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.
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, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.