Friday, June 28, 2013

Part III: being ourselves

I have this ludicrous feeling that what I'm about to say is original and insightful.  In fact it's been said to death but somehow it's all finally starting to dawn on me.  I'm saying it anyway. 

As infertiles, we all know that infertility causes us to lose ourselves.  Lose all connection with reality, in many instances.  Much as I suspect many would like to distance themselves from me and my uncouth admission of this phenomenon, this is not my suffering that I incurred because - I'm a bad Catholic?  I'm not one of the cool bloggers?  This is not my story.  This is our story. 

Sure, we can tell ourselves that we're not psychos who will do unhinged or illegal things to have a baby.  But when we joke about just grabbing a shopping cart with a baby in it "by accident," we have to admit that it's funny because...we wouldn't do it.  But we can't deny the thought has crossed our minds. 

If we're honest with ourselves, we all know that fertility treatment can be so all-consuming that many women keep trying long after the odds become prohibitive.  In other words, we do things that are not prudent, that are not healthy, that are not rational, because we've been consumed by the pursuit of a baby: it's not whether I'll have a baby.  It's how will I have a baby.  Because I'll do anything.  Go ahead, deny that that's common.  Then look at comments on infertility posts.  Ask yourself, "How many times have I read a comment to the effect of, 'I know this is your month!'  'Don't give up!'  'Baby dust!'  'Your miracle will come!'?"  You do know what's implied there, don't you?  Sure, the impulse is kindness.  But the mentality is, this is not about biology, or grace, or statistics.  You will have a baby.  We all will.  We won't even contemplate the alternative.  And yet, as one psychologist has said, the ones with the most difficulty living with their reality are those who don’t make a decision - at least, if treatment doesn't end up working out for them. 

The "Bitter Infertile" girls discussed this, wisely I thought, on a recent podcast.  These two are women still in treatment, one of whom is pregnant, admitting that infertility and treatment can cause us to lose touch with reason, and with ourselves - not a helpful recipe for making decisions about future treatment, let alone about our families.  And we've all had to admit it to varying degrees.  I've quoted before the blogger who bluntly said, "Infertility is the place where dreams go to die."  But that's not the only thing that dies.  I think a prolonged experience of infertility and treatment means we lose our grip on who we are - not only our familiar personalities, from friendships to hobbies, but also our fundamental feelings of being loved, of being safe, and of being valuable.  I think this experience is much more harmful - more seriously, and more lastingly - than most of us like to admit.  But we are staring the evidence in the face. 

I feel like I lost so much of myself to infertility.

I don’t even like being around people anymore. . . . I feel like a failure . . . . I have become numb . . . . I don’t think I will ever be the same . . . . The insecurities are bleeding into EVERY part of my life. I feel like I’m losing myself piece by piece day by day . . . . I want a baby, but I miss the woman I used to be. I just don’t know how to become her again . . . . I have lost my faith in God and I didn’t want to. I wanted to believe. I can’t anymore . . . . I don’t even feel like me anymore . . . . I haven’t become a stronger person, more loving or more faithful. I have become something quite the opposite and I don’t see myself getting any better . . . . I hate myself for BEING so hateful . . . . I have to force myself to talk to friends and to pretend I am my old self. I am beginning to think I am losing my mind . . . . TTC has robbed me of the joy and hope of life. 

In fact, infertility diagnosis and treatment have been found to cause a six-fold increase in the likelihood of having post-traumatic stress disorder.  Before you hit that link, take a guess what percentage of infertility patients the study found to have PTSD symptoms.  "Among this group, 75 to 80 percent said they felt upset at reminders of their infertility, such as seeing commercials for baby diapers. Other common symptoms included feeling distant or cut off from people, or feeling irritable. Many also said they felt hopeless, and had changes in their personality." 

Sound familiar?  Tell me those things aren't serious. 

The deranged focus that derives from long-term infertility treatment - which I have dubbed "baby or death" - whispers the lie that a baby will make everything better.  And that may be the biggest lie of all.  This woman discusses the feelings I have read about from so many bloggers: "once a previously infertile woman conceives, there often remains a sense of fear, anxiety and stress around waiting for the bad news that might come, or waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop."  Of course.  As those quotes above reflect, and our own experience teaches, infertile women learn to be confident that all good things will be ripped away.  Unsurprisingly, depression during pregnancy has been found to be more common in infertile women.  It makes no sense if you think of a baby as the solution to all problems IF-related.  But it makes a very sound sort of sense if you understand that infertility breaks you.  And pregnancy and parenthood are stressors - they just put more weight on the broken spot. 

Likewise, you've probably read that post-partum depression is more common in infertile women; apparently, infertile mothers are four times more likely to have emotional problems after the birth of a child.  There is also some correlation between infertility and developing PTSD after a subsequent pregnancy (I suspect more will be learned about this in the next few years).  Our own "pookiedoo" describes the experience of post-partum depression after infertility, and the guilt it engenders in a mother who believes she should just be happy about having her hoped-for baby (or babies, in her case).  Something like adding injury to insult to injury.  (Pray for her, by the way.  She's gone silent.) 

Even if the woman chooses adoption the issue of infertility and its associated grief do not go away.

What this says to me is that a woman like me, who has gone through infertility treatment and come out with no baby, needs to go through a period of serious healing before regaining good mental balance, reestablishing healthy social relationships, achieving a sense of hope, rebuilding her faith and relationship with God, repairing harms to her marriage, and regaining some sense of who she is - what she cares about, what her life is about, what she's going to do with herself.  This is relatively uncontroversial - anybody would see the ultimately-childless infertile as being in a major "loss" position (in fact, women like me are supposed to be swept under the rug so we don't spook the newbies.  "No, no, Sally, that will never happen to you.  Please don't worry.  The Misfit was bad."). 

My experience certainly confirms that much healing is necessary, that fertility treatment shakes the foundations of who we are.  Obviously, I haven't had a chance to assess from experience how that is affected by having a baby.  But I've done a lot of observing and a lot of cogitating, and I have a hypothesis. 

First of all, consider that, infertility aside, motherhood is widely agreed to engender a loss of a sense of self.  Someone has even coined the term "Maternal Intrapersonal Anxiety" to describe mothers' loss of a sense of who they are.  I can't count the times I've heard stay-at-home moms say that they're forgetting how to have an adult conversation, or lamenting that they've lost touch with their interests.  And those are just the stresses of motherhood in general.  Caring for a newborn in particular (which is an inescapable phase of at least biological parenthood) is obviously a keen form of psychological abuse, starting with the sleep deprivation.  It's generally acknowledged to be extremely stressful.  And that's without necessarily adding other factors - infant illness, post-partum depression, pre-existing infertility, older siblings, other life stresses. 

In other words, infertility strips your sense of who you are and of the rightness of the world.  Parenting will strip away your sense of who you are even if you had one beforehand.  And caring for an infant is so stressful it can make healthy women completely disoriented - and unhealthy women (like, for example, infertiles) depressed and traumatized. 

Apart from all the gloom and doom, I do have a point here.  Unthinkable as my situation may seem to many, I'm beginning to think I have an advantage (and this flash of insight is not original either).  While I have to contend with lifelong childlessness, an emotional burden most of you have dodged, I actually have some "head room" to deal with that - and all my other issues, infertility-related or otherwise.  Once stepping out of the blinding haze of madly TTC, and with no dependents to mind, life slows down to a hover.  Don't get me wrong - I work full time and have a busy social calendar and can't even keep up with my housekeeping and there are a million things I never seem to get to.  I'll be bored when I'm dead.  But the existential reflection time, once it moves off the frenzied focus on "How can I get this baby?" and "What if I conceived quintuplets and passed up everyone who got married the year I did in one fell swoop and suddenly everything were perfect?" and "Am I defective as a woman?" and "How am I going to survive Christmas like this for the rest of my life?" and "Why would God let this happen to me?"...eventually gets around to, "How angry am I with God?" and "How much has my prayer life changed without me realizing it?" and "How many friends do I still have left?" and "What kind of new friends would I like to have?" and "What work does my marriage need?" and "What kind of life would I find truly fulfilling?" and "Where are the broken places in myself I need to fix?" 

These are precisely the kinds of questions (well, most of them) that the typical parenting article (you know, the kind that's totally oblivious to the fact that infertility exist) notes that mothers need, but never have time for. 

I am not claiming, of course, that the permanently childless have a monopoly on this kind of reflection and healing.  Indeed, some of our wiser bloggers have been here before me: it can be done after infertility, but before parenting.  In fact, if the parenting is going to happen, it's pretty well essential.  I understand that a lot of adoption agencies emphasize that for their clients - "Have you taken the time to mourn the possibility of a biological child?" - but I think there might even be more to it than that: have you taken the time to mourn the loss of yourself, and to find yourself again, and be a whole enough person to add to your burdens this new and very needy person.  And, perhaps more importantly, I don't think it's only adoptive parents who need to take this step.  I reemphasize my point above: all our understanding of the human experience allows us to deduce, and all my observations corroborate, that a baby does not cure the psychological ills created by infertility.  If anything, it is likely to make them worse.  A baby may have enormous symbolic value for infertile women, but we can't lose sight of the fact that what a baby is is a highly-dependent human being, vulnerable to serious harm.  (And I'm not talking about that "am I a good enough mother because I let me kid have sugar" bull$&!%.  I believe it goes without saying that I do not find that interesting.)  As the child of two mentally unstable people, I know this harm well, and the many many years it takes to find healing. 

That is, the manic pursuit of a baby may be the most dangerous when it is successful - a pitfall that, it seems to me, receives no attention at all, and deserves much. 

I think this concern is also borne out by the "infertility amnesia" phenomenon.  We are beaten about the head (generally by one another) with the idea that infertility is supposed to "make us stronger" or be something for which we "should be grateful" (I am a lot closer to gratitude for childlessness than fertility treatment, so that tells you what I think of that), or, at minimum, be something that "teaches us compassion."  The last is the only one I ever go on about; I'm not a roses and unicorns person, but I hate the idea of paying a heavy price for some lesson and not even learning one.  I'm not going to claim that infertility has made my life better; I don't have mental problems that severe.  But I genuinely do think that infertility has taught me to see suffering to which I would have been oblivious, and to respond constructively where before I might have stammered platitudes.  And nevertheless I am regularly tripped up by another silent suffering around me that I missed. 

Given this reflection, I find the frequent behavior of mothers-after-infertility enraging - from heavily-pregnant women leading infertility retreats, to mothers posting on their formerly infertility blogs that their babies are a blessing to the world at large not five years after they've recognized the insanity of someone else (that person not a former infertile) saying the same thing, to new mothers excoriating their former selves (and, by obvious implication, others' current selves) for having the audacity to suffer in their childless days.  And that's on top of eleventy million baby pictures and baby stories, taking over the entire infertility blogosphere, not only battering childless women in their former haven, but stripping away all their allies with the same stroke.  Forget not becoming more attuned to the sufferings of others; this is pouring salt on a wound you are staring at while the sufferer wails.  I ardently hope some form of justice awaits these people - my emotions related to infertility have cooled with time, but not on that point. 

Of course, this need for healing opens a new window on the infertility amnesia point.  I'm not saying a woman broken by her infertility journey who plunges straight into motherhood, placing further (and possibly unbearable) demands on her un-healed self, has any right whatsoever to take out her suffering on people she ought to know are in no position to be a scratching post.  Much pity as she may deserve (and leeway as she might be granted), the people she's hurting deserve more.  But perhaps this offers a new frame from which the (few remaining) childless infertiles may regard the infertile-amnesiac momstander: not jealousy, but pity.  After all, by the time her oldest is five, we may well be able to count the treatments we've done in the intervening time, and the babies we ought to have had.  But in those few years, we may also find something she's unlikely to have for decades: healing. 

Thus, as you might expect, my overriding concern is not with the well-being of the next generation (significant though I think that is).  It is with us, the generation in which IF has ensured that I will be truly invested.  In the final analysis, we do not really need babies (and a knee-jerk objection to that suggestion is probably a serious warning sign).  We need to be whole.  Fertility clinics do not offer that.  The blogosphere pays little attention to that.  NaPro does not mention it.  But it's the only thing that ultimately matters; the thing that makes any other things we may do possible; the thing that will make us happy without a baby, and the lack of which would make us unhappy with a family of twelve.  It's the thing that will allow us to become heroes - as mothers or childless women - in the large and the small things in life; to look back at the end of our lives with joy and peace; and to fit our souls for heaven. 

In other words, I'm starting to understand the deeper meaning in the idea that finally helped me quit fertility treatment: I don't have the right to throw away the life God gave me in pursuit of one He never promised. 

Which should lead neatly into Part IV: Depo-Provera. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Part II - Ireland

OK, as I mentioned in my last post, my DH and I recently got to spent a week (actually nine days!) in Ireland.  I had never been there before, even though part of my family is (supposedly) from there.  My DH has family in Dublin still, and has been there several times, but hasn't traveled much outside of Dublin.  So, if you imagine that Ireland is a circle (it isn't), Dublin is at 3:00 - smack in the middle of the East Coast.  We then traveled clockwise around the perimeter until Galway (9:00), and then cut back across the middle to Dublin.  I loved rural France (which we visited a few years ago), but I may even have liked this better (though France, of course, has better food).  We have already agreed we have to come back and see the north of Ireland - but it may take a few years.  We'll probably do more modest excursions for a bit.  And next time we go to Europe, I really want to go to Italy (which I also have not seen). 


The planning for the trip was somewhat complicated by my DH's and my vastly different approaches to foreign travel.  He never wants to sit still.  I want a defined base of operations, where I can unpack, and (in an ideal world) even cook some of our meals.  I don't feel I've really been in a country if I haven't used its public transportation and bought a few groceries where the locals buy them.  I did most of the planning, and tried to defer to his methods - a different place every night.  This proved exhausting (mostly for him - since he got sick and had to do all the driving, as I can't drive stick), which you better bet I will be reminding him of when we plan our next trip.  Also, I discovered that our preferences for what to see and do diverge more than I thought. 

We start out with strong similarities: neither of us likes cities (though I want to see the cities a little bit to get to know the place; he would avoid them altogether if possible), bars, clubs, or people our own age.  (I know - we sound like a blast!)  I wanted to see castles (as many castles as possible), livestock, old churches, a traditional woolen mill, historic architecture, and basically spend afternoons walking in the door of every single shop in every village of 1000 we passed (if left to my own devices, this is how I would spend my time on vacation in any location on the globe).  I simply will not get tired of finding out how people serve their food, make their clothes, decorate their spaces, and live their lives.  I assumed my DH would find this idea equally delightful.  I was wrong. 

As we moved through our itinerary (as you will see in more detail), I realized that my DH wants to see only one thing: the water.  The rough ocean ranks highest in this narrow set of preferences.  And whatever the attractions of a thing, his patience to remain there is inversely proportional to the number of people it contains (and I do not mean the people ahead of us in line - I mean any people).  I think the landscape is beautiful, but I grew to realize that I prefer rolling hills dotted with small villages to rolling hills, period.  I do think the water makes for a beautiful view, but I don't see the rolling hills without the water as less picturesque.  And while I like a nice quiet bay (with a pretty village on it), the rough ocean I find less attractive.  Finally, I find the ocean qua ocean boring.  There's just so much of it.  And it all looks the same.  Once I've taken ten pictures of it, I'm finished.  I want to go and see something a bit more varied - ideally, something humans have interacted with in some interesting way.  My DH wants to stare at the ocean (or, even better, jump in it).  All day

Because I can't really get my head around his preferences, I present them as weird.  They seem weird to me.  I can't dispute that they're admirable - he wants to commune with God's creation.  What's not praiseworthy about that?  But my approach seems normative to me; I can't help presenting it that way.  At some point on the trip, chatting with a fellow working at a B&B, I concluded that I was lucky to have made this trip at my current age, and not some time before - because I've developed an idea that I can learn important things from the way different people live their lives, things that have something to tell me about how I should live my life.  In my view, this is particularly true of traditionally-based ways people live their lives - developed in times when people were aiming for survival, and basic well-being, and the fulfillment of fundamental values.  In modern times, people will live their lives in strange ways just to "be different," or highly artificial ways that aren't easy to maintain.  I don't see much to learn from in that. 

And lest you think that my reflections were deeply philosophical, I mean what I say very concretely.  By "how people live their lives," I mean, how many pairs of shoes do you own?  How large does your house need to be?  How many stores do you need in a village?  How many hours a day do you spend on the garden?  What kind of food preparation do you think is worthwhile?  What kind of community revolves around the local parish?  How hard do you fight to preserve the historic language?  At bottom, I suppose, I was pondering two general questions: what sorts of endeavors make up a well-lived human life, and what things could I do to make my life better in little ways?  And for the second question, I was looking for answers on a humble scale indeed. 

I found plenty.  Unfortunately, I didn't start getting cell phone pictures of them until a few days into our trip.  (The big camera has all of my DH's pictures, and some of mine - including all the beautiful scenery.  And some awesome pictures of sheep.  The "things that make you go 'hmm'" pictures are all from my phone.)  Starting, then, at the Sea View House in Ballylickey, I noticed a truly awesome front door color that I shall be considering when we paint the outside of our house:

As you can see, the place had pretty formal decor overall (which, of course, I loved).  But, interestingly, only part of the building was historic - but the decor was pretty consistent.  One thing I noticed was that in buildings in Ireland, except the few that have wholeheartedly embraced "contemporary" design, there's a generally traditional-leaning look: smattering of antiques, wallpaper, printed carpets, molding, etc.  This was certainly evident with fireplaces:

I took this one because we have two non-original-looking fireplace surrounds, and I have been debating whether I want to do something about them (given that neither is working or could be restored without an insert).  But also because I wanted to capture something of the moment.  Ireland is 15-20 degrees colder than DC, which may have been the nicest part of the trip - a return to cool spring weather.  And an opportunity to see all the spring flowers in bloom twice!  The downstairs of this B&B was a warren of small public rooms - there was a room adjacent this with some casual seating and a bar (which serves coffee and tea as well as alcohol), a pair of formal sunny rooms full of windows overlooking the garden, where they served breakfast; a larger room with couches and a TV, which looked much more like someone's living room than the downstairs lounge in an American hotel; and this room, a small parlor, with some chairs in the window, and a couple of chairs around the fire - gas logs lit up and quite warm, on that crisp afternoon.  An absolutely congenial place to sit with my DH and catch up on emails on my phone using the hotel's wifi connection.  (YES, I KNOW.) 

What I most need to remember from that B&B was what I didn't capture: breakfast.  The breakfast rooms were absolutely gorgeous, with soaring ceilings, sunny pastels in formal prints, scattered everywhere with antique tables and chairs.  Breakfast was served with real silver place settings, linen napkins, and crystal and china serving pieces.  And the main breakfast room had an enormous bay window wall, overlooking a beautiful garden and the bay.  (As I would learn, every B&B in Ireland appears to have a breakfast room with the largest window in the place, overlooking the building's best view - whether that's a lovely garden, the bay, or the Cliffs of Moher.)  Every B&B also used linen napkins.  But the use of real silver (which I didn't see elsewhere - I'm sure not every establishment can afford it) struck me particularly.  Americans tend to reserve the good table service for exactly two occasions a year.  It makes it a little more special when it's rolled out, but it also makes for a needless production.  These people were using silver every morning for breakfast.  To serve strangers, no less.  How formal is your breakfast?  I stuff a granola bar into my face while looking over the edge of the platform for the train.  Obviously, I have a lot more time on vacation for breakfast (and since it was included in the price of our rooms, we ate a big breakfast every day, and usually weren't hungry for lunch - we'd grab a snack before dinner, or sometimes a hearty tea).  But still.  Worth the thought. 

Oh, one more thing before I leave that B&B - the first place we stayed (which I really liked) was a little bit more of a typical hotel.  Amenities, big lobby, the guests didn't really interact much.  But the Sea View House put me in mind of descriptions I've read in Forster novels - of guest houses where guests can't help interacting with one another when they come down to breakfast.  Quite different from the typical American experience at a Holiday Inn, where other guests are to be ignored altogether.  At this B&B, most of the guests ate dinner there (we went out, and thereby missed the opportunity to get to know our fellow vacationers), seated in little groupings throughout the downstairs rooms - on a couch with dinner perched on a coffee table; in a pair of arm chairs; scattered about, several parties to a room.  Entirely comfortable, but without the commercial uniformity of a restaurant.  Oh, and they dressed for dinner - zero jeans and t-shirts and flip-flops to be found. 

The next day we drove around the Ring of Beara (which I highly recommend - and ideally for longer than a day, as we weren't able to take advantage of all the hiking opportunities and the many things to see).  We did get to see an enormous number of sheep.  I pondered whether sheep farmers in that area are likely to live much above the subsistence level, and what they would think of an opportunity to work in an office, far from the ocean, suffocated by traffic, and make three times as much money and never shear another sheep.  And what I would do if offered that trade from their point of view. 

That night we stayed in Kenmare, a very tourist-driven but lovely little town.  Unfortunately by that time my DH was very much under the weather; happily, however, our quiet B&B was a short walk from town, and I got more than my fill of exploring while he slept.  Why don't our downtowns look like this? 

Some of the color pairings and architectural details and little things just struck me as genius:

What's not to love?  Our B&B also provided some food for thought, in the "how to live" department.  As with the previous place, it had a generally formal decor style.  Despite my love of both formality and antiques, one place I've never entirely gotten on board with traditional decor is window treatments.  I certainly love long drapes.  And fancy ones more than plain (though I do not love the cost).  Drapes layered with sheers are even better.  But fussy valances and swags and even tie-backs have held no interest for me.  But this was interesting:

Obviously, that's a crappy picture.  But I think that might be more congenial in my living room or dining room than some of the things I've picked out.  I'm not going to throw out my curtains and spend a fortune on replacements.  But maybe next time...

While this place didn't have real silver, it certainly had nice table linens.  Like most of the breakfasts we encountered, it consisted of two parts: a cold buffet (cereal, fruit, juice, bread), and a hot table-side service (bacon, sausage, eggs, toast, black and white pudding, tea, and coffee).  The cereal on the buffet was all in cut-crystal bowls.  This detail made a strong impression on me.  I think most people have either no crystal or rather too much.   (I am already leaning into the "too much" category, and I'm only 31. And I note that I would not turn down more crystal.)  And despite shelves - or possibly even boxes in basements - groaning with crystal, most people don't use it.  Why?  Would it be worse broken and unused than sound and unused?  It's hard to break crystal, anyway.  So if you have five good-sized footed crystal bowls, and you serve five types of cereal, why wouldn't you put the cereal in the crystal?  It turns out to be a very attractive way to present cereal.  I don't have any occasion to serve vast quantities of cereal at one time, so I think my cereal is staying in the boxes (though I certainly gave it some thought!).  I did realize that, when I bring a salad to someone's home for dinner, I always bring it in crystal.  So I think I get partial credit on this question; I just need to be mindful of making more conscientious use of the things I have. 

Another thing to which I paid (a possibly inordinate amount of) attention was bathroom decor.  The proper way to put together a traditional bathroom is a question of some debate in the US, and I found some fascinating ideas.  For example, this tub surround:

Sorry for the quality of the picture - the lattice has a fleur-de-lis pattern.  By the way, the marble on the floor is fake; I'm not sure about the walls; the countertop was real marble.  It would be quite easy to build that molding once you get the tub in.  It's highly functional (easy to remove for plumbing access).  And yet it takes a modern-looking streamlined tub - the sore thumb in a bathroom in an old building - and turns it into old woodwork.  Brilliant. 

From Kenmare, we went to the most fascinating place we stayed: the Aran Islands.  Inis Meain, the middle island, has a population not much above 100.  It has one store, which sells everything from food to hats to duct tape (and not in the way Target sells everything from food to hats to duct tape.  It's tiny.  On the other hand, it offered a generous supply of parsnips, at decent prices - my grocery store doesn't even sell them.  I was slightly bitter).  A fellow giving horse-and-trap tours during our ferry layover (!) on Inis Oirr, the smallest island, explained the islands' topography.  They're solid rock - this rock:

(By the way, the blue on the horizon is the Atlantic Ocean.)  The span stretching from the left edge is what the islands naturally look like - big flat slabs of stone, on top of a flat expanse of stone, which goes all the way down.  The islands have been inhabited for a long time - Inis Oirr has a gravestone that dates to the bronze age.  Apparently, what the early settlers did was break up the huge slabs of stone into merely large pieces of stone.  They then assembled these pieces into walls:

When I first saw it, I assumed that they had assigned sheep-grazing plots in impossibly tiny parcels, and were outrageously territorial about it.  That's not the case.  The fences were created just to have someplace to put the rocks.  (They vary between three and six feet in height.  They also have built-in gates, also made of stone, stone water troughs with an ingenious rainwater collection system, and often stone staircases leading over a wall into the next area.)  The residents then pulled up sand and seaweed from the edges of the island and spread it over the cleared bare rock.  Over the years, that and cow and sheep dung decomposed and formed a thin layer of soil - just enough to support grass for grazing.  Each family owns several of these smallish plots, though generally not adjacent - you might own one at the top of the hill, and one on the west side of the island, and one on the east side. 

As a result of this setup, the islands do not have trees (there's not enough soil to support their roots).  Though there are some bushes - not many.  Despite these challenges, a few people have gardens.  These folks are growing potatoes:

Really, it makes the challenges I face with my little garden seem pretty pathetic.  Of course, my garden does not have that view.  And another enterprising gardener had roses already in bloom:

That house is contiguous with its neighbor - sort of an island duplex, if you will:

The house on the right has a beautiful wildflower garden:

The fauna were also picturesque, if not so hospitable.  This bovine did not appreciate me stopping to take pictures:  

(He's only moving at a walking pace, and I was protected by a wall of rocks.  But yes, that is a he.  And yes, he was irritated with me.)  The females among the cattle were somewhat less aggressive, but still not happy about my visit:

That cow would not stop mooing as long as I was within earshot.  After I turned a corner, I realized she shared her pen with several calves.  Fine, but I can't really get at them, now can I?  I started off by responding, "It's not like I eat -" and then realized it wasn't a helpful line of discussion and she wasn't listening anyway.  I was also chased by chickens: 

The one in the front is legitimately chasing me; when I stopped to take pictures, he sped up (fortunately his maximum speed was not impressive).  And my DH was bitten by a sheepdog (not a joke).  This horse did no worse than refuse to pose against the best scenery:

Which is not so bad.  The island also sports an ancient church, which for whatever reason I could not find.  I thought this was it, at first:

It's not.  It's actually just an abandoned house (hence the plants growing out of the thatched roof).  That's the original building method - stone walls, thatched roof. And typically they would spread mud on the walls to prevent wind whistling in between the stones.  Without trees, and right out in the ocean, I imagine the wind is terrible in the winter.  But there is a new church, described by the tourist pamphlet as built in 1939 and "thoroughly modern."  Let's see whether you agree:

Again - I would be endlessly happy if the thoroughly modern church I attend (not even 20 years newer than this one) looked anything like that. 

Much as my tendencies incline toward the small-town, rural, and out of the way, I realized that the islands are too desolate a place for me to live.  I tried to picture the lifestyle in my head, and I got no further than concluding I would have to have my own motorboat - so I could get back to the mainland freely without waiting for the ferry.  I'm not really cut out for that sort of thing, but I have endless admiration for the people who live there - living their lives the way they deem best, uninterested in the fact that the rest of the world is crazily bustling somewhere far away. 

After we left the island, we stayed at another little B&B on the coast near the islands, with a view of the Cliffs of Moher.  I found this, too, a source of fascinating ideas.  It was one of a couple of places we stayed that had separate hot and cold water taps:

(I don't know whether you can read them - around the "HOT" and "COLD," they say, "Waterford" and "Ireland."  I didn't even know Waterford made faucet handles.)  I am aware that this system is thoroughly impractical, and I am definitely using it in my next house.  I was also fascinated by this toilet:

We actually have that flushing lever on one of our toilets, for which, again, I think we deserve some sort of bonus points (though it was installed by the original owners).  But I really love the separated tank - reminiscent of the original Victorian design, where the tank was hung high on the wall, far above the bowl.  Where can one buy these things??  Obviously, the Atlantic View House shared the more traditional decor style.  Including wall-to-wall carpeting that I would never have picked out, but found that I rather liked:

Perhaps my attempts to draw a line between antique and "fussy old lady" have been misguided, and I should simply embrace my inner octogenarian.  I did, as likely goes without saying, pick up some embroidered Irish linen table runners; sadly, they turn out to be the wrong width and look for my table.  I'm glad I bought the clearanced "shop-soiled" models, as I'll now use them on the outdoor table without compunction.  (And the stains came out fairly easily.) 

And I don't want to suggest that the cities were without their merits.  At the end of the trip, we went to Dublin, where I got to meet my DH's cousins, and hear from a real live person who irons her sheets before she puts them on the bed - and views that as normal.  And see some lovely spots in downton Dublin, including this one:

I don't know what it's made of, but yes, those edges are shiny metallic gold.  Again - if only our downtowns looked like this...

In other words - as always, travel is eye-opening, albeit, for me, mostly to pretties, and small things, and (of course) food.  (I have a new garden salad idea to try.  And an appetizer.  And chowder.)  Frivolous things, really; but I think they have fundamental meaning - reminding me to think outside of my current habits, to use the things I have better, to do the best I can in feeding and taking care of the people I love. 

Which brings me, somewhat haphazardly, to Part III: who we are.  Stay tuned! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

been thinkin' - Part I

Always dangerous.  It means, at minimum, endless blog posts.  In this case, I suspect, several. 

When I started this blog - as I believe I've mentioned a few times - I wanted to write something that was about the experience of being infertile - what this life actually means.  As distinct from the process of doing fertility treatment - this is where I am in my cycle; these are my blood test results; here's what I'm planning on doing next month.  I was interested in looking at what kind of life this is, rather than the process of obtaining a baby. 

Of course, I traveled away from that, and I've indulged in as many "HCG shots this month - BFN" posts as any other IFer.  Well...actually, I suspect, fewer than most.  (Maybe I didn't entirely forget my original plan.  Or maybe by the time I started the blog, I was already starting to move from "when" to "if" - at the tender age of 26!)  And then I started to post a lot of things on home decor, which is more or less off at right angles from all other options.  (Though in a way I claim that it's part of the "just being," since it's what I cared about that wasn't IF treatment, and would remain important to me, baby or no baby.) 

But IF, amusing sprite that it is, has brought me back to that "just being" topic in the most decisive way possible: making me one of those childless-post-IF ladies.*  It's just being, or not being.  I choose the former. 

My DH and I just came back from spending nine days traveling around Ireland - a treat so great I wasn't always sure when I woke up in the morning that I was really staring at the shores of County Cork!  That is definitely not something we would have been able to do if we'd had a baby in the last couple of years.  (Of course, we have friends who travel more than we do who have a one-year-old.  And plenty of childless couples won't be so fortunate as to bop over to Europe.  Comparisons don't entirely hold up.  But I know for sure that we wouldn't have made that trip if we had a baby.) 

The leisure time has been extremely welcome - Ireland was stunning, and I think the getaway together was a huge blessing for the two of us.  I can't figure out whether I was taking time off from my job or just from spending all my non-working hours on some home project, or just being away from my regular routine, but it was refreshing.  I got a lot of time to think; or, perhaps, to think less, allowing notions that had been vaguely orbiting my head to settle down into some semblance of order. 

I've spent a bit of time pondering man's original commission and curse from Genesis.  You know the ones - starting with Genesis 1:28, "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth."  That's the job of humanity - enjoy the blessings God has offered us in creation.  Emulate His creative work in turning this place into a home for mankind, while being a good steward of the things He provided to supply our wants.  After Adam and Eve choose to do the one thing God forbade them to do, they receive the curse that sends them out of Eden - but the curse assumes that the commandment to "fill the earth and subdue it" still applies, only in a disfigured way, following the Fall. 

To Eve, God says, "I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee."  And to Adam, "[C]ursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life."  The curse given Eve is of questionable application to a barren woman; as many bloggers have written before me, an infertile woman would consider it a blessing to experience the discomforts and trials of pregnancy and childbirth.  (Though the linking of "sorrow" and "conception" can hardly be stronger than for infertiles!)  And, similarly, we can't fulfill that first commandment: "Increase and multiply." 

We can, however, "fill the earth, and subdue it" - not in the sense of filling it with people, to be sure, but in the sense of mirroring God's creation in our own endeavors in His honor and in pursuit of our proper nature.  For good or ill, I see my role in the fallen world following Adam's curse, not Eve's: "with labor and toil shalt thout eat" of the earth "all the days of thy life."  In the pre-lapsarian world, the earth yielded good fruit willingly; after man's disobedience tainted all of creation, noxious flora flourish, and the good fruit withers. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in my garden.  It requires "labor and toil," and "the sweat of thy face," to keep the vegetables alive for even a week.  The weeds constantly creep in.  Apparently thriving plants literally die and vanish overnight.  Even the vigorous grape vine is its own worst enemy - in its quest to take over neighboring shrubs, it has made itself vulnerable to attack by an even more aggressive vine.  The grape leaves only started emerging a few weeks ago, and I just noticed this problem yesterday; and it will take me a dozen hours of hard labor to remedy it, possibly more.  And I don't even eat grapes.  I undertook a herculean effort to clear the lilacs off of the azaleas in the front just a few weeks ago, and yesterday I discovered that the azaleas are now being persecuted by a dozen new invaders. 

The principle of entropy is, in my opinion, far easier to observe on an ordinary suburban plot than in outer space.  I've ripped out weeds and sprayed with regrowth-preventer in the side yard (paved with bricks - well, mostly), and the weeds are coming back anyway.  Even the aggressive spearmint is invaded by ivy.  My strawberries rotted the minute they ripened.  It takes a constant investment of human effort to assert even an unambitious version of order, prevent structures from being damaged by vegetation, keep edible plants alive, and keep out poisonous or thorny species.  And it isn't one of those "a little bit here, a little bit there, you don't even notice it" things.  If I wanted the whole place (all .25 acres!) in good order, I would have to work myself to exhaustion - constantly. 

Nor is this true only of the outdoors.  It would seem that way, but the other week I discovered that the wallpaper I put up on the wall behind our bed (20 hours of work to finish one wall) has been gouged up beyond recognition by a stupid bolt sticking out of our bed frame - I didn't even see the damage happening.  Now I have to rip all the paper off and do it again; or buy half as much paper and rip off the damaged sections and patch them, probably with visible seams; or create some sort of feature with chair rail to make it look as though half the wall is deliberately not papered.  Which might be as expensive and time-consuming as re-hanging the paper.  And all this before I have finished painting trim, hanging curtains, finishing the woodwork in the kitchen, getting the broiler working properly, attaching the kitchen sink faucet tightly.  Even before I've finished, I have to start again; and not with the cosmetic things, but with repairing damage. 

Perhaps because I'm 31 now, not old and wearing out, but past the freshest bloom of youth, I've started thinking about my own mortality - not about my death, but about what it means to live a life limited in time.  I had the sobering thought that for two largely wasted decades, I used my strength and energy to cause work for other people - messing up my room, dirtying clothes, requiring meals and supervision.  For the next two to four decades (depending on my health), I will be pouring out considerable amounts of energy and whatever strength I have (less considerable) into increasing the order and beauty in the world around me.  In my early 20s, this campaign was poorly organized; I was a fairly hopeless housekeeper and didn't give a thought to things like growing food.  Or even buying decent ingredients.  I did, however, get myself another degree, make a start in the working world, do a bunch of sewing, and make strides in teaching myself to cook. 

I've now become more ambitious; I'd like to cook really well, keep my home cleaned properly (and consistently enough that I can entertain on little notice with no major cleaning project - this has been difficult to manage around my various projects, but it's something I'd like to achieve), make it beautiful to look at and comfortable and useful to those in it, and restore and respect the historic qualities of the house.  I'd like to be able to keep my yard in well-groomed order, grow beautiful flowers outside and bring them inside, and grow the vegetables I'll need for the summer and enough herbs to last me through the year.  I anticipate that in the next ten years we'll live in a different house, and I dearly hope that one will be historic, too; and there will come a renewed set of responsibilities for repairing and maintaining old things, understanding how they are made and cared for, learning to create timeless beauty and discipline myself not to follow trends in an older space, learning how to manage the land, and balance all of that with my other responsibilities - work, family, faith life, friendships, housekeeping, exercise. 

In other words, by the sweat of my brow, with labor and toil, I'll manage the earth, and the structures on it; I'll work, against the never-ending onslaught of disorder and breakdown, to make beautiful the things I have created in imitation of God's creation, and the creations of men, others' imitations of God, that I've been entrusted to maintain. 

And then, in the next several decades of my life (if I am granted so many), my strength will fade.  Far from being able to work myself to exhaustion day after day after day and accomplish the improbable, the scope of my efforts will narrow to bare maintenance - repairing a few small things.  Then, I will be limited to the housekeeping - and probably will be employing different methods than I use now, ones that involve fewer stairs, or less heavy lifting.  By this time, I will likely be the steward of a home that will turn into the place that fixers like the now-me want to buy - slowly neglected, with value falling off its eventual asking price, looking for someone young and healthy and strong to restore it.  And ultimately I will not even be able to take care of myself; whatever money I've been able to save from my working years will go to paying someone else to take care of first my things and then me.  I will no longer be in the creating-beauty-and-order-at-the-cost-of-exhaustion business - I will be in the survival business.  And eventually, that business too will come to an end. 

Obviously, this could fairly be read as depressing.  But that's not really where I'm going.  At one point, I figured, "All right, if I don't have a baby to blog about, I will blog about my decor notions!  At least that's something I'm interested in, and not an endless series of un-pregnancy laments."  And then at some later point, I thought defiantly to myself, "Well, some people will leave a legacy of children and family - you know, the normal thing to do.  But maybe I'll preserve a century-old house such that it can survive another century well enough for someone else to come along and do what I'm doing, 100 years from now."  I do defiance with the best of them, but eventually the anger cools, or exhausts you, and the defiance sort of deflates under its own weight.  It doesn't work as a long-term policy.  And even I have to admit that it's a little ridiculous, pretending that a house is a baby. 

But I was looking at it entirely the wrong way about.  The house doesn't have to be a baby.  It doesn't even have to be a substitute for a baby.  Likewise, what else I do with my life doesn't have to be a substitute for motherhood.  My value as a person, and the worth of my undertakings, aren't measured up agains the yardstick of maternity and child-rearing.  The yardstick is value in the absolute sense: what makes a good life?  What is a useful purpose for a life spent on this earth?  And the commission in Genesis offers the answer: increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.  Thus, bearing children would be a valuable undertaking; but not the only one.  I can't multiply, as it happens.  But I can work on the care and use of created things, and the subduing of the earth. 

I can take care of my house, because it's something beautiful, and beauty is to be preserved; because beautiful things give glory to God, Whose creation supplies us with our primary understanding of what beauty is; and because participating in the work of creation and preservation is participation in the divine work, even as participation in the creation of new life is.  And this work is worth sacrificing my time and energy and strength - a measurable fraction of a finite store of life - because it is valuable.  It would even be worth sacrificing more.  This Old House recognized a woman in its "moxie awards" this year who impaled her leg on a tiller during her restoration of a historic barn: "Caroline stands by her priorities.  'I have a limp,' she says.  'But I also have a beautiful barn.'"  This woman is radically sane.  It's nonsense to suppose that we'll be young forever, or healthy forever; some day, we'll all have a limp - if we're lucky.  But we could get that limp without ever pouring out our strength to achieve something valuable.  I've thrown away years of being fit and hormonally stable, and (what was left of) the health of my reproductive system, in an effort to have a child - which will never happen.  The least I can do now is to devote my health and strength to something worth doing that will happen. 

Frightening though it is, this endless post is only the beginning of my musings in this direction.  (You think I am kidding.)  Next post, Part II: Ireland.  (Prepare for lots of pictures - zero babies.) 

*Granted, I made the decision about when to stop treatment.  I see that as a good thing - not only because I think I picked the right time, but because being able to choose the time is itself a blessing.  I'm confident that more treatments wouldn't change the outcome, just give over more of my life to needless misery.