I wake up to light spilling into the room through the skylight. I hear cars and birds. I have woken up in this bed in this room for more than thirteen years, and today, like so many mornings, I wake with a kind of jolt in my stomach: I know where I am, but I do not know when I am.
When in time am I? Are my children both sleeping in the other room? Will I hear their small feet pattering on the floor as they come in to wake me? Will they tumble into bed with Eric and me?
And then I remember. Simone and Gabriel are already downstairs making their breakfast, getting ready for seventh and twelfth grades.
How can this be? I feel like I am floating, free falling. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was pregnant with Simone, my breasts tender and full of oncoming milk? Or yesterday that I was preparing to take Gabriel to kindergarten in the bike trailer, Simone beside him, the two playing games?
This feeling of falling is one I have had periodically through my life. As a child I would wake sometimes with a start, aware of my own mortality, an electric current running through my whole body. Remember, I would tell myself, this is not forever, this body in this bed; remember, this is not as solid as you think it is. It was terrifying and thrilling at once because it was so unlikely and yet so true.
Already at seven I was not who I had been. I could still almost, hazily, remember being a chubby little toddler, and now I was tall and strong and thin and could hang upside down on the monkey bars and go across the city to dance class after school with Lisa who was in fifth grade!
How was it all possible?
Sometimes this sense of dislocation is thrilling; it can give me access to mystery, that for so much of the day, in the thickness of living is obscured by the dailyness of getting out the door on time, by the abundance of the details of my job or of cooking dinner, or of talking with the children, or obscured by just simply running at twilight, the body in sync with the breath, so fully alive in the present it can imagine nothing different. And then there is a clearing and I see into that strange sense between things, that unlikeliness, where I stop taking things for granted, where everything feels new, that emptiness that Buddha talks about.
But at other times, that brush up against the awareness of impermanence, can feel like a blast of cold air at the dentist against teeth that are too sensitive, the nerve exposed, sharp and painful. Much of Gabriel’s eleventh grade year, I woke to this feeling of ungrounded, unsettled discomfort: how was it possible that the baby who had come into my world with his round brown eyes and tiny little fingers each with their tinier little nail, the baby who had so revolutionized my life, was almost on his way to college? All year I woke grappling with that existential question. How was it possible? Hadn’t I myself just been on my way to college? And Simone my little one, who had run about the house dancing with two tutus on and three purses draped over her arms, how had she become such a responsible girl coming and going with her friends?
Becoming a mother had changed my own sense of self, and now I was being asked again, before I was ready, to let go of that identity of mothering little children—really let it go.
Yes, I would always be a mother, but not a mother with her children in her arms, on her lap, in the carriage, on the back of the bike, with children coming into bed in the morning, with children whose hands you hold crossing the street, or who need you there when they get home from school.
In the beginning of motherhood I had mourned the loss of my freedom: I could never leave the house without diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, his carrier or a carriage, or, if I was not with the baby, without checking to know who was watching him, what time I needed to be back, etc etc... I had needed to make space not just for this new baby in the world, taking in the world around him with those big curious eyes, but also to make space for me, this new mother that I had become who was never alone anymore in the world, who even when I was with myself, was also thinking about and loving these other beings.
And now, this return to a new upcoming space without my children always at home is another transition I don’t know how to make but that is being made anyway, the light flooding the whole room, the cars speeding over the concrete, and the birds, hundreds of them, from the bushes, over and above each other, in such a cacophony, chirping away, even louder than the cars.
What my children teach me over and over again is to love and at the same time to let go; to be connected to life, and at the same time to understand that life flows through me; to remind me that as they grow into themselves fully, so, too, I can be myself most fully, now and then again differently now. And in this tumbling through time, my children will also teach me how to be the mother of growing and grown children and in that process to remember and rediscover who I am, where I am.
Nadia Colburn is the founder of Align Your Story, mindful embodied writing classes and coaching for women. Her debut poetry collection, The High Shelf, will be published in the fall of 2019. Her poems and creative nonfiction have been widely published in more than seventy national publications in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Spirituality & Health, Lion's Roar, Truthout, LA Review of Books and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, and a B.A. from Harvard, is a certified Kundalini yoga teacher, a serious student of Thich Nhat Hanh, mother and activist. For free meditation and writing prompts visit https://nadiacolburn.com
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