Comments of the Mild
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.