I keep starting this letter and crumpling up sheet after sheet.
I hope you don’t mind, but I pulled the sheets out of the recycling bin and read. I read how heartbroken you are, how you vacillate between waves of despair and scrambling activity and the solid ground of hope. I read the way you are disappointed by me and longing for me and confused and unsettled and very, very scared.
It is a strange thing to be a mother. You watch your land swollen and ravaged by your children, watch them take with impunity, as children do, sure always of your never-ending generosity. It’s strange the way they seem to see you only in parts: broken or godlike, joyful or haunted, grasping or generous. It is difficult sometimes to maintain a sense of unity, to believe that you are whole when your children reflect back all of the ways you’ve done them wrong, the ways you have not been there for them or have not given them a life that lives up to their expectations. You hesitate to let them know: they are creating this image of you.
There are moments, of course, when you delight in the way they notice you: they wade into your deep waters and lean their heads back and float; cradled by you, they cuddle into your warm grass: still and listening and breathing. They walk through your paths and brambles, climb with determination to your highest point and in that moment where they look out on your canyons and forests and rivers and rocks, in that moment where they sigh with contentment, you feel seen, though all you can do is echo back the words they call out.
One of your sisters, Alice Walker, said that having a child is like having your heart walk around outside of your body. The ache of watching every one of your children confront heartache and violence and sorrow and hatred until they are so full with it that they turn on each other is a pain that I hope you will never fully comprehend. Or maybe I am being too protective, maybe if you could comprehend the pain of that division it would be the medicine you need to come together. I want to remind you how the palettes of your emotions are identical. I want to awaken your basic empathy, but I am only a mother, I can only nag so much.
As a mother, I refuse to distribute love according to goodness, will not dole it out like an allowance for chores finished: to be a mother is to love everyone, even the children riddled with hatred. Because you can see that hatred is just old festering pain and you remember when that pain was fresh, can see how it paints a florescent streak to the present. Even when you think, that’s it, I’ve had it, even when they get on your last nerve—you realize suddenly that there are always new nerves you can grow.
Did you know that nerves are “cordlike bundles of fibers” and that they have an astounding ability to regenerate? That the two ends of a peripheral cut nerve can and will knit themselves back together in time? That is what you hope for your children, though for now they continue yanking each other back and forth in a giant tug of war. Did you know that to be a mother is to always be teaching whether you realize it or not? Did you know that sometimes those lessons are not the ones you intended but they are learned nonetheless?
I know you wrote to me wanting some guidance. I know you wrote to me because you see me as wise, as responsible, as the one in charge, but I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to comfort you. This perhaps is the most difficult part of being a mother. To admit that I am not all-knowing, I am not all-seeing, I do not know how to knit the disparate parts of our country together.
But I think you do. Because I can see the whole of you. I’ve been there all this time. I held you when you were colicky and sick, I kissed scraped knees and rushed you to the hospital when you fell from my branches, I’ve been here for every iteration of your human life. I see your resilience, your generosity, your human creativity. I see your capacity for radical empathy, and how you too have this ever-widening capacity for love.
I ask, simply, that you try. That you try to be both understanding and firm, that you speak out and act out against injustice, that you remind your brothers and sisters of their duty to each other.
Katrina Goldsaito is the author of The Sound of Silence, which Maria Popova of Brain Pickings calls an “illustrated serenade to the art of listening to one’s inner voice amid the noise of modern life.” Her essays can be seen in National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, CNN, and The Japan Times. She’s made tea ceremony and interview artwork at places like UnionDocs in Brooklyn and the Luggage Store in San Francisco, and was a founding cast member of the NY NeoFuturists. She lives near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with her husband and son. Find her at katrinagoldsaito.com, thesoundofsilence.org, and @inlovethere.
Julia Kuo is a Taiwanese-American illustrator. She currently works out of Chicago for most of the year and Taiwan in the winter. Julia illustrates children’s books as well as editorial pieces for newspapers and magazines. Her clients include Science Friday, The New York Times, Hachette Books, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan Publishing. When she’s not drawing, you might find her running around in a national park and looking at moss.