More like a particle or more like a wave

If there is an undercurrent to the past four, almost five years of writing, it is waiting for the click.

Waiting for the resurrection of my imagination, my desire to tell stories, architect characters, narratives, motives.

The French anthropologist Nastassja Martin described her encounter with a camchatma brown bear in the Siberian wilderness as: “A meeting, an implosion of boundaries, a melding of forms.” The moments she spent within the bear’s jaws, she writes, were “intimate beyond anything I could have imagined.” 

The experience cost Martin much of her face. 

A face in exchange for unimaginable intimacy. 

I would not give up my face


but – what a click!

I have lived these past few, three, four, oh goodness nearly five years in the very close present. The hour to hour, seat of my pants present. From this vantage point, incremental and often borderless, it is nearly impossible to get a sense of direction, progression or regression.

Unlike the hyperpresent, the close present offers little in the way of transcendence.  He’s gotten so tall, my sister exclaims, upon seeing Perry after a three month absence. And I noticed then that his pajamas ended above his ankles, and I could remember a time when they had billowed to the point of clownishness, but I could not remember when. 

It is only recently that I have acknowledged that the state of my post-kid brain, furry, divided, easily and infinitely distracted by surface-level needs and fears – is not transitory. The meagre body of maternal neurobiological research agrees on one point: gray matter in the hippocampuses of pregnant and new mothers is markedly reduced compared to the brains of the child-free. The working hypothesis for this reduction is that it allows greater development of the part of the brain attuned to others’ needs. See: feature, not bug! 

And I buy that – truly. But also: the feature is for the child, not the mother. Or, not for the mother as she was. 

It is too easy to blame what has more or less amounted to a generative stalemate on the close present – and certainly, other new mothers have managed to make ART and Art and art (and).

But if the close present lends itself to fiction, it is fiction in a form to which I have not yet cottoned. 

To be honest, it was something of a lightbulb moment, linking close present with novel tire kicking, with speculative desert. This is your brain on babies. 

And yet. 

The narrative bedrock of the past five years – that raising very young children necessitates a certain loosie-goosieness vis-a-vis mid- and long-term planning, viz. anticipating, viz. thinking ahead – has already begun to lose some of its saliency. The children are no longer so very young.


Eg, I took the kids to the toy store to round up a few birthday presents – a warren of a place, with about 12 different tiny rooms, and the boys posted up in the book room, paged quietly enough through Fly Away Home and Cordoroy and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and it was Ottelie who kept wandering off. This very small but perambulating person in her michelin man coat.

Eg, last night, the boys watched Spider Man (the one with Tobey + Kirsten) — a movie B and I would both happily watch, and for a while, all five of us were squeezed on the couch, all of our own volition. (Just as Catherine Newman prophesied! Bring on The King’s Speech, yearlings!)

Eg, on Perry’s fifth birthday, he requests a visit to the Museum of Comparative Zoology, to see the taxidermied animals in their plexiglass halls. On the way into the square, Perry points out each of the three domes whose muted pink, teal, celadon so captivated me as a child. I have, true to form, forgotten my wallet; Perry assures me that we will be fine with just my phone. He gamely walks the mile from the one garage I think might take apple pay to the museum, pointing out his favorite gate, loping ahead to the library steps, the shuttered rock fountain. Inside the museum, he leads me to the grey wolf and the burmese python, then allows Ottelie to spend endless minutes with the gorilla. In the New England room, where the wolf and deer and moose stand out in the open, a boy is trying to spot the snapping turtle inside a recreated lakebed. Perry leans over the glass, shows him the turtle’s hooked beak. “I bet you’re really good at finding things,” the boy’s mother says. Perry shakes his head. “If they don’t move,” he says, somberly. A heavy sigh. “Almost everything moves.”

“Not this guy..” The other boy raps the glass above the turtle’s head. “HE doesn’t move. I bet he hasn’t moved in a hundred years.” 

“No,” I say, slowly. The taxidermied animals are, in fact, a century old. 

Eg, for the first time since 2017, three out of the top ten songs in my spotify wrapped were not from the lullaby playlist. 

The question is: will the very close present organically make room for the short, near, mid, long-term? Or are there steps I must take to ensure my own transition? 

In one of the neurobiological studies, the researchers found that the synaptic pruning and whittled down hippocampial gray matter of the early years of motherhood is made up for by an increase, in middle age, of cognitive + emotional neuron production. 

Hope is the thing with neurogenesis!

But then I think – am I giving myself too much credit? 


For much of the week leading up to Christmas, Perry was home with the flu. On the fourth or fifth day, I cajoled him into a walk to the little pond, where I picked winterberries and he smashed the newly formed ice scrim with a stout stick. And then he slept for a good four hours, and I, trying to plow through the work year’s remaining tasks, did not notice when he woke. Eventually, the faint cries pierced my fog of industry and when I reached the guestroom and found his small tearful person my steely heart caved a little. What’s wrong, I asked, and he said he was so lonely, which just about broke me. I hugged him in a state of self-reproach, then demanded he make brownies with me.

If I were really doing all this synaptic pruning, wouldn’t I be a more present and attentive parent? Wouldn’t I be worrying about their health and well-being instead of where last year’s winter boots have gotten off to and whether a half hour might possibly be enough outdoor time when it’s twelve degrees with a dog skittering windchill? Wouldn’t I welcome car seat requirements for any age given the safety car seats provide, instead of whining about the annoyance of jamming two-and-a-booster into one row? 

“I believe that children arrive with their own life of the mind, and that to the extent that they get to spend time in that world which they themselves have invented—that’s pretty good.” So Rivka Galchen wrote, in a beautiful essay about her childhood and her father, absent-minded, incorrigibly late, lopsidedly brilliant, and her mother, whose unheralded mastery of the household’s needs enabled these qualities, and their endearing cast.  

A quote I’ve clung to as byword since reading, but Galchen is not endorsing abdication of parental scaffolding, of being a reliable + ears-attuned presence. 

Really, am I just allowing myself to succumb to, to indulge in the white noise of the hyperreal era? 

{The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation}

Scientists first figured out a way to photograph the brain around the turn of the previous century. An interesting meta-analysis would be to do a period over period comparison of maternal brain images. What do maternal brains in wartime look like, as compared to in times of peace? Youthquake brains versus silent generation, radio versus television versus you’ve got mail versus now?

(If only anyone had thought to take images of the maternal brain before the turn of this century!)

As it is, I have my motherhood + madness syllabus to fall back upon. The syllabus indicates self-doubt, fear, anxiety have been generating in the ears of mothers choruses of various pitches and volumes since time immemorial; it is only their manifestations that have morphed. Fewer gods and vapors and headache pills; more MLMs and algorithms.

I am tired of algorithms / I was promised oblivion! 

I have gone off topic. The close present is nature or nurture, but what of its cessation? Where is the operating manual? 

The sociologist Kai Erikson, who studied the impact of man-made disasters on victimized communities, came to believe that “one of the crucial jobs of culture is to help people camouflage the actual risks of the world around them.”

New motherhood != life after nuclear fall out, but: both scenarios are dominated by heightened and sometimes blightening risk awareness.

If early motherhood is thus purposefully denuded of culture, then is culture also the not quite so new-mother’s way out of the speculative desert?


I go to New York for the company Christmas party. I spend an early winter’s morning roving the old neighborhood – what privilege to rise early and walk to a coffee shop that has risen earlier still, and isn’t Dunkin Donuts, by the way – listening to a story on quantum computing and entanglement.  The narrator is plummily British; I keep pausing every few blocks to take notes. “Whether an electron behaves more like a particle or more like a wave depends on whether someone is observing it,” he says. Entanglement sounds alchemical, magical – a linking of outcomes that flattens physical distance. It reminds me of the twins in White Teeth, one in India, one in England, bolting upright with shared nightmares. Is entanglement the inspiration for twin (pop) science? But almost everything, broken down, is entangled. “Whenever systems interact, the interaction creates correlations between them.” 

At the party, I make a point of complimenting: a plum velvet square-necked ren-faire dress, a ankle-length black suede coat with a dramatically plush black fur interior, a pleated crepe pant suit in a marvelously aggressive shade of kelly green. It is so easy to say aloud what i would ordinarily keep to myself. 

But then, on the subway, a mother and her children are selling candy – chicles, chicles – and I do not get my wallet out in time; instead, I stare at the baby wrapped against the mother’s back as the baby’s shiny black eyes swivel about the crowded car.

My point is not that I have changed, but that the excuse for not changing no longer holds up. 


It is the day before the day before Christmas. In the wall beside me, the red squirrels are laying in for the winter ahead. Tap, tap, tap. They fall momentarily silent when I respond in kind. I am reading about T.S. Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale, his putative other woman. Putative because the poet did not need her; he needed to not have her. Not having her was grist for the mill. He assembled impediments; when, unexpectedly, his wife’s death removed them, he was forced to come to terms with his ruse. His ghost in love with Hale’s ghost; this ghostly love his work’s animating force. Or so he insisted; the latter insistence stripping Hale herself of any standing contribution. The cruelty, prolonged and almost diffident, gave me pause. Poetry an untraceable assemblage: more pause. Is there comfort in seeing the mechanics of some of the last century’s greatest poetry? 

I set Eliot aside, and spend an electric hour absorbed in the Poetry Foundation’s “Year in Prose,” pingponging from John Keene to Raul Gómez Jattin to  Florine Stettheimer with her improbable glass flower paintings and hungry exclamation points to Bianca Stone. I am a naive jejeune as far as poetry is concerned, and consistently delighted. 

Come to the window love / the sky’s sparked a fandango / in its distant bend And it’s not so cold

Gómez Jattin was a Columbian poet who burned bright and erratically, and whose final work, published posthumously, depicts a losing battle with schizophrenia, to devastating and often phantasmagorical effect. But fandango! A word I situated immediately in the tan confines of my eighth grade speller. Google it and you’ll drown in movie ticket bookings; it’s a coupled dance, like the tango, its rhyming cousin. Scaramouche, scaramouche!

Keene’s ‘Tú No Lo Recuerdas,’ I copy down in triplicate, and still I stagger from colon to colon. Eliot’s ghost rattles around the noun/participial verb enjambment – only Keene uses colons instead of breaks, so that each clause collapses into the next. 

And as for Bianca Stone (Grand daughter of Ruth and Walter (who descended in daughters / perished in necktie (singular)):

I too 

used to get obliterated and wander

The streets of new york

Looking for takeout

(okay, fine – in my case, those clear-plastic pucks of banjan, coiled burdock roots

Out of harry potter 


Doesn’t that make you think of “City Middle?” I stopped writing and turned on Alligator, pacing the darkening room.


The boys tumble in, complaining of insults, minor injuries. What did you do while we slept, P asks. Irv pounces on the notebook. Did you write to me, mummy? Can I write to you? 

Irving tells stories constantly, and the line between falsehood and story is liminal, and liminal only by dint of novelty. I made this for you at school, he will say, handing me a ribbon from a parcel he’s unwrapped minutes earlier. When his brother complains of an ear ache, he will complain far more strenuously of two earaches, of bloody ears, ears full of spiders. But mine is real, Perry will wail, reproachfully, sensing, not inaccurately, that one falsehood dilutes another’s truth. 

A ricochet and a cry from the children’s bath, where Ottelie, up to no good, has dropped a marble down the open drain. Minor fracas ensues once I announce there’s no getting it back. 

“But it is my favorite marble–”

“If only we had an intelligent mouse we could lower down on a string,” I say, wickedly.

“Can’t you just unscrew the pipe or something?”

“Not this pipe. This is a critical pipe.” 

“How do you make pipes?” Perry asks.

I start to say something about steel, but Irving is too quick: 

“Pipes are made of danger.” 


It’s a new year. The year of the rabbit. On its eve, I take the kids to the lake, whose surface is undergoing video game levels of sublimation thanks to all this meteorological pingponging. Only the upper bounds of the island’s fir trees are visible above the mist.

Look at all the ghosts. Perry says he’s going to catch one in the fishing net he’s got tilting precariously over one shoulder. 

But how, I ask. Ghosts are mist; the net will go right through. 

I often find myself snuffing make-believe at the wrong times. Why am I so selectively literal? 

Perry shakes his head. Ghosts aren’t mist. They are people under blankets. 

The boys obey my command to stay off the ice; they inspect, thoroughly, its evaporating perimeter; they drop Irving’s red bobber into a slim hole and wait for some thaw-addled bruminator to bite. 

Ottelie takes exploratory steps onto the ice, banana peels, is removed from the ice, tries again. Admonishments have no effect. The trick that works is to put her up on the battered white lifeguard chair, whose upper rungs, she concedes, are worth a climb. 

The rain thickens; the invisible sun goes down. Happy New Year, we cry, returning to the car. 

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  1. Leonie

  2. Sarah

    Claire, this was stunningly beautiful and moving—thank you!!

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