Excerpt from Family Wakes Us Up: the first post-natal letter

A letter from  Family Wakes Us Up, my new book with Michael Stone.

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Dear Michael –

The clock says 4:37, my flesh says stay awake forever – you can’t miss any of this. My eyes are burning with bright exhaustion. He’s nursing and sleeping well, but it feels like I’m going through my own birth, and the labour has taken this whole nine days so far. Whenever I think I’m settling in for complete silence, I hear him breathe like another person within me, someone I have forgotten until now, someone coming in a dream, but no dream has ever pulsed so hot.

Jacob and Alix were separated on Saturday, and now they are finding each other again. She curls him into her, he reaches for her with his mouth. He wriggles in ways that make her gasp: he did exactly that inside me.

I was also separated from Alix during the labour. She disappeared into a trance I will write about one day. Now Jacob pulls us towards each other. But within the triad, the two of them tight together, they ground each other. Watching her mother, as new to mothering as he is to breathing, is like watching ocean finding shore. She studies him in minutest detail, but then her flesh goes to him without thought. In sleep they find each other in wordless confidence.

How did he ever seem so remote, so far away? He rests between us, nodding off at Alix’s swollen breast. For a moment, the sexual charge that has zipped between us from the beginning broadens and slows down and now swaddles itself around him. Everything is satisfied, but I cannot sleep. Jacob, you are sleeping for me. You are the dreaming man without time who soothes this waking man surrounded by clocks that make no sense.

But he is not me at all. He is new. He gets to come into this light and shadow and sound and texture for the first time, as if he were inventing perception.

Alix’s nipples cracked and bled on the second day in the hospital – we think because he has such a powerful suck and his latch wasn’t catching her whole aureole, and the colostrum wasn’t enough for him. I found pure lanolin for her to daub on and we joked about barnyard smells. I boiled fenugreek seeds and fed them to her. As soon as she took the first spoonful, the milk began to drip down onto her belly. I found fresh fenugreek leaves at my favourite Indian grocer. I told the Sri Lankan guy I’ve known for years it was for breast milk and he grinned with betel-juice-stained teeth and gave me a pomegranate as a new fatherhood gift.

I steamed the fenugreek leaves and dressed them in lemon and olive oil and salt and we both chewed it down. I fell asleep trying to figure out how fenugreek works according to Ayurveda (pungent, bitter, downward-moving – but how does it target the breast?) and then I rubbed my face in the armpit of the shirt I’ve worn for three days and the unmistakeable scent of fenugreek smacked me. The herb has permeated my lymphatic system, and is wafting from the nodes under my arms. Bitter caramel. Fenugreek is pushing our lymph. It must flavor the milk as well.

I put a lot of turmeric in Alix’s recovery broth as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, and it’s turning Jacob’s early poo a bright yellow-orange that stains like sunshine. The changing pad is a loaner. I hope Jennifer doesn’t mind if we return as though some Burmese monk had borrowed it.

I’ll tell you something: bonding is a crisis. The biological imperative is for it to happen as soon as possible. Within hours of Jacob’s birth my weeping with joy and the shadows of joy had burned his face into my brain. Sitting here in the next room, I can picture him more clearly than my mother or father, more clearly at moments than Alix. His face is already etched on my bones. Bones of a father.  And for a few hours, Alix had waves of tension contract within her nesting: is he okay, is he safe? And to me: I need you close. All when I couldn’t possibly get closer without crawling into her womb where this strange new empty space is.

I understand even more now the unbearable attachment our spiritual paths go on to try to correct or soften, but I reject even more now all the bullshit of it being some kind of weakness. Life forges promises in every hot heartbeat. The smallest thing voices an incredible demand: you are not your own anymore, you will care for me more deeply than you have ever cared for yourself. This intense attachment, as in – I would open my veins for you over and over again – has got to be the root of empathy. Where else would we begin? How do we learn to spread it out? Connect through it to others who feel it as well?

In the Mahabharatha, Kunti makes love with the sunrise, and gives birth to Karna, who believes he is illegitimate and struggles with feelings of abandonment throughout his life. Kunti never reveals her secret to him, but showers him with adoration to compensate. But in her overbearing love she has an insight. She says “Whenever a mother favours her own children over the children of another, war is near.” Karna never realizes that when the sun shines upon him, he is feeling his source.

Jacob’s breath stutters in his sleep as the storm rolls in. The midwives told us this is normal. His breath will shudder, gasp, hiccup, sigh, jitter, skip a beat, and smooth itself. His diaphragm is learning its many moods and tools. Learning to pivot, to be resilient, to absorb the thrusts and parries of his infant dreams. His diaphragm, which has no insertion or attachment points, a muscle as continuous as the nervous system.

Later in life we sit down to meditate and watch the breath to smooth its arc. But this is meaningless to someone disconnected from the full range of breath-strokes, with all of their giddiness and fear. Like asana couldn’t make sense without grounding in eccentric and asymmetrical movements. And I don’t know how rich the posture of metta could possibly be without the crushing, jealous, hyperpersonal attachment that marks the first relationships of life. We reach for peace through love, and love begins in this soft raining war. We transcend nothing. We move through.

Jacob grimaces in his sleep and the bright yellow poo flows through propelled by a series of loud wet farts. He is unbearably beautiful.



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