by Matt Geiger
I’m standing in my daughter’s elegantly cluttered bedroom, hunting for socks. I search in vain beneath teetering piles of picture books, strata of stuffed animals, a basket of wings, and various glittering trinkets. I look like a man frantically bargain hunting at closing time in some eccentric curios shop run by a four-year-old girl and her pet crow.
Plump, festive Christmas lights snake their way through this room throughout the calendar year. Today, they illuminate the fact that she will once again go to school without matching socks.
They’re like snowflakes, I think as I scratch my head. Each sock seems completely unique, completely without a matching partner. Arriving soft and bright, they initially emit the faint, pristine glow of celestial bodies. Here on earth, they slide into dull, grayish brown, sullied by their contact with the dirt and dust of the world.
I’ve heard they come in pairs, but it sounds like the stuff of legend or myth.
None is plain. Each sock features a cartoon doodle, and each proclaims its individuality with a cobalt toe or magenta heel. Each is slightly different in size and shape.
Today, my most robust remaining brain cells have all been redirected to ponder the great philosophical question of our age: What do you do with 22 lonely little socks? Perhaps any two featuring images of cartoon characters from the same movie, or time period, or continent (real or imagined) could be reasonably considered a pair? If Elsa is on one sock, and Simba is on the other, they can go together, right? Don’t all Disney characters inhabit the same universe? But a lion would surely freeze to death in Norway.
And they are just socks. There are billions on the planet, and no individual one is really all that special – even if it is unique. Every day, thousands perish in mud puddles or are swallowed whole by the troll living behind the washing machine. Every day, new ones are born, while old (and young) ones expire in a variety of little, pedestrian tragedies.
This is why my daughter dresses in a style charitably called “bohemian.” Peppa Pig on one foot, Blinky the Troll on the other.
And it’s fine.
After all, when we humans come together in life – carefully selecting someone with whom we will debate baby names, ride to and from radiation treatments, and everything in between – we don’t pair off with someone identical. We don’t search for someone exactly like us; we look for someone with whom we can be happy. We look for someone who might be bigger, or smaller, or warmer, or colder, or a different hue, but with whom we can live in some kind of rugged, messy approximation of harmony. In a mate, we look for someone who can diversify us, for someone whose faults and flaws might magically counteract, even fix, our own.
Being part of a family does many things. The most important, perhaps, is to remind you of the way life flutters, dashes and scurries, and the way things around it come and go, and the way it comes and goes, too. I remember the vague, pleasant story often attributed to the Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah, or mis-attributed to the Buddha himself: He points to his favorite glass, admires the way it holds his drink and the way the light plays on its surface. He loves the glass, but he understands that someday it will break. In a sense, it is already broken, because everything is temporary. Because entropy is the way of the universe, and things that come together are always bound to come apart, and for some reason we unenlightened folk are always so startled, so shaken, when they do.
It’s certainly pleasantly melancholy to think about. But when you have a child, you really understand the story of the glass. Because the glass already is broken. Literally. Glasses break all the time. That’s why you still tread a little gingerly in this bedroom, where you came racing in a few weeks ago after you heard a tinkling smash. You yelled, “Don’t move!” and plucked your child from the doughnut hole of safety at the center of the ring of shattered glass. On the ground nearby was the fragmented, jagged shell of a snow globe, gone from kitschy to lethal in a single moment. Its entire universe spilled onto the floor.
My wife and I squabble relentlessly over the broken-ness and cluttered-ness of our home. I’m okay with it, perhaps too okay with it. My tendency to say, “I suppose the washing machine was always broken” in an aggravatingly impassive tone, as the grubby garments pile up, seems to irritate her. She is a designer, and chaos is her enemy in the office and at home. She worries it means there is something wrong with us, that our daughter is being raised on a crumbling foundation that is nothing more than a teetering pile of dirty clothes, unwashed dishes, and dog hair that hides for months and then glows like a neon sign in Tokyo whenever company visits.
Why can’t we ever find matching socks? Why do all the other kids have their very own Camelbak full of cold, clear purified water, while I’m just hoping the damp granola bar I found wedged between the car seats and gave to her earlier will keep her hydrated.
“If our little girl lives in chaos here, now, with us, how will she ever survive out in the world?” we wonder, fretting together.
The answer is simple: The messiness of our house is nothing compared to the broken mess of the world outside it. Here, the Christmas lights stay up all year, the glasses break, and the socks don’t match. The wings accumulate, as they tend to do when so much time is spent pretending to be fairies. Sure. But it is home. And while I suppose it will someday break, and the things in it will spill out into the world, that time is not yet here.
When that day comes, she might not be so fragile, really. It’s something to think about early in the morning, as you slip those mismatched sleeves of fabric onto your child’s feet, wedge them into boots, and send them out into the world, where they play in the dirt and dust that blanket our human realm.