Encircling my three-year-old daughter Caitlin with a protective arm, I look into her face. Her chin tilts as she looks up at me, her dimple deepens, her eyes glint dark. Although danger from the catastrophic fire in the Oakland hills is now over, my bedroom windows three miles below are still gray with soot. The sudden devastation has jolted us in the Bay Area into a new awareness of mortality, not only our own, but that of the houses we live in, of our city, of the earth itself. For me, as a mother, this has particular power. Through pregnancy, birthing, and these early years of child rearing I have already been haunted by the fragility of life—both Caitlin’s and mine as her caretaker. Here, safe, on the bed with her now, I bask in the nurture of presence, mine with her and hers with me.
The day after this cataclysm, Caitlin and I clean out my dresser drawers. We empty everything on the quilt and rummage through scarves, shawls, even a lace fan handed down to me through generations in my family. As Caitlin unfurls each scarf, waves each handkerchief, I tell her the story of the great-great grandmother or the great grandmother who passed it to me. Caitlin holds up a frayed silk scarf. “That was your great grandmother Helene’s. She used to play the piano with me.” “Did I know her, Mama?” “No, Sweetpea. She’s been dead for a long time.” Caitlin cuddles closer and brings her face near mine. “But people don’t really die, do they, Mama?”
Caitlin’s question speaks to me as if I had asked it myself. In meeting it, as in meeting so many of the tasks of mothering, I have the opportunity to grow. In exploring death with Caitlin, perhaps I will overcome some of my own fear and find more peace in the cycles of life.
Opening my awareness to the generations of mothers who pass through me to her, I come into the moment with Caitlin for our first serious talk about mortality. With the touch of the frail scarf, the echo of the stories I’ve told of our lineage, the view of the decimated hills, we clasp hands.
Such a moment of looking and not turning away, of surrender to what is there before me—all of it no matter how frightening or painful—is as complete and as open to possibility as many I have had sitting on the meditation cushion. Presence is indeed my practice as a mother.
Although I now find few hours for formal meditation, I continue to glean some wisdom from past years of sitting, from my practice as a mother and from my work as an editor. In the past month, I have been editing a book-in-progress by the vipassana meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. Often I jot down quotations from Sharon’s manuscript as I recognize the ways her reflections on meditation relate to my practice as a mother. This article comes from the interweavings of my mother/daughter stories with some of what I have learned from Sharon about presence.
There is a quality of mindfulness which is active, connecting and full of love. It’s based on the ability to let go and be empty. We can call this active quality presence. When we can let go, there’s nothing impeding our loving connection and we are fully present in a way that is a gift for ourselves and others. Sometimes we are awakened into presence at the thought of death. Our priorities may shift radically and we are truly here in our relationships, not withholding something to see what happens later. This is what we call metta or love.
Sharon’s understanding, founded in the the deep insights of sitting practice, helps guide my practice as a mother. I hold presence as she describes it as a possibility that I may glimpse occasionally as I commit myself to careful attention and as I learn to let go. Gradually I am coming to see, as she does, that presence is love.
Before I became a mother I’d always been a dreamer, unaware of much that surrounded me. I would leave the refrigerator door open, crash into people in the market, step in dog messes and jaywalk between cars on busy streets. And I’d felt tied to the unrecognized forces driving me from within to burst without consideration into other people’s lives.
Now the tingling sweetness of Caitlin inspires me to cultivate awareness. I know how she thrives when she’s truly heard and seen. I know her vulnerability to life’s jangling knocks and jolts. And I know her mortality. So, when I cook her meals, when I answer her questions or cross the street holding her hand, I am beginning to learn a little more about the spacious awareness Sharon describes. And as I watch my interplay with Caitlin, this awareness begins to permeate my life. More often at least than before, I am in the moment. The following stories are drawn from some precious moments in my practice as a mother. Each of these moments, as ephemeral as it is, encompasses the universe.
Just as in meditation we learn to allow the fleeting moments to arise and pass away, in practicing attention to a child, she or he teaches us to surrender to change. Although I still have a long way to go in developing dispassion, in tiny ways every day I am doing “mortality” practice: learning to let go that Caitlin’s everchanging nature may unfold.
Until recently, if I wanted to move Caitlin to a new activity, I had gotten into the habit of simply plucking her up from wherever she was and physically introducing her to whatever I had in mind. I would pick her up from a chair and plunk her on the potty, or pick her up at the top of the steps of our Victorian, carry her all the way down, across the flag stones and into her carseat. In a series of revolts several weeks ago, she let me know that she was no longer the toddler I thought she was. When I began to strap her into the carseat, she jumped out of my arms, sailed out of the car and, jostling me aside, ran back across the flagstones, tumbled up the steps, to the very top. Then she turned and started down, shouting, “I’m doing it now myself.” Likewise, when I’d already undressed her and put her on the potty, she wriggled off, pulled up her pants over one buttock and dashed back across the room to her crayons, while chastising, “Mama, you shouldn’t of done that to me!” When, and if, she went to the potty, it was going to be in her own time, and in her own way. So, she reminds me to loosen my mindset on who she is, and if I miss a beat in my attention to who she is becoming, she rings the bell!
In the midst of the conflicts and tangles of daily life, my practice of awareness with Caitlin can connect me to the jaggedness of my own feelings. The other day, in the rush and tension of a visit from out-of-town relatives, I lay next to Caitlin for her nap. I felt her warm little self tucked against my beating heart. As I relaxed into the loveliness of contact, all of the grating busyness of my day welled inside of me. A tear slid down my cheek, wetting Caitlin’s arm. Abruptly she sat up, her small hand cupping my chin. “Mommy, why are you sad?” she asked. I didn’t know what to answer. Finally I said, “I feel like I have sooo many things to do I can’t do them all, and the ones I do get all mixed up.” “Oh,” she said, then paused and snuggled back down next to me. “We’ll feel better after our nap!”
I can’t offer Caitlin a peace of mind I don’t have. Perhaps though, through the spaciousness she calls up in me to my own feelings, I can learn to include some of the painful ones I had been hiding from myself. I can invite her to see me as I am—without some confusing camouflage. This honest connection can allow us both a certain amount of peace.
I am told that after the female octopus lays her eggs, she stops eating and focuses all of her own life force on blowing highly oxygenated water over her eggs to keep them alive. When the eggs hatch, the mother, totally exhausted, dies. This is the way I have sometimes felt, that I will give all of my life energy as a mother, and then die.
The unrelenting demands on a mother can call up many painful and unwanted feelings. At these times, when stretched to the very limits of my energy, I may be suddenly confronted with the darker aspects of who I am. This can be frightening.
On such a day last month, I felt that I would collapse if Caitlin didn’t go down for her nap. Exhausted from a night of broken sleep, I had been battling with dirty dishes, garbage and unmade beds while Caitlin, shrill and banging, poured the shavings from the pencil sharpener all over my newly swept floor, pulled me under a blanket with the dog, leapt off the couch onto my back. I did not crave sleep for myself so much as a break from the attention to someone else’s needs. Like the mother octopus, I had even forgotten to eat. When none of my lullabies, backrubs or pleading could get Caitlin to sleep, something ferocious broke from me. I grabbed her by the arms and shook her, shouting, “Caitlin, you’ve got to nap!” She started to cry and yet I persisted, pinning her little thrashing body to the bed. But the powerful undercurrent of my love for her allowed me the awareness to see my own unexpected rage, and I started to cry too. I wrenched myself into the other room.
Flinging myself onto the couch, I grasped my taut jaws in my hands. I closed my eyes and trembled with the heat of pent up pressures. Then, for a moment I could smell my own fear. Gradually, I began to cradle my own face, and the muscles loosened. I could hear Caitlin crying for me from her room. In a rush of sadness I felt our sweet, brief meeting of lives. “I refuse to clash like this,” I thought.
When I returned to Caitlin, her sobbing subsided. I held her tender in my arms, and slowly she fell asleep. I am so grateful that mother love—the commitment to awareness—stopped my rage and gave me a mirror to see myself, and how off kilter I had become.
This is another example of the inclusiveness of practice. Instead of denying what was propelling me, I experienced my own angry upset. And perhaps, in owning these feelings, I won’t be as likely to be driven by them again. Moreover, in seeing my lack of balance, I now know how crucial it is that I attend to my own needs and equanimity of mind as well as Caitlin’s. What a fearsome teaching of the middle path!
Of course, Caitlin herself is my best teacher. She shows me many helpful outlooks, like, the spirit of nonjudging. As she somersaults through our life together, she stops suddenly to inquire into what she calls her “treasures”—a twig, a ball of dry mud, a piece of silver foil, a dead snail.
Recently Caitlin has begun to use the potty. She leaps up after a poop and leans down over the bowl. With a yelp, she calls me. “Mama, I made a mountain” or “Mama, it’s a pond with little boats sailing in it.” The other day she insisted that my husband Patrick join her in the bathroom. “But Daddy, come see. It’s a Daddy and a Mommy and three little Caitlins.” And, indeed it was, so he reports. Yesterday Caitlin’s creative pooping transcended the ordinary mountains and boats. “Mama, Daddy,” she cried, “I made a snake with feathers. It’s a snake-bird!”
Caitlin is not simply teaching me to observe (or even to observe my poops). This presence that she teaches me at the potty is more fundamental—to be with whatever comes, even if some might perceive it as ugly. She is neither disgusted by her poop, nor afraid of it. In fact, she is curious, nonjudging and imaginative. What a way to greet life!
Watching Caitlin at the potty, I think not only of my own poop, flushed ignored and unappreciated down the drain, but of all the “poopy” thoughts which come up in meditation or daily life. Do I welcome the excremental spewings of my own mind? Do I include them in my awareness? Do I castigate myself for having them, psychologize them into something else, deny them entirely? As the mind spins its stories, mightn’t I at least remember Trungpa Rinpoche’s apt metaphor for distasteful thoughts—”manure for Bodhi!”?
Beginner’s mind is another gift from child to mother. The other day Caitlin and I went to an exhibition of some wild and colorful jewelry made by a friend. The earrings were particularly whimsical, little people in bright regalia, limbs dangling akimbo. When I stopped to talk with the artist, Caitlin’s amazed cry interrupted us. She waved a jaunty clown earring. “This lady has three legs!” After my artist friend laughed and commented, we returned to our conversation. Another amazed cry: “Mama, this one has two legs!” The magic of two legs! I had forgotten. Here’s another teaching in inclusiveness. Just as Caitlin opens my awareness to include the painful or disgusting, she invites me to celebrate ordinary aliveness which I so often ignore.
From an early age, Caitlin has awakened Patrick and me to our connections—to the creatures and people of our neighborhood, to the moon, and sun and stars. As a baby she would sit in her highchair at the kitchen table and, perched with an expansive view through the many windows, she would keep track of all of the local goings on. She felt and expressed her tie to everything and everyone. From her first word bird for the hummingbird in the window feeder, she went on to learn everyone’s names and to herald the cats on the fence, the parrots in the loquat tree. “Celia,” she often calls to our neighbor on the right. “What are you planting in your garden?” To Bart and Amy behind us she shouts, “Are you making dinner?” (As if they could hear her through closed windows and across two yards. Yet inevitably, they see her waving and wave back.)
Caitlin truly sees and wonders about the people we pass in the streets, the people who have become non-people to me. “What’s that boy’s name?” she’ll ask. “Where is that lady going?” Once again I am learning about the inclusiveness of awareness. Caitlin is only beginning to distinguish between family and strangers. Her questions remind me of the oddness of disconnection, of how lonely it feels to ignore our neighbors or to act as though the people we pass in the street don’t have names and moments of sadness or tenderness just as we do.
The other evening, after visiting with friends and their toddler son Nathan, we stepped outside onto their porch. Caitlin pointed into the night. “Mommy. Daddy. Is that our moon? Is that Nathan’s moon too?” I didn’t know how to articulate what I wanted to express. The words stuttered out, perhaps a bit pat. “It’s our moon, and Nathan’s moon. It’s everyone’s moon. And we all belong to the moon as well.” Probably my words didn’t matter so much as the spirit of her question. We all looked up, and together we felt the tug in our hearts towards the moon in the night sky.
In asking her questions about the universe, about life and death, Caitlin reconnects me to my own childhood questioning, to my own witness to the great forces we do not understand and cannot control. On the day after the calamitous fire, as I sit on the bed with Caitlin, I caress the blue silkiness of my grandmother’s scarf almost as if it were a fragment ripped from the cosmos. Again and again Caitlin’s questions inspire me to stretch my mind to include what I hardly dare approach on my own. “Why did Great Grandma Helene die?” “Why couldn’t someone save those people from the fire?” Caitlin pleads. I can sense her indignation at injustice, her fear, her awe.
As we explore together, I keep looking into her questioning eyes and through them I reach into my own consciousness. A memory from my childhood spins into awareness. Forty years before, in the back seat of a car driving towards the mouth of the dormant volcano Mt. Etna, I had asked my Grandmama Helene almost the same questions. While my mother and Granddad Leonard talked and laughed in the front seat, we in the back stared out at the eerie slopes littered with rubble and volcanic ash. Grandmama Helene drew me close and told me about volcanoes and earthquakes, about the churning and heaving of the earth, and about how this volcano had erupted long ago killing many people and devastating their homes. Sitting now with Caitlin, I remember the almost unbearable fear I felt as the car circled up towards the mouth of the volcano, that Mt. Etna might suddenly erupt again and destroy my family.
When I myself was five, just holding Grandmama Helene’s familiar hand, with its thin piano-playing fingers and boney knuckles, she let me ask about death, and even further, about the birthing and dying of the earth. I can’t remember Grandmama Helene’s words, but I do remember that the safety provided by her presence allowed me for an instant to encompass the vastness.
Now, as I hold Caitlin’s hand and meet her questioning eyes, I can see the rubble of volcanic ash from Mt. Etna extending into the rubble from the fire in the Oakland hills, where the burnt-out chimneys rise like headstones for all of humanity. “Couldn’t anybody save their houses?” Caitlin asks. “No, Sweetpea. They couldn’t.” Tenderly I touch the tip of my finger to her cheek, rose with life.