Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon. We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie. But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning. We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.
Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush. Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard. Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire. Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago. Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire. We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.
I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax: Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins. I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read. Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example. A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.
How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights. Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs. I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.
While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already. Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire. What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this? And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?
But she knows a lot, I discover. She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention. Close attention.
“I’m a good watcher,” she says. She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile. She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked. We talk about safety and how to feed a fire. She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do. I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility. She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel. Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent. She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative. We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.
Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside. She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind. She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom. “What does that mean?” she asks me.
“It’s a trick,” I say. “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.” As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally. The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs. I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.
I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early. Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room. Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.
We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales. Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading. Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.
And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.
Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me. “So. It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though. Just the haircut stuff.”
Clever girl. I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already. “Yes,” I say. “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”