Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On the Warm Updraft

Salmon struggle upstream to spawn and die. The male praying mantis loses his head for sex. Little grey spiders, like Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, spin their egg sacs, their magnum opuses, as Charlotte called them, with their last strength. Throughout nature, giving life to the next generation is, it seems, worth dying for.
I can’t decide whether I am Charlotte or Wilbur. Wilbur, I think, in those moments when he watched frantically as Charlotte’s children blew away on gossamer balloons in the warm spring breeze. Not quite Wilbur with his new friends, Charlotte’s daughters who stayed in the barn, who greeted him with “salutations,” just as their mother had. That’s the wonderful thing about children’s stories. At the end, the story begins anew.

For millennia humans lived no longer than the time it took to have children and raise them to an age at which they could survive on their own. Lately, we have been living longer, long past the time our kids go off on their own. Long past the time that, evolutionarily speaking, we are necessary.

I don’t know whether I’m thinking too much or feeling too much. Writers are in the business of reflection. It’s entertaining, but troubling too. The more I think about how the world works, how we live together, the harder it gets to understand. Or, maybe that’s not right. I think I understand it well enough, but I am discouraged by what seems to be our inability to live beyond our most basic instincts. On bad days, I think we are little more than big ant colonies, busy about the business of survival, some luckier than others, depending on one another in the same thoughtless way plants depend on sun and water.

So, that’s depressing, right? I mean we did have the Renaissance. I don’t think ants have had that yet. For all our high-mindedness, though, we are selfish. Except when it comes to our children. Like so many others in the animal kingdom, for our children we would without hesitation give up our lives.

So powerful is the protective instinct of a parent that it is nearly impossible to turn off. The problem is that after our children are out of the nest, the best way to help them is to back off. So here I am, watching the world turn, a world I have realized I cannot change, and watching my children from afar too, loving them from afar, if from such a distance what I feel can be called love, since for me love lives in the things I do for those I care for.

The years after your children are grown are unnatural years, years without a mortal purpose. Loving someone so much you would die for them is a little like actually dying. Everything else seems trivial. I imagine that’s the way soldiers returning from combat feel. In harm’s way they would have died for their buddies, but now they wander a tranquil landscape that is as deadly to their souls as the war zone was to their bodies.

You can’t always help how you feel. The rush of lust and sex. The spike of fear for a child in danger, the excruciating relief when the danger passes. The numbness of isolation. E.B. White gave us a happy ending, but then Charlotte didn’t have to sit home alone wondering whether her children had blown into a pond. I suppose he meant to give us more too: an illumination of the dreadful beauty of passages; a tender touch to brush aside the tears of loneliness; a warm updraft with a promise of new beginnings.


  1. Love this, esp. " for me love lives in the things I do for those I care for."

  2. I really enjoyed this, perhaps even more because I am at both ends of the spectrum. Having a 21 year old son, out on his own, and a seven week old daughter who could not be more dependent. Parenthood is awesome, like any great roller coaster ride!

    Laura (used to be Humphrey) Mathews

  3. This post was worth waiting for. Beautiful and true.

    Maud Carol