Katherine Cottle's memoir, Halfway: A Journal through Pregnancy, is due for release in Fall 2010 by Apprentice House (Loyola University Maryland). She is also the author of My Father's Speech: Poems (Apprentice House, 2008). Her recent essays, fiction, and poetry appear in The Pinch, The Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Poetry East, The Chesapeake Reader, and The Broome Review. She is currently completing her doctoral residency in Language and Professional Writing at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.
I have always aimed for that crisp and clean basket full of books like those in Country Cottage or Southern Living: an oasis of thoughts neatly pressed into paper, a visual and tactile rest stop for all who enter the bathroom and need more than a few seconds to complete their duties.
What I have in actuality is a rusty wire bucket full of dog and human hair, a random piece of crumbled tissue, a broken crayon and handful of damaged books. It doesn't look like an oasis, or a comforting place for that matter. The bucket is slowly eating itself away, the result of water continually splashed from the sink in a frantic frenzy to finish brushing teeth or washing faces. The books' pages are dog eared and yellowed, pushed down from my children's feet as they use it for a step stool to reach the faucet. It is probably mistaken more for a trashcan by those who enter the small space, but I keep it there, inches away from the toilet, just in case someone wants some enlightenment one day.
The first book that I placed in there was a home improvement manual, a do-it-yourself creation that made installing dry wall look as easy as spraying Pam around a dishpan. I thought my husband, with his lengthy bathroom visits, might want to browse through the pages after we moved into our house, built in 1941 and more than overdue for a face lift. I remember spending a lot of time picking out the right manual at the full- price bookstore at the mall. I remember wanting everything to be perfect in those days, and actually thinking perfection was possible. Instead, my husband brought his own reading in most of the time, either FHM magazine or Super Chevy. The book started to gather a little dust after a few months, as did our new house.
Next to the home improvement book appeared, quite a few months later, The Crab Orchard Review, which included an essay written by an old friend of mine from high school. “This will be my inspiration,” I thought to myself. “I will aim to write more this year. We don't have any children yet. I should be able to spit out a book within no time. I'm not teaching anymore. No excuses.” I found myself pulled into my new fund-raising job instead, coming home late from events and kick-offs, craving my pillow and a Tylenol PM more than any typed verse. The recent issue soon became an outdated issue and I let my subscription go, because that's what, unfortunately, one does with literary magazines.
Rumi's Quotes soon kept the literary magazine company, a gift from my boss who couldn't keep himself from inserting random tidbits of wisdom into the grey felt of our cubicles throughout the week. I actually did read quite a few of the quotes, which were astute and simplistically expressed in a way that made me think, Why haven't I been able to articulate this honesty, as it is so in front of my eyes that I can hardly even see it? The pages were like bits of fleeting air: I randomly read them, digested them, and then consistently forgot about them and went about the daily tasks of my life. I liked the fact that I could open up to any random page and start reading there like it was the first page of a new discovery, which helps when one feels the tension and need of a quick eye placement find in the bathroom. The book was small and smooth, with a light salmon cover and delicate Persian calligraphy that I never took the time to read about in the front notes. Unfortunately, the glued spine wasn't as elegant, and it quickly started to unravel within the moisture of many baths, closed windows, and a vent that was still waiting to be installed in the ceiling. The pages began to fall out of the book, and though I tried my best to keep stuffing them back into the cover in the proper order, they ended up shoved together in a pile that resembled a stack ready for the shredder, more than a journey to enlightenment. Eventually, I took the book out, rubber banded it together and shoved it into my “things to keep forever” bin, but later found one random page suck between Foyers That Impress and A Fireplace for All Seasons in the home improvement book: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
Within a year, Questions and Answers about Miscarriage was thrown into the basket, along with many tears and obscenities. I actually wanted to burn the booklet the nurse had given to me after I woke up from my D & C surgery to remove the unviable fetus, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, as it would have been as unlucky as destroying a cookie fortune or a Bazooka Joe comic. I peeked inside the booklet a couple of times while the remaining blood took over two weeks to drain out of me, but it was too much like someone had stolen pieces of my diary, so I just stared at the cover when I was in the bathroom, noting the wilting pieces of ivy climbing around the title letters. It made me wonder if pregnancy was only in the eye of the beholder, and could be manipulated to remain, like O. Henry's The Last Leaf, or if it even happened, if no one ever saw the fetus, including me, the mother.
Eventually, after I had made it through the first trimester of a second pregnancy, What To Expect When You Are Expecting took top billing in the basket, and I found the multitude of reproductive bodily functions particularly fitting for consumption while on the toilet, though it always increased my fears rather than reducing my anxiety about the pregnancy process. I found the intangible and surreal descriptions of what was going on in my body more terrifying than the thoughts and dread of the final delivery process. At least with the delivery, there was a sensory understanding of what was happening. Like my previous miscarriage, I was completely out of control of what was transforming inside of me. I folded the pages at the end of each milestone month, giving the pregnancy a visual checklist, something I couldn't do with just a growing stomach, increasing fears, and constipation. The hemorrhoids caused by the pregnancy gave me even more time for contemplation with the book, sizing up the drawn-to-scale sketches that were supposed to look like the being that was somewhere inside of me. I finally reached the ninth month and looked back on the marked pages like the crossed off duties in my daily planner. I had made it, had reached the date I had thought was impossible, and still didn't feel ready or qualified to become a mother.
What to Expect during the First Year was shoved in next, in between feedings, diaper changes, and hours of screaming (by both me and my son). Any former desire for the aesthetic of literature in the bathroom quickly morphed into: the quickest way to find anything with the least resistance and one hand. Toilet paper was piled into towers; towels were brought in by the dozen, thrown into a drooping stack in the corner; and maxi pads the size of adult diapers (sent home courtesy of the hospital) covered the shelf behind the tub. The bathroom became a battle zone for combating fluids from every orifice, as I wiped, soaked, scrubbed, washed, cleaned, and dried the raw animals that had taken over the bodies now living in my house. The book was an after- thought, an unnecessary extra, like salt or pepper, or a curling iron. I pushed the basket into the corner, way back underneath the sink next to the wall and the exposed plumbing, and pulled the toilet plunger out in its place.
When my son was around fourteen months old, my father started receiving duplicate Smithsonian magazines and passed one copy along to me each month. They were perfect for my lavatory collection, with prose pieces and extraordinary photography of exotic places around the world. I whisked the cobwebs away from the basket, gave each book a quick shake to knock off the major dust bunnies and toothpaste wads, and gave the literary bouquet a fresh look with the crumbling granite walls of the Temples of Machu Picchu. Somehow I thought we would have guests who would enjoy the well-traveled materials. I soon learned that no one wants to visit a small house with a toddler and two barking dogs. The magazines piled up, month by month, until Big Ben's looming presence finally tipped the basket over, face first, into the spilled baby shampoo, after which I threw all of the magazines away in a fit of rage over being unable to exist for even an hour in my own house without stepping on something sticky or wet. My father still had his magazines, I justified to myself with a mind that struggled to toss away anything with words on it, and his copies were building their own unopened pyramid in the corner of my mother's yellow duck-themed bathroom.
Thus, A Little Relaxation appeared: a thin health/inspirational book with wispy curly cues and lots of white space on every page, like the letters needed room for their own detoxification. I found it for fifty cents at the discount bookstore, shoved behind the remainder poetry books like an embarrassing relative. I read the meditations aloud, following along with the repetitions. It did seem to slow my breath down a little, and it helped me to visualize each part of my body as the exercises explored the tension-holding areas. That is, until I came to Relaxing the genitals. I just couldn't keep a straight face, even in the bathroom by myself, with the instructions: “Gently tighten that sphincter./ Feel the tension,/ Hold it(four to five seconds)./ Release. . .and breathe./ That's the feeling to remember.” I went back to the non-titillating Relaxing the jaw, “Now curl your lips back to expose your teeth,” and imagined myself as the wolf in red riding hood, hiding in grandmother's bed, finally revealing his true intentions underneath her bonnet. Just then, my son opened up the door and wobbled in, curious about the growling sounds that had been escaping under the door. I gave him the book to look at while I finished the job and watched while he bit the corner off of the back cover, his new teeth as sharp as tiny razors.
Finally, after my head had stopped spinning (well, had at least slowed to a gradual gravitational rotation as opposed to dizzying exorcism twirls) from the pregnancy and early childhood months, I braved it enough to re-open my old MFA thesis file and revise my unpublished poetry manuscript. I took a big breath, benefit of the relaxation book, and sent it off to a couple of first time author contests. Somehow, I believed my own delusion of grandeur, that the judges were sure to “see” the struggle of my past few years in the splintered legs of my words and pick my book as the winner. Inevitably, the winning books ended up in the basket, sent courtesy of the presses in exchange for their generic rejections. Like most resentful unpublished book authors, I opened each one expecting to find verse far different from my own, or some style or subject matter that could have caused the obvious biased slant towards the selection of the winning entries. And, like most resentful unpublished book authors, I just found incredible poems and had to admit that, okay, the contests weren't rigged. The books kept their home in the basket until the next year's deadline, when money was too tight for me to justify dishing out $25.00 plus postage, and I could only imagine the winning entries, printed with gold plaited trim and original artwork, the enclosed poems finally able to breathe on their own in the comfort and luxury of professional printing.
The next year brought another miscarriage and then a full term second pregnancy, along with the preschool's advice that I talk to my pediatrician about my son's attention span. Pretty soon, books and pamphlets about ADHD fell into the basket, bits of research based statistics about the brain chemistry that was powering every member of my family. I put the book titled The Gift of ADHD on top, hoping that my husband would be more accepting of “our” diagnosis after understanding the positive side of the coin. But, little surprise, he never touched them, and I, too, soon grew bored of the capital letters and jargon, pulling the poetry books back to the front of the line. My son continued to make huge messes by the hour, and I continued to fluctuate between ignoring them and getting mad, trying to compromise within the polar caps of chaos and OCD, otherwise known as our lives.
The pregnancy baby books were left in the back of the basket this time around, without any visible confirmation of passed milestones. Even my daughter's arrival was not systematically previewed or calculated, as my water broke at 3 o'clock in the morning, two weeks earlier than expected. A second caesarian section brought her breeched head into the world, amidst the screams of my exhausted son, whom we could hear in the hospital lobby yelling, “It's too dark out for mom to have her baby!” The literature that the hospital sent home never even made it into the basket. It ended up somewhere, maybe in the back of her closet, or maybe in the trashcan, along with the weeks of dirty diapers that took over my existence. Her baby book was temporarily placed in the basket, more as a reminder for me to start working on it, as opposed to an actual place of productivity. A couple congratulations cards also found their way into the lot, though I decided to chuck them out after a few months, which caused a minute of guilt since I had saved every piece of paper or lost hair that belonged to my son during his first year. The basket was getting too full by that point, and it didn't really look like a literature retreat. It was overloaded and underused. In fact, come to think of it, I am pretty sure I was the only one who ever actually read anything from the basket. My kids climbed on it, my husband ignored it, and I felt the weight of my creativity caught in the tangles of the books' aging pages. Pretty soon, I stopped adding to the arrangement of literary delights.
Finally, when my son was 6 years old and my daughter was 2 years old, my first poetry chapbook was published. It's about my lineage on my father's side, their Appalachian coal mining roots, and people who embrace story and family over logic and order. It's about finding the beauty underneath the hard and unforgiving surface of the earth. I brought in several copies for my son's pediatrician and his staff (who are now like a second family to us considering the hours that we spend in the office for my son's constant injuries and medication monitoring). One of the nurses, whose son is very similar to my own, told me how much she enjoyed it the last time we were in for a check-up. “I put it in my bathroom,” she said, “so everyone can read it.”