On Turning Ten
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
- Billy Collins
My mother was a writer. When I graduated from high school, she wrote a piece for me as a graduation present. I pasted in my high school yearbook. It was a beautiful piece of writing, a tender, sentimental tribute to an important milestone in my life. She was a very gifted writer.
A year or so before, she had given me “The Prophet”, by Kahlil Gibran. I lapped it up, understanding his words the way a girl of 16 does when she thinks she knows all there is to know about the things that matter most. And I did. I knew all I could know, at that moment.
Mom wanted me to read “On Children.” It was one of her favorites.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archers’ hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves the bow that is stable.
“My dear daughter, she wrote, "Today for the first time I really understand what Gibran was saying. Before, I was just pretending. Before it was practice time. Your arrow rested so comfortably on my bow that it felt so much a part of me.”
And I understood the way an arrow understands. But an arrow cannot understand a bow, because it isn’t.
And then one day, this arrow became a bow.
There are times when I cannot distinguish myself from my children. The we-ness is so strong. The umbilical cord was cut but it remains, forever tying me to them. It is as if we are but one, one mind, one heart and certainly one soul.
When they fall, my knees bleed.
When the kids were little my husband had a saying. “Our job,” he used to tell them, “Is to love you and keep you safe.” I loved that line. So simple and to the point. And we did, the way our parents did, to the best of our ability. We covered the corners of the tables so they wouldn’t bump their heads and put up railings to keep them from falling down the stairs. We knew their friends and their parents and spent time in the classrooms and all the while we did what we promised we would do.
But parenthood is not a dot on a page, a stationary mark frozen in time. It is a journey, a series of dots, a “to be continued” and sometimes, despite our best intentions to love them and keep them safe, those wonderful, strong, independent arrows get bumped around just a bit in flight, banging into a tree or a rock or another arrow, nicking their shaft or clipping their feathered fletching. And it hurts, both of us.
This is where being a passionate, somewhat fiery Italian mama is tricky. I want to go beat up the rock. Chop down the tree. Snap the other arrow. “How dare you hurt my kid!” I want to yell, clenching my fists and staring the perpetrator down. My voice roars like a lioness protecting her cub.
I want to. But I don’t. It is their flight now, not mine. They are strong, competent, powerful people. I stand there, trying to stay steady and I think about Gibran's words that my Mom wrote to me so long ago. “For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves the bow that is stable.”
And now I finally get it.