During these travels, I have renewed my enjoyment of swimming, energetically speaking, through rivers, oceans, and seas unknown nor consciously chosen by allowing circumstances to guide me. I’ve been traveling this way for six months now, commencing with a loose plan and one-way ticket. I left Oregon at the end of July, headed to Western Colorado and the summer monsoon rains, where I recorded the life stories of Greek Orthodox elders. These gave astounding insights into a high desert community where the Greeks (along with Italians, Bulgarians, Mexicans, and African Americans) were considered outsiders by the dominant culture of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. One woman I spoke with, whose father was the first Greek man in Grand Junction, told a lovely story about how the Greeks, Italians, Blacks, and Mexicans, who all lived on the “other side of the tracks” played and ate together, a multicultural childhood where the only real enemy was the racism they faced from those white Protestants on the other side of the railroad tracks. I was surprised how the elders never really called it “racism” or bigotry, but rather it was the subtext, unnamed, and merely dealt with as they worked their way to better situations. Many of the Greeks in the intermountain West travelled there to work in the mines of Utah and Colorado, eventually saving enough to buy land and livestock, sheep primarily, and grew great ranches in the high desert region of this area. The church was their anchor, the community center point, and their protection against those who would exploit and exclude them. These stories and accompanying portraits inspired me to expand this idea into a larger project, tentatively entitled Faith, where I will gather stories and portraits from other faith communities west of the Rockies. I find their stories fascinating, particularly as a way of community-building amidst exclusion from the dominant culture.
Following the week-long story gathering, I headed to the desert and mountains in northern Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho where it rained. And it rained. And it rained some more, just in case I had missed the point. I write that lovingly now but trust me, camping in the rain—and not some light drizzly rain like we have in Oregon most of the time, but drenching downpours accompanied by 40mph winds—is a real challenge when all I wanted was to commune with the wind and sun. Reflecting upon it now, I do believe I was simply exhausted from years of work with almost no breaks. Years of struggle, both existential and financial in equal amounts, and I needed to sleep for a few months in total isolation. Like the bear paw tattoos that adorn my shoulders, I was in need of deep hibernation. My journey since then has supplied this much needed rest.
An interesting and unexpected observation I’ve made while traveling is that now, as a middle-aged woman, I slip through passport control much quicker than I did as a young woman. This is a distinct advantage I hadn’t considered after years of remaining stateside. I am no longer considered a potential threat to any country. I suppose my greying hair marks me as a settled individual, content with—or at least resigned to—my circumstances, whatever they may be. I find this strangely funny. I also find this disturbing on quite a few levels. The assumption that, as a woman ages, she is no longer capable of radical acts is patently false as well as offensive. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable on a pirate, “fuck you matey” level. I could be a walking revolution and they would just pass me through because I’ve got grey hair and wrinkles. It’s quite nice not being grilled about where I’m going and for how long. Now it’s just a “thank you madam” and “have a nice day mam.” Except once on a bus from Paris to London. That crossing was like the old days: "What are you doing traveling around? Do you have a job?! How much money do you have? Where is your return ticket?" A long, uncomfortable silence after I responded, "I'm traveling because I enjoy it. I'm visiting friends and watching people's pets, I'm taking photos, I'm reconnecting with family. No, I do not have a job right now. I don't have a lot of money, but I have a check coming in ten days..." He gave me that officious stare that only government employees can have and finally stamped my passport for a (second) six month stay in the UK. Do not enter the UK via bus--even though on certain lines it can be less than half the cost of a train and there are no real weight limits for your baggage like when flying.
I suppose the fire of youth has been tempered somewhat by life’s mighty hammer—tempered in the forge of life, so to speak—but my iron will is stronger than ever so if I was to do something radical, it’s more likely that I’d do it now than when I had my entire life in front of me and the thought of imprisonment (or worse) seemed a right waste of a life. I suppose I was a bit more mouthy when I was younger, or at least more likely to say what I’d still say today, but in a louder and more ferocious way. Now I can keep my cool when I’m upset about something (guess I did learn something in grad school: "don't get emotional, use your emotions to drive the research and let the facts prove your point." Thank you, Dr. Curtin for always simplifying everything and making such sense). In the past, I often felt like a roman candle with a wick halfway lit most of the time. I have much gratitude for my friends who would tether me when needed. I’m also grateful for a generally laid-back take on the world, a live and let live mentality that is, for the most part, fairly low maintenance. But please don’t cross me or mine because then all hell can break loose and the banshee set free.
That thought reminds me of a story that happened about eight or nine years ago. I was in grad school and the kids were about ten and twelve. We lived in university housing—a great old house near the university with rent more than half the going rate in that neighborhood—with two cats and a funny little dog. Next door lived another grad student with two ferocious dogs—one of them a pit bull that had been neglected and the other a black hound from hell; it had been a much-discussed worry of most of the neighbors on the street as to when something horrible would happen if either of those dogs ever got out. They would hang out the front window of her house, barking and snarling at everyone who walked by. In any event, something did eventually happen but thankfully the owner was home when it did.
Two friends of my kids, both aged about twelve, had been hired to mow the neighbor’s backyard, a common summer job for boys their age. As one of them waited to be paid in the enclosed backyard, talking to my kids over the fence, the aforementioned pit bull just snapped and attacked the boy waiting to be paid. He was a big, buff pit bull—large for his breed—and knocked the boy down. Luckily (well, that’s a relative term in this situation) for the boy, the dog attacked from behind, so he went face down on the ground. I believe this saved his life as the dog could not get a mouthful of his throat. The dog scratched at his back, snarling as he tried to bite the back of his neck. My kids were screaming and the woman came running out and jumped over the dog to straddle it. The boy was on the ground, the dog on top of him, and the woman standing over the dog. She grabbed the dog from both sides of his mouth and pulled back with all her strength. This released the dog’s jaw long enough so the boy could get up and away. The woman screamed “RUN!” and I was there to meet him as he got out of the gate because I had seen all this from the mudroom of my house where I had been cleaning and stopped when I heard the screams. This mudroom had windows on three sides and it afforded a complete view of the good-sized backyard and about half of my neighbor’s yard, so as the dog attacked, I grabbed a baseball bat—of which there were many at the time since my son was a baseball player—and ran out the back door, prepared to crush the skull of the neighbor’s dog in order to keep him from killing this boy. My kids later described me as looking like a banshee running out of the house, long hair sticking out in all directions screaming "I’m coming!” with a baseball bat held high. Luckily, I didn’t have to commit my first murder and was there for the boy to fall into instead, who broke down sobbing in my arms as his friend ran home to get his dad. He had large gashes on his back and neck, but luckily all his arteries and digits were intact.
His dad reported the attack and the neighbor was required to quarantine her dog at home for 10 days to make sure he didn’t have rabies before being euthanized (the common practice for dog attacks I learned). During that time, she cried to me numerous times about how she had had her dog since he was a puppy and loved him so much (I always wondered why she neglected him so terribly if that was the case) and she was completely distraught that he would have to be put down. She never, not once, apologized for the attack but instead blamed the kids for “spooking” her dog. She ended up moving in the dark of night from her house on day 8 of the 10-day observation period, never to be seen again. To this day I fear that her dog eventually killed some child in Portland where she had said she would be moving. The boy who had been attacked eventually became a drug addict and, the last I heard, was living under a bridge in Amazon Park. My neighbour would never know this outcome of course but I still sometimes wonder if her carelessness and denial contributed to that terrible summer afternoon that left my kids’ friend irreparably fucked up…
The lovely city of Cardiff sails past me as I ride a bus to London from Swansea, South Wales. I’ve been in the Swansea valley for about a month now…a city that gets a bad rap, like Liverpool or Pittsburgh used to before their rebirths. Industrial cities all three, abandoned by the national power structures but alive with people resilient, robust, and with scorching wit. Swansea, or Abertawe in Welsh, is the only one of those three that hasn’t quite made its resurrection but the heat and fire are rising and it’s only a matter of time now before the great phoenix wings explode into bright, soaring heights. Needless to say, I loved it there. Swansea is filled with music and the energy of artists—always the first to plant the seeds of growth and renewal in abandoned locations. I’m reminded of the call to action, “Plant Seeds and Sing Songs.” Like Oregon, I found a comfortable intergenerational rapport there and one always found time for a cup of tea and a few laughs. This was true everywhere I went in Wales, north and south, where magic is afoot and the old ways are just under the surface. Or in your face, fierce and beautiful. In the north one senses a razor sharpness even as everyone around me spoke soft and lilting Welsh. The North Welsh are very clear about not being English, whereas in the South there seems to be a more blended acceptance of the English. I also never heard Welsh spoken while anywhere in the South. although I know that there are Welsh speakers there. But not like in the North where it's the first language. It's been in this latest generation where Welsh has really been reanimated, with nearly all schools in the North teaching in Welsh, which is compulsory for all state-educated students from five to sixteen. This has revived a language all but lost to the English domination of the area when, in the early 15th century, the last Welsh rebellion was stamped out by the English and the Welsh language was forbidden. This was more or less upheld until the Welsh Language Act of 1993, where it was established that "in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality" (Welsh English Language Act 1993, 21st of October, 1993). The early rebirth of the Welsh language is dated to about 1880, but the first seat in Parliament wasn't held until 1966. Welsh millennials and those who have come after them tend to be Welsh speakers now, particularly in the North. In any event, I was inspired by the ongoing determination to reclaim the original culture of the Welsh through language and traditions.
One such tradition was the The Mari Lwyd (Old or Grey Mare), with her skull bare to the moonlight she makes a midwinter journey, going from door to door, bringing fertility and good fortune to the community. The church all but killed this wassailing tradition that occurs between Christmas through to Twelfth Night but it lived on in the Swansea Valley and is being rejuvenated throughout Wales. The Horse pre-dates Christianity and can be connected to the Gallic Epona, the Irish Macha, and the Welsh Rhiannon, goddesses whose realms are healing, fertility, and death.
I was fortunate to be at a gathering on Twelfth Night when the Mari Lwyd made a visit to the gathering for three friends who shared a birthday, bringing with her good tidings for the year. She danced with us until the social club kicked us out and I, for one, felt the old ways meld with the new in a beautiful fusion of light-heartedness and serious magic. I think this combination of playfulness and seriousness is what I find most captivating about Wales. Freedom from an oppressive system using ancient methods, like returning to the source. I like that and seek to integrate this wisdom into my daily life.
Zingaro. Gypsy. Sinti. My maternal bloodline grows from a long line of travelers; forced from their homes through slavery; refused settlement, citizenship, or even human status. In fact, I had no idea we descended from the Hindu Kush and anyone with any information has long since passed; the family story long lost to the winds of war and family secrets. I’ve decided to find what family still exists and document my process of finding the bloodline Bruno, last European location: Baveno, province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, part of Piedmont, Italy, on the west shore of Lago Maggiore. Let's say these words written here serve as a contract with my ancestors.
The path that brought me here has been in the making for more than 20 years, based in portrait photography and oral history and guided by a solid foundation in research and collaborative methodology. This path has been a circuitous one, lost and then found again through my paternal bloodline and the process of working through the very long path of obtaining my dual citizenship with Italy.
The bloodline Stellavato (my paternal name) left Italy in about 1903, as part of the waning great wave of immigrants from Italy. The Italian government recognizes descendants four generations back, provided said immigrant never naturalized as a U.S. citizen, thus renouncing their Italian citizenship. Or if they did, they did so after the birth of the next generational link (meaning: your great grandfather became a U.S. citizen after your grandfather was born). In my case, my great grandfather never naturalized. I found this out after an extensive paper trail that awarded me the hallowed HQORM-70/42.4-C Certificate of Nonexistence Record from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stating no record of his naturalization exists. Giuseppinicola Stellavato died in 1961 as an Italian citizen. The path to dual citizenship is expensive and has taken me roughly fifteen years (and counting). I understand why so few tend to pursue this process as it is much easier to pay someone else to gather and organize all the paperwork needed for this research--particularly when dealing with early 20th-century immigration.
This branch of my family tree was comprised mainly of farmers from a beautiful village in the Salerno provence of Campania called Controne, which sits in the hills of The Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Why they left is now lost to their descendants. If I am successful in my search, perhaps I can piece together the story that led them to eventually settle in the hilly region of Washington, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, where, in the year of his death, 1961, Giuseppinicola's great-granddaughter would be born who would, in due course, trek back to his homeland. Strange how things go, no?
But this story is about the other branch of my family tree, my maternal bloodline, the one shrouded in mystery to all but me. Well, it's still a mystery to me, but I am the sole descendent who was told of our Sinti roots, the one chosen to receive the family "secret." In 1992, amidst loud music, with happy, inter-generational dancing, and beer, wine, and plates piled high with food, my aunt grabbed my arm as I walked by and pulled me down to sit next to her. My aunt Elizabeth was quite a force to be reckoned with. Standing at a whopping 4'10 (although shorter at this point in her life due to osteoporosis), she packed a punch until her death at 99. What little I know of her life could be made into a film to rival the best stories of immigrant families and women's lack of efficacy. She was an intelligent and wild young woman, who ran away to New York and fell in love with an actor and the roaring 20s' flapper scene. The young couple wanted to marry but her mother (a widow) refused and, in fact, sent "someone" to retrieve her from her happy life, forcing her into a marriage with a much older man of means. The story stops there as far as family history goes and she lived a life of relative comfort, wanting for nothing material; no one ever talked about her New York chapter except my mother and my aunt at rare moments and this was only done through whispers and brief snippets of a wildness lost. As I grew, I returned to her story, asking over and over again to hear what happened. I don't think anyone knew how much I could relate to that impulse, perhaps due to my own time in New York. In any event, after a brief discussion about the party and how nice it all was, my aunt leaned in close and gave me a serious look, stating:
"Mickey D (my family nickname), I need to tell you the family secret." I looked at her, possibilities rushing through my mind..." A Secret?!" After a pause, creating a bubble of time I will never forget, she said in a solemn voice, "You need to know. Our family...we're Gypsies." She scanned my face for a reaction, dire seriousness in her eyes and pulled me closer saying, "Shhhhh! We don't talk about it! It's a secret and you can't let people know." After some time of silence between us, eyes glued to each other, she patted me on the hand and after a while, sent me on my way.
I could see that to her, being zingara, was something to be hidden, locked away in a family chest, only shared with one member of a future generation. I rode that knowledge for many years, feeling it in my blood and locating it in my bones. I hope to learn just what that meant to her--beyond the things I've read--by locating and contacting (maybe not-so-distant) relatives and piecing together the family story through photos and oral history, library archives and church records.
Whatever the story turns out to be, her fear was palpable. I consider it my responsibility to connect the dots, so to speak, for future generations. So much history was lost in the 20th-century due to war, immigration ("we're in American now, we speak English" my father was told), and simple lack of interest or time. I don't know how successful I'll be, but I'm compelled to follow this path. Through camera and audio, the written word and a little bit of luck I may have a hell of a story to tell.
Sitting on the front porch this morning, surrounded by rain and warmed with my first cup of coffee, a friend of my daughter walked through our gate obviously upset. I asked her, "is everything ok?" She sat down in the chair opposite me and proceeded to tell me about her recent experiences with the (almost) men in her life. I say "almost" because although they may be men legally, they are, for all intents and purposes, still boys. Or they are very young men who haven't yet moved fully into their male adulthood. Like her, they are in that threshold place, where their bodies are fully developed but their minds and emotional intelligence are still developing. You know, the early twenties. As I talked to her about the challenges of being in a small town, the mating dance, and political history (yes, I'm that kind of mom) she visibly brightened and the conversation ended with her on the couch with one of our cats curled up on her belly. She's falling into sleep that will undoubtedly take her to places where she will do battle with the demons of heartbreak. We've all fought this battle in the dreamworld and lived to tell the tale, but I don't think that makes it any easier in the daily scheme of things.
As I sit here in reflection, I drift back to my own twenties and early thirties, remembering the mating dance we all learn through trial and error, metaphorically stepping on the toes of our partners and sometimes (well, maybe more often than that), tripping and falling flat on our face in front of a large crowd. I never did do anything small and inconspicuously although I've often dreamed of it...now I sit on the other side of that dance, not watching from the sidelines, but no longer strapped to the need to breed. Does this feel like freedom? Damn straight it does and it reminds me of a passage from Plato's “The Republic” (1852 translation), which quotes Cephalus:
"…I may mention Sophocles the poet, who was once asked in my presence, ‘How do you feel about love, Sophocles? are you still capable of it?’ to which he replied, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and feel as if I had escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ " (1)
It's important to keep in mind that "love" means "sex" in the ancient wording and although I don't agree with the notion that sex (or love for that matter) are to be escaped but rather enjoyed, I do understand the underlying message: when we are of prime breeding age, we are as if chained to a raging tiger that determines our actions whether we like it or not. And I am so very happy to ride freely when I want, rather than never getting off the damn ride. For thirty-odd years (10,000 days) I was bound to that wildcat and now I can ride when I want and walk alongside her when I feel like placing my feet firmly on the ground.
I've actually spent a fair amount of time analyzing the phenomenon of mating and breeding. It really began with my nascent deconstruction of social mores, such as religion and law. In those early analyses I saw clearly that to control the body and its most basic drives--the need for food, affection and other body expressions, the drive to procreate--is to control the individual, lock, stock, and barrel, which is what most religions and laws attempt to do. We are told what is acceptable, what is not, and what you might burn in the eternal flames of hell for doing (as a recovering Catholic, this last possibility was a particularly strong impetus for not questioning the rules and regs. I mean, who wants to be tortured and raped for all eternity like one of Hieronymus Bosch's horrific paintings?).
I suppose those early patriarchs needed to make resistance seem really bad, I mean horrific, in order to convince those who had embraced equality and pleasure for ten thousand years that they needed to forget all that and join up with this new misogynist worldview. If we didn't go willingly to our mutual demise, then by god we'd burn, either to death, or in the eternal afterworld. The unfortunate individuals who lived about 6,000 years ago were thrust into a world where women were forced to give up their rightful place as equals and carry the burden of responsibility for everyone's suffering because of their biological make-up. Naturally, they refused to submit to this insanity and the ones who got away fled to distant shores, bringing the ancient wisdom with them, which they passed on from generation to generation for millennia, one that was represented as a snake. The Canaanites/Phoenicians worshipped many gods and goddesses, but premier among them was Astarte/Ishtar, the fertility mother of the fertile crescent. She was depicted holding a snake in each hand. So, naturally, this new "devil" named lucifer had to take the shape of a snake. This story has repeated itself for almost 6,000 years and each time the goddess was forced into submission, the hatred of the sacred feminine morphed into self-hatred and torment. The one male god is egotistical, if not downright narcissistic, and requires absolute submission. How in the hell else do you force people to deny their very natures? Their very DNA?
We share 98.7% of the same genetic make-up with our closest cousins, the bonobos (Pan paniscus) and the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes); according to some studies we have more in common with our bonobo cousins. From the Primate Fieldnotes (2):
"Based on 54 gene regions, Homo-Pan genetic distance range from 6.92 to 7.90×10−3 substitutions/site (P. paniscus and P. troglodytes, respectively), which is less than previous estimates based on large scale sequencing of specific regions such as chromosome 7. In other words, bonobos appear to share 12.4% more DNA in common with humans than chimpanzees do. This is more than twice the genetic divergence in squirrel monkeys (genusSaimiri) and adds further evidence suggesting that bonobos are a better model for understanding our common ancestor than chimpanzees are."
The primary differences between our two closest cousins are that bonobo communities are matriarchal where sex is free and open to all; chimps use warfare to settle conflict and only the alpha male can mate; female bonobos create strong emotional bonds, which they use to maintain social dominance over the males and have generally peaceful communities. Chimps keep rigid boundaries over their areas and will kill other chimps to uphold these boundaries, where bonobos will mate, even across borders, to keep the peace. Chimps use tools and bonobos don't (at least not in captivity). Taking these differences--and our genetic similarities--into consideration is a compelling thought game, don't you think? If we combine this biological trajectory with, for example religion, we can see the chimp and the bonobo behaviors play out historically. This is particularly appropriate for the patriarchal monotheisms, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and their stories of war and male dominance. It's as if they are the human evolution of the chimp, whereas those religions and cultures, both current and historical, that recognize the goddess or some other form of the sacred feminine could be seen as descendants of the bonobo. Let's keep in mind that this is my attempt at understanding just how we could have evolved into a world of war, male dominance, and militarization on a biological level.
Obviously capitalism and a hoarding mentality play into this equation, but personally, I see these two things as simply other expressions of the original quandary: why do we ignore our biological nature? First answer: because male dominated religions have forced us to ignore our primal urges and needs in the name of piety. Second answer: perhaps our split off the evolutionary branch from our closest cousins, the bonobos (this happened about 2.5 million years ago, they then diverged from the chimpanzees around a half million years after that (3)), included enough genetic material that humans brought a predisposition for one or the other with them...
So, I figure some of you are thinking, what the hell is she talking about right about now, I thought we were talking about love and mating, but ride this mind wave with me because I just know it's leading somewhere that might give us a way to deal with heartbreak.
The way I see it is like this: we are animals, primates to be specific. We send out pheromones when we are of breeding age, we breed to carry on the species, it's like a built-in, biological imperative. Not all humans need or have a desire to breed, but about 75% of the world does so on a regular basis. Those who have seed to share, often do so generously, or feel compelled to, and some do not. Let's keep in mind that those little swimmers aren't the most resilient human, albeit infinite, product, so it seems an evolutionary step to manufacture and release as much as possible, "knowing" that their survival rate is pretty slim. Those who are born with a finite number of repositories (about 1-2 million) for that never-ending supply of swimming genetic code, can generally only make one at a time (sometimes two or three). In addition, once born, the small baby humans require constant care as they are utterly incapable of survival without it. This basic biological process has been twisted and humans made to suffer at the hands of a warped worldview that is hell-bent on controlling this simple biological process in the name of power and greed.
If I consider my own history as a sexual being, particularly in my 20s, I had absolutely no desire to breed and often "broke hearts" because of it. But I honestly believe part of my strong libido was tied to an unconscious desire to do just that. I can only say this now that my body's breeding phase is complete. I watch others and I feel as if I'm reading a book I've read a hundred times before. How many times have I heard individuals say, "I thought it was more than just sex" when it felt that way for a brief period and their partners saw it as "just sex." How much of that dynamic is socially constructed and how much is a biological drive? How would we react if we hadn't been convinced very early on that lifelong monogamy is natural? Perhaps the breeding drive would run its course and then we would move on, sharing a safer, warmer, and stronger community for having shared the process--like our bonobo cousins.
Maybe the notion of "love" is a social construction based on the need to breed. Perhaps some humans have a predisposition for behaviors that more resemble our chimpanzee cousins and others like the bonobos. Or maybe some people mate for life, like some animals do. Perhaps it's an individual combination of genetic code and social conditioning that is as unique as each person. But what do I know? Not much really, but I do believe that more sex and more love will get us to a place where we might understand it all better and return us to our original selves. I am absolutely sure the insecurity created by religion (and advertising for that matter, but that's a whole other conversation...) is something that must be deconstructed by each person, male or female, in order to return to a more authentic human experience.
...to be continued
A letter to my kids.
It's hard to let go. At least initially and when trying to live a life that's from the heart. I've been learning about this balancing act, and it's much how I imagine surfing to be. Not that I've ever surfed; I really don't like being limited by finite edges, but how I imagine a liquid floor moving with good force might feel. And this transition is happening at breakneck speed, inclusive of everything around it, washing away all that no longer serves; pulling new and exciting things on to shore with it. Yes it all feels a bit like standing on the beach edge, rather than a nest in a tree, but the elements of water and wind are all at play just the same.
I am nearly what is often called an empty nester. My kids are close in age--17.5 months apart--and both are flying out to meet their individual air currents and ride them with what I hope is vigor and excitement. This is, at least partially, built into the parenting experience from the moment you lock eyes for the first time. Between that moment and the one when they say, (verbally or in action) "I'm ready to fly," time happens faster than anyone can prepare you for. Not that there weren't days between that seemed to last forever. Moments that were so difficult that I was a crumple of tears and exhaustion. Moments when nothing, absolutely nothing, mattered as much as a free minute to simply sit alone. I heard people say that it goes much too fast, but in those moments I didn't believe them. How could I? Breastfeeding two at the same time, having two in diapers, the constant focus on food preparation...well, it was all a little much at times. But there are times now when I would gladly go back and allow myself to just sit and marvel at them, as I did more times than I can count. Watching them create wondrous worlds out of wooden spoons and blankets or laughing with them over something as simple as dust particles floating in the rays of the summer sun. These are the things I think of now. The difficult moments were few in comparison to this rich, sensual world of new wonder. My two have always been forces of nature; each has their own (and often quite disparate) ways of interfacing with the world but both shine with lights so strong, I am left no choice but to love unconditionally and try to guide as best I can.
I'm glad I waited to have my kids. I also wish I had started earlier because I'm not sure I can measure the deep changes the experience of motherhood has instigated. These reveal themselves at odd moments and catch me a bit off-guard with their simplicity. Some of the changes are the result of making the wrong decision or having the wrong reaction in a given situation. I've made mistakes. It is my deepest hope that in those failed moments as a mother I did not cause irreparable harm. I've tried to learn immediately from whatever it was, never repeating them; more often than not I think I was successful at internalizing the lesson. I have also caught fleeting glimpses of their strength and clarity, obvious reflections I have taught my kids and that is a holy mirror no one ever talks about. I see them relaxed and comfortable in a world where fear and competition are commonplace. A world where shame forces people to act in secretive and dividing ways. Rather than create a false image of the world, I have tried to be honest with them. Rather than create a false image of myself, hiding the many-colored cloak I wear, I have worked to help them see we are all a work in progress and to never stop learning because, to quote a much-quoted Dylan, "he not busy being born is busy dying." I have tried to teach moderation because it has been my hardest lesson. Not abstinence, not purity, but responsibility and enjoyment. I've worked to separate social mores and rules from natural impulses and ingrain a deep knowledge that most of what we're expected to do or say is based on a dying paradigm that uses emotional and physical force to get what it wants. I needed for them to know this, to understand that they will be surrounded by those who will try to break their spirit, but not in our house. Our home has always been free of the social constructs that American society bullies its citizens into believing. Not that I haven't had my demons to smite when certain situations came up, but thankfully I had enough years on my own in the world to have fought many of these battles without the trusting and hopeful eyes of my children watching me.
I have come to see that the hardest part of letting go is trusting that we have done our job as parents. Trusting that we have loved them enough in the way that nurtures them individually. Trusting that we have taught them enough so that when life steps up with a sucker punch they can bounce back and walk away or fight if necessary. Trusting that their inner fire is strong enough to light their way when they are afraid. I believe that many loving parents simply do not trust themselves or their abilities in the world, but rather than acknowledging their own lack of self-belief, they blame a scary outside world or, more egregiously, their own children for not being good enough or focused enough, or some other tangled web of a thousand fears that drive some parents to control every aspect of their child(ren)'s lives. I'm not saying it's easy. It's fucking hard as hell to let go of the reins. But it must happen and when a child shows the first sign of pulling away. They will fail at times, they will falter and possibly make profound, life-altering mistakes, but such is the nature of free will. I used to say that my parenting style could be compared to having one of those retractable dog leashes. My kids could walk out as far as they liked (metaphorically speaking), but were still attached and I could reel them back in if imminent danger was around. This worked well until they learned to take the collar off altogether. That's when trust in myself became the center point in my internal dialogue. And that's when the tests began in earnest. Both astounding and terrible choices have been made by them and there were days in the recent past when it took all I had to stay the course, or to continually advocate for them in a sea of conformity and mediocrity. And now here we are, all three standing on the edge of the nest looking at the future.
I want them to fly strong and as far as their wings will take them. I also want them to be little kids again, lying all together at bedtime, with me reading aloud to them. My son always fell asleep first (well, he was the youngest), so we would all scrunch in on his bed. But my daughter often asked for, "one more chapter!" And I enjoyed it so much that away we'd go on a train to Hogwarts or observe Paris from behind a giant clock. I did my best to protect them from commercialization and a focus on consumption when they were young so no television at our house, although we rented movies from our local video store that sold bags of popcorn for a quarter. We must have seen every Godzilla movie ever made at least three times. I suppose the scholar in me studies almost everything in my world, so I've conducted informal longitudinal research that has looked at child development and I've observed that the kids who grew up watching television believed they were always being watched and that the world is a scary place. Additionally, these kids have also grown up to very often have body issues. A plain and simple cultivation theory, Mr. Gerbner, in living color. So we all spent as much time as possible outside, playing in the mud or hiking or climbing or making art...things that made them strong and unique. Summer days running around naked, all tan and healthy...yes, those were all-consuming and (mostly) wonderful years that I will carry with me until I go, like they happened just last week.
But that is the past now and today I am here learning how to balance in the act of letting go. I'm moving out into the world on my own again and it's both exhilarating and hard to not wish for a chance to do it all again. I enter this next chapter of my life with a renewed sense of self and an excitement I haven't felt about me, myself, and I--excitement that's not focused specifically on my kids or their successes--since crossing the threshold of motherhood. Not everyone who has shared in this passing chapter are by my side as I move into this new place and I'm thankful for their influences along the way. May my friends who have gone their own way be happy in this next phase and may my kids be filled with love and pleasure as they fly into the great unknown.