Sir Charles Sherrington describes the brain as
an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern.
one silver silent
Gather. Discover. Cultivate.
Sir Charles Sherrington describes the brain as
an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern.
one silver silent
“Mommy, I’m scared.”
Twice already, I have shooed him back to his bed with clipped reminders that his body needs a good night’s sleep and that there is nothing to be scared of. And anyway, if he keeps getting up, he is going to lose his nightlight. These approaches aren’t worth spit. I take a deep breath and remind myself that the kid does not need consequences. He needs a hand.
“Baby, it’s two hours past your bedtime. Sleep is the only thing that will make you feel better. There is nothing to be scared about.”
“But I just am scared.” His eyes well up and his little voice rises to a sob. Boy, do I know that feeling. Logic is about as effective against it as a wet noodle.
“Oh, sweetie, come on. Let’s go.” I set aside the shirt I am folding and try to shake off the list of unfinished tasks squatting on my shoulders. I put my hand on my little boy’s chest, turn him and guide him back to his room. “Hop up, into bed.”
He crawls under his Dora blanket. His lips are quivering. In the gentlest voice I can manage, I say, “I know you are scared, but it is just a feeling. There is nothing to be scared about.” My words are a stroll along the riverbank. My palm draws lazy circles on his chest. “Your grandma is here, your grandaddy, your mommy. Even your doggy and your kitty. Everyone is here in the house with you. We are all getting ready to sleep. You are safe.”
“I know,” he squeaks. “But I am scared of what is under the bed.” He tenses again and starts to shiver.
I don’t change my tone of voice or the quality of my touch. Dull and rhythmic. “Only happy things are under the bed. Your box of gold coins. Your yellow Sit & Spin. Some books that have fallen down the side. A bunch of loose legos.” I take a deep breath and blow it out. “Breathe in warm, quiet air,” I whisper. “Then let it go.”
He turns to the side and presses his back into my hand. “Let your mind wander to all the happy things we did today. We baked sourdough bread together, mixing and kneading and watching it rise. We played that silly running game when we walked the dog. We made the lego horse trailer. We found the rectangles and the crescents.”
“The star,” he says with a yawn. “I found the octagon.”
“Breath in the happy things,” I whisper. “The warm, quiet air.” I do this myself. “Then let it go.” I blow out my breath. I do this again and then again. I feel his shoulders loosen under my fingers.
“Remember how we cuddled on the couch and read that new book, A Prairie Dog for the President, and how Lewis and Clark made that animal pop up out of its hole. That was so funny. We laughed and laughed.”
I take another round of deep breaths. “So many happy things happened today. Just breathe them all into your belly and let them swirl around your body. Then,” I whisper, “you let all of it go.” I blow out a long breath. “Let all those happy memories float away with the air. Breathe in, fill your tummy. Breathe out. Release it all.”
He nuzzles down into the pillow and after a sigh, his jaw goes slack. I take two more deep breaths just in case, then kiss his cheek and whisper my love into his temple. “Sweet dreams, buddy.”
He is out. So am I.
“Are they going to give me a shot?”
“I don’t think so, baby. It’s just strep throat. They’ll give you medicine. The kind you drink.”
“But are you sure? Do they ever give shots for strep throat?”
“Not that I know of. But I can’t say for 100% sure. You know what you do get at the doctor’s? You get stickers. And they put the cuff on your arm, and we find out how tall you are and everything.”
“But are they going to give me a shot?”
It would be so easy just to tell him what what he wants to hear. That “no” would ease his mind and get him off my back. Nevertheless, I refuse to submit. I will answer his question 147 times as truthfully as I can even though a single lie would quiet his fear.
The mind has a way of spinning out of control once it has fixed on a worst-case scenario. Untangling the knot of obsessive thoughts becomes even more difficult if a past hurt has laid down an association between experiences. Rock climbing = broken limb. Making art = ridicule. Professional risk = debt. Love = heartbreak.
Doctor = pain.
Mystery ailments haunted Bug from his first birthday until his fourth. On top of the bombardment of normal childhood immunizations, the poor kid had blood drained from his arm several times a year. Is it any wonder he starts fretting about injections before we even make it through the door? He clings to my leg and urges me to ask about shots. The nurse smiles and gives wheedling reassurance. “Oh, no, big guy, no shots today.” I feel Bug relax his grip and begin to look up. We stride down the hall to the exam room.
Then the doctor comes in and checks his chart. “Oh, we need to take a little blood,” she tells him. Bug contracts into a fist. His eyes flash in my direction. Sighing, I shake my head. “I’m so sorry, buddy.”
This contrition. For what? For his having to feel pain? No, the needle is not the real hurt. My apology is for the falsehoods of grownups. It is for those of us who choose compliance over presence of mind. Maybe the adults of the world are just too rushed to speak the uncertainties. It’s easier to zip on past a hard conversation, scoot the kiddo to the next room, and keep everything humming along. We have a schedule to keep, after all.
Every time this occurs, I see one more brick in Bug’s foundation of trust crumble. While I understand the argument that life is not fair and kids need to learn that the world does not always deliver on its commitments, I do not agree with the premise. What is this need we have to make promises we know we cannot keep? Living with unknowns is a much more powerful skill than living certain that people will lie.
I want my son to learn how to orient his attention in the face of his demons.
No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear…the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
The misery of children makes most adults uncomfortable. We want to allay it or make it stop. We want to divert it. We want kids to Be Happy! We want these things for all kinds of complicated reasons, but one of those reasons is that we know the dark power of the mind to spill us down the rabbit hole. Most of us have visited its depths before. And we want children to stay up here in the light.
Wanting it is not anywhere close to teaching it, though.
Positive thinking is not as easy as it seems like it should be. Reducing mindfulness to sugar-coated optimism, which is another form of putting on blinders, ignores the effort involved in re-training the perception to take in a wider selection of what is real. Broadening one’s attention requires practicing with the rigor of a marathon runner. It takes serious muscle to sit still in the face of uncertainty and pain, and building that fortitude requires going through the exercises no matter how the winds howl.
“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”
― Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You
“Let’s breathe together, honey,” I tell Bug. I grow very calm and take him in my lap. We sit in the exam room together cuddling close as the doctor checks his vitals. Bug knows that a needle with his name on it is waiting in the lab. His gaze is narrow and his shoulders are hunched. The grinding of the gears inside his panicking brain is almost audible. He is doing what we all do: seeking a way out or around this thing that terrifies him while being unable to resist its pull.
As we listen to the machine beep, I talk in a quiet voice into his scalp. “The doctor is listening to your strong heart,” I tell him. “It is pumping blood all through your body, giving oxygen to your arms and legs, your stomach, your brain.” I touch him here, and here, and here.
The doctor places the stethoscope on Bug’s chest and he pulls in great swallows of air. This is his reserve. He is filling his well. I whisper and keep my hands gentle on his legs. “Everything is working just right to keep you growing and swimming and singing and playing.” Bug does not respond but I can feel his back seeking the comfort of my belly. We will go together to face the blood draw, and he will cry. I will remind him that the hurt is fleeting, and that he is well, and that everything is working exactly as it should. Even the pain. We will talk about this later in the car, about the wonder of nerves and how they send messages to the brain, and how the sting is one way the power living inside his body makes itself known.
Instead of hurling past the uncertainties to find solid ground, I want my son to learn to slow his gait and feel where he is. It is good to sense ourselves suspended above that crevasse. Even children need to learn to stay inside the questions. What holds us? Perhaps just trust. What becomes of us? Perhaps nothing at all.
I only hope that by pausing with my boy here in this place of no answers, I am helping him lay down another pathway in his busy neural network. This one is about orienting to what is right here. Needles, yes, but also breath. Skin and blood, health and a comforting embrace. Pain and fear.
In the dark chill at the end of another wearing day, the third in a succession of days managed on five hours of sleep, I stand on Tee’s doorstep. Inside, my boy is wailing. It is dropping into the 20’s tonight, and behind me, a river of cars, cars, cars, rushing in every direction.
In the early fall, I used my tuition waiver to take a course on somatic skills for conflict resolvers. In intervention situations involving extreme stress, when the intense feelings of the conflict parties can blindside even the most seasoned professional, it is wise to remember the wisdom of the body. Lift and align the posture, raise and expand the vision, breathe into the belly. The full range of our intellect is more available to us when we root ourselves in physical balance. Now, as I stand on the doorstep, I make a practice of allowing my vertebrae to slip into place. I lift my chin. I open my eyes. Hearing the sobs before me and the roar of traffic behind, I breathe.
Inside, my son is a crimson-eyed nuclear meltdown. Tee tells me the boy did not sleep at school on a day disrupted by two field trips. Bug yanks himself from me, rocketing up the stairs in his socks and t-shirt. It is late. Between this moment and the comfort of his bed is dressing all over again, another commute, dinner, pajamas. Tee and I try to speak calmly to Bug as he hides and cries upstairs. Whatever reserve of self-control the child has is tapped out. He twists himself away from us, flails, weeps. These days, such outbursts are rare. But what can you expect? Without rest, none of us is any good. I understand this. I am experiencing this, on my third overdraft from the sleep bank.
I cannot stand to see my child so miserable. I pull Tee around the corner and whisper, “I would be fine if he stays here tonight. We can trade a day. I’ll help put him down. I just hate to drag him out of here when he is so tired.” Tee stares, blank. The response, or complete absence of one, is so typical of this man that I am surprised to find myself surprised. His passive face calls up no indication he has even heard, let alone can summon a thought. One beats, two, three, four. No words. Until this: he steps back around into the stairwell and calls up:
“Come on, Bug, time to get your shoes on and go.”
And then I am up, hefting a giant tornado of a boy without a lasso, wobbling down the stairs. I am splayed in my work skirt in the foyer of Tee’s house with this arching, spitting 40-odd pound wildcat on my lap. I force his shoes on, and the heels of them, flailing, crack me several times on the shins. Tee sits on the bottom step an arm’s length away, silent, watching. Bug’s body wrenches with sobs. He is speaking in gobbledygook, wanting everything and nothing. I long to lift my child and carry him up to his bed. Crawl in next to him, let him surrender to my strength, sing him “Friend of the Devil,” rub his back. But that bed is not his tonight, no matter how badly he wants it or I want it for him. There is nothing for us to do but drag ourselves out on the serrated night.
I finally have to wrap the full power of my embrace around Bug’s torso from behind, force him still, all while doing the one and only thing I can remember to do: breathe, breathe, breathe. My grip tight, my core willed to softness, I whisper into his prickling scalp. “Deep breaths, baby. Shh, shh. Mommy’s got you, you’re safe, you’re okay.” Against my own rising fury, I speak these comforts. Anointing Bug with my scant supply of serenity has a cooling affect on me. The waves of rage at this passive man so close and so remote, and waves of distress about my own insomnia-wrecked body, and the waves of despair about the impossibility of rescue, they just roll on over. Without crashing into me or taking me down, they only pass by because I’ve got my boy in my arms, and I can breathe through them, and they cannot drown me.
I hope my love for my boy is enough to bridge these rifts in his world. A friend of mine, a hopeless romantic, tells me one of his guiding quotations is this:
Love, in the purest sense of the notion, can only be given and received completely. Anything less may be of great value, sustainable, and appreciated, but it is only a reflection of love.
He is childless, of course. Still, I marvel at the sting of the sentiment. My heart swells, aches, bursts open for my son. What could be more pure than the love a mother has for her child? And yet, do I truly give it completely? I deny him the single home, the one bed, the place he is always safe where both his parents are there to carry him to his sole sanctuary when he is unable to get there himself.
I wonder if I am capable of such pure generosity. I choose to follow a calling which carries me away from a man who cannot fulfill his promise. Bug is the one who pays for this choice. It would have been so easy, at any point during the past eighteen months, to say, “My heart can endure its own loneliness. It can even bear intimacy in the absence of faith. But it cannot stand my son’s suffering.” I could have asked Tee to stay, and offered our child that one, concrete gift of happiness. Is mine a true love, if I offer my boy only a fraction of what I have to give?
Without warning, Bug surrenders. He puddles, his skeleton and muscle dissolve to brine and beginnings. I pour him into his sweatshirt, gather first him then his backpack and my keys, step into boots, fumble with this shifting cargo out the door into the where traffic growls and pounds against the night. All I want is to slip my boy into the cocoon of his becoming, close his ears to all of this noise. I carry him, still sobbing, then drive him, still sobbing, through the tangled knots of congestion. Home, home. And when we come in, he is almost sobbed out. I am thankful for the small favors of grandparents who let us stay, for a warm and lit house, for someone to dust the toast with cinnamon and slice the apple. My boy, wrung out, eats in bed, slowly but with an insatiable appetite. I read to him from The Secret Garden and sing, finally, the song about running from the law straight into the arms of temptation.
Today, a poem called “Descartes in Love” lands in my inbox from The Academy of American Poets:
Love, accepting that we are not pure and lucent hearts, ricocheting towards each other like unlatched stars—no, we are tainted with self. We sometimes believe the self is an invisible glass, just as we believe the body is a suit made of meat. Doubt all things invisible. Doubt all things visible.
Because I hear no pulse up on the scarred surface of things, it can seem as if nothing living is left down below. Then, on pure chance, I tap a buried vein. Up flows nourishment almost too rich to stomach. I have neither the courage to trust in its permanence nor the strength to claim its limit. Faith in the moment as it slips through my fingers is the best I can do.
I am still more tired than I have ever been. But my boy sleeps now, his belly full on my breath, his soft spine curled into my unbending one. I will keep vigil. My love may be an imperfect force, but for this one night, its current is constant; its source, bottomless.
Ken Chen’s “Descartes in Love” is part of the series, “Brief Lives.” It came by way of Poem-A-Day from poets.org.