When I come across the photos of the trees in the journal, I hesitate, uncertain they are real. But the trees of the archipelago off the coast of Yemen in the Arabian Sea are real. Dragon’s blood trees, the photographer writes in Orion magazine. Trees with thick numerous branches growing in a mushroom cloud cluster. What is it about them that catches me? That I did not know such trees existed? That I remembered something of the world beyond the immediacy of my daily life with the baby? Life would exist again—somewhere, some day—in a place of quiet, hard-won contemplation. Life existed, vast and unrecognizable in the Haghier Mountains of the Island of Socrata.
We drive down North Avenue to a friend’s barbeque and my husband asks me what’s wrong. I say, Nothing’s wrong, but I want to see the trees in Yemen.
On Saturday morning we drink coffee together in the living room while the baby plays on the floor. I hold the magazine in my hands, looking at the trees. Looking at the black and white photo I notice that upside-down, the branches of the tree look like shallow roots in the ground.
Finally, weeks later, I cut the picture of one tree out of the magazine and tack it to the bulletin board above my desk. In truth, I lugged the bulletin board out of storage so that I could tack the cut out picture to it. I will not remember the trees of Socrata three or five years from now, nor will I ever go to the island of Socrata.
I want to be honest. Many women write about the experience of having children. Many women artists and writers write about the experience of becoming a mother. I have read many an account and I know the theories of various incarnations of feminism on motherhood. I know too how quickly he will grow-up and it fills me with longing already. The kindness I afford my own mother-in-law comes partially from my fear of losing my son to another woman. But, it is painfully, painfully hard to be with my beloved baby boy all day; to nurse him through the night; to hold him all morning when he has a cold or is learning a new skill and needs to be coddled. I will not let him cry-it-out, it just isn’t in my nature. At the day’s end I feel as though I’ve run a marathon on speed with a hangover, all while speaking in the kindest, softest possible voice. When I explode on my husband it isn’t in response to anything he has done or said, rather it is me responding to the conversations I’ve been having with him in my head all afternoon.
In the spare hours of my week, I don’t want to be writing about this life. I want to write about the former lives, the former selves, the other-Me(s) that someday soon will return in their dubious forms. I run from the baby and my husband today, into the library and only leave my seat to gulp down the most delicious teeny-weenie cup of French pressed coffee and miniature salted caramel cupcake (how glorious!). I pour over the final essay in a deeply intellectual book that took me months to read. I look absent-mindedly at the sky only to note that the clouds are awash, borderless and fleshed out.
I yearn to see the trees of Yemen because traveling filled my soul, because being away from where I live in the world, fills me with awe and wonder. Don’t think I am not brimming with gratitude for this life, the small life I have carved out here in Vermont and for small bits of time in Minnesota. My gratitude sometimes brings me to my knees. But I am trying always to understand where I want to be, where I ought to be and I have come to understand these days that parts of me live on in other places. This, I owe to Andre Aciman andhis essays in Alibis.
I sense that a part of me has lived for nearly twelve years in Paris where I returned three times as a young girl traveling in Europe. I know that this girl lives alone in a small flat with a tiny balcony which affords a distant view of the Eiffel Tower. She lingers over glasses of wine, and spends entire days forgetting to speak out loud. She has taught a class on the works of James Baldwin for years.
Another Me lives beside the Pacific Ocean, walks the bluffs at sundown, climbs the redwoods in the name of science and mystery. Still another has never left Perch Lake, Minnesota. She lives on Perch Lake Road, a few cabins down from her sister. The two of them walk trails through the woods, stand for long minutes over the tomato garden, and contemplate getting chickens. The three of them sit beside the lake playing cards, the four, eat fresh bread from the stone hearth oven of my sister's husband, the baker. The five of them (I have four sisters) talk late into the night under the thick band of the Milky Way. Later, they swim out to float on their backs under the stars, their laughter echoes across the lake towards home.
I could go on.
I want to be honest. I find life without solitude, without time to reflect, to recollect and recreate that life, again and again and again, painful. If I long to return home to Minnesota, I long to return to a (perhaps) imaginary place where sisters and parents can take care of my son with me; I hope too for a Vermont where I might come to rely on the help of other parents and friends. But I find it difficult to ask my friends--who themselves have precious few spare hours in their own days-- to watch my son for free.
I feel a deep sense of sorrow, of wonder, of awe, and of course, resentment towards motherhood. I feel alone even though I speak to Mamas with babies at least weekly if not daily. I feel isolated and disconnected from myself, the self that needs to long, that lives in the partial cusp of nostalgia for other worlds, other selves.
Last night I fell asleep on the couch. I dreamed something hollow and aching. I felt the slip of my body, alone, without a quilt, curling inward, away. I awoke to the startled cry of the baby at half past midnight.
For the tiny moment between the couch and the bed I felt again the singleness of my form, I felt not two, but one. Slowly, the body returns. The mind rebels. The heart leaps forth, savage and fearless, brimming.
There is yet another Me. She lives in the warm fog of afterbirth where—for the first time—she hears the mourning doves sing at her window. She longs for nothing. Sleep only comes like an avalanche, forceful, unrepentant. Her hand lies across the tiny body of her babe. His heart beats anew, no longer in the echo chambers of her womb. No longer side-by-side with her own. There is nothing but the wet snow of February, the doves, and this child, and she cannot believe she will ever want anything else.