The Physics of Mothering: Ash Wednesday


Trust. Rob and Cadence. July, 2011.


It Goes Around. It Comes Around. Kind of Like an Orbit. 

“Mama, why do my legs look funny when I’m standing in the water?” my daughter, Elaine, asked me one hot afternoon when she was three years old. We were refreshing ourselves in the shallow end of the swimming pool. I had a policy of answering her questions to the best of my abilities at all times (unless gifts were involved), so I panicked a little. Having been born with a science-resistant brain, I couldn’t remember all the principles involved. 

So I engaged in that time-honored tradition, practiced by stymied parents everywhere: I winged it. (Wung it?) 

That’s all about optics, Honey. It has to do with the light bending in a special way when it moves through the water as it bounces off your legs and back to your eyeball. Optics is part of physics (I doggedly refused to wrinkle my nose as I said the word) and you’ll learn all about that when you’re a bigger girl, at school. 

Okay, she said, brimming with unconditional trust. I’ll remember to ask my teacher.  I had nightmares for a few days about her preschool teacher taking me down on the storytime mat and pummeling me, demanding to know why I had told my child that her teacher could teach her about physics. But I digress.

The days crawled by as the years, the decades, flew. I am pretty sure that time has broken the sound barrier, but trying to run down that idea brings me, once more, perilously close to physics. When I visited my daughter and her family this past Christmas, physics came up again.

She wasn’t asking, this time, she was telling. I had asked to borrow a magnifying mirror for, um, tweezing. (Nothing says I’m Lala to nine quite like whiskers, which are so cute. On cats.) She graciously provided one, then explained how I would have to hold my face very close to the mirror to  focus because of its powerful magnification. She didn’t go so far as to quote any equations or anything, but I’m sure she could have found the technical explanation if I had asked her to illuminate the concept. There’s a reason her mother-in-law describes her as a walking encyclopedia. Or search engine.

In one of those funny life-rewinds-before-my-eyes moments, I blink and she’s three years old again, standing in the shallow end, looking down at her little-girl legs rendered squiggly by the light bouncing off the rippling surface of the must-be-Photoshopped, impossibly blue water, waiting to learn. I can still smell the chlorine. That memory is yesterday-vivid. But now she’s married, mother to three, with nieces and nephews of her own.

My little girl is definitely swimming in the deep end of life these days. And I watch as her three-year-old son comes to her, saying Mommy I don’t know how to do it. She smiles, pulls him onto her lap, and with patience and grace, she teaches him. I see that he is full of that same unconditional trust.

Despite all his remarkable achievements and propulsion of the scientific revolution,  Sir Newton never explained the laws that govern the creation of unconditional trust.

And it never stops looking like a miracle. This miracle, this fullness of trust, overflowing the child to flood a mother’s heart? This supersonic time that flies past, as I try to hold everything still for just a moment more?

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, I saw the ash-marked foreheads of the faithful, and I remembered. Dust. 

rabbit conga

13 Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
14 For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.

Psalm 103:13-14 (NASB)

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