I had the great good fortune of returning to my old stomping grounds in California last month, where I welcomed a grandson into this world and beheld the exquisite pleasure of seeing my daughter assume the role of motherhood. I don’t think I had really anticipated the sublime joy of those moments, though they gave rise to what did become my anticipation of all the wonders—leavened by the pretty much requisite trade-off of occasional heartaches—that lie ahead for her.
Like most all grandparents I have ever heard from, I was about bursting with joy to hold, nuzzle and coo with the little guy before retreating for a spell, returning again, retreating again, all in the knowledge there had been little to no retreat for the parents in this equation.
Right about the time their child takes its first breath, parents can hardly take a breath of their own without concern for their child’s welfare.
For them, attentiveness and minute-to-minute devotion are the coin of their realm in a kind of “Welcome to at least the next 18 years of your life!” crash course that no one can truly prepare for. Thankfully for our species, however, parents have been summoning the gumption, the energy, and oh yes, the love, required to pull it off more often than not, for a very long time now.
I trust I need not offer any scientific studies or data points for you to accept that assertion.
So I will offer you this instead: a report from the far reaches beyond science, in the warming valleys of metaphor, where poets gaze upon the world, grazing and growing fat on its grasses, the sheer abundance spilling over into words of wonder and, in the case of Ada Limon’s “The Raincoat,” a sudden thunderbolt of gratitude and thanks.
Limon’s poetry came to me via the podcast of Ezra Klein just a few days after I left for California. Klein is a “New York Times” columnist and new father who somehow manages to read an astonishing amount of material and then conduct hour-and-longer interviews of remarkable depth and range twice weekly, with subjects all across the cultural, political, scientific and artistic firmament. He’s arguably the most informed and articulate interviewer working today, and he didn’t come up short in his late May conversation with Limón.
As it happens, Limón was earlier this week named the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, a high honor indeed for the 46-year-old native of Sonoma County, where I spent the larger part of my own life and was paying my grandson his first of what I hope will be many subsequent visits. (Limón now lives in Lexington, Kentucky.)
Those happy coincidences made “The Raincoat” all the more impactful for me after first listening to her recite it and then spending more time with her words on the page.
Limon’s poetry is straightforward and almost conversational, replete with little slices of life that wind up bursting like fireworks ever wider and more unexpectedly the higher they go in the sky. “The Raincoat” tells the story of her childhood encounter with scoliosis, and the lengths to which her parents went to help treat it. (She still battles it today.)
Not that her parents were uniquely heroic. Taking care of their children is just what (most) parents do, after all.
Right about the time their child takes its first breath, parents can hardly take a breath of their own without concern for their child’s welfare. This is as it should and needs to be for a species whose progeny encounters such a prolonged period of dependency.
But to say Limon’s parents were not uniquely heroic is not to say they weren’t heroic indeed, in the selfless way every species has to be in carving out its destiny.
And when children are on the beneficiary end of their human parents’ largesse, little do they know, understand or appreciate the sacrifices parents have always made on their behalf.
Until, that is, they have children of their own—or have a chance encounter with a mother, and the raincoat she holds…
By Ada Limón
When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
(From the volume, “The Carrying” © Milkweed Editions, 2018)
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Raincoated boy and girl photos by Philip Howard, England https://www.flickr.com/photos/22326055@N06/