Last week, I had the chance to meet famed American writer Louise Erdrich, who is from our area and was in town for a symposium. This week, I’ve enjoyed introducing her to readers who are unfamiliar with her work; in part through bits of her beautifully poignant memoir of early motherhood, “The Blue Jay’s Dance.”
Reading Louise’s work is like sitting down with a thick, mocha coffee, which must be sipped slowly to appreciate in full. Unsurprisingly, I dog-eared quite a few pages, including 68, not just because I like the number, having been born that year, but because I was entranced by what Louise was describing: a nest.
But no ordinary nest. This one comprised the hair of her girls. She’d learned the trick from her own mother, who, just two springs earlier, had draped yarn on the flowering crab-apple tree just outside the kitchen window of her childhood home. The following fall, Louise had observed the nest, speckled with “those very leftovers from a scarf she had been knitting.”
And so she got an idea. “All last winter, just before breakfast each morning, I brushed the dark brown, the golden, the medium brown hair of our daughters smooth, and all winter I saved the cleanings from the brush in a small paper bag that I emptied by the stump in the yard last spring.”
Not until the leaves fell from the trees did she see the nest, she writes. It was abandoned now, so she brought it inside and set it on a shelf attracting light from an eastern window in her home. And in the nest: “…our middle daughter’s blond hair gleams, then the roan highlights in the rich brown of the eldest’s and perhaps a bit of our baby’s fine grass pale floss.”
Even while admiring the nest, Louise concludes that it is almost too painful to hold, “too rich, as life often is with children.”
“…I cannot hold the nest because longing seizes me. Not only do I feel how quickly they are growing from the curved shape of my arms when holding them, but I want to sit in the presence of my own mother so badly I feel my heart will crack.”
“Life seems to flood by, taking our loves quickly in its flow,” Louise continues.
In the growth of children, the aging of beloved parents, Louise goes on, “time’s chart is magnified…so that with each celebration of maturity there is also a pang of loss.”
It is a human problem, she concludes, one no one can escape: “how to let go while holding tight, how to simultaneously cherish the closeness and intricacy of the bond while at the same time letting out the raveling string, the red yarn that ties our hearts.”
I am captivated by the depth of her emotions, expressed in words as she records for us what one experiences as a mother of little ones. Perhaps I am attracted to them especially now as another school year begins. I feel her thoughts deeply, know them well, understand them as a fellow mother. And, trying hard not to extract too much of them here, I wanted to share at least some of these phrases, perhaps so you might search for more of her words. But for now, that you might feel their binding effect in the familiarity.
After all, we all know this longing, love and loss that is, sometimes, experienced within a simultaneous moment.
This life of mothering we share and celebrate is not always easy, but it is, like Louise’s words, rich beyond expression.
Q4U: How does faith enter in to your approach to motherhood?