By Kathleen Hirsch
Issue 101 - July/August 2001
We are hunting frogs, and my five-year-old son has almost got the hang of it. A stealthy hand comes up behind his prey, the other forms a gentle cup in front. A few feet away from the edge of the pond, I sit watching. Now it happens. William has managed to coddle his pulsing green quarry of these long, languid days. Only--he hasn't the heart for capture. I watch as he lets the frog bound away, out from between his hands and into the cold, clear depths of water. When the Lord told Adam he was to have dominion over the animals, I believe that he had in mind the sensitivity of the five year old.
The gift of this season has been learning that the fifth summer of life is one of the sacred pauses of childhood. Poised between preschool and kindergarten, my son knows better than anyone that as summer draws to a close, his world will utterly change. Part of him experiences this anticipation like a great hunger. It rises like sap in his veins, charging him with the enchantment of mastery. To know! To do! To grow up!
Didn't he just last night disembark from the tub and, in a tone almost disconcertingly saucy, grip my cheeks and announce, "I'm outta here, baby"? At that moment, I saw for the first time just how high he stands next to my water-spattered form, how his eyes have changed from those of the baby dazzled by the joy of plundering our morning bed to a budding boy with a mind of his own.
But another part of this budding boy is a profoundly cautious person, who retreats towards an older, more familiar self. It is as if he senses that in that older self there lies the creature who will help him make order out of all that is yet to come.
These qualities come together, and seem to make this summer a time out of time. At five, our children are granted a new and heightened awareness of the world, an awareness as penetrating as the gaze of a Zen master. At the same time, they encounter the first inklings of an inner self. When the two knowledges converge--as they did in my son just a minute ago beside the pond--they enter into a moment of loving observation, a burgeoning sense of gratitude and stewardship towards nature--the birth of the conscious soul.
Yesterday's world was a circle of two. Regularly, indeed incessantly, the baby's first business is to complete our circle, to sit contentedly in the haven of mother's breasts and arms. In hindsight, I see that all of our visits to neighboring farms, all of the stories read and told, were merely glosses on the essential circle dance of childhood. At five, his gaze has shifted beyond my shoulder. It's not cuddling he hungers for, but himself. And for this he must leave the circle, he must go more deeply into his emerging self and at the same time, out into the world.
And so, in this sacred season of five, I have grown, too. I have had to learn that the old cues no longer suffice, and have had to cultivate a kind of meditative detachment in the face of the three year old's "I-can-do-it-by-myself" mantra, now raised to the tenth power. Now when I see that fire of joy in my son's eyes, it has to do with something quite separate from me such as having conquered a new flip on the swing bar, or swum out to the raft in the lake. The reading of small books, the drawing of newly refined pictures--these become the immense trove of my young sea adventurer casting out to further adventures--bold, insatiable, and free of constraining maternal sentiment.
I have grown capable of seeing (and withstanding) the arc of William's experimental babble, his overreaching, as simply one side of a process. The rivers of antic talk stop suddenly, like a clock wound down, into speechless, gape-mouthed awe: at the flight of a bee, at the scent the wind has picked up across our New Hampshire meadow, in the meditations on the frog.
And so, against the many stimuli that surround us in city and country alike--even against my son's energetic demands to act--I have come to see my role this summer as "the keeper of the lulls," the protector of these tranquil hours when William can reflect on nature and himself with the same unhurried at-homeness with which a frog gazes at the bottom of the pond. I allow for as much open-ended exploration as William wishes, keeping our schedule free of clutter. In June, I suggested that he keep his first "observation journal," an idea that he took to with great enthusiasm. Now, when he gathers early acorns or leaves, the stuff of our neighborhood treks, we photograph them or draw pictures directly into the journal. These quiet activities encourage just the sort of reflection he craves.
After long days of practice casting his fishing line, or struggling to manage a canoe, I have begun the ritual of afternoon tea, usually held in the backyard or sitting by the pond. Something about the sweet warmth of his "Earl Grey decaf," as he calls it, soothes him into reverie, allows his inner world to take the full measure of his day out and about. He has begun to look forward to our teatime, for I believe he knows in some deep part of him that the gift is all in the lull.
It has helped to remember my own great lull: the summer I was nine, when my parents sent me to Girl Scout camp in upstate New York. For two delicious weeks, I lashed saplings together into walls, carved balsa wood boats, hiked through bogs, sat up long nights around a campfire--joyously alive. There was a confidence, even a nobility, in this sheer beingness in nature, and I basked in it.
I wrote letters home and checked my mailbox daily--not longingly, however. The longer I was away, the more independent, the happier I became--until the Sunday morning arrived when I met my parents. They came to fetch me, on the hill leading out of my unit. My duffel bag was packed, but I met them with a guilty lump in my throat, longing to stay in that sweet lull of being, on the verge of adolescence.
We can never know how, or how far, our children will venture, or what will greet them when they land. The best we can do is preserve for them the seasons of reflection when mind and spirit grow in tandem, and grant them the resilience and the capacities to move on again, towards another, higher level of selfhood. We can hope we give them a legacy of memories that they will return to, and find therein, an older, more familiar self.
On the way home from camp that day, my parents told me the news that my beloved grandfather had died suddenly, the week before. They decided to wait to tell me, they explained, because they hadn't the heart to interrupt my first experience of independence with such a traumatic loss.
I would never see Grandpa again, never sit on his lap dunking my toast into his sweet coffee, nor follow him to his workshop to mend a rake, nor idle the afternoon away with a scrap of wood and a hammer and nails. These skills and pleasures, which I'd carried with me to camp, were my grandfather's legacy to me, the gifts of childhood's lulls. And I knew then, in the midst of my grief, just as I know now, that these were the true gifts--of love, authenticity, essence, that I would treasure for a lifetime.
The Medium Bubba Leopard Frog, named last week, has just been spotted under low stalks of daylilies. My hunter inches closer. We have been at this for six hours now.
This summer, on the cusp of waning babyhood, I realize that for a long season to come--perhaps for the rest of the journey--I must content myself with this role as the keeper of the lulls. It is my task now to learn to keep my hands as open as my son's, to watch and to cherish his tight-coiled brightness and ripeness, knowing that this life force will surely lead to yet another leap--into a new and unimagined distance.
But I also know that one day my little adventurer will return to the boy in the summer of five, in search of his buried treasure.
For more information about gentle time with your children, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: "Parenting by Intention," no. 83; "Quality Time," no. 71; "Forget about Planning Quality Time," no. 64; "The Fallacy of Quality Time," no. 29.
Kathleen Hirsch has written for numerous national publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her book about homeless women, Songs from the Alley, is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, with her husband, Mark, and son, William (6).