Since my parents arrived a few weeks ago, bearing wool and knitting needles, I have taken up knitting. This activity is simultaneously mindless and absorbing, at least for a beginner, which is exactly what my undisciplined mind currently needs. My mother, whose knitting career spans 60 years, since her earliest entrepreneurial tea-cosy sales to schoolteachers at age 8, is more adept, and can apparently knit a jumper while reading a book.
Knitting connects me to a long, female family tradition of productiveness. The narrow, tortoiseshell needles I use belong to my aunt (my father’s sister), whose initial joking suggestion it was that I take up knitting. The knitting bag is covered with the huckaback embroidery that my mother learned from her mother, and later taught us as children. While we work, we recall the crocheted blankets of my grandmother and great aunts, still in active circulation as our adult bedspreads, the closest we have to family heirlooms.
My mother tells me stories of clothes she has made (including her sister’s wedding dress, later worn by my middle cousin to her own wedding), in the days before sweatshops made home production unprofitable. She tells me about the patchworking craze that coincided with the birth of my youngest brother, so that she spent the week in hospital preceding his appearance pinning her little hexagons onto backing paper amongst the staphylococcus germs. My nephew too intrudes into this estrogen-bathed lineage- my mother also taught him to knit, though his resistance to instruction and lack of a final plan resulted in something more like lace.
Knitting, I feel my female ancestors gather round me, with their recipes and secrets and crochet hooks, their books and sparing wartime ways, their reserve, their religion, their politeness. On the other side of the world, about to produce my own descendants, I welcome their presence.
The weather outside doesn’t seem to penetrate the walls of our flat. I see what is happening outside- the warmth of late summer, then the turning of the leaves, the sharp gold autumn days, and on Saturday, the first snow. I can see a pair of busy, bushy-tailed squirrels preparing for winter in the tree outside the window, along with a woodpecker going about his gravity- defying business. Clouds of crows go beating purposefully by, black against the milky sky. None of it seems to have anything to do with me. When I go outside for milk or doctor’s appointments, the hydraulics of being vertical and the rarity of the occasion engender a sense of total alienation from the world I inhabit.
Inside, I generate my own emotional climate- a succession of mild, overcast days. Inactivity works on me like a mild antidepressant, depriving me of any emotional excess. I have two moods- weepy and not-weepy. Although as I get more gravid and bilious, I think that I am beginning to add irritability to my repertoire. This sort of extreme stability is something new for me, and in the current situation I have no objections to my limited range as I explore the land between faint hope and faint gloominess.
I still have a couple of persistent problems with cognition in Polish that I don’t have in English. I am constantly buying not-juice, for example, because I see a label screaming 100%!!!!!, and fail to notice the small print which informs me that it’s actually 100 % of my daily vitamin C requirement, not 100% juice. I can’t remember my phone number, since something in the Polish section of my brain resists numeric recall.
These are minor impairments, but I can also be terrifyingly literal minded. I remember laughing at Marcin in the supermarket in Australia when he suggested that we should buy ‘tasty cheese’ because it would obviously taste better than banal-sounding cheddar. Now I am on the receiving end.
When we were at the ultrasound, the technician showed us the cerebellum vermis on one of the baby brains. When you ‘drown the worm’, he explained, this is what you’re drowning. I imagined a pickled brain in a jar, sitting on a shelf. I thought he was saying that you only needed to preserve the cerebellum vermis. I found it slightly strange, since the pickled brains of my imagination were whole, but quickly dismissed my misgivings. The doctor surely knew more about pickling brains than I did.
Anyway, it turns out that ‘drowning the worm’ is slang for getting drunk- apt, since the cerebellum vermis is responsible for posture and locomotion. So much for my linguistic genius.
Yesterday we went for an ultrasound to check all the organs and the growth of my foetuses. At first I couldn’t concentrate because I was bracing myself to hear something I didn’t want to (mmm.. where’s the heartbeat/brain/ major organ? etc ). The technician, who was meeting them for the third time, did his best to translate what he was seeing- Marcin had his nose stuck to the screen and when my paranoia wore off, so did I.
From the watery, wavering universe of the womb, our hipster ultrasound magician was extracting the mysteries of anatomy. A pair of little white femurs, a waving fist, two pale smears which he assured us were the placentas. Where we saw inexplicable patches of darkess, he saw stomachs and kidneys and heart chambers. He pulled up a brain on the screen and showed us the cerebellar vermis, and then the movement of blood in their hearts, which was colour-coded into a crackling, blue- and- red intrauterine aurora borealis. According to his calculations, they’re about 36 cm long and each weighs around 1400 grams.
As usual, the she-twin was uncooperative and wouldn’t display herself like her brother, but we got a 4D head shot of him. When I saw his fat crumpled little foetal face, (looking, unbelievably, just like Marcin) I finally allowed myself to believe that I was going to have two children, and spent half the night awake with the excitement and terror of it.
The thing I miss the most about normal life is, without a doubt, physical activity. Now I have found a way around it and have regular nocturnal adventures- walking in the mountains in Vermont in a forest blazing with autumn, cycling up a winding road on a volcanic island, rebelling against the new Iranian style rulers of Poland, etc.
At first I would wake up with a guilty feeling, quickly followed by relief when I came to my senses and realised I hadn’t really been running up hills all night – like the dreams ex-smokers have about having a fag. But after a while I started to look forward to my nocturnal adventures, and felt cheated when (after watching Alien) I got a night of recurring nightmares about being stalked by a giant crab instead.
My other escape is literature. With the appearance of a Kindle in my life, I’ve retreated into my own language and now read constantly in English. My current solution for absolute maximum escapism is to read about something as far away from my own experience as humanly possible. So I am reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about Henry the Eighth’s minister Thomas Cromwell.
It has taken me years to come around to historical fiction, but now I easily lose myself in 16th century England- kings and courtiers, plagues and intrigues, the burning and utterly alien ambition of Ann Boleyn, the changing fates of those in the king’s orbit. My ignorance allows me to read it as a real novel, not knowing what will happen next. When I look for portraits of the main players on the internet, I am surprised at how static they are, bound in their finery with their motionless faces. In Mantel’s book they are plastic- they sweat and twitch and make jokes in an entirely credible fashion.
It removes me entirely from my own circumscribed world, which is exactly what I want and need.
Long ago, around the 22nd week of pregnancy when I thought everything was normal, I had a revelation about the wonders of human reproduction.I was sitting on a bench in the park in Żoliborz, on a warm grey Friday afternoon, eating peaches and waiting for Marcin. I was feeling the effects of gravity and wondering how I would bring myself to get up when the time came.
It wasn’t a biological revelation. I am not as amazed as I perhaps should be by the actual physical production of life, taking the laborious production of cute, mewling, half-blind little milk drinkers as part of my mammalian fate.
It was more of a social revelation. I realised that I was going to meet some of the most important people in my life, and that I knew about it in advance. I could even say (so I thought then) with reasonable certainty when this momentous encounter would take place. All I had to do was sit and wait, and they would, with absolute certainty, come to me.
I was allowed to hug this pleasant sense of clairvoyance to myself for exactly one weekend, before going to the doctor on Monday and being informed that I might meet them much sooner than expected. After that I didn’t dare think too hard about the future. It was nice while it lasted, though.
I am often comforted by thinking about how much worse things could be. At least I’m not having twins in Auschwitz, I tell myself, where Doctor Mengele is waiting to experiment on them after a starved and brutalised pregnancy. At least I’m not pregnant in an Indian village where I have to walk 4 hours for water and then collect firewood to cook my single paltry daily ration of lentils. And so forth. This kind of worst-case scenario imagining has a soothing effect on me- it induces the sort of smug feeling of safety that news of a distant divorce might, a that-won’t- happen- to- me sensation of relief. When bad luck adheres itself to someone else, it reduces the amount roaming the universe looking for a victim.
Unfortunately, this harmless borderline Schadenfreude doesn’t always work. This is because there’s one kind of misfortune which, when experienced by others, does not keep you safe.
It’s when people in the same situation as you don’t get their happy ending. This week I found out that one of my colleagues from the cervix forum lost her twins at 25 weeks, and I realised how much I had been relying on other people’s good news to build my own sense of hope. I took it personally and felt a horrible sense of grief, along with its companion- an urgent and impotent wish for things to be otherwise. Empathy showed its evolutionary purpose, its cautionary, chastening role in the world. This is not you, but could be, it whispers. It’s a terrifying thought.