My mother in law gave me this nighttime book for my son in his first month. I have a bookshelf full of books I recognize, “Goodnight Moon”, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Are You My Mother?” and a host of Dr. Seuss, CS Lewis, Mark Twain (of course) and a boxset of A.A. Milne. But this one I have never seen before. The first time or two I read it I thought it was lovely, but it didn’t hit me with the stillness, the vast empty beauty of “Goodnight Moon” with its blank white page and black lettering, devastating “goodnight nobody” and the last two pages that dropped into a freshly made vulnerable space in my chest: “goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.” That book took a grip around me and squeezed that place in my heart and head that bring me back to my own single bed, my grandmother’s rose talculm hands reading stories to me, the glow in the dark stars on the footrest of the Van Gogh blunt blue painted child’s bed that I had before my sister inherited it a few years later when I graduated to an adult-sized four poster single bed. I’m sure my mother read that book to me. But this one: this one was new.
Tonight, I am alone with Huck, which is rare. My husband is out listening to music with some friends. His boy’s night out. I am never here alone and I’ll admit it’s nice here, on the couch, stretching out, the Christmas tree lit up, the rain and wind against the window panes, cookies baking in the oven, a flour stained t-shirt and sweats, a quiet mix of music made by soft-spoken men that threaten to break my heart – Ray LaMontaigne, Damien Rice, Gregory Alan Isakov, the softer Jason Isbell songs, Iron and Wine. A playlist of deep mellow that I unapologetically love. Like Yacht Rock, I’m afraid soft-spoken-male-singer-songwriters will one day be mocked. But hell, I also love America and that crazy song “Horse With No Name” even though the lyrics are stupid. I just love that sound. It reminds me of the early 1970’s, which is exactly when I’d have been lying in that royal blue bed staring at the stars by my feet, the sounds of my parents voices softly flowing in through the crack in the door.
I am baking, which is what I used to do to soothe my sadness. And then I took it back up when I married Jamey and was trying to do things differently in this marriage – to not only really commit all of me all in, but to not eschew domestic femininity and goddamn it, bake some cookies (Hillary Clinton be damned). I am baking for the neighbors who drop little plates of cookies and fudge, or hamburgers and fries, little gifts they leave at our door, knowing we are new parents and may not be eating. I am baking for the ones who live across the street and stopped by in Huck’s first week to give us gifts of clothes and blankets and I have yet to personally thank them. I am baking for my morning meeting of drunks, a crowded room of men in overalls that are not worn ironically but because they farm and mulch and haul dirty things for a living, full of women with grey hair and grandchildren. I am the youngest woman in the room and I have grown to love these people over the past year, for it is tonight, one year since we moved into this Hendersonville house, 20 minutes north of hipsterville, of bohemia, of where the cool kids are moving to plant their flag on Music Mountain. Making their mark. Starting out. I am long past starting out. I have been here now for 20 years, quietly making little grooves. No flag is flying anywhere. Just two handfuls of records and a respectable but under the radar and always emerging career.
I am baking to soothe a sadness I am indulging with whispering men’s songs that comfort me. The Milk Carton Kids. Peter Bradley Adams. Many of these men I have met on stages we have shared. I am baking cookies for myself and banana bread for neighbors and friends. These songs are all about longing: a longing for what they don’t have – love, a town, the moon, a memory, a long drive somewhere else. And these songs wrap their loving fingers around this heart of mine, open wide, and squeeze.
I bathe Huck in the bathtub, now, without the infant tub. There’s a soft mat that keeps him from slipping and toys that float and squeeze and Huck loves to lay on his belly in the shallow water and splash and put his tongue in the body-temperature water. He smiles at me with wet blue eyes as blue as the azure Mediterranean in a painting. I feed Huck in a high chair and he eats oatmeal and sticks his tongue out at me and laughs the most beautiful laugh, a wide smile of 2 bottom teeth and pink gums. His eyes dance like the waves and that laugh snakes its crescendo fingers around my heart, wide wide open, and squeezes. I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life as his laughing eyes.
I have stood in front of The David in Florence, Italy and wept in awe.
I have stood on the steps of a temple in Angkor Wat, Banyan Trees wrapping their smooth thick vines in and out of the earth around it like boa constrictors and I’ve wept at impermanence.
I have stood on a houseboat on the Seine and watched the sunset, drunk on red wine with an old friend and wept over mistakes and chances passed.
I have stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon with a friend to catch the sunrise and wept at the emptiness of future promise.
I have stood at the grave of my father’s identical twin brother and wept in grief and, twinly, in anticipating fear.
Tonight, my son lay on my lap and I read him “You Are My I Love You”:
I am your parent, you are my child
I am your quiet place, you are my wild…
I am your water wings, you are my deep
I am your open arms, you are my running leap.
I am your way home, you are my new path
I am your dry towel, you are my wet bath.
I am your finish line, you are my race
I am your praying hands, you are my saying grace…
I am your lullaby, you are my peekaboo,
I am your goodnight kiss, you are my I love you.*
I wept. He looked up at me, I think because he heard my voice change, the tone went from calm and soothing to cracked and breathy. His hand reached my cheek as a tear fell down and his head leaned against my chest.
I have been working on a record of songs I wrote last year and recorded right before and after he was born. And it feels large and small at the same time. All projects feel large and small at the same time, as if I’m grasping for more meaning than I am due right now. As if it’s audacious to ask the Gods for more than just this perfectly healthy miracle of grace that I was given when the jury is still out on my deservingness. I am working on things, creative things, and I am not sure I am finding my voice or if it’s messy, or if it’s perfectly messily chaotically vulnerable. I am a whiplash of hormones and tears and “I don’t knows” and forgetfulness and losing things like keys and wallets and words and songs half written and melodies and lyrics. But I have not lost the desire to be seen and be heard and be validated and yet I know this is not my season for that. I am home with a 9 month old who tugs at my pants and puts his arms in the air and says “Mamamamamama” and cries if I put him down for too long. He needs me. No one ever needed me because I wasn’t really available to be needed. I had it, you know. “I got it,” I’d say, staving off help or care. I didn’t need you so please don’t need me.
Can I be honest here, in a way that maybe I haven’t been honest so far. I really really really wanted the stars. I did. I wanted that brightness. I wanted to have that happen to me. And it didn’t. Maybe I got a taste of it. I got closer than most, I travelled adjacent, I reached my arms up and tugged at coattails and a few even pulled me up in their arms close to their light and pointed out the constellations and whispered in my ear and told me, assured me, allowed me to belong in that light. For a moment. But then, as we do, they’d put me back down, as they should have, to find my own way up without the lifting, and I was back on earth not knowing how to get back to the milky way.
I wanted that so much that the hurt on my chest tonight as I read to my son. And that comes back like lovely fingers that softly touch my chest and trail their touch down between my breasts, swollen with milk, and trace a path down my neck under my hairline and then gently press into my skin and through it and through the bones and blood and thread a net around that same heart, still, so wide open, weeping from awe and art and anger and grief and fear and desire and emptiness and vastness and understanding and confusion and surrender and grace, so much grace, and those fingers…they are soft and they …
Here’s one thing I think I know. Nobody deserves anything. We get what we get. Sometimes we work hard for it. Sometimes it is given. Sometimes we stumble upon it. Other people will talk and tell stories about our getting but those tales won’t be wholly true, they won’t know. Only we know. And sometimes we hide what we know and spin our own tales for others to oooh and aaah over. To not belong. To soar above, as if that will justify the deserving. But that only separates us from the ground. Because the stars are lovely but they are farther away than they seem and they are only clusters of old old fire that has died a long, long time ago. The stars are a myth we keep telling. And that kind of knowingness is an emptiness in the loudest, most echo-filled beautiful way. It is truth. And truth isn’t easy. It’s an emptiness that tugs at the heart and squeezes and hurts. Like love.
I still desire a flight amongst the stars. Don’t we all? I want that flying so much my own 50-year old arms reach up high, stretching as far as they can toward it, aching, weeping, wanting, needing comfort. Just like those little 9-month old’s hands stretched up my leg, tugging at the fabric on my sweatpants, crying “Mamammamamama”, those hands that need me more than he needs stars. And I lean down to say to him, as I have to trust the stars to the Gods who will also say to me, too:
You are my I love you.
*You Are my I Love You, by Maryann Cusimano Love, illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa. Used without permission. Forgive me. Go buy it from a small independent bookstore like Parnassas Books in Nashville.