It’s like this: Silas, a tiny imp at three, hair like a supernova, blue eyes lit with mischief, turns away from my gentle chiding and walks slowly, purposefully, down the hallway. His newly three-year-old body conveys resolve in its posture, intention in its steps. He trails one finger along the wall as he walks, pivots, turns the corner at the end. He disappears. Si walks away from me, without looking back. And then he is gone.
And suddenly, in a flash of premature nostalgia, versions of this scene—the rest of his childhood, the rest of our lives—play out, one after another, in my mind. I lean against the kitchen counter, regard the empty hallway, breathe.
And then Si’s blond head pops back into view as he leans carefully around the corner, catches my eye, grins. He doesn’t speak as he smiles, but I hear him loud and clear. Gotcha, Mom! I walked away from you!
That he can even do this is new—a milestone—a marvel. And so, this was for show. Yet I know, and maybe he does, too, on an instinctive level, that every day he is practicing for the real thing. We both are—blocking and rehearsing for a play I’m not sure I want to be part of.
Here’s the thing: it is freaking terrifying to be a parent. Like, in any moment in which you’re actually paying attention. The weight, the risk, the fear. Sometimes it feels hard to inhale.
Part of this is the knowledge—the fear, and also the certainty—that I’m doing it wrong, all the time. The crushing thing is that there’s no way to do it right. I perceive the vague outline of impossibility, and in the face of something so huge, I am paralyzed.
And it’s not just my kids. Sometimes I experience the entire world through the lens of a moral imperative that I cannot meet. Save Things. And it is thus both fitting and unbelievable that last Friday night, I met the bird.
Every day I can, come rain, or snow, or (my husband hates this) even dark of night, when I have 20 minutes and shoes, I run through the forest on the west side of town. Sometimes, particularly when I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, this compulsion to self-care feels a bit sneaky. Last Friday evening, though, under a weight of obligations and expectations that suddenly felt impossible, I spent not 20 minutes but 90, and I didn’t sneak so much commandeer them. Rumbling thunder, running water on the path, and the increasing heaviness of my soil-caked feet aside, it was just what my soul needed . . . and then I saw him.
He was about the size of my hand, feathers puffed up a bit, bright red and completely incongruous—a songbird on the ground. He glanced in the direction of my shoe when I stepped near him, but didn’t fly away—instead, he walked on the path.
Honestly, he seemed untroubled. At the very least, he was not visibly panicked. That was fine; I felt enough panic for both of us. He was beautiful. He was hurt or sick. He couldn’t live here on the ground, on the trail, in the rain. Surely I should do something? I crouched near him on the soggy trail, asked him inane questions, watched as he snatched a mouthful of grass on this side, dug a bit in the mud on that. He kept walking whether I did or not, seeming only slightly to notice when I reappeared next to him, and not at all when I stopped.
I considered the wild bird rescue center in a neighboring town—we once took a robin there; it had knocked itself unconscious against our clerestory window. I considered attempting to catch this wild thing, holding it in my hands, taking him from Here to Somewhere Else. I considered hope, and what I could rightly invest in this bird. I considered the tasks and obligations that had already been given to me for that night. And then I stood up and walked away. I channeled my plucky three-year-old, and did not look back.*
I’ve been out to the trails in the week since then, and I haven’t seen the bird again. I haven’t looked for him, either. I have felt for him, though, in what I’m coming to understand as the pull of something bigger—a call to accept what is.
It was drier this week, the trails returning to dirt; life continues to assert itself in ways hopeful, marvelous—and challenging. The brown of the trail is increasingly adorned with dots of green. These are the insistent sprouts of baby trees that have found enough space and enough light to grow—directly in the path of my feet.
I hopscotch over them, and try not to think too much about it. They are heartbreaking, a bit. A baby tree pushes up through the soil and unfurls its first leaf with a strength and hopefulness that is inspiring—it’s going to take this chance its been given to grow, and go for it. Except that here it has no chance. This little tree—and this one, and that one—grows only to be trampled underfoot. And again, my heart pulls at my hands: do something. Fix it.
I don’t, though. I just feel. I just think. My grief is not for these trees.
There is no way around it, and also no way through. I am crushed underneath its weight, under the terrible knowledge that I will fail as a parent. Under the understanding that beyond that, I am incapable of protecting anything—even that which is most precious to me. I am rendered powerless by truth and certainty, as in the Samyutta nikaya, that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.
And, I find, in some strange way, that in utter powerlessness there is freedom. In lack of choice there is space to breathe, to be. To experience the strange magic of now—how this one small moment offers comfort and shelter, yet refuses to make a single promise to any of us.
I keep running through the forest, sliding around in the mud. I’m trying to keep my feet off the living.
I’m trying to understand.
my prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for the mixed blessing that is mothering and mother’s day:
In these moments
when what we perceive most acutely
is our own smallness,
when we cling to things we cannot keep
as we are called to love what cannot stay
Comfort us as we grieve our failures,
Our incapability, our losses.
Strengthen us that we may see, and celebrate,
not as something of or belonging to us,
but as they are . . . as themselves.
And help us to cultivate the gift of presence,
that we may take and recognize our joy
as it comes in the small moments of the everyday.
*Ok, I looked back once. I was already around the bend in the trail, though, and I couldn’t see him anymore. So I waited a minute. And then, with a prayer for bird peace, I walked to my car.