We headed to the bird sanctuary again last weekend. It was slightly overcast and drizzly and the leaves were just beginning to change color. The two kids who had remembered to bring their boots home from school on Friday were wearing them. The other two were stuck in sneakers that were soon damp and muddy.
We stood for a very long time on the wooden planks over the shallow water, holding birdseed aloft in our hands. Strangely, no birds came. Time stood still.
Their frustration was palpable, but their relative patience nonetheless still amazed me. It is not often that you see four children ages 6, 7, 7, and 9 standing perfectly still in the woods.
I'm a New England girl and thus, autumn is my favorite season. But it is not just because of my life in New England and the beauty of the leaves changing color and fluffy white clouds scudding across a brilliant cerulean blue sky. It is the metaphor writ large in the season that moves me the most.
Winter is a cycle of sparkling snow and then drippy snow and then more snow and then less snow and then blizzard snow and so on until you would give anything for no more snow and the dull brown mud of spring. Spring goes through cycles of green and growth and pauses and more green and more growth over the course of months. It is ruddy and showy, first this blooming, then that, a fireworks show that goes on for months once it's begun. And summer is endless idyllic days, hardly any rain, flaming sunsets lighting up salt water skies over and over again for months, day after day with no school, no schedule, hardly even a bedtime.
But fall, she stands on her own. Fall feels like something very fast, stunning, heart-wrenching. There is lovely weather that could almost be qualified as cool summer or spring, and then suddenly over the course of only two weeks or so the leaves change color in a brilliant symphony until a storm tears them all down and they blow across our sidewalks like skittering brown ghosts. And then the tree limbs are bare in time for Halloween and it is practically winter. Fall is that fine line between Indian summer and first frost, a brilliant metamorphosis but shocking, visceral, fast.
Parenting children feels like that. It is knowing that the changes will come, but getting lulled into complacency by the sheer tedium of the repetition of days and care and rituals, and then closing your eyes for a second only to open them again and find that the world is entirely different, and the leaves have left us.
I look back at college and high school, and it seems that those blocks of four years went on forever. There are so many feelings and memories crushed into that time, me becoming me in stages, constantly shifting boyfriends, roommates, and majors. But from the point of view of a parent, infancy to toddlerhood to childhood and on to adolescence is a brilliant change of leaves followed by a flash thunderstorm all too soon, you were just a person, maybe a married person but suddenly, you're a parent, and now your clinging, needy infant is a fully formed human, separate from you.
I was walking along the beach recently with a friend whose kids are grown now. "You are always caught regretting the passage of time," she told me. "Let me save you years of therapy. Live in the now. Embrace the present."
I thought of the paper I'd written in college, an overblown treatise on the meaning behind the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There is the future and the past, but technically no present, because as soon as it's become something you can name as present, it's technically the past, and gone even before it ever was. How do we hold onto the now? How can we possibly when it flits away so fast?
We walked on further into the woods, my kids growing restless and noisy, boisterous in their trampling and climbing, disappointed by the absence of birds but accepting it, too. I stood behind and watched for a moment as they marched ahead.
How to capture all this, this time, this place, the brilliant leaves, their pudgy skin on the verge of taut adolescence?
I held my hand out before me and was still. A chickadee swooped low and stole birdseed from my hand. Then another came. My nine-year-old son turned back to find me. "Mom?!" he shouted, then saw the birds. In a moment he stood beside me, arm outstretched, and the others joined us, too. We stood side-by-side as birds descended from the trees, fluttered around our heads in halos.
This is the present then. The moment of peace, where the future is spliced against the past, where stillness settles amidst the fluttering of wings, where silence and wonder fill the now. It is an impossible thing, the present, and yet in careful moments away from the churning forward of a busy household - soccer practice, piano lessons, library adventures, diaper changes, breastfeeding - may we all be gifted with this present. May time stand still as we breathe in the wonder of right now side by side with our children, awaiting the future, satisfied with the past, content in the present.
Want to get more great content like this and keep up to date with Mabel’s Labels? Sign up for our newsletter!