My turn, my turn, my turn! My kids shriek and race around the house, bickering over who gets to use the something next. It doesn’t really matter what it is.
The rain falls steady against the window. The newspaper tells me we’re on day 49 without sunshine. Way to go, Seattle, you’re living up to your reputation, I think, not without bitterness. The crash is coming, I can feel the future moment where someone hits his or her head in playing too hard, says something mean, lashes out. The kids have been home more than not over the last couple weeks and the grey days are closing in on us. Mothers are the purported creators of sunshine, beating the gloom back with superpowers unknown, and I feel an imposter in nearly equal measure to the days in which I rejoice in the role.
I was unprepared for the sacrifice of motherhood, and the constant reckoning with my own limitations in the pursuit of raising decent human beings. I was unprepared for my deep desire to be present for my family as I watched my aspirations to change the world drift away. I was unprepared to feel both staggering love for my children, and a lack of personal fulfillment. It is too soon to parse out the why and the lessons learned. For now, it seems moot. It is the stillness of a changing tide, the slack water at an inflection point from ebb to flow, and I am simply at the point of being able to bear witness.
And, they grow up, are growing up before my eyes. I see a not-to-distant-future where I may reclaim some part of myself. I am emerging from a chrysalis, but still searching for evolutionary purpose in a changing ecosystem. Meanwhile, these effervescent creatures in my orbit don’t slow down, don’t stop to wait for me as I stumble, hands outstretched, blindly searching through the brushy undergrowth of middle age. They are ever streaking away from me, a faint trail of laughter lingering like stardust.
Meanwhile, each crowded square of day is filled in on our family calendar in pen, little rays of excitement added by my daughter. Music recital. Violin concert. Play performance. Culture night. Bingo night. Spirit Week. Another birthday party. Thank you cards to write to teachers and bus drivers. Laundry. More laundry. The carrying caddy containing cleaning supplies, conveniently portable, has been sitting outside our bathroom for more than a week. What’s for dinner mom? Chicken curry?! Awwww, I don’t want that!
In the midst of my slow-motion detachment from chaotic family orchestration, I long for clarity of purpose. Not to escape, but to reach for some more elemental version of myself. Closing my eyes, I imagine I am a bird soaring high over head, looking down at tiny houses growing smaller and smaller as I spread unbound wings, soaring to greater heights.
In the mirror, I speak firmly, with authority, in my best mom voice: shake it off, take a deep breath. This is what we do. We build the door out, and then go through it. We go out with a friend. Maybe we meditate. Escape into a book after bedtime. Head out for a hike. We go, and we re-discover the thread. We re-gain some small piece of ground or sky or water for our Selves.
I find my own space to breathe on the ocean. It is a place where I can sink deeply back into a version of myself that came before the Great Juggling Act of my present life. I can feel its tidal pull in the deepest parts of my bones. My childhood self is stirred by the smell of low tide mudflats, the sound of a foghorn, and the feeling of perfectly round wave-polished stones in my hands. I want this for my own children, bringing a part of me to them in a great circle.
Lines cast from the dock and daily life recedes as the distance to shore increases by boat-lengths. Where home chores feel heavy, boat chores feel succinct and satisfying: remove dock lines, remove fenders, remove and stow the sail cover, secure loose items in the cabin to make ready to sail.
Out on the expanse of water, I savor a growing sense of smallness. Encircling our boat is deep water, plunging hundreds of feet below the deck, and above a skyline jagged with snowy-peaked mountains that reach impossibly high. The feeling of weight, all the Should and Could and pressing neediness, evaporates into the atmosphere, dissolves into the deep.
We anchor at the southernmost point of an uninhabited island, a state park that has been preserved by someone’s foresight, a legacy that outlives any daily obligation. The city skyline is obscured behind the tall Douglas fir and red-bark madrone trees, soaring above the shoreline and cliffs. A pair of bald eagles glare down at us, unruffled by our presence. They are clearly masters of all they see, and we acquiesce, and bask in our smallness in their eyes.
My clattering children spill out of the cabin, eager to go to shore, eager to yell and play and sing and run and explore, without being shushed, fingers pressed to my temples. There are no toys, no accessories to manage, no choices to make, only rocks and sticks and crabs on the beach and endless exuberance. With great excitement, they row to shore with my husband in our dinghy, one kid at each oar, clumsily rowing in circles and laughing. In the calm of the late afternoon, their raucous meandering toward the beach is swallowed in the stillness. The eagles solemnly survey the scene and remain unconcerned.
I am left to the stillness, to sit and look around me at the reflected sky and do nothing. This nothing feels remarkable. The specter of emails to answer, a phone to occupy my consciousness, a To Do list a mile long, it all has disappeared into the hushed stillness. A moon jelly floats by and I wonder at its beauty, its contentedness at suspension, time immaterial.
Sitting in the quiet, I watch one of the eagles take off. It circles widely, then dives, climbing back into the air with a great flopping fish in its talons. Grasping its prey, the eagle pumps its giant wings powerfully and returns to its perch, ripping into the fish on a branch high off the beach. There is a simple imperative in this wild creature. A purpose without being precious or curated or even observed.
It just is.
Later, I will enjoy boiling pasta in one cooking pot, on the two-burner stove, calling it dinner.
After a long beach explore, my beautiful children and my patient husband return, boots full of sand and yet suddenly shiny and seen. The dull veil clouding my view of them through the logistics and managing has been nearly erased.
At the tiny cabin table, my son refuses to mix his pasta with anything but butter and I shrug, unfazed. My daughter is ravenous and I am grateful. My husband smiles at me over their tousled red heads. Afterward, we read from a book and they give in to sleep.
The weather does what it wants outside, and we adults sit in silent companionship, ignoring the eight dirty dishes for a moment. This floating retreat has filled us back up, as it does. In 150 square feet of living space, I have found simplicity, and it is all we really need for the moment.
Our expectations out here are simpler. We have tricked our minds into believing that, with a change of scenery and space, we can let go of all the Shoulds in our lives. Even the kids have learned this to be true, without being told it is so.
When we return on Sunday, the chaos awaits, but perhaps at a lesser volume. The laundry will keep coming, the cleaning supplies still waiting, expectant. The stillness, the respite, is but a temporary lull.
And. I am taking in these lessons in smallness and simplicity with a beginner’s interest. This ever-evolving journey still has much to teach me, and I can feel a shift. The largeness of horizon, the smallness of our worries, the peace of open spaces, they are enough to contain me: the mother, the spouse, the child, the woman yet unfolding. It is enough for now to believe I am part of something bigger, somehow akin to the eagles and jellyfish. In that, I feel whole again.
Brenna Sowder grew up exploring rocky beaches at low tide in New England. Her writing explores nature, raising children, and being human in a rapidly changing world. She lives outside Seattle, and is working on a memoir. When not writing, she can be found plotting her family’s next adventure by sailboat.
featured photo courtesy of the author