cancer tree, carved saint
I’m finally getting out of the house with Esme. Before she was born I promised myself I would not let the enroaching cold season keep me cloistered. Today I acted upon those good intentions by taking her to Notre Dame campus in her stroller. It was nice. The university is on fall break, so the chatty, stylish students, who usually fill the campus airwaves with the buzz of a thousand cell phones and oh-my-goshes, are mercifully somewhere else. The sky was overcast but bright, fallen leaves were everywhere, and three-dimensional stone images of western saints looked down on me quietly from the dormitories.
The walk was nice, but also made me feel lonely and serious. Perhaps this is partly due to the autumn weather, and partly to the serious company of a four-week old baby who has yet to smile at anyone (we’re waiting for her first more than the watchmen wait for the morning). Perhaps it’s also because of the gravity of the world that is gradually enroaching back on the insulated nest I’ve been building around myself for the past four weeks. I had stopped watching the news after her birth, or reading anything other than optimistic, how-to childrearing material. Now I’m gradually resuming the habit of tuning into external information sources, even though they make me sad, and sometimes feel piercing or apocalyptic in turns. I was watching the BBC News the other evening, something I had done routinely all summer out of habit, but this time it felt painful. They did a story about a woman in France who had been missing the bottom half of her face for a long time after it was bitten off by a dog. An innovative surgeon in London had just given her a face transplant so that she could resume life with a nose and lips and chin like other people. She emerged from the surgery looking, by any standards, quite unattractive, but incredibly grateful for a face of any kind. The story pierced my heart, and out of some strange impulse I went to look at Esme who was asleep in the back room, with her brand-new, unblemished face. It made me feel as if I brought a beautiful, vulnerable face into a world where faces can get ravished by dogs. It is unlikely, true, but it’s within the realm of terrifying possibility. While I was gazing at her in her crib the news anchor had moved on to another story, and the words “unending cycle of violence” floated back to me.
What’s more, NPR and the NY Times keep running stories about over-population. Can’t I enjoy the new little person in our family without being made to feel like her nine pound body is tipping the planet off its axis?
On our walk, we passed the campus graveyard, the cancer tree (each ribbon represents someone who suffered from cancer), and the World War II memorial fountain/sculpture, which, by the way, is huge and towering. It’s as if I was strolling Esme through the valley of the shadow of death. I took a break at a picnic table in the alcove of an old dormitory to feed Esme and then noticed the saints carved in the architecture above. Then I went to the Notre Dame bookstore and happened to get drawn in by that book by Al Gore, Inconvenient Truth, which artistically documents global warming in vivid pictures and words. I probably should have chosen a different book to look at while I drank coffee.
In any case, I must say that at least the stone saint, with his peaceful, wise, and knowing face–although he was outnumbered, above the line of vision, and understated–did provide hope and poetic beauty–that internal warming that comes from knowing even a single person who is trying to pray and do the right thing– amidst the gloominess. Maybe soon Esme’s smile will emerge and do the same.