On the precipice

Kate, one of the members of the Portland Listen to Your Mother cast, recently won an Oregon Book Award for her memoir, Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.

I have only just started reading it, but I can see that it will be just like Kate:  funny, warm, smart, sharp. Poignant without being sappy, tender without being soft.


We had our last rehearsal for the show on Saturday, and of course we all wanted to hear about what it was like for her, winning that award. As she shared what she did that day and how she felt, how she prepared a speech and had to cut it down, what it was like to sit in the audience, waiting for her category to be announced,  then listening to them read the first few lines from her book and knowing before anyone else that they were hers, I just grinned, happy for her and happy for myself in the way any of us are when in the company of someone else who’s lived our own unusual experience.

Because I won one of those awards once, too. Although 2003 is now seeming like quite a while ago, it’s one of those clubs that you get a lifetime membership to, and you feel an instant sense of kinship with anyone else who also belongs to it.

mtn times

During the potluck after rehearsal,  someone asked me about my book. I said that, like Kate, my experience had been unusual. I hadn’t sent a manuscript out; my publisher came to me. I’d met him in a poetry workshop in college, and in my first years of teaching I hadn’t written much, but I started again when my children were born. When he saw those poems, he told me that I had a book he wanted to publish.

“I started writing again because I wanted to remember it all,” I told these new friends. “Writing is how I remember, how I experience things more fully. I didn’t want to forget anything.” Then someone asked if I’d written any other books.

Well, no, I haven’t.

They asked if I still wrote poetry.

Um, no, not really.

Short prose, then?

Uh, kind of. (Somehow, what I do here didn’t seem legit enough to claim.)

At this point, I felt awkward and uncomfortable and lesser-than in the way I often do when others start talking to me about my writing. I mentioned that when I won the award I was raising young children and teaching high school full-time, and…

I mumbled something about how I always thought I wrote poetry because the pieces were so short, that I could sustain the focus needed to make them be what I wanted them to be.

I added something else about receiving a writing residency a few years later, where I got a whole week to do nothing but write–and how that was a turning point for me, though not the kind my benefactors had intended. I saw what I could do when I had time for sustained focus, how different the writing was…

I’m pretty sure my voice trailed off around there.

What I didn’t say was, after the residency I stopped writing in the way I once had because it just hurt too much. The things I had to write about hurt. My kids were leaving childhood, and I was a newly single mom, floundering in a life I’d never wanted for us. I was still teaching full-time, and the kind of time I saw I needed to write in the way I wanted to was just not something I could manufacture or claim. The margins of my life were too thin. Writing felt like another busted-up dream I couldn’t glue back together. So I let that one go.


Our potluck talk turned to kids, and I found myself connecting with another mom-of-a-high-school-senior. We shared how wrenching this time with our children has been, how the process of letting them go is both exquisitely painful and beautiful. These last few weeks have been especially so for me, as my daughter has been trying to decide whether or not she will go 3,000 miles away to school this fall.

A choice like that brings so much into stark relief.


I came back to an empty house on Saturday afternoon, its rooms silent but my head full of the voices and stories of these women that writing–and sharing my writing–have brought into my life. Feeling the swell of my own regrets and desires and possibilities, I realized that I am not so different from my daughter, poised on the border between one life and the next. Sad and a little scared to let go of the first, but looking forward with hopeful anticipation to the next.

I began reading Kate’s book, which I loved, and then went looking to see if I could find a copy of my own to give to her. Which is where I found this, a poem I’d all but forgotten.

Between My Daughter and Me

There will probably be times of distance,
winds of one disappointment or another
pushing us away from each other–
or perhaps our separation will be literal,
miles of mountains, plains, or oceans
that cannot be easily traversed,

and I will have to remember this day
when she sat snug between my legs
in the bow of the boat, her head nestled
into my shoulder’s hollow as she held my hand
and sang into the wind, the sun behind us
just beginning to sink into warm, brown hills,
the waters below us parting, a rippling mosaic
of light and shadow stretching ahead of us
as far as we could see.

Those words–“miles of mountains, plains, or oceans/that cannot be easily traversed”–were a club my 35-year-old self swung at my 51-year old heart, battering it open. She knew in only the most abstract way that there would come a day when I could not cradle my girl within the confines of my limbs, my life, my love. She had no idea how her words would simultaneously shatter and soothe an older self who would rediscover them at the very moment she is launching her daughter into the sky of her own life, standing on the precipice between what they’ve been to each other and what they are going to be.

toddler grace

Remembering that day in the boat and how complete and whole and joyful I’d felt in those moments with my daughter, feeling so fucking grateful that I’d found the time to gather those words so that fifteen years later I could remember that day in the boat, so that it was not lost in the oblivion of small moments that have made up most of the days of the last eighteen years, and simultaneously grieving all the other moments I have lost since I decided that I couldn’t both live the moments and gather the words,  I sat alone and ugly-cried tears of gratitude and grief for all that I’ve been given and all that I’ve lost and mostly for how I just wish there had been more time. More time to hold my children, more time to find my words, some way I could have been more of what I wanted for both myself and for them.

Talking with that other mom, I said what has become my mantra in the face of loss:  “The size of our pain is commensurate with the size of our love.” I mean, I get it:  I know how much I have, how blessed I have been.

This truth and knowledge makes the pain easier to bear, but make no mistake:  It doesn’t in any way lessen it.

boat bow


17 thoughts on “On the precipice

  1. Shannon says:

    Your circumstances are completely different, but your thoughts and feelings are remarkably similar to mine about my family right now. And though I seem to be at a point this year where I can’t put my thoughts into words easily…or often at all, I’m trying my best to not let that keep me from letting others know how grateful I am to read theirs. So, all I have to say is, thank you, Rita. I am grateful you are putting your thoughts into words for me to read. 🙂
    Shannon recently posted…Ghost Of Information Enjoyment PastMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I can see how our situations are quite similar. Emotionally, at least. Thank you for continually reaching out to me. It means a great deal.

  2. Jill Salahub says:

    I got so choked up reading this. As a writer, as a woman who isn’t a mother but has the ghost of what that love must feel like in my bones, as one who has lost and knows exactly what you mean about the pain being equal in measure to the love — which is the good news and the bad news, all at the same time.

    • Rita says:

      It’s that all at the same time that’s such a killer, isn’t it? Can’t have one without the other. Thank you for taking the time to leave a note.

  3. Shannon R says:

    As much as I can’t live without books (they are air to me) and as hard as I try, I know I’ll never be a writer. So today I’ll copy from one of my favorite books for inspiration. “…Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16.

    Shine on my friend! Please continue to write, in any form. What you do is so important to so many of us.

  4. Kate says:

    I read your post today about 5 minutes after my mom sent me a meme reminding me that a mother will always love and worry about her children – even when they become adults. She’s been my rock as I struggle with a difficult family matter and even though she’s not near enough for me to curl into her and lean – she’s very much THERE. And while I know that doesn’t minimize the pain or the beauty during this time, I hope it brings some comfort to you as you face the physical and emotional distance of a child growing up and out.

    And I agree with those above, your writing and words are important to us.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kate. What would we do without our moms? You know, I’m not worried about my daughter. And I know we’ll find ways to stay close. I will just miss her–she’s turned into such a fun, interesting person. I love her company. It’s the small things–watching an episode of Gilmore Girls for the 10th time, or driving to school together in the morning. Those are the things that get me teary, not the big things.

  5. Kari says:

    OH MY GOD. See, this is why I can’t read blogs in the morning.
    My mom just moved back after living apart from me for 11 years, so it has been so wonderful to have her close again.
    Especially as my oldest daughter is a year and a half from college.
    I am with you on this journey, emotionally, that is.
    So many of us mothers GET THIS.
    I have dreaded that day since the moment she came out of me.
    That isn’t truly accurate, because those first six weeks were really hellish.
    So maybe since the moment she slept through the night.
    Yes, since then.
    Sending you so much love.

    • Rita says:

      Sending you a whole bunch right back. I am SO glad you have your mom and dad back close to you. I love your posts about them. When my kids were little I used to say that this whole thing was gonna be the biggest love affair of my life, and it was going to end with me being dumped. That’s not entirely true, but kinda. 🙂

  6. Marian says:

    Oh Rita, this post has me crying buckets. As you know, we have a 17 year-old son who is poised on this precipice, as well as a daughter who leaped off a year and a half ago. I would be lying if I said I was doing swimmingly with all of it. This anxiety-prone worrier has found the distance (*only* 250km, but still…) and the resulting feelings of utter helplessness to be of any practical assistance to our daughter really, really, really difficult at times. And on the flip side, the happy times for her are often accompanied by me feeling (and trying my darned-ness to hide) a bittersweet pining. I know we all want our children to launch WELL — to meet wonderful new friends, to be happily occupied, to find a kind and compatible partner — but when they DO, that pretty much necessarily means that we as parents are left at the margins. I know this is the way of the world, and I know I wouldn’t want it any other way, but there’s still that edge of loss about it all. (Which is said while completely acknowledging how utterly grateful I am to have these children/young adults in my life in the first place).

    On the writing and the award you won for your book of poetry — I didn’t know you 13 years ago, so I couldn’t say it then, but I can still say it now — Congratulations, Rita 🙂 . That book — how it was published, and the award for it — seems to me to be the epitome of the writer’s dream, and I am so very happy for you that you have that achievement and recognition, even while being sad that life didn’t cooperate afterwards and that you weren’t able to continue with your writing. I’d say more about writing and time and children, but I think you know where I am with all that already, and I do have to run and get supper prepped and a birthday cake baked. Our daughter and her boyfriend are finished exams and are coming here for a quick visit before going camping for a couple of days before leaving for their summer jobs. Ahem … see?

    • Rita says:

      I do see. It’s so nice to read your words and feel understood. My days are full of bittersweet pining lately. I am so happy for my girl, and it’s so rewarding to see her poised to leap and reaping the fruits of her hard labors and effort, but…I am just sad to see this phase of our life together coming to an end. And it’s all just so unsettling! A full-time mother is what I’ve been for more than 20 years!

      I know this is not new territory and mothers have been dealing with this forever. But it’s new for me. And it feels pretty…awful-strange, a lot of the time. Thank you for reminding me I’m not alone and that this, too, will (mostly) pass.

  7. May says:

    I was very conscious about not wishing away any stage of my kids’ lives. For the hard times, I would think this too shall pass, but I stopped short of wishing it was over already. Some part of me always had at least the smallest understanding that it all went too fast and that once gone, that stage is truly gone. Despite this conscious effort to be in the moment through all the moments, looking back it still all went so amazingly fast. Frighteningly fast. Faster than I ever wanted it to go.
    Now the kids are scattered literally around the world. I don’t see them nearly as often as I wish I did, but we have found a comfortable way to manage. FaceTime gets a workout multiple times a week. And it is an enlightening and fantastic experience to be a visitor to their lives/homes. Every new stage has it challenges, but also has its own unique blessings. Not that you won’t miss her incredibly, but just know once you settle in, it can be an amazing time.
    May recently posted…TToT: Good NewsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      This is what my mom tells me, and she’s usually right. 🙂 I will admit to wishing things could hurry up and get over with already when my kids were in 8th grade, but other than that I was much like you. I tried to savor every stage, knowing it would pass all too quickly. (Except 8th grade, which really was an interminably long year.) Time is such a strange thing to me. And I am full of cliches in this comment thread, but yes: So fast. It feels unreal.

  8. Laura says:

    Oh, Rita. My heart is absolutely full up to the brim with this for you. In every way. I’ve launched one, three more of these transitions await me with my sons. I’m not even adequately finding the words to tell you what we both know. Just know I’m right there with you.
    Laura recently posted…Early Spring in the Garden, 2016My Profile

  9. Gretchen says:

    Now see, this is what happens when I get behind on your blog. I think I’ll just pop over and catch right up, but then the first post I try to read stops me in my tracks and makes me cry and winds up being a much bigger time commitment than I ever intended ;). Lately I mostly have to avoid reading stuff about kids growing up too fast because it makes me non-functional (I really can’t recommend turning 40, having your oldest kid start high school, and weaning your youngest kid all in the same 12 month period. Stark reminders of mortality + crazy hormone action=constant weeping). I had no idea you had published a book (did I? I forget things sometimes). The poem is just lovely. That was a little scattered, but perhaps you get the basic idea….

    • Rita says:

      I’m all about the constant weeping these days. I haven’t had the pleasure of hot flashes yet (staving off menopause through pharmaceuticals, thank you, because I really can’t add that to the mix that’s been our life in the last 12 months), but I’ve come to think that the tears have been acting much like I’ve heard hot flashes do: They come from nowhere, often at the most inconvenient and embarrassing of times, and they can only be endured, not controlled.

      I think 40 didn’t wallop me at all because my two were still so young and I was in the thick of mothering and working and mostly living with my head down, but 50? Which came during their junior year when our family life was spinning apart? Whoo-boy. Yeah, mortality. I think transitions can’t help but make us ponder the biggest one of all: death.

      Well, how’s that for a cheery Sunday morning note in your inbox? 🙂 I just keep telling myself this: It’s all good. It really, truly is. Better to feel all our feelings and fully live.

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