An Afternoon with Arthur

I looked out the window on Saturday during “post-tropical storm Arthur” and noticed that there were small-to-middling sized branches on the ground all around my car. I was concerned about the windows.

I said to my mother, “Um. Do you think that the cars should be parked directly under the trees?”

“Hm. Maybe not. Let me check and see what your father thinks.”

She went out to the motor home, to which my father had retreated for some peace and quiet in the middle of the storm. (Apparently my children are noisier than a post-tropical storm.) He came in and we briefly conversed about where else we might put the cars, gathered keys, and went to the back door. I opened it, and discovered that the lull in the storm was no more.

Rain was going past in sheets, horizontally. Branches whipped in the wind. It looked like stock footage of a storm. I stood there with the door knob in my hand for a moment, and said, “I’m not entirely convinced we should go out in that… ”

I had just decided that the cars were going to have to fend for themselves, and started to close the door. “Maybe if there’s another lu…”

CRASH!!!

“Something fell on the house!” I said.

“I don’t think so,” said my mother. “This tool just fell off the dryer…”

“Something fell off the house?”

“I don’t…” said my father.

“Well, something happened to the house,” I insisted. (1)

I shuffled the kids back into the living room at the middle of the house, because I wasn’t sure what had happened. But I wanted them to be away from whatever it was. “Why?” they said. “Because!” “But why can’t we go outside and look?” “Because!” “But why?” “Because sometimes you just have to listen to what we say!” “But why?!” “Sometimes you just have to do what we say so you don’t die!” (I heard giggling as I walked back out of the living room. Not sure I got through to them, but they sat still for a couple of minutes.)

Assessed that the power was out. Unsurprising. Looked out the window. Wind roaring, water sheeting, branches tossed like so many sheets of paper.

“That tree across the road came down on the power line,” said my father. “The motor home looks a little… flat.” After a couple of hours of him sneaking out during lulls (against my protests that we couldn’t do anything about it anyway, and clearly they were temporary), he established that the CRASH had been the sound of the electrical mains coming off the house, and the stud they were attached to snapping in half and flying across the bedroom where my kids had earlier been watching a movie.

Just to reiterate all the things that didn’t go wrong: My father was not crushed by a tree in the motor home. Nobody was killed by a tree falling on them while they moved a car. My children were not impaled by a flying 2×4. The cars even came out of it intact, if not the motor home. (It wasn’t as flat as it might have been.)

And I have learned never again to succumb to the temptation to “just do a little thing” during a lull in the storm.

Also, if you need me during future storms, I’ll be under something heavy.


1. I heard a DC-10 explode once, and the people I was with that time also insisted that it was nothing to worry about. For the record, it sounded almost nothing like thunder. Sometimes I wonder what other people do consider a noise worth noticing.

Parenting Towards Enlightenment

We, a class of aspiring yoga teachers, are sitting on the floor of the meditation hall at the ashram in India when the conversation turns to the conflict between practice and parenting. “But how,” asks one of the men, “do you work with being here when your children are somewhere else? You have to worry about them, think about them… otherwise…” His hands go up in a gesture of helplessness. I (chagrined) admit a moment of surprise, because this is usually a conversation had amongst mothers, and to hear a man in a traditionally patriarchal society express the same concerns brings me back to reality. Parenting is this agreement we all make, described by Elizabeth Stone as letting your heart walk around outside of yourself.

I try to take it up, this question. How do you be here when they are elsewhere? How did I justify leaving my three children for an entire month to go to the other side of the planet where (it turns out) I will be unsuccessful even at finding the post office to send home the promised letters, let alone making a weekly phone call? And how is this search for myself related to my search for their mother, hidden somewhere inside me?

The teacher offers mother-love, the mythic, all-giving, all-merging force. The Mother, she says, sacrifices of herself for the sake of her children. The boundaries blur, her self is merged with that of her children, the Love is complete.

“No, no!” my inward protest screams. “That’s a recipe for disaster! Don’t you understand? Mothering must include the art of letting go, of moving from a place of merging, where even yourbodies are shared, to letting thinner and thinner tendrils connect you… it is a process by which you remain and become separate people.”

What I actually say, stumbling, is something like, “I need to have faith that I am not the only one. My children are surrounded by a web of other adults who support their growth. And worrying about them isn’t really about them. It is a superstitious belief that I can somehow influence their environment, keep them safe simply by fearing that they might not be. That just keeping them in the background of my awareness is somehow necessary to maintain the relationship to them. It is, in fact, taking care of the fear that if I stop that worrying, even for a moment, it is a sign that I don’t care.”

Despite years of education and training, daily exposure to cynicism and a tendency to a too-scientific view of the world, my superstitions run deep.
When my children were infants, I was afraid to sleep, believing somehow that their continued existence in the world relied on my sheer force of will. I’d like to say that this improved by number three, but it didn’t really. Some nights, even now, I peek into the children’s rooms on the way down the hall, just to make sure that I haven’t imagined the whole thing, and that no thief has come in the night, stealing these parts of my heart. There they all lie, even the 13 year old whose feet are now larger than mine, breathing quietly all these years later, with no effort on my part. I name this fear, that if I glance away, even for a moment, if I fail to show my appreciation, maybe they will be taken from me. Better not to chance it.

***

When my mother came to meet my first son, mere hours old, I held him up and said, “Hey, Mom! Look what I made!” She grinned. I grinned. We were as proud as when we shared my macaroni-and-handprint crafts in kindergarten. Yet even in that placental space, it’s not quite true that “I” made “him”. I had to walk through the world and gather the molecules from which my son would assemble himself, according to codes so complex that we don’t yet understand them. In this process I was neither the agent nor a mere vessel: he and I grew as entwined systems, evolving, communicating, sharing the resources of time and energy. It continues even now, as my limited time must be allocated among family members and my ever-growing list of projects, becoming myself among them.

In the varied practices of meditation and yoga, I learn to hold up my motivations to my own internal scrutiny. On the one hand, I don’t want to be a mother who treats her children as an extension of herself. This is an easy mistake to make, in a world in which we are judged based on our children’s behaviours. I admit feeling a pinch of pride when older women stop me in restaurants to say, “Your children are so polite.” (I even put it in here. You may call me on it.) Yet I pat myself on the back for having chosen to let them grow away from me organically. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in having faith that they will be OK for a month, even while feeling like I should probably miss them more.

It is a matter of some effort, placing my awareness on this ever-shifting boundary: where do I stop and you begin, child of mine? When I do this thing for you (whatever it is) am I responding to an actual need, or am I projecting one of my needs upon you? Worse, am I doing it to prove something to myself or the world around me, that I am able to play this role, that I am worthy to be this Mother of myth?

Which brings me back to that ashram in India. There is a message for my children even in my absence, and it is this: Someday you will be adults and you will leave me. We are in this for the long haul, you and I, but one of my tasks is to grow away from you, so that when you leave the parting will be gentle. The motion of two human beings, having walked together for so long, finally walking apart.

And in the meantime, as in so much of our practice, the instructions are, “Not too tight, not too loose.”