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First Look: Lights to Guide Me Home by Meghan J. Ward

Monday, September 26, 2022

This excerpt is part of our First Look column where you’ll find exclusive sneak peeks into upcoming books across all genres!

Lights to Guide Me Home is a stunning memoir that follows Meghan J. Ward, a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, on her journeys around the world and through her internal dialogues. Meghan grapples with motherhood and marriage in some of Earth’s most gorgeous terrains and tries to uncover what it means to return home. Fans of Wild and wilderness documentaries will love this unique debut, out tomorrow!

Pre-order your copy here.

Kilometre after winding kilometre, New Zealand continued to astonish us. The road from Franz Josef to Punakaiki wove us between imposing cliffs on one side and the rising tide on the other. Sea stacks stood like soldiers guarding the coastline, braving the crashing waves as they rolled through. Like all roads in New Zealand, it took us longer to get there than we anticipated. We stopped to explore the Pancake Rocks and blowholes of Paparoa National Park and let these wonders of nature fill our batteries before we resumed the drive to Punakaiki Beach Camp. As Paul unpacked the car, I played with Maya in the shade beside our cabin.

She stumbled around, climbing over tree roots and crushing dried leaves between her tiny fingers. I tried to be present with her, but my thoughts pulled me out of the moment. Pre-parenthood, travel usually offered me a time to be introspective, a break from everyday demands that allowed me to do some reflecting on my life. Travel used to offer a parallel, inward journey – a voyage through my thoughts, peppered with conversations with my travel mates when the timing was right. But I had brought my everyday demands with me to the South Pacific in the form of a small human who relied on me 24/7, her needs taking up space in even the furthest corners of my mind. I had so little time to pause and reflect. Our travels so far were forcing me not only to bend around my responsibilities as a parent but also accept that I’d need to ignore my own yearnings. That sense of longing felt like a scratch that couldn’t be itched.

And it wasn’t just the baby pulling me away from it. In that first year of motherhood, I had lost sight of where I ended and where Maya began. Her needs trumped my own, or I allowed them to, even when she would have survived just fine without me. Most of the time, I didn’t mind being by her side. I got used to staying back or missing out. Part of me enjoyed the excuse. With our closest family living a ten-hour drive away, often the biggest break I got was when a friend would come take her for a half-hour walk, or when Paul would have freedom from work responsibilities to send me out of the house, baby-free.

Travel used to offer a parallel, inward journey – a voyage through my thoughts. But I had brought my everyday demands with me to the South Pacific in the form of a small human who relied on me 24/7, her needs taking up space in even the furthest corners of my mind.

As Paul lugged our bags to our cabin and rearranged the car, I continued to watch Maya toddle around. But a sudden, desperate need for solitude descended, rather unexpectedly, on me. It was a need, a sensation of get me out now, that I hadn’t yet felt as a mother. Panic arose within me like a scream that wouldn’t come out. Like I was trapped in the trunk of a car and no one could hear me. It was as though my inner voice, the one that spoke to me as the mother and wife, was shouting for attention. I could have told Paul I needed a moment to myself, to stop unpacking for a while so I could take a step away, but it would be years before I could confidently state my needs. I was plagued with feelings of guilt if I inconvenienced someone or asked them to give more in my place. The good girl had followed me into motherhood. In this moment, I saw that clear as day.

As I fixed up our dinner that evening, my yearning to escape slipped out of me in a simple phrase.

“I need a break,” I said to Paul as I flipped grilled cheese in a pan. The statement was as general to my life as it was to this specific moment. Motherhood had been all-consuming. I’d been going for so long without taking time to catch my breath.

“Why don’t you go down to the beach tonight,” Paul said. He had also picked up on my restlessness.

“I’ll think about it,” I replied.

It was all so simple. The beach was less than 100 metres away. Yet for nearly a year I’d been the one staying back and I’d grown attached to that identity. It was easier to just stick with that narrative about myself. If I took off, certainly I’d pay for it later when the baby woke up and I wasn’t there, and without me to nurse her she’d get riled up and we’d have to start the whole bedtime process again. I was sure this was going to happen.

When Maya was finally asleep, Paul gave me the gentle nudge I needed.

“Just go down to the beach for a few minutes,” he said. “You don’t need to stay long if you don’t want to.”

I gently nodded with a silent “yes” and put on my flip-flops.

I slipped out of the cabin and walked the short path to the ocean, a salty breeze meeting me well before I got to the water. I stood there watching the sun descend as small waves gently lapped on shore. I kicked off my sandals. In just a few minutes I could feel the scream dissipating, like it was slowly leaking out of me without a sound. I felt more peaceful, yet I was keenly aware of the voice in the back of my head telling me not to push my luck. Was it worth being here if Maya woke up and I wasn’t there to nurse her back to sleep?

I felt pulled in two directions. I longed to watch the sun go all the way down, to see the sky change colours then darken into night. For a moment, I wanted to forget all responsibility and sit in the sand until I felt like going back. I should have gifted myself a few extra minutes, but I didn’t. I wish I’d known then that I’d be setting a better example for my child by honouring my needs as much as hers, by reclaiming my identity. Instead, in that moment I reminded myself that the level of dependence Maya had on us was for a short season of life. And our time abroad would get easier, right? I’d go back soon, before the sun hit the horizon, even though I didn’t want to. The good girl was winning, yet again.

As I fixed up our dinner that evening, my yearning to escape slipped out of me in a simple phrase. “I need a break.”

As I watched the glowing ball dip a little lower, new realizations sank in like my toes in the sand. As much time as I’d spent with Maya that year, and thought I knew her inside and out, this trip overseas had exposed new parts of her personality. Home was predictable, but here, on the other side of the world, our circumstances were changing every day, sometimes every minute. Maya was surprising me with her resilience; that, despite our lack of sleep, she could be happy and engaged. Her eagerness to explore was inspiring.

I was parenting in uncharted territory. Routine and familiarity were as far away as Canada. I began to see Maya as her own person, separate from me – each of us doing our best to deal with an ever-changing situation and an evolving relationship between mother and daughter. I learned to tune into her in new ways, turning the dial ever so slightly for new frequencies when static – uncertainty – filled the air.

As I left Punakaiki Beach, I picked up a smooth black stone and, a few feet later, a white one. I didn’t understand their significance at the time but later saw them as a metaphor for the separation I was beginning to feel, the me and the her. Paul and I often spoke about how, amidst all our moving around, we were Maya’s home. And though we were the only constant in her life while we were traveling, we were, in actuality, three individuals, three separate entities on a journey together. My entanglement with her had begun to loosen.