A few nights ago while my husband was still telling bedtime stories to our four-year-old, I picked up a broom and climbed the cedar log ladder into the jungle gym. Earlier that day, Toby and his friend had mixed sand from a nearby sandbox with water from a distant ditch. After hauling buckets of mud up the ladder to the tented fort, they smeared it on the railing, flung it from the sides, and layered it on the plank floor with shovels.
At twilight, what I saw surprised me: the mud, as expected, yes; but also, arranged on the railings and in front of all the entrance points, chunks of concrete. I recognized them as having come from a bucket of pieces my husband kept behind the house, remains of our disintegrating garage floor. In front of the climbing wall and the slide, small pebbles alternated with large stones, shards of concrete stood up like teeth or were pressed flat. Fragments spotted the railings. Earlier, I’d witnessed the brute effort and the frenzy, the excited hurry to do something before time was up or a parent cried, “Enough!” Now, before me, I saw a mason-like arrangement of concrete shining white against the still damp sand. Going out to the yard, my intention had been to quickly wield my broom, then get back inside to my desk to write. But now, before me, I found such unexpected beauty, such well-intentioned art.
How does he do it?
Toby makes things continuously. Machines, he calls them. Sometimes they are pieces of paper taped to empty yogurt containers. Often, he attaches a natural object, such as a wild turkey’s feather, a beaver-gnawed stick, a crab’s claw. For a while, kite string wound round and round his jungle gym, connected ever so delicately with binder clips taken from my husband’s desk. I don’t always witness such careful attention, such industry. How does he have the time for these fine connections in the midst of his age-appropriate tantrums and my calls for him to come in this instant? Lately, I say, “I’m counting in my head,” since he gets upset when I count aloud, feels rushed. But counting in my head is sometimes enough of a nudge to get him moving away from the last minute touch, the final project.
Sometimes I feel guilty. I wonder how I can be more generous with him when he is creating. Also, how can I be more generous with myself when I am inching towards writing, throwing off the last shard of concrete, moving a broom along the faux wood floor, taking in the sunset, and smelling, unexpectedly, the ocean in the sand.
Parenting and trying to write is like this. I try to pay attention to something within myself—some image or idea—and to rush through my chores. But inevitably, in the middle of a simple task like sweeping, I get a glimpse of something Toby has made and I pause. I am confused. I had seen myself as the writer or the artist, eager to return to my solitude, but on my way, I stumble upon the prolificacy of my son’s own art, his own wide-ranging attempts at making. Sometimes it is hard for me to see my own original intention.
What do I do?
Each night, I try to clear his spaces of his work. Rarely does he return to some scrap of a kite’s tail, some taped over piece of wood for reinvention; he prefers to begin anew. I set out fresh paper and string. I add some items from the recycling bin, a few green plastic straws. With these pieces, I give him permission to create.
I also try to do something similar for myself as a writer. Alone, I come to my desk. I look out the window. I close my eyes and in the rustle of the breeze on the day lilies and leaves, I see the ocean, the bay, the landscape at play within my short stories. I give myself permission to return to the spaces where I grew up, where my consciousness was formed. Lagoon, marsh, bay, ocean, pine barrens. The Jersey Shore. I slow down. Breathe.
At my desk, instead of the new, I pick up the old—memories, photographs, a snakeskin I found in a field. I study the striations on a shell. I page again through a dusty copy of the Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife. And I dig through old drafts, looking for the smell of the tides, drying marsh grass, moonlit nights. I read a few sentences once typed on a typewriter, move on to words scrawled in sun-faded notebooks. These are the touchstones of my art that in certain moments, if I am lucky, still hold some power for me.
I settle on an envelope of pictures. I stop at a picture of half a lemon and a knife, two objects my brother who died four years ago once left on the dock behind the house we grew up in. In the tableau, the lemon has been catching rain. The knife—a steak knife—is starting to rust in the salty air. Suddenly, I remember one time, on the dock, on an early summer evening not unlike this one, when I was swimming and my brother was fishing. How close we were on the small dock, and how similar in the intensity of our desire to continue doing what we were doing, even as the sun dipped behind the house, casting a shadow across the yard. My dives into the deep lagoon surely scared the fish, and with each cast of his fishing pole, there was the threat of a hooked ear; but we couldn’t stop. He must have set down a knife or a hook, something sharp and glinting, and I remember standing, dripping on the dock, about to step on it, and awkwardly twisting away, choosing instead to fall into the water. In the seconds when I was in the air, before my heel hit the water, I wondered if I’d been cut, if there was a shot of pain that hadn’t yet traveled to my brain. I waited for the sting of salt.
I set the picture aside and return to my story. Toby sometimes seems like an interruption, a reminder that I never can go back to who I’ve been before, making me fear that I’ll never finish these stories based on the life I once had. But in his tiny body, in his activity and energy and passion, I’m reminded of my brother. I remember the intimacy of our shared childhood, what it was like to be on that dock beside him while he fished.
A few months ago we were at a small dinner party. I was holding Toby’s baby brother, and he was wriggling in my arms at a kitchen table covered in toppings for a Greek garbanzo bean soup and glasses of wine. Toby was in a playroom at some distance from us with two other boys. Last I checked, they were trying to determine the differences in their heights and weights, as if this would tell them who would be in charge and who would be followers. As we crisscrossed bowls, exchanged plates, and refilled glasses, I found myself telling my husband’s colleagues and their spouses about how sometimes Toby seems to speak exactly what I’m thinking.
They listened politely as I talked about walking home with Toby from school earlier that week. The snow had thawed. There were puddles and some sand left over from the winter. The village where we live puts sand on top of snow, since it is too cold for salt to work well. And it was a gusty day, the puddles rippling with tiny waves. While pushing the stroller and half listening to a story about gym class, I was looking at the puddles and through some trick of light, I could see the ocean. I saw water left by a retreating tide, felt the suck and slurp of sandy mud. Toby stopped at a big puddle, got off his bike, plied the surface with a stick and said it reminded him of the sea. Clouds moved fast overhead. I was surprised that his thoughts so closely mirrored my own. He hadn’t been to the ocean in a year and a half, and then only for a few days. The ocean is part of my internal architecture, not his.
At the dinner party, rather than speak about parenting with a voice of desperation and exasperation, I wanted to say something about myself as a writer and a parent. I wanted to reveal something about the complex interplay between my own thoughts and my son’s, to show how I try to let his intuition feed mine. They had been talking about the frustrations of college teaching; sometimes they feel trapped. In lieu of a workplace anecdote, I offered this, an image of me and Toby crouching in the road in upstate New York, seeing the ocean.
Across the bay from the house I grew up in are the sedge islands. One is substantial enough to be home to a shack, but most are nothing more than low, sandy mud, thick with sedge. High tides cover them. Peering down over the side of your boat, you’d see waving grasses, moving kelp, and in that sun-dappled water a reflection of yourself.
Much of the landscape of my childhood has been changed by development. Here, a strip of townhouses where there had been what I called marsh woods. There, a row of houses fronting the bay where there had been a pile of sand grown over with whatever took root. But with all their shifting and moving, growing and changing, the sedge islands remain the same.
In my dreams, I return to the sedge islands, step out of my boat, taste the brackish water, and wind loose kelp around my wrists. Still wet, my bangles glow green in the sunlight. I let my feet sink down into the sand. If I trudge out a few paces, sand turns to mud. I feel with my toes for clams, and wait for the onrush of tide. I reach down to bring up a shell, its cupped interior holding sand. In this sand are my brother’s ashes.
After I push out the pieces of concrete, fearing that the neighbor’s children might hurt themselves climbing up, I make a good effort with the broom and go inside. Toby is already asleep. I show my husband the sand on my hands and sigh at the mystery of the concrete. My husband tells me that Toby went up in the jungle gym while he was grilling zucchini and potatoes and I was inside with the baby. “He hauled up that bucket of concrete all by himself,” he says, marveling at our son’s sense of purpose and strength. “Hmmmm,” I say, as I wave at him a little and head upstairs to my desk.
What am I searching for? An arrangement in my life. A pattern of experience that I can capture on the page in a story. In something made-up as if from shards and pieces of something else carried from afar. Something that resides deep within my dreams and earliest memories. Something like the sweep of a wave on a beach.