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15 Nov

Songs of Innocence & Experience

Mono Lake

One of the most difficult things about pregnancy, for me, was that it forced me to confront myself as a biological creature. It forced me to experience myself as a body, as a being put entirely into the service of nature. My every wakeful – and not so wakeful – moment was spent in a state of hyper-consciousness about my physicality: I was nurturing a life, and that life depended upon my physical being, and no force of intellect or imagination could alter or facilitate or intercede in that dependency. And as a person who had spent all of her conscious years in her head – and someone who was well-trained in a school of philosophical thought that emphasizes the absolute primacy of mind over body, reason over appetite and base sense – this was very, very hard for me.

So I was anxious – anxious beyond measure – about birth and new motherhood, which I perceived as a broadening and deepening of this experience. I didn’t fear it, exactly: I wanted the experience. Every fibre of my physical being strained toward this experience, and demanded that my mind follow – this, in itself, was disconcerting. The thing of it was, rather, that I doubted my ability to stay the course: how would I ever, ever find my way through this dense thicket, this overwhelming jungle, without maps, without books, without the compass of my intellect? How would I survive, if I had only the thrum of my senses to guide me?

I learned, of course. This education came with difficulty: I spent weeks, months, trying to beat back heavy, fear-dampened branches with dog-eared tomes of advice on navigating the brave new world of motherhood (tomes written, no less, by only the most theoretical of explorers, explorers – men – who had only scanned this landscape through spyglasses, safe on their ships, far from these strange shores), only to discover that while these might force the branches back for a moment, it would only be for a moment, before the branches would lash back and knock me off my feet.

I put the books away. I put the books away and set about listening to the thrum of my senses, and discovered, slowly, that doing what felt right kept me on the clearest course. I navigated my way (with no small assistance from others lost in the same wood, shouting encouragement and direction) through breastfeeding and swaddling and sleep and sleep and sleep and crying-it-out and the first signs of spiritedness, guided by my senses and by the gentle prodding of the sympathetic hands of fellow travelers. I found my way. And now, even when I lose my way, which I still do, I know to trust myself and the kindness of fellows in finding my way back. I know what to do.

The knowledge came, however, in more than the form of a sense of direction. I came to know the the unparalleled joy of allowing myself to embrace my biology, my physicality – and the unparalleled bliss that comes with bonding oneself with, binding oneself to, another creature, and having that creature be bound to you, so tightly, so deeply, that you are really are as one, one physical being, with one bonded heart and one bonded soul. We know something of this bond in love, in erotic love, but only ever fleetingly, in the sweet interstices of romantic companionship; we are never fully, physically bound to our other, no matter what we think Plato might have said, through Socrates, about our souls’ other halves – we are complete souls, we adult beings, and although our greatest happinesses come with allowing our souls to join hands with others, we never merge souls, not really.

Except, that is, when we have a baby. Then we know – if only for a moment, for one long, sweet moment – what it is to be more than one, to be one plus, to have split open and spilled out our blood and our viscera and our spirit and gathered it all back up again in our arms and held it, tight, pressed it to our chests, felt it throbbing and squirming and to have known, to know, what it is to hold one’s soul in one’s arms.

And then to have it pulled away. Because this is what is inevitable, this is what the books can’t tell you, this what no mother can escape: from the moment your child, your soul, is handed to you, whether that child has been pulled from your gut or yanked out from between your legs or flown from across the sea, whether your soul comes to you in gore or wrapped in white cotton sheets, your possession of it – of him, of her – is temporary. Mind-spinningly temporary. Every second, every heartbeat, that passes from the moment you clutch your second soul, your little soul, in your arms, takes that soul away from you. Every moment is a moment of growth, and every moment of growth loosens your grip. And you must keep holding, you must keep your arms outstretched, but you can’t, you mustn’t, fight to hold on.

This, then, is the art of motherhood, and it is not an art of the mind: to hold on and let go, at the same time.

We are constantly letting go: when they are pulled from our arms for the first time, when they stretch out their arms to someone else for the first time, when they first say no. When they first push themselves out of our arms, when they crawl, when they walk, little feet carrying them away. When they wean. When they wave bye-bye without shedding a tear. When they fall down and they hurt and turn to someone else for comfort. When they grow, when they live – with every step that they take they are moving away from us. And it is our task to navigate this ongoing, this infinite, this inevitable, this necessary separation with love and with grace.

But once you have learned to know with your body – to have reached far, far beyond carnal knowledge and the intoxicating wisdom of the flesh – to know, fully, what it is to be a body with a soul threaded, literally and figuratively, to its heart, a soul that can give birth to itself, take form, be held oh so tightly and then let go – once you have this knowledge, you are, truly, naked, vulnerable, exposed, open to untold hurts, to infinite pains, to the unshakeable awareness of loss. This is knowledge, and this knowledge thrills, and stings.

So it is that we mothers are ever walking out of the Garden, cursing and praising the heavens, holding tight to our fruit, pricking our heels on thorns.


I wrote the above words 13 years ago, -ish. She was a baby then, just started toddling. She’s fourteen now, and I feel those sentiments even more keenly. It’s been years since she was fully attached to me (if she ever was; I have joked many times that she was born independent, yearning to be free), but I still feel every pull of the threads that connect us as she moves further away. Her absence is no longer a distant horizon, but something proximate, measurable in miles rather than light years. I can see the fence, the gate, the wall, the ramparts, whatever barriers I have imagined protect our now from our future. She’s approaching it — we’re approaching out — and we’re both counting our steps.

She’s excited, of course — she already knows what car she is going to buy (and how she’s going to afford it) when she hits sixteen; she is unabashed in proclaiming to me her desire for that freedom. (“I will be able to go WHEREVER I WANT,” she declares, feeling that freedom in anticipation. “Well, not exactly,” I say, “there will still be rules,” and then I pontificate upon laws concerning young drivers until she interrupts. “But still,” she says, “but still. I’ll be able to GO.”

And go she will. And go she does.

The departure is ongoing, as I anticipated years ago. They are always walking away; their destination is not back to us; they are not coming back into our bodies, into our hearts, they are always and ever walking away, toward a future that is theirs, not ours.

We count the steps, we count the days.

Just yesterday we were counting years. (The days are long but the years are short, they tell you. They are right. You just don’t believe it until the years have swept by you, so fast that you didn’t even see them go.) Now we count days.

It’s fine of course. “It’s fine,” you tell yourself as you look in the mirror, contemplating time. “It’s fine,” you tell someone on Instagram or Twitter or in the Starbucks line. “I love who she’s becoming! I wouldn’t go back.”

This is all true, but also very much not true. You would trade years of your life, you think, for another day with Baby Her. You wouldn’t necessarily want to go all the way back and do it again — you wouldn’t want to start over, dear god — but you definitely would like to be able to visit. To remember. Because the memories are fading, even with all the pictures. You can’t remember what it felt like. Not really.

And yet. Who she has become is extraordinary, amazing, a miracle but also not a miracle because you saw it coming from the first moments, how spectacular she’d be. And it is truly glorious to watch; you wouldn’t trade that, not for anything.

So you stand in that liminal space, between Garden/Not-Garden, imagining walls that simply might not be there at all, seeing all the light ahead (we do not think of the shadows when we are waxing emotional about Time) and knowing that it is all just forwardness, it is all just the bright energy of yes, and. You were never in a Garden at all, you realize. The fruit was always everywhere, for you, and now for her.

You watch her go, already tasting it.

Happy birthday, baby girl.