I have been a reader of Hölderlin for many years. I took down his collected poems and read his hymns to the Virgin Mary and Patmos, his elegy “Bread and Wine” and his river poems (on the Main, the Neckar, the Rhine, the Ister).… They are fraught, paradoxical poems that display majestic architecture, and they brought me some peace.
After Salvador kills you, all the earth falls silent. The birds nestle their young and quiet them, our dogs tuck their tails and hide beneath furniture, the winds collapse to the ground. Waves cease their rumbling. Currents sink into the depths. All the seas become as an open and sightless eye.
The college admissions system today, I read somewhere, rewards not the “bright well-rounded kid” (abbreviated BWRK by admissions reviewers), but the “pointy” kid instead, by which is meant an outsize and distinctive feature—like innovating a patentable medical device, launching a business, or testifying before Congress. Three sports and extracurriculars are nowhere near enough.
My children are both at peak fairy tale age—four and two—so I have been studying up on the classics: Grimms, Andersen, MacDonald. But I’ve noticed something I never saw before: in fairy tales, the mother is almost always absent. Sometimes she’s dead, as in “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid”; sometimes there is a wicked stepmother like in “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel.” But even when she is physically present, she’s often emotionally absent.
A couple months ago I received a group text from a friend asking if we had seen the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed film The Lost Daughter and saying how disturbed she was by its portrayal of motherhood. This friend is both a mother and a philosophy professor; the other two friends on the thread besides me are a writer and the vice president of government relations for a pharmaceutical firm. All of us are mothers. All of us were pretty disturbed/annoyed by The Lost Daughter.
I read Gitanjali again in a Mount Desert Island cottage on a chilly June day, nursing a summer cold but keeping the window open to the sea air and the sound of the water. I am a mother to another woman’s orphans now, I am a wife to their father. I can hear the children on the lawn and discern their voices one-by-one, unseen but mapped on the green as they play.
None of my raised-bed boxes are even, nor my hand-tied trellises straight. I get too close to a thing, to where I can’t see its crookedness. Aside from human beings, you need to step back aways to see the crookedness in a thing. I wish I were a step-back person. Crookedness in a trellis you can fix before too many ties go in. But crookedness in man? What’s the point of seeing it?
“You are not their mother,” my godmother Shatzi says, as she has from the very moment—a scant year ago—that I became engaged to their father, a widower with eight children: three grown, three at home, two back-and-forth in university. It is quarantine winter—gray Virginia here, icy Quebec at her home far away.
You might be wondering how I can be so confident that our children will be happy to let recitals drift into oblivion. How do I know? Because I have been to scores of recitals and exhibitions, for music, for dance, even Lego robotics. The only people who are more obviously, thoroughly miserable than the adults are the children.
There is a liturgy of suffering that engrains my bones. The seasons of this life inhabit me. When I was young, what I first learned were the literal seasons: Spring brings hope, summer joy, fall coziness, winter magic. But life has shown me seasons within the seasons. Each loss returns to me in its appointed time…
One of the abiding narcissistic wounds of my time as a parent is that neither of my children particularly likes to read. Sixteen years into being a mother, I can still get teary thinking about it—as if, in some way incredibly important to me, I have failed.
There was the burgundy glove: a tiny knit handprint, one of those Dollar Store gloves made to stretch and cinch like a cartoon spring. It roamed the house, appearing on the coffee table or the living room floor, or sometimes on Daniel’s hand.
The fever was on us—if we can be honest with ourselves—long before the pandemic hit. It’s a self-fueling hatred, more firestorm than virus. Something in our hearts is the propellent. We all know it, and many of us have our scapegoats.