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09 April 2006

Blow bubbles

“There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls. There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.” - Aeschylus

Bubble_blowingWe are deep into bubbles at my house.

Blowing them, taking baths in them, catching them, looking at the colors in them, you name it—bubbles are big news here. Colorful “Fun Bubbles” bottles decorate our porch and punctuate our landscape so that at any turn, your desire to launch a few can be realized.

Late yesterday afternoon, Tess and I went out in the back yard to indulge in her new obsession. We were just outside the door, on our small deck. After 87 degree temperatures the day before, this was a day rising only into the 50s and feeling colder with the wind. None of which stopped Tess—she was bubble focused.

She likes to blow bubbles and then run after them, holding her little plastic bubble wand out in front of her like a landing gear, hoping to touch one of them so it will swirl and come to a resting place atop the circle of plastic from which it was born, a precarious balance of birthing and holding onto—I know the feeling.

Swing_3I was freezing in the brisk wind and told her I’d be right back, that we needed our coats hanging just inside in the dining room.

The dining room is one room away from where we were; I ran in to get the coats and ran back.

And when I came back, there was an empty space where Tess had been, a void, a lack, a hole, a visible tear in the universe, a jagged edge, a tangible and irreducible loss. “Tess!” I yelled, looking quickly to the most likely place she would have gone—the swingset. Nothing. As I ran further into the yard, I saw it—that moment of panic and dread emerging—the back gate was open; she was gone.

Opengate_13_2x3It happened in 10 seconds; that was all it took. My Tess was gone.

How often had I heard that awful phrase on “America’s Most Wanted” when parents tell of their child being abducted from a park as they sat 10 feet away?—“I turned my head and he was gone.” How often had I ridiculed them in my mind, knowing it must have been longer periods of disregard that caused the tragedy. And now, I knew. It was 10 seconds—that was enough. She was gone. My beautiful, funny, smart, strong-willed Tess was gone. She was gone in an instant, a quiet and reverberating instant that I would relive forever, changing it in my mind with each reliving to alter this awful outcome.

I dropped the coats and ran to the gate that opens onto the driveway and into the street, screaming her name like a madwoman, limbs akimbo, face hot with fear. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t there.

She wasn’t there.

I ran past the car on the driveway to the street, knowing in my heart of hearts that she was gone, that someone had snatched her from the yard in those ten seconds; my heart was bursting, I felt nauseous, I was sick and shaky and full of dread and instantaneous horrible regret that swept through me filling me with bile. As I flew past the back of the car, I saw two men walking past; I turned, following their gaze to a point behind me—there was Tess standing resolutely at the back of the car, waving to the passersby and yelling “hi, fancy people!” as she made her way to the street.

I wonder where she was going, what she was thinking. How unlike her big sister she is. Emma is reserved and rule conscious and reticent; raising Tess is like being mother to a 38-inch-tall Janis Joplin. There is a bright shining glory in her immediate reaction to the world; there is also danger and fear, the possibility of glory turning to molten flame and ash. 

My relief was intense, the kind where knees buckle, but after my initial long thankful hug as I swooped her into my arms, that relief emerged as anger:  “Don’t you ever do that again!” the anger at myself displaced onto her. She slumped, her excellent adventure chastised. Like our dog, Blue, who escaped one memorable afternoon for a glorious free romp in the creek, she was out there in the world, making her way, marching with her back straight and tiny legs propelling her into the universe, her arms pumping like a cartoon of a walk, a strong and resolute self. And now, for some unknown reason, I was yelling at her for it. Life is confusing.

It takes only a moment of disregard, of inattention, to lose everything we have, all that we love. And I mean that in the most metaphoric way possible—only a moment, just 10 seconds, gone. 

TrafficlightsI’m one of the most cautious mothers I know, to the sheer and total disappointment of my teenager. When we moved from Washington, DC, I brought with me my understanding of city life and the need for constant vigilance. Emma had never crossed a street alone until we moved here. I have thwarted her schemes to hang out at the Mall unchaperoned, long wondering what life will be like when I don’t know where she is every moment of the day. I pay attention, I question, I hold onto, I touch lightly but firmly.

And yet, sometimes, there are things precious to us that we let go of for 10 seconds and they are gone. Perhaps it is a child, or our health, or fitness, or creativity, or passion, or a partner or spouse—we stop paying attention for what seems like 10 seconds, but is more like years—and they are gone, snatched from the yard or leaving of their own accord, they are gone.

A strong believer in the power of detachment, keeping watch for me doesn’t mean keeping tabs or smothering, but being watchful in the fullest sense, paying attention, holding and cherishing, attending to, recognizing that disregard can lead to tragedy. Whether a child or a love or a creative Self, it’s important work, that.

And yet, having two girls at such different ages reminds me that watchfulness changes as we move through time, that what is watchful for a two-year-old is smothering to a 13-year-old, that the kind of freedom a teenager needs to make their own decisions and mistakes can be deadly for a toddler, that our watchfulness over ourselves and others must change and grow.

It turns out that bubbles are the perfect metaphor for this, aren’t they? They make their own way in the world, blowing in the wind. We must let them go if they are to move into the sky, they are fragile yet resilient, they are beautiful only in flight. There is a paradox with bubbles—and with people—as my mother cross-stitched for Emma when she was born: we must give them roots and we must also give them wings.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Bubble_heartsBubbles don’t exist in the bottle, do they?

What are your bubbles? And mine? What would you run with panic at losing? Pay attention to that thing with all your heart.

Blow bubbles. Watch them fly. Know how to create them, appreciate their beauty, let them go. And pay attention. Those 10 seconds are suddenly a year, then two, then ten, then a lifetime.


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Utterly gorgeous post, Patti. "Bubbles don’t exist in the bottle, do they?" That had never occurred to me. No, they don't...they come to life only with our breath...what a remarkable thing it is, to give life to beauty that we know will ultimately leave us...

How true...
Our 21st century living has caused us to forget that life really is mostly beautiful. And often times in our attempts to protect we can sometimes miss out on that beauty. Another great post! Thanks for the reminder


This was amazing, and wise, and true. My mother's heart is still pounding at the thought of losing my Madam that way. I felt the immediacy, and thank you for the lesson.

Oh, how beautiful a post this is. A much more eloquent version of my most recent post about how fast time goes. My Older Daughter was missing once, or so I thought, for about 1/2 hour. It was the worst 1/2 hour of my life, and seemed to last an eternity. I'm glad all was well with Tess. Again, a beautiful post. Thank you.

Yes, our youngest daughter, who once upon a time gave us those same jitters in an IKEA store is now choosing where she will reside next year. In which college environment, she will float her bubbles, that is. She has narrowed here choices down to two. We are now waiting for the next bubble. Thanks for the image. It is a good one!

THANK YOU! For this beautiful yet angst-filled story of a series of moments in a life. You reminded us that EVERYTHING in our life is a bubble ... our own dreams, our childrens' lives, our work. We must set it free for its true potential to be realized.

You ask, 'what would you panic at losing'? And those, indeed, are the things we should work the hardest at forming ... and take the most joy in setting off to their destinies.

I sent a link to this to my own mother, to apologize for all the moments I caused her like Tess caused for you today. And she knows, indeed, that it is the ever-curious, 'grab the world with both hands and shake it!' spirit that she cultivated in me that caused most of those moments.

She didn't raise a girl who stuck to her knitting. Neither did you! Revel in it, enjoy it, and fasten your seat belt ... your little bubble has a lot of floating yet to do!

all the best, she-who-goes-by Viaggiatore (Rosemary's friend!)

oh goodness your writing...storytelling is beautiful.

thanks to all of you for your generous and wonderful comments - what a gift to come home to (I've been on the road)! thank you all for your good thoughts, wonderful insights...for sharing your bubbles!

It took 10 seconds for my 2-year old brother to fall into a pond and almost drown ... I was 5 at the time and will never forget his screaming after my mother fished him out of there and stuck him under the shower. He is still scared of water and a bad swimmer.

10 seconds was the time it took me to realise my purse, which contained my whole life (precious photos, journal, keys, new camera, new cell phone, letter from my lover, favourite book), had been snatched from under my table in a restaurant; 10 seconds of not paying attention while driving a car and knocking my husband off his motorbike right in front of me, that was a scary moment but luckily he was ok.

I don't have children myself but your story nonetheless touched me deeply and I imagine there is nothing much worse than fearing your child is lost, forever.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful and fragile bubble.

kerstin - your examples made me gasp. thanks for sharing...

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