I had been up for an hour, drinking tea, reading. Pema was still asleep when I turned out the light and went outside to feed the chickens. The air was cold, and the mucous that ran down my nose froze almost instantly to my whiskers. As I opened the gate, my fingers stuck briefly to the metal latch. The hinges screeched, and the hens called inquisitively from within the dark coop. I closed the gate behind me, and, looking up, saw the light of dawn creeping over the mountains.
When I came back inside with a clutch of fresh eggs, I opened the door to our bedroom, still dark as night, and saw that Pema had not moved. I took off my jacket and hat noisily, to see if she would stir. No movement, so I stepped back into the sunroom, now filling with daylight, and closed the door quietly behind me. I tucked three eggs into my pants pocket. With two in my hand, I headed to the kitchen.
Half an hour later, I returned with sautéed onions, mushrooms and greens, and two fried eggs. As I opened the door and turned on the lamp, Pema stood up wearily on two knees. “Hey pup,” I said, “good morning.” As I approached the bed, she put her arms out and I scooped up her warm body into mine and brought her to the couch. “How you feeling?” I asked. “Good,” she replied curtly, and slid out of my lap to begin sorting out which books we would read after I ate my breakfast.
After we finished four library books, a less-than-stellar selection, Pema asked, “What’s the plan for today?” I love this girl. “Yeah,” I answered, gathering my thoughts, “Well, today is Friday, so in a little bit we’ll get you some breakfast and get dressed and then we’ll just play here for a little while and in a couple hours I’ll bring you up to Mama.”
Megan and I separated a year and a half ago, when Pema was three and a half. That transition had been hard, even though we were never consumed by open conflict. Love and respect had always been at the core of our relationship, and it remains so today. But having a child, and the ensuing lack of attention to our marital relationship, seemed to seal our fate. We drifted. I resisted it at first, not in small part because it seemed so predictable, and I feared the consequences to Pema. But eventually I resigned myself to this new arrangement.
We fell into a new rhythm. Pema, to my grateful amazement, never displayed obvious symptoms of discontent, and it didn’t take long to sort of enjoy the rhythm of coming and going. After all, that’s what it was like beforehand too, Megan and I balancing childrearing with work, chores and personal space. Now we did the same thing, but with a lot more clarity. In some ways, this even forced us to become better parents. When Pema was with me, I was a hundred-percent devoted to her, and this deepened our relationship as father and daughter.
So Friday morning, when I told Pema that we’d be heading up to Mama in a couple hours, it was a normal part of our week. As Pema got up to put on her day clothes, I swept the room for dishes and playthings, and began putting the room back in order. Pema mentioned that she might like to ride her new bike. I gathered ingredients for oatmeal.
We had spent the last two days with friends, first Ruby on Wednesday and then Ada on Thursday - long, full days with sledding, snowmen, arguments, bike-riding, snacks and all the treasures and pitfalls of childhood, parenthood and life. Using the wood stove, I had baked a handsome squash into utter charcoal, something we all laughed at, even as I groaned about cleaning up the shattered fragments of the glass pan, smeared with thick, oily creosote. But now the pendulum was swinging back toward my private life, of work, quiet walks, and the major sort of chores that I prefer to do alone. I had a meeting scheduled for that afternoon that was already on my mind.
Usually on Fridays, Francis and his mom, our housemates, are around to play with. So as I’m packing Pema’s winter clothes to bring back to Mama, sorting through leftover snacks, or tidying up loose toys, Pema is more or less engaged. Francis’s mother and I trade moments, listen, and occasionally stride through to make sure all is well. But this Friday Francis was away with both parents visiting family for the holidays, so it was just Pema and me for a couple hours.
“Here’s your oatmeal,” I said, as Pema pedaled her bike around the Buffalo Room, the large central room of our community. “I’ll put it here, and you can make stops for bites.” “Yeah,” she answered, distractedly. I could see she was bored.
I stepped back into the kitchen to wash the pot and put away the milk. Then I saw the plants on the high shelf and decided to give them some water. A few minutes later, I walked back into the Buffalo Room. Pema was placing her frog, a new toy from Christmas, in the front basket of her bike, and there were two babies tucked in a blanket under one of the tables. I could see that she had taken a few bites of oatmeal. “I’m going to go get the laundry,” I told Pema, which meant a short journey outside, past the chickens, to the workshop, “Do you want to go with me?”
“Okay,” I said, passing her on my way to the stairs, “I’ll be right back.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed, pointing my finger in the air, “I just remembered.”
“What?” Pema answered, perking up a little. She stopped her bike and looked at me. By now, I was standing on the landing in front of the door to the mudroom.
“It’s my day to water the greenhouse. Might as well do that since I’ll be out there. Do you want to help?” Normally, as I use the hose to water the raised beds of kale and chard, Pema loves to fill a watering can and make gentle deliveries to the lemon grass, the kale sprouts, and the calendula, which, even in the dead of winter, have a few golden blooms.
“Nah,” she answered. Turning her head, she pedaled away.
“Okay,” I said, standing for a second, then turning toward the door.
“Dada?” Pema asked, before I was halfway into the mudroom.
“Can I bring the two babies and the stroller up to Mama’s?”
I had already felt guilty, but now it sunk home. The whole morning I had recognized the half-presence I was giving Pema, but I hadn’t done anything about it. A minor tingle in my throat preoccupied me with thoughts of imminent sickness, and I was slowly cycling through plans for the next couple days. Pema would be back in about twenty-four hours, and then we had a children’s New Year’s Eve party to host. The day after that I had two social obligations that, now that I was coming down with a cold, felt a little burdensome. Plus, I had that afternoon meeting, a small pile of paperwork, and three days of unanswered emails to tend to.
Still, there was a small opportunity, as I clung to the door, to put those things aside and meet Pema in that moment. But then, just as quickly, as if to assuage my guilt, I remembered the two previous days, jam-packed with fun. Hadn’t we gone sledding, biking, and made all sorts of forts and houses? We had read books at the library, including the one about the mice that scurry-scurry home to their cozy nests, a favorite. We painted, made postcards, and cut vegetables for dinner. There had been that charcoal squash…
“Yeah, pup,” I said, “that’s fine. So long as it’s okay with Mama.” And I headed out the door.
In using the title “Off Grid Kids” I imply that I’m writing about a sort of outdoorsy-life with children. Surely, that’s part of it, but what I really mean by that - what I mean to myself - is a real and frank perspective on myself, Pema, and the other children in our lives. Crawling around in the wilderness is great, but the wilderness of our minds and that of our emotions is just as enticing to me, if not more so. And that’s largely because it is such a tangled and throaty wilderness.
My goal as a father, and as a writer, is not to expose us merely to natural and wild adventures, but to expose the underlying emotions and intuitions, the mental blocks, and the occasional utter failures of day to day life. More than anything else, I’m interested in my own mistakes. They’re just so real. And so an entire morning of boredom, of half-hearted attempts to bridge the disconnection between Pema and me, and my failure to do so, is, for me, one of the most fruitful moments of all to bring to the light of awareness. It’s what I crave to understand.
As I walked across the courtyard to fetch the laundry, I felt guilty, but I didn’t really know why. In retrospect, I don’t believe it was because Pema was bored or distracted - after all, that’s not so bad - but because my attention was divided. I had started to pull my attention away from her and into my plans for the day. In response, she was doing the same, thinking about what she and Mama would do that afternoon, and whether Mama would let her keep the stroller.
Growing up, my brother and I were very close to two of our cousins. We slept over their house, and vice-versa, all the time. Parting was always a heavy affair, and I can recall one particular time that I was just heartbroken after coming home from a long weekend together. I felt utterly despondent, but of course I had no language for this kind of thing. I just ached and I couldn’t get over it. My parents tried to console me, even calling my aunt and uncle on the phone so that I could say hi to my cousins. But even their voices on the other end of the line did little to ease my pain.
I believe the root of what I felt that morning with Pema was similar, a sadness about our imminent separation. I’d like to say that my heart was aching for Pema, that it was pangs of sympathy that swelled in my chest, or fatherly devotion, but I don’t think that’s right. I felt guilty, not because I wasn’t giving Pema enough attention, but because I wasn’t giving my own feelings enough attention. I didn’t tend to them. I distracted myself with chores and plans. That’s why I wanted Pema to be happy and playful and engaged, so that I could warm up a bit in her emotional vitality. I wanted her to cheer me up.
The “problem” of that moment wasn’t that we felt bad, or even that I hadn’t given Pema enough attention. It was that I did nothing to acknowledge it. Instead of using the opportunity to give language and expression to my feelings, I merely kept up with my chores and hoped that Pema would turn around. That is my real regret, not only because I think it would have soothed me a bit to be honest, but because I would have liked to have given Pema the opportunity to express herself. Instead, I tried to solve her.
I don’t want Pema to feel good all the time. I want her to fully explore the landscape of her emotions, the sunny fields of wildflowers as well as the caverns of misery. I want her to get comfortable in that tangled wilderness, way off the grid, up high in the mountains where there are windswept escarpments of anger, and down in the valleys beneath the sheltered boughs of quiet joy. Mushrooms and hailstorms, sudden fragrances, and the endless screes of boredom. I want her to feel at home in herself, to be able to navigate, if never master, this terrain.
The only way I know how to do that is by walking the interior landscape myself, observing the way the wind sometimes blows a sadness over me, while at other times it shakes the leaves of the cottonwoods into a lively dance. The variation in sunsets, the coarseness of stone. The fact that, at night, the flowers close. I have to walk those paths over and over again, and the sad fact is that I’m often blind to what is directly under my feet. But sometimes, in the most common places, I discover things I hadn’t ever noticed before.