Child as Parent

by

11/17/2019

Neighborhood: Park Slope

Isn’t it fitting to think of Wordsworth when raising a baby? “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind”—best to cut the poem there. He authored so many other polished pieces about childhood and how the mind changes when growing up and old, crowned by the great koan-like first line of The Immortality Ode, “The child is the father of the man.” Now that I have an eight-month-old daughter, the sonorous pentameter of “Surprised by Joy,” even more than its meaning—is apotheosis of living in this world and antithesis of our increasingly online lives.

On a hot July day, I took my daughter, on the butt-end of a nap, into a newish, modish cafe in Park Slope. Not too crowded, its music was a lazy sort of mixed alternative, playing not too loudly. Sitting on a canary divan, I rocked our pricey stroller, prolonging the siesta, thus briefly preserving her disposition (asleep) and my peace.

But soon enough, whether because of a nearby graduate student’s full-throated conversation with the barista about whether a friend was back from Maine, or if forty-five minutes, the length of a baby sleep cycle, had passed, her feet began to prick at her curtain, a thin two-ply blanket, which she hooked and pulled with the tops of her feet, as if a stage manager in a tiny theater. I removed the obstruction and she stared at me, and then at the woman sitting near me, laptop on lap, who I’d casually witnessed toggling between a spreadsheet, a shopping page, and a chat window. My charge continued peering at her and then smiled grandly, cresting her good mood like a grizzled Hawaiian surfer taking a wave. After I gave her some water, I brought her out and into her new favorite pastime, standing while anchored against someone’s hand or something—in this case the stroller, which has a declivity in front for the legs and a dangling large round plastic lock for her pleasure. With a mild babble, she went to tinkering.

I had carefully surveyed the denizens of the place, roughly nine customers and two employees, before putting down stakes. Most were in their twenties to early thirties and so otherwise engaged in their screens (one couple looked at videos on a shared computer), a robbery and stabbing could easily be carried out and no one would have noticed. Having spent approximately a quarter of my writing life in cafes, I am especially sensitive to distractions, though I’ve never equipped myself with a white noise program to ward off patron chatting. I believe earphones contribute to hearing loss and at some point twenty years past, at a Barnes and Noble cafe in Southeastern Wisconsin, its top wall lined with such luminaries as Dickinson, Orwell, and Nabokov, I unearthed a previously unknown gene for deflecting received speech and non-choral music while thinking. I’ve spent a good deal of my  life being a caretaker of others’ experiences rather than my own—something that therapy, fewer money worries, and removal of certain people from my life have helped to free me from.

A funny thing happened, or didn’t happen, as I kept a defensive basketball position behind my daughter, who continued to be surprised at the joy in our world: no one else seemed to share in the delight of this little person’s awe at everything there is. In fact, occasional grousing looks of annoyance at her little sounds rose, only to vanish when those who wore them refaced their screens. Her vocalizations weren’t gross or earsplitting, just enthusiastic. It’s a hell of a thing to live for every moment, especially since moments escape definition until they have ended. First it occurs, then gets glossed. Only memory allows honorifics or exegesis, but my daughter wasn’t conceptualizing her experience. She was simply present. As Antonio Porch says, “At the last moment, my whole life will last a moment.” Why ever sleep? She was anxious to be in the world as much as she could, eternally burning like Walter Pater’s gemlike flame, living for each moment’s sake only—the essence of being.

When I decided she had disturbed too many, I was still acting as caretaker of others’ experiences. The part of me who professes not to care what others think of me grew a sad clown face. Then another part waxed, “At least I don’t have a problem admitting when I’m wrong,” which was right. But what was I wrong about? Such thoughts troubled the Elysium my daughter and I enjoyed just twenty clock ticks before.

I gathered my daughter and reestablished her in the stroller, hastened by the decision to urgently exit in quiet desperation. My agitation wasn’t simply disappointment at others’ annoyance at the miracle in their midst. Did I imagine their annoyance and thus thwart my child’s chances of shining through and sharing the space? I don’t think I made up the icy, vituperative looks on the faces of these strangers, which I read as “You should go now” and “This show doesn’t belong here.” But I can’t be sure. I’ve mostly grown out of getting off on pressing other peoples’ buttons. Jesus is reputed to have said, “If someone asks you for something, give it to them.” They didn’t ask me to leave and take my daughter with me. I took it as implied.

Still, I remained perturbed: If unspoken annoyance at having one’s screen time, in a shared space, is the collective reaction to a child’s joy, then we have so many troubles beyond hatred, beyond violence, we need to address.

I pushed the stroller into the steamy street, rent by multiple construction projects, judging this Christian country’s ability to follow the eight beatitudes, many about forgiving others’ faults. Though I can’t define the world, our own country is a little more squared off. I imagined a blurry mural depicting a low-grade civil war with new motley tribes emplaced on disintegrating shores, everyone mad and armed with smartphones. Surely one shouldn’t read the tea leaves of our civilization in the control group of one coffee house on one burning July day, but as I have experienced more of those types of days, through the new lens of parenthood, their implications have become harder for me to ignore.

As I swerved the stroller around the sidewalk cracks, my daughter delighting at the suffocating air, the many machines changing the landscape to gain more capital, Wordsworth remained with me. There have been mildly different interpretations of what “the child is father of the man” means, but most everyone agrees it speaks to mysteries of aging, how we always carry our past inside us, how it continues to shape our identity. I was, I am, a caretaker–of my experiences, of the little girl I was pushing in the stroller. To take the compound apart and reverse the words, one finds “taking care.” One rarely hears it as an admonition, but it can stretch that way. “Take care to stay in your lane…” How can we live in a country where we can we talk to others, to strangers, when so much is taken as personal affront? Mind your own business and take care of your own problems, is a common rebuke to poking over the line.

But then there’s my daughter: What she carries within her is delight. Joy. On another day, with another set of people—perhaps with those who had once been parents or with people who still looked at others to learn about themselves—I might not have fled the coffeehouse in bitterness. I might have seen more room in that place, and in the world, for welcome.

***

Fiction and non-fiction by Greg Gerke ( greggerke.com ) has appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review OnlineDenver QuarterlyQuarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Quarterly, and others.  Two books,  See What I See, a book of Gerke’s essays and Especially the Bad Things, a book of stories were published in the Fall of 2019. He lives in Brooklyn.

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