Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Seasons are Changing

Dear Ellie,

I've begun to notice that the days are getting shorter.  It's the first time I'd noticed the changing seasons since early January.  I was looking forward to January and February while your mother was pregnant with you.  I was looking forward to early Twilight and the cool days of a Florida winter.  To your mother bundling up in 50 degree weather, turning off the heater, and the two of us pretending that it was cold.  All the while we'd imagine the following Winter, with you pretending to be cold with us.

A few days after your mother went on bedrest in the hospital, 22 weeks gestation, we had our first real cold front.  I remember walking out of the hospital on my way home to get a few items.  Calling customers to tell them I had to cancel.  Giving family members updates.  I didn't notice the chill in the air.  Or the length of the day.  Or how the crisp air of a cold front sharpens the luminosity of the stars.  This past Winter, Spring, and Summer all escaped me, somehow.  I felt like there was only one season.  A season of fear, accompanied by an unchanging climate inside of the hospital.  While inside, the days never got longer or shorter.  The colors never changed and there was no smell of jasmine by the front door like at home, just the scent of hand sanitizer.  Even after your release, it felt like we were locked in some seasonal stasis.

But then, just the other day, I noticed that the sun was dipping below the horizon before I could get home from work.  That the first stars greeted me before I walked through the front door.  While I was jogging last evening, I even noticed a cool breeze.  I've finally noticed that the season is changing and I wonder if perhaps it is because you are changing.  Just a few months ago, you were just an eating, pooping sack of human protoplasm.  But now?  You watch us carefully, as though contemplating, and you miss us when we've gone.  You talk to us.  You smile and laugh and every chance you get.  I wonder whether every baby is this jovial.

Here you are, smiling away

To see you change is joyous in itself, but it is also proof that you are growing.  That your mind isn't stunted in some fearful way from your trials in the past.

Having noticed the seasons, I got to thinking about your childhood.  I want the seasons to be pronounced, noticeable, something to look forward to.  I want to infuse each one with special traditions and I fill them with happy memories flavored by that time of year.  Seasonal decorations amid the house and cool afternoons in your grandmother's garden during the Autumn planting.  Late Winter nights far past your bedtime, watching the Milky Way as it is rarely seen in our humid state and sweltering Summer days in the cool shallows of the pool.  And of course, I want to write you seasonal stories.  Like a story about autonomous pumpkins or strangely gritty Christmas tales about Santa's 14th, rogue reindeer.  A reindeer who delivers presents to even the bad children, against Santa's will.  I want to create a seasonal mythos just for us, and just for you.

And why?  Because in many people's lives, its easy to be daunted by an uncertain future, but no matter how far one might imagine into their own future, there will always be more Winters and Summers, Springs and Autumns.  I feel that if I can make each one of those seasons joyous throughout your childhood, you can always look to the future and with each passing season, feel that it will be filled with that same joy.  That same consistency, as reliable as the flit of a page on the calendar.  

Up until just a few weeks ago, your mind was as yet so unformed that it didn't seem like these subtleties and nuances could mean anything to you.  It was easy to table these parental efforts for a later date.  But now, I find that this is quickly changing.  All of these things that your mother and I plan on doing at some point in the future are quickly becoming things that we need to do now.

Yesterday, I got to thinking about the very first things you might notice, and I realized this was food.  Given that you will be eating solids not too long from now, I thought it might be prudent to start there.  As you get older, I'd like to develop a seasonal menu: specific dishes for specific times of the year.  With that in mind, I headed off to the grocery store with you in tow.  It might sound a little bit funny, but one of the parental milestone I looked forward to the most was taking you along to the grocery store.  Yes, trying to convince the cashier to give us a cute baby discount was one reason, but taking you to the store with me had a deeper, special meaning.  For the first time, you weren't just the focus of my life; a thing demanding my time and attention.  Instead, you were a part of my life, accompanying me on a regular part of my day.  Plus, it was a great opportunity to show you all of the colorful curiosities.

It was a bit tricky taking these pictures, since you were packed
into the Ergo.  On the left, you are examining a colorful, organic
box of broth.  Intriguing... In the picture on the right, we were passing by the
dairy section, at which point you became quite exciteable.

I settled on butternut squash stew for dinner, with a side of roasted asparagus.  It may not be Winter yet, but I'm hoping to make butternut squash stew--- with its cinnamon and nutmeg--- a regular Winter entree in the future.  Also, it has the advantage of being nice and soft, so perhaps you might have the opportunity to eat it before Winter comes and goes.

Still perfecting the recipe!  Chicken, butternut squash,
sweet onions, cinnamon, nutmeg, puree of butternut squash,
baby carrots, and a touch of brown sugar... tastes like Winter!

Another little parental milestone I was looking forward to was cooking dinner while you bobbed around nearby.  Cooking has never been a chore, to me, but one of the many spaces that fill a quiet, contented life.  A time for creativity.  A time to think to one's self.  A time to listen to the sounds of a home.  Granted I hit that milestone with you a few months ago, you've become quite the little talker while I work the stove, and a welcome sound it is!  

Here you are, hamming it up with Grandma.

It seems like it should have been such an unexceptional thing.  Grocery shopping or cooking with my daughter nearby.  Maybe it was.  Maybe that's why I liked it so much.  It's these quiet moments that we fill the bulk of our lives with.  That might be why we want to create so many seasonal traditions, because if we do, these traditions can come to visit us every year and help to fill our lives with quiet, happy moments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Mother of All Invention

You and Divya

You and Grandma Raju

Everyone swooning over you.

How you will look in 4 years... sorta

Dear Ellie,

Since last week we had a family gathering from my side of the family, this week we had one with your mother's.  We spent the weekend at Grandma Kottiath's house.  Your cousins Divya and Adree came by too and since Grandma lives next to her brother, we had a nice big crowd.  Divya, who has 5 months on you, was crawling along on a rampage.  Which made me jealous.  Sadly, you've somewhat fallen behind on your arm coordination milestones, so I think you might be crawling a little bit behind schedule.  You still aren't very good at lifting yourself with your arms, but that might have to do with the fact that you have a head in the 93rd percentile, which adds a ton of extra weight to lift.  On the upside, you aren't nearly obese anymore because you've gotten a lot longer very quickly.  In just a month, you've gone from 3rd percentile into the 30's.  You are still gaining weight nicely though, and you are just about to peak 14 pounds.  

You can sleep quite soundly now too, but while you were once a barracuda when it came to eating, now you've become a dainty little seahorse.  When we add prune juice to your milk, you suck it down like candy but the rest of the time, you put up a fight.  For the past few weeks, the only way to get you to eat was to pick you up with one hand, walk around the house, and feed you with the other hand.  Getting just short of your required calories was quite the endeavor and a lot of the time, we'd spend half the day dripping milk into your mouth at a trickle.

Well, I decided that enough was enough, so I invented a new technique: "taking you through the drive through."  Plato was dead wrong when he said that "necessity is the mother of all invention."  Nope.  Laziness is the mother of all invention.  I'm sure whoever invented the wheel wasn't trying to change civilization as we know it.  He was just sick and tired of dragging that heavy sledge around.  Once he invented the wheel, he could move stuff around with much less exertion, leaving him with more time and energy to sit around doing nothing-important-in-particular.  So to honor the tradition of inventive, enlightened slothfulness, I decided that rather than dragging you around one-handed like a 14 pound sack of potatoes, I'd try sticking you in the Ergo and feed you that way.  The result?  Success.

With you tucked snuggly in the Ergo Baby Carrier like a pouched baby kangaroo, feeding you took about as long as it might take to go through the drive through.  The best part yet?  If I was feeling especially yawnful, I didn't even need to use my hands.

So diet issues aside, I think its important to mention that your social skills are developing impressively.  You have become quite the expert at flattering people.  That is to say, you are a very upbeat, sociable baby that needs few excuses to smile.  When you flash that little grin and bounce your arms at witnessing a new face, I always tell them, "Oh, wow, look at that smile!  She doesn't do that for everyone!  She must like something specifically about you."  Granted, even though you smile that way for everyone, I don't think it's dishonest of me to say things like this to people.  After all, I'm only repeating from dictation what that brilliant little expression seems to be saying, that being: "I'm smiling because you are a wonderful person.  Yes, you.  The person right in front of me.  Not the balloon that is dangling over your shoulder.  I like him a lot and smile at him too, but not as much as you.  There is something about you, some deep and essential part of your soul which glints of the divine.  I smile this way because of that unique part of you.  And it's just for you.  Yes, you.  Not Mommy.  Not Daddy.  Not Mr. Balloon, either.  Just you.  Seriously."      

This is not an example of your biggest smile.
Unfortunately, whenever you see my cell phone camera
you stop smiling and start wondering: 
"What witchcraft is this mystical black monolith?"

To add to the adorableness, you are now baby babbling in full force, and you seem quite convinced that everything that comes out of your mouth is some sophisticated philosophical treatise.  So we talk back to you as though it is.  What a tremendous difference from just a month ago when the only sounds you could make conjured up images of a Honey Badger dueling a Burmese Python.

Of course, with all of these new social skills developing, you have learned other valuable skills as well... like manipulation.  It used to be that you'd only cry when something was really wrong.  You know, like, "Hey Mister, I'm gonna die here if you don't do somethin' about it!"  Now, you'll whip out that same old "I'm hungry" whine not because you are hungry, but because you're upset that I went away to the bathroom.  Once, when you were sitting right next to me in your Rock and Play, you started crying because I didn't have at least one hand on your torso.  Your belly was like an anti-crying button.  I'd touch belly button: no more crying.  Take my hand off the belly button: crying.  Touch the belly button: no more crying.

I think my favorite part about you so far, though, is how analytic you are.  Most babies your age seem to act like excited dogs with A.D.D. when they are alert, their heads bouncing around in every direction at whatever new distraction passes by.  But you are so focused.  When someone sits down with you, you'll lock your gaze on their eyes and take measure of every little thing that they do.  There is an sharpness, not a vacancy, to those little eyes.  Like an old soul in a baby's body.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How to "use your head" at family gatherings

All of the cousins (except Tracy!) and their spouses 

You and your second cousin, Luca

You and Aunt Andrea, who leaned over so that she wouldn't make Daddy look so short

You and a tasty, tasty plastic ring

You, practicing the Vulcan Mind Meld
Dear Ellie,

This past week was full of excitement.  Your Aunt Andrea came by with Uncle Shane and they got to meet you before they ship out to Italy.  At first, you weren't being terribly polite (as is typical of young babies with people they've never met) and we were all making excuses for you as to why you weren't flashing your father's twin sister a proper welcome smile.  Since you are only a 3 month adjusted baby, I think you probably still have a lot of baby concerns on your mind, in which case, I can see why you might have felt some spite for my sister.  After all, while Andrea and I were in utero together, she wasn't very nice to me and I can only expect that you'd take my side on these matters.  Perhaps you resented her for having repeatedly kicked me in the head while the two of us were both in utero.  Or for hogging the placenta.  Or for having taken up all of the best womb real estate and, later, lap real estate.    

Eventually, you let bygones be bygones and gave Aunt Andrea the smiles to which she was entitled, perhaps because you realized that those extra 6 inches of height Andrea has on me made you realize that those genes might somehow make it in your direction, too.  

In addition to your Aunt's visit, we also had a mini family reunion here at the Smith House.  Your Great Aunt Karen and my cousins Tracy and Dominique came by, along with your second cousins, Clay and Luca.  Luca's due date was only a few weeks later than yours so the two of you are following a similar trajectory.  We're hoping to rope Luca into lots of play dates in the future.  On the surface, we want you to have a playmate your own age, but underneath it all, I have ulterior motives.  You see, when Dominique and I were really little, we had somewhat of an intense rivalry.  I even referred to her, in fearful hushed whispers, as Demonic Dominique.  To my own eternal shame, because I was shy and Dominique was strong willed, my younger, female cousin usually had the upper hand in the bullying department.  And let me tell you, it wasn't much fun having all of the women in my life capable of (or in Dominique's case succeeding in) beating me up.  Unfortunately, my cousin eventually grew into a wise, kind, and well adjusted adult over the years so it wouldn't be mature of me to exact revenge on her.  That ship has sailed.  However, an elephant never forgets.  Neither should my Ellie-phant.  That's where you and Luca come in.

With a few decades to stew on the injustices, I've come up with all kinds of useful mischief I can teach you.  Like how to fabricate misdeeds and blame it on your second cousin.  Or how to flatten him with a withering scowl and then, on a dime, turn around and charm adults with a twinkling smile.  And of course, how to "use your head" to advantageous ends... that is to say, if he gets on your nerves, your head is big enough that you should be able to smite him with a headbutt.  You only have to do it once.  The fear of a repeat should keep him in line.  Yes, I had a Demonic Dominique, but Luca will have his own "Evil Ellie."

As you grow into a child, you might find my recommended measures a bit cruel and mean spirited, but if you ever think such things, just remember that he's family.  No matter what family does to each other we will always love one another.  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Washed Up Has Been at Age 15

Dear Ellie,

Life has been comfortably dull, lately.  You've become somewhat less of a rollee pollee in the weeks since we took you off of rice cereal.  Someone put you into the taffy puller and you've gone from the 3rd percentile in length to the 15th.  In weight, you've moved out of the obese category, too, but your head is still massive!  That's fine with me, though, because you seem to be hitting all of your cognitive milestones ahead of schedule.  You can carry out quite the conversation, even if that conversation only involves words like "Vuuuooooo" and "Aaaabbbbuuufffft."  Impressively, your vocabulary of baby babble is expanding by the day.             

You are having a few issues, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I'm still not convinced that your arms are quite up to snuff.  You've never been CrossFit when it comes to upper body strength and you don't often push yourself up by your elbows (maybe because of that ginormous, heavy head??)  You've also lost interest in a lot of the exercises that help to strengthen your arms and tend to cry and throw a fit during tummy time.  The physical therapist told us to try to keep your tummy time "positive" which your mother has interpreted as "don't let Ellie cry during exercises."  Unfortunately, you tend to get a lot more done when you're angry.  Personally, I'm somewhat an advocate of Fredrick Nietzsche's perspective when it comes to tummy time: "Whatever doesn't kill your two-month-old baby can only make her stronger."  
On the upside, Grandma Kottiath seems to know the secret to tearless tummy time.

To change the subject, I think we've somewhat informally taken you off of quarantine.  According to the pulmanologist, your lungs are still a bit weak, but for the most part, your chronic lung disease is mostly a memory.  I used to have a sort of reflexive impulse every few minutes to check for your breathing and to make sure your lips were red, but that's mostly gone now.  If you were to get sick I suspect you can weather a cold with about as much ease as a normal baby.  We've begun having more visitors, too, like Debbie and Winona.  You were quite at ease in Winona's arms, given that she is your fellow Micropreemie-in-Arms:

Also, you've begun your training in the arts.  Remember, we Smiths aren't just science nerds and such, we're musicians, artists, and writers.  To get you started, we've introduced you to your very own piano (a gift from the Renkins!)  When we sat you at the stool, you erratically slammed the keys with quite a bit of enthusiasm, which I can only assume is an expression of your natural musical talents.  At 10 weeks adjusted age, this was quite impressive and we can't really expect more out of you than that.  In this day and age, though, if you plan on excelling at something you need to have strict goals (and since you are too little to develop goals of your own, we'll develop them for you!)  At 6 months, we expect you to learn a few chords.  At 1 year, perhaps the chopsticks.  At 5 years old, you should be composing your own music.  I know this probably sounds pretty ambitious, but remember that Mozart was composing at 5 years old too and HE lived during a much more primitive era.  Besides, if you get as much greatness out of the way as you can, you can be a washed up "has been" by the age of 15 and move on to other pursuits.          

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ellie Finds Her Voice


Dear Ellie,

I'm happy to say that you are finally making progress in the area which you've had the most trouble: vocalization.  Granted, while it sounds like you still smoke 6 packs of cigarettes a day, you are successfully making "vowel sounds," especially the "Ooooo's."  What's more, you are attempting to also mimic the sounds that we are making, as well.  Now that you have that milestone under your belt, you are ahead of your cohort in most way, developmentally.  Each time I think some new milestone is another week or two out, you surprise us.  You are even sleeping for long stretches at night.  We've taken you off of rice cereal almost entirely because your reflux isn't nearly as bad as it used to be.  There are a few problems here and there, but they are pretty much falling into normal baby territory.

Curiously, I saw two full term babies the other day who were exactly your adjusted age of 2 months and a week, and I was amazed by how different you were from them.  I don't want to brag or anything (actually, yes I do!) but you seem like such a jovial, astute, and attentive baby in comparison.  It's remarkable, but there are times when I regularly forget all of the things you've been through.  Just a few months ago, I used to see so much uncertainty when I looked ahead, but now I'm becoming reacquainted with all of the things I had imagined for our future.  It's strange feeling that way again.  It's like encountering an old friend I thought I'd never see again.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Place Between Worlds

Dear Ellie,

This story has been in the works for many months, now.  It was a nascent story when I mentioned it here.  I've thought about it often but it's been incredibly hard to finish because I began it on the night you almost suffocated.  On the night I thought you were gone.  I wanted to somehow capture all of the terrible things I felt that night, but also the joy of having known you for those short 6 weeks.  I remember looking at you in your isolette after you'd turned all of those deathly shades.  That little body, within which appeared only the tiniest spark of life.  I felt like it could, and would, disappear at any moment.  It felt like the final grains of sand in an hour glass were trickling out.  

I remember how I searched my mind.  Like if I thought hard enough, I could find some place outside of time where I could nestle those last moments with you.  Like I could make or find some tiny space where that moment could live forever.


The moon was a tiny sliver in the night sky.  The barrier between worlds grew weak.  Elsa and Fredrick set off to the place where time itself was tattered.  In search of the immortals. 

“It’s only a story Elsa.  A good story, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be taken seriously,” Fredrick said as they made their way from town.  He kicked a rock free from the cobblestone road.  Elsa looked back at the boy, still wobbly on his feet since she’d hauled him from his bed in the dead of night.  She could have made the journey alone.  She was the braver of the two, after all.  And, well, if not braver, than at least more ambitious.

“It wasn’t just a tall tale.  My grandpa believed it,” Elsa said, her voice lightly seasoned with resentment at her friend’s doubt.  “He was an astronomer at Occitan!  If anyone were to tell the truth about something like this, it would be him.  He would have gone with us if he were still alive.”

“I’d like his stories to be true, too.  No one enjoyed them more than me.  But even if they were true, what would we do once we got there?”

Elsa rolled her eyes, “Oh, I don’t know, what would we do if we met an immortal?  We wouldn’t ask him the secret of eternal life, would we?” 

“Do you really think it would be that simple?  That we’d march in, grab the secrets of eternal life, then be back in bed by sun up?”

Elsa threw up her hands.

“Who knows, Fredrick, but isn’t it worth trying?  Think about it.  Immortality.  Imagine what you could do in a thousand lifetimes!  We would be famous in all the world!”

At first, Fredrick didn’t reply.  Instead, he stopped.  Sat down.  The light from the town’s streetlamps were pale in the distance.  He looked up at the sky.  At the planets.  He compared them to the night before and the night before that and the night before that.  He saw them, as though sped up a thousand times, looping about in slow motion epicycles. 

He looked up at Elsa and wondered aloud: “Do you think that maybe one lifetime is enough to live?”

Elsa wrinkled her nose as though smelling something unpleasant, “What a silly thing to say, Fredrick.  Of course it isn’t.  Why wouldn’t you want more years to live?”

Fredrick rolled over to a smoother patch of grass.

“What are you doing?” Elsa asked.  “Why are you laying there?  You can’t be tired already.” 

“I’m enjoying the moment.  Admiring the stars,” he replied.

Elsa opened her mouth to admonish him again, but stopped short.  Instead, she watched him.  Admired him, perhaps, in the same way that he admired the stars.  Something stirred in her and for a moment, it was so easy to imagine herself lying down beside him, both looking up; lying beside the boy that all the townsfolk joked she’d one day marry. 

“So different you are, but so inseparable!” they would all say, and then Elsa would deny that any affection existed between the pair.  But what did it mean that she always found herself hauling Fredrick out of bed in the dead of night to go on some adventure?  Why was it that she always wanted to do everything with him?  Her heart fluttered. 

But then she saw the light of the moon, even smaller than before.  She remembered their mission.  They didn’t have time for these kinds of distractions.  Soon, the moon would be swallowed entirely and they’d lose their chance.  She shook her head at her companion’s delays.

“Oh Fredrick, you simpleton.  Don’t you get it?  Here you are sitting around admiring one moment while a hundred others pass you by.”

Elsa lit her lantern, smudging out the twinkling pin pricks of light up above.

“Come on,” she said.  “Tonight, we’re going to meet the immortals.  We’ll have plenty of time to look at the stars, then.”

Fredrick measured her words carefully, nodded, then stood up.  They moved onward, the light from the lantern casting their long shadows out upon the road behind them.  Eventually, the cobblestones came to an end.  In the distance ahead of them was a field, and beyond, the silhouette of a tree line in the distance.     

They trudged through the grasslands and when they came to the edge of a forest, Fredrick hesitated. 

“Elsa, if you think your grandfather was telling the truth about the immortals,” he began, “do you think he was also telling the truth about Fey?”

Elsa halted, one foot frozen in the air. 

“Maybe,” she said simply, the confidence in her voice faltering.  “Why does it matter?”

“The shadow creatures, Elsa,” Fredrick whispered.  “He said that when Fey is close, light will attract them.  We have to turn off the lantern.”

For the first time, fissures of worry and uncertainty formed on Elsa face.  She turned her head so that Fredrick couldn’t see her expression.  Elsa was always keen on the idea of the immortals, but not so much on the reason they existed... and all the frightening things which came with it.  According to her grandfather’s story, a second world existed atop their own, occupying the same space but out of phase.  A world he called Fey.  And between their world and Fey was a peculiar place.  A bubble between worlds that time skims around, like water around a boulder in a river.  Immortals existed in this place, and to speak with them might be to learn the secrets of immortality.  This place, her grandfather determined, was deep in the forest.  Reaching it could only be done at just the right time when the two worlds were closest.  When the moon and stars and planets were all close enough to weaken the barrier between worlds. 

“You memorized the instructions from your grandfather’s story, didn’t you?” Fredrick asked.  “We’ll have to turn the lantern off once we’re in the forest.  It will be too dark to read them from paper.” 

Elsa reached into her pocket.  Rubbed a parchment between her fingers.  It was all too common when they were younger for Elsa to bound away before her grandfather could finish his stories.  But Fredrick?  He always waited patiently for the tales to conclude, relishing each and every detail.

“Of… of course I do,” Elsa stuttered.  “He was my grandfather, after all.  But shouldn’t you know, too?  You sat around the fire in the town square and listened just as often as I did.”

“I remember,” Fredrick said, giving Elsa a knowing grin.  He then recited the instructions from memory.  “Walk two thousand paces into the forest, no more, no less.  Walk too far and you will enter the world of Fey and be lost.  Fail to walk far enough, and the gateway will disappear by the time the moon is black.  But beware if you should make the journey, for as readily as you might wander into Fey, the creatures of Fey may wander into our world as well.  They will appear to you as shadows, darker than the night.  Creatures, like moths, attracted to light.”

The lantern was stiff in Elsa’s hands.  Could the creatures of Fey see them now, even if Elsa and Fredrick hadn’t entered the forest yet?  The glow from the lantern flickered and licked at the trees.  As it spawned shadows, Elsa’s eyes darted after them, wondering whether they were instead creatures of Fey.  She wanted to douse the flame, but then imagined the two of them, standing alone on the darkest of nights.

“Are you sure you want to continue, Elsa?” Fredrick asked.

“I…” Elsa trailed off.  “Well, I don’t want to make you do this.  We can go back if you don’t want to go.  If you are afraid.”

Fredrick reached out.  Took her hand.  Again, her heart fluttered.  Perhaps from fear of what lie before them, perhaps from something else.   

“I am.  And I know you are, too.  But that’s okay.  I’ll go with you because I know this is important to you,” Fredrick said, then smiled at her in the lantern light.  “Besides, I think that maybe the creatures of Fey might be just as afraid as us.”

He took the lantern from her hand and doused it.  Then they took the first step forward.  And then a second.  And a third.  Each step, they counted carefully.  Keeping track was harder than she first thought.  The limbs above them were dimly lit by the sliver of moon, but beneath the canopy was utter darkness.  Vines and branches lashed at their faces and legs.

By one hundred steps, they were quickly swallowed by the sounds of the forest.  Hooting owls.  Chirping insects.  Muffled movement in the underbrush.  This didn’t frighten Elsa, for these were the sounds of their world. 

But then there came a thing.  Not a dashing or a sprinting thing.  A slow, lumbering thing that moved in such a way that it could only be passing through the dense trees that surrounded them.  That Elsa could see it in such darkness was a perversion of her senses.  To see it was like seeing a hole.  Like seeing a hole bored through color itself.  And then it made a sound.  A sound like a belch or a groan, but inverted, turned upside down.  Hearing it felt like sound was leaving her ear instead of entering.  To sense it at all was like having something… pulled from her.

Elsa panicked.  She released Fredrick’s hand and covered her ears.  Closed her eyes.  Squatted on the ground.  Waited for the thing to attack her.  To haul her back to Fey and be surrounded by such shadows.  Yet nothing happened.  She wanted to call out Fredrick’s name, but feared that the creatures might hear her.  She wanted to reach for his hand, but feared that she might instead grasp one of them

Was Fredrick trying to call for her, while her ears were covered?  Or had he fled the forest in fright?  Or was he simply cowering like her? 

Once Elsa finally discovered the courage to stand, a hand touched her shoulder.  Her hand found Fredrick’s again.  At first, their grip was loose.  Part of Elsa hoped that Fredrick’s hand would pull her away.  Back to the forest’s edge and back to town.  Instead, it clenched around hers.  Pulled her forward.  They continued on.

As they went further--- as 100 steps became 200 and then 500 and then 1000--- more of the creatures began to appear.  A dozen holes in Elsa’s senses.  The creatures hovered around them.  Moved in closer when their backs were turned, only to flee when Elsa looked over her shoulder in the darkness.  She began to look behind herself so often that when they had one more pace to go, she barely noticed the vast wall of emptiness that lay ahead of them.  A vast pit in existence.

“One last step,” Fredrick whispered.  He tried to pull Elsa forward but she resisted.  “The moon is almost gone.  We don’t have any more time.  Elsa, if the Fey creatures exist then the immortals must as well.  We’ll go in, ask of their secrets, and then we can go home.”

“We don’t know for sure what’s in there.  Maybe my grandfather was wrong.  Maybe there are no immortals,” Elsa said, her voice hushed and quivering.  “You said that one life was good enough, so why are you pushing me on?”

Fredrick didn’t speak.  They stood before the wall of shadow, darker than darkness.  Their arms were taught now, caught between Elsa’s dug-in heels and Fredrick’s weight, leaning forward.

Elsa couldn’t see Fredrick, but for a moment his grip loosened, his fingers tenderly wrapped around hers. 

“What do you think it will be like for us,” Fredrick said softly, “to be with each other as immortals, forever?”
Elsa’s legs buckled, surprised at hearing his words.  His weight pulled them both forward.

Before them, the wall of darkness was no more.  Behind them, their own world was gone.  They stood amid a glade, surrounded by pines.  Above them, the moon was full.  Around them, everything shimmered.  Danced, almost, like light in the ripples of a pond.  The stars twinkled at a strange beat, quickly, then slowly, quickly, then slowly.  The full moon did little to drown out their glow.  Elsa and Fredrick stood still and silent for a long while, trying hard to comprehend the strangeness of this place.  To Elsa, it felt as though she were looking out upon the world from a dream.

The boy and the girl finally turned to face one another.  Their cheeks and foreheads were cut and bleeding from their trek through the woods.    

“We’re here, we must be.  The place between worlds.  The place without time.” Elsa said, her expression of daze and disbelief finally melting.  Then she looked in her companion’s eyes.  Into the eyes of the boy that was made happy by her happiness.

They stood for a moment at the center of the glade, amid a field of flowing grass.  Though there was no wind, the blades swayed as though pulled by some current.  Even though neither of them knew how much time they had, Elsa took a deep breath.  Ran her hand through the grass.

She looked to Fredrick and whispered, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”     

Fredrick smiled.  He did the same, then said, “This close to immortality and you’ve stopped to enjoy the moment?”

Elsa smiled back, but her expression turned to alarm as something flitted past them in the grass.  It looked like a small animal, only the size of a hare, but its entire body was luminous and blinking.  Light, then dark.  Light, then dark.  It moved like a ribbon blown in the wind.  Each time it changed course, it changed color as well.  It stopped a few paces ahead of them.  Waited for them. 

“Is it one of the immortals?” Elsa whispered, not knowing whether she was speaking to Fredrick or the creature.

Neither of them replied.

Elsa took a step toward it.  It flitted ahead, further.  

Elsa and Fredrick followed.

It took them to a small stream.  When it crossed, the creature traveled through the air in small arcs, landing on flat stones, barely above the water line.  Elsa and Fredrick retraced its steps, stopping briefly in the middle of the stream to dip their hands in the water and wash their cuts.  As the blood left their hands, it swirled about in tiny eddies, hardened, turned to glitter, then flashed: Light, then dark, light, then dark.

The creature took them up a hill to a grove of towering pines, taller than any that Elsa or Fredrick had seen in their own world.  Their limbs were broad and twisted; their bark, thick and gnarled like a fingernail that had never been trimmed.  Were the trees here immortal as well?  When Elsa and Fredrick arrived at the center of the grove, they encountered other creatures waiting for them, their shape in the guise of men and women.  They twinkled as well.  Light, then dark.  Light, then dark.

Fredrick and Elsa looked to one another, unsure of what to say.  Amid their silence, one of the creatures spoke in a language they seemed to understand.  It twinkled with each syllable.

“You came… from the higher world.  The world… of light,” it said.  “Some of us… have come from the world of light, also.  Some… from the world of dark.  In this place, we have all become the same now.  Light… and dark.  I, like you, once came from light.  I am the youngest here...  Young enough to remember swift words.  Young enough, even… to remember my name from before my crossing… LyreLein…  It is easy to forget swift words and one’s name as the ages drift past you...  The other immortals speak… but to finish a sentence would take a hundred years.”

Fredrick and Elsa exchanged excited expressions.  

“Hello LyreLein,” Elsa said, her tone, reverent.  “You must be the immortals.  We have come looking for you.”

“Looking… for us?” LyreLein asked.  “No one has yet come looking for us.  Those you see here… we were all lost when we found this place.  Many beings come here by accident.  Most must leave… but some stay.  What brought you?”

“We have come to learn the secrets,” Elsa said.  “We wanted you to teach us the secrets of immortality.  We want to become immortal, like you, so that we can be important people when we return to the world of light.”

LyreLein hovered silently.  Motionless.  He remained that way for minutes.  And then, perhaps, for hours.  On a number of occasions, Elsa stirred and made a motion as though to address him again, but each time Fredrick gripped her wrist or shoulder gently and put his finger in front of his lips: “Shhhh…”  Elsa eventually sat down.  The full moon began to dip down in the sky.  On the eastern horizon, the sky began turning brighter hues.  Would Elsa and Fredrick be cast from this place upon sunrise?  Or trapped?

It was impossible to discern LyreLein’s thoughts, to discern an expression from the wreath of light where his face was supposed to be.  Still, it seemed as though he was weighing her words, all the while.     

“Yes,” LyreLein said at last.  “We can show you such secrets… but be warned, it is not a thing for everyone...”

Elsa jumped to her feet and replied, “Right for us?  How will you determine whether it is right for us?  A test?”

“Just questions,” LyreLein said.  “Just three… simple… questions.  For both of you...”

“Yes, we’ll do whatever you ask,” Elsa said hurriedly.

LyreLein was quiet for a moment.  They could not see that he had any eyes, but it felt almost as though he were shifting his gaze between the two of them.  First to the girl that was quick to speak.  Then to the boy: the quiet observer.

“I will ask the first question now,” LyreLein said, “…and girl, you will be the first to answer.”

Elsa nodded. 

“Look about you, girl… at the ancient pines.  There is Yargel at the fore… and Yenyaou not far behind…  Rantalou at the edge of the grove, who’s limbs reach all the way to the stream…  When you look at them, what do you see?”

Elsa put her finger to her chin as she gazed up at the canopy.

”I see sentinels, mighty and majestic.  Born in a time that few can remember.”

LyreLein twinkled, as though nodding.  He turned to Fredrick.

“And you boy...  When you look upon their trunks, what do you see?”

Fredrick gazed up at the canopy as well.  Put his hand to the bark of Yenyaou, then squinted past them and into the distance.

“I see children.  Grandchildren,” Fredrick said at last, sweeping his hand around him and then pointing to a colossal stump near the stream.  “The grandchildren of that ancient pine, who returned to the earth so long ago.  Perhaps she perished before this place ever budded away from the worlds of light and dark.  She remains there still as rotting wood, for sometimes the death of a tree can last even longer than its life.”    

LyreLein did not acknowledge their answers.  He said simply: “Follow me…”

They left the grove and came again to the stream.  He brought them to the middle--- to the widest section--- and asked his second question: “Girl, look upon these waters…  Tell me what you see...”

Elsa turned her head to the left and to the right, upstream and down.

“I see water rushing toward the ocean.  I see a basin for weary travelers.  I see the home of water creatures that live and thrive and breed.”

“And you, boy?...” LyreLein asked.  “What do you see?” 

Fredrick looked long and hard.  He hopped upstream, from rock to rock, until he had a broad view of the stream running through the glade.  Once he’d returned to where LyreLein and Elsa stood, he spoke: “I see a vast snake slithering across the landscape.  A snake that whips and cuts through the hills and prairies, each flick of its tail taking an eon.  Hungry is this snake.  As hungry as it is patient.  With enough time it will even swallow mountains: earth, metal, and all. 

Again, LyreLein did not acknowledge their answers.  He said simply: “Follow me…”

LyreLein led them toward the grassland.  Elsa and Fredrick trailed behind a short distance.  Elsa peeked at Fredrick through the corner of her eye.  He seemed so focused now.  Determined even.  And his answers were far different than hers.  Between the two of them, surely, the immortals would tell them their secrets.  But there was still a thing that Elsa didn’t understand.

“Fredrick,” Elsa said, nibbling at her lower lip.  “I was wondering about something.  About what you said when we took the last step into this place.  About… the two of us, being together as immortals.”

Fredrick glanced at her bashfully, but didn’t say anything.

“What did you mean?” Elsa asked, pressing for an answer.

“Well, we’ve always done everything together since we were both very little.  Everyone in town always said that it would just keep going on that way until the day we died.  They said that we’d be married one day.  I know that maybe you didn’t believe it, but… I always did.”

Elsa blushed as though it were some novel thought, even though some part of her knew it as well.  She realized, then, that whenever she imagined her future, Fredrick was there, right in the middle of all the things to come. 

“At first, I was reluctant to come along,” Fredrick said, looking down at the long grass.  “I wouldn’t have gone if it had been with anyone but you.  I didn’t think there were any immortals and even if there were, immortality wasn’t something that I wanted.  But when we were on the road from town, I had a thought.  It was when I was looking up at the stars and the planets.  If your grandfather’s stories about immortality were true and we could both live forever, then there would never be a reason to rush anywhere.  You would never have to worry about the moments that were passing you by because there would always be time in the future to catch back up with them, again.  You could sit in the grass with me and watch the stars until we had seen all there was to see of them.  Together.  To me, life was never about stuffing experiences into it.  It was about timeless moments.  With you.”

Elsa’s eyes stung. 

“Fredrick, I…” Elsa said, trailing off.  She reached out for his hand.  Touched his palm gently with her fingers and pressed her thumb into his knuckles.  She tried to swallow her pride, to say that she was sorry for all the cruel things she’d ever said to him, but with a thousand lifetimes, wouldn’t they have plenty of time to make such things right, later?

“We are here,” LyreLein said.  The three of them stood amid the field, “I have your final question.  Girl… look up.  Look upon the denizens of the sky.  What do you see?”

Elsa stared skyward.  Her mind was blank.  She thought of all the times she had seen Fredrick at night.  All of the times his head was turned up.  All of the times she should have been beside him, looking up as well.  What might she see, what might she say, if she had joined him?

“I…  I don’t know,” Elsa uttered.  “A million points of light.  A million mysteries, waiting to be seen by those with the patience to see them.”  

LyreLein watched her.  Weighed her.  Judged her.   

“And boy?...” he spoke.  “What do you see?”

Fredrick was hesitant.  He looked to Elsa, his eyes betraying some concern that Elsa didn’t understand.

“Uhm,” Fredrick muttered, glancing up.  “Just… just stars.  That’s all I see.”

For the first time, LyreLein sounded displeased: “That is not in keeping… with what you have spoken, before.  It is not in keeping… with the content of your soul.  I would implore you to answer honestly.  Or you will fail to understand.”

Fredrick gritted his teeth.  He glared at LyreLein, “But sir immortal, you haven’t been honest with us, have you?”

There was silence.  The three stared at one another. 

“There are no immortals walking the world of light,” Fredrick said.  “I have never seen them, never heard of them.  And there are probably no immortals walking the world of Fey, either.  There never have been.  There are only immortals here.  There can only be immortals here.”

LyreLein didn’t respond.  Elsa grew worried.  As Fredrick spoke, she began to understand.

“LyreLein, you immortals don’t get to choose who goes and who stays either, do you?  You don’t have any secrets to give us.  It’s this place.  It decides.  And those it chooses it also keeps.”

“What?” Elsa blinked.  “Is this true, LyreLein?”

His silence answered for him.

“Then why?” she wondered.  “Why ask us these questions?”

“Because…” LyreLein began, speaking ever more slowly and deliberately, “the answers you give… reveal to you the way that you are.  Your nature.  Your essence.  How your mind perceives time.  It also determines… whether you go and whether you stay.  When the time comes, you and the boy will be torn from each other.  It will be soon, and I want you both to understand…  Girl, I want you to understand why you will go home as a mortal… and he will stay here, as an immortal.”

“No!” Elsa shrieked, snatching up Fredrick’s hand.  “You can’t do this!  I can’t leave him!  I don’t care about your immortality!  I’ll die here, that’s fine, just don’t send me back!”

“It’s not a decision… we can make.  We are just… spectators.  This place… decides.  It keeps those who see far enough and long enough.  Those with patience.  Those who are not of this nature?  They are returned to where they came from.  Only the far seeing mind can endure the ages…  Minds like yours, girl?  They are tuned to the world of light and the world of dark.  To dwell in this place for even the first hundred years… would drive you mad.  This, I think, is why it will reject you…  and why it will accept him.  I’m sorry.  I don’t know how much time you have together still… but it is surely growing short.”  

“There must be a way back for me.  To forfeit immortality if I so choose,” Fredrick said.  “I don’t need it.  I never wanted it.  Not unless it was with her.”

“There is no choice…” LyreLein said.  “I was like you once.  I had no desire for immortality.  I was kept unwillingly…  I’m sorry.”

“No,” Elsa whispered, tears pooling in her eyes.  She turned her head to the ground.  Not knowing whether their last moment together would end suddenly, words began to sputter out.  “Fredrick, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry that I brought us here.  I’m sorry for the times I’ve been impatient with you.  The times where I was cruel.  I’m sorry I never savored all of our moments together.  I just always thought that we’d have more time.”

Fredrick raised her head with his hands.  Looked into her eyes, his moist as well.
“I lied,” he said.  “After we left town I told you that one life seemed like it should be enough.  But that’s not what I wanted to say.  I wanted to say that one life with you seemed like it should be enough.”

Elsa threw herself against him, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“The life you have left together perhaps is long enough,” LyreLein said.  “Look at us, the immortals.  Ours lives will burn longer than the stars.  Aren’t the lives of mortals… just seconds in comparison to our own?  A mortal’s life will always end.  A second or a minute or an hour are all tiny when compared to the lifetime of the cosmos.  You have a now, children...  perhaps that is enough.” 

At that, Fredrick took both of Elsa’s hands.  Without speaking, they danced together.  Swayed with the grass, as though pulled by the same eternal tide that pulled it as well.  It became hard to tell how long they danced.  Elsa stopped thinking of how much time they had left.  She forgot of the things they would never do, together. 

With her head on his shoulder, she gazed up at the sky.  She whispered, slowly, patiently, of what she saw.  Answered the final question.

“Look at the planets, Fredrick.  As days and months and years pass by, they dance like us.  Dance and swirl in looping circles amid billions of tiny lanterns.  And were we to watch long enough?  Watch for a million years?  The stars themselves would waltz across the sky.”

And so Elsa didn’t notice when eddies of blinking color enveloped Fredrick’s arms and legs.  She didn’t notice the pulse of his body.  Light, then dark.  Light, then dark.  She didn’t notice when time skimmed around him like water around a boulder in a river.  She didn’t notice as the sun began to rise and the moon began to set, like the final grain of sand trickling from an hour glass.  It didn’t matter.  One life, one day, one second with Fredrick was enough to live.

As she savored that simple moment with him, her mind could assign it no span of time.  Untethered from a “before” or an “after,” the moment drifted away freely.  And so long after Elsa found herself standing alone in the forest, long after she returned to the town, long after she lived a long and fruitful life, long after she had died and her deeds were forgotten, that moment lived on in some immortal place.      

Friday, July 11, 2014

Admitting You Have a Problem and Exploring Distant Worlds

Dear Ellie,

Today we visited the Gastroenterologist.  According to him, you are basically a normal 2 month old baby as is appropriate with your adjusted age of 2 months.  Sadly there is one, heartbreaking exception.

You are an obese baby.

At 12 pounds, you are in the 70th percentile for babies of your adjusted age.  In and of itself, that's not a big deal.  HOWEVER, for babies of your age AND length, you are somewhere between the 99-97th percentile.  In other words, only 1 to 3 percent of babies are fatter than you.  It's not a huge problem now, but if you remain at this percentile in the coming months, it could, uhm, weigh down your developmental milestones.  Even though you'll probably be much better at rolling down a hill than the average baby, all that extra weight would make it harder for you to crawl or sit up on your own.

The picture above from the physical therapist speaks volumes.  That is, there are volumes of rolls spilling off of your body.  Maybe its hard to notice with all of that clothing on, so for the sake of heaping double the humiliation on you, here is a second picture of you without clothing (for Science!!):

I posted it as an extra high resolution picture because if you zoom in close enough, you should be able to see small hints of the vast diversity of life forms peeking out from between your rolls.  As a biologist, this has added an extra layer of excitement and intrigue to parenthood.  Each time I give you a bath and I run a washcloth through those rolls, it feels like I'm exploring distant worlds for signs of life.  All of those little canyons of flesh are like hospitable little pools of protoplasm amid the cracks and fissures of Titan or Europa.  Not too hot.  Not too cold.  Not too wet.  Not too dry.  Just right.  And just like a geologically active planet, new rolls are developing all the time, adding to the plethora of ecosystems.

I'm tempted to grab some petri dishes with agar and run an experiment.  According to the Theory of Island Biogeography, the bigger rolls should harbor greater species diversity and richness, so if we don't give you a bath for a few days and then collect some samples from each of your rolls, we can put the theory to the test.  I'd better do it soon, though, because your mother plans on putting you on a diet, in which case all of those little biological refugia will gradually dry up.  Why she would want to extinguish a biodiversity hotspot and baby all rolled into one is beyond me.  Maybe its for the same reason she won't let me keep a colony of fungus growing ants.  Oh well.  Mothers know best.