Elizabeth Bachner: Bedtime Stories for the Bohemian New Year

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Last night, my four-year-old daughter and I read I Am Not a Number by Kathy Kacer and Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis, the true story of an Anishinaabe girl taken away from her family home by force and put in a residential boarding school.

My daughter was riveted, even though she’s a little young for this story, a little young, maybe, to learn about the things I want to start trying to explain to her. But I want her to know about history, about this world she’s inheriting. When I think about current events and politics, when I think, “I’m glad my mother isn’t alive to see this happen,” it helps me—or maybe it makes me worse, I can’t tell—to remember world history, the history of my ancestors and everyone else’s ancestors, the ways we humans haven’t always (as my daughter’s preschool teachers put it) “made good choices,” the ways we haven’t always remembered to “be kind to each other.”

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When I was young, not yet a mother, I used to try to look, clear-eyed, at what was going on—to be honest with myself—and I didn’t always succeed. I related very much to a scene in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a scene previously published in The Lives of Animals, where a famous old author, a vegetarian, explains to her son that the way everyone takes for granted the animals they kill and eat strikes her the way it would if her friends, family and neighbors had lampshades made from human skin in their living rooms, and they knew it, and they didn’t care. It wasn’t the vegetarianism I related to so much, but the selective blindness, the looking away from hard truths. I would think about the creatures and wildernesses that were harmed by the daily products I used, the people in sweatshops or factories making my underwear or my plastic contact lens cases, the shootings and rapes and wrongful imprisonments and military invasions going on as I showered and ate breakfast, the not-yet-fixed problems of trafficking and slavery. I would get shrill and depressed, and it didn’t help.

I wasn’t sure how to live, where to put myself in the world I inherited, in the world I was creating.

As I got older, I made peace with my hypocrisy—not in a settling, denial-based way, but with some gentleness and love—I understood that (just like all the other humans) I couldn’t live a flawless, harmless life. I accepted that I couldn’t figure out good answers and good solutions, that I was going to have to just keep exploring and changing and asking questions.

But now that I’m a mother, it’s all coming up again in a whole new way. I believe my child will learn more from how I live than from what I read to her, more from what I do than what I say, more from absorbing what Christopher Bollas calls the “unthought knowns,” the unspoken rules and truths of her childhood, than anything I know or think I know or try to teach her, and maybe more from the vast, dynamic world out there—her own world, not just mine—than from any stories I carefully construct for her. But still—it worries me, what I might be showing her. And what I’m not showing her.

Nighttimes after my daughter falls asleep, instead of writing, I’ve been watching Heartland, a soap opera about a ranch in Alberta, Canada that my dad recommended. In one episode, the cowboy-grandpa says to the cowboy-dad, “Why do you have to make everything feel like a root canal?”

I love watching Heartland. When mystical things happen in the snowy Canadian wilderness, like the hot young cowboy-boyfriend running into a spirit animal wolf or the horse whisperer-cowgirl getting rescued from a bear by a little-girl version of her dead mother, I blubber happily. There’s something peaceful about watching TV in the dark with a snowstorm outside.

When I was little, littler than my daughter, my newly-single mother got a job driving a big rig through the Canadian Rockies, with a tiny playspace for me up near the driver’s seat, and a few years ago, after she died, I spread her ashes on a mountaintop in Alberta. I was with my baby daughter and my daughter’s father, they stayed down below while I got up to the peak. I did cry, even though I was numb then and still numb afterwards. At the trailhead, we had seen a rangy black wolf, beautiful and terrifying, alone but maybe she was a mother, maybe she had wolf cubs nearby. My daughter’s father said, We should get out of here. I said, No, this means it’s the right place.

When I told my mom that I was pregnant, thirty-nine and sloppy and shocked and unprepared, she said, only half joking, “Embrace your bohemianism!” And she left me a note to read after she died, a note that ended, “I wish you freedom.”

She meant freedom from our bad family patterns, freedom even from her, but also spiritual freedom and bohemian freedom and lone-wolf-in-Jasper-National-Park freedom and every other kind of freedom too. Right around that time, I started on a dark, nauseating misadventure into everything that is the opposite of bohemianism and freedom and fun. It wasn’t so much that I turned away from my bohemianism or she slipped out of my embrace, it was more like the kinds of naysayers she’d always ignored went at her tunic-clad, fey little body with tire irons and pistols. She can’t ignore them anymore, not when the woods are full of poachers and her whole habitat is being destroyed.

I wish for my daughter that she never gets intimate with anyone or anything, any person or set of ideas, that makes everything feel like a root canal.

In the snowy beginning of January, happy in my life as a single mother but unable to afford to keep it that way, I flipped though books about starting a New Year as a New You, resolutions and clean slates, Raw and Radiant by Summer Sanders, with its glow-y juice cleanse, The Financial Diet, The Clarity Cleanse, Judgement Detox, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Goals. I used to read philosophy books and poetry and good novels and books about bohemian artists in history, and biographies of artists who weren’t really bohemian, and studies of bohemians and their hypocrisy and parasitism, and studies of the bourgeoisie and their hypocrisy and parasitism, and books of dead people’s letters and diaries, and studies of the rich and studies of the poor and books about methodologies for studying people, but . . .

now I skim the texts of the self-help books looking for bulleted lists, and instead of following the advice in the bulleted lists I write my own bulleted lists in my head and I try to imagine saying, or writing, all of the things I want to say, and I try to imagine doing the things I want to do.

My mother was a visual artist, and she told me that from the time she was small she always thought in pictures. And (also from the time she was very little, three or four) she understood that she was not supposed to think that way, that she was supposed to think in words. At three or four, I thought in words, but I knew sometimes they were the wrong words. I’m not sure how my four-year-old daughter thinks. From the outside, it seems tidy and graceful. I’ve always thought in words, and the words always kept me company, but now when I try to create my life, to imagine anything, I get flashes of pictures instead. When I stop for a moment, when I pause to think, I see or imagine or experience flashes of a glittery, victorious white light, the feeling that my daughter and I will be heading off into (literal or figurative) wilderness, into some kind of bohemian paradise, that maybe we’re already there if I just notice.

I don’t know why that lone wolf was so close to the trailhead. Wolves usually avoid places like that, stay away from tourists like our little nonfamily. I stood watching her for as long as I could. She seemed more powerful than any human being I’d ever seen, powerful but humble too. Eventually, she went back into the woods. I don’t think she minded that I was there.

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For Christmas this year, I bought my daughter toy wolves, a grey one and a white one, and a copy of the book Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell, about a little girl who rescues a stranded wolf cub, and then the wolf pack rescues the little girl.

I don’t know whether I’ll rescue my bohemianism or she’ll rescue me. She showed up again a little bit in January, her pale form leaning on the bathroom sink in her lapis lazuli necklaces, smelling like neroli essential oil and oud from the souk. She said No to a couple of burdens, did some volunteer work, returned a pile of self-help books to the library and came back with Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. I can see she’s growing stronger, steadier on her feet, her vision blurring less. She crawls into bed with my daughter and we read Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney, a book that starts to explain the refugee crisis to kids, and she tells my daughter how huge the world is, how huge and how tiny, and talks about the things we’ll see together, the things we believe or disbelieve, the problems we’re trying to solve, the things we question and question again.

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My bohemianism loves living alone with my four-year-old daughter, if only we could afford it. She loves all the artwork, the trippy dreams and daydreams, the imaginary pets, the stargazing and moon-gazing, the elaborate meals on mismatched plates served with a choice of pink salt, grey salt, black salt, white salt or smoked salt. She’s not a fan of the strange hassles, financial and logistical and emotional, that come with single motherhood.

She thinks, “If I’d designed the society, it wouldn’t be this way.” I don’t think of it like that. I keep seeing myself as part of the problem.

In the morning, after the snowy walk to drop my daughter at preschool, I do some job applications and freelance editing and then I try to write a searing critique of the twisted societal dynamics facing mothers today—never-married single mothers like me, divorced mothers, married mothers in 1950s-model nuclear families, refugee mothers, mothers whose families are facing deportation, mothers who are vulnerable to street bigots and racial profiling, wrongfully-imprisoned mothers, the mothers in this little town, where fewer than 6% of residents live below the poverty line, and the mothers in the small city thirteen miles away, where more than 28% of residents are poor. The searing critique is saggy and mediocre, muddy in most parts but with a few shrill, bitter moments. The thinking is dull. I go downstairs and my bohemianism is lounging on the luxurious gold velvet couch she got us for free. She only writes when it comes through divine inspiration, when she can put into words something that’s beyond words, something dark and pure, raw and true. So today she isn’t writing at all, or trying to think about something to write.

51WRQQdcneL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_I watch her, finishing her book of James Baldwin’s uncollected writings and folding her white feet into a lotus position to meditate. She finishes, and stares out the window at the snowy grey street. She’s still so pretty, even after everything that’s happened. I look at her and think about which creatures in the world are endangered, and which aren’t–which kinds of people and animals have been resilient, and which haven’t. It isn’t always the most beautiful or most fascinating things that survive. I used to have my bohemianism always inside me, not like a lover or a not-yet-born child or a split personality, but like something numinous in the soft tissues under my skull, the part of the body where goddesses explode from the heads of gods, and with her inside me like that I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t settle, and being in the daily world, being in my daily life, didn’t make my face grey and saggy, didn’t feel like a root canal or like a slog. There was always some possibility for creating instead of consuming, always some chance of revolution or resistance, always the sense of a vast wilderness available, one that was too magical and too real to be destroyed. So I’m glad, even though she got bruised and shaken, that she’s still somewhere nearby. Maybe I can make embracing my bohemianism into a sort of New Year’s resolution. I put my arms around her. She has soft skin and bony shoulder blades. She’s always been delicate, but now she’s downright scrawny. Unlike me, she doesn’t mind the feeling of hunger.

I go upstairs and sit on the bed and do more job applications. I go to the website of a local women’s center, where a friend said I might find career resources, and there’s a quote about freedom, from an awards speech by Laverne Cox:

“I want to encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor, and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and each other,”

and it makes me think about my mother’s deathbed wish for me.

I think about my mother’s flawed life, and her face the last time I saw it, trying to beam all of her love at me, finally, in that one moment, and I remember another thing she said to me, about my baby daughter, “she’ll take care of you, she’ll protect you,” as if I couldn’t do that for myself, and I guess I couldn’t. I wish freedom was something we could give a child, like a stuffed animal Christmas gift or a winter-themed book, and then she would have it, and I wish I could give it to everyone else’s children too, and to all of our ancestors, and to my fragile bohemianism, and to myself.

Since my mother died, I’ve been following an online log about the wolves near where I spread her ashes. A pregnant female was spotted in the months before I visited the area. Two cubs were found killed by the roadside after that, or, one was still alive but the scientists had to euthanize it, wolves and highways don’t go well together. That’s how I got up there, using that highway. Few of the area’s wolves are tagged, but sometimes, according to the log, a wolf will disappear for a long time and then come back. Wolves “live by their feet.”

Wolf in the Snow is a book without words, only pictures, pictures and the written sounds of howling and barking. I chose it as a gift partly because it was so wordless, and even though my daughter doesn’t read yet she can see the whole story for herself–the wolf pack, the girl’s bright red cape as she struggles in the ice. Maybe when she “reads” it, she gives meaning to all of it, to the good choices and kind deeds the wolves or the humans make, to the ways parts of the story shape and create the other parts. But maybe she doesn’t read it like that. Maybe she just looks.

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Elizabeth Bachner is a writer and sociologist whose essay, Gravity, was a Hip Mama contest winner. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in the Wreckage of Reason anthologies, and her work has been cited and praised in The New York Times MagazineThe Paris Review Daily, The Millions, and The Rumpus. She lives in New Jersey with her four-year-old daughter.

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