I looked at him, puzzled at first, then gave a lame, inadequate answer: "It is a liquid, Toby. Liquids fill up cups and bowls and buckets."
"Well, what is ice? Ice is in ice cream."
The first question seemed easy. "Ice is frozen water, Toby. You know, we fill the ice cube trays with water and put them in the freezer..."
"No! I mean i-i-i-ice! What is it?"
Hearing him pronounce the long-i several times got me on the right track. Suddenly he wasn't asking about physical science anymore; he was asking me about phonics. Except that we've only learned short vowels, so I knew the answer would be confusing. He's been learning "i" as "i-i-indian" with the Phonics Museum song.
Toby is, to borrow a phrase from Annie Dillard, waking up to the world around him. He is waking up "in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years." Dillard said of herself, "I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again." He's discovering the world--its language, its laws of nature, its machines and its nature.
The conversation reminded me of the other day when the kids were playing with my hands. Hope pushed on the veins that criss-cross over my hands and watched them pop up again. She traced the path of the bluish tubes that snake from my forearm onto my fingers.
"They look like worms under your skin, Mom." Those worms are bigger than usual, thanks to my pregnancy, but my hands are still covered in creases, veins, and increasingly crepe-like skin. As Hope and Toby analyzed the skin on my hands, I thought again of Annie Dillard's description of a similar moment from her childhood:
"Mother let me play with one of her hands. She laid it flat on a living-room end table beside her chair. I picked up a transverse pinch of skin over the knuckle of her index finger and let it drop. The pinch didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge. I poked it; it slid over intact. I left it there as an experiment and shifted to another finger...I refashioned the ridge on her index-finger knuckle; I made the ridge as long as I could, using both my hands. Moving quickly, I made parallel ridges on her other fingers--a real mountain chain, the Alleghenies; Indians crept along just below the ridgetops, eyeing the frozen lakes below them through the trees."
"Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the common place mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way."One of the best things about motherhood is witnessing our children awakening to the world that God has placed them in--and being there to help them make sense of it.
(Quotes from Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, 1987, Harper and Row.)