My baby daughter Eden doesn’t know what she looks like.
“It’s your arch-nemesis, Eden number two!” Bear informs her ominously from the mirror, where they are hanging out, looking at their reflection. “Do you think she recognizes herself?” he asks me over his shoulder.
“Nah,” I say. “Not yet, I don’t think.”
She recognizes me—I’m the one with the milk boobs and the toothy grin all for her. I’m pretty sure she can smell me and thinks I smell right.
She recognizes Bear—he’s the one with the red beard and the fun nose for grabbing. The big, sturdy chest.
But right now she is a window with light pouring out of it and she’s the inside, opening up, and she’s a camera, taking millions of pictures of everything. Her body is for touching the world. It’s all tools for experiencing and learning. She makes expressions to try out different muscles in her face, to move her jaw around in order to practice chewing. She looks like a bewildered frog. She pops her stubby legs up and grabs her feet triumphantly and lets out a carefree fart. She looks like a cheerful, farting bug. Who cares how she looks? She’s all about how it feels.
It’s weird to think that I started out like this, too. That we all do. A brilliant jumble of sensors sensing excitedly all at once.
Sometimes I put a bow in her tufting, undecided baby hair. There. She’s a girl. People always guess boy when she’s in her brown bear suit.
But her girlness is irrelevant. It doesn’t mean anything yet.
She is exuberantly human.
It seems nice.
I’m not jealous. That’d be embarrassing. To be jealous of a baby.
I’m reminded, though, of something I’m not even sure I understood well enough to forget. Something to do with the center of things, instead of the surface. Surfaces are very important. They inform everything, I know. I’ve thought of myself for so long as a person who looks a certain way that it’s hard to imagine just looking at the world without looking at myself looking at the world. If that makes sense.
I am almost always at least a little conscious of what I might look like, as I go through life, doing things.
Looking at my daughter, I’m reminded that in a certain sense our appearances have nothing to do with us. I gave her these genes. And Bear did. In fact, these days she looks very little like me and very much like him.
Through both of us gushed our joint histories, an ancient tangle of eye colors and hair textures and exact lengths of the space between the lowest point of the bottom lip and the tip of the chin. A cacophony of suggestions about height and carriage and fingernails and smiles. All of it filtered and funneled into one chubby little baby body. And here she is. Not knowing the first thing about the shape of her eyes, but fully existing anyway.
She’ll learn this information about herself, eventually, the way everyone does. And I hope she will like it. That’s the most important thing about appearances, after all—whether or not we can like ours enough to move on to other things.
But right now, before that knowledge walks into her brain, takes a seat, and never stands up again, I want to take note of her separateness, her automatic, universal perfection. Just for being. The wondrous nature of genetics, the infinite, winding paths of people that converged on this spot, in an apartment in Brooklyn, where a fat baby whacks her poor giraffe toy on the floor with intense concentration.
I want to take credit—I made this person. The way she looks is maybe more about me than it is about her right now. I accept a big portion of the credit, and I wish that one day, if there is blame, I could accept that, too.
I watch her—she is making a hideous grimace which must feel fun or serve some developmental purpose neither of us can even guess at—I want to save this moment. I want to protect her forever, right here. I don’t want her to know what she looks like. I don’t want her to care.
No, of course I want her to grow and transform and become more complexly realized all the time. But also, I want to remember: this is how it always begins. We are all, in some way, always this. The exuberant human looking out from inside, light pouring into the world, pure, brilliant, ancient, fantastically individual, full of eagerness.
Oh, and we can all probably still make the occasional frog face, if we feel like it.
I’ve tried it, it’s pretty great.
* * *
Do you remember when you first noticed how you looked? I’m not sure I do. What about a time when you totally forgot how you looked?
Unroast: Today I love how my eyes feel when I finally put on my dorky reading glasses.
P.S. Just in case you’re interested, I did this Room for Debate about snow days in the New York Times. I’m the resident goofy homeschooler.
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