By Sarah Silbert
From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear.
— Virginia, Woolf, “Kew Gardens”
Life’s pace feels far too fast. Days and weeks lift like startled birds from a field, disappearing before I’ve barely noticed them. For counterbalance, I’ve been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s short story, “Kew Gardens,” which illustrates an oval-shaped garden bed in a city park with the most un-hurried of descriptions. A grass blade, a spot of pollen, the shell of a snail – each bit of life is an adventure in exploration. Color, texture, shape, and light swirl together so that one’s consciousness becomes engulfed by the garden’s sensuality.
I am thirty-nine. I have three young children: a seven-year-old stepdaughter, four-year-old son, and one-year-old daughter. When I connect to my family as Woolf communed with Kew Gardens, my sense of wonder becomes so intense, I lose all form. Electrons and protons fly off, and I am light, shining out beyond my bones and skin, wafting into the sky and trees around me.
Human life doesn’t make such ecstasy easy. Take my kitchen sink. It isalways full of dishes. By full, I mean jammed from edge to edge, as one person after another tries to shove one more cup or bowl in it. People start balancing dishes on top of other dishes, so the sink becomes a physics experiment of towers-that-might-or-might-not-fall. I can clean every single one of those dishes, go to the deck to hang laundry, and by the time I return, the sink is full again, and most likely, peas and raisins and the baby’s corn puffs cover the floor, which needs sweeping as often as the dishes need cleaning.
I am not complaining, merely illustrating why an artistic wonder for life is hard to sustain. Chores need doing, from changing a diaper to lighting a fire. Then add the paperwork of managing health, home and car insurance, taxes, doctor appointments, electric and propane bills. And all these daily duties are done around and beneath a job. For me, that means teaching a four-four load at a community college where students are as busy, if not more busy, than I.
Still, I believe our bodies and minds deserve a chance to sink into the rich and sensual details that make up our organic reality, because only then can we love it fully. I’ll never forget the words of a dear friend: “On your deathbed, are you going to regret not having vacuumed more?” From this perspective, much of what I do is distraction from what I will miss. To keep myself focused on what matters, I am writing about all that makes my heart zing.
Naked Wild Boy and Baby at the White River
People from cities and warmer territories cannot understand the omnipotence of winter in Vermont, when our whole world gets locked under ice. House roofs, yards, rivers, cars, fields and forests disappear under snow drifts as hard as granite in winter’s sub-zero temperatures. Color ceases. For seven months we live in black and white like stars lost in night.
What will always keep me is the drama of spring. This long-awaited season explodes out of the ice, a triumphant “hurrah!” of fireworks streaming red and gold and blue and green. With gigantic gulps, the earth swallows away the snow; rivers and ponds swell to bursting with sluicing waters. People walk along Main Street taking off hats and jackets, letting their faces and arms turn hot pink in the sun. They say hello to people they don’t know and “How-have-you-been?” to people they do.
This last spring, my kids burst barefoot out of the house at first light. Their skin was as white as the remaining snow piles, which they tore into with bare hands and threw at each other (and which baby Grace then ate). It was Monday, and I decided to take the two younger kids to the town park while their older sister Stella was at school.
Beside the park runs the Third Branch of the White River, and in spring, this path of water is a frothing ocean of movement. The kids heard it and smelled it before they saw it. Mix wind with a lion’s roar and the watery notes of blue jays at twilight, and you will know that springtime sound. The smells were of upturned earth, moss, and pine. We picked our way through a three-foot-high hedge of weeds, then clambered over rocks to find a small a beach of sand. I could feel the river’s spray from ten feet away. Immediately, the kids kicked off their shoes. Clothes and diapers followed. Drew and Grace raced each other into the water, with me screaming behind them, “Beware the current!” Ignoring me, they danced in the water like wild horses kicking it up at the beach for a movie.
From the icy cold of the water, the kids raced back onto the sand, digging numb toes and fingers into its mammal-like warmth. Drew threw his body stomach-down and rolled until he was covered chocolate-brown from chin to foot. Then he embraced Grace so that she, too, was covered with sand. Soon enough, they were rolling in the sand together, with Drew screaming, “We are wild sand people, warm and wild sand people!” After five minutes, the sand people pulled each other up and raced back into the water to rinse off, and then they were diving back into the sand, and on and on it went.
Hours passed. Their exuberance never flagged. Eventually, I had to pick Stella back up from school, and I knew, too, that food would soon be necessary. So I chased Drew and Grace back through the weeds to the parking lot where kids laughed and called to each other: “Look at that naked boy and baby!” I didn’t even bother trying to get clothes on them, just wrapped their sandy bodies in their shirts and strapped them into their car seats, planning to hose them down once we arrived back home. They fought me hard, begging not to go home, pleading with me to let them stay free.
“May you stay free,” I thought, settling in my own seat and turning the key. I vowed right then not to lose the rest of the day to have-to’s. Homework, bills, my three stacks of student papers – NO. Even dinner could be a game of hot dogs cooked over an open fire and eaten straight off the stick. The sand people live on!
Crashing Cymbals and Congas on the 15th Day of Rain in June
June in Vermont means rain. Mist swirls, winds blow, and down it comes. In this fertile climate, weeds grow a foot high in a week. Milkweed and meadowsweet reach like seaweed into waving sheets of gray that swipe over the land.
The kids don’t care: they strip down and run outside naked, splashing in puddles as big as bathtubs and making sloppy soups in buckets overflowing with mud and grass. Eventually, they get cold, their feet white and shriveled, their lips blue. That’s when we pull out the drums from underneath the stairs and set up in the living room.
We’ve got two congas and a full drum set, plus all kinds of pots and pans. Grace loves to balance on her high chair and smack her palms on the congas. Drew likes to take charge behind the drum set, whacking at cymbals and snares as if to break them. Stella is always the dancer, twirling around and leaping with colorful scarves flowing out of her hands.
Between songs, the kids take breaks for dress up. This last rainy day, Drew ended up in the pink tutu. Stella got the pirate pants and hat, and Grace wore butterfly wings and a baseball cap put on sideways hip-hop style. We played musical pillows, indoor soccer with a beach ball, a little gymnastics, and then Eric walked through the door. He was a professional drummer for fifteen years, so when he settles behind the drum set, the house sucks in a deep breath, getting ready to really let go into some body-thumping rhythms. Forget the rain, forget the gray: when Eric plays, the room transforms as purple, white and gold birds swoop overhead, and all five of us swing arms and hips and hair. We toss toys and catch them over our heads or behind our backs. We call out loud to each other and to our own dancing bodies – “Alley-oop!”
I don’t always feel happy or passionate or even awake. Occasionally, my eyes feel black, and I want to hide under a blanket and pretend I have no job, no kids, no one at all in my life. The drums change all that. My feet move as if operated by a happy person’s strings. I see all kinds of colors, and then I become them, stretching out of my rainy day malaise into a rainbow, believing once again: Yes, yes, the pot of gold is here, right here, right now.
The Wonder of Losing a Bottle Cap in a Couch
Stella was at school. Drew was at pre-school. Eric was at work. The day outside was cold and rainy. The baby and I looked at each other. Sometimes you want a party, and no one’s around! Grace was tired of the animal book with different textures of fur on every page. She was tired of the blocks she’d learned to fit together only a few days ago. She was even tired of Drew’s electric choo-choo trains and told me so by throwing all three off the couch.
“Well, then, what do you want to do, Grace?”
She had no response other than to throw yet another toy off the couch. Feeling a bit blank, I reached around her to grab my water bottle and take a swallow. The top of the bottle was loose and fell off as I pulled it from the window sill to my mouth.
“Ooops.” I was about to get the top when I noticed Grace. Her eyes werehuge, as if a genie had flown out of the bottle. She lifted her hands, palms up, right in front of her face and gave one of her telltale squawks:
The gesture she used is the exact one we use when we play ball. I throw the ball, then lift my hands in that exact position and exclaim, “Where’d the ball go?” So now, I asked her, “Where’d the top go?”
She repeated her squawk and held the hand gesture perfectly. I moved a pillow, looked into the depths of the couch. Grace looked with me. And there it was, glowing like an exotic, white orb. Grace screamed. I screamed. Then Grace plunged her hand in and got the top and held it out to me with her eyes shining like two planets reflecting the sun.
I applauded her, then took the top. Grace screamed and applauded me. I tossed the top in the air, and together we watched it rise, fall, then disappear.
Grace: “Squawk” and hand gesture.
Sarah: “Where’d it go?” and hand gesture.
Repeat three times.
Finally, we moved a pillow, then another, until…ahhhh YES! There was the treasured white orb! We clapped hands for a solid minute.
I believe we played this game for a full hour. At no moment during this hour did Grace’s enthusiasm wane. She was enraptured. Here’s the top…Now it’s flying…Now it’s gone…BUT MAMA AND I CAN FIND IT!!!
A feeling of magic began to sparkle inside of me. I felt so lucky to be able to play with my baby like this, in the middle of the day, without any worry or guilt. I didn’t have a thought for dishes or dinner or that long list of professional projects taped to the fridge (highlighted with arrows and exclamation marks). I was as lost in the wonder of that bottle top disappearing in the couch as Gracie was.
When Grace’s older brother was born, I wasn’t so free. His dad was working sixty hours a week sixty miles away, and Drew was either with me at work or in a college dorm hanging out with my team of babysitting students. After our own work day, Drew would be on my back in a pack as I got wood from the back yard and wheel-barrowed it inside to re-start the fire in the woodstove. We’d make dinner, do laundry, and take care of all that stuff one has to manage when caring for a home and child. We were a powerful team, Drew and I, and we had some fun, but we didn’t get to do a lot of hanging out.
Grace and I, in contrast, have had it easier. I’m on sabbatical and don’t have to be on campus all day. Eric is working closer to home, part-time. So I can lose myself in the wonder of my baby’s wonder, and we can play a game. We can watch a piece of plastic disappear, and then we can make it re-appear by moving a few pillows. We learn together: what gets lost, can be found.
Thank you, Grace, for this moment, two people, so happy, grateful, full of love.
Dates with Drew
Being a big brother can be so hard. Sometimes Drew throws himself across my lap, fingers and toes dangling towards the floor as he sobs. His heart pounds rhythms of pain into my knees; his cries break like glass in my ears. I wish I could give him relief. I run my palms over his soft blond curls and rub his back as he cries and cries and cries.
Before Grace was born, I was all Drew’s, especially the lap-of-me. He could crawl on it anytime, for two-and-a-half years, and then, all of a sudden, a baby was there. And she was there all the time! Nursing, nursing, nursing!
Almost as horrific as the loss of the lap are the toys. The baby’s gotten old enough to take them. She grabs them out of their assigned roles in Drew’s elaborate choo-choo train and tractor dramas, and then she runs away with them, wreckingeverything.
She’s also horribly cute. She has red hair and red cheeks and a smile that gets everyone playing with her. It’s sickening, and it’s sad, and sometimes for Drew the whole world sucks.
“Choose three things that are sacred for you and your son,” my midwife told me before Grace was born, “and continue to do them after his little sister comes along. Let him know that no matter how many changes are occurring, you still have your sacred three things.”
I couldn’t think of only three things. Drew and I did everything together. He came to work with me and played with toys in my office or sat on my lap as I typed, and he even came to class. He was also my social buddy, accompanying me whenever I visited friends or went to movies, parties, or concerts. Most importantly, we walked the woods together. Every day, sometimes early, sometimes late, I’d wrap him in sheepskin, give him two Fig Newtons, settle him in his “napwagon” (a jogging stroller), and head out into the woods. We sang together on these travels, a made-up melody with words about flowers and birds or snow and mountains, depending on the season. Eventually, Drew would sleep, and I imagined his dreams full of the forest’s fresh air. When we returned home, we’d bathe, and then we’d do chores or visit friends for dinner. Before sleep, we would read at least ten books, and… How could I possibly choose three things out of an entire life?
What I was able to do was pick one afternoon that would always be ours. Every Thursday, Eric takes the girls, and I pick up Drew at his Montessori Pre-School. In the back of my car is Drew’s “tall” bike, which he rides across town to the cafe, where we eat a pumpkin muffin and read ten (or more!) books. My lap is all his during this time, and so is the rest of me. If friends happen to pass through the cafe, and I say hi to them, Drew puts his hands on both sides of my face and begs, “Please read, Mom!”
When Drew’s ready, we go back outside to bike anywhere and everywhere. My backpack flaps like crazy as I run after my speed freak up sidewalks, across fields, and down slippery banks to the river. We go and go and go until twilight hits and the air gets dark and cold.
This bike ritual must be honored no matter what the weather. When the sidewalks are slick with ice and the wind-chill drops below zero, we’re still out there wearing face masks and boots. If it’s raining, we get soaked, and I bring towels for us so we can dry off in the cafe. Our bike rides have become a part of town lore, and the local paper even ran a colored photo of Drew racing through a puddle as wide as the road. I feel such a thrill running by my boy’s side: we’re a team, he and I, indomitable and joyous and fast.
These dates are sacred also because, in between bike rides and books, we get a chance to talk. Drew opens up about friends, feelings, favorite and least favorite foods, imaginary building designs, toys, places he wishes to travel. Words flow out of him, like bubbles released from an empty bottle held underwater, and I become, again, startled and awake: here is this boy, my boy, thinking and feeling and dreaming his way through our universe! So often, parenthood is too full of trying to feed, clean, influence, and control one’s kids. I treasure this time where I am, instead, free toconnect to Drew, exactly as he is, in the midst of our ever-changing lives.You were my first burst of new life, dear Drew, and let’s always zoom off to crazy adventures together!
Love in a Field
Kids are great, they’re a parent’s reason for living… BUT… BUT… BUT…sometimes you have to leave them in somebody else’s care. A million reasons for occasional separations exist, but I’ll focus on the most fervent: You’ve got to have time with the person with whom you made them.
Eric’s birthday is in late May, and we’ve started a tradition of abandoning our little ones with grandparents early in the morning. We pack a slim backpack with water and cookies (No diapers! No extra clothes and multiple baggies of healthy snacks and bug-off and sunscreen and wipes and toys!), and we take off into the woods.
We have always loved to hike together. This early morning, when mist was still thick beneath the trees, we found our way to a river, climbed over one small mountain, and passed through groves of hemlock, then maple, then hemlock again. Our conversation rambled on like the land, touching upon all kinds of wishes – to see Scotland and gallop horses over the moors, to make a map of our territory and give names to all our favorite spots, to sell our novels and give money to our passions (hydro research for him, runaway girls for me). The sun climbed high, and the air warmed. Sometimes we held hands; sometimes we walked single-file. We always felt close.
Around noon, we wound our way back to the homestead, stopping for water and rest in the Upper Meadow. This twelve-acre circle of green has always enchanted me. It’s the first place on the land that made me say, “Yes,” knowing I wanted to live here forever. Far from roads and homes, it is fully enclosed by thick, stately trees at least half a century old. The grass is tall and soft. In the breeze, it looks like a sea cove of gentle waves.
On Eric’s birthday, bright yellow buttercups, orange paintbrush, and cobalt bedstraw were bouncing everywhere. I sighed, sinking down into the tall grasses, pulling Eric down with me. How could I not? I could feel the cool earth at my back, and then, when we rolled over, a warm breeze embraced me as I rose over Eric. His red curls became green grass, and his eyes closed. We rolled over again, and again. The land held us as we held each other. How luxurious not to be in a rush or behind a closed door! With such an abundance of time, love, and relaxation, every part of one’s body can join in that magical swell of release that lifts two people into the stars right in the middle of the day.
“Happy Birthday,” I sighed, when we lay later entwined on the grass with the wildflowers still dancing. Clouds had moved into the sky, and a few drops of rain started to fall. Yet we dressed slowly and held hands again while walking down the hill to the homestead, ready to grab hold of our kids and re-enter the world. May our birthdays always be magic, just like this.
Late afternoons can be tough. The baby becomes a desperate nursing machine, and Drew needs hugs and lap-time RIGHT NOW! Stella struts in her sarcastic costume, and dinner, oh dinner isn’t ready. It’s not even started, because I don’t know what it’s going to be. Yet it must be dinnertime, because Eric’s here, covered in sweat, diesel fumes, and dirt, exhausted from cutting down a hundred trees and…and…and…I don’t want to deal with any of these people. I want to go for a walk. I want to sit somewhere by a tree. I want to write so the movements of my mind can solidify into language.
Thank the gods for Eric. When he notices that all-familiar desperation gripping me, he places his warm, large palms on my shoulders, leans his scratchy chin near my cheek, and “Want to go running?” he asks. I sigh with such gusto that my breath probably causes waves in the Atlantic. He doesn’t even wait for an answer, just gathers up the kids and lets me hunt for my running shoes.
For some people, running is a have-to. They do it to make their legs and hearts strong, or for some other end. They don’t enjoy it, and they wish that the trial would end the whole time they’re doing it. The opposite is true for me. Running is my relief, my passion, and it’s even become my vice. I want to do it every day, for an hour, or two! And what adult in this modern western world gets an hour or two of time alone every single day?
I gallop up the hill anyway. I feel so light! I hear no human voices, not even my own. There is only the breath of the sky in the trees and the breath of me, one, two, three. I inhale colors – blue and gold and green – and I exhale every single bit of my life, high chairs and car seats and voice mails and emails. I breathe faster and harder, and my legs kick up even more speed, and my arms, too. Eventually the more sticky stuff gets breathed out – the emotional tensions between siblings, between Stella’s mom’s household and ours, between my wish to be a stay-at-home mom and my drive to be a professional writer. I breathe it out, out, out. I’ve been addicted to running ever since I was in high school and learned that frustration and fatigue can dissipate into flight. So I breathe and run, breathe and run. By mile three, I’m more air than flesh, and the bones of my back open into wings. I’m not on the ground anymore. Thank God. I love this earth, but I sure love leaving it, too.
If I have more than an hour, I stop for a moment at Peter’s Pond. This bit of water sits at the top of the mountain, clean as rain. Maybe it’s fifty feet in diameter, surrounded by grass and lupines. I’ve been swimming in this pond for five years now. I first jumped into it when I was pregnant with Drew. He was conceived in December, and once college classes ended in the following May, I began to walk up the mountain every day. A strange fatigue had inhabited me, and I could no longer run. Neither could I be still, though. I had a lot on my mind, and not much of it felt good. Drew’s father and I were fighting terribly, and so were my mother and I. My closest friend died of cancer, and I felt terribly alone without any kind of home or refuge.
The single source of light in my life at that time was Drew. I was utterly enchanted by this growing life within me. I hugged my baby all the time, wrapping my arms around my growing belly and holding tightly. Every morning, I filled a water bottle and took off up the mountain, talking to my baby, letting him smell river water and wildflowers with me. We listened to the mourning doves, the jays, the grouse. I had to rest often on my hikes, and lying on my back in a grassy field, I’d lift my shirt so the sun could sparkle in my baby’s eyes.
When spring became summer, and temperatures climbed into the nineties, that’s when I discovered the blessing of Peter’s pond. Peter had been inviting me to use it for years, but I had always felt shy. Now, I was still shy but desperate enough to let that shyness go. The pond hides about three hundred yards away from the road, so one day in June I just stripped down at its bank and jumped in.
The water made me gasp! I might even have cried out. It was so cold I felt I’d swallowed an ice cube as big as me. My heart beat wildly enough to make waves of its own.
None of these sensations mattered, though, because I also felt the baby kick. And that sensation eclipsed everything. It eclipsed the pond, me, and the whole world. When at last I was able to climb out of the pond and collapse on the grassy bank, I placed my hands on my goose-pimpled belly and waited for more. “Baby, talk to me again. Morse code. Come on.” I didn’t know Drew was a boy then, so I always just called him, “Baby.” I talked to him often, even before he’d been conceived, but by that pond, with his movements, I finally found an answer.
Every day after that first dip, I swam in Peter’s pond until Drew was born. I did somersaults in the water, floated on my back, dove down deep to plunge my hands into its murky bottom. My mind was so tied up with fears and hurt, but my body felt delicious. So I stayed there, in my body, in Peter’s pond, talking with my baby, the two of us swimming in God’s waters together.
After Drew was born in September, I took a short break from the pond, but by spring, I was back there again, this time with Drew asleep in the jogger. We’d run up the mountain together, and I’d dive in the pond to cool off, and then we’d run back down. Sometimes dragonflies and butterflies would perch on Drew’s arm while I swam. He always seemed so serene in his stroller in the shade of maples.
Peter’s pond has continued to stay with me through even more changes. Eric and I no longer feel like separate entities: we are pledged partners, and his daughter Stella is a consistent and beloved presence in our household. Grace is with us now, too, and our family of five feels like a magical five-pointed star.
More changes are that Eric has brought animals to our land. We have pigs and ducks and cows and turkeys now. Other animals may arrive in the future. (The kids are begging for bunnies and goats.) The gardens have expanded dramatically, and we’ve planted three fruit trees and a red oak. The little clearing and cabin I created eleven years ago has become a lively, even stately homestead.
Family changes are not the only ones to have occurred over these last years of my first becoming a mom. Three presidents have been in charge of our country; wars have ended and re-begun. Gas has tripled in cost, and food seems to have doubled. The stock market has crashed, and so has the housing market.
Everyone’s life is in flux; it’s good to have a touchstone. Standing beside Peter’s pond, then swimming deep into its core, I’m able to feel and even be familiar to myself, no matter how much change has occurred in my life or family or country. And from that place of familiarity, I’m able to see the changes clearly and to evaluate them. I open my arms to the dark waters. I give thanks to all who helped this season exist exactly as it has for my family and me. I don’t stay long. I can’t wait to hug my kids, my man, my home, my life.