Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Promises, Promises

We've recently transitioned my daughter to a toddler bed.  She's only a year and a half old, but she's never liked being contained in her crib (her name, after all, is derived from a Hebrew root meaning "movement," and apparently also means "freedom" in Hawaiian). It's worked pretty well so far: at naptime or bedtime, she climbs up onto the mattress, rolls around until she finally finds a comfortable position, and -- this is the endearing part -- sticks her butt up in to the air, and tucks her arms and corners of her knit blanket underneath her.  This freedom means that when she gets up, she can also get out of bed and entertain herself for a few minutes before she calls one of us to come and get her, which she seems to love, judging by the smiling child I often find standing in a pile of books, waving one she was just "reading."

One of the conditions of this freedom, though, is her unspoken need to have one of us stay with her until she falls asleep.  She'll lie there if we sit in the chair and close our eyes, too, simply being a comforting presence.

This afternoon I watched her fall asleep out of the corner of my half-closed eyes (because you can never let her know that you're looking at her); her own eyes would grow heavy, and then flash open, making sure that I was still there before they closed again.  Yes, I told her, silently.  I'm still here.  Don't worry.  You're safe.

Something about that moment reminded me of the precious moment in New York at BlogHer this weekend, when Write Mind Open Heart's daughter grabbed my hand as we walked up Broadway on Saturday night.  She'd seen something--or perhaps someone--that made her nervous, and though she was already holding her mother's hand, she reached for mine, too.  She asked if I minded, and I said no ... that I was honored.  Because I was.

Later, on the way back to the hotel, I found myself telling her my story of being mugged at gunpoint in Los Angeles.  I don't know how I got on that subject, but a few sentences after I'd launched into it, I stopped, worrying that I was going to upset her.  I asked her if she would be afraid, told her that I wanted to make sure that she felt she was safe here, that we would keep her safe.  She assured me that she wouldn't be upset, that she wasn't worried.

That pseudo-promise has been nagging at me ever since, especially after finding out about the shooting at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee this weekend.  [Edited later to include: Or the shooting in Aurora.  Or the tragedy in Newtown.  Or the Boston Marathon Bombing.]  Because really?  We can't ever make that promise.  We can't promise to keep anyone safe: not men, not women, not children, not the unborn.

I took the kids to our local National Night Out celebration tonight, where there were bouncy houses, and free hot dogs and ice cream and pizza, and a dunk tank, and door prizes, and a DJ, and an antique car show, and lots of fire trucks and police cars to look at and climb into.  It was the kind of thing I try to do a lot, especially in the summer, because I love the spirit of community that I feel at festivals, even when I don't know another soul, and I want my children to feel that, too.  My husband, S., jokes that I have a "thing" for white canvas tents.  That may be true, but the tents have always been a metonym for me, for something much larger, something I can't quite express. Something pure, and lovely, and idyllic, maybe ... something that stands apart from the world that we find scary or overwhelming or unpredictable.

So yes, our National Night Out celebration feels more like a block party than a vigil.   And when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure how effective it is.  After all, no bouncy house is going to stop a teenage gang from putting a gun to someone's head.  No free ice cream is going to prevent us from getting cancer, or getting into a fatal car accident.  No good will is going to prevent pregnancy and neonatal loss.  There's simply too much in the world that is unsafe, too many things we need protection from.  On the other hand, it's a good reminder that sometimes we can find a different kind of security in being open to being together. 

Maybe we can't promise to keep each other safe.  But we can promise to sit and keep watch, and we can hold each others' hands.  And maybe that's the best we can hope for.
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  1. I love how your daughter sleeps with her butt up in the air and her blanket and arms tucked in. I did the exact same thing.
    I think that even though we may know that someone can't really promise to keep us safe, just the thought of knowing that someone cares enough to make that promise and try is the most comforting. Great post.

  2. This post really resonated with me. I often get a twinge of fear when I make promises like that to my children, and I regularly tell them I will keep them safe even though I know it's not entirely in my power to do so. When I watch them sleep the words to the Faithless song, I Hope, often run through my head, "What have I done, brought perfection to this world of confusion heedlessly." The maternal instinct to protect combined with the desire to not hover too much and the knowledge that the world can be incredibly dangerous terrifies me and there are moments it feels overwhelming.

    My youngest also sleeps with her butt in the air - too sweet!

  3. I think that's the very point. The more we reach out and hold hands with other people, the less we'll NEED to hold hands because we're afraid. Because we'll know that we're all the same - humans in need of contact.

    It scares me how disconnected from humanity the world is becoming. The more we hold hands, the more we'll remind ourselves of the things that really matter: people.

    My son also used to fall asleep the same way - staring fixedly at me. Was always a reminder of when he was newly born and stared at me with such intensity. I miss that time with him, falling asleep, sometimes.


  4. I thought you did such a fantastic job explaining that to Tessa, and allowing her to understand the world-as-it-is and yet feel safe and loved and part of something vast and loving. I was so happy she had this moment with you.

    I, too,have a thing for white canvas tents.

    Enjoy the cuddling.

  5. Ah wow. So true. After losing so many family members in the last three years, this post was especially moving. And I love how you concluded your reflection. We can't keep our loved ones safe, but we can sit and watch and hold each other through good and bad times.


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