For a long time I had wanted a child, but the desire, attenuated, had passed, and other feelings had taken its place. I had become so entranced by the utterly hypnotic path I found myself on, so bleary, so consumed by my work, that I had lost track of whatever else I may have once wanted. I had wandered away into a kind of otherworldly bliss, a joy like no other, and the child further and further off on some remote horizon had become a shadow—like almost everything else in my world. From those weird, windy, solitary heights from which I worked now I watched the child wave, wave, and then finally vanish. Disappeared on a beautiful, curving planet—utterly out of reach. A distant, infinitesimal music.
The Bay of Angels, a book I had just begun composing after ten years of note taking, was to be the project for the rest of my life; I was quite certain of it. And the prospect of a life of such possibility and pleasure and challenge was more than I had ever dared ask or hope for. Over the years it had slowly grown in me—each book I had written was preparation for it. Time was passing and the urgency, as Gertrude Stein said, “to write something down someday in my own handwriting,” was pressing. The chance to get closer to the eternity in myself. I was ready at last. It was clear to me that in order to even attempt such an endeavor more sacrifices would have to be made. But they were well worth it—had always been worth it. The accompanying melancholy was just part of the bargain, the demands such work makes, the tolls it takes, simply part of the deal. I thought of Beckett’s “sadness after song.” Sadness because it was so imperfect and inadequate and fleeting, because it demanded absolutely everything. I watched the child recede.
With every major decision there is regret, for the very act involves choosing one thing over another. I have always experienced a certain sorrow when any project I am working on begins to take a shape, and becomes a stable, definitive text—because it excludes the thousand books it might have been. No matter how spacious, no matter how suggestive or fluid, I cannot help but feel the death of possibility all over again—the book that now would never be. I have never felt completely reconciled to that fact. This and not that.
The sadness after song. I would not mind. If song it was I got to sing.
How then to account for the wave of clarity that passed through me, propelling me into an utterly charmed and charged night to retrieve that little waving figure who was mine? The child I had spent years writing about in my Bay of Angels notebooks. When I look back I see that she is there in one way or another in many, many guises. My writing life, as always, so much further ahead of my conscious, rational mind. How had I been so blind? There she was at the periphery of every page, waiting, begging at the edge of language, calling my name. But I did not, could not recognize her—until it was very nearly too late.
With the child revealed and the desire no longer disguised, the exact right moment with the exact right person came with strange speed—in an instant, in motion, and under a sky of enormous beauty and calm. A trillion spermatozoa and the serenity of the egg, and she is made. After one night. I was sure of it even then. Such was my improbable bravada—knowing full well the difficulty of conception after 35, let alone after 40. And knowing also all that could go wrong even if by some miracle the child in a single night might materialize. Still, there was not one moment of doubt or uncertainty. Doubt had passed. I was as lucid as I have ever been. I moved toward the moment embracing its strangeness, its odd gravity—filled with a mystic’s faith. And the man. I think now he must have known or sensed there was something extraordinary taking place between us—as we traveled in the night backward and forward toward the child. Did this mysterious l’étranger from a far-off land, who uncannily had also existed in my pages for many years, somehow see in me a brilliance, illuminated as I must have been by my longing? It is a fairy tale. It is a story of such unlikeliness and charm. We came together without will almost, caught in the motion without choice—and this pull, unlike anything I had felt before, this strangeness might have been called in another time destiny,fate. The child just outside us, asking for the mere chance to live. Mere, indeed. Did we dare turn away from her? Did we dare ignore her pleas? In that night of ever-expanding circles, heavenly bodies. The stars aligned. A primal ancient motion—the violence of creation, and then rest.
I know from Latin that amniotic means lamb. An odd thing. How I have called this back I do not know, but I am certain of it the way people are certain of things in dreams.
Just months ago, Helen, my companion of the last 20 years—that is, my whole life—had prayed over the relics of every saint in Tuscany and Umbria for a child. We had ended finally in Assisi, first at St. Francis’s Cathedral where I had wept in front of the Giottos and the Cimabues—that little piece of paradise—and then where we had descended the dark stairs to the reliquary and witnessed at the crypt a bride and groom exchanging vows. Oh, the Italians know how to have a wedding, I remember thinking. Afterwards we made our way up the pilgrim’s road to the Cathedral of St. Clare—and it is the weird thing about Assisi, or maybe it is, after all the weird thing about me—but despite the crowds, the town seemed completely hushed; a village of silence and birds. We were caught in some incredible stillness, mystery, abyss. I do not question such things too closely. It was what I noticed. The birds sucked up in some God vortex. And Helen, struck by this holy place, whispers ferociously over the relics of the saint to me, Pray for the baby. What extraordinary role did Helen play in allowing the child through to the other side? And serene, recumbent St. Clare in that most humble and sacred of places …
We had prayed to every saint, martyr, and of course the Virgin for this baby and now—I was only a few days late—one could only hope. Helen rose at 6:00 AM and drove through fog to the CVS pharmacy for the home pregnancy test. What does CVS stand for? I wondered. CVS, just another fin de siècle beacon, without meaning. I tried not to take it as a sign for something. Would the test be positive, would the test be negative? I let the question flicker in my head, savoring the last few moments before absolute certainty. I believed I knew, but I had been wrong before. Holding the wand in the early morning fog, I passed it through my urine—two stripes and the child is found.
For luck, and from now on everything will be done for luck, whether it is eating a Peking duck or wearing a certain blue scarf or playing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Britten—don’t forget Bartok—for the baby. This day we go to the Poet’s Walk, a place, I suppose it was imagined, certain romantic pastorals might be composed. A blue mountain, a white gazebo.There is a child, is our ode.
In an instant my own childhood floods back. That daydreaming girl, swinging on her swing, long ago. The heart rising and falling. Again and again. Buoyancy of the afternoon. If you could make one wish what would it be? I’d ask myself. One and only one.
We meet my family at the Dutchess County Sheep Show. Everyone looks different observed through the lens of the miraculous. It is news that must be kept secret for the first three months, there is no question. Too many things could go wrong. To attach language to such catastrophe were it to happen would not be possible; to imagine having to casually engage in a dialogue of vanishing, to have to accept consolation. But I am far from cautious today. Wildly ecstatic, already in mourning, I pet the head of every sheep I see. Lamb, be with me. Everywhere I look there is beauty and fire this October afternoon, wonder and iridescence. It feels like a celebration. Placenta, in Latin, means cake.
I have the makings of an excellent Catholic, I think, in spite of everything, because my disposition leads me to the most excessive forms of adoration. I am particularly drawn to that which does not necessarily exist.
If I could make one wish, I’d wish for this.
I can scarcely believe what lives inside me—if only for this one moment. I look out at the transfigured universe.
My heart fills the world like Magritte’s rose.
Helen wants to buy tiny lamb’s-wool booties, little hats, baby buntings, everything she sees—but I say we must wait, not yet. As if one could stave off heartbreak by the refusal of baby booties. The next few months will be the hardest. Still, at the center I feel an extraordinary calm. A feeling that has eluded me my whole life until now. I hold the entire body of a lamb in my arms. I pray: sheep may safely graze.
I cannot rouse myself. Cannot even imagine getting up. How to get to school? The world going on out there, I suppose. This fatigue like no other. This distance. How small the rest of the world from here. How far off. Never felt such fatigue, such silence, such peace—
Compelled as I am, pulled down an allée, a line of trees, a line of plane trees, France? Into an overwhelming calm and strangeness. Sleep, now, for this insomniac.
Odd, as if one’s whole life were being rocked.
And this I think is what dying must be like. Everything small as if seen from a great distance. The fierce attachments to this world begin to loosen. I give up a little. Strangely, without even trying. Good-bye. And if this is what dying is … the world a tender place—I look back on it with fondness. And as it disappears, losing its hold on me, I realize I have really very few regrets. In fact, none come readily to mind—that I did not have more time to write, yes, but nothing else, nothing enormous. I think I must be a very lucky person that this be so. This letting go is a gorgeous thing. The ground beneath my feet gives way to something quite else. And I glimpse for a moment—for one moment it opens in me, but then passes—only intimations, but intimations nonetheless of what seems to be eternity.
Two three-hour workshops in the same day, and I am exhausted.
Reading an undergraduate student paper aloud in class we come to the line, “Walter’s long knife slices the duck again and again, crispy skin crinkling itself at the edge of the plate with each smooth cut.”
We are here to comment on the paper. But I am beast. Like my cat, Fauve, focused on that one thing—that morsel that might drop. Cannot recall such hunger. And rarely such strange single-mindedness. Cannot pry my mind from the crispy skin. Cannot think. In the purity of this hunger zone, where I collapse, defenseless. Feed me. Cover me. Put me to sleep. I am beast. I look up at the class, speechless.
My mane grows wild and I stare. Into space forever. Lion-haired. My nails grow strong and sharp. The eye searching the horizon line. Feed me, warm me, put me to bed. Shred. Clothing, paper. Build me a fire. Dark flame—
Small flame. Like the heart clinging. Tenacity. I pray for you. Ferocity. I am over 40. That you might hold.
I am all beauty. All beast. Something so startling. Like Rilke’s panther. I am all want, hope, desire, fear.
In the book the enormity, the serenity, the perfection of the egg. The supreme solitude of the egg … .
A shining sperm breaks through. The sperm nucleus and the egg nucleus lie side by side and their content is combined.
Large and luminous and perfectly still. Frantic motion just outside her. Perfectly round and lit from within. Shimmering. Transparent.
Creation’s momentous drama: “That moment, when the two nuclei form and the now-fertilized egg divides in two, is the beginning of the life of the new individual. This is zero hour of Day One.”
On that plane. All altitude, velocity, the collapsing past, the future right there, next to me. He is speaking to me. I am all lucidity, and in an instant I reach out. Light bounces wildly in the cabin. The blur of voice and hand—speed, accuracy, certitude, at these heights. What were our choices? A star is slung over our heads and the earth is turning at an incredible speed, and we are both dizzy with so many things—the real world tiny, the world beneath dissolving. Maybe I am crazy. This is the moment; I am quite sure. No, maybe not. I am dying in the instant I turn away from it—and so I turn back. We are alive. Before my eyes a rose, a wing, a star. That one held note. My life a vulnerable, fragile, fleeing thing. Liquid and urgent. Stars contained in a bowl. I glitter. He lifts his hand to the light. All is movement and the movement is unspeakably beautiful. We take flight. Maybe we could get together some other time. I was the one who said, tonight. I took his hand. And we descend. Curve of the land. All that was, or is, or will ever be possible, in this one moment. Afterwards an incredible calm.
The drift of you and stars in the dark. Through the lily—or trumpet-shaped fallopian tubes, past the uterus and into the womb—you are already beautiful. Free floating. Free.
That silent drift—a lovely music.
The cells multiply, the code is passed, and she is made. When the four-day-old cell cluster arrives in the womb, it is made up of three dozen cells. Closely packed together, they are known as morula—from the Latin for mulberry.
My beautiful mulberry girl.
“A pale-lavender spongy surface, and on it a tiny blister surrounded by crimson. The crimson wreath is the slight wound caused by the invasion into the maternal tissues.”
O, baby-to-be, in your capsule of blood. The cluster of follicle cells around the ovum is a beautiful radiant wreath and so it is called the corona radiata.
The three dozen cells of the mulberry are already differentiated. One layer will produce the nervous system, one layer the digestive, and the third the skeleton, heart, blood vessels, muscles. It nests finally, comes to rest, nourished by my blood.
Then two cells, four, six, eight. The structural code in place.
Dear creature. Dear miracle. Made in motion, under the stars. And you take your first shape. Two cells, four. Now legs. Heart.
To conception I brought the same things I bring to my writing: focus, faith, will, intuition, license, rigor, and recklessness. A position of mind that allows, within a structure of my own making, for the accidental, the unexpected, the contingent. To hold one’s mind and body and spirit at exactly the right angle—ready for whatever will happen. Taking full advantage of a moment—should it, no matter how fleetingly, present itself. Once again my writing has taught me how to live.
By the 21st day that black dot is a retina. The foot like a fan. I cannot imagine anything more lovely. Already the whole embryo is formed. “It is the size of half a pea, fragile as jelly and almost without substance.” I tremble to read this. The heart beating by the 25th day—it is a large bulge. This heart, dear God, in proportion to the size of the body, is nine times as large as the adult heart. I read now all that has already transpired without me it seems.
Much more sensitive now to sound, to touch, taste, color, to motion, light—and this makes it possible to mistake it for nausea. But it is not nausea—it’s just the whole world heightened and spinning, sort of.
I feel in fact in the perfect center of health. An incredible surge of well-being. Flushed with blood and hope.
Snow falls in Michigan though it is not yet Halloween. It feels as if it comes from some magic and momentary world. C.D. and I near Ann Arbor to do a reading.
This bath of hormones.
Wideness of the Midwest. Wideness of my heart at this very moment. C.D. is out walking. I feel her life out there. Precious, singular. My friend in the first moments of snow. She has not brought her winter coat with her. I wrap her in my mind’s wool. A new feeling about every creature that lives.
I think of all the snow I’ve walked through—anxious to greet the oblivion—longing for it as I always have. The blinding white. I walk to it still, now carrying a crimson wreath.
The skin does glow—the child shows through. All who see me comment on this, though they do not yet know. It is still our secret. What is luminous is something in the process of forming. The thousand stages of one’s becoming. I am amorphous—even more so than usual—liquid. An enigma to myself—even more so than usual.
Floating in your fluid-filled chamber in silence. Tiny astronaut in your blue world—silent sphere. I wish I could work myself back far enough to that place so as to finally understand—but what? Understand what?
Not so much nausea as a slight queasiness mainly detectable through a feeling of bodily uncertainty, fragility, vulnerability—as if the earth I walked on were trembling.