Relationships are such miserable, awkward things. Exhausting and grating, filled with miscommunications, hurt feelings, ugly looks, impatient sighs. But still, somehow they’re worth it, have to be worth it. They’re the way God speaks to us, the way we become more human, the great plan for life. And apparently the only way to receive the gift burrowed deep in each bumbling stumbling relationship is in the letting go, the forgiving each little slight, all those mistakes. You forgive them, let go your need to be right, to be the centre of things, to be the royal figure before whom all things bow. And when you no longer care about being right or being flattered or being appreciated, when you decide to put your little ego to bed, tuck her in and shut the door, you find you have nothing to lose and all this humanity – and divinity- to gain. You see that much of the time, you’re the one hurting and sighing and inflicting your neediness on others. You see that they hurt too. You see that we’re all doing our best with our clingy egos, our blistered feet walking this gravelly road of our days. Relationships aren’t easy, but easy has never been the most important value. Grasping for easy will never get you to the mountaintop, the hidden lake, the new baby, the Golden Anniversary. Don’t pray for easy. Pray for grace, humility, the great strength to give up the spotlight and stop the whining.
brenda is dying.
janey is throwing tantrums.
laura is barren and molly peed her pants
and angela is lonelyandjakeishungryandhaiti
crying is redundant
complaining is indulgent
so i stare at the embers of campfires
longing for a moment
or voices of angels with tangerine wings
fluttering down the hill
leaving me flailing between despair and delight
all those giggles and scrapes
in the face of all that
too many cracks for light to seep through
but hope is a nightlight in the hall
a whisper that won’t be ignored
permission to strap on wiry angel wings
Your scoffing scrapes
down my throat like
ice chips, wrenches
through my airways
You who hold the power
here, you wield it
malaise. I cry too
easily, hand it back
to you, betray
my own posture.
the way the tears slide
down my cheeks and drip
on our crumpled blanket.
t.s. wrote of coffee spoons and faces upon faces
and i think he said it all.
it appears alfred j. is the only one worth knowing
and all my other gasps and grasps
at this literary moment
lie flat before his whimpering feet.
how is it that i know the women downstairs
and i feel the cat slinking by
and i dream of those bellowing mermaids
even though it’s been 14 years
since freshman lit
and my tattered green nortons
is buried on the other side of the world?
i hold you in my heart, dear alfred,
i whisper to you
and look for you at parties
(maybe i am you at parties)
i suppose i should thank old mr. eliot,
for leaving me void of words and
giving me my love.
it’s always at night
the whirring fan
the sweat of a too hot day under too hot sheets
all that closeness
that exposes all that vastness
between who i am
and who are you
my closet renegade
my faraway bedfellow
the thundering sundering silence between us
while you sleep unflinching
unaware of the many faces
of the spaces between us
the labyrinth of looks and breaths
that we’ve constructed over the years
brick by ancient brick
but all that slaving
has blurred the lines between us
the bits of me
rubbed off on you
compelling me to stay
to reach across the crumpled chasm
and tangle my limbs in yours.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about mothering in the six short (eternal) years that I have been involved in the endeavour, it’s that mothering is so huge, so baffling, so beyond the ability of words or descriptions to come close to its reality, that it’s very hard to even talk about the experience. We can talk around it, describe the fatigue, the oatmeal on the floor, the sound of giggles or sobs. We can even share tears or laughter or silence in the face of it, but there’s no way of knowing if my experience as a mother is in any way like your experience as a mother. Like grief or sex or headaches or labour, it may share some external characteristics, but who’s to know if it feels for me like it feels for you, or if my struggles, fears, joys, desperations will be the same ones you will feel. Chances are that some of them won’t be, or at least we won’t find the right words to make the connection that they are. But it is exactly this possible uniqueness- the terrifying thought that maybe we’re all alone in this, that every other mother is united in some universal experience while we sit alone and isolated, paralyzed with fear or drowning in despair- that swamps us by a weight that we just may not be able to bear.
And so we need to try, to sit near one another in that swamp and reassure one another over and over with the brave and saving words, “me too.” Me too, me too, me too. Again and again. You’re so tired that your bones ache and your lungs have forgotten how to expand and you stumbled against the wall of the shower? Yes, me too. The sound of your baby’s crying is so piercing and infuriating that if it doesn’t stop soon you’re afraid you might squeeze him too hard or drive away. Or both? Me too. And also…when you watch her sleep and her eyes move beneath her eyelids, thin and transparent like a baby bird, your breath stops and your heart breaks and you know you were never made to withstand this much beauty? Me too. And after one good nap you forget all the weeks of despair and even the shaky feeling in your skull just this morning and you smile at your coffee, thinking you may have found enlightenment? Me too.
This really is how it feels. This scary, exhausting, gorgeous, despairing, hopeful fluttering in the soul they call mothering. Why did no one ever tell us?
The girls watch Sound of Music, pressed side by side on the couch. They sing along to ‘Do, a Dear”, beg to keep watching past bedtime. I chop fresh cilantro and avocados, squeeze limes and garlic. Later when our friends are over, eating chips and playing board games at the dining room table, I hear the girls shrieking and giggling together. Secret sister language under yellow glow in the dark stars.
When M walks into the room of adults after playing at the zipline, her face looks scared, fragile. She makes it till my lap on the couch and then it shatters, dissolves into silent sobs. I hold her while she cries. She doesn’t want to tell me about it. This is a sorrow deeper than cut hands or scraped knees. This is the wound of taunts and embarrassment. I hold her in her brokenness, the suffering of childhood.
J stuffs her spelling test into a side pocket of her backpack. No pride in two small errors. Misspelling Sunday at age six, enough shame to overshadow her brilliance.
P comes out of her bedroom after the lights are out. Her hair sticks out in the memory of pigtails. “Mommy, can you call me Starshine?” “Yes, darling. Goodnight Starshine.” She grins and turns back to the door. “Goodnight Mommy.”
The girls know that snacks aren’t easy to procure before supper, but they each have found their loophole. J asks for tomato slices, tonight a whole tomato, cut into quarters. P asks for red pepper “Big, mommy” so I cut a wide piece, curved like a bowl. M picks at onion slices, even garlic pieces if needed, but is happiest with carrots.
The girls dance. Individually. Silently. Whisper their music. M’s movements are bold, big, she counts as she moves. J starts still, then graceful. Watches her reflection in the patio doors as she leaps with limbs wide. Starfish. P runs back and forth, leaping, skipping across the room. Soon she is humming “Favourite Things’ and spinning in complicated circles. She doesn’t want to stop.
We eat creamy broccoli soup on the back porch, slice vegetables in silver bowls. Sing the doxology, holding hands in the shade of banana trees.
When J practices her spelling words,she covers her paper with her hand, tucks her thumb high around the pencil, presses the lead hard into the paper. She is learning her lowercase letters, has mastered the small a, writes her 2’s and 7’s backwards. Her spelling is impeccable.
Tonight we sit at the dining room table around scrap paper and baskets of coloured pencils. I read from our history book, about Constantinople and St Nicholas. Then I read The Story of the Amulet, about magic and time travel and sand fairies. While I read, the others draw. M draws carefully, a small girl at a fancy party, the room decorated with swirls and chandeliers. P draws rainbows, bold, big lines, then cuts the colours into strips. She draws a storm, pink and red, cut with tiny scissors. J draws two pages of flagpoles, each with a flag copied from her geography game. Beautiful bold, perfectly accurate flags in rows. Phil first draws a round boy with a round mouth and big belly, but the girls think he is a mushroom or a pregnant woman, so then he draws a hockey player, designs a jersey, adds all the details of his childhood drawings. The girls are mesmerized. Refuse to leave after the story is done. In awe of their artist father.
When J comes skipping across the basketball court after school today, she announces, with wide arms that today was the best day ever, then promptly flops to the dirt, off balance from all that enthusiasm. She explains that she can tell which are the good days and which are the bad days by the weight of her backpack. On bad days, even an empty backpack is too heavy to drag. On good days, her bag filled with weights feels light like feathers.
M lies in bed with a headlamp on her forehead, reading for hours,a small pajama clad spelunker.
To escape the grey evening, no lightbulbs, no shortcuts to homemade meals, we opt for Ethiopian food. We leave candles by the door for our return, wrap scarves around our necks. At the Ethiopian restaurant, there are small mugs spread out in a tray on the floor, striped red and green and white, surrounded by bougainvillea petals. Smoke that smells like Ethiopia floats up from hot charcoal. J stands by the jiko, waves the smoke over her clothes like a Jewish mother, a private self-blessing. We ask geography trivia questions while we wait, slide slices of lemon on the edges of our glasses. When the food arrives it is colourful and hot, piles of grilled meats and pureed beans, dark red on fermented bread. The girls tear small pieces of injera, reach across the table for hardboiled eggs and shiro, the food staining their fingers with spice.
While I wash dishes, puree cashews, slice mushrooms, there is a row of small girls climbing along the garden walls outside my window. They are on an urgent adventure, calling to each other, slipping onto my lilies. They argue over imaginary ages, giggle at chosen names, scrape their shins on the rough rocks. None of us realize yet what this means- a childhood of unending playmates, small girls showing up at the door unannounced, quick to don shimmery dresses, muliplying like the cells of a neighbourhood organism, too close to examine.
At the back of Phil’s skull there is a groove, wide as my two fingers, that before this evening I’ve never noticed. All these years and I never even knew the shape of his head. The landscape of his bones.
I wake in the blue light of before morning. Security lights across the valley blind me, distract my night vision. I wait for them to disappear, but by then the light has spread, another missed chance at darkness. J moves into the room, silent like water, fits into the hollow of my side, whispers that she loves mornings.
P in a pink nightgown, ponytails standing up like an alien child, butterfly baby, stands on tiptoes to close the bedroom door, rubs her eyes before finding her way to my lap. I rub her back, the bones that lie flat under her skin beside the base of her spine, so many bones I never noticed in my loved ones. I trace mosquito bites on her legs, breathe the smell of her waking.