Sleeping On Sylvia
by Kristin Berger

In my daughter's lap, worlds are opening up. Book after book pass through her small but deft fingers. Thick board pages reveal crowing roosters, howling monkeys, and puttering penguins. Family farms, jungle canopies, ice sheets—each terrain is new for her, and a story which shows her how differently life is lived on this planet. Somewhere in the pages filled with animals she has yet to see in person, on the pages glinting with a late-morning sun, she finds herself reflecting back.

After the books are carefully put back into the bed-side basket, she scrambles to her pillow, tucks the favored friend of the day, The Dirty Kitty, under her arm, and signs for "nursing" like a patron signaling "garcon." I settle in beside her and we quiet ourselves into the rhythm of the day's one and only nap. My daughter can sleep through garbage trucks rumbling down our pitted dirt road, through vacuuming downstairs, and through conversations in the family bed between her father and me. But the sly sharp sound of a page turning, the scuff of paper against a finger, is enough to rouse her beaming face. I have to be extra-stealth if I want to get any reading done.

As long as her naps hold out, I can weave this important and restorative act into my day. Reading is not just a means of escape—though many times it is the balm I need after chasing a young toddler around the house all morning, and from the reality that madmen are running away with our country like teenagers joy-riding a stolen car. Reading is the food and fuel I need to continue the act and art of living during this accelerated time of my daughter's childhood. Her ability to thrive depends upon an attentive, caring and creative parent. My ability to survive this sleep-thin/wonder-rich period of motherhood depends upon other women's words, stories from other mothers.

Sometimes I choose a novel about family and its complexities, or essays about women and their explorations: mothers who wring humor from their days with one hand while wrestling with fear and frustration with the other; women biking alone across country or women working within groups, anonymously, for local change; mothers who search for their old identities along with their new ones, in the midst dirty dishes and folded laundry. Each book promises old truths. Today, a novel about Sylvia Plath waits under my pillow.

I am fascinated by how Sylvia managed it, or did not, ultimately: her young babies, her failed marriage, her poems that waited until she was sleepless to scorch their way through brain and pen. She kept house, kept her children fed and safe during the cold and isolation of a bitter London winter. She depended upon her muse of Spring to rescue her from an eventual slide into depression. Daffodils and apples and bees buzzed with their own inner light for Sylvia: they kept her imagination charged and engaged until a self-fulfilling death-wish took hold of her. I lie upon her story, a map I will trace as soon as my daughter is fast asleep.

I share with Sylvia a winter-born despair and a restlessness that is only satisfied by early morning runs and digging great quantities of dirt in the garden. I understand her urgency, the sense that the words must get down on paper, now, before the poems and stories pass by unnoticed. As my daughter sleeps, before I open a book of someone else's writings, my own poems well up about the simple and nearly over-looked moments: the unhealed scar on her cheek from her torn thumbnail; the pink shoe falling off her foot into a murky duck pond; the boiling egg-steam on the kitchen window at sunset. Or this—the child, her milk-breath, the quiet. I know that the day that comes every day brings with it the gift of starting again.

Moments roll away like soon-to-be lost toys while I tend to the day's dozens of common tasks. Poems pause under the furniture and wait for us mothers to find them, along with the dust bunnies. Is there a safe place to store all that we cannot hold onto during the day because our hands are full of babies and spoons? Can we return to that place to retrieve them, polish what has been neglected? Maybe these misplaced pearls need to lie low, need for us to have a good reason to search them out.

I read about Sylvia to decipher her map, to find another path, a sustaining way. We are very different women and yet we share the bones and bonds of motherhood and poethood. I want to know if it is possible for me to be built of both. I want to know if it feels this painful and good for others—this loving-in-the-moment, this opening of the heart that being a mother, a writer and a reader makes possible. It feels like birth, every time, big and tearing and real. I cannot turn away from it. I can only say Yes.

My daughter finally eases herself to sleep. When her mouth has gone slack and has released me, I slide the novel out from beneath my pillow and promise myself one more chapter. I could take the book to the rocking chair in the corner of the room, or downstairs to the couch and curl up with the cat. But the scent of her sweat-spiced hair eases me beneath two handmade quilts covering us. Words hum from this dark nest. Words suspended over her head, words taken in by my eyes, mind and heart. Words given back to her, my milk to her bones.

I remain outside the halo of her dreams for an uninterrupted, delicious hour. She moves a little to cup the quilt corner closer. I finger a sweaty curl away from her cheek. The book's spine cracks as I adjust my elbow. Her eyes open like the shades whisking up—she looks at the worn hardcover, smiling. In an instant she is crawling over me and off the bed, is again heading towards her book basket, towards stories that promise the sun, the stars and the moon, and everything underneath.

Kristin Berger is a mother and writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her non-fiction has been published in Hip Mama. Her poetry has been and will be appearing in The American Poetry Journal and in the forthcoming Awards Issue of the Comstock Review and soon here on mamazine.com. She is at work on a collection of poems entitled For the Willing.

feature added on 2006-02-11 :: ::

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