The Tree of Life is a beautiful movie. It keeps coming to mind. Last week, saying goodbye after dinner with friends, our younger son disappeared from sight. It turns out he had gone on a walkabout, though of course, we had no idea. We ran from room to room, out to the garden, shouting his name, and when that didn't work, Cait went in one direction down the street while I went in the other. It was terrifying: near dusk, our semi-busy road, and our toddling twenty-one month old, wordless but extremely agile, somewhere close by and nowhere in sight. A car stopped and the driver asked me who I was missing, and I said my son, and I asked her to drive slowly if she was going toward our house, but she was turning into an apartment complex. And what if I'd missed him already; if, in my haste, I'd passed him down some alley or behind some bushes, a few turns in this direction or that. And how beautiful, my friend's voice, calling out my name to relay the news. Cait had found him a hundred yards or so down the road, giggling, toddling, running toward the bridge that crossed the ditch to the major intersection near his favorite park. He knew the way. Cait brought him home. In the living room, I squeezed him wildly. Cait did it, too. His older brother climbed into my arms, and smiled nervously. What was going on? He didn't get it. He wanted in. Then, it was bath time. We used food coloring to dye the bath blue. We added bubbles. The moment was passed and we had caught a break. What else was there to say about it?
No doubt, as our older friends all insist, this is a magical parenting time, for which one day in the not-too-distant future we will pine. I can't believe it. I'm sure it's the case. And yet, something in this intensely personal experience is familiar, family to family. There is a pattern, and within that pattern, direction, a series of recognizable and articulated constants and shapes. The Chicago doc recommended recently Andrew Solomon's terrific nonfiction account/history of depression, The Noonday Demon. Solomon is a beautiful writer, one of the best I've read in recent memory. His vine metaphor for depression, in the first chapter alone, is worth the price of admission. But what I admire, especially, is the range of research and the distillation of case histories, statistics, theories, evolving schools of thought, neuroscience, and lyric attention into a thoughtful ethnography. The book is subtitled, An Atlas of Depression. I like that idea of charting out a shared space, alternately authoritative and practical, a reference and a useful tool. There was a time when I wrote this blog that every thought seemed worthy of disclosure, and without consequence; that the best ideas required no distinction from the least clear. Then, writing was a clear act of cultivation, gathering as quickly as I might reap. The trick now, I think, is to distinguish the borders and not spend too much time in the middle, well-charted spaces. I'd hate to repeat myself, or worse, make a habit of doing so.
I'll close with a minor atlas of recent discoveries, who are at the center of my attention these days. Solomon's book, Chloe Honum's terrific poems, the country artist Jamey Johnson singing a George Jones medley, Andrew Stanbridge's photographs of 770, The Tree of Life. I like The Tree of Life for how it addresses inheritance in that seeming contradiction of intense subjectivity and absolute desolation (right down to the infamous 17-minute Big Bang/dinosaur sequence) that is the loss of a loved one. The whole movie resonates with feeling, in all directions. I suppose it came to mind again in that hair-trigger space of calamity and benign neglect that was looking for our son on the block, but it has stayed with me since, and filled me with a great deal of sympathy for how much ranges well beyond control. And yet, it's useful to have an atlas. There is a great deal of agency in precedent. The trick, I suppose, is to not praise too broadly; to narrow and winnow admiration to the most deserving places. With that in mind, here's my last entry, from the English poet, U.A. Fanthorpe:
There is a kind of love called maintenance,
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes, which deals with dentists
And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds
The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living; which is Atlas.
And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in the air,
As Atlas did the sky.
--U.A. Fanthorpe (1929-2008)