I’ve been trying to find this description for days. I knew it was from some long-lost book from childhood, but I couldn’t remember which one. I’d misplaced it. I loved the image of a maternal figure tidying a child’s mind and hiding the nasty bits and sprucing up the pretty ones.
There was irony in having lost the guardian angel that J.M. Barrie describes in Peter Pan. I must be my own guardian angel now; I must spruce up my own mind and hide my own nasty bits—I no longer have any caregiving figure to do it for me.
These days there is much harsh discussion about how people use social media to present their lives in a rosy hue for the consumption of others. I know I’m not one for posting an ugly photo or a tired photo or a photo of a big mess, and goodness knows I have the opportunity to take all of those on every day of my life. I could easily be accused of presenting only the prettier thoughts, beautifully aired.
Peter Pan was published in 1911, just a bit before Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. People have always plucked the best moments of life and held them up for a lingering look. We air them and put them on top because life would be too hard if we perpetually dwelt on the rest of it. We hold up the jewel-like moments of the day to see the light dancing in them. Sometimes we try to live inside them and in so doing strive for more moments of the day to be like those very best ones.
A few days ago my daughter’s ballet teacher blew some bubbles for the kids at the end of class. The teacher put on some music—Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That was it for me. I watched my child, no longer a baby, jump and catch bubbles, and the tears flowed.
I don’t know if they were happy tears or sad tears, but I think they were mostly sad ones. As I went through my quiet catharsis, my daughter squealed and jumped with the other kids across the room.
I wanted to live in that moment for a bit, that moment of black pain. But I didn’t want to take a photo. I wouldn’t forget the moment anyway.
I was thinking about my mother, my beautiful mother who suffered a heavy and life-altering brain bleed at only 68. Where was my mother? In space, she was downtown at her apartment, not remembering having seen us only the day before. In her mind, I am not sure where she was. In my mind, she was 22 years old, taking the I.R.T. to the 46th Street Theater to perform in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
There is a place in your head where too many images and feelings collide—I don’t think even Mrs. Darling could clean up the mess of that place while you slept. I tried to root around in the darkness and find the tender spot from which the tears were springing, to find out why this particular moment of joy in my child’s life was connected so powerfully to my mother’s decline.
I want my mother to be as she was. I want her to remember her days with her granddaughter. On some days, my daughter looks so much like her. I want my daughter to know my mother as she was.
The hour has grown late too soon and that is no longer possible.
And so the tears flowed.
Time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.
When we take a photo and squeal with success over capturing a beautiful moment, we are devoting ourselves to the opposition of time. Of late this aim has been treated shabbily by cynics who wish to scorn the purity of heart that Tennessee Williams declared “the one success worth having.”
People have the beautiful photos all wrong. They are not about trying to fool our friends or misrepresent our lives; they are about trying to fool time. We will fail in this aim, of course. But that only makes the effort nobler.
I love photos. I love any interesting moment caught on camera. But I love the beautiful ones the best. They are no less honest than the rumpled hair photos and the crumbs-on-the-kitchen-floor photos and the spilled-milk-on-the-counter photos that have come into vogue now. Would we fault an author for revising a manuscript and publishing only the final draft?
Personally, I need an internal Mrs. Darling to care for my thoughts at night. I’m troubled by an ailing mother and by the steady tick of loss, loss, loss that I feel in the two hours between the moment my baby falls asleep in my arms and the moment when she awakens, rumpled, calling “Mama” from the bedroom.
She is older after a nap. Every day, she has lengthened in the afternoon sunlight. Even as I remind myself the best is yet to come, I know the hour grows late.
“I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind …. Catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time…Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact …. When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are nightlights.
An adult’s mind is not so very different. The Neverland I see by day is the world of my young, healthy mother and all the things she might have taught her grandchild. By night, I watch my daughter catch at bubbles and I cry as though I’m a child lost at the playground.
I need the nightlights. I need the pretty pictures.
And every time my child ventures to Neverland, which will be often and for ever longer periods of time, I intend to be in the nursery, ablaze with firelight, when she returns.
I know too well the loss loss loss one feels when a mother is no longer by the fire, waiting.
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