Interview With Poet Lauren Gordon

Rattle & Pen is thrilled to support the newest publication by one of our own contributors–Lauren Gordon’s collection of poetry Keen (publication information below). Here, we offer you a brief interview with Lauren about the collection, her writing process, and where she’s headed next.



Keen, by Lauren Gordon, Horse Less Press, December 2014

This is such an interesting concept for a collection of poetry. Can you talk about how you composed this collection? Did you have Nancy Drew in mind from the start, or did the connection to the character emerge slowly as you wrote individual poems?

Thank you. When I left my MFA program in 2010, I was a little burned out on writing formal, pastoral poems, which was my bag at the time. I had the idea to write a series of poems about Nancy Drew and the mystery of family that would maybe loosely speak to my own relationship with my family. It never happened. I wasn’t connecting with what I was attempting to write so I abandoned the project.

The first section of the chapbook happened years later in a blur – I reread one of the Nancy Drew books (The Crooked Banister, which came out in 1971 and was #48 in the series) and was just kind of floored by this one illustration of Nancy being held by a robot. The look on Nancy’s face is supposed to be terror, but instead she looks surprised, and the robot looks sad. It’s as if she’s being hugged against her will. I projected myself into the picture unconsciously and that is when the writing started. I wrote it very quickly and then spent a long time editing. The second section came a bit slower (the section where Nancy’s mother speaks through her last will and testimony).

I think I needed to get remarried and become a mother in order to write those poems. That is what lent insight to postpartum depression, love affairs, loss – madness. Nancy was always pretty well-fleshed in my mind’s eye, because I had years of feeling like I knew her intimately. It was the mother’s voice that took a little longer to inhabit.

You must have been a Nancy Drew fan as a young reader. What did you love about the books then? Which is your favorite? What about the books or the characters has stuck with you as an adult?

As a young reader, I loved the formulaic predictability of Nancy’s world: sweater set, cold sandwiches in wax paper, a hand-wringing and aproned Hannah Gruen, titian-locks, swarthy criminals. To me, Nancy was the ultimate “good girl” and as an overweight, over-achieving child of multiple divorces, Nancy was a safe and familiar icon to cling to. The books I related to the most were the ones were her cousins, George and Bess appeared along with Ned and Dave (oh to have a steady!). Poor Bess. She was always the self-effacing “comely but chubby” friend, forever pinching her own cheeks. I loved it when Nancy was called in by the police chief for help, or when she helped her father with a case – those particular books where the teen-aged girl is smarter than the adults – well, understandably those thrilled me the most.

It’s different to read the books now as an adult. I still have affection for the characters, but it’s impossible to not read them now without grimacing at the overt racism and sexism. As historical artifacts, they’re immensely interesting and simultaneously gross. I can’t separate them from the space and place they come from, so they have lost a little bit of the sparkle.

You’ve titled your collection Keen, after Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew titles, but, of course, there was no actual Carolyn Keene. The name was a pseudonym, and a host of ghostwriters actually penned the novels over the years of their production. Given that, I’m wondering about identity and its role as a theme in your collection.

I like the riff on the word “keen”, how it points to acuity or sharpness, or how it’s almost like “keening”, which is a lament, much like the second half of the chapbook. I spent a long time thinking on identity, individually and collectively. The poems are meant to address what is absent in the (earlier) Nancy Drew books, specifically diversity, equality, mothers, sexuality, mental illness, and grief. I think the absence comes from a historical collective denial glossed over with a quaint Americana sheen. It’s bizarre to think about some older, white-haired, married gentleman ghostwriting stories as a woman writing about a teenage girl. Nancy becomes a female symbol of patriarchy through this lens and you see it happening in the books if you’re a close reader. She goes through personality changes – from a witty and direct teen gumshoe to demure sweater-set paragon. I found myself questioning my own identity and privilege when reading these books as an adult. And the gothic anxiety of sexuality and femininity, oh my gosh. I laugh thinking about all of the circumstances where Nancy and Ned are trapped, alone, in some small, tight space.

Writing Nancy’s mother was a blast, though. There was a lot of freedom in developing her persona, even though it goes to some dark places. Carson Drew speaks at one point in the last will and testimony, as a sort of cuckolded and smoldering voice and I think it needed that interjection. Nancy is propelled throughout the poems by the will of others. It was important to strip her of some autonomy in order to further the conversation on identity and use things like trapdoors and robots as metaphors.

Also central to your collection is an exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters. Nancy’s mother, of course, died, and from the beginning of the series Nancy was being raised by her single father (and her housemaid). What led you to pick out that absence in the series, and how did it inform your poems?

I was raised by a single mother who I am now estranged from, so the dynamics of our relationship and my upbringing were pretty tantamount to how I tried to approach these poems. I mentioned earlier that I had wanted to write something on “the mystery of family” years ago, but I was in the middle of great suffering and sometimes it is hard to create from that space. It took some distancing. It took me being a mother to a girl to reconcile and write that voice, too.

In a much less personal way, it was always remarkable how well turned out Nancy always was, as if she didn’t need a mother. There was no lamenting or grieving – there was never mention of Mrs. Drew. The housekeeper fulfilled the dutiful role of cook and maid with some loose affection here and there, but Nancy’s independence and unflagging positive attitude become the anti-reality. Here is this motherless girl who is always looking for something, always motivated by the mystery of what is missing.

Readers love to know about the process a writer carries out in composing work. Do you have an identifiable and repetitive process when you sit down to write a poem, or is your writing process less structured than that? 

I have been having a four-month long dry spell, but I suppose no one wants to hear that or it looks unprofessional. The Nancy poems came to me quickly, in a matter of weeks. I wrote another chapbook manuscript in two days on my laptop (that has never happened before), but most of the time I spend editing and laboring and work-shopping and rewriting and submitting and re-submitting. And then I take poetry breaks. And then I do NaPoWriMo. And then I hibernate. One of my goals this year is to aim for structure. Right now I’m reading for five minutes and writing for five minutes, in a journal, not on the computer. It has been much harder to carve out time now that my daughter is a full-blown thinking, feeling, talking, running person. But there is something to be said for handwriting notes; it’s a slower process that makes my brain actually stop and think about what it wants to express.

Finally, what’s your blue roadster and what comes next in the “series”?

It’s a nine-year-old blue Chevy Cobalt with 49,000 miles on it. Have you ever strapped a flailing human into the backseat of a two-door coupe? Somewhere there is another version of me in a 1959 Chevy Bel Air, white-walled tires, strawberry locks whipping in the wind.

Next in the series – I will be doing a reading in Grand Rapids, Michigan on January 18th for Poetry & Pints that is part of a reading series run by the Horse Less Press editors, and then another reading at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee on January 31 as part of their poetry marathon. Coming out this year is another chapbook with another great press – Yellow Flag Press – that is an ars poetica called “Generalizations about Spines”.

(Interview by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum)

The Imagining


If I let myself, I can imagine it. All the worst-case scenarios, all the terrible things that could happen to my children. All the ways I could fail them, and all the ways the world could get them and take them from me. I can imagine the weight of their bodies in my arms. The look of their faces, wiped clean of emotion, pain, joy.

Once you have children, there is so much to lose. Everything frightens me now.

Now, the worst-case scenario seems so much more likely. I can’t stop my mind from leaping into those dark chasms and swimming about in morbid fantasy. Lovely afternoons become nightmares. Mundane outings become disasters. I can envision all my worst fears and see the things I never want to see. My mind leaps to the terrible, no matter how hard I try to avoid it.

Perhaps it’s my mind’s prophylactic—as though by imagining it first, I can somehow stop it. Or maybe it’s just what happens when you truly have something to lose. All the worst thoughts come to the forefront when there’s something at stake. Regardless, it’s an aspect of parenthood I hadn’t anticipated.

All of my dreams are like horror movies now. We are chased by murderers. We are stuck in a maze of a house surrounded by danger. I am driving us—unintentionally—off a bridge. These are not things that I worry about in my waking hours, but they dominate my sleeping consciousness. In my dreams, the impossible happens over and over again, and I can’t stop it.

When I’m awake, I worry about the more likely disasters. I worry about car accidents, the latest superbug, an accidentally inhaled lungful of water. When they bonk their heads, I wonder if they could have hit it in just the right place. The place that will cause permanent damage. I’m afraid when they get sick. Afraid that rasp will turn into a choking cough, afraid that cough will keep them from breathing when we’re not watching. I’m afraid they’ll jump off the thing I’m always begging them not to jump from, and that they’ll damage themselves permanently. I’m afraid we won’t make the right choices for them.

For a while, I thought these relentless irrational fears were just me. I’ve always been a worrier, and I was well aware that parenthood had jumpstarted a certain paranoia in me. But then I heard a friend mention that she had strange disaster fantasies, too, and other friends piped in and said they did too, and I began to realize that this is just parenthood. We spend so much time and effort and love on protecting these little people we make, and then we realize quickly how impossible that is. We can’t protect them. We try, and we hope, and we do the best we can, but there’s only so much to be done. And that is terrifying.

Somehow, we have to learn to live with the fact that we can’t protect our children. Despite all our efforts and safety precautions, we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. They will make mistakes, they will get hurt, they will have accidents, and they will get sick. We can’t keep them cloistered from the dangers of the world and expect that they will be happy and healthy and well-adjusted, too. We have to allow these people we made to go into the world, and we have to do our best to calm our imaginations. We have to trust—against our own minds’ worse fears—that our children will be okay. Eventually, we’ll learn to quell the fear. To live with it. To breathe. To watch. To hold them tight and then, as hard as it is, to let them go.

~ Shannon Brugh

Thursday Morning

Rattle & Pen is happy to welcome a guest writer to our site! Jennifer Sanquer-Mason grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. She earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California at Davis and a Masters in English literature from the University of Amiens in France. She teaches English in a high school in Brittany, where she lives with her husband and three children.



This morning is that of a typical weekday. My new son sleeps in a basket next to the wood stove where I’ve just managed to get a fire going. I’ve cleared the table of the whirlwind breakfast my daughters and husband have just eaten. Getting them ready for school is a little more deliberate with me at home; I actually fix my girls’ hair now. I’ve even learned to French braid, thanks to my four-year-old’s patience and determination to look like Elsa from Frozen.

I’m acutely aware, mornings like this, of feeling lucky in life. Today before leaving, my husband brought in wood and let out the chickens so I don’t have to throw on a coat and boots over my pyjamas. My third child, one month old, only wakes up once in the night to nurse, so, although I’m tired, I’m not experiencing that piercing exhaustion I knew with my two girls when they were infants. I’m in the middle of 6 months paid maternity leave, and after that will be taking 6 more months, unpaid. We can afford this even though my husband, also a teacher, is already working half-time by choice. When my son is 10 months old, I’ll go back to my teaching job in a high school not far from my house, where I could stay until I retire, unless I choose to leave. By now you’ll have realized I don’t live in the United States.

The life I have in France is just as I’d hoped it would be, and at the same time completely different. A little stone house in the country with a door we never lock, and land enough to grow fruits and vegetables. A teaching job. Three healthy children. My kids don’t know McDonald’s, but they do know where meat and milk comes from (the little farm across the street). On the other hand, there are no fireflies or bears or thunderstorms or mountains. Hardly any elevation at all.

French kids play at “wolf”, where wolf is the bad guy who tries to eat everyone. There’s usually a safe spot called “cabin” where they all huddle and where the wolf can’t go. My six-year-old is still slightly wary of any collection of trees that she could call a forest, because that’s where wolves live. This is despite us repeating the fact that there are maybe three wild wolves living in the whole country, all far from here, and all in danger of being shot at by farmers.

Psychologists talk about parents having to mourn the baby they’d imagined before getting to accept the baby they really have. I often get a flash in my mind of the house I’d have had if we’d gone back to the US: wood-framed, screen door, a porch. It’s a thousand unimportant details – the door handles, the window blinds, the electric outlets – that together create a rift between that imagined place and where I actually live.

Rift is what I used to think about when I wrote poetry. Lines, I thought, are like stitches or bridges going back and forth between the two sides, linking them though they’d never be entirely whole. Writing helped me hold on to contradictions, without erasing the inconvenient parts. A post card shows just the horse on the prairie; a poem includes the power lines and the highway.

I could find lots of reasons to explain why I haven’t written in years. Those reasons don’t include my children or my job or the lack of space in our house. It surely does begin with me getting tired of that voice in my head that notes down and narrates life. I needed that voice when I was younger, to make sense of things and give me courage. A few years after grad school, though, I just wanted to turn it off. I still think about words all the time, going back and forth between two languages. And my work teaching English to French teenagers gives me a chance to make deliberate choices about words. It’s not art, but it does require skill.

A teacher told me once he thought I wasn’t damaged enough to be a writer. I was shocked at the time, but maybe it’s not so far from the truth. I do feel safe here. And this almost makes up for the lack of fiercely beautiful predators prowling nearby.

~ Jennifer Sanquer-Mason

Book Review: Sirs & Madams, by Joanna C. Valente


“Sirs & Madams,” by Joanna C. Valente
Aldrich Press, 2014
75 pages
ISBN 9780692278338

Joanna C. Valente’s full-length collection of poetry, Sirs & Madams, debuts with Aldrich Press. The book is a collection of character-centric narrative poems in four seasonal sections. The book reads like a non-homogenized Greek chorus version of “The Virgin Suicides,” and although set in a contemporary time, the poems seem to vibrate with some sort of 70’s afterglow. Even the cover of the book looks like it draws upon an updated version of Carolyn Forche’s A Country Between Us, but modern flotsam like OkCupid and Facebook flits into the poems with the same ease as does a reference to Sly and the Family Stone, vanilla wafers, or “Lady Sings the Blues.” Stylistically, it’s a character-driven narrative that explores generational soul-sickness.

A few dark motifs emerge right away: amputated feet washing ashore, empty spaces, ghosts and guts. The poems circle around three sisters and their eventual deaths, but it is the poems that occur in the autumn section that feel more fleshed out. The sisters never stop reading as ephemeral beings, or as if they exist solely for the boys who are woven into their lives. The poem “Paul & Marianne” explores Paul’s sexuality against Marianne’s desire for freedom:

Paul told her he wanted to be a dancer,
rent an apartment in the city with a dog & a man.

He was tired of fixing cars so his hands would become
rough. For years, all he wanted were hands that could build.

She already knew, said it was no big deal. They drove away,
passing strangers – wishing they had flowers instead of neighbors.

Marianne’s poems are always in motion, as if they can’t be contained on the page, and Valente captures the persona with noticeable consistency throughout each section. The death of the sisters is impending and made clear in the first poem, so there is a strange pull when reading, as if waiting for the sword to fall. The last poem in the winter section, “Driving to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring” reintroduces the narrator and Greek chorus-esque by breaking the fourth wall: “Reader, can you see the crush/of their minutes?” Valente suspends the drama by using this technique, and the sections contribute to the pacing.

The pervasive theme of emptiness is kept from becoming overwhelming by Valente’s deft metaphor; it is not just about “the innards” of bodies, but the bodies themselves in the spaces they occupy. Houses are abandoned, bellies are empty or wombs are full of “ceramic knives.” The feet washing ashore are grotesque apparitions of ceasing bodily function; and the juxtaposition of cold v. heat, letters v. dialogue, suicide v. natural death appear and reappear as placement markers in each section.

The ordering is complex—again like a Greek drama—and Valente makes good use of persona pieces with concrete images to create an arcing narrative. Even with multiple narrators, the poems are able to maintain and propel the story. In the book’s final poem, “Tell Them They’re Dead,” Valente writes: “There were three sisters dangerous/as swans, broken into a hundred versions of themselves depending/on which day of the week.” The book ends as if a reader can expect a sequel, as if the new version of “bad blood” will create a new magic. It’s cleverly done for a debut collection, and Valente is undoubtedly a poet to watch.

Review by Lauren Gordon

Patience After Kids


I used to be patient. People used to describe me as calm, serene, peaceful. I used to be patient.

But now, I am the mother of two small boys. And I don’t know if it was my children or teaching other people’s children before I had my own, but something happened. And now, I have no more patience.

I’m sure—ultimately—that’s not true. I’m sure if I could step back for a second and observe myself objectively, I would find that for a SAHM of two young boys who squeezes in part-time work from home, I’m still relatively patient. But it doesn’t feel that way.

Instead, it feels like my patience is stretched every hour of every day. It feels like my patience is tested and pushed and yanked beyond its limits. And it is. I am a parent, and that is what kids do. They stretch and push and yank (and sometimes stomp on) so that they can learn and understand. So that they can make sense of the world and their place in it.

I know this. Logically, I know that kids try patience and parents try to regenerate it, like the tail of some placid tropical lizard. No matter how many times that patience tail is yanked off, it will always grow back.

But, oh. There are those days. Those days when the kids seem determined to break me, and I feel like they will. Those days when I no longer have the patience for the 7,000th “Mom” or the 400th brotherly squabble. Those days when I think, “If I trip on one more truck I’m going to lose it.”

And truth be told, sometimes I do. I am far from perfect and far from the serene person people used to describe. Sometimes, I lose it. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I yell. Sometimes—though I’m loath to admit it—I get so bloody drained of patience that I kick toys across the room or slam doors. Sometimes, I just run out of patience.

The anger generated in me these days is a different kind of anger. I’m so drained of patience and energy every day that most of the time I feel like there’s something smoldering somewhere in my body. Like the embers are always lit, glowering beneath the surface, waiting to be stoked. And they are inevitably stoked by something: The incessant whining or the nonstop arguing or the refusal to eat the dinner I took extra care to make.

At those moments, I have this ridiculous cartoon flash when I feel the barometer rising, like steam will come bursting out of my ears at any moment. Like my top will blow right off.

And I don’t like that feeling. It feels bad. It feels un-parent-like. It feels wrong.

But it comes over and over again. I used to have the ability to squash it, to breathe through it or allow logic to chase it away, but I seem to have lost that particular talent. Maybe one day I just used the last dregs of my once endless patience. Perhaps it disappeared under the couch, slowly, like so many Legos. But that endless, regenerating supply of tolerance seems to be gone. And I struggle to bring it back in the moment.

Now, when I feel like the steam has no where left to go, when the embers combust once more, I have to find a way to sneak away to replenish that tolerance. With two small children in the house, that usually means the bathroom. So I find my solace in the shower. It sounds ridiculous and cliché, but it helps. A new squashing, of sorts. It’s one of the few places I can be alone (if I lock the door) and it’s one of the few times I can think a continuous thought.

Something about the water cools those embers and keeps me from burning out. I can find logic in there; there’s perspective in that soggy reflection. And every time, no matter how angry and exhausted and infuriated and done I am, I can think through it in the steam and the warmth. I can douse that ire that threatens to burn out of control. I can wash all that toxicity down the drain with my shampoo. I can breathe again.

Because the truth is, patience does always come back. Some days it takes a while. Some weeks it’s a slow and painfully deliberate re-growth. Some months there’s much more smoldering than dousing. But it always returns.

And a new day begins.

I am not the patient, calm person I once was. I am a mother now. And motherhood seems to have ignited a whole new passion in me. One that may not always be steady and peaceful, but is nonetheless filled with endless love for my boys. Serene, I am no longer. But I do love these kids with a passion.

~ Shannon Brugh

* Photo credit: (Mt. Saint Helens eruption, Wikipedia).

We Are the Minefield


* Photo: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 


Readers, this is just a quick post, but I want to share it, as I’m feeling like we need a little hope today. Why? Well, yesterday’s politics are still ringing far too loudly in my head (and, I’m guessing, in yours). I spent last night feeling defeated by my government, saddened. Today, though, as I sat down to get back to work on a piece of fiction I’m writing (a story that, as it happens, is about a group of invisible, angry girls), I thought again of Justice Ginsburg’s line about the minefield and remembered what yesterday’s fury had obscured for me: we are not disarmed as long as we keep telling our stories. Language can be used to uphold old ideas, yes, but also to explode them. I say this with the many women writers I know and admire in mind. These women are not only writing the texts that will define the next generation of American culture, but also mothering and mentoring the next generation of readers and thinkers and voters and law-makers.

And with that realization, I felt a bit better about our future again. Yesterday’s fury became today’s determination. Keep writing, I reminded myself. You are the mine.


Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Big Picture: Being Some Body




It’s a muggy Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a dental chair in my periodontist’s office having a heart attack.

The dental assistant is patting my arm, telling me I’m doing a good job and to just relax. My rib cage is housing a wild, flapping bird of a heart and my breath is choked. “Deep breaths,” he keeps saying. “It’s not a heart attack. It’s not even a panic attack. It’s just the epinephrine from the Novocain.”

My arms are jerking violently of their own volition and I’m crying now. Ugly cry-face in front of this sweet, Midwestern beau hunk kid who ten minutes prior was talking about a seventy thousand dollar motorboat he wants to buy. This is the sixth dental visit I’ve had in four months and they rush together in a blur: a root canal on top of an old root canal, teeth cleaning, two hour exams, referrals, and now this gum grafting surgery for bone loss. These visits have been interspersed with eight visits to a podiatrist who gives me cortisol blocks in my feet and fitted me for orthotics, another visit to my physician for a month-long recurring rash on my arms and legs, a follow-up with a dermatologist…

“The crying is normal,” he says. “It’s a scary feeling.” I want to tell him the crying isn’t about my involuntary muscle movements or my throbbing heartbeat. I want to tell him how tired I am of being inside my body, how this biologically induced panic attack feels like the pinnacle of my fear and exhaustion and aging. “Think of the big picture,” he says.

When the numbing agents kick in twenty minutes later and I no longer feel like Uma Thurman’s character in “Pulp Fiction” with a needle sticking out of her chest, the dentist begins removing a section of gum tissue from the roof of my mouth. I feel no pain there, just a strange, insistent tugging and what sounds like ripping. I close my eyes behind the dark safe-wear glasses and feel the tense pull of muscles in my neck, my jaw. Even my legs are rigid with the pressure of holding myself so still. My throat aches to swallow the pool of blood that fills it, but I am past basic bodily functions at this point. I am a tight replica of a body without being.

The big picture? That at the rate I’m going, I’ll be walking around on toothpick bones with three teeth in my head and a gigantic bunion I’ve nicknaked “Paul.” I want to tell him it wasn’t always like this, but when I really start to think about it, I realize that might not be true. The moments I have felt alive or good in my body are rare, and that’s depressing when I let it be. Even my first marriage was the result of an impending and necessary surgery because I didn’t have the insurance I needed to cover the operation. It doesn’t get more romantic than that. That marriage saw me through a few surgeries and treatments–multiple laminectomies and diskectomies in my back and neck, a gastric bypass operation, thalassemia minor, a breast reduction, iron infusions, hospitalization. A glamorous check-list of ailments in my twenties that invited doctors to say things like “but you’re so young” or “you’ll recover so fast, you’re young.” One gynecologist said “usually I only see cysts like these in female truckers.” Another said, “You’ve got the cervix of a nine year old!”

There is little you can do about genetics, except wallow in it or rise above it. And here I am now, years later, in a different marriage with a different post-baby body, kicking around with my tiny cervix. This time around it’s bone loss and slipped disks and plantar fasciitis and allergies. How seemingly mundane. I sound old. I sound tired. Chronic pain is the kind of thing that only sufferers can really understand. How it changes the mapping of your brain, how you respond to stressful situations, how truly present you can be in a moment. And it’s nothing compared to the sliding scale of people who suffer to the point of immobility, or are not high functioning, or on pain killers. It’s more like piling the straw on the camel’s post-surgery back. She’s bowing from the pressure. Or is she drowning?

“Sorry about all the blood,” says the dental assistant, “I’m trying to suck it up as much as possible.”

I smile or grimace in response and start to remember an accident my daughter had a month or two ago. It was her bedtime and she got a case of the sillies. If you’ve ever parented a toddler, you know the sillies. You’ve missed the twilight call of the perfect bedtime window and your child gets the second wind. Daylight Savings Time exists solely to screw with parents of small children. So on the brink of new spring hours, my husband asked, “Do you think we should take her up to bed?” just as my daughter started to sprint toward the window seat like a colt.

“Probably,” I hedged, thinking about the walk up the stairs and my sad knees. “You know how clumsy she gets when she’s this tired.”

You can’t write foreshadowing this succinct or accurately. The second the words were out of my mouth, she tumbled head-first and hit her face against the edge of the wooden and tile window seat. Cue the deadly silent scream. I scooped her up, didn’t see any immediate red marks and started to say “I think she’s ok…” just as her mouth began to pool with blood.

Bloody mouths are remarkable things. You’ve never seen so much blood so fast, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, could only feel my stomach dropping like I was barreling down a roller coaster. I ran to the bathroom and instinct took over as I wetted a washcloth and shoved it against where I thought there might be a cut in her mouth, over her top teeth. Easier said than done with a hysterical child. It’s hard to simultaneously soothe and doctor.

“What can I do?” my husband said, his face white.

“Call the nurse’s line,” I said quickly.

I don’t know how he found a nurse’s line to call in a matter of seconds, but he did. For twenty minutes the nurse walked us through what we were doing and had us look at the wound. I lifted my daughter’s cheek and removed the washcloth to see a three inch gash along her upper gums, as well broken skin on her lower lip where she must have bitten herself. The short version of this story is that eventually she stopped crying, eventually the bleeding stopped, eventually my husband held my hands while I cried, told me how amazing I was to keep my shit together under those circumstances–to do my crying later, when my daughter had been doped up with Tylenol and put to bed.

Is this what it’s like for those mothers who lift cars off of their children, fend off would-be attackers with incredible rage and adrenaline? It doesn’t feel good. It feels enormously frightening to know you might not be enough, that your body isn’t enough. But being conscious of pain and present with it has helped me become much more empathetic to suffering in others, so maybe there is a trade-off here.

I see my daughter learning the world through her body while learning how to be in her body, and in turn, she is teaching me. She loves to try on my shoes and attempt walking in them. When the oven is warm, she presses her face against it and says in a stern voice, “hot!” Water on the windows is a marvel – “rain!” Puddles make noise when feet are stomping. Blankets are great for hiding under. Teddy bears are for hugging. Mama’s swollen, post-surgery chin is perfect for head-butting.

Her body will undergo so many changes that sometimes I’m overwhelmed trying to imagine it all. It will be regarded as property. Laws will be made about it without her consent. It will be objectified, looked at, the subject of countless articles and conversations. And it will suffer pain. It already has. It already does. How to listen to your body, acknowledge the pain, and move on? I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be present in my body, to know when to push it and to know when not, but it still surprises me. And I find myself baffled by how to teach her to love her body when I can barely stand to be in mine sometimes, but maybe that isn’t the point.

I see our reflection in the sliding doors at the super market as I hold her hand while we walk. We hobble together in our way. Her steps are slow and loud, mine are just slow. But when we sit together in the overstuffed chair at home, her body nestles against mine like a puzzle piece. When we lie on the small bed together, we fit just right. That is the marvel–that my body had a hand in creating another body, so perfect and new and strong; that I would do ten more of these gum-grafts and wear ugly running shoes for the rest of my life if it gives me more time to just be here.

When the oral surgery is over, the dental assistant hands me a goody bag with a soft toothbrush and a three page post-surgery checklist. It’s a ten-week long recovery process full of follow-up appointments and special care. “Big picture,” he says again with a smile. “You’re going to be just fine.”

And I believe him.


–Lauren Gordon


* The image heading this blog post is from the gorgeous series “A Beautiful Body,” by photographer Jade Beall, which features the bodies of real mothers. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out immediately (here, at the Huffington Post site). It’s a stunning and sensitive look at the post-baby body. (KSL)