Late one Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, we went walking by the Brisbane river. Such a simple sentence, right?
I have loved walking since I trailed alongside my dad as a kid on his morning suburban stretches, air infused with birdsong, drenched in fresh, untarnished light. But, in my younger years declaring ‘walking’ as my chosen sport seemed weak and non-declarative. In these later ‘mumming’ years, I’m an aspirational walker. Just leaving the house can require athletic commitment. Due to an interstate move, a new job for Dr M, a new school year, new virus’, new discoveries, not to mention the transplanting of old fragilities in new settings, and a pounding sun, well, I haven’t walked much at all so far in our time here.
But, we went walking by the Brisbane river late one Friday afternoon recently, and it was beautiful.
We wrangled our bounty of three into our new van, me climbing like a clumsy oversized gymnast into the back to strap our middle boy in. After an ordinary-extraordinary amount of drama for such a benign activity, we pulled out of the driveway and drove the short distance to the water. The autumn air siren-whispered as it whipped by our open windows, the car’s permanent aircon-hum for a moment hushed. Dr M and I looked to the horizon and imagined great things. We parked the van and hopped out.
Right. outside. a. playground. Our kids shot bullet-quick from their carseats and onto the pavement.
‘Later!’ Dr M called to retreating back of our ever-eager four-year-old, rangy and energetic as a young deer. I watched his small form leap and disappear into the mass of climbing ropes.
‘I’ll go get him!’ Our six year old, with a stubborn strength of the ages, called out, already mid-flight. ‘And I’ll have a little play too, when I get there,’ she added behind her to the wind.
‘AFTER THE WALK!’ Dr M chided, a cascading wall of words matchless, without action, against their child-exuberance.
Only our usually rambunctious three year old sat still in his pram, while we sought to bring order back from chaos. Its not that we don’t want to let our kids play in the park, we are huge fans of public playgrounds, particularly those in Brisbane, I’d argue, some of the best in the world. But playgrounds are hungry things. Once swallowed inside children become fused to the landscape, impossible to move. And we wanted to walk first. Longing for some sort of emergency assistance – like a sheepdog for children (is their such a thing? There should be) we rounded our offspring up. When reasonable words failed we took them by their squirming limbs and brought them back to the path.
And so, we began to move forward, our wailing four-year-old now seated beside his younger brother in the double pram. Our screaming blue-murder six – year- old still lay prostate behind us somewhere on the path.
‘Just keep going,’ my husband urged me, resolutely militant, a parental battle cry fighting to be heard above our childrens’ mighty protest. ‘She’ll have to follow eventually.’ Eventually was the key word. We watched her play chicken until the last moment, when she sprang into a loud sprint to catch the tails of our retreat.
We passed under a bridge and walked through the cool concrete cylinder of a tunnel. This particular tunnel, serendipitously, was covered entirely on one side with graffiti art in the form of sea creatures. Our four-year-old future marine biologist’s wails dissolved into excited bubbles of joy. I wonder in his kid-mind if he suddenly found himself plunged underwater in a rainbow wonderland.
Our intractable six-year-old, meanwhile, continued her lament, given dramatic emphasis in the echoey chamber. I had the urge to gulp for air. A few fast bike riders in Lycra flashed by like another species. If we were underwater they’d no doubt be top of the food chain. Speed, agility, superiority. The possessed it all.
I saw our first fellow-walkers approaching from a distance slow and steady. An older couple. I felt my body tense a little as I anticipated what they would think of being trapped underwater, as it were, with our screaming girl. They smiled with good-natured humour, and I wondered, with relief, if they still remembered their own days of tunneling through parenthood.
We popped out into daylight again. The river glistened silver in almost evening time. So this was Autumn. In Brisbane. If not showing signs of any colour change in the leaves, at least a softer light, a lighter air.I pushed the two boys. No longer complaining, they were now co-engaged playing with a toy giraffe. Heads together giggling.
More bike riders whooshed by. Then a guy on an electric skateboard. I steered the boys further to the river edge. Which would be worse—colliding with a bike or some other vehicle, or falling in the river? Again an older couple came towards us. Only this time instead of protesting, our children were the picture of companionable peace, an idyllic snapshot of childhood innocence, river-quiet. I drank in the sight of the faces beneath silver-grey heads smiling wistfully. Perhaps remembering such golden times of their own. I felt almost like we had just given them a gift.
I was not unaware of the ludicrousy of it all.
Only moments ago in the tunnel I had felt buried in shame. Now, I was riding high on pride. My parental sense of identity, I hate to admit, was rising and falling like the river ebb, steered by situation, lurched by circumstance. Shaped by the look in anothers’ eyes.
We are not quick to switch our kids from cots to beds. In fact, like our slow uptake of technology (for a longtime I carried a phone large enough to be a walky talky – as one rude retail assistant once commented to me) we take all the transitions slowly. Our little urchins are such good cage-sleepers, which in turn grants us more peace, that we keep them there as long as possible. Alas, the time comes when we can no longer justify the containment, usually around 2.5 years of age, and we swtich them into a big-kid bed. So it is, our J, baby of the family, now three, is in his first real bed in the bedroom he shares with his siblings in Brisbane. The transition, thankfully, has gone quite well. Unlike his two elders, he is less of a night-wandering bed-hopper. Given the right wind-down routine he goes off well. And his favourite person to put him to bed is his daddy, Dr M.
The night routine goes something like this.Time to put on pajamas, kids. Protest. Time to do your teeth. Protest. Time to put on pyjamas. Protest. Time to get into bed. Double protest. But once they have landed in their respective night-islands, books in hands, our kids start to calm. Children’s books have that singular power, don’t they, that adult books don’t always possess. Where we yell at our kids to obey, books whisper gently and enticingly to listen. And so we read. And read. First fiction or non fiction books of their choice. J is obsessed with anything that moves by mechanical force. W loves animals. Then a Bible story. When Dr M and I run out of voice and strength, we transition into prayer, steered by Dr M as a time of reflection, a brief foray into thanksgiving. ‘What is something you enjoyed today?’ he asks three-year old J, lying beside him in his new big-boy bed.
In that delightfully repetitious way of children, lovers of routine as much as chaos, J always answers the same: ‘Preschool.’
‘What did you enjoy about preschool?’ Dr M asks.
‘I was waiting for daddy to pick me up,’ he replies in his husky late-toddler tones, ‘And then he saw me.’
He saw me.
Not ‘I saw him,’ but ‘he saw me.’
And what is it about this being seen that so anchors our youngest boy, that shapes his picture of the day, bookends it all, good, bad, and in between in such a defining way that its the last thing he wants to talk about before the night closes. While I don’t really know what goes on inside his head, I’d suggest it is what the ‘being seen’ signifies that makes it so significant. When he sees daddy, and daddy sees him, he feels an instant acceptance and security. Daddy IS home. When daddy comes to find him, he claims him into his arms in a way that covers body, heart and soul.
Isn’t that the sort of reunion we’d all like to be able to believe in as we close our eyes to sleep?
I wonder at what point exactly it takes place. That moment when we stop feeling confident in the gaze of another, and start instead fearing being seen. Is it late childhood, or sadly even earlier for some. Almost definitely its sometime in the teenage years, that painfully self-conscious mountain climb into young adulthood. But unlike many parts of adolescence –like oily skin, and a steadfast belief in our own (questionable) fashion choices—fear of being exposed, shamed, laid bear—follows us often into adulthood.
I think of all the phases so far of my own aging and development. Early uni years—always fearful I wouldn’t fit in, late uni years as a doctorate student, shouldering the very common PhD student’s self-imposed burden. The ‘imposter syndrome’ – an anxiety that one day, and soon, I/we will be discovered for what we are, frauds in our chosen field, not the experts our aspiring title suggests us to be. And then parenthood. Ah, parenthood. With the surreal joy of birth comes the instantaneous birth of inadequacy. Who am I to be a parent? What do I know? The question —am I doing this right, I suspect, never entirely leaves a parent.
But if we are all hiding in the shadows in our own way, afraid of being seen in the tunnel, and discovered as not enough —like I felt in the underwater seaworld, what is the antidote. Can we return to the confidence of pre-sleep J? Is it merely childlike naivety that allows a three-year-old – or a 30-something-year-old, to believe in a way of being seen free of judgment and full of love.
Yes. It is. But it is also a legitimate space to dwell. Not just legitimate. Entirely right.
Over many years of being a believer in Jesus, I feel like I’ve been walking in an endless circle, always coming back to the one thing that keeps me sane and safe. Abba, my father God, sees me, and does not judge me, loves me, and does not wane in his affection on my worst days, knows me, and wants to know me, covers me, not in a way that obscures or suffocates, but that frees and makes free.
No more fear of tunnels, only endless light.