Dear Little Friend,
I was in fourth grade, sitting in the front-ish, second-ish row of class when Mrs. Bower walked over to the water fountain. The room was quiet…long division word problems enslaving us all, I’m sure. The distant foraging of a lawn mower. The buzz of a flagging fly against a window. Since I was less than captivated by one plane flying from New York and another plane taking off from Los Angeles to meet, presumably, over Oklahoma City at some point in the journey, I watched Mrs. Bower knock back a handful of pills with skill born of practice.
I was in fourth grade, sitting in the front-ish, second-ish row of class when I had my first existential crisis. Somewhere between pills two and three, the Universe spoke to me and said, “Another second gone.” Well, not quite. I just had one of those lightning flash realizations that I’m sure once upon a time knocked Kierkegaard and Nietzsche for a loop: time passes and cannot be recalled. As I sat there, long division problems flushed from my mind, I kept thinking, “There goes another second. And another. And another.” The abyss was terrifying. For a minute, barely more, I slid, fully aware, along the constantly moving slide rule of the present. Realizing that even as I thought “There goes another second,” the present was already the past. I couldn’t even think quickly enough to capture the present before it was lost.
I almost wet my fourth grade bloomers.
But I didn’t.
That would have put me on par with the pimply kid in the back row who tossed his cookies after lunch, inducing a visit from the jolly janitor with his sack of putrid vomit powder.
Still, that fourth grade moment stuck with me. A vivid tattoo within the jumble of my memories.
I think about it these days as I consider deliberate parenting. I think about how quickly moments arrive and then expire.
You’re 2 years, 4 months, 6 days, 23 hours and 12 minutes old right now. (I won’t get into seconds lest I suffer another existential crisis.) Today we made our rounds to library story time (making Easter baskets adorned with foam stickers, most of which you grouped according to color) and errands (Penzey’s Spices and Prestogeorge coffee made for one aromatic ride home). Your greatest coup was the collection of two pennies old enough to look like brown buttons. You dropped one on the floor of Prestogeorge. The first time, I bent over to pick it up, disregarding the alarm bell of “GERMS!” triggered in my mom brain. The second time, I left it there and distracted you by pointing out the rumbling coffee roasters in the back.
A later moment in our day: looping back past the play ground on an afternoon run. Through the sun shade on the stroller, I could see your whole body tense, straining forward as you realized our trajectory would propel us straight to the slides. You clapped. Spontaneous excitement flowing through palms in thunderclaps of toddler ecstasy.
A later moment in our day: bath time cut short by excessive splashing. After some hasty sponging and some kicking that left my right side rather soggy, you emerged from the bath to find a pink bunny bathrobe waiting for you. The tag read 0-9 months. You squeezed your 2 years, 4 months, 6 days, 23 hours and 12 minutes old body into it. The back barely covered the globes of your bare bum. Up went the hood with two floppy ears. “Daddy mirror!” you pronounced, bolting to the mirror on the back of my closet door. Spying your be-robed self, you danced a jig. Spontaneous excitement tapping through toes in spasms of toddler ecstasy.
A later moment in our day: bed time that stretched “half past bed time” as Mo Willems so brilliantly writes in Knuffle Bunny, Too. In the semi-dark produced by the war between room-darkening shades and a virile evening sun, you sat on my lap, criss-cross, or cross-criss, depending on how you chose to say it at any given moment. Your wrists peeked out of an 18-month footed pajama. But the pajamas have dots. And ballet slippers. “What is ballet slippers?” you asked. The pajamas work well enough. You proceeded to practice animal sounds: “Donkey make haw-hee” you pronounced. You proceeded to give me “enerzy” (in the form of a make-believe pill that seems conveniently near at hand whenever you perceive my energy wilting a bit). You gave the cat “enerzy.” You gave Throat Frog, who made an appearance for the moment, some “enerzy.” Throat Frog was also deemed hungry and was fed accordingly. You named every body part you know. You identified every color on every book within arm’s reach. Then, you told me a story.
I’ve told you plenty of stories. It’s kind of our thing these days. These months, I should say. You’ve been demanding stories since long before Valentine’s Day. But around Valentine’s Day, I gave my story-conjuring brain a break and came up with the Story Box. Now, when you request, “Mommy Story, Daddy Story, Meme Story, Gampa Story, Yee-ya Story, EB Story” ad nauseam, we visit the Story Box, select a random slip of paper, and I proceed to recite the story dashed in short hand on the paper. But tonight, the roles finally reversed. You told me one of your favorite (and oft recited) Daddy stories:
“Onetime,” you began. “Yittle Frog. Put in cage. Stick out yittle finger. Like this. Outside.”
It was a magical moment in that semi-dark half-past bedtime time. So I let the seconds roll on and on. Glad to be lost in the tidal wave of the present. Happy to hear about Yittle Frogs. “EB like Frog Dories.” I like them too.
If I learned anything in fourth grade, it wasn’t long division word problems. (I still can’t figure out how to calculate those two cross-continental flights.) If I learned anything, it was to be aware of the present. How instantaneously it becomes past, set in stone, petrified, unchangeable, inert. How vibrant, in comparison, is the present. How celebratory, and invaluable, and incomparable.
Every so often, I find myself able to live fully in the present.
Every so often, I find myself skimming, with grace and agility, right along the edge of the present. Not yet mourning the past. Not quite anxious about the future. Just fully vested in the Now. That’s what I felt tonight. As you prattled on, conversing with me on a level never before achieved in our brief relationship, I toed the edge of that precious and precarious present. We were there together, you and I. You, looking into my eyes with purpose and focus, were fully vested in the Now.
I write this to you because this random day of ours is one penny I don’t want to drop. So many present moments, as worthless as your brown button pennies, get tossed away into the trashcan labeled The Past. Mostly, I’m okay with that fact. But tonight, let me take these moments from our day and tuck them carefully into this piggy bank of a blog.
These moments aren’t much, but to me, they’re worth everything.
To make your own story box, take an empty shoe box, collect some snazzy pictures from magazines, cut, and paste. That’s the easy part. The hard part is racking your brain for fun little memories to record. As you generate some ideas, write them down on strips of paper. Stick the ideas into the Story Box and visit it often for storytelling inspiration. Oh, and if some of the edges of the story papers happen to get chewed on and disintegrate, just go with it.