Guest post by Jake Neu.
My two-year old son is standing in the path worn through the New Hampshire woods, peering intently at the innumerable rocks studding the ground. For most of this holiday trip to New England he has done nothing but run. He ran along the street fronting the wharfs of Portland in the cool fog and misty rain of late May. He scampered up and down the hill, from playground to seaside to playground, in front of the old homes along East End. He tumbled merrily down York Beach in his dinosaur slicker and boots, mimicking the ebbing and flowing tide—at least, until he tumbled face first into a chilly tidal puddle. So my wife and I decided nothing would be better than to take this whirlwind of a child into the woods and find an easy path through the hills around Lake Winnipesaukee.
But at this moment, the whirlwind would prefer to study each and every rock and pebble on the first 100 yards of this path, while the humidity from the recent rain turns stifling in the sun. I have lost count of the bugs biting me since we left the car.
Parents with more experience than me will recognize the frustration that sets in at these times. Still, I suspect as time goes on that I will develop a better feel for when he will want to run down the path, or instead sit and mull the existence of a stone. The whims of a child also ebb and flow, maybe not as predictably, but certainly more frequently. It took some prodding, some carrying, and some mud splashing, but we did eventually start to make our way through the woods.
And yet—perhaps I missed some small grace in that moment. “What is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place,” writes TS Eliot in his great conversion poem “Ash Wednesday.” In that time and at that place, my child saw something wondrous in rocks on a path. He wanted to pick them up, feel them in his hand, pass them to his father for keeping. As I reflect on that trip now, I recall long summer days in the Texas hills I grew up in. I spent hours studying the patterns formed by water running through thin soil over rocky ground. I named the little rivulets on our property. I gathered the leaves and the juniper berries. I followed ants marching to and from their conquered bits of food dropped in the grass, carrying the crumbs back to their mounds.
I don’t recall when I stopped doing these things, but they are long gone now. My inner child’s eye has lost sight from the cataracts of non-use. Instead, “the blind eye creates the empty forms between the ivory gates,” through which pass the false dreams of adulthood. In this “dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying” we too often lose sight of the reality around us, or above us.
But when I am sensitive enough to recognize these delicate moments, the cataracts are shaken loose, and I can see again, through my son’s eyes. When he stops to ponder a rock, I too recall my wonder at creation. When he shrieks with joy at seeing the familiar creek near our house, the well-worn sights seem fresh again. And when he runs out and back with the roaring tide, it is a chance for me to see the beauty that yet pervades this fallen world. “I do not hope to turn again,” writes Eliot, and neither did I hope to see such things. Yet because of my son I find myself turning again and again, in ways unprompted and unlooked for, to that wonder in which all wisdom begins. My lost heart recalls these things, and “stiffens and rejoices in the lost lilac and the lost sea voices.” In that stiffening of the heart, I see the grace of God.
The falsely attractive siren call of the mundane adult world always beckons now, and I must heed it more than I would like. I must struggle daily to turn again, “wavering between the profit and the loss” in a modern transactional society with no room for wonder. But my boy does not hear the drudgery of adult life. I hope for his sake and mine that he is deaf to it as long as possible. Because in his amazement at the world around him, I find “the new years that walk.” I am restored to my better nature, as he sets about “restoring with a new verse the ancient rhyme.” I have and will teach him much, but in his joyful ignorance of practical things he has taught me “to care and not to care.” In his boundless enthusiasm, he teaches me “to sit still.” And in those delicate times when I can lay in the grass and look at the sky with him, wondering at the great blue dome and the passing clouds, I can hear my soul whisper as Eliot’s did: Lord I am not worthy. Domine non sumus digni, ut intres sub tectum caeruleum nostrum.
Jake Neu is a patent attorney and lives with his wife and son in Nashville, Tennessee.