We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.”-Pico Iyer, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells
My third child, Frankie, is 18 years old today and she loves metaphor.
This post will be sprinkled with quotes and various metaphors because sometimes other people’s words and meanings can give shape and structure to feelings.
Last October, my mom visited the other coast of Costa Rica with her friends and so we drove to meet her there. She really wanted to see this labyrinth and walk it.
“That (labyrinth)…became a world whose rules I lived by, and I understood the moral of mazes: sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one. After that careful walking and looking down, the stillness was deeply moving…It was breathtaking to realize that in the labyrinth, metaphors and meanings could be conveyed spatially. That when you seem farthest from your destination is when you suddenly arrive is a very pat truth in words, but a profound one to find with your feet.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
Frankie and Q (my youngest) were the only ones with us as the other three kids were living in other countries. I purposefully walked behind Frankie as we entered the labyrinth. I gave her space to walk ahead so I wouldn’t be able to see her after a few turns. This labyrinth wasn’t very straightforward. You had to concentrate and pay attention because it was actually two labyrinths and a very confusing middle crossing. The plants had overgrown in some places so it was difficult to see the cacti marking the path. She would stop and look back, waiting for direction from me when she was unsure and I would simply shrug my shoulders and wave her on.
She would look back from time to time just to make sure I was behind her as she realized I would not tell her how to navigate the labyrinth. This was her journey and I was walking behind her observing how she moved, how she stopped and weighed her options, and how she looked up and down noticing her surroundings every chance she had.
The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Eventually, she stopped looking back and began to trust her own judgement and fully became present in walking the path, seeing the way. We made it through the tough middle portion and eventually came to a rest area within the labyrinth where I sat at a distance to give her space to be with herself.
We drove her to the airport yesterday morning and said goodbye. She officially has left home to pursue her dreams. But before that, she worried about a million things about her itinerary. She wanted answers and assurances which I couldn’t give her. I told her that flights get cancelled or delayed, baggage gets lost, and sometimes you will get lost too. But life has taught me that for the most part, people are kind and helpful so take one step at a time, deal with what is in front of you, and always ask for help when you need it.
Life is this dance of impermenance – the fleeting discomforts (and comforts) of life and it is only through being open to seeing it as a dance, will she be able to keep falling in love and finding beauty wherever she goes.
She is in Austin, Texas, with her older sister, Joey, who just turned 20. Frankie was accepted into a three-day high school program at a university there and she is checking things out. I am glad they are together today. Two sisters in Toronto and two sisters in Texas. When they are with a sibling, I can breathe a little.
I love how Pico Iyer references autumn as the season of “fire and farewells.” If I were to look at my middle-aged life, this is where I am. (Yes, another metaphor.) But for her, and most of my children, it is spring and summer. The time for to open windows and to walk through doors that offer opportunity and learning. The time for doing and exploring, and a different heat, for trailblazing and passion work.
A few weeks ago, she tells me she is not ready. She is not ready to leave, to grow up, to say goodbye. I think to myself, ah, here it is again. I have done this twice before, sit with a child full of doubts. I have learned to listen for it. Listen for the thing that they are really afraid of. Listen for the fear of change, the fear of unknown, the fear of failure, the fear of making choices, the fear of being alone, the fear of starting over. I feel her with all those fears and more.
I tell her that yes, it is scary to do something for the first time but then it gets easier because you have the knowledge and experience that you have gotten through it before. But there always needs to be a first time. First time traveling alone. First time going on a job interview. First time not getting the job you wanted or the program you applied for. First time living alone. First time living with someone. First time making a lot of money. First time losing a lot of money. First time supporting yourself. First time making mistakes and disappointing yourself and others. First time succeeding and accomplishing something bigger than yourself.
First time after first time after first time. I look at her and sense the dread at doing this alone. She is new to this – making decisions. I want to protect her of course from falling and from getting hurt and more importantly, I want to make all the decisions for her. But in the long run, this will cripple her and she will forever defer her dreams to others’ expectations. So instead I tell her the truth, the thing she has come to depend on from me all of her life.
I tell her that it is impossible to know what will happen next. You do your best to prepare and to plan but things happen and we can only help you prepare to adapt and make the best of it, to err on the side of optimism and hope. But she needs to experience it for herself, to be in those situations to practice decision-making and to understand what she wants and how to articulate it. I stop talking and just do the thing she really needs me to do – hold her. (This is my new role as a mother – to hold them, to hold the space for them to flesh things out.)
The house is quiet today. I am used to Frankie coming downstairs a little later in the morning to hop on the stationary bike or sit at the table on her computer finishing a few things. Then she would proceed to tell me about her plans for the day. I hear movement upstairs and look up at her room out of habit. It is only the cat peeking in at her door. This past year, after her sisters left, she was here to help me with work, to review lesson plans, to share poetry, to talk about our day and our plans.
I am grateful that we spent time together this last month doing normal things: buying plants, going for coffee, getting a haircut. I didn’t bombard her with questions or last minute words of wisdom. We have been together almost every day, homeschooling or with me as her teacher for the last 13 years. I just appreciated being next to her, watching to see if she really was ready. We bought a flowering tree together and was sad that she wouldn’t get to see it grow day by day but then smiled and said that she would be back to see it mature and in full bloom.
Yes she was ready. And I was too.
I take time to sit today. It all happened so fast. The growing up and out. The one child left at home. The weekly facetime calls where sometimes they are all in different places. The effort to stay connected through reels, emojis, memes, whatsapp messages. The missing. The holding. The moving. The leaving. I take comfort that I am not the first mom or last mom to feel this longing, this fatigue of grief, this letting go.
You may be exhausted from holding things
and be disheartened. And even weep if
you are very emotional. Which could be
anyone on any day. With good reason.
But then there is the next moment
and the the next day and
hold on– Maira Kalman, Women Holding Things
Seven White Butterflies by Mary Oliver
Seven white butterflies
delicate in a hurry look
how they bang the pages
of their wings as they fly
to the fields of mustard yellow
and orange and plain
gold all eternity
is in the moment this is what
Blake said Whitman said such
wisdom in the agitated
motions of the mind seven
even as worms toward
paradise see how they banter
and riot and rise
to the trees flutter
lob their white bodies into
the invisible wind weightless
to deliver themselves unto
the universe now each settles
down on a yellow thumb on a
grassy stem now
all seven are rapidly sipping
from the golden towers who
would have thought it could be so easy?
It can be easy. All eternity is in the moment. We are here for you always. Family is home. Love you forever.