I left my kids. As I drove away from the house, Little Friend clung awkwardly, the way only four-going-on-two-year-olds can do, to her grandma’s hip. She sobbed. Little Friend is not a pretty crier. Her mouth snarls and she chokes on sobs and her eyes redden. I left anyway, and I didn’t cry.
Two hours later, I was ready to go home. Ready to re-pack my overnight bag and return to the sanctuary of home like I used to do on pre-teen sleepovers when homesickness built into actual vomiting, and I called my parents to pick me up in the middle of the night.
It’s not easy for a mama to leave home. First, there’s the logistics: trusted babysitters to align, meals to prep, emergency numbers to leave, heartstrings to stretch. Second, there’s the routine: we get so entrenched in marshalling the foot soldiers for the daily campaign that we maternal generals worry about leaving the battlefield for even a momentary trip to the latrine, let alone for a few days of R&R.
I haven’t had a break from home and children for quite some time, and I felt ready for it. I felt the need for a break in the anaemic split-seconds that separated a whiny plea from my temper flare. I felt the need for a break in the initial reaction when I heard the first morning peep over a monitor or first saw a tangled bed-head stumble from her room: my reaction, I’m ashamed to say out loud, was “Oh no. They’re awake.” This, fellow mothers, is an excellent sign that a mama needs to leave.
For some time, I’ve been day-dreaming of being away from the constant drains of caring for two young people. Then, within hours of achieving this dream, all I long for is to be drained by those two little ones. Oh sweet mama irony.
So here I sit on my few precious days of R&R with my husband and the ghosts of children who climbed into my luggage alongside my pjs and toothbrush. These ghosts cling to my knees, exclaim over the pink elephant in the gift shop, and tug my hands toward the stream rushing along the forest path.
We’ve come to the woods for our getaway. Just a few hours from our house is a luxury lodge that hugs the border of a state forest. We hike trails through a forest of hemlocks that were seedlings when William Penn surveyed these woods. We hear wind whisper through tissue paper leaves. We hear the thunk-scrape-shuffle of our feet on the spongy forest floor. We note the conspicuous absence of the car-bus-plane-train-boat symphony of our home. We fill our lungs with thick breaths of sweet-pine air. We admire Mother Nature’s deft daubs of sunlight on moss, trunk, and stone.
This break away from home is rejuvenating in body and spirit. With all senses tingling from our trip to nature and the parts of me that are not Mama unfurling like the innermost petals of a peony, I feel refreshed. I can’t help but be reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s now classic journey to the woods. “I went to the woods,” he writes in Walden, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In my pre-mama days, I used to teach Thoreau’s words to my classes of Honors English students. How I adored those students who sat like open-mouthed goslings, allowing me to stuff the fodder of learning down their gullets, fattening their livers with Fitzgerald-Hemingway-Bradstreet-Miller-Thoreau-Whitman-Salinger. Yet, for as much as the students may have learned, I, out of all the bodies in that classroom, may have been the most fortunate learner. Here I am, years later, on my woodsy balcony with my computer, indie music in my ears, tea in my cup, thinking about what Thoreau might have meant in his comments about the value of heading to the woods.
Back when I was discussing woods-visits with my students, I used to think that the living of life happened in the woods. I thought Henry David was all about moving to a forest to make some life-magic happen. Thinking now about Thoreau’s words, I wonder if I was wrong. Sure, he went to the woods because he “wished to live deliberately”, but maybe the woods weren’t the location of living but the location of reflecting. Maybe the woods were a break from normal life. A break that allowed him to see more clearly what was important and precious about a real life being lived elsewhere.
I left my kids. I’m glad I did. Surely we all need a break away from the “kids” in our lives–those important things that demand our attention day in and day out. Important things that we need to leave for short breaks to evaluate and soul-search: “Are we living deliberately? Are we living the essential facts of life?”
Thanks to my interlude in the woods, I will head back to my deliberate life with a better attitude. With more spare seconds to wedge between the whine and temper flare. With an excitement to see my little bed-headed ugly criers.
Halfway through our forest hike this morning, we found a plaque at the intersection of two trails. Stabbed on stake into the forest floor, the sign described the rarity of these ancient woods and offered up the words of the Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant (another acquaintance from my classroom years): “Enter this wild wood and view the haunts of nature. The calm shade shall bring a kindred calm…”
I plan on packing the ghost of this kindred calm into my suitcase and hope it rides home snug and safe next to my toothbrush. Mama may leave, but mama always comes back better, and calmer, for the leaving.