And now I’m this mother, caught in fear and hate and tunnel vision in a world where everyone needs less of those things. A good day is a day when we get some sleep, when we laugh a couple of times. Some parts of who I was before wore away slowly, they eroded. Some of the things I lost were things I didn’t know I’d had.
It’s nighttime. After dinner, my daughter and I go into the living room and we’re reading about the twims—small, furry creatures who live in trees in some lush place, nearby there are islands with special purposes—Surprise Island, where you walk in through a tiny door and there’s a different present every day, Soft Sleepy Island with its storytelling pillows, little islands that look like cream puffs and are completely edible. A grandfather twim tells the children that there are as many islands as there are stars. My daughter is almost four. Earlier she had a meltdown, but now things are so peaceful, just her, just me, she keeps saying how much she wishes she could go inside this book called My Valley by Claude Ponti, so that we could eat the islands and visit the cute twins. I do, too. Luckily, my daughter tells me she has a button she can use to shrink us down, we can get inside the page where there’s a fruit tree, or the page with a living tree that has a swimming pool and libraries inside, or the page with the pirate ship-like Floataboat tree, that lets the twims travel very far away, or the page with the tree that keeps secrets, if you whisper it a secret it will never tell anyone, ever.
My daughter and I live in a wooden rental house on a tree-lined street near an old graveyard, where Aaron Burr is buried, and Sylvia Beach. The house is creaky and haunted and hasn’t changed much since it was built in 1929. The basement smells like my grandparents’ basement used to. We have a backyard, a dusty front porch, toad statuettes in the front garden that were left here by some previous tenant. We love this house.
Like most single mothers in the world, I’m having trouble making ends meet. We might not be able to stay in the house. I am trying to find a job, trying to make something out of nothing, and when I apply for jobs I don’t get them, probably because I didn’t expect to have a daughter, didn’t bother to build a career, somehow I floated by, uninsured, on pure mojo.
I freelanced, and if someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to, I said No. When I think about the future and get scared, I remember that I’m not really alone, that I’m one of a vast cosmos of struggling single mothers around the world, there are more of us than there are movie stars or published novelists or politicians or CEOs, our numbers are spectacular, closer in scale to the number of cells in a human body or the number of suns in a galaxy than to the headcount of kids in my daughter’s preschool classroom at the YWCA or the collection of books in the public library catty-corner from our house, and most of the others have it rougher. And then I fantasize about rescuing them, the ones whose rabbitholes are darker than mine, and I don’t know how. I notice that it’s butterfly season around here, and in the gardens nearby there are tiny, fluttering hummingbirds with tiny, beating hearts. I don’t know how to make an okay life. I want to.
In The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, K.C. Cole explains how human beings, even the brightest ones, have extreme difficulty understanding large or small numbers. We don’t understand exponents, or the ways objects (or populations) can grow or shrink. We confuse thousands with millions and billions with trillions, and so we have trouble understanding how economics works, and how physics works, and how to keep our world safe and alive, and we have trouble imagining all of the others out there. When I read news about the other people in my own world, I have trouble understanding the magnitude—corpses washing up on beaches, bodies in mass graves, mothers and daughters running for their lives through the dark woods. But when I hear the story of one other person, another person like me—stories that are in books like Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis and Stolen Girls: Survivors of Boko Haram Tell Their Story—then I can understand a little.
Then I can imagine all of the other mothers and daughters, maybe not all of them but some of them, maybe I can imagine them one at a time. In one of the stories in Stolen Girls, a mother and daughter who were kidnapped and held for months have escaped through the dark, snaky forest and are hiding out in a room in a nearby city. There’s furniture, but the mother and daughter lie on the rug instead—the furniture makes them uncomfortable.
When we read My Valley again on another rainy night, my daughter keeps saying, “Their house is just like our house, even though the twims live in trees, and those trees are in another world.”
I’ve ordered How Do I Explain this to My Kids: Parenting in the Age of Trump, but I haven’t read it, I keep looking at it there on the bedside table and not-reading it. I mean to read it, just like I mean to do a lot of things. I used to read a lot, widely and happily, and I used to write a lot, I even tell my daughter still that I’m a writer, even though it’s been a couple of months since I’ve written anything at all, longer than that since I’ve written anything good—by “good,” I mean something raw and pure and true, something where I say something I want to say, or something where I say something deeper or uglier or more beautiful than anything I could think of to say.
When I worked, I thought about Philippe Petit, the tightrope artist who (illegally) walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He put his body there for no reason, no reason other than art and adventure, and he risked death, and he looked down, and it was worth seeing.
I’m not sure I would want to write like an acrobat, but I tried to write like a dancer—training every day, over and over, and then putting my body out on a stage and moving it in impossible ways, or using all of my energy to keep it still, whether there was an audience watching or not.
The person I was before all this happened, before I went headfirst through a dark rabbithole into a new universe, would have somehow tried to explain things to her kid, to teach her kid values, to have demonstrated integrity. That mother, described by an ex-lover as “kind and real,” would have read How Do I Explain This to My Kids? and talked to her little girl about racism and sexism and war and injustice, and had present-free birthdays, and smiled more in the morning and said things like, “I’ll always love your father, because he gave me you,” and had interesting thoughts and interesting conversations. And now I’m this mother, caught in fear and hate and tunnel vision in a world where everyone needs less of those things. A good day is a day when we get some sleep, when we laugh a couple of times. Some parts of who I was before wore away slowly, they eroded. Some of the things I lost were things I didn’t know I’d had.
And then other parts were gone fast, gone in seconds or minutes, it was a dull shock, like the moment that I realized I’d lost my wallet in the crowded streets of a country where I didn’t speak the language, or the time when I was seven and I lost control of my pink Huffy bicycle and went down a steep Alaskan street and collided with a brick wall, but it was worse than those things because there was no rescue ahead, no new wallet or trip home, no healing head, and also better than those things, because in this strange, beautiful, terrible new universe I have a daughter, maybe here I can learn the differences between humility and humiliation. Maybe my thoughts and ideas will come back, or new thoughts, or new ideas, or something more interesting than ideas, or thoughts.
We’re cuddled together again on our golden velvet couch, looking at the picture of the twims’ house tree. On the top floor is a Star Room, where all babies are born, with a globe there, and telescope set up to look out at the crescent moon. In the cellar is an underground Winter Storeroom, with nuts and apples and pears. The fireplaces are all lit to keep the twims cozy. “House Trees don’t just grow any old way. You have to plant them in the right spot and take good care of them.” Right beside the twims’ valley is the Land Behind, “another country where no one lives. Absolutely no one.” And that’s another difference between our house, our house that we might leave, and the twims’ house tree.
Past our borders, behind our house, in front of our house are others, countries of other mothers and other daughters, mothers like Sina Habte, an Eritrean chemical engineer fleeing a dictatorship, whose story is one of the case studies in Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis, whose son was named after the man who saved her from drowning after her flimsy boat capsized when she was nine months pregnant, and daughters who, crammed into the hulls of rafts with dozens of other asylum-seekers, did drown, are drowning now as we sit on the elevated furniture, reading.
I flip ahead to the back of How Do I Explain This to My Kids?, to the section that has advice, and I read the subject headings: “The Voice of Conscience and the Civilizing Emotion of Guilt,” “Encouraging Empathy: Another Civilizing Emotion,” “Creating Realistic Self-Regard,” “Building Self Control,” “The Four Cs and How They Will Help You Construct Your Conversations,” and I look at what the four Cs are–compassion, communication, comprehension, and competence–and I only have the first C myself, and only in the most tangled (sometimes misguided) possible way, and how and what can I teach my daughter when I’m still so disoriented, when I’m still so tired, and why did she land here, in this particular valley with this particular mother at this particular moment in history, and how and why did I land here?
One day in the world of the twims, a house tree that looks like an apartment building in a late-80s Eastern bloc country moves through the sky. It has none of the coziness of the other house tree, the one like our house. It’s been uprooted by a hurricane—you can see its roots—and children fall from it. The children look exactly like twims, but they’re not twims. The difference between these children and twims is that these make a little spark when you touch them. The house tree flew past and never came back, and so the children who fell have to be adopted by local families. Every family dreams of having one. In the picture, the plump twims are running underneath the falling children, yelling, “Hurry! We can’t let children fall like that!” The strange children’s spark goes away after a year. In their pockets, they carry seeds from a tree that no twim has ever heard of before.
For some reason, flipping through How Do I Explain This To My Kids?, I have one particular memory from when my daughter was about one-and-a-half years old, just after her father left me. I had sublet a little apartment in a nice neighborhood, and would do freelance editing on my phone over my daughter’s head while I was breastfeeding her. I hadn’t really slept much since she was born. We were heading out to meet a favorite client of mine at a kid-friendly breakfast place, and when we got just outside the front door of the building, she lay down on the dirty sidewalk and screamed and cried, and even though I’m not that weak, she was always too wiry and wriggly for me to physically wrangle, if I picked her up she’d make it back down to the ground, if I used enough force to wrangle her, I was afraid I would hurt her, so I was just there struggling on the summer day, and everyone who walked by looked at me like I was a cockroach, and this was the normal way things would go, unless I didn’t have any plans, and then she was usually sweet and compliant, as long as I took her lead about scheduling. I was tired and traumatized from the way my relationship with her father had ended, I didn’t have anyone to help me, and she was a good sleeper at night as long as my body was beside her, as long as I didn’t try to get up to go to the bathroom or set her into her own bed.
Now that she’s four and we live in our wooden house on a tree-lined street, and most of the time days are pretty nice and nights are pretty nice, I know other mothers, mothers who are kind and haven’t been through any big traumas or dramas and have nice, financially-stable husbands or wives and aren’t terrible at it (parenting, I mean; or life)—and these other mothers’ kids, at one-and-a-half or three-and-a-half but most often at two, have big meltdowns when they’re hot or tired or hungry, they make it hard to get the groceries upstairs, I’m not the only person this has ever happened to, so why were all the people on the street looking at me like that? Also, I was used to being treated well—smiled at, asked for directions, given free bread at the bakery or coffee at the cafe, invited, befriended. I felt like the universe, not so much my daughter, who was a baby, but the universe itself, was beating me up, kicking me till I couldn’t get up and then, when I finally made it partway up again, kicking me again, and I didn’t know why, and I felt like I was alone, and at the same time I knew that I wasn’t really alone. Rationally, I knew that there were millions (billions) of single mothers who had it worse, who weren’t literate and well-fed and walking from a nice apartment to a breakfast place, who weren’t at all healthy or at all safe. I knew they were there, out there, maybe even nearby, maybe even in that same sunny neighborhood in that same city. And I knew I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t even by myself, I was with a small person who’d fallen from the sky, into my arms, for whatever reason, who made a little spark when I touched her.
My thoughts about this are all tangled. I haven’t gotten my bearings yet. I can’t communicate yet, in this new universe, or understand anything, and the competence happens in tiny ways, in small moments, and the compassion is here with me now, for my tired body standing on that doorstep, and my wiry, screaming daughter, and her father, and the people on the street that day who glared at me, maybe not wishing me ill or judging me at all but thinking, That poor mother, that poor baby, I wish I could help but I can’t help, how could I help?, the frustration turning their faces sour, and all the other mothers and other daughters outside of me, nearby and far away, the ones who have it better than I do and the ones who have it worse, the kind ones and the mean ones, the happy ones and the struggling ones. We all belong here together somehow.
I’m not sure how or why, but maybe I don’t have to understand. Maybe not-explaining, to myself or to my daughter, is okay for now—letting a few happy and easy days build up, reading some library books, walking in the nearby woods.
Toward the end of My Valley, there’s a part about a tree that isn’t a house tree or a boat tree or a secret tree. It’s the King of Trees. He loves listening to the birds sing, and “his branches grow in special ways so that they can hold as many nests as possible. When he feels like changing music, he simply changes forests . . . Ever since he found out that books are made from trees, [he] dreams of the book he will become one day when his life as a tree is over. He would like it to be a very beautiful book. Sometimes he even wonders if he isn’t going to write it himself.”
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 Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The Millions, and The Rumpus. She lives in New Jersey with her four-year-old daughter.
Find-it details on books mentioned:
Claude Ponti, My Valley. (trans. Alyson Waters). Elsewhere Editions, 2017.
Sarah Swong and Diane Wachtell, Eds. How Do I Explain This to My Kids? Parenting in the Age of Trump. The New Press, 2017. (Intro and commentary by Dr. Ava Siegler.)
K.C. Cole. The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty. 1999.
Wolfgang Bauer. Stolen Girls: Survivors of Boko Haram Tell Their Story. The New Press. 2016.
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis. The New Press. 2016.