Week Three of a Six Week Series
After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank
in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing
things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,
their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person
who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need
to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.
Poets understand the sacred in a way that makes it tangible.They seek to replicate it, to name the unnamable in a way that it manifests before you as a known thing. My sacred space is inhabited by a familiar energy now. Elizabeth and I dropped Dave at the airport in Bozeman, MT and picked up my mother.
Bozeman to Missoula through Idaho, over the mountains of Idaho, past the pines and blue Coeur D’Alene to the Columbia River and the desert I never imagined Washington could have to Ellensburg with its bold backdrop of Mount Rainier and on to Seattle.
When we hit Seattle, we braved the crowds and visited the “must-sees.” Elizabeth and I rode the giant Ferris wheel at the water’s edge and I looked over Puget Sound, knowing the Pacific lay just over the small land border. This was the end of the west, the dreamscape of the possibility. Later that day, I would pivot south. There must be some significance to this left turn, to this refusal to stop at the end, to continue searching the familiar for the new.
My mother had never been west of Pennsylvania.
We can fill many roles for one another. I am taking my mother somewhere. I am showing my mother things she’d never seen before and most likely never would have if not for this trip. I believe this travel will change her. I believe travel like this changes anyone.
I want to share with you the quote that played as a mantra through my childhood: “Your mother loves you very much, she just doesn’t know how to be a mother.” My father and stepmother reinforced this constantly (among other shaky truths) but especially every time I mentioned wanting to move back in with my mother. Children are used as tools of control, children are used as mechanisms of hurt. My father’s control was absolute, we struggled from within it and without it. Mere survival was manipulated as ineptitude, was manipulated so that I was leverage in a game he created, refereed, and played spectator to. But it left me thinking she was a well-intentioned but ill-equipped human being.
I believed my staying away was a kindness and self-preservation.
On the second night traveling with my mother, I dreamt of all my friends who were mothers, I dreamt of them pregnant and I sought comfort with them. One by one, I embraced them and their round stomachs, feeling the pressure of tiny limbs and movement. I dream about nurturing. I dream about comfort. In my waking hours, I seek out all of these things. In all my waking hours I have sought comfort in safe and dangerous places.
Have our mothers been our daughters in previous lives or do women live out all versions of themselves in a single life? It is the nurturing that makes shape shifters of us. The life-sustaining force stretches and contorts all assumed roles.
From the waterfront of Seattle to TRAFFIC to four hours later to control to DETOUR to Midnight in Salem to the ancients of the Oregon Coast and Bandon to the ancients of the Redwoods and Benbow to San Francisco
I am starting to feel it now; the muscle tightness, the constant ache and uneasiness. I still have three weeks to go. My body is rebelling. My anxiety is spiking. I fear clots, I fear pulmonary embolism, I fear something I cannot yet name so it moves down well-traveled roads—the shortness of breath, the constriction, the panic.
My mother lightened my load every step of the way. This level of help felt foreign, undeserved somehow. How dare anyone make this easier on me? How dare I let someone take on this burden? But she did. She drove, she hauled luggage, she bathed Elizabeth, she helped. She made it harder for me to punish myself. So I created distance. I began calling her “Meema” as my daughter does; it put me at ease.
When I had my daughter, I remembered, “She loves you very much, she just doesn’t know how to be a mother.”
I don’t know how to be a mother.
I watch my child’s face, her arms, and her stance. I listen to the quiet, inner voice, the instinct. I doubt myself in each spare moment.
What a thing to say; what a thing to say to a child about their own mother. What a thing to say to a mother, to a girl-child who will inhabit all female spaces. What doubt to have her inherit because even the truth of mothering is subjective. Even mothers shift and assume new forms.
I have been mothered by my grandmother, I have been mothered by friends, by nurses, by my husband, and by my daughter. When I was anxious about Elizabeth starting kindergarten, she consoled me. When I was having trepidations about my collection of poetry coming out, she hugged me and said, “Don’t worry, Mom, you’re a great writer.” And when I fear writing conferences, workshops, or general gatherings within the literary community (which are notoriously troubling and traumatizing), she tells me, “If you don’t want to be there anymore, just go back to the hotel room and Skype me.” There are many times I would have taken her up on that offer, but healthy boundaries must exist in any nurturing relationship; the hardest relationship in which to create and enforce boundaries.
We drove and wandered far from the arid landscape of the low plains and the grass that moved like water to high plains that open up to mountains— the Rockies, the Cascades, the rivers in between— rivers that expand and contract, the roads that divide and traverse. In the impossible desert of Eastern Washington, we watched the wind kick up and then buck against itself, lifting the dirt and dust into funnels; small and unwieldy. At first we thought they were tornados, maybe just forming, or failing to thrive, but they were dust devils. One, then three, then five more in the field across the interstate. We pulled onto the side of the road and watched the wind dance with the dust. We didn’t wonder at the enormity and power of a natural anomaly or feel our hair rise with fear—instead we marveled at their grace and how such a small and delicate thing could bring itself up from earth, tether to the clouds, and let heaven twirl it.
At the end of this week, my mother pulled up to the departure ramp at the San Francisco International airport to drop me off. I hugged both of them, and waved them off to Anaheim. I caught my own breath, moved it down into my abdomen and marched through the doors.