January 21, 2006
They say a child doesn't realize he is a separate being from his mother until a few months after birth. And considering the child lived inside her, his brain bathed in hormones that produce a constant state of ecstasy, this makes perfect sense. There is no time in there--just the dimmest twilight, the loud machinery of the mother's body, muffled noise from outside, and the occasional poke. For the longest time, she is everything. And then the world divides.
Suddenly cold and bright and in pain, outside is too much, so the newborn reverts to the one source of comfort, warmth, and food he knows. He has eyes only for his mother and he stay like this while his body and brain catch up to the endless want... Want with a capital W.... He notices little, smiles little, but his brain is crackling with activity. Eventually after what seems like an eternity of sleep his eyes, ears, and brain are ready, and then one day, suddenly, he notices there are other people and the child smiles.
Later there are animals and plants and the hundred hundred other things that must be noticed and cataloged for the first time: the smell of snow, lizards on the windowsill, asparagus. With each classification the known universe cleaves. The impossible becomes possible. One day he is immobile, the next he is crawling. By the end of the first year he is naming things and testing every corner of his world. (Our son has just become aware of of the concept of "underneath" so as he makes his way around the house he now throws himself on his belly and checks the below each and every couch, chair, and desk because you never know what might be under there.)
In college one summer I worked for a professor of Ethology. He had names for so many things. Bumblebees were bombus terrestris, Honeybees were apis florea, and leafcutting bees were megachile rotundata. A monkey was not a monkey, but a marmoset, a tamarin, or a Barbary ape. An unknown bug would cause him to stop in his tracks like a pointer, his brain running furiously in the search for the unnamed. I was thinking about the professor today and about how he was always looking to destroy his previous understanding and redefine his field. I think as we grow older it becomes harder and harder to do this. We get comfortable with our knowledge and stop naming new things.
My wife studied hermeneutics in graduate school and as is common with people of that discipline she occasionally gets into moods where we discuss the "so what's" of life. I don't know what the answer is for her. But for me it's not terribly complicated. Being a traveler I know the first time I step foot on some unexplored territory will also most likely be my last. And even if I visit again everything will have changed in the interim. This is true of so many things, of friendship, of love, of death... So the important thing is not to hold onto that moment, but to be in it and let it change you, to let the world divide.