It was one of those pleasant summer evenings where the stillness of the air rests on everything in a way so tangible you can run your fingers through it. There wasn’t a trace of wind, and the sun was low enough to have lost it’s authoritarian sense of power. It was instead more of a tranquil and helpful friend, lending a hand by providing a bit of light. Every leaf seemed to be held in place by the heavy stillness, and had it’s edges sharpened by the oblique streams of light cascading down from the enormous solar benefactor.
Cohen and I had chosen to eat outside, of course. Despite having every window in the house open, the interior still retained the lethargic heat from an earlier time, a ghost born in the day that refused to die. Standing at the threshold you could taste the transition from the baked, stordid air of inside, to the vibrant coolness of the shaded deck outside. For a long time, Cohen stood at the door opening it reverently, then quickly closing it, relishing the experience like it was a seriously toned down version of spookers.
We were eating some leftover vegan curry dish, though I had added some ham to satisfy that strange masculine desire for meat, even when the meal tastes fine without it. Even without the testosterone fueled pressure of having other men around, it felt wrong to be eating a meal without any trace of animal in it. Bits of the pink meat floated around in the mottled red juice of the curry. I was nervous about how this would go down with the wee man waiting impatiently out in the lounge. I didn’t have a plan B, there wasn’t any fruit yoghurt in the fridge.
The seats at Cohen’s play table were equally uncomfortable for both of us. For Cohen, with his high torso-to-leg ratio and plump belly, being able to sit with a) his legs dangling, b) his back resting against the back of the chair, and c) high enough to comfortably eat his meal was a logical impossibility. One of these criteria had to be sacrificed, and in this case I chose the former. Pushing his nappified bum back into the corner, he was high enough to comfortably get his arm up to the plate, but had his legs sprawled awkwardly across the expansive formica base of the chair. His knees were bent slightly to keep his ankles on the chair, and to keep the corner from digging into his achilles.
If Cohen was struggling with too much chair, I was battling to get comfortable with too little. There are just a few times in a childs life where the scale of growth is impressed on us in profound, even tangible, ways. One is when the newborn’s hand gently clasps daddy’s fingernail, eliciting gasps of wonder from any smitten parent. Another comes when mixing up bub’s first meal of pureed pear, in the realisation that an ice cube of frozen mash is enough to sustain this little machine. Sitting down in a toddler’s chair is a similar, albeit less beautiful, epiphany of how much growth is still only potential. I squirmed to get comfortable on the narrow formica base, eventually settling on a twisted position with my legs sprawled awkwardly across the deck at right angles to the table in front of me.
Dinner now sat in front of us, sufficiently cooled to allow Cohen to dig in. He was satisfied. For a long time we sat in silence, and I enjoyed every second of it. Just minutes earlier Cohen had been exerting the only right he knew, the right to make noise. It was a confused effort at making a crying sound, a long drawn out wail to express his dissatisfaction at waiting for the meal he knew was being prepared. Void of any real emotion or vigour, it was merely an annoying call to action, an ignorant statement that the food I was heating was exacerbating the empty feeling in his stomach, in spite of the promise of imminent satisfaction. It was a frustrating sound in itself, and even more frustrating given it’s shallow and entirely predictable cause. The current silence, broken only by the clink of his spoon against the plate, and the occasional slurping of curry was bliss by comparison.
At last I broke the silence. “So how was daycare today, Cohen?”
Nothing. Cohen made a weak effort at digging into his meal with his spoon, but gave up and reached in to pluck up a particularly attractive piece of pumpkin. I took a sip of the orange juice I had poured myself.
“Did you get a chance to play with Louie?”
Silence. He reached up to put the pumpkin in his mouth, cocking his head slightly to the side as he did so. There was a slight pause before he mashed it through his insufficiently open mouth.
I watched him slowly work the softened pumpkin around his mouth. It was too big for him, and most of it was ejected back out in as dignified a manner as it went in. As he plucked away the regurgitated mash from his face, he would glance up at me incredulously, the way a studiously working artist acknowledges the distraction of a tutor’s comments.
As he did so something caught his eye and he turned to look directly above him, his whole back arching to assist the limited movement in his neck. He raised his hand to point above him, bringing up his spoon-bearing hand too in an awkward way that made him look like he was spacing out on some form of drug.
“Goh!” he declared, looking back down at me with eyes that called for an answer of some description.
I studied what he was pointing at. The vageuries of infant anatomy meant that his point didn’t really line up with where he was looking, so his gesture was as ambiguous as his statement of the facts. Above us, a lazy band of cloud drifted across a deep blue sky, framed by the silvery ripples of gum leaves fluttering in the light breeze that had crept up. It looked like the michellin man lying down for a breather.
“Yeah!” I said excitedly. “Can you see the clouds?”
His gaze fixed on mine for a second before he turned back to the mesmerising scene above us. Once again he directed his wayward finger in the general direction of the sky.
“Are you looking at the blue sky or the white clouds? Or can you see a bird?”
This new statement contained the same excitement, the same zest for life, and the same absence of care, yet perhaps carried with it a greater inquisitiveness; a deeper sense of curiousity.
It was also accompanied by a different action. Once again the arm had shot out, and once again the rogue finger at the end didn’t quite line up with the arm that extended it. The movement was definite, purposeful and carried the same sense of triumphant discovery. This time, though, the point was directed behind me, at the patch of shrubbery beyond my right shoulder.
“Ah hah!” I exclaimed, “the green tree!” Being colour-blind, I was actually just taking a punt on the fact that it was still early summer, that there had been a bit of rain recently and that the tree appeared to be healthy and growing. The logical probability, therefore, was that the leaves would in fact be green. Even as I said it, though, I remembered the silvery foliage of eucalyptus trees fluttering further away, and had fresh doubts over my ability to get the colour right. Ah well, a little slip up in his education of colours shouldn’t harm his development too much, I reasoned.
Cohen turned to look at me blankly. The strange fire that burned in them as he had triumphantly pointed out the tree vapourised as he was torn from his reverie by my statement of meaningless truth. A goofy smile was still plastered across his face, a fading shadow of the enjoyment he had experienced at the sight behind me. There was something happening behind those eyes of his, some deep mystery that I would never be able to fathom.
What was he pointing out, I wondered? I turned back to study the scene behind me. The knarled bark of the tree vanished into the rich hues of leaves piled atop each other, creating their own world of beautiful disharmony. The weathered background of stained fence paling beckoned an attentive viewer to study it’s own intricate pattern of artificially created splinters and shavings, and a decaying spiders web clinging to the posts was an invitation to explore another world of miniature drama; life, love and death in a world explored on eight legs.
As I studied this snapshot of beauty and chaos, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the question on Cohens mind wasn’t actually what it was. Was it possible, I wondered, that he was less interested in what the tree was, but rather why it is, or even just enjoying the fact that it is?
I realised, in that moment of clarity, that so much of my parenting is directed at teaching Cohen to correctly identify objects; a worthy cause to be sure, but perhaps not the main goal.
“Okay Cohen,” I began, “do you think my experience of enjoyment at looking at that tree is enhanced or detracted by the fact that I know what to call it?”
He didn’t respond. By now he was busy trying, and failing, to load up his teaspoon with a batch of brown rice dripping with red curry sauce. I bent across the table to help his fumbling hands, then leant back and watched as he guided the spoon awkwardly toward his mouth.
My thoughts continued. There is some sense in which the whole purpose of science is to expand our vocabulary of names for the world around us. To move us from calling it merely “gah” to calling it a tree, and then from calling it a tree to calling it bark and leaves, and to move from calling it bark and leaves to cells and particles, and on and on until we can describe this ‘gah’ in the most intricate details. Even down to the sub-atomic particles that make up the components of each cell that cumulatively make up the ‘gah.’
Perhaps, though, Cohen wasn’t deriving his enjoyment from being able to call the tree a ‘gah,’ he was simply expressing his wonderment that there is a ‘gah’ to describe. Looking back again, I laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Somehow, in labelling this thing a tree, I had given myself license to pass over the incomprehensibly awesome, and ludicrously absurd reality that somehow in this universe defined by space and time, I now found myself sitting in close proximity to this curiously shaped thing composed of molecules and atoms, somehow held together by forces I will never understand. Moreover, the tree doesn’t just exist, but Cohen and I are somehow aware of the trees existence. In light of these revelations, I laughed to myself, ‘gah’ seemed like an entirely reasonable response.
Calling this majestic enigma of delight and wonder a ‘tree’ now seemed like a pithy soundbite, truncating the mind-boggling miracle before me into a commonplace sight. Nothing to get excited about, just another tree like the ones I had seen every day for 20 years.
My thoughts turned to the nature and character of God, as they often do in these moments of self-forgetful wonder. When God called himself “I am” in response to Moses’ questioning, I wonder if he was subtly expressing his disdain for our human addiction to names. Might we just as well call him “Goh” if it meant we simply enjoyed his existence, rather than trying to wrap up his existence into names and arguments and descriptions that we can get our heads around.
By now Cohen had mashed, slobbered, sucked and dropped most of his meal away, and had taken to bashing his plate ignomiously with his spoon. The sharp sound shattered my philosophical reverie, and I was startled back into the moment. Cohen looked back at me with bright smiling eyes, wincing slightly with every piercing crash of steel on ceramic.
Stealing one last moment, I looked up and noticed the ‘goh’ had changed. The Michellin man had scurried away, and had morphed into more of a bird’s nest with a T-rex head sticking out of it. Behind me, the lowering sun cast deeper shadows across the ‘gah,’ with the exposed leaves now radiating lush greenery even better. I took a deep breath, letting the crisp air distill through every bronchi in my lungs before getting up to sort out Cohen.
After wiping the mashed pumpkin, sauce and snot from Cohen’s face, I heaved him up to head in for a bath. As I walked back through the door into the house, Cohen looked behind me at the disappearing scene. His arm shot out once again.
“ghee!” he cried.