Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Books of Grace

At last, words are flowing again, and I have thought of a story I want to tell.

This is not that story.

In a day or two, I will tell it. I will write you a story about a cow and a cup of coffee and an important letter. But today, while that story was incubating, something else happened.

It was nothing dramatic; just some dawdling in the bookstore. But it was an experience of unexpected grace. Why? Because, after half an hour of wandering, I became aware that something was missing.

Somehow, I had neglected to bring my usual bookstore baggage through the doors with me. All of the things I wrote about in Bookstore Sans Filter: envy, insecurity, pessimism. Frustration at the plethora of condescending and contradictory advice in the nonfiction sections. Feelings of futility when looking at the shelves of books and thinking I have nothing to contribute. Defensiveness in response to the perceived barrage of things I should be cooking, causes I should be supporting, ways I should be parenting, et caetera ad nauseam.

It wasn’t there! I call it unlikely grace, because I did nothing to make it happen. I just noticed it, the way I might notice that I forgot my purse. Or the way I notice (if I’m paying attention to positives) that it’s a low pain level day.

It was the most enjoyable bookstore trip I’ve had for a long time. I browsed in the cooking section–a place I avoid like the plague–looking at cookbooks my daughter might like. I looked at books in the photography section, art, nature and even psychology without feeling the usual pressure. Perhaps it wasn’t completely gone, but it lay lightly upon me; a silk scarf in place of a heavy cloak.

Even when I made my traditional pilgrimage to the poetry section last, it felt like saying hello to my friends instead of being wistful and covetous. Wanting to own all of those books, or wanting to be up there with them, did not hurt.

Gratitude is vital to my sanity, yet I so often find myself trying to force it. When it’s not flowing freely, I get annoyed at the social media rhapsodies about how blessed people are feeling. I feel as if I’m failing if I’m not swimming in a sea of peace and bliss, or at least papering my misery with sayings about how my misery isn’t necessary.

What I felt today is gratitude, though. Or, at least, it’s something without which gratitude is impossible. I felt awareness of a gift; this gift of temporary freedom from my own chains.

Alice Walker said it well in The Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”┬áIt says we are meant to notice, but it says nothing about what we are to do with that awareness. It says nothing about making lists of blessings and putting purple on it. That’s great to do, if it helps us, but the first thing that helps is awareness.

What would I be like if my mental filter always let positive input through as smoothly as negative? If, along with real pain and dark emotions, there were a constant inflow of data about lightness and color and word–less pain, easier breath, moments of freedom, slants of light.

As I read this, I don’t think my words have truly captured what I felt among those books. That’s all right, though, because some things can’t be described in words. It’s like events in a dream, where you just know the turtle is actually your third-grade teacher but have no idea how you know this. The feeling of grace and freedom, like all of what keeps me here for one more day, is at its heart a mystery.

Cephalopod Mother’s Day

I am not an octopus.

I’ve heard of “tiger moms” and “helicopter moms.” Today I want to talk about “octopus moms” and why I’m not one–and why this sometimes makes me feel guilty. For on this Mother’s Day, as many mothers do, I find myself thinking about what kind of mother I am.

The female octopus, after her eggs are fertilized by a mate, finds a cave or other sheltered place to lay them. For the months of their gestation, she guards them constantly. At last, they hatch and release the tiny baby octopi into the sea. The mother remains behind in the cave–and promptly dies, because she hasn’t eaten anything during the entire process.

No, I don’t have what it takes to be an octopus. It’s not that I wouldn’t cheerfully step in front of a bullet for my child–I would, as would most of us. It’s not that I wouldn’t go hungry if my child needed food; of course I would.

But the octopus style of parenting–pouring all of oneself into raising a child, putting one’s own needs aside for a couple of decades–isn’t suited to me. In past decades it was the norm; today things are a bit looser, but being a mother is still about sacrifice.

I don’t think I’m alone (I write that often, but that’s part of what Not This Song is about) in the humbling knowledge that I can only go so far along the path of devoted self-sacrifice. Where doing things for oneself is a healthful and good choice for some mothers, for us it’s a necessity. As are medical care, times for healing, and other help that might interfere with the uninterrupted pursuit of what’s best for the children we love.

If I were actually an octopus, do you know what would happen? There, in that cave, I would try to guard my eggs until they hatch. I would do my very best. But I’d die too early. I wouldn’t have the strength to last until the end without nourishment. My decaying body would lie in the cave, attracting scavengers, and my half-developed offspring would be–well, lunch.

Octopi have no choice; their instincts drive them to act as they do, just as ours drive us to try. But I have choices, and I make them constantly. I look for balance. Sometimes I have to seek it because I’m an imperfect person and have fallen prey to selfishness or laziness; other times I must seek it because it truly will make me a better mother and the alternative will make me a worse one.

I went back to school when my daughter was two, because I needed “food.” I go to meetings, and conventions, and write, and read, and play mindless games, because I need “food” and rest. I do lots of things when I could be focusing on her schooling, or her physical needs, or just generally living in the I Am a Mother reality full-time.

Last year on Mother’s Day, in Calla Lilies, I wrote about mothers who are in rehab, or hospitals, or prison on Mother’s Day. I wrote about the pain of being in that situation, and the privilege of having it be different now. Of the mothers still there, I wrote “I know better than to judge your love for your children based on where you are.”

I do know. I believe we are all doing our best–even those who have done things that, objectively, mean their best kind of sucks right now. Perhaps they’re the metaphorical octopi who lacked the strength to make it, and didn’t know where to seek food. Their spirit died in that cave, or they fled the cave in terror of death. But that doesn’t mean they never tried.

I want to believe that, if my daughter is ever a mother herself, reading this will help her forgive herself for any imperfections and give herself permission to nourish herself as much as she needs, without comparing herself to others. This, like everything I write, is a love letter to her. Today, it’s also for all mothers and future mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us–and to the cephalopod mothers, I wish you some kind of joy or pleasure borne on the ocean currents.