Sunday, November 22, 2009

A fierce and mortal green

When I was in college, Dar Williams performed on campus. I had never heard of her, and to say that many of her songs resonated with me would be an understatement. Here's my favorite, then and now. (I couldn't find a clean version of Williams singing it, so here's a video of someone covering it. Go ahead and hit play, and let it run as you read the post.)

I've always been a sucker for songs and poems about place, and a big part of that passion comes from wanting to be grounded, but also frequently from a sense that I'm about to lose the place where I am. I experience, then, a cognitive dissonance of place, where I let myself fall in love with a place even as I'm plotting to leave it.

This feeling is also native to parenthood, but particularly, I think, to motherhood. I love Lucas so deeply at every stage, even as I know that each beloved stage will pass before I even fully recognize it as a defined moment. And as he has moved from fetus to newborn, from infant to toddler and now to little boy, I can feel the changes in my body, even now when he's four years old.

It's a similar sensation to being grounded in a place, but that place is Portuguese Bend, where the ground slides into the Pacific, so much so that pipes are above ground and the main road is under almost constant construction. You're standing on what feels for a moment like solid ground, but you know at the same time that you're headed inexorably to the sea.

There's something about that last verse of Williams's song that always gets me, even as the "you" of the poem shifts for me from being a person to being something unnamed and temporal:
Once I had everything—I gave it up for the shoulder of your driveway and the words I've never felt.
And so for you I came this far, across the tracks, ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt—and I'd do it again.
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion,
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see:
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa, and you were not thinking of me.
The intersection of motherhood and my nostalgia for place is a complicated one. It's very easy for me to look at the cost of living here, my imperiled employment (thanks to the clusterfuck that is the University of California), and myriad other indicators of the quality of life and to think I should reserve a moving truck for next week. And because I spent the most intellectually invigorating and emotionally formative years of my adult life in Iowa, it's to there my mind wanders, as if I could recreate the sharpness of mind of a 22- or 24-year-old; the freedom of being a young, highly educated, single white woman; or the optimism (always oddly tinged by depression) of the college or university student who has always been told she has all the smarts and talent and drive she needs to succeed as an academic, or indeed in whatever endeavor she pursues.

As if I wouldn't be freaked out by fears of Lucas freezing to death when my unpracticed hands bundled him up each morning for icy sidewalks and wind chills of 30 to 60 degrees below zero. As if I wanted to worry about snow collapsing the roof or tornadoes or whatever it is Iowans fear beyond losing their grown children to sexier locales or letting the literacy rate drop below 99 percent.

As if I could easily move Lucas after he starts public school in less than two years. Tick tock.

I feel I'm at this huge, sad crossroads, and no two things I value lie in the same direction. My parents, my sister, and my mother's family are all in Southern California; many friends, beloved colleagues, and some of the best public K-12 schools in the nation are here in this town; better opportunities for work definitely lie elsewhere. And let's not forget, of course, that I'm married, and Fang's various dreams and fears further muzzy any attempts at mapping a future.

I've been on the edge of tears all evening, not just because of the complexity of being a working quasi-academic mother and wife, but also because of our decision to move Lucas to a different preschool because a slot opened up there for December. His current daycare/preschool provider, whom I've called Serena in this space, truly loves Lucas--not just as a teacher might, but as a surrogate grandmother. He has been at her in-home daycare for three years, and he has two beloved friends--one age four, one only about 16 months old but wise beyond his year--there.

But many of his peers have moved on to more conventional preschools, and Lucas is now the oldest child there. He's not as social as many kids his age, and when we take him to birthday parties where he doesn't know many of the children, he plays by himself in a corner, never quite joining in play with the other kids. I know some kids are slow to warm up or are shy, but Lucas's reticence is, I sense, much more profound, and he needs to be with a slightly larger group of kids his age.

When I talked today on the phone with Serena, we were both crying. After all, she has been so instrumental in Lucas's development and in making him feel loved in the world. She has introduced or exposed him to so much, from letters and numbers to Nepali and Hindu cuisine, from yoga to (through her own life and those of her assistants) Hindu and Muslim cultures and practices. His life has been profoundly enriched by her attention, dedication, and love--as have ours.

Complicating matters is that Serena's son has been sentenced to prison for more than 378 years, probably unjustly. (Seriously, explore the advocacy pages at that link, and then write a letter or make some other small or large meaningful gesture). Fang and I have attended rallies and written letters and commented on blogs and forums and have been, I suspect, far more involved in the campaign than have other parents. Indeed, today Serena told me that we are not like other parents, that we are exceptional in many ways. Her daycare business has declined lately, partly out of coincidence that her students were aging out of daycare (though she does offer preschool up to age 6, I haven't seen any kid stay until age 5) and partly because of the pall that fell over the house after her son's unexpected conviction. Serena and her family have paid a tremendous financial and emotional toll over the past six months (and, unbeknownst to most of us at the daycare, for three years prior to that), and I know that on top of all this chaos and sadness, losing Lucas is at once a relatively small thing and yet no small blow.

One of my favorite lines in all of poetry--"it glowed a fierce and mortal green"--comes from Richard Wilbur's poem "The Pardon." It's a disturbing and raw poem that narrates the death, decomposition, burial, and--in a dream--resurrection of a 10-year-old boy's beloved dog. Recently, all my nostalgia about the past, as well as my mourning of the future I thought I'd have but won't, has been colored not gray and black--as depression tends to shade things--but rather the fierce and mortal green of Iowa in early August, when the corn is tall and the soy rolling like an ocean in a summer wind.

It's the green that comes only from soil enriched with crap and death.

I expect something will emerge from this glowing green that tinges the borders of my vision. Whether the future that approaches will be--to borrow another of Wilbur's lines--"clothed in a hymn of flies" or a bumper crop of something to be desired, I don't know.

I do know that I'm profoundly sad about what's passed and passing. For now, maybe, it is sufficient to feel anything at all.


Keiramc said...

So many resonances here for me- the nostalgia for place while living in a a crazily expensive city, the loss, longing and yearning that has marked by so-called career.

I read your post and then hopped on over to bg's blog and then read her latest post and feel the connections woven- thanks for sharing. And for turning me onto to that gorgeous poem.

Karina said...

Leslie, I love reading your blog. You are such a great writer. Here are my thoughts from your post.

I too was introduced to Dar Williams when she visited my college campus. One of my favorite songs of hers is "It happens every day." I think of it every time I think of college and college students. Nostalgia.

I was profoundly attached to the place where I went to college. When I drove away from campus, I bawled for 20 miles down the highway. (I just started to have a sense of deja vu about writing this here, and sure enough, I found an earlier post of yours about place "Finding my place" where I commented about this connection. So, I won't totally repeat myself now.) Anyways, I think about attachment to place, too.

I'm also struck by what you said about crap and fields of "fierce and immortal green." This has been a tough year for my family and I'm hoping all the crap and death fertilizes the relationships of those of us who remain.

This year, I am thankful for wonderful bloggers like you. Thank you, Leslie!