Poems & Essays

17 Aug

Looking With A Wild Surmise

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The moment was, on the surface, entirely unremarkable; neither the setting, an indoor festival in San Francisco one foggy summer’s day, nor the incident was dramatic. It could hardly compete with the poet Keats’ oft-quoted description of “stout Cortez,” so stunned by his first discovery of the Pacific that he stared “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” while his fellow explorers “look’d at each other with a wild surmise.” And yet, what I witnessed that afternoon three decades ago moved me as profoundly as if I, too, had discovered a new world. And in a way I had. I was filled with awe, that potent blend of wonder and a little fear that comes when a person confronts something powerful enough to shift her understanding of herself, of her world, or, as in this case, of someone else. What took my breath and words away was the smallest of scenes—a small girl raising a small hand in a big room.

I thought of this moment after a recent conversation with that now quite grown-up small girl. Once again, my older daughter was poised to launch herself into a new professional sphere, leaving what had become comfortable territory to enter a fresh world that would demand not-yet acquired skills, forcing her to push herself harder, to learn faster, to risk more. So many times through the years I have witnessed her challenging herself in ways that amaze and terrify me. Quietly pursuing through the decades my mostly secure profession, I gasp when I hear her describe her own career ventures. Her boldness startles me because I know how much trepidation and self-doubt, invisible to others, accompany the decision to go a step, often a giant step, beyond her comfort zone.

I did not always recognize the significant gap between my daughter’s outside and her inside. From infancy on, she was inscrutable, either misread by others or impossible to read. “Little philosopher,” strangers on the street would call her, slightly uncomfortable after failing to coax a smile. Those closer to her had as little success in figuring her out—babysitters, teachers, relatives, friends of her parents, even, alas, her parents. We were constantly befuddled by the apparent contradictions between how she seemed and how she felt, between what we thought she would do and what she did. Although she let us read much of her inside story by revealing her fears and hesitancies, knowing that text offered little help in predicting what new page she would write in the world outside. Why, for example, when anxiety and stomach aches preceded each game, would she continue to be the only girl –and a rather slight one at that—on the local soccer team?

Most of us expect and respect the mystery of personhood in our relationships with others, but parenting brings with it the illusion that we really have our kids’ numbers, that we have the magic key to their personalities. As each year exposed new layers of complexity, I grew to appreciate the slow, never complete reveal of my daughter’s character. What she helped me to understand was that children were not to be “got” but just to be wondered at and cherished.

Although I had to relearn it again and again through the years of raising my children, my first and most profound lesson came at that festival in San Francisco when my daughter was four. In a large hall, surrounded by crowds of adults and kids, she clung to me and to her father as the magician on stage at the front dazzled the audience with feats of prestidigitation. When he asked for a volunteer from the rapt audience, the air filled with frantically waving hands and giggles and shouts of “Pick me! Pick me!” I squeezed my quiet daughter’s hand and smiled down at her lovely, solemn face, recognizing that nothing could tempt her to the stage.

Suddenly, her other hand shot straight into the air—no wild waving nor tentative half-wave with sheepish smile, no words. Just a direct, no-nonsense, high in the air arm that said in her own way, “I’m your girl—choose me.” And he did. Watching with astonishment her small figure approach the big stage, I now registered the vibrations of her trembling hand still in my own hand and the clenched set of her jaw as she moved away from us. What was it that, despite the trembling, prompted the hand to go up? What was it that, despite the clenching, propelled my shy daughter to march resolutely past so many strange eyes and mount the high, wide stage? How could the rather-bewildered magician guess at the profound churning inside the little girl who assisted him as gravely as if she were participating in some complicated surgery? How could her parents make sense of her being there?

I have had in my lifetime some grand moments of high drama that have swept me away, but none, I think, has stayed with me as much as this subtle moment of emotional magnitude that left me speechless. No vast, unlooked for Pacific Ocean. Just a small girl, raising her hand in a big room. Just two parents, looking at each other “with a wild surmise,” their expressions full of wonder, love, and a little fear. Who is this girl?

Maureen O’Leary is a writer and professor of English in northern California. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous local, national, and international newspapers, journals, and magazines.

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