Illustration by Christa Allen
gamut march 2015
I could hear them, their tinny voices echoing in the distance, but all I saw was a blank, snow-covered forest floor. My children wandered lost in the woods, and somehow I was expected to be okay with this.
I have control issues. Anyone who knows me will undoubtedly nod in agreement. I like things to occur according to familiar and certain terms; as long as a situation plays out within the comfy confines of prescribed parameters, I can portray myself as a laid-back, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. One step over the line in any direction, however, invites panic into the mix.
My control issues are diametrically opposed to the way I view the human condition: I believe randomness and chaos are the only constants that rule us as we, scrambling around on our little blue dot, hurl through the cosmos. The only philosophical ideal that's ever made any sense to me is existentialism, which suggests attempts to impose order are absurd, ultimately doomed, conceits. And yet, I expend most of my energy trying to wrangle every day's moments into the specially-built paddock of my, admittedly fantastical, control.
You don't want to be in a car with me when the navigational system sends us to the wrong location is what I'm saying.
I remember, as a child, coming home from school to the greetings of my neighborhood friends, hopping on my BMX and trailing these chums around the subdivision. Sometimes we'd end up in the woods, swinging across dried-out creek beds on creaking vines and testing the feel of curse words on our tongues, their sharp, short vowels like knives poking from our hairless lips. Other times, we'd end up in random kids' yards, playing basketball or filing into the living room for an illicit viewing of the extended “Thriller” video on VHS. I never encountered trouble, the occasional angry dog or suspicious character aside, but had I run afoul of danger, my parents, blocks away in our home, would have been powerless to affect the moment.
Novelist Michael Chabon refers to this phenomenon as the “lost wilderness of childhood” in his book, “Manhood for Amateurs.” He notes countless statistics and studies exist stating our children are in no more danger of abduction now than our younger selves were when navigating the previous century's streets, but he, like myself, freezes up the moment one of his kids slips out of sight. Chabon tells a story of moving into his house to learn that the children living two doors away on each side — two kids with three houses between them — had never met. This seems incomprehensible, but I get it — my kids have never said “boo” to our next-door neighbors, never set foot in our four acres of woods without a parent tightly clutching their blood-strangled fingers.
I want my kids to wander in the woods unaccompanied. I want them to play basketball with the kids two doors down. I understand that the day is just a mélange of random, unrelated events, and my children are, statistically at least, in as much danger sitting in the living room as out walking the neighborhood.
When my eldest was born, I told my wife I wished for her to one day climb a tree with a book tucked under her arm, for her to spend hours reading with her back nestled against the craggly bark of a hardwood trunk. Then last month, completely unbidden, my now 10-year-old daughter did just that, scaling the sturdy walnut just outside our dining room window with a tome pressed against her puffy coat. I left the room in a panic, the joy of the moment totally overshadowed by the mental image of her falling four feet to the ground below.
Parenthood is maddeningly bilateral.
So here I am, standing on the hill above, scanning the woods frantically for any sign of my children and the group they wander with. It's a birthday party at their friends' house, and the kids are on a fantasy novel-themed adventure in the forest below. Word's gotten back that the group is “lost,” though the hosting adults are fully at ease with the situation — I am expected to be at ease too, despite every nerve in my body alighting with a message to “run, find, protect.” And, eventually, the group of kids stumbled back into view, cheeks reddened with cold, feet numbed with the seeping chill. They were laughing and ready for cake; I was ready for a stiff drink and a nap.
When the party was over and my family was safely back in our danger-proofed living room, my children excitedly recounted the details of their forest adventure, all agreeing it was the “best party ever.” Stiff drink in hand, sleep on the horizon, I smiled and resolved to let them wander more, climb more, do more.
I doubt this will happen, but it sure would be nice.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.