“Max said, “Be still!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”
–Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
We packed a picnic today: spread a tarp beneath a tree, sat and breathed the scent of yesterday’s rain. My two-year-old plunked down beside me and rummaged around the lunch bag until she found something sweet. My infant sprawled on her back, mesmerized by the shifting light seeping through the leaves above. Suddenly, my oldest stopped, a handful of banana halfway to her mouth, and stared at something behind me.
“A bird,” she said, pointing.
I turned and saw a bird grooming its feathers on a bench.
“Yep,” I said. And turned back to lunch.
But not her. Her body stood at rapt attention; she was like a rabbit suddenly spotted against new snow—statuesque, wide-eyed. She fixed her gaze on the bird, barely blinking.
“It’s pretty,” she finally said. I glanced over; it was a magpie.
“Yeah, it is,” I conceded. I tickled my baby’s chin and thought about the plan for the rest of the day: stories and naps, getting a blog post up, throwing in a load of laundry, making a reservation, answering that e-mail, and . . . what was I going to make for dinner, anyway?
Not my daughter. She looked and looked. She had forgotten the very food in her hand. After a long examination, she announced her discovery.
“It has a long tail,” she said. Finally, this time I turned to look, and then, for the briefest moment, I saw.
The magpie had that tuxedo look, like a penguin. Sleek black all down his back with a chest white as powdered sugar. He lifted one wing; I looked closer. The light glinted on his feathers, and sudden color swirled like oil on water: iridescent.
My breath caught on a hook in my throat. As if noticing, the magpie turned. With one sharp, stony eye, he regarded me with a severe and appraising look. He reminded me of my strictest teacher in school. Harsh and brilliant, reprimanding. There I was, red-handed in a daydream. What was the question again, Mr. Magpie?
What was the question?
Before I could decide, though, the magpie spread its iridescent wings and flew off over our heads. My daughter blinked, smiled, and then remembered to chew.
I have no trouble remembering, as it were, to chew.
I read recently that a mouse must constantly gnaw on anything it can find—food, wood, wire, asphalt—to keep its ever-growing teeth filed to a reasonable size. What kind of teeth must I be growing, aching as I am to gnaw on information, interaction, day in, day out?
Is there nothing I won’t do to keep my brain on its manic teacup ride? Or to what lengths will I go in order to satiate my spinning-reeling-ravenous mind, which requires stimulus, stimulus, stimulus all the livelong day? I Google and e-mail and text and read, watch and tweet, chat and listen. My radio’s always on. My browser’s always open. What’s going on in the world? I’m always hungry.
This is all in stark contrast to my children, who are constantly rapt with attention over some bug, leaf, branch, bird, thing I find ordinary. I have seen my toddler stand still for half an hour, eyes locked with a grasshopper. When my infant cries, my best remedy is to take her to the window, throw open the curtains, and let her look out.
My children effortlessly stare into the yellow eyes of the wild, never blinking once. They peel back the pedestrian and discover the raw buzzing beauty of the world. The intricacy of its caterpillars and crawdads. The soft comfort of its petals on their cheeks and its mud between their toes. The sharp edges of its stingers and teeth. The tenuous threads that connect us all.
And so they know—without needing to learn—how to be still. That’s the trick, isn’t it? You don’t lock the yellow eyes of nature without first bringing to a halt the whirling of your mind. Then you catch the eye of a Wild Thing, and it tells you something of its nature and maybe something of yours. You forget—for the tiniest sliver of a moment—about the gears grinding in your life; you come to a halt. You forget past and future; you forget your own body, your constant need to chew.
I’ve a mind to go stalking Wild Things. I’ve a mind to climb into my boat and sail through the night and day and into weeks and over a year. I want to find the creatures who roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible teeth and, if I just wait long enough, tell their wonderful secrets.
Wild Things are elusive, and by definition cannot be made to appear. Still, I may position myself just so, and hope to get lucky. Let me wander by the water or crouch in the tall grass, scanning for movement. Let me dig bare-handed in my garden or lounge in the grass looking up at the sky.
I may manage to hold my body still, and perhaps my mind will follow. Perhaps I will tame a Wild Thing with Max’s magic trick for a moment. Or perhaps they will tame me. I could stop my gnawing long enough. We could lock eyes for a moment, and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll just manage to catch a flurry of iridescent wings.