For Mother’s Day: Writers I Love

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In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to share works from three wonderful writers. The first is a passage from Irish author Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You.

The people I know who are very well, this is what must have happened to them. Their mothers must have led them forward into the world. The mother stands behind the child, and lets him move forward on his shaky, bandy legs, and he knows that there is a mass of love behind and above him–so attentive to him that even when he falls, he is safe. In fact–when he falls, he is loved the more. That must be what gives the healthy people the gift of unself-consciousness. They can let go of themselves, without panic. They can peer at things, or listen to things wholly, without keeping something back to guard themselves, with their mouths slightly open, their eyes bright, their heads moving from speaker to speaker. The can look with perfect candor into the faces of the people they love, their selves forgotten. They are not afraid to forget themselves. They do not have to labor to tell the truth. They are themselves through and through. The shelter of love made them honest. —Nuala O’Faolain, 2001.

One can hear the longing in O’Faolain’s narrator. The mothers she writes of do extraordinary work,  play a crucial role in shaping their children’s future selves — all through the simple acts of loving them and being present. Affirming words for mothers who worry they’re not doing enough, are never enough.

Of course, it’s not so simple, is it? One may not have a mother like this, and still find his openness elsewhere. Or one may know such a mother’s love, but later encounters ugliness and chooses self-preservation over unself-consciousness.

Still, O’Faolain’s words resonate: the shelter of love offers not just protection; it keeps us honest. While a mother’s love cannot save a child from everything, it can serve as a kind of armor. Not a battle-tested steel cover built to deflect, but the lightest and most powerful armor imaginable, an armor that leaves hearts open, vulnerable and yes, reparable, even when we take a hit. For we all take hits.

I know this: I don’t always get mothering completely right, but the path is made easier when your own mother has shown you the way (I imagine her mother did the same for her, as my mother has the most unguarded laugh and openness of anyone I know). My mother gave me the gift of her good example not once, but twice, for all the hours she spent with my children. Because my mom never forgot how to play. She never forgot the words to Where the Wild Things Are. And she most certainly remembered how to stand back, let her grandchildren take those wobbly steps–all the while assuring them that she was there if they fell. Just as she did for my brother and I.

My mother and I, 1970?

My mother and I, 1970ish

I’m in my forties now, and she’s still there for me. My mom reads every single thing I write. And she always comments on my blog (when it’s working). When it’s not, she sends an email or calls. Some weeks, my readership is pretty low. I get a little low. And then, without fail, I get mom love. And I keep writing.

You know who else reads my work? My kids. They’re writers too. I recently came across this poem from my daughter, then age 9 or so.

Mom

Mom, there is something we want you to know;

We really love you so!

Mom, you are ever so pretty!

And you always sound so witty.

You take care of us like no one else could

And we promise to try to be good.

But you don’t have to be told,

How life runs in the O’Keefe household!

I love it, and not just because it’s complementary (ok, in the spirit of honesty I like that too). It’s the wry end note that makes me smile, makes me feel as though I’m getting some part of this mothering right. Because ultimately, that’s what we want, right? For our children to know we’re there for them, no matter how life runs. No matter what.

My mother is a writer too. She writes poems. For birthdays. When’s she pulling ivy. After her Thai Chi class. So, in honor of my mother on mother’s day, I want to share her poem “Three Variations on Ravel’s Bolero.” This poem recently was discovered by an artist on a poetry website; it proved so inspiring the artist painted an accompanying work and just last month the poem and art were displayed in a Dupont Circle gallery exhibit called “The Painted Word.”

She is a wonder, this mother of mine, with her abundance of love and daring and imagination. (Of course she adores Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are). I hope to be just like her as I grow up. And now, her poem:

Three Variations on Ravel’s Bolero

I
Ravel’s Bolero, like a matador
swishing, swirling, deftly pivoting,
extending arms one with cape,
willing the bull to participate,
their drama, a spectacle of intimacy,
boldly impels contained engagement
spiraling towards the ecstatic.

Practicing Tai Chi with Ravel
led by Laurin Maazel, I concentrate
bodily memory, rotate
as tempo, pitch, tension intensify
like the bull’s breathing, swelling
each pivot, until unbalanced, I’m
out of control. Ravel crescendoes.

II
I recompose, go to cool
Stanley Jordan’s jazz Bolero,
like an elegant argument
teased from electric energy,
logic circular, rhetoric redundant,
now syncopated, synthesized
sound steadily striding around.

I’m grounded,
the bass holding me down
thum, thum, thuming along.
Melody says, Fly!
Centrifuge self into the universe.
But I’m holding to my sound,
so cooly classic now, no crash-into.

III
Background radio blurts out
Barenboim’s Bolero, action=s automatic,
body accommodates room trappings
in circling circles, like
the whirling dervish stepping out
to deliberate the center, liberate

Self flying center holds
the dervish entranced
in his formulaic dance
swirling skirts undulating
pointed toes pivotal
mind, body, soul sum of self
single in motion as Ravel crescendoes.

My Poets.

The Poets. With the artwork inspired by “Three Variations on Ravel’s Bolero.”

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8 Responses to For Mother’s Day: Writers I Love

  1. Marico May 8, 2015 at 1:42 am #

    What a wonderful tribute to your mother and daughter. Today’s post made me want to share with you my own version of poems for Mother’s Day. Many years ago, I tried to simplify Mother’s Day for Jeff by buying a journal and asking him to have the three of them write me a poem every year and that was all I would ever want for future Mother’s Days. The poems proved to be too stressful for some members of my family so I also get doodles, jokes and quotes in there too but I still love it just as much as you love your mom and daughter’s poems.

    Have a fabulous Mother’s Day this weekend. I still feel so blessed that you and Natalie hosted my baby shower celebrating my impending motherhood.

    btw, the picture you posted of your mother in the 70s could be you – its uncanny how similar you look.

    • Kristin O'Keefe May 8, 2015 at 7:32 am #

      I remember that shower! I can’t believe how old our babies are… and I love the book, including how your family adapted it. A beautiful idea.

  2. mom May 8, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    Kristin,

    Thank you so much. You are the best, so thoughtful and concerned and involved. I admire you as a reader, a writer, a mother and a loving child.

    And your politics are spot on as well. What more can one ask!

  3. Dede May 8, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

    I always read and I rarely reply–sorry about that. I am usually in awe of what a true gift it is to be able to express yourself through words…show your wit (I agree with A), your intelligence, your humor…and you seem to do it so effortlessly. So proud of you and what a wonderful family you are 🙂

    • Kristin O'Keefe May 8, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

      That’s so nice, Dede! And really, I so appreciate you and all my supportive readers/friends, you’re the best! It’s funny, sometimes comments are the closest thing a toiling writer gets to applause–so they do feel good. An honest blogger will admit she wants them. But writing for the sake of it, for taking that thing that’s swirling in one’s head and wrestling into words that come close to approximating a myriad of thoughts and feelings–that’s reward too. Plus my mom and Anna are guaranteed to read everything. 🙂

  4. Mairéad May 9, 2015 at 4:56 pm #

    Hi Kristin – I love Nuala O’Faoláin’s beautiful words which you quoted here and discussed so eloquently. Her sentiments are so true. As mothers it is so important to simply be there for our kids and let them know they are loved. The self-confidence we build is definitely our children’s armor for facing the world out there. Thanks too for sharing your daughter’s lovely poem and your mother’s beautiful words – what a lovely, inspirational post for Mother’s Day.
    Best wishes, and have a lovely day tomorrow. 🙂

    • Kristin O'Keefe May 10, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      Thank you Mairéad, for reading my piece and sharing your comments. I’ve held on the Nuala’s words for over ten years–she says so much on that one perfectly crafted passage. And also this: I’ve learned how to add the letter accents! (I’m tech illiterate, it’s a wonder this blog gets out). Your beautiful name inspired me to search and learn. Happy Mother’s Day to you.

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