At the end of a little dirt road

I grew up at the end of a dirt road. My family has lived on that particular road since the turn of the century, when my great-great-grandfather purchased an old farm, driven by the dream of a vacation retreat. Over the years since, generations poured time, care, memories and love into the fields, woods, stonewalls and buildings surrounding the winding little road. When my grandfather retired from the ministry, he and my grandmother made a permanent move from the suburbs of Boston to the family land in the country. Shortly after, my father, mother, myself and my sister moved there as well, my father building us our own little house, the first new house on the road in decades.

To live at the end of a dirt road on land steeped with family history is an increasingly rare treat. My days were filled with wanderings, both of the body and the imagination. Every day, and in every type of weather, our surroundings beckoned to us. There was something seemingly magical about the place. We traipsed along wooded paths, bare feet treading over sunbaked pine needles. We abandoned shoes by the brook to feel the sharp chill of water and the softness of moss compressing beneath our toes. We explored old family gardens and climbed over stonewalls and up sprawling beech trees. In the winter, we snuggled between hay bales in the old barn attic. In the summer, we picked cherry tomatoes and grapes from the vine, chomping into tangy juiciness.

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To this day, when I smell fresh thyme, I am transported to that place, to a particular patch of the herb that grows behind my grandparents’ house. I cannot count the times I’d seek out that spot, tucking myself away from view. I’d lie on my back, feeling the sun and smelling the thyme. A large hedge on one side and a sprawling old apple tree on the other gave the place the simultaneous feel of a grand English garden and a wild meadow.

Our family was not wealthy. But my childhood days at the end of that road were characterized by a feeling of abundance. My senses feasted on my surroundings and I was filled to overflow.

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It all felt so magical, as if fairies might spring from the expansive hydrangeas and gnomes might peak out from under the old stone bridge spanning the brook. But what I now know, as I return to the place with my own family and watch my own children bask in the enchantment, is that hard work and an abundance of love made that place what it is.

Even before my ancestors walked and cared for the land, trees were cleared and strong arms lifted stones to build the many walls that criss-cross the property. The old farmhouse and barn were built and maintained.

My family lovingly and laboriously created gardens, terraces, and places for quiet reflection or play as they transformed the farm into a getaway from the noise and pace of the city. When my immediate family built our house there, my parents began to put years of labor into creating vegetable gardens and homes for various farm animals while helping maintain my grandparents’ property. Uncles have bent backs to restore stonewalls and the old buildings and gardens.

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While the land echoes countless time and labor, however, the magic comes from something more. Memories reverberate between the trees and tall grass. They cast a glow that can only spring from deep respect and love, for the land and for each other. I was raised, more than anything, by that combination of love and respect. And it is modeled by the inhabitants of that bumpy dirt road to this day.

My parents’ home, my childhood home, is unrecognizable from the new clearing upon which our house was erected 33 years ago. The land is lush. The hours of labor are obvious. My parents produce much of their own food. Chickens roam between apple trees and blueberry bushes and raspberry vines bear vibrantly colored abundance. It’s all organically grown. And, driven by their respect for the earth that sustains them and their powerful love for their children and grandchildren, my parents cleared a new patch near their house to make room for a large installation of solar panels. On a recent visit, the panels seemed to glow, surrounded by dahlias and black-eyed susans. They stand as a beacon of a new kind of enchantment: hope for the future.

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Whenever I visit, I once again am filled to overflow. Yes, with the beauty of the land, but also with the love that threads so tightly through that beauty, the two cannot be separated. When I leave, a part of me aches for my home, for the history of the place and the lessons provided about how we might preserve such spaces for the future.

And so I tend to my own home. My husband and I put hours of hard work into planting fruit trees, establishing new garden beds, spreading wildflower seeds and making paths through the woods. We install solar panels on our roof. And, just as importantly, we make sure we take time to wander those paths with our children, creating new memories driven by love and profound respect for the land. A new home, where we make our own magic for generations to come.

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Your Home

Your first home was my body. From nothing more than a knowing you were there to pounds of aliveness churning, kicking and hiccupping, we rode together. You transformed me. As I expanded to fit your growth, the way I experienced life shifted to fit you as well. Every moment of every day and night, we were together, inseparable. My nourishment was your nourishment, my breath feeding into your life.

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Your second home was our arms and a sweet little hospital room. You came into the world with a gasp. I heard your breath before I saw your body. For three days, we existed together in a space between the womb and the world, colored with light gently filtering through rosy curtains, the hours as soft as your new skin.

Next came the space between the walls of our house. A home to bring you into and up within. We negotiated the slightly growing space between us and our need for one another. As days passed, we started to gaze outward more and more.

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Your truest home, your most lasting, permanent, forever home, is the one we fling ourselves into for peace. First, there were the long walks when my mind couldn’t comprehend the enormity of your upcoming birth. Then, after we traversed that threshold together, there were all the times I strapped you to my chest and propelled us both into the forest when nothing else could ease your cries. We’d wander between trees and as the smell of mosses, the touch of sunlight and the call of birds washed over me, my calm became your calm.

I have watched as you have found your way in that truest, most lasting home. As your body has grown, so has your attachment to the wide, open space beyond walls and “comforts”. Your hands explore plants, thread through soil and reach to follow the flight of butterflies. Your questions come fast and furious and so I have searched for answers.

Propelled by your curiosity, we have learned together, you and I. And something I didn’t believe possible has occurred. As we talk about pollination, as we identify species on our walks, as we spend an entire winter amble with noses to the ground, tracking the path of a fox, my own love for the natural world that births us and sustains us has grown.

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This truest, most lasting home has held my whole life. My mother assuredly carried me into the woods in the womb for reflection and comfort. My photo albums overflow with images of both my parents touching trees, bent over ferns, or ankle deep in the ocean, a little tow-headed toddler right alongside. I have loved, cried, hid and sought inspiration in the natural world time and again.

I don’t think I have a hope for you more profound than my wish that you know the same powerful, everlasting connection to that world. You grow up in extraordinary times. It has never been so critical that we realize that we are a part of and completely dependent on the natural world. We have very little time left to wake up to the truth of our existence, the truth that we need to preserve that most fundamental of homes in order to survive.

But it comes down to more than just need. Yes, we need the natural world. But action based in obligation lacks inspiration. And this is about so much more than obligation. We don’t just need the natural world. We love it. And if we don’t recognize that fact, I truly believe we are suffering a disconnection from our deepest nourishment.

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From the plant on an office desk in the heart of a city to the dance between fireflies on a summer night to the way we look at the moon and the stars to the drive to get “out in the countryside” on vacations to the way words fail when we stand on top of a mountain, our connection to our truest home runs so deep, to deny it is to deny a fundamental truth about ourselves. And to disrespect that world is to disrespect the core of who we are.

And so I hope you continue to run between tall grasses, climb rocks even more than jungle gyms and sit silently before wide expanses of water. I hope your eyes and heart and soul continue to light up as your lungs fill with the freshest of air. I hope you never, ever forget the home that will always be there for you, if we only honor it fully.

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Tasting Spring

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Last summer, my daughter fell in love. She was two years old at the time. If you think that is too young for a love affair, I urge you to set down this reading and immediately find a child occupied with nothing more than wandering, uninhibited, in the natural world. Watch how they look, listen and touch. Witness their little beings moved by the flooding of the senses with all this good earth has to offer. They are overcome with love, and rightly so.

For the now nearly three years of her life, I’ve watched my daughter as she traverses this deepening love affair. It is both steady while also displaying distinct moments of deepening affection, moments in which a new discovery or a new experience leads to a specific new love amidst her general, growing love for nature.

Last summer, it was the huckleberries. We are fortunate to be blessed with a path right at the edge of our driveway. This path leads into the woods and connects to a whole network of paths. It is just the type of path that promises the very best kind of adventures. Strewn with fallen pine needles and other forest debris, the ground is delicious under bare feet when warmed by the sun. As you wander this path, and especially as you let it lead you deeper and deeper between the trees, your companions are many: squirrels, all sorts of bird life, deer and even the occasional fox or porcupine.

We are doubly fortunate that a particular leg of this path travels along the shore of a large pond, or a small lake, depending on how you look at things. Before you see the water, you can hear the haunting cry of loons, a call that somehow simultaneously captures the joy of life and the ache of death.

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Where the path meets the pond, they begin to spring from the earth – the huckleberry bushes. Their thin branches tangle and tumble towards the path as the patch thickens. In the spring, bright new leaves tickle our arms as we walk. In the fall, the patch bursts into vibrant shades of orange and red, a startlingly gorgeous visual against the blues of the water. And in the late summer, the branches are prolific in berries. Darker and glossier than a wild blueberry but about the same size, the huckleberry has a distinct flavor – simultaneously sweet, sour and somewhat nutty. And last summer, my daughter experienced that flavor for the first time.

Importantly, though, I think her enchantment has much more to do with the experience of finding food in the woods. On late summer mornings, instead of starting our day with breakfast, we’d begin with the path. Often, we wouldn’t even bother with shoes. We’d open the front door and step out of the cool of our house and into the warmth of the morning sun. Our dog would scamper ahead, disappearing around a bend, knowing exactly where we were headed. My daughter would walk for a while, bending occasionally to examine a leaf or collect an acorn. Sometimes we would stop to watch a squirrel busy at their morning breakfast, sitting remarkably straight and alert on a tree stump, a pine cone clutched between paws, munching and staring at us, ready to bolt if we made any predatory move but not wanting to prematurely abandon the feast.  “It’s okay, little one, we won’t hurt you,” I’d say and my daughter would be fascinated. She’d want me to explain over and over why I said those particular words, why the squirrel might be afraid of us.

Eventually, I’d hoist her onto my shoulders and we’d catch up to our dog, traipsing down a short hill towards the water and then around a bend and there they would be. “I want to get down!” my daughter would exclaim as she started to wiggle with excitement. I’d plop her onto her feet and hand her the little cup we had brought along for gathering purposes. And we’d begin to pick. One for the cup, one for immediate consumption.

It quickly became evident that my daughter would pick without end, each berry more enticing than the last. “We need to leave some on the bushes,” I told her, early in the huckleberry season. “Why?!” – total incomprehension at this nonsensical suggestion. “Because, we aren’t the only animals that eat these berries.” And sure enough, we’d watch as birds darted between branches, occupied with their own morning snack. A lesson in harvesting honorably, in a manner that acknowledges our true place within a complex and interdependent web. We do not own this huckleberry patch; we are exceptionally blessed by its presence just a short walk from our house. I like to believe that the concept of this shared blessing only increased my daughter’s love for the little black berries. She did learn to modify her harvest, picking to fill her cup and then stopping.

We’d sit just beyond the bushes on a moss-covered rock and eat the berries as we gazed at the sparkling water below. The only thing that could motivate us onward in our morning loop of the path was the knowledge that, just a few minutes further along, we would come into full sunshine at the very edge of the water, standing on a rock that slopes into the cool depths. If we were lucky, we’d see the loons, calmly gliding further out, serenely surveying the new day. Assuredly, we’d abandon clothing and slip into the coolness, my daughter in my arms, her breath catching just briefly as her little body was surrounded by the water’s embrace.

It was a sad day when my daughter’s hands reached for berries and found only dried, shriveled remnants. A lesson in change, in the cycle of the seasons, in plant life. We still had a swim to look forward to, but even that eventually ended, as the water grew too cold.

“It will all be back next summer,” I promised. But through Maine’s long winter months, that must have seemed hard to believe. Bundled nearly to the point of immobility, we’d pass between the huckleberry bushes on our walks and my daughter’s mittens would brush the branches. Sometimes she’d ask to be reminded about the cycle of the plant’s life and when the berries would be back. Sometimes she’d just look, longingly, missing her beloved fruits.

It was early April before her patience began to pay-off and my story became more than just a story. We had nearly passed through the patch – me dismissing the bare branches for any sign of new action – when suddenly I saw it. I bent for a closer look and then called ecstatically for my daughter. She came at a clip. “Look!” I exclaimed. “Look at that!” At the end of many of the little branches – not all, but many – were buds. Beautiful, tiny, delicate pink buds. “Those are buds,” I explained. “They will open into leaves. That’s the first sign of the plant getting ready to make more berries.”

We were fortunate to be walking with a dear friend, an “auntie”, who is a student of botany. She and I worked together to describe how plants use leaves to make food, how that energy is put into making the flowers that, once pollinated, become the berries we so love. My daughter did not take her eyes from the little burst of pink as we relayed the science lesson with great enthusiasm. When we were done, she slowly lifted her hands and removed her mittens. She then extended one hand and oh-so-gently took the bud between her forefinger and her thumb. She held the little packet of life for a moment, then released it and licked her fingers. She looked at me, a huge grin spread across her small face. “I taste them, Mama,” she said. “The huckleberries.”

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The illusion of a divide

My family and I are vacationing on the west coast of Florida – a stand-in for our preferred destination of Costa Rica as I am seven months pregnant and avoiding Zika. I am walking at an early afternoon high tide, feet in the subtle waves at the water’s edge. At first, the idyllic scene washes over me: the blues of the water, the white sand, the gentle breeze. My bare skin soaks up sun and warmth, foreign at this time of year in Maine.

As I walk, however, the feeling grows that I am tracing the steps of a sharp divide. On one side of me, human society sprawls over the sand. Plastic beach loungers are filled with travelers, not unlike myself. They drink from plastic cups through plastic straws and play beach games with plastic toys.

On the other side, nonhuman nature ebbs, flows and soars. Pelicans glide purposefully over the water, then suddenly pierce the depths. Terns dart, sea gulls swoop. The water glistens in the afternoon light as currents flow.

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The contrast is stark and startling. Like me, many of the people to my right were drawn here by nature’s beauty. Like me, they dip into the water, scoop sand, and marvel at the bird life. But as I watch the two sides of the divide, I am struck by how sharply it is just that: a divide. And I wonder. I worry, as I do daily, about the future of the natural world, human and nonhuman alike. I wonder: as long as human interaction with the rest of the natural world is so clearly defined by our terms, terms driven by our wants and demands, will we ever be motivated to truly question the ultimate impact of those lounge chairs, air miles and plastic cups and straws?

My toe grazes something hard and smooth. I bend to examine. A shell, a wide spiral. Like the rest of the natural world, perfectly designed for purpose with a simple, elegant beauty. I pick up the shell. My daughter is napping as I walk, and I imagine her delight over the shell when she awakens. I can hear her: “Ooooooh, Mama!” – eyes and fingers spreading wide in a desire to experience the shell with as many senses as possible. Earlier, she darted in and out of the waves, not unlike a sandpiper. Occasionally, she would fling herself down on her belly, completely unbothered by the wet sand, completely propelled to immerse herself as fully as possible in her surroundings. Or she would sit herself down in the water, cross-legged, gazing out to sea as waves ebbed and flowed around her small body, for all the world like a little bathing suit-clad Buddha.

Amongst all the people along the water’s edge, the children are consistently the ones most immersing themselves in the sounds, sights and feels of the rest of the natural world. They have not forgotten that they are a part of this world, after all. I say this while wanting to be very careful not to over-romanticize that relationship. The natural world deserves our respect. It is strong, powerful and holds an overarching wisdom and sense of purpose that many of us humans have forgotten.

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I notice a sole person venturing to swim the deeper water. His strokes aim him straight for a bobbing group of pelicans. I stop to watch. He draws ever-closer and I almost hold my breath. And then – the inevitable – the pelicans take flight. Nonhuman nature once again is moved aside. It almost appears to be placed in a way to accommodate human needs first and foremost. But this is an illusion. We humans will not be accommodated endlessly. To everything, there is a limit.

I dip into the water myself. As I swim, I watch a large group of pelicans fly over the tall buildings that were constructed practically on the sand. Like fortresses, the buildings stand prepared to protect their inhabitants, with air-conditioning and refrigeration and running water and electricity and Wi-Fi and the many other modern technologies that allow us to believe that we function apart from the rest of the natural world. These technologies support that illusion that we can meet all our wants regardless of what happens to the water and the air and the fish and the birds just outside.

The pelicans soar in formation straight towards the buildings, like a group of fighter jets. But what can they do? Peck at the roof-tops? Push their bodies through the windows?

We humans have made ourselves too impenetrable, too unyielding, too aloof. We have built too distinct a divide, there at the water’s edge and in many other parts of our lives. We have erected walls so thick they allow us the comfort of our delusional separation.

As I shake salt water from my eyes, I pray for greater clarity, for all of us. May we not just know, may we experience our interconnection. Every decision and action we take impacts the rest of life and, in turn, comes back to us. There is no divide. There is only all of us, all of life, together. We can seek the wisdom of the perfectly spiraled shells or we can stay on our beach chairs. The choice is ours. The consequences are extreme.

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What remains

I hope you know the feeling. You love someone so deeply, you want to just look at them, absorbing every detail with your eyes, without hurry. You are not driven by a desire to own them, somehow, by looking, but to know them. And in knowing them at this level of intimate detail, you are lifted beyond the walls of your skin. You become more than your limited self as you ponder the mystery that is the existence of another.

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This feeling, this is what I experience as I sit at the edge of the water. I want all the time in the world to look, not at another person, but at the explosion of beauty before me. My eyes feast on the water as it moves, chased by the same breeze that ruffles leaves on nearby trees. I want to learn from the particular way the light reflects off each part of the water’s surface. I want to memorize the curvatures and lines of the rocks that dip into the edge of the lake. My eyes travel to the tip of a particularly tall pine and I know freedom lies in the truth of that silent giant right where it meets the sky and that if I could look long enough, I’d somehow learn that truth too.

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I could sit for hours, with need for nothing more than the feast laid out before my eyes. Within this feast lies not just nourishment, but lessons delivered through the poetry of life’s simplest movements and presentations. How could anyone, ever, consider themselves to be more important than anyone else if they only sat here and looked? The larger truth is written so plainly in the water, the sturdy rocks, the reaching trees – life continues. I am to life as one more drop of rain is to the lake. My presence is felt, assuredly, and will ripple. The force with which I land (mightn’t that force depend on consciousness more than push?) will determine the spread of those ripples. But, ultimately, both myself and my ripples will be absorbed by the rest.

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And so I sit and look and I do not hurry away from this lesson about existence and impermanence. Eventually, I rise, slip between pines, and fade. The lake, the shore, and the trees – they remain.

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An evening with the “ouchie trees”

“Ouchie tree?” My daughter’s little voice rang out from her perch in the pack strapped to my back. We were making our way through the woods. With the light of the day fading, I felt the chill around us deepen. I also heard the hint of concern laced through my daughter’s question.

The previous day, while on the same path, she and her father had found a tree with a long, narrow slit running down the trunk. The tree had grown thick and bubbly around the cut, as trees do to seal off the injured area, preventing contamination by bacteria or other foreign substances, and ultimately allowing the tree to grow around and enclose the wounded area within the ever-expanding trunk. Not elegant, but powerfully effective. Our daughter, who has been enjoying an ongoing search for “woodpecker trees”, initially thought the mark might have been the calling card of a bird’s search for bugs. “Actually,” my husband had corrected her, “The tree got cut there. That’s like an ouchie.”

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Later that evening, my husband relayed the story to me. Our daughter had fretted about the “ouchie tree” for the rest of the afternoon. We’ve taken a specific approach to her own bumps and bruises: when she falls, we wait and watch for her reaction and then we react accordingly. We honor wherever she lands, literally and emotionally. She is a pretty rugged little being, and typically pops right back up to re-engage in the play at hand. But, like so many little ones, she is deeply concerned about the “ouchies” of others. And she was now worried about the “ouchie tree” with an intense fixation.

The tree was a conversation topic throughout the following day. I had pondered the issue and prepared my reply. When my daughter brought up the tree, I told her that trees, like people, get “ouchies”. But, more often than not, they continue to grow and thrive right alongside whatever mark the “ouchie” might leave. The mark is like a memory – of one moment in the tree’s life. The tree has many moments.

I told her we would go back and visit the tree. I asked her what the tree might say to her. She said: “I missed you.” (This is the generic response for what anyone or anything might say after an absence.) “Indeed.” I said. “And it might also say: ‘Look how tall I am! I had an ouchie and I am fine.’”

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So, our evening walk found us searching for the “ouchie tree”. Eventually, we found it. Even in the gathering dusk, the mark was apparent. We paused right alongside the tree’s trunk. I touched the slit and the bulge of growth on either side. In my peripheral vision, I saw my daughter’s mittened hand reach out to do the same. Then her head tilted back. “So tall,” she breathed.

My gaze lifted as well. Far above, branches shifted slowly in the light breeze. Needles waved. We watched. The tree was thriving. Ouchie and all.

There are so many moments where I am rushed in my responses to my daughter. I hear her and reply, but my attention is not fully present and there is less consciousness behind my words. But I’m trying, more and more, to slow down and honor the profound learning that is happening in every moment of her days, moments in which conversations about the “ouchies” of a tree are really about so much more.

She is learning about life. And what I’ve come to realize is this: I am learning right alongside her. As I ponder my responses to her questions and as I watch her eyes, hands and heart encounter the world, I gain fresh insight and experience. It’s a tremendous gift: the opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the world and its innumerable teachings daily.

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We ultimately bid farewell to the “ouchie tree”, after promises to visit again soon. As we made our way back through the woods to our house, my daughter kept a vigil for more “ouchie trees”. And now that we were looking, we found many. They are everywhere. Trees, like people, like all living beings, bear the wounds of the years. And still they grow, gracefully chasing light upwards, strongly rooting into the dark and damp below. We touched so many trees that evening. I hope we soaked up a bit of their strength, a fraction of the wisdom of their ways. I hope my daughter remembers that evening and what we learned together as we bore witness to the “ouchie trees”.

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Children of the Forest

Did you ever read the book Children of the Forest when you were young? We had it at our house, Elsa Beskow’s story of a family that lives amongst the animals. Their mushroom cap hats gave you a sense of their size. With the roots of an old pine tree for a home, the children and their parents truly live in nature, collecting food, talking to owls and exploring the world around them.

As I look back now, I am struck by the image of my sister and I sitting on either side of our mother, our bright blonde heads bowed over the book, reading about four blonde children that spent all day outside. Save a few details here and there, we could have been reading a book about ourselves.

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Let me tell you about real children of the forest. We wake every day with a sense of purpose and adventure. The world is enchanting and we can’t wait to get out in it. Our bodies are healthy, our minds are strong, and we aren’t afraid of mud on our faces or pinesap on our hands.

When we are in the woods, worries start to fade. We no longer care that we are dressed in hand-me-downs or that our parents fought last night or that we can’t figure out how to solve that math problem. We don’t feel inadequate in any way. We feel strong and smart. We put our strength to use dragging fallen branches and we put our minds to use figuring out how to construct a fort. We identify trees by their bark and know each flower by name and sense rather than tell time as the sun arches the sky.

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Our eyes and ears and nose are wide open and, with them, our imagination. Sometimes we just lie on our backs, the warm pine needles cradling a moment of rest. But more often we move, slipping between trees, scaling large rocks, or hastily rolling up pant legs to follow the trajectory of a nearby brook. We look down at our feet, startlingly white in the water. Our toes spread wide over wet moss, the perfect carpet, fit for kings and queens. Who could want more?

We know the specific sound of each bird and the way the woods smells after a fall rain. We greet the first green shoots that press through the forest floor each spring like old friends.

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Wants fade. Noise fades. Clarity arrives. We feel purposeful. And the best secret of children of the forest? We never, ever feel alone. Life is buzzing around and within us and we know – because we feel – that we are part of it all.

If the right circumstances make it so, children of the forest become people of the forest. We don’t forget, we don’t retreat in offices and commutes and deadlines and our career. We still move between the trees daily, our bodies a little taller, maybe, but our delight no slimmer for the added years. Our greatest joys are colored with the calls of birds and the slant of light between branches. Our greatest investments are made in preserving our natural habitat and watching our babies become children of the forest themselves. May they know the secret as well. May they never, ever be conned into thinking they are alone.

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Listen.

I used to want to speak louder. To be more vocal, more often. To have the ability to let words tumble out of my mouth with the ease I saw in others.

Speaking often felt painful. Not physically so, but in some internal, energetic way. The words spun and twisted inside me, becoming larger and larger with each turn until they tumbled forth, unkempt and unpolished. Every syllable hurt my critical ears. I sounded ridiculous. And I was sure no one was listening anyways.

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Every shy person knows the struggle to speak. For me, that struggle came in two flavors. One occurred when I knew what I wanted to say but the words were blocked by my unease. The second came when I felt I should have something to say but didn’t. The latter feeling arose most often in the presence of what we tend to call “small talk”.

It took years to melt the walls that blocked my voice. Believing in what I had to say helped, believing it was important regardless of the level of polish it might carry when uttered. I have yet to find ease in small talk. I understand its importance. I don’t judge its existence. I wish it came naturally. But it doesn’t. Perhaps it never will.

The ironic piece is this: after years of learning to speak, now I want to be quiet. I want to listen.

As I feel the pace of life whirl, I want to tumble into the sounds of nature and the voices of the people I love and be still and present there. On a recent evening, my daughter and I sat at the shore’s edge. Behind us: tall, dry grass. Before us: the ocean at low tide. The breeze picked up. The grass began to move. The rustling arrested my thoughts. I became increasingly still as internal dialogue emptied and the sound of the grass poured in. Then I started an experiment. From that sound, so close behind me, I slowly expanded my listening outward. From the grass to the trees nearby, to the birds just beyond, to the crackling of drying seaweed, to the lapping of the water, to a distant plane. My daughter’s typically moving body sat quietly alert beside me.

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As a child, I loved to go outside on winter nights after dark. I’d lie on my back near the edge of the forest and listen to the wind move through the pine needles far, far above me. In those moments, my typically searching and yearning being would feel peace and contentment.

When I listen – and I mean really listen, with hearing as my whole focus – my internal sense of time slows. I feel completely where I am. I tune into the essential sounds of life and more and more believe it is okay to be quiet. It is okay to not always have something to say. It is acceptable – and perhaps even powerful – to speak only when I want and not because I think I should.

On that recent autumn evening, my daughter and I eventually made our way along the shore to a spot where someone has placed two chairs. She likes to sit together there. So we sat. As is so often the case, my sight took precedent over my hearing and I gazed at the sun’s golden dance across the water. Suddenly my daughter said: “Listen.” I turned. Her body was again alert. “Listen,” she repeated. “Wind. Trees.” Then she held her arms towards me. “Hold you.”

I shifted her to my lap and we sat. We listened. The wind in the trees behind us. The water before us hitting the rocks below. A bird calling. Wings flying. The world talking.

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Let her go

It’s not because of the labor. It’s not because of those incredibly rough moments in the first months: moments like standing in the kitchen with my finally sleeping baby strapped to my chest while eating my first bite of the day – a few spoonfuls of garbanzo beans from a can. Since becoming a mother myself, I appreciate my mom in a whole new way. But it’s not because of days of labor or moments like that.

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It’s because of the most basic and most challenging paradox I’ve found in motherhood: loving and letting go.

It starts so early, doesn’t it? I spent the months and days leading up to labor preparing myself in any way I could – yoga, meditation, birthing classes. I wanted to give our daughter as easeful a passage as possible into this world. But when the contractions begin, the only part of the process in your control is your response to whatever unfolds. She comes into this world in the way she must. And then you hold her and love her and, once she starts to wake up to the world, listen as she tells you about her experience of birth.

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And it doesn’t stop. You feel overjoyed as she begins to walk, marveling at the sight of that little body deciding where to go and getting there all on her own. You marvel and your heart leaps into your throat as you realize she will fall. Even if you hover behind her every step, which you don’t really want to do, she will trip and tumble in the way she must. And then you hold her and love her and listen to her tell you about how that felt. After she is done, you set her down and carry your heart in your throat as she totters off again.

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As I look ahead, I see the stakes rising right alongside her height, vocabulary and desires. She will meet so many people. Some will want to be her friend, some will not. She will try out for a certain sport, a certain role. She might get it and she might not. She will feel like her identity lives and dies in receiving certain selective positions – maybe a job, an internship, a college. She might be accepted, she might not. She will fall in love. Her heart will break in the way it must. And you will hold her and love her and listen to her tell you how it feels.

And then one day, maybe, she will go into labor of her own. She will call you, overjoyed that soon she will be holding her own baby. And you will wait, for hours that stretch into days, pacing, trying to keep fear at bay. You will receive text messages from her husband, maybe, or her wife, updating you on the process – dilation is not occurring. There is no fluid left in the sack. Now dilation has started. Now it has stopped. Now they have hooked her to Pitocin. Now she is pushing. You wish you could push for her. Hours. Now it will be a C-section. She will labor in the way she must, and the next day you will hold her child and love her and listen as your daughter tells you how it felt.

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And so I thank you, Mom. You taught by example. You modeled how to walk in that paradox for so many years. You listened as I wept. You did not try to fix it. You held me after I tumbled or when the world itself seemed to fall. You did not try to put it back together. And by not fixing or controlling my surroundings, you showed me that I was capable. That weeping was fine and tumbling was inevitable and no feeling is permanent. That I carried boundless strength. It was that strength that enabled me to labor for nearly three days, carried me during the first months of my daughter’s life and echoes each time I hold her and love her and then let her go.

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A lie I cannot tell

It happened during one of my early riding lessons. My mother had grown up with a strong love for horses and an equally strong desire for a horse of her own. Once they had some land, she and my father managed to find a couple of horses that sorely needed a home and got two ponies thrown in to boot. My sister and I inherited our mother’s love, although perhaps to a lesser degree, and eventually I found myself at a proper stable taking proper riding lessons.

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Love horses though I might, I was also terrified of the creatures. A complicated relationship, I know. But allow me to explain. Not long after my parents first got horses, I witnessed my mother take a spectacular tumble that landed her in the hospital. I was probably four or five at the time, which means my sister was only one or two. My parents were riding the horses in my grandparents’ large field while my sister and I played on the screened porch at the edge of the field, watched by Granny and Grandad. My parents galloped across the dried grass, really letting the horses stretch their legs. Something suddenly spooked my mother’s horse at the far edge of the field, right by a cluster of pines. She took off, bucking and rearing. I watched as my mother was thrown from the saddle.

I don’t remember the exact details of what followed, but I do know that my sister and I began to cry, pressed against the screens, trying to get to our mother. I remember watching my father lift my mother up and carry her across the field. I don’t recall how they got the hospital. I do remember being terrified, as any child would be when a parent crumbles to the ground.

So you see, from a very young age I knew spending time with horses could result in significant injury. And thus I approached my own riding lessons fascinated but trembling. My riding teacher instantly picked up on that fear. She had a solution. She asked me to repeat one phrase in my head, over and over, as I mounted the horse and as we circled the arena: “The universe is safe and friendly. The universe is safe and friendly.”

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As a child, I took everything I was asked to do quite seriously. And so I approached this assignment with full dedication. I can imagine what I looked like – a little tow-headed sprite in a huge helmet and hand-me-down riding clothes, eyes bugging out, lips practically forming the words: “The universe is safe and friendly. The universe is safe and friendly.”

The thing is, it didn’t really work. Because, even then, I knew it wasn’t true. I had watched my mother fly off a horse and be unable to walk back across the field. And while my parents carefully monitored our media intake, I had once walked in on my grandparents watching the news and seen footage of the Gulf War that haunted me for months after. Horrible things happened in the universe. That was the truth and I knew it.

I understand my riding teacher’s desire to reassure me. I experience the same desire as I prepare my daughter for bed every single night. We wander her room slowly, saying goodnight to books, toys, pictures and animal friends. We close the curtains and I hold her. I don’t know what she understands; she has only spoken one word definitely attached to its object at this point: “Mama”. But I talk to her. I tell her I hope she has a cozy sleep with sweet dreams. I thank her for a lovely day and mention some of the things we did. And somewhere in my mind, I remember my own childhood fear of the dark. I want to reassure her, just as my riding teacher reassured me years ago. I want to tell her that she is always safe, that the world is a safe and friendly place.

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But the words stick in my throat because I cannot speak them honestly and I will not lie to her. At first, this left me feeling quite helpless. I’m sure all parents experience that moment, when they realize they cannot completely ensure their child’s safety in this uncontrollable world.

But I have found my way through that discomfort, at least for the time being. I have found the truth I can share with my daughter. I cannot tell her that she will always be safe. I cannot even tell her that I will always be able to keep her safe. But she can know that she is loved. She is so very loved, by so many wonderful people. She can feel that love and carry it with her through the night and, someday, out into the world and wherever she goes.

And she can know joy. I cannot stop her from being afraid. Nor would I want to. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is learning to be with fear and move forward all the same. My daughter will certainly know fear, but I hope she also knows unbounded joy. May she delight in the world so utterly that the joy of it carries her and buoys her even in the face of all that is terrible.

And so I kiss her and send her to her dreams. No, the universe isn’t safe and friendly. But it is also a place full of joy. And you are loved beyond measure.

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Photo cred. Beth Woolfolk