Chapter 11. SpongeLev Squarepants.
They say beauty's in the eye of the beholder, and love makes you blind, in which case, I need a pair of welding goggles and cataract surgery. Looking at my son is like taking ecstasy while wearing rose-colored glasses. Forget nostalgia -- even now looks great. Suddenly, the impossible happens: these are the good old days.
With a face that's as sweet as cotton candy dipped in artisanal honey, Lev is like a living Rorschach test. At five weeks old, he remains a blank canvas onto which we can project own fantasies, delusions and emotions. His face is so pure, it's never even felt a tear drop yet (at this age, when he cries, only tiny snowflakes shaped like angels come out of his tear ducts).
But who is this person who weighs less than a few Big Macs? Is it really possible that my own son is objectively the cutest baby who ever lived? I asked 100 strangers today, and it turns out that, yes, he actually is. Or else the world is full of kindly liars.
The boy's face is mercurial. He shifts from a trembling lower lip to a smile that sets the cosmos on fire in a matter of seconds. I stare in amazement, with the feeling ancient humans must have felt when they first saw fire, or color television. It's endlessly fascinating, and yet, the deeper meaning remains elusive. Who is this dangerously cute human being? What magical planet did he come from, where he could possibly look so good in velour trousers five sizes too large? His charms are diamond-like--myriad, multi-faceted, hard enough to cut glass.
But when I stare for hours into his face, watching his impossibly creamy skin shift like the surface of a mysterious ocean, can I have any sense of what is going on within his mind? He is only 36 days old, so when I see him suddenly gripped with anxiety and fear, is it because with his pure, unsullied wisdom, he senses our planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, while our solar system whirls around the center of our galaxy at 490,000 miles per hour, and the galaxies rush into a region of space 150 million light-years away, made of dark matter we cannot see? Or is it because he overheard NPR's year-end pledge drive and can't stand the guilt?
Hard to say. His face is like a small bowl of pudding. You want to look away but something also keeps drawing you back toward it. You must have one more taste. This is Lev, actually.
I often wonder what we're really looking for when we gaze at our offspring. Sometimes, it feels like the baby's face is a time machine, and we're imagining ourselves at that young age, a screen onto which we project imagined memories we can't really remember. Sometimes we feel a sense of wonder at how fast the newborn's brain is growing and changing. Mostly, we think the newborn knows nothing. That we have to teach it to eat and talk and walk and use the potty. But in another equally true sense, the baby knows more than we do. He knows how to be in the moment. How to wear his clothes unselfconsciously. A baby farts like a tree swaying in the wind, with shameless, natural grandeur. When a baby wraps his hand around you finger, he has the strength that comes from having no hesitation. When he is hungry, by God, you will hear about it.
A baby doesn't need to be taught these things. We do. A baby doesn't need a tablet or a laptop; a cardboard box and his imagination are just as good as an Xbox. It isn't stuff that matters. It's putting matter under mind, where it belongs. The beauty of newborns is that they haven't yet learned to over-think life, to turn heaven into hell by means of self-tormenting mental constructs.
We grown-ups live lives tethered to the soul-bruising illusion that external circumstances make us happy or sad, and we vastly underestimate the role our mental attitudes play. Having a baby is a potentially transformative life event of course, but whether it changes us and brings joy or we remain the same paper bag full of neurosis and self-pity, remains a question mark. Having a child can be as fun and easy or as fraught and insane as we want it to make it. That's not up to the baby, or karma or God. It's up to us.
We think we are teaching our baby the ABC's and how to tie shoelaces. But what we are really teaching the child--from day one--is how we handle stress. How we react to frustration. How to laugh and be easygoing or be self-obsessed and angry. Whatever we do, the baby absorbs. As parents, we now have a constant witness. Our infant is a true believer. Not in what we say, but what we do.
And that is an awesome responsibility: because from now on, a tiny sponge is watching our every move, soaking it all in. And if that doesn't inspire you to be the best version of yourself, nothing will.