Cracks in Everything: Parenthood and the Writing Life

bell“Ring the bells that still can ring,/ Forget your perfect offering./ There’s a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.” – from Anthem by Leonard Cohen.

In her comment on my previous post (originally published on the Best American Poetry blog) “Poem as Fissure: Geophysics and the Value of Frailty,” poet and artist Laura Orem wrote that she keeps these lyrics in her art studio as a reminder. A reminder of what, I wonder? To avoid sealing up the cracks, as if that were possible? Perhaps even to embrace them? And what are the cracks, anyway?

Cohen’s Anthem speaks on many levels – globally, politically, and environmentally – yet it hits me in a personal way. Everyday I wake up with an idealized version of how my day will go, the perfect offering. I see myself having a nice conversation with my kids over breakfast. We hear the wren singing outside, and see – far below the house – the rush of the river, flush from rain. We aim to do our tasks in the morning, then head to the lake after lunch. This morning’s plan is for me to write this post, and for them to play piano, do some summer reading, and practice their online math program. I’ve been up here in my office for about an hour now, (granted, most of that was spent listening to various renditions of Anthem on YouTube), and have yet to hear any notes from the piano. Hm…

Just as I am about to go down to investigate, I hear my son’s footsteps trudging up the stairs. His sister has been on Webkinz all morning, he reports, and has not let him do his math. This, from the boy who claims to be allergic to algebra. Boo hoo. Nevertheless, I am required to make the trip downstairs to say the obvious: No computer games until the other stuff is done.

On the way down, I hear the fan running in the empty bathroom. The shower door is ajar, lights on, wet towel and pajamas on the floor. Am I surprised? Then, I peek into the bedrooms. Every so often a bed is actually made without my asking; today isn’t one of those days. I make my way down to the kitchen. Cereal bowls half filled with milk adorn the table. I make my usual lame announcement that the maid is off duty today. My kids only groan. Has anyone thought to brush teeth? I don’t bother asking. I give them a new set of orders. Forget piano and math for the moment. For now, I tell them to take care of their rooms, their clothes, and their teeth. I tell them I will check back in a few minutes, and throw in some warnings about deductions from their allowance.

Then, back upstairs to this blog post. Where was I? Ah, yes, cracks. My perfect vision of a productive morning and relaxing afternoon is already splintering. What gets me most is the bickering: She took a book off my shelf without asking! He hit me with the dog’s chew toy! A lifelong conflict-avoider, I am turned inside out by these run-of-the-mill quarrels. I try not to show it. I tell them it’s normal for siblings to fight sometimes, and they know how to work it out. They have plenty of practice.

Finally, I hear my daughter’s notes on the piano, and before long, my son’s footsteps as he stomps up the stairs again. He has forgotten the password to the online math program. “Can’t you just hit remember?” I say. It’s another trip down the stairs because I, too, have forgotten, and must look it up. “We’re not going to make it to the lake, are we?” he says. “And it’s all her fault.”

I imagine the Anthem lyrics refer to bigger cracks than my petty grumbles; true fractures in the realm of death, divorce, illness, and war. But these distractions and disruptions are the little splinters that make up my day as a parent. Okay, Leonard, where’s the light? By my calculation, I should be sunburned by now, except that we are still in the house, not at the lake, and our prospects of getting there are dwindling.

Maybe my perfect offering was too contrived. Maybe my kids won’t make big leaps in math this summer. Maybe my blog posts won’t be brilliant. Maybe it will take awhile longer before my children load the dishwasher without being asked, (I’m not giving up on that one, though!) Maybe the cracks are the spaces where we actually encounter each other in the most raw and honest ways. Idealized pictures, with their soft, faded edges, are never as engaging as the real thing. Any image I may form of who my daughter and son might become, and how they will relate to each other, will surely be wrong, so I try not to speculate. We only have the moment at hand, this sunny afternoon and the desire to be out in it after so many weeks of rain. Enough of math, piano, and blogging. Let’s ring the bells that still can ring. We’re off to the lake to enjoy this singular day, cracks and all.

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