A family walk in the city

It’s rare that Caroline and I run errands together in the city. Usually when one of us goes out (and brings James along) it’s an occasion for the other to get some work done. But on Friday afternoon we were all eager to get out of the house so we set off together get ingredients for dinner that night: a cold pasta salad with shrimp, feta, olives and dill.

James resisted getting in his stroller, as he often does, and rather than cajole him we let him walk alongside us. He took my index finger in his hand and with Caroline pushing the empty stroller beside us we walked slowly down the block. At the first intersection the cross light was just turning yellow. Normally I would have zipped across at the last second, but that’s hard to do with James at my side. So we waited a minute and watched the cars go by. “Yellloow taxi cab,” James said excitedly as one and then another sped by.

There are all sorts of stories about the merits of going slow. One of my favorites is Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. It’s a simply illustrated book. The main character is a circle with a dot for an eye and a pie-slice mouth. He rolls along looking for his missing piece and as he goes he sings a happy song:

Oh I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece 

I’m looking for my missin’ piece 

Hi-dee-hi, here I go

Lookin’ for my missin’ piece

The book is a series of minor adventures. He bumps into a stone wall, bakes in the sun, cools in the rain. The land is littered with pie-shaped pieces but none turn out to be his missing piece: one is too sharp, another is too small, one is too square, another is too surly and rejects him.

Finally the circle comes across a piece that looks just right. Their initial exchange still breaks my heart:

“Hi,” it said.
“Hi,” said the piece.
“Are you anybody else’s missing piece?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, maybe you want to be your own piece?”
“I can be someone’s and still be my own.”
“Well, maybe you don’t want to be mine.”
“Maybe I do.”
“Maybe we won’t fit…”

And they do fit. And because the circle is now complete he rolls along faster than ever before, so fast that he can’t stop to talk to his old friend the beetle or say hi to a butterfly. Worst of all, the addition of the new piece means that when he tries to sing, the words come out garbled because his mouth is now full of piece.

This leads to an epiphany. “‘Aha,'” it thought. “‘So that’s how it is!'” The circle places the new piece gently back down on the ground and then rolls on, slowly, without it, still singing his song. The simple idea conveyed by the book—that the things we want most are the things we cannot have—has stayed with me more powerfully than just about any story I’ve ever read.

The walk to the grocery store took twenty minutes, about twice as long as it usually does. Once inside James tried to knock over a tower of canned tomatoes, so I picked him up. Caroline got a cube of feta at the cheese counter and a carton of grape tomatoes. James watched her as she began to scoop oily kalamatas from a barrel into a shallow plastic container. “I wanna watch, I wanna watch,” he said in an urgent voice, straining to look over my shoulder to get a better look at what Caroline was doing. It occurred to me that if you’d never seen a barrel of olives before, as he hadn’t, then for a moment it might appear to be the most interesting thing in the world.

Everyday James sees a multitude of things which, for a moment at least, probably count as the most interesting thing he’s ever seen. Adults might go years without seeing anything that stirs us to wonder half as much as those olives stirred James. A recent New Yorker profile of a Baylor University neuroscientist explained how our increasing familiarity with the world relates to the fact that time seems to move faster as we grow older: “The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last…The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”

That sounds right to me. I remember a few years ago it was late-November before I’d noticed that the leaves had begun to fall from the oak tree outside my apartment. By that time the tree was nearly bare and I found myself thinking, “My God, I can’t believe it’s already Thanksgiving again.”

I don’t know the British Romantic poets from Adam, but recently I did stumble across a poem by William Wordsworth called “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” It’s about how wonder fades as we grow older. The first stanza:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Maybe there is no getting back the wonder of childhood, but after we’d finished our grocery shopping and returned home, it occurred to me that having a child helps. When I’m by myself I try to get where I’m going as fast as I can and I pay attention to just what’s necessary to carry out the task in front of me, but walking with James changes my pace and my perspective. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to inhabit James’ world all the time; I like being able to separate the wheat of experience from the chaff, and to use the room such sorting creates to think about, among other things, how different his world is from mine.


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