Water’s Edge

A Touch is All it Takes

As I sit on the deck writing, with a comforting cup of tea in front of me, the clutching feeling in my chest begins to soften. My daughter’s departure for college has finally happened. It has been another childbirth, one with a long, long labor. During senior year, we lived through the college application process and attended final concerts, events and productions. All of it culminated in a joyous high school graduation.  Throughout, we arm-wrestled over who got to use the car and what time she would be home. Summer came and was filled with babysitting jobs, hosting a delightful French exchange student, and many fun, short trips around New England. Difficult conversations about our relationship and my recent divorce from her father challenged us. I swung from wanting her to leave right away, to dreading the inevitable. Finally, the days of packing and preparations to leave were upon us. Now I am home, exhausted after the 11 hour road trip to Oberlin.

My daughter has left. My heart is bereft…feeling like a cleaving of some part of my soul. I wonder how anyone ever manages to lose a child who has died. This clearly is not that. But loss is what I feel most intensely the first 48 hours after returning home. It surrounds and saturates me as I walk through the house like an open wound with no place to go, sobbing, “My baby’s gone, my baby’s gone!”

“My baby” is a strongly independent soul, who at 18 months began choosing her own clothes to wear in the morning. While learning to climb the stairs, Fiona would say, “Thelf!  Thelf!” meaning “Self?  Self!” I’m doing it on my own. When learning to count, she started off, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. “What happened to 5?” we would ask.  “I don’t do it that way,” she answered. Interesting to note that she did become a top math student. Just a few weeks ago, I tried to help apply sunscreen to her back. She refused, saying, “I need to be self-sufficient”. I have called Fiona my “just add water and mix” child, as it was easy to raise a do-it-yourselfer, especially one with her easy, cheerful joy and natural confidence. 

During our journey as we talked about the impending separation, I explained to her one way I have felt our bond. When she was an infant I would go out for a walk in the neighborhood and feel an energetic umbilical cord stretching around the block the entire mile. She scoffed and was quick to state the umbilical cord had been cut at birth, “MOM.” Right now it is another cutting of the cord that we both feel in different ways. She eagerly moves into the beginning of adulthood, freedom and independence, while I reckon with mortality, facing the steepening slope of losses ahead of me.

At last I feel some relief. A few texts asking about forgotten items and what kind of bike lock to use and I start to emerge from the incapacitating nature of grief. They remind me of the years of family bed when even as an infant, she wanted just a little bit of touch at all times – an elbow, a toe, the back of her hand against me, as if needing to complete the current. Our contact will be less as her life grows ever fuller and more separate from my own. My investigation of life will change and deepen as well.  But I sense that her request to find her missing favorite bras and mail them to her was more than forgotten clothes.  She was reaching out to touch…to know I am here.  And that will never change.

Maine morning

I walk the dogs back from Nickerkane Island, across the bridge, in the early morning. I have had coffee but nothing else, face unwashed, just getting the dogs out for their business. It is overcast and recently rained hard in the earlier hours while we were still in bed. A man has backed his truck up to the shed with all the lobsters pots hanging on it, next to the old tub with several colors of painting peeling off it in a lively mosaic. He is looking across the inlet thinking, and considering his options. As I start to ascend the hill, he surprises me by suddenly saying, without looking at me, “You’ve convinced me that it’s not going to rain today.” I reply, “really?” (as I’m not yet convinced), and he says,  “Yes.” He starts to unload lobsters pots off the back of his truck. Nothing more said.

Image: “Island School by Penny Markley” 

In Light of Pee

As a Quaker, we talk a lot about seeking “the light”, usually from within.  That can be within oneself or another person. When I went to India, my noticed my perception of light changing.  What I became aware of (in addition to dark poverty, dirt and garbage) was the light without.  When landing in Dubai en route to Chennai (not India but getting close) the lights sparkled with more brilliance than other airports I have visited.  I sat in the Matrimandir Temple in Auroville with its single beam of sunlight penetrating the space as a reminder to concentrate.   Warm inviting sunshine embraced me while swimming in the Bay of Bengal.  I delighted in the eye catching colors of saried women riding scooters sidesaddle.   We ogled necklaces layered thick in glittering gold in an upscale jewelry store.  The indian love of bright reflective things was in the atmosphere all around me.  One day stands out in this experience in particular.

It had been a long day of sightseeing in Tiravunamalai, southern India.  We had risen at 4:30 am to circumambulate 8 miles around the base of Aranuchala Mountain, visiting 8 small temples along the way.  We were tired and dusty with one more outing before dinner:  to visit the Annamalai temple.  Annamalai is a conglomeration of 9 temples in an enclosed area, some of them as large as tall city buildings.  It is a sort of city within a city, housing the Hall of a thousand Pillars, a large reservoir/reflecting pool of water, and big courtyards connecting everything. 

The approaching street was full of vendors selling souvenirs and more bustle of life in India.  There were scooters, cycles, people on foot, rickshaw, dogs, cows, dung, trash, voices, odor.  We had just checked our footwear in with the shoe minder on the street so we could go through security lines to enter the temple area.  I turned around and suddenly a cow right in front of me raised her tail and peed a large waterfall of absolutely clear, sunlit, pale gold urine, gushing onto the street with a splash.  An Indian woman, in sari and gold earrings, immediately and urgently thrust both of her hands into the flow washing them together, then splashed the urine with both hands in the direction of what may have been her daughters tending a souvenir table. I think she may even have grabbed a container to catch some of it.  The young women protested, and my trip companion and I were startled into the moment as we felt the spray of urine on us.  Liz admonished the woman with a, “Hey!  What are you doing?”.  I was stunned trying to gauge the woman’s intentions:  Aggression?  A prank?  Just plain crazy?   What was going on? 

Jolted by something deemed unclean and taboo by western standards, it slowly dawned on me that to Indians, cow urine is as sacred as the cow it comes from.  I was being pushed out of my cultural stance into understanding an aspect of the devotion that permeates India. In learning to live with minimal water while traveling compared to my western habit of excess, I reflected that if I had limited access to clean water, then I would wash my hands in the clear, bright fluid as well.  But the woman’s motivation was far bigger than hygiene and she understood something I did not.  Though cows are not a primary focus of the sacred in my life, what I will always remember is the light that shone from the cow’s pee – pure, shining and radiant, a gift of god.   And that is sacred, wherever you find it.



Nicola Metcalf 

Nicola Metcalf writes when the spirit leads her. She grew up in Jamaica, Vermont where she first developed a strong sense of place. A dancer, mover and yoga practitioner, she loves people, her pets, and laughter most of all. She writes when the spirit leads her. Writing is like an old and trusted friend, always ready to sit down and talk about things.