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Comments of the Mild

September 25, 2013

My imaginary friend Litlove wrote a wonderful post about her son leaving home to go to university (All Change) and it’s stuck with me all week, mostly for her great description of the different stages of motherhood:
“The thing about motherhood is that it’s based on an experience of culturally accepted madness. You get this baby put in your arms and the shock of responsibility is tremendous, breathtaking, you pretty much never get over it. Parenting means you spend years doing the kind of things that you should never have to do for another person. Those first three years in particular are a boot camp into an extraordinarily intrusive, overbearing way of being that is based on the sacrifice of your own life. And then after that come the field marshal years, where you bark commands from one end of the day to the other, spend your time checking the canteens are supplied and generally give every remaining drop of energy into mustering morale among the troops. Eventually it enters your bloodstream, you are brainwashed, trained up and kitted out. Because if you did not do these things, even if you do not especially like the person you become when doing them, chaos would result. This is not about choice.
So when adolescence comes along, and teenagers reclaim the territorial rights to things that were always theirs in the first place, it can be disconcerting.”

The other part of her post that I keep thinking about is this:
“one of the most striking things about my son leaving home is how exposed it makes me feel. What will I tell people now when they ask how we are? When people come round or we visit, what possible entertainment can I provide?”

I’ve been feeling that sense of exposure increase as my kids got older and needed less care. When they could play on their own while the grown-ups had a party, I would go in to check on them at the point where someone I was talking to drifted off to mingle, and I wasn’t sure where to go next. When they were getting their photos in the small-town newspaper for sports and theater and chess, I had easy responses to inquiries about how we all were doing. Now, though, I’m going to have to talk about my own interests, and it’s hard to gauge the level.

Litlove’s last sentence–the question–is still evading my understanding, to some extent. It reminds me of a grad school friend who had a baby and then asked me out to lunch. After an hour of fussing with the baby (who had to come to lunch with us) and talking about the baby, this formerly witty and intelligent friend asked me “what did we talk about before I had this baby?” I was nonplussed. And yet here we are, a couple of decades later, trying to come up with ways we’re interesting in our own right. The friends who were mostly parents of our childrens’ friends are going to fade away, unless we have something more in common with them. After those years of self-subjugation, what is left? And do we dare expose it? Will it seem overly self-absorbed to other people?

All of this is why I haven’t written about poetry in a while. I’ve been stuck in a round of “I work all day and get half-drunk at night.” But at least this week I’ve moved on from Auden to Ruth Stone:

Comments of the Mild

The cabinet squats trembling on its carved legs,
an essence of trappings. Inside on the awkward shelves,
a cast-off bedspread, two stolen books.
From no period at all; in fact, the back legs are not carved,
while the front ones have turned balls. It tries to be Spanish,
Louis Quinze, Sheraton, Hilton Plaza. It is a bastard
from a tract house. There was no cabinetmaker.
It grew with a lot who were cut on band saws,
glued together on an assembly line, and stained
in a warehouse. “I am furniture,” it says, in a subdued voice.
Not useful, not even ornamental, it has a certain bulk presence.
It takes the place of those who are not with you.
When you wake in the night, you sense that you are not alone.
There is someone else. But you forget who it is.
Sometimes passing the cabinet, you open the part that looks
like the confessional box. It is stern and empty.
Nothing fits in there, not even your head.

The Ruth Stone volume, entitled Second-Hand Coat, has a ticket stub for a bookmark, from a movie I enjoyed watching with my daughter but probably wouldn’t have gone to see on my own or with anyone else.

Should I have told you that? It’s undoubtedly safer to remain “a certain bulk presence” in the background.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2013 7:51 pm

    I stand by what I wrote earlier when contemplating where you are nowadays. Who were you before you had children? You are that woman plus all the accumulated experiences you’ve had over the last couple of decades with the kids. You aren’t defined by having become a mother, but rather it becomes part and parcel of you.

    Wish I were a better writer, I know what I’m trying to say but I’m fumbling it like crazy.

    • September 26, 2013 9:08 am

      When dealing with younger people from a position of power becomes part of you, it can make you more awkward dealing with your equals–I’ve seen this over and over with college professors.
      Trying to expand my social circle is a little daunting right now, because I can’t tell if I’m overwhelming people or closing them out too much. Hard to find an equilibrium.

  2. September 26, 2013 11:22 am

    You have a hotline to the best poems – I love this one and have never heard of its author. I identify so strongly with what you say about checking on children at parties. My mother-in-law used to have Sunday lunch parties to which we were occasionally condemned, and she would sit me with the children. I feel pretty sure she considered it a punishment for my lack of social ease, but for me it was a wonderful release. We had the best conversations. All those children have now grown up and left home, which has made me very reluctant to go visiting. I just am not good at issue-based ‘adult’ conversation – and don’t particularly want to learn how to be….

    • September 26, 2013 11:01 pm

      In issue-based ‘adult’ conversation I am sometimes a very good listener. It’s mingling at parties where I have the most trouble because it always seems so awkward to talk/listen to someone for a bit (usually in a loud room where I have trouble discriminating the conversation from the background) and then call a halt and wander off somewhere else. I tend to wander to a corner and watch.

  3. September 26, 2013 11:23 am

    what a wonderful weird poem. and i’m so glad you told me (us) about the ticket stub. i like the texture that gives my knowledge of you.

    • September 26, 2013 10:50 pm

      You mean because I use ticket stubs as bookmarks? I promise you, the choice of that particular one was merely a result of timing–the last time I was reading Ruth Stone, we had evidently been to see “I am Number 4.”

      • September 26, 2013 10:56 pm

        and who you went with and that you probably wouldn’t have gone alone and just…all the petty detail. i like that!

  4. September 26, 2013 6:22 pm

    I’ve never been a parent, but I absolutely know what you mean about lacking the easy responses to questions about how you’re doing. I find things like family gatherings around the holidays extremely difficult because being childless and settled down in a stable sort of life, I have no milestones to share from year-to-year. I’m pretty sure my aunt doesn’t want to know that I’ve watched all of Breaking Bad this year and found it distressing yet awesome or that taking water aerobics outside in the summer was more fun than I expected, but what else does one share when there really is no news?

    • September 26, 2013 10:52 pm

      Yes, no milestones. I’ve been thinking to myself with some amusement that this must be why old people talk about their ailments–that’s what’s new. Okay, so this is actually all manner of reassuring; it’s not about me being boring, it’s about small talk being difficult.

  5. September 26, 2013 9:20 pm

    That is maybe the most melancholy poem I have ever read about furniture.

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