My own memory goes back some 30 years, but this time the genders in the scene that Sharon Olds holds up in her poem are switched. And it’s me and one or another of my daughters at one or another of the homes we occupied during that time.
Before beginning I set out all the ingredients – soap, shampoo, wash cloth, towel, clean clothes – and then with excruciating care calibrate the temperature of the water that slowly pours into the basin, a la the tree bears – not too hot, not too cold: just right!
And then this carefully choreographed dance that my daughter and I engage in. The hold, just as Sharon describes it, initiated by me, the child gathered in the crook of my arm, as if she always belonged there, and then the slow descent to the dance floor, the welcoming pool of water with satisfying wisps of steam rising off of it.
From the infant at first, a clenching, tensed response to this new environment, eyes wide, apprehensive, focused tightly on my face, but then with a gentle touch, the water’s soothing feel and the soap’s slipperiness, a slow relaxing, a calming of movement, and together we catch the rhythm of this routine.
I remember as a new parent the fear that surrounded me that first time I attempted this feat – visions of all that could go wrong and do damage to the child before me – but, as Sharon Olds says, experience in time teaches us. It teaches us not only how to navigate this task; it teaches that we are good for each other.
This is how we are meant to be: two people linked in love, bonded, but not too tight. And if we are lucky, the formal nature of this interchange – the cleansing of the child – devolves into something deeper, which is play. Whether it’s cooing or splashing or singing or laughing, we connect and find an easiness with each other that opens the way to intimacy.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I’d like to take some time to notice of and celebrate the many ways in the parenting we both give and receive that play opens us to each other and the possibility of deeper connections in our lives.
Now, as we enter this subject I must admit that I am of the generation that was raised under the guidance of Benjamin Spock. Remember him? We baby boomers, now nearing our retirement years, were beneficiaries of the then-scandalous advice of this best-selling pediatrician that parents ignore the rigid rules of child-rearing proclaimed by supposed experts and simply use common sense in rearing their children. Your children want love and affection, he said: give it to them. They want to explore: let them. Talk with them; listen to them; and, yes, play with them.
In his early TV appearances Spock was sure to elicit cries of surprise, and sometimes disapproval, when, presented with a clutch of toddlers, he would fold his six-foot frame and settle on the floor among them. Naysayers fretted: you’re spoiling those kids! And years later, commentators diagnosed the nation’s ills as the result of Spock’s supposed leniency.
Spock himself and anyone who paid attention to what he actually wrote dismissed such rubbish – attending to your child doesn’t mean you don’t also guide and correct her. Your play with him is not the same as what happens in the company of his age mates. It is something else: a unique opportunity to create something that is really more like a moment of communion.
For, as people who study such things tell us, there is something extraordinary that happens when we are at play. Any parent is familiar with the phenomenon when they see their children settle into play, and so are artists or anyone who finds him- or herself deep in a creative endeavor.
There comes a point when we forget about ourselves and whatever our worries may have been and we enter into an expansive state. When we join in play, we enter into that state together – a place where we are fully present as who we are, present to ourselves and each other, and yet not present, so absorbed in the play before us that the world around us vanishes, and there is only the play.
Though we may not frame it this way at the time, it is a place of great spiritual depth – something akin to what the Buddhists call samadhi, a meditative state of selflessness where we feel the borders between us and everything else disappear and experience ourselves connected to a wider world. Our play invites our children into that space, a place without judgment where they and we are worthy and whole, and also bonded with each other.
Of course, as nice as play is, our lives are busy enough that it can be hard to schedule and exhaustion often robs us of the energy to engage. It’s why we need communities like this one where the play of parenting can be shared, and one wonderful avenue is across generations.
It is one of the great joys of grandparenting that it has given me a new outlet for play. From the first peek-a-boos to puzzles or the games of tag in the yard we are weaving webs of intimacy that we each can draw on.
A great Mother’s Day recollection I have is a time when our daughters were growing up, and on my mother’s visits she would put herself at their disposal: “What shall we do?”
The answer was often an elaborate story line with roles assigned based on dress-up clothes they would dig out of a great trunk in our family room. My mother would adopt whatever role she was given and accept the clothes they chose to drape on her together with elaborate hats.
I tap into the same sense of play when my granddaughter touches my arm, shouting, “Tag, you’re it!” and giggles as she dashes away. In that moment, our roles and the generations disappear, and we are in it together. It is more than a lark. It is truly one of those great unitive experiences that reminds me who I am and what I love.
The writer Stephen Nachmanovitch argues that we make a mistake when we downplay the significance of play as something ephemeral or foolish. Creative play, he says, is not the act of manipulating life. It is experiencing life as it is.
This is, after all, how we become: we play – with ideas, with our environment, with each other. We step away for a moment from the world with all its consequences and toy with possibility. And in possibility we find our place.
We reach a place where we are finally determined to take ownership of our lives. “Now I become myself,” says the poet May Sarton, and it often feels that way. Having lived within the tidy or tangled scripts that we cobbled together from our limited experience, we are called to something larger, something greater. Those early scripts, we now see, were inadequate to who we are and what we need, but we had no way of knowing that. And it wasn’t our fault: it was just too big, and there was too much, more than we could possibly fathom at the time.
Somehow, though, within our fearful, clinging selves we can discern something deeper that is both ours and greater than us, a dimension, a capacity that draws us out and links us more widely with others, with all that is.
We find it in the dawning moment, at the edge of perception where an astonishing fullness floods in on us pregnant with possibility.
Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, whose words we sang earlier, evokes a sense of that moment. He places it in a memory of his childhood – sun-kissed mornings when, in his words, “the marvelous” bloomed like flowers within his heart. The tone that runs through the poem I can only call playful, taking in the world around him “with simply joy” where grass and clouds are enough to inspire “fullest wealth of awe.” It is, he says, is not the words his mother speaks: simply her voice that gives “meaning to the stars.”
It reminds me that we mistake sometimes how we touch each other. We wordy, well-reasoned sorts imagine that it is our arguments that carry our weight in the world, when really it is how we make ourselves present and to whom that matters.
Tagore closes this passage, which he wrote toward the end of his life, saying that thoughts of his own approaching death brings him back to that rising bedside curtain, to the new morning, and with it life awakened in fresh surprise of love.
It is in childhood, of course, when we feel that most intensely, before we have constructed our filters and armored ourselves against injury and disappointment. Yet, the fullness of life is no less available, the marvelous is still at hand, and love is every morning a fresh surprise.
And so today we celebrate the mothering that has taught us to care,
to open our sometimes-hesitant hearts to each other,
to make room for the play that welcomes possibility, our own and the world’s,
so that once nurtured in the crook of a loving arm we, too, born from the mystery beyond all knowing might come to move our silky limbs at will and realize the blessing that we were born to be.