Unstable Air


I wonder if anyone else has an ear so tuned and sharpened as I have, to detect the music, not of the spheres, but of earth, subtleties of major and minor chord that the wind strikes upon the tree branches. Have you ever heard the earth breathe?
~ Kate Chopin

One hot and muggy August afternoon five years ago, our daughter Julia and I were home together, working in the garden. I knew thunderstorms were likely that afternoon, but we were close to the house and listening for distant thunder. The day’s gentle breeze suddenly seemed to be yanked with a loud hiss deep into the woods. The trees trapped the air silently while the light became tinged with green, and then the wind barreled back out of the woods as if released from a cage. A gasp. A held silence. And then a forceful exhalation.

The last thing I saw as I closed the basement door behind us was our patio furniture doing a slow circular dance eight feet in the air. Frightened, but safe in the basement, the electricity out, a deafening roar above us punctuated by popping and snapping — what I later learned was the sound of 400 tall tree trunks cracking — Julia whispered to me: I’m scared. I’m scared, too, I murmured, hugging her close. Her immediate gasp made me want to take my admission back. Yes, we were both scared. But Julia, the child, did not want her mother, her adult, to admit that she, too, was afraid, uncertain, and vulnerable.

I followed up with assurances that we were safe, that it was just a strong storm, that it would pass. Our shared experience that day has become a part of our relationship with each other and with our world. In that moment I learned about the subtleties of our relationship, of the process of identifying with someone who in so many ways is like me. In that moment, we were feeling and experiencing the same event, my role as a mother and her role as child required, demanded, very different responses. As Julia gets older, these chords have played again and again, and with each new challenge she faces, I hear slight shifts in their tones.

In many ways, she is the same child now who, as a toddler, disliked feeling unsteady and pippy (translation: tippy) while learning to walk. Likewise, many of the words that could describe Julia as a toddler still apply. Some might call her an introvert. Shy. Slow to warm. Highly sensitive. Tuned into the changing pressure around her. Prickly. But none of these labels really capture our child or capture the way that she approaches new or challenging situations.

This September I watched her, now ten years old, shore herself up as she walked into school, standing in the doorway of her classroom, looking about cautiously, adjusting her shoulders and taking a deep breath. My ten years of experience with her tell me that though it pains me to see her struggle in this moment, in a few months, or maybe even weeks, she is going to figure it out. Then she will walk into that room confidently and without any hesitation as she steps over the threshold.

Without thinking, I sometimes place my hand in the small of Julia’s back as we enter these new spaces and situations. I begin to gently guide her forward when I notice her steps falter, her eyes shift downward, and her body become rigid. Don’t push me! She whirls on me, tears welling up despite her apparent anger. She looks deeply into my eyes. Goes silent. And we both stop breathing. She because she is overwhelmed. I because I am watching her move through emotions I have felt so often myself. I am shaken by the knowledge that, by urging her forward, I have taken away part of what she most needs: to take the next step on her own.

* * *

I am standing at the end of the diving board. Cold, wet, and shivering, sporting 1979’s most fashionable bathing suit. There is a teenaged girl in the pool in front of me who has been treading water for quite awhile. She has her arms up above the water, reaching out to me. She is telling me that she knows I can do this. Asking me to jump and reminding me that she will be right there when I resurface. I am angry at myself. Each week, I will myself not to be that fearful child on the board. Knowing that the way out of this is very simple. Just jump.

But I never did. At least I don’t remember jumping.

It is possible, even likely, that I did eventually jump, but what strikes me is not remembering it. For me, the most salient memory is of how it felt to be alone, perched, awkward, and frustrated on the end of that diving board. How it felt to master that fear or to revel after jumping has been eclipsed by the feeling of isolation, of inadequacy, that dominates my recollections.

In many ways, I could be described by that same list of adjectives observers use to define Julia. But just as those descriptions are inadequate to capture her, they fail to fully describe me. More importantly, these adjectives fail to represent how Julia and I diverged as we matured. Despite our early sensitivities, there are now fewer similarities in terms of how we navigate difficult moments.

Understanding how differently we handle pressure has been an enormous awakening for me as her parent. I can wish an easier path for her than I had, that I could guide her through her struggles. But my growth as her parent has been about accepting who she is in each moment, and allowing her to step forward, step in, alone. I have learned to remove my hand from her back and, if anything, to try to do very little in these moments. I listen and watch her to see what she does as she faces challenges. And I learn from her.

Observing her in these moments, I see in her something I felt less often myself as a child. Unlike me, Julia is fierce. She seeks mastery, but at her own pace. She slows and plants her feet for stability and will not be rushed. She is — as she once described herself to me during preschool with a word too big for her small, sweet mouth — determined. She still may not like feeling pippy, but she will not let her fear win.


It is August once again. We have kayaked to a large rock in the middle of the lake that I have visited since I was a child. This rock, we call it Big Rock, arches out of the lake like the back of a whale, beginning at water level at one end and then rising steeply to the other, eight feet above the surface at its highest point. We have watched hundreds of people jump from this spot. It is safe; not too high, though it feels like a cliff to children. Our older son Nicholas jumped off it a few times during our last visit here.

We have returned because Julia is determined that she is going to jump, too. Yet she is terrified. The rest of us swim nearby, but all the while my eyes are on Julia, standing at the top of the rock. Her struggle is palpable to me as it plays out. And because I often felt this way — feel this way — as well, I am drawn out of the lake and placed up on that rock beside her, perhaps even standing in her stead.

Is it coming yet? she asks me. Her question pulls me out of my own memories, lifts me up and off the rock, and plunges me back into the lake, back into the mind of the reassuring, patient mother I am trying to be.

I know what she is asking me because we have spent five years together watching for August storms. I scan the sky for signs, look across the lake to the notch between two mountains where any weather here will first appear. Storms on this lake start with a change in the light. And then a shift in the air. And soon, both light and air are saturated with dark tones and a humid thickness.

But today, I know we still have a while before the storm arrives. So I am trying to wait, trying to give Julia the time she needs to conquer this rock. She is staring at the water and biting her bottom lip, shivering. She is even laughing at herself a bit. Like so many moments with Julia, her fears and her need to feel secure collide with, are challenged by, her desire to face into the storm, to feel brave and competent. I know she is trying to cross the void of her fear, to move through the dense air, through the pressure she puts on herself and that the world puts upon her to jump in, to move faster. All the while knowing that waiting too long will take the opportunity away from her.

Tiny water droplets glisten where the sunlight reflects off her legs, the longer leaner ones that have replaced the chubby rolls of her pippy days. She’s crouched on the edge now, swinging her arms, looking down into the water.

She breathes. Deeply. Her chest rising and falling. I realize her plan is to take three deep breaths and then to leap. But this has been going on for some time now. Her body tenses and prepares, and then she goes limp and becomes frustrated with herself. Each time she takes those three breaths and gets ready to jump, I breathe with her.

My patience. My presence. These I can give her. I glance over my shoulder to check the sky.

And then, as if these last three breaths are actually the first three she has taken, she jumps.

I gasp as I watch her fall through space and then splash into the storm clouds reflected in the water below. I hold my own breath during the few moments which she disappears and it is quiet. I have to force myself not to move toward her. Because, wait, a moment later she pops back up, water streaming off her hair. She relaxes her face, opens her eyes, looks at me, and breathes out. An uninhibited smile moves across her face. I want to do that again. Her voice is low, steady, and strong.

It is not until she smiles and speaks that I release my own breath. Only then does she pass me back the air.


Grounded Magazine - Unstable Air - Rebecca Stetson-Werner