“Don’t say cool, mom,” Oli chides me. I look at his eyes, humbled.
“Sorry, Oli. What were you telling me?”
I can’t get away with anything around here. Oli now knows my default answers, the words I utter when I’m not really paying attention. The truth is that this naturally very introverted, super-comfortable-with-silence-mom runs out of listening capacity at about 8:39 a.m. every single day. And the further truth is that my children talk, loudly, at me until at least 10 hours beyond that. I have a hard time bearing witness to all they have to say, so I say “cool” to their umpteenth story of the day.
However, Oli knows this. He knows “cool” stands for “I’m-sure-that’s-interesting-to-you-but-I’m-preoccupied-and-tired-and-overwhelmed-and-would-really-love-this-conversation-to-be-short.” So he calls me out. Keep at it, kiddo. You are right. I’m your mom: my primary calling is to witness, and be present in, your life.
Bronson’s on to me, too. He loves to show me his latest trick or skill or drawing or whatever. “Mom, check this out!” I bet you can guess what I often remark when I glance up to see his latest achievement. To his credit, he doesn’t tolerate it either. “No, mom, it’s not cool. WATCH!”
At least maybe, subliminally, I’m teaching them that being “cool” isn’t so cool.
At the core of who I am, this is my calling: I am to witness and to testify. I must have been born this way: maybe everyone is to some extent, but it was the work I did as a kid. And kid-work is akin to calling.
Writing has always been about witnessing – my thoughts, the world. I wrote made up stories as a kid, often a feeble mocking of whatever I had recently read. I bore witness to books and transpired them through my brain to a new story on a page – learning at its best. When I first picked up a camera, it was the honing of witnessing skills that I loved. A frame forces focus – the skill witnessing demands most.
It is also what attracts me to sad, hard things. I’d rather be wrecked by a movie than entertained. Sad, haunting music is far more compelling to me than anything dance worthy. I think there is beauty in bearing witness to the things people don’t want to see or know or address. If pain is a wildfire than our attention builds trenches. (And maybe, paradoxically, our anger becomes water.) Injustice has always overwhelmed me; poverty, in all forms, has always held my gaze. At my core, I want to bear witness to what’s broken: I want to see the haunting eyes of those in pain. I wish people still wore sackcloths and ashes. I wish we were not so obsessed with being cheery. I think people need us to get in the trenches and try to hold back the licking flames. No one needs the flames snuffed out as much as they need you to feel the heat with them.
My kids remind me day in and day out: I need to witness. I need to have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart that understands. For Bronson, a band-aid isn’t a covering up of a wound; it’s an acknowledgement of the wound itself. They want me to see their accomplishments, to see their nervousness and give them a smile. They want me to hear their questions, to sense the heart behind them. They want me to listen to their silly stories, or their adorable attempts at jokes. They want me to empathize with their hurt feelings and with their excitement over the smallest things.
They want me to be human with them – to see their own beating lives and come along side them, witnessing all that transpires and listening to the way they are weaving it into their own narrative of life. Isn’t it what we all want from each other?
I wish I were a better witness to the world. I wish I had the time and energy to see all the pain and injustice and to testify against it, but I’m slowly realizing that while I can still do so on a smaller scale, the witnessing I must do right now is in two little boys, hazel and blue eyed, with expressive faces and tender hearts.
I’m trying to catch the “cool” before it leaves my lips, trying to refocus before I miss it – the chance to witness lives grow from the ground up right before my eyes.