“Roots and wings.”
It was shorthand for the process of growing up and heading out into the world in Maira Kalman’s “Max Makes a Million,” and a nod to the notion that parents provide for their children a foundation to equip them to pursue their dreams.
The hero, who happens to be a dog and a poet, had been given roots by his parents and yearns to test his wings in Paris….although he’s already ensconced in what many would take to be the bohemian paradise of New York City–“[a] jumping jazzy city. Tall people. Short people. Plaid people. Carrying boxes. Carrying chairs. Traffic. Towers. A shimmering stimmering triple-decker sandwich kind of city. Wow. New York. Bow Wow Wow.”
Our children adored this book at bedtime. The cadence, the spirit, the genius of dropping familiar facets–plaid people, a sandwich of a city–into their conjured images of a place they’d never seen.
Roots and wings.
It’s a considerably more child-friendly version of what I now hear in Rainer Maria Rilke’s sixth Sonnet to Orpheus:
Is he native to this realm? No, his wide nature grew out of both worlds. They more adeptly bend the willow’s branches who have experience of the willow’s roots.
Mary Oliver regularly captures the inextricable black shadows bound both to what is anchored by gravity and what escapes its reach: “the black river of loss/whose other side/is salvation….” John Hiatt’s lyrics dependably traverse foundation and freedom, embedding pain and loss into upbeat tracks ostensibly about winged flight.
Walt Whitman’s Greek chorus of birds whooshes in and out of a child’s passage from birth to reminiscence, from “the Ninth-month midnight” and by increments into “the here and the hereafter,” the world through which loss twines:
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone…
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me….
I realize that Whitman, Rilke, and Oliver were all writing of the grim reaper, and Hiatt (especially in “Crossing Muddy Waters”) frequently alludes in such songs to abandonment of loved ones–which would seem a far cry from an enthusiastic canine in a “shimmering stimmering triple-decker sandwich kind of city.”
But all these visions of roots and wings, earth and sky, coalesce around the need for a balanced foundation.
Can you even truly see the heavens if you haven’t experienced, or at least been attentive to, the weight and freight of the earth?
I’m not saying every childhood must have its vale of tears, or that my children’s loss of their young father is more catastrophic than others’ losses, which in this world frequently are of such a magnitude as to bring me to my knees. Nor am I knocking those who glide through lives which encompass only a series of fortunate events. But for those who have not yet experienced great loss I hope for roots which build empathy for those who have, and an understanding both of how great and how tenuous blessings can be.
As fond as we may be of wherever we call home, roots are not confined to a place. One does not so much give children roots as help them discover their irreducible form. It’s not just providing a loving home and sense of security, although I believe all love in life stems from knowing one came into the world and grew up deeply loved.
My husband Jim was terrific at many things, and one of the most important among them was guiding our children to find their gloriously layered and unending roots.
I’ve dropped countless hints for a red velvet cupcake for Mother’s Day, but what I yearn for is a sign from the sky that having those roots of deep love entwined with deep loss will help my children keep working those wings.
Ghosts on the trees, there’s
Ghosts on the wires
Asking questions and showing signs
Shivering with truth, they’re lighting fires
Lighting fires all down the line….
And I will try, but I will stumble
And I will fly, he told me so
Proud and high or low and humble
Many miles before I go