I love the Mary Oliver poem West Wind #2 and have it here at my desk as a daily reminder to myself to “row, row for your life toward it”
When I was young and a new mother, I used to walk everyday, pretty much all day, with my months-old son Ben in his stroller. We would first walk to the Green Mountain coffee shop next to Anderson’s bookstore, where I met Jay (my ex-husband and actor and bookseller) and stepped forward together into the dark & passionate maelstrom that would be our new life together.
I remember every morning I used to order a low-fat peach-berry-crunch muffin, which made me feel justified and good, but never satisfied. Everyone knew me there. Mothers coo-ed at the sweet little boy tucked in blankets. I don’t know what I did – if I was reading or writing or just sitting there with my warm mug of coffee.
I wonder what they must have thought of me, there everyday, alone with this baby for hours.
After breakfast, I would walk the meandering brick path, running on both the north and south banks of the DuPage River. I’d listen and watch the water flowing across the rocks, notice the ducks arguing, and stop at the same picnic shelter, when Ben would need his bottle or to be changed. He never seemed to mind the day-long walks. He’d look up at me in bright wonder. I wonder what he saw?
I thought I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. I thought that was the best thing for a child – just like breast feeding & cloth diapers, which lasted, for me & Ben, only 3 days, if that. But I wasn’t very good at being a stay-at-home mother. I was restless. Purposeless. I was sad and lonely. Motherhood wasn’t what I dreamed it would be like.
I know now that going back to work in corporate America, was a good thing for me, yet, then I resented it so much. This wasn’t what I was supposed to be when I grew up, why I went to college, it wasn’t what my parents dreamed for me.
I always believed that being a wife and mother (and possibly a part-time florist or cake decorator, writer, or weirdly, a park ranger) was the right thing for me – to raise children, to create and hold together a family. It certainly wasn’t my dream to commute to Chicago 5 days a week and send my child to daycare.
And god, how I blamed my ex-husband in every way possible, that I couldn’t choose to stay home with our son, like so many more affluent women in our town. I was so jealous of the women and their organized playgroups – all of them seemed so adept at what I struggled with – being a mother to an infant and toddler.
Instead I spent those days in a heavy grey fog of depression.
Once I remember saying to my own mother (and knowing it was true) that Ben was in better hands with our home daycare provider Cindy. She was so gifted at helping young children thrive – Ben loved being in her home, with the other kids his age – watching trucks rumble down the road, playing outside in the sandbox, going to story time at the library. He loved Cindy. Sometimes, he would mistakenly call her “mom” when we were leaving her home at the end of the day and saying goodbye. That hurt a lot to hear. But I swallowed it and smiled.
If I wasn’t a stay-at-home mother (and part-time florist/bookstore worker/coffee shop waitress/writer in blue-felt hat), what was I?
What was I called to do? when would I feel “the mist on (my) mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming”?
So you will forgive me for hesitating and resisting packing away the Story that I thought I was called to write. You will forgive me my fear of letting that Story go and turning away from rowing towards that “unmistakable pounding”. Because then, what am I?
I am drifting in too-calm waters, purposeless
Yet, I wonder, could it be, that even at 48, I am still that young woman Mary Oliver’s poem calls to? I don’t know, but I have lifted the oars anyway, and am listening. Are you?
West Wind #2
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
~ Mary Oliver ~
And from Roger Housden’s “Ten Poems to Open Your Heart” – the opening coda to his discussion on this poem is a quote from Mary Oliver:
“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.”