Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I am looking at my daughter, Arcadia. She is four. It is winter of 2013. She is making valentines. She has construction paper, stickers, magic markers, glitter glue, and other art supplies. I suspect she is the only child in her preschool class who will deliver handmade valentines to all her classmates. She did this last year, too.
She is beautiful beyond comprehension, beautiful in her perfect four-year-old wit and innocence, beautiful in her prolonged flights of imagination, even when they drive my wife and me a little crazy. Three days ago, while home from preschool with a cold, Arcadia banged her eye into the corner of a cabinet door, and because it hurt, she decided to keep her eyes closed. She announced that she would have to keep them closed for a long time. I assumed that this would get old after fifteen minutes. Thinking we could lure her out of the game, we let her watch a video, but she listened to it with her eyes closed. So, not a game exactly. I had to beg her to open up the injured eye for a few seconds so I could see if there was anything really wrong with it. There wasn’t. The next morning she was still at it, molding Play-Doh with her eyes closed. Then she started walking around, eyes closed, and bumping into things. A debate ensued, which included my attempts to get her to open her eyes because, rationally speaking, if a girl doesn’t open her eyes for two days, then probably we need to take her to the doctor. With eyes still closed, she almost kicked her baby sister. I suggested a timeout in her bedroom. She went up the stairs, eyes closed, lay down, and fell asleep. She awoke later, opened her eyes, and, as quickly as that, was no longer concerned about the injury. I felt relief and wondered if there was a lesson here, something I needed to learn about raising a precocious, wildly creative little girl. The lesson seems to have been: Give up the illusion of control.
Her full name is Arcadia Vivian Miranda Reiken. My wife, Cailin, was sure she was going to be a boy, because she dreamt it. We had the name all set: Jacob. I was surprised that my wife would go that biblical — not to mention that Jacob has been the most popular boy’s name in the U.S. for the last decade — but the name was set because she had dreamt that, too.
In the last few months before the birth, I began to suspect — for equally unsubstantiated reasons, as we had not confirmed the sex with an ultrasound — that we were going to have a girl. I put forward the name Alexandra, as well as Abigail. Neither was compelling to my wife, but she was sure we were having a boy, so it didn’t matter. She was speaking to “Jacob” by name already. She said I should feel free to choose the girl’s name, because she knew we wouldn’t have to use it.
Just a few days before Cailin went into labor, I came up with Arcadia, a name with deep associations, as it is also the place name of a mythologized rural paradise in ancient Greece, the safe haven for the child Arcas, son of Zeus and the nymph Callisto, and home to the god Pan. We were in the heat of a fruitful summer, a forty-year boom for high-bush blueberries, and we’d picked several gallons along the paths around Ames Pond. Nature teemed in our little Arcadia in western Massachusetts. I had been writing about the frogs, turtles, dragonflies, katydids, butterflies, blueberries, and bird songs in a long letter to my unborn child.
My wife immediately loved the name Arcadia, and the plan, if by some fluke of the great wheel we had a girl, was to call her Katie for short, a decision reinforced by the katydids, which were mating at that time and which would infiltrate our house nightly, waking us with their strange clicking sounds and their other noise — the “alien noise,” we called it — which sounds like radio static.
Then she was born. A girl. Born at home in a tub in the exact spot where her bed is now. Arcadia in Arcadia. Katie became Cady. We considered middle names. Vivian was my recently deceased grandmother. We both liked Miranda, after Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest. After debating whether to honor the deceased or to go Shakespearean, we chose both.
I sent out an e-mail birth announcement. Most people wrote back with congratulations. A few complimented the name, which I’d grown nervous about. Some asked what it meant, and as I offered explanations, I started thinking I should have pushed a little harder for Alexandra or that we should have gone with Miranda as her first name.
A playwright I have known since childhood responded that he loved the name Arcadia and that it was also the title of his favorite Tom Stoppard play. At that time I’d never heard of Stoppard or the play. A magazine editor wrote that I must be getting a lot of Et in Arcadia ego references. I looked up the Latin phrase and learned it was the epitaph on a tombstone being read by Arcadian shepherds in two famous paintings by Nicolas Poussin. I wrote back to the editor and told her that so far she was the only one who’d made the reference.
Et in Arcadia ego. It means “And I am also in Arcadia” or “Even in Arcadia, there I am” or “I, too, am in Arcadia.” There are essays written about the epitaph’s double meaning, the most famous being one by German art historian Erwin Panofsky. As Panofsky notes, the phrase inscribed on the tombstone may be interpreted as “Even in Arcadia [paradise], I [death] am present.” Or it may be more of a consolation regarding eternity — “In death I know paradise, for I have once lived in Arcadia.” Either way, what we are left with is a binary. Life and death. Presence and absence. Light and dark.
Arcadia. I am trying to say something about being her father. It occurs to me that I have not given the whole matter of parenthood much reflection. My excuse is that I’m too busy trying to manage it.
I am relatively old to be a father of young children. I’m forty-six, with a four-year-old and a six-month-old. I’ll be sixty when my older daughter goes to college, sixty-eight when my younger daughter graduates. According to my financial plan, I will have paid off my home mortgage just in time to start paying back student loans. Up until this past year, when I had shoulder surgery and then got a concussion, I played on a competitive men’s ice-hockey team. But I think my hockey-playing days may be over. I have back issues, neck issues, and continuing shoulder issues, despite the surgery. Most notably, I’m still postconcussive after banging my head on a playground structure while lifting my daughter up at a birthday party last summer. It was the second time I’d done that, on two different playgrounds. Same exact spot on my head. This after forty years of contact sports without any head injuries. My daughter has watched me play organized hockey once — or maybe twice, if I count a time she does not remember — and what she knows is that I skated fast and wore a yellow jersey. She knows I took a shot that the goalie saved with his glove. She knows she drank hot chocolate and sat with Mom under a blanket. But the fact that I’ve played in something like two thousand hockey games, that there is probably nothing in my life that, for flat-out excitement and exaltation and intensity, can compare to certain hockey-related moments that come to mind on a regular basis — all this, for her, is insubstantial; for me, it’s history.
How many other facets of my life will she know nothing about, save what I tell her? Is it important that she know about the dog and cat who were my closest companions for ten years, or the falling-down farmhouse that, throughout my twenties and thirties, I inhabited in the town of Cummington, thirty miles west of here? Is it important that she know about her great-grandmother and namesake, Vivian, who was a showgirl and later ran a dance school in North Arlington, New Jersey? Is it important for her to know that on December 20, 1995, while I was working as a journalist for a daily newspaper, I wrote an article about a winter-solstice celebration at the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, on what was probably the day (or night) that I first registered the meaning of Arcadia? Is it important that she be able to imagine me living in that falling-down farmhouse, dog and cat by my side, space heater blasting during the winter, box fan running in the summer, sheep in the pasture outside, mice scurrying in the attic overhead, and actual rats one year, the same year that a family of skunks spent the winter in the crawl space under the kitchen tiles, which was also the year I wrote my first novel, which she will perhaps read when she’s eighteen or so? Or is all of that here anyway, recognized in some nonverbal way, in some empathically intuited glimpse of me that cuts beyond this time and place we are cohabiting, this room, where she is happily making valentines?
Staring at Arcadia, I have questions. Not about her. She is perfect. The questions, the anxieties, the uncertainties all pertain to the vague sense that I’m in deep — possibly over my head. That other clichés pertaining to water may be appropriate. I have the sense that any father, regardless of income level, has a moment in which he looks at his first child and thinks, My God, I need more money! And while I certainly need more money, I know that what is altogether new to me has very little to do with my annual income or the life-insurance policy I recently purchased. It has to do with the feeling that I have changed forever, that I am qualitatively different from the non-father (pre-father?) I was five years ago, or ten, or fifteen, or twenty. I seem to have little in common with that solitary writer-journalist who lived with a dog and a cat for more than a decade in a falling-down farmhouse. Who the hell was that person, anyway?
In those days, so much was pulling me one way and then another. I often received calls from the newspaper at 6 AM and would be out reporting on some accident or arrest from the night before and filing a story before the morning deadline. Then I would go back to sleep. Later I’d get up and walk my dog and spend three or four hours working on my novel. Then I’d dash out to cover another story for the paper. What was the point? Honestly, I have no idea. This is not to say that my life now is calm and simple, or that I’ve figured out the answers. But there’s a force that pulls with quiet, steady gravity; a single force that doesn’t go away, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It seems primordial. I suspect it has something to do with love. Or that it is, precisely, love. Whatever name one wants to give it, it is the force that trumps all else, the force that causes me to wish to be right here, just as I am, forever, watching my daughter as she makes another valentine.
This one has cats on it. And plastic jewels.
Last week I picked Cady up at school and took her to a small library in North Amherst, where they happened to have a book I wanted to read as part of my ongoing research for a novel I have been working on, in one form or another, since 1992. While I was checking out the book, I noticed the audio recording of a full-cast production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, written in 1993. I grabbed it. I drive to Boston and back to teach, an hour and forty minutes each way, so I listen to a lot of recorded books.
Stoppard’s Arcadia, it turns out, is all about the intersection of art and science, of present and past, and the impossibility of ever knowing anything for certain. It is a play of ideas but also an entertaining drama. It is a mystery, a comedy, a tragedy. It talks a lot about “iterated algorithms,” which is probably my favorite part. Stoppard’s original working title was, incidentally, Et in Arcadia Ego.
There are themes within themes, and mysteries within mysteries, but top dog, as far as the play’s focus goes, seems to be the weighing of Newtonian determinism against chaos theory and random chance. Of the many epigrammatic lines in the play, several resonated enough for me to write them down. I offer this one for consideration: “The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.”
It is encoded in our DNA to reproduce. Biologists have argued that, from an evolutionary standpoint, the sole purpose of our individual existence is the maximization of the number of our own genes that we can pass on to the next generation. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has famously stated, we are, in a sense, merely the survival machinery for our genes.
But still we try to gain the upper hand. We write poems, plays, novels. We travel to far-off places for different purposes, some of them noble, some instructive, and some for pleasure. Our lives get messy. We do things early, or late, or not at all. We go here and there because we’re trying to work out a life, a way to have a few of the things we want. My latest plans include a research trip to Greenland, a fellowship in the Netherlands, and maybe — just maybe — completing the novel. One never knows. And for a father this never-knowing, when it comes to career endeavors, grows more acute.
I listened to Arcadia three times over a period of weeks. When it concluded the second time, I wept profusely while driving on Route 2. As it concluded the third time, I pulled over so that I could avoid becoming a road hazard. I wept for the fictional nineteenth-century genius Thomasina Coverly, who dies in a fire in 1812 on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, having foretold a mathematics of irregular forms nearly two centuries before anyone would begin to understand it. I wept for her tutor, Septimus Hodge, who devotes his life, after Thomasina’s death, to the mad task of computing iterated algorithms and elucidating Thomasina’s theory, and who eventually becomes a lunatic. I wept because the play is so astoundingly perfect in its depiction of the relative scale of things, of how the tiniest of moments may be remarkable, though usually only in hindsight. I wept because the play, however briefly, took me out of my time and into other times, other small paradises of wonder. Later I left the CD case on the kitchen table. When my observant daughter noticed it, she yelled, “Hey, Arcadia!” and pointed happily to the letters of her name.
She cuts out another heart for another valentine. She says she’s feeling inspired to make a few more. She says she’s “dying” for a glass of water. She picks up colloquial phrases like no four-year-old I’ve ever known — though, in truth, I have not known many, except perhaps when I was four. She is wiggling in her chair. I point this out. She says she’s probably having one of her “growing days,” a term my wife uses to explain why on certain days Cady gets extraordinarily hungry, thirsty, and wiggly. Everything she does, right at this moment, is predictable, except that nothing about it is predictable. Nor is what the future holds predictable. I am the father of two girls I love so much that it is frightening. I am often literally frightened — not only of fevers and coughs and cabinet corners that might blind them, but of everything that may or may not happen in the chaos that will unfold and make their lives exactly what they are.
My daughter is making valentines. She is also in Arcadia. We are also in Arcadia. She is Arcadia. I am looking at her on a Wednesday morning in January with snow falling outside. Her baby sister squawks and crawls. Her mother is making soup and talking. Even after I stop writing, I am looking at Arcadia.
I will sit next to her and make valentines. She has given me three so far. This year she has learned to make snowflakes out of construction paper and can also count to fifty. She can write her name, both as Arcadia and as Cady. She can write, “I love you.” Her ys are usually backward. She likes coconut juice and fish sticks and homemade popsicles and nori seaweed snacks and pretzels. She likes music. Her favorite “Daddy songs” (the ones I sing at bedtime) are the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” the final lines of which are “But I can sing this song / And you can sing this song when I’m gone.” She sometimes laughs at this and says, “But you’re right here.”
Arcadia is making valentines, and her sister rolls over, something the baby has learned to do only this week. Cady and her sister are now looking at each other, and I am looking at them looking at each other. And I am saying things, of course. I’m saying many, many things.
I am talking to my daughter about her valentines, and about chickens and ducks and turtles. I am playing a game in which she has us pretend that we are eagles and have to fly down to the eagle store and that her sister is a baby eagle and that my wife’s car is our eagle’s nest. I am hearing about Cady’s friend Evie’s upcoming birthday party, at which they are going to make tiaras. I ask her if she knows what a tiara is. She does. All of this happened a few minutes ago or hours ago or days ago or years ago. I have the valentines to prove it.
I am old and I am young. (Isn’t this always the case?) I am right here, in the paradise of this room, and long beyond it.
I am looking at Arcadia, who sits by the glass door and squeezes more pink glitter glue onto red construction paper while the snow collects in our front yard and on our cars, and the world seems slower than it really is.
Or else it’s faster, if I am trying to record every last instant as it races by at intractable speed, since there is no methodology for quantifying what takes place on a quiet, snowy morning in which there is no particular reason to take note of it all anyway. Nothing is happening and everything is happening. I don’t dare ruffle it. For now, I don’t dare move.
This essay will appear in the anthology When I First Held You: 22 True Tales of Fatherhood, edited by Brian Gresko, forthcoming in May 2014 from Berkley Books.