Musings on language, images and life

Month: February, 2011

Cradle and all…

As we headed to dinner last night, Dad mentioned that he was going to start refurbishing the “family cradle” for us to use with La Petite when she arrives. Mom had asked me several months ago if I wanted to use it. “No pressure at all,” she said. “You have plenty of time to think about it, and of course you can take a look at it before you decide.” I didn’t need to think about it or take a look– I already knew that this was where I wanted my child to sleep.

Thanks to its appearance in several of my grandma’s favorite stories, the cradle is firmly inscribed in our family lore. It was first purchased in 1961 to be used by my mom’s youngest brother.

Between the years of 1956 and 1959, Grandma delivered two full-term stillborn infants. As was customary at the time, each baby was whisked away from her at birth (to “protect her” from the trauma of seeing them). In the midst of her shock and grief, she was swiftly shuttled off to a corner of the hospital, far away from the maternity ward so she would not hear the labor pains of hopeful mothers and the first cries of living, breathing babies.

My grandfather quickly took care of the burial arrangements each time. The Catholic Church refused to bury the babies on sacred ground (they had not been baptized). Instead of being nestled in with their kin on the family plot where they belonged, my infant aunt and uncle were unceremoniously buried alongside a chain link fence. To this day, my grandmother still mourns the fact that she cannot visit their graves. Instead, when she goes to pay respects to her deceased relatives at their grave sites, she also takes a long stroll next to the fence, thinking fondly of her “angels.”

These deaths affected the entire family, including my mother, the oldest girl, who desperately wanted another baby in the house. Twice she had seen her parturient mother leave for the hospital, twice she had seen her return pale, bereft, without a baby in her arms. After the second stillborn, Grandma’s doctor advised her not to have any more children. Wanting so badly to bring another living child into the world, she went against his orders and, much to my mother’s delight, quickly became pregnant again. “When I bring home your brother or sister from the hospital you and I will go shopping for a cradle together, okay?” she promised my mom.

"Baby Jenny" © Barb Westmoreland 1979

A few days after making this pact, Grandma gave birth to a pink, thriving baby. After he was taken out of the delivery room to be washed and observed, Grandma was moved to the recovery area and quickly fell asleep. She awoke several minutes later to two wet cheeks pressed up against hers. On each side of her stood her friends, two nuns in full habits. “When we heard you were in labor, we spent all night in the chapel praying,” they explained, punctuated by tearful sighs. Thrilled, relieved, the three women held hands and wept.

As promised, shortly after she presented my healthy uncle to my mom and the rest of her siblings, they went shopping and selected the perfect cradle for him. In 1979, another baby (yours truly) joined the ranks and was the second to use the cradle, followed by my sister and my uncle’s two children.

The family cradle is much more than a fabulous vintage piece that will fit in perfectly with our mid-century décor. For two generations it has represented hope, celebration and life. I will be honored to lay the first of the next crop of kicking, gurgling little ones in it this June.



A few weeks ago I made brownies for a party my parents were hosting. As I turned to take them out of the kitchen and into the dining room, I hit a wall I’ve passed thousands of times, skimming my bulging stomach along the textured surface, jamming the brownie pan into my breast and removing a substantial chunk of wall paint. After checking to make sure I was okay, my mom laughed, “You move like a woman who’s not quite used to her new shape!”

It’s true. I’ve had such a blissful, uneventful pregnancy that up until last week when I hit the 6-month marker I hadn’t truly been aware of my changing shape. Sure, I saw it in the mirror, but as soon as I started moving I didn’t feel different. Up until recently, my experience with pregnancy had been primarily internal— it occupied my thoughts and sensations, but and I hadn’t paid as much attention to the external shifts taking place.

The “brownie pan incident” served as a reminder that just as my internal, mental space has shifted, so has the physical space I occupy. The bundle of energy that wakes me every morning with thumping sensations (similar to the noises her dad makes as he lumbers down the stairs and fires up the espresso machine) is who I have to thank for this new sense of corporeal and intellectual self.

The gestation taking place in my core finds its parallel in my mind. Creativity has taken on a new meaning as I permit thoughts to come to me, to germinate. Instead of pushing them aside or promising myself I’ll work on them when I’m not as busy, I nurture them as I do the 12-inch, 2 lb. life force within me. I allow them to take shape, to grow into the creations they are meant to be.

As I think about my future, our future as a family, I am filled with optimism. Instead of inhabiting the space of the “day to day,” I inhabit the space of possibility. As the shape of my being continues to shift, I find myself existing fully at the confluence of body and mind.

Snapshot from the 1940s

Since last July, I’ve had the privilege of helping my grandmother write her memoir. A beautiful, strong woman who grew up in a small town in Minnesota, moved to the Twin Cities to work as a nurse, married one of the first neurosurgeons in Minnesota, raised 5 children, and traveled the world, Grandma has her fair share of fascinating tales. As I was transcribing some of our interviews this past week, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Here is a gem from the rich jewel box that is her life:

“I worked as a nurse at the VA hospital for about two and a half years. That’s where I met Paul, a doctor whom I would eventually marry. One day Ms. Oaks, the chief nurse, sent for me. I thought I was going to be reprimanded for something, but what she wanted was for me to represent the nurses in a beauty contest at the Prom Ballroom. Paul agreed to be my date. Back then there must not have been any rules about ‘padding it up.’ My friends and I were having a few drinks upstairs and they kept saying ‘oh, you need more padding,’ so we’d put a few more handkerchiefs in there. We were laughing about that when I got the call that Paul was waiting for me downstairs. So, I came downstairs and he looked at me and said ‘well, we’re putting up a big front anyways.’ Once again, I was one of the shortest ones in the competition and I think I came in last in that pageant, too. But I didn’t get a complex about it, because I knew I didn’t have the biggest asset one needs in a competition like that: nice long legs.”

Family Portrait

“Um, somebody’s light feels hot.” I’m flat on my back, two flashlights pressed against my abdomen.

“Do you think she sees mine? Lyla D! Where are you?!” Dad asks.

“No, seriously, one of those flashlights hurts.”

“Oh jeez, my bad,” Annie apologizes. “Is she moving? Did she see them?”

“She went toward the back,” I laugh. “I think we’re bugging her.”

“Lyla D!!” Dad shouts in a southern accent.

“Oh! I felt a tiny foot!” Annie smiles, moving her hand up my belly.

“Are you bothering Lyla?” Mom comes in from the kitchen.

“You mean Lyla Danielle!” Dad chides, having recently learned of his namesake.

“I’m kind of upset you didn’t go with Lupe Fiasco,” Annie adds.

“Fiasco. That’s a neat word,” Mom smiles. “Michael, what’s your daughter’s name?”

“You already know, Barb.”

“I know, I just want to hear you say it again.”

“Lyla Danielle.”

Creative Diversification

I in the middle of writing a book proposal, well, actually two book proposals. One is for a collection of essays, the other for a *shap inhale* novel (perhaps a novella). I realized a few months ago that most of my short fictional stories are really about the same person/people, so I am going to try my hand at a novel over the next couple of years. The book proposal for the novel is more for me than anyone else (a game plan, if you will), but the proposal for the collection of essays is one I’d like to show to an agent sooner rather than later.

As I’ve been writing the proposal for the collection of essays, I’ve frequently scolded myself for not staying more focused in terms of topic choice. As it stands, the essays I’ve written (some published in various venues) are incredibly diverse in their subject matter, which makes it hard to shape them into a cohesive collection. What I’ve discovered is that I need to select the ones I feel represent my best creative self (and correspond to one another somewhat), and then put the fingers to the keyboard and crank out others to compliment what I already have.

If you follow my writing on this blog, the range of topics here is indicative of the types of things I enjoy writing about. It’s certainly not a “cohesive concept” blog– “musings on language, images and life” is about as broad as you can get. From a business standpoint, diversification (translation, travel writing, editing, academic writing, curriculum writing, etc.) has been crucial to  accomplishing my goal of making a full-time income as a freelance writer. However, lately I’ve been feeling like my artistic self needs to buckle down and choose a topic, or at least choose a genre.

To distract myself from the fact that I felt unfocused as a writer (like how that works?), I decided to was time to read, to replenish, to fill the creative coffers if you will. I eagerly plunged into Patti Smith’s Just Kids. As I entered deeper into her memoir, I became enthralled by passages describing Patti and Robert (Maplethorpe)’s diverse interests and creative manifestations from collage to poetry to photography to jewelry-making to fashion to installation art. The fact that they spent so much time cultivating such diverse skills suddenly made me feel much better. Patti eventually became famous for her music and poetry and Robert for his photography, but the journey they went on as artists was filled with forays into other creative media.

Conventional wisdom tells us to pick a skill (often to the exclusion of all others) and practice it as much as we possible can in order to master it. But creative wisdom often tells us differently. It tells us to let go, to create what comes to us, to play, to branch out, to emerge. I went back and reread some of my favorite essays last night. It’s true, from a marketing standpoint the collection “as is” would never fly. However, I gained a new appreciation for my body of creative work. In my essay on Frida Kahlo I saw vestiges of my personal meditations on the maternal; in my essay on immigrant art I came across phrases that were indicative of my interest in and research on the creative process as it applies to writers. I realized that, in many cases, I couldn’t have written one essay without the other, even if the topics were very different.

When running my business, it’s OK (and desirable, to some extent) for me to dictate my path, to try my hand at a variety of genres (some more interesting than lucrative, some more lucrative than interesting) to accomplish my goal of being a self-funded writer. However, as an artist, I need to allow myself let go and continue to follow where the muse leads. More importantly, I need to accept that this won’t be a direct path. For me, this is the only way I know how to explore, to push the boundaries, to thrive.

The Perils of Colorblindness

I’m interested in the use of metaphors regarding various degrees of vision to explore social phenomena. One such metaphor that has intrigued me for some time is the notion of “colorblindness” when it comes to race. Of course, on a philosophical level, I agree with the basic premise that we should all be given the same respect and opportunities regardless of skin color. However, by glossing over race, we ignore some of the most powerful and beautiful parts of who we are (best case scenario) or create an even more racially intolerant society (worst case scenario).

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman argue that by adopting a colorblind mentality and refusing to specifically address race, parents confuse children who, in turn, develop their own concepts about race in the vacuum of their own minds (or by discussing their theories with equally confused peers). By insisting on colorblindness, parents implicitly communicate that race is a taboo subject and kids turn elsewhere to try to understand race, especially when embarking on their own processes of self-identification. They latch onto any shred of an explanation for race that they receive at school or from other kids, thus forming essentialist and potentially dangerous ideas about race while their parents continue to blissfully exist in their version of a colorblind world.

When discussing this example with my husband the other night, he said “Luckily, in America, we have a really easy way to discuss race and origin.” He posits that the history of the U.S. itself is a useful paradigm for discussing race with young children. “We all come from somewhere, except the Native Americans, who historically subscribed to the philosophy that land was not to be owned, but to be used and respected,” he continued. “So, we explain that most of us (our ancestors) came from elsewhere, and that the land we have must be respected, but that none of us has more rights to it or to anything else than others.”

“Okay,” I countered (devil’s advocate is one of my best roles), “But then how do you avoid the proliferation of Michele Bachmann-esque historical erasure, like the lie that we all came here on equal footing and that America is the land of opportunity for all?”

“You continue to educate your children about the realities of history and race relations in the U.S.,” he answered, “while always reminding them of the ideal, that…”

“We should respect and value difference and the land we all share today,” I finished his sentence.


In its worst incarnation (which, in my opinion, is inevitable), colorblindness is actually a form of whitewashing and neutralization of cultural and historical specificity— always defaulting, of course, to middle-class White American values. If color doesn’t exist, then why can’t that Somali family down the street speak English to me? If color doesn’t exist, then why does my Black friend insist that she still experiences discrimination? If left unchecked, this process of questioning devolves into a state of complete denial, apathy and eventually amnesia. These are the people who nod in agreement when Michele Bachmann trots out her delusional history lessons about how our founding fathers fought to end slavery. These are the people who refuse to see the connection between the revisionist history of the far right and the unjustly harsh punishment of a Black mother trying to do right by her children (after all, it couldn’t be about racism, because racism doesn’t exist, right?).

On a cultural level, by ignoring race, we deprive ourselves and our children of the chance to develop a deep understanding of diversity. Selfishly, I can’t imagine a more boring, horrible existence than one in which I would consciously choose to overlook racial, culture and historical specificity and encourage my children to do the same. The key to teaching diversity is avoiding essentialism, keeping the focus on the the individual while situating him or her in various cultural and historical contexts (because we all belong to many). What a breathtaking view it is when one can truly see the individual parts, the whole(s), and the interactions in between. This is what I hope for my children.