From Arkansas to Italy

Wading through Lethe is an unexpected mix of rural Arkansas and then, suddenly, ancient Rome. Why?

I grew up dreaming of other places. My first poem at age six was about taking a trip in a boat and admiring the night sky. The poem speaks to a wanderlust that for years I had to satisfy with a set of 1963 World Book Encyclopedias. My two favorite sections—the only ones in color—were found in the “F” and “P” volumes: the flags of the world and paintings.

As I was growing up, my aunt and uncle hosted exchange students from around the world. I pummeled them with questions, wanting to know everything about their lives back home. At fifteen, I decided that the best way to see something of the world was by being an exchange student myself. The only problem was I had no money for the fee. If my adventure was going to become a reality, I had to raise the funds. I started cleaning houses and teaching piano lessons in addition to my Saturday stint at the local post office and babysitting gigs. Family friends and organizations offered items for me to raffle—art prints, an Aromatique gift basket. My friends helped me with a car wash, my family hosted garage sales, and my mom baked thousands of cookies to sell at various community events. The local church also helped. And then, just before I needed to make the final payment, an anonymous donor made a $2,000 deposit into my bank account.

The Bridge of Sighs – Venice

And suddenly I was in Italy, knowing only enough Italian to ask where the bathroom was. My host family lived an hour south of Rome, in quaint Ferentino. My host mom was a retired Italian teacher and taught me how to speak, even though we had no common language between us. My host father’s garden and fruit trees supplied most of our food. My host siblings went out of their way to make me feel welcome, even though it was months before I could contribute to a conversation.

Why Italy? I wanted to attend an art school, and in Italy the high schools allow students to specialize. My classmates were quick to take me under their wing and show me the local historic places and the best pizzerias. My professors were kind and patient. They helped with the language, but above all they helped me understand Italian culture. Once a week I was excused from class so I could visit Rome and let the city be my teacher.

Florence, Italy

It was the year 2000. I didn’t have a cell phone. Dial-up internet was slow and spotty and cost per minute. I wrote emails home offline and then got online long enough to send them. I spoke to my parents with a prepaid phone card once or twice a month. I sent postcards home.

In the poem “Leaving Rome,” I had just been to Piazza Spagna to see the Spanish Steps and the museum commemorating the English poet John Keats. He’d left his love Fanny Brawne for Italy in hopes of finding a climate more hospitable to cure his tuberculosis. He never saw her again.

“Leaving Rome”

Along the Spanish Steps, streetlights popped on
like syncopated fireflies. Walking up Via del Corso,
I passed shop mannequins with averted eyes,
pulled my coat tighter, thinking of Keats,
dead at twenty-five. A cyclone of cars spun
at the foot of Vittorio Emanuele’s grimy shrine.
The Colosseum’s pocked crown rose above
the Forum’s broken bones. I mailed a postcard,
the scene depopulated and clean, knowing
it would arrive months before I returned home,
knowing it looked nothing like what I’d seen.

The poem explains the desire to share an experience with someone and the difficulty in truly conveying it to someone who wasn’t there. Postcards are beautiful, but the real place is always more complicated than the beautiful, glossy photograph shows.

Most of the other poems about traveling in Wading Through Lethe follow my summers abroad as a college student and later as I worked for International Programs at the University of Central Arkansas, coordinating trips for the university as well as co-leading trips with my husband.

The year in Italy changed the course of my life. I’m forever grateful to the many people who helped make it possible, as well as the many who made my year in Italy unforgettable.

“Leaving Rome” first appeared in October Hill Magazine

Tiny Baby, Tiny Cabin?

Ariel Dianna joined the Bane clan on September 24th. She was healthy and bright-eyed.

Though inconvenient for me, Ariel entered this world with one arm fist-pumping à la Breakfast Club. Or Superman. I hope it’s a sign she’s tough, or at least resilient. “Ariel” means “lioness of God,” and Dianna was the Greek goddess of the hunt. We purposely chose powerful names. The first part of my name, “Paul,” means “small,” and “ette” is a diminutive form also meaning “little.” Effectively, my name means “teeny weeny” or “itsy bitsy.” Granted, my original surname was “Guerin,” or “warrior,” so I was fine being little if it meant I was a fighter. “Bane” means “poison.”

“Dianna” was also my mother-in-law’s name, and when we saw Ariel for the first time we knew it fit.

For the past eight weeks life has been wonderfully upside-down. My sleeplessness during pregnancy almost prepared me for what was to come.

What I did not expect was how hard breastfeeding was going to be. It was a test of my strength and tolerance to pain. What was worse, Ariel wasn’t gaining weight and was probably burning more calories trying to eat than she was taking in. The pediatrician’s nurse suggested I cut her off after twenty minutes of feeding so that she wouldn’t use me as a pacifier. I immediately hired a lactation specialist from Arkansas Family Doulas. She was at my door the next morning.

I relay this story in case it might help someone else out there. The lactation specialist gave me a lot of good advice, and she also discovered Ariel’s tongue tie. The piece of skin under Ariel’s tongue grew too far toward the tip—it limited her movement, which made sucking difficult if not impossible. While tongue ties are more common than you might think—somewhere around 10% of babies have them—they often go undiagnosed. The hospital lactation specialist couldn’t legally tell me since the hospital does not allow her to make a diagnosis. My pediatrician’s office did not check, though they were sure to tell me how to prevent Ariel from developing a flat head from being laid on one side too often.

Options for fixing the tongue tie: scissors or use a heat laser. Both are painful. The lactation specialist got me an appointment with Dr. Alex Hamilton, a dentist out of Bryant, Arkansas who uses a water laser. My OB was incredulous of a laser not heat-based. So maybe it’s technically not a laser. In any case, the beam displaces the water molecules in the skin to sever the connection. No blood. No pain. The tissue evaporates. If this tool were made on a large scale, you’d effectively have a human vaporizer as seen in science fiction.

Ariel - tongue tie procedure

We did stretches and massages with Ariel for three weeks to ensure that the skin did not reattach. She also had to relearn to eat. As Dr. Hamilton put it, imagine that your arm is folded and tied for a month. Once it’s loose it’ll take some time for control of movement to return.

Not only was I pain free, but Ariel began gaining weight soon after the procedure and is now over 11 pounds. I am so thankful to have had the resources as well as support from family and friends to make breastfeeding possible. I have talked to women of all ages who have shared similar experiences—one of their children inexplicably struggled to nurse or caused pain/damage. Many of the women never knew the cause and now wonder if a tongue or lip tie was the culprit. (For many people, the skin will eventually stretch once talking begins, so it can be hard to tell whether there was a problem in infancy.)

On the whole things are going well. Ariel generates more laundry than the entire household combined. We’d be swimming in clothes in the tiny cabin. Nevertheless, finishing the cabin and living there is still “the plan” (though I hear the echo of Robert Burns’ “best laid plans of mice and men”).

In January we leave for Italy, where we’ll be thrust into a minimalist lifestyle—living out of suitcases in a hotel-sized room in a 16th century villa just outside of Florence. We’ll be there twelve weeks, during which time the weather will change and Ariel will grow. Packing will be a challenge. We’ll have to purchase some things when we arrive as well as leave other things behind. Right now we have lots of hand-me-down gadgets and seats; there we’ll learn to improvise.

At the same time, the villa provides our meals and does our laundry, so certain aspects of daily life will be easier. And fingers crossed that we have Ariel trained to sleep through the night at that point. Right now each night is a toss up.

We’ll be back in April—just in time for nice cabin-finishing weather. Eventually we’ll want to add on—or possibly have a slightly larger cabin built with the current one as a guest cabin.

Who knows? I’m tired of predicting the future, as nothing has gone as expected so far!