Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Creatures in Exile

Creatures in Exile 
Caitlin Beauchamp

Winter was so long, friends. In its damp final days, we jostled against each other in small rooms, aching to be turned loose into sun and wind. At last came an afternoon mild and golden. I sent my children outdoors shoeless, feeling that all our trials were over. And yet even out in the open air the indoor squabbles persisted. Everyone wanted the tricycle; everyone wanted one specific bucket; one child wanted to be alone in the sandpit and the others wouldn’t oblige. Call it desperation or wisdom, but all I could think to do was go to the creek. 

Our creek forms a little greenbelt through the neighborhood. It is narrow and shallow and sometimes nearly runs dry, yet it has carved a quiet gully for itself, sheltered by a scrubby wood. We stepped through an opening in the trees behind the neighborhood playground and began the steep descent into the gully, working our way slowly under low branches and over exposed roots until the little path leveled out and joined the main trail through the woods. We followed this upstream along the bank of the quiet green creek.  Somewhere ahead of us, almost obscured by the undergrowth, a lighter flickered in the hands of a young teenage boy. Pot smoke lingered in his wake. He walked ahead out of sight, and we turned onto an ascending path that carried us to the crest of a little waterfall. Above the fall, the creek bed widens to a shelf of craggy shale; here we settled in. My children scrambled over rocks and roots and splashed in their rainboots through the low, puddling sheet of water, in a world of their own. Already, the peace of the place had descended on them.  

My three small children and I find too many ways to get at odds with each other at home. For one thing, there are so many objects lying around to be scattered and misused. Then there are the burdens created by my expectations and visions. We mothers dream of lovely days, orderly and meaningful, with an aesthetic imbibed, perhaps, from the curated lives of internet strangers. One of my children just recently joined our family through foster care; in the wake of such life change, it becomes clear how impossible these aspirational images truly are. We do not frolic along a pristine riverside, charmingly dressed in linen and accessorized with butterfly nets. We go to the creek in humility and desperate need, and one child is still wearing pajamas. 

But in the simplicity of the creek we find refuge and solace. We have nothing particular to do or see or accomplish. There are rocks and sticks for everyone, few expectations, and plenty of space. There is also plenty of trash; we live in the city, after all, and this creek bears many different kinds of use. Below the waterfall, a permanent island of litter stagnates against the creek bank—fast food packaging, cigarette butts, bottles, beer cans. Still, always at the creek we are ministered to by things plain and true—water, stone, juniper, moss, sun and wind and the quiet passage of time.

The more I learn about the land beneath my overgrown city, the more I ache for it—the felled woods, the golden-brown prairies embroidered with green, shady streams. First came settlers and farmers, then the postwar housing boom raised a crop of little houses, row after row after row. Thank goodness, this creek and bit of woods were left to us. Here, in nests and burrows and shallow pools, a remnant remains of the old wilderness—armadillos, tortoises, hawks, even a few coyotes, caught on home security cameras prowling the neighborhood at night. These are creatures in exile, huddled here along this graffitied creek bank because it’s the closest thing they can find to the wild land they were made for.

I think about the coyotes often. I lost a cat to them once; I wasn’t over-fond of the cat, truthfully, and meanwhile the lurking presence of coyotes in suburbia is invigorating. I wonder if somewhere in their cells they hold ancestral memories of the prairie. I wonder if they feel the burden of their exile. Perhaps this is simple projection of my own longing. It seems to me that some of the solace I find at the creek is in the suggestion of what it was once, when the land was wilder. The creek itself is in exile, in a way—cut off from its sources, polluted, siphoned through drainage pipes where it becomes an inconvenience.

Reader, this is all a parable. It seems to me that we too are creatures in exile, burdened with longing for something lost. We live in an era of change and uncertainty; we feel unmoored from cultural memory. This sense of disconnectedness is the hallmark of modernity, prominent in our culture since the upheaval of the Great War. As mothers and educators we sense it keenly. When we think of the education we wish to give our children, we feel inadequate. Who will show us the way? There is too much we never learned ourselves, too much our communities have forgotten. We feel isolated and uncertain and we grow restless, searching hungrily for resources to bolster us. We accumulate stuff: more philosophies, more curricula, more picturesque manipulatives, more podcasts, more mentors, more activities. Still, our uneasiness and longing remain.

But it’s too pat a conclusion to say that our sense of lostness dates back neatly to the turn of the 20th century. In truth, we have been in exile almost ever since the world began, since the garden gates closed behind our first parents. We were made for a place more whole than anything we’ve known; deep in our souls, we’re always longing for Eden, our first home. Perhaps beneath our restless parenting aspirations and our nagging discontent lies this homesickness, though we seldom think to call it by name. Perhaps in calling it by name, we might find liberty. So: let us confess together that we secretly hope to restore ourselves and our children to Eden by our own heroic efforts. Let us also confess together that this was never possible. 

We stayed at the creek for two hours that afternoon. As the light began to fade, we gathered ourselves up and retraced our path through the trees. “I wish I was a creature so I could sleep here all night,” my daughter said as I lifted her down off the rock ledge where she had been quietly playing. How I wished it too, for I’d begun thinking of what waited for me at home: lunch dishes still on the table, breakfast dishes in the sink unwashed, foster care paperwork to complete, scattered toys, a sofa piled with laundry, the same old behaviors to discipline. It had been the kind of day that makes a mockery of all our brightest aspirations as mothers, homemakers, educators. And yet, our time at the creek gave me fresh courage, because it reminded me that while our children’s needs are profound, they are also simple. They thrive on good stories, rich relationships, hours of water and stones and sunshine.  They do not need our restless quest for the just-right resource, the elaborate system. They need us to learn to abide, to sink roots into a life that is deep and plain and true. 

As I write this, our creek is the scene of an active police chase. A car theft gone wrong, or so says neighborhood gossip, and now the suspect is hiding in the greenbelt somewhere while squad cars and a helicopter circle. Somewhat irrationally, my immediate prayer is that the moss won’t be badly trampled. Our creek isn’t pure, idyllic, or without risk. And yet the wild creatures find refuge there, and the trees spread their trash-tangled roots out along the water, and my children are given exactly what they need. 

Even so, havens of refuge remain for us while we are in exile. There are still deep places to be found, where goodness, truth, and beauty pool like water. These springs are muddied and imperfect, and they will never fully satisfy our longing, but they are full of blessing just the same. Meanwhile, let us not wish away our longing. If it is a burden, it is also a gift, pointing us to the Savior who is Himself the living water. He is making all things new, and He will lead the exiles home. 

~ Caitlin Beauchamp was among the first AmblesideOnline graduates. She is the daughter of AO Advisory board member Lynn Bruce, and was entirely schooled at home with Charlotte Mason methods from K-12th grades. Caitlin holds a BA and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at Dallas. She lives in Texas with her husband (also homeschooled), their two children, and sometimes a foster child. Caitlin is a writer and poet, and a regular contributor to Afterthoughts blog. Instagram @caitlin.beauchamp.

~ Painting by Sheila Atchley- a momentary glimpse of a work-in-progress, as yet untitled; ink on primed wood, 2019. Used with permission. Discover more of Sheila's art and writing at sheilaatchley.art and on Instagram @sheilaatchleydesigns.