Postcards From the Past

Looking for baby pictures for her senior high school yearbook page, my teenager came across a postcard from long ago I’d stashed in a box. My father had mailed me the card when I was sophomore in college (about a 100 years ago), and it had been thumbtacked over my desk for years – once scribbled upon by the girl who’s now a teenager, when she was a toddler. On the back, my father had written that famous Hemingway quote, about the little new each of us has to give: fatherly advice, about the costliness of knowledge.

In my less confident mothering moments, I wonder if I’ve learned anything.

Last night, reading Mary Oliver, I found a line that reoccurs in her poetry, over and over, like a familiar stitch: take responsibility for your life. One of the very simplest things, and yet one of the hardest. The flip side is I force myself not to responsibility for all of my daughters’ lives, too. Put your hand through a window at 17? Odd and hard as it may seem, I believed it would be theft for me to take my daughter’s responsibility for that action.

I think of my toddler in her pink waffle-weave long underwear, going at this postcard with a gleam in her eye and my felt-tipped pen in her hand. At some point, I realized I had to let her grow up; at some point I realized I had to do the harder thing, and step back.

But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness… And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe – that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

– Mary Oliver, Upstream



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