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Alex Mueller

© 2004

Alex readingA Medieval Meditation on Fatherhood

Two anxieties rule me.  On the one hand, I’m preparing for my preliminary examinations for a PhD in English literature in a few months, and on the other, I’m anticipating the birth of my first child in the coming weeks.  After a long day of reading Chaucerian Middle English for my required reading list along with the safety instructions for the changing table, my mind shuts down completely, and I’m reduced to slouching and drooling on our couch, flipping the channel between “Fear Factor” and MTV’s “The Real World,” and wondering how I will ever scrunch all of this new information into my puny brain.  At the same time, I’m tortured by how little progress I’m making in both my reading list and in my mental preparation for the childbirth and ensuing role of parenthood.  These anxieties paralyze me, and I already feel like a failure.             

To make matters worse, I don’t have a lot of confidence in my memory.  I’m constantly at a loss about past events, which gets me into trouble every once in awhile, especially when I forget about important moments in my relationship with my wife.  My inability to remember is particularly disturbing to a woman who has etched every last thing that has occurred in her life on some stone tablet in her brain, a permanent database that she can access at will.  She recollects the first day of first grade, her Junior Miss routine, the names of every teacher she’s had from Mrs. Swihart to Mr. Zumbaugh, even the birthdays of her childhood boyfriends Jake, Wade, and Steve.  I, on the other hand, can’t recall the name of my third grade teacher I despised, the phone numbers of best friends, my class schedule two years ago, or my ATM pin number.  You can imagine what this does to my capability to win arguments, much less have cash on hand.  While I fret about the possibility of my memory failing in my academic endeavors, I find myself worrying more intensely about my future capacity to remember the details of my child’s infancy, adolescence, and teenage years.

Even though I don’t want to spend the six hundred dollars to purchase a camcorder, I flip through Target and Best Buy ads, pricing these amazing little containers of artificial memory.  After all, how can I miss my child’s early years, all of the coos, and all of that adorable stuff I’m afraid I’ll forget?  Deep inside though, I strongly resist this urge to rely on technology for memories.  It all just seems so artificial, so canned.  My parents were reel to reel enthusiasts when I was born and left me scarred from their extensive documentation of my childhood and adolescence.  They still enjoy showing the film of me as a two year old running around naked throwing around a tennis ball and discovering my genitalia.  Thankfully, that film has rapidly deteriorated over time, but unfortunately, my mother has volumes of well preserved photographs of me with eyes completely shut or wide open.  My natural instinct with the flash was to close my eyes, a habit my mother tried to break by insisting that I open them as if in horror before every click of the shutter.  By the time Prom rolled around, I had become so photophobic that I dreaded and dodged every photo opportunity.  The artificiality of smiling from ear to ear in order to represent the supposed joy of a moment that in reality inspired such intense resentment for felicity on demand has always made my flesh crawl.  I wouldn’t make a good celebrity.  I’m sure I’d murder the paparazzi. 

I’m naturally more of a hermit, which is strikingly appropriate considering my interest in the cloistered lifestyle of many medieval writers.  As a matter of fact, all of my reading in medieval literature has caused me to come to an important realization about myself.  Rather than passing this fear of photography onto the next generation, I wish I possessed a medieval memory.  Despite the vast number of texts that have survived from the Middle Ages, writing was not the standard means of recording or remembering information.  For the most part, only the clerical elite could read and write, which meant that most people relied on their memories to document names, places, and events.  There existed a wide variety of techniques for remembering, but my favorite was what medievalist Mary Carruthers called the architectural mnemonic, a particular method in which one would envision their mind as a building or thesaurus (Latin for storage-room) that would house memories.  If a boy wanted to remember the story of Beowulf that his father had told him over supper one evening, he would simply retreat into his mental thesaurus and find an empty room to fill with the battles with Grendel and the fearsome dragon.  And if he wanted to pass on the tale to a friend, he would visualize the “Beowulf” room and open it up for all to wonder at the cacophony of alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse.

If I were able to train my mind in such a way, not only would I be able to pass my exams with flying colors, but also be able to recall a specific moment in my child’s life upon the prompting of my wife, extended family, or good friends.  Then I wouldn’t need the camcorder and my memories would exist not merely in artificial form, but also within the living confines of my brain.  I would own these memories and I would always be able to recall and cherish them whenever I desired . . .

Hold on a minute.  Maybe I’ve touched on the real problem here.  Having this baby is not about me.  At least it shouldn’t be.  After all, what good is a memory if it cannot be shared with others?  A camcorder serves that purpose in that it records an event not just for me and my wife to see, but for friends, relatives, and even our child to enjoy.  The real origin of my anxieties may instead be my selfish nature.  The arrival of the child will effect a drastic shift in my modus operandi.  Instead of observing pretender celebrities swallow pig rectum through the safety of the television screen, I will become intimately familiar with the weight, odor, and sight of baby excrement with no barrier to shield me from diaper-changing urine squirts.

This is too much reality for a self-absorbed individual like me to handle.  The realization of this truth about my self-absorption is absolutely blinding, because I don’t feel like I’m seeing anything clearly.  My cognitive dissonance reminds me of a recent reading in the Medieval Latin section of my book list.  Lady Philosophy describes this confrontation of reality to Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy as the experience of eyes accustomed to darkness enduring the pain of piercing light.  People like me, who enjoy living a lie in the darkness, cannot handle the light of truth.  Nox inluminat dies caecat.  Night enlightens, day blinds.  Fools like me remain satisfied with the comfortable darkness and never seek the painful light of day.

Of course, such suffering is not without its reward.  Even though my eyes instinctually shut in response to the piercing light of a camera flash, I’m often glad to have the photograph to record the event.  Likewise, after my optometrist Dr. Bashford checks and dilates my eyes in order to check for signs of glaucoma, it is terribly painful and somewhat dangerous to drive home.  My pupils are letting in more light than they usually do, and the result is a throbbing headache.  Yet, the pain is not without purpose.  Dr. Bashford peers deep into the depths of my eye in order to identify any sign of disease so that I may continue living my life with new knowledge about my sight.  I leave assured that my eyes are healthy and that I am indeed seeing things clearly.  In the same way, the pain of my anxieties has led me to such self assurance.  Perceiving the truth of my selfish nature will allow me at least to begin the process of overcoming it.  While I will continue to grieve my freedom to crack open a beer, enjoy solitary walks to the coffee shop, and sleep in on weekends just because I feel like it, I can now commence a new phase in adulthood that will lead to a truth about loving a child that I have never known before.  Such a truth seems so beautiful that it is hard to imagine.

As I seek this beauty, I hear again the words of the famous medieval philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas.  Since he was a celibate priest, he has nothing to offer me about parenting but a lot to say about understanding beauty.  In his Summa Theologiae, he claims, “Three things are needed for beauty: wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”  Since our child has not yet been born, I’ve found it difficult even to achieve the first aspect of beauty: wholeness.  For one thing, the baby remains a part of my wife and will not establish a distinct identity until separated from the womb.  Secondly, my acquaintance with our baby has not reached any sort of completeness, since I have only been able to interact with it by caressing its feet, hands, and shoulders through the barrier of my wife’s soft belly.  I’ve tried to familiarize it with my voice by reading one of my favorite books from my childhood, A Cricket in Times Square, through a microphone and stomach speakers, but its movements in response are random and cryptic to interpret.  Even the fact that I can only refer to the child as “it,” rather than “he” or “she,” indicates how impersonal our relationship is at this point.  Biologically, I can comprehend that the growing fetus is half of me, but emotionally, I feel only a small connection.  I’m certain that I cannot attain this stage of wholeness until I look deep into that child’s eyes and greet it with a name.

The second aspect of beauty, harmony, can only be reached when I understand the baby to be both individual and inseparable from my life.  A musician achieves harmony by deftly integrating multiple notes in such a way that they mingle together smoothly, creating melodious sound.   At this point, the baby only appears to be a disruption, a flat key, a tone deaf chorister.  Much of my anxiety arises when I think of how difficult it will be to juggle the many responsibilities of childcare with my hectic and demanding academic life.  How will I be able to intermingle warming up bottles of milk with grading an aging stack of freshman compositions?  Will I be able to think clearly about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales after a long night of rocking our baby to sleep listening to the tales in Raffi’s songs?  Ultimately, I’ve realized that I will never achieve this harmony with our child until I loosen my grip on my academic and personal routines.

Yet there is hope for me in the last aspect of beauty.  Radiance occurs when I fully perceive the child within my imagination.  Now that I can do.  Since I was the type of child content to play, read, and write in private, like a monk in a scriptorium, I illuminated my life through my hopes, dreams, and fantasies.  As I excitedly turned page after page of The Hobbit as a young boy, I not only imagined myself within the realm of Middle Earth, but also glossed the text by composing sequels and alternate versions of such tales of adventure and fantastical creatures.  I was able to create whole worlds through the inspiration of books that I read and to some degree, I still do so now.  Unfortunately, my adolescent passion for creating such fantasies has waned, but every once in awhile while sitting on the rumbling bus listening to the hum of the road or jogging around Lake Harriet and breathing in the fresh lake air, my mind wanders and I dream new dreams of my life and my future with my child.  In those moments, I visualize snuggling up to my child under the warm glow of the bedside lamp, reading aloud The Phantom Tollbooth, transporting us into the world of imagination, a world through which I once traveled as a child.  I imagine waiting with open arms to embrace my child as it manages its first steps, sheds tears for its first heartbreak, and squeals for joy as it savors a personal triumph.  This world with my child I can comprehend, and it’s blindingly radiant.

So maybe it’s okay to feel the pain of the light.  As Lady Philosophy says, only through confronting and enduring the light of truth, can one transcend the deceptive darkness and revel in the splendor of day.  At first I thought having a baby might be a case of quid pro quo.  But what I’ve realized is that I’m not merely giving up my sacred independence for something of equal value.  As a matter of fact, I may not be sacrificing anything at all.  Instead, I’m readjusting my life, adding to the marital equation, and graduating into a phase that I now imagine is worth much more than quiet walks and lazy afternoons.  My eyes are adjusting to the light and now I see things I’ve never seen before and react in ways uncharacteristic of me.  Rather than shooting an annoyed glare back at the piercing stare of the little blue-eyed drooling girl in the grocery line, I discover myself cracking a smile.  I even muster a wave and as I do so, I begin to feel my anxieties melting away.  In this instant, I not only recall the blessed innocence of my childhood, but also gain confidence in my ability to be a good father.  I may still want that camcorder, but I realize that I don’t need it as much as I thought I did.  What before was the light of blinding truth has now become a light of illumination, helping me to construct for myself a medieval memory, an empty house with many vacant rooms, waiting to be filled with birth stories, ice cream cones, and laughter.  This realization is a moment of beauty, no doubt about it.  And guess what?  I won’t forget it.