My Niece, the Oracle at Delphi
Lately, I've been thinking that my two-year old niece is the reincarnation of, oh I don't know, Albert Einstein or Al Capone or somebody powerful and hyper-smart like that.
Or perhaps she's the modern-day human embodiment of one of those oracles we read about in eighth-grade Greek mythology, those holes in the ground that spouted all sorts of weird but reliable wisdom.
Yep, I'm pretty certain either Abe Lincoln or the Oracle at Delphi has chosen to live on through my recently arrived kin.
Oh sure, little Brooke may not even be toilet trained. She may spend her days padding around my sister's house with a bottle protruding from her face and a big, squishy diaper making her pants fit funny. And sure, she has a conniption if you don't buy her the $3 Nsync lollypop she spotted while in the check out line.
But even with all that typical toddler fare going on, the little thing has this undeniable omniscience about her, this extremely powerful energy, and a most wise look in her expressive hazel eyes. As she goes about her business, tinkering with her plastic food collection, pretending to talk on the phone, or running away from whomever is trying to get her to eat beets, you can see that her aura, like a horse shoe-shaped halo, is big and thick and screaming gold. When I'm around her -- which is every couple of weeks, since she lives about an hour away -- I feel like I've gotten an audience with some miniature head of state, one with sandy blond curls and rosy cheeks. One that clings to my thigh and shrieks my name when I arrive.
It's the little things she does that make me wonder if Brooke's taken a spin or two on this planet before, perhaps as the chancellor of a major university or president of the American Medical Association.
Like the other day, when Brooke's six-year-old sister Hope, seeking some religious-oriented entertainment from the WB network, said out loud to whomever, "What night is Seventh Heaven on?" Brooke, making her way down the hall with a piece of plastic fried chicken under her arm, pulled the bottle from her mouth and called out in a lackadaisical tone, "It's on tonight, and it's a re-run."
Whoa, where did that come from? How did she know that? And how does a two-year-old even know what a "re-run" is? Has she even been alive long enough to see any?
She's always doing this kind of stuff -- saying things that seem to be channeling in from other places, other times, other heads filled with experience and knowledge. I'm told that not too long ago, she ambled up to her mom -- whom Brooke has always addressed by her Christian name, Marcia, nobody's sure why -- awhile back and said in her husky, naturally Debra Winger-ish voice, "Marcia, what's your challenge?" Her mom, quite taken aback, said: "you."
Now, the natural question one might ask at this point is, "Yes, but does this child understand what she's saying, or is she merely picking up phrases from her four older siblings and simply repeating them?
A valid inquiry. So, to reach a conclusion on this matter, I turned it around on her. While we were out circumnavigating her small burgh one Saturday, I casually asked, "Brooke, what's your challenge?" Without skipping a beat, she leaned forward in her car seat and said with a nod, "Getting dressed."
Ah yes, I remember what a pain in the keister that was during tothood -- all that fighting with clingy turtlenecks, all those irritating layers, all that pesky not knowing how to tie your shoes, all those embarrassing teddy bear appliques, all of it topped off with wanting to wear your Josie and the Pussycats t-shirt but being forced to wear GerAnimals instead.
So there was my confirmation: she understood exactly what she was saying. Kind of spooky.
A few months back, my sister and her family were all packed into their van heading I don't know where, when her husband stopped at a red light. Growing impatient back in her car seat, Brooke said, "Go, Dad!" Her dad said, "No, Brooke. This is a red light. You have to stop at red lights." Brooke's irreverent response? An accusing and guttural "geezer!"
A few days later, the family was in the process of arriving at church. Everyone started mobilizing to get out of the van, scooping up coats and purses and such. In the midst of all the commotion, Brooke yelled, "I'll get the baby!" Brooke is the baby.
And, not surprisingly, she's the baby you can't get anything past. When her mom commenced to weaning Brooke off the bottle and onto solid food, she began clandestinely referring to the long, nippled cylindrical thing as a B*O*T*T*L*E, you know, so Brooke wouldn't get all riled up and start demanding a bottle whenever one was mentioned. Of course, the diminutive wiseacre saw through that hooey immediately. When this became apparent, the codespeak was changed to M*I*L*K. But that didn't last long either. Then, thinking herself quite sassy, Brooke's mom settled on "M4," M for milk, 4 for four ounces. Brooke soon began requesting an M4, and the family realized the whole thing was pointless.
The other day, she struck again. "I'm different," Brooke announced with a load of confidence and a wide smile after waddling up to her 10-year-old brother. Later, she told her sister: "I'm kind." The following weekend, while sitting a spell together, she said to me, without a hint of braggadocio: "I'm excellent."
And get this: yesterday, I was hanging out in the kitchen of the Brooke compound, just making myself a ham sandwich, when I heard Brooke say, with a healthy dose of end-of-the-day world weariness, "I need a cocktail."
"What?" I spat, stopping short, my knife frozen above the Hellmans jar. Where would she have picked up such a term? Certainly not from her mom and dad, who are both abstainers. And, more importantly, how did she know that unmistakable tone?
"I said I need a cocktail!" she repeated from her high chair, sounding way too much like a self-important 1950's businessman growing impatient with his inability to get his hands on a stiff Tom Collins. Then she shot me a sly grin.
"Fruit cocktail, she means," said her mom, swooping in and spooning the syrupy stuff into a triangular section of Brooke's baby plate. "Oh," I thought, still scratching my head.
Then, while consuming said fruit cocktail, Brooke held up a smooched piece of fruit and asked me what it was. I, calling them how I see them, said, "a grape."
"No," she said, "It's alimony."
What that means, I have no idea. But I do know it's something that should not be emanating from the mouths of babes. That is, babes who have not lived through a nasty divorce in a previous life.
Later, during a car ride to Delaware, unique pizza toppings was the discussion. I turned and asked Brooke, all nestled into her carseat, what sort of pizza she'd design if she could. "Diaperoni," she answered and then threw her head back in wild laughter. "No, wait," she said, "Make that blood pizza."
Alas, there's just no disputin' it: this child is the reanimation of some sly, impatient, all-knowing, will- and personality-packed being who couldn't stand to be off floating in the nether limbo spirit worlds anymore. She's the rebirth of an entity who just had to get back here and continue his or her impact on the earth and its inhabitants.
Other things that support this theory: Brooke's mom had worked hard to get pregnant with the four kids that came along before Brooke. After baby #4 emerged into the world, my sister, 35 at the time, hung up her conceiving hat and declared her self done. Four years later, however, Brooke showed up in her uterus, completely unaccounted for. She wasn't waiting for anyone to "plan" any "arrivals." Nope, ovulation schedules be damned, she was bustin' on through.
Then, when Brooke exited my sister and entered the world, she cried nearly nonstop for days, which became weeks, which then bled into months. Lots of months. She wailed like a banshee until she could walk. Once she was able to perambulate from point A to point B, once she had some control over her comings and goings, she quieted down. The theory: used to being a very capable and mobile adult in a previous life, she knew she didn't belong in a helpless baby's skin. It was far too restrictive, far too limiting, and it was driving her quite mad.
Is Brooke the reincarnation of a mortal human, with limited human knowledge? Or is she really the embodiment of a non-human oracle? Perhaps she is a reincarnated human who has, by virtue of having gone through the process of reincarnation, special knowledge of the world beyond. Who freakin' knows?
To try and define the tiny pundit's areas of expertise and the extent of her wisdom, and thus, her true origin, I came up with some questions for her.
"Brooke, can any mathematical system completely define itself?" I asked while we were hanging out in her parents' room.
She pulled the bottle from her mouth. She laughed at me, a knowing laugh. Emphatically, she said, "Yes, it sure can." She put the bottle back in, then, having an afterthought, removed it again. "You're goofy," she added.
Later, thinking she was properly warmed up from the math inquiry, I asked if she'd care to interpret a passage from the Talmud for me. This didn't go over too big, though. She furrowed her brow and said nothing. Probably because she was cranky from just having awakened from a nap. Or perhaps it was because she knew my psyche was not in the right place for her take on the authoritative body of Jewish tradition. Or maybe she knew she wasn't yet completely equipped, motors skills-wise, to deliver her oracular waxings on it.
A few minutes later, when Brooke and I were sharing a big, comfortable swively chair, cozying up under her blanky, I posited the third and final inquiry for the day, "Brooke, does language exist outside itself?"
Again, the knowing laugh. Then a confident: "Yes." And she got up and ambled off, her blanky dragging on the ground behind her and her full diaper looking like a big tumor in her pants. But before Brooke left the room, she turned to me and said, "I'm going to bake a cake."
A brilliant illustration of the answer! Instead of telling me, she showed me: action is a form of language that exists outside of language itself. Getting up and baking a cake is a perfect example. So uncluttered, so dead on.
My Zen professor always used to say, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." But perhaps it should have been, "When the student is ready, the teacher turns five and is thus a shade more articulate. Recently, I've begun to fantasize about all the confusion and hand wringing I'll be able to slice from my life when my little relative, who's 30 years my junior, ages a little bit. Conundrums that, before her arrival, stopped me dead in my tracks physically, emotionally and spiritually, will soon be solved simply -- as long as I'm able get ahold of Brooke.
"Brooke, my editor at my new job with Newsweek has just asked me to compromise myself ethically on a story! How should I handle it?" I'll pant after spending three days trying to catch up to her at the Girl Scout jamboree, held that year in Nashville.
"Brooke, do I buy shares of MedImmune now that they've dropped to 51 and an eighth -- or should I wait til the quarterly earnings are released?" I'll blurt, bursting into her fourth grade social studies class and badly disturbing little Sally Occencloss's oral report.
"Brooke," I'll whisper from the pay phone outside my the fertility specialist's office, "Clomid or the Pergonal? Which is safer?"
And later, when my twilight years have arrived: "Brooke, is there any difference between the care delivered in not-for-profit assisted living facilities versus those that are owned by a large, public company?"
Having been wowed so extremely by Brooke during my short two years in her acquaintance, and her even shorter one year of using the English language, I wonder if babies I birth have any chance at impressing me now. Could my spawn possibly follow Brooke's act -- or is everything ruined for my future little bundles of larvae?
I shared this worry with Brooke's mom. What she said more than quelled my fears: "Oh, please. You'd probably have Brooke squared."
And thus, I have already set about priming my fallopian tubes.
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Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
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New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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