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Just a chapter and not the story itself

A second birthday, a third maternity leave. A second August and most of September in our new old house. Great rains sometimes fall / evening cicadas sing /dew glistens white on grass / swallows leave. This is the week that thunder ceases (more is expected this weekend).

Like that, the baby is two months old. Like that, a real extrovert. A people person. Left on her own, she’ll huff and puff but catch her eye and she’s all easy beams and conspiratorial grins. She likes to hold a hunk of my hair like reins as she peers out over my shoulder; l’m constantly finding and unwinding slim rings of hair around her index finger. 

Irving turned two and we threw our first real birthday party, with a pinata and cake and neighorhood kids romping about. There was supposed to be a slip n slide, but it was delayed, and I beheaded the pinata on my first strike, and unwittingly stuffed it with jawbreakers as well as chewing gum, but it was a fun party nonetheless, and Irving now takes important calls from the little wooden playhouse Brady built for him. “Hello, how are you?” he asks, and then, more insistent, “how ARE you?”

My middle child, my September 11th baby (that happy counterweight to a somber date). All but the first six months of his life have unfolded under the ebbs and flows of a pandemic. Not knowing any different, he scuffs blithely along. When he was born, he was a dead ringer for the great character actor Wallace Shawn, but now he’s got gold ringlets and big cornflower blue eyes. A good looking kid, sturdy as a tugboat.  

Oh, it is a relief to know I’m done, we’re done with having children. To marvel over the daily and sea changes of three little people without some unknown changeling clamoring for its own contemplation. 

I stand under the canopy of a giant maple in the town playground and watch, idly, as the boys make “piggy pies” of sand and leaves Perry has spent a good twenty minutes gathering. The rope tree whose bottom third was attainable only with diligent coaching two months earlier is now easily, fluidly scaled, and even Irving makes it up halfway and then back down without any intervention. 

Which is not to say I’m finding three kids easy, most of the time. But the difficulty, or, really, the intensity is tractable, knowable.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m out of the smoke and into the fire. Pregnancy’s limbo is so prolongued that I forget what it’s like when the wait is over. Clear, is what it’s like. 

Mornings, I walk in the woods and fields with Ottie. The hiss and buzz of August has hushed somewhat, though most of its wildflowers remain. In August, a breath of wind and the common groundswell drift and swell like snow. By September, they’re heavy with dew and glinting. The woods are full of paisley colors: sage lichen and teal fir needles, toadstools in muted violet and carmine, oyster mushrooms in a truly beautiful rich tan. There are orange lily of the valley berries and smaller red winterberries and dozens of white-grey ghostpipes. I listen to a podcast about houseplants. “Plants will grow in the shape of your light,” the guest says.

Oh, how I treasure these walks with Ottie, now shining-eyed, head poking up out of the carrier, in a pink cap and a little navy fleece Irving wore before her. 

Candles glow in the windows of the onion house all year round, but lately, by five, four on a cloudy day, they grab the eye a little more. It’s not time to put up our own candles yet, but it’s time to start thinking about candles, whether the ones I got last year are still in good order or are separated stalk from head under the beds and in the cabinets and chests of various children. Last night, the moon was almost too bright to look at and in its light, the lawn past the copse of hemlock is velvety, the crabgrass invisible. Not that I’m a proponent of lawns, generally. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the meadows, as previously noted, are looking fly. 

I kept waiting for a theme to coalesce around the occasional notes I type out in my phone, but no theme came. Or the theme is this current season of life, no more and no less. 

The sounds of this season life are the bluejays, now omnipresent, and Way Down in the Hole and the City on Fire audiobook, just finished, which I listen to at 3, 3:30, now 4 in the morning as I feed Ottie, and Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” and “Jealousy” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey,” which I blast on the drive home from school, per Perry’s and now Irving’s request. And The Daily, which I listen to, or half listen to, on my morning walks.

The words are Amy Jo Burns’ Shiner, which felt like the opening salvo of a greater epic, and the fantastic archival New Yorker food issue, Susan Orleans on the restaurant Centro Vasco, in Havana, and its offshoot, in Miami, and Calvin Trillin on crawdads and a day and night at Les Halles with Anthony Bourdain and Dana Goodyear on our bug-eating future (written a decade ago but still, in this carpe diem country, very much down the road). And a re-read of Mrs. Fletcher and then into Little Children and now Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, also a re-read, but the first one was in middle school, from a copy filched from my stepsister and read in a breathless single sitting, so it feels like a new read.

I guess, unwittingly, I’ve been on the beginnings of a suburban novel tear. Though, in the case of the Tom Perotta books, what I was drawn to wasn’t the setting (Perotta favors a generic ur-suburb, strip malls and driving everywhere and cul-de-sac developments) but the generosity and grace he extends to all characters. No one, not even a murderous pedophile, is wholly unsympathetic — or wholly sympathetic. Even characters who start out as caricatures are eventually given enough time at the wheel to become human. 

The sights of the season are my family and the woods and the meadows and the beginnings of foliage and the thin man in khakis and pale blue shirt mowing the lawn of the house that so desperately needs a new coat of paint, mowing steadily, soberly (so he does care, I thought), and the slanted light, today in soft grey, that pours through the bedroom window and the signs in triangle where the town’s main road splits into two. These signs tell me about the upcoming election for the school committee and that fall sports are now open for registration and that there is going to be a swimming race around the perimeter of the lake, and a 5K the elementary school PTA puts on. I keep forgetting to research the school committee candidates and Perry says nope, no soccer for me lady, but I do sign up for the perimeter swim and the 5K and it feels good to race again, in fields so small that I’m able to entertain, at least for moments here and there, thoughts of victory. 

The season’s tastes are numerous and not worth enumerating, though, thanks to our CSA, I’m finally laid up in quality lettuce. 

There are no smells in this season, of course, apart from those manufactured for the novel I’m {still} writing. Well, that’s not wholly true. The other day, I could have sworn I smelled the bright green rinds of the fallen walnuts. More likely, it was just memory, but it was vivid enough. 

It’s tempting to end it there. Pretty, late-summer imagery, a smattering of sensory detail, a wee lady awakening. Meanwhile, the cornflake girls are winning.

Perhaps if we’d stayed in the city, the universe’s more grim and malevolent facets, to say nothing of its injustice, would be harder to ignore (thinking of last summer’s protests, which, for a stretch, passed under our window with near-daily regularity, and of just about any Manhattan sidewalk and every subway station). Out here, in this leafy, sleepy, homogenous exurb, it is easy to inhabit a small and nuclear world, easy to spend more time thinking of meadows and school picture day forms and whether a child’s hair-trigger moods are a reaction to the tumult of a new baby or a phase or just who he is and how there are never enough storage bins or hangers and always too many fruit flies and heads of napa cabbage.

At first, the news out of Texas, though enraging and horrifying, felt geographically distant. But a piece in NYMag on a mother convicted of manslaughter for prenatal drug use grabbed me by the shoulders and shook, hard. This is not really happening? You bet your life it is.

The state’s argument was that the mother’s use of methamphetamines was the cause of the placental abruption that caused her baby boy to die in utero. It’s a horrible, sad story, and it certainly raises ethical questions (this was the mother’s 9th child, and the state had remanded each of the previous 8, either to family or to foster homes; the mother was herself a victim of intergenerational drug use and poverty and abuse; the Central Valley is to this day fairly committed to limiting access to birth control and to sex ed, and even if none of this were the case, to what extent does the mother have a right to keep having children she is not in a position to support?). But those questions, though weighty, are beside the point, which is that the state’s successful prosecution in this case, and in other cases with similarly less-than-sympathetic defendants, augur poorly for the future rights of womenkind. One the one hand, of course you shouldn’t do meth while pregnant. On the other, what about prescription medication, or jaywalking, or the odd glass of wine? The latter two being activities and substances I did and consumed during my own pregnancies, along with running and sushi and probably closer to 300mg of caffeine a day than 200. And, if we are to follow the Elle Woods line of reasoning, what about the things we do and consume while we are able to get pregnant? To wit, the cbd+thc tincture I was taking near nightly last fall, to say nothing of the many beers consumed while waiting for some inkling of which way the election would turn. Will women of child-bearing age be allowed to sky-dive or ride horses or pole vault? Will their diets be monitored, their movements policed?

The precedent set in the case of People v. Perez lays the groundwork for such a thing. Keep moving the goal posts and you end up with no field at all.

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