Books are static until you pick them up. Open up the spine and what it yields becomes a living, breathing organism, alien or familiar, discomfiting, entertaining, mind-expanding, difficult. Or any combination of these. I wonder, when I’ve finally settled into the pages of one or the other of my latest conquests, if I need a body at all: I’m so lost within myself that only the nudge of an itch or the surprise of a child’s cry calls me to the realization that I inhabit a physical space as well as a mental one. I often find myself stuck in that gap between the mind space and the body space. I am unable to marry the two, as if they were magnets pushing from the same poles.
I have had four of them: all girls. Each carries her own orbit, including the one who died before her seventh month of gestation–the one I labored forth just as hard as her sisters, with the added push of anticipatory grief.
The inky smell of a new book draws me in like the scent of a baby. Even identical titles, stacked three or four high at the local bookstore, can possess a subtle difference, like twins whose differences are only discerned after a more intimate acquaintance. When I decide to purchase a book, I always choose the one furthest from the top or the front; it is more virginal, less sullied by the greedy glances of others just like me.
The smell of an older book, the kind I used to collect each time I would visit Caveat Emptor, the used bookstore in my old college town, carries the weight of years and hands of a vaster unknown. I imagine the nightstands, sacks, shelves, and fingers in the volume’s former homes: I wonder if the book was, indeed, read, and if so, was it more than once? Was it loved, enjoyed, hated? Did it inspire? Disgust? Was it simply a placeholder for an aspiring reader who hadn’t gotten around to opening up its possibilities?
My first baby turned me into a born-again reader. After we both learned how to nurse, following days of awkward latching that set my breasts on fire, we both settled into the comfort of long hours of attachment: she at the breast, and I in the luxury of my confinement, reading books one after the other. I started following thematic threads–historic narratives of the Ohio River Valley; novels by Indian writers; Jane Austen marathon weekends; the latest contemporary titles.
If the book disturbed or stirred up too much emotion, I worried that my daughter would imbibe it, too, ingesting it into her psyche almost literally through osmosis. I read on. The only way out…through.
When did I make the connection that my love of books was about more than the release they offered from the confines of each day’s logistical concerns? The troubles of the flesh?
The smell of a baby is so pure as if to suggest the origin of purity.
I produced babies the way I hoped one day to produce books. When my first baby was old enough to shift around on her belly like a lizard, peering from the folds of sweet-smelling skin my milk gave rise to, I moved from printed page to pen and blank paper. Non-sequiturs were marked onto the white; poems emerged in fragments, like shards of glass in reverse of breaking. I imagined dramas, usually projections of an interpersonal landscape beyond what was, for now, limited to the exchange between mother and infant.
The poems, as I later called them, became a collection of secrets. I placed them in a silver pocket folder, like children left to play in their bedroom, not to be seen again until I dared look in on them after a suspicious silence. If I fed them forward, it was often at odds with my ambiguity. Unlike the living daughter who lolled over the carpet, I saw the words as Dr. Frankenstein saw his monster: What have I wrought? Can it be fixed, or must it be destroyed?
I read Goodnight Moon so many times fifteen, sixteen years ago that when another daughter was born a decade later, I could almost recite the book without it being present. But there was a child before this–the one that I never read to, either with book in hand or by memory. Hers is the book of ghosts: of creations unrealized, of galaxies out of reach.
A girl with a chromosomal anomaly. Birthed into the shock of her mortality. Her loss sent me into a darkness of searching, lowering me into the Hades of her premature death, as if once there I would find her reason. Depression can be self-limiting, and all things change even as the thread of my not knowing pulled through into the light.
Goodnight Moon. If I call you on the great green telephone, or become the old lady who whispers hush, will your number be listed in the vastness of that night? Good night, somebody, good night.
Following the quiet fall of the baby that slipped through the cracks of her genetic impossibility was the scream of another–this one alive and ready to take no prisoners. She has brought me to my knees in despair of my impatience, challenging every thought I’ve had, on those rare occasions I’ve had them, about being a good mother. And then a surprise of connection: her gaze of unconditional love comes at me, her fingers and mine clinging, grasping, for the return of affection. We are both redeemed.
How could she seem so different from the first? Or did my despair over my second baby’s loss render me broken and without reserves, unable to field the assault of an onslaught of screams, as grateful as I was for the new breath of life?
And then another child, this one born into the fullness of the words I had finally begun to unearth. This fourth girl resists definition. She is, at age 3, both blue and pink, yelling as she jumps from the back of the couch, retreating to her room a moment later to give into the necessity of solitude. She does these things and then begs me to pick her up. “Hold me,” she pleads, all brown eyes. Like the contents of another book, she has her own storyline: this one stealth, intent on dissembling everything in her wake, from magic markers to the contents of her closet. A new variety of handwringing for me. A new line of worry.
And yet through my pregnancy and into her birth I gestated my first book, a literary birth, yielding neither boy nor girl. A hermaphrodite of words, my novel still tries to define itself, just as I struggle with self definition–beyond mother, as mother, encompassing mother.
The words I coax through the keyboard into my hard drive are often quick and outside of my conscious grasp. Like babies, they are a part of you until they slip through your fingers into their own interpretations. My own complicated story will blindly tamper with my daughters’ psyches. I will have no control over this.
I think I am whole, or nearly so: at last approaching the fully-realized self I once envisioned becoming. Then I fall into a hole I didn’t anticipate, and the writing stops. The ankle holding up my new self twists at the surprise of it. As I sit at my desk to write, imagining my daughters at school, I can’t move forward without seeing them. So I pull a photograph from my wallet–the image of their young selves fixing me in an ever-present flux of my own selfness. I am mother: always, beneath, in, and outside of everything.
The books, the babies; both are a diversion, one from the other, until they fuse. They have come together now, no longer magnets at identical poles, pushing at each other as I once pushed my mind against my body. There is no other means of containing the loss of one, and the gain of the others, other than through words.