by Heid E. Erdrich
Late summer, late afternoon, my work
interrupted by bees who claim my tea,
even my pen looks flower-good to them.
I warn a delivery man that my bees,
who all summer have been tame as cows,
now grow frantic, aggressive, difficult to shoo
from the house. I blame the second blooms
come out in hot colors, defiant vibrancy—
unexpected from cottage cosmos, nicotianna,
and bean vine. But those bees know, I’m told
by the interested delivery man, they have only
so many days to go. He sighs at sweetness untasted.
Still warm in the day, we inspect the bees.
This kind stranger knows them in intimate detail.
He can name the ones I think of as shopping ladies.
Their fur coats ruffed up, yellow packages tucked
beneath their wings, so weighted with their finds
they ascend in slow circles, sometimes drop, while
other bees whirl madly, dance the blossoms, ravish
broadly so the whole bed bends and bounces alive.
He asks if I have kids, I say not yet. He has five,
all boys. He calls the honeybees his girls although
he tells me they’re ungendered workers
who never produce offspring. Some hour drops,
the bees shut off. In the long, cool slant of sun,
spent flowers fold into cups. He asks me if I’ve ever
seen a Solitary Bee where it sleeps. I say I’ve not.
The nearest bud’s a long-throated peach hollyhock.
He cradles it in his palm, holds it up so I spy
the intimacy of the sleeping bee. Little life safe in a petal,
little girl, your few furious buzzings as you stir
stay with me all winter, remind me of my work undone.
* * *
If I thought that my girls would go to school and a magical literary life would begin for me, then boy was I wrong. So far I have not had even one literary moment since the dual school schedule began a little over a week ago.
I can hardly explain how this could be to myself, much less anyone else. Let’s see. My in-laws were here for a short visit, and then there was an agreement I made to volunteer for a class project at Esme’s school, only there was a mix-up about the day (not my fault, to my astonishment), so I arrived a day too early and, upon being released from my obligation, decided to throw in the towel and run errands instead of write. The next morning, there I was again, helping first graders design, cut, and paste a gigantic apple tree out of craft paper. I was pleased with the result as I thought our group’s apple tree in summer looked rather avante garde (one of the girls in our group insisted that the large brown tree trunk, which was really just a fat rectangle of brown paper, be glued asymmetrically along the right hand edge of the poster, “because if we put it in the middle, a person walking by won’t see it and will run right into it.”) Mornings are the only time I have now to supposedly take on anything remotely like a serious undertaking, and my mornings are being picked off one by one like glass bottles lined up on a brick wall for target practice.
On Monday I found myself again at the elementary school, following school buses out into the boonies for an apple picking field trip with Esme’s class. And I foolishly threw in my name as someone potentially available to help with the apple pie making and baking at her school later this week. But seriously, I think I may need back out of that one.
There is also a birthday party to plan for a certain girl turning six. There are a lot of other little things as well, like locating my name on rotating schedule to bring the snack to Elsa’s preschool this Friday (which, oddly, must be an apple-related snack, since her class is also talking about apples right now).
In attempts to be organized, which are generally scrambling attempts, I have folders going for both the girls, filled with printed forms, flyers, and reminders.
Esme wants to be a Daisy, which, if you do not know, is a sort of junior version of a Girl Scout, and there is paperwork to fill out for that, a check to write, and her first meeting on Friday– also another volunteer opportunity as another parent is needed at the meeting in order to fulfill the Daisy (a national organization) requirements for the child-adult ratio. We also owe her school’s cafeteria money since she occasionally eats her lunch at school. I need to remember to drop off that check but keep forgetting. And I have been emailing back and forth with Esme’s teacher to nail down the names and parent email addresses of the girls in her class, since the guest list for her birthday party is, per her request, is a barefaced exercise in reverse gender discrimination. And Jeff just asked me where I wanted him to put a packet of information that came in the mail concerning Elsa’s upcoming doctor appointment.
Writing all of this down here, I must sound like I have a decent handle on all of this minutia. But that is not the way it is– at all.
A good metaphor for the last two weeks of my life would go like this. Someone– not me–enrolled me in mandatory tennis lessons, and without my knowing how, deposited me on the tennis court while I was still in my pajamas, and forgot to provide me with a tennis racket. The ball machine is on and shooting practice balls at me while I am wiping the sleep out of my eyes. The details of the past few weeks, in short, sort of clobbered me at first. But, adaptable person that I am, I think I managed to dig out an old tennis racket from the back of a coat closet and am starting to send some of those balls back over the net now.
The school year and all of this calendar-filling filler stuff has come at a bad time for me– a time when I feel myself wanting to retreat inward, read, write, and be generally reclusive, slow moving, and thoughtful. I just got this new nightgown at Target which is really a giant t-shirt, and I love it. Let me tell you, I did not want to change out of that nightgown this morning. Instead, I got myself dressed, my girls dressed, the tangles out of our respective heads of hair, our shoes on, the backpacks packed, and all of us out the door on time for the school yard whistle. I also figured out something today. There is a significant space of time after Esme starts school for me to drive home with Elsa, park, and then walk her to preschool in the stroller. I admit: it’s great to feel your blood circulating briskly in the morning, and it felt so glorious to be walking somewhere again (like my life in DC) in the fresh morning air, so I am thinking that this is going to be my new routine, even if the walking is somewhat artificially imposed.
I naively thought that reclusiveness, in small but satisfying doses, was going to be administered to me, morning after morning, effective immediately upon having both girls in some form of school. But no, having school age children, I now realize, is a lasso that pulls one outward into that thing called The Community. I love the idea of community in theory, but, come to find out, I am just never really in the mood for it.
Nevertheless, I know that it is a larger goal of my life to be the kind of mother that mine really never was– the involved kind. I see now what my mom was up against, internally and externally. I suspect that I share some of her nature and neurological hard wiring, and can extend more understanding and empathy her way as I look back on my own childhood and vaguely wonder about her absence on the scene of my school years. I was always jealous of kids whose moms were on the scene, baking things, running booths, or teaching a craft, writing messages on napkins tucked into their child’s lunch box. My mom was never like that. But I see the same proclivities in myself that were manifest in her– a resistance to putting myself out there, keeping a super-organized date book, and going to things like meetings. Is there a gene responsible for an allergy to meetings or being president of community organizations? If so, it undoubtedly runs in my family.
But I really am trying to be conscious about how I navigate these elementary school waters. I don’t want to throw myself into involvement in an intense, reactionary way, partly because it is not consistent with my true personality, and partly because I know I cannot afford to become resentful or burned out. At all costs, I must not burn out, oh no. I still have a long, long, long way to go before my girls leave home. Must…conserve…energy.
But there is also no sense in parsing out my involvement with a stingy attitude. If I am going to volunteer, I need to volunteer, not just parsimoniously go through the motions.
When I wake up on the morning of the apple picking field trip and feel a slight groan arising from my abdomen because I would rather go sit at a coffee shop with my laptop and not talk to anyone, I can pry open the lid to the bin of my mind and let in a different slant of light illuminate the matter. An apple picking field trip is not a foregone conclusion, after all. Something might be experienced or learned which is not expected. Some jewel of a moment might be waiting in the wings of the morning, but even if no sparkling moment transpires, even if it feels dusty and dull and a little tedious, my presence there will mean something to Esme and that is probably greater than the sum of its parts.
Days contain people and sequences of unanticipated gifts, so why do I repeatedly try to imagine and predict the value of a not yet lived morning. Days deserve to be held with very loose fingers given that, at every moment, what is going to happen next is perpetually up for grabs.
Anything could happen, and it might even be good.
I may have mentioned I have been checking out books of essays from the library– lots of them. I am doing this because right now I think that I want to take my writing in this direction– the literary essay. Really, I am just browsing them and reading a sampling of essays here and there. Some I have enjoyed immensely. Others, even collections written by authors I normally really like, have bored me and actually made me feel sort of lonesome. I am realizing that the field of literary criticism in particular can be a shadowy, cold planet. Do I want to set up shop there? I am tentative. Maybe I need the diversions of things like apple picking field trips, followed by nights of sleep in a big oversize t-shirt to allow my unconscious mind to sort through all of this. That is just another possible way to see things right now.
Life has me where it has me, and there is one thing that I will in no event be willing to do: abandon or ignore my children for the sake of some idea of myself as artist. I will make that special trip to the grocery store at 9:00 pm for enough dried apples to distribute among Elsa’s classmates, and happily toil over the details of an evite birthday party invitation until there are only a few more minutes left before I have to go pick someone up who I seemingly only just dropped off. I will do it because I want my girls to feel that they are not alone. Someone is with them and interested in sharing this long subjugation known as childhood. Childhood: that long bondage which has every potential to be numbingly lonely and senseless.
Right now, I sense that this is the work that life is giving me, and, knowing life’s potential to constantly shift and evolve, I can be reasonably certain that it will not always be this way. So why resist?
The other day on the way home from school Esme asked me: “What is so important about apples, anyway?” I was hard pressed to give a satisfactory reply.