For starters, I expect snickers, snorts and eye rolls, and I’m prepared to be corrected, though I won’t concede without some back and forth. That said, I’ll present my case directly: The two most powerful agents in the world are … Continue reading
I’m not looking to make trouble, but I’ve been thinking a lot about breastfeeding since grandson Cole was born on November 30, 2013. Granted, this subject falls into the None-of-Your-Damned-Business Department, but that’s never stopped me from having my say. I’ll preface my list of points with a few acknowledgements: Nursing is wonderful for women who want to do so and are able. Still, twenty-five years ago wife Kathy, breast-milk fed baby daughter Elena, and I were on a long car trip, and Elena was practically crying herself into a hemorrhage. She was hungry. We couldn’t stop, so we gave her formula. Needs must. So I’m not personally militant about breastfeeding. And while I dig the Earth mother groove, I wouldn’t bury the placenta and plant a tree over it.
All that said, on with the none-of-my-business points. From here on I won’t say I think or I believe or for me. The whole thing is coming out of my neurotic head.
Point #1: I gush with pride in Elena. When Cole was a newborn, she spent a month or so figuring out how to nurse in public, gauging her comfort level, working out strategies for minimizing exposure. Since then, Elena has settled into her ways of being discreet without doubling over in fear that somebody might catch a glimpse of her nipple. When she is over at Mom and Dad’s house, she issues a two-word alert: boob out. This is a perfect approach to every nursing situation because it places the responsibility where it belongs. The woman’s job is to nourish her child. Everybody else’s role is to look away if they don’t want to see. It’s simple. And this leads to . . .
Point #2: For pity’s sake, it’s a breast! Let’s be grown ups. Sure, breasts can be wonderfully erotic. If we took a vote, I would check the “in favor of breasts” box. They get my support. I’m a fan. Golly, breasts are fun. But, come on! I’m writing this in Starbucks, and by my count there are twenty breasts here, not counting men’s poor excuses for them. (Oops, make that twenty-two.) They’re all over the place. I can’t look in any direction and not see boobs in, and, conveniently, they serve a purpose much more important than making men randy. So let’s all work on our ability to distinguish one situation from another. Nursing women are giving their babies not only nutritional gold, but a helping of comfort and intimacy; therefore, if any of us happen to see a kiddo happily tugging away, we ought to give thanks. Something great is happening on our rancorous planet. Bottoms up—as it were.
Point #3: There’s a really cool community formed around the practice of breastfeeding. Elena has found friendship and support in the La Leche League, and I’m moved by the members’ warmth and commitment. A few months ago Kathy, son Micah, and I joined Elena, Cole, and son-in-law Matt for a walk to benefit the League. That’s when my head really started filling with hippie-type information and opinions. Turns out that—big surprise—some women have trouble nursing or can’t produce enough milk to sustain a child. Other women could feed the Waltons and Brady Bunch combined. So the high producers freeze their expressed milk and give it to mothers who need it or to neonatal intensive care units willing to accept it. (Illinois mother of four Amelia Boomker, 36, has donated 16,321 oz. between 2008 and 2013. That’s 816 venti Starbucks drinks. That’s also a world record.)
And if a woman wants to nurse but is having trouble getting the hang of it, a La Leche League member will come to her home and try to help. Evidence of breast milk’s turbo nutrition is compelling, and here’s a community of people willing to give time and energy to making kids healthy. This is good stuff.
Point #4: Okay, this one might push some of you over the edge, but get past your case of the willies and stay with me. If women want to, they should go ahead and use their expressed milk in recipes. You heard me! We ought to have no problem eating—I dunno—lady macaroni and cheese or brownies with woman-milk frosting. Here’s a little perspective. We think nothing of drinking cow’s milk. A cow spends most of its day lolling its own prairie puke around in its mouth. And don’t read this next excerpt from an article on foodmatterstv.com if you’re a milk lover:
It turns out that standard dairy cows are medicated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to stimulate a much higher than normal milk production. This causes severe stress that results in mastitis, an infection of the udders of sick and stressed cows. This infection is, of course, treated with antibiotics, helping to breed more antibiotic resistant organisms. It is literally unbelievable that one liter (a little over a quart) of Californian milk contained 298 million pus cells in 2003, 11 million more pus cells than it contained in 2002.
Mmmm! Make mine a double. But I’m not finished yet. A couple months ago I made a delicious pizza with goat cheese—from a goat, an ornery coot that gives head butts and dines on tin cans and tumbleweed. We eat cheese that’s got veins of mold. We eat Rocky Mountain oysters and lutefisk, which means lye fish. And hot dogs, which are said to contain gonads and snout and whatever-the-hell. And head cheese, which isn’t dairy at all, but scraps from a pig’s head held together with gelatin. And in other arenas of life, we let some genuine nastiness pass our lips—I’ll leave that pasture of ew to your imagination.
So what’s the discomfort with adults consuming a woman’s milk? The problem isn’t with our amiable old buddy the breast, but with three pounds of goo between our ears. Here I’ll break my rule: I believe three thoughts mess with our heads. First, some might associate consuming a woman’s milk with sucking her boob, which leads to a perceived line being crossed. To this I would say, “You don’t associate drinking cow’s milk with sucking its udder. What’s the difference?” Second, we might think drinking a woman’s milk is in a teensy weensy way like cannibalism. Today we’re licking a woman’s-milk ice cream cone, next thing you know we’ll be feeding ourselves like the starving soldiers in Candide. And third, I have to note an ambivalent cultural attitude toward women’s bodies. For some, women are either libido fuel or kind of yucky. Breast milk falls in the latter category. What a shame. To borrow an image from Freud critics, “Sometimes a boob is just a boob.”
I think you’ll agree that we’ve all had about enough of John Coleman’s say for one day. As far as I know, I’ve never had any food made with human dairy, but I’m game. And when a mother is nursing her child, I’m not afraid of seeing too much. Please! I’m reminded that grace is alive and well.
Grandson Cole showed up at 4:30 Monday, just after my siesta—an hour of what Winston Churchill called “blessed oblivion.” With the exception of a kink in my neck, I seemed to be living within a cleansing breath. Rested. Peaceful.
Cole, on the other hand, was fresh off a visit to the doctor for vaccinations. The poor little poop took hits in both thighs. Daughter Elena said infants generally have two reactions to injections. They either conscientiously object by sleeping through the process or scream as though they had been knifed. Cole opted for the latter in a display that his mom imagined would for an adult have constituted finger pointing and expletives.
The result: Cole napped off the effrontery in his car seat, which was perched on the dining room table. While wife Kathy, Elena, and son-in-law Matt huddled in the kitchen to discuss how they might rip away at cabinetry to make room for a new refrigerator, I hovered over my grandson. His profile reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe because of the exertion, his cheeks were puffy, and the tip of his tongue stuck out—micro-raspberries blown at the man and his pricky needles.
I beheld for a minute, then did what I always do: rested my lips and nose like a feather on the top of his head and breathed in. My lungs were at once filled with . . . well, here’s the problem. There are no words for what takes up fleeting residence in me.
People marvel about how great babies smell, but their sacrament reaches way past our noses. A grandmother I know once gave the perfect response to looking at, holding, and smelling a baby. She scrunched up her round face, put fists beside her cheeks, trembled, and squealed, “Ooh, I just want to eat them up!”
Of course, not really eat them, as Jonathan Swift clowned in A Modest Proposal. More like receiving eucharistic baby-ness. Infant cup. Child bread of life. I’m not speaking figuratively. I mean this: When I run my finger across Cole’s cheek, look into his blue eyes, trace the delicate shape of his crying mouth, and rest my lips and nose against his sleeping head, I want to take the fundamental cole-ness of Cole into myself, to unite with his his-ness.
My grandson evokes in me a soul response. If I were the only parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or whatever adult to feel this bottomless longing toward an infant, I’d keep quiet, but my experience is close to universal. What is it about little ones that draws us close and takes hold of our eyes and won’t let go? If you put the Coleman family at the Taj Mahal, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the regular Gardens of Versailles, or, say, the Garden of Eden, we’d all look in amazement for a minute or two, then turn back toward Cole: “Aw, how’s the Cole-slaw, the Cole-meister, the Cole-o-rama, the Cole-mobile? How’s the widdle boody boody boo?”
Correct me if I’m wrong. What in heaven’s name is it about babies? On Monday as I stared at, kissed, and inhaled my grandson, an answer gave itself to me. Infants are new arrivals from eternity. They come from where we numb adults came from, and I believe they also come from where we are going. They were in the indescribably strong, gentle bosom of Forever, receiving milk and love songs from our cosmic Parent of Grace.
That’s it! That’s what I feel on my lips and breathe in as if my spirit were suffocating: Cole still has on his head the kisses of our Creator and on his cheeks whispered promises of mercy. The perfume hasn’t worn off yet. That’s it!
And I wonder: Did Cole hear my college friend Ken Sonnenberg–gone a year after graduation in a six-week gale of lymphoma–reading poems that may visit Pennsylvania as soothing breezes? Did he hear Fred Rogers say, “You’re going to be the only person in the world just like you, and people can like you just the way you are”? Sweet Lord! Did the cole-ness of Cole brush up against my mother in the vast lap of God?
Okay, this is a theological mess and a potential heresy, but I’m going with it. What better explanation? In that slight kiss on Cole’s head—and when you kiss your baby’s head?—I view worldly wonders, embrace every person I’ve loved, and dwell in the soft thunder of God’s heartbeat. I disappear into blessed oblivion with my recent immigrant from Mystery.
Finally Cole woke up, dull and dazed. Is it still a shock when he opens his eyes to our faces? He stared at me. He does that a lot. The kid knows a jester when he sees one. So I sang Marvin Gaye’s hymn “Got to Give It Up”—yes, in unapologetic falsetto:
I used to go out to parties
And stand around
‘Cause I was too nervous
To really get down
And my body yearned to be free
So I got up on the floor and found
Someone to choose me
No more standin’ along side the walls
Now I got myself together, baby,
And I’m havin’ a ball
Cole tracked me as I danced, probably confused about his new residence and all of our cackle and fuss. Not one smile for Gramps. No matter. Grandma Kathy bent close and said, “How’s my best buddy?” That got us a half-smile from his Buddha face. Plenty. More than enough. Eternity sighed in my chest.
P.S. If you like this post and are new to A Napper’s Companion, be welcome to take the following for a spin:
Three times today, tears have caught in my throat. They came in bed this morning while your grandmother was still asleep. A cry sat in my chest—the ghost of old grief? I remembered Kahlil Gibran’s words: “Joy and sorrow are inseparable . . . together they come and when one sits alone with you . . . remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
Tears came again in the truck as I listened to Paul Simon‘s “Father and Daughter.” When your mom and dad got married, your mom and I danced to this song. Before that day, October 2, 2010, I worried that the father/daughter wedding reception dance would be awkward, but those were three of the happiest minutes of my life. Everybody else in the hall disappeared; it was just me and Elena. We talked, I don’t remember about what. I rested my lips on her head. At the bridge, we sasheyed. We worked our big old hips, kiddo. Anyway, as I drove along, Simon sang and strummed, and I remembered and blinked back water.
And a few minutes ago tears accompanied my Starbucks coffee. I was listening to another Paul Simon tune, “You’re the One” and thought of you:
May twelve angels guard you
While you sleep.
Maybe that’s a waste of angels, I don’t know
I’d do anything to keep you safe
From the danger that surrounds us
There’s no particular danger surrounding either of us, but your face came to mind, and that’s generally enough to get me verklempt.
You cry a lot these days, Master Trouble Trunks. People who love you are always trying to figure out why. Hungry? Tired? Where’s Mommy? Irritated bum? A stubborn little rectum rocket? Sometimes I bet you just miss being inside your mom, where the gentle universe was shaped like your body.
But I don’t know. Something’s going on inside me; past tears I neglected could be offering me another chance to honor them. You’ll have days like this, too, when you’re either over the moon or in the lonesome valley (or both!) and haven’t a clue why. Maybe there are human equivalents to earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Anyway, since I can’t understand myself, don’t plan on me ever explaining the wonderful, goofy person you’re sure to become. I say that in love.
You can bet your life on this, though: for as long as I can, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing right now: loving you with a love that roars silently, that looks into your eyes and sees what blessings are swirling around in your presently gaseous self, that hopes you’ll see in my baggy eyes your birthright: every soul deserves to be held in a grandfather’s agape. Not every soul is so fortunate, and if I’m right about your other grandfather, boy-oh-boy, are you ever in for it.
Someday you’ll wonder what your first months of life were like. On one of those crappy-for-no-good-reason days of adulthood, you’ll think, “What the hell’s up with me? Did someone do me wrong? Did one of my relatives keep pinching me? Did a mystery person holding me whisper, “Everybody fusses over you, how cute you are, but listen here: you’re a hideous little dope”? No, no, and no. You’ve had more love directed at you in three months than lots of people get in a lifetime. No kidding!
Every single day, your mother sits you somewhere comfy, says something like, “Who’s Mommy’s lil bootie bootie boo? Is he going to smile for Mommy today?” then snaps five or six hundred pictures. At mid-morning, a few of the best ones hit the inboxes of people who love you. When your dad gets home, he makes you laugh and squeal. Both of your parents are beyond thoughtful and patient. And pretty much wherever you go, people crowd around you and get remarkably weird. Example: yesterday after lunch your mother and I sang “I Been Working on the Railroad” to you, even harmonizing on “strumming on the old banjo.” The last stanza’s a bummer, so we skipped it.
When you read this for yourself, hear a message from before your memory got started: Your grandpa prays on March 1, 2014, that the crazy, silly love surrounding you now will reside in you after your hair has come and gone, and that it will rise on those days when you are a stranger to yourself and remind you of my eyes, always finding the sacred Cole.
Thanks for yesterday. Lunch with you and your mom was fun. Getting your diaper changed with that irritated tookus was a drag, but you were a good sport. And holding you after nursing time was great. You were, as your mom put it, boob drunk. Congratulations and enjoy it while it lasts because the intoxication options of adulthood are a dead-end and won’t do your immune system any good.
You’re starting to track the people around you, which is a blessing you’ll understand decades from now, if you’re lucky. Today, January 9, 2014, is your fortieth day on earth. Your pastor grandfather can’t help thinking of the wilderness and Noah’s Ark.
Last night, when your grandmother and I stopped to see you, I believe you finished leaving the agape-nave of your mother’s womb. You awoke from the long om nap that gives life. You seemed to me for the first time genuinely, authentically awake, aware as I understand awareness.
And you looked at me for at least ten seconds—in infant time, this probably equals a week. I mean, you laid one on me. It was luscious. It was a twice- or thrice-in-a-chunky-man’s-life look. It was a Joe’s-Cheese-House-in-Marinette, Wisconsin-15-year-old-sharp-cheddar look. It was a four-days-on-the-schooner-Victory-Chimes look. It was a week-of-solitude-in-a-hermitage look. It was an everybody-in-the-family-is-doing-fine look. You get what I’m saying, Cole? You looked the wind out of Grandpa. That look could’ve raised the Titanic from the ocean floor. Powerful look. Amen! Hallelujah!
Or you may have been negotiating with a gas bubble or savoring Mom’s milk on the back of your tongue. If so, I’m glad to have been the object of your gaze, a visual mantra. But I don’t think so. I think you saw me and heard me. At this point, I suppose your mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, and uncle are all big-screen faces drifting in and out of focus and cartoon voices trying to tell you something.
This morning, little buddy, I figured out what we long for you to know. I had so much trouble getting out of bed that I prayed lying on my side. So tired, Lord. Some parts of life lately have been disappointing, persistently sad. So I opened myself to the Sacred Presence as best I could. A song from church when I was a teenager came into my head, so I let it play:
Restore unto me thy joy, thy free spirit. That was the prayer. Joy and freedom! Then I thought of you, thought of how many people are picking you up and staring at your eyelashes and speaking strange words and singing my-grown-up-heart-is-bursting-nonsense songs. And whispers. And kisses on your head—such a scent. And fingertips brushing your cheeks.
I’ll ask your mom and dad to save this letter for when you’re a teenager having a terrible day. You’ll feel like nobody understands you and the world is harsh. On that day, read this and hear what we’ve all been telling you. Hear these words that are so merciful and urgent that they get caught in our throats. We want to write them on your spirit before loveless authors line up to inform you that you’re a loser and your mother goes moo.
Hear these words today, Cole, that we mimed and rocked into you before you could hold up your own head: You are beloved! Sure, you’ll fail others, and they’ll return the favor. If you end up like me, pain and worry will sometimes make you want to find a remote cabin and disappear.
Close your eyes, buddy. Breathe. And trust me: our lips kissed you are beloved into your sweet head; our eyes stared you are beloved into your face as you slept; our hands anointed you are beloved on your pink bum with Desitin and on your neck with an old cloth diaper after a good burping; our hearts made you-are-beloved drum beats against your chest as we napped together.
Understand? When you blessed me with a long look last night, I blessed you back with the first and eternal truth of Cole Martin Thompson: You are beloved! Remember.
As I mentioned in my last post, my first grandchild Cole was born on November 30th. Days one through seven were dicey, as he was in the NICU with schmutz in one of his lungs. His face—and let me emphasize, it’s so boo-boo-beautiful you want to order a few of them ala mode—was jaundiced because his system was trying to absorb a hematoma on the back of his head, which was smooshed up against my daughter Elena’s pelvic bone for a week or two. Enough of that. He’s safely home now.
Most fresh grandparents are like me, all burble and coo. At the very instant of Cole’s birth, as he was soaring from womb to bosom, he crop-dusted his mother with meconium. I wasn’t there to see it, yet as soon as I heard the details I said in the voice of an animated bulldog, “That’s my boy!” Not because his first act was pooping on Elena, but because I took it as an existential statement.
As a newborn he’s swaddled most of the time, so his activity is at the low end of the spectrum. (Note on swaddling: Geez, Louise, they wrap infants up tightly these days. Cole looks like a white cotton bullet with a round, fleshy tip.) In other words, he’s often motionless. But when he does anything at all, makes kissy lips or even seems to be bearing down, you’d think Pavarotti just sang “Nessun Dorma’s” final vincero! The kid’s butt rumbles! The crowd goes wild!
These are the days that fracture men’s souls; at least that’s my experience. When my own Elena and Micah were born, I was too nerved up to take in the fullness of their beauty. I missed a lot—ah well, life is thus. At fifty-two, I’m still a goofed up customer, but together enough to be present to Cole. And his beauty has cracked me open. No kidding, the Swedish Bikini Team and the Victoria’s Secret Runway Squad could show up, and I’d rather look at the face of my grandson. I’m not going to lie: I’d glance up every few seconds, but Cole would get most of my attention.
Not even his face. His lips are enough. Or his assertive little nostils. God help this bizarre grandpa, I’m getting verklempt thinking about my grandson’s nose. I’m honestly undone. I’ve had hundreds of days when concentrating was difficult because of troubles real or imagined, but I can’t remember ever struggling to stay on task because of consuming joy.
Sure, Cole’s a standard-issue, boiler-plate, pretty-darned-decent-looking infant, but resting my lips against his fuzzy head has pushed open the door to my soul. Not only can I receive that boy’s beauty, but the lessons and wonders that crowd around me constantly come in for a visit.
Some wonders are quirky. Son Micah wandered into the kitchen last evening smoking his e-cig and wearing something resembling onesie pajamas, tiger slippers, and a hoodie. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he reported. “This is some comfortable shit.” My twenty-one-year-old has developed a taste for the Casablanca Hookah Lounge on Erie’s West 5th Street, where he read old National Geographics, drank Near Eastern tea, and smoked before coming home and changing into something more comfortable.
Until Cole was born, the plastic Halloween bobble kid Kathy glued to the truck dashboard annoyed me. The joy space he cleared changed my sneer into a laugh.
A couple lessons in recent days belong in the Whoa, Kind of Deep catagory. The other day I gave extra time to reading the work of fellow bloggers and was rewarded with this affirming observation from James Hollis, posted on agentleinstigator.wordpress.com:
“What constitutes personal authority? Stated most simply it means, to find what is true for oneself and to live it in the world. If it is not lived, it is not yet real for us, and we abide in what Sartre called ‘bad faith,’ the theologian calls ‘sin,’ the therapist calls ‘neurosis,’ and the existential philosopher calls ‘inauthentic being.’ Respectful of the rights and perspectives of others, personal authority is neither narcissistic nor imperialistic. It is a humble acknowledgement of what wishes to come to being through us.’
In my usual state I would have paused and considered such powerful words, but with my soul’s door open, I was able to receive them. “To find what is true for oneself and live it in the world”—yes! That’s my purpose. And acknowledging “what wishes to come to being through” me—another yes! I have so many failings. Some days my life stretches out in front of me like a cobblestone road made of imperfection. But if “what wishes to come to being through” me is a compassionate gaze toward the world, I should also use those loving eyes to regard my own brokenness.
Cole, wonder that he is, even guided me to a new appreciation of Facebook. A Napper’s Companion prodded me to join Facebook, but the friends I’ve connected with there have reminded me of human goodness. My light bulb moment came when my nephew Ed called himself a nerd for liking big band music, which reminds him of riding in the car with his late grandfather. Friend Abby, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t know Ed, posted this message for him: “I don’t think you’re a nerd. I think it’s pretty rad you were able to conjure up a great memory.”
Ah ha. Ed in Utah receives affirmation from John’s friend Abby in Pennsylvania. Technology is used to bestow a blessing. Civilization takes an inconspicuous cleansing breath. My past disgruntlement with Facebook had to do with news stories of cyber-bullying and friends being jerks to each other in cyber-public. Only after Ed and Abby’s exchange did I consider that humans are always finding new ways to treat each other like hot dog water. Blaming Facebook for a small fraction of its users’ shabby behavior is like blaming ranch style homes because couples sometimes argue in them. Hey, it’s not the house’s fault. So I say to Facebook, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
Is Cole’s face responsible for a couple of random epiphanies and shocks of joy? Has his beauty loosened something in me, healed an old wound or two, soothed a deep spirit-cramp? Is he helping me to see graces I’ve overlooked? Or is he innocent? I guess the only judge who matters is writing these words, and I say the kid’s guilty. When I suspect for a second that his eyes are actually meeting mine, my soul’s door swings open. The blessed trouble is, I can’t get it closed again.
Some time today I’m going to stop at Cole’s house, hold him, and wonder if souls can get along fine without doors.