In the Presence of these Witnesses

The stalks are high the year
I kiss him under a cornflower sky.
He is slender. Friends marry.
We perch on hay bales, thighs touching
spider thread and dust.
Now, their children grow
pole beans they help to sell at market
on Saturdays. The sun has not aged
since that afternoon. It still is as high
as I have to rise, up on my toes
so his face
blocks the gaze of the wise one
beckoning from across the field.
Love, her lips say. The breeze carries her words
the direction I learn
too late
is mine.
She nods to the fecund stretch of earth.
Love, come here.
On the hem of my dress
alights a grasshopper, dry
as my mouth on his.


Here, Now

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

-Tao Te Ching

Where is the snow?
Those of us who grew up with seasons rely on winter’s calibration. Without it, a melancholy itch infects the mood. Even though we cursed our frost-nipped fingers after a morning walk, the thin leather gloves with their 20 years of wear unfit for the job, the sting was welcome. The hand needs to curl, seeking of warmth in the compressed fist, drawing weak steam. Winter is for burrowing. It is for drawing in. The constriction, the stiff lean of pedestrians trying to compress into the shell of their insufficient layers, is a necessary discomfort. It is the chrysalis of winter. Without it, how can any of us crack open into spring’s new light? How can we become?
I watch my son bound down the dry cul-de-sac in nothing but a t-shirt, and I ache for him. This warming planet, his home? Out on the streets just beyond the cocoon of our neighborhood, swollen vehicles flash and roar as they barrel down. They crowd out the shoulders. Their velocity increases unchecked in the absence of winter’s forced caution.  Bug has no snow day. No crunch or silvery hush, no red nose, no vast and untamed place. My heart contracts under the weight of what is lost. The bending trail to the ice-crusted mountaintop no longer waits just outside his door. He cannot skate across the frozen expanse of a freshwater lake and immerse himself in the blue beyond.
And yet, he bounds. He lives in the Is Is Is. With no basis for comparison, his heart continues to surge, unburdened. The dog leaps alongside him at the end of her lead, and then the two are clambering up a heap of logs cut from a fallen tree in the neighbor’s yard. We count 59 rings before he charges off to press himself into the massive root ball that has released its grip on the thin soil.
What is my nostalgia to him? Nothing at all. His pleasure and his rage are his own. They are not what I believe them to be, and they are not for the things I love. Nothing remains as it was. Only when I clutch at the before do I feel its clawing absence in the now. Bug rarely shows interest in the photo albums or the stories of an old camp life he does not know as his. My sorrow is my own private indulgence. I lick the wounds and secretly savor the taste. I do not wish to share this compulsion with my boy. His world belongs to him. It is exactly as it should be.
I breathe the sunlit air into the torn place in my chest and lift my eyes. At the same instant, my son pauses, glancing skyward. Up in the branches, the exultant song of a cardinal welcomes the February spring.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

– Tao Te Ching


Everything is Built on Sand

Tee’s name popped up when the phone rang, but it was Bug’s voice on the other end. “Mommy, can I stay at your house tonight?”
Unprecedented. While Tee and I have been sharing Bug’s time exactly 50/50, he always, always, asks to stay at his Daddy’s. Sometimes just reminding him that he gets to spend an entire weekend with me will reduce him to tears.
At the house we share, Bug has his own room. Bunk beds, toys everywhere, free rein in that one space. At his daddy’s, he also has bunk beds, toys everywhere, and free rein. What makes his room at his dad’s house unique is that he shares it with Tee. His favorite man sleeps deeply right under him all night, and that man does not stir awake when Bug climbs down into the warm comfort of the big bed in the wee hours.
Bug’s request would have been more of a surprise if I had not known the big news of the day: Ms. Song had announced she would be leaving on an “adventure.”
Ms. Song is Bug’s touchstone. A Mary Poppins in mom jeans, she has been the most constant presence in his world for over a year. It is a rare thing to stumble across a sharp-minded and big-smiling person who teaches preschool because it is her calling, not just because it is all she could get. Every day, Ms. Song greets every single child in her class with a big hello and a hug. She calls the children by name. She requires the same joyous and personalized attention of every staff member in her classroom.  Her gift is the ability to attend with precision to each child’s unique capacity to manipulate scissors, pronounce Rs and Ls, and channel strong feelings into words and positive behaviors. Ms. Song knows the kids.
And she is leaving.  A new teacher starts next week. Bug gets about seven months with this next one before the big transition to kindergarten.
Parents want to shield their children from the sting of loss. Even knowing it is important for young people to learn how to navigate disruption, the instinct is to create stability. Even false stability, at times. What parent can stand watching a kid’s heart break? What parent does not want to rush in to balm the wound and whisper promises impossible to keep?
Adaptability is a requirement for thriving in the world as it is, and parents have an important role to play in helping kids learn the mechanics of it. Still. It hurts to see our little ones grappling with big feelings. Against that squeezing desire to protect is the knowledge that kids learn life is not so certain and nothing lasts forever. They learn it despite us. Often, they learn it because of us, even when we think they are not paying attention. They are paying attention. They always are.
The desire for things to stay fixed is as powerful as it is common, and its power can be crippling. When the pink slip lands or the divorce papers arrive or the landlord announces she is selling the place, even the strongest among us feels seasick, no matter how well equipped we are for the ride. The urge is to deny or to hide. Nuanced language and the experience of survival can help us handle the upheaval accompanying transition. As for handling it well? That is a talent that few master.
Children learn how to deal with change by watching grownups. Do we fret and avoid, or attend and apply care? Do we give voice to our feelings to the point of wallowing, or do we decide, that’s enough, and climb back on board? Do we practice straddling that uncomfortable threshold, both by bidding farewell to what is behind us and by welcoming what is to come?
What do our words and behaviors teach our kids about resilience? About adaptation?
Usually, Tee and I stick to our schedule, but we agreed to let Bug have his wish this one night. A room of his own may not appeal as much as one that is shared, but it is still his. Sometimes, a person just needs to touch familiar things to know they are not slipping away. At least, not for the moment.
I picked Bug up at his one house and ferried him over to his other house. On the way, we spoke lightly about the idea of “mixed feelings.” This is a familiar refrain, but, like those lullabies, it bears repeating. I tell him I have mixed feelings when he goes away for Christmas or summer break. I am happy that he is having fun with his cousins, and I am sad to not be with him. People can feel several things at once, even if they are very different things.  I remind him that it is fine to be happy that Ms. Song gets to go on an adventure and also sad that she is leaving.
I remember when I first introduced this concept to Bug when he was just about three years old. He pondered for a few minutes then piped up, “Like pistachios!”
Uh, really?
“Yeah! They are salty AND crunchy!”
The five year old in the back seat offered no such clever analogy. He simply absorbed my words (I have to hope) and changed the subject to our weekend plans.
Back at home, he proceeded to torment the dog, chase the kitty, ignore his grandparents (after checking their whereabouts), and jump on the furniture. Same bedlam, different day. I noticed, though, that he called out to me repeatedly throughout the evening. “Mommy? Come look.” And, “Mommy, where are you?” And, “Mommy, help.” With his talismans in hand – his flashlight, his pirate sword, his box of coins – he managed to settle down next to me, listen to a chapter of Peter Pan, and hum along to the three songs I sing before bed. It was a late one, but he made it to sleep. Eventually.
Ms. Song and the school have done their best to make the transition smooth.  The low-drama announcement preceded a few farewell rituals. The kids and teacher alike created little memory boxes with tokens of one another. Ms. Song is leaving behind her bear puppet, Oso. The kids can talk to him if they get sad, and he will send the message to Ms. Song.
Come Monday, though, Ms. Song will be gone. For the moment, Bug’s mommy and daddy return to their rightful place in things. Perhaps we are not just his touchstones, but the cornerstones of his forever shifting world.