Nonfiction from NER 43.1 (2022)
ut in the field, the coming storm already lives inside the legs of horses. My son and I watch them turn and leap. The sun sparks their black coats like a searchlight that startles back at us. Flies bite our ankles because the storm is inside them also. They feed now, before their airspace is full of disturbance. Ants, too, sense impending rain, through holes in their exoskeleton called spiracles. Something about the atmosphere, about pressure dropping.
I don’t know where large animals shelter in times of bad weather. Uprooted stumps, fallen tree piles, rocks. The land we know transforms for how we relate to it. The hill a new hill, larger, with my son on my shoulders. The stream more swift when he stands in its path on unsteady legs. Dried leaves become an instrument played by our walking. The flattened grass holds the heat of a deer we troubled, becomes the place to arrange collected stones.
This spring a doe and two fawns made our backyard a daily place to pause and scatter. The mother dips her head in the grass. The fawns shiver their tails. Their spots are there to mimic the light passing under the motion of trees. They are lost then to predators among that shifting language.
The sun makes this light but it does not come down to us on legs or wheels. Scientists invented tools to measure how fast light moves and how far it’s traveled to make this field visible. Light from the moon and stars is different from the light we make with our wires and lamps. But light in relation to time? How can I look at something in the sky that has already changed?
There is a glow that radiates from my son. Or is it my eyes, how they’ve been altered to receive this light? He jumps when he sees me across the schoolyard, comes running. I think, don’t forget this don’t forget this don’t forget this.
Inside of him is an appetite for sleep and other forms of innate desire. When I lay him down, he slowly shutters his eyes like he’s sampling a taste of the dark. Since infancy, he’s turned his head back and forth like he’s erasing the day’s light. Back and forth he sweeps clean the stage for dreaming.
A swift is a kind of bird that lives in the sky like a punctuation mark for a sentence no human can write. A swift can fly for nine months without landing. It flies ten thousand feet away from the earth and sleeps for short intervals as it sails back down.
So many dogs I’ve known and been comforted by in their ease of sleep and proximity. I’ve seen them twitch and shake. I’ve thought, is that dreaming? Yes, that is dreaming.
There is a little shock in seeing a dozen toddlers in the middle of the afternoon asleep on the floor. Their kicked-off blankets, arms and legs flung wide.
Seeing my mother asleep, her pillow webbed with thin hair, has always made me uneasy. After a bad dream I used to stand in the dark on her side of the bed whispering mom . . . mom . . . mom . . . pushing more air behind the worduntil she opened her eyes, spooked at first to see me. Then, coming to, she’d hold open the edge of the blanket for me and I’d curl in beside her.
I don’t recall a time I’ve seen my father sleeping. That’s not true. I saw him nod off in a chair once, behind his book and reading glasses. I had traveled home with an infant. He had acquired a pacemaker. A flash of guarded surprise registered both ways, and the feeling hung around in the air.
Fawns stay in their fawn beds being brand new. The doe goes out to forage, then circles back, then goes out until the fawns are fed and strong enough to leap the fences. Sometimes, the mother eats their droppings to keep them undetected, their bodies odorless otherwise. They hold very still to remain invisible.
In active labor, a sheep’s brain is rewired in minutes to be “exquisitely sensitive” to the newborn’s smell.
Within forty-eight hours, a human mother can distinguish the cry of her baby among other crying babies.
Hypnos, the god of sleep, lives in a cave surrounded by poppies. Through the cave runs a river of forgetfulness. He is said to be a gentle god whose power owns one third of human lives.
His mother, Nyx, the goddess of the night, was one of the few feared by Zeus.
The onset of darkness is known to trigger human labor. About 70 percent of births happen in the deep hours between 1:00 and 8:00 am. I’m not talking about interventions, hospitals, or the lives of doctors, but something about privacy, about trolling a restful state. Melatonin, the “Dracula” hormone, comes online to signal day’s end, then sparks oxytocin to put on the squeeze. Innate also the wisdom from hunter-gatherers who knew that night would mean the nearness of the tribe. Because it’s difficult, though not impossible, for human mothers to deliver unassisted.
Pregnancy seems to greatly outsize the body’s other self-regulatory actions. How could it happen without the stewardship of my thinking? Impossible, I, who am perpetually late, could make a person. I, who can’t finish anything, so accustomed am I to losing my place and starting over. Here was one deadline I could not blow. Nine months. Such a clear narrative line. A story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.
How ordinary. How very natural. In the minute it took me to type this sentence, 250 babies were born.
Describing “black box” theory, philosopher Bruno Latour says, “When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity.” In other words, the system “is made invisible by its own success.”
In the beginning I remember only a sense of something gathering inside, something rising up. And on occasion the feeling of a thread being yanked. A persistent hunger for sleep covered me like a heavy blanket. I turned and kicked restlessly under its comfort and weight.
When I pass women of reproductive age in the airports and grocery stores of the world, I don’t consider where they are in terms of building or dismantling their uterine lining.
Consider this: 26 percent of the world’s human population—every month—perfects the ideal host conditions to receive a fertilized egg. And when that narrow window of time passes, rather than expend valued resources to keep the lights on for the next egg to arrive, the body scraps the whole show and starts over. Neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, calls this, “a phenomenal expression of metabolic economy.”
Pregnancy is not an accomplishment. But it is. Things take the time they take.
I had no idea a quarter of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. No one talks about this. So common in fact a doctor won’t see you for a “medical problem” until you’ve endured more than three.
Current weather conditions. How much a child has grown and changed. These are considered more acceptable social topics.
In my first ultrasound I saw specs and dashes, like being nose-close to a deer hide. I saw night sky, striations, the twirl of a storm by satellite. The dark oval, the eye in the middle: yolk sack.
“That blinking, there,” said the tech, “that’s a primitive heart.” A little electric knot, it glows and contracts. You can see it and almost not see it, but accept this as proof something’s there.
After twelve weeks, it’s a relief to unload the secrecy of pregnancy. It’s news I dispense widely. News that garners a reaction, a sort of glad return. How are you? Good. How are you? Pregnant. Exposure and fact.
Clinical ultrasound was adapted from a tool used to catch industrial flaws in World War II navy ships. To find inconsistencies, sound was sent into the giant metal hulls and measured for change. Were there cracks?
The story of sonography begins with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Lewis Fry Richardson, an English mathematician, patented a method for emitting acoustic waves to determine size and distance of what would otherwise go unseen in the water. If we know where the obstacles are, we can plot a course around them.
Bats are born knowing how to use sound for navigation. It would take scientists until 1938—another twenty-six years—to figure this out.
People fear bats, how they swoop and circle, but I think watching them enlivens time. Their wings fray the line between day and night reliably. They wink in and out of view, pixilate oncoming dark. They are there and not there. You can see them, and you can almost not see them.
The same year the term echolocation was applied to bats, Nathaniel Kleitman, the “father of sleep science,” went to live inside the darkest cave in America.
Kleitman said his interest in sleep was inspired by the question of what was required for us to stay awake. A scientist who often used himself in experiments, he wanted to see what would happen to his sleep cycle without the sun’s influence or clocks. How would he know when to sleep? And for how long would he stay under?
Mammoth cave in Kentucky remains a steady fifty-four degrees. More than 180 different animal species call it home.
Kleitman and his assistant crossed a subterranean river and forests of dripping stone with their gas lamps and dismantled hospital beds. They placed each bed leg in a large bucket of water to keep creatures from climbing on them while they slept.
It doesn’t appear they were concerned about anything falling on them from above. A photograph shows a bearded man under a heavy quilt, curled on his side with one arm under his head and the other exposed, tucked against his chest. He’s wearing a hood on his head, and his expression is one of contentment. Equipment and various supplies surround the bed: a vintage water pitcher and wash basin, a duffle bag and sheets, the lumpy texture of the rock walls in the background.
Most bats don’t have enough strength in their legs to launch from the ground. That’s why they sleep upside down, so they can drop into flight. I didn’t know that.
The average bat sleeps nineteen hours a day.
A killer whale and her newborn calf might stay awake up to two weeks before returning to the safety of the pod. They are the only known species to forgo sleep at such a critical time.
The average human baby sleeps sixteen hours a day and spends 50 percent more time in REM sleep than adults.
In the cave, it didn’t take long for Kleitman to reestablish a regular sleep pattern, despite the sun’s absence and the constant dripping of water onto stone; despite sleeping under a halo of bats.
After thirty-three days, he asserted that humans keep time from the inside with their own built-in clock that more or less aligns with a twenty-four-hour cycle. External cues can act as triggers. But the mechanism is internal, a complicated organ with switches and gears.
When a fetus’s brain grows, the mother’s shrinks. I mean this literally. There’s a sizable reduction in gray matter. A subtraction of volume. You won’t find this detail in What to Expect When Expecting or other pregnancy books.
At no other time outside adolescence does a human brain transform to such a degree. And yet, “the effects of pregnancy on the human brain are virtually unknown.” These are the words of Elseline Hoekzema, the Dutch researcher whose 2017 study used neuroimaging to support this.
The brain MRI scans look like cartoon renderings of black-and-white coral. The occasional yellow to red flares represent the thinning areas on the surface of the cortex, areas responsible for social cognition and theory of mind networks. The specificity of these locations was so consistent that a pregnant brain was easily identified among a lineup of mixed MRIs.
They say it’s less about losing than creating specialization through restructuring, a fine-tuning. How do we talk about change in terms of material loss and not risk claims of impairment?
When pregnant, I lost speed to my thinking, I can tell you that. But I grew sensitive to reading people’s eyes. I can tell you the word “spoon” disappeared from my head. I said to the waiter, utensil please, the one that cradles. I lost the word “vinegar,”but thought of Easter and sour air in my mother’s kitchen. I saw the color blue drying flat on white shells.
A human egg is huge compared to other cells in the body. A mature egg big as a strand of hair is thick.
An infant is born with fifty-two teeth waiting to shift into the mouth.
A female is born with seven million eggs waiting to express possibility.
A sea turtle grows a temporary tooth to crack open its own shell. It hatches in the sand when the oxygen is nearly used up.
At a sanctuary in Mexico, we waited for turtle hatchlings to stir awake and climb against the ocean side of the enclosure. Only one in a thousand sea turtles will survive to adulthood. Ghost crabs, vultures, raccoons, people, dogs wait to pinch them off the beach before they can reach the water. We released the turtles near the waves, which were so big the sound canceled our language. They pedaled their thumb-sized shells through white froth before a wave hurled them back up the slope. Sliding down they scrambled and flipped over. Trying again and being washed back. Between waves, where the water gathered, their legs found purchase, then down they swam, offering themselves to the unknown.
Later, I tell my son how turtles read light on the water like a map home. I try to explain how there can be knowing without learning. How when he first met the air, his lungs knew right away what it was for and how to use it. The body, how it knows to swallow and to keep the mouth wet. How it knows to process water and food, then fans out the vitamins to help the muscles go, the heart go, the thinking. The thinking, it goes and goes.
To “be in the arms of Morpheus” is an expression that means “to be asleep.” A gesture that maintains both care and oblivion. To be embraced by Morpheus, the god of dreams and not his father, Hypnos, suggests there’s more to sleep than simply going under. Morpheus is a dynamic god, a messenger, a shapeshifter. Every night he flies from the cave on dark leathery wings to appear to the human subconscious. He personifies abstraction; that’s his work.
In my first trimester, a young version of my grandmother came to me with a book about how best to wear a massive black coat. A child was there, but more a feeling of wind on bare shoulders than anything with eyes. I climbed out the window onto a rock to get closer to the deep water below. The slosh and gargle were constant. Without that sound, I could not rest.
In another dream, a child was a squid tied to my back, its legs and arms rubber curls that bounced to the pulse of my steps. We walked for miles on clearly marked trails but could not find the parking lot to leave.
There would be more animal babies: a toad, a skunk, a rabbit, an elk; children with furred hands, children with claws for feet.
Dreams of non-pregnant adults include animals only 7 percent of the time. A statistic is a faulty signpost. A shadow of an absolute. Yet it can feel useful to collect them.
Studies claim pregnant women cross-culturally experience a unique and consistent pattern of dream imagery. Animals, bodies of water, buildings, and other structures appear in order and size relative to gestational phase. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I still don’t know what this means. Is this a matter of intimate belonging? Do these patterns signal a correspondence between the machinations of the body and the imagination’s capacity to create? A dialogue that’s not possible in the waking hours where logic reigns?
We have earth to thank for our capacity to dream. Or maybe it was the advent of fire.
To stay safe in the vulnerable hours, we once made our beds in the leafy crowns of trees. It was a shallow sleep, often interrupted. The risk of losing track of one’s body was too great. Then fire happened, along with all the new light it made. We climbed out of the branches and reclined on solid ground.
Instead of falling from sleep we could fall deeper into it. Once we could stay there for a longer time, a great house was constructed on the other side of consciousness. We enter through the swinging doors each night and migrate between five rooms.
That sleep has “architecture” is a relatively new theory. In 1953, Eugene Aserinsky, a PhD student, discovered REM sleep: a correspondence between “rapid eye movement” and brain activity, dreaming.
He said the word “jerky” better described how the eyes moved but feared not being taken seriously.
The structure of DNA was discovered the same year as REM sleep in relation to the state of dreaming. How could we spend so much time doing something and not know what it is for beyond restoration? Or that this state of being is dynamic?
Hippocrates believed the uterus drifted all around the body. He claimed it had as many as seven chambers and was lined with tentacles and suckers. He also believed a miscarriage was caused by standing on a shaking ladder.
“Do you eat your burgers rare?” asks the midwife at an early checkup.
“No,” I say, as I imagine feeling around for loose fries at the bottom of a warm In n’ Out bag.
The blood pressure sleeve puffs around my arm just shy of a choke point.
“Do you change the cat litter at home?”
“I love cats,” I say, the cuff deflating like the body relieved by a long sigh. “But no, no cats a home. My husband’s allergic. And we struggle to keep house plants alive.”
“Good,” she says, unphased by the irony of my words. “Reduces your risk for toxoplasmosis.”
“Infection from a common parasite. Can be an issue when pregnant.”
Standing now, the midwife strings a measuring tape around my middle. The skin there feels leather tight. She advises against deli meat, sushi, coffee, honey, mosquitoes, and handling turtles. How is your job? And what about your sleep?
The word delicious escapes my mouth.
“The ultrasound exam of a pregnant woman is concurrently a medical diagnostic checkup, a psychosocial event, and a photographic ritual,” says scholar José van Dijck.
A sonogram is the printed picture, an all-at-once material transcript from the underworld. Something you take with you when the screen goes dark and you leave the formality of a heath-care office.
It’s common for people to post their sonograms online. Common also to post pictures after just giving birth amid the washed-out pallet of hospital linens.
Once pregnant, I examine these photos closely. They feel too private for social media and yet generalized by their aesthetic sameness.
I tend to notice the cranks and rails of the bed. There’s a head inside a blanket, with impossibly small features, a medical bracelet on the mother’s arm, sometimes wires attached as if she’s a dropped marionette.
Almost always the mother’s hair appears oily or wet. Her face looks so naked to me, and by naked I mean raw, not exposed.
To what degree, I wonder, is the smile performed?
“Broken or not broken.” This is a game my son likes to play. With both hands he holds an object like a cracker or a stick. Broken, or whole, I’m asked to guess. And I rarely get it right.
My mother’s first child was a boy. In her ninth month, she learned something was terribly wrong. One cell fails to divide. The smallest revision distorts the narrative. This was 1971. Fetal ultrasound was not in wide use until the mid-seventies.
Women before—for all of time—went forward with their sprouting abstractions, trusting the waters. Quickening—fetal movement felt by the mother—was confirmation you made it through the critical first trimester.
At this point, around four months, a fetus can frown, squint, and make grimacing expressions. You might see a profile on an ultrasound, or the studded rail of a spine.
Ultrasound is an exercise in reflection, the activity of which enables an inside look. It works like this: sound—above the threshold of human hearing—is sent out from a known source to bump the edges of matter; an image forms based on the speed of the echo’s return.
A transducer is a plastic wand that smears a cloud of cold jelly around your abdomen while black-and-white shapes bloom and recede on a monitor.
You tell me that’s fascia, I accept that is fascia. You say pelvic bone. I understand that white dune as bone.
Kleitman was Aserinsky’s adviser at the University of Chicago and served as co-author on the breakthrough study published in Science: “Regularly Occurring Periods of Eye Motility, and Concomitant Phenomena, During Sleep.”
Before REM was discovered, Kleitman had Aserinsky staring at the eyelids of babies to try to understand their sleep habits. Aserinksy noted, “intermittent bursts of eye activity, rolling and also a darting back and forth.”
The average woman completes 450 menstrual cycles in her lifetime.
When I woke up to use the bathroom, I wasn’t surprised to see the bright red on white paper.
Then remembered I was fourteen weeks pregnant. That’s not right.
My care provider directs me to the ER to rule out a medical problem.
At the hospital, I encounter a doctor wearing khaki pants that sit high at the waist and a fleece vest that says “Kaiser Permanente.”
She wheels over an ultrasound machine and pulls a curtain between me and the other people harboring their emergent concerns.
I will her to locate the blinking light among the morphing shadows where it had been before. I squint at the screen to find again the pulsing.
She says, “I’m sorry.”
She keeps sliding the wand around but she’s looking squarely at my face. I’m so sorry.
I could stay and have the uterus evacuated with a procedure called a dilation and curettage. A manual opening of the cervix followed by a scraping or suctioning of the uterine wall with a curette, a sharp-edged loop.
I could go home and wait for my own body to miscarry.
Sometimes I don’t realize it’s raining until I see a small shine on the pavement.
The rain is a welcome change until its slow and steady arrival goes on too long and swallows roads, loosens slopes.
In 2017, the Mud Creek Landslide sent fifty million tons of earth over Highway 1, adding a mile to the Big Sur coastline.
Five miles to the north, small cracks were observed in the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge, and it was closed before it collapsed, turning Big Sur into an island.
In July the year before, I noticed chalk on the driveway from the race track we drew for matchbox cars at Christmas. We were years deep into the drought. That week I saw a large cloud rising over the opposite mountain. Too low and round to match the others in the sky, too yellow to be filled with water. This was the start of the Sobranes fire that would burn 132,127 acres into the center of October.
Proportion is defined as, “the relation of one part to another or to the whole with respect to magnitude, quantity, or degree.”
After the miscarriage, it did not feel rational to grieve what seemed little more than wrecked possibility. I carried around that nothing until the sting took its slow time to leave.
I was surprised by the recognition my friends’ and colleagues’ faces reflected back at me. And for a moment, our invisible losses were made concrete. It was like learning a new word that suddenly appears everywhere.
When I ask my mother, she says it was their first child who died. He was a boy.
I am instantly sorry.
After coming full term, she had to wait several days to deliver a baby who would not survive.
How far is far enough. Not touching it.
When my son asks, “What is lightning?” I say, “It’s that gold flash, remember? A jagged fissure in the sky, a one-two before the thunder drop. Or is it lightning first, then thunder?”
“But is it the air breaking?” he asks. “Or is there a break in the sky? And from where does it start?”
In captivity a white-tailed deer approaching delivery has been described as restless. Note the elevated tail, accompanied by an otherwise atypical pacing.
Two hours before the birth, a rippling can be seen around the animal’s midsection.
The doe lies down during intense contractions then stands between them.
Near the end she’s on her side breathing heavily, ears pinned back. Her head juts forward for a long beat then retracts and goes forward again. This strained pulsing goes on until there’s a fawn on the ground, its legs in a slippery pile.
The doe licks away the amnion until the fawn is completely dry.
I write, erase, rewrite,
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms
In 1914, two female reporters published an article in McClure’s, a popular women’s magazine, introducing the benefits of “Twilight Sleep,” a German method for pain-free childbirth.
Women could enter a hospital upon the onset of labor and get knocked out for the entire ordeal.
“When their pains began, they went to sleep . . . they woke up happy and animated, and well in body and soul; and found, with incredulous delight, their babies, all dressed, lying before them upon a pillow in the arms of a nurse.”
You can hear the word “morphine” rattle out of the word “Morpheus.” Morphine is an analgesic and narcotic drug obtained from the opium poppy. It works by changing the way the brain and body perceive pain.
How could a woman deliver a baby and be completely unconscious?
Mothers were served a cocktail of scopolamine, causing drowsiness and amnesia, then morphine for pain. But she would still be “in full possession of her muscular powers.”
Karl Gauss, one of the physicians who developed the method, provided this illustration: “In the spine are telephone girls. I am asleep and a fly bites my foot; I brush it off. If I am awake, she calls my brain also. If I am asleep, she does not. But the action is the same, either way.”
At the time of birth, the uterus is the most powerful muscle in the body. It turns white from exertion. It is said to be on par with the strength of an ocean wave. To avoid hurting themselves, women might be tied down or confined to an adult-sized crib. A special gown was designed with extra-long sleeves that connected in the back. Without careful monitoring the drugs would wear off and women would shift into awareness of their pain and confinement.
The official side effects of “Twilight Sleep” included uncontrollable delirium and violence, hemorrhaging, and prolonged labors. However, the entire event could still be erased from memory with another dose of scopolamine. But at what psychic cost?
By 1970, 94 percent of births took place in hospitals. Men were not allowed in delivery rooms. Labor takes hours, sometimes days.
My mother was placed in a room by herself to labor alone. The baby was born with severe deformities and lived for two days. My father did not want to give the baby a name. So the baby did not have a name.
Mother and baby are doing fine.
Mother and baby are not doing fine.
Over and over. How’s the baby?
In 2018, researchers puzzled over a tagged killer whale and her dead calf off the coast of Vancouver.
“The carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother, who supported it on her forehead and pushed it in choppy seas.”
At great metabolic expense the mother buoyed the calf for over a thousand miles.
I come across a headline that reads: “Bright flash of light marks incredible moment life begins when sperm meets egg.” Scientists catch “astonishing fireworks on film.”
They had simulated human conception in a laboratory. There were dozens of enthusiastic reports. I clicked on the soundless video and saw neon colors flare and spark. Like a muted bomb detonation.
It is hard to know what you’re looking at or that it’s happening inside the scale of a petri dish, but if you follow the trail long enough you see how the media ran away with the story they wanted to tell.
A careful observer can see where the attention breaks down. A bird that sounds like it’s hiccupping fast. The rush of the furnace rising to seventy degrees.
There was no real bolt of lightning, no inflection of the divine.
Are you a good egg or a bad egg? It was a fertility study. Scientists were measuring viability through chemical change. Something about the rise of calcium, about the eruption of zinc.
The magic was in how they found a way to see it. That is a kind of magic, inventing a way to show us ourselves.
If I can’t see the child, does it mean he’s not there?
I woke up in the labor room a breathing chemical slur.
Where is the baby?
Those are my headphones, my red shoes. I recognize the nurse.
Where’s the father? Where’s the midwife?
I had been a ship alive with freight.
I had tucked, I had gathered.
I learned to river and fold. To willow, yank taught to coax.
Hours, leaking into hours.
I’m not sure how to explain the way time changes. Hours start and stop. Minutes swap down for up. I grew closer, then further away. Time hit the gas when I almost caught its tail.
I rode up the pole of sharps going in.
I went up and up.
His heart slipped, his heart ticked down and down.
Don’t go, I thought, don’t go.
As now we had moved from a naturally occurring process to a medical problem.
Loaded on a cart I heaved. I bucked on all fours. Wires streaming out of me.
In the hallway I didn’t care I was naked. What a stupid thing I thought I would care about.
I found it hard to breathe. My language was gone. They wheeled me into all those blue costumes and that hawking light.
A woman said, look at me. A woman she said, right here, look.
She came in slow with air, with a mask for my face, a breathing portal, a tube to slip out, I could escape.
I felt a splash come down on my stomach. A dump of brown water to make the field clean. Look at me, she said. Her mouth white paper her hair her black hair brown eyes and fading I could leave now I could fall away.
Where did I go?
Is the baby all kelp and swaying shadow?
Does the baby have eyes?
Does the baby have ankles and valves?
I woke up, there was no baby. I thought there was no baby.
And then there he was. Here he was. Here he is.
It took one try to conceive my son. There were fireworks that night and bottle rockets cracking in the streets. It was the Fourth of July, a rare day off for my husband.
The egg is fertilized on day one . . . cell stage four cell stage eight cell stage sixteen then, nearing ninety, a blastocyst forms—a berry-like structure that drifts toward the open pith of the endometrium. Day five it casts its hooks, roots, and splinters. ■