Last week I read Pamela’s Erens’ Eleven Hours, a portrait of childbirth that juxtaposes the stories of two women, one who longs for a baby and the other in the throes of labor.
A passage I keep returning to: “She would like the surprise of children, the way they bring pieces of the outer world back to you, pieces of past, present, and future. The way they are always in a place where you cannot quite meet them.”
It’s true in a way, that children often seem to be in a place just shy of our grasp. The moments we’re able to shift our adult brains to child-wonder, to allow ourselves to be fully immersed in that world, are transcendent and fleeting. Just as I come to fully understand exactly where my daughter is, the phase disappears and she transforms again. I wonder, is it less about capturing these ephemeral joys and more about seeking to meet her right where she is?
I believe that during times of transformation, when we are vulnerable and malleable, experiences and images, people and places, imprint upon us deeply, the way they do during childhood. We carry fossils in the soft clay of our bodies.
When my daughter was a baby, when I was a malleable new mother, the days stretched out long before us. We read lots of books and took lots of walks and sang lots of songs. Around the time she was 7 months old, I discovered that the Peabody Museum had free admission from 2-5 p.m. every Thursday. The timing was ideal since my daughter only napped in the car. She would fall asleep on the drive to New Haven, and then I’d let the car idle in the parking lot, enjoying a blissful half hour of reading while she slept.
Inside the museum, we spent most of our time in The Great Hall, a place imprinted upon me from childhood. I would slowly circle her stroller around the colossal Brontosaurus. When she was learning to walk, she toddled between the smooth benches and the exhibit railing, the great skeletons towering above her. Soon she was off exploring, walking through the different rooms, making her way up the stone stairs.
Today, a rare unplanned afternoon before us, I ask if she wants to visit the dinosaurs and she says, “Yes, yes!” This place, imprinted, feels familiar and sacred.
Today we did not need a stroller. She follows the dinosaur prints herself and swats my hand away when we reach the stairs, announcing, “I can do it myself!”
We practice pronunciation as we go. She recites: Triceratops, Neanderthal, javelina, sarcophagus.
She points to Darwin and asks if he is Santa Claus.
Darwin’s work showed that at a very basic level all life is related. The vast diversity of plant and animal species, including humans, has evolved over time from one original source.
We make our way to the fossils, the palm frond and fishes discovered in Wyoming, preserved for 50 million years in siltstone. Underwater evidence. These things we get to keep. Does that many years count as forever?
As you write about the specific, paying close attention, seeking to describe one small thing and then another, you don’t notice the moment it gives way to a huge expanse. Suddenly, ideas you’ve held true are no longer. A veil lifts here, a scrim falls there. The sharp edge that jabbed you reveals itself as smooth and soft. You squint into the distance wondering how you’ll find words for it all.
Writing makes sense out of confusion. It constructs narrative from raw, muddled matter.
It is the white butterflies flitting through the yard and the time you threw a plate across the room. It is childbirth and a Manhattan skyscraper. It is your wedding vows and the gum stuck to your shoe. It’s the way summer unfurls and winter shrinks. It’s the perfume you made from wildflowers and marsh water crouched in the reeds behind your neighbor’s house. It’s your grandmother brewing coffee and vacuuming, the way she never stopped moving, a steady reassuring hum. It’s the toddler-sized Virgen de Guadalupe statue you bought in Tijuana that presided over your campsite in the Redwood Forest and the moss crown you and your best friend set atop her head. It’s the surprise of getting older, the shock of the inevitable. It’s the way you always loved water, salt water, fresh water, chlorine water, like a fish like a mermaid like a swimmer, breaststroke butterfly freestyle, backstroking until your hand hit the wall and you flipped backwards, pushed off hard with your feet and wriggled eel-like until you broke the surface. It’s the goggles suctioned to your flushed face. It’s your parents and your siblings pulsing in your cells, the way you feel the past like phantom limbs. It’s the whorls of your fingerprint. It’s thinking you’re never good enough and still hoping you’re something special. It’s the way your father looks at your daughter and says, God, you’re so beautiful. It’s your scattershot trajectory, your life like a pinball in the big noisy machine in your grandparents’ basement that flashed red and white lights as your small fingers pressed the buttons like hell, flipping the pinball back up, up, up. It’s oil paints in a dusty box and the smell of turpentine. It’s your steady hands and the slippery uncertainty of your newborn’s first bath in the kitchen sink of your second floor apartment, your husband taking video, the three of you awash in newness, baptized family by the tepid water. It’s your breasts leaking milk and the way you carry regret. It’s the sunshine of your daughter’s smile, the brightest light you’ve ever known. It’s running away and returning. It’s your mother, who can pray dreams into existence. It’s learning to believe in your own good luck. It’s the way you sometimes cut your food with the side of your fork and the way you once smoked cigarettes like you were so goddamn cool. It’s the deep and sustained anxiety of motherhood and your understanding that it will never subside, that the tune of your body is forever set to this new pitch. It’s the moments you wish you could’ve whispered in your own ear, not this way, that way. It’s letting those other versions of yourself go even as you resurrect them, now more gently, with a kindness, the way you would a dear friend.
If I tell you I am sleepy, children on the beach past 6:00pm, then huddled in the outdoor shower, slick hair, pale torsos, patting at each other’s brown shoulders and arms, round bellied and round cheeked, toes curled into cracks between slate slabs. Little bodies sluiced with water.
If I tell you I am sleepy, and this image is the day’s offering.