Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Throwing stones.

The environment resembles the pages of an upscale bohemian home-decorating catalog: sandalwood flooring, an indoor "tree house," unadorned except for a strand of lights strung around a cluster of long, smooth tree branches; a cozy reading nook with pale pillows surrounded by a waterfall of creamy gauze fabric; two wooden tables set with clear glasses and stark tableware for a minimalist meal; a large, rectangular table with a frosted Plexiglas top lit from underneath by environmentally friendly bulbs. 

 Two of the interior walls are mostly windows. 

It's through those windows that I watch my three-year-old boy as I leave him in the care of others in the mornings, early enough that I cringe when the reflection in the glass shows the circles under my eyes have yet to catch enough daylight. He's been in preschool for a few weeks now and has never shed a tear. Aside from the slight and irrational fear of Is he already done needing me? I'm proud that he's becoming the independent soul I aspire to raise.

Last spring I wasn't sure if I was serious about sending him to preschool. Then I discovered the preschool of my dreams: no schedules, nontraditional teaching methods, and not a Fruit Loop or chicken nugget in sight. As dreams do, it came with a price. As dreams go, cost didn't matter.

My gut said go for it, so I did.

Know this: The gut is a laconic speaker, and unforgiving when not acknowledged. We all know those times—when listening is prohibitive, no fun. When I've ignored my gut, trouble was soon to follow. But be heartened, for this isn't a cautionary tale. Trouble, I've found, is like the wind: Although it blows for a while, by law of nature it will eventually stop. So let's not lead lives that assume we should never get into trouble. How boring that would be. 

I wonder about my son, if he'll be like me: a skipping stone, at times gaining impressive distance and other times hitting the water with a plunk! painfully short on its mark. Mind you, all people are not skipping stones. Some are pebbles happily moved by the current; or behemoth, begrudgingly moved boulders; or coarse like gravel. Rocks are made of minerals, and three categories of origin — sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic — create rocks with differing degrees of fortitude. With this in mind, we should reconsider the common use of rock as symbol of strength. Some rocks, it turns out, won't withstand a burden.

You are not anyone's rock. Nor are you your own. You, human, are made mostly of water. You are not buoyant but embody buoyancy itself. Your strength arises not from a predetermined source but from how you flow through the experiences of your life.

There are rocks of all sizes and compositions in the yard at my son's preschool: plastic rocks, a dry "creek bed" of smooth, flat stones; and large boulders for climbing. One afternoon as I entered the yard and approached a wooden 10-foot teepee to fetch my firstborn, I heard "No girls allowed!" and watched a dirty blonde future ward of the principle's office take aim and hit a female classmate in the head with a plastic rock. She screamed. I set my jaw. My son froze, wide eyed. I led him away, quickly instilling the virtues of not throwing rocks and being nice to girls. I also told him to not to play with that miscreant, whose apt name I won't divulge and whom I'd seen showing his colors a few times already. 

Be the water you're made of, son. 

I experienced my own version of "No girls allowed!" as a kid. Even have a scar above my left eyebrow as proof. I wanted in on the rock battle my brother and cousins were having in front of grandma's house, but they wanted none of me. I forget which cousin did the deed, but to fit my narrative I'll tell you he was a frequent visitor to the principle's office. This is creative nonfiction, not autobiography, after all. I also don't know if mom pulled my brother away and gave him a talking to about how to treat girls and whom to befriend, but as his sister I can verify he's fared well in both areas over his 44 years on Earth. Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time a rock and I collided.

Over the past year, stones and pebbles have found temporary shelter in my purse—additions to my son's revolving rock collection. A few of them we've painted; the tiny choking hazards I've surreptitiously tossed into the trash; the larger accidents waiting to happen have been forcibly removed from his unwilling grasp. Is my son's affinity for rocks merely a byproduct of childhood wonder, or a burgeoning curiosity of the natural world? It's early to tell, so I'll continue to guide him toward the latter. My boy isn't the only one with interest in rocks. Twelve years before he came along, a rock lived in my purse for months, maybe longer. It came from my therapist's office. She was a psychology grad student at West Virginia University. I, considered a nontraditional undergrad student at the age of 22, wasn't much younger than this person charged with helping me navigate life. She was a strawberry blonde with sparse freckles, skin the color of a newborn piglet, and a welcoming resting face. Green as she was, she did a good job of helping me understand my anxiety, a burden I'd carried for years without knowing its name until I met her. On our last visit as her rotation ended, I remarked about her rock garden. She gifted me a stone from it before I left. Twelve cycles of 365 days later, I still wonder who'd I'd be today had my gut not succeeded in pushing me through her door.

Perhaps more so than anywhere I've lived, Memphis, Tennessee, showed me who I came to be. My experiences and relationships in that city brought to life the fierce self-assurance that previous years had been cultivating within. It's only fitting that I recall the presence of stones. A time or two during that first year or two, I'd sit on the bank at Mud Island near downtown and skip stones into the mighty Mississippi with my best gal pal, EW. In the past year, her initials have become unfortunately onomatopoetic, in a reverse way: Ewww didn't create EW, but EW came to embody that sound to me. Last year, she drew back her pitching arm and fired off a handful of rocks, taking great care in her aim. Of occurrences like this, people will say Don't let it get to you. So tell me, you givers of empty advice, how any human can accomplish this feat of not being gotten to. Does it mean discovering that elusive emotion off button? The one that rests on the tip of a unicorn horn or in the pocket of the boogey man or sits in perfect balance on the Scales of Justice. Of course EW got to me. EW, the girl who signed my going-away gift with these words: Keep on being bright, beautiful you. Her chilly demeanor on a particular day last year elicited in me a perfect storm of rage and heartbreak. It still does, particularly when I see photos of her on Facebook through mutual friends. To this day I want to tear into her. Then in steps my gut, the sage: Let her have her comfort in self-preservation. Those cold, judgmental, self-righteous words she slung my way were merely her way of making herself feel okay about wanting to move on from a friendship she no longer needed.  

Do you feel okay, old friend? 

I thought of EW last night as I was transfixed by the latest memoir to grace my eyes, At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard. The more Maynard recalled the chaos of her younger years, the more I felt at home in my own skin, the more I remembered that I've been called to be this exact woman and this writer and that those who doubt me only make me more certain of and satisfied with who I am. There is no self-destruction in my past, only self-construction. Joyce Maynard, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Jeannette Walls, Patti Smith—I've read all their memoirs. All these women took the pieces of their lives of chaos and tribulations and made them into monuments of success. In each of their life stories, I see reflections of my own path. Throughout their experiences arises an awesome message about this minuscule, unglamorous word: gut. Learn its language. Ignore it at times. It's okay. Your gut is the only home to which you can truly always return.
In a couple hours I'll pick up my darling from the room with the ethereal reading nook and the barren tree house and the unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast. I'll ask him what he sang and who he played with and what he ate, and he'll tell me he doesn't remember. That's how it goes every time. And eventually, right about when we hit the interstate, he'll say, Hey mamma, I missed you while you were gone today. It never gets old. Motherhood is the ultimate manifestation of the gut speaking. Mine told me that the little one within was worth changing everything. After forty-one scary, exciting, sad, life-shaking weeks, he and I finally met. 

And in the years to come, I would realize my gut had been right about everything ever.