With My Daughter

In honor of today, my daughter’s birthday.

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When we arrived at the wonderful old hotel, the weather was perfect–a bright blue, buff and green summer afternoon with a light wind off the ocean which was just the other side of the three story, wooden, green-painted Sylvia Beach Hotel. It had stood there calmly near the Yaquina Light House since 1913, its big wooden framed windows taking in the surroundings. Now it was a literary themed hotel, each bedroom designed around a different author.

Years before, we had been travelling around the coast and had peeked in to the hotel. I was intrigued. Around my daughter’s tenth birthday, thinking of places I could take her for a weekend all to ourselves, I had remembered the place with fondness, imagined the walks on the long stretch of beach, collecting shells and rocks, and decided it was just the setting.  The E.B White room was even the cheapest room, and thus the one we could afford. This had made me especially happy. As a kid of eight or nine, I had read every one of his books for children.  Then I had read them all aloud to my daughter— Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan—both of us reveling in his wonderful language and his beautifully drawn characters.   White was an icon in my childhood home, growing up with a father who was steeped in the world of literary editors, contemporary authors and the craft of writing—E.B. White, the eminently intelligent staff writer for The New Yorker, essayist, humorist and generally the model for clear, sparkling direct language with wit and wisdom. I associated him with my father’s old Royal typewriter with its solid black letters sitting in each of the huge white, round keys on long curving metal stems.

The host took us outside and around to the corner of the building where she opened an outside door and let us in to our room. As I lugged our old bags and a big plastic cooler through the door I thought “We’re here for two whole nights! We have all this time just to ourselves to do whatever we want!”  No mouths to feed, no work to go to, no places to run the kids. There were the two beds in a small, cozy room with a shelf full of White’s complete works, including “The Elements of Style” and his books of essays. There was a model of a trumpeter swan and a stuffed Stuart Little.  And then there was the old, black Royal typewriter, just like my father’s, sitting on a small wooden writing table.  I had found my heaven.

We put our clothes in the painted dresser and decided on a short nap after the long drive. We snuggled into a bed with lots of pillows and I read most of the first chapter of Stuart Little aloud before putting it beside me on the bed and closing my eyes.

When we awoke, the sun had gone up the dome of the sky to the other side of the hotel. It was late afternoon with the sun’s rays beginning to slant across the hotel, casting its biggest shadow. A perfect time for a walk on the beach. We put on bathing suits, shorts and salt water sandals and took a canvas bag with snacks and camera and headed around the side of the building to the path through to the beach grass. The smell of the salt and of fish made us skip, holding hands until the sand got too deep and we stumbled, laughing.

We ran down to the water, took off our sandals and waded into the cold, cold Pacific water, waves sucking in and out over the rocky sand, the smells of brine and seaweed rushing up our nostrils, the wind catching our hair. We didn’t go in very far. Too late in the day to attempt a real swim, but it was our baptism, splashing water on our faces and tasting the salt as it clung to our lips. That night we ate in our room, read aloud and chatted in the dark till we slept. After I no longer got answers to my questions, I drifted into that twilight before sleep, watching inside to see who this was in this moment, outside of the routine of life. There resting in my chest was kind of warm rosy light. I sank into it gently, as I would into the embrace of a lover.

The morning brought sun in through our southern window. I woke up early as usual, full of the kind of anticipation I’ve felt traveling in a foreign country. She woke more slowly, rumpled with sleep, smiling. Even on our tight budget with the extravagance of a hotel, I decided we would go out for breakfast and buy ourselves some special picnic food for lunch.  We sat together in a little beach town café, she eating pancakes and I eggs, toast and bacon, talking about this and that, the new school she would be attending, her little brother, looking forward to a trip to the aquarium. What was this mother self? How was it different from the self I step into, like a full-body jump suit when I get up in the morning, preparing for a day as a therapist in a city hospital? Who is this person facing me, poised in those moments before the opening of her body and mind into young womanhood, someone I had known since she somehow received the first impressions of sound, sensation and light enclosed within the dark sea of the womb, since I greeted her essence inside me, since my first hungry look into the dark blue of her newborn eyes, still turned inward toward those internal realms of the sea, reflecting the lights of the outside world rather than fully absorbing them.  She was now a consciousness with an attachment to the experiences gleaned each successive moment, rubbing up against all those other selves wandering around in the world. .

What was this mother self? How was it different from the self I step into, like a full-body jumpsuit when I get up in the morning, preparing for a day as a therapist in a city hospital? Who is this person facing me, poised in those moments before the opening of her body and mind into young womanhood, someone I had known since she somehow received the first impressions of sound, sensation and light enclosed within the dark sea of the womb, since I greeted her essence inside me, since my first hungry look into the dark blue of her newborn eyes, still turned inward toward those internal realms of the sea, reflecting the lights of the outside world rather than fully absorbing them.  She was now a consciousness with an attachment to the experiences gleaned each successive moment, rubbing up against all those other selves wandering around in the world. At some point in our sitting there together, I felt myself take a deep breath, as if reawakening to my surroundings, a café with windows looking out on a sunny street, families walking by, looking for their next enjoyment. I  paid the bill and we got into the car to drive to the aquarium.

What I remember is the cylindrical tank in the middle of a big room where transparent jellyfish, the size of the largest glass mixing bowls turned upside down, hung suspended in the salty brine. We stood transfixed, pointing out the intricacies of the light gleaming through each sack of protoplasm, bouncing off their long dangling glass tentacles, puddling in spots in the dusky water. Then there were the astonishing symmetries of their internal organelles, rings of transparent circles as if a glass blower had worked magic and put glass forms suspended inside glass spheres. The dance of the light and form enchanted us and we stood, moving around the tank slowly to see them in the different angles of light and perspective as groups of people came and went through the room, looking, commenting, ooing and ahing, laughing briefly with delight. \

We watched the sea otters in their large rocky pool, diving, swimming around each other, floating on their backs. We made eye contact with several, entering for a moment into a consciousness that experiences the world as if filtered through a smile. Their sense of humor permeated even the act of eating a clam. We saw sharks swim, drew in the brilliant colors of tropical fish and walked in the sparkling sun and dappled shade of the gardens of native plants outside. Hungry, we went back to the car and broke open our picnic of bread, cheese and turkey, sitting at a picnic table, laughing about what we’d seen.

I think we went back to our room then and took a nap, getting up soon to get out to the beach while it was still hot enough to dry out after a cold swim. My daughter and I both were creatures of ocean. She had learned to swim as a baby in our town in Southern California, underwater paddling with eyes wide open and bright. She’d loved to swim around in the warm water of the bay, where I swam out with her, side by side. I spent my earliest summers on the beaches of Cape Cod, in and out of the waters of ocean and lake all day, for a couple of summer weeks each yer. We swam now, the water piercingly cold, sputtering, laughing, challenging each other to swim a little longer. When we couldn’t take the cold another second, we walked out delicately over the rocky bottom. Spreading our towels, we lay for a bit in the hot sun, warming, relaxed.  The itch to explore the beach soon overcame me and we pulled on our shorts and tops over quickly drying bathing suits, gathered up our towels in our bag and set out.

The long spread of the sand, the expanse of water to the horizon, the dark rocks and cliffs within reach at the limit of our view, the smells, the warm air with barely a breeze, the patterns made by swarms of sandpipers running in groups in the surf, the sounds of sea birds, an occasional hawk screeching, children laughing, all combined to open some experience, some realm of perception so expansive that nothing was external. Both absorbed by this mysticism of ocean, we walked barefoot through the water, feeling the waves tickling back and forth over and under our feet, finding rocks of colors that exist nowhere else but under water, taking our time.

We finally arrived at the curve of the beach covered by a large, brown and gray rock formation, dotted with pools now at low tide, a rock cliff rising on the landside. Down the cliff thin streams of water tumbled, making a shower of  cold water beneath.

We each found our own pool to study, one that drew us, so we could sit as long as we liked to observe the world of water bugs, sea stars, sea urchins, feeding barnacles, mollusks, sea weeds and tiny fish for as long as it took to grasp the sense of this infinite network. Then, ready to shake ourselves, she took off her shorts and tee-shirt and, full of sheer delight, walked under the trickling shower from the stream above. I followed, both squealing. We lay down on the warm rocks to dry again, looking up into the sky above the cliff where a tall beach pine curved up from the grassy area on the cliff-top.

I watched as a Peregrine soared up above the tree on a current of air rising over the ocean. Then another joined it. I called to my daughter, absorbed by something in the pool beside her, to watch. Resting on air streams  between earth and water, gliding with wings spread perfectly, balanced and still, they came closer together with imperceptible movements, flying in tandem as if two fighter planes. As we watched, they both turned upside down in formation, spinning over in parallel, once, twice, miraculously, joyously. Propped now on our elbows, eyes riveted upwards, it was as if the exuberance of their joy transmitted itself directly through the molecules of air separating us. We flew with them.

It lasted for a brief moment or two, then they were gone, flying up and beyond the stretch of the cliff. We turned to each other in our astonishment, having shared something so rare and precious we knew it to be unbelievable. The afternoon had created an opening neither of us had imagined.

That evening, we ate in the little restaurant in the hotel, windows overlooking the beach, our one restaurant dinner. As if we were two grownups on vacation, we ate fish, I drank wine and we watched the sun set over the Pacific, warmly, gorgeously.  After dinner, we walked in the moonlit dark on the beach, playing with the water as we went. As we strolled, feeling the weightlessness of such atmosphere, she asked if she could tell a story. “Of course!” I said, and she began. She told her story for a while, perhaps of horses in the water, maybe unicorns, given her age. It was a story woven directly from her imaginings as they unwound into the night.

She stopped walking, stopped her story and said, “You tell it for a while.”

I picked up the story. It shifted, new characters emerging, lives developing.  We went back and forth like this for some time, until we began to realize we’d come quite a way down the beach and the sleepiness was beginning to overcome us. The story was losing its life. Before we turned back, still in the mood of going into the vastness, she asked me, “Could we do this again?”  I replied, “Oh yes. Maybe we could even write a book together.” “Oh yes,” she said. “Let’s do that!”

Those moments are imprinted in the memory of what I know to be the thread of this self, this one I inhabit still, joined by that cord of energy to this other self who has become a woman. She carries the same imprint somehow within her, stamped somewhere in the vastness of the interior.

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