by Emilio de Grazia • 11/11/08 • It was the middle of another sleepless night, one of those damp drizzly Novembers of the soul, my mind turning as witlessly as the world. A hundred miles away my nineteen year-old daughter Emily was turning her college life into Big City dreams. Beside me, Leah, my three year-old, lay curled up close to Monica, my wife suddenly pregnant again and round as a small earth.
Quietly I slip downstairs to my favorite chair and most honored book, that wail-song Moby-Dick. My cloth-covered copy is tattered, its spine as weary as an old peasant coming home late from the fields. The Mississippi is nearby, but it’s frozen, white and level as South Dakota prairie. “Water and meditation are wedded forever,” Melville writes in Chapter One. But even springtime river undertows fail to satisfy. Periodically I need sea-surges, the regular rise and fall of waves, the water slapping the shore, washing it. I plunge in, open my book somewhere in the middle and wait for my eyes to adjust to the light.
We’re in the middle of some ocean. At long last we spot a whale “lazily undulating in the trough of the sea. And ever and anon tranquilly spouting his vapory jet, the whale looked like a portly burgher smoking his pipe of a warm afternoon.” We give chase and the madness takes possession of us. Stubb, the crew’s second mate and a pipe-smoker himself, casts the first spear. With what kind of luck does the harpoon find its mark so that Stubb can churn away with it in search of the vital center of the rolling beast’s life? Finally,
“‘He’s dead, Mr. Stubb,’ said Daggoo.
‘Yes, both pipes smoked out!’ and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made.”
The corpse he had made. Thoughts turn darker still as I see this dim-witted sailor Dr. Frankenstein presiding over his branded new death-monster. And suddenly my mind takes another curious turn, this one toward the poet William Butler Yeats, an old man standing among schoolchildren in his wonderful poem. In their bright and innocent faces whom does he see? He sees Maud Gonne, now long gone, the beautiful woman he loved all his life and failed to win with all the lovely love-songs he wrote for her. And he sees himself, subject of his creations, his songs, also now almost gone.
My thoughts wander down city streets, worried about my nineteen year-old. Then they turn upstairs toward the three year-old curled asleep in bed, and inward toward the new creation snoozing toward birth inside a mother’s womb.
Voices don’t always wonder out loud: Why did you do it, especially now that you’re way past middle age? Shouldn’t you be thinking of retirement benefits, making sure your children are safely tucked into schools, marriages, jobs? Don’t you see that your child will be your grandchild too? And can’t you see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, their manes moiling as they race toward a finish line we can’t see: Proliferation, Population, Pollution, Plague? How can you bring another child into a world crowded with these terrible certainties?
I know how to talk back to myself. I’m a slow learner, I say, and I had so little to do with it, really. I was beside myself at the time. Wasn’t thinking, wasn’t really awake. And come to think of it, neither was she. We just did what came naturally. It’s what makes the world go round.
I welcome these cliches, their reassuring familiarity, smiling as they sit at my feet, waiting for me to explain what they mean. But what comes naturally isn’t all that makes the earth go around these days. I check the time, looking in vain for one of those old-fashioned watches with a face and hands that go round and round like the seasons of the year. They show me their new digital look, blank to the fact that their pulses inevitably peter out.
Who are we then? Wolves ourselves, yes certainly, with cravings to consume until our own pulsings peter out. But the lovely nineteen year-old gaining her career, and the dark-eyed three year-old upstairs lost in some Alice-dream––are they living in a house made of bricks? Are we all little pigs and wolf-killers too––even the mother asleep with that new creation growing in her?
Fathers in particular are dumbstruck by the fact of new life. In the seminal act their eyes are closed; they hit and run, immediately distanced from the slow growth that often takes years to catch up with them. The growth happens so physically apart from fathers, how can they feel responsibility, connection, or the full wonder of it? And how can both Mom and Dad, so happily distanced from their child’s eventual history, imagine that they, like Melville’s Stubb, have created a new death?
Do it we must, eyes closed, the urge stronger, perhaps blinder, than we are, this urge the earth’s strength and weakness too, at once its pigs and wolf. Every spring thaw brings new grass, small alert sprouts perking from holes in the ground, a floodplain of new life. Even in its current pathetic middle-aged condition the earth is dizzied by the fullness of its desire, indifferent to the way the most conspicuous result of its excess, humanity, is hungry to devour its mother in its passion to propagate itself. We stand by and watch ourselves multiply and grow as we eke out our individual property right claims on a shrinking patchworked planet. Somewhere else in the world are the persistent wars and rumors of wars; we lift a finger to object as we look around for someone else like ourselves to do something about it all. But (but me no buts) all the bad things happening seem to dwarf even the governments involved, those deaf one-eyed giants with nothing much going for them but huge ugly arms and very dull business as usual hearts.
Turning away from them we curl in. Hoping to make a little decent time and place for ourselves, we draw the blinds and tell good stories on and on in the hope that these will convey and preserve some form of decent life.
Here the children arrive, in their own good slow time, to consider what we have for them. I keep picking them up from some day care or school, trying to nudge them the few blocks from one door to the next, from point A to point B. They’re always little fish wriggling through the holes in my nets. When I finally get one little foot in a shoe, the other is already out on its own. By the time I say, Don’t go in the puddle, they’re already splashing around. They dawdle, they wander, they amaze themselves all along the way with the smallest thing. They make us late for everything, require us to believe there’s nothing else in the world except the twig, or dead leaf, or cigarette butt they pick up to smell or taste. We can’t ever get them from here to there so we can get anything done, and most of the time we manage to get along quite well, thank you, without getting anything done. So what time is it when we finally get them in the door, their feet wet and cold? Fast time, owed to some boss, we spend but never really own. Kid time, as long as the air is still free to breathe, is too valuable to spend. In the presence of kids we always have to choose: Will we spend our time or give it away to them?
Once upon a time is always now. “Would you read me the book our family lives in?” Leah one day asks. The book we live in––imagine it. On sleepless nights mine is that whale-book, as big, dense, and round as the world. Leah’s favorite is “The Three Little Pigs.”
She has names for the pigs––Huey, Louie, and Dewey, the last one also Practical Pig, the smart one who wears blue pants. She looks around for blue pants, calls her own red ones blue until she wears words out and decides she’d rather be Fifer or Fiddler Pig instead. The wolf, nameless, is always at her door. “You be the wolf, Dad,” she says out of the blue, “and I’ll be Fiddler pig.” I huff and puff and she squeals as she comes running, terrified, into the safety of my arms, now those of Mother Pig. “Now you be Fifer pig, Dad, and I’ll be the wolf.”
She re-visions the story on her own. “Dad, how about if….” There is a giggle in her voice that has much to do with her half-bewildered stare into some future she is trying to understand. “…if we make it the story of the Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig?” The half-bewildered stare into some reality she is trying to understand. She gazes at the meat on her plate. “What is it?” she asks, obviously disturbed. “Is the sheep skin the wolf hides under real, Dad?” I swallow my words as I watch the categories form. “What kind of person would do something like that, Dad?”
She cares about meat and sheepskins because in kid books people are normally animals, hybrids like ourselves. On TV sitcoms humans do not have the bodies and faces of rabbits, mice, or wolves, and when humans use inhumane weapons to commit crimes against other humans we like to misname them animals. In the neighborhoods the wildlife is gone or in hiding, except for the occasional squirrel or bird. On the highway we pull over to watch the deer watch us, our hearts leaping when we see an actual fox. We must have our animals, can’t live without. The bars of cages spoil our hearts rather than the view, so we avoid the zoos. But by the millions we make pilgrimages to Disneyworlds, in the vain hope that there we again will be among the once upon a time hybrids we were and are. Or like Stubb, we men go hunting when the season stirs our blood, admiring animal forms with the same eyes in love with the still photographs of naked women. Unabashed, we mount the animal’s most significant body part, the head, on a wall of our house, proud to be in the presence of such a venerable ancestor. Our trophies are beautifully grotesque, offering us long looks at some fleeting form of animal life distancing itself from us in the woods. Now we have it in our full possession, static and dead, as if permanent and alive.
Those heads stare in silence, waiting for us to include them in our tales. Almost always our narratives––the quality of which will determine the survivability of our race––disappoint their listeners because they are no more than action-packed, full of the latest news, concluding in the defeat, demeaning, or death of some enemy. Little wonder then that eyes so often lose interest, want out, stare blankly at the TV window, waiting in vain for a little wonder to appear. Those TV stories don’t make sense the way the re-visioned book our family lives in makes sense. In little Leah’s book everything’s perfectly logical. All the characters are one, and everyone lives inside everyone else.
I remember well the afternoon when the wolf was killed. We had settled into the big chair on the porch to read another book. Johnny Appleseed, eager to make a New World Garden of the frontier wilderness, plants apple trees as he wanders west with our scripted history. Along the way he saves a wolf from a trap, and together man and beast befriend others, especially children. Then one day as they approach a cabin in the woods they encounter a man with a gun. “Johnny called out. But it was too late. A shot rang out and the wolf fell dead at Johnny’s feet.”
In that moment Leah, barely three at the time, tasted fully the bitter apple of the Tree of Knowledge. Horrified by the violent act, she immediately burst into tears and spontaneously wailed out a WHY? her sorrow swirling down and down into a bottomless despair as it screams at the sky for explanation.
Explanations yes, these I can provide: Shit doesn’t happen. It’s always caused. But the wolf is senselessly, hopelessly, murdered and dead: No complete consolation for that will ever be possible.
We need a good priest to minister to that child who began dying in the pages of that little appleseed book we all live in too. My Leah suddenly becomes Margaret, and I am now Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet-priest, whispering a song called “Spring and Fall” to a young child:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Our ghosts also can guess about the source of her sorrow. Her spontaneously generated impulse to rebel against cruelty and violence is so much deeper, more original, and more alive than what the preachers call natural depravity or Original Sin or the blight man was born for. If she, kin to wolf-killers, can weep for the wolf, she is still naively, originally, bonded to the wolf and its natural world. And while she is the wolf she mourns for, she is also Leah, perfectly human. This ability to live in both worlds is extraordinary, good enough reason to have a lot of ordinary hope.
Children, of course, are also little slobs. They cost a lot of money and rebel against reasonable demands. They think the world revolves around them. The homes they live in are like old library books––edges frayed, pages ripped and scribbled in, spines wearing out. Parents never really own their children’s homes. Everything in these places wriggles around, laughs and cries at the wrong times, wanders in and out of beds in the middle of the night.
And in the middle of the night as we survey the masses of humanity swept along with us on our way through history, we feel ourselves being overwhelmed by their relentless waves. We stand on tiptoes trying to get a glimpse of a familiar face, our children lost in those crowds. I look for Emily, my nineteen year-old, carrying on with dignity and poise. And I see my three year-old Leah as an eighteen year-old graduate, she simultaneously thirty-eight, my wife’s age, and eighty-three, my mother’s age. The thought crosses my mind: Wouldn’t it be nice for us to meet once and for all in that ripe old time.
It’s logical to conclude we won’t, just as it’s logical now to return to Stubb, the new corpse he created, and the new life growing inside my wife Monica. So why bring children into an overcrowded screwed-up world like ours? For practical reasons, yes: Because when they’re young enough they know enough to lead us out of a room when the music is really noise. Because they eat when they’re hungry, nap when they’re tired, and want to laugh and play all the time. Because they know enough about nonsense to rebel against absurd demands. Because they have to be taught to use guns. Because they keep asking what words really mean. Because they’re born with a moral sense we are morally bound to keep alive in ourselves. Because they can teach us how to become again as little children, how really to be born again.
Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona.All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.