sam and I went to the beach on the morning of his eighth birthday
last month. Last year at this time we had been at the annual writers
conference in Sun Valley and I was trying to decide whether or not to
let him go paragliding -- an acclaimed instructor had offered him the
chance to soar in a tandem harness down from the snowy mountain that
towered above the town -- and it took me over 24 hours of prayer,
meditation and stricken phone calls before I realized I was not ready to
toss him off any mountain. But even with this going on, I was much
happier on his birthday last year. My life was pretty magical. I felt
safe, and loved out of all sense of proportion, and I knew there must
have been some little miracles along the way because I'd gotten to be a
writer when I grew up. I mostly loved to write, and my writing was
Now, this year, I'd hardly written in weeks, and then
only pitiful little stream-of-consciousness writing exercises, like
Job's wife trying to get the Artist's Way to work. I felt the jig was
going to be up this time for sure; I'd end up being the anxious woman at
the laundromat who hands out change -- "Here, here's some quarters. Don't
use that machine, it overflows! Hey! That man's using your basket!"
But Sam, at 8, is fantastic. He's so much bigger than he was
last year. His legs are nearly longer legs than mine and he styles his
hair now before he goes to school, moussifies it into a punky look
sometimes, and other times slicks it back until (as he puts it) it looks
fancy. His spiritual views are changing -- he says he doesn't
believe in only Jesus now, but that may be to torture me: I'm not
particularly concerned yet, but let me get back to you on this when he
starts dropping L. Ron Hubbard into the conversation, or leaving Eck
Speaks! pamphlets around for me to find.
Half the time he's so gentle
and sweet that grown-ups smile and shake their hands at such a good
child. He has taught a number of their children to ride two-wheelers
over the years, with infinite patience, and he gives them flattened
bottle caps as medals of encouragement when they fail. But he can be
terribly unfriendly with me, and he's got this new toughness, this
teenage impersonation that he pulls out from time to time with varying
effect. For instance -- I may have mentioned this before -- he told me not
long ago, with rather nonchalant sadism, "No one thinks you're funny."
Mostly it's pretty touching, though. I recently dropped him off for a
couple of hours with our 14-year-old friend Rory, who is the coolest boy
you've ever met, and Sam immediately went into this unconscious
adolescent parody, Sean Penn at 50 pounds, all slouchy tics and
slanted eyes and bored derision. When I picked Sam up from Rory's, he
slouched out to the car with his bottom lip hanging down as if a lit
cigarette dangled down from it, and as we drove off, Sam sneered, "He
thinks he's so cool, but he doesn't even have the Disney channel."
so there we were on the beach, my 8-year-old boy and I, building a something or other. It had begun as a sand castle, but had morphed into a wooly-mammoth-shaped birthday altar with turrets. We spelled out his name on the sand in the center of the structure with letters made from tiny broken white shells in the moat. We stuck feathers, seaweed, beach glass and shells in the turrets and humps.
He really has a gift for making things out of next to nothing. He is one of the less -- what is the word -- academically showoffy kids in his class, but he has magic in those little monkey fingers. He sees things spacially. His teacher, after expressing some concern about his handwriting, said, "He makes such amazing things out of ... of ... of," and I said, "Garbage?" and she said, "Yes!" He walks along looking in dirt and carpets and corners for discarded bits of metal or plastic, packaging, string, and then like somebody knitting very quickly, he fiddles these things into little contraptions. For instance, with a plastic container that had once held snack cheese and crackers and a strand of maroon embroidery thread, a large bent paper clip, a popsicle stick and a little ball of foil, he made an apparatus for hypnotizing animals, with a spring-lock closure so that any bad guys that stole it could never get it to work.
I was the world's most desperately successful student, and so I'm automatically concerned that he has so little interest in school. At the end of second grade, the mother of one of his friends said, "Gee, he doesn't go in much for homework, does he?" and I wanted to scream, "No, but he makes INVENTIONS, you dumb slut. Out of GARBAGE. And your kid is an obsequious little suck."
I realize I may be the tiniest bit sensitive.
Sam and I had built huge ramparts around our castle and had dug a moat to keep out the aliens and bad guys. He thinks and talks and dreams about bad guys all the time: also, monsters and dangerous animals. He looked so lost -- and so found -- in his work on the beach, his vision so clear and focused, while here I was in the middle of an emotional kaleidoscope. What a year! Right when Sam was turning 7, I had just met and become friends with the wonderful Michael Dorris. I was finishing up a novel. I had also just met the man with whom I was going to have an intense romance. In late March Sam met and became friends with his father, and then, on my birthday in April, the day before I set out on a massive national book tour, Michael Dorris died. Then several weeks before Sam's eighth birthday, the wonderful romance ended. It was just all too much. I started to feel like when you're a kid, and you and your friends pretend to be outrunning hot lava and then all of a sudden it turns out that it has caught up to you and is swirling in its sluggish way around your ankles. I looked over at Sam. He had just covered a turret with cannonballs of round beach pebbles. He still looks like a wood sprite, although definitely a more manly wood sprite.
We were working away side by side. He'd get up from time to time to go in search of more materials -- rocks, twigs, postal packing peanuts to use as sandbags on the periphery of the moat, to keep out serpents; and more broken shells to make his name in the sand show up more boldly. We worked in silence, shoulders touching.
Then he got up and raced down to the water like a dog and flapped his wings at the sandpipers. They all flew away. Sam is built just like my father, who we always called "Old Birdlegs," and like his own father too, who is even taller than my dad was. He's got his own father's coloring; he tans well. My father's legs were as pale and bluish white as skim milk. He looked more like a sandpiper than Sam does.
The sandpipers landed 50 feet away, and got back to work. They look so absurd -- they're so well adapted but you'd never know by just looking at them. You have to see them in action, right on the edge, trying to scrabble out a living. Sam left them alone and bounded around looking for useful items. I listened to the sandpipers' cries of alarm, took in their spindly legs and incredible charm. Walking and digging, walking and digging along the shore, poking their long, pointed beaks into the sand, hoping there's food.
They're very naked: Seeing them, you get to pay attention to the stuff of life without all the trappings. There's such intensity in them, the intensity of the moment -- they can't drift off, or they might die, and because of the quality of necessary attention, there's a lovely precision, a kind of comical ballet.
"You're not even going to believe what I just scored," Sam announced on his return. He had things hidden behind his back, and brought out his hands to breathlessly reveal several really cruddy-looking clothespins. "Do you have a pen?" he asked, and I did: I always have one in my back pocket, from the old days, when I used to write. I don't go in much for people complaining about how hard it is to be a writer, unless it's me: I think my dad would have done anything -- anything -- to get to stay alive longer and get some more writing done. He would have had some bad patches; and he would have gotten to know Sam. Sam took my pen and drew in faces, mustaches, hair. He took a bit of black pipe cleaner that was stuck in a turret and fashioned a machine gun out of it for one of the clothespin men. He surrounded his castle with the men he has nightmares about, men with guns, men who will hurt or save him; and he surrounded his castle with monsters made of Styrofoam and seaweed. His art springs out of bubbling underground necessity, as if he's somehow dipping himself into the river that gave him life; he's making dream material visible. I watched him carefully, making art because he has to. It's such a poignant attempt at making contact, right there on the edge of madness, where he dreams.
"We have to go," I told him. There was going to be a pool party for Sam at our best friend's house, for him and five friends.
"No!" he wailed. "We can't. What about our creation?"
"What do you mean?"
"We can't just leave it here. We've worked so hard on it! The waves will come and wash it away."
"Honey," I said, "it was never meant to be permanent."
He thought about this bitterly for a minute. "I'm going to kick it all over, then," he said. Gee, I don't know where he gets that from. He didn't in fact kick it over, though. He asked if we could stay 10 more minutes, and I said yes. Sure. I lay on my back and closed my eyes. Then he was tugging at my sleeve, and I opened my eyes and sat up. He had his fists balled up, concealing something, and he wanted me to guess which hand it was in. I tapped the left fist, and he unfurled his fingers to reveal an oval of soft pink beach glass.
"Wow," I said, picking it out of his small palm. If you'd been looking at my face, you would have thought he'd just given me a Spanish doubloon, whereas he stood there with dejection on his, like he knew the waves were going to come and wash away this, too. But the point is, he gave it to me anyway. It was polished and smooth from the sea, and I put it in the pocket of my shorts. "Thank you," I said, and he sighed.
The waves haven't come for it yet, although perhaps they will. In the meantime, it is in the front pocket of the jeans I am wearing right now as I write this. I reach into my pocket for it a lot; it helps me write in some mysterious way I don't at all understand. But -- on the occasion of the eighth birthday of my Sam, Samuel John Stephen Lamott, I think I'll say again what I said on the beach, in a whisper this time, and without even being exactly sure who I'm saying it to: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.