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In shelter and shadow
I’ve been researching for another post, but I’m taking a week to head to Oregon, my former home, to visit a few college campuses with my son, who is now 17.
How that happened still leaves me in a state of head spinning. I’m constantly wondering if I parented him enough, what I could have/should have done more of if there was more time. How odd to have this lovely being who has been tied to me for so many years become his own person—who is taller, stronger, and deeper voiced than my own body. I still have this impulse to parent—to make sure he eats, has clothes that fit, gear in cold weather. To check-in, only to remember (again) that it’s annoying at this point, and I remind myself to respect his autonomy.
And then the growing new worries—of how to afford school tuition on a meager income, because learning is the best part of life, and being with peers was such a defining experience in my own life, I want him to experience that joy (and hopefully it will be joy). How to do it all well, I don’t know. I keep trying—I suppose in reality it’s the only thing we can ever do.
I worry about how I might have set him up to fail by not prioritizing grades more, teaching him to not blindly fall in line with authority figures, to not just accept the status quo. Sometimes I feel such conviction in those values, and gratitude that he has taken it to heart—that he thinks critically, doesn’t necessarily feel the need to achieve to feel his worth. And then the whiplash that comes with feeling the pressures of this world and suddenly telling him he should work harder and care more—because I am having a momentary freak out that he will be cut off from opportunities in the future, in a world that does want people to follow along. What a horrific way to think about the world and one’s life. And yet—how do we not? This world is so harsh, cruel, unforgiving, demanding. It has moments of grace, kindness, and beauty—but of course, this is never what is prioritized, or deemed successful.
I so wish for a world where staring at the sudden green beauty of the trees blowing in the wind outside as I write was the mark of a successful day. That attention towards what is around us, thinking about it, was the mark of productivity. That the comfort that my dog feels sleeping as I type over and over, or of bringing my son food when he is sick with a cold after starting his summer job this week, is something truly worthy of celebrating as an achievement. Oof.
I listened to a poem this morning on a podcast (I know) and I was taken aback to find that something kind of broke in me—or broke open. It was beyond an emotional response, it was physical—involuntarily moved to tears. There are works like that I can only read or listen to once or twice a yearat best, because they are so poignantly beautiful, I don’t want to somehow dispel any of their magic. As if listening to or reading them too often would jinx them— make them more mundane, lessen the power they hold. What a paradox—that which can affect us so strongly is something we can only take in spoonfuls, that we need space around them to love them—and be loved by them—fully.
Parenting feels like that to me—it’s still a mystery to me how my son was created in my body (he’d be cringing but he won’t read this so I’ll say it) and now he’s this man-child who barely needs my presence during the day. The poignancy of that breaks me open. Now he’s a young man who texts me funny memes and details on sci-fi stories, or shares a new song he’s found. It’s a type of learning to balance presence-absence. He’s teaching me ways that he needs to still be close without the physical closeness that he needed as a child. It’s the space around us that gives us room to be ourselves, but still connected.
It makes me feel so grateful for those bursts of experience, the things that move us, that cause us to wonder, that teach us how to be in the world, how to love others over time and life experiences. How we need space to be able to process such brilliance. To be able to think and move through the day with the memory of that brilliance in our heads.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet and writer, in his book In The Shelter, shares an Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine…
which translates in one way as 'it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.' Another way to translate it is 'it is in the shadow of each other that the people live.' The word scáth can mean both shelter and shadow….The poet Michaeal O'Siadhail, also a linguist, wrote to me once that scáth is related to a Norwegian word for 'mist.' He wrote: 'I wonder if the wisdom in this proverb demands a kind of discernment, a peering through the blur of ordinary living to decide when closeness overshadows and when it protects.'
Both shelter and shadow, a discernment between. That is how I’m feeling of late with my son’s gradual untethering to the home we made, as he learns to find and create his own home in the world. It’s how I feel when I am blindsided by a poem or piece of music that stops me in my tracks, literally, and then have to take time, to give space to that power of feeling.
It’s what gives us shelter and shadow—a threshold that you find yourself standing on and recognizing it as such. On either side is the experience of both profound protection and exile, twin sides of what being mortal holds. It is what community and independence both share and provide—the shelter and the shadow. The need and power of both. You find yourself on a threshold that takes your breath away, and you wait knowing that your breath will return—thankful for both the power of that impact and the return of your breath.
I’ll be taking a break from writing for just a wee bit while I’m traveling—I want to be able to focus on getting to travel with my son on our own for the week, and visit my dear chosen family, who I met in college when we were barely a year older than our kids are now.
I hope that the week brings blooms wherever you are, that the green outside your window is something that can bring pause, that the wind is speaking to you and you hear it because you were able to pay attention, no matter how much the world would demand of us otherwise.
And I’d love to hear the poems or music or experiences that have affected you in that shelter/shadow way—the things in life that are so beautiful that you feel an intense need to have space around them, because of how powerful and moving they are.
Vaugh Williams’ Lark Ascending does this to me. I know, it’s anglophile corny but…I first heard it live when I was in England as a student and will never forget it. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Most of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry. Many of Emily Dickinson’s…
Ó Tuama, Pádraig. 2021. In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. Broadleaf Books. pp. 86-7