Thoughts while my son Nathaniel is sleeping

SLEEPY day. Nathaniel, my 15-month-old tornado, has settled into a mid-morning nap after a long spell of rounding up dogies with his plastic pony. My cat dozes on the fence outside my window. Over and over he repeats the comforting ritual of nose-to-wood: His head sinks lower and lower until, just before it collides with the fence, his nasal early warning system makes him pull up and hold at a steady altitude of an inch or so. After a couple of minutes his head once again begins its descent. The luxury of rest! Children and animals seem to know it best. For them time is no tyrant: The fact that the sun rises and sets has nothing to do with a quantity of work to be done, or a certain number of dollars to be earned, and although the importance of these things seems indisputable to adults, it scarcely registers in smaller and more meticulous creatures.

For children and animals, I think, are more meticulous than most adults. They are scrupulously careful about doing exactly what they are doing at any given moment. I have never met an adult who dozes as skillfully as my cat. Nor do I know a man or woman my age who can swing with the same devotion as Nathaniel. Nothing distracts him. When he swings, he swings; when he sleeps, he sleeps. And when he wakes, he knows that it can all begin again. For, having had the luxury of rest, he can proceed again to the luxury of time, where clocks are merely flat ticking surfaces and the job at hand is the only one that matters.

It is often tempting to envy children and animals their wider sense of time, or their deeper concentration. Yet in most respects this kind of envy differs little from garden-variety nostalgia, which allows us adults to think pleasant thoughts without actually changing anything. A child's sense of time or rest is not ours, we tell ourselves; nous sommes des hommes d'affaires, as the French say with great dignity. We have ``things to do.'' Meanwhile our own sense of rest, and peace, becomes more tenuous; we work seven days a week, and seven days are not enough. The future is always uncertain, the bank always implicitly threatening foreclosure. No savings account is big enough. To sleep is perchance to dream of work left undone. With plenty of clues that something in our lives is out of whack, we go on rhapsodizing the past.

I like to think that children and animals, especially children, are not simply an invitation to nostalgia. Nor do they descend upon us merely as a new test of our mental and emotional fortitude, like a promotion with a raise in pay. They come because we can learn something from them, and the harder it is for us to learn it, the more we need to.

Taking care of my son Nathaniel is a case in point. Nothing in my life has prepared me for this role as father. For more than 20 years I have been tracked toward the twin idols of the modern world, success and recognition. As a fourth-grader I was already in a college prep school. The pace quickened noticeably in seventh grade, and in high school I enrolled in a number of advanced classes designed to make me more palatable to the academic powers-that-be. Sometimes a friend, time was more often an enemy; rest was incidental, a sign of weakness. This pattern continued through college and beyond. It is a pattern I share with most of the people I know today. NO one suggested to us that one day, after having hunched over our desks for years, we would be simply sitting in a room while our infant children slept. No one told us how at odds with our world we might feel - how embarrassed to be at home, wasting time, tending children, while the rest of society got on with its Supreme Court justices and its Persian Gulf, its deficit reductions and increased overseas sales. No one told us, in short, that what we were being trained for was not life but only a very narrow, very competitive slice of it, which bore little relation to the rhythms of being that live inside us like small voices, talking to each other in the quiet we drown out.

But now Nathaniel is sleeping, and after fidgeting and fuming for a few minutes I have come here to sit by the window. Ironically, this is the hardest work of all, this sitting. I am not well acquainted with the luxury of rest, or the luxury of time. I am too afraid that the world will get away from me if I lose my grip on the narrow slice of it that I still hold. Time is short; money is tight; work is crucial. These are the words on the tip of my tongue - ``short,'' ``tight,'' ``crucial,'' ``critical,'' ``late,'' ``hurry.'' It's not much of a vocabulary for a man who prides himself on words. Yet Nathaniel lies peacefully in the next room, with none of these words on his tongue, as his feline dozing partner out on the fence once again begins his descent toward nose-to-wood.

I have missed something along the way. Can I recover it? Nathaniel is a difficult teacher, for he gives his lessons only once and instructs by example: Those of us trained in rote and theory must start a long way back.

Yet I will have to try, if only to say that, in the middle of my life, I suddenly realized I lacked wholeness, the only thing that really mattered. If I can acquire this from my son, who sleeps so soundly when he sleeps, I will possess once again a kind of luxury no money can ever buy.

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