The cornea scratches easily,
pulls an eye into the present,
says, here, see the danger,
the thinness between inner
jellies and bright world,
between you and me,
between arteries and veins,
between deer and fawns,
between one planet and another,
between night and endless, starlit day?
My daughter lies in bed,
shaded by a damp cloth,
waiting for cells to
stitch together across a
minute gash that feels
wide as a canyon.
I wait, watching her sleep,
hoping for ropes across
the ravine, wishing for
water through boulders,
wanting bacteria to infect
something else, if it must:
some fly, some forest edge,
some frozen comet
hurtling through sterile space.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Muse /A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Eyedrum Periodically, 3QR, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books).
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.
–Traditional English Language Nursery Rhyme, Roud Folk Song Index #8148
The problem with candlelight vigils is that they’re usually during bedtime. They have to be. Candlelight can’t provide its comforting glow in the middle of the day. Living in the darkness of the world before artificial light, early singers of lullabies and nursery rhymes knew all too well that candles can’t compete with the sun.
I became a mother in the fall of 2014, around the time the world went mad, at least from the limited perspective of a suburban white woman gently swaddled in many forms of privilege. Scrolling through the news as I rocked my infant, I became aware of a world slowly melting down, liquid pooling at the top of the candle, atoms building upon themselves until their own weight became too much and the hot wax spilled over.
It seems like every day since my daughter’s birth has brought more monsters into the open: corrupt police officers killing people of color, neo-Nazis emerging from their lairs, mass shooters gunning down victims in record-breaking numbers.
There have been so many candlelight vigils. I have seen them on the news, followed their orders of service on social media.
But my own vigils look quite different.
I keep my vigils in the nursery, rocking in the mint green glider, the increasing weight of my baby and then my toddler and now my preschooler in my lap. I keep solitary vigils, my husband often away at one of the real services, the kind where people gather, not because gathering changes anything, but because it’s healthier not to grieve alone.
My candle is a nightlight; melting wax is not the kind of thing you want around a child. My daughter doesn’t know I’m keeping vigil; I’m only singing, the same thing I do every night.
On the inside, I am raging, composing strongly worded letters to send to the appropriate people, demanding they do something about this collective meltdown. I’m not especially good at inner peace, though motherhood frequently demands I fake it on the outside.
So on the outside, I am singing. I’m often singing the song my daughter calls “Bonny Banks,” better known as “Loch Lomond.”
The song has a conflicted history both as a memorial to the failed Jacobite uprisings (a series of 18th century attempts to restore the nominally Scottish Stuarts to the throne) and its partial responsibility for romanticizing Highland culture for mass consumption.
But whatever else “Loch Lomond” is, it is a lament. The chorus, which is all most people know, goes like this.
Oh, you tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.
But me and my true love will never meet again on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.
One interpretation of the lyrics says that two Jacobite rebels have been captured. One is to be pardoned and sent home, and the other—the narrator—is awaiting execution or transportation to a penal colony. Either way, the only way he will return to Scotland is by “the low road” of death.
It’s a strange choice for a lullaby. Yet my mother sang it to me, and her mother sang it to her, so it is in my repertoire for my own child, and she often requests it.
“Sing ‘Bonny Banks,'” she murmurs, eyes closed, sleepy head burrowing into my chest.
In lamenting through lullabies, I join a long tradition of women pouring their pain into the ears of children, both of us for now blocked from public mourning by the needs of those children—needs like a regular bedtime and a mother who keeps her grief under control.
Folklorists cite many reasons parents sing such terrible songs. There’s the superstition that if the gods or the fairies or whatever spirits listen at windows hear that misfortune has already visited a house, they will pass it by. There’s the theory that we sing to children of death and destruction (and often of the death and destruction of children) because of the high rates of infant and child mortality for most of human history. The mother prepares herself for loss through song because the cradle might fall.
I rock my sleeping child, comforted both by the sound of her breath and the swish-swish of the white noise machine. Thinking of Columbine, of 9/11, of cars driven like weapons, of Newtown and Townville, of Orlando and Las Vegas, of Sutherland Springs and Rancho Tehama, perhaps I am doing the same thing. Whether it is a biological imperative to secure my genetic material, love for an individual and irreplaceable child, or a bit of both, whenever there is some catastrophe that calls for a candlelight vigil, my thoughts and my body rush to her, desperate to find that she is safe, to feel again that second heartbeat beneath my own.
The words of nursery rhymes are no better than the lyrics of lullabies. So many conjure up thoughts so unspeakable they can be expressed only through song or rhyme.
I rock, thumbing through the book of nursery rhymes to amuse myself, not yet ready to lay my sleeping child down, to experience that nightly separation. Folklorists cite separation as a common theme of American lullabies. In a culture obsessed with independence, in a country where legal mandates say that puppies get eight weeks with their mothers to a human baby’s six, mothers must prepare themselves and their babies from birth.
How many miles to Babylon? asks an old nursery rhyme, answering its own question with the word “candlelight.”
My thoughts stray to Alas, Babylon! Pat Frank’s 1959 novel of nuclear destruction, disturbingly relevant again after all these years since the Cold War. I read it in high school in the 1990s, from the security of a childhood lived out in relatively safe and prosperous years—years of childhood peace I fear I cannot give my daughter as I think about how I will one day talk to her about active shooter drills.
My mind wanders to the Babylon of the Bible, the mighty empire that fell, crushed under the weight of its own hubris, leading the prophet to cry, “Alas, Babylon!” and back to the title of the novel.
I wonder, as I rock, what is the good of candlelight vigils? I am tired of candlelight vigils, tired of hearing of them secondhand, tired of missing them, tired of the need for them. I am tired of clutching my child too tight, of rocking too fast, of singing a little too loud. I am tired of the soft blue glow of the nightlight representing a candle lit for mourning.
There is a new vigil every week, and nothing ever seems to change.
I think, as I rock my living child, of the tiny lumps of fieldstone that mark the graves of small children in old cemeteries. They knew how to keep time, those old singers of lullabies, knew its value, understood every day as a miracle. I think of the crumbling, moss-covered monuments that mark the graves of mother-baby dyads long gone, the ones that say things like
…who died aged 23 years, 4 months, and 3 days, together with her beloved child, who died aged 1 year, 8 months, and 1 day…and I think of an illness, an accidental fire, a violent frontier.
I think of a pandemic, an oil spill, a mass shooting. For we have arrived at a place like Babylon. We live there now. And whether we arrived by candlelight or not, I don’t think we can get back that way. But I rock as long as I can, keeping a watch in the night, singing sad lullabies, willing the wax not to spill.
Keeping vigil. For myself, for my daughter, for all of us.
1 Marder, Jenny. “Why Are So Many Lullabies Also Murder Ballads?” PBS NewsHour. 13 August 2014. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/many-lullabies-murder-ballads.
Marder, Jenny. Also see: Galchen, Rivka. “The Melancholy Mystery of Lullabies.” The New York Times Magazine. 14 October 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/magazine/the-melancholy-mystery-of-lullabies.html.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker writes (decidedly not scary) rhymes for young readers and historical fiction and nonfiction, essays, and poetry for older readers. Her 2014 novel, The Last Sister, won the IPPY Silver Medal for historical fiction, and her work has been featured in Highlights HELLO and Mothers Always Write. Follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit or visit her website at courtneymckinneywhitaker.com.
An online Boot Camp for those interested in perfecting the literary essay through extensive one-on-one coaching by an editor of MAW. Our camp also offers the opportunity for peer review and discussion with other writers through our camp’s FB group. And, if you are looking for writing support once camp is over, we offer the opportunity to join a writers critique group with other camp participants.
What makes a piece of writing literary?
Literary journals seek that pearl–the type of writing where the language itself is the experience. The story, while strong, takes a backseat to the art of creative writing loaded with well-turned figures of speech that enhance the reader’s understanding of the theme. This workshop will help writers strengthen their creative writing.
The workshop will provide: 1) An outline of reading materials on the literary essay; 2) Sample teaching essays with annotated comments; 3) An opportunity for brainstorming on your essay topic; 4) A general critique of your piece for content and back and forth discussion sessions with your mentor; 5) Specific line-by-line edits including explanatory comments and suggestions; 6) The opportunity to ask editors questions about writing and the publication process through live FB chats; and 7) The opportunity to have your essay considered for publication by MAW as well as a list of suggested sites for publication. We have now extended our workshop to three weeks so that participants have ample time to fit your writing in between life’s other demands.
The boot camp runs for three weeks beginning Monday, April 23, 2018. Tuition is $106 (Proceeds in part are used to support MAW’s mission to pay its contributors). Space is limited to fifteen participants per workshop. Our Boot Camps fill up quickly. Register here on Submittable.
Boot Camp Instructors:
Sarah Clayville is a Creative Writing and 11th grade English teacher as well as freelance editor and writing mentor. Her fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Central PA Magazine, StoryChord, and other journals. Her areas of expertise are short and flash fiction. She is a poetry and essays editor for Mothers Always Write.
Michelle Riddell has earned her B.A. and M.A. in English from Wayne State University in Detroit. She has written for Ford Motor Company, MSX International, The Cornerstone, MomSense Magazine and Hello, Darling. She is a two-time recipient of the Albion College Cathy L. Young award for French poetry, and has written a novel. She is a poetry and essays editor for Mothers Always Write.
Julianne Palumbo has worked as an attorney and a writing coach. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Ibettson Street Press, YARN, The MacGuffin, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, The Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Motherwell, and others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013), and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and is part of the HerStories Anthology: So Glad They Told Me. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Mothers Always Write and currently a columnist at Literary Mama.
Read what participants in our previous workshops had to say:
“I think every Writer, whether aspiring or established, could have benefitted from this Boot Camp. I appreciated our Mentor’s feedback, as well as what was given to me by my co-horts. The idea of having a deadline, articles to read, and a private Facebook page to share on, really brought this whole Boot Camp to life. I kept saying that I felt as though I had enrolled in a University-level class. Michelle [my Mentor] didn’t just push me to do my best, she provided an array of suggestions. Thank you so much MAW Editors for pulling this together!!”
“The MAW Boot Camp helped provide a workable timeline on writing an essay and taking it from draft to finished product. If you are looking for a way to jumpstart your literary essay writing, this workshop offers the tools, resources and editorial help to guide you through the process. Top notch editorial feedback helps take your writing to the next level. I highly recommend working with Juli and the other editors at MAW.”
“I have been participating in a 10-day literary boot camp put on by the editors of MOTHERS ALWAYS WRITE. This magazine is not just a wonderful venue for mother-writers to share their stories, it’s also a loving, supportive community of writers. A family of sorts. I made so many new, wonderful writerly-friends, learned copious amounts of writerly-stuff, and had absolutely amazing (did I mention I’m addicted to alliteration? lol) mentoring from Julianne Palumbo. And, thanks to Juli’s suggestions of where to submit, my essay has been accepted for publication in MANIFEST STATION, an brilliant online literary magazine. I would never have tried to submit to this magazine before. But this workshop, and the support of my mentor gave me the courage to try.”
“Boot Camp was just what I needed to help motivate me to write. I enjoyed the small group feeling and enthusiasm from the other members. It was helpful to receive feedback both from my mentor and other group members. I feel as if I have made some new connections to other writers.”
“My editor pushed me without being pushy. She offered thoughtful, probing comments that made me dig deeper into what my essay was really about, and offered encouragement every step of the way (and sometimes receiving permission not to rush the result is as important as anything else!).”
“The MAW Boot Camp was by far the best value writing experience I’ve participated in during my five years as a freelance writer. It’s affordable and accessible, and provided a much needed burst of inspiration. The detailed level of feedback from engaged and excellent editors, along with a supportive and encouraging community of fellow writers, make it a hugely worthwhile investment for writers at any stage of their career.”
When I met my husband, I noticed immediately how he stumbled with the gender articles of Spanish. La mano was el mano to him. Kindly, I’d correct him. His parents wouldn’t. It’s been like this for years, yet I don’t give up. I know it can be a drudge to him, but he appreciates it nonetheless because among my family, as forgiving as they are, they can be purists when it comes to language. I remember our months of courtship at family dinners when I would count his mistakes as if they were numbers that weren’t lined up straight, missing their decimals. Years of conversation in Spanish with my mother and aunties has polished my husband’s Spanish to the degree that has impressed even his parents. Despite being born in Mexico and arriving into this country as an infant, he is more assimilated than I am regardless of our shared Spanish-speaking upbringing. Both his parents and my mother are from Mexico, albeit from different states, among other distinctions.
Our children are learning Spanish. It is our way of keeping alive a language that nursed us since birth. It would feel utterly treacherous to have our children speak only English. It would be foolish to bring them up unable to speak to their grandparents, unable to communicate profundamente with them at all, unable to carry a flavorful conversation while they make visits to see them. They aren’t learning Spanish from a book, as we didn’t either. They are learning it informally as it is spoken—naturally, organically—between hearts nurturing its nuance. As Maria Montessori said: “There is in every child a painstaking teacher, so skillful that he obtains identical results in all children in all parts of the world. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!”
This is not to say that children don’t learn anything. Quite the contrary. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”
Language was the heart and soul of the world I knew as an infant, as my mother would put me to sleep with lullabies in Spanish, the only ones she knew, until Ms. Jaye in the daycare center would draw me near to her and call me the girl with the rosy cheeks, telling me how sweet I was. It was language—whether in English or Spanish, whether from a teacher or my mother—that rooted my understanding of the crucial identity of speaking two tongues. A bilingual friend of mine asked me when I had my first child if I was going to teach my child Spanish. Of course, I said. We agreed it was essential. She said, Cariños sound better in Spanish anyway, don’t they? Cariños. Endearments. We never want to withhold those. Sweet little things we say to children, to babies, to those we love.
As a family, we converse as intentionally as is possible in Spanish. Despite our best efforts, it is inevitable to speak English as a first language because as a homeschool family, our lessons are in English. It is a fine line, it seems. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I’m finding this truer because where does the schooling end and the home begin? The fusion of these two entities is our way of life without limits. When my eldest was in private school, he spoke English there and it was very easy to speak to him exclusively in Spanish at home, just as my mother did for me growing up. Schooling didn’t happen at home where Spanish only appeared. Now, there is no separation of school and home. It is all conflated. We are all one and therefore, we need to make it a purpose to speak Spanish at given moments in our day. We are two things at the same time: teacher and mom/ student and child. We are ambiguously identified, much like our languages are.
My husband tries not to make any mistakes as he speaks to the children in Spanish, lest they acquire his faulty article designations. He is more aware of his shortcomings, and I am too, although I use Spanish in the vernacular more expressively than he does, but he is catching on and picking up momentum. We exchange dichos—curious expressions in simile, idiom, or proverbial form—and I’ve taken note that my children use them too, a tremendous victory in my book, a sweet affirmation that our best efforts are yielding good fruit.
How can we forget the Spanish we know? How can we be expected to forget it when it is the language of our mothers, our aunties and uncles? How is it possible to detach from that past we never lived but only heard through oral storytelling? Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” I can only explain to my children now as they are little that being bilingual is a privilege in this 21st century. My mind likes to think it always was. But today as the globalization of education, culture, and literature takes a ubiquitous presence in our lives, I want my children to realize that indeed, a door opens for them along the way. They’re able to negotiate two cultures, two worlds, two dimensions of knowledge that not many encounter in their lifetime. With my children, my intentions to bring them up bilingual seem more decisive than trivial.
On sunny days when we take the homeschool out of doors, we scour the library bookshelf where all the Spanish storybooks are for children. I pick about a dozen by authors I’ve never heard of. At home, I nestle closely with my daughter and read her about four storybooks at a time. After every page, I ask her questions about what I just read, what we see on the pages, what we don’t see. She is listening attentively and understands what I’m saying, what I’m asking. She points to the balloon, to the bird, to the tree. I ask her to count how many dolls are seated at the table on one page and she counts a dozen. It’s trite, I know, to go through this process, but it’s so necessary for us both. I am learning new words in Spanish, a new dialect perhaps from Central America, or South America, a Spanish familiar yet new to us both.
At some point, my reading time with my daughter becomes what I long to do. It is what I look forward to. As I read with her, I magnify the importance of entering other worlds that a storybook can suggest, but linguistically speaking, it turns into an exercise in which she dips her ears into a poetic and lyrical sound that she has only heard in conversation. Spanish is not a new language for her, just as English isn’t. She slips and slides her thoughts and sights in English and Spanish with a very precise sensibility that is all she is aware of, that is harmonious and natural. There is no distinction, it seems, for her. Both are her languages. Both respond to her. Both are what she yearns for without hesitation.
And as I read these lyrical, short expressions of language, bursts of rhyme and repetition, I realize that I am also entering the world of a child. Reflected there in those storybooks is a magnitude of enchantment where tone, inflection, and perception coalesce into a tangible force. It is sublime in degree even, for someone like me who’s read a wide spectrum of writing. The trappings of bilingualism and writing creatively may have grown stale while I was in the academe, but they are sure to flourish surprisingly between the humble pages of a child’s storybook.
Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega’s fiction appears in West Branch, The Puritan, Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, and others. Her poetry is featured in Origins Journal, The Sunlight Press, and Mothers Always Write. Her essays are featured in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Faithfully Magazine, The Mudroom Blog, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Front Porch Commons: A Project of the [CLMP], and many others. She is writing a novel. Her work is forthcoming in L’Éphémère Review.