I am 32 and living in a 19th-century cabin on my parents’ Ohio farm. The cabin is approximately 40 feet wide, with walls and floors of sturdy wood planks, a wood-burning stove, and a pioneer feel. “Is there anything in here that’s not ancient?” my nine-year-old niece asks with mild distaste when she visits. Everywhere are the artifacts of antiquated domesticity: baskets, hand-painted serving platters, crocks. The cabin has been decorated and prepared for weekend visitors to the farm, not full-time living, but when I finish grad school my husband and I move in, setting mousetraps and putting up storm windows as we navigate this murky penniless period before our next move.
We are there for only a month before I take the test in early October, and it is another month before it dawns on me that for the first time in a decade I am really, truly rooted. I could, in theory, pick up and move to China, as I have done in the past. But I know I won’t; I know in fact I don’t want to, and both of these are terrifying insights. I am used to pausing beside train trestles, tilting my head to watch passing planes, perpetually looking forward to: to the evening, to the weekend, to the next year in a new place. But for the first time I find myself unable to fix my gaze on the horizon; I find my relationship to time and place and days transformed. I do not strike out in discovery but rather roam the same terrain over and over: woods of oaks and maples and beeches; grassy sloping pastures punctuated with dogwood; beds of red clay and teal slate in a creek animated by intermittent waterfalls; rocky, fern-covered hills that rise to open Midwestern sky.
Before gestation, I dominated time in the way I dominated my body. Long runs whittled the latter into sculpted hardness, and the discipline of schedules and fixed points – Saturday, summer, graduation – brought the former into focus as a series of arrows pointing always one towards the next. Time as trajectory, body as tool of the mind. And then this baby began growing and my body expanded into a force to which the “me” of my mind was subjugated, bobbing about unsteady and insignificant as a paper boat in surges of blood and hormones. Time yawned open, a vast canyon I fell into, with the erstwhile tidy arrows echoing off the walls.
I’ve always hated waiting. I am that person craning her neck out the window in traffic to see as far ahead as she can; the one peeking over shoulders in the coffee shop line, trying to determine why it’s taking so long to make it to the counter. I come to bus rides and plane trips equipped with a dozen novels, magazines, sketch books, notebooks, podcasts, and playlists. I can recite in wearisome and alarming detail every moment of my day, arranged into a checklist of tasks judged successes or failures by their degree of necessity and productivity.
Like most people, I also have systems both elaborate and simple for carving up days, weeks, and months into comprehensible and wieldy increments. In the quotidian, there is the morning coffee, for the initial writing spurt and gearing up for running, and then the whole afternoon tilts toward that early evening beer, after which the day begins its final descent into dinner and a nighttime of Indian takeout and Mad Men. To appease a larger restlessness, there is the anticipation of the end of school semesters, the summer, trips home or abroad, the return of school, the granting or not granting of fellowships, the publication or rejection of stories: imagined futures like so many bobbers on the lake of time, watched with shivery expectation.
But pregnancy is characterized by a total physical and psychological immersion in the present and the body. There is no room for nostalgia, regret, the lingering glance back, because the web of gestation is spun so tight that the past becomes inaccessible, so remote as to belong to another person’s life. The future is equally impossible to conjure: how can one imagine the brand new human built from scratch, the meteoric impact of her arrival? The boundaries of the world shrink to the parenthesis of the belly. There is no hiding the slow stubborn implacability of time and our rootedness in it beneath the decorations of tasks and substances, of retrospect and projection.
At first, I felt all of this frustrating temporal impotence mostly in terms of beer. A cold brewsky, it turns out, was one small but crucial element in my daily domination of time. I work from home, and not having that clear pivot point between work and leisure threw the whole day into interminable monotony. It was as though, without that reward and demarcation, it almost wasn’t worth working at all, or rather when and how I worked became irrelevant if the whole day was a soup with no beginning or end, no anticipation or release, sloshing into the soup of the next day and on and on.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, to whom I turn in the brutally slow final months of 2014, councils about the many ways we find escape in our days, release from the overwhelming uncertainty and imperviousness of time – sex, TV, booze, food, drugs, exercise – and warns how hard it is to let go of these crutches, which hide what for me became apparent in pregnancy: the fact that time is a crushing monotony, so much vaster than us and as unconcerned as the moon with the ways we attempt to dominate it. Our tricks, our counting down of days and meting out of recompenses, our constant rigging of bobbers to watch, mask the fact that we are always changing and yet not changing at all, and all of our elaborate performances of success and failure, productivity and lethargy, are ultimately, to paraphrase Chödrön’s teacher Chögyam Trungpa, so much makeup on space.
It is easy to be fooled by the trick of the pregnancy calendar. At first, it seems pregnancy is the plumpest, most tantalizing bobber of all, the countdown to its final dunk carefully measured and monitored. There are so many ways to mark the passage of gestation – months for the laid-back, weeks for the anal, and days for the truly OCD. There are pregnancy books that inform expectant mothers of what is happening in the womb each and every day of pregnancy: at 22 weeks 5 days, the baby is now covered in tiny fine hairs called lanugo. It seems therefore that gestation would provide the ultimate illusion of control, the ultimate beginning, middle, and end.
And yet all of these markers come to seem a flimsy linear story grafted onto a truth that defies narrative. I read through all nine months in What To Expect When You’re Expecting, first all at once and then individually as I near each one, and each week I go to Baby Center to see what the baby is up to – growing fingernails, opening its eyes for the first time – but still I do not feel time passing in the same way I did before. The weeks and months do not feel like a progression, an arrow or a line, so much as they do a space I have entered and am inhabiting. Time as a bowl, with me nestled at the concave bottom, the days and weeks orbiting around me, no clear forward, no back. Time as an eternal womb. Despite the rapid and constant physical changes in both me and the baby, there is a sameness to gestation, an altered relationship to the world and to time that blurs or renders ancillary the forward march of the timeline.
Sometime after Thanksgiving my niece and nephew visit. We go on a hike: up to the east of the cabin through the maple woods, swooping down near the pastures, then back into the far woods along the creek, returning to the cabin via the old township road. This is the route I will follow nearly every day for nine months. Inspired by Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance and hungry for symbolism, I hunt for bird’s nests. I find three, their thin bark fibers wound tight around the wishbones of young branches. Some are tidy as a ballerina’s bun and others are messy with dried mud walls and haphazard leaves overlapping. My niece and nephew walk atop fallen logs with the careful steps of gymnasts, their arms outstretched. They clamor through a small tongue-shaped ravine, stirring up torrents of leaves and lunging themselves forward on vines. I feel almost ghostly beside their vivid presence, my body some slow-moving woodland creature, the nests featherlight in my hands. These raggedy-haired kids consume time wholly and enthusiastically without thinking, the way they gulp lemonade. I feel unhinged by it, uneasy.
In the smoky fall evenings I walk the pastures, slowly; in the past I have been that person on the sidewalk rushing around the dawdlers, the one who soars past all the other passengers and is through customs by the time they’re beginning to bunch up in line. Now the dogs race to the end of the pastures and come pounding back before I’ve crested the hill. They stir up flocks of wild turkeys, who hurry through the grasses in their balls-out scramble, then lift into improbable flight over the woods.
On longer walks the dogs and I wind our way through beech forest to the top of the ridge, where the winter sun breaks through clouds and illumes a grand oak with a mockingbird in its top branches. The ridge is a palate of Ohio winter colors: storm and wheat, navy and honey, ice and yolk. An old road, long overgrown, runs along the ridgetop. Breezes, not yet bracing, stir the dried sumac and the grandfatherly pines.
At night, I hear the faint booms of my heart when I lay my head on my pillow. By now my blood volume has increased by almost 50%, my gut has torqued up, my organs are squished, my ligaments stretch and ache. My mind is rooted deep in my body, and both are rooted deep in the here and now. Not the experiential, hedonism-of-the-lived-moment here-and-now we often associate with being present – alive to the taste of a margarita or the smell of cut grass – but an eternal here-and-now, in which both the brevity of human life and the incomprehensible expanse of time become palpable. The past and the future fall away and I am steeped in a fog that is the present and also beneath it, beyond it: the time of birth and death. My body has become a different kind of space, at once turbulent and surreally calm.
On one level, an upper level, there is distraction and detachment, like what I’ve often felt on my period: biological fervor preventing a clarity of thought and focus. I have completely lost my ability to make small talk. I can’t dredge up witty anecdotes from my day or recall all the peppy questions that keep conversation alight. As an extrovert, I find this frustrating and distressing. But beneath the surface distraction is the quiet of a river or plain. An interior wilderness of waiting, and when I allow myself to descend there and inhabit it, to wander timeless without path or purpose, I discover an unfamiliar way of being: connected neither to past nor future nor the sensory now of moments but to the huge, quiet, endless flow of time.
One late afternoon in January, I sit on a rock above the creek on the farm, watching my dogs sniff around the dried leaves for rabbits. I try to sculpt the afternoon into part of a story, a scene, but I can’t think of anything at all, not even of being where I am – the glassy water falling over slate, the ferns pushing out from behind winter’s decay on the opposite slope, the rustling of dog paws, the absorbing silence of moss. All I can do is feel the vessel of my body, my consciousness drifting in and out of it like mist . From the edges of this state pushes concern, attempts at articulation and definition and measurement, thoughts and words, that I – or whatever I give way to in those moments – hold at bay.
This is pregnancy as, alternately, Zen state or acid trip. Zen state when I allow myself to see this strange wilderness as calm, spiritual, comforting, and acid trip when a restless frightening energy pulses behind it. In the latter case, I feel trapped by hormones, irritation and boredom threatening to overrun the precarious witnessing of what Shunryu Suzuki calls “things as they are.” I want to come down off this hormonal high, to be released back into time and steady straightforward thinking. I want plans and progress. I chafe at this stillness, this inability to be anywhere but a small cabin in middle-of-nowhere Ohio.
But then I am boiling eggs in the kitchen, in my socks, and I am laughing a belly laugh that is new since I got pregnant. It is a laugh with no inclinations other than joy, both full and empty. It is a laugh surprised at itself. In the close light of the kitchen at night, I am watching the water bubble around the jiggling eggs, feeling my husband nearby on the couch. All of life flies by in a glimpse of irrelevant time and then returns to this.
One morning Dad comes traipsing up to the cabin in his camo muck boots. He knocks, the dogs bark, I put the shepherd in her kennel. In his hands is a dead bird, brown with white streaks along the sides. “It’s a rufus-sided towhee,” he says. “You hear them when you go turkey-hunting. Isn’t it beautiful?” We stand for a few minutes to admire the frozen form of the bird, its curled feet, its closed eyes and smoothed feathers.
Another night I pace the cabin, bored, and then Jorge puts on Mexican Institute of Sound to listen to while doing the dishes and I am dancing in front of the woodstove with the baby, cradling my taut belly with one hand, and with the other doing that horrible pointing-at-the-ceiling gringa dance that prompts Jorge to ask, “Where does that come from? Why do you people do that?” but I don’t care because I am making jerky little circles on one foot singing “Katia, Tania, Paulina y la Kim.” I convince Jorge to join me on the rug and we are both sticking out our hips, putting on slightly satirical versions of those serious sexy disco faces, the logs popping in the fire and the baby a nebulous presence, rocked in my belly under the warmth of my palm.
These are strange gifts that months ago I never would have labeled as gifts. Lying in bed in the morning as I lie in bed now, sometimes for forty-five minutes, sometimes an hour, which would have been unimaginable six months ago, scratching the scruff of my husband’s beard and murmuring fat jokes in Spanish: “Tu mamá es tan gorda que…”
Or in the afternoon, Jorge going to the mailbox: the spring birdsong of robins, cardinals, and red-winged blackbirds strung across the hills; the crunch of gravel; the rush of brown water; the world washed, chilly and thawed. I am present to it in a way that is both incorporeal and fully embodied. I’ve forfeited all the forward-looking ambition of my typical awareness, and there remains an unfamiliar, essential me: here on one afternoon that will become another and another and another, each day a diaphanous screen laid over the next, their sameness transparent and simple. The sun sinks towards the prickly ridge of purple-brown bare trees, the dogs sit shoulder to shoulder in expectation, tails curling in opposite directions. We are all waiting for Jorge to come back and we stand watching his slow approach, envelopes in hand, beneath the heavy spring sky. This afternoon takes on the quality of a dream, of life lived outside of time.
Despite my increasing waddle, my widening and tautening belly, I can’t believe that this gestation is moving forward and will end. I wake up thinking, I have two months to go. I have six weeks to go. And yet knowing the day so well, and knowing where it fits in the scheme of days counting down to June 12th, makes no difference. Each day is also just one among many, and no matter how closely I follow their orbits from sunrise to sunset, how aware I am of the day before and after, their essential monotony is more apparent than their progression. It’s as if, in a gestational paradox, the sharp recognition of conventional time only serves to reinforce its ultimate insubstantiality and artifice.
The biggest surprise of pregnancy, however, is not this relationship to time but the revelation that in the monotony lies, if not liberation exactly, a kind of release. Waiting has become an art, a state of suspended grace, an alternate way of living. For the first time in my life, I understand the concept of home: it is not a refuge, not necessarily a snuggly place of warmth and cheery domesticity, not some essential rightness like the satisfying click that releases a lock, but rather a sense of peace with contradiction. It is a giving in, an acceptance, the place where I finally strip life of all its decor of aspiration and regret and let it be what it is, where it is, and nothing more. It is the space in which I forgo both anticipation and nostalgia, the space to which I let myself belong, with the attendant responsibility, acceptance of the mundane, and comfortable beauty of belonging. It is a space whose defining chronological units are the moment and the broad sweep: the first acutely felt in its passing, the other almost annhilating in its breadth.
I used to have a romantic, Polaroid-derived notion of moments. I thought of them as dramatic cinematic swellings, with me as their star. There I was on the boat deck in Borneo, and there atop a Patagonian peak, and there dancing at 4 a.m. on a beach by the South Indian Sea. In them I was not so much myself but rather a Sarah an admiring audience would see: a character, exotic and intrepid and wild. They were crystallizations of a certain idealized vision, containing already a perfect nostalgia.
At the same time I longed for a secret that would be mine alone. I don’t think I fully understood this longing until I was pregnant, and my interiority became all-consuming. Then the secret was not the baby hidden inside me but rather my whole life, the mystery of it, its ultimate insignificance, its absurd particularities that only I can know and observe and appreciate. This was the notion of a moment not as some glorious encapsulation of a pursued romance, observed admiringly by an imaginary audience, but rather as a fleeting sense of wholly inhabiting my life, sensing at once its scope and smallness. That is grace: not having to see from the outside and label, not seeking or glorifying or expecting, peeling back all those layers to some baseline mystery where everything is connected and where nothing matters as I once thought it did.
I am reading in the armchair, bored with reading, bored with the plod of the everyday. I ask our German Shepherd to shake. I toss her ball and she plunges after it, clumsy in this tiny cluttered space. Jorge scoops it from her clenched teeth, tells her to sit and stay, positions himself on a rug opposite her. He places the ball between his feet. She is on high alert, her huge ears perked and eager. He narrates in a Televisa voiceover.
“Se prepara la fuzzy. Se prepara el jugador. Se prepara. La fuzzy. A ver si se puede, a ver si aguanta, la fuzzy, la fuzzy, la fuzzy!” and he shoots and the dog lunges to the left but the ball shoots past her outstretched paw and slams into the back door.
I laugh. The fuzzy drools. And he repeats. My whole life swirls into this moment like a penny down a wishing well.
At other times, pregnancy remains a grating tedium, a seemingly interminable haul. I slog through the pastures, the mud sucking at my muck boots, and feel an irritated vacuity behind which pulses insight, unvoiced. The woods is a sloped bulletin board of pinprick trees, and my eyes can weave through that gray winter space between them on and on. It is impossible to imagine a green density filling all this in, obscuring the stark lines of trunks and pressing fleshy into the paths.
In March, at the beginning of my third trimester, my mom sends me a timelapse video on YouTube that’s gone viral. A singer took a photo of his wife throughout each day of her pregnancy; she stands facing him in their bedroom, in the same position throughout nine months, and we watch her belly grow, her arms bulk out, her posture shift back slightly, the singer crooning to her all the while from the present on the other half of the frame. Finally, she turns, waves goodbye, and reappears with baby in arms, and she and the singer unite and embrace. It is thrilling to see time at our command like this, captured like an exotic cat in a cage. We make it perform tricks – nine months flipping by in three minutes – and we recoup our control over that long murky period of gestation.
I want, in a bout of impatience, to witness spring’s blooming on camera. I suggest to Jorge that he make a timelapse of the greening, setting up a tripod in the pastures. I want this transformation to be sped up and made visible. I want to replace the slow gradual unknowing of the everyday with a clear trajectory. But my husband slacks off and the season goes on in its incremental, gradual way. The cherry trees sprout their first buds, and one day the daffodils have opened, and then spring beauties spread like scattered white confetti around the newly green grass. Spring comes quiet and piecemeal: a ripening, a rehearsal for the full riot of summer. This is why I have always preferred fall, which is sudden and short and violent in change and color. Spring demurs constantly to winter, warming and then cooling again, sprouting bits of white and green amid mud and gray.
I sit on the rock by the creek and try to imagine the opposite slope a riot of ferns, canopied with the lanceolate leaves of shagbark hickories and the green teardrops of the beeches. Try to imagine walking up the creek in the heat, a baby in arms, sweaty tangles of vines and flowers clamoring up the banks. But my imagination, or my desire for projection forward or back, fails, and I sink again into that state of porous consciousness. Waiting, fringed with boredom. If I can push through that boredom, I sense, I can get somewhere, I can reach a different type of understanding. I fidget within it even as part of me marvels. I still want measurements, satisfactions, the stakes of past and future, the purposefulness of linearity, but all I can do is sit on that rock by the creek and wait until I see that all we’re ever doing is waiting; the rest is an illusion.
One afternoon, we go for a walk in the rain. We wind up into the woods, which are softened and rendered wooly. I have in my pocket a Babybel cheese, hard and round, and I strip off its red wrapper. I have to be cautious now about eating regularly or I start to shake. As we walk I peel a boiled egg, scattering fragments of shell on the path. I eat the salty white cheese with the egg, followed up by a Ritz cracker. The trees cluster and thin. We cross the creek, we start up through the evergreen lycopodiums. We have stepped into the still motion of mud and rain, moving and yet not seeming to move at all. What I like about hiking is this steady forward movement with no real purpose, one step after another, eating cheese, rising and descending, picking our way over logs, traversing a shelf with a view of distant ridges. All of it mimics the passing of days, and this bare, easy metaphor gives me comfort. “Days are where we live,” wrote Philip Larkin. In hiking I accept this without pretentions or justifications or decoration.
Stopping to pee, squatting in the leaves, I can for the first time imagine being eighty. Can imagine my whole life blurring by to eighty, and beneath all the change and the difference this same feeling of being in the woods in the rain with the smell of wet leaves and the sky an infinite textured gray.
I am waiting for my baby, waiting for summer, waiting for knowledge, but the waiting itself becomes the knowledge and then, even as I am so hungry for transition I am practically clawing out of my skin, I begin to mourn and maybe to fear the fading of this particular consciousness: the Zen state, the acid trip of gestation, and its changed relationship to time. I wonder if I will remember that time swirls one day into the next no matter all our measurements and machinations, and that an awareness of this heightens certain moments – the giddy tittering of a boiling egg, a cool rock at the side of a creek – to the level of liberation.
At the beginning of my pregnancy and my time on the farm, I vowed to learn the names of the trees, the insects, the wildflowers, and I stacked guides a foot high on my desk. I imagined the woods as a site of mastery. In the course of a year I would walk through here like a park ranger, pointing out details to my sister with a confident expertise: the mayapples, the lycopodiums, the rich beds of decay that nurse morel mushrooms. But I haven’t mastered anything. Not because I haven’t tried, or have failed, but because I have come instead into the awareness that mastery and knowledge are perhaps two different goals: one linear, a progression, and the other circular, a repetition. In the course of this year the obsession with mastery has given way instead to an awareness of how slow, incremental, experiential, and back-and-forth knowledge is. How it comes in fits and starts. How in its rawest form it is incredibly hard-won and difficult to put to use. How it is kneaded like dough by the impalpable, sometimes maddeningly slow and boring roll of days, and then how it rises abruptly in one moment. How we forget the taste of that moment and have to learn again in the slow kneading.
It is as much a random gift – hard cheese in the rain – as it is the intention of the seeker, the cataloguing of small creatures. We can draw up lesson plans, teach ourselves facts, read and memorize, but to a certain extent we can only learn when we’ve opened ourselves and are ready, or perhaps when we have been opened beyond the limits of our comfort and complacency. We learn not via the direct demonstration of the timelapse but rather the uncertain in-between, all the gaps not shown in the speeding up.
In the fall, just after I took the pregnancy test, I clamored up the opposite bank of the creek to a brawny beech, stared at the sharp slope, and felt the thrill of the unknown. Now, the woods are not as exotic, as foreign. I know the contours of that slope so well I can walk it without paying attention to my steps. Yet the woods haven’t become domestic or “understood,” either. In some ways, I understand them less, or less concretely. I have a greater humility about my own possibility of understanding. My knowledge comes via a map of the body, of rhythms instead of names.
Waiting at the bend in the driveway for Jorge to return with the mail, trilliums blooming now, spring peepers seeking mates with their insistent singing by the pond, one evening among many, I watch his slow return, step after step. I release the dogs and they caper around him in leaps and yips.
“Anything for us?” I ask, and he shakes his head.
The gravel drive bites into muck boots. The sky is shaded rose-violet behind us. Spring rolls into summer into fall into winter and over and over again. At some point I will get sucked back into human chronology, obsessed again with dominating it. But I hope to remember the strange delicacy of this year, hope the knowledge has penetrated deep enough that it will remain even when I can pretend I am no longer waiting. In the meantime, there is the high gurgling love-song of frogs, the new thickness of the grass around my ankles.
I was enchanted. Thank you for this.
Great read I’d like to live there.
Lovely. So many wonderful phrasings enhance this meditation on the circle of life. Thank you.
This seeps deep into my skin. Careful, contemplative, lovely. It’s always a journey reading you — and inspiring. Thanks, Sarah.
The best writing I have read in a long, long time. I hope to write like you when I grow up (as an author), Sarah. Thank you for transporting me non-stop New York an enchanting everland.
Just beautiful. A humbling, inspiring read. I savoured every word. Thank you!
Such inspiration to any aspiring writer. So enjoyed your journey with time. Food for thought indeed.
Wow. I have thought the same things in my pregnancy but your words speak beautifully.
OMG, how could you remember so vividly? It is really great writing. I have not pregnant before but reading your post made me understand how it feels like. I like your writing :D