“… now the ears of my ears are awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened… ”
e. e. cummings
This afternoon, I was lunching on leftover, loaded potato soup and a side of succotash with my fifteen-month-old, Mae, while listening to an acoustic biologist talk about the language of elephants and the songs of whales. Last week’s lunch topic was the intellectual complexity of manual labor, and next week we’ll hear about new knowledge concerning the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
Earlier today we waved our goodbyes to dad and big sister from the window and then lingered there awhile to witness the stillness of our neighborhood after a fresh snowfall. We transferred animal and alphabet magnets from the fridge to the dishwasher and back again. We went up and down the staircase too many times to count, trying to use our knees less and less each go. Then we settled on the floor to read and rip up some flap books. Amidst all this activity, some laundry was folded and some dishes were washed, but for the most part our agenda was set by Mae’s curiosities.
By lunchtime we were ready to take a break from our morning of play to just sit, be quiet, and listen–and for this hour at least, not so much to each other. We’ll often sit in silence during lunch, or I’ll put on some nice music, but recently I’ve discovered Mae’s interest in talking voices coming out of the computer, voices with different tones, accents, pitches. So now I’ll sometimes use this hour of our day to explore podcasts. And on these podcast days, real people from any walk of life, discussing any topic imaginable, will take us out of our little red kitchen and walk us through a larger world.
For me, today’s podcast brought a much-appreciated flavor to our leftovers, but it was also particularly enjoyable for Mae. In addition to the familiar vocal inflections of the interviewer, she heard the voice of an eighty-something, female scientist whose work with bioacoustics also brought whale songs and elephant conversations into our kitchen. Occasionally when the interview paused for an audio clip of a whale song, a series of trills and purrs followed by high- and low-pitched moans and groans echoing over and over again, Mae would stop mid-chew, look at me, and then point to our computer, making her own delighted attempts at vocal communication. I enjoyed the musical patterns in these songs, but I was primarily struck by the elephant language. This woman spent fifteen years in African forests patiently observing these animals and listening to their communication, much of which occurs at a frequency too low for us to even hear. What is audible to the human ear holds no resemblance to the sound I attempt for my girls when pointing to a picture of an elephant. Theirs is a much more guttural language, nothing like the amateur trumpet blare that results from my ballooned cheeks forcing air through tightly closed lips. But I was also intrigued by the discussion of the elephants’ social patterns and their familial bonds. I became weepy when the biologist shared her observations of what for all practical purposes was an elephant “wake,” a procession of over one hundred elephants who came from miles around and waited in line to pay their respects after the death of a baby elephant.
In moments like these, I often have a fleeting thought that perhaps this time with Mae should look more like what might be suggested in any number of manuals on raising a toddler. Maybe I should be pointing to objects around the kitchen, repeating their names over and over again with animated facial expressions. Maybe I should use our lunchtime to work with more diligence on Mae’s sign language for “more,” “please,” and “thank you.” But I try to brush away the temptation of guilt and go back to enjoying our midday meal, made possible by the generous contributions of the talented people at National Public Radio.
I can’t quite put my finger on the source of guilt that hangs heavy when a mom first starts experimenting with the idea of multitasking in this way, of feeding her own soul while simultaneously caring for her offspring, but it is very real and very hard to shake. This breed of guilt is a subtle beast, for sure, and its loud, twisted message is simply this: what appears mundane must remain so. Somewhere during my transition into parenthood, I became susceptible to this message. I began to believe that nourishment for the mother and nourishment for the child had to come from separate sources, that, at times, one of us would surely have to be deprived of sustenance for the sake of the other.
What a lonely, unhappy life it would be if this were the modus operendi of motherhood. How sad, if magnified curiosities could only belong to children. And too often, I can go through an entire day operating as if this were the case, but fortunately my firstborn, Olivia, now four, has been persistent in showing me my shortsightedness. Her invitations for me to take part in the explorations of her childhood have been constant and have often provided the clarity I need to fight this guilt monster. She has been doing this her whole life, but I remember a specific moment of illumination from two years ago.
At the time our living quarters were small and fairly secluded. Because I would often get antsy, almost claustrophobic, we would frequently take our midmorning snack out. When weather would permit, we’d head toward the waterfront. We’d walk down to the end of the pier to watch the boat traffic. Olivia was fascinated by the two giant ferries that would float to and from our island in 45-minute intervals. As one would come into sight, still far from the shore, she would anticipate its loud horn by covering her ears well before it was time for it to blow. She’d sit there, hands over ears, face all scrunched up with a funny smile, just waiting. I had a stockpile of strategies to coax her into relaxing, to put her hands down and enjoy watching the waves and the birds and the boats. Eventually she’d be distracted enough to forget about the pending horn and would set about sharing some of the observations and questions she was collecting from the stimulus around her.
“Smell the ferry, Mama. It’s getting closer.”
“Let’s jump in, Mama.”
“How do boats and birds swim?”
“Mama. Can you feel the wet in the wind?”
Then the sounds of the ferry would get closer. Her hands would fly back up over her ears, and the scrunched smiling face would return. But she didn’t want to leave until she’d heard the horn that supposedly she didn’t want to hear.
Before we made our way down to the pier on this particular day, we stopped into a nearby coffee shop for our snack. Olivia had cheddar bunny crackers with milk, and I ordered a coffee. She munched away and squirmed in her seat, trying to catch the eye of the fishermen and travelers walking by, while I tried to steal a couple of moments to glance at the headlines in the day’s paper left on our table by the previous customer. At home we had internet and television, but a poor connection and spotty reception, both dependent on the strength of the day’s wind gusts, meant that these headline glances were possibly the only access I would have to the outside world that day. I was two paragraphs into the story when I could feel that familiar guilt start playing it’s game inside my head. Why would a two-year-old want to come to a coffee shop? And you’re not even engaging her in conversation. Rather, you’re hoping she’ll remain distracted while you catch up on your current events. What kind of a mom does this?
She finally faced me and settled in her seat. “Whatcha doin’, mama?” Orange cracker crumbs all over her mouth, teeth, and fingers.
“Well, Olivia, I’m reading about thousands of Buddhist monks in Myanmar who were detained for leading their people in a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration against the junta’s harsh rule.” No joke, I really said that, or at least something very close to it.
“Hmm…. For me?”
“Am I reading the paper for you?”
“Yep. For me, Mama?”
And then it occurred to me. Was it really selfish of me to want to know about Buddhist monks all the way on the other side of the world, monks whose informed choice of action was for the betterment of their people? Or, in some way, was my learning about all this also “for” her? So I answered.
“Yes, Olivia. I am reading the paper for both of us.”
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
This was not an uncommon phrase to come out of her little mouth. Often she’d ask me what I was doing, be it preparing dinner, making a phone call, washing my hands, and when I told her, she would ask if I was doing it for her. If I said “yes,” then she’d respond, “Wow, that’s amazing.” For a long while it was her “question” and “response” of choice as she tried to experiment with and master the sequence of a conversation. But in that coffee shop, on that day, her response matched my thoughts exactly.
As today’s podcast came to a close, I began putting away our dishes. Mae wandered about the house picking up and dropping various items of fleeting interest, and I drifted into further thought about whales and elephants. After awhile, I felt her presence next to me. With a mitten on her foot and a boot on her hand, she locked her gaze on me until I finally got a clue. It was time for a walk in the snow. I obliged.
We bundled up and set out. Still deep in thought, I let Mae lead the way. I lagged a few steps behind, admiring her tiny footprints and hoping they would linger long enough for a later walker to enjoy. Aside from the crunch of our boots, the only other sounds came from the occasional song of a brave bird and Mae’s attempt to incorporate its melody into her chatter. This went on for awhile until Mae stopped to face a quiet house. Her babbling picked up speed and became more selective and repetitive. She looked at me and pointed to the house. I stopped, looked at the house, looked back at her, and began to focus in on her sounds. She was “woof woof”-ing at the house. It was only when she paused to check for my comprehension that the house began barking back at her. She gave a satisfied smile and moved on.
ELIZABETH DARK WILEY lives with her husband and two daughters in Mount Vernon, Ohio. She received her Master of Arts in Education from the University of Georgia. Currently, she is an adjunct professor and directs an after-school art program in her community. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, cooking and gardening.