Mother’s Day: In praise of benign neglect

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Mother

My mother breathed for me until I could breathe on my own, though apparently after I reluctantly squeezed through the channel into the outside world, I needed a slap on the bottom to start doing things on my own. This was to be a recurring pattern in my childhood.

 

 

Forcing me to breathe on my own was the first of mother’s insistence that I take responsibility for myself; she had her own life to live. Her job was to carry me through babyhood into childhood, where I could fend for myself.

 

She did her best: training me to sleep through the night by adding a bit of coffee to my bottle to keep me awake during the day, having me inoculated for the diseases she could and nursing me through the ones she couldn’t, teaching me to eat solid foods, introducing me to boxed cereal, dressing and shoeing me until I could make bizarre clothing choices on my own, and drilling in the necessity to shut the door when I went outside.

 

The trauma of getting me through my early years and up to the door-closing phase caused mother to forget the circumstances surrounding my birth, so the door drill was always accompanied by the question, “Were you born in a barn?” For all I knew or remembered I was, so if she couldn’t remember for me, how was I to know?

 

By the time I was four or five, I was free to leave home. I knew where the sugar-coated cereal was, and I knew that one coat was never enough; so after making sure the cereal was adequately dressed, I would eat my fill, find a mismatched pair of shorts and top, and go outside.

 

Childhood, I learned, took place outside. When adults were awake and in the house, we were told to go outside and play. Mother’s interest in what went on outside the house was limited to injuries involving a lot of blood, my own or others (if I were the cause of the blood-letting.) Other than that, I was free to roam around, engage in rock fights, create plays with my sister in the backyard, ride my bike around the neighborhood, experiment with smoking, set fires, and reassign the neighbors’ mail by taking it from one person’s mailbox and putting it in another’s.

 

For my major crimes, I was caught and punished, which kept me from careers in smoking, arson, and mail fraud. For the rest, I lived a life of my own choosing, a life largely unknown to my mother, as hers was to me.

 

Mother never felt the need to entertain me, hover over me, or know what I was up to. I discovered most of the world on my own – learned how to make and break alliances, how to climb a tree and watch the world, where to hide when I didn’t want to be found, how far I could go without losing my way, and when to come home.

 

Like so many mothers of that era, mother left me on my own for much of the time. I think of it as benign neglect, but it was really the freedom to find my way. I’m still doing that – finding my way, still making mistakes, and still watching the world.

 

Next month will be ten years since mother last breathed. Had I been able to breathe for her and keep her longer, I would have gladly done so. But that is something only the mother can do for the child.

 

Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to breathe life back into her memory and thank her for telling me to get out of the house, shut the door behind me, and go outside so I could discover the world on my own.

Spring is supposed to be the season when feathered hope sings

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Spring is supposed to be the season when feathered hope sings, yet the mother was alone with six little ones to care for. All of the responsibility for food and shelter rested on her. She found a small place not far from where I live, barely big enough for one, yet they all squeezed in. It was little more than a place to sleep, but it sheltered them. It would be easy to judge her for leaving the little ones alone when she went out looking for food. She always waited until dark and stole most of it from the neighbors.

 

 

A female alone at night has to think about personal safety. She did, but care for her offspring compelled her to take chances.

 

 

She managed, at least for a while. Two weeks or so ago, she didn’t come home. The six she left behind waited, used to her absences, yet confident she would return. She never did.

 

 

Then several days ago the last of the snow melted, and the half-past-cool of the thermometer lured my grandchild and me outside to pull up the dead plants in the garden box. Tugging the skeletal remains of last year’s petunias unearthed tufts of gray and white rabbit hair mixed with cut grass placed carefully over a small indentation in the earth. When we began to move away the hair and grass, we uncovered six small but perfectly formed bunnies nestled together. In spite of the carefully built nest, not one was alive.

 

 

Their fur-covered skin showed they were at least eight days old; a week later they could have left the nest and started eating the remaining plants in my garden like their mother.

 

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I laid out their small bodies on the dirt; and the two of us, grandchild and a grandmother, marveled at the grandeur before us. Such exquisite beauty hidden beneath the weeds. Life buried, created to rise up and live. All around us, life busied herself, greening the grass, sending up worms for the fat robins to tug out of the ground; and at our feet, death.

 

 

Last summer at the petting zoo, the two of us spent a good amount of time holding bunnies, feeling their hearts beat rapid and strong against our hands, like small drums calling us to dance, to breathe, and to embrace the sky. In the growing cold of this day though, no drumbeats were heard, only the grandchild wailing for the music that should have been.

 

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I could offer no comfort; we each must face this horror alone. Death attends every banquet life throws. We don’t always see her, but she’s there; and when you least expect it, she shows her gaunt face and stares at you with those eyes. Like black holes in space, you feel their power to draw you in, sense the pull of that ravenous hunger, intent on swallowing up the world. What can you do except wail?

 

 

After I gathered up the grass and tufts of hair, plucked by the mother from her own body, I placed them in a small bag. Then I gently laid the kits, as bunnies are also called, and put them in the garage. It was a small concession to the child, who believed that if we kept them, they would forever remain as they were in death.

 

 

This stubborn hope of the child made my heart ache and at the same time strangely comforted me. We are creatures of hope, living in a world of unspeakable wonder. And this stubborn hope is the ancient hope, as ancient as spring itself.

 

Carried by hands

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Hand Reaching

She comes out to greet me in the waiting room. I haven’t been waiting long. It is at day’s end and my work is finished. During the wait, I scratch in my final words to tell her what I need. I will not need to speak anymore.

She leads me into the room. In the dim light I notice only the table and chair. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she says. I leave all of my clothes on the chair and wall hook; then I crawl under the covers and wait for the knock.

I lie on my stomach, my face cradled in the open circle at the top of the table. She turns on music, soft flutes and ocean waves.

I yield to her hands, oiled and searching. She finds my pain. Some aches I knew I carried; others lie hidden, deep within me. She seeks them out – knots of worry, muscles clenched, holding their breath. She forces them to breathe.

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The pain cannot leave me until I feel it. Worry, long-forgotten deadlines, and anger hide within, cling to my bones. Her hands draw them out.

She murmurs and I turn, eyes closed, heart and mind still. Inside this room, I am outside my life, an in-between place.

I arrived once just as I am now, unclothed, at the mercy of hands. My leaving will be like this. An angel will prepare me for the crossing over. Her hands will find my hurt and pain and carry it away. I have swallowed darkness and sorrow; it clings to my bones. But it will yield to those hands.

We shall not speak; my words, as they are now, will be left there in the waiting room.

Then she will push my barge into the waters and the music will carry me across. And there will be hands, familiar hands, waiting on that other side.

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Back massage photo courtesy of Nick Webb   

Death in two parts

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I. Death is an empty place

 

The heart dies first, emptying slowly until its fragile shell sits silently in your chest. The lungs resist, hungry as wolves in winter, biting after the air, until they starve, buried in the noiseless snow.

 

The ragged-edged knife of sorrow scrapes the bones clean. Despair burns the bones to ash, washed away by what tears are left. The rest follows until you are hollowed out, your body weightless, floating through the world, tethered against your will.

 

The dreams are the last to go.

 

Only the echo of your voice remains. Your family, friends, and acquaintances fail to mourn you. They cannot tell the living from the dead.

 

But you know.

 

Death is an empty place.

 

 

 

II. Rising from the dead is harder than it looks

 

In death you grow fond of silence. You rest in the stillness, free from pain or want.

 

If you could only close your eyes forever, you could remain in that emptiness. But the world lies in wait. A leaf splattered with red and green falls and when you stoop to touch it, the sun’s fire scorches your hand. Longing with its pain enters you, furtively like a thief. The moon waits for you behind a hedge of cloud, reaches out and holds you like an old lover. Its soft light cleaves the darkness. In the distance, you see hope and turn away. Too late. One by one memories trudge back, dragging promises to fill the empty room.

 

The lungs resist breathing again. You dread that old hunger, the desire for air that can never be satisfied. Every breath seeks another and another.

 

Life abhors a vacuum; it forces its way back in. The daily meals, the work, the cleaning, the bills, the neighbors, the care of children, they all crowd into you, jostling for space, clumsy and needy. They crush that empty shell of a heart. You spend the rest of your life trying to put it back together again, looking for the pieces. It will never be the same. When your misshapen, patched-up heart finally beats again, you cry, because you know the heart is always the first to go.

 

 

Happy One More Lap Around the Sun Day!

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If you’re feeling dizzy, I don’t blame you. I feel dizzy too. We just finished another lap around the sun, moving 108,000 kilometers an hour. It doesn’t sound quite so fast in miles – just a little over 67,000 miles per hour. (When it comes to numbers, it doesn’t matter that the distances are equivalent, the bigger number makes me feel that we are going faster in kilometers than in miles; in the same way that 100 pennies looks like more money than 4 quarters to small children and people like me.)

 

Add in the fact that the earth is also rotating at up to 1000 miles per hour each day,and I start to feel a tiny bit panicky. Too much thinking about it makes me want to stay inside lest I accidentally get spun off the earth before my time. Yes, it’s a far-flung idea, but just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.

 

The last million or so kilometers of the 940 million kilometer course (or 584 million miles plus a few yards) I traveled this year were exhausting. I’ve been doing these laps for decades, so you think I would be used to it. All the scientific types assure me that this year’s turn was no faster than any other year, but I think it was.

 

However, reaching the finish line on December 31 and pushing through the midnight tape stretched between the two years is always cause for celebration. So, I want to wish you a Happy New Year! May the next 940 million kilometers be good ones for you and yours!

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Bewilderment and laughter

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An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.

An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.

 

They are a small people, the Karen.  Most are short and wiry, used to carrying heavy loads. They laugh often.

 

 

Once, they cultivated the earth. People of the soil, they planted the land with seeds and cuttings to feed their villages. They knew the depth the seed desired, the care the small plants needed, and the time for harvest. They knew the rain by smell, marked the patterns of flight of greedy birds who circled over their fields, and recognized every insect, tree, and animal that shared the land with them.

 

 

They have been transplanted, forced to flee their land, Burma, to live here in northeastern Wisconsin. Soldiers have cultivated their homeland with death, planting landmines in fields and on paths. The earth, once life-giver, has become life and limb taker. Eastern Burma, the Karen homeland, now vies with Afghanistan as the most landmine-ridden area of the world.

 

 

Three months ago, Ba, Mer, Hsa, Paw, Aung and a dozen others doubled their latitude and landed on the other side of the world. Ba, Mer, and Hsa have never studied before. I bewilder them by drawing lines on the whiteboard, pointing to them, and making strange sounds. They understand the pictures in the textbook, but the sounds are hard to make.

 

 

In time they match sound to word, greet me with “Good morning, teacher” and “Good-bye, teacher.” Most of the other students now understand the grammar that we study, do well on the tests, and easily join in the pair work to practice speaking. When I explain the task to Ba, Mer, and Hsa, they laugh and say, “I don’t know.” I want to tell them “I don’t know, either.”

 

 

I don’t know the secrets of the soil or how to coax enough food from seeds to feed my family. I must trust others to tell me how to read the sky or translate the language of birds. I cannot harvest rice or carry grain across mountain paths. I know words and live most of my life inside. I live on the earth, not with the earth. What I know is a small tree in a vast forest of what I do not know.

 

 

Once, some years past, I had to flee a place I’d grown accustomed to, a place I loved. I left abruptly, never to return, and the ache remains. My own leaving is a small thing, compared to that of my students, thrust out of their homes by war, rape, landmines, forced labor, and destruction of their villages. But I feel a kinship. Somehow we have each been planted here, meeting in rooms to struggle with words, each of us knowing and not-knowing so much. We greet one another and begin the day, scribbling on boards and in books, smiling, speaking, wondering, and sharing our bewilderment. But always with laughter, the one true language we share.

 

Map courtesy of Aotearoa 

 

The land of giants

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When I was small I lived in the land of giants. People and building loomed large, towering over me in a world that pulsed with power and strength. In my first eight years when the year changed, I sat on my grandparents’ porch, coated and mittened, to watch the New Year’s parade march down the broad street. The porch stretched half a block in length surrounded by concrete walls I first had to tiptoe over to see the marchers.

 

When my years grew large, my grandparents’ home grew small, their porch unable to hold more than a few chairs, a table, a bench, and two or three small children.

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I knew a man once who slept in my mother’s bed, a man not my father but who owned her when he changed her name. He walked in fierceness, his words the mace he swung to shame and mock and ridicule. He slew me more than once. Though I had more than a decade to stand on, he towered over me, an insurmountable wall that kept me in a place of fear. I hated him.

 

A full generation passed before I saw him again. This past week we met. The years have left him frail, thin, and sick. His legs hesitate when he tries to walk, and his ears fail to listen to the soft voices around him. Old angers still smolder in his words, but the flame no longer leaps out to scorch and singe.

 

All of us come to rubble eventually. The mortar weakens and our walls collapse. We lay down our weapons and surrender to the years.

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We talked, the two of us, and told our stories. I searched for my old hatred and found it gone, lost on some path I took decades and decades ago.

 

I left that man, surprised at my great peace and my great guilt. I am not innocent. I have wrecked havoc, too, shook the ground with anger, pierced hearts with sharp-edged words, and held others hostage behind walls I built myself.

 

I have grown small again and hope to stay that way until I leave. I have had my share of hurts, but I have also hurt others and must make amends, for none of us escape this world unscathed or guiltless.