Monday, September 22, 2008
Today is my daughter's birthday.
She is eleven. If she had been a rich Tudor girl, as in the impossible-to-put-down books I am reading now by Philippa Gregory, we'd be gearing up for a wedding next year or the year after, to some faraway nobleman who would spend his life treating her like property and cheating on her with countless mistresses.
As I brushed her hair this past weekend - we were on Martha's Vineyard with family friends - I thought of generations of women who have been brushing their daughters' hair for hundreds of years before me. The brush almost tugs her closer to me with each stroke - a wistful rhythm. It's an act that seems to expresses this tender, almost plaintive thought: stop a moment, my lovely girl; don't grow up too fast; enjoy this time to yourself, this untroubled time without complications or worries or major responsibilities, this fledgling time to be you and be entirely lovable and free.
I talked to her of our good fortune: we are women in a society in which we are free to choose to be wives or not, mothers or not, with opportunities to educate ourselves, vote for our leaders, work at professions of our own choosing. She would not be riding off to some stranger's court next year to be wedded and bedded at a horribly young age.
Yet centuries of disregard for women don't fade all that fast. Just today I had to draw a thoughtless nurse aside for speaking to me in front of a patient in a way I truly believe she wouldn't have with a male physician.
Then I had to let it go, fast. I had a patient who was afraid to the point of tears. With her I was gentle, I hope, and reassuring. She nodded as I described things, showed relief when I explained things, clung to my hand when I rested it on her arm.
I was pulled away again for some other unpleasant business, and I had to put the harder face on, the one that has to take charge and get things done right. Then back to the patient, and more reassuring murmurings, more of what I hoped were kind words that built trust, and soothing moments. Then the procedure began, and again, there was a need for firmness - my more business-like side, as I tried to convey important directives and elicit competent, efficient work from the team I was working with. Then it was time: the patient awoke, surprised it was all over, refreshed. Again a hand on the shoulder. Everything's all right. You're just waking up. Procedure's all done. You did great. Tears of relief. A smile. A squeeze of my hand.
Hard. Soft. Hard. Soft. So it goes all day, every day. Compassion in the interstices, between moments where I have to take a stand, or take charge of something, or direct someone, or all the above.
We're tugged in so many directions. I think of trees pulled about by storm winds or rain. How can I teach my daughter to stand firm in this whirlwind world, to bend but not to break, to be firmly rooted but pliant, and most important of all, to use her health and her gifts to bear good fruit? I want her to be happy and safe. I want her to stay energetic and free. I want her to feel satisfied with her work but not to get too physically and emotionally exhausted. All day at work as I travel from patient to patient, task to task, she is in my thoughts, like a song in the background of everything I do and try to be.
What can I teach her about how to cope with wave after wave of demands on her attention, her time, her energy?
It comes to me: I will have to teach her, by example if not by word, to reach for stillness, again and again. When I return to it, sometimes it's for just a millisecond. A pause before inserting an I.V. A putting aside of annoyance at a fellow-doctor's lack of consideration or a nurse's thoughtlessness, in order to lay a hand on a patient and hold still for a second. I hold still. My daughter and me brushing hair during a weekend retreat: another moment of stillness. It's a rhythm, a habit, but one that takes practice, one easily forgotten. I flutter around, busy, sometimes frenetic. But I have to go back to that stillness, even draw other people into it if I can, or I absolutely cannot cope with all the tugging. I have to "rebuke the waves," and try to tell myself, "Peace! Be still!"
Be still. Young people so often underestimate the value of that, the gift of that. Everything now has to be high-stim, instant gratification, always on-the-move. My kids are no different. They are sucked in along with all their friends, into the maelstrom of entertainment and activity that their generation craves. But there is something in mindful stillness that none of those delights can match.
Somehow I will have to teach my children this if I can, and hope that it's of use to them as they grow (too fast!) and discover (wonderfully!) who they are.