So, here we are again, starting a new year.
By definition, it’s a time of transition.
For my daughter, Ruby, 2014 means transitioning to a new class at school. This year, she and 23 other 6-year olds are forming a new class of ‘oldest kindergarteners’, leaving the 4- and 5-year olds behind.
Before school let out for vacation in December, her teacher gave a small party for the graduates and their parents. We were invited to hear her tell a story about a group of ‘cloud men’ who set sail on a new adventure. Along the way, they encounter difficulties, but learn to help each other, and all ends well. The message was: expect the unexpected, stick together, be kind to and help one another, and all will be OK.
I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately, as I just spent a week at ‘home’ in Providence. I put ‘home’ in quotes because, as all expats will attest, the meaning of the word becomes confused. ‘Home’ is both the place you come from, and the place you currently reside. Two different places. Two different homes.
In Providence, I don’t have to try as hard as I do here in the Netherlands. It’s a place I know so well, having lived there for the first 18 years of my life. I know it without thinking, feel it without touching, see it without looking, hear it without listening. I can relax into a state of almost complete passivity. It’s just a part of me. When I walk into the CVS around the corner from my childhood home, the sliding doors parting automatically upon my arrival, I smell the same carpet shampoo I smelled when I was 14. And there’s comfort in that.
At the same time, after almost 7 years of living here, the Netherlands is my home too. In the past, I’ve had a hard time transitioning back to my life here after visiting the States. But this time, I felt totally at peace: at peace with where I come from and the place I’m currently at, on the road to wherever I’m going. It feels natural that ‘home’ is a relative term. Whether I’m flying east or west over the Atlantic, it’s always a homecoming.
And this, in turn, makes me think about my daughters, Ruby and Juliette, at different points on their journeys of growing up and, ultimately, away from me. Ruby, at almost 6, is a good deal further. Her world has become so much bigger this past year, with school and friends and classes … lots of relationships outside of the one she has with me. Juliette, at 3.5, is in a state of limbo. She’s looking on the one hand to her big sister and wanting all that she has, and on the other to her little brother and wanting all that he has. She’s at once reaching back to babyhood, to being close to me all the time, and reaching out to her own, separate identity, and the separate person she will become.
In the week we spent visiting family in the US, this played out in the form of seemingly endless tantrums and tears. By now, I’ve learned to stay calm in these situations, understanding it’s not about the cracker she insists on having or the leggings she won’t wear. It’s about this journey that she’s on, about not yet finding this peace between places: the place she comes from, the place she’s at, and the place that she is going. It’s an inevitable breaking away, a letting go. And it hurts. Just like the ‘cloud men’, she’s hit some choppy waters.
I just need to be steady and to show her, repeatedly, that we’re going to stick together, that we’re going to be kind to and help one another, and that all will be OK.
I know this because I can look at Ruby, a few years further on, and see that this is the way it should be, that, in growing up, these kids will need to go and come back, go and come back to me time and time again. And I will need to let them go, while holding my own ground, their home ground.
Before Christmas vacation, in our final conference with Ruby’s former teacher, we heard that Ruby has ‘an incredible work ethic.’ She does all of her ‘assignments’ with enthusiasm, but doesn’t ask for extra. This, her teacher said, is because she has her own deep well of ideas to draw from, about what she wants to do, things she wants to try. She has a constant source of inspiration in her imagination, and, thanks to this, is always ‘content.’
I’ve thought about this a lot since our conversation, and it’s occurred to me that this is the greatest gift I could wish on her. I’m so happy for her that she is locating this source of contentment, not in things, not in bells or whistles, but in herself. I think that is the key to a happy life: a truly inexhaustible source of inspiration.
And I also realize that being Ruby’s mother has become, at some point over the last six years, less about her being a positive reflection on me and more and more about her becoming her own miraculous person. She is less a product of my nurturing and more a product of her own nature. These qualities, this shape she’s taking on is hers. Hers to keep and take with her, as she sets sail.
And, most of the time, it feels surprisingly okay, letting her be on her way. Watching her look out, make new connections, form new relationships, glancing back less and less frequently in my direction.
That being said, when she does turn around, and remember me, when she does send a glance my way, asking me to be the one to sit with her, read with her, tuck her into bed, I’m there. And I know that our history is there, in a glance, in a smile, in a goodnight kiss. These everyday moments are little homecomings in and of themselves. She is the child who made me a mother, the best thing I’ve ever been.
At 20, I interned at the Southeast Lighthouse on Block Island, giving tours in exchange for my room at the Block Island Historical Society. At that time, I wrote a piece in my journal about finding myself in a conflicting current of will, like the waters at the foot of the island’s Mohegan Bluffs. How could I ever have known? Fifteen years later, my first child would be making preparations sail off on her own course, and I would find myself, again, in a conflicting current.
I realize that this journey is hers to make. And that swells my heart, and breaks it at the same time, like a wave crashing at the shore.
Oh sure, I know she hasn’t yet left the harbor that is our home, but her boat is built, or almost built. It’s just a question of raising her sails, catching the wind, and letting it take her to open water.
And I realize that my place is here, atop the bluff.
Ruby sails, and I realize, I cannot go with her.
I am only the lighthouse – no – the keeper. The keeper of the light.
I will stay here – yes – and I will keep the light. Here, in the place she came from. The place she must know she can always come back to. I will pound out the steady, unchanging, unending cadence of the light, like a heartbeat. If I do my job right, and keep this light right, she will know, as she goes, that this is a place she knows without thinking, feels without touching, sees without looking, and hears without listening.
And I will answer, without her asking.
You come from light. You come from a truly. incredible. love.
We all need a place like that.
So, sail on Ruby, on your ruby sails.
Sail on, though I realize, I cannot go with you.
And may yours be a spectacular journey.