Between Mud and Stars

My daughters twist their hair in curlers

like my mother and her mother used to do

or slouching ponytails or tousled straight or

abandoned braids, loosening for days

Toss lipgloss and pink polish into pockets

though they chew chipped nails

and rarely shine their lips.

 

They read long books turning pages, curled

in couch corners, blanket-tucked

Bake bread, punch puffed dough

twist pretzels sprinkled with salt.

Wash dishes or laundry, mop the kitchen floor

build houses of cardboard

dress dolls for tea, tiny cups, tiny plates of almonds.

 

They draw lifelike portraits with charcoal pencils

Ride bikes without helmets, without shoes

collect rocks or feathers or filmy snakeskins

Gather tangled raspberries, blackberries, mulberries with

thorn-sketched arms and berrystained mouths.

They acquire poison ivy spots and tidy stitches

embroidered on bloodtraced foreheads

Sing with voices heartsweet or sonorous deep

strum self-taught guitars and ukuleles

Roll laughing down grassy hills, dig holes

bury bones, small skeletons

antlers and raccoon skulls, scattered dirt.

 

They make movies and fairytale plays

Pluck wildflowers, yarrow, queen anne’s lace

black-eyed susan, milkweed, tough chicory stems

Climb trees and smell of pinesap

laze with bees in shaded peach blossom and lilac.

 

They swim with sunburnt skin

slipping under the glisten stretch in sunshine with wild wind hair

Dance to mosquito hum and cricket chirp

and throaty frogs and creeping ticks

Run in wide fields of moonlight chasing

fireflies like breathing stars.

 

My daughters recite ancestral prayers

like my mother and her mother used to do

with hands folded like envelopes bearing love letters

They kiss my cheek with unglossed lips

Flap lashes like soporific batwings lidding their shining dream eyes.

 

Naomi Ernest
Art & Photography

8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman

my husband takes the lawnmower out of the shed and puts on rubber boots. the division of labor. he takes the big jobs. heavy machinery. oil changes. the long saturday trips to fun parks and public pools. the birthday parties and family gatherings. it’s the details for me. the daily therapy sessions spent pretending like having someone force your child to do things they do not want to do is fun. for everyone. look, mommy does it too. the endless loads of laundry and sinks full of dishes. the strategically planned trips to the one grocery store that he will go into, the one park that he goes to to walk in circles up and down the ramps, over and over. it is just the right size and texture of chocolate chip cookie. and holding tight and letting go and just the right level of shushing when the meltdowns happen. when the store is out of the cookies or the usual table is taken or the routine is off ever so slightly. it is interpreting grunts and coos and stamping feet that mean this or that is needed immediately. it is the million plus things that hold it all together.

my oldest friend stands in her kitchen with tears in her eyes and says to me, “it’s so hard just to be a mother. a mother of typically developing children. it’s already so hard. but what you do…i don’t know how you do it.” it is a kindness that punctures even my 2 glasses of rose haze. one that washes white light over the pink and brings everything back into focus, just for a moment. a rare moment in my life where i feel seen.

for the first year of my son’s life i kept a running timeline of where my life would be had i not had him. where i would be living, how my career would have evolved, where i might have traveled. after a certain point this other self dissolved. into the void. into the fog of nursing and soothsaying and becoming someone else. when i became her, the other me, i found the same things existed inside of me. the vanity, the selfishness, the ambition, the hunger, the moodiness and the effusiveness. the penchant for drinking wine out of glass jars and playing the 2nd sides of springsteen records over and over. quieter, but still there. what felt strange was trying to insert myself into my own life. and how the things that i loved to do, that once defined me, were so quickly thrown aside. most days there is simply no room for me. my priorities became exercise over art. food over friends. shopping over writing. alcohol over meditation. i want to be full when i am starving. i want to be up when i am down. i want to disappear i want to metamorphosize. it’s simple, really. what makes me feel alive? the pursuit of euphoria. ever so seductively just out of reach.

there is an entire generation of women living picture perfect lives on the internet. i scramble for a good angle. i tilt the camera toward the sun, hoping a rainbow might appear. i wade in to the water, just below my knees. i lift my skirt and look down at the welted thighs reflected in the water, see them shrink and expand with the shifts of water as they have with the shifts of my life. the lean months the heavy months. the 30 pounds, give or take, on or off, that have plagued my adult life. the same amount of weight that i gained with pregnancy. that number, just a number, the one that means margarita pitchers and chinese food on christmas. the one that means 2 hour workouts and freeze dried kale. the one i am always running from or running to. and somewhere in the middle is who i am. where i am. my weight. my heaviness or lightness.

My Buddy / An Excerpt

We had our routine: Awake. Prepare for the day. Have coffee, a little grub. Set to work, writing. Then a break, outside, to sit in the Adirondack chairs and look at the land. We didn’t have to talk then, and that is real friendship. Never uncomfortable with silence, which, in its welcome form, is yet an extension of conversation. We knew each other for such a long time. Our ways could not be defined or dismissed with a few words describing a careless youth. We were friends; good or bad, we were just ourselves. The passing of time did nothing but strengthen that. Challenges escalated, but we kept going and he finished his work on the manuscript. It was sitting on the table. Nothing was left unsaid. When I departed, Sam was reading Proust.

Long, slow days passed. It was a Kentucky evening filled with the darting light of fireflies, and the sound of the crickets and choruses of bullfrogs. Sam walked to his bed and lay down and went to sleep, a stoic, noble sleep. A sleep that led to an unwitnessed moment, as love surrounded him and breathed the same air. The rain fell when he took his last breath, quietly, just as he would have wished. Sam was a private man. I know something of such men. You have to let them dictate how things go, even to the end. The rain fell, obscuring tears. His children, Jesse, Walker, and Hannah, said goodbye to their father. His sisters Roxanne and Sandy said goodbye to their brother.

I was far away, standing in the rain before the sleeping lion of Lucerne, a colossal, noble, stoic lion carved from the rock of a low cliff. The rain fell, obscuring tears. I knew that I would see Sam again somewhere in the landscape of dream, but at that moment I imagined I was back in Kentucky, with the rolling fields and the creek that widens into a small river. I pictured Sam’s books lining the shelves, his boots lined against the wall, beneath the window where he would watch the horses grazing by the wooden fence. I pictured myself sitting at the kitchen table, reaching for that tattooed hand.

A long time ago, Sam sent me a letter. A long one, where he told me of a dream that he had hoped would never end. “He dreams of horses,” I told the lion. “Fix it for him, will you? Have Big Red waiting for him, a true champion. He won’t need a saddle, he won’t need anything.” I headed to the French border, a crescent moon rising in the black sky. I said goodbye to my buddy, calling to him, in the dead of night.

Repost “A Happening of Humans”

“Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.”
— Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Sometimes I think the things I have done in my life that matter most are the things that reveal me as an animal. I have labored children. I have had the sex that conceived those children. I have felt the pleasures of that sex. I have nursed those children. I have selected a mate, formed a pack, marked out a territory, and built a den.

My three-year-old talks about the world in animal terms. He asks that we call him a shark one day and a barracuda the next. He is usually a predator because they are fierce and powerful, though he reassures us that he is a friendly one who doesn’t eat people. Some days he’s a butterfly.

We watch so many episodes of Planet Earth with him. (The only TV we have allowed in our house has turned out to be the only TV he ever wants.) We watch as a “Jesus Christ lizard” walks on water and its relative the Komodo Dragon saunters down a beach. A giant grey hippo opens his mouth underwater so a school of fish can clean his teeth. A polar bear mother and her cub walk in their dirtied white coats through the pink and blue corpse of a humpback whale. It is all striking and startling.

My son is less awed than me. He seems to slot the information he receives from David Attenborough easily into his worldview. The parts I am worried will scare him — the deaths and savageries — are accepted by him as matter of fact. I am surprised at how easily he goes from relating to an animal on screen — calling it cute, imitating it, guessing at its desires — to letting it go: a baby penguin into the jaws of a seal. I try to facilitate his learning: “The cheetahs need to eat, sweetheart.” “The ostrich wasn’t sad to die because she became food for the cheetah family.” But I don’t think he is listening to me; I’m stating the obvious and he has already moved on.

One night after an episode and a bath and a debate over how many animal encyclopedias and dinosaur books he can take into bed with him, he finally sleeps. Our house quiets. His baby brother breastfeeds and is rocked and sung to, and dropped — a bag of rice — into his crib.

My husband and I are alone together. Intimacy feels far too proper a word for these rare moments. We don’t “sleep together” or “make love.” We have sex. We, as a biologist might say, engage in breeding behavior.

Not that it is dull — it is anything but. It feels more beautiful now than it did when we were first together, and our bodies were tighter and our skin brighter and we could have sex whenever we felt like it. Back then sex was all romance and fantasy. There was an element of seriousness to it; we were getting to know each other and everything was of consequence. Now that our pheromones have done their job and procured us mates, sex has been stripped of its mystery. There is no hiding everything we are. It’s simpler. The drive is different. We are no longer fantasizing. We are desiring and pleasuring and playing. We are dolphins.

A pterodactyl shrieks from one room over — a child of ours, calling out. One of us pulls on clothes and disappears into the dark to offer comfort. When we’re back in bed together, we laugh. We shush each other and try to be quiet, and it suddenly all seems hilarious to be sneaking around in a home that we share with people who are a direct result of this very business.

Early the next morning I am breastfeeding the baby in our bed. The sun lies in long slats over the sheets. The baby makes his early sounds and I have to shift him, on me, to make sure he doesn’t kick his dad in the head. I am struck by how our children are proof that what we are doing means more than it feels like it does. That what we are doing is a small part of a bigger picture that lasts longer than we do and, in a certain sense, has little to do with us.

From what I understand, the rare occurrence of monogamy in the animal kingdom is sometimes attributed to the dependency of their offspring: a pair stays together because it provides their young with the best chance of survival. This seems simple enough. But in reality it is also raw and chaotic. A female wolf stays up to three weeks in the den with her pups after they are born, during which time she and the pups are wholly dependent on the male for food. When the pups are older but still cannot hunt on their own, the mother and father take turns going out for food while the other “babysits.” The couple does not mate again for over a year.

My husband and I argue about how many kids we want to have. We bicker about whose turn it is to wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes we are too tired to argue. Sometimes I worry that we are letting the frustrations build up, that we aren’t making the kind of time for each other that we need to stay strong and get even stronger.

Until about a year ago I didn’t think about animals that much. Now that I’m constantly being asked what I would choose to be (a wolf) or what my favourite swimming creature is (a manatee), I can’t imagine my life without this frame of reference. It puts things into perspective. When I think about my troubles in the context of other human troubles, I only feel guilty (i.e. at least I have a house to get messy). But when I compare myself to an animal, I do not compare the seriousness of our respective struggles, I see only that we both struggle.

When my firstborn was little I remember realizing that he was going to go through a range of emotions any given day with or without my intervention. I might as well provide boundaries for him to thunder against. I came to see this as my job, which might, I thought, protect him from being frightened by his own anger and wildness. His troubles weren’t great: he wasn’t allowed to touch the record player, he couldn’t eat a peach on the couch, he had to be quiet in church. But he railed against these setbacks and was as angry as if his troubles had been great. It helped me realize that my sometimes disproportionate emotional responses to the limitations of my life were normal and even healthy.

I was built to follow my instincts. My life is easier and my burden lighter than a mother octopus’s: she starves herself to death refusing to leave her eggs untended to get food. But our differences are less interesting than what we have in common: we are both bound to our children by instincts so powerful it often feels as if we are left without a will.

The thing I most clearly remember about being in labour with my second son is my husband’s body. I remember its exact smell, size, and proportions. I was floating somewhere, outside of myself, and his body, inhabited by him, was the thing in the room I understood best. Holding on to that body kept me in that room. Otters entangle themselves in seaweed so as not to float away while they sleep in the water. Every once in awhile, he smells exactly like he did that night, or I catch his body at the angle I held onto it then and I am knocked sideways with emotion. I am sure this is actually just a surge in neurochemicals in my brain, dopamine and adrenaline in my blood — but it feels like love.

I have found comfort in a kind of zoomorphism during these years parenting small children. I like to think of my family first and foremost as physical beings. That we are just doing what it is in our DNA to do. It takes the pressure off our disagreements and incompatibilities. It takes the pressure off of a traditional notion of romance. I am relieved to realize my husband and I are a family, not because our personalities are best suited or because we make time to get out of the house as a couple, but because we live together. Because we eat and sleep and rise and play and fight and fuck and pass time together.

In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the elderly narrator writes to his young son:

“It’s your existence I love you for, mainly.”

I think this is the kind of love our children bring out in us: an existence-first type of love. And I’ve found that, since having children, I love my husband like that too. I love him mainly for the miracle of his being here at all. Beside me, in all this living we’re doing.

 

All Photos by Nikaela Marie Peters via Rose & Crown

Essay originally published here

Aquatic Development

The first time you were immersed in water, your infant wail mimicked a fire alarm, alerting everyone on the hospital floor of imminent danger. The nurse came back, with a warm, red-faced bundle, happy to hand you over, sweat beading at her upper lip. Your first bath at home went much the same way, my face not beaded with sweat, but drenched in tears. I could never quite get used to your deafening cry. It made me feel helpless as a new mother, inadequate even at the basic task of bathing.

A decade passed and now, you are in different waters. The unpredictable, dangerous, stormy, and tumultuous waters of adolescence leave me again feeling despondent. Some days you come home teary eyed and red faced, much like that little baby I held in my arms. I can no longer wrap you in a blanket or offer you consolation at my chest. Your cries are still deafening, only it is no longer the volume of your cry, it is the gravity of your tears that shake my soul.

Stranded on the shore, I want to throw you a life raft, some device to save you from the treacherous waters you are now treading. Like the fishermen’s widow waiting for her husband to return on the widow’s peak, I anxiously stare at the horizon, hope you will survive this perilous voyage. And just when I think the seas of adolescence have swallowed you whole, I see your delicate head–the same soft, curly brown hair I kissed for the first time—pop out of the sea. Sometimes screaming, sometimes gasping for air, sometimes peacefully bobbing along, but always, always riding the ebb and flow of growing up.