Thanksgiving in Mongolia

I’ve been wanting to talk about this New Yorker essay by Ariel Levy, Thanksgiving in Mongolia, since I started this blog (admittedly, not such a long time ago).  More accurately, I’ve been wanting to talk about it since I first read it.  That must have been six months ago.  I read it in the middle of a slow day at work and ended up crying in my office.  Since then I’ve reread it about a dozen times, and to some extent have teared up every time.  And I’d like to be clear–I don’t cry very often.  It’s the story of a miscarriage the writer suffered while traveling in Mongolia, not a topic that I’d ordinarily be drawn to, or one that would ordinarily jerk my tears.  But this is a very special piece of writing (quite deservedly, it won the National Magazine Award in essay writing in 2014). I was going to find some way to work it into a Top Five list (Top Five Tear-Jerkers?  Top Five Personal Traumas?  Top Five Horrible Things That Can Happen To You In Mongolia?) but when I thought about how much this essay means to me I knew I couldn’t embed it in a listicle.  I’ve tried more than once to pinpoint why it has such an impact on me.  It starts with Levy’s initial ambivalence towards motherhood.  She describes her adventures as a journalist and explorer, her love affair with travel, and her fear that a child might put an end to that life with refreshing honesty.

I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—stuck in one spot for eighteen years of oboe lessons and math homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.

Ultimately she and her partner decide to take the plunge and have a baby when, “The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.”  Before giving birth, Levy decides to engage in one last bout of wanderlust.

My doctor told me that it was fine to fly up until the third trimester, so when I was five months pregnant I decided to take one last big trip. It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself. (It’s like having a new lover—even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.)Just before Thanksgiving, I went to Mongolia.

People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.”

But in Mongolia the situation turns ominous as a slight pain in Levy’s abdomen grows worse and worse.  She ends up giving birth in the bathroom of her hotel room, and what follows is one of the saddest things I have ever read:

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.”

But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell. He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.

In my hand, his skin started to turn a soft shade of purple. I bled my way across the room to my phone and dialed the number for Cox’s doctor. I told the voice that answered that I had given birth in the Blue Sky Hotel and that I had been pregnant for nineteen weeks. The voice said that the baby would not live. “He’s alive now,” I said, looking at the person in my left hand. The voice said that he understood, but that it wouldn’t last, and that he would send an ambulance for us right away. I told him that if there was no chance the baby would make it I might as well take a cab. He said that that was not a good idea. Before I put down my phone, I took a picture of my son. I worried that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.

I worry that by extracting quotes like this, I”m actually robbing the essay of its power.  So much of its magic is its perfect and painstakingly built structure.  I can’t replicate her how powerful it is, bearing witness to Levy’s journey from a woman ambivalent towards motherhood to this final, heartbreaking conclusion:

But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone. Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.

Please read it.

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