Birthday letter, 7

December 24, 2019

Deanie, we are 7 years this day from the day you came out of me, there on the living room floor under the tree where you are sleeping now. 

The kittens are curled around your legs. Hazel in my bed upstairs. The presents on the table – including a card you made for yourself, a tall black taper, a bowl of oranges, and your leaf-lantern from solstice.

I don’t expect a perfectly smooth day today. You have wishes – to be surprised! But here, you say, let me tell you exactly how the surprise will go. You have pleasures – and you still hop and flap to show us what and when. You can be gracious, so tender, purposeful, you will fulfill the letter of a contract to a T. 

And you negotiate hard. There can be some tight corners, especially between you and I, right now. You are differentiating, and that means a lot of quick and certain Nos, a lot of Buts. You will not do what everyone else is doing for the photo. You will not help with the muffins. You do Not want to go the solstice walk to the Cape.

At the bathrooms at Cape Lookout, we battled over the hand dryer vent. Playfully. You cut your hands over mine, then I over yours. When the fan ran out, our hands were dry. Or: mine were dry enough for me. 

I stepped back, and you pushed the button again. Looked at me. A winning move. I let the bathroom door close behind me and waited for you, listening to the high hum. You came out quickly. I said, “Don’t you want to use the fan?” You said, “But you came out here.” I said, “I’ll wait.” You said, “But I want to be together,” and buried your face in my coat front. I held your back and felt a little shudder of suppressed tears. Right there, under the surface of your defiant fierceness – a defiance that I find unpredictable, and also triggering – is this little person, holding her tears. 

I think of you reading this in the future. How I just threw out “triggering” to describe the sudden and puzzling wave of reactivity that rises in me in response to our boundary negotiations. I mean to say that it is not your fault – the feeling I bring is not in you or from you: what happens in me is from the past, and from the struggle to survive it, in my lifetime or in the lifetimes of your grandparents who raised me, and those raised them, back and back, through and through… and it seems to be in response to you because it desires to live on in you. I see you respond in confusion, too, and to try to claim your own space. You do not need to carry this ancestral burden of blurry boundaries and guilty power-assertion, my love. But I do seem to need your help to recognize it. And I admit, I cannot protect you or free you from it altogether. I seem so powerful to your child-self, and indeed in your small sphere I am, but I am just one little person in this world, puppeted by spirits and trends, lifted up by compassion and drug down by projection and ignorance… just like all the rest.

When I was your age, words like triggering, boundaries, and reactivity were not in the intellectual pop-psychological commons. I don’t know if people knew there was a pop-psychological commons, though I’m sure there was. I wonder how in the future this language will have shifted. How will you conceive of the currents and pressures of micro and macro interdependence? What metaphors will you use? Will you be curious about this as I am? Will the culture honor you or sideline you? Within you, what will get in the way of your fullest expression?

I think of you telling me how you hold in your tears at school because you don’t want adults to try to hug you. Of you at Vernon, hidden under the slide at recess to let the grief run. You try to make a space for your feelings. Everyone seems determined to make your little body process their feelings and hold ground for their needs. I wish for you, whenever it is possible, that you have the strength and the trust in those who love you, that you can claim your space without hiding. I wish for me that I can grant you that space without leaving. 

We held each other in the bathroom alcove at Cape Lookout – where we have been so many many times, you in my arms or strapped to my chest or sleeping in a stroller or getting a wipe or goofing with Ida, or, now, sometimes, just going with Zelda, on your own – and I stayed quiet. Any word, I know, can break the spell. And after time we took hands and walked back to the yurt. I stayed near, to watch you get dressed. Tried to honor your sovereignty (god, I struggle): to wait for you to ask for advice or help as you choose your outfit, to tuck away the things I want you to have so I can provide them as support when you discover the need, instead of forcing them on you as representations of my superior experience. Watching you, careful, interior, bolstering yourself for something you were not looking forward to, I tried to state the obvious, as lovingly as possible:

“You haven’t been on this hike since you were a baby. Since we could carry you. The reason I want to go with you today is because I think you are big enough. I know you are strong enough to have fun and run and walk through the forest. And, I know you are the littlest on this trip, in this group. I think it is not so easy to be the littlest sometimes. If you need to rest or want to go more slowly, you will not get left behind. If you want to run ahead and notice plants and climb, someone will be with you. We are in it together.”

You let me say my piece, and your eyes shone with your held-back tears. I felt you accept my framing, which means not Yes, but also not No, not But. I think of all the ways and all the times you’ve had to go along, when it wasn’t your time or choice, and we were, all the rest of us, needing to go, to do the next thing. I think of how, now, you like to be the one to speak, to name what will happen, to take control.

You and Hazel were a team throughout. Running ahead of all of us, 4-legged across balconies of roots, straddling the monster mud puddles on tip toe, nose to nose under the feathery roof of a low branch, telling stories, consulting on school and age and reading, Hazel always with her deep encouragement: Try. 

And then at the end, you got tired, and came out the end very last, trudging hand in hand with your dad. He fulfilled my promise, as he often does. 

Afterward, snuggled in the yurt with all the girls, you drew the two of you on your box paper, to fold and burn with the old year. Big trees on either side, dwarfing your bodies; the sun as quarter round of yellow in the corner. 

I see you developing your coding skills, finding symbols to begin to translate what is inside of you, to feel in control of it. I think it is a somewhat false hope, but I don’t say that now. We must all walk through the doors our culture, our families, our ancestors and the spirits of the places that we live create for us. We must convince ourselves that we are erecting those doors. That we can say No to them if we want to. And then, after coming out so many, many times into spaces that seem new, and then finding, gradually, that the old rules have come with us, we get a chance to make peace with what is beyond the code, what is true on both sides of any door.

I think of you showing me the license plates on the cars at the campground, naming numbers and letters. How you described music class, saying, “we do lots of stuff on the inside of our bodies” (knowing this is my interest), and led me through the progression of deep breath arm movements (qi gong), there in the road with the bright morning mist glowing up the mossy edges of the trees all around. 

I see you stretch when you wake, your still-so-supple psoas unwinding toes to skull, little articulate wrists jingling your spirit around like bangles. I know it is inevitable, how you will grow stiffer in places to hold yourself up under the weight of what this world tells you you must be. How you will collapse here and there, to make yourself amenable, appealing to those whose love or approval you need or want. I feel the sorrow as I write the words: what sort of mother plans ahead for this?

But you are not alone in any of this. It is not wrong, just sad. We are all transforming the fear of our time and place into possibility, strategy, strength. We are all seeking enough space to be ourselves, while still keeping the contact we need to feel our edges. I am. Your dad is. Your Gaga. Zelda. Ida. Your Aunt Janie. Addie. The woman sleeping in a wad of wet blankets in the doorway of the bank. The person peering into your mouth to clean your teeth. The artist whose drawing we gaze at in the pages of a favorite book. The young cedar tree in the corner of our yard. The new kitten spirits that now grace our home. 

You will grow big and fierce and tender through your strategies. And underneath, all the time, there will be that little person – six years old – holding her tears. I hope you will take such good care of her. Better care, even, than I have taken. I hope you will honor her highly. More highly, even, than I have. I hope you will respect her boundaries, and never grab her as she passes, just for your own pleasure, as I have. I hope you will watch her as she draws, and never cheat by looking at your phone, as I have. But even if you don’t, as how could you? I hope you will forgive yourself, as I do. Hold yourself accountable to share your love generously and do your own work with curiosity and compassion, as I do. And I hope you will come back, when all your power is gathered around you like a glowing cloak of moss, and tell me in your own words, your own voice, what that little person needed that I couldn’t see; what your big self wants from me and what I can take with me when I go. 

The night of the solstice, after we folded the boxes around our words and drawings, and tossed them in the fire, and watched them burn… after we took our lanterns to the beach and listened to the waves in the dark and danced along the deep, flat beach of low-tide… after we ate cake in lantern light and you kids withdrew to the yurt to tumble and sing… I drifted away to sit with my friends the trees. I rested into a vast stump, open with age in her center to hold me. I named you, my baby, and Z, and asked after her own many many children. We nodded and sighed, and settled into silence. It was with her support and encouragement that I came to find you, later, the littlest, to respectfully invite you into bed. You leaned your head against mine, so intimate, acknowledging. “Yes, Mama,” you said.

Published by Devon Riley

lately: youth work, parenting, sorcery, books, walks in the woods

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