Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Going Down to the Water


My son emerges from Goldenview Middle School, crosses the icy parking lot to my car, throws his backpack and trombone in the back, and climbs in the front. He tosses me a dark look.

"Hi, listen, Clay isn't going to rock climbing today," I tell him, after giving him a quick hug.
"What? Why not?"

"I don't know, his Mom didn't say. You can still go, though."

"No," he says, "I don't want to."

"But James," I say, "you have to start going regardless of who else is going."

This is a familiar battle. I want James engaged in regular physical activity, especially as computer gaming has increasingly occupied his free time. Since dropping soccer at the age of seven, he hasn't latched onto another physical activity--until he started rock climbing. But like most kids his age, he doesn't like to do things where he doesn't know anyone, and Clay is the only kid he knows in climbing class.

I start to tell him he's just going anyhow. I turn, see his face, and stop. There's something else going on today, more than the usual pre-adolescent mood swing. That dark look.

"What's the matter?" I ask.

"So you and Dad talked today. You're giving me consequences, huh?" he grumbles, scowling.

At a parent/teacher conference last week we learned James is missing homework assignments in all six of his classes. That very morning I suggested to his Dad that if James fails to turn in another assignment, he should lose computer privileges until the assignment is done and the grade improves. His Dad, who teaches computer science at Goldenview, agreed. He must have told James during lunch.

"Well, it's not retroactive, so you won't be deprived of computer tonight," I say, but he doesn't lift his head. "We can talk about it later. For now, let's decide on rock climbing."

After a few more disgruntled exchanges, I give up on climbing class. I don't want to turn him against the one sport he seems to like, and I don't like pushing him when he's so upset about the talk with his Dad. So I cave. It's a gray afternoon anyhow, and my energy is flagging.

Still, on the drive home, I reconsider. Mid-winter in southcentral Alaska, you just about have to force yourself to get out of the house. It's only light between 10am and 4pm, and even then the sun--if it's not cloudy--casts a dim, slanted light. For the past couple of weeks we've had mostly gray days. It's the kind of weather that makes you want to stay indoors, sleep and eat, play on the computer.

But if you can drag yourself out to the trails to walk or ski, or to the gym to lift weights or swim, you feel better. The rock gym, warm and brightly lit and full of the energy of strong young adults, would have been good for James. It's too late now; the class has already started. Yet I won't give up entirely.

"O.K., instead of rock climbing, you'll go on a walk with me and the dogs," I say.

He agrees to it, barely, but claims he's starving. It's a deep sour mood he's in, dark as a snowless winter night. So we go home first; he eats, reads comics, lounges on the couch; then I push for the walk. He complains, but I'm firm: get the dogs, get your coat and hat and gloves, get in the car.

Clouds hang low and the snowy trail is flanked by bare gray limbs of alders. James lags behind, walking so slowly that I get far in front of him again and again. A snowshoe hare dashes in front of us, but James doesn't see it; with his downcast gaze and his leaden foosteps, he's too busy resisting being here.

I know this preadolescent game: if you're forced to do something, share your misery. After stopping for the fourth time to wait for him, I give up.

"O.K., James, here," I say, "take the keys and go back to the car. I'm walking down to the creek and back. We'll see you in thirty minutes or so."

But he stays. He lifts his head; he quickens his step; he takes Keira's leash. I say nothing.

The creek has flooded and frozen several times, and strands of open water thread under and through sheets of ice a foot or more high, broken into angles and sharp drop-offs, into slanted slides and upturned slabs. Someone has made an "ice-henge" on the frozen skate-rink surface. The dogs slip and scamper, Keira hunting for a stick to chew or ice to pounce on and break.

James walks to the edge, kicks at a platter of ice and watches it slide down into the creek and float away. He lifts up another piece and throws it into the creek. He picks up another, and another. He pitches them into the water and slams them along the edges, breaking off more chunks, the deep hum of running water accompanied by crackling, shattering, and snapping. He crouches down and carves channels of water with a long sliver of ice.

I sit on the snow and rock back, hugging my knees and smiling at the transformation. James has entered what I call his "beach trance." Ever since he was old enough to stand up, whenever he's at the edge of any body of water, he starts playing with rocks or sand or sticks or ice; he skips and tosses, builds and shapes along the edges, the malleable and constantly changing water a perfect medium of expression.

Now that he's thirteen and caught in the constant changes of adolescence, I'm relieved to see him entranced once again at a shoreline we've frequented since he was three. When he was younger, we'd drive past this trailhead every afternoon, and often we'd stop and walk down to this very spot. In winter I'd pack a thermos of hot chocolate; in warmer weather, cold milk and cookies--our after school snack by water.

Every time the stream was different. In winter the freezing and thawing created new levels and shapes, in spring the snowmelt flooded the banks, in summer red salmon swayed in deep eddies, and in fall yellow leaves swirled by. Sometimes we'd see a water ouzel dipping on a rock and then into the water, or flying low upstream. Once we saw a brown bear on the other side, silky brown ears above tall green grasses.

On this wintery afternoon, the dogs continue sniffing and pouncing, Keira finding a stick to gnaw. And James, he remains focused on ice, on water. Even though dusk gathers, I decide we'll stay as long as he wants.

Another hour goes by before he stops cutting new channels through icesheets and casting slabs into water. He sits, then lies back on a smooth stretch of ice, hands behind his head, looking up at the sky and naked limbs of cottonwood.

The dark mood has broken. The water has done its work again, smoothing away the rough edges of a day. In concert with the woods and sky and space all around, it's alchemized what was hard into something soft and bright.

Knowing how fragile freshly thawed emotions can be, how quickly my son might freeze up into that dark mood simply to prove his mother wrong, I don't say a word. I just watch him out of the corner of my eye.

Darkness falls around us, soft as a blanket, while inside, like the refraction of light in ice, it's brighter. James lets out a long sigh, gets up, says, "Mama, let's go," in a lilting voice, and flashes me a brilliant smile.

Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies including Orion, Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, Solo, The Future of Nature, and National Public Radio. Her next book, Off the Map, chronicles a year of homeschooling and traveling with her son James. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with her husband and two huskies. Now 20, James is also in Anchorage, and has dinner with his Mom every Thursday night. Please visit for more information.

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Love your telling of that day. It's so frustrating when our boys have those dark moments, isn't it? Hard to confess too; you were patient. I love your descriptions of the winters...Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Lisa. I love how the natural world teaches us patience - I've a quote by Emerson taped to my desk right now: "Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience."
Thanks so much for this beautiful essay! I love the descriptions of the water and seasons, and how that weaves together with the descriptions of James' dark moods. I also appreciate the example of how you stuck with it on this particularly tough afternoon, and it turned out okay.
Wonderful essay. Who hasn't been frustrated with a teen's dark mood and been unsure how to keep from making it worse? Your description of the winter afternoon was beautifully woven around your depiction of your son's fragile state of mind. I love how your patience with James' attitude and your insistence on getting out into nature gave him the space to access that healing inner place we all need at times.
Wonderfully written and so thoughtful- sometimes letting go can lead to a great opening. Thank you for sharing this.
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