Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dreaming the River

"...Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river..."
Bruce Springsteen, "The River"

As I begin to look for part time work in the early morning, so that Daddy can be with Willow before he goes to work and we can bring in a bit more money, I've been thinking a lot about dreams. We all have so many dreams as we go through our lives, many of which we know will always remain dreams yet are treasured little gems that we keep, many of which we discard along the way, and some of which become reality.

My very close childhood friend has also been looking for a job; she has a four year old daughter and has been out of the work place for the past 5 years. She is a writer and so is of course conflicted, as I have been, about how to live life in a practical and realistic way while still pursuing her artistic goals. We've been commiserating a lot over the phone about the sorry state of our lives on paper, how our accomplishments look summed up on a resume, and trying to remember how much more there is than that.

One morning I was doing dishes and thinking about all of this and one of my all time favorite songs came on - Springsteen's "The River". My friend and I got really into him while we were in high school, and one of my most memorable times was when we went together with another friend and camped out for tickets, and the subsequent show. Perhaps it's the glow of fond memories as I look back, perhaps the intensity of young adulthood, but that concert was absolutely the best I've ever been to. I felt so thrilled and ecstatic after that concert, which, by the way, lasted close to 4 hours.

That night I saw my life stretching out before me like the open road, and we sat up late on radiator window seats in my friend's overheated all-utilities-paid apartment looking out at the city and talking about where we would live, who we would be... never imagining that we would end up living in different cities over 1600 miles apart, without the means to see each other nearly as much as we'd like.

But as I did dishes and listened to the song, belting out the lyrics with abandon for a reluctant audience of two, my life stretched out again before me, and I realized that although the dreams of that night hadn't exactly come true, there is yet another kind of dream we dream in our lives. Those are the dreams that we never pin down, the kind I had that long ago night... dreams that we feel as we watch a beautiful sunset or hike through a moss filled forest. Those are the dreams that have come true for me. My loving husband, who is a devoted father to our unspeakably wonderful daughter. All my friends and family, and of course Willow. I dreamt of being a mother for a long time, and now that I am it is far beyond what I could have imagined. The tense moments, the moments of exhaustion, the times when I feel I could explode, all melt away in the laughter, the big smiles, the wrestling around, and the surprising little things she does. Like this morning when Willow began taking silverware from the dishwasher and instead of tossing it onto the floor as I expected she would, she handed it to me to put away.

I'll close by sharing a story from an email a friend sent the other day. I received it as I was preparing to go to a job interview. It is called "The Invisible Mother"


"It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I'm on the phone and ask to be taken to the store. Inside I'm thinking, 'Can't you see I'm on the phone?' Obviously not; no one can see if I'm on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all. I'm invisible. The invisible Mom. Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this?
Some days I'm not a pair of hands; I'm not even a human being. I'm a clock to ask, 'What time is it?' I'm a satellite guide to answer, 'What number is the Disney Channel?' I'm a car to order, 'Right around 5:30, please.'
I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated summa cum laude - but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again. She's going, she's going, she's gone!
One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself. I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, 'I brought you this.' It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn't exactly sure why she'd given it to me until I read her inscription:
'To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.'
In the days ahead I would read - no, devour - the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work: No one can say who built the great cathedrals - we have no record of their names. These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished. They made great sacrifices and expected no credit. The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.
A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, 'Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it.' And the workman replied, 'Because God sees.'
I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, 'I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you've done, no sequin you've sewn on, no cupcake you've baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can't see right now what it will become.'
At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride.
I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.
When I really think about it, I don't want my son to tell the friend he's bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, 'My Mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table.' That would mean I'd built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add, 'You're gonna love it there.'
As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we're doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women."

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