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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The strangeness of mercy

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One way to look at it is that I was born a child of mischief; one who rebelled within the womb, refusing to appear as the long-expected son of my father, and arrived as a girl instead.

Probably taken after I got caught doing something naughty. That's me not smiling.

Probably taken after I got caught doing something naughty. That’s me not smiling.

In the narrative of my own creation, a bad-natured fairy sprinkled me with fairy dust composed of curiosity, naughtiness, and a bit of bad luck. How else explain that I rarely got away with anything, and my older sister almost always did.

 

I disliked getting caught and punished and tried to cover my tracks, but sooner or later my sins found me out, barking and baying until someone in authority – parents or teachers – nabbed me.

 

None of my punishments lessened my curiosity or desire to explore the forbidden – cigarettes, the sugar bowl, other people’s mail, or the contents of my parents’ dresser. Curiosity, which killed the cat, just gave me a sore bottom.

 

Years later I realized how I had mistaken mercy for bad-naturedness on the part of that fairy. If I had had the bad luck to get away with all of my naughtiness, I would probably be writing my blog from a jail cell. (Of course, there’s no way to be sure I’m not; you’ll just have to take my word for it.)

 

Getting caught helped me understand consequences in a way nothing else could. I thought of this last month when someone sideswiped my car in the campus parking lot.

 

The first thing I noticed when I approached my car as I was leaving school was a rectangular piece of black plastic lying on the ground near my bumper. It was a car license plate sheathed in a plastic holder lying upside down. I picked it up to place it on a snow mound so the driver could see it when he or she returned, and that’s when I noticed the damage to the side of my car.

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I contacted school security, explained the situation, and gave them the license plate number. It didn’t take long to track down the individual, based on his school-parking permit. He assured the security officers that he had written me a note and placed it on my windshield.

 

In this tale, the wind, angry with him perhaps for some long-forgotten curse against its coldness, tore the note away, carrying it far from the parking lot. And while he was placing the note on my windshield, no doubt taking full responsibility for what he had done and overcome by remorse, his tear-filled eyes apparently failed to see his fallen license plate, black on white, doing its best to be seen.

 

This story made me smile, and would have even been plausible if there had been any wind that day, or if the snow which wasn’t falling that day had temporarily blinded him so he couldn’t see  the license plate lying there in plain sight, letting all the world know where to find him. Nevertheless, I agreed that it was a good story that could have happened and not too bad for a first draft.

 

His insurance paid for the damage; and one hopes, next time he really will leave a note. I didn’t report him to the city police. Had I done so, he would have been charged with leaving the scene of an accident.

 

He’s a young man yet and has a chance to learn that the best stories are true whether they really happened or not. I like to think we were dusted by the same fairy, fated to get away with nothing.

 

Though he may view me now as a bad-natured old woman, who uncovered his furtive deed and caused his insurance rates to go up, I have hope that one day he will see me as a merciful old woman who helped him get caught – just in time.

 

License photo: Alias 0591 from the Netherlands 

Is it 1984 yet?

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Spring has arrived, but winter has barricaded the door. I’m in a dark mood.

 

At times like this, I admit that I don’t always keep my paranoia on a leash. In fact, I often let it run wild, allowing it to chase hare-brained rabbits down various trails or follow the scent of little chickens warning that the sky is falling.

 

Naturally it’s not my fault I’m so paranoid. I blame it on the book 1984 by George Orwell. I don’t know about your mind, but in my mind, for pure fear, no other book comes close. * On the dystopian spectrum, it’s on the far end of terror.

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On the other end, in what could be called the “happy” dystopia, lies Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. Published in 1932, it envisions a world of people manacled by drug-induced happiness, materialism, and sex, a world that sounds surprisingly like our own. Seventeen years later, post-World War II, Orwell published his book, depicting a world enslaved by fear, with a seemingly benevolent Big Brother in control of past, present, and future.

 

In the actual year 1984 at a panel convened to discuss Orwell’s dystopia and the modern world, the educator Neil Postman proposed that contemporary Western society reflected Huxley’s view of the future rather than Orwell’s. Postman equated the entertainment industry with the drug soma that people in Brave New World used to escape into happiness. The following year Postman published his insights in a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I encourage you to do so.

 

I tend to agree with Postman, yet North Korea stands as a reminder that Orwellian governments can and do exist. My own fear is that the two will blend, and we’ll end up with a Brave New 1984: a populace condemned to artificial happiness found in drugs, sex, acquisition, and entertainment, who relinquishes all control to a Big Brother who will not allow anyone off Paradise Island.

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While brooding through winter’s siege, I have been reading about school libraries closing due to budget cuts and others removing their books because of the availability of so much online information. Why bother funding libraries and librarians when you have Google? Why house all those dust-loving books when they can be downloaded and read on e-readers?

 

My paranoia and I find this disturbing. Online information is stored at physical locations. Whoever owns these data centers effectively owns the information, as does whoever controls the electricity and power grid that allows people to access the servers or charge their electronic devices. As long as there are everyone checks and balances, and everyone involved believes in net neutrality and open access, we are fine. But what happens if unchecked power controls access?

 

You can’t turn off a book. And you don’t need electricity to read one. We need books, and we need libraries full of books. Children especially need a place to go to explore the world of ideas, a quiet place to read books of their own choosing.

 

I’m not against e-books and online copies. I enjoy my electronics. They have their place, and that place is next to books, not in place of books.

 

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*Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road would equal 1984 on the terror scale if it were a sustainable world. It is a dying world that will end; the horror of 1984 is that there is no end in sight.

 

Photos: 
Big Brother: Paternm
Surveillance Cameras: Hustvedt
Books: © Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

 

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.

Grand Teton National Park

Back massage photo courtesy of Nick Webb   

A whirled champion

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Sometime around the middle of the last century, my mother, along with millions like her, went boom. Mother boomed thrice. First came my sister, then less than two years later, me. After a ten-year recovery of giving birth to me, she boomed her last and my brother appeared.

George B. Boomer, Union colonel in the Civil War. Considered a pre-Boomer because he was born in 1832.

George B. Boomer, Union colonel in the Civil War. Considered a pre-Boomer because he was born in 1832.

 

If births were sounds, each of the individual 75 million plus births from 1946 to 1964 would have been recorded as a pop about as loud as a burst balloon. Collectively, however, all those little pops would have sounded like the boom of a three-ton bomb. You can take it from me, a notoriously unreliable source, that this is why we are called boomers.

 

Not long after mother boomed me out into the world, the modern hula-hoop was birthed, or more likely extruded, since it was made of plastic tubing.

 

Those plastic tubes appeared in July1958, just about the time I would’ve been getting bored with summer vacation. Another 25 million or more kids were equally bored because that’s how many hula-hoops were sold between July and October of that year. The fad spread worldwide, one could say it circled the globe (if one were an incorrigible punster). After an outbreak of public gyrating, the Japanese  banned it. The Russians denounced it as one more indication of western decadence and went back to drinking vodka.

 

Before the ban: Japanese hula-hooping in 1958.

Before the ban: Japanese hula-hooping in 1958.

Hoops have been around since the time of the Greeks who used metal hoops and probably wore bruises to prove it. Sometime in the 18th century the hoops became associated with the Hawaiian dance, the hula. I imagine the association stuck because of alliteration, since the hip action is not the same.

 

Evidence that hoops encircled the world.

Evidence that hoops encircled the world.

Two weeks ago I attended a “Hooping for Health” workshop at school. Apparently, hula-hoops are in circulation again among boomers. We spent an hour twirling, whirling, spinning, and learning tricks. I’m a very good hula hooper, if I do say so myself, and obviously I do. I easily walked forward and backward, maintaining the hoop around my middle like a personal equator. Then I learned to spin 360 degrees around inside the spinning hoop. Everyone clapped when I did that, even me.

 

Once the weather warms up, say around August if we’re lucky, I plan to buy a hula-hoop. Anything that makes me feel like a whirled champion is worth its weight in plastic.