My 15-year-old son, Milo, and I are hiking along the backbone of a ridge. The land drops away on both sides to deep, green valleys. Beyond the valleys, jagged peaks rise up, red and gray dusted with green. Farther in the distance, more mountains stretch hazy and blue to the edge of the sky. We climb up sharply, heading toward a rocky knob—the high point mentioned in the guidebook, I hope. I lift one foot after the other, repeating a mantra I found in a book on walking meditation: I have arrived. I have arrived. Looking down I notice the track of a mountain bike between rocks.
“What a stupid place to ride a bike,” I say.
“What a stupid place to do anything,” Milo replies.
We’re on day 40 of a 42-day trek of the Colorado Trail, a nearly 500-mile pathway from Denver to Durango. My husband, Curry, and our 11-year-old twin sons have hiked ahead, but Milo walks behind me. He’s developed blisters across the balls of both feet and strained a tendon in one ankle. To slow down and allow his body to heal he lets me set the pace. I’m a plodder. A dawdler. I stop and take pictures, look at the view, study flowers. Having someone hike behind me makes me feel rushed, herded. But today’s the first time I’ve walked with Milo on this hike, so I enjoy his presence at my heels.
Most mornings, Milo and his brothers set off together at a fast clip. Curry either treks ahead with them or stays behind to wait for the tent to dry. I hike alone until lunch, with one of the twins joining me in the afternoon. I rarely see Milo except in camp and at breaks. Once he sets out, he moves as if propelled by an invisible force. I once suggested he take on “The Flash” as his trail name, for his tendency to fly up three switchbacks before the rest of us have shouldered our packs. He smiled, pleased, but chose to stick with “Flaky” for the havoc showering weekly wreaked on his scalp.
But today Milo’s pace matches mine, while I move a little faster than I normally would and forego many photo opportunities. It’s mid-August and autumn has already crept onto this high ridge, turning the grass gold and withering many of the wildflowers. But the Indian paintbrush still bloom in every shade of pink—rose, blush, magenta, fuchsia, coral. To keep my mind off my tiredness, I focus on the beauty of the flowers and hum the Proclaimers’ song “I’m Gonna Be,” a tune we listened to on the drive from Maine, the Scottish accent serenading us across country. “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more…”
Five hundred miles is an awfully long distance for a teenager and pre-teens to contemplate hiking. We would have to average a little more than 12 miles a day in order to finish the hike and get home before school started. The boys had hiked no more than seven miles with full packs, but I wasn’t worried about their ability to finish the trail. I pictured them racing up mountains while I wheezed and gasped, struggling to keep up, which is how it’s come to pass. More than being apprehensive about the challenge of hiking, Milo was mad that he would “miss the whole summer.” His friends would be hanging out having fun and he wouldn’t be there. He also wouldn’t be able to work a summer job, take driver’s ed, or spend long, lazy hours doing absolutely nothing.
Milo never misses an opportunity to remind me that hiking 10 or 15 miles a day through heat or rain or hail, crouching on the ground to eat cold food, or sleeping on roots and rocks is not his idea of a good time. One evening, after a day of switchbacks that seemed to take us in circles followed by a long, steep climb in icy rain, we huddled in the wet tent, slurping cold ramen noodles. I said to the boys, “It’s okay if you don’t love every minute of this hike. Even awesome things suck sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Milo replied, “and so does this.”
And yet, despite the wisecracks, he’s remained cheerful all summer. He’s tolerated the discomforts of the trail with greater equanimity than the rest of us, has lost his temper far less often, and has hardly complained. He and his brothers have gotten along better than they ever do at home. While they’ve all had to grow up a bit, taking on responsibilities not expected of them in daily life—helping to set up and take down camp, collecting and treating water, staying on the correct trail—away from the pressures and influences of school, friends, and media, Milo is freed to be a kid. Each morning the boys set out together, telling stories and inventing worlds. I catch only snippets—El Loco…Tom Lighthouse’s World…Camper Bob and Camper Joe—before they disappear around a bend in the trail. In camp, they play poker with a tiny deck of cards or invent games, like Harry Potter Trivia or naming a fish for each letter of the alphabet (I=interesting purple jellyfish). Milo doesn’t know it, but this time is a gift, one last summer spent being a boy, a six-week reprieve from teenagerhood, a brief pause before becoming a man.
I don’t tell him this, of course. I hike on in silence, focusing on breathing, listening to Milo talk, grunting my replies. After what feels like hours of climbing, we crest the knob of land we’ve been aiming for only to find it’s a false summit. We have to travel downhill a bit and then climb up a higher, steeper, knobbier pile of rocks. I stop to rest, too tired to think of this hilltop as anything but a dirty trick of perspective, but later it will occur to me that parenting is one long trail studded with false summits—moments when we think we’ve reached the peak of rapture or exasperation over our children, only to find another, higher summit beyond.
Dark clouds amass around a jagged mountain to our west and we need to climb up and over this high point and back down to lower ground before the clouds break free of the peak and come our way. We reach the top, the actual, truly high point, and see our destination below—Taylor Lake, a turquoise gem set in red earth. I can see the gold pyramid of our tent, already pitched among the willow bushes, and my younger two sons working their way down the switchbacks. We will make it to camp before the rain.
We arrive home in Maine a week after completing our hike, two days before school starts. The boys don’t want to talk about the trail. When Curry and I propose an overnight backpacking trip in early October, they mutiny. I import my photos, type up my journal notes, but I don’t bring up the trail with the kids. Life returns to normal. Months pass and then I wake up early one morning to hear Milo in the shower, blaring music, as always, but instead of his usual rap or rock, I hear a familiar Scottish voice singing, “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more…” A few days later I pick up a package of the crackers we ate for lunch on the trail and serve them for dinner alongside soup. I hadn’t intended for them to trigger memories of the hike—I’d bought them because they were on sale—but once we start breaking apart and crunching them, the kids start reminiscing.
“Can you believe we ate these every day?” Milo says.
“Can you believe this was the best food we had?” I reply.
“You know, if it weren’t for the dirty and disgusting parts of the trail, I’d probably do it again,” Milo says.
His brothers chime in:
“I would do it again if we could ride horses.”
“I’d do it again if it was in Norway and I could ride a sleigh pulled by six huskies.”
“Remember how we ate cold oatmeal for breakfast every morning?” Milo says. “And it was disgusting? But you had to eat it or you’d get light-headed and have to sit down with your head between your knees an hour later?”
“Remember the wildflowers?” I say.
“I didn’t really pay attention to those,” Milo says.
“You didn’t see all those wildflowers?”
“I saw them, but that’s not really what I was interested in. I remember the mountains.”
This set off a series of remember-whens: Remember how we pooped in a hole 42 times? Remember the pika with an Indian paintbrush in its mouth? Remember the herd of bighorn sheep? Remember swimming in the ice cold lakes? Remember how I couldn’t sleep in the hotels when we went to town? Remember how hard it was to get a ride when we hitchhiked?
“You know,” Milo says, “hiking the trail is a lot better in retrospect than it was when it was happening.”
“A lot of things in life are like that,” I say. I think, but do not add, including parenting. The trick—which I’m still learning—is to appreciate life while it’s happening, even when you’re cold or hungry or tired or sore, when your baby is crying or your kid is driving you crazy.
I look around the table at my family, crushing cracker crumbs on their placemats and laughing over memories of dirty underwear and cold couscous, and think, I have arrived. I have arrived.
Andrea Lani’s writing has been published in, or is forthcoming from, The Maine Review, If Mom’s Happy, and Saltfront, among other publications. She’s writing a book about hiking the Colorado Trail in 1996 and again in 2016 and 20 years of environmental change in the Rockies. She lives in Maine and can be found online at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.
Little People chatted along the bathtub’s rim in carefully-planned pairings, then were swooped up, splashed in, recoupled, retold.
Stuffed animals sat at attention or—rudely–slumped, as I stood upon my desk, pencil pointed toward the massive USSR on my world map, teaching them the finer points of made-up history.
When the toys migrated to boxes in the attic, I created back stories for the characters I played in theater productions. I scribbled down broken phrases. Even after law school, as my prose morphed into Motions to Dismiss and discovery requests, the words were there, on the backs of too-expensive bar receipts and in late-night emails to myself.
And then, motherhood.
My children are separated by less than two years each. They are stacked together like Russian dolls. Three of them in a row, each a head shorter than the next.
My energy went so completely into them that I was unable to create anything else. It was as if somehow, in creating life and the milk that sustains it, I was relegated now to the creation of minor things. Of teetering ten-block-high towers and peanut butter sandwiches.
I don’t doubt my best work is behind me. My grand opuses shimmer and pulsate before me, living creatures, with wild hair and stomping feet. They refuse to be outdone. And how could they be? How could I top the creation of beating hearts, breathing lungs, opposable thumbs?
Yet, the desire to create remains. Not children—three is enough for me. But also, not the highest tower, not the perfect ratio of peanut butter to crustless bread. Something bigger than me. Something other than them.
Lately I’ve found myself sneaking words, the way I sneak the good chocolate from its hiding space in the back of the cupboard. I create moments so I can create more. So I can move forward—not beyond—but onward. To the creation of life by other means. A connection, a spark, where once there was none.
These words, too, pulsate. They beat a tender rhythm. They accelerate and slow. They are deafening at times, filling my ears, my whole being. More often I have to stop to hear them. And then. A subtle movement in my belly. My skin becoming taut then loosening again. If I wait long enough, I will find them. Because above all, they persist.
There is tension in this need to tend to what I have created and the need to create something new. The already-here demands much more than the yet-to-be. They clamor and cling to me, their immediacy tempting the burgeoning words back in, back down.
Until now, the words have accommodated. They have existed only in these stolen moments. Because what else can I do? I do not want to slough off motherhood. I couldn’t if I did. Motherhood will not be discarded. It refuses to be wrangled into submission. It is more powerful than that, than us.
But they won’t be so patient forever. Because the desire to write, to create, cannot be truly confined either. Its presence may not be so constantly felt, so immediate, so loud, but it is all these things. It sneaks in, elbows for space, demands attention.
This story began once upon a time. But I’m not looking for happily ever after. I don’t really even want “after.” I want today, in its messiness and joy and startling, exhausting now-ness. But I also need to start making room for all of it, all of me. To find space for these imperfectly fitting, chafing parts. To allow myself to be not just consumed, but fed. I have to stop worrying about the place settings and just invite everyone to the table. It might be ringed by coffee mug stains and permalayers of jelly. But there is space. I will make space.
Alison Wilkinson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and three children. She blogs for run.knit.love.
According to the historian Josephus, a group of 960 Jews chose to murder one another on a bleak mountaintop in the Judean Desert in Israel in the year 73 of the Common Era. In an unprecedented act of Jewish mass suicide, this last remnant of Sicarii zealots chose death rather than a life of oppression by the conquering Romans. The historical accuracy of the actions of the extremist sect of Jews remains shrouded in mystery since suicide and murder are forbidden by Jewish law. Archaeological evidence does not necessarily support all of the claims made by Josephus, who was a Jew who had joined ranks with the Romans and may have had his own motives for sharing this tragic story.
In spite of the haze surrounding what happened on that craggy fortress almost two thousand years ago, our family visited Masada as part of a two-week tour of Israel. Upon learning that there were no more French fries available in the air-conditioned visitor cafeteria, my then seven-year-old son promptly started crying and screaming. Jet-lagged, overheated, out of sorts, sleeping in a different bed every night or two, not eating his requisite amount of Goldfish crackers and pizza from his favorite restaurant, my son fell apart on this nearly hundred degree rock in the middle of the desert.
“This is not the worst thing that has ever happened on top of this mountain,” I tried to reason with him, but ended up sounding like a scold.
“Pull yourself together. You’ll get French fries when we get off of this God-forsaken cliff. No wonder they killed themselves,” I wasn’t helping the situation with sarcasm.
“Would you like a cold drink?” I tried a different approach. “You can have soda,” I bribed.
By now a large group of French teenagers were in the cafeteria line, laughing, tossing off a few “voilas,” and looking at this spoiled American child and his ineffectual mother. I was sure they were all judging me and thinking that this is not how intelligent mothers raise a civilized “bebe” in Paris. Of course they didn’t realize that my son was crying over French fries. The irony.
While this temper tantrum was burning itself out, my nine and thirteen-year-olds were sitting dutifully eating their cafeteria food. When my husband scooped our child off of the floor and pulled him to the side, I sat down next to my unobtrusive children and other participants in our tour. A member of our group who happened to be a psychiatrist smiled at me gently and spoke up, “You know, sometimes when people are anxious, they lose their ability to function very well. Maybe your son is nervous and apprehensive today?”
“He still has to learn how to function even when his surroundings are unfamiliar,” I responded to the doctor.
“It takes some of us a bit longer to do that,” he chuckled.
Our family learned a great deal on the trip to Israel. The kids realized that footprints of Jews, Arabs, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Crusaders, and so many others had made impressions in the dusty soil where they walked. Like the flight path of the migratory birds traveling from Europe to Asia and back, Israel was a travel route crisscrossed by a variety of cultures for centuries. We drove in a jeep near the Syrian border, rode snorting camels, took nature hikes, erratically navigated a kayak in the Jordan River, visited with a Druze family in a village outside of Haifa, prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and visited Israeli cousins for an outdoor Bar Mitzvah celebration on a hibiscus scented night. My children gazed at me in wonder when I spoke in Hebrew, and they could order ice cream and pizza in the language of the Bible by the end of our trip.
The trip was memorable for so many reasons, but I never forgot the wise words of our traveling companion. Whenever someone in the family is having an episode of emotional turbulence, instead of jumping to resistance and embarrassment (my first impulse), I try to figure out what the deeper source of the anxiety might be. Sometimes “I must have French fries” needs to be translated as “I just want to be in a familiar surrounding with the foods and habits that make me feel safe.” Masada is an emotional place that brings up feelings of isolation, desperation, and attack. Maybe my child absorbed some of those sentiments from our tour guide or took cues from our sad reactions. Or maybe my son really just had his heart set on eating those fries.
It’s been four years since our family took our ambitious trip. The memories linger in our scrapbooks and our minds. No matter how packed our touring schedule might be, when our family takes trips now, I make sure to bring a few familiar items from home. We also are religious about setting aside some quiet time for everyone to enjoy some salty French fries, too. Even when the language, food, and surroundings are completely unfamiliar, if our children feel at home in their own skin, they will embrace adventure and not shrink from scaling even the most imposing fortresses.
Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked for twenty-three years in the field of Jewish education. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter in Lisa Grushcow’s The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). Her writing has also been featured in Mamalode, Literary Mama, Kveller, urj.org, The Bitter Southerner, Parent.co, and in Mothers Always Write. For the past eleven years, she has lived with her husband and three children in Westchester, New York where she teaches Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.
“I love you.” I pull the blanket taut and lean over her bed for a kiss goodnight.
“How much?” she asks.
We play this game often. I fumble for words of sufficient magnitude. I try to quantify it. I use comparisons that are easy to grasp.
I love you a million times around the sun.
I love you as much as all the grains of sand.
I love you as deep as the ocean.
The basis for her inquiry is not merely to comprehend—she wants to confirm. Throughout her life, separating from me has often not been easy, particularly at nighttime. Her reluctance to let go seems to be hardwired, with the vestiges of tearful daycare goodbyes and overnights at Gramma’s still fresh in my memory even though she is now years past that. Though perhaps irrational, her tears resonate because I am too familiar with the despair and uncertainty that comes when someone you love does not return. And so I tender tacit reminders for her to hold onto until we see each other again, because I know we will. Of course they are never adequate. Clichés and similes inevitably fall short. My love for her will always be greater than any possible container or distance or depth I can summon in these last whispers of the day. They measure deficiently yet I’ve found no better way. I hope she understands they are all woeful underestimates, even when cumulatively considered. I know such clarity might come only if she has a child of her own.
I reconsider those salty depths. As deep as the ocean. Across the world in the shining Pacific Ocean, Challenger Deep is an incomprehensible six point eight three one miles down under the sea along the Mariana Trench. Maximum depth. In hindsight I find it unsuitable to compute the volume of love as I intended. I see my error: such abyssal love exists hidden and though deep, not infinitely so. The benthic zone yields an inadequate accounting.
Then, like the chambered shell of the Nautilus, a new calculus slowly unfolds from the center of my heart. Despite what great scholars have told us, there is a number greater than infinity. We call it love.
As a mother, I imagine I would recognize someplace like Challenger Deep. I would be familiar with the prevailing conditions. Going unseen. Times of darkness. Crushing pressure. And sometimes, desolation. A mysterious sandy bottom where fossils and dead lives settle, histories revealed only when someone decides to go digging. Coming up for air, at times, virtually impossible. Other worlds existing above the surface, untouchable and indulgent. Yes, this is how living in the submerged shadow of mothering sometimes feels. The needs of another put before mine, with the cold, slow drip of resentment penetrating my skin when I forget to breathe.
Not much thrives in Challenger Deep, far down below the undulating surface of water. But, somehow, foraminifera beat the incredible odds, just like mothers. After millennia of adaptation and evolution, these simple organisms have found a way to survive. Only when closely examined is their importance understood and their beauty evident. Just like mothers.
The language of love is deficient. I know this now. And yet I continue to grasp at comparisons. I paint pictures with words and images. I find likeness in other things.
“An opening, orifice, or short passage, as in a bone or in the integument of the ovule of a plant.” Originates from the 17th century New Latin for “hole, opening . . . to pierce”.
“A combining form meaning “that which carries” the thing specified by the initial element”. A “person or thing that bears something specified.” Like conifer or aquifer or crucifer. From the Latin derivative ferre meaning “to bear”
Foraminifera. Hole bearers. The elegant etymology suits them.
I wager it also precisely describes motherhood and one of the most difficult transitions within it: the letting go. I know it is coming and unstoppable. A pinprick hole first pierced my heart the moment I let someone else hold her newborn body. With our hands held less and her stepping toward the helm with increasing frequency and solitude, the hole has slowly enlarged ever since. When she one day rides that current of independence fully beyond my protected, anonymous stretch of sea, I will bear the largest hole of all. That void will ache, I am certain. I already know the wound will never heal.
So when I proclaim that my love is as deep as the ocean, I will stand by it though I know it is deficient. With eyes closed, I will dive far down among infinitesimal creatures living under that vast watery world, the place where tiny mirrors of motherhood can be found hiding in the sand. I will recall the minute and the massive coexisting at those depths, keeping the balance of life tilted forward. I will remind myself that sometimes love is deep enough to be unfathomable.
* Etymology references provided by Dictionary.com
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) with Atlas & Alice, Hypertext Magazine, Swarm Literary Journal, The Hopper, Gravel, Cognoscenti, Washington Post, Mothers Always Write, NYT Motherlode, The Manifest-Station, The Humanist, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays and short stories. You can find her on the web (www.kristenploetz.com) and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).