They sat at the table near us at dinner most nights of our cruise. A mama, a dad, a grandma and a baby. The baby was oblivious to semi-formal and formal nights and not at all impressed with the concept of a lengthy, leisurely meal, and so she cried sometimes. She cried like she meant it, full of gusto and heartbreak at being offered peas while she was tired or substandard potatoes when clearly only apples would do, because 11 months old is a hard age to understand your family’s on vacation and it’s time for fine dining.
I wanted to go over to their table every time. To say, “She’s precious” and, “You’re doing a great job” as they cajoled and consoled her. To say, “You’re sitting next to a sympathetic crowd, friends.” And to say, as they looked around furtively, “It’s OK. Really. I swear it gets easier.”
Instead, we studiously ignored them because we wanted them to think we didn’t always hear the baby’s squawks of frustration, her hungry demands or her exhaustion. To maintain the illusion for them that no one noticed, and therefore no one was judging them harshly. And when they’d pass our table on their way out, leaving sooner than the rest of us, we’d only say, enthusiastically, “she’s so cute,” hoping, even though we knew it was inadequate, to send a You’re OK message with those words. An It Gets Better message. A We’re Here for You message.
I’m certain we failed, but there’s a fine line between acknowledging a common experience between parents and projecting all my new mama feelings on others. I wanted neither to disrupt their vacation nor their attempt at calm with my suppositions about what they must be feeling.
And then we saw them one day off the ship, as we stood at the perimeter of a grassy meadow, at the base of a wide hill covered with evergreens, at the side of stream where eagle pairs circled and a mama bear and her twin cubs sauntered toward the trees and back again.
We saw the mama and the dad and the grandma and the baby, and we smiled again and said our She’s So Cutes, followed by We’ve Seen You Near Us at Dinner.
The mama looked struck. Surprised and a little bit guarded in the way the vulnerable are; not wary, necessarily, but a little unsure of her welcome. She blurted, “She cries at dinner. I’m so sorry.”
And I said, “No worries. We have 5 kids. We get it; I promise. They’ve cried all over the world, and especially in restaurants. Babies cry; it’s one of their best things.”
She said, “Five kids? FIVE? How do you do it? I only have one, and it’s taking all I’ve got.”
So I poured it all out, floodgates style. I was incapable anymore of holding myself at bay.
I told her it doesn’t matter how many kids we have; any number of kids is a lot of kids.
I told her that parenting my first kid undid me.
I told her she’s dying to herself right now and she’s also being reborn and that birthing a new self is as messy and beautiful, as terrible and triumphant, as birthing a baby. “You’re giving birth to new life,” I said, “but you don’t know it yet because you’re still trying to gasp for that first breath. It’s coming, though, the oxygen you need. It’s coming.”
I told her we’re weak and we’re strong in equal measure, and that’s how it should be, because there’s no other way to build strength except to begin from a weaker place.
I told her we’re lost, sometimes, even while we’re being found, and that there’s grace in that place.
And I told her this life is more Both/And than I ever suspected. Both better and worse. Both bigger and smaller. Both higher and lower. So much wilder and far, far freer.
She kept saying, over and over, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear this. No idea.” But I think I do, because I am her. We all are.
I’ve thought a lot about that mama ever since, and the difference between when we met in civilization and when we met in the wild.
We couldn’t meet in the formal dining room, I think. Not in any sense that’s real, anyway. There’s no room for the truth or our whole selves while we still have perfect manners. We don’t want to butt in. To intrude. To disrupt. To assume. But out there in the wild with the mama bear and her cubs? Out there in the beauty and the splendor and the rawness of the wilderness? It’s the place to take chances. To risk. To be bold. To be wholly ourselves. Because our survival can depend on it. And on each other.
So here’s what I’d say to us… let’s go to the wild with each other, friends.
Which brings me to this:
How ARE you?
And, P.S…. because I’ll always show you mine when I ask you to show me yours, I’ll tell you: I’m OK today. I’m away from home, at camp, getting ready to teach a series of classes to 200 high schoolers on questing for truth, forging faith, and living Love out loud, and I gotta say, I’m equal parts excited and anxious. Excited because I get to be a mouthpiece of Love and Grace this week, and there is no task in this world that makes me happier than telling people they are deeply worthy of unfathomable Love. And I’m anxious because I’m afraid I won’t do Love justice.