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Our collective mother: Instinct

It is Mother's Day, and I am having coffee in a squat red cup, and dark chocolate with sea salt, and that will be my breakfast. We had a gathering yesterday, because Gabriel is a citizen now, and because we are suddenly all vaccinated. The yard is a disaster. I am of the attitude this morning that most of the day will persist in being out of control and unwieldy. Things will be messy and my children will blackmail me and they will win, and it may be Mother’s day but I will likely still do the majority of the housework. It doesn’t matter. It doesn't matter because I will, at least, choose chocolate and coffee to be my breakfast, and for now, I will practice my impressive skills at shutting the world out so I can write. Having banished guilt, conscience, and any sort of responsibility to anything outside my door, for now, I will do what I like.

I have a cat, and this cat hunts. This morning Gabriel pulled his shoes out from under the bed, just under where my head lays upon the pillow, and stuck to his shoe was a stiffened bird. My cat does that, goes out into nature and takes what she can. She is well fed, and wears a collar with a bell, but she finds her way to slip through the lines of domesticity, to engage in the hunt.

Life is generative, and equally, consumptive. Life is a fire that consumes itself, and a drumbeat that thrums out the new life in a sort of frenzied excess.

I was ambivalent about motherhood. All through my 20s and 30s, marriage and family felt so vanilla to me; felt like a mattress one could lie down upon and get lulled into dull, insipid sleep. I felt no draw, no attraction, and one of the things my mother taught me was to be sincere, and to do the things that I could do with all my heart.

It was only when I met Pipo that I felt the desire to be locked together with him in this ritual they call parenting, this cult they call family. Falling in love with him, suddenly I could conceive of the focus that it required to parent. All the obstacles I’d conceived of prior - the missed adventures, the pecuniary concerns - dissolved. I opened up to the potential that ‘the joy of parenthood’ was not a lie. I opened up to the possibility that I might enjoy the constant interruptions and demands. The non-negotiable quality of it somehow took on new dimensions, and thus, I allowed it to happen to me.

When we had our first, Zavier, I remember walking down the street in Campbell and seeing the other families and feeling like I finally understood them, like we understood each other. In those early days, nothing that had happened before the point of giving birth seemed quite relevant anymore. A tiny, powerless thing had exited my body and turned my life into his little love field of infinite upheaval. He was squirmy and soft and vulnerable and clearly he could die if I did not learn to pay attention in an exquisitely precise fashion. I must be alert, I could actually kill him, if I was not careful. I could roll over on him, drop him, let him slip into the hands of the wrong stranger, let him choke. Any manner of terrible things could happen, and my mind was warped into a new version of itself, now capable of constant vigilance, a constant surveillance. My old life was clearly over.

Nevertheless, I knew that this sense I had, of being a new person, this sense that the new me had sprung into being from nowhere, must be flawed. This sense of radical newness must also be a lie. Whatever got harnessed, whatever it was that allowed me to keep this little wee thing from dying had somehow been laying fallow within. In the deepest sense I had simply initiated a new functionality that was already thrumming along inside me.

Annie Lamott frequently writes how this myth of motherhood and more broadly, parenthood, lies to us all and somehow makes parenting an unequaled feat. The myths of parenthood is that it is some sacred and glorious and exclusive domain, and that myth leaves all who have not parented outside the circle, and it is a lie. She writes,

"Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.
The illusion is that mothers are automatically more fulfilled and complete. But the craziest, grimmest people this Sunday will be many mothers themselves, stuck herding their own mothers and weeping or sullen children and husbands’ mothers into seats at restaurants or parkettes. These mothers do not want a box of chocolate. They may have announced for a month that they are trying not to eat sugar. Oh well, eat up."

Lamott is right. Today is a hard day for so many. I may have had that kind of mother’s love, that builds you, and gives you wings. But many have had the kind that leaves you withered, having to find your own moorings. A number of my friends never did have children, though they would have liked to. They are probably not brunching today. I imagine that the flower stands on every corner are at best an annoyance, and at worst could stir up a pang of sour disappointment. I think of my friend who lost her mom this year, how big and terrible today might feel for her. She’s moved into her mom’s house. Has she made it her own? Does it still smell of her mom? Does she feel her own place there? Does she feel how her own heartbeat will mother her now, how she will be held now by her own instinct to love and be loved?

What are we all mothered by? Where is the ground that holds us all? The earth of course, feeds us all from her breast. We of course live only a tiny portion of our time here in appropriate awe towards this magnificent, and yet neutral, fecundity.

We are mothered by bonds of family and clan, but also by ideas - concepts. We are mothered by cults, companies, countries. Gabriel became a citizen on Friday, after decades in the states. It took him a while to even want to become a US citizen. For so many years he’d been taught to regard this place as the enemy. In Cuba, since the Revolution, Fidel gave speeches that lasted all through the night, illuminating the hard truth that the neighbors to the North were assassins of a particularly vile ilk. People went through hard times, and no longer had milk, or meat, and needed to know why. Fidel, like most leaders who stick around for a while, obviated any nuance. He made it simple, Los Yanquis. They were strangling this tiny strip of an island with greed and egoism and blindness.

Cubans are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage. I imagine they might find America to be rather flat, full of glitz and bling, underneath which is an extractive craving, a consumptive emptiness. I imagine Cubans to be less lonely than Americans. They have been mothered by Son, Salsa, Nueva Trova, Rumba and Changui. When people have music drawn out of them, they seem to adapt better to change. Art and poetry and closeness creates a matrix, a latticework of substance that people can find themselves in. With all of this, Gabriel was disinclined to trade all that in for whatever American Citizenship had to offer. All the myths of the American dream were cardboard and putty to him. One of the founding notions of the Cuban people was the uniform cheap-ness of the US, and there is plenty of evidence to support the case.

Eventually, Gabriel came to see the multi-valence of the United States, and accept that he would stay here. I hope he feels that we are bound together here as a family. I know he wants to be able to relax, and never worry that a despot could take power again, and erratically send people away, back to countries that are no longer really home.

So we had a gathering yesterday, to celebrate him. It was meant to be small, outdoors, careful. But the immensity of the moment took it a bit beyond what we’d anticipated and there were over 20 in our backyard. Most of us are vaccinated now, and desperate to be together, tightly gathered around our love of dance and music. There is something about entering into the fabric of the unexpected which shows up in a unique way in groups. The fullness of yesterday’s gathering sits with me, as I sit with my now empty coffee cup, and listen to my second child, Lucas, who is 8, practice piano, and talk with my mom over FaceTime. She is listening closely to his new songs, and giving him tips. She is a master at listening. She is mothering and grand-mothering. She’s been through her own travails lately, her heart is grieving a loss. Still, she is giving herself fully to something that she loves. She is inside music with them, listening.

What’s the cloth we are all cut from? What mothers us all? Raw instincts mother us. We are driven by unknown internal frameworks to hold each other close; to cluster together. We are driven to seek newness, and yet to stay away from strangers unless they comport themselves in a very specific way. We are compelled by adventure, to walk beyond the borders that contain us as youth. And we have a instinct to avoid strange insects and snakes, and to be repelled by dead things. We are driven to hunt, like my cat, but in odd ways; we hunt for ease and for safety and for enlightenment. We know, by instinct, to be repulsed by the stiff bird beneath the bed. We know to celebrate each other. To fall into places of comfort when we have exhausted ourselves in our daily labors. To mother each other in an endless myriad of ways. To love.


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