He turned seven this weekend, and the oversize calculator was a gift discovered after the others. "What's this?" he asked, pushing the package toward me. "Well, it's a machine that does math," I said.
"What? It does math? Show me!" He laid his Thor hammer down on the table and pulled open the package. Once he had retrieved his prize, he punched at the buttons, trying to produce this computational magic. His cape was caught on the back of his chair, a twisted red spiral behind his barely seven year old head. I unhooked it and smoothed it behind his back before reaching over and hitting the power button to amaze him with the appearance of the zero in the calculator's narrow screen.
The innocence, the wonder of discovering something as everyday as a calculator, thinking it a magic machine, while wearing a super hero costume - well, it had me a-flutter with maternal ooh and aah type fascination. I looked at my son as if I had never seen him before, as if we were just meeting. I remembered all at once how many things I tell him every week, no every day, that he has never heard before. How many words his father and I define on any given day, how many concepts we explain. I remembered, suddenly and with a keen sort of nervousness, just how much we are shaping the person he will become.
"See," I told him, punching the buttons as I went, "If you add four and seven, what do you get?"
I pressed the equal sign, and the number eleven appeared on the screen. I didn't think he could be any more amazed by the fascinating technology, but then he read the package and reported breathlessly that this magical machine was solar powered. "I'm taking this thing outside, where it can charge up," he said in a reverent voice.
~ ~ ~
Sometimes, when I'm on the freeway driving in to work, I will top a hill and see the tangle of traffic ahead and think not just how long my trip is going to take, but how many people there are in this city. As a number, on a page, it reads like a ranking. We are this big of a city, and that's supposed to mean a variety of things about what's available here.
But some days, I realize that all those numbers, all those digits crowded around a comma or two, are flesh and blood people. I see the cars on the freeway and remember that they are all holding lives like mine. And then I think about how many cities there are in the world, how many lives. It's an incalculable weight, that number of people, when seen as not a number but as actual lives being lived simultaneously on this big old rock. Just thinking about it can give me a rattly, anxious breath. So many souls clinging to the gift of their existence just as fiercely as I cling to mine. And so many of them going to sleep on dirt floors, or with stomachs aching from hunger, or with the axe of war slicing through their lives indiscriminately.
My mind can't be wrapped around it, the vast pool of humanity.
I can't seem to see beyond the end of my nose most days. Thor and his calculator dominate my view, Thor and his little brother and their father.
As he sat on the swing tonight, our little Thor would punch in numbers and ask me how to say them. "What is eight with six zeroes behind it?" I would answer, "Eight million," knowing that I could not begin to describe what eight million of anything means. I remember reading once that it would take something like ten days to count to a million, assuming you spoke one number per second.
I looked at my son tonight and felt distinctly unequal to the task of preparing him for life on this planet. How can a person who struggles so much with having a comprehensive worldview somehow raise a son who can see beyond the end of his own nose? If I have my head so mired in American values and privilege, how can I teach these boys to have a broader view?
As he asked me numbers, I wanted to tell him the bits of trivia his father would have said, like 50,000 is the number of light years to wherever or eight million is the number of cells in a so-and-so. But instead, I let him get his fill of his calculator, calling out numbers on cue and smiling at the little boy in a Thor costume playing with a simple discount store calculator as if it were an iPad or a Game Boy.
When he tired of the new toy, he climbed in the hammock beside me, his cape pooled beneath him, his arm wrapped around my waist. "Do you know how lucky you are," I asked him, "To be born in this country, at this particular point in time?"
"I know," he answered, "Because now we have solar calculators and people didn't always have those."
"That's true. But also many people in the world even today will live and die without ever seeing a calculator. Many people own nothing but the clothes on their back. Many, many children can't afford to go to school. In some countries, children are forced to work terrible, hard jobs. And I don't know why those people were born where they were born, and you and I were born into a place where we have plenty to eat and a warm home and more toys and games and gadgets than we will ever need."
He thought on that for a few minutes, and I thought on how the lives I was telling him about were as abstract to me as they are to him. And we swayed together in the hammock and held on to each other and felt too small and also too large in our own delirium of self importance. Then, we were called away by the little brother, and it was time to think about getting dinner together. The moment was gone, and as I walked back into the kitchen, I couldn't help but think about that camel trying to squeeze itself through the eye of the needle.