Santa Claus was taking a ride on a flying tyrannosaurus Rex while I sat cross-legged holding a cup of coffee. My mother did both parts, the dinosaur and Santa Claus. Different voices for each. Alexander, age two and a half, stood by her side and watched them go. Such are the pleasures of being home for the holidays–while this drama unfolded, I was reading Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books writing about a book of letters exchanged between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee. The book is called “Here and Now.”
I looked up at the lovely scene across the table and wondered if reading while this tableau was playing out qualified as being present in the here and now, or if it was a form of evasion. I decided it qualified as being present in the here and now. A self serving judgement, I know, but the holidays are a time of giving gifts and getting them, and in this juddement I did both.
Nevertheless, I stared for a moment at the flying dinosaur and his passenger, wanting to imbibe the moment. My mother was born in Berlin, grew up in Israel, and made her life in New York, surrounded by other immigrants whose paths were as implausible as hers and only slightly less incredible than Santa’s adventure on the dinosaur. Alexander could not fathom any of this, and yet somehow, in the rhythm and pitch of my mother’s voice as she played both parts, he could.
There is an accident. For reasons that are not spelled out, Santa has fallen off the dinosaur.
A discussion ensues.
“Santa are you ok?” asks the dinosaur.
“Yes I am,” says Santa.
“Are you sure?” says Alexander.
“Yes I landed very softly and I am OK,” says Santa.
“Do you want to get back on?” says the dinosaur.
“Yes I do!” says Santa.
He gets back on. Again, he is in flight.
Coetzee writes to Auster, a New Yorker, shortly after the great Wall Street crash of 2008.
“Our cities stand intact, our farms remain productive, our shops are full of goods. What then happened to make us poorer?
“The answer we are given is that certain numbers changed. Certain numbers that used to be high suddenly became low, and as a result we are poorer…
“Why not, I ask, simply throw away this particular set of numbers, numbers that make us unhappy and don’t reflect reality and make us unhappy anyway, and make up new numbers for ourselves…”
I liked this logic and recognized it. Anyone who hangs out with little kids would recognize it. A fact is a fact unless you declare it is not. A rule is a rule, unless you just change it. Parents are the interpreter of facts and the enforcer of rules–they are often appealed to on these grounds. In a way childhood is a time of enormous faith in language. If you just change a few words, the world turns upside down.
Now the dinosaur has a new passenger. He is giving King George III a ride. At some point, as my mother holds the soft puppet against the dinosaur’s hard, plastic back, both of them floating through air, Alexander identifies the passenger as King George III. He met him during my puppet show the previous night.
My mother and I exchange a glance at this. There may be one thing that beats that fantastic sense of wonder and amazement you feel when you kid does something remarkable or impressive, like remember that the little puppet with the yellow crown, royal blue cloak and red pants, is named King George III, and that is seeing your own mother’s face express this wonder and amazement at this fact. This feeling of delight is magnificent but it is not innocent on my part–part of the pleasure is an almost cynical sense of, “GOLDMINE! The kids is a genius and will rescue us all!”
My mother, though, sees beyond this. To what, I can not be sure. Some larger truth.
I am, as you can see, highly dependant of my family members no matter their age.
It occurs to me that much of the spooky charm of the strain of modernist fiction practiced by Coetzee and Auster among many others is the way it leans incorporates the childlike point of view. The voice that states without any anxiety - because why would the truth make you anxious? -that the emperor is naked. And asks why it should be so.
I have always felt very free about this sort of thing myself. Say the truth. It may not set you free, but it’s the path of least resistance. But in the adult world, the truth must be parcelled out in small doses. It’s called manners, politics, diplomacy. I am all for these things. Difficult to get the measures right.
Coetzee delivered a commencement address in 2012. He advised the graduates of Witwatersand University (never heard of it, either) to take up careers in primary education. “It will be good for you, good for your soul, to be with small children,” he said.
My first reaction is that the only person who would say such a thing is a person who is not with small children all the time. But then I remembered that Coetzee had children of his own, now grown, and a persistent fear of mine, for which I am oddly grateful, asserts itself. Maybe this is the sort of thing a parent who has been through the little children gauntlet says when it’s all over–when the kids are not little and not kids. They wish they had more of that time. I am afraid of having this feeling, one day, even as I look forward to the day when I could have that feeling. I long for the time when I can feel longing for the time I now live in, but I am also afraid of that feeling, which is how I am able to return to the time in which I am living and embrace it.
That voice my mother used when she did the puppet show – a marathon puppet show, I should add, hours, my son is insatiable – used to bother me. hen I was little I loved it but then it bothered me. At a certain point that sense of wonder she is able to slip into suddenly became almost repellent to me. But then that passed. And now I am so grateful for it.
I even have a bit of it myself. I took over for a while. I did King George III myself. It was a one man show, though. No dinosaur. I know my limits.