite, does not end at birth's physical border. Instead it bleeds softly and permanently into the space of our entire lives, which soak in the lessons of birth like a bolt of white cotton drinks the juice of a beet. Having labored and delivered my flesh and blood, I can never stop expressing fertility through creation.

In the decade ahead, I sense my task will be birthing what already exists, giving form to what I already know--turning myself inside out and shaking loose the contents like agates and lint and coins from a pocket--to create sculpture from the raw material I discover. I'll go where the material leads me, through words, pictures, songs, dances, meals, and the minutiae of mothering and life.

And my task will be to reconnect with nature, to recapture the unbudging entwinement I experienced as a child in the natural world. I will plant my gardens full of gorgeous, fragrant flowers and herbs. In the fall, I will care lovingly for my most tender perennials, readying them for a hearty survival through winter, and I will wait with halted breath for these prized plants to erupt from the soil each spring.

I will learn how to do new things: climb a rock wall; swim well; answer letters; put photos in albums; play the piano; dance, forgive; and I will practice other things I already do, but poorly: organize my house; make time to write; record my dreams; visit museums; paint; say I'm sorry. In the years to come, I will experience a thousand more labors--some predictable and seemingly in my control, others wild and swollen and dangerous--and I will give birth a thousand more times, to the many unexpressed possibilities of my life.

Just to prove my point, I'll announce the much-anticipated birth of the Family Reading Room, Minnesota Parent's exciting new book group, sponsored by Barnes and Noble. After an immaculate conception and a year and a half of mild labor, the book group will finally commence on June 3 at seven o'clock at the Edina Barnes and Noble in the Galleria shopping center.

Our first book is The New Family, a collection of short fiction from Graywolf Press. Edited by Scott Walker, The New Family encourages us to explore through fiction the explosive change that's occurred within the structure of the American family over the last two generations. In his introduction, Walker writes:

There aren't many maps for this new territory. This anthology presents a range of short stories, each of which reflects some aspect of the New Family, in the hope that readers will find artful fiction to be a rough guide through thickets of choices and comparisons. Since we can't rely on the wisdom of tradition, we can perhaps listen to stories of others who are caught in the struggle and celebration of their new families.

In the first story, by Richard Bausch, a grandfather watches as his granddaughter puts herself on a "strict program" of diet and exercise in order to change her status as the only girl in her class who cannot make it over the vault. In just one more day, this little girl's class will be performing the vault at an evening PTA program. What would you do if it were your child or grandchild?

Charles Baxter's piece, "Relative Stranger," brings us in close range of a meeting between brothers who share a birth mother in common, and not much else. What does it mean to be related? If our children love each other, is this love inherent in their genes?

The New Family makes an especially satisfying choice for our first selection for the Family Reading Room, because its intent as a collection is so close to our intent as a book group: to explore our families' individual meanings and relationships to the world at large, and to provide a context for a broader discussion of these themes.

So come one, come all to our first meeting. Children are always welcome; or take advantage of a worthwhile excuse for a short escape. We're looking forward to meeting you over a tall iced coffee or tea and a good book.

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