Mother’s Day: In praise of benign neglect

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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.

 

Winter is that boy your mother warned you about

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You know the one that can’t keep his hands off you. Always trying to touch your bare skin. Winter always goes too far; you can ask him to stop, but he never will.

 

He’s like that wild boy in high school that spent all his time trying to be cool. Every minute of every day, as if being cool was all that mattered.

 

 

Sure, he brings you lovely presents, like that a line of snow-covered trees glittering in the sun, pretty as a rhinestone bracelet. But he’s cold-hearted and time after time leaves you out in the cold.

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He likes to keep you guessing. One day he’ll warm up to you a bit, and the next day he’s standing in the street, shouting sleet at you, wearing that white muscle T-shirt and pushing you around.

 

He’ll chase you in and out of buildings; stalking you and moaning like a lovesick calf.

 

The relationship seemed so charming in the beginning when he would throw down that sparkly white carpet every time you walked out the door. For the holidays, he filled the sky with confetti, and you loved it. These last few months, though, you’ve been living in denial, telling yourself you can get used to it. But you can’t.

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Winter has a cold and bitter heart. He thinks that pinching your cheeks and fingertips so hard you almost cry is acceptable. If you’re not careful, you’ll start believing that his behavior is normal. That, my friend, is a slippery slope to slide down.

 

When you finally tell him to get lost, he will wait on your porch every morning and blast you when you walk out the door. And as if that weren’t enough harassment, at night he’ll come by and rattle your windows, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf that he is.

 

Fool that you are, you think you can reason with him. You decide on a date that he will move on and out of your life. You get out your calendar and circle the day, embellishing it with flowers, hearts, and butterflies. (I really don’t know what your mother would say about that.)

 

Then on the very day marked for his departure, he shows up at your door, stomping his boots and flashing his icy blue eyes, as if to say, you are mine forever. Then he points to the trees he has decorated, and you have to slam the door shut because as mean as he is, he really is a great decorator.

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Me? I’m done with him. One of us has got to get out of town. If he’s not gone by the end of April, I’m going to have to leave or get some counseling.

 

Click the links to find the photographers: 
Snow pond   Firs   Rime

 

 

 

 

 

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   

Wild horses could drag me away

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Female_horse-champ_Kitty_Canutt_(1919)_by_unknownThe spoken language is a herd/heard of wild mustangs, thundering through the mouths of millions of speakers who ride the nearest horse at hand. And because they’re wild, you see and hear fights breaking out between verbs and subjects who are never going to agree this side of Wichita, Texas, so you may as well get used to it. Wild horses don’t care if the verb and subject agree; in fact, it doesn’t take much to pit one against another as they rush through the air straight into your ear. Listen now and you’ll hear them stampeding by, saying, “My brother and his family from Illinois lives just down the street.” And if pronouns concern you, you may as well start wearing earplugs or walk around with your fingers in your ears because I guarantee some horse-whipping fool is going to tell you a secret and warn you not to tell anybody because it is “between you and I.”

 

The written language, on the other hand, is a corral of horses, tame or almost so, taught to let the writer/rider hogtie other people’s minds and hearts, just so the horse whisperer can win the rodeo, even if there’s only a few people in attendance. Once you fall in love with horses, you can’t do anything else. After you make a few of them eat out of your hand, they own you, and you spend the rest of your life lying in wait in cold canyons biding your time until some of those wild mustangs stop to eat; then you lasso as many as you can and take them home.

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It’s a cold and lonely business, and it’s not always pretty. Their hooves are sharp and they can leave you bloodied, dirty, and discouraged. Not a few can jump any fence you can build. But sometimes, just sometimes, you pick yourself up from the ground for the one-hundredth time, ready to quit and swear off horses, but you don’t. You dust yourself off, climb back on, and the horse lets you stay. When that happens, nothing else matters. It’s just you and the horse, and you feel like you can ride forever.

 

 

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.

 

 

It happened in August

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It happened in August. I knew better than to wade into the water, but I’m compulsive that way.

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The water seemed calm enough, barely a ripple on its surface. Maybe it was the shattered sunlight, winking and blinking like a thousand sequins, that drew me farther in. My feet followed the slope of the earth until I stood in chest-high water.

 

That’s when I saw the wave out on the horizon. I always think it is a small wave brought by some unseen current, a wave that will wash over me gently, but not pull me under.

 

So, I stood there and waited.

 

I should have known, and if I’m honest, I did know, but I have a chronic case of optimism that affects my vision. I’m so nearsighted that I cannot recognize reality until it’s right in front of me.

 

When it was too late to turn back, I saw what lay beneath that wave: the great whale. And it swallowed me, as it has done year after year.

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For four and a half months I traversed the ocean in the belly of that whale, my old companion. Then last week, he spit me out, worn and wasted, my eyes unused to the light. For two days I lay on the beach, asking myself if I would return to the beach or move inland.

 

Next time it will be different, I tell myself. Teaching will not swallow me whole; I will teach and have a life. Sitting by the fire here on the shore, watching the small waves roll in, I believe that.

 

Next time it will be different. In January I will return to the shore, believing, always believing.

 

I am called to the sea. I cannot stay away.

 

 

 Photos: Seashore   Whale

 

 

Our Sunday drive

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Sunday afternoon we drove up north to see some fall colors. The wizards of weather foresaw rain and gloom, but the wind tidied up the sky and swept the clouds into the corners so the sun could shine across the bright blue dome.

 

 

Crowds of slim birch trees dressed in their finest yellow drew close to the road and shyly waved as we drove by. Rosy-cheeked sumac crowded round their feet and drew even closer to watch the cars go by. The oaks, of course, wore their best: dappled patterns of green, yellow, orange, and red; swaths of color made iridescent by the light. Standing among the glory of the colors, the firs and pine trees kept to themselves, attending to their business of staying ever green.

 

 

Near the village of Wittenberg, we saw one deer, a young doe, crossing the road. We slowed the car, and she turned to look at us. When we drew closer, she turned and ran, her white tail waving goodbye.

 

 

Near Tigerton and again near New London, we crossed the Embarrass River with its intriguing name. It’s easy to imagine the naming as a kind of penance for some act of shame or humiliation by Wisconsin’s early settlers, but it’s merely French for obstruction. Before any other Europeans arrived here, the French canoed their way through the state rivers looking for a route to China. They were as successful as we were as children, digging holes, thinking we could tunnel through the earth and crawl out in Shanghai. Trees lining this tributary of the Wolf River fell into the water, clogging the passage of the French, so they named it for its obstruction.

 

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Our drive led us past red-barned fields, each marked by one or more silo like silent sentinels guarding the farms. Acres of corn crowded the land, each stalk wearing a feathered cap in anticipation of the harvest.

 

 

We spoke little on our drive; our hearts were too full. Fall crushes us with its beauty and heals us in turn. Beauty is the heart-balm that creates a longing for home and then invites us in, and each time the earth turns, splashing my eyes with its color, I cannot get enough of it.

 

 

Yesterday a wind blew

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Yesterday a wind blew – a wind without urgency, a wind that held me in its arms, a wind of promise. I recognized that wind from the dreams I have had since childhood. So many nights I have heard its call to fly and have soared across the skies of dreamland.

 

 

The wind yesterday waited outside my door. And as I walked, it called me to the sky. I raised my arms, just as I do in my dreams, almost believing that the wind would lift me up and carry me. And when my feet held firm, stayed in the world’s grip, I pretended to stretch. I have been taught to keep my dreams to myself, yet I raised my arms more than once, as much a gesture of love to the world and sky as a hope that I could fly.

 

 

A gauze of clouds rimmed the sky, diffusing the sun’s light. I walked further than I normally do, immersed in that cool, soft wind that gave and took my breath away.

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Later in the morning I saw the geese flying, carried by the same promise, arrowing across the sky to places I cannot go. I trembled at their loveliness and listened to their calls, a language strange and yet familiar. I watched them, and my heart stirred with a longing for a place I cannot name but want to call home.

 

 

What wonder is this that I could see the sky so blue, filled with geese, their cries filling the moment like a cup, brimful with joy, prepared just for me.

 

 

 

 

Photo on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/37804979@N00

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.