A Fifty-Two-Year-Old Galoot’s Take on Mother’s Milk

Photo on 8-29-14 at 1.46 PM

Last person in the world who should be holding forth about breastfeeding: a fifty-two-year-old, grizzled galoot

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.

IMG_2116

Elena and Cole: uber mom and well-fed little bucko

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 . . .

800px-Breastfeeding_baby

Something right about the world. (Credit: Irene / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

IMG_1845

The La Leche League walkers, with Matt, Elena, Cole, Micah, and Kathy in the mix. Kids nursed as needed along the way.

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.

Cow_female_black_white

What makes this Holstein’s milk better than a woman’s. Son-in-law Matt tells me humans are the only creatures that drink the milk of another species.

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.

640px-ForkLutefisk

Lutefisk: fish soaked in lye. Yeah, boy! (Credit: Wikipedia)

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.

200px-Sigmund_Freud_LIFE

Let’s not overthink the whole nursing thing, kids. Sigmund Freud in 1921 (Credit: Max Halberstadt / Wikipedia)

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.

unnamed

Bottom line: my little monster getting his nourishment when he needs it is more important than anybody’s twitchy sensibility. And no, don’t tell my daughter to go nurse in the restroom unless you’re willing to eat your own dinner sitting on the can.

A Letter to Noah, Gone on to Glory

Dear Noah:

On December 6, 2007, you passed from your mother to the womb of glory, forgoing planetary existence entirely. On April 2, 2008, which would have been your birthday, your mom, dad, and I prayed, reminded the universe that you were, and stood in a cemetery. We needed to let grief have its way with us—your mom, Liz, especially—out in the open air, before heaven and earth.

Only this morning did her sadness settle upon me, the breadth and depth of it. She and I talked for a few minutes last night after a meeting, and what she said woke me up at 5:30 this morning. Right away I felt the need to thank you. Because your life kissed Liz’s en route to mercy, I’ve been granted a truth. This isn’t a maxim, like “a penny saved is a penny earned,” but a truth that’s part of eternity’s cosmic dance.

Milky_Way_Galaxy

Your truth is as big as the Milky Way, Noah. (Credit: Rick Risinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So . . . the truth your mother spoke, not with words but with her eyes: we are loved into the world. Why did it take me fifty-two years to realize this? Even a dullard can detect pregnancy: swelly belly; the third-trimester waddle; puffy feet; pink cheeks. And women generally know not to smoke, drink, and do drugs while carrying a baby. During labor, breathing through contractions is common knowledge, so much so that it’s become a joke: Whew! Whew! Whew! Whew! Whew!

But what you and your mother have taught me, Noah, isn’t a lesson of body, but spirit. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and aunts and uncles don’t just get excited about a new arrival; they fall in love. While your digits were still forming, you were loved. Hundreds of times while you were kicking and shadow boxing in your mother’s womb, she held you in her soul, rested her lips against your sweet face, breathed in your newborn scent, still carrying whispers from God. And her love—so you and she have shown me—collaborated with biology to nurse you toward life.

Stomach of Pregnant Woman

Your earthly home looked something like this, Noah, and though you were hidden, many people loved you ahead of time. (Credit: Turbo / Corbis)

Now you would be six years old. This morning as I lay awake before dawn, I dreamed you. You would have the full face of your brothers Mitch and Gabriel and fine, blonde hair. Pretty soon, I would pull a chair up to the altar, and you would help me set the Communion table. You would raise your hands with the other Abiding Hope kids to bless the people. Your father, Shawn, would chase you around the church, maybe telling you to slow down. In this dream, love for you catches in my throat.

But my dream can’t compare to your mother’s. She dreams you all the time, and while I imagine clowning around and making you laugh, she dreams you with her body. Biology failed you, but your mom still feels the space in her arms where you should now find comfort. I’ll also bet the love that willed you toward birth still dwells in her womb. “Push,” it pleads, “push!” The longing is so profound it doesn’t stop, even though you are gone.

The_Thinker_(Le_Penseur)_copy_at_Kyoto_National_Museum_(side_view)

Would you have been a “thinker” or a “stinker”? Probably some of both. It would have been a joy to find out. (Credit: Franks Valli. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Oh, Noah! Do you understand from the lap of glory how you are loved? Still, I have to tell you, your beauty comes at a price. When you died, your mom, dad, and others who counted on your arrival could hardly bear it. “God,” they cried, “why would you take Noah from us?” Sometimes they shook their fists and swore at God, which I believe is the best possible prayer when that’s all you’ve got. Maybe you could check on this for me: God loves us beyond our doubts and rage, right? You could also ask if I’m right that God didn’t take you as part of a divine plan and doesn’t constantly make folks climb through barbed wire to test them.

But I shouldn’t be greedy. You and your mother have already blessed me with one answer: We are loved into life. Gracias, little senor! I’m also grateful that you have opened me up to other lessons about love that grow from the soil of your teaching. That’s how my mind works: I dig for truth and find species of it gathered in one small garden.

 —

We live on love. Friends of mine are serving as foster parents to a toddler they plan to adopt. Also parents to an infant son, they are Mommy and Daddy, enfolding both boys with the blessings of home and family. By chance, the biological father learned that he had a son and hopes to be awarded custody. For now, he has visitation rights. The boy returns from each visit shaken and upset and cries in the night: “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

Just as Liz and Shawn loved you toward life, Noah, my friends’ love for their sons—no distinction in their hearts between biological and adopted—has left fingerprints on their souls. The four of them belong to each other, and they survive not only on food and water, but on the wholeness they find in each other’s arms. Even the possibility of being separated is shattering. The parents imagine the boy who is now part of them afraid and confused, calling out for them from a strange bed in a strange house. They pray, “Why would your plan demand a toddler’s despair?”

IMG_2157

My friend Diana gave me this rubbing a long time ago. Looking at it makes me wonder about the face of God. Please ask God to smile upon us and be merciful.

Some lessons are necessary, but damned difficult. You’ve taught me that I would rather have my loved ones safe beside me and suffer all other scarcity than know material abundance and empty arms. Love is as necessary as clothing and shelter. Intercede for all of us, Noah. Hold God’s hand as we—our boy’s parents and all who love him—throw haymakers at heaven and demand answers.

Love longs to be spent. I think lots of us are formed and fired to be vessels for love. If enough of it builds up without finding a good recipient, we show cracks. In recent years I’ve spoken with a couple of women who wanted to bear children. One told me after drinking an iced-bourbon truth serum that she regrets not having children. “I think I could have been a good mother,” she said through tears. And she would have been—nervous, worried, but as attentive and understanding as any mother in circulation. In her sixties now, she looks across the expanse of years and holds open hands that would have always touched daughters and sons with gentleness. Another friend tried for years to get pregnant, without success. She heard stories of unwanted babies cruelly discarded and thought, “I’m right here! I’ll love your baby. Just bring him here and leave. Nobody has to know.” For both these women dear to me, adoption wasn’t an option.

Potter Crafting Pot

Did the Potter of Eternity shape us to carry love, to pour it out generously? That’s what I believe. (Credit: Richard Gross / Corbis)

Noah, you’ve never known the weary joy of comforting a crying baby, but your passing through my life has helped me to recognize that many of us feel starved for the love that completely and recklessly embraces another life, a fragile life that can’t survive without us. A baby falls asleep because you have surrounded her with your tender presence. The unfulfilled longing for such a connection chants a mantra: “Push!”

 —

Love lands where it pleases. An old friend of mine is selling his house and moving into a senior apartment complex that doesn’t allow pets. He gave his dog to a kind friend, and on the first night in her new home she dug a hole under the fence and escaped. Sleepless hours passed until the next morning, when my friend stopped by my office with good news. The dog returned and was sleeping in the laundry room of her new home at daybreak.

“Last night I did something I haven’t done in a long time,” he reported. “I got on my knees and prayed.” The thought of his beloved dog confused and afraid in woods and fields was torture. I bet for a while my friend will go to pet his dog and feel grief when he remembers she lives with someone else now.

We love what we love, I guess: dogs, meadows, goldfish, blue heron, homes, clematis vines, neighborhoods. Noah, you might ask me, “How can you love me, John? You never even met me.” Because that’s how love works, buddy. It writes its own rules, in its own time and at its own pleasure. And it’s under no obligation to make sense.

800px-Great_Blue_Heron_0887

Can you love a blue heron, Noah? That’s for love to decide. (Credit: Dori. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 —

“I got on my knees and prayed.” That’s it! Love brings us to our knees. That’s what you and your mother taught me, along with leaving me a question. I wonder if great minds over the centuries have uncovered only the scientific truth about the origin of universe. Maybe there’s a second truth. What do you think, Noah? Were the suns and planets and beating hearts of each galaxy loved into space? And is that love still sending us out for billions of years until it calls all that exists together again to be embraced—blood, bones, fire, and stardust?

You’ve got me wondering, kid, wondering and believing. Who could have imagined that a boy who never held his parents’ hands and walked barefoot on wet grass or woke up in the middle of the night afraid would be wise enough to grant a grateful man truths to live on.

Thanks, Noah. Give God a kiss for us.

Love,

John

The Dandelion Doesn’t Command the Sun

IMG_1930

God spoke through my daughter Elena in 2006, wearing monarchs about to take off for Mexico.

Over twenty years ago I attended a class taught by Sister Rita Pancera on centering prayer: silence, abide with the Loving Mystery. I told Sr. Rita that sometimes in prayer I feel like God is telling me something, but I hear the message in my own voice. The point of centering prayer isn’t to latch on to thoughts or images—anything—but who wants to turn down Divine Assistance? I asked her, “How can I be sure that the words come from God and not just from myself?” Her answer continues to shape my spirit: “What makes you think God wouldn’t use your own voice to tell you something?”

That was the wisdom of a woman who had spent years in prayer, and I’ve not only shared it with others, but also let myself be liberated and humbled by its implications. In every place and at all times, God might have something to say. And I’m in no position to put limits on how God speaks and through whom. (The dandelion doesn’t command the sun.)

640px-DandelionFlower2

So . . . I suppose I shouldn’t insist that God speak to me in voices of my choosing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I heard God on blogging friend Melanie Lynn Griffin’s post about her past career, in which she and a group of colleagues met with a Navajo group to teach them about persuasion. Turns out they have no such word in their language. The young listen to their elders and don’t argue with them. After a moment of beautiful laughter and understanding, one of the elders said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.” God speaks through a Navajo man. (Thanks, Melanie.)

I heard God on Winding Road when blogging friend Kerry, whose family recently lost nearly everything in a flood, charted her grieving and recovering with a moving insight: “Reclaiming order sometimes means deconstructing first and one cannot build back up until walls have been torn down.” God speaks through a young mother who got knocked down and is trying to get back up. (Thanks, Kerry.)

I heard God yesterday while reading this: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” God speaks through Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi_writing_1942

Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And during morning prayer, I heard God use my voice. It was a mind-whisper: Enjoy. It seems I’ve been turning damned near everything in my life into a program, something to be worked at, a goal to be pursued with one eye on the clock. I haven’t been enjoying my present embarrassment of blessings in my blood and in the cavern of my chest where anxiety has been an intractable squatter.

“Enjoy,” my spirit says. I’ve come to believe in a peculiar miracle: I don’t think God speaks to me directly, though that would be something. Rather, God helps me to hear myself—but only if I sit still. And what I heard in merciful silence was a cardinal calling out to his mate. “Listen,” I said. “Receive this song, this beauty.” In an instant I understood what God longed for me to hear.

800px-Cardinal_Backyard_Birds_Cary-1

If you sing, I’ll try to enjoy.

The people I love and the gorgeous world exist for their own sake, but they also exist for me. “Enjoy,” God said in my throat. “All of this is for you.” And so, sitting propped up in bed before sunrise, my spirit flew open like a door caught by the wind. As if on cue, I began enjoying.

Micah’s alarm went off. Because I could sleep, I didn’t go through the routine: stopping at his door at about 7:15 and making sure he is awake. “You up, Scooter?” I sometimes say. Or “Cupcake.” Or “Your Royal Dudeness.” Or “Fart-breath.” I go with whatever pops into my head. He always answers, “Yup.” But praying, I listened to him clomp around downstairs like a camel in wooden shoes. I didn’t mind. He was off to work, being a man, propelling his own ass out of bed. My son is well.

Because Kathy didn’t have to be to work until 9:30, we went out for breakfast. She savored sleeping in, and I savored our kiss when I dropped her off.

I took lunch to daughter Elena and got to hang out with her and grandson Cole. “Enjoy,” echoed in my chest, and darned if I didn’t. Vegetarian hippie food. We talked. I got to hold Cole, place my lips on his bald head, breathe in the perfume that still lingers from when God kissed him in the womb. And I snuffled his neck like a dog, which made him laugh. The whole time, I watched my daughter be a stunningly good mother. I’m so proud my eyeballs want to go flying out of their baggy sockets.

IMG_1949

God never has to help me enjoy this guy.

The afternoon offered itself to me. I napped, prayed for forty minutes, cleaned up the kitchen, and made the dining room presentable.

Micah got home from work. My God! My son, just two years ago a heroin asshole, blesses me every day with his goodness. On Mother’s Day, he came home with a bright bouquet and card for Kathy. A quote: “To the Mom who invented fun, creativity, and a wonderful imagination in me. And taught me 50% of what I know about love and compassion.”

IMG_1962

Happy Mother’s Day from Micah

A couple weeks ago I raged at God about some grievous assaults on children. I didn’t enjoy my rant, but as I sit here now I give thanks for the sense that prayer is about offering to God whatever I am. So glad or furious or quietly depressed, I fall backward into God. It’s the trust game kids play: fall and I promise to catch you. My game is a little different, like letting go into forever. If God’s catch isn’t unconditional, my soul will shatter. I don’t have much choice here. I don’t know any other way to be with God, so I fall and try to trust. Enjoy isn’t a sacred enough word for the safe landing.

Of course, even if my soul doesn’t shatter, other things will: sickness, disappointment, floods. So for now, I receive the cardinal’s call, my wife’s kiss, the sweet breath of God on Cole’s head, and every other way God shines on this fifty-two-year-old flowering weed named John.

IMG_1958

Micah’s Mother’s Day bouquet still hanging in there with Baby Crash

A Declaration of Light

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

42-56676926

The light: often nothing but a ribbon on the horizon. It is enough. (Credit: Niels Busch / Corbis)

Thursday at work, son Micah helped patch up the ceiling in an apartment occupied by a pregnant–any day now!–Chinese woman conversant in English and her father, who relied entirely on her as translator. Sensitive to her condition, Micah took extra care plastering and sanding, going so far as to bundle the messy tarps up, load them in his trunk, and take them to the company dumpster for shaking out. He didn’t want any dust in the mother’s and baby’s lungs.

The woman’s father noticed Micah’s consideration and repeated three times: “Xeixei.” Thank you.

Knowing what the father was saying, Micah nodded, smiling politely, kind of bowing.

I learned all this when I got home at 9:00 that night. Micah had spent a couple of hours researching and practicing. He would finish the patching job Friday, and he wanted to give the Chinese man a proper reply.

As I sipped a red blend and warmed up leftover pizza, Micah told me the story and practiced: “Bu yong xei.” Over and over. We even said it together. “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, Dad,” he said. “Does this sound right to you?”

The syllables passed for “don’t mention it” or “you’re welcome.” “I don’t know,” I said. “But I think all you have to do is mean it and you’ll be fine.”

IMG_1171

Hanging in my study. Micah’s elementary school handiwork.

All day I wondered how he made out. Actually, my son had already made me proud. It’s the thought that counts and all that. When he got home, though, I was waiting. “So how’d it go?”

The man’s pregnant daughter was present when Micah finished the job.

“Thank you,” she said.

He had cribbed the words on his wrist: “Bu yong xei.”

“Oh!” she said, “Your Chinese is very good.”

Micah headed out the door, but before he got to his car, the father leaned out and called to him: “Xeixei.”

My son’s spirit blossomed in the gray afternoon: “Bu yong xei,” he said, without reading this time.

The Chinese father’s smile dispersed the clouds. He bowed and made prayer hands.

IMG_0671

Light has its way with darkness on Presque Isle.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Five years ago I would have agreed, but the words would have caught like a lump of doubt in my throat. Micah was covered over in what is now his rich compost of consequences. But on Friday, “Bu yong xei.” A stargazer lily grows out of the rot. A shaft of sun persists in a thunder storm.

I bet my life on light. Its promise to confuse and overcome darkness fills my chest and speaks a truth I share with another Father: “This is my son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

photo-5

Some blossoms take years. That’s all right.