Monday, June 14, 2010

A Bath (9.6.08)

We were so tired when we got home from the county fair last night I let the girls go to bed after merely washing their hands and faces. But today is Nora’s First Day of School – actually just a transitional hour in the preschool classroom, but we’ll treat it like the real deal, photos and all – so we must get clean and shiny. After breakfast, I draw her a bath.

“Yay!” She is happy to slip around in the water, rinsing off the dust of Wisconsin’s livestock barns.

“No drinking!” I warn her. She gives me a guilty glance, her cheeks already puffed out.

The flotilla of plastic bath toys fill the entire surface of the tub along with a few Polly Pockets never designed to withstand a dousing. Nora squeaks high and growls low in conversation with tiny plastic Diego and his swim friend Grover.

“Do the mermaid,” I tell her, the cue to lean her head back under the faucet to get her hair wet for the shampoo. “Look up at the stars.” Her face is utterly serious with concentration, her tiny shoulders held up high as she negotiates the safest way to lean back on her elbows and tilt her trusting head. I sluice the water over the blond-white curls on the sides of her head. Her fluffy thin hair changes to long, dark and slippery strands, revealing the heart-breaking curve of her round forehead.

I ignore the dark spots in the tile grout but I have to put my knees on the cracked floor tiles as I wash Nora's hair. It’s an awful bathroom that we've endured for four years, but with a hopeful act that requires all my courage, I've agreed to let strangers enter our home for three weeks, break apart the tile, the walls, the floor and replace the old with new. If the tile we use is fashioned from recycled glass, the vanity from bamboo and the toilet is low-flow, have we balanced our green karma against the guilt of adding this room's discarded skin to landfill?

After Nora's hair is clean, after checking the back of her ears, I let her splash and play. The water is slowly draining and Nora lays down in what is left, like a merbaby reluctant to lose her native element.

"Today is your first day of school! You'll be in a classroom down the hall from sister!" I tell her.

She pauses. "That's strange!" she replies in her squeaky mouse voice. These words are her standard answer these days when I talk about something outside her experience, something beyond what she can imagine yet.

Time for the towel. Bundled from head to two, she pauses her busy dancing for a moment to sit in my lap and be held.

I remember a few lines from a poem I read in high school – a poem I liked so much that I inscribed the words on my imaginary tombstone for another class assignment. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting…/Trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home.”

William Wordsworth's idea that our souls and consciousness begin in Heaven, then enter our bodies at birth, holding on to just the faintest memories of that timeless time offers so much comfort and so many answers. I look at Nora and her not much bigger sister and it's easy to see how Wordsworth held this beautiful belief. Their otherworldly trust, their amazing regenerative powers – a boo boo gone in a day! a fracture healed in short weeks! -- their sweet smells, skin that nearly glows, the joy they find in nature, like this everyday tub water, suddenly made amazing by Nora's play. In her hands, it makes noise, it flies, it flows, it beads, it propels, it drips, it chills, it warms. A miraculous substance – like Nora herself.

This week, my husband’s parents will visit from Florida. My father-in-law, a reluctantly retired Presbyterian minister, will perform a baptism on Sunday for my husband’s friend's wife and their two children. I’m delighted that my girls will witness this ceremony, as casual as a few words and some sprinkling on the back porch may be.

I'm thrilled the girls will see their grandfather’s important work, will take part in a timeless tradition, will join a growing web of community of family and friends. Perhaps they may even sense the solemnity of Something Else, more than themselves.

We are not raising our children to obey and worship a god, although I hope and plan that their values will mirror many of those who choose the religious life – respect, loyalty and compassion, the virtues of temperance, honesty, forbearance, hope. And gratitude, with which I am nearly overwhelmed at this moment, holding this child. If I omit faith in the supernatural from their daily life, I'll try to replace the suspension of disbelief with inquiry, curiosity, logic and judgment. But who knows what this child will believe? I will defend her right to her own spiritual choice, even if I do not share it.

There's a discarded magazine on the bathroom floor, flipped open to a picture of a father holding his toddler boy.

I show Nora the picture and ask her, "Are you little, like this baby?"

“No, I'm a big girl. I’m free!” she says, describing her age. Yes, honey, you are.

My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel--I feel it all.

-- William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations of Immortality

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