Part 4

The names of things

Ink drawing of three tree leaves: Sweetgum, Tulip Poplar, and Mulberry

As we walked, Evelyn wanted to know what everything was called. She wanted to know why it was there, what it was there for, and where it came from. Quite often I had to disappoint her. I didn't know.

There's a scene I love in Don Delillo’s novel Underworld. The main character, now middle-aged, pays a visit to his childhood teacher, a priest at a local Catholic school. Father muses:

“Sometimes I feel the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You’d be better served looking at your shoes and naming the parts.”

…he raised his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk. With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.

“What is it?” I said.

“You tell me. What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s the cuff.”

“The cuff.”

“The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That’s the counter.”

“That’s the counter.”

“And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That’s the quarter.”

“The quarter.” I said.

“And the strip above the sole. That’s the welt. Say it, boy.”

“The welt.”

“How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called.”

I remember when my wife, Jackie, and I started dating, we would often walk around the nearby lakes in Columbia. She would stop to look at flowers and plants, sometimes commenting, most often not. A kid raised in 4H, a denizen of state fairs and winner of blue ribbons in horticulture, she learned the names of things and remembered them perfectly into adulthood. I would ask what a particular tree was and, after a moment's inspection of its leaves or flowers or bark, she would rattle off its name. I learned from her that Howard County is filled with tulip poplars, that willows don't actually "weep" until maturity, and that maples inhabit the earth in apparently countless variety.

To me this was a glorious feat of magic. I didn't know the names of things.

As I grew older and became a parent, I wished, with increasing desperation, that I commanded a deeper catalog of proper nouns. I didn't know the names of trees. I didn't know the names of plants or flowers, or birds, or clouds.

I could, once, identify turtles and frogs and salamanders and snakes pretty well, but I didn't retain them. These days I can tell your basic bullfrog from a spring peeper, or a terrapin from a box turtle, but those are pretty obvious. I used to know the different types of toads and salamanders, or how to identify a leopard frog as male or female, but those more subtle, intimate details have long been lost, I suppose, in the same dark corner of my mind now occupied by the latinate dinosaur species I'd memorized as a kid.

My brain, for some reason, tends to remember the shapes of things. Only their shapes. It seems to note, more or less automatically, the way the light spills over a form, its proportions, lines, weight, highlights, and shadows. It'a often easier for me to draw a picture than it is to recall a name or location.

I used to treasure and protect this quirk in my wiring. Awhile back, traipsing around Baltimore as an art student, camera around my neck, I was mesmerized by the way the sunlight drew its severe triangles in the alleyways downtown, the way it threw the shadows of pedestrians onto the sidewalks, the way it lit up manikin faces in plate-glass storefronts.

East Baltimore streetscape

I remember gliding past all this, snapping my shutter, and feeling a conflicted mixture of desires: to absorb but also to stay at arm's length. I had the sense that knowing my surroundings too well might somehow prevent me from capturing them properly in my viewfinder, as though my vision were powered by some kind of mystic ignorance.

Draw what you see, my art teachers used to intone, not what you think you see. Therefore, not knowing — moving through life as an eternal passer-by, an outsider — was, I imagined, the only way I could truly witness the world underneath familiarity's presumptions and blind spots. Thoughts get in the way of seeing; an empty mind sees for the first time.

I had a point. And yet, inevitably, life and middle age conspired to make me deeply familiar with many things. You simply can't spend so many years walking the same paths without eventually getting to know everything along it, if not by name then at least by shape and habit. I know my house and my yard and the roads around my neighborhood. I know most of my neighbors' dogs. I could write volumes about Jackie's love for half-skim ricotta cheese; her collection of record players; the way she folds her pants; the way her hair changes from strawberry blonde in the summer to red in the fall to a rusty brown in winter; and the paradoxical way that she hates cold weather but loves glaciers and tundra.

My ignorance offered a certain clarity of vision, it's true. But these days it also strikes me as a fundamentally selfish way of seeing the world. You can see the shapes of things, but only that. Only the surface, the way the light is bent and reflected. You cannot see relationships, the way creatures and things fit into (indeed, become) their environments, the way they change over time. You cannot see their joys or their suffering. You cannot help them or offer them anything because you have nothing to offer. You can only take: you capture their likeness with accidental insight.

Understanding, on the other hand, is a matter of giving. It demands time, and energy, and, finally, compassion. You put in the effort and you take the chance that your first impression will be lost, changed into something you know all too well and which you perhaps can no longer really see. But what you gain is genuine connection: you enter into relationship.

Somehow, I want to learn to do both: to see with an empty mind, but also to see with the deep understanding of time and familiarity. Maybe that's impossible, but I suppose I'll have really gotten there (wherever there is) when I can look at a rock, a tree, a dog, a neighbor, and see our entire shared lives, as if for the first time.

And then there is Evelyn. She's seeing everything for the first time, quite literally. Walking along beside her, on this trail, I could watch her experience the same things I did when I wasn't much older. She wants to know the names of things because it is all new and wondrous and sometimes a little scary. I watch from above, and this, I'm realizing, is what fatherhood seems to boil down to: watching my own childhood a second time, from a different vantage point. It's a chance to remember and a chance, perhaps, to see that my mistakes and fears were not so unique. This other person is having them right now, all over again. In that sense, it's also a chance to forgive myself.

You can't have a child, I've discovered, without realizing the depth of your connection to your ancestors and your collective past. You are no longer a leaf on the great tree; you are a branch, part of the wood that goes all the way down to the deepest, strongest roots. A tree as old as memory itself, but always growing. Perhaps it is this constant growth — time itself — that is the answer to my riddle: you cannot put your hand in the same river twice, as they say. No matter how familiar a place may feel, it is nonetheless always changing, always "new".

In that way, we are seeing for the first time, always.

Evelyn, splashing in the creek

It was time to head home. By now we'd made it all the way to Cascade Falls, and Evelyn was splashing around in a swirling, rock-rimmed pool at the base of the waterfall. There was a smile etched on her face, mud on her shorts, and she was knee-deep in creek water she'd found frightening an hour ago. I watched her from the water's edge and took pictures. Watching my best childhood memories from the outside. I hoped that Evie would keep a few of her own.

Gradually, I coaxed her out of the water and we hiked back to the car. She stopped random people, along the way, to invite them to her pool by the falls, and to tell them about the tadpoles. She didn't want to leave and she fussed about this. But my girl burns calories like a steam engine burns coal, and her increasing hangry-ness was precisely the reason we needed to go. She'd eaten all the snacks I'd brought, and she needed dinner and a bath and some sleep. Tomorrow was a school day, and so now, I — the adult in the picture, once more — had to pull her back into that world of obligation and schedules. But we'd managed to lose ourselves for several hours in this cathedral of trees, this place of silence and curiosity. Perhaps that was enough to last us.

Strapped into her car seat and sating herself with handful after handful of cheese crackers, Evie grew thoughtful a moment. Then she asked me the question I'd been dying to hear:

"Can we come back tomorrow?"