Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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In the middle of the night, my children crawl into bed with me. It’s hard to sleep sandwiched between them but it’s harder to say no. I arrange them just so. Sara’s feet have to be tucked in, while Mara uses her blanket like a pillow. Sara asks to be cuddled; Mara shoos me away but whispers that she loves me. It’s 3 a.m. I lie perfectly still, waiting for them to fall asleep. Sara sits up. She wants breakfast. I tell her it’s too early. She scowls, and hurls her little body back on the bed in protest. Mara snuggles close. Tell me a story. I tell her I don’t know any.
I get up. I’m going to the bathroom, go to sleep, I say. There’s menace and bluff in my words; like a singer or an actor, a parent learns the nuances of voice — holding a child spell-bound, or firmly drawing the line. I close the door, go into the kitchen and read a while, then go back to sleep — in their bed.
I have an odd dream. In it, I’m told, “THE SUN is a good magazine. If you didn’t have children it would be a great magazine.” In a way, it makes sense: I spend five days a week at the office, two days with the children. Since I enjoy my work, I’d probably be here much of the weekend if it weren’t for them. A better magazine? Probably.
But would I be better? Earlier in the day, I visited the poet Jimmy Baca at his home in Hurdle Mills. We walked past a pond and through the woods to a field. He said that when he first moved here, after being in prison for five years, he’d come to this field at night to look at the stars — until a sudden noise, or the awful immensity of the heavens, sent him running home. I said I, too, worked on being less afraid, more my own person — I think I used the phrase “complete within myself.” He nodded, and said that wasn’t enough. We need to remember, he said, that we’re of the earth, and can’t be complete just within ourselves.
What most reminds me of that is being a parent. I spent too many years in New York City to pretend to love, or understand, trees and shrubs and flowers any more than I do; walking barefoot feels good, but a farmer I’m not. Being “of the earth” has more to do, for me, with people. After all, the planet grows us, too. And big people start out little — and there’s the tale.
Of course, we think in broad concepts, like “humanity” — but even if we know many people, we don’t know them well; the handful we befriend are all the humanity we’ll really know, and our homes and neighborhoods are as much of the earth as we’ll tend. It’s one thing to talk about “the planet” and it’s another to live here, with dignity. That’s as hard as it’s ever been, the advances of medicine and psychiatry and the internal combustion engine notwithstanding. Birth is birth, death is death, and the cliches we laugh at are the ones we live — such as, “When you have children, you’ll understand. . . .”