Saturday, October 14, 2006

Yes, He's Old Enough to Ask For It

I'm talking about Simon, age 2, and I'm talking about breastfeeding.

When Anna was about 3 months old, I shared a recital with my clarinet quartet. We had our customary gathering of celebration afterwards, and of course, Anna was there with me. I went nowhere without her, because she was breastfed and didn't take a bottle. I was the only woman in the quartet, and Bryan and I were the only couple at the gathering with a child, so I stole off to an upstairs bedroom when Anna needed to nurse, in the interest of my comfort and the comfort of the others present. (Today, I would probably just nurse right there, because all of those people have seen me nurse in far more public places, like concert sites.)

When I returned from my upstairs exile, a conversation started between me and some of my more curious co-workers.

"Does it hurt?"

"Is it...messy?"

"Is it really any different from the stuff you can buy in a can?"

I enjoyed answering these questions and giving folks the opportunity to learn about something they had likely never had any contact with, at least any that they remembered (though most of my age group was not breastfed at all). But then, the conversation turned a bit:

"I'm glad I don't have to see it."

"It's OK when they're babies, but when they're old enough to ask for it, that's just gross."

This "old enough to ask for it" business has come up more than once in my nearly 4 years of breastfeeding. It seems that public opinion includes provisions for the non-verbal child, but one who can indicate with his voice that he wants to breastfeed is just a blink away from a pervert. Turning gay. A molester in the making. Porn addict. Right?

I had to laugh about this at the time. When Anna was just 3 months old...heck, when she was 3 days old, she let me know, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted to breastfeed. She "asked" for it by smashing her little bobbly head into my chest, pulling back and quickly "banging" on me. After a few weeks, she'd make a little noise: "uh? uh? uh? uh-uh-uh-uh!" There was never any question what she wanted.

Of course, once she got to be 3 years old, and beyond, Anna could clearly express, in conversational terms, that she wanted to nurse. She told me what it tasted like (macaroni), why she liked it so much ("because I love your smell, Mamma"), which side she wanted, and how long she expected to be there. Now that she's done, she still tells me, in a wistful tone, "I sure did like mamma-milk. I used to enjoy it so much, when I was a baby." She still likes to be cradled in my arms when we're sharing some special time together...only now we talk or laugh instead of nursing.

Simon, at age 2, is nowhere near his sister's verbal level at that age, but he has his own way of communicating. One of his first "words" was un, which is how he describes breastfeeding. (This is not to be confused with untch, which is his word for drinking anything else from a cup, or even a reference to the cup itself.) Simon is happy to let me know not only that he wants to nurse, but where! "Un-cha" is nursing in the chair. "Un-bit" is nursing in the bed. "Un-ball" is nursing here at the computer, while I'm sitting on my yoga ball. Lately, when he's tired, Simon's been asking for "un-car!" (nursing in the car!), and getting very upset when I tell him we are not going to the car to nurse.

Having been through a full course of breastfeeding, through a primarily child-led weaning (with some encouragement from me, tandem nursing was starting to wear me down a little bit after almost 2 years of it), I can't imagine denying a child's requests for nursing (I'm talking in the grand scheme of things -- there are definitely times I distract Simon, like when he asks for "un-store"). He knows what he wants, and he asks for it the way he knows how.

And he's always so happy with a tummy full of "un."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It's the End of the World as I Know It...

...and I haven't really decided how I feel about it.

I mean, I've realized time and again that the "right" decision makes me feel sad (but feels very right) and the "wrong" decision just leaves me feeling unsettled.

I'm talking about my decision to give up music, to quit playing the clarinet as my career. It's something I never would have thought would happen. I mean, there was a time in my life when I actually said "If I can't play the clarinet, there's no reason for me to be alive." I naturally assumed I'd stay at my job for 20+ years, until I was ready to retire, as in, live the rest of my life into old age with no formal job. Really, what else was I ever going to do?

I'm not entirely sure where to lay the blame of changes. At first glance, one might assume that having Anna was the big turning point, the event that ripped me from my commitment to music...but I don't think it was really that simple. I experienced one of the pinnacles of my career, a chamber music performance at the International Clarinet Association Conference with Larry Combs -- when Anna was 7-1/2 months old.

Another pinnacle of sorts happened a few weeks ago, at what was likely to be my last solo recital. Before I began, I was emotionally unstable -- one of the musicians who came to play the Appalachian Spring with me was simply awestruck that I, with a 2-year old (and an almost 4-year old!) would be giving a recital. Her own daughter was nearly 2. I wanted to tell her that I wasn't what I looked to be -- I wasn't at all "together" or balancing my career with motherhood the way it obviously seemed to her. I wanted to tell her that I was losing my mind and feeling completely out of control...but I didn't.

People I worked with came to my recital, which I didn't want to know before I played but I saw them coming in. I expected some of them -- my friends, who had come to support me. It was the "others" that surprised and unnerved me, the colleagues who probably say mean things about me behind my back and just bring negative energy to the room. One (confirimed) friend later told me how neat it was to see so many of our co-workers there, and I shared with her that I thought some were there for the sheer spectacle of what they expected to be a terrible performance. She was shocked that I could be so cynical, but there it was. Knowing "they" were there rattled me enough that I performed with an element of fear for a little while.

Of course, that was almost completely counterbalanced by the presence of the most incredibly lovely man alive (I can't control the tears even today as I type about him!), my clarinet teacher from high school. Mr. Scott is big as a mountain, with a heart of gold even bigger than his body, and he came to hear me play. I choked back the tears before I took my place beside the piano, and said aloud, "I can't possibly play poorly with Mr. Scott in the room!" (OK, I'm sobbing all out now, and I don't even have PMS.) God brought me to Mr. Scott halfway through my freshman year of high school. I will do an entire blog entry about him someday, for sure. He gave me a lot of what I should have gotten from my father during my adolescence -- encouragement, love, patience, and the expectation of greatness. I worked so hard to live up to his perceptions of me. At my recital, I was boosted again by the years-old desire to make him proud of me. Several years ago, at his retirement dinner, he announced to everyone in attendance that I was "the best" he had ever taught. I went home that night and cried for hours, that I could be that significant to a man as he wrapped up decades of teaching.

I chose a program for the recital that I would feel connected to, pieces of music that I felt spoke of my past, my present, and my future as a clarinet player, and as a human. Honestly, though...I had no idea just how connected I would feel until I was actually giving the performance. It was the first time in years (really, in years!) that I wasn't just playing the notes. I had something to say. A lot of things to say, about who I was, what I am going through, what I look forward to and desire.

I made my best stab at the clarinet concerto of Aaron Copland. I had performed it before, but only recently realized just how freaking HARD it is! My standards have evolved, I guess. What struck me as funny during the recital was how everything I used to totally suck at -- smooth, legato connections; intonation, especially in the high register; tone quality -- these were the aspects of my performance that were terrific ("sublime," as one friend described it). The things that used to define me as the best around -- my fast tongue and fingers, my aggressive style -- I missed the mark. I left the stage feeling like I shouldn't have attempted the piece. I was later chastised for not taking a second bow, because the audience kept clapping after I left. I just couldn't go back out there after I played the way I felt I did. I felt that I hadn't properly honored the musician I used to be, and I was kind of pissed off about it!

My second piece was the song As It Fell Upon a Day, which I performed with two very strong women -- women who have endured tremendous hardship in their lives. I chose them not for their musicianship (though they are both excellent musicians), but for their presence in my life and for the example they have set for me in how they've lived their lives with grace and dignity, even through difficulties. I knew I had a connection to the words of the song, and as we performed, even though there were minor flaws in the execution, I felt as if I was appropriately honoring my place in time today -- respecting that I am encountering a bump in the road, but that no one would feel sorry for me, because that bump is mine alone to get over. Most people wouldn't even begin to understand how or why this circumstance creates such a quandary for me, anyway...people change careers, or decide to stay home with their kids all the time, right?

I had waited 15 years to perform Appalachian Spring. I nearly had a chance my senior year of college, when I was slotted to play it with an ensemble at school. My audition for my current job was scheduled for a Thursday and I would miss the dress rehearsal for Appalachian Spring, which was to be performed on Saturday evening. My conductor, with whom I had a great relationship, let me know that he was uncomfortable with that situation. I considered not taking the audition in favor of performing the work, but chose instead to go get myself a job, figuring I would have an opportunity to play it someday. Eleven years later, I still hadn't played it, and I knew I needed to make it happen -- now or never.

It cost me more money than I could really afford, what with renting the parts and score (Boosey and Hawkes are pretty stingy with their music!) and paying the musicians (who all worked for dirt, really -- I appealed upon their sense of humanity in the hopes that people who would play for very little money and a bag of Bryan's chocolate chip cookies might also be the sorts who would pour their hearts into the music and not concern themselves with every little technical nuance), as well as properly thanking my friends/co-workers who also offered their time to fill out the wind parts and conduct. All told, I'm out $1000 for that experience, but it was worth every penny.

Another (confirmed) friend who came to hear my recital said later "Anyone who wasn't here today could never understand what exactly happened here." He is right. Appalachian Spring was truly the stuff dreams are made of. So my pianist wasn't always in the right place. The strings sometimes came in before the conductor cued them. I missed a few notes. But, it didn't matter, at least not to me or the people who could see my heart on my sleeve during that 25 minutes of my life. There were moments I just couldn't even believe -- perfectly in tune, broad lines shared between the bassoonist and myself; quiet but vibrant whipers by the strings, punctuated with a singing melody from my (confirmed!) friend's A-clarinet (which I boldly chose to play half an hour before the recital, knowing it would be better than mine -- and it was like driving a Ferrari!), the big, sweeping statement of "Simple Gifts" near the end of the work that told everyone there, whether they knew it or not, what I really want out of my life -- to be simple and free, to receive the gift of coming down, where I ought to be!

I sobbed (probably audibly, but I haven't listened to the recording yet) right there on the stage. One (confirmed) friend told me a few days after the recital that he had never seen me so happy as I was during that piece of music. I was filled with joy and sadness and direction and confusion about my future, all at once. I crave the simplicity of motherhood, without the shackles of all this "otherhood..." the negativity that has crept into my musical experience over the last few years that gives me real, tangible, physical pain every time I put my clarinet together; the hatred I feel in my bones for the people who have ruined my happy workplace with their rigidity and left-brained applications that just don't work in a right-brained endeavor like music; the despair I feel to my core because I can't just take what works for me and ignore the rest -- I can't ignore the people who value cold, stark precision over communication of a musical emotion, the bullshit of having to work 6 days a week "because you could be in Afghanistan," the demoralization of seeing people with real integrity getting squashed by others who are hollow and empty. That's not to say there aren't instances of humanity and beauty in my job anymore...they are just overshadowed by cynicism and a spirit of meanness. I'm guilty, too.

Therein lies the heart of why I cannot continue as a musician, why I can't swallow the difficult logistics of balancing my hard-sought career with my even harder-sought family (because let's face it, I've made it this far with two kids and a zillion stupid trips, I can do it for 8-3/4 more years if I wanted to!). I can't get past everything that is wrong about the human part of my job, because I can't possibly connect myself to the task of making music with people who have bought into the "other side" of what we do. I shut down years ago, probably before Anna was even born. I've finally given up hope that I'll ever feel like what I'm doing is worthwhile in the grand scheme of things -- I've realized that my mark on the world is going to be more significant if I concentrate my energies elsewhere, and my own sense of "center" will be easier to find once I'm away from the huge negative force that brings me such frustration and illness. Today, I got home after far too long at work, and spewed poison at Bryan for 20 minutes. I did not say one positive thing for 20 minutes. I finally got a bad, acid taste of heartburn -- I've been getting that a lot lately -- and knew I had to just take a breath and send the day away. I can't infect my kids with my anger. Tums can fix the reflux, but it can't give my babies a happy, responsive mother.

I feel that music chose me -- I know I could never have gone on to pursue anything else without feeling debilitating, paralyzing regret. Now, as "the end" is approaching for me, I wonder whether I'll look back on this time and wish I had found just a little more fortitude to get myself through the hard patch, or if I'll feel that I did the right thing by leaving my life as a musician. A few nights ago, still buoyed by the experience of my recital, I went into the music room to practice, and felt sad that I won't ever have anything to "sink my teeth into" again. I was looking for a challenge. I don't know whether I'll find a way to satisfy that need somehow, or if that part of me will just have to go unanswered.