Saturday, July 13, 2013

through water like embodied thought

Four years ago I lost (I thought) daughter and garden in one week.

Not quite a tragedy (of the dust, dusty), of course.  Not really.

And not really lost.

And not forever (what have you lost?).

But it seemed real and it seemed forever.  It seemed something had been lost that would never now be found (this was not a garden).  It seemed the only possible now would be a lesser restitution (another new premise) and stunted restoration (fitting stone).   

Of course this wasn't just about the garden (a fiction: Not about the Garden).

I had been left, in place of roses bordering a circle of clover and tiny pink daisies and soft grass, with dust and dust and more dust.  There was also a shallow pit dug by tractor in the middle.  Rain turned it all to clay.  More rain filled the pit.  The pit never drained away.  It was ugly and dispiriting.  I closed the door and found other ways to work.  Avoided the garden that was no garden anymore.  The next summer we had a muddy square pond in the middle of weeds.  Algae grew.  Mosquitoes bred. 

Then someone threw their extra goldfish (8 for $1) in.  Some died. Winter came.  The pond froze over.  But the next spring there were three fish still alive.
A sprinkling of crushed limestone settled the suspended clay.  The goldfish ate the algae, ate the mosquito spawn.  The clover grew back. 

This spring, YoungSon in a sudden frenzy of self-inspired
aesthetic industry re-dug the pit and rounded its edges, lined it with river rock.  Now when I walk up the re-built rock walkway -- a sudden red-gold flicker and watery movement. 
What is lost is gone.  That hasn't changed.  

And no matter what I do, it won't ever be the same.  The soil is hard and stubborn to my shovel.  So many plants never pushed themselves back up out of burial and I'm still unearthing flagstones scattered everywhere.  The work of repair moves discouragingly slow.  There are so many others things to do.  But native red-flowering currant has seeded itself in one shady spot.  Blue elderberry volunteers just beyond.  Wild strawberries spread.

I never planned this pond.  But I find myself going out to sit beside it, to watch the flicker and flow.  A heavy peace settles in on me watching the fish move through their water like embodied thought.  Slow fluttering of fins, suspended, and then a tail-flick and darting disappearance.

Better than flowers?  

Who can compare the best before to what's best now?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

in-laws, outlaws and other dangers

On the other hand, my mother's parents were none too eager to see their daughter wed my father.

And they let it be known.

My mother was young and, she says, foolish often in their eyes: a tomboy and helter-skelter young hellion who was always in trouble.  Always doing stupid things, naughty things, awkward things. Who had only recently succumbed to the  efforts of my grandmother to polish her up into young ladyhood.

My grandparents had grown up poor in a poor time, dirt poor, from the wrong side of the tracks of towns with little glamor already to boast of.  But they had left the dust of their childhoods behind them.  They prided themselves on their immigration into a higher class, sailing to those golden shores by way of hard work and education.

Which they were not going to let their children forget.

Though of course Americans don't believe in classes in society.

But just in case they did, my grandparents were going to make it very clear exactly where they now belonged.

In the first scrimping years, while my grandfather was getting his doctorate, working at night as a glass-blower, while my grandmother worked as a hairdresser by day, even then they made a point to present themselves as people of refinement.

And they were, as far as I can tell, the picture of gentility.  Coiffed and groomed, slim and stylish in my memory and in all the pictures I have of them.

The many pictures I have of them.
 For my grandfather documented the progress of his family with countless photographs focused on a life of intelligent, well-behaved pursuits. Dance lessons, marimba recitals, sightseeing trips.  The home life of the upwardly mobile professional class.

From the pictures I've seen, it would appear my mother slept with curlers nearly every night.  I look at these pictures imagining  my grandmother combing out ringlets and buttoning her daughters up in freshly ironed dresses.  I know she often stayed up late stitching new clothes for her daughters and herself so they'd be every bit as elegant as any wealthier girl.

My grandparents prized intelligence and good manners.  And appearances were not to be sneezed at, either.   "Stand up straight," my grandmother told my mother.  "Hold your stomach in," she said patting a ribbon into place.  "Walk in like a queen," she whispered in her ear.  "You can be anything you want to be," she kept telling her daughters.

And now her daughters had become nearly everything their parents had hoped they would. Their oldest daughter, my Aunt Jan, was already in medical school.  Their second girl, my mother, smart and lovely, was off to college.

"You can be anything you want to be," her father told her, "as long as it starts with Dr."

And then, all at once, their beautiful daughter wanted to marry my dad, a farm-boy with a stutter which my grandfather, a chemist but no expert in psychology, believed was a marker for mental instability.

My grandparents' resistance to my parents' marriage was the drama of my young childhood, a story I never tired of hearing.  The fairytale of my coming into existence depended on the princess and the prince-in-disguise overcoming the glass hill of my grandparents' displeasure.

I loved my grandparents, loved their voices and their hands, loved the good-smelling clothes they wore and all the curious corners of their house.  And they rejoiced in me so obviously that I never understood why they wouldn't have wanted my young mother to marry my dad who was so obviously the only dad I could have ever had.

My grandfather forbade the marriage.  My grandmother offered a trip to Europe if my mom would only reconsider.  My grandfather said, in any event, he for one wouldn't show up at the wedding.

He was wrong about that, too.

I think it was only with my birth, their first grandchild, that there began to be a thaw.  I do remember in the first years of my childhood the smoldering civility between my dad and my grandfather.

And I remember dancing out of the room with glee when one day they finally laughed, my dad and my grandfather, talking together with real liking. In the years to come that relationship mellowed into mutual respect and a certain measure of affection.  But it never became what it could have been.

Always there was a little hitch somewhere, a favoring of some tender healed place always in their stride together.

"The outlaws," my dad would call them, when they weren't around, grinning at my mother over us kids' heads.  "Your grandmother," he always called them to us, "your grandfather." And he said it with a kind of leprechaun grimace.  Unlike the fond way both my parents said "Gramma and Grampa" for the grandparents on the other side.

My mother has told me she remembers she felt a little sad for her parents that they felt so badly. But for once she felt right and not wrong, certain where she had been so awkward so often before.  Just like her mother always promised, she stood up straight and walked into the rest of her life like a queen. 

Became just what she  wanted.

Which my grandparents ought to have known is always the danger of good parenting. Because if you've done your job right, the time will come when your child must become someone more than just your child, someone more than you've ever known before.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

the secret to being a good mother-in-law

My Gramma has been dead for almost twenty years.  That sounds unbelievably long ago: the day she died is still so fresh for me.  The phone call that woke me still jangling in my ears.  It was the day after the day I'd found out my Middlest was on her way here.

I wasn't ready for my grandma to go, my grandma who was always Gramma, not Grandmother.  I comforted myself imagining she had somehow known there was a grandbaby in the offing and decided cancer had had enough of her and slipped away to sneak a visit before anyone else.  It would have been like her.

And I liked thinking of her spirit walking with Middlest's through the neither-here-nor-there garden of mortal transition. 

Surely there's a garden there? My Gramma had loved her garden here in this world: Golden Delicious apple tree, iris, peony, pink-and-yellow columbine, buttercups, snowball bush, lilac.  It was impossible not to picture her somewhere in dappled sun-and-shadow where the breeze was warm and fragrant, a place where two passing spirits, neither (anymore/yet) entirely tethered to this world, could walk together.  And then too, shortly after her death, my dad dreamed his mom came walking towards him through a field of flowers, walking over to where he stood just to tell him she was well and happy.

So I think it's as likely as anything else that Gramma walked there with my Middlest whose mortal body was just starting to take shape inside of me, telling her how pleased she was, how tickled pink, in fact, she was to see her and letting her know everything she would need to know for life here on earth with me.

I missed my Gramma for years after she was gone.  And miss her still.  Her crinkly voice, her letters that always ended by calling down blessings on my head, the softness of her cheek, her way of reading stories all in one breath, the way she licked her fingers to turn the pages, her hands stirring butter and a little sugar into peas and carrots, crimping the edge of a piecrust, leading the music at church.

Sometimes when I would go to wake Middlest from her nap, her breath would be floury and yeasty like Grandma's breath and her yellow green eyes would be Grandma's eyes until they focused and became her own again.  I wondered sometimes if somehow my baby and Gramma had been walking again together and it made me glad.

Gramma's great gift was to make other people feel doted upon.  All her grandchildren have said how treasured they felt by her.  At her funeral so many people came up to tell us how much they loved her, how much  loved by her they felt.  So many with a story of her arms embracing them, her voice encouraging her.  I know my mother felt that way.  She adored her mother-in-law (who was, to her -- Mom -- always).  Gramma had thrown her arms around my mother from the first moment she saw her.  Which seemed entirely reasonable to me, because who wouldn't have loved my mother?

I remember them conspiring together over bottles of Fresca and tuna salad.

I remember them sitting together in the front room, each talking and rocking in the old-fashioned upholstered rockers, their heads tossing back in laughter so their hair brushed against the doilies Gramma had crocheted.

I remember them side-by-side washing up the dishes in the kitchen, full of jokes and stories.

I remember them both telling me at different times about the first time they met.  My mom and dad had driven down to meet his parents, arriving a little early and surprising my Gramma on her knees scrubbing the floor getting ready for their visit, like a Danish maid, said my Gramma, all rosy cheeked, said my mother.  Gramma had laughed and scrambled up to her feet to hug my dad and his sweetie and welcome them in.  And from that moment my mom felt she was at home.

I asked my Gramma once how it was she'd been able to love my mom from the first, unlike the stories of mothers-in-law you usually hear.  I thought maybe she'd say she could just see my mother's excellences shining from her eyes.  But she said, "I'd raised my son and I trusted him.  I knew whoever he brought home would be wonderful."

And that was that.

Monday, June 24, 2013

talking in the dark

Dear MJ,   
Thank you for taking a break from your boys to come walk yesterday.  It was really great to see you.

One thought that lingered in my mind after we parted was that you said you wouldn't necessarily recommend adoption.  I can think of many reasons why someone would not recommend adoption but I wondered what your "why" is...  As you know [my husband] and I have considered adoption and you are someone whose opinion we both deeply respect so we were curious to hear more...

We knew a wonderful family who adopted a little girl after they had three teenage boys and we heard they had her for less than a year before they unadopted her.  We respect them, we know it must've been hard if it came to that for them.  I've also talked with a good friend who works with troubled youth and he emphasized how the state does not disclose everything in a child's past and this can be very problematic for adopting parents.  I don't know that any of this is your experience, but I can see it's been a good challenge (maybe in some unexpected ways?) for your family.  Just wondered if you would feel comfortable sharing more about your experience...

My dear friend,
Quick answers because I'm up late and ought to go to bed but rather than wait until I have time enough to really answer I'm going to give you the sweetened condensed.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend having children by any method -- not to everyone.  I've loved being a mother but it's not for wimps.  You know that.  And adoption, too, is not a universal good.  I wouldn't go back.  But I wouldn't urge everyone I meet to jump into adoption without weighing things carefully.  Things to think about:
  1. There are real advantages to being able to begin raising your child in utero -- people who think they'll adopt to avoid the trouble and mess of pregnancy and new-infant sleeplessness don't understand the deep attachments formed through those simple "mindless" caretaking months (though you and I both know how mindful that caretaking can be).  So much is being taught, so gently, so naturally during that time.  And you'll be building on that foundation for years to come.  It's harder to have to start founding those reserves of trust and affection while at the same time dealing with the needs and behavior of an older child.
  2. Children ought be with their genetic families wherever possible.  It aches me that my Youngest won't be able to trace his features in my face, in Fritz' face.  That he won't be able to look around the room when the family is gathered together and see himself reflected back over and over.  I'm startlingly aware how comforting it is to see reflections of yourself in the people around you.  Where can I find that comfort to transmit to this son whom I love more and more every day?  We talk with his grandfather regularly.  We are trying to gather some family stories for our Youngest.  We tell him our stories and gradually are creating OUR stories.  We emphasize our common heritage as children of a loving God.   Will it be enough? Ever? 
  3. I worry adoption has become a kind of Brangelina fad ... a kind of conspicuous do-gooding and that instantly makes me eye it with suspicion.  I think I offended a woman I know who recently told me how good we were and how her son and his wife were even going to do us one or two better as they've always planned to adopt several needy children as soon as they finish having their "own" children.  Perhaps I ought to admire this kind of plan but it offends something in me.  No child ought to be taken on as a project or as a badge of goodery.  Every child ought to come as one of your "own" children.  
  4. Adoption is complicated emotionally.  And juggling those complications is time-consuming.  Just like when you marry and you get not just the sweet boy you fell in love with but a whole family with all their baggage and demands -- so adopting means making room in your life not just for another child but for concerned grandparents, great foster parents, devoted case workers and others whom you will need to call regularly, spend time with, send pictures to, report to, maintain a relationship with.  All of that takes time and emotional energy.
  5. Any child you adopt will be dealing with trauma and will have hidden wounds that are going to crop up over and over, jumping out of the shadows when you least expect it.  And you won't ever have a complete copy of the backstory.  You won't necessarily know what's going to trigger things.  Why some things will matter so much.  You won't always be as able to say, "Oh, honey, that's not the whole story," and so it will be harder to provide reassuring context when they replay past heartaches.  There will be more things than ever that you don't know the answers to.
These are only a handful of things (and there are others) parents should consider before they adopt. Yes, it is going well for us ... now. For now.  But we've come through 8 pretty taxing months and that's with a happy-hearted little boy who is physically healthy, remarkably bright, and affectionate -- whose damage was relatively minimal, who doesn't act out violently or sexually.   I wasn't prepared for how hard the adjustment would be.  How much it would stretch our older son. And it hasn't been peaches and cream for Fritz and me. Or a bowl of cherries for our new little Youngest either.  It's been good for all of us, but not easy.

Dear MJ, 
I've been thinking about this email for the last couple of days.  Thanks for being open and honest about how you feel about it.  It will be many years before we start considering adoption again and we will take this into consideration when the time comes again.

MJ, I noticed during this last visit that there is a certain diminished energy in your eyes, for lack of a better way to describe it.  You and your family have been through a lot this year, probably more than I can understand not having been through the process of adoption myself.  I wasn't sure whether to understand that subtle change about you as just the wear of an arduous year, or as something personal.  Have I done anything to fall out of your good graces?  If so, tell me what it is so we can talk about it.  If not, is there anything I can do for you as a friend to be a support to you?

My dear friend,
No, no, nothing personal -- At. All. I don't remember my state of mind now during our walk but you are graceful always in my eyes. I may have just been tired. I know I was anxious about calling our Youngest's abuelo and feeling all the demands from all these other interested parties.  Maybe it was just how steep the hill was we were climbing in the dark the night of our walk.  Maybe just the long steepness of the hill we've been climbing as a family this past year.

Or maybe you just picked up on my discomfort discussing the whole topic of adoption:  My judgements of others who have adopted coming back to roost (that they were somehow doing it for show, that they ought to do it this way or that way, that they shouldn't do that or this -- though now I can see how they may not always have had a lot of choice about how they were able to do their adoption and I certainly had very little insight into the needs of their particular child and their particular situation).  My weariness with facing the silly kind of applause some people have treated our decision with.  My torn emotions as I deal with other people's bad choices and the aftermath of abuse.  My sadness as I have to face more straight-on aspects of our society's endemic racism which had been invisible to me before.  My heart's ambiguity seeing what adapting to this change has cost for our older son and for Fritz while at the same time becoming more and more heart-strung and entwined around our Youngest.

But no, nothing personally against you by any means.   
Thanks for checking to make sure.

Dear MJ,  
Well, I'm relieved to know it's not personal.  You did seem tired and did mention the you stayed up until 2am canning applesauce the night before ;)

And about the topic of adoption - I am probably guilty of applauding your decision just as much as anyone else, but I can see exactly how that attitude would get to be old and very annoying.  In reality, you felt directed to do something you probably wouldn't do otherwise, so you did it and it's been really hard.  You didn't necessarily do it to save the world (even though I wouldn't put it past you to want to save the world) and you don't necessarily even believe that adoption is the best way to save the world.  And few people, including myself, can really understand how hard it is and how hard it has been for your family in particular.  So maybe you feel like people's spoken and unspoken praise for your decision is misplaced and, in general, just misguided.  (I had to look up what "Brangelina" meant in wikipedia, btw - perhaps I'm a little out of touch?).

For the record, I think your "ambiguity" while dealing with someone else's bad choices is a great improvement over anger, hatred or disgust directed toward his birth parents.  I recognize endemic racism in myself also ... and as race issues are ever present here ... and [my child] has already had to be confronted with racism issues at school ...  How do I find a way to talk about this with my 3rd grader without instilling any of those same misconceptions in my son, especially when he has felt mistreated by youngsters of those races?

As I think about it MJ, I can see some ways in which you and I have lived parallel lives in the last year.  Without assuming that I know the trials your family has been through, I can say that I know what it is like to feel inspired to do something, and so you do it, and then you come to find it's much different than you expected and your role is different than what you foresaw when you first felt the prompting and sometimes you don't know how to feel about it.  Sometimes you wonder what your purpose is if it wasn't what you thought it would be.  And in some ways it is much harder than you thought it would be ...

My dear friend,

This is why I adore you.

Thanks for walking and talking with me that night.  I still feel warmed by your feeling your way into my experience.  Thank you for helping me see in the dark.  And helping me say. 

[with permission from personal correspondence]

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Portland & June: Why Anyone Would Live Here

Cyclepedia opens this Saturday at the PAM!

For months we've been blocking out this Saturday on our calendar, protecting it from all the incursions that so readily incur.

Rainclouds, contain yourselves.
Raingear, stand ready just in case they don't.
Rain or shine, we'll be riding in for breakfast at the farmer's market and then this fantastic exhibit of groundbreaking bicycle design from the 1920s forward, all from the collection of architect Michael Embacher who's giving a lecture that afternoon about the history of bicycle design.

And! The next week, Summer Joyride! a bikely field trip of the WPA murals and other projects around the city.

Plus! CycloFemme: Women on Bicycles, Past, Present & Future, two weeks later.  For, as Susan B. Anthony says,“The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”

Oh, Portland! Oh, June!

(Please note the restraint that has kept me at the backspace key, deleting exclamation points, just out of regard for you, dear Reader.)

And that's just June. 

In July, it's the Bicycle Bigtop & Rat Trap Circus . . .

Friday, May 31, 2013

june then

It was June then, June and almost July.  We walked around the fountain outside and floated fallen flowers on the water.

Already there were edges we teetered on.  Our rhythms ran a little ragged. All the unspoken easements we'd been used to, he'd been used to, now required words, required re-adjustment.

He was happy.  He was scared. 
We were scared.  We were happy

He gathered up fallen dogwood blossoms and tucked them behind everybody's ears.  His hands graceful as birds and quick and soft.

"Four petals," we said, he said, "like the number of children in this family."

The number of children in this family now.

We wore our flowers all day.  People smiled at us, nodding as we passed.

When it was time to go, he didn't want to leave the fountain, the flowers floating there.  The sun came slanting low. The other children rose at my call.  He stayed, leaning over the water, leaning further over the water. Pushing the flowers, little boats, out a little further with his finger.

Already it was time to go.

When I placed hands on his shoulders to bring him with us, he whirled around. 

"Fine," he said and snatched the blossom from behind my ear, threw it on the ground.

Later he gave it back.  Or another one just like it.

This year has been like that.

This year has been like this.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

May I?

May 1st I sat down to write . . . and the date stared back like that child's question, "Mother, May I?" 

So, May . . . 

May I ride my bike in the park on my way to meet up with friends for a satisfying talk-session?
Yes, you may.

May I stop to take pictures of flowers and sunlight and fall into conversation with friendly strangers who want to come up and see what I'm seeing and together we rejoice a little over the unprocessed, unlegislated, unowned delights of May?
Yes, you may.

May I eat flowers in my salad, mixed in with greens that grew all winter right outside my kitchen window?
Yes, you may.

May I wear my favorite polka-dot sweater with a handmade corsage from flowers my daughter gathered from the rock wall?
Yes, you may. 

("And by the way," she says, 
"the lambs-ear is soft and gentle like your love.  
And the others, too, they're all symbolic.")

Does that mean . . . May I for a day preen that in someone's eyes I am interestingly geometric like gopherspurge and spicy-sweet like cranesbill?
Well . . . if you must.

May I at least spend a whole day from sun-up to sundown weeding the flowery banks?
Yes, that you may.

May I trade windshields and screens of all kinds for my bike's handlebar map, winding roads and wild iris in bloom?
Yes, you may . . . 

. . . as long as you teach your sons not to pick any more of the iris and leave some for the rest of May's minions to enjoy.

May I? May I?

I don't have to wait for the answer, do I?  Because in May, isn't the answer always good? And all through the woods and fields and even in small backyards, birds and bugs are chirrupping and carolling and even the wind picks up the scent of flowers that speak in all their vari-colored tongues the same happy song of Maytime praise, "Yes, oh yes, OH YES! You! MAY!"

(Except not when you dip down into the 40s
and make me begin to dread the 90 miles biking to the coast.)

May I have your word that you'll come back to what you, lovely May, do best
and that you'll leave the rain and cold to lesser months?  

(Like February? 
Or November?)
May I, May?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

I'm not much for plot

But catching the fleeting moment . . .

. . . that's always what I've liked best. And the only thing I really know how to do.

I suppose there's a story somewhere in moments, if you gathered enough of them together.

Some kind of story.

Depending on the order you put the moments in.  And what kind gets added in.

But not yet.

And of course I'm only talking about my writing here.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

seeing how I sit apart . . .

Seeing how I tell a friendly acquaintance -- who has jumped up and thrown her arms around me upon seeing me, who is sitting now amidst the chatty others -- that I'm here to write.  Seeing how I gesture down to the quiet end of the benches, claiming a space there . . .

You would think I had something I was dying to say.

(Do I have something I am dying to say?)

So much already has been said.  So many words cascading down in a roar that drowns out every other word, every sound and meaning lost in that roar. 

Lately I keep seeing behind my eyes one of the imponderable cataracts of this world.  Niagra.  Victoria.  Roaring and pouring down in a kind of static destruction.  And all of us clustered around with our tourist grins and blind cameras.  A roaring that erases everything, where only the separate smells of things remain disparate and trackable.  Everything else, sound and form and time lost in that everlasting fall.

I have no words to give a world like this.  The best I can give is a patch of silence.    An open circle somewhere.  A quiet room, swept clean.  Which is what the world needs more than more words poured out and roaring.

I have come to accept (haven't I?) that I can't change anything by saying again, again what I see.  For example, the catttails this afternoon, ravishing as I rushed by.  Seed heads fluffed out fully, each seed precarious and readying for flight.  Readying to begin again.  The engines of creation.  The light (of course, always, the light) shining through that haze of seedy down.  The future held there by habit just before the wind scatters everything. 

Anyone driving down Highway 30 saw that, if they had their eyes open.  Anyone.  What good does it do to say I saw it, too?  So I see cattails gone to seed.  I see salmon berry petals.  I see the prickles on a stem.  I see the serried file of spores on a fern frond.

Anyone can see that much. Anyone can.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

inadequacy, from five directions

There is no excellence in mothering -- only adequacy.

The best thing my daughter ever told me:  "Mom, you are one of the most adequate people I know."  She tells me this again now, laughing over the phone, and it lightens my heart and grounds me more than a gusty, "But you are so wonderful!" ever would.

We disagree though whether adequacy and excellence are different things.  She tells me it's like long distance running, that it's the stubborn adequacies that get you there.  She says my idea of excellence is a sprinter's idea.

Later I'm  telling my own mom how things go these days, approaching a full year of adoption.  How I think I've got it figured out and then I know I don't.  My Youngest is full of certainty and vehemence.  I recognize this vehemence as one of his superpowers.  But like invisibility and infinite elasticity, vehemence can be hard to live with.

In all of us I hear a ratcheted stridency, ready and waiting the moment he begins to insist and insist.  In me, I hear it most of all, a rising argumentativeness.   "I know, I know," says my mom when I tell her over the phone.  "I know too well.  I was never able to just step back and say, So why does it seem that way to you? Why don't you tell me about that."

"But that's the thing.  I thought I had learned to do that.  I had been proud that I didn't feel I had to argue with the older children," which makes us both sigh and laugh.  "But this time, it doesn't work.  All those techniques I learned, do nothing.  I step back.  He just says the same thing over and over, in a kind of frenzy, louder and louder.  And insisting on things he knows almost nothing about.  Things he has just asked explanations for."

And sigh and laugh again.

So I took him aside and said, "Look I'm concerned about all this argumentative stuff.  What can we do?  I can't think of anything that will fix it, can you?"

My Youngest, who has liked and latched onto the idea of code words, suggests immediately, "We'll say Peaches!"

"Beaches?" I ask.


"Okay.  Hmm."

"No, Oreos."

"Well, let's think about it."  I'm a little reluctant to have Oreos be the code word for polite behavior since that's a word used already to color-code certain societal norms disparagingly by skin color. While the kind of peace and cooperation I'm hoping for has got  to come in every color under the sky.

The next day I have a story for him,  "Here's the thing.  When one of us realizes that it's turning into an argument, we just need to go back to the safe place where we're going to keep our love, okay?  We're at the beach and you and I have spent all day there ... building sandcastles ... flying kites ... collecting sand dollars ..."

"Where's Young in this story?" my Youngest asks about his older brother whose acceptance he seems to prize more than anything I can offer.

"Young has his own place with you and with me.  But this place is just for you and me, where we keep our love safe.  And now we're sitting down to a huge picnic.  Everything we want.  Fried chicken.  Watermelon.  And I'm going to say, I like peaches.  Because that's what I'm bringing to the picnic.  You don't have to say anything.  Or you can say, I like Oreos, because that's what you're going to bring, or I like peaches, too, or I like pizza, or raspberries or anything."

"What if I say, I don't like peaches?"

"Hmm.  I don't think that will work.  Because we don't want to keep anything delicious out of our picnic, do we?  So it can be anything but it has to be something you like." 

He thinks this is brilliant.  I think I am brilliant because all that day it works.  And our home feels warm and joyous.  Like I realize it often used to feel in the years before without me ever being aware of that wonder.

"Because you used imagination, which is your powerful gift," says my mother.

"Until the evening," I tell her, when after we look at pictures together it is time for bed and I nudge him up with my fingertips lightly on his back.  But he budges not.  He leans back against the nudging.  I say, "Come on, now.  It's time to go," and nudge more consciously.  He weighs his whole, not inconsiderable, weight on my hand and, as I would with any of the older children, I push with real briskness so that he has to lean the other way and stumble forward onto his bed.  He swirls around, his face full of rage, his fists balled up and swinging.

"What?  Are you going to hit me?" I ask him.  This grievous fierceness hitting me like lightning out of a blue sky.

He shouts.  His face works with anger.  "Right," he yells.  "Just play volleyball with the Stupid Boy Ball."

I say, "It's time for bed.  Get your pajamas on."  I walk away.  And go sit in my own room, feeling again inadequate.  And tired.  And inadequate.  Again.

And then I hear bare feet pattering down the hallway.  There he is, in his pajamas, "I think I need to make peace with you," he says and burrows in for a hug.

"I think you do," I say and feel comforted, despite our inadequacies.  This is the first time he's initiated this kind of peace-making, instead of simply responding to mine.

I still don't know what I'm doing as a mother. 

But then I never really have known what I'm doing as a mother.  It hasn't stopped me yet. 

I take heart in my unknowing from one of my favorite poets, Wislawa Szymborska, who said in her Nobel acceptance speech, (though probably she said it in Polish) (and certainly she said it of poetry and not mothering) that the seat of inspiration is not knowing:

I've mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It's not that they've never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It's just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don't understand yourself.
When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

I am in that continuous "I don't know."  I will probably never get out of it.

And inspiration keeps cropping up in unexpected places:  the safe-place/storymaking  idea from something I heard Leonard Cohen did to calm a riot at the Isle of Wight.  Speaking to the oversized crowd who had already tried to burn the stage beneath Jimi Hendrix, Cohen climbed up to the microphone, still rumpled from sleep, two o'clock in the morning, while the embers were still glowing, and began, in his halting apologetic way,
When I was seven years old, my father used to take me to the circus.  He had a black mustache, a gray vest, and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did. But there was one thing that happened at the circus that I used to wait for. I don’t want to impose upon you … but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, Would someone light a match so we can locate one another? and could I ask you, each person, to light a match so I can see you all?
It's the pansy in the lapel that captures me and pulls me into the story. This story that taps into  that necessary sense of wonder to seize the imaginations of the wild children in his unruly audience.  That little poem that channels their desire to play with fire.  That identifies a spot of safety in a scary world.

I can do that much.  Tell stories.  Keep asking for enough light just to see where we all are out there in the dark.

My Youngest, like all his older siblings, keeps surprising me with his sweetness. Surprises me with the generosity of his responses.  I can't pat myself on the back for his sweetnesses and unlooked-for graces.  And if I can't congratulate myself for the way he keeps trying to get it right, his readiness to love and to respond and to forgive, if I'm not to blame for his goodness, neither can I  take credit for his stumbles.  Only for mine.

And even then, so much in me, in both of us, is rooted in earth deeper than I can ever know, lit by invisible energies.   No wonder sometimes we get it wrong.  So wonderful that sometimes we get it right.

Monday, April 15, 2013

days of kindness

". . . What's more important?  Uniting Spaceship Earth?  Or raising your own family?

Dr. Bronner's son recalls getting that answer from his father when he complained once that we was hungry.

I thought I wanted to look at Dr. Bronner and Leonard Cohen as mystic and socially conscious poets (of rather varying degrees of ability, not to mention sanity) who do what they need to do to find a popular medium to carry their im/mortal words to a wider audience (soap labels, LP covers and live musical performance).  

" . . . the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world . . . "

But like everything for me, instead it boils back down to this battle between being a good partner-good parent and doing good work.

And I don't know what to say.

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